Interlude 2: Close to Home

Interlude 2: Close to Home

A. Political Tensions

“Greetings, Inspectors! You’ve reached the rank I held when we first met. Our superiors are more than pleased with the work you’ve completed at Rose Keep, and there’s plenty of follow-up to be done. Before that happens, however, they’d like you to use your good name back here, close to home.

“As you’ve earned a bit of a renown as agents, the officers would like you to officially represent the Order in a situation that requires a bit more…finesse. You’ve shown you know more than simply to kick down a door; you understand the necessity of investigation before action.

“Choose whichever of the following missions most strikes your fancy. Each will do much to stabilize the political environment of our proud nation of Impiltur. Just remember that you are acting as the face not simply for yourselves, but for Torm’s Order of the Shining Blade as well.”

–Junior Officer Felkar

1. Cloak and Dagger

Lord Ganlin “Hightower” Relindar has never held the easiest job as governor of the province of Filur. Events within Filur’s borders have given the Relindar line every cause for concern. Songhal and its famous library closed itself off completely during the Spellplague; more recently, rumors of demonic excursions from the ancient Citadel of Conjurors have filled his vassals with dread.

In days of late, however, Lord Relindar has been taken with an almost zealous paranoia. He has become convinced that shadowy agents move against him from deep within his state. He speaks of secret meetings, hidden factions, and even pervasive cults slowly undermining his rightful rule. He fears betrayal.

Trusting no one within his court, much less any of the greater Council of Lords of Impiltur, Lord Relindar has reached out to us directly. Understanding the Order to be an apolitical organization devoted to ferreting out deception and corruption, he believes us his last chance at retaining power. He feels he has just cause for his suspicions, but he will only reveal further details in person.

Go to Filur and meet with Lord Relindar. See what troubles him. Investigate the matter and report what you uncover.

Themes: Social, Exploration


2. The Man With All the Toys

With magic as prevalent and ever-present as it is in Faerûn, you would expect it to have a major influence in worldwide economics. And so it does. Clerics Mend clothes and tools, druids perform services of medicine and animal husbandry, artificers repair self-driving wagons, and wizards are hired to Skywrite important announcements (or commercial advertisements).

Of course, trained magic-users are in short supply, and those of talent are even more so. As such, the same rules of basic economics function much the same for magical products. Companies providing similar services often fight for a lion’s share of the market. And, sometimes, they fight in the streets.

Recently, two well-established magical artisan guilds in the fields of automation (golems, toys, and the like) have become embroiled in open conflict. Warehouses have been burnt, merchants waylaid, and shop owners harassed. Fingers are pointed, but tracks have always been covered; the constables have so far only been able to pin the violence on a few “bad actors.”

The Lyrabar merchant council (and the ruling house of Heltharn) all agree that such conflict is bad for business. They would like us to make contact with the separate guild leaders, arrange a meeting, and negotiate a lasting truce.

Themes: Combat, Social


3. Fort Hard Knocks

The Royal Bank and Trust of Lyrabar has begun experiencing problems with its…security system. Established originally as a bullion repository for the monarchy of the time, it boasted a uniquely-effective deterrence: the vault itself was a subterranean hoard, guarded over by an agreeable copper dragon. Functioning as a gold reserve for the nation of Impiltur, withdrawals were rarely made – and when they were, the dragon required a donation of greater value in gems or other precious stones.

Lately, however, the “security system” has become – shall we say – disagreeable. No word to or from the dragon has occurred in several months. Unfortunately, recent events and a downturn of the Impiltur economy have prompted the Council of Lords to request the largest gold withdrawal on record. Overtly, bank executives have assuaged and stalled; secretly, they are beginning to panic.

Infiltrate the bank-turned-dungeon, handle the rogue security systems, and conciliate or defeat the dragon that guards the gold at the center.

Themes: Exploration, Combat

~ Mission Accepted ~

B. Memes and Dreams

Close to dawn, Rock-in-Water’s sleeping thoughts drifted to a brief but stark dream that remained with her well after waking. Within that dream, she beheld a tall stone tower, silhouetted against a deep field of stars. Its ancient, rotting edifice looked down over the roiling waves of a devonian sea, its vast age only just exceeded by the waters it surveyed.

