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A mid-Expert campaign in the Sea of Dread

by Giampaolo Agosta

I'm going back to my Karameikos campaign next week or so. In the previous campaign arcs, the player characters were primarily active in Karameikos, visiting most of it -- they've basically visited most of the main regions except the eastern coast and the Altan Tepes. While I do have another arc ready, which takes place in Karameikos (Lords of the Cruth Lowlands), that arc is strongly geared towards native PCs looking into establishing a dominion. Unfortunately, the player of the Traladaran noble Fighter PC moved abroad, so that character, who was likely to be the main driver for the arc, is now retired from active play. While there are other items of interest for the other player characters (the magical secrets of the Sons of Night and the magical polearm Comet's Edge), I'd like to offer a second option which might suit better the party (currently composed of a Ierendian noble Thief, two Callarii Elves, and a well-to-do Karameikan Magic User of Thyatian ethnicity).

Since one of the PCs is Ierendian, and we haven't explored much of his background (although it is the most detailed), I think a campaign in the Sea of Dread would be interesting. I'm planning to use the following material:

I might use X8 Drums on Fire Mountain, although I'm not certain about it, and I'm definitely using Lathan's Gold as a source.
I've read the two adaptations of The Savage Tide in Threshold Magazine, but I'm not convinced about the adventure path, mostly for two reasons: it covers a range of levels too wide (I'm planning to go from 5th to 8th level or so with this arc, and certainly not in the Companion/Master range that would be necessary to tackle the Pyts in BECMI, or even the AD&D Abyss); and Paizo's adventure paths seem a bit too railroady for my style (at least when playing D&D).

Anyway, my current plan is to involve the PCs through one of the hooks of Lathan's Gold -- the dwarf's quest. In this case, the dwarf patron will be Thorur Silverbeard the Younger, the Guildmaster of the Goldsmiths' Guild ("Arte degli Orafi") in Specularum. The premise is that Thorur acquired the journal of Rory Barbarosa (from X1), which talks of gold artifacts inherited by the villagers of Tanaroa from their ancestors. However, there is one missing page in the journal -- the page where Rory sketched a map of the Isle of Dread and provided directions to it. Now, Thorur's agents have located the map in Ierendi (either in the castle library or in the People's Temple vaults). Thorur contacts the PCs (in particular the Ierendian thief) and offers them to share the profits of an expedition to the Isle of Dread: the Goldsmiths will get exclusive rights to any gold mine (or other mine of precious minerals), while the PCs can keep all the manufactured items (coins, jewelry, weapons, etc.) they find in the process.

My current idea is to use Death in Freeport as the initial adventure in this arc -- it is a short adventure, but a good one for setting the tone to a "D&D meets pulp Cthulhu" genre. At the end of Death in Freeport, the PCs will have (a) the map to the Isle of Dread and its treasures and (b) an idea that not all is well in the state of Ierendi.
From there, things may progress into X1 and/or the rest of the Freeport Trilogy (adapted to higher levels and BECMI, but that's not much of a problem) and finally to War Rafts of Kron.

Now, I need to combine the tree adventures, and adapt the Freeport Trilogy to Mystara, so the rest of this post is mainly for brainstorming.
The main enemies of the three adventures are:

I'm tempted to make Lucius, the NPC from Death in Freeport, a victim of the Kopru domination power. His possession (implicitly by a member of the Great Race of Yith in the original) is otherwise unexplained in the original module. This will help connect the Freeport Trilogy with X1, and open opportunities of further adventures in Undersea.

For the Brotherhood of the Yellow Sign, they could be a cult of Demogorgon or an Outer Beings cult. Demogorgon has some advantages in that it would help in linking with previous events (the PCs are established enemies of the Dark Triad in Karameikos) and possibly future ones (if Demogorgon is, e.g., a patron of the evil Kopru and/or the patron of Sasskas, the devilfish Immortal).

For the Serpent People, I could either keep the reptilian theme, and replace them with Troglodytes or Lizardmen, or keep the shapechanger theme, and replace them with more typical Mystaran shapechangers, such as the Dopplegangers or Baldandars. The former might provide a link to the Carnifex, more appropriate if the Brotherhood worships one of the Outer Beings, the latter would provide a link to the Chambahara of Sind (and therefore to the history of the Sea of Dread -- see the Night of Long Knives).

For the followers of Yig, who also appear in the Freeport material, I'm considering Kopru followers of Slizzark or undead lizardmen priests of Ka, although a surviving Carnifex could also be appropriate, especially if the Outer Beings are involved.

I'm currently considering splitting the Serpent People from Death in Freeport in three groups:

With this setup, Morak becomes the kingpin of the conspiracy -- he's manipulating the events in Ierendi (Freeport Trilogy through a Chancellor of the Tribunal who is secretly a member of the Brotherhood of the Yellow Sign and possibly a lycanthrope as well) to weaken that nation and spread wereshark lycanthropy there, while at the same time having struck an alliance with Hadric of Colhador and gained control of Kron to use these resources to pit Undersea, Minrothad and Thyatis against each other.

