D&D Encounters: Keep on the Borderlands (Week 7)

by Ameron (Derek Myers) on November 4, 2010

For the first time this season a character was killed, dead-dead. At one point three PCs were making death saves having already wracked up two strikes and staring the third in the face. Our arrogance, over-confidence, and poor tactics resulted in heavy damage and one fatality. The party felt challenged and quickly realized that this wasn’t going to be another cake-walk.

Our party consisted of five PCs. Quinn, Sola, Berrian plus a Dwarven Rogue (basically Merric with a couple of small changes) and a Human Wizard. So we had a balanced party with a defender, leader, striker and two controllers. But in the end balance it wasn’t enough to earn a quick or easy victory.

We began in the room with the forge. Since all of the kobolds from last week’s encounter were killed, the party had no one to interrogate. So we had to head onward and upward with no idea of what was above.

There were two routes – the lift (elevator) and the stairs. We knew from the previous encounter that the lift was very loud when operating, so any attempt at stealth was lost if we choose to use the lift. Only the Rogue had any hope of moving stealthfully so we decided to forgo stealth in favour of good tactics.

We recalled the lift, since one of the kobolds managed to ride it up and escape during the previous encounter. When it reached the floor we placed a few of the dead kobolds on the lift. We then used magic and cleaver placement to make it appear that one of the kobolds was still alive and trying to join his companions upstairs. The Rogue hid beneath the kobold bodies, hoping to surprise whomever we might encounter upstairs.

The Wizard, who only had one healing surge remaining, decided to stay behind and work the lift. The rest of the party Quinn, Sola and Barrian decided to take the stairs. As soon as the Wizard started working the lift controls and it began to rise (and make a lot of noise in the process) the three PCs at the staircase would rush up and charge any enemies they saw at the top. We assumed that a coordinated strike from two points would give us an advantage for at least a round or two. We even had reinforcements as the Wizard would join the fight during the second round. What could possibly go wrong? We were about to find out.

Failing a Perception check, the PCs in the staircase set off a trap that (thankfully) didn’t deal any damage but (regrettably) alerted the monsters in the room above that we were on our way to meet them. The lift reached the top and the PCs emerged from the staircase simultaneously. The monsters were ready and got the drop on us. Two nasty kobolds and a Dragonborn wielding a big axe rushed up to engage us. Quinn was surround and took a good beating early in the combat.

The Rogue managed to gain combat advantage on the Dragonborn and hit him with everything he had. It wasn’t until Quinn scored a solid hit on his turn that the Dragonborn was bloodied. One kobolds moved to engage Berrian and Sola, still at the top of the stairs. The other attacked and hit Quinn. Sola used Sun Burst granting the already wounded party temporary hit points. Unfortunately her attack didn’t connect so the kobold was undamaged.

The monsters moved into flanking positions and attacked Quinn and the Rogue again. Both PCs took serious damage and were bloodied quickly. Meanwhile the Wizard working the lift decided to lower it before he ran towards the stairs. Now everyone had to worry about falling (or being pushed) into the 20-foot elevator shaft.

As the fight really started to take shape, another combatant joined the fray – a small copper dragon. The PCs were kind enough to stay bunched up and in perfect formation for the dragon’s breath weapon. The breath hit everyone but the Rogue. Quinn and Berrian fell unconscious from the damage.

Sola decided to use her Nimbus of Holy Shielding. The close formation that hurt us a minute earlier was now to our advantage. Both kobolds and the Dragonborn were within the area of effect and it dealt enough damage to kill the Dragonborn. All of Sola’s nearby allies gained +2 to all defenses which they sorely needed. She then used Healing Word on the unconscious Berrien (who was coming up next in the initiative) and threw the other 2 hit points of healing to Quinn.

Berrian stood up and used Beguiling Strands to push one of the kobold down the open shaft, the fall doing more than enough damage to kill it. The other Wizard arrived at the top of the stairs and used Magic Missile to take out the other kobold. Now all we had to worry about was the Dragon. No problem. Or so we thought.

What we didn’t realize was that the dragon had almost 100 hit points and so far hadn’t taken any damage at all. On top of that it had the ability to make two attacks against different opponents every round. It moved in and attacked the Rouge with its claw, sliding him into the shaft with the hit and attacked Sola with its bite, dropping her to negative hit points. Fortunately the Rogue was wearing Acrobat Boots and didn’t take any falling damage. He was, however, removed from the combat until he could get back upstairs.

Quinn, with only 2 hit points, stood up and attacked the dragon. That merely angered the dragon so it retaliated with its bite. Natural 20, max damage. The 20 points brought Quinn to -18, a mere 1 point below his negative bloodied value, killing him dead-dead.

Berrian moved behind the door at the top of the stairs for some cover and used Magic Missile against the dragon. It might not have done a lot of damage but it was guaranteed to hit and do some damage every time. The other Wizard moved to Sola and tried to revive her with a heal check. Unfortunately he failed the check.

