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TALES FROM THE TABLE:
IN THE DEPTHS OF KHUNBARAL
THE PARTY: Talbar is an elemental cleric and an emerging missionary of the Reformist movement. Marco is a fighter wielding a sword of bone which feasts upon the blood of its victims. Granger is a rogue with a cloak of shadows and a vorpal blade. Gorin is a sorcerer whose half-draconic blood is beginning to manifest itself. And Katalina is a monk.
BACKGROUND: The PCs are on a quest to retrieve three magical seals needed to close a rift between this universe and a hellish demon prison (a rift they bear some marginal responsibility for creating in the first place). They have come to the long-abandoned dwarven city of Khunbaral, knowing that one of the three seals was being held in the dwarves' protection when the city fell.
The ruined city of Khunbaral is currently inhabited by several power groups: A clan of ogre-led goblins has recently moved into the upper levels of the city. A colony of dark-scaled draconics specializing in the arts of the shadowdancers came here centuries ago to make sure that none could ever reclaim the seal. The seal itself is in the possession of a black dragon.
And, most importantly of all, a force of dark dwarves has recently arrived in the lower levels of the city. They cleared out the dwarven wights which had previously prowled those lower levels and are now working to excavate and retrieve the dwarven forgestones. The dark dwarves serve the demons beyond the dimensional rift, and their goal is to bring these forgestones back to the fortresses and use them to froge powerful magical weapons for the demonic armies being raised there.
It must be understood that this dark dwarf force was huge and powerful -- several hundred strong with CRs equal to or higher than the PCs' current level. The entire adventure was designed with the expectation that the PCs would not be confronting the dark dwarves in any meaningful way: Their mission was to retrieve the artifact, and they could do that by sneaking around the dark dwarves. The idea was to establish the theft of the forgestones and the dark dwarves as powerful enemies so that these plot points could be revisited later in the campaign.
Finally, there were two powerful dark dwarves in charge of this expedition: There was Sarathek, a powerful sorcerer (several CRs higher than the PCs). And then there was Thuren Issek. Issek was six levels higher than the PCs and designed to return as the right-hand lieutenant of the dark dwarven general later in the campaign.
THE TALE: Breaching the defenses of Khunbaral was a legend in itself. The orcs and ogres had built up a strong position in the ancient dwarven gateway, and the PCs were forced into an epic battle of feints, all-out assaults, tactical retreats, and ambushes over the course of three hours before finally breaking through their defensive lines and rooting them out.
The party descended carefully into the deeper levels of the city. They had a much easier time with the shadowdancers, seizing key tactical chokepoints in the first early and chaotic moments of encountering them, holding those chokepoints, and then tightening the noose.
At this point, things were going exactly according to design. As they went deeper into the heart of the city, they encountered a dark dwarf scouting party. After meeting with some initial success, they were forced to flee when a seemingly endless train of reinforcements (particularly sorcerers) began to arrive. They regrouped in the upper levels and then sought a different route back down into the dungeon. Eventually they found themselves behind the dark dwarven lines, in a deeper part of the city near the crypts and the mines.
Things went wrong, however, when they encountered Thuren Issek and a party of twelve dark dwarves excavating in the area beneath the forges. These dark dwarves were all the same CR as the party -- and the party knew they were a tough fight because they'd faced these guys before. They hadn't encountered Thuren Issek before, but from his gothic and sepulchral armor which seemed to pulse like a living shadow in the flickering light of the torches -- they knew they were seeing something nasty. So it was clear that they were outnumbered and outgunned. And this encounter had been designed so that the PCs could easily detect the dark dwarves without the dark dwarves detecting them (because of all the noise from the excavation). This was the scene where the PCs would learn about the excavation of the forgestones, establish a major (and scary) villain for later in the campaign, and then sneak away to find their magical artifact.
So, naturally, they decided to attack.
Here's how it went:
1. On the first round of combat, as the very first action, Granger (the rogue) charged the undefeatable Thuren Issek -- a character he can only hit on a natural twenty.
2. Granger rolls a natural 20.
3. Confirming the crit, Granger rolls another natural 20... with his vorpal sword.
Snick. With razor-like precision, Thuren Issek's head rolls from his shoulder.
