The Thaw: Episode 4

An Investment Opportunity

Things took an interesting turn in terms of attendance. Yesterday morning the expectations as that I’d get 3 players, and one of them would be new (we’d be getting a Dragonborn Bard). When we started today, we had lost the new player to car trouble[1] but picked up several other players due to schedule changes. So where I had initially prepared for a skeleton crew, I actually had a very healthy 5 member party on hand. This was good, but forced some hasty refactoring.

Of course, it did not help that while I was preparing, Rat Queens Volume 2 arrived. Stopped all prep to read that, and while it was inspirational (Brad, Brad, Brad, Brad Brad….) it meant that actual prep was a bit rushed. I fell back on the time honored tradition of picking a keystone monster or two (hmmm, what’s a CR 5 look like…) and building out from there. I actually had a couple possibilities when we started, though they all skewed demons or undead.

So, for the day we had

  • Tuaq, the ice elf warlock,
  • Sul, the wood elf sorcerer
  • Nato, the halfling cleric
  • Weaver, the human thief
  • Israfil, the high elf paladin

So things began with Theodorus, a Bezant merchant and sawbones (and spy) who has connections to many of the PCs approaching Weaver because he had a job to be done quietly. Theodore had several vials of something he described as “Salamander blood” that could melt ice and speed excavation, and he wanted to use it on the DL. He needed the crew to find a claim that was promising but untapped because it was too dangerous to work for an extended period so they could swoop in. This was agreed to.

There was a bit of a sidebar here about how claims worked. There’s something of a market in them – once a claim is made, it needs to be maintained, but they’re hard to work, and their value increases as the ice line recedes, so there’s something of a speculative market. So if you register a claim, you can leave the clerk a note saying how much you want for it, and they put it in their book, and other people can buy it. As with any speculative market, a lot of money changes hands, but it’s the house that profits, with a fee on each such transaction.

With that in mind, the players first looked into the possibility of a “Ghost Ice” claim. Those are known, haunted claims where is it believed there are dead bodies beneath the ice whose spirits make trouble. They’re presumed to be valuable (since people are probably near things of importance) but can often be gotten on the cheap because no crew will work them. The other prospect was a patch that Tuaq knew about, which had been said to be very promising, but had had a run of bad luck in the form of two dead crews.

This lead to another sidebar on what made a claim valuable. treasure, sure, but that was almost secondary. Right now, the geography of Carta is largely unknown, so when a dig finds anything, it gets combed over for any hint of where in the city it may have come from. Based on that, people update their theoretical map of where the city might be today, which in turn can trigger runs of enthusiastic speculation.

Anyway, Sul listened to the voices beneath the ice, an they guided him to a particular patch of ghost ice, or to the claim Tuaq mentioned (and to some other places, too far to get to casually). The ghost ice claim could be had for a fair price (50gp, plus fees) but the other claim was currently held by Lucius Tanner, the richest man in town.

Since Lucius was actually in the tannery, not every character was willing to deal with the stink, so negotiation fell to Weaver, Tuaq and Sul, which had interesting consequences. Lucius wasn’t incline to sell, but he also pretty clearly felt that these guys wouldn’t know how to work a claim if their lives depended on it so he made a “generous” offer – for 200g, they could work the claim for 9 days. Anything they found was theirs. He (very reasonably) expected that in 9 days they might find their ass with both hands, and they were happy to play along with that.

Theodorus was a little less copacetic. This meant a larger outlay, and it meant the gig would be pure salvage rather than salvage plus a real estate flip. The salamander blood had not come cheap, so he would have to risk he (and his guards) meeting up at the claim to be within sight[2].

Not AT the claim though. That’s what adventurers are for.

So they all set out. The claim was an iced-over valley, with not clear indicator of how deep the ice went. The plan was simple – find a flat spot, pour out a bottle of the blood and let it do its work.

Now, you’d think that the problem was the vampire spawn that was watching the claim, hiding, planning to kill the intruders. But in fact, the problem was that rather than pouring the blood in the manner instructed, they tried to experiment with the first bottle, and discovered that if you let it pool, it becomes an actual salamander. An angry, stubby salamander.

The good news is that the Paladin had detected the Vampire earlier (though he hadn’t spotted it) when he also detected fiends beneath the ice. So he was on the lookout when the Vampire decided to take advantage of the Salamander’s attack to pitch in.

