Dark clouds gathered overhead as Baräsh picked up the fallen rogue and ran towards the safety of the tower. Sensing the vrock was badly hurt, Engong summoned her Chi and dashed towards the demon who had cornered Brundle by the cliff’s edge. The monk let loose a furious flurry of blows, driving her fists hard against the monster, and it fell. For a second, its body teetered on the edge of the 200-foot precipice, before tumbling down into the dark abyss below.
Last night was session 43 in our ongoing, online Curse of Strahd D&D campaign. Our party of five was down by one gnome druid last night, but the whole army of crazy druids we fought more than made up our weekly druid diversity quota. We had a couple of unexpected surprises in store during the session, not least my iPad running out of charge and crashing half way through a fight. Our dragonborn paladin also had to contend with some internet troubles; but once he’d made the correct blood sacrifices to our undying overlord, all systems were back up and running, with only a five-minute disruption.
Our adventuring party—cleverly named Engong and Her Associates—have been searching for objects that can help us defeat evil vampire lord, Strahd Von Zarovich. Last session, as we headed towards the Amber Temple, we fought two giant, fiendish, stone vultures and ended up taking a long rest in a creepy guard tower. We are traveling with our friend Ireena, whom Strahd wants to marry, and Victor, a teenage wizard who wants to join our ranks. We have also been warned that the mountain pass which leads to the temple is fraught with danger, beset by cold winds and heavy snow, and home to wild-folk.
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;
Kosef – Human Rogue / Wizard, impatient, played by me;
Brundle Swash – Gnome Druid, disheveled, turns into a bear, Absent;
Victor – Human (Teenage) Wizard-in-Training, has issues, NPC.
By the time Engong and Her Associates awoke, a blizzard had passed over the gate house at the Tsolenka Pass and deep, deep snow-covered the landscape. Mount Ghakis loomed over the tower, inviting the party into its icy embrace. The heroes checked on their horses and the cart which had all survived the night thanks to the warm blankets. The green flame wall had returned in the archway, leaving Engong and Her Associates only one way to go: across the bridge and further up and along the cliff-side pass, climbing up the mountain, continuing their search for the Amber Temple.
We quickly searched the tower before heading off, but low investigation checks revealed nothing of worth. There was no sign of any recent activity and so, after a quick breakfast, we headed off on our journey.
The bird and the bridge
The first thing we came to was a stone bridge that spanned a gorge in the cliff. It was an old, crumbling construction pocked with holes. There were four statues of knights on horseback on pedestals along the bridge wall. Immediately, paranoia set in and we assumed that the four horses would animate and attack us. We alighted the carriage and Engong gingerly walked forwards to investigate. The statues didn’t move.
As Engong made her way across the rickety bridge a shadowy form appeared 50 feet ahead of her. It took the shape of a black-cloaked rider riding a charcoal horse. Baräsh used his Divine Sense to determine it if was a fiend, celestial or undead, but it was not. Engong continued to approach the figure, only realizing when she was 10 feet away that it was Strahd himself. He was visibly angry, but hadn’t noticed the half-orc.
A perception roll of two from Engong didn’t allow her to see that this Strahd was an illusion. So, thinking he hadn’t noticed her and that she would have combat advantage, she punched him. Her hand shot straight through the image of Strahd and the illusion melted away into the mist.
We then continued nervously across the bridge, with only Brundle and Baräsh riding in the carriage. We were about halfway across when we heard an odd cry go overhead, followed by the sound of large wings flapping. Suddenly a huge shadow passed over us, shrouding the entire bridge in shadow.
Before we could do anything, a gargantuan bird swooped down alongside our carriage, letting out a hideous screech that echoed loudly around the canyon. Its wingspan must have been 200 feet and it had claws as big as the wagon itself. It snatched up one of the horses in its talons, flipping the carriage onto its side.
This creature was a Roc, a legendary monster that we couldn’t possibly hope to fight. We knew we had to run. So we did. But the Roc began to chase after us.
I called to Engong to help me right the remaining horse. Once it was standing, we cut the reins that held him to the wagon and slapped it hard. It ran away from us, to the end of the bridge. Thankfully this distracted the Roc long enough for us to make it to the other end. The horse fared less well as it was grabbed in the gigantic talons and lifted miles off into the air and then dropped into the valley below.
We made it to the guard tower at the end of the bridge just in time to hear the Roc land heavily above us. Bits of masonry fell down around us and we were trapped. Gimble Timbers cast a minor illusion of a third horse galloping along the bridge away from us. Apparently the Roc wasn’t a clever giant bird, as it took off and soared after the illusory horse. This gave us just enough time to make a final run for cover and we escaped into the wood beyond.
