After last week’s stellar encounter there was regrettably nowhere to go but down. What was even more unfortunate was that this week’s encounter had problems all on its own, and having it follow such a strong outing in week 6 made it seem all that much more troubled. But I guess every week can’t be gold as we learned in week 7.
This season has provided the PCs with plenty of freedom to make their own choices. There was very little railroading compared to previous seasons of D&D Encounters. This week the train made its ugly return and all the PCs were forced to take a ride. In a season that’s been so good on so many levels this week they really lowered the bar.
This week at my FLGS we were right in that awkward attendance zone of nine players – too many for one table but not quite enough for two. The second DM decided to leave early and take the night off so I ran a table of seven. Not ideal, but I knew I could make it work. The party rounded out like this: Revenant [Gith] Bard, Eladrin Cleric (Valenae pre-gen), Shade Warlock (Binder), Human Swordmage, Drow Assassin, Pixie Vampire, Shade Ranger (Hunter).
Act 1 – Trouble in Blingdenstone
Scene 1 – A Message from Axelcrantz
This session began with lots and lots of narration. The first two pages were almost all read aloud text. Some descriptive text is obviously needed to set the stage but it basically described what the PCs were doing without giving them any input to make decisions. It began with a recap of the months following the battle in Nesmé. Then the PCs received a magical message from Axelcrantz that they must come to find him in Silverymoon.
Once there he told the PCs that trade between the Svirfneblin town of Blingdenstone and the Duergar city of Gracklstugh had stopped and they must get it flowing again. He also told them to go to a master bladesmith named Gemen in Gracklstugh. They should provide him with the components they’d already collected along with a bag of gold dust Axelcrantz handed them now. This smith would create a weapon that could help the PCs defeat Lolth and stop The Darkening. So off they went again, this time to Blingdenstone to find the Deep Gnome Ginnertow, former Harbormaster.
Look at that; a whole scene where the PCs just sat there and listened. No role-playing, no decision making, just railroading.
Scene 2 – The Harbormaster
When the PCs finally ended up in Blingdenstone they went where Axelcrantz sent them and sought the person Axelcrantz sent them to find. Without any checks required she spills her guts and explains what’s going on. This could have been an average role-playing scene but it worked better as an information dump and the players just wanted to keep the railroad moving so they could get to their final destination (which this clearly wasn’t).
Ginnertow explained that the harbor instantly froze over, destroying boats and killing Gnomes. The town guards sent to investigate never returned. The adventurers sent to investigate never returned. As long as the harbor was frozen trade with Gracklstugh would not happen. Everybody off, the train has reached the station. And look another scene with practically no role-playing required.
Scene 3 – Frozen Harbor
The docks were still completely frozen over when the PCs arrived to investigate. Despite Arcana checks and Nature checks the PCs were unable to discern what happened. Finally the Warlock decided to venture onto the ice, and that’s where the first two Ice Devils appeared. The monsters both managed to hit the Warlock, bloodying him and trapping him on the ice. The rest of the party jumped into action and targeted the Devils.
This encounter was supposed to be fairly quick. However, knowing that my players like combat and want more than is usually provided, I decided to beef up this fight. I left the monsters stats exactly as printed but I added three more. So the party of seven level 7 PCs ended up fighting five Ice Demons (level 5 controllers). I brought the Devils out in waves, the third and fourth coming out in round three (by which time the first two were bloodied). I didn’t bring the fifth Devil out until at least one of the first two was killed. This provided a constant threat and kept the fight interesting.
I really liked the additional details and terrain effects that this combat encounter offered. Any PC who didn’t move on his turn took 10 cold damage. This made immobilizing effects particularly deadly. Any PC moving on the ice needed to make an Acrobatics check when they finished their movement to see if they remained on their feet or slipped on the ice. This was only supposed to affect PCs who ran or charged, but I extended it to everyone. I did make the DC lower if the PCs just moved at normal speed or shifted.
Finally the Devils were able to use the ice to teleport 10 squares as long as they started and finished on an ice square. As this was not a regular power I did not provide this with any monster knowledge checks. However once PCs saw the Devils using this power I did let them know that it was not something they believed they should be able to do. This prompted Arcana checks which revealed that a high enough check could suppress this power in an adjacent Devil with a minor action.
I was really surprised that the PCs remained bunched together during this combat once they realized the Devils had a blast 3 at-will ability. It let me target multiple PCs with almost every attack. By the end some of the PCs had taken a lot of damage and had burned at least one or two healing surges just to stay on their feet.
