This is the fourth of a five-part review of the D&D Starter Set, in which my four-year-old girl and six-year-old boy play the game without any prep. In this installment, they stumble head-on into Cragmaw Castle, slaughter a horde of goblinoids, face down a rampaging owlbear, and use some good old fashioned sneaky tactics to smoke out the bad guy.
Going after Cragmaw Castle turned out to be a bit harder than anticipated. This wasn't drunken Redbrands unaware that they were about to be invaded, or a greedy dragon -- our heroes were going after a well-fortified goblin fortress. I set up the entire Cragmaw Castle using my tiles from the Dwaven Forge Kickstarter, mostly to see if I could (I got pretty close, see the slideshow).
Our heroes tromped right up the steps, snuck past the goblin guards peering through the arrow slits, and then set off a falling rock trap that alerted every goblin and hobgoblin in the nearby area to their presence. What ensued was a tactical retreat as the heroes dispatched two of the goblins and then retreated to the guard room tower, firing arrows through the doorway with cover. As it was, nearly the entire party died and expended four healing potions, a second wind (Lektra), and much of their resources just to survive the attack. When it was over, over 10 goblins and 5 hobgoblins were dead.
The two adventurers cautiously moved forward into the mess hall, where the wolves gnawed on the discarded bones of whatever passes for a goblin meal. While they were discussing what to do next, a grick reared up silently from behind one of the tables and tried to make a meal out of the wolf. Despite the advantage of surprise, it missed with a natural 1. It didn't last more than a round.
What they didn't know was that one of the goblins had gone back to report on the invasion to the leader, King Grol, and he had prepared a trap. Shortly after they made short work of the grick, they heard the pounding of heavy feet as something barreled down the hallway toward them. It was a raging owlbear, released by King Grol as fodder to slow down the adventurers!
Elec decided to use his flaming oil and threw it at the owlbear, missing it but hitting the ground in front of it. Then he lit a candle and threw it at the oil, igniting it. The owlbear, stubborn as owlbears tend to be, barreled right through it. Elec and Lektra peppered it with arrows, but it kept coming. Lektra flanked the owlbear so that Elec could get his sneak attack damage, which finally dropped it. In the end, the owlbear was down and so were their two wolves. This left King Grol and his cronies.
As per the adventure instructions, the bugbear King sits tight, warned by his two hobgoblin guards. His wolf, Snarl, is ready to assist, and the hapless goblin who warned them stands cowering by the unconscious dwarf to hold him hostage. Sounds like a great plan, right?
Except all of the bad guys are in a 20’ tower with no means of egress. There are arrow slits and two doors – one goes to a rubble-strewn room. The other is the main exit.
Elec, who was overjoyed by the effect of his flaming oil on the owlbear, was determined to create a repeat performance. This time Elec and Lektra tore down curtains and straw bedding, stuffed it up against the door that was the only exit for where the bugbear lay in wait, piled barrels and crates against it, and then lit the straw on fire.
The Starter Set has no rules for starting fires or smoke inhalation, despite the fact that every fire spell mentions that “unattended objects catch fire.” So I made it up with a Constitution check to avoid the effects of smoke inhalation each round, and assumed the blinded condition for anyone in the smoke (disadvantage within, advantage for those attacking from outside of the smoke).
After a few minutes, the King and his minions discovered they were in trouble. He sent his two hobgoblins to try to clear the wreckage. This made them fodder for Elec’s sneak attack, who proceed to pepper them with 3d6 of damage each round as they repeatedly failed to clear the burning debris. The king came shortly after, and he rolled terribly too.
Finally came the drow, who was actually a doppelganger in disguise. Threats were useless – nobody could hear each other over the flames, so the dwarf’s life was no longer a valuable bargaining chip. Using a Strength check, she leaped the fire and then attempted to jump past Elec and escape, map in hand.
She didn’t get far. Her flee attempt provoked Elec, who sneak attacked her once more and dropped her. Inside, they found the goblin and wolf unconscious from smoke inhalation, and the dwarf barely alive. His name: Tobias Hyrthstone, cousin and business partner to Gundar, the dwarf who originally paid the adventurers as bodyguards for his caravan.
Tobias was my D&D Next playtest character that I used in adventures at Gen Con, so this was an opportunity to introduce a tough cleric to the group. Tobias was a cleric soldier, and there’s actually a dwarf cleric soldier in the Starter Set; I used his stats and advanced him to 4th level.
The most important part of the puzzle was the doppelganger’s map. It had clear instructions as to how to get to Elec’s kidnapped brother in Wave Echo Cave.
One issue is that despite the mass slaughter of goblins, hobgoblins, gricks, bugbears, and owlbears, the experience point total still wasn’t enough to level everyone up to 4th. The kids find “cleaning out” dungeons particularly boring – that is, checking every single room to murder and loot every inch of a dungeon so that the maximum amount of gold and experience point is gained. This is the downside of a sandbox adventure like this – you can go anywhere, but the natural flow of events likely encourage PCs to go to certain places before they’re ready. I just fudged it and let everyone level up to 4th. Wave Echo Cave is no cakewalk, and the PCs will need all the help they can get.
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