A new adventure begins! Five strangers meet under miserable circumstances, which only get worse and weirder. Witches of Frostwyck is my new campaign featuring Slavic mythology and folklore, focusing on survival, suspense, mystery, and a teensy bit of horror. Our heroes find themselves a thousand miles from home in the forbidding north lands just as winter closes in…
Play time: 4 hours
- Drew the human fighter
- Ray the human bard
- Ward the human ranger
- Rainen the dwarf ranger
- Shaela the halfling druid / Hugo the human cleric
Our heroes were each arrested in the southern town of Bruzk for various petty crimes against the Temple of Virune. They were then shipped north, marched through the Hall of Bones in the Liransk mountains, and put on a barge bound for the dreaded penal colony of Ostrog Naskaya. After weeks of misery, they are now only hours from their final destination.
Night was falling. The early winter chill was cruel and miserable.
Little Shaela was bound to another prisoner, a woman named Galina suffering an infected wound on her head. After days of pain, Galina finally collapsed on top of Shaela. Waiting for a moment of distraction and darkness, Shaela cast a healing spell on Galina to save her life.
Moments later, the High Templar Irina the Inescapable stormed into the prisoners’ cabin. Using her holy chain-and-sickle, the Templar quickly detected Shaela’s use of unholy druid magic. Cutting her free of Galina, the Templar placed her sickle to Shaela’s throat: “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live. Speak your last words.”
Shaela begged for mercy. The Templar showed none. She slit Shaela’s throat in front of the horrified prisoners, and then dragged her out and tossed her body into the icy waters of the River Ovad.
(And that’s how I shocked my new players, and showed them how dangerous this campaign world could be!)
As the remaining prisoners tried to make sense of what had just happened, they heard a commotion out on the deck of the barge. Kormish reavers were attacking on two ships from both upriver and downriver!
With the bargemen, soldiers, and Templar distracted by the river pirates and a hailstorm of arrows, the prisoners ran to the open hatches, looking for escape. Ward tried to grab an arrow embedded in the wall, but merely broke it off. Rainen was able to yank the arrow free and use the broadhead to slice off the rope binding her to an elderly man named Viktor.
Several prisoners, still bound at the wrist, began dashing out of the cabin and leaping into the freezing river, splashing away into the darkness.
Ray dragged his unwilling wrist-mate across the cabin and snapped off an arrow of his own to saw through the pitch-soaked rope and get free. Just then, one of the pirate ships crashed into the barge and two heavily armed Kormish reavers leapt onto the prow, quickly cutting down two of the boatmen. Rainen, Ward, and Drew saw the carnage just a few feet away and decided to run for it. They leapt into the river with dozens of other scared prisoners and started swimming toward the dark shore.
Ray saw the fighting near the forward hatch, so he ran to the rear hatch. There, he saw that Irina the Inescapable was single-handedly holding off the second reaver ship with her devastating chain whip. Feeling bold, Ray dashed down into the barge’s hold to look for tools or weapons. With a dagger, lantern, and small bag in hand, he ran back up on deck and leapt into the river.
Nearly three-dozen prisoners leapt from the ship, but less than two dozen reached the shore. Ray grabbed one struggling youth and dragged him to the bank, where he discovered it was the same sullen boy he had cut free from his own arm minutes ago.
(This sullen youth was Hugo, the “real” character played by my friend who had been Shaela earlier on.)
Meanwhile, Rainen, Ward, and Drew sloshed up onto shore, weighed down by their soaked and freezing wool prison clothes. Rainen used her arrowhead to cut Ward and Drew apart, and then spotted poor old Viktor dead in the water.
Out on the river, the Kormish reavers had boarded the barge and surrounding the Templar Irina. Freezing, exhausted, and terrified, the five prisoners fled into the forest.
Into the Woods
The two rangers quickly found a game trail and led the others deeper into the dark pine forest. All around them, they could hear the distant sounds of their fellow prisoners fleeing into the wilderness, crashing blindly through the undergrowth. Soaking and shivering, the fugitives suffered freezing pains in the winter night.
