A Grassy, Wind-Swept Sandbox Full of Giants, Part Seven

Harold of Acholt worries about his father, the Thane
Harold of Acholt worries about his father, the Thane

When you prep for the players to zig, they always zag. Continuing from part six…

We’re finally caught up to the most recent game session! With game world firmly built out and chock-a-block with adventure hooks and sidequests, a firm campaign direction (“Escort Xerlo to the Eye of the All-Father”), and brain-eating enthusiasm infinitely better than the floundering avoidance I started with, I was excited for the characters to head into Rohan Hestelland. It was a four-day hike from Tyvalich to Hierandal, the capital of the realm, which was summarized in a paragraph because it mostly consisted of staring at grass for hours on end.

The first order of business on arriving in Hierandal was looking up Piotr Zymorven to ask him about his father’s sword. They found him in a tavern, not quite plastered but definitely a bit sauced, where he’d basically been for the past two weeks. Piotr explained that passing fire giants had been killing and eating the wild horses (“wildermearh”) of Hestelland, a symbol of national pride, and so Piotr (who was a King’s Guard at the time) had rounded up a party to track the giants and make them pay for this insult.

They had followed the giants back south up into the mountains, to some kind of a citadel with orc servants. Deciding to lay a trap for the giants, Piotr and crew waited for the giants to leave on another foray and went in, taking out the orcs. They found a lift down into subterranean levels and went to explore these, only to be confronted with a drider and her swarm of “pets,” whatever they were.

Unfortunately, Piotr had a crippling phobia of spiders, stemming from a traumatic early encounter with a bebelith when serving as squire for his heroic father. So when confronted with the mindbending weirdness of a darkly beautiful elf maiden from the waist up and a horrific giant spider from the waist down, and a brood of what are presumably giant spider minions, he froze up, and then finally dropped his father’s sword and ran while the rest of the party was horribly slaughtered. He made it back to Hierandal, the only survivor of the expedition, where he was stripped of his rank for cowardice and had been moping in the tavern pretty much ever since.

The party’s reaction to this sad tale ran from understanding compassion on Togar’s part to contempt on Brother Drang’s and seeming complete indifference from Nikki. Togar immediately recalled Xerlo’s vision– of him fighting spiders in the dark– and declared that obviously he had to go down into that hole and retrieve the sword. Unfortunately, that meant hiking all the way back to Tyvalich (“We just came from there!”) and further past it, going in completely the wrong direction from their overall goal of escorting Xerlo north.

The party decided to take in the town and see what else was going on before they did anything else. At the Adventurers Guild they heard about demon hound stalking the streets of one town, a “night of the living dead”-style phenomenon that happens every nine years in another town (and was due to hit again before the end of the current summer), a party of tomb raiders heading off to Annunimas Mirathranc looking to recruit some muscle, and finally one of the lords of Hestelland organizing a hunt for some sort of demon bear called Svartjaw, who was also terrorizing the wildermearh herds as well as murdering homesteaders across the plains and leaving slaughtered households in its wake.

Now I fully expected the players to want to follow up on the Zymorven’s Sword quest before they did anything else– it involved backtracking, which is always the sort of thing players want to get over with quickly if it needs to be done, and on top of that Togar was visited in the middle of the night by Hathas the Heedless’s ghost, who’d put them on that particular road in the first place. Although severely weakened by being “killed” again by the fire giant, Hathas had mustered up enough energy to manifest and tell Togar he remembered more details of his quest and that there was more to it than just “find and recover the sword.” The sword wasn’t actually the quest per se, but was actually a landmark for the true goal of the quest, which was somehow to prevent someone or something from disturbing whatever slept under Mt. Thunderdelve even further.

And while that certainly did sound important, the players instead decided to join in the hunt for Svartjaw. Their reasoning was sound– Lord Alden, the Thane organizing the hunt, was champing at the bit to go and barely being held back by his son Harold, who was desperate to find some reinforcements for the hunt first. The players figured that if they didn’t join the hunting expedition now, they would come back from Tyvalich to news that Thane and son had been killed by the demon bear as well.

