Looking Over Book of Challenges: Warding of the Dead
A big patterned mosaic sets off traps depending on which parts of the pattern are crossed.
Requiring the GM to consider who set the traps in order to adjudicate interactions with it is an odd move for this book, but it’s one that I support.
I think the implication of “the PCs must make their own interpretations of what the mosaic tiles represent” is that the players should not be told any standard monster names, which I’d approve of wholeheartedly in contravention of the boxed text.
Hiding treasures in the mosaic that likely require setting off more traps to get is a great touch. I’d even be in favor of making them more obvious, but placing the treasure in that way in the first place is key.
Scaling up the difficulty by adding hostile creatures is great advice. Frankly, I’d say it ought to be a baseline consideration to give some actual downside to the shadow and ghoul glyphs, but better late than never.
As I said for Curse of Iron, worrying about tracking separate magical auras for each individual effect is silly. Treat it as one big aura that dissipates from any sections where the trap is triggered.
As written, it’s intended that moving across squares diagonally sets off only the traps at the start and end of the move, even though the character likely has a three-dimensional body and so should set off the traps in the adjacent squares. Adding a sort of null tile at the corners (converting the squares into octagons or dodecagons) could address this, though it would become more obvious that diagonal moves ought to be considered. Whether that’s a boon or a bane is up to how difficult the encounter is intended to be.
I dislike the prohibition against using a mundane disguise to pass the traps (unstated here but in accordance with the rules for glyph of warding).
If the players invested in casting read magic to decipher the glyphs, adding a further Spellcraft check on top feels mean-spirited. I’d have those as two parallel options rather than as sequential steps.
I’d prefer something more interesting than a mathemagical ioun stone as the grand prize at the center of the mosaic. It’s better than just currency/gems, but not by much.
Aside from just considering creatures that would be dangerous to the PCs for scaling up the challenge, it’s also worth considering creatures who can move the PCs around and thus force them to set off traps, whether by grappling/reach (e.g. otyugh, roper) or via magic/psionics.
The boxed text gives almost no real details about the rooms and doubles down on its awfulness by forcing a half-assed attempt at establishing atmosphere in the middle of what little it says.
Not being a fan of generic stock monsters, I dislike that the puzzle assumes there are significant differences in the faces of a skeleton compared to a lich or a ghoul compared to a vampire that the PCs should recognize and be capable of translating into standardized labels.
Assuming the default conditions of the room (which is to say there are no other creatures in it), the stated solution is wrong because shadow and ghoul glyphs are even safer to transverse than skeleton or zombie glyphs. Not only can shadow and ghoul glyphs be negated entirely with saves of the same difficulty as zombie glyphs (whereas saving against the latter only halves the effect), but failing their saves just applies a non-damaging penalty that wears off in a few minutes. Vampire glyphs are arguably also safe, but their penalty lasts for several hours, and there may be other implications of having levels drained, so I wouldn’t be as cavalier with those.
The good will from “PCs must make their own interpretations” is thrown away immediately by allowing a Knowledge check to be given a version of the map with standard names on it.
As I said for All of the Treasure, None of the Traps, XP for getting through traps should be awarded based on the potential risk, not the actual damage done.
Despite my complaints about the execution, I like the set-up here. It can seem a little overly-gamist at first glance, but considering how often shrines or places of worship in real life make repeated use of thematic imagery, it can make sense within the setting (though probably not with the actual array of undead faces as written).
Furthermore, the patterned nature makes it wonderful as a game element. Not only does having a pattern to the traps give players the potential to make informed decisions about the risks they’ll take, but this can be used for all sorts of foreshadowing (e.g. imagine a mosaic where the tiles show various conquests of an enemy wizard and the traps are based on the main spells that the wizard used for each, thus informing the players about the spells the wizard might use against them in direct combat).
If the GM is adding creatures to scale up the challenge, consideration for ranged attacks is necessary because no EL 8 party is going to be restricted to melee only. Using incorporeal creatures (and thus allowing them to hide in the walls/floor/ceiling) is a fine start, but I’d go further with adding outcroppings on the walls and ceiling, if not also the floor, that can be used as concealment/cover by corporeal creatures as well. Doing that even without adding creatures can also be useful to break sightlines and thus restrict how much the players can plan their movement without venturing onto the mosaic. Adding fog, darkness, toppled debris, etc. to restrict visibility can also increase the challenge, with or without additional creatures.
All in all, the encounter as-written doesn’t rate highly in my eyes, but the idea is so good and flexible that it’s a solid basis for making an encounter that fits exactly what’s needed for a given game.