Over the past few weekends, I’ve had the great fortune to play in three D&D sessions and run one. Each of these sessions wound up with a centerpiece battle, and I want to look at the different setups, uses of tension, and some statting issues that arose. These were all good experiences for the players at the table, and nothing in my remarks here should take away from that.
26 February, the Liel Campaign: East Atlanta Team
The first of these sessions was a four-player team in Kainenchen’s Liel campaign. We’re all third level. The party consists of:
- Bolivar, a half-orc sword-and-shield Battle Master fighter
- Constant, a tiefling Diviner wizard (this one is me)
- Gorge, an orc greatsword Battle Master fighter
- Tanthiel, an elf archer (fighter/rogue)
In the course of exploring this particular dungeon, we’ve received nominal control of a few adjoining rooms, but those rooms closely border the territory of two hostile groups, and we can’t really explore the dungeon much more without bumping into one or both of them. Control of our territory means that the denizens “native” to these chambers – animated weapons, armor, and chests (friendly mimics!) – fight alongside us and do what we tell them to. This is a fascinating dynamic in itself, but beyond that, the other power groups also have their “native denizens” and adventuring parties. The encounter I’m going to describe wasn’t the only fight of the session, but it was involved enough to feel like the main action.
I had a clairvoyance item lying around from a room full of flawed magic items we had ransacked, so I targeted the farthest we had gotten into enemy territory, kinda because I could. I didn’t have any reasonable expectation of peeking in at the exact moment that anything interesting was going on in that one room, but Kainenchen – God bless her – didn’t miss this chance to give the session a huge shot of tension. I watched (without hearing anything, because that’s clairvoyance for you) as an adventuring party geared up to go do something, including donning their necklaces that cause temporary therianthropic transformation. We figured we were about to have intruders, and we were right.
Soon thereafter, the animated weapons and armor (including a helmed horror) start fighting our new guests. We figure out exactly where the fight is taking place and decide on where to enter the fight. (The point here is that we’ve been in these same rooms of the dungeon for several sessions now, and it has changed how we interact with the space. The feel is something closer to tower defense than dungeon-crawling, at this point.)
In addition to our four characters, we had the aforementioned helmed horror and (I think) three animated swords on our side. The enemy force was a werebear, a weretiger, and a wererat with some spellcasting ability. The wererat was elsewhere in the dungeon, though, fighting another NPC that we thought was a friend. It’s complicated. Anyway, it turns out that animated swords and helmed horrors have very high ACs for their CR, while werecreatures have average or below-average attack bonuses for their CR. Kainenchen found it incredibly hard to put a hurt on us or our allies, because our two front-liners both had as much AC as we could give them, and our back line was well away from the fray. When the weretiger was down, the werebear negotiated a ceasefire and peaceful withdrawal, which we granted – on the theory that that faction in the dungeon had not yet gotten a real measure of our potency, so they would hesitate before troubling us again.
There are a number of lessons to draw from this fight. On a narrative level, the setup was brilliant: we have NPC support that lets us take on creatures that should otherwise wipe the floor with us, so we can temporarily punch above our weight. We get to feel awesome because there are NPCs at our beck and call. We interacted with a more conversant group of enemies than the last time we faced that faction. There were key reveals in the course of that fight.
Mechanically, on the other hand, Kainenchen came away disappointed in basically two ways. First, that the werebear and weretiger didn’t present a credible direct threat to our front-liners. They both had rock-bottom ACs (11 or 12) and modest attack bonuses (+5 for the weretiger, +7 for the werebear). Even the werebear’s quite substantial hit point total withers in the face of multiple NPCs and PCs piling onto it. It would be good to bring these up to the level of their natural-creature forms.
Secondly, there’s not a lot of interesting mechanical distinction between the weretiger and the werebear, nor much to distinguish the two of them from any other sack of hit points with a damaging attack. We joined a fight that was already underway, so we didn’t get to see a Pounce from the weretiger. We used consumable items for a magic weapon effect on some of the party’s weapons, though our sword-and-board fighter was only dealing half damage. Because of the particular story of this situation, I’m not sure they had the ability to impose lycanthropy on us, but I know they never tried to bite us. (It’s not a particularly good use of either creature’s time in a combat round.) These creatures are very good candidates for adding in traits or actions to represent their tactical role or make them more individual – the stat blocks of the MM are lycanthropic versions of totally normal people, arguably more normal than the “normal people” NPC stat blocks at the back of the book.
