Where we homebrew the journey to the Land of Yon, I find a noble steed, and a bad deal breaks a companion forever.
When last we left our heroes, we had just defeated one of the main hags of the adventure. Notice I said defeated, not killed, because she ran away before we could finish her off. But with Skabatha out of the picture, we were free to loot her house, which gave us several of our “lost” items, curing several curses. We also rescued a unicorn named Elidon and reunited him with his mate, Lamorna. We haven’t removed the curse that turned this unicorn into a rocking horse, but we’re working on it.
In addition to the unicorn, we also rescued another four children from Skabatha’s sweatshop, bringing the total number of saved kids to ten. Not bad for a dysfunctional band of misfit heroes. Of course, there should have been eleven kids, but we lost one when “Pop” tried to punch him in the face. But that kid was a wanker, so forget him.
Then, in addition to the unicorn and the kids, we rescued a fellow adventurer named Elkhorn who claims to be part of a different band of heroes who call themselves Valor’s Call. He further claimed that his group is hunting down another different group of “evil” adventurers called the League of Malevolence. Well, they sound bad. We would normally be mistrusting of a guy like Elkhorn, but he was trapped in the evil hag’s kitchen waiting to get baked into a pie, so he might be telling the truth.
With everyone safe and sound, we prepared to leave this Land of Thither and travel to the Land of Yon. We had secured the services of a guide to take us there in the form of a floating oilcan named Squirt. Since Elkhorn has decided to join our party as well, that expands our already overstuffed group to ten. If you add Shammer’s permanent owl and the three campestri mushrooms several players (including me) have as “pets” the total is 14. And I’m about to add one more.
I was sorely disappointed when I realized that Skabatha’s liberated rocking horse was really a cursed unicorn and I would not be able to claim it as my personal mount. A paladin is supposed to have his own noble steed, but thus far nothing has applied for the job. The good news is we all advanced to 5th level and now I can cast Find Steed. But this is the fey, so we won’t settle for a mere horse, pony, or mule. What’s it gonna be? A Pegasus? A Nightmare? A Ki-rin?! No, I don’t get any of those. A large, mongrelly, hairless hound appears before me. Actually, it blinks into existence before me, because it is, in fact, a Blink Dog.
I wasn’t the only one to get some new stuff. All the fighters got an extra attack, so we are even more deadly. The rogue got uncanny dodge, so he is even more unkillable. Most of the spellcasters got 3rd level spells, so they are even more un-unpredictable. (Fireball anyone?) Meanwhile the Bard picked up some new cooking skills, and Shammer has jumped back into Warlock, picked up a new patron, and is now a Hexblade/Bladesinger(?) with a unicorn horn sticking out of her head. Hunh? When I started this adventure, I really intended to track all the characters’ progressions and story arcs. But I’m really struggling to keep up with what the others are doing with their characters and more importantly why. I blame Tik Tok.
Enough talk. We’re going on a road trip. I call shotgun! Previously, I was a little unsatisfied when we travelled from Hither into this current land of Thither. It was a simple uneventful balloon ride that was rather boring and exposed a weird quirk of the recommended level advancement of the adventure. The book says to level up when you survive your encounter with each land’s hag and again when you enter a new land. But since the hag is the last thing you face in the land, right before you enter a new one, this means that players will have a double jump in experience without getting to play as the previously gained level. To fix this, Aidan added a whole bunch of homebrewed content as we travelled from Thither into Yon.
This was no longer some simple puddle jump on a zeppelin. This was a treacherous trek through the mists of Prismeer. Our guide had only five rules. Make a fire at night. Don’t leave the path. Don’t enter the fog. Don’t go toward the lightning. And don’t split the party. I think the last one was because we continuously did just that to our poor DM all the time. As we ascended up into the misty mountain pass, we were immediately enveloped in a thick fog. We spent the night huddled around a spiteful fire as disembodied voices taunted, goaded, and mocked us, daring us to enter the fog.
In the morning, we entered a chiseled gorge whose walls were completely smooth with zero tool marks. Even my dwarven skill could not fathom how the valley was carved. But that wasn’t the problem in the gorge. Everyone rolled perception, but I failed and detected nothing. Fortunately, the few that passed saw that the entire valley was criss-crossed with hundreds of nearly invisible webs spun by dozens of nearly invisible spiders. Fortunately, the webs didn’t block the valley floor. I’m sure the DM was hoping to run some aerial dive-bombing combat, but the ranger cast Pass without Trace and we snuck past easily.
We didn’t sneak past the next encounter so easily; mostly because we are stupidly curious. As we headed out of the gorge and descended down the mountain, we came across a ruined flight of stairs that jutted off the path into thin air. OFF THE PATH (Rule 2.) A set of 12 crumbling, stone steps that led to nowhere. Was this once a bridge, but now lies in rocky ruin? Where did it lead to?
