When the encounter’s called “The Death of Aldus Splintershield” it’s a safe bet that the party is in for one hell of a fight. After defeating the infected foresters last week, Brother Splintershield allowed for only a short rest before the party continued deeper into the woods to discover the source of the strange plague infecting the men and animals.
A good DM learns from his mistakes. I’ve certainly made plenty of mistakes as a DM. This week I had the opportunity to learn from one I made just a few weeks ago at D&D Encounters. During Week 3the party explored the ruins of Castle Inverness. Unfortunately the only 1-inch scale battle map provided was for the corner of the keep where the monsters were hiding. As soon as the players saw this, they knew that nothing “important” was likely to happen anywhere else.
Last week I tried to emphasize that just because there’s a map doesn’t mean that there’s certainly going to be combat or that there’s even any threats present. The result of my craftiness regrettably ended with Belgos the Dragonborn murdering Steve… poor guy.
This week I tried to learn from my Week 3 mistake. I didn’t produce the 1-inch scale battle map until it was actually time for combat. I found a copy of the Harken Forest online in the Wizards forums. I printed a colour copy on an 11 x 17 page and presented this to the players. Without a clear indication of where the battle would take place, they were extremely cautious when exploring.
This week we had a couple of new faces at our table, including Mark Talbot (a.k.a. Alton) author of the excellent new D&D blog 20ft Radius. Our party of five consisted of Belgos (the pre-gen Drow and not the Dragonborn variant), Brandis, Jarren, Valenae and a Battlemind. The player who had previously been playing Belgos the Dragonborn decided to try Jarren the Wizard when our usual Jarren didn’t show up (breaking his perfect attendance record that goes all the way back to Dark Sun week 1).
The adventure had six possible points of interest on the map. Without any clear direction the PCs began exploring. They easily realized that the trees and foliage near the camp was completely normal (location A). Not really anything special, but important to have noticed early because later they’d find some really strange plants. They did realize that there was an eerie silence due to the lack of wildlife in the area.
They moved up towards a pool (location D). At this time of year the water should have been completely frozen over, yet it wasn’t. In fact steam arose from the water. Around the edges of the bank and in the water itself were more of the red-gold crystals that the party realized was part of the strange plague. Near the water one of the PC found a few tin cups that the foresters must have used to drink the water with. One of the cups was engraved. On one side it said “I’ll love you forever, Steve” and on the other side it said “#1 Dad!”
Next they noticed a crater back towards the way they’d just come (location B). Something large, with a diameter of 3-5 feet crashed into the snow and dirt. Whatever caused the hole in the ground was dragged away. More of the red-gold crystals were present here too.
Giving the steaming pond a wide berth the party then went the long way around. As the approached a cave entrance (location C) they smelled something horrible. It was clear that something was dead and rotting inside. By having te players act on their initiatives during this investigation, they behaved as if combat was imminent. Inside the cave they discovered two dead, decomposing bears (but no combat). The fact that none of the natural scavengers came to feast on the carcasses was very unusual. Both bears appeared infected with the crystalline plague.
Past the cave was a series of misshapen trees (location E). The plants were infected with the red-gold crystals and it was causing them to grow and warp in extremely unnatural ways. Evidences suggested that the plague was transmitted only through direct contact, and likely thorough open wounds.
The party spotted another break in the frozen river up ahead (location F). Partly submerged in the water, but clearly dead, was a large misshapen demon unlike anything the PCs or Splintershield had ever seen. Not only was it infected with the crystalline plague, but it was very likely the source.
Brother Splintershield was convinced that he could destroy the remains and cure the immediate area of the plague. He would cast a ritual similar to the one he cast the night the party arrived at the ruins of Castle Inverness. The PCs kept guard while he performed the ritual.
When the ritual was completed a flash of radiant energy erupted from Splintershield, much like it did that night six months earlier. All infected creatures and plants were cured. The remains of the demon were vaporized.
Moments later a second wave of negative energy seemed to recoil in on Splintershield. Before the PCs could react ghosts arose from the ground beneath them. One arose from beneath Splintershield, impaling him on a spear in the process and wounding him gravely.
The ghosts all wore vestments that resembled those of some knightly order. Four ghosts Squires attacked the PCs. The party responded in kind, killing three of them in the first round. However the three ghost Armigers, each armed with a Bardiche, focused on Splintershield. By the end of the first round Brother Splintershield was unconscious and bleeding to death.
None of the heroes went to Splintershield’s aid. In fact, Valenae suddenly seemed very disinterested in helping the Cleric. During the rest of the combat Splintershield kept making death saves while he bled out.
The Armigers remained insubstantial, taking half damage from all attacks except for those dealing force damage. Jarren seemed more concerned with using his magic missiles to take out the Squires which they quickly realized were just minions.
Brandis, Valenae and the Battlemind stayed bunched up near Splintershield’s body. This made them easy targets for the Armigers Furious Sweep which was a close blast 2. On a hit it dealt 1d10+4 damage. It hit at least one PC (but usually two) every round.
With the three Armigers pounding on the party’s melee combatants the Battlemind was unconscious by the second round. A Healing Word and 5 temporary hit points later he was awake again. Another Healing Word and his Second Wind (used as a minor action since he was a Dwarf) made a huge difference and kept him up a little longer the following round.
Belgos and Jarren managed to stay out of melee once the Squires were all defeated, even the additional two that joined the combat during the third round. The PCs both attacked the Armigers diligently, but it was Jarren’s magic missiles that really made the difference.
By the time the heroes defeated all the ghosts except for the final Armiger they were in pretty rough shape. Brandis, Valenae and the Battlemind were all bloodied and at risk of dropping. The final attack from the last Armiger was again the Furious Sweep which this time included Brother Splintershield in the blast. That attack (which hit two PCs and the unconscious Cleric) killed the town’s founder. Only seconds later (as in the very next attacker in the initiative order) Jarren killed the last ghost with a magic missile.
Before the party could fully absorb the reality of what just happened there was a tremendous flash in the distance, originating from the direction of the town. With Splintershield’s death the ritual that protected the town was gone. The PCs quickly lifted the Amulet of Protection +1 from around Splintershield’s neck and began running back to the town.
One thing that was unusual about his week’s encounter was the map. Although the area where the fighting took place had a full sized map, it was quickly evident that the squares weren’t actually 1-inch across. Wizards of the Coast went to all the trouble of providing these great maps week after week, and then this week the map wasn’t quite to scale. It was just a minor inconvenience but it was still annoying.
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 6 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. We had some technical difficulties with the first 5-10 minutes of this week’s podcast. In order for the recording to make sense I re-recorded a quick summary of what transpired during the lost minutes and we added it to the beginning.
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.