Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Chamber of Statues

A good trap has personality. A good trap feels like a malign force, a cruel enemy with a vicious sense of humour. A good trap seems to laugh at you even as it unleashes its several stages of lethal surprise.

The Chamber of Statues doesn't quite hurdle that bar. It's a little charmless, and it's competent rather than clever, but it nevertheless succeeds in providing a reasonable non-combat challenge for the players.

As the name suggests, this encounter is characterised by the presence of several statues. It features a gargantuan statue of a swordsman, two smaller statues of dragons, and then a collection of sculpted cherubs holding amphoras near the far door.

The room is an Obvious Trap. Players of any experience know that rooms with no visible enemies are more than they seem. When you add a collection of statues into the equation, it doesn't take a genius to see the rough shape of what's coming.

That's okay, though. Traps should speak ahead of themselves. While, strictly speaking, a completely undetectable trap is more effective, it's less dramatically interesting, and often more than a little unfair. Part of the fun of traps is knowing there's one coming, but not knowing exactly what form it will take or how to protect against it.

When players enter the room, the door locks behind them, and the big statue starts swinging its sword in a circle. Characters within its arc take damage and get knocked prone. There's only a thin space around the western edge of the room that's out of range, although there's a much larger vacant area near the dragon statues.

The dragons, naturally, are dangerous too. When PCs step between them and the swordsman, the dragons fire a force blast which pushes those it hits back into the swordsman's reach.

One place where this encounter falls short is in disarming the trap. A good trap should have several viable paths for countering it. Here avoidance is a good strategy, but players may also want to attack the statue or attempt to disarm it. The module provides rules for both these ideas, but both the difficulty and the amount of time required for success make them all but useless. Players who try to think outside the box will be brutally shut down if the encounter is run as printed.

Once players have passed the swordsman and dragons, they come to the water-bearing cherubs. Once a player has stepped between the cherubs, a magical curtain of force descends, sealing them in the area near the door (which is of course locked), and an unending torrent of magical water starts spilling from the amphoras. In three rounds it reaches a sufficient height to fully submerge the trapped player, and then commences rotating like a whirlpool, smashing its victim against the walls.

The trap falls down a little here too. Getting out of the water trap involves either smashing the cherubs, "disarming" them with Thievery, or "unmagicking" them with Arcana. It's not immediately obvious, without a little DM prompting, that the cherubs protrude through the magical barrier, allowing players outside the trap to help, nor is it clear how Thievery might help in overcoming what is apparently a magical trap. The solution is neither intuitive nor logical, which makes it that much less satisfying when you hit upon it.

Furthermore, the trap reckons without the Eladrin fey step power. In the second group that I saw attempt this room, the victim was an Eladrin fighter, who was able to contemptuously teleport to safety and watch the trap rather pathetically attempt to drown an empty room.

In any case, assuming the players actually do attempt to break the cherubs to stop the trap, they'll discover that the dragon statues have a magically increased range once the water trap is activated, and each interference with the cherubs provokes another force blast. It's challenging, but it's also frustrating and more than a little cheap.

Players who eventually overcome the combination of traps might well be asking exactly how Kalarel and his minions deal with this room on a daily basis, given it's the only way into the final chambers of Kalarel's lair. The answer is simple, explains the module - the traps only target non-evil creatures, duh.

Possibly if Kalarel was spending less time sculpting massive magical statues of swordsmen and building pretty little stone angels, he might have already opened the rift to the Shadowfell and made this whole business redundant.

Monday, March 30, 2009


Having the courage of your convictions is important.

4th Edition is full of bold moves towards a new philosophy of game design. It makes many sweeping changes to Dungeons & Dragons, and is unapologetic. But there's a few places where it seems hesitant - where it knows it needs to change, but seems unwilling to let go of the past.

One of these is alignment.

D&D's treatment of alignment is infamous. Past editions have posited that all ethical and moral codes can be pigeonholed into one of nine squares on a three-by-three grid. An individual is either Good (self-sacrificing), Evil (selfish) or Neutral (governed by enlightened self-interest). Simultaneously they are either firm adherents to a social contract (Lawful), wilfull sociopaths (Chaotic), or pragmatists who follow rules so far as convenient (Neutral).

This charmingly simple ideology gives a lot of flavour to early editions of D&D, and its concept of morality as an easily defined matrix is very attractive to the mid-to-late-teen demographic of the hobby. However, it's been holding the game back in a number of ways.

By presenting nine alignments, the game implied that all nine were valid choices for player characters. The sort of players most inclined to play Chaotic Evil characters were typically those least suited to play them. "Roleplaying your character" in the context of evil PCs was often translated into "being a jerk", and party after party lost sight of the game's core dungeon-crawling gameplay amid internicine morality wars and backstabbing. Rather than encouraging roleplaying, the alignment system ended up straightjacketing players into some decidedly odd patterns of play.

4th Edition tries to throw alignment out the window. The developers have looked around and seen that no one else in any medium is using this mechanic. Dungeons and Dragons has found its way to a lonely little ideological island where the roleplaying mainland is only barely in sight.

Moreover, the developers have remembered what Dungeons and Dragons is good at. It's about heroic fantasy, with the emphasis on heroic. If the players aren't running heroes then they need to take a good hard look at why they're playing the game in the first place.

To this end, the alignment system has been pared down. The nine point system is gone. In its place is a continuum with five divisions. There's Lawful Good, plain old Good, Neutral, Evil, and the mad cackling extreme of Chaotic Evil. The two evil alignments are specifically forbidden to players. The book is explicit - you can make a regular hero, or an anti-hero, but by Pelor you're going to make a hero.

Gone too are most of the mechanical effects of alignment. Paladins are no longer required to be Lawful Good. There are no weapons that can only be wielded by those of correct alignment. Even the Great Wheel of the Planes, where each alignment was represented by a heavenly realm, has been cast aside in favour of a confused bipolar scatter of worlds.

It's a great improvement. It theoretically opens the door to more types of character, and more types of story. Players can play their character as they feel they should without stopping every five seconds to debate whether they are correctly representing their alignment. Paladins are as narratively interesting as any other class on offer.

But you have to wonder why the developers didn't go the rest of the way down the path. Why not scrap alignment altogether?

I think the answer lies in the realm of contrast. I think we still have Good and Lawful Good so that the game could retain Evil and Chaotic Evil. I think we have alignment not so the game can say, "Act like this," but so it can say, "Don't act like this."

