This is two session reports and reflections from the second and third sessions of my Dolmenwood campaign. If you haven't already, I strongly encourage reading the first post for necessary context: D1 Tea for the Teapotman. A special thanks to the player of Shank, who kept detailed notes for both sessions and shared them with the group, considerably easing my duty in writing this account. All feathers-in-caps are his, all black-eyes are mine, yadda yadda.
It should not need saying, but many spoilers ahoy for Winter's Daughter and the great Dolmenwood campaign. You've been warned.
- Clover, the Breggle Friar.
- Ebbli, the Mossling Squire of Lord Ramius.
- Shank, the Human Thief.
Having somewhat unwittingly exchanged the promise of matchmaking the barrowbogey Thrattlewhit with the Drune Braithmaid Pollith for a ruby-set platinum ring (400gp), the party travels south to a nearby glade where an undisturbed barrowmound lies. The 'bogeys report they have not trespassed there, as some Pluritine wards have kept them at bay.
Upon reaching this glade, they observed the circle of standing Wything Stones around a ritual altar, and note a stained copper bucket. Thirteen iron owls with hexagram eyes clanking in the wind, they survey the perimeter cautiously. A 2' wide tunnel into the mound from the back is noted, and failing to budge the large stone occlusion at the intended entrance, they get crawling.
I deferred the famous first encounter at the Wything stones, given they reached the site during daylight, though I think both published versions of that encounter have merit.
They crawl into a small personal quarters, and disturb the new residents: three oversized, eyeless, tonguelike worms. They fight straightforwardly and due to fortuitous rolls, suffer no losses. With careful exploration they reveal a brass plate in a locked drawer giving the name of one of Sir Chyde's hounds as "Flaegr," and a lockbox containing a silver holy symbol (50gp), holy scroll of hold person, a decorated prayer book (500gp), and box of 20 wafers (each healing 1 HP). They rightly take this as quite the find so early in the expedition, and are emboldened to press on.
They next find a lost and worse-for-wear shrine of St Sedge. With a quick working bee and relighting the candle, Clover is able to gain his blessing (may cast bless weapon once). They also encounter the apparition of a fair maiden, who they will later identify as Princess Snowfall-at-Dusk, exhorting them to find the ring.
I generally find ghosts in adventures a bit mawkish, but went with it as written this time, as a somewhat soap opera melodrama felt appropriate when dealing with a lovelorn fairy princess.
They travelled through a chamber focussed on large stone double doors, flanked by larger-than-life stone hounds, and next on to the family crypt where a couple of floating, dancing skeletons (each wearing 500gp of fine jewellery!) urge them to join in. After losing a glove to their antigravity effect (owing to a purple slime dripping through a crack in ceiling into a fissure in the floor), the party decides to pass through, not aggressing - for now.
The next chamber has a holy object in each corner: wooden statue of a cherub, holy book, silver holy symbol (200gp), and a huge candle. They agitate and threaten to wallop them for intruding, but they slip on through to the next room with a floor length mirror (1000gp) that nearly paralyses Clover (passed her save). On figuring the danger it posed, she quickly nullified it with judicious encloakment.
They finally came to a chamber of 7 statues bearing real weapons, and a mural of a grand battle. Removing some obscuring moss (not up to occupational health and safety standards, but again successful save versus doom passed) revealed Sir Chyde's wicked blade and the name of his other mutt: "Chedr." They swiftly observe that same wicked blade is held by one of the statues, and retrieving it Indiana Jones-style by swapping with his current blade (though needlessly, as it wasn't trapped), Shank takes possession of scian im - the blade that slew the fae giant Butter-for-Bones.
The party boldly proclaim they'll pop back to the room with the stone hounds, rightly suspecting they should utter their names there. I double check the intended route (back through mirror, holy objects, and family crypt rooms) and if any preparations are to be made (they are not). As they steal into the atrium with four holy objects, they hit a random encounter: the skeletons are off on a waltz through the tomb. I describe them dancing in and whipping the divine guardians up into a zeal - it's on.
Ebbli beseeches the skeletons for aid in battle, one last fight for a warrior family, and I permit a Charisma check (a d6 + CHA mod vs 4+ in Dolmenwood), which she passes. Fair enough - I roll them in as a third side of this conflict. The holy objects and skeletons fight each other a bit before the latter retreat, and Clover burns the holy book with her torch (attack roll to destroy it outright, each only had 3-5 HP). Clover is knocked to 1 HP and they narrowly end the battle with no casualties. The scuffle helps them notice the dust-covered mosaic on the floor, but no one knew Old Woldish and Shank missed his decipher script check, so little was learned.
They are down to the last torch and overloaded with gear (some valuables, a lot of the cruft from character generation), so they decide to head back to Lankshorn for a spell. They want to get out the front this time, but are still a little shy of the requisite muscle power, so when they describe using a shovel for leverage I offer to let it break to succeed and they take it (I try to offer a devil's bargain when players don't quite have the right tools or training, but a dice roll wouldn't present two meaningful outcomes. Non-random success at a cost, if you will). Extracting the large mirror ties up two people as amateur removalists and slows them down. They camp near the other mounds of the 'bogeys and I make a serendipitous encounter roll: 4 priests. That story writes itself, doesn't it?
