Whether I had previously related it or not, the party had followed the trail of cult contraband through the Mere of Dead Men (and I’m sure there’s some dead women in there as well) where they made friends with a feisty lizardfolk named Snapjaw after having slaughtered his scouting party. Lizardfolk are apparently incapable of carrying any fucks around…no pockets.
When Snapjaw learned that the party was interested in taking down the dragon cult, he offered to help them get access to their stronghold, Castle Naertyr. The cultists, he explained, had employed both the native lizardfolk and the more brutish native bullywugs to help out with their schemes, although since the cultists favored the bullywugs over the lizardfolk, and since the bullywugs…well, bully the lizardfolk, Snapjaw has little love for either the “dragon kneelers” or the frog-fuckers.
Getting into the castle was easy, since Snapjaw knew the way to avoid bullywug patrols and navigate through sympathetic lizardfolk. Once inside the castle, Snapjaw served as the party’s hall-pass. Very few inhabitants of the castle seemed to be interested in what to them to be another transient bunch of cultists, especially if they had a lizardfolk escort.
Now, down to business.
The party knew that this castle was where the treasure was being taken to, but wasn’t sure what was happening to it once it got there. Castle Naertyr is a not-insignificant piece of real-estate. It’s comprised of a keep surrounded by ancient yet sturdy walls connected to several towers. The party learned that most of the internal structures had three floors, and that there was a subterranean level as well.
They opted to start at the closest structure, which turned out to be an old chapel. Upstairs, they found a library tended by some low-level cultists and one of the cult’s dragonclaw enforcers who apparently had a secret love of literature. It cost him in the end, though, as the players mercilessly slaughtered everyone in the room, hiding the bodies under the rug (which was now about five feet off the floor and lumpy as hell).
One trip up another flight of stairs and the party found an astoundingly ornate set of rooms including an office, a sitting room, and a bedchamber. One small, totally empty room appeared to be a personal chapel sporting a crude painting of a five-headed dragon emerging from a volcano on the back of the door. Rummaging through the desk, the party collected a lot of shipping manifests, some survey maps of the area, and a Post-It note with a single word: [I can’t remember what the word is]. Never ones to leave any stone unturned or any documents unstolen, the adventurers swept everything into an empty pack and proceeded to the bedchamber.
Collectively suppressing a comical whistle of surprise, the party found the room to be filled with ornate furniture and lavish appointment. There was a well made, comfy looking queen sized bed, a few small tables, and two cabinets: one nondescript and the other emblazoned with the same kind of painting from the back of the door in the personal chapel. In the corner was a magnificent black dragon statue made of actual black dragon scales with rubies for eyes and diamonds for teeth, standing on an actual pile of gold and jewels. The tables yielded nothing, and the bland dresser revealed only common clothing.
Lulled by the confidence that only a Adventure Co could muster, the ranger opted to open wide the ornate dresser, because he didn’t see any signs of traps. He didn’t see any signs of traps, but upon opening the doors wide there was a massive explosion of acid that blanketed the room, hitting everyone and damaging absolutely everything in sight.
The party quickly employed their best healing salves and quickly made their way out of the room and back to the castle courtyard. Stepping foot into the sunlight once more, the party noticed an old acquaintance: Azbara Jos, the not-so-well-concealed Thayan who had joined their two-month-long caravan and who it had seemed had fallen in with the cultists. Attempting to skirt Jos, the party peeked into the window of the castle smithy and learned that lizardfolk suck at metallurgical tasks. However, Jos had seen them, recognized them, and beckoned them to the far side of the keep where the met them secretly in the anti-chamber of his quarters. There he explained that he was sent by Rath Modar, a Thayan exiled for suspicion of plotting against Szass Tam, Head Necro lich of that creepy subcontinent. Modar is apparently fascinated by dragons, and dreamed of taking a massive dragon army back to Thay (accompanied by an appropriately ass-kicking metal soundtrack) to depose Tam. He sent Jos to see if he couldn’t work out some kind of deal or knowledge sharing with the dragon cult to realize this dream. Neither Jos nor Modar had any idea what the cult was planning, or what they were doing with the loot, but the party wasn’t forthcoming with what they knew or suspected about the cult activities. Jos did, however, tell the party that the crates of loot were taken into the Great Hall (caps appropriate) where he knew the spoils were sorted. Where the loot went after that, he couldn’t say.
