Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Twenty-Eight Adventures, Part 15: Thunderspire Labyrinth

Hi, there, welcome back! I’m continuing with my retrospective on the various adventures/scenarios I’ve written for RPGs over the years—most of them in various editions of the D&D game, of course.

In other news, wow, the Mariners are unpredictable this year. I thought they would break out of the gate fast and be a top-flight team throughout the season, but clearly I was wrong about that! However, I’m going to make an insanely bold prediction: I think the M’s are going to heat up and put together a very significant winning streak. There is a ton of talent on this club, and I think they won’t be kept down forever. In fact, I think they’re going to be fighting for a playoff spot in the last couple of games of the season. Whether they can claw their way in or not, I couldn’t say—it’s unfortunately true that wins in September don’t count any more than losses in April. But I think we have not yet seen the measure of this team.

Okay, on to the D&D stuff!

 #20: H2, Thunderspire Labyrinth
My first adventure for 4e Dungeons & Dragons was H2, Thunderspire Labyrinth. Over the years TSR and Wizards had waffled over the question of whether the “letter+number” designator on an adventure module really helped the consumer at all; in this case, the H stands for “heroic tier,” meaning it’s an adventure designed for characters under 10th level.

My co-writer was Mike Mearls. I did the sections on the Seven-Pillared Hall, the Chamber of Eyes, and the Horned Hold, as well as some of the upfront presentation. Mike’s contribution was the awesome Well of Demons section, and the Tower of Mysteries. As it turned out, we didn’t really collaborate all that closely—the adventure’s sections are very episodic, and don’t lean too much on each other. That’s okay by me, because I viewed the ruined city of Saruun Khel as a gigantic sandbox and wanted to make sure the players could engage the adventure just by wandering around if they wanted to.

Thunderspire Labyrinth offered some tricky presentation and philosophy questions right up front, simply because it came so early in the 4e product run. (Yes, Keep on the Shadowfell was released earlier, but we had to start on H2 before H1 was completely done.) Not being entirely sure how to present a good 4e adventure, I erred on the side of caution at first, and shot for a middle-of-the-fairway dungeon crawl experience in my sections. (Mike, of course, was a little more ambitious.) If you’ve been reading the blog, you might recall that I felt the same sort of trepidation about Forge of Fury, and adopted a similar approach. For the same reason, I shied away from some excellent opportunities to create skill challenges in the adventure—the subsystem for navigating the giant ruined city really should have been set up that way, but when I was writing H2 I just didn’t know enough about skill challenges to feel comfortable placing much reliance on that system.

I didn’t pick out the name of the adventure: This was one of those assignments where I had to write to suit a title that had been created months before I started work. Chris Perkins also gave me the basic premise of “underground market city, where the surface races and Underdark races can deal with each other.” So the Casablanca-like vibe of the Seven-Pillared Hall really originates in the initial catalog blurb that Chris and Bill Slavicsek came up with; all I did is execute on their concept.

One strange thing about Thunderspire Labyrinth: I wound up featuring duergar (gray dwarves) in the Horned Hold, which marked their debut in 4th Edition. Ironically, I’d done the same thing in Forge of Fury at the beginning of 3e. So, in two consecutive editions, I rolled out the duergar for the edition. One of the things about 4e is that we stepped back and considered the question of whether monster stories/context ought to undergo development in the same way their mechanics were being updated. At the time we felt that the "just like <good guys> but EVIL" races weren't necessarily holding up after you got past the drow, so we gave the duergar a very devilish new twist. In retrospect, we learned that folks are way more touchy about the story elements of the D&D universe than we'd imagined, and many of our "new takes" actively angered our fans. 

People with a sharp eye for detail have noticed that the scale of the map depicting the Nentir Vale in the 4e Dungeon Master’s Guide conflicts somewhat with the description of the Old Hills given in H2. That was not my fault—I knew perfectly well that the range of hills shown in the Nentir Vale wasn’t all that big and hardly constituted a mountain range that could hold a place like Thunderspire, since I wrote up the Nentir Vale chapter in the DMG. However, the decision was made to make sure that H2 was located right smack in the middle of the Nentir Vale. Sorry if that bugged you, I didn’t do it!

Looking back at H2 now, I am pretty proud of the Seven-Pillared Hall and the super-flavorful setting of a whole ruined city to roam around in. The dungeon is infinitely expandable, and the Mages of Saruun are scary and ambiguous villains for a low-level party. The Horned Hold is an evocative setting, but it’s pretty static—working under the constraints of the tactical encounter format and my own caution in balancing fights for the new edition, I deliberately kept things simple in my sections. Fortunately Mike Mearls dialed it up to 11 in his part of the adventure! As I grew more familiar with 4e, I felt more comfortable in writing more ambitious material.

Next Week: P1, King of the Trollhaunt Warrens!


  1. Interesting to read the designer's side of this; we ran through it a long time back on our way to Epic with a group that get tpgether from around the UK every couple of months. That campaign has just followed the H-P-E scenarios (with increasing tweaking and additions) and is now at level 26 (in Kindom of the Ghouls).

    The Mages of Saruun became a fixture and (dubious) ally of the PCs, fleeing the Labyrinth (temporarily) when the Drow menace involved with the Demon Queen's Enclave threatened. The Minotaur city, though cool, could really have done with some (skill-challenge based?) support, though.

    Looking forward to Trollhaunt Warrens! That was the adventure where, I think, as GM I really started to get a handle on what SCs could be used for. Moonstair is still a fondly-thought of base for the PCs, but fitting it into the "world map" from the Nerath board game was, um, "challenging"...

  2. After the truly horrible, edition-killing H1 - the best marketing Paizo never paid for - H2 was a breath of fresh air. It was genuinely good... but then came H3 and the edition's death knell was sounded.

    It really was a shame that H1 and H3 were not as good as H2; it could have made all the difference to the lifespan of 4E which remains my favourite edition of D&D (I go back to 1981).

    H2 has popped up a few times in my games. The Seven-Pillared Hall is one of those locations that begs for regular use.

    BTW, I appreciate the fact that the art order for the duergar was clearly written before the 4E corruption of the classic duergar was made. (I'm not a fan of durzagons-as-duergar.)