What Makes An Encounter Legendary?

by Wimwick (Neil Ellis) on August 13, 2010

Five hours. One Encounter. A near total party kill. Three characters only one strike away from death. One character dead.

The DM began the encounter by taunting us. “You’re the ninth party I’ve run this adventure for since GenCon started and so far none of them have survived past the first encounter.” He continued his challenge by saying “This is by far the most difficult encounter I have ever seen in any LFR adventure.”

That did it. The players were committed, hook, line and sinker. We were going to complete this encounter even if it killed us. And it almost did.

The events of that night beg the question, what makes an encounter legendary?

It’s not my habit to dissect specific adventures or encounters and provide a play-by-play. So you can rest easy knowing I’m not going to start now. Instead, I’m going to discuss the experience of playing through an encounter that I can only describe as legendary. This goes beyond the basics of the specific encounter we played, which was the high tier of LFR adventure SPEC2-2, P3 Tyranny’s Perilous Bastion. I issue fair warning to those who attempt the adventure that it is not to be taken lightly.

What sets this encounter apart from any other I’ve played in 4e D&D is that for the first time I honestly felt like my character might die. Until this point I’ve done a fairly good job of staying conscious and avoiding death with all of the characters I’ve played. Not so with this encounter. For the first time since the release of 4e I was sure I was going to die. Worse, I was sure my death wouldn’t be the only one by the end of the adventure. I expected the entire party to die. It wasn’t a question of if we would die, it was a question of when.

Several hours into the encounter the Cleric and Ranger had both fallen unconscious twice. Both regained consciousness by rolling natural 20s on their death saves. Later on, with only three of the six enemies remaining, every character was unconscious except for the Invoker. Most of us had failed two death saves already. Simply put, it wasn’t looking good.

By this point in the encounter every players was carefully watching every die roll. Why? Because every roll mattered. If we were going to have a chance at survival we needed to know what was happening. Everyone was in tune with the events of the table. Even people walking by started taking notice of our game.

With five players down, the Invoker moved away from the combat, hoping for a miracle. What happened next was a lucky streak unlike any I’ve ever seen before. Four players in a row rolled their death saves and the die turned up a 20. The Invoker, seeing what happened, drew the enemies from us and then the Cleric rolled his death save. No change. It could have been much worse because he already had two strikes. Fortunately, in my hand was a potion of vitality I hadn’t used yet and I was able to administer it to the Cleric.

With everyone awake now, the Fighter stepped up to do his job as a defender. This allowed the rest of the party to gather around the Cleric while he used his final healing power on all of us. The Fighter paid for our healing with his life. His sacrifice allowed the rest of the party to eventually defeat the encounter.

The encounter stands out in my mind for several reasons. First the intensity that everyone brought to the session. At first we were cocky, but as we soon realized this combat wasn’t going to be a walk in the park everyone brought their “A” game to the table. Ever die roll matter, everyone was in tune with what was occurring.

Ameron and I joined a group of four friends for this adventure. It always amazes me how a common hobby and an intense situation can forge friendships. To Jim, Brock, Steve and Chris from the Toledo area, thanks for a great session. We enjoyed playing with you four immensely and the session will live long in our memories. I should also point out that Steve and Chris are father and son. I didn’t realize this at the time, but I think it’s great that fathers and sons game together.

Finally, I’d be remiss if I didn’t say a word of thanks to our DM for the session – Skip Warren. He ran the encounter like a pro. He didn’t pull punches and ran it every bit as tough as it was intended to be run. At the same time he was fair and ensured that each of us enjoyed the session to the fullest. As a result I’m sure he enjoyed it as much as we did.

No doubt this write up doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of how legendary the encounter was for those playing. Have you had an encounter that will last forever in your memory? What made it so memorable?

