The Final Encounter!
So what happened once the players had all of the idols, ran from the various magical simulacra and now needed to grab the staff? A gigantic pitched battle featuring 14 player characters is pretty much what happened.
Before I explain what we actually did, I should explain how this encounter (normally) works. The way it’s written is that the Dracolich has the staff suspended over a 500 ft deep rift in the middle of its lair. Four magical glyphs on the floor protect the staff and prevent anyone from really grabbing it (the damage is so high it will practically gib anyone trying to grab it). The players need to use the idols on these glyphs to deactivate them, hold off the dracolich, hold off a bunch of undead AND potentially a simulacra. To save time and make this run in a reasonable fashion, the adventure suggests each DM runs a version of this with only the relevant part:
So with 4 DMs you have
1) Deactivating the wards
2) Holding off the Dracolich
3) Preventing the undead from attacking
4) Holding off a simulacrum
By the end we had enough players for three of these things, so we decided not to use the simulacrum (which was a very good idea). This set up does create a kind of odd situation where each group is ostensibly fighting in the same room, but only ever models what is happening with their task (the people deactivating wards don’t need to worry about the dragon, for example). It’s worthwhile noting that while the wards are up the Dracolich is very hard to hurt, taking ½ damage from all sources while they are active.
This isn’t how we did it.
The coordinator and one of the other DMs decided to run everything at once. The glorious pre-battle set up featuring all of the players characters is here:
I actually forget who was supposed to be doing what, because the entire thing became a swirling mess of mummies and similar in no time. The coordinator and another DM ran the monsters and the overall situation, while I was firmly behind my laptop. Someone had to keep track of the initiative order, conditions and how much damage each player (and each monster) had taken. To do so I use Microsoft excel, which has an incredibly useful sorting function so you can rapidly make a list of who is going when. After getting every individual players initiative (14 in total), the initiative of the dracolich, 3 mummies (soon to be 4), 6 skeletons, the dracolich’s high priest and 4 dark adepts we were ready to go.
Just remember that all of this is happening at exactly the same time. This was what everything looked like after all things were put down – the white dragon is happily subbing in for the dracolich.
Several of the faster players went first, attacking the dark adepts on the wards and generally murdering things. The dracolich ended up getting entangled by Byage the Druid, but we quickly discovered that it wasn’t as ridiculous as it was in the playtest anymore. Creatures can now make a strength check to bust out of it, but personally I feel holding the dracolich where it couldn’t get into melee for that one round was incredibly important (possibly essential in fact). It didn’t stop the dragon from using its breath weapon on team “Hold off the Dracolich” however, which did a substantial amount of damage to everyone there.
More characters went and eventually we got to the high priest, Silakul, whom after I called out that it was his turn I returned to my laptop. After a couple of minutes I realized nobody was doing anything and it occurred to me nobody realized he was the head priest – the DMs running it thought he was a player character. I pointed this out much to the amusement of all involved. People moved around, blew things up with magic or punched things. I will note there was a definite bias in this encounter towards the characters with magic, because many of the undead were resistant to various melee attacks in one way or another.
It’s well worth mentioning at this point that the players distinctly avoided even bothering to attack the dracolich at all. The players responsible for holding him off rapidly decided, correctly it may seem, that the idols were much more important and so started to clear out the undead and priests (the priests needing to be killed first before a ward could be deactivated). One thing that may have prompted this is that the description of the protective fields around the dragon and the staff might have given the characters an impression he was invincible (as opposed to just hard to hurt). Either way, focusing on getting the wards down probably helped immensely.
Here the undead went and I was most interested in this. For one thing, there were a fair number of skeletons and mummies to test out certain aspects of 5E, particularly the bounded accuracy. Skeletons are not very good, having roughly an annoying damage resistance to slashing weapons and a basic attack dealing around ~6ish damage average. Their attack bonus isn’t that great either, so for the most part the horde of weaker skeletons never accomplished very much – chipping away at the odd player. All they really did was provide some amusing moments, one I will get to in a bit and otherwise distract the players. The player’s actually wasting time attacking them instead of the mummies or priests was actually their main contribution to the entire battle.
Now those mummies? Ridiculous. They required a wisdom check to not be frightened of them or basically become paralyzed, they were resistant to most damage (except fire) and had an especially annoying ability: Mummy rot. When a target was hit it needed to make a DC 10 con save or be unable to heal. This had a bad consequence where several players basically couldn’t restore HP anymore and nobody had time to cure disease them.
