Thursday, April 30, 2009

Points of Light

Dungeons and Dragons 4th Edition is, by default, embedded in a campaign setting known as "Points of Light".

Points of Light is a significant departure from previous campaign worlds. It does not offer a fully-realised geopolitical landscape in the style of Dragonlance or the Forgotten Realms. In instead offers an unmapped wilderness into which individual adventure locations can be freely inserted.

There's several reasons for the change. One is that larger published campaign worlds come with baggage. In a setting like Dragonlance or the Realms, it's easy for player characters to be overshadowed by high level NPCs and have their stories pale beneath sweeping global events and epic international conflicts. Players can come to the table with unhelpful pre-conceptions based on earlier experiences with the world. DMs can feel pressured to absorb fantastic amounts of information in order to present a canonical "real" version of the setting to their players.

More importantly, though, the change highlights the core assumptions underlying D&D. The D&D universe is one where civilisation is scattered and fragile. Small "Points of Light" are divided by miles of wilderness teeming with lawlessness and horror. It's a world in which armies and constabularies are either absent entirely or deeply unable to clear back the darkness.

Points of Light is a world that needs heroes. It has problems that can only be solved with swords and spells, and those problems are so numerous that a nation of heroes could strive for a hundred lifetimes without stamping out the last of the evil. The gods are not active, the kings are not brave, and such elder wizards as exist are provincial and un-charitable. There are no higher forces making the players redundant - their characters are literally the last line of defence.

You can see the problem of canonical settings in Marvel or DC comics. Before any new hero can get a shot at defeating Dr Doom's evil plans, the writer first has to establish that the Avengers are off-world, the X-Men are busy, and S.H.I.E.L.D. have their hands full. Before an up-and-comer can go toe-to-toe with Darkseid, we need to know why the Justice League, Justice Society, Green Lantern Corps, Teen Titans, Outsiders, Doom Patrol and, in a pinch, Batman, have not already dealt with the problem. It's no fun feeling like the night-shift janitor who only gets called in when all the competent people want the day off.

Points of Light is modular. If you have five adventures describing aspects of the setting, you can use three and ignore two without leaving suspicious blank spots on the world map. There's no global cartography and the relationship of one location to another need never be better defined than "to the north and east". Moreover, if you pick up a Forgotten Realms product and like the sound of Shadowdale, you can insert it wholesale into Points of Light without worrying about its larger context.

This will all sound familiar to the experienced player. It's the way many of us have built up D&D campaign worlds since the earliest editions. Points of Light gives official sanction to this kind of simple patchwork design, and directly offers it as a design model to the beginning DMs who will get the most use out of it.

The theme of Points of Light is something that Thunderspire Labyrinth takes to heart. Thunderspire's quest hub is the Seven-Pillared Hall, a small community of traders presided over by the mysterious Mages of Saruun. The Hall lies within the underground ruins of the long-abandoned minotaur city of Saruun Khel, better known today as the Thunderspire Labyrinth. While the Hall may be a safe haven, the remainder of the Labyrinth is haunted by lawless humanoids and horrific below-ground predators.

The Hall itself plays home not only to humans, halflings, and the usual array of civilised races, but also to drow and duergar, emissaries of the malevolent Underdark races sent to the hall on semi-peaceful missions of trade. The Seven-Pillared Hall is a genuine frontier town, eking out a profitable existence in a place where an organised community should not be viable.


Points of Light may be well-designed for encouraging beginning players, but it's far less useful for selling a series of novels, something that has traditionally been a profitable sideline for Wizards of the Coast. This approach is reflected in the D&D product line as well, with a much greater emphasis on core rulebooks and far fewer setting-specific products. What has changed in WoTC's market position to prompt this shift away from setting-based merchandising?

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Keep on the Shadowfell FREE

Hey - here's news. Wizards of the Coast are giving away the PDF of Keep on the Shadowfell for FREE.

I paid $35 AUD for this module and felt incredibly cheated. At the very reasonable price of FREE it's a much more recommendable product, particularly if you're new to 4th Edition. It comes complete with the Quick-Start rules so you can squeeze a good six sessions of play out of it even if you haven't bought a copy of the Player's Handbook yet.

What's more - this version is significantly better than the retail edition. There are major changes throughout the module, addressing many of my complaints. For example, the errata are incorporated, including the alternate skill challenge for closing the rift in the final encounter. The finale's meager scattering of enemies is replaced with a complete platoon of skeleton sentinels. Traps are properly formatted and their areas-of-effect are clearly marked on maps. Loot is more plentiful and the skill challenges are fixed. A spectral version of Kalarel has been added to the Burial Site encounter to create an earlier introduction to the main villain and more closely tie that encounter to the main plot. The various kobold ambushes have been corrected, and the punishing Irontooth battle appears to have been slightly retooled, presumably to make it easier. Typos are corrected throughout.

