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?


John said...

Really loving your blog, found it a few days ago, really enjoying the insight and criticism you're providing on 4E. You (and the folks in your comments) have really given me some great ideas about how I can up my game and improve on these modules.

Wizard's catalogue lists H2 as being released in July 2008, do you think maybe part of why the DC to force/unlock the portcullis is so high is because they were built on the pre-errata'd DMG DC calculations (the DMG update pdf I have lists the revision as being added on 7/2/08).

Could it be made more reasonable by reducing the DCs by an amount based upon the reductions presented in the update?

Greg Tannahill said...

John - almost certainly the DC is pre-errata. I suspect that the majority of the module was actually written before the core rulebooks were even in their final printed form (hence the lack of minions).

Lowering the DC would certainly be a start but if you're making changes anyway (as you certainly should be) it's probably more helpful to flesh out some DCs to bluff the orcs, an NPC at the Hall that can give the players some disguises, and maybe a regular patrol that goes in and out of the gate that the PCs can ambush and take the place of.

KoalaBro2 said...

Personally, I must admit to deriving a certain guilty pleasure from situations that have no explicitly provided method of being resolved. There was a WEG Star Wars quest I used to like back in the day where one had to get into a secure part of an Imperial base. Because the quest never explained how the PCs were supposed to get access, I was always surprised by what the PCs decided to do, which made it fun.

That being said, what the WEG quest did, which it sounds like Thunderspire does not, is give a lot of ideas. It didn't say "this guy will provide entry with a successful bluff check," but it did provide the frequency of guard changes, guidelines for what to do if the PCs are discovered, personalities and names for many people in the base, and even a weapons lab (I remember one time the PCs jury rigged an AT-AT blaster cannon that was under repair and just slaughtered the 50+ guards in the base). So the quest provided all the tools for a DM to find a way for the PCs plan to be successful.

Greg Tannahill said...

I like a good challenge, and I can point at a few "unsolvable puzzles" in both RPG modules and in computer games that are regularly solved in entertaining ways.

However, if you're going to do one of those things, you really need to (a) make it sufficiently complex and interesting that it rewards experimentation and creativity, and (b) not make progress contingent upon solving it, so that if your group does get stumped they can still go on with the adventure.

By The Sword said...

I am pretty sure that if I saw the map, I could come up with a way to get in. Most players could too.

Still it might take them some time to brainstorm an idea and sitting around arguing about how to get into the "impregnable fortress" is not the ton of fun that Wizards seems to think it is.

Maybe Gendar could sell them a passwall scroll?

As for the 25 foot ceilings. I imagine that a minotaur with it's big head and protruding horns would want all the headroom it could muster. Many forts from the 1800's have high, arched ceilings because the arch gives more support. perhaps the Minotaurs hired a good architect to build them a sound fortress (before eating the unlucky bastard).

Here's a question, if minotaurs are associated with bovines? are they herbivores? and how do underground maze-dwelling plant-eaters grow their food?

Question 3: No good deed goes unpunished.

Greg Tannahill said...

ByTheSword - certainly the gate is something that can be overcome. The issue is that it's not something that can be overcome as-written. The more that you as DM are dealing with situations not envisaged by the module, the less value you're getting for the dollars you spent on it (although you may well be having a vastly better game as a result).

What happened when I actually ran it is that Ulthand Deepgem lent the players a goods wagon, with which they posed as merchants making a delivery to the Hold. They got as far as the Duergar Workshop, where they were stopped, and then the party's Rogue was escorted to Murkelmor to make a report. After the Rogue returned they realised they'd got as far into the fortress as the Duergar would permit so they dropped their disguises and entered combat, but at least they'd got past the gate and got some intelligence on what lay ahead.

16lettersonly said...

"free rein –noun
unhampered freedom of movement, choice, or action: Students have free rein to choose their own class schedules."

(Sorry, this one just bugs me.)

