How to Play Epic Encounters: Arena of the Undead Horde

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Epic Encounters Arena of the Undead Horde FauxHammer Plays 11

Lost, captured, and tossed into a pit before thousands of screeching spectres to be their entertainment, our intrepid band of playtesters find themselves at the mercy of the pitiless undead. How will our band of heroes fare? Find out in our How to Play Epic Encounters: Arena of the Undead Horde article!

Click this link & buy your hobby stuff from Element Games for the UK & Europe to support FauxHammer.com – Use Code “FAUX2768” at the checkout for double reward points.

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How to Play Epic Encounters: Arena of the Undead Horde – Introduction

We’re trying something a bit different here at FauxHammer.com.

In the past, we’ve been a bit scant on our playtesting content. We’ve tried to slot it into articles as and when we have the time and space to do so, but we’ve always felt they deserve more.

Playing with your miniatures, your boxed game, or whatever hobby-related purchase it is you’ve made is a crucial part of the hobby experience. For some, sitting down and playing with miniatures is the sole reason for buying and painting them.

As such, here at FauxHammer.com, we want to start doing a bit more of this. In the past, we’ve shoehorned this into larger extended product reviews, but feel it’s deserving of its own space.

We decided that Steamforged Games’ awesome Epic Encounters: Arena of the Undead Horde was the perfect place to try this. In order to get the most authentic playtesting experience, we roped in a few FauxHammer.com fans, friends and family to put Arena of the Undead Horde through its paces.

Epic Encounters Arena of the Undead Horde Box SFG Photo
Source: Steamforged Games

As such, you may want to make sure you’ve familiarised yourself with our Arena of the Undead Horde review before you read on!

How to Play Epic Encounters: Arena of the Undead Horde – The Team

Every amazing adventure (or Epic Encounter) needs a band of intrepid heroes. As such, allow me to introduce today’s group:

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From right to left, first up we have Lizzie, an aarakocra druid. Next is Richard, a half-elf wizard. Beside him sits Dave, a half-elf druid, and last but not least, Ollie, a hill dwarf barbarian.

The hill giant on the left barely able to fit his legs under the table is me. Not pictured is another Lizzie – one of previous playtesting fame. Her mastery of a camera and drinks orders ensured our antics were documented and no-one passed out in the heat.

How to Play Epic Encounters: Arena of the Undead Horde – The Venue

As you might have garnered from the not-so-subtly placed banner in the image above, we assembled our squad of people we knew that happened to be available highly-trained games testers at The Games Table in Norwich.

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The Games Table is a singularly fantastic venue. Designed primarily as a place for fans of board and other tabletop games to meet and share in their hobbies, it’s got none of that “tacked-on-at-the-back” FLGS gaming room feel. It’s a swish, classy, and spacious establishment with room for everyone.

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With plenty of space for us, as well as the horde of people who happened to be playing Age of Sigmar at the same time we were there, the venue also boasts an excellent inventory of hobby products.

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They even stock the Epic Encounters sets!

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Should you get peckish during your adventures, they’ll also help you find some sustenance. You can purchase snacks from the venue, but if you need something a little more substantial, they have an agreement with the restaurant upstairs, called Mambo Jambo, who let you order from their menu. They’ll also let you order food straight to their establishment – or bring your own.

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It’s also air-conditioned. This is very welcome given that we were there on one of the hottest days of the year so far!

How to Play Epic Encounters: Arena of the Undead Horde – Playtesting

With the team introduced and a whistle-stop tour done of The Games Table, it’s time to get playing!

Playtesting – Set Up

Setting up any D&D game comes in three parts if you’re a DM. First, there’s the interminable, infuriating, and madness-inducing step known as “Trying to Get Everyone to Be Somewhere on the Same Day at the Same Time for a Few Hours”. Unfortunately, Epic Encounters’ set doesn’t come with a magic spell scroll that gets people more free time. If it did, it’d be the indisputable single greatest TTRPG resource of all time.

The second step every DM has to take pre-session is to prepare the adventure. Steamforged Games’ Epic Encounter sets are fully Fifth Edition compatible, so DMs will need to make sure they’re up-to-date on the ruleset. Depending on what type of DM you are will ultimately decide how much time you invest in this step. In my experience, DMs tend to fall into one of two categories.

I am very much in the latter. As such, I did quite a lot of prep for our session – around 11 pages of it, in fact.

