Saturday, February 22, 2014

SSoI -Session 22: The Fane of Tiamat

Our Heroes (9th level):
  • Lt. Alex Gravis, Water Genasi Warlord (and Ivan, owlbear and guardian of the forest) 
  • Gartok, Dwarf Earth Warden
  • No-Name, Elf Bow Ranger 
  • Torin Tsai, Half-Orc Slayer
  • Xyla, Drow Vampire
Finding the foyer somewhat quiet, the party begins exploring the fane of Tiamat. 

For the first time in a while, there are a lot of doors to be dealt with. This leads to a discussion of the true roles in a D&D party. There is the Door Decider, the Door Checker, the Door Unlocker, and the Door Opener. This also leads to the dubbing of Gravis as the "Doorlord".

Checking as quietly as they can the team finds several empty rooms.

After finding a storeroom and four guest rooms someone exclaims "It's a Comfort Evil Inn!"

After some time though they hear sounds coming from another room and so kick in the door - it's a kitchen! With a remarkably attractive woman, a pair of devilish looking cooks, and some hobgoblins all at work. At first the woman screeches at the party, ordering them to work. Then she realizes they are not her lackeys and she screeches even more loudly to get the intruders!

This fight is over almost before it starts. In a matter of seconds the ranger drops 3 of the hobgoblins while the slayer and the warden kill the other 3 while also engaging the devils. The vampire rips the woman, leaps past her,  finishes off one devil, the kills the other for good measure! The warlord and Ivan drop the woman - who changes in death to reveal herself to be a hag -  to finish the fight. 

DM Notes: Three rounds! They wiped out 3 normal opponents and 6 minions in 3 rounds! Also, in round 1 of the combat I rolled four 3's in a row for monster attacks - not a good showing for Team Evil. Standard procedure now is that the warden locks the enemies down all around him, the ranger shoots one or more targets, the vampire and slayer bloody an enemy each, then the warlord lets one or more of them strike again! They are just ripping through most fights now.

Poking around the kitchen reveals nothing of particular interest. The slayer decides to foul the bubbling pot of nastiness a bit further as the rest of the group moves on. Grinning, he runs to catch up.

Heading back down a different corridor the team opens up another door and finds a very large room. A group of dragonborn are pushing their chairs back and flipping the table over as the party bursts in. 

The dragonborn are clearly seasoned soldiers as they form a line and restrict the invaders to the corner of the room, a cramped area that makes it difficult to fight. One of the soldiers falls to combined strikes from the ranger, vampire, and slayer, but in the confined space various blasting spells and breath weapon attacks are taking their toll on our heroes. The slayer tries to leap to assault the wizard but a summoned gust of wind blows him back over the barricade. They pull back and jam the door shut - retreat? Never! Going with plan B they race around to another door they now are sure opens into the same room, planning to come in behind the defenders.

Bursting in again the heroes find that the scaled soldiers have flipped an even larger table over and are quickly moving into defensive positions. This isn't going to be easy either, but there is more room to maneuver than in the corner. Removing one target in particular though will make this much easier, and he is the slayer's prey. Pushing himself to the limit Torin leaps over the barricade and with some guidance from Gravis he kills the elemental mage with two swings of his blade! As the rest of the party surges over and around the makeshift defenses another soldier falls leaving only one more wounded grunt and the dragonborn commander. 

The entire group assaults the leader and though he is a canny, experienced, and mighty warrior even he can't withstand this and falls to their attacks. The final soldier prepares to sell his life dearly and he does - to the vampire's claws and the rangers bow. 

Searching the room yields gold, gear, healing potions, ...and a magical ring, from the body of the commander. The victorious heroes rest for a few minutes, then prepare to push on in search of their true enemy.

DM Notes: While the kitchen encounter was pretty close to the original this one was a little different. The module has a group of blackspawn raiders which are big minotaur-like dragonspawn. All of those MM IV monsters are not included in 4th edition and I wanted something a little more interesting anyway. This ended up being a nod to the old "rival adventuring party" we used to see in AD&D adventures, with a more military theme. We had a leader, some grunts, and a wizard, who use some tactical sense and have some complimentary abilities. They are pretty nasty in melee and the wizard gives them both some decent ranged area capabilities and some close blasts, on top of every single one of them having a small breath attack. It worked, as it was a fun group for me to run and a challenging encounter for the players, which was especially nice after they steamrolled the kitchen crew. 

One of the advantages of converting and adapting the adventure is that I get to rework it so that it still makes sense but it's more fun for me - and hopefully the players. After all, if we're going to spend 2 hours on one fight then I'd better enjoy it too.

Friday, February 21, 2014

SSoI - Session 21: To the Wyrmsmoke Mountains!