The rest of the dark dwarves -- who had proven so difficult the last few times the PCs had fought them -- went down in chaos and confusion within three rounds. Not only had the loss of their leader completely changed the dynamic of the encounter, but they had been caught without their weapons ready. The PC spellcasters, for their part, launched a coordinated blitzkrieg of firepower. By the time Marco, the fighter, charged in, the dark dwarves had been so debilitated that he was able to cleave through them like butter.
It had taken less than twenty seconds. Flawless victory.
The party takes Issek's head as a trophy (an action which, under my house rules, also prevents Issek from being raised). Marco actually starts wearing it as a necklace. (It fit in well with the necklace of goblin ears he'd been collecting up to hat point.)
The explosions and sounds of combat, however, attract another group of dark dwarves in the area -- this one including sorcerers. The party, already badly injured, retreated... but only to a carefully chosen fallback position where they laid an ambush which wiped out their pursuers and killed two of Sarathek's four apprentice sorcerers.
Okay. No problem. I can think quick on my feet, too. That night I send Sarathek to invisibly infiltrate the PCs' camp and steal back Thuren Issek's had. He succeeds, slits Marco's throat, takes the head, and returns to the dark dwarven sector of the dungeon. There he manages to resurrect Issek (although, under my house rules, he has to chew up almost all of the dark dwarves' healing potions to do it, which had previously been a key tactical advantage for them).
This works out well. Things are back on track and I've played perfectly fair. Plus, the PCs are going to have a real grudge against these guys for later in the campaign. This is actually going to be better than I'd hoped for, because now the PCs are going to be personally invested in making these villains pay.
The next day, things don't go so well for the PCs. Through a series of unfortunate tactical mistakes, they run into an ambush themselves and are nearly killed. They manage to escape, however, and spend the night huddled in a small secret chamber that the dark dwarves haven't discovered yet. Throughout the night they hear great booms echoing throughout the complex. (Unbeknownst to the PCs, their efforts had thoroughly spooked the dark dwarves. Issek was now using explosives to quickly finish their work instead of waiting for the careful excavations to be completed.)
But the day after that is the big pay-off: The PCs stumble upon the dark dwarves trying to escape the complex with the forgestone. The revived Thuren Issek is there. Sarathek is there. Sarathek's two remaining apprentice sorcerers are there. The two or three dozen surviving dark dwarven fighters (out of the hundred and fifty or so originally in the complex) are there.
It's a battle the PCs can't possibly win...
... and yet they try anyway.
It starts with the invisible spellslingers -- Talbar and Gorin -- slinging fireballs at the dark dwarves carrying the forgestone out of the complex. They manage to kill enough of them that the remainder can no longer carry the massive, heavy stone. It falls, crushing several more of the dark dwarves beneath it, and (as planned) blocks a narrow doorway -- splitting the dark dwarven forces in two.
Marco cries out: "Return the necklace!"
And then, on the very first round of combat, Granger -- with his vorpal sword -- charges Thuren Issek.
And rolls a natural 20.
And rolls a natural 20.
AND CHOPS HIS HEAD OFF AGAIN.
It was literally the most amazing thing I've ever seen at the gaming table.
The dark dwarves tried to recover. They rallied briefly under the leadership of Sarathek. But when the PCs focused all their energies on Sarathek long enough to destroy him, the broken ranks of the dark dwarves were rapidly wiped out.
Through wit and guile and luck, the PCs had accomplished the impossible. The epic battle with a black dragon of shadow that followed had been meant as the high-point of the adventure. It instead served merely as a suitable epilogue to the legendary Twin Deaths of Thuren Issek. When the party, at last, emerged once more into the wholesome light of day it was a triumph.
There are other achievements of the gaming table which live fondly in my mind. But this remains my favorite. Perhaps in large part because its a saga which could never have been anticipated or arranged. As a DM I never would have set my PCs against such daunting odds if I'd intended them to truly confront them. And even if I had somehow contrived such a thing, I never could have arranged for the Twin Deaths of Thuren Issek. This is a story which only exists because that particular group of people got together and played that particular game. That's what makes it special.
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