DM ONLY: Session 10

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So, last night some of us DMs got together to run through the next session, as we usually do on Monday nights. It was... kind of brutal, and I want to share our experiences with other DMs before you run on Wednesday.

WARNING: LOTS OF SPOILERS. Don't read this if you're not a DM, please. It's not fun.

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There are two "environmental damage" effects in this session. The first is the Drow Patrol mechanic, and the second is the spider swarms. These effects happen every 5 mintues, and there is a minimum of 25 minutes from the start of this session to the next encounter. So, you are going to roll a minimum of 5 times, with a >50% chance of rolling a patrol. By the end, you will probably have earned a +8 alert level and have drained 4-5 surges, minimum, from the party, just with this mechanic.

For comparison, I'm running the 7th level adventure Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan right now in my Sunday game. It features a poison gas in the lower levels that has you make a saving throw or lose 1 healing surge every 5 minutes. That's at 7th level, and at my table, I award a hefty XP bonus for that effect.

Drow Patrols


First, let me address the Drow Patrol. If you have a PC with Deep Delver theme, you have almost no chance of encountering a Large Patrol. However, if you don't, there's a 25% chance of hitting one, and since you will be making 5 of these die rolls, you are probably going to hit one of these large patrols. There is no other way to mitigate hitting a patrol.

We hit a large patrol in the first five minutes, and I complained that I was basically bloodied (2 surges=bloodied) based on a single die throw. Valid complaint. I play the defender, so I naturally take more hits than others, but there should be some way to mitigate this.

As written, there are no options for mitigating these patrols. There are no choices for the PCs-- it's roll a die and take damage.

This is the worst version of Wandering Damage I've ever encountered. The PCs feel helpless and there is literally nothing they can do to change it, aside from "don't be who you are."

Advice: make this a real skill challenge. If the PCs roll a large patrol, give them some skill checks based on how they might avoid the damage. Perhaps they try to talk their way around the drow. Or maybe they sneak. Or maybe they simply outrun them (athletics). There should be options, and as the DM, you are empowered to give them to your players. Heck, you can even scale the skill challenge-- Moderate DC to avoid or escape a small patrol, Difficult to escape a large one.

Spider Swarms


Next, the Spider Swarm mechanics. They have a +5 vs fortitude, which means they are very likely to hit you, unless you're a dwarf or a defender. Even as a con-based defender with the highest fort in the party, I was hit 3 times by these buggers, taking 30 points of damage (out of my 48 hp). At third level, most PCs have fewer than 40 hit points, so every one of these spider swarm attacks has a >50% chance of inflicting more than a healing surge in damage.

Again, the only way to mitigate this is "don't be who you are," by being drow. In the treasure table for this campaign, there are no items that grant poison resistance, so you pretty much have to have built your PC to have some kind of innate resistance.

So, we have two healing-resource-drain mechanics at play. One will drain your party of 4-5 surges during the encounter. The other will drain your PC of, say, 3 surges during the encounter (assuming 5 checks, hitting >50% of the time, and your surge value is less than 10). 

Advice: Lower the damage output from the spider swarms to minion-level damage. Or give the spider swarms a different effect entirely, like "you are slowed until the next short rest (save ends if the party triggers the tactical encounter)." Or something like that. Let the PCs use other skills, like heal checks, or even encounter powers, to avoid or reduce the damage.

Distractions


Finally, both of these mechanics drain surges. If the PCs end up helping Tharinel by causing a (combat) distraction, then they'll go into that fight wounded and down on surges, and they still have to get through the rest of the skill challenge before a short rest. Every short rest means more damage-- which means taking a short rest is counter-productive to a point. 

We avoided the tactical fight entirely and let Tharinel find his own way out. But we did distract the drow using traps. It's a rule of diminishing returns, though-- each distraction attempt (to lower the alert level) has a >50% chance of triggering a drow patrol (raising the alert level), AND a >50% chance of doing more than a healing surge in damage. It's conceivable that, with bad dice rolls, you will attempt to distract the drow and not only fail to reduce the alert level, but raise the alert by 4 and lose 2-3 surges from finding a large patrol and getting eaten by spiders.

