The Gralhund Villa Massacre. The Saviors break into an evil noble’s villa but end up having to rescue them instead.
When last we left our heroes, they had been flying around town looking for a murderous metallic man. Along the way, they met the strange and enigmatic Zardoz Zord, who is clearly more vital to the campaign than he lets on. The trail led them to a powerful noble family; wealthy, well-connected, and vengeful and not a family to be crossed. Now the party just has to figure out how to sneak into this fortified villa, find the metal man, murder him, get the Stone of Golor, and escape before getting killed by the Zhentarim or worse, caught by Blastwind and the Watch (again).
The nobles in question are the Gralhund family, led by Lord Orond and Lady Yalah. But make no mistake, Lady Yalah is really the king of this castle. My biggest issue with the introduction of this new “villain” is same as most of the NPCs in the adventure. They show up, you think that they will be pivotal to the story, but no, they are just another breadcrumb in a long trail of breadcrumbs the players have to follow. And once the next clue is found, they are discarded and forgotten. Next!
Even worse, this whole mandatory detour is an exercise in frustration and futility. The players usually come here after the silly nimblewright detector positively identifies its presence at this villa. After a few false positives (Zardoz Zord), the players are really looking forward to finding this annoyingly elusive automaton. But no; no matter what the players do, by the time the players search the villa, the stupid robot is gone. And there is absolutely no clue as to where he’s going. The Gralhunds flatly deny owning one. No one else saw him leave. He just vanishes. Again. It is bad railroad writing.
Or maybe the party followed the non-existent trail of the Zhentarim assassin, Urstul Floxin, who was spotted leaving the scene of the explosion, so many real-time weeks ago, but it was only yesterday in game. He actually had the Stone in his possession, so he is really who the players want. And he is actually here, in the villa, and can be confronted. That’s great! Can we capture him? Question him? Make him give up the stone? No, no, and no! He escapes too. If unable to escape, he will fight to the death. If unable to die, he will not answer any questions. And, of course, he doesn’t have the stone anyway. It was removed before the players arrive. Aww, so sorry, better luck next time.
Or maybe they followed the third option, where yet another NPC simply tells them where to go. I refuse to talk about how lazy and unsatisfying this is. I know this is the last resort measure to keep the plot from derailing but it is so bad on so many levels. This is supposed to be a mystery adventure, but the clue connections are weak and disjointed and they actually get worse or are dropped altogether. In past sessions, I discussed how to get the players to this juncture and later, when the trail goes off the track again, I’ll show you how to right it. There’s really nothing we can do to stop this railroad from chugging along, but let’s see if we can mask the disappointment with a few answers and a little excitement. And try your best to steer the players away from the “Let the Watch Handle It” option. That is the most anti-role-playing thing I have ever heard of. I would have the guards dismiss the player’s Scooby Doo ideas. “I’m not going to barge into a powerful noble’s mansion just because your toy did a few spins. Where’s the evidence?”
So, now the group is walking around the villa trying to figure a way in. The book goes overboard describing how impenetrable the villa is; the magical wards on the door, the very high DC on the locks, and the occasionally dead spirits roaming the grounds. How are the gardener and his dogs undead shadows at night, but mortal during the day? They explain it, but it is stupid. Then the book does nothing to describe how else the party can get in the villa. The walls are 12’ high, but what’s the DC to scale them? (Apparently, the DC is 15 and I need to read the book better) Does the party have a grappling hook? Are there any windows? Are there any blind spots? What is the street traffic and the chance of being seen entering the estate?
I avoided all of this by having them find that the back door into the villa is wide open. Either more Zhentarim entered this way to join the assault or perhaps a servant escaped to fetch the Watch. But my players were so suspicious of it that they still walked the entire perimeter and then seriously debated going over the wall. If they had dropped into the grounds, I would have kept the gardener and his dogs as normal, mortal beings, not part-time ghosts; my party would have no problem killing the undead, but they would have balked at killing puppies. In the end, the players accepted my gift and entered through the open door.
Next, I completely shattered player immersion by telling them directly to take their time exploring the villa. I know that it is intended for the players to quickly join in the battle going on within the estate, but this will put the players into an encounter with the Gralhunds to soon, before they’ve had a chance to explore the place and delve into their secrets. Specifically, I want them to find the Gralhund Family Journal. I tell them that they can hear sounds of fighting coming from the west wing of the house, but also to remember that they are only interested in finding the Golden Man, not taking sides in this dispute, at least until they know what side they want to be on. Also, my new player, Jack 2.0, has been clamoring to do some thievery, and I thought that by letting him loot this place, it would settle that urge. (It did, for a little while.)
