Dream Project 1.5: The Fortress of Dreams

This is a summary of my ongoing Dungeons & Dragons Fourth Edition game, played with some friends from college over the internet using MapTool and Teamspeak.

When we last left our game, the citizens of Meersha had fled a dragon who had taken over their town, heading north to the city of Decolay, which had been out of contact for years. When they arrived, in the midst of a thunderstorm, they found the city partly burned, with scattered fires and little signs of life.

The caravan was guarded by five people:
Etzlojek, kobold rogue and lover of fine things, adopted by the town’s general store owner
Eva, student of the local ritual mage and magic shop owner, who seems like a perfectly normal human wizard
Donaar, dragonborn warlock, who ended up in town after his home city was overrun by undead
Diesa, dwarven fighter, who was visiting family in town
Sully, formerly-retired half-elf paladin of Erathis and party NPC, who ran the tavern in Meersha.

This is the second half of level one.

With Decolay looking doubtful, Etzlo, Eva, and Donaar went to investigate the small fortress overlooking the town, which gave off a strange blue glow. The fortress was built atop a steep hill, and had a tall tower in the center surrounded by a circle of high stone walls. Ramps wide enough for wagons led into the fortress, and upon entering, each of the investigators felt a slight tingle as arcane blue lights appeared to illuminate their path.

The fortress contained a number of odd things: stone buildings, completely empty of furniture or belongings. A number of overhangs that were big enough to shield wagons from the rain. Empty animal pens. A pair of stairways down to the source of a stream at the base of the hill. The oddest feature was the huge stone ring in the northern wall, through which they could see Decolay. This was quickly dubbed “the portal,” and the group investigated the tower. A bas-relief of a creature’s head was on each side of it: a beholder to the east, a horse with a hole in its forehead (dubbed a unicorn missing a horn) to the south, a griffon to the north, and a dragon to the west. There was no clear way into the tower.

With no sign of what this fortress was built for or whether it was safe, the party decided to exercise caution. They rejoined the caravan and had them shelter from the storm at the base of the hill, outside the fortress, and decided to investigate the city to see if it was truly as bad as it looked. The five walked down into the valley containing the city. At the entrance via the main road, an enormous message was written in incomprehensible characters on the walls of buildings. The symbols belonged to no known language. After pushing deeper into the city, the party began to hear quiet singsong humming as if from several children, echoing from the buildings. The eerie voiced began to sing “Rain, Rain, Go Away” through the thundering storm.

Etzlojek, and later Donaar, tried to find the source of the singing, but to no effect; they found only abandoned houses, as if the inhabitants had packed up and moved out. The party tried to parlay with the voices, with limited success. After commenting that the party was a new set of toys, and expressing hope that they would last longer than “the last ones,” the voices began singing a more sinister song about blood and rending flesh. The party pressed on still forward, until they came to a crossroads in the city where a bonfire burned.

In front of the bonfire was the corpse of an orc, stronger in life than any of the party. It was flayed and crucified on a rough wooden stand, and giant rats and birds of prey were eating from its body.

2 Blood Hawks
1 Dire Rat
4 Giant Rats

After fighting off the scavengers, the party decided that the fortress would be safer than the city, regardless of its history. They rejoined the caravan and prepared to enter the fortress. While waiting, huddling in and under their wagons, one of the townsfolk had found an inscribed cornerstone at the base of the entrance ramps. It read “FOR THE DEFENSE AND CARE OF DECOLAY’S FAMILIES DURING COMPLETION OF THE DREAM PROJECT AND THE PREPARATIONS FOR THE GREAT JOURNEY.” Feeling confident that the fortress was for defense and not, say, sacrifices to some dark god, the party led the townsfolk into the structure. They took up shelter beneath the stone overhangs and started fires with what dry wood they had for warmth.

Before going to bed, Donaar investigated the source of the stream, below the fortress. He found that the water flowed out from a cave. On the wall at the back of the cave was engraved an arch, with words in an arcane dialect of Draconic: “Always seek out the next horizon, for that is where you will find your dreams.” Inside the arch was a sheer stone wall.

The party went to sleep, then woke up in unison. They felt fully rested, but outside it was still dark. There was no rain, but the sky was a uniform gray. Through the oculus “portal,” Decolay was visible, but it looked smaller, and strange bluish-green fires burned like lamps in its streets. A bright white light shined from the source of the stream, below the fortress. Donaar knew just where to go, and led the party down to the archway near the source of the water. Instead of a blank wall, the archway contained a passage into bright light. The party followed the rushing outflow of water upstream, and the noise became louder as the light dimmed. Soon, the party was in a pitch black void, and the overwhelming noise of the stream had turned to perfect silence.

The party found themselves following a simple taut line of twine through the void. Through experimentation, they found that the void was dark, featureless, and apparently infinite in every direction. They continued following the string, and soon saw light ahead. Moments later, they emerged through tree branches into a beautiful field of grass with scattered trees. The entire environment was too perfect to be real. Ahead, they saw a pair of people walking.

The two people seemed to be unaware of the party and immaterial. They were both in robes. One was a halfling referred to as the Professor, and one was a tiefling woman named Sampa, apparently his student. Their conversation was periodically garbled, but they spoke of this strange place as belonging to someone and being some sort of dream. Soon, the two faded away into nothingness, and the party found a series of windows and doorways suspended in midair. Some of the windows emitted light, while others shone with shadowy darkness. Creatures emerged from the windows and doors and attacked.

1 Shadow Shaper
1 Shadow Seeker
1 Dark Hammer
4 Shadow Motes
4 Energy Motes
(the light from the windows granted a +2 to attacks for the Energy Motes, and a -2 to defenses for the Shadow creatures. The shadows from the windows granted the opposite.)

