The Menagerie attempts to sneak through an orc infested farmhouse, completely forgetting that one of them is a giant bull.
When last we left our heroes, they had been dutifully playing through all of the side quests, waiting for the main plot to show up. They had cleared out a creepy lighthouse dedicated to the evil god of storms, Talos. They had killed the lighthouse keeper, but failed to realize that this “man”, Moesk, is magically bound to the house and cannot be simply killed. Oh, and now the Minotaur can cast lightning bolts; and the Monk was mortally wounded when that pesky white dragon, Cryovain, showed up uninvited, and cracked the taciturn tortle open like a walnut.
After dragging the shell of the turtle that used to be Anjing Shang back to town, our heroes left him in the capable hands of Sister Garelene, hoping that she can heal their shattered companion. But now our heroes are in a quandary. As powerful as they are, they can sense the world is just a little too dangerous for them; about two characters worth too dangerous. Since I wasn’t too happy with the DM-run-character experiment, let’s check out the rules-as-written “Sidekick” system that the adventure kindly included for us.
First off, the whole sidekick idea stems from the fact that it can be quite difficult to get five people in a room on a consistent basis, willing to sacrifice the time, energy, and social credibility required to play this game. (Don’t worry, I won’t make you stand up in a room filled with jocks and cool kids and scream, “Yeah, I play D&D! What of it? Who wants to hear about my character?!) Sometimes you can only get two or even just one other person to play with you. But the adventures are clearly written and balanced for four players playing four diverse character types. So, what do you do you’re the only two nerds in town? Sidekicks.
Basically, each player now plays two characters, but the second character is an empty shell, a few stats and no pesky backstory; there to round out the party, help in combat, and carry all the “real” player’s stuff. Basically, they’re Lydia from Skyrim. Oh, and they’re completely expendable. Never again will your precious character die when there is an endless source of cannon fodder to throw at the BBEG. But does this make the game any easier? Any fun?
Sadly, the answer is no and no. Sidekicks are more of a necessary evil. If there are only one or two players, then either you’ll have to use sidekicks or severely reduce the numbers and power levels of the monsters to give the players a chance to survive. Plus, having to track two characters’ stats can be a real challenge especially at higher level. No matter how you package it, it is always better to focus on playing just one character, especially for beginner players. But if the choice is between playing two characters badly or not playing at all, then there is only one answer. Sidekicks.
There are basically three types of sidekicks: Warriors, Spellcasters, and Experts. They are named as such to avoid confusion with the existing player classes, but the names themselves are confusing. Obviously, Warriors are the fighters, Spellcasters are further sub-divided up between clerics and wizards, and the experts are the thieves. They try to pretend that experts could be bards, rangers or even monks, but they’re thieves. The intent is to choose the sidekicks that best compliment your party. So, if your main characters are a Paladin (warrior) and a Warlock (spellcaster wizard), then you should choose a Spellcaster (cleric) and an Expert (thief) to round out the party.
To further simplify things, each sidekick conforms to the most basic and generic version of that character class. There are no obscure sub-classes, multi-classing, or unique specialization allowed. Every warrior is just a standard fighter and so forth. All the beginning stats and abilities are pre-generated and they follow a single assigned path when leveling up. Which they do at the same rate as the players. Generally speaking, they include a lot of defensive tactics, learning utility spells, and performing the “Help” action. A lot.
Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything greatly expands upon the sidekick system; allowing virtually any race or even monster to be a sidekick, advancing them up to 20th level, and fixing a few of the leveled features for the various classes. For example, it always felt weird in this adventure that a 6th level Expert gained a second attack. Now the Expert has a “Coordinated Strike”, allowing it to give advantage to another player on one attack, then do extra damage on the expert’s next attack on the same target.
Enough rules, let’s play! With my monk sidelined, the party consists of a ranger and a barbarian, two warriors. We’re already unbalanced. To try and fix things, my players chose a Spellcaster-Cleric, because they tend to get damaged a lot, and an Expert, since they can’t pick a lock to save their life. But they had a problem picking which portrait card to choose for their new companions. They didn’t like any of the Spellcasters or Experts, especially the one in the “stupid unicorn hat”. Their words, not mine. My advice, don’t worry about it. Pick the character you like and make it the sidekick class you want.
James liked Inverna Nightbreeze, because her personality had the word Sarcasm in the description, and that pretty much sums up James in a single word. She was listed as a warrior, but now became the Spellcasting Cleric. Meanwhile, Andrew made Quinn Hightopple, also previously a warrior, our new halfling thief, er, Expert. Unsurprisingly, Andrew chose Quinn because his “flaw” is compulsively punching people in the crotch. This just became his sole defining trait. They can’t all be lofty backstories. One last piece of advice; make a separate character sheet for each sidekick, they will quickly have a multitude of abilities that you will want to keep in one place.
