One of the things I have been experimenting with as a Referee is minimalism. What I mean is that in terms of preparation, I try to keep things to a minimum. I go in with some notes, a couple of ideas and a general knowledge of what each area of the world/dungeon is all about and then fly by the seat of my pants once I'm at the table. This style really suits me for a couple of reasons. From a practical point of view, it plays into my own idiosyncrasies. I love to make maps, but I don't necessarily enjoy keying them. This style allows me to make maps, jot down general ideas, key one or two important rooms (if that) and then move on to more maps. Secondly, and to my mind more importantly, it allows for me to be spontaneously creative at the table. This not only is a marvelous challenge, it also leaves room for me to be truly surprised.
This session was one of those evenings where this particular experiment in Refereeing really paid off because I was really quite surprised by my own dungeon and I had a lot of fun. My first surprise of the evening was that my players have become unexpectedly drawn to the abandoned monastery, which now has a name. One of the keys to succeeding with this style is allowing for the players to influence my decisions as a Referee. This makes the creative process interactive and it helps the world make sense to the players. So, when I recycled the name Urheim for the saint whose relics they found over the course of methodically mapping out the catacombs underneath the monastery proper (more on that later), the monastery is now St. Urheim's. The players' logic flowed from an early answer I had to the name of the monastery (which until last session had no name). I informed my players that monasteries are generally named after their founder. When I described an icon of St. Urheim holding a building that looked like the monastery proper, they concluded that this must be St. Urheim's Monastery.
During the party's explorations of the catacombs, they found evidence of defilement, vandalism and a general decay of what once must have been the burial grounds for hundreds of monks. In process they encountered a number of powerful undead. Both Hamlen and Dn. Goram suffered level losses from a combat against some wights and Ahkmed nearly died when a coffer corpse reanimated after "dying" and managed to get a choke hold on the Dwarf as the rest of the party fled in fear after failing their saving throws.
There were two exceptions to this general malaise. The first was a result of a random roll. One of the random treasures I rolled up indicated jewelry and a magic war hammer. Thus, the party found an undisturbed sarcophagus with the body of a priest wearing a bejeweled holy symbol and holding the warhammer.
The party was divided about what to do with this treasure. Ahkmed displayed the most greed, while Dn. Goram insisted that it be left alone. Finally Hamlen did something rather unexpected — he made an oath to Isten that he would use this warhammer, and only this warhammer, to cleanse the catacombs of evil. In turn he exchanged one of his magic items (a periapt of wound closing) for the magic weapon. Dn. Goram spent the rest of the evening reminding his brother of the oath he made (and which was not always to the party's advantage).
The second was a remote area of the catacombs that the undead had yet to penetrate. In addition to a couple of rooms filled with skulls inscribed with holy symbols, they found a secret door that led to a reliquary that held the uncorrupt body of St. Urheim. They immediately sealed themselves in and used the room for a place of rest. Dn. Goram stood vigil and prayed to the saint all evening. In return, Hamlen was given a vision.
Noting that Hamlen was having a difficult time with his oath, St. Urheim suggested that if Hamlen succeeded in purging the Saint's Spring, which lies below the catacombs, the saint would see if he couldn't restore the levels lost during the fight against the wights.
Having found stairs that went down after their battle with mummies from last session, they descended in hopes of completing Hamlen's new quest. A good use of an augury spell allowed them to bypass several rooms and head in the right direction. They found evidence of serious corruption, including some fey who appeared to be possessed by some kind of animate black liquid. When they came to the Saint's Spring, they found it full of this black liquid which seemed to be 'bleeding' out of a tree which was growing from its center.
What followed was a harrowing battle with several corrupted fey, the animate black liquid and a night hag roosted in the tree. The night hag proceeded to enfeeble all the front line fighters and use her magic missiles to disable the archers (killing Fedorsha the NPC thief). The battle got particularly bleak when Hamlen charged the tree and did maximum damage, which immediately reflected right back to him. Convinced that they had to destroy the tree, several players were confronted with the real possibility that they might have to sacrifice themselves in order to come out victorious.
Fortunately, a well timed use of Light and Levitate spells resulted in the night hag's demise. As she let out her last, a heart-sized gem was expelled from a knot in the tree. The party quickly smashed the thing (ignoring Ahkmed's protests) and the tree immediately began to heal and the black liquid ceased to flow.
Returning to the secret reliquary, the session ended as Hamlen presented the corpse of Fedorsha to the saint. Given the choice between resorting his lost level or bringing his henchman back to life, he chose the latter and was rewarded for his sacrifice by receiving both.
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