Saturday, May 30, 2009

Random Encounters

One of the most memorable things about previous editions of Dungeons & Dragons was, for me, the tables.

I loved the tables. As a 12-year-old, I could spend hours at the back of the 2nd Edition Dungeon Master's Guide just rolling up hordes of loot for imaginary Ancient Gold Dragons. You were using 2d10 to simulate a number from one to one hundred, and if you happened to roll that double-zero you knew you were adding something extraordinary to the loot pile.

Hand in hand with the loot tables went the random encounter tables. If PCs were travelling overland, or deigning to camp in a dungeon, or exploring some unmapped part of the city slums, the DM could get out a handful of dice and hit them with some roaming group of random nasties straight from the darkest corners of the Monstrous Compendium. Few were the heroes combing the sands of the Desert of Desolation who would expect to come face to face with 2d10 flumphs!

Okay, let's be honest - the tables were rubbish. The Deck of Many Things alone could derail a game and the 1-in-200 chance of finding it on the corpse of a random orc was a campaign-destroying timebomb waiting to go off. Having a night's sleep disrupted by 2d6 bandits or 1d3 rabid dire bears was not fun, it was tiresome.

The tables were rubbish. But they were great rubbish. 4th Edition takes them out completely, and I think that may have been a mistake.

Here is a thing about humans: we are bad at assessing probability. We do not intuitively understand long odds and we disproportionately value the unlikely. We respond illogically to random reward schedules and the knowledge that a one-in-a-billion payoff could be right around the corner will keep us buying lottery tickets in defiance of the mathematical improbability of returning a profit.

Put simply: random tables don't have to make sense. We will endure 1d3 rabid dire bears again and again in the knowledge that if the DM had rolled a 96 on that table we'd be getting a wish-granting genie. We'll keep fighting the 2d6 bandits in the hope that next time the random encounter table will deliver a modron, or a tarrasque, or an asswere, or something else that we'd never normally see in a serious campaign.

Put simply, we'll enjoy a bad idea because of the promise of a disproportionately unlikely payoff. We're dumb like that, and if being dumb means we can enjoy things that don't make sense, then it's a curse with a shiny silver lining.

So: Thunderspire Labyrinth comes with a random encounter table.

If PCs crawl around in the Labyrinth too long, or go somewhere the DM wasn't expecting, or just if the DM was feeling bored, there's a table to roll on. The module provides 10 complete level-appropriate encounters that tie into the flavour and mythos of the mountain. Better yet, each and every encounter comes with a backstory and is either the end of a side-quest or the start of one.

A treasure-seeking wight, for example, drops hints of a loot-filled minotaur graveyard (coincidentally detailed in the Dungeon Magazine side treks). A mad dwarf attempts to enlist PCs in his one-man feud with his clan. My personal favourite is a gelatinous cube attended by three wraiths - the undead are bound to their corpses, which the cube is still slowly digesting. By my reckoning, there's more story in each of these random encounters than there is the rest of the module combined.

The encounters could have been the high point of Thunderspire, and it's a shame that there's a few impediments to their use. One is the XP budget I mentioned in the last post- the biggest and meanest of these encounters gives players nearly a half-level of XP all by itself. (Speaking of which, the option of rolling randomly for these encounters was surely tongue-in-cheek - a DM who puts a level 4 party up against a level 8 random encounter is asking for an accidental party wipe.)

Another issue is that none of these encounters really tie tightly into the main plot. At best they're supplemental (and redundant) to the key areas - there's five rooms of gnolls in the Well of Demons; do we really need another two random encounters of them? At worst, they're completely tangential to what's going on in the central quest chain - it's great to hear about a distant ruin filled with treasure, but if players want to check it out, they're going to be doing it instead of the content the module had planned for levels 5 and 6, not as well as. The problem with level-appropriate content is that there's only so much of it you can do before you level.

Anyway, it's nice that the module plans for the possibility that players would rather go randomly exploring than slog through a tedious sequence of rooms filled with Duergar, but it probably would have been better off just spending the time and page space making the Duergar suck less.

I really, really love this random encounter table for its intention, for its content, and for including a gelatinous cube, and if we're going to have 4th Edition random encounter tables this is absolutely the way to do them... but ultimately it doesn't work with Thunderspire. It's asking you to make a choice - Thunderspire, or random encounters - and it's not a choice that leaves Thunderspire looking good.



This article is entirely rhetorical; I did the maths, and then ignored it. The actual 2nd Edition chance of having a Deck of Many Things turn up in orc loot is 1 in 5,000 lairs, with no chance of finding one on a random individual. The wish-granting sort of 2nd Edition genie is either a common Efreeti or the ultra-rare Noble Djinni (representing 1% of Djinni civilisation). Both must be captured before they will grant wishes. You'll find these monsters on 0.51% of random encounters in tropical or subtropical desert, or 1.53% of random encounters occurring on the seventh level of a dungeon complex (chance of finding one on the sixth or eighth level of a dungeon = zero).

Friday, May 29, 2009

Side Trek #1: Tower of Sunset

As with Keep on the Shadowfell, the material presented in Thunderspire Labyrinth is supplemented by a couple of articles in Wizards' online Dungeon Magazine.

Dungeon 156
presents a series of "side treks", additional encounters to be inserted between Thunderspire's main hubs. Unlike the ones for Keep, the Thunderspire ones are reasonably decent. They've got new enemies and situations, and they do more than just remix battles the players have already beaten.

The main obstacle to using these side treks is pacing. Thunderspire is operating on a fairly strict XP budget which it's already significantly blowing. The module is supposed to take players from level 4 to level 6 but most groups will be a high level 7 or low level 8 by the time they're done, even without harvesting XP from quests or random encounters. As it turns out, the final encounter of Thunderspire is tough even for super-players, but the next module (Pyramid of Shadows) isn't so robust, and is really expecting PCs to have only just hit level 7.

One solution is to water down the XP. Dropping the reward-per-encounter lengthens the Thunderspire experience without over-levelling the characters. I've mentioned before, though, that the level 4-6 range isn't something worth prolonging, so that might not be the right option here.

In any case, if you do find time to use the side treks, the first one (entitled "Tower of Sunset") is pretty good. A witch and her two gargoyle pets have been harassing travellers on the roads near Thunderspire, and players are sent to the very peak of the mountain to find the witch's lair and defeat her.

This is the only time that players will get to see the upper reaches of the mountain, or traverse a portion of its exterior, so it's a great opportunity to provide a sense of scale and context to Thunderspire's typical gloomy corridors. The witch herself is a Shadar-Kai, a race native to the Shadowfell, and that forms a nice way to tie things back to the party's experiences in Keep on the Shadowfell and to further foreshadow their eventual campaign against Orcus in the paragon and epic tier modules.