As for how these four all came to be together, at the start of the campaign, I added a new building, the Adventurers’ Guild, into town. Drawn by the bards’ tales of the Saviors of Phandalin, as told in The Lost Mine of Phandelver, want-to-be-heroes have flocked to the quaint village in search of adventure. Good thing too, there’s a dragon flying around! The woodcutter’s wife, having lost her husband in that previous adventure, has opened up her home to serve as a sort of clubhouse for all these starry-eyed glory seekers. What started as an excuse to explain my revolving door of real-life players, also works to justify all these sidekicks hanging around.
Now that we’ve got the band together, let’s see where the next gig is at. To the Bulletin Board! Having completed all of the starting quests, there is a new trio of tasks for our heroes to take on. There’s some dude who needs escorting to a nearby mine called Mountain’s Toe (boring), some provisions to be delivered to a Logger’s Camp (do we look like waiters?), and some orcs attacking Butterskull Ranch. That’s the one! Let’s go kill some orcs. After an uneventful walk down the Triboar Trail (that is, the dragon is off terrorizing some other location), the party arrives at the ranch.
They immediately see a lone cow off in a field, and since James in real life cannot pass by any animal without wanting to pet it, his bullywug barbarian is the same way. Soon the frog and the cow are fast friends and Petunia follows the party back to the ranch. Finding the grounds uninhabited, except for some dead orcs and ranch hands, and all the building destroyed, except for the farmhouse, my players are able to figure out where to go. Here, they immediately put the Expert to work to do a little recognizance at the windows. Technically, the Minotaur PC has a higher stealth bonus, but I don’t remind them of this.
But the Expert makes his rolls and is able to report back that he can see 4 orcs on the first floor, 2 in the kitchen and 2 in the dining room. There’s also a back door and it’s unlocked. Now the book says that the number of orcs in the house is 3 times the number of players and sidekicks don’t count. But I say that’s crap; 6 orcs are not enough for 4 adventurers, even if 2 of them don’t count. I placed 10 orcs in the farmhouse, and one of them is an Orc Blade of Ilneval (a slightly tougher orc from Volo’s Guide to Monsters).
They decide to sneak in through the back door and get the jump on them. I describe the Empty Foyer as being more of a pantry, with a large china cabinet along one wall. Now the Minotaur Ranger has the highest sneak of the group (+8), but that is useless against the dreaded Natural 1, which he naturally rolled. So, what does a giant bull do upon encountering a china shop, or in this case, china cabinet? He trips and falls headlong into it, smashing it to smithereens, breaking every piece of china, and causing a huge crashing noise that alerts the whole farm house. Mini’s reaction to this? Burst into the kitchen and still hope for the element of surprise. James the player’s reaction? Sigh and follow along dutifully at yet another bungled attempt at anything other than kick in the door and kill everything. And he’s playing a barbarian.
I decreed that one of the orcs is trying to barge through the kitchen door at the same time as the Minotaur. I’m always looking for little combat moments beyond just swinging a sword. Both combatants hit the door at the same time. One contested strength check later, the stunned orc is flung backwards across the room into a rack of pots and pans, incapacitating it for one round and making even more of a clanging racket. I veered heavily into this unexpected audible component to the combat, and made this the loudest, most destructive battle I’ve ever run. There wasn’t one piece of furniture that wasn’t broken by the time they were done. It was hilarious.
Mini finally had the space to use his Goring Strike special ability, which impaled the second orc in the room. Grunk the Barbarian quickly dispatched the orc sprawled out amongst the cookware. The sidekicks did nothing. Yet. When combat starts, I let the players roll both the main character’s and the sidekick’s initiative, and the player chooses which one gets the quicker reaction. This is almost always his main character, but it’s a simple way to give the player more options during combat. Also, I let the player decide all his sidekick’s combat actions (I got enough to do), but I will overrule an action if it is suicidal or inherently stupid.
Moving quickly into the dining room, these next orcs are not surprised, obviously. Mini attempts his Goring Strike again. This time, the orc deftly avoids the rampaging bull like a skilled matador. Ole! But Mini did manage to destroy one of the trestle tables with a sonorous splintering of oak, so that’s good. Now to turn this fight up to 11. While the heroes are fighting these orcs, five more run down the stairs and join the melee. The best part is that with two stairways in the house, I’m able to surround the party. This doesn’t change the combat much except for the squishy rear flank characters, and my players never consider retreat to be an option anyway, but whenever you cut off their means of escape, it subconsciously increases the dramatic tension of a fight and everyone can feel it.
