Looking Over Book of Challenges: Temple of Draxion


It's just cover art

Premise

Some bandits have taken over the remains of an ancient temple and try to present themselves as being much more powerful than they truly are.


Good

The overall set-up is clever. Maybe it’s just my limited experience, but I find it’s uncommon for most GMs to have intelligent NPCs disguise their combat prowess.


I like that the statue doesn’t look like a textbook Dungeons & Dragons dragon on account of the bandits never having seen a dragon for themselves. Giving plenty of details to describe it (in both the write-up and boxed text) without actually naming it is very useful for reinforcing that, too.


The example imperious commands of the “dragon” are nice, both to give it some character and to serve as a springboard for further improvisation.


Needing to rely on crossbow attacks in between uses of the statue’s flame jet is a reasonable way to indicate that the whole thing is a ruse to players who didn’t figure that out without saying so outright. They’re likely to still feel some sense of accomplishment for having challenged the “dragon” well enough to reveal that it’s a fake.


While I’m not a big fan of self-igniting flaming oil in Dungeons & Dragons, having an explicit stock of it that the PCs can gain for their own use is something that I like.


I’m biased by my preferred style of play, but I like that the secret door for the sally port has a defined way of operating (as opposed to something that just works by Hand Wave as written, such as the initial secret door for this whole encounter). There are other problems with it, but I appreciate the approach nonetheless.


Having surrender conditions for the bandits is great. I’d prefer to do that with a trigger other than being reduced to half hit points (since their total hit points are so low that they’re each likely to be struck down in a single blow), but that’s better than nothing.


The differing behaviors for captured bandits is a wonderful touch.


Salvageable

The whole encounter is hidden behind a secret door. As usual, either the GM should come up with possible hints that the secret door is there and/or be ready to accept that it may never be found.


The description of the gong’s sound says it would be difficult to locate the source, and yet the mechanics mention a pretty basic skill check to do just that (even A Familiar Situation had higher DC skill checks). I’d err on the side of favoring the description because it’s meant to be an imposing effect as a prelude to what comes next.


In a similar failure to match intent with mechanics, claiming that it’s hard to determine the statue’s true nature and then requiring only a DC 15 Spot check doesn’t make sense. At least this has a little leeway since the difficulty increases slightly with distance, but I'd again go with the qualitative intent (hard to determine) than using the actual numbers as a guide.


As written, these bandits never actually leave the temple and seem to rely entirely on passers-by finding the secret door to access it and then getting fooled by their ruse (while also not expecting the ruse to work). Giving them an actual schedule (or simple mechanics to simulate one) would make the whole thing feel much less contrived. A simple garden or well to provide basic sustenance would also be nice but might veer too far into simulationist masturbation for some GMs (the basic provisions mentioned in area 4 offsets this somewhat, after all).


Attacking PCs if they linger in the entrance or approach a secret door that they cannot open (because it’s operated by a lever located elsewhere) seems like a very stupid way to ruin the ruse. I’d change this to having the kobold behind the arrow slits attack only if the PCs start searching the area, engage in combat with the statue, or possibly if they leave a single person there.


The block/counterweight mechanism seems to serve no real purpose, thanks to the (completely undescribed) secret door between areas 2A and 3. I can imagine some edge case scenarios where it can be useful, but on the whole, it comes off feeling like a bizarre thing that’s there just to be there. I’d change the face to a thin wall instead of a secret door and use the block as a way to seal the passage in case of a breach (effectively the same thing as what it’s doing now, but without the unnecessary double-purpose).


While the kobolds’ tactics seem fine overall, needing to send one as a messenger to get the rest into position when they were alerted to intruders already by the gong seems like a contrived way of delaying their readiness to engage. Since I mentioned changing the sentry kobold’s behavior already, replacing its travel by just taking an extra round or two for the rest to position themselves seems reasonable.


The information about the bandits’ backgrounds and activities that could be discovered at the nearest town is nice, but it really shouldn’t be buried in a keyed entry.


Bad

The first keyed entry is for a passage outside of the encounter area that never comes into play again. While I can guess that it was intended to show evidence of recent activity in a supposedly abandoned area, the execution is terrible and should’ve been replaced by a simple line of advice to improvise that evidence instead of bloating what is already one of the longest encounters in the book (almost three pages).


The first boxed text has a clear error (it says the steps rise to the viewer’s left when they’re actually to the right).


The stairs are described as going up sharply, yet they rise at only 45°, a common angle for general stairs and on the shallow end of what would be used for compact stairs (like for industrial access platforms). Not that it matters much unless the GM is counting individual feet of movement, but something in the area of 60° (a little less than the shallowest recommended angle for safe ladder use) would match better with the description.


The key for area 2A mislabels the sleeping quarters for the bandit leaders as area 6 (should be 5).


I’m at a loss for why the bandit in the statue would be at a loss if anyone actually surrenders to it. That seems to be the whole point of their scheme in the first place…? The fact that the bandit has to make an unlikely saving throw (30% or 35% chance to succeed, depending on which bandit is in it) to avoid having the statue catch on fire after each use of its flame jet makes it even stupider to expect resistance. I know that people can succeed at endeavors despite a complete lack of competence, but that can only go so far before it strains credulity beyond its breaking point.


A single stash of monetary treasure at the “end” of the dungeon/encounter is the laziest way of doing treasure.


Removing one of the detailed bandits to scale the challenge down is a terrible idea, because he brings so much character to it. Better to get rid of some of the interchangeable minions instead.


Overall

There are good ideas here, but the execution is weak on many fronts. The site doesn’t really feel like an ancient temple; adding some antique relics, worn frescoes or tattered tapestries, artistic architecture, etc. is almost a must, and I’d even consider imposing a minor curse on the bandits for defacing the previous statue with their “dragon” abomination. The bandits’ plan of hiding in a hidden old temple and trying to intimidate intruders into surrendering despite not expecting anyone to surrender makes no sense. The qualitative descriptions clash repeatedly with the provided mechanical details, the writer seemed to focus their effort on places where they could use a lot of words instead of places where it’d actually be helpful, and the clear errors in the writing make me question if it was more than a first draft.


That all said, I think the encounter does have a lot of character to it, and it has the potential to be very enjoyable despite not being particularly difficult or threatening. It needs some polish, but it’s in a better starting spot than Here, Kitty, Kitty, Kitty. I’d put it in a stand-alone building (similar to Matt Colville’s Tomb of the Delian Order), flesh out the temple a little more (which is also a nice opportunity to distribute some more interesting treasure), and iron out the obvious contrivances, but the general set-up and broad strokes tactics are good.


All in all, while it’s nothing spectacular, a little work can turn this into a nice blend of freeform roleplay and tactical combat. It should even be easy to tie into a larger adventure by putting some thought into how the bandits relate to other people in the area or what greater significance the temple might have, if expanding it beyond a self-contained modular encounter is desired.

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