D&D Encounters: Undermountain (Session 2)

D&D Encounters: Undermountain

It’s Wednesday, and though that used to mean “New Comics Day”, it now means “D&D Encounters Night”!  We played again at Aero Hobbies in Santa Monica and this experience was a little different from last week’s.

I showed up early this time, homemade character in hand (generated on the D&D Character Builder for those oh-so-important 5 Renown Points).  I wasn’t the only one to arrive early, so our crew was all set and actually started rolling dice right at 7:oo PM.

There were lots of changes, not the least of which was a character I was way more comfortable with, and the DM who ran our last game was now a player in this session!  This worked out well, as one of the players from last week couldn’t make it to this session. I imagine this will be a fairly common occurrence over the next 10 weeks or so.

Our group was now composed of 5 strikers and 1 defender. Now I’m really concerned about our healing ability.  Looks like we’re on our own for healing surges, and will be counting on our party for group Heal checks for bandaging those wounds.

Only a few minor adjustments for our role call for the second session:

  • Bewho, the deva barbarian
  • Izy’ure, the elf seeker
  • Vera, the halfling rogue
  • Colbin, the human ranger/rogue hybrid
  • Strakashtai, the kalashtar sorcerer
    and my character,
  • Koroth, the minotaur fighter

I love playing big characters. Half-giants, goliaths, half-orcs, you name it.  I can’t wait for Dark Sun for this exact reason.  Yes, I know it’ll be a re-skinned goliath.  That’s not the point.  I want to play a 4e half-giant.

In all my years of gaming, however, I’d never played a minotaur as a PC before, and decided to do a little research to get a good back story together.  Turns out this was wholly unnecessary.  While the DMs have a mini-conference, I explain to the players at my table that Koroth is a friend of the previous PC who was called away on a crusade to the Abyss.

Y’know, like it happens all the time.

So Koroth is a good minotaur who worships Tempus, the god of battle, and is hoping to find some answers about his heritage within Undermountain (as well as score some gold).  It’s about as smooth a transition as we’re likely to get, and there is absolutely NO mention of why Bellum is gone and why Colbin is in his place.  One human male looks much like another, I suppose.

Story is not just secondary in D&D Encounters, it’s virtually nonexistent.  We’re on a dungeon delve.  Period.  It’s difficult to tie the players together in a limited run campaign like this, I know, but a little story might go a long way to encouraging players to show up the following week.  I noticed there were far less people at this week’s session than the first.

The DMs come out of their huddle and we start off right where the last encounter left off — the team has completed a Short Rest and then we lower ourselves down the Yawning Portal and into Undermountain.  No sooner does the last team member’s feet touch the floor and we send our ropes and harnesses back up, then we’re attacked by a band of humanoids and their pet scorpion.  This is a good news / bad news situation, as we are attacked right away without a chance to get set up, but we also earn a Milestone (and thus an Action Point and a few Renown Points) because we didn’t take an Extended Rest between encounters.

Last time in combat (as the Paladin) I didn’t fare so well, so I was really looking to redeem myself this session.  My first roll of the night is a 19 for initiative and I just know it’s going to be a good time.  Tempus is obviously watching over me.

The battle starts, we begin dealing out (and taking) some damage.  I take 17 in one hit (quite a lot when you’re only 1st level), but then our kalashtar sorcerer gets lucky and really unloads on a big group of the non-minion bad guys.  Players high-five each other and we are sure we can finish these guys off.

Then the trouble starts.

Our sorcerer is downed on the bad guys’ next turn, and instead of going after one of the other 5 viable targets, the doppleganger sneak (disguised as a human rogue) moves through combat, provoking multiple opportunity attacks and performs a coup de grace with sneak attack damage on the unconscious, and therefore helpless, PC.  She dies instantly.

This is where I have a problem.  I know that there are different styles of running a D&D game, and that there are as many different styles as there are DMs.  However, calling across to another DM at another table and shouting gleefully, “I GOT ONE!” does not make for good feelings among the players at your table.  I can only imagine how this player felt as her character’s death was announced with joy across the room.

