D&D – Puzzles

I love puzzles. I love making puzzles, and I love solving puzzles.

I guess I should be more specific, since there are lots of different types of puzzles. I am particularly fond of spatial reasoning puzzles, and a little less fond of word puzzles, but I guess for the most part I am still a puzzle fiend. I have this big book of difficult Kakuro puzzles that I have been working on for ages. It’s my favorite thing to work on when I have nothing else to do (which is hardly ever, unfortunately).

In my latest D&D campaign, I have been going a little light on the puzzles. I just haven’t found that many opportunities. They sort of work best when players are dealing with ancient riddles in old tombs and such. In an urban adventure, it seems less likely you’d run across crazy mind-benders in your everyday life. I suppose if I really wanted to, I could create opportunities, by I try not to force things where they don’t fit.

When dealing with the vampire in the mansion on the hill, once my players had saved the town (kind of) and were searching the mansion for the vampire’s resting place, they had to deal a puzzle lock to get into his inner chamber. I actually had 3 paths to the chamber and 3 separate puzzles – since, in case I didn’t mention, I love making puzzles – but they only had to solve one of the three to get in.

One of the drawbacks of puzzles is that they can alienate some players, though. Not necessarily because they don’t have the ability to solve it, but because typically a puzzle is written down on a piece of paper and given to the party, at which point one person sort of grabs it and controls it, working on it himself and making it hard for the other people at the table to work on it as well. A puzzle is usually solved while the majority of the players have to sit there and wait.

Which was the case for this vampire puzzle. It was a series of scales depicting the balance of weights for various colored cubes and then asking the puzzle-solver to balance out the final three scales on their own. It was a good puzzle…for an individual. The engineer in the party took it, wrote it as a series of equations and used some basic algebra to figure out the answer.

The Scales:
Figuring out how many yellow, blue and red blocks balanced the scales informed the players on how many units of yellow, blue and red liquid to pour into an alchemical mixture, which opened a door when done correctly.

(the solution is 4 blue, 2 red and 3 yellow)

So, anyway, here my players were last week in a neglected dwarven tomb and I decided to go buck wild. Maybe dwarves aren’t normally known for their insidious puzzles, but these ones certainly were. And I decided to try and minimize the single-puzzle-solver problem in two different ways with two very different puzzles.

With the first puzzle, I took the shotgun approach. They arrived in a circular tomb depicting the eight most recently deceased kings. On each of the eight sarcophagi were eight different puzzles. And solving each of these gave a coordinate which had to be used in an elaborate keycode lock in which a riddle had to be solved in order to figure out how to use the coordinates correctly with the lock. So essentially 9 different puzzles handed out at the same time. They were simpler than the scales puzzle but still challenging. Obviously one person couldn’t grab them all and solve them individually. Everybody always had something in front of them to look at. And even if they couldn’t figure it out exactly, they were writing down notes that would hopefully prove useful for the next person who looked at it.

I think it worked out pretty well. At the end, once the eight base puzzles were solved and it came down to coding the lock, a few of the players once again became excluded as the others traced paths around a grid, but I don’t think it was too bad.

The Eight Kings:
For the 8 individual puzzles, you can really look in any puzzle book you want for inspiration. The 8 I used weren’t really all that special, and I don’t feel like drawing them all out in Power Point. The main key is that they aren’t too difficult and they have a simple answer.

Here is the 8×8 keylock grid. If you start at any point on the grid and follow the directions in each box, you end up in the same spot eight moves later, so there are 8 cycles of 8 coordinates in the grid. Solving each puzzle gives you a coordinate and you have to use the following riddle to determine which 8 coordinates should be pressed to unlock the door (order in which the coordinates are pressed doesn’t matter):

Riddle: Dwarven civilization is an 8-fold cycle of death and rebirth. To truly know the ancestors of Iron Canyon, one must know the opposite side of the cycle from the recent kings of dwarves.

