Review: Beyond the Mottled Tower

The Scales of War hits the paragon tier in this adventure published in Dungeon 163 from February 2009. This instalment is written by Creighton Broadhurst, Bruce Cordell and David Noonan. Too many chefs? Or are three heads are better than one?

“All my careful work destroyed by that traitorous bastard Modra and those ‘Heroes of Overlook.’ Now, I must begin again, seeking new allies on different worlds to make good my losses. But first, some vengeance on the Vale, as well as a way to eradicate all hints of my involvement with the githyanki. After all, anonymity is the key to any successful betrayal. . .”

Disclaimer: Given that many people might be jumping onto this series of reviews at this point, I should be clear that there will inevitably be spoilers, it simply can’t be helped. However, I will try my best to keep them to a minimum and call out anything that might seriously impact your play along the way. There you go.

So, Sarshan’s back, and he’s got a new plan. He’s going for damage limitation this time out as the heroes have stymied his plans on a couple of occasions if they’ve played through the path so far. To try to get a fresh start, he’s severing all links with the githyanki, and destroying any evidence of their collaboration. He kicks this plan off by attempting to assassinate Megan Swiftblade, the leader of the Freeriders company who the party will have associated with before. You’d think he’d start with the party first seeing as it’s they that have bloodied his nose more often and more severely, but no, he’s starting with an NPC. This brings the adventure back to near Brindol, where it all started 10 levels ago.

The mission hook is simple enough, the party have to be willing to extract Megan from her hiding place and get her back to Overlook unscathed. As in some previous instalments, the party can cut to the chase or play out negotiations with the council of elders. Either way the adventure proper begins at the Green Dragon tavern as the party wait for their rendezvous. The tavern and it’s patrons are sketched out fairly lightly and the advice is to stay with the roleplay as long as the players seem happy to do so. These fantasy taverns never seem to be very busy do they? There’s not a huge amount of ‘meat’ at this point but it does work as a starting point.

The first big event is ready to go when the talking dies off, in the form of a devastating earthquake. Mechanically, this is supported by a skill challenge. As with a lot of skill challenges, this one doesn’t look wholly convincing. The format is odd, with timed events and a round by round summary that happens regardless of the heroes actions. The ‘victory’ in the challenge is to escape the crumbling tavern taking some cowering villagers with you. I’m not certain that this is obvious enough to the players, certainly in the early stages. I thought conventional wisdom was to stay inside during a ‘quake? Maybe I’m being too critical, because I can see that with enough flair and improvisation a good DM could squeeze plenty of drama out of this scene.

Outside, things escalate rapidly as the party have to face the blob. That’s right, the blob. Well, actually it’s more like that Tommy Lee Jones movie with the volcano in it. Essentially there’s a slow moving flow of Blood Chaos (I think it makes more visual sense if you call it chaos blood) and it ignites everything it touches. It’s heading for a trapped villager and the party must attempt a rescue. At the same time this ooze has spawned some monsters of its own, you know the sort, all tentacles and fire. Break out the silly putty if you want to use minis. Take care with the stat blocks though, the Scion of Chaos is Huge and has an aura 2 effect, that’s a whole lot of area. It also has no range listed on its staggering strike? The skulking terrors similarly have no range for their blast power. Also, they can fly, but the encounter has them hiding under the ooze. Make it up I guess.

The ooze isn’t going to stop of it’s own accord so the party will have to go to the source, an opening in a hill under that previously unmentioned tower just over there. This is very much your traditional wizard’s tower, including the inevitable experimental labs that contain gruesome monsters. These beasts have broken free in the quake. Megan and the sage’s apprentice have gotten to the roof, but the sage remains behind needing rescue. None of these NPCs are particularly grateful for the sight of the party and it’s debatable as to whether or not the PCs would help them out regardless. Assuming they do it’s onto the combat encounter deep within the sinking tower.

