Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Paldemar and the Bronze Warders

Here we are, two thirds of the way through Thunderspire Labyrinth, and the module's Big Evil has yet to show himself. It's a sad state of affairs - so sad I've barely posted for a week (or at least that's my excuse).

It's time for that to change, though. When players return to the Seven-Pillared Hall after trouncing the Duergar, they learn that they've finally got someone's attention. That someone is Paldemar, master villain of Thunderspire, and he steals a page from Kalarel's book in order to set one of the lamest traps in the history of archvillainy.

I've spoken a little about Paldemar before. He's a Mage of Saruun - one of only two still residing in the Labyrinth - and he's gone rogue. He's dropped out of contact with his colleague Orontor and retired to a hidden structure called the Tower of Mysteries, where he's begun to dabble in the forbidden worship of Vecna, god of secrets and undeath.

Paldemar's plan is pretty straightforward mad sorceror stuff. He plans, firstly, to seize control of the Labyrinth. That's kind of a strange goal, seeing as the Labyrinth isn't exactly a palace of wealth and luxury. For the most part, if Paldemar wants to rule over crumbling minotaur ruins and spiderwebbed tunnels he's welcome to it. Of course, in typical villainous style he won't be content with Thunderspire, and plans to extend his domination to "surrounding lands".

The key to Paldemar's plan are the Bronze Warders. The Warders are giant bronze statues of minotaurs, presumably constructed by the original inhabitants of Saruun Khel and now left scattered throughout Thunderspire's tunnels and chambers. Each Warder is bound to a control amulet; when someone who possesses the right amulet speaks a certain set of mystic words, they become the master of the Warder and can command it to come to life and serve their bidding.

The Mages of Saruun, during their early explorations of the Labyrinth, uncovered several of the control amulets and used their magic to ferret out the control words for them (each amulet requires different words). The Warders now serve as the Mages' elite enforcers, called upon whenever the Mages need a show of overpowering force to keep the rabble in its place.

Paldemar's plan involves the creation of an "infernal machine" which will override the command amulets and bind every Warder everywhere in the Labyrinth to his will. With an army of giant bronze soldiers at his command he aims to wrest the Seven-Pillared Hall from his fellow Mages and rule the area with an iron fist. In a loose attempt to tie Thunderspire in with its eventual sequel, Paldemar's long term goals also include attempting to unlock the power of a vaguely-described "Pyramid of Shadows".

So what does Paldemar have to do with Hobgoblins and Duergar? Really, nothing. The module states that Paldemar has been urging the Bloodreavers on to "new heights of depravity" in an attempt to "sow the seeds of confusion and unrest" within the Labyrinth but exactly how this helps him is unclear. Certainly depravity seems to be business as usual in the Labyrinth. The same Mages who didn't blink at the Duergar running a slave-trading ring out of the Seven-Pillared Hall are unlikely to be worried by a handful of goblinoids getting up to mischief in an old minotaur temple. As for the Duergar, Paldemar doesn't seem to have any connection to them whatsoever.

In any case, despite the fact that the PCs have no dispute with Paldemar, haven't impacted on Paldemar's plans and indeed may not have even heard of Paldemar, Thunderspire's resident Mad Mage eventually decides that they constitute a threat to his plans and forms a half-baked plan to send them to an early grave.

The plan has more in common with a Saturday-morning cartoon than with the genius-level intellect that Paldemar supposedly represents. A kobold named Charrak delivers an unsigned letter to the players offering them some vague and mysterious assistance and asking for a meeting in an out-of-the-way cavern.

It's so obviously a trap that it's more than a little insulting. Paldemar could have at least made the effort to suggest a location that didn't scream "ambush" so loudly, or used a messenger that wasn't of a race famous for its evil and treachery. Plot-wise, it's important that players attend the ambush in order to learn more about Paldemar, so really at this point the module is relying entirely on the players' morbid curiosity to get them turning up for Paldemar's ham-fisted treachery.

Mechanically speaking, the encounter is an introduction to the Bronze Warders. Players who arrive at the meeting site get ambushed by one of the giant metal statues, along with a pair of tieflings who bombard the PCs with ranged attacks from a set of high ledges.

The battle teaches players the key attributes of the Warders - namely, that they have a lot of hit points, they resist damage, and they can knock enemies prone just by moving through their space. Taking one down is an epic process, and the Warders easily win their place as Thunderspire's most powerful and iconic enemies.

The Warder will eventually die, though, and once players mop up the tieflings they'll be treated to the roleplaying cliche of a damning note on their attackers' corpses. The note reveals Paldemar as the instigator of the attack, and goes on to suggest that Paldemar is in league with a group of gnolls who are even now engaged in nefarious business at a part of the Labryinth known as the "Well of Demons". Paldemar, always helpful, provides a map.

