[4e] The Portal Room Encounter

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I threw my players into what I thought was a really awesome encounter last night, and so I thought I’d share.  It combined a time limit with a rushing water hazard and played off the baddies’ abilities in really nasty ways.  Right up front, thanks to Bryant and Drew for helping me design this one. They helped inject the awesome it wouldn’t have had without them.

The party: 3 8th lvl PCs – Sorcerer, Bard and Warden – and one Companion Character (a Shifter Ranger).

The set-up: A long room, about 16 squares long by 10 wide. At the far end are open double doors, creating a choke point, to a Portal Chamber  (5×5) with 3 magical floating stones around a magic circle.  When the PCs enter there’s a dude in the circle chanting. There are also, between them and the Portal Chamber doors, 11 scattered minions and 2 non-minions, as well as an assortment of barrels and carts and boxes (the design of the room a shipping/receiving warehouse – goods are delivered via the portal, loaded onto carts, and brought out to the town).

The baddies: they look like guards and civilians from the town but are really aboleth hatchlings (found in the “City of Aboleths”  article in Dungeon 170, ratcheted down to lvl 6) riding the empty husks of human bodies to infiltrate the portal area. Eleven of them are minions, but they are two-stage minions: the first hit pops open the skin and reveals the aboleth inside, the second takes out the fish. The body and aboleth forms have different attacks and stat blocks, and I think I added the XP value for both together and took 2/3 of it or something for determining the total budget for the encounter (since all 22 are not swarming the board at the same time I didn’t feel the full XPs were deserved, but they definitely were worth *something* more since they persisted and took 2 actions to get rid of). The 2 non-minions were a Foulspawn Grue and a Foulspawn Mangler to whom I had applied an “Abolethic Baddie” theme (thank you DMG2) to give them some nasty tentacle attacks. The tentacle attacks had a “Slow, if already slowed then Dazed” effect which would play off each other, and the aboleth hatchlings do more damage to dazed foes, so yay all good there. The chanting guy is a Foulspawn Seer.  All told I’m looking at about 2200 XPs of baddie in the room, making this a solidly Hard encounter.

The twist: The chanting guy is casting a “gate opening” spell (Arcane DC10 check to determine that. He’s standing in a portal circle after all). He needs 2 Standard actions to complete this spell, and will need to also spend his Minor actions to sustain. So anything stunning or Dazing him would disrupt it and he’d have to start over. Ditto if he gets moved out of the 4×4 magical circle. The PCs also have the option of destroying one of the floating stones to disrupt the ritual (pretty much an auto hit, 20 points of damage to destroy one), but they don’t have any spares and they’re at the ass-end of the cosmos so doing so would trap them here on forever.

When the ritual is completed a portal to the bottom of the ocean is opened, creating a flooding torrent of water rushing into the room.  The water moves at the end of each round at 6 squares per round. Anyone caught in the area of water is subject to a Thunder Wave attack (+10 vs Fort, no damage on hit but pushed 4 squares back). Moving toward the portal was Difficult terrain; moving away from it required an Athletics check (DC 15) or you’d be swept an additional 1d6 squares.  All the crates and wagons and stuff were treated like projectiles in the water – I rolled a die to see what direction they moved in and anyone in the path took 1d6 damage.  After the second round of flooding, the water was deep enough that Small characters would need Athletics checks to move or risk drowning. After three rounds, Medium characters would have to do the same.

And that’s the first phase. Once the chanting guy finishes the “Open Gate to the Bottom of the Ocean” he starts on “Open Gate to Bring My Aboleth Master Here, Now That I’ve Prepared This Nice Aquarium For Him.”  Which would be Bad.  This will take him 6 rounds to complete, again Standard and Minor needed.

How It Played Out: I should note up front that my players’ die rolling was TERRIBLE last night. They’ll freely admit it – they rolled more numbers below a 4 than I’ve ever seen at a table before.  The Warden started right off with running right for Chanty McChanterson. He made it about halfway through the room before he was swarmed by minions and the Mangler and ended up Slowed and/or Dazed and also pinned in by baddies for a good long time. The Sorcerer and Ranger stayed in the back and started blasting but got pinned down by minions so they couldn’t really advance to deal with Chanty. The Bard moved about halfway up and was picking off the Mangler and Grue but was taking some nasty psychic hits from the Grue.

The PCs had said, upon going into the room, that they were yelling for more guards to help them so I had 1d8 guard minions come in about this time. They helped to keep some of the Aboleth minions in check but weren’t overbalancing.

Then the water came. Between the Slows and the Difficult terrain and the chance of getting pushed back, the PCs were not able to make much headway toward Chanty.  The Sorcerer was too far back to reach him. The Ranger was locked down and couldn’t fire her bow without getting OA swarmed. The Bard was in range but couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn.

