Spoiler: More Business In Town
After Marr the Dragonborn Fighter paid a whopping 35 gp to get a nice outfit tailored for himself, the party settled in for dinner at Barnabus the Bard's family's house. They roleplayed several conversations with the family. Bitore the Cleric confessed that they're an adventuring party, not Barnabus's troupe of traveling entertainers, which actually made the father act considerably warmer toward them. The want-to-be-adventurer younger sister asked if she could join them going into the Witchwood, which prompted Marr to tell her stories of his homeland and his bleak childhood. The subject of Vraath Keep being haunted came up, and Marr expressed his resolute belief that ghosts are only myths, not something an adventurer need concern themselves with.
Speaker Wiston came in at the end of dinner and talked with them as well, basically just confirming that they were going to go into the woods, scout out the hobgoblin problem, and possibly even deal with it. They didn't press him hard for a reward, except that Barnabus said he wanted a statue of himself in The Green, and Wiston said he would talk to the Council about it.
They went to the Old Bridge Inn to stay the night. I think they took a liking to Kellin Shadowbanks. Except Barnabus, who's convinced Kellin is a card cheater. Marr and Bitore took turns learning and playing Three-Dragon Ante for some gold. Marr won his first game in spite of his Intelligence penalty. Bitore lost against Kellin, narrowly, even though he used Knowledge of the Ages to become temporarily proficient (which we liked).
In the morning, Marr arose early and went for a refreshing swim in the river. He made friends, sort of, with ferryman Drathgar. As the party discussed traveling tactics over breakfast, Kellin came and warned Marr that a mysterious cloaked figure, "about as tall as Moxie," (the Tiefling Barbarian) was looking for him in the middle of the night, but had been turned away. This was Jarett Nurth, looking for an easy window to murder him, but she wasn't willing to fight her way in. So that will keep being a storyline ...
As they were crossing the river on the Ferry (with Barnabus complaining that the prices for non-townsfolk were a racket -- I bumped it up to 3 gp each), Captain Soranna approached them on the shore and called out that they should seek out Jorr.
Spoiler: Entering the Witchwood
The party entered the Witchwood on the Witch Trail, rather than the Dawn Way, because that was the part of Soranna's instructions on finding Jorr that they picked up on. They decided to move stealthily through the forest (and left their horeses and carriages in town), even though it was slower. (Not THAT much slower, in 5e rules; still 18 miles a day.) I rolled for random encounters, but none happened before they reached Jorr.
Jorr's dogs aren't supposed to proactively attack anyway, but Marr made a good Animal Handling check to make sure they wouldn't. I definitely played up the hick racist version of Jorr, starting with the grumpy "get off my lawn!" line. But Bitore soon mentioned cleansing the hobgoblins and Jorr was interested. They agreed to pay him 10 gp a day, though they weren't thrilled about it.
Again no random encounters before the Blackwater Causeway. The Hydra rolled excellently on its Stealth check, and Marr was curious about the overturned wagon's contents anyway, so he waded straight in toward the Hydra without seeing it. I felt a little too nasty giving it 5 attacks in the Surprise Round, so I just did one attack before going to normal initiative -- where the Hydra rolled poorly. The party started wailing on it: Fighting Spirit + Action Surge from Marr, a Hunter's Mark from Jorr, a Bless spell from Bitore, and raging reckless attacks + Storm Aura from Moxie (who could, nicely, fly over the difficult watery terrain of this encounter). But the most interesting tactic came from Barnabus, who spent a round casting Heat Metal on his nocked crossbow bolt, then firing it at the Hyrda to do its damage. He wanted to argue that, because it couldn't "drop" the crossbow bolt sticking out of its hide, the Hydra would take Disadvantage on attack rolls & ability checks, but I felt like that combination would make Heat Metal way too good, so I ruled that the Hydra could flick away the embedded bolt as a reaction. (Which works well with a creature who has 6 reactions, but I'm not sure if this will still come back to haunt me in future encounters.)
The Hydra lost two heads and regrew four the first round, but that meant it only got three attacks, and the raging Barbarian hardly felt the damage from its bites. The second round it couldn't regenerate heads because of the Heat Metal damage. And before anything beyond that mattered, they finished it off with a Toll the Dead from Bitore.
Marr didn't quite roll high enough on Investigation to find the hydra's magic armor treasure, but I let Bitore cast Guidance on him retroactively since Investigating the area was a lengthier process anyway. And that was enough. Bitore ritual-casted Identify on the armor before Jorr insisted they get off the rickety causeway. A +1 Chain Shirt isn't very different from a Breastplate, so it won't be terribly useful to my party. They took a short rest, traveled some more hours, and camped to take a long rest. Jorr foraged, Moxie took Marr up on a game of Three-Dragon Ante (and won), Bitore sketched the Hydra in his journal. I rolled for no random encounters during the night, but Jorr was nervous about letting other people do the watching, and rose numerous times during the night to look around. (I should have had him cast Alarm.)
In the morning as they set off, I finally rolled for a random encounter. I rolled ahead of time to see what random encounters they would face, in what order, and the first one was 2 Owlbears. The Owlbears rolled well on Stealth and the party didn't (I think Moxie in particular had multiple natural 1's on Stealth this session), so the Owlbears attacked the party from both sides with surprise. They both went for Moxie in the middle of the group, partly because I wanted to see her take damage for a change before she could Rage. They tore into her, both in the surprise round and on their first turn, doing pretty good Claw damage a few times. Barnabus made one of them move away from her and lose a turn with Stinking Cloud, and critical hit it with his rapier as it moved. Marr took the Dragon Roar feat from XGtE, and used it to frighten the retching owlbear. Bitore spent a Level 3 slot on Cure Wounds to put Moxie back into a safe quantity of HP. Before either owlbear could retreat, they were both dead, although Bitore wasted a Bless spell right at the end of the combat.
