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.


Anonymous said...

I like your idea of giving a player a "freebie" mount feat to try and introduce how mount rules work in 4E.

By the way, I've been reading this blog for a couple of weeks now, and your input on the adventures are really great. And also thanks for the links on the "H1 to H3 mod" to link all of them together.


Maelora said...

One thing, Greg... WHY tell the players the minotaur unarmed fresco is irrelevant??

It used to be players could make choices as to what little details were important... and which were not. Are you suggesting a GM remove every single piece of description that doesn't serve to solve some later puzzle?

Greg Tannahill said...

@Maelora - We're making the assumption for the point of Eleven Foot Pole that the module is being played more or less as-written. Making the minotaur history relevant would be an absolutely excellent thing to do and I highly recommend it, but doing it in any meaningful way is a massive departure from what's presented in the module text, seeing as the Well is the last minotaur structure we'll be seeing and the mural doesn't tie into anything in this mini-dungeon.

Maelora said...

Yes Greg, but if something ISN'T relevant... should the GM tell them so, or just let them make up their own minds?

"The room has a red ceiling, unlike all the other rooms which had white ceilings. But just disregard that, as it's not relevant to anything you'll find later."

Doesn't that kill immersion?

Greg Tannahill said...

@Maelora - Killing immersion is better than watching your players stuff around for three hours trying to align the magic items they've found to fit the "pattern of roof colours". But you can have your pie and eat it to - here's how.

The DM makes decisions every second about what's relevant and what's not - he doesn't describe the floor in every room, or where the dust has accumulated, or necessarily describe the wood the furniture's made of or a hundred other things. You only describe things because (a) there's something the players can gain from knowing about it, or (b) to set atmosphere.

If the mural's for atmosphere, the DM should add the phrase, "The minotaurs are long dead and their ancient rituals have no relevance today, yet still there is something primal and terrifying about this art." And then when the players ask anything else about it, simply say, "It's impressive, but it's just art." Immersion maintained, time-wasting averted.

Establishing that one roof is red, and only one roof, sets up a mystery. You've drawn attention to it by describing it; you didn't describe the floor, you didn't describe the smell of the room, you didn't describe the etches on the swords of the last gnolls they killed. The roof must be important. It's a mystery - why is it red?

If there's no answer to that mystery, players get frustrated. A little frustration they can handle; a lot has consequences. Give them a couple of mysteries that can't be solved and they'll assume every mystery can't be solved. When you throw an actual honest-to-Bob puzzle at them they'll shrug and say, "More weird crap. Whatever."

I mean, sure, if the players out of the blue ask, "What's the ceiling look like?" make up something interesting. But when you're telling them up front, you're focusing attention, and you need to make sure it merits that attention.

Maelora said...

Then we'll have to absolutely agree to differ, Greg. My players know that some stuff may be important, and some is just atmosphere.

Just because the villain's bedroom is full of plush toys, or one of the orc guards daubs the walls of the dungeon with graffiti, doesn't mean these things are necessarily important. They're just detail.

I don't tell my players 'just ignore all this, it doesn't matter'. And I don't tell them 'these are CLUES, stupid! Take notice!'

It's up to them to make these calls. If they want to hold the villain's teddy-bear to ransom, or sweet-talk the orc guard by complementing his graffiti skills, they are free to do so. Or not. Their call.

One way or another, there's quirky background detail in most places.

Todd said...

@Maelora But you're talking about two different things there. Describing the villain's bedroom as being filled with stuffed toys is TOTALLY different from describing the ceiling of one room as red, while all of the others are white. One is evoking an atmosphere while the other is almost literally a red herring.

Now, I know DM's who will gleefully describe irrelevant things to their players then sit back and grin as the players beat their heads against a puzzle that really isn't there for two hours, but I really dont' find that to be a pleasant experience. As a DM, I don't find it interesting to watch and as a player, I find it frustrating and discouraging to encounter. Actually, as a DM, when my players pick an innocuous detail and decide to chase that down instead of focusing on the actual planned plot, I try to work that detail in and MAKE it relevant.

