Monday, March 5, 2012

Something Borrowed, Something Black and Blue

**This post contains spoilers to the Scales of War Adventure Path. You have been warned.**

So I mentioned already that the last adventure of my epic tier campaign needed some work (since I am using the published Scales of War Adventure Path) and I specifically talked about the first challenge the party faced. This week's session started with the party entering the maw of a black dragon statue to confront the black dragon brood mother of Tiamat and hopefully find another gem eye that can shut down the wards blocking their path to the Dragon Queen herself. This week turned out pretty special because it featured a lot of material that I grabbed from other bloggers who had come up with great ideas.

As they entered the dragon's mouth, they saw a whirling dome of shadow in the center of a portal chamber rimmed with stone archways containing empty and inactive portals. As the first members of the party hear a roar coming from the shadows, they lunge into the blackness and see that the whirling darkness is essentially a veil that separates the interior from the exterior of the dome (i.e. no line of sight) and inside is a tremendous undead dragon who laughs at their boldness. So half the party has lunged into melee range with the undead dragon and the other half of the party is outside the dome when the dragon clicks his finger bones together. With a snap of magical energy, portals begin to open displaying a fiendish planescape of madness and horror....THE FAR REALM! So the party is divided and has to face two foes: an undead horror and the insanity inducing effects of exposure to the Far Realm.

Simply put, I got excited about the opportunity to use a monster made by someone else I found recently. The Id DM posted an epic tier threat this past month that really inspired me for this encounter. I lifted his monster (while leveling it up and tweaking its aura to make it work with the portals), but I kept the rest of his design whole. One major change I integrated was my second borrowed thing this week. CSRoss from the DMGp42 blog did a study of monster damage this past week and I decided to try this monster with his damage bonuses. HECK YES. Getting a critical that did over 120 damage felt so nice and when I announced the damage to the party and they all repeated it back to me in that scared and disbelieving voice.....classic. The threat was real and actually scary and to complicate things even more I borrowed another element. I just discovered Beholder Pie's blog and they had a post this week about templates to use with groups of monsters to help simulate the interplay of PC synergy and interrupts that allow for more benefits and bonuses. I used the Dragon's Den template in this encounter and trading in a token to turn my next hit into a critical was delicious. Really effective monster design, with good math and a synergy that brought it all together made for an incredibly effective and memorable session this week.

We started the session with a wrap up from the last time and jumped straight to initiative (since I like to end on a cliffhanger). Half the party was in an aura that blocked line of sight and the other half was outside reeling with horror from the effects of the opening portals to a realm of madness. The ranged section of the party, thought they try and disable one of the portals to the Far Realm. As the rogue got closer, she was immediately attacked by the madness effect, but toughed it out. She then failed her Thievery check to try and mar the runes and deactivate the portal which caused it to explode with the distorting energies of eldritch horror. For this I borrowed something else! The Book of Vile Darkness, while arguably not very vile, had a very cool hazard effect for a Far Realm Anomaly including a random table for flesh warping effects of exposure to the Far Realm. The explosion hit the rogue, who's legs became worthless rendering her slowed. Period. It also hit the party wizard whose legs warped and meshed together into a snake tail destroying her fancy pair of magic boots and reducing her speed by 3. No save, no disease track, these effects were just on there. That really grabbed their attention.

At this point the melee fighters had realized that things were getting bad and started hammering away at a black orb in the eye socket of the dracolich, which they targeted at a -2 to attack (since it's more of a called shot and I thought a penalty was called for). They hit it twice dealing sufficient damage to destroy the orb and dropping the veil of shadows. When your actions have direct impact on the way the encounter works, it is a very rewarding feeling as a player. So now the whole party could see the opening portals to madness and the ranged attackers could engage the dragon more easily. The dragon teleported to the other side of the map to harass the ranged combatants and it was at this point that the dwarven barbarian gave me a look that made me smile because he realized what I had just noticed at the same time. The barbarian moved into position and with a mighty howl, charged the barely injured dracolich, pushing it 7 squares and through the portal into the madness of the Far Realm.

