“What is that?” asked Glyn, pointing up the coast to where something small and white was tumbling in the surf.
“More wreckage?” Erdor guessed.
They’d been walking north for about half an hour, leading the small group of survivors along the rocky beach. The white object was a ways off, but stood out against the monotony of coast and marshland. As Glyn approached he could see that the creature had righted itself and had begun to trundle up the beach. It had three rounded legs and looked like a white, mobile mushroom.
“Anyone seen something like this before?” Glyn asked, glancing at the others. They shook their heads.
“It doesn’t look dangerous,” said Spiratus.
The creature had changed direction and was now heading towards Glyn. He reached out a hand and touched it. It had a rubbery feel, but was covered in some sort of white powder that burned his fingers. He snatched his hand away with a cry of surprise. The creature didn’t seem bothered and continued after him, albeit very slowly and clumsily.
“It won’t leave me alone!”
Erdor stepped forward and picked the creature up, his thick gloves protecting him. “There we go,” he said as the creature struggled in his hands. “It’s not very fast, just go up the beach and I’ll let it go.”
They moved off and watched as Erdor set the creature down and trotted away. The small creature tried to follow but was soon left behind and wandered into the swamp.
Still nursing his hand, Glyn moved back into the marsh, scouting ahead and keeping an eye open for any sign of civilization. He wasn’t worried about survival, he and Erdor had roughed it before, but the island made him feel trapped, surrounded by all this water.
Between his aching hand and his damp clothes he was so preoccupied that he almost ran into a strange black obelisk standing above the waving grass. Examining the pillar Glyn saw that there’d been carvings all up and down the sides at one point, but time and weather had worn the stone almost smooth. Now the only feature was a gaping hole near the top. Glyn could hear a faint humming sound emanating from the hole when he leaned down to look inside. A stylized picture of a foot had been carved at the back and he could see the ends of what looked like copper piping.
“What is that?” asked Erdor, who’d come up behind Glyn. Glyn shrugged and stuck his hand into the mouth of the pillar.
“No don’t!” Erdor tried to stop his brother, but it was too late.
Glyn pulled his hand out of the pillar and looked inside again.
“You never think. What if that’d been a trap set for the incautious?”
“It’s supposed to be a foot by the looks of it,” said Glyn. He hesitated a moment, then lay on his back in the muddy grass and stuck his boot into the mouth of the pillar.
Nothing continued to happen.
“Feeling foolish?” asked Erdor, looking down at his brother.
“Feeling damp,” said Glyn, pushing himself back to his feet.
They moved back to the beach, where the rest of the group was waiting. They were just in time to see another of the white creatures struggle out of the ocean waves. Chopkil kicked at it, but the moment his foot connected the creature exploded in a massive cloud of white stinging powder.
There were shouts of distress as the group ran for the ocean, desperately trying to wipe the substance off in the water. A multitude of tiny white creatures, miniature versions of the one Chopkil had kicked, bobbed and dipped in the waves, all swimming valiantly for deeper water.
Glyn had just been hit by the edge of the explosion and was able to help the others clean the powder off their faces and clothes. It was a very subdued and wet party that eventually started once again up the beach.
They reached the foothills around noon and came upon a path that led along the edge of the woods. The land steadily rose beneath them, giving an excellent view of clean white waves sparkling in the early afternoon sun. It grew warmer as well, a late summer breeze blowing in fresh from over the ocean, finishing the task of drying their clothes.
Glyn was feeling much better. Apart from the faint itching the white powder had left, he felt at home again. This woodland was reminiscent of the trees he’d grown up with, the green canopies stretching comfortingly overhead. Although the woodland felt familiar, the bird cries he heard were strange. In particular one call, a harsh, grating cry that sounded occasionally above the tree tops.
He moved silently through the undergrowth and fallen branches at the edge of the wood. It seemed the storm had done some damage the night before and even felled a few trees. Erdor followed Glyn, just as silently. They’d were almost invisible and could vanish from sight in an instant if they wished.
Up ahead Glyn heard the sound of buzzing flies. There was a dead pig lying in the grass at the edge of the trees. It had been recently killed and was a domesticated pig, not a wild boar.
Glyn waved at the others and they left the road to see what he’d found.
“It looks like there are people living on this island,” said Glyn.
Ethel, still in her bear form, sniffed the ground, then growled, “It’s freshly dead. A day at most. Whatever killed it went into the woods this way.”
“Some sort of animal kill it?” asked Spiratus.
