Sunday, June 25, 2017

Rise of the Runelords Recap # 19 [RPG]

[2 Neth 4707 continued]

Everyone gathers around to hear Shalelu’s tale of how she saw strands of silver hair on some tree branches and followed them straight into an ambush!  Nualia knew she was being hunted, and, having captured Shalelu, sent a goblin to the Sandpoint authorities to set up a trap.  Nualia used an alchemical mixture to dye Shalelu’s hair and hoped to enjoy the exquisite revenge of seeing the elf killed by her own over-zealous allies.  Shalelu says she’s been held in the complete darkness of that hut for days now, and that Nualia is probably long gone.  Bey, who has come out of her trance, helps tend to her wounds.

Ome decides to investigate a large, artificial cavern at the eastern end of the clearing.  The structure was made by covering several fallen trees with dead leaves and furs, and, as the largest area in the clearing, was probably the home of Big Chief Wortus.  Ome searches the place carefully and finds a hollow log stuffed with Wortus’ personal treasure trove!  Gold, jewelry, a mithral buckler, and a forked crystal rod that proves to be a magic wand are discovered.  Ome decides to repeat Arnald’s search of the other huts, and in one finds a polished human skull full of gold and jewellery.

The group escort the badly-beaten Shalelu out of the clearing and back the way they came through Mosswood.  A couple of hours’ journey sees them reach the Lost Coast Road, and from there they turn west.  Soon they spot a caravan of about twenty wagons headed towards them, with several guards mounted on horseback.  Arnald waves two of the guards over and asks them where they’re headed: they explain that they’re taking food to Galduria.  Arnald asks them some unusual questions about Galduria, leaving the suspicious guards to return quickly to the caravan.  About an hour later, the group see a wagon sitting in the middle of the road.  It clearly has a broken axle, and a terrified-looking farmer is standing in the wagon bed scanning the area with a nocked longbow.  Beside him is an adolescent girl who appears far less panicked.  Ome approaches slowly and tries to calm the man down enough to offer some assistance, but the farmer is so frightened he threatens to shoot if Ome takes one more step!  Artemis tries to offer help as well, but is equally rebuffed.  The group circle around the wagon and continue on their way, promising to contact Billivar Wheen in Sandpoint to render aid.

The travellers reach Sandpoint in the early afternoon.  Noticing that the guards at the northern gates seem agitated, Artemis asks what’s going on.  They reply that there were two murders last night!  Banny Harker, co-operator of the Sandpoint Lumber Mill, and Katrine Vinder, daughter of General Store owner Ven Vinder, were found dead.  After Bey tells the guards about the stranded wagon on the road and Shalelu departs to rest and resupply (determined to strike out on Nualia’s trail again as soon as possible), the group head straight for the mill.  When they arrive, they see several members of the Town Watch outside, some searching for clues while others make sure the small crowd of townspeople that has assembled stay back.  A breathless Jodar Provolost waves the four travellers in, saying that Sheriff Hemlock mentioned wanting to talk to them.

Sheriff Hemlock is just outside the entrance to the mill, speaking with his deputy, Bosk Hartigan.  Hemlock finishes giving Hartigan instructions and then turns to address the group.  Hemlock starts by saying that he’s speaking with them because, other than himself, they’re the only people in Sandpoint he’s absolutely sure aren’t responsible for the murders, since they were out of town last night.  Hemlock says that early this morning, the bodies of Banny Harker and Katrine Vinder were found by the mill’s other operator, a man named Ibor Thorne.  Hemlock says he and his officers are trying to keep the mill locked down to prevent a panic, because if people saw what was inside they’d be horrified and think the Chopper was somehow back.  Even more disturbing, Hemlock adds, is that the two bodies inside the mill are the second set of murders in the past few days: three known con men were found murdered in an abandoned barn on the old Bradley farm near Cougar Creek, just a half-mile or so from the old fisherman’s shack that Ome claims as home.  Finally, Hemlock says another personal link exists between the murders and the adventurers: a bloodstained scrap of parchment was found pinned to the sleeve of Katrine Vinder by a splinter of wood, and Bey’s name was on it!  Hemlock has his lead investigator on the case, Bosk Hartigan, show the group what the parchment says:  “You will learn to love me, desire me in time as she did. Give yourself to the Pack and it shall end.  Your Lordship.”  Hemlock says he has more to share but will have to meet with them at the garrison later as he’s pressed for time.  He asks them to take a careful look around the mill to see if they can uncover any clues that his officers have missed, with Artemis to report directly to Hartigan if they do.