So an example of some coordinates to give the players would be: d2, f7, g4, c2, h8, b7, h3, f5 – and then the solution would be c4, h1, d3, g6, e5, e1, d7, f2 (these are 4 moves away from each coordinate given – the opposite side of each cycle). Just make sure to not give more than one coordinate from each cycle of 8.

Then a little later in the tomb, I brought out the big guns. It was a single puzzle, but the trick was that it was a spatial puzzle where players had to move their characters around on the map to press down pressure plates and open up doors. There were six players and the puzzle could only be solved if all six of them worked together. I didn’t think about it at the time, but I think it would have been better if I had instituted a rule that players could only move their own figurines. It got a little crazy with a bunch of people moving things around, trying to keep track of what plates were down and what doors were open, but it never got TOO crazy and we were running out of time, so I just let them go at it. What was great was that because it was on the central board, everyone had something to look at and could stay involved. Obviously you can draw any puzzle you want on the central battle map so that one person can’t hog it, but I think the fact that the puzzle WAS a map made it especially engaging. After 30-45 minutes of everyone expending brain power, they finally solved it and a lot of them told me they thought they puzzle was great and they were going to steal it if they ever DMed a game. That made me really happy.

Pressure Plate Puzzle:
The goal is to get all 6 people up across the bridge at the top of the map. The white squares are the pressure plates and the blue boxes are paths that open when and only when the corresponding plates are plates are being pressed.

D&D – Things that could have been awesome

I don’t really have the time or the resources to playtest my D&D encounters beforehand. The game session is the playtest – a rehearsal without a performance. I try to make things interesting and at the same balanced, based on general stat trends in the Monster Manual and my own previous experience, but I would say my focus most of the time is more on “interesting.” I’ve come up with a lot of crazy and/or ridiculous ideas over the years, and sometimes I was not up to the task of translating said ideas into a balanced encounter.

And what really sucks is when I come up with something interesting, but it is so unbalanced that the gameplay becomes muddled, and it falls back into uninteresting territory, playing worse than an uninspired draw from the encounters in the Monster Manual.

After the unsuccessful encounters, or even encounters that were successful, I have plenty ideas on how to make them better, but the encounter is over and will never see the light of day again. I only DM one group and who wants to run through the same encounter again when it wasn’t that great the first time? That’s just ridiculous.

So I guess one of the reasons I write these blogs is the hope that somebody else will pick up the encounters I describe and my thoughts on how to make them better, and use them in their own campaign, giving them a second, hopefully much-improved life. The idea of my ideas living on past my own little table brings joy to my heart.

Anyway, last time my group met, they got into a fight with an angry dwarven spirit. I thought the mechanics of the fight were going to be great, and I think initially my players were entertained, but a few rounds into the fight when my players had only done a paltry about of damage to the boss because they were so busy killing adds, I realized I had failed on a fundamental level. I had failed at basic math. Full embarrassing explanation to follow fight description:

Dwarven Specter of Tenacity

Lvl 11 Controller Boss
200 HP, insubstantial
Spd 6, Init +7
AC 25, Fort 24, Ref 22, Will 24

Unrelenting aura – aura 3
    All allies in aura gain +2 to damage

Unstable phasing – free action, trigger: spirit takes damage from an attack
    The spirit teleports to a random location within 5 squares and leaves a Vestige in its place.

Possess – standard, at-will, range 10, must have 4 Vestiges out
    +14 vs Will, Xd6+X, where X is the number of Vestiges out, and target is possessed (save-X ends). The specter and Vestiges disappear.
    The specter now acts on the possessed targets turn, using a minor, move and 2 standards for at-will powers and retains the specter’s Summon Zombie Dwarf ability. Target’s damage is increased by X while possessed. Every 5 damage done to the target destroys a Vestige, making it easier to save. When the target does save, the spectre and all remaining Vestiges are returned to spaces adjacent to the target.

