This week’s game was a little different – normally, we play at Imagine Games on Sunday evenings after the store closes at 5:00. However, this week Pedro (the owner and one of my players) was unavailable, so we decided to play at my place, and to start a little earlier. This meant we were able to jam in three pretty action-packed encounters.
After everyone got settled, we picked up where we had left off last time: just outside (with a few just inside) the entry to the crashed Bael Turath floating watchtower full of goblins. One of the sentries up on the canyon walls had escaped the slaughter, so the party knew they were on a clock. Instead of just bulling on through the main entry most of the goblins had used, they decided to climb the canyon walls and try to find where the scarpered sniper had run to, assuming that there was a less obvious entry up there.
I hadn’t prepared anything for that, but it was easy enough to let them try and climb the cliff wall* and then scout the area up top for a back door. Of course, there was one – an narrow tunnel obscured by gooseberry bushes, and trapped with a collapsing ceiling**.Â Getting past these obstacles let them come in on the goblins from behind***.
So, instead of walking into the killing ground of the ambush the goblins had set up, they popped out of the door at the other end of the room, twenty empty feet away from the chieftain and his entourage, with a surprise round working for them instead of against them.
The poor chieftain was dead before his first turn.
The sharpshooters gave the gang some problems, and the skullcleaver ability to do double damage when bloodied came as a nasty surprise, but the real goblin hero of the fight was a minion who was obviously looking for promotion. With some good luck and goblin tactics, he got up behind the party, and managed to bull-rush the cleric right off the ten-foot-high platform****.
Despite the little guy’s best efforts, all the goblins died. I have decided that he has pleased Bane, and will be reincarnated as a warrior or blackblade.
So, after killing the goblins and looting their stuff, they set off deeper into the tower to get to the bottom of the whole goblin-halfling-black dragon coalition they’ve seen developing.
I’ve started doing something kind of different with dungeons in this campaign. In our last campaign, pretty much everything was an extended dungeon crawl, with people trying to remember where they’ve been, figure out where they need to go next, and decide which branch to take at every intersection*****. While this gave a bit of the feel of exploring ancient ruins and confusing, twisting caverns, what it mostly did was eat up time with decisions that had minimal impact on actual play. About the biggest result making decisions in a fully mapped dungeon has is determining the order of the encounters for the party.
So, I don’t map out my dungeons anymore. Or when I do, it’s a very loose, relational map, showing a branching tree or web of the encounters, rather than the one-square-equals-five-feet precision of graph paper. I provide the colour and choice through description and offering decision points pretty much whenever I feel like it.
So far, this is working pretty well, though really this is only the second dungeon they’ve explored in the campaign. Part of the reason it works, I think, is that I got sick of dungeon crawls, so I’m making all the dungeons much smaller in this campaign – this one is about five encounters in total, and that’s the same size as the previous dungeon. Another reason it works is the ease with which the 4E rules support improvisation to fill in details if the players go a different way than intended, as noted with the above follow-the-sentry episode.
But there are two main reasons it works well: one, I can concentrate on atmospheric description to help make the locale come alive instead of focusing on making sure I’ve told them about all the branching corridors, and two, the players are as sick of extended dungeon crawls as I am.
So, they proceeded deeper into the tower, going down to the area that used to be the baths****** for the tower garrison. Now, the goblins use it as their garbage dump. This was my excuse to use a couple of monsters I’ve always liked but never really had the right opportunity to put into an adventure.
Carrion crawlers and otyughs.
Why baths? Because I wanted the whole thing to feel like the trash compacter scene from Star Wars, with the otyughs reaching out of the slimed-over, filthy bathing pools to snag people with their tentacles when they were distracted by the carrion crawlers.
