My players recently continued their journey through Dragora’s Dungeon by Goodman Games. I integrated the module into a larger home-brewed campaign setting, but this section was almost entirely from the book. With one encounter, my perspective on the game has changed: I didn’t believe that player character death was possible within a normal strength, Dungeons and Dragons 4th Edition encounter, under relatively normal circumstances. Now I understand that it is a real possibility and not only in a climactic boss fight.
From a design perspective, the encounter was pretty good: one mad wraith was discovered in a cramped and quiet back alley. There was a moderate amount of difficulty terrain, which favored the floating, aura-using wraith. When a wraith kills, it spawns an additional wraith, so I included two minion NPCs with the party as ‘guides.’ If the PCs could keep the minions alive, the encounter would be worth 250 experience points, which is in the very easy XP budget range for a party of five third level characters. Even if both of the ‘friendly’ minions were transformed, the encounter would be worth 750 XPs which is still well within the ‘normal range.’ On the other hand, mad wraiths are 6th level elite controllers, and they were on their home turf.
The first problem occurred long before the battle when the player with the invoker swapped out for a warlord. This made sense in a general way, because the group needed more up-close abilities. In the specific, however, it removed the group’s only radiant-keyword abilities.
Anafos, the group’s warlock has a good passive perception, so he spotted the wraith early. They had a chance to try and evade the encounter altogether. They chose not to hide (though I use the word ‘chose’ loosely. I’m not sure it occurred to them). Their religion knowledge checks are the only parts of the encounter that may not have been entirely by the book. I don’t remember the exact rolls, but they were in the moderate success range. Rather than following the strict guidelines in the Player’s Handbook, I gave them some broad information including some general vulnerabilities.
Shortly thereafter, one of the minions (a Zain-kin hastati) rushed into the fight and was killed by the wraith’s aura. The second held back as instructed by Quinn, the party’s warlord. A moment later, there were two wraiths to contend with. The battle soon clustered around the difficult terrain in the middle of the map. When combined with the aura’s three square dazing affect, the players’ mobility was devastated. That aura really tore them apart, and, again, the group had exactly zero radiant based abilities to mitigate the trouble.
As the encounter enfolded, things got worse: the second minion died at the edge of the aura. When he returned as a wraith, the group suddenly faced a battle on two fronts. When Quinn first went down, Trackless the seeker leapt from the roof in order to provide some healing, got stuck in the honey pot of dazing aura and difficult terrain, and never escaped.
The PCs decided to flee. Dent the fighter was in reasonably good shape, Anafos and Orsik the shaman were outside of the dazing aura, but Quinn and Trackless were pretty much toast. Dent had to make a decision: stay with Quinn and Trackless, or flee. True to character, Dent stayed. Not long after, Dent died as Anafos and Orsik fled.
This example shows that death in 4th Edition is a real possibility, even with encounters that are well within budget. All it takes is a string of unconnected events such as suboptimal party composition, poor dice rolls and minor tactical errors to make a situation deadly.