Wednesday, May 13, 2009


Surina doesn't work.

The Thunderspire Labyrinth developers obviously think she does. They give her half a page and a stat block, making her the most fleshed-out character in the Seven-Pillared Hall. But as printed, she's just not a success.

Surina is a female Dragonborn Warlock, on something of a crusade. She's apparently the veteran of past campaigns against gnolls and suchlike in other parts of the world, and she's brought her war with her into the Seven-Pillared Hall. The module describes her as agitating for aggressive action against "the evil factions within the Hall" (the duergar and drow) and she's engaged in an attempt to turn the Hall into a kind of armed base-camp for military expeditions into the Underdark.

Her story arc is a traditional tale of corruption. She's letting her zealotry guide her into some fundamentally bad decisions involving violence and intolerance, and eventually someone's going to get hurt as a result. It doesn't help that she's picked up an Imp companion somewhere who's giving her some mischievously terrible advice.

That's a great character, but it just doesn't fit Thunderspire Labyrinth. The players can't get involved in her story. The module has the players scheduled to fight the Duergar in Act 2, before they head off to the Horned Hold. If they get into a fight early, they're going to significantly complicate things later, and when it is time to take on the dwarves they don't need any encouragement.

On the flip side, the players aren't likely to want to stop her, either. She's right. The Duergar and Drow are vile, malevolent slavers who bring pain and misery to everyone they meet. If Surina announces an intention to declare war on the entire Underdark, the best the players can do is pat her on the back and say, "Go get 'em, tiger!"

Much like Brugg, Surina is ultimately an accessory character - to be used or ignored as your particular game demands - but the problem really is that she has an arc. If you want her to help the players when they attack the Duergar, or confront the players if they get too friendly with the bad guys, then it really works best if you introduce her early. On the other hand, if you do introduce her early, you're in danger of your players jumping straight on her Duergar-slaying bandwagon the moment they meet her and picking a fight they're not ready to win.

This is the problem with the Obvious Questgiver model of adventure design. Both Keep on the Shadowfell and Thunderspire Labyrinth are replete with random strangers who have tasks they'd like someone to do. So when a basically well-intentioned Dragonborn idly mentions that it'd be swell if someone murdered the entire Duergar race, players are all too likely to obligingly note it in their quest logs.


hp said...

Man, I like your posts so much!

But, punching so hard Hasbro's module designers, aren't you afraid of something like a cease and desist lawsuit...?

Oh, but they certainly deserve this. :P

Greg Tannahill said...

Thanks for the compliment, hperantunes!

I'd think Wizards are big enough and tough enough that they don't fear a critical review. I'm neither unnecessarily harsh nor pushing a personal agenda, and I welcome a well-reasoned reubttal.

I'd also say again, if it's not clear, that Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition is an excellent game, and while the modules might be subpar, the system itself is thoroughly recommendable

Lucky Adrastus said...

I was thinking that Surina could work as an ally when the party attacks the Duergar, then have her go overboard and attack the seemingly Unaligned Gendar the Drow afterwards, at which point the party can take her down (plus her new infernal allies, presumably). Gendar has a minor quest he gives to get something from the Duergar, so all the parties are in the right place at the right time -- she helps the party against the Duergar, then gets angry when they give the quest item to Gendar.

I think a different problem with her is that she has primarily fire-based attacks, but wants to fight the fire resistant Duergar. She might work better re-statted as a Dragonblood Sorcerer-type, so she can get through their fire resistance. This would make her infernal face-heel turn more of a surprise, perhaps. Or maybe just illogical, so YMMV.

Greg Tannahill said...

I'm frankly not sure why she's a Warlock at all. The module has her acting for religious reasons as a servant of Erathis; I have to keep reminding myself that she's not a Paladin.

