PART 1 - PART 2 - PART 3 - PART 4
"Diablo II. It's all about clicking on tacky little pictures. Like playing Windows, really."
- Lost Cub, RPGNet
June 1st, 2008
The following thoughts contain minor spoilers for Keep on the Shadowfell. If you don't want to be spoiled, don't read it. And if you're in my gaming group then you definitely shouldn't be reading it.
THE CHERUB STATUES
When I remixed the first part of the Chamber of Statues, I didn't think I'd be discussing the second part of that encounter. Why? Because there was nothing seriously wrong with that section of the encounter.
... or so I thought.
I've been cross-posting these mini-essays on Keep of the Shadowfell to WotC's forums, and the discussion there revealed there was actually a rather serious problem with that section of the encounter.
In this section of the encounter, there are four cherub statues. When triggered, the cherubs create an arcane cage to trap a victim. The cherubs then pour water into the arcane cage, which triggers a whirlpool effect that smashes the victim into the cherub statues and cause them to take damage.
The key element to this encounter is the arcane cage that the statues create:
The key problem here is the phrase "create a wall of arcane magic to enclose the area between the four statues". When I first read that phrase, I interpreted it as meaning that the arcane cage enclosed the entire 4x6 hallway, including the cherub statues. But then I realized that the other half of the encounter talks about the dragon statues reacting to characters outside the arcane cage attacking the cherub statues, so I concluded that the arcane cage must only enclose the 2x4 area between the cherubs.
I thought the phrasing was a little unclear, but no big deal.
Except it turned out I wasn't the only one who had interpreted that phrase differently. In no time at all, in fact, the conversation included four mutually incompatible interpretations of what the arcane cage did and they were all legitimate interpretations of the phrase "create a wall of arcane magic to enclose the area between the four statues":
To this muddle we can also add some confusion from the phrase "when a creature walks past the northern two statues". There seem to be two meaningful possibilities for this:
(Of course, if you go with the second possibility for the arcane cage, the answer to this question is pretty obvious -- it'll be the one that actually traps the triggering character inside the cage.)
PROBLEMS, PROBLEMS, PROBLEMS
In trying to work out how this encounter is supposed to work, we can try to narrow the possibilities down by taking two facts into consideration:
(1) Barrier effects "run along the edge of a specified number of squares". Since each statue is entirely within one square, the statues either have to be inside the barrier or they have to be outside the barrier -- they can't be both.
(2) The dragon statues are supposed to be able to use their force shot ability against characters outside the barrier making attacks against the statues. Therefore, the statues have to be outside the barrier. (And even if this wasn't true, you wouldn't want a scenario where the only character who can lower the cage is the character trapped inside the cage: If they get killed by the whirlpool effect, not only are the irretrievable, but the location of the cage effectively prevents the rest of the group from reaching the end of the adventure.)
Thus we can conclude that it must be one of these two scenarios:
... except these doesn't actually work.
First, because the cherubs have to be inside the cage (they're pouring water into the cage and the trapped character is slammed against them for damage).
Second, because under this interpretation the guy inside the cage is effectively taken out of the game: There's nothing they can do to escape. All they can do is hang tight, soak up the damage each round, and hope somebody gets them out. (This second problem isn't necessarily unworkable, it's just a questionable design choice.)
In short, the encounter doesn't work. The cherubs have to both inside and outside the cage and, according to the rules of the game, that can't happen.
As I see it, there are two options:
(1) Use the 2x4 option and then break the rules, basically creating an ad hoc ruling that the character inside the force cage can attack and destroy the cherubs even though they shouldn't be able to.
(2) Redesign the encounter so that each cherub statue takes up 2 squares (and, thus, you can have them half-in and half-out of the arcane cage without breaking the rules).
FUEL ON THE FIRE
After writing up this whole analysis, I was looking through my friend's copy of the Player's Handbook and discovered something that only serves to deepen the confusion over what the arcane cage is supposed to be doing.
In the Quick Start Rules that came with Keep on the Shadowfell, there were three areas of effect defined: Barriers, Blasts, and Bursts. In the PHB, on the other hand, barriers no longer exist. They've been replaced by walls.
