Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Monte Cook at Origins

I don't really have a post for today, but to throw something to all of you who took the time to come looking for one, hey, did you see that Critical Hits have the report of Monte Cook's seminar at Origins 2009?

Cook, a former TSR/WoTC guy and lead designer of D&D 3rd Edition, has spent the last decade living in the indie gaming wilderness as one of its elder grognards. In a bit of synchronicity his comments at Origins run scarily close to the arguments I've been having on the official forums the last couple of weeks. It's a bit disconcerting to find myself agreeing with Cook; I feel dirty.

Origins 2009: Monte Cook "Being a Better Game Master" via Critical Hits.

Friday, June 26, 2009

The Empty Crypt

Every so often in a published module you get a room that seems to have been forgotten about by the module designers. In Thunderspire Labyrinth we get this small room up the back of the Horned Hold, sandwiched between the Ruined Chapel of the wights and the Duergar Slave Pits.

The module calls it the "Crypts", and offers the following descriptive text: "The remains of about two dozen minotaur warriors lie here in burial niches along the walls. In the southern hallway stands a statue of a grim-looking skeletal minotaur with a greataxe - a minotaur version of the Grim Reaper."

That sounds like the setup for an awesome undead-themed encounter. Even as your players make their way into this room, they'll be sharpening their weapons and patting each other on the back and declaring, "Oh boy! The Minotaur Grim Reaper!" The skeletal reaper is a classic archetype, and here we have a new bull-headed twist on the idea. It's a great way to build on the undead from the last encounter and really tie the Horned Hold into the ongoing minotaur-themed history.

Unfortunately, yet again, it's not to be. The statue doesn't come to life; the dead don't rise from their graves. There is, in fact, no tactical encounter for this room whatsoever, making it the only part of the Hold not covered in this way. Players will be completely baffled as to why nothing in this room is animating and trying to kill them. It does, after all, run contrary to their entire previous experience.

We can't be clear on exactly what was going on here. An oversight by the developers? An encounter cut to fit the page count? Or just a minotaur crypt that genuinely doesn't present a danger to adventurers? We may, in the end, never know.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Endowment Effect

Thunderspire Labyrinth must have been getting sick of Duergar (I know I was) because suddenly we get a Ruined Chapel full of wights.

This is the Horned Hold's "secret passageway". Once players have reached the western guard post, they can choose to come here via a neglected and disused corridor as an alternative to fighting through orcs, ogres, and a very grumpy paladin of Asmodeus.

The Duergar apparently avoid this area because they're too lazy to clear out the undead that infest it. The undead in question are wights, described here as "long dead human warriors in tattered black mail".

This, of course, doesn't make a lick of sense. In case we've somehow forgotten, the Horned Hold used to be a minotaur fortress. More recently, it's been run by Duergar. How armed undead humans managed to make their way to this single room of the complex is a mystery mortal minds were not meant to solve. The obvious improvement is to make the creatures here either Duergar wights (meh) or minotaur wights (highly awesome).

Players of previous editions know wights as monsters to avoid. That's because of their energy drain, also known as "level drain". That is to say, by merely touching you they could strip you of a character level. Recovering that level by any means other than re-acquiring the XP called for one of several medium to high level cleric spells. Those are spells, naturally, that PCs don't get until many levels later.

The level drain was scary. It was a longstanding tradition. It was one of the memorable things about fighting undead.

But, importantly, it was bollocks. Losing things is not fun. We hate it. In fact, we hate it disproportionately.

In 1980 a man named Robert Thaler noted that, contrary to standard economic theory, people seemed to place a higher value on items that they own than an equivalent item that they didn't. That is to say, people would ask for more money to sell an item that they currently had than they would pay to buy an identical item. He called this the "endowment effect".

In 1990, Tversky and Kahneman went on to demonstrate this as a result of a specific form of cognitive bias called loss aversion. Humans, they argued, are essentially averse to loss. We find losses more distressing than equivalent failures to gain. We are much happier about missing the opportunity to gain $100 than we are about losing $100 we thought we had.

What does this mean for game design? It means that taking things away from players is a big stick. It is a disproportionately big stick. It means that people will make bad decisions when a loss is a possible consequence. It means that people will get irrationally upset when a feature or resource of their character is deleted.

You only need to look at the forums to see this. People hate having their favourite class nerfed. They're not nearly so worried about missing out on being buffed, though. People scream loudly about cancelled D&D Insider features they thought they were getting; they're not quite so vociferous in requesting additional features that haven't already been offered.

D&D 4th Edition has taken loss aversion to heart. Classic "progress eating" game mechanics have been dramatically changed. The Rust Monster, for example, no longer deprives players of thousands of gold worth of magical items without offering commensurate reward. Enemies with "weaken" powers no longer lower stats, and being raised from the dead won't permanently erase a point of Constitution.

And the wight, our feature monster here, doesn't drain levels. He instead knocks off his victim's healing surges. A horrifying permanent loss has been replaced by a temporary elimination of the PC's ability to regain hit points.

It's an improvement. I can tell you, I am absolutely never going to miss having one of my levels drained. That is an experience I am overjoyed to see in the past.

