Friday, November 27, 2009

Well, Obviously

I thought I should get around to formally conceding there's nothing going on on Eleven Foot Pole.

* Yes, I am well and alive and happy.
* No, I am not writing much of anything at the moment, including blog posts.
* Yes, you are welcome to contact me by email.
* No, I am not ruling out the possibility of more posts here in the future but there is no schedule or firm intention in that regard.

The magic of the internet allows you to keep Eleven Foot Pole on your RSS feeds and watch lists at a cost of zero effort to your good selves so that would appear to be a worthwhile thing to do. At the very least if I end up writing anything else on another site I'll leave some notification here.

Thank you to the huge number of people who have read the blog, you are all excellent!

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Winterhaven Revisited

A mini-post, for Saturday:

Between my writing here, the several games of Keep on the Shadowfell I've played in or run, and the discussion I've had about it on forums, I feel like I know Winterhaven pretty well by now.

Which makes it very odd to see Winterhaven rendered artistically from the original KoTS map and find it recognisable. Like it's a place that actually existed, and that I've been to.

Some of you, I know, are already well acquainted with D&D Doodles - particularly its author Crazyred, who's an Eleven Foot Pole reader! Somehow Crazyred's failed to heavily promote his site here at EFP so I'll do it for him. All of you who haven't been there before, go give it a quick click.

Relevantly to the focus of Eleven Foot Pole, D&D Doodles features an awesome series of Nentir-vale related sketch art and maps. They do a great job of bringing 4th Edition's "default setting" to life and making it seem like a real place that people live in. If you've not seen it before, go and check out his Winterhaven, his Fallcrest, and the wealth of other excellent doodling and cartography that's on display.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Hall of Howling Pillars

There's not much to say about this encounter so I'll keep it brief.

The Hall of Howling Pillars is a straightforward ambush. Players need to get their hands on the bell of fury's calling, located on an altar in the southeast, but they're obstructed by (a) the "howling pillars", which are horrific columns of living, tortured flesh that scream (and vomit) at adventurers who disturb their domain, and (b) a pack of carnage demons hidden with the pillars.

When the PCs get near the altar, the carnage demons emerge from their hiding spots and a battle ensues.

I actually ran this one wrong; I had the demons emerge too early, allowing the PCs to pick them off in pairs, so I've got no real feel for how it works when used as intended.

Probably the most interesting aspect, mechanically speaking, of this encounter is the bell itself. All of the items hidden in the rooms around the Proving Grounds are in some way cursed, and the curses tie into the themes of rage and madness that underlie the history of Saruun Khel. It's interesting in that cursed magical items, although part of a long tradition of D&D, have been removed from 4th Edition, and to some extent Thunderspire is going to lengths here to re-introduce them.

The intention of the 4th Edition rules is that magical items are always beneficial. Their usefulness varies, but you're never worse off as a result of finding them. And so the cursed items in Thunderspire follow that idea. Each of the three items has a horrible drawback, but it's balanced out by a compensating benefit.

For example, the bell of fury's calling has a handle covered with terrible spikes. Ringing it causes the wielder to take 2d10 damage. Everyone who hears the sound goes into a mad frenzy, causing their defences to lower but their attack and damage rolls to enjoy a healthy +2 bonus. It's a vicious item and players have to think carefully about the trade-offs involved.

I actually really enjoy this approach to magic item design. These kind of "cursed items" really convey a sense of the risks involved in dabbling with magic, and I'd love to see sacrifice/buff items explored further in Adventurer's Vault supplements. Like all min/maxing items there's very real potential balance issues involved but judging by what we've seen so far of the Adventurer's Vault 2, item balance is clearly not something that troubles the developers, so we can at least hope for broken items that are cool.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009


Here's the thing: when the players win, the DM doesn't lose.

The second of Baphomet's tests is called the Hall of the Crimson Whip, and it features one of the most memorable environments in Thunderspire Labyrinth - a lake of blood watched over by two mammoth statues of whip-wielding minotaurs.

Two podiums at the far side of the lake hold the haft and blade of the bloodhorn blade, one of the four items players will need to cross the Proving Grounds. There's no obvious way to get to the podiums without walking into the creepy red pools.

It's an obvious trap. Players know they're going to get screwed; the excitement is in finding out how. It's going to involve the statues, and probably the blood itself. Players are asked, essentially, to bet on how they think the trap is going to work, with a good guess allowing them to minimise the damage they take when it springs.

As it turns out, stepping into the blood, or putting so much as a foot on the walkway that divides the chamber in two, springs the surprise. The two statues pivot at the waist so as to strike practically everyone in the room - if they hit they do damage, knock the target prone, and slide them into the blood. The blood itself deals damage to any non-humans who are immersed in it, and to make matters worse there are three evistros (carnage demons) hiding under the surface. The evistros deal bonus damage in the blood pool and get massive buffs for hunting as a pack.

It's a vicious trap and it doesn't get better once the bloodhorn blade has been retrieved - at that point, the blood starts to drain from the chamber, creating a tide carrying everything in it to the west - that is, away from the exit.

This is a good encounter; it's an excellent example of a trap with character and menace and it's probably going to be one of the most memorable bits of the module. You should look forward to this one.

My guys, though, neutered it.

I don't often mix the anecdotes of my personal game with the general analysis of the encounter, but I think it's worth the time here. When my group got to this encounter, they correctly guessed that stepping into the blood would be bad news. So our Eladrin Fighter, Alcarian, put on his boots of water walking and took a casual stroll across the surface of the lake to get the blade.

The trap still triggered; it went off when he got to the walkway. But high Fighter defenses allowed him to avoid the statues' attacks, and the rest of the party were safe in the doorway. The evistros were unable to catch him and pin him down, and with the aid of some double moves, his fey step, and a dose of luck, he scooped up the magical items and hightailed it to the door without taking so much as a scratch.

My first reaction was to be immensely frustrated. A combination of factors had come together to let the group skip one of Thunderspire's best moments. But it was a bad reaction.

Alcarian didn't shortcut the encounter by dumb luck or by abusing some inherently broken mechanic. He did it by using an otherwise underpowered magical item that he'd earned through combat, together with the iconic strength of his class (Fighter high AC) and race (Eladrin fey step). In other words, he did the job he'd specifically built his character to do. That's a huge success for him both as a player and as a character, and it's a more memorable victory for him than any amount of evistro-killing would have been.

Sometimes breaking an encounter can be more satisfying for a player than completing it as intended. Beating the system can be more memorable than mastering the system and when players earn a shortcut, giving them the benefit of that will make everyone have a better game as a result.

My guys earned their shortcut here. But for everyone else, let me know how this one went for you, won't you?

Tuesday, August 18, 2009


I'm having a very busy real-life week which isn't leaving a lot of time for blogging, but so you don't all just assume I've died, here's some loose thoughts, which I'm sorry don't fit well into the overall scheme of the blog. Some of them barely rise above reconstituted news.

Dark Sun in 2010

* Wizards have announced the 2010 campaign setting for D&D as being Dark Sun. I was hoping for Dragonlance, but Dark Sun still excites me a lot more than Eberron or the Realms.

For those not familiar, Dark Sun is a kind of post-apocalyptic setting of barren deserts, slavery and dead gods, where each and every use of magic makes the world die just a little bit more. Metal's rare and psionics are common and just surviving the environment is every bit as much of a challenge as defeating its inhabitants.

Designer James Wyatt says he "felt it was time to show the breadth of what’s possible in the game, just what a broad swathe D&D’s kind of fantasy can cover." That's a noble sentiment, and it's entirely possible that 4th Edition's going to step up to the plate. There could even now be an evolution taking place as the ruleset ripens into a fuller and more mature incarnation.

On the other hand, I can't help but feel they're setting themselves up to demonstrate how essentially weak 4th Edition's non-combat mechanics are, and how little the combat balance is able to withstand mathematical tinkering. Still, better to try and fail than never try at all, I suppose.

Storytelling and the Dungeon Master's Guide 2

* The Dungeon Master's Guide 2 has a whole chapter devoted to storytelling, and the surprise is that it's not merely competent but actually rather good. The kind of D&D For Dummies nuts-and-bolts approach of the first (deeply lacking) DMG holds up surprisingly well when applied to things that are worth saying. The fusion of creativity and connect-the-dots formulaism it uses actually ends up bringing something new and interesting to the discussion.

It sounds like the DMG 2 could be a book worth buying. Let's keep our fingers crossed.

Item Sets and Peer Pressure

* Can encouraging teamwork go too far? The idea of your success or failure resting not just on your own actions but those of your allies is great for building party cohesion and social bonds, but when your survival is dependant on someone else's actions it gives you an investment in their decisions. Anyone who's ever been pressured into playing a healbot just because no-one else wants to run one understands this principle.