Go get your copy on the D&D Test Drive page. And thanks to commenter Anders for the heads-up!

The Hook

Thunderspire Labyrinth starts off with a question that's faced published modules since the dawn of time: how do you get players to travel to the location of their next adventure?

In a way, it's a false dilemma. The correct answer is to not ask them to. In a perfect world, your second adventure would grow organically out of your first. Players of Keep on the Shadowfell would be drawn into the next story by a direct threat to Winterhaven, or by a desire to continue their crusade against the cult of Orcus, or through pursuit of the specific priorities their character has developed over the preceding sessions of play.

Thunderspire isn't having any of that. It wants players to get to its Labyrinth as quickly and efficiently as possible and it's not really concerned how that happens. A charitable view sees the module as wisely focusing on its core content, but there's no real dispute that in skimping on its hooks it's doing itself a disservice.

Thunderspire offers four key hooks to get player characters involved in its story. The first is entitled "Investigate the Bloodreavers". The Bloodreavers, if we remember back to Keep, are an organisation of hobgoblin slavers based out of the distant Thunderspire Mountain. The hook involves the players taking on the role of self-appointed slave police in order to look into the unfocused and fairly nebulous threat presented by this organisation. Those investigations will lead them quite quickly to Thunderspire, which is where our story begins.

If the players aren't quite the zealous vigilantes contemplated by the hook, the module provides for Winterhaven's Lord Padraig to offer up a 1,000 gp reward for the head of the Bloodreavers' chief. There's an unfortunate escalation here; in Keep, Padraig could summon a mere 100 gp to pay for the extermination of kobolds who were directly threatening the village; now he's got access to ten times that to spend on hunting down a group who are, on any fair view of it, Someone Else's Problem.

A more pressing problem with the Bloodreaver hook is that while it gives players a reason to tackle the first of Thunderspire's four mini-dungeons (the Chamber of Eyes), there's no through-line to keep them progressing on to the rest of Thunderspire's content. If your group is characterised by a mercenary nature or merely keen practicality, it's open to declare the adventure over after defeating the Bloodreavers in the story's opening act.

The second of the hooks is worse still. It's called "Trade Mission" and it's what computer gamers refer to as a "fetch quest". Winterhaven shopowner Bairwin asks players to make a delivery for him to the Seven-Pillared Hall, the small bastion of civilisation hidden beneath Thunderspire. Once again, this will occupy players long enough to get them to the adventure location, but then give them no reason to tackle any of the mountain's challenges. Also, the Forgotten Realms conversion for Keep re-cast Bairwin as a secret cultist of Orcus, so for groups that have used that article Bairwin may well be long dead.

A third hook, "Call to Adventure", is so brazen as to be almost deserving of respect. It amounts to little more than Winterhaven sage Valthrun telling players that Thunderspire is kind of an awesome place, in which they will probably find adventures. I quote:
Valthrun doesn't have any additional information, but he longs to convince a party of adventurers to explore the place and bring him back firsthand news. "Such wonders you will see," he keeps on repeating. "Such wonders, I am sure!"
As hooks go, this is on a par with the DM declaring that the next adventure is going to be in Thunderspire and asking if anyone has a reason not to go there.

The last hook is the real meat of Thunderspire Labyrinth and is ultimately so critical to making sense of the module that it should have been highlighted as compulsory. It's called "Slave Rescue".

As we know, Thunderspire plays host to the Bloodreaver Slavers. In "Slave Rescue" the Bloodreavers have recently captured a dozen slaves from a nearby village and absconded with them to the mountain. The players are engaged by a local do-gooder (the module suggests Winterhaven's Sister Linora) to pursue the slavers and rescue their victims.

The reason this works is that the slaves provide the module's much needed through-line. When the players confront the slavers, they find the slaves have already been sold to a nearby duergar faction. Attacking the duergar (located in a second mini-dungeon) results in the liberation of most of the slaves, but also reveals the depressing news that the last two of the captives were on-sold to a gnoll band for use as human sacrifices. A desperate pursuit of the gnolls leads to the third of the module's mini-dungeons, and eventually reveals the identity of Thunderspire's master villain.

There's an opportunity here so obvious that it's amazing the module misses it. What none of these hooks provide is a personal connection between the players and the adventure. As-written, the best-case scenario sees players motivated by a combination of greed and do-good-itude. To make Thunderspire a genuinely compelling game, you need to provide a reason why these problems are the players' problems.

