Looking Over Book of Challenges: Twelve Heads Are Better Than One


It's just cover art

Premise

A hot spring serves as a lair for fire giants with a pet hydra.


Good

The first boxed text is actually decent. It should’ve included mention of the bubbling (don’t waste my time with a DC 0 skill check in an EL 16 encounter just because of “penalties for range”), but it strikes a nice balance between being brief and being evocative.


Having the first giant raise alarms and try to delay intruders before retreating after taking significant damage is reasonable sentry behavior.


The hydra being smart enough to submerge its neck stumps is a great idea. EL 16 is probably too late for it to matter much since the PCs are unlikely to still be relying on nonmagical fire or acid by then, and the text is unclear on when the submerging happens (on the hydra’s turn, as a reaction to a head being severed, or as a free action immediately after a head is severed), but the basic idea is good.


Maintaining a boulder barrage on party members who stay out of melee is a sensible tactic.


I’m guessing the point about the giants “sweep[ing] adjacent squares with their swords to pinpoint invisible opponents” is referring to the core rules section on groping about to find an invisible creature. That section describes the search as using a standard action, which is technically different from using multiple attacks as a full-round action, but I’ve never had a problem with substituting an attack-like action for an attack in a multiple attack routine, so I approve of it being presented in that way here.


The advice for scaling the challenge does provide some tactical modifications for replacing the hydra with a pyrohydra.


Salvageable

As ever, I’m not a fan of needing Balance checks to move and would switch it to difficult terrain that requires a Balance check for fast or elaborate movement.


The PCs should not be able use Spot checks to see details that are 15’-20’ away in an area full of mist that “obscures all sight, including darkvision, beyond 10 feet”.


Having water seep through the walls in area B doesn’t sound like enough to balance the drain from a visible 5’-diameter whirlpool, so I’d add some stronger inlet flows in the southeast part of the pool.


Bad

The intro drags on for four paragraphs while saying almost nothing of substance, foreshadowing the prose walls to come.


The start of the boxed text for area A doesn’t match with the map, since the latter doesn’t have a bend that can be rounded to reveal the pool chamber. It also describes too much, given that the area is supposed to be obscured by mist that blocks vision beyond 10’.


Considering area A has a large pool of “boiling-hot water”, the mist in there ought to present more of a hazard beyond obscuring vision, similar to the steam in Cave of the Snake. The facts that the water does scalding damage as boiling water (per “Heat Dangers” in the core rules) and the “very hot, but not boiling” pool in area B causes extreme heat exposure makes the lack of any such considerations in area A even more pronounced.


The map provides sufficient space for a running jump to the rock in area A, provided the footing in the passage isn’t a problem, despite the text stating otherwise.


That DC 0 Listen check to hear the bubbling water is even more ridiculous when it takes a DC 32 Listen check to hear sounds from a fire giant 15’ away over the noise of the boiling pool (for comparison, that’s harder than hearing a cat stalking [DC 19] or an owl gliding [DC 30] in a quiet environment).


Wood softens in boiling water and chars if exposed to sulfuric acid (which ought to be present in the hot spring water and the mist in area A), so the wooden floats make no sense.


Got to love that the fire giant guard is “watching […] for intruders in area A” despite being limited to 10’ vision because of the mist.


No guideline is given for how long it takes sediment in area B to clear after being stirred up.


It seems worth emphasizing that the pool in area B is deep enough to drown a standing dwarf or shorter character.


The whole description of area B has nearly a full page of rambling minutia instead of just giving a concise, cohesive description that the GM can use to adjudicate as they deem fit. By the time I got to the reminders about how swimming interacts with attacking targets on land or being invisible, I’d forgotten about what was happening at the start because there’s just so much prose to wade through.


Repeating the rules for hydra head severing is both worthless and distracts from the important point that this hydra is trained to hide its neck stumps underwater to protect them from being burned/corroded.


It’s unclear why the giants keep their loose bridge planks in the hydra’s chamber instead of in their own.


Similarly, it’s unclear why the giants keep gems in their firepit or why the potion and scroll in the “pile of supplies” can’t be found without digging in the sand in their chamber.


The advice for scaling the challenge is mostly about changing the number of giants.


Overall

Oh boy, this encounter. It has a reasonable premise, and the broad strokes are mostly fair-to-good, but it needed some serious editing to bring it down to a usable format and address the inconsistencies. It’s got a bit of a mythical feel to it, especially if the hot spring is located someplace where it wouldn’t make sense otherwise, and modifying the treasure to include something the PCs want is mostly a non-issue, so tying into greater context is fairly straightforward. The lack of parley consideration is a disappointment, as usual, but that’s par for the course with official 3E products.


There’s some flexibility in the creature choices, but there aren’t many standard monster options that can both ignore the heat and take advantage of the water; maybe something like a troll band enslaved by salamanders would fit, but that starts leaning more towards a fantasy safari feeling than I like. At the same time, though, I don’t think there’s anything particularly special about how the fire giants are being used in this encounter. The neck stump submerging tactic for the hydra is cool, but I think of hydras as being a wetland creature already, so I’d rather import that idea to a hydra encounter that I’d be excited to run than go through the trouble of making something special out of this one.


All in all, this is a long write-up with some good ideas but nothing truly remarkable. Take the useful bits, and use them to enhance a better encounter.

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