After the last session, we ended up taking an unexpected break from playing for a few weeks. I’m pretty much busy all the time – you may have noticed that the schedule has wavered a little over the last few weeks (including this post, which is now two days late). Every now and then work stacks up on top of me, and something has to give; the first thing to go is our regular game, followed (unfortunately) by writing for this site. I can’t afford to take time off work, and my Masters is too important to fall behind on, so that’s just the way my priorities have to fall.
Scheduling is one of the sticking points for a lot of groups, and one of the big reasons that games end up falling apart. Online play (on Roll20, Fantasy Grounds, and the like) has gone some way towards making this easier, but when you’re trying to get six people around a physical table at the same time, it can be tough. Luckily my group are very understanding, so hopefully this game is going to carry on for a good while yet.
At this point in real-time it was approaching Christmas, and I knew that this might be the only game we got for a few weeks, possibly until after the new year. With that in mind, I wanted to make it a good one – something big and memorable, a nice cap on the campaign arc so far that would return the party to the surface after weeks underground, and let them know that they’d stepped up a gear once they hit level 5 at the end of this session.
We left the party in the lava caverns outside Wendrake Shadowmend’s tower, which had shed its illusory façade and revealed itself to be an Instant Fortress, which Thorak pocketed. You may remember that in order to get to the tower in the first place, the party had been forced to traverse narrow platforms above a river of lava that formed the border between two warring tribes of troglodytes. I’d built a session-or-two’s worth of encounters in there that they managed to skip past with some incredibly lucky rolls. Now they had to make their way back through that cavern in order to return to the dwarves of Vomturum; that would have been an easy session for me to plan, given that I’d already planned it, but it wouldn’t have had the kind of ‘Season Finale’ feel that I wanted.
Instead, since we’d had a couple of weeks off in real-time and the players were struggling to remember exactly what had happened last time they played, I jumped the story forward by a couple of weeks. At the beginning of the session I gave the players a recap of what had transpired last time, and told them that they had once again evaded the notice of the troglodytes and had returned to Vomturum, where they had spent just shy of a fortnight (if this was the Forgotten Realms it would have been a tenday, but as I still haven’t really defined anything to do with the passage of time in my campaign world, we’re sticking with a fortnight) resting and recuperating.
Having slain Wendrake Shadowmend, the dwarves were happy to accommodate them. They did a little shopping, restocking their supplies and ammo, and then they started to make plans to leave on the final leg of their journey back to the surface.
After asking around in order to find somebody who could direct them to the surface, they were pointed in the direction of a dwarf named Harmut Emberbow. They were told that Harmut is a cleric who regularly travels between Vomturum and the templeof the Phoenix that straddles the mountain pass known as the Rise – somewhere Manbearpig has visited before, and is keen not to return to. He returned to Vomturum at around the same time as the party returned from battling Shadowmend, and – conveniently enough – was currently making his preparations to go back out.
The party sought out Harmut and found him easily. They soon discovered that although he was gruff and battle-hardened he was also fairly friendly, and he told them that he would welcome their company on the trek to the surface. His journey back a couple of weeks earlier had been more perilous than normal; new forces seemed to be operating in the tunnels in this part of the world, and his normally peaceful journey had been a little more dangerous the last time.
Their final preparations made, the party set off into the passages to the north of Vomturum with Harmut, setting the dwarven settlement – and hopefully the Underdark itself – at their backs.
They travelled with Harmut for about a week as he led them through tunnel after identical tunnel, never seeming to lose his way despite the passages never seeming to change. He told the party that he was leading them to an abandoned mine, dug by humans years ago and given up on when their search for new veins of ore brought them into dwarven territory. He warned the party that the exit from the mines is high up in the mountains, days from civilisation of any kind, but the party soon decided that that was probably for the best given that they had no idea what the repercussions of their prison break might have been. Of course, they didn’t mention this to Harmut.
After the inevitable travel montage, we got to the meat of the adventure. They set out again in the morning, travelling steadily north and upwards, but Harmut – normally fairly talkative – was unusually quiet and tense. When asked, he told them that he was concerned; something had changed since he last came this way, though he couldn’t say what it was. All he could say was that they should all be on alert for an ambush of some kind.
Soon they began to approach the point where Harmut said the lower entrance to the mines lay. As they travelled, they began to see signs of recent work on the stone – piles of dirt and rock scattered across the ground, and numerous short, narrow tunnels that had been carved into the walls, dead-ending after only a few feet.
