The Astral Scroll 2: Spiders & Sleuthing

Posted on May 26, 2024 in Tales from the Table.
Part of a series called The Astral Scroll.

Running all over town, looking for clues.

Date: May 11, 2024

Characters present:

Character level: 3

The Investigation Session

A lot of D&D adventures follow a simple three-part structure. First, there’s the hook, where the characters learn about the adventure and gather leads. Then there’s the journey, when the team sets off on their expedition and brave the wilds. Finally, they arrive at the dungeon, where all the cool stuff happens and any twists are revealed.

While this structure works great for small one-shot adventures, it can also be scaled up to something larger. The Astral Scroll is an example of that. This session dealt with most of the hook, where the gang gathered all the information they’d need for their journey to Marlin’s tower.

The Spider Incident

It was dusk and the group were making their way toward the northwestern part of town where Chauncey’s cottage waited. They knew he was a powerful wizard and one of Merlin’s only friends. They had studied magic together at the Academy of the Arcane Arts.

They were walking down General Avenue, a wide cobblestone street leading to the bridge connecting Casteria to the mainland in the west. A carriage pulled by two horses passed them by in the opposite direction. It was the kind used for transport, with an elevated seat for the driver and a flat cargo bed behind. Loaded on the cargo bed was a box, each side as long as an orc is tall, covered by a black tarp.

As the carriage passed, the group could hear a faint clicking noise coming from under the tarp. Paz recognized it as the sound of some kind of large spider. Yinris’ curiosity got the better of him and he snuck up to the wagon to take a peek at what secrets the tarp might hold.

Yinris was a wood elf. He’d been with the party the entire time, just in the background as his player wasn’t present. A ranger1, familiar with the desert, he would be instrumental in the group’s making it to the tower. Hailing from Alboryn, he’d voyaged to Lumindar to escape the industrialization that was tearing up the Alborynian evergreen forests like a torrential wave. He planned on using the scroll to make things the way they were back in the good old days.

But right now he was face to face with a creature he recognized: an angry, hissing giant lion spider. An exotic creature native to Lumindar, the giant lion spider was exactly what it sounded like—an enormous spider covered in lion-colored hairs. Their venom was known to send their victims into a frenzied rage. The could barely fit in the cage.

Using Speak with Animals, Yinris asked the spider if it was willing to make a deal: one vial of poison in exchange for freedom. The spider agreed. Plans began forming in the minds of the group, all of them wildly different from one another.

Paz ztepped in front of the horses, forcing the carriage to a sudden halt.

“Hello! You wouldn’t happen to know where Chauncey Templeton lives? We’re looking for him and we—”

“No, I don’t. Now get out of the way!” the driver barked at him. He began maneuvering the horses around Paz. Paz rezponded by stepping in the way once more, now nearly shouting, which he had to do to be heard over the sound of his bongo, which he had started pounding on to startle the horses.

“In that case, do you perhaps know where The Jackalope is?”

Meanwhile, Bib had snuck in underneath the carriage. She found that the harnesses of the horses were connected to the carriage with a single quick-release bolt, which she promptly unscrewed and threw at one of the horses. That sent it over the edge and the horses took off down the street, leaving the carriage and driver behind. Paz ducked out of the way and followed the horses, fuming driver in tow. Paz waz ztill banging on his bongo, making sure the horses didn’t stop.

Yinris held out a small glass vial, and the spider attacked the opening with one of its massive teeth, dripping thick, red venom into it. Heading over to the lock on the back of the cage to fulfill his end of the deal, Yinris was met with protests from Bib:

“We can’t just release the spider into the streets! It could hurt someone!”

“Well, we can’t leave it here either. And we’re not killing it. Besides, I promised to let it out.”

“But—alright, what if we pushed the carriage to the bridge and released it there? That way it could leave the city.”

“Let’s do it.”

With the help of Lazarus—the only one with above-average strength—they managed to push the carriage to the bridge just az Paz came running back. Whatever he’d done, it had bought them some time. Bib picked the lock on the cage with ease, and they all moved out of the way as the spider sprung from the cage, swinging the door open. Standing upright on its eight legs, the group could now see the spider’s full size. It was at least twice as tall as Lazarus. The group, deflated, watched as the spider avoided the bridge and made for an alley between two buildings. They had just released a dangerous beast into the city. Whoopsie.