Summon Zombie Dwarf – minor (1/round), close burst 5
    Summons 1 zombie dwarf in unoccupied space

Spirit Hammer – stnd, at-will (MBA), melee 1 and each Vestige makes the same melee 1 attack
    +16 vs AC, 2d8+4 and target is slowed

Spirit Link – stnd, at-will, range 10
    +14 vs Fort (make an extra attack roll for every Vestige and take the highest), 1d20 and target takes 7 damage every time the spirit takes damage (save ends).

Vestiges have the same defenses as the specter and 1 hit point. They also grant the (stacking) aura to zombie allies and can make Spirit Hammer opportunity attacks, but otherwise only act through the spirit’s abilities.

Zombie dwarf
Lvl 11 brute super-minion
30 HP (crits instantly kill)
AC 23, Fort 24, Ref 20, Will 22
Spd 5, act directly before specter

Unwavering – Zombie is immune to all forced movement

Hunger – Zombie does 1d10 extra damage to bloodied targets

Smash – stnd., at-will (MBA), melee 1
    +16 vs AC, 2d10+4 and push 2

Tremor Slam – stnd., recharge 456, close burst 2
    +14 vs. Fort, 2d6+5 and target is knocked prone

You see? I just went a little add-crazy. Not only does the boss summon a 30 HP mob every round (that they need to get rid of because it hurts a lot), but every time they actually hit the boss, it spawns a minion.

Okay, so now lets do basic math: There are six people in the party, and let’s be generous and say they hit about 2/3 of the time. That’s 4 hits going through any given round. It takes 2 hits to kill a zombie and one hit to kill a minion, so if they are successfully managing the adds, they are only actually hitting the boss once every round. Even with striker damage, that’s maybe 15 HP because of insubstantial. So that’s 13 rounds to bring down the boss. And that’s just dumb. Plus it didn’t help that the striker couldn’t roll double-digits to save his life. I wasn’t actually counting rounds during the actual fight, but it had to have been at least a dozen…

Alright, so how do we fix it? Bring down the number of adds, duh. And maybe lower the boss’ HP to 150. But it’s still hard to see how to lower the number of adds, because I still love the central idea of the fight. I want the adds to be out of control and causing trouble for the players. So I would make the zombie summon a recharge 456 ability. If they’re only dealing with zombies half the time, that’s actually a 50% increase in the damage on the boss, and with the HP reduction, that brings us to a 7-round fight right there. I thought about having the phasing as a 1/round thing, but then it would be next to impossible for 4 or even 3 vestiges to be around at a single time, especially with a Hand of Radiance invoker. But, as they are minions, they should have had lower defenses (probably -2 for all) than the boss so they would be easier to hit and get rid of. And maybe not have them respawn after a possessed player saves, but make possession legal with 3 vestiges. That would actually make it viable to ignore attacking them completely and just deal with the occasional possession as a means of wrangling them.

What ended up being interesting, though, is that after 12 rounds, I had actually brought my players to a dangerous place HP-wise. They had burned through the 2 leaders’ heals and most of their second winds, and most of them were bloodied, as well. If nothing else, that made me happy. So if we’re shortening the fight by half, we should probably have the attacks do significantly more damage, because it’s good to bring your players to that scary place every once in a while.

D&D – Lord Sydney Redheart

I haven’t really been discussing combat encounters for a while, though I think there have been some pretty good ones in my new campaign. I thought I’d just do a quick (you know, relatively) write-up of the fight I enjoyed from last weekend.

Caught in the middle of a feud between two churches, my players ran afoul of some assassins hired by the opposing side. After multiple assassination attempts, it became clear that these assassins were taking their contract very seriously, and the best solution was to just take down the entire criminal organization they were a part of. This lead to a covert assault on their headquarters, a massive walled estate that towered over the slums of the city, and a showdown with the lord of the Redheart crime syndicate, a vampire much more powerful than those they had encountered previously.

