The Menagerie Returns. New players and new characters explore a Gnome Cave tracking a thing called “The Shifter”. But who is the hunter and who is the hunted?
The band of heroes called the Menagerie sure is a motley group of strange and fantastic creatures. Their ranks consist of a frog, a crow, a turtle, a dragonspawn, and a something pretending to be an elf. And on any given adventure, you never know who is going to show up. Today, two new monsters join the ranks; a lizardfolk and a Minotaur.
When last we left our heroes, they had barely managed to survive a marauding band of travelling Orcs, when they accepted a job from a couple of dwarven archeologists to clear out an ancient temple to a dead god. A dead, evil, dwarven god. Not that it matters, there’s no story that comes from this.
Just before the pandemic locked everyone down, we tried to get the group together one last time. It was a bad session right from the start. Astrid couldn’t make it, and the three kids who were there, I wish weren’t. Everybody was distracted and disruptive. No one would sit down. No one was listening. It was a disaster.
It took over a half hour just to get the party down the hall and into the main room, which had the single encounter of the dungeon. The problem was that there were so many unimportant bits of nothing to contend with, superfluous secret doors that lead nowhere, mounds of rubble that lead nowhere, no monsters, no traps, no treasure, nothing.
By the time we got to the dangerous part, everyone was bored and desperate to do foolish things. As soon as the group enters the chamber, I describe the ominous, unearthly silence, the utter lack of dust and dirt, and the slimy residue on the altar, all to no avail. Andrew’s kenku thief, Freebird, ran right over to the altar and was promptly attacked by an Ochre Jelly dropping from the ceiling. Have you ever tried to get slime out of feathers? It’s a nightmare. Another attacked the group by the door, but who cares?
Here’s how my players responded:
Andrew – “My character runs around the room, flailing his arms.” Me – “Does he try to get the stuff off him?” Andrew – “Nope, he just runs around the room, screaming.”
Logan – “My guy (a fire-breathing, dragonborn Paladin) spits on the Jelly near him and tries to stomp on it.” Me – “Do you mean he breathes fire on it?” Logan – “Nope, he actually spits on it.”
James – “Ugh, my character’s spells stink. I don’t wanna be a druid. Can I make him a Barbarian?” Me – “Sure, but let’s get through this first.” James – “Fine, I hit it with my stick.”
At this point I called the game. Me – “Hey, do you guys wanna call it a day, finish this some other day, and play some Smash Bros.?” Everyone else – “Yes!” If the session just isn’t working, just go play something else. The dungeon will always be there for you. The point is to have fun with your friends, regardless of what you play, even if it’s not D&D.
After this aborted session, the pandemic hit, and it was almost 2 months before we played again. When we started back up, neither Astrid nor Logan was available, but a new player, Jack, (no relation to the other Jack in the other campaign) wanted to play. One unintended, but interesting feature of The Dragon of Icespire Peak is that it is well suited for a fluctuating roster of players, creating a perfect “Western Marches” campaign.
A standard campaign follows a group of players through a series of connected adventures with a specific storyline. A Western Marches campaign does not follow a linear narrative. The players tell the DM what adventure they want to pursue that day. Each adventure is (usually) contained within a single session and whoever shows up gets to play. Generally, there isn’t an overarching story or villain. Instead, there is a public map with lots of points of interest and rumored dungeons for the players to explore.
Icespire Peak is essentially 9 small dungeon quests delivered via a message board and several other minor locations revealed by rumors. A perfect player-driven sandbox. I set up an “Adventurers Guild” in the building of the old woodcutter who was killed during The Lost Mine of Phandelver. This Guild acts as the central hub for the players to gather and choose which mission they want to play today. The message board creates a level requirement, keeping players from getting overwhelmed. But otherwise, the players can choose to go wherever they want.
Before we start, just a quick note about the new session. Thanks to the pandemic, not every player can be in the same room during the game. Fortunately, Icespire Peak is also conveniently perfect for remote play. The dungeons are simple enough that you don’t really need a map and the encounters can all be run in theatre of the mind. Of course, my boys and I are in the same room, but Jack is playing via FaceTime. I just propped the phone so that he could see the other players across the table and can even see the battle mat if he needs that perspective.