Is it possible that the encounter was meant to feature the cover/concealment mechanics? There are five orcs, which I assume are on-level, facing five PCs. If the orcs can shoot/stab at the PCs, surely the ranged party members can blast or snipe the orcs while the melee'ers hammer the portcullis open. Unless there are more enemies, I don't see a TPK in the making here.

Greg Tannahill said...

Bythesword - Thanks I'll fix that. The module states that the orcs will have cover from the PCs attacks while the PCs gain no cover in from the orcs.

It's entirely possible to start trashing the orcs at range before you get through the gate, albeit with the cover penalties. As-written, the danger of that is that the orcs flee and get help when they get into trouble. If you hurt them but don't finish them off you may end up standing helplessly as they run off and wake up the rest of the Hold.

Bryant said...

My players include a swordmage, so it was easy getting one PC past the portcullis. My other PCs destroyed the portcullis in one round. As you note in the next entry, 60 hit points is not very much at all, and the portcullis does not have 20 AC.

I'm not sure you can reasonably make the quite accurate complaint that Urgol is a pushover while claiming that an immobile object with less hit points is sturdy. The encounter also explicitly states that the orcs don't run for help until three of them fall -- reasonable for overconfident orcs -- so it's not like they'll actually be running for help while the portcullis is being removed.

My PCs intelligently prioritized getting between the orcs and the door once the portcullis went down, since they'd seen fleeing monsters in the Chamber of Eyes.

Johan_L said...

We used make-up and plundered Duergar clothing and armour to dress the party dwarf up as a Duergar, my Wizard used the Disguise utility to impersonate a second duergar, and we had the rest of the party act as "captured" slaves, then bluffed the orc guards to let us through the gate. Worked like a charm for the first encounter, and then the illusion-immune Duergar saw right through the magical Disguise.

(By the way, when you're a Wizard and your At-Wills are Illusion and Fire respectively, the entire Horned Hold is very annoying.)

Osric said...

I ran this encounter last night.

One of the players privately pointed out to me the reluctance to engage with a seemingly impregnable fastness, but the session was only cowed to the point of losing maybe 5 mins' playing time.

Another of the players is running Surina the warlock, whose 'abilities' allowed for perfect scouting of the entire situation without pulling all the orcs to crossbow-stations at the portcullis. (BTW the text names it a portcullis, then describes it as no a raise/lower portcullis, but as a hinging-outwards grilled gate. There's also no description of the locking mechanism: whether someone teleporting to th einside could open it or not. I ruled there was a bolt with a big crude padlock on it, key in the pouch of the coolest-looking orc figure on the board.)

So between the warlocky Surina and an Eladrin Wizard they had two teleporters and various AoE options... And Surina initiated hostilities. Marvellous. :-)

Things went more or less according to plan, except that in the absence of a bell or gong, the PCs lost sight of the need to prevent the alarm being raised... and when the last orc hotfooted it they weren't able to stop him from raising the alarm and spanning the encounter over into Urwol's Workshop without any chance to regroup or take a Short Rest.

I agree the encounter should have had at least a paragraph on Cunning Alternatives like bluffing. A couple of the players were not massively impressed. But it played like D&D so we can hardly complain. (Our ongoing issue is just how long it takes to get through each round, so players really want their turn to count and fire off their APs and Dailies way too readily -- which makes the round take longer, and so the problem spirals!)

Escher said...

I ran this fight a while back. I wasn't a new DM, but hardly experienced either. I tried to run it "by the book", but even just glancing at it I could tell I was going to have to do some of it on the fly to make it worthy of anything.

The party attempted to bluff their way in by dousing the exterior lights (which the guards fluffed off with a "oh, there it goes /again/" sort of response, since the players got good stealth checks) and then claiming to have a delivery of some sort (I forget exactly what the bluff was). The bluff sort of broke down when the tiefling stepped into the light, but then there was a pretty tense struggle to keep the door open that ultimately wound up with the warlock stuck inside with the guards and the rest of the party outside shooting through the grill and hacking at the door.

It actually wasn't a bad encounter, but the drama was all about the trickery and the warlock trying to keep from dying while waiting for the rest of the party to rescue him -- which was hardly written into the module, obviously!