4e: Stopping a Ritual (or preventing a ritual from being stopped?)

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So the typical scneario is the pc's bust in the room during the villian's ritual, and must somehow stop it.
Typically this type of fight probably means getting through whatever gaurd/traps/underlings are present and (probably) engaging the villan in combat within a certain number of rounds. There may be more too it, but that's usually the gist right?

Well, let's flip it around.

For an upcoming scene in my game, the pc's are sneaking into the middle of a city that is dominated by undead.
They've decided to find a suitable "shelter" and try to keep the undead out for 5 minutes while Reverse Portal is being cast from a scroll.
Once the portal opens, the pc's army floods into the city, an all-out war begins, and this scene ends. 

First up, let me say that i am really excited to do this, i am having visions of 'bad' zombie movies where they come busting in through windows and ripping down the walls. All the players have to do is hold them off for a few rounds while the ritual finishes...

I've decided that this will be run as a combined skill challenge and combat with a twist.
Every minute each player will make a skill check to keep the zombies out. If there is a failure, there will be a breach and a short combat will ensue.
I'm going to assume that whatever enters during the breach will be handlled within 2-3 rounds, so there shouldn't be an issue timing-wise.
However, if multiple breaches occur, combat resources will be severly limited since there obviously won't be time for a short rest in between.



Keeping all of this in mind, a decision needs to be made: How can the players fail the scene?
Or in other words: what is a reasonable amount of interference to end/disrupt the ritual? If the zombie hits the caster? What if the caster gets bloodied? A zombie walking across the summoning portal and smearing the design? A crazy crossbreeze that blows the candles out? Can the caster pause the ritual to fight and resume it later? Do we handle it like a traditional skill challenge and say that 3 failures means the building has been compromised and the pcs are overwhelmed?
 
Thoughts?


PS - I will also be recieving input from my players, but 20 heads are better than 5, and you guys can be pretty creative.
FWIW [4e designer] baseline assumption was that roughly 70% of your feats would be put towards combat effectiveness, parties would coordinate, and strikers would do 20/40/60 at-will damage+novas. If your party isn't doing that... well, you are below baseline, so yes, you need to optimize slightly to meet baseline. -Alcestis

If you are running it partially like a skill challenge, then they lose when they rack up enough failures.  Every time they fail, up the combat encounter by four to six zombie minions to show that the party is doing a crap job at plugging the leaks.  Assuming it's something like a 10 success before 5 (or less) failures sort of challenge, by the 4th failure, they'll be mobbed by whatever simple zombie fight you had planned plus 16-24 zombie minions.  If that crushing mass of undead doesn't "interrupt" the ritual....something's wrong. 

Also, if they manage to fail the skill challenge over all, you could just rule that they have attracted too many zombies where they are for the Reverse Portal to be affective (i.e. your reinforcements would come out of the portal into the crushing maw of hungry zombies and the undead may even overwhelm the portal).  They'd need to stop the ritual and move to a safer location and maybe try again or come up with a better plan if they burned their only scroll.

@mikemearls The office is basically empty this week, which opens up all sorts of possibilities for low shenanigans

@mikemearls In essence, all those arguments I lost are being unlost. Won, if you will. We're doing it MY way, baby.

@biotech66 aren't you the boss anyway? isn't "DO IT OR I FIRE YOU!" still an option?

@mikemearls I think Perkins would throat punch me if I ever tried that. And I'd give him a glowing quarterly review for it.

Consider a different take, and table the skill challenge for the moment:

The PCs have inscribed a ritual circle, 10' diameter, and are in the final moments of the spell. Zombies are coming from all directions (flying gargoyle zombies?!). It would seem that the major goal here is to protect the ritual caster and the ritual circle from being too greatly disturbed.

Mechanically, I would represent this as a three-strikes scenario, kind of a "reverse skill challenge." If the PCs end the combat round with at least one zombie adjacent to the ritual circle OR the PCs end the combat round with the ritual caster (who must always be adjacent to the circle) stunned, dominated, or unconscious or not adjacent to the ritual circle, the PCs' goal takes a "strike." Three strikes and the PCs fail (or succeed with a complication). The zombies come in increasingly twisted and awesome waves, no short rest. Either set a number of rounds before the ritual is completed (4, 6, or 8 maybe).

