Tuesday, February 25, 2014

SSoI - Session 25: The Inner Sanctum

Our Heroes (9th level):
  • Lt. Alex Gravis, Water Genasi Warlord (and Ivan, owlbear denture-wearer) 
  • Gartok, Dwarf Earth Warden
  • No-Name, Elf Bow Ranger 
  • Torin Tsai, Half-Orc Slayer
  • Xyla, Drow Vampire
After a short rest the party advances into the finished area at the end of the cavern they see a group of robed hobgoblins, arms upraised, chanting something in Infernal. A red dragonborn in more elaborate robes leads them as two blue abishai, lightning crackling about them, watch. Energy streams from the five upraised dragon heads to the top of the high-ceiling-ed room The incoming group is immediately spotted, and the devils prepare to engage them. 

Thinking that interrupting whatever is going on here is a good idea, Torin leaps onto the platform, ready to lay about with the fullblade. He swings at one of the devils but is blasted by lightning and blown back off of the platform. Warned by the example, the rest of the party engages more carefully and it's an absolute slaughter. The cultists, their leader, and their guardians are hammered into oblivion in almost no time at all. The energy coruscating from the dragon heads to the top of the shaft flickers and diminishes but does not stop - they have had an impact, but more work remains.

DM Notes: This one is over in 4 rounds. By the end of round 2 all of the minions, the priest, and one abishai are all dead. It was pretty funny when the slayer took the backlash though. Here's the power:

A shaft leads up from this chamber and is clearly a place they need to go but the group is concerned about leaving an enemy behind them. The secret door (see above) is quickly located and through it they locate a summoning room, a treasure room, and what they suspect is Azarr Kul's personal quarters. They find no opposition other than some nasty traps, loot them thoroughly, and then come back to the round chamber with the shaft leading up into what they suspect will be their final confrontation with the high wyrmlord.

Xyla flies up the 100' shaft, carrying a rope and secures it so the rest can climb. Some other magical aid is used in this endeavor too so the whole party manages to gather at the edge, armed, armored, and ready.

In the center stands a figure that can only be Azarr Kul, leader of the Red Hand and the cause of the invasion. Arms raised and eyes closed he chants something in Infernal, clearly concentrating on whatever evil ritual he is performing, Hovering near him are two winged, female, angelic figures. The five stone dragon heads spew energy towards the domed ceiling of the room where a swirling ... something ... is taking shape.  A single green abishai stands between the shaft and the platform where this mighty figure stands.

Around the rest of the room are five dragon statues, one of each of the chromatic types that Tiamat rules. A female wrapped in chains is bound to each of the dragon statues, and a devil of some kind stands next to each one, holding a flaming sword.

Our heroes peek over the edge of the pit and take all this in, trying to decipher what's happening.

DM Notes: This is a large, complex encounter. It's their first direct confrontation with the chief enemy villain and he's in the middle of a massive ritual. There are some puzzle elements here too and there is a real payoff: there is a chance the party can stop the ritual from succeeding and what they do will have a big impact on how the coming siege goes.. It's going to be tough, but it is possible. The players have no advance knowledge of what's going on though they do have some suspicions. The winged females are succubi, consorts of the leader. They and the abishai will try to stop any interference while the rest of the participants complete the ceremony. 

The plan: The hostages will be killed, one per round after the first, and if five sacrifices are made then the ritual is complete. If the heroes manage to save one hostage Azarr Kul will kill himself - if left unmolested for a round. It's that important to him. If that happens he may show up as some kind of death knight later.

Though it's not obvious, the chains wrapping each victim are in fact a chain devil, adding an element of surprise to the fight. If the legion devils are killed (they are only minions) then the chain devils can complete the sacrifice. It's not completely hopeless as the victims are considered to be "grabbed" and forced movement breaks a grab, so many of the party's attacks can be extra useful here. 

Azarr Kul will take no part in the initial fight, even if someone moves up on him. If he is struck then he will come out of his ritual pose. Once the ritual succeeds he will come out of his pose and fight if necessary. 

This is way more complex than I typically make one encounter but I wanted this one to stand out and to give the players a chance to discover some of these things and a chance to affect the rest of the campaign. Hopefully this explanation makes it easier to follow.

With only a loose plan in place the slayer leaps onto the platform, slices through one of the angelic beings, then as she screams in pain and rage, his sword flashes again, cutting her down for good. Feeling a little competitive, the vampire launches herself at the abishai and tears into him. The rest of the party goes after the legion devils, correctly surmising that they are up to no good, and several of them fall. Then they watch in horror as the first sacrifice is made.

Cursing and raging, the other winged female flies up out of reach and begins sweet-talking various male members of the team into helping her out. Gravis directs his companions to finish off the legion devils, then realizes that may not be enough as they very chains that bind one of them move and slide and kill the second victim before shifting into a more humanoid form, blood-drenched links rattling as the thing shifts its shape.

The slayer and the warlord free one victim, slaying the chain devil in a flurry of attacks. Gravis notices that the blue half-dragon has not moved during all of this action and warns the rest of the group not to attack him, but to focus on freeing the victims. The vampire, the warden, and the warlord tear into the chain devils with a fury, ignoring the abishai and the bewitching female for the time being. The ranger and the slayer though are having a much tougher time ignoring her and their loyalties hang in the balance. The heroes are expending all of their energies to stop this terrible ceremony and it's going to be a near thing.

