Tuesday, March 12, 2024

House of Pestilence Playtest 2 Session 2: The Daemon You Know

In the last session, five mighty masters of the universe met in the drow citadel of Erelhei-Cinlu, traversed the underworld, and finally arrived at the threshold of the House of Pestilence, an exiled drow house turned to the worship of the daemon lord Anthraxus. They came into conflict with the House's guard dog, a wicked mage named Eastler and his umber hulks, and forced his surrender. The party seeks immortality, and it lies within the deepest recess of the House. Will they be able to make their way inside and find their quarry, or will they be forced to fight? Join them to find out...

The Party

Stribor, the Devil of Bukosevač, human bard 11 played by Cao Linh
    Helefres, Magician of the Far Shore, human mage 11
    Tork, the Tower and Key, ratling thief 12
Shirin the Wastrel Empress, human mage 12 played by Finn
    Sisiphre, Who Has Tempted Death, elven mage/thief 10/11
    Skour, Night's Justice, human assassin 11
Haught Taupik the Blood Sword Emperor, elven fighter/mage 7/11 played by Ali
    Aodhan the Reborn, human druid 12
    Soo Meri, Elder of the Moonstone Sect, human monk 10

Probably everyone


Purchased from the auction:
    Purple ioun stone (5000gp bought for 13000)
    Silver Serpent Armor (10000gp, brought for 14000)

Taken from the Umil-Da vault:
    Ring of protection +6
    22kgp in gems
    18k in platinum bars

The Game

On the second day...
  • Where last we left off, the party had arrived at the doorstep of House Umil-Da, fought its outer guardians, and reached a truce with the wicked wizard Eastler. In exchange for his advice in gaining the compound, they helped him fake his death and escape servitude, with both Celine and Liu Feng joining him in getting the hell out of dodge. 
  • Following Eastler's directions, the remaining party pressed forward through the winding tunnels and reached an ornate steel door bearing the image of a welcoming goat-headed daemon. They announced their presence, and the party's roguish members felt a prickling on the backs of their necks: they were being scried.
You again!
  • Pale mist filled the tunnel, and out of it stepped a fiery infernal steed bearing a rider clad in mail and bearing a wicked black lance. The party called to parley, and (primarily thanks to Stribor) managed to convince the drow warrior that they had been extorted by Eastler and fought back, but had no hostile intent against the House of Pestilence. By carefully avoiding (most) direct falsehoods, they secured safe passage within. 
  • Beyond the doors lay a great and high cavern lit by a globe of glowing ore hanging from its zenith, with great exotic gardens of violet grass and a high-walled fortress bathed in the perfume of night-blooming flowers. The party remained at the entrance for some time, gave the guards their expected 'gift' and took up the glowing-green cloaks of foreigners and their visitor passes. Soon, a drow servant named Malrux came to welcome and guide them. She pointed out the House's many delightful and gory features, and conducted them into the fortress proper. 
  • After leaving behind their riding lizards, the party came to a great marble altar of Anthraxus, before which guards, bugbears, and slaves alike prostrated. It became clear that the entire cavern was bathed in a foul aura which interfered with non-evil priests. The party did likewise, and were permitted to pass further inside. At the visitors quarters, they ran into one of Shirin's old rivals, the archmage Neroë and his two apprentices, Orbix and Snake-eye
  • After lobbing insults back and forth at one another, the mages depart for the bazaar, while the party accepts Malrux's hospitality and visits the menagerie: a great hemispherical pit in the ground riddled with caged exotic beasts, from albino lions to chimera, velociraptors and intelligent apes, even a colossal purple worm and a crippled hollyphant. 
  • They elected to visit the bazaar next, boiling over with all the most exotic merchandise purloined from realms infernal and supernal, but most intriguing was the auction house. Within, they found Neroë's apprentices, a pair of mind flayers, and a huge, drunk demon, all bidding on items presented by a night hag. The party outbid the mages for both a purple ioun stone prized by Shirin and a magical bracelet which could expand to cover the wearer's body in plate mail. They manipulated the mages into overbidding for a gem of true seeing, and afterwards spotted the apprentices worse for wear, likely paying the difference with magic items of their own, and noted that the mind flayers had certainly also been bidding up prices in exchange for a cut. 
The ultimate fashion accessory
  • After the auction went on hiatus, the party sent their sneakier hirelings to follow the other guests. Tork and Soo Meri followed the mid flayers to the gate of the compound's inner palace, where a high-ranking male drow with an acid-scarred face allowed the illithids entry. Sisiphre and Skour, meanwhile, followed the apprentices, though they split up on the way back to their quarters. Sisiphre followed Orbix to the drow servant quarters, where he was greeted by a pair of servant women. She was prepared to stop following when she heard a scream cut short, and sneaking invisibly into the quarters, spied the unconscious mage having a foot-long black centipede inserted up his nose: thereafter, the drow woke him up and told him in no uncertain terms that if he disobeyed the matriarch's commands, the centipede would melt his brain from the inside. 
  • After reporting back to the party, Shirin and Haught Taupik met Orbix on the path back to the visitor's quarters, and further blackmailed him into helping them get access to the inner palace. 

