Saturday, February 8, 2014

SSoI - Session 8: Red Hand of Doom - The Retaking of Vraath Keep

It is Flamerule 1450, outside Vraath Keep.

Our Heroes:

  • Lt. Alex Gravis, Water Genasi Warlord
  • Zarra, Drow Vampire
  • Gartok, Dwarf Earth Warden
  • Izenheim, Dwarf Cleric of Marthammor Duin
  • No-Name, Elf Bow Ranger 
  • Sir Abel Primies, Human Paladin of Torm

Observation has not revealed a ton of activity but there is some noise and the ranger sees multiple hobgoblin and wolf/worg tracks in set patterns, clearly patrolling the area. Seeing nothing that causes concern and not being a particularly stealthy group they decide to walk in the ruins of the front gate. As they do so an alarm sounds and a formation of hobgoblin infantry takes a position in front of the gate – a leader, two lieutenants, and ten warriors. Battlecries ring out on both sides and battle is joined!

Within seconds the hobgoblin captain is slain and the humanoids’ line breaks. As the survivors fight a desperate retreat one of the lieutenants sounds a whistle and a winged lion beast swoops into the fight from above. The manticore flings some spikes and adds an unexpected 3rd dimension to the fight.
The heroes are unstoppable though and gradually force their way into the keep. Soon enough the leaders are all down, the last warrior drops, and then the manticore is slain by a shot from the ranger.

While some loot the bodies, others look around the interior of the keep. There’s not much left of the place. Noting a few giant skeletons around the ruins and numerous boulders and signs of impact it’s clear that hill giants played a role in the destruction of the fort. The dead hobgoblins all bear the symbol of the Red Hand, the same markings as the group that ambushed them on the way to Drellin’s Ferry.

Exploring further there is one largely intact structure remaining – and the door is barred.

Breaking down the door the party sees a single figure standing before them, weapons drawn. He tells them that he is Wyrmlord Koth, and having defeated his soldiers they can join him or die. Gravis presents his deed to the keep and informs Koth that he is the new lord of Vraath Keep and that he will need to answer some questions. Koth snarls and charges.

A vicious melee erupts in the room as Koth takes on an outraged warlord, a blood-hungry vampire, a motivated paladin, and a couple of dwarves looking for a “real” fight. Additionally the ranger stands across the room, calmly drawing and releasing his bow, never really in any immediate danger as he plants arrow after arrow into the Wyrmlord. He lands some mighty blows, but the numbers are against him and Zarra lands the final blow, tearing his head from his neck in an appropriately gory finish.

DM Notes: This was a fun session with the outdoor fight against the hobgoblins and the manticore. I should try to encourage more recon type activities but there was not a whole lot to learn other than those are the kinds of creatures camped in the keep now. I’m not sure what else the party was expecting to find out, and after one night of observation they got bored with it and attacked. They figured out the basics of the keep’s history pretty quickly. Then I hit a low spot as a DM.

The fight against Koth should have been a classic. Instead they find him alone and in a medium-sized room with no particularly interesting features other than some furniture. Once Team Beatdown surrounds him the fight is basically over – he has no way to push through them – bad monster design on my part – and as a solo he has no “encounter reset” abilities like a mass stun or summon or flight to give him a chance to reframe the fight on better terms for him. Instead it was just like a bad 3E fight – the melee characters close in and just pound the hit points out of him in a long boring number-crunching fight. Not every encounter has to be the opening sequence to an Indiana Jones movie, but this one could have been a lot better, especially considering the tools 4E gives you to liven up things up.   

Here's his statblock for those of you who might be interested. He's pretty much a solo'd bugbear assassin. I like to adapt existing monsters as much as possible and this fit him pretty well - other than the lack of abilities mentioned above. Hopefully I will do better next time.

Friday, February 7, 2014

SSoI - Session 7: The Red Hand of Doom Begins!

Our Heroes (now 5th level):
  • Lt. Alex Gravis, Water Genasi Warlord
  • Zarra, Drow Vampire
  • Gartok, Dwarf Earth Warden - Player absent
  • Izenheim, Dwarf Cleric of Marthammor Duin
  • No-Name, Elf Bow Ranger 
Dar Bloodmane, Shifter Paladin has retired and been replaced by ...
  • Sir Abel Primies, Human Paladin of Torm. Abel meets the party in the village having come here to investigate reports of goblins moving through the area in small but growing numbers. 

