Saturday, August 22, 2009

Winterhaven Revisited

A mini-post, for Saturday:

Between my writing here, the several games of Keep on the Shadowfell I've played in or run, and the discussion I've had about it on forums, I feel like I know Winterhaven pretty well by now.

Which makes it very odd to see Winterhaven rendered artistically from the original KoTS map and find it recognisable. Like it's a place that actually existed, and that I've been to.

Some of you, I know, are already well acquainted with D&D Doodles - particularly its author Crazyred, who's an Eleven Foot Pole reader! Somehow Crazyred's failed to heavily promote his site here at EFP so I'll do it for him. All of you who haven't been there before, go give it a quick click.

Relevantly to the focus of Eleven Foot Pole, D&D Doodles features an awesome series of Nentir-vale related sketch art and maps. They do a great job of bringing 4th Edition's "default setting" to life and making it seem like a real place that people live in. If you've not seen it before, go and check out his Winterhaven, his Fallcrest, and the wealth of other excellent doodling and cartography that's on display.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Hall of Howling Pillars

There's not much to say about this encounter so I'll keep it brief.

The Hall of Howling Pillars is a straightforward ambush. Players need to get their hands on the bell of fury's calling, located on an altar in the southeast, but they're obstructed by (a) the "howling pillars", which are horrific columns of living, tortured flesh that scream (and vomit) at adventurers who disturb their domain, and (b) a pack of carnage demons hidden with the pillars.

When the PCs get near the altar, the carnage demons emerge from their hiding spots and a battle ensues.

I actually ran this one wrong; I had the demons emerge too early, allowing the PCs to pick them off in pairs, so I've got no real feel for how it works when used as intended.

Probably the most interesting aspect, mechanically speaking, of this encounter is the bell itself. All of the items hidden in the rooms around the Proving Grounds are in some way cursed, and the curses tie into the themes of rage and madness that underlie the history of Saruun Khel. It's interesting in that cursed magical items, although part of a long tradition of D&D, have been removed from 4th Edition, and to some extent Thunderspire is going to lengths here to re-introduce them.

The intention of the 4th Edition rules is that magical items are always beneficial. Their usefulness varies, but you're never worse off as a result of finding them. And so the cursed items in Thunderspire follow that idea. Each of the three items has a horrible drawback, but it's balanced out by a compensating benefit.

For example, the bell of fury's calling has a handle covered with terrible spikes. Ringing it causes the wielder to take 2d10 damage. Everyone who hears the sound goes into a mad frenzy, causing their defences to lower but their attack and damage rolls to enjoy a healthy +2 bonus. It's a vicious item and players have to think carefully about the trade-offs involved.

I actually really enjoy this approach to magic item design. These kind of "cursed items" really convey a sense of the risks involved in dabbling with magic, and I'd love to see sacrifice/buff items explored further in Adventurer's Vault supplements. Like all min/maxing items there's very real potential balance issues involved but judging by what we've seen so far of the Adventurer's Vault 2, item balance is clearly not something that troubles the developers, so we can at least hope for broken items that are cool.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009


Here's the thing: when the players win, the DM doesn't lose.

The second of Baphomet's tests is called the Hall of the Crimson Whip, and it features one of the most memorable environments in Thunderspire Labyrinth - a lake of blood watched over by two mammoth statues of whip-wielding minotaurs.

Two podiums at the far side of the lake hold the haft and blade of the bloodhorn blade, one of the four items players will need to cross the Proving Grounds. There's no obvious way to get to the podiums without walking into the creepy red pools.

It's an obvious trap. Players know they're going to get screwed; the excitement is in finding out how. It's going to involve the statues, and probably the blood itself. Players are asked, essentially, to bet on how they think the trap is going to work, with a good guess allowing them to minimise the damage they take when it springs.

As it turns out, stepping into the blood, or putting so much as a foot on the walkway that divides the chamber in two, springs the surprise. The two statues pivot at the waist so as to strike practically everyone in the room - if they hit they do damage, knock the target prone, and slide them into the blood. The blood itself deals damage to any non-humans who are immersed in it, and to make matters worse there are three evistros (carnage demons) hiding under the surface. The evistros deal bonus damage in the blood pool and get massive buffs for hunting as a pack.