The remainder of the fight was fantastic as The Menagerie battled the Black Blade Tribe. I always give names to tribal monsters like orcs, goblins and such. It creates more immersion in the world, and gives these nameless, faceless goons more gravitas. Plus, it’s fun to randomly yell out lines like, “The Black Blade is invincible,” and “The Black Blades will bathe in your blood!” all the while the players are methodically killing every last one of them.
The combat was a cacophony of chaos. Benches were broken, the other table was smashed when an orc was body slammed on top of it, trophy skulls were knocked off the walls and shattered. The players got to try out all their new sidekick’s abilities, and eventually 7 orcs lay dead amongst this utterly decimated room. Only one chair escaped the carnage, which promptly collapsed when the minotaur sat on it to catch his breath. Laughter ensued. The best part is that the players assumed this was the last fight of the scenario, so they went super nova, burning all of their single-use abilities. But they only killed 9 orcs. I said there were 10. Where’s the other guy?
Exploring the upper floor they find the errant orc in the master bedroom, sound asleep. Apparently, this guy sleeps like the dead and soon he will join them. But before the group can assassinate the orc in his sleep, his eyes spring open and he parries the blow. Since this Orc Blade is unable to use his unique Command action, I gave him the Parry action instead. Always feel free to adjust any encounter as you see fit. This fight was just a slug-fest. Fortunately, the orc’s armor class was only 10 (instead of 18), because sleeping characters don’t wear armor! The group just kept hammering away at this guy until eventually, the orc fell back onto the bed in an eternal slumber.
They searched the room but didn’t find any valuables or the secret door that would have given them the suit of mithral chainmail armor. I love the way they just assume the owner is dead and they can just loot the place. Searching the rest of the house, they find the owner, Big Al, tied up in the basement, and since the group had already obtained Petunia the Cow, Al gives them the mithral armor anyway. But the Minotaur is too big and the Barbarian only wears the octopus armor he got lest session, so the suit goes to one of the sidekicks; good score for her.
I had considered running the Shrine of Savras encounter on the way back to town. But I want that encounter to lead into a grand scale invasion of Phandalin, similar to the one I ran for the Lost Mine of Phandelver. I’m not ready for that scenario yet, so I decided to bring back an old friend to close out the session.
The party is sleeping in the recently deceased farm hands’ bedrooms, conducting a long rest. I tell them that they get to sleep about half the night, and thus they have healed back half their hit points. I have Mini roll a Perception check. He passes and in the dead of the night, he hears a voice coming from directly above him, “I am immortal, but you die here tonight!” Opening his eyes, Mini sees Moesko the Undying standing at the foot of his bed about to cast lightning bolt at the prone Minotaur. Roll a Dexterity save! Mini passes again and is able to roll off the bed just as streams of electricity course from the fingers of the group’s now-recurring nemesis. Every campaign should have one.
So last session, when our heroes killed the heartless Half-Orc cultist in his haunted lighthouse, they didn’t complete the job. Moesko is not heartless because he is cold and uncaring, Moesko’s heart is missing from his body. The tell-tale heart is currently still beating in the lighthouse tower powering its cursed magic. Until the players destroy this heart, Moesko will continuously come back from the dead to harass our heroes. Like right now.
The lightning bolt thunders into the bed shattering it into driftwood, and blasting a hole through the floor into the ruined dining room. Rolling off the bed, Mini takes half damage but is now on his back on the floor with Moesko standing over him wielding a huge axe. As a firm believer of an eye for an eye, Mini launches his own lightning bolt (courtesy of a cursed charm) up into the leering Moesko, blasting him into the air and blowing a big hole in the roof. I sure hope Big Al has some big homeowner’s insurance.
Finally, the rest of gang arrives (sans armor) and the battle is joined. As usual, with four against one, it isn’t long before Moeske is vanquished once again. Although at one point, Mini fell through the hole in the floor and had to run back up the stairs, destroying the banister and three steps in the process. Finally, Grunk the barbarian, in a fit of rage, stabbed the Unkillable Creep straight through the gaping hole in his chest where his heart once was, killing Moesko once again. Don’t worry, he’ll be back.
Next week, the Menagerie delivers some groceries, fend off some overgrown ants looking for a picnic, and meet another cowardly member of the Wester family.
As always, sidekicks have been around since first edition D&D, but we called them “retainers” back then, and Game On!
Charge! – Mini the Minotaur, when all else fails.
We really gotta go back and kill that creepy, green heart. – Grunk, when the realization finally hit him.