Last weekend’s D&D game ended in the biggest boss fight of the campaign – a fight that has been coming since it started six years ago, and that the players learned was coming around two and a half years ago (36 sessions ago), and have been actively preparing to fight for much of the time since. Even so, I didn’t realize going into this session that I was running the showdown this time. I’m a low-prep DM, but I’d like to think I would have had my act together a little better if I’d been clear on that. The reasons for having it this session were solid – it’s the last in-person session for two of the players, at least for the foreseeable future.
The party’s levels in this session range from 6th to 8th.
When I was first figuring out the situation in Tyrema, the domain where the campaign takes place, I decided that Prince Adalar of Grevanda was under the sway of an evil angel, named Duma. The angel wanted to drive Tyrema into war with its neighbor and long-time enemy Gallmonte.
Aurikesh has five gods, whose portfolios cover the general range of things one needs in a world. None of them are evil as such, though most of them have things in their portfolios that you usually don’t want in your life – war, betrayal, taxes, whatever.. Then there’s a secret sixth, Sechir: the enemy of the other gods, the corrupter of the world, mad and lost in the many reflections of Aurikesh, the Living World. Each of the five gods has ten angels in service, and mainstream doctrine holds that there are fifty angels in all of the world. Sechir has sixteen angels, unknown to conventional doctrine, who can very rarely enter the world and spread his corruption. Duma is one of his.
Duma unfolded a lot of different plots over the course of the campaign, consolidating the Prince’s grip over many parts of society and dragooning a bunch of veytikka into alchemical experiments that turn them into ghouls. The PCs worked against a bunch of these schemes, eventually leading to the military occupation of the city they live in and their eviction from their guildhall.
Another angel (a “good” angel) explained to the PCs that the fight with Duma would be easier or harder depending on how dangerous he believed them to be. There were ten suits of very powerful magic armor that he had created, and each one of these that they destroyed would convince Duma that they were more dangerous. The more of his power he committed to the fight, the longer he would be banished from Aurikesh if they won, ranging from a few decades to maybe ten millennia. By the start of the session, they had destroyed two and captured a third.
They knew that Duma had lightning and necrotic powers, and wielded a greatsword called Skyfire. Skyfire was missing a sizable chunk out of its blade from a long-ago battle with another angel, and the PCs had recovered this some time back. All six of them could attune to it together, and it granted them lightning resistance and a 1/day lightning damage boost to a weapon strike. Duma also had the ability to impose a lightning curse – that is, vulnerability to lightning. Instead of what I understand to be the normal rule, in this case vulnerability + resistance = normal lightning damage. For either the curse or the shard of Skyfire to simply overwrite the other would violate narrative expectation.
They had entered into a compact with a devil that they freed from a binding. Knowing that the devil would keep her word and that she was motivated to stop Duma (both correct), they extracted a promise of her aid when it came time to fight Duma. This is a decision with short, medium, and long-term consequences.
Session 88: The Angel Duma
At the start of the session, the PCs had just gotten back to their current safehouse (with the former mayor, her bodyguard, and a friendly-ish crime boss) after robbing the military governor’s vault and stealing the payroll. What do you do when you have an army occupying a city, you won’t be able to make payroll, but no one knows yet? Go seize some assets. So Our Heroes learned that the army was massing in the city center, and all hell was about to break loose. Also it was pouring down rain, signifying Duma’s attention and proximity (rain is quite rare in this province).
They decide that since: a) the soldiers are massing in a known location, b) there are accessible sewers under that location, and c) destroying a suit of Duma’s black lacquered armor would both draw his attention and cause an enormous stroke of retributive lightning, they’ll try to destroy it there, maybe taking some of the soldiers (or at least the soldiers’ morale) along with it.
In the sewers, they fight a pack of ghouls led by a wizened ghoul, while one of the team’s heavy hitters uses his silver sword to destroy the armor. (The silver sword comes from one of the significant vassals of Rathmorvan, the Silver Knight, He Who Cleaves in Silver, a Highlord of the Fey.) This eventually succeeds, though not without a bunch of lightning damage getting handed out.
Soldiers are on their way down from street level in large numbers to find out what the heck just happened, so the party heads down another tunnel of the sewers with haste. They encounter the devil they’d bargained with and formulate a plan. She’s been leading a revolutionary tribunal known as the Tribunate, which carries out “justice” against anyone guilty of breaching trust with their neighbors. (As with all of Hell’s favorite sins to punish in this setting, prosecuting it energetically sets up a self-perpetuating destruction engine.) She agrees to mobilize her angry mob to fight the soldiers, while the PCs fight Duma. She plans to be close enough to the fight that they benefit from her aura (Pack Tactics against one target at a time that she declares).
