D&D Encounters: Dead in Thay – Report Card

by Ameron (Derek Myers) on August 7, 2014

dead-in-thay-coverAs Dead in Thay comes to an end it marks the end of an era for D&D Encounters. This adventure was the second part of the Dream of the Red Wizards, the fourth and final part of the Sundering, and the last adventure that used the D&D Next play test rules. From here we move on to 5e D&D.

But before we do that let’s take a moment to review the season that just finished. Dead in Thay was season 18 of D&D Encounters. It certainly hit a lot of high points, yet there were also some problems. Today we’ll look at the good, the bad, and everything in between.

This season I had the opportunity to act as the event coordinator, DM, and player. I’m not sure if this made the experience better or worse, but it did give me a chance to feel the good and bad from all sides.

The Good

Super Dungeon

With 107 rooms, the Doom Vault is undeniably a super dungeon. Wizards said it was inspired in part by Undermountain and that was readily apparent (in a good way). Previous seasons of D&D Encounters had the PCs exploring dungeons for a couple of sessions but never before had an entire season been a full on dungeon crawl. I loved it, and I know that many others did too.

Super Design

One thing that really made the super dungeon work was that each area was distinct. It wasn’t just 107 rooms that were pretty much the same. Each sector had a unique theme that helped shape and define it among the bigger picture. The monsters in each sector made sense for that area, but might seem silly if located only a few rooms over. Variety made things very interesting and helped make a 12-week dungeon crawl exciting every single week no matter where you were.

Black Gates/White Gates

Now that you’ve got all of these monsters in the super dungeon how do you keep them from wandering into other rooms unsuited to handle them? Easy, you build in magical doorways. The white gates divided the zones, limiting who could pass from room to room. If you wanted to pass through a white gate you needed a properly attuned glyph key. The black gates allowed teleportation from area to area, and also required a properly attuned glyph key. Now the choices of where to go next were limited by the rooms your glyph key could access. This explained why monsters stayed put and allowed DMs to influence where the party went next.

Intelligent Monsters

Most of the monsters the PCs encountered were in the Doom Vault against their will, and most were intelligent enough to realize their fate. This allowed clever PCs to talk to monsters, make deals with them, enlist their aid, or outright trick them. It allowed parties to bypass potentially dangerous encounter by talking and role-playing. Not all groups realized this, but it was built in to the design of the adventure and in my book that was a huge plus.

Higher Level

With so much to do and so many potential hazards along the way the PCs needed to be tough; a level 1 party wouldn’t stand a chance. This was the first time a D&D Encounters adventure allowed PCs to begin play at level 5 and was only the second time PCs were allowed to begin above level 1. Many of our regular players had been itching to play higher level characters and this season they got their wish. This gave players the opportunity to continue playing the PCs they’d run last season, further developing their character as they would in a home game. By letting the PCs start at level 5 and advance to level 8 the monsters in this super dungeon could be (and were) a lot tougher than in previous seasons.

Multiple Tables

For the past few seasons we’ve been saying that since there was so much to do and not nearly enough time in which to do it all at D&D Encounters, the various tables at a FLGS should all be playing in the same campaign. This would allow them to divide and conquer, covering more ground and possibly teaming up when the circumstances demanded a strong show of force. We tried this last season with two tables in an unofficial capacity. This season it was reality for all participants.

Each party was dropped into a random location of the Doom Vault and had the chance to explore their own little section of the Super Dungeon. It gave the whole store a sense of accomplishment that no one group could possibly get alone in the time allotted. By combining all groups to one interconnected campaign it gave the creators of this adventure freedom to throw some really tough obstacles at the PCs knowing that they could work together to defeat a foe that would be too difficult for any one party to face alone.

Resting

I liked that there was no opportunity for the PCs to get a long rest. The story demanded that they keep moving lest they be discovered and likely killed. Even short rests were technically not allowed this season (although I did reward my group with one when they took special care to hide from any potential threats that might disturb their reprieve). The dungeon designers weren’t completely heartless when it came to resting. There was the Seclusion Crypt which granted the benefits of a long rest in seconds. The first use was free, but subsequent rests carried a hefty price tag most PCs were unwilling to pay. There were also a few mechanics within the dungeon that granted the benefits of a short rest. So even if a PC used all of their powers or spells quickly, they could get some back once these secrets of the dungeon were uncovered.

The Bad

Sequel to Scourge of the Sword Coast

As a standalone adventure Dead in Thay was great, as a sequel to Scourge it was terrible. The connection between the two adventures was tenuous at best. It seemed like they called this part 2 of 2 simply to give us an excuse to bring higher level character in. The attempt to link this season to the last one was done in weeks 1 and 12 with the inclusion of some NPCs we might remember. For this to be a true sequel there needed to be a stronger link. In my opinion nothing was gained by calling this part 2. They should have just left it as a standalone adventure.