Suddenly, a flash of light burst from deep within the inky blackness overhead. From between two stars, a fast-moving triangular shape appeared, plummeting to earth on the back of a careening bolt of lighting. It was nearly too fast to see. Just before it impacted the top of the tower, Rock caught a flicker of its outline: a diving falcon, its colors greyed and muted by the intensity of the surrounding flash.

Then the tower was struck. Rock awoke up with a racing heart, an after-image of its detonating destruction in her mind. But it was not the dream that had called her to wakefulness. No; from somewhere in her darkened chamber, the faintest “caw” had emerged. Rock heard a soft flurry of movement as she fumbled for her nearby oil lantern, but the resulting light revealed nothing sharing her space.

Nothing, that is, save a lone tarot card, mysteriously deposited in the most shadowy corner of her room.


Later that morning, Rock-in-Water bumped into Charli, who was also wandering the halls in a sort of fugue. The two quickly discovered they had experienced the very same dream at the very same time. What’s more, each of them had come away from their vision with a different version of the same card.


Alexis

Alston

Asura

Barney

Berkin

Charli

Rock

(Felkar)

Session Date: November 9th, 2020
Dale Reckoning: 4:00 PM, 1523 DR (Year of the Brownie’s Delight), 10 Uktar (10th of the Rotting).

C. Bon Appétit

Summer turned to fall, and the foliage dressed itself to match. Aside trees decked in golden pastels, merchants arrayed tools to aid in culling the latest harvest crops, or to celebrate the bounties already gathered. Autumn was a time for festivals of all kinds, and city-goers strolled along the streets of Lyrabar, noting here and there how different shop owners from different cultures chose to express their own beliefs.

For example, today was “Tehennteahan,” a high festival for worshipers of Waukeen (“the Merchant’s Friend”). This day honored craftsmen that worked with their hands with a day-long feast and demonstrations of new innovations. Booths along every street boasted tiny automaton toys, exotic weapons from far-away lands, sturdier hybrids of crop seeds, and more than their fair share of snake oil salesmen.

For the agent’s part, they were on their way to “The Terrace,” the most renowned and prestigious fine dining establishment in the capital of Impiltur. Atop a bluff high enough to overlook the Sea of Fallen Stars, The Terrace had made a name for itself in both the quality of its exotic dishes and in a dining experience that could not be found anywhere closer than Seghaunt.

Today’s excursion was Felkar’s treat. His team had returned from nearly a year’s worth of dangerous missions in the outside world, triumphant and (for the most part) still intact. Additionally, they were now Inspectors, the first of “prestigious” ranks that most agents of the Order would never enjoy.

The Terrace was capable of hosting a wide variety of events. The west wing was decorated in wood, ivy, and bamboo, and it was intended for large summer parties (particularly for younger crowds). The north end of the grounds, on the other hand, pandered to the opposite end of expectations: here, a marble tile ballroom awaited aristocracy and those who preferred pomp and circumstance. The Terrace’s east wing, however, was a luncheon room with open windows for a direct view of the bay. Felkar led them here.

The party was met at the door by an elven maître d’hôtel, of obvious drow descent. He escorted them to their reserved table and presented each patron with a menu for the day. A quick glance proved why The Terrace was a name well-known in elite circles.

Though they had dressed themselves in finer clothes for the occasion, the agents were certainly still an interesting spectacle: a tabaxi fed bread slices to a talking quarterstaff, while a man – who certainly seemed human at a glance – flicked a forked tongue in and out of his mouth in eager anticipation of the meal.

“Excuse me, sir, do you have a policy against pets on the premises?” a small, rather dapper kobold asked the maître.

“Certainly not,” the host smiled. “You’re free to dine with the rest of your party.”

“I didn’t mean for me; I meant for my friend here.” Here Berkin stepped aside to reveal another figure behind him. While it certainly might have been a kobold at one time, Berkin’s friend was now nothing more than skeleton, animated by fell wizardry (or perhaps simple force of will).

The maître d’hôtel raised an eyebrow slightly. “As long as it’s firmly within your control and doesn’t create a situation for our other guests…I don’t see that it should be a problem.”