The witch is a speaking, sentient creature; players might contemplate diplomacy. If they do, though, they haven't learnt Thunderspire's lesson - swords first, questions later. The side trek has the witch launching into combat mere seconds after players enter her tower. She fights with the aid of a "shadow hound" and a pair of iron defenders (a rather silly kind of metal dog-golem), and then retreats upstairs to gain the aid of her gargoyles.

The gargoyles are problematic. The quest hook suggests that the gargoyles are the real problem here, and calls for their "elimination". However, the encounter doesn't provide their stats and they're not included in the XP budget. A quick look at their write-up in the Monster Manual reveals they're significantly higher level than the players and even if the PCs have a way of assaulting their near-impenetrable defence stats it will be a long and tedious process to bring them to justice.

In my game I changed the goal to "loot the tower" rather than "kill the gargoyles"; after the witch was defeated the gargoyles fled, and everyone got to do a victory dance. It's hard to see what the writer actually intended, though.

Puzzling gargoyles aside, this is still a strong encounter, and it's a nice change from the hobgoblins and duergar that the first half of Thunderspire is drowning under.


[1] Getting your players involved in the side quest might be tricky - after all, those slaves aren't rescuing themselves - and the implied time-limit may dissuade characters from taking on busywork. In this situation, you can substitute the rather lame quest hook with something more story-centric. Possibly the Witch is the only one who knows where the Chamber of Eyes can be found? Or maybe the assault on the Chamber turns up no clues, and only the mystical powers of the Witch can alert players to the Duergar being their next target?

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Moving Goalposts

The players may have defeated Krand and finished the Chamber of Eyes, but there's a question still remaining: where are the slaves?

The whole point of assaulting the Chamber and grappling with the Bloodreavers was to rescue the innocent surface-worlders who the hobgoblins had enslaved. It's annoying, then, that when the mini-dungeon is complete no rescuing has occurred.

It turns out the Bloodreavers have sold the slaves to a nearby faction of Duergar (evil dwarves). There are a couple of random Duergar included in the last battle to help set up this link, and if that's not enough for players to put two and two together, Krand (like any good villain) is carrying a note on his body to make sure even a half-ogre can tell where the plot will be going next.

That's great for moving the players on to another enemy-packed killfest, but from the players' perspective it's unsatisfying. They've just slaughtered their weight in hobgoblins, and at the end they're no closer to achieving their aims than when they started. The goalposts have moved.

The combat is good in 4th Edition - so good it can lead to backwards thinking. It can become tempting to use the plot as the way of leading players to the next fight. That's the reverse, of course, of using fights as a means of furthering the plot. It's a trap that Thunderspire falls into both here, and over the course of the next mini-dungeon.

Combat should be about something. It's more that just the triumph of the players over the monsters - it's also about the triumph of order over chaos, or community over selfishness, or life over death. At the end of each and every battle, players should feel that they've achieved something larger - that the world has changed as a result of their actions.

You can't move the goalposts. When your plot has a climax, and the players survive it, you have to give them something. Whether it's a horde of cheering villagers or the discovery of an ancient and powerful secret, the final defeat of a hated rival or just blowing up the dungeon after they leave, there has to be both closure and progress. It's not acceptable to just say, "Great, but can you do it again with dwarves?"

If you're running Thunderspire there are a couple of ways you can mitigate the damage here. One is to foreshadow that the slaves have been on-sold long before players get to the Chamber; their goal then becomes not to free the slaves but to discover their location, which is something they'll fully achieve. Another way is to emphasise that the slavers are about to mount a new expedition - this time to the Seven-Pillared Hall, or some other place that the players care about; by cleaning up the hobgoblins the players have saved named NPCs who matter to them from a horrible fate.

Whichever way you choose to go, though, you'd best make it good, because there's still a long slog ahead through the Horned Hold before we finally get to what passes for Thunderspire's "good bits". In the mean, I hope you like Duergar, because everything we just saw in the Chamber we're about do again. With dwarves.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

By Contrast

I went on something of a scavenger hunt through my house today; it didn't turn up what I was looking for, but it did reveal my complete set of the original Dragonlance modules (DL1 through 13), compatible with the first incarnation of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons.

Flicking through the first module, Dragons of Despair, I was struck by some of its similarities to Keep on the Shadowfell. It features a small town (Solace), a semi-distant dungeon (Xak Tsaroth) and an expectation that the players will travel from the town to the dungeon and kick some butt.

Unlike Keep, it features some 80 encounters, three artefacts, a new player race, a foreshadowing of the future progression of the module line, a hundred square miles of fully fleshed-out overworld terrain, an eight stanza poem detailing the module's distant backstory, and a song, complete with sheet music (!).

It's hard to see under what circumstances 4th Edition would bestir itself to include sheet music in a module, which makes me suddenly disproportionately sad.

On the other hand, it should be said that the pre-rolled party that come with DL1 mixes third-level characters with sixth-level characters, it's very easy to lose the thread of the main plot while exploring the overworld, and as awesome as Raistlin is in the novels, schlepping around with 8 HP and the devastating might of Sleep for six months of play just does not cut it when it's you holding the character sheet.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Torog's Shrine

Torog's Shrine is the climax of the Chamber of Eyes.

If players are happy just to kick down the Shrine's main doors, they're in for a treat. The central chamber of the Shrine is dominated by a massive Dire Wolf, who'll immediately occupy players while Hobgoblin Archers snipe from a surrounding balcony. As the encounter goes on, reinforcements arrive from the bedrooms to the north, including one of those Hobgoblin Warcasters I like so much, and eventually the dungeon's chief villain, Chief Krand.

It's a tough fight, but an exciting one. The raised balcony is not just physically higher but symbolically higher, and players making their way to Krand on the upper level will be fighting a literally uphill battle. It's tremendously satisfying to storm the balcony and wrestle with the dungeon boss beneath the intimidating gaze of the huge Idol of Torog.

However, if your players are either smart or stealthy, they're much more likely to avoid the main doors and clear the bedrooms first. It's a strategy that turns an exciting set-piece battle into a staid tank-and-spank in a dull, narrow corridor. The Dire Wolf is made irrelevant (due to its size it can't fit into the living quarter corridors), the utility of the archers is greatly diminished, and surplus melee characters will have nothing to do while the party tank single-handedly takes on all seven of the humanoid opponents.

It's safer, to be sure. Competent parties who use this back route will find it fairly easy to lock down their enemies and murder the hobgoblins at a laid-back pace. But it's not much fun. There's nothing thrilling about kicking down a line of tactically-neutered enemies one at a time. It almost feels as though players are being punished for their competence.

