The Serpent's Journey

Third Session - The Filler Session
In which long-running mysteries make their debut

The session started with the group hauling their newfound riches aboard the Serpent. Shortly thereafter, the ship started to subtly change: after a few hours, it merely seemed battered and leaky, instead of looking like a complete wreck. (But of course nobody noticed it, because I only noted this information on the ship’s description page, then promptly forgot mentioning it. In my defense, we started our first scene already aboard the Serpent, completely glossing over the breathtakingly exciting logistical issues of hauling a big-ass crate full of gold out from the middle of an underground lake with no convenient exits to the surface.)

(Not like there’s anything wrong with focusing on logistics, mind. In my “campaign ideas I’ll never get to tell” folder I have plans for a group of starting PCs having to deal with the aftermath of a wounded dragon falling onto their home village and burning it halfway down in its death throes, with the PCs possibly getting rich/funding the rebuilding effort from selling the corpse parts to alchemists.)

After securing the loot in the booty room, Fubsy started to rummage through the previous captain’s belongings in order to obtain a fancy hat which would supposedly help him blend in with the Royal Liquor’s clientele. A successful Investigation roll later, he found a worn and salt-encrusted tricorn hat, and a heavily tarnished silver locket. Driven by curiosity, he opened it, but time and the conditions of seafaring travel were not kind to the picture inside: it was largely unrecognizable, with only a hint of lustrous blonde hair rolling off a pale shoulder remaining in one corner. Mildly surprised by the idea that even crazy fishman cultists may have loved ones somewhere, he started to work on getting all that tarnish off the damn thing in the hopes of revealing some information about it. His efforts were rewarded: cleaning the locket revealed deep blue, swirling patterns in the metal itself. Thanks to some unreasonably good rolling, he instantly recognized this as a characteristic of the so-called “deep silver”, mined from the lightless depths of the ocean floor. He also knew that the Principalities of the Trench on the western waters of the Whispering Sea, a unique conglomeration of various undersea races and the humans who live on the islands above them, are home to the unquestionable masters of mining and working with this metal.

(The idea of a special version of a precious metal that can only be obtained from deep underwater has been stolen wholesale from Pathfinder, where it was mainly mined by aboleths and held as sacred by various fish-related humanoid races or something. This is one of the grand total of two usable ideas I’ve managed to find during my cursory reading of the Skull and Shackles adventure path and materials related to it. This experience led me to the conclusion that Pathfinder is a soul-crushingly terrible game.)

Meanwhile, Joxnir’s attention was caught by the locked door on his favorite deck. After failing to find a key for it, he tried to break it down, but the only thing he managed to accomplish was getting everyone down the hold, complaining about the noise. At this point, looking at his companions, a brilliant idea dawned in the wereshark’s mind.

Joxnir: Do I get advantage on my check if I use Igor as a battering ram?
GM: (baffled silence) …Sure.

Ordering Igor to hold still, the barbarian grabbed the servant who was still babbling about how happy it makes him to serve the Masters, took a running start, and smashed him headfirst into the door (roll roll), causing his skull to burst open like an overripe watermelon, raining chunks of bone and brain matter on everyone in the vicinity, but utterly failing to affect said door in any way, shape or form (except by coloring it red).

Fubsy: Wait WHAT?!

At this point, the bard remembered that he wrote “Chaotic Good” on his character sheet even though we don’t use the alignment system, and that this sort of thing probably wouldn’t fly with him around. After winning the initiative roll to see who gets to act first, he zapped Joxnir with a 2nd level Sleep spell, causing him to doze off midway through the charge, hereby saving Igor’s life and inadvertently delaying the party’s exploration of their ship’s capabilities by 6 sessions.

Of course, said Sleep spell normally wouldn’t really have been very effective, thanks to everybody getting max HP for their first three levels, which put the barbarian at a kingly sum of 45, but thanks to his shapeshifting (and therefore damage resistance) being used up by the time of last session’s big fight, and the party forgetting to heal up after being munched on by the sharktopus, he was just in the right range to be plausibly affected by it. Being a ruthless optimizer myself, I have to say, the thought of an NPC’s life being saved by suboptimal play amuses me greatly.

After the crisis has been averted, the PCs realized they were low both on spells and HP, so they decided to go to sleep aboard the creepy ghost ship they just found because that totally sounds like a great idea guys. Strangely enough, nightmares avoided them (for now), but they did have a peculiar shared dream. Sadly, they almost completely forgot about it by the time they woke up – they could only recall an image of looking at the Sun hovering barely above the horizon, its light reflected by the waves in a display of crystalline brilliance, and in the distance, among jagged rocks jutting out of the water, something emerald glinting above sea level.

With his shapeshifting capabilities renewed, Joxnir realized he can hulk out to gain free advantage on his attempts to break down the door. But of course, instead of doing exactly that, he shifted into wereshark form in order to snatch up the cannon on the main deck, carried it down to the hold, and used it as a battering ram, which surely would have granted him advantage if he hadn’t already had it from being in wereshark form.
Of course, by RAW, he would’ve dropped the cannon midway through his journey below as an unfortunate side effect of the rage ending due to not having any enemies nearby. But when one modifies a class ability to grant additional noncombat advantages, like in Joxnir’s case, one makes damn sure said class ability is actually usable out of combat; hence, his shapeshifting lasts for the full minute regardless of circumstances.

Amazingly, thanks to a crit, this time he managed to hit TN 25 and actually break into the room, wherein he found a serpent-headed staff that later came to be known as The Filthy Staff. Asking Igor about it yielded the information that earlier captains could coax lightning blasts out of it, but the hunchback did not know its command word, and nobody had Identify, so the item was given to him for safekeeping until the party figures out how to use it. Igor was obviously overjoyed at being given such a treasured belonging of the Masters, and scurried away happily to deposit it in his cabin.

