The Saviors are still stuck in the mud. But eventually the trail of evil leads them into the clutches of the vile Lizard King. And no, it’s not Jim Morrison.
When last we left our heroes, they were really up sheet’s creek without a paddle. They just got their posteriors handed to them by a small band of Orcs. Two of them are knocked-out and covered in muck. And the horse with the wagon and all their gear panicked and fled further into the swamp.
I asked Andrew and James if they wanted to chase after the wagon. Since the wagon had James’ precious menagerie of animals on it he emphatically said, “Yes.” In typical older brother fashion, Andrew said “No.” Jack and Jim asked about their vote. “You can’t vote when you’re unconscious.”
Andrew relents and agrees to get the wagon. The comatose players are slung on their horses and the group trudges slowly through the mud, leaving the safety of the road behind (insert maniacal laugh here). They find the wagon about an hour later, but it is stuck in the bog. It takes them another four hours and a lot of failed Strength checks to get the wagon loose. I allow that the two dead-weight players now have 1 hit point and are conscious, but night has already fallen.
As bad as the swamp is during the day, it is even worse at night. The brackish water, the mangled trees, the very land are a cacophony of shades of black. The only light comes from a blue haze that hangs in the air like a spectral curtain enshrouding your own tomb. A remnant of the Spellplague, it is a stark reminder that magic is unpredictable here, and like everything else in the Mere of Dead Men, not to be trusted.
The party is forced to spend the night stranded in the swamp. But they were willing to try anything to get out of it.
“Can we find our way back to the road?”
“You can try. But it is very dark. You have no Ranger or Druid or anyone with tracking ability. Your path to here forded several streams making the trail difficult to follow, especially at night.”
“Can we get back to town?”
“Again, you can try. If you could find the road, it would be a full day’s forced march back in the middle of the night.”
“What if we set the swamp on fire?”
Players hate inevitable situations. It doesn’t matter if it is plausible. It doesn’t matter if the player’s actions led them here. It doesn’t matter that D&D is a game designed around inevitable conflict and combat. Players hate running out of options.
Part of the issue is that players will do continuously outrageous actions without regard for the consequences. But then there is the moment when they realize that if this was a real scenario, then they would be royally screwed. At that point, all they want to do is get back to a place of safety. Do not let them. Don’t let them off the hook, but if necessary, throw them a line.
I had intended to enact my rules for resting and healing that I detailed in my recent post on Death & Dying. And due to the noxious fumes of the mire no one can get a full night’s rest and will only heal 2 Hit Dice per long rest. But, since I messed up the last encounter, nearly killing everyone and leaving them with no health, I allow that the long rest provides 5 Hit Dice of healing. This brings everyone back to almost full health. The only problem is that one of the players is now missing.
Like a good group, they had set a guard. Clarissa the cleric elected to take last watch. I rolled to see who would get the “random” encounter, and it was her. I pull the player, Jim, out of the room with his dice.
“The first hour of your watch passes uneventfully. Just as you begin to lull, you spot two glowing red balls of light come bobbing out of the mire, floating on thin air. You are entranced by the mesmerizing motion, roll a Wisdom save to shake off the hypnotic effects.” Jim rolls a 2. Well, this certainly saves a lot of time.
Back at the table, we work out everyone’s hit points. Then I tell them the bad news, “The group wakes up after a miserable night. Immediately, you see that Clarissa is gone.”
“What do you mean, she’s gone?”
“She is not in the camp, and you cannot find her.”
“How long has she been missing?”
“You have no idea.”
“Do we find any trace of her?”
“Everyone roll me a Perception check.”
“Callan, you find a set of footprints leading away from camp.”
“Are they Clarissa’s? Is anyone with her?”
“You recognized Clarissa’s dainty dwarven feet and there are no other tracks.”
From the back, James says sardonically, “It’s the wisps.”
“What do you do?”
Jack, son of Jim (Clarissa’s player), says, “We go after him (her) of course.”
Andrew says, “Yeah, sure. Let’s go get him (her).”
James says, “I’m not going after him (her)! The wisps got him (her). He’s (She’s)gone! I’m staying right here with the wagon.”
A furious debate ensued about the merits of saving Jack’s Dad. Andrew just wanted to get on with the adventure, which was clearly in whatever direction Clarissa went. James didn’t want to lose his zoo again. In the end, James agreed to stay with the group and follow Clarissa’s tracks.
The tracks are easy to follow, but now I, as the DM, had two paths to choose from. I had originally intended that this little mini adventure was going to be a terrifying ordeal. In true horror movie fashion, I wanted to scare the players into thinking they were all going to die, all the while making the player’s characters weaker and more exhausted as if the very swamp was trying to kill them. I had planned encounters with giant snakes, lizards, and frogs; a trio of hags; two swamp hippos; quicksand-like mud; and a colony of vines that try to strangle the party while they rest. Plus, I wanted to deprive the characters of sleep and use the exhaustion rules to really make this place dangerous and deadly.