Possible outcomes:

In any case, by the end of the whole arc, the Kopru have established a foothold in Ierendi. If the Kopru control all the PCs on the Isle of Dread, they send them back to further advance their agenda -- although the PCs will discover their actions only after they shake off the domination, leading to an interesting collective "The Shadow Out of Time"-style followup.

One more idea popped up tonight: one of my Specularum NPCs, Annius Helianthus, has lost all memories of his last heist, and is detained in the Hightower. One possibility is that he was actually mind-controlled by a Kopru (note: I'm making the Kopru dominate power such that the victims do not remember what they did -- basically, their mind/soul is out somewhere, possibly in Limbo and the personality is entirely replaced by that of the dominating Kopru, who retains access to all memories, but may have difficulty replicating certain behavioural patterns, motions, etc), and this may become apparent once the PCs are able to recover the logs of Lucius (the main NPC in Death in Freeport) and/or from their own missing memories as a result of Kopru domination during/after X1.
In this case, the PCs might have an important clue to recover the stolen treasure, although they'll need to retrace the steps of Annius after many years.

Another idea, as the Brotherhood of the Yellow Sign structure takes form.
In this version, the Brotherhood is modelled on the Bhut religion from Sind, carried to the Sea of Dread by exiled shapechangers (Chambahara) such as Morak.
There are three branches of the cult, which worship primarily Bhajyagwani (Loki), Dhamurgani (Demogorgon) or Kali (Hel). Morak, the Baron Rackham (who takes the place of Sea Lord Milton Drac from the Freeport Trilogy) and Hadric of Colhador are the leaders of the three branches -- Hadric is much older than the cult, as he was originally a Taymor prince who turned to Hel when Taymor sank under the waters, and was transformed into a Velya. As a follower of Hel, he was welcome in the Brotherhood, but both Hadric and Morak are more interested in increasing their own power than in advancing the Brotherhood's plans.

So, we've played the first session of this arc -- as expected the PCs jumped at the opportunity of finding a treasure island and signed a (magically binding) contract with Thorur Silverbeard's Guild of Goldsmiths to go to Ierendi and recover the missing pages of Rory Barbarosa's last journal. They travelled to Ierendi City only to find the assistant archivist and the document missing, and a very concerned Royal Archivist (Farrem from Ierendi GAZ) led them to Lucius' house, where they found the missing man's notes and journal.

Second session brought on a great classic: party divided, PC dead... The Magic User went alone, invisible, to Red Rory Hackskull's ship (the Hin pirate replaces Scarbelly) -- a small galley with a large complement of Hin and human pirates. He had to use a Potion of Gaseous Form to actually board the ship, which allowed him to inspect all of it. He found the logs as well as the treasure. However, instead of coming back during the night with the Thief, he chose to stay onboard and wait for the Gaseous Form to wear off -- only to find he couldn't leave. When Red Rory came back, the Magic User attacked him, drawing the attention of the rest of the crew -- leaving all in a standoff with the Magic User locked in Rory's room, blocked by a Web in which the pirate was stuck. Since the crew had a Magic User on board as well, the PC chose to use his Fireball spell -- killing a dozen crewmen and almost killing the pirate mage and Rory. However, Rory broke free of the web and made short work of the PC, in spite of taking a critical hit (the Magic User PC has some mastery with the Dagger, and rolled a 20 for double damage... for a total of 2 HP... not that it would have changed much, since the remaining crewmen would have killed him easily anyway).

Now the other PCs are looking for means to raise the Magic User from the dead...

Indeed, the player sent his character into a (literal) dead end. The Ierendian Thief PC (John Eddington), who owns a custom-made magic item that allows him to shapechange (once per week) was able to recover the corpse of the Magic User (Plinius Iuvenes), and the characters pooled their resources (they had to sell a magic axe they had found in a previous adventure, though) to pay for a raise dead at the People's Temple.

Meanwhile, the Callarii Elf (Oberon) and an NPC ally (a northman warrior in service to Baron Eddington) continued the investigation, defeated the mercenaries that the Brotherhood of the Yellow Sign had sent to silence them, tracked down the middleman and went to the abandoned building that housed the BYS. However, they spent their best spell (a Fireball) to destroy the building (empty, since most of the dealings went in the underground complex). They managed to reach the final sanctum (spending a Web spell to block the Troglodytes that infested the caves), but were defeated by the BYS priests. The Elf was dropped to 0 HP, and the northman was sent fleeing by a Cause Fear spell. He managed to return with help just in time to save the Elf, but the priests had taken the opportunity to flee (with the treasure). Luckily, the Fighter had taken with him the missing page of Rory Barbarosa's journal, so the PCs managed to complete their main goal -- also, Lucius was found afterwards by the Guard while recovering the Elf.

