Getting Out While The Getting Is Good
...just a little further...
The party finished the last session hidden atop a tall tower in the centre of a ruined city inhabited by goblins, hoping and waiting for the opportunity to escape unnoticed.
13th to 14th of Eirmont, AC 999
Characters: Belgarath, Mearl (Belgarath’s Henchman), Caasi, Endithas Wolfram, Kane, 1 war dog and 1 hunting dog (belonging to Kane), Kalasandr, Theodosius, Vandelay, and Roland (Vandelay’s Henchman); Taras and Stephan were also present as NPCs
Deaths: Belgarath, Endithas Wolfram, and Vandelay
Mortal Wounds: None
Levelled: None; the party hasn’t been able to return to civilization to claim XP for some time!
Cold and increasingly hungry…
They had burned through all but a day or two worth of their remaining rations, most of which had been lost in a Goblin raid on their camp.
…the group tried to wait a final day before descending. As luck would have it, the Tattooed Men saddled their horses on the afternoon of the 13th of Eirmont, and rode out of the city with bulging saddlebags.
The following morning, the party carefully scouted the top room of the tower. Finding it empty, they spent a couple hours descending, lowering their wounded and dogs in makeshift harnesses, until all were gathered in the dead Mage’s bedchamber. The room had been emptied of valuables, and only the large pieces of grotesque furniture remained. Steeling themselves, they established a marching order, and began their descent, Kalasandr barely able to shuffle along, and the unconscious Fodora carried by Mearl.
The tower appeared to be mostly unoccupied, the tense journey downwards finding their footsteps echoing through empty chambers. In the invisible observatory, the party double-checked the body of the Minotaur, confirming that nothing of value remained. The gear in the barracks was gone, and as the party reached the main floor, another cursory inspection of Vlack’s quarters was made, also finding nothing of value.
The group considered their options, and began listening at the doors. At the door opposite the stairs they had descended from, very human-sounding cries of pain could be heard. They quietly opened the door. Before them they saw a single human prisoner in the dim light, bleeding and bound in ropes. The man knelt before a massive Hobgoblin warrior. The goblinoid prodded at the human with a spear, chuckling cruelly, which elicited another cry of pain.
The prisoner was, in fact, a new party member, as we had recruited a new player. Now he just had to hope that the party didn't botch his rescue...
The only light came from a pair of enormous bronze doors, slightly ajar, at the back of the room. The party stood staring at the scene in shock as the Hobgoblin looked up and grunted, “Rrunhh?”
“Twang!” came the sound of a bowstring, and an arrow suddenly sprouted between the creature’s eyes. The Hobgoblin toppled over backwards, dead before he hit the floor. Their momentary paralysis broken by Kane’s shot, the rest of the party charged into the dim chamber. More Hobgoblins scrambled to their feet, reaching for their weapons now that their entertainment had been interrupted.
The chamber was quickly embroiled in a dizzying mêlée. In the darkness and confusion, Endithas initially brought his axe down with a “clank!” onto a pink-granite statue, jackal-headed, like the others they had seen. ( He rolled a natural 1 on his Attack Throw! ) Vandelay and Roland managed to bring down a Hobgoblin together, while another was torn apart by the party’s hounds, and Mearl and Kane each impaled a beastman on their spears. Endithas, recovering from his embarrassing mistake, brought “Gnasher” down through a Hobgoblin’s helm, shattering its head in a spray of gore. The axe became entangled as the Hobgoblin fell to its knees. Endithas planted his boot on the corpse’s chest, wrenching his weapon free in another spray of blood. As the final Hobgoblin backed away in terror, a laughing Endithas lunged forward, smashing through the creature’s guard and splitting its breastplate in twain with his axe.
In less than a minute, the battle was won. While Belgarath tended to one of the dogs, the prisoner was untied, quickly identifying himself as one Theodosius, formerly an itinerant Cleric of the now-destroyed Ilyakana lumber-camp. He had escaped the initial attack and tracked the Goblins back to Xitaqa, vainly hoping to rescue the prisoners taken from his flock.
