Monday, March 16, 2009

The Dead Walk

During a visit by the party back to base while clearing the keep's first level, they run into one of Keep on the Shadowfell's interlude encounters, entitled The Dead Walk.

The encounter starts with returning PCs discovering Winterhaven's gates securely locked. When they question the town guards, they learn that undead have been sighted in the village graveyard to the south, and despite the village having a 20-something strong militia, a barracks, a siege supplies warehouse, a reasonably competent local wizard and a Fighter's Guild, the town have decided to stick their heads in the sand and wait for the players to come and save them.

When the players bow to the inevitable "fight some undead in a graveyard" cliche, and head down to the cemetery to check things out, they find to nobody's particular surprise that the shambling skeletons in question are headed by Ninaran The Obvious Spy.

The Dead Walk takes place on another of Keep's legacy maps, recycled from an earlier Dungeons and Dragons product, which explains the odd setup. There's a large tomb in the west with some suspicious coffins, which has absolutely nothing to do with the encounter, and there's another of the glowing magical circles which Keep is so fond of. This time around the circle is described as powering the necromantic ritual which keeps all the skeletons fighting, and enterprising players can break the circle with some Religion or Arcana skill checks to bring a swift end to the encounter.

It's a stupid set-up, plot-wise. Having the skeletons milling aimlessly in the graveyard is as far from dynamic as you can imagine; there's not even any time pressure in the module as written - it's assumed the undead will stand around until the players get around to killing them. A more interesting scenario would have seen the undead assaulting the town directly, with players scrambling to save hapless NPCs from the ravening horde. Indeed, several of the Keep conversions floating around the internet make this precise change.

Also, it's unclear exactly what Ninaran is up to. A note found on Ninaran's body, when defeated, suggests this was a plan to kill off the players to stop them meddling in Kalarel's plans. Indeed, Ninaran, like almost every other enemy in the adventure, sets an ambush, having her skeletons burst from the ground once the adventurers reach the centre of the graveyard. It's not a particularly great plan, seeing as the players have already been told that the graveyard is full of undead, but at least she tries.

It's a pretty crappy attempt, though. She could have led her undead to the keep to reinforce Kalarel, or attacked the players while they were sleeping at the inn; you get the feeling that the only reason things play out as they do is because the developers had a "graveyard" map that they wanted to get some use out of.

Plot-related gripes aside, the encounter is tactically interesting. The players enter the graveyard from the gate in the northeast. The defender-type characters will probably proceed first, thus triggering the skeleton ambush and getting swarmed with undead minions. At this stage, arcane and divine characters are likely to make a bee-line for the magic circle, correctly guessing that it has something to do with what's going on.

I've seen this happen personally in two games, and write-ups online suggest that this kind of party split occurs fairly reliably. It's great, because the minions are fluff, dispatched in only a couple of rounds, and the real threat is the pair of Gravehounds waiting by the circle. As soon as the squishy undefended caster-types get near their destination, the Gravehounds strike, deploying a nasty bite attack that deals ongoing damage and knocks its target prone. Without defender support, it's likely the casters will spend most of the battle rolling around on the ground trying to keep the zombie wolves away from their throats. It's a sharp wake-up call to a party that may have grown complacent killing goblins, and it's a quick reminder of the importance of working as a team.

The low point of the battle, though, is Ninaran. Despite a reasonably meaty bow attack, she's poorly armoured and doesn't pack a lot of hit points. In the end result, she's less threatening than either Balgron or Irontooth. After what for Keep on the Shadowfell is a relatively long build-up to her big moment, she goes down in moments once any of the party's strikers get her in their sights.


Bill said...

My players had a LOT of fun with this one, mostly because they screwed it up so badly.

They entered the graveyard through the tunnel in the back of the big tomb (I called it a mausoleum), getting in a fight with the gravehounds. Ninaran heard the fight, did some handwaving to trigger the ambush herself, and ran to the mausoleum. Seeing the players retreating back out the tunnel, she ran around the north side of the mausoleum, climbed the fence, and attacked them as they came out the tunnel.

The tank and the artificer (yea, wrong world) charged her, while the wizard got lucky and killed the gravehounds, and charged north through the mausoleum and out the tunnel in the north wall to attack Ninaran through the fence. They beat Ninaran down in two rounds, if I recall.

No sooner than did the tank start tying Ninaran up, in preparation for administering healing and interrogating her, than the undead reached the wizard. The tank took off running to her rescue back through the Mausoelum, while the artificer made a fool of himself trying and failing repeatedly to climb the fence.

The tank got to the wizard just as she hit zero hp, and spent the next several rounds beating down the undead, as the wizard failed death save after death save. She died the same round the last undead died, and the same round that Ninaran rolled a 20 death save, awakened, and attacked the artificer (for max damage no less). The poor tank had to come running again, but Ninaran had run off by that time.

It was a blast - a mad scramble the whole time. The players learned three lessons: don't get separated (as you mentioned above); always keep enough money on hand for a Raise Dead ritual; and Lay On Hands is a MINOR ACTION!!!

Zack Blade said...

I just ran this encounter for my group and I have to say (getting them back to town aside) it went pleasingly well. My group warlock being a perverse little gnome had tried to swoon Ninaran when they first met. So, instead of playing her to the common format I decided to make her closer to one of the Bond Villain spies and be quite flirtatious. From that point on I was able to establish a (albeit weak) boyfriend/girlfriend relationship between the character which allowed for information to flow back to Ninaran on the groups progress when they would return to town from their travels before entering the keep.

By the time they arrived back at town (after scouring the first floor left and right) they were greeted to the town guard barely being able to hold back the undead horde and the Lord shouting that the source was in the town graveyard. As I like having a conflict of interests in the party I made it a point to have the party witness Bloodreavers fleeing the town with several key characters (including A personal friend of my Paladin who came to visit him on his first quest and Sister Lenora who had become a staple of interaction between the gnoll fights. ) Leaving the characters wanting to go to their rescue but ultimately seeing the big picture of saving the town first.

When the group stumbled upon my Warlock's love interest I couldn't have pictured a better face on surprise on my party then see them all turn to a uniform mind set of killing her first priority by any means for her betrayal. As she mockingly sat ontop of the central building (mostly to avoid getting in contact with my crit happy melee team) I had her berate the habits of some of my players by holding the letters they had sent out to their respective background family’s and orders for requested aid in their first adventure. By the time the fight was over it felt like a real story based fight compared to the constant grinds that have plagued this adventure and my players have been talking about it ever sense with questions I won’t answer for them (thunderspire answers) and a feeling of excitement I was happy to provide for them! I think with the right amount of tweaking/playing to your players this can be viewed as one of the key moments of the adventure and a great way to set up H2.