Adventurer's Vault 2 takes it a step further with "group sets" - collections of magic items that give you bonuses based on how many allies are also wielding items from the set. It's the sort of thing that tickles me as a player - it's just kind of cool - but it's possibly not so good when you're at the less confident end of the player pool. The sets generate a mechanical pressure to wield weapons that are suboptimal or just plain not fun in order to "fit in" and help out your buddies; that's not, ideally, a choice a player should be asked to make, and I can't help but feel that this kind of design is the start of a slippery slope.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Hall of Enforced Introspection

I give these modules a lot of grief for not making sense. Thunderspire has more than its fair share of contrived plots, half-baked schemes and unlikely scenarios.

But at the end of the day, if the game is fun, nobody cares whether it makes sense.

That's a philosophy that's fuelled many classic D&D dungeons. It's led to magnetic ceilings, antigravity rooms, frictionless corridors, and such ridiculous-but-wonderful creatures as the rust monster, mimic, and gelatinous cube. To a large extent it's the core of traditional D&D - finding bizarre solutions to improbably deadly conundrums.

It's not something that either Keep on the Shadowfell or Thunderspire Labyrinth have embraced until now. They've hovered in the middle, presenting encounters that are ludicrous, yet not fun. The Proving Grounds, though, is where Thunderspire finds its old-school form.

This encounter is the Hall of Enforced Introspection, one of the tests of Baphomet that players must overcome as a precursor to facing the Guardian. It's an L-shaped room that players enter from the south, with an altar in the northwest that holds the Face of Baphomet. The Face is a cursed mask, one of the four items the players need to complete the Proving Grounds.

The catch is that the room is littered with columns, and each column is plated with mirrors. The mirrors are magical, and have a variety of effects. At the start of each player's turn they are "attacked" by a mirror; a successful "attack" means they've glanced into the mirror and are subject to its effects.

The mirrors nearest the entryway and the altar are teleportation mirrors; looking into one teleports you to its twin. This means that characters can travel straight from the doorway to the altar and seize the mask - but there's two catches. The first is that the altar is guarded by a pair of vicious Boneshard Skeletons, more than capable of ripping apart any adventurer unlucky enough to encounter them without backup. The second is that, of course, the mirrors are two-way, and the character who teleported to the altar on his first turn will be yanked back to the entrance again on his second. (This makes for a cruel surprise for characters who navigate the mirrors the hard way, only to be sent back to the start just as they reach their goal.)

The second variety of mirror is a more traditional trap. It's called a "draining mirror" and simply does a big dose of necrotic damage to its unlucky victims. The players, by the way, can avoid all these mirrors just by closing their eyes - although that leaves them blinded and offering combat advantage to the Boneshards, which has its own problems.

It's the third type of mirror which makes the encounter memorable - while at the same time being its biggest weakness. The "trapping mirror" transports anyone it "hits" to a demiplane known as the Oubliette of the Empty Mind. It's a small room with no exits; there's no way to get out from the inside. The room's only feature is a gnoll, who got trapped here when Maldrick tackled the tests and is now starving and half-mad.

Being trapped in a confined space with a hungry gnoll sounds like an exciting scenario on paper but in practice it's deeply dull. One-on-one combats don't work well in 4th Edition, largely because neither combatant has any real reason to move. The fight boils down to a series of flavourless attack and damage rolls and it's hard to hide the fact that the gnoll is only here as busywork for adventurers luckless enough to get trapped.

The real problem is if three or more of the party get hit by the trapping mirrors. Without enough heroes remaining active in the "real world", defeating the Boneshards can be extremely difficult (especially given they detonate with a damaging area-of-effect attack when bloodied, and again when killed). The only way to free those trapped is by triggering an indentation on the altar, which isn't easy while locked in combat with the undead. Unlucky rolls can make this encounter end with dead PCs and some or all of the party trapped forever in an extradimensional prison.

(The module, to its credit, suggests that if the PCs do become completely trapped, Maldrick's gnolls may eventually release them to interrogate them. By that time the captives will be dead and the Proving Grounds will be rendered moot. It's an ugly solution that undermines Thunderspire's few remaining strengths.)

The awkwardness of the Oubliette aside, this is an encounter that players seem to love. Mine had a blast - in fact they liked it more than I did - and in trawling the web for play write-ups it's one of the most commonly described (and enjoyed) encounters in the module.


Bearing in mind that this encounter works, so I don't really care:

How did Maldrick's gnolls beat this room without killing the Boneshards? Does the magic of the Proving Grounds regularly resurrect the skeletons, perhaps?

[2] It's a DC 15 Perception check to figure out how to use the altar to free those trapped in the Oubliette. Was Maldrick honestly so callous that he couldn't be bothered to press a button in order to save one of his troops?

[3] Not actually a question - but for those following along at home who are wondering why the holy items aren't with Maldrick, the module explains that they teleport back to their "home" rooms after being used to summon the Guardian. Convenient.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

The Slow Build

Here is something that the Well of Demons does well: building tension.

Without a doubt the best section of Thunderspire Labyrinth is the Proving Grounds. This is the central portion of the Well of Demons, intended to test potential worshippers of Baphomet before allowing them access to the inner sanctum. The Proving Grounds is essentially an extended lock-and-key puzzle consisting of a total of five encounters and culminating in an epic battle with a green dragon.

Thunderspire knows that the Proving Grounds is good. It knows that fighting a dragon on its home turf should be a big thing. And so it finally does what it should have been doing all along: it gives us a little showmanship.

The module introduces us to the Proving Grounds end-first. The very first part of the puzzle that the players see is the conclusion - the massive purpose-built arena in which they'll end up fighting the dragon. Of course, at this stage they don't know about the dragon, and very fact that such a massive and complex area is apparently unoccupied is both ominous and foreboding. There are a number of deep holes, a looping corridor with disturbing grooves in the floor, and other odd features such as glowing pools of liquid and ruined statues; players have another four encounters before they see how it all works and that's plenty of time for their imaginations to hype the area into a killing floor of unmatched ferocity.

The first of the four preliminary encounters is one of Thunderspire's rare non-combat moments. Shortly after beginning to explore the Proving Grounds, the players come across the ghosts of a group of past adventurers who failed Baphomet's test. The three ghosts are essentially good guys, and are willing to share some information if they feel the PCs are equally motivated by unselfish goals.

The ghosts aren't exactly wacky Ghostbusters-esque spirits. They're ever so slightly more gritty. Each of the trio bear the marks of their death - one's head is crushed by the dragon's jaws, one's features are deformed by the dragon's breath, and the third has his torso rended by giant draconic claws. Throughout the encounter no one says the word "dragon" or reveals the nature of the Guardian, but the clues are there for players to begin harbouring some suspicions. It's great for players to see three competent heroes who have already failed at the task the PCs are attempting, and it builds the reputation of the climactic encounter well before its nature is even revealed.

As-written, interacting with the ghosts involves a skill challenge, with the ghosts interrogating the players and the players attempting to show their good intentions. I've never been a fan of the skill challenge mechanic and it's as clumsy as ever here. Rolling on Diplomacy, Bluff, and Insight seems appropriate, but, realising that that would leave one player doing all the talking, the designers have added extra skills. Players must roll Athletics to flex and pose for the pleasure of the martial ghost; Arcana to please the magical ghost with random trivia; but apparently not Religion for the paladin, presumably because Divine characters tend to come with Diplomacy as a class skill and will already have enough to do.

Personally I threw the mechanical element out the door and roleplayed it but I guess that's dependant on how entertaining you find skill challenges.

Here's what the ghosts reveal: to pass the Proving Grounds and progress to the inner sanctum, players must open the gate at the south-eastern end of the test. Doing so requires finding four holy artifacts of Baphomet and laying them simultaneously on the four holy circles scattered around the central complex. When the items are in position, the gate will begin opening and the Guardian will emerge to administer the final test.

One of the items is the Book of Wrath Unveiled which players have already liberated from the gnolls; the other three items are in the three rooms adjacent to the central arena. Each room contains a test that players must pass to secure the relevant artifact.

So this is the Proving Grounds - a slow and ominous exploration of the central arena, a conversation with ghosts, and then three gimmick-focused tests leading to a climactic brawl. This is a near-perfect example of how to build a satisfying traditional D&D dungeon, and how to manipulate pacing to have players genuinely excited about finding out what happens next. They'll be straining at the bit to try themselves against the Guardian, and thankfully Thunderspire - finally - doesn't disappoint.


Actually, according to the printed text, the ghosts do reveal the Guardian is a dragon, if players get enough successes in the skill challenge. But it's such a vastly better set-piece if they don't that I'm exercising a kind of willful blindness. It's obvious enough from the injuries that there's a dragon involved; spelling it out in words just seems so crass.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Friends Like These

Building an encounter in 4th Edition requires more than just slapping some level-appropriate monsters together and calling it a success.

