Saturday, 15 June 2019

Rift City Session 23

Coming up on 2 years for the Rift City campaign and we seem to be settling in to our new home at the Black Horse in Aylestone. The 23 session saw a slightly larger party brave the caves - we were joined by a new player for this session and a couple of people who've missed the last few also made it to this one.

In the end the party this session was:

Berg – 3rd Level Dwarf
Brigham – 2nd Level Cleric*
Cnut – 3rd Level Fighter
Elenya – 2nd Level Elf **
Galen – 3rd Level Elf
Gibbet – 4th Level Thief
Karensa – 3rd Level Elf
Nelson – 2nd Level MU***

*as Bonjella the Elf died at the last session, this was Bonjella's player's new character. Rather than have a problem integrating low-level characters into the game, new characters start with the lowest level in the party. Currently they're all 2nd or above.
**new player and new character - for the level, see previous note.
***the MU that was the new character of Gene's player when he dies a couple of sessions ago - for level, see note before the previous one...

In a break with the recent run of things the party chose to go to caves on the right (downhill) side of the road, rather than fight their way to the only staircase they've yet found. They found a rough path down and when it split they chose the less-used fork as that would probably have more undisturbed treasure.

Finding a cave, the party entered and discovered a stairway cut into the rock at the rear of the cave. Following it down it they came to a long straight corridor running back into the hillside. Following this down a little way they came to a door in the right-hand (western) wall. As they reached it, an Orc patrol spied them from further down the corridor, and gave chase. The party piled into the room behind the door and waited for the Orcs to attack.

Barging through the door, the Orcs were met by a hail of arrows, daggers and thrown axes. The PCs made pretty short work of the Orcs (who kept making stupidly over-confidant Morale checks) and soon all were dead, at which point the PCs looted them and found some nice jewellery, possibly looted from an old corpse - which netted the party 890gp back in town (I don't think I'll be spoiling anything to say that at least some of the PCs made it back to town).

They explored the room and noted several exits. There was also a mosaic floor with ghoulish scenes of slaughter and cannibalism. Lovely. This series of rooms seems to have been built by people who are fond of portcullises instead of proper doors as several in this area had them - the party seemed quite fond of spiking them open. They moved north and checked out another rooms, finding curiosities but no monsters or treasure, before heading south and encountering some giant weasels.

These were a little tougher than the Orcs but there were only three. The party killed them and searched the room, where they found a small amount of treasure, in the strange coinage of the Ancients. Then Galan, with his superior Elf-senses (which he no doubt calls 'senses', thank you Aragorn), spotted that a patch of mould in one corner was actually an illusion hiding a secret door.

Going through the door delivered the PCs into a larger room, and here there were giant lizards. They did take a bit more effort to defeat than the weasels, but the PCs overcame them too - with one injury, though I now can't remember whose [Galan's player has said that it was Gibbet, in the report here].

The lizards had also amassed some treasure - some copper and gold coins (these are newer and must have been brought to the caves since their rediscovery in the last 200 years or so). There was also a scroll among the treasure.

Pushing on the PCs were attacked by Stirges, but Sleep and swords dealt with them; then on to another room with a kind of pool in it, where the portcullises seemed to be held by some enchantment because they really wouldn't move. The party decided to set them on fire, but they didn't burn very quickly and the party retreated back they way they'd come, away from the smoke.

Threading their way back the party encountered a group of men who they might perhaps have negotiated with, but violence quickly broke out and again the tossing around of Sleep spells caused the encounter to go in the party's favour. Looting the bodies produced some more goodies.

Somewhere around here, Galan decided to see what was on the scroll. No sooner had he started to read than he felt himself overcome by some form of evil magic - not fatally, but he did feel weakened somehow.

As the PCs made their way back to the room with the exit, an Ogre came towards them. She wore a strange turban-like affair on her head and was surprisingly difficult to hit. Having disposed of her (I think someone else was injured in this encounter... I'm certain at least two of the party was injured at the end of the session, besides Galan's curse) the party looted the body gaining more gold and taking the turban (which, when they got it into the light, was more like a cloak for a human).

And that was that - the party high-tailed it back to town to divvy up the loot. I'm not sure anyone went up a level this time. Ah well, there's always tomorrow...

