Hello folks, and welcome back to Wrong Every Time. Today I’m eager to dive back into the drama of Vox Machina, having last left the party in a moment of absolute crisis and defeat. Scanlan’s plan to leave an Immovable Rod (well, short sword, but same difference) inside a dragon has quasi-succeeded, while leaving plenty of room for an exciting followup question: how the fuck are he and Vax going to get out of this dragon’s stomach? And while they focus on avoiding digestion, their allies are presented with a different yet equally vexing challenge: how do you make a dragon fight you when it’d rather just fly away? Well, presumably it’s just going back to its lair, meaning our heroes will be facing off with both legendary and lair actions as they attempt to free their comrades from death by stomach acid.
I imagine Scanlan and Vax’s plan was a flourish of stupidity that even Mercer didn’t plan for, but I assume this battle is otherwise going pretty much how he predicted. The push and pull of player agency versus dramatic necessity expresses itself in some unique ways when it comes to major boss fights; you want your players to feel like they can gain a leg up on their opponents via clever strategizing, but also don’t want the fight to feel either formulaic or prematurely solved, necessitating a balance between controllable variables and chaotic in-fight twists. Mercer appears to have navigated this balance through the construction of a two-act fight: first this ambush, which the players largely engineered themselves, followed by a presumed lair fight finale focused more on his own scripted inventions.
Coincidentally enough, my own campaign is also currently transitioning between these moments, with the party’s planning of their allegedly final battle soon to give way to a bombastic scripted escalation. Our melee fighters are largely running on fumes and our sorcerer only has a single spell slot left, so I believe I’ve successfully calibrated the challenge towards a death-defying victory next session, and am eager to see how my players wriggle their way out of this one. I’ll get back to you on how that all plays out, but for now let’s enjoy the climax of Vox Machina’s second season!
“The Hope Devourer.” An excellent draconic title. I should really have given my own campaign’s major foes more catchy nicknames like that – I’ve amassed an impressive array of high-ranking knights and devils, and few details stick in a player’s memory like a strong title. Given D&D is largely conveyed through spoken drama, it’s generally only possible to differentiate characters “at a glance” via the voice you take on while performing them and the style of language you employ for them specifically – I’ve tried to leave particularly distinctive voices to certain key characters, but when you’re fifty or so characters into a campaign, it can be hard to keep assigning new voices to everyone
I’ve also had to push back against my own natural instinct to try and avoid obvious reference points for character personalities or voices; I wouldn’t want to define my characters as “basically like insert popular character here but with a bigger nose” for traditional fiction, but exploiting player resonance is basically the only way to make things consistently stick in the more compressed narrative format of D&D. A lesson I learned from Magic: The Gathering lead designer Mark Rosewater: embrace player resonance, don’t try to carve out entirely new conceptual pathways
We open on what appears to be an idyllic post-battle reflection, as Scanlan recounts how he and his allies defeated the dread scourge Umbrasyl in a cozy cabin
Fantasies layered on fantasies here, as Scanlan regales his grandchildren with his exploits, having apparently made amends with Kaylie. Seems she was indeed the turning point – the narrative finally has something to do with Scanlan emotionally, something he cares about and strives for
I didn’t think it’d be an issue to let one of my own players define their personality and character desires via the course of the in-campaign drama, but in retrospect I probably should have pushed harder for some sort of initial grounding or motivation. Their lack of a clear goal or point of emotional connection to the narrative has made it significantly harder to craft character-relevant dramatic payoffs, while my other two players have at this point already gone through full personal arcs related to their origins
And Vax shakes him awake, returning us to the literal bowels of the beast
“That was their plan? Go up its ass?” Thank you, Pike
Keyleth shifts into a giant eagle to carry the group after Umbrasyl. Keyleth’s druidic transformation seems significantly more versatile than the on-book version, but turning into a giant eagle is a staple – I believe they’re of the highest challenge rating you’re allowed to morph into, and also the biggest thing you can morph into that can also fly, so they come up pretty often. One of my sorcerer’s polymorph go-tos, alongside giant ape and t-rex
Grog manages to climb his way up the rope and onto Umbrasyl’s back. This is an encounter concept I’ve been working towards as well – a fight atop a flying creature, with constant disruptions in terrain and the perpetual threat of being flung into the abyss. My party recently completed a fight aboard a train that proved one of our most memorable encounters, so I believe I’m prepped to up the complexity one more level for a flying encounter
A jet of acid sends him plummeting, and he activates the titan knuckles to become large enough to survive the landing. Not sure that’s how physics works, but I’ll go with it
I’m always looking for more ways to craft conflicts that encourage diverse emergent solutions, and “fling the players off a cliff” is a surprisingly versatile one