We've seen an example of an encounter built around the theme of "grabbing", where focused design made a creature team-up more than the sum of its parts. Here we see the other side of the coin, where theoretically competent enemies are just unable to work together to present a credible threat.

The through-line for the Well of Demons is the gnoll Maldrick Scarmaker. He's keen on re-dedicating the Well to the gnoll deity Yeenoghu, and to that end he's left a bunch of his troops guarding the entrance rooms of the Well while pressing on to the Inner Sanctum with his best men.

This encounter represents the last of Maldrick's "entrance guard"; a gnoll "demonic scourge" stationed at an old shrine to Baphomet. The Scourge has a pet Barlgura in the adjacent chamber, and when combat inevitably ensues, the two will join forces.

I mentioned before that the designers didn't seem to be aware of how Barlguras work. They're heavy hitters with a long reach and weak defences; like any glass cannon they need a competent defender ally in order to do their job. The Scourge isn't a defender; in fact, it's another brute. The two enemies have a lot of damage output between them but no way of staying alive long enough to make use of it.

What's more, the most memorable special ability of both the Scourge and the Barlgura is an ally buff. The Barlgura gives all allies in burst 5 a to-hit buff when it goes bloodied; the Scourge gets a damage bonus when it has at least two adjacent allies, and can give up to two adjacent allies a free melee attack when it manages to bloody an enemy.

As a pair of individual monsters, the Barlgura and the Scourge are totally wasted. They don't have enough allies to maximise their buffs, and barring the possibility of some very lucky rolls they're not going to stay alive long enough to knock anyone into the bloodied range, let alone provide a real threat.

There is a wildcard in the fight. The room also features two tieflings, who are here to trick the gnolls out of some unspecified "items and lore" that the gnolls have found in the Well. They're opportunists, and if the fight starts going badly for the PCs they'll help the gnolls, but it won't, which leaves them sitting on the sidelines.

After the fight, there's an opportunity for the PCs to ally with the tieflings, whose names are Azkelak and Katal. The tieflings are wearing black, are hanging out with gnolls apparently of their own free will, and didn't come to the players' aid during the battle. It's a foolish party who trusts these two (even without the magical lie-detector of a good Insight roll), and indeed the Tieflings will stab the PCs to death in their sleep if given the opportunity.

My players took the uncharacteristically unheroic step of cutting the tieflings down where they stood; a quick search of play write-ups of the Well suggests they're not alone. A long history of traitorous NPCs, starting with Ninaran in Keep on the Shadowfell and continuing on to Terlen Darkseeker in Thunderspire, might leave players rightfully intolerant of suspicious adventurers claiming to be their friends.

The encounter's at least necessary. After turning the occupants of this area into corpses, players are free to take The Book of Wrath Unveiled, a holy text of Baphomet which is one of four items the players will eventually need to enter the Inner Sanctum and confront Maldrick.


How did the tieflings get past the phalagar and its friends? The gnolls can claim safety in numbers, but surely the tieflings should have been eaten alive?

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Minimum Threat

I think the statblock for the Barlgura changed between Thunderspire Labyrinth being conceived and typeset.

There's a couple of reasons for that belief; one is that the writers don't seem to know how 4th Edition Barlguras work, mechanically. The other is that they put a lone Barlgura up against a five-man party.

Barlguras, for those not aware, are a type of brutish low-level demon. They're a natural fit to a location called the "Well of Demons" and indeed they feature throughout the area.

The Well of Demons utilises a system of random encounters, much like the ones I've described earlier. Rather than providing interesting sidequests, these encounters are designed to discourage adventurers from slowing down while assaulting the Well. The Well works best when it's blown through in only two harrowing adventuring days, and the random encounters are a rather clumsy way of expressing that.

It works like this: you roll on the table each time the adventurers take a rest, whether short or extended, and apply the resulting events. Consequences range from the spooky (ghostly minotaurs haunt the players) through to the disturbing (a rift opens to the Abyss), with a dash of the oddly helpful (a quasit shows up and offers to answer the party's questions in exchange for cash).

One of the encounters is a lone Barlgura.

The Barlgura is a level 8 brute. It's got a lot of HP and it hits hard, but it's got a very narrow range of attack options, isn't very mobile, and has defences that would look poor on a monster two levels lower.

A fight against a lone Barlgura goes like this: the defender tanks the Barlgura, and then everyone else drops their highest damage encounter power into it. It lasts a maximum of two rounds and doesn't move or do anything interesting. It gets two attacks a round, each of which is at a less than 50% chance of hitting a level 6 defender's AC, for a maximum of 62 damage if all four crit, or a more likely output of about 20 damage if two hits land and do average damage.

The average damage over its lifespan is only slightly higher than a healing surge, and that's assuming it doesn't roll badly and the PCs don't drop dailies.

In short, the Barlgura doesn't reach the minimum threat level - it's simply not capable of costing the PCs any meaningful resources that won't renew at the end of the enccounter. Rather than actually running the combat, the DM is better off just asking players to describe how they think the fight is going to go, and letting them off unscathed providing they describe an awesome enough battle.

Minimum threat is something 4E struggles with. The line between a weak encounter and a pointless one is very fine. Smart, optimised parties can find same-level battles so trivial as to be dull. Newer groups or ones with deliberately gimped builds will often struggle with those same encounters. It causes problems for module writers - how do you write an encounter that challenges a good party without making it a TPK for a more casual group?

It's not a question that Thunderspire has good answers to.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Treasure Parcels

4th Edition has new treasure rules.

The days of rolling up random treasure hoards are over; under the new regime the words "Treasure Type S" are gibberish. 4th Edition uses treasure parcels.

The treasure parcel system described on pages 125 and 126 of the Dungeon Master's Guide turns assigning level-appropriate loot into simple maths. You break your entire campaign down into chunks of ten encounters. Every ten-encounter chunk has ten associated treasure parcels. Treasure parcels range from a level-plus-four magic item at the top end down to a measly handful of gold at the bottom end. The parcels might get handed out one after each encounter, or they might bunch up with none in one encounter and two in the next, but presuming players are at least industrious enough to search the room after each encounter they'll walk away with a predictable amount of treasure after completing all ten challenges.

The magic number of "ten" in relation to treasure parcels isn't random; that's how many encounters it's expected to take characters to level up in 4th Edition. A standard level-appropriate encounter gives out one-tenth the XP necessary for a five-man party to gain a level.

A ten-encounter treasure parcel spread for five players contains four magic items, and exactly enough cash to buy two more, providing they're level-appropriate. That has a couple of implications. First, a character can expect to gain roughly one new non-consumable magic item per level. Secondly, because items become obsolete within (roughly) five levels, players should expect at any time to be wearing no more than five or six items of level-appropriate gear. That's an issue, because there's nine equippable item slots.

Luckily, some items never go out of style. Acrobat boots, which let you stand from prone as a minor action, become available at level 2 and are thoroughly useful all the way to level 30. Gauntlets of the ram are the best hand-slot item for a character focused on forced movement from level 8 all the way to endgame (on a Malediction Invoker their property can trigger as often as four times a turn); for everyone else, the (deeply broken) antipathy gloves are ridiculously good.

These non-scaling powers are a bit depressing. Once a character gets a solid pair of boots that won't become obsolete they can afford to snub their nose at anything else for that slot that comes along, selling it for cash and buying the latest edition of their weapon-of-choice instead.

How then, does Thunderspire Labyrinth treat the treasure parcel system? Simply put, it ignores it.

Possibly treasure parcels came late in the 4E development cycle; possibly the authors never got the memo. Thunderspire gives out loot exactly as often as it feels like it, which is roughly never, and takes a perverse pleasure in ensuring that sums of cash are never divisible by five. While it's not quite as bad as Pyramid of Shadows (which seems to contain nothing but Wizard loot), the treasure in Thunderspire Labyrinth also suffers from being overly specific. There's nothing like telling your players they've found a +3 item, watching their faces light up, and then adding that it's a weapon that none of them wields.

Monday, August 3, 2009

The Pig And The Practice Hall

The Seven-Pillared Hall plays home to several subterranean trading cartels; one of them is the Deepgem Company, owned by the dwarven cleric Ulthand Deepgem.

Recently one of Ulthand's mining expeditions was slaughtered by unknown assailants, and their beast of burden - a dire boar Ulthand had raised as a family pet from childhood - was stolen. A lesser dwarf would want revenge on the monsters that killed his friends and employees but Ulthand will settle for having his pig returned. It's a quest he's not shy handing out to anyone who asks him about the glowing yellow exclamation mark above his head.