Lord Sydney Redheart
  Lvl10 Solo Controller
  AC23, Fort20, Ref21, Will23
  Spd.6, Init.+7, AP 2, saves+5
  HP500

No Dachi, melee 1, stnd., at-will
  +15 vs AC – 2d12+8 and immobilized (UEONT)

Blood Slashes, stnd., at-will, target must be bloodied
  Make 2 no dachi attacks, if both hit, target is stunned (UEONT)

Sword Throw, range 5, stnd., at-will
  +13 vs Ref – 2d12+5 and ongoing 7

Superior Will, free action
  Make a save against a daze or stun effect at start of turn

Infinite dimensions, imm. int., recharge 456
  Trigger: An attack roll is made against Sydney.
  That attack is negated and Syndey teleports 5.

Friend Bats, close burst 10, minor, recharge 56
  2 bats are summoned in the burst in squares not adjacent to another creature (only 2 bats can be present at a time). These bats act with Sydney starting on his next turn.

Illusionary aid, close burst 2, minor, recharge 456
  Summons an illusionary fighter, who acts with Sydney starting on his next turn

Mass confusion, blast 3 – range 10, stnd., recharges when bloodied
  +13 vs. Will – 1d10+5 and dominated (UEONT), dazed (UEONT) on miss

Gut punch, melee 1, minor, at-will
  +13 vs. Fort – 1d6+3 and dazed (UEONT)

Friend Bat
  AC22, Fort19, Ref21, Will20
  Spd 6 flying
  HP50

Swoop, melee 1, stnd., at-will
  +14 vs. AC – 2d8+3

Intercept, imm. react., at-will
  Trigger: Sydney is hit by an attack
  Can make a charge attack against the attacker

Sonar, range 5, stnd. recharge 6
  +12 vs. fort – 1d4+4 and target is dazed (UEONT)

Illusionary Fighter
  AC23, Fort22, Ref21, Will20
  Spd 5
  Minion

Terrorize, melee 1, stnd.,at-will
  +12 vs. Will – 1d10+2 and -2 to attack (UEONT)

Font of Death
  Lvl9 trap
  At the start of the round, floor tiles in a specific pattern begin to glow. At the end of the round, these glowing tiles erupt, attacking any player still standing on them.
  1st round: Alternating vertical rows of tiles; 2nd: Those not included in round 1; 3rd: Alternating rows of horizontal tiles; 4th: Those not included in round 3; 5th: Checkerboard pattern; 6th: Those not included in round 6; 7th: Repeat round 1.
Attack: +13 vs. Ref – 2d12+4 necrotic damage and weakened UEONT, -2 to attack (UEONT) on miss

I think this fight ended up working really well because there was some spatial component to it that wasn’t too gimmicky – the trapped floor just caused players to constantly move around a bit to avoid taking damage – and I was able to apply pressure to the players by having the bats deal consistent damage to all players attacking the boss. Plus the boss was able to negate some of the heavy attacks throughout the fight to keep that pressure up for longer.

Lastly, I’ve been growing increasingly annoyed at the invoker in the party for bringing out his brilliant beacon daily every boss fight to apply a consistent -2 to defenses saving throws and attacks to enemies inside a burst 1 zone that he can move around and sustain as a minor. You may notice the monsters had a ridiculous amount of daze attacks specifically so that I could get rid of that beacon once it was up. Plus I focused most of my damage on him to KO him, which also had a good chance of ending the beacon. This added sort of an extra layer of competition on top of the normal boss battle, and in the end I’m afraid I must admit I failed. I did manage to daze him twice, but he superior willed out of it both times, and I KOed him once, but a healing power had him back on his feet before his next turn rolled around.

I think it ended up being a little too easy, and that was mostly due to the fact that only one of the 6 players had used any dailies in the fights leading up to the boss encounter (including another boss encounter that just didn’t go very well for me). I gotta bring more consistently challenging fights to spread out the dailies, but sometimes that’s hard when your story calls for only one major battle in a day. You don’t want to bog the players down with meaningless battles because a challenging combat encounter can easily take half a session, so spending that amount of time on something means it’s gotta have purpose.

