A Cold Read of Cold-Hearted Killer (Icewind Dale Rime of the Frost Maiden Spoilers)
Spoilers for Icewind Dale Rime of the Frost Maiden.
Because I made a mistake and gave the cleric a 3rd 1st level spell, I’m threading an alternate universe version of the encounter under the narrative where it diverges. Don’t you love alternate universe stories?
Because there has been some discussion about it, I decided to try out the tough mission that is one of the two beginning missions that are an option for players when they start Icewind Dale Rime of the Frost Maiden.
If you don’t mind the spoilers, here is the jist of the mission. Someone asks you to track down a murderer, determine if they are guilty, and then bring them to justice without alerting the authorities. The murderer turns out to be an undead creature that looks human, that can regenerate if it hasn’t been done fire damage and can conjure a longsword of ice that does extra cold damage.
For anyone interested in the math, the pertinent thing to keep in mind is that this monster has over 70 hit points, an armor class of 12, and can attack twice per round. There has been some online concern that this encounter is way beyond a first level part to deal with, and I’m not going to argue that it would be easy, or even that it’s not potentially deadly. To prove this point, I decided to run a mock encounter.
I used the Cleric, Fighter, Rogue, and Wizard pregenerated characters included in Sly Flourish’s Fantastic adventures set. They are a great set of pregen characters that can scale up to fifth level and using pregens helped me from building characters myself that were pointed towards being good at dealing with this encounter.
I got out my grid and my tokens to make sure I was being fair about all of my tactical movements.
To get some context for this adventure, I read about what it would take to track down the caravan directly, and if the player characters would wait until the undead in question would wander off from where he worked for them to confront him. To simulate this, I made the investigation check in the book that is suggested for asking around for the location of the caravan.
One of the pregens is at a +5 for their investigation, and I rolled a 13, so I didn’t worry too much that the PCs would not have their full complement of resources. In order to determine if the party would wait for the undead to be by themselves, since I can’t predict player behavior, I rolled a wisdom save for the characters, and the cleric brought this up as a good idea for the crew.
The fighter and the cleric move up to the undead to confront him about five feet away, the wizard hangs back about 15 feet, and the rogue hides in an alleyway. The rogue beats the undead’s passive perception.
Presumption of Innocence
It’s pretty easy to read the opening paragraph of the encounter and interpret it that if the PCs confront the undead, and ask if he is responsible for the killings, he won’t deny it, and if they chose to apprehend him instead of fighting, that he “considers surrendering,” because he assumes he can break out eventually and kill some more.
That means that depending on how the PCs approach this, they might just come up to the guy, ask him if he did it, and tell him to surrender, and they “defeated” the monster, but without getting the full reward from their employer, who wanted it done without interference from the authorities.
For our purposes, we’re going to assume the characters discerned the undead’s guilt, but have decided to perform the execution they were contracted to perform.
When rolling initiative, the order of participants came up as follows:
Just for comparison, if we went with “static” order of initiative bonuses, it would have been in this order:
The twenty-sided die is truly a randomizer.
Round One: Fight!
Now that we have the positions and dispositions worked out, lets see how this fight plays out.
- The wizard moves up between the fighter and the cleric, but not next to the undead, and casts burning hands. The wizard does this because the ice longsword has led them to thing maybe this undead is vulnerable to fire damage. The undead fails its save, and takes 13 points of damage, but doesn’t seem especially harmed by flame.
- The undead moves up to the fighter and the cleric and attempts one attack on each of them. The fighter has an AC of 16, and the cleric has an AC of 18. That means the undead needs to roll an 11 or better to hit the fighter, and 13 or better to hit the cleric. He misses both attacks.
- The rogue was going to take a shot with advantage from hiding, but the undead moved between their allies, so the rogue moves up to the undead, and attempts a sneak attack with the sword they drew as they moved forward. They hit the undead and do 12 points of damage to them.
- On the cleric’s turn, no one is injured, so the cleric casts bless to increase the chances that everyone will hit the undead (who only has a 12 armor class to start).
