In my regular Wednesday office game, I decided to start running my group through the new Scales of War Adventure Path. Unfortunately, we’d begun Keep on the Shadowfell before I had “Rescue at Rivenroar” in hand, so we picked up the Scales of War campaign with this month’s installment, “The Siege of Bordrin’s Watch.” We were on our second session of the adventure a couple weeks back, and I sprang a random encounter on my group. Some assassins jumped them in a shady part of town. Combat ensued, and the fight was, eventually, won by the PCs. But not before we had our first campaign death.
Alas, poor Atticus, we knew you well.
The poor halfling died ignobly, skewered by a halberd, then shanked again with a coup de grace, then, when that didn’t kill him, kicked off the top of a 20-foot roof. I mean, it all made sense in the context of the adventure. Really.
So why does this matter? I mean, PCs die all the time, right?
Here’s the deal. Way back last year, when we first started talking about the new Adventure Path, I pointed out that back in the day, Shackled City (Dungeon’s first Adventure Path) was something of a meat grinder. Apparently, many a group ended up a stain on the dungeon floor running through one of those adventures. The interesting thing is that, for the most part, the encounters in the Shackled City Adventure Path weren’t particularly beyond the scope of a normal 3E encounter, at least in terms of XP gained for the level of the characters.
Nope, what made many of those ultra-deadly encounters tough was that each author felt obliged to come up with unique, compelling, and integrated encounters. They felt that, to do the campaign justice, they needed to make the most of their encounters, using a combination of monsters working together with terrain in an elegant, symbiotic, and often fatal, dance. In many ways, they were following the 4th Edition encounter design philosophy—using monsters, traps, and terrain all together in a wonderful stew—before 4th Edition was even a glimmer in anyone’s eye. Kudos to those authors!
Many other 3E encounters didn’t follow this philosophy. Sure, they featured the occasional bit of interesting terrain or a cool trap, but encounters weren’t often designed with all three game elements in mind. Now, encounters integrate these elements as the rule, not the exception.
So back to that meeting. We decided to make the Scales of War a middle-of-the-4th-Edition road campaign. It wouldn’t be any harder or easier than the baseline. So when Atticus fell to his ultimate death, the first thought that popped into my brain was, “Oh, crap. What have I done?”
I mean, the fight was tough. There weren’t any traps, but terrain certainly had an impact (excuse the pun). But looking at the encounter now, I can see that this was a good thing. It shows me that 4th Edition characters are not invulnerable. A clever combination of monsters, traps, and terrain can put the fear in any D&D party, as well as spawn countless tales of ill-fated character deaths that players will remember for years.