Postmortem Chapter Four

Tomb of the First King brought a few new things to the table. First, it was significantly larger than any of the past chapters (or, really, any one of the Welcome to Three Points quests), weighing in at nine combat encounters. It was the first time we used the battlemat, and the first time I used materials from a published adventure.

The objective here was to find the source of whatever had animated Jerrod and was the likely cause of the dark energy inhabiting his old shop. There were two potential entries: the main entry to the tomb and the hidden tunnel stretching all the way into the mausoleum beneath the temple of Pelor in Three Points. The main entry would require the defeat of Jerrod himself to access, and the hidden tunnel required a little detective work. My intention was that, no matter which way the group came in, an additional objective would end up being finding the way back out.

Once again we found ourselves having some great experiences and some to learn from. In particular, I felt like the story really started to kick into gear. Hellena and Grief discovered they were siblings early on. The group was finally starting to develop a real interest in protecting Nessa. A few subplots pertaining to specific characters started to develop: Mythoric’s relationship to Pelor came into play, and the threat to Grief (or, perhaps, the threat he represents to the group) started to become apparent. Last but certainly not least, the evil forces the heroes have been battling against grew a face: Thaddeus, a nemesis the party has a reason to despise.

The encounter with Thaddeus was pretty great, although it was a little tedious due to the two recently abandoned characters that hadn’t departed yet. Indeed, this chapter saw the most dramatic changes to group composition yet. The party grew briefly to six with the return of a player and the addition of a character, the dragonborn Sgt. Baker. This was around the time our scheduling problems came to a head, and I realized that something needed to be done if the game was going to survive. We changed to a weekly schedule and moved away from weekend gaming, and in the process lost two players, whose characters, Wu and Seamus, never emerged from the tomb. Mythoric met his end as well, meaning the only characters to start this chapter from the beginning and finish it successfully were Grief and Hellena.

So…yeah. Here’s what happened. The map I used in this adventure is called the Chamber of Eyes; it is the first major location in the Thunderspire Labyrinth adventure. I did make some significant changes to the map – I’d say about two thirds of it remained in its “published” state – and I completely gutted it, turning it from a goblin hideout into a tomb populated by the undead. The idea here was that the group could simply walk in and walk out after they stopped the ritual. This wasn’t intended to be easy to do, and the map had plenty of fun little rooms filled with treasure that the heroes could choose to explore as they wished.

The problem was the patrols. I really struggled with how to handle these, and even turned to internet message boards to see how other DMs typically integrate a patrol into a dungeon. Some suggested randomly checking for the patrol every once in a while, in classic “wandering monster” fashion. A couple of people said they just like to keep the patrol waiting in the wings and as soon as the tension drops or a combat encounter feels too easy…ta-da! Patrol.

Both of these methods felt unfair to me; I wanted the patrol to feel like an ACTUAL patrol, that could be timed and avoided if treated with care, or possibly lured off track to be dispatched safely. There were two issues with this:

1) The dungeon simply wasn’t large enough to support two patrols. I mean, it made sense for there to be two patrols, but they became too effective and too difficult to avoid. Furthermore, the close quarters meant the second patrol would easily catch up just a few rounds into combat (although, I will admit that in my mind I would not have allowed this to take place if I felt the party had developed a clever strategy to fight the patrols separately).

2) Tad did too good of a job convincing the party that the patrols needed to be avoided at all costs and that the group should really just make a break for it. That bastard put the fear of god in you guys. Word of advice: don’t trust NPCs, especially evil ones! Now you have another reason to hate him!

What’s worse, a perfect storm of sorts ensued when Grief crossed the vault threshold with Alexa’s key. The patrol issue may have been my fault, but this one is all you guys! I still think I put up a big, blaring red sign up that this was a bad idea. Anyway, if it had just been a patrol issue, things would have been fine…but the death dog guarding Alexa was set off just as one of the patrols approached the heroes…who then stumbled through the vault door (right into more monsters and traps), even managing to tick off Alexa in the process. Yikes. In the end, the equivalent of four combat encounters were all out for adventurer blood.

Not that it was a bad thing. It was all riotously entertaining, and we had been looking for a way to write Seamus and Wu out of the story anyway. Even when mistakes are made on either side of the table, we can still have a good time as long as everyone is a good sport about it; this adventure was proof enough of that.

I do hope some lessons were learned here, though. If there’s anything I’d like to see the group work on, it would be to pay attention to details and hints in these sorts of situations. More importantly, however, it would be this: trust me, but not NPCs. I wouldn’t put you guys in a no-win situation. Well, okay…I would...but it would be glaringly obvious – I mean GLARINGLY obvious – and I certainly wouldn’t stick you in a completely unbeatable dungeon. If you receive information to the contrary from an NPC…chances are pretty good they’re lying.

It’s when a player or the group as a whole misses something due to carelessness, ignores a big clue or makes a serious tactical error that the party is truly going to be in danger. Perhaps you guys will disagree, but I felt it was pretty obvious that bad things were going to happen if you agreed to take Alexa’s key and free her. I was also surprised to see the group throwing open another door which you didn’t even necessarily know was the exit, rather than trying to deal with the problems that had already been created. Furthermore, there seemed to be little exploration; nobody seemed to stop and wonder if there was possibly another way out, or perhaps an alternative to open the vault door. D&D can’t be so straightforward; that would get awfully boring very quickly.

I hope this doesn’t come across too harsh; I only say it in the hope that we won’t find ourselves here again. It was fun the first time; I’m not sure it will be so fun if the entire party is killed when similar mistakes are made. There were definitely mistakes on my end, too, as detailed above regarding the guard patrols. And I certainly learned from that myself! I learned that trying to maintain a “realistic” patrol route isn’t worth the trouble at all, and that I need to find a different way to handle them next time.

I don’t want to give anything else away about the tomb, since much of it remains unexplored and it seems there is a good chance the party will return here. I hope you do!

How do you guys feel about this one? Do you disagree with my assessment of the flight from the tomb? Was the situation the party was presented with unfair? Do you think in hindsight that allowing Thaddeus to live was a mistake or the heroic thing to do – a way to honor Mythoric? I’d really love to hear your thoughts on this one.

Postmortem Chapter Four

Beyond the Veil echoshifting