A few weeks back, I spotted on Twitter a new D&D event that would be held at Origins. It was the Ultimate Dungeon Delve, a timed test of our ability to get through 6 combat encounters with a 6th level team of 5 adventurers that we bring to the table. I immediately recruited Krog the spreadsheet barbarian and Geek’s Dream Girl to help me put together a team. A furious email exchange began to decide what our team would be. Part way through the process, Krog made an important discovery in the write-up: the adventure would involve undead. We began to retool our party to include more divine characters. We ended up with the following party makeup:
- Warforged Battlerager Fighter
- Goliath Barbarian
- Dragonborn Cleric
- Elven Avenger
- Dwarven Invoker
Characters were doled out and printed, and we arrived on Thursday night to attack the Ultimate Dungeon Delve. We talked teamwork, shared tips on speeding things up, decided who would do the fast addition for the arithmetically challenged, and interrogated the Dungeon Master before the clock was started. In short, we were nervous, but we were ready.
And we got our butts kicked.
In the first encounter, a particularly annoying foe ran out the clock on us. The DM let us go a second time for fun, and while we beat the first encounter, we stone-walled against the regenerators in the second. We left that night, defeated, swearing that we would make it to the end before Origins was out.
This is that story. (Warning: spoilers ahead for “The Lunar Awakening” UDD, which will also be run at San-Diego Comic Con. It will be different than “Fall of the Tower at Windrock”, the GenCon and PAX UDD).
One thing was clear: we weren’t doing enough damage. Our divine-heavy team had sounded like a good idea for facing undead, but the simple fact was that it wasn’t enough of an edge to matter. Krog asked around, and found out that the first group who played had beaten it, and they used Leader – Striker – Striker – Striker – Defender. That’s what we settled on. I recruited my friend Sam whom I had spent a long time talking over 4e optimization and was at the con, who put together his ideal damage dealer. Geek’s Dream Girl recruited Graham via IM to help build her damage-dealing rogue. I kept the Beatdown Machine, my Battleraging Warforged Fighter, since I thought he had done really well in the first fight, but I also put together a Sorcerer for Krog’s brother Tophu to play as our fifth. We ended up using:
- Warforged Fighter (Beatdown Machine)
- Drow Rogue (Stabbie McRogue)
- Dragonborn Cleric (Nicholas)
- Dragonborn Sorcerer (Blort)
- Elven Ranger (Kevlas)
We also cheesed up by buying items to deal with the vunerabilities and damage types we knew we would face (I tried to feebly explain it by saying we had heard some rumors about what we would face in this town). After all that, we were ready, and tried again. We were given a new DM, who briefly explained the rules to our two new players, and the clock was hit for 45 minutes for the first fight.
Zombies to the left of me, jokers to the Wight
We emerged from a horrific scene in an inn to the streets, where undead were coming from all sides. One corner had some zombie minions headed for a crowd of people (and who we knew from last time would eat the villagers and make more zombies if we let them). Another alley held a Zombie Hulk and a Wight. Two Corruption Corpses stood on a roof bombarding us. And finally, a few rounds in the fight, an insubstantial Wraith barged in, then proceeded to hop around into buildings where we couldn’t follow, making it tough to pin it down to attack.
Right away, we already knew we had a better group of characters than last time. The Dragonborn brothers took out the zombie minions using their dragonbreath and other powers, while the rest of us quickly dispatched of the Zombie Hulk. The Wight was toppled quickly as well (which was good because we knew it could bring back the Hulk). When the Wraith finally appeared, we were mostly freed up enough to concentrate on blowing the crap out of it. And did I mention that many of us had specifically taken stuff that dealt radiant damage and stuff that gave us necrotic resistance?
We chopped through the first encounter in a decent amount of time, but we knew that was only the first step. We had spotted a container of pitch during the fight, and were debating what to do with it. We knew from our metagaming that things would be coming up from the sewer, so did we just dump it down the sewer? Did we hoist it up on a roof to dump on them? Eventually, we decided to leave it be, and positioned the melee characters next to it, and the ranged characters up on the rooftops. Maybe you can guess what happened next…
The Wind-up, and the pitch
As expected, Werewolves, bats, and other creatures burst up from the sewer to attack. What we didn’t expect was them to immediately toss torches on the pitch and cause it to explode on us. Oops.
Meta-gaming to the rescue on this combat as well, as several party members had purchased alchemical silver to coat their weapons with for use against the regenerating werewolves (which the first time around made the combat drag on). We also had some fun moments involving our ranged characters being stuck up on rooftops, and some “hot bat on bat action” between the Ranger beastmaster’s animal companion and some poisonous bats.