As we’ve said already, Arena of the Undead Horde’s Campaign Book is a cleverly-written resource. It is flexible enough to provide both hyper-organised and by-the-seat-of-their-pants DMs with enough to slot into their campaigns with ease. I had no trouble creating my own notes around the resources in the Campaign Book.

The third and final prep-step is the on-the-day stuff. Having the correct, maps, miniatures, bits of scenery, stats, and everything else you need to actually play. As we already know, Arena of the Undead Horde provides you with all of this in excellent style.

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Each player was provided with a hand-painted Citadel miniature from my collection to represent their character.

Campaign prepped, miniatures ready, and playtesters assembled. Let’s roll some dice!

Playtesting – Playing the Encounter

So, with everything set up, we were ready to dive right in. Epic Encounters’ sets come with three difficulty tiers:

  • A low tier, for players between level 1-5. Whilst still exciting, the encounter won’t be as deadly.
  • A medium tier, for players around levels 6-10. Slightly more challenging, it’ll test intermediate characters.
  • A high tier, for players level 10+. The gloves are truly off. The encounters will be deadly.

In order to really get the most out of the box (and to give the players lots of spells and items to experiment with), we went for the high difficulty tier. As such, all player characters were level 10.

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They’re checking their devices because that’s where their character sheets are. Not because they’re bored. I hope.

Arena of the Undead Horde has two major components to its encounter. The first is a face-off in an arena. The second is in the Training Rooms beneath the arena. The suggested encounter is based around the players having a single goal: to escape.

I. The Prequel

“You open your eyes to darkness. Your first panicked breath is stifled, repressed by a mouldering hempen sack that has been placed over your head. You are lying on a cold, damp floor – the unevenness of the cut stone digging into your limbs. As you try and shift your weight, you feel thick cording biting into your wrists and ankles. You are bound.”

In order to ensure there was a little time for the players to explore their characters and get to grips with their new spells, their weapons, and generally remind themselves how to play D&D, I prefixed the main encounter with a short run-up to the arena.

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Dave attempts to intimidate the DM with an invisible bow after having a particularly rough round. Lizzie gives him Guidance.

In this bit of OC, the players had been apprehended whilst exploring the wider city around the Arena. They had to escape their cell, bump off a handful of guards, and unwittingly escape into the Arena proper. Whilst the primary purpose of this deviation from the planned session was to give the players a bit of a warm up, it also served as a test to see just how easy it was to slot some additional stuff in around what is suggested in the Campaign Book.

The chamber you are in is almost as dark as the world was when your eyes were covered by the sack that had been placed over your head. Featureless walls of moss- and grime-covered stone lean in around you. The floor beneath your feet is of the same jagged and uneven, rough-hewn rock.”

As a DM, conducting this little bit of prequel to the main encounter was extremely easy. Because of how flexible the Arena of the Undead Horde encounter is, creating additional elements to add into the encounter is extremely easy.

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In order to represent the spherical cell in which they were interred, I used the alternate layout for the Lich Empress’ Tower. This comes in that box, and we’ll do an independent playtest of that shortly. Because the art styles are so similar between each box (as they are designed to facilitate use in tandem) I’m not convinced the group even noticed I’d made the switch to the other set.

My players eventually wriggled out of their bonds – though Dave the Druid and Ollie the Barbarian almost fell out after Dave tried to kick the unconscious Ollie awake – and accidentally alerted the undead guards posted on their cell.

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Once the handful of undead guards had been dealt with and my players were a little more au-fait with their characters, they continued onwards.

After a little more adventuring, they found themselves on the bloody sands of the arena floor. With this, the Epic Encounter could begin.

II. The Arena

The moment that the players find themselves in the Arena of the Undead Horde, they are trapped. Their way out is barred by an imposing and enchanted Iron Portcullis. The portcullis does not lift until they have completed the encounter.

“You step into an arena. Bloody sand awaits you underfoot. Rows upon rows of empty stands rise like granite hills on all sides of you. The walls that separate you from these empty seats are lined with enormous serrated and barbed spikes. The sky – stifled with obsidian-black clouds and rumbling with thunder – swirls above you, the half-light of a distant, detained sun can touch only the edges of the scene before you.”

The Arena is the first bit of a two-part encounters that players will find themselves up against. Set within the walls of a gladiatorial ruin, the party have to prove themselves worthy in order to escape. All the while, they are watched by thousands of ghostly spectators, screaming for their blood.