With Rory Barbarosa's map, the PCs were able to return to Specularum and organize an expedition to the Isle of Dread. Being a bit short on coin, they hired the "Cutpurse" and its less-than-reliable crew (from Lathan's Gold). They also hired three NPCs: a Ierendian magic user, naturalist and cartographer (Edwin Nawai), a Thyatian cleric of Vanya (Iulia Domitia), and a dwarf warrior (Dwalur Stonehand).
The PCs and their crew reached the Isle of Dread, heading for the village of Mora, where they moored the ship. Then, they moved to Tanaroa. They met the chiefs and elders of both villages, managed to set up reasonable relations with the natives (apart from some scheming warriors and Zombie Lords), and mounted their expedition to the inner part of the island.
In a week, they have reached the bridge to the plateau, and have met (peacefully) the Neanderthals, from whom they learned the location of a silver mine (the source of the Neanderthals' treasure). They have been hampered by encounters with several wild animals -- a woolly elephant forced them to a detour, while a frightened grangeri trampled to death the Ierendian NPC mage and almost killed the PC mage.
Now the party's food stores are dwindling, and they need to decide whether they want to press on or to go back to the mainland and return with more provisions.

IMC, it depends on the religion -- e.g., not all Immortals condone greed, but some encourage it. The People's Temple is a neutral philosophical cult, thus more interested in money and not dependent on gods. Even in the Gaz, church officials are corrupt, and routinely change even the founder Tomia's dogmas -- a testament to the practical nature of their philosophy.
In particular, in this specific campaign, the People's Temple is deeply infiltrated by external forces -- starting with the noble houses of Ierendi, and finishing with the Kopru and the Brotherhood of the Yellow Sign. Which is why the PCs were able to have their comrade raised by them, and not by the priests of the Eternal Truth.

Also, in this case, the priest who raised the character was actually a Kopru mole (a priest of Slizzark the Lurker), and resurrecting the PC was a move against both the Honor Island mages (whom the dead PC had tried to steal a staff of power from) and the Brotherhood of the Yellow Sign (whom the party was investigating). As a side, the Kopru aim at reestablishing contacts with their compatriots in the Isle of Dread, and having the PCs go on an expedition gives them an opportunity to dominate them and use them to further their aims -- the Kopru agent can only dominate one person at a time, but the Kopru on the Isle are more powerful, and might dominate an entire party.
All in all, the monetary cost was just the immediate problem for the party...

P.S.: the PCs have explored circa one half of the Isle. After losing one of their hirelings, they've become much more protective of them -- they keep the cleric constantly in the rear lines, and have used time and magic to track two rocs that had abducted the dwarf hireling. Also, they've been jockeying the vanity of one of the village chiefs and the ambitions of the war chiefs to set up trades for food. All this work finally led to a concrete outcome, as the PCs located the treasure map in the rocs' nest, killed the dinosaurs near the banks of the northern lake, and dug the treasure out.

So, two sessions after, the PC Magic-User, Plinius, died on Taboo Island in the Isle of Dread, killed by a Yellow Mold infection. The other PCs tried to save him with assorted rudimentary surgeries, which I handled by allowing an additional ST vs poison after each successful attempt at healing. The other players came up with a mix of hilarious ideas and crazy skill rolls, giving Plinius three extra STs, which were all miserably failed. Unable to bring the dead wizard back to civilization in time, the other characters finally gave up and left him for dead.

On Taboo Island, things went initially well -- fireballs and swordmanship made short work of the hostile natives, and two swords of odd making -- a rapier and a longsword, both with weird etchings and hilts of metal forged and etched to resemble cephalopods, with the tentacles making up the guards, etc -- were recovered. After finding a secret door, the PCs reached the altar room and recovered the Kopru statue (an idol of Slizzark), which magically enslaved the Thief and the Elf PCs, as well as one of the NPC hirelings (the party had brought on a Cleric of Vanya and a Hillforge dwarf, as well as a Magic User NPC who had been killed earlier on). The last hireling was then dominated by one of the Kopru in the geyser pools on the third level.

The party, entirely dominated by the Kopru except for the second Elf PC (Kernel), who had remained back in the village of Mora, went back to Tanaroa, and then to the hired ship, the Cutpurse. They sailed back to Specularum, where the unsuspecting Kernel was left behind by the others, who disappeared for two months. When they came back, Kernel attempted to persuade one of the NPCs (the Thyatian cleric) to give him the magic items she had found on Taboo Island, quarrelled with her, and finally led the NPC to dump the party.