Sunday, 26 May 2019

Rift City Session 22

Our 22nd session in all and the second session at our new and hopefully long-term venue - the Black Horse in Aylestone - and a slightly larger party this time. The party was made up of:

Bonjella - 2nd Level Elf
Cnut - 3rd Level Fighter
Galan Foxflower - 2nd Level Elf
Gibbet - 3rd Level Thief
Karensa - 2nd Level Elf

Lyracian - Galan's player - has done a write-up of the session on his blog, "Playing Dice with the Universe" - link here. Thanks for the write-up Lyracian!

I can't think of anything in particular that needs to be added at this stage. Bojella's death was obviously something of a blow, but we have a funny feeling that a Cleric will be joining the party at the next session...

Tuesday, 7 May 2019

Rift City Session 21 - A New Hope...

We may have found a new permanent venue. On Sunday, we went to a pub called the Black Horse in Aylestone, Leicester; this is because our previous venue, The Criterion, now seems to have closed.

Along with the usual 'noise' that we get with attendance (people having to work Sunday shifts, or their partners having to do so leading to childcare issues, it was the Easter Holidays, and also the National Student Gaming Championships being held this year in Glasgow. As a result, we were quite a few of or usual participants down this session. In the end, the PCs that made their way down to the caves this time around were:

Bonjella the 1st Level Elf
Cnut the 2nd Level Fighter
Gibbet the 3rd Level Thief
Karensa the 2nd Level Elf

The first thing that it was necessary for me to do was to explain to Bonjella, Cnut and Gibbet that the last 'day' of gaming, because the party at the last session had done a lot of visiting and resting, had taken much longer than a day, and there was now a 'calendar drift' - far from session 21 being also day 21, as session 20 had taken days 20 (exploring), 21 (resting), 22 (exploring), 23 (resting), 24 (resting) and 25 (exploring), session 21 was actually taking place on day 26. So everyone staying at the Inn owed another week's board and lodging.

Adopting a marching order of Karensa-Cnut-Gibbet-Bonjella, the party decided to throw current policy to the wind and go back to one of the partly-explored caves that they'd visited earlier - the cave entrance where they suspected that Ulfang the Black, bandit-king of the Kobolds, might be hiding (as they'd obtained a map with 'kobs' marked on it which they thought probably meant 'Kobolds').
Copy of the map from Ningal the Magic User
Realising that without Galan, they didn't have a reliable map was something of a problem, though Gibbet, Cnut and Karensa had all been to these caves before, and Bonjella too I think (but it may have been Polly). Still they worked out a route that they thought would take them there. Basically by keeping the cave-wall on the left they figured that they'd get there. But, they didn't really reckon with the map not being a literal representation. The corridor immediately north-west of the 'vile crawlers' in the centre in particular was a bit of a problem as it is a bit more complex than shown.

Anyway, they did find their way through in something like this fashion, where the blue dashed line is the outward (inward?) journey and the green line the way back.

First they explored the cave to the east, just inside the entrance, to see that it didn't actually join up, but they confirmed that it was indeed a dead end. And it contained a slime, which the PCs attacked with arrows and, finding that that didn't work, with torches.

Beyond that point they ran into some Giant Bees. The PCs attacked them with missile weapons so convincingly that there were no bits left for Bonjella to harvest.

Shortly after that the party came to a cave where a stone statue stood (marked with an asterisk on the map); graffiti on the wall claimed that it was an adventurer slain by a basilisk; there was also a small imp-like creature that was hiding from them. Quashing the urge to kill it, Bonjella gave it some food but it still wouldn't come out of hiding, so the party moved on, as it seemed it wasn't planning on doing them any harm.

Coming to the large cave at the bottom of the map the PCs noticed a large hole in the ceiling. They'd spotted this before, and some debate was had as to whether or not they'd actually exited from it before. If so, it was ages ago, they haven't been this way for about 6 months, and I don't actually remember.

Pushing on, they tended round to the left in a north-easterly direction, and found themselves in a cave where they were attacked by a Harpy. Originally this was just a randomly-occurring monster, but as the party had dealings with a gaggle of Harpies a few months ago (probably, in game terms, about 11 days previously), there was no reason not to make this the one Harpy that actually escaped, and was therefore out for revenge. But the PCs managed to deal with it before anything too untoward happened.