Financially Ruining a Wizard

The neighborhood where Chauncey lived was a beautiful one. Picturesque little houses with blooming gardens of all colors surrounded by white picket fences were strewn across the grassy landscape. To the north was the rich district where all the politicians and merchants lived. They could even see Endar’s Brewery—the place that provided nearly every tavern in town with alcohol. Endar himself was an enigmatic figure; nobody quite knew what he looked like. All they knew was that nobody dared mess with him.

As they approached Chauncey’s little log cottage, they spied an old man in the window of a neighboring house, eyeing them with a grumpy look and pulling the curtains closed. The door to Chauncey’s cottage stood open.

“Paz zhould go first,” said Bib. Paz didn’t mind going first. He took out his horn and tooted it to announce his entering, waking all the neighbors. The inside was a mess; tables and chairs were flipped over, and shattered glass littered the floor, along with letters, picture frames and various knick-knacks. In the middle of the room were the cremated remains of a body.

“He’s dead?!” Bib exclaimed in disbelief. Yinris picked up a dagger lying next to the body. Its color was spotless silver, and the crossguard carried the symbol of a rainbow hawk. The Albergotti family. It would seem the biggest crime syndicate in the city was also after whatever secrets Chauncey harbored regarding Marlin’s scroll. And they’d gotten to him first.

Paz picked up a picture frame with shattered glass from the floor. It was a small oil painting of three young men–wizard beards yet to fill in—wearing tall, pointed black hats with square horizontal boards at the top—wizard graduation caps. There was something familiar about one of the men. He’d seen him before, but couldn’t quite place him. Paz carefully removed the painting from the frame. Just as he was about to roll it up and put it in his backpack, he spotted some writing on the back. “Me, Kenelm and Silas,” it said. That accounted for two of them—Kenelm Marlin and Chauncey Templeton himself—but who was Silas?

The librarian at the heart of Bib couldn’t resist taking a look at the letters scattered all over the messy cottage. They were all old, the most recent one from twenty years ago, and all of them from Marlin. Most were ordinary, friendly correspondence, often discussing the study of magic. In one letter, Marlin wrote that he hoped Chauncey was able to decipher the code telling him how to get to Marlin’s tower. In another, he wished Chauncey a happy birthday. It said that his birthday gift was a cactus that would always bloom because it was powered by Marlin’s very own magical energy.

Bib found the cactus knocked over on the floor. It was completely withered.

Thinking that Chauncey, having been stabbed and incinerated, no longer needed it, Yinris helped himself to the old man’s retirement fund of seventy-eight gold. Bib examined the flipped-over desk and found a whole bunch of paper chocolate wrappers. The Jackalope. Lucrezia had lied to them; she had to know Chauncey. Before heading back to confront her, the gang headed over to the neighbor they’d seen peeking out from their window.

Lazarus’ imposing stature made the old man happy to talk. He and Bib listened while Paz and Yinris kept watch. Wouldn’t want anyone sneaking up on them in the middle of the night. The old man described how earlier that day, a group of cloaked men had bashed in the door and wrecked the place. Through the window of Chauncey’s cottage, he’d watched as one of the men had out of nowhere started dancing. And what an awful dance it was! Next, one of them spontaneously burst into flames as the others fled in horror, the dancing one trailing behind as “the running man” isn’t as fast a dance move as it sounds.

The burnt man was one of the intruders. Chauncey was alive.

Meanwhile, Yinris spotted a dark figure standing in the garden of a neighboring house, peeking out from behind the house’s corner. Once the party reunited after the chat with the neighbor, he alerted the others to the figure’s presence. I was coming closer now, taking a big step over the white picket fence and walking up to them. It was a man in a dark robe, rainbow hawk dagger by his side.

“The boss wants to see you,” the man said, voice raspy. “Tomorrow morning.”

“Great! And who would the boss be?” Yinris asked, oblivious to the fact that this was not good.

“Dino Albergotti. I wouldn’t decline the invitation if I were you—it would be…” He paused for dramatic effect. It sounded almost rehearsed. “…Impolite.” Then he backed away into the shadows.

