Monday, May 28, 2012

The Caves of Chaos: Session 1

Since all the cool kids are doing it - here's the vampire kitten's first report on the D&D Next playtest.

(I'm adding the SPOILER ALERT tag here for anyone who might be playing the adventure soon.)

Let's start with the background: 

As a DM and 3rd party publisher, I am getting into Next with a generous dose of optimism. I started playing with 3.5 and am currently a DM of two active 4E games. I like both editions, although I have complaints with both. I am hopeful that 5E gives me a game that I will enjoy as much as its predecessors without the occasional burnout that I have felt with both.

My players are a diverse bunch, and the only real common denominator among them is that they have all played 4e:

  • Brother Jonathan, the human cleric of Pelor, was controlled by a player who has not played 4E in two years. He has not been away from RPGs, though, as he has been playing L5R 4E since that was released.
  • Ralin, the elf wizard, was controlled by phelanw0lf. He is a consistent player in most of my 4E games, and he was also my DM when I was first introduced to D&D just as 3.5 came out. His D&D geek cred extends as far back as 2E iirc. (Please correct me if I'm wrong, Mr. w0lf.)
  • Tor Ironloins, the dwarf fighter, was the hottest character. (At least three players wanted him as a first pick.) He eventually went to one of the players in my Dark Sun 4E game. In Athas, he is a level 21 dwarf battlemind/talaric ironjack/topaz crusader. Tor Ironloins should be right up his alley. Also, he's happy to have a beard again.
  • Rakanishu, the halfling rogue, was controlled by two players. For the first four hours, he was controlled by a friend who I can best describe as a 3.5 charOp'er. He has only recently played 4E full time, where he had a minotaur cavalier paladin at heroic tier. For the second half of the session (which will be described in the next post), he was controlled by MyGirlfriendIsADm. Under his control, Rakanishu went from quiet psychopath to a passive-aggresive psycopath cook. Schizophrenia will be a common factor in our playtest as people might shuffle character control over the sessions.
  • Last but not the least, Gundarak Lighthammer, the dwarf cleric of Moradin, was controlled by GFDM of MyGirlfriendIsADm. She incidentally plays a dwarf cleric of the Silver Flame in MyGFisADm's 4E Eberron game, so this is a good way to compare things. She would have killed for the fighter, though. Both GFDM and MyGFisADm come from 4E-heavy influences, with only passing experiences with 3.5.
Combat was done with a grid, but more as an abstract positional thing and less as the end-be-all method for determining distances and stuff.

And so, with the opportunistic band of adventurers complete, they began to journey into the Caves of Chaos. DM commentary will be included in italics, and there will also be some DM rules notes after each cave.

Default WotC Caves of Chaos art.
Illustrated by Michael Komarck

The Kobold Cave

As the adventurers began their journey into the ravine, they noted the numerous caves that litter the landscape. I have guessed - correctly - that my players will decide to ignore the first visible cave to the south. They tend to be nonlinear that way. What surprised me was that this was decided by having Tor Ironloins roll his bone die. Someone was reading his sheet's inventory entry.

Since the die roll's decision was to continue westwards anyway, I decided that the die tumbled down further west into the ravine. Frustrated, Tor chased after his one unique possession, followed closely behind by Brother Jonathan. (He apparently liked to gamble as a way of collecting religious tithes.) Since the rest of the group had not decided whether to go into the first cave then, they decided to follow suit. 

They then chanced upon a second cave to the north. When Tor decided to let his bone die do the thinking again, it fell some feet away and lodged itself on a tree root. He would since declare how he's throwing his dice. Grumpily, the dwarf, with Brother Jonathan, tried to wrench the die off the root. That triggered an arrow trap. 