Now, two otyughs and a carrion crawler are a levelÂ 3 encounter forÂ 6 characters, butÂ they’re all level 7 creatures. While I think that one creatureÂ of a level that much higherÂ than the party is fine to throw in a mix of creatures of lower level as a sort of boss monster, havingÂ all of the creaturesÂ 4 levels higher than the party is a bit much. I looked at the math, and saw that, on average, the party would miss all the creatures and be hit by all the attacks. That seemed skewed tooÂ badly for an encounter meant to be the same level as the party.
I decided to drop theÂ level ofÂ all the creatures to 3rd, which halved the experience for each one. That meant that I could actually double the number of creatures in the encounterÂ to bring it up to a level 3 encounter again.Â So, more monsters, same level, easier fight.Â The lesson here is that, like 3E’s EL system, theÂ level doesn’t tell you everything about the encounter. You’ve got to look at the monsters themselves.
Anyway, I described the lower-level crawlers and otyughs as somewhat stunted and sickly, withÂ weird mottling on them. This,Â in addition to justifying theÂ lower level of the monsters, has got the party wondering about whatÂ might have caused it. They didn’t spend too much time thinking about this, though, because the carrion crawlers were attacking. AndÂ Â then the hidden otyughs startedÂ hauling people into slimy garbage pools for a little up-close, personal attention. Three of the party wound up with filth fever, which is going to make the next few days interesting for them.
After theyÂ finished off the creatures and took aÂ quick look around the room, the doors at the far end opened, and an undead tiefling in rusted armour with a corroded sword came into the room and told them to turn back. I stole this monster from H1: Keep on the Shadowfell, using the stats for the undead knight in the tomb that can be convinced to help the characters********. I just changed the name and description. Have I mentioned that I’m greatly in favour of looting other sources for good game bits?
Well, he hit like a dump truck, had a ton of hit points, and wasn’t bothered by the slippery, slime-covered floors. He actually came close to taking out the mega-tank dwarf at a couple of points. He was a different enough threat that the party changed tactics, working to lock him down in a four-way flank, rather than their usual tactics of using their mobility and ability to move the monsters. I think they were worried a couple of times during the fight.
Of course, they won, and now are even more curious about what’s deeper in the tower. That’s for next session.
As an aside, one of the characters made a comment about how the account of the game in this blog differs from the short recap I post on the game’s forum for the players. In particular, he mentioned that, in the forum, I don’t refer to the players as whiny babies*********.
But the main difference is that, on the forum, I provide an account of in-game events. Here, I discuss the game session as a whole, looking at my prep, my expectations, in-game and out-of-game influences, and other stuff.
It’s also the reason that this post is closing in on 1700 words, and the forum is gonna get maybe 300.
Anyway. Hope that clears that up.
*Couple of minor mishaps, and one character wound up taking some falling damage, but they made it up.
**Off-the-cuff trap, with a simple Thievery check to bypass. The list 0f standard DCs by level in the DMG and DM’s Screen makes this sort of quick-and-dirty improvisation pretty easy.
***As a general point of game philosophy, I like to reward my players for coming up with interesting plans and executing them.Â Reward doesn’t necessarily mean that they get what they wanted, or get a bonus, but something interesting happens. Basically, I ask myself what would be cool to have happen in regards to their plan – both succeed and fail – and then do that. I tell myself it encourages creative play, and maybe it does. It certainly helps me be more creative and puts more interesting stuff into the game.
****I used a battle map from H3: Pyramid of Shadows for this fight. I don’t remember what the room is called in the adventure, but it’s the large rectangular one with the balconies made of bone. I thought it worked for a goblin lair. I’m a big fan of scavenging anything that looks interesting from other products.
*****No, none of them bother mapping.
******None of the players asked about the hotsprings I described there in relation to the whole floating tower thing. How could there be natural hotsprings feeding the baths in a chunk of rock that used to float 200 feet in the air? It was a little disappointing, because I had actually put some thought into the question*******.
*******Of course, I’m a big geek. You couldn’t figure that out based on the fact that I write a gaming blog? 😉
********I took out the bit about him being willing to help based on a successful skill challenge.
*********I guess I hurt his feelings. 😉