Following extensive preparations, our heroes are about to enter the swampland around the ruins of Berez, with the aim of stealing the skull of Argynvost back and laying it to rest. They also hope to survive Baba Lysaga, perhaps even to kill her. And they there's the small matter of the fertility gem that the swamp witch stole from the Wizard of Wines vineyard.
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
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.
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.
All characters have just levelled up to 7th level, including the sidekicks.
10th December, 11 days to the Solstice.
We begin mid-morning, as our heroes face a fork in the old road that they've been following south along the west bank of the Luna River. Old Berez was set on a bend in the river, and the area is damp and naturally flooded. Looking out, Kelwarin pointed out that the land forms a natural bowl shape here; once the flood waters topped the rise near the river, the area was never going to drain easily, especially when nature was being bent to the will of a dark lord. There are two groups of ruined buildings showing out of the mist, one along the west fork, the other to the south. On the far bank, rising out of the mists, was a stone circle.
Our heroes decide to go west. They're hoping to sneak up on the swamp witch, but it quickly becomes obvious that the conditions are going to be difficult. The mire is deepening, mostly water, but dirty and with a sucking mud below it. Ser Adon takes the lead, probing the ground ahead with Gaddock's quarterstaff. It soon becomes apparent that the water is going to be a challenge; although the old road is underneath, it's treacherous with the mud that has built up, and it stinks. Gaddock agrees without arguing when Adon suggests that he climbs onto his shoulders. A good decision, because the cold, filthy water is soon up to the group's chests.
Looking ahead, Adon notices two large ripples in the water heading towards the party. He called out to the others, and started to hand the halfling over to Alexei so he could fight. Ser Alys made her way through to the front, slipping and sliding. Suddenly, two large snakes rose out of the water, splitting for Alys and Adon. Ireena let loose volleys of arrows, the warriors laid about them with blades, and Kelwarin realised that fire bolts struggled to hit targets mostly in water. Two more snakes reared from the back of the group, with Ireena slaying one with her rapier, and then Gaddock using magic missile to great effect, the whistle and pops echoing across the water. Alys was bitten, and nauseous, but Adon laid on hands to heal her.
As they approached the ruin, the water fell away and they started to notice the cold of the winter's day. Ireena was worse; during that final part of the battle she'd been completely covered by water from the giant snake's thrashing and her clothes - while perfect for snow and layered for warmth - retained water far too easily. She was shivering constantly and Kelwarin was trying his best to warm her up. They headed towards the ruined cottages, hoping to make a small fire and rest for something to eat.
Unfortunately, as they entered the ruins, they noticed movement. Half the group hunkered down by a pile of rubble, while the others rushed across to the cover of the edge of a building. Gaddock decided to create an arcane eye to scout the area out, muttering the low chanting to cut the spell. Alexei was startled to see a middle-aged woman come around the corner, as she had heard the noise of the spell being cast. She asked him what a young Vistani like him was doing here, was he lost? She obviously hadn't seen the others. Encouraging him around the corner, she muttered something under her breath, and for a moment Alexei felt really tired, but it washed over him. 'Witch' he called out, and Ser Adon stepped around the corner and cleaved her in twain with his longsword, which burned briefing with holy light which washed over the runs. For a moment, the oppressiveness of the swamp was driven back, but then it faded.
Swiftly, Gaddock used the arcane eye to establish that there were three more women in the other buildings, ranging from youths to middle age. Two of them were preparing something in a cauldron over a small fire.
A voice called out, "Audrey, are you all right? It's almost lunch-time, come back over here." Kelwarin unwisely decided to try and do an impression of the woman's voice, which didn't work well. It went quiet, and then the voices were closer, three of them. But no-one could see them. Gaddock suspected the they had become invisible; Kelwarin suddenly was consumed with laughter, collapsing down to floor, unable to stop cackling. Gaddock instantly realised that someone had used one of his favourite tricks against them. Adon felt the urge to join in the laughter, but resisted. A green ray reached out at Kel, but he resisted and no longer saw the humour in the situation, throwing off the urge to cackle. He threw a fireball out towards where the ray had come from, followed by screams and a horrible smell of burning flesh as two women collapsed to the floor burning. The final woman was caught with strikes from more magic missiles, Alexei's crossbow and finished off by Ser Alys' battleaxe.
Adon decided to check out the ruins to try and ascertain that the women were in fact evil. The answers were ambiguous. The cauldron had a thin goat broth cooking in it, and it seemed like the four of them were scratching a living there. A well-tended child's grave was in what used to be a garden. The paladin concluded that the women were probably outcasts from Barovia, Kresk and Vallaki who had come to some kind of accommodation with Baba Lysaga to live there. It wasn't clear whether they were wise-women or witches, but in his view they'd definitely come to an arrangment with the evil swamp witch.
Meanwhile, Gaddock scouted out the rest of the village with his arcane eye, discovering a ruined church, complete with abandoned graveyard and monument to a woman just outside. There was also a ruined mansion house with a pen full of goats. The fence had human skulls on it. And then, right in the middle of what would have been the green space in the centre, he saw it; a dark hut on legs, with a baleful light coming through the door and window. Scouting closer, the eye showed two cages of ravens trapped and hanging from the side of the building. Looking in through the window, he saw a bath full of blood, more of which dripped from the ceiling. And then he saw her; Baba Lysaga, the swamp mother herself. She was feeding a baby with a mix of blood and milk, looking almost tender, but very alert. They also saw the dragon skull they wanted, just outside the door by the legs of the hut.
Back in the ruins, a debate sprung up; initially they'd planned to cast multiple fireballs into the hut, but Kelwarin was opposed to this as it would kill the child. Gaddock was more morally flexible on this. A desperate plan was formed to dimension door Kel in and snatch the child...
GM Notes: Berez definitely has a different feel to the rest of the land of Barovia. This was helped as I'd found some decent battle maps and pictures via the Curse of Strahd reddit. My take on the location is leaning more towards the MandyMod interpretation; the Barovian Witches become more meaningful as outcasts drawn to worship of Mother Night and the protection of Baba Lysaga. Many of them had fled from untenable circumstances at home, but they'd chosen to ally with the swamp witch.
The snake fight was interesting, as the party had to find the way to avoid Gaddock drowning. It's effects linger on as Ireena failed her CON save and now has a level of fatigue.
It was nice to see caution being used; rushing in here could well be fatal. We stopped the game earlier than usual because the next step was a battle. It was a fun session, with the only downside being Tom not being there as he has theatre rehearsals for the next two weeks. We've agreed that we will press on if we have three players, but not if two are missing.
2 June 2022