Poor old Serten, the sages apprentice. He’s got a typical apprentices life. He shares his bedroom with a couple of demons, some underdark dwellers and a mad far realm mage. The earthquake means they’ve busted out, but luckily for the adventure they’ve decided to lurk within their cells waiting for heroes on which to avenge themselves. Quite why the foulspawn seer (intelligence 22 remember) didn’t blast his captors on day one is left to the imagination. Frankly, there’s little point over-thinking these encounters. I reckon the authors came up with the monsters first, and the rationale second. As it is, it gives the adventurers a nice little tour through the Monster Manual. Also, the DM gets to use the Arcane Towers tiles to good effect, which is nice.

Under the tower are the inevitable hidden caverns. There’s some strong opposition down there too. Finally the party get to lock horns with some githyanki, which might bring them round to realising the identity of this adventures baddie. The accompanying shadar kai witch probably seals the deal. The environment is part of the encounter. Lots of fantasy elements, with teleportation, lava, and rockslides. I like the look of this encounter, and it seems to have a decent conclusion as the blood chaos valves are closed down.

To find the rest of the plot, the party has to have a chat with the two NPCs that they rescued, Falrinth the Sage and Megan. This is handled by skill challenge and I’m not really sure why. The consequences for success and failure are different, one leads to a rather cool encounter with a pair of green dragons. This means that success is somewhat penalised, both from a fun and xp perspective.  Also, these two NPCs are pretty hostile to any attempts to deal with them. We get the usual ‘don’t bother with intimidation’ issue that plague many early skill challenges. This is where the delve format breaks down a little. The NPCs personalities, which are essential for any conversational encounter, are only called out in the skill challenge part of the adventure. I think challenges like this might be better served in the main body of the adventure rather than as a tactical layout. Still, the point here is to overdo the rules element of what could be a simple enough roleplay segment.

The next scene is the Evertree, and it’s a nice location, a giant oak in the midst of a lake of blood chaos. Where this sits in the world isn’t explained. Maybe it doesn’t need to be. There is a optional encounter ere as explained before. It would be a shame to miss it as the location, plus the monsters smacks of an iconic D&D encounter (take care to update the monster stats though). If you miss out the encounter, then you just proceed directly to the next scene, where the last skill challenge is picked up.

This takes the form of an abstract dungeon crawl. It’s a neat idea actually. The DM is given the bare bones of some sample encounters, and some set dressing ideas. You can then freestyle up some combat if you feel like it, or use the skill challenge to speed through it to the denouement. Some of the skill challenge  rules are a little clumsy, as should be expected in this early 4e work, but a flexible and creative DM could make this a flavoursome little excursion.

Should you want to cut to the chase there’s a combat encounter bookending this part before the story moves on. The opponents are the by-now usual mix of bad guys straight out of the Star Wars cantina band. They’re little more than a speed bump in the tale, although the mini boss carries documents about his bony person with vague plot elements outlined therein. There’s another portal to decipher via skill challenge with failure earning the party an extended rest. That’s right. The party do get a glimpse of the villain here though as he runs away to cackle another day. There’s no dialogue, and no chance of capture, so don’t get all excited.

The encounter area has blood chaos in it. Like pretty much every other encounter so far. It’s effects are laid out for the reader here, despite having a call out of it’s own in the main text, and being included, in full, in every other encounter too. It does 2d6+3 fire and acid, plus slowed (save ends). Really, you’ll have remembered this by now.

The portal takes the party to the sea of fire in the elemental chaos, to an island just off the shore of the city of brass. That’s brilliant. An absolute classic stop on the D&D cosmic tour knocked off at 11th level. There’s no stepping into the city itself, but it’s an iconic backdrop to the rest of the adventure.

This encounter look s like a TPK on paper. The big nasty is a duergar with a potential 5 square push into a lake of magma that deals 10d10 and 15 ongoing. At this point the party will have vulnerability to fore too. Yikes. There a redspawn firebelcher and other fire breathing baddies aplenty. To get out of the frying pan the party need good jumping or flying skills and the ability to get past a couple of githyanki pirates, who will e busy immobilising all and sundry with telekinetic grasp. Honestly, this one looks like a beast. . If you’ve played it through, I’d be really interested in hearing how it went.