Advice: Let a successful distraction attempt *also* remove one of the resource-drain threats for those 5 minutes, either the patrol or the spiders. If your players are drawing a patrol away from their route, then negate the die roll for the patrol. If they're using nature to get the spiders to form a thick web and cover their tracks, then negate the spider roll. Something-- do something to help them avoid this auto-damage mechanic. The auto-damage isn't fun for PCs, but finding clever ways to avoid it *is* fun.

Healing Surge Management


Frankly, this is a resource-drain encounter, but it's too draining for a low-level adventure. By the end of the session, my defender was down as many surges as if she'd died, and half the party was down to 3 surges. They'll be entering the big boss fight at the end with 0 surges at this point.

Again, I compare it to Hidden Shrine which is very challenging with a save-or-lose-ONE-surge mechanic, for 7th level adventurers. In our sessions of that module, the PCs can get through about 2-3 encounters before they are rushing back outside-- and after the first session, they were making their saves with a +2. In this adventure, the save-or-surge mechanic is essentially draining 2-3 surges every 5 minutes, with a minimum of 25 minutes before the PCs can reach their destination.

Advice: Allow the party to find potions of vigor, which restore healing surges. They could find these early in this session, perhaps on the drow patrols, so that when they come to the end of the chapter, they will have them on hand and ready to go.

A Different Way to Do It


This session is designed to give the PCs a sense of urgency as they race through the Underdark towards the Maguffin... sorry, I mean Pendant of Ashaba to recover it and save the realm. Okay.

They just had an extended rest. Right now, they are "chasing" a static thing that isn't being directly threatened.

I have a different suggestion, though I'm not sure how well it would work. Why give them this resource-drain slog? Why not make it more dynamic?

Suggestion: As the PCs wake up from their extended rest, they find that they are not alone. Instead, a small group of kobold "opportunists" have pilfered items from the PCs (make these low-level consumables, perhaps, or just their gold), and are now running off down one of the tunnels. Now you have a chase scene, and the PCs will be hot-footing it all the way. They will feel more involved in the decision to rush, they will feel the pressure as the kobolds are getting away. And more importantly, they will be driving the action. When they run into Tharinel or a drow patrol, they can redirect to the more important quest of finding the pendant. But if not, the kobolds lead them on a merry chase-- and the final drow patrol encounter can be the PCs catching the kobolds and recovering their stuff, just before coming to the torture chamber for session 11.



Just my thoughts.

Yes. I was surprised at how brutal this encounter was (much more so than it seemed when I read through it). I was especially surprised because this is the first encounter of the chapter. I realize that each encounter is supposed to be a resource drain, but as you noted:

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At the rate that the party takes damage and loses surges in this encounter, they will likely enter the final encounter with 0 surges. That more than just makes the final encounter challenging. It makes it practically hopeless. However, not only is this encounter itself brutal, the "alert level" at the end of this encounter directly affects the difficulty of the next encounter by potentially increasing (as much as doubling) the number of minions in the next encounter. If the party has a controller that may not be such a bad thing. But if the party doesn't have a controller, throwing waves of minions at them when they're already low on surges could likely lead to a TPK in the second encounter of the chapter. I know a lot of tables experienced TPKs in the first chapter. I basically had one in session 5. But this isn't Lair Assualt. At a certain point if it's just going to be one TPK after another, the players will get frustrated and stop showing up (especially since, as again you noted) there's no way to mitigate the damage in this encounter as written.

 

- Rico

I ran this week’s encounter early (as we sometimes do, shhhhhh) and it actually went really well. I had to make some adjustments but it ended up being an all role-playing session with a lot of skill checks and no combat.

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To begin I described some abandoned buildings right inside the gates. This is where the PCs rested. Some of the buildings they later learned had activity, including a small tavern and a general store. The PCs bought and sold goods at the general store first. This was my way of letting them spend their loot which you’re supposed to do after each chapter anyway. The shopkeeper offered them a sizable finder’s fee if they could acquire the head of an elf. It had to be fresh. If it was dead for more tan a few hours he wasn’t interested. More on this below.

