This session began with the PCs debating precisely what to do now they had cleared the top of the tower and where they needed to go. Here is where the design of this dungeon matters considerably, because I have always believed in making things spread out enough that it logically follows monsters encountered aren’t just expecting piles of reinforcements at any second (unless it makes sense). Due to the ever present doom tracker as well keeping a close eye on the time any of their actions take, the characters need to be efficient with exploration and mind the time they have. A 1 hour short rest is a considerable burden in a place where you only have 16 hours total!
For simplicities sake, the Temple was cracked and dragged under the water, splitting into four major sections and a bunch of smaller collapsed rooms, tunnels and antechambers. The first major part is the tower, which partially collapsed and some of the floors were lost, but it still rises 500 feet over the other pieces of the sunken temple below. Secondly, the Chamber of Worship, which contains the orders most prized relics (or possibly only did) split into a single large piece towards the rear of the temple. The North and South wings have similarly split into different sections, with one being controlled by ferocious Kuo-Toa worshipping an insane spectator beholder (who calls him Ezrakiel and proclaims that he leads the “Nameless Cult”) and the other being infested with tainted Sahuagin under the command of a powerful Baron (who the players have not met yet).
Between these are a large series of sunken caverns, passages and flooded rooms which impede travel. Because most things are underwater, it takes a full hour to ascend or descend the tower, because only tight spaces are available to move within. These times become extremely important and give the players an estimate of what actions they can (or can’t) get away with. Initially the potions of water breathing were mostly to help them get about, but I also decided the magic of these potions let them swim through water more easily and therefore give them less restricted movement underwater. I decided they lasted about an hour before their magic wore off – meaning my players could make decisions as to when to use them. One thing I did do was ensure that the descent or ascent up the tower took 1 hour: Ensuring that the potions wore off before the players could use another.
This is entirely deliberate and may be very important.
The first encounter of the night was not genuinely meant to be a huge threat to the PCs and thankfully didn’t end up being one. Swimming down through the tower, the players came to a large cavern, which split into two main directions (North and South). Here luminous kelp and algae helped light the place with an eerie glow, as several figures emerged out of the darkness: Sahuagin and a pair of ferocious Reef Sharks! Combat was entered and the Sahuagin made good use of their superior maneuverability under water to get in the characters faces. Here my players saw their main ability: Rolling advantage against any enemy that is currently damaged at all (which is really strong for a CR1/2 critter!). But this wasn’t the end of things as several Kuo-Toa came in and then joined in – ambushing the Sahuagin and attacking them from behind (to the PCs surprise!).
The PCs even used a perception check and noticed the hidden giant octopus in the kelp! So everything was going pretty well, except that the players rolled horribly for the most part. Now sometimes this happens, but going back to earlier discussions about damage we have been having it’s pretty frustrating when it prevents players from killing things. Thankfully the new damvantage mechanic worked perfectly in the couple of times players employed it, turning damage that would have let an insignificant mook monster live (like when the rogue rolled 2, 1, 1 on his damage, turning that into 4, 5, 3) into an actual outright kill. It also didn’t feel that imbalanced or overly lethal against players either, so I was [b]extremely[/b] impressed with the actual in play effect of doing this.
But again, it doesn’t help you hit things and this is really why this combat just kept going on far longer than it should have (noting the PCs are appropriately armed for underwater combat, Rapiers/Crossbows etc). Eventually the sahuagin were eliminated and the Kuo-Toa promptly turned their attention to murdering the player characters instead, because that is the way they rolled. Once dispatched the players opened their hard fought for chest (they discovered it in the tower and had been carrying it around with them as they explored) and saw its contents: some more water breathing options and some treasure, of which had they opened the chest underwater the potions would have been destroyed.
It is worth noting I could tell how the time pressure was having an effect on the players decision making at this point and was very satisfied with it. There is definitely a tangible sense of urgency about things!
The players debated if they wanted to go near the fishy people or shark people more (this is what I had been calling the monsters for now). Eventually they decided to go with the Kuo-Toa, who had come from the North passage and this was actually a good decision. The fishy people were led by an insane Beholder calling himself Ezrakiel, who had been monitoring how the players were going. Upon arriving in the ceremonial chambers which the Kuo-Toa called home, Ezrakiel called out to them through his archpriest intermediary to come chat with them, because he could use new recruits for his cult.
