Friday, May 1, 2009

Foreshadowing At The Minotaur Gate

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Maelora said...

Great analysis again Greg.

However, the lack of minotaurs doesn't bother me overmuch, considering it's a ruin, and the signs of them are everywhere.

To some degree, this puts me in mind of the old BECMI module, 'Maze of the Riddling Minotaur', which also contains no actual, living minotaurs... And yet that adventure impressed me greatly, and the vivid final battle with the Sacrol (the gestalt spirit of all the dead minotaurs) has stayed with me all these years.

So in a way, the setting of a ruined, non-human civilisation could be very atmospheric in the right hands.

Greg Tannahill said...

Maze of the Riddling Minotaurs was, as you point out, ultimately about minotaurs; Thunderspire really isn't.

I think it would bother me less if these minotaurs at the gate were clearly crumbling, entire limbs broken from their bodies, their once proud eyes now dead and vacant. It would set the scene a lot better.

I'm being deliberately vague about the final boss of Thunderspire as I'm still running a group through it, some of whom read this blog, but he really has nothing to do with any of the Labyrinth's history (which the module talks about every second encounter) while getting absolutely no foreshadowing of his own. The module loads one gun and fire another; it's bad plotting.

Maelora said...

Good point; it needs better foreshadowing. Maybe something like the book found in Balin's Tomb in Lord of the Rings, detailing the civil war and eventual collapse of the city. I think there's a lot of atmosphere in the concept; I just finished reading H.P. Lovecraft's 'Mountains of Madness' and that perfectly encapsulates the feel of a long-dead, alien metropolis.

May I ask a question, Greg, as you say you're running a group through these modules? Are you finding that the combats take too long? My group's stalled while I sort out a way to reduce the 'grind' of 4E combat, and I wondered what approach you were taking? We seem to hit a point in every battle where all the 'fun stuff' (dailys, encounter powers, moving) is done, and we're just spamming the at-wills to reduce the enormous amounts of hit points every monster seems to possess in 4E.

Greg Tannahill said...

Re: Balin's Tomb and Mountains of Madness - in both these examples, the past of the dungeon complex has a direct bearing on the final resolution of the story. The fall of the dwarves is important because it's building up to the Balrog; the ancient things living in the Mountains of Madness are still alive and active. Understanding the prologue is critical to comprehending the finale.

Thunderspire doesn't have that dramatic follow-through. Ultimately what's happened to the minotaurs has nothing to do with the finale of the module and is really only relevant insofar as understanding the nature of the Well of Demons.

Re: grind - I have a whole post about this coming up. The short version is: (1) Thunderspire has no minions and a lot of repetetive enemies, (2) level 4-5 is a dull spot - no new abilities at level 4 and a daily at level 5, (3) Thunderspire doesn't introduce any new mechanics or concepts until the Well of Demons, which contrasts sharply to Keep's tutorial-style approach of highlighting a new mechanic every second encounter.

I have hope that when the players reach level 6 and get to the Proving Grounds things will pick up.

Maelora said...

Yes, you're completely right about the background ideally leading up to the climax.

As regards the grind, I'll wait until your later post, then. I've not played Thunderspire yet, but I feared the grind seems to get worse, not better, as 4E advances through the levels.

Juli Monroe said...

I was laughing as I read this post. I kept saying the same thing as we played this adventure. "Where are the minotaurs!" It bothered me greatly that we never got to fight one.

I will show this post to my DM, who will also get a chuckle from it as he remembers my weekly "but where's the minotaurs?"

Christian said...

@ Maelora -

A post on EnWorld (that may or may not have been linked here before) talks a lot about the specific problems your group faces. You may find some of the advice useful.

re: Minotaurs. There is something to be said for exploring ancient cities whose builders have long since left. But like you said Greg, that symbolism needs to be readily apparent early. I suspect that there is no sidebar in the booklet advising DMs on bringing out the Creepy.

Oh, and yay for thread necromancy + this blog! Great and unbiased analysis.

Anonymous said...


"I think it would bother me less if these minotaurs at the gate were clearly crumbling, entire limbs broken from their bodies, their once proud eyes now dead and vacant. It would set the scene a lot better."

Yep, that's how I've been playing it. At every opportunity, I drop the flavor regarding crumbling passageways, one-beautiful mosaics covered in Hobgoblin graffiti, narrow tunnels that were once broad avenues, and so on.

(Also, there's one particular encounter in the Duergar Fortress that's BLAFFLING as to why it isn't 'minotaur-flavored', so I changed that particular one post-haste, without a major shift to the associated stat blocks...)

I DO have to say that the 'bronze warders' being minotaurs helps reinforce the 'found space' feel, as long as they're tarnished, chipped, and feel like they've been repurposed by the Ms of S.