Tuesday, 29 July 2014

A New Map of the Sword Coast


While I have no interest in the new version of the Realms, per se, I still want it to do well and, judging by this wonderful map by Jared Blando, WotC is determined to provide significantly better map than the crap used to depict the 4E version of FR.

Well done, WotC.

Sunday, 27 July 2014

Starter Set Sandbox 4 - Wyvern Tor

What's a Tor?

I remember when I first saw Wyvern Tor on a map of the North 15+ years ago, I didn't actually know what a tor was. I had some vague idea that it was related to a hill but I had to go and look it up. As it's not a particularly common word - unless you live in a place like Dartmoor - it's probably worth pointing out that it is, more or less, "... a large, free-standing residual mass (rock outcrop) that rises abruptly from the surrounding smooth and gentle slopes of a rounded hill summit or ridge crest." The accompanying photo shows one clearly and, based on the description of Wyvern Tor in Lost Mine of Phandelver, is probably a reasonable depiction of this Twilit Land landmark.

Realmslore

In the introductory paragraph I threw in the name "the Twilit Land" and some of you might be wondering what this means. When I went looking for Realmslore relating to Wyvern Tor, the first book I looked at was 2E's outstanding Volo's Guide to the North. While it had no information about Wyvern Tor, it did mention this, "Some sages call the Coast south of Neverwinter the Twilit Land." Realms-nerd that I am, I like that I can now call my planned campaign in this area something like Neverwinter: Adventures in the Twilit Land.

Of course, non-Realms-nerds would be rolling their eyes at this....

As far as I can tell, Wyvern Tor first appeared in 2E's The North boxed set published in 1996 and then only as a location on a map. Between my Google-fu and my ability to search PDF documents using Adobe Acrobat, I have not been able to find any other references to this location so it appears that the details have been created whole cloth for Lost Mine of Phandalin.

Lost Mine tells us, "This crag is a prominent landmark in the rugged hills northeast of the Sword Mountains, and is easily visible from twenty miles away. People traveling along the Triboar Trail in the vicinity of Conyberry catch glimpses of Wyvern Tor to the south as they go." Further, it states that wyverns used to nest here - hence its name - but were wiped out by adventurers and that now a band of orcs lairs here, together with their ogre ally.

These orcs are noted as being scouts from the Kingdom of Many Arrows far to the north which really makes no sense in the context of Many Arrows activities and goals. Wyvern Tor is, however, part of the foothills of the Sword Mountains and the numerous orcs are known to lair in these mountains, including the descendants of the former orc nation of Uruth Ukrypt whose name echoes on in the Kryptgarden Forest to the southeast.


One of the more interesting sources of tidbits about the former orc kingdom of Uruth Ukrypt is the article Toppled Thrones of the North in Dragon 351. It mentions that the seat of the first three kings of Uruth Ukrypt was the Bloodbone Throne of Uruth and that it was lost to Shammagar the black dragon during the Year of the Dracorage (1018 DR).

It was described as follows, "Fashioned from the skulls and ones of the fallen defenders of Uthtower and Phalorm, the Bloodbone Throne of Uruth resembles a heap of shattered skeletons more than 12 feet in diameter and 10 feet in height, magically fused into a single seat of power. The polished skulls of six prices of Phalorm are paired to serve as steps up to the seat of the throne, itself shaped from the ribcage of a great crag cat of the North. The back of the throne is shaped in the form of a triangular stack of skulls, each sporting the single eye of Gruumsh." It then goes on to explain the 'Throne's magical powers which includes the ability to summon a blood elemental.

Uthtower was a kingdom centred on what is now the Mere of Dead Men while Phalorm was a kingdom south of Waterdeep, IIRC. The location Cragmaw Castle covered in Lost Mine of Phandelver is noted as being a remnant of ancient Phalorm. What if it was a tomb built to honour the six fallen princes of Phalorm whose skulls adorn the Bloodbone Throne after the seat was recovered from the orcs? More on this in a moment.

Revising Wyvern Tor
I must admit, my first instinct was to make Wyvern Tor into a nest of wyverns (of course, I am running 4E so I already have a full complement of monsters to work with; 5E DMs are still some weeks away from having access to 5E's Monster Manual) or even the lair of a grey (aka fang) dragon, the latter because of a great picture of  a grey dragon hunting in a hilly area in 4E's Draconomicon.

However, for the sake of simplicity, I will keep the idea of Wyvern Tor being an orc camp. I have two options here: I can make the orcs into a local tribe that is simply marauding - after all, the Tor gives them line of sight over an enormous area and allows them to spot targets on the Triboar Trail - or I go with the idea that orcs are, indeed, scouts from the Kingdom of Many Arrows and give them a legitimate reason for being here.

As explained in the article History Check: Dark Arrow Keep that appears in Dragon 429, there is a fundamental tension in the Kingdom of Many Arrows between those in power who believe in the original King Obould's vision that the orcs could form a nation with a measure of civilisation and those who believe that orcs are meant to be dangerous marauders taking whatever they want from whomever they want. For some generations now, the pro-Obould's vision forces remain in control.

What if one the rebel/traditionalist groups decided that, in order to take the throne from the reigning Obould, they needed a symbol of Gruumsh's favour that would justify their usurpation? The kingdom of Uruth Ukrypt was, like Many Arrows, an orc kingdom but it never succumbed to the trappings of civilisation. And then you have Uruth Ukrypt's seat of power, the Bloodbone Throne of Uruth Ukrypt. As the symbol of the nation, it represents not only Gruumsh's favour but also a reminder than an orc nation does not have to sacrifice orc principles.

