D&D Encounters: Beyond the Crystal Cave (Week 11)

by Ameron (Derek Myers) on February 2, 2012

After navigating the hedge maze and fighting the thieving Boggles, the PCs took a short rest before using their four plant keys to activate the magical sundial gate. The maze around them began to spin until the hedge maze disappeared and the PCs found themselves in a garden just outside the Palace of Spires.

A shallow pool was in the middle of the garden, with flowerbeds on either side. On the opposite side were silvery double doors that led into the magnificent white palace. Two burly humans dressed in leather armor and wielding greataxes approached the PCs, their intent clearly hostile. Three Xivorts and a Boggle also present in the garden cheered encouragement at the two axemen as they approached the PCs.

Every week before the adventure begins I provide a quick recap to refresh everyone’s memory of what happened until this point. There are a lot of details that the characters would remember even if the players themselves do not. This week I reminded everyone that many of the creatures they’ve faced have not been acting of their own volition and cited numerous examples. I reminded them that creatures under the influence of another can be talked out of fighting once they become bloodied. Unfortunately neither of my groups took the hint to their own determent.

Take One – Harry T North

We began the night with 10 people so we split into two tables. At my table was a Tiefling Paladin (Caviler) [Fey Beast Tamer], Human Seeker [Unseelie Agent], Satyr Warlock (Hexblede) [Unseelie Agent], and Eladrin Cleric (Valenae pre-gen).

With a smaller party I scaled back the numbers. I removed Xivort Slashers and cut the Berserker’s hit points in half. Even with these concessions it was almost a TPK.

During the first round the Paladin and his Blink Dog charged the closest Berserker. The rest of the party stayed bunched up near the entrance. The Body Snatcher managed to dominate the Hexblade at the very end of the first round. The player was happy that he took no immediate damage. And then his turn came around in round two.

I’ll admit that I can be a devious DM. When a PC is dominated I get to choose his actions. Because he’s dazed he only gets to do one thing. If he attacks he can only use his basic attacks or his at-will powers. However, I don’t HAVE to make him attack. The dominating creature usually wants to do the thing that’s most detrimental to the party. So in this case I had the Warlock move past both Berserkers. This provoked opportunity attacks from both and they both hit. The Warlock went from full to 1 hit point. I think that was more detrimental to this party than having the Warlock attack one of the other PCs.

The PCs were so shocked by the massive output of the Berserkers that they lost all sense of tactics. They didn’t focus fire on a single target, instead they all went in different directions so as not to feel the wrath of all the monsters if they got dominated. This made things harder for the Cleric who could only heal within 5 squares.

The heroes eventually realized that the Xivorts didn’t have many hit points and managed to get them off the board in one round once they finally focused their fire. They made no effort to talk the Berserkers out of attacking; instead they kept targeting them with ranged attacks whenever possible.

Luck was with the heroes as my dice cooled down near the end of the fight. I was unable to recharge the Body Snatcher’s dominating ability and I kept missing with the Berserkers (which was almost impossible since they had +9 to attack, +10 when charging). Finally they defeated the monsters, killing one of the Berserkers and knocking the other unconscious.

After they took a short rest they tried to get some information out of the surviving Berserker, but he was devastated that they’d killed his brother and refused to say anything helpful.

The party searched the garden after the battle and upon examining the musical bowers realized that they would provide the PCs with 5 temporary hit points. I allowed each PC to benefit from this and they’ll all take the 5 temps into the next encounter.

Finally they had to get through the mirrored door. The doors themselves reflected everything in the garden except for the PCs. Above the doors in Elvish read “To thine own self be true.” The PCs tried smashing their way through but that didn’t work. Then they decided to look in the pool. They realized that everything in the garden was also reflected in the pool, including the PC. However the PCs saw an idealized version of themselves.

The players tried everything they could think of to open the doors but after about 20 minutes or more the players finally gave up. By this time the players from the other table were hovering around watching and snickering at their inability to solve the puzzle. I finally spoon fed them the answer and they asked their reflections to open the door, solving the puzzle.