Dungeons and Dragons is not a game of greys; it's a game of black and white, and by retaining the extremes of the alignment system it's drawing a line, and telling us which side the players should be standing on.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Corridors of the Cube

It seems like a safe bet the Gelatinous Cube will not be winning the current Eleven Foot Poll, so I'm going to go ahead and talk about it in the context of my favourite encounter in Keep on the Shadowfell, the Corridors of the Cube.

Ten foot square corridors are a staple of D&D. I love them dearly, but they don't make the slightest bit of sense. After all, excavation is hard, expensive work. It is not cost effective to make tunnels any wider or higher than they absolutely have to be.

Here in what is ostensibly a military keep you might have expected cramped passages, maybe four foot across, only just wide enough for two people to move quickly in opposite directions - but no, the builders have decided what is good enough for Gygax is good enough for them. You see it, too, in dwarven architecture, where the stubby little diggers have allowed themselves enough headroom to give each other piggy-back rides. Hell, the corridor in my house is only three feet wide, and it seems to get the job done.

One of the things I love about D&D is that these kind of mechanical cliches are not just prevalent, but so prevalent that entire ecologies have grown around them. In the Corridors of the Cube we encounter the Gelatinous Cube, a transparent ooze in the precise shape of the corridor. It is a ten foot invisible cube, with its edges exactly scraping the corridor walls.

Let's point out this isn't just a monster specifically evolved to live within a standard RPG dungeon. It's a creature specfically evolved to hunt adventurers in an RPG dungeon. One of the Cube's biggest advantages is its transparency. You can see right through it, which means that, like a particularly fine spiderweb, you can not even notice it's there until you've already walked into it.

That only works on humanoids. Creatures with heightened hearing - like, say, anything naturally living underground - won't be fooled by transparency, and will hear it coming a mile away. Anything that can see in the infra-red will notice its distinctive heat signature. It's only humanoids, with their reliance on traditional light sources and edge-recognition, who'll fall prey to its camouflage.

In Corridors of the Cube, we find the Cube in its natural habitat. Players enter from the north and then have the choice of heading east or west. The Cube waits in its alcove to the east, and won't be detected unless players specifically walk into that space. Once players have picked an end of the corridor to walk to, the Cube emerges and gets between them and the exit.

If they've gone east, the Cube will take a leisurely ooze down the corridor and engulf the players at its leisure. Once engulfed, players take 10 ongoing acid damage and become dazed, and have to make an escape check (Acrobatics vs Reflex or Athletics vs Fortitude) to get out. It can engulf multiple players on a single turn, and characters who escape end up back next to the Cube with their turn used up, so actually getting away from the thing is next to impossible.

If players go west, they're in for even more problems. The room to the southwest holds two Corruption Corpses, a disgusting kind of zombie that throws pieces of its own flesh from range and deals aura damage to anyone who gets close. The Cube will literally drive the players into the corpses, until they're taking the zombies' aura damage even while engulfed.

When players eventually triumph over Cube and Corpses, they get the chance to ransack the room to the east of the zombies. Here they find a collection of children's toys belonging to Ceinwein and Drystan Keegan. Reading between the lines, it's not hard to draw the conclusion that the two zombies outside are intended to be the resurrected bodies of Sir Keegan's murdered children, which potentially makes for a poignant, yet disturbing, moment.

Alternatively, if you're not keen on your players beating up child zombies, a second possibility is that the children still rest in their graves, and the zombies are the knights set to guard over their corpses. Although one has to again wonder where Sir Keegan found time to build coffins and set guards during his busy schedule of slaughtering every man, woman and child in the keep and then killing himself.

This is a nearly perfect encounter. It's mechanically sound, it's tactically interesting, it's clearly explained, it surprises the players without being unfair, it ties in to the backstory, and there's worthwhile treasure at the end of it in the form of a safewing amulet +1.


[1] Where did the Cube come from? The door into the area has been hastily boarded up and marked "Closed", but it's unclear whether this is hobgoblin work or an act of the keep's original inhabitants. The ecology of the Gelatinous Cube is something that does not bear much scrutiny.

Nowhere Room

So as we're moving towards the last few encounters of Keep on the Shadowfell, I just thought I'd briefly mention that there's this room on the second floor of the dungeon that isn't connected to any encounters and is, in fact, totally empty.

Nothing wrong with that; it's just the only space like it in the module. Possibly it was intended as a place for the players to fight the hobgoblins if they walk by the barracks and council room without going in?


Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Poll Result: Al-Qadim

Screw you all, you Dragonlance-hating trogolodytes. This week's Eleven Foot Poll has returned Forgotten Realms as your campaign setting of choice, which just goes to show you can lead a horse to water but you can't make him stop having sex with R. A. Salvatore.


Anyway, I'd really been hoping to talk about why Dark Sun was awesome or something but in deference to your expressed preference I'll instead discuss the greatest D&D setting of all time: Al-Qadim.

Al-Qadim came out in 1992 and was designed by Jeff Grubb for TSR as their "Arabian setting". Forever a fan of having the best of both worlds, TSR plunked the thing down on a distant peninsula of the Forgotten Realms and declared that it was now open season on genies

If you have ever wanted a character who was really frikkin' good at riding camels, Al-Qadim was like all your birthdays at once. There were whole character classes built around camels. Camels were the new drow; everyone wanted to mount one. Also there were genies. Genies, and camels.

The depth and versimilitude of Al-Qadim was probably best illustrated by the supplement A Dozen And One Adventures, which encompassed the entirety of the setting's dramatic potential. Complaints that the setting had nothing to offer beyound camels and genies were rebuffed by the release of the computer game Al-Qadim: The Genie's Curse, and the Al-Qadim Monstrous Compendium, which proudly promised rules for a host of new and unique creatures, such as genies, and a kind of intelligent camel.

Actually, probably my favourite thing to emerge from Al-Qadim were the yikaria, or yak-men. In a world that had lizard-men, wolf-men, and walrus-men, the lack of yak-men was a kind of racial imbalance that cried out for rectification. I can only assume that rules for playable 4th Edition yak-men are being developed even as we speak.

So in summary, that is why the Forgotten Realms are awesome. Thank you for your time.

It Looks Like A Nail

This is the front page of the default 4th Edition character sheet, as presented in the Player's Handbook.