The Harpy's cave, on Ningal's map, had a passageway off to the east marked 't'. There were many suggestions as to what 't' might mean, but Gibbet did check for traps - and realised that the exit was indeed trapped. This lead to one of those sentences that you have to suspect no-one else has ever said: "we throw the dead Harpy on the pressure-plate".

With the trap disabled, the party scooted through and found themselves in the next cave, where the was an 'f' marked on the map. This, it turned out, was a fountain, carved with tormented faces, with the water pouring out of their mouths, noses and eyes. Also, there was a bunch of skeletons.

Tooled up as they are with Sleep spells, and also adventuring without a Cleric, this left them with few options other than combat, but even 6 skeletons are going to find it tough going against opponents mostly wearing plate. Having smashed them up good, a quick scout around produced a treasure chest with some loot in it, which wasn't trapped; so the party pocketed the treasure and left the chest behind.

Moving past the Skeletons, they came to the area marked 'kobs' on the map - and lo and behold, 19 Kobolds were there to great them, and one of them, larger than the others, was indeed black! Ulfang had at last been located, and here the Sleep spells came into their own. 16 of the 19 were immediately downed as the other three, including Ulfang, charged the party. Even a super-tough Kobold chieftain with two of his tougher-than-average guards is no match for a tooled-up dungeon-party however, and in very short order, Ulfang and his entourage were all dead and the head of the miscreant had been stuffed into Bonjella's sack, to claim a reward back in town.

If they could get back to town...

The first bump on the way back was a small pack of giant Driver Ants. Only four of them but that proved a more dangerous proposition than a gang of Kobolds. Gibbet in particular took a chewing, as he had the worst armour, and it was touch-and-go for a moment; but the Ants were defeated, and Gibbet begged a Healing potion from Karensa, restoring at least some health. Good thing too, because more encounters were to come.

Next up was another group of skeletons; there were seven of these, but in fact were not really any more difficult than the first lot. The party is pretty difficult to hit (except Gibbet and he was definitely keeping out of the way).

Eventually they made it back to the place where the roof had collapsed, planning to climb out - but they discovered that an angry boar had fallen in, and stood between them and safety. Now boars are dangerous beasts and this one certainly proved to be so, taking a lot of effort to kill, but fall it eventually did allowing the PCs to scramble out and make their battered way back to town to divide the loot and claim the reward for doing away with Ulfang the Black.

Friday, 12 April 2019

Rift City Session 20 - what a day we've had!

Firstly, our usual venue was not ready so once again we decamped to Berg & Galan's house - many thanks again to them for their hospitality!

Secondly... some PCs were injured after the last session (Berg in particular) so the decision was taken to wait for a day of game-time (day 20) to let people heal.

That meant that the PCs set off to the caves on day 21. The party at this point consisted of:

Berg (2nd Level Dwarf)
Galan (2nd Level Elf)
Gene (2nd Level Fighter)
Karensa (2nd Level Elf)
Marl (2nd Level Halfling)

and they were joined by a new character, Karina, a 1st Level Thief

They made their way to the area they call the 'Bath-house of Blibdoolpoolp' as their idea was to find their way down to Level 2 where they hoped there might be some more loot.

Approaching the entrance, they realised it had been barricaded. Berg and Marl decided to start shifting parts of it, but whoever was inside noticed (the Elves realised the inhabitants must have been Hobgoblins) and a spear sliced out of a gap in the barricade and stabbed Berg. Karina shot though one of the gaps and luckily managed to hit one of the Hobgoblins. However the party decided that it was too dangerous to be close to the barricade so they covered it in lamp-oil and set fire to it.

After a few moments, obviously deciding they needed to do something about the people burning their door down, two Hobgoblins leapt through the flaming gap. Of course, the PCs were ready for this manoeuvre, and peppered them with arrows.

Berg searched the Hobgoblins as the rest made their way inside. The Hobgoblins all had jewellery, and in the room were some sacks containing coins. The party thought that perhaps the guards were demanding danger money for the extremely hazardous job of guarding this doorway.

As they'd scored some loot immediately and Berg (who is something of a tank and often takes point) had been heavily injured, the PCs high-tailed it back to town.

