Saturday, April 4, 2009

Ghoul Warren

I'll tell you a secret. The last act makes a film. Wow them in the end, and you got a hit. You can have flaws, problems, but wow them in the end, and you've got a hit. Find an ending, but don't cheat, and don't you dare bring in a deus ex machina. Your characters must change, and the change must come from them. Do that, and you'll be fine.
- Robert McKee (Adaptation)

The Ghoul Warren begins Keep on the Shadowfell's final trilogy of encounters. From here it's a downhill run to the climactic showdown with Kalarel. Once the players enter the Warren, they're probably not going to get another chance to rest until it's all over.

This is the game's apex - it's what your players are going to judge the game on. If they have a no-holds-barred thrill ride from here to the end, they'll walk away calling Keep on the Shadowfell a success. But if the final encounters stagger aimlessly from battle to battle like a drunken hobo before falling down in a gutter, they're not going to be coming back for the sequel.

The Ghoul Warrens gets off to a good start. Setting up the Warrens on a battlemap involves deploying no less than 16 separate enemies, which tells your players straight-up that the stakes have been raised. The lead adversary is the titular Ghoul, a flesh-eating undead which moves terrifyingly fast and leaves its victims paralysed. The backup are fourteen assorted zombies, mostly minions, who despite not requiring sustenance have begun to mimic the Ghoul's corpse-devouring behaviour.

Once players have spotted the undead, the safest strategy would appear to be barricading the doorway and picking them off from a distance. However, the sixteenth monster in the room is a Clay Scout, a kind of tiny winged homunculi, who flees to warn the next two rooms if the PCs gain the upper hand.

Intercepting the Clay Scout requires charging into the midst of the room, which will leave the players knee deep in the dead and at the mercy of the Ghoul. It makes for a compellling fight and a reasonably good introduction to the adventure's final act.

The strange aspect of this encounter is the room in the west. It has no doors or stairs, and it's only reachable by a tight crallway. One wonders who would possibly have built it, or why. The ghoul appears to have been using it to dispose of the inedible belongings of its victims, as there is assorted trash in here plus a bag of holding. It's a strange addition to the area and I just can't imagine what it was intended to accomplish.


1] Once my players had met Keegan in his tomb, and Keegan's children in the Corridors of the Cube, they immediately asked, "Where's Keegan's wife?" It's a question the module doesn't answer, so when we reached the Ghoul Warren I made the Ghoul the lady in question. It added personality and significance to a battle that didn't previously have it and helped Keegan's tragedy continue to underpin the dungeon all the way to its end.

[2] The useless room to the west may not feature any real danger, but it's a great set-up. To reach the room, players have to squeeze through a tiny tunnel, in the dark, with no idea what waits when they emerge. DMs who feel their game could use a bit more tension at this point should feel free to lengthen the tunnel, put another undead monster at the end, and possibly have the entrance to the tunnel collapse once at least one PC is already inside it. Alternatively you could replace the physical danger for a character moment by simply playing up how claustrophobic the experience is.


Vincent said...

Various encounters and rooms make little sense in this module. This one is no exception.

As mentioned already in a discussion on the DnD boards...

Keegan is indeed relatively low profile. He talks about danger and gives you a nice named weapon, but further down the line is very little that tells his tale.

Since Orcus pays no part in my version another reason was needed for undead to be present in the Keep. A curse would be most interesting. One that keeps Keegan restless with his soldiers/family turned into the several undead you encounter while descending further down the Keep.

Even if you use the original module with Orcus. The amount of undead if relatively few. There are more kobolds and (hob)goblins. So these battles really give the cleric a moment to shine instead of just staying in the back and patching up the others.

Another adjustment we discussed was to with the trap in the previous room. The water having flooded the area for a feet or two. Decaying corpses floating by in muddled water making the entire room difficult terrain. Also adding some atmosphere and showing the effect of breaking the trap in the previous room.

As for the extra corridor. Even if it is just a place to dump inedible pieces and a bag of holding it makes no sense. You get through when squeezing. I truthfully can't see undead doing that. Unless it is Resident Evil like where they have to reach their new food at all costs. Not to dump old food...they're not intelligent enough to come up with that.

This means the stuff in the room beyond the small corridor was placed there before the undead came. I'm thinking about simply getting rid of that room since it is pretty useless. Or place it somewhere where it makes more sense. If someone can't find such a use for that small room...then just get rid of it in my opinion.

The final chapter is pretty unbalanced combat difficulty wise. There are very few groups that can actually beat Kalarel after his underpriest clone. Using the underpriest's room to rest could be done if you have one or two characters keep their attention focused on the little hole with chains going down. I don't see Kalarel climbing up that chain so in the worst case an undead would climb through and get peppered.

A lot of DM's "re-wind" the game with the final chapter. They can't beat Kalarel without rest so pretend it was a dream foreshadowing events. So then the PC's wake up all fresh before they can go down and beat Kalarel. Which is poor if DM's are forced to use such methods. And that also enforces how much re-modeling KotS as a module requires to make it work.

Justin said...

Reading the description of the room I see it more as a private feeding chamber for the ghoul. A place where it can feed without the other zombies bothering it rather than a depository of inedible objects. I can see the ghoul with its int of 10 being smart, and lithe enough with a dex of 19 to do that.

Greg Tannahill said...

Vincent - I think the suggestion of flooding the area between here and the water trap on the official forums was by me. :-)

I can see how you can justify the extra room after the fact, and I can see how the Ghoul might use it (despite it starting at the far end of the chamber). I just can't see, plotwise, who built that room or why, and I can't see, design-wise, what effect the developers were hoping to achieve by putting it there.

The way I personally dealt with this final set of encounters is so far off module-as-written I'm probably not going to talk about it here, but it ended up making Keegan the centrepiece of the story and giving Kalarel some credibility. That's sadly not something that occurs in the printed version of Keep.

Anonymous said...

There is a side trek that is part of this room from dungeon magazine, but I can't figure out where on the map it goes...
Any clue?

Vincent said...


It doesn't really matter where you place the Hidden Victims encounter in my opinion. But if you want to go by the book...


Anonymous said...

D'oh... I didn't notice the map is flipped and north is not pointing up.

But that map you link too, where did it come from?

Did you create it?

Vincent said...

I took the map Greg had posted. Was to lazy to make a copy myself. Then took the other part from the Side Trek PDF.

Simple photoshop to put them together and done. :D

Anonymous said...

We're playing an Urban game, so I ended up placing the whole thing in a slum occupied by humanoids, secreted under a dilapidated former temple and dropped the whole Sire Keegan angle (I left him out, there's no Crypt, etc., changed the backstory, blah blah)

I also liked the idea of the water draining into this room, so I put drain holes all through it and had it done in clean tile. When the players bust unto a room filled with undead and it's nice and clean, they get WAY more creeped out than if it was all charnel-ey. Seeing how clean the room was, the certain knowledge of what MUST have been down that little tunnel carved by the ghoul was a really nice little set piece, and I piled on the gore when they did get down there.

This also has the nice advantage of giving a way for all those gallons and gallons of blood to be in the floor below: victims are thrown in here by the hobgoblins, kidnapped from the city above, and slaughtered so their blood drains down into the floor and through pipes to feed Kalarel's wading pool. The players seemed to like the sort of Necromantic Rube Goldberg nature of it.


Greg Tannahill said...

Modern - I like that idea. Very nice.

By The Sword said...

That room at the end of the crawl-space just begs to have more ghouls in it.