Our Heroes (now 9th level):
  • Lt. Alex Gravis, Water Genasi Warlord (and Ivan, owlbear commando) 
  • Gartok, Dwarf Earth Warden
  • No-Name, Elf Bow Ranger 
  • Torin Tsai, Half-Orc Slayer
  • Xyla, Drow Vampire
Gone But Not Forgotten:

Izenheim, Dwarf Cleric of Marthammor Duin
(Our friend Marc announced somewhere in between these last few sessions that he just could not make the scheduling work consistently and so he would be dropping for good. One of these days I hope things sync up and he can rejoin us. He didn't come from a background of tabletop play, most of his experience was from games like World of Warcraft. It was a lot of fun having someone with some game experience, plus the new player enthusiasm, plus the "what do those do again?" factor at the table once more. Hopefully we can drag him back in down the road.)  

Our heroes, escorted by Lion Knights and the city guard, stagger back into town and take a well-deserved rest. Afterwards, A pair of knights bring them to an open square which seems to have been blocked off from other traffic.  A regal looking knight, a wizard in red robes, and a strangely attired man wearing a helmet topped with ram's horns all wait for them. 

The knight introduces himself as Sir Brandis Brightblade, leader of the Lion Knights. He has been receiving reports of the invading horde and knows the decisive battle will take place here at Brindol. He also knows that the army is large and formidable. Sura, the Lion Knight who they met back in Drellin's Ferry has also reported their efforts to stop the horde and combining that with what he saw last night he has a plan to decapitate the army. Brandis explains (with a grimace) that Kurgan here, a local priest, has provided a map and guidance to an old portal near an old temple of Tiamat. This is believed to be the Red Hand's secret home base. Agents of House Bauer have provided information that the leader of the army, Azarr Kul, has returned there to perform some magical ritual. With the heroes proving to be a powerful yet small team, Brandis believes that they could be teleported to the temple, enter it, and have a chance to slay Azarr Kul. With their leader gone, the army should be much easier to defeat. Additionally, whatever ritual he is planning can't be good and stopping it is a worthwhile goal as well.

After a brief consultation, our heroes agree. Immerstal the Red, foremost wizard of Brindol, begins casting the ritual of opening. Kurgan snarls "you're welcome" and stalks away. The party marks him as a potential troublemaker, and turns their attention back to the portal. The wizard completes his chanting and arm-waving and gestures for them to step through.

They find themselves stepping out into an old stone circle, half-tumbled but still recognizable. It rests in a small rocky valley with mountains all around. A narrow path leads up the side of the nearest slope and that's the way they go. Soon enough the path turns a corner and their goal is before them.

The path opens up into a shelf about 20' wide and 100' long. At the end is a large double door with a massive sculpture of a 5-headed dragon looming over it. Near it is the mouth of a large cave and that's where the trouble comes from, in the form of a blue dragon.

As the party re-positions to face this newest threat, the dragon spits lightning and the fight is on. This one is a bit more talkative and mentions that his name is Tyrgarun, and he's going to enjoy slaying them and offering them up to Tiamat. Gartok and Torin charge while Gravis and Xyla work from a little farther back and No-Name works from very far back. It's ugly up close, and both the half-orc and the dwarf take a beating.

Xyla briefly manages to hypnotize the beast but Torin is having none of that - he tears into the dragon with a fury, aided by Gartok and Gravis. With a sigh Xyla joins the fray as well, all fang and claw. In a matter of minutes it's over as Gravis directs a simultaneous strike from the dwarf, vampire, and slayer and the big blue staggers back and falls for the final time. The group pauses to rest and recover as they keep a watch on the door and loot the dragon's lair.

In better shape they force open the door (setting off a trap in the process) and push their way inside the Fane of Tiamat.Only a long, empty stone hallway greets them, but they are on guard as their entrance has not been quiet. Advancing, they come to a large room lit by another sculpture of a five headed dragon, with the appropriately colored light coming from a flame in each one's mouth. As they survey the room they notice some balconies above them especially when five bearded devils swoop down from them and attack!

There are duels all over the room as our heroes take on the things in pairs or solo, though with the warlord and the bow ranger one is never truly fighting alone. These new foes have dangerous powers, as Xyla and Torin are both blinded, dazed, and thrown back from the fight by their opponents. The creatures also fade in and out of the shadows, striking without warning. The warden holds his ground and forms the core of their defense with supporting fire from the ranger as the warlord reestablishes control and the devils begin to fall. The last one attempts to flee but is slain by a shot from No-Name. 

The group pauses and pokes at the bodies. "Hmm, Abishai." They realize there may be devils all through this place, making it a tougher mission than just killing on warlord.

DM Notes: There was a lot of in and out of character talk at the beginning. Everyone leveled up to 9th at the end of the Ghostlord adventure, there was some shopping in town, and some NPC interaction. There may have been an extra day of game time in there but the next happening was the meeting described above.

People who have run or played this adventure may wonder what the heck just happened. In the module, part 5 is the siege of Brindol, while part 6 is the fane of Tiamat. The fane always felt anticlimactic to me after the big siege, and I saw some ideas for changing that up online so I switched them. The attack on the fane comes first, then we end with the big attack on the city, which can be greatly altered by how the fane episode goes. I'm still happy with this change even as we approach the end.

