Looking Over Book of Challenges: More than Meets the Eye
An aboleth and a dragon turtle use some illusions to deceive visitors into giving up precious treasure (possibly including glorious Energon cubes).
Handling the waterfall by requiring a difficult Swim check to avoid getting taken under and battered is elegant, though a mere 1d6 damage (and non-lethal damage at that!) seems low.
Intelligent creatures using magic items to their advantage is always welcome. The bracers are on the boring side, but at least they’re a more interesting form of mathemagical item than simple +to hit or +AC.
At first, I was confused about why the programmed image dragon would repeat its demands continuously, since that’d be a clear sign of something being off if the aboleth succeeded in enslaving a character to start dumping valuables. However, I’ve come to realize that’s actually a clever link back to the motivations mentioned at the start of the “Creatures” section; neither one cares about collecting treasure, but some temporary confusion which buys them time to enslave a few characters and prepare to eat the rest lines up with what they want.
The “Tactics” section provides a decent basic plan for the aboleth’s many abilities, and both creatures having triggers to escape instead of fighting to the death is nice (I’d prefer morale checks, but those weren’t a thing in 3E).
The wetland smell coming from an illusion is a nice hint that things are not all as they seem, since jumps out as feeling out of place. However, it doesn’t make much sense that two highly-intelligent creatures would create such a clue for no reason. I’d supplement it with moss/algae growing around the center island that doesn’t extend to areas of the chamber which start in darkness.
I’ve never been a fan of illusory walls that can be seen through if the viewer knows it’s an illusion. Rather than that, I’d just have the aboleth hide right next to the (real) rock outcroppings near its possible starting points, with the dragon turtle starting in the other spot.
Similar to Grotto of the Shocker Lizards, I’d handle movement over the rough and wet stone surfaces as difficult terrain with a check required to run or do anything elaborate (though credit where it’s due: this encounter is a step up from that one’s “roll to move normally” approach).
I’m not a fan of over-defined mechanics, so I’d merge the persistent image dragon and the programmed image dragon into a single illusion effect that need not have a codified equivalent.
It’s hard to believe the creatures have accumulated their haul of currency without keeping any slaves. I’d at least have a handful of slime slaves, even if they’re just 1 HD fodder. The lack of any magic items also seems odd for an EL 10 encounter in a typical 3E game, but it’s not so strange for a low-magic milieu.
The intro suggests not using this encounter if the PCs have abilities meant to counter illusions (such as true seeing). This is the exact opposite of good advice, a remarkable reversal from how Cave of the Snake handled getting through the doors without solving the puzzle. If use cases for an ability never come up, that ability is effectively useless.
Telling the players that they hear running water and then making them pass a Listen check to learn that “most of the sound comes from water splashing down from a height” is a shining example of 3E silliness.
The advice for scaling the challenge is just about varying the number of creatures and then scaling them up.
More than one page is spent repeating rules for underwater movement and combat. This is as worthless as ever.
As a general fan of illusions, this is a good example of using them well. It presents something that is unlikely to be doubted immediately but becomes less believable with more interaction, which is generally the best way to handle illusions that aren’t meant to hold up over a long time, and the creatures don’t wait passively until the illusion is revealed. I can definitely think of ways to make it more dangerous for the party, but the encounter as-written strikes a decent balance between having illusions that are likely to be effective and giving the players opportunities to realize something’s wrong.
My main complaint (aside from the bad advice in the intro) is that an aboleth and a dragon turtle feel like they should be highlight creatures, not something thrown in at random. The fact that they’re pretending to be an imperious dragon makes me feel even more strongly about that. There should be one or more intelligent tribes in the area worshiping these creatures, and as such, I’d bump up the potential rewards by having more treasures sacrificed to them; not necessarily magic items, but at least bizarre antiques, artworks, jewelry, etc. That’d also allow some justification for toning down how quickly the dragon turtle attacks and turning into more of a social challenge where combat is just one possible option.
The monster pairing is fine from both tactical and fluff perspectives, though I wouldn’t mind replacing the dragon turtle outright with some slimed NPCs, probably at least two fighter-types and one caster-type (but maybe I’m just too much a fan of aboleth).
All in all, this is a well-made encounter. I’d have a fun time building a whole adventure around it, but for more fantasy safari-type campaigns, it can also work well as something to drop in with minimal extra context required.