In D&D, survival isn't the greatest reward a player can gain; in fact, it's a distant outrunner. Excitement and adventure are the reason players come to the table in the first place and there can be no higher encouragement of players than giving them an extra helping of awesome. When players perform well, the game should get less predictable, not more.

The wolf-and-balcony fight should have been presented to every group. It's potentially one of the module's best fights and Thunderspire does itself a disservice by allowing players to miss it. The module's mistake is that it lets the better players dodge it; instead, it should have let the better players own it.

Let's see rules for mounting the wolf's back and riding it back towards the hobgoblins. Let's see an option to use the wolf as a stepping stone for vaulting straight to the balcony. Let's have the damage that the big stone idol does if you knock it free from its base and roll it down the stairs. The two-level terrain is a classic swashbuckling cliche and the developers really missed an opportunity here by not taking it to its ultimate extreme. It's hard not to imagine a chandelier in the room, so strong is the urge to swing on it.

The lesson is: don't be afraid of your climactic fights. Don't think that avoiding or minimising them is something your players should aspire to. When you've got a big bad guy and an interesting map to fight him on, revel in it.

It's a mistake, unfortunately, that Thunderspire will make twice more, before finally overcompensating in its eventual conclusion.

Friday, May 22, 2009


Thunderspire Labyrinth is keen on training you up in a new type of tactical complication. It's a mechanic that players of online games know as "adds".

In 4th Edition, combats are usually divided up into encounters. One encounter is an appropriate challenge for a balanced party. Adds occur when monsters from one encounter flee to an adjacent one, and then return with allies. These new monsters are additional to the encounter's original roster - hence, "adds".

Adds are a bad thing for players. In a best case scenario, they'll make your encounter significantly harder. In a worst case scenario, they'll get you killed.

The main bad guys in Thunderspire Labyrinth are hobgoblins, duergar and gnolls. Each of these factions is both cunning and tactically competent. They will not hesitate to go for help when things go sour. If players want to make progress without being constantly on the verge of death, they'll have to take careful steps to contain fleeing foes and prevent adds.

It's an issue in the Chamber of Eyes. Areas are heavily interconnected and segregating encounters is tricky. Luckily it's a small dungeon, and the final encounter in Torog's Shrine is specifically built to rely on unavoidable adds.

It's also an issue in the Horned Hold, though. The Horned Hold features 40 monsters divided into eight quite tough encounters. The enemies are fighting on their home ground with the assistance of well-designed defensive emplacements and terrain that heavily disadvantages invaders. Players will need to brush up their skills in the Chamber of Eyes, or have some severe problems in the Hold.

Adds present a problem for the DM. The added realism involved in monsters who run for help comes at the cost of potentially exterminating parties who get unlucky or make minor tactical errors. Missing a runner is an easy thing to do, with disproportionately devastating consequences.

As written, Thunderspire's solution is generally to state that monsters will only run for help once they are the last man standing. This has the advantage of being predictable. It's also an easy situation to prepare for, as generally the last surviving monster has already lost hit points and is in base-to-base contact with at least one player.

It's interesting to note the tactical changes required to deal with runners. Stopping escaping monsters places a higher premium on ranged attacks, and on mobility. Characters with shift or teleport powers are ideal to track down fleeing enemies; low-mobility melee characters (such as melee clerics) will feel frustratingly impotent by comparison. The Avenger, introduced in the Player's Handbook 2, seems purpose-built for this very task.

It's not a topic I've seen discussed a lot on the official forums; I'd be interested to hear the experiences of others with runners and adds in 4th Edition. Leave your thoughts in the comments.

Thursday, May 21, 2009


Sometimes you look at an encounter and can't help but feel it only exists to fill out a map.

Players who've completed the Guard Room can proceed straight to Torog's Shrine to wrap up the Chamber of Eyes mini-dungeon. All roads from the last encounter lead either to the Shrine's big double doors, or to the series of living quarters that adjoin it.

However, if players walk past the double doors and down a tiny side corridor, they can reach the Refectory, a room filled with a mix of goblins, hobgoblins and humans who are apparently spoiling for a fight.

The Refectory's sole claim to fame as a tactical scenario is that it features a cramped entranceway. If players are reticent about coming through the western doorway, the hobgoblins can effectively block the only way into the room and delay the adventurers while their allies get help through the secret passage in the east.

There's nothing to be gained here by players. The secret passage yields no advantage for characters who find and use it, and the only notable loot is a +1 lifedrinker scimitar. It's not a great discovery, as scimitars are a sub-optimal weapon - they compare poorly to longswords, the other military heavy blade, trading the longsword's valuable +1 to hit and "versatile" property for a lousy "high crit" keyword (enabling it to do an extra 1d8 damage on a critical hit, the equivalent of just over 1HP every five rolls).

Luckily, if players come here after completing the Torog's Shrine finale, the riff-raff quickly flee, sparing everyone from a dull a pointless battle.


[1] Delete this room from the map and forget it exists. It's a dull repeat of the fights in the Guard Room and the Shrine, and for that matter it's strongly reminiscent of the Into The Mountain encounter and the hobgoblin area of Keep on the Shadowfell. Move your players quickly onwards towards more interesting content, and don't look back.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

No More Minions

Thunderspire Labyrinth has no minions. Not one.

It may have been a deliberate stylistic decision, but I suspect not. I think Thunderspire was being written while the 4E rules were still in flux, and Richard Baker never got the memo that minions were a D&D thing now.

Minions are a new thing to 4th Edition, although the concept's been floating around in games like 7th Sea for over a decade now. "Minion" monsters have the defences and special abilities of a regular monster, but they do fixed damage rather random, and they die as soon as they take damage.

They're a great mechanic. Killing a minion is just as satisfying as killing a real monster - maybe moreso - and they let the DM field enemies on a scale that would have slowed previous editions to a crawl. They let players really feel like they stand head-and-shoulders over the average opponent, and the ineptitude of minions makes "real" monsters even more impressive by comparison.

Minions aren't just a flavour issue. They're built right into the game balance.

Warlocks gain a minor bonus every time they drop an enemy to zero HP. So do Battlerager Fighters. Both these characters are custom-built for removing minions from the battlefield. Wizards, Druids, and any other area of effect class are more effective when there's more minions on the board, as their powers can hit more targets and yield a much higher proportionate reduction in the enemy's damage-per-round. Paladins get better when they get surrounded, and Fighters get a lot of value out of Cleave-ing onto adjacent minions to earn two kills for the price of one.

Rangers, Avengers and Rogues, by contrast, can be significantly hampered by minions, who are able to restrict their mobility at little cost and render irrelevant the large damage totals that a striker could otherwise deliver.

So when Thunderspire forgets to include minions in its encounters, it's a real issue. If you're playing through this module, you're going to find levels 4 through 6 are the era of the striker, with high damage ruling the day, while other classes feel as if there's something fundamentally missing from their game experience. There is - it's minions.