And that's why these Many Arrows orcs are here: they're searching for relics of Uruth Ukrypt and, I would suggest, that Wyvern Tor itself is a remnant of that orc kingdom. Considering the hill's key location and its commanding view, it would make sense that it once served as a watchtower for Uruth Ukrypt which also suggests that there might be orc ruins beneath the Tor and thus a dungeon for the PCs to explore. That's potentially much more interesting than the existing single encounter with orcs that seemingly have no reason for being there.

As for the Bloodbone Throne itself, I do like the idea of having Cragmaw Castle as a sepulchre for the six princes of Phalorm. Perhaps the power of the 'Throne meant that the skulls and other remains could not be removed so, instead, the entire 'Throne was buried and a memorial to the princes built in a new underground level of Cragmaw Castle. If the PCs have already discovered the relic in their exploration of Cragmaw Castle they may realise that they have something that is incredibly valuable to the orcs... but which also have the potential to unite the orcs of the North in a great horde that would pose a significant threat to all the non-orcs of the region.

TL; DR: The Many Arrows orcs have found a ruined watchpost beneath Wyvern Tor that dates back to the orc kingdom of Uruth Ukrypt and they are eagerly searching for relics from that former kingdom. Maybe they also have slaves to do the digging as parts of the dungeon have collapsed and those slaves might be the reason the PCs are on the trail of the orcs... or the slaves, when freed, could provide hooks for other adventures.

Saturday, 26 July 2014

Starter Set Sandbox 3 - Ruins of Thundertree

Oh No, What Has Rich Baker Done?

Despite the heading, you will not find any criticism of Rich Baker expressed or implied in this post or, indeed, anywhere on this blog. Rich is, without doubt, my favourite D&D designer and his premature removal by WotC was a real setback for D&D fans. After all, when Chris Perkins says that you're WotC's best adventure writer then clearly you have some talent. And WotC clearly recognised this because, instead of throwing the first 5E adventure to the OGL spambot whose bad design (Keep on the Shadowfell and Pyramid of Sh*t, oops, Shadow) and major strategic mistakes (why was there no PHB with Essentials?) did more to destroy 4E than arguably anything else, they asked Rich to write Lost Mine of Phandelver and, it's clear, he did a great job.

So, why the heading?

From reading the reviews of Lost Mine before I had it in my hot little e-hands, it seems the presence of a 16 hit dice green dragon in the Ruins of Thundertree clearly presented a problem that few level 3 parties would be able to overcome. In fact, it would appear that its breath weapon alone, by virtue of its size and average damage, would be sufficient to wipe out many a level 3 5E party.

Oops.

While the obvious solution is to make the dragon a younger age category and thus more level-appropriate (and the green dragon has to be left in the adventure because it's depicted in the cover art), the purpose of this post is to suggest some other ways to make the dragon encounter still work but have it involve negotiation because it seems the dragon has a problem. Further, I think this can also be tied in more strongly with the machinations of the Cult of the Dragon which augurs well for those DMs who want to go from Lost Mine of Phandelver to the Wolfgang Baur- and Steve Winter-penned Hoard of the Dragon Queen which is part of the Tyranny of Dragons RSE being used to launch the 5E version of the Realms.

Realmslore

Thundertree seems to have first appeared in 2003's Volo's Guide to the North where it was described as a village of 90 or so people that survived on careful logging - supervised by a ranger who was also a Harper - and animal skins. Not much more detail was added until 4E's Neverwinter Campaign Setting where, as is the case in Lost Mine of Phandelver, Thundertree is described as being a ruined village thanks to the eruption of Mount Hotenow.

Of course, Lost Mine also goes on to describe it as the demesne of the green dragon Venomfang. It also notes the presence of Cult of the Dragon agents who are trying to find a way to approach Venomfang and entice her into the Cult.

One of the recent Forging the Realms articles by Ed Greenwood on the WotC website - The Eyes of the Dragon, Part 1 - describes two Cult of the Dragon agents that operate out of Neverwinter. In view of Thundertree's status as a former loggers village, I rather like the idea of including one of these two agents, Broegran Waethlunter, as one of the agents of the Cult in the ruins of Thundertree.

This is what the article says about him:
Broegran Waethlunter is a hardy, weather-beaten, grey-haired, and grizzled man who works as a woodcutter, making frequent forays to within sight of Luskan (though he never enters that troubled port). 

He runs a crew of cutters he's trained, and they "garden" (as they put it) the woods diligently, gleaning firewood and wood for carpentry without taking overmuch (and so thinning out the woods). As a result, he has a valid pretext for ranging so far afield on runs (with wagons, or sledges in winter) that last for days at a time. His cutters are aware that he often meets persons in the forest, sometimes accepting items for transport back to Neverwinter that he covers over with wood. 
Waethlunter pays for their silence and he has told them just enough that they think he's mixed up in smuggling, not in anything to do with cults, draconic or otherwise. Waethlunter enjoys feeling important and useful as he makes and receives reports; in the twilight of his days, he wants to be part of big things if he can do so without a lot of danger. That said, he's always well armed and won't back down from a fight. He's pretty good with a crossbow, often downing edible forest creatures for the stewpots on the trail and back home. His cutters trust him and like him because he's fair, kindly, never loses his temper, and knows the woods well.
I think I can use him.

