Friday, May 29, 2009
As with Keep on the Shadowfell, the material presented in Thunderspire Labyrinth is supplemented by a couple of articles in Wizards' online Dungeon Magazine.
Dungeon 156 presents a series of "side treks", additional encounters to be inserted between Thunderspire's main hubs. Unlike the ones for Keep, the Thunderspire ones are reasonably decent. They've got new enemies and situations, and they do more than just remix battles the players have already beaten.
The main obstacle to using these side treks is pacing. Thunderspire is operating on a fairly strict XP budget which it's already significantly blowing. The module is supposed to take players from level 4 to level 6 but most groups will be a high level 7 or low level 8 by the time they're done, even without harvesting XP from quests or random encounters. As it turns out, the final encounter of Thunderspire is tough even for super-players, but the next module (Pyramid of Shadows) isn't so robust, and is really expecting PCs to have only just hit level 7.
One solution is to water down the XP. Dropping the reward-per-encounter lengthens the Thunderspire experience without over-levelling the characters. I've mentioned before, though, that the level 4-6 range isn't something worth prolonging, so that might not be the right option here.
In any case, if you do find time to use the side treks, the first one (entitled "Tower of Sunset") is pretty good. A witch and her two gargoyle pets have been harassing travellers on the roads near Thunderspire, and players are sent to the very peak of the mountain to find the witch's lair and defeat her.
This is the only time that players will get to see the upper reaches of the mountain, or traverse a portion of its exterior, so it's a great opportunity to provide a sense of scale and context to Thunderspire's typical gloomy corridors. The witch herself is a Shadar-Kai, a race native to the Shadowfell, and that forms a nice way to tie things back to the party's experiences in Keep on the Shadowfell and to further foreshadow their eventual campaign against Orcus in the paragon and epic tier modules.
The witch is a speaking, sentient creature; players might contemplate diplomacy. If they do, though, they haven't learnt Thunderspire's lesson - swords first, questions later. The side trek has the witch launching into combat mere seconds after players enter her tower. She fights with the aid of a "shadow hound" and a pair of iron defenders (a rather silly kind of metal dog-golem), and then retreats upstairs to gain the aid of her gargoyles.
The gargoyles are problematic. The quest hook suggests that the gargoyles are the real problem here, and calls for their "elimination". However, the encounter doesn't provide their stats and they're not included in the XP budget. A quick look at their write-up in the Monster Manual reveals they're significantly higher level than the players and even if the PCs have a way of assaulting their near-impenetrable defence stats it will be a long and tedious process to bring them to justice.
In my game I changed the goal to "loot the tower" rather than "kill the gargoyles"; after the witch was defeated the gargoyles fled, and everyone got to do a victory dance. It's hard to see what the writer actually intended, though.
Puzzling gargoyles aside, this is still a strong encounter, and it's a nice change from the hobgoblins and duergar that the first half of Thunderspire is drowning under.
 Getting your players involved in the side quest might be tricky - after all, those slaves aren't rescuing themselves - and the implied time-limit may dissuade characters from taking on busywork. In this situation, you can substitute the rather lame quest hook with something more story-centric. Possibly the Witch is the only one who knows where the Chamber of Eyes can be found? Or maybe the assault on the Chamber turns up no clues, and only the mystical powers of the Witch can alert players to the Duergar being their next target?