In our DM’s Notes posts, we take a break from the main story to discuss running the game. If you’re looking for the story, just click the links at the bottom of this post, or check the Archive!
So, Session 4 kicked off midway through a siege, which was exciting, though it took a bit of warming up to get the tension back up. I’ve been experimenting with using soundscapes and background music during our sessions to create atmosphere, so I put some ‘Epic Combat’ music from a Brian Davis Spotify playlist on low in the background as I set the scene.
Nighthill and the Castellan (who I forgot to introduce at all until this point, but it probably just seemed like he was busy?) told the party about a secret tunnel that they could use to get in and out of the Keep undetected. They also gave the party a mission, asking them to capture a cultist alive for questioning.
This is the point in the story at which the campaign book suggests you wave one of the wearers of purple (the leaders of the dragon cultists) at the players. The idea is that Nighthill and the Castellan point out Mondath, (who I’ve made a tiefling sorcerer in my version, just for spice), from the battlements of the Keep, but then warn the PCs that she is SO strong and SO heavily guarded that it would be impossible to capture her.
I would not recommend doing this, though I can see what the campaign writers are trying to achieve: the early introduction of a boss monster that the players will face later, when the odds are in their favour. Unfortunately, in this case I can’t think of a better way to accidentally encourage your players to go on a suicide mission, especially if they’re the heroic type!
There’s a danger when you put DM warnings in the mouths of NPCs that players will just ignore them. For one thing, NPCs aren’t always right; for another, often their cautions of dire threats and terrible danger are actually meant (narratively speaking) as a call to adventure—far from taking heed, the players are supposed to seek out the very danger they are warned against. Insurmountable odds are part of the fun of D&D, after all, and players expect to go toe-to-toe with a certain level of ‘impossible’ sometimes.
Building up a bad guy that the players don’t immediately make a beeline for can be tricky in D&D. I think a good example of how to do this right is the dragon that attacks Greenest during the siege. An adult blue dragon—which many low-level characters will never have even seen, let alone fought, before—swoops out of the sky and decimates a few buildings with its lightning breath.
This show of force makes it clear to players that the dragon is not only far more powerful than they are, but also completely inaccessible: since it attacks from the air, most of them couldn’t fight it even if they wanted to. PCs are also less likely to even want to try and fight the dragon, since for most of the siege it doesn’t interfere directly with events on the ground.
Mondath, on the other hand, is both physically accessible to the players and directly responsible for the siege, and capturing her might halt the other raiders in their tracks. In other words, players have the means, as well as tons of motivation, to attack her immediately. So, if you want to spend a lot of time watching your players plan out an elaborate kidnapping and then either skip chunks of chapter 3, or die, then by all means point her out to them—if they survive, it could actually be kind of fun! I think the first chapter has enough to do already, though, and it’s highly time-sensitive, so I didn’t bring Mondath up at all.
After learning about the tunnels, Keothi wanted to have a short rest (I told you he would!), but I wasn’t about to let him off the hook just yet! He went off on his own while the rest of the party headed up to the Keep’s battlements to keep an eye on the town.
As soon as they got up there, I pointed out the next threat: you know that temple with all of your friends in? Yeah, there is an awful lot of smoke coming out from the back of that now.
That got them moving! They ran back downstairs, shook Keothi out of his doze, and headed for the secret tunnel.
Our party is over-levelled for this chapter: they’re a mix of level three and level four characters (the recommended starting point for HotDQ is level one) and there are usually at least five of them, sometimes more. Because of this, I tend to buff up a few of the fights here and there to make them more challenging—usually, adding a single CR1/2 or CR1 monster to an encounter is enough to shift it up to their level.
A useful resource in situations where you want to make fights easier or harder is Kobold Fight Club: pop your PCs’ levels in and see what difference a single CR1/2 monster can make to the expected difficulty of an encounter. Eventually, you’ll get a feel for planning balanced combat encounters yourself, but KFC is a great tool to give you a ballpark estimate for combat difficulty. Remember to check for immunities or resistances, though: if you spring a low-CR monster that is immune to non-magical weapons on a party with no magical weapons, it might win by accident!
In this case, there were meant to be two rat swarms in the tunnel, so I added two more as a quick boost. Then, I nearly had my first player death of the campaign—what an undignified way to go! Gerard was knocked out on the same square as one of the swarms and, since they were trying to eat the characters, they attacked him again on their next turn, forcing him to make—and fail—two death saves. And it was his go next. Uh oh.
