Archive for the ‘Tactical Challenge’ Category

The coolest total party kill I ever administered was a wandering monster encounter.

…so the Isle of Dread adventure was wrapping up. The heroes of the campaign had discovered the means to escape the island, and had a few days to kill before leaving. One of them pointed to a portion of the map marked with hills and said, “Hey we haven’t explored here yet.” The only things they knew about the region were the dust plumes of immense herds of beasts they had seen. These plumes were from dinosaurs, or ‘behemoths’ as we call them. And everyone should know, where there are large numbers of behemoths, there will be drakes hunting them. These facts combined with one important purchase I had recently made – a huge purple tongued fiendish T-rex mini. Voila, I had a plan.

It is funny, but I had sort of back-shelved the t-rex mini, since the characters had shown little interest in scouting the hills during the months of their exploration of the Isle. In the very beginning of the adventure, I statted up a few “key encounters” for each region, which I could improvise with, or use for random encounters. The fang titan drake encounter was one of my favorites, and when they heroes casually decided on an expedition to the hills, a sudden grin of evil intent split my face. I reached for the dungeon tiles, and began casually describing the journey into the hills while sorting out some wilderness terrain. In my other hand, I would roll a d8 at various appropriate moments. It came up “1” as they were climbing a pass up into those hills. Ding ding ding, we have a winner.

So, the set up was as follows: the heroes were climbing the pass, which at this point was a 20’ wide slope, with a rock wall going up one side, and a scrabble cliff down the other. The surprise round was merely two swarms of small lizards coming towards the party out of the tree-line. Next round, two juvenile, man-sized drakes came galloping out of the tree-line, and a huge roar could be heard. The Fang Titan made its appearance on the third turn. It was a classic fang titan drake family swarm attack.

(My thinking on this one was that these Fang Titans have clutches of hundreds of baby fang titans, but very few survive to maturity. A family group eliminated a ‘solo’ encounter with the fang titan, and gave the battle a lot more variety, while still maintaining its thematic quality of T-REX!)

It was on that third turn when the party switched from partial to full attention. The first thing that got their attention was the auto damage of the swarm aura was 10, not 5. And when the barbarian was stuck between both swarms for two rounds, that was an automatic 40 points of damage. When the fang titan roared its challenge, stunning half or more of the party, that was the second wake up call. From round three on, the players became VERY careful about their characters actions, whereas until that point, they were basically phoning it in. (There were still some tactical mistakes made, such as not focusing fire, and not dealing with the auto-damaging swarms as quickly as they should have, but in the heat of battle no one acts perfectly and things tend to get messy.)

I will not go into every detail of the battle, but it was savage, and almost everyone was dropped and raised at least once. Towards the end of the fight, the Fang titan was well past bloodied, but both swarms were still alive and chewing up the melee classes as quickly as they could heal. 4 out of 6 characters were on the ground unconscious. Hex the swordlock and Poppy the avenger were all that were left. Hex used his heal potion and second wind to boost him back above bloodied, and Poppy used her heal potion to get back up into the upper teens for hit points. She then made the fateful decision to risk an opportunity attack by a swarm as she rushed past them towards the cleric Ria. Poppy had one meager heal spell and if she could get Ria the cleric back on her feet, she could bless them all with a massive party-wide heal since she was next to go.

The night was getting late, the party was beat up beyond belief, and I was ready to wrap things up. I made a big show of retiring my light blue d20 with orange numbering named “Sunset” due to its ability to put characters lights out. Instead, I pulled out this red translucent d20 with rounded edges that I was sure was cursed to never roll above a 5. It turns out it was not cursed then, and there before everyone a natural 20 hit the table. Max damage was enough to take Poppy down, and the cleric never got healed, and Hex high-tailed it outta there (so it was technically not a TPK, but I could have had the fang titan chase him down and tear him to shreds, so Im not worried.) Meanwhile the fang titan family began feasting on the erstwhile heroes.

And yes, the question came up, can you resurrect someone who has been partially digested?