The skill challenge can be the travel portion as the PCs try to find a suitable location. Complications in the form of zombie movie tropes can be thrown at them (#successes plus 2 to build the list) and if they successfully deal with this skill challenge, maybe it turns into a four-strike scenario for the ritual scene (or they can opt to erase one or whatever). Maybe failure means they start with a strike. Ouch.

I've used this three-strikes setup a lot and it is very fun. The players really have to strategize and work together to pull out all the stops. You start seeing stuff like bull rushes and grabs come out, creative skill use... generally, stuff you don't see in "regular" combats.

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Use the skill challenge framework like you are already considering. However, don't count a failed check to keep the the zombies out as a failure for the skill challenge. Instead, that triggers a short encounter. Depending on how challenging the encounter is, any hit on the ritual caster could count as a failure, or a hit could force either an Endurance check or whatever skill is being used to cast the ritual, and failure at that check counts as a failure for the challenge, but a success means they were able to continue the ritual uninterrupted. Each successful skill check to keep the zombies out OR any encounter where the characters do not suffer a failure counts as a success.
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As i expected, lots of good responses!


If you are running it partially like a skill challenge, then they lose when they rack up enough failures.  Every time they fail, up the combat encounter by four to six zombie minions to show that the party is doing a crap job at plugging the leaks.  Assuming it's something like a 10 success before 5 (or less) failures sort of challenge, by the 4th failure, they'll be mobbed by whatever simple zombie fight you had planned plus 16-24 zombie minions.  If that crushing mass of undead doesn't "interrupt" the ritual....something's wrong.  

Also, if they manage to fail the skill challenge over all, you could just rule that they have attracted too many zombies where they are for the Reverse Portal to be affective (i.e. your reinforcements would come out of the portal into the crushing maw of hungry zombies and the undead may even overwhelm the portal).  They'd need to stop the ritual and move to a safer location and maybe try again or come up with a better plan if they burned their only scroll.




This is a high-op game at 16th level. Between Hand of Radiance, Consecrated ground, and similar 20 undead minions won't last a second. 
My plan was to start them in an empty room, and every round in which they fail a 'security' check 2-3 standards come in. The strikers can nuke down a standard each in a round, but it should start to get interesting by the time 10 or so have entered the room.



Consider a different take, and table the skill challenge for the moment:

The PCs have inscribed a ritual circle, 10' diameter, and are in the final moments of the spell. Zombies are coming from all directions (flying gargoyle zombies?!). It would seem that the major goal here is to protect the ritual caster and the ritual circle from being too greatly disturbed.

Mechanically, I would represent this as a three-strikes scenario, kind of a "reverse skill challenge." If the PCs end the combat round with at least one zombie adjacent to the ritual circle OR the PCs end the combat round with the ritual caster (who must always be adjacent to the circle) stunned, dominated, or unconscious or not adjacent to the ritual circle, the PCs' goal takes a "strike." Three strikes and the PCs fail (or succeed with a complication). The zombies come in increasingly twisted and awesome waves, no short rest. Either set a number of rounds before the ritual is completed (4, 6, or 8 maybe).

The skill challenge can be the travel portion as the PCs try to find a suitable location. Complications in the form of zombie movie tropes can be thrown at them (#successes plus 2 to build the list) and if they successfully deal with this skill challenge, maybe it turns into a four-strike scenario for the ritual scene (or they can opt to erase one or whatever). Maybe failure means they start with a strike. Ouch.

I've used this three-strikes setup a lot and it is very fun. The players really have to strategize and work together to pull out all the stops. You start seeing stuff like bull rushes and grabs come out, creative skill use... generally, stuff you don't see in "regular" combats.




Answering you out of order, the players have decided that they are flying into the town on giant eagles (Eagles Flight ritual) and basically landing right next to (or on) a building and getting inside of it. I don't really feel the need for skill useage here.

As for a partial success, i'm not really feeling it. The portal only needs to open for the army to start to get through, so if it's even open a single round then enough soldiers could get through and hold off the undead long enough for a second casting. So in this case partial failure would mean that it costs the party roughly another 500gp (or whatever) worth of reagents. That's close enough to automatic that there's no real point in devoting table time to it.
If the players lose this, they will have to escape (probably on eagles) and fall back to plan b, which is summon the army outside of the city and attempt a siege. This is much more likley to work, but will result in higher casualties for the army.

