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[Let's Read] 4e's Domains of Dread

VoidDrifter

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...Fine. I'll try to cut down on the details... Here's what's left of the Endless Road domain; just Timbergorge and Kalidnay to come.

An Adventurer's View
The Endless Road has the unique trait amongst Shadowfell Domains of Dread in that it can appear anywhere at any time. Indeed, it's perfectly set up for a classic "Unexpected Weekend in Hell" type Ravenloft game. But that's far from the only adventure - or even campaign - that a DM could run here. The article devotes a whole page to listing six possible uses for the Endless Road in your campaign:

Tracking the Lost: The characters need to enter the Endless Road and find somebody important who was stolen away by it.

A Twisted Love: Talitha van Vassen falls in love with a suitable adventurer after they spend sufficient time on the van Hassen estate. Can they keep history from repeating itself?

Lost Tranquility: Planar bleed is causing the corruptive energies of the Shadowfell to seep from the real-world ruins of the van Hassen estate. The party must end Eli van Hassen's curse in order to stop the blight.

What Cannot Die: The party seeks to exploit the Endless Road to form a prison for a foe that they cannot slay on their own power.

Holes in the World: The White Reeve learns to establish portals from the Endless Road to catacombs and graveyards throughout the world, and begins erecting a huge kingdom.

The Road Between Worlds: The party could learn to exploit the Endless Road's ability to link any two points in the multiverse as a way to travel to anywhere they could desire, even between campaign settings.


Ending the Nightmare
Like all Darklords, Eli and Talitha are immortal, simply waking up in their beds the next morning when slain, their memories of the killing stripped from their minds. The Headless Horseman, however, simply rises from his grave with the rising of the next moon - this means that he cannot return on the nights of the new moon.

It is possible to escape the Endless Road simply by trying to walk out of it. Trekking along the Endless Road may result in it returning them to the real world after weeks or months of wandering. Similarly, whilst trying to escape through the Wailing Wood or the tunnels beneath the Stone Orchard will usually just return the escapee to the Endless Road, sometimes pathways will open up that will carry them to elsewhere in the Shadowfell - or to another Domain of Dread.

There's also one final way to escape without ruining the domain itself; if the Headless Horseman is slain within site of his grave, if the killers can reach the Crossroads before he rises again, they will be transported to a crossroads somewhere in the mortal world. Of course, given the distances involved, this requires careful timing and a hellish three-day race.

Breaking the curse can be done in two ways.

Firstly, if the Headless Horseman kills both van Hassens, then the curse is broken; the Domain will fade away and all of its inhabitants will be restored to the mortal world. The party could either drag the van Hassens from their estate to the Horseman's waiting sickle, or break down the gates or open a hole in the fence to let him enter the estate himself - but that will allow him to rampage across the estate and kill everyone in his wake until he attacks the van Hassens, so that's pretty morally dubious!

Secondly, somehow, the Headless Horseman could be persuaded to forgive the van Hassens, which would similarly end the curse and send everyone back to the mortal world. The article notes that this would be difficult, since the Headless Horseman seems to lack any personality (or even sentience) beyond murderous rage, and even cheekily notes that "if it was easy, anyone could do it". It does suggest that retrieving his skull from the ruins of the mortal estate would help.


Closing Thoughts
All in all, this is one of the best Domains of Dread articles in the series. It takes a one-dimensional, one-note, frankly lore-breaking domain from old-school Ravenloft, and works it into something interesting, engaging, and very fun. I could easily see myself running a whole campaign centered around the Endless Road.
 

SuperG

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I'm personally enjoying reading through the detail, but I don't check in that often! :)


And dang this is a heck of a domain. I could see an entire campaign that starts with running from the Horseman and finding yourself in consecutively different portions of Ravenloft (assuming there are easier domains than this one!) until you finally deal with the Horseman.

But it's hard to comment on piecemeal; the ways to end the domain, or perhaps transfer it to that ambitious ghoulwraith (ghaith? wroul?) definitely count.


Also, the Horseman got a really raw deal. He's probably suffering more than the Darklord - unless it's just a shadowy copy, of course.


Edit: Oh, you finished up.