“Why didn’t it get eaten?” asked Nowhere looking into the trees.
There was a game trail leading into the woods. Glyn examined the path and spotted a boot print that had survived the night’s rain. He moved into the trees, followed closely by Erdor and Ethel. The rest of the group trailed behind.
The path led them to a large old tree. It was still alive, but had been struck by lightning at some point and was split down the middle. Ethel stood up on her back legs and poked her nose into the crevice, then reached a paw inside and pulled out a tin soldier and a small notebook.
“Children’s toys,” she growled to Korrin as she flipped through the notebook. Glyn couldn’t believe how dexterous the bear was with her claws.
The stillness of the clearing was broken by the awful screech of a bird.
Without a moment’s hesitation Chopkil charged down the path, followed by Duk and Muk. There was the sound of more screeching and the crash of weapons in an undergrowth. Nowhere started down the path as well, but as he did a bird exploded from the trees. It was about the same size as a crow, but had long curved talons and mad, bloodshot eyes. It flew at Nowhere in a flurry of claws and feathers.
Nowhere dropped back and flung a hand up for protection, muttering an incantation as he did so. There was an explosion of force from his outstretch hand that ripped through the creature and tore open a good chunk of the tree canopy above. Nowhere stared in shock at his hand.
From down the path, Duk or Muk was calling for help.
“Same thing happened to the ork on the ship,” said Erdor as he shouldered his way past the stunned Nowhere, following the calls for help. Glyn followed.
“I don’t know what happened,” said either Duk or Muk, sounding panicked. “One minute he was fighting and then… this.”
“That’s chopkil?” asked Erdor.
The two barbarians were standing over another dead bird and staring at a surprisingly life-like statue of Chopkil.
“Cockatrice,” said Nowhere, coming up the path with the rest of the group.
Korrin nodded. “Its defense mechanism, turning would be nest robbers to stone. Chopkil is still alive though, safer than all of us as long as we don’t break anything off him. Ethel, could you carry him? Or will he be too heavy?”
“Not too heavy, but easier with a sling,” Ethel grunted.
Glyn had heard of Cockatrice before, but he’d never seen one and was now very glad of it. Shocking as Chopkil’s transformation was, there was nothing else to do but get to work. He and Erdor constructed a simple stretcher from rope and fallen branches that the bear could drag behind her. There was some debate about following the path further into the forest, but with the stone man as an anchor it wasn’t practical.
They left the forest, continuing along the road they’d been following and were soon rewarded with the sight of chimney smoke in the distance.
“Well that’s a relief,” said Spiratus.
“If they share the island with cockatrice, they should have some sort of antidote stockpiled,” said Korrin.
A young man with bright red hair was making his way along the road. He raised a hand in greeting when he saw them.
“Hello there!” shouted Glyn when they were close enough to be heard.
“Greetings!” replied the boy. “Did your ship go down in the storm?”
“Helped by some pirates,” said Glyn.
The young man nodded. “You’re not the first. Our island lies on a strong current and we get all sorts washed up on our shores. My name is Blaise.”
“Glyn,” said Glyn shaking his hand. “Might you help us back to town?”
Blaise hesitated, “It’s just back along the road. You don’t need me. Really, you can see it from here.”
“But we’re strangers. Someone who knows who to talk to would help things along so nicely. Would some coin help change your mind?” Glyn tossed a gold piece to Blaise.
Judging from Blaise’s change in expression, it might have been more money than he’d ever seen in one place. He was immediately more than happy to guide them to town where they could explain their situation to Oman, the un-official mayor of the town.
“Un-official?” asked Glyn.
“Well, the wizard owns the island. He lets us live here because we provide him with food and supplies.”
“Would the wizard be willing to help our friend?” asked Korrin, gesturing to the statue Ethel was dragging.
“Well… Actually, it’d be Vasu who you’d want to talk to. She makes potions and was able to help my younger brother when he ran into a nest of them birds.”
Glyn continued talking to Blaise as they walked, finding out what he could about the island. The tall grass was slowly replaced with tilled fields and fenced pastures as they got closer to village which sat on the edge of the bay at the north end of the island, shielded from the weather by two protective bluffs.
The village was quiet when they arrived, most of the fishermen out in the boats. Blaise left Ethel, still dragging Chopkil at Vasu’s house. Erdor stayed to keep an eye on Duk and Muk and Korrin stayed to keep an eye on the enormous brown bear. Blaise brought the rest of the group to the mayor’s house which sat on the main road running along the docks.