I was delighted the pcs agreed because I had been very keen to roleplay Ezrakiel from the moment I had the idea for him. I introduced him as such:
“This room is well maintained, with torches on the walls and a properly made bed in the corner. Ritualistic looking sculptures and relics sit in recesses in the walls and the floor has an expansive – if somewhat moldy – rug in the center. Inside the room the Kuo-Toa bow and defer to a floating orb like creature, with a large central eye and four small stalks with another smaller eye on them. The creature seems to be wearing some kind of cloak and smiles at you with a toothy, ichor filled maw.
‘Aha! I knew it! We were always destined to get some new recruits for the cult! I was telling myself just the other day, Ezrakiel, what we need is new blood. Blood that has ambition! Blood that can get things done! Blood that isn’t from some kind of fish! Now, can anyone uh, remind me what the initiation ritual was again?’”
Insane after the original cult were dispatched (for reasons yet unknown to the PCs beyond “A jolly good scrap”), he has become obsessed with finding out what the key he was summoned to guard opens and what happened inside there. Stuck in a stalemate with the Sahuagin Baron who has the other half, he views the PCs as the perfect disposable too- I mean clear decisive advantage to break open the Sahuagins defenses and get the key for himself. Incidentally, if you are wondering about the cloak? He likes to think of himself as human and humans wear clothes right? Cloaks are a nice bit of clothing because you can easily put them on and take them off, plus they are clothes which humans wear so….
Granting the party a fairly depleting staff of fire as incentive, the PCs headed off to slay the Baron, running into a prisoner of the Kuo-Toa on his way out. Thomas explained some detail about the huge monster that attacked his ship and emaciated without a chance, the players chose to Dragon-Age style murder knife him instead of allowing him to continue to suffer. This created some debate about ethics between the PCs and was definitely something I encouraged. As they swam through further tunnels, they came across a barricaded room in a small air pocket. Kicking down the door proved to be a bit of a mistake, as the barbarian copped a crossbow trap and the rooms deranged, Crimson Legion, occupant leaped to his defense proclaiming “NO FISH IS GOING TO GET ME!” until he realized his attackers were NOT any kind of Kuo-Toan or Sahuagin.
No, the poor fellow thinks the players are there to rescue him after the creature had sunk his boat and he had been taken alive while trying to escape. Sadly, his fellow legionnaires who survived seem to have expired from being terminally stabbed in vital organs. Their bodies oddly missing chunks of flesh and the other bones in the room showing signs of being gnawed on by human teeth…..
(Which is where I have left things for now).
So overall, this is going extremely well and I am really enjoying it. Enough for the moment that I am now going to be continuing this game for the forseeable future, instead of throttling it to a very limited time span originally. I got almost exactly what I was hoping for when the players didn’t start a fight in the Kuo-Toas home base and instead decided to talk to the insane beholder. The players did make a sincere attempt to trick the Beholder into giving them its key immediately, but the Beholder was ultimately too canny and soon cottoned on to the characters trying to do that – insisting they come back with the Baron’s key first.
This was important to the flow of the game, because going back and forth uses precious time from their doom chart and ups the tension. It also reduces the chances that the PCs can manage to have a long rest before dealing with certain enemies or encounters. Ultimately the idea was great, but they were just not persuasive enough and decided (I feel wisely) against a fight against the Beholder and Kuo-Toa (mostly because it would increase the number of encounters they ultimately have to face as well).
One other thing I did in this session was decide how to handle death from massive damage. This has come up in my discussions about Hoard of the Dragon Queen (a certain infamous PC killing duel, which I will talk more about in a post on this blog soon) and I decided to enact the following house rule:
Massive Damage: Instead of outright dying when reduced to negative HP that would equal your maximum HP, you instead automatically gain 2 failed death saving throws against your tally.
It’s a pretty straightforward rule, will not always save someone who is walking around with accumulated death saves from somewhere else, but does eliminate the generally entirely random “You just die due to some random out of nowhere lucky critical hit” effect (which is really the outright goal of this rule, especially at lower levels).