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In summer 2011 I began GMing my first play-by-forum game here at the Geek. Although it is a PbF game – and so fully available for anyone’s reading – I’m going to compose this session report to share my thoughts on the campaign, the Pathfinder system, play-by-forum, and my own GMing skills! It will also serve as a useful summary of the action as the campaign progresses.

The campaign itself will center around Tales of the Old Margreve (Pathfinder), a mini-setting – an ancient, creepy forest with heavy Eastern European influences – with an anthology of eight adventures running between levels 1 and 10. Because those adventures are connected only loosely, I am inserting my own framing to make it more of a cohesive campaign (though not a single “adventure path” by any means).

As such, we began with a prelude: Body, Heart, and Soul of my own devising, which I will describe here. This short episode had three primary goals:
Introduce the PCs, to me and to each other, and determine their overarching goals.
Introduce the campaign frame.
Introduce the Margreve as a setting – something which the adventures actually sidestep. (The Margreve is nominally placed within the Midgard setting, but I am keeping it focused on the forest itself and letting the players determine most of the rest of the setting.)

Our cast of characters for this session was:
Ta’el, a female human monk searching for wisdom amongst the ancient nature of the Margreve.
Kith’Kunnan, a male half-elf paladin of the dwarven forge-god Volund: raised by diplomats to the dwarven cantons, he adopted their beliefs as his own.
Kaine, a male human inquisitor of the deity Janter, the Keeper of Laws and Faith, off to serve his god wisely and well.
Rothar Mudfoot, an almost feral male halfling barbarian, a nomad fascinated with but sometimes fearful of the Margreve.
Gareth, a near-blind male human oracle of nature, abandoned long ago in the Margreve.
Briana, a female human magus (unfortunately we lost Bri’s player midway through the episode).

The episode ran from August 21, 2011 until October 26, 2011.

If you are interested in seeing how the story unfolded in more detail, you can find the original game thread here: Margreve Campaign Prelude: Body, Heart, and Soul (IC).

-------------------------

The action opened at the Griffon’s Rest coaching inn, where our heroes – who mostly did not know each other, but are seated together thanks to the crowd – found themselves during the Bear-Wakening festival that marks the beginning of spring. A great feast was on, and the inn was busy – with the usual travelers and also a band of Kariv, the gypsies of this world. A succulent wild boar roasted on the spit, awaiting its turn as the main course.

As the feast goes on, the group notices an old Kariv woman staring at them as she shovels food into her mouth. The paladin asks her to dance, and she agrees – but then staggers to the group’s table and into a chair. Once seated, the woman – Mother Henna – vomits forth a great mass of cooked (but only slightly chewed) eels, which flop around the table in front of each of the characters. Mother Henna leaned forward and read the piles as prophecies.

Here I polled the players for their hopes and fears and worked those into the adventures I am planning. I’m aiming for some amount of investment, but let’s face it – these are published adventures, they’re mostly about the plot, not about the characters. That’s something I have to work on as the adventures progress. I am going to include the prophecies here in full, since they may be useful to the players later.

Mother Henna wrote:
”The eels…they swim in the muck, tangled together, yet somehow seeing everything before them. Now they pile before you all, and link you – for their eyes – their empty sockets – stare from one pile toward another. Rarely have I seen such strong links. Your fates are intertwined…” The woman’s eyes bulge as she scans the eels, and she continues only in a whisper. ”The Witch herself – nay, it goes deeper than that – the forest itself – it has marked you all! ”

The woman swallows and regains some strength. She turns first to Kith. ”Svarog watches over you, but in the darkness of the Margreve, can he still see you? Will the light of your soul illuminate the paths ahead, or will the forest bury you in its depths? The sutureflies will buzz around you, and you must make a choice. Can you love evil to save good? Can you see your way through the maze of thorns?”

She coughs hard again before gazing straight into Bria’s eyes. ”You stand tall alone, a fierce warrior woman beholden to none. But there is a hollowness to such a life – will you learn that in time? Can the winged babes touch you? Or will Grandmother steal your fire, and seal your doom?”

The woman’s hands shake as she reaches for Kaine. ”You have much to answer for, young man, though you know none of those answers yet. Can you abide the lesson of the Margreve? Can you accept truths – and aid – from the cruel web-weavers ? The wind demon howls for your soul!”

She coughs again, spitting blood on the ground in front of her, but her voice remains strong as she turns to Ta’el. ”Your faith sets you apart, but the Margreve, it cares nothing for faith. The singing tree is of the forest, yet forest creatures cannot abide it. And the Challenge that awaits you, will you surrender to the fang or overcome it? Who will suffer if the wolf triumphs?”

The woman screams in pain, and then says in a rush. ”You, halfling, you have journeyed far already in your life, and it has led you here. Though peace may comfort you, it is but an accident of nature, an illusion that falls away with the seasons. Will the Honey Queen’s brew shatter those hopes, and will you succumb to her dreams? ”

The music has stopped again, and the Kariv have turned to your table. The young men who sat with Mother Henna whisper to each other and begin to hurry toward your table. But the woman is oblivious; another coughing fit takes her, but she grabs Gareth’s arms and stares at him.