Here are the rules from Keep on the Shadowfell:
And here are the rules from the PHB:
I have two reactions to this:
(1) Why wasn't this fixed in the Quick Start Rules? Yet another example of sloppy editing.
(2) The encounter still doesn't work.
It can't be option #1 because the arcane cage is a solid wall (otherwise you could walk through it and the trap would be pointless), and therefore it can't be formed in the squares occupied by the cherub statues.
It can't be option #2 because walls must fill contiguous squares and each square must share a side -- not just a corner -- with at least one other square of the wall.
It can't be option #3, obviously, because then there's no interior of the cage for someone to be trapped in.
It can't be option #4 because the trigger for the arcane cage would either result in no one being trapped inside or would make it impossible for the wall to form (since the triggering character would be occupying one of the squares the wall has to fill).
There are two possible ways of handling this:
(1) You can use option #4, change the trigger for the trap (so that it goes off when a character enters one of the squares inside the arcane cage), and then ignore the rules so that the cherubs are somehow inside the cage (despite the fact that they're nowhere near the inside of the cage).
(2) You can use option #2 and rewrite the effect so that it creates multiple walls. Unfortunately, it's not clear whether or not a character inside the arcane cage can attack the cherubs. (There's a clear rule that says you can't move across a diagonal if one of the squares bordering the diagonal has a solid barrier in it, but I can't find any rule that tells you whether or not you can attack through a diagonal where two solid barriers meet.)
THIS IS RIDICULOUS
Needless to say, I consider this to be ridiculous. I consider the complete inability for this encounter to work as written just further evidence that Keep on the Shadowfell was never playtested. Such a shoddily designed encounter would, frankly, be inexcusable in any professional product. But it completely baffles me that WotC evidently spent so little effort and care on the product they chose to serve as the flagship for 4th Edition.
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June 2nd, 2008
In classic D&D there were four primary roles in combat: The fighter was the guy who could reliably contribute every single round by dishing out damage. The arcanist was the guy who could deal "spike damage" and turn the tide against tough opponents. The cleric was the guy buffing and healing, assisting the others in various ways. The rogue also got in on the action, but was generally an opportunist.
The guys providing "spike damage" also generally got to be more productive in the non-combat sections of the game -- either because of the arcanist's utilitarian spells or because of the rogue's skills and searching ability.
This balance of spotlight time always worked for me. People gravitated towards the type of game they wanted to play by selecting the class that best-suited their preferences. And because there were a variety of game styles supported, different people could enjoy playing the game for different reasons. (Or, when they got bored of playing the game in one way, could switch to playing it in a different way.) The one problem was the generally unappealing nature of the cleric -- but 3rd Edition's spontaneous casting largely fixed this problem.
However, with that being said, this balance did begin to break down at higher levels of play. As you got close to 20th level, the spellcasters -- particularly the arcanists -- became so powerful that they completely dominated the other classes. This was an acknowledged problem and one of the biggest flaws in the design of the Epic Level Handbook was that it not only failed to address these problems but actually made them worse.
Over the past couple of years, however, this meme suddenly turned virulent: Wizards were referred to as the "win button". People were reporting that this domination -- which previously hadn't become a problem until the highest levels of play -- were cropping up in the mid-level of play around 8th level. I've even seen people insisting that, by 5th level, the game is over and the wizards have won.
But this wasn't what I was seeing at my gaming table. It wasn't until you got to around 12th level that I was beginning to see the wizards outpacing the fighters, and it wasn't until after 15th level that I was seeing the wizards beginning to completely dominate the table. Were the guys playing fighters in my game just preternaturally talented? Were the guys playing wizards particularly incompetent?
It took me awhile to figure it out, but I eventually summed it up with a catch-phrase:
The death of the wandering monster tables.
In other words, the DMs experiencing problems were allowing their players to control the pace of encounters. As a result, the casters were able to go into a single encounter, blow through all of their "spike damage" spells for the day, and then say, "Well, I'm out of spells, let's rest up."
And, of course, once you had redefined "spike damage" to mean "normal damage", the fighters were completely outclassed. And, indeed, by 5th level the wizard could completely dominate the game.