    After a nasty ambush on the road, our heroes finally arrive in Drellin’s Ferry, last outpost of civilization in the western half of the Elsir Vale. It is the 2nd of Flamerule, 1450 DR. They decide to stay at the Old Bridge Inn then go look for the town’s Speaker. 

The next day the party heads into the wilderness to locate old Vraath Keep. This fits with Abel's goal of patrolling through the local area in search of goblin troublemakers so he joins the group and all agree to work together.

Their map is clearly out of date so they decide to check the local roads and see if they can make sense of the lay of the land. Discovering an old causeway they discuss whether to follow it across a particularly swampy part of the woods. During the discussion they notice a wrecked wagon and something big moving in the water – something that bursts up out of the water and begins attacking them – with five heads!

As the hydra moves in the party spreads out to deal with it. The beast lashes out, tearing into Abel and Izenheim. As they hit back, the ranger manages to destroy one head, only to see another grow in its place! The warlord changes to his acid form and attacks, burning the creature and dampening its regeneration. Observing the effect the hydra is also on fire shortly thereafter. The vampire tears into the thing as well, doing it the old-fashioned way. Under a continuous rain of attacks up close and with non-stop fire from the bow ranger the hydra is down to three heads when it finally succumbs. The battered but victorious heroes take some time to rest and recover before pushing on. Among what’s left of some previous victims, presumably the wagon’s owners, the vampire finds a strange cloak – which she will forget about completely for several sessions.

An actual picture of the fight!

Following the causeway soon leads to some recognizable landmarks marked on their old map and by the end of the day the ruins of Vraath Keep are in sight! The ranger discovers tracks in the area as the party observes the keep – how many abandoned ruins in the wilderness are truly abandoned – and near the crossing of a small stream the group discovers a pair of goblin worg riders. The fight is over quickly but the team is concerned about what might be living in “their” keep and decides to observe the place quietly for the night. They set up a hidden camp and keep watch through the night.

DM Notes: There was a fair amount of talk in the village so we actually had some nice in-character RP work here. This session could be summed up as “getting to know the village”, "working in the new PC" and “locating the keep” and that’s pretty much what it covered.

The Hydra was a nice outdoor fight against a big solo with lots of melee attacks, and some constricted terrain with the bridge and the water and the swampy areas. The melee team had to work a little harder to get in close as the beast had reach and could swim, making things more difficult for them than for the monster. None of this mattered to the bow ranger of course – this will be a recurring theme for quite some time. A hydra was partly responsible for the TPK that ended the last campaign so it was nice to bring one in again, run it correctly, and see that the new team could handle it without dying. In fact, it only took 5 rounds to complete. That 5 rounds though took over an hour to resolve. That’s the high and the low of 4the Edition combat. It’s 5 very cinematic, detailed, rounds but they do take some time.

The patrol ambush was one of the few times the party had a chance to get the drop on the monsters. It didn’t really work out that way, but they had a chance. It was a much easier fight than the hydra and only lasted 3 rounds. This neatly set up the next session which would be “exploring the keep”.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

SSoI - Session 6 - Interlude in Fallcrest and a Journey to the Elsir Vale

Fallcrest in 3D!

Returning in triumph - and in a hurry as their ship melts beneath them - our heroes land in Fallcrest and announce their success! After high fives and salutes and raised tankards all around, Marko sneaks off into the crowd, glad to be done with the whole business. The following day, Lord Markelhay appears - accompanied by Lord Reinhardt himself! He announces rewards for the whole party. First up, each receives a 1,000 gold piece bonus. Then, as retainers of the House, Dar and Gravis receive land grants!

Dar is awarded the Tower of Waiting, a ruined tower on an island in the river. He will be the town's Lord Marshall, and the tower will be rebuilt. This will help protect the northern approaches to the town and serve as a staging area for efforts to civilize some of the surrounding wilderness.

Gravis is awarded Vraath Keep, an old holding of House Reinhardt in the nearby Elsir Vale region. It was attacked and destroyed many years ago but the House is on the rise and looking to reclaim its old lands. Gravis will be a big part of this effort, and he is given both the royal decree that endorses his claim and an old map to help him locate his new domain.

