We had our first genuine player character death last night at Dead in Thay, and I would have been disappointed if it didn’t happen.
This week was “Room 10.” In the Dead in Thay megadungeon, Room 10 should be known as a killer. The party is 6th level, and they open a door and there’s a lich and four of its guards, waiting for them.
The lich is Tarul Var, who the party defeated in Session 0 at the Bloodgate. At my table, there were two PCs who had been at the Bloodgate, and therefore, Tarul Var recognized them. Unfortunately for me, those two PCs stayed back from Tarul Var, so he had to take his rage out on the healers (a cleric and paladin) who were in the front line.
Mike’s table finished up the Far Realms Cysts and opened the gate to the Lovecraftian horrors there. They did this in part to distract my lich (which did work– only 1 PC was killed, after all!)
The Dramatic Question for Room 10, incidentally, is not whether or not they defeat the lich. Because my players didn’t answer this question (or even know what it is), I can’t say yet what it is.
Now, when I read this part of the encounters season, I was disappointed. This is typical “monster in a box” kind of dungeon design. You open the door to a 35′ x 35′ bedroom. There’s a lich and four guards (all of whom can cast the lich’s spells at his level). There’s nothing interesting about the room itself, and it has no other exits. It’s easy to identify the lich, and he doesn’t really have a bunch of traps or hazards set up in the room.
Booooring. I sat down with my Tuesday night group to brainstorm how to make this more fun.
By the time we were done, we’d rewritten Room 10 to the following nightmare-level tricks:
- One of the guards is disguised as the lich, and the lich is disguised as a guard. His tactic is to get one of the PCs (preferably one from the Bloodgate) into the hallway, paralyze him, and throw him into the shadow trap from last week. At that point, he will go on his merry way to a different room until the PCs either defeat the remaining guards, or are dead.
- Each of the guards has a specialty. Yes, the lich can cast whatever spells he wants to, but it’s easier for him, controlling 4 guards, if he gives each a specialty. So two of the guards were basically there as warriors– one defending and the other attacking. One was the “poisoner,” casting repeated cloudkills on the PCs (he only got one off before being defeated). And obviously, one was disguised as Tarul Var himself.
What happened, however, is that the PCs took an ice storm to their faces, then… closed the door. Barred it. And spent the rest of the fight trying to get away as Tarul Var’s guards dimension door’ed into the hallway to fight them.
Finally, the rogue and the monk headed to the south room and peered in. Inside, there was a demon being tormented by some low-level skeletons and a wight. And, off to the side… a black gate portal! These gates are used to get to the Sanctuary Vault, a room where the PCs can rest up in safety!
All they had to do was get out of the hallway, get past the undead, not die, and get into the gate.
They almost made it, too. The paladin of Bane got separated into the shadow hallway, at which point the real Tarul Var picked him off by opening the shadow trap and trying to paralyze him with his touch (he failed… even with advantage. It kind of sucked). The paladin kept trying to get away, but Tarul Var moved in, unleashing a whirlwind of two lich touches and a cantrip, every round.
The paladin even rolled a natural 20 on his death save, bringing him up just long enough to be hit again!
By the time he went down for good, he was wedged between Tarul Var and the wight. The cleric was torn between wanting to drag him into the portal, risking both their lives, or leaving him to die…. in the end, he chose to save at least on of their lives (since it was unlikely he would have survived, either).
RIP Lord Mr. P. And good riddance!
Just kidding. Last night was one of the rare games where I genuinely get adversarial. I have something of a reputation for being a “hard” GM, but that’s mostly because I’ve run the “I’m going to kill you” campaign, in which I aided the players in their backstabbery to the point where I never killed a single PC… I let them kill each other, instead. And because, when the fight is supposed to be overwhelmingly hard, I don’t hesitate to make it hard. I’ll feel a twinge of regret over killing a character, but the Doomvault is supposed to be a deadly dungeon, in the spirit of Tomb of Horrors and Temple of Elemental Evil. To softball Room 10 would be to cheapen the experience of this campaign.
Everyone wants to win, but not without without a challenge.
The remaining PCs arrive in the Sanctuary Vault, where they can rest up and level up to 7. They’re worried about returning to a pissed-off lich. I remind them that, because their key is attuned to all the entry points in the dungeon, they can resume their adventure in any of the other sectors. I do need to know in advance, though, since I’ll need to prep.
They decide to return in the Predator Pools. We have some miscommunication about which room in specific they’ll be coming out of, but I’ll clear that up next week. In either case, they definitely don’t want to return to the Abyssal Prison.
During their escape, the fire elemental “Blaster” finally makes his exit, heading for the door on the far side of the room, where he can sense the elemental rift, 2 rooms away. Blaster was with the party for 3 sessions, far more than I originally intended. The party also freed the demon that was being tormented, meaning they have now freed all the prisoners they’ve encountered in the Abyssal Prison.
This may or may not come back to bite them later. We’ll see how Tarul Var handles this particular challenge to his particular corner of the dungeon.
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