But the game doesn't have to be like this. It used to be that the threat of wandering monsters would keep the PCs in check: They wouldn't blow through all of their abilities because there was always the chance that something unexpected might happen. In my games I don't use a lot of wandering monster tables, but I do run the NPC opponents proactively: The PCs can't rely on being able to control the pace of encounters. They don't get ambushed every single night, but the possibility is there -- so they have to keep a little bit in reserve. They've also learned that, if they try to face one encounter and retreat for the day, then the next day they'll find that their opponents have reinforced and entrenched their positions and it's going to be that much harder for them.
So, really, we can see how two oft-cited complaints about 3rd Edition -- the "15 minute adventuring day" and the "all-powerful wizard" -- both stem from the same source: Poor DMing.
Given that, why do the casters really start to own the game above 15th level? Well, for a few reasons:
(1) The lack of powerful options for high-level fighters.
(2) The sheer power of the spells available at those levels (the spike damage gets a lot spikier).
(3) But, most importantly in my experience, the power provided by those spells (and the other resources available at those levels) to make it possible for the PCs to control the pace of encounters: At those levels it's not that the DM is simply letting them control the pace, it's that the PCs can proactively take that control in very reliable and predictable ways.
Once that third step happens, you're back to a situation where spellcasters can blow massive amounts of spell power in a relatively narrow window of time and the spotlight balance between fighters and wizards becomes completely skewed.
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June 3rd, 2008
Yesterday I talked about the ability to control the pace of encounters in D&D, and how that control can tip the balance of power between the fighters and the wizards. A lot of people believe that you need to completely rip apart the system in order to correct this imbalance, but in my experience -- once you understand the true source of the problem -- you can actually get a lot of mileage out of a handful of meaningful tweaks.
For example, one of the most powerful pace-control combinations at higher levels of play is the scrying-and-teleport combo (also known as a "scry and die"): You use scrying to find your target, teleport to reach them, blast the crap out of them before they have a chance to prepare or defend themselves, and then teleport away again.
The distance limitation was actually added to my house rules for flavor reasons and can be ignored if you're just interested in tweaking the rules for balance purposes. (The original group of PCs in my current campaign world wanted a campaign featuring a Lord of the Rings-style cross-country epic. Long-range teleportation would have undermined that goal: Lord of the Rings is a very different story when Gandalf just teleports the Fellowship from Rivendell to Mt. Doom. Long-range teleportation is also one of those abilities which, if you considered its practical impact on the world, would completely transform society.)
The meaningful tweaks here is adding a duration to the teleport itself and allowing characters at the destination or source of the teleport to spot the teleport and interact with it in meaningful ways. The ability to use a teleport spell to facilitate hit-and-run tactics isn't removed from the game, but it is given its own unique effects and consequences. The target of the technique, for example, can simply choose to run away. Or prep their defenses. Or call for help. The PCs could actually end jumping into the middle of a massive ambush of their own making.
It's a small adjustment, but it means that "scry and die" is no longer clearly superior option to a traditional assault: It has its own strengths and weaknesses, which will sometimes make it better than a traditional assault and sometimes worse.
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June 4th, 2008
Yesterday I tackled half of the "scry and die" combo by offering my house rules for teleport spells. Today I'm going to be dealing with the other half of the equation with advanced rules for scrying. As with my house rules for teleport, these advanced rules are deliberately designed to tweak the rules for scrying without negating the unique utility and flavor of the spell.
Location: You can choose to scry on a particular location instead of a
creature. Doing so requires a Spellcraft check (DC 20), using the same
modifiers for the DC that apply to the Will save (see scrying
spell). If the check is successful, you can observe an area within a
radius of 10 feet per caster level. While scrying on a location your
scrying sensor cannot be moved.
Learn Scryer: If you determine that youíre
being scried upon, you can learn the identity of the scryer with a
Spellcraft check (DC 30). If successful, you learn the name, race, and
location of the scryer. The scryer may make an opposed Spellcraft check or
cancel the scrying as a reaction to prevent you from learning the
Break Scrying: If you determine that youíre
being scried, you can make a Spellcraft check (DC 30) to attempt to break
the scrying. On a successful
check, the scrying ends and the scryer may not target you with a
Divination (Scrying) spell or similar effect for at least 24 hours. The
scryer may make an opposed Spellcraft check as a reaction to prevent you
from breaking the scrying in this way.