D&D – Non-combat encounters 3

Alright, so we’re just gonna go over a couple different scenarios my players went through recently. Unfortunately, my notes aren’t very good and actually got deleted in some cases, so I won’t go into too much detail, but hopefully a good framework will still be there.

First of all, though, I can’t really stress enough that non-combat encounters work best when there is some mystery involved – when the goal of the challenge is to gain some piece of information that is necessary to moving forward. At it’s most basic, you have your next story combat encounter at location X, but how the players figure out they need to go to X is the best use of a non-combat encounter. Sure, an NPC could just walk up and tell them, but if you’re able to turn it into a mystery, where players have to visit various locations around town, gathering bits of information that they can put together to get the location of X, they will have a lot more fun…unless they’re just there to kill monsters and don’t care at all about role-playing.

Anyway, so after my players solved the kidnappings described in the first of these posts, they ended up in the middle of a power struggle between two churches and ended up traveling to a remote village in search of a vampire whose death would supply them with some necessary ritual components. They weren’t exactly sure there would be a vampire in the town, but they had their suspicions. A request for aid against some undead had been sent to one of the churches a couple weeks prior, but was quickly followed by another letter saying, “JK, we got it under control.” This had aroused the suspicions of the head priest, and so there the players were, entering this town in the middle of nowhere, getting icy stares from the few villagers milling about as the sun went down.

Of course there was a vampire in town, and he had pretty much taken over the mayor’s mansion up on the hill (where else would he go?). He made vicious examples of the few people that tried to oppose him and then easily convinced everyone else that it was in their best interests to just go about their daily lives and let him rule over the town in peace, feasting on the slaves he had made of the dissenters. To top it all off, he had promised the townsfolk that he would protect them from any other evil from the surrounding area that might do them harm, and so the townsfolk were actually quite content with the arrangement and not at all pleased when outsiders showed up asking about vampires. The vampire had made it very clear what would happen if anyone talked to any outsiders about the situation in town.

So the first stop was to the local church – the source of the two messages received. After some insight checks, it was clear the local priest was hiding something, but when they couldn’t get anything substantial out of him through diplomacy, they decided against going Abu Ghraib on his ass and went down to check out the bar instead.

In the bar was a few drunks, a few groups of suspicious-looking men, some guards and a very jovial bartender keen on getting these outsiders drunk and into their rented rooms for the night without any trouble or any mention of vampires. The group singled out one of the drunks as the best target for inquiry. Mostly through diplomacy, bluff and other social skills, they got the nosy bartender away from the drunk long enough to get him to confirm that there was a secret and that he’s not supposed to talk about the undead. The drunk was sent home with a contingent of guards to make sure he didn’t say anything else. And the players waited for the bar to empty out before they cornered the bartender and intimidated the crap out of him. They had to work for it, but eventually he reluctantly told them there was a vampire up on the hill who would kill anybody who divulged the town’s secret. The players told the bartender to lock up his place and hide in his basement with his wife while they took care of the problem.

They really wanted to sneak up on the vampire and take him by surprise, but unfortunately they are not a very stealthy group, and there was a magically locked gate between them and the mansion. The went off to a secluded section of the fence and tried to climb over it, but their athletics and acrobatics left much to be desired, as well. It was rather hilarious watching them get completely and utterly foiled by a simple fence, and after they were all muddy and exhausted, I had mercy on them and had one of the vampire’s servants come out to inform them their presence was well-known and that they were invited inside to talk with his master.

And that was the end of the skill checks, but I guess I’ll share the end of the story in case anyone is interested. The vampire was actually very cordial and wanted nothing more than for everyone to walk away happy, so he offered the players what I thought was a morally-charged decision. Yes, they could attack him, but he would have to punish the town for leading them to his doorstep. He had an army of undead waiting in the wings to storm the town and murder everyone should they lay a finger on him. On the other hand, if they agreed to leave peacefully, since all they needed was to kill a vampire and not specifically him, he would give them the location of another of his kin that they could go murder in his stead. The town would remain safe.

