Based in Southern Oregon, Fiddleback is a blog and portfolio by Brian Casey. His posts explore tabletop gaming and other topics through examination of RPGs, boardgames, and more. He is a freelance tabletop game editor and writer, and podcaster.

Fiddleback vs. The Forge of Fury, Part 2

Fiddleback vs. The Forge of Fury, Part 2

Ahead lays The Glitterhame and beneath it The Sinkhole. If the PCs have entered successfully through The Mountain Door this may be their first real chance for a rest. If, on the other hand, they’ve chosen to make their first approach from outside Glitterhame itself, the adventure is just beginning. Either way, an underground crystal-flecked cavern full of troglodytes and nastier things awaits.

This article will cover both Glitterhame and The Sinkhole (areas 15 through 34) from The Forge of Fury adventure in WotC’s Tales From the Yawning Portal.

Be sure to read Part 1 of The Forge of Fury series for notes on the review itself.

The Glitterhame and The Glitterhame Map – Pages 43, 44

There’s no two ways about it, you will need a magnifying glass for this map if you want to actually see where things are. Doors, walls, and pathing arrows are very nearly invisible at this size. Especially since they have, once again, been rendered as grey on slightly different grey. What I initially took to be an inconsequential blob of white stonework turns out to be a significantly sized lizard. Various other details — some useful, some not — might just as well not be there.

Glitterhame wants, very badly, to be visually stunning. The intro to the area makes that clear and it is aided by the Vision in Glitterhame sidebar. PCs are meant to come around corners or into huge caverns and be impressed with what they see.

The problem is, it is the DM who has to provide that, and what D&D needs is more poets behind the screen. To really convey the wonder that is Glitterhame, the DM is going to have to plan, to a certain extent, what to say and where to say it. Away from the harried descriptions of The Mountain Door, the read-aloud text of Glitterhame becomes much more utilitarian, rarely stretching beyond the dimensions and furnishings of the various locations. Spending some time looking at the map and noting where corners occur and where passages open out into larger spaces, spotting nooks and crannies that can hold little visual surprises, and then making notes about those spots and what can be seen there, can go a long way towards helping the PCs feel like they are in a location that is not only visually impressive, but also important to be in.

Because, believe me, this area and the Sinkhole beneath need it.

16 High Cavern – Page 44

Once again, we are presented with a variety of choices for moving forward. Though the stream bed might not be as obvious as the others, it still exists and therefore counts. It’s not the DM’s fault if the PCs never think to look.

17 Troglodyte Cavern – Page 45

This area, 18, 19, and 21 represent the entirety of the troglodyte tribe residing in these caves. Which seems a shame when you consider how well used the orcs above were, but the point of Glitterhame seems to be a more relaxed pace than the last area. Something to let the PCs catch their breath and get their feet under them. As the PCs are rapidly approaching character level 4, the only real worries about troglodytes are spotting them before they jump and not being grossed out by their Stench. These two probably won’t make much of a challenge for the PCs.

Remember that pacing is important. PCs can’t go gung-ho all the time through an entire adventure and maintain the same level of enthusiasm throughout. Your adventure will actually suffer if you keep them running and fighting for the entire thing at pretty much the same speed. For one thing, you’ll have a hard time ratchetting the tension up the longer it goes if you don’t give them a break now and then to relax slightly. It’s far easier to bring the tension back up to a point they just came down from a little bit ago than it is to keep trying to lift it infinitely higher forever.

Also, slower bits of the adventure provide an opportunity for PCs and players to process what they’ve just experienced instead of anticipating the next disaster to befall them. Whatever story your adventure is trying to tell can get lost if the PCs never have a chance to think about what is going on and why. Essential clues can be missed and wrong conclusions made if the pace never lets up. Take the time to let your PCs breathe a bit before hitting them with the next life-threatening encounter.

18-19 Troglodyte Warren and Chieftain’s Cave – Page 45

These are the only chambers where, like the Door, creatures coordinate their actions against the PCs.

Depending where the PCs attack first, this can either be a fairly easy encounter, or a near disaster if things go badly. Most parties will do reasonably well until Kaarghaz and his giant lizard show up, if they do. At which point there may be some little trouble clearing things up. Initially it starts as a medium difficulty encounter if all the troglodytes are involved, but edges towards hard if they all survive until Kaarghaz weighs in. That edge gets much closer if Kaarghaz begins his interactions while invisible. Getting to pick and choose his targets before attacking can mean at least one character being taken out if he can freely line up his burning hands spell in a second level slot for the additional die of damage. It is far better for the PCs to encounter him individually in his cave than with the other troglodytes in the warren. Of course, it all depends on how they choose to proceed upon entering the area.