Today, my players are Andrew, James, and Jack. Andrew wants to retire the kenku thief. I think he found it too hard to roleplay the Kenku’s lack of proper speech and didn’t enjoy being a thief. He wants to be a Minotaur Ranger, named Mini, of course. I happen to have the perfect mini (small “m”) for him. James has altered his character and is now a Bullywug Barbarian, renamed Grunk. I convinced him to dual-class, keeping the Druid skills, because they have no healer. Jack originally wanted to be a vampire, but they have too many special abilities, so I said no. I read him a list of “monster” races I would allow and he picked a Lizardfolk Thief.
When I use these monster PCs, I go on the D&D Wiki and check out the Race Variant pages. Then I just pick and choose the abilities that give the race that unique quality without making him too overpowered. Once the new players are set, I just have to throw them into the middle of an already full-swing combat.
I considered having a Total Party Kill with the Ochre Jelly, but since two of the players weren’t present, that would have been a real crappy DM move. Instead, the battle is going very poorly. Just as the kenku goes down, screaming (he survives, stupid death saves) two new things charge into the room. A huge Minotaur with a shadowy lizard riding on his back bursts on the scene. The Minotaur smashes one of the jellies with a mace and gores it with his horns. The Lizardfolk leaps off Mini’s back hitting the Jelly with a club. Meanwhile the Bullywug is overcome with a new found rage and savagely pounds the other Jelly into goo.
With the baddies dispatched, I ended this dungeon here and called it cleared to earn the quest reward and move on. We learn that this new dynamic duo (The Manticore and Lizard Boy) had been tracking the same Orcs from last session. (The Ranger’s racial enemy is the Orc.) Then it’s back to the Phandalin Adventurers Guild where all the absent characters can hang out until called up for active duty.
Today’s players chose to travel to the Gnomengarde Settlement. They are tasked with obtaining any magic items that might help protect the town from the ravages of the White Dragon lurking around. To save time the trip is hassle free and the party finds themselves at the base of small waterfall inside a small canyon grotto. Cave faces dot the wet, slippery cliffs above and a bridge shrouded in mist stretches between two caves on opposite sides of the canyon.
But all they care about are the rainbow mushrooms that blanket a small island beneath the falls. Giant ’shrooms in red, blue, and purple. Several minutes are wasted stuffing every sack, pack, and pocket with useless fungus. Finally, they enter the cavern complex. No one wanted to risk a treacherous climb, so they took the easy route through the main entrance. So predictable.
The Gnomengarde complex can be a tricky dungeon for beginner players and DMs. There is only one real monster, but there are several panicked gnomes who will shoot first and ask questions later. And the NPC who can explain everything is located after all of these trigger-happy gnomes. It is entirely possible that the players will kill a bunch of innocent, unintended targets and fail this mission.
It is important the players know that something is wrong from the start. If the players head immediately toward G7 (where the first gung-ho gnome is), I would have them see another gnome ahead of them at the intersection just before the room. This gnome will see the players, scream and run away to the north, where the party, if they follow, can have a non-combat encounter in the kitchen (G4) and learn a little about the situation.
If the players continue blindly into room G7 and seem intent on fighting to the death, I would have the gnome in that room run away. If the players continue murdering gnomes down to room G9, you could have one of the gnomes from G11, Fibblestib or Dabbledob, arrive and order the gnomes to stand down so that the situation can be explained.
As it was, my players headed north first, so I avoided these more heavy-handed tactics. Inside the kitchen, five gnomes panic at the sight of the players, yelling, “Ahhh! It’s the Shifters! Don’t eat us.” The book says that these gnomes know nothing and won’t talk about anything except to point the players toward Room G11. This is a mistake. They should know a little, most of it is wrong, but they have to share just enough of the mystery to intrigue the players and investigate further.
The players have no idea what a shifter is but they are pretty sure that they don’t want to eat any gnomes. They reply, “No one is going to eat you. What’s a shifter?”
“We don’t know!”
“If you don’t know what a shifter is, how do you know it wants to eat you?”
“Because Fibblestib told us so. And it already ate Orryn and Warryn.”
“Fibblestib. He’s the one who told us the shifter ate Orryn and Warryn.”
“Okay. Fine. Where is this Fibblestub?
“Fibblestib. He’s all the way to the south and over the bridge to the west.”
“Great, Thank you.”
“You’re welcome. Thank you for not eating us.”
Now the players know that something is wrong here. They still don’t know what, but they know that the gnomes are not the problem. They may, and will, be a hindrance but they are not the enemy. And the party still has to get to room G11 before they can learn any real answers.