Once the enemies were dispatched, the party opened a door and stepped through into a hallway lined with tall mirrors. The pair of scholars reappeared, with Sampa looking a bit older. They discussed dream-echoes, the phenomenon where events can be pressed by psychic resonance into a dream, and be replayed at a later date. They then faded away. Ahead was a four-way intersection. Forward was a large, barred double-door inlaid with a veiled mirror. To the left and right were smaller doors.

The party went left first. On their way to the door, they were delayed by another dream-echo, where Sampa, looking fully adult, gave a report to unknown observers on the nature of the Dream Plane: that it was an aggregation of dreams, each being pulled toward a center core, where some unknown force absorbed them. They then opened the door, and found a room lined with mirrors and containing four hooded statues looking in different directions. On the far end of the room was a hand mirror sitting on a table. Eva wisely noticed that the statues were placed so that one could not walk to the table without passing through the gaze of a statue. He then used his Mage Hand ability to pick up the mirror from across the room. Unfortunately, he broke the gaze of a statue with a mirror, and it animated, revealing itself as a medusa. It stared at him, and he began to petrify, but he saved in time to avoid a full stoning. After a bit more fiddling with the statues, the party moved on with the mirror.

This room was my first real attempt at a puzzle in D&D. You should note that Eva’s player essentially bypassed the whole thing by using Mage Hand. Far from being cheating, this was a valid and clever way to approach the puzzle, and avoided the other traps in the room. Other approaches I had thought of included using the mirrors from the hallway to divert the statues’ gazes, or moving the statues (they were on wheeled chairs) so that there was a clear path.

Before opening the right door, the party saw a dream-echo of an older, slightly graying Sampa, teaching a class of young people. She was explaining that the purpose of their project was to “cheat on tests;” they were looking for information and techniques in other peoples’ dreams, to avoid having to develop them on their own. Through the door was a dark room. The room contained a weeping, veiled woman with embroidery on her lap. Once they entered the room, the party also discovered that it was lined with hundreds of stinging vermin: spiders, beetles, centipedes, and worse. It turned out that Diesa, the brave dwarven warrior, was grossed out by bugs.

By talking to the woman, the party found that she was an eladrin noblewoman, Anna, from long ago who had been burned in a fire and rendered ugly. However, she appeared quite talented at embroidery. Through a combination of business sense and bluffing, Etzlojek was able to convince her that she was talented, pretty, and could start a business selling her own work. To seal the deal, he paid her ten gold for her embroidery… which he planned to later sell as genuine, mint-condition antique handicraft. He then snatched off her veil without too much protesting on her part. Meanwhile, others in the party cleared out the vermin using various attacks: flaming bursts, acid breath, thunder waves, and physical attacks. One beetle survived it all, and Eva declared it a “superbug” and collected it for further study.

This was an entirely successful skill challenge. It was actually two simultaneous challenges: one to get the veil, and one to clear the bugs. This provided enough for everyone in the party to do something, and they actually used several different skill checks to soothe the woman. This challenge will be one of my models for future skill challenges.

The party had the mirror and the veil, so they went to the double doors and opened them. Inside, in a room lined with columns, floated a beholder with a scarred face that mirrored that of Anna, the eladrin noblewoman. It bellowed and attacked, assisted by its companions.

1 Beholder Gauth
2 Griefmotes
1 Dretch
2 Wisp Wraiths

This was a hard encounter, but the party pulled it off with flying colors. I’d even included a helping hand: the veil would reduce the beholder’s hit points by 25%, and the mirror would do the same or, alternately, render the invisible enemies permanently visible. However, the party gave these items to Diesa, the direct-minded fighter, and she never waved them or threw them or used them despite clues to do so. It was fine, though, as the group used excellent tactics and succeeded.

Once the beholder was dead, Sampa appeared in one final dream-echo. Here, she was old, her hair white. She walked forward and looked in the party’s direction; not directly at them, but clearly seeking someone’s attention in that area. She deliberately touched one specific eye of the beholder, then disappeared. The party moved forward to investigate, but the dream was dissolving around them. The beholder turned to liquid, the walls melted away, and the party woke up in their beds to the sunlight and birdcalls of normal morning. The mirror and veil were gone, but the party still had the “superbug” and the antique embroidery.

This was the end of level one for the group. The response was generally favorable, although some players felt railroaded by the trip into the dream world. They felt that it had not been their decision to go there, but that they had just been whisked along by GM fiat. This is a fair cop, and in the future I’ll be working to address that concern. There were also murmurings of the characters taking forever to level, so I took a poll and decided to double experience rewards. This is something I’ve done in the past with D&D 4e; five encounters per level (what you get with double experience) can feel a bit quick, but 10 encounters per level drags quite a bit. As of this writing, the players have just reached level three; I’ll give it another level or two and gauge the pace once again.

Next time, the players will investigate Decolay in the light of day and find that their “child ghosts” are something other than what they seemed.

One thought on “Dream Project 1.5: The Fortress of Dreams

  1. I think it is important to note that, as players, we’ve slowly developed more efficient tactics. We are definitely getting better at stacking damage on the (seemingly) hardened targets rather than doing what was essentially an “everyone pick a target and hit it” plan that we used initially. I think this is especially important when we ran into the Beholder as it allowed us to drop at least one of its major defenders without it ever getting a chance to really attack the party.

    As for me, I think I’m getting a better feel of when to pull out the big guns. My daily power is of maximum utility when used as the first attack. Then benefits can be seen in both the beholder and the plant abomination battles. I think the forced-loss against the dragon might have gone a little better if I’d begun the battle with my daily rather than waiting until near the end to pull it out.

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