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Friday, June 13, 2014

Fires of Dis aka How To Ruin A Campaign

Nuff said, true believer
Our exploration of D&D Hell continues! Today I have an adventure that made me very angry. Don't get me wrong, there is a ton of cool and useful information in this book. But there's one part.. well, you'll see.

Today we are looking at an AD&D second edition adventure for the Planescape setting called Fires of Dis. It is about the heroes going to hell to recover a stolen holy sword. The art in the Planescape books is awesome when it's DiTerlizzi. But when it's not... yikes. Take a look at the depiction of Dispater over there. That kind of says it all.

Now what do you say we dive into this thing and mine it for interesting, fun or useful material for any D&D game? Fun fact:

Baatezu = Devils
Taanari = Demons

Our heroes are shopping in the extra-planar city of Sigil, buying things like:

Spirit candy - Hardened bits of various sweet meads that are said to contain the spirits of beings from far-flung prime worlds.

The adventurers end up agreeing to go get this stolen Holy Avenger back. They pass through a planar gate town (I never liked those) and follow their cool little compass through Hell.

1. Avernus
Feels like a glaucoma test
They follow a thing called The Road of Good Intent. Along the way they encounter..

The Pillar of Skulls: A 20 foot high tower of disembodied heads. The heads talk incessantly. This was also detailed in Well of Worlds, accompanied by an epic DiTerrlizi drawing. My PCs loved the pillar and came back to talk to it on multiple occasions.

Firefungus: The only local food source edible to non-devils. It wiggles and is marginally nutritious. These are the fun, cool bits I am looking for to use in my campaign.

There's a bunch of encounters with devils trying to grab lemures and other dull stuff.

Then the heroes go to.. Tiamat's Lair! In the lair is a door to the second layer of hell, which apparently is where the sword is. Remember, this is an adventure for characters levels 6 to 9. Please read this quote:

"One tunnel leads to the Cave of Greed and the gate to Dis. The others lead to Tiamat, the power of evil dragonkind, and her five dragon consorts - the most powerful male Great Wyrms of each chromatic color (red, black, green, blue, and white). Each consort resides in its own cave and revels in its own horde of treasure. The treasure hasn’t been specified - the PCs shouldn’t muck around with it - but the DM’s free to fill the lairs with any coins or objects desired."

Tiamat is in Room 5. The Gate to Dis is 8.
Honestly. You really think the PCs are going to pass up this treasure? So you don't detail it?! I bought this adventure so I wouldn't have to detail anything, pal.

The red and green dragons are on another plane. Their hordes of treasure are just sitting there (rooms 1 and 3). The red dragon's horde is "hot" and does d10 damage per round and won't cool down for three days. Seriously. It takes me two seconds to think of a solution: Portable Hole. And yet I have no description of the horde.

In the green dragon's lair there is "oppressive humidity" that cuts movement and number of attacks in half. Yes. Number of attacks are cut in half... by humidity. There's insects that do d8 damage per round. Do you really think this is a challenge that the PCs won't try to overcome? If you don't want the PCs to engage the dragons and their piles of treasure, why did you send them DIRECTLY to the place full of dragons with the piles of treasure?!

The black dragon's cave is room 2... Deep breath. The PCs take some damage for breathing the poison air. There's a pool of acid that drops your AC permanently when you end up in it. "While in the cave, the PCs are unable to keep their eyes open". And this:

"The black dragon nesting in this cave won’t stir unless the PCs approach the pool - in which case he’ll warn them to leave and kill them if they ignore his advice."

OK. You dangle an awesome scenario in front of the PCs: Kill Tiamat's boyfriends and take their truly epic loot. But then you don't actually want them to do that, and you deter them with a lame idea like "it's so poison-gassy in here that you can't keep your eyes open."

But then... the dragon is "nesting". You honestly think they're not going to try and creep up on it? What the hell?! I can't imagine the number of times this adventure was run and went completely off the rails. And the DM has no stats for anything other than direct orders from the author to kill the PCs.

He just read the Tiamat's Lair section
Here's another quote: "6. White Consort's Lair : A smaller cave leads from Tiamat’s lair to the cavern of her most favored consort - currently, the white dragon. However, to get there, the PCs’d have to march right past Tiamat’s nose, and that ain’t going to happen in this adventure."

Oh yeah?! Have you never played an RPG before? Who is this guy? Heaven forbid the heroes do something crazy and daring! Let us refer to a Gygaxian Quote from The Temple of Elemental Evil:

"With care and cunning, luck and great deeds, caution mixed with boldness and daring, you and your associates can win through to achieve exploits of the stuff of legend!"

Or how about: "It is certain that both vast treasure and horrible death await, so you must gain the one while cheating the other."

Gary Gygax told you to GAIN THE ONE. The "one" being TREASURE. But this module says: "Slink on by! Don't look at that gold! What are you, stupid?! DM, you kill him if he takes one step closer!" And then, even when you do slink on by, soul crushed, an angry freaking boulder makes you CRAWL to your destination. Wait, sorry, we're not there yet. First let's look at the pond full of middle fingers.

So then you get to this Cave of Greed (Room 7) where there's treasure on the far side of a pond. Make a wisdom check. Fail: run at the treasure. You must wade through the water. "No flight, levitation or teleportation magic works in the Cave of Greed...". Of course! Every round spent in the water saps one point of Wisdom.