The agents took their time in ordering their food, inquiring about the specific manner in which each dish was prepared. The host made certain to emphasize one of the selling points of The Terrace – namely, that most or all of their entrées were culled from dangerous beasts of the world. One might never wish to encounter a chimera on a dark night in a forest; but here, restaurant goers could gladly feast upon its meat, the dangers having already been meted in advance.

Once the orders had been placed, the host passed the selections to the kitchen. The chimera meat sampler dish ranked highly on the party’s lists, as well as the crème brûlée, heated to perfection at the table by a tiny pseudodragon.

The group inquired after the chef de cuisine, whom they were told was an orc by the name of Brardokk Steel Cleaver. Originally an adventurer himself hailing from Damaran lands, Steel Cleaver had immersed himself in the world of cooking. He had taught himself how to both hunt and properly serve “exotic meats,” eventually turning his passion into a profitable business. While The Terrace often commissioned groups of adventurers to bring back specified game for the restaurant, Steel Cleaver still hunted his specialty dishes on his own…with perhaps only a single sous-chef to help carry the meat back to town.

Both Berkin and Charli expressed interest in meeting the chef after the meal – Berkin to learn more of the monster-hunting regime that the chef used, and Charli to learn of new sources for his poison regents.


As they waited, the agents couldn’t help but remark on the steel-clad automatons that were serving food to the other patrons in the establishment. Within the luncheon area, the maître d’hôtel was the only flesh-and-blood attendant to wait upon the patrons.

“Ah, yes, the Constructs,” the host beamed. “The Terrace purchased and special-ordered these additions with the festival of Tehennteahan in mind. We pride ourselves, not only on our unmatched menu items, but also on a dining experience you will not find anywhere else this side of Neverwinter.” His gloved hand extended towards the vista before them. “There are restaurants with views. There are establishments with renowned chefs. There are even novelty street shops run by gnomish tinkers. But nowhere will you find all three elements so expertly woven together than right here, at The Terrace.

“Additionally, the Constructs deliver a level of tireless precision and elegance that more flesh-and-blood counterparts could not match. Expensive as they were, the establishment is certain they will pay for themselves in time.”

With the delivery of their meals, the party turned to feasting and celebration. In addition to their successes, they rejoiced in one more key detail: a new agent had made their number, one Barney Irontoe. The stonemason, smith, and brewer hailed from the Irontoe clan, a famous dwarven stonecutter’s guild in Lyrabar. His large, calloused fingers and knuckles indicated he enjoyed working primarily with his hands, perhaps even to the exclusion of using tools. While he had spent a significant portion of his life being a builder, he had broken with family tradition to eventually become an adventurer.

“Dwarven stonecutters have always been a well-respected group in Lyrabar,” Felkar pointed out as they ate. “Impil Mirandor first founded Lyrabar in -135 DR on top on an abandoned dwarven delve. He, along with the monarchy he eventually sired, were the first to reach out to the reclusive dwarves of this region, eventually forming a strong common bond. Even the Order’s Vaults, along with the upcoming Royal Bank and Trust, were hewn out of the rock with help from clans like the Irontoe.”

The others introduced themselves to Barney in turn, explaining the most poignant events of the past year. (Charli perhaps summed things up best when he introduced himself as “a slime impersonating the late Charli Adder.”) Alexis detailed the open “secret” of his mysterious warlock patron, and how a one-hundred-and-fifty-foot fall in the Shadowfell required his use of a walking cane. Alston spoke of his researches into magics never before plumbed, including the studies of time and gravity.

Charli demonstrated his skill with his pipe and smoke, breathing figures into life around him. When challenged by Berkin to create the most attractive lady he knew, the image he crafted was snakelike below the waist. Shrugging at Berkin’s less-than-enthusiastic response, Charli returned to swallowing his meal in peace, unhinging his jaw in the process.

Rock-in-Water explained why her quarterstaff “Ash” had been endowed with a measure of intelligence, and Berkin introduced his “Bongo the bongo” mimic drum. (Alexis had left his own ink bottle mimic with the Red Wizards at Rose Keep.)