Our Heroes (now 5th level):
  • Dar Bloodmane, Shifter Paladin
  • Lt. Alex Gravis, Water Genasi Warlord
  • Zarra, Drow Vampire
  • Gartok, Dwarf Earth Warden
  • Izenheim, Dwarf Cleric of Marthammor Duin
  • No-Name, Elf Bow Ranger 

After several days of preparation most of the party heads out - Dar will remain behind to assume his new duties, while Izenheim has volunteered to help him survey the place to see just how bad it is. Traveling the Nentir Vale takes another few days - uneventful as it happens - and then they cross into the Elsir Vale. Heading for the closest village, Drellin's Ferry, trouble finds them almost immediately.

Moving along a sunken part of the trail, the group spots an abandoned farmhouse and quickly realizes they are in a prime spot for an ambush - the wrong end of an ambush. With a roar somethig throws a volley of javelins at the party, as a blast of flame reaches out from the foliage. Then a humanoid and a huge red hound appear at either end of the trail - hobgoblins! - and they appear to have some hell hounds.

In his element, the ranger with no name unloads a volley of his own, finding a target in the bushes and slaying one of the hobgoblins outright. The warlord, warden, and vampire charge the hidden mage who threw fire - they suspect he is the biggest threat. The hounds and other hobgoblins lope forward into a huge melee around the unfortunate spellcaster.

The warlord is caught in the fiery breath of both beasts as they rush in. The warmage goes on total defense as at least three people are trying to kill him, but is quickly overwhelmed. The ranger nails the hobgoblin commander with two arrows, seriously wounding him, then he scores with two more and slays the humanoid leader as well! The crispy warlord, deeming the hounds to be the next biggest threat lures one into a bad position and defends himself as the dwarf and the drow tear it apart.

Having turned the tide, the rest of the battle goes quickly. The ranger shoots down the hobgoblin spearmen while the melee trio of warlord-warden-vampire beat down the hobgoblin beast-trainer and the remaining hound. After the last enemy falls, the elf scouts the surrounding area and finds no other opposition. Our heroes inspect the farmhouse and decide to spend the night there. They will make for Drellin's ferry in the morning.

DM Notes - This session marked the end of the introductory adventure and the beginning of the meat of the campaign. Cairn of the WInter King is a perfect campaign starter as it has some interesting features but takes place in isolation and is a small 1-level dungeon. This allows the party to get a handle on how to work together and figure out their roles in the group. It also set up nicely to mark the PC"s as upcoming heroes in this part of the kingdom. The land grants served multiple purposes:

Steve was not thrilled with the way Dar was working out mechanically and was about to add a new baby to the family and was likely to be out for a while. So, we "retired" Dar to the Tower of Waiting where he could be brought back in if needed as a replacement, or he could set up to be the first member of a new party if we decided to "fork" the campaign or if we wanted a backup group  - clearly the first adventure would be to explore and clear the tower! Also, in the long run, Dar and the rebuilt tower would make for a nice hook to a successor campaign if we ever ran one.

By granting Gravis a holding in the Elsir Vale I have both a reason for the party to go there AND a reason for them to care about the invasion that's about to happen. This is not subtle, but it makes sense within the campaign and the players liked it - plus it's fairly old school to have a keep at all and it's unusual to have one at 5th level in pretty much any version of D&D. Changing things up helps keep campaigns fresh and helps to distinguish them from one another. We had explored the idea of the party claiming an old keep in the previous campaign (at a higher level than this) but they were TPK'd in the process of doing it so we never saw the payoff for all of that setup. For this campaign I wanted it front and center and so here it was.

If you have played Red Hand of Doom then you probably recognize this first encounter. It starts a long road of adventure that we will be exploring all the way through the rest of that adventure and the rest of Heroic Tier play. We've had a lot of fun with it and writing up this first episode has me smiling as I write it. A lot of people thought it was one of the best 3rd edition D&D adventures - I can tell you it makes a pretty good 4th edition adventure too.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Overreaction Wednesday

I mostly ignored the newly created anniversary date of D&D last week. What day should it be? The day the first draft was completed? The first day someone else saw it? The first time Gary ran a game? The first time Dave and Gary talked to each other about it? The day it was first published? One person chose a date and a lot of people agreed with it and that's fine but it doesn't mean much to me. I think it's enough to declare "1974" as the birth "date" of D&D and leave it at that.

That said it did spur some nice articles:

Here's a fairly nice retrospective on D&D's place in things.