At this point it was time for Perception checks all around, and they soon noticed that a number of fine trip-wires had been paid across the floor of the passage, linked not to traps but to small metal bells hidden in small hastily-carved hollows high up in the walls.
This is the kind of thing that most people would use passive Perception for – and, in fact, that’s exactly what that stat is meant to be used for. I’m not a fan of passive checks in general though – not when I’m writing an adventure tailored to my own group, at any rate. As the DM I of course know what the passive Perception scores of each of my players are. This means that, if I decide to use passive checks to spot something like this, I’m basically deciding whether or not to warn the party about the trap at the time that I write the adventure. If I set the DC lower than a player’s passive score, then they’re definitely going to find it; conversely, if I set it higher, the trap is a complete surprise.
I’m obviously not averse to either of those possibilities happening, because otherwise why include the trap? For players to enjoy the game, though, they need to know that they have agency, and that they can affect the world around them and react to things in a way that feels both realistic and fair. Nothing about being caught by a trap you had no way of spotting feels fair, which is what happens when a DC for a trap is set higher than everybody’s passive Perception and nobody gets the opportunity to roll for it, so I instead don’t use passive Perception checks (as a rule).
With the tripwires spotted, Wartsanall set about examining them. Unfortunately, in trying to disarm one of them, he rolled a natural 1. That isn’t an auto-fail on a skill check, but even with his modifier he didn’t manage to successfully disarm the trap. Instead, as he was testing the tension of the wire with a dagger – which his player told me he was doing, before he rolled – he accidentally cut the wire, causing the bell it was attached to to ring out. As the sound faded away everybody froze, but nothing appeared to happen. And so, successfully avoiding the rest of the tripwires, the party pressed on around the turn in the passageway.
As they rounded the corner in the passage, the entrance to the mines stood before you – except it was impassable. The wood frame of the entrance door was broken and splintered, blocked with large chunks of rock that seemed to be the result of the passageway caving in on itself. A Stonecunning check from Pstan revealed that the passage had been intentionally collapsed, probably quite recently.
To either side of the former entrance, narrow tunnels had been carved into the rock. They were tight and small, and the party would be forced to crouch to fit through, but they seemed to lead in the same direction as the collapsed tunnel.
“This wasn’t like this when I came through before,” Harmut said. “Nobody had been here for years. I don’t like it, but if you want to get to the surface this is the only way. I’ll go with you, but be aware that this isn’t how it should be. It might be dangerous. Something is here that wasn’t here before.”
The party picked a passage, and began to push through it. Most of the party found it tough going – the tunnel was only 3 or 4 feet high, and Manbearpig, Thorak, and Ha’an are all well over 6 feet tall (Ha’an is over 7 feet tall. He didn’t enjoy it at all). As they wound their way through the freshly-carved tunnel, the passage was tough going. Rock pressed on them from every side, cold and unmoving, and they were acutely aware of how trivially easy it would be for all that stone to crush them in an instant. And, over the sounds of their companions forcing their way through the stone, the party could make out dull noises travelling through the rock; the high-pitched chip and scrape of picks on stone, as someone – or something – somewhere was hard at work carving new tunnels.
As their progress continued the temperature began to drop, and the rock on either side of them started to be become slick to the touch. “This isn’t right,” Harmut said, his voice low. “This isn’t how it was at all.”
Eventually the tunnel came to its end, and Manbearpig – who had gone first – paused the party. From where he was standing he could see that the tunnel exited the rock next to what looked like the main tunnel, which had been collapsed here as well. The room – a square-ish chamber about 30 feet across – was filled with debris and abandoned tools. Other tunnels exited into this chamber; many had been collapsed, but some were still open. Still other small, narrow passages like the one they came in through had been carved into the stone. And with another Perception check nailed, Manbearpig soon saw that the ground was covered wall to wall in a web of more tripwires – this time attached to numerous crossbows mounted in the walls, covering most of the chamber in their sights.
Manbearpig passed this information on to the party, and there was a fairly lengthy discussion about what they should do. Eventually they decided to go back and see what lay down the other passage.
Of course, it led to the same place.
So, once again, the party clustered in the passage as Manbearpig looked out onto the chamber riddled with traps, while Harmut peered around him, pointing across the chamber to a tunnel on the other side where minecart rails on the ground led off into the darkness. “We need to go that way,” he said.
