Although originally intending to journey down the unexplored branch at the Y-intersection of the caves they were exploring, the adventurers made a last-minute call to return to the “blue cave” and head deeper into the cave system from there. Their logic was sound, for they’ve come to realize that many of their fights turn into “strike and retreat” battles, and they wanted a clear line of escape should things go pear-shaped.
Venturing west of the blue cave, they found a large grotto filled with oversized mushrooms and dog-sized crickets munching happily upon the fungus. A faint phosphorescence spilled off the mushrooms to provide a gloomy light. Skirting the mushroom forest, the party suddenly halted when the crickets ceased their contented chirping. The two groups stood stock still as the party paused to see if the crickets would resume their cries, while the insects waited to see if the party was a threat. After a minute of motionless expectation, the party broke first and continued deeper into the cave to where it opened into an even larger cavity.
At this point, it’s time for a flashback:
Earlier that day, a trio of adventurers descended the last stretch of old army road to arrive at the broken walls of Stonehell’s gatehouse. These hearties were Dardath the barbarian, Kaldar the half-elven fighting mage, and Ozwald Cobblepot the magic-user. Spurred on by the tales of treasure and glory awaiting those who brave the depths of Stonehell Dungeon, the trio had set out from Blackpool to take their chances at the delve. Skirting past the crumbling gatehouse, the trio approached the carved entrance to the dungeon proper. As they passed the large southern copse of trees, however, a great weariness fell upon them and they quickly succumbed to an enchanted slumber.
The trio awaked to find themselves bound, gagged, and strapped to an oversized mushroom in an unfamiliar cave. Standing over them were a group of sketchy-looking humans dressed in tattered and stained leathers and each bearing a sash of yellow and black. These cold hearts gave the band a rough once over, seemingly to try and identify the trio. It seems that a band of “so-called adventurers” had given these gentlemen and their friends some difficulty in the recent past, and they had prepared an ambush for them. In a case of mistaken identity, Dardath, Kaldar, and Ozwald had been captured by the Ghost Beggars seeking to entrap the Society of Plane Walkers. C’est la vie!
With their captors’ interest in them waning, the three newly arrived adventurers faced an uncertain fate, but, before things could turn ugly, one of the bandits announced, “The crickets have stopped chirping!” With that, bags were plopped over the three adventurers’ heads and the sound of men scurrying for cover was all they could discern.
Back in the cricket cave, our usual adventurers had just decided to move deeper into the larger grotto when they caught the sight of shadowy forms moving amongst the mushroom. Out stepped two Ghost Beggars with loaded crossbows aimed at the party, followed immediately by sword-wielding comrades dressed in chainmail. Ambush!
The melee that followed was in the party’s favor almost from the start as the Ghost Beggars were once again not bringing their A game thanks to my continuing trend of rolling poorly for the opposition. In a slight digression, I must attest to the 100% pure Zocchi randomness of my two sets of Gamescience Precision dice: they seem to rarely connect, but, when they do, it hurts (see below for more). The party was in no danger of perishing despite the bandits’ ambuscade and they had soon cut down all but one of the outlaws.
The one surviving members was quickly trussed up while the party un-trussed the trio of adventurers they discovered in bondage. After introductions were made all around, the party got down to interrogating their prisoner. However, unlike Sfroat, this Ghost Beggar was loathe to talk (thanks to a number of extremely hostile reaction rolls). This resulted in the outlaw being placed into Lace’s less than tender hands. Despite the alignments of several onlookers, the assassin soon began removing fingers from the bandit in order to get him to talk. A number of factors (including a natural 1 on a CON check) kept the bandit from spilling his guts and he even took a chunk of flesh out of the assassin’s neck with his teeth when she leaned in to remove another digit. That ensured his abrupt demise.
The party was able to determine that the natural chimney which led to the bandits’ hideout lay in a small alcove just off the main grotto where they now stood. The adventurers began planning an assault on the bandits by scaling that shaft. They had just began to outline a sortie when they were interrupted by the sound of excited squeaking come from one of the tunnels that led into the fungus grotto. Despite the players’ predictions, this was not the sound of an approaching basketball team but rather a swarm of ten or more large black rats, their red eyes ablaze with panic. The party prepared for battle, but were both relieved and surprised when the rodents made an abrupt turn to the north and passed the adventurers without so much as a glance. The reason for this haste was soon apparent as a band of kobolds, each armed with forked spears and clutching bags from which the naked tails of slain rats protruded entered the cavern hard on the heels of the vermin. It seems that rat season was open in Stonehell and the kobolds were out to bag their quota.
After this interruption, the party again turned their attentions to the natural chimney and decided to send Raijek the monk up the shaft to scout ahead and to try and find the means by which the bandits ascended and descended . He was all set to go before someone suggested trying to determine how high of an ascent he faced. With this, Aieglos shot a flaming arrow up the shaft. A roll of natural 20 meant the missile sailed past any protruding rocks or other obstacles and the party watched in astonishment as the arrow rose to almost the very limit of the bow’s range—some 200 feet! This scuttled the plan to send the monk free-climbing up into the darkness.
