March 15, 2011

PAX East DM's Challenge: The Adventure

UPDATE! I fixed the links.

This past weekend, I attending the mega gaming convention: PAX East. I signed up to run quite a few delves for WotC, and in doing so met a lot of really cool people. One of those events was the PAX East DM's Challenge. I've wrote about it before, which you can see here and here. The game was a ton of fun, I felt like I had a great group, and it was well-received. The following are my thoughts on the whole matter, the adventure itself, as well as what I'm planning for the future.
(A note to my regular players: Do not read this until we’re done with ‘Iron Lich!)

Without further ado:
Here is the adventure.

Here are the associated accesories pieces


I feel like the story is ubiquitous enough to be slapped into most campaigns easily, and quick enough to be done in two sessions at the most, even if you allow the PCs to explore the whole dungeon. I make it a point of pride to provide my readers with regular, usable content. A talking head full of nothing but hot air, I am not. If you do use this in your own home game, let me know how it goes. I’m always interested in seeing how other groups handle my work.
The scoring system is bullshit. I say this primarily because I didn’t win, and am jaded by that. Grumpy, even. There’s absolutely no way a player knows how good their DM is. It amounts to a contest to see who gets randomly assigned with the kindest group. That is some bullshit.
This adventure was not a fourthcore adventure, although it had several design elements within it that were directly inspired by Revenge of the Iron Lich. My next D&D project that I’m looking to tackle is polishing this adventure up and increasing the danger level, as well as the reward and puzzle level, to be more in line with the fourthcore philosophy. I’ll also be upgrading the encounters level to be in line with my regular weekly game, putting it in the +/- Level 16 range, coincidentally right where Revenge of the Iron Lich stands. I’ll also be integrating some of the surprises and secrets thrown into the adventure that were brought up by the players, or placed ad hoc by me during the run in response to the players’ actions.
In hindsight, I wash I did go with my first gut reaction and made this more fourthcore. Hell, I didn’t win anyway, so what was there to lose? And so much to gain, too, as this group may have enjoyed that level of real difficulty. The half-assed difficulty I did put in (which was still tougher than most adventures) garnered some real respect, interest, and fun.
The Players
The guys and girls I hung out with that night were all really cool, except for the Dwarf who obviously didn’t appreciate the style of the adventure and was very bored. One of the best things about all of PAX was the cool people I met, and being able to share my love of the hobby with them.
If any of those players are reading this, I’d love to hear your thoughts! Our session was cut down too quickly by the unfortunate necessities of hotel shuttle schedules. Email me!
The Conflict
The inherent conflicts, instigated by the conflicting quests and character-to-character roleplaying notes created a lot of roleplaying. And by roleplaying, I mean people shouting at each other and arguing about who gets The Lodestone and which dragons get to live or die. In hindsight, perhaps there was a little too much of that. We came very close to PC on PC combat, on multiple occasions. Or maybe that was just trying to illustrate the fallacy and hubris of The Pantheon? It’s hard for me to really judge that kind of thing from my side of the screen. I’m figuratively speaking, of course, since I don’t use a screen.
The Characters
It seemed to me that all of the players were impressed one way or another with the pregen characters I had. Some were really impressed by the Tolkein inspired histories and builds. Others really grokked the superb layout of the sheets. Also of note, was how awesome the creativity and unexpected combinations (Elf Fighter/Magic-user, Halfling Paladin) and how they fit so well with the background and rules supporting the fluff. Except for the guy playing the Dwarf, but whatever.