- The fighter rolls low enough that they need the bless bonus to squeak out a hit, but they do, doing 14 damage with a great sword.
Our killer is down to 36 hit points. If you use the optional rules in the Dungeon Master’s Guide, you would just about be ready to tell the players that this opponent is bloodied. He can’t regenerate, but the PCs don’t know that yet.
- The wizard doesn’t think fire does anything special to this undead, so they move up and cast shocking grasp, hitting for 2 points of damage. Since the undead now loses its reaction, the wizard moves back out of range again.
- The undead misses the fighter but attacks the newcomer rogue. The undead hits and does 15 points of damage. This takes the rogue to 0 but doesn’t kill them outright (that would have taken 20 points of damage).
- The rogue makes a successful death save on their turn, but doesn’t roll a 20, so they are still down.
- The cleric is standing next to the rogue, so they touch the rogue and restore them 7 hit points. They rolled low for healing, but they are also a life cleric, so the bonus hit points help the below average roll.
- The fighter hits with his great sword and does 8 points of damage to the undead. Disclaimer: the fighter is a great weapon fighter, and I forgot to reroll the 2 on one of the dice. This would have increased the damage to 10, but we’re not reconning this now.
The undead is down to 26 hit points at this point. On his turn, his regeneration will kick in, which will be a clue to the party that it was “turned off” for one round from something, and I’m going to say it’s not hard for them to figure out that it’s the fire spell from the first round. Our undead is, by optional DMG rules, definitely bloodied at this point.
- The wizard attempts the same tactic from last round, moving up, casting shocking grasp, then moving back if it’s successful. It is, and the wizard does four points of damage, then moves back away from the creature.
- The undead regenerates five hit points, so the regeneration becomes a bit more obvious. The undead attacks the rogue again, doing 8 points of damage, and incapacitating them again. It also hits the fighter, doing 19 points of damage, incapacitating them as well (it does 19 points to the fighter, and 24 would have killed them outright).
- The rogue makes a successful death save.
- The cleric restores 7 hit points to the fighter with cure wounds.
In our alternate universe, at this point, the cleric instead moves up and attacks the undead. The fight has just dropped, and the rogue has made multiple death saves, so the cleric is going to tank. The cleric hits and does 7 points of damage to the undead.
- The fighter stands up, misses the undead, but uses second wind to bring themselves back up to full hit points.
In our alternate version of this encounter, the fighter rolls a successful death save.
Last round looked a little rough with two characters down at one time. The fighter is back up again and at full hit points. Our undead perpetrator is at 27 hit points and their regeneration is working again, because no fire last time.
In our alternate version of this encounter, our undead friend is actually at 20 hit points because the cleric moved up to attack.
- The wizard moves up again to try another shocking grasp trick, because they are afraid to use burning hands too early if their companions haven’t gotten the undead beaten down enough. It hits again, doing 6 points of damage, and allowing the wizard to move back away again.
- The undead regenerates, almost removing the wizard’s damage, then proceeds to attack the fighter and the cleric. It misses both.
In our alternate reality, both attacks go to the cleric, and both of them miss. The undead misty steps away 30 feet, then walks 30 more feet away, now 60 feet away from the cleric and 75 from the wizard.
- The rogue fails a death save
- The cleric casts spare the dying on the rogue, stabilizing them.
In our alternate version of the encounter, the cleric casts sacred flame, which has a range of 60. The undead fails his save, and takes 5 hit points of damage. Unfortunately, this doesn’t count as “real” fire.
- The fighter rolls an unimpressive 4 to hit, but also rolls a four from the bless spell of the cleric and does 13 points of damage with their great sword.
The fighter in our “corrected” encounter rolls a successful death save.
Our undead is on the ropes but could still regenerate their way out of this situation. On the other hand, the wizard, knowing that the creature was bloodied a few rounds ago, and knowing it has been hit hard since then, is ready to unleash another fire spell.