Wherever possible throughout Thunderspire's combat encounters, remove one regular enemy and replace it with two minions of equivalent level. In large combats, swap two enemies for four minions. You'll find the fights are better paced and more satisfying.

EDIT: It's been suggested in the comments that three or four minions per normal monster is a better ratio, and I agree. Depending on the effectiveness of your characters, you may want to go as high as five or six.

[2] A real danger throughout Thunderspire (which I'll be talking about eventually) is what MMO players refer to as "adds". Outnumbered monsters routinely flee to adjacent rooms and bring back allies, which can quickly turn a balanced encounter into a party-killer. You can kill two birds with one stone by declaring all non-named adds to be minions and awarding only half XP for their defeat.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

There Will Be Blood

The Narthex presented an interesting option for players. Rather than just barge through the front door of the Chamber of Eyes, they could trick or reason with the goblins inside to gain entry.

That's great, but if the end result is avoiding combat, Thunderspire Labyrinth wants none of it. The next encounter, entitled "Guard Room", states:
If the adventurers enter through the double door, regardless of how they gained entry, the goblins recognise them as foes and attack.
That's an imperative. There will be a fight. And if the players avoid the main doors and creep in through the balcony?
If the PCs approach from the balcony and avoid being noticed, they gain a surprise round.
That's a surprise round of combat. The initial flirtation that Thunderspire had with non-combat conflict resolution ends here, and doesn't resume for quite some time. From this point in, the players will be wading to victory over the corpses of their enemies whether they like it or not.

That's not all bad. Combat is what 4th Edition does best. And if we remember back, one of the possible quest hooks required players to eliminate the Bloodreavers, which was going to be tricky to achieve without a bit of hack-and-slash.

The real problem is that the players are offered a choice at all. Giving them three options for entering the chamber when they are all just going to result in combat will make players feel railroaded. If there's not going to be a choice, you're better off being honest and leaving a direct confrontation as the only available route right from the beginning.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Narthex, Defined

I love how roleplaying builds your vocabulary.

The average person on the street is unlikely to know a glaive-guisarme from a voulge. They probably don't know where one wears a periapt or how one wields a shillelagh. Not so the roleplayer. These are all tidbits that a life misspent in dungeon delving will indelibly etch upon your brain.

A quick browse of the official D&D forum shows that, by and large, the fanbase is unusually literate, especially by comparison to the trolls native to many videogaming fora.

It's not surprising. Simply looting a room will expose players to tomes and talismans, braziers and censers, phylacteries large and small, and all manner of potions, philtres and unguents contained within a plethora of vials, phials, decanters and gourds.

Here's a thing, though. You're probably familiar with magic librams from which you can learn fell dweomers. They're the type of thing you'd find in a magocracy.

Those are some great words - libram, dweomer, magocracy - but as it turns out, they're not, in the strictest sense, authentic. In fact, dweomer and magocracy in all probability trace their first uses back to the late Gary Gygax himself, in his first edition of Dungeons & Dragons (along with the term "magic-user", apparently never previously invented). Libram is a coinage of author Jack Vance. For those who doubt me or simply seek further information, Stephen Chrisomalis has a great article on this topic from which I've liberally stolen.

Today those not au fait with their religious architecture will be learning a new word. A narthex is, apparently, the entrance or lobby area of a church or temple. Here in Thunderspire's Chamber of Eyes we find that the first room of the mini-dungeon is described as the Narthex, and provides a place for players to group up and plan before engaging with the monsters now residing in the ruined shrine.

The Narthex has two critical features. One is the giant temple door (the one inexplicably decorated with a beholder). As one might expect, the hobgoblins within the temple are closely guarding the main door and won't open it unless tricked, reasoned with, or intimidated.

The other feature is the high balcony along the chamber's north wall. The module explains that in the dying days of the minotaur empire, priests of Torog would appear on this balcony to preach to pilgrims clustered on the level below. The balcony includes a door that leads into the temple, which is significantly less guarded than the main entrance.

It's a change of pace for players fresh out of Keep on the Shadowfell - this is a challenge that can't immediately be overcome with combat. To progress, they'll either have to convince the goblin guards to let them in the main entrance, or make the tricky climb to the balcony and sneak in through the balcony entrance.

It's all in vain though. The players aren't, ultimately, granting themselves a reprieve from combat. They're still going to have to fight in the next encounter. The only question is what tactical advantage they gain (or lose) while entering battle.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

A Thousand Words

Thunderspire Labyrinth comes with a chunky handful of art to jump-start your imagination and bathe players in raw atmosphere. Pictured above is the Chamber of Eyes Narthex, the first area of that mini-dungeon.

Module-specific art is a fantastic resource. Wizards' access to the world's best fantasy artists is one of its greatest advantages over the competition, and it's always a pleasure to wallow in the sumptuous graphics that come as part-and-parcel of Dungeons & Dragons.

It's a little unfortunate, though, that the art in Thunderspire doesn't always match the module. Take the picture above. It represents the following descriptive text:
Two fearsome looking statues squat on either side of a stairway leading up to double doors. Inscribed upon the doors is an image of a great eye with multiple eye stalks, as well as a symbol of a circle with a crossbar rising out of it.
Well, the statues are there, and so are the stairs (sort of). We've got an eye, but where are the eye stalks? And the circle-crossbar motif (the symbol of Torog) is nowhere to be seen. Much like with the map of the Labyrinth, it seems the artist wasn't working from the final text of the module.

The image is also a little disappointing in that it doesn't depict the most important feature of the room. A balcony runs along the room's northern edge, terminating at a second-storey door that opens into the hobgoblins' lair. It's a deliberately-placed opportunity for players to try an approach other than just bludgeoning their way through the front door. It's sad, then, that the front door is the sole emphasis of this picture.

Luckily, the remainder of the art is pretty solid, and with the un-troubling exception of a picture of the Horned Hold that doesn't quite seem to match the battlemaps, players and DMs can look forward to a selection of great images to enhance their Thunderspire experience.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Bonus Post: Rules As Written

This is an edited version of one of my own comments to my post on Rules Lawyering. Commenter Alex suggested I post it in its own right, so here it is. If you enjoy, great. If not, look forward to a real post tomorrow.


In discussing D&D 4th Edition on the official forums and elsewhere, there's a lot of importance placed on the concept of Rules As Written (RAW). It's something that can be difficult to understand for those who've made the transition from previous editions.

Prior to 3.0, large tracts of the D&D rules were skeletal. Not only did the rules envisage you creating your own rules to resolve many conflicts, but the Rules As Written were in many places contradictory and unplayable. As a result, the tradition of homebrew is so deeply embedded in the D&D community that playing 100% by-the-book is psychologically repellent.

