Trollclaw Ford is where the road between Waterdeep and Baldur’s Gate crosses the river called Winding Water. Winding Water cuts through canyons above and below the ford, so it is the only place to cross the river for over one hundred miles above and below. The only problem is that this ford is in a wilderness known as The Trollclaws, because the jumble is home to an extraordinary number of trolls.
About fifteen years ago, a band of adventurers calling themselves the The High Helms decided to secure the ford. An abandoned manor already existed on a bluff overlooking the ford. The High Helms built a fortified wall around the manor, and added a tower. The High Helms secured the ford for over three years. Trade increased between Waterdeep and Baldur’s Gate.
Then the assault started.
Trolls in unprecedented numbers even for The Trollclaws threw themselves at the fortress. The siege lasted for three weeks. No help came from either Waterdeep or Baldur’s Gate. The final assault ended with an explosion in the wizard’s tower, blowing the tower in half and depositing two stories of rubble through the rear fortified wall and down to the river nine hundred feet below.
High Helm Manor had been abandoned for twelve years. Caravans on the road have to pass within a bowshot of the ruin, but nobody ever stops. At least, nobody has ever returned to tell about it, if they have.
Our current band of adventurers escorted their caravan past the ford, and then came back to investigate the ruin on their own. Most of their exploration will have to wait for another tale.
This is the tale of the Mage’s Ghost.
They were a band of eight who entered the ruin. One adventurer, who called himself ‘King’ in his arrogant conceit, spurred them on, even when some of them wished to turn back and return to the caravan.
“Faint hearted wretch!” he mocked. “You call yourself an ’adventurer’?! Go back and hide in a wagon with the caravan! Real men are bold, and move forward! Always forward!”
Even after several of his companions had been cut and burned, seen dead bodies rise, and narrowly escaped disaster in the manor house, King drove them to the ruin of the mage’s tower.
On the second floor of the tower, the party found a brazier of glowing coals in an otherwise darkened room. As they peered into the coals, a horrible face rose from the coals, seemingly made from the coals themselves. The adventurers drew back as the face rose and became a body and continued to rise.
“Leave this cursed place, while you can!”
The body rose and lifted through the air and passed through the ceiling.
King cried, “Cowardly spirt! Look at it flee! The tower is ours!”
King began beating upon the coals in the brazier, intending to extinguish them. Before he struck twice, the Mage’s Ghost returned down through the ceiling and right into King.
“You were all warned to leave. Now it is too late,” the mage’s voice said from King’s body.
King, no longer in control of his own body, ran for the spiral stone stairs heading down. Ragnus the Bard knew he must be stopped, and quickly blew a tune on his pipes. Ragnus’ enchanted song won slight control over King’s body, King stopped running, and his feet jerked into a jig at the top of the stairs. His feet danced perilously close to the edge of the step.
King, the Mage’s Ghost, and Ragnus’ pipes fought for control of King’s physical existence. King’s feet tapped precariously close to the edge of the first step. It was a small matter for the Mage’s Ghost to nudge King’s body off-balance just enough for one of his feet to instinctively kick out to steady his stance. His foot found only empty air several inches over the second step. King tipped over.
His knee hit the fourth step. King pitched over and hit the seventh step with a shoulder, then continued rolling down the stone steps. The stone cut flesh and bruised bone, and King came to rest on the next landing down.
As King’s battered but still living form lay across the stones, his consciousness shouted at the mage inside of his head, “Even if you kill us all, it won’t change your condition or situation!”
Then King’s consciousness saw scenes from the last years of the mage’s life. Each scene flashed momentarily in front of him. The manor without the wall. Construction of the wall…fights at the ford…scrying with representatives from Waterdeep and Baldur’s gate, pledging their support for the fort at the ford…more fights…more trolls…more trolls at once than anybody had seen before…scrying to Waterdeep and Baldur’s Gate for help, waiting in vain for a reply…for three weeks, as more trolls attacked. The High Helms killed them as fast as they appeared, but still the trolls kept coming.
No help. No support.
Overrun by the trolls.
All went dark. And King was broken. Tears ran down the cheeks of his still form.
“I will stay here with you if I must, but I promise you that if I leave, I will find those in Waterdeep and Baldur’s Gate responsible for your betrayal. They will make amends. What would set things right for you?”
“Apologies,” King heard as he found himself once again in full control of his body. The spirit of the mage left.
The party found King sitting on the steps, head in his hands.
King looked up at them. “Let’s leave this place. Now.”
Joan, the roguish scout, protested, “There is still a cellar to explore!”
“No. We leave. We leave everything else untouched and return to the caravan. But I will be back.”
The story you just read related the end of the most satisfying D&D session that I’ve had in a long time. That’s saying something, because our players are good and bring great gameplay to the table every time.
Through most of the adventure through the Ruins of High Helm Manor, the players tended to be cocky and arrogant. When they encountered a wraith in the manor proper and it said the reason for its curse and anger was because they did not receive promised reinforcements for the three weeks of the troll siege. The players blew that reason off.
“Yeah, well, I’ve been constipated before for more than three weeks. You learn to roll with it.”
John, who played King and is not really the leader of the party, really did have to cajole the rest of the players to go to the ruined tower. They were kind of beat up by the wraiths in the manor house. John had regularly been playing King with some aloofness and arrogance, but for some reason he took the lead here, and the party followed.
I figured they were going to fight The Ghost, too. I thought I would be using Horrifying Visage and Withering Touch. There was a possibility The Ghost would try to possess one 0f the party members.