It's a vicious trap and it doesn't get better once the bloodhorn blade has been retrieved - at that point, the blood starts to drain from the chamber, creating a tide carrying everything in it to the west - that is, away from the exit.

This is a good encounter; it's an excellent example of a trap with character and menace and it's probably going to be one of the most memorable bits of the module. You should look forward to this one.

My guys, though, neutered it.

I don't often mix the anecdotes of my personal game with the general analysis of the encounter, but I think it's worth the time here. When my group got to this encounter, they correctly guessed that stepping into the blood would be bad news. So our Eladrin Fighter, Alcarian, put on his boots of water walking and took a casual stroll across the surface of the lake to get the blade.

The trap still triggered; it went off when he got to the walkway. But high Fighter defenses allowed him to avoid the statues' attacks, and the rest of the party were safe in the doorway. The evistros were unable to catch him and pin him down, and with the aid of some double moves, his fey step, and a dose of luck, he scooped up the magical items and hightailed it to the door without taking so much as a scratch.

My first reaction was to be immensely frustrated. A combination of factors had come together to let the group skip one of Thunderspire's best moments. But it was a bad reaction.

Alcarian didn't shortcut the encounter by dumb luck or by abusing some inherently broken mechanic. He did it by using an otherwise underpowered magical item that he'd earned through combat, together with the iconic strength of his class (Fighter high AC) and race (Eladrin fey step). In other words, he did the job he'd specifically built his character to do. That's a huge success for him both as a player and as a character, and it's a more memorable victory for him than any amount of evistro-killing would have been.

Sometimes breaking an encounter can be more satisfying for a player than completing it as intended. Beating the system can be more memorable than mastering the system and when players earn a shortcut, giving them the benefit of that will make everyone have a better game as a result.

My guys earned their shortcut here. But for everyone else, let me know how this one went for you, won't you?

Tuesday, August 18, 2009


I'm having a very busy real-life week which isn't leaving a lot of time for blogging, but so you don't all just assume I've died, here's some loose thoughts, which I'm sorry don't fit well into the overall scheme of the blog. Some of them barely rise above reconstituted news.

Dark Sun in 2010

* Wizards have announced the 2010 campaign setting for D&D as being Dark Sun. I was hoping for Dragonlance, but Dark Sun still excites me a lot more than Eberron or the Realms.

For those not familiar, Dark Sun is a kind of post-apocalyptic setting of barren deserts, slavery and dead gods, where each and every use of magic makes the world die just a little bit more. Metal's rare and psionics are common and just surviving the environment is every bit as much of a challenge as defeating its inhabitants.

Designer James Wyatt says he "felt it was time to show the breadth of what’s possible in the game, just what a broad swathe D&D’s kind of fantasy can cover." That's a noble sentiment, and it's entirely possible that 4th Edition's going to step up to the plate. There could even now be an evolution taking place as the ruleset ripens into a fuller and more mature incarnation.

On the other hand, I can't help but feel they're setting themselves up to demonstrate how essentially weak 4th Edition's non-combat mechanics are, and how little the combat balance is able to withstand mathematical tinkering. Still, better to try and fail than never try at all, I suppose.

Storytelling and the Dungeon Master's Guide 2

* The Dungeon Master's Guide 2 has a whole chapter devoted to storytelling, and the surprise is that it's not merely competent but actually rather good. The kind of D&D For Dummies nuts-and-bolts approach of the first (deeply lacking) DMG holds up surprisingly well when applied to things that are worth saying. The fusion of creativity and connect-the-dots formulaism it uses actually ends up bringing something new and interesting to the discussion.

It sounds like the DMG 2 could be a book worth buying. Let's keep our fingers crossed.

Item Sets and Peer Pressure

* Can encouraging teamwork go too far? The idea of your success or failure resting not just on your own actions but those of your allies is great for building party cohesion and social bonds, but when your survival is dependant on someone else's actions it gives you an investment in their decisions. Anyone who's ever been pressured into playing a healbot just because no-one else wants to run one understands this principle.

