Monday, March 23, 2009
I looked before at the idea of equivocation, where a DM can ostensibly present a choice, but use subtle cues to induce the player to pick the result he wants. At the time I speculated as to whether it had been used intentionally in the Goblin Guard Room. In the Hobgoblin Barracks, we learn that it wasn't.
There are two ways to leave the Hobgoblin Guard Room. Both are open passages; one leads south, and the other leads east. Players will go south.
Seriously. Players will go south. Run the room, see what happens.
There's several factors at work here. Players entered the room from stairs, also to the south. Heading south through another passage is "tighter" - it keeps players nearer to their entry point as the crow flies, which acts subconciously even if both directions are equally far in walking distance. Also, there's a symmetry at work. The room to the west of the Hobgoblin Guard Room is a dead end; it cues players to think that the east is also a dead end (which, it turns out, it is).
I've already looked at dead ends in Keep on the Shadowfell. The entire cave system is a useless appendage hanging off the main dungeon spine. Here again, in the hobgoblin area, we find a part of the dungeon that players have no real reason to visit. Going south takes them straight past this area, and so most parties will never see it.
The Hobgoblin Barracks is a straight fight. The hobs get to show off their squad tactics, which they missed out on in the Guard Room. The soldiers and grunts here get +2 AC when they're base to base with an ally; the archer gives a nearby ally an attack bonus whenever it fires. The bumbling creatures who so easily fell down pits in the last room are suddenly vicious killers, and this fight can go sour on the players very quickly.
The Hobgoblin Warcaster here is one of my favourite low-level monsters, and I was pretty excited that they used him again in the opening encounters of Thunderspire Labyrinth, the follow-up module. He's got a Force Lure, which damages an opponent and slides them up to three squares, and a Force Pulse which hits everyone in close blast 5, pushes them a square, and knocks them prone. They're rechargable so with a bit of luck he can be doing one of these practically every turn. It's pure havoc and it works great with the other hobs.
The module suggests that if players don't enter this room and instead pass it by, the hobs will come out and ambush them during the next encounter. The next encounter for players who walk by is either going to be a room full of traps or a gelatinous cube. Either way, the ambushing hobs are going to get significantly more than they bargained for.
 Both the trap room and the gelatinous cube are good encounters, and they're both extremely dangerous. As fun as it would be to introduce hobs to them, it'll break one of the best two encounters on this floor of the dungeon, and you're risking a TPK, for no better reason than that the players went the way the map layout suggested. As much as it hurts to lose this encounter and the next hobgoblin room, the best policy is don't ask, don't tell - if the players don't ask what's in this part of the map, don't ever tell them.
 If you want to run the hobgoblin areas, it's as simple as adding some description when it comes time for players to leave the Guard Room. Tell them that to the east they can hear scraping and cursing, reminiscent of more hobgoblins hurriedly strapping on battle armour. If they don't boot down the door to clear the area, you can at least feel justified in springing the hobs in a later encounter, knowing that the players made a meaningful choice based on actual information.