Baräsh turned back to the bar as a fist hit him square in the jaw. The drunk man’s friend was up and ready for a fight. Suddenly the room erupted in a wall of noise as the locals in the tavern started screaming angrily at the party and the masked guards with them. Kosef saw an opportunity to duck down and handed Irwin the magical gem. Irwin looked confused.
Last night was session 32 in my Dungeons & Dragons group’s online Curse of Strahd campaign. Eight months ago we began the story as level one characters and have somehow made it through 31 sessions, up to the heady heights of level six. In the last couple of games our DM has even hinted at a possible leveling up soon, but we ended last night’s game no closer to the ever elusive seventh level.
While some of our group had not played D&D prior to this campaign, others had, but none have managed to keep up such consistent momentum for so long. Certainly, this is the most amount of hours I’ve put into a single campaign as a player. In my experience, you begin a storyline with the purest intention of carrying it on to its conclusion, but are inevitably defeated by the verisimilitudes of modern life. Seasoned RPGers will know well the feeling of guilt at abandoning a character mid-way through a campaign to save the world. I still have a Risk Legacy board sat on my desk, one game away from completion – as it has been for the past three years – that will likely never be finished.
But happily this is not the case with our current game. Partly this is down to the ease of the platform we are using. Thanks to the internet and Skype we can easily slot in the two hours per week needed to keep going once children have gone to sleep and partners are comfortably seated in front of Netflix. There is no need to factor in traveling time and we can even play when we are away from home, as I did this week – all you need is some dice, reasonably quick internet access and a player’s handbook. Thankfully I had all three.
In session 31 our party, ‘Engong and Her Associates’, went back to Vallaki, a town we had left a week earlier having facilitating a political coup. On our return we discovered that the new Burgomaster, Lady Wachta, might not be any better than her predecessor and now the town seemed to be under armed, masked, guard. We ended that session exiting the Bluewater Inn, we had elected not to participate in the bar fight this time (unlike in session 15), instead heading off to see our friend, local toy-maker Blinski.
Engong and Her Associates are:
Engong – Half-Orc Monk, pyromaniac, leader, not a ‘people person’;
Gimble Timbers – Gnome Fighter, has a pet dog called Kevon;
Baräsh – Dragonborn Paladin, Oath of Vengeance;
Brundle Swash – Gnome Druid, disheveled, turns into a bear;
Kosef – Human Rogue, impatient, played by me;
Victor – Human (Teenage) Wizard-in-Training, has issues, NPC.
If Engong and her Associates thought they could slip out of the Bluewater Inn without their masked guard of honor, they were sorely mistaken. It was as if the guards could sense their desire to get away and this only strengthened the resolve to not let them.
Outside the tavern the party could see the remnants of what was Vallaki’s chapel district. The Church of St. Andell; now only ashes and debris on the ground. There were fresh graves in the cemetery next to it and as the party walked solemnly past. The eight masked guards silently kept pace, always two in front, two behind, and two more flanking each side.
They approached a shop and the broken sign, hanging by a broken chain read: Blinski Toys – Is No Blinski; Is No Fun. Gimble Timbers smiled and exchanged a wry sideways glance with Engong. So far their return to Vallaki had been somewhat muted, but visiting Blinski was sure to bring a smile to their faces. What’s more, there was no way the eight guards would all fit into his tiny workshop. This might give Engong and Her Associates the space they needed.
We entered Blinski’s shop and were met by Piccolo his pet monkey. Blinksi joined us and we talked about recent events. As expected he wasn’t much help and couldn’t tell us about what had happened since last we were here. “I don’t know. Blinski make the masks, make them suits. Nothing else much.”
Meeting Blinski was still fun though, as our DM put on his most awful Italian accent to bring the toy-maker to life. This, combined with his crazy, suit-wearing monkey Piccolo, meant the interaction was punctuated by much laughter from us all.
Blinski gave us six masks like the ones the guards were wearing and agreed to try and fix Henry our broken modron friend, whom I’d been carrying in my pack since Berez. Then, remembering the upcoming wedding of Strahd, we had the inspired idea of asking Blinski to design us wedding suits that could house our weapons in secret compartments. Hopefully this would give us an advantage in a few sessions to come.
The whole time we were talking to Blinski the one guard that had followed us into the shop stood silently watching us. Occasionally we checked to see if the other masked guards were still outside, they were. We weren’t sure what to make of these guards, but we were sure they weren’t a force for good.
After leaving Blinski’s we visited various sites around Vallaki, including the areas ravaged by fire and the remains of the church of St. Andell. While here, our masked guards gave us some room to look around, but they never strayed too far from our sides. We investigated some of the freshly dug graves but couldn’t ascertain anything from them other than they were more recent than the fire.