He also let them know that the bedroom they trashed belonged to Rezmir, the head of the dragon cult and owner of the castle. Oopsie!
The door to the Great Hall was locked, so the party killed an hour at the smithy while the bard attempted to teach the poor lizardfolk the proper way to work metal. Unfortunately, lizardfolk are good at several things, none of which is working with metal, and after the party healed up, they left the poor creatures no better than they found them.
Next the party visited the kitchen which was run by an overworked, under-appreciated, and thoroughly disgusted dwarf who quickly shooed them through the door that lead to the Great Hall. As soon as they entered, they were conscripted by the dragonclaws to help sort the piles of treasure into other boxes, and then to take those sorted boxes downstairs into the caverns.
+ + +
Castle Naertyr could either be a boondoggle or a major advancement of the plot. Thorough parties who want to kill time could do a lot of exploration, since there’s a whole lot of rooms on the four-floor map, but each room examination increases the chance that all hell would break loose and the party’s presence become compromised. The castle is mostly under the care of the cult steward, an elf-supremacist named Graybone, and is staffed with Rezmimr-approved bullywugs and Graybone-favored lizardfolk. The only cultists at the castle are those allowed to deal with the handling of the treasure, so are limited to being low level functionaries that can be handled by the dragonclaws should the need arise.
The party was on point this session. They didn’t stray too far into the corners of the castle (although I think under other circumstances they wanted to), and ended up in places that made plot advancement a very natural occurrence.
The first 1/3 of this chapter in the text is all about the politics of the castle, which made things rather difficult to plan and execute from a flavor standpoint. The bullywugs are the muscle of the castle, keeping the perimeter clear and making sure things keep running under the weepy eye of head bullywug Pharblex Splattergoo. The lizardfolk perform the menial labor, and while they’re smarter than the bullywugs, Splattergoo actually killed their leader and thus disheartened the tribe. Rezmir’s promise of favor with a dragon named (let’s see if I can get this right) Voahamananthahrahhanthhemnathar is what drew the tribe to her cause, and what causes them to put with the abuse under the bullywugs. Rezmir allows the elf Graybone to manage the operation of the castle while she…does whatever she’s doing.
What all this means is that there’s a lot of leeway as to how this chapter could play out. There’s a lot of talk about what should happen if the place erupts in combat. There’s some talk about how to handle more subtle infiltration, though, and while the party started Hoard of the Dragon Queen in the “guns blazing”, traditional MMO mode, they’ve since decided that not everything needs to be killed first, questioned later. For me, this is both good and bad. Good, because combat encounters take up a whole lot of time and don’t really advance the plot, plus I have to remember the tactical performance of several NPCs which doesn’t always happen (to the advantage of the players). It’s also bad because combat is easy to implement, and stories are hard. There’s got to be enough to do to make being in the chapter worthwhile for the party (so they don’t immediately find the objective and roll to the next chapter), but I have to be careful not to railroad them with hints, or through the “Jamna Chorus”, which I did last night when they wanted to create a castle-wide diversion by setting fire to the library. Jamna suggested it might make their job more difficult, since the castle would then be on alert. Thinking back, she could have taken over the trap-checking in the bedroom, being a rogue and all, but I didn’t want to make her to deus ex machina.
We got a lot done last night, though, and I was thoroughly pleased. I had spent about two hours on prep this week because of the convoluted nature of the castle politics, and making sure I knew roughly which sections might have combat, which would have combat, and which could be leveraged for important and optional plot advancement. I think it was worthwhile, and certainly necessary for this chapter.