D&D Encounters: Council of Spiders (Week 8.)

by Ameron (Derek Myers) on October 18, 2012

The end is near; at least the end of this season of D&D Encounters. This week marked the finale of the Council of Spiders. The party was looking for Valan Jaelre, the instigator of the recent unrest in Menzoberranzan and possibly one of the leaders of the Council of Spiders. Valan’s defeat (and death) could quash many fires, especially if he revealed who else he was working with. The PCs were in the right place at the right time, but the task ahead was going to be difficult.

Last week the PCs ventured through the slums of Menzoberranzan to find Valan’s hideout. They had an unexpected encounter with a Priestess of House Melarn who was apparently one of Valan’s partners. The PCs defeated the rogue Priestess and her entourage before heading down a staircase and into Valan’s lair.

Unfortunately we had a very poor turnout for our grand finale. The level 3 table had a DM and three players, and my level 6 table had a DM and three players. Yet another example of why everyone in the FLGS should play the same level characters and not let some group play up. Rather than combine for a table of six or seven, we had to run two tables of three. My group had a Drow Rogue/Blackguard (f), Drow Druid (m), and Drow Wizard Bladesinger (f) all of whom were affiliated with Bregan D’aerthe.

As the PCs reached the bottom of the staircase they realized they were in a catacombs or some kind of forgotten shrine to Lolth. Around them were the bones of long-dead Drow now covered with dust and spider webs. From a nearby altar to Lolth a cloud of brown smoke appeared. From the haze the PCs could feel the malevolence and power oozing from it. This was a Yochlol Demon, a handmaiden of Lolth. For one to appear in this way and in this place was unheard of. This was either a sign of Lolth favour or her severe displeasure.

The Yochlol spoke to the PCs telepathically. “Prove yourselves to the Goddess, mortals! How do you obey the Spider Queen’s will?” it asked. Each character had the opportunity to respond telepathically. The right answers would earn them a boon; the wrong answers Lolth’s bane.

This was a really interesting way to give the players a chance to do some role-playing. Because the answers were happening simultaneously and in secret, there was no fear of reprisal from the other PCs. In the case of my party they all agreed on a common course of action during week 6, but when asked to explain why they were here and how they planned to act, they all had different ideas of what was best for them and for Lolth.

The Blackguard supported the Council of Spiders only because Lolth demanded it (no boon or bane), the Bladesinger supported the Way of Lolth but opposed the Council of Spiders (boon +1 to attack rolls), and the Druid just wanted the Demon Weave created (boon +2 to saves).

Once the handmaiden completed its test it vanished and Valan’s allies attacked the PCs. Initially the PCs held back at the first level, trying to gain cover and draw Valan’s forces upstairs. The Druid and Bladesinger dropped a couple of zones on the stairs trapping the Hex Knights. Valan quickly moved in and dropped his burst 2 Webbed Miasma, engulfing the whole party (all three of them).

While trapped in the web one of the Spellspinners managed to use his blast 5 Shadow Web on the webbed PCs making their lives even more difficult. The players realized that they needed to get out of the shooting gallery and down to the next level. The Druid used two summoning powers in two consecutive rounds to beef up the party’s numbers and provide the PCs with cover while they maneuvered through the difficult terrain.

The Bone Spiders made the simple task of getting downstairs more difficult than it should have been, but a Magic Missile and shuriken eventually took them out and cleared a path.

The Hex Knights, still trapped on the stairs, when toe-to-toe with the summoned creatures and the Bladesinger but didn’t last for very long despite their really good defenses.

While the party faced the Hex Knights and the first Spellspinner on the stairs, Valan and the other Spellspinner carefully stayed out of charging range and fired into the melee. The Bladesinger was the first PC to fall unconscious, but the Druid had her back on his feet in no time.

Damaging conditions were the real enemy in this fight. The monsters weren’t hitting all that often but the ongoing necrotic, ongoing psychic, ongoing poison and slowed effect quickly took their tool. The PCs just couldn’t shake the effects on the first round so most of the time each effect did 5 damage for two rounds before it was shrugged off.

