Tuesday, August 11, 2009

The Slow Build

Here is something that the Well of Demons does well: building tension.

Without a doubt the best section of Thunderspire Labyrinth is the Proving Grounds. This is the central portion of the Well of Demons, intended to test potential worshippers of Baphomet before allowing them access to the inner sanctum. The Proving Grounds is essentially an extended lock-and-key puzzle consisting of a total of five encounters and culminating in an epic battle with a green dragon.

Thunderspire knows that the Proving Grounds is good. It knows that fighting a dragon on its home turf should be a big thing. And so it finally does what it should have been doing all along: it gives us a little showmanship.

The module introduces us to the Proving Grounds end-first. The very first part of the puzzle that the players see is the conclusion - the massive purpose-built arena in which they'll end up fighting the dragon. Of course, at this stage they don't know about the dragon, and very fact that such a massive and complex area is apparently unoccupied is both ominous and foreboding. There are a number of deep holes, a looping corridor with disturbing grooves in the floor, and other odd features such as glowing pools of liquid and ruined statues; players have another four encounters before they see how it all works and that's plenty of time for their imaginations to hype the area into a killing floor of unmatched ferocity.

The first of the four preliminary encounters is one of Thunderspire's rare non-combat moments. Shortly after beginning to explore the Proving Grounds, the players come across the ghosts of a group of past adventurers who failed Baphomet's test. The three ghosts are essentially good guys, and are willing to share some information if they feel the PCs are equally motivated by unselfish goals.

The ghosts aren't exactly wacky Ghostbusters-esque spirits. They're ever so slightly more gritty. Each of the trio bear the marks of their death - one's head is crushed by the dragon's jaws, one's features are deformed by the dragon's breath, and the third has his torso rended by giant draconic claws. Throughout the encounter no one says the word "dragon" or reveals the nature of the Guardian, but the clues are there for players to begin harbouring some suspicions. It's great for players to see three competent heroes who have already failed at the task the PCs are attempting, and it builds the reputation of the climactic encounter well before its nature is even revealed.

As-written, interacting with the ghosts involves a skill challenge, with the ghosts interrogating the players and the players attempting to show their good intentions. I've never been a fan of the skill challenge mechanic and it's as clumsy as ever here. Rolling on Diplomacy, Bluff, and Insight seems appropriate, but, realising that that would leave one player doing all the talking, the designers have added extra skills. Players must roll Athletics to flex and pose for the pleasure of the martial ghost; Arcana to please the magical ghost with random trivia; but apparently not Religion for the paladin, presumably because Divine characters tend to come with Diplomacy as a class skill and will already have enough to do.

Personally I threw the mechanical element out the door and roleplayed it but I guess that's dependant on how entertaining you find skill challenges.

Here's what the ghosts reveal: to pass the Proving Grounds and progress to the inner sanctum, players must open the gate at the south-eastern end of the test. Doing so requires finding four holy artifacts of Baphomet and laying them simultaneously on the four holy circles scattered around the central complex. When the items are in position, the gate will begin opening and the Guardian will emerge to administer the final test.

One of the items is the Book of Wrath Unveiled which players have already liberated from the gnolls; the other three items are in the three rooms adjacent to the central arena. Each room contains a test that players must pass to secure the relevant artifact.

So this is the Proving Grounds - a slow and ominous exploration of the central arena, a conversation with ghosts, and then three gimmick-focused tests leading to a climactic brawl. This is a near-perfect example of how to build a satisfying traditional D&D dungeon, and how to manipulate pacing to have players genuinely excited about finding out what happens next. They'll be straining at the bit to try themselves against the Guardian, and thankfully Thunderspire - finally - doesn't disappoint.


Actually, according to the printed text, the ghosts do reveal the Guardian is a dragon, if players get enough successes in the skill challenge. But it's such a vastly better set-piece if they don't that I'm exercising a kind of willful blindness. It's obvious enough from the injuries that there's a dragon involved; spelling it out in words just seems so crass.