Take Two – Dueling Grounds

For the second week in a row we had all of the same people show up. That meant two tables with six players at each. This was really good for consistency since we didn’t have to fill in any gaps for new players. One of the players, our newest recruit, decided that this party could use another leader so he brought a new PC. The party ended up with a Human Wizard (Arcanist), Drow Assassin, Deva Bard, Revenant (Elf) Sorcerer, Fargrim the Dwarf Fighter (Slayer) (pre-gen), and our new leader, a Half-elf Artificer.

Much like the other group, this group remained bunched up near the doors except for Fargrim. The Body Snatcher managed to dominate Fargrim and on Fargrim’s second turn he moved past the Berserker and one of the Xivorts. Unfortunately Fargrim failed to save and on the next round he moved past both Berserkers and a Xivort. Realizing that the attacks from the Berserkers would likely kill Fargrim, the assassin took an opportunity attack on him as he moved away, trying to knock him prone in the process. A really good idea, but he failed to connect. The two Berserkers demolished Fargrim before he could move towards the Xivort. He was 1 hit point away from his negative bloodied value.

The rest of the party focused their attacks on the Berserkers, completely ignoring the Boggle and the Xivorts. Despite the party’s six members I didn’t make change changes to the adventure. Knowing how much trouble my first group had I thought this group would be suitably challenged with the adventure as written.

The Berserkers decimated this group. They hit every round for 1d12+9 (1d12+21 on a crit). It didn’t take long before the PCs were falling left and right. Again I was unable to recharge the Body Snatcher’s dominate power but he was still a tough opponent doing 2d6+6 with his basic melee attack.

One of the only saving graces for the party was that the Artificer could heal them and the recipient of the healing didn’t have to expend his own healing surge. As most of the PCs were down to their last couple of surges, this made a huge difference. The Artificer was also able to give one PC 20 temporary hit points which kept the Cleric on his feet for another round or two.

Realizing that they were about to be experience a TPK the Cleric decided to try and talk to the bloodied Berserker. He made the Diplomacy check with flying colours. The Berserkers both wore golden circlets on their heads, and now that the Berserker had broken free of the Hag’s control he ripped the circlet from his head, turned towards the attacking Xivorts and yelled out “This is your fault! You’re dead!” On his next turn I let one of the players whose PC was unconscious run the Berserker. Seeing this pleasant turn of events they PCs still in the fight focused on bringing the other Berserker to bloodied and succeeded that round. Another awesome Diplomacy check freed him and he too joined the fight.

Until this point neither of the Xivort Slashers had been hit. I decided to turn them into minions, so when the party finally did attack them they fell on a single hit. With the Slashers down, the Berserkers on the hero’s side and the Body Snatcher unable to recharge it didn’t take long to finish up.

Since both brothers were spared they were happy to talk with this group. They provided information about Kalbon and warned the party about his attacks and powers which will help them next week.

Like the other group, I let the PCs take a short rest before the explored the garden so they too will carry the temporary hit points into the next encounter.

The PCs moved on to the door and tried to figure out how to open it. The strikers immediately attacked it to no avail. When the party looked into the pool and saw idealized versions of themselves they tried interacting with them. It only took a few minutes before the Artificer (a player new to D&D Encounters but not to D&D) spoke to his reflection. “You are an idealized version of me that I will never become and I accept that. No one’s perfect. I humbly ask you for help opening the door.” And with that the Artificer’s reflection opened he doors for the PCs.


Much like last week’s encounter, the players really enjoyed themselves despite getting their butts kicked. Depending on how DMs choose to command the dominated PCs, things could have been bad or really bad. I think my tactic was particularly deadly. If I’d had the dominated PC attack his allies, Soryth’s Bloodstone would have made those attacks less likely to hit. By having the Berserkers take opportunity attacks they gained absolutely no benefit from the Bloodstone (except the +2 to save vs. the charm).

As I’ve said before I think the damage from the monsters is excessive for a low level adventure. Considering that some of the PCs are only level 2 the Berserkers alone were more than a match for the party (they were level 4 brutes with 66 hit points each). In order to give the PCs a fighting chance I told everyone to bring their PCs up to level 3 for the final two encounters. PCs present for the entire run so far have enough XP to reach level 4. This should help for the final two weeks, but it will still be tough.

