Sunday, 24 August 2014

Starter Set Sandbox 6 - Conyberry & Agatha's Lair

Looking at these two locations again in Lost Mine of Phandelver, I cannot help but think that WotC should have given Rich Baker a bigger page count to work with.

There has been some interesting development of both Conyberry and Agatha's Lair since 1990 when they first appeared in The Halfling's Gem by R A Salvatore, the second or third Drizzt novel (second, IIRC) just before Drizzt turned into an epic black hole of suck.

Due to the constraints of page count, a ruined village with a guardian banshee, a history of werewolf barbarian invasion, and the touch of the world of Abeir have been reduced a single throwaway roleplaying encounter that takes up less than a page of text. That's the bad news, in a sense. The good news? There is a lot of room here to turn these two locations into something far more interesting and significant as interaction/exploration/combat locations along the lines of the ruins of Thundertree.

Frankly, you could probably fill the entire page count of Lost Mine with an adventure set in and around Conyberry and incorporating Agatha and her lair!

Realmslore

Pre-4E

The primary source for material on these two locations was R A Salvatore's books. Specifically, The Halfling's Gem. These were not creations of Ed Greenwood's - he would never have given Agatha such a sucky, real world name that makes her sound like a character from an episode of Bewitched - so they only appeared in RPG products after the second book in RAS's first trilogy was released.

Conyberry was a small village of, essentially, subsistence farmers who also undertook modest logging of the Neverwinter Wood but otherwise survived on rabbits and small crops. It was also noted that they were quite effective at defending themselves... and not just because they had a banshee "on call" who considered herself the village's protector.

(And in the spirit of RAS's penchant for names that completely suck, the village blacksmith of the 2E era was named Martin von Mensch. Seriously, his contract with WotC should require him to contract out the creation of any names he uses in his books. After all, his books are not supposed to be a parody of the Realms....)

Agatha's lair was a dome of twisted branches at the centre of some sort of grove with a single entrance. Agatha herself was a banshee but also a relatively high level wizard (13th). Her lair was noted as being protected by charmed owlbears and also pit traps dug at her request by the villagers of Conyberry (and not because of magical compulsion: they really did see her as an ally).

Neverwinter Campaign Setting

Firstly, the picture at the top of this post is from the Neverwinter Campaign Setting and it gives a good impression of the situation in which the post-Spellplague version of Conyberry finds itself.

While Lost Mine makes Conyberry seem fairly normal, albeit abandoned, the Neverwinter Campaign Setting makes it seem like a fascinating place to adventure. It notes that Conyberry was heavily affected by the Spellplague with "pieces" of Abeir being thrust into it. A lake appeared where once there was none, and various buildings took to the sky on the back of earthmotes which suddenly rose up out of the ground. Folk from Abeir also appeared and, in due course, they banded together with the Torilian survivors for a few years... until the Grey Wolves came.

The Grey Wolves were (and are) probably the most deliberately evil of the Uthgardt barbarian tribes. They were (and are) werewolves. Terrified by the Spellplague and its effects, the Grey Wolves saw Conyberry as an unnatural place and they ultimated culled the entire population (although some still remainded as werewolves).
It also notes that the Grey Wolves use the village as a place to practice being "civilised" in preparation for infiltration of other settlements. I don't think this makes sense. That's not the Uthgardt way. While it is noted that they are doing so at the direction of their Netherese master, I don't think this makes sense because the Netherese are not stupid and would not send werewolf barbarians to do the job of a thief. (Yes, I am ignoring this part of the write-up. Completely.)

Lost Mine of Phandelver

After half a page of fairly interesting detail in the Neverwinter Campaign Setting, Lost Mine comes along and basically says, "This is an abandoned village. Barbarians did it."

Other Lore: Banshees

The 2E Monstrous Compendium borrows the basic description of the banshee from the 1E Monster Manual and then expands on it as follows:
The banshee or groaning spirit, is the spirit of an evil female elf - a very rare thing indeed. Banshees hate the living, finding their presence painful, and seek to harm whomever they meet. Banshees appear as floating, luminous phantasms of their former selves. Their image glows brightly at night, but is transparent in sunlight (60% invisible). Most banshees are old and withered, but a few (10%) who died young retain their former beauty. The hair of a groaning spirit is wild and unkempt. Her dress is usually tattered rags. Her face is a mask of pain and anguish, but hatred and ire burns brightly in her eyes. Banshees frequently cry out in pain - hence their name.
And while the single sentence description in Lost Mine is more than adequate, I think this passage could be used to make an expanded encounter involving the banshee really come alive, as it were. Similarly, the description of the banshee's effect on the ecology is ripe with narrative potential:
Banshees are a blight wherever they settle. They kill without discretion, and their only pleasure is the misfortune and misery of others. In addition to slaying both man and beast, a groaning spirit's keen has a powerful effect upon vegetation. Flowers and delicate plants wither and die and trees grow twisted and sickly, while hardier plants,thistles and the like, flourish. After a few years all that remains within five miles of a groaning spirit's lair is a desolate wilderness of warped trees and thorns mixed with the bones of those creatures that dared to cross into the groaning spirit's domain.
Now a creature with that sort of effect on its environment deserves far more than a throwaway RP encounter that takes less than a page. In 5E terms, a banshee should be a legendary monster. In 4E terms, she would probably be a solo monster with a lot of terrain effects from the cursed, twisted vegetation surrounding her lair.