It's as simple as personalising the captured slaves. The faceless villagers abducted by the Bloodreavers can just as easily be the PCs' family, friends, or even the entire named population of Winterhaven. Such a simple change instantly transforms a quest into their quest and gives them a unique and dynamic stake in the outcome of what follows.

In a worst-case scenario, if all you manage to do is coax players into visiting Thunderspire, you can at least be confident that once they get there, they'll find plenty to do.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Thunderspire Labyrinth

This post is the introduction to a series that looks at Thunderspire Labyrinth, the second Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition published adventure. Click the link at the bottom of this post or scroll through the archive to read the complete series.


Thunderspire Labyrinth, by Richard Baker and Mike Mearls, is the second official adventure module released for 4th Edition.

Thunderspire is a self-contained adventure and suitable to be played straight out of its packaging, but for players of Keep on the Shadowfell, the attraction of Thunderspire is that it's billed as a sequel to Keep. Where Keep took characters from level 1 all the way to level 3, Thunderspire picks up the baton and covers levels 4 to 6. It's located in the same Nentir Vale setting as Keep, and players might reasonably expect Thunderspire to provide a continuation of the themes and plotlines that Keep set in motion.

On that count, they'll be sorely disappointed. The links between the two modules end up being trivial at best. Thunderspire is a wholly unrelated adventure with no continuing storylines or villains.

Additionally, where Keep made an effort to introduce new players to the diverse strengths of 4th Edition, Thunderspire is a more staid outing. Key mechanics are ignored completely or used poorly, and once again the loot opportunities are underwhelming at best. The first half of the adventure is dominated by a series of repetitive knock-down fights and it's only after the intermission that the module delivers the kind of classic D&D dungeoneering that rewards non-standard tactics and player resourcefulness.

Thunderspire is still a superior product to Keep. Set in the sprawling ruins of an abandoned minotaur city, Thunderspire provides a more interesting location than Keep's generic village, and sets its meanderings in the context of interesting NPCs, compelling sidequests and surprisingly usable optional encounters. Its layout is modular, letting you easily customise it or play it episodically. And while there's still a host of typographical errors and notable lacunae, they're neither as frequent nor as critical as Keep's unending parade of mediocrity.

Over the next few weeks I'm planning to go through the highs and the lows of this module. I'll be looking at what works and what doesn't, and as far as possible attempting to explain why. Feel free to follow along, and use the comments to tell me why I'm wrong.

(See all posts on Thunderspire Labyrinth.)

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Poll Result: Not Enough Information

Another Eleven Foot Poll came to a close while I was on holidays. A good proportion of you are sworn enemies of those damn showboating NPCs, but in the end result the consensus was that DMs who don't provide enough information are what really get our goat up.

What does it mean as a DM to provide not enough information? Does it mean we haven't educated our players in sufficient length on the history of our campaign world? Does it imply we've been stingy handing out our background notes, and anything less than a fully realised novel gets a firm thumbs down in this information-rich epoch?

Probably not.

I think in large part it's a question of meaningful choices, and for anyone who hasn't read my post on that, go check it out now - it's a good'n.

As players we need enough information to take actions that have forseeable consequences. We need to know what's risky, what's valuable, what's friendly and what's suspicious. We need the requisite clues to distinguish a party-eating level 28 Death Slime from a trivial first level Delicious Jelly. We need to know when "treasure" means an epic horde as described in legend, and when it means a pitiful scattering of coins barely worth crossing the room for. When a villain laughs at our pitiful attacks, does the DM intend to spur us on to greater efforts, or is he warning us we've picked a fight we can't win and our survival depends on an instant retreat?

As a DM there are no points to be won for being coy. Acquiring information should not always be a challenge. Sometimes you need to tell it like it is.

When should you make information easy to get? When acquiring the information is a necessary precondition of engaging with the intended content. In Keep on the Shadowfell, getting the players to the keep, or for that matter the kobolds, is fairly dependant on having the Winterhaven villagers natter on about those major quest destinations. Villagers who are distrustful and sullen around strangers may be realistic and gritty, but in practice it leaves your players in a holding pattern wondering what's happened to their adventure.

It's called gating content. You're conditioning access to content B upon successful completion of content A. You can see the problem with it in the maths - 100% of players will see content A, but only those who complete it will see content B. You want your best content to be your most visible content, so if A is a half-baked dialogue challenge and B is the meat of your adventure you're deliberately shooting your own strengths in the foot.

As a player, how can you deal with an uncommunicative DM? One way is to be frank. Say, "My character needs some guidance," or, "I need some extra information on this topic in order to take meaningful action." If the information guessing-game is frustrating you, stop playing it and tell your DM it's not working. If you don't know whether you've gotten involved in a winnable epic encounter or a player-killing meatgrinder, say so. Tell your DM your character's hope is flagging and unless there's some kind of sign you can win you feel it's time for a desperate retreat. Your DM wants to show you his best encounters and you want to experience them, so be an active conspirator in allowing that to happen.

