Recently my game finished the heroic tier, and I wanted to finish it with something big. The campaign, to a large extent, resolved around the slow build of a confrontation between a tribe of orcs and the main defense of the civilized lands where the PCs originated from. In essence if the orcs were not stopped they would have been able to move freely through the region, and whatever other plan their sorcerous leader had underway would have been unhindered.
Through the heroic tier the PCs spent a great deal of their time fighting orcs and foiling their plans, with the events of level 7 being devoted to stopping the orcs undermining the defenders of the town that would be the site of the ultimate battle. Level 8 was spent blocking the orcs from gaining allies from the Shadowfell, and level 9 was spent blocking their allies from the Feywild.
With their own allies secured in both the Feywild and Shadowfell, the PCs (now 10th level) rushed back to the town to take their place in the defense against the orcs and their giant allies. The PCs were able to see the effects of their actions, and those of NPCs also involved in the plot, in weaknesses they observed in the enemies advancing forces, even in the timing of the attacks.
The PCs elected to be in the “thick of the battle” as recent “heroes” of the town they were allowed that privilege and given command of troops, and sent to defend the main gate of the town. In setting up the encounter I dug out every orc miniature I own, a few miniatures to represent enemies that had been particularly troublesome (or amusing) over the last couple of levels. Then I looked up the Trihorn Behemoths, found something to use as assassins, and made the orc chief. That gave me a lot of models to play with, and a good range of enemies to call on. Yes I unashamedly made no attempt to provide “balanced” encounters, and improvised the entire thing after organizing the stat blocks for the monsters I intended to use. The only thing that I was sure of is that I wasn’t going to significantly change the map once it was set up. To this end I used the castle from the DM’s Kit and a few tiles from the City Tileset to enhance the walls, and adjust the map a little.
The PCs task was to defend the gate, and I didn’t want to turn the session into a wargame, it was intended to be about the PCs more than the armies. So I needed a way for the PCs to influence the course of the battle more broadly than with attack powers, and I needed something that would be affected by just such actions. To this end the miniatures used represented the “important” enemies to kill. If the PCs didn’t kill them these were the enemies that would have a big impact on the outcome of the battle, these enemies could attack the PCs, their troops, or the fortifications and the PCs, and this provided the basis for the combat element.
But there is more to being “heroes” in a big battle than swinging your sword or casting your spells, especially when you have troops to lead. To this end the PCs could use move actions to make skill checks as part of a challenge to ensure that their “grunts” held their ground and acted to defeat the enemies that were not represented by minis. They could also give up their standard action to command troops (such as archers) to make specific attacks against enemies represented by miniatures (useful for the Paladin).
This evolved into a complexity 2 skill challenge, success in the skill challenge would prevent the wall from being breached, and affect the enemies that would turn up in the last encounter. Succeeding before the final assault would prevent the orcs from having harpy allies, and from having a breach. Succeeding during the final assault would prevent the wall being breached in the second round, but the harpy allies would arrive (3 with their aura 20 doing 5 damage – 15 damage a round!). As an additional benefit once they had succeeded they could continue to command their troops, with skill checks for more effect, or without for a basic effect (like “move”).
Initially the PCs were restricted to social skills (Bluff, Diplomacy, Intimidate) to inspire their troops, but as they went on they could use other skills such as arcana, dungeoneering, heal, and any other they could think of a reasonable use for to get the troops to do something. DCs were Moderate for all checks.
They finished the challenge in the second wave a couple of rounds before it finished, 6 successes and 2 failures, it was a close call in the end!
“We fight in the shade!”
To simulate the fact that the orcs had archers, and hill giant allies capable of throwing rocks hundreds of feet, both of which were more than capable of raining death on the PCs and their troops I created a damage effect that triggered at the end of each round. Essentially the battle was a hazard that affected the PCs. At the end of each round they had to make a saving throw, during the first wave failing the save meant taking 5 damage, during the second wave while the two trebuchets were on the map it was 10 damage, and then back to 5 damage in the last wave.
This ensured a moderate amount of fairly constant damage, forcing the PCs to consider healing and make tactical choices beyond “I have three dailies, I can use 1 in each fight” as is often seen in situations where there are 3 encounters.
“In the shelter of the wall”
When not fending of a wave of orc assault the characters are able to take a short rest, and only 1 short rest, as the battle does not truly stop. They can take shelter behind the battlements and thus avoid the rain of stones and arrows from the enemy army for a time, and trust in the troops.
During this time the Wizard in the party chose not to rest, instead sustaining his daily powers. I checked the specific durations of the spells (some have a specified limit other than sustain: minor) and allowed him to do that with the understanding that he would not benefit from any healing as a result. Of course being a wizard he didn’t get hit a lot…
“The First Wave.”
In the first wave the orcs sought to bring a battering ram to bear, born between two trihorn behemoths on the gates and break through. They approached under the protective shriek of a harpy and a hail of arrows and stones…
Enemies in the First Wave:
- 2 Quickling Zephyrs (level 14 lurker)
- 1 harpy Shrieker (level 9 controller)
- 10 Orc Warriors (level 9 minion)
- 2 Trihorn Behemoths (level 12 soldier)
As you can see the encounter level is well above 10, however the party of six, with a combination of terrain and clever play were able to manage this fight well. Orcs worked in teams to put ladders up (which I allowed the Artificer and Wizard to attack directly killing 4 orcs at once), while the Zephyrs sought to cross the wall to open the gates (they were engaged by the Avenger and Paladin at first), and the Trihorns attempted to bash the gate down from the outside (but were blocked by an Invisible Wall), and the Harpy was shot from the sky by the Ranger (yay nova-striker).
