Wednesday, November 23, 2011
Return to the Ruins of Adventure - Session 30: The End
We begin in the ruined Star Keep, with our heroes standing amidst the shattered undead forms of the knights who once ran and defended the keep. Somewhere along the way the Lizard King animated the long dead knights and used them as guardians. Dispatched by the party, it is hoped they have now found whatever rest awaits them.
Now however, a booming crash echoes from the large double doors leading to the inner section of the keep. At the same time, Uthal notices and points out to his companions that the tower behind them is frosting over, ice creeping down from the top to cover the sides of the half-ruined round tower that adjoins the gate. The party makes a choice and decides to worry about the booming first, as the planks sag outward under repeated impacts. Kordan takes up sword and shield at the bottom of the wide stairs that lead to the rapidly failing doors. The rest of the team spreads out behind him, readying their powers to aid him and stop whatever danger lurks within.
(The next part is best read in the style of a 1920's radio boxing announcer - too much Boardwalk Empire lately...)
With a final shriek the doors are ripped asunder and a 4-headed monstrosity smashes through them, trailing a length of chain. The huge hydra shuffles forth, blinking in the light. Now it focuses on the puny shiny thing directly in front of it and charges, only to be tripped up by a quickly spoken phrase from the bard - Blunder! The hydra trips, staggers, and Kordan strikes with his blazing sunblade - first blood to the bard and the fighter! Althea joins in with Grasp of the Grave and hundreds of skeletal arms burst forth form the ground, tearing into the hydra and holding it in place. Kordan takes another swing! The beast strikes back with all 4 heads tearing at the fighter but the Invulnerable Coat of Arn(ol)d protects him from the worst of the damage! Uthal charges in and unloads a vicious set of stabs with his spear, ripping off one head...
...then two more spring up in its place! Kordan takes another shot! Jovanni ramps it up again with a Stirring Shout! The wizard summons a Flaming Sphere at the foot of the beast, and pinned in place by Grasp of the Grave it cannot escape! Mikal lands a strike with his Force Grip, squeezing the pinned opponent! The beast replies with vicious multi-headed attacks against Kordan and Uthal who strike, tearing off one more head and again two more spring up! In a burst of energy the beast lashes out in a hurricane of snapping jaws, bloodying the mighty fighter and seriously wounding the goliath barbarian!
Staggering, Uthal hits back hard with the Black Spear of Thar! Kordan joins in with a Brazen Assault! Althea blasts away with Magic Missile! Mikal unleashes the Phlames of Phlegamegathos, immolating the screaming beast with purple flames! Enraged and hurting badly, the hydra strikes out with all of its heads focusing on the fighter - and even with his mighty magical armor it's too much and down goes Kordan! Down goes Kordan!
Wiping away the blood and stunned at the punishment inflicted on the toughest human he has ever seen, Uthal rams his mighty iron spear into the beast one more time as the rest of the party blasts forth in unison! Even that's not enough to finish off the huge thing and now the bell tolls for Uthal as 7-10 heads (explanation later) slam into the lightly armored and already wounded barbarian, ripping him asunder in a fountain blood and body parts! The Black Spear of Thar drops to the turf as Uthal's spirit goes to join his ancestors. Shocked but not giving up the wizard, warlock, and bard all unload their most potent remaining magic into the beast and it finally collapses, blasted into ruin over the shattered body of the goliath. The heroes...win?
DM Notes Part 1:
The Hydra encounter was a 4 round fight, which seemed (and seems) really short for an 8th level party against a 10th level solo. I saw some potential issues with the standard hydra so I did make some changes to it. One example - the Hydra sprouts new heads when it has taken certain amounts of damage. Unfortunately if it takes fire damage that round it does not sprout said heads. Considering how common fire damage is in even a low level party, this seems to me to rob the hydra of one of its signature features, and there was no way I was going to let that happen. Flaming Sphere is a 1st-level wizard daily power that hangs around the battlefield doing fire damage, as just one example, so once it's dropped on the beast the whole sprouting head thing is over. There are many other fiery powers for the wizard and warlock as well so it was a problem I wanted to mitigate. I called it a "Swamp Hydra" and gave it some fire resistance and a few other tweaks to make for what I thought would be a better fight. No problems there.
