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?


Bryant said...

My group came very close to neutering it. We have a druid with Black Harbinger -- level 6 utility power, grants flight for the duration of the encounter, essentially. He took wing and flew over to the podiums, which do not trigger the traps.

Unfortunately one of the other PCs got bored and decided to jump to the second entrance of the room. Which would have been OK except she missed and fell into the blood and things got messy.

And even so I think the druid got the thrill you've identified, plus the party learned a bit about 4e: namely, it's not always balanced encounter, balanced encounter, etc. Sometimes there are avoidable traps.

(Which reminds me of a Living Forgotten Realms story I wanna tell, but some other time.)

fnord23517 said...

My party's just entered the Well of Demons and will probably encounter this room within the next couple sessions, depending of course on which route they decide to take. (Perhaps tonight!)

I also just wanted to add that this is my favorite new blog. Thanks, Greg! :)

Márcio Fiorito said...

I know this is the kind of comment that is 100% useless, but here goes anyway:

Greg, as usual, your posts rock. That is an amazing analysis, not only of the scene, but of DM reaction in the gaming table. Congrats!

This is also my favorite blog!


seb said...

We're not playing this module (though I'm toying with the idea of yoinking the Proving Grounds for the PYRAMID O'TRAPS(tm) section of my homebrew campaig) but I totally support the thrust of your column.

Last session I had a genius doppelganger ambush all lined up - which my party ruined by, essentially, outmanoeuvering the opposition.

Rather than railroad them into it or reuse it somewhere else, I just told them - giving them considerable quiet satisfaction, I believe.

Greg Tannahill said...

@fnord23517 & Marco - Compliments are never useless! Without them, how would my head stay large enough to think such momentous thoughts? Or, more seriously, knowing that people are reading makes me want to write more, so there's benefits there.

@Bryant & Seb - Nice stories! Seb, I want to hear more about that doppelganger.

The Stray said...

I hope to crib some ideas from this mini-dungeon for my own game, and I'm looking forward to seeing the rest of these trials. Also, I'm jonesing for something to read while the Wizards boards are down, so keep up the good work!

Greg Tannahill said...

@The Stray - I know! I'm desperately for my daily fix of argument and I'm hesitant to go trolling my own site to find it; what am I to do?

I've got posts lined up for tonight and for Saturday night and I should be able to get one ready for Friday as well, so there's that covered at least.

rumcove said...

My party also used Water Walk (the ritual) and almost passed the room without incident. The lone character failed his jump check by 1 and had a single foot touch the central walkway.

Colmarr said...

Greg, would it be possible for you to structure your posts in such a way that there's a "spoilers" section (dealing with the specifics of each encounter) and a "non-spoilers" section (dealing with system-wide issues demonstrated by the encounter?

(For example, the "minimum threat" post could have been divided into a spoiler section that deal with the mechanics of the wandering monsters in the Well and the Barlgura and a non-spoiler section dealing with whether 4e handles minor encounters well.)

I'm a player in a Thunderspire Labyrinth campaign at the moment. We've just entered the Well of Demons, so you're currently 3-4 encounters ahead of us and at the rate we play, we won't catch up.

I'm keen to continue reading the blog and participating in the comments, but I don't want to gain illicit knowledge about encounters by doing so...

Of course I appreciate that I'm asking you to do more work, which can be fatal to a blog, so I'm more than happy for you to say "sorry, nope".

Greg Tannahill said...

@Colmarr - I feel where you're coming from but practically speaking it's a little tricky. The maps alone are significant spoilers on many occasions. I'm not sure how I can meaningfully post on the module without discussing things players won't necessarily know.

If this were Wordpress I'd do an intro pagagraph and a "below the cut" section, but sadly Blogger doesn't (as far as I'm aware) allow for either article cuts or spoiler blocks and in any case I have enough difficulty writing posts that I'm happy with without also having to navigate around the kind of artificial structure that would impose.

I'd like to have you reading but honestly if spoilers are going to be an issue you might just have to pace yourself to only read what you're up to in your own campaign. I can at least promise that I intend to keep addressing content in sequential order so you're unlikely to have me suddenly jump to something much further in the future.

Probably the BEST solution is to go to your DM and say, "Hey, I'm reading Eleven Foot Pole - do you think you can modify the encounters just enough that I'll still be surprised?"

bikerdan13 said...

We've played through from Level 1, H1. Keep on the Shadowfell and are now on H3. Pyramid of Shadows. Really enjoying the blog and it's bringing back some great memories.

Our Wizard also used water walk \ expeditious retreat to grab the loot and run. We did end up with a stand-up fight with the Evistros, it would have been rude not to, but it sounds like it could have been a whole lot worse.

Colmarr said...

@ Greg. No worries. You never know til you ask :)

Mr. M said...

Hey Greg,

First time poster. I've enjoyed all your posts and you have some really amazing ideas. It always makes me wish I had got some of this advice while I was running this module.

For this encounter our party rogue, jumped to the first platform and disable the trap statue. The trap, however, went off once they reached the middle row but it was not as effective as it could have been as it was missing a statue. The Fighter being a dwarf was able to avoid falling prone and slid off into the blood fairly often and the PC's managed to make it out. They did, however, learn that not all encounters are a giant cakewalk. It was a great session and they learned there are avoidable traps.

Anyhow, keep up the great work.


seb said...

It's a homebrew campaign set in a desert city as a (largely unrelated) follow on to KOTS. The setup is the classic 'complex and carefully balanced array of forces' for the PCs to completely mess up, coupled with a fairly standard apocalypse from the stars story, covered in as much faux cultural detail as I can muster (lots of pseudo Arabic words for things, and names for everyone).