Next they went into the tavern where they interacted with a few “deserters” who provided them with all the info Tharinel would normally have provided.

They easily found the blood trail and guessed it might be Tharinel’s. When they found him they had a good in-character debate over killing him for the reward or not. Finally one of the Rogues back-stabbed him and solved the problem. The resulting in-fighting (all in-character) was great.

They returned to the general store for the reward and then moved through the maze where they spent some time distracting the guards or avoiding them all together. In the end they all made a bunch of skill checks and took a few hits from spiders. I think most PCs spent 1 healing surge each.

Note: My group is all Drow so even on a hit they only took 5 damage each. The Cleric was easily able to heal anyone who took more than a coulple of hits from the spiders, but with only +5 vs Fort they missed more often than not.

My group is really “hack and slash” but they said they really enjoyed the encounter and didn’t mind that there was no fighting. They enjoyed this week WAY more than the week 6 Tests of Lloth.

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 The shopkeeper offered them a sizable finder’s fee if they could acquire the head of an elf. It had to be fresh. If it was dead for more tan a few hours he wasn’t interested. More on this below.
...
 Finally one of the Rogues back-stabbed him and solved the problem. The resulting in-fighting (all in-character) was great.



Brilliant. If they hadn't already killed Tharinel in Chapter 2, I'd steal this idea for my own table! Instead, I will modify it heavily.
Wow, some great alternative ideas guys.

I'm getting ready to run this evening at our store (and thanks to shifts falling right I get to play in the first group before DMing the second) so several of these ideas may find there way into my game, not only to mitigate the drain but also the make a noticeable difference between the two sessions.

"Well that encounter was easy....er, guys, why is the DM grinning?" (party members last words)

It's not a party till the screaming starts!

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Rereading the session carefully, I noticed something important that's kind of buried in the text:
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"'Surges Lost' indicates how many healing surges in total the adventurers expend in defeating the patrol. When the adventurers lose healing surges to a patrol, the players can decide among themselves which character or characters lose those healing surges." (Emphasis mine)

So even with a bad roll from a large patrol, even in a four-person party, each character should only lose 1 surge each (unless there's a martyr in the group). It's still possible to lose a whole ton of surges to the patrols, but the session would have to be going REALLY bad; and in that case, the spiders would probably be the bigger threat!

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I agree. This encounter was too heavy on resource and HP draining. a skill challenge, with environmental hazards, followed by a combat encounter would have been better I think.
I minimized the effects of the patrols, as I had new players at the table who eere struggling with the conceptual nature of skill challenges. To compensate, I added two more scouts in the actual encounter. The combination of a chokepoint plus drow darkness made it a tough enough fight, with the defender falling unconscious before all 6 scouts were put down. This one was rather difficult to mediate healing surge loss, but I'm not too worried about it, as no one PC ever really took the brunt of the surge losses.
I rewrote the whole thing. Ran it last night. I'll post it to the writeup thread. It went really well-- 4 out of 5 players enjoyed it.
A huge thank you Mortaine for taking the time to write this thread. I ran my party through the session last night at Encounters, and made many of the adjustments you recommended. It went so completely well, and the players loved it. Had the most meaningful roleplaying at our table last night that we have had, and everyone walkwed away having enjoyed it!
 
I'm so glad it went well! Does that mean your store is 1 week behind, then? Was that from the holiday?
My store is a week behind precisely because of July 4th. We're skipping session 0 of Council of Spiders though. Which at the moment is looking extremely scary because if next season really is supposed to be all-drow, it would be good to communicate that to the players BEFORE they show up...but I don't think we've received any of next season's play materials yet.

By the way, nice to meet everyone. I was only recently brought into the Encounters DM side of things due to a lot of regular DMs needing time off. Unfortunately that means my regular Encounters group will be missing my min/maxed (completely within the current season's Player's Option book) characters.
Wizard's first rule: People are stupid.