Soon all of the legion devils are slain as are all of the chain devils, but four of the victims are dead. Having freed the fifth sacrifice, the team tries to hustle her out of the room and back down the shaft as the second succubus dies screaming (revenge of the slayer, with help from the bow ranger!) but the green abishai takes to the air himself and kills her, completing the ritual.

Azarr Kul has not taken part in the fight at all, letting it pass all around him as he concentrates on the ceremony. As the group looks on the rock dome of the room changes to a starry sky - but not the starry sky of our world. Clouds gather and lightning clashes as time seems to stop. Then the top of the room explodes outward, and a titanic five-headed, multi-colored draconic form hovers in mid-air. One claw reaches down and snatches up the chosen of Tiamat as the armored figure roars in triumph. They fly off into the night sky, leaving the heroes battered, bleeding, and defeated - but alive.

DM Notes: This was an epic battle that lasted 11 rounds and took several hours to complete. It's effectively a multi-stage encounter as there is the initial group of occupants and the sacrifices to stop, then the reveal of the chain-devils the running clock of the sacrifices, then a battle with Azarr Kul and/or an aspect of Tiamat - or both!

My players pushed their characters to the limit. They figured out the sacrifice plan pretty quickly and had all the legion devils down by round 3, but could not kill the chain devils fast enough as the ranger and the slayer kept getting pulled off track by the succubus' powers. With one or two of the strikers out of the fight for several rounds, there were just too many targets for them to stop them all. They left it all on the table though - they were out of daily powers, encounter powers, action points, healing, and magic item powers by the end, and most of them were bloodied too. They came very close, with the last victim descending down the shaft with the vampire when the abishai managed to line up a shot and blast her for the final kill.

I had no plans for them to fight Tiamat right here. If she shows up it means the bad guys have won this fight, one way or another. She has other business on this plane so she's simply going to fly off, regardless of what they do - by the end of a combat like this it's unlikely they will be able to hurt her anyway. 

Now they could fight Azarr Kul if they had chosen to attack him but it's debatable how that would have turned out for them as it was a tough fight already with almost two encounters worth of opponents. Adding a third (he's a solo) might have pushed it into a TPK, but it is a choice they have to make. Theoretically, if they kill him AND save at least one victim, then the ritual fails. It's a tall order, but that's the best possible outcome. 

I'll be honest - they were not happy at the end of this one. It was very quiet as everyone packed up and left. I think they felt like they had failed in the biggest fight of the campaign and who would like that? There might even have been some grumbling about what the DM threw at them in one encounter and I understand - it was pretty damn tough. By the time the next session rolled around everything was fine and it's been fine since. Could I have changed up the encounter? Sure, and if I ran it again I would probably tweak it at least - but I'd do that with any of them. I'd probably at least give them an action point (and maybe a healing surge or encounter power recharge) after the chain devils are slain as that's effectively two encounters right there. I might weaken the chain devils too, as they turned out to be fairly tough for a Skirmisher type, or maybe Kul only needs one consort. The encounter before this one might have been easier too. Regardless, I don't think it was drastically overpowered for a group that's been powering through everything I've thrown at them.

The original adventure has some environmental effects in the room but only Azarr Kul and 4 abishai are in it. Once he gets killed Tiamat automatically comes through and fights the party or flies off to be fought later. That seemed underwhelming to me, and it's supposed to be the big finale of the whole campaign! I wanted to have more going on and to have some potential impact from the players actions so I redid the whole thing. 

So now the party gets to deal with an army, it's divinely sanctioned warleader, and an avatar of an evil dragon god - it's going to be a lot of fun.


Kelvin Green said...

I like the design of this fight. I need to think more about interesting combat sequences like this as I tend to fall into the trap of just throwing a bunch of enemies at the players without much thought.

I have been very critical of D&D4 in the past -- my group played it for a year but we didn't get on with it -- but the design of the game encourages interesting fights of this sort and it's a valuable lesson that could be applied to any game.

Jeremy said...

This fight was probably the only time the plot railroad felt constraining.

When we engaged the devils to save the hostages and they self popped because the chains were alive we diverted all resources to breaking all the other hostage grapples with burst damage and forced movement. We split up and got them all free in a round or two.

Then we found out that the way they died wasn't important to the ritual, anyone in the room could casually reach out and kill them with a ranged or melee attack wherever they happened to be in the room.

So then we formed up on them and did everything we could to protect the remaining three but nothing helped. To the point when there was only one left I grabbed her and the rope and leaped down the hole hoping that my fall speed would exceed the range of the remaining creatures. Mind you, that means leaving the party without their healer/leader while the big bad has still yet to engage the party and possibly committing them to a wipe just to ensure that the ritual doesn't complete.

When the abishai casually flies to the lip of the hole and heat seeking magic missiles the last hostage through me at whatever range it likes and she dies outside of the room and Tiamat still shows up, the plot locomotive running over us rankled a bit.

But the story goes on and sometimes if it seems a little heavy handed in getting there you have to believe that the ends will justify the means. I'm sure Luke didn't like getting his hand chopped off and best friend frozen indefinitely, but all is recoverable and defeat in a story doesn't necessarily mean the end of the story. Sometimes it's just the low point to give perspective to the climax.

Doesn't mean standing in the valley of defeat is any more fun while you're there.

Blacksteel said...

I get that but don't underestimate how close you were - that abishai was a couple of points shy of bloodied on round one from the vampire before it flew out of reach. If the bow ranger resists the succubus for a round or two instead of failing, or if someone goes after it instead of one of the "empty" chain devils, the winged creature with the ranged attack is dead when you jump down the hole and there's no way to target her. You were that close!