I'm not sure if anyone will want to hear from the Underdogs, the team that ranked 25th out of 28 in the first round of the the GenCon tournament this year. Yes, the team that only covered three rooms, accomplished virtually nothing and had very little points to show for it.
And I'm not sure you could call us a "team". We were just three guys with generic tickets who had never met each other, but who all said "yeah, sure" when asked if we wanted to play in the tournament.
We came up with the name "Underdogs" when we realized that, not only were we minus one player, but two of us hadn't played for over 15 years... never seen 3.5 rules (nor 3.0 or even 2.0, for that matter). Also, none of the three of us had any knowledge of the pre-generated characters, or the tournament, or anything. Clearly, we were not the favored team that night.
Looking back, I'll say that we definitely spent too much time choosing our characters. With only 3 players, we knew we couldn't count on the tried-and-true foursome of fighter/cleric/rogue/spellcaster. So, as our pre-game setup time ran out, we quickly selected the dwarf fighter Ulfsek as our tank, the cleric/mage Issele as our healer and the Druid Kaila as our spellcaster. No rogue? No problem.
They say hindsight is 20/20, and our choice of characters now seems like a really, really bad idea. And it probably was. But in the heat of the moment, it seemed prudent. If I was to do it over, I'd definitely do it differently... but that's another thread.
So our group strategy (if you can call it strategy) was to take good notes, to avoid traps (sounds simple, right?) and to not go head-to-head with big enemies. Why had no one figured this out before us? It’s so obvious… all you have to do is avoid fights, beat the traps with clear thinking and solve puzzles with good notes, and maybe we'd just make a showing here in this tournament thing, despite the astronomical odds against us. It could happen!
Finally, we got started. The GM read the intro with great gusto and we were all transported to that horrible front portico of the palace, with acid rain pounding the ground around us. We spent a great deal of time taking detailed notes of the pillars, including the exact order of the animals as they were stacked (which I hear would have been a good thing, had we gotten far enough in the palace...)
So we finally wander into that first pitch-black room. The description made our skins crawl and we were confident the whole room was trapped. Without a rogue, we couldn't search for traps. "Had our plan unraveled so quickly," I thought. "Was this it? Was Team Underdog beaten so soon?" But we had a plan... clear thinking, remember? We decided to make only a few small forays into the room, always in single file with the dwarf in front to take any damage. You might laugh at such a strategy, but we found the first gem and the "1=$350, 8=$2800, Worth it?" note, got a good look at the portraits on the back walls (and took detailed notes) and left via the open side door without setting off a single trap. Our plan was working so far!
In the side hall, we were immediately overrun with Grimlocks. The big one in the back had a really nasty looking axe and they were all doing what they could do to knock our heads off. “So much for avoiding combat," I thought. "And what had we ever done to these grimlocks? Can’t we all just get along?" In the heat of battle, I admit that our lack of hit points suddenly looked to be our downfall. Luckily, (or was it good planning?) our cleric/mage quickly recognized the grimlock's large ears and lack of eyes and deduced that grimlocks were especially susceptible to loud sounds. So she hit them with a Sound Blast, which stunned almost all of them. With the help of a summoned bear, we proceeded to take down all the grimlocks very quickly, with almost no damage to ourselves. We practically broke our arms in patting ourselves on the back. "Is this all there is?" we all thought, glowing with confidence. "We might have a chance in this tournament after all!" And so, spouting cocky boasts and feeling quite full of ourselves, we continued on.
Many sketches, maps and notes later, we arrived at the great Pyramid room. We smelled a rat immediately. It was obvious that a big trap waited if we touched the ring. But any great artifact that was displayed with such grandeur in such an ornate room, and with such a big trap to protect it... such a powerful ring would be worth it, right? Maybe this great ring would help swing the tide back in our favor. "Maybe the Underdogs just found their lucky break," I thought. We were all ears when the Druid said, "I think I've got the perfect plan..."
So, here's how it went down. We all waited outside the room, looking in. The Druid conjured a monkey, whom he told to "go get the ring" and bring it back to us. When the monkey touched the ring, the strange metal cube rumbled, folded in on itself and formed the guardian. Even though we had predicted some sort of trap, the sight of the giant metal guardian made our jaws hit the floor and I think you could hear crickets chirping for the first few seconds. As we rubbed our eyes in disbelief, the understandably shocked monkey had just enough time to throw the ring in our general direction before... SPLAT! Poor monkey. Seeing his opportunity, the dwarf ran into the room and scooped up the ring, just in time to get absolutely, authoritatively, utterly clobbered by the guardian. He got spanked like a naughty Catholic school girl. It was horrific to watch, kinda like a Mariah Carey video but without all the crappy music. In that first round of his epic beating the dwarf in his +2 Plate armor took more damage than either of the on-looking spellcasters even possessed. "I thought we weren't going to go head-to-head with big enemies," I remember thinking. "What happened to that plan?" The slap-happy dwarf, with his head ringing and his pride well bruised, in a pitiful bid to save his life, threw the ring back into the room and rolled out the doorway to safety. As the ring clanged and clinked on the tile floor of the pyramid room, the door slammed shut. We were alone again, in the dark hallway, with only the sound of our beating hearts to keep us company while we tried to figure out how the heck such a great plan went so wrong.
