Design Diary: Azell Valley Campaign 1

(Originally posted on on May 15, 2009)

At the beginning of 2009, my home group has lost momentum with our Serenity campaign due to nearly two months of cancelled sessions, holidays, etc. It seemed like a good time to start a new campaign. Huzzah!

I was ready to get back to helming a fantasy campaign and after consultation with the group, we decided to return to my Esterra Campaign World. This was done because everyone at the table had played in at least some games set in Esterra and they wanted to leverage their familiarity with the world. I chose to set the campaign about 300 years after the last “Big Thing” when the Dragon Throne was resurrected from underneath Ramal and the era of the Dragon Empire began anew. This kept it close to what they expected, eliminated the meddling of other player characters in the world and let me reset a lot of things.

One thing that I’m always working on is keeping the game focused, tight, and moving. Too often, my players will not maintain a good vision of what needs to be done, what the quest is, etc. Certainly you could blame that on our growing collective senility or the fact that gaming night occurs after a hard day’s work for all of us when we aren’t our freshest. We did finally move from a once every three weeks schedule to a once every two weeks schedule which seems to be helping continuity in the game.

The setup began like this. Each player character was a former apprentice of a scholar-wizard named Vells Gilroth in the Azell Valley. The Valley is in the same nation as most of the other games have been set but far away from Ramal, the capital and most visited location. They came from all different classes but seemed to be dwarves and elves. Each had spent some time at Vells’ manor house, learning all sorts of things like philosophy, history, ecology of monsters, etc. They’d each left Vells in the last year or so but now, based on a message from him, they have been summoned back to the valley.

Vells is important as he is the brother of Erik Gilroth, Lord of Azell Valley and resident of the small castle overlooking the town. Erik and Vells do not get along although both speak with their sister, Anna Gilroth, high priestess of the local temple.

Upon arriving in the valley, they run into two sets of monsters attacking travelers and locals, each set burdened with 300 crowns of gold minted in the Dragon Empire. When they reach the one town in the valley, Shammelvot, they find it draped in mourning banners. Vells Gilroth is dead. (FADE TO BLACK)

Further inquiry tells them that Vells was killed only the night before, his headless body appearing out of nowhere to crash down on his brother’s feast table. Vells’ manor is sealed in stone and covered in dangerous runes. His manservant was sent to Shammelvot a few hours before his death but the groundskeeper is missing.

Here I take the time to describe the death rituals of the predominant religion. One of the player characters also died in those early monster melees. He was dwarven, brother to the other dwarf, so we played out the dwarven rituals as well (somewhat modeled on Jewish traditions). The PCs attend the funeral and the wake being held at the town tavern, the Scarlet Fox.

Soon there is a reading of Vells’ will . The manservant also slipped each PC a piece of vellum, torn from the bottom of the will. Each piece is a symbol. A big hint in the will is that Vells lets slip that he has three siblings (Erik, Anna, and ???). His only inheritance to the PCs is the reference to a working song that he taught them back in their apprenticeship day called “The Pieces Will Go”. He ends the phrase with “99 days and not a moment more”.

At this point, the players pick up on the clues. The worksong references a series of places around Esterra so they figure they are supposed to go to those places. The meaning of the torn off symbols is a mystery to them.

The last session ended with the group trying to finish the funeral rites for their fallen, dwarven comrade when they were ambushed by more orcs with Dragon Empire gold upon their persons.

After a couple sessions of the campaign, we decided it was still early enough to make a change in rules system. After having created 3rd level 3.5 edition characters, we rebooted with 1st level characters built under 4th Edition Dungeons and Dragons. The events of the campaign did not change very much at all, although the monsters they fought coming into the valley would have been too strong for first level characters.

My intention is to use the Keep on the Shadowfell 4th edition module as part of the campaign, setting the PCs on the trail of the missing groundskeeper, the trail leading into the module. We haven’t started that part yet.

Another new variation to this campaign, a player who helped found the group but who had to move to another state several years ago rejoined the group, playing via Skype, webcam, and MapTools. After hammering out some technical issues, it has been working fairly well. It has been a lot of fun having him back at the table, even if only virtually.

That’s it for now. I’ve got a Serenity/Horror one-day game I’m prepping for August and we’ll see how the 4e campaign fares in the next installment of the Dragonlaird Gaming Design Diaries.

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