Adventurer's Vault 2 takes it a step further with "group sets" - collections of magic items that give you bonuses based on how many allies are also wielding items from the set. It's the sort of thing that tickles me as a player - it's just kind of cool - but it's possibly not so good when you're at the less confident end of the player pool. The sets generate a mechanical pressure to wield weapons that are suboptimal or just plain not fun in order to "fit in" and help out your buddies; that's not, ideally, a choice a player should be asked to make, and I can't help but feel that this kind of design is the start of a slippery slope.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Hall of Enforced Introspection

I give these modules a lot of grief for not making sense. Thunderspire has more than its fair share of contrived plots, half-baked schemes and unlikely scenarios.

But at the end of the day, if the game is fun, nobody cares whether it makes sense.

That's a philosophy that's fuelled many classic D&D dungeons. It's led to magnetic ceilings, antigravity rooms, frictionless corridors, and such ridiculous-but-wonderful creatures as the rust monster, mimic, and gelatinous cube. To a large extent it's the core of traditional D&D - finding bizarre solutions to improbably deadly conundrums.

It's not something that either Keep on the Shadowfell or Thunderspire Labyrinth have embraced until now. They've hovered in the middle, presenting encounters that are ludicrous, yet not fun. The Proving Grounds, though, is where Thunderspire finds its old-school form.

This encounter is the Hall of Enforced Introspection, one of the tests of Baphomet that players must overcome as a precursor to facing the Guardian. It's an L-shaped room that players enter from the south, with an altar in the northwest that holds the Face of Baphomet. The Face is a cursed mask, one of the four items the players need to complete the Proving Grounds.

The catch is that the room is littered with columns, and each column is plated with mirrors. The mirrors are magical, and have a variety of effects. At the start of each player's turn they are "attacked" by a mirror; a successful "attack" means they've glanced into the mirror and are subject to its effects.

The mirrors nearest the entryway and the altar are teleportation mirrors; looking into one teleports you to its twin. This means that characters can travel straight from the doorway to the altar and seize the mask - but there's two catches. The first is that the altar is guarded by a pair of vicious Boneshard Skeletons, more than capable of ripping apart any adventurer unlucky enough to encounter them without backup. The second is that, of course, the mirrors are two-way, and the character who teleported to the altar on his first turn will be yanked back to the entrance again on his second. (This makes for a cruel surprise for characters who navigate the mirrors the hard way, only to be sent back to the start just as they reach their goal.)

The second variety of mirror is a more traditional trap. It's called a "draining mirror" and simply does a big dose of necrotic damage to its unlucky victims. The players, by the way, can avoid all these mirrors just by closing their eyes - although that leaves them blinded and offering combat advantage to the Boneshards, which has its own problems.

It's the third type of mirror which makes the encounter memorable - while at the same time being its biggest weakness. The "trapping mirror" transports anyone it "hits" to a demiplane known as the Oubliette of the Empty Mind. It's a small room with no exits; there's no way to get out from the inside. The room's only feature is a gnoll, who got trapped here when Maldrick tackled the tests and is now starving and half-mad.

Being trapped in a confined space with a hungry gnoll sounds like an exciting scenario on paper but in practice it's deeply dull. One-on-one combats don't work well in 4th Edition, largely because neither combatant has any real reason to move. The fight boils down to a series of flavourless attack and damage rolls and it's hard to hide the fact that the gnoll is only here as busywork for adventurers luckless enough to get trapped.

The real problem is if three or more of the party get hit by the trapping mirrors. Without enough heroes remaining active in the "real world", defeating the Boneshards can be extremely difficult (especially given they detonate with a damaging area-of-effect attack when bloodied, and again when killed). The only way to free those trapped is by triggering an indentation on the altar, which isn't easy while locked in combat with the undead. Unlucky rolls can make this encounter end with dead PCs and some or all of the party trapped forever in an extradimensional prison.

(The module, to its credit, suggests that if the PCs do become completely trapped, Maldrick's gnolls may eventually release them to interrogate them. By that time the captives will be dead and the Proving Grounds will be rendered moot. It's an ugly solution that undermines Thunderspire's few remaining strengths.)