That is, if my players just spent 30 minutes investigating the red ceiling, I'm going to make it contribute to the story even if I hadn't planned to do so before.

Maelora said...

So what's your answer, Todd?

Greg seems to be advocating adding a disclaimer to every detail as to whether it's 'important or not'.

Are you suggesting GMs simply don't put in background info?

"Investgating the bedroom of the orc chieftain Grognak the Slaughterer, you find he has several wardrobes full of lacy, orc-sized lingerie. That's a clue folks; write it down.

In the shaman's room, you find he seems to collect and paint toy soldiers. And there's a subscription to 'PlayOrc' magazine on his desk. But that's irrelevant and doesn't have an impact on the adventure. Just pretend you didn't see it."

My point is, shouldn't the players decide what's important and what isn't? Should we just not describe the mural in Thunderspire because it's never mentioned again?

Zinovia said...

The GM's descriptions of a place, a monster or an NPC are all the players have to build the scene in their minds. It is important to mention things that add to the atmosphere. The key is to not do it only when it is a clue, otherwise they will expect every time you describe something to mean that it's important. There is a happy medium somewhere between describing every patch of sand on the road and mentioning what things look like only if there is a clue to be found. Where that balance lies will depend on the group.

The problem with this and other modules is that it chooses odd times to describe certain items in detail, and flat out ignores a lot of other scene-setting description. That makes players suspicious when you do describe something. So the key to making this module work is to add more descriptions of old frescoes, statuary, tiled ceilings and what have you. That way the players don't jump all over it when you mention this wall painting.

Video games tend to train players to assume that if an item is there, it is somehow necessary to solve a puzzle or to further the plot. This leads to characters either minutely examining or picking up every item they run across, no matter how insignificant. So long as you add plenty of descriptive details, it won't take players too long to get over that tendency.

If there is a puzzle to be solved that relies on information in the description of an area, make sure to provide several clues. Perhaps the characters need to lay down their weapons before entering an ancient shrine. Wall frescoes show people laying aside their weapons before praying. A shelf near the entrance has writing on it that can be deciphered into an invocation to disarm before entering the temple. A Religion check can provide another clue as one of the characters remembers something about the ancient practices of this god. Never rely on a single clue, because the players may well miss it.

I don't want to tell my players specifically that an item is not a clue. I do however manage to convey it by answering their questions about whatever mundane object they have fixated on. It's a very pretty wool hat, with a silk flower. It's blue. It has been chewed on by moths just a little near the brim. The dye is slightly uneven. It's not magic. Eventually they get the point - it's a hat.

Todd said...


"So what's your answer, Todd?"

I thought I'd made that pretty clear, but lets see if I can do a better job.

"Greg seems to be advocating adding a disclaimer to every detail as to whether it's 'important or not'."

Actually, I got the impression that Greg is advocating only narrating the things that are important to the story you're telling, and if the red ceiling isn't important then leave it out. At least that's my reading. I could very well be wrong, however. You should ask Greg to clarify.

"Are you suggesting GMs simply don't put in background info?"

Can you point me to the section of my comment where I said that? I really didn't mean to give that impression.

I'm suggesting that A) the DM should narrate the background info that's important to the story and B) if the player's take a tangent and run with it, the DM should incorporate that tangent into the story more fully so that the players didn't just waste everyone's time.

"Investgating the bedroom of the orc chieftain Grognak the Slaughterer, you find he has several wardrobes full of lacy, orc-sized lingerie. That's a clue folks; write it down.

In the shaman's room, you find he seems to collect and paint toy soldiers. And there's a subscription to 'PlayOrc' magazine on his desk. But that's irrelevant and doesn't have an impact on the adventure. Just pretend you didn't see it."

No one is suggesting the DM should say "That's a clue folks; write it down." If the DM said it, the player's should know it's probably important. That's why the DM said it. There are potentially millions of details in a room, and a DM is only going to be able to describe so many. The details the DM chooses to describe should either be relevant or awesome. Finally, the DM should be prepared for the players to take one of the irrelevant-but-awesome details and make it relevant if the players have decided it is.