Here's another nice little flashback from Tracy Hickman

Some additional thoughts from Wizards folks like Ed Greenwood.

On a different note here's an article on 4E that presents some strengths. I think there's more self-promoting in it than I like but it's not wrong in what it says in general.

This is a Next article on level advancement. It's fine in what it discusses except for a few points

In 1st and 2nd Edition AD&D, a goblin was worth around 15 XP. A fighter needed 2,000 XP to reach 2nd level. That's a lot of goblins—134 goblins would make the fighter 2nd level if you assume the fighter killed them all alone.

Except in 1st Edition AD&D most of your XP's came from gold, not monster XP's, and it was not even close. Comparing monster XP's directly is a waste of time when figuring the speed of level advancement for this edition. I'm a little surprised at this.

The 4th Edition DMG reveals some of the expectations that went into building the XP math for that game:

If you were to start a campaign with 1st-level characters on January 1st, play faithfully for four or five hours every week, and finish four encounters every session, your characters would enter the paragon tier during or after your session on June 24th, reach epic levels in December, and hit 30th level the next summer. Most campaigns don't move at this pace, however; you'll probably find that the natural rhythms of your campaign produce a slower rate of advancement that's easier to sustain.

At four encounters every weekly session, characters would reach a new level every other week, and we thought that felt about right. We also adjusted the scale so that you'd hit 2nd level pretty quickly—the first hit is free, so to speak.

Wait, what? Play 4-5 hours per week and finish 4 encounters every session? I know my group chit-chats a lot but I cannot see any group with the 4E standard of the five character party finishing 4 encounters in 4 hours - or 5 hours. We rarely finish 3 encounters in 5-6 hours. It's more than "pacing" it's just how the game is built.

They're going to set standard assumptions for Next that they feel are good, and as long as they tell us what those are then that's fine. I just don't like to see things I know are not accurate included like they're some scientific baseline for discussion. Maybe I'm being too nitpcky but if you're going to quote precedent, I'd like it to be right!

One other thing I missed in the run-up to Xmas:

When it comes to the outer planes, we're treating Planescape as our default assumption. It's a much-beloved setting and one that's fairly easy (by design) to integrate into existing campaigns. That means the return of the Great Wheel, the Blood War, and other classic elements of the D&D cosmos. The same process for the inner planes applies to the outer planes, with our intent to add elements to the cosmos to increase storytelling opportunities and make the Wheel as flexible as possible for different settings and different DMs.

(cranky gamer face) - One of the "fluff" elements of 4E that  really liked was the revised cosmology. It was simple, made a lot of sense, and fit D&D very well. I'm not thrilled with dumping that. I know a lot of people like the old great wheel, and I know Planescape has its fans. I was just hoping that was one thing they would keep. Ah well.

Less critical: "Tyranny of Dragons" is the big Forgotten Realms event for ... this year? I thought it was The Sundering? Isn't that still going on? It says "later this year" - maybe it's for after Next releases while "The Sundering" is just the run-up to that.

The Good:

  • Using an established D&D big evil instead of some new thing
  • It puts dragons front and center - evil dragons in particular
  • It affects a big popular area of the Realms - good choice
The Bad:
  • Using Tiamat as a featured enemy after using her in Red Hand of Doom for 3.5 and Scales of War for 4E. She might be a little too familiar to some groups
  • Changing up the Cult of the Dragon - yeah the Dracolich guys are apparently not as interested in that part anymore. That's a pretty big change. I always liked that these guys weren't just a simple dragon-worshipping cult. 
  • "Dragon Whisperers" - ugh. Can we skip that part? Dragons aren't animals you know. You can have a conversation with them.
  • What year is this again? 
It'll probably be fine. Maybe I can work it into Paragon/Epic for 4E.

SSoI - Session 5 - Cairn of the Winter King Part 5

Beginning in the forge room where they battled the tiefling and his friends our heroes start exploring, discovering a series of connected rooms with no obvious inhabitants. Guard rooms, a well, bedchambers, a secret staircase, and then, passing through a secret door, the party finds themselves in a large throne room, Atop a tall dais stands a massive throne, and upon it sits a skeletal figure, sheathed in ice, one hand outstretched as if reaching for something. The halfling Marko steps forward, unwrapping the Ice Scepter as he draws it from his pack and holding it out towards the Winter King. The frozen hand ... moves ...