Normally this is a moment for Daithi to throw caution to the wind and charge up the stairs in a blind rage. But this time, it was “Pop”, the reasonable one, who was overcome with curiosity. He got to the top of the stairs and became frozen with fear, filled with ominous dread as he looked out into the abyss of the valley below. We tried various combinations of misty step, dispel magic, and suggestion but nothing worked and even my new mount got stuck on the stairs and I had to dispel it. There was probably an elegant solution to the problem. But we never found it and ended up simply knocking the kenku off the ledge who fell and took some moderate damage.
We camped in the valley below where we were again inundated with mysterious sounds and voices coming from just beyond the perpetual fog. During his watch, “Pop” cast speak with animals and could hear snippets of conversations about cooking food for the feast, preparing the venue, and assembling a band. Pop tried to talk with them, but he could only hear them shushing each other and the word, “Outsiders”.
Expecting to be eaten in the morning, we were pleasantly surprised when we came upon a beautiful gazebo in an idyllic meadow that had been decorated for a woodland wedding. A woodland critter wedding. Dozens of gentle creatures; squirrels, chipmunks, badgers, skunks, field mice, and even a monkey and an aardvark had all gathered to witness the solemn vows between a frog and a pebble (yes, a pebble, as in inanimate rock). The frog was debonaire in his tuxedo, while the pebble was resplendent in her veil. The ceremony was about to begin.
A rabbit rabbi approached and asked what we were doing here. We replied that we were just passing through. The cottontail cleric asked if we could play any instruments since the band they had hired had not arrived. Our bard, Herbert, had his lute, but also our Serena could play the flute and even Daithi could rock the bagpipes while my Durwyn could blow a mean shawm (an ancestor of the oboe). With the kenku using his mimic ability to vocally replicate the mermaid siren, Palasha, from the Witchlight Carnival, we were transformed for One Night Only into “Pop and the Misfits”, the most motley crue to ever rock Prismeer.
During the nuptials, I expected the pebble to transform when the frog kissed her, in a new twist on the old fairy tale, but the pebble was just a rock. We stuck around after the ceremony for some excellent food, mostly berries and tea with honey. Rummaging in my bag of holding, I presented the happy couple with a red mushroom that jingles when you shake it. I had no use for it, but I’m sure it will be their most cherished possession. As thanks, they told us to “Beware of the flame-haired halfling.” With that ambiguous portend, we bid our farewells and journeyed on.
Before long, we came to a dilapidated cabin in the woods, complete with creepy stick figures and bloody sacks hanging from the trees outside. I wanted nothing to do with this place but others were intent on exploring and I’m resolved to save them from themselves even when I don’t want to. Daithi sliced open a couple of sacks. One was filled with entrails and viscous goo of unknown origin, while a second had a fawn, some sparrows, and a goblin, all dead.
Serena opened the door to the one room cabin and found a red-headed halfling spread out on the bed, sound asleep. Presumably the one we were told to avoid. He had torn bloody rags for clothes and fresh blood around the mouth. Even Serena and Daithi, two of our more impetuous companions could see no upside to this encounter, so we left. Quickly, before the angry Irish hobbit woke up.
Putting as much distance as we could between us and the Blair Witch cabin, we camped on a rocky outcropping with sheer rock on one side and instant death by falling on the other. Still surrounded by the preternatural fog with the spectral voices that cajoled, menaced, serenaded, and at one point, filled the air with applause. Halfway through the night, the voices softened to a low mumur, the air grew still, and the fire stopped flickering as if frozen in time. Suddenly, there was a well-groomed, red-haired human (not halfling) sitting in our camp without a care in the world. He spoke, “So, who wants to conduct some business?”
This is “Dex”, who claimed that though this was not his favorite name, it would do for now. He is a merchant, a sultan of trade as he put it, and he will become the most pivotal figure that is not present in the actual book. He is necessary to fulfill two vital functions that are glaringly absent in the adventure. The first of which is the utter lack of any proper shops in the entire realm.
A huge draw of Dungeons & Dragons is the acquisition of loot. Kill a bad guy, take his stuff, drag it back to town and sell it for what you really want. Sometimes the bad guy has an equipment upgrade and that works too; you earned that magical item or whatever. This is a core staple of D&D. In fact, the game is mathematically designed that your character should have a few magic items by the time you reach fifth level, if not sooner. But this adventure has no treasure. It is phenomenal in its description of trinkets and trivial items that people own, and trying to find the perfect use for them has been a lot of fun. But nobody carries any gold and nobody owns any useful equipment. And there is nobody to trade in our junk for anything useful.
