I think it would be prudent now to start with an updated party roster, especially since the Nameless Warrior finally has a proper name: Klaus Bleowulf (the surname meaning "blue wolf" in the Old English, and also a cute pun on Beowulf; as an amateur Anglo-Saxonist, I approve wholeheartedly). Now that the party has six regular player characters, that's a six-plus-way division of the experience points each game: everybody earned a little over 600 XP at the end of last session, and maybe 650 XP apiece at the end of this session. And this is with a party of six PCs (four 3rd level and two 4th level), one 2nd level retainer, two hired men-at-arms, and one or two charmed followers, basically steamrolling their way through most of the dungeon's first-level sub-sections.
At the end of the previous game session, the party consisted of:
Connor MacLeary, Neutral Gnome Green Wizard, 4th level
Henrik Iverssen, Lawful Human Technologist, 4th level
Viktor Forsman, Chaotic Human Brawler, 3rd level
Lady Deliah the Black, Neutral Human Sorceress, 3rd level
Gibli, Chaotic Human Expert, 3rd level
Klaus Bleowulf, Neutral Human Fighter, 3rd level
Freida Waldenkrieger, Lawful Human Fighter, 2nd level [henchman]
Naeyl Røddenbald, Lawful Human Man-at-Arms, 0th level [hireling]
Sven Edgren, Neutral Human Man-at-Arms, 0th level [hireling]
Fritzhelm, Chaotic Human Fighter, 1st level [charmed by Deliah]
Connor's class is "green wizard" and Henrik's class is "technologist" because both are 4th level and have therefore moved up from the rank of Basic-level adventurer to Expert-level hero. The default ranks for each class are as follows (1st-3rd level > 4th-8th level > 9th level and up):
- Fighter > Knight > Paladin
- Expert > Specialist > Professional
- Brawler > Champion > Grandmaster
- Artificer > Technologist > Inventor
- Druid > Wizard > Sage
- Sorcerer > Warlock > Magus
* * *
At the end of the last session, the party had been trying to decide what to do with a couple of odd dungeon features. One room had a headless bronze statue overlooking a sacrificial altar painted with fake blood. Another room had a three-headed stone statue of the cultists' doomy deity, Domstag; and this statue had a kind of socket behind the necks of the three heads, which looked identical to the socket in the neck of the headless bronze statue. Finally, there was an altar in a polished-marble chapel, inscribed with the words, "rest here, ye faithful, and reap the boon of thy worth."
Now, the party had detected danger from this altar; they had tried placing inanimate objects upon it, to no effect; and Connor even attempted to place a living animal (a spitting cobra that he'd snaked charmed last session) on it, again with no result. The three-headed stone statue, meanwhile, was protected by some kind of barrier abjuration that deflected all damage and either reflected or destroyed missile-weapons shot at it; and the doors at the top of the great stair leading south and up from this room were likewise protected, and therefore impossible to open.
The party chose to ignore all of this for the time being and continue exploring. Moving south from the chapel, they came to a room roughly in the center of this dungeon-level, occupied by a dozen moaning and kowtowing cultists, all of whom had recently plucked out one of their eyes and placed it as an offering before another Domstag statue. The party SWAT-teamed most of the cultists with grenades, took a prisoner, and decided once and for all to see what that inscribed altar in the chapel was all about.
They knocked out their captive, threw him onto the altar, and this caused the room to quake, and a dark voice boomed, "UNWORTHY!" The cultist received scarring burns to his face and fell off the altar, sobbing and praying. After this, the party took him back to the room where the cultists had been praying; they'd also found some stairs down to the next level here. They knocked out their prisoner yet again and threw him down the stairs, apparently just to see what would happen. The party cast a light spell out of a mana stone, illuminating the bottom of the stairs, just in time to see something drag the concussed cultist into the shadows. A few seconds later, they heard the cultist wake up, scream, and then die with a bloody gurgle.
So... maybe not that way just yet.
They ran a few trip-wires attached to grenades across the stairs and then kept exploring. They moved west from the offering-chamber and came into a throne-room, lined with gallery seating, but presently empty of occupants. The throne on the south wall proved to have a hidden switch the armrest that swung the whole south wall, throne included, around into a secret room to the south. Here, they found some half-finished stone statues, all headless and limbless, and a few articulated stone arms and legs that animated and flopped around harmlessly when a party-member approached. The pieces seemed to be some queer combination of mechanical handwork and golem-craft: whatever it was that animated them was beyond the knowledge of both Henrik and Deliah.