Anonymous said...

How did the three ghosts place four items down simultaneously?

As the DM, I found the Guardian fight a let down after all that build up. The party dispatched it quite easily, without fear (and much trash talking).

FalconGK81 said...

My group met this past Friday, and took on the Proving Grounds. The skill challenge with the ghosts was painfully bad. I wish I had realized how bad it would be, I would have just done like Greg and turned it into a straight role playing situation. I think from this point on I'm tossing the diplomatic skill challenges out and doing those situations like I used to do in 3.x. I'll let them make skill checks to aid in influencing the NPCs, but leave it to their words and actions to get the result they want. It's unfortunate, I was hoping skill challenges would work, but they just don't, at least not the social ones I've done so far.

As for the Proving Grounds encounters, they had a BLAST. By far these have been the best encounters of the campaign so far. We had to wrap up in the middle of the Guardian fight, but I think that is actually a plus. The fight is very dynamic, and while I'm sure our heroes will be triumphant, I don't think THEY are so sure.

Maelora said...

This is quite possibly the most bizarre D&D encounter I've ever seen. I know if I played this straight, my players would dissolve into fits of uncontrollable laughter.

I mean, it's essentially a ghostly version of 'American Idol'. The idea of some Conan-alike rolling Athletics to flex and pose is too ludicrous for words. I know my players couldn't take it seriously.

I might even be tempted to make this one an obvious parody, and have the ghosts as thinly-veiled versions of the 'Pop Idol' judges.

Heck, if 4E EVER needed a Perform skill, it's here...

Unknown said...

Social Skill challenges are indeed awful. I prefer to do it old school with no limitations then add mild 4e mechanics in the background. That means the 6 success roles before 3 failed roles along the conversation as to determine how much information the players actually get. This really comes in handy when interrogating monsters, because you know have a clear cut moment when he either cracks and spills his guts or shuts up and tells lies.

Is there a Skill Challenge blog by the way? Can't remember having seen one around here. Would be an interesting read.

Anders Hällzon said...

I suppose the technically, extended skill challenges to disarm a trap (Thievery over and over, maybe Athletics to keep huge blades in place) or navigating the desert (Nature to find your way, Endurance to not die) are just as lame as these diplomacy skill challenges, but they stick out somehow...

(On the other hand, they're probably the least lame in theory. At least you have three "talky" skills - Diplomacy, Intimidate, Insight - and a bunch of knowledge skills to pad the list of possible skills to use.)

(On the third hand, American Idol would be greatly improved if the jury was undead.)

Anonymous said...

I played the ghosts in my game like the characters in Rentaghost.

Here's whatUK based forty year olds probably remember, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rentaghost

sebmojo said...

I agree about the lameness of the published skill challenges to date - I think there's some meat there, but for it to work each challenge needs to essentially be a minigame, like a combat, where players have to make difficult decisions and allocate resources.

This thread has a fantastic example of how to do it well (from the look of it anyway)

Massive text dump incoming:

Phase 1 (optional) - Interrogating the Prisoner

A hobgoblin prisoner (Volk) is kept in the stocks in the town square under guard, where an angry mob has gathered and begun throwing stones and rotten food. The hobgoblin starts with 10 hit points. At the start of each round, he takes 1d6 damage from the crowd's violence, unless they're deterred (see below).

A maximum of 2 successes can be gained in this phase, and each success also grants some information about the Hand (the second one being the Hand's location in the ruins of Rivenroar). Once the party has 2 successes they can continue making primary checks to get more information, but this won't generate successes towards the skill challenge.

The prisoner, the crowd, and the guards are all active elements in this phase.

(read the thread for more)

GregT said...

@Anonymous - re three ghosts four items - that's an excellent point. Maybe they had a fourth friend but he escaped? Maybe the wizard used Mage Hand or some other conjuration?

The effectiveness of the Guardian (as I'll eventually talk about) is based entirely on how it's played.