The awkwardness of the Oubliette aside, this is an encounter that players seem to love. Mine had a blast - in fact they liked it more than I did - and in trawling the web for play write-ups it's one of the most commonly described (and enjoyed) encounters in the module.


Bearing in mind that this encounter works, so I don't really care:

How did Maldrick's gnolls beat this room without killing the Boneshards? Does the magic of the Proving Grounds regularly resurrect the skeletons, perhaps?

[2] It's a DC 15 Perception check to figure out how to use the altar to free those trapped in the Oubliette. Was Maldrick honestly so callous that he couldn't be bothered to press a button in order to save one of his troops?

[3] Not actually a question - but for those following along at home who are wondering why the holy items aren't with Maldrick, the module explains that they teleport back to their "home" rooms after being used to summon the Guardian. Convenient.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

The Slow Build

Here is something that the Well of Demons does well: building tension.

Without a doubt the best section of Thunderspire Labyrinth is the Proving Grounds. This is the central portion of the Well of Demons, intended to test potential worshippers of Baphomet before allowing them access to the inner sanctum. The Proving Grounds is essentially an extended lock-and-key puzzle consisting of a total of five encounters and culminating in an epic battle with a green dragon.

Thunderspire knows that the Proving Grounds is good. It knows that fighting a dragon on its home turf should be a big thing. And so it finally does what it should have been doing all along: it gives us a little showmanship.

The module introduces us to the Proving Grounds end-first. The very first part of the puzzle that the players see is the conclusion - the massive purpose-built arena in which they'll end up fighting the dragon. Of course, at this stage they don't know about the dragon, and very fact that such a massive and complex area is apparently unoccupied is both ominous and foreboding. There are a number of deep holes, a looping corridor with disturbing grooves in the floor, and other odd features such as glowing pools of liquid and ruined statues; players have another four encounters before they see how it all works and that's plenty of time for their imaginations to hype the area into a killing floor of unmatched ferocity.

The first of the four preliminary encounters is one of Thunderspire's rare non-combat moments. Shortly after beginning to explore the Proving Grounds, the players come across the ghosts of a group of past adventurers who failed Baphomet's test. The three ghosts are essentially good guys, and are willing to share some information if they feel the PCs are equally motivated by unselfish goals.

The ghosts aren't exactly wacky Ghostbusters-esque spirits. They're ever so slightly more gritty. Each of the trio bear the marks of their death - one's head is crushed by the dragon's jaws, one's features are deformed by the dragon's breath, and the third has his torso rended by giant draconic claws. Throughout the encounter no one says the word "dragon" or reveals the nature of the Guardian, but the clues are there for players to begin harbouring some suspicions. It's great for players to see three competent heroes who have already failed at the task the PCs are attempting, and it builds the reputation of the climactic encounter well before its nature is even revealed.

As-written, interacting with the ghosts involves a skill challenge, with the ghosts interrogating the players and the players attempting to show their good intentions. I've never been a fan of the skill challenge mechanic and it's as clumsy as ever here. Rolling on Diplomacy, Bluff, and Insight seems appropriate, but, realising that that would leave one player doing all the talking, the designers have added extra skills. Players must roll Athletics to flex and pose for the pleasure of the martial ghost; Arcana to please the magical ghost with random trivia; but apparently not Religion for the paladin, presumably because Divine characters tend to come with Diplomacy as a class skill and will already have enough to do.

Personally I threw the mechanical element out the door and roleplayed it but I guess that's dependant on how entertaining you find skill challenges.

Here's what the ghosts reveal: to pass the Proving Grounds and progress to the inner sanctum, players must open the gate at the south-eastern end of the test. Doing so requires finding four holy artifacts of Baphomet and laying them simultaneously on the four holy circles scattered around the central complex. When the items are in position, the gate will begin opening and the Guardian will emerge to administer the final test.

One of the items is the Book of Wrath Unveiled which players have already liberated from the gnolls; the other three items are in the three rooms adjacent to the central arena. Each room contains a test that players must pass to secure the relevant artifact.