Berkin too had a chance to talk about his undead comrade. “Milo,” as they were informed, was a restless kobold soul who had (he presumed) stayed behind to provide Berkin with support and friendship. Berkin also spoke of the necromancer that had taken advantage of and enslaved his former clan, and how he wished to eventually bring the evil wizard to justice.

Then Berkin trailed off to cast Speak With Plants on the veranda trees outside. He was nothing not if friendly, no matter how verbal (or mobile) those around him.

“They can be a little odd at times,” Felkar explained to Barney, “but they’re good people, and they’ll have your back in a fight.”

D. Two to Tango

As one might expect for a group of seasoned adventurers, the pleasantries were not to last. At the table nearest them, a Construct waiter began fumbling with the dishes it was meant to serve. As those at the table began to berate the service, the robotic humanoid shook and jittered.

“Please remain calm,” said the voice of the maître d’hôtel, rapidly approaching from across the room. The host withdrew a small golden rod, etched in sigils and runes, from his vest pocket. Pointing the device at the Construct, he pressed several buttons in an attempt to bring the waiter back under control.

The wand seemed to have no effect on the Construct. Instead, it abruptly threw the remaining entrées to the tile floor. As one man rose in surprise and anger, the Construct them slapped him hard across the face.

Across the room, three other Constructs too began acting erratically. One lady withdrew fearfully as a mechanical servant approached, but not quickly enough. The automaton hit her head with enough force that an audible snap echoed around the walls. The lady fell to the tiles, her head canted at a morbid angle.

“Ladies and gentlemen, please leave the area in a calm and orderly fashion!” the host cried nervously, but the agents were already on their feet. Each had trained for battle, and they would rather run to danger instead of away from it.

Downing the last of his Dwarven Aged Mead, Barney leaped to the Construct that had first malfunctioned and slapped it in the back of the head. “Come on you,” he challenged, “let’s dance.” He moved further into the center of the open floor, positioning himself directly between the former automaton and another, and swinging an ornate quarterstaff eagerly.

Having honed their teamwork over the course of the past few missions, Alexis and Charli reached a hand towards each other simultaneously. A Dimension Door deposited them at the opposite side of the dining hall, where Alexis positioned himself between an attacking Construct and the lady on the floor. He poured a Healing Potion into her mouth, even as he knew it would do nothing for the dead. Still, there were other helpless diners here, and Alexis would do what he could to defend them.

As he passed Rock-in-Water, Felkar touched the tabaxi, imparting to her a Greater Invisibility. With it, she was able to cast spells and maintain her concentration on important spells without fear of reprisal; she began with an Aura of Vitality.

And healing would be needed soon, as Alexis was soon to find out. He had successfully placed himself between two advancing Constructs and the other fleeing patrons, meaning he would also bear the brunt of their attacks. As the first strike hit his midriff, he felt a telltale drain of energy, a sensation he’d become very accustomed to during the battles in Rose Keep.

Whatever was attacking him was undead.

Using Alexis’s presence to distract the Construct and maneuver past its defenses, Charli sank several well-aimed bolts at the joints where the head met the neck. Then, pivoting behind it, he unsheathed the rapier inside his walking cane and plunged it between two plates at the rear of the body.

A vital part now severed, the automaton crashed forward on the tiles in front of him. As it did, Charli couldn’t help but notice the color of fleshy pulp, and the smell of formaldehyde. Leaning quickly forward, he pried the loosed plates apart a space.

There were no gnomish spinning wheels or gizmos inside this contraption; neither were there the telltale encircling rings of magic sigils used for the animation of a golem. Instead, wearing the metallic plates as if they had been a suit of armor was a recently-deceased humanoid.

The Constructs were zombies in disguise.

Back near their table, Barney skillfully bobbed and swayed under each swing from the Constructs flanking him. At one point, as a metaled fist flew past his head, he grasped it with one hand and shifted his body weight, causing the blow to continue on and strike the second Construct.

Barney laughed with ease, until he saw the second Construct shake with fury. Suddenly, his opponent was moving twice as quickly, and the monk struggled to keep apace with the attacks. Each hit that landed successfully weakened him, and he danced backwards to a safer location.

