Monday, April 22, 2013

HelgaCon VI – Descent Into the Depths

Preparations and Commencement of the Journey; Violence of the Initial Encounter Area; How the Subsequent Passages were Navigated; Entry into the Great Cavern; On the Dilemma of Drow Reactions


Continuing my multi-year program of running one of the classic AD&D GDQ modules at sequential HelgaCon gatherings, this year I was pleased to roll out module D1: Descent Into the Depths of the Earth, which has all kinds of great flavor and atmosphere. Recall that this series is really the "killer app" for D&D: it was the first official series of modules ever published, it's surely the most-played and well-regarded set of modules, it's Gygax at his most creative, and this particular series is what hooked a generation on Drow Elves and the Underdark (although they certainly got overexposed in later years).

For my HelgaCon session I had a full 8 players at the table, ranging from nearly brand-new to very experienced indeed (including my fellow HelgaCon bloggers Paul and BJ). Last year we were low on players, which probably contributed to the TPK pasting they took in the Hall of the Fire Giant King. I started by passing around the same premade OED characters we've been using in prior years, and explained that they'd been resurrected through miraculous means, spending the prior year hunting for a secret entrance beneath the Hall which connected to a series of deeper tunnels.

Having selected their individual characters, I read a modified version of the module's introductory text ("Knowing that the giants seemed to be guided by some unearthly intelligence, you reason that perhaps you can cut this line of support and direction at the source, without confronting Snurre and his titans directly again..."), handed them the fortuitously-discovered Player's Map from the module, and explained the victory conditions for the session.This would be a simplified grading system from prior years, assessing 4 goals: (1) securing passage beyond the first major area shown on the map, (2) discovering some means to allow infiltration into later areas, (3) collecting at least 30,000 silver value, and (4) having all characters survive to the end.

Given this, they picked a party leader/caller (thankfully without prompting on my part), and took some time planning on supplies and equipment. As expected in the module, they did opt to buy a pair of donkeys and load them up with about two month's supply of food and water. I was highly entertained when my friend Paul guessed, "We'll do this to be safe, but surely this adventure can't take more than a single day," when it does in fact extend to a multi-day wilderness-style exploration of miles and miles of tunnels in the Underdark (as we now call it). Having settled on supplies and a tactical marching order for the yawning 30' wide tunnels -- including several continual light items, and an invisible dwarven thief about 100' in front of the party -- they departed into the ever-descending northwest passage. (Regarding the provisioning stage, I must again recommend my simplified stone encumbrance system, which makes calculations for that kind of stuff trivially doable in one's head.)



One thing I did was to make a short custom table to communicate environmental flavor in little bits at a time. I was rolling on this once per mile in the main thoroughfare until the basic table was exhausted. (There's at least one Dragon article by Vic Broquard that has more sophisticated tables for this purpose; as written they're overwhelmingly complicated, but you might cut down parts of them for this purpose; see Dragon #131, p. 22):
  1. Spur (short side cave)
  2. Small stream or pool, drinkable.
  3. Carved side chamber (door 50%).
  4. Cave bats (huge, ugly) fly overhead.
  5. Gust of dank, musty air blows downward.
  6. Stone bridge over crevasse.
The first main encounter area with the Drow checkpoint (hex D3) really hammered the players hard. The dark elves surprised the party with their nigh-undetectability (as might be expected), and as the scout Bellinus Blueye ran into them organizing and tried to return to tell the party, the elves used their magic to extinguish the party lights and simultaneously launch a barrage of poisoned crossbow bolts. This immediately took down the dwarf scout and the party's most experienced wizard (and player). Party response was a bit slow, as they tried to use a healing potion on the poisoned PCs (no effect), cast a light spell (to be extinguished next round by the drow), and having the elven thief/wizard fire a longbow into the darkness ahead (instead of using any magic). On Round 2, the dark elves reloaded and used their darkness magic again; the party responded likewise. On Round 3, the enemy fired another crossbow barrage, taking out the other primary wizard. At this point I was thinking, "Holy crap -- this module claims that it's easier than G3, but by god we're going to have another TPK in the very first encounter!". Well, might as well finish it off and start some other game if that must be the case...