As for Venomfang herself, no backstory is given but shecould be the descendant of "Old Gnawbone", Claugiyliamatar of the Kryptgarden Forest, or perhaps the offspring of Mornauguth of the High Moor. Clicking on those names will take you to the Wyrms of the North articles on the WotC website where those two particular green dragons are fully described. Of course, giving her this sort of detailed parentage is not really required.

Other Lore

During the course of the Next/5E playtesting period, quite a few articles appeared on the WotC site describing how the designers were thinking about various matters. While most were eminently forgettable, one of the few that I found had real value related to a rethink about green dragons in terms of, inter alia, their personality, goals, and effects on their environment. I think the author was James Wyatt and this was what was written:
Personality: Green dragons are wily, seductive, manipulative, controlling, scheming, and subtle. Just because a green dragon can swallow you whole in a single bite doesn’t mean it’s going to—it would rather wrap you around its finger until you’ll do whatever it suggests.

A green dragon seeks dominion over the forest and treasure, like other dragons. It has a broad definition of treasure that includes the minions and pawns it can use to gain more treasure. Control is its driving desire—control over its environment and every living thing therein.

A master of misdirection, a green dragon bends others to its will by letting them think they’re getting what they want, right up until it’s too late. It’s very skilled at assessing the desires of its opponents and playing off of them. Anyone foolish enough to subdue a green dragon learns sooner or later that it is only pretending to serve, while actually manipulating its “master.”

Environment: Green dragons live in forests and jungles in any climate. They sometimes compete with black dragons in marshy forests (or mangrove swamps) and with white dragons in subarctic taigas. But it’s not hard to tell, upon entering a forest, whether it’s controlled by a green dragon or some other sort.

A perpetual fog hangs in the air of a green dragon’s forest, with a hint of green to it and just a whiff of the acrid chlorine the dragon exhales. The trees grow close together, except where winding pathways trace their way like a maze toward the center. Moss grows thick on tree trunks, making the whole forest a bright, emerald green with otherworldly beauty. Light barely reaches the forest floor and every sound seems muffled by the fog. Branches seem to reach out to snag clothing, and roots twist up to catch feet and twist ankles. Half-glimpsed shapes appear and vanish in the fog, inspiring sometimes fear, sometimes desire—leading you in or scaring you out, depending on the dragon’s wishes. The fog makes it nearly impossible to keep track of one’s path through the forest, too, which sometimes keeps intruders out and sometimes hems them in.

No creature living in the dragon’s forest is unaffected by its presence. A silent squirrel frozen on a branch as the party passes by is the dragon’s eyes and ears. Crows calling to each other in the uppermost branches are issuing warnings and tracking the party’s movement. Snakes dangle from branches overhead, lizards crawl upon the forest floor and scurry up gnarled trunks, and snapping turtles lurk in burbling streams. Deer and other large game are even more skittish than usual, knowing they could become the dragon’s prey at any moment.

Servants: Above all else, a green dragon delights in corrupting elves and bending them to its will. Sometimes (as was the case of King Lorac of Silvanesti), a green dragon so wracks its minion’s mind that the fog throughout its forest reflects the tortured dreams of the imprisoned minion.

Green dragons view other fey only as a food source, but other forest dwellers make fine minions for the dragons such as bugbears and goblins, ettercaps, fomorians, kobolds, peryton, and yuan-ti.

Hoard: A green dragon’s favoured treasures include people bent to its will, famous or significant people it has subverted (such as a renowned bard), emeralds, sculpted wood, musical instruments, and artistic busts and other sculptures of humanoid subjects.

Lair as a Dungeon: At the heart of a green dragon’s dominion is an enormous tree with a thick tangle of roots at its base. Among the roots is the opening to a cave. Or it might be a tree grown over an ancient elven ruin, like you see in Angkor Wat and other old temples in Southeast Asia.

Inside the cave, the tunnels branch like a root network as they proceed down into the earth, with occasional small caves that serve as dens for the dragon’s minions. Roots hang down from the ceiling everywhere in the tunnels, even at their deepest extent, and the dragon can cause them to extend and grasp at intruders.

The fog that shrouds the forest above is here in force, reeking of pungent chlorine and disorienting intruders to the point where they can’t keep track of the branches or even their direction of travel. The dragon can thicken the fog to obscure vision (like obscuring mist), slow movement (solid fog), weaken the mind (mind fog), and even sicken (stinking cloud) or kill (cloudkill) intruders.

Nestled in the midst of all the branching passages is a large cave that serves as the dragon’s nest. It often has a small stream flowing through it. Many passages lead into the cave, giving the dragon an easy way to escape from intruders—and then circle around behind them when they get lost in the passages again.
Now this is infinitely better than simply having a green dragon living in a ruined tower in Thundertree (and, again, there is no criticism of Rich Baker expressed or implied here: he had only limited space to make this adventure work). But it also seems a waste to have the first encounter with a dragon in a new edition be nothing more than just another monster, albeit one grossly overpowered compared to the PCs....

Ruins of Thundertree, Redux


So, the basic goal here is to throw out some ideas that will turn the green dragon into less of a threat and more of an NPC to be negotiated with.

The simplest way to do this - and I admit to drawing some inspiration from Green Lady's Sorrow in Dungeon 35 - is to begin the adventure shortly after the Cult of the Dragon has stolen her eggs. Venomfang is surprisingly desperate to get her eggs back as she is far more maternal than others of her kind.