Horrifyingly generic ambush aside, the introduction of Paldemar marks the beginning of the "good part" of Thunderspire Labyrinth, so after a quick look tomorrow at the results of the last Eleven Foot Poll we'll get started on the Well and the memorable set-pieces it's home to.

Improvements:

[1]
Paldemar may not be introduced until late in the module, but that doesn't mean his plan must be a similar slow-starter. Show off the Bronze Warders early; let the players see Orontor using one to break up a fight, and then highlight more of these giant metal hulks tucked away throughout the Labyrinth - at the entrance to the Chamber of Eyes, for example, or gathering dust in a Duergar storeroom. Paldemar's intention to activate all the Warders should feel epic, and the more of them you've shown off, and the more locations you'e shown them in, the more effective that's going to be when players learn about it - and possibly see it happen.

10 comments:

Sebmojo said...

Good to have you back! This is a regular stop for me - I like your style and insight, and generally agree.

I ran my (fairly skeptical) buddies through KotS, after heavy modifications - was fun. I think that's it for me on modules, though - 4e is so hilariously fun and and easy to make your own stuff for, that I can't see the benefit.

Keep it up!

Sebmojo

Greg Tannahill said...

@Sebmojo - thanks heaps! Posts are already scheduled for at least the next three days so hopefully no more interruptions for a while.

Márcio Fiorito said...

Greg,

Your blog rocks! It´s an awesome review and awesome load of solutions for the problems in the modules. I´ll be certainly using your tips when I start DMing my campaign (which I hope is next week). :)

Anyway, thanks for the great insight!

Cheers,
Marcio

GregT said...

@Marcio - Awesome, thanks!

Maelora said...

Good to see you back, Greg.

Another shockingly poor villain in the Kalarel mode. 4E just doesn't seem to know how to do memorable or intriguing antagonists. It's almost funny how say, computer games (to take an example) can now offer involving plotlines and memorable opponents, yet D&D has reverted to a boardgame approach with cookie-cutter foes.

The game's been out what, 18 months now? As someone on the boards said, it's past time 4E took the training wheels off and offered us an 'adventure' actually worthy of the name. Something beyond vanilla dungeon bashes and bland villains.

One or two of the adventures in 'Dungeon' fit that bill - the one with the Githyanki is particularly good, with encounters that run like an action movie rather than a grinding session of WoW, and an antagonist who actually seems to know what he's doing.

On that subject, Greg, how did your Dungeon submission go?

Falke said...

I really like your ideas for improvement. Of course there should be bronze warders everywhere in the dungeon..
In the beginning, players will expect them to ambush them while in another fight. Later they'll notice them and not care. In the end, when they learn of Paldemars plan, they'll realize it's potential impact. Great!

Greg Tannahill said...

@Maelora - It's only been 30 days since my Dungeon submission and their turnaround is 60 so I'm not expecting to hear anything yet even if they like it. In the mean-time I've sent them more so they're currently sitting on four submissions of varying types.

@Falke - Thanks, glad you like it!

zinovia said...

@Maelora
While the game has been out for a little more than a year (14 months in August), keep in mind that Thunderspire Labyrinth was written before 4E was published. You can still see a lot of rough edges in the mechanics of skill challenges and the lack of minions (for the most part) in this module. Does it need some work to make it more fun and interesting and to infuse some more plot into it? Hell yeah. Still, I like the setting and will be dropping it into our ongoing campaign, tying it into the main plot.

I have been a bit disappointed in some of the modules so far, but those have all been written early on in the development cycle. I'm hoping that the developers are learning from their early mistakes and writing some better stuff.

@Greg
Thanks for the blog. I have enjoyed reading your detailed analysis of Thunderspire, and I for one do appreciate suggestions on how to improve parts of it, even if they are simple like reskinning undead as minotaurs.

Maelora said...

@zinovia

Yes, I appreciate these are the first modules, which is why I gave 'Keep' a free pass, as rancidly poor as it was.

But I year on and the adventures are mostly still poor. Can 4E ever live up to the legacy of previous editions and tell stories that are not 90% combat? Does it even want to? The game's been out a year and with one or two exceptions, the modules and 'Dungeon' adventures are extremely uninspiring.

4E feels like a big budget movie where they spend billions on hiring actors and special effects, and 50 cents on the script.

Which is why we need people like Greg writing some decent stuff for them.

Anonymous said...

i decided to have paldemar assault the seven pillared hall with an army of bronze warders and norkers the PC would fall back to the horned hold (i let them have the deed to it so they own a keep :D) and so they get to make fortifications and have a huge war with epic outcomes!