But at the same time, I kind of miss knowing that there were things out there that could steal levels. How are DMs going to terrify low level players now?

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Poll Result: Mind Flayers

A day late and a dollar short; Tycho and Gabe at Penny Arcade have already declared open season on mind flayers. I'm coming in after the first shots have been fired, it seems.

I'm actually a bit blown away by the poll result; the good old illithid was my pick for victor but I'd expected the drow to be running a close second, lavender eyes flashing in the darkness. Possibly it's time for Bob Salvatore to start up a new series about a good-hearted mind flayer living in self-imposed exile, tortured by the brain-eating ways of his kin?

I'm a bit baffled by the two guys who voted for Derro (or possibly one guy on two computers). Really? Derro? I'd love to hear a compelling argument for their awesomeness; I've always considered them the also-rans in the evil dwarf marathon. I guess this is why we have polls; to establish that Kuo Toa are scientifically three times as popular as Derro, despite apparently not even having a Wikipedia page my incorrect spelling of their name.

But let's look at why the mind flayer wins.

Mind flayer and illithid are interchangeable terms; I'm not sure if they're used in connection with each other as far back as the mind flayer's original appearance in 1975 but certainly by the late 80s and the birth of AD&D 2nd Edition they're inseparably pinned together.

Mind flayers are notable for their humanoid appearance, topped by a squidlike head festooned with writhing tentacles. These tentacles burrow into the brain of the mind flayer's victim to feast on the goo inside. They are deeply intelligent, often displaying genius-level cognition, and are naturally psionic, able to deploy a devastating mind blast from which they partly derive their name. In addition, many illithids are accomplished magic-users and they make use of cutting edge magicpunk-style technology (culminating in the titular extraplanar vessels of the Spelljammer campaign setting).

I think the reason the mind flayer has become so iconic is the way it straddles so many horror and fantasy tropes so effectively. Not only is an individual mind flayer a mastermind-level campaign villain, it comes from an entire civilisation of such beings. It's a deadly psion, able to turn your own thoughts against you, and at the same time it's a powerful archmage (some mind flayers ascend to undeath to become a ridiculously-named illithilich.) Its humanoid appearance lets it fit any number of regular character roles, but at the same time it's a Lovecraftian abomination, a Thing-That-Was-Not-Meant-To-Be. 4th Edition has mind flayers once again hailing from the Far Realm, which is in keeping with their whole Elder Gods flavour.

There's also the ongoing theme of penetration and invasion. The mind flayer is one of the horror genre's rape-surrogates. The illithid invades your thoughts; its tentacles drill into your brain; and its spawn, the repellant illithid larvae, grow to adulthood by entering a parasitic and ultimately lethal relationship with a living human host.

Mind flayers are a huge number of successful horror monsters rolled into one; and if the basic illithid doesn't completely meet your antagonist needs you can graft an illithid larvae onto any number of other monsters to create a ridiculous mind flayer hybrid - anything from the half-svirfneblin "mozgriken" to the beholder-illithid "mindwitness" through to the too-awesome-to-be-silly "brainstealer dragon".

Personally the image that stays with me of the mind flayer is of an illithid, its arms folded within its voluminous robes. It doesn't need to unfold its arms to kill you. It doesn't need to move. It controls your brain, and you walk towards it, and it feeds.

Man, I love those guys.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Prediction #1: No Roll To Hit

Hi all, sorry for the silence. I've been struggling with swine flu's mutated cousin the regular flu, which is less likely to hospitalise me but just as all-round annoying. Interrupted sleep, a constant flow of mucus and a head stuffed full of codeine do not a productive blogger make.

So while I finish up my recovery (and get around to a post about mind flayers I owe you) I'm going to leave you with a prediction for D&D 5th Edition I've been mulling over. It is this:

* Providing that an eventual 5th Edition continues in largely the same direction as 4th Edition, the next edition of D&D will eliminate the concept of rolling to hit. Powers will always be effective to some degree; only their degree of effectiveness will retain a random element.

Think it over in the comments; if you've cared enough to have responses I'll back it up with the logic when I'm recovered.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

South Gate

Theoretically the Horned Hold has two entrances; this is the other one.

There's no good reason that PCs couldn't approach the Hold from this direction (provided they found someone to show them how to get there). However the module obviously doesn't expect players to do that - there's no details on breaking down this door or entering the Hold from this room.

The door, in fact, is a "sturdy double door of iron plate", "secured by a bar inside the room". I think that's supposed to be code for "unbreakable". It's a shame the Duergar didn't install this advanced door technology at their main entrance.

As encounters go, the writers phoned this one in. It's four orcs and an ogre, and it goes exactly as orcs and ogres have gone since the beginning of D&D - they draw weapons and start rolling to attack. The ogre, in fact, "has no tactics", which is suspiciously convenient as the space allocated to this encounter didn't leave room to describe any.

Once again runners are the prime consideration here. Escapees from the Western Guard Post don't stop to back these guys up - they keep moving, heading for the chambers of the Hold's commander. The orcs will flee, too, given a good enough reason, and go provide additional backup to the level 7 elite in the next room.

