With the help of my Medusa navigator, I crashed the spaceship into to the mouth of the enormous ghost-robot that hovered over Swamp Town, and we disembarked to rob the spoiled teenage were-tiger picnickers…
Oh wait, I’m getting ahead of myself.
we killed strahd, you missed it
Well actually, it looks like Beedo’s gang did it too, but they had more people involved.
In our game of I6: Ravenloft, the four remaining PC’s had found all these curiously specific items of Strahd-slaying, but the best weapon was, of course, a mule to the face.
Our Normal Magic-User negotiated with Strahd to return a painting of the vampire’s little girlfriend–and threw a mule (from a robe of many things) through the painting right as Strahd was examining it. “A mule to the face would at least be distracting,” so our Kryptonian Assassin got a backstab with the Sun Sword. I ended up facing the vampire lord for a round or two of single combat, and then Sensible Half-Orc blasted him with a mystic amulet or something.
The Ravenloft module was entertainingly and ably run by “Naked Sam” on the Red Box site, and it was a nice change of pace. I think the four players that night all agreed that while we had a fun time, Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 1e was a laughably pretentious game with little to recommend it over LBB, B/X, or BECMI. I practically cried reading the “Gaining Experience Levels” section on page 86 of the Dungeon Masters Guide.
Forget Strahd: somebody needs to run a stake through Gary Gygax for sucking blood out of gamers with that nonsense. Ugh.
the necromancer is dead, so what else is new?
A couple days later, I swung by Tavis’s game, where we had the aforementioned Medusa-navigated spaceship crashing into the ghost-colossus to rob teenage lycanthropes having a picnic on pickled robo-dwarf. You know: Tavis’s game.
One of our off-screen enemies, going back to the days when I was a regular player, was a necromancer named Ashur-Ram, who keeps Wraiths and Spectres imprisoned inside crystal phials which he throws as grenades. We never have enough priests to turn back these level-draining undead, so we usually gave Ashur-Ram a lot of latitude.
But it turns out he was on board the ghost-colossus when we smashed into it. This precipitated a panic when long-serving members of the party realized the danger we were in, especially after Ashur-Ram’s Dragon killed all of our meat-shields. “Quick,” said the other party members, “the necromancer appears willing to pay us to leave him alone! We want to leave him alone! We want to get paid! Let’s take the offer!”
Now, it may be my -2 Wisdom modifier talking, or the fact that I was playing a brand-spanking-new character in contrast to guys who had invested for 40 sessions in their toon. But when you have an insanely wealthy necromancer by the throat and you outnumber him 8:1, and he’s already spent some of his best spells, you strangle that fool. And so for once I exploited our consensus-driven process by refusing to give in until everyone else got sick of arguing with me.
We killed the necromancer, who had filled us with dread for like 30 sessions, in like 3 rounds. Nobody took damage except for one guy who got drained two levels and who had been staunchly opposed to fighting this guy. (Sorry, dude.) But we are now even more ridiculously wealthy than we had been, and I’m sure fixing the level-drain will be fairly easy.
Plus I think some dude got it on with a Sphinx.
big bad encounter design in old-skool D&D
Both of these episodes are related.
What surprised me about the big fight with Strahd is that there was, in fact, no big fight with Strahd. We encountered him three times, and it was no biggie each time:
- Our scout teleported away without any lasting harm thanks to a magic item
- Our Assassin decapitated him with a single attack (no lasting harm to Strahd)
- Mule to the face! And then super-death.
- Before we got to Strahd the last time, we fought a Nightmare. The Nightmare put up a better fight.
My impression of this fight, and the hit on Ashur-Ram the necromancer, is that the Many versus One fight is really hard to get right in D&D. Either the adversary is going to be way out of your league, in which case you need to run like hell, or it’s a plausible foe at your level in which case the group of you will crush it easily.
Furthermore, in order to be taken seriously as a fictional adversary in the world of Dungeons & Dragons, you need to cast spells–which means that you can’t get punched in the face even once if you want to cast, but now there are like 4-8 people surrounding you.