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Who is the better player?Two men enter, one man leaves. Such are the words spoken at the beginning of Thunderdome, a means of settling a dispute between two ultra-violent lunatics with nothing left to lose. But this is much more than a simple arena battle to the death. The adventure is designed to test a pair of players skills against the environment as well as each other. The premise is simple, two PCs and a Dungeon master sit down to play a single session (plus any specatators) the end of which will occur when one of the PCs is triumphant and the other is dead.

Warning – This adventure is meant to be played only by those mature enough to handle intense antagonistic scheming without breaking under the pressure. It is competitive and merciless. It also implies trust between the players and the dungeon master, and each other. A good dose of fun loving camaraderie is also recommended but not required. For these reasons, this adventure is given a Mature rating.

For those who dont know Raistlin, he was an old school wizard powerful and evil enough to challenge a god, in the Dragonlance series. He endured a terrible test to get his wizard robes. He went with his twin brother and they survived only by working together through self-sacrifice. This never sat well with Raistlin, and this adventure is an extrapolation of a testing tower the diabolical mind of Raistlin would devise. A tower not where the love of two brothers could lead to unlikely victory, but a much less subtle test, one that required the violent sacrifice of the other to be successful. With this in mind, he built Raistlins Tower, where one lucky winner can receive a great treasure at the expense of the others life. It worked thusly:

A low stone tower has a walled courtyard, divided in two. In each half of the courtyard a door leads into the tower. There are guards positioned in the courtyard with enchanted crossbows and orders to only allow one victor, he possessing the treasured golden skull, to exit the tower. Around the courtyard are seats for Raistlin and any other spectators. The doors into the tower are unlocked, unlike all other doors in the tower. A short hall leads to the first encounter area, a trap that must be discovered and disarmed in order to escape the chamber.

A doorway in the side is locked (and trapped) and leads to the crossed halls, and area where the PCs are likely to meet. The halls lead to the third and fourth encounter areas, containing monsters that must be dispatched or bypassed. From there, a hallway leads to one end of the final encounter area, with the golden skull on an altar in the center of the chamber. While the two characters remain alive in the tower, a force field protects the skull from being prematurely pilfered. Bonds signed before the duel with blood magic insure the force field will only deactivate when one PC is killed. Likewise no power either PC possesses will work against the force field, due to the same blood magic pact.

This is a rough outline of an idea I have had brewing for awhile. Granted it is overly competitive and would probably lead to huge arguments and possibly even broken friendships, but you have to admit, it sounds fun.

Step 1 – Players agree on PC level, game edition, and any house rules to use.
Step 2 – Players create characters while DM creates dungeon.
Step 3 – Let the game commence.

That is the general sequence of events. Generally the players all need to agree to the ruleset, including which splat books to use. I highly recommend sticking as close to ‘core’ as possible for whatever edition is being used. The dm should be final arbiter of which magic items, spell lists, to use. It is also recommended that players not sacrifice their beloved characters for this, but instead pre-generate new characters for the event. This will help to dilute any feelings of attachment the player has to his or her character as well as being a clean slate without any baggage, such as custom magic items or house rules.

Finally it is worthwhile to think on the nearly limitless variations. The idea of not using a dm, but the players run each others encounters is one such variation worth considering. Another idea would be 2 on 2, or 3 on 3, etc.

I have recently agreed to participate in one such duel. With a DM I have never met, I will play a 10th level character against a friend in a 3.5 edition of the game, using only the core books. I will keep you informed of how the game progresses. Im sure live or die, it will be a fun tale to recount. As a DM of 25+ years, I have very little player experience to call up, except for the experience gained from decades of watching PCs squirm their way out of my clutches, or not. I think I am well prepared. Bwaah-hah hah haa.

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The Sabratha, arena of Nazerak

This is a dungeon delve for 5 first level characters. It is created for the Dark Sun campaign world, but can be ported into any campaign world with desert cities and dust storms. The delve uses all three encounter areas from the poster map included with Bloodsand Arena, a Free RPG Day 2010 offering from Wizards of the coast. Lacking this poster, maps can be recreated from dungeon tiles or any other resource. The first encounter takes place in a dune swept deserted market place; the second on the floor of the arena; and the final map is in the slave pens beneath.