It's an attitude we need to change, though. D&D has evolved, and the design philosophy behind it has sharpened. 4th Edition specifically intends to be a comprehensive ruleset, at least in so far as it applies to combat, and for better or for worse it's not content to leave lacunae, loopholes and handwaving

As such, Rules As Written is an essential concept for use in discussion. Everyone homebrews, but there's only limited utility in discussing everyone's homebrew. If you take homebrew as the default state of play, you never end up with better core rules. Your game becomes increasingly self-customised and the value you're getting from your purchased official material becomes progressively less.

To design and develop a better game it's essential that the discussion engages with the rules as written. Having a vague dissatisfaction with a game mechanic and ignoring it in your home game is great for one group but it's much better to precisely identify why the rules as written do or not work to improve the game for everyone.

I, for example, don't use the lighting rules. They're just too much trouble. But I understand how they work, and if a future expansion ever does something that makes them attractive again I'll revisit them.

The RPGA (Wizards' official organised play organisation) confines itself strictly to rules as written. And I think that's good for the game. Knowing that there's a place where the literal interpretation of rules will be viciously exploited in any way possible provides a spur to the developers to make better and more robust rules.

I've spoken before about how the philosophy of game design in videogaming is decades ahead of where RPGs are at, and I think this is one reason why - there's no "homebrew" in that medium. You have to get it right.

The Chamber Of Eyes

The Chamber of Eyes is the first of Thunderspire Labyrinth's mini-dungeons. It's the lair of the Bloodreaver Slavers, and if the party are serious about rescuing the Slavers' victims this will be their first stop after reaching the Seven-Pillared Hall.

But what is the Chamber of Eyes?

As I've mentioned previously, Thunderspire is obsessed with its minotaur-themed backstory, even though the minotaurs never actually turn up. The story of the minotaurs is basically a re-telling of the legend of Moria from The Lord of the Rings.

Long ago, the minotaurs came to Thunderspire to build a great city in honour of their god Baphomet. They created a vast empire that stretched from Thunderspire to the borders of the Underdark. However, they delved too deep, and discovered that the lower caverns lay beneath the shadow of the deity Torog, the Patient One, known as the King that Crawls.

The Patient One got his claws deep into the minotaurs; sects to him sprang up, temples were built, and a nation once dedicated to Baphomet turned to the worship of an even darker and more vile patron. Civil war raged between the Torog followers and those faithful to Baphomet, and in the end both sides fell to a violent madness that consumed and destroyed the entire race.

None of this is at all important to the players, but in the Chamber of Eyes we start a kind of reverse archaeological tour of the minotaurs' holdings, beginning at a temple to Torog built in Saruun Khel's final days, and eventually continuing to a civil-war era fortification and finishing at one of the original temples to Baphomet.

Minotaurs and Torog have long since abandoned the Chamber of Eyes, which lies some distance from the Seven-Pillared Hall, "deep within the labyrinth". The Bloodreaver Hobgoblins have taken over the abandoned ruin and now use it as a headquarters.

It would have made sense, given the above, to call the area, "The Temple of Torog" or "The Cursed Temple". Neither of those are terribly imaginative but they have the advantage of being both descriptive and firmly in the D&D tradition. Instead the developers went the extra step and called the place "The Chamber of Eyes".

It's not just a name. The approach to the Chamber features a lintel carved with "five staring eyes", and the door of the Chamber itself shows an image of "a great eye with multiple eye stalks".

Even as your players come to this doorway, they'll be sharpening their weapons and patting each other on the back and declaring, "Oh boy! Beholders!" Beholders are a classic enemy and one of the great things about 4th Edition is that the Monster Manual comes complete with low-level versions of iconic monsters, so that even a 4th-level party can tangle with an Eye Tyrant.

Unfortunately, once again, it's not to be. There's no Beholders in the Chamber of Eyes, or anywhere else in Thunderspire for that matter. Possibly they're hanging out with the Minotaurs and the Mages of Saruun. Never mind that the developers inexplicably drew a Beholder on the dungeon's door - it's all just a fake out. If you don't reset their expectations quickly, your disappointed players will spend hours searching the Chamber for secret doors, convinced they still haven't found the room with the Beholder in it.

What we do have in the Chamber of Eyes are some very cantankerous hobgoblins and a big frikkin' wolf. Which is good, and all. I suppose. But wouldn't a Beholder have been great?

Thursday, May 14, 2009

The Mages of Saruun

Thunderspire's Seven-Pillared Hall is governed by the Mages of Saruun, the arcane order who tamed this section of the Labyrinth half a generation ago.

They're clever enough that they've subverted several of the ancient minotaur magics to their own use, including the giant Bronze Warders that they use as guards, and they're powerful enough that both the Drow and Duergar are wary about angering them.

The mages have a secret, though - they're not actually present. Regardless of how many Mages might once have dwelt in the Labyrinth, only two remain. One, Paldemar, has gone rogue, and takes the role of Thunderspire's final villain. The other, Orontor, remains in the Hall, trying to keep things ticking over despite the absence of his peers.

The disappearance of the Mages is never explained. The module offers that Orontor "keeps the fact hidden that he is the only one of the Mages of Saruun currently in residence in the hall". It also seems that the Mages have been gone for some time, as Paldemar went rogue "while the Mages were away", and, as we'll eventually see, his schemes have been in motion for an extended period.

Where did the Mages go? The preamble to the Tower of Mysteries area suggests they "departed Thunderspire to engage in the various arcane studies that often occupy their time", although wherever they've gone it seems that Orontor can't contact them, as he ends up needing to hire adventurers to check up on Paldemar.

Given the central role of the Mages in Thunderspire's setting, it's baffling that we aren't told their whereabouts.

It may have been a smart choice, though. It's important that events in Thunderspire can only be solved by the players. The Mages represent a potential deus ex machina that the developers have wisely taken off-stage. Their uncertain whereabouts sends a clear signal that summoning them back to the mountain is not an option, and that whatever salvation is ultimately achieved will come through the direct action of the PCs.


Despite there being no current information on the Mages, the backstory gratuitously volunteers names for three of the order's founding members - Hasifir, Niame and Samazar. It's a suspicious abundance of information, given that the three aren't referenced anywhere else in the module. Are these an in-joke - possibly holdovers from one of the developers' previous campaigns?

Poll Result: Rules Lawyering

So - another Eleven Foot Poll draws to a close. The question this time was "As a DM, which of these player behaviours annoys you most?" and you've thankfully avoided a humorous tie between "indecision" and "no team focus" by expressing a clear hatred of rules lawyering.

A couple of years back I was privileged at a convention to meet Steve Jackson, creator of the roleplaying game GURPS. It's a game is known for its almost endless supply of supplements, expansions, and conditional rules, and speaking on that topic he said, "I would rather be dragged through a knothole sideways than play one of my own games using all the crunchy bits."