Ulthand's boar has, in fact, been captured by gnolls. It's not clear why the gnolls would kill a dwarven mining expedition but leave their (clearly dangerous) pack beast alive, but they have, and the boar now serves as a target in a cruel kind of gnoll archery practice.

Players entering the Practice Hall find the boar penned into a crude enclosure, surrounded by hyenas. Gnoll archers hiding behind a clumsy barricade take turns firing stinging arrows into its side.

There's a wonderful kind of double standard at play here. It's unclear whether the module designers really thought this one through but the dialogue they're expecting from players must run along the lines of, "Animal cruelty! That's awful! Let's bash the skulls of these hyenas in so that we can free that poor pig!"

We'd probably better assume that pigs are more endearing animals than hyenas and move along to the combat. There's an oddity here created by the battlemap. Obviously the major terrain feature is the barricade separating the gnolls from the players (who enter from the north end of the map). Getting into melee with the gnolls seems to require charging and climbing over the barricade.

What's not shown on the battlemap is a corridor linking the doors in the northeast with the doors in the southeast. Players leaving the map at the north end can take a leisurely stroll through the adjacent tunnels and ambush the gnolls from behind, driving them up against their own barricade and easily defeating them.

It's a good example of how what the DM chooses to depict or not depict on a battlemap can focus players' thinking in unrealistic ways. DMs need to remember that players aren't operating in a perfectly rational universe; they're vastly guided by the way DMs present the game, and by altering that presentation DMs can alter players' actions.

In any case once the gnolls and their hyenas are dead, players are left with the issue of the boar. It's half-mad from the abuse it's suffered and if players want to get it back to Ulthand and complete the sidequest they'll need to calm it down. Doing so involves the horrible skill challenge mechanic but neverthless it's the kind of thing I wish Thunderspire had more of. It's a dramatic change of pace from the tactics and room-clearing we've had up until now and it appeals to types of player who Thunderspire has previous overlooked.

If players are successful with the skill challenge they end up with a dire boar following them around. That's awesome. There's a problem, though - the remainder of the Well of Demons is ill-suited to the presence of a large nervous animal. Player are either going to have to chain the boar up in one of these entry rooms, turn around and take it back to the Seven-Pillared Hall, or play the remainder of the dungeon with a noisy ill-tempered wildcard at their side.

Notes and Improvements:

[1] The barricade used by the gnolls is, as-written, hay bales. Really? Hay? What, did they import that from the surface just in case they happened to steal a dire boar? I'm not a farmer, but do pigs even eat hay? It doesn't make sense and you should probably change it to either loose rubble or broken furniture.

[2] The flavour text for the room contains a troubling detail - murals show minotaurs fighting other minotaurs, and the text makes a point of emphasising the minotaurs are unarmed. Knowing the Labyrinth's backstory it's clearly just intended as history but it's irrelevant history. Players, assuming they wouldn't be shown something like this unless it was in some way relevant, may be inclined to think going unarmed is the solution to a future puzzle. It's not, and you should probably take the time to make that clear here.

[3] The Dire Boar is not just a monster, it's also a mount. Players with the relevant feat to unlock a mount's special abilities will discover the Dire Boar's mount power is the awesome furious charge - an eight square charge dealing 1d10+9 damage, pushing the target two squares and knocking them prone, and following up with a further 1d10+9 gore attack. It's a great way of demonstrating how useful mounts can be, so if no-one in the party has the relevant feat DMs may wish to give players who choose to ride the boar a "freebie", allowing them to try out the furious charge for one battle as a kind of introduction to the mount rules.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Keep on the Shadowfell Maps

I don't normally post on a Sunday, so as to save my work for when people are actually reading, but seeing as people seemed to appreciate being linked to the Prince of Undeath conversion, I thought it wouldn't hurt to direct you to some other resources for the H series modules.

For today it's Loyd Blankenship's fantastic battlemaps for Keep on the Shadowfell, based on the originals by Mike Schley. These are remakes of the printed maps, with the monsters, traps and secret doors helpfully cleaned off, leaving them ready to be printed off for use at your next game or imported into MapTool or other virtual tabletops.

It's just the Keep - for the kobolds, the burial site and the interludes you'll have to use the poster maps included with the published module. If you bought the original PDF or downloaded the free one you're out of luck.

The links all point to Loyd's threads on the Cartographer's Guild forums. The first floor of the Keep is here (encounters 1 to 5), here (encounters 6 to 8), and here (9 to 12), and the second level of the Keep is here.

Naturally, you're all well and truly done with Keep by now and these are of no use to you. But just in case - enjoy!

Eleven Foot Pole at the July RPG Blog Carnival

Just a quick note to let you know my post "No Roll To Hit: Rationale" is featured in the July 2009 RPG Blog Carnival over at 6d6 Fireball. This month's carnival was on the theme "Dungeons & Dragons" and I have to say I only realised it was on in the last couple of days of the month.

As a result, "No Roll To Hit" isn't the article I would have written to deliberately address the carnival, but (as of today) 69 comments on it seem to suggest you guys found it at least a little bit interesting.

Thanks again to all you fantastic readers of Eleven Foot Pole!

While we're here - I know through the magic of analysis tools that the vast majority of you read Eleven Foot Pole through its RSS feed. So if you're someone who doesn't often visit the actual site, can I suggest you take the time to come by occasionally and vote in the polls? Also, it's incredibly cool seeing all those friendly faces looking out of the Google Friend Connect window so if you have an OpenID compatible identity (pretty much anything these days, most notably Blogger, Wordpress, LiveJournal, Gmail and Yahoo), take the time to sign up as a Follower and add your avatar to the growing horde!

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Gnoll Barracks

Look, gnolls aren't a bad monster, but putting them next to demons just doesn't do them any favours.

Unless the DM has been making a lot of use of the random encounter table, the Gnoll Barracks will be the players' first run-in with Maldrick Scarmaker's gnolls. It features a gnoll huntmaster and his pack of hyenas. Gnolls being a kind of unpleasant hyena-man, it's a natural match-up. There's a couple of gnoll brutes thrown in for good measure.

There's nothing wrong with this encounter. It's a pefectly by-the-numbers dungeon scuffle. There's some humanoids who need killing, and the players kill them.

The sin is only that players have been here before. It's an identical set-up to any number of battles both in Keep on the Shadowfell and earlier in Thunderspire Labyrinth. You could replace the gnolls with goblins, hobgoblins or duergar and nobody would notice.

Compared to the memorable and imaginative encounters elsewhere in the Well of Demons, this is the ugly stepsister. Hurry through it; there's better coming.


[1] Not an improvement as such, as it's strongly suggested in the module itself, but the way to wring the most out of this encounter is by emphasising the flavour. The hyenas aren't just hyenas - they're vicious, hungry animals in an enclosed space. Their howls will echo up and down the stone corridors and be virtually deafening at close range. They should be, really, quite frightening. Of course, that doesn't change the fact that they're level 2 monsters in a level 6 encounter and there's a good chance of them falling over the first time someone breathes on them.

Friday, July 31, 2009

Chamber Of The Well

Last time we looked at the 4th Edition grappling rules I was a little dismissive. I described the "grab" action as "an exception we did not need to have".

I think I need to backpedal on that.

Okay, in 95% of cases, grabbing is still a bad option for players. But monsters, on the other hand - they can really get leverage from a good grab attack.

The first encounter in the Well of Demons is the Chamber of the Well. The well in question is 10 feet wide and 30 feet deep and completely dry. It does not contain any demons.

I actually had to stop for a minute, coming back to this encounter. Clearly the well in this room is the eponymous Well of Demons. I'd actually assumed that the Well of Demons was a different, larger hole located in the Proving Grounds. The Proving Grounds hole contains a dragon; I was probably letting my memories of the black dragon Khisanth emerging from the well in the original Dragonlance module colour my thinking.

In any case, while there's no demons (yet), there's no shortage of monsters. The room is home to a pair of cavern chokers, chameleonic ceiling-dwellers notable for their long claw-tipped tentacles. There's also a paralysis-inflicting ghoul, and a phalagar. Phalagars are new to 4th Edition in Thunderspire Labyrinth and are basically burrowing tentacled monstrosities.

This is the sort of oddball monster team-up that 4th Edition loves, and this is an example of it done exceptionally well. Thunderspire suggests the four creatures have by a kind of symbiosis learned to work together to turn the entrance into a kind of specialised killing floor, and indeed that's the experience players will have when they trigger the encounter.

I'd mentioned before that the Well was originally a minotaur monastery. When players first enter the room, a sort of magical recorded message starts up, welcoming "seekers of Baphomet's boundless glory" to the Well and urging them to "prove worthy" of his attention. However, before the message can even complete its cycle, the chokers take advantage of the players' distraction to attack.