“These things would make better bouncers than waiters!” he called to the maître d’hôtel, who grimaced as he wrestled with his unresponsive golden rod.

No longer threatened by Barney, one of the constructs moved towards Alston. Knowing the gnome would not stand survive long against their heavy strikes, Rock paused using her Shillelagh‘d staff and concentrated anew. The metal of the Construct exploded in heat. Already damaged by coordinated attacks (including unerring Magic Missiles from Alston), and unable to escape from the metal that composed its entire outer shell, the Construct collapsed in front of Rock.

Both Barney and Alexis were limping from their injuries, but the agents had downed half their opposition. As he ran across the tile floor, Charli dropped a curiously-shaped arrow with a glass vial container at the tip. “For whoever needs healing,” he called behind him.

Barney picked up the arrow, and – after studying the curious contraption for a moment – jammed its syringe point into his leg. He felt some of his strength and health return as a result.

Knowing his poisons would have no effect against the undead piloting the Constructs, Charli kept his swordcane in hand. He leaped behind a third automaton that was – unsuccessfully – attempting to connect with the invisible tabaxi. A few more sword thrusts, and it too fell to the dining room tiles.

There was only one rogue Construct remaining, and Felkar had successfully escorted most of the other patrons to the exits. Yet, as it turned to attack, the foe halted suddenly in place. It shivered, shook, and relaxed, canted at the waist. Finally, it straightened to a fully-upright position, as if at attention.

“Good,” breathed their host with relief, finally lowering his golden rod. “The command wand is finally working again.”


After ordering the remaining Construct to return immediately to its quarters and await further instruction, the maître d’hôtel unhappily regarded the still-warm body of the woman on the floor. “Restaurant accident and liability insurance will cover the cost of her resurrection at a nearby temple, but it goes without saying that the establishment would appreciate your not spreading word of what happened today. Consider your meals here on the house.”

In response, Charli flashed the badge given to him, and to all active agents of the Order. The sunlight glinted from the polished blade held high by Torm’s gauntlet, and the host’s eyes went wide. Torm’s Order of the Shining Blade was already highly respected in Impiltur lands and beyond; but Lyrabar was the Order’s birthplace. Nowhere else did the badge carry more clout.

“I’m certain I speak for the establishment,” gaped the maître, “when I say we are more than happy to help you in any investigation you deem necessary.”

Charli was finally back in his old element, such as when he had been a police inspector for the city of Westgate. The disheveled dining room was much like a crime scene, and Charli’s practiced eyes went to work.

First, Charli inspected the first construct he’d destroyed. Along with the zombie corpse within (which seemed fairly fresh, as far as corpses go), he noted the name “Randis Gorodzo’s Fine Construct & Automation Emporium” etched along the plating.

“Yes,” the host explained when questioned, “that would be the company commissioned to produce these automaton waiters for us. I had no part of the dealings myself; that was entirely a decision made by the establishment owners.”

“Interesting,” Charli mused to himself. What he couldn’t help noting was that “Randis Gorodzo’s Fine Construct & Automation Emporium” was also the name of one of the two feuding artisan guilds they’d learned of in their dossiers. (As luck would have it, however, the team had chosen to pursue a different mission.)

Next, Charli and Alexis inspected the gold wand that the maître d’hôtel had been given to control the zombies. The drow emphasized he had been shown none of the inner workings of either the Constructs or the wand; he’d simple been trained in their usage. Alexis’s Eldritch Sight detected a strong necromantic aura coming from the wand, and he surmised it allowed the wielder to directly Control Undead.

Finally, Charli accompanied the host as he returned all other functioning Constructs to their cells in the servant’s quarter, locking each one away in turn. He then confiscated the rod and the key from the maître; he would deliver both, along with one of the Construct bodies, to the Order when the team made their full report. Charli also emphasized that The Terrace owners were to make no decisions concerning the Constructs without informing the Order.

As the agents concluded their brief investigation and left the restaurant, their host was already closing the premises early for the day. There was administration to contact, priests to summon, and a whole new waiting staff to hire.