Having said all of that, i do like the idea of having it come in automatic waves instead of having the waves come as a consequence to skill failure.
And your ideas on 3 stikes against the caster is a pretty good take on my main question.


Use the skill challenge framework like you are already considering. However, don't count a failed check to keep the the zombies out as a failure for the skill challenge. Instead, that triggers a short encounter. Depending on how challenging the encounter is, any hit on the ritual caster could count as a failure, or a hit could force either an Endurance check or whatever skill is being used to cast the ritual, and failure at that check counts as a failure for the challenge, but a success means they were able to continue the ritual uninterrupted. Each successful skill check to keep the zombies out OR any encounter where the characters do not suffer a failure counts as a success.



To paraphrase: 3 strikes on teh caster is the correct number. 
I think this is becoming a trend.

***

Any more ideas out there? 
FWIW [4e designer] baseline assumption was that roughly 70% of your feats would be put towards combat effectiveness, parties would coordinate, and strikers would do 20/40/60 at-will damage+novas. If your party isn't doing that... well, you are below baseline, so yes, you need to optimize slightly to meet baseline. -Alcestis
Answering you out of order, the players have decided that they are flying into the town on giant eagles (Eagles Flight ritual) and basically landing right next to (or on) a building and getting inside of it. I don't really feel the need for skill useage here.



Fair enough. Context matters.

As for a partial success, i'm not really feeling it. The portal only needs to open for the army to start to get through, so if it's even open a single round then enough soldiers could get through and hold off the undead long enough for a second casting. So in this case partial failure would mean that it costs the party roughly another 500gp (or whatever) worth of reagents. That's close enough to automatic that there's no real point in devoting table time to it.
If the players lose this, they will have to escape (probably on eagles) and fall back to plan b, which is summon the army outside of the city and attempt a siege. This is much more likley to work, but will result in higher casualties for the army.



The bolded bit is what I had in mind for success with complication: The ritual goes off, just not as expected or not in time, meaning the army arrives through the portal, but it's tough going to gain ground and results in a lot of casualties. That loss of life should carry forward to future situations in some interesting way (such as needing to secure an alliance in order to tackle the next challenge).

Having said all of that, i do like the idea of having it come in automatic waves instead of having the waves come as a consequence to skill failure.



Right, because if the players cotton onto the triggers, they'll more than likely optimize their skill use so that they never fail, meaning that your chance at escalating the scene to make it more tense and interesting is in doubt.

And your ideas on 3 stikes against the caster is a pretty good take on my main question.



Caster OR ritual circle. While I don't imagine a zombie is going to have much interest in anything other than "Braaaaaains," them standing next to the circle is enough to disrupt it potentially. Zombies may just move next to the circle to get at tasty PCs, but if there are intelligent enemies, they might park themselves right next to that circle on purpose. Note that I'm not saying they need to spend their actions to "disrupt the circle." They need only stand there until the end of the combat round, so they get their full suite of actions otherwise.

Tactically, a 10' circle will have 16 squares an enemy could stand in to disrupt things which is a fairly large area for the PCs to police. Burning down enemies may not be enough - some will need to be pushed, pulled, and slid away or grabbed to keep them from moving adjacent just before the end of the combat round. Let me tell you, this mechanic has led to some very tense and exciting scenes, even for high-OP characters. Add to it just knocking out, moving non-adjacent, or stun/dominating the ritual caster as another route to Team Monster's victory and that's a lot of plates to keep spinning for the PCs!

If you want to layer a skill challengesque thing on top of this, consider a remote villain casting a ritual of his own that changes each round, introducing a different complication that can be resisted or dispelled with appropriate skill checks. "Okay, top of the round. A wave of weakness passes through you, clearly a magical effect summoned by Lord Nefarious. How do you deal with this as a group?" (Or, "Lord Nefarious is trying to use his arcane mastery to dispell all of your awesome zones! How do you deal with this?!") Then get some group checks going. Or something.

No amount of tips, tricks, or gimmicks will ever be better than simply talking directly to your fellow players to resolve your issues.
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Right, because if the players cotton onto the triggers, they'll more than likely optimize their skill use so that they never fail, meaning that your chance at escalating the scene to make it more tense and interesting is in doubt.



Not sure how then can "optimize" skills for this, these characters are years old. And naturally skill reuse will be at a higher DC...
But, your main point stands, by removing that item i can have direct control over the waves, and 'force' the escalation. 



