The Siege of Dragonguard Keep

Umber HulkAfter a six month layoff, my Night Below game which has since become a bastardized version of the Wrath of the Righteous adventure path got rolling again. The assault on Dragonguard Keep gained some momentum, and our heroes came one step closer to breaking up one of the bases of power of Derrezen the dragon-god.

Your Tasty, Tasty Allies

The last session ended after a pretty large battle between the PCs’ army and the forces of Derrezen. The PCs emerged victorious, but did suffer some casualties. They’ve allied with a number of monstrous forces, and those monsters have no problem eating the dead – after all, it’s fresh meat and it saves on rations. Naturally, the human troops had some issues regarding ogres and goblins feasting on the flesh of their fallen allies, and a fight nearly broke out. This led to further PC versus PC conflict as there was a disagreement as to how the problem should be handled. Eventually, after much rudeness from the PC designated as the army’s general, the ruling was made that the monsters would be allowed to eat the enemy corpses but not those of fallen allies.

That ruling did get delayed a bit, however, because the initial conversation got interrupted when a horde of ghouls attacked the army, stealing off some of the troops into the nights. Ghouls, after all, don’t care much about orders – they just like tasty flesh, regardless of what uniform it wears.

I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For (when it comes to a mass combat system)

I’m still kind of using the mass combat system from Ultimate Campaign to run large-scale battles, but now it’s mostly to keep track of short skirmishes and rations as the party continues to delve into a hostile environment. I decided to hand-wave most of the mass combat as the party tried to take the bridge leading to the enemy keep because the system doesn’t do it for me. It’s fine mechanically and it works better than most other mass combat options I’ve used, but it still feels too orderly. I’m looking for something more akin to the opening scene of Gladiator, and the system as written plays out more like a chess match. This is true of virtually every RPG mass combat system I’ve come across.

Instead of running the battle according to the mass combat rules, I instead focused on the party’s actions as they affected the battle. As the army tried to cross the bridge, a group of umber hulks tried to collapse it. This would have routed the army, but the PCs were able to stop the bridge from collapsing. That combined with having spellcasters teleport to the flank and unleash hell meant that the enemy forces got routed. This made the battle feel more urgent and chaotic to me while also giving the PCs a chance to play a pivotal role.

Mass combat is hard because I love the resource management aspect of it but not the way it actually plays out. I did check out the new Dungeons & Dragons mass combat rules (available online because Wizards of the Coast is finally starting to realize that we live in the 21st century), but they seem to have the same problems that I have with the Pathfinder system.

My preferred method is to still use a narrative mass combat system while keeping track of army resources for tactical purposes. Since I only need to worry about this aspect of the game for another session or so, this should see me through.

Mythic One-Shots

The last time I included a mythic monster, it took the whole party most of a session to bring it down. I thought I’d up the stakes this time by bringing in a mythic umber hulk to fight the party while their army was engaged in battle, but I got reminded that high-level combat tends to be very unpredictable once you include a spellcaster or two.

The umber hulk started off pretty well, confusing one character and knocking another 60 feet through the air. Three rounds into the battle, however, it got hit by a prismatic spray. Failing its save by 1, it turned to stone. I remember now that I could have used its mythic surges to prevent that from happening, but those are the breaks.

Despite the fact that a single spell turned this very difficult encounter into a fairly trivial affair, I’m not too ticked off about it. The appearance of the mythic creature tied up three high-level spellcasters for three rounds before it got brought down, during which time the rest of the group had to scramble to prevent their army from getting routed due to a trap. It allowed the party’s sorcerer to flex her muscles, which is very important as more creatures have immunities and spell resistance to contend with. Finally, it served as a nice reminder that I’ll need to protect certain big bads from getting one-shotted due to a bad save.

I Love the Immovable Rod

The immovable rod has risen to one of those magic items that I just love and will now try to include in my games as often as possible, up there with the deck of many things and the girdle of opposite gender. It’s one of those magic items that has many uses and encourages lots of creativity. In this case, it joined forces with a couple of other awesome items and abilities and saved the PCs’ army.

The enemy army had set up a choke point at a bridge leading to the keep which spanned across a gorge. Unknown to the PCs, chained to the pillars of that bridge were a group of umber hulks. As soon as the main force was on top of the bridge, the umber hulks pulled on their chains, which nearly collapsed the bridge. A few things stopped that from happening and saved the army from being routed.

