DM / encounter advice: Help making an abandoned temple interesting


So, I've been DMing for a few months now, and for better or worse have been making my own adventures mainly from scratch. (I finally have a mat and miniatures in the mail, but they won't be usable until the new year). Anyway, the issue is this:

In the upcoming session the party is investigating what appears to be an age-old abandoned temple, hot on the heels of another party who have gone missing. A psionic item the first party owned gets in contact with them part-way through, and tries to guide them to where the first party was ambushed by the spirit of the high priestess. On the way the party is harried by golden spiritwolf guardians, who are sometimes amplified by rough statues (some of which are actually golems). In truth the whole thing is a constructed simulation by a powerful psionic entity masquerading first as the psionic item and then as the high priestess.

Only to me at least the whole thing sounds a bit flat. I've had some failures and some successes so far, and this is a plot-session some of the players have been looking forward to, so I'd really hate for it to fall flat. Any advice?

1 person marked this as a favorite.

Mix up the encounters a bit. The golden wolf guardians sound really cool but nothing is more stale than fighting the same enemy for multiple encounters. Having the rough statues give each set of wolves unique abilities (think stuff like breath weapons, spider climb, etc) that work in tandem with the environments would be awesome. For example if one set of wolves has a breath weapon that is a 30ft line of acid, then have the room contain lots of statues lined up to make 5' wide "aisles". Wolves usually have a superior ground speed, which they can use to outmaneuver the party and position themselves for breath weapons when the party bunches up or to gang up flanking attacks on one party member if they split up. Another set of wolves has spider climb in a room with a lot of vertical barriers which they can use to attack and flank the party from unusual angles. Maybe that set of wolves also have the feat spring attack making them even more difficult to combat.

Depending on the tone you are going for you could focus on the tradgety that happened to the other party that went in before. Maybe one of the slain members dies in a way horrific enough to turn into an undead like a ghost or a wraith (perhaps with a few of those class levels they had in life?). There could be an encounter where the energy from the psionic item "reanimates" or "possesses" this party so to speak and the two groups have to face off in some classic party vs party action.

Does the temple itself have a story behind it? How about the high priestess and the psionic item? If not that's a good place to start. The challenge comes in getting that information to the players in a way that is exciting and fun.

Woah, nice ideas! There's a pretty solid history behind the priestess and party but those mechanical ideas and inspirations are perfect. Will give more details when I can but that alone should be enormously helpful!

Heres the twist: the spirits, the temple, even the priestess, are all either constructs or illusion-holograms. The first party’s item is basically a psionics AI of ages past and the “priestess” is the shaper/creation AI from the same makers. Hostile ai made the temple to lure in the party, wanting the party ai for her own reasons, and succeeded.

Only, they weren't expecting the B-team to turn up. So the newly-invented priestess, and communicating pretending to be the friendly ai, are them trying to get the situation back under their control with a mostly-depleted force of constructs. I'm keeping the overt reveal for after they beat the hostile ai and her last line of defence, but I want to have some subtle clues in there. Carvings and history being wholly self-referential, “the friendly ai” to be out of character, the location of the temple being very jarringly different to the temple itself, and the like.

Oh, and relevant note I guess:the captured party are the players' primary characters. So killing them off on the week they try out some new character ideas not something I'm allowed to do =P

Winter S Jackson wrote:
Oh, and relevant note I guess:the captured party are the players' primary characters.

Hmmm... Does this mean that the players have already gone through part of the dungeon before or was that more of an off-screen event? At first I had assumed that the first group of adventurers had been killed but taking them captive can work just as well. What exactly is the psionic entity planning to do with the captured party? Sacrifice? Brainwash? Convert their lifeforce into some kind of psionic energy?

As a full disclaimer I've essentially no experience with psionics in-game.

Offscreen! And should be no issue, just slightly different schools and a more scifi feel. I'm using it to represent a fusion of science and magic, so.

But yeah, the hostile AI "Cole" can essentially use the first party as catalysts to splinter the party's AI, and allow the hostile one to "Reproduce". Cole's keeping them asleep, planning to work at its leisure, when the B-team turns up and makes them panic.

As a caution, the helpful npc turns out to be the villain trope can be very tricky to pull off effectively. I have seen it end up being a fun reveal, but more often I have seen the players (not just the characters) end up feeling used and cheated. This can lead to lack of trust in the GM, and end up with players that have their characters treat every npc has hostile.

Part of the reason for this is that most players are willing to suspend any disbelief or distrust to take the plot hook out of courtesy to the GM. Rather than spend hours in game checking out the old man in the taverns background they take at face value that he wants the kobold cleared out of his mine and get on with the adventure their GM has prepared. Changing this dynamic can have a lot of unfortunate consequences.

I'm not saying don't do it, but think about it carefully. Try to provide enough clues so they might figure it out beforehand or at the least afterwards they say 'Oh, now that makes sense!'

Hmm. They know the friendly AI pretty well and they have a pretty distinctive tone of voice-I definitely had in mind the "We know something is wrong from the beginning but we're not sure what". The bad imposter trope, more than the secret betrayer. Hopefully that's enough.