Multiple Tables

While the ability to divide up the room and cover more ground worked really well, there were some logistical nightmares that came from having over 20 PCs come together for an encounter. I understand that doing this at the beginning presents a sense of wonder and scope, but it was very difficult to run. A few times during the season groups came together and as long as the total number of players wasn’t more than 10 or so it worked great. When it was 11 or more things fell apart. D&D just wasn’t designed for a 20-person adventure party. The game moves very slowly and people lose focus.

Black Gates/White Gates

As much as I liked the idea of the black gates and white gates I found it didn’t come together like I thought it would. The PCs were given glyph keys and told how to work them from the outset removing the potential creative puzzle solving that comes from figuring out how magic items work. Things we further complicated when one of the parties at our FLGS found a master glyph key early in the adventure and could teleport anywhere in the dungeon. In my opinion having a master key anywhere in the dungeon was a bad idea.

Temples of Extraction

In order to gain access to this isolated section the PCs needed to find a glyph key attuned to one of the four black gates found in this area. Once they did they were free to explore the Temples of Extraction. They had no trouble getting from zone to zone as each area had a Red Wizard with a glyph key to the adjacent area. This made it really easy (too easy) for groups to wander through the Temples of Extraction. At our FLGS a group hit the Temples of Extraction in week 4 or 5 and had them all cleared in about three sessions. This denied the other groups from getting the buildup before the end. It would have been a lot better if the only way to reach a black gate in the Temples of Extraction was to find a properly attuned glyph key somewhere else in the Doom Vault.

Treasure

D&D Next brought back the idea the magic items are rare and special. Some groups played 12 weeks and found only a couple of items. Yet the groups that visited the Temples of Extraction found all kinds of magical swag. Having all the best stuff in just a few select rooms was dumb. I realize these were supposed to be the toughest rooms, but share the love! Put some other useful reassure elsewhere in the dungeon. About half the PCs at our FLGS went into the final encounter without a magic weapon or a magic item of any kind.

Where’s Szass Tam?

All season we kept hearing about almighty Szass Tam and how the PCs were striking a devastating blow against this Lich-lord. The expectation was that the PCs would face him, or some muted simulacrum/aspect of him, in the final battle. Instead we got a Demi-Lich no one had ever heard of. I realize Szass Tam is so powerful he would have killed all the PCs, but there are ways to curb back his power and still give the PCs a fighting chance. Not including him in the finale was a mistake.

Connection to the Sundering

This adventure was supposed to be the last part of the Sundering. However, it didn’t really explain anything. I liked the tip of the hat by including the Chosen NPCs from Murder in Baulder’s Gate and Legacy of the Crystal as prisoners in the Temples of Extraction, but aside from that this didn’t feel at all like part of the Sundering. Very few players at my FLGS knew or cared that this was a Sundering adventure. Perhaps if the PCs had faced Szass Tam he could have done a ranting monologue about his goals, the Sundering, and the PCs involvement. Instead we got a bunch of Chosen NPCs held captive. At my FLGS the PCs killed them all.

Out with a Whimper

Considering the significance of this season we expected so much more from the ending. This was the conclusion of Dreams of the Red Wizards, the conclusion of the Sundering, the conclusion of the D&D Next play test, and the conclusion of the way D&D Encounters used to be. This should have been an ending to beat all endings. Yet it fell flat. The final battle was fun and exciting, but it didn’t feel big enough. It felt like any other ending. It lacked the necessary size and scope that was expected. Having the PCs flee from the Phylactery Vault and then get teleported back to the Swords Coast was lame. Hey, look, it’s Sir Isteval. Who cares. He certainly didn’t seem to care. Oh you’re alive, I suppose that’s a good thing. Well, join a faction and get ready from the Tyranny of Dragons. FAIL!

Final Verdict

Now that we’ve looked at some of the good and the bad from the past season it’s time to pass judgment and grade Dead in Thay. Given the significance of this adventure and what was at stake I’m going to assign it three different grades.

  • Dead in Thay
    8 on a d10
  • Dead in Thay (as Dreams of Red Wizards part 2)
    6 on a d10
  • Dead in Thay (as the end of the Sundering)
    6 on a d10

So in conclusion I really liked this adventure on its own merits. There was a lot of great stuff packed into this one adventure and I’m already planning to run it again with my home group. However, I felt that it was not as successful when looked at as a tie-in to the other storylines. I’d certainly recommend purchasing the PDF as there are plenty of great ideas DMs can draw from even if they never plan to run it as a full out adventure.