The chokers are attached to the ceiling. They use their (reach 2) tentacles to make surprisingly effective grab attacks at the players, which flavour-wise represent the tentacles wrapping around their victim's neck and lifting them, choking, into the air. Victims of a successful grab take a whopping -6 penalty to escape, and the choker can use the hapless hero as a body shield to absorb damage dealt out by the hero's allies.

Meanwhile, the phalagar is burrowing underground towards the players. Concealed beneath the heavy stone floor it's completely impervious to most attacks, only offering a vulnerability when it sends its tentacles to the surface to strike. Like the chokers, it's focused on grabs, and is able to target enemies up to four squares away for this purpose. It also has an awesome rechargeable tentacle flurry which imposes grab (and a big handful of damage) on every target within close burst 2. It's a Large-sized monster, so that's a 6x6 area of effect we're talking about. Creatures grabbed by the Phalagar take ongoing acid damage every turn they remain grabbed.

Being grabbed imposes the "restrained" condition. Being restrained imposes the "immobilised" condition. That's where the ghoul comes in. Ghouls can paralyse an enemy with their basic claw attack, but their real viciousness comes from their ghoulish bite, only usable against an immobilised, stunned or unconscious enemy. If the bite lands, it hands out a whopping 3d6+4 damage and inflicts the worst condition in the game - stunned. That's the one that makes you miss your entire round.

Anyone who didn't have respect for the grab mechanics is going to learn it very quickly. Players who've been on cruise control through the last few Duergar fights are going to be shocked to find things getting rapidly out of control as they try to deal with this set of very focused enemies.

I love this encounter. I love the way it showcases very different monsters working together. I love the bait-and-switch of the recorded message covering the approach of the monsters. I love the way it makes the grab rules really work, and I love the three-dimensional feeling of chokers from above, phalagar from below and ghoul in the middle. There are some really excellent set-pieces coming up later in the Well but there's a simplicity and elegance to this first offering that holds a real place in my heart.

Dungeon Masters take note: this is how to start a dungeon. Be surprising, be vicious, and be challenging. There's a short series of unexciting gnoll encounters coming up before we get to the Proving Grounds but despite their weak mechanics there's real tension through all of them. And why? Simply because of this first encounter, which has a simple and well-delivered message for players: heads up - shit just got real.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

The Well of Demons

The third and most significant mini-dungeon in Thunderspire Labyrinth is the Well of Demons.

That's a dramatic name. It's got "demons" right there in the title. But jaded players might be too burned out by the repeated disappointments of the Labyrinth to really get excited about it. "Oh boy, demons," they'll be declaring sarcastically as they make their way to what will probably be another laundry list of unexciting beat-'em-ups. Demons are a classic enemy dating right back to the earliest editions of D&D, and it's just plain cruel to tease them if you're not going to follow through.

So it's great, then, that Thunderspire finally delivers.

The Well is crawling with demons. Your players are probably going to see more of the extraplanar buggers in the next ten encounters than they will in any place outside the Abyss itself. Once the players get past a couple of introductory encounters they'll barely be able to go two steps without running into an Evistro or a Barlgura.

This is the promise of 4th Edition, finally made good: Epic Tier encounters on a Heroic Tier budget. Players don't have to wait 20-something levels to go toe-to-toe with the fiery fury of the planes beyond - they can do it right at the start of their careers, and feel damn good about it all the while.

Demons aren't even the best of what's on offer here. The Well features the best-designed encounters in the module, starting with a exotic match-up against a group of grab-happy abominations, continuing to a trio of clever puzzle rooms and concluding in style with two fantastic set-piece boss battles. This is classic dungeon-crawling done well, and it's almost good enough to single-handedly lift the rest of Thunderspire Labyrinth out of mediocrity and into the ranks of the halfway decent.

So what's going on here plot-wise?

The Well of Demons is yet another piece of local minotaur history. In the days of Saruun Khel the Well was a monastery dedicated to Baphomet, demon god of the minotaurs. It included barracks for the minotaur priests, and an inner complex known as the "Proving Grounds" designed to test the dedication of potential Baphomet devotees.

Today, the Well has been invaded by a band of gnolls. Their leader, Maldrick Scarmaker, is intent on rededicating the Well to the gnoll god Yeenoghu. He's obtained two slaves from the Duergar that he intends to sacrifice on Baphomet's altar as part of the rededication ceremony. These, naturally, are the two slaves the players are still trying to rescue.

Maldrick's got some kind of vague deal going on with Paldemar. Paldemar's giving him... something... and in return Maldrick's providing Paldemar with any "artifacts and items" he finds in the Well. That relationship is never really elaborated on in any form that the players can get to grips with, which leaves the Well feeling like yet another disconnected station on the all-stops Thunderspire railroad. Thankfully, the inherent quality here is high enough to stop you from caring.

The goal for players, then, is to overcome the gnoll guards, solve the riddle of the Proving Grounds, and burst into the inner sanctum of Baphomet just in time to stop Maldrick from sacrificing the captives and completing the rededication.

Sounds easy enough, right?

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Poll Result: Striker

Time for a a long overdue response to the most recent Eleven Foot Poll, which shows that you like playing leaders a lot, but strikers ever so slightly more.

Roles, of course, are something new to 4th Edition. Or at least, the delineation of roles as an explicit design goal is new. The aim is for every class to have something meaningful to do in combat, and with that in mind classes are split up into Leaders (who heal, and provide buffs and other benefits to allies), Controllers (who specialise in area of effect damage, debuffs, and enemy positioning), Defenders (the game's "tanks", who manage enemy target prioritisation and aim to absorb the majority of enemy attacks), and Strikers.

Strikers are probably the simplest of the four roles. Their job is to do damage. It's easy to measure whether you're a good striker - the more damage you do, the better you're performing.

The original Player's Handbook presented three Strikers - the Ranger and Rogue from the martial power source, and the Warlock as an arcane alternative. Subsequent expansions have added the Avenger (divine), Barbarian (primal), Sorceror (arcane) and Monk (psionic).

That's seven of the current (I think) 20 classes. Over a third of the playable class options are Strikers, which may have skewed the poll a little. (Leaders get 6, Controllers get 3, and Defenders get 4, for reference).

Is it accident that Strikers are so dispoproportionately common? Probably not. You'll note that our poll numbers aren't far off the overall class distribution, which suggests that the role proportions more or less line up with the distribution of play styles across the player base. Classes appear to have been assigned roles in proportion to the demand for that role.

So why do people like Strikers so much? The simplicity is an obvious factor. It's nice to know when you're doing your job well. On the surface, Strikers are the most visibly effective part of the team - newcomers to the game can clearly see Strikers doing more damage, while the benefits of the other classes might not be as immediately obvious.

Another issue is that strikers tend to have a high chance to hit. They're less susceptible to the frustrations of seeing a turn wasted on a miss, which makes them that much more enjoyable as a whole.

It's probably significant too that Rangers, Rogues and Avengers are all, flavour-wise, "outsiders". They're easily cast as loners and antiheroes who don't play by the rules and are secretly awesome. As detrimental as that kind of character can be to a game, there's no real question that it's an archetype that roleplayers love. Roleplaying has never been mainstream, and so a lot of players really identify with flavour that sees outcasts being both empowered and valued. It's basic wish fulfilment and it's what D&D does well.

What about you? What is it that you love about playing strikers? Or alternatively, why do the other roles work for you? Share your thoughts in the comments.

Bonus Post: Demon Prince of Undeath Conversion

Bonus post time: a certain someone has been poking me via email to mention the Demon Prince of Undeath conversion on Eleven Foot Pole.

I need to say this - I heartily approve of being emailed about anything and everything to do with Eleven Foot Pole. It's great to have people I've never met get so interested in what I'm writing that they send me correspondence. That ranks very highly on the scale of awesome.

With that in mind, I'm mentioning the conversion.

What is it? It's a community-driven attempt to reconcile the H series adventures into a single coherent plotline themed around Orcus, the Demon Prince of Undeath. It involves major changes to Keep on the Shadowfell, Thunderspire Labyrinth, and Pyramid of Shadows to keep them on-topic, and includes new plot hooks, skill challenges, and maps.

In short, what you're getting is a way to transform the retail modules into an honest-to-Bob campaign. And if you think it can be done better, they'd love to hear your suggestion as to how.

I know a lot of you come here at least partly to find ways of improving the published modules. So if you haven't already spotted the conversion for yourself you should go check it out over on the official Wizards forums.

Also, community member Myrhdraak is compiling it all into one Dungeon-style PDF with some really great production values. I'd advise reading the actual thread for context but if you want to jump straight to the PDF you can do so here.

Click here for the Demon Prince of Undeath conversion.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Paldemar and the Bronze Warders

Here we are, two thirds of the way through Thunderspire Labyrinth, and the module's Big Evil has yet to show himself. It's a sad state of affairs - so sad I've barely posted for a week (or at least that's my excuse).

