Dungeons and Dragons Game Day: Vault of the Dracolich
This is my account of the big DnD 5E Adventure Day that was held at a local roleplaying/video game club last year (2014) and was a ton of fun. It’s actually what encouraged and inspired me to start my own 5E DnD game, Curse of the Black Pearls.
The set up of Vault of the Dracolich
Before I begin I’ll take some time to talk about how the module actually works. The concept is fantastic, essentially an ancient Dracolich called Dretchroyaster has obtained a special magical staff and is currently sapping power out of it. However, careful observation by a wizard who engaged the creature in the past has seen that the dragon has become momentarily dormant and its defenses are at their weakest. So what do you do? Hire a small army of adventurers of course!
The module is a classic “Smash and grab”. The concept is the players bust open the place seeking several Bhaalite idols, which they need to dismantle wards protecting both the staff (and coincidentally, the dragon as well) and then get out as quickly as humanly possible. The characters were all level 4 for this and were no match whatsoever for the Dracolich in a straight up fight (which was using adult green dragon statistics I think), so speed was the key. Due to the nature of this scenario, you have multiple groups of PCs attacking the dungeon through multiple points at once: One through a troglodyte village (which was my section), another through a trap filled area, one group just plain old beats down the front door and the last group infiltrates through a waterfall area. It’s possible to run this with even more DMs as well and three other points of entry, but we got enough interest to have 4 fairly decent sized parties.
As there is a distinct urgency in timing for this, the players have some restrictions on what they can do and they can’t take a long rest or retreat. It’s do or die. Cleverly the module considers this and suggests that dead players are replaced by a new member being teleported in by the initial NPC wizard, or they can take a random risk and resurrect as a wight. Essentially keeping the same stats/abilities, but picking up a random advantage/disadvantage. This did put a constraint on casters to hold their spells for the final encounter, but curiously players did figure out a way around the obvious problems this creates in terms of healing that I did not anticipate and will elaborate on in a bit.
To make this work we split the players into several groups, with my group having 4 players, one having 3 and the other two being 4 as well. Each tables DM (EG me) communicated with a 5th DM who acted as the overall coordinator, tracking where the parties were, what they had done, if they had idols and so on. Using the magic of cellphones, we could communicate back and forth to keep things reasonably sane. With the exception of one little mistake between my group and another as to the locations of our parties – who inadvertently met as the coordinator discovered I was running an encounter that another party had just finished – this system worked extremely well. In fact, even before I get to the praising section, I have to say this idea was very well thought out and extremely well done for keeping the feeling of a multiple party attack going.
Players could also communicate via a leader given a magical item that let him communicate telepathically with the others. This led to some interesting cross talk and confusion at times, especially because I accidentally (oops) misread the player map and put them in the wrong spot (I did fix it though!). It was also great because the players ended up being especially confused when the Dracolich’s simulacra (magical copies) appeared and rampaged through to positions where the players took an idol.
Parties could also physically meet up, trade stuff, swap party members or in a few instances completely merge so they could murder things together – which happened a couple of times (a battle against a Hydra in particular was going very poorly until another group arrived to provide assistance). One sadly underused mechanic were the portals that criss crossed the dungeon, which allowed travel between set rooms. Most of the players took no interest and when my group finally used one the amusing result, which instantly swaps that party member with another at random from another group, didn’t occur.
Overall this module has an A+ for set up and thought into how it functions and worked. That it went off as incredibly smoothly as it did, without losing any particular momentum or confusing people endlessly is very much a credit to the way it is set up, and how my other DMs helped in running it (especially the coordinator).
Where we made one major deviation was the final encounter though and that I will describe to you later.
How my table went
Here I’ll described what happened at my table, my logic behind any rulings I made and various rules mistakes I committed (like forgetting sneak attack damage applies whenever another ally is next to an enemy – not just when you have advantage). I’m not going to mention things that happened elsewhere unless it was either directly obvious to my players or was notable in some way. Do note that monsters here are a combination of actual MM stats where we had them and the stats of monsters from the last playtest packet bestiary. All characters are built using the released 5th edition rules.
My party consisted of:
Seritae the Cleric
Difficultius the High the Paladin
Velecidae Oscaro the Rogue
Athrail the Sorcerer
I felt this was a pretty well balanced group and my section as mentioned was the Troglodyte caves. Here the smelly humanoids have taken to worshiping Dretchroyaster as a god, but they aren’t fans of the cultists who worship the dragon at all and they want to see if it is possible to get rid of them. As a result they aren’t immediately hostile and can in fact be bargained with if the players aren’t immediately hostile.