“Where are they now?” Caasi enquired, admiring the young priest, though whether for his moral fortitude or something else was unclear.
“Gone!” Theodosius replied forlornly, “They were taken from the city as I arrived, and the Goblins found me as I waited to pursue. Then I was brought here, to these… things,” he said, indicating the Hobgoblin corpses strewn about the room.
Kane carefully glanced out the gap in the bronze double-doors, “I believe these doors overlook the central square. It was from here we were fired upon in our initial raid…”
“Good. We can get to the horses and be gone from this place!” Endithas said, spitting on the floor to emphasize the point.
“Hold on!” Belgarath raised his hands, palms out, as if to forestall their exodus, “There’s another door back here…” he said as he headed back towards the main room of the tower.
“That’s right!” Kane said, following, “I do not think we have been in there!”
The oddity of the Mage and the Elven Ranger agreeing on anything wasn’t lost on the others, but the party filed after them anyway (after gathering up Theodosius’ gear from a nearby sack), back into the tower and away from their means of escape.
The group gathered before the double-doors in the eastern wall of the tower’s main chamber. Listening at the iron-bound portals yielded nothing but silence. Roland pushed them, and the doors swung inwards, effortlessly. A small cloud of dust puffed up from the floor beneath the doors’ arc, and a few shreds of cobweb billowed from the ceiling in their passing. A broad set of stone steps descended into darkness, although a faint glow came from somewhere off to the left.
“I’ve got a baaad feeling about this…” Endithas said, frowning.
“You always say that…” Kalasandr whispered, “You always say ’I’ve got a bad feeling about this’…”
“Okay, okay…” Endithas sniffed, “When we get back without you, I will visit your folks.”
Slightly unnerved, Belgarath pushed his unflappable retainer, Mearl, out in front. Mearl glanced back at his master, then shrugged, the gesture lost in a rattle of his heavy armour. He then turned and descended the stairs, his shield and spear raised. Vandelay and Roland followed close behind, the latter bearing a lantern.
As the front rank reached the bottom of the steps, the lantern cast enough light to illuminate high, heavy wooden shelves that stretched away into darkness. The dusty racks were festooned with cobwebs and stacked with an uncountable number of scrolls. Some thirty feet to the left of where they stood, a door stood ever so slightly ajar, the barest crack of daylight providing the glow they had seen from the top of the stairs.
“Move!” Belgarath hissed as he shoved the others aside in his haste to reach the nearest shelf. He jammed both hands into the parchment scrolls, trying to get as many as possible up to the light to be read.
As the Mage stood by the shelf, straining to read the scrolls in the dim light, Vandelay caught sight of a dark shadow moving above him. Before Vandelay could call out, a hard, heavy weight landed on Belgarath’s back, and white-hot pain struck the Mage between his shoulder blades. He cried out, the scrolls fluttering to the floor from his clawing hands.
With a shout, Vandelay and Roland lunged forward to aid against Belgarath’s assailant. As the Mage stumbled forwards under the weight, they could a see a great, shiny black spider the size of a large dog clinging to Belgarath’s back. The Spellsword’s strike drew a spurt of stinking brown ichor from its carapace, but Roland’s blow was turned aside with a clatter. For their trouble, the thing skittered up Vandelay’s spear arm, its great slashing mandibles shredding first the Spellsword’s weapon-arm, and then his throat as it clambered atop him. Vandelay collapsed with a gurgle.
And now for a rather large digression: It had all gone off the rails so quickly! In spite of having escape within sight, after spending many sessions and months of real-world time first exploring ,and then trying to escape from, Xitaqa, they had turned back because of a closed door. Double-doors, actually. Because there might have been ‘phat loot’ behind it. I was stunned.