Okay, those finishes are... okay. The freeform nature of getting the Horseman to forgive them does mean the DM can run it whichever way they want.


There's certainly a lot of room for improv; if the players go digging around in the Shadowfell grave, what WILL they find? A talking head? That would probably help.
Maybe too much, unless there's an entire dungeon inside the grave reflecting the growth of the Domain as a whole...?
 
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Gilphon

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I feel like the Horseman probably isn't a genuine ghost, just a construct of guilt and fear. But then again, a construct of guilt and fear would probably be incapable of forgiveness, and even if it wasn't, it's not forgiveness from such a creature would really mean anything.

But really, the thing to note here is that the Horseman's actions perpetuate the van Hassen's original lie- he continues to act both as a scapegoat, and is the key to Eli maintaining his power. Which reinforces my belief that he's a fraud. Perhaps the real Horseman's spirit is bound to the grave- not as any kind of intentional punishment, just as a quirk of how Shadowfell and the Domain's rules interact. The reason his monstrous double guards the site so zealously is because somewhere in whatever passes for that creature's mind, it understands that if the real ghost is discovered, its existence could be ended without it ever getting the revenge that gives its 'life' meaning.

The real ghost, meanwhile, is all for breaking the curse, but after being bound to a single spot for centuries, is further from forgiveness than ever, and would much rather just help his double cut a bloody swath through the van Hassen estate.
 

VoidDrifter

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Okay, I promise I'll try and get to work on the domain of Timbergorge soon, but I was curious; what do folks think of the Endless Road as a whole? How does it stack up against the Winding Road of "true" Ravenloft? And how do you think your players/party would try and break the curse of the Headless Horseman?
 

VoidDrifter

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Alright, I'm working on Timbergorge as fast as I can, but I thought you guys deserved a taste at least; besides, you guys do say it's easier for you when I break stuff up into smaller chunks.

Domains of Dread #5: Timbergorge
Opening Thoughts
At long last, we reach the end of our official Domains of Dread, with Dungeon #207's "Timbergorge". We had something of a rocky start with this series, but we grew quickly.

Fittingly enough, Timbergorge is another domain completely new to the Ravenloft canon, although certain elements can arguably be traced to the "blighted woods" of Forlorn and Tepest. Opening with a very menacing picture of Timbergorge's darklord, it sums itself up quite well; Timbergorge is a forested river valley that never sees spring or summer, its borders wreathed in a raging fire that never burns out, leaving the cold, bleak land perpetually covered in smoke. Here, a clan of werewolves constantly battles against a malformed, murderous treant in a feud born out of tragedy. The werewolves are split in their desires, beyond a wish to change their fate; some wish to escape, others to slay their tormentor, and others still to heal the land. But the treant - the darklord Silvermaw - has the certainty of purpose: the werewolves will die, and Timbergorge will belong only to the animals and the forest fey.


Origins of Timbergorge:
Uniquely amongst all of the Domains of Dread we've seen in this article series to this point, Timbergorge isn't originally from the mortal world. Instead, this river valley of densely packed conifers was originally part of a much larger demesne in the Feywild; Aurusel's Garden, a vast and sprawling array of woodlands, lakes and meadows held by an archfey known as Aurusel, who sought to keep his holdings free of civilization - be it from the ravages of the Fomorians, or the cities of the Eladrin.

Aurusel's Garden is broken into different "plots", each of which is overseen by a specific guardian. As is the natural way of things, old guardians ultimately die and are replaced by new ones. The treant who became Silvermaw was a young guardian who arose amongst the conifers of what was then known as the Green Quills to fill the void left by an unknown predecessor.

Like many parts of the Feywild, various portions of Aurusel's Garden undergo worldfall, and when the treant was young, his valley underwent this process and shifted him to the mortal world for the first time. This proved to be his downfall; whilst the treant had been warned of the dangers of the city-building fey, he had no knowledge of humanity or the other mortal races. So, when a tribe of humans entered the Green Quills and asked permission to hunt, the treant allowed them to enter without a thought, thinking them akin to the beasts of the forest.