So this is the Proving Grounds - a slow and ominous exploration of the central arena, a conversation with ghosts, and then three gimmick-focused tests leading to a climactic brawl. This is a near-perfect example of how to build a satisfying traditional D&D dungeon, and how to manipulate pacing to have players genuinely excited about finding out what happens next. They'll be straining at the bit to try themselves against the Guardian, and thankfully Thunderspire - finally - doesn't disappoint.


Actually, according to the printed text, the ghosts do reveal the Guardian is a dragon, if players get enough successes in the skill challenge. But it's such a vastly better set-piece if they don't that I'm exercising a kind of willful blindness. It's obvious enough from the injuries that there's a dragon involved; spelling it out in words just seems so crass.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Friends Like These

Building an encounter in 4th Edition requires more than just slapping some level-appropriate monsters together and calling it a success.

We've seen an example of an encounter built around the theme of "grabbing", where focused design made a creature team-up more than the sum of its parts. Here we see the other side of the coin, where theoretically competent enemies are just unable to work together to present a credible threat.

The through-line for the Well of Demons is the gnoll Maldrick Scarmaker. He's keen on re-dedicating the Well to the gnoll deity Yeenoghu, and to that end he's left a bunch of his troops guarding the entrance rooms of the Well while pressing on to the Inner Sanctum with his best men.

This encounter represents the last of Maldrick's "entrance guard"; a gnoll "demonic scourge" stationed at an old shrine to Baphomet. The Scourge has a pet Barlgura in the adjacent chamber, and when combat inevitably ensues, the two will join forces.

I mentioned before that the designers didn't seem to be aware of how Barlguras work. They're heavy hitters with a long reach and weak defences; like any glass cannon they need a competent defender ally in order to do their job. The Scourge isn't a defender; in fact, it's another brute. The two enemies have a lot of damage output between them but no way of staying alive long enough to make use of it.

What's more, the most memorable special ability of both the Scourge and the Barlgura is an ally buff. The Barlgura gives all allies in burst 5 a to-hit buff when it goes bloodied; the Scourge gets a damage bonus when it has at least two adjacent allies, and can give up to two adjacent allies a free melee attack when it manages to bloody an enemy.

As a pair of individual monsters, the Barlgura and the Scourge are totally wasted. They don't have enough allies to maximise their buffs, and barring the possibility of some very lucky rolls they're not going to stay alive long enough to knock anyone into the bloodied range, let alone provide a real threat.

There is a wildcard in the fight. The room also features two tieflings, who are here to trick the gnolls out of some unspecified "items and lore" that the gnolls have found in the Well. They're opportunists, and if the fight starts going badly for the PCs they'll help the gnolls, but it won't, which leaves them sitting on the sidelines.

After the fight, there's an opportunity for the PCs to ally with the tieflings, whose names are Azkelak and Katal. The tieflings are wearing black, are hanging out with gnolls apparently of their own free will, and didn't come to the players' aid during the battle. It's a foolish party who trusts these two (even without the magical lie-detector of a good Insight roll), and indeed the Tieflings will stab the PCs to death in their sleep if given the opportunity.

My players took the uncharacteristically unheroic step of cutting the tieflings down where they stood; a quick search of play write-ups of the Well suggests they're not alone. A long history of traitorous NPCs, starting with Ninaran in Keep on the Shadowfell and continuing on to Terlen Darkseeker in Thunderspire, might leave players rightfully intolerant of suspicious adventurers claiming to be their friends.

The encounter's at least necessary. After turning the occupants of this area into corpses, players are free to take The Book of Wrath Unveiled, a holy text of Baphomet which is one of four items the players will eventually need to enter the Inner Sanctum and confront Maldrick.


How did the tieflings get past the phalagar and its friends? The gnolls can claim safety in numbers, but surely the tieflings should have been eaten alive?

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Minimum Threat

I think the statblock for the Barlgura changed between Thunderspire Labyrinth being conceived and typeset.

There's a couple of reasons for that belief; one is that the writers don't seem to know how 4th Edition Barlguras work, mechanically. The other is that they put a lone Barlgura up against a five-man party.

Barlguras, for those not aware, are a type of brutish low-level demon. They're a natural fit to a location called the "Well of Demons" and indeed they feature throughout the area.

