Playtest 4: The one with the exploding baby skeletons

We have been playtesting D&D Next, running weekly (sometimes twice or even thrice weekly. Good word, “thrice”) sessions via Google Hangouts, and we’ve having a great time. So far D&D Next has delivered an excellent game experience. Even though play has been a little slower than normal due to us discussing the rules themselves (what needs nerfing, clarifiying, boosting, etc), play itself has been fast and fluid. D&D Next has delivered, in spades.

Last time our heroes  killed many zombies, and we ended the session with the PCs being blatantly ignored by a bunch of skeletons who march out of the room into an area of enchanted darkness from which echoes the sound of a clanging bell. Ooo, spooky.

We are down to four players for this session (I say the other PCs have headed outside the cave for fresh air due to the foul zombie stench). The heroes made of sterner stuff press on. We have tested D&D Next as a pure in-your-head system, with a hand drawn map and using a tactical battlemat in previous playtest sessions, so this time I used what felt most comfortable for online play – a shared whiteboard on FlockDraw with a hand drawn map. I wouldn’t hesitate to use any of the other play methods with D&D Next, but as I knew what was coming up, this seemed the most appropriate choice.

Our heroes are two Clerics (of Pelor and Moradin), a Wizard and a Fighter. This is the fourth session (and fifth combat) and the casters are very low on spells. This session should be a great test of whether D&D Next suffers from the 5 minute workday problem, or if heroes really can choose to press on regardless and still come out on top.

There are two routes into the enchanted darkness – through the door in the North-West wall of the zombie room (through which the skeletons left) or back out the room and up the corridor to the north. Thinking as a team, our heroes decide to do both with half the group examining the north door while the others taking it from the south.

Norry the Wizard casts Light on a zombie hand (“many hands make light work”, as Mik put it) and waves it through the door. The PCs to the south cannot see it – light does not pass through the darkness at all. Not even zombie hand light.

Plucking up courage, one hero steps into the Darkness then hastily steps back. As soon as he touched the darkness, black candles illuminate the now visible room with a disgusting red light. This is a huge room inside which are the ten Skeletons (in two rows of five) and a Dark Acolyte beside a bell. Further in the room are three altars and a raised dais on which are three thrones.

These aren’t just ordinary run of the mill Skeletons, but my oh-so-gross variants which contain baby skeletons inside them. I polled my players, they were good with it, so in they went.

They probably regretted giving me the go ahead when combat started.

“You defilers!” yelled the Dark Acolyte, “You dare try to prevent the work we are doing? The Baron shall hear about this! Get them!”

On his command, the Skeletons move into action.

Each skeleton has a single-use unique attack – the baby skeleton inside them can leap out and make a Close Range attack, shattering on impact for 1d10 damage, DC 13 DEX save to avoid. With 10 skeletons against 4 players, the odds don’t look good, especially as several of them gang up on the Cleric of Pelor who was first to attack the Acolyte.

Unlike the last session where 10 Zombies were funnelled through a narrow corridor, this is a wide open space with plenty of scope for movement, and that’s all to the Skeleton’s advantage. The baby skeleton attacks are particularly nasty with several of the heroes being hit. Even with my terrible dice rolling skills the hit points begin to fall.

Both the Cleric of Moradin and the Fighter get up close and smashy-smashy. In the first round, the Cleric had cast Turn Disappoint Undead, which stopped four skeletons in their tracks, but when there’s six more to take their place it hardly seems worth it. The spell is dropped the next round. It’s ‘hammer time.

Two skeletons demise (should that be re-demise?), but there’s still eight remaining and our Laser Cleric of Pelor panics when he finds himself face-to-face with the Dark Acolyte. Rather than run away (or at least step back), he tries to bonk him on the head with his quarterstaff. Brilliant piece of role-playing which just goes to show that the “best” actions to take in combat aren’t necessarily what your character would do.

The Cleric of Moradin moves to defend his fellow cleric who quaffs a much needed Healing Potion. Guardian ability is awesome.

It’s not looking good for the heroes. Time to bring out the big guns.

Norry the Elven Wizard is quite the soldier, and I mean that in the modern meaning of the word. He’s a tactical sniper who stays at the back and uses selective Magic Missile and other spells to support his fellow team members. This is Elven Wizard, Call of Duty Edition.

He also has been saving up quite possibly one of the greatest spells available to 1st level spellcasters in D&D Next (is this a nerf bat I see before be? Quite possibly) – Burning Hands. It’s a 15′ cone of pain just tailor-made for those times when you’re confronted with Skeletons containing mini baby skeletons where their wombs would be. Norry gets into position and blasts six of them, singing the Fighter’s hair in the process.

All six of the Skeletons fail their DEX saves and take 10 damage. They only have 9 hit points. Buh-bye.

Six Skeletons. One spell. Wow.

There are two skeletons remaining and the Dark Acolyte. It’s time for me, as GM, to bring on my big gun: the Dark Priest himself. With his black platemail armour, red-and-black tabard and  two-handed mace writhing in worm-like shadows that drip onto the floor, he’s every inch the posterboy for PlayEvil magazine.