I'm not really sure of the sequence of events here, I have to admit. It was very confusing. Some of the party advanced a level due to the treasure from the first brief foray (Gene certainly went up a level, to 3rd). But they'd only been to the first room, and we'd only been gaming for about half an hour in total, so they then waited for Berg to heal before heading to the Caves for another go.

So now we were on day 22. The PCs again headed to the Bath-house, found that nothing had moved in to the first room, and headed for the top of the stairs. Entering the room where the corridor with the staircase was to be found, they realised there were some giant spiders there. The PCs made short work of them, and headed on to the staircase. They hoped that this would lead them to the rooms on the treasure map they'd found at the previous session.

On reaching the bottom of the staircase, they found a large corridor with various doors off it that didn't seem to fit the map. Exploring a little further they found a large room that might have been used at some time as some kind of audience chamber, but was at present just large and empty.

Moving back towards the area they'd already been they approached a set of double doors at the same time as two more giant spiders (slightly bigger than, and seemingly a different species to, the others) came through form the other side. Backing up and using missile fire the PCs managed to take them out without taking any damage, and the PCs went on. The doors opened into the original corridor - there wasn't actually a room behind - so the party continued exploring. Coming across an opening from the corridor and seeing what appeared to be an empty room, the PCs piled in.

However, they didn't check for traps and Berg set off a poison gas trap. Unfortunately Gene failed to make his save and died; two of the other characters (can't remember which, but I think it was Galan and Marl) were down to 1hp.

The party decided that they needed to wait until everyone was healed again, so they waited another two days back in town (days 23 and 24). Then they went back to the area again (day 25)...

There was a bunch of encounters with wandering things - and from a 'behind the curtain' point of view, it was very hard to keep up with the restocking. Usually I have the time between sessions to work out the percentages for some other monster moving in and then restocking the lists of wanderers and so on. Here I was answering questions about how long people needed to heal while simultaneously trying to generate new stat-blocks for monsters. It was somewhat chaotic to say the least.

However, the party got back to it. They reached the same point that they'd been before, pushed on through another couple of rooms, and then ended up in a fight with some leaping, shrieking Giant Shrews. They were pretty vicious and leapt on the heads of several party members. But they did manage to fight them all of and finally made it both out and back.

I think that was how we left it...

And now another episode is about to ensue - next session, Sunday evening, if I can get my damned machine with the dungeon on it to work. If not, I'll have to make something up...shh! Don't tell them!

Sunday, 3 March 2019

Rift City - Session 19, on tour...

Due to our usual venue being used as part of the Leicester Comedy Festival, this month our game was at Berg and Galan's house, and a very fine venue it was too, so thanks for putting up with us.

The party consisted, apart from Berg (1st Level Dwarf) and Galan (2nd Level Elf), of...

Bonjella (1st Level Elf)
Gene (2nd Level Fighter)
Gibbet (3rd Level Thief)
Karensa (1st Level Elf)
Marl (1st Level Halfling)

and a new player and PC, Greydon (1st Level Magic User).

Having found Greydon breakfasting in the inn and looking for a party of adventurers to go raiding the caves, the PCs set off again for 'the bath-house of Blibdoolpoolp'.

In the first room, just inside the door, where previously they had encountered Harpies and before that Kobolds, the party found three humans who Gibbet quickly realised were 'legitimate businessmen' of some kind. There were barrels, something wrapped in a cloth, and a couple of chests in the room that had not been there before. Deciding that this must be some of the loot from the missing caravan, the PCs basically provoked the human chaps into starting a fight. They then butchered the men and looted them. It turned out that the barrels weren't stolen property - instead, it looked like the barrels (ale), cloth-wrapped cheeses and chests (of weapons) were being taken into the caves not out of them.

And then...

I don't know any more. Lots of things happened. A room was explored that seemed to be some kind of office, and this map was discovered...

The PCs were exploring round the southern end of this. There were definitely fights with Orcs and evil Dwarves and some snakes and some Killer Bees and more Traders...

Somewhere, another map was found that looked like this (an actual treasure map!):

Map created using the excellent tools at Donjon, with some tweaking

Bonjella got herself a fur body-warmer and some loot was to be had for definite, and then the party split up (I think, Greydon and Galan had passed out in a room that caused unconsciousness, and rest of the party dragged them out and left them in the first room, then went off to do something else)... this ended up with Greydon being hassled by a giant lizard as Galan ran away, if I recall correctly. The rest of the party luckily arrived as Greydon was about to be eaten, so they killed the lizard.