The  Cult agent, Broegran Waethlunter, is a ranger and a logger who reclaimed the ruins of Thundertree as a base from which his crew of cutters could log the Neverwinter Wood as the rebuilding of the city of Neverwinter  has created an enormous demand for lumber. And while the Cult, of course, benefits from the income this generates, it also offers Broegran an opportunity to explore the Neverwinter Wood on behalf of the Cult looking for signs of green dragons that the Cult can convert to dracolichdom.

Venomfang was one of the first found but rejected Cult overtures. Sadly for her, Broegran recognised that she was ready to lay eggs and simply waited until the eggs were laid and Venomfang left her lair for a brief hunt. The Cult then stole the eggs leaving a magic mouth in their place. The magic mouth simply said when Venomfang returned: We have your eggs and you will submit to us or your children will die.

Of course, green dragons are nothing if not cunning and Venomfang has bided her time as she searches for cat's-paws whom she can use to recover her eggs or, at the very least, distract the Cult so that she can recover her eggs. She watches the ruins of Thundertree carefully, as do her animal spies, and the arrival of the PCs and their likely clash with cultists prompts her to make contact with them and offer them a deal.

The simplest deal would be for the PCs to recover the eggs in exchange for certain items from Venomfang's treasure and that would work reasonably well. And, of course, when the PCs have the eggs in hand, Venomfang will also make an appearance to slaughter any remaining members of the Cult, including some who might be in combat with the PCs while they are trying to flee Thundertree with the eggs.

However, I think a more manipulative approach might be more in keeping with a green dragon's nature, particularly as described above under Other Lore.  Venomfang is more likely to lie about what she wants - although she will be clear that she despites the Cult of the Dragon and wants them slain or otherwise removed from Thundertree - and she will feel obliged to negotiate over the terms of the reward.

To make this work, I think Thundertree needs a Cult spellcaster to be present. It's this spellcaster who poses the real threat to the PCs but also to Venomfang. In the case of the latter, it's because he's not holding the eggs as a threat: he's actively seeking to use them in a ritual that will enslave Venomfang while she is still alive (rather than in dracolich form) and/or to create other draconic beings such as the greenspawn creatures in 3.5E's Monster Manual IV. (This spellcaster may even be a cleric of Tiamat.)

Aside from the Cultists, Thundertree should be, more or less, a functioning logging village with a sawmill, log piles, barracks for the cutters etc.... That also means that a lot of those present are not members of the Cult and, frankly, have no idea what is happening. They're just working at a legitimate job that pays reasonably well.

The Dragon's Lair




Let's assume that the PCs do recover Venomfang's eggs and that they do not end up fighting the green dragon. Personally, I rather like the idea that later in the campaign the PCs might realise that Venomfang is a genuine threat to the region and they decide, because they already know something of her and her location, that it is their duty to deal with her.

Their sense of responsibility might also increase if Venomfang is raiding various settlements in conjunction with her hatchlings whom the party actually saved from the Cult of the Dragon!


So, let's further assume that the search for Venomfang's lair takes place a few levels later when the PCs are at a level where tackling Venomfang is not simply suicidal. I think this is where the green dragon lore described under Other Lore really comes into its own: make Venomfang's lair a great hollow tree and give her various servitor creatures, as well as a bunch of hatchling/very young green dragons, and make the environment one of strange clouds and mists some of which are genuinely dangerous.


And, as per the picture I have posted here, what if Venomfang is capable of taking on some sort of humanoid form? Earlier in the post I mentioned that Venomfang might be the offspring of Mornauguth of the High Moor. Mornauguth, as the linked article shows, was a human priestess of Shar transformed into green dragon form as the result of a curse. What if she passed on to her offspring the ability to change into humanoid form as shown here? And what if Venomfang has a drow lover? Perhaps he is also tied to the drow that appears in Lost Mine of Phandelver?

But back to her lair. I have only once run a "dungeon" set in a hollow tree. I stole the maps from Forest of Doom in Dragon 73 in my first 3E campaign and, I must admit, it was one of the best dungeon adventures I have ever run. The idea of doing this again, but as the lair of a dragon, really appeals to me and, I think, goes a long way to making the encounter with a green dragon feel different to, say, an encounter with a black dragon or a red dragon. After all, why have a cave lair when you can have a hollow tree?

Conclusion

As I have been typing - and this is an unedited first draft - I am also conscious of there being a lot of holes in terms of what I have suggested here. Like most things on my blog, it is horribly half-assed but, at the same time, this isn't something that is being published. I know there are the guts of some good ideas here but they do need some work if they are going to work.

What I also know is that taking this approach or a similar approach to the dragon encounter in Lost Mine of Phandelver will produce something a lot more memorable than the simple encounter that currently exists in that adventure (and that is no slight on the adventure author but simply a recognition of the constraints of limited space).

Starter Set Sandbox 2 - Old Owl Well

What Comes After Lost Mine of Phandelver?

When I first saw the regional map that accompanies the Lost Mine of Phandelver adventure in the 5E Starter Set, I thought about how much I enjoyed researching that area for my own Neverwinter games set on the same map - albeit with different locations - and how there was a lot of extant Realmslore that could possibly be used by a 5E DM to expand the campaign beyond Lost Mine of Phandelver.

