Curse of the Black Pearls
This session turned out to be especially dramatic, as the players encountered their first Yuan-ti of the campaign. Now before I go any further let me emphasize that Yuan-ti are by far and away one of my favourite monstrous villains in Dungeons and Dragons. I’ve always liked their general xenophobic culture, arrogance and vast range of powerful melee or caster types. At least one kind of Yuan-ti is just a gigantic pile of sentient snakes hanging out together! They are also excellent tacticians and brilliantly smart, so they make fantastic antagonists for characters to face.
As a result, I wanted to make sure that the first encounter that my players had against Yuan-ti was especially dangerous feeling, emphasizing the monsters superior tactical minds and martial skills to other monsters they had faced (notably, the Blackscale Lizardfolk). The characters had to face a deadly encounter with an old stone bridge over the middle of long (200′) drop down into the raging river below, while spiders climbed up the sides of the cliff and Lizardfolk blocked the bridge to prevent any easy charge down of the Yuan-ti archer.
In short it did everything I wanted it to, but it almost did a bit too much as the dreaded specter of the total party kill began to rear its head. To say this encounter was incredibly close would be a total understatement, but it was immensely satisfying for me as a DM because it really established one thing: Be really, really, scared of Yuan-ti.
As the characters advanced towards Ka’rhashan they eventually came to a very narrow ravine, which was cut through the jungle and had an old stone bridge across it. The 200′ drop down was bad enough, but the narrow bridge and lack of cover made it a particular murder zone for archers and sure enough, a hulking Yuan-ti with a massive bow accompanied by two blackscale lizardfolk met the characters on the opposite side of the bridge. Scuttling up the cliff where the characters were currently standing was a surprise from the Yuan-ti: Four large jungle spiders!
These spiders I envisaged as being like spitting spiders, tossing out sticky threads to envelop enemies and root them in place. This tactic is more than just for inconveniencing the PCs: The Yuan-ti archer then targets the webbed up enemies and (attacking with advantage, as being webbed makes a target restrained) sinks arrows coated in lethal poison right into them. In the middle of the map is the 10′ bridge, which I simply had both Lizardfolk stand at one end of with a delayed trigger to move up and attack any PC that got within their movement range (30′).
Simple tactics but brutally effective in practice. Other than a fireball from Reebu, there wasn’t much to harm the Yuan-ti and the Blackscale lizardfolk did their job in holding up the Barbarian and Paladin at the bridge. The spiders restrained most characters or at least distracted them enough that the lethally accurate and powerful arrows of the Yuan-ti dropped character after character. Within a few rounds we had an extremely dramatic combat, which looked something like this:
The Yuan-ti (on the bottom) was doing major damage to the player characters, who had cleared out the spiders by this point but had the two Blackscale Lizardfolk left (in the fray above), while Kasswok, Glorkk, Reebu, Moira (the NPC helping them) were all down and bleeding out. Thankfully for the party the cleric Narvarie and the rogue Calliara had not been downed, so were able to force some potions down allies throats and heal the two front line fighters to at least some semblance of fighting ability. A couple of brutal rounds later, dispatching the lizardfolk and the Yuan-ti had seen enough: He departed leaving the surviving Blackscale Lizardfolk to his doom.
This encounter was by all accounts extremely tough, because it combined favorable terrain for the monsters in question (the narrow bridge, the spiders being able to climb up the cliff and the archers far position back). It was however, almost too challenging and could have led to a TPK. It’s a problem that I face sometimes where I always like to have unique, interesting but very challenging combat encounters like this as a normal thing. What I would have done here if I had inflicted a dreaded TPK, was – assuming the players didn’t die – had them taken to a nearby Yuan-ti temple and then “sacrificed” to their dark god. This would have made for an intriguing potential escape and a second chance at life, which is rather justified because I will be making a big thing out of the Yuan-ti mass sacrificing prisoners later in this adventure.
In any event, I think there is a deep respect for Yuan-ti from this encounter and that’s all I wanted to end up conveying!
After recovering from this, the characters went onwards to the Dragonborn city, currently being besieged by Lizardfolk and Yuan-ti, and successfully navigated narrow cliffs, a flock of easily startled birds (until magically put to sleep, where being players they nicked some of the birds entirely) and the winding river pathway to arrive at Ka’rhashan at last. Their welcome? Spears pointed at them and angry draconic, as the Dragonborn immediately dragged off Moira to be executed and the characters to the Emporer, Xarseth, to see what he made of them.
Here the characters had an interesting decision: They didn’t have to save Moira at all, but the Dragonborn were rather upset with her in general and rather justifiably given she’s responsible for the current predicament their city is in. As such, she was due to be executed the next morning but the characters stood up and asked for her to be spared. After some back and forth, Xarseth made them an offer: Take on some of his best and they would spare Moira. Fail, and she would be executed. The players debated it for a while and then – rather heroically IMO – accepted the offer.
This began a second and just as dramatic encounter where they had to face 3 heavily armed and breath weapon equipped Dragonborn elite champions. There were also a few new rules:
A character who leaves the arena area was automatically eliminated and couldn’t come back.
The Dragonborn would not kill fallen characters at the end, should the party be TPKed – I actually made this encounter very very hard to win deliberately.
The party could choose how many entered, which also determined the strength of their opponents (less PCs = less opposition as well).
This fight began with Reebu throwing down a wall of fire just behind the dragonborn and doing some significant damage, though those with affinity to fire certainly got some benefit (extra damage). The wall actually did quite a fair chunk of damage in the end and downed one of the Dragonborn, but the large combination of area breath weapons and solid attacks really hammered the characters considerably. This was an even and intense fight, swinging wildly between both the dragonborn and the party!
Finally the fight progressed towards where only Reebu was left standing with the final Dragonborn Champion on a mere 1 HP, having felled the second to last PC Kasswok just the turn beforehand. Should Reebu have failed to down him, it would have been the Dragonborn with a clear line of fire with his lightning breath and one very squishy wizard left. Fortunately for Reebu, he had one last trick up his gnomish sleeve and dumped a gigantic fireball right on top of him: No to hit roll required! That final explosion ended the battle in dramatic style, with the combat literally perched on an exciting knife edge for the entire final 2 rounds. Overall I was extremely satisfied and it was the perfect place to end for the night.
And also to inform the characters that they were now all level 6 for the next session! Next time, introducing a new player as Glorkk departs due to a scheduling conflict and I need to think of a neat way to have one character enter, while another leaves…