Once I got into the fight, though, I let some things get away from me in the heat of battle. Most significantly I was having a 4 headed hydra that had lost one head go to 6 heads when it regrew, instead of 5. This got really nasty near the end when instead of the 7 heads it should have had it ended up with 10. At 3-30 points of damage for each bite attack, that's noticably more potential damage. I also screwed up some of the timing as the heads are supposed to regrow with a bit of delay instead of instantly as I was having them do, and that made a difference on some of the opportunity attacks, but I think the 3 extra heads was more egregious overall. My original goal was to make the creature a little more able to hang in a fight, but with this screw up on my part he got a lot more offensively capable as well.
Remarkably, this was the first time I have actually killed a character in this campaign. Now I have had several drop and require medical attention, but none of them have been flat-out dead until now. I think that's a pretty good record for 30 sessions. Now the hydra is a potentially nasty opponent and my head-miscounting made this nastier. I think the players take some of the credit for this one though as they locked down the hydra on round 1 but had their two melee fighters continue to attack it up close while the other three members of the party stayed at a distance. You might say that's the defender's job, but the hydra has no ranged attacks - once it's immobilized it can't hurt you from more than 2 squares away! So even with my head-math problem, some of that danger could have been avoided by backing off and acting as a firing squad for a few rounds - Range 1 = 10 head attacks, range 3 = 0 head attacks. As it turned out the hydra only broke free on the last round, but by that time Uthal and Kordan were so battered they couldn't take another round of that kind of punishment. Rolling 6, 8, or 10 attacks with a decent attack bonus is a lot of fun for the DM, but only having two targets to receive them magnified the impact greatly. Plus 8-10 rolls means you're get a crit for 30 points of damage about every other round. One good round of rolls at the end flat-out killed the barbarian, taking him to -70 or something from a non-bloodied state, because he was the only one in melee range - that's a bad place to be with a relatively low armor class, even with better hit points than most.
However, at the end of this encounter things were still alright - one glorious character death against a big bad monster isn't neccessarily bad for a climactic run to the swamp adventures. I didn't want Uthal's player sitting around bored for the rest of the session so I recruited him to run one of the main creatures in the next encounter. He digs into the mechanics of the game so I thought it was a good choice. The rest of the party seemed a little unsure of this move, confirming to me that it was a good idea. We continue:
As Jovanni revives Kordan, the rest of the party hears a strange sound from behind them. As they turn and look up at the tower, it turns out to be the mocking laughter of the Lizard King who now stands atop the structure, gazing down at them. Behind him a long, white-scaled, ice-rimed neck unfurls and leans down over the side of the tower, observing the remaining heroes.
Zarius, the undead lizard king, announces: "Fools! You have slain my guardians but you will not stop the plan I have set in motion! Soon the remaining tribes of the swamp will march on Phlan, aided by the undead legions of all the prior generations of lizardfolk slain by the Phlanites! We will swarm the city and slay the inhabitants! Sturmovax (gestures at dragon behind him) will freeze the defenders on the walls and then the gates of the city itself, allowing us to shatter them! We will pour in, an irresistable tide of vengeance for all the scaled folk ground under the heels of the humans! First, however (points at party), we will destroy you and the last hope of Phlan!"
Our heroes spend some time debating how to fight, whether to fight, and what their chances are with Uthal out of the picture. As they do this a swarm of lesser lizardman vampires emerges from the tower and hey move to engage the more lightly armored members of the party. Sturmovax the Blizzard Dragon drops down from the tower and blocks the gate leading out of the courtyard. Concerned, Mikal the Warlock unloads, blasting Zarius and some of his minions with fire. The sort-of retreating party is driven back towards the center as the lizard king drives into the middle of the party. As the lesser vampires drop, things look alright for the party.