I explain how early in the night the same 4 priests as before come to their campfire, having somehow gotten lost and deprived, the fifth of their number who was afflicted recently perishing. They look shaken, and are clearly completely out of their depth beyond their cloistered halls. The party take them in, break bread, and offer to escort them back to town. The remaining trip is uneventful, they unload the valuables, and resupply with gear. They acquire riding horses and saddle bags, now realising the value of extra carrying capacity. The return trip to Sire Chyde's tomb is an easy ride.
This time they find a twitching stag skeleton on the altar. Clover attempts to turn the undead, but no dice. Ebbli breaks ground on her knack for birdspeaking, and learns last night two robed humanoids came here and performed a ritual sacrifice, then left heading east. Unsure what to do about this situation, they leave the skeleton as-is and enter the barrow once more.
They travel through the family crypt again, now the skeletons sit at the edge of the fissure re-enacting the process of tending to wounds after battle. Ebbli wants to knight them for their service, and Shank seizes the opportunity to honour his namesake, claiming one of their necklaces (500gp) while the other topples forward down into the fissure (missed a DEX check). Our group has played together for years, and these sort of intra-party conflicts are fortunately handled with aplomb by the players.
Returning to the destined stone hound chamber, they speak their names, and the door opens before them (I try to fake them out with grinding stone and clanking chains, but they can read me too well). Beyond is the tomb of Sir Chyde, and his ghost kneeling before a painting of his betrothed. They get a bit of the old exposition, but he remains coy about the Princess, as he requires they ask her directly, stating it would not be his place to speak on her behalf.
I change up the backstory a bit here: Sir Chyde was killed in his bed the night before the great battle by an assassin, and his brother Brigford the Wise stepped up from his life of knavery and rakishness to don his armour and wield his blade, presenting himself as Sir Chyde in the coming battle, so that morale would not falter. It played well - the group enjoys progressively learning setting lore that connects to people and places they are presently investing in.
The ghost of Sir Chyde wills that they take the ring from his corpse and bring it to the Princess, to allow her to move on from her eternal engagement. He indicates they can find her in the "other realm" via the two untraversed flights of stairs they have so far found. They agree, and Ebbli takes the full plate armour to hopefully have re-fitted for her unusual frame, and they take the portrait of the princess (1500gp) back to the main entrance.
They proceed down one of the flights of stairs, seeing the pool-covered room beneath the family crypt transform as they cross a threshold of spectral votive candles, becoming a lake of frozen ice surrounding a white marble tower in a frost-covered glade. They surmise they aren't in Dolmenwood anymore, and immediately ponder how long they should linger here as time might travel differently in Faerie. Oh, how I have taught you well, little ones.
Gateway to Dolmenwood. Winter's Daughter is unsurprisingly an excellent introductory adventure for a group of players who have read nothing of the setting before. It succinctly captures the whimsical weird fiction tone, and introduces several important factions (Cold Prince, Drune, Pluritine Church) and their common history. There is no canonical location for the adventure in Dolmenwood, but I'm very satisfied with where I chose to put it (hex 0810). It's a convenient jaunt from Lankshorn for a 1st level party, it ties in the Drune sacrifice at the altar with the local Drune cottage, and the local plot of Thrattlewhit and Pollith is a nice thematic parallel of the tragic love story between Sir Chyde and Princess Snowfall-at-Dusk. I want to play up the angle that faerie minds take relatable human concepts and emotions, and drive them to a point of inhumanity.
Combat is a Deadly Swinger. Despite already making a couple of concessions to ameliorate the famous deadliness of 1st level B/X play (maximum HP at first level and dying at exactly 0 HP rather than instantly dead), the fight with the holy objects had me sweating for the players. I have warned them that characters can easily die (and we've played several campaigns recently where I have made good on that promise), but I can see they have really bonded with their little people already, and would take a loss pretty hard already. I still don't love rolling to hit and damage separately, but I'm sticking at it for now, as I wanted to try playing mostly faithful to the written rules for this campaign.
A Pleasing Heft. Both the overland hexcrawl and the underground dungeon-crawl put together by Gavin are dense compared to classic old-school published scenarios. There are almost no empty rooms here, yet the material remains easy to use at the table due to the now well-known attention to information presentation, and general concision. I am a big fan of this approach - I've read all the theory on why exploring sparser spaces with 'breathing room' is meant to be virtuous - but in actual play this level of density just feels right.
XP for GP. This is absolutely working as intended for incentivising player behaviour, and I can tell it is a source of enjoyable engagement from a gamist perspective. It does however sit somewhat at odds for me with the general tone of Dolmenwood, and our characters in particular. There are plenty of strong hooks that would be driving play without the systematised 'greed is good.' I will not be surprised if at some stage I switch us over to Cairn 2E or similar, and I will have mixed feelings about jettisoning XP for GP when that time comes.
If you've got your own thoughts on Dolmenwood, Winter's Daughter, or any of the topics raised in my reflections, then I'd love to see your comment below! I'm making an effort to try and comment more on other peoples' blogs this year, as I (presume) they like seeing someone else has read and engaged with their writing, and interacting in places like Discord often feels like just throwing leaves into the wind.