This is the fifth 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 finale they face down hordes of undead, get ambushed by bugbears, and meet the Black Spider, mastermind behind it all -- who doesn't plan to go quietly!
Now that I had a NPC under my control, it was a lot easier to provide advice to my two young players as to where to go. I use a thick Scottish brogue for my dwarf, but my daughter doesn't like it (she accepts me role-playing goblins, but not dwarves, go figure), so I toned that down. My dwarf character, Tobias Hyrthstone, was important for another reason: he's a cleric in a dungeon full of undead.
After climbing down into Wave Echo Cave in which Lektra rolled a 1 on her Strength (Athletics) check and tumbled to the bottom, they made their way through the mine tunnels. Elec noticed that an ochre jelly was stalking them, but a few arrows convinced it to hang back. They stumbled out of the mines into a cave full of stirges.
Stirges are interesting low-level monsters with complicated abilities. A stirge in 3.5 was a real headache requiring special grapple rules (because grappling favors large creatures) and it drained Constitution. 5th doesn't bother with any of that -- the stirge attaches and does damage. This makes them something of suicidal attackers who, if they're lucky, get in more than one attack after they attach. Five of ten stirges attached the first round, were quickly removed (read:killed), and the remainder were picked off thereafter.
Another thing apparent in 5th Edition, reminiscent of earlier is that there are a LOT of monsters per encounter. This makes it impractical in some cases to use miniatures just because of how many are needed, like seven ghouls or eight zombies.
Our heroes got their taste (ahem) of three ghouls -- my son thought they were wolves at first from the sounds they were making, but when Tobias explained they were undead he quickly understood...again, thanks to Minecraft. We summarized them as "zombies who don't just eat brains."
Tobias got a chance to turn undead, which demonstrated changes in the rules: turning happens between rests and requires the undead to make a save or flee. Simple, but certainly less opportunities to turn without frequent rests. One ghoul fled.
Ghouls still paralyze with a touch, but instead of the 3.5 1d4+1 rounds, it's for 1 minute with a save every round. The two wolves (we decided Elec's wolf is named Deadbolt, in case you were wondering) were paralyzed. Realizing that he would have to make short work of the ghouls, Tobias decided to use a 1st-level spell. Clerics have a 1st-level evocation called guiding bolt that inflicts 4d6 radiant damage on a successful hit and gives attacks again the target advantage -- in essence, the ultimate cleric/rogue combo. Since undead are not immune to sneak attack damage this is an excellent combo.
While we're on the topic, wolves make excellent rogue companions. Wolves get advantage on an attack rolls as long as an ally is within 5 feet of the target. This makes the rogue/wolf combo powerful as long as they attack side-by-side.
Elec and Lektra made short work of the last ghoul and the wolves eventually recovered. The welfare of the wolves means more to the kids than their characters, so that was a relief. The adventurers discovered a storeroom that locked and holed up there, which was great, because Tobias was going to need his turn undead ability again.
Adventuring once again after a short rest, our heroes encountered the one ghoul who ran away...and this time he had seven other friends. Tobias used his turning again (only one between short rests, remember -- this will matter later) and five of the ghouls failed their save, fleeing once more. Tobias and Elec worked out a "power move" in which Elec threw a vial of oil and Tobias ignited it with his sacred flame spell. This was my son's idea, which he got from watching Teen Titans. One ghoul down, two to the go.
With the wolves paralyzed yet again, it was up to Elec, Lektra, and Tobias to take out the remaining two ghouls. Near the end of the fight Tobias summoned a spiritual weapon to speed things along and kept it around (1 minute) for the next fight. Working together, they made short work of the remaining two ghouls.
Curiously, the Starter Set fails to mention what a minute translates to in rounds. It does explain that a round is six seconds, so that makes a minute 10 rounds -- perhaps the assumption is that no fights will go that long.
The next room over was a large cavern containing eight zombies and a flameskull. I've had a flameskull mini forever so I was overjoyed I got to use it...but it does beg the question: if ghouls eat corpses (and are obviously not too picky about their level of decomposition), what's to prevent them from smelling and eating the zombies that were 30 feet away from them? Oh well, that's dungeon ecology for you.
Prepping the flameskull was illuminating about how some spells have changed. Shield is a reaction that kicks in when an attack happens, giving the caster a +5 bonus to AC that lasts for one round. Blur lasts for up to 1 minute of concentration (this is important, you can only concentrate on one spell at a time) and gives attackers disadvantage. The rest of the flameskull's spells let it come out swinging: fireball, then flaming sphere -- it has magic missile, but there's no real reason to use it since it has a fire ray ranged attack that does 3d6 fire damage on a hit. Better for the flameskull to reserve its 3 1st-level spell slots for the shield spell reaction.