There is an adage that says when your only tool is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. In fact, I wrote a post about it over on my videogaming blog.

Players solve problems in terms of the tools that they're presented with. If you started your play session by giving your players a booklet of witty quotations, you're influencing your players to think of your game as one that they should approach through dialogue. If you start play by giving everyone a musical instrument instead of their character sheet, you're going to end up with a musical game.

What tools does 4th Edition give its players?

Here is another view of the 4th Edition character sheet. In this version, I have obscured with red all the portions which wholly or primarily relate to the character's combat effectiveness.

That's more than three quarters of the sheet. We're left with character name, weight, height, alignment, skills, perception, and languages known. The 4th Edition character sheet is very unsubtly telling players that the solution to their problems is combat.

Combat is what 4th Edition does well. There is no shame in having a lot of it, if 4th Edition is what you are playing. But I frequently hear frustration from DMs who find it difficult to get some story in amongst all the initiative rolls and encounter powers.

The answer can be a simple as rearranging the character sheet. The official Character Builder tool allows you to rearrange page elements and spread the sheet over multiple pages. If you want your characters to think just a moment longer before drawing their weapons, try moving their combat powers to the back of the sheet, and moving the "personality traits" and "character background" sections onto the front. There are many homebrew sheet layouts available on the web that make this change.

In summary, if you want your game to stop being just a series of nails, try moving the hammer just a little further out of reach.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Warchief's Council Room

The Warchief's Council Room is another confusing muddle of an encounter.

The squares marked "T" are a trap. When the trap is sprung, a portcullis drops into place ahead of the party - that is, stopping them from entering this area. An alarm also sounds in the rooms behind the portcullis, alerting the hobgoblins within.

The first observation to make is that, as written, the hobgoblins have no way of lifting their own portcullis other than breaking it down. Theoretically PCs triggering the trap can happily walk off again, content that they've locked the hobgoblins into their own rooms. But let's assume there's some hidden mechanism the hobs know about that's not noted in the encounter.

The portcullis is a waste of space. The hobs inside don't have any archers. It's not like they can snipe at the PCs as they try to break down the grate. In fact, if they emerge from their rooms at all prior to the portcullis being broken, they risk being picked off by ranged attacks from the PC.

So the room ends up being a straight fight, with an annoying delay at the start. It's almost identical to the Hobgoblin Barracks, with the Warcaster replaced by a Warchief. The Warchief is pretty nasty in this kind of enclosed space, as he has a rechargable burst attack that shifts all his allies up to three squares, and when he hits with an attack he offers all his allies +2 to hit that target until the end of his next turn.

It's hard not to think that the trap was intended to be on the other side of the gate, sealing the PCs in once they trigger it, rather than locking them out. With no avenue of escape, and possibly some players caught outside the portcullis, this would be a much more interesting (and lethal) battle.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Hobgoblin Barracks

I looked before at the idea of equivocation, where a DM can ostensibly present a choice, but use subtle cues to induce the player to pick the result he wants. At the time I speculated as to whether it had been used intentionally in the Goblin Guard Room. In the Hobgoblin Barracks, we learn that it wasn't.

There are two ways to leave the Hobgoblin Guard Room. Both are open passages; one leads south, and the other leads east. Players will go south.

Seriously. Players will go south. Run the room, see what happens.

There's several factors at work here. Players entered the room from stairs, also to the south. Heading south through another passage is "tighter" - it keeps players nearer to their entry point as the crow flies, which acts subconciously even if both directions are equally far in walking distance. Also, there's a symmetry at work. The room to the west of the Hobgoblin Guard Room is a dead end; it cues players to think that the east is also a dead end (which, it turns out, it is).

I've already looked at dead ends in Keep on the Shadowfell. The entire cave system is a useless appendage hanging off the main dungeon spine. Here again, in the hobgoblin area, we find a part of the dungeon that players have no real reason to visit. Going south takes them straight past this area, and so most parties will never see it.

The Hobgoblin Barracks is a straight fight. The hobs get to show off their squad tactics, which they missed out on in the Guard Room. The soldiers and grunts here get +2 AC when they're base to base with an ally; the archer gives a nearby ally an attack bonus whenever it fires. The bumbling creatures who so easily fell down pits in the last room are suddenly vicious killers, and this fight can go sour on the players very quickly.

The Hobgoblin Warcaster here is one of my favourite low-level monsters, and I was pretty excited that they used him again in the opening encounters of Thunderspire Labyrinth, the follow-up module. He's got a Force Lure, which damages an opponent and slides them up to three squares, and a Force Pulse which hits everyone in close blast 5, pushes them a square, and knocks them prone. They're rechargable so with a bit of luck he can be doing one of these practically every turn. It's pure havoc and it works great with the other hobs.

The module suggests that if players don't enter this room and instead pass it by, the hobs will come out and ambush them during the next encounter. The next encounter for players who walk by is either going to be a room full of traps or a gelatinous cube. Either way, the ambushing hobs are going to get significantly more than they bargained for.


[1] Both the trap room and the gelatinous cube are good encounters, and they're both extremely dangerous. As fun as it would be to introduce hobs to them, it'll break one of the best two encounters on this floor of the dungeon, and you're risking a TPK, for no better reason than that the players went the way the map layout suggested. As much as it hurts to lose this encounter and the next hobgoblin room, the best policy is don't ask, don't tell - if the players don't ask what's in this part of the map, don't ever tell them.

[2] If you want to run the hobgoblin areas, it's as simple as adding some description when it comes time for players to leave the Guard Room. Tell them that to the east they can hear scraping and cursing, reminiscent of more hobgoblins hurriedly strapping on battle armour. If they don't boot down the door to clear the area, you can at least feel justified in springing the hobs in a later encounter, knowing that the players made a meaningful choice based on actual information.

Sunday, March 22, 2009


How much is winning initiative worth?

In 4th Edition, your initiative is the result of a d20 roll, plus half your level, plus your dexterity modifier. Higher numbers act earlier in each round than lower numbers. You only make one roll per combat, which persists across subsequent rounds.

In previous editions, there were a host of very powerful abilities, from Sleep through to Power Word: Kill, which could substantially alter the battlefield, if only you could cast them before the enemy acted. In 4th Edition, everyone has more hit points, and "save vs death" effects are gone, so the chances of a first-round kill are substantially less.