The Ghost made himself known when they entered the tower with your standard, “Ge-e-e-e-t o-o-o-o-u-u-u-t.” Which they ignored. As expected.
The Ghost first appeared out of the brazier full of coals. The party was gathered around the brazier and received the ghost’s Horrifying Visage attack. This required everybody who can see the ghost to make a DC 13 Save vs. Wisdom or be frightened for one minute. If the saving throw is really botched, the character is really scared and ages 10-40 years.
Every player made the saving throw. Every player. Gallid, the centaur ranger, saved because he was still under the effect of a Protection from Evil spell that had been cast earlier.
So The Ghost flew up and passed through the ceiling.
King really started talking smack against the ghost here. The ghost had had enough of that disrespect. He came back down and possessed King.
The plan was to lead the party on a merry case. King/The Ghost made for the stairs. Ragnus, the Bard, knew they had to stop him from getting too far. He didn’t have much at hand that would immediately stop King/The Ghost except for a custom spell that he had created. It’s called Ragnus’ Shut Up and Dance. It works kind of like a Hold Person, but the target dances uncontrollably in place. (Ragnus’ creator, Rocky McCarley, created the spell.) The tricky thing was that the spell took effect right at the top of the stone spiral staircase. Dangerously close.
Okay…King/The Ghost was held. When it came back around to The Ghost’s turn, I reasoned that even though the dance was uncontrollable, The Ghost had just enough control over King to swing him off balance towards the stairs. At this point, The Ghost was trying to kill King by throwing him down the stairs.
I rolled damage for the fall. It almost killed King. But not quite.
King, in his head, tossed out his argument to The Ghost.
“Even if you kill us all, it won’t change your condition or situation!”
I wasn’t expecting that, especially from King.
I paused a moment. The thought popped into my head, “What would Matt Mercer do here?” I was thinking something out of the box, something that went for the drama.
I saw The Ghost’s final years playing out in a montage.
And I had my response.
And do you know what? The party that earlier in the day had been totally mocking and dismissive of the High Helm’s hopeless three week siege…changed. The entire atmosphere around the table changed. They listened intently to the last days of High Helm Manor. They felt the betrayal of the High Helms by the silence from Waterdeep and Baldur’s Gate.
There was silence around the table when I finished the vision. Then someone said, “Man, that would really suck.”
King’s attitude totally changed as well. He delivered his proposal to The Ghost.
The session ended with the party leaving High Helm Manor.
The way this game played out would not have happened had it not been for YouTube videos of what I call the ‘modern D&D method.’ Back in the early 1980s, when I was in high school and was at the top of my 1st Edition D&D involvement, I would have followed the adventure completely as written. Even though we mostly played homebrew, I still had a story/script that I had planned out, and dammit! We were gonna follow that story! As written. I don’t know that everybody played the game that way then, but I sure did. So did the people that I played with. That’s how we were led to believe it should be played by the totally impartial ‘let the dice roll how they may’ model of DMing we saw all over the place.
And now we have 5th Edition.
With my uber-rural ‘broadband’ connection, I was not able to follow the many, many hours of Matt Mercer’s Critical Role game available on Twitch and YouTube, but you could not avoid talk about Mercer and his crew in the D&D Facebook groups. I did watch many of his DM tips videos on Geek & Sundry, and the improv style he brought to the game has dramatically changed the way I run my games.
As awesome as the game of D&D has always been, I’ve discovered that when it is run more as an improv ensemble, the game is raised to an entirely different level above a ‘game’. When D&D is played at its best by both DM and players, the emotional involvement and impact can rival that of the best books and movies. It becomes more than entertainment.
Don’t believe me? Think I’m exaggerating? Check out Matt Colville’s commentary of the final battle of the original Critical Role game. There is so much subtlety there that even most of the players didn’t immediately see the impact of one player’s actions. But when they did…phenomenal!
My goal as a Dungeon Master of Dungeons &Dragons is to reach that level of involvement and impact for the players. We don’t always get there. In fact, we usually fall short. But when we do get there…glorious!
I want to thank all of the players at our table. They are a great bunch of players who totally get into the story-telling aspect of the game. They take the rags that I throw at them every two weeks (more or less ☺ ) and help to weave them into The Grinning Dwarf’s tapestry of Faerûn. Their interest and excitement for our games help to give me the impetus to keep creating and finding new stories to tell.
We have a large group, but not everybody gets into every game. Several players missed this session. Most of the players at the session did not make it into The Story of the Mage’s Ghost. I wanted to keep that story tightly focused on The Ghost and King, the two key elements in the point I wanted to make. Ragnus was key on that point. But every player in the game is critical to everything we do at every session.
Our players, in no particular order:
Cameron Pella: Gallid Greengrove, centaur ranger
Tyler Dill: Joan, high elf rogue
Jericah Shaver: Seria, high elf fighter
Corrie Pella: Vormir, half elf warlock/fighter
Rocky McCarley: Ragnus Smith, half elf bard
Heather McCarley: Kiera Foulstorm, half elf ranger
Patrick West: Sir Draegeth, Hand of Tyr, human cleric
John Young: King, half elf warlock
Peter Young: Courpentine, dragonborn monk
Ben Lloyd: Tantor, human fighter
Yes, we do have relatives in our group. A brother-sister. A husband-wife. A father-son. My son, Josh, is normally a regular player in the group, too, but he has been away for the summer working in Kings Canyon National Park on a Backcountry trail crew, and I could not remember which of his characters he was playing last in this game, so I left him off the current regular roster. He should be back in a couple of weeks, though. We’re all looking forward to his return.
If your game has benefited from improv style play, please share your stories with us!