It's time for that to change, though. When players return to the Seven-Pillared Hall after trouncing the Duergar, they learn that they've finally got someone's attention. That someone is Paldemar, master villain of Thunderspire, and he steals a page from Kalarel's book in order to set one of the lamest traps in the history of archvillainy.

I've spoken a little about Paldemar before. He's a Mage of Saruun - one of only two still residing in the Labyrinth - and he's gone rogue. He's dropped out of contact with his colleague Orontor and retired to a hidden structure called the Tower of Mysteries, where he's begun to dabble in the forbidden worship of Vecna, god of secrets and undeath.

Paldemar's plan is pretty straightforward mad sorceror stuff. He plans, firstly, to seize control of the Labyrinth. That's kind of a strange goal, seeing as the Labyrinth isn't exactly a palace of wealth and luxury. For the most part, if Paldemar wants to rule over crumbling minotaur ruins and spiderwebbed tunnels he's welcome to it. Of course, in typical villainous style he won't be content with Thunderspire, and plans to extend his domination to "surrounding lands".

The key to Paldemar's plan are the Bronze Warders. The Warders are giant bronze statues of minotaurs, presumably constructed by the original inhabitants of Saruun Khel and now left scattered throughout Thunderspire's tunnels and chambers. Each Warder is bound to a control amulet; when someone who possesses the right amulet speaks a certain set of mystic words, they become the master of the Warder and can command it to come to life and serve their bidding.

The Mages of Saruun, during their early explorations of the Labyrinth, uncovered several of the control amulets and used their magic to ferret out the control words for them (each amulet requires different words). The Warders now serve as the Mages' elite enforcers, called upon whenever the Mages need a show of overpowering force to keep the rabble in its place.

Paldemar's plan involves the creation of an "infernal machine" which will override the command amulets and bind every Warder everywhere in the Labyrinth to his will. With an army of giant bronze soldiers at his command he aims to wrest the Seven-Pillared Hall from his fellow Mages and rule the area with an iron fist. In a loose attempt to tie Thunderspire in with its eventual sequel, Paldemar's long term goals also include attempting to unlock the power of a vaguely-described "Pyramid of Shadows".

So what does Paldemar have to do with Hobgoblins and Duergar? Really, nothing. The module states that Paldemar has been urging the Bloodreavers on to "new heights of depravity" in an attempt to "sow the seeds of confusion and unrest" within the Labyrinth but exactly how this helps him is unclear. Certainly depravity seems to be business as usual in the Labyrinth. The same Mages who didn't blink at the Duergar running a slave-trading ring out of the Seven-Pillared Hall are unlikely to be worried by a handful of goblinoids getting up to mischief in an old minotaur temple. As for the Duergar, Paldemar doesn't seem to have any connection to them whatsoever.

In any case, despite the fact that the PCs have no dispute with Paldemar, haven't impacted on Paldemar's plans and indeed may not have even heard of Paldemar, Thunderspire's resident Mad Mage eventually decides that they constitute a threat to his plans and forms a half-baked plan to send them to an early grave.

The plan has more in common with a Saturday-morning cartoon than with the genius-level intellect that Paldemar supposedly represents. A kobold named Charrak delivers an unsigned letter to the players offering them some vague and mysterious assistance and asking for a meeting in an out-of-the-way cavern.

It's so obviously a trap that it's more than a little insulting. Paldemar could have at least made the effort to suggest a location that didn't scream "ambush" so loudly, or used a messenger that wasn't of a race famous for its evil and treachery. Plot-wise, it's important that players attend the ambush in order to learn more about Paldemar, so really at this point the module is relying entirely on the players' morbid curiosity to get them turning up for Paldemar's ham-fisted treachery.

Mechanically speaking, the encounter is an introduction to the Bronze Warders. Players who arrive at the meeting site get ambushed by one of the giant metal statues, along with a pair of tieflings who bombard the PCs with ranged attacks from a set of high ledges.

The battle teaches players the key attributes of the Warders - namely, that they have a lot of hit points, they resist damage, and they can knock enemies prone just by moving through their space. Taking one down is an epic process, and the Warders easily win their place as Thunderspire's most powerful and iconic enemies.

The Warder will eventually die, though, and once players mop up the tieflings they'll be treated to the roleplaying cliche of a damning note on their attackers' corpses. The note reveals Paldemar as the instigator of the attack, and goes on to suggest that Paldemar is in league with a group of gnolls who are even now engaged in nefarious business at a part of the Labryinth known as the "Well of Demons". Paldemar, always helpful, provides a map.

Horrifyingly generic ambush aside, the introduction of Paldemar marks the beginning of the "good part" of Thunderspire Labyrinth, so after a quick look tomorrow at the results of the last Eleven Foot Poll we'll get started on the Well and the memorable set-pieces it's home to.


Paldemar may not be introduced until late in the module, but that doesn't mean his plan must be a similar slow-starter. Show off the Bronze Warders early; let the players see Orontor using one to break up a fight, and then highlight more of these giant metal hulks tucked away throughout the Labyrinth - at the entrance to the Chamber of Eyes, for example, or gathering dust in a Duergar storeroom. Paldemar's intention to activate all the Warders should feel epic, and the more of them you've shown off, and the more locations you'e shown them in, the more effective that's going to be when players learn about it - and possibly see it happen.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Bonus Post: The Cutest Lil' Displacer Beast

Today, instead of me being too lazy to do a post, you get this picture of the world's cutest displacer beast. It's arted by Wuffie, who is starting up a pretty awesome Etsy shop at Elsie Levels Up. You can also find her on Twitter and Livejournal. Her profile info is my writing so if awesome geek art isn't your thing you should at least go have a read.

Wuffie plays Horatio Beverage, elven cleric, in my weekly Maptool game, which has just polished off Rescue at Rivenroar and is moving on to the Siege of Bordrin's Watch after a short hiatus.

If anyone else has D&D themed art or craft they want to show off you should feel free to send it through to starfall2317, at, with links you'd like connected to it. If I get a bunch I'll do a post of it.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Side Trek #4: Court of Bones

They can't all be winners. After three genuinely excellent side treks, the fourth and final encounter presented in Dungeon #156 is merely average.

The Court of Bones has two interlocking hooks; if the DM is using the Random Encounters from the as-printed module, the players may encounter Az'Al'Bani, a deathlock wight. Az'Al'Bani is searching for the hidden tomb of a minotaur necromancer, and he's managed to discover the sole key that will open its ancient doors.

Az'Al'Bani's not the only one looking for the Court; the drow merchant Gendar is on its trail also, and when players return from the Horned Hold with Urwol's skull scepter Gendar is quick to send them on another quest - this time to break into the Court and recover a valuable crystal which was entombed with its occupants.

As written, the side-trek has players hunting down Az'Al'Bani to obtain the key and then assaulting the Court - or, alternatively, players can just anticlimactically pick the lock. That skips over the various intriguing scenarios involved in bargaining with the wight or even joining forces, but to be fair to author Greg Bilsland it's reasonably clear that those aren't explored for reasons of space rather than any blindness to the idea as a whole.

In any case, when players finally reach the Court they've got a textbook undead battle in store. The minotaur necromancer in whose honour the Court was built is, of course, clinging to unlife, and when players arrive he animates in the form of a lethal Specter. He's attended by a pair of axe-wielding minotaur skeletons and a duo of fireball-throwing undead mages.

It's essentially just a hackfest. If the party doesn't have some divine classes available to totally trivialise these undead, victory still requires nothing more clever than a bunch of damage output and some competent tanking. As is, by now, a Wizards trademark, there's a mosaic in the middle of the floor that provides a trivial regeneration boost to enemies who stand on it.

It's not a bad encounter; it's just not inspiring. It's much like any number of other encounters published both in the retail modules and Dungeon Magazine, and it's probably not worth wasting your players' time on now that the Well of Demons is in sight and we're finally getting to the good parts of Thunderspire.

In short, Thunderspire has more than enough average for go around; we don't need to go to Dungeon Magazine looking for a top-up.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Side Trek #3: Houses of Silence

The Houses of Silence is another side-trek from Dungeon Magazine #156, which takes players to a kind of minotaur graveyard far to the west of the Seven-Pillared Hall.

The impetus to come here arrives from another resident of the Seven-Pillared Hall. Terlen Darkseeker is an explorer who does work as a guide for travellers, operating out of the Seven-Pillared Hall. Recently during his travels he stumbled across the Houses of Silence, where he activated a lingering curse intended (in a rather vague way) to dissuade graverobbers.

