I run three D&D games at Kickstarter (The groups all have names: Tiny Skulls, Lordz of Chaøs and Swords with Friends). All three groups have now completed B2 Keep on the Borderlands. One group chose to head for the ruins of High Port and is now embroiled in the Secret of Bone Hill.
The other two groups opted to head north to Haven and are both now (separately) involved in the goblin uprising on the Dymrak frontier—aka B10 Night's Dark Terror.
I combine NDT with the Palace of the Silver Princess. Kelven becomes Haven and Haven becomes the capital of the Silver Principality. Argenta then becomes rule of law and primary quest giver. It works out great (when I ignore nearly everything else in the Palace of the Silver Princess scenario).
This week, I played the second session of Night's Dark Terror with Swords with Friends. NDT's second is great. It's action, action, action.
Spoilers follow Desist reading if you think you'll ever play NDT
Swords with Friends consists of some serious power at this point: Oulot the Conjuror (L3 MU), M the Conjuror (L3 MU), Gabrielle the Priestess (L3 Cleric), Fiasco the Swordmaster (L3 Dwarf), Phineas the Burglar (L4 Thief) and Ludo the Ghoul (L1 Ghoul). There are also two Halflings (L2 and L1) that couldn't make this session.
In addition, there are many NPCs: four men-at-arms, a guide (Stefan, from NDT), a charmed Lizard Man chief (Hhem), and a prisoner (Dog from the raid on Kalannos' boat).
After settling into the game, I pushed the story as quickly as I could to the arrival at Sukiskyn: smoke on the wind, fire in the distance, the faint sounds of battle in the twilight ahead. It's a classic set up.
Oulot's player, Alex, was the caller for this session. Urged on by Stefan, he had the group rush ahead. Bursting from the forest, they saw the fortified homestead that is Sukiskyn. The barn at the north end was on fire. Ahead of them was a bridge over a small river that leads to a gatehouse that guards the entrance to the homestead.
We had not set marching order or anything of the sort at this point. I was deliberately playing loose. Listening to them for cues as to what was important to them.
And thus, as instructed by the module, I sprung the ambush on them. Eight wolf riders emerge from the forest behind them.
How far? It's the immediate question. The adventure itself is mute. So I relied on the procedure from Moldvay: roll 2d6 x 10 for encounter distance.
In this case, the wolves were 50' away. An excellent distance for such an encounter since their movement rate is 50'.
It’s also important to note, Oulot, M, Ludo and Phineas were all invisible. The group managed to acquire an invisibility spell with a lucky roll a while back, so it’s a part of how they operate now that they’re 3rd level.
But this left Gabrielle, Fiasco, Hhem, the soldiers and Stefan exposed.
I called for the surprise roll. In NDT, it instructs the DM to use special surprise rules: 1-4 instead of the standard 1-2. Having run this encounter twice before, I couldn’t go with the module. I’ve found that NDT can be tyrannically violent in some places and that it can be better to rely on the standard Moldvay procedures than it’s own instructions for a more fair encounter.
Stefan and one of the soldiers were surprised. No one else was.
I turned to the caller, Alex, “What will you do? Run, fight, parley?”
They briefly discussed parley, but it was clear the goblins had spears raised and were on the attack. He indicated that they’d fight. I described the scene again: emerging from the forest at the edge of the river, a narrow wooden bridge guarded by a gatehouse tower on the far side.
“How wide is the bridge?”
I checked the map. “It looks to be about 10’ wide.” Pretty standard map square arrangement.
There were some ideas tossed out from the other players to Alex. He bowed his head for a moment and thought.
Lifting his chin he said, “No. The men-at-arms form up across the head of the bridge. Everyone else form up behind them.”
I saw something click in Alex. He understood the stakes. The wolves were at their back and bearing down. If they got among them in a confused melee, the group would be destroyed.
Everyone declared weapons and rolled for initiative. The plan still had to be enacted. The group stood in a loose pack on the river bank, so they needed lucky initiative rolls to get the soldiers formed up before the wolves attacked.
The dice came up in their favor. The men-at-arms acted on 5, the wolves on 3.