Oddly enough, a fourth mummy mysteriously appeared around turn 2 or 3 that wasn’t there from the start. Being late has advantages and he got to get up in some delicious gnome. I suspect that a player thought he was another character and stuck him somewhere, then the DM mistook him for a mummy and went with it.
I felt for one character John (whose class I forgot), who was entirely eliminated from the combat on the second round or so by a mummy rot related incident. Because he couldn’t be healed at all, his only option was to roll death saving throws every round for the rest of the 3 hour or so combat. Sadly, my suggestion to let him control some monsters wasn’t received and so he didn’t get to participate further, which I didn’t think was great encounter design (monsters that prevent you from healing at all for an entire combat are super dumb, IMO). Oddly enough, he managed to get through nearly six death saves without dying, particularly because he failed the first two up front.
In any event, the dracolich broke free of the entanglement, started ruining players stuff and some wards were deactivated. At some point the wild mages random table backfired heavily on the players, turning everyone around him invisible – most notably the dracolich. Did I mention the dracolich has blindsight? If I didn’t well, consider it mentioned. Thankfully a couple of turns of poor rolling meant the dracolich’s damage was kept to a reasonable minimum and the players picked off most of the skeletons/priests. Mass healing word from the cleric was essential in keeping multiple PCs up after being downed, though the fact many players were invisible (and couldn’t be targeted) made for some hilarious moments.
One of the more interesting things to come out of this combat was the battle for the idol that the head priest and the monk Erynor engaged in. At one point a player dropped one of the idols near a priest and Silakul (the dracolich’s head cultist, sometimes mistaken player character and general non-villain we all sort of forgot actually was there) managed to get it. At this point we could have done two things, one I felt was vastly against the spirit of the game and advised against:
1) Toss the idol straight into the rift, basically giving a bad guys win by default outcome (though it was theoretically possible to grab the staff I think)
2) Have him hold onto it for a little while and give the players a chance of grabbing it back.
We had a short discussion about it and referenced the rules, 1 is in fact suggested by the module, but I thought the players needed a chance of getting it back. Thankfully the DMs running it also thought this and so the Monk was able to run up and tussle for the idol. This was much more dramatic, fair minded and made for a better outcome (the PCs inevitably getting it back). Just tossing it into the rift would have been quite the anti-climax.
Eventually the Dracolich moved to engage the players trying to take the last idol from the head priest, spraying the area with its breath weapon and trying to take out the flying PC in particular (guy standing on the die in the middle of the board if you’re wondering). Unfortunately he mostly just succeeded at damaging Silakul and the Monk grabbed the final idol, survived being on 3 HP and then got to the final ward and deactivated it!
With this the players grabbed the staff (flying dude) and immediately proceeded to get out before the Dragon could eat them. Ironically, I feel that if they just all turned and attacked the dracolich they probably could have killed it fairly easily and just walked out – but the chaotic nature of the “Grab the staff and run” I felt was much more appropriate. For the most part the players easily bolted, but sadly John – who spent the entire time dying due to mummy rot was always going to be doomed.
A heroic attempt to pick up some downed characters by Adarth, including Erynor (Monk) who was nearly critically hit into oblivion (why *do* monsters always figure out how to hit things right at the end of a combat?) by the dracolich failed in the corridor and the incurable John with freedom mere feet from them was heart breaking. Adarth ended up being cut down by the infuriated dracolich and died alongside John and Erynor (who had been healed the previous round, only to be murdered again – a really bad day for monks against dragons). Another character had been felled elsewhere near the dracolich and thus Athrail also met his terrible end.
Meanwhile the remaining 10 adventurers presumably ate very well with their treasure and well, surviving. Whatever the dracolich was doing with the staff was no longer a threat and at the cost of only four characters dead. Not a bad trade when you consider things. A certain high cultist presumably ended up being terribly murdered for his failures as well.
Overall the final encounter took a considerable amount of time, about 3 hours in total, but ran reasonably efficiently. I found keeping track of hit points and initiative in excel helped a massive amount, even if it was quite stressful needing to clarify what was happening. Thankfully, having someone else running things and making all other decisions meant concentrating on ensuring I had the right numbers wasn’t too hard in the end. The handful of player deaths right at the end was also very thematically appropriate and dramatic as well, capping off an excellent session and a very good day of DnD.