The Tunneling Horde

I run a D&D 4e campaign about once a month. A couple of old friends, my wife and my daughter play in it. We met last weekend. The party had a new mission – In exchange for a draconic artifact that they needed to gather, an ancient green dragon named Or’rin had asked them to take out a temple of Lolth that was near his territory. In part, this is because the priestesses were subverting the kobolds that Or’rin felt he should have absolute sway over.

What’s interesting about this run is that after the usual travel time and roleplay of character beats, things took a turn to the unexpected.

Even though the group meets face-to-face, I run them using Maptools. I love how maptools can handle line of sight and fog of war. I can put stuff on the map and have it be hidden from them. Also, it has a macro capability that allowed me to run a lot of monsters without utterly losing track of who has how many hit points and which powers and so on.

So I’d spent about 10 hours laying out the map to the temple of Lolth, which was carved into the side of a mountain. I hadn’t fully populated it, because I ran out of time. And I figured that they had to come in the front door, that was the only one, right?

So I put an encounter outside the door, so they could have a taste of combat for the day, and figured the rest of the day would be taken up in roleplay and travel.

We had some good roleplay – first, the party stopped by to check on some Rage Drake eggs that were about to hatch, and which they hoped to turn into mounts. So they were present for the hatching so that they could each imprint on a hatchling. Gnf, the gnome wizard, tried speaking Draconic to his, but he rolled badly and the hatchling widdled on him.

After this and some other roleplay, the party got to the Forest of Wyrms (yes, I’m using the Forgotten Realms map), and did some scouting. During the scouting, the Ranger Aprilane said, “Hey, didn’t we have a scroll of Control Insect?”

About that scroll. Many levels ago, the party was charged with transporting a shipment of gold from one city to another. A group of thieves tried to steal the gold by subverting an entire colony of Giant Ants to carry away the gold at night. The scroll was the explanation for how they did that. As in, I made it up. D&D 4e doesn’t even recognize the category “insect”.

I arbitrarily assigned the level of the ritual to be 12. After all, controlling insects wasn’t something I wanted the then-4th-level party doing on a regular basis.

As it turns out, the party is now level 12. In particular Gnf, the wizard who can cast rituals, is level 12. So he learned it, and they started scouring the Forest for insects.

This was something of a crisis point for me. The adventure had come off the rails a bit, but they were worried about assaulting a temple, and some extra cannon-fodder wouldn’t be a big deal, right? Right?

I kind of believe in having plans AND in improvising. So I figured, we’ll take this idea and run with it. I scanned through the Monster Manual for insects that I thought might be found in the area, and rolled some chance of which the ranger could find.

I came up with Stirges (mosquitos, right?), various beetles, and Kruthiks. I figured they’d go for stirges, since the swarm of stirges was the highest level – 9th, and so had some chance of dealing damage on “level-appropriate” encounters.

But then they started talking about digging holes into the temple. I looked more closely at the Kruthiks. It says here that the adults have a movement mode of “burrow 3 (tunneling)”. Looking this up in the glossary, I found that they could go half speed through hard rock.

So, every round, with 2 movement actions, these Kruthiks can carve three squares through solid rock. And Gnf has the means to control them for 24 hours.

He managed to target and control the Hive Lord, and so despite the fact that he had direct control of only a third of the others, the rest of them followed the Hive Lord to protect him. So we now had a horde amassed of 12 adults, 14 young, and 21 hatchling Kruthiks, one half-orc fighter, one drow fighter (their liaison with Or’rin), one half-elf bard, one human ranger and a Kalimshite avenger, dedicated to destroying the enemies of Selune, along with the Hive Lord and a gnome wizard riding him.

They then made a 10 hour hike over some low mountains, to avoid detection, and commenced tunneling. I gave this a visual representation in my map below. Bear in mind they knew only where the entrance to the Temple was. Oh yes, they had recruited some goblins to play tricks on the perimeter guards at just the right time, so they were distracted and had little chance to notice the Horde. You see, the bard has hung out with goblins a LOT, and knows just how to impress them and befriend them.

They dug through, round by round, with me laying down a different texture and removing the vision blocking layer that represented the stone walls. After maybe 10 rounds they broke through! This was the picture:

Not exactly state-of-the-art graphics. Red diamonds indicate Kruthiks under control, red dots distinguish adults from young. The smaller ones are hatchlings.

I tell this story because it’s fun. And I want to illustrate why tabletop is still interesting to me in these days of Skyrim. Don’t get me wrong, I love Skyrim. I want to play it with other people. I don’t know that it’s possible though to do the sort of improvisation in a computer game that’s possible when there’s a GM. Of course, that’s what makes PvP games so interesting to their audience – there’s another person there, and they might do anything.

I want to build this kind of game up. Some claim the tabletop game is dying. Wizards of the Coast has admitted to be working on D&D Next, and they are making a virtual tabletop part of the whole deal. I don’t have a lot of confidence in their ability to produce good software though. It’s hard to do even for companies where it’s their core business.

But I want the live GM aspect of tabletop gaming to remain. And so I want tools that enhance a person’s ability to tell a story, not tools that eliminate the need of a GM. It’s perhaps a subtle difference.