I am a fifth level fighter and I don’t have a single magical weapon or piece of armor. The only combat item I have is a Wand of Hex that I obtained in a third-party add-on that was not part of the official adventure. Sadly, I do possess other magical items and weapons, such as Agdon Longscarf’s magical branding iron, but the book forbids any player from using those items, so it, and many others, are just hunks of useless metal. The same is true for all of my companions. I think the book prided itself too much on the possibility of running this adventure without combat and neglected to include any martial items. But the byzantine maze to complete this pacifist path is nearly impossible to navigate and combat is inevitable. And so is the need for magical items.
But Dex is here to fix all that. BTW, despite the different clothes and being a completely different species, we suspect that this is the same halfling from the creepy cabin, but we didn’t inquire about it. But Dex being here gave everyone a good opportunity to step up to the counter as it were and roleplay the bartering of some useless crap for something with more impact.
“Pop” trades in his old bow and his charm of heroism for a Bow of Fey Slaying which makes him absolutely lethal in the combats to come. Herbert traded his pipe of the sewer, which he never used ever, for a Lute of Opening, which he will use several times in the future. Faux traded a pair of Skabatha’s bedroom slippers (ugh, the smell) for Shoes of Stealth called “Sneakers” that made him virtually undetectable. My Durwyn traded an unusable gourd of memories that I’ve been carrying around since Session 4, for a Spellguard Shield which I do use quite often, sometimes with spectacular results. Stay tuned.
I don’t remember if Serena traded for anything and Mara was not here this session. Shammer only traded for information about some lingering mysteries in his back story including a giant owl named Bloody Beak which is also frozen in time at Zybilna’s palace. He instantly regretted merely bartering for knowledge and spent several sessions trying to get Dex back so he could get some cool stuff like everyone else. But it was Daithi who made what became the worst trade of all. For the entire campaign, Daithi has talked to his weapon, Gene, as if it was sentient. It isn’t, and Daithi is insane, but no matter, Daithi traded for the ability to really communicate with Gene. More on this to come.
With the shopping spree done, we come to the second reason for Dex’s existence; the missing unicorn horn. This alicorn, to use its proper name, is the most important object in the game. It is mandatory to complete two quests, not the least of which is the ability to free everybody frozen in time at Zybilna’s palace, the main quest of the adventure. But the horn is lost, and absolutely no one knows where it is. Not the hags, nor any allies, nor any single NPC we meet in the game. To give each playthrough variety, the location of the horn is random. Because it is random there are zero clues to discover where it is.
This is bad game design. The players have to visit every possible location until they blindly stumble upon it. But we don’t even know where the possible locations are. It’s like hunting for every unique gem in Skyrim or every Korak Seed in Zelda, but there is no Official Player’s Guide to help us find them. We’re not even allowed the benefit of a map to tell where the hundreds of possible locations are. It’s the needle in the haystack, except the haystack is an entire world.
So, like our DM, you will need to invent or repurpose an NPC who does know the location of the horn, and he will give it to us… If we do one teenie, tiny task for him first. In our case, Dex has an heirloom necklace that was stolen by Endolyn (the next hag). Dex cannot enter Endolyn’s castle. If we were to return this necklace, Dex will tell us where the horn is. A simple transaction. Dex gives us a business card with instructions on how to contact him when the job is done. The session ended here, but because I like you guys so much, we’ll journey on.
The next session began with Daithi screaming. And I think I finally learned what makes his player, Michael, tick. In his heart, Michael is a storyteller, like I consider myself. We’ve both been DMs and we strive to find ways to get players to engage with our storylines and plots. As the DM, we have to get the players to engage with our story, that’s the adventure. But as a player, our little personal backstories are not the adventure. And this is where Michael and I diverge greatly.
My character has a personal goal; I am looking for my long-lost father. If the DM can work it into the story, great. If he cannot, that’s okay too. And I would never expect any other player to care about or engage with my personal story. That is between me and the DM and any players who choose to become involved with it. I try to keep this secondary story in the background and I don’t let it disrupt the pacing of the game or detract from the main adventure, which is what the other players want to play.
In contrast, I believe, that Michael wants his story to be integrated fully into the main story, even superseding the adventure. And he wants to assure that the other players engage with his story. To that end, I’ve learned that Michael often creates brash, impetuous characters that force the other players to deal with his character and the fallout of his actions. On top of that, every character has a critical flaw that will cause his character to “break”, grinding the adventure to a halt until the calamity is dealt with. I would have been more inclined to engage with this, to be honest, interesting development if the player had not spent the past 4 months being an annoying ass. If he had played a sincere and helpful member of the party, I would have gladly given this tragic character moment the spotlight and played along. As it is, Durwyn spent the next hour of the session polishing his axe.
