I wished for a TPK…


I don’t normally wish for it, or plan for it, but a TPK would just have been great for the story. Let me try and explain why…

We were playing our sixth session of Temple of Elemental Evil, this time with only 4 players with 3rd level characters and the paladin was the only healer. At first they accidentally ventured down a sloped hallway to level 2, and saw the chained hydra and chained owl bear. They engaged the owl bear, and killed the troll keeper that came after with some trouble. They explored a bit, and established that there was at least one more troll in the area. Wisely, they went back to level 1, and found their way into one of the two ghoul lairs. This is where things got really interesting.

Ghouls, and more ghouls

The ghouls in 5th edition are nasty, as when you hit paralyzed characters it is automatically a critical hit. This illustration is from the 3rd edition of the D&D Monster Manual.

It was one of the many encounters in the temple that quickly turns into several waves of enemies. In this case, one of the ghouls from the first room will run into the adjoining rooms and get help from its buddies. Furthermore, two cowardly ghasts will be watching from a third room, and join the combat if they are winning, but I decided to add the mechanic that if more than half of the four ghouls were alive after a couple of rounds the two ghasts would flee.

Fortunately for the characters they killed the third ghoul by the end of round two, making the two ghasts flee. However, they flee through the room of the two boss ghasts, and these two will not back down from a fight (as described in the module).

So severely depleted, with the barbarian at 1 hp, the monk had been down once already and with no more healing power or potions, they had to face two ghasts with extra hit points. It was clear it could turn ugly quickly. With the damage output of the ghasts, any of the players would go down with one hit, which would reduce their damage output, and further increasing the odds of more players going down. My first internal reaction was ‘crap! what do I do if I kill them?’ But then it dawned on me that it would be great if I wiped them out.
Because, as you may have read here previously, I have a pool of around 12-14 players for this campaign, and I play with the group that shows up that evening (max 7 players). The area around the temple attracts a lot of adventurers, so it works out really well. It is very dynamic, and we get to see different group combos. Each session ends with the party returning to the surface. The rest of the adventurers stay at their base camp or in Hommlett, resting and planning their next raid on the dungeon.

Great flavor and motivation
Had they TPK’ed, I would have sworn the players to silence, and their party would have been yet another group of adventurers disappearing without much trace in the dangerous catacombs beneath the Temple of Elemental Evil.

It would have created a fantastic motivation for the other players (and the TPK’ed players with new characters) to go and find out what happened, and perhaps find surviving captives, or avenge them, if they weren’t (I would probably have rolled randomly who survived). I could have them as sacrifices in the deeper temples, I could have them charmed or dominated, they could be torture victims of the cult leaders. And their magic loot would turn up in new places, adding a new dimension of investigation and interrogation, such as: ‘Where did you get this cloak? This was worn by our friend Ishmael the last time we saw him…?!’ The extra sense of danger in exploring the dungeons, when the players know a TPK can happen, would also add to the tension of the game.
As it turned out, I rolled very poorly for the two ghasts, hitting the players zero times, and the players managed to win the day with very high damage output. Great for them…

But I think it is fair to say that I don’t fear having a TPK in the future. I may even wish for it, a little bit.

Temple of Elemental Evil is moving forward

Our casual campaign where we play Temple of Elemental Evil is moving forward faster, and with more enthusiasm, than I had anticipated. We’ve played a total of five sessions by now, and we’ve had many players joining for one or more sessions. My strategy of keeping the group of players relatively fluid seems to be working. 12 different players have participated with a total of 14 different characters (two died at the final encounter of the Moathouse). The fact that they are a bit on the low level side matters less, when we have 6 or 7 players participating in each session. They are now mostly level 3 with a couple still level 2. There is also the communal meta game element I had hoped, with maps behommleting shared in the Facebook group we created and a big loot list kept up to date and shared. I hope the long term consequence of having rotating players will be that no-one tires of the dungeon style game. As the conversion notes from Brian C. Rideout assumes 4 players, I usually use the number of monsters more or less as written in the original adventure, or wing it, if it is too crazy (e.g. 144 giant rats! – how would you play that Gary G.??! and who would bother??). As they are also more people who needs to share the loot and magic items, that is also kept on the modest side, which I like, and which I think works better for 5ed, as the +1 modifier has a BIG impact at the lower levels.