Return Scrying: If you determine that youíre being scried upon, you can look back through the sensor at the scryer with a successful Spellcraft check (DC 40). This allows you to spy on the scryer as if you had cast a scrying spell upon that person. The scryer may make an opposed Spellcraft check or cancel the scrying as a reaction to prevent you from looking back through the sensor.
Alternatively, you can cast scrying or use a
similar effect to target the character currently scrying on you. The
character scrying on you can cancel the scrying as a reaction to your
spell, but if they do not they suffer a -20 penalty on their Will save to
resist the attempt.
The key rule here, as with the teleport house rules, lies in the ability to spot the scrying sensor: This gives the person being scried upon a chance to detect the attempt. Once that's true, they can begin working to either prepare for potential danger or to disrupt the scrying (depending on the resources they have available).
The rest of the rules simply serve to make scrying a little more interesting and dynamic: The counter-scrying actions give scrying a potentially dangerous edge, while the ability to scry on a location (instead of a character) gives scrying a little more versatility.
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June 5th, 2008
REMIXING KEEP ON THE SHADOWFELL
PART 1: KOBOLDS
After studying Keep on the Shadowfell, I came to the conclusion that the only way I could run the module would be if I remixed the module in an effort to overcome some of its shortcomings. I previously demonstrated some detail work on a particularly troublesome encounter, but now I'm going to be taking a look at the big picture: Giving the adventure a stronger backbone and a richer mythology; rearranging the setpieces; fleshing out Winterhaven to give it some unique character and depth; adding extra encounters where possible; and so forth.
The following thoughts contain minor spoilers for Keep on the Shadowfell. If you don't want to be spoiled, don't read it. And if you're in my gaming group then you definitely shouldn't be reading it.
While working with the kobolds, we basically have the following resources to pillage from Keep on the Shadowfell:
(1) On the Road: Kobold Brigands
(2) A1: Kobold Ambush
(3) A2: Kobold Lair - Outside
(4) A3: Kobold Lair - Inside
Or, to look at that another way, we have the following encounter builds:
(1) Kobold Dragonshields (x2), Kobold Slinger, Kobold Minions (x5)
(2) Kobold Dragonshields (x3), Kobold Skirmisher, Kobold Wyrmpriest
(3) Kobold Dragonshield, Kobold Skirmisher, Kobold Slinger, Kobold Minions (x10)
(4) Irontooth (goblin), Kobold Dragonshields (x2), Kobold Skirmisher (x3), Kobold Wyrmpriest, Kobold Minions (x10) (in two waves)
ON THE ROAD: KOBOLD BRIGANDS
We're going to leave this encounter largely unchanged. From a conceptual standpoint it serves as a nice introduction to the problems besetting the village of Winterhaven. And from a design standpoint, it's a relatively simple encounter that serves as a nice way to introduce players and DM alike to the new rules.
However, we do need to make one slight adjustment because of some sloppy design. There are two separate triggers for starting this encounter. The PCs are approaching from the east and trigger #1 is:
And trigger #2 is:
Sounds good, but look at the map:
All of these kobolds are going to be visible to PCs traveling along the road long before they reach the easternmost boulders. There is some forest just off the right of the map shown here that will help to obscure the northern minion, but this doesn't help the southern minion (who can be spotted from the road 30 feet before the boulders) nor the dragonshields and skirmisher (who appear to have been placed on the wrong side of the boulders they're supposed to be hiding behind).
Worst. Ambush. Ever.
MOVE THE MONSTERS: Obviously we need to move the monsters.
Minions: Put all the kobold minions and hide them behind the western boulders where they can't be seen before the ambush is sprung.
Slingers: You can't see it in the picture here, but on the battlemap there's a small patch of forest just to the west (on the north side of the road). Put the slinger in this patch of forest (where he benefits from cover, but can shoot at the PCs freely).
Dragonshields: Off the east side of the map there is a forest south of the road. Put both dragonshields inside this forest.
PRE-COMBAT: The module suggests the following set-up:
I absolutely hate this. First, they've gotten their miniature skirmish game all over my roleplaying game. Second, the setup invites metagaming and ruins any element of surprise. ("Gee, I wonder if we're going to be ambushed...") Third, it creates two really boring rounds of "action" in which the players all take turns with no motivation beyond "head west... I guess".