More discussion about what to do, and then Wartsanall came up with a great idea. Once again they all backed up out of the cramped passageway, and this time the Halfling led the way back to the traps. Then he cast mage hand – his manifests itself as a sticky, slimy, sickly, green-tinged thing, in case you were wondering – and, with the help of his mage hand legerdemain, he sheltered himself as best he could in the passageway and dragged the hand back across the room, triggering all of the tripwires in a rough approximation of a straight line between the passage and the exit they needed to take.
There was a brief riot of activity in the chamber as bolts flew across the room, ricocheting off walls and skating across the floor, triggering other traps and generally making a mess. At the same time, more bells began to jingle – and in response, louder bells could be heard ringing deeper in the mines. Clearly somebody was here and now knew that they were coming, but the party also weren’t pincushions, which is always their preferred mode of existence.
In planning this room I hadn’t drawn a map and laid out where, exactly, all of the crossbows where and which parts of the room were going to be targeted, mainly because I hadn’t counted on them all being triggered at once. I figured there would probably be at least one crossbow pointed at each tunnel exit, so I rolled a couple of attacks against Wartsanall with Disadvantage (he specified that he had backed off as far as he could while still being within range for mage hand, and that he was lying prone as he cast it), both of which missed.
Eventually the crossbows ceased firing and the bells fell quiet, and the party simply strolled across the room and down the tunnel with the rail tracks in the ground.
About 300 feet away from the entrance chamber the passage ended abruptly. The roof had once again been caved in, blocking the passage and crushing the tracks. Another tunnel, not as narrow or as low as the ones they has used to enter the mines but still a little too close for comfort, lead off to the side, twisting away around a sharp 90-degree corner to continue parallel with the collapsed tunnel.
By this point the group was obviously wary, and they spent some time examining this new corridor without actually stepping into it. Soon they noticed holes in the walls at roughly head- and ankle-height, only a few inches wide and each covered over with scraps of rough, burlap-like material that had been disguised with something like charcoal to appear more like the surrounding rock. Another successful Stonecunning check from Pstan revealed that these walls were only a few inches thick, and an incredibly high Perception check from Manbearpig – prompted by Nanook’s passive Perception (see? I do use it sometimes) beating some secretly rolled stealth checks – revealed that there was something moving behind both of the walls.
They retreated down the passageway a little ways, and began to plan. It was obvious to the party that going down that tunnel would probably result in them walking straight into an ambush – no doubt they would get stabbed repeatedly through those covered-over murder holes, and as they had just avoided a pincushioning, they were keen to keep things that way.
One idea I really liked – which I thought they would go with for a good while, to the extent that I had begun planning how I was going to deal with it while they planned – was for Wartsanall to remove the boat patch from his robe of useful items, and for them to place it upside-down on top of them and use it as a shield as their passed through the corridor. It was a good idea, and I was interested to see how they would deal with getting it around the corner, but alas it never came to pass.
It never happened because Pstan suddenly remembered that he was carrying an elemental gem that could summon a earth elemental to fight for them. This, it seemed, was a perfect opportunity to put it to use.
First, though, Ha’an wanted to contribute too. As Pstan took the gem out, the dragonborn unleashed a cone of fire down the corridor. It wasn’t hugely effective, but some of the cone of flame did lick through the holes in the walls, and the party heard pained shouts that sounded a little like barks from the opposite side. Then Pstan cracked open his elemental gem, and chaos happened.
The elemental, of course, was given the name Rocko. Why wouldn’t it be called Rocko?
Rocko crashed into the corridor. Spears and javelins began to stab into it from the holes in the walls, but the damage barely seemed to register. In response the elemental beat the false walls down, crushing whatever was behind them, and the party followed it around the corner.
A few more feet of tunnel – with more javelins, and more destruction from the elemental – and the party found themselves in a large chamber with ten-foot high walls running through it. Wartsanall pulled himself up onto Rocko’s shoulders, getting a look out over what was clearly a large maze. Here and there the walls – which were a few feet thick – met up with large mounds of stone and dirt, upon which stood a large number of small, scaly, reptilian creatures wielding javelins and shields and barking to one another in some strange language – kobolds. Ziplines traversed the air above the walls and platforms, and Wartsanall could see several more kobolds zipping along them from a raised platform at the head of wooden staircase on the northern wall of the cavern.
