D&D Encounters: War of Everlasting Darkness (Week 5)

by Ameron (Derek Myers) on November 29, 2012

The heroes have the Wand of Tir’Lien. They braved the caverns underneath Citadel Adbar, flushed the Duergar squatters from the abandoned Dwarven outpost, fought a Mimic, and then destroyed the mad Drow Matharic to ultimately acquire the wand. Now they have returned to the Citadel where they rest while the Dwarven seer Axelcrantz examines the wand and tries to determine how it can be used to battle the Drow and defeat The Darkening.

Most weeks I play D&D Encounters at two different FLGS. I decided a few seasons ago to only focus on one group in these blog posts, mainly because it kept things simpler. So for the past few seasons these posts have focused on the exploits of my first run-through each week. Today I’ve decided to change things up a bit and share the adventures of the other group. I found their approach showed a lot of creativity and a lot more willingness to think outside of the box.

At the second FLGS we had 15 people, the perfect number for three tables. I had four players at my table and they were running the following characters: Half-Orc Fighter [Brawler], Half-Orc Barbarian [Berserker], Dragonborn Fighter, and Drow Ranger [Hunter]. No leaders and no controllers – should make for an interesting session.

Act 1 – The Journey

Scene 1 – The Short Route

Axelcrantz summoned the heroes to his sanctuary and shared his latest vision with them. The PCs must journey to the Fell Fortress, a citadel hidden in the Fell Pass. The fortress was constructed centuries ago by a Drow Necromancer and is a gate to the Shadowfell. The Drow plan to use this gate to call forth an undead army. The heroes can use the Wand of Tir’Lien to close the gate and push back the darkness.

The Fell Pass is hundreds of miles from Citadel Adbar and will take the PCs months to reach. They have to decide if they want to go the short way through the mountains and Moonwood, all the while fighting the elements and struggling to find ample food and water, of if they’d rather go the long way where they are more likely to encounter agents of the Drow intent on stopping them.

The heroes talked about the pros and cons of each route and decided that they were more suited to face the dangers of the direct path. With their Ranger to guide them, and the two Half-Orcs ready to intercede should they run into any Orc patrols they felt confident that they could make it to the Fell Fortress in time to stop the Drow.

Scene 2 – Preparations

Before leaving the Citadel on their long and perilous journey the PCs decided to gather information and supplies. They spent a few days in Citadel Adbar looking for a scout or a guide who could lead them or provide them with a map of safe passage. They also realized they’d need suitable equipment to survive the harsh winter condition. Although this was not something that was in the adventure I certainly allowed it.

For the next 45 minutes the PCs engaged some of the local Dwarves in hopes of getting anything to make their trip easier. They eventually found an old retired Ranger who knew everything there was to know about the mountains. Following some keen negotiations the Dwarven Ranger eventually provide the PCs with a map of some caverns that would allow them to travel for two weeks through the mountain rather than on the side of it. He also recommended that the PCs visit specific suppliers who would outfit them with appropriate equipment at reasonable prices (despite the fact that two of the heroes were Orcs, and one was Drow).

Scene 3 – The 3 Trials: Weather, Mountain and Hunger

When the PCs were finally ready to head out I explained that they would face three perils during their long journey. The first was the harsh clod of winter, the second was the treacherous mountain paths, and the third was the absence of ample food or wildlife to hunt. From a mechanics perspective the party needed to make three group checks, one for each peril. These checks represented the months of struggle to overcome the perils and not just individual encounters or specific one-time obstacles. However, as the PCs came up with ideas for how to fend off or overcome ach peril they’d get +1 to their corresponding skill check.

I awarded the party bonuses right off the bat for the prep work they’d already done during the role-playing in Citadel Adbar. After another 20 or so minutes of brainstorming and role-playing they’d come up with a lot more suggestions. As part of the brainstorming each of the characters had at least one chance to be in the spotlight where they explained one scene in which they did something to help the party. Overall they accumulated +5 to each of the three checks.

For the check to fend off the cold the Ranger used Nature and the rest of the PCs used Endurance. The Nature check failed but the other three succeeded so the party was fine. For the check to stay on the mountain trails the Ranger used Dungeoneering and the others all used Athletics. Although Athletics wasn’t one of the listed skills I allowed it based on the role-playing. I did tell the players that it would be a slightly harder check because it wasn’t one of the listed skills and they were fine with that. The Brawler failed his check but the other three made it with flying colours. Another party success. Finally they had to find food. The Ranger again used Nature while the others used Endurance. Again Endurance was not a listed skill but the role-playing deemed it appropriate so I allowed it but made the DC higher. All four PCs made this check so they didn’t go hungry.

