I don’t normally gripe about adventures but I am today. I usually DM but have been playing in a very slow moving game of Hoard of the Dragon Queen, which we have been playing since it released. We made it to Xonthal’s Tower and met the maze. We then spent the next 4 hours slowly trying to puzzle it together only to realise it was a puzzle without being a puzzle. It broke a cardinal rule of DM’ing – it purposely misdirected the players (not the characters) to frustrate them. This is bad game design. I think 10-foot-pole describes this bit the best but I will also add my 2cs at the end:
The tower episode has four parts. There’s a village, a hedge maze, the tower proper, and the dungeon. That’s about twenty-one rooms in all. The village is abstracted with only one feature: a couple of rumors. A blue dragon seen in the air, and rampant speculation about the recent lights seen in the tower after it being dark so long. The hedge maze is … a mixed bag. The core concept is that the tower (and maze) is magically protected and the only way to get to the tower is through the maze. The central concept is a sundial that display a puzzle. If you figure it out … five times, you get to go to the tower. Otherwise you get to face one of the eightish challenges in the maze. I’m not a huge fan of puzzles of this type. The individual maze challenges are where the mixed bag thing comes in. Some are forced combats. Some are maybe combats. Each othe them have one solution and only one solution. One of the best is a boulder hurling contest with a couple of cyclops. There’s an opportunity lost by not giving them personalities; they only explain the rules. There’s also a nice example of alternative monster rules. Some carnivorous plants, for example, are run as if they were an otyugh. A nice change of place to show the value of borrowing rules and mechanics and making them your own. Perhaps the worst encounter is one with suits of armor. You fight a suit of armor and then two more, and then there are three on you … and if the room runs out then more form from the ruined armor on the floor from the fallen suits …. until the DM rolls a 6 on a d6. Then you get the key to leave the room. I think it was an old April Fools issue of Dragon magazine that had the Wandering Damage table. Same thing. Just take damage until the DM’s actions result in your passing. How someone thought this was a good idea is beyond me. It runs counter to everything I know as a being a good DM.
The solution to the “puzzle” makes no sense. For example, after jumping through a bunch of hoops – not knowing if the solution to the particular puzzle room is combat or non-combat but being conditioned by previous encounters to assume one or the other (we always assumed there was a non-combat solution) and through that exploration coming to realise the hedge wall are basically impenetrable – can’t dig under them, can’t fly over them, can’t look over them, can’t climb them and can’t destroy them – the maze solution was to… cut through the hedge wall.
The whole Adventure Path isn’t that interesting but Xanthol’s Maze would be enough to return the book for a refund as Wizards has sold you a bill-of-goods here. The book sells itself as an adventure but its really just a player driven frustration device.