Cast of Characters
Garret Kahneus - Half Elf Valorous Bard
Alaric Rose - Elf Archer Ranger
Urogoth - Half-Orc Bleak Disciple Assassin (deceased)
Gaerbin Drake - Dragonborn Balanced Paladin
Gaknar - Goblin companion character (striker)
Annie Ramsey - Garret's childhood friend, companion character (defender)
On the Road Again
Last session ended with the PCs questioning Skamos, and then retiring to their rooms at the Oakroot Inn. At the beginning of this session the players woke up to the sound of arguing coming from downstairs. When they went down to investigate, they found Skamos arguing with Orsir about a bounty on another captive from Lyria Castle (Gaerbin Drake). Orsir had gone back to investigate (whether by breaking through the tar on the doors or entering through a secret entrance the PCs know not--they didn't ask), and found a recently awoken Gaerbin wandering about. Skamos insisted that he'd severed all ties with the Order, and that he wouldn't pay Orsir for Gaerbin's release. Garret had been aquainted with the Dragonborn in Helmund, and so they party paid for his release (using the gemstones in the party loot that Martok had found).
Since Garret's map of the surrounding area didn't include the Grimslade ruins, the party asked around and eventually learned that an archaeological expedition had occurred 6 or 7 years ago, and that one of the archaeologists, a Dwarf named Norvi Grimmordaen, still resided in Argondale. They sought him out and he agreed to be their guide. He insisted that they visit the Cave of Good Fortune a few miles north of the West Gate, and an eel spirit from a pool in the cave upgraded 1 magic item for each PC (though Gaknar was deemed "unworthy" by the spirit, Norvi obtained a magical archaeologist's pick that would allow him to dig faster).
As the party headed north the woods grew denser and the elevation steadily decreased. The terrain became more and more marshy. In the morning of their third day on the road the party came across a giant spiderweb blocking the remnants of the road (which was, at this point, a strip of land elevated about 4 inches above the surrounding wetland). Three large deathjump spiders jumped from the surrounding canopy, attacking the party with a surprise round. Two spider swarms (a custom creation of mine) also emerged from the webs during the surprise round. The Deathjump spiders won initiative by quite a bit, so they attacked first and then used their 10 square shift power to jump away back into hiding. This ended up being an extremely tough fight for the party, as Gaerbin was unable to lock down the spiders and the party was ill-equipped to deal with swarms (aside from a few AoE's that Garret has). Urogoth and Alaric both ended up dying, though Alaric was raised with a Raise Dead scroll that the party had found in Lyria Castle (I'd given them this because I knew they'd have a tough time without a defender; ironic how 2 players died in the first encounter with a defender). The player of Urogoth decided to roll up a Wizard because the party was definitely feeling the lack of a controller (he had to leave early though, so the Wizard hasn't seen play yet. I'm wondering if I'm going to regret pointing out Winged Horde and Enlarge Spell to him...). Urogoth was buried in the swamp and his gold and any useful gear were taken. Though Urogoth was consistently outdamaged by Alaric, I'm going to miss the assassin antics of teleporting at-will, etc.
The party had to fight their way through 2 more encounters as they made it through the swamp. The first was a fairly easy respite against a Vicejaw croc and 3 Bullywugs (the Bard's various slide abilities made the croc's grab completely useless). The second encounter was difficult in a very frustrating way. It was against three bullywugs and two (de-leveled) Vine Horrors. Yeah, the Vine Horrors have a close burst 5 attack that restrains and deals 10 ongoing damage (save ends both), and it's at-will. Most of the party spent most of the battle completely locked down (Gaerbin didn't get to use a single attack, though Alaric has amazing luck with foiling DM dice, as I tend to roll a disproportionate amount of very low numbers when attacking him). Yeah, I think I'll avoid encounters like that in the future because it really wasn't all that fun, especially for Gaerbin and Garret. Also, Norvi the Dwarf was killed. After the encounter the party decided to sit put (there were ruins of an old house nearby) so Garret could master the Comprehend Languages ritual before they took an extended rest. Norvi's journal detailing the route that the expedition had taken last time was written in Dwarven, which nobody in the party could read.