The Well of Demons utilises a system of random encounters, much like the ones I've described earlier. Rather than providing interesting sidequests, these encounters are designed to discourage adventurers from slowing down while assaulting the Well. The Well works best when it's blown through in only two harrowing adventuring days, and the random encounters are a rather clumsy way of expressing that.

It works like this: you roll on the table each time the adventurers take a rest, whether short or extended, and apply the resulting events. Consequences range from the spooky (ghostly minotaurs haunt the players) through to the disturbing (a rift opens to the Abyss), with a dash of the oddly helpful (a quasit shows up and offers to answer the party's questions in exchange for cash).

One of the encounters is a lone Barlgura.

The Barlgura is a level 8 brute. It's got a lot of HP and it hits hard, but it's got a very narrow range of attack options, isn't very mobile, and has defences that would look poor on a monster two levels lower.

A fight against a lone Barlgura goes like this: the defender tanks the Barlgura, and then everyone else drops their highest damage encounter power into it. It lasts a maximum of two rounds and doesn't move or do anything interesting. It gets two attacks a round, each of which is at a less than 50% chance of hitting a level 6 defender's AC, for a maximum of 62 damage if all four crit, or a more likely output of about 20 damage if two hits land and do average damage.

The average damage over its lifespan is only slightly higher than a healing surge, and that's assuming it doesn't roll badly and the PCs don't drop dailies.

In short, the Barlgura doesn't reach the minimum threat level - it's simply not capable of costing the PCs any meaningful resources that won't renew at the end of the enccounter. Rather than actually running the combat, the DM is better off just asking players to describe how they think the fight is going to go, and letting them off unscathed providing they describe an awesome enough battle.

Minimum threat is something 4E struggles with. The line between a weak encounter and a pointless one is very fine. Smart, optimised parties can find same-level battles so trivial as to be dull. Newer groups or ones with deliberately gimped builds will often struggle with those same encounters. It causes problems for module writers - how do you write an encounter that challenges a good party without making it a TPK for a more casual group?

It's not a question that Thunderspire has good answers to.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Treasure Parcels

4th Edition has new treasure rules.

The days of rolling up random treasure hoards are over; under the new regime the words "Treasure Type S" are gibberish. 4th Edition uses treasure parcels.

The treasure parcel system described on pages 125 and 126 of the Dungeon Master's Guide turns assigning level-appropriate loot into simple maths. You break your entire campaign down into chunks of ten encounters. Every ten-encounter chunk has ten associated treasure parcels. Treasure parcels range from a level-plus-four magic item at the top end down to a measly handful of gold at the bottom end. The parcels might get handed out one after each encounter, or they might bunch up with none in one encounter and two in the next, but presuming players are at least industrious enough to search the room after each encounter they'll walk away with a predictable amount of treasure after completing all ten challenges.

The magic number of "ten" in relation to treasure parcels isn't random; that's how many encounters it's expected to take characters to level up in 4th Edition. A standard level-appropriate encounter gives out one-tenth the XP necessary for a five-man party to gain a level.

A ten-encounter treasure parcel spread for five players contains four magic items, and exactly enough cash to buy two more, providing they're level-appropriate. That has a couple of implications. First, a character can expect to gain roughly one new non-consumable magic item per level. Secondly, because items become obsolete within (roughly) five levels, players should expect at any time to be wearing no more than five or six items of level-appropriate gear. That's an issue, because there's nine equippable item slots.

Luckily, some items never go out of style. Acrobat boots, which let you stand from prone as a minor action, become available at level 2 and are thoroughly useful all the way to level 30. Gauntlets of the ram are the best hand-slot item for a character focused on forced movement from level 8 all the way to endgame (on a Malediction Invoker their property can trigger as often as four times a turn); for everyone else, the (deeply broken) antipathy gloves are ridiculously good.

These non-scaling powers are a bit depressing. Once a character gets a solid pair of boots that won't become obsolete they can afford to snub their nose at anything else for that slot that comes along, selling it for cash and buying the latest edition of their weapon-of-choice instead.

How then, does Thunderspire Labyrinth treat the treasure parcel system? Simply put, it ignores it.