Here's the thing: in a roleplaying game, rules aren't rules. They aren't laws that govern the universe and they aren't immutable commandments governing the one true way to play the game. They're a toolbox; a list of options available to DMs to aid in resolving conflicts and stimulating desired player behaviour.

DMs should use the rules. They should understand the rules and know why rules have been crafted in the manner they have. In well designed games - and 4th Edition is a well designed game - the rules are deliberately crafted to achieve a particular goal, in preference to other systems which were trialled and found wanting. A DM modifies the rules at his peril, knowing that he is substituting his personal brainwave for something that has the benefit of experience and playtesting.

At the end of the day, though, the rules belong to the DM. They live in his toolbox and they only come out when he wants them to. If the DM decides that today is the day for a screwdriver instead of a hammer, the players can point out that they like the hammer, but not demand its appearance. The player who thinks they're entitled to the hammer is a player who's mistaken.

Rules lawyering is the manifestation of that mistake. Rules lawyering stems from the belief that the printed rulebooks represent a higher authority than the Dungeon Master, and that in times of dissatisfaction they can be appealed to in order to provide relief. But they are not a higher authority - only, at the best of times, a wiser one. A player dissatisfied with their DM's games is best served to argue not using their rulebooks, but using their feet. The game your DM runs is the game he runs - if you don't like the game, don't turn up to it.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009


Surina doesn't work.

The Thunderspire Labyrinth developers obviously think she does. They give her half a page and a stat block, making her the most fleshed-out character in the Seven-Pillared Hall. But as printed, she's just not a success.

Surina is a female Dragonborn Warlock, on something of a crusade. She's apparently the veteran of past campaigns against gnolls and suchlike in other parts of the world, and she's brought her war with her into the Seven-Pillared Hall. The module describes her as agitating for aggressive action against "the evil factions within the Hall" (the duergar and drow) and she's engaged in an attempt to turn the Hall into a kind of armed base-camp for military expeditions into the Underdark.

Her story arc is a traditional tale of corruption. She's letting her zealotry guide her into some fundamentally bad decisions involving violence and intolerance, and eventually someone's going to get hurt as a result. It doesn't help that she's picked up an Imp companion somewhere who's giving her some mischievously terrible advice.

That's a great character, but it just doesn't fit Thunderspire Labyrinth. The players can't get involved in her story. The module has the players scheduled to fight the Duergar in Act 2, before they head off to the Horned Hold. If they get into a fight early, they're going to significantly complicate things later, and when it is time to take on the dwarves they don't need any encouragement.

On the flip side, the players aren't likely to want to stop her, either. She's right. The Duergar and Drow are vile, malevolent slavers who bring pain and misery to everyone they meet. If Surina announces an intention to declare war on the entire Underdark, the best the players can do is pat her on the back and say, "Go get 'em, tiger!"

Much like Brugg, Surina is ultimately an accessory character - to be used or ignored as your particular game demands - but the problem really is that she has an arc. If you want her to help the players when they attack the Duergar, or confront the players if they get too friendly with the bad guys, then it really works best if you introduce her early. On the other hand, if you do introduce her early, you're in danger of your players jumping straight on her Duergar-slaying bandwagon the moment they meet her and picking a fight they're not ready to win.

This is the problem with the Obvious Questgiver model of adventure design. Both Keep on the Shadowfell and Thunderspire Labyrinth are replete with random strangers who have tasks they'd like someone to do. So when a basically well-intentioned Dragonborn idly mentions that it'd be swell if someone murdered the entire Duergar race, players are all too likely to obligingly note it in their quest logs.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009


I love this guy.

Brugg is one of the many denizens of the Seven-Pillared Hall. He's the face of the non-magical enforcers employed by the Mages of Saruun. He's your typical brutish, aggressive ogre, and players will likely butt heads with him several times over the course of the adventure.

His job is to "keep the peace", "collect protection money", and "act as muscle for the mages". It doesn't require the DM to read far past his Chaotic Evil alignment and his devastating Greatclub attack to know that Brugg isn't going to be buddy-buddy with the players.

In the ordinary course of events, this is the kind of bully players would swat in the opening act as a warm-up to getting down to the real dungeoneering. However, his status as an employee of the Mages puts him in a unique position.

There's no question that the Seven-Pillared Hall only exists by the grace of the Mages of Saruun. It's fear of their power that keeps everyone in line, and lets halflings, tieflings, duergar and drow commingle without murdering each other in the street. If a little rough-and-ready hired help is the price of that peace, it's a price most of the Hall's merchants are willing to pay.

As such, Brugg is a nuisance that players are going to have to put up with. Getting physical with the ogre may well have dire Mage-related consequences, which means that the DM can play Brugg as loud and swelteringly obnoxious as he likes for much of the adventure before the big thug finally gets his comeuppance.

It's good drama. Brugg brings a sense of tension to the Hall, and helps define its rough-cut frontier charm. He's the physical face of the Mages' magical muscle, which (as we'll eventually see) is critical in maintaining the Mages as a real, active presence in the story.

It's also good roleplaying. When players see Brugg threatening their new friend Rendil, they're going to have to resolve the situation without combat. When Brugg demands an "entrance tax" from newcomers, they'll need to pay up or do some fast talking. Brugg is a first step towards reversing Keep's "all combat, all the time" game philosophy, and if he'd been followed up with more of the same, Thunderspire could have been a memorable and compelling adventure.

What Brugg represents, of course, is the rival. He's the perpetual challenge to the players' superiority, a challenge that can't simply be erased by violence. Ideally, there'd be a Brugg in every adventure of every campaign. He's a spur that keeps players striving to be better, in the knowledge that their every mistake lowers them to the level of the peanut gallery.

I think, though, that the best part of Brugg was getting to put the awesome ogre miniature above on the table.

About Face (and the Seven-Pillared Hall)

Sorry for the delay. Long work hours sometimes get the best of posting. But the delay has given me time to reconsider my opinion of the current adventure. I've been saying that Thunderspire Labyrinth is, in the final analysis, a good module.

But... that's just plainly not true.

I'm not saying it's Keep on the Shadowfell. It's not nearly as rampantly delinquent and it's got a good supply of strong ideas scattered up and down its spine. But it's a flop. It's an adventure straining against its own constraints, unable to make its scattering of strong points work together as a cohesive whole.

We'll get into why soon enough (providing I'm not sidelined by more 50-hour work weeks) but for now my schedule says I should be posting about the Seven-Pillared Hall.

