This past weekend, I ran the follow-up session of a modest dungeon exploration in my Aurikesh campaign. It was the conclusion of an adventure that led a team of five PCs into the midst of two regiments clashing, and it ended in the PCs recruiting a powerful new asset to their revolutionary cause. The main thing I want to talk about, though, is the three combat encounters in the session.
The roster for this adventure is another example of the odd things that Aurikesh’s campaign model allows.
- Arbol, 5th level human Gloomstalker ranger
- Gamble, 6th level veytikka Totem (Eagle) barbarian
- Honnen, 5th level beruch Demonscarred barbarian
- Lanth, 7th level veytikka Battle Master fighter
- Lyson, 3rd level kagandi Oath of the Ancients paladin
That is a lot of d10 and d12 hit dice and weapon-based asskicking, and almost no spellcasting, Arcana, or History.
The PCs are gathering strength and information to fight an evil angel; this has been the main plot of the campaign for what’s coming up on two years. Thirty-one sessions, and I don’t know how many more before there’s a showdown. It hasn’t been the primary concern of all of those sessions – the campaign is too nearly sandboxy for that – but it’s moved steadily toward the center since they first learned of it.
A long-threatened war between the PCs’ homeland, the domain of Tyrema, and the neighboring domain of Gallmonte is part of the evil angel’s plan, and in the session before this, it began with two Tyreman regiments engaging a Gallmontese expeditionary regiment. The Gallmontese lured one of the Tyreman regiments into a trap and dealt it a crushing defeat. The PCs, and NPC members of their mercenary company, traveled to the theater of war to observe the conflict and make a recommendation to the company’s directory council.
They arrive in the area and learn, through numerous encounters, that the Gallmontese army is under a ceaseless and punishing thunderstorm. Instead of trying to move, they’ve found shelter in caves, while their wizard maintains an extra-large wall of force over their primary camp. The party enters the area of the storm to approach the force dome, and finds a flooded entrance to a dungeon complex. They enter, find that the dungeon is about hip-deep in water, fight a bunch of aberrations (mindwitnesses and a lightly reworked morkoth), and meet a Rival Adventuring Party (tee em) of Gallmontese soldiers. The morkoth fight included rescuing some of the Gallmontese soldiers and watching others plummet through the hole in the floor that it created.
Looking through the hole, they saw a 20-foot-tall statue, which they realized was a domain sentinel, and probably Gallmonte’s whole goal in coming here. They debated trying to go down through the hole (about a 60-foot drop), but they could see all kinds of horrible things moving in the water down there and decided to take a short rest and find another route down there. That ended the previous session, and Lyson leveled to 4th.
The Armored Guardians
Looking for some stairs, they found a heavily armored figure with a shield and a flail that really should have taken both hands to wield. He explained that he was bound to guard this place in penance for his sins, instead of being handed over to punishment by the powers of Hell. (In Aurikesh, Hell sort of works for the Gods, exacting punishment upon the dead so that their souls can be used anew.) He said that he was limited to this floor of the complex, he had failed in his duty in the past, and he could no longer clearly sense the domain sentinel.
At the bottom of the stairs, they found a room with four dormant armored guardians, with four mindwitnesses (which the players called “starfish creatures” or “jellyfish creatures”) in the upper corners of the room. The PCs quickly figured out that the starfish had some kind of psychic control over the guardians, and they assumed… correctly… that the guardians would attack once they stepped into the room, but be freed if the PCs could kill the starfish.
This led to a fight where the PCs directed almost all of their attacks against the starfish, which were spread as far apart as the room allowed. When they killed a starfish, its guardian was stunned for a couple of rounds. The guardians (using gladiator stats with an AC boost) made the room harder to navigate, but the PCs did only incidental damage to any of them. Because they were maintaining control over the guardians, the mindwitnesses only took one of their three eye-ray attacks each round, or attacked normally in melee if PCs approached. In the first session, the PCs’ saves were so good that none of the eye ray effects ever landed – a streak of luck that stopped cold in this fight.
This was also a fight where bless really shone, since there were a lot of saving throw effects getting tossed around, as well as tolerably high ACs to hit (15 for the mindwitnesses, 18-20 for the guardians). Stands-in-Fire has Opinions about the balance of bless, and in truth I can’t think of another concentration effect below about 5th level that would have remotely competed with it for usefulness here – even with Lyson’s casting covering only 60% of the team.
What really worked in this encounter was that the PCs were fighting people they very much did not want to kill, who had no similar compunctions in return. In one sense, they were maneuvering to force the PCs to fight them; the PCs provoked a fair number of opportunity attacks to avoid that. The PCs were rewarded for their judiciousness with information and a safe room in which to take a long rest… that finished in just two hours. They also received the benefits of heroes’ feast. Gladiators are very potent CR 4s, and they put a hurt on the party. Mindwitnesses are an incredibly fragile but offensively devastating CR 5.
