Monday, December 21, 2015

Princes of the Apocalypse Session 11

In addition to my online group, I'm also a player in a biweekly D&D 5th edition game. I haven't been writing Actual Plays for it so far, for a variety of reasons, but I've decided to start doing so anyway. I'm not very fond of the game mechanics and I don't think there's much in Princes of the Apocalypse worth remembering past the end of the session but the actual sessions are usually fun. It's also possible that reviewing the sessions will give me some unexpected insight. It's something to hope for, anyway.

There are unmarked spoilers for Princes of the Apocalypse below, so if you're playing that adventure and are below 10th level or so, you probably shouldn't read this.

Who We Play

My group rather deliberately power-gamed character creation, and ended up with a party of half-elf bard, half-elf tempest cleric, elf rogue, and elf wizard. That meant we could be somewhat sneaky and operate in low light situations, that we had a fair bit of healing, and a lot of area effect spells to damage groups of foes We're arguably a little weak in straight melee combat, but a tempest cleric can pinch hit as a fighter if need be.

At 7th level, here's what we look like in terms of feats, optional abilities, and magic abilities:

  • Rachel's character is Aeminriel aka Amy. She's a Knowledge Bard that in play is a generalist jack-of-all trades bard, with decent social skills and the Lightning Bolt spell as one of her 6th level picks. In combat, she's probably the weakest, but she's solid and her ability to reduce enemy attack rolls is pretty useful. She used to have a demon slaying crossbow, but it had some nasty side effects and she got rid of it.
  • Caius Flavius is my half-elven tempest cleric. He normally wears full plate and shield and carries a Frost Brand shortsword. His shield gives him advantage on Initiative and Perception tests. In combat, he starts by staying well behind everyone else (his Stealth is terrible, though the rest of the party is pretty sneaky) and then runs to the front lines to hit people with a sword or smite with Radiant Bolts. In important fights, he can cast Maximum damage Shatter spells or Spiritual Guardians/Spiritual Weapon, or healing spells if things are really desperate.
  • Derick's character is Galen, an elf Assassin Rogue. He has Slippers of Spider Climbing and a Poison Bow. He sneaks ahead of the rest of us, scouts out the opponents, and uses his assassin ability to murder someone at the start of the fight, and then hides and snipes for the rest of the fight. Preferably doing all of this while standing upside down on the ceiling.
  • Ted's character Verus is an Invoker Wizard with the spell sniper and I Like Fire feats, so he ignores resistance to fire spells and has double range for spells and can avoid targeting allies with area attack spells. He casts cantrips (Fire Bolt, Ray of Frost) in most spells and then blasts people with Fireball, Shatter, or whatever else in major fights.
+Will Scott is our masterful GM. He's apparently been adding stuff to the published adventure to fill in holes. He's also really good at improvising. He's turned a middling-decent adventure in a so-so gaming system into a really fun game.

What We're Playing

We're currently playing Princes of the Apocalypse, which (I gather) is a re-imaging of Temple of Elemental Evil as a sandboxy campaign setting. We've taken a (I gather) fairly idiosyncratic path through the adventure: we noodled around Red Larch, Goldenfields, and Beliard until about 5th level, when we decided to deal with the pirates at Rivenguard Keep. Then we decided to make it a base of operations, which meant we felt obliged to clean out the basement, and through careful play and repeated raids, we destroyed the Water Temple. After that, we wiped out the crazies at Feathergale Spire and visited Scarlet Moon Hall to burn up their big Burning Man festival. Most recently, we adopted the Knights of Summit Hall after the hall got destroyed in retribution for the destruction of Feathergale Spire, and promised to clear out Sacred Stone Monastery to make into a new base for them.

In our last session, we cleared out most of the first floor of the Monastery, leaving untouched only some rooms on the west side. We were helped in this endeavor by four paladins from Summit Hall, who did a lot to up our melee damage. We burned through a lot of hit points and a fair bit of spells, so we took a short rest to recover. At the start of today's session, we were planning to clear the last rooms and start looking into the basement.

Wrong Room, Then

The last two doors on the first floor were wizard-locked. Fortunately, Cavius is strong and can pray to the gods for aid (yay, Guidance!) when he knows he's about to do something difficult, so he smashed down one of the doors with the aid of one of the paladins. On the other side of the door was a lich. Verus made a knowledge check that revealed that the lich could still cast 9th level spells, and I pointed that meant he could presumably cast Time Stop, draw funny mustaches on our faces, and leave off a few Delayed Blast Fireballs to kill us without us being able to much to stop him.