Thunderspire Labyrinth's quest hub is the Seven-Pillared hall, a large cavern which houses the offices of a number of influential trading companies. The area serves as a kind of business precinct, where merchants of the surface world come to do business with the drow and the duergar. The whole area is watched over by the Mages of Saruun, a mysterious order of knowledge-seekers who tamed this part of the mountain a half-generation ago.

The place feels like a frontier town. There's grizzled prospectors, unscrupulous entrepreneurs, friendly innkeepers, and brutish enforcers. All it needs is Al Swearengen delivering racial epithets for it to be the fantasy equivalent of HBO's Deadwood.

Unlike Keep on the Shadowfell's town of Winterhaven, the Seven-Pillared Hall is functional. It has everything adventurers will need to spend a very long time exploring the labyrinth. Magical items and rituals are on sale, there's a competent clergy able to raise the dead, and the outpost features a constant flow of interesting characters ready to hand out sidequests.

Oh, such sidequests. It seems like Thunderspire is more interested in its sidequests than in the main plot. And this is one of the problems of the Hall. There's a lot on offer here for players to discover - but will players discover it? Presuming the DM used the Slave Rescue plot hook, the players are here to rescue some slaves. It's a time-critical mission. Casually exploring the Seven-Pillared Hall and getting friendly with its denizens runs specifically contrary to the story's central drive.

Perhaps this is why the plot hooks were so casually glossed over. Perhaps Thunderspire wants you to be metaphorically yawning and stretching your limbs when you get to the Hall. There's certainly a heap to do, very little of it related to the task of slave-rescuing.

On the other hand, Thunderspire promises to cover levels 4 to 6. The main quest spine alone will take you from the start of level 4 to the start of level 7 even with a couple of skipped encounters. Players who want to spend more time in Thunderspire will need the DM to thin out the XP to avoid outlevelling the content - further prolonging 4th Edition's gruelling "sour spot".

It's a dilemma. Thunderspire wants to be a player-directed open-world environment full of places to explore and secrets to discover - but at the same time it wants to be a focused race against the clock to save imperilled innocents from evil denizens of the dark. It reaches for both at the same time and ends up hurting itself in the process.

I'm going to proceed on the basis that players and DMs intend to complete the main quest spine. I've not had a chance to experience what happens if you throw out the slave rescue and run it as a more sedate, un-directed experience, but if any of you have tried that let me know how it went in the comments.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

The Sweet Spot

At level 5 you get Fireball.

If I remember one thing about my time with Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 2nd Edition, it's that at level 5 you get Fireball. Also Lightning Bolt and Dispel Magic.

In previous editions of Dungeons & Dragons there's a sweet spot. It starts at level 5 and continues on to about level 9. Your hit points are finally high enough that you're unlikely to die from a single unlucky hit. You've got some magic items in your pack. Your magic-users and clerics have evolved from dress-wearing weaklings into fire-throwing killbots and you're finally getting to fight something other than goblins and kobolds.

Later, the shine wore off. Both enemies and players gained access to a range of one-shot-kill attacks, while high level healing spells trivialised death into a revolving door. Non-casting classes became overshadowed by their godlike dress-wearing allies and on the rare occasions when no-one busted out the death rays combats would devolve into an attrition-based slog.

One of the explicit goals of 4th Edition was to take the 5-9 sweet spot and extend it out over the entire game. Largely, it seems to have worked. Almost every level in the game is pretty fun. Except, ironically, for levels 4 to 6. It's an unfortunate aspect of Thunderspire Labyrinth that it lines up its worst content with the dullest point of the Heroic Tier.

How are levels 4, 5 and 6 the weak point? Like so.

New characters are shiny. Usually they're a class, race, or build that you've never played before. They have a range of new mechanics and a new feel to them. You get at least two at-wills, an encounter power, and a daily. You're in a new campaign with new house rules, a new environment to explore, and new party members to come to grips with. At level 2 you get a utility power and at level 3 you get an encounter power, which you can use in each and every encounter if you're so inclined.

Level 4 is when it goes south. You get no new powers at all. Instead you get a couple of stat-ups and a feat. At level 5, you get a daily - something you'll probably only use once a session. And then at level 6 you get another utility - which is, again, most often a daily.

This means at exactly the point where the shine is coming off your initial new-character love affair, the game stops handing out new toys. Whatever it is that you're doing to kill enemies at level 3 is pretty much what you'll be doing in every fight until level 7.

That's a long, hard slog. With a new Player's Handbook or Power supplement coming out every other month, it's tough not to think about re-rolling during the winter levels.

The solution is on the DM side. Level 4 to 6 is the time to take off the training wheels. Encounters should be harder, leaner, and just plain meaner. Loot should be more plentiful and players should be living or dieing on the basis of their initiative and cunning. It's time to present bizarre monsters, baffling traps and your most intricate dungeon setpieces.

It's Thunderspire's tragedy to throttle back on all those things just when it should be stepping up the pace. It takes players for a leisurely stroll through a hobgoblin hideout when it wants to be pitting them in a desperate struggle. It's got a series of knock-down fights against dwarves where it should have an intricate diplomatic contest. Players accustomed to Keep's focus on minions and terrain will find not a single minion awaiting them in the Labyrinth and only the driest of tactical layouts on offer. Where Keep was showing off a different 4th Edition mechanic in every combat, Thunderspire is happy to confine itself to the most basic actions contemplated by the Player's Handbook.

Thunderspire eventually takes off the gloves. The module's third mini-dungeon, the Well of Demons, busts loose with a fiesta of classic dungeoneering, including traps, puzzles, skill challenges, and cursed artefacts. The "Proving Grounds" section of the Well is one of the best set-pieces ever presented in a published adventure.

But by the time players reach this point, it may well be too late. Over the early parts of the module, the shine well and truly wears off 4th Edition, and the level 4-6 Sour Spot will cause the majority of groups to fall to ennui before getting the chance to actually experience the final third of the Heroic tier.


Would it have been so problematic to move the Level 7 Encounter to Level 5, the 5 Daily to 6, and the 6 Utility to 7? It creates a more natural flow over the early levels of the game and puts less pressure on the DM to keep things interesting over this critical period.

[2] Races are an underused element of 4th Edition. Would the addition of a Level 5 Racial Encounter Power, gained on top of the existing Daily, help fix 4th Edition's Sour Spot?

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Into The Mountain

As far as 4th Edition goes, it's good DMing to shoehorn a little combat into the first session of a new adventure. It breaks up the exposition, provides a bit of early catharsis, and lets players really get physical with an unfamiliar environment.

Sometimes it works better than others, though. The "Into The Mountain" encounter at the start of Thunderspire Labyrinth feels clunky, hurried, and awkward. On top of which, just finding the encounter is a quest in itself.

