Well, it's been over 2 months but the Red Frogs are adventuring once again! And we should be back to a weekly schedule for a while, which is definitely welcome. We're continuing the Viral's Diary arc, although the next DM in the lineup has said that he's scrapping his original adventure (the prologue of which we've already played). This actually works out fine for me, because it allows me to try out some of the Heroes of the Feywild options in actual play sooner. But I digress. On with the session summary.
Cast of Characters
Lyra Cinderfield (my character): Human Staff of Defense Wizard
Berylis Lindelenon (my character): Elf Panther Shaman
Rozzle: Elf Brutal Rogue
Unit 27: Warforged Weapon Talent Fighter
Note: The player of Zeus, our Wrathful Invoker, was out of town. Hopefully he'll be joining us for next session.
Note 2: I'd set Lyra up to be my primary character, but for this session I pretty much played Berylis as primary. His skills were more relevant, I had more fun with him in combat, and I was just feeling his personality more than Lyra's today. Perhaps it's also me distancing myself from her since I plan on possibly running a Druid again, and it would be a bit silly for me to run 2 controllers when there's also an Invoker in the party.
The party arrives at the edge of Deadwood Forest, following the directions found in the farmhouse. Lyra uses Create Campsite to hide them because the forest had a reputation for being treacherous. They wake to a heavy fog, and make their way through the forest. Berylis and Rozzle scout ahead, and soon they hear something crashing through the undergrowth. The party gets into position just before a party of goblins comes rushing ahead. We roll initiative and attack. The goblin leader gets a low initiative roll, but when his turn comes up he simply calls the other goblins off and says "no fight!" in halting Common. As the party decides what to do, Berylis hears some rustling off behind them, and Lyra throws a stick in that direction. All of the sudden 2 spider swarms erupt from under the dead tree that Lyra, Berylis, and 27 are under, and 2 Deathjump Spiders join them. At this point Rozzle is across a small gully with all of the goblins, separated from everyone else (1 of the deathjumps is on their side). The spiders are dispatched (with some help from the goblins), and the party continues their questioning. They are able to gather that the Goblins are running "from Death," but they're unable to describe what they mean any further. In any case, they're coming from the direction of Deadwood Falls, which is of course ominous.
Outside of Deadwood falls, the party comes to a clearing where many people are hung from nooses. Berylis searches the area for tracks, and finds some that go off running, but it looks like the people were chased and then captured again. Rozzle notices some nooses that were snapped, and it looks as though they were chewed threw. With a very high Nature check, Berylis determines that the chew marks were from a humanoid. Finding nothing else of interest, they head toward town, which is deserted. It looks to be in shambles, and eventually the party stumbles across a child's arm clutching a diary. The most recent entry talks about Gibs (the man that the party is seeking), who would always invite the local children into his blue house and tell them stories, and about how he became sick after returning from his latest adventure. People who visited him also became sick, and they were all taken into the woods and didn't return with those who took them. Eventually Gibs did come back, but everyone started screaming and Milty (the boy) was instructed to hide. Sounds like a zombie infection if ever we saw one.
Berylis searched the town's perimeter and found tracks leading everywhere. He followed a set until eventually they confirmed the zombie theory. They dispatched the zombie and then returned to town to look for a blue house. With Unit 27 and Lyra standing guard outside, Berylis and Rozzle searched the house. Gibs appeared to be a hoarder, and had some minor valuables as well as some magic items (these turned out to be a Skull Mask, which Berylis took, Surefoot Boots for 27, Scale Armor of Resistance (Necrotic) which was somewhat useless since only 27 could use it and he already had +2 Magic Armor, and 2 Sunblades which nobody in the party could make good use of. There was also a chest on the second floor with 2 keyholes, one of which contained no tumblers (so Rozzle couldn't pick it). Upon searching further, Berylis found a key which fit into the hole without tumblers, and Rozzle was able to then pick the other keyhole. In the chest was many papers (including the deed to the house, which Rozzle claimed), as well as a journal detailing Gibs' last trip to Viral's Tomb. Apparently, you had to get their by paddling a canoe downriver, deep into the forest.
When the elves rejoined Lyra and 27 outside, Berylis heard approaching footsteps. Soon the party was surrounded by zombies, which were approaching from all sides. This zombie apocalypse encounter ended up being really fun, as it featured 10 zombie minions, 3 regular zombies, and a Dread Zombie (the former Gibs) that could only be killed by radiant damage (and since the entire party failed their Knowledge checks it was essentially invincible as far as they could tell). For the next 4 rounds a new wave appeared, and each wave had an additional regular zombie and 5 more minions. In total, the party blew through 30 minions, 7 regular zombies, and they had to flee from the Gibs, who they had no apparent way of killing. Rozzle became pretty beat up trying to repeatedly kill the Dread Zombie (especially since he spent much of the fight out of range of Healing Spirit), and Lyra was the undisputed MVP with Stinking Cloud and enlarged Winged Hordes. One of the players commented that the wire outline that I used for the Cloud's zone might as well have been an eraser as I moved it around the battlefield. Also notable was Berylis' nova round, which consisted of Spirit Hunt followed by Twin Panthers via an action point, resulting in 60 total damage which was higher than Rozzle's nova round. A zombie walked around his spirit companion later that round to bring the round's total damage up to 78. Oh yeah, Panther Shamans are definitely formidable.
