Friday, June 29, 2012

The Caves of Chaos: Session 4 (6/24/2012)

Yep, I like M:tG.
Hi everybody! Today we're doing something a bit different with the session summary, with the narrative being taken up by one of the playtest players, and Beej writing his DM commentary at the tail end.

First, some introductions. I'm Phil, longtime gamer and copy editor for Beej's Buan PDFs. In previous playtest sessions, I handled the elf mage Ralin and the Pelorian cleric Brother Jonathan. Last session, I controlled Rakinishu, the halfling rogue.


Cast of Characters
-Tor Ironloins: Dwarven Fighter
-Gundarak Steelhammer: Dwarven Cleric of Moradin
-Ralin: Elf Wizard
-Brother Jonathan: Human Cleric of Pelor
-Rakinishu: Halfling rogue

The Orc Caves: Bringing Down The House

Having dispatched the orcs in the nursery section of the caves, the party regrouped and decided to continue exploring the cave section in a fairly methodical fashion, tackling side branches first before plunging into the deepest parts of the lair.

Taking the eastern branch of the tunnels, the adventurers advanced cautiously, stopping just short of what appeared to be the orcish mess hall and living quarters. Fortunately, the adventurers caution combined with the boisterous clangor of the mess hall, allowed us to avoid alerting the score of orcs to our presence. While the party slunk backwards and mulled over our options, the orcs decided to send out a quick patrol, with half a dozen orcs making their way out of the mess hall. Sensing a chance to thin out the orcish numbers, we decided to jump the patrol once they had made their way out into the corridors. As in previous ambushes, our attacks were efficient and deadly, dispatching the orcs quickly before they could raise the alarm.

Still, our quick glimpse into the mess hall noted that we had barely dented the orcish numbers. We needed to even the odds with unorthodox methods. Our party dwarves decided to use their Stonecunning racial trait (combined with a little brute force and arcane telekinesis from the elf mage) to try to cause a cave-in to trap the orcs inside the mess hall. The DM asked for a few Int and Wis rolls from the dwarves and the mage, and then told us that it was possible, if risky. We decided to give it a try. With a flurry of blows, the dwarves hammered away at the walls and support pillars of the cave. We were rewarded with a thunderous crack...that didn't quite go all the way to the ceiling. The din alerted the orcs in the hall, and they raced out to engage us. We had almost succeeded, but we had to keep the orcs away. What followed was a harrowing two rounds as we stood our ground against the orcish vanguard while the dwarves completed their demolition work. Thankfully, halfling marksmanship and a few well-cast frost spells hampered the orcish attack long enough for us to collapse the corridor. Fortunately, the dwarves had managed to roll well enough to avoid bringing the corridor down on us, or worse, trapping us in with the orcs. Still, the collapse wasn't that big, and we estimated that the orcs could eventually dig their way out of the mess hall in a few hours. That would still give us more than enough time to loot the rest of the caves and take their stuff.

Player Note: A very satisfying string of encounters. Having discarded the "big damn heroes" approach for a grittier tomb raiding philosophy, we're doing reasonably well with our ambushes and crazy ideas. Different style and pacing, and I'm interested if this feel can carry over to higher levels.

The Warboss

Continuing our exploration of the orc cave, we entered the northern passage, heading past stacked crates of orcish food supplies and weapons, eventually reaching a doorway. Figuring that the cave-in had probably alerted any further orcs to our presence, we readied our weapons and kicked down the door. On the other side of the portal, weapons bared, lay the orc chieftain and his picked warriors. Each party had hunkered down into set-piece battle formations on either side of the ruined doorway, and a violent scrum erupted as the orc berserkers charged into the parties front line, where the fighter and both clerics held the line. While the berserkers let loose with a flurry of sweeping blows, the orc warboss howled, and then threw an axe at the dwarf warrior, Tor Ironloins. Tor trusted in his armor, and the warding provided by the cleric Gundarak's
defensive maneuvers, nevertheless, the handaxe smashed through his defenses, before leaping back to the chieftain's hands.

