D&D Encounters: March of the Phantom Brigade (Week 5)

by Ameron (Derek Myers) on March 10, 2011

The town in the ruins of Castle Inverness grew over the past six months. The PCs went on with their regular lives as productive members of the growing community during that time. The ghostly tower that appeared on the first night the settlers arrived still stood in the centre of town. All attempts to gain access failed.

Chapter 2 of The March of the Phantom Brigade began on a cold winter’s night like any other. Having met up after their daily responsibilities were completed, the PCs headed to the local tavern for some food, drink, company and entertainment. While there they join Faldyra for supper and engaged in conversation with some of Malgram’s scouts.

The scouts explained that they’d recently discovered a number of animals infected with some kind of unknown illness. The creatures were unusually aggressive (if still alive when encountered). The infection was a red-gold crystalline growth that surfaced from beneath the skin. No one, including the heroes, had an idea what it was or what was causing it.

Brother Splintershield stormed into the tavern seeking Faldyra’s aid. Some of the foresters just returned from their logging camp and the situation was not good. He beckoned for the PCs to come along as well.

Our usually robust numbers dwindled at the FLGS this week (most likely due to terrible weather conditions). We had 10 people, including both DMs so we opted to run two tables with four players each rather than one super table with nine players. At my table we had a few of the usual suspects including Belgos (the Dragonborn), Jarren and Valenae. This week they were accompanied by a new companion, a Human Wizard specializing in charm magic.

As the party neared the front gate they saw six bodies laid on the ground. Each one had the red-gold crystalline lesions covering their body. Malgram was inspecting the bodies and seemed just as befuddled about its source as everyone else.

At this point I pulled out one of the maps from last season of D&D Encounters and placed it on the table. At one end I placed the six workers, all lying flat, with Malgram standing next to one. Splintershield and Faldyra were nearby. I let the player place their minis on the map. Although I knew that there was no immediate combat, the run-in with the undead during the previous encounter really stuck with my players. I figured that if they saw a map (which they all recognized as a D&D Encounters map, but didn’t realize was from a different season) and rolled initiative that they’d assume (incorrectly) that there was combat forthcoming.

Belgos and the charm Wizard both displayed a keen interest in discovering more about his illness so on their initiative they each approach one of the men. The other PCs did nothing but get ready. Next in the initiative was my “monster.” I rolled randomly to see which NPC reacted to the presence of an adjacent character. It was the one closest to Belgos.

“As you get closer to the man on the ground his eyes open and he grasps for you.” I then rolled a d20 behind the screen. “He can’t seem to get his hands on you.” Belgos was positive that this guys was undead and would continue attacking. He shifted back one square and fired an arrow at the man on the ground, hitting him square in the chest.

Malgram cried out in shock and alarm. “Belgos! What the hell did you do? Did you just kill that man? He was barely alive to begin with. Why, man? Why would you do that?” Malgram ran over to the man on the ground and tried to help him. “Steve! Steve! Hold on buddy, I’m here.”

With his dying breath Steve sputtered out something about a demon, a plague, water and other survivors. Malgram screams bloody murder and charged at Belgos, but Splintershield jumped between them.

“I’ll never forgive you, Belgos,” said Malgram. “If you want to continue living in this town you’d better head into the woods and find the survivors Steve mentioned with his final breath. If you don’t I’ll likely kill you myself.”

Splintershield agreed that finding the survivors and discovering the cause for this strange illness were top priority. He proclaimed that he would personally accompany the PCs into the forest and lead the search himself. Malgram objected, but in the end Splintershield emerged the victor.

Before the party left the town Splintershield did his best to calm the grief-stricken Malgram. He convinced him to go break the bad new to Steve’s wife and kids.

The party made excellent time while travelling through the forest at night. Both Valenae and Jarren conjured magical light. The combined efforts from the entire party, along with a few marginal Nature, Perceptions and Endurance checks eventually led them to the clearing where the men were working.

In the clearing were five survivors. The party easily saw in the magical illumination that they were all infected with the crystalline plague. The five men were all extremely agitated and aggressive, and immediately attacked the party.

I keep the PCs on the same initiatives they rolled earlier. That might have been a mistake. Although three of the four PCs rolled 13, 12 and 11 all but ensuring they’d act as a group, the Plagued Foresters rolled better. The first group of three rolled exceptionally high and got to act first. Two flanked Belgos and hit… hard. He was down to 4 hit points before he even got to act. We joked that he should use his second wind as his very first action (he didn’t). The third attacker hit Splintershield.

The party was in disarray. Belgos shifted, attacked (missing) and then shifted again thanks to his stance. Jarren decided to use Magic Missile rather than his usual Arc Lightning (for some reason known only to him). The charm Wizard used Beguiling Strands to push the attackers away from the party, but did relatively little damage.

Brother Splintershield then charged the Forester hit by the Magic Missile and Beguiling Strands. Although I was controlling Splintershield tactics and actions I let the players take turns rolling his attacks and damage. Unfortunately they rolled just as poorly for him as they were rolling for themselves.

One of the remaining two Foresters moved in to flank Splintershield, the other attacked Valenae. Every one of the Foresters hit (and hit hard) during the first round. Three managed to attack with combat advantage which meant even more damage. By the end of the first round the party was in really bad shape.

Even though Belgos sustained so much damage in the first round, Valenae refused to heal him. “Steve was my friend and you killed him.” She kept saying. Fortunately Splintershield hooked up Belgos with a Healing Word.

