[23 Tarsakh 1372]
There's a temporary lull in the battle as the group tries to decide what to do; should they retreat now while they still can or should they advance quickly and attack the group of bandits that Markus discovered? While they're discussing the matter, they realize that one of the bandits has been spying on them. He quickly retreats, and after some more discussion, Ellywick decides to advance down the narrow tunnel. She's immediately fired on by archers at the end of the tunnel, where it splits into a "T" junction. The group then advances, intermittently and with much hesitation, down the tunnel in single file. The bandits and adventurers exchange arrows inconclusively in a long skirmish, as the bandits are determined to maintain their excellent defensive position and the adventurers seem reluctant to advance. Fargrim, at the rear of the group, is exhausted and unwilling to take the lead, leaving the group without their best front-line fighter. Finally, Ellywick charges towards the bandits, only to be struck down by multiple stab wounds!
As she lays bleeding, Nakor expertly dodges bandits and reaches their left flank. A bandit puts his sword at Ellywick's throat, threatening to kill her if her allies don't flee, but Nakor dramatically dives and pushes her out of harm's way before the bandit can act. A burly, muscular human in a skull-mask carrying a greataxe pushes his way to the front of the bandits and begins to attack. At first glance, he appears to be the mysterious marauder Grim, but Fargrim is suspicious that he might be an impostor. After Markus casts a spell to make it sound like reinforcements are about to arrive, the bandit leader orders his men to withdraw down the east tunnel.
Instead of following, the adventurers travel down the western tunnel and come across the room Markus has briefly glimpsed earlier. Piles of coins, furs, and a gold bracelet are heaped on a table, and make-shift cages line the walls to hold slaves. One of the slaves, a young boy, cries out upon recognizing Cain, Nakor, and Fargrim, and they realize it is Tazi, the cabin-boy they rescued from the strange island only to leave at the hands of the slavers of the The Woeful Tide when their attempted mutiny failed. Tazi says that the slavers threw Illanus, the priest of Waukeen, overboard because of his broken leg, and then arranged for the boy to be sold and transported by Grim's bandit army. He doesn't know where he was destined to end up, but did hear something about "where the stars meet the mountains" and "worse things down below." The remaining slaves, a merchant named Mortellus and his two caravan guards, talk to Markus and offer him a reward if he can safely return them to civilization.
After Nakor is seen pocketing the gold bracelet, the others decide to split up the loot, and both Tazi and the bandit-turned-henchman Trigonnis are given a small share. Trigonnis claims he can be very valuable to the group, though he also claims not to know much about Grim or his operation, beyond the fact that he often uses body-doubles and communicates through a raven. As the others continue talking, Nakor decides to cautiously investigate the eastern passage, which he had been told was full of traps. After just a few steps lead him to almost fall into a hidden pit, he decides to return to the others. After some discussion, the group decides to leave the caves and head back towards Mirabar, with their foray having yielded mixed results: the rescue of some captives and discovery of treasure, but the escape of most of the bandits, including, possibly, Grim himself.
Director's Commentary (August 23, 2013)
Looking back over previous commentaries, one of the things I didn't talk much about was my goal for this campaign to be very friendly to newcomers to D&D by sticking with as many of the tried-and-true (a.k.a., cliched) tropes of the game: bandits, skeletons, orcs, etc. My goal was that they come out of this campaign having had a taste of all the "core" monsters, themes, and rules, and would then be in a good place in the future to tackle all of the exotic variants that are out there. I tried to rely heavily on a campaign setting that fits very closely to what people think of in terms of "fantasy" (the Forgotten Realms) and inserted, where I could, pre-made scenarios that fit the "classic" theme (Dungeon Crawl Classics modules were a start). Doing it like this meant that I haven't put much of my personal spin on fantasy: I haven't created any new monsters, cultures, religions, etc., which is certainly something I'd like to do with these players in a future campaign. In the future, I'd love to do something more like my Clone Wars campaign, where I relied on some established settings and enemies but invested a lot of time in creating major new NPCs, worlds, and story themes. But on the other hand, to be frank, one of the reasons for picking D&D as a campaign to run was the idea that it would be very low in terms of preparation time, as free time is simply not something I've had a lot of since moving to Australia (and now even less since I've foolishly decided to run an online Star Wars New Republic campaign). In conclusion (not really), both types of campaigns can be awesome; a "beer and pretzels" game is a great way to hang out and make new friends, while a deeper and more involved game is rewarding in terms of creativity and character/story development.
Anyway, this was a battle heavy session and sort of funny in a way. The PCs were advancing along a corridor that ended in a T-junction when they were fired on by the bandits, who had a very defensible position because any PC who advanced would be up against multiple enemies while their ally PCs would be stuck behind them and unable to attack except with ranged weapons firing into melee (in a couple of levels, of course, an area of effect spell like Fireball would render this sort of defensive tactic useless, but it worked at this point in the campaign). The PCs weren't sure how to respond, so there was a long and indecisive ranged battle, caused in part because no one was willing to take command or take the risk and charge into melee until, of all people, the gnome charged in and was quickly dropped (this may have been one of those situations where the player was as frustrated by delay as the character). What happened next was pretty exciting, as Nakor was told that if his character failed his disarm attack on the bandit with the blade to Ellywick's throat, a coup de grace would be the result and she'd be dead; he went ahead and tried it anyway, and it worked! D&D isn't often the best system for modelling exciting, cinematic events like that, but it sure worked this time.
The PCs finally earned some treasure, which was much needed since they lost everything after being sold as slaves. Tazi's statement about "where the stars meet the mountains" is, of course, planting the idea that Grim's hideout is really in Startop Mountain. It took me a long time to decide where I wanted to set the Castle Whiterock adventure, and I eventually decided to use Startop Mountain in the Evermoors. The idea was that "Startop Castle" would be in a dangerous, foreboding place, but not actually too many days' ride from civilization (Nesme to the west, Silverymoon to the east). The setting also fit in well with some other adventure seeds. As we'll see, of course, the PCs have barely scratched the service of Castle Whiterock or much of what I'd planned for the Evermoors, as events have led them into many different adventures, and it's not clear at this point in the campaign (circa Session # 52) whether they'll ever return; and if they do, they'll be far too high a level to be challenged by most of it. It ties into the difficulty sometimes of making adventure hooks that are good enough to entice PCs to go where you want, without making them so blatant or irresistible that it becomes railroading! But more on that in a future commentary.