By this point, I was pretty sure that the one minute duration of the shapeshifting had expired, making Joxnir eminently unlikely to be able to lift the cannon again in order to carry it back to its place. On the other hand, stranding the party with their only cannon in the cargo hold just to force them to burn more resources in order to carry it back, is a bit too… “colorfully antagonistic” for my taste. Would it have been justified? Certainly. Would it have produced interesting gameplay? Nah.

After this issue had been resolved, the group decided to head to the Knowing Hut and get some answers.

Incidentally, this was the session when I’ve finally found an appropriate theme for Escondite, at the recommendation of Joxnir’s player. Enjoy!

Inside, they found a wizened old man in the process of brewing overly spicy tea in a giant cauldron. He introduced himself as Grandpa Turtle, and turned out to be a somewhat senile old sage who tried to steer every discussion towards the logistical issues of acquiring ginger on Escondite. In a lengthy discussion with him, they’ve learned that their ship previously visited the island a few decades back, captained by a certain Severian the Serpent, an adventurer who was said to have journeyed to Hell by sailing the Oversea at the edge of the world, and plundered its depths for sorcerous secrets, making allies with daemons and swearing fealty to the fel masters of that unclean realm. However, when he set foot on the island, the authorities of Escondite caught and imprisoned him, binding the pirate with a chain wrought from moonlight. Word among the prisoners is that his infernal allies turned on him as soon as they realized he can’t escape the bindings and is no longer useful to them, tearing him apart limb from limb.

Further questioning revealed that information from the prison gets outside through Abbess Rosalia, who, along with a few of her fellow nuns, regularly visits those suffering from the dread disease of medusa pox among them, and pray for their condition to improve (which occasionally even happens). Moreover, they found out that the abbess and her entourage belong to the Church of the Devourer’s Sorrow, a small local cult worshipping the healing properties of a gem they claim was a tear shredded by “The Great Devourer”, a creature that annihilates planes of existence whose time has come, always mourning their passing by crying a single tear that holds miraculous powers. Smelling bullshit, Vycarion rolled Religion to see how plausible this whole idea is, and arrived on the conclusion that there’s no scripture in his crazy religion that conflicts with their views, although none that support it either.

In the original module, the Tear belonged to Melora, the Sea Mother, a NG deity of sailors or something. Having already cut out a major subquest, I didn’t want to further disincentivize the characters from trying to accomplish their objective by making the church capital-G Good, hence its transformation into a slightly weird, but essentially harmless apocalyptic cult.

Having learned everything they came here to know, the group departed, but not before dropping the journal full of weird scribbling into the old man’s lap for translation.

Which he promptly failed to do, thereby saving him from horrible-death-by-jamming-a-nearby-sharp-item-into-his-own-eyesockets, something my players immediately predicted would happen if he ever managed to succeed. (They were not entirely wrong.)

After the overly long infodump by somebody who only made actual sense instead of taking a stroll down memory lane for some utterly inconsequential bit of information about half the time, Joxnir decided he needed a drink. Hopefully with dead mammals in it. He also realized the Treasure Trove has been abandoned until arrangements for its reparation could be made, thus he ventured there to steal all their supplies of the terrible stuff. Action followed thought, and he managed to acquire about 20 bottles of it before somebody came to investigate the noises. Expertly avoiding the would-be detectives, the barbarian snuck back aboard the Serpent with his prize, and headed towards Igor’s cabin to order the hunchback to find a place worthy of holding such treasures in the cargo hold. What he did not expect, however, was just how enthusiastic Igor was about his cabin being the new place to house the staff. Opening the door prompted him to roll on the Unspeakable Acts of Worship table to see what’s happening inside, and hit a result so foul it’s been stricken from the annals of actual play. Of this incident, we shall speak no more, only note that it earned the group’s newly acquired magic item “The Filthy Staff” name, and ensured that nobody but Igor ever touched it during the course of the game.

In the meantime, Fubsy decided to visit the local zoo because the promise of fire drakes positively set his imagination ablaze. Scanning the crowd for familiar faces, he noticed Rick the Rough sitting on one of the benches, chilling.

Who actually had a great reason to be here. I have no idea how I could fail to nudge the conversation towards revealing it. Okay, I actually do: it was way past midnight. But still.

They made polite small talk for a while, wherein Rick subtly questioned how reliable Fubsy’s crew is, to which the halfling responded by incendiary comments about the pirate’s mom in the name of getting Inspiration. Rick obviously did not take this well, but failed utterly in smacking him, because NPCs apparently can’t hit an AC of 14, so in the end, they departed semi-amicably. Also, Rick promised to get Fubsy flintlock pistol schematics.

Next up on The Serpent’s Journey:

- Our heroes go to church!
- A duel of fates ensues!
- The group acquires groupies!
- Fubsy effortlessly bypasses a major subquest through the power of Fridge Logic!

Post-session discussion:
Fubsy: Suddenly an idea: I can get a pet drake and ride it into battle!
GM: Indeed you can. Although I’m not sure how you plan on housing it aboard the Serpent, which is made of WOOD.
Fubsy: You’re forgetting one more pillar of Fubsy’s thinking: “What could possibly go wrong?”
Vycarion: FYI if that drake harms the ship, I’m tossing it overboard.
Fubsy: Either both lizards stay… or neither >:-(

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Second Session - The Treasure Trove
In which a Sharktopus is fought

This session marked the introduction of a new character: Joxnir, the half-orc wereshark.