The adventure is designed to be run straight through, with short rests between each of the encounters, but no extended rest are available until after the final encounter. If the party must take a long rest after the first encounter, they can hole up in the silt runners burrow, provided they find it and are able to enlarge it enough for the entire party. There is no possibility of an extended rest between the second and third encounters. The party is considered to take a five minute rest as they ponder how to open the locked door into the third encounter.

Hook: The Half Elf Consortium

You are hirelings of the Half Elf Consortium Sylvanus, out of Altaruk. Sent ahead to forge a path for the caravans to follow, your job is to clear out the arena and secure it for the encampment due to arrive the next day. The caravan is being sent north to the recently uncovered Buried city of Nazerak, long lost among the dunes. The arena is called the Sabratha, or Haunted Fields in the legends. This encampment will help enrich the merchants of House Sylvanus with the treasures they uncover. The offer of 50 gold ceramics for each of you is too irresistible to decline. Besides, how dangerous could it be?

After spending most of the day walking through the broken remnants of petrified trees that surround the lost city, you finally make it to the outskirts, where the arena is the largest intact structure – if you can call the tumble-down stone heap intact. The ruins of a typical slave market can be seen sprawled in front, and a few wisps of canvas still hang from broken poles and stakes. The ground ahead is treacherous with loose stones and broken shards.

Encounter 1 – A Stroll through the market (500 xp)
1 Silt Runner Darter (100)
1 Silt Runner Rager (100)
1 Silt Runner Inciter (125)
1 Baazrag Gnawer (100)
3 Baazrag Whelps (75)

A stroll through the market

A change in the weather heralds the PCs entrance into the ruins of the slave market sprawling in front of the arena. The silt runners are a typical raiding party, passing through when they began to notice signs of an impending storm. They arrived in the market earlier in the day and dug out a safe haven in one of the buildings to wait out the storm. The Darter and rager are each sprawled on top of a stone building, 10 ft high. They cannot be spotted from the ground, and their natural camoflage gives them a DC 25 to be spotted while lying still even if they are able to be spotted. The Inciter lies under a cloth with the lizards among the largest tent area, and will attempt to ambush from behind.

Now where the tents once stood are tall dunes riddled with the detritus of the market, ruined pottery shards and broken tent stakes littler the area, making for dangerous footing. Past the tent stalls rest the remains of gutted brick buildings. Now with filled with sand they are little more than large dunes themselves. The ever present wind is picking up speed and beginning

A DC 21 Passive or active Perception check will allow the characters to position themselves anywhere in the center squares before rolling for initiative. Anything else and the silt runners will get a surprise action while the characters are placed in the center of the map in typical marching order.

Tactics:The silt runners will encircle the party and harry them, or divide and split up the party, picking off weak or separated members if possible. If all the silt runners are killed, any remaining baazrags will flee to the south.

Treasure: Besides the weapons and armor of the silt runners, the party can harvest 4 survival days of rations and water from the raiders. A Perception DC of 19 for a PC to discover the silt runners burrow. This is of little use now, but could have an impact on an ongoing campaign. Perhaps this is a known trail of the nomadic Silt Runner warbands, or a surviving member of a failed expedition could retreat here to escape the fate of his comrades.

After the encounter:
The characters first notice the winds kicking up and the darkening of the sky of an approaching sandstorm. Read the following after rests and searches have been completed, but before restlessness sets in:

The wind has been steady from the south until now, when it begins to shift, first from the east, then south and west. The sky becomes dark brown – telltale signs of an approaching sand storm. Better get the arena secure before the storm moves in.

Encounter 2 – Sabratha – The haunted plain (625 xp)
2 Dust Devils (300 xp)
1 Blazing Skeleton (200 xp)
1 Lesser Earth Elemental (125 xp)

Elemental Arena

Inside the arena is an area of calm escape from the growing sandstorm without. It is not yet dusk but the dark sun is obscured by rising thunderheads. The arena floor is smooth sand, stone and bone shards poke through the untouched rippling dunes, except for the center of the arena, where a swirling area of sifting sand seems suspicious.