The Rogue drank a healing potion before bringing the lift up. This ensured that no one else would fall down the shaft. The dragon immediately attacked the Rogue, but didn’t deal enough damage to drop him.

The Wizard decided to use Sleep on the dragon and was successful. The dragon managed to hit the Wizard and the Rogue (dropping him this time) before failing its second save and falling asleep. The Rogue managed to roll a 20 on his death save and woke up without any assistance, magical or otherwise.

The Wizard successfully revived Sola. The DM was kind enough to say that Quinn could be revived from unconsciousness even though he was technically dead-dead, so Sola used Healing Word and brought him back to life, throwing the other 2 points of healing onto the Wizard (who was injured and only had 1 healing surge left).

The dragon was only asleep for one round but we managed to hit it hard and often. When it awoke things got ugly. Sola was immediately hit and knocked unconscious, as was the Quinn. Quinn eventually failed three death saves and was dead-dead for the second time this encounter. Sola was at two strikes for a couple of rounds before the Wizard made a successful heal check (again). The Rogue managed to bring the dragon down to only 5 hit points when it decided to surrender. The PCs begrudgingly agreed. After all we needed answers and the dragon was the only creature we hadn’t killed yet.

It spilled its guts and told us everything, including Ronnick’s involvement, the plan to kill Benwick in the swamp as well as where to find a lot of cool magical swag in this chamber.

It was a tough fight that took almost two hours to play and had three of the five PCs dead or one strike away from death. I think it was balanced and as we discovered a suitable challenge for this party. Better cooperation and stronger tactics could have seen things play out very differently. Another striker wouldn’t have hurt either.

I noticed that during this week’s game some of the players, me included, tried to play someone else’s character. I know that I’m bad for this. I often “suggest” a course of action for other players on their turn. Of course, if I realize that I’m doing this too much I try to sit down, shut up, and wait patiently for my turn. But sometimes, like tonight, I do it a lot. It’s not until afterward that I realize just how annoying it can be for the guy on the receiving end of these helpful suggestions.

Now if someone is new to D&D and needs help then that’s whole other situation. In these cases I only help if asked and even then I try to present more than one option, letting the other player run his own character. Likewise if someone doesn’t know a rule or isn’t sure what to do. But tonight a couple of us spent a lot of time telling other players what to do with their character on their turn. I want to apologize to those players for assuming that I knew how to play their character better than they did.

I think this serves as a good reminder to everyone that you have your own character and shouldn’t try to play someone else’s. If you have a suggestion for them, make sure you do it in character. Telling the guy next to you that he should use this power or that power isn’t cool (unless he asks for your input). If you want to make a coordinated strike and need your ally to delay or move to a certain spot, then do it in character. Don’t just tell them to hold their action or move where you want them to.

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 week 7 play out for your group? Did you think the encounter was too hard for a level 1 party? Did any other parties experience fatalities?

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{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

1 David W November 4, 2010 at 1:58 pm

Great post yet again Ameron :)

This week was pretty brutal for our group as well. We had a paladin, a ranger, a wizard, a rogue and a cleric, which is a much better balance than our previous weeks.

Last week our wizard inadvertantly killed off Merrica (the female version of Merric apparently) with a ‘Burning Hands’ spell that hit more than they expected. This week, the person who played Merrica showed up with Merrico (Merrica’s older brother) who was there to seek vengeance for his sister’s death. It was fun, as there’s not much roleplaying in Encounters, so adding a bit of flare kept us all highly entertained.

Roleplaying aside, the dragon was a lot more brutal than I thought it would be. After knocking our ranger and paladin unconcious, our wizard (in a desperate attempt to harm the dragon) used his daily at point blank range and ended up emulating himself in the process. This killed him outright (the first inadvertant player suicide I’ve encountered since Tomb of Horrors…) while barely scratching the dragon. Merrico cheered in triumph over the death of the dastardy wizard, while the dragon (in my attempt to give the party a whee bit of time to recollect themselves) feasted on the wizard’s corpse for a round.

The cleric was able to revive the paladin and the ranger, and Merrico scored some solid sneak attacks during the process. After awhile, the dragon finally asked for leniancy. After begrudgingly meta’ing out whether or not they should attempt to kill it, the party decided to let the dragon live and hear what it had to say.

Overall, another fun, if crazy, week.

2 OnlineDM November 4, 2010 at 2:43 pm

Excellent suggestion about saying that giving suggestions to other players about what to do can only be done in-character. I’ve been guilty of doing it myself, and I like this as a solution.

I’m going to try this for the games that I DM this weekend.

3 CRS November 5, 2010 at 9:58 am

Wow, funny you brought this up. We had two new players in our group last week, and the veterans of our group are *terrible* about telling them what to do. It’s incredibly frustrating for the new players when they want to immerse and every action they take is overridden by the player next to them. At the same time, the veterans are frustrated at not getting full use of their powers that rely on ally cooperation.

The new players are so limited in their understanding of the mechanics that they make decisions the character never would, and the veterans have tactical wisdom far beyond that of a level 1 character.

