D&D Encounters: Keep on the Borderlands (Week 17)

by Ameron (Derek Myers) on January 13, 2011

This week we began the final chapter of the adventure. Over the next four weeks the PCs will help Lord Drysdale and his men defend Restwell Keep from the besieging lizardfolk army lead by Benwick and the Black Dragon. The heroes will defend the Keep or die trying.

All along I was looking hoping for a thrilling conclusion to this 20-week adventure and it looks like that’s exactly what Wizards has in store for us. The PCs are in a situation where things are happening at a rapid pace. They’ll be lucky to get short rests between the fighting. Everything they’ve done until now has some impact on what’s to come during the final weeks. I only hope that the adventure and the execution at my FLGS lives up to my own expectations.

This week’s encounter was quite different from anything we’ve seen at D&D Encounters since the program began. The heroes were put in charge of defending the gate to the outer courtyard. Each player was given control of one soldier (minion) in addition to running their own character. As long as your soldier was still alive you ran him on your turn.

On the surface this is an excellent idea. In fact I had a similar scenario play out during a home game years ago. So I know from first hand experience that if run properly by the DM and the players this can be a very rewarding encounter. However, I felt that this was misplaced at this venue.

D&D Encounters is designed for new players. It’s an introductory program for D&D. At my FLGS we’ve had new players join the game almost every other week. Some of the new players are still struggling to work just one character. Now they’re expected to run two characters. From a story perspective the addition of these ally soldiers is necessary for some believability. After all it really doesn’t make sense for the PCs to be defending the gate alone. But I think that this new element on top of the usual combat mechanics was out of place in an adventure of this low level.

To make the use of secondary characters even more exciting, an observant PC who noticed a small NPC dragon that we befriended during a previous encounter could call upon him to aid the party during the combat. This let one player run a much more versatile and diverse creature as their second character in place of the minion soldier. Of course the player who first noticed the dragon and successfully called to him for help was the most inexperienced player of our group. He was excited that he got to run the small dragon, but I don’t think he was ready to run two characters.

The encounter itself took almost three hours to play out at my FLGS. This was due in part to the long setup required to paint the picture of the ongoing siege. The explanation on how to work the soldiers also took a lot longer that it probably should have. Again, inexperienced players need additional coaching to fully understand what’s different for this encounter

The party had seven heroes this week. Berrian, Hagen, Quinn, Sola, a Cavalier, a Ruinpriest and a crossbow-wielding Rogue. All faces we’d seen over the previous encounters. No one new to the adventure this week.

When the encounter began the PCs were inside the keep. The besieging army was trying to destroy the outer gates. A large Behemoth kept bashing the door. Our job was to fortify the gates and make sure that the monster didn’t get in the easy way (through the front door). Our soldiers were already on the wall and shouted that many lizardfolk were already climbing up the outer wall.

At the top of the initiative on the first round the outer doors were destroy and the Behemoth began ramming the lowered portcullis. The PCs who rolled well on their initiative climbed the ladders and got on top of the wall. The rest were bunched together and the Marsh Mystic created a Swamp’s Grasp zone that slowed and held five of the seven PCs. Quinn, who has no ranged attacks failed his save to get loose three times, effectively removing him from the first three rounds of combat entirely.

Our minions got one round of attacks in before they were swarmed by the lizardmen Warriors and got slaughtered. Only one survived into the second round. The Cavalier spent the entire fight on the wall, blocking the controls to the portcullis. Round after round he attacked the minions, easily hitting and killing them – one at a time.

Sola managed to get on the wall during the first round avoiding the immobilizing zone but ending up too far away to heal the PCs in the courtyard. With no ranged attacks, she eventually jumped over the ledge to take on the Marsh Mystic in melee combat.

The PCs in the courtyard finally managed to get to the portcullis but by the time they did it was destroyed. It only took the Behemoth three rounds to destroy the gate. The players were really confused about how we were expected to keep the beast outside when the gate had so few hit points. (For the record the portcullis had 50 hit pints and resist 5 all damage. The Behemoth attacked twice each round for 3d6+7 per hit.)

