Saturday, April 4, 2009
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.
 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?
 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.