His player’s original concept was “a brutish, intimidating brawler who can turn into a shark”, so we ended up using a modified Totem Warrior barbarian: rage essentially functions as shapeshifting, the resistance to all damage except psychic is a great way to model a fighter whose wounds close immediately after being struck (on top of which he has Relentless Endurance as a last-ditch measure to survive damage that would fell lesser men, but that proved to be superfluous since the player went with the half-orc race anyways – even though I would’ve been okay with letting all weresharks be half-orcs mechanically, regardless of what race they actually are). He gains waterbreathing as long as the transformation is in effect, but his Spirit Seeker class feature only works on sharks. Since waterbreathing is dependent on maintaining the rage, his transformation automatically lasts until the duration’s over, but he loses the speed increase (which is pretty much only used to balance how easily broken the rage would be otherwise, anyways). Of course, despite his class technically being “wereshark”, I’ll continue to refer to him as a “barbarian”, because his background is that. (Well, outlander, same difference.)

He climbed on board, met with the others, and learned that he’s one of the Maassssters as well now (which has been rationalized with him killing the pirate who ran away in the previous session). After his orientation, the threesome started to explore their new ship, for which we now have a shiny new map:

k_gy__aktu_lis_t_rk_p.jpg

Defaced by enthusiastic player comments (screenshot from around Session 7)

The locked room immediately piqued their curiosity, although they only managed to get it open in the next session. For the moment, they were content with exploring the rest of the cargo hold, noting that they’re rather low on supplies: the only food they found was stale bread and maggot-ridden meat. On the other hand, it was rather well-stocked with bottles of alcohol containing dead animals. Lacking an appreciation for the finer things in life, Joxnir immediately sampled these, and found them to his liking. At this point, the party split up, possibly due to an inability to stomach the sight of the wereshark guzzling down the foul liquid. The original plan was complicated by Vycarion’s sudden realization that “the House of Riches” in the journal might refer to The Treasure Trove, however, so he chose to go there, while Fubsy headed towards his mentor’s hideout, the Royal Liquor. Deciding that drinking alone is no fun, Joxnir accompanied him.

Arriving at the Royal Liquor (theme music), Fubsy – showing great foresight – sat the barbarian down in a corner, then headed towards the inn’s VIP section, where the pirate lord Gregory the Gallant was already waiting for him, accompanied by a bottle of wine costing more than the entire party’s cash reserves pooled together. The halfling told him about the last weeks’ events, including the attack on The Treasure Trove, but kept silent about the Serpent. Gregory didn’t seem overjoyed by the fact that the expedition he funded returned home with nothing but bones (which may or may not be cursed as well), so Fubsy was soon dismissed.

Meanwhile, Vycarion managed to sneak inside The Treasure Trove, and soon found a trap door adorned with the Serpent’s symbol in the cellar. Opening it, he was faced with impenetrable darkness and creepy music, so he decided to get some backup before starting to explore the place in earnest.

Exiting the smoky backroom of the Royal Liquor, the bard was soon faced with the terrible realization that he spent all his money on throwing knives. Wanting to buy a drink, he decided he’ll pick the pocket of a guy in a fancy hat. To increase his chances, he cunningly used Joxnir as a distraction, sending him to the second-fanciest table with a bottle of Dead Animals™-brand wine as “a gift from the house”. I decided the clientele of the Royal Liquor is jaded enough to find nothing remarkable about a muscular, half-naked orc guy serving them (besides, he has a positive CHA modifier, after all), so they only realized something was amiss when they tasted the horrible beverage. They started yelling and demanded the barbarian to be fired. He took offense at their inability to appreciate the brew, so he changed into wereshark form and yelled back, to which they responded by screaming like a bunch of little girls and jumping out on the window before he could get any closer, unburdened by fleeting concerns like whether it’s open or not. (It wasn’t.)

Fubsy, who rolled his Sleight of Hand check with advantage thanks to the scene above drawing everyone’s attention, happily realized he managed to steal enough to be able to lounge around all day. Wanting to celebrate, he sat down at the bar, and gestured invitingly at Joxnir who actually did most of the heavy lifting involved in obtaining this sum. Unfortunately, the barmaid was rather convinced that the hulking monstrosity with three rows of razor-sharp teeth rapidly closing on her has other intentions than enjoying his drink quietly.

GM: Okay, something like this counts as unusual even here, let’s roll a Wisdom save to see how she reacts… roll roll …1…

Frozen with fear, she started to scream uncontrollably while trying to claw out her own eyes. (I’m afraid the Fear tables in the W40K RPGs have forever ruined my ability to depict realistic reactions to frightening phenomena.) The halfling launched into a reassuring speech about how nobody wants to devour her, but his words fell on deaf ears. In the meantime, the half-orc arrived, grabbed the nearest bottle, and started drinking, not perturbed in the slightest by this welcome.

The sound of shattering glass and ceaseless screaming eventually succeeded in luring Gregory forth from his smoke-filled lair. (This immediately prompted Fubsy to attempt hiding, at which he failed miserably, but the elderly pirate lord tactfully pretended not to notice his fumbling protégé.) After taking a few moments to survey the landscape, he energetically strode towards the barmaid, and gently whispered something in her ear, at which point the screaming stopped; this was followed by another furious bout of whispering, at the end of which she ran out of the establishment, crying.

Somehow (by succeeding on an Insight check, to be specific) intuiting this meant he inadvertantly caused a poor girl to lose her job, the halfling was overcame with guilt, so he left all the stolen money on the bar to cover Joxnir’s tab, and headed outside to stalk her on her way home unseen, because… reasons. Totally-not-budding-serial-killer-y reasons.