When Valan realized who the PCs were (his Simulacrum fought them last season) he recognized that he could be in real danger if he stayed and fought. Just as he was about to run, the Bladesinger dazed him. On each subsequent round the Druid managed to hamper Valan’s movement but knocking him prone or slowing him. Valan had the Spellspinner run interference and try to draw fire for a round but it didn’t work.

The PCs were determined to stop Valan from escaping. They faced him twice last season and in both cases he got the better of them. Although they knew if they let him flee they’d all live, they were willing to give their own lives if it meant stopping Valan. With two summoned creatures and three PCs against one opponent it was still a remarkably balanced fight. Valan had gone pretty much unscathed the whole fight while the PCs were all well below their bloodied value.

Good tactics by the Druid continued hampering Valan, effectively stopping him from getting a full move action. The party slowly chipped away at his remaining hit points while he kept try to flee. When he realized he wasn’t likely to get away he changed his tactics and focusing fire on the most wounded PC. However, by then it was too late. Even when he hit the PCs he wasn’t able to drop them. Between healing potions and second wind they all remained on their feet and eventually beat Valan senseless.

The party’s desire for revenge outweighed any immediate need to kill Valan. They interrogated him before causing him a slow and painful death. (Although this is not something I usually allow in my game, I thought it fitting given the history of these PCs and Valan.)

They learned that Valan was supposed to meet with Gromph Baenre, the Archmage of Menzoberranzan. They were not able to conclusively confirm that Gromph was a member of the Council of Spiders, but his willingness to meet them spoke volumes. They also found a coded letter that proved Valan was taking orders from a senior member of House Nuryndin, the 48th house of Menzoberranzan. Among Valan’s belongings they also found the Spellfire Manacle. This was an item blessed by Mystra which contains the power of Spellfire.

Valan’s defeated was a big step towards averting a Drow civil war. After the PCs report what happened and provide the proof they discovered, the Council of Spiders agreed to align with Lolth’s will and the fighting over the creation of the Demon Weave simmered down. The Drow put aside petty rivalries for now and focused on the greater tasks that Lolth has in store for them. (See D&D Encounters: War of Everlasting Darkness – Preview.)

I really liked this final encounter. I thought it made great use of the environment and terrain. The fact that the combat didn’t just take place in one big open area (like last week) was a huge plus. It let the PCs and villains use tactics to make the combat a lot more interesting. The hazardous webs with biting spiders gave anyone with forced movement powers additional options when they hit, something we haven’t see that much of this season.

This encounter reminded me a lot of an encounter from last season’s Web of the Spider Queen in which the PCs began at the top of a crypt and had to fight while they descended the stairs and rounded corners. This encounter was also good because the PCs had a very clear objective: find and kill Valan. It was simple but effective.

My only complaint about this encounter was that it didn’t really seem to provide a satisfying conclusion to the adventure. There was only a short paragraph that basically said “good job, crisis averted.” I really would have liked to see more detail provided, if only to close the story loop more completely.

Next week I’ll post my Council of Spiders Report Card in which I take a look at the season as a whole. But for now I want to know what you thought of the final encounter. Did you find it too difficult or too easy? Did anyone suffer a TPK? Did anyone else feel that the ending seemed flat – almost like something was missing? Did any DMs have Valan flee? What did the PCs do in that situation?

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{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Joe October 18, 2012 at 10:17 am

Our FLGS (Modern Myths in Northampton, MA) had a decent turnout for the finale (18 total players, all regulars, split into 3 tables), though the free pizza we offer might also have contributed to the enthusiasm for that session. I had 5 players at my table, all of whom have been fairly regular throughout the season: a mom (cleric) & her two kids (paladin & slave rogue), a young man (male bow ranger), and my wife (wizard). I knew these players pretty well, so I tried to make sure this was an encounter they could all have fun with.

Knowing that all my players had hated the Drow plot, didn’t like the idea of helping the spider queen in any way, and wouldn’t do well in the “test” with the Yochlol, I changed the encounter up a bit and had the Yochlol statted-up (I went into the Monster Builder & dropped her level down to 7 or 8).

Sure enough, it wasn’t long before the PCs (our male drow paladin, in fact) had insulted the Handmaiden, answering her question with “I’m not here to talk, just fight.” She responded with “Very well then… a test of strength. The ones you seek are further in this ancient temple, but you have until this spider (she pointed to a spider starting to drop on a line from the ceiling) reaches the ground before I test you myself.”