Revising Conyberry & Agatha's Lair

5E Era

Looking at the map, Conyberry is at one end of the Triboar Trail (the trail actually continues, but you cannot tell from the regional map provided) and the Cragmaw outpost is at the other end. I suppose one of the easiest ways to revise Conyberry is to also have a band of Cragmaw goblins here. That way they can take complete control of the Triboar Trail. (This particularly makes sense if, for example, the Zhentarim wants to monopolise trade with Phandalin as it is being rebuilt. Why not simply use goblin bandits to stop all other trade from getting through?)

In my Wyvern Tor I posited a couple of ideas for making the orc encounter there more interesting. In the same spirit as the previous paragraph, what if there were orc bandits here who are somehow pre-warned by the orcs of Wyvern Tor that travellers are en route? At night they might use signal fires - and the orc shaman may have alchemical powders he can throw into the fire to change the colour to communicate something more than just "targets are coming!" - taking advantage of the commanding views noted as being offered by Wyvern Tor. And during the day they might simply use giant signal horns. Either way, I like the concept of the PCs possibly noticing the warning being given allowing them to prepare, for example, a counter-ambush.

4E Era

So, both of those ideas are also consistent with how Conybery is presented in Lost Mine and incorporate none of the Spellplague-caused weirdness mentioned in the Neverwinter Campaign Setting. As such, they're eminently suitable for a 5E - and 5E-era - campaign. However, I run 4E and I want to incorporate the weirdness, in part because I like the art and I think the players would enjoy seeing that too. 

And, let's face it, a ruined village on earthmotes makes for a much more interesting place to explore than simply ruined village on the ground.

When I first read the description of Conyberry in the Neverwinter Campaign Setting, my initial reaction was that it would be the perfect setting for Remains of the Empire from Dungeon 165. (Please note that these are the updated links following the archiving of all the pre-5E material on the WotC website.)

As the cover art shows, Remains involves, inter alia, exploring a tower that is defying gravity along with chunks of other buildings which are also treating the laws of gravity with contempt. It involves dragonborn - and that's a solid connection with Abeir - and it also involves warwing drakes. One of the things I really like about this adventure is that the PCs could end up with flying mounts, even though the adventure is only for level 3 characters, if they successfully master the new ritual that makes its only appearance here.

If Conyberry is expanded into a larger location, these warwing drakes would allow the PCs to much more easily explore the other earthmotes. And besides the floating tower, I would probably include at least one other Abeiran ruin on the remaining earthmotes. Rather than a dragonborn theme - and a dragon wouldn't make sense in the context of a nest of warwing drakes - I think maybe an elemental temple or shrine to a primordial would make a lot of sense. If the DM chooses to take the campaign in a direction inspired by Temple of Elemental Evil, this could be a good place to plant a hook and reveal the nature of the elemental threat.


An earthmote also makes a perfect location for the archetypal wizard's tower - and the wizard doesn't have to be evil - or even for a druid's grove. And, of course, the villagers of Conyberry may simply have taken to the skies free from the threat of the werewolves and anything else that cannot fly. Then again, maybe there is a community of werewolved dwelling here in the belief that it keeps them safe from the Netherese, their erstwhile masters.

Speaking personally, I would simply run Remains of the Empire here but also have werewolf bandits camped in the ruined below. Or owlbears. See the final paragraphs for more....


Agatha

I find it passing strange that Agatha is really reduced to a throwaway RP encounter in Lost Mine. Again, I realise page count is a horrible constraint but there's something fundamentally interesting about a banshee. In 1E, the Monster Manual noted that a banshee is the undead spirit of an evil female elf and this was a very rare thing indeed. 2E effectively emphasised that rareness by showing what dramatic effects the presence of a banshee had on the surrounding landscape. But we don't see any of that reflected here, or in R A Salvatore's attempts at fiction.


I digress...

