During last week’s session the PCs ventured into the Vault of Song. After they figured out how to open the sealed doorway by manipulating the statue of the five Elf maidens, they faced off against a gargantuan Uvaeran Dragon. With the Dragon’s defeat the PCs took a quick breather before proceeding onward to the final chamber.
We had a good showing for the final session at Silver Snail in Toronto. The 4e table had seven players and my D&D Next table had seven players. My party consisted of a Human Fighter, Elf Ranger, Elf Wizard #1, Elf Wizard #2, Human Wizard, Halfling Rogue (re-skinned as a Bard), and Half-Elf Paladin.
Although a new playtest packet was released over the weekend, we decided not to adopt any of those changes for the final encounter. We’d played with these rules for seven weeks and we didn’t see the value in changing now.
During last week’s fight four Zhentarim soldiers stayed safely away from melee and took pot shots at the PCs with their crossbows. One Zhent was killed, but three managed to flee. It was time to track them down, find their commander Phoedele and take back the Diamond Staff.
As the PCs descended the slopped passage they heard the sound of a female voice chanting softly coming from the room ahead. When they reached the room they saw three successively lower tiers. In the middle of the lowest tier was a shimmering pool. The vaulted ceilings provided excellent acoustics and amplified the chanting. Floating in midair above the pool were eight luminous crystal columns of fantastic complexity and beauty. The soft sound of musical chimes filled the room.
Near the pool stood Phoedele, a Human female dressed in black plate armor and holding the Diamond Staff in her hands. She was focused on one of the crystals suspended above, chanting in perfect Elvin. The runes along the staff were glowing with silver light.
Near Phoedele were the three wounded Zhent Soldiers. They’d formed a protective circle around Phoedele and had their crossbows aimed at the doorway awaiting the order to fire.
As the party entered the room Phoedele stopped chanting and addressed them. She placed one hand on her sword’s hilt. “I don’t know who you are, but we found the vault first. I don’t intend to be run off by the first band of tomb robbers to show up. There’s nothing in here that you can carry away, so go look for Elvin treasure somewhere else.”
The Fighter demanded that Phoedele hand over the staff. Phoedele graciously agreed to sell it to the party after she was done with it. After all, she has no quarrel with them and would gladly part with it once it served its purpose. The PCs weren’t having any of it. Elf Wizard #1 cast a fireball into the centre of the room and blasted Phoedele and two of her guards.
The Zhents were smart enough to try and scatter but with three Wizards in the party they just couldn’t get far enough away to avoid more area effect spells. Elf Wizard #2 cast a slow spell getting the same three hit by the fireball.
The Fighter and Paladin rushed down to the lower level to engage Phoedele in melee while the Wizards, Ranger and Bard stayed on the top tier and fired down. Unfortunately for the five PCs at the top, an invisible Zhent Wizard cast fireball and hit them all. The Human Wizard cast a silence spell around the now visible enemy caster limiting his abilities.
Suddenly the PCs nearest the door heard footsteps rushing down the corridor towards them. Numerous dragon cultists poured into the room, their leader dressed in purple robes.
Phoedele recognized the new arrivals, “Dretchroyaster’s minions, of course! What else could go wrong?” She looked to the PCs, her anger softened. “The Dracolich wants his staff back, but I suspect you would rather avoid that as much as I do? Do we set aside our quarrel and cooperate to slay these dogs? Decide swiftly!”
“Our fight is only with those who hold the Diamond Staff,” the cult leader retorted. “Aid us against the Zhents, strangers, and you will earn our allegiance!”
The PCs agreed to help the dragon cultists battle the Zhents. Within two more rounds the combined forces had killed two of the three Zhent soldiers and the Wizard. Phoedele realized she was outmatched and made a break for it.
A dead teleportation gateway on the lowest level activated as Phoedele ran towards it with the staff in hand. She passed through, but the staff did not. It fell to the floor as the portal closed behind the Zhent commander. The lone Zhent solder immediately surrendered when he realized he’d been abandoned.
The dragon cult leaders commanded his troops to retrieve the staff and bring it to him. The PCs made no effort to stop this. Once the cult leader had the staff he cast invisibility and fled. When the PCs realized what was happening they started fighting the cultists.
At this point a little bit of DM intervention was needed or it was going to be a complete failure for team heroes, possibly even a TPK. The magical crystals suspended from the ceiling were described as being somewhat sentient so they telepathically spoke to the Elves and Half-Elf, providing words of encouragement and healing them a few hit points.