The encounter takes place in the context of the players' arrival at Thunderspire Mountain. After passing through the Minotaur Gate, the PCs find themselves on the Road of Lanterns, a 30-foot wide tunnel hewn out of the mountain flanked by rows of sculpted demons holding everburning lanterns. This is the central trade route into the mountain from the surface world, and the impression is less that players are about to plumb the festering depths of the Underdark than that they are approaching something grand and wondrous - which indeed they are, providing you can make the Seven-Pillared Hall live up to its potential.

It's not clear where "Into the Mountain" is supposed to take place. The encounter description has it happening "once the adventurers enter the mountain passage" or "a short distance from the Seven-Pillared Hall". The hobgoblins in the encounter "stay near the Seven-Pillared Hall", and yet are only "a short way into the mountain". It sounds like something our handy-dandy map of the Labyrinth could fix; unfortunately cartographer and writer don't seem to have been working hand-in-hand, as the map shows the encounter beyond the Hall, requiring players to have already visited the quest hub before arriving at this destination.

It almost seems as if the module-writers are deliberately trying to hide this encounter. Not only is it geographically vague, but however you look at it, it's off the beaten path. It takes place in a room that runs off a side-passage which itself runs off the main path to the Seven-Pillared Hall. The only indication to players that there's something here they might want to investigate is a distant trickle of light from the room's open door.

Let's assume players find the encounter. Let's assume they get involved. What they have here is the chance to make an ally. Rendil Halfmoon, a halfling inhabitant of the Seven-Pillared Hall, is being menaced by a group of the very Bloodreaver Slavers the party happen to be looking for. Being the merciless doers-of-good that they are, the players will naturally come to Rendil's defence and kick some hobgoblin butt up and down the mountain.

This isn't a terribly tough battle, although it does include one of those Hobgoblin Warcasters that I love so much. In the dull terrain here he doesn't get a chance to shine, but it's a quick reminder to players what the hobs are capable of before they tackle them later in the first of Thunderspire's mini-dungeons. The Warcaster's also, for the purposes of this encounter, the voice of the Bloodreavers, and the module encourages the DM to use to him to really get on the players' bad side. If the players weren't already on board for a kind of anti-slaver crusade, this is another chance to get a feud going between them and the hobgoblins.

The room's tactically uninteresting. There's a range of tables and barrels that can be kicked over or stood on, but there's little real advantage in these tactics and in the end result the room just feels cramped and awkward.

The whole thing ends with the hobgobglins beaten and a greatful Rendil offering the players accomodation at the Seven-Pillared Hall. It gives the players a guide to what's on offer in the mountain, and puts a friendly face on an upcoming quest-hub that ultimately has more ne'er-do-wells than genuine allies.


Why is this encounter so confusingly tucked away? The Road of Lanterns is a great location. It's dramatic, and open enough to be interesting. Wouldn't it have been easier to set the encounter on the Road itself, possibly with the hobs assaulting a wrecked wagon belonging to Rendil?

[2] The encounter specifies players can overhear a conversation between Rendil and the hobgoblins if they make a DC 10 Perception check. This is less than players' passive perception (which at level 4 is at a minimum of 11), and as such is an auto-success - they don't even have to roll. Is this a typographical error, or does it date back to an earlier prototype of the rules than that eventually published?

Friday, May 1, 2009

The Labyrinth

Thunderspire Labyrinth's titular maze may well not meet player expectations. Those who have seen the module's title may be imagining a kind of classic mega-dungeon, with level upon level of sprawling, mappable corridors. In the alternative, it would seem reasonable for the Labyrinth to pose some kind of direct challenge to the ingenuity of players and their characters.

In practice, the Labyrinth has little to no mechanical effect. It "covers nearly a square mile, with hundreds of chambers and passages", and "is too convoluted to be completely mapped". A rough outline (above) is provided to the DM, although it bears no relationship to any of the descriptions of distance and location scattered throughout the module. Moreover, "hundreds of small chambers and halls [...] aren't shown", and "even the major roads include countless intersections and smaller passages".

The way this works in practice is that players will need guides or accurate directions to reach a destination. Much like a computer game, players can visit new areas only once they are "added to the map".

If players try to explore without guidance, they risk wandering lost for hours before eventually ending up at a random choice of one of the module's major quest destinations. Interestingly, this can have the effect of bringing them straight to the penultimate mini-dungeon, bypassing the majority of the module's content. That's probably an effect of the module as-written that DMs should feel free to completely ignore.

Foreshadowing At The Minotaur Gate

I've got a lot of nice things to say about this module, but unfortunately it's going to take a while before we get to them. Right now, I've got a problem with foreshadowing. We've barely finished talking about Chekhov's Gun, and Thunderspire Labyrinth is doing it wrong already.

Thunderspire Mountain is, as the name implies, a huge mountain whose tip is constantly swathed in swirling storms. Within the mountain lies the ruins of the abandoned minotaur city of Saruun Khel. The minotaurs apparently once ruled this area, until a civil war broke out between followers of the demon-god Baphomet and cultists of Torog, the King Who Crawls. Now their once-mighty streets are infested with hobgoblins, duergar, and worse.

Players don't necessarily have access to this information up front. However, the module isn't subtle in showing off its flavour. The players approach the undermountain through "a 50-foot-tall stone archway hewn out of the mountainside", on each side of which "a towering minotaur statue stands [...] glowering down at travellers."

This is foreshadowing. This is giant letters writ across the shape of what is yet to come, spelling out "Here Be Minotaurs" in stark red writing. This is telling players that Thunderspire is watched over by ancient guardians, and those guardians have the head of a bull.

Even as your players pass beneath this archway, they'll be sharpening their weapons and patting each other on the back and declaring, "Oh boy! Minotaurs!" Minotaurs are a classic enemy, yet not so overused as to feel cliched. They're a great theme villain for 4th Edition's second outing, and the idea of taking on a tribe of these beasties in the claustrophobic setting of a ruined underound city is enough to get you really excited about what's coming up.

Unfortunately, it's not to be. There's not hide nor hair of a living minotaur to be seen throughout the length of Thunderspire. Again and again, the module serves up minotaur statues, minotaur corpses, minotaur carvings and minotaur loot, but the cow-men themselves are nowhere to be seen. Thunderspire marches proudly through hobgoblins, duergar, gnolls, and a very human master villain without ever firing the gun it spends the entirety of its flavour-text loading.

It's not the last time we're going to see this kind of misguided foreshadowing, either. We're going to see a beholder-themed Chamber of Eyes that's missing a beholder, a Horned Hold devoid of horns, and a Tower With No Doors featuring a very prominent door. There's the mysteriously absent Mages of Saruun whose vanishing is never resolved, no less than five different evil gods to offend who never take their vengeance, and by ironic contrast the final villain comes completely out of left-field with no solid connection to anything that's gone before.

On the plus side, though, we're going to get to see a dragon...