But this was the point where the party managed to start fighting back quite heroically. Someone thought to finally try the precious jug of mithridate (neutralize poison) they'd been given, which did serve to resuscitate the first wizard (and then wisely cast protection from missiles as he got up). The lordly lead fighters charged into the weakly lichen-illuminated tunnel and started hacking down several of the front row of Drow warriors. This then triggered an escalating response from the Drow; the noble magic-user, hanging back in the rear, cast an ice storm spell down on the party; this did 24 points of damage before a save, killing the dwarf scout and one of the donkeys. The party then replied with more concentrated melee, as well as blasts from a fireball wand (at the rear area), a lightning bolt spell, as well as conjuring a 16-HD earth elemental to start pounding Drow and a phantasmal-force duplicate of the same to add to the terror. (Drow special saves versus these effects went in the party's favor, fortunately for them.)

So the players did in fact manage to rally and kill most of the dark elves at the checkpoint, driving off the rest off them. The commanding EHP fled the area with just 5 hp left, having never actually faced the PC's. The party thereafter regrouped, healed whom they could, and successfully used their one reincarnation scroll on their fallen member, bringing the group back to full strength. One of the party fighters, Boris of Briansk had unfortunately shattered his intelligent magic sword in the combat, destroying it (sadly his player Mike inevitably has the worst luck with my critical fumble tables), so he picked up one the fine Drow short swords to use as a replacement. The group cursorily scanned the encampment caves to the side of the tunnel, but didn't want to waste much time investigating them in detail. Several took black cloaks from the fallen dark elves and opted to wear them. (One oversight on my part: If I'd adjudicated crossbow-fire against the donkeys, then both would surely have been killed, and the party would have had to face a significant disruption in their supply plans at this point -- as it was, the one donkey with 2 hp left could carry most of their gear uninterrupted.)



Following this, the group showed much greater proficiency dealing with the underworld environment. Correctly reading their partial map, they chose to take the circuit of side-tunnels and wisely avoid the, shall-we-say, "mind-blowing" second encounter point (in hex M12). Although these side tunnels become more rougher and more rugged, claustrophobically narrowing in on the travelers, they avoided the occasional bottomless crevasses and major wandering monsters. At one point, a group of pulsing, glowing fire beetles were allowed to rush by without incident. The group successfully figured out that camping in a side-spur would be safer than flopping down in the middle of a tunnel (I had the party leader roll the overnight encounter check). Shortly after re-connecting with the main tunnel, the advance scout managed to sneak up on a huge purple worm coiled in the center of the passage, and tiptoed back to the party to hold a whispered (in real life at the table) conversation on what to do -- they wisely retreated down the passage for an hour to let it pass, after which they found a new and smaller tunnel chewed laterally across the main thoroughfare. (This brought up some interesting conversation about Lovecraftian influences, and the possibility of following purple-worm tunnels into new areas or possibly back to the surface.)

After about 3 days of travel in the underearth, the party reached the area of the enormous mega-cavern (hex Q18/19). Time in the session was drawing short, and they made some excellent choices about scouting their way ahead: a combination of infravision and wizard eye spells from two wizards allowed them to scout out much of the main cavern ahead, avoid the mazy side-tunnels, and note what seemed to be the main path of travel back out the northern side. Then they had the insight to thickly wrap their refreshed continual light items in red cloth (courtesy the pregenerated "Jurdan the Red Wizard") so as to mimic fire-beetle light. Thus they advanced stealthily through the stalagmites of the main cavern, and got within striking distance of the Drow watchers before they knew that the party were enemies.

