The Thing Under the Stairs
The party had split up into a few rooms after having unloaded their carts at the roadhouse, and now the game was afoot (which is about 2 feet short of your average gnome).
Jamna and Tinda took a room on the north side of the roadhouse, while Zalandrin and Elrryn took a room on the western side of the building. Both groups were on the upper level. Much to the party’s chagrin, however, the cultists were also bunking on the upper level, in the two rooms adjacent to Jamna and Tinda.
While Zalandrin kept watch at the balcony, keeping his eyes on the cultists (who were also keeping their eyes on Zalandrin and were making no attempts to conceal the fact), Jamna suggested that everyone split up and recon the complex. Jamna opted for the commissary, Tinda loitered around in the courtyard among the construction materials, and Elrryn took a brief nap before joining Jamna in the cafeteria.
The players were introduced to several of the local luminaries. Gristle Pete, the roadhouse cook, is a cranky old chef who loves to cook, hates his patrons, and has serious concerns about the rats he keeps hearing in the storeroom that lies beneath the kitchen. Bog Luck, the half-orc quartermaster of the roadhouse, seems to be always-on-the-move busy, but otherwise unconcerned with the players or the cultists. Even Ardred Briferhew, the caravan gang leader, seemed to have some strange secrets that Jamna overheard from the adjacent room. In addition, Jamna overheard the cultists from the room on the other side of her’s say something about “a tunnel”, “lizardfolk”, and [Oh shit I forgot what the third thing she overheard was…]
Of primary interest to the players was the storage room, the only semi-non-easily-visible place in the entire building (that they were interested in). While the courtyard held the larger construction materials — timber, scaffolding, carts — the storage room was where all of the caravan’s crates were taken, along with tools and smaller, less durable goods. The storage room wasn’t secured, but it was back under the stairs that lead up to the commissary, and supposedly where Gristle Pete’s rats were hiding out.
Tinda made an initial pass through the storage room undetected by those loitering in the courtyard and discovered a heavy, locked door that lead to another room from within the storage area. She raced back to the group and relayed her findings, and it was decided that the group really needed to know what was in that room.
The party split up, with Elrryn keeping watch over the courtyard, and Zalandrin, Jamna, and Tinda sneaking off towards the storage room. As a precaution, the three party members waited for a few heartbeats before attempting to gain entry to that locked room, which turned out to be a good idea: Bog Luck appeared in the door way of the room, and for an instant the party braced themselves for a confrontation. Luck only popped his head into the room far enough to grab a clipboard from where it was hanging by the door, and then left.
Seeing as how Jamna was well versed in the thiefly arts, she went to work on the solid door while Zalandrin hovered nearby, Tinda blended into the shadows amidst various crates, and Elrryn worked on a turkey leg he’d taken from the commissary for a late night snack. The door was proving to be quite the adversary, and it took three tries for Jamna to successfully pick the massive lock.
Zalandrin was the first one through, and the first one to register the fact that there were three lizardmen in the cramped secured room. Wasting no time, Zalandrin started attacking. The party quickly filled the small room taking out two of the lizardmen in short order. Jamna cast Charm Person on the third lizard, and was barely able to stop Zalandrin from killing him before they could use the charm to their advantage. When questioned about how they got into the secure room, the charmed lizard explained that they had arrived through a concealed trap door in the corner, and they had been coming back night after night to take away marked crates through a tunnel and into the Mere of Dead Men. He implicated Bog Luck as the one who was marking the crates and signaling the lizardfolk. Having heard enough, Jamna made the executive decision to kill the lizardman, and the party stuffed the bodies into the tunnel. They realized that they had 24 hours to figure out a plan to follow those crates without tipping off the cultists that the party was on to their scheme.
* * *
This was a very good scenario. We were down by two players who had other commitments for the evening, but we’d been so sporadic in our convening that we decided that we’d best push ahead this week.
I think this scenario was the perfect mix of creativity, execution, role-playing, and action. The players were faced with downtime, a good 16 hours or so before the construction crew would be waking and moving out to the construction site. During that time, they had the opportunity to snoop around the cultist’s business, seeing as how everyone was thrown together in this small space and unable to leave.
On occasion, the players seemed to be considering the situation individually, leading to periods of silence while they sussed out their next moves. We did have a fair bit of “meta gaming” going on, as the party discussed options while the characters weren’t in close proximity. Normally we overlook this kind of thing because the party is all together, but there were a few times when I think the players silently opted to concede to the decisions of the group, despite the characters being in places where they couldn’t possibly have been included in the plan-making. For a scene such as this, which was equal parts stealth, eavesdropping, and information gathering, the meta gaming was conspicuous, but manageable. Had it escalated, though, it would have been a problem by subverting my ability to actually take advantage of a split party, for good or for ill, and to give the gameplay the kind of tension it deserves.
I finally remembered that Jamna was with the party, which paid off on multiple levels, but with warning flags. First, she took over for our absent members. Second, she conveniently happened to have thieving skills (legit, from the module, and not a deus ex machina to fill a needed role). Third, she allowed me to throw in a Greek Chorus without having to resort to “Booming DM Voice From The Heavens”. It was tough, though: Jamna suggested the party split up and recon the roadhouse. She raised suspicions of Briferhew (who vanished as soon as the caravan put in, and hadn’t been seen since), suggested that they stay on-mission and find the cultist crates so as to follow them to their ultimate destination, eavesdropped on the cultists and discovered valuable information, and mentioned that they might want to walk to Bog Luck, who seemed to know everything that was going on in the complex. She also charmed the lizardman for questioning, which lead to the discovery of the trap door. It’s a fine line between running a helpful character as an omniscient DM, using that character to either force the players onto a track that I as the DM know they should follow, or to use her to perform the actions that the players might not think of in order to keep the plot moving. Having Jamna around can and probably will prove useful, but she’s going to have to take a less active player role while still being a relevant character to the story. That’ll be tough, although it was fun to be on the player side of the table for a change.