My group of eager, willing victims took their next painful steps through the monstrosity that is "Madness At Gardmore Abbey" last night. I had taken time during our hiatus to look ahead at some of the encounters detailed in the module and make some alterations to better suit the adventure material to their level and party size, and also to flesh out one or two encounters all on my own to see if I was hitting the right balance between too hard and too easy. It's been my personal feeling thus far that Gardmore Abbey leans heavily toward the "too difficult" side of that spectrum, and I can't say that last night's play session did anything to dissuade me of that opinion.
After tying up some loose ends on the roleplaying side of things (returning Analastra to her brother Berrian in the Aornil camp), the PCs were given information on some of the structures nearby that they had managed to scout or spot from their previous position at the old bell tower (the site of the brutal displacer beast/stirge fight I talked about in my last post). After considering their options, they decided to head south toward the old watchtower they had passed on their way in through the crumbling wall when they first arrived at the abbey.
I had intended to plant one of my homebrew encounters here anyway, so this gave me an opportunity right off the bat to test the waters and see how I did. Since I was reskinning all of the orcs in the abbey as gnolls, who are primarily desert dwellers in my campaign world, I had started plunging through Monster Manual I and II looking for gnoll- and desert-themed creatures. One in particular interested me: the witherlings. These are described as shrunken, emaciated gnoll corpses with exposed skulls and unnaturally long claws. I liked the flavor and the suite of powers these creatures have, but not so much the description of them as small creatures. Luckily, D&D 4E doesn't base many creature attributes off of size like D&D 3.5 and Pathfinder do, so ignoring this cosmetic affectation didn't require any stat rehashing on my part.
I had already established that a powerful gnoll necromancer was moving around in the vicinity of the watchtower, so placing a witherling ambush here was in keeping with my ongoing story. I also added in an NPC from a previous game: Syon Telba, the ghoulish undead manservant of a powerful Shadian villain who was here to recover an item for his master from the watchtower. The PCs came upon a small valley formed by two foothills at the base of the tower and dotted with boulders of various sizes. They observed Telba sitting in front of the tower door, contemplating how to open it. Maeve sent her raven companion ahead to scout the area for enemies, and he reported two cloaked shapes that smelled of death hiding atop each of the foothills (he missed the witherlings that had burrowed beneath the sand in the valley, however). Not long after doing their reconaissance, the zombie gnolls atop each foothill spotted the PCs and prepared to roll more boulders down the hill toward the heroes; the burrowed witherlings popped out of the sand in front of them and readied a murderous charge.
When I constructed the encounter, I set a budget of 1200 XP (4 7th-level PCs should be able to take on 4 300-XP creatures going by the guidelines in the DMG). Four standard witherlings (Level 4) at 175 XP each came out to 700 XP, and I added two witherling rabbles (Level 9 minions) for another 200 XP, leaving me 300 XP to play with.
In one of his recent advice columns, Chris Perkins with WotC says a good encounter should have three parts to it: a challenge, a complication, and a twist. I decided to take his advice and formulate my encounter accordingly.
The challenge here is obviously the witherling skirmishers, vicious pack hunters that become decidedly more powerful once bloodied.
The complication is the two witherling minions, whom I placed on the hilltops to throw rocks and roll boulders.
The twist is a special condition I added to the encounter called Death Howl - every time a witherling is killed, it emits a horrible scream that has a 1 in 6 chance of drawing the attention of another witherling minion to the fray.
(An additional twist is the presence of Syon Telba, who gets a saving throw each round to gather his wits enough to help the PCs repel the witherlings with a low-level wizard at-will power. I hadn't planned this into the encounter originally, but I liked the element and decided to pop it in at the last minute, hoping this would endear the ghoul to the PCs and make them at least consider an alliance instead of killing him outright.)
The Death Howl twist is easy enough to compensate for in the XP budget - I simply add another 100 XP to the encounter value each time a witherling minion is pulled into the fight. But the complication required some number crunching. With 300 XP left in my initial encounter budget, I looked to the Traps & Hazards section of the DMG.
There are two witherlings throwing rocks and rolling boulders, so I need each minion's hazard to deal damage equivalent to a level 3 trap (which is worth 150 XP). Using the magic arrow trap as my guideline, I crib the attack and damage value from it as a baseline (+8 versus AC for 2d8+3).
That works fine for the rock throwing, but the boulder roll is going to be more of an area effect - a 2x2 square that moves in a 30-square line and affects any target whose space it crosses over. I change this attack to target Reflex instead of AC, and lower the damage to 2d6+3 since it can potentially affect all of my players if the witherling gets lucky.
With Telba in the mix helping the PCs out, I want to balance the equation - they're getting a benny for free every other round on average, so the enemies should be just a bit tougher if I'm not going to lower the XP reward for adding in an ally. So I increase the damage ratings for the rocks and boulders to 2d8+5 and 2d6+5, respectively.