This let me add a time element with some fantastic dramatic tension, as at the end of each round I could say “The spider just passed her eyeball”, “Now it’s about halfway”, etc. The PCs quickly figured out that they needed to kill the other villains quickly. Unfortunately, they did not. I had hoped this would also move them into the main room faster, instead of their usual slow crawl with the archer & wizard way behind… but they got hung-up in the long hallway as the hexblades blocked their path, not getting to the room with Valan & the spell-spinners until round 5 or 6. That was when I activated the Yochlol and had her start moving down the corridor towards the party.

Now I knew from the post-fight description that Valan had the Spellfire Manacle artifact, so I decided that the reason he didn’t join the fight until the PCs defeated the hex knights was that he was performing some sort of ritual on it. The party’s wizard got close enough to see the end of the ritual, and she could tell it was immensely powerful raw magical energy in the manacle, and that the ritual had something to do with Yochlols. Sure enough, when the Yochlol showed up, Valan used the re-purposed manacle to dominate her, and the party had to deal with two big baddies on either side.

As the rest of the party (all drow) tried to take down Valan as quickly as possible, our one svirfneblin rogue slave (a 13ish-yr-old whose older brother/paladin & mom/cleric had both usually done most of the talking for her in roleplaying situations, since she was a slave) asked if she could try stealing the manacle from Valan. She’s been a very timid player throughout the season, not really understanding the Drow politics and also playing the role of a quiet, submissive slave, so this was a HUGE leap for her. As a DM trying to promote fun at the table, I said “yes.”

She made an amazing Thievery role, and I stopped the combat briefly to put the spotlight on her. I told her she had an option now… she could feel this immensely powerful artifact in her hand. It felt like there were two energies: the drow energy on top that was controlling the yochlol, and something deeper beneath that… something that felt more connected to the magic in her gnomish blood. I said she could use the item to command the yochlol herself, or she could release the drow energy to see what this item could do without that drow influence. After she realized she didn’t actually want to make anyone else into a slave, and didn’t want to upset the yochlol should she ever escape the domination, our rogue chose to release the Yochlol and banish the drow energy from the artifact.

At this point Valan was down to the teens in HP, and the pizza was smelling really good, so I gave our rogue a new attack power she could use: SPELLFIRE. While she’d never read the book of the same name (which, BTW, is awesome), I had, so I described the blue-white fire that she wielded very dramatically, and our timid slave rogue soon felt empowered. The rest of the table was on-board with this, making the player feel really accomplished. She roasted Valan, and then had a chance to make yet another choice: what to do with the item.

Initially she wanted to trade the item for a promise that the Drow would free her, but her brother reminded her that every Drow she’d ever known had lied to her, so any deal might not work. To highlight the power of Spellfire, I made it clear that even the Yochlol was hesitant to approach the rogue, and eventually she realized that she could use her new power to stop being a slave and go back to her people. She chose not to use the power to hurt any of the rest of the party, since her deep gnome was, deep down, a nice person. When all was said and done, the gnome was free, the rest of the PCs had fulfilled their “Get the artifact from Valan, or at least make sure he can’t use it” quest from their Drow elders.

Next season, at some point I’ll make mention of a deep gnome cult some loremaster PC has heard of that still worships the vestiges of Mystra’s power, which all of my players from last night will realize probably started with this Svirfneblin PC.

One table at our store ran this fight as-is, straight out of the book, and he had 7 players at his table, so they got through pretty quickly. Another had the yochlol present, but non-combative, and beefed-up the stats on the enemies… which made their fight very difficult. My table had a mid-level challenge with the fight, though the narrative threat of the Yochlol made it come alive a bit more. At no table did I hear anyone saying anything to gain bonuses during the “Test” of the yochlol, so that mechanic didn’t work nearly as well as, say, last season’s finale w/ Mystra/Elminster’s blessings.

Overall, we were all happy the season was finished. It was a tough road, in which we saw attendance drop dramatically and player interest in the plot fall to record lows. One of our veteran DMs (who’s been DMing Encounters since season 2) was so burned out by this Drow season that he chose not to come back to run next season… so hopefully a store employee will step-up to fill his role in the coming weeks. Regardless, everyone is super eager to play heroes again next season and stop all the mandated backstabbing.