The fight with the big blue lasted all of 4 rounds. The slayer, aided by the warden, had inflicted almost 200 points of damage on him in round 1 between his normal action, his action point, the warlord's action, and the warlord's action point. The vampire hypnotized him on round 2, which was a lot of fun for her. Then the bow ranger bloodied him from his usual distance, triggering the breath weapon which blasted the slayer, the warden, and the warlord and was the cause of some discussion about timing, positioning, and damage. The vampire gets in 3 shots in round 4 (normal action, action point, warlord) so she wasn't too far behind the other melee monster.

The abishai actually lasted 5 rounds and had some fun powers as noted above, but one-on-one they could not stop the characters. This was their first real encounter with devils so hopefully it gave them some warning about the kinds of things they can do as someone finally remembered that Tiamat lives on the first plane of Hell. There are plenty more infernal things to come, and not a paladin or cleric in sight.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

SSoI - Session 20:Fall of the Ghostlord

Our Heroes (8th level):
  • Lt. Alex Gravis, Water Genasi Warlord (and Ivan, a released, furry little kraken ) 
  • Gartok, Dwarf Earth Warden
  • Izenheim, Dwarf Cleric of Marthammor Duin ("Temple of Sune? Here? Really?" ... "What stone lion?")
  • No-Name, Elf Bow Ranger 
  • Torin Tsai, Half-Orc Slayer
  • Xyla, Drow Vampire
The sorcerer decided that having helped force an entrance into the lion and with the greenish gas stopped it was time for him to report back and get some help. The rest of the party would press on, hoping to find the Ghostlord and put an end to him before anything else happened.

Moving into an adjacent room the team doesn't see much, but there is an open pit on one side of the room. Of more interest though are the blue and green lights hovering near the ceiling. These glowing, vaporous froms slowly drift about the upper part of the chamber. As the party observes them, some drift lower, moving in closer to our heroes. For some, feelings of despair begin to creep into their minds as they watch the fascinating display. Others feel their minds being pushed in starnge directions, as if they were going mad. There's no doubt as to the source of these disruptions and out come the weapons, striking back at these strange spirits. As the party determines the best way to attack the things, a scuttling horror emerges from the pit, antennae twitching.

The monstrosity resembles an enormous centipede made up of skeletal remains of different creatures. The undead abomination slashes into combat, with bony claws and whip-like appendages made of sharpened bone. The thing moves across floor and walls with equal ease, slicing at the party and making a horrible clicking noise.

While the rest of the team handles the wisps, the slayer and the vampire attack the bone horror, striking back as it scuttles around the room. As the last wisp is destroyed they hammer the skeletal beast into a shattered ruin.

Catching their breath the party realizes this room is a hell hole of butchery, with the bones of numerous animals down in the pit. The horrors that happened here are likely the source of the things that attacked them. Ready to leave the disturbing place, they do discover a strange thing amidst the broken frame of the osteopede - a pair of bone dice with the symbol of Tymora where the 1's should be. The slayer pockets them, a trophy of the kill.

DM Notes: The battle in the butcher room was fun. There were 2 types of wisps but all of them were minions, and the osteopede is a new monster (as far as I know) from Open Grave that's an elite. It was very mobile (until it got too close to the warden and got locked down) and has some nasty attacks but the vampire and slayer combined are just about unstoppable. It was bloodied on the 4th hit and dead on the 7th, which took all of 4 rounds to happen. The vampire opened with a 50+ point slam (POW!) and the slayer finished it with a 70+ point critical (BAM!). 

The dice are a nifty magic item that lets a player roll 3 d20's and store them for the day, using them (one at a time) in place of any normal d20 roll. This has to be decided before rolling, but if you're winding up for a big hit and have an 18 stored away, it's nice to know you're not going to miss. It's a nifty little item and this its first appearance in one of my campaigns.

Advancing through the interior of the great stone lion they come to a large room with a glowing green pit in the center. Standing near it is what can only be the Ghostlord, feared lich and their new nemesis. Flanking him are a pair of undead knights - lion knights by the heraldry they display. Also swirling through the room are a half-dozen wraithlike forms who turn hostile eyes towards the intruders.

After a brief exchange of words the party knows that there will be no negotiation, no deal-making - only a final death will stop the twisted lich from destroying them and the city. Fortunately that is possible since they have already destroyed his phylactery. Unfortunately, the lich appears to be a formidable foe, with allies aplenty. The lich begins a spell and the ranger's bowstring twangs as the undead knights move to block the walkways around the pit. Undaunted by the vast chasm, the wraiths stream across and engage the heroes first. This part of the fight is short but savage, as the ghostly knights are destroyed by the team but manage to inflict some harm with their spectral blades. A new danger is revealed as some of the wraiths manage to ...beckon ... some of the heroes towards the pit. A fall into the glowing green hell is not something the heroes want to experience, and they resist as best they can.

As the ghosts are torn apart, attention turns to the two undead knights who silently block the direct way to the lich. Clearly mighty knights in life, their power is no less great in death, reborn through the rites of the Ghostlord. They prove to be staunch guardians of the foul thing. Stymied, the team shifts its tactics as the vampire, slayer and ranger all focus on one knight as the warlord and warden occupy the other. As powerful as he is, the unliving knight crumbles under their assault.