My first post in this series was about Icespire Peak which, regardless of the ruleset you use, is suited for higher level adventurers than those going through or that have completed Lost Mine of Phandelver. This post, however, is the first of (hopefully) many that provide options for adventures after Lost Mine or, indeed, alternative quests during the course of Lost Mine.

Realmslore

Before I cover the other Realmslore relating to the Old Owl Well, I should mention that the Old Owl Well is a location within the Lost Mine adventure. However, in contrast to my forthcoming ideas about turning this site into a megadungeon, in Lost Mine it's reduced to a single encounter that doesn't even warrant a map!

Also, if you have read or run Lost Mine and are wondering what ancient empire is alluded to in the description of this site, you're about to get your answer. 

Old Owl Well was first mentioned, as far as I can tell, in 2E's The North boxed set published in 1996. It was noted as being the old water source within three days' ride and thus a site where various factions, including orcs, vied for control. But it was more fully covered in 3.5E's wonderful Lost Empires of Faerûn which stated:
In the hills south of Conyberry is a strange location known as Old Owl Well. Within the grounds of a ruined keep, an ancient well continues to pipe water from nearly five miles below the surface, producing 20 gallons of water a day.

Originally a Netherese outpost, it was built at the direction of one of its archmages ostensibly to spy on the elves of Illefarn. In truth, beneath the site lay a large supply of arcane gems known as chardalyns secured with an ancient vault from the time of the sarrukh and the serpent kingdom of Isstosseffifil.

Captive deepspawn guarded the vault and disgorged a multitude of beasts – principally owlbears – but, at great miltary cost, the Netherese destroyed these guardian creatures and the deepspawn that produced them.

The chardalyns secured, the outpost was named Quesseer and it became a trademeet for Netherese expatriates, Illuskan seafarers, Ice Hunter tribes, Illefarni elves and the isolated shield dwarf clans of fallen Haunghdannar.

It was later abandoned when Illusk (the ancient name for Luskan) fell to a great orc horde but the elaborate well remained, as did the owlbears that contributed to its vernacular name.

The underground caverns from which the well’s water is drawn contain more vaults of the sarrukh but it is also likely that these too are guarded by deepspawn and other creatures.

When I read this, I cannot help but picture a Caverns of Thracia-like megadungeon that begins with a surface ruin controlled by orcs or bandits, proceeds deeper into ancient dungeons with a serpentine motif, and then ends with undead sarrukh liches that remind you of the Immortal King from Caverns of Thracia. Oh, and let's not forget the presence of owlbears... and wyverns from Wyvern Tor nearby.

I suppose a few explanations are in order at this point. 

A chardalyn is a blue gem that could hold a single spell. They were introduced in 2E and I think they also appeared in 3.xE but there was no conversion in 4E. 5E could probably just use the 2E rule (they hold a single spell and can be crushed to use once).

Caverns of Thracia was a legendary adventure published by Judges Guild for the OD&D rules but subsequently converted by Necromancer Games for 3E. It was so unlike the TSR adventures of the time because some real thought had gone into the maps and the story of the dungeon. The maps are really worth mentioning. There were levels and hidden sub-levels and there were multiple connections between levels. The first level, for example, had three separate entrances from above. Similarly, it had at least eight separate connections to the levels beneath it. It's not wonder the author, Paul Jacquays, went on to become a rather significant computer game designer including contributing levels to the Halo franchise.

As for the sarrukh, they are the über-yuan-ti or, perhaps more accurately, the ur-serpentfolk. They were the creator race responsible for, inter alia, the creation of the yuan-ti. In fact, the Netherese archmage who directed Netherese exploration of this site was himself a disguised sarrukh (this is Arthindol - aka the Terraseer - who is mentioned on page 29 in Lost Mine).

Building the Megadungeon

Firstly, I think Old Owl Well has the potential as a site that can be explored immediately after the conclusion of Lost Mine of Phandelver but, of course, that means taking the idea of the encounter with the Red Wizard Hamun Kost on page 29 and really expanding it.

In fact, Hamun Kost is charged with keeping people away because the Thayans are now actively mining the chardalyns. That means at least two things:
  1. There is a very obvious adventure hook: mining means miners and, when the Red Wizards are involved, that means slavers are active in the area. When the PCs investigate the slavers, the trail ultimately leads to the Old Owl Well. And that could be quite interesting if they have already encounter Hamun Kost and got along well with him....
  2. That also means that the first level can be made up of mines. Story-wise that means evil slave overseers to beat up and slaves to free and map-wise it means that there are lots and lots and lots of maps to steal rather than having to create your own. One recommendation inspired by Caverns of Thracia: make sure the mine level has multiple connections with the rest of the megadungeon, including to at least one secret sub-level (maybe an old Netherese temple or magic laboratory?).
PC Levels

And I should also mention at this point that I am thinking of these ideas in the context of taking a level 5 party and providing them with enough adventuring opportunities that they could reach level 10 if they simply continued exploring the megadungeon. For a lot of groups that's probably too long. For others it might be perfect.