Apparently, the DM mini-conference before the game was about not taking it easy on the players.

Now I’m sure this DM is a very nice guy in his regular life.  As far as I know, he’s a saint.  I’ve never met him before this night, but I’m sure he pays his taxes, goes to work on time, and helps his landlady carry out her garbage.  This behavior, however, is called douche-baggery and I’ve already talked all about it here, so I won’t get into a rant this time.

One of the concerns I have about playing in the RPGA is that it strongly encourages meta-gaming.  There is a list of published Renown Point Awards for certain actions taken by the players in the campaign, and so some players know that they should try to “Revive a Dying Adventurer Ally” to get some extra points.  It’s what made me switch from my pre-gen human paladin character to a D&D Character Builder minotaur fighter (that’s worth 7 points) so I’m as guilty of this as anyone.

There is also a reward called “Survive 8+ Sessions without Dying“.  Apparently, the DMs are in a contest to not let any of the PCs achieve this. I call shenanigans.  I could see if the reward was 10 points or 8 points or even 5 points, but it’s only worth 2 points.  The same as hitting a milestone or for a “Moment of Greatness“, and is only achievable once per player per season.  There is no point reward system for the DM, and that sucks.  But trying in-game to prevent a player from achieving a reward out-of-game is just bad form.  Shouldn’t we be trying to encourage players to stick around?

So, now the sorcerer is dead and we’re down a team member.  The player has a couple options…
1. She can make a new character and play with that one next session.  This sucks for someone invested in their character, but character death is never enjoyable.
2. She can use the same character with a “Death Penalty”.  -This means that she’s at -1 to all rolls until she reaches 3 milestones (which is like 6+ encounters, give or take).-  Correction: I’ve been informed that characters take a -1 to all rolls until they reach 1 milestone, as per special D&D Encounters rules.  Neither option is super-appealing, but character death is a reality in this game.

Also, there’s a third option: she can just not play anymore.  Which is really what the DM seems to be encouraging.  This is a mini-campaign to generate interest in 4th Edition.  Is this sort of vicious behavior encouraged by the RPGA for this adventure?  I’m having trouble understanding this.  What’s the point?

I’m glad that the DM had fun, and that he was enthusiastic about enjoying the game.  But maybe next time he could concentrate more on making the game fun for the players, instead of having one of them sit out the majority of the encounter.

What are your thoughts?  As a DM, do you relish the TPK?  How far are you willing to go to achieve it?

As a player, do you hate it when your character dies?  Do you create a new character or walk away?

Live Tweets every Wednesday at D&D Encounters: Undermountain on Twitter @4eDnD!


33 Responses to “D&D Encounters: Undermountain (Session 2)”

  1. March 24, 2010 at 10:09 pm

    Some DMs just do not get it.

    Whenever I DM, rule number 1 is that everyone should have fun. Sometimes this means I have to fudge the rules a little, but that’s the game.

    Don’t get me wrong, you have to be fair, but I don’t ever see a reason for a Monster to coup de grace a dying character. That’s just bad taste.

    I DMed today’s encounter and one character starting dying in the second round. He held on throughout the round, making all of his saves. He didn’t get to fight at all, but I gave him his “Moment of Greatness” renown reward for clinging to life, and so he could feel like he accomplished something. That’s what it’s all about.

    Good luck, and I hope that this guy shapes up for you all.

  2. March 24, 2010 at 10:21 pm

    Absolutely, Kyle! First of all, thanks for taking the time to comment. Second, I’m glad I’m not the only one who thinks that sort of behavior is just counterproductive.

    Rule No. 1: Everybody should have fun.

    Where do you DM? Maybe I’ll make the commute one of these weeks… Thanks again for posting.

  3. 3 Mike
    March 24, 2010 at 11:27 pm

    I’ve been on the player side of the screen when something like this has happened more than once and I’ll never do such a thing to my players. Games should be fun. They aren’t about the DM’s ego. If one of my players is near the point of death through bad die rolls, I go easy on them. It isn’t their fault the dice went against them and to kill off their character because of it would feel cheap. I’m not above hurting them though, that sort of thing can lead to good roleplay later. Now… if the player did something very dumb that directly led to their death then, yeah, I’ll kill the character.