Also, I got bit by werewolves a lot, and totally diseased. But other than that, we did fine.
Into the garbage, shoot flyboy
We were warned by our DM that he was hearing this was the encounter where most teams were failing, and probably the hardest one. With a buildup like that, how could we resist?
The next segment took place in the sewers, and in the middle was a floating platform. It was (quickly) described to us how a robed guy was chanting and standing over a large lump of refuse. Somehow, I as the fighter ended up going first, so of course I went to the platform (after walking through the sewer and getting sick), and started wailing on the spellcaster. Unfortunately, the trash creature (an Offalian) then woke up and grabbed me. Fortunately, Thundertusk Boarstrike to the rescue! The ranger (with a little help from Elven accuracy) sent the creature flying backwards, breaking its grip.
The fight became more complicated when several large skeletons emerged from the wall, and some minion zombies harassed our bank ranks of ranged characters (who already were having an issue due to the layout of the sewers) which lead us to see how this ended up being a very tough fight. The fighter, cleric, and rogue all started to mix it up in a mass in the center, and getting pushed around that disrupted our tactics.
At some point, the ranger and sorcerer realized that there was nothing the minions could do to them, since they dealt 5 necrotic damage and they both had resist 5 necrotic, which opened them to fire into the center to help us out. My fighter went toe to toe with the necromancer for a long time, taking heavy damage (and picking up yet another disease along the way), but the tide turned, and we emerged victorious with only moments to spare.
A bit of magic chainmail with a side order of axe
What sewer encounter would be complete with an Otyugh? As expected, we bumped into one on the way down the sewers. So what else was there for me to do but charge it?
Unfortunately, sewers make for strange bedfellows, and soon I was set upon by a pair of rust monsters who found my magic chainmail delicious. I continued to do my defender duty and take them all on, but feared for my armor. I took my turn, and others started to go… when I realized I could send away my armor into an extradimensional space since it was a Summoned Armor. Before it rolled back around, however, the rust monsters ate the rusting armor, and left my AC much lower. (We also had to assure our DM that rust monsters didn’t do anything special against the Warforged).
Meanwhile, in the back, Stabbie McRogue crept her way up to help… and was possessed by a ghost coming out of the walls. Fortunately, when it wasn’t my turn, I looked up the rules to dominate and made sure that she couldn’t just unload her dailies on the Sorcerer. Still she managed to do some damage to the Sorcerer, who didn’t know what to do. We all focused on the Otyugh, then the rust monsters (before they ate anything else) and then were left with the problem of the possessed rogue (since Geek’s Dream Girl couldn’t roll a double digit saving throw). Heal checks were made and failed, and that darn ghost would not leave. Finally it popped out, and I took my readied swing against it… before it popped into someone else. I started to fear that we would run out of time before we finally banished it. Some more heal checks were made, and it failed to recharge its possession, so it tried making a few more potshots before we evaporated it… with plenty of time to spare.
I was worried that we wouldn’t have time to take a short rest because of how little time it had taken to beat the encounter, but actually, we got as many short rests as we wanted. Nobody took Enchant Magic Item, of course, so my poor armor was gone forever. Nicholas the Cleric stepped up and both cast Remove Disease on me to get rid of one of the nasty conditions, as well as offering me his chainmail. I took it so I could stay the valiant defender, which would come in handy.
These barghests are the pits
The sewers lead to an underground cavern, which stopped at a pit over which was suspended a rickety looking bridge. On the other side: barghests and snakes. Nothing could possibly ever go wrong with this scenario, right?
Well, my metal man dutifully charged across the bridge, fully expecting to have to make a check, or save, or somesuch, but I made it successfully across into the ranks of the bad guys and started to tear into them. Then came the complication: ghouls swung up from the pit on the otherside and cut the bridge. I was left alone against the bulk of the bad guys. On my next turn, I activated my Swordmage multiclass power (and switched my khopesh to one-handed) to get an AC boost while fending off the horde. I got some covering fire from the ranged characters on the other side, but thanks to some nasty snake poison, I still took a pretty major pounding. But then… Cape of the Mountebank! (It’s fun to say). I teleported back across the cavern to recover.
A barghest leapt after me, but was easier to handle with all of us together. The snakes just hid on the other side, until we came crashing back over using some athletics checks (which we were very fortunate not to botch) and Stabbie used her impulse-bought grappling hook to get across safely. We tore through them, and took our rest before the final encounter. A cryptic note was found on the scene, suggesting that our last fight would be against a dragon, and something involving “where shadow and death meet.” We puzzled over it for a bit while taking our short rest and spending healing surges. I was left with 3, and the valiant rogue was left with only 1. This could be bad.