It was made clear that no Goblinoids or humans had been in or out of the room in perhaps years, but none of them thought to ask themselves why. I struggled mightily trying to walk the line between providing clues about the room without telegraphing the presence of GIANT SPIDERS. In the end, their greed doomed them. Now, I know what you're thinking, mainly because my players through it at me in the aftermath: ACKS is all about finding treasure! That's how Characters advance, after all. However, they were, by this point, carrying literally TENS OF THOUSANDS OF GOLD in treasure (more than enough for several of them to advance in level), along with various magic items and a captured spellbook. Not only that, but several of the party were still badly injured, and they were far into the wilderness, in the depths of a goblin city. But the thought of an unexplored room triggered something deep inside them...something that brought out the same videogame mentality that used to convince people to ‘explore all the black’ on maps in Baldur’s Gate, and then complain that there wasn’t something to find every ten feet.
Back to the unfolding tragedy, Belgarath survived the initial bite, but then failed his Save versus Poison. Vandelay, on the other hand, suffered a more gruesome fate. In spite of having an AC of 10(!), he was still a 1st Level character, and the Giant Black Widow Spider made its Attack Throw with a 19 (I make Throws in the open unless there is hidden information). I then proceeded to roll a 12(!) for damage on 2d6, and poor, poor Vandelay was torn apart (even with a +2 Con bonus). To add insult to injury, he also failed his Save versus Poison.
One of the players would later accuse me of being unfair, or of throwing a ridiculous monster at the party (two, actually, as we’ll see shortly). The accusation troubled me a lot, although not because I thought I’d actually done anything wrong. More because of the mentality that lay behind the comment. The sense that encounters had to somehow be ‘fair,’ or beatable. The truth was that a lot of what happened in this little debacle was driven by poor player choices, followed by disastrous rolls (failed Surprise, failed Save versus Poison, successful monster Attack at long odds, near max damage…the list goes on). The players had had a very, very long streak of good fortune combined with increasing skill. It had been some time since they had made a really poor decision. A feeling of invincibility had set in, along with the illusion that encounters were tailored for them to beat. As the incident so clearly demonstrated, nothing was further from the truth.
On the up side, I also finally got to use the word ‘bathos’ in context.
Belgarath’s hounds dogpiled the huge arachnid and ripped it to pieces. Caasi rushed to Vandelay’s aid, while Belgarath stood, nervously fidgeting as he watched the Spellsword expire. There was a growing burning sensation between his shoulder blades.
“Not all spiders are poisonous!” the Mage said a little too forcefully, “Some of them are harmless!” He seemed to be trying to convince himself.
“Vandelay may not survive…” Caasi said quietly, trying to staunch the elf’s bleeding.
“It probably wasn’t even poisonous!” Belgarath nearly shouted, staring at the peculiar red markings on the back of the remains of the dead spider, “And even if it WERE, your prayers can cure that, RIGHT CAASI?!” He was beginning to sweat profusely.
“Kane, with me!” Endithas whispered, and the pair began to make a circuit of the room.
Yet again, I found myself in shock. Two party members dead or dying, and the next decision is for two of the party to split off and make sure any more spiders in the room find them. Bwa-? My incredulity was showing on my face by now, one player accusing me (good-naturedly) of being a dick by enjoying the party’s misfortune. It was more like nervous laughter on my part, as I couldn’t believe what I was seeing.
As the two warriors carefully moved around the room, Kane looked back over his shoulder towards what looked like a door ajar...
“Hmmm…” the elf thought to himself, “Perhaps that is the door I used to attain the roof…” before quietly slipping away from Endithas to check the portal in question. “Steady, now…” the big man whispered, not realising his companion had abandoned him.
In the final corner of the room, the cobwebs became far thicker, and Endithas stopped, not wanting to become entangled.
“Now what?” he asked over his shoulder, glancing behind when Kane didn’t reply, “How and why does the blasted elf always do that?” he thought. Unfortunately, his movements made the webs around him shudder, and as the big warrior looked about in confusion for his comrade, something felt that movement, and silently charged.
Endithas felt the webs trembling a split-second before the dark shape became visible. It scuttled through the thick webs effortlessly, its too-many legs and alien movements eliciting revulsion. Before the big man had a chance to turn, the thing had clambered on to him, its vicious mandibles slashing through his armour.
