So my guys have just hit level 20 and they’re feeling their oats with all these new sexy dailies. Everyone enjoyed the first combat so much that I thought it might be fun to share.
The context of the fight is that the PCs are visiting a fortress that has been taken from the enemy, but is still under occasional attack by demonic hordes. Suddenly, shouts ring out from the soldiers. The army is under attack!
I used a big open map without terrain, preferring to narrate the obstacles, but you could always litter the area with trampled tents, cook fires, wagons and the like. Keep in mind that this fight is going to require a lot of space. With one queen, four behemoths and four einhorns (Level 22 encounter for six), plus the swarms of minions, expect to use about a 20×20 area or more.
A giant kruthik queen clambers up out of a hole, eyes red with rage . Thousands of hatchlings chitter from beneath her scales, each waiting its turn to launch itself at the men that surround her. A kruthik horde would be bad enough, but these seem infused with infernal energies.
The queen’s spawn are no larger than a hunting dog, but lightning quick with sharp fangs and claws. Watching the young swarm over a man and strip the flesh from his bones is enough to sicken even the hardiest adventurer.
I started the encounter with 10 skitterers arrayed around the queen. In the course of running the encounter, we discovered that it was probably best if the skitterers act immediately after the queen. This prevents the players from delaying the army’s turn (see below) so that they can squish the minions before the kruthik have a chance to act.
Male kruthik normally bring food back to the queen, but these hunt alongside her. Their spines contain a potent venom that causes flesh to burn as though it were dipped in acid.
These infertile females protect the queen. The use a strange tactic of shielding themselves by digging into the dirt. Not only does this protect their soft underbelly, but the loose soil makes for treacherous footing. You watch as soldiers flee from them, terrified by their roar.
You could always add the fear keyword to Bellow.
Recognizing you as allies, the soldiers turn to you for guidance. If you lead them, they will fight.
The army is an abstraction. It doesn’t actually appear on the table. It worked very well to have five of the six players take the part of generals and decide on an action by themselves. We realized that if the party isn’t aggressive it’s very possible for the army to lose one or two actions in the first turn, potentially spoiling what it brings to the fight. We adjusted it on the fly to 1,000 health (losing an action every 200 damage), but 750 health (losing an action every 150 damage) would probably have been spot on.
You might not have noticed it, but there’s a gotcha in this fight. If the minions swarm over someone who has been hit with the vulnerable 10 and are within the queen’s rage aura, they’re doing 30 damage a chomp. The “slab-of-meat” Battlerager Vigor Fighter went from barely hurt to licking floor in a single bad round (18 minions hit the table). They recovered, but they were definitely scared. The PCs have to manage the skitterers very carefully or they’re going to get absolutely overwhelmed. Bug Stomping is an obvious answer to this problem and it makes for really good story. Having the army fight the minions makes the fight feel massive.
How they manage the army can have roleplaying consequences. In my game, that army is poised to make an assault that might end a war that has been dragging on for 80 years. The story would have changed if they let the army get chewed up. It could also affect their reputation, both with the common folk and with the movers and shakers. If the army takes a lot of damage, someone who lost a friend or relative in the fight might seek out the PCs to ask for an “explanation.” The fight could also produce heroes and martyrs. If you want to get maximum narrative value out of this encounter, have a list of ten or so throwaway names for NPCs that stand out.
The army also makes an excellent “release valve” so you can tune the encounter as it is happening. All you have to do is have the kruthik attack the army. That’s very reasonable, especially if the army has been killing the hatchlings. The players can do this as well. If they’re in trouble, they just have the army Taunt a monster or two.