Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Twenty-Eight Adventures, Part 16: King of the Trollhaunt

Hello! A strangely quiet week here at the Baker household—both of my daughters are off on a mission trip, so it’s just Kim and I holding down the fort (with our big baby of a Lab). Last night we snuck out to catch a Mariners game. I found a nice ticket-resale site and came across a pair of really good tickets that someone had to dump at the last minute, so we sat 8 rows from the field and only paid $15 apiece for the seats. Of course, the beer still costs $10 at Safeco, but you’re allowed to bring food into the park, so Kim and I enjoyed Jimmy John subs while watching the Mariners get thrashed by the Royals. At least we didn’t pay $50 a seat for the privilege.

#21: P1, King of the Trollhaunt Warrens
Ah, King of the Trollhaunt Warrens. My contribution to the adventure was the Trollhaunt and the Great Warren, including Skalmad and his magic eye. I also came up with the backstory of the sad fate of Prince Etheran. My co-writer, Logan Bonner, covered the town of Moonstair, the troll attack, and the Feywild material that forms the conclusion of the adventure. As in Thunderspire Labyrinth, I didn’t have any input in the adventure title or the “catalog copy”—it was my job (and Logan’s) to write an adventure that matched the title we had in hand.

Trollhaunt was my second adventure for D&D 4e, and the first adventure Wizards published for paragon-tier play. I worked on it immediately after Thunderspire Labyrinth, and had a better handle on skill challenges at that point. The “find your way to the dungeon” challenge at the beginning of the adventure is actually pretty interesting. I also came up with a challenge for negotiating with a dragon, and Logan included a couple in his section of the adventure. 

For some reason, when I thought about the idea of “the Trollhaunt” and what sort of environment might be overrun with trolls, I kept thinking about the old Star Trek episode The Galileo Seven. So, when you read or play through the Trollhaunt trek, just imagine thick mists hiding big giant dudes who occasionally throw fifteen-foot spears at you.

One little goal I gave myself in the design of Trollhaunt: I wanted the players to get to know Skalmad, the troll king, and face him several times in the course of the adventure. All too often adventures that feature an interesting bad guy have exactly ONE meeting of heroes and villain—the climactic battle scene. I wanted to see if we could think up a way for the PCs to fight Skalmad multiple times. That notion led to the Eye of Moran and the Stone Cauldron. If you play through Trollhaunt, you will come to hate Skalmad, and that’s good.

The map of the Great Warren was challenging, because we had hard rules in place about making sure that any area map we created for an adventure had to be re-usable as the insert maps in the tactical encounter spreads. So, I had to map out this sprawling maze in 5-foot squares. I took two full pages to make the biggest spread possible. One interesting feature: If you don’t mind getting wet, the stream tunnels provide a whole different path to explore the complex, and make this a very non-linear map. However, it has always been my experience that PCs hate getting wet (they’re like cats), and I wonder how many groups out there realized how valuable this alternate pathway could be.

Funny story about the art order: Check out the spot illo on page 4 of Adventure Book One. I had a hell of a time getting that through our art approval process. Chris Perkins thought I was absolutely nuts to ask for an ominous-looking sack, but I just knew it had to be there. When the trolls of the Trollhaunt inform the people of Moonstair that the noble Prince Etheran is not welcome in their realm, they do so by throwing his head over the wall in a bloody sack. The PCs later recover a letter from the town mayor to the lord, in which the mayor diplomatically says that, “a troll warrior delivered a token proving your son is dead,” which I thought was a masterful bit of understatement. Anyway, it turns out that making a sack look threatening is tough, and I had to fight for that little bit of gallows humor in the adventure. Sorry, but the bloody sack is just funny to me for some reason.

One other thing I’m proud of in Trollhaunt is the will-o’-wisp. Working early in 4e, we only had one Monster Manual to pull from, and I was bummed that the will-o’-wisp hadn’t made the cut for the first monster book. So, I got to design the first 4e appearance of this iconic D&D monster. It turns out that a monster like the will-o’-wisp works so much better with 4e’s idiosyncratic monster powers and templating of actions than it does in earlier editions of the game. In 1e, you’d see lights in a swamp, and there was nothing to make the characters actually follow them into danger. Plus, the idea of lurker monsters that join other fights is perfect for the making the will-o’-wisp an interesting encounter. IMO the 4e wisp finally delivers on what the monster was trying to do since 1978. I think 5e could benefit from incorporating a little more of 4e’s monster design tech.

So, overall, I like P1, and I’ve used it (or pieces of it) a number of times in my own games. It seems to have been well received, with a good mix of story, colorful demi-Celtic trappings, and memorable fight scenes. I ought to update it for 5e sometime.

Next Week: Reavers of Harkenwold, the adventure from the D&D Essentials Dungeon Master’s Kit.


  1. The Will-o-Wisp encounter was indeed fine - I rather think 5e misses lots of tech from 4E...

    I remember the skill challenge to get to the Warrens because it was the first one where I decided to embellish the published material. There was a neat map of the Trollhaunt in general, with lots of nice little mini-locations as well as the Warrens themselves that wasn't really linked into the challenge at all. My solution was to link the paths, locations and encounters in the swamp to the skill challenge directly - playing off the foggy, twisted nature of the swamp and the wandering nature of a search, plus the fact that each location carried a clue to the Warrens' whereabouts. Each success in the challenge became a location to explore (with clues and maybe treasure to find), while each failure became a small encounter (with no xp - the xp for the challenge covered it) or a "fifteen foot spear out of the mists" with possible complications...

    Oh - the dragon became a feature of the campaign, too, after the PCs negotiated a wide-ranging "arrangement" with it :-)

  2. So that's the story of the bloody sack! Very cool. I have used that spot illo a few times. It has been surprisingly useful... and one of those pictures worth a thousand words.

    I also agree about the will-o'-wisp. I remember reading that and thinking, "Finally, the mechanics matches the flavour." And that's one of the triumphs of 4E monster design: the mechanics can match the flavour in a way no other edition manages (except maybe 3.xE if you want to spend 2-3 days finding the right combination of feats and prestige classes... only to watch the druid wipe out the monster in the first round).

    I haven't used the adventure itself yet but have plans for a Feywild-focussed campaign with a fomorian BBEG. I think this would fit perfectly.