Saturday, July 11, 2009

Side Trek #3: Houses of Silence

The Houses of Silence is another side-trek from Dungeon Magazine #156, which takes players to a kind of minotaur graveyard far to the west of the Seven-Pillared Hall.

The impetus to come here arrives from another resident of the Seven-Pillared Hall. Terlen Darkseeker is an explorer who does work as a guide for travellers, operating out of the Seven-Pillared Hall. Recently during his travels he stumbled across the Houses of Silence, where he activated a lingering curse intended (in a rather vague way) to dissuade graverobbers.

Now when he delves too deep into the Labyrinth the curse transfigures him into a violent, uncontrollable werewolf. Terlen doesn't remember these transformations and no-one who's witnessed one has survived to tell the tale. The quest starts when PCs engage Terlen as a guide, fall victim to his lycanthropic attack, and then presumably subdue him until he changes back into a human and learns of his affliction.

Terlen's condition has a charming resonance with the idea of the Underdark as the human subconscious; when he "delves too deep" he loses his ability to reason and becomes a creature of pure instinct. There's not really a lot of chance to play that up but it's still a nice touch.

In any case, players who attempt to help Terlen out will be directed to the Houses of Silence.

Much like the other side treks, the Houses of Silence break the pattern of doors-and-runners that Thunderspire has so comfortably settled into. It relies on an extended (and very dramatic) trap to engage player interest. The main chamber is divided into three forks; the left and the right forks end at single minotaur statues, while the main passage terminates at two minotaur statues holding a gong.

When players approach the gong, or when either of the side-corridor minotaurs make "eye contact" with a PC, the trap springs. Starting from the single statues, oil filled cressets on the walls burst into flame, blasting everyone nearby and engulfing the corridor in an ongoing inferno. On subsequent rounds, the flames progress up the corridor, driving players towards the room with the gong, where the next threat waits - a pair of flame-resistant hellhounds and a wraith that can walk through walls. All three take advantage of being able to enter terrain the PCs can't to deliver vicious attacks with only minor fear of retaliation.

Given the history of the place, the wraith is, presumably, a minotaur wraith, which sadly is not illustrated with the awesome piece of artwork that that concept brings to mind.

It's also worth noting briefly that both the original Thunderspire writers and Greg Bilsland on the side treks have managed to keep their devils and demons straight, which is noteworthy mostly because I always forget and use them interchangeably. Devils hail from the Nine Hells and are associated with gods such as Asmodeus (and indeed, two appear in the Horned Hold). Demons come from the Abyss and pay homage to masters such as Baphomet - and, as expected, both here and in the Well of Demons we'll find only demons, not devils. I've never really grokked the arbitrary distinction but it's nice to see that they're at least keeping their story straight.

My guys didn't get to run the Houses of Silence, so I don't know how it works in practice; it seems like it could either be dramatic and exciting, or misfire and end up with players either locked out of the encounter by a wall of fire or frustrated by the cheap tactics of the hounds and the wraith.


Bryant said...

By the by, my group just finished Paldemar's Tower. I'll be very interested when you get to that point -- there are some structural elements which I think are a miscue for fairly subtle reasons. It's superbly themed, but the theme creates issues.

GregT said...

I want more detail!

We did Paldemar last weekend, finishing off Thunderspire, and we're starting Pyramid next week. The short version is that my group's main complaint was that one Bronze Warder was challenging, two was tiresome.

Zubon said...

You are the PCs. Your guide from the shady Hall brings you away from the crowds then turns into a wolf and tries to kill you. Do you (1) assume this was a planned ambush and kill him, or (2) attack to subdue then ask how you can help him with his personal problems?

I see a lot of PCs slaughtering the adventure hook.

Greg Tannahill said...

@Zubon - definitely an issue. The solution's probably to play up Terlen's friendly nature when they first meet him, and then when he changes make the involuntary nature of it clear.

It's a little easier under 4th Edition in that when you reduce an enemy to 0 HP you're assumed to be subduing them rather than killing them unless you state otherwise, which helps make PCs less inclined to mass murder.

Bryant said...

@Greg -- Heh, sounds like we're about in sync. The pyramid is going to be an interesting challenge as a GM; I want to play up the social aspects of the place but the party has certainly learned a thing or two about malevolent tricky NPCs. Tieflings, ahem.

So Paldemar's tower. It opens up with a skill challenge. Failure with the skill challenge can cost you the use of encounter and perhaps daily powers. The party's options have been limited a bit. The theme, of course, is depriving the characters of knowledge.

In encounter one, we meet our first Enigmas of Vecna. Given the unique tactical situation, they will almost always be able to use Memory Ripper, which deprives the target of encounter powers and daily powers again! Plus, for bonus fun, there's a daze effect. It's also almost always the right thing to do, since their other at will power does less damage.

These monsters recur in every single fight. As the PCs fight their way up the tower, they're battling a consistent gauntlet of monsters that reduce their options. The theme is stolen knowledge, and it's very strong. Note that Paldemar himself is dangerous because of the knowledge he's stolen from the Mages. However, in practice, it's all about taking stuff off the PC table.

In encounter two, we have the bronze warder, who doesn't directly steal knowledge, but he's another mob who limits player options. Not only does he block the hallway, he knocks people over. A minor annoyance but it's there.

Then, finally, when you finally get to Paldemar... another Enigma of Vecna, another Bronze Warder, and Paldemar himself has a encounter/daily stealing power. Plus there's a statue in the middle of the room dazing people and further limiting them. I ran the bronze warder into the middle of the room to knock people over in range of the statue.

The combat really dragged, mostly because the PCs kept losing options. Great theme; unfortunate side effect. One or two monsters with the theme would have been cool, but as is it can be an exercise in frustration

Greg Tannahill said...

@Bryant - I ran the opening skill challenge as a roleplaying thing, so the players weren't actually in danger of mechanical consequences so much as plot ones.

I actually saw the intention of the Enigmas to be doing the players a backhanded favour; Paldemar's a very tough fight, and the Enigmas force players to conserve their dailies for when it matters by locking them off from use.

Tactics-wise at Paldemar, I waited till people were out near the statue with the casters hanging back in the opening area, used the warder to charge in and block the door (locking the tanks and strikers out on the killing floor and the casters at the entrance) and then had Paldemar emerge to incinerate the casters at leisure. When the players eventually won they had two guys unconscious.

I didn't play up the secrets theme much because the overarching theme of what I'm running is death - I ran the "undeath" side of Vecna and foreshadowed the fascination with life, death, and undeath that gets picked up with Karavakos being immortal but imprisoned in H3, the Stone Cauldron of resurrection and the regenerating trolls in P1, the undead in P2, the disruption to resurrection magic in P3, and then Death's Reach itself in E1.

Anonymous said...

"It's a little easier under 4th Edition in that when you reduce an enemy to 0 HP you're assumed to be subduing them rather than killing them unless you state otherwise"

Well, you can run your game that way, but it is not assumed. The rules assume you kill your foes (I assume to to reduce the prison problem) but they also impose no mechanical penalty whatsoever on knocking them unconscious.

So the rules support your game, but agreeing "we always subdue unless we say otherwise" does remain effectively a houserule.

Colmarr said...

@zubon: In our game, the DM portrayed Terrlen as friendly and to some extents "not the sharpest tool in the shed".

His transformation into the werewolf was also involuntary: he got attacked by a grey slime.

Combine those two things with the fact that we needed him to navigate the labyrinth, and we didn't even consider killing him...