Looking Over Book of Challenges: A Light in the Dark


It's just cover art

Premise

A pair of will-o-wisps have taken residence in a trapped mortuary.


Good

The idea of a self-resetting trap that no longer guards its original treasure because it’s been overcome enough times to loot the treasure is a neat way to make the world feel more alive outside of what the PCs witness. It will likely frustrate the players, so care is needed to not overdo it, but the occasional screw job (with foreshadowing, such as the inner doors being ajar) can help make successes feel more rewarding.


I think the intention of having the same DC for forcing a cage open, slipping out of its grip, or disabling the mechanism powering it was to give the players multiple viable avenues to deal with the trap, which I like. I would’ve preferred sparing those details by trusting the GM to use their judgment in adjudicating anything the players might try, but being explicit that there isn’t just one solution is a fair alternative (especially in 3E’s paradigm of defining everything).


The way that the will-o-wisps are used here in one of the best examples I’ve read to match their Dungeons & Dragons fluff (no matter how strange it is for them to be pacifistic sadists when they’re basically immune to magic, incredibly hard to hit with weapons, and durable enough to take a significant beating, but Gygax’s fixation with monsters-as-traps isn’t on trial here).


Having currency, gems, and jewelry scattered about that the PCs can take without issue is both pretty wonderful bait and a nice aversion of all-or-nothing treasure syndrome.


Salvageable

Rather than trying to make an overbroad depiction of judging the dead from many times and places that requires a skill check to understand, I’d modify the bas reliefs to show a specific culture’s/religion’s depiction in enough detail that the players can figure it out for themselves (the door that’s actually drawn in the book seems to support this approach, assuming “judgment by dragons” is the belief).


Why are DC 10 Search checks still a thing for an EL 9 encounter? Just go with automatic success if a character examines the relevant area.


Given that most humans aren’t 10’-13’ tall, I’d describe the 40’-high ceiling as six or seven times the height of a human rather than three or four.


I’d use a term like frail, emaciated, or desiccated instead of skeletal to describe the limbs dangling from the cages to avoid confusing players into thinking the bones are holding together without soft tissue.


Given the artistry on the initial doors and in the chapel, I’d describe the plaster on the antechamber walls as also having some artwork on them instead of being smooth and plain.


As ever, traps that are triggered by magical proximity sensors will need some reworking to fit settings where that would not be appropriate. I know the “Dealing with the Cage Trap” sidebar says the triggers are plates that are “highly sensitive to air pressure”, but the way the trap is described as working does not align with that (I wouldn’t be surprised if the writer simply didn’t understand how fluid pressure works).


As ever, encounters that require some group of NPCs be exploring the area slightly ahead of the PCs need foreshadowing the avoid feeling contrived.


Bad

Greeting characters who look through the doors with three paragraphs of boxed text is just asking for them to turn around and never return.


Stop drawing conclusions for players in the boxed text. Just describe the light as coming from behind the cages without saying it’s “probably […] torches or lanterns”.


The boxed text implies the bodies in the eastern cages are in better condition than the ones in the western cages, which contradicts the details of how the trap works (except for Amil and his companion).


I’m pretty sure the write-up mixed east and west for what happens if all the claws are full; it should be the claws at the west that release and move east to reposition themselves over the trap triggers. Moving the other way makes no sense since it’d mean the claws with the most recent catches would release them and move into positions where they wouldn’t catch anything.


Accordingly, the freshest catches should probably be closest to the entrance, unless we’re to believe they were captured less than 2 hours before the PCs arrived (in which case they’re in the condition they’re in due to the trap’s damage, not hunger/thirst as implied).


The stat line for the trap mentions only that a successful save negates entrapment, not that it also halves damage as described in the text write-up.


The maze scroll is pretty obviously only there because it’s one of the few weaknesses that standard will-o-wisps have. The contrivance just highlights their bad monster design.


Spending about half a page taking about how GMs can counter using familiars as scouts should’ve been front matter (like the ten essential spells list) instead of buried in an encounter write-up. It also feels like adversarial bullshit meant to teach those uppity players a lesson rather than proper advice to think through actions and present sensible consequences.


The advice for scaling the challenge is just about varying the number of creatures.


Overall

My first reaction to this encounter is to be filled with questions. Did the will-o-wisps arrive after the initial treasures were all looted (in which case, what attracted them to such a place), or were there thieves who managed to get through the trap and escape their wrath (since they’d presumably want some treasure to remain as bait for future adventurers)? Has nobody ever used the statues to trigger the trap before? Are there any signs of damage to the trap mechanisms? What happens if someone sets off a trigger under an occupied cage? Can forcing a cage open also deform it enough for future targets to have an easier time escaping? Why was there a map that Amil and his companion found pointing to this place, and why don’t they have it with them? How long should it be before Amil and his companion are moved to the west part of the room? Why didn’t they take the treasure that was just sitting on the floor?


Some of these are good questions that lead to worldbuilding and greater context. Some of them seem to be gaps in the written details that the individual GM can fill in to their desires. Some of them seem to be bad oversights.


Admittedly, all of that can be applied to pretty much any encounter write-up in this book. It’s just that this one leaves me in an odd position where I think there are significant problems with the execution, but I like the basic set-up enough that I want to make it work. Additionally, replacing the will-o-wisps with better-designed creatures and adjusting the trap damage (if scaling in accordance with PC levels is desired) can make this suitable for a wide range of levels without much extra effort, since there are clear ways to deal with the trap without needing any special magic.


All in all, this is similar to An Object Lesson in that it needs a lot of work but shows enough promise that I think it’s worth putting in the effort. It’s not suitable to use with minimal preparation, but it can yield high returns for the work it requires.

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