D&D Encounters Dark Sun (Week 4)

by Ameron (Derek Myers) on July 1, 2010

Today is Canada Day, a holiday across Canada, which meant that last night’s D&D Encounters Dark Sun had less than usual attendance. After three weeks with 20 or more participants, this week we were down to only 12 (including the two DMs). So with two tables of five, we returned to Athas.

Before we started the encounter itself, Jarvix performed a Comrades’ Succor ritual. This allowed the PCs to redistribute their remaining healing surges. So going into the encounter for week 4 everyone had full (or nearly full) hit points and at least one healing surge at their disposal during the combat. I want to thank the other DM running D&D Encounters for pointing out this ritual and explaining how to use it. Having never played an arcane character with Ritual Casting I had no idea. It made a huge difference.

The encounter began with the skill checks towards the ongoing skill challenge. My intent was to provide the players with the skill cards I created earlier in the week, however I left them sitting in my printer and didn’t realize it until I got to my FLGS. Well, hopefully some of you found these cards useful. I will certainly use them next week. As it turned out, all of the players at my table were fairly experienced 4e D&D players so they didn’t need the skill cards to know what other abilities their PCs were capable of doing (or attempting). Had my table been filled with newer players like it was last week, then the skill cards would have been a huge help.

After the skill checks were finished, the PCs came across a lone Dwarf named Ralo in the desert. He parleyed with the party and explained who he was and what he was doing in the desert alone. But before he could provide any other details the party was attacked by a Poisonscale Magus and three dust devils.

The monsters focused their initial attacks on Ralo. He was brought below 0 hit points and slid into the slit pool to suffocate to death by the end of the first round. The PCs ignored the plight of their new friend and engaged the enemies in combat.

The Magus managed to inflict a lot of damage to the bunched-up party with his burst 3 attack. Shikirr and Castri engaged the Magus in melee. By the second round, the Magus had only 4 hit points remaining and was pinned against a rocky outcropping. He desperately tried to use a ranged attack against the now poison-vulnerable PCs, but Castri rolled a 20 and soundly connected with his opportunity attack from the adjacent square.

Meanwhile the dust devils all managed to get multiple PCs in their close burst 3 attack inflicting 3d6+3 damage each. My d20 wasn’t as hot this week as it’s been, but my damage dice were on fire. When rolling the 3d6+3 for the dust devils damage I rolled 4, 5, 6 +3 = 18; 4, 6, 6 +3 =19; 5, 6, 6 +3 = 20. The PCs didn’t stand a chance. Or so I thought.

It’s refreshing to see players play smart and realize that they can do more than fight on their turn. Jarvix and Castri were both unconscious. When Phye’s turn came around she wasn’t close enough to engage any of the enemies in melee. So she did what a leader is beast at – healing. She used her Ardent Surge healing power as a minor action to bring Jarvix back to consciousness. Then, as a standard action, she made a successful Heal check on Castri who was unconscious in the adjacent square allowing him to use his second wind. Two comrades who were unconscious were now awake and were able to attack on their respective turns instead of just rolling another death save and hoping for a 20.

Smart combat tactics also made all the difference this week. The PCs worked together to focus fire on the Magus first. After he was down they all worked together on a single dust devil before engaging any of the others. Shikirr, the defender, marked the dust devil most likely to attack the weaker and vulnerable PCs. Had my damage dice not been red hot, this encounter would have ended after two rounds rather than the four it ended up taking.

Of the four encounters I’ve run in D&D Encounter season two so far, this week’s was the most fun (for me). It seemed appropriately balanced. The players finally have a good sense of what the pre-generated characters can do. They’ve seen what the party as a whole is good at and what it’s not so good at. They realize which characters should be engaging in melee and which ones should be diving for cover.

My only real complaint about this week’s encounter is that the monsters seem to do a lot of damage. And this is not just this week, but every week. I don’t think it’s right when the monsters can deal up to 21 damage in a single attack. Especially when that’s only one or two points less than Barcan, Jarvix and Castri’s maximum hit points (22, 22 and 23 respectively). I realize that this attack should deal about 12 points on average, but some poor players – like the guys at my table – will end up on the wrong side of that average and take a real pounding.

Next week is the final encounter of chapter one. The PCs will get an extended rest and level up at the conclusion of next week’s encounter. Only Shikirr, Yuka and Phye are going into the final battle with healing surges (one a piece). None of the PCs are at maximum hit points, although most are pretty close and no one is bloodied.