The Adventure
1: Kobold Winding Tunnels
The hallmark of this encounter is a resource-management of Standard Actions. An endless horde of Kobold Tunnelers (Level 1 Minions) makes an almost unnoticeable scratch in the total XP budget of the encounter, but provides me with a plethora of Standard Actions to trigger traps, Aid Another on traps, and also to acts as speed bumps to the PCs. The kobold acted a bit as suicide bombers, triggering the Rolling Boulder to crush the PCs. The loss of their lives was really quite inconsequential. Since of all of the synergies here, this N-1 Encounter proved to be a real ball-breaker and hurt the PCs pretty bad. Since the encounter’s toughest monster had but 1 HP and every attack was all but guaranteed to hit, the encounter ran very fast. Since the encounter was contingent on triggers, the players saw that they could have easily bypassed the entire thing with some smart thinking and/or a ritual. This set them up to start thinking smarter, start getting out of their comfort zones.
2: Klak’s Laboratory
Not used.
3: Pit-Trap Room
This was the second encounter faced by the PCs, so by now they were a little wiser to my tricks. They expertly decided to do some recon before storming in and cast Tenser’s Lift to avoid both the pit full of poisonous snakes, as well as the spinning blades protruding from the walls. Huzzah to them! The struggle with the grabbing claw was handled excellently and with very little danger due to the Tenser’s Lift. They still got caught unprepared for the falling iron portcullis leading into the control room, and struggled with that a bit. When the Hunter (who was caught by the portcullis) finally freed herself and was able to shoot the single Kobold Minion controlling the traps, her feeling of success and achievement was palpable. Overall, the group really hit this encounter hard and did well, coming out of it as experienced dungeoneers. They achieved decisive victory were none was assured. They earned that win.
4: Mated Dragons Return, Pissed
Inspied by these guys. This dragged on longer than I had hoped, and I think the mechanical execution of an encounter floating around in a swirling storm in the air was a little underwhelming to some. The guy playing the Fey Knight, however, really clicked in with the concepts and was utilizing the terrain like a champ. I was hoping his actions would lead the others and we’d see a quicker end to the encounter. Everyone was just concerned with wailing on the dragons as much as possible. Although I must say, I’m glad they didn’t spend too much effort killing the Dread Archers and focused on one dragon at a time. Something that hit me during this encounter was the idea that higher level encounters aren’t always harder to beat, sometimes they’re just longer. They’re not as appropriate for introducing tension and difficulty as some would have you believe. At least one player was impressed with the implementation of dragons casting magic (as in days of yore) and the more classic spells being churned out that haven’t been seen in the game much in the last decade, such as Mordenkainen's Sword.
5: Hatchery
A good, quick Skill Challenge / Roleplaying encounter. My big regret is how frustrating the conflicts got, and how disappointed one party must get when their side doesn’t win said conflict.
6: Pools of Chaos
Much like a watery version of the Deck of Mortals, I feel like this was a mixed bag. Some players didn’t really care and abstained from the pools, other kept drinking pools one after another, hoping I would relent and tell him the secrets instead of just draining his surges. The feeling of discovering cool, interesting effects, a form of exploration, took hold. The PCs found this by adding an ad hoc secret set of passageways found by the Dwarf connecting the tunnels of Encounter 1 to here, coming up from below.
7: Treasure Hoard
Here was a great example of where I think the inherent conflicts within the PCs’ character backgrounds slowed down the game to the point of less fun. There was just so much bickering and arguing between the two most interested parties (the Dwarf and the Elf) and no real means presented to absolve the conflict. I suppose that’s part of the point, to create a situation where the players must find a way on their own to solve their problems.
The trap did get triggered on this one, but by now the players were smart enough to not all rush into the vault, allowing PCs outside of the vault to open it up quickly.
8: Throne Room
The relevant effects were unused, although I did come up with an interesting secret door mechanism to link this room to the treasury. I had the PCs see that the throne itself could be moved, leading to a secret chamber containing the treasure hoard.
9: Courtyard
Not used, although I did transplant the siege weapon terrain powers to Encounter 4.

I provided individual quests, paired into groups that butted heads against each other, in an attempt to foster some quick roleplaying as each player has a direct conflict and opposing agendas with another player.
Auto-mutation Syndrome
This was a fast acting disease (see Revenge of the Iron Lich) inspired by the 90’s show ExoSquad. It’s one of the negative effects of drinking a Pool of Chaos, and it represents the raw, transformative powers of the Elemental Chaos breaking down a PC’s cell on a molecular level, leaving them as a slimy, crawling, gelatinous mass.
The Pools of Chaos
Inspired, almost plagiarized, from the Deck of Mortals.
Rotating Room & Gravity Well; Collapsing Tower & Wall
These were present, but never actually used in the end encounter.
Young, Tamed Drake
Due to the conflicts in the PCs’ backgrounds, they were killed off. Not only did this ruin a very handy “vehicle”, but it really bummed out the player running Luthien. I felt bad.
Catapult & Ballista
One of the players really “got it” with these, and understood how deadly a weapon they could be. These were added into Encounter 4, since Encounter 9 never happened and they never got to see the light of day otherwise.
Flying Rocks
Everyone thought surfing on chunks of castle debris was pretty cool. I introduced these to the players real early on, like within the first 5 minutes of the game, and they didn’t really have a chance to use them until the end. It was very Chekhov’s Gun.
The Lodestone
A slightly modified version of my Orb of Indisputable Gravity, this saw some really clever uses and intricate thinking on the part of the players during the final encounter. I hope that puzzle-solving was worth all the havoc it caused when the players fought over it. Overall, a great success. I think I really opened up some eyes to what 4E’s system can do with magic items, and how they can be really much more cool and interesting.
Ritual Scrolls, Potion of Resistance, Black Powder, Faulty Arch
Rescued Prisoner
Unused. The PCs did hit the Pools of Chaos, where the prisoners were held, but by then I was trying to wrap things up and get to the end and I didn’t want to add more complications to things.
Dragon Egg
This was secreted away by Luthien and the player felt like she had earned a small victory by ensuring that at least the growing egg was safe from the predations of her more brutal party members.
Gift of Ogre’Moch
Unused, most unfortunately. I thought this was cool as hell, at least on paper.
Monster Defenses Cards
Well received, to the point where people thought I was somehow being bold and innovating with these. Haven’t they been around forever? Aren’t most DM’s doing this anyway? The rest of the D&D world needs to catch up with the latest in technologies and tools.
Divine Blessings
Like the Wraith cards from SND-01, these gave dead PCs a way to contribute to the game. Unfortunately, they were never used, but the players did see them and thought they were a good idea.