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1 rednightmare August 13, 2010 at 3:59 pm

I DMed a encounter in my last session that was +3 levels from the party’s level. they have been steamrolling most things I had thrown at them, so it seemed time to put them in their place.
By the end of the encounter all but the Ranger were unconscious and even the Ranger was at the skin of her teeth.
I had to “help” them out by a few hit points, but all in all I barely held back.
Judging by their reactions they really enjoyed it.
It was also a lot of fun to DM, trying to prevent them from doing a total party kill, but still going all out.
One thing however is for sure. They will finally start working together like a real team from now on 😛

2 warfteiner August 13, 2010 at 5:28 pm

Skip’s a classy fella. Darn good at what he does!

If anyone has him for DDXP or GenCon, be sure to ask him about the artificer, the green dragon, and 6 standard actions. He’ll know what you’re talking about 😉

3 TPK August 14, 2010 at 5:31 am

The first time you thought you were actually gonna die … and even experience a TPK?

It’s been pretty normal to me. Every third encounter I have with my groups (and maybe every tenth encounter I create myself) is very tough. I suffered two TPKs already (one with one group at level 5, one with another group at level 14, and I am pretty sure I am right now in the middle of another one) and surviving situations like that is always awesome.
Not only do you have to watch every roll, but it is also important that you make the right decisions and don’t forget half of your feats and equipment. The tactics just gotta be right (though there are encounters where you can’t do a thing. Not what I like best.). Usually that leads to all people working together well and thinking about every step well and the system can show its strength as well as the team can show its strength. I love it.

4 Brock Jaworski August 18, 2010 at 9:24 pm

Very well put. As a participant in the legendary event, I was wondering how this was going to translate, so gamers could grasp what we ALL felt that fateful night. And you did not disappoint. Thanks very much for taking the time to write about it. We all had a fantastic time. It was our last game at gen con, and certainly the best! Hope to see you next year.

-Brock (Legendary Invoker) HA! jk guys! 😉

5 Dixon Trimline August 19, 2010 at 11:56 am

What a thrilling write-up! I’d love to read more details, if you ever do get down to scripting the entire adventure. My favorite moment has to be the fighter giving up his life so the others could win the day. Man, that’s just about goosebumps material.

6 Wimwick August 19, 2010 at 3:46 pm

@ rednightmare
A tough challenge will do that!

@ warfteiner
That he is, it was a great session that he ran.

Nothing makes a party work better together than a tough encounter, I need/want to play more of them as player I find them very rewarding.

@ Brock
Glad you enjoyed the post. It’s hard to describe a gaming experience in a manner that other people will find interesting. It was out last game as well and as you know, it was a blast.

7 Alkaizer August 20, 2010 at 12:51 am

I actually DMed one legendary encounter.

It was my first time DMing the 4th edition and did a nice mistake that actually made it fun for everyone.

It was a homemade adventure. The party, which was composed of 6 players, had stopped at a monastery to recover from their long days of travel. During the night they would hear some strange sounds coming from the corridor out of their room. They would find out that the entire monastery was, all of a sudden infested with undeads with no apparent reason. In one room, I had filled it with some undeads I don’t remember the name.

My mistake was that, I saw that their attacks had the ‘necrotic’ keyword and in another game I had played that meant they would gain as much life as they did damage. I wasn’t sure, but when in front of the 6 players I felt nervous about hesitating and decided it would be that way unless we find someone that says the opposite.

So actually the party ran in that room and a long 4 hours battle where each movement would be carefully planned by the whole party, where each little bonus mattered, where each ressources was depleted. The group actually had to work like a real party should and had to focus a single monster to take it out. There has been so many pro-climax critical hits on both sides. The fight ended with 5 players unconscious, the last one killed the last monster standing with ongoing damage and he had 2HP left ! I don’t need to tell you all joy errupted when I slowly said “So… the leftovers energies of a previous spells slightly weaken the undead that, all of a sudden, crumble on the ground. Dead”.

Normally when an encounter last that long, I consider I’ve failed as a DM. But that one was so fun and so exciting everyone was hysteric. But at the same time, it required so much concentration that everyone was deeply tired.