I was reminded of the battle aftermath in the APC in the movie Aliens: this can’t be happening, man, this can’t be happening! Kane’s disappearing act had left Endithas alone and Surprised by the second spider. I rolled a 17 to attack and 4 damage on the first Surprise attack, and Endithas, brave warrior, failed his Save versus Poison. The spider then won Initiative and hit again with an 18, followed by 8 more damage and another failed Save versus Poison!
Endithas let out a terrible cry as his wounds burned like fire. He sheared off one of the thing’s legs with his axe. He then tried to throw his torch into the webs, but the brand slipped from his hand as he drew back, flying behind him to land on a dusty, dry, scroll-laden shelf.
As if it couldn’t get worse. Endithas rolled a natural 1, and I randomly scattered the torch-throw, landing it on a nearby shelf. I was beginning to think the entire party was doomed.
Kane and Mearl rushed to help the embattled warrior, and a well placed arrow and lethal spear-thrust ended the spider’s menace. Meanwhile, Theodosius rummaged through his pack, drawing forth a glass vial with a sigh, “I suppose I can’t use it if I’m dead…” he mumbled, before dumping his precious Holy Water on the smoldering scrolls, extinguishing the fire before it could spread.
Caasi broke the silence that followed, seemingly responding to Belgarath’s earlier question, “I could ask the Immortals to delay the venom’s effects…”
Belgarath’s now pale face split into a rictus grin, “Yes?! How long can you delay it?!”
“…a bit less than an hour… forty minutes, perhaps…” she replied quietly, steadily holding the frantic Mage’s gaze.
“Forty minutes?” horror twisted Belgarath’s face, “FORTY MINUTES?!” he shouted, spittle flying from his lips. The pain in his back was immense, and his muscles had begun to twitch.
Endithas Wolfram let out a great sigh. Not even bothering to bind his own wounds, he walked over to the stairs of the room and sat, placing Gnasher across his knees. His own wounds were burning as if filled with hot coals.
“There could be more spiders…” Kane said darkly, before turning and heading alone into the heavily webbed corner.
What does one even say to this? The carnage thus far wasn’t enough? Let’s go find more!
As the Elven Ranger advanced, the webs around him began to tremble fiercely. All at once, a thousand tiny dark shapes skittered across the webs and onto the elf. He screamed, high-pitched, and his bladder let go. Batting wildly at himself, he stumbled about. Hundreds of tiny black spiders, strange red marks on their backs, crawled over the elf and through the webs around him. They fell to the floor or crawled away, and Kane was eventually left trembling, panting, and looking about wildly. The tiny spiders had scuttled off, and the elf appeared completely unharmed (if somewhat unmanned) by the encounter.
Satisfied with the damage, the party at last withdrew back to the main chamber of the tower. The next few minutes passed uneventfully, as the group struggled to think of a way to aid their poisoned companions. Finally, death came, as it does for all. Belgarath was the first to expire. The panting, twitching Mage lay prone, and abruptly grew still, his one eye still open. Mearl let out a choked cry that the others realised was a sob. Caasi then checked on Vandelay, discovering the elf had also breathed his last. Endithas sat, back to the wall, as his limbs throbbed and burned. A few bitter tears fell from his eyes as he whispered, “Ah, Erasmus... I shall see you soon, my faithful friend…” The big man’s breathing became more and more ragged until, at last, he too was still.
Belgarath’s player now took over Mearl, Vandelay’s player took over Roland, Kalasandr’s player took over Stephan, and Endithas’ player took over Taras.
“We have to find a way to get them to the temple in Kelvin…” Mearl said, the loyal man still thinking of his master’s wellbeing before his own, “Perhaps the Immortals will send them back to us!” he finished, choking back fresh tears.
With the new problem of carting three more bodies (in addition to Fodora and a barely-able-to-walk Kalasandr), Kane was sent off, invisible, to try and track down the party’s former wagons; they had been lost when Goblins had attacked their camp, but the group had seen evidence that they had been brought into the ruined city.
