Our heroes returned to Vallaki having killed the two remaining members of Morgantha's Coven and torching the Old Bonegrinder Windmill that they'd inhabited while baking children sold to them by their parents (in return for very addictive pastries that gave good dreams and a feeling of bliss, an escape from the darkness, for a while). They planned to help out the Martikov family, landlords of the Blue Water Inn, and sort out an overdue delivery of wine from their estranged family's vineyard, the Wizard of Wines. However, because they didn't feel secure in Vallaki yet after removing the Baron from power, Ser Alys opted to stay behind.
Our dramatis personae:
Ser Adon de Rouge of House Starbright (a half-orc Paladin, from a knightly background, with two human retainers and a priest), played by Paul (dr_mitch). Lawful Good. Married to Ser Alys.
Kelwarin (Kel) (a half-elf Sorceror flush with the powers of wild magic, an outlander), played by Graham (First Age). Chaotic Good.
Gaddock Teeg (a halfling wizard and former prizefighter), played by Alex (Doggetay), Neutral Good
Ireena Kolyana (a human warrior, daughter of the Burgomaster of Barovia, Twice-Bitten reincarnation of Strahd's unrequited love, Tatyana) - upgraded as a sidekick.
Alexei the Vistana (a young human expert, sent to pay off his debt to the party by his Vistani elders after they rescued Arabelle from certain death when Alexei lost her in town. A late teenager who is so taken by Ireena and the excitement of the adventure that he's forgotten he planned to be sulky and surly for his 13 moon exile) - upgraded as a sidekick.
Keeping the home fires burning:
Ser Alys de Adon-Rouge of House Starbright (a half-orc Fighter with a soldier background, currently the leader of the town militia of Daggerford), played by Tom (Guvnor). Lawful Neutral. Imagine a slightly greener take on Grace Jones... Married to Ser Adon.
All characters are presently 5th level, including the sidekicks.
Our heroes spent the next day preparing for their journey and getting some much-needed rest and recuperation. Gaddock was particularly studious, transcribing spells so he could also cast fireball and more, using his spoils of victory; a complete equipped wizard's laboratory that belonged to the - now-deceased - twisted mage son of the Burgomaster, Viktor.
Kelwarin obtained a letter of introduction for Davian Martikov from Urwin Martikov. Except it wasn't, it was for his son Adrian, who acts as his deputy. Adrian is still on speaking terms with Urwin, unlike his father.
The party, bolstered with Alexei and Ireena, say their goodbyes to Ser Alys, and headed along the Old Svalich Road. Always overcast, at least the mists weren't closed in. They had a horse and cart with them, and the journey was uneventful for the first hour and a half. At that point, they turned through a particularly dark part of the forest and got the sense that someone or something was watching them. Pausing, they realised that there were a number of tall, pine tree-like creatures watching them. Realising that their martial abilities were somewhat reduced, they decided to play it calm and try to communicate with the creatures. They seemed to understand common but didn't speak back. They also seemed to be drawn towards sounds. Kelwarin recognised them as needle blights, a darkly twisted form of plant life (linked in legend to a vampire, Gulthias). They were soon joined by a member of the forest folk, who talked to them in a heavily distorted version of druidic that Ireen recognised later.
Using acting, and some illusion magic that made Ser Adon look somewhat vampiric, they tried to explain that they were enemies of Strahd, by mock staking him. At this point, the blights pulled Kelwarin and the stake away from Ser Adon, just in time to have Gaddock complete resolving the language barrier with a comprehend languages spell cast as a ritual. They soon realised that the forest folk seemed to worship Strahd as 'the Messenger' for the Three Ladies, the Fanes. Pushing their luck, the party tried to convince them that they too were allies of Strahd and it was all a misunderstanding. Somehow they got away with it; the forest folk person told them that the ritual needed another week (what ritual?) but they were dealing the ravens at the vineyard now.
Early afternoon, four hours or so later, the party were travelling down the poor track to the vineyard which was made worse for wear by the persistent drizzle which had started, when they were flagged down by a figure in waxed rain cape. Cautiously, they approached and discovered it was Adrian Martikov himself. He told them it wasn't safe, and to come off the road, they had hot drinks and food and the party were welcome to share with them.
