Category Archives: Lair Assault

Running and playing Lair Assult: Into the Pit of Madness

On March 17, 2013, I ran Into the Pit of Madness, the final entry in the Lair Assault program. This challenge’s outcome remained in doubt until the final die rolls—a perfect balance. The party came within a round of defeating the Essence of Evil, and the players all seemed to enjoy the session.  As with Kill the Wizard, the challenge divides the party, randomly placing individuals in smaller challenges. I liked this design in Kill the Wizard, and welcomed the encore.

More than any other Lair Assault, Into the Pit of Madness seems to demand multiple plays for the players to learn enough to succeed. At my table, one player had read the challenge in his role of backup dungeon master, so with my consent, he nudged the players toward a winning course. The knowledge helped, but the players hardly brought an optimized party. As usual for fourth edition, an optimal party would consist of four strikers and a healer. (I’m kidding, of course. The optimal healer should multiclass into a striker class.)

Essence of Evil

For Kill the Wizard, a homemade Drowslayer figure inspired me to make a Drowslayer of my ownInto the Pit of Madness features a showdown with another unique enemy called the Essence of Evil, a creature without any available miniature.  I failed to step up and make an Essence of my own, but Wendy and Curtis, the creators of that first Drowslayer, topped themselves. Check out this picture from of the Essence of Evil and an adjacent Babau.

The Essence of Evil from Lair Assault: Into the Pit of Madness

The Essence of Evil from Lair Assault: Into the Pit of Madness

They sculpted the Essence of Evil from Sculpey  oven bake clay and painted it in arterial red, malevolent black, and bruise purple.

Artifacts in the character builder

One of my tables in the last Lair Assault, Temple of the Sky God, succeeded in some measure thanks to a stockpile of multiple Sun’s Slivers,  “a powerful artifact of pure sunlight” that serves as a MacGuffin in the epic-level Winter of the Witch adventure in Dungeon.  Even when you select the Lair Assault option, the character builder offers Sun’s Silvers, and possibly other artifacts, as legal, zero-cost items. They’re free; take two!  Are the players ingenious for stocking up on Sun’s Slivers prior to the Lair Assault? Is a DM abusing authority by forbidding players from equipping their characters with artifacts? I’ve run for players who would probably answer yes to both questions.

Sun's Sliver in the character builder

In practice, I do not examine the character sheets, so I have no idea what equipment the players use.  When I ran Temple of the Sky God for a team equipped with Sun’s Slivers, the party still came close to failing, and everyone had fun, so I call it a success. I leave it for the players to decide whether the cleverly equipped characters diminish the challenge.  Still, I fault the character builder’s programmers for overlooking these shenanigans.

For DMs: Ruling the portal

When I ran Into the Pit of Madness and the characters reached the antechamber, a wizard easily made the 28-or-higher arcana check on the portal. The party included three characters well capable of hitting a 28 arcana DC. I reread the portal’s description on page 12 once again. “If a character with a check result of 28 or higher can see another creature moving through the portal, that character can choose the creature’s destination.” Does this mean that if someone in the party makes an Arcana check of 28 or higher, then everyone except the arcanist can short circuit the nodes and jump directly to the Black Cist? This interpretation seemed to invalidate so much of the challenge that I could not believe that it matched author’s intent. Did I miss something?

Incredulous and reluctant to skip the meat of the challenge, I exercised what may have been an abuse of my DM’s authority. I ran the portals as follows:

With a minor action, a character trained in arcana who sees a portal may establish control over the portal. When that character sees another character pass through the portal, then the controller may, as a free action, attempt to route the passing character to a specific destination. For this attempt, make an arcana check.

  • On a result of 28 or higher, the passing character travels to a node selected by the controller. Otherwise, roll randomly to determine the destination.
  • On a result of 23 or higher, the controller can discern the destination of the passing character.

Each time a character enters a portal, the controller must make a separate check. No more than one character may exercise control over a portal at once.

I allowed similar checks for the portals in the nodes; I’m not a monster.  With the characters at my table, this proved to be a fun and challenging approach to the portals.

Lair Assault: Kill the Wizard – notes and miniatures

I’ve run every Lair Assault except for Spiderkiller. I’ve enjoyed them all, but all the past Lair Assaults suffered from oversights that seemed to show insufficient blind playtesting.

