C1: Crucible of the Gods

Or regular Pathfinder game was put on hold for a night because two players couldn’t make it. Since that still left five of us, I offered to run Save Vs. Death‘s latest Fourthcore module. What I had was a draft version, however, so the balance of it was in doubt, but the premise is strong and there are four very different challenges that I felt would appeal to the players.

I won’t be spoiling very much here, as that isn’t the point of the post. I just wanted to share how four veteran D&D player’s got spooked and handed me my first TPK as a DM.

First, let me say that Sersa V provided outstanding support. I had let on that I would finally get to run his module  and he contacted me that day with updated extras. The final version of the adventure wasn’t ready to go to press, but I was given the player’s hand-out and the accessories PDF, along with a few tips on how the game had changed since the draft. I won’t be spoiling very much here.

The Set-Up

Everything about that night was last minute. The decision to run the game can with the previous two days and the players independently created first level characters rather than picking from among the pregens that come with C1. As a result, we had wizard, a sorcerer, and two fighters. Two of the my friends had played Revenge of the Iron Lich and thought that they understood what to expect, yet they elected to proceed without a leader-class to provide support.

The party showed appropriate caution throughout the start of the game. They safely entered the ziggurat without taking any damage and found the magic dice that acted in many ways as the Deck of Mortals previously did (featured in SND01:RotIL and reprinted in the Fourthcore Armory). The results of the die rolls were Ruin, Curse, Vision and Resistance. (I won’t tell you what they do, play the game).

All was well until they entered the first trial, for Kishar, the Goddess of Slaughter and Retribution.

Kishar’s Trial (spoiler-ish)

Kishar’s trial takes place in a large underground chamber where a very special dragon variant rests. The player’s spotted the dragon before it spotted them. Three of the players used terrain features to conceal themselves in what they hoped to be a flanking position while the fourth taunted the dragon into position.

The dragon charged down the field and, in one bite, reduced the bait to 5 HP.  The party panicked and began a fighting retreat towards the door, which grouped them too close together. The dragon turned on the second round and blasted the entire party with it’s acid breath. The wounded fighter died out-right and the two magic users were dying. Due to factors that I am not sharing, the last fighter was unable to make it out the door before the third round and she was slowed by the dragon’s gaze attack (save ends). Unfortunately, the save was failed and <redacted> “bad stuff happened”.

TPK in three rounds (57 minutes/3 hours). Apparantly, that’s also a record for the playtest module!

Needless to say, we were all stunned with the terrifying ferocity of the dragon’s attacks. The players, perhaps rightly so, knew in the first round that they were horribly out-matched. They felt that the encounter was completely unfair.

Aftermath

But was the encounter unfair?

When left to my own devices, I prefer to create encounters where death feels like a very real possibility, though not a likely one if a player keeps their head about them. An encounter is rarely flat-out deadly, unless luck and bad decisions rule otherwise.

As I see it, my job is to adjudicate the game and make it interesting to play. I’m not to save you from yourself if you bite off more than you can chew or if the dice turn against you. for me, deciding when to move on and when to retreat is as critical a skill as knowing when to search for traps or how to talk your way past the guard (without rolling dice as a substitute).

And yet, the whole affair was concluded in just under an hour, which made for a far shorter evening than we would have liked, but that is how it goes in Fourthcore (sometimes). We spent the remainder of the evening picking apart the draft as the players said that they would never enter the Crucible again.

I felt pretty awful. Fourthcore is not our normal mode of play and while I enjoy it as a challenge to DM and to play, I only subtly hinted as to where a solution may have been found and the player’s didn’t take the hint. As a DM, and I looked over the game to see what I would have done to have made it a closer fight for my players but, beyond that hint, I really don’t see it.

To my mind, that had a chance to back out when the saw the dragon and they didn’t take it. They assumed that the adventure would not so grossly over-match them and then followed up with bad tactics when they saw that they were wrong. It’s common knowledge that dragons have area attacks and they made themselves vulnerable to that particular threat. *That* is was did them in.

But then, I have the advantage of hindsight and having fully read the module at least thrice. It was luck, and the PCs decisions that kept them from discovering the trick to encounter. Indeed, the very adventure is written so that the players only need to complete three of the four challenges to enter the final encounter! They could have avoided this trial altogether if they wished.

Needless to say, I am anxiously awaiting the final copy of Crucible of the Gods to see all of the improvements. I’ve had a taste of them already and I have to say that you are all in for a treat when it comes out. Just don’t get too attached to your character. Here, try one of these pregens instead!

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~ by Hunter Rose on August 1, 2011.

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