From a DM's perspective, the significance of this room is mostly that it offers a way out of the Hold. If players rescue the captured slaves without clearing every room of the fortress, this back door is a mere two rooms from the slave pits, offering easy egress without having to mop up the remainder of the Duergar.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Photos From The Front Line

Surprise! Instead of a post, today you get photographs.

At our last session of Thunderspire Labyrinth the talented Julia, who plays Dreyfuss the human rogue, got busy with a camera. Some of her photos are reprinted today with permission to give you all a look at our game that I'm sure you probably won't care about.

Pictured left is AJ, who plays our group's striker, Tolliver Green, who is totally not a thinly-veiled caricature of a certain DC Comics bowman.

On the right here is Katherine, who's running the group's main healer, Dramia, Cleric of Pelor and disliker of dark, cramped subterranean spaces. We're thinking she might want to rethink her career as a dungeoneer.

These photos were all taken during the Proving Grounds encounter in the Well of Demons. The group were attempting to hole up in a secure room and force a Green Dragon to fight them on their own terms; you can see a certain frustration in Katherine's face as the tactic doesn't quite work and she gets Luring Gazed into the deadly path of the Doom Sphere for the second time in one encounter.

This next one is me. Sorry to everyone who had me pegged as a dashing seducer of women. Unfortunately the large size of the map and my placing at the end of the table meant I spent most of this game on my feet trying to reach my party-destroying Dragon and move it in search of its next victim.

At this stage Wizards doesn't cast a model of a "Doom Sphere" so to represent the giant ball of magical force I broke out my Beholder model and had that chasing players around the inner track of the Proving Grounds.

Here's Julia, who's deployed her artistic genius to provide us with this photo essay. I'd like to say she used her psychic powers to manipulate the camera and take her own picture but actually it's Andy behind the lens for this one.

Julia plays Dreyfuss - thief, bigamist, and essentially good-hearted ruffian. At this stage Dreyfuss is one encounter away from saving his captured children from an evil band of gnolls, but Julia's getting more than a little frustrated because of eight consecutive failed saving throws against the slowed condition imposed by the Dragon's breath weapon.

This is Tony, who plays Alcarian, the group's defender. Alcarian's Eladrin fey step and a range of mobility-focused powers makes him play more like a mark-and-forget Swordmage than the Fighter that he actually is. It's eternally frustrating for me as GM to watch him start each combat by teleporting into melee with the enemy artillery and proceeding to neuter them for the remainder of the battle. However, it's saved the group from wiping several times over so it seems churlish to complain.

Lastly, here's Andy, who's taken up the challenge of playing Hydraan, a Dragonborn Cleric of Bahamut. He delivers a range of melee attacks by way of a greatspear (which has reach 2) and takes an almost unnatural joy in finding places to really make his turn undead and dragonborn breath count.

As an extra bonus, here's the party roster in miniature form. From left to right: Hydraan, Tolliver, Dramia, Dreyfuss and Alcarian. Also a bonus appearance by the rarely used and much maligned d12, which we eventually discovered Julia had been throwing all session instead of a d20 but landing hits anyway.

Tomorrow: a real post, I promise.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Western Guard Post

The Western Guard Post is the entry to the Horned Hold proper. Regardless of whether players are coming from the Duergar Workshop or the Great Hall, they find that both bridges across the chasm lead to this room.

The setup is this: each of the bridges dead-ends at a door.
The southernmost doors (left-hand side of the map) are "iron-reinforced" and "barred from the inside". Duergar inside the guard post are watching this approach like hawks. They are apparently dead keen on preventing any attacks from their own southern fortress (the one with no external doors).

A little to the north of the Duergar is the bridge to the northern fortress and the outside world. This bridge terminates at an unguarded, unlocked door. Players can come straight from the Duergar Workshop and across this bridge without being detected.

Possibly it's a secret bridge. Possibly the Duergar didn't think that anyone would dare attack the western fortress without first neutralising the southern one. Possibly Duergar just aren't very good at counting past one. Certainly the module gives no reason why the dwarves are focusing an ungodly amount of firepower (including two semi-sentient animated crossbows) on one bridge while completely ignoring the other.

However you run it, though, this encounter is focused on doors.

Players coming up the guarded bridge are in for a world of hurt. The Duergar, watching through arrow-slits, are able to deploy both damage and debuffs against targets exposed on the walkway while gaining superior cover against return fire. The module offers some alternate combat resolution, in the event that players have crossed the bridge "unseen or in disguise", which is a nice change, with characters able to bluff guards, force the door or pick the lock.

If players get through the door or, more sensibly, have used the unguarded bridge, the Duergar are going to want to restrict player movement. The unconventional setup of this area really limits both line of sight and range, and one Duergar standing in a doorway can effectively hold up an entire group of players. The module offers no rules on barring or barricading the interior doorways but if a DM lets either Duergar or players get busy with the doors it can turn the battle into a doorway-based tug-of-war.