At this point, the final major fight broke out. As usual, the dark elves extinguished the party's bright lights and tried to light them in turn with dim, signalling faerie fire. This time, the party took an aggressive posture, immediately unleashing fireballs (burning up the advance elven watchers) and similar magic. While the drow reinforcements tried to arrive, the party first sealed them in their cave with an illusory wall of fire (which was dispelled), then a real one, followed by more fireballs, and a mighty air elemental summoned from the upper regions of the grand cavern; meanwhile fighters cleaved and thieves backstabbed any of the few fighters who managed to emerge. With time running out, the party leader, Hedron the Valorous Amazing (as I currently read the PC sheet), chose to sprint away from the party northwards, diving across the goal line to earn the "secure passage out of the cavern" victory point literally at the last minute (a bit of a judgement call, but how could you deny that?). As this occurred, the drow commander and her nightmarish steed were ejected from their cave, forcibly by the party's air elemental, burnt by the wall of fire, in a screeching meteor off into the depths of the underworld.

So, an excellent adventure! The party successfully battled back from what looked like a sure TPK on Round 3 of the first encounter (ouch!). I gave them an overall "C" grade, having met half of their victory goals (passage beyond the huge cavern, and still having all the PCs alive, post-reincarnation), but not the other half (no treasure to speak of, and no method of infiltrating later areas). Yes, I grade pretty hard, but nonetheless I was very impressed by the level of play. Congratulations to my players, and enormous thanks for letting me run them through this.



Now, let me make a few comments about Drow responses in this module, which I think stand out as a real dilemma for the DM running this module, as I now see it. On the one hand, the tournament-style checkpoints are clearly set up as combat encounters. But on the other hand, the module does include the possibility of certain passes which the party might use to "enable them to go through Drow areas without undue questioning or molestation!" (p. 3). But my problem with this is, for that to be the case, then how do Drow initially interact with any explorers? Do they all go dwarf-tax-collector by default, stand and deliver themselves to any humans in the underworld, and ask, "Pardon me sir, can we check your papers please?". Because frankly that's definitely not the impression I want to give to my new players on their first interaction with the Drow -- I want them to be mysterious, shadowy, powerful, alien menaces (not department store rent-a-cops). And let's say the party meets one of the possible Drow merchant trains wending their way through tunnel -- how will these figures react: attack, parley, demand passage, or make a pitch for trade? The module gives absolutely no guidance whatsoever, which you might consider a nice opening for DM creativity, but I think is a great oversight. I suppose you could just go pure random reaction rolls, but that seems unsatisfying, especially for the earliest encounters (i.e., first impressions). Especially with justifying how the possible passes could be checked, it seems like a real problem. I made some notes on how how I'd handle it for this session, but I'll keep them to myself for the time being. For those experienced DMs in this regard, how would you deal with this aspect?


39 comments:

  1. They're sadists and slavers. Have them demand the party's unconditional surrender. That gives the players an opportunity to try to bluff their way past with the papers, but means the drow are still hostile by default.

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    1. On the one hand, that's pretty close to what I was coming up with at one point... but on the other hand, you then wind up with a problem re: "what are all those hidden/silent/undetectability powers for if they're just going to announce their presence in the first place"?

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  2. There is a post out there that goes into "encounter as an arena battle" vs. "encounter as all out war". Most older editions of the game were run as "encounter as all out war". A problem with the latter (if it can even be called a problem) is that the DM can also play "all out war". I have found that I can "out tactic" any player in the various groups I have played with over the years, so, in effect, I have to choose the level of difficulty of any encounter. Are the players here to test their meddle? Are they here to drink some beers, and tell some jokes while they roll d20s and plod along through the dungeon.

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    1. Reasonable point -- The one thing I'll say about these modules is they were written as tournament meat grinders (run 100 parties through at a convention, 10 survive, 1 of them declared winner), and my intention is to run them that way. Honestly, in some cases it's a bit nastier than some players want for a game, but I'm interested in replaying that experience.