2 Auiva October 18, 2012 at 5:28 pm

This encounter would have been tough under most circumstances. Coming back from a TPK last week and reduced resources, my table was definitely not in the best position coming into this last fight. They were also down one from their usual numbers, so I reduced Valen’s hit points by half, and didn’t use several odds and ends powers that came with some of the monsters- hexknights blinded on death, Valen making minions on death, and a few other things like that. However, despite some good efforts, the opposition this week ended up proving too much for my table, ultimately.
Being primarily of House Melarn, the priestess from last week saw the PCs doing non-lethal on their enemies, and decided to return the favor, plot-wise. While on the brink of death, the PCs were dragged to the map for this week, and in their death hazes, visited by the yochlol, who spoke to them and asked them why they did what they did. The two priestess answered that they pursued the demon weave above all else, granting them bonuses, while the ranger from Melarn answered “I follow my priestesses” and the Bregan Daerthe answered something along the lines of “gollllld,” and thus the two were cursed (interestingly, this proved a bit useful to the PCs once Valen got his puppeteering going, as they would only do half damage to their teammates if they hit them). They were awoken by a missed blast from the spellspinner, and battle began.

Seeing as they have now fought assassins twice from this group, one escaping, I figured Valen had heard of some of their tactics, and so the hexknights kept to their positioning in the stairs. This proved a major obstacle to the PCs- literally. As an all-melee party, they had a hard time thinking of ways of moving these guys other than ‘kill them.’ Meanwhile, the spellspinners sat behind and shot ongoing necrotic, while Valen shot psychic ongoing. Around the second round, one of the spellspinners decided he didn’t care about hurting his teammates and moved up behind them, using his blast 5 to immobilize and inflict further ongoing. That same turn, Valen released his burst-2-in-10, creating a zone of difficult terrain that covered most of the area the PCs were using to fight with. The result was terrible terrain and control of the board for the PCs, combined with stacking ongoings. It was going to be hard to beat.

One of the clerics was the first to go down, outright dead. The party did grab his things, and soon the second cleric was out of healing powers, and wondered aloud about how one loots powers, since the dead cleric still had some. At this point, things were already pretty hairy, so I through in a free-action roll for her: Each turn, pray to Lolth. If you crit on this roll, Lolth hears you, and grants you the unused powers of your dead cleric companion. It was a fun little thing that could have been crazy if she’d critted, but alas, it was not to be.

All in all, interesting season. This session my players seemed pretty worn out though- I think partially due to the lack of resources from the previous week’s TPK, and partially from the style of the season. I agree with the OP that this session seemed to just…end. I really would love a session where you get to finish politicking and set things in order, or something like that. If my players had survived this, I’m not sure how satisfactory they would have found the ending, outside of being pumped at killing the bane of their existences: Hexknights who run around in stupid circles with a +4 bonus to AC.

3 Michael October 21, 2012 at 12:12 am

We had a total party wipe, or would have if two of our four characters hadn’t run. We had 5 players/characters in Session 7, and just barely won that. This week we only had four PC’s against a stronger foe, and it was obvious after the first round that we had no chance.

Our party was two Drow strikers from House Xorlarrin, my drow bardess Shi’navae Melarn, and a human fighter slave also from House Melarn. We came down the stairs and encountered the Yochlol. Unlike the DM’s in the podcast, our DM didn’t give any hint of how to answer its question (or if he did, it was lost in the general noise of the crowd of people playing MtG). The players for the two House Xorlarrin Drow had been there for every session and gave answers that gave them blessings. I only came into the campaign part way through, and I had no idea it was asking about my Shi’navae’s “political” stance, so she got cursed – the “I spit you out answer”, as did the character who was a slave.

