Warning: Heavy Spoilers Ahead! Players who don’t want to have a polished and savory adventuring experience ruined for them should read no farther!
Saturday, March 5, 2011: A day that will live in infamy! I am the dungeon master of a D&D 4th edition campaign. It’s not my first time behind the screen, no not by a long shot, but I don’t mind saying it’s one of my best times behind the screen — that loneliest seat of all. We started the campaign in March of 2008 at the tail end of the D&D 3.5 life cycle, and converted to 4th edition that June after I returned from Origins with my cool new 4E books. There are seven of us: myself and six diehard players. We lost one about a year and a half ago to move-out-of-state attrition, but his spot was promptly filled the next week (I still miss you, Klaas). The characters were (and yes, I did say “were”) level 21, which may not seem very high for three years of play, but I do significantly throttle experience rewards for slower advancement.
So at 5:00 p.m. U.S. Eastern Time on Saturday, March 5, in the Year of our Lord 2011, when six starry-eyed players entered the Tomb of the Iron Lich, they did so with characters who were — like well-ripened and low-hanging fruit — plump with both rich history and future potential. It was a perfectly aged sacrifice to the oppressive and insistent gods of gaming.
I go out of my way to point this out because, surprisingly, the twisted minds behind Fourthcore recommended that DMs not run this module for their regular campaigns. To be blunt, I found this recommendation horrifying and even a little embarrassing because if you’re going to be Fourthcore then be Fourthcore. The “teeth” of an adventure that merely kills a set of meaningless pregens are blunter and more worn than the savage maw of a module that yearns for blood no less sumptuous and precious as that of a beloved party of long-time and history-rich characters. But more on that after I talk about the module itself.
In the interest of telling a complete and accurate narrative, it should be noted that five of the six of my players never played D&D prior to 3rd edition. But Bill, my lone grizzled veteran, bears the scars of many a campaign, and his eyes are distant and glassy from the weight of many a brutal character death, lo these many long years. And knowing that their inexperience with so-called old school D&D would be a crippling disadvantage as they entered the hungry and ruthless antediluvian jaws of Khaldun’s crypt, I carefully and with great ceremony cautioned them to lend great, great weight to all of Bill’s instincts. O, if only they had done just that!
First, let me comment on the general presentation of Revenge of the Iron Lich. It is a module for level 16 characters, which I had to power up for my level 21 PCs. Very few details were spared in the adventure’s rich presentation. There are item and rumor cards intended to be randomly distributed to the characters at the start of the adventure. The item cards represent things acquired by the PCs from prior delvers into the crypt, and are mostly subtle clues about the crypt’s inner workings. Although at first glance the idea is inventive, I feel that for the purposes of an extremely deadly dungeon crawl made even more so by a real-world time limit, the item cards are just too abstract to be of real value. The rumor cards, however, are both clever and useful. There are ten of them: five reliable and five unreliable, and they are so marked plainly on the players’ copies of them. Further, the players are informed that of one of the reliable rumors is false and one of the unreliable rumors is true. My group received, among other cards, the (true) reliable rumor that a password needed in the crypt was ‘honor and sacrifice’ and the (false) unreliable rumor that the same password was ‘flesh to steel.’ It made for some interesting times down in the tomb.
Further, players who find themselves in the unfortunate but highly probable position of dying to one of the many sinister and merciless tricks in the tomb, aren’t relegated to sitting quietly by while their companions continue to adventure. They can come back as a ghost and aid the party by use of the ingenious lich cards. Lich cards give a single encounter power to a dead character, and that character can use it as needed to assist his friends. For example, the Whisper From Beyond lich card reads: “You let an ally re-roll a failed skill check and take the better result.”
Finally, the Deck of Mortals lends a particularly fine old school touch to the adventure, a la the time-honored Deck of Many Things. Apparently, a Save Versus Death fan even made up a printable version of the deck. Unfortunately, my party only had the opportunity to draw one card, and it was the Summoner, which caused a balor to appear and fight the party for three rounds. They opted to run out of the room, which was a good thing because balors are level 27 elite monsters in 4E. And I opted to rule that the balor would not pursue them out of the room because, yeah, in case you hadn’t heard, balors are level 27 elite monsters in 4E. They ended up taking relatively little damage from the balor as a result of this turn of events, but they also missed a good opportunity to interrogate the feature-rich first room of the dungeon.
The various pathways that would lead the party from door one to the final encounter are many and complex, so a DM would do well to read the adventure through more than once. The text recommends reading it at least twice, and the advice is sound. It took me three times to be comfortable with it, and even then I ended up having to look a couple of things up during the session.
