Dead in Thay: Finale

We ran the final session of Dead in Thay this week, due to scheduling conflicts. So if you’re playing Encounters at another shop, wait a week to read this post.

In this final session, the PCs travel to the Phylactery Vault, where Szass Tam has hundreds of lich phylacteries stored, the phylactery jars of his many lich minions. The mission of the PCs is to go in, breach the sepulchers where the phylacteries are housed, and destroy the phylacteries. This will ensure that the liches themselves can be defeated permanently.

In the first part of the encounter, there’s a basic skill challenge. The PCs need to open three sepulchers and destroy the phylacteries within. When they open one sepulcher, the gargoyles on the door come alive and shred them. However, the gargoyles are actually easily defeated.

Then, when they fully disrupt one of the sepulchers, the aspect of Kazit Gul, a demilich of liches, shows up to serve as a guardian of the Phylactery Vault (or as I put it in my notes: “arrives to fuck your shit up.”)

It’s when Kazit Gul shows up that it becomes painful. Kazit Gul is a save-or-die trap that can fly and which resists or is immune to every type of damage (he either takes zero damage, or half, or sometimes a quarter). He barely does any damage himself, so everything the party owns to mitigate or heal is not so useful. The party would have to do 160 hit points in non-save damage to defeat this guy– very difficult to do in the one round before the killed PC’s body disintegrates into dust (dust means no resurrection). The saving throw isn’t too bad, for a Wisdom-heavy party (mine was very Wis-heavy), except that one unlucky die roll means death to one or more PCs.

We ran three tables last night. One of them TPKed and the players did not have fun. Part of that is probably the GM– I’m going to ask him and the players today what happened. Part of it is simply “save or die” is a terrible thing to do to a party, even when they’re facing the uber-lich of liches. Once the TPK happened, their Aspect arrived at my table so my guys had to face two Kazit Guls at once.

At table #2, the party defeated Kazit Gul and joined my table in the final round to finish off the 2 aspects there. I believe the GM at that table probably pulled punches; he has a tendency to do so, but his players left with smiles, while table #2’s left in anger and frustration.

At my table, the party defeated the first gargoyles, and then Kazit Gul showed up and killed their monk immediately. He glares at the monk, the monk rolls poorly on his saving throw, and the monk is down, his soul trapped in Kazit Gul’s teeth. One round later, his body turns to dust (can’t be resurrected), and his soul flies into Kazit Gul’s mouth.

This is where I cheated. The monk had made a deal with Baazka in session #1 to “die last,” and Baazka wasn’t going to let some upstart lich steal his kill. I scribbled down the stats for a pit fiend on an index card, and gave it to the monk’s player and told him “your motivation is to get the monk’s soul from Kazit Gul.” He wasn’t exactly an ally to the party, and didn’t care about friendly fire, but the player was able to stay in the game and have fun.

Even with a pit fiend throwing fireballs as an at-will spell, the party lost their druid to the trap-the-soul (though that was from the other aspect from Table #3), and needed the help of Table #2’s party to finish up.

The players all described their epilogues after the final show-down– some returned home. Some wandered Thay, searching for meaning. The druid’s ghost stayed in the Doomvault as a haunt. The monk was taken to the Abyss to join Baazka’s army. The cleric returned to Neverwinter to once again try to find and regain the crown (I should have put this in the vault as a phylactery… that would have confused him!)

Kazit Gul, meanwhile, though defeated, is not dead. In order to kill him permanently, all his teeth/gems need to be destroyed. Since those fell into the murky waters (and one was sent to the Abyss), he survived this fight and will be back at some later time to cause trouble for the PCs again.

Some post-mortem and DMing Ideas

The problem with Trap The Soul is that it isn’t fun. There is nothing you or anyone can do once you’re trapped to mitigate it–there’s no saving throw. There’s no remove curse. There’s nothing except grind down a monster who is immune or resitant or avoidant of all damage types. The player is removed from the game. This can happen early on in the session, making players angry and frustrated and not causing a fun experience for anyone.

My advice: When running this fight, or similar fights, try to think of creative ways the PCs can undo Trap the Soul. Some suggestions here:

  • Can a called shot take out a gemstone and release the soul?
  • Can remove curse work?
  • Resurrection?
  • If they continue to focus on the phylacteries and destroy those and the gargoyles, will Kazit Gul relinquish the soul?
  • Can you summon an angry devil (that one’s probably only story-appropriate for my group, but maybe one of their other monstrous allies would show up for this showdown)?
  • Can the trapping of the soul be a gradual process, such as over 3 rounds during which the PC gets progressively weaker (disadvantage, restrained, then trapped)?
  • Can a critical hit on Kazit Gul smash a souled gem, releasing the soul and restoring it to the PCs’ body?

At the end of a 12 week campaign, the players deserve better than to have their epic story come down to “roll a saving throw… and you’re out.” It’s okay for PCs to die in an epic fight. It’s not okay for PCs to die in ways that feel meaningless and powerless.