Inspiration

At the risk of repeating things I have already posted about this site in a post I made in 2012, I think a megadungeon based on this location should be a mash-up of the aforementioned Caverns of Thracia, 1E's Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth, and 2E's underrated but simply outstanding The Shattered Circle

Stealing from Caverns of Thracia

One of the hidden sub-levels of Caverns of Thracia contains a fearsome lich-like undead creature described as follows:
However, sitting on a pedestal at the east end of the room is what appears to be a giant, mummified, dessicated cross between a gargoyle and a lizard man. If it stood, the creature would be 10' tall with huge, parchment-like bat wings springing from its scaly but withered back.
Oh yes, the Old Owl Well megadungeon must have the Immortal King (although a wingless version as per the picture at the start of this post would probably be better in that an illustration actually exists). In fact, I think of this as the final encounter and not necessarily a combat encounter. Of course, if attacked, it will fight back but perhaps it wants to know of the surface world? Perhaps it simply wants to return to its undead state? But, for some groups, few things would be more satisfying that defeating this horror from a past age.

I should also note that the backstory of the Caverns of Thracia also includes this idea of an advanced progenitor reptilian race consistent with the Old Owl Well's official lore. That's one of the reasons I thought of drawing on Caverns for inspiration for an Old Owl Well megadungeon. And, as is the case with Caverns, I like the idea that a group of minotaurs and other beastfolk were enslaved by the reptilian creator race but eventually overthrew them. What if remnants of this advanced minotaur civilisation still exist beneath Old Owl Well?

In short, I would definitely steal the advanced minotaurs from Caverns and use them in Old Owl Well and also include evidence in the form of bas-reliefs and other primitive forms of art for the rebellion by the beastfolk that saw the sarrukh's power broken. (I should also note that there is a minotaur civilisation noted as once existing beneath northern Faerûn in the area of the northern Underdark known as the Labyrinth. Sections of the Labyrinth are reasonably close to Old Owl Well.)


Stealing from Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth

This is one of the adventures written by Gary Gygax of which there are surprisingly few. Despite including it here, I am actually not a big fan of the adventure because it lacks any sort of coherency or design logic but I think the maps can be used here and I like the teleport puzzle that gives access to the final chamber which, in this case, seems like a suitable challenge before encountering the Old Owl Well's version of the Immortal King (see above).

The upper level map includes a significant amount of water which is important for this adventure because the Old Owl Well is, of course, a well. And as the well is supposed to draw from a deep water sources, having this upper level of the Lost Caverns serve as the penultimate level of the megadungeon makes sense. It also means that a clever but crazy party might find their way down to this lower level when the PCs are not quite ready level-wise. But that's OK.

The lower level map includes six separate doors that lead to a final sanctum. However, each door is liked to a teleport trap that sends the PCs to another part of the map and the final sanctum cannot actually be entered until all six teleport traps are triggered. I rather like that because the players have to be determined to finish the adventure - and, for me at least, this final sanctum of an undead sarrukh as mentioned above, is the final encounter of the megadungeon - and both puzzle out what is happening and deal with the frustrations of it in order to earn their final reward. For new players, that's probably a good lesson to learn.


I suppose the idea of magical weirdness also makes sense in this part of Old Owl Well. After all, the sarrukh were potent arcanists so some old-school strangeness would not be out of place. These two levels of the dungeon are the place where the DM can truly go wild, and yet have a reason for doing so.

Stealing from The Shattered Circle

As I explained in another post, this is one of my favourite adventures of all time. The backstory is nearly perfect. There is an underlying logic. The maps are truly outstanding (here and here). And, in the context of creating an Old Owl Well megadungeon, my recommendation would be to steal the entire adventure, even the chitine web city. (If that doesn't make sense, please read my earlier post for an explanation.)

Frankly, I think plagiarising this adventure basically gives you the bulk of the megadungeon. Some parts can be expanded, and additional encounters (such as drow nobles hunting chitine for sport) included, but, in the main, I would simply make this the levels immediately after the chardalyn mines.

Conclusion

I think there's a rough outline of a megadungeon here, that really requires one of the three adventures I have mentioned - The Shattered Circle - to properly flesh out, but I have posted enough of the maps on this blog that, even without the named adventures, there is probably enough here to at least put a map of six or so levels together.

And what are those six levels?

Firstly, I am not counting a surface level map. A simple ruin with a well in the centre would suffice. 


The first underground level is the chardalyn mine. Any mine map would do - even, for example, a real world salt mine - and then just add in links to the second underground level. This is the Red Wizard level.

The second, third, and fourth underground levels are from The Shattered Circle: Upper Zone, web city, and Lower Zone, respectively. These levels are a mixture of minotaurs, chitine, and undead yuan-ti.

And, finally, the fifth and sixth underground levels are from Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth. These levels are a mixture of undead, strange magic, and unusual constructs from another age and may also include the sepulchres of several mummified sarrukh beyond the Immortal King protected by the teleport trap.

For DMs of 4E and earlier rulesets, it should be easy enough to turn these ideas into a megadungeon, even if 4E DMs, in particular, will need to reduce the levels of existing 4E monsters if they want to have the adventure suit PCs of levels 5-10.

For DMs of 5E, the lack of a Monster Manual and Dungeon Master's Guide until September and November, respectively, makes this a bit more difficult task. After all, there is only so much reskinning of monsters you can do. That said, it might be possible to run the first level now - follow the trail of the slavers, infiltrate the mines, free the slaves, slay the bad guys - using the stat blocks from Dead in Thay and maybe have the PCs return later when they discover a yuan-ti relic that would allow them access to the deeper levels. Also, the slavers idea could be expanded whereby the ruins of Leilon is the base of the slaving operation and the PCs may decide to cut of the serpent's head, so to speak, by heading there next. (I'll post some ideas on this when I get to my post about Leilon.)