But... now that we had seen just how powerful the guardian was... that meant the ring was even more powerful than we had ever imagined. You don't build that kind of trap for a wimpy, cracker-jack-box trinket. We just HAD to have this ring! "That ring is going to make our lives a lot easier," I thought. "Hell, that ring is going to win the tournament for us!" With minds racing and hands wringing, we were already drunk with our soon-to-come power when the Druid said, "I think I've got an even better plan this time."
Really, looking back, the second plan was A LOT like the first plan... except the Druid conjured an owl, and instead of climbing and grabbing the ring like our dear-departed monkey friend (who ever thought that stupid plan would work?), he told the owl to swoop quickly through the room and snatch the ring as it flew by, full speed. Oh, and the freshly-healed dwarf was stationed inside the room to slow down the guardian, just in case. "That first try was just a learning experience," I thought. "This is a much, much better plan." And it would have worked, too, except the dwarf got greedy (as they will from time to time) and grabbed one of the magic items just a little too early. The guardian formed before the owl could snatch the ring and we all watched incredulously as the ring went deep inside the body of the guardian. I think it surprised the owl, too, who hesitated a little too long and... SPLAT! Poor owl. The dwarf, still stinging from his earlier bitch-slapping, ran for the door and chucked the loot over his shoulder as the door slammed shut. We were alone again, in the dark hallway, with only the sound of our beating hearts to keep us company while we tried to figure out how the heck such a great plan went so wrong.
At this point, several things became crystal clear. We had probably picked the wrong characters. We had, most likely, put too much emphasis on taking notes. And we DEFINITELY had spent too much time goofing around with this ring. Our faces dimmed with our certain defeat. All of our slim-to-none hopes of "placing" in the tournament had gone down the drain. So what could we do? What would you have done, when things looked so bleak… so hopeless? Well, I was there, man, and I’m here to tell you that such utter failure is the forge that melts away the impurities in men's souls and leaves only the purest, strongest parts of their characters. So, we did what any self-respecting armchair warriors would do... we gave the ring one more shot.
This time, the cleric/mage Issele had the bright ideas. Admittedly, this plan looked A LOT like the first one, except that Issele levitated a cloth sack up next to the ring with her Mage Hand ability (NOTE - mage hand cannot move magical items, or it would have been an easy ring snatch). A new monkey was called in. Monkey 2 made some phone calls, updated his will, said his good-byes and was sent up the pyramid. He grabbed the ring and popped it into the sack, just as planned and just in time for... SPLAT! Poor Monkey 2. Just as quickly, Issele moved the sack/ring out of the room and the guardian followed it, taking a cheap shot at the non-threatening dwarf on the way out (not a classy guy, that guardian).
So, there is the guardian, standing stationary under the sack/ring, and Issele realizes that no matter how fast she moves the sack to herself, the guardian can close the distance and attack her, long before she can take the ring out of the sack, and certainly before she can put on the ring (we were hoping that wearing the ring would control or at least block the guardian). So, since she didn't want to see "SPLAT! Poor Issele" on her tombstone, she just levitated the sack higher and higher in an awkward stalemate.
In a sudden flash of brilliance, the Druid yells, "I've got a plan!" and starts running toward the far end of the long hallway. "Send the sack to me! I can put on the ring before the guardian can get to me!" It was the best plan the table, so here we go... the ring is inside a sack... the sack is about 20 feet above the floor, above the head of a giant metal guardian that can smack around a level 6, AC 23 dwarf like a puppet... with a gesture from Issele, the sack/ring is now sailing so very rapidly away, away, down the long dark hall... the guardian rumbles into action, clumsily and then smoothly chasing after it, picking up speed, the ground rumbling with each massive step… there, at the far end of the hall, the Druid stands, waiting with his hands stretched out in front of him, clawing at the air in anticipation, knowing that he has to do this quickly and do this right, the first time, and not knowing if the ring will even control or stop the massive, charging metal guardian...
"Time's up," the GM repeated. "Sorry, guys. That's four hours."
Time had run out. Blast! Of all the enemies we faced, time turned out to be the most brutal.
In the end, we didn't accomplish much. We didn't kill any remarkably exciting beasts, or cast any fabulous magic spells. Hell, we never even found out what the blankety-blank ring actually "did". But, by golly, we had a really good time for about four hours. In fact, I can't remember ever having that much gripping, engrossing fun in any other four hours in my life. We laughed and we cried; cheered and booed; marched proudly and tip-toed gingerly; charged and cowered; we had succeeded and we had failed. All in all, I'm going to call it a good night at GenCon. Sure the bards won't be singing about us... but, hey... at least we didn't die!