Sunday Night DM Podcast: Episode 3 – The Battle For Hommlet

Audio download here.

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Draft Cartography: Lair of the Xanathar

The final arc of the game I ran in the Forgotten Realms involved the party (11 people in total, at that point) returning to Waterdeep for Midsummer. In the midst of the festivities, Dexter Halebrakt, the renowned illusionist of Baldur’s Gate, displayed his incredible skills. As the show ended, the screaming started. The children of the Sea Ward were gone…

A series of investigations, fights and Skullport-related shenanigans the party fought Dexter, in the illusory guise of a two-headed, golden dragon, and the Ulitharid controlling him. After a brutal fight that the party won, they found the children, only to be approached by a Beholder, representing the Xanathar organisation of Skullport…

The Premise of the Dungeon.

This dungeon was designed to cap off an adventure through the middle layers of the Undermountain, specifically Wyllowood. The Beholder (known as Altas Verdax) is looking to overthrow the leadership of the Xanathar, and needs to clear house in order to do it. Fights, danger and moral quandaries ensue, but that’s not why we’re here. The Xanathar’s Lair is a dungeon level designed to test and kill characters, as befits one of the most powerful Beholders in Faerûn. It had trick doors, a sea hag, and a blinded Beholder.

The Dungeon.

The Lair of the Xanathar

My original notes and sketches of the dungeon.

Rather than brush over every aspect of the dungeon, I’d like to focus on three encounters within the dungeon:

The Sea Hag’s Lair

Immediately after one of my favourite traps (regular readers may recognise the ‘one-player-trips-the-plate-then-the-next-player-gets-trapped-between-two-walls’ concept…this is the dungeon I designed it for!) is a flooded cavern, in almost complete darkness. Broken stone stairs lead into the water, too deep to wade through, too high to keep your head above water. This is the Sea Hag’s lair. Now, of course, for eleven level 5/6 players, a CR 2 sea hag isn’t much of a challenge. In obscured conditions, underwater, with very few air pockets, however…

The intention here is to have the players approach the hag secretly, in very small numbers, taking out the hag, then leading the other party members through the flooded cavern. I designed the encounter to test the tactical aptitude of the party, and involved a creepy, evocative monster with enough magical ability to flounder magical attempts to remove the water. It’s about as simple as that, really.

The Blinded Beholder

Of the three encounters, this is my favourite, and the one I want to focus on the most. The concept is to introduce the party to the mechanics of the Beholder, a creature with the ability to annihilate them if they go about things badly, in a way that allows them some degree of leeway.

The room is large, round, and dimly lit. In the centre, chained to a plinth, is a large, scaled Beholder with a milky white eye, rocking fitfully in it’s sleep. Hiding in the shadows are tiny Beholders, dreamt into existence by their larger kin. This is the central mechanic of the room; the central Beholder creates enemies for the party in reaction to various stimuli.

The room contains a number of Gazers, and a new Gazer comes into existence beside the Beholder randomly, assuming nothing else has happened. The Gazers watch the party, and only attack if they see an opportunity to gain an unfair advantage. As the party make their way through the room, they roll stealth checks against the Beholder’s passive perception. If they fail, the Beholder lashes out in it’s sleep. Randomly choose an eye ray, then make an attack roll at disadvantage. If the attack hits, then the ray has hit its target; resolve the ability as usual, focussed on the relevant character. If it misses, then ignore the rays effect. If the party attack the Beholder, there is a 50/50 chance that it spawns a Death Kiss. The end goal is to reach the doorway leading to a riddle, then take the item disgorged from the riddle area to a second doorway in order to escape (PS; I’m a big fan of not letting my players know if they got the riddle right. Hand them a magic item either way, just make it cursed, or otherwise bad, if they get the riddle wrong).

The trick here is to be stealthy, but escort the characters who can solve the riddle, all while trying to avoid tiny Beholder-kin and eye rays. It’s also a good way to beat out murder hobos –  a blinded Beholder is one thing. Multiple CR 10 Death Kisses, on the other hand, with no real way to escape? Nah thanks.

Xanathar – The Death Tyrant

The idea of Beholders dreaming kinda caught me. Any individual so afraid of their enemies that they build the ridiculous, convoluted dungeon we’re looking at must be terrified of their own demise. It makes sense, then, that they would limit visitors, or cut them out entirely. It turns out that Beholders who are obsessed with their own death become Death Tyrants. That’s kind’ve it, really. The big reveal – the Xanathar is not the entity they were expecting, but something else entirely.