As the focus turns to the second knight, he looses a blast of flame while the lich strikes from across the pit with attacks of cold  and with eruptions of dark tentacles that try to drag the heroes into the pit. The group divides its efforts as two powerful enemies remain and leaving either unengaged could prove to be deadly.In a mobile battle around the edges of the pit, the vampire and slayer strike. The warden attempts to lock down the Ghostlord but the lich teleports across the gaping hole, standing side by side with the knight. The ranger stands and delivers shot after shot, regardless of location, as the warlord recalculates his strategy to bring down these foul remnants.

Red Ring = Bloodied. This is a good fight.

In the end, the battered and bloodied heroes stand victorious. The slayer slams into the Ghostlord with vicious blows, and the ranger delivers the killing shot. The last knight, tied up with the warden, survives long enough to see his undead master fall - then the vampire finishes him with her customary viciousness, ending the battle.

In an adjacent room the heroes find a black orb, obviously magical and radiating necromantic power. Worn out and with all patience gone, the options seem limited. Sticking with Plan A they smash it.

Exhausted and bleeding, the heroes stagger back out into the now clear air of the night.

DM Notes - This is what a serious D&D fight should be! All 3 types of opponents had some kind of forced movement power and there was a nice big pit of magical nastiness right there in the center of the room. This made things much more tense, as no one wanted to go into the pit. There is only so much room to get around it, so the death knights ability to act like a defender (marking) and their ability to slow a target (the Ghostlord could do this too) made it very difficult to get past them. The fight went 7 rounds, and by the end of round 5 the Ghostlord and every PC except the bow ranger were bloodied. At one point one of the knights was marked, quarried, slowed, weakened, bloodied, and taking ongoing 5 damage! I would call it "appropriately climactic".

Originally I had the Ghostlord designed as a solo, but after fighting the behir twice I thought yet another solo fight would be too much, so I redid him as an elite controller, added in the death knights (down-leveled a bit) as elite soldiers, and topped it off with the wraith knight minion soldiers. This gave me some expendables to tie the party up for a round or two with the three main opponents behind them being tough customers. With the terrain situation and the powers, I thought it felt pretty cinematic and pretty balanced given the outcome. 

Structurally this is the end of part 4 of Red Hand of Doom. With parts 5 and 6 left to go I changed up the flow of the adventure and we will kick that off next time.  

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

SSoI - Session 19: Revenge of the Fallen

Our Heroes (8th level):
  • Lt. Alex Gravis, Water Genasi Warlord (and Ivan, fist of the North Star! ) 
  • Gartok, Dwarf Earth Warden
  • Izenheim, Dwarf Cleric of Marthammor Duin ("tending the wounded")
  • No-Name, Elf Bow Ranger (covering the cleric while he "tends the wounded")
  • Torin Tsai, Half-Orc Slayer
  • Xyla, Drow Vampire
Special Guest Stars (also 8th level):

  • Dragonborn Elemental Sorcerer, played by Apprentice Red
  • Elf Bow Ranger, played by Apprentice Blaster

In Memoriam:
  • Zarra, Drow Vampire  Slain by a Behir
  • Sir Abel Primies, Human Paladin of Torm Slain by a Behir
In front of the newly-arrived stone lion outside the city of Brindol - Izenheim discovers a party of wounded guardsmen and leads them back into the city. As he does so, he passes a wizard of some kind on gate duty and shouts to him to "get up there and help them with ye magic". Soon enough, as the party begins taunting the great behir to come out and fight, a dragonborn sorcerer hurries up to assist them, looking around nervously as he has no idea what is inside the structure.

Annoyed at being teleported,spirit-brushed, nearly gassed, and now taunted by a bunch of humans, the behir emerges and spits lightning at the group. The dragonborn takes the brunt of this and grunts in pain. In return, the wyrm takes an arrow to the face (from the ranger) and an owlbear to the chest (from the warlord) as Gravis launches Ivan into direct combat in a new way. Gartok charges in now that thing is out of it's hidey-hole and locks it down with roots of stone. In a flurry of action the warlord, warden, and vampire all launch acoordinated series of attacks that has the 8-legged beast back on it's heels, and the sorcerer recovers enough to launch a spellblast of his own.

Watching for an opening, Torin sees one after this offensive outburst and launches his own attack, getting up under the beast and knocking it on it's side, screaming as he does so that he has the thing in "THE WORLD SERPENT GRASP!"

Shocked, stunned, possibly even embarrassed at being turned upside down by a mere two-legged half-orc, the behir manages to right itself, shaking Torin off, crackling with rage and lightning, and swallows the warden!

The vampire gives in to the fury and rips into the beast and the owlbear joins her in the same furious spirit. From inside Gartok can be heard calling on the spirits as he fights on in darkness. From behind, Torin launches his devastating offensive once more and again the beast finds itself caught in the terrifying grip of the WORLD SERPENT GRASP!

Overwhelmed, pinned, and down for the count, the behir is slain within a few feat of it's lair, between the paws of the great stone lion. Gartok smashes his way out of its gullet and the entire group pauses for moment before heading inside the lion.