Speaking of emergent solutions, I like the clever choice of using Scanlan’s Mage Hand as a sort of acid umbrella while Vax carves through Umbrasyl
The boys break free, and are now simply plummeting towards their deaths. I imagine Vax’s frequency of calling on the Matron of Ravens was increased for the show – it’s central to his journey here, but that sort of reliance on literal deus ex machina makes for pretty unsatisfying gameplay
And thus Vax earns raven wings. Another detail I assume was altered from the campaign; such upgrades generally arrive as a result of narrative necessity in fiction, but D&D tends to have you earn your upgrades as a reward for completing challenges, not as the tool through which they are completed. That, again, tends to feel more like the DM just handing you your victory, rather than you earning it through clever exploitation of your existing resources
“I have a broom, and you get fucking wings?” I sorta figured Vex would have something to say about this
“Grog’s a mess, Pike’s done, and it’s got Mythcarver!” Scanlan says these as reasons they shouldn’t fight, but all I’m hearing is “excellent, the party is weakened enough to facilitate an easily engineered photo finish”
Ripley suggests Umbrasyl flee, but he instead heals his own injuries and prepares to fight. My campaign also could have used another Ripley or two – continuing antagonists with goals that only partially intertwined with the primary threat. I frankly also could have used more moments of interaction with the primary antagonists; the problem is, I only had so much of the campaign plotted out while playing through its first third, meaning I lacked the information needed to confidently convey the villain’s perspective
“Remember, the safe word is ‘chenga.’” I guess they couldn’t get the rights to say “Jenga” in the show
Vax’s accusations of Scanlan’s cowardice prompts him to reveal his anxieties to Pike. His whole character’s falling into place now that Kaylie’s here
Vax just utterly flubs his stealth rolls while attempting to investigate Umbrasyl’s lair, and is embarrassingly snuck up on by a goddamn dragon
Grog’s still-broken leg is fixed in a splint with Keyleth’s vines. The idea of characters receiving persistent injuries is interesting design space, but such a presumed feel-bad for players that I doubt it’s worth exploring. Another Rosewater lesson: just because some design space hasn’t been used before doesn’t mean it’s actually fertile territory for new designs, as “unfun” mechanical design is only compelling to designers, not players
Vex uses her half-elf hearing to locate the invisible dragon. A cleaner resolution of this situation than D&D generally provides; frankly, invisibility seems like a shoddily implemented concept according to the official rules, with situations like “well, I know where he is even if he’s invisible, can’t I just swing/shoot there” generally having unsatisfying mechanical implementation. My recent playthrough of Baldur’s Gate 3 only affirmed that invisibility is kind of a mechanical mess; I’m still tinkering with my own rules for stealthy enemies that nonetheless have satisfying counterplay options
Scanlan offers an appropriately Scanlan-style contribution to this fight, by swiftly locating an escape path
“If the Matron has taught me anything, it’s that fate is real.” I do wonder how much of Vax’s motivation was directly Matron-related in the original. Seems like they’re pushing to sort of make that the guiding thread of this overall show, but I imagine it was less central originally, considering “fate is real, your choices are fake” is a pretty odd theme for a player-driven narrative
Damn, some excellent animation for Keyleth’s elemental form as she grapples with Umbrasyl
For once, the show’s generally dark aesthetic is actually helping, as it smooths the interplay between the CG Umbrasyl and traditionally animated heroes
Keyleth is performing all sorts of fun defensive maneuvers with her Entangling Vines, using them to yank players out of attack paths and whatnot. Not really what the spell’s for on paper, but it’s precisely the sort of imaginative implementation that I’d be happy to support
And Scanlan of course comes through in the clutch, snagging his vestige and stabbing Umbrasyl right in the eye
Frankly, giving Scanlan a sword vestige seems like an odd choice; he’s always leaned more into the support end of the bard toolkit, so an enchanted instrument of some kind might have been more appropriate
And with Umbrasyl defeated, the party at last earn a goddamn horde of treasure
“Even if I don’t believe in that Matron stuff, you do. And I believe in you.” Plus a tidy conclusion for Vax and Scanlan’s mini-arc
But what’s this? A member of the Chroma Conclave seeks allegiance with Vox Machina!?
Yep, gotta leave us hanging with even more dragon shenanigans in store. Nonetheless, this serves as an excellent act marker for the overall campaign, as the party secures their first meaningful victory against the forces of dragonkind. And that grand threshold was also furnished with a variety of key character turns: Grog reclaiming his honor with the Storm Herd, Vax coming to terms with the inevitability of the Matron, and most crucially, Scanlan at last accepting responsibility for his destiny. Our heroes have been skillfully herded through a variety of mechanical hurdles, all of which were infused with key points of connection to their past and future selves. Managing player versus narrative demands still seems like a close to impossible challenge, but I suppose that’s part of the fun of it – and either way, I’ve certainly enjoyed exploring this strange intersection of mediums with you all. Onward to the next season!