Realizing that The Jackalope was probably closed by now, the party headed to their respective homes for the day. They’d meet up to discuss their options in the morning.

More Discussion Doesn’t Always Lead to Better Plans

Gathering at The Jackalope the next morning, they were quick to bother Lucrezia.

Bib was happy to confront her: “You do know Chauney Templeton! He had lots of those chocolate wrappers in his cottage. He must come here all the time!”

“Look, just leave the old man alone, okay? He’s been through a lot, the poor thing.”

“We need to talk to him so we can get to Marlin’s tower and—”

“What’s all this kerfuffle about” It was an old man’s voice. Specifically the old man (surprise surprise) from the night before. That’s when Paz realized where he’d seen the man in the painting.

“You’re Chauncey Templeton!” He exclaimed.

“Yeah yeah, don’t go screaming it all over town. I’m trying to keep my head down. Lots of fools trying to threaten me to try and get their hands on Marlin’s scroll. Like I said, no one who’s used one in the past got what they really wanted.”

Bib had an excuse: “I only want to find it so I can make sure no one else—”

“Right, whatever. Look, I don’t even know where the tower is anymore. He told me through an encrypted letter that I needed to use a stone he’d sent me as a compass pointing to his tower. I don’t know where the stone is anymore, I might have sold it along with the rest of my magic collection.” He held up his hand to show that it was trembling. “Can’t do a lot of magic anymore, not with these hands.2 An anonymous buyer bought my whole collection. Don’t even know who it was. He had some shipping company come and pick it all up. I think their logo was a three-headed cat or something. There, will you leave me alone now?”

They did. They had their next lead. But there was still the matter of going to the Albergotti mansion. It could be a trap. But if they didn’t go, they might get the Albergottis on their tail, which no one wants. They were already after Lazarus, who’d gotten in a fight with one of them as part of his backstory. It would be bad for him to show his face there. After an absurdly lengthy deliberation, the party decided to zend Paz and Yinris, while Lazarus and Bib waited outside the gates.

The mansion was huge. It was white, and a massive green lawn was spread out before it with a fountain in the middle. It was located in the northern district where all the rich merchants and politicians (who were also merchants) lived, with its back almost right at the edge of the Casterian cliff. Sharp-dressed servants led Paz and Yinris inside, up the stairs of the foyer and into an office where Marlon Brando Dino Albergotti waited. He was a rotund, balding, wrinkled businessman, smoking a cigar behind a mahogany desk, which had a letter much like the ones they found at Chauncey’s cottage on it. His voice was husky.

“So you are the ones who were snooping around Templeton’s place. I was told there were five3 of you. Where are your friends?”

Paz was a terrible liar. “They got the flu and had to stay at home. So unfortunate, they really wanted to be here.”

Dino, bemused: “Do you think this is some kind of joke?” His voice was calm, but cold as ice. “Do I look like a clown to you?”

Paz had no trouble digging himself deeper. “Well, put a little makeup on, get one of those red, rubbery noses and a wig, and maybe—”

“You come into my house and call me a clown?”

“I didn’t say you were a clown. I said you have the potential to become one.”

“I think you should talk to my friend Grigori. Maybe he will help you take things more seriously.”

The servants led the two out of the office and back down the stairs. They took them out the back and led them into a cliff-facing garden enclosed by a sturdy iron fence. One servant unlocked the fence gate and motioned for them to enter and when they did, locked the gate behind them.

The garden had a beautiful view of the ocean splashing against the tall, rocky cliffs of the mainland to the west. The garden was filled with bushes and trees. Flowers of all colors dotted the green ground, but there was something else on the ground as well: bones.

Grigori made his presence known with a mighty roar as he jumped out from behind a bush. He was a cat-like creature, quite similar to a cougar, but probably twice as large. A wampus cat. Yinris, friend of all living things, cast speak with animals and tried to talk to Grigori, racking his brain for a reason for the cat to skip lunch. Paz, meanwhile, tooted his horn.

Yinris settled on striking a deal of some sort, but Grigori wouldn’t hear it. He had a French accent for whatever reason: “I’m quité ‘appy wiv mon currént arrangemont, thank you vairy much. Ai ‘ave a great viu of la océan, et le people breng me people to eat.4

Paz was the closest and got the first pounce. His player had decided to roll for hit points instead of taking the average—with catastrophic results, so he was knocked not only to the ground but unconscious as well.