Now the party is reunited in Specularum (although the remaining NPC will likely leave, as he has now grown in experience, reaching 4th level when the highest level PC is at 7th). They still have Rory Barbarosa's map, and most of the items they found, except for the Kopru idol. They have no memory of the time they were dominated by the Kopru.
So, their next moves will be to claim their pay from Thorur Silverbeard and the Goldsmiths' Guild, and then likely try to understand what they did while under the Kopru influence (in case they don't, they'll soon find some of their actions were not so legal...)

I'll be using the "missing time" to set up hooks towards the rest of the campaign, in particular towards War Rafts of Kron, with the PCs once more involved in the struggle between the main factions of this campaign arc (the shapeshifters of the Brotherhood of the Yellow Sign, the Kopru Restorationists, Undersea, the Minrothad Guilds and the Tribunal of Ierendi).

Since the PCs have spent a couple of months dominated by the Kopru, I need to better focus the plot towards the restoration of the Kopru Empire.

Some Like it Hot
A first, although minor, goal of the Isle of Dread Kopru is to get back in touch with their compatriots in the Sunlit Sea. The dominated PCs have therefore visited underwater volcanoes and met at least some Kopru.

The Hackskull Run
The main goal of these Kopru is to increase the volcanic activity in the Sunlit Sea, which would enable them to take it over. To this end, they need to access and overcharge the elemental vortex under Honour Island.
They know, through the PC memories*, that Red Rory Hackskull, a Hin pirate, is in contact with the Honor mages. They plan to smuggle the Slizzark Idol (the kopru statue from X1) into Honour, using Red Rory and then his Honour contacts as the unwitting carriers.
Thus, at least one of the PCs (or their NPC retainers) will have spent part of the month looking for Red Rory. Red Rory, as a Hin, might be too resistant to domination, but not all his crewmen are Hin, so some will be dominated by the Slizzark Idol, which will then be passed over to the Honour mage contact.

Terror in Ierendi
A second goal of the Kopru conspiracy is to protect their own assets in Ierendi from the aggression of the Brotherhood of the Yellow Sign (BoYS). In particular, the presence of a BoYS mole (Milos from Death in Freeport) in the People's Temple of Ierendi threatens the Kopru plant, Hazzik (who replaces Thuron from the Freeport adventures). The Kopru have the PCs (probably the Ierendian Thief) steal compromising documents from Lucius' house and kill Milos (who had survived from the previous adventure).

The Aloysius Ritual
Finally, the Kopru want a ready source of manpower and a diversion to keep Ierendi and the BoYS busy while they carry out their own plans. They plan to return to life the Lizardmen of Aloysius, whom they know have been set in suspended animation by their priests. Thus, they send the remaining PCs on a quest to Malpheggi, to recover a Mogreth shaman fetish, then to Kirkuk in Ylaruam to smuggle a Lizardman mummy priest** and awake it on Aloysius.

The PCs have now been returned to Specularum, and will find on them some unsual items that will point out to their travels in the past months -- e.g., a piece of mummy wrappings with pre-Nithian pictograms, a potion of water breathing, knowledge of spells only found in Ylaruam, Undersea, or another area visited by the PCs, and so on.
They may or may not pursue the investigation of their "missing months", but these will come back to haunt them anyway, either through nightmares, or through concrete consequences -- e.g., the PCs might be recognised as associates of Captain Hackskull by Thyatian spies, or might be wanted as the assassins of Milos in Ierendi, etc.

* Since Red Rory replaced the orc pirate in Death in Freeport, the PCs are aware that he has a connection to a mage, and have tracked this connection to the Honour battleships.

** This is the Lizardman priest found in Kirkuk's well in Gaz2.

In yesterday's session, the PCs discovered various items (two potions, a scroll, a pouch of tobacco and a smoking pipe, a folder of documents and a mummy wrap) they didn't have before their amnesia. They discovered easily that the potions are a Fire Resistance and a Water Breathing one, while the scroll is a page from a spellbook, containing an unusual spell that transmutes a branch into a horse, not known in Specularum, but possibly of Thyatian origin.
They also wanted to be hypnotized to get more information from their black-out period, so they travelled to the Collegium Arcanum in Thyatis City. Bribing their way into the magic university, they managed to speak with a mentalist named Polibius, who hypnotized them. The remembered scenes included a galley with a Hin crew (Oberon the Elf), a desert and a well, and being immersed in hot water (Dwalar, the NPC dwarf).
They also brought the tobacco and pipe to an expert, who identified them as of Five Shires origin, while the spellbook page was confirmed as being likely part of the spellbook of a student of the Collegium Arcanum.
Overall, the players suspect that the ship in Oberon's recovered memory is Red Rory Hackskull's one (true).

P.S.: Being in Thyatis, one of the PCs enrolled to fight in the Coliseum, losing to a Murmillo heavy fighter -- the other PCs heavily bet on their champion's victory, losing quite a few gold pieces