Now, I was prepared to kill Gerard here: it’s not the end I would have chosen for his character, but I won’t spare a player when it makes no sense to do so. I think the threat of death is important and I like the game to have serious stakes—it keeps things exciting.
That said, Gerard getting eaten by rats wouldn’t have been satisfying for anyone, so I was pleased when he made his final save!
What surprised me, though, was that most of the players didn’t realise just how much danger Gerard was in. They all had one turn in between Gerard being knocked out and when he got attacked again, but none of them used their action to heal him. They all assumed that he had at least another go before the situation became pressing, so when I asked Gerard to note down 2 death save fails, they all looked horrified!
It is always worth going through the mechanics of death saves with new players, just to make sure they are completely prepared. I don’t think you should hold back from killing players who have gotten themselves into lethal situations, but you’ll minimise disappointment if everyone knows what is at stake from the start! Some key points players should be aware of:
Between these things, if an enemy attacks an unconscious ally in melee, there is probably a 45% chance that that ally will die on their next turn from the death save failure ALONE. If two creatures attack an unconscious ally, there’s a good chance they’ll die there and then.
Then there’s the question of whether or not enemies will bother attacking unconscious players at all (rather than focusing on their conscious allies). As a rule of thumb, I tend to view the logic of this on a bit of a bell curve.
At one end, you have animals running almost entirely on instinct. Wild, carnivorous beasts are probably only attacking the party because they want to eat them: as such, I’ll usually have these kinds of animals continue to attack unconscious PCs or try to drag them away, if the other players leave them alone. If the other party members step in to threaten the animals, however, they’ll defend themselves before trying to eat or escape with their prey.
Slightly more intelligent enemies will usually ignore unconscious players, under the assumption that wasting a turn finishing off an opponent who can’t hurt you is actually pretty inefficient.
Smarter enemies, however, might spot the players healing allies, or be aware that they have the capacity to do so. In this case, and if the enemy is tactically-minded enough, they might well go in for the kill to prevent unconscious PCs from re-joining the battle. Tactically-minded foes might even try to suss out who the party healer is early on, then knock them out as a matter of priority. You could also have smart enemies threaten to slit the throat of a downed ally if the rest of the team don’t drop their weapons too. That’ll throw them!
What (almost!) happened to Gerard served as a good reminder to the rest of the party, so I think next time we’ll be seeing quicker action taken when someone is knocked out. I’m glad that Gerard didn’t die there, though, because the players might have felt that they’d been screwed over, since they weren’t entirely clear on the rules.
Anyway, the party made it out of the tunnel (not that it was meant to be that difficult!) and into a thick bush by the river. They spotted a few cultists snooping about and chatted for a while about how best to deal with them. They couldn’t agree on a plan, with some of them favouring bluffing their way past, others wanting to lure a single cultist into the bushes and ambush them, and still others wanting to fight the lot there and then.
Eventually, Cyd, Nubbins and Gerard emerged from the bush and hailed the nearest cultist, posing as fellow followers of Tiamat. Cyd is good at disguises and Nubbins can cast Disguise Self, while Gerard spent some time prior to the start of this adventure putting together a false identity as a cultist. What with all of this, the bluffing all went OK—for a while, anyway.
The cultists were happy to let the players pass, but then Aleph decided to attack, gaining himself an extra turn as all of his enemies (and his allies!) were surprised. It was a sensible course of action: if the players had left them alive, the cultists might have found the hidden tunnel back to the Keep. Attacking these cultists also gave the party a chance to capture a prisoner who they could leave tied up by the tunnel, rather than having to drag one from all the way across town.
I always underestimate how long combat takes in real-world time, so not long after this we came to the end of the session! All my players really enjoyed the combat, so the timing wasn’t a problem, apparently, and it set us up nicely for their arrival at the temple. I showed them a map of the temple grounds and described the raiders around the building, so they can think about their plain in between sessions. Then we called it a night!
Next time, we’ll see how the players deal with the besieged temple: will they muster their allies inside to fight off the raiders, sneak them out the back door, or come up with something entirely novel?
And stay tuned for my next set of DM’s notes, which will be coming soon!