Also within this secret chamber, they found a secret door with a kind of slide or chute, possibly an escape-hatch, that slid down into darkness below. The party noted this and then went back into the throne room and back out into the corridors to do more exploring.
Now, earlier, Connor had gotten an idea: if the cultist on the altar had been burned for his unworthiness, perhaps magic could prevent that. He'd found a grimoire of resist fire in the library just west of the chapel; if he could learn the spell, perhaps that would prevent ill effects. So Connor retreated back outside, to the party's campsite, where he would spend the next two days trying to learn the spell.
The rest of the party took to searching out the final southeast quadrant of this dungeon-level: they found an area with both a forge and an archery range, where a few of the cult's servants, a dwarf smith and his goblin assistant, were hard at work forging swords, and a gnomish archer in woodsman-green was practicing his aim. Deliah charmed both and learned that neither was particularly loyal to the cult; they were hirelings or mercenaries. The dwarf, Lunkin, outfitted the temple-guards with arms; the gnome, Quissler, taught them archery and occasionally led squadrons of guards out on scouting or slave-taking missions.
The party managed to convince Quissler to come with the party, to "show them around the place"; but they left Lunkin and the goblin to their work. (So now the party had two charmed followers, Fritzhelm, the slave-trader from Dolheim, and now the gnomish scout and range-master). From there, they moved to the last unexplored area on this level, the goblin-barracks in the extreme southeast of this floor. In one room, gnolls* shrouded in shadows hissed and laughed. In another, a ring of goblins laughed and cheered while some other goblins wrestled and fought with hobgoblins. The party decided to sneak-attack the goblins, which drew everybody into a protracted fight; their mercenary, Naeyl, got a little banged up in the fight, but he was easily healed afterward.
(*Gnolls in my campaign are not hyena-headed beastmen. Instead, they are a race descended from the mingling of goblin and troll stock. They're utterly psychotic, finding everything that happens around or to them hilarious, and they have a strange supernatural power to absorb and negate light, even magical light; shadows seem to follow them everywhere. The inspiration for my version of gnolls comes from two sources: their creator, Lord Dunsany, who called them "gnoles"; and a creature called a growleywog, invented by none other than the famous L. Frank Baum.)
In the goblin barracks, the party finally found a good-sized treasure: a chest full of silver and a big, sealed clay urn with a slot like a piggy-bank, full of silver and copper and iron coins. They also discovered here an object that they'd been seeking: a great bronze head. Now, all of the statues of Domstag that they've found in this dungeon, as well as a couple of defaced and broken statues of two of the northern gods, Thünor and Freya, have been in a very Nordic art style. This bronze statue head looked more Grecian or Babylonian in style. They also noticed that the neck had a sort of plug or peg, made of the same gray basalt-like stone that many of the Domstag statues they'd found were made of.
The party decided to simply take the head. Now, this thing wasn't exactly solid bronze, but it was still heavy as all hell: it took three of them to roll this thing down the dungeon-corridors, and there was no way to do that quietly. They mostly encountered wandering zombies drawn by the clattering echoes; Gibli used a scroll of protection from undead that he'd found to ward them off while Henrik wasted them with combustion bombs.
Once outside, Connor paused in his studies to examine the head. He found that the stone plug could be removed from the bronze head. On its own, the stone cylinder, about two feet long and five or six inches in diameter, looked rather key-like; he suggested that it would be better to try and slot this thing in between the three heads of the basalt Domstag statue near the stairs up and the warded door; the bronze statue standing over the fake altar was probably a decoy and a trap. The party decided not to go back into the dungeon again that day: they waited for Connor to finish learning resist fire.
While they waited, Quissler, whose Intelligence was greater than Fritzhelm's, managed to shrug off the charm person spell: the party was forced to restrain the gnome while Deliah attempted to re-charm him, using two spells that day before it finally worked. Also, during this "day off" from spelunking, Connor chose to memorize speak with animal so that he could talk to the cobra that he'd snake charmed earlier; and he made such a fine impression that the snake agreed to become Connor's animal companion. Connor learned the snakish (Parseltongue?) commands for actions like "spit venom" and "attack" and so forth; and the cobra, in turn, got to ride around on Connor's shoulder rather than inside the party's bag of holding.