At his point I had to wing it a bit– while I had a general outline for the Hunt for Svartjaw (actually an adaptation of “The Last Hunt” from issue 92 of Dungeon magazine), I had not fully prepped that adventure. HantaMouse pointed out that “this is the problem with running a sandbox” (hence the running title of this blog series), and that’s certainly true, but honestly? I still prefer it. I wouldn’t have put the possibility of the Svartjaw hunt out there if I wasn’t willing to roll with it, and while I didn’t have complete prep for every possible outcome, I had enough to roll with.

This is one of the situations in which a Random Encounter Table is a DM’s second best friend. I knew that Svartjaw’s lair was in Chalsem Wood, which was roughly two days’ ride from Hierandal plus or minus tracking time, so I called for some Survival checks to see how quickly they picked up the trail. (Answer: Very. For some reason, the party can’t seem to roll below 20 on Survival checks. And that’s before Multiclass Geek gets her bonuses in a forest setting.) Even zooming in on Svartjaw like iron filings to a magnet, they still had to cross the Maethe, at one Random Encounter Check per four hours.

Near the end of the first day they came upon hill giants and their hobgoblin slaves, wandered quite far afield from their mountain home, dragging dead horses back as “Food for Guh!” This was obviously nonsense of the type up with which Lord Alden would not put, and so the party spurred on their horses and charged! Lord Alden got a few good licks in, Harold got his shield smashed by a hill giant club, and the party committed their usual badassery, Sheala taking out all the hobgoblins with a single fireball. Brother Drang and Lord Alden clanged their weapons together in a little mini-joust moment at the end of the fight– the knight’s equivalent to a high-five– and the party camped the night, stopping to bury the horses in a cairn of honor and burn the giants.

(The camping and horse-burial bit got a bit elided over at the table; I need to remember to address it for the next session.)

The next day the party reached the edge of Chalsem Wood, where they were confronted by Lord Feornod, Thane of Chalsem, and a party of knights. Lord Alden, it seemed, had a history of “poaching” on Lord Feornod’s lands, and Feornod was quite testy about it. Lord Alden, on the other hand, was quite determined to find and destroy Svartjaw before it killed anyone else, and the two were getting quite heated about it. Fortunately, Nikki intervened with soothing words and a gift to Lord Feornod of his last bottle of Zelno Wine from Appletop, so Feornod gave Alden “until dawn” to complete his specific hunt for Svartjaw.

The trail continued into the woods, where it rapidly got quite dark as the sun went down, the longer days of summer notwithstanding. The party decided that instead of tromping around in the darkness looking for the demon bear, they would instead make a camp, grill something delicious-smelling, and bring the bear to them. The plan worked beautifully (or horribly)– within an hour of setting up camp, they were beset by Svartjaw, a massive, spined, distorted grizzly the size of an elephant, with a slathering black-rimmed muzzle and eyes lit with a baleful green fire.

Here’s where the DM’s art of improvisation jumped in: I hadn’t written up stats for Svartjaw yet, ‘cos I wasn’t expecting to need them this session. But I did have wyvern stats handy on the random encounter table, and it was “close enough.” The fly speed got dropped and the stinger poison became a “Terrifying Roar” attack at the same save DC to avoid becoming frightened, and sim salabim I had a Svartjaw.

Well my dear readers, reskinned wyverns are still CR 6. A party of six 5th-level PCs and their CR 7 stone giant ally piledrived Svartjaw so fast that Lord Alden and his son didn’t even get a chance to draw their swords. Lord Alden was quite upset by this apparent anticlimax to what he had expected to be an epic last hunt that would be sung of by the bards and so on… until Rina pointed out that the tracks they’d been following had a very distinctive tread missing three toes on one foot– and that the monster they had killed did not.

Svartjaw, it seemed, was not the only one of his kind.

Furthermore, examination of the bear revealed that like the displacer beasts in the previous session, Svartjaw was also wearing a collar with a token on it, in this case an emblem of Nerull the Reaper, a dark god of death and murder from eastern lands. There was still hunting to be done before dawn. The session ended with Lord Alden giving the order to mount up to continue the hunt, darkness and the forest be damned.

And with that, the campaign summary is up to date! The next session will begin with the PCs attempting to find Svartjaw’s lair and confront the source of its evil. Will Lord Alden survive his last hunt? Time alone can tell.

-The Gneech