I had four players return to my table and I was quickly reminded that 3-5 is really my personal "sweet spot" when it comes to regulating the pace of the action, ensuring that each player gets a chance to shine, and helping them get as much interaction with their fellow players as they are looking for.
Aqua the Mage, Ferdick the Goon, Brunhilda the swordswoman (NPC), a masked female warrior, and Solum the blue dragon hatchling decided to delve back into The Reliquary level (2) to peek behind a few of the dozen-odd unopened doors on their map.
Sticking to their well-trodden path from the Red Gate to the level two steps, they paused only to flash-fry a slime or two--The Paths of Mavors have been crawling with oozes since the party left the door atop the Great Shaft open, letting spore-borne horrors of the far world of Kitheria come slithering down to the entry-level.
Down on two, they puzzled over some cryptic inscriptions a while before giving up and poking into odd corners. Soon they ran afoul of a cloud of shadows--I usually don't reveal numbers when fighting these, so you never really know if they've all gone until you are back in the sun--and fled. You may recall that shadows in my game may or may not be undead, but since there is no clerical turning it doesn't really matter. Associated by the Great Church with the sin of sloth, strength drain suffered from their frigid touch is permanent--these underworld denizens are nasty business when they swarm!
Pausing in their flight to try and loot a room (unsuccessfully--the golden box wouldn't come unstuck from its resting place by any physical force), Aqua the 1st level magic-user was so effective in fending the shadows off with a lantern that she decided to pursue them while the remainder of the party headed back toward the stairs.
Dice are treacherous though, and an attack roll of 1 saw Aqua's wildly swung lantern smashed to bits against the tunnel wall. Aqua's robes were briefly kindled, but as she dropped and rolled to quell the flames, she was left in utter darkness. The shadows pounced and the rest of the party paused to look back as the hapless mage staggered toward them, weakening by the moment.
All this ruckus led to another wandering monster check and ... wouldn't you know it? ... a second swarm of shadows who blind-sided Aqua from a side tunnel. The party turned and fled.
Gaining the Red Gate, Ferdick caught a flicker of movement from the corner of his eye--Aqua had somehow won free and caught up with her comrades at the very threshold of the dungeon--but as he reached to catch her "by the the scruff of the neck and haul her along" his hand passed through her with a numbing chill! More running.
Once back in Muntburg, the group told tales at the Green Dragon Inn and eventually decided to offer for sale "click-click"--the strange, circular artifact that Ferdick had carried down from the secret upper level atop The Great Shaft. Luck was with him, and a wizard who was present and who had listened intently to the group's stories offered them 800 gold for the device right then and there!
A few days later in-game, at the top of the next weekly session (with 27 kids present), the wizard would go on to make the party an offer--from accounts penned by Vale the Grey he had learned of an arcane power source down on level three. If the party could find and reactivate it, he would reward them most richly!
Carrying to the very sketchy map the wizard provided ("What's Daddy Fungus?!" "No, that says deadly Fungus."), the party assembled:
- Kermit the Brute (fighter 2)
- the blue-masked female swordswoman from last session ... (her name was written in Korean and wasn't used during the session, so I'll just call her "May" for now) ... (fighter 1)
- Woody the talking tree--not an ent, just a tree (fighter 2)
- Frosty the Snow Golem (1 HP)
- Solum the Hatchling (also 1 HP)
They wasted no time but plunged back into level two, following tunnels excavated with perfect mathematical precision by the unknown magic of the Great Ancients. Using Jager's old maps, May led the group straight back to where Frosty and Ferdick had faced the deadites and the terrible rage-wight ... which you might recall they did NOT defeat, but simply fled.
It was still lurking in that same section of the dungeon!
Here May, acting as party leader, made a critical decision: she knew that their mortal weapons couldn't harm the wrath-filled revenant-corpse, so she ordered Frosty (who cannot be drained by negative energy attacks) to delay the monster while Solum blasted it with her electricity breath-attack; meanwhile the rest of the party would dash past and go look for the stairs down to level three.
It might have worked.
A lucky, early blow from the raging deadites fists decapitated Frosty, however (remember, 1 HP). This didn't destroy the hapless golem, but when his head hit the floor and splattered like a slushy, his player had to roll and see if his button eyes were above or below the pile of snow. Partially blinded, Frosty willed his body to roll over his broken face in an effort to stick his eyes into his belly--a good try, but one came up facing inward (staring into compacted snow) and the other was presently knocked free by another blow from the wight. Blind, headless, and disoriented, Frosty was out of the fight.
After an initial blast, which blackened and charred the wight's dead hide, Solum saw that things were tipping the wrong way, and she chose to flee instead of unleashing her last electrical charge for the day.
Now it was down to the dice. Would the raging wight pursue the dragon hatchling (1 HP, slow, with an AC of 6/13, and a CON of 3) or chase down the other three party members who had dashed onward into the unknown?
The dice spoke and Solum was struck down with a single blow before she had an opportunity to get more than a dozen strides (a real shame since she had earned 1750xp--this was one of this year's longer-lived PCs, played by an RPG novice.)
Meanwhile, May and the other two raced headlong down unexplored halls, convinced of several things:
1.) this wouldn't just be a dead end
2.) the way to level three lay down one of these tunnels rather than behind any of the other 12-14 unopened doors they had passed on the way here
3.) the wight wouldn't decide to pursue the plate-clad fighters
4.) they didn't have to worry about traps.
Curiously, she was correct in three of those four assumptions ... and the trap they triggered (an animated statue) relied on an attack roll which came up just short.
So with confidence well-intact (but the party reduced by two members), they came at last to level three. Not deigning to search, they plowed ahead through a chamber or two until coming face-to-face with a pack of rat-men.
Blinking in the light of the explorers' torch, one of the creatures attempted to parlay in an unfamiliar tongue.
"I sword it in the neck!"
Startled, the rat-things fled (which was fortunate, because the party's weapons didn't seem to do them much harm) but soon rallied and drove the group back toward the steps. Despairing of their chances (and realizing that they hadn't a bit of magic among them), May, Woody, and Kermit dashed back up the steps ... and through the same trap they had encountered before.
The dice showed them favor (perhaps because they had lingered by the statue of Saint Tyche?) and both animated statue and the pursuing wight failed to land hits as they dashed back toward the surface.
So ... two party members lost and no treasure recovered, but they now know how to access level three.
Wow! Two tough sessions casualty-wise for our intrepid crew. What struck me most, however, was how they responded instantly to the job dangled in front of them by the (somewhat sketchy) wizard in the Green Dragon Inn. I suspect that this is a result of their exposure to storyline-driven video game play ... you trigger quests, you run them down and you level up.
By contrast, last year's group didn't seem to require many external hooks to get them exploring and in fact often bemoaned or ignored the one solid quest put to them (placing the portable altar in the level three Luck Shrine to lift Vale's curse), and the 5th edition crew the year before bounced off of a half dozen plot hooks like a pinball, leaving a trail of unstarted and half-finished projects in their wake.
This year's bunch (which granted, has a much more flexible cast of about 13 players who shift in, out, and back in again across the weeks) jumped on the idea of a set goal to the point of outright recklessness.
The take-away of course is "know thy players."
Stonehell, seeded with about eight specific quests, probably would have been a much better fit for this year's group.
I wonder what next year's group will lean toward?