Wednesday, May 30, 2012

The Caves of Chaos: Session 2

Previous: Intro, The Kobold Caves

After the encounters in the kobold cave, we decided to take an RL break. We ordered a bucket of chicken and took out the booze; we are the best critics after we've had a few, after all, and it was somewhat late enough in the night to start. We discussed some of the things we liked and didn't like. Brother Jonathan's character in particular did not get excited with his Herbalism theme feature, especially when compared with Reaper or Defender. More on that later.

An hour later, the original player of Rakanishu decided that he had to go. He needed to leave early because he lived the farthest from us and needed to catch the train before the service closes. Luckily MyGfIsADm arrived from his work commitments, so we had a replacement player. The two rogue players quickly discussed the character's impromptu backstory, we were set to return to our adventure. It's back to the Caves of Chaos!

Close enough.

The Orc Cave

Brother Jonathan surmised that the welcoming nature of the kobolds will fade the moment they stepped out of the cave, and suggested to the party that they do not return unless the circumstances would specifically call for it. With that in mind, they left the next day with most of the chieftain's riches. Hooray for wisdom checks.

They decided to climb up the ravine to reach the orcish lairs. The stonecunning of the dwarves allowed them to pick the most stable parts of the ravine to climb, and they eventually used the growing trees  to ascend the slopes faster. 

Once clear of the dense cluster of trees, they spied upon two cave entrances - one to the west and one to the east. From afar, the east cave seemed to be decorated by some kind of dots, although both seemed to be inhabited according to the dwarves. It's that stonecunning again. They decided to go for the decorated one first. 

As they approached, the adventurers realized that the dotted cave entrance design were actually heads in various states of decay. Intrigued, Ralin decided to investigate one of the heads... by shooting it with a magic missile. Some DMs may disagree with me, but I was of the opinion that Magic Missile does not count as a wisdom check to spot the watcher. /snark

One icky explosion later, Ralin throws a rock with a light spell on it into the stone cave to light the way inside, ruining any other chance at stealth. I think we'll call this cave the Ralin's-bad-decisions cave. /snark again They rightly suspected that they were walking into an ambush, though. So when they sprung the trap, they weren't too surprised. 

There were nine orcs in total. Eight had melee weapons - either axes or spears. The last one, the watcher, held a bow and darted about, his face peculiarly painted to resemble a decaying head. (I knew we should have inspected the heads! Ralin said.) As they fought and were hurt by the vicious beasts, one thing was immediately certain: These creatures are not kobolds.

I was concerned about the damage the orcs inflicted on them after the first fight. Furious Charge hurt them a lot - although it also meant that the halfling rogue did not have to set up his advantage every other round with Stealth and/or go for flanking (which I agreed would grant advantage as well). But it should be noted that, had they spotted the watcher and took care of him before alerting the others, they would have fought them four at a time instead. Chalk it up to marching into caves like big damn 4E heroes, I guess?

It was a vicious fight, but they were able to defeat the savage creatures. A timely Ray of Frost cantrip by Ralin prevented the watcher from escaping, and they decided to hold the orc captive. Like with Dindin the kobold, they decided to try their hand at religious conversion. Oh, look, low charisma checks.

Unfortunately, the choice of using the sun god instead of Moradin was a poor one for a creature that disdained the light. The watcher spat on the symbol of Pelor and cursed their glowing sky orb. And certainly, Ralin's decision to mock the reason for orcish god's one-eyed nature thanks to the elf deity did not help. The watcher bared his tusks at the elf, and Ralin was only barely able to dodge even while the orc watcher was tied up.

Tor Ironloins scoffed at his wordy partymates, and told the orc that unlike his peers, his god was a simple one. He then raised his bone dice and told the orc that luck is the only thing worth listening to. As such, he was going to cut the orc's bonds, and if he can beat him on one-on-one combat, then he would be set free. But if the orc is defeated, then he was to share what he knew of the caves.

A few seconds and a severed orc arm after, the watcher fell down on his knees and thanked the dwarf for one last glorious fight. He described the relationship between the two orc tribes, and how the two chieftains are hate each other, and how the strife is a personal vendetta between the two. Yeah, I totally pulled that out of my a**. Not satisfied with the answer, they pressed him for more. Primarily, the adventurers wanted to know where the items worth any value were kept.

But the orc's bleeding was already causing it to faint, and it was clear that he had no intention of revealing such things anyway. Before he completely succumbed to the call of death, however, Gundarak thought fast and subjected the watcher in a Death Ward. Insulted at how his passage to the eternal battlefield of Chernoggar was blocked, he screamed at Tor to kill him. "Come on! Do it now! Kill me!" 