Yinris attached a vial of bubbling green liquid to the bottom of his quiver, coating the heads of his arrows in poison, and fired at Grigori, who merely shrugged it off. Changing his strategy, Yinris picked up Paz and dashed for the fence, vaulting it with Paz on his back, both of them falling down the cliff into the ocean. Yinris shielded Paz from the impact and was knocked unconscious, but the surge of cold water woke up Paz5 who was able to heal him with a bit of magic. Bib and Lazarus, having heard the emergency tooting, had made their way around the mansion’s outer fence and reached the edge of the cliff. Climbing carefully, Yinris and Paz were able to get close enough to reach the rope the other two had thrown down. Back up they went. Then they all got the hell out of there.

The Party Commits More Crimes

The party hurried to the library to recover and search for information about the shipping company with the three-headed cat logo. It was Bib’s plan, of course. She decided to temporarily lift Paz’s library ban. Her parents, Bob and Gloria, who were manning the front desk when they arrived, did not approve but eventually relented. Paz had to leave his backpack outside so he couldn’t sneak in any books.

Searching some local history books, they quickly found that the company they were searching for was called the Triple Cat. It had been owned by one Israel McNamee6 and was no longer in business after its headquarters had tragically burnt down some fifteen years ago.

Not sure what to make of that info, the party decided to follow up on their only other lead: Bib’s former mentor in mischief and contact in the criminal underworld: Foscarina Alban. My brain ran out of descriptive language around this point, but I’m pretty sure she was a human woman with long, red hair. She claimed to know to whom Chauncey Templeton sold off his magic collection. Conveniently, she seemed to know about the Triple Cat.

“Okay, I have a friend whose nephew is in the fishing business. His dad has a drinking buddy who sometimes plays golf with this guy who used to work in shipping. He knows a guy who owned the company that delivered Templeton’s magic collection to the buyer. But if you want to know, I’ll need a little favor first…”

The party arrived at a derelict warehouse. The sign said it belonged to The Three Barrels Shipping Company, but by the looks of it, nature was its new owner. Paz remembered that he’d need to head to The Three Barrels’ headquarters later. That’s where his drinking buddy Balthasar worked. Balthasar who hadn’t been at the Jackalope at their usual time.

Bib picked the lock with ease. There was no one around to catch the party in the act. It was a simple task, just bring the explosives to the abandoned warehouse and blow it up at noon, creating a perfect distraction for Foscarina’s gang to rob some rich bastard. Then they’d get the intel. Only, when they entered, the warehouse wasn’t empty. In the far end stood several tarp-covered cages. From inside, the party heard the familiar clicking noises of giant lion spiders.

Noon was approaching fast, and they didn’t have much time to think. Lazarus pushed the cages outside. Bib tied the bars of the cages together with the fuse from the explosives and picked the padlocks. That way the cages would unlock as the fuse burned, giving the party some time to run away from the spiders, and the spiders some time to run from the explosion. With the explosives loaded inside, the party waited for the chiming of the bells indicating mid-day, lit the fuse, and ran like hell. Soon, guards responding to the explosion would be all over the place. If they were unlucky, they’d face some giant spiders.

Once the heat had died down, they headed to the tavern where they’d met with Foscarina—a place called The Red Shrimp—for their reward. She told them that one of the guys responsible for shipping Chauncey’s stuff had tried to take a magical trinket for himself. The buyer noticed and responded by burning down The Triple Cat’s headquarters. And who was known for burning down people’s houses when they cross him?

Endar. Owner of Endar’s brewery, the man no one has seen, but everyone knows not to mess with. Abd now they would have to rob him.

With a quick stop at the Three Barrels, Paz learned from the receptionist that his friend Balthasar had gone to The Red Shrimp for lunch about a week ago and never returned. Heading across the street to the Red Shrimp once more, Paz spoke to the barkeep and learned Balthasar had been kicked out of there last time he’d visited. Apparently, he’d come in for a drink and became quite agitated, trying to start a fight with the other patrons. In the street, he’d been seized by guards for disorderly behavior. Then, two other guards showed up and said they’d deal with him, bringing him into an alley. The barkeep conspicuously mentioned that he had nothing to do with it.