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  3. Nice writeup, I enjoyed reading it.

    The thing with the D-series is that it doesn't really spell out what the drow are doing very well. Are the guys in the first checkpoint waiting to attack all comers, or just checking on passing traffic? They're armed for bear and lurking in a good ambush point, but it's not clear how they'd react to intruders. They're chaotic and evil, so they might just attack people, but would they regard surface dwellers as a threat or just travelers, or as potential slaves and victims?

    The ones in the caves and warrens - same. Are they stopping all non-drow comers, or just on the lookout for real danger (or wandering critters)? Again it's not clear.

    The merchants are more clear - they aren't really geared up for a fight, and unless you assume merchants would start trouble they don't need to, they should probably be a peaceful encounter unless the PCs start something.

    I'd be very curious if any original tournament GMs remember their instructions, or how it went. TSR modules didn't always spell things out as well as they might have. While that can be good for inspiring creative GMing it can sometimes be fairly maddening when you're wondering "is this supposed to be a peaceful encounter or an attack by ambush?"

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    1. Exceptionally well put -- I agree with that 100%. The interaction with non-human intelligent parties is just missing there (or once called out as a DM opportunity for creativity, but that's just such a missing lynchpin).

      Great point about wondering what the tournament instructions were. My guess: They probably played the 3 encounter areas as sequential straight combats, no wandering monsters, no time spent navigating the miles of passages. But a guess is all that is.

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    2. I think if I ever run this, or a facsimile of it, I'm going to treat D3 as "auto ambush" and then let it roll from there based on actions of the PCs. It just seems like fun that way - get your feet wet with a nasty ambush, and see if they learn to fool the drow with brooches and negotiation.

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    3. Yeah, that may be best. I'd also say: make a note to re-roll any encounters with Drow merchants prior to that point.

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  4. Thinking out loud: I suppose you could say that the 1st encounter area is a watchpoint intended to filter out any non-drow approved travelers, and so attack by default (as well as any in the bowels of G3). After that, drow assume that travelers have been cleared and at least ask for documents before attacking them. Or something. (Also, seems like nixing merchants between G3 and the first checkpoint is reasonable for thematic development.)

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  5. The Hex D3 watchpoint might have been established/beefed up specifically in the knowledge that the Giants have been taken out and adventurers might be on their way.

    The encounter is described as 'unavoidable' and I would say the Drow here are edgy killers who will attack without question any group of humans/demi-humans simply because this watchpoint can only be reached from the surface from the Giants stronghold.

    How to deal with the general notion of passes & symbolic pins and a limited conditional freedom for surface dwellers?

    I would say that there are other ways to get down to the NW-SE highway from the surface and these are used by reprobates and renegade corrupt human traders who supply the Drow with information and certain prized surface commodities. These black-marketeers, 'gun-runners', smugglers, slavers and perhaps exiled priests and reviled wizards will have their pins and passes and separate routes down from the wide country above. They will meet with the Drow merchants the important among them may be accompanied further into the heart of the underworld according to their usefulness.

    The player party beyond the unavoidable fight at Hex D3 would surely have to adopt such roles but may be found out later if the High Priestess escaped and confirmed their intrusion 'down the Giants way.'

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    1. Good stuff, I do think that's how I'm leaning myself. In some sense hex D3 is "special" and automatic ambush; other locations may go in more flexible directions.

      I also like the idea of possibly forking into a "need drow accompaniment" direction with that.

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    2. Yeah you said as much above and I agree. I was trying to give detail to the life behind the outpost once it is decided to be atypical, with good reason.

      The players should be patted on the back for mimicking the beetle light. That's the kind of thing I reward heavily as a DM, even exaggerating its effectiveness.

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    3. I loved that tactic myself (creative, novel, and totally responding to the environment). My players weren't sure it had worked, but it did get them across the cavern successfully before the drow literally laid eyes on them carrying it.

