Thursday, July 9, 2009

Too Many Gods

I am a great fan of focus. The developers of Thunderspire Labyrinth are not.

Nowhere is this more clear than in the pantheon of evil deities that appear in the module.

Thunderspire opens with the Chamber of Eyes, an abandoned shrine to Torog, the King Who Crawls. We move to the Horned Hold, where things are run by Murkelmor, a paladin of Asmodeus. Next we go to the Well of Demons; this was originally a temple to Baphomet, demon lord of minotaurs, but the gnolls who have invaded are trying to re-dedicate it to Yeenoghu, the gnoll deity. Finally we wind up at Paldemar's Tower of Mysteries, where Thunderspire's Big Bad turns out to rather inexplicably be acting on behalf of the lich-god Vecna.

That's five separate Lords of Evil who get name-checked. Vecna actually shows up in person to officiate ceremonies during the final chapter. If we move into the bonus Dungeon Magazine encounters we find a former follower of the Raven Queen and another shrine to Torog.

What's going on here? None of this is central to the plot. These evil gods are being waved at the players for no better reason than that they can be. Torog, Asmodeus, Baphomet and Yeenoghu don't have any particular beef with the players or anyone they care about, and Vecna is so deeply un-committed to his own evil scheme as to abandon Paldemar in exchange for a few paltry secrets.

It's doubly confusing for players who've beaten Keep on the Shadowfell. "Hang on a minute," they'll say. "Weren't we fighting Orcus?" It's typically unwise to pick a fight with a second evil god before you've finished off the first one. By the end of Thunderspire players can have more epic-level adversaries than they have fingers on one hand.

This is the real problem, of course. There's no closure. There's nothing wrong with a brief tussle with Baphomet, providing that it has a conclusion. Thunderspire offers nothing - no beginning, no middle, and certainly no ending - and when it's all over you have to realise that the sole purpose of all these Elder Evils is to lend artificial significance to an otherwise deeply mundane story.

20 comments:

doubleofive said...

I'm thinking of (if we ever get to run it) having Vecna/Paldemar using all of the other gods' worshippers to gain power. Something like the closer the other gods are to victory and are brought down, the more power Vecna gets. Paldemar secretly sent Karalel to the Keep to try to give Orcus power (secret even to Karalel), etc. Then these adventurers stop Karalel before Paldemar has to, so Paldemar uses his spy Nineran to lead them to the Thunderspire to take care of the rest of his dirty work stopping all of the other gods' worshippers. So really the players have been indirectly working for Vecna this whole time, they just don't know it. Paldemar will give them a choice to continue to do Vecna's work or die.

Todd said...

The problem with the gods (and greater demons, I'm way too pedantic to let that slide, but aware it is in no way important) seems to stem from the problem you spoke about earlier: the designer put in a lot of backstory that has no affect on the plot at all. Baphomet and Torog don't really have any reason to be here, other than to be a part of the backdrop. Yeenoghu is only here because there are Gnolls, and the same goes for Asmodeus and his duergar.

It's a problem, and it harms story, but it's also a problem that I don't really mind so much. In a lot of ways, it makes the villains look a lot like the the player characters. A party might have a cleric of Avandra, a paladin of the Raven Queen and a few other adventures who worship other gods, so the fact that the villains aren't all pawns of the same evil god is kinda fitting. It highlights the polytheistic world the characters live in.

It is bad for the story but kinda good for backstory and setting. This doesn't excuse it, obviously, since the module should be here to help the players tell a story, not just to reveal the backstory the designer has already written; but it does serve a certain purpose. It doesn't help that the module isn't particularly good at using the various evil gods to provide interesting flavor, but I do see the intention.

I have a lot of comments about Thunderspire, and how it initially read as a pretty good module, but I think I'll go back and insert them at the posts and places they're appropriate.

FalconGK81 said...

Another insightful observation Greg, well done. To be honest, I forgot the Gnolls were Yeenoghu worshippers when I was running them, and I've just been playing them as returned Baphomet followers coming to restore the temple. There are in fact, TOO MANY dark gods in this module.

That said, I like the Vecna slant. I've been thinking of tying him into my version of the campaign much closer. I think Vecna is manipulating Orcus with many of the events that will occur in the module. His plan is to either let Orcus get destroyed for attempting to dethrone the Raven Queen, which would give Vecna an opportunity to overtake some of his power over undeath. Alternatively, if his blundering pawn should somehow manage to actually win, he thinks he may be able to swoop in and defeat Orcus before he is able to fully install himself as the new God of death and fate.

Anyways, I think Vecna creates some interesting opportunities. All the others are, as Todd points out, just backdrop. I describe it as such, not giving too much emphasis to it.

Anders Hällzon said...

At least there're a few Vecna-themed foes in Pyramid of Shadows as well. Even though, of course, the epic modules seem to have Orcus as the BBEG again.

TildeSee said...

