Friday, May 29, 2009

Side Trek #1: Tower of Sunset

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


brandykruse said...

I always enjoy these critiques of yours. Your talent for analyzing all of the info in these adventures makes for better reading than the modules themselves!

Massawyrm said...

Fully agree with the above sentiments. They've been a great help as I'm preparing to run a beginners group through the series.

OOC, what numbers are your math based upon for Thunderspire's XP? 4, 5 or 6 players. I'm assuming the standard 5 - but wanted to double check before playing around with my own computations.

Greg Tannahill said...

Massawyrm - Assuming 4E's standard of five players. I can't claim to have done the maths, but my players were low-4 when they started the adventure, they've done the Tower of Sunset (but no other sidequests or random encounters), they've done all the main questline except two Horned Hold encounters that they skipped, they're currently halfway through the Well of Demons and they're going to hit level 7 next session. I expect them to be cusping 8 when they wrap up the final battle. We haven't been using quest XP or roleplaying XP.

If you add the actual XP numbers up let me know how they come up.

Crazyred - Thanks! I've been ill all this week so I'm just glad that the post even makes sense. I was worried I'd typed gibberish. (Swine flu got to the ACT on Monday. Coincidence? I think not!)

Kelly Davis said...

Hey, is it Massa of "Ain't it Cool" fame? Man, do you get beat up for talking about 4E there - keep it up, doing a good job, IMHO.

'Arry said...

You've sold me on buying this module. Even though I'm a 3.5 player, this module crys out to be used as a base for adventuring in my campaign!

I enjoy your thourough critiquing of these modules, you've given me a lot of DMing ideas.

Brian said...

Haven't done this one yet, but the players do know about the gargoyles as they were bothered by them on the way into the mountain. They also "saved" Wynn Longsaddle in the process, since she was leaving with a message from the Mages to somewhere. So I plan to have her get wounded on the return trip and show up in the pub, reminding the players of the situation outside.

The gargoyles do seem extra tough though... haven't figured out how to handle them here yet. There are a lot of targets to deal with, so it'll be interesting to see in which order the PCs try to burn them down.

As for XP, I have totals for H1, H2, & H3. Assumptions are that all encounters are finished, one major quest is awarded per module, and all minor quests within them (Find the Boar, etc.) are completed.

H1: 4047
H2: 11447
H3: 25838

This'll obviously vary somewhat if you don't do Quest XP, skip parts of dungeons, etc. but it looks like you end up on the cusp of level 11 at the end of H3 if you actually manage to clear the whole thing out. It also means that you do indeed end up over-leveled if you add in side treks and ramdom encounters without adjusting XP. It is possible to skip/miss parts of H3, though, so that might not be a big deal... depending on how complete your party normally is.

Greg Tannahill said...

Arry - thanks heaps, it's always great to hear people are reading. And I think Thunderspire is definitely better as a base of operations for a more open ended campaign than it is when you just run the encounters as written - hope you have a blast.

Brian - thanks heaps for the maths! Re: the gargoyles, your party can probably take them, it's just that it's an incredibly slow and dull process to do so. They're damage resistant and when they go into statue form they heal. They're less epic than they are just epicly boring.