I liked the addition of the puzzle (and there’s more to come next week) but I have strong reservations about the way these kinds of challenges are presented. These puzzles challenge the player and not their character. There should be some mechanic that allows the PCs to roll and get a benefit from certain skills or high abilities. It doesn’t seem fair to expect players to have the 20 Intelligence that their character has. After all, you’d never ask the players to life a heavy object to demonstrate that their characters can do it. See Traps: Challenge the Players and the Characters.

How did you party manage this week? Did the Berserkers destroy them? Did the DM roll any crits? Did any other DMs use my tactic and have dominated PCs move to provoke opportunity attacks instead of attacking their allies? Any TPKs this week?

We continue to record our D&D Encounters sessions and make them available to you for download every week. This season I’m going to try to record the games at both FLGS where I play so that you can hear how two very different groups handled the same encounter. These recordings are made in a loud, crowded game store so at times it may be difficult to hear everyone.

D&D Encounters: Beyond the Crystal Cave (Week 11) – Podcasts

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1 Alphastream February 2, 2012 at 2:35 pm

I agree with you on difficulty level. While players do express frustration when things are too easy, it is far worse to be too hard. Also, easy lets the DM make choices – quick victory and more time for the puzzles/RP or add some challenge and go longer.

Puzzles are tough. You don’t want to be just at the player level, nor just at the PC level (a skill challenge, basically). I think this was a deliberate attempt to go old school and present player puzzles, which is probably a good call in terms of variety.

2 Astrolounge February 2, 2012 at 2:39 pm

I think my favorite part of this session was when the massively narcissistic Eladrin Bard looked at his reflection and it looked EXACTLY THE SAME.

3 Johnny Fry February 2, 2012 at 3:59 pm

I was in the other Dueling Grounds group and this fight was tough, we barely survived it. We had a few lucky rolls of 20 on death saves that really kept the game going. I was playing a Satyr Skald, and only get 2 heals an encounter, one of them got used almost right away when one of the Assassins took a great axe. The Boggle’s Dominate was used to grant as many attack of opportunities as possible, and he was able to recharge it almost right away getting me on the third round, bringing me away from the group thus preventing me from healing my allies. In the end everyone was reduced to 0 hitpoints or lower at least once, and 2 people failed 3 death saves. Myself and the Goliath were the only two standing in the end, having snapped the human berserkers out of their charm. We had quite a few natural 20 death saves that really saved our collective asses. I really liked the puzzle with the door in the end, and lucked out by investigating the pool to see if the door looked the same in it’s reflection since it had no reflection.

4 Frank February 2, 2012 at 4:42 pm

My eladrin warlock noticed the same thing! LOL

5 Yagokoro February 2, 2012 at 5:23 pm

We were yet again lucky today, though reading the recaps made it obvious this time that our DM went easy on us. Part of this is because we had probably our weakest party yet this time: our trend of lacking a defender continued, and our rogue buddy drew DM duty again, so today it was just the two Mages, the Skald, and the Hexblade. Everyone but me was already expressing concerns about surges and whether we’d even make it through the last couple of encounters. It caused me to note that despite being the weakest, I’m not short of bravery because I’m still wiling to fight. As well as not being short on foolishness because that would be the case even if I was on one hit point and out of surges like last chapter.

Looking at the recaps, I was slightly disappointed that the Boggle wasn’t in on the fight, since it would have let me show off Soryth’s Bloodstone a bit. However, on reflection it was likely the right decision. Our Hexblade probably would have spent the entire encounter cowering in fear or getting angry and frustrated over the potential harm Dominate could cause, and it could have caused a -lot-. Dominate, if done smartly enough (and I know our DM is capable of it), could have easily made this encounter go from half a slam dunk to one step short of TPK. Heck, just the berzerkers could have done so, if the DM could have rolled something other than a 1 for damage for half the fight.

