Saturday, April 4, 2009
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.
 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.