As a DM, look for players who don't seem to be enthusiastic about their decisions. They're probably players who don't have enough information. Similarly, groups who can't decide on a course of action could probably benefit from some clarity. Remember that players often regard danger as a challenge, so if something is well beyond their ability to survive be absolutely clear in saying so. Conversely, players can overrate the most trivial of difficulties, so if they're hesitating to tackle a pitifully weak trap or monster be sure to tell them that it's something a competent hero would have no trouble with.

As with any aspect of DMing, the best way to learn is to ask for feedback at the end of each play session. Ask your players what worked and what didn't, and try to adjust for next time around.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Keep on the Shadowfell Mop Up

Seeing as someone asked: yes, Keep on the Shadowfell does leave a few pieces unresolved.

The Rift: The module has nothing to say about the eventual fate of the Shadow Rift. The simplest answer is to declare that Kalarel's death ends the ritual and closes the Rift, although that explanation leaves one wondering why a garrison was required in Sir Keegan's day and how things are going to go without one in the future. A better answer, although sadly not within the scope of the module as-written, is to let the players close the Rift forever using some item they've found on their travels (Aecris, the ancient mirror, or one of the various Bahamut relics) and/or have the Keep collapse and bury the Rift for all time.

The Other Monsters: Presuming the players didn't clear every room of the Keep, there are still monsters hiding in the corners somewhere. It's incredibly anti-climactic to follow up Kalarel's defeat with a mop-up session where the players go hunting isolated pockets of low-level trash. Again, there's no help from the module - in fact, it seems to specifically envisage this mop-up in some encounter descriptions - but if you don't go with the "collapsing Keep" scenario described above, another option is to have the Winterhaven militia finally do their job and roust out the remaining baddies. Remember to add any loot your players would have missed onto their end-of-adventure reward or you'll be encouraging exactly the sort of downbeat denouement we're trying to avoid.

Winterhaven: As written, there's no good reason for players to hang around Winterhaven after they've picked up their rewards. The module suggests the village might form a useful base of operations, but contrast that with the fact that on a good day the shops stock some first-level magic items and there's no other significant adventuring locations within two days' walk. Obviously Eleven Foot Pole is going to be moving on to Thunderspire Labyrinth but for players who've really enjoyed Winterhaven and want to continue hanging out with their NPC friends there, there's really not a lot of support.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Chekhov's Gun and a Satisfying Finale

"One must not put a loaded rifle on the stage if no one is thinking of firing it."
- Anton Chekhov

The collected works of Stephen King to the contrary, writing a good ending is not a difficult task.

It's really not. It's easy, and in the context of heroic fantasy it's easier still. The key is this: that you are not merely crafting the ending to a story, but the ending to this story.

It's so easy that even Keep on the Shadowfell almost achieves it.

The principle of Chekhov's Gun suggests that every set-up must have a pay-off. Each dramatic concept introduced in the first two acts must have a part to play in the finale. Every decision the players make, every risk they take, every digression of conscience they choose to undertake will be rewarded or penalised in the story's climax.

Chekhov's Gun suggests that when the players rescue an ageing scholar, his advice will prove invaluable in planning the final assault. Chekov's Gun implies that when the players prevent the villain from acquiring an ancient mirror, they have bought themselves an advantage in the ultimate struggle.

Chekhov's Gun requires that the humble goblin that the players spared will repay the favour in the final hour. Chekhov's Gun calls on the villagers saved from the ravenous undead to buoy their rescuers' spirits when hope seems lost. Chekhov's Gun demands atonement for fallen stalwarts and vengeance for murdered innocents. Chekhov's Gun says that a holy sword bestowed by the ghost of a forgotten hero will always, always strike the decisive blow in the last clash of good and evil.

The final encounter of Keep on the Shadowfell doesn't do any of those things. Not one of the guns the module loads gets fired; instead, a bonus is bestowed on anyone who happens to be carrying one of the dragon statues they can only get from desecrating the altars to Bahamut located in the Skeletal Legion encounter.

The Shadow Rift has another problem, which is Kalarel. By now the DM is quite familiar with Kalarel's particular brand of incompetence, but for the players this is their first encounter with the final villain. It's hard to feel invested in his downfall - they can't hate him; they don't even know him.

seems to know this is a problem, and spends a paragraph exhorting DMs to make him as hate-worthy as possible during this final encounter, apparently entirely by way of some dialogue that the module doesn't see fit to provide. One might be tempted to have him gloat about his evil plan, but that would require having a clear idea of what his evil plan actually is.