They go to the surface, and it’s a night of blood and terror. They make their way to a friendly priestess to hit her up for some remove curses and an aid, and then head to the city center. I describe them making short work of the smaller groups of soldiers kicking down doors that they find – those aren’t going to be interesting fights, so it gets maybe two sentences and we move on.
In the city center, they first find it almost completely empty, except for a few wounded soldiers. Deciding on mercy, one of the characters casts rope trick and stows them in there. Then a couple of 9-foot-tall empty suits of armor (bound air elementals) show up, but unlike previous encounters, everyone in the group now has a magic weapon or deals magic damage normally, and it’s a party of six of the campaign’s highest-level characters.
The devil shows up at about this point, along with a bunch of her cultists from one direction and soldiers from another. Two parallel fights ensue.
This is the first point at which I needed to be making things more dangerous and exciting. I undersold this because I underestimated how rapidly the team would wreck the two armored elementals.
Finally the angel descends in a lightning bolt and the fight is on for real. The PCs have a lot of things in their favor at this point, while Duma’s stats are approximately a deva with 500 hit points, 3 legendary actions, and a small number of high-end spell slots (he casts chain lightning and heal in the course of the battle).
I don’t think anyone had a bad time. I did commit the cardinal error of 5e boss fights, which is not having a bunch of other creatures to fight. I also needed to have Duma move around a lot more. I did use a few decently flashy tricks, but if I had spent more time planning this (and not letting the PCs pick the battleground), I could have done better. This really just bothers me because it was such a climax of the campaign so far.
- More mobility
- More soldiers or guardian armors – having Duma shapeshift to hide among the soldiers would have been awesome
- Aura effects
- Thunderous knockbacks – should’ve been using thunderwave for one of his legendary actions
There was still some good flying around (not enough, but some), grappling enemies and almost throwing them off of a roof (saved by a cinematic roof-edge grab), the devil revealing her true form, and PCs having a hard time getting two party members adjacent to him at the same time because they had to Give Ground to survive. The fight ended with one PC (incidentally the highest-level) down and with one failed death save (from falling off a building).
A few other nice bits and pieces got into the session, and I’m extra happy with all of the hanging threads for future stories. One of the big ones – discussed by the players at the time – is that much of the city saw a devil in full form save them from a freaking lightning angel who exploded in a shower of ichor. In Aurikesh, this is critically important, because the Five Gods currently hold sway over the city and the world as a whole, but if Hell can turn the people away from the Gods, they could claim Aurikesh for themselves. (All of the different Powers share that goal – to claim the Living World of Aurikesh for themselves.)
The military occupation of the city ended with the military governor’s flight from the city along with his routed soldiers. Now it’s open season for the different temporal authorities as well, and there’s sure to be lots of deal-making and chaos as different groups take their shot. I’d be listening to Mike Duncan’s incredible Revolutions podcast even if I weren’t running this campaign, but it’s a great basis for how revolutions seem to go.
All of the PCs avoided getting cursed by the aforementioned shower of horrible, corrupted ichor, but the devil didn’t. Does that mean anything? We’ll see.
- Two of my friends got to see the conclusion of one of the biggest storylines in the game so far, rather than missing it.
- With the existential threat resolved, it makes sense to focus on other kinds of stories again – Duma has been the story for two and a half years of real time.
- Some of the key images I had had in my head for this fight got on-camera.
- I forgot the cardinal rule of 5e boss fights, so that the PCs got to focus fire completely on Duma.
- I didn’t push the PCs to their limit.
- Ultimately, I wish I had had more dimensions than violence and character stats to the fight.
- I should have presented more interesting and challenging terrain.
- I should have emphasized the chaos and terror of the night and the storm more.
- I should have described every part of the fight with more care.
- Bring on the adds. Even just one armored guardian in the middle of the battle would have made life a hell of a lot more interesting, and the party has enough tanks and pseudo-tanks that they wouldn’t have crumpled.
- Bring more description to the exchange of blows. This has always been hard for me, and it’s not a central part of local gaming culture. It does have some issues with slowing down play in a long fight, but it gives everything more weight. What goes into the description needs to matter in any way I can make it matter, and if that means PCs pick up advantage or other benefits outside the bare minimum of the rules, who. gives. a. fuck.
- Remember that tension is built and released even from meta-cues – letting the players choose that this would be the showdown, rather than more building toward the showdown, severely undermined the tension buildup for at least one player.
So that’s about the size, shape, and weight of it. If you know me, you can probably guess that I’ll be beating myself up about this whenever I think about it for years to come. I’m sort of the worst at letting things go.