This was a terrible mistake; that dusk, the humans prepared a great bonfire to cook their catches and keep warm through the night. Horrified, the treant attacked the human's camp, where the fire was threatening to spread wildly amongst the unchecked growth. He rampaged through the camp, killing several of the humans and scattering the survivors, but being burned severely in the process. When he accepted he could no longer chase the humans, he withdrew to his personal grove and fell into a healing sleep, dreaming bitter dreams of vengeance.

As the moon rose, the Green Quills should have returned to Aurusel's Garden - but the archfey saw the fires burning and magically severed its link to his demesne, cutting it free of his realm like rot from a piece of ripe fruit. For whatever reason, this caused the Green Quills to slide into the Shadowfell instead, where it became Timbergorge.

Whilst the treant was sleeping, the humans - a large clan of nomadic trappers called the Metsuri - attempted to rebuild, forming a simple homestead of log cabins and a stockade. The darkness of the Shadowfell corrupted them, transforming them into werewolves... but this did not save them when the treant awoke. At that moment, the fire that borders the valley roared into life, and has burned without cease ever since. The treant attacked the Metsuri stockade, leveling it and scattering them to the forest.

The war between them has raged ever since.
 

JoeNotCharles

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Huh, I came up with an almost identical background for a 4E PC. Except his Grove was attacked by orcs led by an evil warlock, so his madness turned him into a crusading adventurer.
 

VoidDrifter

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Silvermaw:
It's not difficult to figure out how the Darklord of Timbergorge earned his name. When he learned that the Metsuri had become werewolves, he sought out a weapon that could aid him in killing them. Scavenging silver trinkets from amongst the ruins of their newly demolished homestead, the treant used their own fires to melt them down, and then poured the molten silver over his "mouth", coating his jagged wooden teeth wild crude tines of silver so he could more effectively rend and tear his prey apart.

Silvermaw has been visibly corrupted from what he was. Coal-black flowers that emanate necrotic energy spring up wherever he steps, wilting as he walks away and deprives them of the hatred on which they feed. His burns never healed, and as he insists on remaining out of hibernation, his injuries only worsen. His wounds have begun to rot, and he now emanates the stench of decay; he's not undead, not yet, but he's not far from it. Despite the pain of his injuries, they do not hinder him, and Silvermaw refuses to return to dormancy again; that would mean abandoning his pursuit of revenge.

Besides, that would leave him vulnerable to attack, and if Silvermaw fears anything, it's the prospect of dying before he has killed all the Metsuri.

There's nothing left of the noble protector he once was; even the other fey fear how morbid and cruel he has become. Silvermaw doesn't recognize, or at least acknowledge, his own darkness. He's consumed by bitterness, guilt, and self-recrimination; his crusade is fueled by his fatalistic conviction that Aurusel has forsaken him and that forgiveness is unattainable. He wants only to kill all of the Metsuri, die in peace, and return to the earth.

Mechanically, Silvermaw is a beast; a level 21 Elite Brute version of the standard Treant, with a unique aura trait called the Blanket of Black Flowers.


The Ashen Dryads:
The only other beings of note within Timbergorge outside of Silvermaw and the Metsuri are the dozen or so dryads who still survive in Timbergorge. Corrupted by the Shadowfell - their woody flesh has turned gray or black, and when in their elfin guise, they look frostbitten and pale - they have become passive observers who disdain both Silvermaw and the Metsuri. The Shadowfell has cast a pall over their minds, causing their innate desire to be left alone to fester into something darker. As such, they remain staunchly neutral in the ongoing battle, though they have at times been tempted to intercede.


The Metsuri:
The Metsuri, as mentioned above, were originally wandering trappers before the formation of Timbergorge. Their lycanthropic state is something they find shameful, and they avoid speaking of it if they can - their leader, Patriarch Kolegg, believes it's a curse from Silvermaw.

The Metsuri consist of three generations, all led by Patriarch Kolegg, who was in charge even before Timbergorge was formed. Since being trapped in the Shadowfell, they have been on the decline, forced to live a nomadic lifestyle and constantly wary of attacks by Silvermaw.

A sidebar addresses playing as a Metsuri. The most obvious classes are human druids, rangers, and barbarians, with a note that playing a primal class with transformation powers could be used to get across the "lycanthrope" thing, although playing Longtooth Shifters is also suggested as a way to get the "feel" of a werewolf PC - this was clearly written before the Werewolf Theme for PCs became an option in Dragon #410. Honestly? Given the lack of "evil" in the Metsuri, I feel making them Longtooth Shifters and using racial utility powers to emphasize werewolf toughness is the better bet.

