Saturday, April 4, 2009

Cathedral of Shadows

If the last three encounters in Keep on the Shadowfell are a trilogy, this is its Temple of Doom. It's a hapzard mish-mash of ideas that appear to have been jammed wholesale into the gap between the Ghoul Warren and the Shadow Rift.

The Cathedral of Shadow is printed on another of Keep's A3 poster maps, and once again the module really has no clear idea on how to fill the space. The players enter from the west, and discover a priest of Orcus sacrificing "creatures" in order for their blood to run in rivers through a hole in the floor down to the Shadow Rift.

The players will probably need to be told, no, this is not Kalarel, and yes, it's another priest of Orcus, who is different. For that matter, it's entirely possible you'll need to say that the hole in the ground is not the rift, it just leads to the rift.

That's emblematic of the problem with the entire encounter - it's a monster-for-monster clone of the climactic battle that will follow it. I've always said that a good story should end the way it began. Keep, which opened with twinned kobold ambushes, takes the idea to its twisted mutant heart by finishing up with identical priest-and-undead battles, back to back.

The undead here are vampire spawn, a kind of minor vampire with all of the traditional weaknesses and none of the strengths. They're destroyed by sunlight, of course - not terribly interesting when the battle is completely underground - and they're able to crawl up walls and across ceilings, which isn't really helpful on a map with few significant terrain items. In the end result the vampire spawn end up less interesting even than the kobolds, reduced to running at the players and swiping with their claws.

There's also two human beserkers, who are apparently cultists of Orcus. They're the real meat of the encounter, and they serve a dual purpose - to dish out the hurt (they can crit for upwards of 40 damage), and to keep the fight centred around the room's only tactically interesting feature - the hole in the ground.

The hole's a trap, in a non-traditional sense, and it's a little bit cruel. Keep on the Shadowfell has been training players, over the entire length of the dungeon, to use ledges and pits to eliminate enemies quickly from the battle. It's to the module's credit that it teaches players well enough that they'll repeat the tactic here without any prompting. In most plays of this room, one of the two beserkers will probably get sent down the hole.

Unfortunately for the players, the hole leads directly to the next encounter, and there's a cushioning pool of blood at the bottom. Enemies dispatched into the depths will alert Kalarel to prepare his last stand, and hang around to pump the difficulty level of an already tricky final encounter. It's difficult to decide whether to applaud the module for this well-executed manipulation of the PCs, or condemn it for subverting its own stated intention of teaching and empowering new players.


[1] Look at that map. The rivers of blood are five to ten feet wide. Exactly how many "creatures" have been sacrificed down here, and where are they coming from? There's really not that much blood in a human body; considering the blood's draining into a hole, it's an extraodinary piece of dramatic licence for there to be that much left on this level. Also, one has to wonder whether it wouldn't be simpler to just kill the creatures downstairs, rather than have this whole inefficient draining mechanism?

[2] In addition to the priest, the beserkers and the vampire spawn, there's also a Dark Creeper in this battle. Keep doesn't bother to say what a Dark Creeper is or where it comes from, but the Monster Manual elaborates that they're unaligned gnomelike creatures from the Shadowfell, a kind of extraplanar Ferengi who might turn up anywhere if it furthers their mercenary interests. It seems like it deserves more of a story than the simple stat block afforded in the module - does it serve Orcus, is it just here to investigate, or is it the messenger of some other power? We may never know.


Zubon said...

[1] The corpses of the sacrificed elephants have been well hidden. Where did they get these elephants? They're migratory.

Greg Tannahill said...

Bravo good sir. You have solved the mystery.

Actually, where the corpses go isn't a mystery - they're fed to the undead in the last chamber. The module doesn't say it explicitly, but when you've got a Ghoul Warren full of corpses for no reason, and then you've got a sacrificial altar with buckets of blood but no bodies, it's an easy read-between-the-lines.

Anders Hällzon said...

I kind of assume they're sacrificing extras from Kill Bill. The ones with approximately one barrel of blood per decapitated or otherwise maimed person.

Vincent said...

The only way I can see the sacrificial blood is if you decide to use the side trek. Hob's taking slaves from Winterhaven and sending them to the Keep and others to the place of module 2.

Still the side trek only lists 20-ish individuals and that will not suffice. But you can easily adjust it so that people in Winterhaven notice a slight decrease in their population. Still I don't see it provide a solution to all that blood. And I haven't gotten to the point of dealing with it.

As for the Dark Creeper. Personally I don't see that one having a connection with Orcus other then the Shadowfell rift. Perhaps he's keeping an eye on things in service of the Raven Queen? That would be interesting.

Greg Tannahill said...

It's once again incredibly incompetent of Kalarel to let a minion of the Raven Queen be wandering around when he's doing a ritual dedicated to empowering her arch-nemesis. So... perfectly plausible, I guess.

Vincent said...

With all the idiocy he's allowed so far it wouldn't be a stretch to have a spy among his ranks rofl ;)

Something like...The Raven Queen shows how to infiltrate ranks without the spy being so obvious like Ninaran :P

Anonymous said...

As it happens, purely by coincidence, the Dark Creeper is actually a nice addition if you're going to veer off the H-series and into the Scales of War adventure path from Dungeon. If you want to provide the possibility for PCs to go that way (as I did), then have the Creeper be a rep of the Shadar-Kai arms dealer who is selling weapons to Kalarel to outfit his humanoid minions. Plant a bit of evidence on him that points the PCs in the direction of the 'Umbraforge' adventure and you're off.

It also actually give a nod to the idea that Kalarel surely must have plans of conquest and mayhem that go beyond the single task of opening the Rift; he'll want to wreak some Havoc in the world once he's started the Shadowfell ball rolling, right? Well, you need good supply lines for that sort of thing.


Elf said...

I have to admit that, as a player of this module, I absolutely thought this was the final encounter when presented with the room and its occupants. I was quite nonplussed when there wasn't a big conclusion to the fight or any fanfare, and had to continue to yet another room.

There didn't seem to be any personality to the dungeon, so it was difficult to gauge the importance of each room.