Last year, I started playing D&D with my cousin and a few friends. Two of them had never played D&D before and some had only played a handful of times. A session or two later and my teenage son joined in the fun. As we neared the end of Lost Mine of Phandelver (yes, it took us a year; we are still figuring out ways to improve our combat efficiency so that they don’t take as long), two more players joined us, bringing our party total to 7 (I do say, that’s an auspicious number).

Spoilers for Lost Mine of Phandelver after the break…

This weekend, as the party slowly crawled their way through Wave Echo Cave, they finally reached the end of the final dungeon. As the party grew in size, so did the challenge of ensuring the encounters were deadly enough to keep them concerned for their safety. Fortunately, they gave me ample opportunities to build the enemy forces and to make it seem like natural consequences to their own decisions.

My favorite thing about this particular group of players is that they don’t always resort to combat to resolve encounters. Granted, this can also be headache-inducing, when they want to befriend every monster they encounter so that they can bypass combat altogether. I think that if my paladin had his way, they’d have an army of bugbears, goblins, and dragons following them around fighting on behalf of the party. Sure, if they build a reputation for being truly dangerous foes, they could sweet-talk a lich into letting them pass or taking a run at his boss. But currently, their adversaries are more likely to see them as a group of popular high school grads showing up to their first day of college and expecting to run things.

This is what I get for letting them befriend a nothic in their second session. Which brings me to what my players lovingly dubbed “The Tower of Terror”.

The Tower of Terror”
Photo credit to Morganna (aka Rachel)

The bard brought an initiative tracker for our game on Saturday. It’s incredibly simple and quite helpful. While I track initiative on my laptop or iPad for most encounters, the players can’t see who is up next and are rarely prepared for their turn. This tracker served as a great tool for them to see who was up next and to start thinking about their actions beforehand, speeding up combat significantly.

In the picture above, you can see my players by name (plus the Guest marker, for our latest player). When they arrived at the final encounter, I let them walk into the room and begin discussions with Nezznar, the Black Spider. He assured them that he would help them find whatever they were looking for in the mine if they agreed to vacate the premises forthwith. The party tried to negotiate a truce or a surrender or whatever else they thought might allow them to Easy Mode the campaign. During the discussion, three ochre jellies (née one, before it was split twice by stabby-stabby) from which two party members had run earlier in the dungeon shlorped into the room and two wandering monster bugbears (that I decided not to make them fight while they took a short rest) closed the doors.

As I began filling the initiative tracker with monster after monster, they began to speculate that my goal was to execute them1. It wasn’t. But I can see how they believed otherwise. Just when they thought I was done, I began to skritch my fingers on the table as I revealed not one but four giant spiders skittering down the pillars at the edges of the room. It was at this point that I was informed we were out of “Baddie” markers for the tracker. So, we improvised, and used the NPC markers, instead.

I’ll be honest, by the end of the combat, I thought I had wiped the party. Four of the seven players went down and one crit-failed a death save she rolled just after the cleric announced he would cast Spare the Dying on her. Had he been one second slower, Hillie Odillie, halfling bard of the Forgotten Realms, would have been no more. Fortunately, the druid soaked up a dragon’s share of damage in her bear form and delivered several gargantuan attacks to the giant spiders. While the bugbears may have beaten down most of the party, the cleric and paladin managed to put them down. In the end, even an invisible Nezznar succumbed to a deadly arrow from the ranger (before a spider munched on his tasty, tasty Aasimar blood).

Dragging the unconscious almost-corpses of their friends to a nearby room and discovering that it housed an imprisoned Nundro Rockseeker (one of the quest objectives of the mine) they closed and locked the door, then prepared for a (hopeful) rest. Will I let them sleep? Only time will tell2. But you can bet your bardic inspiration that I’m going to take great joy in scheming… err… crafting their encounters from here on out.

1 I must admit, I do threaten them a lot, but I’m simply not the stereotypical DM out to murder players. I want to tell an engaging story in a collaborative manner and care deeply about ensuring the challenges feel real.

2 Spoiler alert: I won’t.