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Each miniature placed on the map elicits a groan from at least one member of the party.

Epic Encounters’ Campaign Book recommends throwing a reasonably large amount of enemies at the party. This is an important show down, after all. Of course, if your party are low level or unfamiliar with D&D, you do not have to.

For the sake of this review, I followed the encounter guide exactly. I also used the narrative text in the Campaign Book as well as a little of my own to keep the players engaged.

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Running the encounter was also extremely easy. With everything clearly signposted to the DM in the Campaign Book, keeping track of everything was very straightforward.

The impressive arena set up really kept the players on their toes. With fire nozzles, a spike pit, and other obstacles from the Campaign Book, the players needed to be switched on. Instead of just rushing around whacking stuff or hurling spells willy-nilly, they actually had to think.

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The environment both rewards and punishes players for interacting with it. Thanks to the high-quality print of the map, it’s easy for players to identify key features of the landscape.

Dave, spotting the Tar Pit surrounded by archers mid-encounter, hurled a fire spell at it. Rewarding his use of the terrain, we said that the spell caused a huge explosion and damaged nearby enemies. This turned the archers to ashes, and the players on to other parts of the environment.

The Spike Pit proved to be a fast favourite amongst players, too. Whilst Ollie suplexed an Ironskull Executioner onto the spikes, Dave nearly ended up falling into it himself. Accosted by a trio of Ironskull Duellists, he was driven back to the very edge of the pit.

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The Spike Pit – the dark stripe in the centre of the picture – proved a popular feature for the players.

Another key part of the encounter is the ghostly crowd. The Campaign Book suggests punishing players who hide at the edge of the arena by having the spectral spectators attack them. There’s a neat little table in the book for DMs to roll on to see what the undead crowd does.

This is an excellent way of upping the tension and ensuring players are getting stuck in. I made use of this at several points. At the start of the encounter, Richard and Lizzie were keeping a little far from the main action. Being able to attack them with the crowd encouraged them to take their chances with their foes in the middle of the arena and think more creatively about their positioning.

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Dave’s Staff of the Python, represented by an appropriately-coloured D6, gets ready to deal the killing blow to an Ironskull Duellist.

It took us a very neat hour to clear the first part of the encounter. The first photo of the encounter that Lizzie took was timestamped 13:49, the last was at 14:50.

“The undead may be legion – for this is their city, and they are everywhere – but they are not without their own form of twisted honour. Perhaps a shadow of what was once good in them still remains in their rotted minds, for as the last foe falls, the Iron Portcullis at the rear of the arena is raised – though nothing else appears from beyond it.”

“As you watch, the howl of the spectres that had watched you with such jubilation and elation dims. Slowly, the creatures settle back into their seats and cross their arms and legs, as if waiting for an intermission to end. But as they do so, one by one they fade away. Soon, they are all gone.”

Players are then encouraged to leave the main arena floor by way of the Iron Portcullis. As they have now proven themselves worthy, it opens to allow the heroes passage. When they pass through it, they find themselves in the Training Room.

III. The Training Pit

Battered and beleaguered from the fight in the arena, the players find themselves at the mercy of the undead again.

“You leave the now deathly silent arena behind you and head through the Iron Portcullis. You almost immediately step into a wide, rectangular training room. This room is lit by torches – though just who lit them is unclear, for the undead do not need firelight to see by. In the centre of the chamber, vast maces at their sides and eyeless faces fixed on you, are two enormous skeletons accompanied by beasts made up of the fusion of many bones.”

At the rear of the Training Pit are a pair of huge doors. These are the only was out. Separating the players from whatever lies beyond the confines of the Arena, freedom lies beyond them. However, the players have one final obstacle to overcome.

The training room is full of angry undead, presided over by a pair of gigantic Ironskull Andabatae. That, and there are more traps and features for the DM to exploit.

These towering opponents make for a formidable fight. To make matters worse, each is also accompanied by a savage Ironskull Leonite. The Campaign Book also suggests hiding even more enemies around the chamber to make the encounter truly challenging.

Once again, the players took plenty of time to study the excellent map that comes with the set. Using this (and a few good perception rolls) they were able to ascertain that there were more enemies stashed away in some of the darker corners of the chamber than I had at first revealed.