Holy symbol of Kord
Tor told him to just answer so that he can fight on forever. Defeated, the orc then talked about the magic shield held by his chieftain. It was taken from a paladin of Kord that foolishly challenged the chief in single combat. The shield is adorned with the holy symbol of the Brawler god up to now, and it has become the chief's most prized possession. Satisfied with that information, Tor swung his axe as a reward for the watcher.

The party then pressed on. As they began to bicker on which side of the cave to explore first, they were met by a raiding party of six more orcs. The battle was fierce and spilled into the orcish banquet hall, but as before, they soundly defeated the creatures.

Their wounds have begun to take their toll on them, however, and Brother Jonathan tried to scrounge out herbs so that he can create some healing potions. That they were desperate for healing after only two fights medium-difficulty fights is something that surprises me as a DM used to 4E. Eventually, the cleric found a few somewhat questionable mushrooms (they could be poisonous, which meant only the dwarves would be able to reliably use healing potions made from these). Instead of retreating to a safer place to rbew the potions, however, Jonathan decided to brew them here. I'm not sure if it's another 4E-ism or not, but the party had a tendency to stay in one place inside the lair of their enemy and think that all will be well. I think it's time to remedy that.

A quarter of an hour into brewing the potions, the ground began to slightly quake. The dwarves immediately realized that this was not a natural quake (damnit stonecunning!), but rather because of a large group of creatures running towards... them. Abandoning the brewing mushrooms, the group decided to hustle away. The tribe of orcs followed suit, and a rampaging horde was soon behind them, led by a large brute with a paladin's shield. Rakanishu was able to shoot with a sling, as he was being carried on Gundarak's backpack. But the chieftain only blocked it with his shield, and shouted for gold coins to whoever can bring him the halfling's head.

Is this from LotR? I'm not sure. @_@
Luckily, it was still daytime outside, and the sun momentarily blinded the orcs who were not as used to it as the adventurers. They considered moving back into the forest, but found a better way when (they finally made their Wis checks) found the hole where the watcher was hiding from amongs the decapitated heads. Taking advantage of the blindness, they decided to go back in the cave through that hole. 

Once inside, they tried to assess their situation. It was clear that they will be outmatched by about three score orcs, especially if nine or six of them were already difficult. So they decided to loot the place while most of the orcs try to flush them out.

In that light, Ralin thought of his next "brilliant" idea. Using mud on the floor, he convinced Rakanishu to add it on as a disguise and pretend to be a decapitated head. After a well-placed reluctance on the part of the halfling, they went on with the plan. 

Okay, to put my next move as a DM into perspective, relying on mud alone, along with a low Int check for crafting an impromptu disguise, meant that I should enact it in way that would be really detrimental to the party. That the rogue's charisma check to play dead was also low reinforced this idea. It wasn't because I was picking on Ralin's decisions or anything. In fact, I feel like that was his best idea yet.

With the paint job done, Rakanishu peeked out of the hole and played dead, just as the chieftain himself, with his two mates, passed by. The chieftain was shouting at the tribe to run into the forest when he suddenly smiled. 

Before the halfling could react, the chieftain delivered a coup-de-grace at the exposed head. Boom! Down to 0hp.

The orc chieftain then began to batter down on the secret entrance, while his mates took the longer route to eventually flank with the party. Gundarak barred the hole as best as she could with her shield, while Tor Ironloins quickly made a noose from his adventuring rope to yank the chieftain in. Meanwhile, Ralin finally had a good idea by casting his Light cantrip on the shield of Gundarak, so that once the orc does go in, he'll be blinded by the light. Finally, Jonathan called upon the power of Pelor to cure Rakanishu, and together they met the orc mates head on.

And the fight commenced! Tor yanked the chief from the hole with his noose, pulling him down and restraining him while Gundarak and Ralin battered on him with steel and spell. Rakanishu leapt onto the back of one mate, where the other's jealousy made her think that striking down both halfling and rival was the best idea. Jonathan called upon the light of his god to smite the infidels. 

And just as the other orcs rushed to them, Ralin's magic missile killed the chieftain. The tribe then went into chaos, and the party used the opportunity to run back to the town of Brindinford (the module had no town, so I snagged the one in The Speaker in Dreams) to lick their wounds.