This fight almost took a really bad turn. The salamander is on the high end of CR5, and his damage output was really gross. Weaver went down immediately, and it was only the excess of ice damage on hand that gave the party any kind of chance (the dice were also very much not with with them – I was rolling very well for the bad guys). That fight alone could have been a wipe, but the addition of the Vampire (also CR5) could have really screwed things. Thankfully, it was the Paladin who engaged the Vampire, and while that was ugly, it meant a lot of radiant damage, enough to keep the fight at an even keel until others could join in (the Warlock’s moonbeam, acquired through his pact, was very handy in this). It was a nearer thing than I think the party realized, but they got through ok and took the lesson to follow the instructions.

Now, I had absolutely not planned on throwing two CR5s at the party at once, and if they had not already seen the vampire, I might have been tempted to hold it in reserve to hit when they were resting. As is, it was definitely nastier than I’m comfortable with, and revealed that I still don’t have my hands around the pacing of damage in 5e. I like bounded accuracy a lot, but it seems to have come with a lot of extra damage, enough so that it’s really an range of 1–3 hits before a character goes down, and that seems really low.

Now, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It may be that I just need to adjust my thinking to something more akin to Rolemaster, where combat is less about the dramatic give and take and more nasty, brutish and short. I certainly enjoy that sort of play, I just don’t necessarily expect it from D&D.

I admit I expect something more akin to a CRPG, where monsters get tougher (more HP) but their damage doesn’t scale along with the characters. Your character might have 9999 hit points, and hit for 9999 damage – monsters had WAY more hit points, but also did not hit nearly as hard, so the economy of the fight was all about that ratio. 5e’s ratio seems to scale towards brutality in both directions, which seems fair until you realize I am not actually interested in a fair fight, only a fun one.

Anyway, one long rest later, they begin again. This time the blood melts down into the ice, and they are prepared for the fiends that Israfil detected. Nor were they disappointed when a Barlgura (giant ape demon) and a squad of Dretch emerged.

Now, I had hoped this fight was going to be a little more interesting. The Dretches are only CR 1/2. but with 18 HP and a poison cloud attack, I figured they’d tie up the Battlefield while the Barlgura jumped around hulking out. Unfortunately, this did not exactly work out. Israeli got the Dretches to cluster, and Naoto obliterated them with a maximized Shatter (which we’re beginning to call “clerical fireball”). So, ouch. The Barlgura seemed like a reasonable threat – when things went bad, he cast Invisibility, prepared to smash someone hard. Unfortunately, he did not roll above a 6 for the duration of the fight, so he got murderized pretty fast.

So, yeah. Swingy

The rest of the excavation went well enough, with a time pressure brought in by an approaching storm. They realized the Vampire had been wearing contemporary clothing, but decided that hunting for a lair was maybe to a great idea, especially when there was treasure to be found. There were also indications (beyond the demons) that someone had excavated this in the past, then filled it back in with water to re-freeze. They found a minor statue (a potential landmark, of great interest to Theodorus) and some actual treasure. Someone had scattered the contents of a treasure chamber, clearly looking for the contents of one of the chests (no indication of what it contained) but amidst the gold it turned out that one of the bags was actually a bag of holding with some sweet loot in it (Potion of Hill Giant strength, Boots of Striding & Springing and a Rapier of Warning).

I like the rapier of warning a lot, and it (as well as the fight) reminded me that I need to get some +0 weapons into circulation soon. I am getting frustrated with the fact that monsters who are immune to normal weapons are coming much faster than the magic weapons themselves. And yes, I know that’s something of an arms race, but if I do something interesting (like have weapons that do elemental damage rather than p/s/b) then it’s a little bit less of a done deal.

It was a fun, if compact session. No advancement, though they’ll almost certainly make it to 4th level next time. I still need to tune the fights better, but I think that’s largely on my head. Still having fun with 5e. Still wish there was a license to write for it.

  1. Which made me sad because I really wanted to see a bard in action.  ↩
  2. A big reason why Theodorus was hiring the team was so he was not seen acting directly. If someone caught wind that he was speculating, then it would impact profits, especially since it was hoped that the speedy turnaround of the salamander blood would allow him to act quickly.  ↩

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