By the time the bard found out where the former barmaid lives (marking the location with a big red X on the map but mercifully refraining from also painting a giant “booty” sign on top of it), Vycarion arrived at the Royal Liquor, where he immediately noticed Joxnir lying under a table in a drunken stupor. He sat there, ordered a glass of water with which he intended to splash the barbarian, and started drinking from the half-finished bottle left by his companion. Soon the wereshark could feel water all over his face, causing him to reflexively change shape and start splashing around like a playful baby dolphin.

GM: Umm, y’know, your shapeshifting is an extremely powerful and limited resource, are you sure you want to waste it like thi…
Joxnir: ROLEPLAYING!
(Later on, this decision ended up saving Igor’s life.)

Returning to consciousness, the barbarian politely offered Vycarion the wine he was already drinking. In exchange, the cleric shared his discovery of the dark place beneath The Treasure Trove with him. They agreed to head back to the ship, where they met their captain. Thus rejoined, the party went back to the burnt down husk of the building in order to engage in some old-fashioned looting.

In the original, this dungeon had about three paragraphs devoted to it. A few skill check DCs, a short description of what happens if the PCs go down the wrong tunnel – spoiler: they tire themselves out crawling fruitlessly, losing a Healing Surge -, and that’s pretty much it. I originally planned to give it some more detail, and link it to the sewer systems under the city that would’ve been connected to the prison, the governor’s palace, and a small community of mutant bullywugs addicted to the alchemical slurry Aleor dumps into the sewers from his tower. (Idea stolen from here.).

Of course, this plan hanged on the players doing what they planned to do last time, namely heading to the prison, which, by my calculations, had enough content to keep them busy for at least 2-3 sessions (another instance of me being spectacularly wrong, as we’ll see later). Objectively though, despite my grumbling and coming across as mildly salty about not getting to punch up the material I was working with, I don’t think the game would’ve been much better if the players spent even more time on Escondite. They were already thinking it was much more important than it really was.

(actual conversation from the end of session 7 when they left the island behind)
Fubsy: End of Chapter One!
GM: Actually, this was just the prologue.

Interestingly, the party didn’t figure out that the “Undulating Sign” referred to the symbol of the Serpent on the trap door, so when they had to choose between three tunnels marked with a skull, a lightning bolt and an octopus, respectively, there was some debate whether they should follow the lightning (which is undulating) or the octopus (which is a beast). In the end, they went with the octopus, thus ensuring that the initial phase of their exploration was rather uneventful.

After a short walk, they found themselves in a giant cavern bisected by an underground river, where Fubsy cast Speak With Animals to ask a centipede for directions, but as it turned out, creatures whose brain development is limited to the presence of a supraesophageal ganglion don’t make good conversationalists.

And now I realize he did this because he intended to “follow the Path of Beasts”, literally. That’s pretty clever. Also wrong, but pretty clever nonetheless. I may end up writing a gimmicky dungeon around something like that. I had fun trying to roleplay a centipede anyway.

Ten minutes of the bard sitting on the floor, clutching a centipede and murmuring to himself was way too much time spent without drinking or killing stuff for Joxnir’s taste. His idle brain racing from thought to thought, he slowly convinced himself that the animal signs must depict the beasts that guard the treasure. Being a cautious sort, he started to look for a giant octopus in the river, which he soon managed to find, thanks to a critical failure on his relevant Perception check.

After a tense scene of crossing the rickety bridge over the river (which couldn’t support the heavily armored and also pretty huge dragonborn’s weight, but having anticipated this, the rest of the group hauled him up by a rope tied on him beforehand), their path forked again; the corridor they chose was marked with a shark’s image, and it led to an underground lake. In the middle of the lake, they glimpsed a small island with a huge treasure chest on it.

At this point, the wereshark achieved enlightenment. He could suddenly see how all of his life, all of his choices have been leading up to this pivotal moment. The mark of the octopus meant the chest would be guarded by some monstrosity in the likeness of an octopus. However, it can’t be alone; the mark of the shark suggested he should expect one to make an appearance as well. He remembered the chants he’s been taught by his tribe, the rituals that let him communicate with his animal brethren. He could almost see himself submerging into the murky depths, coming face-to-face with the greatest beast he’s ever seen; giving an impassioned speech that could move mountains, much less the heart of his seabound kin; the predator, swayed by his words, turning against its fellow guardian. He realized this was his destiny – to go down in history as the man who brought the cinematic opus Mega Shark vs. Giant Octopus into life.

In the original module, the chest was guarded by some vaguely cthulhoid tentacle monster and a few slimes, but 5E being 5E, three 3rd level characters could hardly be expected to be able to deal with the slimes alone, not to mention whatever homebrew I’d have used to replace the monster, so instead, I went with the tentacle monster alone, which I chose to represent with 4 constrictor snakes (the tentacles) and a bugbear (the main body). This nicely filled a deadly encounter budget for three at this level. Inspired by Joxnir’s conspiracy theory, however, I reskinned it as a Sharktopus instead of a generic tentacled terror. Of course, since we decided that we’re gonna balance the wereshark’s waterbreathing by restricting the scope of his Speak With Animals feature, his plan of resolving the problem with diplomacy was doomed to failure. (Well, even more doomed to failure than it would’ve been if he could actually communicate, but it’s not like “hey, shark half, I want you to bite the shit out of your octopus half” was a workable idea to begin with.)