Climbing up inside the lion, the party finds itself in an empty room inside what they think is the head. Picking up some sounds from behind one closed door they kick it in and find themselves facing a group of red-robed hobgoblins with the red hand tattooed on their bodies. Are they wizards? Closing in might keep them from using certain blasting spells! As the first leaping kick takes one across the room and into the dwarf it becomes apparent they are actually monks. A melee in very cramped quarters breaks out as both sides move to engage. Torin displays another hidden talent, or at least his sword does, as he smites the ground and a trench opens up, dividing the room and providing one more way to hurt people - by pushing them into the hole.

From another door an armored figure emerges, chanting litanies to Tiamat. "Well, that explains the dragons."

One more figure comes into the room as well, this time a female hobgoblin, strangely attractive, and begins shouting encouragement to the others.

The sorcerer spits lightning on the closely-packed group and then follows up with another blast. The vampire and slayer tear into the fight and two of the monks are taken down quickly. Wyrmlord Ulwai Stormcaller attempts to overawe the party. Despite her good looks ("that's a ... hobgoblin?") charm, and the whip she is holding the vampire is having none of it and the slayer is already in a sort of battle frenzy and doesn't care. She has some hope of pulling people into the trench with her whip but she's on the losing side and the warlord ends up shoving her into the pit - with a sword - and that's the end for her. The evil priest of Tiamat becomes a special focus of the dragonborn sorcerer and is shocked, scorched and frozen until he drops too.

Pausing for breath the heroes look around. find some interesting treasure, notes, and also destroy an idol of Tiamat. It's a productive few minutes.

DM Notes: No tourist business or travel this time - straight to the action! We knew the players for the cleric and bow ranger were not going to make it to this session so we recruited Apprentices Blaster and Red to fill in with some new characters at the appropriate level. "Defense of the city" seemed like a perfectly legitimate excuse for strangers rushing into combat together without much more than a handshake. Red had been wanting to try out a sorcerer - a fairly short-ranged sorcerer as it turned out, putting him in harm's way repeatedly and becoming the warlord's best customer for healing. Blaster made an elven ... bow ... ranger. We pretty much treated him as a stand-in for no-name - it's not like he's close enough to the party for anyone to notice! Onward!

This Behir fight went 180 degrees from the first encounter with the mighty Varanthian (yes he has a name though he never really had a conversation with the party). Knowing the enemy, preparing for it specifically, changing the conditions of the fight, and learning from a bad experience completely changed the outcome. 

The first time, the fight lasted 6 rounds, the party was taking a beating the entire time, and the behir never went below 40% of his hit points.

This time they bloodied him on round 2 and killed him on round 3. Having two more party members makes a noticeable difference, and ending up with a leader, a defender, and four strikers certainly shortens a fight. My notes show 3 hits on round 1 then this for round 2: the bow ranger does about 20, the warden does about 20 with a bonus attack from the warlord, then the warlord does about 20 from an action point, then the warden does about 20 more from the warlord's action point, then the vampire does around 20, then the warden does around 20 on his own turn, then he does about 30 on his own action point, then the sorcerer finishes the round with 10 more. Then the slayer WSG's him! The poor behir started that round at 369 HP and ended it barely above 100! That's 9 hits in one round, plus various mark punishments and lingering area effect damage. That's cool but it also illustrates why one round in 4E can take f-o-r-e-v-e-r!

The second fight went all of 5 rounds and featured the party jelling even more as a team. In one round Vampire 2.0 landed a 59 point hit on one swing from the warlord, then followed it up with a 37-pointer on her own turn. That's a lot of damage in one round from one character, and the slayer is just about as bad. We also discovered that fighting in smaller rooms is a sweet spot for a dragonborn dragon sorcerer as he can cause mass devastation too. The scarblade became another of Torin's signature moves and has been used several times since to change up the battlefield. 

The group was very happy to trash the behir the way they did and the second fight was just a dessert. The new characters are fitting in well and I expect them to only become more formidable. 

Overreaction Wednesday

There's another article by Mike Mearls on D&D Next, this time on XP. The main point is this:

From the perspective of game design, the difference between these approaches becomes important when we think about how best to implement rewards in published adventures. In the past, we've always defaulted to using experience point rewards for everything. However, for narrative-driven adventures like adventure paths, that approach can prove troublesome. Designers have to jam in the "correct" number of combat encounters to make sure the PCs level up at the right pace. Adventure design thus becomes a process of matching up the right flow of XP to the correct tempo of the plot. Otherwise, if characters don't level up at the expected rate, subsequent chapters in an adventure path become too difficult or too easy.
 Rather than force the issue, a much better approach is to allow designers to present both options, and let DMs decide how best to run any adventure. This simple change to an experience point mechanic that's been in place since the earliest days of D&D helps to illustrate one of our critical guiding principles in the design of D&D Next. The game must provide options to support different styles of play—especially when it's clear that the default way of doing things no longer matches the way so many DMs run their games.

