Adventure Log: Dungeons and Dragons, Part 3

Welcome back to Adventure Log! Our heroes have scoured the city of Glebhavern, and are turning their attention to underground, where opportunity awaits. However, mysterious crypts and undead foes give characters plenty of chances to really step in it, and the Glebhavern Crypt is no exception. When things go south, do the characters breathe their last, or does the DM step in to keep the party going?

After the adventurers vanquished the gnoll cultists from the Glebhavern Keep, they set about searching the building. The search turned up a few magical artifacts kept in a locked case within the armory, that they would identify later. After the keep was thoroughly searched, the adventurers returned to the Chancery. Boer found himself wandering towards an odd point of light, and Elliot just missed the fairy door as it closed in front of him. It was now more clear that the disappearing and reappearing adventurers were finding themselves transported to the Feywild. Jethro, Boer, and Ander had all had similar visions: wandering around a forest choked with brambles, hearing a woman laughing. It was disconcerting, but there wasn’t anything to be done at the time.

Within the Chancery, there were shelves upon shelves of official records, mostly very pedestrian. Folios of birth records, death certificates, marriage certificates, and property deeds were stacked from floor to ceiling. Elliot quickly found the one cache of documents that stood out: In the back of the archives was a small chest, made almost entirely out of lead. The signet ring, which seemed to react to the chest’s presence, opened it when waved in front of the Imperial Seal. Within were a set of codices and sealed documents. These documents detailed the events leading up to the Emperor fleeing Glebhavern nearly 40 years ago. While the Emperor and his best men headed south to determine the fate of the third Imperial City, his family and the two Imperial Regents headed north to an Imperial Shelter. The location of this shelter was marked on a map, along with a couple other points of interest, including a temple and the city where the adventurers had started, Port O’Rock. The codices were official diaries of the Emperor, Empress, and two Regents. Based on the timing of the flight, it was entirely possible that the Regents were still alive.

The adventurers continued their search within the Inner Walls. The prison had been partially emptied; looking at the tattered record book revealed that someone had released the localborn prisoners, while any foreign or political prisoners were kept locked up. One of the prisoner’s bodies had a pendant on it that was a crudely carved coat of arms from the Prelate, another Folk Empire somewhere else on the continent. It was noted from the record book that this man was of the clan Daerdahk. The last two buildings within the Inner Wall were the Great Hall and the Depository. Both were fully ransacked, though Elliot took some casting tools left behind at the minting forge within the Depository. From here, it was time to move to the temple.

Ander recognized the architecture of the temple well, it was a shrine to the Order of Ending like many he had seen before. Within the walls were an altar and two doors; one led to the undertaker’s apartment and the other downward, presumably to the crypts. The undertaker’s apartment had been abandoned in a hurry, most vestments were still there, including an odd pendant. The pendant seemed to be magical, so Ander tried to activate it. In a flash of light and a high-pitched popping sound, he ended up in a mostly empty crypt chamber. The pendant appeared to allow the undertaker to teleport to the next empty crypt chamber without going through the whole crypt.

Anxious to clear out the tortured souls that the Dogs of War had alluded to, the party linked hands and gang teleported down into the crypt. They began working their way out, but were quickly stopped by a room of enchanted armor, likely the burial spot of a former military officer. The adventurers blocked the door and felled each armor construct in the choke point, after which Elliot gathered their inanimate corpses for later crafting. The next room contained a number of ghouls, which Hugh was able to turn easily. This is when things began to go wrong. The ghouls rushed away from Hugh, clawing at a door until it opened. The door retracted into the floor, a sealed opening designed to keep in the contents of that room…ten Shadows. The adventurers were quickly overwhelmed, with Hugh being severely hurt by a Shadow’s chill touch. Jethro and Elliot went for the amulet on Ander’s neck, Ander oblivious in his barbarian rage. The amulet skittered across the floor as Jethro got his fingers around the chain. Thinking quickly, the giant Elliot gathered up his compatriots and dogpiled on the amulet, triggering the device just as the Shadows closed in. The party ended up back in the shrine, a little worse for the wear but alive. The amulet, not designed to teleport five people at once, lay on the ground, cracked and smoking. An unearthly wind from the crypt door indicated that they didn’t have much time before the now-free Shadows found them…

Old-school roleplaying is all about playing the hand you’ve been dealt, whether it comes to randomly rolling your stats, figuring out traps and puzzles, or dealing with encounters designed for the environment rather than your character level. Placing characters into an environment that was designed with world-building rather than game-building in mind means that eventually the characters will blunder into a situation they aren’t ready for. This then begs the question: what do you do in the event of a total party kill, or TPK?

As you can see from the summary, this session didn’t end in a TPK. That said, it could have. While my dungeon process isn’t entirely old-school, it’s still designed to result in challenges for the players, including some which may be too much for them. Add a bit of domino effect and the final encounter within the dungeon turned from a relatively easy set of ghouls to shadows who, given the environment and the characters’ preparation, were going to end them, and fast.

I fudged some things to give the characters an out, but I didn’t do anything that would have been considered a deus ex machina. The amulet that was found in the shrine was an emergency teleport token from the beginning, so I knew there was an ‘out’ should the characters be overwhelmed or need to use a rest. But when the ghouls scrambled away from Hugh’s Turn Undead to the only other door, and Ander decided to rage despite possessing the teleport amulet…the ‘out’ was looking dim. After the shadow landed one chill touch attack, the players knew that the out was needed or they were all going to die. Then they started failing rolls. One, after another, after another.

Indie games like Burning Wheel and Apocalypse World talk about ‘failing forward’, about how failure should not stop the game in its tracks. Well, allowing the party to all die because they had a string of bad rolls is the opposite of failing forward. This is especially true because the players made the correct tactical decision to fall back and encounter the threat on their terms. In this case, it was important to reward the thinking but acknowledge the failed rolls. There were two consequences of the sequence of botched attempts to get the amulet activated: first: the amulet broke. Second, the shadows were now able to hunt the characters. The next session would begin with the shadows following the characters out of the dungeon, where they had a challenging but more manageable fight thanks to the environment and a little time for preparation.

After this session I had a discussion with my players about what happened, and asked point blank if this was the method of dealing with unbalanced encounters that they wanted. The response I got was that they wanted to feel like mistakes had consequences, but not that they would be faced with campaign-ending death given a few bad dice rolls. In response to that, I came up with my strategy: I wasn’t going to eliminate the possibility of a remarkably hard encounter, especially now that the characters had started to level up and one-shot kills were much less likely. Instead, I would write some material to ensure that a TPK, if one occurred, didn’t have to end the campaign. Similar to my method of dealing with player absences, this plotline would be designed to deal with a mechanical issue, but have story impact just the same. While there have continued to be hard fights, my TPK backup plan has not come up yet.

How do you approach challenge in your games? Ever been in a situation where you accidentally killed your whole party, or almost did? Let us know in the comments. Want to start from the beginning of this Adventure Log? Check out the prologue here, or Part 1 here! If you’re reading in order, check out the previous log here, or the next log here.

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