Besides, it's a bit late for Kalarel to gloat. This is the players' hero moment. This is their chance to kick ass and chew gum; it's the big musical finale. As DM, you've got approximately six rounds of combat to make your players feel like they well and truly deserve their victory, and any player who doesn't do something heroic is a player who's going to feel cheated when the dust settles.

So what does Keep get right in its last hurrah? The death of the villain.

As I mentioned when I was talking about the mechanics of this fight, when Kalarel hits bloodied HP he teleports to the glowing circle in front of the Shadow Rift. This raises his defences through the roof, but it also puts him only a couple of squares from the Rift itself.

This is the Rift. It's the portal to "Orcus' temple in the Shadowfell" that drove Sir Keegan mad and which Kalarel is attempting to re-open for frustratingly vague reasons. Kalarel has almost completed the re-opening and the portal is now semi-porous. Living beings passing through it will be killed instantly, but that doesn't stop an entity described as "The Thing In The Portal" from reaching its tentacles through to threaten players in the Rift's immediate vicinity.

Keep's been spending the bulk of its mechanical muscle teaching players about positioning through encounter after encounter. They've been pushing enemies down pits, over ledges, into traps and through holes in almost every significant struggle to date, and now at the closing of the day Keep deliberately positions Kalarel only two squares from a guaranteed auto-kill. It's just the right distance to be an achievable push, but just far enough to require your players to co-ordinate to pull it off.

When Kalarel hits the portal, or when players drop him to zero HP, the Thing in the Portal grabs the evil cultist in one of its tentacles and drags him screaming into the Shadowfell to meet his master. It's a great moment, because it's only possible through the combination of Kalarel's arrogance, the madness of his plan, and the prowess and acquired skills of the players. It's a thoroughly satisfying victory and it has the added benefit of having Kalarel conclusively defeated while leaving the door open for his return in later stories.

Wow them in the end, and you've got a hit. For all its wonkiness, for all its typographical errors and misfiring encounters, for all its dead ends and narrative buffoonery, Keep delivers a solid conclusion when the chips are down, and it's almost sad to realise that despite all the idiocy your players are going to walk away from the table considering that they've had a good time.

As DM, it's a bittersweet triumph. The module succeeds despite itself, and though Kalarel might be being tortured in the Shadowfell as we speak, the real villains of the piece are the module writers, who emerge from the debris unscathed and ready to produce more of the same under-developed tripe.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

The Shadow Rift

A brief interruption turned into a two week hiatus, but I'm back now to look at Keep on the Shadowfell's final encounter, which I'll be doing over two posts.

Today I'm looking at the Shadow Rift from a mechanical perspective. Players enter the area from the Cathedral of Shadows by descending the large chains running through the hole in that area. The chains descend some 50 feet to the centre of the large pool of blood depicted on the map; athletic characters can slide their entire length in a single action by passing a not-terribly-difficult skill check.

That's great for the athletic characters. Those without the skill have slightly worse than 50/50 chances of slipping from the chains and dropping straight to the ground. The consequence of this is taking 3d10 damage (averaging out to between one and two healing surges for most characters) and being knocked prone. That's on top of any lingering damage from the last couple of encounters. It's a nasty start to a vicious final encounter.

The monsters on offer here are two skeleton warriors (who act as semi-effective tanks), a Deathlock Wight, and Kalarel himself. Both the wight and Kalarel are party-level threats. On top of that, players may have picked up one or both of the beserkers from the Cathedral of Shadow, plus possibly the Dark Creeper, and in a worst case may also have the Clay Scout from the Ghoul Warren.

Kalarel's in the west, completing his ritual to open the gate to the Shadowfell. The gate itself is in the north, near yet another of Keep's glowing magical circles. If Kalarel's forewarned, he theoretically gets to attack the players as they descend the chains, but given that the chains can be cleared in a single action (one way or another) it's not clear exactly how that advantage plays out. Let's assume the battle proper begins once the players hit the ground.

How things go from here largely depends on the effectiveness of the party. Kalarel is devastating when he's at range or has nearby allies, but has relatively few options when isolated by a competent tank. The Wight can dish out a terrifying amount of damage and can also resurrect fallen allies, but has a measly 54 hit points. If strikers focus on the wight while a good tank locks down Kalarel, you can have the first phase of the combat managed within two rounds. You can even manage this with a couple of players dusting themselves off after a fall from the chains.

When Kalarel hits his bloodied value (93 HP), things step up a notch. He teleports to a magic circle near the shadow rift and gets a substantial boost to all his defences. Players who were already struggling to hit him will be looking for near-crits, while those who were confident before will now be on the back foot.