Under the Hood: Helping Your Players Feel Effective

CLICK TO EXPAND

As a DM, remember that you are not simply authoring the story to a novel. You are administering a game, with real flesh-and-blood participants, each looking for their own take-away from your sessions. A game that does not provide real options for a player (or worse, handicaps those options) is not a game players will return to.

One of your most important roles, therefore, as a DM, is to ensure no one player (or character) feels unfairly overshadowed during the game sessions, or that their choices don’t matter. There are a number of important ways this can be achieved:

  • Maintain game balance. Hopefully this is hard-baked into the system you’re using. A system like Dungeons & Dragons fortunately has had decades to ensure its classes are neither too powerful that they command an undue share of skills, nor too underpowered that the “niche” they fill is better performed by other classes. (And classes that break either of these rules, such as the UA Mystic or the original PHB Ranger, are adjusted in later errata.) That being said, if you decide to include third-party or even homebrewed content in your game, make sure it follows these important rules of thumb.
  • Include moments to shine for all your players. This might involve traps that only the rogue can disarm, undead that the cleric can turn, and/or hidden enemies that the ranger can track. Plenty has been said about this specific topic by others, and I don’t wish to belabor their points here. Suffice to say, make sure each of your players gains the sense that their specific build choices matter to completing the objectives.
  • Respect the intelligence of the characters. The player may not realize that smashing down the door to the bandit’s hideout would be loud enough to wake everyone in the building. But unless their Intelligence has a serious penalty attached, it’s perfectly fine as a DM to say, “Your character would understand the ramifications of your plan, and think it’s a bad idea.” Similarly, a character would understand the nonexistent chances of being able to pull down a large castle gate with just a grappling hook; make sure the player knows as well.

    In the same vein, don’t play “gotcha!” games. Penalizing a player because they never said they were lighting a torch when entering a dark cave benefits no one, and it just promotes resentment. A character without darkvision would certainly not have walked into a dark, dangerous area without some form of illumination. It’s fine as a DM to say, “I assume your characters would have stocked up on rations back at the last town, as any sane individual.”
  • Enable your players’ gaming of the system. Dungeons & Dragons is a game; let your players play it. Don’t hamper your player’s understanding of game mechanics and what is and is not a viable option on their turn. Opening an unlocked door is considered a free action by the Player’s Handbook. If the door is visibly too heavy to be moved quickly, make sure the players know that before they act. It’s okay to say, “You can attempt to burn down the thick oaken door, but it isn’t made of tinder; you think it will take a large fire and a lot of time for your plan to work successfully.” It’s okay to say, “That Move action will leave you directly in the line of fire while you’re maintaining Concentration on your spell; are you sure you want to do this?” Perhaps you might couple such warnings with a successful Intelligence or Wisdom roll on the part of the character; but leave the players the option.

    For example, during their first foray into the Underdark, Gorodash’s character initially announced a double-move to place himself adjacent to two double-wielding Drow Elite. As the DM, I knew the Drow could very easily down Gorodash’s character before his next move. More importantly, Gorodash as a character had already seen the Drow use their Multiattacks, and he likely understood their threat. I instructed the player to make an Intelligence check with a low DC, and when the player passed, I informed him that Gorodash knew this was a very risky move. The character came out from the scenario intact; but more importantly, the player felt enabled as a participant.
  • Let your players take back faulty moves. If a player decides a course of action in error (such as misunderstanding the game state or the text description of one of their spells), don’t be afraid to rewind the game in their favor. Of course, this may become impractical or even impossible if the game state has progressed much since their last turn; but don’t flatly deny such requests out of principle.
  • Let your players feel cool. This is not so much the “Rule of Cool” as it is “Don’t Pull the Rug out From Under Your Players.” Looks for ways to make your players feel important – that their special moves, intelligent plays, or lucky dice rolls matter. For example, in this most recent story, Barney the drunken master redirected one Construct’s attack to another Construct. RAW (rules-as-written), the Constructs would regain hit points whenever hit by a necrotic attack. However, this would have undercut both the player’s feeling of triumph and the sensation he had performed a “cool,” memorable maneuver. As such, I ignored the life-gaining mechanic and allowed the player his moment of glory. Help your players feel effective, and give them the sense they matter to the game.