Monday 1 April 2024

Night's Dark Terror 12: Xitaqa 3, Up the Tower

This is part of a series of posts with a scene-by-scene critique, appreciation, and improvement of the 1986 TSR module B10, Night's Dark Terror

Tower-climbing adventures are many in D&D. They're sparked, no doubt, by the thought of a reverse dungeon where you go up and not down, and by literary examples of magical spires from Tolkien's Barad-Dur and Orthanc to Moorcock's Vanishing Tower. 

Xitaqa in better days? (C) Mikael Mellibris, CC-BY-NC 4.0  
But there's a problem with towers as adventure sites. In a world with wall-climbing thieves and items conferring flight, any goal at the top can be reached while bypassing all the other rooms that make up the adventure. As I've argued before, that is not necessarily an adventure-killer. But B10 squelches the argument by having the tower of the ruins of Xitaqa being entirely windowless and entryless along its length. On the plus side (for the hostage Stephan's survival), this means Golthar can't look out the window and see them coming.

The tower's vertical dimensions are not well specified, but the base has 20' high doors, so we can assume  rooms X5 and X8 are 30' high. Then there are four floors above that, and then presumably, rubble blocks the way to the broken top; so having each floor being cavernously high, 20', lets the 110' whole stand higher than its mapped 80' width. Not quite the slender tower of the book illustration, but appropriate for the stump of a broken, taller structure.

On the first upper floor, X9 is the dorm of the Iron Ring operatives, and has some nice touches in the ceremonial manacles by each bed. Do evil minions sleep well? If entered by night, there may be one or two awake in their beds. But with swift movement, a perceptive party can cut off their retreat and the possibility to warn Golthar.

The next floor up, X10, is the first of two memorable trick rooms.  Magic on the room renders invisible all living things, and the room itself is fitted with "invisible" glass walls that block easy movement or shooting across the seemingly empty stretch. This creates a confusing and anxious situation as Stephan's shouts ring out; Golthar is there, interrogating him, and there is a minotaur lurking as well. Both bad guys can see perfectly well in the room, thanks to magic.   

In my elaboration on the module as written, this permanent effect is a legacy of the Hutaakan obsession both with concealment and with sensory deprivation. Being invisible to yourself is the ultimate erasure of self, after all. Who knows what ultimate degeneration it brought about?

But back to the practicalities of running the encounter. Having the walls be glass isn't quite right, as the glass would give off reflections. Maybe this is the kind of cartoonish visual imagination in certain early adventures (ahem, Castle Mistamere) that created tricks by having yellow mold be easily mistakeable for gold. More realistically, the walls can just be invisible stone themselves, unless you want the delightful chaos of missed melee strikes having a chance to shatter the magically invisible glass walls. Perhaps a miss on a natural d20 roll of 3 or less, and a damage roll of 4 or more, will smash a 5' section of wall, causing d3 damage to everyone within 6' of the shattered wall.

What are the rules of the room? Players  might try throwing objects to find out the contours, as mine did with a bag of dwarven ball bearings. I let this work, ruling that the magic does not affect objects that aren't worn or carried by a living being. But a DM's within their rights to rule otherwise. If thrown objects vanish in the room, of course, figuring out its contours will be that much more difficult.

Can Stephan survive? It's very easy for the hobgoblins or Iron Ring members to warn the evil wizard in time to kill the hostage, despite the party's best efforts. But everything in this adventure points to Golthar being a classic pulp villain, sadism and show over efficiency. As written, he doesn't seem very interested in killing Stephan, preferring to flee upstairs with a final taunt. The minotaur, as written, then moves to attack the intruders. But there might be more tension in the minotaur attempting to kill Stephan, following a dramatic command from Golthar to "Finish him!" The attempted execution will pause, of course, if the heroes find and engage the bull-man.

In Mentzer Basic, we can assume that attacking a tied-up character is similar to attacking a paralyzed one (p. 24 of the Basic rulebook). That is, attacks automatically hit, but unlike attacking a sleeping character, don't automatically kill as the target still can wriggle and duck away. At d8+2 damage, the minotaur can't kill Stephan, even weakened as he is, with a single blow. 

In 5th edition, we can assume that tied hand and foot, Stephan is restrained and incapacitated, so he is attacked at advantage. If the minotaur carries a normal sword, even considering that Stephan is at half hit points, a single attack is unlikely to take him to zero. A minotaur-sized standard issue axe, however, will likely knock him out. Putting the see invisible enchantment on such an oversized weapon (an eye carved on each bit of the blade) will deny the party its use. After the fatal blow, the party faces a time challenge to beat the minotaur and find Stephan before his possible death in 3-5 turns.

One other feature of the room, the most difficult to run, is that party members are explicitly invisible to each other while inside. Online D&D makes this easy, with the capacity to make character icons invisible to players, and privately describe the scene to each player. But at a table, the usual clunky mechanisms of passed notes or separate rooms will have to do. Characters that move can be heard, and so can the aftermath of the minotaur's attacks, but special measures are needed to distinguish friend from foe. Shooting missiles is fraught with danger, not to mention unreliable because of the intervening walls. An exception, of course, is magic missiles, which might help map out the room by shooting infallibly towards a target the caster can see.

Next: Facing Golthar.

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