Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Chamber of Statues

A good trap has personality. A good trap feels like a malign force, a cruel enemy with a vicious sense of humour. A good trap seems to laugh at you even as it unleashes its several stages of lethal surprise.

The Chamber of Statues doesn't quite hurdle that bar. It's a little charmless, and it's competent rather than clever, but it nevertheless succeeds in providing a reasonable non-combat challenge for the players.

As the name suggests, this encounter is characterised by the presence of several statues. It features a gargantuan statue of a swordsman, two smaller statues of dragons, and then a collection of sculpted cherubs holding amphoras near the far door.

The room is an Obvious Trap. Players of any experience know that rooms with no visible enemies are more than they seem. When you add a collection of statues into the equation, it doesn't take a genius to see the rough shape of what's coming.

That's okay, though. Traps should speak ahead of themselves. While, strictly speaking, a completely undetectable trap is more effective, it's less dramatically interesting, and often more than a little unfair. Part of the fun of traps is knowing there's one coming, but not knowing exactly what form it will take or how to protect against it.

When players enter the room, the door locks behind them, and the big statue starts swinging its sword in a circle. Characters within its arc take damage and get knocked prone. There's only a thin space around the western edge of the room that's out of range, although there's a much larger vacant area near the dragon statues.

The dragons, naturally, are dangerous too. When PCs step between them and the swordsman, the dragons fire a force blast which pushes those it hits back into the swordsman's reach.

One place where this encounter falls short is in disarming the trap. A good trap should have several viable paths for countering it. Here avoidance is a good strategy, but players may also want to attack the statue or attempt to disarm it. The module provides rules for both these ideas, but both the difficulty and the amount of time required for success make them all but useless. Players who try to think outside the box will be brutally shut down if the encounter is run as printed.

Once players have passed the swordsman and dragons, they come to the water-bearing cherubs. Once a player has stepped between the cherubs, a magical curtain of force descends, sealing them in the area near the door (which is of course locked), and an unending torrent of magical water starts spilling from the amphoras. In three rounds it reaches a sufficient height to fully submerge the trapped player, and then commences rotating like a whirlpool, smashing its victim against the walls.

The trap falls down a little here too. Getting out of the water trap involves either smashing the cherubs, "disarming" them with Thievery, or "unmagicking" them with Arcana. It's not immediately obvious, without a little DM prompting, that the cherubs protrude through the magical barrier, allowing players outside the trap to help, nor is it clear how Thievery might help in overcoming what is apparently a magical trap. The solution is neither intuitive nor logical, which makes it that much less satisfying when you hit upon it.

Furthermore, the trap reckons without the Eladrin fey step power. In the second group that I saw attempt this room, the victim was an Eladrin fighter, who was able to contemptuously teleport to safety and watch the trap rather pathetically attempt to drown an empty room.

In any case, assuming the players actually do attempt to break the cherubs to stop the trap, they'll discover that the dragon statues have a magically increased range once the water trap is activated, and each interference with the cherubs provokes another force blast. It's challenging, but it's also frustrating and more than a little cheap.

Players who eventually overcome the combination of traps might well be asking exactly how Kalarel and his minions deal with this room on a daily basis, given it's the only way into the final chambers of Kalarel's lair. The answer is simple, explains the module - the traps only target non-evil creatures, duh.

Possibly if Kalarel was spending less time sculpting massive magical statues of swordsmen and building pretty little stone angels, he might have already opened the rift to the Shadowfell and made this whole business redundant.


the-stray7 said...

Yeah, reading this room was a WTF moment for me. Wow. I never considered how BAD this module actually is until your blow by blow account.

Falstyr said...

[quote]Possibly if Kalarel was spending less time sculpting massive magical statues of swordsmen and building pretty little stone angels, he might have already opened the rift to the Shadowfell and made this whole business redundant.[/quote]

Everyone has a hobby. Even evul dudes ;)

And perhaps it was just a trap that was there to begin with and he just had to modify it. Or he made it to prevent entry from outsiders. Even he doesn't know if and when someone would come and try to stop him so setting a trap is just a precaution.

But yah it makes little sense to me as well. I'm thinking about adding a secret path that would take Kalarel from his rooms and into the hill side near the ruins of the keep. Saves him time to travel. Players just see ruins and use that instead of scouting the mountain ranges for another hidden entry point behind some camouflaged bushes.

I mean really. In the final room. Do you really see Kalarel go up and down that slippery chain in the ceiling to the upper level?

Greg Tannahill said...

Falstyr - you make a good point about the chain. In my game I added an elevator on winches there but yes, there almost has to be another way out.