8 firedm August 24, 2010 at 9:34 am

I have been struggling to challenge a group of 7 players for several months now. I finally had to throw a couple +3 level elite monsters and +5 level regular baddies at them to compete with their abilities. Finally in the last couple fights we had, I was able to knock a couple unconscious and had them scraping to win… I must be doing something wrong, or maybe too many players. I’ve been playing for 8 years, but this is my first time running. It’s so hard to find that balance, I got mad respect for you DMs out there.

9 Skip September 1, 2010 at 6:24 pm

It’s always difficult to start with people you dont know, sit down – and then tell them you have every intention of killing them.
Even if you don’t put it that way. I have a bit of a reputation – people think I’m out to harvest them, which is fun – but the true good times for me is taking a group to the limit. Getting them in that zone when everything matters. Every roll – every thought, ever small bit of stratagem that could be used to pull out the victory.

It’s like chess, I like to put the pieces in the most difficult spots they can be, to challenge people in specials. Some dont like it, some baulk at sitting down at a table I run. I understand it, because when I walk the line that I do, trying to provide the most difficult encounters possible at high tier specials – people get the wrong idea’s.

I have to admit the table that I ran here, was awesome. You guys took everything I threw at you – you guys went to the mat and came back and fought and it was glorious. I only wish I could have recorded what went down – the moves the anguish. The jaw dropping off the ranger when I took him from full to I think negative forty in my skirmisher non ap round.

It was better then most shows on TnT. It was great times, and I’m really glad you guys had a good time, it’s really been something for me to tell my friends that I had some people who thought that one combat, that one single defining combat was “Legendary”. That made my day and month guys.

Thanks and I hope I get the chance to run you all again, with another special with even more zany monsters.

10 Wimwick September 1, 2010 at 7:19 pm

@ Skip
Thanks for stopping by to leave your thoughts. That encounter still has me thinking about the what ifs and the coulda dones. You did a great job at running the encounter and without your steady, yet deadly hand, it would not have been half as fun. I’m looking forward to another chance to sit at a table with you as DM and to actually complete the adventure, not just a single encounter!

Best regards and thanks again,

11 maverick0023 March 22, 2011 at 2:24 pm

I would say the most memorable encounters I have had were:

1 (as a DM) I ran my 6 PC party of level 7 (in 3.5) through a underground cavern where they eventually found the Vampire Fight Blackguard who was behind all the happenings in town. He was alone and the fight still lasted 3 hours (with everyone taking extremely quick turns) but in the end with the Cleric unconscious the Vampire was able to mist form and escape and became a reoccurring villain for a long time. I know the players were annoyed but Ill be damned if they did not hate him in game and in real life after that fight.

2 (as a DM) In a 9 PC game where the characters were 8th or 9th level (in 3.5) myself and my co-DM ran a HUGE city warfare scenario. A city was under attack by a army of Giants/Orcs/Ogres and I set up the entire living room and part of my kitchen as a grid for the city. We had pringle cans as watch towers and boxes of cookies as inns and of course beer cans made up the Tavern. (no dwarven forge back then) The fact that when the players came over the entire house was the grid made a lot of them know today was gonna be important and the look on their faces totally made all the work of griding out my house worth it. That war session involved skill challenges, skirmishes, long encounters and a final boss fight. 10 hours later and I felt accomplished

3 (as a PC) In a recent Dark Sun game we ran a series of encounters (4 in a row) with 1 tough elite in each and were not allowed a short rest because of a timed trap in the room. The way the combat played out and the slap in the face of, you cant just fully heal really shook up my view of 4e and I doubt I will ever forget it.

All this being said, I scare my players with the lives of their characters all of the time. In 2 years of running a 4e game (about 50 sessions worth) I have had 2 TPKs and 6 individual PC kills. Some times it was a bad player choice, poor group tactics or just lucky rolls on my part, but I think 4e can be a bit deadlier than people think.

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