Thursday, February 19, 2009

Crypt of Shadows

The Crypt of Shadows is an example of the difference between fair and unfair traps.

This is the start of a new section of Keep on the Shadowfell, which can be broadly described as "the tombs". The flavour enemy here is the undead, and the climax of the area is a confrontation with the ghost of Sir Keegan, the Keep's last commander.

The Crypt of Shadows leads into the tombs with a short maze of corridors, which the players enter from the east (top of the map). "Strange designs" are inscribed on the floor at intervals. Stepping on one of these designs triggers a "throat-tearing scream", which summons the zombies who are waiting at the south-east and north-west of the area, and also subjects whoever tripped the alarm to a fear effect which can send the unfortunate player running straight into the arms of the undead.

There are some problems with the encounter. One is that players will almost certainly clear out the zombies in the south-east before monkeying with the designs, which takes a lot of the sting out of the set-up. Another is that the southernmost inscription is redundant and can be safely walked around.

The biggest problem, though, is in the description of the runes. The module says only, "Strange designs are inscribed into the floor," and then provides an unhelpful picture of what the designs look like. A DC 20 Arcana or Religion check reveals what the runes do, but that can be a tough roll for even a trained second-level character. (A best-case scenario sees only a 55% chance of success; more realistic chances for trained characters are 40%.)

No rules are provided for "defusing" the runes, although that's a fairly simple house rule for the DM to come up with. Instead, players are expected to jump across these obstacles. Experiments with three parties suggest that new players simply won't think of this; the runes are 10 feet across and on the battlemap it looks too far to jump. The DM will probably need to mention that 10 feet is a jumpable distance.

Jumping them turns out to be quite easy - DC 11 with a running start is 50/50 odds for even the most inept character - but with five characters the cumulative percentages mean that you'll almost certainly have someone fail during the jump. In most situations, that means the party split on either side of the rune as the undead come surging forwards.

This isn't a fair trap. There are several reasons why. The first and most obvious is that it doesn't make sense. Regardless of whether this is an ancient trap set by the keep's original owners or a more recent defence installed by Kalarel, it's haphazard. There is no particular scheme to the placement of the runes - they're not defending anything or placed with any kind of intelligent design. They have the effect of encouraging players to go south before they go north, which is a good thing, as I'll come to in later posts, but they feel random and unfocused both in the larger picture of the keep and in the smaller scale of this encounter.

Another reason the trap is unfair is that by requiring everyone to jump the trap plays on the weakest member of the party; it's punishing players for specialising rather than being generalists. In every other context specialising is the right decision in D&D so here it feels like players are being made to lose because of how often they win.

The third reason that it's unfair is that players aren't provided with the necessary information. There is nothing about these runes to suggest what they'll do, which makes it hard for the players to make meaningful choices about how to approach them. The only available information comes from the Arcana and Religion checks, which are punitively hard considering how vital their information is.

On each occasion I've seen it run, this encounter has been completely underwhelming. It's a definite low point in Keep on the Shadowfell and if the whole module had been like this it's a wonder how anyone could have got past the first session.


ericstratton said...

I'm going to DM for the first time in a week or two and will be using KotS. These posts have been helpful in that I know what to look out for now. It'd be great if you could not only point out the weaker parts of a campaign but also include ways to correct them such as where to put the runes for better use, what sort of DC checks to setup to determine what the runes do, etc. Thanks!

Greg Tannahill said...

Hi Eric! If it seems obvious as I go I'll do that kind of thing, but the aim really isn't to mod Keep on the Shadowfell. If you're literally a first time DM you should probably run it as written; you'll run into more problems with house rules and other scenarios than you will with the printed booklet. On the other hand, if you ARE comfortable modding, you might be well served making an entirely new adventure or using one of the better ones from Dungeon Magazine.

Mostly what I'm interested in here is looking in Keep as-written, so as to be able to do some critique without always running into the argument, "Well, of course you can change that..."

Lgstarn said...

I ran this encounter last week with a few tweaks.

I played up the atmosphere by describing the walls as lined with vertical coffins, cobwebs, musty air - the full-blown creepy crypt scene. After finding and defeating the zombies in the south, the players opened the coffins, finding corpses inside. They refused to grave rob, which was kind of lawful good (and pragmatic) of them. They then attempted to use a coffin (with body inside) to jump across the runes. I improvised by having the corpse zombify to a rotter upon touching the rune and get a surprise round swipe. Did it make sense that these runes zombify and Kalarel's gang hadn't yet utilized all corpses? Maybe not. But it was a lot of fun.

Later, the wizard used her flaming sphere to mow down the minions. I ruled that this caused a coffin to catch on fire, and pretty soon the entire crypt was a blazing inferno. The players were forced to turn back or head down into level 2. It was all rather dramatic.

When you run this encounter, I recommend that you give the players some way around having to jump the runes if they are clever enough. Otherwise they are just a pain in the ass. Also, if the players inquire about how to disable the runes, let them roll 15 Arcana to learn that they can all be disabled by a skill challenge. Taylor this to your party. For my party, it consists of:

1) Religion/Arcana DC 10/10: knowing that the Platinum Dragon is the bane of undead and devising a plan to use marks of the Platinum Dragon to counter the runes with holy symbols of Bahamut
2) Get the wizard/paladin on opposite sides of a rune. DC differs, probably 10 for athletics, or maybe they will just go around.
3) The wizard and the paladin begin a ritual and make 10/15/15 DC arcana/religion checks each.

If six successes occur before three failures, the challenge is a success and the runes are all disabled. If not, the rune triggers and both players flee in terror.

In order to balance the wizard/paladin show, I'd plan another skill challenge later that gets everyone else involved with a lesser role for those two.

Lgstarn said...

On second thought, you might consider making that 5/10/15 DC checks, in any order, just to give a higher rate of success.

Greg Tannahill said...

Lgstarn - I love that your players refused to rob the corpses but were totally cool with coffin-surfing to victory. That's some elegant moral gymnastics right there.

Fruitybix said...

i havent run my players through this bit yet. these comments are pretty usefull, as im a first time GM who has only limited 3.5 experience.

ive searched pretty hard for an in depth breakdown of Kots and this is the first place ive found my need met.

ill definately be incorporating some of lgstarns ideas when i run this. also, my players will likely not only loot the corpses, but turn their dismembered remains into fashionable summer dress. they are a pretty barbaric lot.