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  6. Fantastic write up. Thanks. I especially enjoyed the analytic questions you raised. (PS - and I'm totally digging your Saturday posts).

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    1. Thanks so much for the kind words! More to come. :-)

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  7. My first inclination (not having read the module) would be to make the passes some kind of sigil that glows in the ultraviolet. If you have such a pass and march along with it clearly visible, then they stop you and challenge you, check-point style; otherwise they attack from ambush.

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    1. That is pretty darn good. It's in theme with some details in a later module, too.

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  8. Great report !
    The text concerning the mind flayers and the drow reaction if one brings the proof of the ilithid's death suggests that the drow parley in most cases.

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    1. I agree -- and that bothers me greatly!

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    2. I think you can easily fix it :
      -drow items emit radiation, the module says. So, since we know that 4th level drow can cast "detect magic", the DM can decree that this spell can also detect these radiations. If the party have some drow items (which is almost certainly, due to the mandatory fight of the hex D3), the PCs will be ambushed because it would be a proof of their exactions. If this is not the case, the drow will parley.

      -regarding to the passes, cf. the Joshua's comment.

      -regarding to the mind flayers, you - as the DM - can decree that the illithid blood is phosphorescent/radioactive etc. (that's weird and tasty !) and drow have developed magical means to identify these traces of their mortal enemies.

      As a result, the drow reaction are based solely on the party's past actions and cautions (and this is fun !) instead of being based on a reaction table or on the location (except the hex D3).

      You can also look over the D3 in order to find more clues about drow reactions.

      PS : Please excuse my poor phrasing, I'm French. ;)

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    3. Hmmm, those are quite interesting ideas, too. Thanks for sharing those!

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    4. You're welcome ! ;)
      Precision: the D3 I am talking about in the end, it's The Vault of the Drow, not the hex D3.

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    5. Right, I did catch that -- it's an awkward coincidence that hex is the same as another module in the series.

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    6. This post of mine may interest you. ;)
      http://purpulpworm.blogspot.fr/2013/05/lawful-mind-flayers.html

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    7. Love the blog! (And so does my French girlfriend.)

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    8. Thanks !
      I greatly enjoy yours too. :)

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  9. In the Petty Gods book, each of the gods has it's own reaction table. I've been thinking that giving each monster (or encounters) their own reaction table would allow you to flesh out the various monsters in a consistent, usable and concise way.

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    1. That's interesting. Inasmuch as the Drow are chaotic and factional, there is a pretty strong argument to make that the random reaction table is the way to go. But I still don't want the initial encounter (or any major area) to be totally bypassable because the Drow randomly decided to slap you on the back and say "great to see you".

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  10. By the way, referring to the given map, how do you conceive the Drow pass through the region of the temple D2?

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    1. Well, I always assumed that Drow could just pass through that location based on what's written for area #1 ("traffic is not uncommon... organized only with respect to its guards and hierarchy, not its pilgrims or passerby"). There's also the possibility of the mostly-secondary passage that leads from module D1 to the spider-nest lair in module D3 (bypassing D2).

      What was your thinking on that?

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    2. Well, as time goes by I appreciate Gygax's modules more and more (and all other modules less and less !!) so I think it is worth thinking about these little problems.

      Given the Kuo-Toa enmity with the Drow, for me it is impossible that the Drow could pass safely through the passages at the temple. The impression I have is that the Kuo-Tao are not at all dominated by the Drow in this underworld.

      At the same time I am puzzled that the players map shows the primary route passing through the temple. I discount the spiders nest secondary route simply because it does not explicitly connect with the Drow Vault even on the DM map.

      The maps suggest that drow pass freely through the temple. The temple description itself suggests that this is not possible. So I admit I am confused, though I have no difficulty resorting to further circuitous passages.

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    3. I totally agree that Gygax's modules have an incomparable richness to them that rewards close study. Well put!

