On May 31 the Liar Assault program comes to an end. Until then the active adventure is the level 10 extravaganza Into the Pit of Madness. I had an opportunity to run it for two groups at my FLGS last week and today I’m going to share my thoughts and insights on the 7th and final Lair Assault.
The adventure puts the PCs in a situation where the very fate of the world hangs in the balance. Cultists are trying to free the Chained God, Tharizdun, form his eternal prison. If freed Tharizdun will plunge the world as we know it into eternal darkness. High stakes for powerful PCs.
In the first part of the challenge the PCs interrupt the cultists during their ritual. In the second part of the challenge the PCs try to reach the Chained God’s aspect and destroy it before it awakens and calls forth Tharizdun.
Spoiler Warning! This Lair Assault is still active. If you plan to play it, do not read this article. This article is for DMs only. DMs should take the knowledge I’m sharing here and use it to make your sessions better and more enjoyable.
Throughout April Dungeon’s Master is participating in the Blogging from A to Z Challenge. The challenge is to write a new article ever day in April, excluding Sundays. That’s 26 articles over the course of the month. To make things even more interesting the title of each article will begin with a different letter of the alphabet. “L” is for Lair Assault as we review the final offering in this fantastic public play program in today’s post.
The Challenge Itself
Clear as Mud
Although there is some background and descriptive text provided it’s not abundantly clear what the PCs need to do when they arrive on the first map. They see a ritual in progress so their first instinct is to attack and kill the cultists. None of the heroes realized that they need to find a way past these cultists and that killing them is unnecessary. It’s unclear that there is another level to this temple that the PCs must reach to end the challenge. There is a staircase but it’s initially hidden from view of the PCs. Through experimentation, explorations, and by making checks the PCs can learn of other ways to get to the next level.
There are two significant items on level 1: The Wailer of Tharizdun (a ritualistic horn), and a treasure chest. The horn is mentioned in the read aloud text but neither of my groups realized it was anything more than window dressing. As for the treasure chest, the DM can place it anywhere on the map. Both times I ran this I placed it at the far end of the map, a place none of the adventurers every explored. Had they known there were useful items inside they might have spent a round looking for the chest.
It’s Really Long
This Lair Assault follows the convention of several that came before it. The PCs have 20 rounds to complete the challenge. If they time out they lose. With level 10 PCs and correspondingly powerful monsters each round takes a long time to complete. In real time we were 4.5-5 hours both times we played. By the end we just wanted it to be over. I strongly recommend taking a real life break when the PCs finally make it to the lower level and then again at round 10-12. It may add 15 more minutes to the challenge but it will keep heads clear and bodies sound.
I really like the Madness Table and its effects on the adventure. To recap the PCs can choose to listen to the maddening whispers as a minor action. This allows them to use up to 2 healing surges with the normal results, regain the use of 2 encounter powers, and suffer one consequence from the Madness Table. Some of the effects are good, some are bad, and some are both.
I created cards with each madness effect printed on it. When the PC suffered an effect I handed the player the corresponding card. I instructed the player to follow the directions but not reveal the content of the card to the other players. This helped them keep player knowledge and character knowledge separate. It worked really well. Below is a link to the sheet of cards I created. Print five copies, cut them up and have them ready to hand out when you play.
Antechambers and Nodes
The PCs will eventually find themselves bouncing from one environmental node to the next desperately trying to escape. Some PCs may try fighting the monsters other will realize that running is just as good an option. Whenever a PC leaves a zone he rolls a d6. On a 6 he makes it to the Cyst, the area where the final fight happens. Any other number bounces them to a different Elemental Node. They can’t return to the node they just left and they can’t go to a node where all the monsters have been defeated (unless a PC is still lingering there).
If a PC has Madness effects they must roll 2d6 and take the lower result. So unless they roll two 6s they won’t make it to the Cyst until all of the other nodes are defeated. In order to make things more difficult I had my group roll 1d6 for each madness effect on their PC (no one had more than 1 Madness effect for their first few rolls). This all but guaranteed that those characters with a lot of effects wouldn’t make it to the Cyst without defeating all the Elemental Nodes first.