There are several problems with the Duergar ally plan. One is that the trading post is, if anything, underpowered, and the players don't need help there. Then you get to the Horned Hold which, as written, is just vicious - it's an actual frikkin'fortress and you have to do a lot of handwaving to get the PCs inside it at all. A zealot there is going to get the party killed and raise the difficulty of an already tough area. Plus you've got the normal problems of competent NPC allies taking the focus off the players.

You can get around these issues (and many of the other problems with Surina) with some relatively minor DM-driven alterations. For example, I was thinking that she could have come to the Hall because she, too, has had someone kidnapped by slavers - at first she's loud but reasonable, but it's only after the players come back from the Chamber of Eyes with the news that the slaves have gone to the Duergar that she goes psycho, thereby removing the "early Duergar fight" issue.

What she really needs from the module is a timeline - a guide to how she behaves and interacts with the plot at the different stages of the story, to make her a relevant part of the narrative rather than just an unrelated sidebar hanging around at the inn.

The Stray said...

I'm beginning to be more and more glad i didn't waste money on this module. Are you planning on reviewing any of the Dungeon adventures, such as the Scales of War adventure path?

Greg Tannahill said...

I'm running Rescue at Rivenroar for an online group via MapTool so I have some thoughts about that, but judging by the rate I'm getting (or not getting) through just the H series I have doubts I'll ever get round to posting about them.

The short version is I like Rescue way better than H1 or H2, although I understand that Scales of War generally has some issues with later modules unilaterally retconning the earlier ones in a way that can really undermine a campaign.

Lucky Adrastus said...

I'm happy you're reviewing this series. I think it has a lot of flaws, which you point out, but it also has a lot of potential strengths that you are helping point out. I see this series of blog posts as a guide to making a potentially strong series of adventures into an actually strong series of adventures.

Maelora said...

Thanks for this. This NPC really does show up many of 4E's issues in a microcosm - some decent ideas, but no real plan on what to do with them or how to use them.

Anonymous said...

I'd be interested in hearing about your online experiences with Maptool. I've started playing around with it, but have yet to introduce in our on again/off again online campaign.

nowiwantmydmg said...

How have you found maptool?

I've had trouble getting images to use in it, I would have though some basic images would have been included, but it's proved frustrating tracking some down. It looks like a good utility if I ever get around to using it though.

Any plans to reveiw the P or E series as well?

Greg Tannahill said...

Re: MapTool - the biggest issue with MapTool is getting someone to do the necessary network configuration to host a server. After that, it's brilliant.

I haven't tried doing my own mapping in it, so I don't know what that's like, but if you're running pre-existing modules you can usually find maps floating around the internet, and for recent Dungeon Magazine stuff Wizards releases the map gallery as images suitable to be imported straight into the program.

There's a 2GB torrent floating around with more MapTool images than you'll ever need, as well.

I run it for people I can't otherwise get together in one place; my preference is still to play at a table where that's possible, but MapTool is as close to that experience online as is possible, with a heap of nifty features like a built-in initiative tracker to compensate for the non-physicality. I highly recommend it.

NowIWantMyDmg - I'm not committing myself to anything, given the rate I'm going, but my general intention was that if I'm still enjoying doing this when I get to the end of Pyramid of Shadows I'll continue on to P1.

Valentine Pillow said...

I have a male dragborn warlock.

Aenghus said...

When I ran this part I changed Surina to a fighter with a greatsword,as the party had plenty of ranged firepower, but were weak on defenders. When the duergar revealed her invisible companion she fled in horror.

Later in my campaign she may reappear, now fully turned to the dark side, but possibly redeemable.

Unknown said...

I had a player join -- let's say one who would clearly enjoy ripping into bad guys without a thought for the consequences -- and gave him Surina to play as a foil while he saw how 4e works. He's still undecided after a few hours' gaming whether to adopt her as a PC anyway.

But the rest of the group got wise to Surina's agent provocateur role almost before this player drew breath to roleplay it. Contrary to your concern about the over-Obvious Questgiver position, Greg, my party is now painfully reluctant to attack Kedhira's trading post.