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?


sebmojo said...

Amusingly, my characters didn't blink an eye at Ninaran, and I managed to nearly whack the paladin when he met her for a secret discussion - and they still didn't suspect her!

In fact she led to an entirely awesome passage of play where she was:

A) Captured
B) Escaped, when the party mage got murdered (in 'the dead walk') by MINIONS
C) Got chased back to the Keep, in an impromptu skill challenge
D) Leapt over the (improvised) barriers, whereupon the party charged the barriers, murdered the shit out of the guards then blew them up and ran away.
E) Finally took her down while she was summoning up the ghost of Keegan's wife (a wraith, IIRC)

So - go Ninaran!

Vincent said...

Ninaran only works if the DM plays her less obvious than written in the module. If you go strictly by the book it isn't odd that players will immediately suspect the treacherous NPC's.

In my case no one truly figured out Ninaran until the rogue succeeded a perception check to see that she was missing a piece of clothing which looked similar in shape as to the note they had found in Irontooth's Lair. with some bluffing the rogue had enough information to get the rest of the party and hunt the half elf down.

I haven't played the parts after KoTS, but by reading GregT's blogs it seems the writers make the same mistakes with each module. This means that the DM's have a lot of work cut out for them to make the story plausible and the NPC's less obvious.

Maelora said...

I actually like the fact the monsters aren't located here just to compliment each other well. Seems more realistic, I guess. Even if 'Maldrick' is a lousy name for a gnoll chieftain. I bet he got teased in the lair. Why not just call him 'Petunia' and be done with it?

And while no sane PC in his right mind would trust the two tieflings, simply butchering them out of hand is a pretty evil thing to do. Are the party consistently portrayed as psychopaths? If not, a word about role-playing seems in order.

sebmojo said...

Vincent, I think what comes across from our experiences is that Ninaran actually isn't that obvious.

Possibly because the trope is 'fighting kobolds' at the beginning, so the idea of humans behind it all isn't established until much later?

hvg3 said...

>> How did the tieflings get past the phalagar and its friends?

stealth +15 vs Perceptions +2, +3, and +9? They wait until the Phalagar is busy eating another victim (brought in by the Tieflings), then carefully stealth past? :)

Colmarr said...

I must admit that when my group encounter the phalagar/chokers/ghould, I wondered how the hell the gnolls safely entered or left the Well.

Number don't seem the answer. An average PC group is 5 people and I doubt that the gnoll travel into and out of the well in 6+ numbers at all times.

If I had to come up with an answer, it would be something more basic such as that the phalagar/chokers/ghoul can't stand the stench of the gnolls and have no desire to eat them.

Presumably, the gnolls escorted the tieflings in.

Greg Tannahill said...

@Maelora - I was a bit taken aback by the Tiefling killing. But on the other hand dispatching the Tieflings makes a certain amount of sense; the party are racing the clock to save the captives from being sacrificed by Yeenoghu, they don't have the time to take prisoners and can't afford the risk, the Tieflings are consorting with the gnolls and did nothing to help the PCs when they were fighting for their lives, and when the Tieflings claimed to be trustworthy an Insight check revealed them to be lying.

It was a brutal solution and not one I encouraged but (given that the PCs are already regularly killing armed enemies in combat rather than knocking them out) given the narrow margins the PCs were working with it wasn't terrible.

Plus our ranger had a specific character background of hating slavers as a result of an attack by slavers on his childhood village; he'd already grouped the gnolls and their allies under the "slaver" banner so to some extent the viciousness was follow-through.

We've had a much more problematic situation in Pyramid of Shadows; I'm running that very differently to the past modules and players are only slowly adjusting to the idea of enemies that aren't wholly villainous, leading to some strange moral choices when it comes to Gharash and his gang.

@Colmarr - This isn't a regular gnoll hideout - they're here on a mission - so I assumed they all came together in one gang. There's, I think, about 10 of them all told still alive in the complex, plus hyenas and maybe a demon, and the implication that there might have been more who died while solving the Proving Grounds. So I figured they all marched in as one rowdy gang and the phalagar and friends decided this was a fight not worth picking. If nothing else Maldrick (when we get to him) is something of an abomination so possibly the monsters just sensed the taint of wrongness on him and stayed away.

Maelora said...

Hmm, okay. I guess if they were in league with the gnolls rather than just innocent bystanders, it's possible. Of course, this is the sort of thing that would have cost you a paladinhood back in earlier editions...

I'm very interested if you finally get around to Pyramid of Shadows. My impression of it was that it sets up some interesting situations (with all the various factions) but it does it badly, actively penalising the PCs for taking a diplomatic solution. I would very much like to hear your take on it when you get to that one.

GregT said...

@Maelora - we're running Pyramid now, although I've fairly heavily altered the tone and backstory of the pyramid itself. So far I'm personally finding it the best of the H series by a significant margin, although it's not without its share of problems. The "you'll need to ally with a faction in order to be able to rest" conceit is nice but could have been followed through on better, and it would have been nice if more of the factions were ambiguously grey rather than straight up evil or unlovably alien. I can't see any group teaming up with the Arboreans, for example.

Leftahead said...

Greg, et al-

I have to say that after all those humanoid encounters in the Hold, I pretty much just lopped off the entire gnoll section of the Well.

I had the hunters, a Scourge, and the hyenas holed up in the entrance room with the Boar, awaiting Maldrick and his retinue's return, and just hacked off the other redundant and boring gnoll encounters. And the tieflings? Yeah, when the party got ambushed by three of them just two games ago? Fool me once, shame on you, etc.

So the PCs only fought the gnolls twice: Once at the entrance, where they recovered the book, and in the final room, where I tossed all the demons and wrote in a gnoll band using some of the truly creepy specimens from the MM2.

The idea that it took a sizeable team of really tough gnolls to win through the Well made perfect sense to the PCs, who were fully expecting it without my having said anything to that effect.