”You...you see farther than all these others, but you see nothing of the truth. Yet. She will return for you. You have always lived in her dreams, you have always held her hope. For ages and ages, she has sought you, to give voice to you. But will she destroy the Good inside you, or will you accept that the Margreve’s heart must be tamed to quench the lust that begot you, the half whose return you crave and may yet see?”


Just as she finishes the prophecy, Mother Henna collapses to the ground – and the wild boar, roasting on the spit, came alive and started thrashing about the celebration. The group jumped up to action, but before they could fell the beast piercing voices filled the air with a chant, ”Food of your body, blood of your heart, cries of your soul!”. Goblins filled the yard!

The ensuing combat was rather complex: two kinds of opponents (both custom made), a bunch of villagers and Kariv floating around, the confusing Margreve goblins (which were supposed to be in the Margreve book but got vetoed at the last minute), and lots of different goals for those enemies (involving a bunch of readied actions and other initiative tricks0. The PCs didn’t know much about those goblins, and I am not sure if the players ever really figured out what was going on. But a lot of the goblins were illusions, and they kept trading places with the real ones, and they could stretch their arms really far to steal things….

During the battle, the goblins took little interest in killing the PCs – though they certainly attacked them. Two managed to snatch Kaine’s and Briana’s words and stopper them into a bottle. Another stole Gareth’s meal. A third cut Ta’el with its knife, leaving burning pain on her arm. And a fourth cut Rothar – though it fell as it fled from the savage halfling.

At this point, the fiery boar had been laid to rest (again), and the goblins were fleeing back to a small stand of trees. Any hope that the group had to pursue was stopped by the eruption of a horrible cloud of smoke from the remaining fire, which allowed the remaining goblins to escape by climbing the trees. The last words the PCs heard were, ”Servants of the spider you are now! Seek the spider”.

The copse turned out to be empty of creatures – but thick spiderwebs covered the branches. Before long, Kaine and Rothar realized that the webs formed some kind of map – and Briana recalled legends of spiders using magical webs to transport themselves across the Margreve.

By the end of the fight, half the group were on the cusp of collapse, and another was on fire. Mother Henna was weak but alive, and although the Kariv had lost two of their youths, most had been spared thanks to the group. But the attack left its repercussions:
Briana and Kaine could barely wheeze out words.
Gareth was continually ravenous.
Ta’el’s forearm was scarred and painful.

This was probably a mistake, but I wanted to give the group a motivation to pursue the goblins. None of these had any mechanical effect on the characters (though I considered having that happen later), they were just meant to give some motivation. However, the PCs didn’t have any opportunity to get rid of it for quite some time – which would have worked fine face-to-face, but dragging out over most of a year I imagine it got pretty tiresome.

Mother Henna told them her suspicions that the attack was organized by one of the Spider Crones – suspicions later confirmed when the eels rearranged themselves into a spiderweb, with a rotten carcass at their center.

Mother Henna wrote:
There are those for whom the Margreve is a plaything - or, at least, so they believe, and the Margreve has not yet proven otherwise. Amongst the most powerful are a group of eight sisters - the Spider Crones, they call themselves. Some of the eight are evil, most...less so. I know little more than that - but one of them has marked you - that my reading showed. And the webs - my guess is they mark these goblins as her servants….

Bring peace to the Margreve - is that your goal? Then I wish you luck. I fear that none of the Spider Crones are likely to assist you in such an endeavor - though, for a time, you might find some to be allies, as their schemes and yours match….

My people have dealt with several of the Crones, suffering various degrees of harm, but I have never met any of the sisters myself. I have heard tell that one of them lives near the southeastern reaches of the forest, near a small town called Levoca. Rumor has it she seeks to dig into the dreams of the Margreve - whether that goal means she is powerful or simply foolish, I cannot say. Another wanders, and more live deeper within the forest….

The Spider Crones...they are another power; or rather eight powers. By your - and my - standards, some are evil, certainly. But they are not tools of the Margreve, or at least not willing tools. This forest, its vision sees millennia ahead, and further behind - the Crones are no more than real spiders to it. My own foretelling only scratches the surface of its dreams.


The spiderweb map was indeed a magical transportation device; the group could have crawled along it and followed the goblins on their escape route. But either they did not realize that or considered it so foolish a proposition that they did not discuss the possibility! I’d also been intending to kill off Mother Henna, but the group was so solicitous of her that they managed to save her, and I think were rewarded both with some healing magic and some information.

The next morning, the group decided to head for Levoca – about 100 miles away, across the Margreve. I presented them with three options: a circuitous but safe route, a direct cut through the Margreve, and a compromise. They soon elected to go directly through the forest: a path that took them along the Drawnbow Trail and then through the wilderness itself.