DM Notes:

  • What happened to the wizard's prestidigitation?
  • I previously mentioned the effects of removing Attacks of Opportunity, and here I will expound on it. I made the orc cave more spacious than the kobold caves to emphasize the difference between the creatures' psyches, and I noted how the orcs were able to move about freely, making their furious charge more powerful. Without it, the party would probably not be hurting as much. On the other hand, the advantage granted by the racial power meant that the halfling rogue did not have to wait every other round for sneak attack.
  • Speaking of furious charge, I would like to take this opportunity to say that the monster statblocks are atrocious. If there's one thing I hope they take from 4E, it's the statblock design. I miss having defenses clumped together, followed by traits, and then actions. And no, you can't remove the ability scores from the shorthand versions, because ability scores are defenses in this edition! I won't go deeper into this point, though, since I feel like the playtest isn't too monster-centric yet.
  • ADD: On the subject of monsters, none of them had skills. I feel like they should have one or two. But maybe that's just because the fighter always out-wrestled the orc chieftain in our Str contests.
  • I noticed that the players defaulted to their ranged attacks whenever they could, with the exception of the two dwarves. They can move about without the threat of being clubbed by an AoO, so even if they are engaged in melee, moving away to attack with a ranged weapon in a relatively open area is generally the better choice.
  • Contrasted with the kobold tunnels, though, the tighter space encouraged the use of melee weapons more. Without stalagmites to hide in, the halfling went to the dagger melee to use my "flanking-grants-advantage" houserule. Besides, in cramped areas, shooting radiant lance is not advisable when you'll be at a disadvantage. But in open spaces, you can just move away. I like how terrain can be dynamic without the introduction of fantastic terrain. For the record though, I am not adverse to the existence of Fonts of Power or Grab Grass per se, I just like having the option of playing on perfectly normal cave floors.
  • This is definitely not 4E. If the players clear out a room, they can't expect to stay there for an hour and not encounter a counter-attack from its denizens; the orcs formulated a plan and decided to take the fight to them. Admittedly, this can also be theoretically done in 4E, but certain factors prevent it from becoming a key part of a dungeon crawl. 1) As a 4E DM, I subconsciously do not want to take orcs from area B, move them to area A, and have them attack the party, because that breaks the encounter makeup of Area B. 2) Every extra combat is another 1-3 hours of fighting that will distract from the flow of the main plot, just because "this is what orcs would do."
  • In relation to the above point, the combat feels part of the narrative. A running joke on 4E is how you're in RPG exploration mode most of the time - say, Ash Ketchum walking in tall grass. But when combat starts, the map-style screen dissolves from their imagination, combat music starts, and you are led to a more combat-optimized screen (aka the grid). Of course, rolling initiative will always be rolling initiative. That alone accounts for some distinction. But Next manages to shift from exploration mode to combat mode and back again more seamlessly.
  • Ray of Frost feels ridiculously strong at first glance, but is really only a basic wizard controller spell. It needs to hit, lasts for just one round, and forfeits the wizard's ability to contribute directly to the combat's task of chomping away monster hp. In return, the orc does not get the usual freedom of movement that he enjoys in a game with no AoO's. Now, it's not perfect. I want this spell to explicitly say that creatures large/strong enough can power out of it as part of his action, and I also want to see this affecting cold elementals less. It's funny if this is successfully used to immobilize a frost giant. 
  • The existence of the +1 shield bugs me a bit. If I assume that magic goes up to +3, a +3 armor and a +3 shield combined is a retroactive +6, or 16 before the actual armor modifications to AC. If the number curve is indeed flat, then this is a problem. If there are minuscule attack/AC bumps here and there, maybe not as much. But definitely, this becomes even more problematic the higher the plus cap is - imagine a tank with a +5 armor and +5 shield, with math bumps. Given that there is a +2 item in a module that goes to level 3, the ceiling of this plusses is a concern if there are multiple ways to stack it.
  • On that note, the flattened math itself is a step in the right direction for me. I'll talk about it more as additional levels are attained by the party, but for now, suffice it to say that 4E's illusory improvements by raising numbers bug me. Yeah, your attack rolls increase, and you gain more plusses on your magic weapon/implement. But the monster defenses also increase on par (or at a faster rate, if you don't get expertise feats) with it, so the improvement really isn't felt as much. 
  • But with attack and damage expectations more or less flattened, how will top-tier entities like Orcus and Tiamat look like? As a fan of epic content, that question lingers in my mind, and I am hoping that we get to playtest ALL levels of play.
  • ADD2:  Both the starting hit points as well as the hit point advancement per level are fine by me. If I want it changed, I would err on making starting HP higher, but not as high as it was in 4E. Coming from a 4E perspective, the number of hit dice surprised players who were used to five or more surges. It does seem to imply that potions are important in low levels, with or without a cleric.
  • With that being said, I dislike healing everything on a long rest. Yes, healing is an abstraction, but I feel like injury should be more prominent, though not to the point of crippling the party for a week or two. This is just a personal thing, though.