Origins 2009: Ultimate Dungeon Delve

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).

The Team

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.

About Dave

Dave "The Game" Chalker is the Editor-in-Chief and Co-Founder of Critical Hits. Since 2005, he has been bringing readers game news and advice, as well as editing nearly everything published here. He is the designer of the Origins Award-winning Get Bit!, a freelance designer and developer, son of a science fiction author, and a Master of Arts. He lives in MD with e, their three dogs, and two cats.


  1. P.S. Stabbie was the most useful character by far. Without Stabbie McRogue, everyone would have died a horrible death. 🙂
    .-= Geek’s Dream Girl´s last blog ..E’s Con Travels: Origins 2009 – Part Deux! =-.

  2. You’re welcome e! 🙂

    Oh, and the grappling hook was actually bought on my impulse, as I had just watched the movie Fanboys.

    Grappling hook!!
    .-= Graham´s last blog ..Damn you, Dave! You and your… logic… =-.

  3. Chris Tulach says:

    Thanks for the great review Dave! My writing team is hard at work polishing off the next Ultimate Dungeon Delve for Gen Con Indy. I can’t wait to see folks play it!

  4. @Chris Tulach: Never fear, we’re already plotting our major PWNage for that adventure! 🙂

    This post has me endlessly excited to play in the Ultimate Delve at GenCon. Just need to decide what kind of class/role I want to play.

  5. I thought the Delve was exceptionally fun. I love to RP, and I love a good story, but sometimes it’s a blast to just meta-game and enjoy the table-top aspect of the game.

  6. Sounds like an interesting activity. Have you ever played the board game Descent? The UDD sounds just like that game.
    .-= MJ Harnish´s last blog ..Stuck for inspiration? Try the Brainstormer =-.

  7. David Wright says:

    Wow, what a thrilling game, and totally gripping write-up. Many congratulations to your group for battling through. I spent the entire story thinking, “Man, what would I do there? No, forget that, what would I do THERE? No way, you’re kidding! Yipes, that would have definitely killed me…” And so on.

  8. MJ: I have played Descent, and did a write-up of it and similar games. UDD has a number of differences with it, not the least of which is that I get to design my own character.

    David: Thanks! Glad you enjoyed it.

  9. Designing your own optimized build(s) for the game is an interesting difference from more traditional D&D tournaments. There’s definitely been a change in focus from player skill in-game to player skill pre-game from TSR era to WotC era D&D.
    .-= Stuart´s last blog ..Gunpowder & Firearms in Dungeons & Dragons =-.

  10. Stuart: Yes, which changed along with the game itself (though I definitely played in 2e hack and slash tournament games). There were other RPGA games and such going on too, this just happened to be a new one that I was interested in playing.

  11. Chris Tulach says:

    Stuart: I would say that we now better recognize that, in general, most experienced players are likely to enjoy an adventure they tackle with characters they made, rather than pre-generated ones. However, I still think that in-game tactical decision-making is very important; Dave’s article above makes that pretty clear. Now, programs like the Ultimate Delve have two dimensions to success, rather than one – character building and tactical play.

    For the edification of others, back in the olden days (of which I was most certainly involved) tournaments had pre-gens and used one or both of two measuring sticks to determine what individuals/teams advanced: tactical play and/or roleplaying ability. The former is easy enough to measure, but the latter is so subjective as to be near useless in effectively assessing an individual’s or group’s competence. We learned that years ago in the RPGA, when we used to give out prizes for the “best roleplayer” at the table – which was frequently the person that was very outgoing and spoke in the most entertaining manner. I remember very vividly that some of us experienced players would grab the “money character” (there were usually 1 or 2 in a group of pre-gens) as often as possible when playing tourneys – the character that had some great shtick you could hone in on to give an increased chance of winning the table. I don’t think I ever took the “quiet brooder” characters. 🙂

    We’ve definitely come a long ways, and while nostalgia for the “good old days” runs deep (I even long for it on occasion), most tournament-type experiences are much more quantifiable nowadays. If a group gets TPK’d or doesn’t finish an encounter/adventure in the time allotted and another group does, that seems to be a much clearer indication of who “wins” or “succeeds” in a competitive play environment than any other measurement.

  12. @Chris: I don’t think it’s so much better recognizing what “most experienced players” want as much as a narrowing in on a
    subset of those experienced players and making a game/tournament that’s more appealing for them. I guess “most experienced players that we’re targeting” would be accurate.
    .-= Stuart´s last blog ..Gunpowder & Firearms in Dungeons & Dragons =-.

  13. I had to think about it for a second, but my crew (Made by Morgan, heh) that finished also did Leader-Striker-Striker-Striker-Defender. The exact lineup was a valor bard, thaneborn barb, two archer rangers and a two-weapon talent fighter (yes, not a battlerager!)

    The idea was that the thaneborn barb skirts the battleground popping -defenses on critters, and also does target calling. The archer rangers then tee off on the called and -defensed creature. Meanwhile, the fighter is kitted out for multi-target marking (passing attack, sweeping blow, tempest dance, etc.), and also lays a decent amount of wood himself – a bloodclaw greatsword works nicely for that.

    One of the beauties of this build was that the archer rangers were tricked out for maximizing twin strike damage, so I could pass them off to our two less experienced players, one of whom had only played one 4e game, the other who didn’t even have a RPGA# at the start of the delve. The highest skill position, arguably, is the thaneborn barbarian, as the thaneborn has a lot of tricks that require good mechanical knowledge to exploit.

    Really enjoyed reading your write-up; on the off-chance I make it to GenCon I’ll give the next one a shot.

  14. I sent you an email on July 10 at but never heard back from you. Did you get the email?


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