    I’ve been running a campaign for over three years and we’ve had zero character deaths but a lot of close calls. Each of those close calls were tense moments that gave those encounters an edge-of-your-seat quality that sticks with you.

    What you described is exactly the sort of behavior that drives people away from gaming.

  4. March 24, 2010 at 11:47 pm

    I totally agree, Mike. Punishing a player for a bad die roll is one thing. Scaring a player for doing thoughtless or tactically careless moves is quite another. If you kill the PCs, how can they learn anything?

    If you break all your toys, nobody’s going to want to play with you.

  5. 5 delroland
    March 25, 2010 at 12:24 am

    I replied on the D&D forums as well, but I figured I’d chime in here, too. Your experience with the judges (that’s what we call DM’s in the RPGA) at your D&D Encounters game is unfortunately not unique. However, being that the RPGA is a large organization, there are a few avenues available to pursue when something like this happens. Firstly, at any RPGA event there is a Senior GM who can be called in as arbiter to resolve disputes between a judge and players. While they don’t like being bothered with minutiae, generally Senior GM’s are more than willing to listen to a situation when something drastic like character death is on the table. Heck, I’ve had an instance as an RPGA judge where I used coup de grace on a character in a totally legitimate situation (party let a helpless member be dragged off by monsters as they ran away), and the Senior GM overturned my ruling simply because he felt it was too brutal for the difficulty of the encounter even though he completely agreed with my reasoning. Generally speaking, Senior GM’s are usually good people who want to see everyone have a good time.

    Failing getting help from the Senior GM, I would suggest making a comment to the owner of the game store to the effect that the judges are being jerks and ruining the fun at the event. One of the few advantages to the bureaucracy of the RPGA is that jerk judges tend to shape up quickly when someone with authority over them has a few harsh words.

    I’d also suggest expressing to the Senior GM that you do not wish to play with the same judge at the next session. Being a member of the RPGA for twelve years, I hope you come back again; not all of us are total jerks, and hopefully you’ll get one of the good judges next week.

  6. March 25, 2010 at 12:53 am

    Thanks for the encouraging words. I definitely will give it one more session before I make any waves. I liked the game for the most part, and if it was just a one-time occurrence, there’s no reason to let it ruin a good time. Everybody has bad days, and hopefully next week’s session will be much improved.

    I really appreciate the info about the RPGA, though. I had no idea there was such a hierarchy. It’s always good to know where to go in the chain of command.

  7. March 25, 2010 at 5:29 am

    Wow! Something like this is exactly the sort of thing that kept me away from gaming for so long and makes me really nervous about public play. I understand the reluctance to make waves, but I am more worried that someone was scared away from playing than I am about the feelings of the judge. Not taking it easy on the players should mean enforcing the different light levels and their effects on vision or making sure you don’t forget a particularly brutal attack power when running a monster; it should not mean going against the advice in the DMG (p 40).

    DMs may joke about killing off characters, heck my players joke about it all the time. But feeling like your DM is out to get you is never fun unless you specifically signed up for it. Like you, I hate it when my players miss, particularly on a critical miss. And while I get sad when they kill off the monsters very quickly, it’s mainly because the game is less fun without a real challenge. There was no great challenge here. It sounds like the judge told the players, be very conservative and careful or I will kill you, no heroics for you.

    I hope things get better and, if not, I at least suggest reaching out to the person on the receiving end of injustice.

    All that said, there should be a game element to the DMs but the renown points should translate into something positive for the whole group. It’s one thing I like about the DMs challenge they are running at PAX East. The players are rating their DMs so it will be harder to be a jerk. Chances are lowered that the DM will go for a TPK since they are unlikely to win in that scenario. Unfortunately, I can’t think of anything that would really work for the D&D Encounters series.

  8. 8 Jason
    March 25, 2010 at 7:11 am

    One note: death in D&D Encounters carries a 1 milestone penalty, not 3.

