Last night was not my best session. I usually DM on weekends and even if I’m not prepping much I’m still mentally going over the adventure rather than thinking about work.
We ended our last session with the PCs just entering the Tower of the Heart of Sorrow. They figured out right away when the tower started trying to pitch them off the stairs that the giant glowing heart at the top of the tower was probably to blame. The Warlock’s Eldritch Blast made short work of that though, before the vampire spawn could show up to defend it. I substituted the 10 flying swords for Vampire Esmerelda. I decided to do this because I really wanted to wrap things up but I needed to drain some resources from the PCs. Esmerelda makes a good mini-boss and I wanted to vengeance on Chris Perkins for filling this adventure with a menagerie of powerful ally NPCs. If I ran this adventure again, managing and limiting the potential for overpowered NPC allies would be my first priority.
But they did overcome her and made their way to the top of the tower to meet Pidlwick II. I like the idea of a mute NPC who communicates with gestures and shrugs. I decided the little construct would be at the top of whichever tower the PCs reached first. No one could really remember why they wanted to come this way but I reasoned that Pidlwick would take them to Escher who would give the party fast and safe directions to the crypts. Again, I was trying to wrap things up. But I also really wanted to include Pidlwick and Escher. One PC wanted to find Pidlwick after hearing about it from Blinsky and I really wanted to include Escher. He has stuff he can do after the adventure, he’s not entirely on Strahd’s side, and he’s an LGBT NPC. I skipped the encounter with Strahd’s portrait reluctantly and Pidlwick begged in character to avoid the encounter with the witches.
The PCs made it to the crypts, kicking themselves because they walked by the stairs at least twice. They began searching for the tomb containing the Sun Sword, the tomb of the Wizard Ordinairy. They soon realized that yes, Strahd was down here. But they also fell prey to his mighty Perception modifier. They had good Stealth checks, but his ears were better. Not wanting him to get caught in Sergei’s tomb, he left and ducked into Pidlwick’s tomb, ready to attack the next person who came by it.
The PCs kept looking and when one of them realized he wasn’t in Sergei’s tomb he struck. Now the fight is on. Again not wanting to get swarmed I had him fall back knowing the non-charm resistant fighter would follow him. Then the Druid casts Conjure Animals to summon 16 creatures.
The strength of Conjure Animals is not it’s potential for damage. It baffles the DM into needing to help adjudicate more goddamn creatures on the board. I am not a tactically minded DM, I made several mistakes (moving laterally staying in Counterspell range rather than away). Dramatically increasing the number of creatures on the board makes that problem worse. The last thing any DM worth their salt wants to do is make combat longer. I’ve already got to run this very complicated NPC the last thing I want to do is have Strahd start calling in buddies but I think that’s all I can do.
Maybe Conjure Animals isn’t broken or a waste of everyone’s goddamn time. Okay fine. Tell you what, go to a convention game and use Conjure Animals to summon 16 creatures. When you find a DM who doesn’t look weary or pissed at this, it’s no longer broken. True it is a concentration spell but then the party cast’s Protection from Good and Evil on the Druid. Well, easier to hit him with Disadvantage than Charm an elf into dismissing the spell.
The other thing I did poorly was I forgot to print out my houseruled Icon of Ravenloft. Instead, I had a player reading the adventure at the table telling me what the thing does. No. This is a red light hard line in the sand. This is player taboo and it pissed me off. You do not ever, EVER, read the adventure at the table during a game. But it was my fault. The players needed Van Richten’s stats and I looked them up on my phone which meant they looked up other things. I got hostile but I wanted to cut off a potential argument at the knees. Doesn’t make me right though. This is one of those Social Contract things that the DM is right even when they’re wrong. I fucked up when I didn’t make my house rules on this item clear. But as written, the item gives all creatures within 30 feet Protection from Good and Evil. That is hella overpowered in an undead themed adventure.
But, now I have a week to plan things out and try to scheme my way out of being savaged by boars. I think at the end of it all, I just don’t want this to feel too easy because I have trouble outfighting powergamer tactics. Do I flee, charge, what?