So, in one corner, we have Joxnir’s player singing the song of his people, planning to descend into the murky waters to social-fu a nonexistent monster into fighting another nonexistent monster with his nonexistent diplomatic skills. In the other corner, we have me, planning to unleash an encounter labelled as “deadly” by the designers, and expecting to beat at least one character to zero HP. Here’s how these plans panned out:

After ten minutes of chanting a Most Efficaceous Hymn to the Sharkfather, Joxnir stepped into the water. Almost immediately, two tentacles shot out towards him, coiled around his frame, and dragged him to the gaping mouth of the giant shark head that emerged from the water. The resulting bite took 16 HP off of him, which, given that it would’ve one-shot Vycarion at this point, pretty firmly cemented the beast as a credible threat in the eyes of the party. Sensing that they have a tough fight ahead, Fubsy tossed a Faerie Fire on the poor aberration (thus negating its main damage booster, which I’ve planned to abuse the heck out of), while Vycarion also slapped a Bane on top of it. The rest of the encounter was blissfully short: Joxnir hacked off one of the tentacles holding him, Vycarion gracefully glided across the cavern, thanks to the combination of an initial vantage position and a Feather Fall spell cast on him by Fubsy, before taking off another; then they pummeled the main body into death while it was flailing around ineffectually with its remaining limbs due to Bane.

While the encounter didn’t exactly live up to the hype (“deadly” my ass), in the end, everybody agreed it was pretty tense and the initial ambush gave the players a great scare. If I were to re-make the monster, I’d tweak the numbers to bring it on the level of a deadly encounter for level 4 characters, and give it a reaction triggered when the main body falls to half HP which lets all tentacles immediately throw a grabbed creature to the nearest wall or pummel someone nearby, to represent the beast flailing in pain.

Even though the fight was fun, the players expressed mild disappointment over not getting to talk to the thing. Thinking back, I have to admit, the complaint is justified: given Joxnir’s terrible social aptitude, it would’ve been a really noteworthy accomplishment for him to succeed, and if he didn’t, we’d have had a pretty decent fight on our hand, which is a win-win in both cases. Not to mention the golden opportunity I missed by not roleplaying the poor hybrid like South Park’s ostrich baby.

In any case, as the battered and mutilated body of the poor, misunderstood monster sank to the bottom of the lake, our heroes set foot on the island. Being experienced adventurers, at first they poked the chest with sticks to see if it’s trapped, but since no terrible doom claimed them, they went on to sunder it apart and claim their prize: a small and seemingly unassuming telescope sitting on a bed of shiny gold pieces and glittering gemstones.

At first, I was very keen on replacing the original prize of 1000 gold in favor of rolling for treasure like Real Men™, but the DMG’s treasure tables are terrible. It has a table for characters between levels 1-4, on which it’s impossible to get more than 200 gold (or equivalent thereof), and it has a table for characters between levels 5-9, on which it’s impossible to get less than 2000. Since our first attempt at treasure generation ended at 89 gold doubloons plus change, I decided to use the 2d8*100+1d100 formula instead, which gave them a hoard of roughly 800 GP – much more in line with the originally intended amount.

And that’s how we ended our second session.

Next up on The Serpent’s Journey:

- The mystery arc makes its debut!
- Igor is saved from an unlikely danger by an even more unlikely combination of events!
- A certain Door is opened!
- Allies are pointlessly antagonized!

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First Session - Enter the Serpent
In which our heroes acquire their Masters' degree

This campaign is actually a loose adaptation of a D&D 4E module series, originally written for a Hungarian RPG convention, converted to 5E and seasoned to taste. By which I mostly mean the addition of tentacles “crammed full of ideas I stole from people with more imagination than I have, mainly in the OSR scene”. I also took inspiration from Sunless Sea, Exalted, The Scar by China Miéville, and One Piece. Of course, as pretentious as this sounds, my main method of conflict generation (and resolution) still essentially boils down to “take whatever crazy scheme the players come up with, and run with it as long as it seems fun, regardless of what verisimilitude, genre appropriateness, or a good narrative sense would suggest”. So far, this has been remarkably successful, all things considered.

The adventure log not only documents the group’s misadventures, but also contains conversion notes, images and music used during play, and hopefully my commentary on both the original module series and how things went at the table compared to my original plans (which already may have been significantly different from what was written).

Since The Serpent’s Journey has originally been planned as a filler campaign, to be used when we have missing players and can’t play the main attraction, we first started out with only two characters: Fubsy, the halfling bard who’s been raised by knife throwers and has a penchant for antagonizing people (his methods include, but are not limited to, throwing knives at them, which is the thing that’s gotten him kicked out of the circus), and Vycarion, the silver dragonborn priest of the Azure Lady, a player-made draconic deity of sailors, explorers and shipwrights. (Why, then, is he a Storm domain cleric instead of Freedom is up to anybody’s guess..).
Vycarion: Because The Lady is the storm, she’s just fond of explorer types because she can show off her beautiful “Garden” (read: in her mind, the whole world) to them.

(Note: formatting is a pain. I think it’ll be best if the GM comments remain unmarked, while player comments are pre-faced with their source in bold.)

The survivability of first level characters being what it is, coupled with the continuous trickle of basic class features and the fact that I only had two players to work with prompted me to start them right at level 3, which consequently meant most of our first session was actually spent on creating characters and looking up spell lists. As per the original module, they also rolled for connections – local NPCs their characters are familiar with, the type of the relationship being defined by the players. As a departure from the original, I cut out the more or less useless characters – like Ma Barracuda, the half-orc fishwife – and, to compensate for only having 2 players instead of the recommended 4-6, had them start with 2 connections each. Fubsy rolled Gregory the Gallant, a local pirate lord, and Alphonse Rambunct, a crazy halfling hobo (okay, I may not have been as thorough in my purging of useless connections as I could have been). We quickly settled on him being the protégé of the first, and the only person in town who willingly interacts with the second (occasionally, at least; must be some sort of weird halfling solidarity thing). Vycarion, by contrast, started out knowing the ennui-plagued elf, Aleor the Thunderous, who’s the only wizard on the island, and Rick the Rough, Gregory’s right-hand man. Thankfully, this immediately provided us with a hook for them to work together: we figured Fubsy was sent by Gregory to lead an expedition to a nearby island, and Vycarion was recruited by Rick to serve as the ship’s surgeon/navigator/confessor. The campaign started with them sitting around on the island of Escondite, the core of Gregory’s power – or, to be specific, in The Treasure Trove, a small seaside tavern, the only affordable watering hole in the city which isn’t run by racists…

Escondite.jpg

Somewhere in the northeast. The original map also had scattered comments on it, presumably written by a semi-literate pirate, but being a big proponent of never doing any more work than I absolutely have to, I didn’t bother translating them.