Not so fast! Gravis steps up as well and begins speaking to the icy figure, trying to determine exactly what they are dealing with. The vampire and the ranger chime in as well in their own special ways. The ice falls away as the undead thing rises to its feet but his menace seems diminished as the party informs him of the vast amount of time that has passed since his day and of the many foes they have defeated ,,, his own followers! And right here in his own throne room!

The King has never dealt with this kind of arrogance! He lashes out with a blast of cold and the fight is on! The warden leaps into melee as the ranger unleashes a volley of shafts. The vampire unleashes her true nature and rips into the Winter King at the foot of his own throne and he staggers back! Then the warlord shouts instructions, moving the team into a perfect position and after another icy blast from the King the vampire strikes, tearing his frozen body asunder, ending the Winter King for all time.

Pausing to contemplate what just happened the adventuring band realizes that in addition to the Ice Scepter they possess there is an icy adornment on the King's head as well. They take it, adding the Crown of Winter to their growing list of magical items. Then the rumbling starts, and ice and water begin to fall from the ceiling - apparently the Winter King helped sustain this place and with his demise it is coming undone!

Urgently the party retraces their steps through a quaking, collapsing cavern, praying that their magical flying ship survives and still functions well enough to get them home. Emerging into the brilliant light of the snowy mountains, it takes a second for them to realize they are not alone - between them and the ship stand some rough-looking fur-clad humans and a monstrosity with two heads - an Ettin!

Our heroes now pause to consider their course of action. Aboard the ship stands Dar Bloodmane, "speechifying" and letting them know just how doomed they are if they dare lay a hand on his vessel while Izenheim loads a crossbow. Moving even more rapidly now, Gartok (the warden) charges the ettin with the intent of locking him down so that the rest of the party can reach the ship. Zarra (the vampire) charges the barbarians with the intent of taking them down before they can do any real damage. Gravis (the warlord) and No-Name (the ranger) move up to support.

One of the barbarians is already down and the dwarf has the ettin under control when an owlbear emerges from the rumbling Cairn, apparently fleeing the place. He rumbles right down the path towards the party, and as he does so, roaring and screeching and hooting, the party realizes this could be trouble.

Poster maps! Props! Pulling out all the stops here!

The vampire is ripping through the barbarians with a little help from the ranger as the dwarf and warlord keep the ettin tied up. Then the owlbear, moving faster than anticipated, thunders into the ranger, wounding him and forcing him to deal with something right up in his face - not his preferred scenario. Gravis gets too close in an attempt to lend his aid and takes a huge paw to the head for his troubles.

Look! A Bloodied Bow Ranger! This is an incredibly rare sight, so I wanted to memorialize it online!

Finally the ettin and then the last barbarian fall and Gartok and Zarra run back to their companions, leaping into the fray with the owlbear, which is wounded but still fighting mad. The great beast manages to grab the dwarf, nearly crushing him, and tearing into him with its beak, but the tough (and slippery) warden squirms free, just in time for the Zarra to tear into the beast and for No-Name to skewer the thing with twin arrows. As it falls lifeless to the hard-packed and red-stained snow our heroes spare it no further thought, running for the ship  which Dar and Izenheim (and Marko - not at all interested in fighting, but very interested in leaving) have ordered to lift off. Leaping aboard and settling in, the band takes to the oars, pulling the ship through the sky, hoping to make it back to Fallcrest before the ship's icy magic fails completely.

DM Notes: This was another good run, a little more serious than last time. The WInter King encounter has an interesting mechanical setup where the party can cause damage to the king - who is a fairly nasty solo - by succeeding in a skill challenge, making him easier to defeat in combat. Surprisingly my players initiated this with no prompting from me (as they themselves say, they're usually a "Plan A" kind of group) and no knowledge of what this would do, and had some pretty creative uses of Diplomacy, History, Bluff, and Nature to back it up. Things did eventually come to blows but in his weakened (though not THAT weakened) state they took him out in two rounds! 

The Warlord to Vampire connection was tremendous in this session, as she did something close to 100 points of damage in one round and killed the WInter King thanks to normal attack, warlord bonus attack, and warlord action point bonus attack. This was a hint of things to come. Mechanically the Tactical Warlord is extremely effective when paired with the more Essentials type classes that work mainly from a basic melee attack and can then stack damage boosting powers or attack boosting stances on top of it, and the Vamp is that style of character.