A drop of blood falls from the tip of a weapon, or from a soaked bandage. As it strikes the dry dust of the arena floor, lightning cracks open the sky directly above. The doors slam shut, and a stroke of greenish primal lighting hits the sandy pit in the center of the arena. The electricity spreads out, and rocks tumble together, bones knit and rise, bursting into flame. Two thorny brambles shake loose their mooring in the sand and twist into whirling dustdevils.

Like an avalanche, the leading edge of the sandstorm comes tumbling over the ruined walls in full force.

DC 17 Arcana or History reveals The haunted field is alive with the mix of primal and elemental magic. It is the Sabratha, eater of lives. Untold centuries of spilt blood have given the arena its ties to the primal powers, while the spirits of those screaming into nothingness brought the bond of elements.

Tactics: The elemental energies are malevolent and know of the power of the sand pit that spawned them. They will use every effort to knock PCs into the sand pit, even delaying actions in hopes the PCs charge into the area.

The Oncoming Storm Skill Challenge

While the battle persists on the arena floor, the PCs must contend with the elemental effects of the storm that is brewing. Because the entities they face are products of the storm, the enemies do not suffer any weather related ill effects.

Round 1 – Endurance DC 12
Each character must make an Endurance check at the start of their turn or be pulled 2 squares towards the center of the arena, as the whipping winds come sweeping down the arena walls.

Round 2 – Athletics/Acrobatics DC 14
Each character must make an Athletics/Acrobatics check at the start of their turn or be weakened until the beginning of their next rurn. This reflects the solid chunks of rock and stone interfering with the work of weapons and spells.

Round 3 – Nature DC 12
Each character must make a Nature check at the beginning of the turn or movement is cut down by 1 and all attack ranges are cut in half. The detritus in the air makes it difficult to see and lessens the impact of ranged attacks.

Round 4 – Go to round 1

The skill challenges resets, and round 4 begins with an Endurance check.

When a character succeeds against a specific skill, they no longer have to roll for that round, but are assumed to have passed. Therefore, when they have succeeded against all 3 skills, they are considered to have beat the challenge.

Special note regarding skill usage: A character can use a minor action to take a modifying skill check in order to gain a +2 bonus to their skill challenge check, depending on DM approval. For example, a character might want to attempt an Arcana check to deflect some of the storm away in order to have a bonus against the weakness of round 2.

Treasure: When the last enemy falls, a last tendril of energy lashes out and grants one randomly rolled character the Spirit of Sand Elemental Gift. (DSCS pg 212)

After the encounter: The sands become so bad the characters are forced into the safety of the stairwell down into the slave pens. However, this is not enough cover, and the door is locked. A covering of dust conceals any locking mechanism. A DC 25 Athletics check will burst the door inwards. If the PCs can find a way to chip away the hardened dust of centuries coating the door lock like concrete, a DC 13 Thievery check will unlock the door.

Either way, after a five minute rest and a few failed attempts at the door, a sudden sand wave will crash into the party, bursting the door open and rolling the party into the room prone.

Encounter 3 – Into the slave pens of the Id Fiend(700 xp)
1 Id Fiend (500 xp)
2 Salt Zombies (200 xp)

The blowing dust and sand momentarily fill the darkened chamber of the slave pens beneath the arena. As the wind dies down and peace is restored, you take your first look around. The chamber is large and rectangular, with cages along the east and west walls made from stout wooden beams inset into ceiling and floor. In the southwest corner is a dark animal pit, while in the far northeast corner two twisted figures shamble into sight. It is a pair of zombies, their hard desiccated skin tight and peeling over their bones. The air smells and tastes of salt, and these two creatures glow white with a salt rime.