Since one of them rolled a walrus skull as a trinket, the players soon agreed that it’s actually from the island expedition (prompting them to unofficially name the place “Walrus Skull Island”), the only thing they’ve found there, and possibly cursed due to being lifted from an ominous-looking altar. They briefly started to debate the relative merits of leaving the inn in favor of the Royal Liquor, a considerably nicer (but also more expensive) place, which also happens to be Gregory’s favorite haunt, and maybe if they were already there, they could report their findings in the hopes that the old man takes pity on them and pays for their drinks at least, when suddenly, an explosion of blue-green flames evaporated about half of the tavern.

Since about half of the Treasure Trove was built off the coast, on giant stilts holding it above sea level, with the explosion weakening said stilts, the building slowly started to tilt and partially crumble. The floor became unstable, and some of the customers – the ones that haven’t been burned to crisp – fell into the water. To make matters worse, pale, slimy, fishlike figures emerged from the waves at the same time, clutching wicked-looking spears and scimitars. “Kill them all! No witnesses!” – gurgled their tattooed leader, an obviously bigger, meaner fishman, endowed with catfish-like features and a giant lobster claw in place of a hand.

It’s really polite of them to use Common instead of whatever unholy fishman language they have.

Like all great D&D adventures, this one also starts with the phrase “roll initiative!”. The opening combat was deliberately straightforward to ease players into the game; starting them out at level 3 allowed me to throw a decent number of opponents (using mainly the stats of Bandits from the MM, with their leader having +5 HP, +1 to attack rolls, and a lobster claw dealing 1d10 +3 damage) at them. The only complications were the treacherous terrain and the civilians lying around, but even they mainly served to make the players’ job easier by slowing the fishmen down (they prioritized executing nearby victims instead of rushing the characters all at once).

In the ensuing confrontation, the pair proved to be frighteningly effective: Fubsy’s first attack (using his biggest, meanest throwing knife out of the seven he bought at chargen, the one he calls “Grumpy”) was a crit which killed an attacker immediately, then the charging fishman leader critically failed his Acrobatics test to traverse a weakened portion of the floor, ending up awkwardly trapped in the resulting hole; the sight was so disheartening, another villain fleed the scene immediately. Vycarion charged the remaining two who were still in the water, jumping at them from a convenient vantage point, screaming and waving his battleaxe threateningly… aaand failed. Regardless, a brief exchange of blows later, one of the fismen was lying at his feet, cut down. In the meantime, Fubsy taunted the trapped pirate leader, succeeding critically, which caused the guy to throw caution to the wind, and attack the halfling frenziedly, with no respect for self-preservation.

(Effectively, he gained advantage on every attack roll made by him while granting advantage on every attack against him, and receiving disadvantage on every action not directly aimed at killing the bard.)

Sadly, this still wasn’t enough to hit the elusive halfling (with his grand total of 14 AC…). The big guy’s only remaining subordinate, however, proved to be much more successful, scoring a telling blow against Vycarion. Roaring in pain, he called upon the might of his goddess in response, enhancing his savage cry with the fury of rolling thunder. The sheer force of this magical attack pulverized every bone in the hapless pirate’s body, lifting his now-lifeless body, and casting it into the sea.

His attacker scored a crit for 8 damage – a third of Vycarion’s HP total! -, but actually being hit allowed the cleric to activate his Thunderous Rebuke feature for enough thunder damage to kill the poor guy twice over.

Meanwhile, Fubsy managed to wear down the leader enough for the killing blow. Jumping atop a table to avoid a slash from his opponent, he kicked himself off of it, sommersaulting over the head of the fishman, and plunged his dagger deep into his eyesocket. The man’s derisive laugh turned into a pained yelp as the serpentine tatto around his neck suddenly disappeared in an emerald flash, then he slowly collapsed, and fell back into the hole he just managed to crawl out of. In the same instant, searing-hot pain flared up in our heroes’ necks. Looking at each other, they swiftly discovered they were now bearing a familiar serpent tattoo on their necks – the same tattoo their opponent just lost…

And they’ve actually managed to save the majority of The Treasure Trove’s customers by posing enough of a threat to the fishmen that they had no time to execute the defenseless stragglers. Frankly, I didn’t expect them to fare so well. By the end of the confrontation, the cleric was down 8 HP (he decided not to spend HD to heal, though, because he’d be almost sure to end up wasting a few HPs, thanks to the bard’s Song of Rest) and a Thunderous Rebuke, but otherwise, the group was in top shape – they’ve lost no spells, used up no Bardic Inspiration, and the halfling was still at max HP.

There was no time to mull over the implications of this new development, innocents still required saving.

pirate.png

For a group of designated pirates, they’re remarkably nice. Must be the aforementioned One Piece influence.

Vycarion: And Vycarion was originally meant to be a Victarion expy. For shaaaame.

