Being a continuation of my player overload mega-encounter…
The list of encounters for the third and final map was as shown:
Encounter Map Three (burned Inn and home) 2x Priest, Shadow Demon - Total XP: 2,000 Adjusted XP: 4,000 Deadly Bugbear Chief, 3x Bugbear - Total XP: 1,300 Adjusted XP: 2,600 Deadly 6x Bugbear - Total XP: 1,200 Adjusted XP: 2,400 Hard
There is a garrison of 6 Bugbears on the road which can call out to both of the remaining groups. The chief and his guards will charge to the aid of the group on the road – the group with the shadow demon will be far more stealthy and hence a bit slower to engage. Or at least that was the script.
As it happened, it played out a bit oddly. The players took a long rest while this group of bad guys worked on the hapless populace and managed to do the stuff that bad guys do. By the time the party was ready to press on, the handful of locals were deceased or had fled.
The group of bugbears that they were descending upon were satiated and perhaps a bit sleepy and in the half-light of dawn the players practically blundered into them. The players charged in and engaged in battle, managing to keep things relatively silent, cutting down the hornsman of the group quite early in the fight and I pushed the arrival of the other two groups back by a round.
The group’s paladin was missing every time he swung his sword
After some early initial success, things took a bad turn for the players. The group’s paladin was missing every time he swung his sword – he normally accounted for a great deal of the damage, but tonight he was merely doing a good job of not taking damage while keeping more than a few bugbears engaged. He was basically a damage sponge and worked at keeping the opposing forces engaged.
The party’s Dwarven warrior was hitting, but his damage rolls were almost always in the lower quarter and he was receiving more damage than he was dealing. The bard quickly realized that he wasn’t up to going toe-to-toe with bugbears and instead did a good job at keeping one bugbear or another at disadvantage, tossing the spare heal, and cleaning up weakened opponents.
The party was well and truly overloaded, facing a pair of DEADLY level groups
But the problem remained that the bugbears were not dying fast enough and this was a chained encounter – soon they were fighting two groups with a third group slated to arrive in 2 combat rounds. Once the demon and his priestly controllers / healers arrived, the party was well and truly overloaded, facing a pair of DEADLY level groups at once as well as the battered remnants of the initial group of bugbears.
In truth, I considered further delaying the arrival of the outlying groups, but decided against it. The party had managed to come almost untested to 4th level and they consisted of veteran players – I felt like they could probably handle it. Probably.
The near-death experience seemed to serve as a wake-up call
Thus the fight degenerated into one of the more brutal, desperate melees that I’ve hosted. The dwarf went down after a stunning 20+ point critical hit landed on the crown of his helm and the bard got him propped back up but still very near the edge of the grave. The paladin laid hands upon himself and also caught a heal from the bard, but the near-death experience seemed to serve as a wake-up call because he started dealing damage again. His run of ill luck was finally over, the streak broken by bardic inspiration. It took the use of bardic inspiration to break the run of bad luck, and once broken, he would not miss again for the remainder of the encounter.
The ranger had found himself fighting almost alone against the priests and their enslaved demon minion. But as fortune would have it, the demon was ineffective, only getting in one good strike in almost half-a-dozen attacks. As planned, the demon was returned to his plane of existence once the last of the two priests was slain and the ranger stayed fairly well focused on the priests, largely because they stayed at range while the demon closed to melee range. This was a happy coincidence for the players.
The battle lasted about 2 hours of game time was near thing for the players and they knew it, acknowledging that it was by far the hardest fight they’d had. At the end of it, they got a little bit more of the plot advanced, picked up a squire-to-be in the form of the newly orphaned boy that they had at the very least been avenged, and the party advanced on to the glories and growing power of the 5th level.
So what is the take away here, what is the lesson? Every now and again it might not hurt to exceed the recommended limits on encounter numbers, especially with the foot-troops of the evil empire. Goblins, orcs, bugbears and such do not have dangerous powers that could make an encounter unpredictable. For instance, overloading a party with poisonous opponents that potentially can do massive damage is not recommended.
Assuming the players come through it, they’ll probably have vivid memories of the battle and, justly so, feel a bit proud for having had both the skill and the will to overcome superior numbers.