I've heard it said that acting before the monsters is like getting an extra turn in combat that you otherwise wouldn't. That's a fair way of looking at it, and an extra turn in 4th Edition is a very valuable commodity indeed.

There is also the luxury of being able to delay your action; you may, on your initiative, choose to not act until some later point in the round. If you have not used your action by the end of the round, it is forfeited. Once you take the action, your initiative for the rest of the combat is set to whatever point in the initiative queue you ended up actually acting. This option is therefore much more useful when you start with a good initiative result.

In addition, on the first round of combat, and the first round only, Rogues gain combat advantage against any enemies that they beat at initiative. This is usually the difference between them being able to backstab for 2d6 (or 2d8) additional damage, and not.

It's probably fair to say that, for non-Rogues, beating the enemy at initiative is worth, on average, about 1[W] damage (the base damage of your weapon) per combat in the Heroic Tier. That's taking account of the possibility of misses and suchlike. Let's call it 1d8 damage. So what does it cost to win initiative?

Firstly, it's worth noting that initiative is keyed off the Dexterity stat only. By contrast, the four defence values are each keyed to the best of a pair of statistics. AC takes your best of Dexterity and Intelligence, for example. Fortitude takes Strength or Constitution. When Initiative breaks the mold, it's telling you that it specifically doesn't want to give a high initiative to casters, who would have benefited from the Dex / Int pairing - only to strikers, the Dex side of the equation.

Why not to casters? While save vs death effects may be gone, casters are still in possession of vicious AoE damage and debuffs. Giving enemies the chance to scramble for cover before getting nuked makes for a more interesting game - one where the presence of a caster doesn't automatically result in the other side getting debuffed in the first round. The Dexterity focus also adds more flavour to the strikers. Seeing Rogues and Rangers act before anyone else becomes part of what makes their class distinctive.

To buy a better initiative than your Dexterity would other permit requires feats. Improved Initiative adds 4 to your initiative. It's not coincidence that that's the same bonus you'd get from an 18 or 19 in Dexterity. The feat is, effectively, letting you be treated as a striker for the purpose of initiative.

Improved Initiative should be enough to let you act before same-level enemies about 50% of the time. So, 1d8 once per combat in every second combat. That's two extra damage per combat, on average. It's probably worth a little extra because it's giving you options, as well as damage.

Compare to Weapon Focus, which gives +1 on damage whenever you hit with your chosen weapon group - which should really translate to "whenever you hit". How often do you land an attack in a typical battle? Two or three times? So that's... a little over two damage per combat?

It seems balanced. Note, however, that I was working on averages in regard to initiative. This is the bonus you get if you enter combat with an attack that deals 1[W] + stat damage. If your average damage is significantly larger, but you're not already winning initiative - that is, if you're a warlock, or a damage-focused fighter, or suchlike - then your benefit from moving up the initiative queue is significantly higher.

Note also that Improved Initiative continues to deliver a high value beyond the Heroic Tier. While adding half your level to initiative means that a +4 bonus becomes a progressively smaller part of your initiative total, it still scales much better than Weapon Focus' +1 damage, which becomes comparitively useless beyond about level 5.

Improved Initiative is one of the more valuable feats in the Player's Handbook, and if you're focused on maximising your damage it's an option that merits some serious consideration.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Hobgoblin Guard Room

There are few things that Keep on the Shadowfell enjoys more than repeating itself. Those who remember that the first level of the dungeon started with a room full of goblinoids and a pit will be unsurprised to find that the second level, too, starts with a room full of goblinoids. And a pit.

This time around it's hobgobglins, the larger, better disciplined big cousin to our runty goblin friends. As the players come down the stairs, the hobgoblins challenge the players by asking them for a passphrase.

The players may indeed have a passphrase by now. A note found on Ninaran's dead body contained the cryptic words "From the ground, some magic was found", and seeing as Keep has never required any complicated mental arithmetics up until this point, players will be justified in thinking the connection between phrase and challenge is as obvious as it looks.

It's not; the room is a trap. Apparently Ninaran's "passphrase" was intended to warn Kalarel of her death. I mean, really, don't we all do that? Carry cryptic messages on our bodies, so that if we're murdered, and then our murderers travel half a day and fight through a bunch of goblins and undead to visit one of our friends, they might unwittingly inform our friends of their foul deeds?

Realistically, there's no way for the PCs to avoid a fight here. The hobgoblins will attack if no passphrase is given, and the hobgoblins will attack if they get the wrong passphrase. There's a right passphrase, but learning it involves catching Balgron the Fat alive, interrogating him, and knowing that you'll need a passphrase so that you can think to ask him what it is. So, really, that's not going to happen.

On the other hand, once the fight starts, it's not quite as hard as it looks. Two hobgoblins are obligingly standing directly between the players and the pit. If the players roll a high initiative, any of a number of forced-movement powers can knock the hobs over the edge and take them out of the fight. (The module reminds the reader about the bull rush rules at this point, just to make the point crystal clear.) It's a nice inversion of the Goblin Guard Room, where it was the players doing the falling.

The north end of the room has a caged Deathjump Spider, which two more hobgoblins rush to set free. This results in a kind of timed challenge; if players focus, it's a relatively simple matter to get to the hobs and kill them before they unlock the cage, but if they don't wise to the threat they'll have a nasty level 4 skirmisher joining the fray.

Unfortunately, the disparate elements don't really seem to come together. Mechanically, hobgoblins benefit from fighting shoulder-to-shoulder in tight formations. Between the odd starting locations (several hobs start in adjacent bedrooms), the spider and the well, the enemies will be all over the place, unable to really demonstrate their unique flavour. There's no leader or caster to provide a face to the battle, and both the pit-push and the caged spider are a little too binary - they either happen or they don't, and if the players win at these elements it's usually by the action of a single character before anyone else gets the chance to react.


[1] Add a Hobgoblin Warcaster in the western bedroom; this gives the fight a "face", and it adds some tactical support to help rally the remaining hobgoblins after a difficult first round. As a side benefit, it raises the challenge rating of the encounter to a level that will genuinely test the players. As we're about to see, this may be the player's only tangle with the Keep's hobgoblins, so it's worth making it memorable.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Sidetrek 3: Graveyard Exterior

The Dungeon #155 additions to Keep on the Shadowfell are by Peter Schaefer and, with all due respect to the man, he just keeps getting it wrong.