 
Caster OR ritual circle. While I don't imagine a zombie is going to have much interest in anything other than "Braaaaaains," them standing next to the circle is enough to disrupt it potentially. Zombies may just move next to the circle to get at tasty PCs, but if there are intelligent enemies, they might park themselves right next to that circle on purpose. Note that I'm not saying they need to spend their actions to "disrupt the circle." They need only stand there until the end of the combat round, so they get their full suite of actions otherwise.

Tactically, a 10' circle will have 16 squares an enemy could stand in to disrupt things which is a fairly large area for the PCs to police. Burning down enemies may not be enough - some will need to be pushed, pulled, and slid away or grabbed to keep them from moving adjacent just before the end of the combat round. Let me tell you, this mechanic has led to some very tense and exciting scenes, even for high-OP characters. Add to it just knocking out, moving non-adjacent, or stun/dominating the ritual caster as another route to Team Monster's victory and that's a lot of plates to keep spinning for the PCs!



Yeah, 16 squares worth of disruption is pretty huge.
And while the undead (technically they were going to be skellies, but i really can't resist the zombie trope) aren't intelligent on their own, they will be led/contolled by a death knight. So he easily could be directing them towards the circle.
Defeating him early will make the zombies mindless 'again', but that's yet another spinning plate...

I think we have a winner, but i have one last question.

Would you have the caster that is performing the ritual able to do other actions, or is that a full time job?
I'm thinking that it's probably enough for the caster to spend a move action on maintaining the ritual (since they won't really be going anywhere anyway).
Thoughts?


FWIW [4e designer] baseline assumption was that roughly 70% of your feats would be put towards combat effectiveness, parties would coordinate, and strikers would do 20/40/60 at-will damage+novas. If your party isn't doing that... well, you are below baseline, so yes, you need to optimize slightly to meet baseline. -Alcestis
Not sure how then can "optimize" skills for this, these characters are years old. And naturally skill reuse will be at a higher DC...
But, your main point stands, by removing that item i can have direct control over the waves, and 'force' the escalation.



Yeah, what I meant by that was they'll focus on just their skills to get it done seeing that as the surest path to victory. I remember now that you don't permit use of Aid Another so this is likely irrelevant. Like you said, the point is that one should never hide the cool stuff behind a roll in hopes that the roll fails.

Yeah, 16 squares worth of disruption is pretty huge.
And while the undead (technically they were going to be skellies, but i really can't resist the zombie trope) aren't intelligent on their own, they will be led/contolled by a death knight. So he easily could be directing them towards the circle.
Defeating him early will make the zombies mindless 'again', but that's yet another spinning plate...



Indeed! One the death knight is down, the PCs might tactically withdraw as much as possible from the circle to get the zombies to follow them, for example. Options are practically limitless for how it might go, which I like.

I think we have a winner, but i have one last question.

Would you have the caster that is performing the ritual able to do other actions, or is that a full time job?
I'm thinking that it's probably enough for the caster to spend a move action on maintaining the ritual (since they won't really be going anywhere anyway).
Thoughts?



I wouldn't have it cost them an action at all because it's like making them pay for your cool premise. It feels too much like a penalty to me, like having the rogue on Thievery duty in a scene that includes traps while everyone else does whatever they want. The only restriction I'd put on that particular PC is what I put above - can't be stunned, dominated, unconscious, dying, or non-adjacent to the circle when the end of a round happens. Otherwise, it's a strike! I feel like that's enough of a simulation to make sense without costing that one player something.

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Dungeon #176 had a fight off the zombies adventure "Dead by Dawn" if you want to check it out and see how they ran the skill challenge, they had encounters occurring but skill challenges to prevent additional enemies from joining in.

Also reminds me of the Lair Assault season 3 fight where you're protecting an NPC casting a ritual while new enemies show up every round. That one gave the party the opportunity to prep the grounds before the enemies showed up, which could be fun too, blocking doors, boarding windows, using limited resources to try and reduce the entry ways into the room and funnel them to where you can deal with them.
Dungeon #176 had a fight off the zombies adventure "Dead by Dawn" if you want to check it out and see how they ran the skill challenge, they had encounters occurring but skill challenges to prevent additional enemies from joining in.