Glyn knocked. It took a while, but eventually the door was answered by an older man, with a slightly vacant expression.
“I’m sorry to bother you,” said Glyn. “But we were told to come and speak with you. Our ship went down in the storm last night and we were washed up on your island.”
“I was going to say I didn’t recognize any of you,” said the man, peering at each of them over his spectacles. “My name is Oman and I help administer the village.” He gestured for them to follow him into his house. “Come in, come in. We’ll see if we can’t find you some place to stay.”
Apparently there were a number of abandoned houses that the village maintained. Oman consulted a town map to find them a house and looked up the shipping schedules, informing them that there was a ship arriving in a month that they could easily barter passage on. He also said they’d be free to live in the village indefinitely on the condition they meet with the wizard the following day. Oman gave them directions to the wizards house on top of the ridge, as well as to Jordan Dalwhinnie’s bakery, where they could get some food and drink.
The bakery was on the first floor of a quaint little house, Attractive little flower arrangements and clean linen adorned the tables that had been carefully arranged on a patio out front. Erdor was sitting at one of the tables, happily watching as Ethel and Chopkil were forcibly ejected out the front door.
“And don’t ever come back!” shouted a large, angry woman in an apron. “That goes for all of you hoodlums too!”
They didn’t manage to get any food. According to Erdor, they’d badly overestimated Chopkil’s social skills. The kindly half-elf, Vasu, had used a restoration potion to turn Chopkil back from stone and he’d immediately threatened her, tried to attack her family, and destroyed most of her kitchen. It took Korrin, Ethel, Erdor and Vasu’s son to get him out of the house and he only left once he’d managed to steal another restoration potion.
He’d then gone in search of food and found the bakery. Instead of paying for a meal he threatened the proprietor who, not taking kindly to his threats, had attacked him with a broom. Ethel had taken advantage of the commotion and mounted a misguided, but destructive search for honey mead at the back of the bakery.
The group spent a hungry, if quiet, evening at the abandoned house they’d been assigned to. It was sparsely, but adequately furnished and to Glyn’s relief the bear and barbarians opted to sleep outside. They weren’t bothered by any villagers. Apparently, after their first impression, the locals were keeping their distance. Glyn sat up late with Erdor, worrying about what the morning would bring. He very much doubted the wizard would take kindly to the chaos they’d caused in the village.
Troubles with Travel
This session was full of panic moments for me, but the scariest by far was the travel. I felt like I couldn’t do anything but say, ‘you walk north for eight hours and arrive at a village.’
Traveling is terribly important in D&D and also one of the most difficult things to make interesting. Here are a few way to spice up a journey:
Interesting Encounters – This is the most common thing DMs do to break the monotony of the road. It’s typical ‘troll under the bridge’ stuff.
Interesting Weather – What time of day is it? Is the sun in the players’ eyes as it sets? Is fog rolling in off the ocean? Environmental conditions can add tension to travel. Will a rainstorm wash out a road or make it too muddy to continue?
Interesting Events – Do the players encounter anyone on the road? Perhaps a wheel has broken off a merchant’s wagon or you see smoke rising from the trees in the distance?
The last travel option is more complicated and I’m devoting the whole next section to it.
There is a benefit and a cost to describing random details in your world. If you call something out specifically, the players will want to investigate. Sometimes just commenting on an interesting looking tree will turn into half an hour of pointless investigation. If everything is important, however, it can be hard to hide clues to major plot elements or future twists. Try and find a good mix of innocuous and important (and if you figure out the ratio let me know).
Over several years, I’ve found the best way to handle travel is to plan out flexible events. I try to keep a list of five or six interesting or random things to encounter on a journey, but not tie the list to any particular place. This way I can throw each event into the campaign no matter which way my players decide to travel.
I’m working on a series of “Random Lists” on the resources page. If you have good ideas for a random list you’d like to share comment it below and I’ll add it!
I’d say my biggest mistake in the early campaign was not incentivizing good behavior. Later (in chapter 2) when my characters were in a city I had a police force to set them straight, but there was no one in this little fishing town who could stand up to my players (they hadn’t met the wizard yet).
Most of my plot hooks involved interactions with the villagers and by the end of this session they’d alienated almost everyone living in the town. I think the takeaway is to make sure your plot hooks are flexible enough that the story can advance even if your players take the ‘burn down the tavern’ approach to social interaction.