Anyway, the basic point is that, if you're running Lost Mine and itching to run a megadungeon next, there are lots of ideas to make Old Owl Well into that megadungeon. If you use any of this, please do let me know in the comments.

Friday, 25 July 2014

Starter Set Sandbox 1 - Icespire Peak


Winter is Coming!

As someone who knows nothing about A Game of Thrones beyond the fact that it is popular, lots of people die, and part of its popularity is due to nudity, I am unaware of how heretical it is considered to use the phrase Winter is Coming in the context of the Forgotten Realms. Heresy aside, this phrase neatly encapsulates what this location can offer to a campaign set in the area demarcated by the regional map that comes with the 5E Starter Set.

I had intended to make my first post in this series about a location more suitable for lower-level adventures but this site offers some metaplot possibilities that I think could prove to be interesting in the context of a longer-term campaign set in this location.

Realmslore


This location, Icespear Peak, exists in only one source: the Neverwinter MMORPG and thus that game is the only source for any Realmslore. Not being an online gamer - and not wanting to become one - I can only rely on YouTube videos, such as the one at the beginning of this post, and online walkthroughs.

As far as I can tell, it all boils down to a few salient points:

  1. Icehammer dwarves of Torindar were mining in the Sword Mountains at the site of Icespire Peak.
  2. They discovered a portal to the Elemental Chaos called the Winterforge and, by activating it, unleashed ice golems that began to menace the Icehammer dwarves.
  3. The opening of the Winterforge portal attracted the attention of some frost giants in the Sword Mountains led by Hrimnir.
  4. These giants came to the Winterforge and are now using its power to unleash an unnatural winter across the region.
And that seems to be it. My gaming bucket list includes a desire to run a game involving a Fimbulwinter - in Norse mythology, the unnatural winter that heralded Ragnarok - and this is close enough.

I should also add, although the location appears on the map in Lost Mine of Phandelver, I can see no mention of it in the adventure.

Making This Work
The easiest way to use this basic idea is to adapt G2 Glacial Rift of the Frost Giant Jarl (the hyperlink is to a couple of maps on the WotC site) to your preferred ruleset (and for 4E DMs like me, the obvious choice is the 4E update by Chris Perkins) and make destroying the Winterforge the goal of the adventure.

(I should note that I have significantly reduced the levels of a lot of monsters that I use in my 4E games. My frost giants, for example, are level 10 brutes because they had 10 hit dice in 1E. As I prefer sticking to levels 1 to 12 or so, it made sense to reduce the levels of my 4E monsters to match their AD&D hit dice.)

What I really like about the basic idea revealed in the YouTube video is that the threat posed by Icespear Peak can build up over time. As you're running through lower level adventures, the PCs can start experiencing random winter-like days or sudden frosts even when it may be summer. Eventually they will realise that something is awry... and that will hopefully happen at just the right level for them to go seeking out Icespear Peak. 

I've posted a picture here of frozen villagers being menaced by Cryonax, the elder elemental evil and primordial prince of cold. (There's a rather excellent DDi article covering Cryonax in Dragon 421 that I would recommend.) That has inspired at least two additional ideas for an adventure involving Icespire Peak:
  1. If the players have grown very attached to Phandalin and think of it as their PCs' home, think of the looks on their faces when you show them this picture and explain that Phandalin is now something like a frozen Pompeii. Appropriate magic or skill use will reveal that the villagers are still alive, but the PCs must find the source of this icy curse otherwise their friends in Phandalin will die.
  2. One of the things I really love about 4E's new backstories is about how the primordials have been sealed away by the deities and/or primal powers. And while preventing the summoning of some great evil is, of course, a cliché of D&D adventures, it's an effective one. What if the portal is being used to summon Cryonax (or, at the very least, an aspect of Cryonax) and the unnatural winter is just a side-effect of this summoning? This also reminds me of 4E's Orcs of Stonefang Pass adventure: what if the frost giants replace the orcs and an aspect of Cryonax replaces the earth titan from that adventure? It could add an urgency to an adaptaion of G2 Glacial Rift of the Frost Giant Jarl that the original does not have.
Personally, I can imagine using Icespire Peak as the capstone of the Heroic Tier in a 4E game and subject to, of course, reducing the level of the frost giants as I have already noted. It might also be interesting to run something like this AND also have the frost giants at war with fire giants or other fire creatures in Mount Hotenow, but more on that idea when I actually start covering that volcano....

As for 5E, I have no idea how powerful frost giants will be in that edition so I am not sure if this will work level-wise for a campaign that began with Lost Mine of Phandelver. However, even though Lost Mine only covers levels 1 to 5, I am sure that by the time I have punched out a few more of these posts, there will be enough ideas to take a party from levels 6 to 10/early teens so that the PCs are ready to discover Icespire Peak for themselves.


Friday, 11 July 2014

Starter Set Sandbox 0 - Introduction & Table of Contents

Regional Map
The Starter Set for the 5th Edition of Dungeons & Dragons has been released in some parts of the USA and Canada and reviews and commentary have begun to appear. I've even just read on ENWorld that the Starter Set is number 8 on the Amazon bestseller list today. Amazing.

