Looking Over Book of Challenges: Towering Dead
A necromancer and some gigantic zombies wait in a room full of brown mold.
A necromancer using the leftover undead minions of a different, (presumably) more powerful necromancer is a neat idea.
The necromancer has more interesting magic items (ring of cold resistance, ring of invisibility, staff of frost, boots of elvenkind) than mathemagical items (unholy dagger, bracers of armor).
The “Tactics” section gives a decent breakdown of how the necromancer uses her spells and items. It’s mystifying why a simple paragraph like that is missing for so many spellcasting NPCs in this book.
The fact that the zombies are too large to leave the room they’re in is a nice bit of subtle storytelling. Taken together with their orders “to kill any living creature that enters”, it implies that they were created to serve as guards for a powerful undead (or other non-living) entity who may still be out there.
Interactions with the necromancer notwithstanding, combining dangerous molds/fungi with undead is a classic and effective pairing.
It’s mostly a personal peeve, but clerics being able to draw magical power from devoting themselves to their own spirituality or belief instead of actual patron(s) never sat well with me. I’d give the necromancer a patron, even if it was just something akin to the Idea of Evil from Berserk or the Old One from Demon’s Souls (i.e. a manifestation of some aspect of collective human will).
The brown mold feels like it’s tacked on just for gamist reasons, especially since the necromancer has apparently left herself no path of escape despite having “been careful to remove the mold from the area where she normally stands.” I’d at least give her a way to get in and out of the center without having a >99% chance of incapacitating herself.
It pains me to see what should be a significant, if not cataclysmic (from the average person’s perspective), event reduced to “the delightful and ever-popular plot device of ‘undead ravaging the countryside.’” This sort of thinking is why so many GMs complain about players not feeling immersed in their games.
The advice for scaling down the challenge is just about reducing levels/HD, though it’s not as bad here as in most other cases because modified stat blocks are provided for the necromancer (albeit without any modified tactics for the different spells prepared).
In concept, I like this encounter. It has a simple but atypical backstory, the combination of creatures make sense (without getting into the specifics of how the map is laid out), and the moral clarity of foes who are either non-sentient or objectively despicable means they can act as a refreshing change of pace for GMs like me who enjoy having questions of ethics and morality in TTRPGs. Where I have problems with it is the execution, especially as an EL 19 encounter that has little-to-no consideration for the incredible mobility and utility capabilities that PCs tend to have by then.
Take the same ideas and bring them down to low- or mid-level play, and it becomes a pretty cool encounter with potential to connect to future adventures related to the being who created the oversized zombies in the first place.
All in all, this encounter has a handful of ideas worth using. The execution fell short, but it’s easy enough to turn it into something good that I think it was a fine fit as the last brief encounter write-up in the book.