When the gate fell the Behemoth trampled five PCs as it entered the courtyard. The ensuing combat was slow and boring. The PCs kept the beast surrounded and it was a race to 0 hit pints using your best at-will power. The Cavalier and Sola both eventually joined in and we finally killed the Behemoth.

Quinn took the most damage as his defenders aura drew all of the Behemoth’s attacks. The rest of the party emerged relatively unscathed spending only 1-2 healing surges each.

After the combat was over the DM explained that we could have opened the portcullis before the Behemoth came charging through, then lowered it and kept it trapped in the courtyard while the PCs attacked and killed it. He also said that we could have dropped the gate on the creature as it run underneath. Both excellent suggestions but nothing any of the players thought of before hand. It seemed to me like we should have been able to roll an Insight check or a History check to see if our character might have come up with those ideas.

One other complication was the 3D elements of combat. With some characters and monsters on the wall, some under the archway, and other on the ground it was difficult to determine who was where. We also had a few debates about the effects of bursts and blasts on the character above the target zone.

The Eladrin’s Fey Step also caused some uncertainty when Berrian wanted to teleport 5 squares up and 5 squares over, essential a diagonal line up and away from his stating point. I think 3D combat can add a lot of great elements to an otherwise regular combat encounter, but it’s tough on a table with inexperienced players.

Despite my criticisms about the encounter I did have a great time. I only wished it could have run more smoothly and a lot faster. It certainly set the tone for the rest of the remaining weeks. We’re already sensing that there will be real closure when this is all over, one way or the other.

How did this week’s encounter play out at your FLGS? Did you come up with any creative ways to use the portcullis that stopped it from being destroyed? Did you find that the waves of minions overran your troops like they did ours or did you have a well positioned controller to take care of them with a blast or two? What were your thoughts on working the soldiers as well as your own character? Do you think it was a good idea or not? Do you agree with me that although it’s a good idea it’s more suitable in a different gaming environment?

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1 Wally January 13, 2011 at 11:10 am

I really liked the encounter and will have to keep it as idea in my home game. I think WOTC was thinking people had been playing the entire 17 weeks and no new faces popped up so they could run two characters. Yes, lots of coaching for those just trying to figure the game out and could cause time issues with the scope of the siege.

The issue we are having right now is some characters refuse to play their roles correctly. We have a paladin who refuses to tank and if someone gets hit will refuse to use his power to absorb for them. Not this encounter but earlier a cleric got killed because he refused to absorb a hit. This week he also refused to heal the hexblade which is just nothing short of exasperating.
On top of that we have a slayer who will actively run from combat thinking a javelin is good idea over his battleaxe. This being the second time he ran from combat the first being against the dragon last week. The excuse being that the rogue uses bows and avoids combat why can’t he. Unfortunately this leads the other characters getting beaten up and having to compensate for the other two.
Next week I will take up the mantle as a cleric if one does not show and heal our other two party members who are contributing. That seems to be one of the few ways to teach these guys roles. I really hate dropping my rogue, but it seems 3 of us will have to swap roles so we can be successful.
Sometimes I wish the DM would fudge some rules and blast these guys down for bringing the entire table down. Given we were down a cleric this session but we should of been able to handle things if people had played their roles. Really like the encounter and will use it. Not sure how to handle people mishandling roles.

2 Marz January 13, 2011 at 2:16 pm

sorry I missed out, life called. 🙁

3 Ray January 13, 2011 at 4:12 pm

Wow. This really shows how wildly different the end results can be with this encounter. In the one I ran, the behemoth ended up going near the very end of the initiative sequence. The PCs were all on the walls before the gate was shattered. Clever use of the extra guards each player had quite effectively kept the lizard folk at bay each round. I was left with less than half the compliment of lizard folk on the board at the end of each round than at the start (there were a lot of very bad rolls on their part). The mystic’s use of swamp’s grasp was only able to affect two PCs and one guard and to top it off, the PCs figured out a way to very effectively raise and drop the portcullis on the behemoth a couple of times. They killed the mystic early, eventually bloodied the behemoth, and it ran off. It was a very good session and a lot of fun, but the PCs barely had a scratch on them.