I considered the possibility Kalarel modified existing statues. But I'm not sure why there'd be this room full of such specific statues in the crypts to start with.

Another possibility is that the "evil energies of the rift" just magically cause crap like this to happen; which is to say, "a wizard did it". It's very hand-wavy.

Vincent said...

The odd thing is that the swordsman seems to be depicting one of Keegan's Paladins surrounded by symbolic Bahamut statuettes. At least that is how I see it.

That means this trap was already present. Put there by the Paladins that sealed the rift to make sure no one would be able to get near it. It was a trap, almost a final effort to stop intruders reaching the rift.

Funny that the module then states that only non-evil individuals are hit by the trap. How does such a trap sense motives and moral alignments? It would also mean that Kalarel had to get past it himself when trying to reach the rift and altered the trap to sense other alignments and motives so that he and his buddies would be free to pass through it. I don't think the Paladins made it detect specific alignments to begin with and the trap would just attack anyone that was dumb enough to enter.

So the presence of the trap is explainable, but the motivation on function isn't satisfyingly explained.


Greg Tannahill said...

The rift is in a cavern; if they genuinely wanted no one to ever go there again, they could just have collapsed the hill on it.

And again, a complicated trap is just so much less efficient than a big metal door with a decent lock.

Lgstarn said...

Quick fix for eladrin fey step: make the magical barrier block line of sight. If you can't see where you are going, you can't teleport there as per RAW.

Greg Tannahill said...

Nice idea, but it's not a fix. If the barrier blocks line of sight, the other party members outside won't know that their friend within is drowning and needs help. It's simpler to say that it's a magical barrier that blocks Fey Step magically.

Although I don't think you actually need to fix it. Players should get the benefit of their abilities. It's frustrating as a DM, but as a player escaping from something like that using your racial ability feels great, and as DM I think we can afford to suck up our pride in order to let players have that warm & fuzzy feeling.

James L said...

I am running this campaign as a somewhat new DM, and am planning on running this particular room completely different than what the module suggests, while using what is given in a different way.

Instead of coming into the cramped room that it is, the players walk into a massive 16x16 room, visually divided by into four 8x8 blocks. In the center of each 8x8 block stands large states, and in the four corners of the room are the cherub statues.

When the players reach the center of the room, or middle distance of the corner, the door locks down behind them, and the cherub statues immediately activate along with all four large statues standing around the room.

The Titan: Following the large sword wielding statue in the original module, this statue will constantly swing, hitting everything in a 6x6 square leaving only the edge of his block untouched, knocking the players prone and doing damage.

The Dragon: Once again, following the module, this statue will be knocking players in his 8x8 block around, possible in more dynamic ways than the module had, maybe even multiple targets at the same time or simple every player in the 8x8 grid gets knocked 1 square away from the statue.

The Sentinel: Brand new statue. This one actually moves around in his 8x8 grid, and will actively engage players who find themselves here. Probable will be a fighter who possibly grappled players who wouldn't want to be grabbed.

The Mage: Once again, a new addition to the family. This statue stays in the center, but every round on its initiative, it will deal damage to all players sitting on a darkened square in his 8x8 grid. To do this, I am using the checkered 8x8 tile from the dungeon tiles set.

The Cherubs: These guys remain the same. Yep. Excepts they are hitting the *entire room*. After three rounds into combat, the water from these guys will begin knocking the players counter clockwise directly into another statues block. The players, if they wish, can do a STR or DEX check to avoid movement, but otherwise they are thrown to the into the next statues block, right where they would be if the statue simply trades spaces. If this happens to be a space occupied by the Sentinel, then it gets an attack of opportunity and the player lands in a square before the Sentinel. Does no damage other than what occurs due to the shifting of squares.

What this is doing is causing the players to actively keep an eye on their own location and planning moves well ahead of their turn.

I of course have a lot of balancing to do, but once the players reach this room in my campaign, I a sure it will be a blast.

James L said...

Sorry for the several typos above >.> I most certainly do not mean to say that four large states occupy each side of the room, regardless of how epic the encounter may be if that were true.

I had a long day.

Greg Tannahill said...

@James L - As a general proposition I'd say your version of the traps is a tad vicious in the context of what is, generally-speaking, a "learning module". It's an expert-level problem in a beginner-level dungeon. But I like it in the abstract.

James L said...

In the context of the original module, yes it is a tad overdoing it. However, my party is already showing great aptitude towards overcoming encounters, and I believe that they will find something this complex refreshing after a whole bout of "Oh look, a hole in the ground!" encounters.

Thank you for the reply, I will definitely think twice about weather or not they are ready for this when we do reach it. :)