Luckily, Jonathan found the string mechanism and avoided the trap beforehand. Tor, on the other hand, was saved mostly by his own height. They both made their Dex saves for the impromptu trap. Rakanishu deduced that the trap was made with a creature taller than a halfling in mind. It would have hit the human, but as it was somewhat angled high even for him, they figured that it must have been meant for something larger coming from the south. It also seemed like it was created by someone who was trying to prevent such a creature from going north. Which, in the adventurers' minds, meant that the ones dwelling in the northern caves have something valuable to protect.

As they neared the mouth of the cave, the adventurers decided to search the entrance for traps. There wasn't one in the immediate vicinity, but as everyone's attention was focused on what's in front of them, they did not notice the kobolds that were sneaking up behind them. Surprise! They rolled their initiative with a -20 modifier. It felt a little too high of a penalty - I would have preferred a -10, or better yet, a +10 for the ambushers. That way, a high dex mod plus a high roll would still put a surprised but alert character in a good spot.

The kobolds scurried about and threw their daggers, but the damage to the armored adventurers were mostly superficial. And as they retaliated, the kobolds began to drop like, well, kobolds. Scared out of their wits, the surviving kobolds tried to hustle into the cave. There was an interesting discussion on the term "hustle." GFDM hated it, but I liked the term myself. All but two of them were killed, with the last two kobolds being attacked for nonlethal damage.

They then attempted to interrogate the surviving kobolds to figure out what the tribe is protecting with their traps. When Tor's interrogation techniques accidentally killed one of the kobolds, however, they decided to go for a more evangelist approach. The surviving kobold soon disavowed her god Kurtulmak in favor of Pelor, in addition to being named Dindin by the adventurers. She also told them about the pit trap some feet into the cave, as well as inform them that most of the shiny things were usually claimed by the chieftain.

Armed with the knowledge of the pit trap, they were able to take on the kobold entrance guards with little problems, although this time two kobolds did manage to escape. Rats from the trash heaps of the kobold also managed to be somewhat bothersome, but a few axe strikes and a burning hands spell by Ralin made quick work of them. 

Under the guidance of Dindin the kobold, they were able to maneuver straight into the chieftain's room. However, the previous two kobolds who escaped were able to warn their leader ahead of time, and quickly coordinate an ambush.

Art by Stephen Belledin
The kobold chieftain towered over his peers, being 4 feet tall. He was also accompanied by three elite kobolds, who were armed with green shields taken from scales shed by a dragon that has since outgrown the worship of vermin. Despite being better than the typical kobold, the adventurers still made short work of two of the dragonshields.

And then the chieftain's plan was set into action. Wave after wave of the kobold warrens began to flood into the narrow passage from the back, forcing Brother Jonathan and Ralin into melee while Tor and Gundarak tangled with the tall kobold, and Rakanishu darted in and out of the two lines of battle with his trusty sling.

(Every round, 1d4 kobolds were taken from the 40 kobolds in the warrens as they entered combat.)

As the warrens continue to swarm over the severely outnumbered party, the tide of battle began to shift in their favor when Ralin froze the remaining dragonshield in place close to Tor. The dwarf fighter then took the  frozen kobold and used it to thwack the chieftain, disorienting it and killing the injured dragonshield. 

Mechanically, Tor rolled a strength contest against the dragonshield, with the latter getting disadvantage from being frozen in place. I ruled that as an incidental action, because drawing your weapon counts as incidental. It then dealt 1d10 + 4 damage to both the dragonshield and the chieftain: 1d10 improvised two-handed weapon, +2 weapon focus, +2 extra mysterious fighter bonus which seemed to apply to his damage rolls.

Still, the fight seemed to go against the adventurers. Dindin betrayed the party and bit Gundarak's neck. Even with the extra fighting power provided by Brother Jonathan's Spiritual Hammer, kobolds simply arrived faster than they could kill them. Noticing this, Tor made a mad lunge for the chieftain, grappling him and taking him hostage. Fearful for his own life, the chieftain then commanded the other kobolds to stop fighting.