Choices in the snow
We were now without our trusty carriage and so traveled on foot along the snowy path. Before long we came to a crossroads where we could head north or south. None of us had any idea of which direction to go. All we knew was that we wanted to end up at the mystical Amber Temple. So we argued for a few minutes, before asking Victor to check for any traces of magic from either path.
Somehow Victor divined more magical energy coming from the northern path, so we headed that way. The conditions remained harsh and we started to climb up the side of mount Ghakis. After a while, we heard the familiar sounds of wolves howling. Gimble Timbers used his keen animal senses to investigate the cries. He sensed multiple wolves as well as humans in the near vicinity. We weren’t expecting to find people here.
Now we had another choice to make. To decide to follow the path which lead to who-knows-where, or to follow Gimble Timbers’ augmented senses, leaving the safety of the road and head into the dense snowy woodland.
As soon as we left the path, we heard the sounds of fighting close by. Gimble Timbers caught the smell of blood on the air, and we could hear screams and steel clashing. We dashed forward, towards the sounds of battle, and saw between the trees a melee of 20 or more druids and berserkers fighting each other. They were all clad in fur and there was no way of discerning who was fighting whom. In amongst the fracas were two huge wolves, tearing into a group of fierce-looking barbarians.
At first we hesitated by the clearing, unsure of how to proceed. Then Gimble Timbers turned to Kosef, “OK then,” he said. “Let’s see you take down one of the druids.” For a second I wasn’t sure if I should; then Engong gave me the nod, remembering how we had suffered at the hands of the druids in Yesterhill days earlier. So, lining up my crossbow, I cast True Sight on myself—this was one of my new wizard spells that gives advantage on the next attack—and I let loose a bolt at the druid that Gimble pointed out. It hit, dealing 12 piercing damage and 10 sneak attack damage. The druid fell. His friends noticed and turned to our party looking angry.
At first we weren’t really sure what was going on. But it soon became clear that druids and barbarians were fighting the local wolf people. They had ambushed them in a territory dispute. Thankfully, we had picked the right side and fought with the wolf people. We had met them earlier in the campaign and had resolved to try to ally ourselves with them. This provided us with the perfect opportunity to do just that.
The battle lasted quite a while with all of us getting the opportunity to let loose on the druids. Of course, this was really just our DM’s way of trying to get us to expend some of our spell slots and useful abilities early on in the day, but we managed to take out most of the druids and barbarians and still keep most of our higher level resources.
The melee came to its natural conclusion and the two large wolves and wolf people thanked us for our support. Their leader was a fierce warrior called Mura. She was the one we had met earlier and Baräsh was excited by the prospect of allying with them.
Mura removed her wooden mask, revealing a face full of scars and stories of fierce battle. “Friends? Friends!” she mocked. “Why should we be friends? What are you doing here on the mountain?” Baräsh told her that he sought the Amber Temple in order to destroy Strahd. “Well, we are no friends of Strahd,” replied Mura. “He took these lands from us. He sends the druids, and the berserkers. He killed our friends.” She turned away from the party, and stroked the giant muzzle of one of her wolves. “But no one goes to the Amber Temple,” she said. “It is forbidden. That is where the devil lives.”
“Strahd?” said Baräsh.
“No, not him,” said Mura. “The devil. Strahd’s master.”
“Oh,” said Baräsh, “Him.”
“Very well, I will take you to the Amber Temple,” she said. “To the gate of hell. But you are mad to go there.” END
Wow, what a fun session. It really had a bit of everything: cool monsters, strange locations, odd illusions, and some fun roleplay to boot. Meeting a Roc was something of a first for most of us too. As was deciding to run away from it. Normally we choose to fight, even when the odds are massively stacked against us.
What did we learn?
DM Tip: Always have a back-up plan, and don’t be surprised if your players do the exact opposite of what you want them to. Our DM confessed that this is not how he planned the session to go at all. In fact, he thought that the Roc encounter might last longer and that we would spend more time deciding where to go next. Instead we found some druids fighting wild-folk and randomly picked a side to help. Our DM hadn’t planned on us joining in the battle, so it was pure luck that we fought on the side of the wolf people who could help us.
Player Tip: Even if you’ve read it front to back and have DMed a fair bit yourself, don’t presume you know everything about every monster in the Monster Manual, and know when to take a hint from your DM. When our DM first described the Roc to us, both our rogue and paladin thought they knew what they were up against and were considering attacking it. This would have been very foolish, and our DM, without giving anything away, coyly suggested we rethink this approach. He then described the Roc for a second time and we realized he said “200-foot wingspan” and not “two- to three-foot wingspan”. We decided not to engage the gargantuan raptor, instead choosing the run for the hills approach.
Next week we get to explore the Amber Temple and I’m really looking forward to a bit of a dungeon crawl. Hopefully it won’t matter that we’ve expended some of our vital resources on an unnecessary fight in the woods…