Obviously, Kainenchen, if you want to chime in here with additional thoughts, you are invited to do so.
5 March, the Liel Campaign: Marietta Team
The next weekend, Kainenchen ran a session for the other team roster. This is that team’s second session, and we had only three characters. The rest of the team mysteriously vanished during our long rest at the start of this session. (Juggling highly variable team rosters is always a trick.)
- Gekx, a goblin monk
- Ilenia, an elf bard
- Sakir, a dragonborn fighter (this one is me)
We’re in a different megadungeon than the East Atlanta team, though the two dungeons have elements in common, both having been constructed by powerful wizards and all. We start by looking for our missing companions, and stumble upon a group of mercenaries fighting floating magical masks. We consider waiting to see how that fight shakes out, but instead jump in to aid the mercenaries, on the principle that if they’re equally likely to be enemies, one should choose the enemy where negotiation is a possibility. Anyway, there’s a great sequence in which we discover that these mercenaries work for the guy we came to this dungeon to kill, so we sign on with the mercs and make plans to win them away from their current employer, while we also get closer to that employer.
We discover that this dungeon was at one point a working theater. We’ve already come across a cloak check room, the mercenaries mention finding the theater itself, and shortly after, we find ourselves in a costuming storage room, where we are attacked by three mannequins and two more of those floating masks. I don’t exactly know what Kainenchen was doing for stats here, except that the mannequins had around 40 hit points and a fairly normal attack bonus and damage output, while the masks had some kind of ranged psychic attack and a more idiosyncratic attack based on the mask’s appearance. The spider mask, for example, cast web at us.
The three of us worked together like a well-oiled machine in this fight. But even a well-oiled machine can be outnumbered and outclassed. We got pinned down by the door, because for various reasons we wanted to stay close together. In this campaign’s house rules, we have all chosen a racial option that lets us start with a feat, so I have Sentinel, the bard has Healer, and the monk has a homebrewed feat that grants a complex set of benefits. Those feats are the only reason we stayed in this fight as long as we did; technically, they’re possibly overpowered, but in a practical sense, it would not have been a very fun encounter otherwise, and it gave us an interesting set of tricks to fall back on. Nevertheless, our enemies slowly ground us down, though we did manage to take down one of the mannequins and put some amount of hurt on just about everything else in the room.
In my experience of D&D, fleeing from a combat is incredibly rare. There are a lot of reasons for this, which I’ve touched on in the past. The most salient point here is that usually, fleeing just means you get chased down and have to start the fight up again somewhere else. Not a lot of benefit in that. In this case, once we left the room, the doors closed behind us and the mannequins and masks became inanimate again. The piece of advice I derive from this is: GMs, let the PCs get away. Don’t teach the lesson that they should never flee.
It was, in the end, a thrilling and satisfying defeat, in that we put up a good fight, stayed in it as long as we possibly could, and bailed when we had no other choice. The most important thing is that we had enough staying power to fight for awhile, figure out the trend-line of the conflict, and survive the escape. That’s a very fine line to walk. We leveled to 3rd during the rest that followed, and speaking just for myself, I can’t wait to try that fight again with more hit points and my brand new Combat Superiority dice. Also, if one or two more of our teammates make it to the next session, so much the better…
18 March, the Reborn Campaign
Two weeks later, Louis ran a session of his Reborn campaign, which has been going for some time now, but with several extended breaks. As with Liel and my own Aurikesh campaign, the player roster is fairly unstable. At the start of this session, we were 7th level. This session had:
- Alden, a Battle Master fighter with a touch of non-evil lycanthropy. Incidentally, it was this player’s first session of D&D… getting tossed in the deep end of 7th level.
- Frampton, a Valor bard
- Geoffrey, a Devotion paladin
- Soren, a Knowledge cleric with a necromantic bent, for cosmological reasons (this one is me)
The core story of this campaign so far is that we are re-awakening the Court of the gods, represented by the Chromatic and Metallic dragons. The Chromatic dragons are not any nicer than usual, but we’re in a race against another faction, who wants to corrupt them into a more intensely evil version. In this way we found ourselves going to the prison of Ulantarni the Red, the Tyrant, which we had been sternly warned away from before because we weren’t tall enough for that ride. Now, we were getting very strong signals that the bad guys were in his prison and working to corrupt him right now. We debated what to do at length, but finally came down on the side of risking everything to intervene.
