Spoilers / Death Frost Doom / You've been warned...
Seeing as Dreams in the Lich House got a big bump in traffic because of the Death Frost Doom post - welcome! - I'll oblige by cross-posting the finale of Death Frost Doom here, along with a brief recap of the immediate past. Parts 1 and 2 are in detail over on the regular campaign journal at Dragonsfoot; I typically try to keep game reports there, but will make an exception for the zombie apocalypse.
Note: just because the players unleashed ancient horrors on the campaign world, doesn't mean it's over; on the contrary, now it gets interesting.
Detailed Recaps (or read the brief recap below):
The basic set up (if you skipped parts 1 and 2); the players were hired by a gypsy man, Ismark, to help recover a magic sword from an evil temple in the mountains. (Death Mountain, specifically). Ismark comes from a place called Barovia, a town in the Valley of Mists at the headwaters of the Davish River. A long slumbering evil is re-awakening in Barovia, and a gypsy fortune reader foretold to Ismark that an ancient weapon, the magic sword at Death Mountain, needed to be returned to the land. On behalf of the lord mayor of Barovia, he's offered the PC's 10,000gp to help him return the sword.
An expedition was formed and carefully equipped (it's October in-game, cold in the mountains). They made a base camp in the foothills near Death Mountain, and on successive forays there, explored an ancient graveyard, a cultist cabin, and a sprawling necropolis and shrine beneath the ground, all dedicated to a death cult. It's taken 3 separate day-long delves for them to get to where the story picks up now.
Cast of Characters:
Mordecai, a Cleric-3: Adam
Shy, a Fighter-2: JR
Forlorn, an Elf-2: Bo
Mister Moore, Magic User-3: Mike
Phat Kobra, a Dwarf-2
Zeke, a Fighter-2Louie, a Halfling-3
Starkweather, a Thief-2
Left guarding the camp:
Anderson, a Fighter-3: Jeff (missed)
Mario, a Halfling-2
With the rest of the necropolis and shrine behind them, the group decided the only way forward was to enter the final shrine, the farthest room they could reach in the dungeon. Up until now, there hasn't been a single fight in the dungeon, only a few tricks and traps. All they've seen are endless corridors of the ancient dead, entombed in catacomb niches and sealed in by thin plaster coverings.
Across the shrine room, they could see a small altar, goblets, a book, and the likeness of Ismark's quest sword, just sitting out for the taking. But their way was blocked by a massive plant thing that covered a hole in the floor and stretched up into a shaft in the ceiling. It was covered in spikes. Much of the plant must have been hollow, for as wind blew up and down the shaft, it created a piping music through the plant that reverberated throughout the dungeon.
"Well, what are we waiting for", exclaimed Ismark. "It's time we hack through it".
"Here you go", said Phat Kobra, handing him his spare battle axe. Ismark strode forward and swung at the plant, which promptly flailed him with a strip of spikes. "Ouch! It moves!"
Plan B involved dousing it with oil from a distance, and setting it on fire; then some of the fighters stepped forward with spears and swords and pushed it back, hacking. A way was cleared, and the piping stopped. "Let's be quick and get out", said Forlorn the Elf. "Something about that music was important. Anyone else get the sense that there's a giant sleeping monster at the bottom of the well, the way the wind rhythmically sucks in and out down the shaft? I don't like this place".
Forlorn had an eye-piece that let him read the awful language of the death cult; there was an inscription on the wall (on a secret door he found) that intimated the only way through the secret door would be to splash it with the innocent blood of a human sacrifice; it would lead to something called the 'greater tombs'.
Meanwhile, Ismark strapped on the sword; the others looted the altar, grabbing a pair of goblets and something called the 'Book of Unspeakable Shame'. Kobra found another secret door to the north. That was when the first zombies attacked.
The nearest set of catacombs to the characters held the long-dead remains of children; a flood of desiccated child-zombies stumbled into the room, attacking the rear-guards. As they started to growl and moan, the noise was picked up by more child-zombies, and then even further back by zombies from the other catacombs, and soon the entire underground was buzzing with the sound of anxious flesh-eaters; fresh prey had been spotted, and thousands of the walking dead were now on the move. "Oh crap", murmured… everyone.