As an ex-cleric, Hugo offered some insights into the Templar. He claimed that she would somehow defeat all of the reavers and then come hunt down the prisoners. They needed to keep running!
Eventually, the game trail led to an overgrown vegetable garden beside a dark log cabin. Inside, they found two corpses in bed, seemingly dead since last winter. The companions found two sets of winter clothes, blankets, fishing poles, a bear trap, cooking gear, a wood axe, and a bow and arrows. As they wondered how safe they were, they heard a distant scream and decided to keep moving.
Now on a proper footpath, the fugitives moved even faster through the dark, freezing forest. Rainen followed behind, erasing the group’s footsteps with a pine-broom. Before long, Ward spotted a strange blue light floating through the trees. But the light floated away and they moved on.
Minutes later, Ward saw a large bear-like creature sleeping north of the trail. On closer inspection, he realized it was a giant spider and became obsessed with killing it because it reminded him of the giant spider that killed his mentor. He first set out the bear trap, and then started shooting.
As the spider reared up, hissing and flailing, the rest of the group ran to hide behind the trees. Fortunately, the spider stepped in the bear trap, which immobilized it. With a blessing from Hugo, Ward was able to quickly kill the spider by himself and then harvest its fangs and venom sacs.
The rest of the group was not amused by this stunt. They paused to fill their canteens at a stream and moved on.
Smoke and water
At a break in the trees, Ray spotted a smoke trail rising on their left side, and they decided to investigate. At the top of the slope they found the stone ruins of building, little more than a foundation now. In the center was an opening with stairs leading down. A voice coughed from the smoky cellar, “Please help me!”
With a rope tied around his waist, Ray ventured down into the smoky cellar and eventually found the source of the smoke: a magic bottle! With the mouth corked, the smoke cleared, which revealed an emaciated, elderly man chained to the wall. Introducing himself as Yurikai, he claimed to be have been locked up by Marta Morov, and he begged them for water. As Ray fumbled with the manacles, Rainen gave him her canteen.
Within seconds of drinking the water, the tiny old man had grown into a tall, powerful gentleman who easily broke his chains. He politely thanked his saviors as he magicked a cloak and suit from the shadows, and then summoned a black horse to ride off into the night, leaving them only with the warning to beware of Marta Morov.
The group decided it was finally time to rest. They searched the area and found little among the old wreckage, except for a leather coat and a strange red glass eye. Hugo identified it as an actual eye turned to glass, over a thousand years old, and imbued with fire magic. Then they bedded down, with one person on watch.
During Rainen’s watch, a tiny blue light appeared in the trees. It flew up to her, revealing itself to be a black skull wreathed in blue flames. It stared at her for a moment and then said, “You didn’t free Yurikai, did you? She isn’t going to like that!”
And that’s where we stopped.
This was a fantastic session. I had a great time, the players were super engaged. I did start off with a solid page of Read Aloud text to set the stage, which was less-than-ideal, but still okay. The fake-out death of Shaela absolutely achieved its purpose of illustrating that this is a dangerous world in general, and that the Templar is a deadly enemy in specific.
The escape sequence from the prison barge was excellent. Everyone had lots of ideas and chances to shine. It was a chaotic scene, but I always felt like we communicated well. The encounters in the woods at the log cabin, the spider, and the stone ruins felt solid. I kept an eye on the clock at all times and tried to make the half-way break and the end of the session feel natural but also dramatic.
I wasn’t sure how many things I would be able to introduce in one session. But we hit the big ones that I wanted: the High Templar, freeing Yurikai, and meeting the flameskull. That’s more than enough to set the stage for the campaign.
My players were excellent. They asked great questions, made smart survival decisions, and did some solid roleplay with each other. Lots of inspiration was awarded. During the combat with the spider, I was very proud of the ranger Ward for using a bear trap to change the conditions of battle. Ray the bard composed an epic poem in memory of Shaela. Everyone was great!