This led the group to carefully explore the servant’s quarters first where they find a dead cook. Immediately Andrew (who is not the thief) asks if the cook has a chef’s hat. Tentatively, I say yes. “Then I take it!” Next, Jack asks if he has any butcher knives on him. I tell him that they are in a kitchen, there are knives everywhere. “I take them all!” I tell them that they can buy hats and knives at any store in town. “I want this one!” James, not wanting to be left out, steals a frying pan. Apparently to a teenager, looting means stealing anything that isn’t nailed to the floor. Whatever. None of this affects the story, so I let them have their hats and knives and pans and…
Next, they find the dead maid, obtaining a set of keys and another hat. When they search the empty guards’ quarters, they find that most of the bunks have livery and trappings bearing the Gralhund family crest but a couple of bunks and chests had the black leather armor of the Zhentarim and one chest even had a flying snake carved into it. Add two guard uniforms and one set of Zhentarim armor to the pile of stolen swag. I know these kids are thinking that these will be perfect as disguises, but they never write anything down and I guarantee that no one will remember these costumes should the opportunity ever arise.
When the group headed upstairs, I added in two Zhentarim thugs threatening some of the staff. They were quickly shown the error of their ways and dispatched. I added them because there are only two fights in this chapter, three if you count the easily avoided undead things in the garden. Plus, by saving the staff here, when the players inevitably screw up the verbal repartee with the Lord and Lady, then the staff can claim that the players rescued them and maybe keep them out of jail.
Finally, the group made their way to the wealthy side of the house, where the real action kicked in and the random thievery achieved new heights. First, was the action. I doubled the number of Zhentarim thugs and buffed their stats, then I added over a dozen corpses to the floor, slick with blood, making the whole area difficult terrain requiring a dexterity check just to remain standing; anything to create a challenge for my OP players.
After the battle, when I described the family portrait above the mantle, I added that they could see a golden metallic nimblewright dutifully standing in the background of the painting. Later when the Gralhunds claim that they do not own a nimblewright, the players will know this is a lie. And if they are smart, this could be used as evidence against the Gralhunds later. Finally, I describe that they can hear the sound of fighting upstairs, but they couldn’t care less. It’s time to loot this place!
They swept this mansion clean. Dishes, silverware, candlesticks, bottles of wine, a bear skin run and a wolf’s pelt. They even took quills off the writing desk and the naked statues. They wanted to take one of the ornate chairs and the falcon in the birdcage, but I drew the line here. I generally don’t worry about encumbrance, but this was too much.
“Guys, you are probably going to meet the owners of this house. How are you going to explain that you are carrying a giant sack filled with all their stuff?”
Immediately James replies, “No problem. I cast Invisibility on the sack.”
“Everyone can still clearly see that you are carrying something invisible.”
“I cast Tenser’s Floating Disk and put the invisible sack on top. Can I have the falcon now?”
The three boys cheered. This is what it’s like playing with teenage boys. Saving the world from the forces of evil? Bah! Boring! Figuring out how to steal a useless bird from some dude’s house? Priceless.
All this nonsense was worth it, since they got the locked, trapped, and cursed leather-bound tome that I wanted them to get in the first place. But we’ll get to that book later. Also, in Lady Yalah boudoir, the player’s find an unsent letter that obliquely connects the Gralhunds and the Zhentarim. Although no names are given the letter is written to Manshoon and implies that Urstul has betrayed the Black Network and gone rogue causing the explosion at Trollskull Alley. If Manshoon is the main villain, this is done to cut Urstul out of the deal and raise the Gralhunds status within the organization. If anyone else is the main villain, this is done to create a patsy to take the blame for when the stone is not delivered to Manshoon, as promised. Enough confusing plot, onto the upstairs!
There is one particular DM hurdle to deal with upstairs. At the top of the stairs, several Zhentarim are trying to force their way past some Gralhund guards and into the room occupied by Lady Yalah and her bodyguard, Hrabbaz. However, if the players join this fight and rescue Lady Yalah the whole scenario basically ends, since she is far too savvy to tell the players anything useful and her presence will also keep Lord Orond quiet. The encounter you want the players to have is through a different door on the far end of this landing. Here’s how I described the scene to entice my players toward the more satisfying role play opportunity.
“As you enter the upper landing, you see the hallway in shambles. Bodies are strewn about the floor, both Zhentarim and Gralhund guard. A number of Zhentarim thugs are fighting with a smaller number of Gralhund guards. The guards are led by a large half-orc, and they are keeping the Zhentarim from entering a doorway. From the next room, you hear a loud, nasally, screechy voice scream, “Don’t let those peasants in! And don’t get any of their blood on my expensive carpet!” This contest appears to be at a stalemate, neither side is gaining ground.”
“Meanwhile on the far side of the room is an open doorway. In the room beyond you can see a lone Zhentarim trying to bash down another door leading further into the house. The lone Zhentarim matches the description of the unknown suspect who was seen limping away from the Trollskull Explosion. This Zhentarim is yelling at someone behind the door, “Open the door Orond, you back-stabbing bastard! No one betrays the Black Network and lives!” Also, I arranged all of the minis in this scene so that there was a clear path to this back room, should they want to go there first.