My solution for the second part isn't even to say "But that's irrelevant and doesn't have an impact on the adventure." Actually, I don't think that's actually anyone's solution, but I can only speak for myself. My suggestion is that if you give that description of the shaman's room and the players decide to spend the next two hours of real time asking you about every page of PlayOrc just in case it's relevant, then the DM should make something there relevant. To use your argument, the player's just decided something is important, so make it important. I think it's foul play for the DM to let them investigate down an irrelevant path only to later say "Ha Ha! PlayOrc had nothing to do with anything, you dunces!"

"My point is, shouldn't the players decide what's important and what isn't? Should we just not describe the mural in Thunderspire because it's never mentioned again?"

If you do describe it, and the characters all decide to strip down to their skivvies and wrestle each other, then the DM should make that important, because by their actions the players decided it is important. If Greg is concerned that his players will do that, and he doesn't want to have to figure out how to salvage that, then yes, he should choose not to describe the mural.

Zinovia's solution: prepare your players by being more descriptive in general is particularly good. By adding more awesome, you reduce the potential for the players to mistake awesome for important. I think part of the reason you and I are missing each other is that we're really applying very general arguments to a very specific example: the poor writing in Thunderspire.

Maelora said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Maelora said...

Thanks for explaining Todd. I didn't mean to pick a fight or anything - I think you, myself and Greg are pretty much on the same page here! I just wanted be sure what you are advocating.

Yes, I pretty much agree with Zinovia. Don't make a big thing of 'unimportant' details, but make frequent descriptions as you go along.

What I was advocating is letting the players decide what is important and what isn't. When they meet the orc chieftain they could just kill him. Or taunt him about his cross-dressing habits. Or strike up a deal to provide him with more lingerie if he releases his prisoners. The detail is only as important as the players make it. They can ignore it all, or be clever and make use of it.

Anyway, thanks for the civilised discussion and debate! That seems to be something of a rarity where 4E is concerned. The only fanbase more rabid seems to be the Fallout site, 'No Mutants Allowed' (shudder!)

And I think we can all agree on your last point, that the writing in Thunderspire generally sucks...

Greg Tannahill said...

@All - I still hold to the Hitchcock rule. Hitchcock often famously said that in a film nothing should be in frame unless it was relevant. I think that's a valid approach to storytelling, particularly in a rich story where a large number of things are, actually, relevant.

It's an extension of Chekhov's Gun - you don't put a gun on the wall unless someone is thinking of firing it.

I understand the "bury the relevant under the irrelevant" approach to description. My experience with that is that the relevant does, indeed, get buried. Players miss out on interacting with content because they're not inclined to check every item in the room, one by one, to find out if it's interesting, and as a result the genuinely interesting things never get found. Content your players don't experience is wasted content.

Maelora said...

I may have to respectfully disagree with you, Greg.

If you're happy to debate, let's take an example of a recent computer game that actually does things pretty well: Fallout 3.

It's a huge game. There are tons of things to do. There's a central plot with half a dozen quests, and another 16 long sidequests, not counting downloadable content. Also, there are 'unmarked quests' that are not marked as such in a quest log, but are nonetheless interesting distractions (for example, an underground bunker full of clones who can only say their name).

In addition, the game world is simply HUGE. Tucked away in odd corners are little scenes that don't really lead anywhere, but exist for atmosphere... Some are poignant, such as some huddled child skeletons in a bunker room, surrounded by mouldering toys. Some are mysteries, like the final logs of a settlement, whose inhabitants suddenly disappeared. Some are unsettling, like a crashed UFO or an abandoned building where doors and objects move of their own accord, and you experience weird flashbacks.

Should the designers, then, have omitted these 'flavour' encounters? They have nothing to do with the main plot, or the side quests, or even the 'unmarked quests'. The player can never 'solve' these mysteries. But they add greatly to the ambient atmosphere of the game, and help immersion.

