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Previously on “Princes of the Apocalypse”

Climactic battles can be the stuff of legends. Role-playing scenes can offer fun and surprising moments. But at its core, D&D involves plenty of hacking and/or slashing.

Balancing these epic battles without wiping your headstrong party is always a tricky endeavor. The DM is technically lord of everything – but not really. You have to have clearly defined rules and expectations. Suddenly playing dumb with enemies to help your PCs can feel cheap and obvious. And fudging numbers becomes trickier when using an online virtual tabletop. Sometimes you just have to thank the Forgotten Realms gods that your party’s tanks have fire resistance.

Before our big battle at the Wicker Giant, my party continued clearing out camps at Scarlet Mall Hall. Every single camp had held either suspicious figures or outright hostile NPCs, so it was an easy incentive. I also unleashed a role-playing scene I’d concocted based on one of my players’ backstories.

My goal when I began lightly editing “Princes of the Apocalypse” for our own purposes was to include personal NPCs or scenarios that directly involved my players’ characters. Thus far: Talus had the initial nightmare that helped jump-start the adventure, I had one of the captured delegates be Miri’s mother, Miri had an old childhood friend at Feathergale Spire, Kalinaar was a former member of the Tyr Paladins at Summit Hall, and he swore allegiance to the former member-turned-lich at the Sacred Stone Monastery.

I still had to tackle our half-elf rogue, Kethra. Her backstory involved a burnt down orphanage and missing mentor. I decided to roll both of them into the fire cult. Her mentor Fengell, a half-orc, had been seduced by a newcomer to the orphanage, another half-elf named Lytin. His initiation into the power-granting Cult of the Eternal Flame was to burn down the entire orphanage.

d&dKethra had survived the ordeal. She was shocked to find the two of them here, in cahoots with the cultists. Fengell was smooth and calm, while Lytin was full of power-hungry hatred and rage. She was a fanatic, and the dialogue soon lead to combat.

I think we had a record-breaking night for damage done – especially critical hits. The fight was over quickly, though Lytin did get off a fireball on top of everyone (including herself – fanatics be crazy). I was pleased that Fengell got a chance to escape to fight another day. The whole ordeal earned Kethra a point of Inspiration.

I’ve been layering in several villainous NPCs that have escaped our heroes’ clutches. It helps to put several faces on these actual cults, along with some fun personalities. Even more fun when they can reoccur throughout a campaign. Of course, I still have to decide when, where, and how these foes will crop up again.

The final camp I played as a bit of a light-hearted joke, especially after the serious battle and revelation that just took place. A very hippie, sing-songy elf druidess with some Sprites annoyed the party – though also helped them with a magic scroll and some healing magic.

They convinced her of the dangers of this fake Scarlet Moon druid circle. She rewarded them with her magic, and Miri turned over the bear she had charmed in the first camp. The bear had proved a useful ally but had taken a full fireball to the face. I awarded her Inspiration for turning the bear over for help rather than just releasing it or having to kill it when her Potion of Animal Friendliness wore off.

With all the camps dealt with the party finally turned their attention to the Scarlet Moon Hall tower and courtyard, where the Wicker Giant burned brightly. This is a nifty and dangerous set-up. A pair of fire priests chant to the burning giant (two-stories tall!) hoping to summon forth a fire elemental. Guards on the nearby tower scaffolding watch with crossbows. A pair of Hell Hounds guard the rear.


Interestingly my party sensed the immediate danger of the ritual, but acted on the wrong clue. The guards spotted them as they approached openly. Instead of heading for the priests, Miri, Kalinaar, and Kethra all ran up to the Wicker Giant, trying to bring it down by hacking its leg. I let them roll attacks, feeling terrible that they would’ve been able to bring down one if not both priests fairly easily.

I also rolled very high for the Priests’ initiative, so at the beginning of Round 2, they got the 3rd chant off, and the fire elemental was unleashed. I decided against having his explosive entrance or the damaged Wicker Giant fall on top of them, as that felt just a bit too cruel.

Talus cast a Fog Cloud between the tower and the elemental. This basically negated the guards on the scaffolding for several rounds. I also delayed the hell hounds by at least another two rounds after the fire elemental appeared. The party had their hands full!

d&dThe fire elemental is a beefy CR 5 creature with a tendency to light your ass on fire just by moving. Miri and Kalinaar wisely ganged up on it and were able to take it down after a few rounds, but they sustained heavy damage. Thankfully both of them are resistant to fire damage (she has Qarbo’s ring, he’s a gold dragonborn). This helped immensely as they were also attacked by the Guardians’ flaming swords, Priests’ Burning Hands, and the Hell Hounds’ Fire Breath. Ouch.

Kalinaar almost went down but was able to heal back up with his Surge of Wind and Lay on Hands, while Miri was chugging health potions. Both came very close to falling (Miri within 2hp I think).

Meanwhile I had a Priest and Guardian go after Talus, who fell into hot water once his Shield spells dried up. He got dangerously low before Miri was able to break away and help. Kethra danced around doing her mobile Rogue routine, though a few bad misses really stung. I was satisfied that she was role-played as being frightened of the fire elemental due to her PTSD from the orphanage, and focused on the other combatants.

Both Miri and Kalinaar would’ve died twice over if not for their fire resistance. Making the save on the various fire effects meant they only received a quarter of the damage, taking 5 damage instead of 20 for example. Crazy! This would’ve been a much more deadlier outcome and would’ve required some hasty modifications on my part.

Even so, I did end up fudging a few numbers slightly toward the end to speed things up (attack and damage rolls are never hidden – but enemy HP is). Even the most thrilling battles can drag on too long, particularly when we’re in the clean-up phase after the Big Bad lay defeated.

I did have one Priest retreat back into the tower as another balancing change. I also didn’t unleash a single fireball in that fight, thinking it would’ve made things far too deadly.

The party hadn’t so much as Short Rested since arriving here. I very much appreciate the fact that they don’t cheese the resting mechanic, correctly assuming that this “real-world” situation doesn’t work like most D&D video games in letting you rest after every fight. But it also makes me realize that fights like this are even more difficult when my PCs are not at full strength.

Even after all this they still have the tower itself to explore. It’s a tricky situation as the escaping Priest has no doubt alerted whomever or whatever’s inside to the party’s presence. They’re in desperate need of at least a Short Rest, but it does give the occupants more time to prepare. The fire cult is definitely the strongest of the bunch, and our heroes have been given a big ol’ slice of humble pie after their latest encounter.

Recorded every Sunday night, uploaded on Mondays. Subscribe for our weekly adventures!