The Elven Ranger moved through the streets unseen. During the day, the place seemed deserted, the Goblins abhorring the daylight. Making a wide circle to the far side of the tower, Kane found the faded trail of the wagons. It lead into one of the largest of the ruined buildings, built into the side of a gully like the others. The double-doors had a crude symbol scratched into them in the shape of a tower, not unlike the one that stood behind the elf. Recognition dawned. He knew that symbol! The Yellow-Fangs, the hated Goblins that had slaughtered his own kith and kin!
Ever so carefully, the elf slipped through the large doors. The room bhind the door was lit by flickering firelight, and the burbling wheeze of sleeping Goblins filled the space. Moving across the chamber, Kane listened at the far door. The grating voices of more Goblins came from the room beyond, and it sounded as if a feast were underway. Cracking the door slightly, Kane spied the party’s lost wagons, as well as numerous Goblins gathered around a crude throne on a raised wooden platform. On the front of the wooden dais, numerous skulls were hung, and with mounting horror Kane saw that the grisly trophies bore distinctly elven features. Mastering his rage, the elf quietly closed the door and snuck out of the lair to report back to his companions.
Realising where he was in the city, Kane slipped through the back door of the tower, passing through the catacombs the party had first used to enter the place. He reached the others unhindered, and relayed what he had discovered. Quickly organising themselves, they left the dead and injured behind with Kalasandr (himself barely able to walk), and returned the way Kane had come.
I guess they just assumed nothing bad would find their injured companions?
The group gathered before the Yellow-Fangs’ lair. Kane and Taras then slipped inside, slitting the Goblins throats before any alarm could be raised. The remains and the room were both searched while the party regrouped, but only a few coins were found. The party gathered before the door to the Yellow-Fangs’ feast hall, and at a nod from Taras, Kane slipped inside.
Kane’s first shot slew a Goblin as it raised a cup to its mouth, foul brew pouring from the wound in its throat. His second shot, aimed for the monstrous Goblin chieftain, Plak, missed completely, embedding itself in the wooden platform beneath his throne with a “Thwack!”
A squalling howl went up from the Goblin chieftain, and the Yellow-Fangs fumbled for their weapons as the party burst into the room! All was chaos as Mearl released the baying hounds into the Goblins’ midst, while Plak and his favoured champions clambered down from the wooden platform. Kane and Taras continued to rain arrows onto their foes, as Mearl, Caasi, and Stephan moved straight for the knot of Goblins around the leader. Roland and Theodosius moved across the chamber, cutting off several stragglers that had threatened to flank the party.
As the Goblins began to fall to the party’s superior skill, Kane saw his opening and charged the mighty Plak! The elf’s spear whickered out with blinding speed, but Plak easily knocked it aside with his stolen elven blade. But while the great goblin’s attention was focused on Kane, Theodosius approached the monster from behind, and with a single crushing blow from his mace, stove in the chieftain’s head, ending his tyrannical rule.
In spite of the loss, the morale of the few remaining Goblins held, but they were inexorably cut down, slaughtered almost to the last. A lone Goblin finally ran, and Taras loosed a shot at his back, but missed.
“Stop him! He’s going to warn others!” Roland shouted, but in the confusion of hearing the retainer speak for the first time, the final Goblin was able to make good his escape. Belatedly, Taras and Kane ran after the thing, following it out a rear door into the ruined city’s streets. The Goblin was quickly lost in the maze of buildings and gullies, in spite of Kane’s best efforts to find the thing’s tracks.
While the Goblin was pursued, the remainder of the group sorted through the contents of the Yellow-Fangs’ lair, not least of which was the party’s wagons. When the search party returned empty handed, trips were made to bring those left behind in the tower to the wagons. While everything of value was loaded on a single wagon, Kane again scoured the city for horses, finding a pair of remaining steeds. The horses were quickly tethered to the wagon, and the party withdrew from the ruined city with all possible speed. They would need to put as much distance between themselves and the ruins as they could before nightfall…