Fortunately, the lich didn't want to fight us. And we certainly didn't want to fight him. We closed the door and left and thanked the GM for not killing us.

Into the Basement

Our brush with near certain death averted, we sent Galen down some stairs to a small room occupied by three big orcs and an ogre. He snuck away, reported the situation to the rest of us, and then snuck back to await the reinforcements. Caius and the paladins (at this point I'd nicknamed them the "God Squad" which is obvious but still funny) charged forward and Galen assassinated one of the orcs for the crime of reading a book and possibly being a wizard. Everyone cast a Shatter and that dropped the orcs, and then the God Squad surrounded the ogre and beat him to death. No one on our side took damage.

We looted (Ted took notes, I don't remember the details) and listened at doors to decide to know where to go next. We heard some rhythmic noise like someone mining to the north, so we went north.

Doing Good Deeds

Galen scouted ahead and found a waif mining alone in a tunnel. The rest of us followed up, determined the waif was a captive, and rescued her. She was part of a group of slaves that the Earth temple had collected, so we went and rescued the rest of the slaves, too. We took them all upstairs, grabbed some evil prisoners of war that we'd stashed in the upper temple last session, and brought all of them to our camp. There, our minions from Summit Hall provided healing or trials, as necessary, and Will rewarded us all an Inspiration Point for being heroic and stuff.

One of the former slaves was a member of a dwarf delegation that we'd been nominally trying to find for about four levels by now. He gave us a little more detail about the basement, but nothing particularly useful.

A Puzzle! Also, Zombies

There was a dwarf tomb to the north of the room filled with dead orcs, so we went there under the assumption that the graves had been desecrated, undead had risen, and the situation had put to rights. To no one's surprise, that turned out to be correct.

A half-dozen zombies aren't actually a threat for 7th level adventurers and some 5 HD beatstick allies, so there wasn't much to say about the fight: assassinate, melee violence, sneak attack, cantrips. It was a quick and short fight, I'll say that much for it.

The weird thing was that we found an empty coffin, apparently for Samular Caradoon. Since the paladins were pretty sure that Samular was the founder of their order buried in the crypts below their former base at Summit Hall, this was something of mystery. However, it wasn't a mystery we could solve at the time, so I noted it in my list of notable things and made plans to write it up on this blog. Which I have.

Two Out of Three is Good Odds

We next headed west, into the apparently the temple's execution room. They had a half-blinded umber hulk imprisoned behind some steel bars in a room with three entrances: two were on the far side from the umber hulk, but the last one went straight into the creature's cage. Ted and I commiserated on those poor delving bands that picked the wrong door, and had a surprise melee with an umber hulk. Since we were one of the lucky ones, we shot it with ranged weapons until it broke out of the cage, and then the god squad closed to melee range and beat it to death.

200' of Stairs is A Lot of Stairs

The next bit was something you see a lot in D&D games, and it makes me wonder if no one in Seattle has ever really climbed a lot of stairs. My alma mater, Trinity University, has 166' tower that most students climb once at freshmen and never again. So I have some vague memories of climbing an seemingly endless set of steps, and I don't think that most people would put half their base 150' above or below the rest of it. So those endless steps in Ravenloft and in the Earth Temple just feel really weird to me.

Anyway, our characters apparently walked down some 200' of steps to get to the Temple of Black Earth, home of the evil earth cult. Galen scouted ahead, and found a chasm, crossed by a bridge without railings, and guarded by gargoyles. The gargoyles got assassinated and shattered a couple of times and died. Another quick combat.

Galen continued to poke around the chasm while the rest of waited for enemy reinforcements attracted by all the explosions. No reinforcements showed up, but we still decided that crossing the bridge seemed sub-optimum.

Galen had found a hole in the chasm wall that led a room filled with incredibly detailed statues. Since we already knew that the leader of the Earth Cult was a medusa, we figured this was his incredibly tacky foyer and we could probably decapitate the leadership of the Earth Cult by exploring that way.