The Metsuri have become divided into three factions, one of which - the Sunlit Circle, whom I'll detail in a minute - has officially splintered away. The basic division is between Kolegg and the warriors, who seek to destroy Silvermaw, and those who object to Kolegg's orders - this faction consists of many of the younger Metsuri, but as the most powerful warriors remain loyal to Kolegg, they are generally forced to toe the line; fear of being abandoned by the clans scouts and guards keeps them in check.

The "Fighters" are the faction led by Kolegg, a belligerent, gruff, decisive man who is, honestly, something of a bully. He is convinced utterly that killing Silvermaw will end their curse and restore light and life to the valley. If the party is willing to ally with him, Kolegg is likely to seek their help in fighting Silvermaw, retrieving bodies from the Spires of Lost Friends - see the section on Timbergorge's layout, to follow - and finding Silvermaw's grove.

The "Escapists" are led by Kolegg's niece, Tikmek. She is convinced that Timbergorge just isn't worth it - even if they can kill Silvermaw, how many will die in the process? Worse, how can they be sure that killing Silvermaw will end the obvious curse on the valley? She's determined to construct an enormous raft to bear the whole clan out of the valley through the steaming waters at the end of the Cold River. This is not easy, because Silvermaw attacks and destroys any cut timber or woodcutting operations he finds. She is likely to ask the party to distract the treant or to brave the ruins of the clan's former homestead to recover woodcutting and carpentry tools.

Finally, there is the Sunlit Circle; a small cabal of Metsuri druids who have officially forsaken their kin and dedicated their lives to restoring Timbergorge back to the verdant beauty it had when it was still the Green Quills. Their High Druid is Kolegg's own estranged daughter, Aptal; the two absolutely refuse to concede the idea that the other is anything other than a fool. They spend most of their time in wolf form, which might help them in evading Silvermaw's detection, and working to perform primal rituals to restore life to the ravaged valley. Their primary goal is to persuade Silvermaw to submit to magical rejuvenation - or at least take him prisoner long enough to forcibly heal him - as they believe this will restore the entire valley. Aptal is likely to ask the party to either coax the Ashen Dryads to speak to them, or to assist in her goal of healing Silvermaw.
 

JoeNotCharles

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Silvermaw:
It's not difficult to figure out how the Darklord of Timbergorge earned his name. When he learned that the Metsuri had become werewolves, he sought out a weapon that could aid him in killing them. Scavenging silver trinkets from amongst the ruins of their newly demolished homestead, the treant used their own fires to melt them down, and then poured the molten silver over his "mouth", coating his jagged wooden teeth wild crude tines of silver so he could more effectively rend and tear his prey apart.
Ok, this is just spooky. My corrupted treant, Ironheart, got the name because he had an iron rod (the evil warlock's implement) embedded in his trunk. So they also share the image of being covered in metal as a sign of corruption.
 

VoidDrifter

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Ok, this is just spooky. My corrupted treant, Ironheart, got the name because he had an iron rod (the evil warlock's implement) embedded in his trunk. So they also share the image of being covered in metal as a sign of corruption.
Trust me, JNC, the picture really does him justice. It's legitimately spooky.

The Bleak Forest:
Timbergorge is a small Domain, made up a single vast, deep river valley, whose steep slopes teem with ancient conifers. At the valley's bottom winds a watercourse of clear, slow-moving water, which the Metsuri call the Cold River.

The gorge was once home to a wide variety of animals, but the predatory needs of the Metsuri and the constant pall of smoke have resulted in the steady decline. Famine is visibly on the horizon, adding another element of desperation to the Metsuri's life.

The border is the most significant barrier to getting in or out of Timbergorge. Magical protection might work; all the article says is that "approaching the flame without protection would melt the flesh from one's bones". Each end of the Cold River, which flows from the north to the south, is veiled by steam or mist; it's possible that that one could escape through the water, but rocks, shallows and other factors have prevented the Metsuri from trying.

