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:
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…
(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!