Welcome back to the weekly D&D and Tabletop Gaming thread! Here’s a place where we can talk about Dungeons & Dragons or any other tabletop games that you nerds might be into. Tell us about the games you’re playing, speculate about future expansions, recruit your fellow Avocados into new groups, whatever you want.
A couple weeks ago, we talked about exploration and puzzles in D&D. This week, I want to talk a bit about one of the pillars of the game, combat. Fighting monsters (and taking their treasure) is arguably one of the biggest draws of the game. Combat is where the maps and miniatures are most important (though still not strictly necessary–‘theater of the mind’ is perfectly cromulent). Combat scenarios are likely where most of your characters abilities will come into play, whether that means putting the hurt on enemies directly, keeping your allies alive and in the fight, or magically controlling the battlefield to your advantage. Once the DM calls for an initiative roll, in-game time slows down. Each PC and monster gets a chance to move and act, and no matter how many creatures are in play, a round of combat is considered to take only 6 seconds!
This leads to a weird dichotomy where combat is simultaneously the fastest part of the game and the slowest part of the game. Combat scenes can easily become a bit of a slog, with the PCs and monsters simply standing there and hitting each other until one or the other runs out of hit points.
How do you keep combat encounters interesting? And does the task of keeping combat interesting fall solely on the DM’s shoulders, or do players have some responsibility for it as well?
Our AvocaD&D group is playing through the Curse of Strahd adventure module. Our version takes place in a pseudo-historical 19th century Earth, and the group is playing as representatives of a railroad company sent to the tiny Eastern European nation of Barovia (ruled by Count Strahd von Zarovich) to negotiate the expansion of the railway through the country.
Our Dungeon Master is The Hayes Code, and the party consists of:
- Txan Einreique, a Half-Elf Stone Sorcerer; the Company Representative and nominal party leader (Josephus Brown)
- Kissi Farwood, a Human Fighter; a former solider hired as a bodyguard by Txan (forget_it_jake)
- ENGR-23, a Warforged Artificer; a living machine employed as a railway engineer (our only non-Avocado party member)
- Peter Peregrine, a Human Barbarian; a Professor of Antiquities with a rage-filled alter ego called Kragen Tempest (The Wasp)
- Wickerwelt Tanglewood, a Halfling Ranger/Rogue; a Barovian native brought along as a guide (TheCleverGuy)
- Carabelle Longstride, a Halfling Cleric of Lathander; a Southern-accented American on a personal mission of her own (Wafflicious)
We left off last week after having discovered a holy symbol hidden in a scale model of Castle Ravenloft inside the Amber Temple. We took a short rest while inspecting the model, and ENGR used the time to cast Identify on the evil-looking staff we’d recovered from the body of a dead wizard. It turned out to be a Staff of Frost. However, upon touching the staff to cast the spell, ENGR was cursed by the evil wizard’s imprint, subtly changing her personality. ENGR became hungry for power. We decided to continue exploring the temple. In the next room we found a large banquet table, loaded with food and drink.
Needless to say, we were all immediately suspicious. We took a good look and figured out pretty quickly that the food, the chairs, and even the torches on the walls were all illusions. Peter defiantly flipped the table, and one real ewer fell to the ground. Kissi instinctively picked it up, and all of the illusions vanished, to be replaced by seven Specters that immediately attacked! Acting fast, Kissi used the Sun Blade to severely damage two of the specters. Wick followed up, finishing off those two, and injuring a third with some well-placed arrows and a Hunter’s Mark spell. Carabelle called on her god to use Turn Undead on the five remaining specters, causing them all to flee from her as far as they could. They rushed out a door that led to a crumbled balcony overlooking the main hall, where a large statue had zapped us with lightning earlier. Luckily for us, the statue didn’t discriminate, and the turned specters were destroyed by the lightning blast as they jumped over the balcony to escape from our Cleric.
Across the crumbled balcony, we could see another door to our left. We decided not to trust that the balcony would hold up, and Peter and ENGR came up with a plan to use the long banquet table as a bridge from one room to the next. The table was just long enough to cut the corner and bridge the gap between the two rooms. Wick and Cara, being the smallest, went across first, and opened up the door. Inside was a small shrine with an obsidian statue and 2 desiccated corpses lying in front of it. As soon as the halflings saw the obsidian statue, they were both compelled to approach and couldn’t leave the area. Wick and Cara did call back to the group to tell them about the statue, piquing Peter’s interest. He came over next, and luckily managed to resist the statue’s magic. Blindfolding himself, Peter dragged the halflings back across the makeshift bridge, then went back and threw a blanket over the statue. Since we could no longer see the statue, the spell was broken.
Beyond the shrine room was just a small chamber with an arrow slit looking toward the back of the big statue in the main hall. Cara cast Sacred Flame through the arrow slit onlt the large statue, but got no reaction. Back in the shrine room, we found a secret door hidden behind a curtained alcove. The door opened into a very small room completely filled with skulls, which all started falling into the shrine room. We took some time to clear out all of the skulls, while ENGR and Peter destroyed the enchanted statue. Cara cast a Detect Evil spell and discovered a fiendish presence near the head of the big statue in the main hall, as well as an undead presence beyond the skull chamber. Once the skull room was cleared out, we saw that the ceiling in that room was 30 feet high and we could see what looked like a chest bolted to the top. ENGR used a Spider Climb scroll to allow Wick to climb up the walls, but the chest was somehow sealed shut rather than simply locked. Wick wasn’t strong enough to pry it open, even using Txan’s handy crowbar. ENGR used another scroll to let Peter take a shot, but he couldn’t open the chest either.
On the other side of the skullroom was another secret door, which opened into an elaborately furnished room. Peter entered to find a skeletal figure with glowing red eyes. The skeleton asked who we were and who it was–it seemed to have lost it’s memory. Thinking quickly, Peter told the skeleton that it was the King of Barovia, who had fought against Strahd, and that we were it’s allies. Looking around the room, Wick spotted a spellbook labeled “The Incants of Exethanter.” ENGR tried to convince the “king” to lie down to rest, so we could grab the book and get out.
Unfortunately, my computer crashed around then, so I’m not sure whether that plan succeeded or not. We’d ended the session by the time I was able to get back online, but I don’t believe we’d fought the “king” yet. Maybe we’ll do that next week!