“The Second Wave”
In the second wave the PCs had their chance for revenge on a returning villain! In their recent adventures a cambion demon had escaped their reach and now he finally returned as a lieutenant of the orc army. With him came trolls, ogres, hill giants, more orcs and two trebuchets (who were modeled by the trihorn behemoths). This attack’s goals are far more brute force with the attackers seeking to gain control of the wall and or batter it down.
- 1 Cambion Wrathborn (Level 9 Skirmisher)
- 4 Legion Devil Hellguard (Level 11 Minion)
- 10 Orc Warriors (Level 9 Minion)
- 4 Hill Giant Smasher (Level 11 Brute)
- 2 Trolls (Level 9 Brute)
- 2 Feymaddened Ogres (Level 11 Brute) (You can find these teleporting ogres in this encounter: Crone and Korred)
In this encounter the PCs were very hard pressed, with their two healers getting out of range of each other and the Cleric taking a Brutal Smash multiple times. Most of the party ended this encounter bloodied, and some had gone down during it. At this time they were starting to worry about what would happen when the next wave arrived (and they didn’t know it would be the last wave). They also had to make much more use of their troops in this encounter and thus managed to complete the skill challenge, even with a couple of hill giants getting confused by the Illusory Wall for a couple of rounds.
“The Final Wave”
This wave arrived while the party were still completing their short rest, but it was proceeded by an NPC engaging the leader of the enemy army in solo combat, as the meta-plot had them as long term enemies. The PCs stood and watched this play out, even as the enemy did the same, everyone understanding that to interfere was to invite the final assault to begin in earnest. Then the orc slew the NPC, who was rescued by his companion, allowing him to hand over his artifact weapon to the Paladin PC (this is a plot arc for said PC, Chekov’s gun finally fired after being shown in the first session). With that done the attack begins in earnest, with the PCs having two objectives, seize the enemy standard (the Standard of Eternal Battle artifact from DMG2) and kill the commander of the orcs; Jargesh. The standard was not used according to its mechanics, but rather was used to bring the low level enemies attack bonuses up by granting a blanket +2 to hit, this made the lower level enemies used able to hit reliably and thus make a real threat (brutes hit hard after all).
- 4 Orc Darkblade (Level 6 Lurker)
- 4 Orc Bloodrager (Level 7 Elite Brute)
- 8 Orc Grunt (Level 6 Brute)
- 2 Direguard Assassins (Level 11 Skirmisher)
- 1 Jargesh (Level 12 Solo)
Jargesh focused his attentions on the Paladin, not wanting another champion to rise up bearing the sword and restore a knightly order of Bahamut to glory. The other orcs and PCs then set about causing chaos and trying to kill each other… This battle ended up being a very close call for the party, turning points were a round of timely crits from the paladin with his artifact sword, and the wizard wisely using Mage Hand to capture the Standard of Eternal Battle after the 4 orc grunts that protected it were slain (followed by the Avenger taking a standard action to plant it and change its banner to Pelor’s symbol).
When the dust cleared and Jargesh finally lay dead, the last enemy to fall, the party were drained, and over half of them were bloodied and would have died, as no healing was left, had Jargesh survived to the start of the next round!
With the defeat of Jargesh the party learnt of the death of the NPC who had previously born the artifact sword, and the resulting deaths of the rulers of the knightly order of Bane who previously ruled the town they were defending. In killing Jargesh and stopping the orc army they completed two major quests and left the Heroic Tier behind.
No I’m not sure how I will top the end of Heroic for the end of Paragon.
But the party do have troubles in the form of the dragon known as Lord Winter, an Unseelie Court of Eladrin, and another foe on the horizon…. Paragon will be “complicated”.
Observations From the Game
We started play at about 7:30pm, and wrapped up the final wave at about 2am the next morning, and it didn’t really drag on (to me at least) at any point as the players were regularly pressed, and even got desperate in the second and third waves, when it was clear they were not going to be able to “just do this alone” (ie they used the troops because they realized they couldn’t win any other way).
The main thing to take from these encounters is that you can have “more enemies” if you choose wisely from enemies of lower level. Their numbers let them get combat advantage, or situational bonuses (like the standard) can be used to make them able to hit reliably. These are enemies that the PCs can hit well and often, that don’t die like a minion, and that when they hit can do good damage if they are brutes or skirmishers. Including these sort of buffed lower level enemies increases the “epicness” of the fights in a way that having a few minions of the same level as the PCs will never achieve.
However if you do this, you do need to have players that get through combats relatively quickly normally, if you are taking multiple hours for a standard “at level” fight then these fights may not be for you. We took about 2 hours per fight with 6 players, about twice the length of an at level fight with similar creatures with 5 players. So if you are taking over an hour for a combat with 5 players this might not be for you. Just a caution.
Overall I was very happy with the feeling of these battles, and think that it is worth exploring the sort of models they show for climactic battles at times other than the end of a campaign arc.
In short don’t be afraid to push the boundaries of encounter design, and stomp all over them.
So what did you do for the end of heroic and have you ever tried these sorts of massive encounters?