The Alexandrian

Keep on the ShadowfellMy work on converting the archives of the Alexandrian over the past few days have been something of a trip down memory lane as I go digging through material I wrote up to half a decade ago. And occasionally stumbling across comments that I don’t think I ever saw because of the broken and disjointed commenting system on the old site.

One discovery that particularly caught my eye came in response¬† to the Keep on the Shadowfell: Analyzing the Design series I wrote as a precursor to my remix of the module in 2008. A couple people mentioned that the specific traps I had been talking about in 2008 had been “fixed to a large extent” when WotC revised the module for its release as a freebie PDF.

I was curious enough to check it out.

And discovered that they’d fixed almost nothing. The only two improvements I can identify are:

1. They allowed Arcana and Thievery checks to stack for the purposes of disabling the dragon statues. (A suggestion I’d made in my original remix notes.)

2. They made it clear when the arcane walls of the Whirlpool Trap would activate (“when a creature moves into the 4-square-by-4-square area between the statues”) and the location of the walls once they appear:

Revised Whirlpool Trap

But there are two problems with this “solution”:

First, as I discussed in my original essay on the matter, you’ve designed the trap so that it can’t be affected by anyone outside of the trap. (In order to disable the trap, you have to destroy the cherubs. And you can’t attack the cherubs if they’re on the other side of the wall.) They’ve removed the explicit references in the module itself to characters doing the impossible, but that doesn’t remove the larger design concerns:

(a) It’s not fun. In general, this means you will have one character inside the trap who needs to make several attacks against the cherub vases while everyone else sits around and watches.

(b) What happens if the character trapped inside the whirlpool is killed? As far as I can tell, the arcane walls just remain in place for the rest of eternity. (They can’t come down until the cherubs are destroyed; and the cherubs can’t be destroyed by anyone who isn’t caught in the trap.) Not only does this mean there’s no way to retrieve your fallen comrade’s battered body, it also means that the only path for reaching the Big Bad Boss of Keep on the Shadowfell is now blocked by two permanent walls of arcane energy.

Second, the trap breaks the rules. The Quick-Start Rules included in the original Keep on the Shadowfell included “Barriers” as one of the types of Area of Effect:

Barrier: A barrier runs along the edge of a specified number of squares. A barrier must cross at least one edge of the origin square.

This was problematic because the core rulebooks didn’t include “Barriers” and instead included rules for “Walls”:

Wall: A wall fills a specified number of contiguous squares within range, starting from an origin square. Each square of the wall must share a side — not just a corner — with at least one other square of the wall, but a square can share no more than two sides with other squares in the wall (this limitation does apply when stacking squares on top of each other). You can shape the wall however you like within those limitations. A solid wall, such as a wall of ice, cannot be created in occupied squares.

The original version of the trap was problematic in any case because it used the keyword “wall” to describe the arcane cage, and one just had to kind of assume that it meant “barrier” if you were using the Quick-Start Rules. You’ll note, however, that the revised version of the module is clearly using the rules for a “barrier” in its diagram.

So… no problem, right? The Quick-Start rules describe “barriers” and this trap, designed to be used with the Quick-Start Rules, now clearly follows those rules.

Except (and this is my favorite bit) somebody noticed that the rules for “barriers” were outdated and should never have been published in the first place, and so the revised Quick-Start Rules designed to be used with the revised version of Keep on the Shadowfell… don’t include the rules for barriers. The entire section was cut.

(Did they bother to replace these rules with the rules for walls which were supposed to be there in the first place? Don’t be silly. Of course they didn’t.)

So you have a trap which explicitly creates walls, but they don’t follow the rules for walls… and it doesn’t really matter anyway, because the Quick-Start Rules didn’t bother including rules for walls.

Epic Fail

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3 Responses to “Keep on the Shadowfell: A Much Belated Addendum”

  1. -C says:

    I can’t figure out the logic here either. I talk to plenty of people who say 4e is ‘fixed’ and I see they have done some positive things (lowering hit points for one), but really, I think the general gist is we’re just supposed “make something up on the spot that works” to fix the problem.

    Note how this is in line with the old school aesthetic, but then there are a gazillion books and rules – so many you need a database subscription to keep up. The system is based around you not having to make these decisions, yet they are so undermanned and understaffed that they can’t even successfully coordinate their rules.

    Whatever. It’s why I don’t play their game.

  2. Leland J. Tankersley says:

    My suspicion is that this issue is strongly related to the problems with Castle Ravenloft you discussed earlier. It seems to me that WotC wants to write light tactical wargames, but the problem is they seem to be horrible at analyzing rules and/or playtesting to identify problems and loopholes (to be fair, it’s far from easy), and this is exacerbated by their desire to put “flavor text” into everything. The flavor text culture motivates designers to create new terms instead of relying on old ones, which makes the number of combinations/interactions between terms/powers explode, further complicating the analysis/testing problem.

    Also, their economic model mandates that they keep pushing out product, of course, at least in the D&D arena, so there isn’t much incentive to do lots of testing and loophole plugging, and I suspect this culture dominates and spills over into what are notionally one-shot products as well.

  3. TheAlicornSage says:

    I know this is old, but I am running through for concepts to consider in my own design.

    I see a good solution for this trap.
    Place the barrier/wall on the south side of each pair so the “walls” run east to west. This leaves two statues inside, and two outside.

    The barrier rules fit better for this obviously, and I honestly don’t see why they can’t have both barriers and walls. Barrier rules make more sense for walls of force, ice, and similar thin impassible planes, while Wall rules make sense for walls of fire or similar areas of damaging effect.

    Also, you could add that the trap resets itself after [some period of time] without a living creature inside it.

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