The DM Experience 6: It’s Complicated

Previously on Mummy’s Mask…

The heroes have regrouped from their defeats and pursued the Forgotten Pharaoh’s minions to the Slave Trenches of Hakotep on the western edge of Osirion. There, they find a strange tower spilling dark energy, created a Manifest Zone to the Shadowfell over the whole region and drawing souls from the afterlife to power a strange ritual. After a period of investigation and a few battles with the minions guarding the tower, the players decide that the thing to do is assault the top of the tower to stop the ritual, which they fear is an attempt to summon the fabled Starstone, an artifact of such power that whoever possesses it will have godlike abilities.

And that’s where we stopped, giving me two weeks to design an encounter that would almost certainly take the whole of our next session, but which needed to not feel like a slog. For that, I turn to the Complex Combat. A Complex Combat is a battle where there is some other factor (or more than one) that complicates the fight. Something prevents the players from simply focusing their immense powers on the bad guy and destroying him. Here’s what I came up with.


This is a relatively small battlefield when you consider the radius and range of high level spells. So what’s happening?

  • The Dragon (The Obvious Threat): The first and most immediately threatening thing is the dracolich. Now the cramped tower top will hinder his use of breath weapons, but he can fly, and the tower is two hundred feet in the air, so he can stay out of arms reach, forcing melee characters to largely leave him alone. The thing about the obvious threat is that he’s not really the reason your here,he’s an enormous distraction, but one you can’t ignore.
  • Minions (Gadflies): A flying cambion makes for a good tower defender, as do the two shadar-kai gloomstalkers with spiked chains they can use to fling characters around. Gadflies are there to keep the players on their toes between the Obvious Threat’s turn.
  • The Ritual (The Real Problem): The mages casting the ritual are Necromancers from Volo’s Guide (with a few extra HP). They are guarded by a pair of shadow demons, but they have to focus on the ritual, which is a skill challenge. Each round, each mage can make an Arcana Check (DC 15). They need to achieve a total of 15 successes to cast the ritual and summon the Starstone. The Real Problem is the PCs’ objective, the actual reason they’re here. If they can get/stop/destroy the Real Problem, they might not have to worry about the rest.
  • Extras (Just for Fun): The Dracolich has a special ability drawn from 4e to create shadow orbs, 10 foot balls of darkness that creatures can teleport between, and which block line of sight. Each round, the tower creates one in a random spot as a lair action. Also if you are pushed into the area of the ritual (the enormous blue vortex in the center), we role on the Wild Magic surge table and see what happens to you. (one of my players lucked out and had heal cast on his character as a result of this). Extras spice up an encounter and make it feel unique. Player’s will often remember this more than anything. In memory a battle is “The fight on the Train” or “The fight with the Ritual” or “The fight on the teleporting platforms.”

In the end, the players failed by 1 roll. The last mage finished the ritual with 5hp left. The cleric went down in round 2. In the last round the artificer used dimension door to evacuate herself and the unconscious monk, while the Gunslinger and the Raven Queen Warlock stood their ground. In a last act of defiance, the Warlock rang Astarael, the last and greatest of her Necromancer’s bells, destroying herself, the Dracolich, and everyone on the tower.

Lessons Learned

So why did this work? My players lost (for now), but they had a blast doing it. What made the combat fun.

  • Lots to think about: The thing that makes combat boring is waiting for your turn. Yes description goes a long way, but there’s only so many times you can hear your friend describe cutting someone with a sword before you kinda glaze over, especially if the fight lasts an hour or more. But in a Complex Combat, there’s lots to think about. What’s your job in the battle? Are you stopping the ritual? On Dragon duty? Keeping the Gadflies off the casters? It requires tactical thinking and that’s going to engage the players.
  • It’s Cinematic:  Think of your favorite grand battle at the end of an epic movie. There are lots going on and the heroes have to split up and manage it. There’s no focus fire on the one guy unless he’s enormously powerful (and even then each hero usually has a job beyond ‘hit him hard.’) This gives each player a chance to do something awesome that saves the day beyond getting the final blow.
  • It’s fun to run: I wrote up a tactics page for this encounter detailing what the plan was for the villains, and considered how they might react to various abilities at the disposal of the party. It made it more fun than rolling attacks for fifteen orcs. Additionally, giving the enemies lots of mobility meant the fight moved around rather than just sitting in one place hammering away at one another.


Next Time…

The party is decimated, and the villain has a nearly insurmountable lead on them now. What can they do, and what happens when the villain really does win?


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