About the only problem I had with this combat encounter was the map. Although the maps provided with the adventure this season look fantastic they have not really matched the description of what’s described in each scene. I realize that by providing more generalized maps it gives the DM freedom when running encounters, and in some cases it really worked well (I can think of two encounters this season where combat could have taken place in the forest or in the town).
This time around the encounter took place at the docks. The only underdark map provided with water has a sizable lake but a very narrow passage along the shore. I really had to emphasize to my players that they needed to imagine docks on the edge of the water and not just rocks. In order to try and make the scene more believable I added two boat tiles that came with a previous Lair Assault.
Act 2 – The Darklake
With the dock free of ice the PCs were ready to continue their journey to Gracklstugh. The harbormaster explained that there were goods packed and ready to go to the Duergar city but the Svirfneblin didn’t want to risk sending them without an armed escort. The PCs agreed since they were going there anyway. Now they just had to decide if they would travel by sea via the underground lake or by carriage through the natural caverns.
The party felt that since they’d put in so much work into freeing up the docks that they should travel by boat. Unfortunately there were no ships in the harbour that were seaworthy – except one: Pretty Lilly. The ship was captained by an old and somewhat senile old Gnome named Daft Tooger. The locals clearly didn’t hold this captain in high regard but the PCs realized if it was him or no one they’d have to trust him.
During the six days it took the PCs to travel by sea they could engage Tooger in conversation. My players weren’t interested so I just let the railroad continue onward and provided them with the ramblings of the daft captain. He explained that he wasn’t always this way. He’d wandered the underdark and found something unusual in Spellcaves of Eryndlyn – a darkness shooting out of a pit and into the sky. When he touched it he saw strange things that he can’t unsee; spiders and glowing black webs and hideous things. He cautioned the PC not to touch the blackness.
On day three the PCs were supposed to be attacked by a Dragon Turtle. It was supposed to capsize the boat and the PCs would lose healing surges if they couldn’t swim to saftey. There was no combat in the traditional sense, but the PCs could talk to the intelligent creature. If they failed to convince it that they posed it no danger, the monster would use its breath weapon to blast them for 4d12+16 damage. The reason for the attack was that the Dragon Turtle’s eggs were recently taken. If not for some helpful Drow who returned the eggs the Dragon Turtle would have lost its offspring. This didn’t seem to add any value to the adventure or the story so I skipped it altogether.
Act 3 – The Long Road
If the PCs weren’t interested in travelling by boat they could head to Gracklstugh on foot through the tunnels. This route was full of Drow patrols and the PCs needed to make skill checks to avoid them. If they failed their checks they lost healing surges. Again this didn’t seem to add anything meaningful to the session so had my group gone this way I’d have either skipped the checks or beefed up the encounter to make it a full-on fight with Drow.
Act 4 – Arrival in Gracklstugh
Finally the PCs arrived in Gracklstugh. They could check out the city, talk to the locals and ask around but my players were not interested. They just wanted to complete their task and move on. They made no effort to be covert or subtle, simply asking where they could find the bladesmith Gemen they were here to see. As soon as they got the information they needed they set out to find the smith.
Act 5 – The Bladesmith
Scene 1 – Attack of the Derro
When the PCs arrived at Gemen’s tent he had no idea who they were. When they explained he looked around nervously at his Derro workers. He explained that he was working on such a weapon but the little buggers kept trying to sabotage him. He offers to try again if the PCs helped him. As soon as they agreed, the Derro acted.
Using their psychic abilities the Derro all linked minds and immobilized the PCs. They gave the heroes a chance to free themselves from the mind prison if they solved their riddle. The players had 30 seasons of real-time to answer each of the six questions the Derro put forth. This deadline got all of the players really interested and working together. They missed the second question and all took 10 psychic damage for their mistake, but after that they got all the others.
When the link was broken the Derro attacked the PCs. I ran this small encounter without a map. The PCs each attacked the closet Derro and killed four of the seven before they even got to act. Only two of the Derro connected before the rest of the party decimated them. As the final Derro died he provided a cryptic warning that the new-woven Weave of magic is anchored in the Drow city that died, which the PCs understood to be Eryndlyn.
Scene 2 – Finishing the Blade
With no further external obstacles in their path the PCs were now free to assist Gemen. He needed them to make five skill checks as they assisted him: Arcana, Athletics, Endurance, Nature, and Religion. As the PCs made these checks they were scored based on their level of success. The total points they earned for these checks determined if Gemen’s Blade would be a +3, +2, +1, or masterwork weapon. My party scored more than the necessary 5 points to get a +3 weapon.
Armed with the newly forged sword and the other five items of light the PCs were ready to face off in the final confrontation against Lolth as she tries to complete the Demon Weave and make The Darkening permanent.
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.
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