I don't personally feel that everything must solely exist for the sake of the players. If the villain keeps stuffed toys in his room, that might just be an oddball quirk, not an important clue.

Personally, if I were exploring a ruined civilisation and there were NO murals, frescos, broken items, etc, merely because none of them were important to the plot, I'd feel cheated.

Todd said...

@Maelora Straying further and further away from Thunderspire, here's how I actually handle this sort of thing: I try to describe only what's really relevant, but if I fail (I do get excited about my own world and go into more detail than is really necessary), and I put in a detail that the player's pick up and run with, I try to weave it back into the story as I've described before.

Murals, frescos, other details, etc: If I describe the area as an "Ancient Minotaur Temple" I generally give my players enough credit to figure out what that looks like for themselves. If someone asks, I open it up to them: "You tell us, what does this wall look like?" This gives us a description, forces the player to expend a bit of his own imagination, and pretty clearly delineates the difference between "flavor descriptions" (the awesome) and what the DM says (the important).

This appears to be problematic if you're running a mystery, but it really isn't. If you're purposefully putting red herrings into the descriptions, you just have to make sure the red herrings actually go somewhere: don't let the players struggle down a dead end to discover it's a dead end; if they follow a false clue make sure there's something exciting at the end of that path: loot, a fight, a true clue that they wouldn't have found without following the red herring - or preferably all three.

I *try* to only narrate what is relevant and let players fill in the gaps. If I fail, I try to be prepared to get things back on track.

Greg Tannahill said...

@Maelora - I'll start by conceding that the type of DMing you're advocating can be plenty entertaining with a competent DM and be really rewarding for players when they do find "hidden" content.

Your specific example, Fallout, suffers from the problem of being a videogame. You can do this kind of thing (sometimes) in a videogame because you know that X thousand players are going to go through that content, and while only 10% might find some particular item, they'll tell others and increase the reputation of the game generally. Also, if you hide 100 pieces of content and a given player only finds one, they get the benefit of imagining the others being out there. So there's economies of scale.

In D&D you've only got five people going through your content; what they miss is missed forever. It may as well have not existed. So the clever DM finds ways to make sure players hit his best content while making them FEEL as though they've stumbled across something hidden and special.

Rather than crafting five hidden mysteries in the hope your players find one, you're better off spending five times as long on one mystery and use some of that time to place it so as to seem hidden but in fact be obvious; it's a misdirection trick like equivocation where players think they've made a meaningful choice but nevertheless arrived at a pre-determined outcome.

John said...

Greg said: '...a misdirection trick like equivocation where players think they've made a meaningful choice but nevertheless arrived at a pre-determined outcome.'

I never, ever, seem to be able to pull that off. For the longest time, I thought I was, but after the game ended a player told me the party more or less knew what I wanted them to do from the start. I was a bit crushed.

You should totally do one of those bonus 'concept' posts with advice/ideas on doing this sort of misdirection >.>

Also, 'fartu', best word verification choice ever.

Greg Tannahill said...

@John - To some extent it doesn't matter if players see through the illusion; that's what suspension of disbelief is all about. If the process of your illusion is sufficiently entertaining, players won't look too hard at it - at heart they want to be bamboozled, providing it's done well.

But I'll do another post on this probably when I find an encounter with a good example of it.

Colmarr said...

On the Fallout 3 analogy, let me add another opinion. I loved Fallout 3, and gleefully wandered the wastes to see what was around... FOR ABOUT 3 HOURS.

After that, I quickly became thoroughly sick of all of the "random" stuff out there. I wanted to advance the plot, not explore little tidbits that might or might not be relevant to the story I was experiencing.

Applying that to D&D, I believe that a little detail here or a little irrelevancy there is a nice distraction, but ultimately I don't believe that's what most players are after. They have a goal and want to be actively moving towards achieving it.

As for this encounter (which no one seems to be commenting on), we played it last night. We made the mistake of seeing the hyenas as the lesser opponents and they tore my cleric a new one.

Their CA ability and pack damage bonus make them VERY nasty opponents if they can mob you.