When we got there, our rivals were already fighting the prison’s defenses, a red dragon (probably Young?) that respawned on about a two-round timer. Their small army of minions were performing a ritual to summon the mad Valikarian the Black, to fight and corrupt Ulantarni. There were six statues in the middle of the room in a posture of supplication, with no obvious purpose. It was, in short, an incredibly complex setup. Later, Louis explained to me that he had used an NPC generator to build our rivals’ stats at about 10th level, so they were fairly complex in their own right. We were outnumbered and outclassed, but they had a bunch of problems that we didn’t, like the undivided attention of a young red dragon and needing to sustain a ritual.
The ritual itself is an interesting point of what went on. Based on his comments during the session, Louis clearly expected us to think of our Arcana and Religion skills (at which, of course, a Knowledge cleric is aces) as information-gathering tools on the ritual’s function. I assumed, at the time, that I knew the ritual’s basic function (I was right about this) and that a skill check would not discern anything further about how to disrupt it, beyond “murder all of the opposition” (I was wrong about this). Eventually, he realized that we were never going to come to the conclusion that we should ask to use these skills, and he suggested we do so. After the session, he explained the internal mechanics of the ritual further, as he had designed it in detail to, in a sense, keep himself honest. It turns out that our enemies had done something to kick the ritual into overdrive once we got there, which sped up progress but meant that any minion that failed a saving throw against confusion or hypnotic pattern instantly died, their minds lost to the aether or something along those lines. The bard and I didn’t know this ahead of time, but it turned out to play right into our preferred strategy, which is the sign of a pretty good setup on the DM’s part – our high-cost actions (precious 4th-level slots!) were useful, even if we didn’t know in advance how useful they’d be.
Our paladin and fighter engaged the nearest enemies, distracting them somewhat from fighting the dragon. We dealt some damage, but their healers more than kept up with it, as far as I could tell, and their heavies had piles of armor. We got the worst of that fighting, round over round, but we also kept their attention split. This is something I deeply appreciated in how Louis played them – they were distracted, unclear on their own goals, and adapting to the situation just as we would have been in their position, which cost them precious time. It would have been easy to play them as perfectly coordinated pros, but it added a lot to the encounter that they weren’t. Louis later mentioned that they also did not have situationally-optimal spells known or prepared, just as we did not.
As with any great three-way fight, of course, the dragon did eventually become our problem, as there were gradually fewer of our enemies to hold its attention. Because it kept respawning, it wound up acting a lot like a soft enrage timer, because we were completely unprepared to take it on and entirely drained of resources just from fighting our actual enemies. From watching those enemies, though, we found out what it took to make the dragon (really, a construct made of ruby dust) go away. We had ended the ritual to corrupt Ulantarni either the round before or that same round.
This was, in all, an incredibly detailed scene that showed off Louis’s exceptional ability to manage and present a lot of different things in a coherent fashion. I’ve supported the theory of three-sided fights for a long time, but this is honestly one of the first times I’ve seen it implemented in a tabletop format (of course I’m forgetting some over the years; if you were the DM for that, please forgive me). The huge number of moving parts, which we understood to varying degrees, probably could have been simpler on the backend than they were. The other incredibly important thing about the scene was keeping each side’s goals and limitations clear, and making it possible for us to work them out pretty quickly.
19 March, the Aurikesh Campaign
The next day (two consecutive days of gaming! Such decadence!), I ran a session of my campaign, in which the PCs decided to go tangle with a dockside gang that had been harassing a group of people that many of the PCs are inclined to protect. If you’re not familiar with the races and other content of Aurikesh, some of this won’t make sense to you. Most of the party was 5th level, with one 4th-level character and one 6th-level character.