And that was about that...

Next session it seems we'll also have a problem with the venue, so the Wandering Monster Table will be on an extended tour... I hope I'll be better at telling how the next one goes!

Tuesday, 22 January 2019

Rift City - Session 18

We've reached 18 sessions now with the Rift City campaign.

At this session, the party consisted of:

Berg (1st Level Dwarf)
Galen (2nd Level Elf)
Gene (2nd Level Fighter)
Gwynthor (2nd Level Cleric)
Karensa (1st Level Elf)
Marl (1st Level Halfling)
Shazam (1st Level Elf)

The PCs decided to head back to the area they're calling the 'Bath-house of Blibdoolpoolp' - where, previously, they've encountered Kobolds, Orcs, Fire Beetle, Rats, Bats, Undead and Harpies. The Harpies had left the place in a bit of a state, with smashed furniture and guano all over the place, but as there was no fresh guano, it looked like the surviving Harpy hadn't returned since the last session.

Instead, the PCs found that the entrance rooms had been taken over by Bugbears. There were 5 of them and these proved quite tough for the party, as Berg (who was on point) found to her cost, taking a nasty sword-to-the-head that did 7pts of damage rendering her quite poorly. However, the superior armour of the PCs won out pretty quickly, as the Bugbears found it hard to make their attacks count, and the party butchered them (the Bugbears having passed morale tests that might reasonably have seen them flee). Gwynthor immediately healed Berg as best he could with his clerical magic, but she only got a few points back. She spent the rest of the session a bit more in the middle rank after that. Searching the room and the corpses, the party found some coinage, gems, jewellery and a shiny shield, that Berg claimed.

Heading south out of the Bugbears' room, the party crossed a corridor and barged down another door. Inside they found a Snake but managed to dispatch it without incident. It was a very weak snake I have to say, it only had 1hp. I don't remember putting that snake in that room, but I must have done... I wonder now why I did it. Searching around the room, the PCs found an exit taking them down to the second level. Leaving that for another day, they headed back to the areas that they'd already seen.

Coming out of the snake-room, the PCs encountered some Dwarves, who were also on an adventure. Taking the lead, Berg told them about the stairs down. They seemed quite pleased at that and headed in that direction.

Going the other way, the PCs headed for the waterfall that they discovered at the last session. The corridor beyond was dark, so the water acted a bit like a mirror, not giving them much clue as to what was beyond, or how thick it was. It was also cold and not susceptible to infravision. Marl volunteered to find out how far the waterfall extended, and holding his shield above his head like an umbrella, pushed his way in and found out is was little more than a hand-span wide. The rest of the party adopted the same technique with their shields, and they made it through the water-curtain easily and only a little damp around the edges.

Beyond it they discovered that the corridor branched into three, to the right (north), the left (south) and straight on (west). Opting for the right-hand passage, but unable to see the end of it, the party ventured along it until it reached a left turn. After that the corridor continued westward again.

The next room that the party encountered was large, and dark, and had pillars. The party (who mostly have infravision) worked out it was a square with a kind of balcony or gallery round it. Not knowing what was lurking up there, the demi-human PCs tried to cautiously creep around to see if they could find a staircase, while Gene and Gwynthor waited behind out of the way. After a short while, however, there was a shout (though none of the party speak Kobold, they've encountered plenty in the last couple of weeks and I told them it sounded like a Kobold shout) and arrows started to come from above as the party had been spotted. Judicious use of magically-induced sleep, however, rendered the Kobolds comatose and the PCs, finding the spiral stair in the corner, ran up and began slitting their throats. There wasn't much looting to be had however, so collecting their lantern-using colleagues, they pressed on.

Another room, this one apparently empty, and then a third room since passing through the waterfall that was a bit of a puzzle. There was a large and impressive doorway, monumental even, with carved and tiled sections, but unfortunately it was on the inside, and also pretty large. There was no obvious way to take it down or apart in order to get it back to the city to sell as looted art. While they were puzzling about it, some stinky lizardy humanoids wandered in - Troglodytes! Luckily the PCs made a lot of saves v poison (I don't think anyone was affected at all) but one PC (Marl I think) was injured. However, the Trogs were disposed of fairly rapidly and the PCs consoled themselves with looting the bodies before high-tailing it out and back to town before anything else nasty found them.

