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…
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.
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.
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.
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.
- “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!
- Booty at last!