It's a shame there's no doorway rules, actually, because controlling these doors is a key part of the fight. Like the last couple of encounters, the Duergar here are more than willing to run for help, and it's a particularly difficult area to catch fleeing dwarves before they get away and alert their friends - who include two elites and a level 8 brute.

By the time my players got through the portcullis, the workshop, and then the numerous doors of this room, they were willing to specifically request that there be no more encounters based around barring or breaking doors.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Cut and Thrust

There is an attitude in discussing DMing. It is an attitude that says there are many ways of DMing, and they are all valid.

If you've been on roleplaying forums, you've seen this. It says, "You do it your way, and I'll do it it my way, and we'll both run great games."

Well, no.

This isn't politics. This isn't consensus-brokering. We don't all have to get along. I'm not in your game and you're not in mine and it's just fine to claim that one is better.

This is where roleplaying suffers. If DMs were companies, selling a product, some would have more customers than others. Some would have a lot more customers than others.

We need competition; we need debate that won't settle for less than victory. We need to take the position that some games are better, and find those games, and learn from them. We need to remember that although bad DMing is a forgivable sin, it's still bad DMing, and improving involves more than just finding players who are on your wavelength.

Let there be debate. Let there be pride. Lay on, and let there be no quarter.

After all, don't we want a better game?

Cut and Thrust, Part 2: This Time It's Impersonal
A late addition to the original post, 15 June 2009

Wow! Well, this post stirred up some disagreement. Which is great. Possibly I've not phrased my argument terribly well though; that's what comes of posting late at night, perhaps. The argument is this:

(a) Some games are better than others. If there can be a "bad" game, which there plainly are (the entirety of this blog being dedicated to that proposition), it follows that there are other games which are better.

(b) Games which are better are better for reasons which are identifiable and recreatable.

(c) All DMs can benefit from having the tools used by "better" games in their toolbox.

(d) We may disagree about which games are better.

(e) If we all agree to disagree we never identify those better games or raise them to the highest level of analysis.

(f) We should therefore not be afraid to defend our beliefs and advocate our ideas to the fullest extent possible.

I'm not sure if it's still so controversial now that I've put it in those terms. Let me know.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

The Great Hall

At its heart, the Great Hall is an exciting and well-tuned skirmish, and providing that you take Thunderspire's regular gaffs with a grain of salt players will probably have a great time here.

This is the Horned Hold's "southern fortress". It lies directly south of Urwol and the portcullis, with a narrow tunnel connecting the two outposts. (Note that north is to the right on the encounter maps.)

The essence of the encounter is a "levelled up" version of the fight the players have just won against Urwol. The orcs from the last area are replaced here by Duergar Guards, who pack a mean warhammer punch, and they're backed up by more of Urwol's Duergar Scouts.

I didn't mention the Scouts in the last post; they're more understandable if you think of them as Duergar Rogues. They can turn invisible roughly every second turn and they do bonus damage when they have combat advantage. In the cramped terrain of Urwol's smithy they were pretty useless but in the more tactically complex Great Hall encounter they can really be a threat to players.

Urwol's role is filled by Rundarr, who's bigger, meaner and all-round more interesting than the Master Smith. Rundarr is an Elite, he comes with 180 hit points, and like the Duergar Champion's he's based on he has the ability to grow in size when bloodied, assuming a Large size template and rolling an extra +2 to hit and +5 on damage. Ironically, this much more memorable opponent only gets a single line of characterisation - "Rundarr's temper is legendary among the Grimmerzhul, who are bad-tempered by nature" - compared with Urwol's three redundant paragraphs of roleplaying notes.

I've written previously that Thunderspire Labyrinth is training players to control "adds", the additional monsters that might join an encounter if enemies are allowed to flee and find allies. Starting now, they're going to have to demonstrate that they've learned the skill.

If any of the enemies from the Duergar Workshop escaped, they'll flee here and warn Rundarr's troops, giving the otherwise scattered Duergar a chance to take up optimum positions. Later, when Rundarr falls, the rest of his command will flee to alert and join up with the western fortress, who as we'll shortly see barely need the help. If players want to keep fighting balanced, winnable encounters they're going to have to take steps to stop the beaten Duergar from escaping.

Almost as an afterthought, this area also contains three human slaves. They're named Arum, Bessa and Calder (only marginally better than Slaves A, B and C), and while they're not the captives the players are looking for they do know the western fortress and make daily trips there to bring the captives food. The module doesn't take the step of saying it, but one assumes clever players could use these characters as part of a plan to gain a slightly less suicidal access into the the western fortress and the "main" area of the Horned Hold.

Probably the biggest issue with the Great Hall is that it's redundant. Players can skip it and move straight to the western fortress (as mine did) and there's nothing here that advances the plot, enriches the atmosphere, or rewards players for exploring. The Horned Hold isn't such a fun area that you'll want to prolong it, so while it's not a bad encounter in its own right it's ultimately just getting in the way of a focused, excitingly-paced progression through the Hold.