It's just a poor gameplay experience.
So here's what you do:
(1) You lay out the scenario: "You are on the King's Road traveling west towards Winterhaven. How are you travelling?"
(2) At the very least, you want to establish a marching order (sequence and relative positioning). But, without prompting the players, you also want to find out what active precautions they're taking.
(3) If nobody states that they're specifically watching out for an ambush, use their passive Perception checks (10 + Perception modifier) to determine whether or not they spot the kobold dragonshields hiding in the woods (DC 19). (This is a bit of a cheat because, given the pregenerated characters, I know none of them will detect the dragonshields with a passive Perception check.)
(4) If they do state they're watching out for an ambush, allow them to make an active Perception check (d20 + Perception modifier) to determine whether or not they spot the kobold dragonshields hiding in the woods (DC 19).
(5) If they detect the dragonshields, the encounter starts when they get within 30 feet of where the dragonshields are hiding. Lay out the battlemap, position them according to their marching order, and inform whoever rolled high enough on their Perception checks that they've spotted the dragonshields lurking in the woods.
(6) If they don't detect the dragonshields, the encounter starts when they reach the easternmost boulders. Lay out the battlemap, position them according to their marching order, and describe the kobold minions pouring out of their hiding spots to attack them (see below).
TACTICS: Ideally, the PCs are surprised. The minions will swarm out and engage them. The dragonshields will emerge from the forest onto the road behind them, cutting off their escape. The slinger will being shooting at them from the cover of the forest.
If the PCs detect the dragonshields and attack, the minions will swarm out and come to the dragonshields' defense. The slinger will also emerge from cover, move close enough to attack, and begin firing.
GOALS: Make the ambush actually work as an ambush. Make the start of combat more dramatic, immediate, and exciting.
GUARDING THE KEEP
I talked about this briefly before, but the first two combat encounters in Keep on the Shadowfell are extremely repetitive: In the first, kobolds ambush the PCs on the road. In the second, kobolds ambush the PCs on the road. (And, even worse, if you follow the internal logic of the module, it's highly unlikely that the PCs will actually be on the road at the time that you're supposed to use the second encounter.)
So we're going to completely scrap A1: Kobold Ambush. Instead, we're going to remix this encounter -- using the same opponents in a slightly different scenario.
SETUP: Instead of an ambush, these kobolds are going to be manning a barricade blocking the road leading to the Keep. (Kalarel has placed them here to ensure that he's not disturbed at the Keep.)
BARRICADE: The wooden barricade is 15 feet high (requiring characters to make an Athletics check to climb over it). There is a 10-foot wide platform at the top of the barricade and a ladder leading down the other side.
TACTICS: The wyrmpriest stands atop the barricade, using his energy orb to attack those drawing near the barricade. The dragonshields and skirmishers ready actions to attack anyone attempting to climb the barricade.
If the PCs reach the top of the barricade, the wyrmpriest will blast them with his dragon breath and then jump down on the other side of the barricade. From there the wyrmpriest will continue using his energy orb, while the dragonshields and skirmishers engage the PCs atop the barricade.
THE SECOND GUARD
An identical barricade is located on the road north of the Keep, too.
DEVELOPMENT: If the PCs wipe out either barricade, the kobolds at the second barricade are pulled back 1d2 days later and lay an ambush in the ruins of the Keep. (I'll be discussing the ruined keep in a later entry.)
In practice, this likely means that the PCs will head towards the keep, overcome one of the barricades, and then spend some time exploring the keep. Then they'll pull back to Winterhaven and, when they return, a kobold ambush will have been laid for them at the keep.
If the PCs completely bypass the barricades on their way to the keep (by circling through the woods), Kalarel might end up pulling back both patrols to lay an ambush in the ruins of the keep. (This depends on how threatened Kalarel feels.)
INTERLUDE: FARMER'S JEOPARDY
This encounter is designed to build on the crisis facing the village of Winterhaven (which I'll be discussing at greater length: The farmers southwest of Winterhaven have been cut off from the village by the kobolds. A dwarven farmer named Terrik Sabanar, however, has attempted to break the blockade and reach Winterhaven with a wagon full of supplies.