Visit the Dungeon’s Master D&D Encounters Archive for all of our ongoing weekly coverage as well as other great D&D Encounters articles and resources.

How did you manage this week? Did the Magus manage to survive longer at your table and really do some damage? Were my players the only ones who just let Ralo die during the combat? How many of your party members do you expect will survive the next encounter?

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1 Sunyaku July 1, 2010 at 9:46 am

Since I’m still new to DnD, I went to my local game shop last night to observe this encounter. There were four tables. The two I started watching focused initially on the dust devils that rushed them– the DMs were initially missing with the Poisonscale’s attack. After a few rounds of getting roughed up by dust devils and/or pushed into silt, both tables went after the Poisonscale Mage mid battle. Several players were knocked unconscious at both tables during the fight.

After about a 45 minutes of watching the first two tables, I went over to see how the others were doing. They were packing up. Nearly everyone died. One of the remaining DMs explained to me that the Poisonscale Mage demanded the players surrender the dwarf (which of course they didn’t) and then BOOM! Players drop. “Do you surrender?” BOOM!. Players drop. “Do you surrender??” And at this point the response from the only player who wasn’t unconscious was “Yes”. And that’s how their game ended.

I went back to the other two tables. I stayed the entire time, and I suspect the tables that survived were really going easy on the players, and the tables that died were games that were run by more experienced DMs with shall we say… “higher standards”. I may not be quite up to speed with DnD, but I’ve played other turn based miniature games of similar styles, and I felt like the DMs at these tables were taking it easy on the players. So with some decent damage rolls the players at both of the “easy” tables managed to survive the encounter with no one dying.

2 Yuka July 1, 2010 at 9:49 am

The group I played in ended up winning as well, though we were all somewhat surprised at that. The dust bunnies won the initiative so they were able to attack us all three times before we had a chance to do much of anything. (Well, Barqan teleported two when the first attack missed him, but he didn’t get out of range).

So before we could do anything, Rolo was kaput, Phye was unconcious, and most of the rest of us were bloodied or nearly bloodied and blind for a round.

After that, we began to do more damage to the dust bunnies than we were taking, ignoring the Magus for a moment. (Our DM, thankfully, had him take a defensive turn for his first round.) We all took an attack and our action point and either healed ourselves or made a second attack.

Our only mistake, probably, was not having someone try to help Phye immediately. But when Castri got around to it, after Phye had failed two death saving throws, he rolled just enough to heal Phye. And luckily Phye was up just before two other PCs fell unconscious.

A round or two later, and the Dust Devils and the Magus were finished off, while we were all in horrible shape (two of us had exactly 1 hitpoint remaining) but alive.

3 Chris July 1, 2010 at 10:07 am

I had some problems with this encounter, as I have with the entire season, of which I’m so far disapointed with the overall quality.

Our Rilo ended up surviving, which is what I believe granted all members of the Veiled Alliance, Barcan and Jarvix, a magic item that granted them +1 to bluff and a daily item power that could trigger when an arcane power was used. Jarvix is a Psion, so this item is near worthless to him. And there should be no excuse for items that don’t fit the characters, since the characters were created by the same people who made the adventure. Same with the +1 spear. None of the characters use a spear (longspear is a different weapon).

That point carries over into my next criticism of the encounter. At the start of the encounter our party was placed in a 3×2 starting area. The monsters got a suprise round, which a character could participate in by having a passive perception of 20; which none of the pregens do, so it was pointless to even bring up. This meant that everyone but the Battlemind (due to Speed of Thought), got hit by a suprise round AoE by the magus, doing massive damage, and then we were all knocked prone. By the end of round 1 Jarvix and Barcan were making death saving throws.

We survived by the skin of our teeth, but going into encounter 5 we have a collective 3 healing surges, we’re all at 3/4 HP, 1 colective daily power, and everyone has a new AP. I’m honestly supprised that WotC gave Jarvix Comrades’ Succor, since it’s an obscure, but powerful, ritual from the Vistani article in Dragon. It’s also the only thing that has kept us alive, since 2 characters were out of surges before encounter 4 started.

The problem of running desperatly low on resources (not Survival Days though, we have tons of those), could have been alliviated in two ways. Shorten the chapters to 4 encounters, which is what I aim for when I have my DM hat on (LFR are all 3), or improving the characters overall. We only have 5 players so none of us have touched the ranger with a 10′ pole, Barcan’s defenses could be surpassed by a small child, Yuka’s daily power is so laughable that the player sighed when he used it (and then was knocked under a turn later, so lost it), and our Battlemind has the Cha based class feature but his 2nd highest stat is Wis.

