Drums of the Dead – Tier 3

I feel ready to commit some thoughts to text after working through The Introduction and Tier 3-4 (Characters Level 11+) material.  While I balked at the alarming number of pages this adventure has I have to say that the encounters are much more detailed and interesting than I’ve seen in previous Epics.  This adventure, more than any one previously, offers real roleplaying opportunities.  Will they be too much for a three hour adventure?  That I can’t say. However, I know that I have a bad habit of allowing a talky scene to drag on far too long and will need to curb that in this adventure.

This adventure has a 17 page introduction with setup.  A lot of this is boilerplate AL info but we get a lot of the background information for the adventure.  As I wrote last time, an attempt to wipe out Chult’s hordes of undead has backfired and caused the curse of undeath to become infectious and the zombies faster, Dawn of the Dead Remake style creatures.  Lower level characters are going to try and gather an antidote while higher level characters are assaulting the eponymous Drums of the Dead.  The Red Wizards of Thay have seized control of this zombie army and are marching it to Port Nyanzaru using a massive walking fortress.  The fortress is actually mentioned in Tomb of Annihilation.  The ultimate goal of the higher level PCs is to slay the two liches running the show, Valindra Shadowmantle and Szass Tam, the big bad of Thay himself.  I’ll come back to them when I discuss their encounter.

Like the Epics up to this point, Drums is broken up into separate sections each intended to last one hour.  And there is choice within each section.  For example, some tables are going to free prisoners, other tables are going to destroy artillery.  Unlike the previous Epics, the adventure encourages you to go and play the sections you didn’t do already.  I’m not sure I agree with letting your PCs do that.  For one thing, this is a one shot, timed, three hour adventure.  You do not have the chance to rest.  Replaying sections just puts the PCs in danger and drains their resources.  Second, each of the three sections uses the same map for the quests within that section.  The table that chooses “Slay the Death Golem” fights the fucker in a big center room.  But  In the “Free the Prisoners” quest, that same room is used for an entirely different purpose.  I get that the point is so one group that finishes early doesn’t sit around doing nothing but unless you just say “this doesn’t count” there is literally no incentive to do so.

The adventure says that if your first section takes longer than 90 minutes to complete you should skip straight to section 3.  Not sure I agree with that.  Again, this is a timed adventure.  Completing it on time is part of the game.  If you don’t complete the objective within 60 minutes YOU DON’T COMPLETE THE OBJECTIVE.  YOU LOSE, SIR.  Which means I should tell this to the PCs upfront, if you do not kill Valindra Shadowmantle, this mission is a failure.

The Zombie Plague is a big factor and a complicated one at that.  The idea is that when a PC is attacked by an infected undead, they have to make a Con save or get infected themselves.  If they are infected, and it’s a DC 15 save so, yeah probably.  When this happens, 30 real time minutes later that player has to leave the table and go fight at another table.  That table stops what they’re doing, the infected player attacks someone, and everyone attacks them.  If they live, they go to another table.  They keep doing this until they’re dead which should be about 2-3 tables.  The most likely effect they’ll have on other tables is that they’ll infect them.  Which means in 30 minutes those players get up and go to other tables.  Although while this is going on the original table’s encounter is still going on.  I really hate being interrupted but this is just what happens with Epics.  At least it’s a self-contained interruption, it’s not someone else to cram into the initiative.  This epic seems to have completely eliminated the monster and player swapping between tables which I did not care for.

Here’s the kicker though.  If the lower or upper Tier tables, both of them, do not succeed in this adventure (find the cure/slay the liches) then ALL characters who are infected become unplayable zombies who can only be returned to playable status by a Wish Spell or True Resurrection.  Wow.  That sounds like a dangerous idea.  When I was reading Iron Baron, the first encounter required one table to give a password for entry.  I think the organizer, wisely, decided to just tell everyone that the correct password was given.  Because in the story, one person was being given the opportunity to ruin the day for 40 people.  In reality, there was no way that the organizers or the store that was hosting the event and charging people for the event was going to abide by that “in-story” stipulation.  I’m not buying that people will actually let this happen to their characters and I doubt that in three months a DM will say, “wait, were you at that Epic in New Jersey where the Tier 3 tables shit the bed and everyone stayed zombies?”

One more item to note in this introduction.  There are three wandering NPCs who can interact with the PCs.  Szass Tam challenges someone to a duel, an Arcana check roll off.  If they lose, they lose unspent spell slots.  Holy shit that is a real kick square in the genitals.  Valindra challenges PCs to a riddle off, if they lose everyone loses half their health.  HOLY FUCK.  THE CHARACTERS CAN’T REST YOU SICK BASTARDS.  Weirder, there are tips for how to cosplay these two characters and Volo.