I really don't like this one. D&D has always been about experience and treasure as the main reward. You may or may not have some narrative thing going on as well but 4th Edition laid out a "Quest Experience" system to accommodate that. "Allowing designers to present both options" sounds fine but I suspect what that means is not sticking to our own rules for experience and encounter design - which is ridiculous.

Don't get me wrong in my current 4E campaign I have not always followed the number of encounters per level, and the resulting XP, by the book. There have been times I have told the players to level up for next time, regardless of the amount of XP they have actually gathered. The point is exactly that: I made that call.

The whole point of having a system is to show everyone how it is supposed to work. Individual DM's will vary their approach, but with a solid baseline out there everyone has a common reference point to use. Is D&D really going to have two experience systems, one showing XP/monster per encounter per level and one that says "wing it"? Why bother?

In the mechanics of the game there should be a solid system for XP's and progression. In the DM Advice chapter when discussing a narrative campaign there should be a section on the narrative level up approach. One is rules, one is advice. Everyone has a common reference point and (theoretically) everyone is happy.

Suppose some people decide to ignore initiative too and just start going in Dex order. Do we need to "support" that too? Within the rules. you cannot mechanically support not using certain sections of the rules! Leave that up to the DM's and playing groups.

There are lots of narrative style adventures and even campaigns out there. Typically they are for games that don't use levels and that's where they belong. In a level based game, a published adventure should stick to the system described for that game and leave it up to the DM's to improvise if they choose. Ignoring their own experience system would be a mistake in my opinion for standard D&D adventures.

This doesn't seem to be a difficult concept to execute - Pathfinder's been doing it for about 5 years now and is doing quite well by all reports. Maybe someone there could help WOTC out on this.

Plenty of other games do this just fine and I like a lot of those games. Having experience points and leveling up is one of the signature features of D&D and should stay that way. Sure, you can do it other ways, that's one of the fun things about the game. Let's not rush off and change it just because that seems cooler today.

There's a bit of self-fulfilling prophecy here too. If they would publish some sandbox adventures for this new edition, maybe the narrative style adventure wouldn't seem so dominant. I'll keep my fingers crossed.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

SSoI - Session 18: Blurred Lions

Our Heroes (8th level):
  • Lt. Alex Gravis, Water Genasi Warlord (and Ivan, vengeance-seeking owlbear of the night ) 
  • Zarra, Drow Vampire DECEASED (moreso than usual for her)
  • Gartok, Dwarf Earth Warden
  • Izenheim, Dwarf Cleric of Marthammor Duin 
  • No-Name, Elf Bow Ranger 
  • Sir Abel Primies, Human Paladin of Torm DECEASED
The surviving heroes, downcast, spend 3 days flying back to the home of the Tiri-Kotor elves and reuniting with Izenheim and the ranger. There, they share the news of their defeat and realize they need reinforcements to take out the behir and probably the lich as well, and the best place to find that help will be in Brindol, largest city in the vale. The elves mourn with them and agree to let the party continue using the owls for faster travel. The group thanks them and parts ways, headed for the city.

In Brindol the team keeps a low profile, not wanting to panic the city. There they unexpectedly meet the mysteriuos Xyla, another hooded and cloaked member of House Bauer. She seems very interested in the whereabouts of Zarra and reacts emotionally to news of her death, though it is difficult to gauge her feelings on the matter.

The warlord also puts out feelers to the wandering professional harm-giver network looking for an experienced combat expert. The best candidate for his purposes is one Torin Tsai, experienced half orc fighting man.

Also during this time the team searches various shops and contacts around the city for some special equipment. Potions, weapons, armor - there is a ton of wheeling and dealing.

Finally the heroes spend some time getting a feel for the city and the people, especially those who defend it, as they know that the fate of any invasion will be decided here. An invader has to deal with Brindol one way or another, and the city seems adequately defended, if not yet on high alert.

Coincidentally the party's second night in the city is the night of a lunar eclipse. This would not be especially noteworthy but there is a strange feel in the air as the darkness grows. Then, as the moon becomes visible again, there is an outcry at the main gate to Brindol -on a hill outside the city a huge stone lion has appeared and strange green vapors are rolling down a slope towards the city as ghostly lion shapes begin swooping down and through the city streets. Our heroes realize that somehow, through some mighty feat of magic, the Ghostlord has come to them!

This guy again!
Running for the gate the team catches as many details as they can, informs the knight on watch and the gate commander what they are facing, then charge up the hill to deal with the threat. Xyla recognizes the lion from what she heard earlier, and Torin gets a quick briefing on the run as to what they face. They stay clear of the vapors, as billowing green gas has never really been a good thing in their experience. It appears to be flowing out of the lion's mouth, sinking to the ground, and rolling down towards the city gate. They deduce that the mouth might be a way in, but not while it's spewing out that nastiness, and they're going to need to deal with the behir regardless, partly so they can find an entrance, partly for revenge.

Before they can deal with the dracoform though, the spirits that were harmless last time prove to be hostile and dangerous this time. As the heroes approach the great stone lion the spirits attack, gliding in and tearing into them with ethereal claws and teeth. When the defenders strike back, rather than dissipate as their wispy appearance would indicate, the lion spirits seem to solidify and intensify their attacks - instead of a skirmish with vaporous nuisances, the group finds itself in a real fight against serious opposition.