Unfortunately, I was dealing with an avenger and an invoker who really just didn’t like undead and certainly did not want to make any sort of deals with the undead. So what followed was an interesting fight where they had to split up, some staying to fight the vampire and some animated flesh creatures, while a couple of them went down to save the town from marauding ghouls with torches and the propensity for burning houses. The vampire eventually died, but he took about half the town with him.

And the other half didn’t survive the next morning when some cultists showed up to claim souls for their “Flame” god. They finished the job of burning down the town and murdering the townsfolk, and this would have been prevented by the vampire if he had still been alive. If they had taken the deal, the town would have remained safe and the players off on another vampire-killing quest. But now the town has been destroyed and the repercussions of that have yet to fully be realized by the party.

So there we have a decent example of a non-combat situation where the players had to gather information and get to the location of the next encounter. But I also incorporated the idea I had mentioned earlier where you allow the players to shape the story. Their choices end up having an affect on the world and how their adventures will resolve down the road. I mean, if the players don’t have a dynamic interaction with the story, they might as well be playing a video game.

I think the most important thing about presenting players with social situations and non-combat encounters is having a fully fleshed out story to back it up. Knowing the situation and the motivations of the NPCs involved allows you to get under their skin and give players a more immersive experience.

I meant to talk about more, but of course my typing got away from me, so we’ll pick this topic up a little later. I was also really happy with how a boss encounter I ran last weekend turned out, so I want to talk about that some time soon, as well.

D&D – Non-combat encounters 2

So I had the chance to play in a D&D game recently (as opposed to DMing it), and it was much better than the last time I tried out a new group (i.e. the worst D&D experience of my life). What was most interesting and entertaining, in fact, was when the DM played out a non-combat skill encounter entirely by the book.

Of course, I’ve ranted on about hating how D&D4e handles non-combat situations, trying to pare down and rule-ify everything until there’s no creativity left, but I don’t know. In this one instance, at least, it seemed to work, and I feel like I should do a little backpedaling.

I suspect it was largely because the situation we were in was absolutely perfect for the type of construction outlined in the PHB. We had lost an important item to some thieves and needed to infiltrate their hideout and steal it back. A classic heist caper.

We were told to formulate a solid plan before any rolling began, and we settled on a 3-man team: the thief, the distraction (me) and the getaway driver. And then we just went around the table in rounds, with the 3 of us getting turns to try and land “successes” and not roll “failures.” The PHB calls for a complex encounter like this one to get 8 successes before 4 failures are rolled. I still don’t like the complete monetization of what you need to do to succeed, but I guess it did add some tension when we got down to 3 failures, making the success of the final roll all the more intense.

The real trick to pulling it off, though, lied in the DMs masterful hand at taking what we were doing on each of our turns and advancing the action appropriately to make sure we arrived at some sort of satisfying conclusion by the end of it, success or failure. Basically, each person was given the situation they were in and tasked to find a way through it by relying on one of their skills. And the situation was such that even if someone rolled a failure, they weren’t taken out of the story, but instead future events just became more urgent, even if unrelated to the failure role, because we were by design closer to failure.

Shit, I don’t know if that made any sense. I had a good time and now need to reconsider my thoughts on the subject. Perhaps in certain situations, with the right players, proper skill encounters could work. It also helped that all the players participating knew how to advance the story, as well, and could come up with interesting and entertaining things to do on their turn while advancing the action. I also went back the next week and experienced a truly awful single-person skill encounter (probably just a bad idea to begin with) because the player didn’t really know what he was doing at all and just ran around in circles until he rolled enough failures to get himself killed. Oh well.

D&D – The skarn and its acolytes

I suppose I should write up the combat encounters my group experienced in our last session, after spending the previous session solving the problem that led to the combats. And I don’t care if that sentence made sense.