The shift allows Kalarel to maintain his momentum despite the probable loss of some or all of his allies. It also, coincidentally, sets him up for his final fate, which I'll be looking at in the next post.

I like this concept of phased battles. It's something that's been popularised by computer games, relevantly World of Warcraft, and it's a worthwhile addition to D&D's dramatic toolbox. Fundamental tactical shifts at key stages helps keep players engaged in what's going on, and stops boss-level fights from degenerating into battles of attrition.

What's not so neat is that there's not much for players to do here. Other than the portal and the circle there's no useful terrain features, there's no traps, there's no objectives, and there's not even a real sense of time pressure. Most groups will swamp Kalarel while one or two ranged characters handle the Wight. Given that Kalarel's not well-equipped to go solo against a back of melee types, it can leave what should be a climactic encounter feeling mechanically underwhelming.


[1] Set a time limit. Firmly establish that Kalarel will complete his ritual in five rounds unless killed, and have him using free actions every round to chant the final phrases of his evil spell.

[2] Create dynamic terrain. With Kalarel's ritual begin literally ripping the Keep apart, have chunks of stone fall randomly from the ceiling and mark where they land on the map as either rough terrain or vision-obstructing obstacles.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

A Brief Interruption

Hey there, surprisingly large number of readers!

I'm about to head off to holidays. From tonight through to 19 April I'm in Perth, Western Australia. I will be attending the Swancon science fiction convention over the Easter long weekend, where I will be speaking on a couple of panels and running sessions of my diceless one-shot games The Heist and The Island. If you are a Perthy, it is not too late to attend!

I will have my laptop with me; I'm intending to post a couple of times, if only to finish the Keep on the Shadowfell series. When Keep's done I'm planning to go on to talk about its follow-up, Thunderspire Labyrinth, so if you have any interesting stories about your experiences with Thunderspire - or even non-interesting stories - please share them in the comments. I know how it's working for my group, but the more alternate viewpoints I have the better!

Monday, April 6, 2009

Sidetrek 4: Hidden Victims

Before we move on to the final encounter of Keep on the Shadowfell, let's take a quick look at the last of the Dungeon #155 side treks.

This one's called Hidden Victims, and it's an addendum to the Ghoul Warren. It expands on the apparently useless room on that map, by tacking another whole area onto it.

Hidden Victims posits that in the keep's past, refugees from Keegan's mad rampage took shelter down in this area, and then bricked themselves in (hence the room's apparent disconnect from the rest of the level). For some reason they were unable to demolish the wall that they'd made to keep Keegan out, and ended up starving to death down here. Their undead remains continue to haunt the area.

This encounter really frustrates me. It directly addresses several key problems with Keep - the fact that Keegan's story really isn't reflected in any of the printed encounters, the lack of a "lived-in" feel to the entire complex, and the (admittedly minor) issue of the useless room.

Having put those difficulties squarely in its sights, it completely misses its mark. The enemies here are zombies - common zombies, exactly the same sort that the players have just killed fourteen of in the Ghoul Warren and, for that matter, the same sort as in the Crypt of Shadows. Even the most enthusiastic of players are probably tired of this particular undead by now. It's a bit disappointing, too, in that it gives up the atmosphere of vicious monsters living in cramped tunnels and trades it for yet another stand-up fight in a series of rooms.

It's also another encounter that tells rather than shows. The backstory of frightened, starving people is strong, but it's not much use unless the players learn it, and it's simply not apparent on the face of the encounter. From the player perspective, these are just going to be another mob of nameless undead.

Finally, because this is the last time I'm going to get to make this criticism of Keep, I'll say it again here - the encounter is repetitive. The Ghoul Warren is a good area, and the side-trek ruins it by immediately following it with the exact same battle, minus the Ghoul and the Clay Scout. That is to say, it's the same fight without the interesting bits.

That's the last of the side-treks from Dungeon #155. The same issue also features a fairly average article about converting the module to Eberron, and an absolutely excellent conversion to the Forgotten Realms. In case I don't get to doing a specific post on it, the Forgotten Realms one is well worth the time of any Keep DM as its improvements are largely setting-neutral and address many of the module's biggest problems, specifically the lack of NPC depth. Check it out.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Cathedral of Shadows

If the last three encounters in Keep on the Shadowfell are a trilogy, this is its Temple of Doom. It's a hapzard mish-mash of ideas that appear to have been jammed wholesale into the gap between the Ghoul Warren and the Shadow Rift.

The Cathedral of Shadow is printed on another of Keep's A3 poster maps, and once again the module really has no clear idea on how to fill the space. The players enter from the west, and discover a priest of Orcus sacrificing "creatures" in order for their blood to run in rivers through a hole in the floor down to the Shadow Rift.