On the third day...
  • After recuperating somewhat, the party awoke early to view a sacrifice and celebration conducted by Thirza, the matriarch's eldest daughter and heir. They gained some insight into the feuding factions and royal family: the younger daughter Xalyth, a powerful warrior spurned for her inability to call upon infernal powers, the elder son Crovad, a great hunter who was evidently half drow and half something from the pit, and the matriarch's reclusive consort, the mage Iuzekar
  • After the gory sacrificial ceremony, the party was unexpectedly approached by Thirza herself, who engaged Stribor to come to a party in the palace and entertain the court with some songs. They enthusiastically agreed. 
  • After wandering around the gardens and visiting the bazaar again, 'evening' led them to the celebrations in the outlying manor of Knight-Commander Schezalle, the matriarch's second in command. After some verbal sparring, Stribor entertained the partygoers with two new songs of his own composition: 'The Devil Came Down to Umil-Da' and 'Hedge-Maze Improvisations.' Between Stribor's great skill and the magic of his golden fiddle, he was able to charm many of the guests including, by incredible luck, Knight-Commander Schezalle and Xalyth. Schezalle even offered him a pick from her curiosity cabinet: he picked a black dog statuette, which he found was a figurine of power.
Wrong one!

Stribor: Every devil needs his hound.
Shirin: That's not a saying. 
Stribor: It is if I make it one. 
  • As the party wound down, Haught-Taupik wound up n conversation with Xalyth and, remarking on their shared love of violence and greatswords, as well as their mutual frustration with cowardly scheming, enjoined a duel on the Umil-Da training grounds for the edification of the young drow soldiers. 
  • In the course of that duel, both opponents got a critical hit on their first attack, with Xalyth narrowly resisting the Bloodsword's lifestealing curse, and Haught-Taupik suffering under Xalyth's experienced feints. They called the duel after the first round, with HT and 5 hit points and Xalyth at 1(!). Both refused healing by the matriarch's handmaiden, and Haught Taupik snuck off to the bazaar to chug (suddenly overpriced) healing potions. 
  • At the same time, Shirin is secretly approached by Iuzekar, who asks to buy the purple ioun stone off of her in exchange for various treasures, including a selection from his research library. Though tempted and cautious of refusing a drow noble, Shirin finally declines.

On the fourth day...

  • The party fields invitations by both Thirza (inviting Stribor and Shirin) and Xalyth (inviting Haught Taupik) into the palace proper for private meetings. Thirza gives her guests the run of the place, taking them up to the little-trafficked second floor, where waits a tiny, cramped shrine. Stribor and Shirin stepped in at her urging, and her soon covered in crawling and flying pests of every kind. Then a flea crawled into their ears, and spoke directly into their eardrums with the tiny voice of a daemon lord: Anthraxus himself, offering the two of them power in exchange for serving him in mind, body, and soul. 
Most certainly a bad enough dude
  • At the same time, Haught Taupik was invited into Xalyth's private chambers, containing only basic amenities and a weapon and armor rack. But then the drow unveiled a hidden niche, filled with documents and plans, all plotting the assassination of Thirza. Xalyth offered Haught Taupik payment and great favor in exchange for helping her carry out this plan. 
  • When the two groups reconvened on the second floor, something had changed. Shirin had exited the shrine without any changes, but Stribor was... greater than he once was. At the same time, Thirza was bowing to him and accepting his orders. It turned out that, as part of converting to Anthraxus' servitude, Stribor had been offered power, wealth, and a boon of his choice. For that boon, he asked Anthraxus to give him authority over Thirza. Seeing the difference in power between these two servants, the daemon lord agreed. 
  • At the same time, Haught Taupik had accepted Xalyth's deal and the two were now acting in concert... only to find the situation had suddenly changed. 
  • Thirza summoned the matriarch, who looked at the bard that had taken away her heir with contempt, but with Anthraxus' order opened up the fortress' vault. Stribor took away a great deal of wealth and magic items, and had Thirza guide the group up to the (formerly) forbidden third floor. 
  • Thirza guided them past the many security mechanisms: a space-warping pillar guarded by a twelve-headed hydra, a demiplane of rot and pestilence, an illusory village guarded by dancing daemons, and then a hidden stairway descending for miles and opening into the peak of a ziggurat in a colorless world choked with thick, gray muck. 
  • At the center of the ziggurat was an egg-like stone, and sitting upon the stone was a scrawny, hairless man with a midnight-blue body and a massively oversized goat head: the Seed of Pestilence, the divine shard of Anthraxus taken sentience and form. As the party prepared to fight, they found that Stribor and Thirza did not join them: having vowed to serve Anthraxus in mind, body, and soul, he had brought the party here to feed the Seed. 
  • That was when Stribor got a nasty surprise: the Seed offered the other intruders a chance to join it, help it break out of this demiplane, and become its high priests once it attained its full power independent of its progenitor. 
  • And... that was when the session ended. Had we continued further, a showdown between Shirin, Haught Taupik, Xalyth, and the Seed vs Stribor and Thirza would have broken out. I expect that Stribor and Thirza would have lost, but the remaining party would probably still try to kill the Seed, and would likely lose. I'll never know for sure what would have happened, but the upcoming session will be a parallel-universe boss fight with the whole party to calibrate the difficulty/practicality of this encounter. 