4 Chris July 1, 2010 at 10:28 am

If you’re new to D&D I highly recommend learning with some of the low level Dungeon Delves (great book), Living Forgotten Realms, or Keep on the Shadowfell (available for free download http://www.wizards.com/dnd/files/h1.pdf)

Regarding the tables “going easy” or having “higher expectations,” I’m all for a DM pulling their punches when it’s necessary for the plot, but most of the time I’m a, “let the dice fall where they may” kind of guy, especially when WotC has provided the adventure (as opposed to me crafting it) and I expect it to have been playtested and balanced, especially considering their goal of bringing in new players. Did they really want to bring in people new to D&D and then crush them under Athas’s boot heel?

5 Grimjackal July 1, 2010 at 10:35 am

We got slaughtered this week. The team was low on surges across the board. Not that it would have mattered. No one made the initial perception check. The dwarf died with a crit on the first attack. The team was mostly bloodied and down in the surprise round when the 3 dust devils closed in on 3 sides with their aoe attacks. Everyone was down but the ardent at the end of round 1. Our ardent got 3 players on their feet again with an ardent surge, a heal check, and an action point – energizing strike. But most of us had rolled low on initiative, and only Castri and the sorcerer were still up at the end of round 2. Everyone dead by the end of round 3. I think the only thing 4 of the 6 players did was make death saves this week.

Total session was over in about 30 minutes. One player was new tonight, (the sorcerer) and he was able to get 1 attack off before death. Afterward, we chatted and he stated that if Encounters is supposed to get him interested in Dark Sun, it’s having the opposite effect. Another player echoed his concerns. Some of us chimed in saying that Dark Sun historically is very difficult and unforgiving.

Interestingly, the other 2 tables fared much better. We found out later that the DMs had decided to do away with the initial surprise rounds, and let the dwarf assist the party. Thus, those 2 tables received their encounter rewards, while ours did not.

The DM was not out to get us. His dice were hot. He excluded unconscious players in AOE’s. He didn’t concentrate fire on individuals (with the exception of the initial AOE volleys).

On a humorous note, the battlemind afterwards joked that the best use of his fleet foot ability (or whatever it’s called), to move 5 squares during initiative rolls, would be to get a head start running away 🙂

6 Jason July 1, 2010 at 12:05 pm

The surprise round plus the really high monster initiatives almost killed the party outright. The first dust devil to burst killed the dwarf and bloodied almost the entire party. The first one to try to knock everyone down did. The first round was a bloody mess.

They recovered though so I gave them their veiled mystery thing.

Easily the roughest encounter for my usual table. Easily could have TPK’d in round 1.

7 Jedrious July 1, 2010 at 12:24 pm

One word describes this encounter, OUCH! 3 level 3 skirmishers with a speed of 8, an initiative bonus of 7, an encounter power of close burst 3 that deals 3d6+3 damage, hits half of the party on a 4, oh and they automatically get a surprise round… This session was a tpk with a detonator. Five o’clock session had 4 of the 6 party members making death saves for their first action, the other two, well you don’t make death saves at -bloodied.

7 o’clock session (me as Dm) saw 1 out of 7 make a death save on his first turn, the other 6 were -bloodied, after Shikkirr’s turn the magus dropped his area burst 3 to finish off everything.

To quote Rich Baker (our guest last week, we are the “Pimp Your Store” winners), “I’m going home to tell them that this thing’s too hard!”

8 c4st3r July 1, 2010 at 12:57 pm

All 6 pcs died in the surpise round. Encounter over.

9 OnlineDM July 1, 2010 at 1:03 pm

I haven’t been able to play D&D Encounters at my local store due to schedule conflicts, so I don’t know all the ins and outs of the process. What are the consequences if players die? Are they then done for future encounters? From what I’m reading that doesn’t seem to be the case, but what IS the outcome?

10 Thorynn July 1, 2010 at 1:12 pm

Yeah, we’ve pretty much given up. The guys I started Dark Sun with have formed our own LFR group to continue are characters from undermountain. I think Athas, with this adventure at least, is a bust.

11 Anarkeith July 1, 2010 at 1:34 pm

I DM’d this encounter at an FLGS, and did away with the surprise round. My players took out the Magus, like yours did. They suffered a bit for this as the drive-by shooting movement power of the dust devils dropped them, and I promptly hammered them with the encounter power. The Ardent Phye smartly didn’t bother to stand, but instead crawled about healing party members.