Before I go any further I want to address the name Agatha. For anyone who has wasted any part of their life reading RAS's books, one of the hallmarks of his writing is that he completely sucks (sorry, I don't know how else to put it) at creating names. It is rare for a name that he creates to feel appropriate particularly in the context of the Realms where Ed Greenwood has a very clear sense of how names should sound

I have stopped reading RAS's books but, any time you're researching a particular Realms topic, it's (sadly) not unusual to come across quote from his books that really make you scratch your head and wonder how come he's still so popular. (I am glad that he is, though. He's clearly a decent guy and he sells so well that it keeps FR alive as a published brand.) Here are some of his recent dwarf names: Reginald Roundshield, Parson Glaive, Murgatroid "Muttonchops" Stonehammer, Ragged Dain, Rocky Warcrown, Tallabritches Fellhammer and Mallabritches Fellhammer, Priam Thickbelt, Ognun Leatherbelt, and Mandarina Dobberbright.

Seriously, an author who has turned dwarves into a race of seriously brain-damaged malcontents with speech impediments (never read dwarf dialogue from an RAS book: he makes George Lucas look like a master!) should not be contractually allowed to also name them. Rocky. Parson, Reginald. Yep, we're in the middle of a 1970s British sitcom.

Back to Agatha. Yes, this name sucks for an elf. I'm not the only one who thinks so because it seems that in one of the CRPGs (IIRC) it was revealed that Agatha is actually a corruption of the banshee's surname which is Auglatha meaning Winterbreeze. That I can live with.


The Banshee Auglatha

Firstly, if I was going to run this, I would definitely use the 2E Monstrous Compendium description to make the area around Agatha's lair consistent with what would be found around a banshee's demesne. And I would also include various plant monsters - twig blights spring to mind immediately - as part of a series of wandering monsters to be encountered as the PCs explore the corrupted landscape.  

Secondly, even though there would be the potential for Auglatha to simply be a roleplaying encounter, I think she should be a significant combat threat: a solo monster (level 7 solo controller) in 4E terms or a legendary monster in 5E terms. (I know very little about 5E so that's all I can say for the moment.)

Thirdly, regardless of edition, I think her backstory needs a little bit more fleshing out so that her goals and motivations are much more clear to the DM. In this respect, I can't help but think of Cragmaw Castle nearby. In my Cragmaw Hideout, Cragmaw Castle, and Cragmaw Goblins post I noted the possibility, based on the strange architecture, that Cragmaw Castle may have actually been built by eladrin/elves.

What if Cragmaw Castle was, in fact, originally an Auglatha family holding? And what if that is the place where Agatha embraced such evil that she became a banshee instead of simply dying?

One classic old school FR trope involves the deity Moander corrupting elves. (Moander died around the Time of Troubles and it was subsequently noted that Lolth sometimes granted spells in his name thinking that was a perfect way of corrupting surface elves.) What if Agatha had been a normal eladrin until she came across a tome or kiira that was touched by the corruption of Moander? 

That's simple enough but what if there is another kiira, one that was originally Agatha's, that is hidden in the ruins of what is now Cragmaw Castle. If this is returned to Agatha, she is, in a sense, reunited with her non-corrupt self and is freed from the curse of being a banshee. And expanded version of this basic story would suit any era game and would be much more interesting that simply turning up and asking a question as happens in Lost Mine.

Conclusion

Conyberry has potential for expansion and is a perfect location for running Remains of the Empire but, more importantly IMO, Agatha can be made far more interesting: a link to Cragmaw Castle and the potential for her redemption is the sort of storyline that players remember for many years. I think it's definitely in the DM's interest to do a bit more work expanding these locations amd Agatha's backstory.

Oh, and I have decided on an appropriate name for Agatha based on Ed's naming conventions: Melarue Auglatha. ;)

12 comments:

  1. Excellent post. I'll be cribbing some of your material, if it please you!

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    1. Thanks for your kind words. I hope you were able to get some use from this and sorry for missing your comment a couple of years ago! :)

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  2. This definitely showed promise. Unfortunately, I couldn't get through you constant Salvatore bashing to focus on the material at hand. Maybe a word count would have helped you stay focused in your writing.

    You even mention how popular he is, and not just for his fiction but as an introduction to forgotten realms. Therefore, you should expect that many of his fans would be looking for a fun way to improve an encounter centered on a character he created.

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    1. He's popular enough to be able to withstand some bashing from this no-name blogger.

      His choice of names still suck, BTW.

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  3. Good stuff. I am just getting into D&D (5e). I'm a first time DM if you don't count messing around back in school. I am running LMoP right now and want to incorporate some of the things you're talking about. I'm keeping the goblins, but maybe adding an Orc backstory?
    Can you comment a good reading/material list that I can get and go through to help me keep my campaign 'official' with the historical storyline? I love the FR, but with 300+ novels and a bajillion source books and modules, I kinda don't know where to start my learning about it.