Unfortunately this does not last. Kordan is torn between attacking the vampire lizard king with his sunblade versus attacking the blizzard dragon with his dragonslayer and switches targets a few times. Sturmovax flies about, switching positions nearly every round, and tends to time his swirling ice storm aura's peak with near-perfect positioning to inflict the most harm on the party. Zarius manages to stun multiple party members, blood drain them, and even manages to take control of the warlock at one point and cause him to take a shot at the wizard! Soon Mikal is down, Althea is down, and then Jovanni goes down, leaving only Kordan, bloodied and alone, to face off with both a vampire lizard king and a blizzard dragon. Desperate but not defeated he does manage to revive Jovanni and Mikal during the fight, but the warlock goes down agan soon after. Atop a crumbling wall (where the dragon had carried her body), Kordan revives the wizard with a healing potion and orders her to run as he prepares to make a last stand to give her time to get away and warn the town. As the dragon swoops back down, Althea teleports into the swamp and runs, until the sounds of battle die out behind her.
DM Notes Part 2:
In contrast to the earlier fight, this was a 10-round epic with several ups and downs and points where it looked like either side could win. It was a level 11 encounter which should be difficult but not deadly for an 8th level party, and despite the outcome I don't think that's inaccurate. Some points:
1) All of the monsters were from the Monster Vault or the MM3, some of the "new style" books for monster stats and I now agree that there is a substantial power boost for many creatures in comparison to earlier versions
2) This was the second half of a back-to-back encounter during which the party had burned many of their big-hitter daily powers
3) Having another brain to run a somewhat complicated monster while I ran the rest meant that I didn't forget any of the dragon's powers which can happen from time to time in multi-creature fights
4) The party was in no mind to retreat - it was discussed briefly and then never discussed again until the very end
Nastier monsters do make a difference, and having an assistant amplified that impact. It worked so well that if I ever run Champions again I might recruit a villain-runner just to help exercise the rich tactical options found in that game's mechanics. Knowing that they had expended many dailies already and knowing that Uthal was dead and knowing that the lizard king's rep is as one bad hombre, I think the team should have seriously considered a retreat rather than staying for the fight. This has always been a problem with the parties I run for - they pretty much never consider a retreat. I have begun to wonder if it's something I am doing that encourages this kind of behavior but looking back I would say my games tend to DIScourage it - most of the fights where characters die tend to be when the party is at a low ebb, regardless of edition, and where there is a lot of room for an escape. I've been conscious of the need for options besides "frontal assault" for years and so I do try to ensure that at least one exists. I'm comfortable blaming the players of course - : ) - and my players often describe themselves as a "Plan A kind of group" but I can't help but wonder how I could make this option more obvious and more palatable.
As far as specific monsters let me say that vampires are quite a bit of fun in 4E combining mobility, a good melee attack, and the ability to dominate during combat and turn party members against each other into one fun package. The blizzard dragon is a dragon but it's not a solo, making it a nice "sidekick" for another strong monster type. He's also pretty mobile and does decent damage up close and has an aura type attack that grows in power each round until it peaks and starts over again.He also has no vulnerability to fire or anything else which is nice. With the vampire as a strong single-target threat and the dragon hopping all over and making himself a whole-party threat and some minions running around to provide some numbers, it was a pretty good mix in my opinion.
The outcome was not really what I expected. This was supposed to be the big climactic encounter that would end the threat of the lizardman rebellion in the swamp and secure a keep for the party, setting things up for Paragon tier a little bit down the road. Instead it was nearly a TPK (effectively it was, with only one member surviving and running away at the end). The party has fought through some realy vicious encounters before and I felt that they could handle this one, even with the barbarian down. Alas I was wrong and whatever "story" we had going with this group ends here as another group of heroes falls prey to the forces of evil. Although I didn't know it at the time, this was also the end of this campaign which was another unexpected outcome. More on that next time.