Inside the mill is a ghastly scene:  the body of Banny Harker has been affixed to the wall with lumber hooks, while mangled lumps of flesh and a decapitated head testify to the grisly fact that Katrine Vinder’s corpse has been through the logsplitter.  A handaxe is embedded in the floor nearby, and the whole area carries the lingering scent of decay, a curious fact since the bodies were found just this morning.  Artemis begins his investigation with the axe, and sees there are bloody handprints on the handle and bits of rotten flesh on the blade; the experienced guardsman is overcome by the nauseating scent and has to run to the pier outside for fresh air.  Bey is able to discern from the amount of blood-spray on the wall near the logsplitter that, distressingly, Katrine Vinder was alive when she passed through it.  The seer speculates that the attacker must have felt great rage or great disdain to do such a terrible thing to a young woman.  Next, Bey turns her attention to Harker’s body.  She sees it’s been mutilated, with the face and lower jaw missing entirely.  The body’s bare chest has been defaced as well, carved with the distinctive seven-pointed star that Bey instantly recognizes as a Sihedron rune, a glyph from ancient Thassilon that symbolizes power, magic, and mortal sin.  She’s also able to discern that Harker was killed by deep gouges to the abdomen made by claws, and notices that the rotten smell that permeates the room seems even stronger near these wounds.

Meanwhile, while lurking in the corner to allow his more experienced allies to conduct the investigation, Arnald notices an important clue!  Bloody footprints in the sawdust head towards the small pier outside the lumber mill.  Ome follows Arnald, and together the two discern that the attacker must have clambered onto the pier from the muddy area directly underneath it, scaled the outer wall, and entered the building through a second-floor window.  Arnald notices a spot on the opposite bank of the river that would make a perfect vantage point for anyone watching the mill.  He and Ome set out to investigate it more closely and find a relatively dry spot that carries the lingering smell of rotten flesh.  Curiously, the barefoot human-like footprints reveal tracks leading from and into the river, but never further inland.

The members of the make-shift investigative team assemble to discuss their findings.  Bey surmises that Harker was the first victim, and that Katrine was the second, as she interrupted something and caught her attacker by surprise.  The hand axe was probably used by Katrine to defend herself, which is why it shows petite handprints on the axe and rotten flesh on the blade.  Ome agrees, suggesting that Harker had probably been waiting for Katrine when he was attacked by the murderer.  To confirm Ome’s theory, the group scour the lumber mill for further clues and uncover a blanket and a bottle of wine hidden in a toolbox in Harker’s office: further proof of a planned romantic liaison. After reporting their findings to Bosk Hartigan and learning that Katrine had been seen coming to the mill late at night on previous evenings, their theory seems confirmed.  Bosk says that Ven Vinder and Ibor Thorne are in custody at the garrison for questioning, and that he can arrange it if anyone in the group wishes to speak with them.

Additional lines of enquiry are made that prove fruitful.  A sample of the rotten flesh is taken to Father Zantus and to Sabyl Sorn to see if either can identify its source.  Father Zantus is nauseated by a mere whiff and isn’t helpful, but Sabyl Sorn says she’s seen the like before on the bodies of the walking dead!  Bey takes a sketch of the Sihedron rune found on Harker’s body and shows it to Brodert Quink, asking whether it can be tied to a specific sin.  Quink’s knowledge of ancient Thassilon is unparalleled, and he says that the rotation and placement of the rune indicates it is related to the sin of greed.