4 Carlos January 13, 2011 at 5:59 pm

We didn’t get to run the NPCs, which is probably a good thing since most of the players in our group have enough trouble with their own characters. Our session ended with a TPK for the DM. Things started to unravel when the youngest players in our group (7th & 9th grader) decided to abandon our position on the one tower and split the party. Sigh. Never split the party.

5 Albert January 14, 2011 at 3:34 am

I liked this weeks encounter. Our group had only one new player and she was a gamer so she understood the stats and combat ideas quickly!

party was three rouges, two fighters, a cleric and my ranger…

Basically, our three rouges fired down at the marsh mystic with some blow guns and daggers, our fighter chucked a lance down at him, my bothers cleric did a ranged attack…and all of there minions hit too…we all focused on the “little brain” as we called it so the “big brain” (the behemoth) would lose heart and give up on attacking the gates. Then the mystic did some attack and the behemoth burst in…

I then went and hit him (the behemoth) with two criticals the first being a clever shot pushing back the beast. I then followed up with a Disruptive shot immobilizing him…my minion shot the marsh mystic then our new fighter threw a lance at the behemoth.

We made short work of all the lizardmen and only one of our minions (which just happened to be mine) was taken out by the marsh mystic using some poison cloud…I held back the beast and after one more crit and a few other lances from the other players the beast ran off…

I found it fun! but…again too easy…*sigh*

6 Lahrs January 14, 2011 at 10:05 am

Wow, talk about a long battle. Our night clocked in at just less than four hours, and although I have to commend our gaming store with providing comfy chairs, I think all of our butts were sore by the time we left for the night, but we left in mostly a good mood.
Much earlier in the season, our heroes befriended Mox, a copper dragon, during a battle. Mox was intrigued by the power of the group and was thoroughly entertained by the wise cracking, joke slinging wizard in our group. Mox had little in the way of loyalty to ‘Ronnick’ and the group convinced the dragon they could provide much more entertainment in the future. This was a well role-played encounter, especially by my wife who plays the wizard, and I have been dying to bring Mox back, whether with Wizards help or not. Fortunately, this week’s encounter and last week’s role-playing with the black dragon set everything up nicely.
The group met up with Lord Drysdale at the beginning of the battle, were presented with horns and then sent off to hold the front gate. Upon arriving at the gate, they witnessed the battle had already began and a terrifying beast was trying to break down the front gates. The group split up, with the wizard and a cleric heading up top while the rest waited below for the portcullis to be raised, and then everything went to hell in a handbag right away.
Believing the black dragon was telling the truth last week (nobody rolled an insight check) when accepting a trade for its life for a promise to not enter the battle on the keep and to convince its brother to also not participate in the battle, the group, except the monk who was completely against letting the dragon live to begin with, was surprised when the black dragon swooped in and bit one of the NPC soldiers in two (nat 20, not pretty). Next up were the lizardfolk warriors, and with the assistance from magical vines provided by the mystics, scaled the walls and stormed the battlements. My group did not have the luxury of controlling their own NPC minions, as 5 of the 6 died in the first round. And after the behemoth took out of the gate, allowing the mystics to send toxic gas their way, things looked very bleak after the first round. Black dragon on top, behemoth smashing its way through the gate, eight lizardfolk warriors on top, eight more below, and with another wave in the distance and two (extra difficulty from having a strong party) mystics dishing out serious damage through the portcullis and a TPK looked inevitable. It was also a fairly small map for 40+ minis on it, but it definitely looked like a major battle was in motion.