Szass Tam: “Shave all your bodily hair off (or wear a bald cap).”  Loudly boss Valindra about.  Because that won’t make anyone uncomfortable in two thousand and eighteen.

Valindra: “Your hair should cascade in blonde tresses.”

Volo: “Ensure…your moustache and beard are neatly waxed.”

 

Let’s get into the specifics of this adventure.  Again, I’m only writing about the Tier 3-4 stuff.  There is some helpful advice for running Tier 4 (Level 17+) that is applicable to Tier 3 as well.  It implores the DM to ask the players directly what crazy fucking munchkin shit they brought.  The advice reminds DMs that these PCs have access to encounter ending save or suck spells and that the players probably have enough Counterspells between them that a DM needs to have countermeasures ready.  Basically it says that these characters are invincible so add monsters whenever needed to keep things interesting.  Lie.  Cheat.  Steal.

As I said, the Tier 3-4 characters are assaulting this giant fortress guiding the undead army to Port Nyanzaru.  I really wish there was some art of what this thing is supposed to look like.  The description is not great or clear as far as how these areas are connected to each other.  I realize art is expensive and stuff, but if your setpiece is a castle being carried by twelve colossal tortoises come on I want to see that shit.  Maybe there will be art at the event itself.  During Ark of the Mountains there was unexpected and glorious color art of the two battling airships.  There is a palace map handout but it just has the different encounters, not art of the crawling fortress.

Drums of the Dead, Tier 3, Section One itself split into three choices (Jesus).  The structure is similar to Ruins of Khundrukar in that one choice is a straight combat, one choice is more about Stealth and Exploration, and one choice is about Roleplaying.  The First Choice, The Fight pits the PCs again a big goddamn golem made of corpses and some red wizards.  The PCs do not start in the thick of the fight and I am wondering how long it will take for them to get there.  More likely they will try to bottleneck the mages in the doorway. Make sure the doorway is big enough for your Corpse Golem.  But also keep in mind there are two ticking clock elements here. Number one, this is a timed adventure.  If the PCs turtle up and wait for the mages to come to them, don’t take the bait. Remember, if Valindra is not defeated in three hours then they lose.  Remind the PCs of this in character.  The other element specific to this encounter is that the mages are sacrificing people to strengthen the golem.  I might add more people because the way it is written, all of these commoners take 5 necrotic damage at the end of the round which will kill them in the first round.  When they die, this is supposed to unleash a wave of necrotic energy. So after this first round this trap is no longer a factor in this encounter.  Maybe I will roll a d4 to determine who dies, rather than just kill everyone right away.  The other ticking clock element is that artillery is targeting the PCs and they are rolling every round to avoid damage.  This is pretty straightforward, I like the encounter, other than the hazard of the PCs trying to bottleneck which should not succeed against a team of mages and the trap being a non-factor after the first round.  Make sure a mage has dispel magic in the event they try to impede vision or movement for the golem.

Choice 2 (I’ll try to make these descriptions shorter) is the Roleplaying option.  In this, the PCs masquerade as reinforcements from Thay teleporting into the fortress.  They are immediately split into three different work details. If you want to be a massive dick to your players, which you should never do, have one of the Red Wizards of Thay ask them a question in Thayan.  I guarantee no one will speak Thayan.  Don’t trigger the alarm, just make them sweat for a second.  They the Red Wizard rolls his eyes and says it again in Common.  So the players are split into three groups.  Their objective is to sabotage the artillery blasting at their allies attacking the fortress.  The players have to find a way into where the artillery.  Honestly there aren’t that many guidelines here.  I think this will wind up being one of those roleplaying encounters that ends at the first blown Charisma check.

What’s tough here is the chain of events.  There is a prison, a lab, and a guarded entryway to the artillery.  Wizard one gets a captive from the prison to bring them to the lab.  They’re sacrificed into a crystal.  Wizard two brings the crystal through the gates to the artillery.  I think you’d want to roll initiative to determine who’s scene is played first.  Otherwise it becomes impossible to track where these wizards are coming and going to.  This will probably lead to one group jumping someone eventually when they’re alone.