Conclusions

I hope this dungeon has given you some ideas for yourself. The dungeon is by no means complete. The story arc was abandoned when I split my D&D group and handed both parts off to other DMs who were in the group, but it was a very formative dungeon for me, one that has bled into several things I’ve written and developed since. If you’ve got questions about anything else in the dungeon (like the ziggurat with the 50ft drop where you have to save against broken bones – something I flipping love), feel free to leave a comment or drop me a line. If there’s enough support for it I might even do up a proper map and PDF, if I get the time.

Anyway, cheers guys!

The Halls of the Archmage Aesolyn

When I started building Talomire one of the things I wanted was an open world, ready for the players and the DM to make their own. My main thrust, therefore, has been building overarching concepts and motivations, rather than individual stories (something I’ve tended to rest on in the past). It also means I need to have a whole lot of maps and locations hanging around for when my players decide they want to wander out west towards The Spine Mountains, and not to the plot hook set up in Northtower or Briarwood. So I thought, why not try to bat out a map or two a week, and stick them up here for people to use however they want?

The Halls of Aesolyn

The map I’m working on at the moment is the first level of a two floor (so far…) dungeon. The infamous archmage Aesolyn, the arcane mistress of the ruined city of Anghath, is rumoured to have store houses of knowledge through out the world, relics from her days of wandering the earth for lost arcane knowledge. These halls are one of those early storehouses, abandoned for decades to wither and rot…or so the rumours would have you believe…

Concept

My wife wants to play a wizard for the first time. Now, I’m houseruling the DCC RPG rules (see my earlier post) to make magic rarer, more volatile and to add an RP element to the learning and using of magic. Wizards do not simply learn any spell they wish when they level up; instead they must search for magic, kill other wizards and conduct their own research into their arcane art. This dungeon is designed to give her wizard a time to shine, and rumours to hunt down while, at the same time, challenging the whole party. It is designed for level 5 players, although I am not hugely interested in perfect balance.

The Map

Aesolyn's Halls

The Unmarked Map

Aesolyn's Halls (Labelled)

The Labelled Map

I’ve included (as you might have guessed) a labelled and unlabelled version on the map. That way you can either use the same basic concepts as my dungeon, or create your own rooms, traps and encounters.

The Dungeon

Area A

This room is designed to do two things. It’s opulent couches and decor are meant to tell the players that this place is filled with riches. They may not be the riches some players are thinking of, or wanting, but there are wonders held within these walls…

It also offers the players a choice. There are two, heavy doors (requiring a DC13 Strength check to open). The left hand door is decorated with a large, bronze devils head. The right hand door is the same, but with a leering Cobra with cursed rubies for eyes (dealing damage to any player who touches them with the specific intent to take them). Both lead down different paths, with different types of encounters. The Devil’s Road (rooms A-G) is filled with traps and encounters, bizarre puzzles and deceptions. The Snake’s Road, on the other hand, appears safe to begin with, but hides a lethal nature.

Area B

Aesolyn originates in the desert regions far, far south of Talomire. This room is the first real hint of that. It is also the first true deception. The room is lined with sandstone bricks, and two oak doors stand opposite the entrance. When opened, any player within five feet must pass a Dex save or be knocked prone and take damage. At the same time, the wooden boards holding the ceiling up crack and splinter, releasing a torrent of sand into the room. The players are on a timer from that point (I recommend either a 5 minute sand-timer (very thematic and evocative, considering), or entering initiative and giving the players 1d4 rounds to find their way through. After the first round (or the first 30 seconds, if you’re using a timer), movement is halved. If the time runs out, the room is completely filled, and players must pass Str saves in order to act, taking damage every turn they’re in the submerged room. Movement is halved, and checks are made at disadvantage.

There are, however, two secret exits. Both are simply thin sandstone with nothing behind them, where the rest of the walls are backed with natural stone. They are not easy to find; knocking on the walls and listening for echoes, or crawling on the floor, feeling for a breeze will discover them, but there is no secret latch or button to discover.

Area C(i) + C(ii)

This passage way is the time for rogues to shine. There are two traps, though one appears a couple of times, and all appear in the right angles of the passage. This is deliberate. The first trap is potentially lethal, depending on your party make up, and will (hopefully) drive a feeling of paranoia into the players. The subsequent traps, once the players work out the pattern, should be easily defeated, giving them a sense of satisfaction at having a) worked out the pattern, and b) beaten the trap.