“How many men-at-arms does it take to plug up the bridge?”
“Three. With spears, they can fight close together.”
“Perfect! We have our three unsurprised spearmen form up.”
“They hustle into place, lower their spears and raise their shields.”
The group cheered. The other players began to spend their actions moving behind the line. Those that could, attacked as well. Oulot threw her sleep spell at their attackers—neutralizing the goblins, but not the wolves. But the priority was forming up.
Then the wolves attacked. The cleric and dwarf had yet to act. So they were out in space and vulnerable. I decided that five of the eight wolves would attack—one for each of the soldiers and one each for the cleric and dwarf. The others would hang back and look for an opening.
The cleric and dwarf narrowly escaped the wolves’ jaws unharmed, but the men-at-arms weren’t so lucky. Despite my gift of -2 AC to the soldiers since they had a legitimate spear wall, the dire wolves crashed the line. Two of the poor fools were ripped to shreds—shattering the line as a result.
Now the clock began to strike doom, and Oulot’s player, Alex, read the situation perfectly. The dwarf and cleric were engaged, but had yet to act. Alex calmly said to them, “Don’t attack your wolves. I need you to come back and fill in the line.”
Something in his tone caught their attention. They both looked to him. He continued, “There’s a huge wolf right in front of me. It just killed Quar. I cast sleep this round, so I’m visible now. If you don’t step in front of it, it’s going to kill me.” Oulot and M, the two conjurors, only have 5 HP each. So the dire wolves’ 2d4 damage is near certain death for them.
Despite having adventured together for over a year now, there was some reluctance from Hayley and Justin, the dwarf and cleric’s players. This group had witnessed so much bloodshed—so many corpses—that combat was often more about self-preservation than self-sacrifice.
But after a moment’s hesitation, they both agreed.
“Okay, I step into the line,” sighed Hayley.
“Yeah, I will too,” agreed Justin.
(Based on their starting positions once the fight broke out, I decided that they were within a retreat move (10’) of the bridgehead. So it all felt very legitimate to me, movement-wise.)
Once in place, the dwarf and cleric—Fiasco and Gabrielle—Hayley and Justin—just tanked out. Something clicked for them, too. A flaming sword, a snake staff, a dwarven warhammer all fell on the unsuspecting dire wolves. Behind them a thicket of spears burst forth. Hhem and Dog grabbed the spears from the fallen soldiers. Phineas’s chosen weapon is the bronze spear of the Minotaur. He lunged across their shoulders, lashing out at the ravening beasts.
And the plan worked.
The wolves couldn’t break through to the more vulnerable characters. The heavier armor and steady thump of hammer and sword held them back while the conjurors hit the wolves with spell and wand. Even Ludo the Ghoul (after unsuccessfully trying to ride one of the beasts) paralyzed one and then crept along the lip of the bridge and ripped out the throat of another.
I love this moment in the game because I feel like group came together in a way they hadn’t before. They protected one another, they husbanded their resources, but they didn’t delay or squander opportunities. They acted decisively when they had to. And they were victorious.
According to the encounter description, a second group of wolves emerges from the forest along the river to try to cut off access to the bridge. Obviously, they were too late to cut them off, but I had them snake in for revenge.
As the caller sounded the retreat to get them to safety behind the gate, I told Alex that the surviving soldiers expressed gratitude for what his character had done. They were happy to be alive!
And as a testament to their new fighting spirit, once they had stabilized the situation in Sukiskyn and assessed what was happening, the group formed up at the gate and sortied out against that second group of wolves! This time they came out swinging—a fireball from the bone wand wounded all seven of the wolves and incinerated their goblin riders. The wolves, enraged, flung themselves to the attack. But the group held their line and stuck to their tactics. Despite Fiasco the Swordmaster—now Fiasco Wolfslayer— being badly wounded, they managed to bring down six of the seven dire beasts.
We wrapped up soon after. The group was abuzz with energy. I got messages later, “That was a great session!” “So much fun!”
Sometimes it just takes a bridge to defend against a pack of death-crazed dire wolves to bring a group together!