Friday, July 31, 2009

Chamber Of The Well

Last time we looked at the 4th Edition grappling rules I was a little dismissive. I described the "grab" action as "an exception we did not need to have".

I think I need to backpedal on that.

Okay, in 95% of cases, grabbing is still a bad option for players. But monsters, on the other hand - they can really get leverage from a good grab attack.

The first encounter in the Well of Demons is the Chamber of the Well. The well in question is 10 feet wide and 30 feet deep and completely dry. It does not contain any demons.

I actually had to stop for a minute, coming back to this encounter. Clearly the well in this room is the eponymous Well of Demons. I'd actually assumed that the Well of Demons was a different, larger hole located in the Proving Grounds. The Proving Grounds hole contains a dragon; I was probably letting my memories of the black dragon Khisanth emerging from the well in the original Dragonlance module colour my thinking.

In any case, while there's no demons (yet), there's no shortage of monsters. The room is home to a pair of cavern chokers, chameleonic ceiling-dwellers notable for their long claw-tipped tentacles. There's also a paralysis-inflicting ghoul, and a phalagar. Phalagars are new to 4th Edition in Thunderspire Labyrinth and are basically burrowing tentacled monstrosities.

This is the sort of oddball monster team-up that 4th Edition loves, and this is an example of it done exceptionally well. Thunderspire suggests the four creatures have by a kind of symbiosis learned to work together to turn the entrance into a kind of specialised killing floor, and indeed that's the experience players will have when they trigger the encounter.

I'd mentioned before that the Well was originally a minotaur monastery. When players first enter the room, a sort of magical recorded message starts up, welcoming "seekers of Baphomet's boundless glory" to the Well and urging them to "prove worthy" of his attention. However, before the message can even complete its cycle, the chokers take advantage of the players' distraction to attack.

The chokers are attached to the ceiling. They use their (reach 2) tentacles to make surprisingly effective grab attacks at the players, which flavour-wise represent the tentacles wrapping around their victim's neck and lifting them, choking, into the air. Victims of a successful grab take a whopping -6 penalty to escape, and the choker can use the hapless hero as a body shield to absorb damage dealt out by the hero's allies.

Meanwhile, the phalagar is burrowing underground towards the players. Concealed beneath the heavy stone floor it's completely impervious to most attacks, only offering a vulnerability when it sends its tentacles to the surface to strike. Like the chokers, it's focused on grabs, and is able to target enemies up to four squares away for this purpose. It also has an awesome rechargeable tentacle flurry which imposes grab (and a big handful of damage) on every target within close burst 2. It's a Large-sized monster, so that's a 6x6 area of effect we're talking about. Creatures grabbed by the Phalagar take ongoing acid damage every turn they remain grabbed.

Being grabbed imposes the "restrained" condition. Being restrained imposes the "immobilised" condition. That's where the ghoul comes in. Ghouls can paralyse an enemy with their basic claw attack, but their real viciousness comes from their ghoulish bite, only usable against an immobilised, stunned or unconscious enemy. If the bite lands, it hands out a whopping 3d6+4 damage and inflicts the worst condition in the game - stunned. That's the one that makes you miss your entire round.

Anyone who didn't have respect for the grab mechanics is going to learn it very quickly. Players who've been on cruise control through the last few Duergar fights are going to be shocked to find things getting rapidly out of control as they try to deal with this set of very focused enemies.

I love this encounter. I love the way it showcases very different monsters working together. I love the bait-and-switch of the recorded message covering the approach of the monsters. I love the way it makes the grab rules really work, and I love the three-dimensional feeling of chokers from above, phalagar from below and ghoul in the middle. There are some really excellent set-pieces coming up later in the Well but there's a simplicity and elegance to this first offering that holds a real place in my heart.

Dungeon Masters take note: this is how to start a dungeon. Be surprising, be vicious, and be challenging. There's a short series of unexciting gnoll encounters coming up before we get to the Proving Grounds but despite their weak mechanics there's real tension through all of them. And why? Simply because of this first encounter, which has a simple and well-delivered message for players: heads up - shit just got real.


davethebrave said...

Wow. This makes me actually want to run this adventure, and I usually don't like published adventures, in particular ones that aren't geared to my setting of choice (Eberron).

Oscar said...

I was excited about running this encounter, but my players didn't have any problem with it. It ended being very uninteresting, actually. But my party is also very mobile and ranged. And I don't think being restrained gives you any actual penalty to your offensive capabilities, so even though half the party became grabbed within two rounds, none of the monsters had the staying power to be more than a minor threat.

*sigh* Oh well.

Greg Tannahill said...

@Oscar - restrained gives you -2 to attacks, makes you grant combat advantage, and imposes the "immobilised" condition.

I think flavour is an important part of the fight. People might shrug and say, "I'm restrained, whatever" based on the mechanics. If you describe it, though, as the choker tentacles wrapped around their throat, constricting their windpipe and pulling them upwards towards the choker's eager fangs, they suddenly get a lot more interested in getting free.

The way the phalagar works is open to interpretation, though. The module says you can only target its tentacles and describes them as being in the space the phalagar would occupy if it were on the surface. I fudged it a little and said you could only attack the tentacles while they were grabbing someone, and they were in the space occupied by the grabbee.

