Tuesday, April 21, 2009
A brief interruption turned into a two week hiatus, but I'm back now to look at Keep on the Shadowfell's final encounter, which I'll be doing over two posts.
Today I'm looking at the Shadow Rift from a mechanical perspective. Players enter the area from the Cathedral of Shadows by descending the large chains running through the hole in that area. The chains descend some 50 feet to the centre of the large pool of blood depicted on the map; athletic characters can slide their entire length in a single action by passing a not-terribly-difficult skill check.
That's great for the athletic characters. Those without the skill have slightly worse than 50/50 chances of slipping from the chains and dropping straight to the ground. The consequence of this is taking 3d10 damage (averaging out to between one and two healing surges for most characters) and being knocked prone. That's on top of any lingering damage from the last couple of encounters. It's a nasty start to a vicious final encounter.
The monsters on offer here are two skeleton warriors (who act as semi-effective tanks), a Deathlock Wight, and Kalarel himself. Both the wight and Kalarel are party-level threats. On top of that, players may have picked up one or both of the beserkers from the Cathedral of Shadow, plus possibly the Dark Creeper, and in a worst case may also have the Clay Scout from the Ghoul Warren.
Kalarel's in the west, completing his ritual to open the gate to the Shadowfell. The gate itself is in the north, near yet another of Keep's glowing magical circles. If Kalarel's forewarned, he theoretically gets to attack the players as they descend the chains, but given that the chains can be cleared in a single action (one way or another) it's not clear exactly how that advantage plays out. Let's assume the battle proper begins once the players hit the ground.
How things go from here largely depends on the effectiveness of the party. Kalarel is devastating when he's at range or has nearby allies, but has relatively few options when isolated by a competent tank. The Wight can dish out a terrifying amount of damage and can also resurrect fallen allies, but has a measly 54 hit points. If strikers focus on the wight while a good tank locks down Kalarel, you can have the first phase of the combat managed within two rounds. You can even manage this with a couple of players dusting themselves off after a fall from the chains.
When Kalarel hits his bloodied value (93 HP), things step up a notch. He teleports to a magic circle near the shadow rift and gets a substantial boost to all his defences. Players who were already struggling to hit him will be looking for near-crits, while those who were confident before will now be on the back foot.
The shift allows Kalarel to maintain his momentum despite the probable loss of some or all of his allies. It also, coincidentally, sets him up for his final fate, which I'll be looking at in the next post.
I like this concept of phased battles. It's something that's been popularised by computer games, relevantly World of Warcraft, and it's a worthwhile addition to D&D's dramatic toolbox. Fundamental tactical shifts at key stages helps keep players engaged in what's going on, and stops boss-level fights from degenerating into battles of attrition.
What's not so neat is that there's not much for players to do here. Other than the portal and the circle there's no useful terrain features, there's no traps, there's no objectives, and there's not even a real sense of time pressure. Most groups will swamp Kalarel while one or two ranged characters handle the Wight. Given that Kalarel's not well-equipped to go solo against a back of melee types, it can leave what should be a climactic encounter feeling mechanically underwhelming.
 Set a time limit. Firmly establish that Kalarel will complete his ritual in five rounds unless killed, and have him using free actions every round to chant the final phrases of his evil spell.
 Create dynamic terrain. With Kalarel's ritual begin literally ripping the Keep apart, have chunks of stone fall randomly from the ceiling and mark where they land on the map as either rough terrain or vision-obstructing obstacles.