Now when he delves too deep into the Labyrinth the curse transfigures him into a violent, uncontrollable werewolf. Terlen doesn't remember these transformations and no-one who's witnessed one has survived to tell the tale. The quest starts when PCs engage Terlen as a guide, fall victim to his lycanthropic attack, and then presumably subdue him until he changes back into a human and learns of his affliction.

Terlen's condition has a charming resonance with the idea of the Underdark as the human subconscious; when he "delves too deep" he loses his ability to reason and becomes a creature of pure instinct. There's not really a lot of chance to play that up but it's still a nice touch.

In any case, players who attempt to help Terlen out will be directed to the Houses of Silence.

Much like the other side treks, the Houses of Silence break the pattern of doors-and-runners that Thunderspire has so comfortably settled into. It relies on an extended (and very dramatic) trap to engage player interest. The main chamber is divided into three forks; the left and the right forks end at single minotaur statues, while the main passage terminates at two minotaur statues holding a gong.

When players approach the gong, or when either of the side-corridor minotaurs make "eye contact" with a PC, the trap springs. Starting from the single statues, oil filled cressets on the walls burst into flame, blasting everyone nearby and engulfing the corridor in an ongoing inferno. On subsequent rounds, the flames progress up the corridor, driving players towards the room with the gong, where the next threat waits - a pair of flame-resistant hellhounds and a wraith that can walk through walls. All three take advantage of being able to enter terrain the PCs can't to deliver vicious attacks with only minor fear of retaliation.

Given the history of the place, the wraith is, presumably, a minotaur wraith, which sadly is not illustrated with the awesome piece of artwork that that concept brings to mind.

It's also worth noting briefly that both the original Thunderspire writers and Greg Bilsland on the side treks have managed to keep their devils and demons straight, which is noteworthy mostly because I always forget and use them interchangeably. Devils hail from the Nine Hells and are associated with gods such as Asmodeus (and indeed, two appear in the Horned Hold). Demons come from the Abyss and pay homage to masters such as Baphomet - and, as expected, both here and in the Well of Demons we'll find only demons, not devils. I've never really grokked the arbitrary distinction but it's nice to see that they're at least keeping their story straight.

My guys didn't get to run the Houses of Silence, so I don't know how it works in practice; it seems like it could either be dramatic and exciting, or misfire and end up with players either locked out of the encounter by a wall of fire or frustrated by the cheap tactics of the hounds and the wraith.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Side Trek #2: The Cisterns

I cannot express with the English language how glad I am to be done with the Horned Hold.

But before we move on, let's take a look at another Side Trek from Dungeon #156. This one's called the Cisterns, and takes players to an out-of-the-way shrine to Torog, god of the Underdark.

Like much of the optional content of Thunderspire, the Cisterns has a pretty excellent backstory. It draws on Vadriar, one of the characters featured in Thunderspire's description of the Seven-Pillared Hall.

Vadriar is a human sage who has recently stumbled upon a secret trogolodyte temple located near the waterways beneath the Hall. He's discovered that the trogolodytes are planning to collapse the upper levels of the Labyrinth as a tribute to their god Torog (killing everyone within), but upon being detected by the trogs he's become the victim of an evil curse that prevents him from telling anybody what he's discovered or leaving the mountain.

As a result, players are going to find Vadriar as a trembling wreck, absolutely terrified of the apocalypse he knows is coming but powerless to do anything to prevent it. He is, though, able to point players towards a vague threat in the general vicinity of the Cisterns and hope that they're able to join the dots and save the Labyrinth.

The encounter itself doesn't intially seem as good as the set-up. Neither the Trog Maulers nor their pet Grick (a kind of subterranean snake-worm) are very exciting - they're just your basic bruisers. Instead, the encounter relies on a Trogolodyte Curse Chanter to provide flavour and character to the fight, and dual-level terrain to provide mechanical interest.

The players start on an upper level, with the Maulers and the Grick. The lower level has the Chanter, along with yet another instance of the cliched defence-boosting magic circle. There's a 20 foot drop separating the upper level from the lower, which can be safely traversed using a conveniently located slippery slide. In short, the players can get down easily, but getting back up is tougher.

The cleverness here is that the encounter reverses expectations. Up until this point, players have been taught to get into melee with casters as soon as possible and dispatch the hired help once the brains of the operation are squashed. The caster, however, turns out to be entirely un-worried by meele - between its aura and the circle it has a staggering effective AC of 26 - and players who head straight to the lower level will find themselves bombarded by the Maulers' javelin attacks as they struggle to escape the Curse Chanter and return to higher ground. In short, the Chanter is bait in a cleverly executed trap.

In the event players engage both levels simultaneously, the Chanter is able to teleport his allies to his side, where they can all gain the defensive bonus of the circle - not ideal, from the Trogolodytes' perspective, but a strong answer to divide-and-conquer tactics from the players.

I really like this encounter. It does a lot with only a handful of enemies and a very small map. Much like the Tower of Sunset, it's a nice change of pace from the main module content and, provided you can find room in your XP budget for it, it's well worth running.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Too Many Gods

I am a great fan of focus. The developers of Thunderspire Labyrinth are not.

Nowhere is this more clear than in the pantheon of evil deities that appear in the module.

Thunderspire opens with the Chamber of Eyes, an abandoned shrine to Torog, the King Who Crawls. We move to the Horned Hold, where things are run by Murkelmor, a paladin of Asmodeus. Next we go to the Well of Demons; this was originally a temple to Baphomet, demon lord of minotaurs, but the gnolls who have invaded are trying to re-dedicate it to Yeenoghu, the gnoll deity. Finally we wind up at Paldemar's Tower of Mysteries, where Thunderspire's Big Bad turns out to rather inexplicably be acting on behalf of the lich-god Vecna.

That's five separate Lords of Evil who get name-checked. Vecna actually shows up in person to officiate ceremonies during the final chapter. If we move into the bonus Dungeon Magazine encounters we find a former follower of the Raven Queen and another shrine to Torog.

What's going on here? None of this is central to the plot. These evil gods are being waved at the players for no better reason than that they can be. Torog, Asmodeus, Baphomet and Yeenoghu don't have any particular beef with the players or anyone they care about, and Vecna is so deeply un-committed to his own evil scheme as to abandon Paldemar in exchange for a few paltry secrets.

It's doubly confusing for players who've beaten Keep on the Shadowfell. "Hang on a minute," they'll say. "Weren't we fighting Orcus?" It's typically unwise to pick a fight with a second evil god before you've finished off the first one. By the end of Thunderspire players can have more epic-level adversaries than they have fingers on one hand.

This is the real problem, of course. There's no closure. There's nothing wrong with a brief tussle with Baphomet, providing that it has a conclusion. Thunderspire offers nothing - no beginning, no middle, and certainly no ending - and when it's all over you have to realise that the sole purpose of all these Elder Evils is to lend artificial significance to an otherwise deeply mundane story.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009


There are two ways to get to the Slave Pits; one involves taking the passage through the wights and the empty crypts to reach the Slave Pits through a secret door.

The other involves fighting the ogre at the south gate and then stumbling into the chambers of Murkelmor, commander of the Horned Hold.

It's interesting that you can completely bypass the Horned Hold's "boss fight" - and, in fact, my players did, so I've got no direct experience of how this battle plays out. (That worked out fine, though, as it allowed me to keep Murkelmor around for a role in my substantially modified finale to the module.)

Presuming that you actually run this encounter, though, Murkelmor's a bit of a beast. He's a level 7 elite, with the hit points to match, some absolutely savage at-will powers and a rechargeable heal that can be applied to either himself or his allies.

Once again, though, having a name doesn't make Murkelmor a character. He gets a couple of lines of textbook villain rant when the players breach his room, and then enters battle. This is theoretically the climax of the Horned Hold, but the players can't be invested in defeating this guy because they may well have never heard his name prior to getting here. At the point where players run this encounter, they've got a more meaningful relationship with Brugg than they do with any of the Duergar of the Hold.

Just to make absolutely sure that this isn't a satisfying showdown, it turns out Murkelmor is a runner. If he starts losing, he'll use a secret door to flee to the slave pits, and then double back looking for allies through the rest of the Hold. The dramatic clash of wills teased when the players first enter can devolve into a tedious running battle through a series of rooms they've already cleared.


[1] Forget about the secret door and forget about Murkelmor fleeing. There's nothing he'll find outside this chamber that'll be more satisfying for players than seeing him get beat down where he stands.

[2] Give Murkelmor the chance to show off either his strength or his villainy prior to the battle. Possibly have him visit the Seven-Pillared Hall and throw his weight around before players start the Hold. Maybe have him in the process of murdering one of the captives when the PCs burst in on him. At the very least have the other Duergar tell the players how scary he is. There's just no fun in defeating someone you've never heard of.