Possibly treasure parcels came late in the 4E development cycle; possibly the authors never got the memo. Thunderspire gives out loot exactly as often as it feels like it, which is roughly never, and takes a perverse pleasure in ensuring that sums of cash are never divisible by five. While it's not quite as bad as Pyramid of Shadows (which seems to contain nothing but Wizard loot), the treasure in Thunderspire Labyrinth also suffers from being overly specific. There's nothing like telling your players they've found a +3 item, watching their faces light up, and then adding that it's a weapon that none of them wields.

Monday, August 3, 2009

The Pig And The Practice Hall

The Seven-Pillared Hall plays home to several subterranean trading cartels; one of them is the Deepgem Company, owned by the dwarven cleric Ulthand Deepgem.

Recently one of Ulthand's mining expeditions was slaughtered by unknown assailants, and their beast of burden - a dire boar Ulthand had raised as a family pet from childhood - was stolen. A lesser dwarf would want revenge on the monsters that killed his friends and employees but Ulthand will settle for having his pig returned. It's a quest he's not shy handing out to anyone who asks him about the glowing yellow exclamation mark above his head.

Ulthand's boar has, in fact, been captured by gnolls. It's not clear why the gnolls would kill a dwarven mining expedition but leave their (clearly dangerous) pack beast alive, but they have, and the boar now serves as a target in a cruel kind of gnoll archery practice.

Players entering the Practice Hall find the boar penned into a crude enclosure, surrounded by hyenas. Gnoll archers hiding behind a clumsy barricade take turns firing stinging arrows into its side.

There's a wonderful kind of double standard at play here. It's unclear whether the module designers really thought this one through but the dialogue they're expecting from players must run along the lines of, "Animal cruelty! That's awful! Let's bash the skulls of these hyenas in so that we can free that poor pig!"

We'd probably better assume that pigs are more endearing animals than hyenas and move along to the combat. There's an oddity here created by the battlemap. Obviously the major terrain feature is the barricade separating the gnolls from the players (who enter from the north end of the map). Getting into melee with the gnolls seems to require charging and climbing over the barricade.

What's not shown on the battlemap is a corridor linking the doors in the northeast with the doors in the southeast. Players leaving the map at the north end can take a leisurely stroll through the adjacent tunnels and ambush the gnolls from behind, driving them up against their own barricade and easily defeating them.

It's a good example of how what the DM chooses to depict or not depict on a battlemap can focus players' thinking in unrealistic ways. DMs need to remember that players aren't operating in a perfectly rational universe; they're vastly guided by the way DMs present the game, and by altering that presentation DMs can alter players' actions.

In any case once the gnolls and their hyenas are dead, players are left with the issue of the boar. It's half-mad from the abuse it's suffered and if players want to get it back to Ulthand and complete the sidequest they'll need to calm it down. Doing so involves the horrible skill challenge mechanic but neverthless it's the kind of thing I wish Thunderspire had more of. It's a dramatic change of pace from the tactics and room-clearing we've had up until now and it appeals to types of player who Thunderspire has previous overlooked.

If players are successful with the skill challenge they end up with a dire boar following them around. That's awesome. There's a problem, though - the remainder of the Well of Demons is ill-suited to the presence of a large nervous animal. Player are either going to have to chain the boar up in one of these entry rooms, turn around and take it back to the Seven-Pillared Hall, or play the remainder of the dungeon with a noisy ill-tempered wildcard at their side.

Notes and Improvements:

[1] The barricade used by the gnolls is, as-written, hay bales. Really? Hay? What, did they import that from the surface just in case they happened to steal a dire boar? I'm not a farmer, but do pigs even eat hay? It doesn't make sense and you should probably change it to either loose rubble or broken furniture.

[2] The flavour text for the room contains a troubling detail - murals show minotaurs fighting other minotaurs, and the text makes a point of emphasising the minotaurs are unarmed. Knowing the Labyrinth's backstory it's clearly just intended as history but it's irrelevant history. Players, assuming they wouldn't be shown something like this unless it was in some way relevant, may be inclined to think going unarmed is the solution to a future puzzle. It's not, and you should probably take the time to make that clear here.