For the next two rounds the PCs battled the cultists and made their way back up to the room’s entrance. Elf Wizard#1 and Elf Wizard #2 both fell unconscious during the ensuing battle. The Bard revived Elf Wizard #2 and the crystals revived Elf Wizard #1. After risking a few opportunity attacks the Paladin and Fighter managed to exit the room and give chase.
When they arrived in the pit chamber from last week the cult leader and two of his followers faced off against two of the Dragon constructs that had reanimated to stop them. Two more rounds of focused fire finally brought down the leader and the PCs recovered the staff.
The six remaining cultists surrendered. The PCs allowed them leave the vault. A persuasive speech from the Bard left more than one of the cultist questioning the wisdom of returning to the dragon cult at all. Since Phoedele managed to flee the only other surviving Zhent had no further interest in pursuing the Diamond Staff. He pleaded for his freedom which the party granted.
Once all the enemies were dispatched from the vault the PCs spent the next day and night exploring and examining the vault trying to learn its secrets. Although unlocking the secrets of the Vault of Song was clearly beyond the PCs’ abilities, they were able to tap into a very small portion of ancient Uvaeran magic. With the Wizards providing arcane expertise and the Elves providing the required blood sacrifice, each member of the party gained one of the following boons:
- Become fluent in Elvish, gain one recall lore skill, and know the location of a special magical item.
- Gain a permanent +1 to Intelligence, Wisdom, or Charisma.
- Gain one of the following feats: Arcane Dabbler, Healing Initiate, Skill Focus, or Use Magic Device.
(In light of the significant changes that came in the latest playtest packet some of these boons will require adjustment if the players intend to keep running these PCs in a home game.)
Concluding the adventure
Although Phoedele fled, she does not mention the location of the Vault to anyone. Deep in the back of her mind she one day hopes to return to unlock the secrets of the Uvaeran magic and doesn’t want anyone else beating her to it.
The dragon cult continued to search for the Diamond Staff but the defeat of this cell was a significant setback. The cult leader hoped to earn the favour of Dretchroyaster by returning the staff to his master unassisted. He did not share its location or any of his other intelligence with any other members of the order. The minions who survived were mere soldiers and knew nothing significant enough to help the cult in their pursuit.
When the PCs return to Hap and present the Diamond Staff to Imani he realizes that visiting the Vault of Song himself is far too dangerous. He instead decided that the staff should be locked away for safe keeping. He thanks the heroes for their services and pays them handsomely for their deeds. He also presented them with a treasure map that his old adventuring party discovered but never had the time to follow up on. Perhaps they’d have better luck.
So ends season 14 D&D Encounters: Search for the Diamond Staff.
I’m going to keep my thoughts and observations in this post confined to just the final encounter. Next week we’ll have the season 14 report card in which we’ll look at the season as a whole.
Anticlimactic was the best way I can describe week 8. I felt that the finale was a let down. Last week’s epic battle really played out like a grand finale. This week felt like an epilogue or afterthought to tie up loose ends.
When the PCs finally reached Phoedele they were expecting more. They assumed that in the final encounter they would have to defeat some big bad guy and Phoedele just didn’t fit the bill – she was little more than a slightly beefed up Zhent soldier. She was a lame villain and certainly not the boss the PCs expected. They also assumed that because she had the Diamond Staff that she as a spellcaster, yet her stat block clearly reflected a warrior.
When the dragon cultists showed up the players weren’t sure what to do. By that time the PCs had taken some serious damage. They knew they couldn’t possible hope to fight everyone. They didn’t know what to do, nor were they confident that they’d survive the encounter and complete their quest. Without one main villain to battle it was a confusing mess for everyone.
I think the sheer number of adversaries was part of the problem. Had this been a 4e encounter I assume many of the cultists would be minions and fall with one hit. In D&D Next the weakest enemy had 13 hit points. For long spans the DM ran cultists vs. Zhents and vice versa. The players sat around while the DM rolled everything up. The adventure text suggested allowing the player to roll some of the dice but they weren’t interested. They just wanted things to come to an end.
When I ran this with my first group I did it by the book without any changes and it was a disaster. I tried to learn from that debacle and when I ran it a second time I did what I could to improve the encounter and give the players a better finale. I think my changes helped but it was still a poor end to an otherwise decent adventure.
How did the final encounter play out at your table? Am I the only one who felt it was lack-luster? Did other DMs make any changes to try and improve the session? Did anyone suffer a TPK? Did any of the groups allow the Cultists or the Zhents to leave with the Diamond Staff and essentially fail in their quest?
Recounting Encounters Podcast
Recounting Encounters is a weekly podcast I record with fellow Toronto DM, Craig Sutherland, and 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.
Actual Play Podcasts
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