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.

Questions:

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

[1]
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.

22 comments:

Emka said...

A perhaps more fun alternative to the Oubliette might be that the PCs are trapped inside the mirror, as a reflection of whoever stand before it.
This could be bolstered by having any player who looks into one such mirrors see himself as a Gnoll (the one who was left behind).

Given the limited amount of Oubliette mirrors, this would eliminate the risk of having all players trapped and 'zombiefying' the module as there will always be a PC around to find the release button.

Or perhaps one could smash the mirror, releasing the PCs but also all other unlucky creatures who were once trapped - a nice way out if the encounter turns out to be too easy perhaps?

*mind rambles on some more*: After getting trapped in the mirror, the PCs could end up in another, 'mirrored' version of the encounter, maybe even influencing the encounter in ways they didn't expect. This could be very hard for a DM to manage tho. But then again, it could be as simple as "damaging a skeleton in the mirror world heals it in the real world" and vice versa. Or using a healing surge would take away hp.
You could perhaps have the two encounters run in the same room, where the PCs don't immediately know about their mirrored conditions. That would cause some confusion if not chaos, no?

And hopefully, in the end, that would make this a very memorable encounter.

GregT said...

@Emka - Thanks for commenting! I like a good ramble, particularly when it's as interesting a brainstorm as this one!

I think the problem with one PC per mirror is the problem that the gnoll was intended to solve: that trapped PCs end up sitting out the fight, which equates to being sidelined for twenty to forty minutes of play. I'm not sure the limited mirrors is helpful, either, as even with PCs locked out of the mirrors/oubliette, the remaining PCs still have to successfully defeat the boneshards - not easy for a two-man team.

I like your mirror world setup, and I think that could be a great encounter. It would probably work better as a climax-level set-up rather than (as this one is) merely a stepping stone to a bigger fight.

nowiwantmydmg said...

I think I would still allow the trap mirrors, but I would probably allow for them to influence the battle somehow. Maybe they can change the angle of the mirror and try to reflect one of the "beams" from the other mirrors at the skeletons(basically causing the skeletons to see the reflection of one of the other types of mirrors)? Perhaps they can convince the gnoll to help them escape somehow(offering some food or healing might sate him for now)? Perhaps they can use their mirror to attempt to "suck in" the mask(and use/wear it to escape--possibly creating an interesting situation with the gnoll).

Limiting the trap mirror(s?) to one PC maximum is probably best(it only has space for two) to prevent a boneshard party wipe.

As a player I would probably just smash all of the mirrors as I walked through the room though (closed eyes and AOE's should do it)

FalconGK81 said...

"As a player I would probably just smash all of the mirrors as I walked through the room though (closed eyes and AOE's should do it)"

If you attack a mirror it gets to attack you first, even if your eyes are closed, to prevent the players from doing just that.

This encounter was excellent. 3 of my players got sucked into the Oubliette, but the two that were out were a cleric and a swordmage with a sword that deals radiant damage, so they were able to take care of the boneshards. I wish there had been more for the three trapped to do, but they all seemed to enjoy the encounter, so all's well that ends well.

Paul S said...

I like the mirror world idea. Particularly if the players are on the same map. (So Certain players end up mirrored with their attacks healing the boneshards ) There are some concerns and it involves a total rewrite of the encounter.

Obliette is too nice a word not to keep one in the encounter. Would it be better if each person to be sent their replaces the current occupant. To the rest of the party it becomes "As you see him glance over at the mirror, he becomes a starvation-thin gnoll who immediately attacks" - Which explains why there was still one inside, offers the prospect of trapping a skeleton, Lets you amuse the trapped player by having them "play" the gnoll (give him a whole new character sheet - you should be able to trust your players to play it). With any luck they will try and keep the gnoll alive (hoping to "turn him back" somehow)

One concern is that the party may do the same thing as the gnoll boss and leave one of their members trapped. Particularly if only one person has succumbed and they think it was a transportation rather than a transposition.

Paul S

nowiwantmydmg said...

"If you attack a mirror it gets to attack you first, even if your eyes are closed, to prevent the players from doing just that."

Besides the facts that it both makes nosense whatsoever and that it's railroading I haven't actually read the modules.

But why stifle a player if he wants to try it? I could see the mirror responding if attacked, but getting to attack first if attacked just seems like it's saying "this is how it is and no matter what you try that's how its going to be"--Boring, contrived and lame excuses to keep a railroad story on track are one thing, but it's one combat, who cares if it doesn't stay on the tracks.

Greg Tannahill said...

@FalconGK81 - The mirrors don't work on players who are blind or have their eyes closed; a blind player can smash all the mirrors he likes, providing he's willing to spend the time doing it while the boneshards are getting free attacks with combat advantage against him.

@Paul S - You're right that Oubliette is a lovely word; the players never get it in-character though - after all, who's there to tell them what the demiplane is called?

hvg3 said...