Recounting Encounters

We continue the discussion on what we liked and disliked about this season of D&D Encounters in the latest episode of our Recounting Encounters podcast. Visit Dungeon’s Master later today for the link.

What did you think of Dead in Thay? Were you a player or a DM or both? Do you agree or disagree with my observations and criticisms? What did I overlook in the good or the bad? What score would you give the adventure?


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{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Joe August 7, 2014 at 10:52 am

We ran a 4e version I wrote up in a style more similar to the older Encounters adventures this season. We had very little interest in the playtest version of the NEXT rules, so we decided to stick to what our players knew & liked. It worked well, and while it was a lot of extra rewriting on my part to turn it into a single narrative, week-by-week, with consistency across tables… that did give me the chance to rewrite things I didn’t like. So, for example, at my table last night, our party DID fight Szass Tam. I also threw in a lot more references to outside plots to make things feel a little more connected to the Sundering, the previous season, and the Realms in general.

Overall, this season had a lot to offer. I think having multiple parties in the same dungeon, while probably awesome at conventions, might be a bit overwhelming for many local gaming stores. That’s only compounded when you’re trying to teach new players rules that are better in a controlled setting.

I think the whole “rebellion within Thay” sub-plot should have either been done better or not at all. Throwing political intrigue into a megadungeon only works if you go 100% at it, and most of our players weren’t interested in finding reasons not to kill Red Wizards, who they know to be necromancers and slavers.

We’re all pretty psyched for 5E (our FLGS is doing a midnight release tonight), and the adventure for next season has impressed me a lot as I’ve read through it. While I’m sad to see 4E go, I think we can make this new edition work, and maybe even thrive.

2 randomplayer August 7, 2014 at 2:51 pm

As a player at the power gamer table, I feel like there were some misconceptions about the magic items found in the Temples of Extraction. We actually offered all of the unused items to other tables, namely Craig’s table. It wasn’t that the items were being hoarded, its that there was no variety in the items, and few of the players could actually use them. None of the mages at the other tables could even use the items that were found. Considering that our offers to share the items were turned down repeatedly, I think the statement that we were hoarding the items is entirely untrue. Just my two cents.

3 Dan August 7, 2014 at 3:02 pm

I played most of the season, and was DM for a few sessions.

I liked the concept of the mega dungeon, and I liked the wide variety of monsters and terrain. I also liked how certain areas had a distinct purpose for the whole dungeon (like the pigs kept to feed the monsters).
However, we only had 2 groups this season, so going through a dungeon intended for 4 groups was a bit tough, especially considering the fact that the other group decided to go for the endgame as soon as they realized that they were supposed to go to the temples of extraction.
I also disliked the fact that we were expected to take on big monsters repeatedly with little opportunity to rest. The seclusion crypt was nice and interesting, but combined with the life drain abilities of other creatures, it could prove incredibly dangerous. I would much rather roll for patrols and risk attack than be limited only to long rests and only in a harmful space. While it makes the drama go up, so does the risk of being interrupted by a patrol.
As for the endgame itself, it took until practically the end of the season to figure out that we needed to disrupt black gates and rituals in the temples to move on. The NPC party that was sent in with us was used to cover that, because we had no information.
As a player, I felt that there were little to no opportunities to roleplay. This may have just been the DM, but with the way encounters is set up (limited time to finish and little text for each room), we felt rushed, and the quickest way through most rooms was to kill the monsters rather than spend 15 minutes to roleplay and ask questions to figure out what the monster wants and thinks. This may also just be a reflection on the DM, but as a person who loves to roleplay and talk my way out of things, I felt very rushed all season.
As for when I was DM, I found that the PDF was not the best organized. I prefer having time to prep, a hard copy to hold my places in, and more detail to go on in each room. I felt that it was not a good resource for a novice DM with no time to prep. (Typically because our usual DM would text me morning of when I didn’t have the materials).

All-in-all, I liked the module, but not for encounters, novice DMs, or DMs who can’t roleplay a creature on the spot.

My 3 grades would be:
8 (I still like the module for a home game)
6 (While I felt it toed in well enough, it didn’t flow well, and the rebellion should have been addressed better)
And 4 (for such a big deal, it was a pretty dull ending).

4 Dan August 7, 2014 at 3:05 pm

One more thing on magic items: we found none in the dungeon, save a potion or two. No magic weapons at all. The only magic weapon we had between us was a +1 longsword we got from the previous season, and my monk’s fists.
Making our run against the boss pretty much suicidal with his immunities to non-magical weapons.

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