Spoiler: Skull Gorge Bridge BattleThe party recapped their opening battle plans. I thought they still sounded kind of scattered, indecisive about whether to focus on the near towers, the hell hounds, or the dragon first, but I guess the important part was that they agreed not to worry about the Sergeant or the other hobgoblins across the Gorge until everything else was dead.
Bitore the Cleric started with a Bless spell on himself, Moxie the (flying) Barbarian, and Marr the Fighter. Then they let loose an opening volley at the creatures on their side of the canyon. With a 7 Stealth result from Bitore, I didn't rule that any of the Horde creatures were surprised, but other than the dragon they rolled poorly on initiative anyway, which is a similar result.
Barnabus the Bard, riding his Dire Wolf, won initiative and opened with a Heat Metal on the armor of the SW tower hobgoblin. It was only a Hobgoblin Regular in that spot, but Heat Metal rolled low and still didn't drop it. Jorr Hunter's Marked the SE tower hobgoblin, who was a Veteran, and started firing away. Marr started doing his usual "nova" on the nearby Hellhound, using Fighting Spirit for a few extra HP and advantage on attacks, but he decided to save Action Surge for later even though he may well have killed the Hell Hound before it got a chance to act if he had. Ozyrrandion and Moxie converged on the roof of the SW tower. Bitore used Toll the Dead on the Hell Hound, but it rolled a nat 20 on its save, so he hit it with a Book of Force Damage instead.
I didn't think the party had done all that well at staying spread out like they had talked about, but they were spread out enough that the Hell Hound could only get Marr in its breath weapon attack, so that's what it did. He saved for half damage though.
The Sergeant used his Leadership ability to "bless" the hobgoblins with him in camp, but they still weren't very effective shooting at one of the few targets they could see, the Dire Wolf, who had taken the Dodge action. Then the ones on the towers all rolled poorly.
Barnabus hit the close Hell Hound with Vicious Mockery, and finished off the SW tower hobgoblin with another pulse of Heat Metal.
Then it was Ozyrrandion's turn! I excitedly had him fly around Moxie so that he could hit Marr, Barnabus, the Dire Wolf, and Bitore in his cone. (For a moment I thought I could even get Moxie too, but my players reminded me that 3-D geometry meant she was much too high for that.) He rolled 30 poison damage, which was solid. Marr failed the save in spite of his Necklace of Adaptation ... until he remembered to include Bless. Barnabus failed the save, wishing he was similarly Blessed, and dropped to very low HP in one blow. The Wolf failed as well, but could handle the damage. Bitore passed the save, and resisted the damage (Dwarf), and passed his Concentration check, so the effect on the healer was minimal. Still, I was pleased with how things were going by this point, thinking that with Barnabus so low, they'd probably have to at least burn a Heal spell (from the Staff) on him.
Marr used Second Wind while he debated what to do. There was a very nearly-dead Hell Hound next to him, but also a dragon to worry about. In the end, he decided to ignore the Hound and pump a Magic Missile into the dragon from his wand, for 9 damage. He was vindicated as the Spiritual Weapon Book finished off the Hell Hound, with a joke that this time it was a book about various skin ailments and rashes that Hell Hounds can contract.
Then ... things turned south for me, as the party put their trusty "Koth combo" to work on Ozzy. He rolled a whopping 6 to resist the Command to "land." But he was still up in the air until his turn, near Moxie the Barbarian. She wailed on him Recklessly, still missing once.
The second Hell Hound arrived and breathed on Marr and the Dire Wolf, rolling well on damage. Then it was the hobgoblins' turns. They ... didn't have a lot of clear shots, thanks to the frontal towers that everyone was fighting behind. One did manage to hit Marr, dropping him to 1 HP! And another hit Moxie for piddling damage through her Rage.
Barnabus debated what to do for a while, other than let the Wolf go to run away from the battle before it died. (At that point, he would have needed an Animal Handling check to keep it fighting.) But he settled on completing the "Koth combo" and casting Hideous Laughter on Ozzy as soon as the dragon landed. Sure enough, Ozzy couldn't do anything on his turn other than try to recharge his breath and fly straight down. And then rolled a natural 4 on his Wisdom save (8 total), to fall prone and incapacitated. Sigh. No chance for him to even drink his Superior Healing Potion.
Now Marr whipped out his 4-attack "nova" combination, counting on it to finish off the second Hell Hound in a single turn, but rolled really low on one attack and the Hell Hound was still up ... and with his new temporary HP from Fighting Spirit he was up to a whopping 6. The Hell Hound then Bit him and easily dropped him unconscious. So Moxie flew over (now that she didn't have to worry about Ozzy, sigh) and finished off the Hound with one blow, lamely throwing a javelin at the SE tower hobgoblin for her second attack.