The Id fiend hides in the 10 ft deep pit, and it will take an active DC 25 to spot him before he moves. The creature makes its lair in this dungeon, and it normally exits through a concealed hole in the animal pen (DC 30 and the pit must be actively searched) that leads outside the arena. There is little of value in the chamber except for gnawed bones in the animal pen. Everything else has been looted. The door in the north wall is locked and can be used to expand the delve. The doorway could lead to deeper cellars, or it could lead back to the surface.

Tactics: The Id fiend will delay until it is noticed, or until most of the party has become focused on the zombies. Then it will attack from behind, trying to use range powers to provoke opportunity attacks against enemies trying to descend into the pit, if it is able. Otherwise it will leap out and fight in melee. Throughout the battle the fiend will use its psionic attacks whenever possible, and the characters can notice a growing psychic energy field about the chamber as the battle intensifies.

Treasure: The Dm can give out a treasure parcel as a reward for the delve, or DM willing, the party could be in for a treat. At the DMs discretion, the reward for killing the id fiend could be a new wild talent opens up for each of the combatants to survive the battle. Read the following as the last blow lands on the solo.

As the blow lands, the bloodied beast cries out. Your ears hurt from its loud wail, but another scream inside your head threatens to crack your skull open. After a moment, your mind clears, and you feel new mental powers unlocked with the Id Fiends death wail.

After the Battle: The party should be ready for an extended rest, and they have earned it. The storm will blow itself out in a few hours, and the characters will receive their pay when the caravan arrives, or for a twist, the DM could decide the caravan doesnt arrive.

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A level 6 (1,275 exp) Difficult Encounter

This encounter was conceived to be the culmination of the mini-quest for the druid’s complete set of Skin of the Panther. The encounter is designed for a party of 5 3rd level characters, one of whom should be a druid seeking the Skin of the Panther, obviously. In this case, our druid had 2 of the pieces out of 5, and she received the last 3 items at the end. Only needing 1 or 2 items would be preferred, but this encounter brought our party up to 4th level, and we are only half-way through Keep on the Shadowfell. It also might be noted that the encounter is easily modified to support any other reward or reason. I wanted particularly to focus on the completion of an item set as the crowning goal of the encounter. There is a clear focus on shadow magic for this encounter, so that should be considered when altering any element. Retaining as much of the shadowy feel, with a leaning towards other-worldly and preternatural tendrils and dark vegetation. Druids of the night, of mushrooms, fireflies, and other darker things.

To give a brief summary of where this encounter occurred in my campaign, in order to show its versatility, in Keep on the Shadowfell the party is at the chamber of skeletons outside Sir Keegan’s tomb, known as the Skeletal Legion. The beauty of this encounter, however, is that it can be literally used anywhere. In our case, the encounter was begun at the exact start of a completely different encounter, that with the Skeletal Legion. The theory here is that the shadow panther lady is a master of moving between the shadowfell and the world. She is also able to lay inter-dimensional traps, and this she did here in order to reclaim the 2 items our druid had. The region was described as the boundary between the planes was “thin” and the shadow panther lady could exploit this.

Diabolical DMs could also choose to have this encounter occur immediately after another encounter, to add further risk, as PCs have not had time to regain encounter powers before being ambushed. One should be careful before taking this route, as a player frustrated by lack of options is seldom happy, especially during a focused set-piece encounter of this nature. If taking this route, the same basic idea should prevail: have the intro combat be light and under-level, so that wise PCs will be able to save their encounter and daily powers, and may even come out ahead in action points

This method of ambushing the PC’s also allows the least deviation from the current course of a campaign, which was one of my design goals. Too many times the party has been pulled away from completing this adventure (thus being level 4 halfway through an adventure for 1st -3rd level PC’s.). The design had many drafts before I settled on the time-stopping veil of the shadowfell falling across the scene, but it worked perfectly. We are in a high fantasy setting, and 2 weeks ago had seen them in a leprechaun’s grove, so this was fitting. It might be too much for some campaign settings, but it could equally be placed as a permanent region where the panther’s hunting ground is closely linked to the shadowfell.