With that, the main playtest of the House of Pestilence winds down, with another session to test out the final boss to come. Once again, I'm somewhat struck by how quickly it was possible to get to the end (though given how I expect the fight would go, it likely would not have been a victorious ending). Taking command of Thirza was an outcome I did not expect at all, but made sense in context; in fact, it worked even better than the players expected, since she is one of only three characters with the means to safely traverse the demiplane. 

One of my goals with House of Pestilence was to create an adventure location that, in addition to being a high-level one-shot (which is what these sessions tested), could also be integrated into a campaign world. Obviously, it's easiest to work it into the D3 underworld, the locations even have hex coordinates meant for that map, but you could also plop this down in the Forgotten Realms or any homebrew world that already has the drow in it. 

Despite being designed as a high level adventure, I think it also functions as a much lower level encounter if we assume different PC objectives. Evil characters in particular can interact with it as a refuge, as a source of great wealth and magic, or as scheming sometimes-allies. It can exercise influence upon an underworld campaign well before the players are powerful enough to defy it directly. 

To that end, the fact that playtesters didn't see much of the content and did sequence-breaking is not a downside. It tells me that the open-ended design is working and players were able to make plans within its structure. 

I am somewhat concerned about the very light loot the playtest groups recovered. Group 1 got almost nothing at all, and group 2 acquired what they did through (mostly) above-board means. Rest assured, there's a great deal of treasure in this module, but most of it is either concealed or out of the way. Groups like these, which were laser-focused on completing their respective objectives and on not offending their drow hosts, didn't go out of their way to find treasure. 

On reflection, I don't think this is much of a problem. The major prize at the end (as of the playtest 2 revision) is much bigger than almost any amount of xp if the GM actually runs with it, and has the potential to completely change the campaign. You know, I should probably add a warning about that up front. However, the fact that group 2 didn't pick up treasure on their way over meant that they couldn't buy very much at the bazaar or auction. Once again, I don't think this is much of a problem, at that point it's on them. Players who want treasure can definitely find treasure here.

The one thing I wanted to tets but didn't was the degenerative curse in the demiplane. The characters bypassed it thanks to Thirza, but as a result they didn't even know it was there. The version of this curse I wrote in the original submission was, on reflection, pretty much unusable, and I was hoping to figure out just how bad the revised version was, but no dice. 

Another possible weakness of the playtest was that I wasn't really using the document as a regular GM would at the table: with so many revisions, I've got the damn thing nearly memorized, and outside of the actual monster stats was able to mostly run from memory with the text as a prompt. A regular GM is going to be reading from the page and trying to construct an understanding of it mostly in the moment, and I wrote the text with that in mind, but this form of playtesting doesn't effectively test that. In particular, there were places where I knew the situation, but wanted to refer back to the exact phrasing I wrote down, and couldn't easily find it in my own text. Those parts have to be fixed in the last revision. Testing your own stuff is essential, getting someone else to test it goes the extra mile. In the future, I would like to go the extra mile. 


Thank you all for reading and coming on this journey with me! I'll be writing up a much shorter post about the final test combat we did a while back (this post has been heavily delayed, but I've now come into some free time) and within a couple of weeks we will be right back to our adventures in Cascabel! Until then, have an excellent week!