As it happens, nine first level PCs are no match for nineteen orcs, even if those orcs are dressed in fancy pants and poofy shirts.
Particularly when those orcs are armed with polearms, backed by an effective leader, and on high alert.
Yesterday’s delve (check the date on this post and recall we play in 1:1 time) went smooth until it didn’t and then it really, really didn’t. We had two groups of PCs meet up at the entrance to the Ligmatic Cloister of the Bofaheart to begin to explore the second level. In a fun quirk of the calendar, the PCs all healed up in time to meet. This despite the two groups facing different march times and rolling for encounters independently. If either of them had hit an encounter, then the other would have faced the difficult choice of entering with reduced numbers or facing a couple more random encounter checks.
As it happened, they were able to penetrate down into the second level without issue. Nine of them including five fighty boys, a thief, a cleric, and two wiz-bangs should have been able to handle the usual encounters, which were thin on the ground. The first three or four chambers proved empty, but made for a sharp contrast with the first level of the dungeon which was far more corridor heavy and twisty. Level two has, so far, been heavier on the larger chambers.
The first real encounter consisted of two shriekers in a largish chamber featuring two exits in the form of doors leading out in either direction. They took to wailing, and were quickly dispatched, but not before summoning a wandering party of adventurers. After warning the new guys to back off, the party decided to bash in on of two nearby doors and continue the delve. A treasure lay nearby, hidden in a secret room. But with a long string of failed secret door checks, the coins and magic lay undisturbed until some other more fortunate party happens by.
In retrospect the smarter play would have been to back off and explore other areas of the dungeon. Behind the next door lay a small hexagonal shaped room whose contents – thanks to a natural 20 on the check – proved to be “Special”. Normally, this would mean just stairs of one sort or another, but because we had previously determined that special rooms in the Cloister existed in the form of crowded orc chambers that forced a re-draw of the map. To accommodate two patrols of orcs and a small horde of women and orclets, the room grew to a much larger size. Worse, the check for leaders came up big. Instead of two patrols of mooks, the room contained one standard patrol and the subchief, Horcler himself!
Oh wait, we forgot that chambers have passages leading out of them, not doors. Oh wait, we forgot to check to bash the door open. Two great mistakes that negate each other. The doors leading out must be flimsy affairs, hung by the orcs who use the shriekers as an early alarm. When the party moved in, they were also not surprised to find orcs, but the resulting initiative check went against them. That trend would continue for the rest of the fight.
The orcs have encountered this party before. Recall that our boys had already ambushed one patrol and send them hiking down the mountain sans armor and weapons and pantless under the harsh light of the sun. Well these orcs were ready for revenge and leapt to the attack. All told, Horcler commanded nine bodyguards at 2HD each with volgues, a max HP leader of the patrol and six orcs with ranseurs, and two bow-armed orcs. The numbers were overwhelming, but if the party could put Horcler down fast, then maybe a forced morale check would cause the rest to surrender? After weathering the first flurry of orc attacks, the party moved into action. Ronnie Dio popped a magic missile which did a scant 2HP of damage to Horcler, but Urya the theif managed an impressively high result on her “hide in shadows” check to move into position for the backstab on Horcler.
At this point the session slowed down a bit as the different weapons and armor made for a chaotic scene, especially with the confusion of weapon versus armor modifiers. Bear in mind also that the orcs could bring overwhelming numbers to bear as they could fight in two ranks. We assumed that the party held the door, and this limited the number of flank attacks, but allowed for some missile fire on the edges. Horcler threw his patrol into action and hung back with his bodyguards, pressing them into the line of battle one at a time. Once again the party lost the initiative check, but again managed to weather the worst of the attacks. After trading blows for another turn, it was time to find out if Urya was more than just a pretty face.
She shanked her backstab attempt and now faced Horcler alone, cut off from all aid. An attempt by the magic-user Dinkie Rizzle to blind Horcler went nowhere as the cagy subchief passed his save with flying colors. With her high Dexterity she managed to survive for a long time in the face of the larger orc, which owes in part to Horcler’s bodyguard not entering the fray, but idly watching the sparring match from a reasonable distance. Round by round, the party weathered a now hopeless situation, clinging to the chance that Urya might win a stand-up fight and kill Horcler. Argoth falls in the line, the cleric gets him back up, and then one by one the fighters begin to succumb to the press of attack. Sensing which way the wind was blowing, the two magic-users pass a quick and wordless exchange and retreat with all possible haste.
Finally, Urya manages to roll a tied initiative which should give her multiple attacks. Armed with a club and a knife and with an 18 Dex, she can make two attacks per round with only a -1 to hit with her knife – a fact that I had forgotten until now. Reading the rules on weapon speed, I screwed up a bit by giving her five attacks (with a speed of 2 compared to Horcler’s volgue speed of 10) instead of the max attacks of three as stipulated a couple sentences later. It didn’t make much difference as she hit on a couple of early attacks and the rest missed, but she did enough damage to kill Horcler before the rest of the orcs finally closed in on her. We played a bit with morale rules, but given the situation the conclusion was forgone. A thief and cleric against fifteen orcs, half of whom are 2HD guards, on their home turf? That’s not going to end well, even if you do it right.
So we’ve now had a near-TPK saved only by the quick thinking and lack of bravery of the two magic-users. Ronnie and Dinkie escaped the dungeon and didn’t encounter any more danger on their way back to Corvusburg. They earned a few hundred XP thanks to the shriekers and orcs dispatched, and have enough gold to cover November’s expenses. They have time to scout about and rustle up some more muscle for their next foray into the dungeons. Until then, we’ll need a new batch of PCs, and fortunately the dice have us covered. We already rolled up four dwarves, for whom Mr. Machodor himself was kind enough to supply stats. They include a cleric, which is verboten for PCs, so we’ll have to sort that out. The inclusion of an assassin complicates matters somewhat as well.
I am ambivalent about the decision to declare by fiat that the Cloister Road bends toward a dwarven citadel. True, we rolled for its exact location and even rolled to discover that it was a fortress, and one with a central keep and outer wall. But this does cut against the grain of our ‘dice first, explanations later’ mindset. It feels a little cheap to just plonk down another settlement in an arbitrary location for ease of transitioning to a new party. I take some solace in the fact that we had numerous indications that a settlement was in the vicinity, and some in the fact that dwarves spawning in an evil dwarf fortress won’t have much overlap with the main-thread humans we’ve been following. It should be a smaller, bottle-campaign, as I wouldn’t anticipate the dwarves will do more than poke about the mountain hex and outlying hills.
All in all, not a great session. Too many dropped rules. Too much time flipping between sections of the DMG. Too much faith in the 50-50 shot at a backstab to win the day.
But we learned a lot. About the rules of the game. About smarter play. About what lies in the deeps beneath the ruined cloister. We’ll get ’em next time!