Encounter balance is very tricky in Fifth Edition, especially when you begin mixing two different kinds of NPCs in the same adventure. You have to keep an eye on the interactions between different abilities and their potential effects if used together. You also have to allow for equipment, spells, difficulty of terrain, cover, environmental elements such as fog or open pits of lava or traps, and so on. Unfortunately, Fifth Edition has no adjustments for any of those things beyond the number of available attacks, and no guidance of use in calculating for them. DMs are going to get it wrong.

The best advice is to do it exactly by the book for your first few attempts. One of two things will happen: Either the encounter will be trivially easy for the party, or it will be near fatally hard. There doesn’t seem to be much of a middle ground for most groups. Based on the overall effect of the encounter you built and the parties difficulty in dealing with it, slowly add or subtract from the encounter one creature at a time. Run that by them and adjust again. Keep at it until you hit a sweet spot where the challenge is just enough to be serious, but not hard enough to threaten to wipe out the party. This is now, more or less, your baseline for a medium encounter. In general, subtracting one or two creatures will then give you an easy encounter, and adding one or two should give you a hard encounter. If you want deadly, four or more additions should do it for a party of four.

The trickiest part of the whole encounter balance shaped pie is that as the PCs level up and cross the tier levels at 5, 11, and so on, challenges change significantly. You’ll have to recalculate as you go and then make adjustments again. Eventually, as you gain experience building encounters, you’ll begin to get a feel for what will and won’t work for your group of players. Go carefully at first and don’t be afraid to say, “Oops. Sorry gang. I messed that encounter up. Let’s redo it.”

20 Scaly Lair – Page 46

Don’t feel bad if the PCs look at this and go Nope, not gonna and just walk away. It’s what I’d do. Alternately, of course, they could just stand well out of its reach and arrow it to death, making it an uninteresting exercise in target practice. There is no reason for this encounter or this room to exist other than to eventually provide some silver and…

Oh wait…

IF and that is a big if… IF the PCs know about The Dark Mere, and IF they know there is a passage that allows them into the lower levels of the Forge, this potion of water breathing could allow one character access to it. At which point they would have to deal with the dragon all on their own.

There are, of course, other areas of water one might want to swim through later and this potion would make that easier. For one character, at least.

The lesson? Do not design encounters in your adventure just to design encounters. Make sure they all have a point that relates to the dungeon as a whole, some specific part of it, or the story you are trying to have the PCs experience. It’s not enough to put a pot of gold at the end of a tough fight and call it good. There should be some reason for the PCs to tackle the challenge.

21 Orc Tunnel – Page 46

FFSide.png

See, choices. Yet another way into the complex and a way around The Mountain Door entirely.

PCs in particular trouble can elect to leave via this tunnel as well. Now that they know it is here, it’s a small matter to go back to Blasingdell, recover and rearm, and then sally forth again. They don’t have to deal with the Mountain Door again if there are surviving orcs there. Chances are, if that area went badly, the party is in rough shape and needs the out. No one said they had to do it all in one go.

23 Dwarven Sepulchers – Page 47

You definitely want to push the wonder and amazement angle here. Fortunately, this description, as written, helps you a bit. Play up the movement of reflected light as it twinkles around the room. Highlight details and point out the way sounds moves in this massive chamber. Let them spend time here and even encourage them to rest in the area. There’s no danger here for them and it may be the last chance they get for a while.

Which is an important point. If your dungeon or adventure is particularly long, difficult, or complex, plan places the PCs can rest for both long and short rests. They will need them in order to replenish their spell access, tend to wounds, and repair items. These can be places that become safe once PCs have cleared them or, like 23, start off safe waiting for the PCs to find them.

27 Iron Door – Page 48

This is important, you’ll see why in a minute, but, this door can be picked open with a DC 18 Dex check and thieves’ tools. DC 18. This door. Opened.

The Sinkhole – Page 48

The Sinkhole has a problem, which I’ll get to in a few moments.

First though, just because Nightscale sometimes comes through here doesn’t mean it will, Mr. Killer DM. I mean, it could, but that would be very unfair at this point and very anti-climactic. DO NOT BE TEMPTED.

32 Flooded Storeroom – Page 49

Aside from the Diseased Pool, there is another potion of water breathing. So that thing we talked about in 20? Two characters can do it now. Slightly better odds, but not by much.

33 Roper’s Cavern – Page 51

Here is where we begin to run into problems with The Sinkhole. There is a roper here on the other side of the water from the PCs. It’s reach gives it command of the entire cavern pathway, even on this side of the river. The river is fast flowing and there are a number of bad things that can happen if someone is dropped in the river or falls in. If they make a bad check or two, they’re out of the fight for at least 3 rounds, assuming they follow the bad check up with the good one. The roper can make up to four attacks per round. So, as the DM, what is the worst thing you could do with a roper to your PCs?