Side Trek 3, entitled "Graveyard Exterior", takes place immediately after the Dead Walk interlude. It turns out Kalarel has come to the (correct) conclusion that Ninaran is rather crap, and rather than relying on his Obvious Spy to take out the players alone, he's sent reinforcements - specifically, a one-of-a-kind animated corpse called Maw, and a small legion of zombie minions.

I've mentioned before that Kalarel is rather rubbish, so it's no surprise that Maw and company not only don't get to Ninaran in time to help, but fail to find any sort of beneficial terrain whatsoever. Players leaving the graveyard find the monsters milling around aimlessly in a largely barren field.

Okay, let's talk about the good before we launch into the bad. Maw, as a named undead, is a welcome bit of spice in what has otherwise been a dull blend of zombies and skeletons. If you're going to run several encounters around the same monster theme, you absolutely need to throw some personalities in there to differentiate the battles.

Maw's great. In addition to his evocative name, he also has an encounter power that lets him spawn four zombie minions in the spaces adjacent to him, which makes for a nice surprise for any solo characters who attempt to tank him. He's also got a ranged attack that lets him slide a target in a way that specifically provokes opportunity attacks from his allies.

Unfortunately, like Ninaran, he's relatively fragile, and if you've got a ranger in your party he'll be dead before he can show off what he can do. Also, as the centerpiece of this encounter, he's completely wasted on a map that offers him no favourable terrain whatsoever.

One thing I like about the Graveyard Exterior is it's entirely minions. The fun of minions comes from smashing them to bits at high speed. There's 18 of them here, plus another 4 from Maw's power, so if your players have ever had the slightest interesting in battling a real zombie horde, this is your chance to deliver.

The main problem with the encounter is this. The Dead Walk didn't need a follow-up encounter. It's almost perfect as a one-off battle. By the end of the interlude, the players are likely sick of zombies, and want to take a moment to feel good about killing Ninaran. There's no better way to ruin your session than by following something that worked with its identical and monotonous clone.

It's worth noting that nobody here except Maw has a ranged attack. Given that their express purpose is to kill the players, rather than ransack the countryside at large, there's nothing to stop the players pulling back through the graveyard gate, sticking a tank in the doorway, and blasting the zombies with AoE attacks when the undead group up at the choke point. To some extent, that's the charm of the minion-heavy setup, but a quick look at the map suggests that this probably wasn't intended to be the dominant strategy.


[1] The Graveyard Exterior is a very poor follow-up to the Dead Walk, but it does make for a good opening to it. Take the monsters off the horrible default map and move them to Winterhaven, and have the players fighting the horde of zombies at the very gates of their home base. Once they've lifted the undead siege, the villagers direct them to the real source of the problem - the Graveyard.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Poll Result: Eladrin

Last week's Eleven Foot Poll recorded an even split between Dwarf and Eladrin for "Favourite PHB Race". Seeing as one of those votes for Dwarf was mine, I'm going to declare Eladrin the winner.

I'm still a bit baffled as to why Eladrin were introduced to 4th Edition. Previous editions were already overflowing with pointy-eared ponces; if your straight-up Elf wasn't your style, you could take a Half-Elf or Drow, both of which have made the jump to 4th Edition, or look into a variety of High Elves, Wood Elves, Low Elves, Sea Elves, or other such aberrations.

Flavour-wise, Eladrin take elves back to their roots as the faeries of Celtic mythology. These are the archetypal fae, who can be mysteriously kind in the same breath as being horrifyingly cruel, who are monsters and angels all bound up in one. You could do worse as far as race concepts go, but it leaves one wondering exactly what's left for the Elves to claim as their own now that the Eladrin are in town.

Mechanically, Eladrin are a mixed bag. Both their "supermodels on steroids" appearance and their Eladrin Education racial (which gives them an extra trained skill at level 1) suggest that they may be aimed at roleplaying enthusiasts more than combat twinks. The stat boosts to Dexterity and Intelligence favour this interpretation, supporting as they do the Warlord, Rogue and Wizard classes.

On the other hand, Fey Step is a beast of a power, granting a once-per-encounter five-square teleport as a move action. That's tremendously powerful in battle, allowing rogues to regularly gain flanking when they need it most, and letting other melee classes invariably assume optimal tanking positions on the first turn while non-melee classes become almost impossible to pin down.

Fey Step needs to be that good; it's competing with some deceptively useful abilities available to other races, and it's doing it as virtually the only attraction of playing an Eladrin. Compare it to the grab-bag of Dwarf powers, which include warhammer proficiency, a resistance to being knocked prone, saves against poison, no speed penalty for armour or encumbrance, and the notably excellent ability to take Second Wind as a minor action.

I'm still uncertain about the place of Eladrin in D&D's spectrum of racial flavour, but mechanically, they're impressing me more every day. If you haven't tried one yet, consider it for the next chance you get to play in a one-off session.

The Dead Walk

During a visit by the party back to base while clearing the keep's first level, they run into one of Keep on the Shadowfell's interlude encounters, entitled The Dead Walk.

The encounter starts with returning PCs discovering Winterhaven's gates securely locked. When they question the town guards, they learn that undead have been sighted in the village graveyard to the south, and despite the village having a 20-something strong militia, a barracks, a siege supplies warehouse, a reasonably competent local wizard and a Fighter's Guild, the town have decided to stick their heads in the sand and wait for the players to come and save them.

When the players bow to the inevitable "fight some undead in a graveyard" cliche, and head down to the cemetery to check things out, they find to nobody's particular surprise that the shambling skeletons in question are headed by Ninaran The Obvious Spy.

The Dead Walk takes place on another of Keep's legacy maps, recycled from an earlier Dungeons and Dragons product, which explains the odd setup. There's a large tomb in the west with some suspicious coffins, which has absolutely nothing to do with the encounter, and there's another of the glowing magical circles which Keep is so fond of. This time around the circle is described as powering the necromantic ritual which keeps all the skeletons fighting, and enterprising players can break the circle with some Religion or Arcana skill checks to bring a swift end to the encounter.

It's a stupid set-up, plot-wise. Having the skeletons milling aimlessly in the graveyard is as far from dynamic as you can imagine; there's not even any time pressure in the module as written - it's assumed the undead will stand around until the players get around to killing them. A more interesting scenario would have seen the undead assaulting the town directly, with players scrambling to save hapless NPCs from the ravening horde. Indeed, several of the Keep conversions floating around the internet make this precise change.