This same scene repeated itself for the next few rounds. The Foresters moved into flanking positions wherever possible and hit an alarming number of times. The PCs stayed huddled up, but not adjacent to each other letting the Foresters get flanking bonuses almost every round. The Wizard kept pushing them away with Beguiling Strands, which helped a little, but because it did so little damage each round it wasn’t that helpful in the long run.

After the first round Splintershield became the luckiest NPC ever. His attackers rolled at least seven 1s in a row. And when they did finally connect they did almost the minimum damage, even with combat advantage. He took damage early bringing him to exactly his bloodied value and then didn’t take another point of damage the rest of the fight.

The damage the party did manage to inflict was spread out equally among the Foresters. However, once they were finally bloodied the party smartened up and focused fire.

It wasn’t until much later in the battle the Foresters were finally able to attack Belgos again. Two managed to flank him. Both hit. The first brought him down to 1 hit point. The second drop him to -13. Belgos had a maximum of 26 hit points, so at -13 he would be dead-dead if he sustained 1 more point of damage. With no more healing magic left, he needed to make death saves. He accumulated two strikes before the combat ended and the rest of the PCs stabilized him. After one encounter Belgos was down to only two healing surges.

Meanwhile Brother Splintershield managed to kill one of the few remaining Foresters. Both Jarren and the Wizard began using Magic Missile since they were missing so badly with their attack rolls. It was the combined missiles that actually killed the final few Foresters.

At the end of the battle the PCs discovered a suit of magical +1 Dwarven Armor. Since everyone at the table already had a magical item, Valenae claimed the armor.

After this week’s encounter the PCs finally earned enough XP to hit level 2. However, I’m not a big fan of allowing players to level up their characters until they take an extended rest. The remaining three encounters in this chapter are all level 2 encounters – tough for a level 1 party, but not too tough.

The PCs playing at the other table managed to accumulate enough XP to level up at the end of chapter 1. So we have some PCs at our FLGS that are level 1 and some that are level 2. I expect that this will continue to be the case since we have a lot of players that can’t play every week.

I’m planning to stick to my guns and only let the PCs level up during chapter breaks (assuming they have enough XP). Looking ahead, the PCs are on track to earn between 300 and 500 XP each for the rest of the chapter. So it’s extremely unlikely that anyone will have enough XP to hit level 3 by the end of chapter two, regardless of how generous the DM is with the XP.

As an added bonus this season we’re recording our D&D Encounters experiences and making them available to you as downloadable podcasts courtesy of The Shattered Sea. Listen to the Week 5 Encounter. Bear in mind that these recordings are made in a loud, crowded game store so at time it may be difficult to hear everyone.

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1 Neldar March 10, 2011 at 11:19 am

Um… Belgos’s bloodied value would be 13, unless I’ve missed something. Death occurs at negative bloodied.

Belgos should have been dead dead.

Anyway, I had to add a couple extra foresters to give my party a good fight. Splintershield ended the fight bloody and without a healing surge. We decided to allow people to level up as soon as they have the XP for it. I hope that makes it more fun for people.

2 Ameron March 10, 2011 at 12:02 pm

You know, I wasn’t sure if characters are dead-dead when they hit their negative bloodied value exactly or when they are damaged past their negative bloodied value. I didn’t want to actually kill anyone so I opted to let him hang on by a thread and look it up later. Good to know for next time.

3 TonyF1330 March 10, 2011 at 12:22 pm

Wow, level 2 already? Our players that have attended every week are only 1/2 to 2/3 the way there. I wonder what’s causing the discrepancy?

Also, I really like how things turned out with “Steve” – that certainly livened up the encounter.

4 Sobchak March 10, 2011 at 12:56 pm

My party’s experience was almost identical to yours Ameron. We had four PC’s, one of which was a human wizard new to our group! I just posted my field report. Low party initiative, poor positioning, and high monster initiative almost led to a TPK. Our thief died. I think our DM is handling leveling the same as you.

This was the first encounter of MotPB that challenged us. I’m looking forward to some more battles like this. If we run level +1 encounters with 4 PC’s it should be suitably difficult.

5 Neldar March 10, 2011 at 1:05 pm

Most of the XP is in the noncombat stuff. All of the RP is worth XP as is the exploration.

I agree with your thoughts on keeping Belgos alive this time around.

6 Alton March 10, 2011 at 10:38 pm

I still think some of these encounters are a little easy, but that is just my opinion. My players are cakewalking through it, monster tactics and all. They are rolling well I have to give them that. Keira is slaughtering everything in sight.

Can’t wait to play at Dueling Grounds next week. See you all then.

7 Lahrs March 11, 2011 at 12:26 pm

I will work up on my write up soon, but I 100% agree with you Alton, and this is even after I have scaled the encounter up past the strong 6 person group. I am thinking about leveling up the monsters for the next encounter, but does anyone else have any suggestions on making it harder without making the encounters that much longer?

8 Alton March 11, 2011 at 4:29 pm

@ Lahrs

I think I will level the monsters on the final session of each chapter. that way the players won’t overextend themselves for the first 3 sessions of the chapter and then comes the finale for the chapter. Maybe make it an EL4 which would be a little challenging compared to the EL2 that all the sessions have been. It could be one solution.

Another is to level some of the monster by 1-2 levels for example the plagued foresters. Keep 4 of them at Level 2 and boost 2 of them(like the foreman) to level 4 skirmishers.

9 Sunyaku March 12, 2011 at 1:15 pm

@TonyF1330 if the DM doesn’t keep track of all the XP bonuses in each session, it’s easy to shortchange people. There’s a lot more than just combat XP in this mod, and it’s not cleanly compiled in one location for each session… bits and pieces are listed across several pages for each session. :-/

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