The players will probably need to be told, no, this is not Kalarel, and yes, it's another priest of Orcus, who is different. For that matter, it's entirely possible you'll need to say that the hole in the ground is not the rift, it just leads to the rift.

That's emblematic of the problem with the entire encounter - it's a monster-for-monster clone of the climactic battle that will follow it. I've always said that a good story should end the way it began. Keep, which opened with twinned kobold ambushes, takes the idea to its twisted mutant heart by finishing up with identical priest-and-undead battles, back to back.

The undead here are vampire spawn, a kind of minor vampire with all of the traditional weaknesses and none of the strengths. They're destroyed by sunlight, of course - not terribly interesting when the battle is completely underground - and they're able to crawl up walls and across ceilings, which isn't really helpful on a map with few significant terrain items. In the end result the vampire spawn end up less interesting even than the kobolds, reduced to running at the players and swiping with their claws.

There's also two human beserkers, who are apparently cultists of Orcus. They're the real meat of the encounter, and they serve a dual purpose - to dish out the hurt (they can crit for upwards of 40 damage), and to keep the fight centred around the room's only tactically interesting feature - the hole in the ground.

The hole's a trap, in a non-traditional sense, and it's a little bit cruel. Keep on the Shadowfell has been training players, over the entire length of the dungeon, to use ledges and pits to eliminate enemies quickly from the battle. It's to the module's credit that it teaches players well enough that they'll repeat the tactic here without any prompting. In most plays of this room, one of the two beserkers will probably get sent down the hole.

Unfortunately for the players, the hole leads directly to the next encounter, and there's a cushioning pool of blood at the bottom. Enemies dispatched into the depths will alert Kalarel to prepare his last stand, and hang around to pump the difficulty level of an already tricky final encounter. It's difficult to decide whether to applaud the module for this well-executed manipulation of the PCs, or condemn it for subverting its own stated intention of teaching and empowering new players.


[1] Look at that map. The rivers of blood are five to ten feet wide. Exactly how many "creatures" have been sacrificed down here, and where are they coming from? There's really not that much blood in a human body; considering the blood's draining into a hole, it's an extraodinary piece of dramatic licence for there to be that much left on this level. Also, one has to wonder whether it wouldn't be simpler to just kill the creatures downstairs, rather than have this whole inefficient draining mechanism?

[2] In addition to the priest, the beserkers and the vampire spawn, there's also a Dark Creeper in this battle. Keep doesn't bother to say what a Dark Creeper is or where it comes from, but the Monster Manual elaborates that they're unaligned gnomelike creatures from the Shadowfell, a kind of extraplanar Ferengi who might turn up anywhere if it furthers their mercenary interests. It seems like it deserves more of a story than the simple stat block afforded in the module - does it serve Orcus, is it just here to investigate, or is it the messenger of some other power? We may never know.

Ghoul Warren

I'll tell you a secret. The last act makes a film. Wow them in the end, and you got a hit. You can have flaws, problems, but wow them in the end, and you've got a hit. Find an ending, but don't cheat, and don't you dare bring in a deus ex machina. Your characters must change, and the change must come from them. Do that, and you'll be fine.
- Robert McKee (Adaptation)

The Ghoul Warren begins Keep on the Shadowfell's final trilogy of encounters. From here it's a downhill run to the climactic showdown with Kalarel. Once the players enter the Warren, they're probably not going to get another chance to rest until it's all over.

This is the game's apex - it's what your players are going to judge the game on. If they have a no-holds-barred thrill ride from here to the end, they'll walk away calling Keep on the Shadowfell a success. But if the final encounters stagger aimlessly from battle to battle like a drunken hobo before falling down in a gutter, they're not going to be coming back for the sequel.

The Ghoul Warrens gets off to a good start. Setting up the Warrens on a battlemap involves deploying no less than 16 separate enemies, which tells your players straight-up that the stakes have been raised. The lead adversary is the titular Ghoul, a flesh-eating undead which moves terrifyingly fast and leaves its victims paralysed. The backup are fourteen assorted zombies, mostly minions, who despite not requiring sustenance have begun to mimic the Ghoul's corpse-devouring behaviour.

Once players have spotted the undead, the safest strategy would appear to be barricading the doorway and picking them off from a distance. However, the sixteenth monster in the room is a Clay Scout, a kind of tiny winged homunculi, who flees to warn the next two rooms if the PCs gain the upper hand.

Intercepting the Clay Scout requires charging into the midst of the room, which will leave the players knee deep in the dead and at the mercy of the Ghoul. It makes for a compellling fight and a reasonably good introduction to the adventure's final act.