The veil dropped across the skeleton attack, and suddenly the party finds itself in what I described as an “underground garden grotto” there is lots of running water, cavern walls, anf fungi, mushrooms, and vines. In the water were silvery grass-like fronds that swayed in the current. At the far end of the chamber, really in a second chamber altogether connected by a watery passage, the Panther Lady stands on a 10 ft tall dais, next to a statue.

In a small pool at the south end of the map (also the PC start area) a vicejaw crocodile awaits (mm pg 45). Besides the croc, the Panther lady is the main foe of this encounter, and she is a 3rd level solo foe. She summons starved dog minions to add enemies to the table as a minor action. She is based loosely off the legend of the Skin of the Panther. This particular set is the focal point of a long line of druids in the region, and it allows for a druid to gain both the set, and the possibility of enrolling in that long line of druids by burying the bones of the Panther Lady in the ancestral mound of the Panther Druid Circle. She hurls insults, shadow bolts and starved dogs at her foes before switching to melee mode when the PCs begin to mount the dais. Upon being injured, she will teleport 3 squares away from the PCs to land behind the dais and hopefully out of the line of sight of the PCs.

Meanwhile, the room itself is adversarial due to the hazards and traps. the first of these are the silvery tendrils that are located in every water square on the map. These tendrils are dangerous hazards that slow and damage opponents. The hazard attacks at the beginning of the round as a immediate interrupt for any enemy who begins its tur in a water square. The dais was surrounded with water, and the passage connecting the entry chamber to the main hall is also filled with water. PCs should find it difficult to maneuver without suffering the hazards of the silvery tendrils.

And finally, the statue next to the Panther Lady holds in its outstretched arms a Shadow Mote. This trap would send bursts of shadow energy at any enemy that got too close, and can only be disabled by a skill challenge or physical damage. The Panther Lady will try to stay within range of this statue, or to lure the PCs within range. Of particular note is the blindness that this trap can cause in addition to damage. This is a very deadly encounter, especially for those who reach the top of the dais.

The dais itself should present something of a challenge. Climbing or leaping to the top of the 10 ft dais is a DC 20 athletics or acrobatics check, respectively. The silvery fronds ca also prevent easy access. The other option is the ladder on the eastern side of the dais. It can be climbed as a move action. The only other feature of the grotto is the trench at the southern end of the connecting hallway. This is a 5 foot wide, 10 foot deep gorge DC 5 athletics check to succesfully jump. Failure results in 1d10 damage and an immediate end the the PC’s turn, as well as a move action to cliumb out.

Special Note: I used the platform in the new Dungeon Tiles Harrowing Halls set, to give the element of 3d to the encounter. Having the dais stand out from the water helped give a sense of the difficulty of reaching the top.

In a typical battle the Panther Lady will stand on the dais for as long as possible, before teleoprting behind it. She should then make her way towards the Northwest corner of the map. She will attempt to be in the water before hittig her bloodied value and appearing to perish. Re-incarnated as an umbral panther on its next initiative count, it will begin its turn insubstantial and attempt to wreak as much damage as possible, focusing on the druid if it can. When it is finally slain, the bones of the panther lady will appear, and her voice will echo “Thou hast bested me, mortal! Place my bones in the Circle of the Shadow Panther for even greater reward.” his could be a tie in for future adventure, or the option of granting the druid PC in your campaign access to an organization. The Circle of the Shadow Panther could be one such organization, possibly of neutral alignment, intent on balancing the natural world with equal amounts of fey and fell influence.

The treasure will be the missing pieces) of the Skin of the Shadow Panther, lying across the bones. Some players may feel left out that the encounte is for the druid alone. you should remind them that they also benefit from the experience-rich envirnment, and if that is not enough, then perhaps they can remind the druid of the favors owed at a future time…

Special note: This encounter was designed using the incredible Masterplan Utility which deserves its own review soon, and the map image is taken from that program, using version 8.5. This program allows Dms to build encounters and adventures, including dungeon tile maps and imported elements from Adventure tools, Character Builder, and Compendium. And that is just the beginning of what this tool can do.

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