Cut the Great Hall out entirely and use its monsters to replace the ones in the Duergar Workshop. Rename Rundarr as Urwol but still use Rundarr's stat block in preference to Urwol's. You'll have one tight, tough encounter rather than two loose ones, and Urwol will now survive long enough to do some talking and give the Horned Hold some of the personality it's otherwise lacking.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Duergar Workshop

The "delve format" of official 4th Edition adventures creates some odd quirks.

Under the delve format, each encounter is completely self-contained. All the information relevant to the encounter is printed on the same one or two pages, including battlemaps, terrain features, and the complete stat blocks of every monster that appears in the encounter. Very important encounters sometimes get a third page.

The method by which page counts are allocated appears to be this: the encounter is given the minimum amount of space required to accomodate its map and its monster stat blocks. Any remaining white space can then be filled with description of the encounter and additional flavour text.

The first encounter in the Horned Hold ("The Portcullis") had a small map and only used one type of monster ("Orc Beserker") with a very simple stat block. As a result, it fit on a single page. We got almost no information beyond the monster tactics and the terrain rules, turning the encounter into a puzzling and almost insurmountable roadblock with no hints on how players should overcome it.

By contrast, "Duergar Workshop" uses three enemy types, including a named Controller, so it just spills over onto a second page. The authors are left with a lot of white space to fill, so they use it to provide a pantheon of utterly irrelevant background to what's almost certainly going to be a tank-and-spank slugfest.

A little primer: this encounter is home to Urwol, Master Smith, commander of the northern mini-fortress (one of three minor buildings comprising the Horned Hold). Urwol's a Duergar, and as his title suggests he's responsible for forging the Horned Hold's weapons. As a Controller, he's got a whole pile of unique forge-themed powers, including the ability to heat opponent's weapons to hand-burning temperatures and unleash a trinity of vicious area-burst debuffs. Players might have to be reminded that Duergar are psychic dwarves in order to understand Urwol's near-wizardly manipulation of molten metal.

The encounter description includes a big heading, "Roleplaying Urwol", and three paragraphs of notes thereunder. We learn that Urwol is a bully, that he's impatient, that he has a hatred for surface-worlders and particularly dwarves. We hear about his attitudes to his superiors and to the Mages of Saruun. He's vain and confident and proud of his work.

That's all great. DMs should really take the time to pack as much of that into Urwol's first free action as possible, because that's all the time they're going to get between the players bursting into the room with the blood of orc guards still fresh on their weapons and the moment when they identify Urwol as a Controller and focus-fire on him. Urwol has 64 hitpoints and an AC of 20; an un-buffed level 6 Ranger hits him on a 9 and can kill him in two standard actions.

When, exactly, was Urwol intended to be roleplayed? Was it before players murdered the sentries in the next room? Or is he going to have a quick chat with the armed surfaceworlders after they come strolling into his supposedly secure military smithy? Players can get into melee with Urwol on the same action that they enter the smithy; it's entirely possible to eliminate him before he even acts.

In cramped quarters where the players are maintaining momentum from the last encounter, this is going to be a massacre. The Duergar have no room to manouever and they're going to be cut down like wheat by any competent party. It's a complete waste of a named opponent and an incredibly poorly-planned introduction to the Horned Hold.

On the plus side, Urwol had that scepter that Gendar was looking for. Quest XP, anyone?

Thursday, June 11, 2009

The Horned Hold and the Portcullis

The Horned Hold is a fortress. It is a well-defended military installation filled with intelligent, alert, trained soldiers. It is built into the walls of the Labyrinth and straddles a vertiginous chasm over which only two thin bridges allow passage.

There is no way that a group of adventurers should be able to penetrate the Horned Hold and defeat the Duergar inside.

Of course, that's the essence of adventure. Doing the impossible is what makes good drama; the harder the task, the more satisfying when it's accomplished. Typically a D&D adventure posing this kind of set-up would go on to reveal a secret entrance, a clever ruse, or a narrow window of opportunity that players can use to slip inside what should otherwise be an impregnable bastion of evil.

Not so the Horned Hold. The module lovingly describes the Hold's vicious Duergar guards, its reinforced wooden doors, and its only two entrances, which are locked and guarded, and then throws up its hands and asks, in effect, "So - what do the players do next?"

Let's be clear about this: as printed, there is no way into the Hold without teleporting. The module does not offer players the chance to bluff the guards. It does not offer players the chance to disguise themselves. The Hold's "back door" is barred from within and apparently unbreakable, while the front door features a sturdy iron portcullis that can only be opened from the inside.

The portcullis forms the location of the first of the Horned Hold's encounters. Rules are given for breaking down the portcullis - a DC 25 Strength check (requiring a 17 on the dice from even a level 6 character with 20 Strength) - or a total of 60 points of damage delivered to the gate. During the process of breaking down the gate, five orcs standing behind the portcullis have free rein to shoot the players with crossbows, poke them with spears, and run for help and alert the remainder of the Hold.

That's the total of the encounter. It's a railroad to certain death. This is, as printed, the only assailable part of the Hold, the portcullis must be breached to proceed, and there's no way to breach the portcullis without giving the guards inside time to go for help.