@Emka
I like the "one PC in the mirror" idea. It could be worked so that when the first PC is trapped, the gnoll is released. When the next PC is trapped, the first PC is released. And so forth.

That would explain why the gnoll was left in - the trap keeps one prisoner at all times. And they didn't find the release.

And, it would keep the PC from being out of the entire combat. Rather, it could lead to an injured PC seeking refuge in the mirror whilst freeing a trapped PC, and that could be interesting indeed! :)


Hah! And as I read on, I see that Paul S had the same idea! :D

16lettersonly said...

"At the start of each player's turn they are "attacked" by a mirror;"

Wouldn't it be, excuse the pun, blindingly easy to game the system if the mirrors only attack at the _start_ of a PC's turn? I assume opening and closing one's eyes is a free action, so just close eyes at start of turn (or during move action), then open them to attack/defend. The PCs shouldn't need to grant CA at all, or even "provoke" the mirrors after figuring out how they operate.

It may not be maximum fun, but if it works...

Greg Tannahill said...

@hvg3 - The encounter seems to be balanced to assume roughly two PCs will be out of the fight due to the Oubliette; any less, and the Boneshards are woefully outclassed. An easy fix if you went down that path would probably be to add a third Boneshard.

@16lettersonly - There's no discussion of what kind of action "closing your eyes" is; you're right that it's a (minor) as-written issue.

I played it as that you either have your eyes closed for your action or you don't, with no option to switch mid-turn. Another way to run it would be to alter the words "start of the turn" to "the first point in the turn during which the PC's eyes are open".

Oscar said...

My party hated this encouter, and so did I.

+13 vs. Reflex makes it really hard for the mirrors to miss the party, and then the member is trapped with no hope of escape to participate in this encounter.

Attacking the mirrors provokes attacks in return. That's the first thing the party's Warlock did was walk up and attack a mirror since it was pretty obvious they were "bad".

Rolling in initiative order, the party all moved within five squares of the trapping mirrors before the mirrors actually trapped anyone (except the Warlock). The entire party got trapped.

Then, when the "rest of the gonlls", which means when the gnolls I rolled up because there are no gnolls left, come to release the PCs, do they... destroy or cover up the mirrors before they do? Because that fight would have been incredibly lame if it ended with everyone stuck back inside the stupid room.

Honestly, the encounter made no sense and my players were asking for explanations I had a hard time providing.

And the module does mention that attacks made directed at the mirror provoke an opportunity attack, and this attack can affect blinded party members, which would be those with their eyes closed.

Márcio Fiorito said...

We´re not there yet, but I agree with Oscar. It sounds like a recipe for frustration (specially since my party only has THREE PCs).

Do you have any suggestions for this, Greg? Perhaps toning down the mirrors might work?

Anyway, your blog rules. I read it everyday (twice!). :)

Cheers!
Marcio

FalconGK81 said...

@GregT I'll have to read it again, but I'm pretty sure it says that they get an auto attack against someone that attacks them, and that this works even if the target is blinded or has their eyes closed. I assumed this was because contact with the mirror also triggers its attack. Did you read it again? My module is at home, so I can't check it right now.

hvg3 said...

@Greg

Possibly, but as soon as one PC disappears, the mad gnoll is released, so that adds a bit more to the skeleton's fight, too.

Greg Tannahill said...

@Oscar - Given the very first mirror is a teleportation mirror, your party would have to have either (a) double moved or ran into the room on their first action, or (b) been very lucky/unlucky to get past that first mirror without anyone getting teleported.

That's intended as the party's warning that the mirrors aren't safe; if your players are double moving or running into clearly suspect rooms without searching for traps or taking any other kind of cautious action I'm not sure there's much we can do for them.

In the event it's simply unlucky dice rolls - that's why there's a DM. If a string of hideous luck produces a result that defeats the party despite sensible and competent play decisions, that's when you fudge the dice. Five misses followed by five hits is pretty nuts; go ahead and fudge those dice.

I agree the attack against even blinded PCs when the PCs attack the mirror is lame - it's railroading players into using the "keeping their eyes closed and moving forward" solution. It would have been simpler and fairer to just say that mirrors are easy to destroy, but explode on destruction - everyone can understand that idea and it yields much the same result without somer of the lamer potential consequences.

Johan_L said...

I thought this was a horribly designed encounter. It was, of course, blidningly obvious that the mirrors are traps. But after capping out my Arcana check at 35 and receiving no relevant information, we went into the room. Not knowing what the mirrors did, we ended up closest to one of the Oubliette mirrors. As the mirrors fired on their turn and not on ours, and rolled well, we all got hit and the party wiped out before we had a chance to react. New characters all around and a new adventure module next time.

This "one roll kill" was the kind of thing that 4E was supposed to do away with, wasn't it? It's not so much that this encounter was a poor design in itself, it's that it's a Tomb of Horrors style trap in an adventure that was very unchallenging up until now (we had something like two or three cases of knocked unconscious in the entire adventure), when it suddenly decided to change its modus operandi into extreme deadliness.