The Grimslade Ruins
After another day of navigating the swamp using Norvi's journal as their only guide, they eventually made it to drier ground. They camped, and reached the Grimslade ruins by late morning. They saw the castle, which was mostly crumbled down, though there was a tunnel leading underneath it that was apparently dug by the archaeological expedition years ago. There was also an old guardhouse with bones, weapons, etc. lying outside and graffiti depicting the Eye of Gruumsh all over the walls. Seemed like Orcs had taken up residence here. There were a few other small ruined buildings, as well as a temple that was in fairly decent condition. The party decided to go into the tunnel first. It led to a door that was warded with magical energy (I used the skill challenge Opening the Ninth Ward straight from the DMG2 here). I found it very difficult to describe successes achieved through Arcana, especially since 4 were used to break down the warding magic. Oddly, I found it easier to make the successes via History believable as I just said that the character recalls a short incantation that they read about, and each success used a different incantation. Perception checks I described as the character (Alaric, in all cases) noticing blocks near the door that could be slid, clicking into place. In any case, the door was opened and the characters continued onward, down a set of stairs (lighting a sunrod for a light source). They ended up in a large room, and those with low light vision could percieve a tall man standing next to a unicorn just outside the radius of the sunrod. While they were nervously greeting him, he stated that he was hungry and stabbed the unicorn in the neck with a dagger. Blood poured from the dagger, which was hollow, into a cup that was in the man's other hand. Once filled, he removed the dagger and the unicorn instantly healed the wound. Garret noticed fangs, and the characters all realized that he was a vampire. Alaric quickly glanced around the room, seeing only a pedestal in one corner with a broken urn on it. The party learned that the vampire was none other than Aston Grimslade, and that the urn had contained the essence of Vistun Selfeer, now a lich whose phylactery was never located by Aston. Aston was stationed in this room to guard the urn. Obviously, someone else had found the phylactery and used it to free Vistun (naturally, the party immediately suspected Tintrim, the leader of the Order who Orsir is quite certain was not killed in Lyria Castle). Extremely nervous, the PCs decided to bid the vampire farewell and leave the premises without questioning him further.
Next they decided to inspect the temple. They entered into a hallway, which ended with a door on the left and a door on the right. The left door led them into a room with double stacked sarcophogi lining the walls, and an altar at the far end. After investigating the altar (which had components related to necromancy on it), the party turned back but someone (probably Alaric) noticed a faint shimmer in the air which stretched across the room like a wall or a curtain. Garret recognized that it was some sort of arcane "trip wire," and Gaerbin sent Gaknar over to see if he could disarm it. After failing, Gaknar walked through it and awoken zombies in each of the sarcophogi (there were dozens). The PCs ran to the door, Gaknar jammed the lock, and Gaerbin tried to hold it against the assault. The rest of the party entered the next room, which simply had a few religious relics as well as a hole in the floor. After checking the hole, Garret recognized Annie, unconscious on the floor of the room 30 feet below. Meanwhile, the zombies had nearly shattered through the door. Gaerbin moved into the next room, yielding the hall (their only known escape route) to the zombies and barricading the second door from the inside (once again, Gaknar jammed the lock). The others tied a rope to one of the pillars and headed down into the hole. As the zombies started breaking through the second door, Gaerbin joined them. The zombies stopped at the edge of the hole, likely too stupid to know how to pursue them.
Garret revived Annie, who was a little disoriented. After some brief talk in which Annie asked the party if Aston had any crystals, they decided to continue onward (the room they were in had a door on the left and one on the right; since left had failed them last time, they went right). They found themselves in a room with a staircase leading up on the opposite side, and with pillars, rubble, and a large statue in the center of the room (which high Religion checks from Garret and Gaerbin revealed to be a statue depicting Nerull, a dead god who had ironically been god of the dead before the Raven Queen, over 2 centuries ago). The room also contained 4 zombies, 2 wights, and a deathlock wight (caster).
The session ended after this relatively easy fight. About halfway through the session, the players reached level 3 (it was one of the swamp encounters that did it). I'm pleased with the pacing so far, as I generally prefer characters to level each session (as both a player and a DM). Note that our sessions usually last about 8 hours, though experience gain might still be a bit faster than in an average game (part of this is because I usually run a lot of difficult encounters).