In a hollow, set behind the wall at the boundary of the forest overlooking the vineyard, they discovered the entire Martikov family, 5 adults and four children, sheltering in makeshift tents. They broke bread, and tried to give a subtle story to Davian about who they were and what they were doing, but he seemed to know all about them, what they'd done and that they were working against Strahd. He harumphed that they'd associated with Urwin, but thanked them for the kindness shown in recovering the body of one of their cousins for burial. He then told them of how the Vineyard had been attacked nearly a month before, and one of the grape crops ruined. They'd traced the perpetrators back to the bogs outside the ruins of Berez, where a witch lived and made it too dangerous to go further.
A week ago, they'd been attacked again by more forest folk with twisted tree and vine creatures (blights) and eventually, they'd abandoned the house and winery because they feared for the children's lives. Davian feared for the loss of their livelihood and the loss of the comfort of wine for Barovia. He asked for help, which the party freely offered.
They went to the wall, and did an initial view of the winery; they could see that blights had rooted in the vineyard and that some of the forest folk seemed to be in and around the building. The Martikovs had spotted one of the folk with a darkly twisted looking staff that smoked who seemed to be controlling the blights. They decided to raid the vineyard and kill him to break his control. This would be done in the morning. Davian and the family were very clear that use of fire was to be discouraged as there would be no way to recover if they burned the vineyard or vines down.
Sheltered in the lee, they drank and ate more, and talked of the history of Barovia, discovering many things from Davian (who seemed to be very well informed). These included:
On hearing this story, Twice-Bitten Ireena walked from the fire. Ser Adon found her retching, in dispair as she was convinced she would die like Marina and Tatyana before her. Ser Adon committed to protect her, and ensure who didn't become a vampire. He knew he could magically protect her if Strahd came close, but only for a short period.
- That the witch in Berez had a hut that moves on legs and was called Baba Lysaga. No one talks of her, lest she hears and comes to visit.
- That Strahd was a powerful warrior and dutiful son before he became the Darklord of Barovia. He had killed many in a rage when his brother Sergei married the woman he loved unrequitedly, Tatyana. The mists rose soon after that.
- The ruined mansion was called Argynvostholt, and used to be the seat of the Order of the Silver Dragon, knights who had opposed Strahd's conquest of Barovia. They - and the dragon the place was named after - are long dead.
- That the Vineyard was named after the founder, a mage who had gained the friendship of the Rozana, the Ladies Three, who had blessed the land to be fruitful.
- The Vineyard become the Martikovs when they married into the Kreskov family who had been given it by Strahd. Both families had come when the valley was conquered.
- That Berez was destroyed by Strahd by flood and murder, after they killed a girl who was the image of Tatyana to stop her becoming a vampire bride.
Everyone up bright and early for the raid. Kel used his keen sight and identified a route down the hill using a watercourse to mask their noise. Gaddock sent out his owl, which gained two raven escorts and identified where the obvious blights were, and then they headed down the slope. Alexei guided them, keeping the noise down, and Ser Adon ensured they moved quickly. They tried to gain access to the Veranda, with Ireena distracting the Blights; she made enough noise, but the second part of the plan (a fog cloud for cover from Gaddock) failed as the obscuring effect of the fog didn't work against creatures that tracked sound. Narrowly escaping, Ireena joined the others on the Veranda, while Gaddock blocked the approach of the blights with a web spell. Needles whistled in, while Alexei and Kel picked the lock and forced the bar into the main fermentation room. They all entered the room, and Gaddock found some useful furniture and tools to secure the door. Ser Adon laid on hands for those injured by flying needles, and then they took a deep breath...
GM Notes: preparation for this session was hectic, despite nearly a month's break, as Tom had decided that he needed to step away from screens for a bit and have a break. He'll rejoin after we have the month off in August 2021. We had a lot of conversation about whether we stopped, whether we continued and whether we doubled down to weekly games. The end result was that we played on; we did consider an extra player but came to the conclusion that we'd try the sidekicks out instead. So some frantic preparation for me! I do like the sidekick rules as they seem to produce characters that are competent, have a purpose, but supportive. Exactly like a sidekick should be.
In preparation, I'd looked through the material for Curse of Strahd produced by Dragnacarta and MandyMod on the r/curseofstrahd subreddit, and particularly liked the option of using a 4e style skill challenge for the approach to the Vineyard. This worked much better than an elongated fight through hordes of low hitpoint enemies. There's some really good material in both those free resources which should be read by anyone planning to run the campaign.
I enjoyed the session; there was some tension, some fun blagging and some role-playing. Three main encounters, and then we left ready to face whatever was inside the building. The players also liked the way to expand the lore they had through a connected NPC who could drop a trail to be followed. Good stuff.
25 sessions in now!
2 June 2021