The Taking of Overlook
The adventure (and the heroic tier) ends with the siege of Overlook. The threat comes from the mercenaries camped outside the city walls and the PCs will be at the centre of the defence. I couldn’t have picked a better place myself. I’ve always enjoyed Overlook and it’s acted as the spine to the path so far. If your party has made connections and put down roots here, then even better. The rest of this adventure serves to put all those stories at risk, and that can only mean more engagement at the table.
War and battles have always been a part of roleplaying scenarios, and not just in D&D. It’s not easy to pull off. Traditional parties of 6 PCs are difficult to mix into a warfare scenario and still have them be effective, but not over emphasised. Then there is the combat system. D&D is all about the one on one, or the small unit at most. How does your adventure reflect the bigger picture that war demands? There’s no mass battle system to fall back on, and skill challenges, well, they have their issues. Ari has decided to use a victory point system, a classic method from wargaming. Victory Points (VPs) are gained by the parties actions, and in fact they’ve been winning and losing them all the way through the scenario so far. As DM, you’ll have to make a big decision about how much of the system you want to have on show at the table. It’s a bit like minions. Your opinion on whether or not to announce them for what they are will give you an idea of how to approach this section. There’s help with the descriptions for those who want to use that to drive the results, or you could come out with it and tell the players how to claim the points in game.
As soon as the party are out of the Stone Anvil they are summoned to a council of war. The High Priest Durkik requests the parties’ aid in formulating the plan to defend the city. The mechanics for this planning scene are represented by a skill challenge. Winning the challenge gains valuable victory points.
Now, I’ve made this sound simple and straightforward, it’s actually much deeper than that. I’ve seen this kind of scene a million times in games I’ve played in. Usually in modern games to be fair, but fantasy too. It’s always a bit of a free for all at the table, with characterisation often a first casualty to maps and tactical plans. After years of such planning games, I’ve even grown a bit cynical of them. I’ve come to see them as lazy scenarios where the DM sits back and listens to the tortuous planning exercise, occasionally smiling and writing notes. I daresay many DMs have had no idea how the attack is going to play out until they’re taken account of those plans. This means I’ve rarely been convinced that the actions and decisions at this stage have ever really had in game consequences. With this simple skill challenge, all my worries disappeared. There are 5 primary skills, history, insight, intimidate, religion and thievery. I can imagine many other skills coming into play with creative players too. Each of these gives the PCs a chance to roleplay out their planning skills. You know that player who wants to pore over maps and suggest fields of fire and booby traps because they’ve seen too many Viet Nam war films? It’s accounted for here, and the character has to back it up with dice. Suffice to say, I love this approach. I think the theory is sound, it looks great on paper. I haven’t played it out, but I can honestly see this scene taking over the whole evenings play if you wanted it too. Even then, the mechanics of 3 failures means the scene has to come to a conclusion, so it won’t run out of steam. Brilliant.
Day 2 of the siege has three encounters that can be run as and when suits during the day. These are a fine mix of combat and skill, speed and brutality. It frames the story of the war well, giving the PCs to be a part of the whole war, and to have their efforts rewarded via VPs in the endgame too.
On the third day, the final encounter beckons, and it’s the face to face with General Zithiruun himself. The good General hasn’t come alone. He rides an undead dragon and has his lieutenants in tow to boot. The encounter is level 15. That’s a long way over the party level by this point, they’re going to have to fight hard to take it on. Given that it’s the first encounter of the day, the players are likely to be savvy enough to unload the dailies. There’s not going to be any point holding back, because the enemy certainly won’t be. The General’s abilities in combat come straight out of the Jedi academy. He flies, he shifts, and he wields a silver sabre. He is also likely to prove slippery. I can’t see a defender getting the lockdown on him easily. And of course there’s a dragon to deal with. Actually, I suspect the real problems here will come from the dragonborn raider and the gladiators. These guys are no slouches in a fight and they’re likely to slip under the players’ radar when they see the elites on the table. This is the big encounter of the whole adventure and it’s fine enough as it stands. I won’t say anticlimactic, but I’m tempted to. That’s only because the build up has been exemplary and I think there could have been just a bit more drama involved. The terrain is a straightforward cityscape, the enemy (while big on stats) are largely fire and forget. I just wanted more to be honest. How about some ideas for dialogue? This is a proper big bad, and his plans are likely still a secret by now. It demands a monologue. What about the rest of the siege? There’s an opportunity to fill in the colour around the encounter area with flames, screams, hurrahs, collapsing buildings, routed enemies, all sorts of things. A clever DM could add in these touches to reflect the state of the General’s hit point total. I know I’m being picky, but it’s really only because I’ve absolutely loved getting to this point so far and I’d want to see my players drop with exhaustion and delight at the end of this encounter. As it stands they’re likely to say ‘cool!…. so, treasure?’ and that’s doing the whole adventure a disservice.
Of course, the actual endgame is when the VPs are added up. There are three possible results and each gives the DM some resolution notes so the PCs can know how well they fared overall. So it seems there are winners and losers in RPGs after all.
Overall? This is a seriously impressive piece of adventure writing. It’s not flawless by any means, but when compared to the rest of the path, and especially to the H/P/E series, it is clearly cut from another cloth entirely. Subtle investigations, brutal combats, cunning locations, epic story, all combined into the single most ambitious adventure 4e has seen to date. My only complaint? The title is rotten. However, that doesn’t matter. Given the right group, this could well be the high point of any campaign. Good work Mr Marmell!