Or, I could scrap all this and just get to the main encounters. This “adventure” has already lasted a session and a half and could easily go much longer. It was only supposed to be a brief interlude between two big adventures and I don’t want to delay getting to what the players really want, which is to explore Waterdeep. Plus, I had inadvertently almost killed the party last session, so I kind of accomplished my goal.
So, I pick Path Two, and cut straight to the Lizardmen. As the trio of heroes search for their companion, four Lizardmen ambush them; leaping out of the water with surprise. These Lizardmen are your standard, slimy, scaly, black lagoon type creatures except that their eyes are glazed over and milky in appearance.
The combat was quick and painless (well, not for the Lizardmen). One interesting bit occurred when Jack thought that I had skipped Clarrisa’s turn and Jim had to remind his son that he was not there. Of course, the encounter was just to knock off a few hit points and to set up the idea that these Lizardmen were not in complete control of their actions.
With the Lizardmen dispatched, they continued to follow Clarissa’s trail. Shortly, the come upon the hapless Dwarf. She is plodding through the mire, without care of her course or condition. She is following behind two bobbing balls of red light.
Leap First, Think Second Andrew says he runs up and tries to stop the cleric. “Roll a Wisdom save”. No surprise, he fails. Okay, now you’re hypnotized too and start following the wisps.
Truth be told, I misplayed this encounter. I was trying to mess with the player’s expectations. I had set up that Will-o-Wisps are bad and deadly, which they are. But these are not the usual wisps. These wisps are trying to help, but since they can’t communicate properly, they end up hypnotizing people and “leading them to their doom”. Hence the misconception, but the players just didn’t get it.
I gave Jim another Saving Throw. This time, he passed and is also able to knock Andrew out of his hypnosis. Then I badly stumble through a non-verbal encounter.
In typical bad DM-ing, I first say that Jim has no idea what has occurred. Then I explain that the wisps are waiting for the players, bobbing nearby. They then move along about ten feet and wait some more.
The players have no idea what they are supposed to do, and worse, they feel that if they don’t do the “right” thing, then that will somehow fail the adventure by not going along with my story.
I should have said that when Jim comes out of his trance, he is fully aware of the events, but was unable to stop himself. In addition, while he was under he got several impressions of the words, “help” and “follow”. With the wisps intention made clear then the party can properly decide what course to take. If they go with the wisps they get to the main encounter quicker. If they don’t, that okay, they can get there another way or not at all, but at least they choose how they go.
Instead there was just a long fumbling bout of not-fun confusion, debates about red wisps versus yellow wisps, and lots of uncertainty. In the end, they chose to follow the wisps. I’m sure that the players didn’t care, but I was not happy with how this played out.
The wisps eventually lead the party to a small clearing in the swamp. In the center, is a small pond of pure black water flowing outward in several directions, infecting the swamp from this point. Several Lizardmen are on the ground, patrolling the area, but in the center of the pond is the main event. Five pillars, each 20 feet tall, jut out of the water in a pentagram shape. Each pillar has a lizard shaman on top and one of them looks more like a lizard demon. Each shaman is casting a spell that emits a beam toward the center. In the middle of the pond, suspended above the water is an angelic winged celestial, a beautiful female of white and light. Four shamans have cast a blue beam that each bind one of the angel’s limbs, while the demonic one, called a Ssessenik, emits a black beam straight into the angel’s skull.
The angelic creature is clearly in agony and suffering; golden tears steam from her eyes and fall into the water below, turning the water even blacker with each drop. Occasionally, a red drop of blood leaks from her eyes, falls toward the water but then floats away as a red wisp, unnoticed by the other lizard folk.
While I was unhappy about the last encounter, I was really proud of this one. In D&D, almost all encounters involve running into a room and beating the tar out of everything inside. But it is important to have a few encounters that offer unique conditions that challenge the players’ mental agility and make them think tactically. My players never use their range attacks, so I put all of the dangerous foes just out of melee range. Plus, there is the added feature of the lake and the columns. The players can traverse the streams, but not the pond. They have to find a way to get over the water and then scale the 20’ rock towers to get at the evil shamans torturing the angel.
One note about the angel; despite all my descriptions about her pain and suffering, and the obvious disparity between the beautiful celestial and the dirty demon lizards, the players were convinced that the angel was a willing participant in this evil scheme and almost abandoned the whole scenario. But in the end, they chose the path of righteousness and came up with a great plan.
The first thing they did was ask if these lizard folk had the same glazed over eyes. I had them roll Perception checks and enough passed that I told them that they all have the same dead eyes except for the demonic shaman, Ssessenik, whose eyes burned a fiery red. They theorized that if they could take this thing out, then maybe the others would stand down. (Correct). However she was on the far side of the area and there was very little chance of getting there unnoticed.