There are some possible ways to survive the encounter as-written. An Eladrin or a Warlock might teleport through the portcullis and open it from the inside. Someone with the power to fly or climb might make their way around the fortress exterior to the bridges spanning the chasm (although they'll still be stuck between two locked doors while Duergar inside shoot at them). Diplomacy or deception might prevail, although the module doesn't seem to contemplate this scenario or describe any particularly effective lies or disguises; neither are the orcs given any needs, wants or fears. It would be nice, though, if the module gave the slightest clue as to how it expects players to make their way into the Hold.

As a last note, the Horned Hold isn't forgiving. If players leave the Hold for any reason after completing this encounter, they return to find the portcullis repaired and a new garrison of guards defending it.


[1] The encounter description for the portcullis lists some exhaustive mechanics for dealing with players who climb over the barricade on the ledge leading up to the gate (leaving them standing on the edge of the deep chasm). The orcs aren't going to leave their well-defended guardpost - why do we need such complex terrain rules for the area on the ledge outside?

[2] The ceilings here are apparently 25 feet high. Even remembering that the Duergar have re-purposed what used to be a minotaur outpost, that's a high ceiling. Why the copious headroom?

[3] If this encounter wasn't already enough of a headbanger, the module notes that Duergar who survive the Trading Post brawl will return here and warn the fortress, resulting in even more orcs waiting to snipe at the players as they struggle with the portcullis. Is that really intended to be a survivable encounter? Are players really supposed to be punished for not murdering semi-peaceful merchants by way of a Total Party Kill?

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

The Wisdom of 1989

This is incredibly old news to me but it occurred to me that it might be fresh to some of you. It's an article written in 1989 by game developer Ron Gilbert, best known for his work on the original Secret of Monkey Island, about puzzle design and storytelling in adventure games.
"Most good adventure games are broken up into many sub-goals. Letting the player know at least the first sub-goal is essential in hooking them. If the main goal is to rescue the prince, and the player is trapped on an island at the beginning of the game, have another character in the story tell them the first step: get off the island. This is just good storytelling. [...] It's very easy when designing to become blind to what the player doesn't know about your story."
- Ron Gilbert, Why Adventure Games Suck (And What We Can Do About It)
It's a great article for DMs and for interactive storytellers generally and if you've managed to remain ignorant of it for the last two decades then take the time to go read it in full right now.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Gendar the Drow

Gendar is the Seven-Pillared Hall's resident information broker. He's a dark elf, but, as is the fashion among drow these days, he's abandoned the Lolth-worshipping ways of his people in order to live a solitary existence as an exile.

Characters who took the "Trade Mission" fetch quest prior to coming to Thunderspire will find that Gendar is their quest destination; he'll take their delivery off their hands and introduce himself as a dealer in "old treasures from the Labyrinth". It's unclear whether that's code for "magic items", but it probably is, as there isn't otherwise an item-seller in the Hall.

Gendar's also got a side-quest for the PCs. It's entitled "Treasure Seeker", and it has Gendar tasking players to "recover" an ancient skull scepter from a Duergar in the Horned Hold. It's one of Thunderspire's better side-quests, because (a) it occurs somewhere that the players were going anyway, and (b) "skull scepters" are an item thematically linked to Orcus, which again ties players to what will eventually be the overaching plot of the module series.

I'm actually more than a little frustrated that my players missed Gendar entirely, and never picked up this quest.

The Forgotten Realms conversion for Thunderspire in Dungeon #156 fleshes out Gendar some more and gives him a handful of extra treasure-seeking sidequests. To be honest, Thunderspire didn't need more quest hooks - it's already got way more than the players can meaningfully interact with, given the pacing and XP budget - and these ones are particularly unhelpful, as they send the players to places that aren't detailed in either the module proper or the supplementary Dungeon Magazine material.

Finally, Gendar sells information. In return for big wads of money, or as payment for quests completed, Gendar will hand out information about the Labyrinth and its denizens. Exactly what information he might give out isn't detailed, but you can imagine it might include the back route through the Horned Hold, the location of the Court of Bone, the solution to the Proving Grounds, and maybe even Paldemar's surprising secret master.

Players who decide not to fight at the Trading Post, or who forget to leave some Duergar alive for interrogation, can pay Gendar in order to get set back on track towards the Horned Hold. Sacrificing money in order to not have to fight is the closest Thunderspire gets to a non-combat problem resolution, so anyone who goes this route should take a bit of time to bask in it before moving on into the next round of Duergar-killing.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Grimmerzhul Trading Post

Following events at the Chamber of Eyes, the players will know that the captured slaves are in the possession of Duergar - but they won't know where these Duergar might be. So it's back to the Seven-Pillared Hall to look for clues.

The most obvious place to start looking is at the Grimmerzhul Trading Post, where the Duergar come to do their business with the residents of the Hall.

does its typical bait-and-switch here. It starts off describing the Trading Post by saying, "The Duergar here aren't interested in fighting but depending on the PCs' actions, a fight may break out."

So, great. This is a diplomacy encounter, then, right? The players are going to get the relevant information out of the Duergar by wit and deception, and they'll only end up in combat if they make a mess of the chatting?