The hobgoblins with no clear shot Dashed along the bridge to get to where they could really join the battle. (In hindsight, I probably should have had them climb the northern towers.) The remaining one on the SE tower shot at Barnabus. He wanted to take no chances of dropping, so he REVEALED HIS CHANGELING ABILITIES with Unsettling Visage. Turns out the attack would have been a natural 1 anyway. The hobgoblin then took cover, though (backing up from the edge of the tower and ducking down so no one could see him), which made all the players angry.
Barnabus spent his turn feeding a healing potion to Marr. Jorr hit the approaching Sergeant with a critical hit, with Sneak Attack and Favored Enemy. The players remarked how Jorr was actually remarkably competent, maybe even better than them. So I need to make sure Jorr doesn't keep stealing the show ...
Now the immediate threats were handled, it was time to finish off Ozzy. Marr's first blow snapped the dragon out of Hideous Laughter (now he rolls a nat 20 on his save), but still. Working together, the maul-warriors finished off the prone dragon while Bitore the Cleric dropped a Level 3 Cure Wounds on Barnabus the Bard to get him back out of danger.
Now the hobgoblins crossing the bridge arrived ... and were greeted with Stinking Cloud. Although it has that funny effect where it often has no effect, as the attacker gets advantage because the target is Blinded, but disadvantage because it can't see the target. For a net effect of zero. After a few attacks went off that way, Barnabus declared he's swapping that spell out ASAP, even though Marr and his Necklace like the tactical advantage it gives them.
Marr grappled one hobgoblin soldier in the Cloud, tried for a second one but failed, but that was generally his strategy: to lock them down where they couldn't take actions. The non-grappled individuals scattered, the Sergeant staying close enough to still use his Leadership Aura on the others.
But yeah, at this point the battle was won; they were just mopping up stray hobgoblins. Jorr got another crit, Barnabus threw another Heat Metal that ended the stinking cloud, and the maul-warrior duo marched out onto the bridge, crushing hobgoblins left and right (who fell into the Gorge as they died). The hobgoblins on the northern towers knew this was a hopeless battle and ran, but you know what? Crossbows have long ranges with disadvantage on the shot. The party meticulously kept track of how far off the map those two were and kept firing until both eventually did go down. At least Marr used up most of his Magic Missile charges on them?
Spoiler: AftermathI rolled secretly to see if anyone spotted the Bridge's weak point at a glance, but nope. They went straight to searching the Dragon's body, finding his potion and two of the pearls embedded in his skin. (With 18 Investigation, I probably should have let them find more, but I was feeling stingy.)
Next priority was Barnabus running after "his" Wolf. The Wolf hadn't stuck around nearby (Animal Handling result 12), but he managed to track it down (Survival result 22). And convince it to come with him again (Animal Handling result 16).
While he was gone for a couple hours chasing the Wolf, Marr acted like a good adventurer and pulled out his leatherworking tools to skin the dragon and harvest its skull. He was interrupted briefly by Bitore, handing him a freshly Identified Potion of Superior Healing. As if this party needed more healing. Marr kept it on the necklace that Ozzy had used to carry it.
By the time Barnabus got back, it was dusk and they decided (against Jorr's wishes) to wait for morning to approach Cinder Hill. I made them take watches, but I knew nothing was going to happen this night, so I didn't even bother having them roll Perception.
Spoiler: Cinder Hill and Breaking the BridgeIn the morning they went to Cinder Hill, which doesn't take very long, and rolled ok on Stealth to approach it, so I didn't give them any trouble as I did The Big Reveal. Hundreds of goblinoids, "more than a thousand." (Even though it's actually more than 2000.) Giants. Makeshift fortifications around the camp. And, with a decent Perception check, a red dragon in the sky, though they couldn't tell its age. Since this was Day 7, I also let that decent Perception check reveal that the hobgoblins were breaking camp, getting ready to march.
Bitore used Sending to relay the news to Speaker Wiston, and tell him to evacuate. Full stop.
There was no debate among the party: the next priority was to destroy the Bridge. Bitore did mention using his Dwarven knowledge of architecture, so I let him roll Investigation to find the weak spot. 7. I'm not sure whether giving him advantage on that roll thanks to the rest of the party's help was really legit, but I'm a pushover and let them do it, and this time he rolled high enough. Easily.
So the two maul-wielders went to work on the weak spot, Moxie standing over the canyon since she can fly if it collapses under her. Marr even used Action Surge just out of pride, so that he could do more damage in one round than Moxie. Together it was something over 70 damage in one round. So maybe I shouldn't even have worried about them finding the weak spot?