[3] The Dire Boar is not just a monster, it's also a mount. Players with the relevant feat to unlock a mount's special abilities will discover the Dire Boar's mount power is the awesome furious charge - an eight square charge dealing 1d10+9 damage, pushing the target two squares and knocking them prone, and following up with a further 1d10+9 gore attack. It's a great way of demonstrating how useful mounts can be, so if no-one in the party has the relevant feat DMs may wish to give players who choose to ride the boar a "freebie", allowing them to try out the furious charge for one battle as a kind of introduction to the mount rules.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Keep on the Shadowfell Maps

I don't normally post on a Sunday, so as to save my work for when people are actually reading, but seeing as people seemed to appreciate being linked to the Prince of Undeath conversion, I thought it wouldn't hurt to direct you to some other resources for the H series modules.

For today it's Loyd Blankenship's fantastic battlemaps for Keep on the Shadowfell, based on the originals by Mike Schley. These are remakes of the printed maps, with the monsters, traps and secret doors helpfully cleaned off, leaving them ready to be printed off for use at your next game or imported into MapTool or other virtual tabletops.

It's just the Keep - for the kobolds, the burial site and the interludes you'll have to use the poster maps included with the published module. If you bought the original PDF or downloaded the free one you're out of luck.

The links all point to Loyd's threads on the Cartographer's Guild forums. The first floor of the Keep is here (encounters 1 to 5), here (encounters 6 to 8), and here (9 to 12), and the second level of the Keep is here.

Naturally, you're all well and truly done with Keep by now and these are of no use to you. But just in case - enjoy!

Eleven Foot Pole at the July RPG Blog Carnival

Just a quick note to let you know my post "No Roll To Hit: Rationale" is featured in the July 2009 RPG Blog Carnival over at 6d6 Fireball. This month's carnival was on the theme "Dungeons & Dragons" and I have to say I only realised it was on in the last couple of days of the month.

As a result, "No Roll To Hit" isn't the article I would have written to deliberately address the carnival, but (as of today) 69 comments on it seem to suggest you guys found it at least a little bit interesting.

Thanks again to all you fantastic readers of Eleven Foot Pole!

While we're here - I know through the magic of analysis tools that the vast majority of you read Eleven Foot Pole through its RSS feed. So if you're someone who doesn't often visit the actual site, can I suggest you take the time to come by occasionally and vote in the polls? Also, it's incredibly cool seeing all those friendly faces looking out of the Google Friend Connect window so if you have an OpenID compatible identity (pretty much anything these days, most notably Blogger, Wordpress, LiveJournal, Gmail and Yahoo), take the time to sign up as a Follower and add your avatar to the growing horde!

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Gnoll Barracks

Look, gnolls aren't a bad monster, but putting them next to demons just doesn't do them any favours.

Unless the DM has been making a lot of use of the random encounter table, the Gnoll Barracks will be the players' first run-in with Maldrick Scarmaker's gnolls. It features a gnoll huntmaster and his pack of hyenas. Gnolls being a kind of unpleasant hyena-man, it's a natural match-up. There's a couple of gnoll brutes thrown in for good measure.

There's nothing wrong with this encounter. It's a pefectly by-the-numbers dungeon scuffle. There's some humanoids who need killing, and the players kill them.

The sin is only that players have been here before. It's an identical set-up to any number of battles both in Keep on the Shadowfell and earlier in Thunderspire Labyrinth. You could replace the gnolls with goblins, hobgoblins or duergar and nobody would notice.

Compared to the memorable and imaginative encounters elsewhere in the Well of Demons, this is the ugly stepsister. Hurry through it; there's better coming.


[1] Not an improvement as such, as it's strongly suggested in the module itself, but the way to wring the most out of this encounter is by emphasising the flavour. The hyenas aren't just hyenas - they're vicious, hungry animals in an enclosed space. Their howls will echo up and down the stone corridors and be virtually deafening at close range. They should be, really, quite frightening. Of course, that doesn't change the fact that they're level 2 monsters in a level 6 encounter and there's a good chance of them falling over the first time someone breathes on them.