So here we have the Third Dungeons and Dragons Adventurers’ League EPIC event. If you’ve been reading these before, I’ve been overly critical of these adventures. I think one big reason is that there is way way way too much combat. I find in my own games, especially in 4E and now that I’m DMing higher level 5E is that I’ve thrown out the “random encounter” because everything after a certain level is either deadly or a speedbump. So I tend to focus on larger scale elaborate set pieces for combat encounters rather than what one might consider a small fight. And that’s wrong to do all the time. It’s a trap I fall into because I want the game to be challenging but I can’t stand to waste their time on something meaningless to The Story.
This relates to D&D Epics because the last two I’ve done have really been more like 6 hour fights. It’s exhausting to do one type of D&D for that long especially when the players know this is how they’ll be challenged so they have every incentive to build and play their characters like munchkins. They know that they will win the day and surpass all the challenges if they can roll their dice and win the fights I set out. I’m being hypocritical now, because I did Curse of Strahd and that adventure ends with you fighting Strahd and to win you have to beat Strahd in a fight. I was okay with it there though because there had been so much roleplaying and story up to that point. That fight had a reason to occur. There was a story to the fight that I was interested in knowing the end to. Maybe that’s more of an indictment against one shots more than the Epic Program. And I get that it’s a Me Issue, not a universal one. I can’t just show up to kick ass, I gotta know why that ass needs to be kicked.
All right enough philosophy onto the adventure. Relics is a follow-up to Forge of Fury, an adventure in Tales from the Yawning Portal. In that adventure you show up to the Dwarf ruin, kill some people and take their stuff. In Relics, you are part of a hastily assembled army that is trying to catch up with some Duergar. They looted the dungeon from Forge of Fury and are taking their plunder back to their home city. So, these Duergar did the same shit your PCs did but you are going to kill them because they have grey skin, they live underground and nobody likes them. I like that. I like that kind of subversion in an adventure. I don’t think that level of cheek is intentional. But I’m going to pretend it is.
Like the other Epics, this adventure is broken up into discrete chunks. I like that the adventure is explicit about the sort of challenge each chunk offers. In Act 1, there are three different things you can do. And the adventure flat out says, Choice A is about stealth and a fight, Choice B is a straight fight, and Choice C is puzzle with some fighting. Having read this section I’m going to push HARD for choice C which seems like the most fun. In Choice A, you are scouting. Choice B has you with the main body of the army and you get attacked. Choice C is the Rear Guard.
I’ll just say it, I’m going to prep Choice A but I really hope I don’t get it. In this encounter you are ambushed by the Duergar and Derro. They also have two traps, one is a trip wire with explosives, the other is less of a tripwire and more of a “last one alive blow the charges” type deal. It’s a bit Saving Private Ryan only in this case the PCs are the Germans. The PCs fail if the Duergar blow their charges. First reason I don’t like it, the map is kind of a curving S with the PCs entering at one end and the traps at the other. There are some bridges over rivers but I think this might be a mistake because they’re completely unmentioned in the terrain description of the combat encounter. And the TRAPS. Which are the centerpiece of the encounter. So why in the christ are the trip wires at the opposite end of the map? “Modify the placement of foes as you see fit.” Ok, fine. PUT THE FUCKING TRAPS AT THE FRONT WHERE THE ENEMIES WILL ACTUALLY RUN INTO THEM. All the Duergar are going to be dead by the time the PCs get to that point of the map. This is the second problem I have here, I believe this was sold as a Stealth Encounter. I think I see what they intended here. They intended for the PCs to quietly creep up on the duergar position, avoid the shrieker mushrooms, and disarm the traps or at least get between the Duergar and the traps before combat starts. But that’s not how they wrote it. They wrote it as a standup fight. Or rather, they wrote it as “stealth until someone gets caught then its a standup fight.” I’m ASSUMING I should suggest to the player they use stealth because the second some munchkin PC does some crazy combo, if I were one of these Duergar I’d blow the shit immediately. There’s no reason why you wouldn’t! But I’m putting my own interpretation on this. My point is, if you’re writing an encounter and you have a pre-conceived notion about how it should go, tell the DM that. Don’t write it one way and expect it to go another way. Help me run your adventure.
Choice B is pretty much a straight up fight. It does something creative though, rather than just walk into a 40’x40′ room with level appropriate enemies waiting it does two things actually. For one, the encounter takes place on the edge of a chasm. 60′ below is an open vein of lava. The enemies are all riding mounts that either fly or walk on the ceiling. It’s a fight but it’s an interesting fight. Choice A was an interesting fight too, it’s just not what I think the writer intended.
Choice C is the one I hope I get to run. Which is odd because the story of it doesn’t really make sense. You are with The Supply Train which includes “thirty odd drovers, pack animals, and wagons loaded with provisions set out at a ponderous pace.” Okay, so the story of this adventure is that you are attempting to prevent the Duergar from reaching their hidden rebel base. (Sorry! Despite the references to Nazis and hating the Duergar because of their skin color remember, you’re the good guys! I think.) I mean, you’re trying to prevent them from reaching the fascist slave city of Gracklestugh which if you recall from Out of the Abyss is full of assholes. So what I’m picturing is a strike force. An elite army intending to move with speed and cut these Duergar off from their objective. Your forces are said to number about “three score adventurers and about a hundred militia.” Now, I don’t know a whole lot about medieval supply lines but 30 ponderous wagons seems a bit like overkill.