- The wizard moves up, casts burning hands. The undead fails his save against the spell, and the wizard rolls 8 points of damage. The undead only had 7 level, and has not made it to their next turn, so they are at zero with no regeneration ability
In our alternate encounter, the wizard is too far away to cast burning hands. The wizard instead moves to the rogue to attempt to stabilize them. They successfully do so.
- The undead moves back up, then misty steps between the wizard and the cleric to attack them both. The undead hits the wizard, doing 13 points of damage, and dropping the wizard. The undead is back at 24 hit points after regenerating.
- The rogue is incapacitated but stable.
- The cleric barely hits the undead, doing six points of damage.
- The fighter fails a death save.
Alternate Round Six
- The wizard makes a successful death save
- The undead misty steps away from the cleric. He is at 29 hit points now. He throws two ice daggers at the cleric. Both hit, dropping the cleric
After Action Report
So, our players didn’t use especially advanced tactics. The rogue was trying to be sneaky, but that avenue was cut off quickly. The wizard didn’t have any fire cantrips to use, and the cleric didn’t have healing word, so all their healing kept them from doing anything else in the fight. The rogue was down, but stable, by the final blow.
The +5 to hit from the undead is substantial against 1st level characters, but both the fighter and the cleric were regularly squeaking by with misses. Bless was mitigating low rolls against an already reasonable armor class of 12.
I will admit that I didn’t use the undead’s misty step ability, but there wasn’t really one source of damage that seemed more pressing to avoid, especially once the rogue was down. In a fight that I was DMing, I may have used it once or twice just to show off the ability, but I wasn’t seeing much that made it tactically better in this fight, unless I assumed that the undead would know the wizard had another burning hands ready to go.
The main “advanced” tactics that the characters used was just knowing to move away from damage in a manner that didn’t provoke attacks, and that bless is a really good thing for a cleric to cast if they can’t think of anything else they need to do that round.
I rolled damage randomly for the monster, although I personally usually use set damage. Looking at the damage done by the undead, let’s see how average would have affected this fight:
- 15 damage versus 13 damage (+2 damage)
- 8 damage versus 13 damage (-5 damage)
- 19 damage versus 13 damage (+6 damage)
So, it doesn’t look like standardized damage would have swayed things too much. Where it might make a difference is that without a critical hit, the undead killer would only kill a character outright if they started with six hit points. Randomized, he has the potential to automatically kill someone if he rolls maximum damage and they have up to 10 hit points.
Does This Prove Anything?
It proves the fight could happen without any fatalities with fairly basic tactics, but one of the reasons we play RPGs is that people make wildly different decisions, and attempt wildly different plans. Players might try to lure him into a trap, send “the tank” up to talk to him and have everyone else attack at range, or any number of other tactics. I limited my spell choice to what was on the pregens, and players are going to have all kinds of tactical, sentimental, or impulsive spell choices of their own.
I just wanted to see what could happen, at one hypothetical table, when the encounter was played without a lot of special wrangling.
Our alternate unfolding of the encounter shows that there is a point of no return, where if the undead can focus his attacks even on a high armor class character, eventually he will wear them down. It’s a tough encounter, but there are a lot of pivot points that could have tipped this one way or the other. I still think fire cantrips would have made a difference in this fight, as well as healing word to keep the cleric taking actions as well as bonus actions.
Because I received some commentary on how little I used the undead’s misty step ability, and in light of the accidental extra cure wounds (which is totally the kind of thing that can happen accidentally at the table as well), I decided to run an encore. But I didn’t want to do the same thing over again. I added a bard, creating a five person party, which isn’t too uncommon at many tables. This combat uses a similar setup. The biggest difference is that we have five PCs, adding a bard into the encounter. I made sure to give the undead more instances of using their misty step to show off the ability.
Our rogue again sneaks around the corner and successfully hides. We’re adding everyone’s favorite fifth character class, a bard, to see how a five-person party works in this encounter. Our fighter is five feet away during the confrontation, and everyone else except the fighter and the rogue are ten feet back.