With the kobolds surrendering, the party decided to use the chieftain's own room to recuperate their wounds. To ensure that the kobolds do not betray them while they rested, Gundarak began to preach about Moradin, god of the smiths. Noticing their veneration for a carving of a green dragon on the wall, she depicted Moradin as a majestic silver dragon that crafted traps and weapons for his worshippers. Soon, they discarded their dimly remembered green dragon "god," as well as what little remained of their Kurtulmak cult. This may or may not be a bad thing in the long run.

Seizing the opportunity, Ralin also took the time to glean any information that the kobolds knew about the other inhabitants of the caves. They talked about the two tribes of scary orcs living above them, the scary ogre that they try to keep from going north, and some goblins. But what scared them most were the cultists, who all looked like brother Jonathan, to the west. These humans were primarily the reason as to why they are the only remaining kobold tribe in the area - the cult wiped out the others to claim their caves as their own.

DM Notes:
  • Stonecunning is strong, and will continue to be strong throughout this module. They can tell how deep the depth at each intersection of the cave, which helps a lot in determining which sections to check first even without the captive kobold's help. My suggestion is to just give them advantage when making stonework-related checks. Still, I suspect that it won't be as useful when placed in scenarios that aren't so surrounded by stone.
  • Speaking of dwarves, are they really completely immune to poison? I don't think that's a good idea, because I see this inevitably leading into something similar to the Book of Exalted Deed's ravages, otherwise known as, "I can't believe it's not poison!"
  • Both the fighter's reaper class feature and the wizard's magic missile auto-gimped normal kobolds. I've heard some online grumblings about at-will auto-damage, but personally I loved seeing it. Yes, the fighter and wizard can kill two regular kobolds automatically per round. That's comedic and fun when there are eight kobolds, but only marginally useful when dealing with forty. Also, when dealing with dragonshields and the chieftain, "hit versus miss" was an "awesome versus at-least-that's-2hp-less-to-grind" kind of deal. In either case, it sped up the combat somewhat. And isn't "combat is too slow" part of the complaints against 4E?
  • Without AoO's, combat was considerably sped up. There was, however, the problem of protecting the squishy party members as reported by other playtesters. But in the interest of keeping the kobold feel, I made their tunnels small and somewhat claustrophobic. One of the interesting side effects is that the players looked for other ways to control the battlefield, most notably by blocking off the path to the ranged PCs through the "can't move past non-friendlies" rule. They then maintained the choke by moving out to attack moving back in during their turns with the effective spring attack wording in the combat rules.
  • I already mentioned this earlier, but despite being the most simple class, the dwarf fighter was also the most sought-after. I'm not really sure why that was so; perhaps 2d6 + 7 damage was simply too attractive to those who liked playing strikers? 
  • On that note, having simplified rules encouraged the fighter player to think outside simple attack rolls. He used the bone dice in his sheet, he tried to sweep hordes of mice down the pit (that didn't turn out as well as he wanted), and he successfully used a kobold as an improvised weapon. 
  • Backgrounds are awesome. It needs to be noted that these characters are pregens, and yet the players are able to use them as if they made the characters themselves. Gundarak managed to show his curled lip through the beard as he tsk-tsk'ed at his party's poor manners. The halfling's knowledge as a cook would surprisingly come up as brother Jonathan looked for his herbalism. Ralin roleplayed the know-it-all wizard to a tee, though that's less of the background and more of the actual wizard's default roleplay. With the class, you knew what you did in the game world. With the background, you became part of it.
  • ADD: My reading on the Spiritual Hammer was interesting. At first, the cleric of Pelor wondered why he would ever choose to cast Spiritual Hammer over Searing Light as the former will always be weaker in damage compared to the latter, or even his radiant lance. But as it turned out, he can continue to make attacks with the hammer after the round of casting as part of his action. I took that to mean that he can attack with the hammer and then go on with his turn. On the one hand, that makes it stronger than Searing Light in longer fights. But then, that also means that whenever he casts this spell, he can have one attack action more than a fighter for 10 rounds. I don't like someone out-attacking the fighter.