For instance, it is possible to enter the hypostyle (room A), flee like a pack of terrified elementary school children from a balor (*cough*) into the cobbletone path (room B), drop immediately down into the open floor pit and find the secret door that leads to the iron gallery (room G), solve the puzzle therein thereby enabling the teleportation altar to the spectral stair (room K), waste all kinds of time in the dismal descent (room H) before finally using said teleportation altar to proceed to the spectral stair, find one’s way into the trial of the chests and solve the puzzle readily, then proceed up the spectral stairs (or, more accurately, have the winged Scion of Arkhosia dragonborn fly up them and tie off some rope), and into the crypt of the iron lich (room M) for the final series of encounters. This path resulted in the party experiencing 7 of the 14 named encounter areas of the dungeon, meaning that half of the rooms of the tomb were unseen. And depending on the precise path your party follows, the parts of the dungeon that are accessible might vary greatly from those parts that were accessible during my doomed party’s attempt.
One aspect of the adventure with which newer players may have no prior experience is the existence of a real-world time limit. In the game, the tomb is filled with a deadly poisonous gas that will eventually kill the party. It is simulated by a real-world four hour time limit, after which the party is dead and the mission is failed. The timer adds a frenetic pace to the adventure that some will enjoy and some will find needlessly frustrating. I think my players were roughly divided in half on that point. One decision I made as a dungeon master was to stop the timer (and quite clearly inform the party when this was happening) frequently. Some of the encounters — most notably the dismal descent (room H) — are so complex that they require extra processing time for the DM. In fact, when my party entered the dismal descent I went so far as to stop the timer every time it was “my turn” because the encounter requires several steps taken in a very strict sequence for the dungeon master. So including the break we took when the food was delivered, we played the “four hour time limit” in about five and a half hours. Your mileage may vary.
I think it would also only be fair to mention that the numbers used in the module didn’t always line up with the published recommendations for a level 16 adventure. Some of the DCs of skill checks were off, some of the damage done by traps and monsters didn’t line up with published recommendations. Frankly, as someone who has been DMing for well over 20 years, I have no problem with straying far afield from published recommendations. They are, after all, merely guidelines — stepping off points for negotiation. But for a module like Revenge of the Iron Lich — and for programs like Fourthcore and Saturday Night Delve — I feel there is a real opportunity to regain a lost element of truly old school gaming: the feeling of the DM versus the party, a la HackMaster. I think for a system like D&D 4th Edition, the way to capture that feeling is to adhere strictly to the aforementioned guidelines. If, for example, the recommended easy, moderate, and hard DCs for a level 16 adventure are 16, 22, and 31 respectively, in my not-so-humble opinion a Fourthcore module should adhere to them strictly. In that regard, the erstwhile feel of the “killer DM” can be recaptured. In other words, I believe that the Fourthcore DM has an ethical obligation to do everything within his power to severely punish his players, but in order for that not to turn into a wanton slaughterfest, that same Fourthcore DM should adhere to published 4E recommended numbers far more stringently than a casual DM who is out for a storytelling experience.
All in all, Revenge of the Iron Lich is a jaunty trip down memory lane as it pays nothing less than tribute and homage to the deadly days of dungeons past. But more than that, it is a solid piece of writing that stands on its own legs and hopefully marks a bright future for the folks behind Saturday Night Delves. The module does, in my opinion, suffer from some organizational problems. There are several areas of the dungeon that are unlocked based on actions taken in other areas. It can sometimes be a bit of a chore to track down what those actions are. There are also several features of the dungeon that exist “between rooms.” And when you combine the two, such as the altar between the hall of the iron golem (room D) and the dismal descent (room H) that either curses or teleports would-be touchers depending on actions taken in the iron gallery (room G), tracking down all the relevant information can be an exercise in frustration. If I were grading the module, I would give it a very solid B+. Frankly, I can’t wait for the next Delve.
Now, if I may, let me return back to my doomed party and why I don’t feel that their wholesale slaughter was unfair, I want to remind the reader of my dire admonition to the party that they pay strict attention to the veteran Bill’s instincts. It turns out, every instinct that Bill had was so uncanny that someone who hasn’t known him for the better part of 15 years might have suspected he read the module beforehand. He, of course, did not. And had the party listened to Bill when he correctly labeled the dismal descent (room H) as a terrible time sink, and ran back out and tagged the teleportation altar like he wanted them to (one party member had already touched the altar and vanished, but to what fate the party did not yet know), they would have arrived in the final encounter with way more than enough time to defeat the Iron Lich’s guardians, followed by the battle with the Iron Lich himself. Had they done that, their experience in the module would have been so easy as to border on trivial and I would have been pretty embarrassed after all of my warnings about how ruthless and unforgiving and deadly the adventure was. Instead, after handily defeating the iron lich necrolith and the congregation of lich necromancers in the final crypt room, Khaldun himself was just appearing as the last moments of the time limit slipped away killing them all. I can still hear his evil laughter…