The heroes say a collective Oh Crap, and begin to have second thoughts about this whole “clearing out this cave” business. Thankfully it quickly passes, and they move forward. The Dark Acolyte finally drops with his head sent sent about 20′ away from his body, and the Fighter dutifully chases down the last two skeletons.

Previous combats have been against foes who – let’s be kind – weren’t too bright. Cultists, Zombies and Skeletons aren’t exactly known for their mental agility, but the Dark Priest is in a whole different league.

He casts Silence in an area that covers both the Cleric of Pelor and the Wizard. This zone will last for 10 minutes, easily long enough for it to be a hazard for the rest of the combat.

Norry moves back out of the zone, and returns fire with Ray of Frost. Way to trade spells! This locks the Dark Priest in place as ice forms on the floor and up his legs. The Cleric of Pelor moves forwards out of the zone, and into range of the Priest’s Writhing Darkness worm-like tentacles. They reach out and crush his legs. That’s just not nice.

With the Dark Priest locked down by Norry the others move in for the kill, carefully. The Fighter attacks from range with his Light Crossbow (I do think it’s range needs fixing – it’s much too high) and the Cleric of Moradin moves forward to be in range for melee the next round.

This is one tough battle. In D&D Next terms the Dark Priest has a shedload of hit points and powerful combat options. but the heroes persevere and the tide begins to turn. Even with a hand-drawn map and no grid this is tactical combat at its finest, and every inch as good as any I have played in 4e. Much faster too.

As I said, this guy ain’t stupid, and when he’s down to single-digit hit points he flees, only to be chased down and hit from behind by the Cleric (or was it the Fighter, I forget now) who drags him back into the room where he is bound and questioned. The two Clerics re-consecrate the altars in the room and they all take a much needed rest (the Hit Dice mechanics rock!).

The Dark Priest promises to tell them all he knows if they free him. They agree, and he reveals that three demons are conspiring to merge forms to become a single Demon Lord. They require several trifold sacrifices of innocents (babies) in different locations, culminating in the sacrifice of an innocent firstborn child of noble birth.

He is the Priest of this one Vile Temple, of which there are many. He accidentally discloses the location of one more – Wyneth Tower, a library recognised as neutral and outside all national borders – and that the leader behind it all is….. (big reveal!) Baron Ludvig Black Eagle von Hendricks, the noble whose wedding the heroes are heading to the Keep to attend!

Fighter: “I stab the Priest in the neck.”
GM: “He dies with a gurgling moan.”
Cleric of Moradin: “Now I set him free. I said I would, and I’m a dwarf of my word.”

Thus, the plot is revealed and (after a short search for treasure) the session ends.

What next for our heroes? Will they attend the wedding? Can they make it to Wyneth Tower and back in time? Will this be a wedding reception to remember? Will the bride be wearing white, or a fetching red and black number?

Stay tuned to find out, next time!


4 Comments on “Playtest 4: The one with the exploding baby skeletons”

  1. As the cleric of pelor, i’d blown my 2 spells, and tried out Disappoint Undead in the earlier sessions. Last session, i’d stood back and spammed Radiant Lance against the zombies… This time I was going to try and kick some butt…

    Unintentionally we split the party, mainly because i’d hung back using radiant lance last time. So when the room lit up and I could engage, moving close enough to ineffectually launch a flask of holy water at the skeletons, I put myself in the firing line of the acolyte, with no backup.

    It actually felt really good to be a laser cleric out of my comfort zone and up close in melee. I know I was squishy, but my characters background is that he’s a bit of a messianic figure with a group of helpers who normally step in to protect him, so I tried to roleplay to that. So when the hits started coming (and come they did, quickly knocking me to 3hp), I chose to stay in melee combat due to the shock of another priest daring to hit me.

    The silence spell use by Robin was inspired, and really forced mine and Norry’s hand. He opted to back away and snipe with his magic missile, chipping away with tiny amounts of damage, while I went forward to get in range for radiant lance.I had 5 hp and knew one hit would take me out of action. But to not engage was to remove an average of 8 damage per round from the combat.

    The combat ebb’ed and flowed nicely, with it generally feeling like it was in their favour rather than ours, and their was a LOT of movement from the pc’s and the enemies.

    It wasn’t my favourite session that our playtest group have played, but its up there as one of the most dynamic and tense combats for a character i’ve played in 21 years of roleplaying.

  2. Not wishing to fry my allies last session during the zombie fight, I’m glad that Norry kept his Burning Hands spell ready, the sound of skeletal babies popping in the heat of my flames was almost musical.
    Yes I agree the Ray of Frost is a little on the hard side, perhaps if it required the mage to make a ranged magical attack to pin the bad guy down?
    All in all I’m thoroughly enjoying the new rules at present, very reminiscent of my 2e days but with the added compatability to run it in the same style as the 4e I currently play/DM. When they say they want Next to combine the best of all previous editions, I think they’re on the right lines so far.

  3. One of the fun things about our playtesting of the game is that character actions aren’t, “okay, what do the rules allow me to do,” but more, “Here’s what I want to do, what rule (if any) do we use to make it happen.”

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