Scene 4 – Orc Patrol

By the time the PCs reached the Orc Patrol in King Obould’s territory they were so tired and hungry they stumbled right into an Orc encampment. The Orcs were defensive but not aggressive asking who the PCs were and what they were doing here. The Brawler was the champion from The Pit in week 2 and recognized these Orcs as part of the Crooked Path tribe. He explained who he was and why the PCs were here, along with a good dose of self-promotion from his previous victory in The Pit. The Orcs remembered this champion and remembered that he didn’t kill the Drake, a sign of great respect to the clan. They welcomed the PCs into their camp, shared a hot meal and promised to keep watch while they rested.

As we role-played the dinner scene the party asked about dangers and opposition they might face in these woods. The Orcs provided them with some intel, specifically where the Drow and rogue Orcs were currently staged. Using this information the party managed to reach Fell Pass unmolested.

Act 2 – The Fell Fortress

When the PCs arrived at the Fell Pass they felt the Shadowfell pulling on their life forces. The Barbarian and Fighter failed their Endurance checks and suffered -2 to their saving throws and initiative. When the party arrived at the Fell Fortress they spotted two Drow spellcasters in the midst of a ritual. The stonework of the nearby fortress was made to look like a giant gaping skull, the front gates forming the maw and the portcullis the fangs. So basically Castle Greyskull (come on, who didn’t make that connection?). There were also numerous shadowing wraiths flying in and out of the castle.

Normally with a party of four I’d curb back the encounter a bit but given the party’s huge offensive capabilities I didn’t. In fact I made it a bit tougher since the PCs had suffered no damage until this point. I left the two Drow exactly as printed (a level 8 artillery and a level 8 controller leader). There were supposed to be three Wraiths at the beginning and then 1d3 more each round. I decided to start with three, and add three the next round. Each round after that I’d bring the total number of Wraiths up to two if there were less than that many alive. I also made one really big change to how the Wraiths worked. Since they had phasing I imagined them as being insubstantial as well. Any time they took damage I’d give the Wraith a save. On a success they’d phase quickly enough to avoid damage (think the two ghost brothers in the second Matrix movie). If they failed the save they’d die like normal minions. On a crit they didn’t get a save.

The fight lasted almost an hour and was a lot of fun. The melee combatants were constantly struggling to avoid being slowed by the Wraiths and immobilized by the Drow casters. The ongoing damage really started piling up on the Barbarian, fortunately he had resist 3 ongoing damage which saved his life. The absences of a leader made things difficult but not impossible. The wand of Tir’Lien with its four heals made things manageable. I ruled that the wand required a minor action to trigger a heal (much like the Bard’s Scald aura).

At no time during the fight did any of the PCs think to activate the sunlight power on any of their three special magic items. I decided that had they done so no new Wraiths would have appeared after the initial six fell and the Wraths would have suffered a -2 on their phasing save.

When the Drow and the Wraiths were finally defeated Axelcrantz (who had been tagging along this whole time but not really contributing in any way) took the Wand of Tir’Lien and used it to close the gate to the Shadowfell and push back The Darkening from the Fell Pass. Searching the bodies of the Drow revealed a magical shield with the symbol of Amaunator etched onto its face. This was another item that could radiate sunlight. They also found battle plans indicating a Troll army was on its way to Nesmé. If Nesmé falls Silverymoon would surly be next. So the PCs headed to Nesmé to help fend off the Trolls.

Thoughts

I really liked that the PCs had two different paths that they could take to reach the Fell Pass. Given their composition and skills they could choose to take the route most suited to their strengths. The actual skill checks could have been done in about 5 minutes (which they were at some tables) or the DM and parties could have spent a lot of time role-playing it (like we did). This all came down to the people at the table and their preference.

The fight was tough, and if the party had taken damage before reaching the big climax it could have been a very challenging battle. Again, DMs needed to assess the party’s abilities and power level and adjust accordingly.

I found that the Wand of Tir’Lien gave the party a really big advantage in the healing department. The minimal description provided in the adventure doesn’t specific if activating the wand requires a minor action or if it’s a free action. I decided that it should work like the Bard’s Scald aura and be a minor action. Between the wand and the Tears of Helm the party has the means to trigger five healing surges each week. Even a party without a leader shouldn’t have any difficulties getting back on their feet. Personally I think the wand is way too powerful. I think one or two heals per day is plenty.

Recounting Encounters Podcast

Recounting Encounters is a weekly podcast I record with Marc Talbot (Alton) from 20ft Radius in which we recount that week’s experiences with D&D Encounters. We share the highlights from our respective FLGS and we talk about what worked, what didn’t and what we might have done differently. Find all episodes of Recounting Encounters on iTunes under 20ft Radius.