    Two note: I played and ran it last night. In both cases the story was adjusted to account for new and missing characters. It’s laziness that ruins the story aspect–and Undermountain does have a little bit of a story. It’s relevance will become clear near the end of the adventure.

    Three note: I had every character in the single digits–most hit the dirt–but none got picked on. The psion did drop when he started in the water though. Everyone was on the edge of their seat at one point or another and had a good time because of it.

  9. March 25, 2010 at 7:15 am

    Thanks, Sarah. Boy, you said it. Playing in public is nerve-wracking enough, then to have this happen in front of strangers is a whole new level.

    When character death happens, it can be a traumatic experience. It’s all fine and good if you’re among friends, but how do you deal with that in public in front of strangers that you’ve met maybe once before?

    The more I talk about this, the more I want to contact that DM in private and let him know that his actions were not appreciated. Looks like I’ve got a task between now and next Wednesday.

    Again, thanks for taking the time to comment!

  10. March 25, 2010 at 7:52 am

    Thanks for the input, Jason! It’s good to hear some good news for a change about character death — I’ll definitely let her know it’s a different penalty than we originally thought. Hopefully she’ll be back for more Encounters.

    I heard that the water in that encounter was damaging, but we were never even near it. Sounds like our DM didn’t know how to use the terrain and just overwhelmed a weak character. Reminds me of a bully in school, actually. We certainly didn’t hear about any of the so-called story aspects at our table.

    As the group’s fighter, I always expect to be the first one to hit the dirt. I was bloodied, but only took damage twice in the entire encounter.

  11. 11 Jason (Neldar)
    March 25, 2010 at 7:52 am

    First off a small consolation–death is a 1 milestone affair in D&DEnc. They realized the 3 milestone thing would kill it.

    Secondly, yesterday my players bounced off 0 HP a lot and it made for a close, suspenseful combat. Everyone had fun and no one died. The new guy had a blast.

    Speaking of the new guy… I put enough story into it to explain why some weren’t there (they went back to drinking or had to get supplies) and how he came to join the party (he was supposed to but ran late).

    Also, don’t discount the story. Any DM not giving you a decent story is shorting you. I can’t explain why (spoilers) but you shouldn’t look at it as simply enter room A, kill monsters, room B, kill monsters and so on. There is more to it and it works well for what it is meant to be.

  12. 12 Jason (Neldar)
    March 25, 2010 at 7:57 am

    Ah, right moderation. Sorry for the double post. One more thing: the metagame (the achievements) are very minor. Three promote the new material and subscription service, about 4 are set up to highlight the various roles, and the rest you get just because you are there. All are once per season so after you have them–that’s it. It’s very minor and does create a few jokes (aw… I wanted to revive him!) it isn’t disruptive past the first week.

  13. March 25, 2010 at 8:25 am

    Hey Jason, sorry about the moderation lag, but I had some gentlemen who seemed to take advantage.

    I had no idea there WAS a story! Now I definitely feel like I’m being short-changed with the Encounters campaign. I’m a DM most of the time and I make it a point to account for all the PCs’ whereabouts if their players are missing. It’s a little thing that goes a long way.

    I’ll prod him for more story.

    Glad to hear the “metagame achievement” furor will die down soon. I guess we didn’t have a very fun group — we’re still getting to know each other at the table and it was a little soon for a character death. None of us knew how to react.

  14. 14 JesterOC
    March 25, 2010 at 8:31 am

    This type of DM’ing should never be used for public play. As said above D&D encounters is a vehicle to introduce new players into D&D. This kill’em when their down attitude is just wrong. This is not a dungeon delve competition.


  15. March 25, 2010 at 8:38 am

    Thanks for the comment, Jester. I whole-heartedly agree. Killing a PC when she’s down is a totally counterproductive attitude. The worst part is how much the DM seemed to relish the death of the player’s character. Not cool at all, and hardly encouraging for the rest of us to even play with this guy.

  16. 16 newbiedm
    March 25, 2010 at 4:25 pm

    That DM is an asshole, and should not be running games for the public.
    Be a dick at home.

