The Favorites of Selune campaign - Ravenloft Session 9
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 27 August 2013, 4:52 am
The previous session ended with the group having discovered Count Strahd von Zarovich's hiding place on top of Castle Ravenloft, ready for the grand finale. So unsurprisingly this session was mostly taken up by that final fight against the vampire lord. And how that went has a lot to do with philosophy of how to run a game of Dungeons & Dragons, so I'll talk about that first.

Basically there are two major schools of thought on how to run an adventure: The first is that the DM creates a world, lets the players interact with that world, and is himself bound by the rules and his creation. The second is that the DM is not bound by any rules, and should "cheat" when necessary for dramatic effect. The discussion about which is the "right way" to do it has been going on for 30+ years, and will probably never end. So suffice it to say that I am in the camp of the non-cheating DMs. I did play with DMs who obviously cheated, e.g. we once killed a giant by clever trickery and the DM created "the giant's brother" out of thin air because he wanted there to be a regular fight against a giant in that point of the adventure. I always felt that such adjustments rob the players of the fruits of their cleverness, but I do admit that the non-cheating way also has disadvantages.

In this specific case I had designed the Count Strahd von Zarovich and his Castle Ravenloft in a certain way: There was an optimal way to beat the vampire lord by weakening him first, but it would have been totally possible for the players to miss that way or willfully ignore it, and go straight for the end fight. And the difficulty of that fight was designed to be bloody hard, but not impossible, if they had faced Strahd early. As it were, the players did go for the weakening route. Furthermore they also went for all the optional encounters in the adventure, so instead of gaining a level at the end of the adventure, they gained level 6 already before the final fight. And so they were a level higher than planned, had done everything to weaken Count Strahd, and approached the final fight tactically clever. I could have cheated and made the fight harder than I had originally planned, but I didn't. And so the grand finale felt a bit too easy in the end. As I said, that is a question of DMing principles. For the story a harder fight might have been better, but it also could have been much worse: Losing that fight after having done everything right to prepare for it would have felt much more wrong.

So, back to the actual events: When the players opened the secret door to Strahd's lair, they saw him standing at the other end of the room, on the balcony. On seeing the heroes, Strahd cried out for the creatures of the night to help him. There were two wolves in an alcove behind Strahd's throne, and a dozen giant bats came flying into the room at the end of the first turn in response to Strahd's summons. The other remarkable feature was a glowing image of light in a spot in the alcove behind the throne, next to a treasure chest.

If the players had rushed into the room, the fight would have been harder, but they cleverly stayed back at the entrance and used ranged weapons and spells first. As they had better range than Strahd and his creatures, that enabled them to pick off most of the giant bats before those had even crossed the room. It also prevented the wolves from getting combat advantage, which is what their special attacks were based on. Strahd used the first round to get onto the glowing symbol on the floor, which gained him an additional action next round. He also took a magical throwing hammer from his treasure and used that from a spot where not everybody could shoot back at him; (Note the fine difference: Strahd using the hammer wasn't planned in advance, but the hammer was written into his treasure from the start, and it was only logical that he would use it.)

After dominating the rogue, and backstabbing the warlord with the controlled rogue, Strahd went into close combat. At that point the players were all grouped together at the entrance of the room, allowing Strahd to use his cloud of bats area attack. That was an attack which had a 1-in-6 change to regenerate each round, so Strahd managed to pull it off twice. The two wolves did serious damage, while the bats were just minions and didn't contribute much except to annoy the wizard in the back. The warlord pretty much countered Strahd's area attack with an area heal. And after first killing the two wolves, Strahd finally fell to a blow of the undead-hating artifact axe of the warrior, fulfilling that artifacts destiny. The warrior noticed that the glowing image on the floor next to the treasure chest disappeared at the end of the fight, apparently retreating into the treasure chest. On opening the treasure he found an ivory playing card with the same gem symbol on it that he had seen in light on the floor. The group also collected the magical throwing hammer, which formed a set with the warhammer the warlord already possessed, so while these were +1 weapons when separated, they worked as +2 weapons as a set. Besides that, there was a magical amulet and gold in the treasure.

The death of Strahd had several consequences. The artifact axe Aecris, having fulfilled its destiny by killing an undead lord of a domain in Shadowfell, disappeared (artifacts in 4E are designed to be not permanently in the possession of a player). Due to the warriors good concordance with Aecris, the magic of the axe wasn't completely gone, but instead turned into a common but still very useful +3 axe. Meanwhile the wizard had gone out to the balcony to see whether the death of the vampire lord had lifted the mist surrounding the domain of Barovia. Instead he found that the horizon was full of a white light, in the middle of the night, and that this light seemed to be approaching. Fearing a collapse of the castle, the group ran downstairs and out of the main entrance, only to find the same light also approaching from the other side. The light effectively was dissolving the domain from all sides. When it reached the players, they had a sensation of falling upwards for a long time, until they finally arrived at the now closed portal to Shadowfell which had sucked them into Barovia in the first place.

Here they decided to finish some unfinished business: Returning the Chalice of Planar Travel stolen by the demon they had killed in front of the portal to the church in Winterhaven. Arriving at Winterhaven they noticed many changes, with the wall having been repaired and fresh troops manning the walls. It turned out that while it seemed like only days for them, they were in fact gone for a full year. So the inhabitants of Winterhaven were surprised and happy to finally see them back successfully from their mission to kill the demon and recover the chalice.

Several adventures ago the group had helped Lord Padraig of Winterhaven to free his court mage and counselor Valthrun from kobolds. During that adventure they had noticed Valthrun having recovered an ivory card from the kobolds' treasure, and gotten the information that if they found any more of those, Lord Padraig and Valthrun would be interested. Now they had found such a card in Strahd's treasure and realized that it had magical properties. Identifying the card led them to the information that in fact these cards were part of a deck of 22 cards, a Deck of Many Items. And Lord Padraig and Valthrun want to gather the full deck together in order to use its magical powers to protect Winterhaven. Valthrun's studies led him to believe that all the remaining cards were scattered at the same general location: Gardmore Abbey, a day's march, or half a day's ride away from Winterhaven.

Now the players don't want to give their card to Valthrun, nor does Valthrun want to give his cards to the players. But Valthrun offers the players to work together to reassemble the Deck of Many Things. Lord Padraig also gives them the information that the recent reinforcement of the defenses of Winterhaven is due to orcs from Gardmore Abbey having started to launch raids. So Padraig proposes to give the players the use of horses and a squire to watch over the horses, so they can go to Gardmore Abbey and at first just scout out the place, see how many orcs there are, and whether there are other inhabitants of the abbey. With this starting point for the next big adventure we ended this session.
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