I was going to have the Bridge collapse just from that, but I described it as a spreading crack first -- and the party latched onto the idea of leaving it like that, so that hopefully the first few ranks of the Horde would fall to an untimely death. I thought that was actually more clever than the book gave the party credit for, so I rolled to see if the Bridge stayed intact when they stopped whacking it, and it did. (50/50% chance.)
Spoiler: Old Warklegnaw, For Real This TimeThe party then lost no time heading back to where they had seen Old Warklegnaw's effigy. They weren't sure (hadn't asked at the time), but they didn't remember seeing green skin on the Horde's giants, so they were hopeful this was a different group of giants and could still be recruited to aid against the Red Hand.
They found Old Warklegnaw cooking his dinner, and didn't get baited by my moving them to a battlemap and the giant waving his club at them and saying he hoped they tasted good. They made it clear they were not attacking, then made several rather passionate speeches to the giant about how and why they wanted it on their side. They didn't bomb any Persuasion checks, so I had Old Warklegnaw invite them to dinner and say he would consider aiding them. They didn't think to offer up the Spiked Gauntlet +1, even though they did think to offer "rewards" -- trades of metal to his tribe from the human town, or the most enormous "sweet roll" the giant had ever seen. The giant was moderately interested in the latter. They did think to ask if he had any other giants that could join him, so he said he would talk to his daughter, granddaughter, and nieces, and see if they were game to harry the Red Hand. Essentially I decided they had done well enough even without offering the Gauntlet, which would have made it an easy decision.
Spoiler: Leveling UpAt this point I definitely let the party advance to Level 6 to end off today's session.
Marr took Resilient (Wisdom) as his Feat for this level, making Wisdom easily his best stat. He rolled for Hit Points, and rolled a 10 (max)! Bitore rolled too, and got a 7 (almost max)! So they were rewarded for their risk-taking. Moxie and Barnabus went with average HP.
Moxie got lightning resistance and a swim speed. She's actually more excited about the swim speed, even though she can already fly. She talked about the lightning resistance as if skeptical that it would ever come up. Heh, heh, heh.
Bitore was most excited about gaining the ability to read minds, even though Barnabus already had Detect Thoughts. Really, Bitore should be most excited that he can Channel Divinity twice now. He also got another 3rd level spell slot and another spell prepared.
But of course Barnabus is the one everyone was really paying attention to. No, not Countersong. Or even a 3rd-level spell slot. No, instead he got his Lore Bard Magical Secrets. He didn't manage to pick what he would take, and that's fine; it's a big decision. He's got a week. Counterspell and Fireball were both definitely mentioned, but I'll be a little surprised if he ends up picking Fireball.
Spoiler: What's NextSo. The party is planning to head back to Drellin's Ferry next; they should have time for that, since the broken Bridge and the giants should delay the Red Hand by 5 days' total.
Next session might be taken up quite a bit with just getting back to the town, since I owe them a random encounter and may roll more. And a lower-key session full of random encounters might be good anyway, since Marr's player isn't going to be able to join us next week.
But then? They're thinking of returning into the Witchwood, to fight alongside the giants. They even thought to tell Old Warklegnaw that he could expect to be contacted magically (Sending) by Bitore in the next few days. And while that would be interesting, of course it's not where the main story is supposed to go.
So I'm looking for ways to lure them further north or east. Without making it too obvious, where they feel railroaded.
The standard "hook," Teyani Sura, the Lion of Brindol who tells them about the Road Blockade in the north, has always felt a bit forced to me. For one thing, it doesn't make much sense geographically. Did she traverse the whole Witchwood alone to come to Drellin's Ferry? Doesn't seem likely. More likely she went back to Brindol first, then was sent west to spread the word ... except why do the western towns need to know "to avoid the old Rhest Trail"? Are they really likely to go that way anyway? Without going through Brindol first? And I guess it makes sense for Brindol to already know something is brewing, but that's not clear from the way the rest of the module is written.
It doesn't help that, in my campaign setting, the northern roadblocks don't go to super-important places anyway.
So ... I think I might hint to the players to travel east first, even though they already know that Saarvith is doing something up north. I could run a few of the Elsir War encounters and get them to Brindol, perhaps. Then it would make a lot more sense for them to go investigate a northern road blockade if Lord Jaarmath or Captain Ulverth sends them that way, perhaps as a test of their mettle. It's a slowdown, but other peoples' experience with Red Hand of Doom suggests that there's plenty of time to spare, right?
So I think I'll have Speaker Wiston ask them to take the word of the refugees to Brindol, or Barnabus's family asks him to escort them as they evacuate, or something like that. I'll have to play it somewhat by ear.
Suggestions of what to do next, or rationalizations of the Teyani Sura encounter, are welcome!