Velecidae began by scouting out the troglodytes in the initial area and then reporting back. Although I can’t recall if it is in the modules advice, I dropped the number of trogs in this area from 10 and 4 lizards to about 5 and 2 lizards, just in case a fight started. Thankfully my party (as hoped) were more interested in talking to them first and after some tense diplomacy, where the party tried to pass themselves off as working for the cultists the unimpressed trogs took them to their fighting pit. I decided to do that because the trogs would figure if the “cultists” died they scored a minor inconveniencing victory, if these “cultists” won they were at least entertainment and they could let them pass with some degree of respect.
Curiously though, I did wonder why adventurers would want to be diplomatic with these brutes outside of their sheer numbers given the descriptions of disemboweled villagers, human skulls on spikes and such around. The troglodytes are not exactly innocent neighbours being bullied into cooperation with the dragon. Either way, I wanted the players to know that trying to talk to the troglodytes had been a good idea and reward them for it.
I made sure to make further dialog as the players wandered through the village to the pit that the troglodytes disliked the cultists immensely. Once at the pit, I described the trogs fighting and chopping up other trogs, monsters and whatever else. The fighting pit is one of the odder parts of the module for my section, as it is basically part of the “diplomacy” with the troglodytes to get chucked in and fight one of three random encounters.
Oddly enough I rolled the encounters that I wanted to roll, in the order I wanted to roll them (yes, it was a random table). My party faced off against a displacer beast, two ankhegs and an owlbear. The pit itself is incredibly cramped and tiny, so after some thought I decided to make a lower region to it as well. With the extra underground part, I expanded the pit about 10-15’ in all directions giving everyone slightly more room to manoeuvre if they wanted.
Initially the sorcerer, rogue and paladin gleefully pounced into the pit, while the cleric stayed on top with some of the observing troglodytes and their chieftain. The first monster to get dragged into the pit for the glorious slaughter was the displacer beast. I have to say, this thing was just obnoxious to fight and nowhere near as threatening as perhaps it should be. While it can attack twice, it has not got the best attack bonus in the world and mostly relies on just making people whiff attacks constantly through its illusions. These illusions give anyone attacking it disadvantage and would have made the fight drag on forever.
Well, would have if I hadn’t decided that if players were on opposite sides of a creature, EG flanking, they would get advantage on attacks. Advantage is an extremely DM fiaty system, but here I felt forced to immediately dump RAW because:
A) I made a severe mistake on reading sneak attack in needing advantage on attack rolls (it doesn’t, just another ally adjacent to the enemy you are attacking)
B) This fight could have lasted absolutely forever as even with the ability to cancel the disadvantage my players consistently missed it.
Here is where I discovered the paladin had an interesting defender mechanic, where any character adjacent to him attacked by a melee attack he could intervene, giving the attack disadvantage. At least one of the displacer beasts attacks were generally useless, but the ironic thing is even with the disadvantage the other characters AC were still low enough that attacking them was always better than the 18 AC paladin (as the tentacle attacks needed to be directed to the same target). Inevitably the vile beast was murdered to death and the party celebrated a grand victory, only to see two large bug like Ankhegs thrown into the pit.
Naturally in this thread I’ve spoken about the value of initiative and here was a demonstration: The party went first before the ankegs and nearly tore one down before it even got a single action. Despite all the stabbing, being set on fire and arrows it surived with a singular HP to its name. However, ankhegs are notable for their acidic spit and I pointed this out to the party with a successful intelligence check. Due to wanting to be adjacent to the paladin to make use of his reaction power, they were in a direct line ready to be spat on and that’s exactly what the ankeg did. The splooge did a not insignificant amount of damage to the party and at least I thought it did “some” damage.
Predictably the 1HP one failed to do anything of note before dying and then the other Ankheg was by itself, before critically hitting the rogue in the face for 22 points of damage in a single attack and pinning him to the floor. Thankfully these characters being level 4 actually have some HP so it wasn’t an instant KO, but it was a notable amount of damage. Especially as all the other players consistently missed the thing.
The models are player characters and the ankheg, in almost a seditious way, is being represented by the gamma world token (which is what I had access to, insert grumbling about printer toner here etc etc). Hearts notate creatures or characters that have taken notable damage and the brain indicates some kind of issue. Yes, I do like my grid and miniatures/tokens, why do you ask? The ankheg then easily downed the rogue with another brutal hit on the second to last turn before finally being killed by the paladin whacking it in the head.
The characters are (from left to right): Cleric, Rogue (yes, the pokemon), Paladin and Sorcerer.
