Tobold's Blog
Tuesday, August 27, 2013
The Favorites of Selune campaign - Ravenloft Session 9

The previous session ended with the group having discovered Count Strahd von Zarovich's hiding place on top of Castle Ravenloft, ready for the grand finale. So unsurprisingly this session was mostly taken up by that final fight against the vampire lord. And how that went has a lot to do with philosophy of how to run a game of Dungeons & Dragons, so I'll talk about that first.

Basically there are two major schools of thought on how to run an adventure: The first is that the DM creates a world, lets the players interact with that world, and is himself bound by the rules and his creation. The second is that the DM is not bound by any rules, and should "cheat" when necessary for dramatic effect. The discussion about which is the "right way" to do it has been going on for 30+ years, and will probably never end. So suffice it to say that I am in the camp of the non-cheating DMs. I did play with DMs who obviously cheated, e.g. we once killed a giant by clever trickery and the DM created "the giant's brother" out of thin air because he wanted there to be a regular fight against a giant in that point of the adventure. I always felt that such adjustments rob the players of the fruits of their cleverness, but I do admit that the non-cheating way also has disadvantages.

In this specific case I had designed the Count Strahd von Zarovich and his Castle Ravenloft in a certain way: There was an optimal way to beat the vampire lord by weakening him first, but it would have been totally possible for the players to miss that way or willfully ignore it, and go straight for the end fight. And the difficulty of that fight was designed to be bloody hard, but not impossible, if they had faced Strahd early. As it were, the players did go for the weakening route. Furthermore they also went for all the optional encounters in the adventure, so instead of gaining a level at the end of the adventure, they gained level 6 already before the final fight. And so they were a level higher than planned, had done everything to weaken Count Strahd, and approached the final fight tactically clever. I could have cheated and made the fight harder than I had originally planned, but I didn't. And so the grand finale felt a bit too easy in the end. As I said, that is a question of DMing principles. For the story a harder fight might have been better, but it also could have been much worse: Losing that fight after having done everything right to prepare for it would have felt much more wrong.

So, back to the actual events: When the players opened the secret door to Strahd's lair, they saw him standing at the other end of the room, on the balcony. On seeing the heroes, Strahd cried out for the creatures of the night to help him. There were two wolves in an alcove behind Strahd's throne, and a dozen giant bats came flying into the room at the end of the first turn in response to Strahd's summons. The other remarkable feature was a glowing image of light in a spot in the alcove behind the throne, next to a treasure chest.

If the players had rushed into the room, the fight would have been harder, but they cleverly stayed back at the entrance and used ranged weapons and spells first. As they had better range than Strahd and his creatures, that enabled them to pick off most of the giant bats before those had even crossed the room. It also prevented the wolves from getting combat advantage, which is what their special attacks were based on. Strahd used the first round to get onto the glowing symbol on the floor, which gained him an additional action next round. He also took a magical throwing hammer from his treasure and used that from a spot where not everybody could shoot back at him; (Note the fine difference: Strahd using the hammer wasn't planned in advance, but the hammer was written into his treasure from the start, and it was only logical that he would use it.)

After dominating the rogue, and backstabbing the warlord with the controlled rogue, Strahd went into close combat. At that point the players were all grouped together at the entrance of the room, allowing Strahd to use his cloud of bats area attack. That was an attack which had a 1-in-6 change to regenerate each round, so Strahd managed to pull it off twice. The two wolves did serious damage, while the bats were just minions and didn't contribute much except to annoy the wizard in the back. The warlord pretty much countered Strahd's area attack with an area heal. And after first killing the two wolves, Strahd finally fell to a blow of the undead-hating artifact axe of the warrior, fulfilling that artifacts destiny. The warrior noticed that the glowing image on the floor next to the treasure chest disappeared at the end of the fight, apparently retreating into the treasure chest. On opening the treasure he found an ivory playing card with the same gem symbol on it that he had seen in light on the floor. The group also collected the magical throwing hammer, which formed a set with the warhammer the warlord already possessed, so while these were +1 weapons when separated, they worked as +2 weapons as a set. Besides that, there was a magical amulet and gold in the treasure.

The death of Strahd had several consequences. The artifact axe Aecris, having fulfilled its destiny by killing an undead lord of a domain in Shadowfell, disappeared (artifacts in 4E are designed to be not permanently in the possession of a player). Due to the warriors good concordance with Aecris, the magic of the axe wasn't completely gone, but instead turned into a common but still very useful +3 axe. Meanwhile the wizard had gone out to the balcony to see whether the death of the vampire lord had lifted the mist surrounding the domain of Barovia. Instead he found that the horizon was full of a white light, in the middle of the night, and that this light seemed to be approaching. Fearing a collapse of the castle, the group ran downstairs and out of the main entrance, only to find the same light also approaching from the other side. The light effectively was dissolving the domain from all sides. When it reached the players, they had a sensation of falling upwards for a long time, until they finally arrived at the now closed portal to Shadowfell which had sucked them into Barovia in the first place.