Despite the party concentrating all of its attacks on the flameskull in the first round, it cast a fireball that practically wasted the party. It was resistant to piercing, which meant ranged attacks were largely useless. The saving grace was Tobias' spiritual hammer spell (still in effect from the battle before), which the flameskull wasn't resistant to. And it was only due to Tobias' prayer of healing spell that they were able to recover from the fireball at all, bringing the wolves back from certain death. With the flameskull down, a long slog against the zombies ensued.
The party rested yet again, exhausted from the battle. Healed up, they sallied forth to face down bugbears in a canyon led by a drow (yet another doppelganger in disguise). The bugbears are considerably less effective at range, so they climbed ropes, which meant that our heroes had advantage when they finally tried to attack while climbing. The doppelganger at the bottom of the pit decided to warn his master, the Black Spider, and climbed up the other side of the canyon. He ordered the last remaining bugbear to ambush the invaders.
Bugbears, it turns out, are pretty good at ambushing people. Laying in wait, it used its Surprise Attack on Lektra, inflict 2d8+2+2d6 damage in the surprise round, nearly dropping her. The party made short work of it thereafter, but if there had been more than one the Surprise Attack would have been devastating.
The party ventured into the final room to face down the Black Spider himself. The drow who fled claimed HE was the Black Spider, suspiciously shouting his identity as he jumped out from surprise. Doppelgangers have an Ambusher ability that gives them advantage on attack rolls when they have surprise, and a Surprise attack that inflicts 1d6+4+3d6 damage. Again, Lektra was nearly dropped from the attack.
In the same surprise round, all the giant spiders crawled out from behind pillars to cover the party in webbing. Everyone but Tobias escaped, as he spent his round casting spiritual weapon. The spiders closed to melee, biting Tobias several times -- who was fortunately resistant to poison. One of the wolves dropped. The party was in trouble.
Tobias cast prayer of healing again, saving the party from certain death and healing everybody, including the wolves who were back up. Concentrating their attacks, Lektra got a critical on one of the spiders, followed by Elec getting a critical with his sneak attack damage on the supposed Black Spider. The other spiders fell quickly soon thereafter.
Then the REAL Black Spider (Nezznar) appeared, who was watching while cloaked in invisibility. Nezznar unleashed a web with his spider staff on the party (everyone but Tobias escaped the webbing...again). Shaking his head and clucking his tongue, he revealed his entire plans to claim Wave Echo Cave's magical forge for himself. He kept his 1st level slots for shield, with mage armor already cast -- and the shield came in handy, protecting Nezznar from Tobias spiritual weapon. Elec and Lektra peppered him with arrows though, and it was clear he was outnumbered. At half his hit points, Nezznar decided that if he couldn't have Wave Echo Cave, "NO ONE WILL!" and used his staff to shoot a web at the dwarf statue, yanking it forward. It turned out this statue was a supporting structure that caused the cave to collapse!
Every creature in the room had to make a DC 15 saving throw for half of 4d10. I rolled nearly maximum damage (34 points) and although Tobias made his save he was already at half hit points, and Nezznar didn't make his save. It wasn't enough to kill either of them outright, but it was enough to knock them unconscious. Elec, Lektra, and Lektra's wolf made their saves, but Deadbolt did not -- the massive damage killed him. My son went from wanting a pet wolf to wanting a pet snake, so he was apparently over poor Deadbolt.
The survivors sifted through the rubble, stabilized Nezznar, found a healing potion they used on Tobias, and grabbed the keys from Nezznar to open a nearby prison cell. There they discovered Elec's younger brother Alex and Nundro, Tobias' cousin and Gundren's brother. Although they had paid a heavy price (RIP Deadbolt), the heroes had managed to find Wave Echo Cave, foil Nezznar's plans, and bring him to justice.
Since my kids are still interested in playing (with possibly different characters and different pets) we will continue the adventure in Ghosts of Dragonspear Castle. Our heroes have been asked to escort Nezznar (a dangerous prisoner) to Daggerford to face justice.
A poll of what the kids thought of the adventure resulted with the boy rating it a 5 out of 5, and the girl rating it 3 out of 5, for an average of 4. It was a hard adventure, but a fun one nonetheless.
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