Also, it's unclear exactly what Ninaran is up to. A note found on Ninaran's body, when defeated, suggests this was a plan to kill off the players to stop them meddling in Kalarel's plans. Indeed, Ninaran, like almost every other enemy in the adventure, sets an ambush, having her skeletons burst from the ground once the adventurers reach the centre of the graveyard. It's not a particularly great plan, seeing as the players have already been told that the graveyard is full of undead, but at least she tries.

It's a pretty crappy attempt, though. She could have led her undead to the keep to reinforce Kalarel, or attacked the players while they were sleeping at the inn; you get the feeling that the only reason things play out as they do is because the developers had a "graveyard" map that they wanted to get some use out of.

Plot-related gripes aside, the encounter is tactically interesting. The players enter the graveyard from the gate in the northeast. The defender-type characters will probably proceed first, thus triggering the skeleton ambush and getting swarmed with undead minions. At this stage, arcane and divine characters are likely to make a bee-line for the magic circle, correctly guessing that it has something to do with what's going on.

I've seen this happen personally in two games, and write-ups online suggest that this kind of party split occurs fairly reliably. It's great, because the minions are fluff, dispatched in only a couple of rounds, and the real threat is the pair of Gravehounds waiting by the circle. As soon as the squishy undefended caster-types get near their destination, the Gravehounds strike, deploying a nasty bite attack that deals ongoing damage and knocks its target prone. Without defender support, it's likely the casters will spend most of the battle rolling around on the ground trying to keep the zombie wolves away from their throats. It's a sharp wake-up call to a party that may have grown complacent killing goblins, and it's a quick reminder of the importance of working as a team.

The low point of the battle, though, is Ninaran. Despite a reasonably meaty bow attack, she's poorly armoured and doesn't pack a lot of hit points. In the end result, she's less threatening than either Balgron or Irontooth. After what for Keep on the Shadowfell is a relatively long build-up to her big moment, she goes down in moments once any of the party's strikers get her in their sights.

The Living Dungeon

Keep on the Shadowfell assumes players will head back to Winterhaven for their extended rests, rather than camp in the dungeon. That's not a well-founded assumption, but at least it's a good intention. Regular trips back to Winterhaven help build it up as a home base, and allow for further interactions with its anaemic residents.

The problem comes, however, from mixing the "home base" philosophy with the idea of the "living dungeon".

The "living dungeon" theory of D&D suggests that dungeons and other monster lairs are not just static environments stocked with loot-bearing fleshsacks. The dungeon residents do not rest eternally in their designated rooms, twiddling their thumbs while waiting for heroes to come and slay them. Rather, they roam naturally throughout the available space, forming a kind of ecosystem, and respond intelligently to incursions into their domain. If players enter a dungeon, and then leave and come back later, they will find the denizens waiting for them and well-prepared.

Living dungeons can be great in a campaign that's tailored for them. This kind of realism can very effectively build immersion. However, 4th Edition is not well built for it, and in Keep on the Shadowfell in particular it would be a mistake to run the game this way.

Keep is presented in the "delve format" first pioneered by Wizards of the Coast late in the lifespan of D&D 3.5. Each encounter is set out over a double-page spread in the adventure booklet, with only the largest and most important encounters getting a third page. Each room is presented as a self-contained encounter, with the monsters for that room set out in full. It's a great format for easy DMing, as everything you need for the encounter is in one place, without requiring you to access the Monster Manual or flip back and forth between multiple pages. On the downside, it means many monsters are reprinted several times in a single adventure and comparitively little space is available for descriptive and roleplaying support.

This means that encounters really are linked to the physical space in which they're intended to take place. The geography of each encounter is as integral to its setting as the creatures which populate it.

Keep recommends that if players engage the goblins on the first level of the keep and then leave without finishing the rest, when they return they'll find the remaining goblins waiting at the stairwell ready to ambush them.

This is terrible advice; you're cheating players out of the much more interesting encounters in the Torture Chamber and Chieftain's Lair, while simultaneously making them replay the Goblin Guard Room, an encounter that they've already beaten once. Plus there's a good chance that "all the goblins at once" is an encounter significantly tougher than they can handle.

4th Edition encounters are, in general, carefully balanced affairs. Moving a group of monsters from one room to another or, worse, combining them with another encounter, is tempting a total party kill, and at best will be a frustrating experience for your players.

Speaking personally, the feeling of "clearing" a dungeon, room by room, is one of the more satisfying aspects of dungeoneering. It may not be realistic, strictly speaking, but when you look at gelatinous cubes sharing space with zombies, and ghouls just down the corridor from hobgoblins, there's already a certain suspension of disbelief necessary in accepting these deadly creatures living harmoniously in close proximity. A further abstraction is a worthwhile sacrifice.

Let the dungeon stay put. Let its malevolent residents twiddle their thumbs as they wait to be slain. It may not be realistic, but - and this is what's important - it's just more fun.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009


I post this more for archival reasons than for argumentative ones; it's a piece of a conversation I had today on the official D&D forums. Forum argument seems to bring out my best writing, and I like both the flow and phrasing of this piece, so here it is in full. It's in response to the statement that DMs should not interfere in player-created backgrounds, as it's "the only part of the story they truly own".


If the backstory is the only part of the story the players own, you're doing something wrong.

Do they not own the NPCs they choose to hang with? I mean, they're hanging with the ones that they showed an instant liking to, right, not being forced to stick with your author insertion characters?

Do they not own their town or home base? I mean, they've bought property there, right, and commissioned statues, and gone up against the local bullies and whatnot, am I correct?

Do they not own their own legend? When they go to new places, they're encouraged to tell the stories of their travels, of their outrageous exploits and cunning plans, surely?

They've got all that. Take the backstory from them and make it yours. Start the game icy cold and kick them down that metaphorical flight of steps. Forget about having them coming up from their faraway kingdoms or wandering into the adventurer's bar for yet another round of drinks.

Hook them. Get that barbed spike of plot embedded deep in their cheek and reel them in for the experience that you have planned. If you have them for the first line you have them for the first hour, and if you have them for the first hour, you have them for the session, and if your first session hits with cannonball fury then your campaign is limited only by your own endurance and the neon-fevered dreams of your players.