No. Not reel them in and eat one.

No. Not grab a PC and drop it in the river to potentially be swept away or at least taken out of the fight for a round or two.

Grab as many PCs as you can and hold them under the water until they drown, is the right answer. If they manage to get out of your grasp, then they get swept down the river. Every PC the roper grabs has disadvantage on strength checks and strength saving throws. Anyone in the water and in the roper’s grasp is in deep trouble. There’s no way for the PCs to know the roper is there until it attacks. And you, as the DM, are supposed to play the NPCs to the best of your ability. Every time a PC returns to the fight, literally wash, rinse, and repeat.

It is possible for PCs to stage at the top of the stairs leading into this area and make ranged attacks or throw some magic at the roper, but they have to know to do that first, which means at least one round is going to be very chaotic at a minimum. With the roper’s 20 AC it’s likely going to be fairly hard to hit consistently and so regular archery will take a fair amount of time as the PCs just plink away at its 93 hit points round after round. Magic attacks may be another story, but all the roper has to do is move 5 or 10 feet to the west to bring the top of the stairs into range and severely limit the angles it can be attacked from. This is a very nasty, potentially party killing, encounter if the DM plays it this way. Your alternative is to have the roper kill and eat only one character and then stop the attack. Or hope your PCs are very, very good. The intent of this encounter is to kill PCs until the party learns to run away from encounters they can’t beat.

So, why is this encounter here? What is so vital to your success and the adventure in this area that the designer decided to protect it with such a dangerous encounter?

34 Prison – Page 50

There is a key in this room that opens the door at 27.

Yup.

That’s it.

Seriously, just tell them to go pick the door open. It’s only a DC 18 lock. There’s no particular rush to get it done.  Let them take their time. Tell them to help each other if you like. Nothing prevents the PCs from trying over and over until they do get it open. It only costs time.

And therein lies the problem with The Sinkhole. The only reason this entire section of the adventure exists, the only reason for The Sinkhole to be part of it, is to be a place that key and two potions can exist. They could be anywhere else in this adventure and no one would notice or care or have any reason at all to go to The Sinkhole and run into the roper. These are seven entirely unnecessary rooms, tacked on to be a place to take up time and word count.

It would make more sense — for the roper, the adventure, and the party — to have a side room off Glitterhame itself, just where the waterfall in 25 is, to handle the key and roper encounter.

Go back to 27 and head into The Foundry.

Summary

Glitterhame and The Sinkhole are, regrettably, a mixed bag. While it is good to vary the pacing of your adventure for reasons discussed above, these areas are too relaxed and too far off pace. Little of note happens in these areas and it feels like a wasted opportunity for some truly spectacular encounters in a unique setting. They don’t have to be fast paced and frantic like The Mountain Door is, but they can shine in their own right by taking better advantage of the setting and terrain of Glitterhame than they do.

A lot of Glitterhame feels tossed in and rattled around a bit until something vaguely adventure shaped occurs. The troglodyte encounters are reasonably well built if the PCs take it on all at once, but feel too easy if handled carefully in individual groups and really only occur in one section of the map. They’re the only organized encounter on the map. The rest of the creatures scattered around are just that. Little challenge is presented for a well-organized party at or near level 4. It is entirely possible to plot a course through Glitterhame that only runs into two encounters, which is also the most direct. Glitterhame is pretty to look at, but places much of the burden of making it look pretty on the DM’s shoulders without written descriptions that help the DM convey the surroundings they make such a point of in the intro to this section.

The less said about The Sinkhole, the better. Although I am now going to spend a few sentences saying it. The Sinkhole’s problem is not that it contains a nearly unbeatable and deadly encounter, PCs do need to learn to recognize when the better option is to run away. There’s no argument there. Where The Sinkhole fails is in providing any compelling reason or reward for venturing into it in the first place. There is zero reason for it to exist and zero reason for the PCs to have to go there. Sure, there is treasure in the roper for the PCs to claim if they think to do so, but gold coins and gems are just a sweetener for encounters, not a reason for their existence. Ultimately, there has to be something significant to do or acquire, and a key to a pickable door is not that. The fact that there are better locations for the roper encounter and key placement only makes this section more useless.

Where The Mountain Door is perhaps one of the best adventure areas written, Glitterhame and The Sinkhole are very much at the bottom of the list, one not living up to its potential and the other being entirely unnecessary.

The next article in the series will cover the conclusion of The Forge of Fury with both The Foundry and The Black Lake.

Fiddleback vs. The Forge of Fury, Part 3

Fiddleback vs. The Forge of Fury, Part 3

Fiddleback vs. The Forge of Fury, Part 1

Fiddleback vs. The Forge of Fury, Part 1