First, mythic surges. At the 2nd mythic tier, characters get the ability to expend mythic surges in order to gain an additional standard action. This standard action can’t be used to cast a spell, but the rules don’t say anything about using magic items. That meant that the party’s sorcerer could break off her single-handed owning of a mythic creature to toss a card from her deck of illusions into the gorge, creating the image of an iron golem that two of the umber hulks tried to fight, thus keeping them from pulling the bridge supports away for a round. It also meant that another character could use a separate mythic surge that allowed her to teleport into the gorge and jam her immovable rod into one of the chain links. That meant that the umber hulk broke the chain but didn’t pull the pillar away. It also meant that a third character could use a mythic surge to fire her longbow at the chain to weaken it. This didn’t work, but the player deserves points for trying. (Meanwhile, the intelligent horse leapt off the bridge with Sosiel the cleric screaming on his back and kicked an umber hulk’s head in. The player rolled incredibly well all session to the point that I jokingly accused him of using weighted dice.)

Two bridge supports got yanked away, leaving the bridge on the verge of collapse. The player whose character had the immovable rod asked if she could use as a bridge support. Well, the thing can hold 8,000 pounds, so I didn’t see why not. The problem was that nobody knew where to put the rod. It required a Knowledge (engineering) roll, and the only character who had that had been swatted 60 feet away by the mythic umber hulk.

Enter my new favorite mythic ability: This Might Just Work. Basically, the ability allows you to swap any skill you have with another skill that uses the same ability score. So the Knowledge (engineering) roll became a Craft (elven trinkets) roll – yes, that is a skill the PC has on her sheet. An explanation was required, to which she quickly came stated that elves often build small scale models of structures as works of art and therefore she would be able to apply that artistic knowledge to this real-world situation. Good enough for me. The day was saved.

The immovable rod, the deck of illusions, mythic surges, and This Might Just Work. These are a few of my favorite things.

Strife from Within

I was hoping to get through the capture of the keep in this session, but I figured that might be a pipe dream. With about an hour left of game after the giant mass combat, I didn’t feel like adding more battles on top of that. Instead, I opted for a role-playing encounter which may wind up splitting the party in the future.

The leader of the group’s army is Penelope Smith, who died decades ago and wound up with her spirit bonded to an intelligent sword. When the group’s paladin died (my only PC fatality of the campaign so far), Penelope took over her body. She has since taken a…different approach to leadership. For example, she’s fine with having ogres and trolls in the army and doesn’t mind if they eat the enemy in between battles. When questioned about her strategies, she chose to cut the PC questioning her out of future command meetings. (This was all handled well from a meta-game perspective, so neither player seems upset that their PCs dislike each other.)

One of the NPCs who also happens to be the paladin’s former lover has done some thinking and decided that she wants to get rid of Penelope. She floated the idea of getting one of the army’s spellcasters to banish Penelope’s spirit, hopefully returning the right soul to the body. The rest of the group is unsure about what to do from here, but communication with the goddess of death has revealed that the paladin’s soul never made it to the afterlife.

The PCs are mulling over their options and asked the NPC to be patient. When asked under the effect of a discern lies spell if she would avoid trying to kill Penelope in the meantime, however, she was revealed to be lying when she said, “Yes.”

Miscellany

My plot continues to veer way off of the actual Wrath of the Righteous material, partly out of necessity due to the high-level nature of the campaign and partly because that’s how I roll. I still think the purchase of the adventure path is worth my money because it provides me with maps, set-pieces, plot inspiration, and lots of reading material.

This session included umber hulks and dragonborn, because I think they’re both pretty cool. Just because I’m not playing Dungeons & Dragons anymore doesn’t mean I can’t occasionally grab things from that game when the mood strikes me.

Speaking of which, one of the players kept accidentally referring to my setting’s death goddess (known simply as Lady Death) as the Raven Queen, the death deity from 4th edition D&D. I like what I know of the Raven Queen (especially that her clerics get both the death and life domains in 5th edition), and the two deities are pretty similar, even though mine totally came first. I’ll have to double-check on my D&D lore, but maybe the Raven Queen will be one of Lady Death’s aliases going forward. And if I recall from 4th edition, the first big adventure path from that era dealt with Orcus trying to kill the Raven Queen and take her portfolio, so that might just be a potential future campaign for me. After all, I have promised myself that if Derrezen dies at the end of this game I’ll wait at least one campaign before resurrecting him.

Next Up

I have to wait two months to continue this campaign. Hopefully, the next session will bring about the fall of Dragonguard Keep and the establishment of a base in the Dragonlands for the PCs to launch future attacks. After that, it’s time to step away from the army and get to party-centered explorations of the mist-shrouded Dragonlands…I hope.

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