  17. March 25, 2010 at 4:32 pm

    I pretty much agree with the consensus here. This DM was out of line for a public event designed for introductory play.

    The DM was well aware this was an unbalanced party with no control or healing support and went out of his way to ruin someone’s night. One question: How did the DM from week one respond to this DM’s actions? Did he seem unfazed by this, or was he put off by it as well?

  18. March 25, 2010 at 4:41 pm

    There is a fine line between making and encounter hard enough to be a challenge and making it too hard.

    Now, having said that, I have to say that this guy acted like a major douche. Deliberately moving in and performing a coup de grace on a PC in the midst of battle is just bad form. There is no excuse for it – it doesn’t enhance the story, it doesn’t move the PCs along, it doesn’t increase enjoyment of the game… what did it do? Angered some players, probably embarrassed a player, and possibly made someone not want to participate in the DnD Encounters program in the future.

    Sounds like a no-win situation for me, I don;t care how much fun that DM thought he was having – how much fun will he be having when everyone refuses to play with him?

    As I said, generating challenging encounters that don’t auto-TPK is a difficult line to walk for a DM. However, it should be a little easier at these events because they are pre-written and pre-balanced, and the majority of PCs are pre-generated – should be relatively easy. This guy was just acting like a jerk.

  19. 19 Shawn Satterfield
    March 25, 2010 at 6:48 pm

    Here’s my question. . . How many “new players,” has you Encounters brought?

  20. 20 AethanBear
    March 25, 2010 at 6:49 pm

    This is really a shame. I don’t have anything to say that hasn’t been already said. Should a DM take it easy on the PCs? No. Should they go out of their way to kill one when it doesn’t really make any logical sense? Absolutely not. And it’s even more of a bad situation when this is perpetuated in a public game. New players wanting to try the game meet with a DM like this, and that’s likely to be the last time they play.

    I’ve never understood the desire to kill PCs in my own games; a TPK means that my game is over. Sad.

  21. 21 Gaylen Gonzalez
    March 25, 2010 at 7:20 pm

    I can agree, that DM was not promoting the game at all. I am running Dungeon Encounters because I like the game and want new players. I do my best to provide background story, minis and even my own maps. I can only hope that new player returns, if there is someone you can talk, I encourage you to do so. That kind of behavior need to be taken care of asap. I hope your next session is better.

  22. 22 Marcel Beaudoin
    March 25, 2010 at 7:57 pm

    Please, please make sure that you pass this on to WotC. Either contact WotC_Trevor (http://community.wizards.com/wotc_trevor) or email me, and I will pass it on. What this DM did is so completely against the purpose of D&D Encounters and the RPGA.

    This DM *needs* to have things explained to him.

  23. March 25, 2010 at 8:11 pm

    Hey, bud,

    If you want to come, I’m DMing this week in Kaysville Utah! 😛

    Just show this guy this post and comments and let him know that there’s an entire army of D&D guys online that would coup de grace his face if they met him personally.

    His FACE.

  24. March 25, 2010 at 8:13 pm

    From the Dungeon Master’s Guide (p. 40)

    Don’t hit people when they’re down. When a character falls unconscious, monsters turn their attention to enemies who are still up and fighting. Monsters don’t usually intentionally deal damage to fallen foes.”

    Now, understanding that the enemy in question was a doppleganger, I’m trying to look at the situation objectively to see if there was another way for the DM to handle this. From my perspective, it appeared that the DM was intentionally going out of his way to kill a PC when there were other, viable, living targets up and dealing damage to the enemy’s compatriots.

  25. 25 Alex
    March 26, 2010 at 3:46 pm

    Just echoing what’s already been said here, but it’s sad that this last “Encounters Night” – an event designed to bring in and retain old and new players – has become an example of how NOT to run a game and encourage people to stay away. You really should show him previous entries of Dungeoneering Check™ and help him to fix his a-game.

  26. March 26, 2010 at 4:26 pm

    Alex! Thanks for posting. I feel honored. Perhaps this “kill-the-PCs” way of thinking (and DMing) is precisely why there are 24 million lapsed players of D&D, and WotC is eager to win them back.