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The stat blocks of the enemies in the training room make for a tough fight – one I wasn’t completely sure my battered and bruised party would actually survive. With spell slots expended from the previous fight and their supply of potions looking a little low, they decided to take a different approach to the Training Room.

Instead of fighting the last few waves of undead, the limping party decided they would sneak by them. Thanks to a well-saved spell slot and a Pass without Trace spell, the party were able to sneak by. To keep them on their toes, I had one of the Leonites become aware of the party at the last moment, just as they were slipping through the doors and trying to seal them shut.

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The DM would’ve been upset that the party had figured out a way to skip his carefully-planned encounter – if he had been the one to plan it.

Again, thanks to the flexibility of the Epic Encounters set, this kind of approach is something that DMs can quite easily facilitate if they so wish. Whilst the Campaign Book will suggest a layout and appropriate enemies for the encounter, it does not force DMs and adventuring parties to adventure a particular way. Instead, of offers a set of circumstances and says to players “solve this”.

With the Arena of the Undead Horde behind them, the players were able to move on to the next part of their adventure: the Tower of the Lich Empress.

We’ll cover the next Epic Encounters box in a separate review and another How to Play article. Keep your eyes peeled for this.

How to Play Epic Encounters: Arena of the Undead Horde – Summary

Lizzie, Richard, Dave and Ollie were unanimous in their assessment of Arena of the Undead Horde: it’s excellent.

From the perspective of players, the resources available in Arena of the Undead Horde are absolutely fantastic for supporting an exciting and engaging adventure. For starters, the supremely detailed miniatures added so much visual interest to the playing space. The Ironskull Andabatae and Deathriders evoked the appropriate “Oh no!” and “God almighty, what is that?!” reactions when they were placed on the table. No less impressive, the smaller figures also came under plenty of fascinated scrutiny from the adventurers.

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One thing I pointed out in our product review for Arena of the Undead Horde is that all the models of a type are monopose (i.e. all the archers look the same). At first, I had thought this a bit of a shame, but having now played with the set, I get it. During the Arena encounter, my players were able to tell their foes apart at a glance, without so much as a word of input from me. It was always clear which the Archers were, where the Duellists were standing, and who was trying to cut Ollie’s head off: an Executioner or a Knight (or Dave, on one occasion).

The maps also worked a treat for the players. In the past, I, like many people, have frequently resorted to white board pens and a wipe-clean mat of some kind to produce battle maps. These kind of maps, usually made of black squiggles and red and blue and green blotches, whilst sufficient, rarely do anything to keep players engaged. However, Epic Encounters’ maps had the players’ interests from the moment they were unfolded. There are so many details – and, thus, so many areas of the environment that can be exploited – that they really had to think about the placement of their characters and their relative positions on the battlefield.

From the perspective of a DM, Epic Encounters: Arena of the Undead Horde is something truly special. Being a DM is hard. A lot of the time, trying to DM is a little like trying to simultaneously herd cats and wrestle a greased pig. Your players never do what you expect them to do, and if there are any cracks in your plans, you can be damned sure they’ll find them – unwittingly or otherwise.

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Arena of the Undead Horde takes so much of the stress out of planning and managing an encounter. Because so much of it is already done for you, DMs are able to focus on the important and enjoyable stuff: ensuring your campaign is exciting, rolling your own dice, and seeing everyone smile.

And trust me: they will smile.

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For a closer look at the contents in this box, make sure you read our in-depth product review of Arena of the Undead Horde. You won’t be disappointed.

Want to see how the adventurers fare in the next part of their campaign? Check out both our Tower of the Lich Empress review and How to play!

Also, a huge thanks to Ollie, Richard, Dave and the Lizzies for all their help. A big round of applause for the awesome The Games Table for hosting us, too!

Has Arena of the Undead Horde whetted your appetite for more D&D? Check out Steamforged Games’ brand-new Epic Encounters: Local Legends Kickstarter for more awesome D&D-compatible content!

Click this link & buy your hobby stuff from Element Games for the UK & Europe to support FauxHammer.com – Use Code “FAUX2768” at the checkout for double reward points.

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Author

  • Rob has spent most of the last 15 years playing World of Warcraft and writing stories set in made-up worlds. At some point, he also managed to get a Master's degree by writing about Medieval zombies.

About VoltorRWH 103 Articles
Rob has spent most of the last 15 years playing World of Warcraft and writing stories set in made-up worlds. At some point, he also managed to get a Master's degree by writing about Medieval zombies.

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