A bit of an account of play, some tips on running Hrakhamar, an approach to risk/reward and some rough thoughts and rough procedure for handling escaping a losing battle.
This being an Adventure League game, you have players dropping in and out. Maybe you anticipate five to six players, but suddenly you drop to the minimum three. First lesson for some of my prep is to calculate an encounter with the barest minimum players in mind so I don’t have to eyeball it. I actually eyeballed it pretty well in the end, but…wow…
Anyway, the group had actually entered the previous session, traveled to the west, went south but found it too long a tunnel then went back north and had rescued some captive dwarves there. Then they had advanced north over a bridge that reached over lava, finding themselves facing some kind of reptilian riding beasts up about sixty feet ahead. So that session was out of time and it was left on that decision, when they had about five players at the table.
This time around they have three – I suggest maybe the others have succumbed to jungle fevers and had retreated out of the dungeon.
Now down to mechanics – the original scenario had 12 giant striders and they are supposed to break free 1D3 at a time if they see the party, attacking them.
And…that’s it. They just attack.
Instead I proposed that there were two groups of giant striders – the closer is a group of 7 and a further group is a group of 3. The furthest 3 had one of them with a pack on it’s back – some kind of treasure! BUT I said, they looked easily panicked – they would escape through an exit to the east if the PC’s just run at the group of 7 striders. Take them all on and you get treasure, take on just part of them and you don’t – but you fight fewer creatures and you’re clearing part of the foundry of its invaders.
Risk Vs reward
Of course players try and come at it sideways, so it becomes a matter of trying to keep the challenge to some degree while compromising with the players approach. One idea is trying to stealth down the corridor, but as I see it there’s really no cover so it would be hard (I was vaguely thinking a DC in the 20 to 25 range. Probably not all that impossible since the monk has pass without trace)
They opt to use a cloud of darkness – now I assumed they meant to do it on the group of 3 to keep them there but inactive as they fought the 7 (I guess they are hoping the group of 3 are deaf (ie, the players hope I’ll be so engaged by cloud of darkness I’ll forget the things can hear) or the creatures blunder into walls instead of joining the fight). I may have missheard and they wanted to drop the cloud on the group of 7. But I gave it a 20% chance of affecting the group of 3 by keeping them there AND keeping them out of the fight, as a compromise ground instead of just saying ‘Nah, it doesn’t work!’. I also establish before the cloud is used that the group of three will run if the percentile roll fails. So the roll fails – I’d have used the same percentile if the cloud had been on the group of seven, so much the same difference.
So it fails, as stated the group of 3 run and the group of 7 get angry at the PCs. It’s a ten foot wide tunnel and the PCs are shoulder to shoulder (so to speak) blocking it, so only two giant striders can bite at them at a time! And their bites aren’t that nasty.
BUT what’s this?
Giant striders apparently have fire burst! They can spit fire 60 feet, it has a blast radius of 10 feet and does a respectable 4D6 damage! It also recharges on a 5 to 6, but that wont come into this account – it didn’t need to.
Possibly an old GMing instinct came to the fore here. Now remember that the original encounter is 12 giant striders. And though they enter the fight in 1D3 amounts, err, they have a ranged attack – why would they need to pull away from their posts to range attack? So in the original, imagine 12 firebursts landing on the party?
So that old GM instinct? I had only three of them do a fireburst. The party is blocking the corridor and no one has said they want to stay spread out, so they are in a nice cluster. And I’d rolled really good initiative, so I go first (the barbarian isn’t raging)
Party is around level 5 on average, some scratches from previous fights. Three dex saves each, thanks! 14 damage on a fail, 7 on a save.
Two PCs instantly go unconscious and are dying!
On the barbarians turn he rages then grabs one in each hand and flees with them, taking two attacks of opportunity – which he shrugs off.
Now, how to do pursuit? Because this is basically what decides if they are going to die or not.
Factors in the PCs favour – they haven’t actually hurt the monsters and the monsters are beasts, probably inclined to run off interlopers rather than run them down like terminators the moment they see them. Or so I see it, anyway. Different GMs will see it in different ways.
I decide to roll a D20 to determine it, roughly considering what the results are – on a 1 or 2 the creatures probably will pursue them like a terminator for at least a couple of rounds. Maybe downing the barbarian and it becomes a sad TPK? Granted, I didn’t set it in stone – I guess if I rolled 1 to 2, I’d evaluate the mood at the table and still give a smidge extra room for PC maneuvering. Perhaps if the player proposes something to avoid attacks, like jumping into a side tunnel (there were some) I might have them roll stealth, even though it’d be kind of patently obvious to the creatures they are going that way, perhaps some chance moment lets the PC carrying two bodies just slip out of the monsters perception. It’d be at least one more roll between the party and a potential TPK.
The main thing is, I don’t just think ‘what is there’ and adjudicate from that – I try to look at what is there AND give some leeway to the players. Why? Because ‘what is there’ is subjective. Me saying ‘There is no way to avoid them and they just come down on you and nom nom nom you’re all dead’ isn’t somehow the game world killing the PCs, it’s just me killing them. Nup, no good. For my game: Players need to kill themselves with their own decisions, and as a GM you craft decisions that if they choose wrong or roll bad, could lead to death. If the striders kept chasing them and the players just keep running, if running doesn’t get them clear of the attacks then they need to do something else to survive. If they choose not to do something else, then they just die. That’s the scenario you have to craft.
But as it was, the D20 came up with a nat 20! This would seem to auger quite a good result – which to me means the giant striders feel they have seen off the interlopers (maybe thinking in their animal way they killed two of them) and so they go back to their resting place, leaving the Barbarian alone! Then healing potions, for the healer of the party was not at the table that night.
Wow, that took awhile to write up – this took maybe a third of a two hour session. I’m going to say that in the end, due to the traumatic nature of the encounter, I gave them half XP for the giant striders. It was a learning experience! Maybe some wouldn’t agree with giving XP for an occasional combat that was lost, but I don’t know, they gave it a good shot – to not give XP would be like not paying soldiers when they lost a battle they really tried for. Kind of a double loss if you do that.
Oh, and I’ll link to my Tomb of Annihilation Tips post as well, in case it’s handy for anyone reading this.