Daithi is still screaming. He is yelling over and over, “I killed him. He killed her.” Turning his imaginary talking sword into a real one was the worst thing that could have happened. Gene is not a good sword (actually a glaive) and it wants to make Daithi suffer. And his name isn’t Gene. It’s Jean and she is the spirit of Daithi’s dead wife. In life, Jean was a cruel woman. After marrying Daithi, she seduced his brother, then revealed the affair to drive a wedge between the family. The brother killed the unfaithful Jean, and in a fit of (barbarian) rage, Daithi killed his brother and his entire family. Until now, Daithi has manifested the spirit of his dead wife in the murder weapon. But now the spirit is real and mercilessly taunts Daithi. He is a broken man on the verge of another murderous rampage.
We only learned all this because Theo and Lee bothered to roleplay with Daithi’s weapon, with Michael playing the role of the spirit of Jean. I’m glad they’re having fun. The rest waited. Even the DM was reduced to the role of spectator. The only part of this bit that I liked was the image of a bird and a rabbit yelling at a machete on a stick. They kept asking questions, trying to find ways to help Daithi, but nothing worked. Jean herself bragged that nothing can help Daithi. Insert evil cackle here. Another great trick to perpetuate engagement is to create a problem with no solution. Players love the no-win scenario. (Note the sarcasm.) They get to keep guessing at the correct way to solve the riddle, but there is no answer. Michael wins. Everyone will play his game forever.
Finally, Michael got bored of holding the game hostage, so Daithi jumped up out of his stupor and yelled, “I have to stop the fire!” and moved to extinguish the campfire. This violated Rule 1 and is presumably bad, allowing all the scary monsters in the fog to come in and kill us. Calculated to bring on some “cool” PvP action, everyone moved to stop Daithi. Except me. I refused to engage with this manipulative shit. Bring on the fog monsters. Kill each other. I don’t care. Frankly, I welcomed the sweet embrace of a total party kill. Michael wanted death and he got it. This was the moment that killed my enjoyment of the entire adventure and made every session after a miserable obligation.
Sadly, we did not suffer a TPK. Dice were rolled. Spells were cast. Some blocked Daithi’s path. Others polished their axe. Ultimately, Herbert cast Calm Emotions. Daithi fails his roll and the DM rules that Daithi passes out and is now comatose. Daithi spent the rest of this session and all the next session unconscious. Sounds like fun. Can Daithi be saved? Who knows? Even the DM was worried that there might be no way to bring Daithi back to normal. Michael might have to roll up a new character. Who cares?
Sadly, despite the main antagonist of this encounter being unconscious, it just kept going. “Pop” was now arguing with the evil halberd Jean about how to save our “friend” Daithi. The discussion wasn’t going well. Finally, “Pop” threatened to break the weapon in two and throw it over the cliff. Jean’s answer surprised him, “I don’t want to help him. I’m the one who broke him!” In a fit of rage that would do Daithi proud, “Pop” snapped the polearm in half and hurled the shards into the abyss. Will this adversely affect Daithi’s mind and prolong his recovery indefinitely? If Michael wants it to, it will.
I apologize in advance for the rest of this week’s recap, but I was in such a sour mood, that I kept crappy notes and barely remember what happened. Here’s what I recall. The mountain was actually a volcano with a water filled caldera at the top. The island in the crater lake had a small grove of trees with metallic fruit on its branches. When the flying PCs flew over to investigate, the fruit was a bejeweled apple that was part of Faux’s personal quest which got completely short-thrifted here. Taking an apple awoke the island which chased the land-borne PCs who had done nothing wrong while the flyers flew away. Again. The island was really a gigantic Flail Snail that splashed scalding water on everyone and caused a tsunami that swept everyone down the far side of the mountain in a Feywild version of a waterslide, complete with goblin judges at the bottom who scored each characters’ dismount.
Then at a stone bridge over an impossible gorge, two Formorians riding Chimeras were having a jousting tournament that we got to watch and only watch. Two players (and only two players) got to roll as the Formorians. One lost. The other won. And it didn’t matter because we got to cross the bridge either way. And that’s it. I think everyone kind of lost their enthusiasm following the Daithi breakdown. Upon crossing the bridge, we formally entered the Land on Yon. Horray, let’s kill this hag, get to the next land, free that witch and end this stupid adventure.
Next week, we learn that the end is not so near, with dozens of trivial places, people, and quests to deal with.
As always, never let one player hold your game hostage, and Game On!
Curse you, you black buzzard! – Jean, after calling Pop’s bluff.