Here they decided to finish some unfinished business: Returning the Chalice of Planar Travel stolen by the demon they had killed in front of the portal to the church in Winterhaven. Arriving at Winterhaven they noticed many changes, with the wall having been repaired and fresh troops manning the walls. It turned out that while it seemed like only days for them, they were in fact gone for a full year. So the inhabitants of Winterhaven were surprised and happy to finally see them back successfully from their mission to kill the demon and recover the chalice.

Several adventures ago the group had helped Lord Padraig of Winterhaven to free his court mage and counselor Valthrun from kobolds. During that adventure they had noticed Valthrun having recovered an ivory card from the kobolds' treasure, and gotten the information that if they found any more of those, Lord Padraig and Valthrun would be interested. Now they had found such a card in Strahd's treasure and realized that it had magical properties. Identifying the card led them to the information that in fact these cards were part of a deck of 22 cards, a Deck of Many Items. And Lord Padraig and Valthrun want to gather the full deck together in order to use its magical powers to protect Winterhaven. Valthrun's studies led him to believe that all the remaining cards were scattered at the same general location: Gardmore Abbey, a day's march, or half a day's ride away from Winterhaven.

Now the players don't want to give their card to Valthrun, nor does Valthrun want to give his cards to the players. But Valthrun offers the players to work together to reassemble the Deck of Many Things. Lord Padraig also gives them the information that the recent reinforcement of the defenses of Winterhaven is due to orcs from Gardmore Abbey having started to launch raids. So Padraig proposes to give the players the use of horses and a squire to watch over the horses, so they can go to Gardmore Abbey and at first just scout out the place, see how many orcs there are, and whether there are other inhabitants of the abbey. With this starting point for the next big adventure we ended this session.

that is actually what I really hated in the old school DnD modules: "you missed the vague hint to a puzzle (that you had a 1 in 6 chance to spot), therefore the whole party is dead now. Any alternative solutions/ends are not working/allowed by DMs fiat".

I agree with M.

The job of the GM is not to be a rules lawyer, but to give his players a pleasant experience. In some cases it may mean that you tweak things in favor of the party, while in others that you cheat a little to make things challenging (but not impossible).

If I (as a player) fought against Stahd and the party killed him effortlessly, then I would have little to celebrate about, no matter the preparation I had.
I resent the "rules lawyer" remark. Of course the role of the DM is not to be a rules lawyer, but to provide a consistent virtual world with verisimilitude.

If the DM constantly adjusts the world, then ultimately the actions of the players don't matter. You end up with a game where the players stumbling blindly in a drunken stupor upon the end boss do not have more difficulty in beating him than those who carefully planned to exploit his weaknesses.

Constant adjustments also lead to bad use of Deux Ex Machina devices, because first you adjusted the difficulty of the boss upwards to account for the clever actions of the players, and then you had to dial it down again in mid-fight to adjust for a tactical error or bad dice rolls.

If I (as a player) fought against Strahd and knew that the outcome was pre-determined to be "a pleasant experience", then I would have little to celebrate.
As you noted, there are different interpretations of a GM's job. Personally, I think the role of the DM is to provide my players with the tools to coordinate with me in crafting an evening's entertainment. It sounds like you did that, and I think you were successful in helping your players enjoy themselves.

Now, speaking for myself, I would have increased Strahd's level to compensate for the advanced PCs. After all, had Strahd just been sitting in his castle, fuming silently while all his minions were being killed?

The Strahd in my game would have gained some experience himself during this time period and, thusly, made himself a more formidable combatant. Unless the players metagamed and knew what level Strahd was "supposed to be," they ought not have an idea whether he was a tougher fight than originally scripted.

Congrats to you and your players on defeating the baddie!
Well, the problem was that they already fought him twice before in the adventure, when he still had his regenerating powers and could always escape in mist form. It would have been weird if after destroying his grave to weaken him, he would have ended up stronger than before.

I had NPCs level up while being away from the players for a long time. But the whole adventure only took like a week in game time, so him gaining a level just on the same day as the players would have been hard to explain. And from what? He wasn't out adventuring.
Just looked up what a "deck of many things" is. Yikes, I hope they didn't retrieve "the Void" card - if you are following that set. :P

Also, good tactics by the players helped win the day I think. Looking forward to Gardmore Abbey!
If I (as a player) fought against Strahd and knew that the outcome was pre-determined to be "a pleasant experience", then I would have little to celebrate.

Moderation in all things. If your DM wasn't doing this openly (by fudging rolls) and frequently, you as a player wouldn't even notice that it happened. You'd simply have an intense and close fight that got your adrenaline pumping.

From your description of the fight, in MMO terms, your players had Strahd on farm. Considering he's THE fiercest being in the Ravenloft setting, that's just sad.
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