With that option off the table, the group decided to leave the dungeon proper and explore the caves they had seen in the walls of the box canyon with the assumption that one of those natural tunnels might connect with the bandit caves. Turning their backs on the mushroom grotto, they headed back to the dungeon’s entrance.
Unfortunately, the lure of the Wheel of Fortune proved too powerful for them to stick to their original plan and the party found themselves back in the abandoned fane of fortune. Two more spins of the wheel resulted in another paralyzed adventurer (Raijek) and another with an uncertain result (Ozwald). The monk’s sudden incapacitation forced the party to return to Blackpool to get him restored, accompanied by much grumbling on the part of the certain members of the band.
After spending a day in town and getting the new members of the expeditions settled in the Mad Manor, the party returned to the box canyon and ventured up the switchback trail that lay close to the entrance of the dungeon. Speculating that any tunnels that connected with the bandits’ lair would be the westernmost, the two cave mouths that abutted this pathway seemed to be the best candidates.
The party entered the first cave, Dardath probing carefully ahead with a 10’ pole. The cavern seemed to be deserted, holding only leaves, wind-blown debris, and the remains of a shattered chest. Two tunnels exited the cavity, but the area’s appearance didn’t lend itself to being the secret back entrance to the bandits’ lair. Nevertheless, the party pressed on.
As they moved towards the broken chest with the intent of making sure nobody left plunder behind, they were suddenly surprised by a large form detaching itself from the ceiling and dropping down atop them. A random die roll determined that this beastie, a camouflaged crab spider, landed atop Aieglos to sink his venom-laden fangs into the elf’s neck. I rolled for the spider’s attack and a groan went up around the table as a natural 20 stared up at the assembled group. A roll of seven points of damage meant that the 1st level elf had suffered a whopping fourteen points of damage— enough to kill even the toughest fighter.
However, this event caused us to address the issue of critical hits in the campaign. As a rule, I’m not big on critical hits and fumbles, but they’ve become a part of role-playing games and most players seem to expect them—even in games that don’t include them in the rules as written. When Watchfires & Thrones began, I left the issue of critical hits undecided until we experienced our first natural 20 in play. That occurred in the very first session when there were only four of us (myself and three players). I gave the group several options as to how we would handle critical hits and the choice was made that a natural 20 meant double damage. Since that time, critical hits have been the primary cause of PC deaths in the campaign. As I mentioned above, when I roll my Zocchis’ I tend to miss a lot, but when I hit, I hit hard and people die.
Since the campaign has grown so much since that first session and there are only three people from that first day who are still involved in the game, I’ve been long meaning to readdress the issue of critical hits and this seemed as good a time as any. So I asked the players what they wanted to do: keep our original decision or revise it. Having seen the effects of my critical hits on their numbers over the last six months, it was decided that natural 20s would now result in maximum damage rather than double damage. I think this is for the best and it is the method I would have second-most preferred to begin with (the first would be no criticals at all).
However, to keep emotions from interfering with this vote, I refused to reveal whether any change in critical hit protocol would make a difference to poor Aieglos. Poor Pete was left hanging as a jury of his peers unknowingly decided his elf’s fate. When the decision to revise the critical house rule came down, we returned to the fate of the martial cleric. Under the new rules, the spider’s bite now inflicted a still impressive eight points of damage on the 7 hit point cleric/fighter, dropping him to -1. Since PCs can survive into negatives equal to their level, Aieglos was still alive, but only barely. Another round and he was dead, plus there was still a save vs. poison to be made. Luckily, Aieglos made his saving throw and the presence of Mars Markus directly behind him with a cure light wounds ready meant that the Reaper passed Aieglos by that rainy Sunday afternoon, leaving Dave still in the lead with most PCs’ lost in the campaign. In the meantime, the rest of the party dispatched the arachnid with no further casualties.
Despite a thorough search, the cave proved to be empty of further threats, treasures, or secrets, so the party headed off into the southern tunnel. This opened into a long-abandoned living area filled with moldy sleeping furs, rusted weapons, and leaking ceiling. A few giant centipedes were disturbed and slain as the room was explored, but again there was nothing of interest. It was growing more and more unlikely that this series of cave leaded to where the party wanted to go.
They pressed on and found another grotto laden with gypsum flowers. A good twenty pounds of the substance was collected on the chance that it might be worth something to someone (“There’s a finite amount of the stuff in this cave,” reasoned Jack, “so it must have some value!”). A smaller cave contained simple pictographs of cave goblins, but that brought the party back to the entrance. This was certainly not the passage they were seeking.
With one more cave in sight and the trail leading up and over the rim of the canyon, the party decided to try their luck on the next cave and headed down the trail towards it…