  1. Was wondering when we would get to see a write-up, sounds like it was a mixed bag of success for you. I kind of wondered about the judging criteria when I read an earlier post, it's definitely not going to be standardized since you don't have the same players doing all of the challenge dungeons.

    Anyway, I hope it was fun for you, I'd love to check it out next year if I can!

  2. Hi, may just be me, but I'm getting a dead link when I try to access the adventure and accessories above.

  3. Hmm, I just tried it and both links worked for me. If you can't get it to go, please feel free to email me. My contact info is in my profile on the right hand side of the page.

  4. Hi, I was one of the players in your game (aka Luthien).

    I thought your game was great and I couldn't agree with you more on the system they used for scoring. If just a little more thought had been put into it, the whole challenge would have been much more fair. While I was scoring you, I was thinking to myself, "Is this really all that they are basing the Challenge on?" Although I suppose the best way to judge the DMs would be to have the same group (or groups) of players play in each DM's game. Perhaps have the DM's Challenge be a convention-long event that requires judges to play in each game over the course of the three days.

    So you mention the player who had the dwarf quite a bit above. I think he was relatively new to DnD. Perhaps he shouldn't have participated in an 8th level game where you judge the DM, but he was friends with the guys who played the elf and the revenant so maybe he was dragged into it. Either that, or he was just really shy for some reason.

    About the game itself... I think my favorite aspect of it was the well-thought out backstories and interrelations of the characters. I also liked the fact that we all had secret (and conflicting) personal quests. Maybe things shouldn't have been as conflicting for the lodestone, but with the dragons it worked well. I was very sad that my new pet baby dragon was killed. But to me that is also a mark of a good story when a player can be made to care for an NPC so much. I was also shocked that the other player wanted to shoot at the dragon while I was sitting on it! At least I had my dragon egg safe at the end.

    Anyways, I checked the following morning and was bummed to see that you hadn't won.

  5. hey hey! Thanks for commenting. I'm really glad you had a great time. It seemed like a lot of the guys were pretty psyched as well. I guess I kept mentioning the person who played Durin VIII so much since it seemed like he didn't have as good a time. I feel like maybe our playstyles just didn't mesh up, and that's a big failing of the judging system. You win because you're lucky and get a group that is 100% on board with your style. Afterwards, a lot of the WotC guys were echoing those same comments, and were kicking around ideas like what you just suggested.

    Ah well, I'm really happy you had a good time, and if that translates a little to improving your home game, then I've had my victory.

    I forget all the details of who knows whom, but if you see any of the other players make sure to tell them how much I enjoyed gaming with them, and that they were all a pleasure to DM for.

  6. This looks really cool. It might be a bit over the top in terms of each room having a lot to digest for the players. I could see some players being overwhelmed. For me, I like new experiences and seeing the creativity in the adventure is great.

  7. It's a little daunting at first, but the players I had looked at their 8th Level character sheets for the first time ever 5 minutes before the game started, didn't even know each others' names, and still picked up what was going on very quickly. Obviously, that's not every group, but I have proof that this level of complexity and over-the-top does work for at least some groups out there.

  8. I was another of the players in your game (actually the other one from MD) and I was playing Mena the Hexblade. I had a blast with you DMing. At least for me I really enjoyed the dragon hatching drama that you brewed up, two set on killing, others on saving, it got even better once the party set on saving realized that Luthien had managed to sneak a dragon egg out so neither side really lost.

    I also have to agree with your statements on the Dwarf, he seemed bored most of the time until his quest item became involved and got into some heated debates regarding its usage while I was quaffing strange potions up top.

    I also have to laugh at the situation created with the claw room and snake pit. Two people trying to release a portcullis from the body of Luthien while other party members are trying to jimmy open a little viewing port makes for quite a scene.

    Regarding the final battle. With my character at least I could do more damage with my spells (being the striker and all albeit a very very bloodied one) and for the gravity pools you had scattered around, again at least for me, nothing I had enabled for a push/pull/slide etc. Still it was a fun encounter none the less.

  9. I'm really glad to hear you had such a good time! Any good DM will tell you, we really live to give the players a memorable and fun experience.

    Was the guy playing the Halfling, Bullroarer Took, from Maryland as well? You three were all sitting together, and I know the other three kind of knew each other

  10. I don't think he was. Our groups had all just meet in line and decided to play together. Think he came stag, but he did introduce us to a neat D&Desque board game Cutthroat Caverns.

  11. Any chance we can see the maps for the encounter areas?

  12. Sure thing. I'm focusing on Fourthcore Deathmatch right now, and then putting out StarCraft: The Prisoner, and THEN! I can get to finding and posting the old maps I have.

  13. Would love to run this sometime. Any headway on getting the maps uploaded as well?