Looking Over Book of Challenges: Riddles and Prizes


It's just cover art

Premise

A black dragon pretends to be a copper dragon to lure unsuspecting visitors into fake riddle games.


Good

The ring of mind shielding and hat of disguise are interesting magic items, and I’d even say the necklace of fireballs is significant step up from the usual mathemagical dross.


Gambling magic items on riddles is a neat and folkloric idea, though I question how many players would be willing to actually go along with it, especially when the text implies the bets aren’t supposed to be revealed until after the riddle is solved or failed.


Using a (presumably) fragile potion as the first magic item the dragon bets is a clever way of maneuvering the party closer to him.


For all that I tend to dislike boxed text, the third “riddle” always gets a laugh (though the players might only appreciate it in hindsight).


Aside from missing a condition for when the dragon would use expedition retreat, the “Combat” section does provide a decent summary of how the dragon uses his spells/attacks without being weighed down by details.


There are some additional interesting items in the dragon’s stashes (wand of detect secret doors, potion of speak with animals, minor circlet of blasting).


Salvageable

While the welcome sign might fit in a funhouse game, I’d cut it out of most games in favor of rumors about a dragon who plays high-stakes riddle games.


There’s no need to give the dragon a disguise kit. Just Hand Wave that he incorporates mundane elements into his disguise instead of relying solely on the hat.


The dragon should mention the items he’s betting on each riddle before “agree[ing] to any sort of trade”, since that would set actual stakes.


Bad

Depending on how one defines a riddle, I’d argue against the statement that “[r]are is the campaign where the Dungeon Master hasn’t asked her players to solve at least one”.


Why does the dragon bother with the sign? It doesn’t make the dragon seem any friendlier than his opening remarks, nor is there anything particularly enticing about it, nor does it do anything to help reveal visitors capable of avoiding detection by the dragon’s natural senses. I can’t think of anything gained by having it, aside from a lot of confusion.


I agree with the boxed text that the main cavern area is “immense” (roughly 120’x60’, included the elevated parts), which leaves me wondering why someone decided to use such a small scale for the map.


The dragon’s possession listing in the stat block is not only boring (just give it the AC and saves it deserves to have without worrying about mechanical justification) but also fails to mention half of its items (the interesting ones).


The dragon uses his scroll of true seeing if the PCs are “still suspicious” after he asks them to reveal any invisible party members. On top of undermining the dragon’s previous request to cast no spells because they’ve met to “peacefully puzzle[sic]”, it’s not clear what sort of suspicious behavior by the PCs is supposed to prompt that response. Maybe it means if the PCs are suspicious of the dragon’s commitment to puzzling peacefully, but why assume that the only way of manifesting that suspicion is for some party members to be invisible? For that matter, why would the dragon care about party members being invisible when it ignores invisibility within 240’ (i.e. a far large area than the cavern contains)? Wouldn’t letting them think that they’re fooling him with their invisibility be more likely to “lull the party into a sense of security” as he wants? This whole paragraph is a mess.


“If the characters ask you a riddle that you answer correctly, praise them, but don’t offer them a prize.” What? First, why would the party be given any praise or prize for asking a riddle if the dragon solves it correctly? Second, did the writer just forget the earlier terms that whoever wins the riddle gets something from the losing side? The response to the dragon solving a riddle should be for the party to give him something, not for him to praise them.


The dragon’s second riddle depends on (a) the setting having tides based on lunar gravity similar to our real Earth and (b) this knowledge being available within the imagined world. There are multiple problems with each of those points. To its credit, the text mentions this may need adapting based on the number of moons that the imagined world has, but that still doesn’t address greater problems like assuming an EL 15 party has never been to another planet/reality, assuming anyone in the imagined world understands the link between ocean tides and lunar gravity, or assuming there isn’t some other (probably mythical) cause of ocean tides.


The advice about riddles gets close to making a few reasonable points, but it’s fraught with problems. The first example riddle depends on metagame knowledge, unless the PCs know about monsters with impregnating claw attacks. The second brings in a mechanical construct (the “outsider” tag) and real-world English spelling. The point to the “complications” of using the classic sphinx’s riddle misses that the mental hurdle there wasn’t the number of potential answers but rather the symbolism of what morning/noon/evening meant (times in a life cycle rather than in a day); it only reduces to a single answer in our world because we don’t know of any other humanoid creatures with similar locomotion, physiological development through their life cycle, and the tool-using culture to consider using a cane in old age (thus, the treant druid using wild shape or the dragon sorcerer using polymorph self wouldn’t be reasonable answers because those abilities aren’t bound to a mortal life cycle with its associated muscular growth and degeneration). The simple solution to the question of appropriate XP rewards for a powerful creature giving an easy riddle (or the reverse) is to separate the XP reward for the riddle from the XP reward for defeating the creature in combat since the two challenges are clearly unrelated. Their “straightforward” solution of just having the riddle-giver attack on failure doesn’t address the real issue of assessing how difficult a given riddle is while also undermining their stance in other encounters that increasing the potential damage of a trap shouldn’t increase how much XP it gives if it can still be disarmed or avoided in the same ways. Picking creatures that fit the game’s atmosphere and make sense should be in the GM’s mind regardless of whether they’re giving out riddles.


The advice for scaling down the difficulty is silent on the tactical impact of adding a second dragon. The advice for scaling down and up is based around changing the dragon’s HD.


Overall

This encounter has a cool premise, some fun interactions, multiple interesting magic items, and a combat that can get good mileage out of a single creature (assuming the dragon’s haste doesn’t keep getting dispelled and he isn’t disabled otherwise). At the same time, it has a terrible start as-written (possibly aside from funhouse games), some bizarre-to-nonsensical interactions, banal mechanical tedium to justify the dragon’s stats, a climactic combat with a single creature (thus being prone to players rolling lots of dice without feeling any impact from the results), and a whole pile of terrible advice.


The good parts are good, the bad parts are bad, and there isn’t much in between. That said, the bad parts aren’t difficult to fix, so the bigger issue becomes identifying if a particular group of players would enjoy (a) being faced with a riddle game and (b) having the riddle game end up being a ruse. If they would, this encounter could be fun for them; if not, it might still be worthwhile to repackage the dragon for use elsewhere.


All in all, this is one of the most schizophrenic write-ups in the book, but its high points are strong. It’s a good encounter for a group who’d enjoy it.

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