New Plan: Alpha Strike 

We climbed down the chasm, walked across its floor, and then climbed back up into the room full of statues. Galen was dispatched to put some wedges beneath the door, but Ted's character noticed some of the shadows moving in weird directions and shouted we were about to be attacked by a shadow or a wraith or a shadow demon or something. We struck pre-emptively but not not too successfully.

At that point, the medusa and his blind monk girlfriend came out of the north door. Galen had already tangled with the monk last session, and she'd hit him with some stunning attacks and left him for her apprentices to beat into a pulp, so she was definitely kill on sight. And the medusa was obviously bad news. So our plan changed from "cautiously engage a shadow demon" to "burn every spell we had" and things went down.

Caius took half the God Squad and engaged the monk with swords and Spiritual Guardians and Spiritual Weapons. As it turns out, while the monk was quite adept at beating the snot of sneaky people in leather armor, her prowess was somewhat lacking when it came to penetrated steel plate harness backed by shields. And while the monk had Blindsense and could tell where Galen was even when he was hiding (thus negating about half his offensive bag of tricks), Blindsense doesn't protect against sneak attacks when you're engaged in melee with the rogue's allies. She took a bunch of sword attacks from the paladins and an arrow to the eye and fell over.

Meanwhile, Verus and Amy were cutting loose with fireballs and lightning bolts and knocking whole chunks of hit points off the medusa. He fell back into the Spiritual Guardians aura and then got surrounded by the God Squad and hit with a couple of Smites and a Sneak Attack or two. All that did him no particular good, so he died and turned into a pile of mud. Since the Water Cult head has died and turned into water and come back on at least two occasions, we assumed we picked up a new recurring enemy.

The shadow demon disappeared into a wall at one point, and apparently didn't want to move into the Spirit Guardians and die, so we never saw it again. Presumably we'll fight it again next session when it rallies the rest of the Earth cult against it.

We Like Loot

It was getting pretty close to quitting time. We'd earned enough XP to reach 8th level (we're leveling about every other session at this point), so we looted the medusa's stuff. Caius picked up a sweet magical war pick that had the slight negative effect of making him want to destroy stuff, but as I pointed out to Will, that mostly mostly meant that when Caius wantonly destroyed stuff, I would get Inspiration points for role-playing. Ted and Rachel evaluated a suit of elven chain that eventually went to Ted, and we broke for the night.

Technical Notes

Ted rigged up a projector pointed at a mirror and attached it to Will's laptop, and we use MapTools to project maps onto the table. It works really well, though, and speeds up play a lot: we don't have to wait for Will to draw maps. I really recommend it if you can keep the set-up between games, but we can only really do that because Ted is a bachelor that can have a dedicated gaming room without worrying about kids or cats knocking stuff over.

Given all the problems I have with MapTools in the online game, it's surprisingly painless in this role.

Evaluation of Play

I'm not particularly fond of D&D 5e. I think the design team made a lot of poor design decisions, though it was an improvement over D&D 4e. And certainly, the open sandboxy nature of Princes of the Apocalypse is much better than the railroad style adventures of D&D 4e, and fulfills some of the promise I saw in Lost Mines of Fandelvin or whatever it was called.

We're playing D&D as a compromise: Derrick wanted to play some experimental narrative games that I can't stand, and he can't stand GURPS anymore, and D&D 5e generally allows for quick combats against scrub foes and even non-scrub foes. It's still a mechanically bland and uninspired system, though it's getting somewhat less annoying as we go up in levels. We ran out of hit points a lot of levels 1-3, but now it's a rare fight where someone goes down.

Our current tactics are pretty good. We scout, to know who are foes are, and then attack with overwhelming firepower. That usually works pretty well when it's just the four of us, but adding the four paladin NPCs has really improved things. They get two attacks at +5 for 10 damage each, which doesn't suck at all, and we can also use them to watch our backs or block potential avenues of attack while we're futzing around with any other thing. The theorists at the Gaming Den argue that minions are the key to ultimate power in D&D 5e, and I can see their point.

What Next?

We're going to work our way through the rest of the Earth temple next week. Hopefully, it shouldn't be too hard or take more than a session or two. It took us three sessions to clear the Water temple but we've gained a few levels since then.

After that, we still need to deal with the Fire and Air temples, and there's a dragon turtle in the Water temple that we avoided on the grounds that it couldn't come attack us and we didn't think we could kill it. Now we probably can.

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