Monday, February 17, 2014

SSoI - Session 17: Death of a Paladin - and a Vampire

Our Heroes (now 8th level!):
  • Lt. Alex Gravis, Water Genasi Warlord (and Ivan, Millionaire Owlbear Playboy) 
  • Zarra, Drow Vampire
  • Gartok, Dwarf Earth Warden
  • Izenheim, Dwarf Cleric of Marthammor Duin (working the forge)
  • No-Name, Elf Bow Ranger  (patrolling the swamp and trolling for lizardmen)
  • Sir Abel Primies, Human Paladin of Torm
The party is back at Starsong Hill in the Blackfens, having successfully evaded the lizardfolk around the ruins of Rhest. As they and the elves celebrate their victory in the ruins a good time is had by all and the heroes end up with some new magical tattoos as a thank you from the Tiri-Kotor.

During this time they are also working through their loot from the ruins. Soon, they realize that in addition to magical weapons and armor and quite a bit of gold they have also recovered the phylactery of the lich known as the Ghostlord, a semi-legendary regional figure. 

After a brief discussion they decide to smash it. The paladin rears back and cleaves into the thing as the vampire pulls it apart with all of her strength. The phylactery shatters and dark power is released. They know they have drawn the attention and wrath of a deadly foe, but they are confident they have done the right thing and will deal with the consequences later.

Based on a letter recovered with the loot it is clear that the Ghostlord is allied with the Red Hand. Though this may have been based on their possession of the lich's phylactery, the team is unwilling to assume that he will just drop out of things now that the object has been destroyed. In fact, they are concerned that he might turn his undivided attention to them now for destroying it. They choose to take the challenge head on by attacking him first.

Discussion of the legends brings up that the lich lives somewhere in the wastelands outside of the vale proper. His dwelling there is a great stone lion (think Egyptian Sphinx-ish). It should be easy to spot from the air, so on some loaned giant owl mounts the party heads out to solve one more problem.

After 3 days of travel they finally reach the area and spot the great lion. Not wanting to risk the owls they dismount at some distance and walk to the structure. As they approach, they see ghostly lion shapes swirling about the place, but they take no direct action against the party and seem to be harmless enough for now. The archway in the lion's chest is the obvious way in, so that is the way they go - it's a "Plan A" kind of group.

Through the arch is a roughly 50' circumference oval room. Inside it waits a huge, winged blue-scaled behir and their lack of stealth has left it no doubt as to what is coming and it is ready for them. It opens with a blast of lightning breath, and as the party tries to close in it responds with  a thunderous leap and stomp that rattles the earth, knocking over half of the team. The thing swallows Gartok whole and keeps attacking the rest of the heroes. The dwarf warden pushes his way back out of the behir's mouth as the paladin and vampire rip into the beast. The monster spits lightning again and swallows Zarra, crunching into her as it does so - she does not re-emerge. The heroes are on their back foot from the beginning and cannot recover the initiative. As a retreat is considered, Sir Primies falls to the beast's claws and teeth and the rest of the group retreats out of the lion and into the distance, distraught, mourning their losses and vowing revenge.

DM Notes: This was one of the most shocking sessions we have had in a long time.

First, the party's decision to smash the phylactery was unexpected at best. This adventure is pretty good as-written about avoiding the one-right-answer syndrome you sometimes see in published adventures. It does make some assumptions, but even then it typically has sidebars or text boxes covering what happens if the party takes another approach. Even scenarios like "what if the party takes prisoners" and "what if the party is taken prisoner" are addressed in the text. It's one of the things that puts this adventure on another level from most and it's quite useful.

The Ghostlord, however, does not benefit from any of this. The adventure assumes that 
  1. The PC's end up with the phylactery - easy enough, it's in a dragon's treasure pile
  2. The PC's know it belongs to the Ghostlord - a letter on the leader in the swamp tells them this
  3. The PC's know the Red Hand is holding it hostage to force the lich to aid them - also in the letter
Besides the obvious clues there are a lot of notes about how various divination spells can confirm all this and tell the party where the lich lives. Then the killer sentence:

"Simply destroying the phylactery would earn the characters the lich's eternal enmity, but if they were to return it to him, perhaps they could undo the alliance threatening the vale."
Now nowhere is there any clue that this lich is interested in having a conversation with the player characters. 

More importantly, there is the massive assumption that a party is going to be willing to negotiate with an evil undead magical being. He's a druid lich (odd) but he's still evil! I think that's a terrible assumption to make in a published adventure, especially one that's all about fighting off an evil invading horde. With a Paladin in the group there was absolutely no way this was going to happen. 

Now if there was more setup, if we had been playing in this area from 1st level and I had the time to show that the Ghostlord didn't like dragons or hobgoblins (not that there's anything about that in the adventure) to lay the groundwork for later - "Hey, why would lion-lich guy work with a bunch of hobgoblins and dragons? He hates those guys!" then I might have been able make it work. Or if he had a reputation as being neutral, not evil. Or, if he was just a neutral to evil druid and not a lich at all. Regardless, there's not much in the adventure covering any other option here. The adventure assumes the party will head to the lair to return the lich's phylactery and make a deal tha the drops out of the fight.  It's the biggest hole in the book. If a paladin gets his hands on a lich's phylactery, he's a lot more likely to destroy it than use it as a bargaining chip.

All that said I was a little surprised they went that way. I knew the paladin would have trouble with it but I thought they might talk it out. Nope, I was wrong on that. They wanted to smash it.