The strange aspect of this encounter is the room in the west. It has no doors or stairs, and it's only reachable by a tight crallway. One wonders who would possibly have built it, or why. The ghoul appears to have been using it to dispose of the inedible belongings of its victims, as there is assorted trash in here plus a bag of holding. It's a strange addition to the area and I just can't imagine what it was intended to accomplish.


1] Once my players had met Keegan in his tomb, and Keegan's children in the Corridors of the Cube, they immediately asked, "Where's Keegan's wife?" It's a question the module doesn't answer, so when we reached the Ghoul Warren I made the Ghoul the lady in question. It added personality and significance to a battle that didn't previously have it and helped Keegan's tragedy continue to underpin the dungeon all the way to its end.

[2] The useless room to the west may not feature any real danger, but it's a great set-up. To reach the room, players have to squeeze through a tiny tunnel, in the dark, with no idea what waits when they emerge. DMs who feel their game could use a bit more tension at this point should feel free to lengthen the tunnel, put another undead monster at the end, and possibly have the entrance to the tunnel collapse once at least one PC is already inside it. Alternatively you could replace the physical danger for a character moment by simply playing up how claustrophobic the experience is.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Poll Result: Beholder

I've closed the current Eleven Foot Poll early because I'd accidentally set it to run for an absurdly long period. Luckily we've ended up with a clear winner, with the Beholder pulling ahead of the Gelatinous Cube over last night and claiming a whopping 34% of the vote.

You two guys who voted for the Carrion Crawler, I feel your pain.

The Beholder is a mainstay of Dungeons & Dragons right from its earliest editions. It's been a regular foe of mid-to-high-level adventurers, it's headlined multiple sets of the D&D Miniatures line, and it's been the star villain of its own computer game in Westwood's excellent Eye of the Beholder (and to a lesser extent the two mediocre sequels).

It's hard to get a handle on what makes the Beholder so memorable. Its it merely that it is an abomination, a thing-that-should-not-be? So too are the Galeb Duhr, the Xorn, the Gibbering Mouther and the Otyugh, and none of those creatures have reached the Beholder's level of celebrity.

Possibly some of what makes the Beholder memorable comes from the way we react to faces. We have a natural talent for identifying human faces; we are so naturally inclined to react to our own kind that we can see faces in the grills and headlights of cars, in the gnarls of tree trunks, and in the random scatter of rubbish. What's more, we react strongly to vulnerable faces. The reason we regard large eyes as "cute" is because we are reacting to a perceived newborn; the eyes of a baby are disproportionately large compared to its skull and it is only with growth that the proportions align to adult norms.

The Beholder subverts those expectations; it uses the shape of a human face, complete with "hair", to create something wholly aberrant and unnatural. Its large main eye and plethora of secondary orbs are not its vulnerability but its strength, able to fire beams that bring death or debilitation.

Part of the charm of the Beholder, too, is its versatility. Much like the Dragon, who is able to fly, claw, use breath weapons, spells, and a fear aura, the Beholder is not bound to any single tactic or method of offence. Each eye delivers a different yet potent attack, and an enemy of the "eye tyrant" can never be sure exactly what being hit by a Beholder's beam will do, other than have a surety that it will not be pleasant.

The move to 4th Edition has not left the Beholder unscathed. 4th Edition puts an end to "save vs death" effects. As a result, the Beholder can no longer kill or petrify enemies with a single attack. How does it compensate?

4th Edition offers Beholders in all flavours and level ranges, but the Beholder Eye Tyrant is the most archetypal version on offer. As a level 19 solo, this monstrosity is well suited to act as an endgame adversary for the Paragon Tier of play.

The Eye Tyrant packs 900 hit points, gets a free beam attack on each and every enemy that starts its turn within 5 squares of the monster, and delivers a further two beams on its turn, increasing to four when it gets bloodied.

The Death Ray's still there, but like most death effects it's now a track, with the target needing to fail two saves without passing one in order to actually die, and getting weaker along the way. The Petrification Ray works much the same. There's a Charm Ray that causes characters to make a basic attack against their allies, and a Sleep Ray that sends characters unconscious until they make a save.

The star of the show is the devastating Disintegration Ray, dealing 2d10+9 followed by an ongoing 2d20 untyped damage. Making your save against the ongoing doesn't end the effect - you'll just be dialling it down to 2d6 ongoing, requiring another save to escape completely.

Unfortunately like all 4th Edition solos the Beholder Eye Tyrant is disproportionately affected by debuffs. Despite being theoretically as tough as five equivalent level monsters, it still only takes one successful hit to leave it dazed, stunned, or paralysed. Wise DMs will give the Beholder favourable terrain and an array of minions to make sure it presents an appropriate challenge.

Still, the Beholder retains its charm and flavour in this new edition, and I'm personally looking forward to running my players into one at the first opportunity.