Next, my players stumble into the Barrel Crabs room. Of course, this most trivial and inconsequential room is the one my players are all excited about. They loved those stupid Crab Barrel Forklifts. Jack and James each claimed one, and spent the rest of the adventure crawling around in these slow, cumbersome, useless contraptions. But they were happy, so que sera, sera.
Now we come to the first panicked, murderous gnome, and she was a hoot to describe: “A tiny, female gnome sits on a chair on top of an enormous machine. The device is a chaotic mess of wheels, levers, gears and pipes. The front of the contraption has a very large and nocked crossbow pointing directly at the players.”
“The gnome sees your party, straps on a pair of goggles, and yells, “Die, Shifter!” as she fires the crossbow at you down the hall. Everyone make a DEX save to dodge out of the way. Immediately after firing her bolt, she pulls some levers and in a cacophony of steam whistles and grinding gears, the entire machine rotates and a new crossbow turns into place to face the players down the hall.”
There is a mad dash down the hall, dodging bolts, while screaming, “We’re not shifters. We’re not shifters!” Because the players had some forewarning, they turned what could have been a trite, murder-hobo smack down into a thrilling persuasion encounter in the middle of a combat. Finally, Andrew said, “Look, if we were this shifter, wouldn’t we be trying to eat you right now? We’re not even attacking you.” This was a fair level of role-play reasoning so I gave him a Persuasion check and he passed. Sadly, the only new information she had was that the shifter didn’t look like a gnome, therefore anyone not a gnome was fair gname.
Next, I really wanted them to go into the wine cellar room for reasons I’ll explain later, but my players let me down and headed directly south into the crosshairs of another pair of shoot-on-sight guards. The party was able to sweet talk their way past these guys too and moved on over the slippery bridge. The Barrel Crabs can’t cross the bridge, so they leave them here.
In the room with the spinning blades, the players just could not come up with a good solution to get past this trap. They could see the lever on the other side but couldn’t use it. They tried arrows, and rocks, and rope; nothing worked. In the end, the Minotaur tried to dash across and naturally turned into a bull in a china shop. Two smashed spinning blades and 7 hit points later, the trap was “disarmed” and the rest of the group came through.
When they reach the Inventor’s Workshop (G11) they don’t get any answers just more mysteries. I like the argument between Kibbles & Bits (Fibblestib) and Dabbledob, so I played that as written. Sadly, also as written, they don’t know what the shifter is either. And they only add to the confusion by introducing a new mystery. All they care about is curing the insanity of their half-king, Korboz. The other half-king, Gnerlki, is currently glued to a chair and out of commission.
This new intrigue about the insane half-king is one mystery too many and it serves no real purpose. I ignored it completely and played it that the two inventors knew about the monster but they didn’t know anything specific about it. The only one who has seen the beast is the half-king, who has barricaded himself inside his chambers. This still has all the same steps to the mystery but it removes the confusion over solving the monster or the insanity issue.
Outside the king’s chamber, the group is forced to yell through a peephole at the panicked king. After a bit of confusion, miscommunication, and convincing the king that the players were not, in fact, the shifter trying to trick the king, the king relayed what he knew about the monster.
“I was in the throne room, when Orryn entered. As he walked across the carpet in the room, the carpet suddenly came to life and swallowed Orryn whole. Naturally, I ran and hid behind my throne. Then the rug slithered across the floor revealing that it was just lying on the real carpet until it came to the doorway. There the creature shifted and became an exact copy of the door. Then it moved on and shifted again, looking just like a section of the wall. When it left, I ran here, barricaded us inside, and we are not coming out until there is proof that thing is dead.”
This description works really well. The players finally have some sense of what the Shifter can do, but they still won’t guess what it is. They will probably realize that it is not a doppelganger. They know that it can look like inanimate objects and it can impersonate cloth, wood, and stone. But they are unlikely to guess that it is a Mimic. Most players, especially beginners, associate Mimics with treasure chests and don’t realize that it can look like virtually anything, so don’t help them here. Let their imagination run wild.
This was my favorite moment of the session. Until now, I ran the adventure like slapstick mistaken identity comedy, but now it became a dark, gothic, Horror movie. The sun has begun to set, the shadows are long and ominous, and a fog has rolled in obscuring everyone’s vision. A search party is assembled, filled with nervous, jittery gnome tapping everything is sight with sticks, jumping at every noise and shadow. Tap. Tap. Tap.