They ended up fighting a giant psychic bug that was using human thralls to kidnap members of the city to feed on. My players still aren’t really clear on why this bug, who usually will only require one victim every month or so, suddenly decided to start stocking up on bodies, so I won’t spoil that here.

After going through a basic fight the week before to kill one of the thralls and gain access to the lair, they then laid into the bug (which I named a “Skarn,” independent of Michael Scott’s alter ego on The Office, I swear) in two fairly involved combat encounters.

Initially, the skarn was in a crystalis state inside a coccoon and being defended by 3 additional thralls/acolytes. The main conceit of the fight was that if anyone attacked the crystalis (which was shooting all manner of nasty psychic spells at them) while the acolytes were still alive, the acolytes could counter-attack with a series of nasty maneuvers. Of course, things didn’t go at all as I had planned, and my players didn’t even lay a finger on the crystalis until all acolytes were dead, thus never experiencing a single counter-attack through the entire encounter.

The stats on the monsters are as follows:

Acolyte of Urgency, 250xp (skirmisher)
  Init: +9, HP: 72, Spd: 6
  AC21, Fort18, Ref19, Will16
Dagger attack (stnd., at-will), weapon
  +11vsAC, 2d4+4 (extra 1d6 w/ combat advantage)
Psych up (minor, recharge 56) self
  Gains +2spd, +1 to all shifts, +2 to attack and dmg and crits on 19-20 until end of turn
Rebuke of urgency (imm. react., at-will) trigger – coccoon is hit by an attack
  Acolyte teleports adjected to attacker and makes a dagger attack. If it hits, target grants combat advantage to all enemies UEONT.

Acolyte of Passivation, 250xp (soldier)
  Init: +5, HP: 72, Spd: 6
  AC23, Fort20, Ref18, Will16
Maul attack (stnd., at-will), weapon
  +11vsAC, 2d6+3 and target is marked UEONT
Chloroform (stnd., recharge 56), melee 1, poison
  +9vsFort 1d4+3 target is knocked prone and stunned (save ends)
Rebuke of passivation (imm. int., at-will) trigger – an enemy within 5 makes an attack against the coccoon
  Shift 4 and makes the following attack on the triggering enemy:
  +9vsWill 1d10+4 and target is weakened UEONT

Acolyte of Rebirth, 250xp (controller)
  Init: +5, HP: 68, Spd: 6
  AC20, Fort16, Ref18, Will19
Staff attack (stnd., at-will), weapon
  +11vsAC 1d8+4
Psychic shards (stnd., at-will), range 10 up to 3 targets, psychic
  +9vsRef 1d6+5 and -2 Will UEONT
Explosion of life (stnd., encounter), necrotic, close burst 2, targets enemies
  +10vsFort 2d8+3 and target is pushed 2
  Any damage done by this attack is evenly distributed as healing between caster and any allies within the burst
Rebuke of rebirth (imm. react., at-will) trigger – coccoon is hit by an attack
  Whatever amount of damage was done to the coccoon can be granted as temporary hit points to an acolyte

ONLY 1 REBUKE CAN BE TRIGGERED FOR ANY 1 ATTACK

Cocoon, large, 500xp (elite artillery)
  Init: +7, HP: 100, Spd: 0
  AC19, Fort18, Ref16, Will21
  Saves +2, 1AP
(If any acolyte dies, the corresponding bolt changes from at-will to recharge 56)
Bolt of surrogacy (stnd., recharge 56) range 10 psychic
  +10vsWill 2d4+4 and a psychic worm is implanted in the target’s mind – target is dazed (save ends), first failed save, target is dominated (save ends)
Bolt of urgency (stnd., at-will) range 10 blast 3, targets enemies   psychic, lightning
  +10vsRef 4d4 and pull 2 psychic bolts of energy reach out and pull you into the fray
Bolt of passivation (stnd., at-will) range 5 psychic
  +11vsAC 2d6+3 and target is restrained (save ends) psychic tendrils reach up from the ground and wrap around you, attempting to subdue
Bolt of rebirth (stnd., at-will) range 10 necrotic
  +10vsFort 1d12+4 target is sapped of life, half of the damage done is returned to the caster as healing
Psychic shield (minor, at-will, 1/round) close burst 1
  +9vsFort 1d4+2 and target is pushed 1
Psychic bond (move, at-will) range 10
  Can slide an ally up to 3