The thief was willing to try and slip past them, but he had no way of getting over the water and up the column in secret. James, as the wizard came up with an awesome idea. He would cast Invisibility on himself, sneak past the guards and then cast Misty Step, teleporting him up to the leader’s perch. The rest would sneak near the water’s edge and use arrows and javelins to take out the other shamans.
James was terrified to use magic, but he managed to turn himself invisible without triggering the wild magic surge. I had him roll two stealth checks to get past the Lizardmen patrol; which he passed. The best part of all this was that every move was filled with tension. This was the most anxious dice-rolling we’ve ever had at the table. When he was within 30’ of the main lizard he cast his teleport spell. And triggered a wild magic surge.
James is crestfallen, believing that he botched his plan and caused something catastrophic to happen. But I’m using the Sorcerer Wild Magic chart from the Player’s Handbook which has good and bad effects. James rolls a positive effect, so his spell is unaffected and some additional thing happens as well. I won’t allow Riandon to use an attack weapon, but I will let him attempt to shove the Lizardman off the column, provided he wins an ability contest.
So, in a shower of flowers Riandon appears directly behind the demonic demon. The next second, the demon is knocked from her perch, plummets twenty feet and disappears into the black depths below. The angel’s mind is no longer violated by the evil spell, but she is still unconscious and magically bound by the other shamans.
At the same time, Clarissa kills the nearest Lizardman guard on the ground, while Callan and Regizar injure one of the shamans binding the angel. Her concentration broken, that shaman jumps into the water and disappears as well. The other Lizardmen guards move in to attack, while the other shaman try to maintain their ritual on the angel.
The rest of the fight was a blur. The player forces on the ground were fighting the guards. The wizard was teleporting from column to column shoving Lizardmen into the water. Lizard shamans were jumping out of the water casting Entangle and Thorn Whip on the party. Then on round 3, the Ssessenik jumped out of the water and things got really dicey.
The first thing the Ssessenik does is cast Heat Metal on the fighter, Regizar. This is one of the nastiest spells in the game, causing damage for multiple rounds and lowering the opponent’s armor class. Regizar jumps in the pond to decrease the damage but he still has to waste several turns taking off his armor. Then in short order, the Ssessenik cast, Spike Growth, Plant Growth, and Fog Cloud turning the entire battle field into a chaotic mess. Finally, it cast Conjure Animal and I threw every Giant Frog, Snake, and Lizard mini that I had at the party.
But the players did a great job sticking to the plan. Using the wizard and range attacks, they were able to knock the last shaman off her perch about halfway through the battle. Free from her magical bonds, the angel fell into the watery void and disappeared below the surface. I was surprised that no one did anything further to save her but no matter. Then they concentrated all of their attacks on the demonic Ssessenik, ignoring all other foes. Each player was taking damage from multiple enemies, but finally they were able to knock the Ssessenik down to her last few hit points.
Just as the Lizard folk are about to mount their attack, the angel bursts out of the black pool, glowing in a radiant light. With a look of pure hatred, she points a finger at the Ssessenik, who explodes into nothingness. The glassy look disappears from the Lizardmen and they throw themselves down on the ground, groveling up at the celestial being.
With a wave of her hand, all the Lizardmen fell silent. The Angel then floats down to speak with her champions. “Who are you; that have come to my aid?” Brief introductions commence. “I am a heavenly being form another realm of existence. My name is unpronounceable, but you may call me Veela. The world as you know it is more vast than you realize and it is in grave danger.”
“A great evil is lurking just beyond our perception. Myself and a few others have been searching for some sign or cause, where I was struck down when the moon turned red. I awoke to find myself in the thrall of this vile creature. But make no mistake; the Ssessenik is but a sign of the changes and calamities to come. The source is still out there, waiting, biding his time.”
“But still, you have done no small thing here. If the Ssessenik had not been destroyed, it could have blighted the land for hundreds of miles. You have acted with great valor and deserve a reward. I can only offer you this.” An ornate horn materializes in her hand. “If ever you come upon the evil threatening your reality, blow this horn, and I will come to your aid. It is usable only once, so choose wisely. And remember, evil can lurk anywhere or in anyone, so stay vigilant.”
And with that, the angel rose up into the sky until she vanished in the clouds. The Restored to their usual peaceful selves, the Lizardmen treated the heroes like heroes and brought them back to their village for a huge feast.
Next week, the Saviors finally get out of this swamp, meet a very-special guest star, and make an explosive entrance into the city of Waterdeep.
As always, treat your heroes like heroes, and Game On!
“Stupid Ffffools . You can’t defffeat me! Now you d…” The Great Ssessenik, just before being obliterated.