  27. March 29, 2010 at 1:56 pm

    Just a quick comment about the coup de grace on the caster (and many of you will disagree with me no doubt). The sorcerer did just rather successfully attack several of the doppelgangers allies. Clearly he was a large threat in the doppelganger’s view, and needed to be dealt with. A lurker *should* be doing that sort of thing anyhow, taking advantage where possible to attack the vulnerable. I do it all the time with bloodied opponents.

    That said, if there were other opportunities to sneak attack, if I were running the game, I would have done that first rather than attempt to slay a PC outright (If that is what you meant by viable targets… if the only place I could get a sneak attack was on the sorcerer, I probably would have headed that way too). If I was running the game, I might have made an attack and then moved to the sorcerer, announcing that he was standing over the limp body of the sorcerer, a menacing grin on his face, and a dagger ready to slice. That threat adds to the tension and drama of the situation, and gives the sorcerer’s allies time to react to it.

    • March 29, 2010 at 2:40 pm

      See? I have no problem with that. If the DM warns the players or says, “Hey guys, the monsters/enemies down here are out for blood and will definitely go for the kill.” That’s one thing, but the first time we ever played with this DM he killed off a PC in a store-run dungeon delve with new players designed to introduce new players and bring back lapsed players. Not the time for this sort of bloodthirsty viciousness.

      Of course, it’s certainly the DM’s privilege to do so, but I’m more interested in the DM’s motivation for doing so.

  28. 29 Jill
    March 31, 2010 at 3:30 pm

    I would recommend talking about your problem with the organizer first before making the guy out as a villain on the Internet. If someone has an issue with how an event is going I think I would try and express this concern in person instead of blogging about it behind their back. The situation might get resolved a lot faster and less feelings hurt in the process.

    • March 31, 2010 at 3:40 pm

      And if the organizer would return my e-mails I would be more than happy to discuss the situation with him.

      Nobody’s making him out to be “a villain”. I’m reporting my point of view and how I feel about it, and as such it’s just one person’s opinion. However, a few people seem to feel the same way and have, in turn, made their opinions known.

      I can’t speak to the feelings of the other players (and never intended to), but as for myself, I felt as if it wasn’t “safe” to play there. For the record, I plan on going back tonight for more D&D Encounters, hoping to talk to him before the game, but assuming that I’ll be able to have a good time and expecting a better play session. Like you, I wish this could have been resolved immediately at the table, but having never met the DM before, had no way to contact him. He has since declined to respond to my emails.

    • March 31, 2010 at 3:41 pm

      It’s also the reason I have declined to bring this to the attention of anyone at WotC or the RPGA, despite the insistence of several other readers. I would much prefer this be handled at the lowest level possible.

  29. May 26, 2010 at 5:43 am

    I have been DM’ing for quite a few years now and am also DM’ing for encounters at our local comic store in Ottawa, Ontario. I’m only stopping to comment on this because a few weeks ago I had a TPK while running encounters. Some of it was my players not wanting to rest between chapters and some of it was poor strategy coupled with new players not understanding their roles within the party. I try not to pull punches hen I DM but I was worried when I saw the 20’s start flying that night. I don’t play with a screen and usually when I go on a crit streak someone dies. I agree that no player should suffer a coupe-de-grace in the middle of combat but sometimes it’s what the monsters would do. I take pride in trying to role play the monsters just like I would role play an NPC or a character. When a character falls in the front lines and all the other characters back away their full movement out of reach of a monster it would sit down and enjoy it’s meal. This was how my TPK started… to be fair I did have the monster spend a full round sitting on top of their fallen comrade and explained in great detail what was apparent what was going to happen next.
    The problem I have is that with D&D encounters it seems like people have a “me first” attitude that I haven’t seen much in other parties where people know each other. Sometimes the players can be responsible for a TPK as much as luck, or a bad DM. I just find it’s hard to entice players to be loyal to a party that changes on a weekly basis. We usualy get 10-15 players for our encounters nights and I havent had the same party twice in the 18 sessions I have run.

    Just my 2 cp.


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