The fight took place in a roughly 8×15 room with the kidnap victims sort of scattered about. These victims could be woken up and freed (successful DC18 heal check as a full-round action), and could then take a single action on the turn of the person who woke them up (to either flee or help wake up additional victims). There were 10 victims in total and working towards freeing a handful of them really helped out my players in the second encounter…

Once the cocoon had been defeated, it split open to reveal a half-developed skarn grub/flying thing hybid. It thrashed about and sent its whole nest toppling down from its perch in the rafters below a bridge into the rapid waters of the river below. Everyone got a quick rest somehow (I like to keep my encounters separate; there’s no need to punish my players for the sake of story), and they were off fighting the real boss:

Crystalis Skarn, large, 1250xp (solo skirmisher)
  Init: +8, HP: 350, Spd: 6
  AC21, Fort18, Ref17, Will21
  Saves +5, 2AP
Frantic leap (move, at-will)
  Move your speed, ignoring rough terrain and occupied enemy squares, you gain a +2AC to OAs for this movement
Psychic wail (imm. react., recharge 456) close blast 3, trigger – skarn is hit by an attack
  +8vsWill 2d6+3 and push 2
Cracking claw (stnd., at-will) melee 1
  +11vsAC 1d10+5 and target receives a cumulative -1AC (save ends)
Double claw (stnd., at-will)
  Make 2 successive claw attacks if both hit, target is knocked prone
Melt mind (minor, recharge 56) range 5, psychic, acid
  The attack does not provoke OAs
  +9vsRef 1d6+2 acid/psychic dmg and make 2 subsequent attacks
    +9vsFort ongoing 5 acid (save ends)
    +9vsWill target is dominated (UEONT)
Breath of despair (stnd., recharge 56) close blast 4
  +9vsWill 2d4+4 and target gains -2 to att and dmg (save ends)
Paralyzing bite (stnd., at-will) melee 1
  +8vsAC 2d10+2 and target is stunned (save ends), gain a +2 to attack vs prone targets for this attack

The real hook of this battle was that they were fighting on the broken nest floating down a river in the dark. A river full of precarious rocks waiting to be collided with. So while trying to deal with a giant angry psychic bug, the players also had to work on avoiding rocks as they floated down the river. Rocks that, when collided with, would begin to break apart their make-shift watercraft and possibly send victims that had not yet been woken up over the side and to their watery deaths.

Players could use perception to look ahead for rocks if they had low-light vision (which no-one ever did), or the rocks would eventually get close enough to be noticeable. Players or woken-up victims could also construct a make-shift rudder off the back of the nest and make athletics checks to steer it (the greater the athletics check, the greater the crafts angle versus the flow of the river).

I think the whole thing worked out pretty great. Right of the bat, the skarn got knocked into the river and had to spend an entire turn getting back aboard using its under-developed wings. The players judiciously used a team of victims to start steering the craft towards the shore immediately, which allowed them to mostly avoid the rocks, though one collision did end up sending one victim to its doom and caused a second to roll dangerously close. I think the rocks added a good amount of tension and got the players to think about stuff other than just whittling down the HP of the boss.

The only problem was that I think I confused some of my players a little bit concerning the direction of the boat in relation to the direction of the river and where exactly the rocks were coming from. I could have definitely used a second zoomed out map where I was able to edit the position of the boat and draw in rocks as they appeared in order to make all of those issues a little clearer.

And now with the first quest winding down, I’ve got to come up with more non-combat and combat elements to keep the players interested. Vampires, corrupt priests and shady black market wizards will abound.