Wrong. The Duergar "don't say much, answering in as few words as possible and being evasive if asked probing questions". Further, "the guards order the PCs to leave if [..] the characters press them about slave trading. If the PCs refuse to leave or if they try to enter another part of the trading post, the Duergar attack."

So it's a railroad. Once again, talking is only a prelude to the inevitable hitting-things-with-swords phase of the encounter. Just to reinforce the point, the encounter ends by reminding DMs that there's only three ways the players can find the Horned Hold - interrogating a captured duergar, ransacking the trading post, or (and I'll come to this option in another post) paying an exhorbitant price to the Hall's resident drow.

Combat in the Trading Post raises an ugly problem for continuity in Thunderspire Labyrinth. The Trading Post lies within the boundaries of the Seven-Pillared Hall, and its residents are largely peaceful members of that community. It can't be said that the Mages of Saruun are unaware of the Duergar propensity for slave-trading - they clearly permit the Duergar to do their business in full knowledge of the proclivities of their people. So when the players go deliberately causing trouble, why on Earth wouldn't Orontor descend on them with the full force of his magic and his animated statues?

One answer is that he needs their help to find his rogue brother Paldemar. But if the guardians of the Hall go making excuses for the players now, it significantly undermines their authority from that point forward. The supposed wrath of the Mages is what forces good-aligned surface dwellers to co-exist with Brugg and the other disreputable types dwelling in the hall. By ignoring this unprovoked attack on peaceful traders, Orontor (and the DM) are risking the start of a town-cleaning crusade , which at the very least is a significant diversion from the adventure that Thunderspire has planned.

As is often the case, none of this is a difficult problem to clean up for a confident DM, but it's another occasion of the module as-written being wilfully perverse, and holding out roleplaying with one hand while clubbing you with the combat-stick held in its other.

Bonus Post: XP Totals

Everyone loves bonus content, right? Here's an extra post in addition to the one queued to publish at 10 PM.

Eleven Foot Pole commenter Brian took up a challenge I set when I was talking about Thunderspire's XP budget. He's gone away and done the maths to bring us the total XP handed out by each of the three modules of the H series. I think that's incredibly awesome and I'm secretly gratified that it doesn't turn out to contradict me. I'll give you his words:

Brian: I have totals for H1, H2, & H3. Assumptions are that all encounters are finished, one major quest is awarded per module, and all minor quests within them (Find the Boar, etc.) are completed.

H1: 4047
H2: 11447
H3: 25838

This'll obviously vary somewhat if you don't do Quest XP, skip parts of dungeons, etc. but it looks like you end up on the cusp of level 11 at the end of H3 if you actually manage to clear the whole thing out. It also means that you do indeed end up over-leveled if you add in side treks and random encounters without adjusting XP. It is possible to skip/miss parts of H3, though, so that might not be a big deal... depending on how complete your party normally is.


Thanks Brian! And you can check out his blog at The Amber Tower.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Poll Result: Combat and Diplomacy

The latest Eleven Foot Poll is in and the numbers say that 47% of you like combat.

That's no surprise; it's like saying you enjoy shooting things in Halo or rolling dice in Snakes & Ladders. Mechanically speaking, combat is 4th Edition, and it's certainly the best designed and most intricately elaborated part of the 4th Edition package.

That being so, I talk about combat at least every other post, so I'm going to skip right past your love of bashing things and look at the runner up: diplomacy.

Diplomacy is the odd man out on the list of poll options. It's anomalous because it's not supported by rules. 4th Edition spends quite a bit of time detailing the mechanics of shopping, of looting, of levelling up, and of overcoming traps. It's got rules for skill challenges - in fact, it has a bunch, with the original skill challenge mechanic having been errataed, revised, updated, explained, apologised for, and then featured in an extended series of patronising and contradictory articles in Dungeon Magazine. The 4th Edition focus on battlemaps lends itself naturally to mapping, and in as much as Dungeons & Dragons is a game where players make choices that have consequences puzzle-solving is built right into the foundation.

So where's the diplomacy? We've got skills called Diplomacy, Bluff and Intimidate you can roll against, and when you roll against them a bunch of times in succession we call it a skill challenge. But is that really a rules system? Is that really a game? Or is diplomacy just an extended session of improv acting that gets inserted in between the things that 4th Edition actually cares about?

There is a dilemma that arises whenever your character enters a conversation. It is this. Is conversation intended as a challenge to your character - that is, a test of the accumulated words and numbers on your character sheet? Or is it a challenge to the player - a test of skills and abilities possessed by the human portraying the character?

Dungeons & Dragons - and indeed, most RPGs - have never resolved this duality. D&D tries to have it both ways. It's both, it says. And it suffers as a result.

It's not a problem we have with combat. Combat is clear - it's a challenge to the player to deploy the resources represented by their character to achieve the best tactical result. There's a division of skill (player) and resources (character).

In conversation, however, there's not that clarity. On whose side does the skill fall? Are resources a relevant issue?

One approach to take is that both skill and resources lie with the player. The words the player says are the words their character says, and the DM makes a decision as to how NPCs react. In the absence of strong mechanics for combat, this typically makes for the most exciting and interesting gameplay.

