This post has been a while in coming since it took about three weeks for things to play out.
The moral of this post, is surrender is usually a forgotten option for PC’s. They don’t usually like the idea that they get beat, but that’s part of the game. Everything doesn’t always go your way, and a good DM can help turn a down moment into story element and not just a punishment more than what it needs to be. For me I’ve seen parties refuse to surrender when given the option and it results in a TPK. I’ve seen parties surrender and escape, and have a great side story wrapped up in it. But with 4E it’s been difficult to see how capture would play out or even if could play out via a published module. But upon reading the adventure the Mottled Tower, I was amazed to see that not only was there a chance, but if not played well a TPK could be a result as well.
Well, it finally happened, we almost had a total party kill (TPK) in a fourth edition (non Fourthcore) campaign. As I had hinted to before hitting paragon tier and the drastic increase in the cost of Raise Dead will make the potential of 4E lethality a bit more closer to possible since PC’s will be loath to cough up the 50k to bring back a Paragon hero.
For those of you not aware, I’ve been running the Scales of War saga published by Dragon Magazine which was designed to take the PC’s from level 1-30. Being set in the Forgotten Realms this saga is a follow up to the old Red Hand of Doom module and in my opinion is done very well.
In our latest episode, The Mottled Tower, the PC’s found themselves in pursuit of the main villainous figure they have identified in the big conspiracy thus far. Having encountered him several time before they knew their opponent was tough. On their approach to his lair, they made a mistake by trying to camp out right outside the bad guys lair, which was the subject of a previous post. However once we continued the next week, one player was not able to make the session, which undoubtedly hurt them.
The party chose to assault our villains tower which basically leads up to a triple/quadruple fight with very little chance for a rest. This is done intentionally by the module. I read this several times to estimate the viability of this challenge, and in my judgement, this task would be difficult, yet not impossible to win.
The party is first pitted against some mobs, in a room with a rising pool of lava as they attempt to reach a portal in the room. The best solution of course is to avoid the mobs, and move quickly to the portal. Naturally the PC’s will try to engage the mobs before the realization of the situation sinks in. Unfortunately for my party one PC misjudged the speed at which the Lava rises and was caught in the lava and burned to death.
Reaching the portal pops the party into another room in which the walls move inward and downward to crush the PC’s before they reach another portal at the other end. Naturally the module uses ghosts and spirits which can phase as mobs in this area. They also use a flesh golem that basically tries to play goaltender for the portal. Fortunately the PC’s figured out that running past them was the eventual solution, however by this point they had spent a good chunk of encounter powers, which was going to hurt them later. But nobody died which was a good thing.
After reaching the portal the PC’s pop out to the final encounter which has 2 phases, sort of. The Main Villain is in a force bubble and trying to complete a ritual to use a portal to escape. it will take him 20 rounds to do so, and the clock starts now. He has 2 guards in the portal with him. They can exit the force bubble, but can never return. Likewise the bubble can take 500 damage before it collapses.
Guarding on the outside are 8 mobs ready to do their best to delay the PC’s but nowhere near capable enough to handle them. Half are Minions which die rapidly. Five PC’s warp in which is what the battle is set for, and one of them is the replacement for the character who died in the lava, so he’s at full strength.
In this battle the PC’s beat the guards, and broke down the bubble in 12 rounds, forcing the big baddie to fight. Unfortunately retreat at this stage is not much of an option since they are atop a 200′ tower, and the portal getting there is only one way.
I planned on 4 possible outcomes for this encounter. Party wipe out, meaning TPK. Party Victory, meaning they manage to kill the main bad guy. Party partial victory, meaning they live but the bad guy escapes, and party surrender. Meaning they engage the main bad guy, and surrender to him.
So when they engaged the main bad guy I was very doubtful the bad guy escape was an option. Which left victory, death or surrender.
Well, with some unfortunate saving throw fails, 2 party members and a companion all turned to goo. That immediately took victory off the table combined with the lack of encounter and daily powers from previous uses. So the bad guy began to offer the party a surrender opportunity. Three times they refused, and one by one, 2 players died. After each death surrender was offered and rebuffed. When only one player remained he finally surrendered!
At this point we broke for the week, since one player was absent it didn’t make sense to let that player just get off scot free. Especially considering he’ s in a hostile planer pocket with no easy way to gate out. So as I have preached I let the the player who missed the session, and XP, RP his moves via email to catch up.
I knew this could work well or end very bad. As a DM I counted on three options. Option A, the player would reach the top of the tower in time, engage the main villain and get himself killed. Option B, he would do the same, and surrender. Option C, was that he would reach the top of the tower by an alternate method and bear witness to the surrendering of his companion, and he would do nothing, choosing to try to follow, or rescue his companion at an opportune time. (The last PC was a Rogue). There was a small chance the player would not pursue his allies, and try instead to find a way out.
Well, the player decided to follow his companions into the tower and try to catch up to them. I had instructed all the players to not tell this player anything from the previous week. Likewise I BCC’d the party the email exchange between myself and the player. The player did well, as he scaled the tower in haste, not bothering to deal with traps or monsters. Having had to wait for a trap to reset this let me account for the 18 rounds between the party’s final fight and his arrival at the top of the tower.
Now I had looked at the players stats, abilities, and powers and pretty much figured he could not overpower this main bad guy single handed. I had calculated his best possible combo’s with best possible results, and in the end, his ability to heal himself would be the downfall since he’s not a healer.
He reached the top of the tower, and bore witness to the other player who had surrendered and been tied, as the villain was again trying to finish the portal ritual. After some chit chat, the player made a combative move which forced initiative. The battle went pretty much the way I predicted, except the player caught on to one of his defensive abilities faster than I thought he might. This allowed him to last a bit longer than expected, well played on his part. But eventually math doesn’t lie, and he decided to surrender.
This was a good thing, because at this point, it allowed not only the player who previously surrendered to live, but the players who had turned to goo also had the chance to live. PC’s are usually loath to surrender, but in this case it was the best thing they could do.
Not only did the PC’s live, but the surrender also set up a great transition into the next module, where by the PC’s would have met a Githzerai monk who had stolen a ship escaping from a siege upon his monastery. It was easy for me to place the PC’s on the ship which gets stolen, let them be jostled free, fight for their freedom, and help the Githzerai to escape. Once they reach the destination which is near the PC’s home town, they got to actually talk to him at which point the Adventure proceeds as normal after the players who died join the PC’s in town to provide some extra support!
All in all it was a good experience, and I think we all learned something. I had my own predictions verified that post heroic tier deaths become a lot more serious. The PC’s also learned that an option to surrender is also an opportunity for good RP and transition. The only thing they really lost from their capture was their weapons, as the bad guy did not have time to strip them of the rest of their stuff. Minor setbacks but not at all anything game changing.