On the River
After fleeing from Gibs the party eventually located his old canoe and paddled down the river. It was pretty late by this point, so they paddled in shifts (Berylis and Unit 27 while Rozzle and Lyra rested). A few hours in a ghost appeared on the river, holding out his hand. Berylis brought the canoe to the bank to talk with him. His name was Nero Wimsley, and he fully admitted that he had been somewhat of a douche in life. He surmised that the party was headed toward Viral's Tomb, offering to provide them information seeing as this was where he died. However, this information wouldn't come free. Nero was unable to move on because his body still lay in the tomb. He asked the party to place 2 coins in his mouth and bury him, so that he could pay the ferrymen. Berylis agreed to this, while muttering under his breath what ridiculous superstitions humans had. Nero then informed the party that Viral's tomb was guarded, but behind the ancient cemetary there was a tunnel through the tomb of a man named Midos that led into Viral's tomb. He also mentioned that there was a shrine to Avandra along the river that the party could spend the night resting in. He warned them not to camp in the forest, for it was very dangerous at night. He also told the party to be wary of a blue door in the tomb.
After departing, the party decided to press on straight for the tomb instead of stopping at the shrine. Whether or not this was a good decision remains to be seen. Rozzle had only 2 healing surges left, but everyone else was perfectly fine (this is why glass cannon strikers annoy me sometimes). Everyone was good on APs, and everyone but 27 had blown a daily in the zombie encounter (so he had 2 left). So press on we did. Unfortunately, luck was not on our side (sorry Avandra), as we kept seeing fleeting glimpses of ghosts through the trees as we paddled downstream. Eventually, a group of ghosts became openly aggressive and attacked. Rozzle played conservatively and didn't take any damage that I can remember (though he didn't deal much, either), however, Berylis and Lyra both got focus fired pretty hard at various points in the encounter (the crits didn't help either), so they are now significantly down on surges as well (Berylis has 3 and Lyra 4). Still, no one was knocked unconscious and the party focus fired efficiently. It was at this point that we stopped the session.
The DM has asked that we "grade" his performance, which I think is very valuable for a new DM. I've thought a little about it, and so I figured I'd post my thoughts here. For overall adventure structure I think he's fallen into the tendency to railroad, as most new DMs do. The information as described often presents 1 obvious option, and when pursued the party discovers new information that leads them to another obvious option. Also, the contrivance of "party finds and NPC's journal which tells them what they need to do and where they need to go" is very much overused. It doesn't seem organic, and it doesn't offer much in the way of roleplaying opportunities. It feels very much like the PCs are forced to follow a script, and the only say that they seem to get in the matter is the style with which they go through the motions. It's worth noting that most published 4e adventures share this shortcoming as well. This is admittedly a really difficult habit to break as a DM, or at least I think so. I still tend to imagine a sequence of events in my head and design my adventures in such a way that everything leads to the events in the correct order. I think it was a big shortcoming of my last adventure, and part of that is the format of switching DMs for episodic mini quests. With just 1 level (about 3 sessions for us) to work with, it's tough to really create multiple strands of plot and a sandbox of unique options. For my level 8 and 11 adventures I'm already planning on departing a little from the railroad-style adventure, and I'll link elements from level 5 with these adventures. In fact, I've decided to take advantage of the interstitial period between these adventures to move things forward behind the scenes, which will allow me to present the party with a wide variety of challenges and link events in ways that might not be possible if the PCs were involved every step of the way. At least that's my hope. In any case, the take home message here is to move away from the obvious railroading, with an acknowledgement that it's a tough thing to do and probably won't happen all at once. I'll give adventure structure a C, because this is pretty much what you can expect from most new DMs.
The other obvious element to grade is encounter design, and the DM has come a long way since his last foray into the world of DMing. Despite the fact that some of these encounters were admitted to be filler encounters, none were pointless or boring. Interesting terrain was provided in all cases (even the simplistic layout of the zombie encounter had multiple enemy "sources" and choke points). The first encounter had a nice twist when the goblins turned out to be so desperate to avoid combat, and there was always a tension with Rozzle being alone with just the goblins on their side of the gully (even though the DM was adamant that the goblins didn't look like they wanted to appear threatening to the party). The mix of deathjump spiders and spider swarms was a good one, and deathjump spiders happen to be one of my favorite monsters as well. In any case, RPing the conversation with the goblins provided a sense of the frustration of the language barrier without being annoying, as well as set the ominous mood for the rest of the journey. All told, for a self-described "random, filler encounter" this certainly didn't feel like a waste of time. A solid B+.