Once again, I want to make note that I don’t really have any incentive to attack the high AC paladin at all – given he was constantly missing – and that his ability only applies when adjacent (the acid spit made them gun shy about splitting up). Here is where I discovered the players either spontaneously thought about this or maybe talked beforehand, but everyone was loaded with potions. Some players I think may have had more than 30 potions. Essentially, any damage was potioned away within no time (though I only gave them around 1 minute or so before the Trogs threw in something new). Apparently there isn’t any limit to potion healing that I could find or remember, not to mention I wasn’t interested in bogging the game down so I just allowed it.
This was a really common thing and afterwards I thought whoever made these potions should probably just retire. They never need to work every again. Before the final battle I had the chief of the Trogs talk to the party directly, pleased with their resilience and ability to fight. Here I allowed them the opportunity to change their story about their motivations and if they were working for the cult or not. Taking the cues from earlier, they did and the troglodyte chief agreed to talk with them further should they overcome their last challenge: A terrible owlbear.
The owlbear has three attacks, all of them are high damage and when every attack hits, even with disadvantage, someone goes down like a ton of bricks fast. The last attack was even pretty close to instantly gibbing the character, that is dropping them to negative HP equal to what their actual HP is (31ish or so in this case). Thankfully a healing word by the cleric and some stabbing regained control of the situation, until mad and on low HP the owlbear struck at the sorcerer (who had just set it on fire).
The critical hit the owlbear scored almost entirely one shot the character. I think from the 3-4 HP he had been on since the first attack hit, had I rolled a couple better it would have outright killed him as well and then the vile beast had him down on the ground.
Choosing Gamma Worlds murderous death chicken monsters as a representative of the Owlbear was an inspired decision I felt. The sorcerer was not having a good day.
Once again further potioning cured any long lasting damage and the victorious party got out of the pit to face the pleased troglodyte chieftain, who led them to his hut. It’s around this time that a massive roar went through the complex and the first of the Dracolich’s simulacra (magical copies of itself) came out hunting a party that had successfully taken an idol. These limited magical effects are a suitable “Shock and awe” creature, but did have some drawbacks in the way they functioned (see section 4, sorry!). I had the troglodytes react extremely positively to this and point out how dedicated to their god they were, dropping some hints about how the players should treat these creatures fanatical devotion.
Either way once inside the chieftains hut, the party encountered their idol, which is sitting in a sac in a bunch of other stuff (I roleplayed the chieftain as not being fully aware why it’s important). This gave them some more time to interact and plan what they wanted to do. The idea they had was to try and get the troglodytes to attack the dragon, but I determined this wasn’t going to be something plausible (attacking the cult was possible). I should have dropped hints that the party could have asked the Chieftain about the surrounding area and gave them hints about the extremely badly trapped corridor between the main vaults and the troglodytes living space.
Sadly I didn’t (more on that soon).
I did however decide the players could just outright get the idol as a reward for their efforts in the pit and sure enough, one of the dracolich’s simulacrum spawned in the village and moved to the party to engage them – which was only a very short distance away. Naturally the chieftain wanted to show Dretchroyaster the brave new champions that he had uncovered in his fighting pit (remembering that the players are pretending to be against the cult, but pro-Dretchroyaster). The trogs bowed down in worship at the direct sight of their god – not realizing it was a simulacrum of course – and my party tried to keep up the ruse by doing the same thing.
Dretchroyaster before the horde of troglodytes, the chieftain and my party. The undead dragon is not impressed.
At this point, I wanted to show that the Dracolich was no fool and he rapidly saw through the disguise. Putting on my best dragon like “YOU IDIOT” voice, I had Dretchroyaster consume the troglodyte chieftain and then instruct the others to turn on the party. This is when I decided combat began and initiative should be rolled. Magic came to the rescue with the spell “Web” encasing most of the troglodytes within its sticky confines. Then the wizard needed to run away, as did, well everyone as nobody passed the wisdom or charisma check required to ignore the simulacrums frightful presence.
Here the players began to flee towards the vaults, which is where things got very interesting as that corridor is trapped to high hell by particularly difficult traps. Finding them required an intelligence 15 check in the first place (the pit trap) and the second trap (the glyph) needed an int or wisdom 15 check to see and then intelligence 20 check to disarm! In any event, being forced to run from the dragon directly meant the rogue fell right into the pit with no obvious opportunity (at least to me) to even have a chance of seeing it. Hence why earlier I wished I had thought about prompting the party to talk to the troglodyte chieftain more about the surrounding area (some of my party was very new to DnD and other RPGs – so this felt very much like my mistake).