Spoiler: Vraath Keep Battle
After another short rest, we got the party to Vraath Keep. Marr teased the others about being afraid to wade right in, then decided to investigate the gardener's shack before the actual keep. He rolled a natural 1 on hearing that the wood was straining and about to break, then failed his Dexterity save as well, taking 15 damage from the collapse, and more importantly alerting the whole keep that something was there.
Marr's pride was hurt, so he let Moxie go first entering the courtyard, where they were met immediately by the two goblins on dire wolves. Barnabus tried talking rather than fighting, with the Goblins but especially with the wolves (casting Speak with Animals). Jorr won initiative, pushed his way into the door of the northern gatehouse, and started firing at goblins.
Karkilan Dashed out into the courtyard next, and Marr got very very excited to face something so big and muscular. He charged it with his Fighting Spirit + Action Surge combo, taking it down nearly halfway in one turn.
The hobgoblin Veterans shuffled out into the courtyard to fight.
Barnabus wasn't convinced his words were affecting the wolves enough, so he Suggested that one of them take its rider on a nice run away from the keep. It failed its save. (I forgot to think about it coming back after Barnabus cast another Concentration spell, but I guess it was far enough away by that point that it would just wander off, or maybe come back and realize it didn't want to rejoin this fight.) Its rider ineffectually fired a couple parting arrows at Bitore.
Moxie almost killed the Minotaur on her turn, bringing it to one knee. Marr started getting upset about her kill-stealing. Then the Manticore appeared, just watching the fight. I decided Koth spent one round putting his secret plans in his Haversack. Maybe should have had him come out to fight immediately, but I was feeling like that might be overwhelming on top of everything else that had suddenly appeared from all sides.
Bitore finished off the remaining Goblin Wolf Rider with a Spiritual Weapon hit, then finished off the Minotaur with Toll the Dead. ("Oh, come on!" yells Marr loudly.) Barnabus hit the Manticore with Hideous Laughter, which made it fall from the walltop to the ground (which made it take enough damage to overcome the spell, but was still prone.) Moxie ran over and promptly dropped the beastie to less than half health. It took off into the air and hit her with one tailspike, but her opportunity attack almost dropped it.
Marr started getting swarmed by Veterans, and they did some solid damage to him with a critical hit with Martial Advantage, even though Barnabus has learned to save some of his Inspirations for Cutting Words. In fact, Marr was taken down to 1 HP!
Koth emerged. The evil part of me wanted him to instantly slay Marr with Wand of Magic Missiles, but gosh darn it, I like Marr. And the others were arranged pretty well for a Fireball (which unfortunately caught the Manticore too, finishing it off). Everyone but Moxie saved vs. the Fireball, and Moxie has fire resistance anyway. (Tiefling.)
Bitore dropped a Level 2 Healing Word on Marr. Marr defended himself with a Second Wind and a Dragon Roar, frightening a few of the Veterans and the remaining Wolf, who was uncertain whether it wanted to keep fighting anyway. I've had my doubts about Dragon Roar as a feat, but in this case it seemed like pretty good defense against a bunch of enemies piling on top of a lone Fighter.
Barnabus cast Heat Metal on a Veteran's armor, which was enough aggro to pull that Veteran off of Marr, though Barnabus lost concentration on Heat Metal after one piddly hit.
When Koth's turn came around again, things looked bleak enough for the baddies that I decided he would drink his Potion of Fly and take off, though he would stick around to bombard the PCs more with Fireballs and Magic Missiles from above. And I guess, after this (merciful) precedent, that I'm not using the house rule that drinking a potion is a bonus action? Anyway, the party apparently did not want Koth to get away. Bitore hit him with a "land" Command spell, Barnabus readied a Hideous Laughter spell to cast as soon as Koth floated back down into range, and Koth failed both Wisdom saves. Oops. Suddenly the party started feeling like they might actually win.
Marr used everything he had -- all his Fighting Spirits -- to stay up and try to deal with the swarming Veterans, and just barely (2 HP) managed to stay on his feet through the whole fray. Bitore finished off Koth with another Toll the Dead. Barnabus spent yet another Heat Metal on one of them, and got taken down to 2 HP himself in response. The last two hobgoblins were willing to surrender, but got cut down too fast. And so peace descended on the formerly tense battle scene in the courtyard ...
Spoiler: What's Next?
Barnabus went in to parlay with the wolf that had run into the stables after being Frightened. He succeeded on starting to befriend it, although he thinks it's friendlier than it is. (He's starting to talk about using it as his own mount.)
Bitore used his second-last spell slot on a Prayer of Healing, and everyone else resolved to take a short rest in the courtyard before they investigate the keep more or even loot the bodies. Marr used all his Hit Dice, and Song of Rest, and still isn't looking so hot.
They got a lot of XP for all the combat this session, although they're still further from Level 6 than I would like. I gave out a pittance (100-200) for their roleplaying in town, but I might have to give them more for uncovering Vraath Vault. Anyway, I suspect they'll be quite pleased with their loot.
As for leads on the next part of the chapter, they killed Koth, so they will probably find his plans. And they have Jorr with them for DM hints. (They stopped grumbling about Jorr once they saw his combat contributions, even though I didn't describe those much. He did a decent amount of damage with his high-accuracy, Hunter's Marked arrows.) So hopefully they will realize pretty easily that Koth was not the head of the goblin menace like they thought, and go on to investigate Skull Gorge Bridge and/or Cinder Hill.