For example, Attack of the Tyrantclaw failed to note whether the T-Rex would attack the other dinosaurs. The whole encounter turned on that huge detail. And then we had the Pixie Music Box problem.…

In Talon of Umberlee, if the players camped below decks, the Kraken could not attack and the sahuagin boss could barely move without squeezing. The module never accounted for this strategy. Can the bad guys start tearing down the masts and rigging to coax the characters out? Can they set the ship on fire? If I were the sea god, I would have sunk the ship first, and then seen how the thieving characters fared against my warriors, but that hardly seems sporting.

Kill the Wizard raised only one minor question, which I’ll mention later. So in my experience, the challenge ranks as both the best constructed and difficult Lair Assault. I’ve run it once, so far, at Dean’s Dugout in Naperville Illinois.

I loved having the players land in random places in the dungeon. The divided party adds a new strategic dimension to the challenge. When players suddenly find themselves alone, facing monsters, they feel a real sense of peril. Plus, the random element adds extra uncertainty to replays. I wanted to conceal the landing spots of players who could not see each other. However, to keep things moving, I simply placed all the characters in a room the first time initiative came up for any character in the room.

The scenario ran very long. In the store, neither of the two tables came close to finishing after 6 hours. We simply ran out of time. Perhaps if the players adopted a stealth strategy, the event could come closer to the advertised 3-4 hour running time. As it stands, I recommend doing everything possible to speed play and encourage fast turns. Next time I run this one, I may resort to extreme measures. If players start their turn by examining the map and mulling over what they want to do, I may just hand them their initiative card and tell them they’re delaying until ready.

Kill the Wizard explicitly forbids taking a short rest. The challenge presents no game-world explanation for this, but the dungeon master can invent a source of time pressure. Perhaps Variel’s key is magically linked to her life force. As soon as she loses possession of it, its power to open the gates begins to fade.

Without a short rest, the players cannot recharge encounter powers. The challenge does not spell out whether until-end-of-encounter effects survive the trip through the gate and carry on into the dungeon. Because the encounter never describes any delays that would cause effects to exceed their five minute time limit, I say that effects last. Bottom  line, the characters need all the help they can get. The Drowslayer lives up to its name.

By the way, I notice all the Lair Assaults except Talon of Umberlee reward players for loading their characters with powers that buff until the end of the encounter. This makes powers like Wizard’s Fury very potent. I’m not fond of how the single-encounter design overvalues a class of powers. I liked how Talon of Umberlee rewarded more traditional character design.

I have a lot of miniatures and prefer using them over the tokens. I used the following miniatures:

  • Variel – the Elf Warlock from the 2008 starter set
  • Iron Defenders – Dungeons of Dread 36
  • Etherik – Eladrin Pyromancer, Against the Giants 45
  • Arcane Students – Tiefling Warlock, Dungeons of Dread 47
  • Bar-lgura – Desert of Desolation 44
  • Owlbear – Against the Giants 35 or Blood War 57.
  • Flesh Golem – Aberrations 45 or Night Below 46

I created my own Drowslayer and black pudding figures, as you can see in my last post.

Lair Assault: Kill the Wizard – I made a Drowslayer

As a Dungeon Master, I enjoy representing the action on the table with the correct miniatures. No battles against Starburst candies at my table. I typically judge public-play events, so I don’t pick the monsters in the adventures I run. When I lack miniatures to match the creatures in an adventure, I happily seize the excuse to go shopping for more miniatures.

My collection included figures for most of the creatures in the Kill the Wizard Lair Assault. I wanted a second Barlgura figure, so I purchased one. The adventure’s random monster table calls for a third Barlgura with a roll of 1 on a d6. Oddly enough, at my table, the odds of that outcome stand at none in 6.


When I must run monsters that lack any suitable miniatures, I’m annoyed. So the Drowslayer construct posed a problem.

Fortunately, another Dungeon Master at my friendly neighborhood game store seems even more bloody minded than me about fining appropriate figures. He showed off a Drowslayer figure that he sculpted from oven-bake clay, and that his wife painted. I was unfamiliar with oven-bake clay, so the discovery sparked my imagination.

Inspired, I created my own Drowslayer. I cut a maw into a ping-pong ball, threaded some arms made of thick, black wire, and then impaled the ball on a dowel for a stand. I used Sculpey to make a base and some eyes, baked and glued, and then painted.Drowslayer miniature figure

I also made some black pudding figures.Black pudding miniature figures