Improvised cave trolls and double skill challenges

Yesterday evening my online group got together for our fifth session of our game in the War of the Burning Sky campaign.  It was another fun session, though it began with some doubt – only one of the five players dialed in at the scheduled start time.  That was not so bad, actually – she runs an online game using other software, and she’s interested in learning more about MapTool (which reminds me – I need to send her the campaign file!).  A second player soon joined, and a third player came online about 15 minutes after the scheduled start.  Since everyone wanted to game, we decided to make do with what we had.

DM Lesson: Playing with less than a full party

When in doubt, fight!  In this case, only three of the five party members were online, so we decided to say that the two absent party members would stay in the ruined village where the party had rested while the other three kept exploring the caves in order to find their way out.  I threw them into an encounter with some deathjump spiders that I had prepared in case of a wrong turn in the cave navigation skill challenge (or in case they decided to unwisely rest in the caves).  For the no-healer mini-party, this turned into a tough encounter.  Our shaman player showed up partway through the battle, and when things started looking dire I allowed him to rush in as reinforcements.

As the party finished the battle and was deciding what to do next, the fifth and final player logged on – good timing!  (We’ll cut him some slack – he’s in London and had set his alarm to wake up him for the 1:00 AM local start time, but the alarm failed to go off.) I had him roleplay the stuff he was doing in the ruined village, and he soon rejoined the rest of the party in the caves.

I decided that the extended skill challenge to make it through the caves had gone on just about long enough, so when the party made a lousy dungeoneering check to finish finding the way through, I decided to throw them into one more monster lair.  The problem: I didn’t have any more cave encounters prepared.

DM Lesson: Whipping up a battle on the fly

One of my players suggested trying the random encounter generator at, but I didn’t have the time to tweak these as needed for the setting.  Instead, I tried to think about what make sense for another cave encounter.  I had already used cave fishers, crauds (in a pit of water) and spiders.  If the final battle would be near the cave exit, why not a troll?  I looked in the DDI Adventure Tools Monster Builder for a troll and decided that the level 7 Cave Troll would be just fine for a party of five second-level characters.  And he was!  I love the ability he has to grab one character and then use that character as a weapon to swing into another.  Too cool!  It was a fairly easy encounter, but still exciting – just what the doctor ordered.

DM Lesson: Running simultaneous skill challenges

Next up, the party crossed into the territory of a small-time dwarven king who insisted that they split into two groups to simultaneously solve two problems.  I had the characters sort themselves as they saw fit, and then I picked one group to begin.  I let each player in that group try something, and then as they started making progress I moved to the other group for a bit.  I tried to keep everything very snappy, and I liked the couple of times that I had a character tell me what they were about to do – perhaps something risky – and I then cut away to the other group before resolving the skill check.  This went far better than I expected, even though one of the challenges ended in failure.

DM Lesson: Reality checking monster attacks

The final encounter of the evening was a roadside ambush by hyenas under the direction of a gnoll controller.  It was quite vicious – the hyenas had a Pack Attack ability that had them deal extra damage to characters that had at least two other bad guys next to them.  This meant that they would try to gang up on one character at a time.  Our Wizard/Swordmage hybrid found herself on the wrong end of three of these attacks, all of which hit her high armor class – dropping her below her negative bloodied value.  Yes, that’s “dead-dead.”

As we began to mourn (and panic a little), the swordmage’s player realized that the attack bonus from these hyenas seemed really high (+12).  And that was true – it was a mistake on my part.  The gnoll was attacking at +12, but the hyenas were only level 2 enemies attacking at +7.  I had screwed up in MapTool when I copied a macro from the gnoll to the hyenas.  We rolled back time just a little and saw that two of the hyena attacks would have missed. (It’s worth noting here that I reveal the math behind the monster attacks to the players – I like them to see that I’m not fudging anything.)

There were some hyena attacks from earlier in the battle that probably would have been misses as well had the numbers been right, but I decided that trying to go back farther than the previous turn made no sense.  I just added some extra XP to the battle to account for the extra difficulty and called it a day.  Happily, this extra experience was enough to push the party to level 3 at the end of the session!

Final thoughts

Even though some players were running late for this most recent session, it’s remarkable that a band of six strangers on the Internet have managed to get together for five of the past six weeks, with one substitute one week and one week that we took off due to multiple scheduling conflicts.  No one has flaked.  No one has dropped out.  We’re still going strong.  I love my group!

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