This is atrocious. What is the point of D&D, adventure writer? FUN. Your players are going to quit your game if you slingshot them into the sun 20 times in a row.

I am not saying everything should be easy, or that the PCs should always get their way. I'm saying that plopping the PCs down into a place where any type of adventuring is literally certain death sucks. In order to be successful in this area, the PCs must keep their heads down, walk by a bunch of dragons with a cool story with piles of awesome treasure and just move on to the next area without a peep. To be successful they must not adventure in this adventure module.

Wait! There's more! In the pool, the PC won't even notice the Wisdom drain until they are on the other side. Testing the water with your hand won't reveal its' Wisdom-draining properties, either.

Then, the generous author says that the drained wisdom will return at the rate of one point every two days. Thanks so much!

So what happens once our poor heroes are forced to wade through the pool to get to the treasure? Let's read on.. Aha! OF COURSE: "..the treasure is, indeed, real. However, each item is cursed or suffers from a disastrous flaw: weapons hit at -3 or worse, goblets turn any liquid to poison, gems randomly burst into handfuls of spiders, etc. Even the coins bring woe to their taker - each weighs as much as one hundred similar coins, making it difficult at best to transport them away."

You took something awesome... Tiamat's lair! Tiamat!! And turned it into utter tripe.

The gate to Dis is a set of big iron doors. A spider immediately jumps out and tries to drag a PC in toward two more spiders. Ugh. We are in Tiamat's lair and we don't fight dragons, or even "mewlings". We fight freaking SPIDERS.

Further down the hall, a boulder tells the PCs via magic mouth: "Those who would enter Dis must crawl!". The PCs have to go back to the door and crawl through. It's the only way to actually get through to Dis. Just to humiliate them a little more!

2. Dis

A road paved with skulls leads our heroes to the city of Dis. In the city, there's raw heat, deafening screams and collapsing buildings. That's cool. It is so hot that PCs in metal armor suffer penalties.

Some businesses in the city use flayed skins of low level devils as carpets and shades to keep the interiors cooler. Dispater's Iron tower looms high, always changing shape. The sky is ash-green.

- Work is always being done on the streets. Slaves scream and burn as they labor.

- Walking toward Dispater's tower doesn't work. You can't get there. But when you turn around, somehow there it is, a block away. The only way to get there is to close your eyes, think about anything but the tower, and succeed at a wisdom check -10.

See.. that's cool. Dispater's tower should have a unique gimmick like that.

- There's an encounter where gloopy lemures (low level devils) are being herded to their next construction site. It's like a tidal wave that the PCs need to avoid.

- To actually get inside Dispater's tower, you have to focus on Dispater's Magnificence. Trying to climb the tower is a bad idea. It is hot, and it melts and reforms itself every round. I don't quite get how that works but it's cool.

- The tower is 999 miles tall.

- There is one way for visitors to move room to room. There's these things called the flower of holes Each has twelve petals - one for each room. You pluck a petal and it's like a portable hole. You can climb through to go to a different room.

- There's a bunch of pretty cool rooms. There's a prison room which is a white sphere. There's a torture room with some guys chained up who volunteered to be tortured. There are spiral stairs which are an endless loop. There's a skin cube room which immediately contracts and tries to encase the PCs in a layer of skin.. weird! There's a library that includes books on the PCs lives.. magically updated as they progress through the adventure as it happens. There's a room of mirrors where a pit fiend appears inside the mirror and.. kills their reflections. Crazy! Then there's...

Your bath tub needs a good scrubbing, lady
 - A room where there's this woman with blades sticking out of her head. It's part of an experiment. Dispater is trying to figure out a way to kill the Lady of Pain of Sigil. If a PC pulls a blade out of the poor woman's head, roll a d6:

1 Gender changes
2 Hair on head turns to worms
3 Body weight doubles (clothing fits accordingly)
4 Skin becomes transparent
5 Skin reeks of vinegar
6 PC becomes mute

- The PCs are eventually met by Dispater himself. He is inclined to let the PCs have the holy avenger they are searching for. It is noted that Dispater can't be harmed in any way. If they stab him in the chest, he pulls it out and hands the weapon back, saying "be more careful with your toys". Here's a quote: "Not even a wish spell can disturb the archduke's avatar."

Dis has some cool stuff. Love the tower. But I am not a fan of some of the stuff in this book. Not so much the content, but the philosophy behind it. It might be "realistic" for Tiamat to have truly messed up traps in her lair. It might also be "realistic" to have the heroes be forced to crawl to get to Dis. But too much of this kind of thing in a single session leads to the players trying to revolt, or becoming irritated, or just not caring about the game any more. There has to be a more balanced approach, allowing the players a certain amount of enjoyment and satisfaction, otherwise they are not going to want to play this game because the main underlying goal was not met: It was not fun.


Unknown said...

'Tis hell, berk.

Stop whining and get lost if you can't handle it.

Unknown said...

Meh... my players bloody loved it, so... you know...

Juju said...

Some of this sounds very familiar. I bet Matt Mercer borrowed a lot of this for the episode of Critical Role when they went to Dis.

Luca Lorenzon said...

I am going to start it next week! Hope it will be fun.