- The bard grants inspiration to the fighter, then lobs a dagger at the undead. The bard barely hits with a 12. This does six points of damage to the undead.
- The cleric casts sacred flame on our undead friend. The undead fails his save versus the sacred flame and takes 3 points of damage.
- The fighter knows that the rogue is lining up a shot, so he picks up his hand axe and lobs it at the undead. The hand axe lodges in the undead, doing 7 points of damage.
- The rogue pops out with their shortbow and hits, doing 11 points of damage with sneak attack applied.
- On the undead’s turn, he regains five hit points, and is back to 53. He throws two ice daggers. One hits the rogue for 10, dropping them to zero. The second dagger misses the fighter. The undead misty steps away 30 feet and walks back 30 feet.
- The wizard notices the regeneration, posits what might be going on, but is too far away to affect the undead. The wizard moves to the rogue, and successfully stabilizes them.
Our wizard has brought up regeneration, and fire isn’t an unreasonable thing to use at this point. Our undead is starting sixty feet away from the fighter, and about 70 feet from the bard and the cleric.
- The bard moves up ten feet, and casts vicious mockery at the undead. They make their save against the spell. The bard then casts healing word, giving the rogue 8 hit points.
- The cleric blesses the fighter, bard, and rogue using a spell, moving to the other side of the fighter to catch everyone in the spell.
- The fighter has a second handaxe, but they can’t get to short range with one move, so the fighter stays put and hurls his hand axe with disadvantage. He rolls a 10 and an 11, and easily hits the undead at range. He does 8 points of damage.
- The rogue stands up and shoots their bow. They don’t have advantage this time, but at least they can still take the shot. The shortbow easily has the range to hit. Between bless and their bonus, they get a 15 to hit, doing 7 more points of damage.
- Our undead friend regenerates 5 hit points and is at 43 hit points. The undead walks forward 30 feet and generate ice daggers. They throw once at the rogue. The attack hits taking the rogue back down to 0. The second dagger is thrown at the wizard, which misses.
- The wizard moves up, attempting shocking grasp, which was a mistake, because it misses, meaning the wizard can’t withdraw without risking getting hit, and will likely have a big target painted on them next round.
Our wizard is in a bad position, and our rogue is down . . . again. Nobody has been able to go toe to toe with our villain, because he’s been keeping out of range, but that may be changing this round.
- The bard moves up to the undead. They throw a healing word at the rogue again as they move up to the undead. The rogue receives 7 hit points. The rogue lunges with their rapier, hitting for 7 hit points damage.
- The cleric moves up but is still about 10 feet back from the undead. The cleric throws a sacred flame at the undead. The undead fails his save, and the cleric does 8 points of radiant damage to the undead.
- The fighter moves up to the undead, next to the bard. The fighter hits, doing 15 points of damage (this time, I remember to use my great weapon master).
- The rogue moves to the other side of the bard, on the other side from the fighter. The rogue draws their short sword as they move and attempt a sneak attack. They hit and do 8 points of damage.
- The undead regenerates five more hit points, leaving them with 10 hit points. It misty steps behind all our heroes, about 10 feet away from the cleric, and 20 feet away from the fighter and the wizard. The undead rolls a 1 against the cleric with an ice dagger, but hits with the second ice dagger, hitting the fighter for 10 hit points. This leaves the fighter at 2 hit points. The undead then moves another 30 feet back.
- First, the wizard is relieved because they aren’t in the sights of the undead anymore. Then they curse themselves for only having ray of frost as a ranged attack. The wizard holds an action to dash behind the fighter once the fighter moves forward.
Our undead is staying out of range of our wizard’s burning hands and forcing everyone else to choose between ranged attacks and moving towards them. They have, however, used two of their three misty steps at this point.
- The bard grants inspiration to the rogue, then moves up 30 feet, and attempts a vicious mockery at the undead. The undead saves against this.
- The cleric attempts to light up the undead with a sacred flame from where they are. The undead fails his save against the sacred flame. They do 3 points of damage.
