Tuesday, May 12, 2009

About Face (and the Seven-Pillared Hall)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Lucky Adrastus said...

Yay! Glad to see you back. Since I discovered your blog a week ago I've been eager for updates. Understand that real life can get in the way of course.

Maelora said...

Good to see you back, Greg. I'm gratified the ninjas didn't get you! :-)

Greg Tannahill said...

I'm using Wizards images so they might eventually come looking for me, but on the other hand the blog is non-profit, it's clearly directing people to Wizards and their products, and it's providing a source of (I hope) helpful feedback, so I'd think I'm doing them a free service that they'd want to see continue.

Actually, it seems likely that at least a couple of faces at Wizards have scanned the blog at some point (other than Mr Grubb, who I now feel guilty for lambasting) and if they haven't been amused then they've at least been tolerant.

The Stray said...

Whee! Glad to see you back!