I don't think anyone went up a level at this session but I may have just forgotten. We shall have to see what the next session brings, when we shall take our annual holiday from our usual venue as February is the time of the Leicester Comedy Festival and paying punters will be using the room. We're decamping a couple of miles away to the abode of Galan and Berg, who have kindly offered up their dining-room table for the evening, so thanks muchly to them.

In other news, I'm a bit astounded that we have kept this going to be honest, 18 months is not the longest I've played in a campaign but probably 18 sessions is the longest I've managed to keep a campign running! This has happened once a month for a year and a half in a public place (except for when we have to vacate in February) as an open table and I'm quite impressed that we have managed to do that - hurrah for us, and thanks to every one of the 20 or so players who've been involved, whether you've been to one session or 15 (I know I'm the only person to have been to every one)! I'll say here's to another 18 months - and certainly I'd be very happy if the Wandering Monster Table keeps going for another 18 months or more. Whether that will necessarily be the Rift City Campaign I don't know but the experiment in 'public-access gaming' I think has been pretty successful so far, and Basic D&D seems a really good game for this format - so long may it continue!

Saturday, 5 January 2019

Questing in Elfgames IX - It Ain't What You Do, It's the Way that You Do It...

I mentioned previously that 'how' the PC can fulfil a quest will depend both on what the relationship is between party and patron(s), and on how open-ended the nature of the task is. I'll be looking at the second of these criteria in this post.

I'm pretty certain that a quest that is too tightly-controlled is not going to be as satisfying as an open-ended one. If the 'plot' is that the PCs must collect the relics of McGuffin from various locations, and the Sage Andonion tell the PCs to "bring the Spoon of Density from the Dank Citadel to the Unpr'Onounc'Eable Temple in 7 days for the Night of the Moon of Blood or all will be lost", this is a pass/fail situation. The party takes four days to get to the Dank Citadel, and another day to battle their way in to get the Spoon. Unless there's a dragon or magic carpet or teleport spell to get them back to the Temple double quick, they've already failed if they can't get it to the Temple in time.

There is nothing wrong with that setup that can't be solved easily, though. The 'dragon or magic carpet or teleport spell' could be real enough. Andonion could give the party a scroll and tell them, 'when you have the Spoon, read this scroll and you will be brought back to this place'. If they ask why they can't just do a 'reverse-scroll' to get them into the Dank Citadel, then the scroll is a homing-spell and will return to to the place it was made (the Temple, not at the Citadel)... Lord Doombad's return-point would be at the Citadel, but they don't have Lord Doombad's scroll. I like this idea, I may even institute it in a game.

Or, there could be a dragon (perhaps an enchanted or otherwise compelled one) who might be persuaded to fly our heroes home. Or the tapestry on the wall might turn out to be a magic carpet that the PCs could fly back on. There should be multiple ways of reaching goals. But putting in time-constraints just for effect is probably not the way to go.

Letting the PCs fail because they ran out of time is perhaps not the PCs fault, it's maybe bad DMing I think. If they've taken too long to get to the Citadel and now can't get back in time because they faffed around in the Forest of Illimitable Mulch for too long on the way there, then their way probably wasn't clear enough for them to do what you expected - unless the idea is that they fail. Which, I'd suggest, it isn't. It should be possible for the PCs to fail for sure, but I think it's peculiar to require them to fail. It's also pretty railroady, as much as requiring them to succeed would be.

'Bring the Spoon of Density to the Unpr'Onounc'Eable Temple because we can use its magical energy to bind Lord Doombad' is better, because there's no real pass/fail condition. The PCs don't know about the Moon of Blood, it's OK if they take four days to get there and a day to find it and four more days to get back, that's fine. But I'd still have the teleport scroll and the dragon and the magic carpet just to be safe (or a flight of hippogriffs or or magic mirror that acts as a portal or some pretty heavy and speedy magical effect like dust that you sprinkle on your feet and you move ten times faster or whatever). If the point is getting the Spoon to the Temple then there should be ways to do that. If the point is the journey, then, maybe there aren't ways to short-cut it, but then, that shouldn't have a time-limit. What you can't have is a time-limited quest with no short-cuts, because that's a railroad.