All of the nodes are wide open and have no terrain features worth noting, except for the Earth node. This one is a maze. However, if the players can see the maze they’ll pick the most direct route without difficulty. I decided to copy the map and then cut it into smaller sections. As the PCs passed from section to section I adjusted the orientation of the map so they’d be confused. Had anyone spent actions marking the trail or mapping things out I’d have revealed the real map. This never happened so some PCs went in circles for a few rounds while they faced the Earth Elemental.
Tactics for Defeating the Challenge
One of the reasons that Lair Assault has never moved beyond heroic tier is that there are so many paragon path options, feats, powers and items available by level 11 that these challenges cease to be challenging. With a bit of work and advanced preparation clever players will find the right tools to successfully accomplish this job. We had a few players that did just that. After just two sessions of this Lair Assault I realized that there are a few things that essentially break the game. These are choices that the players can make during character creations and during play that will all but ensure a victory. It’s not as bad as the Pixie Music Box during Attack of the Tyrantclaw, but it’s close.
- Enter the Crucible
This is a level 10 Utility power. The prerequisite is that the PC must be trained in Endurance. By expending a surge to trigger the power the PC gains resist 10 to all damage and cannot be weakened until the end of the encounter. The minions only deal 9 damage. The rest of the monsters do an average of about 10 damage. This meant we had a few PCs go through the whole challenge and take almost no damage at all.
- Staff of Resilience
This level 3 item may only costs 680 gp, but it’s worth its weight in gold and is a game changer. As a minor action the PC can spend a healing surge, but instead of regaining hit points they gain twice their healing surge value in temporary hit points. Combine this with Enter the Crucible and you’ve got indestructible PCs. At 680 gp we had PCs purchase more than one staff. They’d use it and then drop it. It became nothing more than a really expensive consumable. I think moving forward I’d rule that you cannot gain the benefits from more than one Staff of Resilience each day. I might also say that if your class does not allow you to use a staff as an implement you cannot gain the benefits, although this would just force PCs to take a multiclass feat to get around the restriction.
- Immediate actions
Towards the end of the challenge, once all the PCs finally made it into the Cyst, it becomes a race to zero hit points. Since the monsters couldn’t dent my PCs due to resist 10 all and temporary hit points, it turned into a race against the clock. The name of the game was output (DPS). In order to maximize their chances the players started gaining Madness Effects. They didn’t need the healing nor did they really care about the Madness consequences, they simply wanted to replenish their best encounter powers. The ones that were most useful were the once they could use off-turn. They’d get their normal actions and then get to attack when the monsters triggered their immediate. The level 3 Ranger power Disruptive Strike was particularity deadly as it inflicted damage and made the monster’s attacks less potent. A party that can load themselves up with immediate encounter powers will have no trouble winning this Lair Assault if they just keep replenishing them once they reach the Cyst.
Actual Play Podcasts
We recorded our sessions of Into the Pit of Madness and share them below as actual play podcasts.
Season 7 Session 1 (4 hours 47 minutes)
This group defeated the challenge at the end of round 19. They lost two PCs along the way. One PC never made it to the Cyst.
The party consisted of:
- Eladrin Bladesinger
- Human Wizard (Witch)
- Revenant (Tiefling) Warlock (Hexblade)
- Hamadryad Ranger (archer)
- Revenant Dwarf Warden
Season 7 Session 2 (3 hours 22 minutes)
This group timed out and did not defeat the challenge. They had tremendous difficulty getting PCs into the Cyst as no one could roll a 6. Some PCs never made it to the Cyst.
The party consisted of:
- Genasi (Stormsoul) Wizard (Sha’ir)
- Drow Sorcerer (Water Elementalist)
- Revenant (Drow) Assassin
- Wilden Cleric
- Half-Orc Rogue (Thief)
Of all the Lair Assaults this was the one I liked the least when played. I liked the concept, the Madness effects, and the idea of bouncing around the Elemental nodes before getting into the Cyst. However, in play it seemed that the PCs were just too powerful for this kind of challenge. I think I’d have liked this one a lot more if it was a few levels lower.