Tuesday, April 21, 2009

The Shadow Rift

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.


[1] 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.

[2] 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.


Vincent said...

Welcome back from the Hiatus ;)

In order to add time pressure you can adjust a bit more then what you suggested. There are suggestions around the i-net for this.

The conversion guide to the Forgotten Realms setting makes the Dragon Burial Site encounter a more driving part of the story. An artifact, some bones or other objects can be placed here which Kalarel can use to shorten the time needed to complete his ritual. Combine that with a time table similar to 3.x Red Hand of doom and you're set.

From that moment on the players will have some form of time pressure. Vathrun the Prescient can explain that the idols found at the site are used in rituals to speed things up. They don't know how many Kalarel has, how much time they have left etc.

If you set up a few more moments in the game where the group can find ways to indirectly slow down Kalarel's ritual they'll also feel more involved as if they're actually making a difference and buying themselves time. It also means that Kalarel isn't just some guy that appears at the end out of nowhere.

Another errata published by WoTC shows a skill challenge that can be used during the fight to slow down the ritual and even reverse it so that the players "buy" more time.

Combine that with your suggestions of Kalarel trying to complete the ritual with his free actions and the falling debris I see a great final encounter :D

But what still bugs me a lot is that dumb slippery chain. A wizard can have a utility power that allows 1 player that float down not using the chain. So even the less athletic/acrobatic characters can reach the ground safely.

And do you think Kalarel will use that chain to go up and down? There must be another exit/entry somewhere.

the-stray7 said...

Hey! Welcome back!

Maelora said...

I just started reading your blog and have been very impressed by your analysis and insight. Thank you for this!

I have read very few articles with actual constructive criticism of 4E. The majority seem to uncritically praise it for being 'cool', and the detractors never seem to properly articulate what is wrong with the game. Your balanced insights are very welcome.

We're coming from the game from different angles, I think - you're a fan trying to improve it, while I find it difficult to see 4E as a role-playing game at all (it reminds me strongly of a cross between 'Descent' and an online MMORPG). I was initially surprised that anyone would even bother trying to fix 4E, 'Keep on the Shadowfell' in particular. There seem to be so many things wrong with it that it would be easier just to pick another game, in my opinion. But yor persistence in trying to improve it has partially won me over, and having read ALL of your posts, I'm not quite ready to completely give up on the game... though I doubt it will ever use it as written.

I actually came here because I am using 'Keep' in my long-running non-D&D game, as an example of a typical 'cliched dungeon crawl', something of a parody. Your comments and analysis have helped me pinpoint exactly what makes it so trite (your post on Kalarel alone made me laugh out loud!).

Anyway, I wanted to thank you for your hard work and your attempts to improve this adventure. If permitted, I would like to comment on a few of your previous insights (having arrived at the party late...) if thread necromancy is allowed?

Anyway, my thanks.

rpgtreehouse said...

My party had to resort to setting fire to the book on the altar in order to 'finish' the scene.
They started badly with falling damage, and were down on a few powers from the previous encounter.
This was a tough one. The dragonborn paladin actually got eaten by The Thing, but I'm hoping to go get him back from the Shadowfell when we're all at Paragon.

Greg Tannahill said...

Vincent - There are several fairly significant changes you can make to the encounter, including what I went with for my group, but the goal of Eleven Foot Pole is to treat the module as far as possible as-written. Significantly modding the module is tantamount to making excuses for it. I don't suggest anyone actually run it as-written but the aim here is to see what effect you get if you do. Also - utility powers? What nonsense are you talking about. They're not useful in combat - why would anyone take them? :-)

Maelora - I've written elsewhere that D&D is and always has been an excellent game, but a terrible roleplaying game, and that's doubly true of 4th Edition. However, I think it's fairly uncontentious to say that the best experiences with 4th Edition will come from setting its trademark combats within the context of a story, whether simple or complex, and that's pretty much the angle I'm coming from - 4th Edition as a tactical combat game within a non-trivial storytelling setting.

Maelora said...

I agree that D&D has never been the 'go to game' for role-playing. But somewhere around the end of 1st edition and the advent of 2nd, TSR made an admirable attempt to introduce more story elements. Dragonlance in 1st, and the glut of settings in 2nd edition - Spelljammer, Dark Sun, Birthright, Planescape, etc. - didn't really lend themselves to dungeon-bashing, and were intended to provide a different play experience.