Forlorn looked dolefully at Ismark and squeezed the pommel of his dagger. An innocent must be sacrificed to open the secret door. Sucks to be the NPC, he thought. But then Kobra pointed out that the northern secret door had an opening mechanism, and Ismark was spared. Mordecai laid down a Turn Undead spell, to drive the front line of zombies back into the oncoming horde, hoping to buy a round so the group could perform a fighting withdrawal through the secret door. Mister Moore cast Hold Portal from a scroll.
Once on the other side of the secret door, Hold Portal kept the door sealed while others jammed the mechanism with spikes; they also did first aid on the injured. They could hear the sound of the hungry dead, smashing themselves against the stones, scratching and digging against the mortar. How long could the door hold?
"Don't forget, we're in the Greater Tombs now", said Mordecai, the Prophet of Poignard. "If undead are waking up out there, they're probably waking up in here, too".
In a moment of blatant meta-gaming, the group took a long look at the map and tried to 'guess what the module writer was thinking'. They realized how everything that led them to this point ensured they would be trapped with thousands of undead blocking the way out. It was all so clear now. Why didn't we put crowbars in some of those wheel-locks, keeping them from opening? Why don't we even have crowbars as part of our gear? "Of course there has to be a way out if we press forward", they theorized. "No one would leave us like this".
Their first path led to a dead-end, with a pit in the floor, and an inscription on the wall. While Forlorn would read similar inscriptions with the eye-piece (this hasn't been the first inscription), he's been careful not to read the notes I passed him with the translation out loud. Paranoid, I guess.
That didn't stop the majority of the group from looking into the pit, and getting enthralled by the hypnotic spiral pattern that led into the depths. A few the characters even started to lean inwards.
"Oh crap", said Kobra. "Let's get 'em outta there". He and Moore started dragging entranced guys away from the pit, starting with Forlorn and Mordecai. When they turned back, a scene of horror was enfolding. A giant-sized spider had emerged from the hole; Kobra and Moore were surprised. The spider planted it's fangs in Ismark's gut, bundled him up with it's front legs, and started pulling him into the hole. Ismark snapped out of the trance, a look of panic in his eyes, but already he was convulsing and spasming from the awful spider poison flooding his system.
"He's got the magic sword!", cried Moore, and Kobra sprung into action - not to save Ismark, but to grab the sword hilt and twist the magic sword off of his belt. There was a brief tug-of-war between the spider, pulling on Ismark's limp body, and Kobra, pulling on the sword and scabbard, but then the leather thongs snapped and Ismark disappeared into the darkness. "At least we have the sword and the promissory note", said Moore. "We can still get the 10,000gp in Barovia".
They went down the other passage, still hearing the insistent pounding of the hungry dead echoing from the area of the secret door. Would the spikes hold? The next hallway led to a series of barred and locked rooms; many of the doors were decorated with gruesome devices - skeletal hands, chains and flaying hooks with remnants of shriveled flesh, awful murals and spikes. Many times they could hear pounding and scratching on the other side of the doors, more insistent undead desperate to get out and feast. They chose to bypass all of these barred rooms, hoping to find egress further on.
The last room they discovered was unbarred and unlocked, with a sun mural on the door. In the mist-obscured room past the door, there was only a stone crypt. They started searching the far wall for secret doors, praying for a back-way out.
"You won't find what you're looking for back there", said the smiling vampire that coalesced out of the mist, blocking the door out of the room. He wore an archaic military uniform and cloak, with cropped hair and beard like some ancient Roman general. "I am general Cyris Maximus, supreme commander of the Armies of Death, and I need a way out of this place as well. Let's talk."
This dilemma ended up being fun, from a DM's perspective. The players sharpened their pencils and took stock of their resources (4 magic missiles, a wand of paralysis, and a pair of magic weapons +2 and higher) and tried to gauge whether they could 'take' the vampire, while also wanting to hear what he had to say.