The group take their findings to Sheriff Hemlock at the garrison and offer their conclusions that the attacker must have been a “corporeal undead” and that Harker’s death had something to do with greed.  Sheriff Hemlock is impressed, and adds that Harker was well-known in town as a penny-pincher.  Hemlock carries out his promise to tell the group more information about the first set of murders, which were discovered just two days prior.  He explains that a patrol of the Town Watch was making may their way south along the Lost Coast Road when they were assaulted by a deranged man near the old Bradley homestead.  The man, whose clothes were caked with blood, was obviously sick and insane: flesh fevered, eyes wild, and moth frothing.  Bey gives a gasp because she’s recognized something crucially important, but Hemlock keeps talking.  The guards subdued the deranged man, who was later identified as a Varisian thug named Grayst Sevilla, but when they followed his tracks back to the Bradley barn, they discovered the mutilated bodies of three men inside!  The bodies of the men bore the same seven-pointed star marking, and from a piece of parchment found in one’s pocket, Sheriff Hemlock concludes that the bodies belong to con men well-known to him: Tarch Mortwell, Lener Hask, and Gedwin Tabe.  He adds that the three bodies are in the garrison’s basement if the group think they could learn anything from an examination of them.

Once Hemlock’s explanation is over, Bey adds her surprising insight:  Grayst Sevilla is suffering from ghoul fever!  A mere description of his symptoms was enough for the oracle to identify the cause, and the fact ties in perfectly with the strong stench of rotten flesh (a well-known attribute of ghouls) found at the crime scene in the mill.  Bey says that Sevilla must be treated immediately lest he spread the disease elsewhere.  Hemlock says that the man is in the care of Dr. Erin Habe at a sanatorium south of Sandpoint.  Hemlock says he’ll write a letter of introduction for the group, and, when asked, says he’ll arrange for the town to pay for the magical scrolls that Bey said could be used to cure the man.  Before they leave, Artemis relates the details of the failed mission to capture Nualia and of Shalelu’s rescue.

The investigators walk to the basement of the garrison, where Vachedi shows them the three slabs holding the bodies of the con men.  Bey confirms that each has the same Sihedron-marking and claw wounds as Banny Harker.  Bey is careful to note that, because the bodies’ faces have been mutilated, there is no absolute confirmation of each victim’s identity.  Next, the group manage to get the attention of Vorvashali Voon in his shop (even though it’s now after dusk and closed), and are fortunate to find that he has two magical scrolls containing spells to cure diseases.

Sandpoint is again the target of a serial killer, but this time the clues are being assembled quickly.  What will the investigators discover when they question someone who could be the only surviving witness to the murders?
Director's Commentary (26/06/2017)

I put a couple of non-combat encounters on the road back from Mosswood.  I do this every so often as a role-playing opportunity for the players, to add some verisimilitude to the world, and to keep the players from thinking that every time they see something it must be monsters or an ambush.  It can be fun as a GM to see some PCs attach great significance to completely innocuous things, like Arnald being incredibly suspicious about the caravan heading to Galduria.

The return to Sandpoint sees the start of the murder mystery that officially kicks off Chapter 2 in the AP.  I thought this was a great part of the adventure path, as it gives the players a chance to do something different than pure combat (CSI!).  It definitely ups the stakes when it comes to death and horror (that lumber mill scene is nightmarishly grisly), and I really liked the direct tie to one of the PCs built into it.  Mysteries are really hard to do in role-playing games because the GM (or scenario writer, in this case) has to try to plan for all sorts of spells and special abilities the PCs may have, as well as provide contingencies in case important clues are misunderstood or simply overlooked.  If anything, there were probably too many clues at the crime scene as it wasn't hard at all for the players to deduce that the murderer was a ghoul, but I didn't mind because they were diligent in collecting information and intelligently talked over its implications.  It's always fun to see the players think up stuff that I (and the scenario writers) never would have expected, like taking the bits of rotten flesh to other learned people in town to see if they could identify it.

I loved how naturally the tie-in to the sanatorium worked.  I know from past experience running mystery plots that it's very easy for the players to think an important connection to the next stage of the adventure (like the crazed survivor has been put into care) is simply a throwaway line for flavour.  I originally thought there was a fair chance they wouldn't make it to the sanatorium at all.  They did skip interrogating Ibor Thorne or Ven Vinder, but didn't miss much.

My only disappointment was that the players (and their characters), having just reached the conclusion that the murderer was a ghoul and that ghoul fever was a thing, were expecting a battle in the morgue when they went to look at the bodies of the con men.  It was a bit of a let-down when the corpses really were just corpses!  I perhaps such have exercised some GM discretion and had one of the bodies suddenly lurch into motion . . .

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