At the sight of the blatant display of magical wealth, Rakinishu's eyes glittered. Leaping out of the shadows, he shot a sling bullet into the cranium of the orc holding the frontline of the berserkers, downing him in a single hit. The party poured into the gap, cutting down the berserkers before surrounding the chieftain. The orc didn't go down without a tough fight, as our blows only seemed to enrage him even further. It was a bloody slog, but eventually, in true adventurer fashion, we killed him and took his stuff.

Player Note: This set piece battle felt the most "4e" of our combat encounters thus far, with tight, well defined terrain and an elite monster leading a squad of mooks. A good bossfight.

After divvying up the loot, we decided that the party needed to recuperate. We did not want to be ambushed in the dark, so we needed to deal with the orcs digging their way out of the mess hall. Remembering the stacks of orc supplies in the north hallway, I suggested that we stack them up by the cave in and set them on fire, hopefully choking the orcs to death, and at the very least, ruining their food supplies. After putting this plan into effect, we retreated to the other orc cave we had cleared in session 2 and settled down for the night.

Player Note: At this point, we took an RL break to do loot bookkeeping and leveling up our characters. For some players, this was a significant bump in power level (2d6 sneak attack! Huah!). For others, it was a bit more meh. But everyone appreciated the extra Hit Dice available, as far as I can tell.

Open Ground: A Size 20 Boot?

As the next day dawned, we slunk out of our shelter to inspect the cave-in. The charred remains of the supply crates sat in front of the rubble, and we could only hear silence within. Mission accomplished! While the completionist within me would have preferred eventually clearing out the rubble to find out if the orcs had anything valuable on them, such actions would be impractical. More profit would be had by raiding other caves in the ravine.

We descended to the bottom, making our way through open ground, before stumbling into a pit trap dug by our erstwhile kobold converts. Still, the notable thing about the pit trap? It was deep. Twenty feet deep. What the heck was big enough that the kobolds would take such over the top precaustions? The feeling of dread increased as we pressed further south to explore a cave mouth we had spotted near a clump of trees. As we pressed deeper, we found a disturbing series of tracks: The first, which appeared to have been made by a wild animal travelling west (deeper into the ravine), seemed quite similar to bear tracks...if bears ever walked on two feet. We passed around stories of horrid monstrosities called "owlbears" amongst ourselves, but without further proof, we could only speculate. The second series of tracks were made by a giant humanoid with size 20 boots. Was this the ogre that the kobolds had mentioned when they were undergoing conversion at sword point? The tracks led right into the cave, and so we crept cautiously into the dark.

Vermin

With a little snooping, we managed to explore the two chambers of this cave, managing to abscond with a rather heavy sack of coins, as well as a barrel of brandy. I suppose it shouldn't be surprising that the first thing the dwarves secured was the alcohol, and then the money...

Pressing deeper into the cavern, we discovered a secret passage occupied by a squad of goblins. A pitched battle ensued with both parties fairly surprised. One of the gobbos managed to raise the alarm with a cry of "Bree-yark!", that resulted in an ogre arriving to attack the party's rearguard.
The "mini" I used for the ogre
Fortunately, the elven wizard was quick on his feet and managed to immobilize the ogre with a timely ray of frost, allowing us to wipe out the rest of the goblins before they could scurry off and call for reinforcements. With the vermin dealt with, we turned our attention to the ogre. Though mighty, its flailing attacks couldn't punch through the shield line set up by the dwarves. Though the monster begged for mercy, the party's blood was up, and we dispatched the beast.

With the cave mouth secure, we advanced deeper into the goblin warrens, turning southeast, clearing out another guard room before eventually arriving in what seemed to be the goblin tribe's warehouse and butchering its guards.

Aggressive Negotiations

As we were busy looting the goblin stores, we heard movement behind a concealed doorway. The entire party dived for cover, save for the dwarf warrior, Tor Ironloins, who was caught flatfooted as a party of hobgoblins entered the warehouse. Though caught by surprise, he managed to give the hobgoblins pause by pretending to have slaughtered the goblins singlehandedly. Taken aback, the hobgoblins at first attempted to negotiate with the fighter, attempting to enlist his aid against the cultists deeper in the Caves of Chaos. The mention of the cultists piqued the party's interest, but unfortunately, without the assistance of the rest of the party, Tor couldn't quite grasp any good negotiating angles on the hobgoblins. With the talks going nowhere, we decided to break the deadlock with lethal force. Popping out of our hiding places, we ambushed the buggers (sensing a pattern in party tactics yet?). The hobgoblins seemed to be carrying above average gear, and the party divvied up the loot and considered their options. Root out the remaining goblins, figure out the location of the hobgobs, track down the owlbear, or press deeper into the ravine in pursuit of the elusive cultists?