Once into the tower proper, the party are confronted by yet another menagerie:

The defenders of this chamber stand in wait—two humanoid fiends with leathery wings, another githyanki warrior, a centaur bearing a greatsword, and a demon ensconced in a rune-scribed shell.

And a dire partridge in a pear tree?

What stops this being another random combat is the environment. It’s a simple enough conceit, rising magma, but given that the objective makes the party descend before they can climb back up, it becomes a genuine thriller. The exit is a ‘portal, obviously, but I guess by now no-one will be expecting to have to exercise a meaningful choice. 

Onwards into the complete and utter unknown. This selection of opponents isn’t utterly random, as two of them could actually exist in this chamber. It’s one giant trap with creatures designed to maximise the challenge. We’re not quite in classic Tomb of Horrors territory but it’s not far off. Given that the final encounter is just around the corner, my prediction is a party of barely walking wounded by this point. The final battle is level 16. Hope you brought a spare character.

No really, bring a spare character. This fight is stacked in the defenders favour so much it’s frightening. There’s a force sphere which is a massive middle finger from any ruthless DM. Not that they need it, there’s enough fighting power on this rooftop that you won’t need it. Sarshan himself is no slouch, and his retainers have plenty of oomph too. Unfortunately the battle hasn’t got much in the way of flavour, it’s all wrapped up in the statblocks. Sarshan probably fights in silence, and there’s no links or foreshadowing to any other part of the path.

In fact, that’s the thing that lets down this instalment, It’s clever, it’s even a little bit crazy, but it’s pure and bare mechanical fun. There’s zero choice, one you’re on the encounter conveyer, you’re not getting off. The sights along the way are not too bad, and the addition of skill challenges breaks up the initial combats. Still, the challenges are as kludgey as you’d expect. I do think, to answer my very first question, that this instalment has too many cooks. It’s a selection of fun scenes that are taped together by the flimsiest of linked portals. I do say that like it’s a bad thing, but in play? Good for a laugh, and there’s not so much wrong with that.

6 Comments

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6 responses to “Review: Beyond the Mottled Tower

  1. Arbanax

    Hey hey mate, glad you got around to reviewing this again. I nearly commented on this earlier, but I’m glad I waited now. I’ve heard that this last encounter with Sharshan is a dozy and forced a TPK partly owing to poor rolls. As a DM I hate TPK, it just seems so frustrating and in a world of Video games we’re all used to going back to our last save and starting over again. I’m running my party through the first adventure right now, when I get here I will either lower the opponents of fudge it – I’m all about the story, the characters are the heroes and as long as it doesn’t look like a walk in the park and we’re all having fun I’m not going to let so stupid random roll end months of hard work. If the party loose a member I want to to mean something, wouldn’t you?

    Thanks again.

    Ab

  2. Misroi

    Hey, good to see you start reviewing the path again, Baz! My group just teleported to the Ever-Tree, and will be dealing with the dragons the next time we play.

    Things I picked up from my running of this mod:

    The skill challenge as written is definitely weird, so I made several adjustments to it. It was no longer based upon 12 successes before 3 failures; now it was to successfully rescue 12 villagers (named NPCs included) before the beginning of the seventh round. Additionally, since they gave us the map of the inn, I had the PCs actually place their characters on the map where they wanted to be. When the challenge began, they all rolled saves to avoid being knocked prone (dwarves got a +5 bonus to this). They then had to get up and move around at half speed (once they made their easy Acrobatics check), and try to convince villagers to get out (the Diplomacy, Intimidate and Athletics side). Once they got the villagers moving, they had to get adjacent to an exit and pass an Acrobatics to get them out. To speed things along, if they were adjacent to multiple villagers, for every increment of 3 they beat the DC, they were able to affect an additional villager. They were just able to rescue everyone before the inn collapsed. It was epic!