The Nightmare alluded to above was pretty much Many versus One (there were some Hellhound minion-types), but the Nightmare had the advantage of an insanely low Armor Class (like -4 or -5) plus an aura of nausea that made it even harder to hit. As a result, the Nightmare could afford to stick around for a while and dish out damage. I realized after leaping onto its back to attempt to tame it that it could run away to some Hell-Plane any time it wished and simply ditch me there, so in trying to avoid its weaker attack I accidentally opened up its special killer move.
But Strahd, and the poor Necromancer, didn’t have great defenses (anti-magic would have worked as well) or an infallible yet deadly escape plan. Run like hell.
So how do you make the Many versus One fight work?
My advice would be: you don’t. Give the Boss Bad Guy a retinue of henchmen, maybe appropriate to the Charisma score, and have them follow the Boss around at all times. (Works for world leaders!) And failing that, no enemy of any brains will stick around to fight on someone else’s terms: if you’re caught at a disadvantage–like, say, eight adventurers crash a spaceship into your bunker and polymorph your Dragon into a flounder–then you retreat, regroup, and get revenge at a time of your choosing. As someone said at the end of the Necromancer caper, by the time the adventurers reach your throne room, you’ve already lost.
Extremely intelligent NPC’s should probably auto-fail their morale checks in such circumstances, and should think twice before attempting to negotiate with murder hobo’s for safe passage.
But eventually that confrontation is gonna happen, at which point your Boss NPC has to do several things very quickly:
- Protect against melee combatants blitzing you
- Knock out enemy casters
- Cancel any on-going status effects the party’s got going
- Take out as many targets of opportunity as possible
It’s hard to say which of those four is the most urgent, though taking care of #1 early hopefully will buy you some time. My thought is that debuffs can wait a bit since players may try to keep tossing them on as the fight progresses. You probably shouldn’t waste time buffing yourself, because (a) it takes up time that you need to spend taking care of other things, and (b) the players will just hit you with a dispel anyway.
One helpful trick, though it is sort of unfair: design your throne room in a way that takes care of at least one of these problems for you: maybe you get to drive around in an armor-plated Pope-Mobile or your throne levitates 20 feet off the ground so melee guys can’t reach you. Or there’s 3 feet of sucking mud all over the place which basically cancels out any haste spell, or a constant rain of cinders that inflicts steady damage so casters can’t rely on getting a spell off.
Relatedly: divert attention with a MacGuffin, hostage, dead-man switch, or some other strategic necessity so that the players can’t get away with killing you immediately. The problem here is that your distraction probably won’t keep everybody occupied, and things will likely escalate into a very non-standard combat encounter, which favors the players’ hive-mind.
I’m uncertain as to the best timing of summoning help, such as from demons or conjuration spells. It’s good to have somebody running around taking the heat off you, but they’re mainly just meat-shields. (I think we summoned 8 Goblins to help us fight the Nightmare. All they did was get in the way, though we did propose a variation on our beloved Baby Armor, namely Goblin Sponge Armor, to ablate the vampire’s attacks. Alas they faded from view before we could get our armorer on the case.) Summoning help costs at least one round, and it’s probably only going to buy you two at best, unless the enemy absolutely must put down your helper. Bringing two Wraiths into the fight sure didn’t help the Necromancer.
(Related question: why is Animate Dead such a high-level spell?)
My short prescription would be something like slow (surprisingly, does not exist in the B/X version of the game!), confusion, growth of plants, or wall of ice to keep attackers at bay, followed by (say) hold person, darkness, silence, or feeblemind on enemy casters. Cause Fear is a nice spell for either purpose, though it only affects one target. I also like casting a charm person on a Cleric: it not only saves you from a melee attacker, it also steals the players’ buffs for your own use. My general thought is that while invisibility is a pretty good spell, it’s a pain in the neck to run because you’re always sweating whether your next action will blow it.
Any other thoughts on the Many versus One spellcaster thing? What am I missing?