I don't see the issue with introducing several dark gods at this stage. Then again, I've also never played d&d as primarily delivering one cohesive story. D&D for me & mine has always been more about exploration & dungeoneering & do-goodery for their own sake. Any story that managed to string itself together was appreciated, but a solid plotline just seemed to defeat the point of being a vagabond adventurer to me. I certainly see the allure though.

Back to the point, H1 through H3 seemed to me to be offered less for a story arc & more as an introduction to not just the D&D game, but also to the world, both as a place for stories to happen as well as the basic assumption of adventuring for adventurings sake. With that assumption in mind, displaying all these disparate groups with their own dark worship & little interconnectivity help so show that "monolithic evil" is largely a myth & that there is a very diverse pantheon, as much among the good (known from character generation, et al) & among the evil.

I feel it also illustrates the specific non-story of the early modules. Not only is there little to no story, there actively isn't a major overaching arc. Your actions aren't yet important on a grand scale & it shows. It also contrasts nicely with the greater building plot arc up in the p3 through e3 section, where your actionas tend to become so wide sweeping that there almost /needs/ to be a front to back plotline.

Anyway, I can agree that the "story" suffers for the lack of cohesivness, but I think that may have been the active point, not accident. Also, I like it :). It's refreshing.

Anyway, that's about my 2 cents. Cheers.

Greg Tannahill said...

@Doubleofive - I try and avoid that kind of convoluted master plan because (a) it's really difficult to make it apparent to players without giant expository rants from the villains, and (b) they almost always end up making less sense the longer you think about them.

@Todd - I initially thought Thunderspire looked great when I read it - and the Well of Demons section is still pretty great, I'm looking forward to talking about it. Most of the problems emerged when I actually tried to run it.

@FalconGK81 - Originally I was going to rip Vecna out, he just didn't make sense. But (a) I like the "secret trading" encounter at the start of the Tower of Mysteries, and (b) there's a bunch of inexplicably Vecna-themed enemies in H3, and then further reference to him in E1, so I decided to turn him into a sub-theme instead.

@Tildesee - The issue with introducing the dark gods is Chekov's Gun - there's no payoff for them either in Thunderspire or in any of the modules that follow it. Players never get to finish the fight that they're starting here. Plus there's just too many - they're each cheapened by being brushed over this way. They should either not be there, or get the time to be a plot point.

@Everyone - The one silver lining to all these evil gods is that my clerics developed it into a personal quest to re-dedicate each of these unholy shrines to their respective gods. There's now a bunch of isolated areas blessed by Pelor and Bahamut scattered through the Labyrinth, that are presumably going to become favoured destinations for pilgrims in the future.

DBB said...

I do wonder what the deal is with the early 4E modules - you'd have thought as part of the launch of a new game edition, they'd have wanted to put their best foot forward. For instance, I really liked The Sunless Citadel for 3E. Strange.

Greg Tannahill said...

@DBB - That's exactly the point of the blog!

At least part of it is that I'm pretty sure H1 and H2 were being developed before the 4E rules were in their final form. Another part is a (misguided and untalented) attempt to riff on classics like Keep on the Borderland.

But the most part is disorganisation and laziness. Playtests were rushed, feedback was ignored, and the proofreading was sub-par and possibly done by someone with no appreciation of the 4E rules.

I've said before that as far as the current WOTC design team goes, they're vastly better at doing rule design and balancing than the people who worked on previous issues, but by and large they don't have half the imagination or creative writing skills of those who've gone before them.

TildeSee said...

Greg,

Chekov's Gun, being more a literary technique and less a truism, only applies if the point is a single plotline. Of course, given that your original post assumes there is one big and only plot, it's understandable that you'd assume it needs to apply here.

My point was more that the apparent intention was specifically not to provide a storyline, but rather to provide a backdrop for adventure to explain and build the world, therefore annulling the need for a payoff that the player's don't seek out themselves. Unless the PCs make a disjoining mission out of it, they're not picking a fight with Orcus, or Yeenoghu, or Torog or whoever. In the course of their generic dogoodery and/or adventure for the sake of wanderlust, which the D&D brand is famous for assuming (but as always YMMV), they come across minor cults dedicated to higher dark powers. Nothing powerful enough that it's picking a fight with the gods (princes of darkness, etc) themselves, just run of the mill, mortal-run mortal-powered cults.

Again, I'm just making a case for the point that the lack of an over-arching story isn't a design failure, it's in fact a point of the design. A feature, not a bug, as it were.

Taken not as a grand story and more as "gazetteer of the realm in adventure form" or "Frohmer's Guide to the Nentir Vale and surrounding monstrous lands" it accomplishes everything it appears at face value to attempt.

Certainly a plot can be strung together with the slave hunt and Paldemar's stumbling rise and fall, but it's the bug, not the other way around. The possibility for a plot is an addendum, and contrariwise to the "story is king" point of view, I find it comforting. It's what D&D does well.

Of course, D&D does whatever your want it to well. You get out what you put in :)

TildeSee said...