The other problem for a ranged party is that the phalagar has threatening reach 4. That's a 10 x 10 area of the battlefield where the phalagar can opportunity attack anyone who tries a ranged attack.

16lettersonly said...

These monsters do seem designed to wring the most out of the grab mechanic, so to speak. The upgrade from immobilized to restrained, and the reach 2, can cause severe problems for characters without Athletics/Acrobatics, though I imagine a good fighter/ranger/rogue will chew these guys up.

And hey, at least they don't cause as many rules arguments as grappling in 3.5, right?

No mention of the terrain? Do the pillars and the hole in the floor (reminiscent of KotS) add anything to the battle?

John said...

Okay, I'm confused. The copy of H2 that I have says (under the powers 'Tentacle Claw,' 'Tentacle,' and 'Tentacle Flurry') that "the target is grabbed (until escape)"

My PHB (while it doesn't list 'grabbed' as a condition on page 277) says, on page 290 under 'grab', that when you hit with a grab "The enemy is immobilized until it escapes or you end the grab."

I can't find anything in encounter W1 of Thunderspire about any of the monster's attacks imposing the 'restrained' condition.

On the names of the monster powers listed above... I'm really glad I don't have any razorclaw shifter cat-girls in the party I'm running through this module.

Greg Tannahill said...

@16lettersonly - the pillars are the source of the recorded message. They're carved into minotaur faces and they animate when the message plays. The pit I think is just there as a concession to characters based around pushing and sliding, such as certain builds of Invokers and Rogues.

@John - you're quite right! Grab doesn't impose restrained; I must have imported that from a unique monster power elsewhere. I'll amend the post accordingly.

Although when you look at restrained, and at grab, grab imposing restrained is such an obvious mechanical and flavour fix for the power as a PC action that you have to wonder whether it wasn't intended that way but misprinted. You'd think a grabbed target WOULD grant combat advantage. I suspect I'm going to play "grabbed = restrained" as a house rule until I find a reason not to.

John said...

Thought something of the sort was going on there. If you go with that, you might change the 'You can't be force to move by a pull, a push, or a slide' part of restrained though, or otherwise allow for the forced movement described in the grab rules.

It's kind of annoying that we don't have a clear distinction made between being 'grabbed' and being 'restrained' though. I've generally interpreted it as 'restrained' being tied up/bound in/to something.

Francis Bousho said...

My players skipped Thunderspire Labyrinth and went straight to Pyramid of Shadows (long story) and this post makes me sad they missed it. I think I'll have to run the module by itself, or at least lift that encounter for use somewhere else.

And I love your description of the choker's attack, I've only used one so far, but it is an encounter the PCs remember.

Greg Tannahill said...

@Francis - on the whole you're not missing much. Using the new Monster Builder available through D&D Insider it's a pretty easy matter to level these monsters up to paragon tier so if you want you can always insert the encounter into a different adventure.

Colmarr said...

My group played through this encounter last night, and it was unfortunately nowhere near as exciting as Greg suggested.

Largely because we got lucky. The chokers hit both targets in the first round, but the ghoul wasn't close enough to capitalise. After that, they missed more often than they hit.

The Phalagar grab/ghoul bite combo did work once, and seeing that "Stunned" condition appear for the first time ever was cause for some "uh oh"ing at the table. Then my cleric pulled off a lucky Sacred Flame and the Stunned disappeared.

If a DM really wanted to make this one challenging, I'd recommend swapping one of the chokers for another ghoul. That gives you two grabbers (phalagar and choker) and two paralysers (2 ghouls).

Greg Tannahill said...

@Colmarr - Sorry to hear that. Even with the chokers missing, the phalagar burst attack and threatening reach didn't do the job?

Osric said...

Hit 'em fast and hard? Great. D&D 4e at its finest? Showcasiest, maybe, but to me not its finest. I just think it was a weak rationale that all these bad boys loiter around like a well-oiled machine waiting to team-devour the scraps fed them by the gnolls -- who've only been here three weeks!

Anyway, I didn't run it as written, because my players turned the tables in a way I think the module should've predicted and offered guidance on.

After springing the trap of the ludicrously obvious Ambush in the previous encounter (which still made for a good scrap), they DIDN'T open the seal on Paldemar's scroll to Maldrick, but decided the two best Bluffers would impersonate the heretics and deliver to Maldrick the Paldemar-sealed and a cartload of seemingly dead adventurers instead -- expecting of course to accomplish a "Prisoner transfer from Block TX-138" scenario.

I wanted to reward this, and yet the first room in the Well of Demons was a motley bunch of indiscriminate attack-monsters. Did Paldemar not want his Tiefling Heretics to survive the visit to Maldrick's?

I had the ghoul attack the two mobile guys, while the other four played dead in case they were under surveillance. (Marvellous paranoia, possibly instilled by one too many invisible adversary of late.) I had the ghoul attack, but I kept the Phalagar just faintly rumbling ever closer under the much-cracked floor, but not closing to attack before the ghoul was down and the party were hightailing it onwards to the next encounter. Since the Phalagar didn't attack, the Chokers didn't either, but their now-you-see-me, now-you-don't up there in the shadows was good for some more healthy anxiety in the PCs.

It was a good result. And if the gnolls don't feed the monsters for a while and then a bunch of bloodied folk emerge, I might get to use the rest of the encounter later anyway!