Fubsy pulled a few drowning people out of the water, while Vycarion was showing off his resuscitation skills (although, come to think of it, how a giant lizard does mouth-to-mouth is a mystery). Among the survivors, a grateful merchant showered them with praise, promised to name his firstborn after the bard (revoked after hearing he’s called Fubsy), and wrote a checque for 200 gold pieces. They also gained a new contact: as it turned out, the local sewer worker and shady corpse disposal expert, Durgon the Potty-mouth just happened to be among the survivors. Looks like crime’s not the only activity that pays.

At first, he was called Mocskospofájú Durgó, due to the insistence of my players to use the original names. After realizing nobody could actually spell or pronounce them, the request was hastily withdrawn. Sadly, this change did not help Durgon to gain popularity; he continued to linger forgotten and unused on the players’ contact sheet, even though he was among the moderately useful ones.

Their humanitarian work done, our heroes headed outside, where they were confronted with the image of an ominous ghost ship, anchored within a stone’s throw from the now-demolished inn. The vessel looked decidedly unseaworthy: its sleek frame, carved from black wood, was riddled with gigantic, scorched holes, and sported overgrowths of sea life, like a sunken wreck that has miraculously arisen from the depths to take revenge on the living. The dark sails lay in tatters; the main deck seemed empty and deserted. However, the figurehead made the biggest impact: it depicted a many-coiled serpent, poised to strike, which looked strikingly similar to the tattoo the pair was now sporting. Their curiosity piqued, the characters decided to climb aboard and investigate.

The_Serpent.jpg

It’s not a perfect representation of how I imagine it to look, but we needed a token for moving around on the world map, and at that size, this is close enough.

There was no need for trickery and elaborate plans: they could simply walk aboard. Hearing the environmental music caused the players’ resolve to waver, but a more thorough investigation of the upper decks revealed no clear and present danger to them. They briefly marvelled at the intricately carved, but now damaged and weather-worn figurehead, a spitting image of the serpentine shape that marred their skin, then tiptoed below.

“Tiptoed”, good word. “Sneaking” would be a bit too charitable description of the 6’9" tall, heavily armored dragonborn’s attempts at moving with any sort of subtlety and grace. So, tiptoeing…

They arrived next to a series of cabins, presumably the crew quarters. LIstening intently at the door, they could easily determine some sort of creature was inside, and based on the shuffling noises, they concluded it must be some sort of undead. Pondering on their chances in hushed tones, the pair agreed to wait until whatever is inside gets close to the door, then kick it in. A short while later, the plan came to fruition with Vycarion’s steel-plated boot splintering the door and hefting the cabin’s occupant across the room.

As it turned out, their victim was a pale, sickly hunchback whose eyes lighted up like a puppy’s upon seeing them. He introduced himself as Igor, and swore eternal servitute to both of them.

In the original, he was called Viktor, but since he’s so clearly been intended as The Igor of the group, and in our other campaign we also had a PC called Viktor, I decided to re-name him in the interest of avoiding confusion. Mechanically, he’s pretty useless, and, according to my players, the voice I use for him – mainly by trying to sound like the basic Dark Eldar builder units in Dawn of War – is positively unholy, so he swiftly became the most universally loathed NPC of the entire campaign.

Igor.jpg

“Maaaassssster?”

With enthusiasm not even slightly marred by the circumstances of their meeting, Igor explained that our heroes received a great boon – the ship has accepted them as its Masters. According to him, the battered vessel is named The Serpent, it’s “the fastest ship on the seven seas”, and, in addition to its other attractive qualities, “the Serpent’s Maaaasssssters become maasssters of life and death itself” as well.

Fubsy’s player found the idea terribly ominous, and his fevered imagination immediately started conjuring terrible scenarios where their spirit becomes irrevocably bound to the Serpent after death, or forced to serve the next Masters as Igor 2.0. By next session though, the entire group promptly forgot about the issue.

Being understandably suspicious at this point, the characters started to seriously eye up the hunchback, looking for similarities with the previous captain, or failing that, signs of an undead condition, but they found none. However, detailed questioning (and a few successful Arcana and Insight checks) revealed that he seems to be incapable of even understanding the concept of free will, desiring nothing but to serve the Masters’ will.

Having rolled pretty well on the related Arcana check, Fubsy remembered that powerful sorceries, designed to rob their slaves of their free will, have often been employed by the totally-not-drow of this campaign setting, the shadow elves. (To be fair, they do owe more to Moorcock’s Melniboné and this blog post than to the matriarchal, spider-worshipping underground dwellers of the Forgotten Realms.)

A short digression followed about them, where it was established that they used to have a glorious empire of magical wonders, but grew decadent and corrupt, trafficking with things man was not meant to know. In the end, a civil war broke out, or some great magical experiment went awry, or they summoned a terrible god-beast from the outer dark – whatever it was, it fundamentally broke reality. Time and space distorted, causality became a set of loose guidelines. All that ever was and could have been now exist simultaneously, frozen in time, as an infinite, ever-changing realm of small islands, each a remnant of a different, stillborn reality. Their precursor, the great, wondrous, magical empire – the Echoed Empire, as they sometimes refer to it, or the Shattered Realm – is perhaps still out there, lost among the infinite possibilities, its shores beset by the midnight-black waves of the Sea of Echoes.

In the end, they did manage to learn that he’s served as the ship’s chirurgeon under the previous captain, and liked that role as much as any other, so they agreed to let him keep doing that.