New companion Torin proves to be a devastating combatant, one of the feared Slayers, wielding a massive fullblade like some wield a rapier, spinning a wall of shining death about himself and tearing through the spirits as if they were any other mortal opponent.

Xyla too reveals herself in the battle, unleashing her rage in a very familiar style of claws, fangs, and a swarm of shadows, fighting the spirits on their own level - apparently Zarra had a sister, and her sister is also Vampire.

I think that's one outstretched leg of the lion
Gravis adapts his tactics to these new enemies and new allies. With the old familiar core of the elf in back, himself and Ivan in the center, and the two dwarves up front holding a line, the two new heroes find a place weaving their way through this formation, dancing in between the others, striking where needed.

The new team fights their way to the lion and begins looking for a hidden entrance as the swarm of spirits is thinned by their efforts. Though others continue to head for the city, the last of the guardian spirits eventually falls and no new ones appear to take their place. A quick search of the base reveals no secret doors into the edifice so the party prepares to assault the one entrance they do know about - the arch at the front of the lion, home of the behir that defeated them last time.

DM Notes: There was a lot of RP and administrative detail in this one and just the one fight at the end. We had some overland travel, a gathering of the remaining party members as we had full attendance this time, working in two new characters, a trip to a new city that will figure prominently in the campaign from here on out, and the unexpected appearance of their current enemy in their own back yard.

The paladin's player prefers fighter type characters, but having played two paladins in this campaign he wanted to change it up slightly. The Slayer is an Essentials class that is very much like an AD&D fighter - high AC, high HP, and deals a bunch of damage in melee. He doesn't have a bunch of flashy powers but he can throw pretty serious hurt out every round. I think he was pretty pleased  with his choice.

Lady Blacksteel was perfectly happy playing a vampire and wanted to continue that. So, she took this as an opportunity to tune up her choices at each level and came up with an even meaner melee striker than she had before. Sure, Drow Vampires are probably fairly rare on the surface, but if you are going to have two then it makes perfect sense that they would be sisters!

Given the rest of the party - two leaders, a ranged striker, and a very solid defender, adding two more melee strikers should turn them into an absolute blender in combat, and down the road this proved to be true.

I let the new characters come in at level 8, the same as the rest of the party. I used to say one level lower but given the way 4E is structured and the way they went out I don't really see a need for a "death penalty" - they hate dying enough as it is. So we had a six character 8th level party ready to roll by about halfway through the session. My reasoning here s that though the characters are the highest level adventurers active in the vale, others might have been drawn here by reports of the invasion activity and that's where Torin came from. Xyla was sent by House Bauer to help Zarra and watch Brindol - when informed of her death Xyla became her house's next top agent on the scene and joined the group - duty and revenge lined up nicely in this case.  

The teleporting lion is absolutely not a part of the original adventure. With the breaking of the phylactery we are way off script as far as the adventure is concerned anyway so I decided to embrace that. I presumed a powerful ritual performed on the night of a lunar eclipse as a plausible enough means of moving the thing. This also eliminated the long distance travel between the vale and the Ghostlord, made him a direct threat to the vale itself, and showed some initiative on his part, instead of being a good monster and waiting for the adventurers to come back and finish him off. It also allowed me to work in some additional history of the knights, the lion thing, and do some more setup for later in the campaign. I think it surprised the players and that's always good too.

Short version: The Lion Knights of Brindol were founded by a former Knight of Argent, a legendary order that faded out long ago. The stone lion was a part of the founding of the successor order and some of that backstory will come out later. Those of you who recognize "Argent" in its 4E context probably know where I'm going but don't spoil it for now.

The lion spirits are all over the Ghostlord lair description so I decided to give them a spotlight moment and give the party something to fight besides dragons and humanoids. With Big Solo Round Two coming up I thought they might enjoy taking on some other opposition first and it would give them a chance to  figure out their roles and tactics in combat prior to that big fight too.  


Hey, I'm a player again - a Pathfinder player this time. One of my players who occasionally DM's has started up a Pathfinder game where he's running the Kingmaker Adventure Path and I am playing in it this time. It's been quite a while since I sat on the other side of the table but I had a lot of fun figuring out what kind of character to make and then even more fun actually playing it. For those interested I am playing a Cavalier in this and I'm going full-on knight when it comes to abilities and attitudes.

The part of "Sir Ivan Zhukov" will be played by Robert Taylor
I won't go into tons of detail - I am not documenting another campaign right now - but I will talk about the campaign in general.

It's obvious from the online activity that it's one of their most popular campaigns, maybe second only to their original Rise of the Runelords, and it's funny to me because Kingmaker's selling point is pretty much what AD&D was about.  The idea at high levels was to carve out a place for your character in the world, recruit some followers, and build a keep/base/tower/lair. The idea back then of being a perpetual dungeon-crawler was certainly around, but it was not the primary goal of most of the people I knew and it was not really what was shown in the books. Somewhere along about 3rd edition that difference in "higher level play" was lost and the standard expectation became 20 levels of dungeon hacking and I'm still not sure why they changed that.