My players took the bait and confronted Urstul first. I had them all roll a perception check, and told them that they notice fresh rope burns on his wrists; further evidence that Urstul was the one tied up in the study. I expected the usual “I stab the guy from behind” start to this encounter, but Andrew’s fighter, Regizar, put on his best cop face and said, “What seems to be the problem here?” Urstul took one look at the three, well-armed, definitely-not Gralhund guards and… jumped out the window. A shower of glass hits the street along with Urstul Floxin, who drops 15’ feet to the ground below, lands on his feet, and took off down the road to the east.
“I jump out after him,” Regizar replied immediately. I half expected this, but I didn’t prepare any content to make this a memorable chase. Plus, a legit street/rooftop chase is coming up later in the adventure, so I make this one quick; a few contested strength, dexterity, and constitution checks, to test their speed, ability to dodge traffic, and stamina. Regizar is gaining on Urstul, but Urstul pulls out a flask, drinks it, and disappears into thin air. Regizar walks back to the villa, dejected.
I told Andrew afterwards that I was really glad that he didn’t think to use his Déjà Vu ability from the Zeitbrille to stop this guy. Andrew was surprised that I would allow him to use it to affect another person’s action. I told him that if he could think quickly enough then he could attempt (though not necessarily succeed) to stop or undo any one action, even another person’s (still only once per day, for now.) He was very excited about this prospect.
Meanwhile, it’s just James’s wizard, Riandon, and Jack’s thief, Eragon, who are left to deal with Lord Orond. Sensing that the man trying to kill him is gone, Orond opens the door, rushes out and gives Eragon a huge hug. (I really hugged the player, Jack, for emphasis, which really took him by surprise. I’m a hands-on DM.)
Orond gushes, “Oh thank the gods you’re here. That dreadful Urstul was going to kill me!” Orond then proceeds to tell them whatever they want to know. “Oh yes, we own a nimblewright. Well, actually my wife does. She picked it up a few months back, but you’ll really have to ask her about it.” “Urstul? He’s been living here for a month. Says we tried to kill him, but you’ll really have to ask my wife about that.” And so on. Suddenly, it dawns on him. “My wife! We have to save her. She will be furious if we let her get killed.”
Reluctantly, Riandon and Eragon return to the upper landing just as Regizar returns from his jog. A short combat ensues, followed by an even shorter conversation with the Lady of the House, who begrudgingly thanks the party for saving her husband. But she is furious that Urstul escaped. “You let him get away! That is unacceptable! That Urst…, that man…, needs to be recapt-…, to answer for his crimes.”
Regizar quickly picks up on the slip. “Did you know that man?”
“I’ve never seen him before in my life.”
“But your husband said…”
“You can’t believe anything my husband said. Clearly, he’s in a state of shock… Orond, come here! And his statements certainly wouldn’t stand in the courts.”
“Then what about the nimblewright?”
“We don’t own a nimblewright.”
“But your husband…”
“There you go again, dragging him into this. Can’t you see he’s very upset.” Yalah kicks Orond hard in the shins. He cries out in pain. “Ooh, he’s hurt. We have to get him to a cleric. I think its best if you left now. We need to… um, mourn the loss of all these…, ah, servants. Yes, servants! Oh, they’re like family to us. Their loss is…, tragic. Please, leave. It would be a shame to have our new friends such as you arrested for trespassing.”
In a remarkable show of restraint, the players did not just murder everyone right here. They carefully exited the villa, taking care to open the doors wide to allow the invisible floating sack stuffed with swag to float out behind them. As they were coming out via the main gate, Barnibus Blastwind and a squad of guards were trying to get it. When Barnibus sees the party he just shakes his head in resignation. He asks them, “Did you leave anyone alive in there?” Then, turning his attention to Lady Gralhund he asks, “Are you alright, my lady? Are these men (the players) free to leave?”
Yalah Gralhund replied, “It pains me to say it, but these men did assist us in our time of need. They are free to go.”
“Very good, my lady.” Turning to the party, he says, “You heard her. Beat it before she changes her mind. But don’t go far. I’ll come by the Tavern later. I’m going to need a statement.”
Not feeling the need to tempt fate, the group beats a hasty retreat back to Trollskull. There they divvy up all the loot. The main table gets another mismatched chair celebrating their “victories” and Riandon adds a falcon to his menagerie. Finally, they turn their attention to the locked leather-bound tome. Eragon quickly picks the lock and opens the book. Three shadows burst from the pages and immediately attack!
Next week, our heroes deal with these very deadly bookmarks. Later they blow up a warehouse, get caught up in a parade, and have the grand opening of their Trollskull Tavern.
As always, a lone book on a lectern is always trapped, and Game On!
I think this is the beginning of a horribly one-sided and frustrating friendship – Barnibus Blastwind, upon finding the players at the scene of another murderous bloodbath