Continuing with my D&D encounter analysis and white-boxing series of blog posts, I give you the 3rd encounter space!
Encounter 3 – Castle Courtyard and Overall Layout
The story picks up again where we left off before. Our rogue atop the castle gate tower has seen a ghostly figure in the courtyard, which then disappeared into the church. The drawbridge has been lowered, and the party can enter the gates into the castle courtyard.
Design Note: At this point I let the campaign open up for the players. There are multiple points of interest once inside the castle walls. I allow the players to determine amongst themselves where to explore first. Many players may want to follow the ghostly figure into the church, but this choice is not forced upon the player.
Inside the castle walls the players can see the majority of the layout. To the left of the gate is a stable. To the right of the gate is a small yet charming hut. The church looms on the right side as well. The back right appears to be a barracks. The left side looks to be a smithy. And finally toward the back of the courtyard is the main keep with a high tower jutting from the top. A few spots allow stair access to the walls that enclose everything. In the middle of the courtyard is a statue of a man in armor with a large 2 handed sword. What look like large mole hills are scattered around the open ground of the courtyard.
Design Note: The mole hills are a hint to the player that a large burrowing creature must occasionally appear in the courtyard. Using the castle walls or being fairly quiet will allow the players to avoid any danger of awakening it. At any point though the DM has a card up his sleeve to throw at the players. The monster I used was an Undead Umber Hulk, though any large slow moving creature would suffice. I personally used the Umber Hulk as a way to force the players from one building to another, specifically to chase the players into the church for the first time.
Design Note: The Hulk can also be fought. It will be a significant challenge without some of the weapons found throughout the castle, so the players get to judge when they feel like confronting the Hulk. In terms of combat, the courtyard is large, allowing for lots of kiting. Particularly the players can kite in a circle around the central statue. If done right the players should always be able to out distance the Hulk and whittle it down with missile weapons or magic. The only question being does the party have the right damage types to bypass the typical undead damage reduction. Any religious member of the party will recognize a fountain of holy water by the church door that can help tremendously in taking down the Hulk.
Does the encounter work? For the most part, yes. The courtyard is the central hub for all other encounters in the game. The players immediately get a visual sense of where everything is, and the openness allows them to explore any point of interest they wish, and to some extent, in any order they wish. I used the Undead Hulk as a means to push the players into the church for the first time when I felt the story needed to be advanced. When the players finally felt comfortable with confronting the Hulk they did well to slowly whittle it down, though almost no kitting was done. Instead my group brute force tanked the Hulk with a stone skin spell on the party tank, an acceptable solution.
At some point the players need to visit the Church, as this will further the story along, but I allowed my party to explore a bit first. My group decided to check out the stables first upon entering the courtyard, which I’ll be covering in the next blog post!