'Bring the Spoon of Density to the Unpr'Onounc'Eable Temple because we can use its magical energy to bind Lord Doombad - but I urge you to hurry, his strength grows every day' is probably even better still, it puts a weak time condition on things that maybe will still be a motivator not to dawdle (as the 'Moon of Blood' condition) but doesn't have a binary pass/fail setup. Ultimately the PCs will still 'lose' if they take too much time but 'too much' is less clearly-defined.

The way wandering monsters work in a dungeon is in part dependant on how much time the PCs take to do things. 'Get in, don't search for traps and secret doors, kill monsters, take treasure, get out' will result in fewer wandering monsters than 'Get in, search carefully for traps and secret doors, kill monsters, take treasure, get out'. It will probably result in more deaths from traps, and less treasure from secret hiding places, than the second procedure. It's a balance the party must come to between being meticulous and being fast. And as a corollary, searching for secret doors should entail the party getting rewards some (most?) of the time. Else, why bother?

The same procedures can be applied to fulfilling quest-goals. Encounters in the wilderness or at the Dank Citadel should depend on how much time the PCs have 'wasted'. This why '... but I urge you to hurry, his strength grows every day' is probably a better time-condition than 'do this by then or all is lost'. All should not be lost. It may be harder ('...  his strength grows every day' might equate in game mechanics to 'add another Gnoll patrol for each day spent in the Forest of Illimitable Mulch, and increase the level and number of the Undead servants at the Citadel by d6' for example, because Lord Doombad is resurrecting the dead of a thousand years of war in the environs of the Dank Citadel), but there shouldn't be a point where the PCs calculate that a conclusion is inevitable. If the actions of the PCs don't make a difference, then there's no point playing (others may disagree, but to me at least if player action is meaningless, in the end it's just the DM reading a story with the players providing some dialogue. Some people might want that. That's fine but it's not what I do). The loss of time leading to a build-up of enemy forces should be balanced by some possibility of reward (if it's a deliberate loss of time at least), and without it necessarily entailing the PCs breaking the quest.

So, the PCs get diverted in the Forest and go to the Vale of Silky Death in the centre of the woods. There they fight the Giant Spiders, who have nothing directly to do with the quest. The PCs acquire the Wonderweb Cloak (a powerful magic item in its own right that may help them in the quest) and also make allies of the Grubmen (who were the Spiders' slaves), but as a result Lord Doombad has recruited more Gnoll soldiers in the Forest, and when the PCs get to the Citadel there are more, and more powerful, Undead around.

The PCs could have saved time and bypassed the Giant Spiders, in which case, they'd have met fewer Gnoll patrols and faced less serious enemies in the Citadel, but wouldn't have the Cloak or the knowledge of the secret way into the Citadel that the Grubmen gave them. That is a reasonable trade-off, and even though the PCs shouldn't necessarily be able to calculate that in advance (they don't know the Wonderweb Cloak is there, they don't know the Grubmen could give them useful information), they should at least have the expectation that 'having adventures' will not be detrimental to the game. If the DM is penalising the players for exploration and adventuring, then I'd say something has probably gone wrong somewhere.

Going through the Vale of Silky Death, fighting the Spiders, rescuing the Grubmen and gaining the Cloak, means that instead of facing one Gnoll patrol and finding 10 Skeleton guards at the Dank Citadel, they fight two Gnoll patrols and find 14 Zombie guards. If they also go to the Mountain of Mumbling Medusae and fight the residents there, they might get their hands on the Mirror of Madness and befriend the Rockmen; but then they'll find three Gnoll patrols in the Forest and 19 Ghoul guards at the Citadel. If they also go to the Lake of Lachrymose Lycanthropes, the PCs can find the Flying Dagger of Flamfloon and get information from the Purple Pixies, but they'll run into four Gnoll patrols and 23 Wight guards, and so on.

So yes, if the PCs want to go off on side-quests it should be a question of balancing risk and reward (roughly, because they shouldn't necessarily know the specifics). They have been warned that Lord Doombad will grow stronger if they delay, but they should also have an inkling that there is more than one way to reach the destination. Otherwise it's just a railroad.

More, possibly much more, on this to come. With lots of diversions for interesting byways I suspect.