Once they killed the king I thought it would be really anticlimactic to have them clear out the last few rooms in this small dungeon, plus it was a pretty magical environment anyway, so I had the place start to collapse - this is not in the adventure as written. This is a DM sensing that it's time to close out the warmup adventure and move things along. That does not mean those unchecked room inhabitants go to waste though! The Ettin and Barbarians were part of an encounter that was not used, and the owlbear was form a different encounter and using the distance and his movement rate I determined he would still be moving out when the party emerged, which made for a more interesting encounter anyway. It made for an appropriately climactic 9-round fight that had everyone sweating but not complaining - not bad! 

Now I normally try to stay away from too much of the whole dramatic embellishment and keep my dungeons more of a sandboxy environment, but I knew that it would probably take at least one more session to finish exploring the place completely. I also felt like walking out the door and getting on the ship like nothing had happened seemed wrong in this case as well. So I went for the big movie ending with the collapsing, melting dungeon and the fleeing monsters fighting for an escape and all of that, Part of having a preference or a style is knowing when to violate it, and that's what I did here. The mission was accomplished, the dungeon was largely explored and cleared, and after 5 sessions it was time to get their pats on the back and move on to the main focus of the campaign. 

Next time: Back to Fallcrest, and the Red Hand of Doom invades 4th edition!

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

SSoI - Session 4 - Cairn of the Winter King Part 4

We open in a hallway, near a set of double doors (with a particularly nasty lock on them) as the party hears the unmistakable sounds of a dragon bearing down on them. Our Heroes:
  • Dar Bloodmane, Shifter Paladin
  • Lt. Alex Gravis, Water Genasi Warlord
  • Zarra, Drow Vampire
  • Gartok, Dwarf Earth Warden
  • Izenheim, Dwarf Cleric of Dumathoin Marthammor Duin
  • The Elf With No Name, Elf Bow Ranger (who was waiting outside by the sky-boat since his player was absent)
The party braces as a large white dragon races around the corner. A surprisingly mobile fight - given the constricted terrain - breaks out as the dragon leaps into the middle of the group and lashes out at them, taking hits on the way in, and dishing them out in all directions. In a blizzard of blades, breath, claws, and tailslaps the "drow", the cleric, the paladin, and the dragon itself are all bloodied. Then Gravis gives a signal and Dar rears back and unleashes a devastating riposte with his sword that kills the beast outright*.

Resting a bit after this vicious skirmish, the dwarves use the ice key to unlock the doors. They are greeted with a solid sheet of ice, possibly filling the entire room beyond, but with a keyhole - and now the ghost dwarf mouths "fire" and "key". Realizing there is more work to be done the dwarfs are all fired up! The Paladin has used this time to sever the dragon's head and pack it in a bag - he wants a trophy. 

Somewhat battered and needing to recharge even more, the group decides to return to the teleportation circle room and take an extended rest. All seems quiet until the man on watch hears voices outside the outer door - sounds like a patrol of some kind! Not wanting to fight in their less-than-fully-recovered state someone (I can't remember who started it) suggests getting the dragon head out and using it. A couple of skill rolls later and the guards - debating whether to open the do-not-open door "hey I know we're not supposed to go in there but it looks like someone's been messing with that door" - are confronted with a jerked-open door and a roaring floating dragon head! Surprised (and not all that eager to die for the cause in my opinion) they retreat back up the passage and the party has a quiet time the rest of the night though the paladin is troubled by strange dreams where a disembodied dragon head tells him he's not very nice.

That's Gartok and Dar holding up a white dragon head while the Vamp, the Warlord, and Ivan the pet owlbear watch.

After their rest the party explores farther up the main corridor and ends up discovering a forge - a forge with frozen flames! One also with a tiefling, an ogre, and some flaming skeletons! Battle begins!

Forge Fight! They left the white dragon head outside this time.

The flaming skeletons and the tiefling team up but the fiery bone things are quickly dispatched by the Paladin, as the Cleric and Vampire tear into the ogre while the Warden locks down the tiefling. The ogre manages to wound the Vamp by dipping a javelin into the frosty flames and then nailing her with it, prompting the vampire frost immunity discussion again (see session 3) as he is finally brought down by the paladin as he attempts to flee. Remarkably the dead tiefling appears to have a flaming key on a chain around his neck. This is scooped up quickly by the dwarfs as the party catches its breath.