Also be sure to check out our special episode of Recounting Encounters in which we interviewed one of this season’s authors Shawn Merwin.

Actual Play Podcasts

We continue to record our D&D Encounters sessions and make them available to you for download every week. These recordings are made in a loud, crowded game store so at times it may be difficult to hear everyone. Some language may be inappropriate for all ages, although we try to keep it as family-friendly as possible.

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.


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{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Joe Lastowski November 29, 2012 at 11:30 am

It was a long night at our FLGS, but a good one, I believe. My table had five strikers and a leader, and took the short route, and it still took us 2.5 hours to finish. When we left, neither of the other two tables (one of which had taken the long route) had even started the final fight.

My party thought the shorter route would be best not because of their survival skills (only one was trained in Nature), but because they wanted to just attack the orcs they imagined they’d meet going through that way. Also, despite the many warnings I gave about the environmental hazards and the winter season, my table got no extra provisions or clothing, instead making some Game of Thrones quotes before asking if we could get to the killing. As it turned out, they failed all 3 of the environmental challenges (though I did help them to gain bonuses on each check… they just didn’t have the stats to make rolls like that, even with the bonuses from their support ideas). Fortunately one was a warforged who didn’t need to eat, so I let him take no damage from the hunger games… er… trial. And the extra healing they had available from the Tears and the Wand, as well as the party’s artificer, made it okay.

The orc encounter was awkward, because nobody in the party thought to mention their good relationship with Obould. Instead they eventually convinced the orcs that the whole party were slaves to their half-orc fighter. The other orcs congratulated him on his success, and sent them on their way.

I hate having know-it-all NPCs along the way, so as the party arrived at the Fell Fortress, I had Axelcrantz appear, saying “Great news! I finally got that teleport to work!” The party rolled their eyes, looking frozen, starved, and avalanched-upon, while Axelcrantz was relatively well-fed and warm. He gave them the required text about the shadowfell and what was going on, and the party rushed up to the battle.

The fight was frustrating for the PCs. Lots of low rolls from the strikers, and once the wizard drow levitated, he was out of reach from the two slayers, the avenger, and the artificer (whose powers required an ally adjacent to the enemy). Fortunately, eventually (3rd try, maybe) the pixie vampire was able to Dark Beckon the wizard down, and by then the sister had been dealt with. The higher stats on the two drow also frustrated the PCs, because even their mid-range roles weren’t hitting… and they weren’t used to missing against creatures 3 levels higher than they were. The multiple status effects & sources of ongoing damage also added to the players’ frustration. At one point, I believe our Avenger was immobilized, weakend, taking OG 15 poison, and OG 5 lightning.

When all was said and done, I described the effect Axelcrantz did with the wand as basically reversing the polarity of the Shadowfell Gate, sucking in the Darkening of the area into the realms of shadow.

Folks overall enjoyed the session, though they were frustrated by their many failed skill checks & attack rolls. They felt like they had really survived some tough trials, and that they had accomplished some good as well (though the vampire wasn’t too happy to see the sunlight suddenly). Everyone is super jazzed about fighting an army of trolls next week, too.

As a DM, I was a little frustrated at having to prepare two totally separate paths, but I liked that the players’ choices actually made a difference. And while I would have loved to use my Balhannoth mini for the demonic abomination with the gnome’s potions, I think adding another fight would have really slowed things down.

My only real complaint with this season overall has been timing. We’ve got kids who play who have school the next day, and adults who have to work early in the morning, and many who are trying to figure out dinner, as well as my wife & I who try to get back home for American Horror: Asylum at 10 PM. There’s just so much to cram into what is advertised as a “no more than 2 hour” time slot that I feel either a lot needs to get left out, or players need to expect at least 3 hours. While I’m excited about the just-announced next season of Encounters, and curious to see how they run the dual-edition thing, I really hope they scale back on trying to force a full adventure into each week, and let us go back to what the program was built on: having a single encounter each week, giving folks with limited time a chance to come beat up on some monsters and participate in an ongoing story across a whole season. Some of the weeks we’ve run this season would have taken several weeks in the old Encounters model, yet somehow they need to be altered so that we can get in all the important stuff in a reasonable amount of time. Especially with this being an event that brings folks to Gaming Stores, which also have to stay open and pay staff to stay on late into the night, it’d be nice if the writers of Encounters would take that time factor into account with future seasons.