Now mechanically, I had to see how this worked too. It's pretty damn unusual to get a hold of a lich's soul object before you've ever met the lich. What happens when you destroy a lich's phylactery? I figured it was worth some time to find out. I looked back through four editions of D&D monster manuals and they are pretty consistent - it makes him killable. It doesn't do any damage, it doesn't kill him outright, it just means he doesn't have a place to hide out when he does get taken below 0 HP. I looked through various other books and came up with DR20 and 40HP. The paladin and vampire blew through that in one attack each - phylactery gone.

The second shock of the night: In the big fight of the session, that behir just ate my party's lunch. I admit, I did not see this coming either. I mean, sure, he's a Level 10 Solo against a Level 8 party so it should be a good fight ... but they have mulched everything they have fought up until now, solo or not, higher level or not, so I assumed this would go the same way.

Now this is a later 4th edition solo so he is much more interesting than the MM1 era solos. He is also a downleveled higher level beast but not all that much and there are similar lower level versions with slightly different powers. The numbers are right regardless. In the after-action discussion, here is what really hurt my party:
  • Those 3 actions per round spread evenly through the round make him much more potent against a party than earlier solo designs. Also note that the most devastating attacks are all at-wills so they're going to get used a lot.
  • Any damaging aura hurts a melee-heavy party
  • Close blasts hurt melee parties too.
  • Thundering Stomp really hurts a melee-heavy party - a decently-damaging close burst that also knocks them prone is rough.
So my party was getting blasted, zapped, and bounced around the room while trying to make their attacks and had a really hard time of it. Even with 2 defenders there's really no way to lock him down, and the melee members have to get next to him anyway and that's where he does the most damage. When several of his attacks hit multiple party members, marks don't make much difference either. Notably he also has attacks vs. AC, Reflex, and Fortitude, so he's not blocked by one high defense. The behir is just nasty.

Also to be fair there's no warning that you're about to encounter a behir. It doesn't actually live here. It's only visiting to keep an eye on things as one of the Wyrmlords supervises the Ghostlord's activities. A little recon might have helped prepare some anti-lightning defenses, but the sneaky elf was gone and the vampire doesn't really operate that way.

Having the bow ranger present would have made a difference in hurting him faster. Having the cleric present to add more healing and another melee combatant might have helped as well. As it was, the slightly understrength party took on an especially nasty monster and the vamp and the paladin bought the farm. My players hate when their characters get killed so there was some heat at the end. We got past it though.

Next time: recovery and revenge


Kelvin Green said...

It's interesting to see player-character deaths in a late edition D&D game as it seems like an unusual occurrence.

My group played a bit of D&D4 and we only lost two characters; the druid sacrificed herself because the player was bored of her and I retired my goblin thief because his story arc had reached a natural end.

We've played Pathfinder on and off for the four or five years since then and I don't think we've lost a single character there. My necromancer got breathed on by a dragon in our most recent campaign but he got better.

WQRobb said...

I've played through this adventure using 4E rules, and the lich encounter was the least fulfilling of a less-than-stellar lot in my mind. The encounter is pretty railroad-y, because fighting the Ghostlord is a very bad idea. But when we encountered him, we were willing to just turn over the phylactery if he would stop supporting the menacing army. The GM then had the Ghostlord counter-offer than he would turn his undead troops against the Red Hand, which is what the story obviously wants but we weren't clever enough to figure it out. Thankfully we were a pretty Neutral-heavy group and didn't have the obvious qualms a paladin might have with negotiating with a lich (even one characterized as being more neutral than evil as a druid).

Blacksteel said...

PC death does happen less than it used too, mainly because of the loss of save or die effects and higher starting hit points. Even in pathfinder though, low level play is still pretty dangerous as a lucky critical hit can kill a character in one shot.

Even in modern games you may drop but the party tends to win and so can go for a raise, etc. Here one was swallowed and the behir was standing on the other one's body as the party ran back out the door, so there was no chance to recover the dead characters. It's tough sometimes when you don't win.

Blacksteel said...

Looking back I think the whole Ghostlord side-trek is unneccessary. he's not even located in the vale you're trying to save. I think it's an attempt to give the PC's a way to do something positive other than fight more Red Hand but I think it's just too much of a distraction.

Also, my guys treated it as another set of combat encounters. Considering what they did, it kind of had to be that way.

Jeremy said...

I just remember we couldn't get close, when we did get close we were bloodied in a round and dead in the next, and even when we could attack we couldn't hit it's AC.

I think that's why the Paladin came back as an everything in accuracy slayer. At level 8 your average AC is 23 and mind you there is still only one weapon in the party that is +2.

At +12 to hit 26 AC requires a 14 or better. Now maybe you can flank him to make it a 12 or better, but still a greater than 50% chance you are going to miss and again it requires you be able to surround the beastie. Missing over half your attacks on a 400+ hp baddie who can hit you with 8's or less depending on what non-ac defense he attacks requires some seriously unlikely luck.

And then there's the fact that he hits more than half the party two or three times per round for around half our HP per swing. In between sessions we basically had to come up with a burn it to the ground in 2 turns or less plan and you'll see that doesn't even begin to work out on our return trip.

To date I want to say he was our most challenging fight and he's just some nameless nobody INT 6 guard dog left behind in case meddlesome teenagers come snooping around. To the point we skipped playable dates to make sure we had absolutely as many people at the table chucking dice at it as we could scrounge.

But there's a bright side, both strikers that joined the party to replace our fallen comrades came back with +2 weapons! Tripling (or more with a force multiplier) our damage output. It's an arms race, and mutually assured annihilation is on the horizon! ^_^