What didn’t work: tactically, the mindwitnesses weren’t using their best possible strategies, which involve flying out of the reach of melee combatants and raining down hell with eye rays, but that would have been miserable and I don’t reward XP by CR, so I don’t see this as having been a significant problem.
After a bit more exploring, and discovering the journal of the priest who once maintained the domain sentinel, the PCs came to a room with four crabs that had some kind of psychic aura, a tentacled creature with a beak and a psychic blast attack, and some weird, horrible glowing pile of stuff stuck to the ceiling. None of these used MM stat blocks; I shot from the hip on their stats, which is pretty much fine in 5e if you otherwise create monster stat blocks for a living.
The crabs wanted to attack, deal piercing and psychic damage, and scuttle back to the glowing pile on the ceiling. The crabs were not super tough, but the four of them and the tentacled thing (which the PCs called a grick, because that was the mini I used) were enough to at least make the fight last a few rounds. One of the crabs scored a big crit, so I had that count double for feeding the pile. The PCs come to discover that the pile is softly glowing eggs, which duplicate when fed. When they duplicate enough, the pile expands from Medium to Large and starts radiating status effects that the PCs had to save against at the start of their turn. The tentacled thing grappled creatures when it hit with its melee attack, and tried to pull them down through a hole in the floor.
Overall, this was the least difficult of the three combat encounters. Variation is good, and the main event was yet to come. It still had plenty of tension, because any time a monster ignores you to wander off and interact with another monster or terrain feature, you know you’re going to wish it had stayed where it was and kept attacking you. Adding 1-2 more crabs would have substantially increased the overall threat, as the PCs would have been on the short end of the action economy stick for a bit longer, and I probably could have made the clutch of eggs grow another time or two.
What went right: This time, the PCs wanted to kill everything in the room, but the monsters had different goals. I think that if the pile had grown a second time before the PCs reduced it back down to Medium, we might have turned a corner in the fight, such that things got really bad for them. Instead, the barbarians spent a couple of rounds beating on a sessile creature, so the rest of the monsters got another round or two of attacks. (I.e., the PCs made a good choice that still cost them some unanswered damage.)
What went wrong: A little bit larger of a combat area might have been better, just for extra room to move. Also, there were hazards that I had come up with while brainstorming that I totally forgot to implement, but that’s okay.
In the back of the room, the PCs found a magic breastplate that could also be worn as studded leather, and a bunch of money. What I realized while creating the magic breastplate is that:
- At most, two PCs in this group (the barbarians) might consider wearing a breastplate. The other three all prefer light armor, as Lyson is a Dex paladin and Lanth is a Dex fighter.
- It’s completely within the bounds of how armor works to imagine a breastplate with a reinforced buff coat beneath. If you can’t wear the outer breastplate without the studded leather, then they can both offer the enchantment features (+1 to AC, resistance to fire) with no obvious exploit case.
The Domain Sentinel
The party found another set of stairs and came to the huge chamber that housed the domain sentinel: a statue 20 feet tall and about 12 feet wide. By this point, they had figured out that the domain sentinel was probably corrupted by an Abomination (Aurikesh’s Great Old Ones in some way, but weren’t sure what they’d do about it. The chamber was under about three feet of water, since the hole in the room up above caused vast amounts of water to drain into this room, and the storm outside was sending still more water into the dungeon. The PCs were pretty sure I was going to attack them with a boss fight worth of aberrant horrors as soon as they set foot in the water, but they were still 60 feet away from the statue – out of the range of their glowing sword, which was the group’s primary light source.
I decided that it was going to be more fun, overall, if I went ahead and let the players know that this was a fight they could trigger on their own time, rather than starting as soon as they stepped off the stairs and into the water. Especially with their limited magical resources, I worried that they would cast all of their buffs, only to watch them run out right when the fight started. Good simulationist outcome; crummy gamist outcome. I was specifically aiming for a tower-defense-like situation, and couldn’t think of a better way to present that information in-character.
They discovered that the statue had six runes of alien design and unwholesome power upon it. From the journal and a conversation with the telepathic sentinel, they learned that the sentinel could be awakened as it was, and it would serve their purposes, but doing so would weaken the power of the Gods in Tyrema, and strengthen the power of the Abominations. The characters have a mix of loyalties – Lyson, Gamble, and Lanth to the Seelie Court of the fey (to varying degrees), and Honnen to the Abyss (by virtue of his barbarian Path). They had the option of replacing those runes with Abyssal or fey runes, though they – well, Lyson, ultimately – decided against it. (Not that any of them actually favor the Abyss, don’t get me wrong.)