What state of repair does the temple appear to be in? It's reasonable to expect that vermin, for instance, will move into ruins. If they're absent that might be a clue that things are not as they seem. If things are exactly as expected that might also be a clue.

Hm, that's a good point. Not just the no rats but no dust-there haven't been any living beings in there since it was built. I'll throw in a perception chekc for it.

I really like the idea of running a dungeon that another group has already gone through part-way. It can help justify a lot a fantasy tropes and builds tension for a later date when the party has to face some of same foes at before, but this time at full strength. It lets you show off how strong the enemies really are without having to pull punches or water down encounters.

Have the party walk into the first room and describe the scene of rubble and broken construct pieces scattered across the floor, and how as they enter two platforms in the corners of the room lights up with a golden glow for some arbitrary amount of time, say 1d6 rounds. However, since the party before had already come through this room and destroyed its construct guardians, the empty platforms simply light up for the 1d6 rounds. As the party enters the next room they see whatever terrain features are designed to work with the guardian's special abilities and two stone obelisks, though one is visibly damaged as though it had been hacked at haphazardly. Once again as the party enters the obelisks light up with the same golden glow for 1d6 rounds but the light for the one that is damaged is only glowing faintly and peters out a round early (or maybe it doesn't light up at all). After the 1d6 rounds a golden wolf guardian is summoned. The wolf radiates illusion magic and is surrounded by the same golden glow of the obelisks and the platforms. As they further examine this room the party notices scorch marks as well as a lingering evocation aura that is notably absent on the undamaged pillar. In the next room the party finds two more obelisks (as well as different terrain features suited to these guardians), but both obelisks are undamaged, glow for another 1d6 rounds and summon more wolves. After the battle is over the PCs notice that while the obelisk hasn't been damaged it does appear as though it has been tampered with and perceptive PCs might even notice that the wolves that were summoned by this obelisk lacked the special abilities that the others possessed. Then as the party enters the next room they see three obelisks, all of which are un-tampered with and begin glowing once again for 1d6 rounds at the end of which summoning more wolves than before. By this point the party should realize that they can interfere with the guardians either by attacking or tinkering with the obelisks. Now you have an encounter who's difficulty is dependent on the players and the decisions that they make. Do they attack the obelisks in an attempt to shut them off even though they aren't sure what the consequences of such an action are? Do they try and tinker with the pillars in an attempt to weaken the wolves possibly leaving themselves open to attack if the guardians are summoned before they finish? Or do they simply dig in and spend the glowing obelisk rounds buffing and getting into a formation for when the enemy emerges and preparing for a tough slough against the full strength of the guardians? This is a good opportunity to really throw a tough encounter at the PCs after strolling through a few rooms weakened by the previous party.

This is a short and simple example of what I, as a player and a GM consider to be good dungeon design. The PCs are given all of the information that they need to succeed, they just have to be willing to pay attention and connect the dots. First, the party sees the golden auras and the signs of battle. Then, they fight some encounters of their own while slowly learning more about the temple, its guardians and the inner workings of their devices and some of their weaknesses. Finally, the party is given a chance to test what they have learned in a scenario that is challenging and meaningful. While this example needs more additions and polish before I'd stick it into a game, it serves as a solid framework with which to build upon and flesh out. For example; adding in some hints about the anachronistic origins of the temple, placing pieces of religious imagery throughout the rooms and perhaps even a cryptic or coded final message by one of the first party's members after they realized that they were about to be captured. This example is also very linear and adding in an additional room off to the side or in between would also add to the experience.

One thing of particular importance that I want to distinguish is the difference between player knowledge and character knowledge. At first glance they sound the same, but there's an important distinction to be made. Character knowledge is something that you tell the players. "OK you got a 27 on your knowledge (engineering) check and know that the building techniques used to construct this temple did not exist at the time that the writings and pictographs claim." In contrast Player knowledge is something that you present to the players. "As you enter the room you notice two symmetrical stone obelisks at opposite ends of the room though the one on the east side appears to have been hacked at and is missing large chunks of stone. The Obelisks begin to glow with the same golden aura as the platforms in the room before although the eastern Obelisk is glowing only faintly to the western obelisk's bright radiance. The result is that solving a problem using player knowledge is immensely more satisfying than by doing so with character knowledge. To put it differently, character knowledge is something that is known and player knowledge is something that is suggested.

Now this is not to say that character knowledge and skill checks don't have a place in pathfinder, or even that every skill check a player makes automatically translates to character knowledge over player knowledge, only that the way that a GM phrases or presents the information that the players are given is just as important as the information itself. If you phrase the information as fact, the players are likely to interpret it as such. However, if you simply give your players the information through a medium, such as the environment or the enemies, rather than from a disembodied voice in their head they are going to treat it much differently and in my experience, in a way that enhances the game.

Confusing language aside ... that's pretty much how I see it.

-furiously takes notes-

Community / Forums / Pathfinder / Pathfinder First Edition / Advice / DM / encounter advice: Help making an abandoned temple interesting All Messageboards

Want to post a reply? Sign in.
Recent threads in Advice