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  4. I had to change her name in my game. My players haven't made it to her yet.

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  5. +RyFri, thanks; it's always good to see someone getting some use out of this material.

    Personally - and this ties in with the timeline I keep my games in (I'm staying in the 4E era) - I think the orcs have a lot more campaign potential than goblins. I can tie them into the orcs in Neverwinter (again, 4E era) and that also means tying them into the whole Uruth Ukrypt orc kingdom plot that I have mentioned elsewhere on this blog.

    As for novels and sourcebooks, speaking personally, I generally despise the novels and don't consider them part of *my* Realms. I stick to sourcebooks and preferably those by Ed, Eric L Boyd, and/or Steven Schend.

    As for keeping it "official", the weird thing with the 5E Realms is that is was launched with this -bang- that all the lore was back etc... but now there's the -whimper- because there's not much happening beyond more RSEs (Realms-shaking events) via the big adventures.

    What I have done is picked an era I am comfortable with - as mentioned before, the 4E era (I also use the 4E rules - and work with that. I also try and incorporate as much as the earlier material as possible as you can see from my blog posts. (Volo's Guide to the North is really all you need for this area.)

    But I've given up on the official Realms going forward.

    If I was running 5E I would probably go back to the 3E era (1372 DR - 1375 DR) because the 3E Forgotten Realms Campaign Setting is probably the best single book campaign guide for FR that we have yet seen. But if you're set on staying with the official Realms, you've really only got the Sword Coast Adventurer's Guide so there's not a lot of material to either work with or contradict.

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  6. First off, I want to thank you for this amazing resource!

    I have 2 thoughts and 2 questions on this:

    1) Your point about Conyberry is great. I'm totally adding in that stuff from the Spellplague.

    2) Your point about Agatha is not so great. Using the old lore, her relationship to Conyberry makes no sense. There's also been what sounds like a pretty dramatic downgrade for Banshees in 5e. In the Monster's Manual, they're only a CR 4 and a lot of the lore on them is somewhat different from what you quoted.

    Questions:

    1) Why did Agatha have this strange relationship with Conyberry? Isn't that unusual for a banshee?

    2) Could there be refugees of Conyberry (or maybe their children) who could remember or have positive things to say about her?

    3) Perhaps the prospect of repopulating Conyberry could appeal to Agatha?

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    1. I guess I have 4 questions:

      I'm looking at "Remains of the Empire" and thinking about how to adapt it to Conyberry and 5e. The backstory and whatnot doesn't quite square with the place being overrun by werewolves some time ago, but maybe it can be made to. What are your thoughts on this?

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    2. Ben, I cannot explain Agatha's relationship to Conyberry because, as you point out, it doesn't seem to make much sense and I even made this comment: "Thirdly, regardless of edition, I think her backstory needs a little bit more fleshing out so that her goals and motivations are much more clear to the DM".

      But I am not a fan of R A Salvatore so perhaps my bias is stopping me from thinking it through.

      As for banshees changing in 5E, change it back if it suits your game better. I run 4E but change monster stats all the time (mind you, it's a lot easier to do in 4E than 5E). So your MM banshee with a CR4 is your baseline banshee but a more ancient banshee, such as Agatha who was unusual even in 2E for her spellcasting ability, has a higher CR.

      Yeah, Remains of the Empire doesn't really fit here. Then again, if it's the Spellplague era or later, just have it be a ruin transposed from Abeir to Toril.

      So, back to your questions:

      1. No idea. Agatha is not part of what I consider "real" Realmslore so there's not a lot to be found about her outside of RAS's novels. It might be worth asking over at his forums but I suspect he didn't put much thought into her either.
      2. Possibly. I think addressing the issue of her "real" backstory (and that's "real" for your game) is the key to expanding her relationships with refugees from Conyberry.
      3. If Agatha is indeed attached to Conyberry, I imagine she would like to see it repopulated. But this is where I would sit down and work out what actually drives her because her behaviour is not that of a normal banshee.
      4. Answered above.

      Sorry, I don't feel like I'm being much help but, in the absence of Realmslore, I can only suggest making up your own stuff or running with the ideas I've already mentioned.

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    3. Well, this series has been so helpful generally that it's okay if you can't resolve this one bit of nonsense.

      I'm trying to think of plausible reasons a legendary banshee like Agatha would behave so unusually.

      I see a few categories of reasons:

      1) romantic/sentimental reasons

      2) arcane compulsion

      3) maniacal scheme

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    4. Thanks.

      I like the idea of romantic reasons just for something different. Maybe she loved a human and sees her ex-lover's face whenever she looks at another male human?

      Or maybe she just wants pawns to find the kiira I mentioned above so she can be free of her torment.

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