Looking Over Book of Challenges: Watery Grave
A sea hag has set up a mousetrap with a tasty scroll tube as the cheese.
Combining multiple traps that have Strength-based checks/resistance (the sea scum and the rope/winch) with a monster that can reduce Strength is a smart set-up.
The instruction that the sea hag essentially fails morale automatically if “clearly outmatched” is nice to see, considering this was written for the Dungeons & Dragons edition that got rid of morale as a monster stat (something that I think was a bad decision).
The oddball potion in the sea hag’s treasure stash is a welcome touch.
While the advice for scaling up the challenge seems to be the basic “add more monsters”-variety at first glance, it actually implies some deeper storytelling. The ogre for EL 7 is a minion, the second hag for EL 8 is a partner, and the covey for EL 12 is a whole adventure with this as a potential climactic encounter.
Kelp is a saltwater plant, so make sure to consider that for the water (increased buoyancy, salt stains on nearby surfaces, salty smell, etc.) or change it to generic seaweed.
A scroll tube floating in the middle of a random subterranean pond is a pretty obvious trap. Firstly, there’s no reason why it has to be subterranean; a pond, cove, grotto, etc. near a traffic path should be reasonable. Secondly, a scroll tube floating by itself is suspicious. Consider adding (or even replacing the scroll tube with) a monster’s corpse, various sundry adventuring supplies (backpack, bed roll, bundled tent, etc.), or a makeshift raft, to name a few items that players might be tempted to examine. A scroll tube alone looks like bait, but a scroll tube floating alongside a ruined book, some waterlogged rations, a short length of rope, a hat, and a torn backpack looks more like a mystery to investigate.
There’s no explanation given for why anyone would want to use an iron winch underwater (nothing about the encounter implies the sea hag has means of negating corrosion), nor for why the winch starts working. I’d change the material to something more appropriate (like wood or brass), and I’d add something subservient to operate the winch (besides, a sea hag with no amphibious minions to command feels like a waste, but maybe that’s just me).
If I’m reading things correctly, the winch pulls harder than the kelp rope can bear (27 effective Strength vs 23 break DC). This shouldn’t be an issue in less rigorous game systems, but it ought to be corrected for playing 3E (side note: assuming no stress concentration, strong seaweed in the real world can potentially take the maximum liftable load for 27 Strength if the “rope” is at least 0.8” diameter, so the kelp rope idea isn’t entirely unreasonable).
As written, it’s ambiguous if the sea hag realizes if she’s been spotted automatically. I’d delay that bit of her tactics until the players do something to indicate they’ve spotted her.
Given the sea hag’s apparent cowardice, it might be worthwhile to add an underwater tunnel for her to escape through. She is an intelligent being, after all, and most people who have the awareness to avoid fighting on even or disadvantaged terms would probably think to plan an escape route.
Writing a bunch of things that the players might do is worthless when it’s followed by “No matter what method they use, once someone comes in contact with the tube […], the actions begins.”
The intended entrance direction is not shown on the map, and both shores seem to have similar sight lines to the sea hag’s starting location, so the mention that she is completely out of sight of the entrance is useless for battlemat play.
For all the detail on the sea hag’s tactics, the “she swims to the character’s location and […uses] her evil eye ability if necessary (see below)” doesn’t get any follow up on when she’d consider it necessary.
This is a fairly simple encounter at face value (a single room with a rudimentary trap and one creature), but it has a lot of moving parts that can make it go very differently depending on the players’ choices and how certain dice rolls go. Does someone get dragged in by the rope? Do the sea hag’s Strength drain and evil eye cause one or more characters to start drowning or outright die? If the characters notice the hag before setting off the trap, do they try to attack her in the water, try to lure her onto the land, try to set off the trap intentionally, or maybe just decide that’s enough for them to just move along?
It’s also simple to adapt this to a greater context. Is the bait something that the party is actively seeking (or at least do they think it is)? Has the trap already taken victims who the PCs care about (or are being paid to care about)? Is there anyone else in the area that the hag is working together with, and if so, what’s their relationship?
Taking things a step further, removing the chance for the hag’s evil eye to cause instant death makes this very interesting for use against lower-level characters. The threat of drowning (whether because of the winch, falling catatonic, or just wearing too much to float) is a strong indicator of imminent danger, but there’s a natural time delay before it’s realized, giving the players opportunities to react beyond just hoping the dice go their way. Granted, I think there is a place in Dungeons & Dragons for good “save or die” situations, but I’d only keep the chance of instant death here if the players had some reasonable chance to be forewarned about it (perhaps discovering a body with a Ringu-style death face, rumors/legends hinting at the sea hag, and/or beings in the area who know about her and could potentially be parlayed with).
All in all, this is another strong water-themed entry, though for a more traditional encounter than the previous two. For all that aquatic/underwater adventures have a bad reputation, this book handles such encounters fairly well.