Encounter Review: Kuo-Toa on the High Seas

Mon. March 29, 2010

This is the first entry in a new series I am writing called “Encounter Reviews.” In them I will detail the more elaborate encounters that I design, explain the philosophy behind the designs, and then explain how well they actually worked in the game. I hope that other DMs can use this information to both get ideas and avoid making the same mistakes as I. Enjoy!

In Episode 9, the PCs paid the crew of a large galleon-sized ship to take them on a 20-day journey to the other side of the continent. Needless to say, this was a perfect time for some unusual “Adventure on the High Seas” encounters.

I wanted the first encounter they would face on the journey to be a relatively straight-forward one. After looking through a lot of options I settled on the ship coming under attack by Kuo-Toa. The Kuo-Toa Leviathan could serve as a pretty cool sea monster attacking the ship itself while the rest of the Kuo-Toa could attack the players from the water.

I decided early on that I wanted the Kuo-Toa to stay in the water. I thought it would be an interesting challenge for the players to have to figure out how best to take these monsters down if they never came on board. I also wanted there to be a way for the Kuo-Toa to pull the ranged characters in to the water. The Kuo-Toa Harpooner would be perfect for that. I also decided that when the Leviathan rammed the ship, it would cause it to rock hard to one side, causing everyone on board to slide if they failed an Acrobatics check.

The last major element designed was a way for the players to pull the Kuo-Toa on board. I put mounted harpoon guns on the deck of the ship. Two guns on each side. I designed these as a sort of “terrain power” such that a character could use a harpoon gun to shoot a Kuo-Toa and then reel it on deck.

With the basic elements figured out I thought about each of my players to make sure that none of them would be put in a situation where they felt they couldn’t contribute. The only major issue I found was the Arora the paladin. She is a completely melee-focused paladin with low strength and no athletics training. She would definitely not want to go in the water; as her lack of athletics would risk her drowning. She also did not have the dexterity to effectively man the harpoon guns. To solve this, I added a new monster that would be on the deck of the ship for her to fight. One of the Kuo-Toa would throw a couple nets of creepy-crawlies from the deepest depths of the sea on to the deck of the ship. The swarms would target the harpoon guns, causing significant damage to anyone that tried to use the harpoon while the swarm was attacking it. This would give Arora targets to mark. And it would be an important job considering how important I wanted the harpoon guns to be.

Detailed Design

Encounter Level 16

Features of the Area:

Unstable Surface: The ship is stable enough that a creature moving across it doesn’t normally need to make an Acrobatics check to balance. However, a creature standing on the vessel might fall when it turns or hits rough water. At the end of each round, roll 1d6. If you roll a 5 or 6, each creature standing on the ship must make an Acrobatics check (DC 16 if you rolled a 5, DC 21 if you rolled a 6) or take 1d10 damage and fall prone.
Character in Water: Should a character enter the water, a few considerations must be made.

Swimming: A character needs to use a move action to swim (Athletics DC 18) to avoid sinking on each of his turns.
Weapons and Fire: Crossbows and spears function normally, but all other weapons suffer a -2 to attack rolls, as do Fire attacks.
Aquatic Advantage: All creatures with the Aquatic keywords (all of the enemies in this fight) gain a +2 bonus to their attacks against creatures in the water who lack the Aquatic keyword.

DM Review

Overall, I was not satisfied with this encounter. There were many things I had completely forgotten to consider, such as the crew of the ship and how line-of-sight would work from the surface of the water. These led to clumsy and sometimes downright awful in-the-moment decisions.

What Worked

The Kuo-Toa Harpooners were awesome. They only managed to pull one PC in to the water (which was devastating to that character!) but every single attack from them was exciting. Most of their attacks were against a human ranger in one of the ship’s “crow’s nests” which added extra excitement due to the potential long fall. Every time they hit, he managed to roll his saving throw to avoid going over the edge. One time it was a roll of 9 and he was saved by the human saving throw feat!

What Didn’t Work

The crew was useless. I completely forgot to consider the NPC crew of the ship! When combat started I decided that I would treat them as friendly minions, and that they would not explicitly fight. I said that they were scrambling around the ship trying to keep the ship sailing (it requires a large crew to avoid losing control.) Many of them died to Kuo-Toa harpoons and javelins. This was a big problem because I had made the crew of this ship out to be badasses when they hired them. And that’s what I wanted them to be. In an effort to not complicate the fight and get bogged down in the minutia of controlling 40 crew members, I accidentally made them a big disappointment to the players.
There was no incentive to use the harpoon guns. My original idea was that the players would want to use the harpoons to pull Kuo-Toa on board. The first problem with this was that I didn’t actually make the harpoons pull them on board. The stat card I gave them said that it pulled them 5 squares, but the gun was on the edge of the ship so it wouldn’t really have that effect. The second problem was that I made shooting the harpoons a dex-based attack. The only two players with good dex were far more useful doing their own things, as they could both attack the Kuo-Toa from range.
The swarms on board were not interesting. I had specifically put these on board to give the paladin something to focus on, but that was pretty dissatisfying to her. First of all, they only take half damage from most of her attacks, and second of all, they weren’t nearly as big a threat as the Kuo-Toa in the water. She wanted to mark the leviathan more than anything (in an effort to make it stop ramming the ship,) but the logistics didn’t really allow her to.
The Leviathan wasn’t bad-ass enough. While I feel that the ramming of the ship was a fun mechanic, it didn’t end up being enough of an effect of the encounter for an elite monster. He should have been doing damage each round, and he was not.
The third dimension. I forgot to consider all of the vertical elements on the ship. How high up does the deck of the ship sit in the water? What squares on the deck can a creature that is treading water hit? How tall are the crow’s nests? Is there cover in the crow’s nests? How about the railing on the edge of the ship? Coming up with answers to all of these on the fly was clumsy at best and definitely slowed things down.

What I Would Change

The crew mans the harpoon guns. This solution is so simple I am disappointed I hadn’t thought of it earlier. It solves 3 of the problems I listed above in one simple change. The crew should have been firing the harpoon guns each round, reeling in the Kuo-Toa for the PCs to kill. This makes the crew interesting, the harpoon guns useful and interesting, and makes the swarms more of a fun threat because they will kill the crew manning the harpoon guns.
The Leviathan attacks people on deck. I really liked the leviathan tipping the ship, but he needed to do more. I would change it so that instead of ramming the ship, the leviathan is actually grabbing the side of the ship, pulling it downwards while swiping at people on deck with his huge claws. This would maintain the dangerous rocking of the ship and also make the leviathan a lot more vicious.

  • Hogman5809

    Dude, this is freakin’ cool! Thanks for sharing this!

  • Claude

    This is a great idea for DM’s and I’m glad you’re taking the time to post this. Great idea!

  • Iain

    Your podcast is astoundingly entertaining. I’m only up to episode 04 but I’m am loving it. I’m a DM myself and I love getting the outsiders perspective on other people’s games.
    I particularly enjoy the amount of dedication that your players show towards roleplaying their characters. The depth of in-character interaction is a breath of fresh air. I’ll certainly use your podcast to help encourage my characters in the development of my own campaign.
    We use D&D 3.5 ed but I’ll definitely be trying to mimic the pacing of your own style. I found 4th ed to be disappointing and lacking in the detail that I find so enjoyable about the 3/3.5 supplements, but now after seeing how 4th ed can be run effectively I might take another look at my 4th ed books.