It has its problems, however. If the player is the mouth of their character, the character can only ever be as intelligent, as witty, as eloquent and as confident as the player. Naturally poor speakers - those with stutters, with weak English, who are overshadowed by their louder peers - are disproportionately penalised - especially given that the scrawny and obese have no problems leaping and smiting all hours of the clock.

How do statistics fit into this model? When a half-orc with an intelligence penalty delivers a stunning well-rendered argument through their player, which just makes sense, do we all ignore it because "it didn't sound that smart"? How smart is too smart? What debate can an Intelligence 9 character aspire to that an Intelligence 8 character can't?

On the other hand, we can treat the character's abilities as resources, and the player can apply them. Need to convince a guard to let you in? Roll Diplomacy. If you roll high, we'll assume you said something sensible-sounding. We never hear what's actually said, and the fact that characters' skills are accurately represented comes at a cost to immersion in the game world.

We also have the issue in 4th Edition that conversation resources are infinite. If you can Bluff one goblin, surely you can bluff every goblin? Can not one character with maximum Bluff swindle his way through an entire dungeon, leaving nothing for his allies to do? Combat uses an attrition model, where victory typically comes at a cost to healing surges and power availability, but a successful use of Diplomacy leaves the player in the same strong position that they started.

Many DMs opt for a hybrid model - get the player to say something, and depending on how good they sound, give them a modifier to their roll. I've been known to do it myself. But isn't this the worst of both worlds? We're averaging the skills of the character and the player out. The weak speaker knows that no amount of stats will fully compensate for their lack of eloquence, and the player with the gift of gab knows they can safely ignore the "talking skills" because they can use their own abilities to even it out.

As written, if 4th Edition had to choose a camp, it would seem to be a mechanical approach. All dice rolls, all the time. The shame of it is, if it had explicitly chosen to go down that path it probably could have come up with much better rules. It would be entirely possible to design a system that made a conversation as dynamic and interesting as combat, without overly abstracting talking into something artificial.

Imagine a system of conversation points - physical tokens assigned to you in proportion to your stats that you can spend to "get a word in edgeways", "make your opponent's argument look weak", "cite supporting facts or precedent", "call for support from onlookers" or "stir emotions". We could create a system where the resources to create a strong argument are finite (requiring important decisions from players on where to spend them) and derived solely from the character. Points might refresh during an extended rest, but in the short term they're a valuable, exhaustible resource that should be saved for when they're needed. It would work well with a hybrid system as even the eloquent player knows that he'll have to have points available in order to get a chance to be heard.

I'm actually surprised that in my travels through the RPG world I haven't, to my memory, come across any "finite resources" conversation mechanics. Have any of you readers seen any? Leave your experiences in the comments.

Monday, June 1, 2009


Duergar are silly.

There is the germ of a good idea lurking in the Duergar soul, but they are in essence, concept, and execution silly.

It starts with their name. Duergar (pronounced "DWER-gar") hardly rolls off the tongue; that's not really their fault, though. Although the Duergar mythos seems more akin to the Norse "Dvergar" (dark dwarves), the particular D&D spelling is lifted straight from the Northumberland dwarf-men of English mythology.

The silliness continues in their concept. Dark Elves, their spiritual kin, have a strong hook - they're backwards elves. They live in caves instead of forests, they worship evil instead of good, and they have dark skin instead of fair. Everyone can get on board with the idea of things having an evil twin.

Duergar don't quite make the cut, though. As "backwards dwarves" go, they're sub-par. Their "evilness" largely amounts to living underground, being relentlessly mercenary, and having a fundamentally grumpy disposition. An untrained observer might find it tough distinguishing them from the good version.

It gets worse. Time and subsequent editions have not been kind to the dark dwarves.

D&D 3.5 established that Duergar were naturally psionic. Possibly it was hoped that "evil psychic dwarves" was more memorable than mere "evil dwarves". Among the inherent powers of these psychic dwarves was the ability to increase their size, becoming giant dwarves. (As Order of the Stick points out, an oxymoron.) Evil psychic dwarves have many excellent roles in literature, all of them played by Michael J Anderson, but the ability to "hulk out" defeats any aspirations the psionic Duergar had to pulling off "creepy" rather than "ludicrous".

4th Edition delivers another savage beating to Duergar self-respect. Says Thunderspire Labyrinth: "Duergar beards and hair conceal long, stiff spines that carry a burning venom. They can pluck and hurl these quills like daggers."

Apparently so ubiquitous is this quill-plucking that the Monster Manual 2 defines it as their racial trait. Dragonborn breathe fire, Eladrin teleport and Duergar throw their hair at people. This is in addition to their psionics, apparently - the Duergar Champion is still kitted out with his super-growth hormones, and will not hesitate to deploy a Large miniature base the second he gets bloodied.

These, then, are the theme enemy for the second of Thunderspire Labyrinth's mini-dungeons. As players get ready to explore the Horned Hold, they'll be looking forward to a whole mess of fighting against size-changing mind-reading hair-throwing little people. The stuff epics are made of.