Kevin couldn't attend, and I refused to do the vampire battle without him. (Dani failed to get that point and was arguing for the vampire attack for quite some time.) So folks agreed to plan B, go down to the Dragon and try to heal the pool of sickness that surrounds it, in hopes that it will help heal other pools elsewhere. This was much better than my original plan, because the mystic correspondences for the Dragon's pool are stronger than those for pools elsewhere.
My previous attempts to make healing the pools interesting had not worked out so well. For this one, I gave Lori a ritual of four spells to be cast at four corners of the pool, plus a fifth in the middle. This was to be followed by as many cure spells as she could manage, to give them a reason to stay if they were still in good shape. Lori fleshed out that ritual with her own words and gestures in a really nice way.
The fight did work out in a very dramatic way: Kyle, Larissa, and Prolix were subduing monsters while Liandra was declaiming their ritual. I quite liked that aspect, and so did most of the players. (Dani didn't answer when I asked, "Was that a more enjoyable way of healing the pools?" I'm annoyed.)
The part I didn't like: the players quite dramatically outplayed me.
Before going in, the PCs decked themselves out with lots of buffing spells--fly on everyone, improved invisibility on the fighting PCs, invisibility on Liandra. And because of that combo, the PCs kicked butt. The monsters usually couldn't find them, and if they did know where to look, they usually couldn't get there in time. In addition, some strategic uses of wall of force allowed them to win handily, and dump all of Liandra's healing spells into the pool with little risk.
I made quite a few mistakes on my side, as usual:
- The half-fiend umber hulk and the half-fiend gargoyles didn't use any of their spell-like abilities. Unholy blight could be useful in-theme.
- I'd been attracted to the 'cursed wounds' ability of the clay golem, so I stuck in a clay golem in slight disguise as a slime creature. But as written, it turned out to be essentially invulnerable to all the PCs' attacks, and the special effects of earth-related spells made little sense. So I reduced its magic immunity to mere energy resistance--which meant, to my surprise, that magic missiles worked on it just fine. (I should have given it a high SR, too.)
- I threw in an umber hulk to give them a little trouble with their force dome. I remembered that the umber hulk could tunnel underneath the ground, but I forgot that it had tremorsense to let them find the PCs, so it just wandered around aimlessly instead of acting.
Those mistakes were real--but the real fact was that I just got outplayed, and the situation I'd meant to be threatening enough to make them worry about when to stop casting spells and run away turned out not to be that threatening.
And the even sadder thing is that I get outplayed all the time. It feels like I could throw the Tarrasque at them and have them emerge victorious. I'm not confident of my ability to give them a stiff fight when it's called for. It's very frustrating.
Part of the problem, no doubt, is that I've never played high-level D&D before, on either side of the GM screen. (Well, two sessions in Tal's campaign. It wasn't enough to give me a feel for the way the game works.) But that's only part of the problem, and I'm not sure what the rest is.
I am terribly afraid of my players winning their vampire battle trivially because of some loophole that I forgot and they didn't. I've had to weasel already to settle the question, "why don't the PCs just waltz in with a Bag of Holding full of garlic?" But I'm feeling doomed to being outplayed.
Another detail I need to deal with is that of NPCs. The PCs do have some good NPC friends that they've rescued--but should that allow them to get all the buffing spells of another spellcaster before going into battle, the way they did last session?
Another example of the same thing: Dani has proposed that the party should recruit a high-level NPC cleric to go along with them on their vampire hunt. (He proposed this in the same e-mail in which he complained about Liandra getting too much screen time with healing pools. I found the juxtaposition horribly rude.) I don't want them to bring a higher-level cleric along, because I want to keep the focus on the PCs, not the NPCs.
But I'm not sure how to handle this in-game. High-level NPC clerics are rare, but they do exist. And many of them are not suitable for adventuring, or encumbered by their ties to the Land and its disease--but it does seem likely that there should be at least a few NPC clerics that would be willing to help. And it does seem that there should be someone willing to help out with a problem that affects the whole Land. So I'm not sure what to do there.