    The first fight in the lava flow was…underwhelming. The tactics are that the chaos beasts stay in the “unnatural magma.” However, since the minions don’t have a ranged attack, there’s no reason for the PCs to do anything but hang back and shoot at these guys from relative safety. The poor Scion of Chaos was the butt-monkey of this fight; my party’s ranger took three shots on him, all of which critted. Her dice are like that. The lurkers, however, did pack a pretty good punch, but the magma almost never came into play, which is unfortunate.

    You’re right about the third fight – random collections of monsters always feels “gamey” to me, and this is no different. The group really wasn’t in any danger in this fight, especially since the only initially visible monster is a Larry the Lonely Mezzodemon. He was almost dead by the end of the first round due to focus fire. The other monsters weren’t exactly dangerous, but the Foulspawn Seer was annoying – he kept teleporting away just as the party swung on him.

    The final fight beneath the mottled tower (hey, now it makes sense!) was sort of grindy. I initially thought the mass amount of minions would be able to get in the way and do some incidental damage – this thought disappeared at the end of the first round when the paladin used an ability that actually hit everything left on the map. He ended up killing most of the trogs. As for the Shadar-Kai Witch, she’s annoying, since her cloud of darkness gives her some really high defenses. The Githyanki aren’t slouches either, and if they work in tandem, they can be pretty dangerous.

    As for that second skill challenge between Megan, Falrinth and the party, I agree – I hate skill challenges that have no bearing upon anything, and could be done better with simply roleplaying. I ended up tossing out the rolls entirely, and just went through the scene as I would have in 2E or 3E days. The remainder of this adventure has them hot on Sarshan’s heels, so I wanted them to see how long they felt they could go without an extended rest. If they took an extended rest here, then the dragons would be prepared for them as if they had failed the skill challenge; if they just took a breather and went after them, then the dragons were not prepared, as per the success notes.

    With the coming encounters, I completely agree with you about the deadliness of the lava. 10d10 + 15 ongoing fire damage is pretty excessive, but it could be excused if there was no way to push your party into the lava (after all, it IS lava, it probably should hurt). However, the fact that they placed a monster almost right next to the party that has a power that can push everyone into the lava on the first round, and specifically call that out as intended tactics, seems counter to the 4E design mentality. The damage should probably be reduced to something more in line with a highly damaging effect that low paragon characters should expect to see. Or, if you’re truly mean, you can ask your party if they’d like to experience the encounter on “hard mode.”

  3. February 2009? Was it really that long ago?

    Wow, we’re both REALLY far behind on our reviews :)

  4. Taco Boy

    The Duergar’s ability to push everyone into the lava is rude, but it’s mitigated by the fact that he actually has to hit with it, and even if he does, PCs get a saving throw to avoid being pushed over the edge. When I ran this encounter, the party ended up with only one PC in the lava, and he had enough hit points to survive the initial damage, and climbed out before he was reduced to ash. In the meantime, the rest of the party (esp. the wizard) had a grand time pushing the bad guys into the lava (none of them are IMMUNE to fire, after all). It was a fun fight for a party that takes advantage of their surroundings.

  5. Taco Boy

    Sarshan’s Blood Chaos Flare ability, as written, is way overpowered for a 12th level solo: Blast 5 at will, fail two saves and die. In other words, if he catches the whole party in it every round, on average he’ll hit two of them. Each PC hit has about a 50/50 chance to to fail a save, so long story short, this power will likely kill a PC every other round. Given that Sarshan has a huge HP pool, along with spending a third of his time Insubstantial (and taking 1/2 damage), this has TPK written all over it.

    I’m mitigating this by changing the Blood Chaos Flare power itself to an encounter power, not an at will, and keeping the Chaos Scream power (free use when first bloodied) intact. This way, he’ll still hit the part with a hugely destructive power twice in the encounter, but that’s a lot more balanced than hitting them with it 20 times in what looks to be a very lengthy combat.

    I’m curious how many parties will pick up on the fact that they’re 200 feet off the ground, which gives them an awful lot of opportunities to hit bad guys with 20d10 points of damage :)

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