So then we got jumped by the Drow and Dark Creepers. The two House Xorlarrin Drow charged into the fight, and by the end of the first round they were both bloodied while the enemy were hardly scratched. Shi’navae dropped a heal on a Xorlarrin and took cover in the, I presumed, relative safety of some of the spiderwebs. Hey little buddies!… ouch! The enemy were fighting as a coordinated team while the PC’s were roleplaying a herd of cats. My little bard was pretty dispirited at being utterly rejected by her Goddess, and it was obvious that we had no chance in this fight, so she dropped her last heal on a Xorlarrin, turned, and RAN. The slave saw the only Drow from his employer’s House running, and it wasn’t his losing fight, so he took off too. Needless to say, it went badly for Xorlarrin after that. As the Drow proverb says, every silver lining does have its dark cloud :).

The DM asked if Shi’navae was waiting for her litter to take her back to House Melarn, and I’m “NO! She’s a noble drow female: she KNOWS what happens to those who come back to report complete and utter failure to Priestesses of Lolth, and it isn’t pretty.” (Especially when you’ve been personally told by a Yochlol that you’re not in favour with Lolth!) So she used her Streetwise skill to fade into the crowds. When last seen, she was heading incognito to try to join Bregan D’aerthe, or, preferably, join a caravan heading out of town. Far, FAR out of town.

What surprised me was that the DM was surprised that I had Shi’navae run. He was really expecting her to participate in a suicidal assault on a superior force in a prepared defensive position after being “spat out” by Lolth. I don’t get people sometimes.

This was my first Encounters session – I joined it because I remember a fun Drow mini-campaign back when D&D was in its second edition. It took me a while to find a FLGS running Encounters and I couldn’t make all of the sessions. Overall, it felt very railroady, even including the impression I got from your blog that there was a chance to influence events in one of the sessions I missed. The fact that all the roleplaying was focused in particular sessions (that I had to miss) also didn’t work well, I thought. The rules for the next session sound like WotC is attempting to address this, but I’m not sure. In this gaming situation, where the number of players showing up is so variable, you really need a DM who will adjust the difficulty of the encounter to the number of players showing up.

Thanks for your blog – it’s been interesting to compare other peoples’ experiences with my own.

4 Rick Hansen October 24, 2012 at 7:59 am

Wow, these other DMs really pulled out all the stops to make a memorable final session. I feel a little intimidated to describe my season-ending encounter, but since this is my first time as a DM, I’ll assume that you folks will be understanding.
I’d been fomenting dissent between the houses and mercenaries using the ideas supplied in the campaign book. The Xorlarrin items hidden in the wizards’ meeting place helped build distrust of that house, and the Melarn priestesses in session 7 did the same damage to their credibility. One of the mercenaries had cut the Melarn symbol from the robes of a dead priestess following session 7, so I had House Xorlarrin hire them at a considerable markup in exchange for their protection and the proof of Melarn’s involvement.
With that said, we began the session as normal, but there was the problem of the telepathic communication. I recorded the yochlol’s comments on my iPhone beforehand and played them back to each PC while pantomiming the yochlol’s expressions during the interaction. My players got a kick out of the strange behavior of Lolth’s avatar. I had a large group of 9 players, so it was going to be a challenge to 1) run effective and challenging combat and 2) keep it interesting for the players.
As they moved down the halls and stairwells, the PCs kept taking minor damage without seeing any attackers. Eventually, they were able to figure out that it was the gargoyle statues who came to life every time they weren’t looking. This preceded the arrival of Hoshtar, who came running up from the rear, determined to find a “traitor” who he was certain was an unknown member of the party. Some of the PCs had been suspicious of him from before, so he vaporized a couple of the gargoyles and subsequently earned his house’s trust once more. Since Xorlarrin had secretly hired the mercenary group, they were disposed to follow his lead.
When Valan and his henchmen appeared, the ranking Melarn priestess decided to use a Scroll of Power (polymorph) which she had earned earlier in the season, and transformed into a simulacrum of Lolth. While all the PCs were freaking out, Hoshtar accused her of being the traitor, as no self-respecting priestess would sully herself with such wizardry tactics. This was sufficient to turn the wizards against her. So, for the rest of the session, it was Melarn vs. Xorlarrin/D’aerthe vs. Valan, which pleased me to no end.
Ultimately, the wizards punished “Lolth” until she vanished in a puff of smoke and everyone defeated Valan.
After eight weeks of prodding and manipulation, I finally got my players to think like drow. I was very proud of them and had a good experience as a rookie DM.

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