A sidebar actually addreses the problem of getting to Timbergorge, offering three ways. Firstly, Aurusel might actually recruit the players to investigate Timbergorge and see about reclaiming it for him. Secondly, an exploration into the Underfell (even as a 4e fan, I admit that "Shadowdark" is a hard swallow) might bring the party up into Timbergorge - keeping them in the valley could be done by the simple expedient of having roots quickly seal up the tunnel behind them. Finally, the party could get lost in thick fog, or the smoke of a burning building or forest fire, and find themselves transported to the outer reaches of Timbergorge's interior.

Approximately halfway down the Cold River's length, on its western bank, one can find the ruins of the original Metsuri homestead; clan heirlooms and treasures remain here, buried in the wreckage, but superstition and caution - Silvermaw patrols here often in order to be certain the Metsuri aren't trying to rebuild - keeps the Metsuri well away. Instead, they live a nomadic lifestyle, dwelling in tent villages that they constantly move around the valley, often splitting into smaller groups to minimize the risk of attracting Silvermaw's presence.

Across the Cold River, one can find the Spires of Lost Friends. This is where it all began; the place where the Metsuri first camped in the Green Quills, and accidentally caused a forest fire. This region of 100 or so trees never healed or truly died from that fire; instead, blackened limbless trunks stand almost proudly in the middle of a vast ashfield. Silvermaw has taken to impaling every Metsuri that he can get his hands on atop one of the charred trees - preferably alive, since that way he can trust to the Metsuri's regenerative abilities to keep them alive and in agony for days at a time. His fondest wish is to have at least one corpse atop every single one of the burned conifers. Of course, this is horrifying and blasphemous to the Metsuri, and they will always do whatever they can to help their dying escape Silvermaw's clutches. When they can, they'll even make sporadic raids to retrieve the bodies of the dead so they can be given a proper burial.

Dead south of the Metsuri homstead, one can find a stone cliff that looms over the Cold River. It looks roughly like a face, and the fey of Timbergorge insist that it bears the visage of Aurusel - hence, it's common name: "The Face of Aurusel". Members of the Sunlit Circle, a druidic cabal offshoot of the Metsuri, bring the face offerings, and they believe they can talk to the land through it. Silvermaw believes that the stone enables Aurusel to judge him; to the treant, it frowns upon him, and will only smile once every last Metsuri is dead.

The last place of note within Timbergorge is Silvermaw's secluded grove, which lies somwhere across the river to the east of the Face of Aurusel, according to the map. The Metsuri have yet to find the place, and so it's Silvermaw's place of sanctuary. When he's not on the warpath, the treant stands in the center of the grove, sulking and pondering his next move.


Closing Thoughts:
I really, really like this article. It shows just how far Ravenloft can go when it embraces its D&D origins, instead of trying to clumsily ape Gothic Horror tropes. Ravenloft canon is crawling with Darklords who are vampires, werebeasts or just horrible humans; this article, like its precursor Monadhan, shows it's just as possible to make a horrible yet tragic villain out of nonhumans. There was never a treant darklord in Ravenloft, although "Blackroot" the Undead Treant of Forlorn comes close, but Silvermaw is really quite a believable and even sympathetic one.

If I do have a complaint about this article, it's that it's kind of undercut by its shortness. All of the articles in this series have at least given some nod towards actually playing a "native born" campaign, and even Sunderheart and Graefmotte do that pretty well, but this one... there's just no real detail on who's here outside of Silvermaw and the Metsuri.

Still, for an official ending of the Domains of Dread line? I think this is a good, solid article to end on. But we're not quite done yet. Due to popular demand, I'll give us all a look at Eye on Dark Sun: Kalidnay before I bring this thread to its conclusion. Keep the flame alive, my friends.
 

Talisman

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I find Timbergorge very intriguing and evocative. My only real objection is the initial sin: an overzealous treant killing some mostly-innocent humans hardly seems like a proper Start of Darkness for a Darklord. Silvermaw's relentless quest to slaughter those he perceives as his enemies is good, as is his creepy self-destruction; and the werewolf curse is nicely creepy. I just feel like "treant kills humans, a fire starts, an archfey overreacts" is a weak origin.
 
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