C(i) is a fairly complex trap to explain, so let me do my best. There are three parts to it:

  1. The pressure plate. The pressure plate is in the first right angle of the corridor. The first time a character steps on the plate, it primes the trap, but nothing happens. The second time the pressure plate is depressed, however, springs the first part of the trap…
  2. The walls, and the rot grubs. As soon as the pressure plate is triggered for a second time, two walls fall from the ceiling, enclosing the player on the plate in a 5ft x 5ft space. Ideally, this will mean that one player is trapped, alone, on one side of the trap (herein called Player One), one player is trapped within the trap (herein called Player Two), and the rest of the party are behind the trap (herein called The Party), with no means of moving forward. The walls can be attacked, and have an AC of 15, and 20 hit points. To add injury to insult, the ceiling above the Player Two cracks, and a shower of Rot Grubs falls onto him/her. He/she has to make Dex saves each turn (its worth moving to initiative here, to make life easy for yourself), or have rot brubs bury themselves into their flesh. They deal 1d6 piercing damage in the turn they burrow into the character’s flesh, and deal 1d6 necrotic damage each subsequent turn. The necrotic damage also lowers the character’s hit point maximum. If the HP max hits 0, the character dies. Fire destroys the infestation in the character, though the character will take the full brunt of the fire damage. Lay On Hands can treat the infestation as a disease, and either Greater or Lesser Restoration will destroy the rot grubs.
  3. The crossbow trap, and optional combat encounter. Player One, having avoided the trap, will likely wheel around to see what has befallen his/her friend. While this happens, a delayed fuse ticks away. In the second round of combat, the trap triggers, firing a crossbow bolt at Player One, who must make a Dex save (at disadvantage, if they’re concentrating on helping their friend). Now, if you, as the DM, feel that The Party will break through the walls of the trap too easily, you can have one or two Dust Mephits attack from the ceiling. They’re 1/2CR creatures, and no threat to The Party…but they’ll be attacking the squishy members of the party, meaning whoever is on this side of the trap has to decide whether to attack the Mephits, or the walls. This could end with a PC death, however, so be careful.

C(ii) is relatively simple. At each right angle there is another crossbow trap, triggered by a thin tripwire at chest height. The tripwires are triggered as the characters turn the corner, with the crossbows firing down the length of that section of the passage. I haven’t marked every one on, but my assumption is that every right angled corner on the Devil’s Road has one of these traps.

Area D

If the players head through the other door, they enter a comfortable bedroom. On the bed sits a blind man, covered in a cowl. The man is a devil, held here by Aesolyn. He sits in silence, and if the party ask him any questions, he simply ignores them. If they attempt to touch him, he recoils and lashes out at them. His eyes are hidden in the room, one in a portrait of Aesolyn herself (the eye is two dimensional to look at, but one eyes looks significantly different to the other…out of place. If the party reach into the painting they can pull the eye out), and the other is on the bedside table, in amongst a set of small marbles. Once his eyes have been returned to him, the pit fiend, now in his true form, vanishes, throwing the room into a magical darkness. A single point of light in the distance leads the party through the. now open, secret passage which leads out of the room.

Area E

This room is fairly straight forward. The party walk in, and after a short period of investigation hear a low pitched growl, which is taken up by multiple voices around the room. Then, bursting from the cells, come six Hell Hounds. Now…that’s a truly deadly encounter…so I plan on halving the HP of each dog to around 20, and roughly halving their damage output. The fight will still be hard, but won’t be impossible.

Area F

The last room I’m going to go into in this post (it’s 22:45, and my wife is downstairs). I’m still a little unsure about what exactly to do with it. There will be one big baddy, and at the moment I’m leaning towards a chain devil, although multiple basilisks are tempting. The room will also be very dark, with sight reduced (magically, or course) to half distance. Also, and I’ll go into more detail in the next post, Area G will contain a cursed magical item which is very good at killing demons…but may also work to make you sell your soul to it. But we’ll get there, probably tomorrow.

Let me know what you think of the dungeon so far! I’m pretty happy with it so far, especially a couple of those traps. Also, huge props to @the_pickled_dragon for reminding me about rot grubs. That made my day.

Part Two is finished now too! Go check it out!

Cheers!