FARMERS: Terrik Sabanar is a good-hearted dwarf. While he plans to sell the food he's hauling for a fair price (he can't afford not to), his primary motivation for trying to break the blockade is because he knows the people of Winterhaven must be in fairly dire straits.
Terrik was once a member of the Iridescent Guard, a powerful order of dwarven knights. He became disenchanted with the order, however, when his superior officer seduced his wife. Taking his infant son, Alric, Terrik left the dwarven kingdoms and came to Winterhaven. He has adopted the simple lifestyle of a farmer and left his past behind him.
For this dangerous mission, however, Terrik pried up the floorboards of his cottage and took out the +2 resounding warhammer he had once wielded as a knight. Those making a History check (DC 15) can recognize the hilt-marks on the warhammer as belonging to the Iridescent Guard -- a strange sight to see in these lands.
Terrik is accompanied by his son, Alric. Alric knows nothing of his father's history with the Iridescent Guard. Terrik didn't want to bring Alric along, but the boy begged him until he finally relented (fearing, in fact, that if he refused Alric would merely follow him and be in even greater danger).
STATS: For Terrik, use the stats for the pregenerated fighter PC. However, Terrik wields the +2 resounding warhammer (dealing base damage of 1d10+5 and +2d6 thunder damage on a critical hit). For Alric use the stats for the pregenerated fighter PC, but treat him as a minion.
(If you've got the core rulebooks available, feel free to give them unique and/or more appropriate stats as you feel fit.)
SITUATION: Terrik and Alric are ambushed by kobolds along the road. Their wagon is disabled.
KOBOLDS: Use the kobolds from the On the Road: Kobold Brigands encounter, but add two more slingers.
MAP: We can reuse the map from the same encounter, or draw a new one on an erasable battlemap. Roads are easy.
TRIGGER: This encounter can be triggered in several ways:
(1) The PCs are traveling along the road when they hear shouts and the sounds of combat. When they reach the scene, they see the kobold minions and dragonshields clustered around the wagon. Terrik stands atop the wagon, swinging his warhammer.
(2) The PCs in Winterhaven when Alric rides up to the gate begging for help. (As the ambush broke, Terrik dumped Alric onto one of the horses and sent him riding for safety.) The city guard seems confused... perhaps somebody runs to ask permission from Lord Padraig before leaving their posts. (Padraig will be furious that none of his mean seized the initiative, but meanwhile...)
If the PCs think of it, let them make an Intimidate check (DC 20) to convince two of the guards to go with them to help Terrik. If the guards do accompany them, you'll need to figure out stats for them. (Easy to do if you've got the core rulebooks. Otherwise, just use the same stats as Alric.)
If the PCs return with Alric, they see two dead kobolds lying near the wagon. The minions and dragonshields have pulled back, and the kobold slingers are pelting the wagon with their slingstones. Terrik is hiding in the wagon, trying to stay behing cover. (This trigger can be used particularly effectively if Alric rides up to Winterhaven just as the PCs are leaving or entering the village.)
(3) While traveling along the road away from Winterhaven, the PCs pass Terrik and Alric heading in the opposite direction. If they choose to accompany the dwarves, they'll be there when the ambush breaks out a few minutes later. If they continue on their way, just a couple minutes later they hear shouts and the sounds of combat coming from behind them. (If they need further prompting, have Alric ride after them.)
REWARD: If the PCs rescue them, Terrik will gift them with this +2 resounding warhammer. The weapon deals 1d10 damage, +2d6 thunder damage on critical hits, and has a daily power that can be used as a free action when a target is hit with the warhammer, rendering the target dazed.
FOLLOW-UP: Once the ambush has been dealt with, it takes Terrik about 5 minutes to fix the wagon wheel. (If it was 3rd Edition, we could let the PCs help. But, hey, there's no Craft skill in 4th Edition. Who would ever need such a thing? It's not like we could ever be in a situation where you might want to fix a wagon wheel before more kobolds show up. Feel free to throw an ability check in there to compensate for the dumbed down rules.)
The villagers in Winterhaven are thrilled when the supplies, meager as they are, arrive. Terrik, Alric, and the PCs are greeted as heroes.
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