Question: When is an at-level (“green”) encounter not an easy encounter?
Answer: When the Evil GM goes overboard.
Don’t get me wrong, the following fight was a whole lot of fun, but it did have some unintended aspects.
The context of the fight is that three years ago in game time (the characters were 6th level; they’re now 22) the party “cleaned up” the Starspire, a high mountain plateau that was the site of an ancient, unending conflict. To make a long story short, some wizards and warlocks leased land on the plateau from the Dwarves to perform experiments to determine if they could see the future in the stars. Part of their research involved summoning elementals. In this world, the Dwarves nearly wiped out the Genasi, believing that these elementals were sent by Moradin to serve them. This is their race’s great shame and they have adopted a protective stance towards elementals as a result. When the Dwarf Greatking told the magi that they needed to stop, the archmage essentially told him to get bent.
The war that resulted escalated until things became very bad for both sides. The magi built automatons to summon elementals and continue the great project. The Greatking used an artifact to swear a magical blood oath of vengeance that caused the Dwarves to rise up as undead to fight the magi. This continued for centuries, undermining the basic fabric of the world. The PCs came along and ended the war.
Fast forward to the present, after subduing Meloga and realizing that the relationship between the primal spirits and the deity they serve might be different than they thought, the characters sense a terrible rift in the world and it’s coming from the Starspire. They use a linked portal to travel to the town nearest the Starspire and find it overrun by undead.
The player of Nevitash gave me some notes on his impressions of this encounter. Some of the other players have said that they might do the same. I will add them as they become available.
Starspire Wight Champion
It’s worth noting that my players have feelings about wights. Back in the paragon tier, Witchknight had made some changes to his character that dramatically increased the number of healing surges he had (this was when they changed the Tiefling stat options). He made the boast that I wasn’t going to be able to run him out of healing surges any more…
The Champion Wight appeared a couple of sessions later and nearly killed his character. If it hadn’t been for some especially clever play, I probably would gotten the job done. That fight often comes up in reminiscences. For that reason, I knew that this wight was going to garner a lot of attention and inflated its hit points as a result. I was going for a blurry-creepy-fast vibe, a-la Chronicles of Riddick, but it didn’t come through. The characters were so afraid of the wight that they dropped a house on it, so to speak. It spent most of its actions applying Crippling Despair and was dead long before the other monsters.
Nevitash’s Commentary: Starspire Wight Champion
- We focused on this one early as a previous wight was able to suck 10+ surges from one character in one fight. This decision was enforced when we saw that it healed itself when it sucked out surges.
- The save ends effect off the encounter recharge power made the phantasms extra nasty. The -2 to saving throws helped one character miss 6+ saving throws, leaving the phantasms safe inside him.
- The “-2 to defenses and saving throws” save ends effect was really nasty and lasted until the end of the encounter on a couple characters.
You might notice that I’ve been on a kick lately where a monster has [A] when no one is adjacent to it and [B] when it has people next to it, within an aura, etc. The more I play with this as a mechanic, the more it seems to suit the epic tier. Lower-level fights should be simpler. Higher-level fights should have complications that lead to interesting choices, rather than just making combat harder. These types of gated mechanics fit the bill nicely.
I went to a fair bit of trouble to get the templating right so that the specter could only use Echo of Despair on someone it had damaged, rather than allowing them to rack up on a single guy. One of my players made the suggestion to change Echo of Despair from a minor action to a move action, which worked out fairly well. The trick is that artillery often has to move to maintain its damage. The mechanic meant that the specter could always get some hurt on the characters, but wasn’t guaranteed a double-dip.
Nevitash’s Commentary: Soulscour Specter
- Once these started, they put out 60 or more damage a turn. As the primary healer, this kept me on my toes throughout the fight, making sure allies were not bloodied.
- They became a higher priority when the rogue started getting echoed twice. I had to pump all three of my highly buffed, immediate reaction healing words into the rogue.
- For our party these took lowest kill priority as we have many ways of dealing with high damage, but the effects off the other two monsters interfered with our ability to close out the fight quickly.
I thought this was a very interesting set of comments, as it usually takes something big to strain Nevitash’s ability to heal. The default party strategy is that Nevitash is a “big numbers” healer who helps the other characters deliver their payload, so to speak. It’s a role the player enjoys. Bad dice luck aside, he’s usually very effective. For him to comment that the specters kept him on his toes says that the monsters worked out the way I wanted them to.
*cue dramatic entrance music*
As an aside, the phantasm reappears in an unoccupied square of its choice adjacent to the target. Actually, if we’re going to going to go into all the rules consequences, we might as well deal with them now. You’re going to have to decide how to deal with the issue of enemy/ally on your own. I came down on the side of allowing the phantasm to do things to allies that it normally wouldn’t (cursing, marking, etc.), but that the possessed character was never actually an enemy, meaning that it wouldn’t trigger opportunity attacks from its allies, for example. This is one of those areas where the rules block can never be large enough to cover every possible circumstance. Use your best judgement.
That said, these guys were the stars of the encounter, which was somewhat disappointing given that there was an elite in the encounter with them. I think these monsters are exceptionally difficult to balance, as their effectiveness is based on how powerful the PCs are.
Nevitash’s Commentary: Cold-Heart Phantasm
- Puppetry was an interesting twist on the dominated mechanic. It allowed players to take their turn as normal, but allowed the phantasm to take their turn as the player. Our (pure) warlock was a great target for this as he has a low will defense and regularly hits for 40+ damage with eldritch blast.
- One big problem when these were possessing people was that the party was unable to deal damage or affect them at all. We needed to get them to appear on our terms so we had people available to do damage to them before it hopped into another body.
- One turn involved our fighter/cleric hybrid to hold, waiting for my pure cleric to give the warlock a standard action saving throw at +8 to force out a phantasm in time for our firing line. The fighter using “Come and Get It“ and action pointing to a high damage daily then gave us the opportunity to deal with it with extreme prejudice.
- This monster was the most fun in my opinion. It led to interesting rules interactions and opportunities for party infighting some of which are below:
- The warlocks having accursed coordination against other party members.
- A halberd attack and a sacred flame failing to force out the phantasms from the warlock, but then the 8 damage from the sorceress’ “spark slippers” forcing out both.
- The sorceress using furious bolts, hoping to close out a couple of monsters and force out a phantasm. This led to about 90 damage against the enemy and 60 against the party (~30 against herself)
I think Nevitash has a point in that these monsters have the potential to be frustrating when the PCs can’t get to them. The interaction with Crippling Despair also made them more effective than they might have been.