What I'm trying to decide - and hoping your blog can assist me with - is whether 4E can exist outside of the confines of its 'Twenty Perfectly Balanced Combat Encounters And A Skill Challenge' format. Is is possible, or even desirable, to have anything as free-form as 'Assassins Knot' or as potentially-narrative as 'Chateau D'Amberville'?

Greg Tannahill said...

Maelora - you can tell a story in 4E. You can tell a good story in 4E. But you're fighting uphill.

Literally any roleplaying game other than 4E is better at storytelling than 4E. The surprisingly excellent roleplaying game based on the Fighting Fantasy franchise, Dungeoneer! is better at storytelling than 4E despite an absolutely ludicrous set of rules.

The issue is largely that 4E is pushing you towards combat with each and every one of its mechanics, so if you're going to tell a story you're going to have to do it during, and through the medium of, battle. You can, with effort, subvert the combat paradigm, but then you have to ask why the hell you're playing 4E in the first place.

If you're looking for published examples of good 4E storytelling, the Scales of War modules in Dungeon magazine are scattershot but pretty competent. Also, from my initial reading, the Paragon tier modules (P1, P2, P3) are significantly better at doing intrigue and diplomacy than the anaemic H series.

Greg Tannahill said...

Oh, also, thread necromancy is cool, but I've deliberately set the blog up to not alert me to comments so I'd need to have reason to go looking for new comments on old posts.

Vincent said...

"utility powers? What nonsense are you talking about. They're not useful in combat - why would anyone take them? :-)"

MWahahah, because I don't go along with 4e being only hack and slash. So my characters actually have seemingly useless skills at times which work out combat.

I agree that 4e tries to get you do combat whenever possible. And fighting is great, but story telling/roleplaying can be done just as well. But yes there are better storytelling systems out there.

Maelora said...

Thanks for that. I had come to the conclusion that 4E was 99.9 % combat orientated. It's a shame, because while 'hack and slash' used to be an option in D&D - perhaps even a default option - there were other ways to play the game too. That seems to be gone now - 4E seems indifferent at best to role-playing, and actively hostile to it at worst.

(And yes, Dungeoneer! did it better! I used to like Fighting Fantasy - some of them have a very epic sweep. I'm glad someone else remembers that one!)

Anyway, your essays have showed how to turn a lousy dungeon crawl into a decent dungeon crawl. I'm looking forward to your take on Thunderspire, which has _slightly_ more options as an adventure, potentially?

Maelora said...

>Also, from my initial reading, the Paragon tier modules (P1, P2, P3) are significantly better at doing intrigue and diplomacy than the anaemic H series.

Hmm, I'm not sure. My eyes glazed over with 'Trollhaunt' after realising you had to fight the Troll King a dozen times over (a conciet borrowed from console games, it seems). It follows Keep on the Shadowfell's ethos - 'if that fight was cool once, it will be even cooler if we keep repeating it!'

As for the one with the Drow, it makes a token stab at interaction and intrigue, but all the outcomes are to the PCs detriment. They're going to have to fight all the drow anyway - but if you choose to interact with them, you eventually get ambushed instead of fighting them immediately. That seems like punishing the players for daring to talk to monsters.

I'd love to know your take on the P-series, if you choose to go that far!

Greg Tannahill said...

I haven't looked the P-series over in detail but I was kind of sold on Trollhaunt starting with the death of the last guy who tried; I thought that seemed full of dramatic potential, particularly if you work that guy in early as someone the players had previously met.

Assault on Nightwyrm seems similarly fraught with possibility - its hook of "resurrection magic has stopped working" is something that works on a number of levels because of the way it directly interfaces the mechanics. You can play it as anything from self-parody right through to epic tragedy.

Maelora said...

Yes, there's potential there. But they need a decent amount of work to make them playable, as did 'Keep'. It will be nice to see your take on them eventually!

16lettersonly said...

"utility powers? What nonsense are you talking about. They're not useful in combat - why would anyone take them? :-)"

This is absolutely not true.

Out of the 178 Utility Powers in the PHB, 129 of them are designed to be used only in combat, or have maximum effectiveness in a combat-heavy game (like Cure Light Wounds). Thus, it shouldn't be any problem at all for WotC to get rid of the other 49 in favor of useful abilities for my character. ;)

Congrats on a satisfying finale - your posts on the forums tell me that 4e runs counter to your usual GMing style, but your suffering through, er, insightful analysis of this module has been highly enjoyable.

Patrick said...

Actually there's a pit next to the wight that provides a convenient way to eliminate him in one attack.

That was the most memorable part of the game for my group. We chucked the wight into the pit early in the fight, then after we defeated Kalarel we went back and threw bricks at the wight until it died.