Thursday, June 11, 2009
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.
 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?
 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?
 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?