Dim the lights. Wait for the conversation to hush. Let that long silence stretch out before them, until it begins to tingle, until it begins to tear, and then begin. A first line, devoid of context, empty of comfort, short and sharp and implying the long and visceral road between the opening of the first act and the final closing of the curtains.

What you've experienced up to now has been gaming. Put that off to one side for the moment, keep in its box until you need it for the combat, and let the other face of the hobby show you its slow and powerful smile. It's called storytelling, and - and this I tell you as a revelation between friends, a quantitative measure of my trust in you - it is, without dispute, awesome.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Hidden Armory

At some point prior to descending to the second level of the crypts, Keep on the Shadowfell expects players to take a trip back to town. But before they do, let's look at level one's secret chamber.

The Hidden Armoury is set into a corner of the Crypt of Shadows. It's cordoned off from the rest of the level by an illusory wall.

Illusory walls are old-school. In previous editions, between the dungeons and the player-run wizards, it seemed like every second thing was illusory. Still, they're stupid. It's a strange world indeed where it's easier to set up a permanent magical field than to install a door with a lock.

The reason Keep on the Shadowfell is doing it is to teach players about the difference between "line of sight" and "line of effect". While you need line of sight to be aware of an enemy's location, you need line of effect to be able to actually attack it. A pane of glass, for example, might break effect but not sight. Here we have the opposite effect, with the illusory wall permitting arrows and such like to fly through it while obscuring vision.

On the other side of the illusory wall are some more zombies, and, once they're disposed of, a riddle. A magical plaque poses players a cryptic paragraph, and if players solve the puzzle correctly, someone will get their hands on +1 Blackiron Scale Armour. It's my experience that module writers are seldom very good at coming up with riddles, and this one is as turgid as any I've ever seen, but for some reason players seem to enjoy the crappy verse anyway as long as it's not too frequent and relatively easy to solve. It's probably because it's an easy win; solving the puzzle is a quick sop to their ego, and its isolation prevents them from being exposed to easier or harder challenges of a similar ilk by which to scale their success.

As a trope, the riddle doesn't make sense. Once again there's the question of how a magical guardian is easier to come by than a lock and key, and on top of that you have to ask why anyone would restrict access to a valuable item based purely on an intruder's puzzle solving activity. Is being robbed less annoying just because the burglars were amateur cryptographers?

Finally, in amongst all the ridiculous riddles and illusory walls, Keep takes a moment to insert some unwanted realism by reminding the DM that taking an extended rest in most places in the crypts will result in a random encounter; however, this room, hidden behind the illusion, is comparitively safe.

What it doesn't remind you of is that it's a five minute walk back to the keep surface, where it's perfectly safe to rest, and that players who choose to camp here rather than walk thirty metres back up the corridor are the most terminally lazy adventurers ever.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Sir Keegan's Tomb

Sir Keegan's Tomb is the climax of the first level of Keep on the Shadowfell. Keegan is the last commander of the keep, who went mad and slew his soldiers and his family. Here the players encounter his undead remains, and after a tense conversation, they are rededicated to their mission to defeat Kalarel and close the rift.

The room at first appears to be empty save for a single coffin; however, when players investigate the coffin or attempt to leave, the coffin pops open and Keegan's bones jump out. Keegan is initially suspicious of the intruders, and the players must complete a skill challenge to convince him of their good intentions.

If they fail, Keegan goes into combat mode, and as a level 4 solo brute he's a convincing challenge to a party who at this stage are presumably level 2. It turns out he has a "necromantic burst" power, for unknown reasons, which he can fire off every turn once he's bloodied for 2d6+3 damage against everyone within close burst 3. Ouch.

In the more likely event that the players pass the skill challenge (and with a reasonably generous GM, it would take some hard-headed players indeed to fudge it), Keegan will decide to place his trust in the players, at which point he becomes surprisingly chatty.

If you're playing the module as-written, this is the first chance players will get to learn the true history of the keep. In fact, it may even be the first time they've heard Keegan's name, as although the module spends a couple of pages telling the DM the guy's life story, it doesn't trouble to give the players the same scoop.

There are some valid criticisms to be levelled at Sir Keegan's tomb as a whole. For example, if Keegan slew all his men, and then came down into the crypts to die, who the hell built him a tomb? One poster on ENWorld.org offers the compelling vision of Keegan himself being the architect, post-death, and refers to him painstakingly crafting the crypt "with his cold dead hands".

Keegan rewards players who pass the skill challenge by giving them the undead-slaying longsword Aecris. This is a great moment. Like many players, I love named weapons, and it's even better when they have a history. Not only does Aecris trace its descent back to King Elidyr of the fallen Empire of Nerath, but it is also the very weapon with which Keegan struck down his family and those under his command. It's a tangible link to the campaign world that will stay with the players long after they leave the Keep.

It can fall flat though. In our group, Keegan's dramatic presentation of the sword was followed by a silence, and the players exchanging glances for long moments, until eventually someone asked, "So, does anyone here actually wield longswords?"

Luckily D&D is a world of inexplicable magic; when our fighter grasped the weapon's hilt, the blessing of Bahamut transmuted Aecris into a much more useful bastard sword. Praise Bahamut.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Environmental Hazards

Something's been striking me as missing from Keep on the Shadowfell. Something that should be there, but isn't.

Well, plot, characterisation, cohesive adventure design, a wide range of monsters, and opportunities for roleplaying, obviously. But something else.

I eventually needed to run down the old-school dungeon checklist to work out what it was. Keep has goblinoids, magical items, nasty traps, incomprehensible magic, multiple dungeon levels, and even a riddle (which we're getting to, slowly).

What it doesn't have are environmental hazards, which I think is a great shame.

Rooms filled with gas, lava, or ice; rooms with gaping chasms and crumbling ceilings; rooms with slippery floors next to precipitous drops; thundering underground rivers and rickety bridges over umbral abysses; these are staples of the old-school dungeoneering tradition. They don't always make sense, but it's clear by this point that making sense isn't something that's greatly troubling Keep. It should have taken the next step and included this classic terrain.

Environmental hazards are great because they create atmosphere. They remind players that dungeons are dangerous because they are claustrophobic holes in the ground. They reinforce that what the players are doing is inherently dangerous, not merely dangerous because there might be monsters down here with them.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Poll Result: Warlock

The first Eleven Foot Poll has closed, and according to you readers your favourite Player's Handbook class is the Warlock.