DM Notes: This one was a lot of fun despite the anticlimactic dragon fight:

*He did 63 points of damage - in one hit, from a 4th level Paladin. It was amazing and this is where I started to realize the power of the Tactical Warlord. This fight lasted two whole rounds! I resolved to run my dragons better than this in the future.

The dragon head started talking in a kind of slow-guy voice (think Ord from Dragontales if you have kids of a certain age) about how they were mean and Dar wasn't a nice Paladin and how everyone was mean to him, spurred on by the use of the thing as a morale-breaker on the wandering guards. We were all laughing pretty hard after that happened so the head kind of turned into a borderline NPC for a while there.
"You're not a very nice Paladin are you?"

It also showed some thought on the part of the players outside of the stats/skills/powers structure and we handled it just like in any other version of the game - tell me what you're doing and let me think about what happens. Morale has not been much of a factor in most of our 4E games but this seemed like an obvious case for it. The lack of morale rules in the game doesn't mean it's not a factor - it means it's not a standard attack and defense mechanic  - but is up to DM interpretation, and sometimes the monsters run!  

I originally thought the key thing was kind of cliched but I realized that although it's pretty common in shooter games we haven't really done all that much of it in D&D, and the players seemed to like having these little sub-quests so if I ever work up my own mega-dungeon I will probably include stuff like this in moderation. Also, it helps that it was pretty obvious - there were no language rolls or special items needed, someone just needed to speak dwarf and they could figure it out. A more universal solution might be to have the imprisoned dwarf spirit show an image of the key rather than saying it - it's magic, right? This would remove all chance of not having the right asset in the party to solve the problem.

Next time: The Winter King!

Monday, February 3, 2014

SSoI - Session 3 - Cairn of the WInter King Part 3

We begin in the feasting hall of the Cairn of the Winter King, or what appeared to be a feasting hall anyway. Having dispatched the inhabitants the party now searches the room and opens doors, looking for loot and a way forward. There are two doors leading out.

Exploring the corridor behind one door, they come to a locked double door with a sign on it - "Do not open on pain of death by order of the Winter King" - and for the first time ever in the entire history of D&D they do not open the door that has a sign that says not to open it!

Moving further inward they find another set of double doors around a corner, fiddle with the locks.  As they work on this a ghostly figure manifests partway through the door, gesturing and silently saying something. The party backs off, watches for a bit, decides they are not in immediate danger, and ponders. The "drow" tries to pick the lock and is blasted in the face with magical frost for her efforts*.  The spirit appears to be a dwarf. The two dwarfs in the party confer and agree that he is mouthing the words "ice" and "key" in the dwarf tongue. Clearly a quest item! With renewed purpose the party moves back through the dungeon.

The group follows a new direction and comes to an empty banquet hall. They hear some noises coming from farther on, but decide to take the "quiet" exit out of the place, ending up back in the feasting hall they began in. Apparently the two exits from the room make an "H" and they will have to explore the farther ends of the "H" to find the keys and the King himself.

Deciding to take a more methodical approach they head back to the first door, the one with the sign on it. They smash it down, proceed inward, and briefly note a frosty room with a runic circle of some kind on the floor - then they are attacked by babbling wraith-like creatures! An ugly close-quarters fight breaks out where the Paladin takes a beating but dishes out some massive blows, the Vampire devastates one, and even  Marko the halfling manages to strike out at the undead things.Finally the wraiths are destroyed and the party pauses to explore and catch their breath. The circle is a teleportation circle, apparently a receive-only type. Interesting, but useless to the group right now. Feeling better, they prepare to move down the hall.

A short way down the hall our heroes discover another door and after a listen and a search they take the traditional approach and smash it down, revealing a laboratory. Poking around the delicate glassware they discover some potions and tuck them away for later.

Exploring a bit further, the team discovers a huge room full of frozen figures, lined up like they are organized for some reason. Among them is a white dragon, hanging from the ceiling ... and around his neck is a key made of ice. There is clearly some thawing going on but the party goes straight for the key, grabbing it and heading for the ghost-door from earlier. Everyone that is but the Paladin, who notices that one of the nearer figures has a really nice sword. He tries to be gentle but the figure is frozen so there's really only one way this is going to go - SNAP! As he examines the sword he hears a noise ... and realizes the dragon is stirring. He runs out of the room to where the party has gathered in front of the door and mentions that they may have company in just a minute ...

