Sometimes it can be hard to be a good GM. To be torn between providing a challenge, being fair with the rules, and not punishing the players for doing dumb things. Last session was one of those sessions.
In the previous session, Thaddeus experimented with pyrotechnics by using flaming oil on a gelatinous cube. It was fairly successful, if by successful, you meant creating a bonfire at the end of a narrow tunnel leading into the darkness, and needing to wait for it to burn out before you continue.
Unknown to the party, at the other end of said tunnel, there are four kobolds. Kobolds can see in the dark, so it’s unlikely that they would miss the massive signal flare the party decided to use to forewarn anyone they were coming. As such, given that they know someone is coming, and that they have a tactical advantage, the kobolds surround the tunnel entrance.
This is only a slight deviation from the encounter script, as it is essentially the same as giving the kobolds a surprise turn. After all, their first action was to rush up to the tunnel and try and block the party from entering the room. So we now have a narrow tunnel blocked by kobolds.
The party enter the tunnel blithely unaware of what awaits them. The tunnel is narrow, what with it being a narrow tunnel and all, so the party need to go in single file, with anyone taller than a dwarf having to crawl. So naturally, Thordar leads the way bravely as the only hero in the party not crawling.
Thordar is a fighter. Fighters are stubborn. Thordar is a dwarf. Dwarves are stubborn (and Scottish). Thordar leads the party. Thordar encounters the kobolds at the end of the tunnel. Thordar decides to stand and fight. Thordar misses repeatedly whilst blocking the tunnel exit.
It took several turns of this before the party decided to retreat back down the tunnel. Thordar was hesitant to retreat, but eventually relented and slowly withdrew step by step, whilst attacking and missing the kobolds that entered into the tunnel after him.
Finally, the party turned the tables on the kobolds, as the kobolds reached the end of the tunnel, where the rest of the party could join in with the fight. It should have been a slaughter, but it wasn’t. One of the kobolds managed to flee back up the tunnel and escape the room, in order to go and warn the kobolds in a nearby room of the party’s approach.
The party duly approached and found themselves facing off against thirteen kobolds, all but one armed with shortbows aimed at the door they entered by, thanks to the escaping kobold. Thordar decides to close the door, and whilst the party deliberate, they hear the thunk thunk thunk of twelve arrows hitting the far side of the door, followed by the sound of bows being readied once again.
Thordar decides that they need cover to enter the room, and promptly goes to the other end of the corridor to try and dismantle the door and turn it into a makeshift tower shield. Okay, I say, but it’ll take a few rounds. Elanna asks why they don’t just rush in, after all, they can reach the kobolds in one turn. Ultimately, she opts to do nothing, not even hold the door closed.
What’s a GM to do in this situation? The party is vulnerable, and a lack of communication and coordination in combat is a weakness that really should be exploited, especially by cunning kobolds.
So, the thirteenth kobold goes and opens the door. The other kobolds are already aiming at the door, so as soon as it opens, twelve arrows fire. Elanna is standing by the door, but I take pity on her, and rule that half the arrows are fired at her, whilst the remaining six are split between Thordar, Michifer, and Thaddeus. A few hits are scored and damage is dealt.
With a rumble of irritation, Thordar abandons his plan and returns to the doorway, where he and Elanna fight and defeat the kobold that now blocks their way.
But behind him, another twelve arrows are readied and released by what is essentially a firing squad. The doorway and the hallway behind it are a killing zone, and I rule that this time, all twelve arrows are split between Elanna and Thordar.
Thordar goes down, dying, and Elanna isn’t much better. Player dismay sets in, and they are ready to give up. Ouro is ready to let Thordar die and have the rest of the party flee the Tomb of Alaxus. Sian is despairing at why they didn’t just rush the kobolds in the first place. Before player bickering and despondency fully takes over, I urge the players to close the door and regroup. Elanna has a potion of healing to get Thordar back on his feet, but is only on two hit points herself.
That’s where I called the session. It’s unusual to stop in the middle of combat, but I think that the players needed to gather their thoughts and think about what they can do. They have resources. Encounters like this challenge the players because they aren’t just simple melee combats. The party can’t always just get away with standing and swinging. Sometimes they need a plan, and to stick to it.
But most of all, the players need to communicate. I know Ouro assumed the Sian would have Elanna hold the door shut whilst Thordar spent however long dismantling the other door. But he didn’t communicate this to Sian, and it never occurred to Sian that Elanna should hold the door shut. It’s easy to see where the issues with communication are, and hopefully, my players will learn from this and play a little bit better.
It’s easy to blame such things on Roll20, and it can be hard to get to grips with a new party every few sessions, where the players get to play multiple characters each. But the key to every encounter, every session, and every adventure is communication. Perhaps after this weeks pointed lesson, they will take this onboard going forward.