Choice 3 is all about the Exploration.  That Pillar of D&D that is maligned as the least satisfying and least developed part of the game.  The PCs are put into a Feign Death spell so they can be smuggled in with a bunch of corpses to infiltrate the fortress.  I should point out that Feign Death lasts an hour and that it is the caster who determines if it ends early.  So this caster should probably say, “The spell lasts an hour, hopefully they won’t animate or kill you while you’re helpless.”  Honestly this is kind of a rehash of the Roleplaying encounter with Stealth as the limiting factor instead of Charisma.  This section also features a Save or Die trap.  The objective here is to free the captives.  One thing you really need to be mindful of in this adventure is that the Red Wizards of Thay are inflicting a lot torture and slavery on Chultans, who in the story are analogous to Africans.  The story takes pains to describe that the Red Wizards and their prisoners are diverse but your players might react negatively to a story that features black suffering and slavery.  Tread carefully.

Next we come to Section 2 which also has three choices.  These are pretty complicated, I haven’t been able to understand them all entirely.  In choice one your goal is to destroy an antimagic field that surrounds the upper levels of the palace but not this level.  Conveniently, one of the red wizards has been killed here and dropped a bomb capable of destroying the anti-magic field.  The area is also has some undead but curiously these are not Thayan undead run amok which might make more sense, rather they’ve been teleported in from the astral plane of spoilers.

The bomb that disables the antimagic sphere is your objective.  It summons a sphere of annihilation that wipes the thing out.  The timer on the thing is deactivated until another group finishes their objective.  The adventure really seems to want someone to set the thing off by hand and kill themselves.  There is text in the beginning of the adventure of announcements for the event organizer to make as the PCs complete their objective.  But the text for this section says, “someone made the ultimate sacrifice and blew the thing up by hand.”  Uhh no they won’t.  They’ll wait until the timer can be set and then do that.

Section 2 Choice 2 is another Charisma based infiltration challenge.  This is a puzzle.  There is a traitor among the Red Wizards willing to help the PCs get through this next part and he has information to share but oh no he can’t give them all the information the Red Wizards show up to collect “the new workers.”  This becomes a bluffing game where the PCs have to write an instruction that they are supposed to follow and everyone else in the group knows it but the PC does not know their own order.

For example, one PC is “The Leader” of the group  But they are the only one who doesn’t know that.  Curiously there are seven handouts so in groups of fewer than seven people someone is getting two.  The reason the PCs can’t just attack everyone is because this area is under an Anti-Magic field.  So that sucks.  If the players act suspicious, they get attacked.  Bottom line is that this is a puzzle.  The players need to come up with the command phrase to disable the gargoyles.  I don’t know how the players are supposed to come up with the code without being told specifically what to do.  It’s basically “string this out until everyone starts to feel frustrated then bail them out.”

Choice 3, this one is weird.  The PCs are attacked by 200 zombies but that is a distraction.  The point here is a small mausoleum that leads to a demiplane.  Inside the Demiplane with three traps that the PCs can avoid by consulting several murals around the garden.  After the traps there is a doomsday device capable of wiping out a continent.  The only way forward is to arm it when it teleports away back upstairs where the zombies are.  Then….the PCs best disarm it otherwise EVERYONE FUCKING DIES.  It doesn’t say how long it takes to disarm the fucking thing.  Yeah this one is a bit weird.

Here’s an issue I have with section 2 as a whole.  This is taking place in the actual palace section of this giant walking fortress.  Surely the Red Wizards are aware that enemies have landed in the castle?  You have multiple groups of adventurers beginning to assault the castle and these guys are just hanging out in this garden like nothing is at stake for them.  They should be on alert after their perimeter defenses are shattered.  There no naturalism to this, the garden has no entry point from the last encounter because it is the 2nd of 3 Encounters and the encounters have no place in the world other than what the text ascribes to them.

Section 3 is a stand up fight.  Except there is a fucking nasty trap that removes class features until someone uses dispel magic or makes an arcana check.  This is meant to be a tough fight although Valindra is missing some of her most powerful spell slots.  Yet the adventure still expects her to be worth the experience of a CR 21 Lich.  Uhh…no?  It’s not a CR 21 creature if it doesn’t have its CR 21 shit.  CR is a crapshoot, okay got it.  The adventure is still giving away XP per creature, but Valindra isn’t a full strength Lich so she should not be “worth” the full Lich XP.  The Tier 4 Characters are fighting a Lich and an Adult Red Dragon so it sucks to be them.  Bring Tieflings!

So that’s the Tier 3 version of Drums of the Dead.  I like this adventure a lot compared to the other epics.  These sorts of things are best when they are straightforward.  Keep it fantastical and big.