The Temple Design I really enjoy the design of the temple. With the many roads to the same room or encounter, you don’t know as a DM what will happen, which is cool, and I simply let things happen, depending on their decisions. A fault is though, so far at least, there could be more history/information concerning the NPCs included in the design. There are also some quite odd design curiosities, which I both find charming and annoying. In Hommlett for example some important NPCs are named. Others are not. Some have a few physical characteristics described, but most have none. And the head-line for each location are things like: Large Building with a Sign (instead of inn) or Open Shed and House behind (instead of Smith) and so on, which makes the browsing experience really bad. What is cool though is the amount of detail in the room descriptions, which makes it hard for the players to guess what is important and what is not. They really have to think and check it out, and they do miss things from time to time.

Converting Temple of Elemental Evil to 5th Edition

I’m using Brian C. Rideout’s conversion notes to 5th Edition, which can be found here:

It is a very well done conversion. There are a few minor errors (for example on xp for monsters), and it has to be adjusted to fit with the group size to some extent. My first session had a massive group of 7 players, so I to add a few monsters to most of the encounters.
I also made individual names and equipment for the brigands (bandit NPCs from the MM), as it was likely that one or more would be captured and interrogated.

That leads me to the mention: I find it puzzling, that the original module has names for some NPCs, but not for all of them? Why would one give the name for all the village councilors, except the village elder? Why give a name for a main boss, but not for the brigand leader?

Bringing the world to life:

Mr. Rideout also added some encounters and events that add flavor to the settlements of the campaign. These small events and encounters are very valuable, easy to run and can easily be scaled. It is a great addition to the conversion material.

I used the first, when one of the characters (1st level Cleric of Olidammara) wandered alone around Hommlett, and ended up rescuing a kid from a Giant Tick, which had set upon his dog. It gave him a nice solo xp-bonus, and gave them something to talk about and the cleric a boost to his reputation in town.

Change in treasure amount
I differ somewhat on the treasure level of the conversion. The original module perhaps suffers from a lack of variety and higher power level than Dungeons & Dragons 5th edition, as Rideout also notes (there are several rings of invisibility among the NPCs, which is high powered).

But even with Rideout’s edits, I estimate that the level is still a bit high, when I look at the campaign we normally play. For example – the main boss in the Moathouse has 3 permanent items in the original version. One is a magical plate armour. In my view, the plate armour, which costs 1,500 gold pieces, and is quite hard to obtain in Hommlett, is a treasure in itself, and does not need to be magical to be seen as a very nice treasure. I will keep a permanent item, and add a scroll and a potion.

That said, as the party composition changes, depending on who attends from my large pool of players, I can be a little more generous, as the items will be spread across a much larger than normal amount of players.

We will be playing again next weekend, with some changes in party composition and size. I look forward to seeing how it changes the group’s approach to the adventure.

Temple of Elemental Evil as a casual campaign

We’ve decided to play a casual campaign using the AD&D 1ed. Temple of Elemental Evil (TOEE) mega-adventure. I’ve grown to become fascinated with the ‘old school’ style of play. And the great thing about TOEE is that it takes place in a geographically small area where many adventurers gather, which makes it easy to have characters come and go, which enables me to set up the campaign in a more casual format.

I’ve set up the conditions for the campaign differently from what I normally do:

  • I have a pool of 12-14 players who would like to participate when they have the time or is in town.
  • The adventuring group consists of whoever can attend that game day.
  • Each sessions ends with the group retreating to a town or campsite outside of the dungeon (unless hindered completely in-game). This enables a more ‘episodic approach.
  • The players can make maps and learn things inside the game, which can be shared between the games to create a working meta-level to the campaign, where the real-life talks about what happened in the game, can be useful to people when they gather to play next time.

So why have I set the game up this way?
When I was younger, I scoffed at the mega-dungeons, and thought them to be almost unplayable, and that my players would become bored with one single dungeon they need to map and go through (oh! Another 5 gnolls in a 20×20 foot room…).