The zombie apocalypse encounter struck a very good balance on multiple counts. First, the balance between minions and regular monsters was spot-on, letting the strikers (I'm including Berylis in this description) as well as the controller shine. There were enough minions to make it feel like the PCs were against an entire army, but enough standards to keep things tactically interesting. The second point of balance was the number of waves. An encounter like this can easily turn into a grindfest where there's so much of "the same" that it becomes boring. On the other hand, too few zombies doesn't feel like an "apocalypse," and blowing through an encounter like that can feel really anti-climactic. It ended up running a little over an hour, which I think was just about right. The DM also openly stated that he accounted for the presence of Lyra, as he's seen her enlarged AoE's and what Stinking Cloud is capable of. This is why I believe the balance that was struck was intentional (consider that in a striker-heavy, AoE-light party 30 minions plus 8 standards would have been a terrible idea). The encounter was damn fun, highlighted how the town could have gotten to be in such bad shape, and provided a strong incentive for the PCs to hightail it away as fast as possible. Indeed, I think this would have been a more appropriate incentive to leave town than Gibs' journal entry (and more tension could have been created if the journal had been discovered after this encounter, with the party desperate to find a clue about where to go). As far as the encounter itself goes, this one is a solid A.
Finally, the ghosts. According to the DM, he included this encounter as a specific consequence of the PCs neglecting to rest at the shrine. Which is funny, because that was a last minute impulse by me to make things interesting. I figured the shrine was added to prevent a random encounter while the party slept, and didn't think that one would be sprung on us while traveling the river. In hindsight it should have been obvious, but oh well. In any case, having the woods filled with ghosts was a nice touch. As an experienced backpacker who has had several jobs that involved walking around the woods all day, I don't find forests the least bit frightening and I usually detest the "scary, sometimes dangerous forest" trope. However, if there's a reason behind a specific forest being scary (haunted, in this case) then it paradoxically appeals to me. I like that these woods are crawling with ghosts, and that some of them will lash out against the living. As for the encounter itself, it was pretty straightforward. Still, an abundance of trees and the dynamics of the canoe on the river kept the terrain interesting, especially since the ghosts had phasing and some hid inside of the larger trees. Annoying, but realistic, and to have just a couple employing this tactic was a good balance. Lurkers would have been really appropriate here, but to be fair the actual monsters used was an on-the-fly decision (I don't think the DM expected us to turn down a rest in the shrine!). The one near-miss was that at first he had a level 12 monsters on the map because it was a quickly-designed encounter, and the experience added up. I immediately explained that this was a bad idea and he added 2 lower level monsters in its place. Just to reiterate, monsters that much higher-level than the party are far too difficult to hit, which results in a grindy, boring, frustrating combat. Add in the complication that the monster will also have an absurdly large pool of HP for their level and the problem is exacerbated. Going along with this problem, monster HP actually scales too fast at higher levels, and in the early levels of a tier in particular it's assumed that PCs have achieved their massive power-jump. Basically, the difference between a 10th and 11th level PC is greater than that between a 9th and 10th level PC, and a level 12 monster assumes you're on the other side of the Heroic-Paragon boundary, with its increase in damage-boosting options. Quite simply, the system is not designed for this kind of thing. If you want to represent a tougher-than-average monster, that's what Elites and Solos are for. This allows for monsters of varying strength while keeping the basic mathematical assumptions of hit rate, damage, etc. intact. Ignoring that almost-mishap, the encounter was somewhat run-of-the-mill but had a good atmosphere, and was a tangible consequence for a decision that the PCs made. Altogether probably a B-, which really isn't too bad at all.
In short, encounters all had a narrative purpose and were an appropriate challenge. This DM's previous adventure saw us through several trivially easy encounters followed by an absurdly difficult one that resulted in a TPK. A big step forward. What needs the most work is overall adventure structure, keeping in mind that paid game designers often don't do much better. Still, improvement in this area is definitely something to aspire to. Providing multiple meaningful choices that allow the PC's decisions to matter, having stuff going on in the background, and working on improvising are all good things. One thing that I've found helpful is the actually plan less. Draw up encounters, but don't provide a road map to them. Let interactions with NPCs flow naturally in response to PC actions as opposed to being completely scripted. Make sure that major events can play out in more than 1 way. For example, say that the king has been getting death threats. Don't assume that the party will accept an offer to protect him simply because that's what the DM planned. Have the party learn about the point of view of a rival, such that the whole situation is muddled in shades of gray. Maybe the party instead decides to help the rival and ignore the king's plight, or even to help the king's assassins. In short, give the PCs enough "say" to be able to drive much of the story. It makes DMing easier in a lot of ways if the players do so much of the work for you.