I ended up enacting the same rule you mention: All battle strategy must be discussed in character. At first the veterans hated me for it. I had to take away a few surges before they took me seriously. Once they gave in though, *everybody* had a lot more fun. The more experienced a player, the stricter I was about remaining in character. Eventually one of my players who is least interested in role playing willingly made some suboptimal attacks, which he then violently defended, saying his character wouldn’t have known about the monster’s vulnerabilities.

This simple house rule kept the focus of the game on role playing, even during battle. What we discovered is that even as many in our group have gotten very good at the game, we have also gotten better at the role playing. When we have new players, it is better to actively encourage their becoming great role players than great gamers. Being new to D&D should feel more like taking acting lessons than taking chess lessons.

I’m interested to know if you have other ideas about when to insist that the players stay in character and when to allow them some slack.

4 Sunyaku November 11, 2010 at 12:58 am

As GM of this encounter, I easily could have TPK’d the party, but I chose to give them a glimmer of hope, which they managed to capitalize on.

First, the party deliberated for some time about whether to take the stairs or use the lift. I told them that the lift had a chain winch, and the spiral stairs seemed dustier than they should be. The party decided to send one of the two rogues ahead to scout– and he rolled high enough to sneak up to the door at the top of the stairs without triggering the alarm. The second rogue did not. The alarm went off, and no one was surprised. The foes waited patiently for the PCs to enter.

Moxy the dragon had the highest initiative, but I had her delay until all of the PCs entered the room. I should not at this time my table had 7 PCs– 6 of which are skilled veterans. Because of this, every encounter is scaled up. For this encounter, there were 4 dragonshields, 2 dragonborn, and Moxy the dragon (2 extra shields and 1 extra dragonborn). The party entered, and for reasons unknown to me, bunched up. At the end of initiative order, Moxy entered and dragonbreathed EVERYONE, hitting a little better than half of the party (but misses still did damage of course). The party took out a couple dragonshields, but then started focussing fire on Moxy. Bad idea. Dragonbreath rechared, and a dazed Moxy dropped half the party. The remained two dragonborn and one of the remaining dragonshields were hardly damaged at all.

At this point, it was clear that this fight had huge potential to become a TPK. I paused for a minute, and decided to use Moxy’s action point to provoke an opportunity attack and have her withdraw from the fight… since she was certainly not interested in taking any more damage and had lots of healthy underlings to finish the job. The PCs CONTINUED to focus everything they could on Moxy. Near death, she pleaded with the PCs to let her live, and assured them she would stop fighting. The Sun Cleric, Sola, also managed to convince her to follow Pelor instead of Tiamat (leveraging the twitter buff rainbow light). The biggest dragonborn, angered by Moxy’s insolence, charged and crit’d her unconscious.

Confused, the one remaining dragonshield backed away from combat. A faithful servant of the kind, playful, dragon Moxy, the kobold was not the biggest fan of the brutish taskmaster dragonborn. And so the infighting continued. The dragonborn who had knocked out Moxy went after the traitorous kobold next, bloodying him with his encounter power. The kobold responded with dirty tactics to the groin, and retreated in an attempt to protect Moxy from further harm. Furious, the immobilized dragonborn used dragon breath to attack half the party and his fellow dragonborn ally still at the front lines… but missed everyone.

At this time, one of the recently revived wizards used his daily, and both dragonborn burst into flames. The party revived Moxy, and she happily rewarded the players with treasure and everything they wanted to know.

And the last kobold was quite pleased to survive the day, receive a nice promotion, and looks forward to doing the will of Pelor on behalf of his dragon mistress.

5 Sunyaku November 11, 2010 at 1:06 am

All but one of the PCs were bloodied and/or unconscious for most of the encounter.

I should also mention that the Sun Cleric, Sola, ran out of healing early, but managed to activate the Second Wind of multiple downed players with heal checks. Unfortunately for the party, everyone else’s dice became very cold after Moxy was knocked unconscious. The monster’s did much more damage to each other that round.

6 Ameron November 15, 2010 at 12:57 pm

@David W
If the dragon had not surrendered to our party when it did I think we’d have lost more PCs. Sounds like the author realized this was going to be a tough encounter and built in the surrender option for DMs that were just clobbering their players.

@OnlineDM
It’s amazing how such a simple suggestion can smooth over such a potentially huge problem.

@CRS
When players start foregoing the meta-gaming in favour of doing what their character would do in that situation, you know you’ve hit a sweet spot.

By forcing players to talk in-character those unconscious have to sit back and watch. It can be frustrating for those players but I think it makes for a cleaner experience. You don’t have the dead guy saying “Come and heal me” or “use that power.”

You may find these resources helpful. They aren’t all about staying in character, but there’s a lot of good stuff here.

@Sunyaku
Our DM had the dragon delay for a couple of rounds and that destroyed us. By not anticipating that there were additional dangers about we used our best attack powers too early and didn’t think tactically when we moved around the room.

Cold dice have been a real problem for the players throughout D&D Encounter this season. Not usually a big deal except when the DM’s dice get hot at the same time. Ouch!

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