Each of us then tried to shake off the guards. Engong tried to persuade them that we needed to have a silent moment alone in the graveyard. She rolled a 2 on her persuasion check; they were not persuaded. Baräsh tried to intimidate the guards so they would be too scared to follow closely. He rolled a 6 and got punched in the stomach. Gimble Timbers attempted to challenge one of the guards to a duel, the winner would be allowed to walk free. This did not work. Brundle Swash and Victor tried to trick the guards with an illusion that the party was walking in the opposite direction. The pair got confused and bumped into each other dispelling the illusion. Finally, I tried to use Kosef’s sneaky rogue abilities and ducked down to ‘tie my shoelace’, hoping the guards would walk straight past me. They stopped to help with the knot and noticed I was wearing boots with no laces. All the while they stayed stoically silent.
Having failed at all our attempts to deceive our guards, we gave up exploring any more of the town, and headed to the Vistani traders we had seen earlier. As we made our way one of the town’s non-masked guards brushed past and handed over a note. It read, “Kill the dragonborn. You will be rewarded with riches.” I didn’t react, instead secreting the message away in a pocket.
We approached the traders and thankfully this time none of us were cursed by them as part of the transaction. We were able to use the remaining gold we had to purchase two healing potions – I think our DM felt a little sorry for us after the last time, when we had to use it straight away to revive Brundle Swash.
Among the Vistani merchants was an old woman with a red cowl over her head. Engong, Baräsh and Gimble Timbers recognized her as Madam Eva the fortune-teller, but Kosef and Brundle Swash did not know her. Our DM was again called upon to perform his unique take on the Vistani accent, a mix between Transylvania and the Deep South, which helped to lighten the mood. Madam Eva told us to meet her later in the Vistani camp outside the town and she would give the two newcomers (Kosef and Brundle Swash) readings. I’m guessing this is our DM’s way of reminding the party that there are some objectives to be getting on with rather than aimlessly wandering around the towns and villages of Barovia.
We left Vallaki and headed for the nearby camp. On the way out we passed our friend Oleg the guard who was on duty. We were able, with the help of a few gold coins and a persuasion roll of 19, to bribe him into letting us return to Vallaki in secret after dark.
When we arrived at the Vistani camp there was a lot of commotion. A teenage boy was being whipped by a freakishly large, drunk Vistani man. Incensed by this apparent injustice Baräsh stormed forward and demanded the lashing cease, “Crack that whip one time more and I will crack your skull.” The hulking, drunk man stared at Baräsh for a second, his armor shining, his hammer raised, his fierce draconic visage. The drunk man sneered at the dragonborn and continued to crack the whip.
Once again we all gave a heavy sigh as it became clear that Baräsh was not going to be able to let this go. Our DM was repeating how big and burly this drunk man looked, but the dragonborn was ignoring the hint.
Thankfully, just as a fight was about to break out, another large Vistani man entered and was able to cool down the situation. He was Arundel, the brother of the drunk man, who was called Lavash. Lavash was distraught that his daughter had gone missing and was feared dead, he blamed the teenager who was supposed to be watching over her.
Lavash then passed out and we were welcomed into the Vistani camp where there was much drinking and merriment. As the night drew on we met another dark elf called Kasamir, he wanted us to explore something called the Amber Temple. Later, I shared the note I had received with Engong, I explained that currently I had no intention of acting on the offer, but thought it best to let her know about it.
Kasamir the Dusk Elf leaned in towards Brundle Swash. “Should you choose to go to the Amber Temple, I will go with you. There are treasures there and so much more.”
Brundle Swash looked confused, this was a common expression for the gnome, but this was a more concentrated confusion than usual. “The Amber Temple? Does this have anything to do with,” he took a breath, “Strahd?” he whispered. The elf nodded.
Kosef and Engong re-joined the party. Both looked concerned. But before they were able to do anything they were interrupted by the sound of a wagon speeding down the stony path toward the camp. The wagon was lavishly decorated in reds and golds. Sat at the front, beside the driver, was a curious old lady, half bent over, wearing a red shawl. She looked up, saw the party and laughed loudly. END
Another session with lots of interactions and no combat, although it got pretty close towards the end when Baräsh was trying to stop Lavash whipping the boy. We could all see the conflict in Baräsh’s player’s face as he fought between an action that would surely get us all killed and one which would satisfy his paladin’s sense of right and justice. For now this had been resolved, but I get the feeling that Baräsh definitely won’t react so well next time he’s put in a similar situation.
Our DM was also having fun at our expense as he began to sow the seed of division among the party. First Victor tried to turn the party against Kosef as we explored Vallaki, then a town guard gave the rogue a note to kill the paladin. In fact, the DM sent me the note via text message, so until I shared it with Engong in the Vistani tent, none of the other players even knew about it. This felt like quite a novel way for our DM to communicate with us players, and got me thinking about what other messages he might have sent the party members without the rest of us knowing…
Next week we meet Madam Eva again and may have our fortunes told once more. We might also finally get to go on our stealth mission into Vallaki to rescue Ireena.