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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