With the sunlight failing IRL, we decided to call it a day.

Player Notes:
-Having discarded the 'big damn heroes' mindset for a grittier 'tomb robber' mentality with a little bit of black-ops grit has been working really well for us. At the same time, there's more than enough room to try unusual and heroic stunts, such as collapsing a cave. The advantage and disadvantage rules in particular reward creative preparation, if the GM is open to these kinds of things.

-Encounters in general are going much faster. I really like the current pacing, but I wonder if this will remain the same as we go up in levels?

-The party is beginning to form smart habits with marching order, pre- and post-combat SOPs, and ambush tactics. The simulationist within me, long neglected and barely sustained by scraps of wargaming, feels somewhat vindicated. The ass-kicker within misses 'big damn heroes', but is easily placated by our ridiculously killy ambushes. 4E ambushes we've executed tend to provide one round of various tactical advantages. D&D Next ambushes that we've been executing as a party can be over in one round. Maximum shock and terror in a minimum amount of time, to a select number of targets.

-The extra hit dice feels like a big increase in survivability. We still need to be careful, as there's less tactical healing available compared to 4E, but the extra HD helps. I just wish it was less random. I liked the dependability of 4E's healing surges, though there's a case to be made that surges were too easily available then.

DM Notes:
  • Herbalism stacks up as more sessions are added. At first, some of my players seemed to dislike the Herbalism feat; the benefit was too slow, and a potion healed an erratic 1d8 hit points. But as more and more long rests are piled up, the potions are being brewed faster than they are consumed. Surprisingly, this does not tie into spell slots as it did in earlier, non-4E editions. Rather, the party tended to rest when they ran out of hit dice, regardless of the potion consumption or number of spell slots remaining.
  • Speaking of hit dice, the second one that is gained at level 2 significantly added to the party's survivability. Despite Phil's lamentations about the randomness of the HD, adding the con mod to each hit die spent, for me, normalizes the die rolls to regain hp.
  • I was a little surprised when the party decided to backtrack to the goblin caves after skipping it in the first few caves. I would have preferred it if they simply graduated to the harder creatures. But here, I got to test the "low level monsters remain relevant at higher levels" concept. And it shows; the goblins can hit the PCs, but as far as I can tell they are pushovers now. Among other things, the Pelorian cleric's Channel Radiance ability clears them out pretty well, even if they are hidden. Close burst attacks have always been fun despite the friendly fire, even in 4E.
Pelor, take the wheel!
  • Now with that being said, I continue to dislike this iteration's current monster design. The goblins are the main perpetrator this time: I like their hp, and I like the concept. But hiding costs an action which makes it inefficient, and since they do not have the Ambusher feat like the halfling rogue, their Dirty Tricks attack should only work on thrown/ranged weapons (spears, in this case). I feel like they should work similar to how the rogue uses Sneak Attack. But we'll see - maybe the king will make things more interesting. /minor spoiler
  • Now onto the rogue. I like how Sneak Attack feels like a martial maneuver from the Book of Nine Swords. The rogue is typically hidden in the first round because of Skill Mastery, so he gets to use sneak attack as an "encounter power." Then, like a swordmage, he can then spend an action to regain Stealth, or "recharge" his encounter power. He can then use the power again. But on the other side of the coin, some people dislike it. Alphastream presents a very compelling rationale for it in his WotC blog post entitled, "The Lurker Fallacy;" I do not agree with it, but it's nice to hear both sides.
  • Onto the wizard. Ray of Frost doesn't always hit. But when it does, even creatures as big as the ogre are screwed. I let it pass for now, but I think I have a surprise up my sleeve in one of the other caves....
  • The wizard player for this session said that he was underwhelmed by the new options at level 2. Others get extra turns, or stronger Sneak attacks/Smites, or Messianic transformations. As for him, he gets 2hp, an extra slot, and new spells. Personally, I think that's already a lot, but hey, that's how he felt.