The morning after that, the whole party went back into the dungeon. First, the party went back to the marble chapel. Connor cast resist fire on himself and lay down on the altar. Again, the room shook and a voice boomed, "UNWORTHY!", but by virtue of the +2 bonus to saves vs. fire accorded by the resist fire spell, Connor just barely managed to roll away from the altar before he could be burned and disfigured. After that, they followed the wizard's suggestion and slotted the great stone key into the Domstag statue before the stairs. Sure enough, this deactivated the barrier, and now the party was able to ascend the stair and access the first level above ground.
Up here, the party found a font of unholy water; on a whim, Viktor dipped his elfsteel war-axe in the water, and Connor and Gibli each filled a phial. The hallways beyond that contained mostly bedrooms, and these mostly empty. There were only a scant few monks in this area of the temple, saying their matins in their bedrooms. The party left them to their business and searched in a southerly direction first, where they found a secret passage that seemed to twist and turn and wind in a generally south-by-southwesterly direction; after following this bare tunnel a full hundred yards with no end to it in sight, they decided to abandon this direction and return to exploring the rooms and corridors.
At one point, they passed a kind of weird ossuary, where human leg and arm bones had been stacked into a perfect pyramid shape with a single skull at the top. Gibli took the skull, and Viktor destroyed the rest of the pyramid with a grenade; but they found neither magic nor treasure here.
Pressing north, they found more bedrooms, a gymnasium populated by training monks who attacked after a bit of confusion; they were quickly slain. Then the party found themselves in the north wing of this floor, where they found a sculptor's studio, a painter's studio, and a great art gallery full of disturbing artwork. The irate priest in the painter's studio attacked the party on sight with his paintbrush; the party named him "Evil Bob Ross" and beheaded him. In the art gallery, they found only a single silent monk, who they also killed. Then, while they were searching through the works of art, Gibli got his hand stuck to a painting of messy, abstract color-splatters. The painting started pulling on his arm, trying to draw him in. The whole party then grabbed onto Gibli and pulled back. They yanked him free, and the paint on the canvas came with him, lifting off the ground and animating as a rainbow-colored spectre. This was by far the most formidable monster the party had encountered yet: it touched Gibli and life-drained his hit point maximum from 12 down to 2, before the group rallied and started pounding the ghost with spells, elfsteel weapons, and elemental blasts from their DDF guns. (Viktor's axe, doused with unholy water, caused the spectre to hesitate for a round without acting.) The spectre was reduced to a puddle of smoldering ectoplasm; and hanging within the picture-frame, where the spectre had been lying in wait, was a cloak of protection +2. This they gave to Gibli, in the hopes that it would keep him alive until he could recover from the undead's life-draining touch.
From here, they moved westward and found a suite of rooms apparently owned by the Patriarch of the temple: a sitting-room, a bedroom, a wine-closet, and so forth. The most interesting feature here was a journal, left behind by the Patriarch of Acrefatum, which confirmed that they were indeed producing the mana stones here, and trading them to Dolheim, in exchange for a constant supply of slaves and prisoners---some delivered directly to the priests, and others merely abandoned on the shore of the island, as all of the player characters had once been. This was a bit baffling, but things are on the verge of making sense, if the players manage to do a bit more exploring in this direction next time.
* * *
Now, what did I learn from this session? Well, charm person is freaking powerful for a 1st level spell. Sure, we all kind of already knew that, but this was the first time I've ever had a mage throwing it around willy-nilly and swelling up the party size. It comes with its own complications, sure, but it's mostly a big advantage.
The party basically steamrolled every encounter, with minimal risk to their lives. I have to keep reminding myself, these are dungeon areas balanced against a 1st level party; this party is 3rd and 4th level. I'm carefully guarding myself against inflating the strength or numbers of the enemies they meet, since I'm philosophically opposed to the "quantum ogre" / "Schrödinger's dungeon" style of refereeing; and, honestly, that's an easier impulse to resist than the ever-present temptation to fudge the dice in favor of either the party or the monsters. So far, I've managed to avoid that one great and terrible, game-invalidating pitfall, and I'm very proud of myself for it.
Deeper dungeon levels, I have to keep telling myself. They'll find more balanced encounters on deeper dungeon levels.