- The fighter takes a bonus action to get their second wind. The fighter gets an unimpressive two hit points for their trouble. The fighter moves and dashes to get next to the undead but can’t take an action when they get there. The wizard’s dash triggers, and they move up to within 25 feet of the undead.
- The rogue moves up to 30 feet away from the undead, just behind the bard. They are going to take a wild throw with their dagger. They roll a 17 and an 18, plus their 3 points from bless, so their long shot dagger throw hits. This does 5 points of damage to the undead.
- The undead regenerates 5 hit points, bringing them back to 7 hit points. They roll a 10 to attack the fighter, so the first attack misses. Initially, the undead wanted to drop the fighter, misty step to take out the wizard, then move away. Instead, they need to use their second attack on the fighter now. With a 16, they hit the fighter and drop them. Then they misty step away 30 feet and walk another 30 feet away.
- The wizard feels like their ass is out in the wind, but they need to get close to the undead. They don’t want to get too far before they can use their spell, so they ready an action to move towards the undead once they move closer to them.
Our undead is staying out of range of the wizard. They want to play the attrition game at this point and stay back far enough to regenerate a bit more. They are out of misty steps at this point.
- The bard moves up just past the wizard and readies an action to stab the undead if they come within rage of the bard’s rapier.
- The cleric moves up to the fighter and casts cure wounds on them. They restore nine hit points to the fighter.
- The fighter moves up equal to the bard’s position, readying an action to hit if the undead gets within range of the greatsword.
- The rogue moves over to where they dropped their bow and gets ready to start shooting again.
- The undead killer regenerates another five hit points, bringing them back to 12 hit points. The undead moves up to throw daggers with disadvantage. He throws at the wizard and the bard. The dagger hits the wizard and drops them. The attack on the bard fails. The undead moves back again.
- Our wizard fails their first death save.
Our undead is still playing the long game, trying to stay back long enough to regenerate while picking off PCs.
- The bard moves up and casts vicious mockery on the undead. They fail their save and take 4 points of psychic damage (which they don’t have any immunity towards).
- The cleric moves over to the wizard and casts spare the dying on them.
- The fighter moves up within 15 feet of the undead and readies an attack if they come within range.
- The rogue moves up to 60 feet away from the undead and takes a shot with their bow. With the bless spell, they hit, doing nine points of damage, dropping the undead to zero hit points.
- The undead killer regenerates another five hit points, bringing them back to 5 hit points. The undead stands up, and moves slightly to the side after standing, throwing a dagger at the bard and the fighter. With disadvantage from the bard, the undead misses the bard. The second dagger attack misses the fighter (14 versus 16).
- Our wizard is stable but incapacitated.
Healing resources are gone. The undead can’t misty step anymore, and they are in bad shape. Dropping to zero stole a lot of movement from them.
- The bard moves up to the undead, attacking with their rapier. They hit, doing 8 points of damage, dropping the undead.
- The cleric moves up to within five feet of the undead. They light a torch.
- The fighter moves adjacent to the undead, readying an attack if the undead regenerates and is no longer incapacitated.
- The rogue moves and dashes to get close to the fighter and the bard, but not adjacent to the fighter and the bard, or the undead.
- The undead regenerates, but before they can stand, the fighter’s action triggers. He rolls terribly, and misses. The undead is at 5 hit points now. He crits the fighter, doing 22 points of damage, two shy of killing him outright. Then the undead rolls a natural 1 when attacking the bard.
- The wizard is still incapacitated.
The fighter is down, with no healing magic available. Our undead menace is really damaged and can’t regenerate this turn. This is going to be make or break for our undead assassin.
- The bard stabs the undead with their rapier. Without regeneration, the 8 points of damage does in our animated corpse animated by the malevolent spirit.
- The cleric tosses the torch on top of the undead.
- The fighter fails their first death save.
- The rogue stabilizes the fighter.
Two characters are down but stable. The undead has been set on fire, so they are no longer a threat. Eight rounds of total combat, with a lot of the undead playing keep away and throwing daggers at range.