I’d intended this to be a tough encounter. The kobolds knew the maze well – they’d built it, after all – and were small and nimble enough to traverse the tops of the walls. In my head, the players would have to navigate the maze in single file down the narrow passages, while the kobolds harried them from above.
That, of course, wasn’t what happened, because I hadn’t planned on the party throwing an earth elemental into the mix. I knew they had it, of course, but it seemed like something they’d save for what was obviously a boss fight.
The elemental had no trouble climbing up onto the first platform, and it had even less trouble dispatching the kobolds it found there. The fight didn’t last long at all; the party climbed up after the elemental, which rampaged across the maze, collapsing walls and pummelling kobolds into mush. All the party had to do has sit tight and pick off any kobolds out of the elemental’s range with their bows.
Seeing that they were on the losing side, the kobolds began to flee up the stairs and away from the maze. The party gave chase, pursuing the kobolds with Rocko in tow.
They chased the kobolds through a number of chambers that showed evidence of forgotten mining work that had recently been resumed, and eventually they came to a wooden platform attached to chains that ascended a wide shaft up through the earth – a lift (or an elevator, if you prefer). The kobolds they had been chasing were already out of range, hoisted up the shaft while holding ropes that were being pulled by some unseen force above. The party also noticed that the temperature had dropped even further – everything now had a sheen of frost on it.
Having so far taken no damage, and with Rocko still to hand, the party decided not to waste any time. They piled onto the life platform and began to turn the crank that would move them upwards.
As they ascended, some of the kobolds began pelting them with javelins from above – but I was rolling terribly, and none of the attacks hit. More worrying was the deep, feral roar that echoed through the mines as the lift rose; something large was lurking above them.
Soon the lift reached the top, and the party emerged into a large, wide, cold chamber – and an onslaught of attacks from all sides as the kobolds and their shamon unleashed readied actions.
This fight was a little tougher than the last, but again Rocko made all the difference. The shaman gave a good fight, getting off a few spells that did a not-inconsiderable amount of damage, but the party were never in any real danger, and the kobolds fell quickly. That wasn’t much comfort, though; something big and angry-sounding had roared as they approached, something that they hadn’t seen yet – and, at the far end of this corridor, at the head of a short stone staircase leading to a large pair of double doors, the party could now see a strange statue gallery.
This immediately reminded them of the room in Wendrake’s tower where Pstan had been turned to stone by the basilisk just a few weeks ago, but they soon found that this was a different situation. These statues weren’t actually statues; they were humans, clerics from the temple of the rise who Harmut knew, and they seemed to have been frozen solid where they stood.
Cautious now where they hadn’t been before, the party examined the doors. They didn’t appear to be trapped, and in fact one was already open a crack – a small gap, but big enough to see into the room. The party saw a wide, smoothly-carved chamber, with a raised platform at the far end holding another lift that led up to the first open sky they had seen in weeks. Of more interest, though, was the large mound of gold and silver piled up against the back wall, just beyond the lift.
Sensing that things were a little too good to be true, they took a moment to listen at the door – and though they didn’t hear much, they could just make out very slow, deep, controlled breathing coming from somewhere within that chamber.
They debated sending Rocko in, but Ha’an had another idea. As quietly as he could – which isn’t that quiet, considering his spellcasting focus is a harp – the bard cast silent image, and sent a vision of Manbearpig striding into the chamber.
And, of course, my hidden boss monster failed its saving throw.
The party watched through the doorway as one of the biggest creatures they’ve faced so far in their adventuring careers leapt from its hiding spot above the doors and slashed its claws at the image. But, of course, the image was an illusion, and the young white dragon missed.
Seeing his chance, the real Manbearpig threw open the doors and charged in. Initiative was rolled, and… it didn’t go well for Manbearpig.
As its claws ripped through the illusion, the dragon turned to face the charging fighter – and unleashed its cold breath right in the face of the real Manbearpig, who failed his save and immediately dropped to 0 hit points, having neglected to heal up after the previous fight.
Then the battle was on in earnest, and this was a good one. The dragon leapt around the room, using its wings to get up out of melee range and forcing the party to chase it around the chamber or try to chip away at it with ranged attacks. Rocko helped initially, but the dragon – not highly intelligent, but very invested in its own survival – soon figured out that its best option was to take down the thing doing the most damage, and took the elemental out of action first.