      I think the comment in area 1 about passerby is telling ("those entering are permitted to approach the shrine... and move on"). Plus, the encounter tables have plenty of Drow patrol & merchants in the primary passage. So I always assumed there was, like, an uneasy truce between Drow & Kuo-Toa here.

      What part of the temple description were you looking at that seemed conclusive about no Drow allowed?

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    4. I think I may have been influenced by the Drow merchant slave in 9 and the Drow noble woman kept for torture in 35. I had a sense that these were -attack on sight- enemy races.

      However, I have been scanning the module again and came across a definitive statement that the Drow certainly use the primary passage through the temple. In the section on the Kuo-Toa:

      'These religious communities, as well as other Kuo-Toa settlements, are open to the Drow and their servants, for the Dark Elves provide useful goods and services as slave traders and merchants.'

      So that's that. I like the way Gygax anticipates questions a reader might have.

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    5. So your instinct was correct. Ta.

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    6. That's a really good catch, no way I was going to find that paragraph way back in the appendix information like that. Very nice to have that definitively cleared up, thank you!

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  11. Don't know the module that well, but I'd go for parleying, if the outpost is discovered (if they're not discovered, they'd let them pass, following them in a distance...). They'd be even nice and chatty (but lying and misleading, of course).

    If it is reasonable to assume that the Drow know something's coming their way, my guess would be they'd gather more intelligence first. Best way to do that would be to see them fight against another foe (manipulating the group, if possible, maybe using illusions, into the direction they want them, they have the home advantage after all). As soon as enough intelligence is gathered, the Drow would think about how they could use the player characters (selling them as slaves, torturing them for information, using them as puppets, etc.). Only if all that fails to promise any benefit, they'd ambush the group (now knowing exactly where their weaknesses are...) to kill the threat.

    Even if attacked, they'd still try and dispatch a messenger, to make the above happen. If this fails and the outpost falls silent, an investigation would be the next thing the Drow'd do and proceed from there (as soon, as they catch up with the group).

    Could be a bit harsh on the players, though...

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    1. I can see that as a reasonable take on it. However, the module is old-school tournament style and looks like it expects a fight and nothing else (all the text is about Drow weapons & stats, no reactions). From the first watchpoint: "Despite rivalry each [male & female groups] will co-operate fully with the other in an intelligent attack and defense pattern", which seems like it's an attack-first posture.

      Also, all of this section of underearth is really under Drow dominion, so I think there's less rationale for letting them by & fighting other monsters, than gatekeeping intruders out in the first place. I think it's maybe more compatible to invoke what you're saying AFTER the first watchpost, when PCs are in the heartland (so-to-speak), and more competing interests are likely at hand. (Kind of like the difference in reaction between border guards and illegal employers, to use a probably unwise immigration analogy.)

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  12. I've read that specific encounter now and I have to agree with your assessment. They are likely to fight. The way it's presented, though, it led me to believe they wouldn't fight with full force at the beginning and the two guards are first to inform their (male) leaders what's about to happen. The women on the other side would only react to the threat as they see fit IF a fight occurs (and for one of them, Vlondril the leader, with instructions to withdraw and inform the bosses). It will also have political consequences, something I didn't think about before (I mean, Gygax is specific about the noble being only a "liasion" and the rivalries). So the males, without the liasion, would be the first to get involved in a fight. If that goes south, the females would engage (maybe all but Vlondril and with Akordia using some of her globes). Jeggred and Vlondril would get engaged to tip the scale to the drows advantage and flee otherwise?

    I can see now how this could be perceived as one of the easier modules in the series. It's totally depending on how intelligent the enemies are played. And I think you did an excellent job to give a good first impression of an intelligent and capable foe to begin with.

    I'd also really like to know how Gygax played this encounter...

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    1. Yeah, I think that interpretation is more fairly compatible with what's in the module. And I agree, I'd love to have it documented if this was always played as straight-up assault or something else.

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