Either way, it made for some hilarious drama:
Yes, that’s the rogue in the pit and I believe the Paladin gets critically hit straight to 0 at some point here from yet another critical doing a large amount of damage (38 IIRC). Dragons can really hit tremendously hard. Interestingly enough despite every attempt to hurt the cleric, she could not be hit at all by the dragons massive tail – ducking it both times it attacked her!
The party was getting desperate and worried about a TPK here, but there was one thing in their favour: This was not the ACTUAL dragon (I made its magical nature clear to them). Unfortunately buried in the section of the simulacrum is important text stating that it only hangs around for a total of 2 combat rounds – then dissipates. Essentially a shock and awe tactic. I mention this because the other party fought the first simulacrum for a much longer period of time, which is easily forgivable because it is buried in a paragraph. Some of the rules and similar were almost hidden in places, such as me not remembering that pit trap until I saw it mentioned in the area they were moving into and went to look it up. Traps and other things really need to be presented clearly and not blobbed into a bunch of text.
Making saves against the fear effect they survived the last onslaught from the dragon and were left with the troglodytes, who I ruled had just cut themselves out of the web spell. Here I gave the party a chance to use the confusion of the trogs “God” disappearing suddenly to their advantage. They convinced some of the trogs that the simulacrum was a blasphemous apparition sent by the cultists to trick them. I had the trogs divide themselves up into groups that believed that or thought it was a lie and a small civil war (more trogs were arriving) broke out. The resulting murder and confusion between the two groups eliminated these creatures as a substantial threat to the adventurers and allowed the (badly) wounded party time to escape.
I felt that was a satisfying enough reward for their attempt to bluff and while they were more keen on getting an army of troglodytes to help, I didn’t really want to do that. For one thing, having combat with monsters vs. monsters I feel distracts from the PCs (though I did allow my party the ability to turn some trogs on the cultists later). Secondly it was just going to be a pain and this felt like a more appropriate and interesting solution. Especially with the dracoliche’s infuriated, but ill thought through decision to murder the chieftain leaving the troglodytes with no obvious leader.
At this point there is a small problem with a trap glyph that can only be disarmed with a DC 20 intelligence check. Impressively, this trap deals 8d8 necrotic damage with a +6 attack bonus against anyone who walks by it, with again, another ridiculous DC 15 int/wis check to even see it. This was getting to the rogue who by this point was wondering what his job was. I ruled off the cuff after the paladin got hit that it could be disarmed with wisdom or int, especially because the paladin blundered into the four gargoyle ambush in the other room.
However, here is where we had the only major point of miscommunication of the evening with another party having cleared the room and the coordinator finding out about it after mine started the fight. It wasn’t a major issue of course and it is a testament to how well this was run that it was the only problem we ran into. I didn’t mind abandoning the encounter, even if I did think of something interesting to do.
At this point my party merged with the other DMs party and the players started figuring out what they had to do. There was also a degree of confusion between us because one of his players left, meaning we wouldn’t have enough for 2 parties anymore, so staying with one 6 player party was the better idea. Eventually we decided to go with me DMing, shifted around an idol to move things along (by this point about 4ish hours had passed) faster to where my players were planning on exploring and went from there.
We’re down to three groups now.
The final encounter I directly ran happens at an embedded elven ship with green crystals everywhere. Here some troglodytes and the cultists watching over them are mining out the magical crystals for various purposes. My party, having started the troglodyte civil war cleverly decided to pretend that the cultists had actually started it and showed the trogs the idol. Recognizing it as one of the chieftains treasures, the trogs gleefully joined the battle on the side of the players and murdered (then ate) the cultists.
Trogs trogs trogs. The unfortunate cultists honestly never had a chance.
You are of course thinking “But Aegeri you silly goose, didn’t moments ago you say how using NPCs takes away from the players and is awkward?”. Well yes, but there are two reasons I did this. Firstly, I really wanted to reward their deception of the troglodytes and decision to interact with the monsters. I felt pulling the idol was a great idea and the trogs would have recognized it as one of the chieftains items, which must have come from him. Plus they hate the cultists anyway so an excuse to attack them was just what they wanted. Secondly, I just wanted the combat to end faster due to time constraints. An army of trogs helping is one way, especially just taking average damage instead of rolling (so I could motor through their attacks, even with all of them attacking twice each) pretty easily.
After this they claimed the final idol, were met by another group (so I had 10ish players to deal with) and ran away (very successfully, due to one player distracting it with an illusion) another simulacrum. At this point, all four of the idols were found, the route to the dragons chamber was open and the final encounter began.
Enough for one post for now! When we return, the dramatic finale of the entire affair!