Let's look at the Warlock. The two builds offered in the Player's Handbook are a Deceptive Warlock, who specialises in debuffs, and a Scourge Warlock, who is a straight-up DPS class.

The Scourge Warlock is a machine. In damage potential, it rocks the DPS world. Your 1st level at-will damage dealer, Eldritch Blast, deals 1d10 + Con/Cha + normally your Warlock's Curse (1d6). So for a maximised character, 1d10 + 1d6 + 5 (Min 12, Max 23, Average 13).

Compare that to a Rogue's Sly Flourish, which in most rogue builds will be doing in the order of 1d6 +5 + 3 + 2d8, assuming combat advantage, backstabber feat, and a shortsword or upgraded shuriken. (Min 11, Max 30, Average 20). Or a Ranger's Twin Strike, which will do 2d10 + 1d6 assuming two hits with a longbow (Min 8, Max 26, Average 14).

That's just damage, of course. Consider that the Warlock is targeting Reflex while getting to add their full implement bonuses, and the only pre-requisite condition for the damage is that they've cursed the target in advance. The Ranger, on the other hand, has to make two hit rolls to pull off full damage, and must also have marked the target as quarry, whereas the Rogue is looking for the never-there-when-you-need-it scenario of having combat advantage.

You really get the synergies going, though, when you look at how Warlocks use Constitution. Con is one of the two modifier stats on Eldritch Blast, feeding into both the hit roll and the damage. It also powers two of their other first-level at-wills, Dire Radiance and Hellish Rebuke, plus their best first level encounters, Diabolic Grasp and Vampiric Embrace.

A dwarf, half-elf or human can start play with 20 Constitution (+5 modifier), 32 hit points, 11 healing surges and a surge value of 8. Your basic to-hit on Eldritch Blast will be +5 (+6 at second level) and you'll be saving your gold towards a +1 implement. You can take the Infernal Pact to get extra temporary hit points every time you hit a marked target, to turn you into a genuine tank-lock, or pick up the Star Pact and designate yourself as the team's minion-killer to start rocking +1 or higher hit bonuses on most turns.

While I'm sure he's not the first, credit for discovering the tank-lock in our play group goes to Arkem, who played the character as a half-elven version of "Fat Bastard" from Austin Powers.

What about you? What's your favourite Warlock build or power?

Sidetrek 2: Slaver Encounter

The second side trek presented in Dungeon #155 is yet another ambush. As much as this is repetitive and cheap, it's probably better than just spawning monsters on the far side of the map and have the PCs spend a turn running at them. Ambushes are a dynamic way to start encounters in an up-close-and-personal fashion, particularly in the context of otherwise quite open outdoor spaces.

It's still lazy, though. It opts out of the entire milieu of ways that an encounter can start other than combat.

The Slaver Encounter takes place around the same point in the adventure as the Wagon Ambush - that is, after the defeat of Irontooth but before players get too far into the keep. Here, the players are going up against a group of Bloodreaver hobgoblins from Thunderspire Mountain.

The set-up is obviously intended to strengthen the weak links between Keep on the Shadowfell and its sequel, Thunderspire Labyrinth. These hobgoblin slavers are in the area to negotiate with the kobolds, and when the players (accidentally) discover them in the wilderness, the slavers will be trying to defend their current slaves while also fighting to subdue and capture the players.

It doesn't work for its intended purpose. The hobgoblins are, necessarily, at an appropriate challenge rating for second level adventurers, and are therefore selling themselves short. Showing the players easily killable hobgoblins now diminishes their impact later in this very adventure, and significantly cuts the anticipation of their forthcoming appearance in Thunderpsire Labyrinth.

There's a secondary problem, which is that the players might get the wrong message out of this fight. An unwary DM can suddenly find that his players want to go haring off to Thunderspire to finish off these slavers as a sidequest on the way to the keep; it'll take some careful doing to steer them away from the forthcoming level 4 to 7 zone without making them feel railroaded. Better to avoid the temptation completely.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Sidetrek 1: Wagon Ambush

Hardcopy material isn't the only source of official 4th Edition adventures. Wizards of the Coast provide Dungeon Magazine for subscribers to their Insider service, and by and large this is an excellent publication. Each issue has a handful of fully-furnished scenarios clocking at upwards of 40 pages, and their average quality is significantly higher than anything I've yet seen Wizards offer via retail.

Dungeon #155 offers a collection of additional encounters that can be plugged into Keep on the Shadowfell to, supposedly, expand and enrich the adventure. However, rather than living up to the usual Dungeon standard, these "side treks" are just as uninspired as the adventure they supplement.

The first offering is the Wagon Ambush. This is designed for a level 1-2 party and takes place shortly after the defeat of Irontooth. It sees the remants of Irontooth's kobolds launching an attack on a merchant caravan headed to Winterhaven.

It's as redundant as it sounds. This is yet another kobold encounter in a story overflowing with kobolds. It's also the third kobold ambush in the first six encounters. If players weren't already thinking of 4th Edition as "the kobold ambush boardgame" they will be now.

More importantly, it's anticlimactic. The virtue of the Irontooth encounter is that it finishes off the kobolds and paves the way to the keep. Going back to kobolds takes away the sense of progress derived from that very difficult fight.

The encounter also includes some new types of kobolds: a kobold hurler, kobold pikeman and kobold slyblade. The kobold hurler is just a level 2 kobold slinger; it's the same monster, complete with annoying glue pots, just levelled up. I'm not sure how I feel about this kind of thing - it's nice to be able to run the same monster at different challenge ratings, but a one-level difference barely seems to justify it having a new name.

The slyblade, by contrast, is genuinely interesting, a level 4 monster with the ability to deflect attacks onto allied minions and initiate a dangerous "twin slash". The pikeman, too, is pretty nifty, and fits well into Keep on the Shadowfell by introducing the concept of "reach" - using his pike, the pikeman can make melee attacks against enemies up to a square away.

The encounter concludes with the players finding a trail of bootprints leading from the ambush and heading towards Shadowfell Keep. This could be useful as a prompt to get players back on track if they've missed all the signs pointing them to the main adventure. It's not explained who made the bootprints, though. Ninaran? Some goblins or hobgoblins? We may never know.


[1] If the players don't defeat Irontooth, and instead proceed directly to the keep without clearing out the kobolds, this encounter would be an excellent way to underscore the consequences of their decision, while providing some of the catch-up XP they'll need to compsensate for skipping the kobold lair.