Just me and my shadows
We emerged from the cavern to exit back into town, and were immediately set upon by a silver dragon, covered in dark energies. Next to him were two tiny shadow dragons, and they all got the drop on us. The shadow dragons flew by and caused some weakening among us, which would be a huge problem in dealing enough damage to a solo dragon in the time alotted. Then, of course, the dragon itself went and did the classic 4e routine of breath weapon-action point-dragon fear, causing some serious panic, and by the end dropping the rogue. She was brought back up by the Cleric, but was out of healing surges… if the combat dragged on, she would be down for the count.
I told everyone to focus on the shadow dragons, and we were able to take them down pretty quickly. As the DM described their bodies dropping, and said there was no change in the silver dragon, I whispered to Krog “roll a skill on your turn!” finally having a strong suspicion that there was a skill challenge in here. I did the same on my turn, but botched the roll (despite being my Swordmage multiclass giving my Arcana training). Others in the party did their thing to, examining the dragon bodies, putting together an antidote from them (because they were shadow and death meeting). The antidote was given to Stabbie, who made an awesome acrobatics check to flip up on the dragon and feed it to him.
The dragon still gnashed and wailed. What else had to be done? We asked some questions about the situation to the DM, who finally said that the dragon just probably needed to calm down, so several of us yelled in unison “diplomacy!” and that did it. The encounter was over, and we cheered!
The DM read the finishing text about the aftermath and teaming up with the dragon to set things right, and suggested a possible sequel (which might be the next UDD, or might be something else). Several other of the RPGA judges gathered around to congratulate us. It was a very satisfying feeling. (We were also told we were the first ones to do the skill challenge to cure the dragon instead of just kill it, and might have set a record time as a result).
Oh, and did I mention there was a prize? A free hardcover of our choice. I grabbed one of the adventures that I didn’t own, and everyone found something they wanted.
And we’ll keep on fighting ’till the end
So what did I think of the Ultimate Dungeon Delve? It’s competitive, no roleplaying, only barest hint of a story, “hack and slay gathering” style D&D. It’s something that could have been run in any edition of D&D and with many RPGs, but the combat system is robust enough to make it enjoyable. In short, if you like the combat in 4e, and can think quick, you’ll like Ultimate Dungeon Delve.
I had expected there to be more scenarios that rewarded keeping a balanced party (which is why we had the Invoker in the first try) like an all-minion encounter, but instead, they were all normal encounters with a variety of creature types. Most encounters had one part that was designed to make the encounter or the overall situation toughter: an insubstantial, phasing creature tough to attack in the first one, regenerating critters in the second, disease and sickness in the third, rust monsters in the fourth (that was really bitchy), a chasm in the fifth, and the last was a true boss-style fight. I felt it helped for us to have a few tricks up our sleeves and not just optimize every single thing for damage and HP. Multiclassing was a nice way to handle this.
However, for all those other times, you want to be dealing as much damage as possible all the time. Defender – Striker – Striker – Striker – Leader is the way to go. Battlerager is almost too good to pass up in the defender role (to be survivable and deal loads of damage) but it could almost be swapped for another hardier striker as well. Having a fair amount of resistances helped a lot too, with the main ones for this scenario being necrotic and poison.
The DM of the successful run did a great job keeping it running, but I also thought it was important for us to be communicative to him about how we were doing, what we were planning, and so on. It could be really easily to fall into an “Us vs. Them” attitude on both sides, but we both enjoyed it more and it ran smoothly because the DM wanted to have it be as fun as possible within the constraints of the scenario and challenge us as much as he could within those same rules.
At the same time, we ran into one of my bigger complaints with 4e in general, which is exascerbated by the time limit: it’s easy to unintentionally cheat. Even when using the Alea colored magnet markers to indicated statues, it was really easy to forget that we were weakened, or to remember to take a save, and so on. Even as an experienced DM during my regular games, I have trouble remembering to do everything for every monster, and so I can only imagine what it’s like under a time limit. There were lots of “go back in time” moments to remember to take ongoing damage and roll saves and such. (As GDG suggests for players, go for pure damage, since ongoing might not get remembered).
That issue aside, it was a ton of fun, and drove us to near-obsessive levels in our quest to beat it. And any game that can cause that kind of reaction has really got something going for it.