At some point the minions were sufficiently thinned that the Sorcerer could move on up and the Ranger could start taking shots at Chanty from the back.  Somebody (the Bard? I forget) did something that Pulled Chanty forward 3 squares which put him a) right at the edge of the magic circle and b) in the path of the rushing water (he’d bee standing behind the portal so he wasn’t affected by the water hazard). If the water attack on him at the end of that turn had been successful it would have been all over there, but it wasn’t and Chanty moved back to his safe place. The Bard was picking away at the Grue and the Warden was hacking down the Mangler. The water continued to push people all over the damn place. Sadly, I’d placed the crates too close to the edges of the board so they didn’t end up being that much of a threat (I did crush a guard minion between two of them though. I imagined a great Wilhelm Scream as the boxes smashed him to a pulp).

Finally the Warden did a full-out double move run toward Chanty, provoking about 6 OAs along the way but ending up right next to him. The Sorcerer and the Ranger got in some solid shots, and the next round the Warden finished Chanty off.

That was at the end of round 5. The Sorcerer would have gone next, then the end of the round, then Chanty at the top of the next round would have finished the ritual and the Fish God would have come through. Nobody had any Dailies or Action Points left and darn few Encounter powers, they were all Bloodied and out of healing. It was shaving it about as close as you could get.

I may have stacked it too much against the PCs in terms of hindering movement. The Slows and the Difficult terrain made it impossible to shift and made progress toward Chanty nearly impossible. I could tell the players were getting petty frustrated at one point. If I were to do it again, I wouldn’t give both the lieuts Slow/Daze powers, and I’d give the water’s Thunderwave attack maybe a lower attack bonus.  Also, the Bard is a Gnome and has a lousy Athletics skill, so she just wasn’t going *anywhere*. I abandoned plans I had to force folks to make an Athletics check at the start of their turn or be knocked Prone – that would have just been too brutal.

Overall, it was tense and epic and everybody said one of the most fun encounters we’ve had in the game so far. I agreed. Unfortunately it meant I’ve raised the bar and they now will expect more awesome from me each session.

DM Confession: I fudged ONE roll toward the end, allowing the Warden to hit when it was looking VERY grim and he had missed by 2. I made a note of this, and there will be a reason for it in the future.

Now they just have to figure out where all these aboleth hatchlings came from. And whether anybody else in the town is also secretly hosting one…

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9 Responses to “[4e] The Portal Room Encounter”

  1. Bryant Says:

    I really dig the standard actions to advance the ritual, minor actions to sustain it trick. That’s a nice treatment.

    • Christopher Tatro Says:

      Totally stolen from the DMG2 there. If I had the book I’d site chapter and verse for the “Stop a Ritual” encounter structure they suggest. the root of building this was combining that with the “room filling with water” trap.

      I can always tell a good session when everyone is *standing* around the table as the tension ratchets up.

      • Bryant Says:

        Nice. The ritual at the bottom of the Well of Demons was just minor action to advance, no sustain — I remember thinking at the time it was going to be a bit hard to interrupt. Of course, moving the subjects of the ritual also worked, so!

        • jeffwik Says:

          Who was awesome? Tellus was awesome!

          (This message brought to you by the Tellus is Awesome Campaign for a More Awesome World.)

  2. Ivan Says:

    I picked up the DMG2 on your advice and was very pleasantly surprised at how insanely cool much of the advice is.

    I’ve got to say with this room – cool as it is! – the slow/daze attacks combined with terrain would def. have frustrated my players as well, and understandably so. I like the lieutenants having powers to assist the minions, though …

    How’s this for a fix? Stick with the Athletics check to move toward the portal as well as away, with failure resulting in difficult terrain and success letting you power through. This (theoretically) allows your muscle characters to get stuck in up front, giving them a reward for training in Athletics and making it a more heroic scene?

    • Christopher Tatro Says:

      I honestly hadn’t thought through the implications of Slow and Difficult terrain when I made up the baddies. That was totally my bad.

      I like that fix. Might have still been frustrating for the wee Gnome Bard though, as she constantly failed her Athletics rolls and the other folks made them and she’s just bobbing in the water.

      (I should also note that the Bard was played by my wife, and I have no interest in frustrating her more than I already do on a daily basis)

  3. jeffwik Says:

    That sounds really neat, and fills me with envy. I haven’t had the change to play too much with terrain and hazards and strategic goals beyond “kill everyone.”

    • Christopher Tatro Says:

      Setting this up was my reaction to NOT doing any interesting encounters previously. The ones we’d had so far were pretty bog-standard “fight in a cave” scenes (although there was one on top of a city wall with lasher zombies trying to pull them off…good times, good times) and wanting to exploit all the juicy goodness in the DMG2.

      Also I was able for the first time to demonstrate some rudimentary tactical skill, so yay me!

  4. Ivan Says:

    The gnome bard’s meanbt to be wee, though – it seems to me like a good way to differentiate between characters. Oh! What about putting some raised elemnts – dias, altar, etc – for the gnome to stand on at the fringes? She gets to use her great leader abilities, maybe including forced movement, while the muscle forges ahead?

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