Monday, July 6, 2009

The Slave Pits

NOTE: Sorry about the lateness; Blogger seems to be having trouble with scheduled posts lately. Any solutions appreciated!

The Slave Pits is an important encounter, but there's not a lot to say about it.

This is, in a way, the culmination of the Horned Hold. The room holds three pits, once intended as cisterns. One is still filled with water, but the other two have been emptied out to serve as makeshift slave pens. The captives that the players have been searching for ever since they came to Thunderspire are chained up within the pits.

All the captives? No; two of them are missing, sold onwards to a band of rogue gnolls. The goalposts have moved again, and the PCs are going to be dragged by their nose to yet another dungeon to find the last slaves.

But before the players can start planning their next move they need to survive this encounter. The slaves are guarded by a group of Duergar and a couple of Spined Devils.

The Spined Devils are awkward. Sure, the Grimmerzhul Duergar are aligned (as we'll shortly discover) with Asmodeus, Lord of the Nine Hells, and sure, I guess they can summon up some devil guards. That said, one wonders about a Duergar outpost that uses extraplanar monstrosities to guard its helpless prisoners while leaving a gaping hole in a critical line of internal defence. The real reason they're here, of course, is not for reasons of flavour but simply to provide some variation to the rotation of Duergar we've been seeing since we got to the Hold.

Once we've all suspended our disbelief and accepted the Devils, they actually work quite well here. They fly, which lets them hover above the slave pits and avoid melee. They provide a sense of accomplishment to reaching what should, by all rights, be a rather anticlimactic jail cell at the rear of the fortress.

On the other hand, once everyone stops being impressed by seeing their first Devils, it's all a little underwhelming. The Devils are backed up by only three Duergar; with no option to engage the Devils in melee, the party will swarm the dwarves and neuter them before they can do anything memorable. It's then a simple matter of picking off the Devils from range (providing the party can't immobilise them or otherwise put paid to their flight). The encounter does PCs an accidental favour by forcing them to focus fire.


[1] The captives include Gru, "a goblin who was sold by his fellow Bloodreavers to the Duergar." Gru "can provide no useful information about the Horned Hold or the fate of the other two slaves", and he's not foreshadowed during the players' earlier visit to the Chamber of Eyes. What is this oddly specific named NPC doing here? Is he an attempt to replicate sidekick characters such as Splug or Meepo from other modules? Or is he the remnant of a layer of detail that hasn't made it into the final adventure?

Saturday, July 4, 2009

No Roll To Hit: Rationale

The goal is fun, right?

The other week I made the following prediction:

Providing that an eventual 5th Edition continues in largely the same direction as 4th Edition, the next edition of D&D will eliminate the concept of rolling to hit. Powers will always be effective to some degree; only their degree of effectiveness will retain a random element.

And I said if I got comments, I'd provide the rationale. Well, I got (as of today) 23 comments, so I guess that explanation is owed.

1) Minimising player downtime

It's a truism to say you can only enjoy playing the game if you are, in fact, playing the game. When a player has no meaningful input into the proceedings, they're not a player, they're a spectator.

D&D historically has had four key situations in which players were not able to meaningfully contribute. Firstly, when players were unconscious or dead. 4th Edition addresses that issue by making accidental death much less likely, and by giving unconscious players saving throws to avoid slipping closer to "death's door" (with an associated 1 in 20 chance of regaining consciousness).

Secondly, when players are engaged in a challenge which tests the skill of only the most proficient member of the party. Diplomacy is a classic example, where the best speaker is often the only speaker. 4E hasn't done a lot about that, although the skill challenge system appears to at least recognise the problem.

The third situation of downtime is during combat when it's not the player's turn. The "attack of opportunity" system gives players an out-of-turn action under certain circumstances, thus requiring them to pay attention to the board-state. Also, the increased emphasis on team positioning and buffing party members means that players need to stay alert to call for bonuses and request backup.

The fourth and final situation is the most relevant for our purposes, and that is when, during the player's turn, they take a null action. That is to say, an action which creates no change to the state of play. The most common example is rolling to hit and missing. Play goes on, with the player having contributed nothing.

Missing is simply not fun. Having waited a full round of initiative and then achieving nothing is functionally identical to skipping your turn. If you expend an encounter power or daily power and miss, you're actually worse off than when you started. It's hard to argue that powers with an "on-miss" effect, or powers with the "reliable" keyword (not expended on a miss), aren't palpably more satisfying than options with higher rates of risk regardless of the proportionately higher return.

It's a big issue for new players. Coming to D&D as a newcomer and watching roughly half your attacks go wide can make you feel impotent and a liability to the team. It's immensely frustrating and more than a little dull. Newcomers more than anyone need to see their initial experiments yield positive results, but it's hard to optimise at low levels and you're locked out of the most effective power options. Your first experiences with the game can be the sessions where you're most likely to watch entire encounters go past without having achieved anything.

Improving the overall experience, eliminating frustration, and making the game more accessible to newcomers means eliminating the possibility of missing. If you're going to continue to go down the path that 4E has started it's an inescapable conclusion.

2) Tactical thinking

4th Edition emphasises tactical thinking. That is to say, it asks you to choose between known options with predictable outcomes but complex interactions. The real skills it calls upon are not managing risk, but rather efficient targeting, optimised positioning, and teamwork.

Risk runs counter to tactical thinking. It can turn bad moves into accidental successes and solid plans into disaster. Yes - that is a realistic outcome. But it doesn't automatically make for good gaming.

Tactical gameplay is learning gameplay. It's about experimenting with new ideas and assessing their effectiveness. It's about adapting to known external changes and evolving your technique to deal with new threats.

Risk inhibits learning. It provides a discontinuity between action and results. A good idea can be made to seem bad, and sloppy thinking can be hidden behind improbable victory. Risk makes it harder for new players to see where they're going wrong and it's frustrating to experienced players who are denied the results of their tactics thanks to occasional probability skews.

To create a more open, understandable game table, and make the game more accessible for new players, risk needs to be minimised.

3) Redundancy

Rolling to hit is redundant. When players make an attack action, they are making two separate rolls to determine its effectiveness - to hit, and damage.

There's no need for it. Why not have a single roll? Either just a "to-hit" roll, with the margin of success determining the damage, or just a damage roll, with every attack assumed to be successful and only the extent of success in doubt.

Every third thread on the official forums is, "How can I make combat go faster?" When we're looking at the next edition, there's a clear improvement staring us in the face: eliminate the attack roll redundancy.

4) Complexity

The roll to hit is by far the most complex roll in D&D. The to-hit equation is 1d20, plus half your level (rounding down), plus trait modifier, plus weapon/implement modifier, plus feats, plus buffs, plus race/class bonuses, plus conditional modifiers including charging, cover and combat advantage.

All that maths goes to a single question: did I hit? It can be eliminated by uniformly answering: yes.

Maths is not, normally, fun. And in any case, it's not what D&D's here to do. The rulebooks don't bill it as a game of "bold warriors, mighty wizards, and mental arithmetic". There's been a consistent trend since early editions to do away with this kind of number crunching, which covers the elimination of THAC0, the re-engineering of dice rolls to make "high" always equal "good", and a major overhaul of the Armor Class rules.

The multi-variable maths attached to every attack is an albatross around D&D's neck and it's hampering the game's acccessibility. In 5th Edition, it has to go.

5) Over-specificity

Rolling to hit is unnecessarily specific.

Look at it this way: let's say you hit on a 5. So that's 75% of the time. You hit on three out of every four attacks.

Why are we micromanaging? Why not just say you hit all the time, and do 33% 25% less damage when you hit? It's the same end effect. And if you want to (despite the above) retain risk and randomness, you just vary the damage, so that the new damage per hit is an average, subject to dice roll.

How it might work.

So if we eliminate the to-hit roll, what does the game look like? What's armour good for? What's weapon specialisation about?

The simplest answer is to put it all into the damage roll. Armour represents damage mitigation, soaking a certain amount of incoming HP loss (which is more realistic anyway). Weapon competency increases your damage, or decreases the effects of armour, or results in debuffs or other non-damage penalties to the target.

Another answer is to rip out the to-hit subsystems entirely. Eliminate them. Feats can concentrate on buffing particular powers or classes of powers; proficiencies unlock new power categories.

The final result, I have to confess, will not look a lot like D&D as it's been understood between its origins and 3rd Edition. It will, in fact, be a hugely different game. But that's clearly not something that's significantly bothered the 4th Edition designers, and in the end result a better game is a better game.

So - that's my rationale. Now go nuts. Defend the roll to hit.

UPDATE: This post was featured in the July 2009 RPG Blog Carnival at 6d6 Fireball, which had the theme of "Dungeons & Dragons". Big thanks to 6d6 Fireball for hosting and for including this article. Now go check out all the other excellent entries!