The doppelganger was just a nice tactical trick - using the face-copying trick to copy a friendly NPC, hailing them on the way to a mission, then ambushing them from surprise when his minions attacked.

Natually the Dopp is a lieutentant of one of the powers in the city, so things are likely to get more tricky for my players rather than less.

Speaking of which, please do some more monster comparisons - I think one of the unheralded strengths of 4e is how it nails the classic monsters. IMO both doppelgangers and displacer beasts (one of the minions I mentioned) are great conversions.

Vincent said...

Traps are fine and dandy, but in 4e the traps are often so very obvious. It isn't the case of locating it, but more to make sure you take as little damage as possible.

Just like Neverwinter Nights and more RPG's you simply know the trap is there and willingly trigger it followed by some healing surges.

Of course it can be fun and rewarding to by-pass a trap like your players did. It is simply finding a good solution. Still I wonder if a few save or die traps would keep things interesting. That way players would be more careful with simply triggering all traps they encounter. Maybe even make it more difficult to detect.

Am I the only one who thinks the traps in 4e lack some charm?

Oscar said...

One wizard, Visions of Avarice, and long distance attacks at the statues. It helps that the statues damage the demons.

Sure, my party triggered the trap, but they then pulled out of the room and completely dominated this encounter. Then the Goliath Warden in our party used his massive athletics check to jump from platform to platform without too much incident.

Leftahead said...

My party hacked their way through it, and several members came very close to getting killed. It was definitely the most memorable and hard-fought of the Well areas for them. The attacks split them up and they didn't spot the submerged demons, so it turned into a very tense chase-and-avoid scene.

The Hall of Howling Pillars, though, the Elven Ranger made a mockery of, though: he literally just raced through and grabbed the horn in one round, took an OA or two, and was out the following round as his buddies guarded the door. It was awesome that the 'easy' room came LAST; they really felt they had 'broken the code' of the place, and it made for a really nice tension release after how harrowing the Crimson Whip room was for them.


Brian Lestrouxe said...

Yeah, My group just faced that room. I too was an Eladrin Fighter tasked with getting the blade. It went nowhere near as smoothly for my group.

Dafodarian said...

Hi, I've just been introduced to this blog by my player-group (we're an encounter ahead of you, at the moment).

I have to admit, for the most part the proving grounds have been at best patchy, and the Crimson Whip especially was akin to having my face sandpapered.

I can lay this firmly at the feet of one detail which popped out at me - water walking. I'm not for a moment denying that the "...and look, it works!" moment is brilliant, but simply raising the specter of a party who didn't have a method to skip blithely past the pool.

The pool itself - the amount of difficult terrain, at 290 of 414 squares, or 70% of the available floor space, is perhaps a little more than the DMG's recommended quantities. Add to that the 6-15 points of damage per turn that the poison is probably doing to anyone in it. Add to that the DC20 check to get out of the pool without slogging all the way to the stairs. Add to that a fight that the demons want to be in the pool, but which becomes a static slugfest if it is due to nobody shifting, and we're ambling out of 'interesting, tricky tactical situation' and into a slow, chip-damage based grind-fest that puts a smile on no-one's face.

Then add in the traps, which have a thievery disarm, if your resident lockbreaker can make some hefty jumps, take at least three punches on AC (not generally their best defence), and face getting dumped into the blood on any slip-up, leading to probably 2d10, +5 ongoing poison, plus the d8+3 from the trap. My yardstick reckons that a 6th level rogue is going to have about 50hp. Which means an average roll throws him close to bloodied. And then, the demons attack, while he's at -2 on all defences, and the demons always forgo all other options if he's actually bloodied. Better hope he's a strong rogue, not a cunning one, or he's not getting out of the goop anytime soon. Or, to put it another way... *ahem* MEDIC!

My group hid behind the doorway, pounded one statue slowly to rubble at range, sent the barbarian in to flatten the demons and grab the blade (slowly grab, thanks to the difficult terrain), and then slogged out just as slowly. Frankly, by the time she had both pieces, I waived the 'evil current' element of the trap, because the fun had been drained out of the session so totally that we, communally, couldn't bear the 'and it takes you X more turns to get out, just because...'.

I'd have to say that as encounters go, it killed the pacing, drowned the tension, and left everyone involved feeling more like the people who wade through sewers for a living than mighty adventurers, and that's a sad admission to make.

We broke the session there, and took apart the mechanics of the encounter to try and work out if I'd flubbed it as a DM, or if it really was that much of a roadblock. Crucially, the group has no water-walking, and it's kind of light on point-to-point movement powers. Maybe it was just us...

Still, the Howling Pillars was just the stand-up, knock-down, drag-out battle that the PCs needed to get their blood up (and painted on the walls). And the Guardian's cost in blood to the party?

One. Single. HP.

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

But that's another post's story, I think.

Thanks for listening. You've been a great audience...

GregT said...

Uncharacteristically returning to reply to Dafodarian:

Were you playing straight out of the Player's Handbook 1, or did you have supplements? An un-errataed PHB1, with no supplements, might let the result you're describing occur. But it sounds like you've got a barbarian in there. By the time of PHB2 (let alone today) the power creep had been such as to make it hard for me to believe your guys didn't have a cheat, a daily, an item or what have you to get them out of a bad encounter as a one-off thing. Plus the DC might read as 20 in the module but that's pre-errata on skill checks; I think these days you mod that down to a 16 or something. It should be a nasty encounter, but it really shouldn't be possible for it to become boring, especially seeing as the goal isn't even to kill the monsters here.