I've now got an encounter that includes no more than six enemies as a baseline group - which is about as many toons as I want on my side in any encounter, really - and is balanced for a party of my players' size and level. And I have two elements beyond mere combat pieces that keep things interesting as well. The last ingredient I want to add to this mix is a house rule to keep combat moving quickly: every time an enemy is bloodied, I give it the Vulnerable 5 trait. This speeds up combat once the PCs get "over the hump", so to speak - dropping an injured monster becomes a little easier and a little quicker, and I want my combats to be shorter in duration across the board. To compensate for this, I have the monsters deal an extra 2 points of damage while bloodied - sort of a battle frenzy, so although the combat goes more quickly, the monsters get more dangerous.
I'm thinking that the Vul 5/+2 dmg adjustment is adequate for Heroic tier combats (levels 1-10), but looking ahead to the possibility of doing this in Paragon (11-20) and Epic (21-30) tier, I wonder if I need to increase the Vulnerable deduction and damage amounts - maybe to Vul 10/+4 dmg for Paragon and Vul 15/+6 dmg in Epic? Let me know your thoughts in the comments!
The PCs did well against the witherlings, and seemed to enjoy themselves (despite the dwarf shaman getting the brunt of the zombie gnolls' pack tactics). I think I hit the right balance between challenging and achievable while keeping the combat going at a reasonably quick pace, so I was pleased with my little experiment. From there, they talked a bit with Telba, chose not to kill him outright, and even accepted his proposition to retrieve the artifact he was seeking (a golden statue of the Dark Sovereign, Machalos) from the watchtower.
Once inside the watchtower, another combat triggered involving a pair of mimics pretending to be a bridge over a chasm filled with black goo (an enormous black pudding). This went well, but once again I had to nerf things so that the PCs weren't blowing all their dailies and having to take an extended rest just to keep things moving forward. The pudding had to be brought down from an elite to a standard monster (I just used the stats from MMII, which greatly lessened the HP and the damage dealt by the ooze's Engulf power, and lowered all its defenses by 2 each), and I only allowed a 1 in 3 chance of the pudding spawning when struck with a weapon. This combat felt grindy and daunting even slightly nerfed, although I will concede that oozes are better employed in small, enclosed spaces where escaping from the horrible blob is difficult (or even impossible).
This fight was followed by a bizarre skill challenge where the PCs rode floating bubbles of black pudding spawn and navigated a zero-g environment resembling outer space to reach the top of the tower, where one last brutal combat stood between them and the artifact: a Level 9 beholder, four aberrant wretch minions, and some weird terrain effects. Three bubbles of wild magic floated around the area, generating a random burst 1 effect every round (determined by a d6 roll); some of these effects dealt damage or shifted adjacent characters (or both), while others changed the terrain by raising the floor 20 feet at a time. The minions were annoying but mostly easy to dispose; the problem was that every time a wretch died, it would teleport adjacent to a PC and daze that character for a round. But the beholder was NASTY. Of course, it should be - it's an iconic monster that you want to present a clear challenge... but the odds here are severely stacked in this thing's favor. Here's why.
The battle grid here is a circular area with a 4-square radius from the tower's center. Jumping off means almost certain death, because not only are you going to take fall damage, but the tower is surrounded by black puddings. You're also likely stuck in the Far Realm (or whatever horrible place the GM chose to put the watchtower - in my game, it's Lovecraftian Wonderland). The beholder gets two eye beams of his choice as a standard action every round, plus a minor action close blast 5 (+13 vs. Fortitude if memory serves) that prevents anyone caught in it from using anything but an at-will power for the next round. Additionally, anyone who activates within 5 squares of the beholder gets hit by a random eye ray before they can do anything. This means that pretty much wherever the beholder stands, he is within sufficient range to hit someone with a free shot every time their turn comes up - and if they're somehow out of range, he usually only needs to shift one or two squares to make sure that everyone is caught in the blast area of his interrupt and minor powers next round.
Oh, and he also has three cards from the Deck of Many Things he can play during the encounter. F*** your couch.
Now, from a GM point of view, this combat is a huge pain in the rear. You will be constantly tracking ongoing effects from the wild magic terrain and the eye rays - plus, some imposed conditions last one round while other identical conditions last until the target saves, and that got confusing to distinguish between.
Perhaps the best reason to dislike this encounter, though, is that we began playing it at 10:20pm, and by 11:40pm the PCs had only managed to knock the beholder down to about 260 of its 370 hit points. At some point, we're all like, "Uh, dude. It's late. I'm tired. I got stuff to do tomorrow. Can we end this?"
Luckily, the player running Varis came up with a novel solution to do so. He realized that the second card the beholder played was one which allowed anyone inhabiting the square where it lay to attempt to dominate a target once per encounter. So Varis strode over to the card, used it on the beholder, and ordered it to take a bath in the moat of black pudding outside. Problem solved. Encounter ended. We could finally go to freakin' bed.
At this point, while I haven't given up on 4E (it's kind of growing on me still), I have definitely given up on "Madness at Gardmore Abbey". From here on, I will be using the main map and detailed encounters as inspiration for my own unique content. It's more work than I wanted to do when I set out to run this game, but it's also the best way to keep me and my players having fun.