DM Notes: This was still a "getting organized" type session in some ways as there was a lot of indecision on how to explore the dungeon. I was shocked that they walked away from the sign-door but they did come back to it eventually, restoring balance to the universe. They passed several other doors too, listening and looking them over, then moving on past, which was a little odd as not many groups have operated that way in my experience. Even in the banquet hall there were several passages leading out and some noises to investigate, but they circled back around to known territory instead. The ghost dwarf and the hint about the keys seemed to fire them up and things got organized after that.

There was only one combat this time and it was fun for the DM though perhaps not as much for the players. Behind the door is a short hall of 10' by 15' and then a larger 25' by 25' room. The wraiths are insubstantial and can move in and out of the stone while the PC"s can be pinned in a very tight area. The wraiths also have an Aura 3 that does damage and lets them slide characters 2 squares, enabling them to bottle up the PC's in that small area if they choose to do so. They also have powers that lower defenses and another that lets them force the target to attack an ally - lots of fun for the DM as I love those hit-your-buddy-powers, but the characters took a pretty good beating.

*This spurred a whole conversation about how vampires should be immune to cold, in her view. A discussion which has never really gone away. It came up just this past weekend, nearly a year later, as she takes damage from a dragonborn's icy breath - "I still think they should be immune" and the occasional snide comment from one of the other players as I rattle off the damage - "oh but you're immune to that". It's funny. Most of the time.

Oh, and the sword was a +2 Frostbrand, so Dar was a pretty happy paladin - until he realized the next big enemy was a White Dragon.

Next time: More Frozen (or Unfrozen?) Dungeon

Motivational Monday

Sunday, February 2, 2014

SSoI - Session 2 - Cairn of the Winter King Part 2

The Party:
  • Lieutenant Gravis, a genasi Warlord and refugee from Thay in service to House Reinhardt. Interestingly, he has a young owlbear pet.
  • Isenheim, a dwarven Cleric of Moradin, is Chaplian for the dwarf members of the city watch. He is tied to Clan Stormbull
  • Gartok, a dwarf warden of earth and stone, also from Clan Stormbull
  • Dar Bloodmane, a paladin of Tempus;
  •  An unnamed elven ranger who wields a nasty greatbow; 
  • Zara, the mysterious exotic agent of House Bauer

Our heroes board the flying ship along with the less enthusiastic Marko the Halfling. The ships' figurehead speaks again, ordering them to row as it guides them to the Winter King. As they begin to pull the oars, the ship rises into the cold gray sky. Soon enough the weather closes in and things get rough and the party is severely tested by the cold and the winds, but they pull through and eventually sight the presumed destination - a pillar of ice 40' tall filled with skulls.

Landing near the pillar the crew spots a tunnel into the mountain. Marko start babbling about being here before and never wanting to see this place again and freaking out in general. Gravis and Isenheim strongarm him along into the tunnel. Everyone gathers in front of a pair of big double doors, the party muscle pushes them open to find ...

... warm air, firelight, and the smell of cooking food. At a huge table sits a bearded man in furs, along with a woman and some hunting dogs. The man rises, greets them, and introduces himself as the Winter King - "I believe you have something for me."

Suspicious, the party does not partake and does not hand over the Ice Scepter. Marko does not remember any of this being here on his prior visit, and soon enough suspicions prove true and a fight breaks out.

The man goes into some kind of battle chant and whips out a greataxe, the woman begins casting spells, and as the illusions fall away around the room the dogs turn out to be dire wolves. Combat swirls all over the room. Things are dicey at first but Dar Bloodmane finally slays the barbaric would-be king, the rest begin to fall, and eventually Zara finishes off the last wolf.

Pausing to recover the party notes two sets of double doors on the north wall and begins discussing how to proceed...

DM Notes: This one was a lot of fun as we worked through our first skill challenge with this party in the skyship journey, then a bit of NPC interaction with the halfling and the barbarian host, and then a nice big fight to finish up. The party was still finding its feet but it only took 5 rounds to plow through these guys once the fight started. The 2 Defender, 2 Leader, 2 Striker mix does some interesting things to combat. Aside from the mechanics, personalities continue to develop amongst the characters and will only get better in the future.