Despite the luck, there was some good genuine skill involved. We’ve all gotten better tactically, and it shows. Even if our Skald (the party’s lone Crystalbrooker) had ended up DMing like he thought he might, I knew from my notes that the two berzerkers were very likely the two missing adventurers from the Crystalbrook search party, and I cautioned the party to subdue rather than kill just before the DM confirmed my suspicions. I also let the Skald do the diplomatic honors despite the first chances always landing on my turn, and it led to some amazingly hilarious exchanges that cracked up the entire store.

Of course, the big question will be how we deal with the final two encounters. I’m the only one who isn’t down to two surges, and there will perpetually be a possibility of our Skald DMing one of them. Many are the possibilities.

6 B.J. February 2, 2012 at 10:43 pm

I warned last week that this fight would be tough. I was dominated and was very successful at doing away with my entire party. It was fun in a very manic sort of way, but entirely out of balance. That fine line between “too hard” has been crossed a few times this season.

7 knot February 2, 2012 at 11:47 pm

My party was very lucky, and an object lesson in the importance of having a strong leader. We were two Mages, a Ranger, the pre-gen Slayer, and a Pacifist Cleric armed with Sacred Flame, who made the fight a cake-walk. The saving throws granted by Sacred Flame (plus two lucky rolls) meant that the the DM never got the chance to use my dominated Mage even once. Two mages meant we could combine forced movement with Daze to sideline one of the berzerkers while the strikers bloodied the other and then killed the boggle. After that it was just cleanup. I got dominated twice but didn’t take a single point of damage, and no one else used more than one healing surge. Other tables at our store had more trouble, but our party turned out to be exactly the right one for the job.

8 David Argall February 3, 2012 at 1:10 am

VICTORIES OF VORDAL – 11. Rescuing prisoners

The sundial stopped spinning and we found ourselves in a garden, rather nice if you like that sort of thing. [Too elfy for the taste of a dwarf like me]. Not so nice was the presence of several fey who were clearly hostile, and two human barbarians I recognized as part of the previous rescue party. It seemed clear they had been charmed, and were not going to be friendly either. At least they didn’t pay any attention to our request that they don’t attack.
Kross the Drow rogue quickly charged into battle, and gave a good account of himself, and got hit by several enemy attacks too. Regar the human barbarian took on the other charmed barbarian, a fight that might have been rough on him, but Richard, a human paladin [or so he says anyway. His habit of collecting the ears of those he kills have some of us wondering.] and Cirus the elf ranger came to his aid and disposed of several fey as well.
One of the fey had some magic that allow him to possess people and Ola the rogue changed sides for much of the fight. Happily she proved rather incompetent as a puppet. I was beating on some of the lesser enemies and doing some healing, but warning my companions that the barbarians were possessed friends might have been my big contribution. Kross [making the strange claim as being a friendly drow] and Regar then managed to talk the two barbarians out of the fight. York the half-orc ranger helped Quillian the eladrin wizard take out the enemy caster while the rest of us jumped on the possessor when Ola finally managed to end the possession, Cirus the elf ranger got in the killing blow.
Our rescued friends were able to give us a little information, but they really couldn’t help much, and apparently were still partly controlled as they refused to attack the enemy. Still, they were an achievement for us.
But then we were confronted by a door that had no way to open it. There was no keyhole or doorhandle. We just could not figure out how to open it until Quillian realized the reflections in the pond were magical, and able to open the door if we told them to. So the doorway was suddenly open, and we rushed to the next barrier.

SEASONING OF GREENBOW – 11. An Unfriendly Garden

When things slowed down, we found ourselves in a right nice little garden, maybe a tad too civilized to be perfect, but still really nice… except for the inhabitants, who were highly unfriendly.
That was a very bad idea on their part. Mind you, we didn’t escape all damage. In fact Violet got badly hurt. But I was shooting good and Violet, Petunia, and the Satyr were handing out good damage too. Tamlim got dominated by some fey and caused us a good deal of trouble, but much of the trouble was chasing down the little pest. The satyr was the one who finally got him. We were lucky that we had been advised by the big lady fey to be merciful. A couple of the attackers were from that other rescue party from the human city and had gotten dominated by the fey. We were able to talk them out of attacking us, tho we had to beat them up pretty bad first.
Once the battle was over, we found ourselves facing a door that could not be opened. Took us quite awhile to puzzle it out. But eventually we noticed we had some strange reflections, and were able to get them to do open the door for us.
So now we enter the palace itself, and will meet the really tough stuff.