Sorry, just adding on here.

The other part of it that I otherwise forgot to mention is that the fight they start here is the fight they end here. It's not fighting the Over Evils themselves, it's fighting the cults. Small, disparate cults that don't need to be connected to anything more epic than the small bit of evil they're attempting to accomplish in the world. You stop them here, that's it for them, they don't have superiors. Small, hometown payoffs.

Anyway, I may only be making half sense, since I'm so tired, so I'll leave it at that.

Greg Tannahill said...

@Tildesee - Okay, I get where you're coming from and I accept that if you see Thunderspire Labyrinth as a setting rather than an adventure there's absolutely no problem.

I just don't think that's a reasonable expectation of the module. It covers a set level range and its main encounters are sequenced. It's specifically billed as an "adventure". It's not unreasonable to expect a beginning, middle, and end, and for those elements that are strongly highlighted along the main spine to be either resolved or at the very least attended to through "expanding this encounter" or "what next?" sidebars.

It's simply bad DMing to introduce a themed villain (most notably Baphomet, who gets rubbed in your face every five seconds during the Well of Demons) and then not let players score a meaningful victory against that villain. It's such a simple matter to put a "guardian of Baphomet" at the end of the Well to cap that off, or have a "Spawn of Torog" helping out the hobgoblins in the Chamber, and they're both things that would provide the bare minimum of closure on the sub-plots that are started by the themes of those two areas.

Falke said...

Very well put TildeSee, I really like your thoughts on having low-level PC's do random good stuff, and then, as they become more significant, the plot becomes more focused.

Greg Tannahill said...

To put it another way, my concern is this:

Imagine a modern day campaign, where you're playing cops, and you come across a drug smuggling ring. And the drug smuggling ring get busted and the leader says, "Yeah, we did it all on the orders of Robo-Hitler. He's big on starting the Fourth Reich."

And the players say, "Wait, what? Robo-Hitler?" And the DM says, "Oh, that's not important. You beat the smugglers. Robo-Hitler is foiled this day." And then the DM never brings up Robo-Hitler again.

That's bad DMing. Robo-Hitler shouldn't have been mentioned. It would have been sufficient to defeat drug smugglers who were just drug smugglers.

Likewise in Thunderspire, the hobgoblins could just be in "an abandoned minotaur temple" and the gnolls could be just "gnoll looters". It's the odd specificity that's at fault, where a larger story is suggested but not followed through on. It doesn't need to be a whole set of encounters - just a "But what about Torog?" sidebar with the seeds of future adventures. Or even a character back in the Seven-Pillared Hall to congratulate them on finding the ancient shrine of Torog so it can now be rededicated, or preserved for history, or whatever.

TildeSee said...

I can certainly agree that "But what about Torog" style sidebars would have been an excellent addition.

Your last response there might've worked a smidge better with an obscure Catholic or Protestant cult reference, or even a Third and a Half Reich reference (D&D related pun not intended. just funny anyway), just to lend it better credence anyway.

In finality, I can certainly agree overall that there are sore constructional problems with H2. IT did certainly fail to pull of the sandbox style adventuring level 4-7 adventuring that it so wanted to be. They probably should've just gone with a plot arc. They're simpler. Ish.

DBB said...

I agree that 4E is much better balanced than any previous edition - in fact, I think it is balanced so tight the rules are like a straight jacket. It makes things so simple and limited in leveling up that there isn't much for players to do - that's a big reason why my gaming group won't play it (I go over this in great detail on my blog, so I won't repeat it here).

I don't think this is because the new designers are better at balance - I think the lack of tight balance in previous editions is a basic feature of D&D. The 3E folks didn't balance as tightly because to do so would have changed things too much to the point where it wouldn't feel like D&D.

doubleofive said...

@Greg

Yeah, I wrote up an expository rant by Paldemar, replacing whatever it was on the pad to get into the final temple, like a hologram message. He comes off more as a Bond villain, but my players do like Bond. I may have to do Paldemar so he sounds like Christopher Walken in that case...

FalconGK81 said...

@doubleofive I lol'd at the thought of running Paldemar in a Christopher Walken way. I just may do that!

Bryant said...

About the right number of dark gods if you're planning on using Thunderspire Mountain as a megadungeon and running adventures down there all the way to epic tier.

Way too many dark gods if it's a way point between H1 and H3.

Huh. It really is an intro megadungeon, now that I think about it. It has all the right characteristics, up to and including other adventuring groups. Small ones, but they're there!

Colmarr said...

For what it's worth, my group just finished the Horned Hold, and we didn't even realise that the Grimmerzhul were alligned to a specific god, let alone that Murkelmor was a paladin.

While the Chamber of Eyes had clear religious overtones, the Horned Hold seemed almost agnostic.

Greg Tannahill said...

@Colmarr - Well that's probably because you don't get a chance to talk with Murkelmor. Like I've said before, all the flavour in the world doesn't help if the PCs don't have a reasonable way of learning it.