- Aconito, human Open Hand monk
- Alekkvi, beruch Necromancer wizard
- Ekkan, beruch Knowledge cleric
- Gamble, veytikka Totem (Eagle) barbarian
- Honnan, beruch Demon-scarred barbarian
- Lanth, veytikka Battle Master two-weapon fighter
- Warwick, human Champion sword-and-board fighter
I figured this was something they were likely to pursue during the session. As it happens, there are a ton of great humanoid stat blocks centered on CR 3, between the MM and Volo’s Guide to Monsters – Veterans, Archers, Bards, Martial Arts Adepts, and Swashbucklers. I worked out a few different permutations that would form a Hard challenge for this team; it generally comes to seven CR 3’s and some miscellaneous lower-CR creatures. When the PCs got to the docks, I drew the map and placed minis sufficient for that Hard challenge. The PCs talk, which is what I expected; they push to speak to the leader of the gang, so I have the leader show up ten minutes later with a hefty number of reinforcements. I’ve been laying it on fairly thick with the idea that these are pretty tough opponents relative to the PCs, and the PCs are considered very tough in this city. I think to myself that there are probably enough NPCs clustered around now that the PCs are screwed if they start a fight, which of course they do – because now the apparent boss of this gang is within reach. I don’t know exactly how many NPCs I had on the map, but twelve seems conservative.
What I discover, over the course of the next few hours of play, is that:
- Two raging barbarians, one of them with 18 Con, have an absolutely staggering ability to withstand harm if everything they’re taking is bludgeoning, piercing, or slashing damage. I mean, I’d seen the characters more or less do this before, but it was the first time the higher-level of the two barbarians had just waded through a knot of opponents, tanked all of them together, and still aced the boss. (The boss was actually just another CR 3 Veteran.)
- The five melee brutes among the PC team amount to a whole hell of a lot of AC, in the 15-20 band.
- The cleric’s opening-round bless and many successful Concentration saves mean that the PCs have a much easier time hitting the Veterans’ AC 17 than the reverse.
- My non-b/p/s damage, from an NPC bard and sorcerer, don’t wind up targeting the barbarians that it really needed to target.
- Ultimately, it was a lot of enemies and things could have gone badly for them, but the PCs won fairly handily, and I need to put more time and energy into planning if I want to pose viable challenges to a team this large.
- The attack bonuses of CR 3 creatures from the MM seem to be +5s. The attack bonuses of CR 3 creatures from VGtM seem to be +6s. It sounds like nothing, but over a very large number of attacks, the creatures from VGtM pose a greater challenge.
- Creatures from VGtM also have more interesting stat blocks than MM creatures of the same CR – compare the Veteran and the Martial Arts Adept.
They did not exactly run roughshod over the whole gang, but the gang’s overwhelming numbers definitely did not strike mortal dread into their hearts as one might have hoped. Here I exaggerate for effect. Still: judging how to challenge them effectively, and doing so with a campaign structure that involves a lot of different adventure hooks and just seeing what they chase this time, takes major recalibration once they shift from a party of 3rd and 4th-level characters with maybe a solitary 5th-level character to a whole gang of 5th-level characters. (The good side of my campaign’s slow advancement is that I should get a few more chances to learn my lesson before they’re all 6th level and making me learn it again.)
As always, the number-one lesson is that players are full of surprises, and overwhelming numbers are just a target-rich environment. If I sound disappointed with the outcome, it isn’t that I wanted to win – it’s that my game-running goal is to establish the credibility of the threat, and when it seems like the PCs won without breaking a sweat (not exactly the case here), I definitely didn’t achieve that goal. On the other hand, it was a big enough conflict that I don’t feel bad about the PCs securing their goal – dockside gangs no longer see the beruch NPCs as easy pickings, because the PCs may come down on them like the wrath of God.
If I had the encounter to do over again, there are some story elements I would communicate through the simple expedient of giving the “boss” some extra tricks up his sleeve. Leaving that out was a simple oversight on my part.
Between the time the boss bit it and the end of the encounter, I should have had some other things happen, like the members of the city watch that are on some crime lord’s payroll showing up to arrest the PCs with extreme prejudice. This would not have been any great reveal, but it would have sharply shifted the context and kept things interesting in a different way.
I got some mileage out of rooftop firing positions and such. I should have done a lot more with storefronts and shifting the fight between interior and exterior, giving a better sense of place. In general, I need to improve my terrain features, for both PC and NPC use. I needed to further rewrite the Archer on the fly, so that it supported crossbow use (since Multiattack and crossbows don’t go together without just flagrantly cheating). The Archer’s +1d10, 3/short rest, to either attack or damage, is really fun.