When the magus fell, I decided to randomize the devils movement (as if they were now unguided.) One wandered off the board and out of combat. The depleted party finished off the others.

Most of the PCs are out of surges, but none are bloodied. They’re feeling the stress of Athas, so I feel I did my job. Make them work for it, but give them opportunities to survive.

12 david schwarm July 1, 2010 at 5:59 pm

> Jarvix and Castri were both unconscious
I was not!

I was dying, there is a very important difference! Bloodied during surprise round, drinking dirt before my first roll…Thanks, David S.

13 Sunyaku July 1, 2010 at 7:11 pm

@Chris “Did they really want to bring in people new to D&D and then crush them under Athas’s boot heel?”

From only this one observation, in my ignorance I’d have to say “yes” to the question you posed. It seemed fairly clear that if the DMs played the monsters in an even moderately intelligent fashion, the encounter was virtually unwinnable (assuming the DMs also had average dice rolls).

Fortunately, I’m the kind of “new player” who gets bored succeeding all the time, and I thrive on tough challenges, so I’m excited to get into next week’s encounter. 😀

14 Chris July 1, 2010 at 7:31 pm

I’m all for challenges, I just don’t find it fair to create both a difficult encounter and hobble the players by restricting them to poorly constructed pregens. You could make a simpler and more efficient character using just the PHB1.

15 Liam Gallagher July 1, 2010 at 11:34 pm

I keep being killed. I’m playing Barcan, and after taking one hit in the first round of this past encounter I spent the rest of the encounter bloodied because I was out of hitpoints.

I’m finding this Athas place pretty brutal. You really have to have a wanton hunger for punishment to play a full campaign in this setting. I don’t know how the rest of the campaign is going to unfold, but I have a pretty good guess…

16 Monty Martin July 2, 2010 at 12:59 am

I want to bring the discussion back to the characters for a moment, and mention a few general problems with the power creep for 4e — and how Encounters magnifies it.

Power creep is inevitable. With 4e, WoTC has been really following trends in Character Optimization and powergaming, and has taken steps to shut down some of the more abusive power-combos. This is a good thing.

Regardless, there are powers, feats, and classes that didn’t exist before, and those always increase power. All PCs are more accurate thanks Versatile Expertise (a feat that so mandatory, that DMs should strongly consider giving it out for free). They have higher defenses. They hit harder, more often, and have better recovering tools and healing.

However, at the same time, Wizards has steadily increased the power of monsters, too. Monster Manual 3 is a clear indication of this: monsters have more hit points, they hit harder, they have more interesting (and more devastating) powers, their defenses are more balanced (thankfully), and many now have ways to slip out of nasty status conditions.

The problem now is when you have a group that doesn’t optimize, at least casually. Players that didn’t start with an 18 or 20 in their main stat and didn’t take Versatile Expertise can have an attack bonus 3 points lower at heroic tier and upwards of 8 points lower at epic compared to an optimized counterpart! A well-built striker can easily pull 20 points of damage per round at heroic, 40 at paragon, and 60 at epic (these are considered baseline) and yet it’s possible to build a striker that simply can’t keep up with this.

And this is the problem with Dark Sun encounters. The characters are suboptimal. In an effort to present “interesting characters” and show off some new things from PHB3, Wizards has doomed groups to an excruciating experience. Yet no one has tipped up on any of the interesting things about these characters that are based in their suboptimal stats. the roleplaying that gets recognized is Phye and Barqan’s status as siblings, or his low Wisdom, or the character backstories. Castri would play exactly the same, but be way better, if he wasn’t using flint daggers and had brought along a big heavy pair of bastard swords and taken Jaws of the Wolf and off-hand strike instead of the useless (and frankly, uninteresting) marauder powers. The only character that is somewhat respectable is Jarvix, but why doesn’t he sport one of those fancy PHB3 superior implements? Any of these characters could be tweaked into overdrive and the play experience would be greatly improved.

17 Ameron July 2, 2010 at 11:23 am

@Sunyaku, Yuka, Chris, Grimjackal, Jedrious, c4st3r, Anarkeith, Liam Gallagher
Thanks for sharing your week 4 experiences.

I opted to have the monsters focus all their attacks on Ralo during the surprise round. It was sure to knock him out, but it didn’t make things unnecessarily more difficulty for the PCs.

I think this season of D&D Encounters is extremely tough and although I’m sure it’s bringing new players to the table, I don’t think it’s going to keep them there (unfortunately).

The players working Shikirr at my table have all been pretty bloodthirsty. So fleeing has never been an option. We’ll see if things change next week.