Whatever its irrelevant. The point here is that after a couple hours of marching the baggage train runs into a steep area where they need to run single file. But the wagon drivers begin arguing who should go first. The PCs must put them in a workable order quickly because time is wasting. It’s a logic puzzle! Again, it makes no sense. If Tywin Lannister was commanding this army he would tell them to line the fuck up and if they did not he would hang the complainers until the problem was solved. Having said that, I think it’d be really fun to bullshit with the PCs for 30 minutes as these 8 wagon drivers. At some point the wagons get attacked by umber hulks or ankhegs. This is the only encounter with no map which seems weird as it’s a narrow corridor. Come on Mr. Writer help me run your adventure.
In Act 2, the army has caught up with the Duergar after a grueling forced march. The Duergar have taken up defensive positions in a large cave. The NPCs are going to march against them but the PCs are given special commando missions. Choice A, protect the sappers who are tasked with demolishing the trench the Duergar have built as a killbox. In Choice B, you are scouting and find out the Duergar are attempting to summon some devils to back them up. In Choice C, you are scouting some tunnels to try and flank the Duergar. Honestly this one is weird, you fall down a tunnel, find a gnome, and then ride a worm out of the tunnel. But in a crowning moment of awesome if you succeed you ride the worm out and through the Duergar forces.
Part 3 is described as a big damn battle which takes into account the successes or failures from the last encounter. I like how it incorporates those successes or failure in a simple, clearly communicated way. Blew the trench open? Great, advantage the first round. Stopped the summoning? Great, take advantage to initiative. It’s a small, clear advantage and its not something the DM has to apply to the entire combat encounter. It doesn’t specify what map to use but I assume it’s the map for the cavern from Act 2 since this is stated to be in the same place.
After the fight there is another fight immediately afterwards with Tormag Xornbane, leader of the Duergar. I might be reading this wrong but it seems like every table has to fight this guy. See remember because its an epic there are multiple tables all doing the adventure. This was one of my criticisms of the last two games was that my table didn’t get to fight the Big Bad at the end of the dungeon. Another table fought the Iron Baron and my table didn’t get to fight any of the special Volo giants in Ark of the Mountains. When the game is a six hour fight might as well have interesting opponents right?
If at least 50% of the tables defeat this final boss, this encounter counts as a success. At the end you add up all the successes or failures to see if you succeeded in the adventure. If you failed, the outcome is not summary execution by the Duergar. Instead they call it a pyrrhic victory. You won but at such a cost as to be not worth it. Then you divvy up magic items and story awards. Mission Complete.
I like this Epic Adventure more than the first two. For one thing, the maps provided are clearer and better drawn. The downside is that a couple encounters lack maps entirely. Iron Baron had maps but the scale was way way too big, even for a giant fight, and there was no guidance on where to put the monsters or what their tactics were beyond “kill the PCs.” I also like the story or rather, sense of purpose this adventure has. You need to catch up with the Duergar, you do, you fight them, you steal back what they stole but for the pink skinned good guys. Ark of the Mountains had a sort of “random events” plot which meant some tables were seizing the bridge, arming the guns, powering the engines and my table was doing busy work. I am curious what random events will occur this time around.
I think that’s all I have to say about this one until we actually play it. I like that this one explicitly has things to do other than kill sentient beings. I think the thing to remember is that D&D Epics are bonus levels. They’re a chance to grab coins and prizes. It’s a rock concert, not an album.
ACTUAL PLAY UPDATE
So Relics of DwarfNameUkur turned out to be the best D&D Epic I’ve run so far. I think my biggest issue with Iron Baron was the number of different monsters per fight. Ark of the Mountains was just too random. I liked that any instant one player might take 40 damage or suddenly everyone would gain advantage for a round. But I didn’t like the random nature of the objectives and the number of moving parts. Ark’s encounters were, “use these monsters if this is the players’ first time in this room” or “use these monsters if this is the players’ second time in this room and the ‘start the engines’ quest has been completed.” Relics was solid. Not too many different monsters per encounter. Fairly straightforward rooms without the multiple environmental toys of the last two Epics. The objective in most cases is to complete the encounter (usually a fight) in the one hour time limit. My predilection for long winded descriptions sort of fucked that one up a bit. And unlike Iron Baron and Ark, every group got to fight the Big Bad this time.