Johan_L said...

So yes, this was an old-style dungeon encounter.

From the bad old days of senselessness.

Osric said...

We just did it and all but one of the guys enjoyed it so I mustn't grumble. But this was a tricky one, and reading it repeatedly hadn't prepared me for what it was like to actually run.

So the Instigator who most want to get some action passed through the curtains and stopped, and promptly (as we hadn't rolled Initiative and no one else moved into the room) got attacked by the first teleport-mirror and got vanished.

I opted not to tell the player what had happened to them at all, to not 'contaminate' the experience of the remaining players, and just tallied the rounds that passed... That meant a player was just put clean out of the encounter, which is very un-4e. But even if she'd killed her gnoll she'd still have been equally stuck.

More of a problem was the rest of the mirrors.

I had difficulty getting my head round the fact that the mirrors behave as active traps, on the PCs' initiatives, but before them. At our table, that just kept not working for the first half of the encounter.

And the Laws of Physics -- and even the Laws of Magic -- were no help. The only way to play it was to shrug and obey the Laws of D&D game mechanics. I don't like the game rules to be quite so divorced from common sense (and no, D&D 4e isn't my 1st preference game system!).

Only the nearest mirror attacks you, and if you are blinded it automatically misses... Well my guys all variously shielded themselves from the nearest mirror, but were often exposed to and within range of the next nearest. I had to have that one attack them instead.

And how do the attack forms differ? The only clue is in the Defence targetted. I had to rule that the Oubliette mirrors acted really fast, the blackness filling your field of vision as though about to swallow you up, and it took Reflexes to close your eyes/avert your gaze quickly enough for them not to take effect.

But then the Teleport mirrors attacked Will... And if your eyes were open but pointing in the opposite direction they could still attack. So I had to rule that some enchantment sought to compel your mind to make you look into them.

And the Draining mirrors didn't involve any similar prospect of a Defence allowing you to evade the effect, it just happened, and the PC just learned whether their Fortitude was too buff to be affected.

The whole thing forced me to think too much on my feet, and apply different Laws of Nature to the different mirror-attacks. And I was very uncomfortable with it.

The players? The second into the room took the fact that the pillars were conveniently 5' square as an indication that the Instigator had been trapped inside that square, and started bashing away. Most of the rest started loosing Ranged attacks, and mirrors started to rapidly tinkle. They never quite sussed the fact that there was a 5-square range limit on the attacks, and they just rolled up the whole room before meeting the Boneshards...

And we're waiting for next week to find out how many rounds it takes them to finish that off, and then to learn how the Instigator fared against the starving gnoll.

- - -
I think the encounter's intended to create a lot of hectic running around, and this is not what we got.

If I had it to do over, I would recommend artificially saying that the first mirror they confront (whether they slip through the curtains to the left or to the right) is a Teleport-mirror. Then someone goes through and gets to see the second half of the room, and possibly rouse the Boneshards, and/or get teleported back again with either the knowledge of the second curtain at the far end or indeed with the boneshards now coming out to get them... And let the mayhem ensue!

--Os.

Gumby said...

I know I'm late to the party, but here goes:

The mirror ALWAYS holds one prisoner in it, and ONLY one. So, when you get trapped, the gnoll is released to the outside, where he immediately curls up in a ball on the flower, cowering and screaming in joy (at being free) and fear (at being trapped again).

When the party finds, and presses, the "release" button, that player gets trapped in the mirror. The button is merely a voluntary swap. The horrifying conclusion they're forced to come to is that, at least for now, their only option is to FORCE the gnoll to look at the mirror or press the button, trapping him, so that they can all leave.

Shattering the mirror just removes "looking into it" as a swap mechanism. The plane continues to exist, it continues to hold exactly one prisoner at all time, and with the mirror shattered, the button becomes the only way in or out.

Matt said...

Once again posting waaaaaaaaay too late but I liked our solution to the Oubliette way too much not to mention it. We had the idea of only one person trapped in the mirror universe at a time, but with every switch you had to trade character sheets with whoever had been trapped in there. So by encounter's end my fighter was playing the wizard, the wizard was playing the cleric, and the cleric (who, thankfully, is also the strongest roleplayer of the group) was playing a starving, half naked gnoll. The excitement came from some of the players getting to test drive a different character, complete with some very funny dialog choices from the players.

To give an example of what I'm talking about, our cleric is a very good roleplayer, but this leads to a somewhat overwrought take on things from time to time, so when another player got the chance to take on that character, it devolved into parody, and the further he took it the more fun it became for the rest of us. By the end of the encounter, I think the paladin was trying to figure out how she could pull off a switch of her own to get in on the fun.

Un Guerrero más said...

What hapen if the player close their eyes?

Un Guerrero más said...

what hapent if the player close their eyes?