I wonder how difficult this encounter would seem if it came during week 1 when the PCs were all at 100%. Still tough, I’ll grant you that, but would we still consider it too tough?

If the good folks at Wizards are listening to us and reading the blogs and forums, perhaps they’ll try and make things more balanced for chapters 2 and 3. Although at this stage I assume chapter 2 is locked down and in the mail. Maybe they’ll take pity on the poor PCs and throw them a few more useful magic items.

There’s supposed to be a death penalty imposed on PCs who are outright killed. But given the initial difficulty of the encounters, I’m not going to impose it if any of my PCs die.

I’m really tempted to just run all 5 encounters for chapter 2 in one marathon session. Then use the other 4 weeks to play LFR adventures. I think the players will get a lot more out of it.

I thought about having one or more of the dust devils wander off, but I know that when I’m a player I hate monster that run away, regardless of how badly outmatched I may be. Since none of my guys died, I think playing it out worked. Although as I mentioned above, none of the PCs were attacked during the surprise round. I had the monsters focus on Ralo. That sucked for Ralo but really helped the PCs.

@david schwarm
Unconscious/dying, both conditions mean you can’t fight on your turn. In either case it all worked out in the end. I can’t be expected to remember all the little details exactly as they happened.

@Liam Gallagher
You didn’t mention if the death and difficulty are influencing your decisions to keep playing.

@Monty Martin
D&D Encounters is really just an extended dungeon delve and should be handled as one. Wizards tried to make the characters interesting with good role-playing hooks, when they should have focused on making them more battle hardened. At least the ongoing skill challenge gives the players a good chance to role-play every week before their characters get crushed.

18 Wally July 2, 2010 at 11:24 am

Session 3 was my first experience with the entire D&D encounters thing. I have been DMing 4E for about a month and wanted to do this to make myself a better DM. I played Castri and had a good time with the maurader abilities and moving around. The three sprays from the dust devils was just plain brutal. Our die were really not hot at all but we did manage to make through the encounter and our dwarf died.

I could see for a completly new player this would have the opposite affect of wanting to bring them in a bit. Because new players have this thing that the first one should be easy or free. I see this a lot with demo games of miniature and card games.

I had fun and am realizing I am getting my rules correct in my home game. So, I feel I will be a better DM out of this entire experience. Is it rough yes? Had our dice worked I think things would of been quite different minus I do not think we could of saved the dwarf. I think 3 sprays at 3d6+3 just whacked that guy. I have no idea what he had but he did nothing for us.

19 Lahrs July 4, 2010 at 10:45 am

We ran two tables during Season 1, but had enough new people starting Season 2 that we had to quickly reorganize to run three tables, which I find to be incredibly awesome. Unfortunately, out of four newbies (meaning completely new to D&D or haven’t played in many years), only one continues to play, and we lost a one of our veterans due to a move (happens in a college town), and we are back down to two tables.

I had a week off from gaming due to a funeral, and someone else DM’d session 3. The new DM is a guy who doesn’t pull any punches, which I have no problem with. In week three, being low on HP and resources to begin with, he annihilated the party. I was back last week, and I do pull punches to an extent, but we still had a TPK in round two, so we started over, and all went down again except Phye, so at least the encounter was completed. And no, I didn’t pull any extra punches the second time around, the group just had better luck and tactics since they knew what was going to happen.

We plan on continuing, and decided to play at least until session 6 to make a decision, but at this point, nobody is having fun and we are afraid to lose any more people. I am hoping when the new college semester starts in August we can be back to three tables, and Season 3 should be coming out about that time.

The DM for the second table and I decided that if the new set of pre-gens come out and are still flawed, we will allow the players to modify and optimize the characters. Powers and weapons will stay the same, but they can optimize their stats, which should help some.

I think Ameron summed up our feelings though when we mentioned running one marathon session to cover chapters 6 – 10, which I assume means get it out of the way so they can enjoy the next month in a new LFR adventure.

20 Carlo July 29, 2010 at 2:07 pm

Quick question. I happened to be playing this and the smart move is to know the book that the dungeon master is using. Through this site, I have some insight and the Dungeon Master ignores what I’m afraid he’s not supposed to. Next week we’ll be entering week 5 and I have a feeling he 1) doesn’t know about the leveling thing and will leave us unleveled for week 6 2) won’t even let us know about the check for the Ankeg and 3) just plain isn’t playing this realistically. Other players tell me “How do you know” and the thing is, unless we’re in costumes, it’s a game people. So what do i do?

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