Cyris explained that he was trapped by those powerful druids that also made the plant creation that kept the dead sleeping; only by being invited out of the crypt by a mortal could he leave. His deal was simple; if the characters swore an oath to guide him to safety, he could command the zombies in the outer temple to let them pass, and he would also agree to safely part ways once both sides were clear of Death Mountain. Live and let live.
"What will happen if we free you?", asked Mordecai, scared of the implications. Cyris smiled. "I plan to find the remnants of the death cult, or it's most powerful agent in this day and age, and resurrect the worship of the death god. Over time, freeing me will lead to the deaths of thousands upon thousands of innocents. But you, you will be allowed to live".
Ultimately, the players decided that if they made the deal and freed the vampire, they could live with themselves if they put 'tracking him down and killing him', somewhere on the do-list. But first they had to survive and gain some experience levels. "Speaking of treasure", said Forlorn to the vampire, "Now that all the crypts are emptied, I'm sure the zombies have knocked all the gold, jewels and gems out of the niches and onto the floor in the catacombs. What do you say, on the way out, we scoop up some loose change for our troubles?"
The vampire laughed aloud at the elf's callous nature. "I will command the faithful zombies out of the catacombs, to stream down the mountain. They will drive the ghouls on the surface before them. By nightfall, we shall head in the other direction, deeper into the mountain range. On the next peak, I shall call forth to some of my allies. You will be responsible for carrying my coffin during the day and escorting me safely. However much gold you choose to carry, it cannot encumber you, or I will make you leave your packs and equipment behind. Choose wisely".
They went to a place in the shrine where a special oath would be enforced by the powers of Hell itself, and the characters made their pact and swore mutual oaths with the ancient vampire. Then the looters started dropping non-essential equipment so they could carry the extra gold and not suffer encumbrance problems.
Then it started to dawn on them… they had a camp at the base of the mountain! Horses, wagons, food, supplies, henchmen and an absent player character. Cyris shook his head, "Not any longer. The sleeping dead on the surface are victims of the cult, returned as ghouls. As they broke the surface, they started ranging for food; by now they are galloping over ridge and dale, a tide of undead hunger that will burst upon the valley. They do not tire, they do not sleep, and they always run. You don't have any friends down there, not any longer".
Wow! So that's where we ended. Crazy fun stuff - what an awesome adventure. Mike wondered if we should start a new campaign now that they turned Sterich into The Walking Dead. Adam (Mordecai), was concerned about his character; in-game, how could he return to the side of good and live up to being a chosen cleric. "If Mordecai was a better person, he would have let himself be killed rather than make a deal with the vampire". Bo pointed out that the damage was already done by the time we met the vampire, as the undead were already loose. By surviving, the players can make it a goal to fix it.
But not right away, Bo pointed out. "We need xp, and xp means money, so let's take the cult's gold, head to Barovia, and collect our 10,000gp, too. We'll circle back and deal with Cyris sometime in the future". Very pragmatic of him.
So between now and next week, the players are going to chatter about next steps via email. Of course they'll guide Cyris to his safe place; after that, who knows? They know there are a few potential refuges in the mountains - Witch Mountain and Stonegate (a dwarf hold). They could head straight to Barovia. They could try and make it back to the Tower of the Stargazer - they stocked it for a siege. They could try and discretely follow the horde, and see if they can help with the defense of the lands below. A final idea they threw out there was crossing the valley, finding the Flannish folk, and seeing if the druids of the hill folk would help save the Oeridian valley people.
Meanwhile, I'll be busting out the Companion Rules War Machine and Siege Machine rules, and statting up the undead forces and the various deployments for Lord Lennox and the counties to the north. I'll run a military side-campaign and track the progress of the war of civilization versus the dead. In a world with few spell-casting clerics like Gothic Greyhawk, who knows how far the undead will be able to spread? Sterich could be a depopulated wasteland by the time the characters return.
Here's the updated campaign map with some of the player options displayed: