D&D Encounters: March of the Phantom Brigade (Week 9)

by Ameron (Derek Myers) on April 7, 2011

Salazar Vladistone and the Phantom Brigade burned the village of Inverness to the ground. Two months later Vladistone and his Ghost army have returned and are now attacking Hammerfast. The third and final chapter of March of the Phantom Brigade begans by throwing the PCs right into the thick of things.

After fleeing Inverness, the PCs, Malgram, Faldyra and the rest of the survivors managed to make it all the way back to Hammerfast where they were welcomed and provided with food and shelter. In order to help repay the townsfolk’s kindness, the PCs were asked to join the city guard as reserve members. The grateful PCs couldn’t refuse. It sounded like a fair trade. After all, who would be dumb enough to attack a walled city full of battle-ready dwarves? Salazar Vladistone, apparently.

This week the party consisted of six members. Belgos (the Dragonborn variant), Jarren and Valenae represented the pre-gens. Belgos and Valenae were both level 2, Jarren remained level 1. The rest of the party was made up of a Human charm Wizard and a Human Slayer Fighter (both level 2) and a brand new addition to the party, a level 1 Dwarf Rune Priest.

The encounter began with the Ghost marching towards Hammerfast. The PCs were called up before the encounter began and were already stationed on the wall with the other city guards. Vladistone halted the army, stepped forward and addressed the city.

“Hammerfast. Your walls spawned the corruption that fouled the grave of my love. Send out your Lady of Gold. Let the High Master pay the price for this transgression.”

While one of the sergeants posted on the wall exchanged insults with Vladistone, a messenger arrived with an urgent note for the PCs. Apparently Faldyra discovered something of vital importance while researching a way to combat the Phantom Brigade. She needed to see the PCs immediately. The PC’s commanding officer told them to go. If they could help find a way to defeat the approaching army, he could manage with a few less guards.

Before they could leave the wall, Vladistone erupted with anger. Hammerfast’s refusal to produce the Lady of Gold pushed him over the edge. “You refuse me foolishly. Now you will pay the price. I command all the Ghosts of the Nentir Vale… all of them.”

From within the city of Hammerfast, a city filled with Ghost, screams began erupting. The normally harmless Ghosts started attacking the townsfolk. The PCs needed to get to the library with all haste. If a way to defeat Vladistone was within their grasp they needed it now.

As the party approached the library they were beset upon by Ghosts, two Dwarves and two Orcs. A quick Religion check made it clear that talking was not an option and that killing the Ghosts wouldn’t destroy them forever, just temporarily. So the party engaged the enemy. At first the PCs managed to hold their own. They did some reasonable damage. Unfortunately they all focused on different enemies, spreading the damage equally among all of the opponents. And then the Ghosts hit back.

Using good tactics (as the adventure indicated they would) the Ghosts began by attacking the PCs who looked the softest, namely Belgos and Jarren. The other two Ghosts attacked the closest opponents, the Rune Priest and the Slayer.

The PCs took a beating early. The Ghost Dwarves both used their punishing charge and hit. That attack dealt 3d6+4 damage on a successful hit and half on a miss. Both Dwarves scored a solid hit (one a crit). The Orcs attacked with Battle Axes doing 2d10+3 on a successful hit. And they hit…a lot.

By the third round five of the six PCs were bloodied, some much worse than others. That was when another Ghost Dwarf entered the combat. Fortunately the PCs had the good sense to keep focusing on those Ghosts that were already bloodied before taking on the fresh Dwarf.

The PCs managed to immobilize one of the Orcs early in the combat. The Orc failed his save and remained outside of the melee for four rounds. Having no ranged attacks he resorted to shouting insults. While he was immobilized Jarren hit him with a few Magic Missiles and Belgos unloaded his quiver of arrows into the Orc. When the Orc finally managed to make his save he was really low on hit points. He only got to attack once before being killed the next round.

And then the tied turned in the favour of the PCs. They managed to drop three opponents in the same round. With only one Ghost Dwarf and one Ghost Orc remaining the party looked like they were going to sail on to an easy victory. Until another Ghost Orc joined in the fighting.

He came up from behind the party and attacked the charm Wizard. Until then the Wizard was pretty much unscathed so he could take a few hits. As luck would have it the Orc’s damage with his 2d10+3 attack came up 7, 9 and 8 over the next three rounds.

The only PCs to actually fall unconscious was Belgos. The first time he dropped he managed to roll an 18 on his death save. The +2 from Valenae brought him back into the fight on his own. The next time he dropped he was left for dead. By then there was only one Ghost Orc still fighting so the PCs figured they’d kill it before helping their ally.

In the end all of the PCs took a lot of damage. Everyone used their second wind during the fight, something I haven’t seen happen in any D&D game for a long time. The Ghosts hit so hard, and I rolled three crits, that a lot of the PCs used up at least half of their healing surges or more by the time they healed up. This will prove problematic moving forward as there are four more encounters to go.

The other table at our FLGS was running with six level 2 PCs and they suffered a TPK. This encounter was tough. The other DM watched the last few rounds of our fight and pointed out an important detail that I overlooked. When these Ghosts were hit for force damage they lost their insubstantiality for one round. I totally missed that in their description. Since none of the Ghosts the PCs fought previously had this property I didn’t realize these were any different.

What this means is that the party would have defeated the Ghosts more easily and more quickly. It also means that some of the Ghosts would have been killed earlier in the fight and would not have dished out the damage that they did in the later rounds. As a corrective measure I gave everyone back one healing surge. The more I think about it the more likely think I’ll award back a couple of surges to the PCs hit hardest (like Belgos) before the next encounter.

Considering that no one at my table was above level 2, this fight was really tough. When I heard that the other table had a TPK I began to think that the same thing was about to happen at my table. And then the PCs managed to turn the tide. Although half of the guys at my table are relatively inexperienced, they handled their characters rather well. The lack of a defender was a noticeable problem, but the extra strikers, the Magic Missiles and two leaders more than made up for it.

How did things fare at your table this week? Did you suffer a TPK or the death of any other PCs? Is anyone running level 3 characters yet? For those tables still running with level 1 PCs are the DMs making any adjustments to the encounters to account for characters with lower hit points and lower defenses? Do you think we should tone down the encounters a little bit for weaker parties or should they be challenged?

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{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Gary April 7, 2011 at 10:16 am

Our Wizard bit the dust. The Paladin got tied up with the orcs while the dwarves went around and got in to the soft and delicious part of the party. It probably wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t missed as much with Eldritch Bolt. I was doing everything I could to get CA, etc, but I just had a rotten streak of rolling. Three of the characters at the table are now level 3.

2 Wally April 7, 2011 at 10:22 am

After killing my party the week previously I decided to take things a little easier on them. I had 7 players but did not bump up the number of ghosts as adding in another ~200 hps for my pcs to go through would be rough. They did very well in this encounter and think only the striker spent more then 2 healing surges as he was dropped over and over. Now, if the orcs and dwarves could of worked together I saw several opportunites to make things really bad for the pc’s.

Next week now that the incorporal stuff is done I believe I can up the amount of monsters without feeling of overpowering the encounter.

3 Sokket April 7, 2011 at 10:58 am

I actually enjoyed this week a lot more than I thought I would. First, my party seemed stricken with the wanderlust a lot more than Wizards expected them to. It was a bit forces when I told them that their heroes stayed around in Inverness for a long time after founding the town. It was even more awkward forcing them to return to Inverness after Splintershield died. So instead of expecting them to stay around in Hammerfast for two months, I shortened the timespan to two days. A quick and easy skill challenge brought the group, and the rest of Inverness’ refugees, to Hammerfast with Vladistone’s ghostly army on their heels. Vladistone (who is honorable, of course) allowed the town 1 day to acquiesce to his demands, allowing the party their much-needed extended rest.

Unfortunately due to a mis-communication, the party’s cleric thought that there was not enough room at the table for him to join today, leaving the party without a healer. After blowing through 4 potions and a lot of wringing of hands (including the druid coming one point away from her negative bloodied score and a character death), the party managed to survive. I will agree though, even with the ability to drop the insubstantiality, this was a tough fight this week, especially for a set of 5 fights between extended rests.

Now to build a zombie Splintershield for next week. The joys of using party ideas.

4 Sentack April 7, 2011 at 11:03 am

I recently got a chance to look at the ‘module’ and was shocked that so many monsters that were “incorporeal” didn’t have a way around it. It’s such an annoying trait. I though they were finally getting away from that and then suddenly this module comes out. Weird.

5 Sentack April 7, 2011 at 1:05 pm

Little DM pet peeve of mine I have to admit. When multiple monsters act on the same initiative, they don’t all act on the same TURN. This is something a lot of DM’s do, past and present and it’s always bugged me. Just because multiple figures on the board all act on the same initiative numerically, doesn’t mean that they really act all at the same time. This is only a problem when a DM tries to move multiple targets on a board to grant ‘flanking’ bonuses when one target should very likely not get that bonus.

Now that being said, I think it’s perfectly reasonable that what order all the monsters go in on that initiative doesn’t matter. But each monster should complete his turn before another goes.

6 Gary April 7, 2011 at 1:24 pm

@Sentack:

Enemies can always move in to position, then ready an action to attack when their buddy gives them flanking. The DM needs to be careful to remember that the enemy loses it’s immediate action when the readied action fires. However, they certainly can’t do things like interleave their move, standard, and minor actions.

7 Ameron April 7, 2011 at 1:36 pm

@Gary
Sometimes the dice just aren’t with you. I feel for you.

@Wally
I debated about whether or not to add in a sixth combatant. The encounter is designed for five PCs, so my initial reaction was of course to add the sixth guy since there were six PCs. However, I realized that the party at my table had two level 1 PCs so I judged their abilities for the first few rounds. I knew they were going to see five opponents, which they eventually did (I held one back a couple of rounds). When they finally dropped three guys in the same round I realized that adding the sixth guy would be a challenge but shouldn’t kill anyone. In the end they defeated them and got some sweet XP.

I made sure not to have the Orcs and Dwarves intentionally work together. But the Dwarves helped the Dwarves and the Orcs helped the other Orcs. The party meanwhile did their own thing and everyone attacked different monsters.

@Sokket
I like the idea of having chapter three take place only days after chapter two. I think that would have made more sense. I railroaded my guys by telling them it took two months to work off the debts they accumulated when they showed up at Hammerfast with nothing but the shirts on their backs. They seemed ok with this rationale.

Ooooooo a zombie Splintershield… excellent idea.

@Sentack
I wasn’t bothered so much by the insubstantial, but it would have been nice to put a magic item or two on the random list that either did force damage or could otherwise bypass the insubstantial trait.

Nothing bugs me more than when the DM uses all of the monsters simultaneously. When I’m the DM I go out of my way to break up monsters so they act on different initiatives and when similar monsters do act on the same number they complete their actions one at a time.

8 Alton April 7, 2011 at 8:49 pm

Take a look. for some reason, my party had a fairly easy time. They took out one of the dwarves in about one round. Concentrate their fire. The party is learning. gotta learn to throw better tactics at them now.

9 Lahrs April 8, 2011 at 9:15 am

I have been complaining about the ease of this season, as only the encounter with the oozes, after adding in additional ooze, had any difficulty whatsoever. I think the difficulty jump in this encounter was surprising to everyone, including myself, and I didn’t scale the encounter up like I normally do.

Although there were only five monsters this week, they hit often and they hit hard and it did not take long before the cleric and paladin were out of healing capabilities. Both the paladin and one of our rangers went down, with the ranger coming in with just a few points (2) of dying, twice. The good news is the player finally earned his renown points for taking 50 points of damage.

After the end of chapter 1 and 2, during the months of rest, I allowed each person to come up with a small story detailing what they had been doing during that time, and gave a small XP bonus (35), as well as an additional skill point or similar bonus. Despite only hitting 1 of 3 during his charge attack, he sure had a huge smile after seeing the payoff for his training. This also encouraged role playing, and I was happy to see everyone step up to the challenge, even my players who usually struggle with it. I think allowing them a week to plan it out, even if they came back with only a small snippet was easier than role playing on the spot. For example on the bonuses, one character had gone to recruit more soldiers to defend Hammerfast, earning them a bonus point in Diplomacy. The Hexblade spent the months working on mounted combat, earning them a mounted combat Encounter power, an 8 space charge, allowing him to hit all within a straight line (1d8+ Strength to each enemy).

Back to the encounter. For the first time in the campaign, radiant and force damage was beneficial. I am actually upset with myself for not including this before, despite it not being in the stat blocks. Radiant should get something special against undead, except in special circumstances, but I do not believe level 3 – 5 monsters should belong in the special circumstances. Once hit with either force or radiant, the undead solidified and lost their insubstantial quality until the end of their turn. The cleric and paladin, fighting back to back in initiative, concentrated on hitting as many monsters as they could, allowing some of the party the benefit of full damage. I believe the encounter would have been nearly impossible without this ability. Still, the party was ripped up, and the ranger who took so much damage is out of healing surges with four more sessions to go. One of the problems with the ranger is this was his second session, so he was still level 1. I am not sure whether to allow him to level or not. Doing so would negate a lot of the hard work the regulars have put in to earn level 2, but not allowing him to level could kill him each session. Still debating, but leaning toward not allowing him to level. I might change my mind after the end of next session.

This week also saw the absence of our lone defender, which I am sure also contributed to the difficulty of the encounter. I understand the paladin is a defender, but spent almost the whole session attacking to remove the substantial bonus and healing over tanking.

At the end of the day though, despite the ramped up difficulty, I believe the real sense of danger has finally set in. Too many easy sessions take out a big sense of accomplishment, and make it feel more like a basic game of chess over a true battle.

The DM at our second table has been incredibly stingy with the out of combat XP, with only a few hitting level 2 last week. I spoke to him about this, but since he is the DM, I didn’t force any changes, his table, his rules. I do see his players getting frustrated though, one being my wife so I hear all about it. He also did not nullify the insubstantial bonus after a force or radiant damage attack. The party did not TPK, but they are in much worse shape than my group.

@Sentack: I am one of the DM’s guilty of your pet peeve, and while Gary is correct in being able to hold actions to gain flanking bonus, I see your point and will try to not do this in future sessions, unless they fight highly intelligent creatures. Thanks for bringing it up.

@Ameron: I did the same thing by not having the orcs and dwarves help each other, this mainly boiled down to not giving flanking bonuses if the flanking occurred between the two different races. From the bonus XP I have given for good role playing, the Hexblade, an excellent RPer will be level three next session, with the rest of the regulars hitting it after next week’s XP.

10 David Argall May 6, 2011 at 9:43 pm

SALVATIONS OF SUCCOR – Getting there is not half the fun

Our situation becomes worse and worse. The ghost our innocent village founding stirred up is not content with even excessive revenge. He must have “justice” even at the cost of thousands of lives. Fleeing to this city, we have now watched him amass an army of undead and now he has laid siege to the city. Worse, in doing so he has revealed powers far beyond what anyone could have expected.
Approaching the city with his army, the ghost made absurd demands and of course was refused, but his response was to create a huge number of undead within the city. The result was general panic and slaughter.
Just how bad I have had no chance to judge. I and several others were called to the Great Library for something special. I can only hope it can do something to reverse this disaster. But so far, we found it hard enough to even get to the library, much less learn what was happening.
We were almost to the library when we were intercepted by a pack of ghosts, quite powerful ones as well. They quickly attacked us and hurt us badly. For awhile, we feared we would not even make it to the library. In part it was that we were caught off guard and we could not fight effectively at first. Another part was that Kaisyn, our clever wizard was overly clever this time and in an attempt to reach safety ended up in grave danger. Treble, our drow, shocked me by making an effort to rescue him, but it didn’t surprise me that he lacked the self-sacrifice to succeed at it. Still, he did try. And he and Keira, that rogue we had met, took some serious damage. Even worse hurt was Abranx, a knight whose life I saved. Tho I can claim to have saved the lives of all survivors since I exhausted my considerable healing keeping everybody on their feet. Eriss, an elven wizard, managed quite a bit of damage to the undead.
We finally destroyed most of the undead and the rest decided to seek easier prey, and so we made the library, but we are so battered, we may not be able to complete the mission they have in mind.

The game where I DMed was also a tough battle. I’d say this was the toughest battle in the entire adventure. Of course, it didn’t help that our DM may have been gunning a little for our wizard, who had gone to extreme lengths to be safe in previous battles. This time he tried to teleport to a roof. The DM demanded an acrobatics check to land upright, and when that was failed, another check to stay on the roof. He landed right in the midst of the undead, far from us.

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