I still think that constant dungeon-crawl will get boring, but there are a few reasons, why I think this will work better than I used to think:

  • First of all, we’ve come to appreciate the more ‘old school’ play style. We enjoy just sitting down, killing some gnolls, gain some xp and drinking a couple of beers.
  • The emergent game-play and how the dungeon should react to intrusion make exploration more fun.
  • We don’t play as often and players will rotate to some extent, so it will stay fresh.
  • I can better see how the module intends for the DM to create a lot of extra material in addition to the published material.
  • Dungeons & Dragons 5th edition is better suited to this type of module. It can resolve combat quicker than previous editions, which makes this kind of combat heavy game run more smoothly.

We will have our first session April 12, with 6 players. I hope to play 5-8 times per year, but we will see how much time we have, and how popular it is (I respond to popular demand).

Steading of the Hill Giant Chief

As a one afternoon/evening adventure, we played Steading of the Hill Giant Chief. It was converted from the AD&D module into 5th edition.

There were 5 characters – all of them 12th level. There was a Dwarf Fighter with plenty of feats and maneuvers, a Dwarf Fighter/Barbarian, a Tiefling Warlock/Sorcerer, a Cleric of Light (damage dealing & suppoer) and a Cleric of Life (Healing). I gave them two uncommon items each, like +1 shield, wand of detect magic and cloak of protection +1.

We had great fun with the adventure. The group chose a wise path through the steading, found the secret stair down to the dungeon and located the treasure, explored parts of the dungeon, and fought the keeper and his pets as well as the stone giants and went back to the main hall to fight the chief and his giants as the final encounter of the evening.

Conversion notes:
Fundamentally the conversion worked well. It is easy to convert the two systems between each other. I did however make a number of changes to make it more fun.

First of all, the original module is very much made up of creatures which can only fundamental make a regular melee or ranged attack. To make it more interesting and varied I inserted an Ogre magi with a couple of bodyguards, and I change the manticores guarding the treasure to Chimeras to make it a greater challenge and to add the breath weapons, which required Dex saving throws. I also made the wife of the chief into a 9th level Cleric.

I also pulled a few giants from the main hall to the dire wolves and courtyard area.
Instead of just having two fire giants, I also added a young red dragon to the mix. The encounter was never played, but I think it would work well.

The keeper I gave a higher AC with armour and made his pets into Giant Apes.

I also changed the troglodytes to trolls, but the group did not go near them either.

The map of the steading is one of the greatest problems, if you are using miniatures. In D&D 5th hill giants are size huge, and they simply don’t fit the current map. Furthermore, as was mentioned in the original reviews of the module, some of the dungeon areas are way too small to house 30+ escaped orc slaves. As we didn’t use minis I didn’t bother converting the map, but I guess it needs to be at least double size, to fit all the giants in the main hall.

Game Play notes:
The challenge fit quite well against a group that didn’t go leave the steading and get a long rest. We were under some time pressure, so they opted to go full steam ahead. It was clear that the first couple of encounters wouldn’t kill any characters, but they did drain resources. The combat was also quite quick and smooth.
The upper level was a chance to sneak and gain information and kill a couple of groups of monsters.

The bugbears posed no challenge at all – which was fine, as they gave the group a chance to shine. The Keeper, with his giant apes really packed a punch, and I thought it was a fine encounter when the bugbears also came charging and were annihilated with fireballs.

At their challenge rating it was my impression that hill giants work well against a high level party, as a party of level 12 will most often hit CR 5 monsters no matter what, but the giants could really take some damage and deal some back. They only had 15-20 % chance of hitting the fighters, but with two attacks from each, the damage did begin to mount.

The final battle with the chief was fun, albeit a bit chaotic, and some of the players would have liked a proper battle map with minis. I forgot to include the cloud giant and stone giants (it was late), but the outcome was good, as they would have stacked the battle too much in the favour of the giants, due to their higher to hit bonus and damage output. As it were the giants put up a great fight, but had trouble getting to all the characters, which meant they were split up to try and circle the characters. At least one character was down, but the life cleric kept them alive.