There are critiques I should offer but my first instinct is to temper them. Players and organizers do read these reviews and it comes off disingenuous when you say it was fun in person then point out the flaws here. It will always be easier to criticize than create. That’s why I usually raid published adventures for encounters and put my own story on top. Even when I rail against an adventure I still enjoy DMing. I like to run games for people. I’m not just saying that because some of those players and organizers are main characters in my Eberron game, “The Mark of Mercy.” An adventure I’m not crazy about or a DM I’m not crazy about if I’m playing is a great inspiration for how to make my games better. I always think back to Legacy of the Crystal Shard. There’s an encounter where one tribe of barbarians asks you to get some other enemy barbarians away from their sacred pool. The way the encounter is written, the only way to resolve it is to brutally murder everyone. But…in the story there is no reason things have to go down like that. It is just that an alternate solution isn’t written in the adventure. Now I know what you’re thinking, “a good DM would change this.” You’re right and I’m not going to realize that until I read the adventure. Now from now on when I set out an adventure I need to have a why. Why kill Strahd? Why help Aundair? Sometimes players will go along with an adventure because we play D&D at 5pm. For me I need to know why the game needs to be played.
So what can I saying about this Epic Adventure. I’ve gotten the positive points. Solid monster and map choices. I could have made the objectives a bit clearer. My group took the infiltration choices, scouting it part 1 and sneaking behind enemy lines in part 2. In both instances the objective is not “kill all the guys” but rather “kill all the guys within an hour.” I should have made that explicit. In part 1, the Duergar enemies, their objective is to blow up the tunnel. I didn’t do that because I honestly forgot and couldn’t get to it before time ran out. In the 2nd objective, the players didn’t complete the task, disarming a sort of magic artillery piece before time ran out. In both instances other groups succeeded. At the end of the day though, the highlight for me was the final boss fight. The Duergar leader had the Armor Class, HP, and some simple abilities that made him a joy to run at the end of the day. I think I might’ve been gloating a bit too hard because it seemed obvious that the PCs did not have a chance against this guy and his elite guards in their current condition.
If this epic had one flaw it’s that it was a good adventure but less of an epic. In the previous adventures, Ark of the Mountains especially, one table’s actions had a greater effect on everyone else’s. But I think the level of effect was enough. For example, if more than half the tables completed the “scouting” task then every table got the effect of a short rest. It was vastly less interaction than Ark though. I’m conflicted. This was a better adventure in every way that I judge an adventure but the point of an Epic is that ability of one table’s actions to affect the other ten groups playing.
But at the same time, one of the primary ways another table impacts the game is by sending another player over to sit in. As DM, it’s a pain in the ass to put an interloper in the initiative and it unbalances the encounter I built. I selected the number of monsters appropriate to the strength of my party. Shouldn’t I get to call in reinforcements too? If you have one table blow through its encounter, and there were a couple set pieces in this Epic that could be completed very quickly, then they run off and help other tables blow through theirs’. I know I should not get irritated at this. This is what makes the adventure an epic. But when someone shows up at my table sits down, throws out 60 damage like its nothing or a mass cure wounds…I don’t know. It irritates me. I hate setting the difficulty of the game by the most broken character. I hate feeling like its me vs. the PCs. I hate that making a combat harder usually means making it longer and harder to run. It’s the same reason that I wouldn’t mind playing 4th edition again but I would never want to run 4th edition again. But that’s what I’ve seen from these AL games. You have one character bedecked in more magic items in 8 levels than I’ve given out in the entirety of my level 11 game. If someone has a feat like polearm master, I write my adventure to account for that feat that’s going to get used every single fight. That’s not to say I want to screw over the PCs, like using too many monsters with counterspell. I don’t want to purposely invalidate their tactics. But I also don’t want to lose control of the table because someone is better at D&D than me.
This is turning into a diatribe against power gaming. I’m sorry I didn’t intend it to go in that direction. Really. Some of my best friends are power gamers. It’s cool, gives us more time to roleplay, I didn’t want to spend time in that combat anyways. It’s a playstyle that fulfills a lot of people but I don’t get it. Like what I said about 4th edition, I’d play it but I’d never run it again. I think the same kind of goes for Adventurer’s League. I’ll run AL as often as they keep having me back, but I can’t see myself playing it. For me it’s not about other players so much as I don’t really like what I perceive as the episodic nature. Like take this epic. Where do these players go afterwards? Where do they find their next job? Where did SEER go after the last one? What is she doing while this stuff is happening? What are the NPCs and the PCs doing while the camera isn’t on them? These are facetious questions. It’s not a story, it’s a season. The goal of the adventure is to kill monsters and get treasure in order to kill other monsters and get their treasure. I need more though. That’s part of what kills me when I get on the player side of the screen. I create this character, I fall in love in them, then the game quits, life gets in the way, I can never find a game that lasts unless I DM the thing myself. AL keeps going though. There will always be another adventure. But it is different, isn’t it? Nothing changes. You’ll never save the Sword Coast. That tier 3, level 15 party in the last epic? They fought slightly more powerful monsters to the same end as the level 1 scrubs. Did anyone do something that would prevent the next crisis?
When I started writing this I thought, okay, how do I write something that tells the organizer of this epic how proud I am of them, of what they put together and that they keep calling my complaining ass back while at the same time being a snob about the adventures I like? I guess there’s no right answer to that. For now I will keep thinking of the characters waiting to meet a shifter to take them deep into the Eldeen Reaches and of Tando Tossbottle, the Halfling rogue, waiting on the call to adventure.
Also if you’re in South NJ, please go visit Gamer’s Vault in Medford. They’re lovely people and they put on one hell of an adventure day.