The three tables at my location had no problem with the battle, possibly because we were well aware of the desirability of talking the barbarians down. But of course, they got hurt pretty bad before that point anyway. Now there was no discussion in the text about what sort of action was needed, and the FMs ruled the range was all the way from free action to standard action.
The puzzle could have been a terrible problem, but our DM’s pretty much accepted anything that was even vaguely close [& one case where a player had read the text.]

9 The Unlucky Paladin February 3, 2012 at 2:36 pm

I actually really liked the encounter. I personally wouldn’t have killed the first berserker I charged… but, he bloodied me. So, I felt it was appropriate to do. Oh and by the way oh mighty DM of Hairy T… we’re gonna have one possibly two new people on Monday. One knows the rules to 4e the other will be brand new. They’ll also both need to play at the same table as me because their characters will be on my netbook.

10 Tom Mueller February 3, 2012 at 11:25 pm

A really good recap, the Opportunity Attack Sleaze move is genius! (None of us three DMs of gelatinouscubed.net thought of it) I’m also impressed that you Dm two separate sessions of Encounters; I don’t have the time or the will to do that much. I originally intended to scale back the damage that you quoted (1d12+5; 2d6+3), but at the table I just went with the stats as written, and it made for a beating, but not a killing. Each of the DMs even scored a crit with a berserker, provoking much shock and/or horror from the players.
For the puzzle of the pool, there’s ways the DM can make it an in-character role-playing experience. At my table, I had a coherent Argus show the players how they amuse themselves, and had his reflection go pick him a flower. Another obvious option is to describe the reflection not mimicking a PC’s action, but doing something in response to that action. For instance, when one player kicks gravel into the pool, the reflection makes a disappointed face back.
The past 2 weeks have been tough fights, though, that’s true; and the next 2 weeks don’t look to be any easier, so I’d make sure the PCs get as much benefit from the bowers as possible. 😉

11 Chris February 6, 2012 at 6:04 pm

Any idea of the reward for DMing this campaign of Beyond the Crystal Cave? I’m hoping its Isle of Dread, but that’s mostly because I read somewhere WotC was updating that old module for 4.0, and my homebrew campaign could use some island-type adventures…

12 darkl26139 February 7, 2012 at 10:56 am

My party fared well compared to most others described above but even still the mage and witches are low on healing surges. The berserkers were a threat but thanks to daze and knock prone spells we were able to take them down without too much trouble. The domination attack could have been bad but our DM only had dominated players make attacks against the party which missed. He did not have the player running around provoking opportunity attacks.

My frustration with this style of game emerged again because this fight took so long we had little time to talk to the brothers or solve the puzzle. We were able to solve it quickly but only by luck. More time for roleplaying the puzzle would have been nice. Again this fight of the week format is taking away from the heart of what to me at least D&D is. It should be easy enough to script in more roleplaying. A slim chance to talk the brother down before blooding them would have been nice. Perhaps by allowing a character from their hometown a chance? Something to tie everything together would greatly improve the experience. As it stands the characters have little connection to each other and players are actually better off if they keep switching characters. All this leads to no attachments to the game or the characters. D&D can and should do better.

13 Psi Missing February 8, 2012 at 12:47 pm

Hey, I had a quick question for all the DMs. Is there a prize/reward for DMing this season? I know that last time the DMs got a special prize for DMing, so is there one for this season? I have yet to find anything on it. The book does say ask the event coordinator at your store but they don’t know either. Thanks! – Psi

14 Ameron (Derek Myers) February 8, 2012 at 1:20 pm

@Chris and Psi Missing
Aside from getting to keep the adventure and the maps once the season is over, I don’t believe there is any tangible reward. If there is I haven’t heard anything. Remember that players who earned enough renown points are eligible for up to three special Fortune Cards. I know that as the DM I usually keep one of each for myself. However we don’t typically use Fortunate Cards in my games so it’s not a reward I ever get to use. 🙁

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