They enter the throne room; no one will go near the rug in the room. Tap. Tap. Tap. They slowly search the room, no one makes a sound. Tap. Tap. Tap. A gnome falls backwards of the dais, smashing a vase as he lands. “I thought the chair moved.” Tap. Tap. Tap.
A loud bang is heard in the distance. A terrified gnome runs out of the room. The party gives chase down the hall. Tap. Tap. Tap. Another gnome falls down the stairs. They collide into a gnome running the other way. “There something in the bedrooms!” Tap. Tap. Tap.
The party cautiously enters the bedrooms. Tap. Tap. Tap. A shadow moves across the floor. It’s just a curtain. Tap. Tap. Tap. The table near a bed suddenly moves. The gnomes freeze with fear. The party slowly approaches the table. Tap. Tap. Tap. A regular badger darts from beneath running toward the ledge to freedom. A startled gnome tries to dodge out of the way. He slips and falls, tumbling over the edge, screaming, landing with a splash in the pool below. Tap. Tap. Tap.
Inside another room, everyone is tense, the air is deathly still. Tap. Tap. Tap. A rattle is heard from one of the cabinets. Tap. Tap. Tap. The players fling open the doors, to a blood-curling scream. The gnome who ran away earlier is hiding inside.
At the broken spinning blade room, a gnome exclaims, “It’s been through here. It must be huge.” Andrew as the Minotaur has to sheepishly explain that this was his fault. A scream is heard from the other side of the bridge. The gnomes nimbly run across, the players all have to make DEX saves.
At the guard room, one of the guards is trying to bandage a nasty wound on the arm of the other one. He explains, “I thought I heard a noise from the three Barrel Crabs you guys left here earlier. When I got near, one of them bit me!”
“Three crabs? We only had two! Which way did it go?”
“It scuttled off to the north.”
At the next intersection, Andrew asks what is to the right. That’s the wine cellar. Andrew, the player, cries out, “If I knew this was here I would have gone here first.” Andrew is in a phase where every character in every campaign is a heavy drinker. I hope this just stays in fantasy. So off to the wine cellar we go. Tap. Tap. Tap.
I had hoped that the players would enter this room earlier. I had a bunch of keg barrel minis just for this encounter. The first time they entered the room, I would have described that it was filled with numerous barrels and then place exactly 5 barrels on the map. The Mimic is not in the room the first time they enter. Then when the players re-enter the room while actively searching for the Shifter, I would have placed exactly 6 barrels down, just to see if my players noticed the change.
Of course, my players never came here as planned, so they just get six barrels. The gnomes are tentatively searching. Tap. Tap. Tap. This room is colder than the rest and the chill seeps into your bones. Tap. Tap. Tap.
The players are anxious to get to the end and have dropped their guard. Tap. Tap. Tap. I planned to roll randomly for the next bit, but Andrew tapped right into it. Tap. Tap. Tap. “Oh, forget it,” he says. “The Shifter’s not here. I’m getting a drink.” “My Minotaur goes to a barrel to get a drink of wine.” Tap. Tap. Tap.
“Just as you turn the tap, for a split secong no wine emerges, but then glorious purple wine flows from the tap. You drink and the wine is delicious and sweet. James as you watch the scene, you lean back again a wine barrel, but it has now become a huge gaping maw. The barrel has become a mass of gnashing teeth that bites you as you reach for it. You take 6 points of damage plus 4 more in acid. Roll Initiative.”
The build-up to the only combat of the day made this fight really memorable. Nothing exceptional happened during the battle, but everyone remembers it. In the end, the thief leapt from the shadows to drive home the killing blow, sending The Shifter back to whatever hell it spawned from.
With the vile Mimic dead, it was a simple matter to convince the mad half-king to open the door and release his better half. As payment the gnomes offered whatever magic items they wanted. The players didn’t care about any of that crap. Jack and James only wanted to keep their Barrel Crab Forklift things, and Andrew insisted on being paid in mushroom wine.
I convince them to take the magic anyway since they need it to complete the quest. And because I like to make my players happy (What jerk DM out there, doesn’t?), I let them keep the Barrel Crabs and I told Andrew that he could keep as much wine as his Minotaur could carry. He spent the next 5 minutes stacking and was able to get all 6 barrels onto his mini.
Next week, the campaign gets a new DM, The Menagerie bears witness to an epic aerial battle, and the useless fungus they collected becomes a pivotal bargaining chip.
As always, tap, tap, tap, and Game On!