The capabilities of a character in the double digit levels are so much more than loot-grabbing and fighting bigger monsters. What kept fighters and wizards more on par at higher levels in the old days? Well, among other tings was that the fighter often had an army!

Also, as much as people talk about becoming invested in a setting,well, there's not much more "investing" than trying to carve out a realm in said setting. One of the many things Pathfinder has done right is bring back some emphasis on that , first in Kingmaker and then later in Ultimate Campaign.

That's enough for now - I'll have more to say as we get farther into the campaign, but for now it's fun just to roll from the player side for a change.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Motivational Monday

I screwed up the timing so in honor of today's earlier post:

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

Sunday, February 16, 2014

SSoI - Session 16:The One With the Black Dragon

Our Heroes (7th level):
  • Lt. Alex Gravis, Water Genasi Warlord (and Ivan, Owlbear Extraordinaire!)
  • Zarra, Drow Vampire
  • Gartok, Dwarf Earth Warden
  • Izenheim, Dwarf Cleric of Marthammor Duin (gone catatonic!)
  • No-Name, Elf Bow Ranger 
  • Sir Abel Primies, Human Paladin of Torm (spending some "personal time" with one of the elves back at Starsong Hill)
We begin on the roof of the largest building in the ruins of Rhest in the Blackfens of the Elsir Vale. It is Flamerule, 1450 DR.

After defeating the outer guards the party stands around a hole in the roof debating how to proceed. Finally the vampire drops in gracefully as the rest climb down. Seeing nothing but a hole in the floor (explaining the splash sound when the ogre fell in) they advance to the double doors and kick them in - Plan A once again!

They are met by a still dripping ogre and an even bigger humanoid with two heads - an ettin! As the big brute charges in the ogre moves into flank the party. In response the warden takes on the ettin while the vampire lays into the ogre. The warlord and his pet do what they can to assist both while the ranger shoots into the fight from the rooftop.

As this fight continues the noise draws in others from the adjacent rooms. First, a hobgoblin mage of some kind emerges and begins attempting to dominate the party while throwing the occasional bolt of frost. Then a weathered-looking goblin with a fairly elaborate bow, evaluating the scene. He shrieks and points to the hole in the roof as a good-sized hawk flies up and out. The ranger devotes a notable amount of firepower at the bird but is unable to bring it down before it vanishes into the sky.

With the two brutes keeping the team busy in melee and two ranged attackers out of reach, the party has a bit of trouble dealing with the situation. Then the ogre topples over. The vampire jumps into the ettin fight and  it falls over as well. Things are not looking so good for the goblin ranger and the hobgoblin mage as they become the focus of the fight. The hawk returns unexpectedly and the party wonders why - for about 5 seconds. Then with a whoosh a black dragon flies into the room and things change again as it blasts the party with its acid breath.

Annoyed, the vampire finishes off the mage and then leaps onto the dragon. The ranger turns his attention to the wyrm as well while the warlord and warden finish off the bow goblin. The dragon is quite confident he can destroy these interlopers but seeing his allies slain as he arrives is not good. He then finds himself caught in a terrible situation as the warden ties him to the ground with roots and frost, making it difficult to move, and the warlord takes it up a notch, re positioning the party to the dragon's extreme disadvantage. Suddenly surrounded, flanked, marked, and just in multiple bad ways the beast shifts to one objective- escape!

The dragon desperately tries to pull away but Gartok is not letting go, calling out to the spirits of the earth and channeling their power in new, powerful ways. At a distance the ranger keeps the beast under a steady barrage of arrows, many striking home as the wyrm twists and turns and tries to fly off. Even Ivan plays a part, blocking its path and landing the occasional paw swipe. Finally, as the ranger sinks an arrow into one eye the dwarf lays the smack down with a massive hammer strike and Regiarix the Black falls for good.

Then, for spite, Zarra slashes the goblin's hawk out of the air, killing it as well.

After a short rest and the usual looting, the party realizes that the goblin bowman was actually a Wyrmlord - the "Saarvath" mentioned on the map. Realizing they've killed the leader, the dragon, the mage, and the big muscle of the invaders, the group packs up, heads to their boat, and evacuates back to the friendly confines of Starsong Hill.

DM Notes: This was not quite a dynamic a fight as the last one but it went 15 rounds (as it was one continuous fight) and had a sense of escalation through the early part that I thought worked pretty well. 

The massive lockdown capabilities of a motivated warden are quite impressive. Sometimes with another defender in the group neither he nor the paladin have to work too hard to hold things in place. This time there was no paladin and he rose to the occasion and then some. Meanwhile, pushing the gap even wider, the warlord is moving the rest of the party all over the place to ensure they have flanking bonuses on the extra attacks he hands out and to ensure maximum opportunity attacks if the poor dragon does manage to move more than 5' on its turn. The doomed beastie spent the last 5 rounds of the battle just trying to get away and it was never even close to doing so.