This week it was the wizards turn to shine. First, Mox whom she had befriended earlier, came screaming into the fight and scoring a nat 20, which had to be some sort of karma, tackled Vermastyx, pushing her into four lizardfolk warriors and knocking the lizard warriors off the wall to their death. Then, well placed beguiling strands sent a wave of soldiers off of the other end of the battlements. The rest of the party was essentially held out of combat for the first two rounds while waiting for the portcullis to be raised, but when the NPC soldiers died, and the wizard and cleric were engaged in battle, the rest were sitting ducks taking some heavy heat from the mystics, and they decided to split up again. Leaving a cleric and our new warlord below, the fighter and monk double moved up the ladders to jump over the side and into combat. The monk, with superior athletics scaled the wall, up one side and jumped down the other into battle, while the warrior, in heavy armor, missed the athletics check by one, so was stuck on the wall until the next turn, leaving the monk to do battle alone. Realizing he was alone, the monk used an action point to use an attack which left the behemoth prone, but not out of battle. While a minor quest was to protect the gate, and the behemoth had a new target, a monk’s body was not meant to withstand the kind of punishment being dished out. For the record, the two mystics were level 6 controllers and the behemoth a level 7 brute (I believe). This was not a light battle. The monk was bloodied by the first hit, but because of his blood cloth armor, his defenses rose by an additional two while bloodied, and they prevented any further damage that round.
Round three saw the raising of the portcullis and the remaining NPC fighter had explicit instructions to drop the portcullis as soon as the behemoth went through, regardless of who was there. When the behemoth charged in round four, it was dropped right on top of it, the warlord and monk, pinning all three. We had a small debate on whether one of the monk’s abilities during an attack to swap positions would work while pinned, and I decided what the hell, it is a monk, go for it. It took two rounds, but the monk finally got a hold of a mystic and using some monk mysticism of his own, swapped positions and pinning a very surprised mystic under the portcullis.
Despite the cool factor of swapping positions and Mox and the wizard cleaning house on the minions, the behemoth, with his double attack, and the mystics and their spear attacks, were dishing out serious damage. Our fighter alone nearly took nearly 100 damage, and only through the use of healing potions, a warlord and two clerics was he still alive after the fight, but down to just a few healing surges.
Like in Ameron’s game, It boiled down to a slug fest, and I would have killed both the monk and fighter if I did not have the behemoth concentrate and destroy the portcullis instead of swinging at the PC’s during one round. They did lose the minor quest with this decision, but survived, so there was a trade off. In the end, they all lived, though the fighter is in bad shape.
The 3D aspect of the battle was difficult, particularly with placement of the behemoth. After the gate was destroyed and he was partially under the roof, it was difficult to visualize without either placing him outside of the portcullis or on top of the ramparts, neither ideal. I am kicking myself for not taking the extra step in creating a 3D representation, but I didn’t have enough time to cast all of the blocks (I use the molds from hirstarts.com).

Good battle, everyone had fun, but it was definitely a long one. I came back and read up on some of the speeding up combat tips that was recently posted here.
Looking forward to next week.

7 Sunyaku January 20, 2011 at 12:37 am

8 Players, 4 minion allies + Moxulhar the dragon.

Scaled up, I pitted them against 36 minions (12 each wave), 2 behemoths and 2 mystics.

The battle was epic, and we ‘sort of’ finished with only 6 or so lizard minions left as the clock ran out.

8 TonyF January 20, 2011 at 1:40 pm

In our group a question came up about the Behemoth’s trample attack. After the gate was twisted and tossed aside the Behemoth took advantage of the PCs grouped together where they had been using ranged attacks. I believe the trample attack allowed the Behemoth to move through squares occupied by PCs, but could it end its turn in a square occupied by a PC? If so, what happens? Do both remain in the square, does someone get pushed?

The DM made a ruling (PCs get pushed) which worked out fine and no one objected, but the ruling was made after we couldn’t find anything in the RC. Now I’m curious to know if there’s a rule about this in case it comes up again later.

9 Rico January 31, 2011 at 1:41 am

“It seemed to me like we should have been able to roll an Insight check or a History check to see if our character might have come up with those ideas.”

There were. Your DM should have told you.

History or Dungoneering Check:
DC 13: Dropping the potcullis on the behemoth might pin the creature in the gatehouse and block the passage enough to restrict the numbers of invaders.

Also, there was a section for the DM specifically on coaching the players. It states:

The better strategies in this encounter are to let the behemoth through the portcullis and kill it, or to drop the portcullis on the creature, restrain it, and then kill it. If the characters have the information they need to use the portcullis against the behemoth, the players might not know how to accomplish what’s needed in game terms. If this is the case, it’s okay to coach them along. After all, the characters know what to do. They need to raise the portcullis with the winches. Then, if their intent is to drop the portcullis on the beast, they need to ready actions to drop the portcullis when the behemoth passes underneath.

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