While Harmut was healing Manbearpig and getting him back on his feet, the dragon was making mincemeat of the party. It got off another cone of frost breath, dropping Wartsanall and Nanook – though not before Wartsanall got off a few devastating sneak attacks, aided by Pstan and Thorak who were doing their best to maintain close ranks with the beast.
One more breath weapon saw Thorak reduced to 0, too, but his orc heritage kicked in and he managed to keep his feet for long enough to try and baseball slide the rough-looking dragon, trying to unzip it from throat to tail. Unfortunately he rolled a 1, and instead he ended up prone beneath the dragon – who looked to be gearing up for another, probably fatal, blast of ice.
Luckily Pstan got to go before the dragon and, having enjoyed Thorak’s idea if not the execution of said idea, he too slid under the dragon – and this time he hit home. With a horrible tearing sound he gutted the dwarf, ending up on his knees beside Thorak while dragon entrails slopped out on top of them.
The party were close to death, battered and bloody, but they had won the day – they had killed a dragon, and they had reached the surface.
And oh, yeah – treasure. A big mound of treasure, just sitting there, asking how the hell are you going to carry me?
For now, though, they needed to rest – and they needed to know that they were safe. So they gathered together on the platform, chugging a couple of healing potions just in case, and began to turn the winch. For the first time in weeks, fresh, cold air met their lungs and their faces, as they emerged into fading daylight. They were high up in the mountains, looking down on snow-covered peaks and valleys dotted with sparse clusters of trees. Further to the north and some ways below their current location, dense forest covered the mountains for miles. In the west the sun was setting, bathing the sky in pinks and oranges, and for now it appeared they were safe – and free.
And that was where we left it for the year, on an admittedly cheesy fade-to-black after an epic boss fight.
I’ve said all along that I wanted to give my players something approaching a classic D&D experience. That’s why they’ve fought gelatinous cubes, mimics, and spectators (because after dragons, what’s a more iconic trio of D&D monsters than cubes, mimics, and beholders?). It’s also why I’ve been a little generous with handing out magic items, and why I wanted to get them fighting a dragon at a fairly early stage in their career. Dragons are the iconic monster in D&D – they’re in the name of the game, after all – but in my experience they’re not something a lot of DMs use. I’ve played campaigns that went all the way to 20th level without ever seeing a dragon, and I’ll admit I’ve run games like that in the past too – games that deliberately eschewed what I saw as the clichés of the game. I have my theories about why that is – theories that I won’t go into here, since I’m already approaching 5000 words – but I knew going into this campaign that I wanted to embrace the clichés of the game, to give my players the things that made me fall in love with the game in the first place.
Fifth level is the point in the game when the players pass into the Heroic tier. It’s also the longest level in the game in terms of experience, and the level where they start to get access to some of their more interesting – and powerful – class abilities. In my mind, hitting level 5 should feel like crossing a threshold – and I feel like killing a dragon achieves that. And if the way my players reacted to this session is anything to go by, they felt that way too. After the game we sat and chatted for a while – usually they just go straight home, because it’s always quite late on in the night (like, 2am late) – and the conversation kept coming back to one thing.
We killed a dragon.
I’ve had a few questions on Twitter about the decisions I’ve made while running my game – questions about the number of magic items I hand out, and game balance, and that kind of stuff. In particular, people have asked about Manbearpig’s sunblade, about Nanook, and – as of last week – abotu the decision to give a 4th level party access to something like Daern’s Instant Fortress.
Since this week serves as something of a season finale, and since we had a fairly lengthy break after this session – it was about a month before the next game, if I remember right – I thought I’d also take a break from Friday Fight Night for week or two. Not that there won’t be a post – just that it won’t be about this party. Instead, this Friday – March 17th, to be exact – I’ll be addressing those questions about balance etc. that keep coming up. The week after that – the 24th – I’ll introduce you to my other party, a two-player game I run intermittently that I was going to call The B Team but will instead call The Friday Night Slaughter – and you’ll see why when we get to that.
I hope you enjoyed this. Thanks to everyone who’s been reading these posts – I know they can be long, and I know I haven’t been great about keeping to my schedule with them. I really appreciate seeing so many people coming back to the site every day, and it’s great to hear your feedback about these posts on Twitter.
Since this is so late, I’m posting it as soon as it’s written. There is a map coming, but I still need to draw it. That will be up in an hour or two, with the regular Monday Map following shortly after.