2 Michael Clarke November 29, 2012 at 10:12 pm

I ran this session off the cuff – I hadn’t had the module on hand during the week, and so hadn’t been able to prep it. I had a group of 5 – Paladin, Artificer, Avenger, Hybrid Warlock-something (I really didn’t catch it…), and Assassin.

I felt that the events in the long route were a little stacatto, and unrequired. The Goblin ambush was just an excuse to have a combat, and related in no way to the overall story. Groups of minions, no matter how spread out, just don’t last long.

The RP encounters at the various cities were too brief to really engage the party, except for the gnome ‘alchemist’, and even then, it was the goods that got their attention, not the NPC.

The ghost combat took a little longer, mainly due to the high defenses on the creatures, and their abillities to keep the party split up, but as soon as the Artificer used a power to do autodamage to anything starting next to him, it was all over.

Once the party got to Castle Greyskull (yes, I called it that on the night, without having read this article ;)), they tore through the combat in no time. The female drow was dead before taking a second action, and her brother was only two rounds behind. He could have escaped using Levitation, since none of the players had a ranged attack over range 10, but that wouldn’t have been fair. The Hybrid warlock had also summoned some tentacles with one of his powers that did damage to anything starting beside them – right by the portal, so the Wraiths basically did not participate in the encounter.

I have not yet seen anything on the next season, but if this season is anything to go by, I suspect this might be my last Encounters. Although I do like that there are often multiple paths through each chapter, and there have been some good role-playing opportunities, overall I haven’t liked the new format. As others have said, there is just too much being crammed into a short session.

3 Sunyaku November 29, 2012 at 10:27 pm

I do find it a little frustrating that we need to significantly adjust the power level of every encounter for an adventuring day to be remotely threatening. For the mostpart up to this point I’ve been running the module as is, or perhaps making a small change here or there. My usual table has never once been in any real danger, but this week I did enjoy handing out despair cards in the final act. ;-)
Sunyaku´s last blog post ..Player Down, Player Down!

4 Wendy McLaren November 30, 2012 at 7:49 pm

I’ve had the same players all season, so I knew they’d prefer the long path. I did give them the choice and that’s what they picked. Since we need to plan for missing week 7, I ran 5 slightly abbreviated and then 6. They had a blast! At Sundabar, I said a minstrel in the refugee camp was singing about their exploits. Our bard, who is a bit of a diva (character, not player!), corrected the minstrel. She was highly insulted. I went around the table and gave each player a chance to help the refugees in some way. As a reward, I gave them bonuses to use in combat.

The potions segment also was fun. I printed up cards with pictures of potions and let them buy or haggle for them. The mage managed to figure out all but the demon and the efreet potions. When the battle with the drow started, the fighter drank the demon potion. I decided to let her roll Arcana to see if the demon was ally or enemy each round. The first round, he was ally and went to fight, too. However, all attacks that would hit multiple enemies affected him, giving a negative bonus to the next Arcana check.

I agree with the others that Wizards is trying to cram too much in each week’s session. I do like the epic storyline, which affects the PCs, by having many of the people (or ghosts ;) ) they meet have heard of them. But the maps are a big disappointment. The map for the abandoned dwarf stronghold (Session 4) didn’t match the description at all. There was no crossroads map for the orc encounter, and the same map for the stronghold was used for Castle Greyskull and it didn’t look right there, either.

I won’t add any spoilers about Session 6, but I will say it might be my favorite session. Innovative, with good combat and RP opportunities, and chances for each player to use their best or favorite attributes.

5 Shawn December 3, 2012 at 1:48 pm

The monster you guys were talking about in the podcast, I think, is the grasping zombie.

Trigger: The zombie is reduced to 0 hit points, but not by a critical hit.
Effect (No Action): Roll a d20. On a 15 or higher, the zombie is instead reduced to 1 hit point.

6 Cent December 3, 2012 at 2:11 pm

Another good session for our group. We chose the short route. Our DM is proving to be an adept improvisor when it comes to the rules provided with each encounter, and his flexibility has led to some good role playing moments that actually seem to impact the outcome of each session in small, but not insignificant ways.

By the time we got to the final battle we were already 2 hours into the game, and things slowed down considerably from there. Once again the final “boss” didn’t have much to tell us, and so we very quickly found ourselves engaged in battle. The wraiths proved to be a minor, but recurring nuisance and our controllers were able to mostly pin down both drow until we could slowly bludgeon them to death. I noticed that for the second week in a row this battle went on longer than it needed to. By comparison, the other table finished their session about thirty minutes before we did. The difference being, IMO, the lack of Strikers in our group.

I know we’re supposed to stick to the classes listed for these encounters, however I might try hybriding my Cavalier with a Striker (vampire maybe) in order to provide a little more oomph to our fights.

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