So, what was I to do with Jesse? Raise his character through the influence of the Powers That Be? Or leave the character dead and have him start a new character. I seriously considered the first option, but the fact that Mel would be joining in for the first time made it easier to introduce two new characters instead; thus both Mel and Jesse entered through the front door together, having also been recruited by the children to help them get rid of the monster in the basement.
Shaun and Josh welcomed the new characters, with Shaun taking great delight in explaining to them that the entrance to the basement was in the attic. When you have weird cults, logical building construction can go out the window! And so, rested, the group proceeded down to the basement again, and this time to the bottom level from which the sound of chanting emanated.
They reached a room in which thirteen niches held a strange assortment of items. They examined one – a withered hand attached to a rope – before deciding to leave the horrible things alone. The chanting was quite clear now: “He is the Ancient. He is the Land.” It was repeated again and again and again. (I took much delight in repeating it when the players discussed what to do. In retrospect, it would be fun to record thirteen people chanting it, and then put it on loop while they’re in this part of the dungeon.)
Two exits presented themselves. The chanting was louder from one, so – on the theory that you clean out the rest of the dungeon before reaching the final encounter – they entered the other passageway.
They found a set of disused cells. Well, mostly disused: one set of manacles still held the bony remnants of one poor prisoner. They also found a secret door that led to the great ritual chamber.
And then the chanting stopped.
The chamber was partially flooded, with a dais rising from the water in its centre, upon which a blood-stained altar stood. A hole in the south wall led to a refuse-filled pit. All was silent.
The group discussed what to do. A portcullis blocked the exit from the room back to the original entrance chamber, but a wooden wheel stood next to it. Jesse crossed to it, wading through the thigh-high water to get there. He turned the wheel, and opened the exit.
Then Josh crossed to the altar.
On ledges above the chamber, spectral forms appeared, and began to chant anew. “One must die! One must die! One must die!”
The characters knew what this meant (I made sure to inform them) – they’d need to sacrifice a living creature to satisfy the spectres. Mel offered her familiar – a rabbit. The others were adamant: no-one would be sacrificed. And so, Josh started to return to the others, so they could leave this cursed place.
At that point, the chant changed again, “Lorghoth the Decayer, we awaken thee!”
A great slimy horror erupted from the southern pit, and engulfed Josh before he was able to react. Jesse ran to his aid, but was laid low by the creature as well. It then surged towards Mel and Shaun, who took cover in the cells, feeling that the large monstrosity could not fit through the narrow secret door to reach them.
They were wrong, and with a single blow, it felled Mel.
Shaun ran, the monstrosity in pursuit. He looped around, through the entrance chamber back into the ritual chamber, and quickly activated the portcullis, dropping it back down to bar the progress of the creature. He then went to see how Jesse was faring.
Jesse wasn’t well, but at least he was stable.
Shaun decided that he had to be the one to take down the monster. He used one of his more potent spells – witch bolt – only to discover that the creature was energized by the spell! With the additional power given to it by the spell, it broke the portcullis asunder and surged into the room. Shaun fled, but in an error of judgment fled to the wrong side of the room. There he was trapped by the creature, and the adventure ended… with no survivors.
On Total Party Kills
In my long history as a D&D Dungeon Master, I’ve had a handful of Total Party Kills to my credit; that is: a session where everyone died. I’ve never gone into a session of D&D intending to kill everyone, but neither do I shy away from them, especially when the TPK is mostly down to player stupidity.
Player characters die for strange reasons. Occasionally, they are unfair. It’s certain that Josh’s character’s death was that way. He happened to be the person closest to the monster, and he rolled really poorly on his initiative check. Nothing he could do – he was basically dead at that point. The monster was well outside what this group could deal with. His PC’s death was brutal and unfair, certainly, but in a lot of ways it worked within the framework of the adventure: this was a horror adventure, and different rules apply.
Jesse’s character’s death, on the other hand, was due to his compassion. He tried to save Josh, running into a bad situation. It was heroic, but also doomed. The initiative order didn’t help him: he healed Josh, the monster acted (and hit Josh again as well as knocking Jesse out), then Josh began his turn grappled and engulfed and basically unable to escape. Sometimes, I miss AD&D initiative. However, even with that, Jesse wouldn’t have been able to save Josh. The creature was beyond them. He just didn’t recognize that.
Mel and Shaun’s deaths? They illustrate the difference between them (relatively new players) and me (Old School AD&D player). I run a lot more. If, in two rounds, a creature has killed two of my companions, I’m going to run, full-speed, for the exit. The house is locked and won’t let me out? Fine, that’s another problem to deal with. But staying with a monster that could kill me in a single round if it hit? Nope, I’m out of there!
I’ll point the reader to my article Running Away, Let’s Do It!, where I discuss the strategies of retreating from combat. In a horror game, it’s even more likely than normal that you’ll come against foes you can’t handle. So, be prepared to run.
The reaction of the players to the TPK was interesting. One player, in particular, was quite shocked and reduced their character sheet to a small pile of small, torn-up fragments, which then went into the bin. I’m not sure what the proper manner of handling such shock is. Others just brought out another character.
Given this had only taken us about an hour of the 2-hour slot, we finished by starting up the full Curse of Strahd adventure with new characters – or possibly existing characters from the DDAL games. I’ll describe the events of that first session later. It’ll be a fortnight before our next session of CoS, due to a Magic prerelease, so I’ll post it sometime in the gap. And perhaps even finish off my Princes of the Apocalypse recaps.