Anyway, the fight started as soon as one of them started work on a rune. It turned out to be Lyson, for virtue of his proficiency in tinker’s tools – the closest thing they had to mason’s tools. Four more mindwitnesses, this time represented with some awesome jellyfish minis that Stands-in-Fire had printed, rose out of the water, along with eight or ten transformed humanoids. The humanoids had claws and a thin layer of scales (17 hp, 12 AC, 2 attacks, +2 to hit, d4+2 damage), and more and more of them showed up out of the darkness every round. The jellyfish floated up into the air, some of them out of reach of melee combatants.
Arbol climbed up on the wall behind the sentinel, giving him an advantageous firing position – but one that was utterly exposed to the mindwitnesses’ eye rays. What can you do? Honnen stayed near Lyson as a last line of defense (and absorbing tons of damage for him and other characters, using his Spawn of the Abyssal Horde feature), while Gamble and Lanth went on the offensive. They soon realized that they had to push hard against the mindwitnesses, because they were failing way too many of those DC 13 saves.
Funny thing about DC 13. That’s an easy save if you’re proficient, have a good ability score there, and have bless. That gets a lot harder in a hurry if you’re missing one or all of those, and the thing about a mindwitness’s eye rays is that they have one ray for each ability score, determined randomly at the time of use. This was not a party with a lot of focus on Int, Wis, or Cha, and only Lyson was proficient in those saves. Despite their huge pools of hit points, they took these attacks on the chin.
Lanth has a feat, Favored of the Silver Knight, that allows her to teleport up to 60 feet as a bonus action, as long as she’s in substantially more danger on arrival. The Silver Knight (Rathmorvan, He Who Cleaves With Silver) is all about glorious charges that you almost definitely can’t survive. This let her teleport onto the backs of the mindwitnesses, right into range of their incredibly deadly bite and tentacle attacks.
As a payoff for their earlier interactions with Gallmontese soldiers, a team of four Gallmontese showed up on around the third round of the fight, distracting two of the mindwitnesses. The NPCs got wrecked by these attacks even worse than the PCs had, but it gave the PCs a tiny bit of a breather. It was, all the same, a beyond-Deadly fight, especially with the party’s paladin more involved in the skill challenge than the fight.
The skill challenge involved six runes that had to be eradicated. Because he risked telepathic contact with the Abomination-touched sentinel (and passed his save to resist unspecified dire consequences), he got a lot more cooperation from the sentinel than he might have – it positioned itself to bring the runes into reach for him, instead of requiring him to make a bunch of Athletics checks to reach them. Each time he tried to eradicate a rune, he had to roll a tinker’s tools check (I think I went with Dex? I don’t remember now) and an Intelligence save. He suffered a bunch of psychic damage on a failed save, or half as much on a success. If he passed the tinker’s tools check, the rune was eradicated, but all of the other runes grew stronger (that is, dealt more damage when eradicated). I described this psychic damage as strange geometries forcing their way into his thoughts.
Though it’s outside the usual function of Spawn of the Abyssal Horde, I allowed Honnen to redirect half of the incoming psychic damage to himself, as the Abyss has no love for the Abominations.
What went right: I was pleased with how tense this fight was. Only one character got down to single-digit hit points, necessitating some emergency measures from the rest of the party, but I feel like this battle was a hair’s-breadth from turning into a wipe from about the third round through the end. The point of this fight was to survive long enough to eradicate all of the runes, not to defeat all of the aberrations (the two remaining mindwitnesses were sucked back to the Outer Dark when the last rune was gone).
What went wrong: I think it’s possible to interpret the arrival of the Gallmontese as me deciding to save them from a too-hard fight. As I suggested above, I look at it as a payoff for a key decision, and one that has some ongoing consequences – specifically, the Gallmontese now know what the PCs have done. There are probably going to be some other threads I can pull on based on how things sifted out after that. We’ll see.
Judging by previous postmortems, fights involving aberrations are easier than other kinds of battles for me to come up with unusual structures or goals off-the-cuff. Part of that is that there are almost no established meta-rules around what they can or can’t do. For future thought on developing non-standard fight mechanics, I think I should focus on each flavor of supernatural influence as its own category.
For the players who were part of this session, I’m interested in your takes on this – how things came across during play, places where the presentation was less clear or more frustrating than I think it was, and so on. For everyone else, I hope this sparks ideas for you about how to create interesting, unusual fights. The through-line of these encounters, in my view, is that one side or both had a goal other than “kill everything that isn’t clearly an ally.”