I was thinking about this adventure too when I first read the post. I don't remember exactly how it went but thought it needed work at the time.

Also reminds me of the Lair Assault season 3 fight where you're protecting an NPC casting a ritual while new enemies show up every round. That one gave the party the opportunity to prep the grounds before the enemies showed up, which could be fun too, blocking doors, boarding windows, using limited resources to try and reduce the entry ways into the room and funnel them to where you can deal with them.



The thing I don't like about this setup is that the DM is forced to make attack rolls against an NPC. I think it's totally lame to roll against yourself and I think this can throw the XP-to-challenge ratio off in terms of planning since the monsters are not directly all their attacks at PCs. So I prefer the three strikes method.

No amount of tips, tricks, or gimmicks will ever be better than simply talking directly to your fellow players to resolve your issues.
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I've read Dead by Dawn (never ran it), but it's been some time. I think it was definately simialr, with pc's making checks and undead getting in on failed checks. But iirc there were like multiple levels to the house, and the adventure was designed in such a way that no matter how well they did the pc's would eventually have to flee to a new level (prolly why Iserith didn't like it).

I'll give it another look to see if there's anything i can steal from it, thanks for reminding me of it! 
FWIW [4e designer] baseline assumption was that roughly 70% of your feats would be put towards combat effectiveness, parties would coordinate, and strikers would do 20/40/60 at-will damage+novas. If your party isn't doing that... well, you are below baseline, so yes, you need to optimize slightly to meet baseline. -Alcestis
What you are really trying to accomplish, subconscious desire perhaps, is to create a breath taking, tense, roller coaster encounter for your players with not just kill the undead but alternate goal...open the portal. So. I wouldnt focus on the ritual portion of the encounter but more..how to make this encounter..a intense ride.

My recommendation then is to make it not one location defend, fight, activate portal, but several key location pcs has to  fight, survive to and activate all within certain time frame, with last componant a fight to hold until gate opens and reinforcement comes.  There should be time limit if pc dont get to the next componant in time, it resets. Not one loc, one action, but multiple, each componant in different environment providing diff tactical choices, one componant to be axtivated may be on top of tower, second under sewer, another in a chamber...fight, run, activate each in certain time..must make the time or restart again with endless undead chasing, in way etc etc..
Roller coaster ride... 
Keeping all of this in mind, a decision needs to be made: How can the players fail the scene?

Any number of ways. The ritual fails and the PCs must leave the site. The scroll is lost. Time is lost. A tilt occurs.

Or in other words: what is a reasonable amount of interference to end/disrupt the ritual?

This can also be anything, from the scroll being destroyed to the entire area being overrun or destroyed.

If the zombie hits the caster?

Can be, but this is probably pretty easily done and might mean the caster doing nothing but casting. If they're fine with that, this is a fine disruption.

What if the caster gets bloodied?

Also fine, and allows some leeway.

A zombie walking across the summoning portal and smearing the design?

Fine.

A crazy crossbreeze that blows the candles out?

Fine, but tie it to something the players have control over, such as windows that need to be kept closed that the zombies keep opening.

Can the caster pause the ritual to fight and resume it later?

Sure, though fighting shouldn't be capable of nullifying the challenge. There should always be more zombies.

Do we handle it like a traditional skill challenge and say that 3 failures means the building has been compromised and the pcs are overwhelmed?

That's fine.
 
Thoughts?

You're right to be considering failure. Once you have that in place, and it's interesting, you basically can't get anything else about the challenge wrong.

When I think zombie movie, I think of things going not just wrong, but catastrophically wrong. The helicopter isn't just forced down, it crashes and explodes, killing important bystanders, severing the communication line, smashing the machine gun, setting the propane tank on fire, and knocking a hole in the wall for the zombies to surge through. The ones killed outright are the lucky ones, because everything just got much, much worse for the survivors.

With players, there's a line to walk, because most players don't like to be the cause or even the linchpin of disasterous occurrances. The safe way to fail would be to have the location they want to use destroyed. The PCs escape and have resort to a location or option that's much less desireable. The harsh way to fail would be for the portal to open wrong and for the army to fail to get any warning before the march through backwards, or with their armor transmuted to bacon, so that even as the PCs escape the zombie horde swells its ranks with the PCs' allies. Either can work, if the players are into it.

If I have to ask the GM for it, then I don't want it.