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.


Kelly said...

This one is REALLY frustrating! The worst offense so far, I feel, nix the human wights and make this the undead bash fest.

Anytime you try to make sense of dungeon ecology, you start to apply doses of reality (Hi this is Bob, the new Duergar guard. Um, yeah, Bob, do NOT make a left at this hallway...)

erendor said...

This one reminds me of the nothing room in Keep on the Shadowfell. Kind of a confusing thing to include.

In my own attempt to save time (and space, since it's at a premium on our battle map), I've just begun to describe any room that contains no combat and is unlikely to. Not to mention deleting entirely any room that seems to exist for no purpose at all, like the empty storeroom north of the second pit-room on Level 2 of KoTS.
In my mind, if the room contains nothing of interest whatsoever and is just there to give the area a realistic feel or what have you, then it can and should be left out of the tactical mapping.
Taken even to the 'extreme' of leaving out areas the players could reasonably see, if these areas are obviously not going to contain any battle:

Area 14: Players set off portcullis and alarm, and cluster in hallway to await the inevitable attack. When the doors open, didn't bother drawing the rooms inside, and instead just described what they could see from where they were. The players didn't go near them while the combat was taking place, and afterwards, I simply described the rooms as 'one contains a chest with X and a bed with fine satin sheets, down stuffed pillow, and luxuriant matress, and the other contains three beds of the same quality as those elsewhere. Rooms are about this big (trace on map).'

Now, using this method to describe and not depict the 'nothing rooms' may or may not give the players a slight metagame edge (obviously if the room isn't drawn on the map, its not going to contain anything dangerous), I feel it saves a lot of time in both drawing it and avoiding players moving around their miniatures for a minute or two while nothing happens (like in the first encounter of KoTS, with the kobolds).

Now, I can understand that there'll be some disappointment if you describe something like this minotaur tomb, complete with minotaur grim reaper, and the players can tell there isn't going to be any battle with them because you didn't map it out, but I'd say there's more disappointment in mapping it out, describing it, and then having nothing happen.

And of course, you can always get some dungeon tiles or map the room and grid onto a seperate sheet of paper if you want to spring a surprise encounter on players without them expecting it. ;)

Wax Banks said...

Alright, I'm with the annoying old-school guys on this one: what's so damn bad about an empty room? What's wrong with player bafflement? Surely you don't think it's bad for the players to be faced with a seemingly-unsolvable mystery; surely you don't think the players can 'do nothing' in a room so full of narrative potential.

(And surely you see the advantage of having an 'escape path' from the chapel that doesn't actually lead the players to safety.)

In addition to the planning/tactical importance of an empty room (and uneasy rest spot?), the crypts offer a chance to deepen the history of the Hold, the Underdark, and the Labyrinth. That's a lot of weight for an 'empty' room to carry!

A couple posts ago you complained (perhaps ironically) that it's harder to terrify low-level players with 'balanced' encounters and nothing like level-drain or any such permanent liability.

This is one of the places that can terrify them.

Let their anticipation do the work, let their curiosity invent extraordinary history and aesthetics for the crypt. Indeed, if a player describes some searching activity, hand him narrative control for a moment and let him describe what he finds. A 'Storyteller' player will talk out a little of the place's history; an 'Actor' might play out some personal rumination; a crazier or nastier player might unearth more wights.

Say 'Yes, and...' and roll with it.

I appreciate your desire for certainty and constant action, but these empty rooms are often the most hair-raising parts of a dungeon. In combat you know exactly what to do; in the still air of the crypt, in the shadow of a grinning stone death's head a thousand years old, the players are at a loss. They're humble. The edges of the world grow less well-defined.

That's why we PLAY these games.

Greg Tannahill said...

Wax Banks - There's nothing wrong with a nothing room, or with a room that builds tension. The problem is that (1) it doesn't seem to be intentional - it's the only room like it in the entire module, and there's no suggestion in the text that it was intended to be a tension building spot, and (2) it comes right before the slave pits - pacing wise, it's just a terrible place to be trying to slow things down and build atmosphere.

There's also the issue that this is a premium published module that we're paying top dollar for; I've generally taken the view that it's not sufficient to say, "Oh, well, a good DM can adapt this," as, of course, a good DM can adapt anything. Where something doesn't work as written, where it doesn't offer any advice to a DM on specifically how it's intended to work, I think it's fair to hold the module to account for this.

Dan said...

Apropos of nothing: Does anyone read Player Vs Player? And did anyone notice this strip that espouses a "DMs shouldn't say no" philosophy akin to one that might be found on this blog? Of course, it then suggests that a DM goal should also be TPK, tongue firmly in cheek.

My guess is that Scott Kurtz must follow the blog, or knows someone that does.

Between that, and the cult popularity of Jim Darkmagic, it's beginning to look like DnD is slowly but surely reaching new audiences!

Maelora said...

I'm with Wax Banks on this one, who articulated the reasons why more eloquently than I could.

Plenty of old-school modules have empty rooms. There was a time it was actually part of dungeon design. Ideally, they should be filled in with something interesting and/or atmospheric. Much of Lovecraft's 'Mountains of Madness' evokes empty ruins and hints of a lost civilisation.

Even the combat-fest of 4E sometimes deserves a change of pace and a little reflection.

Greg Tannahill said...

Dan - Scott knows Chris Perkins, who's his DM for the Penny Arcade/PvP podcasts. Chris almost certainly saw this blog in passing when he did the edit of Keep on the Shadowfell for the PDF re-release, and if he didn't see it then he will have when he got my Dungeon article submission last week. Whether he read the blog, enjoys the blog, or cares about the blog in any way is a completely different question.

But that's beside the point; PvP here is doing their version of the exact same joke that Penny Arcade have been running every time they talk about D&D, which started well before I started blogging. There's nothing new in saying "yes" to players (or at least nothing new in the last ten years), and if Kurtz wasn't aware of it prior to joining the podcast crew he will have been very shortly afterwards.

Probably the funniest thing about the whole deal is I've just been running an argument on the forums that DMs should be quicker to say "no" to players; specifically, that when players come up with a character concept that's inherently idiotic, disruptive, or downright evil the DM shouldn't bend over backwards to make it work - he should say, "No," and send them back to the character builder to make something that fits the team.

Osric said...

It's a cool statue. But when I thought about it, I figured maybe the Grim Reaper was an intrusion of real-world symbolism... In 4e-world (if it had a name) surely it should be a Minotaur-interpretation of the Raven Queen, not of the Grim Reaper? So a female Minotaur with a black pelt. But she'll still have a frickin' huge scythe. ;-)

So then I figured that both the 'dungeon ecology' and 'combat environment' impact of The Crypt could become the fact that the wights cannot endure the presence or gaze of the Raven Queen statue.
That would provide a reason for them not to maraud into the Slave Pits area round the corner where all those lovely warm souls are waiting, all chained in a row...
And if opening that door into/from the Ruined Chapel could put a line down the middle of the room that the wights will not cross, it could make that encounter more interesting too.