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A horde of zombie approaches – roll for initiative!

My players are nothing if not methodical. After dealing with Agatha at Conyberry at the end of last week’s session, they traveled South toward Old Owl Well to clean up their quest log. They had learned that the area has been seen crawling with undead, and were tasked with discovering what was going on.

Old Owl Well, like several of the mini-locations in “The Lost Mine of Phandelver,” doesn’t have an official printed battlemap. Thankfully the campaign is popular enough that I was able to find one online and incorporate it into what turned into one of our longest, and more interesting combat encounters.

The party approached the courtyard and ruined watchtower in the middle, which I kept purposefully hidden. I teased out the smell of death wafting from within. The PCs were all to familiar with the stench, having survived the encounter with the Nothic and his trench o’ rotting bodies in the Redbrand Hideout many sessions ago.

Kalinaar the wary Paladin used his Divine Sense to locate any undead, and his senses immediately went crazy with the quantity and proximity of undead creatures. At that point the guard zombies snapped to attention and began spilling out of the holes in the walls. Roll for initiative!

A dozen zombies in all were coming out of a relatively small location, and the PCs’ area of effect abilities are limited to Sleep spells and Kalinaar’s dragonborn breath weapon. Sleep doesn’t effect the undead and Kalinaar rolled terribly for damage on the fire breath (and funny enough most of the zombies that were hit made the save for half damage).

I was impressed by the players’ initial tactics for controlling the battlefield. First Kethra dropped a bag of ball bearings – one of those dorky little traps a rogue comes with, on the ground between them and the zombies. Then Talus conjured an illusory wall to plug up another hole. Both tactics caused about half the zombies to go the long way around, while several fell on their undead asses when traveling through the field of….tiny balls.

d&dAfter the first round the zombies’ controlling necromancer Hamun Kost exited his tent with a “What’s all this then?” flair. Since Kost is a Red Wizard of Thay, I had a fun bit of roleplaying by having Talus recognize him. Talus is a former Red Wizard that fled the school when he gained forbidden knowledge, and while Kost doesn’t hate him, he does know about a bounty the school has placed on him.

We got a fun bit of back-and-forth role-playing with the normally quieter Talus. It was awesome being able to incorporate his backstory in a direct way. Of course Kalinaar would have none of it, and refused to work with a necromancer, which was also a good bit of role-playing for his character as a strict paladin. The players had an option to work with Kost and pay off the bounty, but with our unflinching paladin, a fight was inevitable.

Now it was a dozen zombies plus a mage, a damn difficult combat encounter for a party of level 3 characters. Probably the single hardest challenge the party has had to overcome so far. They performed rather admirably (as well as receiving Inspiration for the role-playing with Kost, and then with each other afterward).

Talus opened with a critical fog cloud spell that enshrouded Kost and a pair of zombies to the North. While the zombies advanced on Kalinaar and Miri, Kost retreated to the watchtower and attempted to cast Hold Person on Talus in response. Talus used his Inspiration to take a much higher roll, effectively dispelling the effect. He responded the next turn by casting a souped-up Level 2 Sleep spell on Kost, disabling him for the entire fight. Damn!

The fog cloud spell worked well in two important ways. First it kept several zombies busy as they got lost in the cloud. Being rather mindless undead, I had them roll DC 10 WIS saving throws to try and find their way out. More often than not they failed, essentially losing their turn for the round.

Second, the magic cloud was the perfect place for Kethra to retreat and hide in so she could then pop out, sneak attack a zombie, then retreat back into.

Even utilizing these tactics Kalinaar and Miri were soon overwhelmed and surrounded with the remaining zombies. Kalinaar invoked his radiant damage ability (forget the name), adding a bit of damage to his attacks but more importantly negating the zombies’ Undead Fortitude trait, which could lead them alive after a killing blow. He was also doing an obscene amount of damage, easily killing a zombie every single round.

Miri had to take on even more zombies at the South end, and nearly fell unconscious after several hits in a row. Talus used one of his Divination die to force a zombie to miss her. I missed at least half my blows to both her and Kalinaar, but they still sustained heavy damage. Somewhat aggravatingly, I missed on every single roll of Undead Fortitude with a non-Kalinaar death blow. PC’s gettin’ headshots left and right.

Old Owl Well

Talus responded by recasting fog cloud on him and Miri, while the monk water whipped a zombie, flinging him into another one. Kalinaar came down and together the party were able to take out the remaining few zombies as they became lost and disoriented in the fog cloud.

Each party member was absolutely critical in this fight, and the tactics they used and way they cooperated was supremely fun and satisfying to watch unfold. It was an incredibly long battle that took nearly the entire session, but also the most fun encounter we’ve had.

Afterward the party still had to deal with the sleeping Hamun Kost. A brief argument broke out, followed by a rather gruesome interrogation scene. Despite Kost not being inherently evil or initially antagonistic toward the players, the party let Kalinaar execute him in cold blood. Harsh, but effective. They received all the loot in Kost’s tent, which amounted to a considerable little hoard.

This whole session was an interesting microcosm of our entire D&D campaign. Some role-playing, a lot of fun combat, and a bit of loot and reward. It was quite linear and straight-forward. Yet the situation called for some unique dialogue using Talus’ backstory, and some really creative and fun battlefield tactics to try and control the horde of zombies. A really fun session, even if we didn’t cover much ground.

Next week we go exploring in the mountains for Wyvern Tor and an orc raiding party!

Watch our sessions live on my YouTube channel every Sunday night beginning at 9:30pm Central. Subscribe and catch up on previous episodes!