Under his care (about 10 minutes of stitching and dressing), characters can spend Hit Dice to heal without taking a short rest. Originally, I intended him to provide the effect of a Song of Rest, but since the party already has a bard, it would either be superfluous or, if allowed to stack, maybe a tad unbalanced. (Then again, maybe not – considering the other, yet undiscovered perks provided by The Serpent, probably not. But why take the risk, when a different bonus could also do the job of selling him as somewhat skilled at patching people up?)
His other utility lies in being able to fill any officer position, but he’s not very good at any of them (he rolls all relevant checks with a +3 bonus). At this point, this wasn’t especially relevant, so I didn’t really elaborate on it.

Sensing that Igor’s promotion to the permanent position of chirurgeon is a good note to end the discussion on, they ordered the hunchback to lead them to the captain’s cabin. Inside, they immediately gravitated to the guy’s desk, where soon enough, they found a small, leather-bound journal, filled with strange symbols; looking at them for too long filled our heroes with a deep sense of unease. Having no other lead on the mysterious origins of the ship and the intentions of the fishlike crew, though, they dutifully leafed through its pages. A few passages written in Common clearly stood out amidst the maze of alien writing – although readability (not to mention accessibility) was somewhat hampered by the fact that they were clearly written by a madman with a lobster claw for a hand.

The alien handwriting, while a plot point and ties neatly into the retconned backstory of the Serpent I use instead of the original, was at this stage mainly a way to explain why did these particular passages stand out meaningfully to the players. Although, upon re-reading the original module, I now realize Viktor/Igor was supposed to tell them their predecessor’s goal by coming here, knowing which, they could search for passages that look remotely like they involve said goal.
With that cleared up, I still prefer my way of handling the matter. Of course it hinges on the benefit of hindsight, knowing the Serpent’s origins, which the module’s creators haven’t really thought about at this point.

Anyways, the quotes:

  • “Seek the Eye of the Serpent below the House of Riches; follow the Path of Beasts under the Undulating Sign.”

This one’s fairly straightforward, Vycarion deciphered it almost immediately after the session. It’s also pretty much a literal translation of the original riddle.

  • “The Key to your Shackles is the Key to your Destiny as well. It’s hidden in the House of the Captives; only the Eldest knows its whereabouts.”

Another fairly straightforward one, after consulting the map, they immediately realized they have to go to the prison and talk to the oldest captive inside. In hindsight, having the Eldest be a member of the prison staff instead of a prisoner could’ve been an interesting twist, but of course it wouldn’t have worked in the particular context of Escondite’s prison. (Which wasn’t very well-thought-out, as we’ll see in Session 5.)
Still, I like this one on foreshadowing value alone, although ironically enough, the “Key to their Shackles” actually wasn’t necessary at all to escape said shackles.

  • [they found this outburst in the middle of a particularly feverish patch of alien handwriting, partially obscured by dark ink blotches] “The fools! The sea never cries! [half the line is unreadable] my birthright they’re worshipping!”

I thought this one was laughably easy, but I suppose already having two clear destinations by session 2, the players didn’t really feel it was immediately important to clear up where the others point, so they only started to think about it around session 4. (Even though I’ve established there’s a 200 xp reward for deciphering each riddle. Downside of starting them at a high enough level for that amount to be not very impactful, I guess. Were I to reuse the campaign with another, presumably more numerous group, I’d have them start at level 1. Limited sense of progression was a problem for the party, I think – even considering some of the players’ love of 3E’s breadth of customization options*, which isn’t found in 5E -, which was paradoxically compounded by what I can only presume to be unfamiliarity with the existing options: some class features were basically never used. [On the other hand, it’s not like they were needed much, though.] Of course, given how encounter balancing works, and the limitations inherent in GMing to a party of 2, I think the start at level 3 was the right choice in the context of this particular game – I’m just pretty sure another choice would be better in a different context.)
*Inexplicable, since most of those options end up being non-options upon detailed analysis, but that’s a discussion for another time.
And, of course, the riddle itself has been slightly modified to accomodate the changes I’ve made to the local church.

And finally:

  • “That which was meant to fight the storm at the highest peak is now lying uselessly in the Kraken’s Nest. The mighty are cast down by their lessers; the Great Wheel turns again.”

They haven’t quite managed to solve this one yet – I think the phrase “Kraken’s Nest” conjured mental images of fierce underwater fighting (presumably with many-tentacled monstrosities), and nobody ever looked at any game’s underwater fighting rules and said to themselves “oh cool, now I totally want to fight stuff underwater”. (Somebody should probably write a game about that.)
The original riddle had no second sentence, that one’s my contribution, mainly meant to give a hint as to what the “Kraken’s Nest” might really be. Also, foreshadowing, which in this case, blatantly didn’t work, since the mighty haven’t (yet) been cast down by their lessers. So remember kids, never try to foreshadow player actions, because they’re not going to do what you expect them to.
…Actually, my brainchild even failed at giving a hint, since the first thought my players had about it involved the Planescape cosmology. There was no second thought. I’m not sure what the neat take-away message from this one is. (Okay, I’m totally sure, it’s “never assume your players will interpret your obscure clues like you think they will interpret them”, but that’s such a foregone conclusion, I don’t think spelling it out is even necessary.)

Minor nitpick/note: I think the writers really missed a golden opportunity by not calling it “the Heart of the Serpent”. Then again, this didn’t occur to me until now, months after the actual session’s been held.

In the original, there was a fifth riddle as well, with its own little subplot, but it ended up on the cutting floor. In a later post, when I can talk about it without spoiling what is to come, I’ll probably end up elaborating on the reasons why.

And this is how our first session ended, after 2 hours of runtime (plus time spent on character generation).

Next up on The Serpent’s Journey:

- The wereshark joins!
- Tavern brawl! Nervous breakdown! Stalking nubile redheads!
- SHARKTOPUS!
- Booty at last!

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