Drawnbow Trail wrote:
Drawnbow Trail heads northeast from the banks of the River Argent and terminates at Twilight Fork. By day or night, Twilight Fork looks like an ordinary branching of a forest trail. But not so at twilight when ghostly fog and an ominous liminal quality settles upon the site. They say that a traveler, torn over a life and death decision, can take both paths at such times. One path leads half his soul to the reaper. The other path infuses the other half of his soul with the power to overcome whatever problem led him here. The desperate and the indecisive come to Twilight Fork, but only tattered half-souls leave.


After an uneventful first day of travel – along safe trails, the group headed into the Margreve along the Drawnbow Trail. Along the way they passed a group of men constructing a trail through the nearby marsh, and digging some strange holes, but they did not engage them (or discover what the holes were).

That may come up again later in the campaign, it was just meant as foreshadowing. We’ll see!

At the end of the Drawnbow Trail – which legends say can answer great need, though for a great price, if traveled at twilight – the group turned eastward, and the true wilderness journey began. The first night the group camped, they woke to find themselves surrounded by cobweb-choked trees – trees that weren’t there when they went to sleep. Only one trail lay before them, the remaining trees too thick to negotiate…so off they went.

As I said, I wanted to give a feel for the danger and difficulty of the Margreve in this part. There’s no clean way to do that in Pathfinder, so I tried a 4E-style skill challenge, with some rules to try to add some variation to the story (that ended up really just confusing the matter). I also wanted to encourage the players to add lore and elements to the environment with their rolls, but I didn’t set that up (or the situations up) clearly enough to encourage that very well.

Along the way, the group confronted a number of challenges:
The trail led them to a dead end: a cliff. Instead of going back to their camp, they climbed it. Two of them found it such tough going that they were fatigued – this turned out to be the group’s only failure.
A treacherous journey along a ridge.
Biting sweet-sweat flies inside a marsh (named by Rothar!).
A crossroads that clouded their direction sense.
A search for a proper campsite.
Waking to find that their metal weapons had rusted (cleaned by a salve from nearby roots).
Wending their way through a nasty maze of briars.
An angry goblin-ish bear (which the paladin smooth-talked).
Ghostly forms in the ruined village of Whistlehollow, long ago reclaimed by the Margreve.
A bridge over Grandfather’s Tears (a river), on which the Margreve’s fears touched them.

These challenges fed into the bridge scene, where each PC had to make a Will save. Only Kith failed, largely because they passed almost all the challenges so the DC was low – and the duration was as well. He was shaken for their next combat inside the Margreve, that’s it.

They camped one more time – this time outside the Margreve – and the episode ended with strange dreams:

Prelude Dreams wrote:
You dream of each other, huddled up by a sputtering fire deep in what you know to be the Margreve - though in the murky darkness you see no actual trees or leaves outside the circle of your weak firelight.

Gareth wolfs down an endless plate of bread and meat, but only appears to get thinner. Kaine moves his lips constantly, but no sound comes out. Ta'el clutches her forearm and periodically doubles over in pain.

Rothar and Kith sit stony-faced, disturbed only by the sensation of watching eyes. Whenever they move their heads to look, though, they see nothing - although perhaps they hear the skittering of feet.

After a time that seems alternately endless and all-too-brief, an emaciated, gray-skinned old woman shambles out of the darkness and sits amongst you. In the dream, it does not seem strange at all, and she joins you in the low warmth of the firelight. Her hair is gray and torn, and her eyes are deep pools of blackness.

She fixes those eyes on each of you, though Kith and Rothar get the feeling that she cannot focus well on them. But she stares intently at the other three.

"My servants chose wisely. Wisely. You have survived your first trip through the Margreve, eh?" she says, and then waves dismissively at Gareth. "Oh, your wanderings before had no end to them, and the Margreve took no notice. Now, now it is different."

She is quiet again for a moment. "You had a purpose, and the forest sensed that. But you made it. At least you made it through the outskirts! I am proud of you, my friends, proud."

With those words, she moves to sit with Ta'el, and she reaches out to take the young monk's forearm. She massages it, and then Ta'el screams in pain as the woman grabs it violently and snaps the arm in two. The monk disappears from the dream.

The woman then turns to Kaine and Gareth. "Your hunger, it grows - and your voice, it fades. Come to me when you have proven yourselves, and I shall care for you. There is work to be done in Levoca - an unjust judgment to be redeemed? Or will you find your first taste of evil in the Margreve? The old coot Arkadi, he can tell you where to find me - if you can break through his madness." She giggles - like a young girl - and then vanishes.


Ta’el awoke to find her arm healed, but Kaine and Gareth found their conditions worsening. Fortunately, they were nearly at their destination: a small town named Levoca, near which (Mother Henna believed) one of the Spider Crones lived, and toward which the spiderweb map seemed to point.

I think this episode was reasonably successful, from my vantage point. The PCs definitely worked together, in a way that felt pretty natural. I think I put a healthy sense of the Margreve into the players. And I definitely had them motivated to learn more about the Spider Crones. Unfortunately, that would come back to haunt me a bit in the next section, which wasn't actually about the Spider Crones....
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