The effects of the flesh warping planescape immediately started to bend and shape the dracolich, taking him over and causing him obviously excruciating pain. They continued to fire magical attacks at the dragon, who was taking a tremendous amount of ongoing damage as his bones creaked and bent and every attack passing through the portal was warped and bent further. I realized that if they could shut the portal down, he'd be stuck on the other side with no way back. They kept trying to immobilize him and slow him down so he couldn't get back through, but eventually he was able to muscle his way back in and as I described him clawing his way back to reality, I remembered the attacks being warped as they passed through the gate and decided to go for broke. As the dracolich's skeletal form passed through the gateway, its undead bones were turned to free-flowing flesh that rippled with obscene gesticulation and oozed with foul pus the color of madness. This creature was no longer a powerful undead villain, but a mound of hideous, cancerous tissue trying to heap vengeance on those who had brought it to this mournful fate. The paladin slid the creature halfway through the portal and shortly thereafter the portal closed with the dragon half in and as the portal snapped shut the fleshy dragon's head, if you could call it that, collapsed to the ground in a pile of bleeding flesh. Holy crap. What an encounter.

The final chamber where the black dragon brood mother, Auth'lothtor, actually resides required more customization as well. Since I fiddled with the green dragon and tried using a hazard to simulate a creature that could not be physically harmed, I did a similar work up on the black dragon as well. This room's theme was LOCKDOWN and DISSOLVE. Auth'lothtor was fussing over her eggs in a mire of acidic muck in a deep pit while feeding off of vines that were visibly growing. Both the dragon and the vines had many means of locking down the party by holding them in position. Given the range of a dragonbreath attack, this could be potentially very deadly. This is complicated by the mud of the pit being a highly concentrated, but slowly effective acid. The first time one of the characters is exposed to the acidic mud, I'm going to ask all of them to make tic marks on their character sheet equal to 1/4 their Constitution score. Creatures that enter or start their turn in the pit erase a tic mark. Characters with no tic marks at the start of their turn begin to dissolve and take ongoing acid damage equal to their healing surge value (save ends). A creature that drops to 0 hp due to this effect melts to a paste.

The foil to the encounter is removing the gem from within the muck and mire. Not only do the party need the gem to lower the ward, but it is also acting as the plug that keeps the acidic mire from draining. Once the gem is located and removed, the muck begins to drain with a great sucking sound (save ends). After the first failed saving throw, the concentrated acid damage effect will no longer hurt creatures in the pit. After the second failed saving throw, the dragon will no longer be able to splash the acidic mud and will lose access to that attack. The dragon is far too large to pull herself out of the pit so the main point of the encounter is more about mobility and smash and grab tactics as opposed to "find all monsters - kill all monsters."

It was honestly some what disappointing for me to see how quickly they swooped through this room and gathered the gem. Using some careful strategy and a creative use of their powers, they were able to handily locate and grab the black gem eye and beat a hasty retreat. Minimal damage was taken and they used just a few uses of their daily teleportation powers. After RAPIDLY claiming the black gem eye, the party zipped back to the center room with its pulsating magma geyser and it was here they realized how dire their problem was since they knew now that the whole volcanic compound Tiamat's fortress is based in was ready to explode in about 10 hours. The timer was started, but they were confused as to what Tiamat could hope to gain by destroying her lair at this point.

They chose the blue dragon maw next and this chamber I ran mostly as written. The beholder in the observation room works (with modified damage and truly scary damage) and the blue dragon I turned into a hazard instead of a creature. The Beholder room as an observatory lent itself well to show the Astral positioning of Tiamat's domain and just how dangerous her final desperate gambit was, but I've already talked about that before. Using their resources well, they were able to knock the beholder prone into the pit multiple times (doing over 150 falling damage to it) and they negotiated the blue dragon brood mother handily. I thought about posting that hazard here too, but after such an epic series of encounters I'd done enough.

This week proved incredibly memorable and truly epic! Using the full benefits of the lessons of the internet and borrowing A LOT of great ideas from some really cool designers and gamers, my session was really fun this past week. And when all the players are giving each other high fives after the session ends (even the DM!), you can't help but feel like a success. So thank you, TheIdDm, CStevenRoss and Beholder Pie for helping to get my synergy going and helping make my session this week a real success.

Now with two more gem eyes to recover the final fight and the end of an age is almost upon us! Only the Red and White Brood Mothers still remain and the Mother of All Dragons shall know her mortality!


  1. This sounds so EPIC! Great stuff.

  2. Sounds fantastic - and I'm glad the templates helped! Looks like you're gearing up for a truly epic finale.