Back out the door, Paz was about to head down the alley when the group spotted a group of guards escorting two members of the merchant’s council. Yinris pricked a bystander with a needle coated in giant lion spider venom, turning the man’s mood to rage in an instant:

“That’s it! I’ve had it with these bloody politicians, thinking they’re better than the rest of us!” he exclaimed and punched a guard in the face. The rest of the guards quickly surrounded him. Bib motioned at Lazarus to make a distraction. Lazarus went up to one of the now unguarded rulers of the city: one Madelena Albicio.

“I’m always getting lost in this city; we need more roads!7

Madelena started talking, putting on a political performance for the crowd that was gathering:

“Infrastructure is an important question to me and we will do our best to make this city navigable…”

Meanwhile, Bib was shaking hands with Jethro Steadman, speaker of the council, successfully shaking off his jewelry unnoticed. She also managed to empty one of his pockets, which contained a letter. Once the angry man had been dealt with and the congregation had passed, she read it to the others:

“We’ve found a fourteenth elf. I’m working day and night but I’m not getting any results. I doubt I will get anywhere if we can’t establish what causes this.” There was no signature.

They headed down the alley, finding only a manhole and heading down that too, once more into the city’s elaborate drain system. They noticed scratches on the floor and the walls as if someone had been dragged and tried to resist. They followed the scratches to a loose grate. On the other side, a chained cougar guarded a large, silvery metal door. Neither door nor feline blended into the scenery whatsoever. Bypassing the cougar by lassoing it with some rope, Bib picked the lock with ease.

Inside was a hallway of some sort. It was dark, and prison cells lined the walls. Approaching one, they saw an elf inside. When he noticed the party, he got up and shambled toward the bars, reaching out through them and swatting at the party. His eyes were red and he did not respond to the party’s attempts at communication. He acted like a zombie.

Following the hallway, the group found a total of fourteen elves, Paz’s friend Balthasar included. All in the same state and with staring red eyes, all of them in some kind of zombie-like state. At the end of the hall was another door leading to a lab, full of beakers with strange liquids and various tools made of glass. A man in white robes stood by a table, glass vials in hand.

“Who are you? What are you doing here?” the man asked.

It was Bib who did the talking, making the connection between the letter she’d stolen and the elves in the cells. “Jethro sent us to check on how things are going. He wants results.”

“As I wrote in my letter to him, I’m doing all I can! If I could just find the source source of what’s causing this, I think I could come up with something.”

They didn’t learn much else that wasn’t already in the letter, but they got the distinct impression that the man and, supposedly Jethro Steadman, were trying to cure the elves of their strange affliction8. They also learned that the cougar was named Sven and could be placated with food. The party took Sven with them on the way out, after which they began planning how to steal from the only one in town no one dared steal from.

Wow, this ended up quite a bit longer than I intended. Not sure if it’s because I’m the Dungeon Master this time and I remember more or if there’s just way more stuff happening here than in Veil of Whispers. Probably a bit of both. Then again, this was the run-around-town-and-look-for-clues–session. Lots of info, little combat. Like that time in The World Rune when the players found a town stuck in a time loop. The guy who missed the first session of that had absolutely no hope of catching up with everything that had been going on.

  1. With the Green Reaper subclass from Grim Hollow. Pretty cool class based around poisons. Doesn’t mesh entirely with 5e’s design philosophy in my opinion—lots of status effects that automatically work without a saving throw. I hope he doesn’t make my bosses feel like weak little goblins. ↩︎

  2. Of course, he could still make use of spells with only verbal components, like Immolate and Otto’s Irresistible Dance. Great for fending off the mob. ↩︎

  3. Anton, though his player absent, was in the background somewhere. ↩︎

  4. Thanks to this website for helping me put the ridiculous accent in writing. ↩︎

  5. Yet another well-timed nat twenty on a death save. Just before that, he got a one. ↩︎

  6. McNamee is a real name, as it turns out. Got it straight from a name generator. ↩︎

  7. This was the point where no one could hold their laughter anymore. ↩︎

  8. This whole kidnapped elf side quest was just the plot of Zootopia but no one seemed to notice. ↩︎