Looking Over Book of Challenges: Thrice Be Damned
A pit fiend teams up with a red dragon to lure the high-level characters into preparing for the wrong ambush.
This encounter details a “village” (really more of a look-out point) that the party can interact with, including some details about their motivations and how much they know. Rather than lamenting how many other encounters could have used similar support, I will appreciate that it’s a good move here.
It’s always good to see reasonable retreat conditions built into creature tactics.
The summarized tactics for the creatures in the fissure are a decent baseline to work with. I’m particularly fond of the pit fiend taking advantage of haste to make its illusion react to being attacked while still taking its own actions.
Likely for Americentric/Eurocentric reasons, the background assumes “the northern countries” are populated by “tundra-dwelling nomads”. It can fit in just as well in any region of arctic climate.
Depending on visibility and the surrounding terrain, the party should have a chance to see the nomad signaler at the edge of the fissure responding to the signal from the “village” watchers.
There’s no reason for the dragon to cast tongues when impersonating a nomad unless the nomads know languages that it doesn’t, which is implied to not be the case since the dragon “only converses in Common, so as not to alert the PCs”.
As usual, I dislike ruling that an uneven floor prevents running and would treat it as difficult terrain instead. At least there aren’t icy patches that necessitate Balance checks to move through them.
A skeletal dragon is a reasonable illusory creature in a vacuum, but in the context of this encounter, I don’t understand why the pit fiend would use that instead of a white dragon or a frost worm (since those are what the pit fiend and the dragon tricked the nomads into believing were in the area; using something different just seems like it’d invite skepticism for no good reason).
The background isn’t clear on why the party would want to be involved in the situation. I think it’s implying the PCs will feel bad about the nomads being driven off by the giant/dragon and will want to avenge them, but that sounds fairly small-time for an EL 20 party (especially if the tundra is large enough for the surviving nomads to just go somewhere else in it). Adding on the story in the “village” that the frost giant priestess is just trying “to regain land promised to her family through an ancient agreement with the human who originally lived [there]” would seem to make it even less likely that the PCs would want to get involved.
The writer doesn’t seem to understand what a nomad is, since they have thatched huts and seem to be sedentary.
There’s no indication of how far it is between the “village” and the fissure.
An EL 20 party isn’t going to be climbing with regular rope.
If the PCs can see “a ledge at the 100-foot mark, upon which [they] can just make out another nomad” while standing at the top of the fissure, there must be a clear sightline from the top to the 100’ mark, so I’m not sure why the text mentions the viewing distance at “any given point in the fissure […] is limited to 2d6x10 feet”.
The nomad at the top of the fissure is watching for signals from the “village” guards, signals from the nomad on the ledge halfway down the fissure, and any sight of the dragon all at once. It doesn’t make sense for one person to keep watch for three different things at once instead of finding a better way to cycle ten people between four roles (including resting).
Why would one of the PCs agree to “protect” the dragon “or even carry her back to the surface” when the dragon is disguised as a nomad fulfilling his role as a sentry/signaler?
It seems contradictory to have “plenty of room for the flying monsters within to maneuver” while also saying “virtually any space can provide up to one-half cover from opponents on the ground”. Either there’s plenty of open space to move around or it’s a congested area with omnipresent partial cover; the two seem mutually exclusive.
Repeating the rules for unhallow and unholy aura is worthless.
The magic items are all just mathemagical.
I question how much value can be gotten out of recurring villains from an EL 20 encounter, since I’ve never known a group to keep playing the same characters for long after hitting the top of the power scale.
While I appreciate that the advice for scaling the challenge is mostly about replacing the creatures with other similar ones at different CRs, the Hand Wave to “[c]hange tactics accordingly” instead of giving actual advice is a slap in the face.
I’m not sure what the extra advice on “High-Level Preparation: The DM” is supposed to be saying. The further “High-Level Preparation: The Players” advice is somewhat more comprehensible, though it doesn’t say much of value, so it still deserves to be mentioned here.
This encounter is a hot mess. It has some good initial ideas, but they get buried fairly quickly under all of the stuff that either has no practical impact or is over-complicated for no discernible reason. A triumvirate of a powerful dragon, a high-end devil, and its servant of malevolent darkness made manifest is a solid group of opposition for a high-level party. Having them act in disguise so the rumors that spread about them will lead to intruders preparing for the wrong encounter is great. Picking disguises that are likely to get them ignored by their preferred targets is where cracks start to show, and it goes downhill from there.
I could say more, but frankly, this write-up was a terrible slog to get through, so I’m just going to jump to the conclusion.
All in all, having powerful creatures team up and act intelligently to support each other is a great part of high-level combat in Dungeons & Dragons. However, the key there is that they need to act intelligently, which often means having a core focus rather than a wide spread; having them do things just because they can undermines that. Making a fresh encounter from the background write-up would probably be easier than cleaning up the actual encounter as-written.