@Vincent - There's a skill challenge column in Dungeon, and I know I've seen a couple of blogs around that talk about it a lot. In my opinion taking time to discuss making skill challenges work is throwing good effort after bad; they're a clunky mechanic that's inherently doomed by the limited and dungeon-centric skill set and the lack of mechanical depth via feats or other mechanics tied to skills.

@Anders - Skill challenges work best when they're focused on dungeon and wilderness survival because they're covering up for the fact that neither DM nor players know what specific actions would be needed to navigate the challenge successfully. Rather than forcing everyone to go do research to learn how to survive in a desert, we just roll an endurance check. They work very poorly when the process itself is important, as is the case in diplomacy or puzzle solving.

@sebmojo - I ran that encounter as printed when I did Rescue at Rivenroar but you're right that the version you quote is vastly more interesting (and less prone to the PCs having to torture a prisoner).

Maelora said...

RPGTreehouse, I'm both 40 and a Brit. I remember Rentaghost! It was actually semi-serious when Mumford was in it in the early series. The later ones focused on Claypole and were more camp and comedic.

Anonymous said...

The ghosts didn't place the items. They're part of Baphomet's initiation. This is not hard to figure out.

Anonymous said...

"This skill challenge involves the spirits of a trio of adventurers
who were slain years ago when they attempted to cleanse Baphomet’s demonic influence from this place.
They managed to recover the items needed to open the door to the inner sanctum but were killed by the Guardian"

Greg Tannahill said...

@Anonymous & Anonymous - are you the same guy? And if so, are you arguing against yourself? The second anonymous post refutes the first one.

This is why I say, if you'd seriously like to be part of the discussion, please add a nickname or something to your post. Just sign off at the end. Like this.

- Greg

Unknown said...

I'm aware of the many articles about skill challenges. Even found one where they are used for specific moments during a war where they would become useful such as motivating the troops etc.

Still I'd like to see your detailed view on this mechanic if possible. You do seem to have interesting view points at times.

Greg Tannahill said...

@Vincent - You've caught me; I've been thinking about talking about skill challenges for ages but I've been taking my time pinning down specifically why they're frustrating. I might have something to say ready to go by the time we get to the doorman of the Tower of Mystery and his equally inane skill challenge.

Hexmage said...

I like the skill challenge mechanic, but I think that to work properly you need to put a bit more effort into them than most modules do. However, I also don't think they fit well with social encounters except in certain cases (such as defending someone in a trial or representing a faction's interests in a debate).

That said, you could replace "I flex my muscles to show the spirit my manliness" with "I perform a flourish with my sword to give the old ghost a taste of my swordplay" and it would seem nowhere near as ridiculous.

I think the best use for the skill challenge mechanic is in representing physical ordeals that take place over a long period of time or over a large area. For example, a chase scene: Streetwise and History to locate possible escape routes the target might utilize before the chase begins, Athletics and Acrobatics to avoid obstacles and weave through crowds, Stealth to approach the target without their notice, Perception to spot the target should they get too far away (which could happen if the PC's accrue too many failures), and Insight against the target's Bluff to avoid being thrown off-track.

There are some good examples of skill challenges in published material: One module in Dragon magazine (I forget which one) uses this MASSIVE, multi-part skill challenge to simulate the PCs' interactions with about 5 different NPCs, including representing one of them against the other 4 in a debate. How the PCs interacted with each of the NPCs determines the difficulty checks in the last phase of the skill challenge.

Johan_L said...

My God, were we pissed at the ghosts. Help us out or don't - and out of the pieces of information we did receive, only one was even remotely useful - but don't make us jump through stupid hoops for it. In the end, when we saw that we weren't going to succeed anyway, the Paladin decided to use Intimidate to tell the ghosts that they were a bunch of idiots and needed to straighten up. Obviously, this auto-failed, but with an Intimidate roll of way over 30, they at least got the proper verbal thrashing that they so richly deserved.