I'm not interested in the new edition of D&D, or even in the new edition of the Realms, and plan to keep running 4E or even 13th Age for the foreseeable future. However, I am interested in the Starter Set because the new adventure is set in the area south and east of Neverwinter and I have been a hopeless Neverwinter fan since I bought the Neverwinter Campaign Setting nearly three years ago. I'm also a huge fan of Rich Baker and his adventures. WotC made the right choice ensuring that the first adventure for the new edition was not written by the clowns who caused 4E to be stillborn by writing both Keep on the Shadowfell and Pyramid of Shadows, but I digress....

And even thought I am not interested in 5E, I don't want to simply crap on the new edition or troll its fans. What I have decided to do instead is try and make a positive contribution by expanding the sandbox possibilities by offering both canon and custom Realmslore on the areas shown on the regional map that comes with the Starter Set. Unfortunately, I do not have the Starter Set yet so some of my posts may overlap or contradict what is contained therein. But that's OK: options are always good.

So here's my table of contents based on locations shown on the regional map above:

I will try and ensure that my subsequent posts in this series clearly identify what material is canon and what is not.

Wednesday, 16 April 2014

Neverwinter: Year of Deep Water Drifting 0 - Initial Brainstorming

One of the secrets of my version of Neverwinter and the feature simply known as the Chasm is that it hides an aboleth city, specifically the city of Golismorga stolen nearly wholesale from Paizo's 3.5E Savage Tide adventure path.

The aboleth of Golismorga are in a state of petrified slumber caused by the withdrawal of all moisture from the city due to, in my game not the Paizo version, the potent elemental rune magic of the long-dead dwarves of Haunghdannar.

(First mentioned in FR5 The Savage Frontier, Haunghdannar was a dwarven empire around 4,000 years before the current timeline and gave birth to, inter alia, the Madbeards which I have interpreted as a group of dwarves who delved too deeply into primordial elemental magic and went mad as a result. The dwarves of fallen Haunghdannar later played a role in the formation of the empire of Delzoun. The dwarven PC in my Neverwinter: Year of the Ageless One campaign is of a bloodline that ties into both of these dwarven empires.)

Without moisture, aboleth enter a stone-like state that combines petrification with suspended animation, a state they refer to as the Long Dreaming and the aboleth of Golismorga have been in this state for roughly 4,000 years.

Unfortunately, the dwarven PC in my main Neverwinter game was able, because of his bloodline, to absorb the power of the rune magic of Haunghdannar... and while that gave him a potent ability, he has not yet realised that, in doing so, he has removed the only power allowing Golismorga to sleep. Moisture and water are now able to return to the aboleth city and many of the aboleth are slowly awakening. And while I plan to use this development in my main Neverwinter game, I was also thinking that it makes an interesting backdrop for a different campaign that I am calling Neverwinter: Year of Deep Water Drifting.

(In the Roll of Years for Faerûn, the Year of Deep Water Drifting, aka 1480 DR, follows the Year of the Ageless One, aka 1479 DR.)

I plan to draw a fair amount of inspiration from the aforementioned Savage Tide adventure path and also from the 2E boxed set mega-adventure Night Below. And while the presence of the aboleth will ensure it has an aberrant theme, I also want a strong elemental/primordial theme, particularly in relation to the element of water which also ties in nicely with the name of the year and the campaign itself. I suppose this means it will also draw some inspiration from Temple of Elemental Evil.


One key design constraint will be that I only want to run the campaign for the Heroic Tier which means finishing by level 10 or 11 or so. As my version of the aboleth are level 8 monsters - consistent with their 8 hit dice prior to 4E - this makes sense from the point-of-view of the roster of monsters, especially as I want the aboleth to represent the final challenge. And while I do not yet have a specific synopsis in mind, I can see the campaign unfolding along the following lines:
  • The PCs travel by ship from Waterdeep to Neverwinter and come under attack en route by a sahuagin Chosen of Umberlee and a kraken. This is also an excuse to show the players the fantastic cover art from Lair Assault: The Talon of Umberlee (seriously, click on the link if you haven't already seen it) and have what will hopefully be a very visual combat involving the kraken's tentacles and a tough solo sahuagin.
  • The Bitch Queen will be angry with the PCs' defeat of her Chosen and they will be "welcomed" to Neverwinter by some Umberlee-worshipping pirates and will, ultimately, have to take the fight to a temple of Umberlee constructed out of a ruined lighthouse.
  • The next challenge will involve the wererats of the Blacklake District whose lair includes part of the old Kraken Society tunnels and even a devolved kraken. This may still be a tie-in with Umberlee - perhaps the wererats have expanded into piracy - or they could be stooges of the newly awakened aboleth who seek knowledge of a changed world as well as slaves.
  • The House of Knowledge soon beckons. It has become a temple of Cyric and the Cyricists are trying to discover lore that will free the Prince of Lies. Part of what they have learned involves freeing primordials and various other manifestations of elemental evil.
  • Following a lead discovered in the old Kraken Society tunnels or in the House of Knowledge, the PCs realise they need to travel to the sunken dwarven city of Barrhindlun which lies beneath the Sea of Swords somewhere west of Neverwinter and Leilon and there recover the Water Rune of Haunghdannar so that they can use its magic to return the city of Golismorga to slumber.
  • The final adventure involves a descent into the Chasm facing the aboleth and their servantrs until the lost dwarven temple of Moradin is found and so the PCs can enact the ritual which will restore the magic of the Water Rune of Haunghdannar.
I realise that's fairly loose and, in parts, difficult to make sense of if you are not me but I suppose it all boils down to three primary threats:

  • The followers of Umberlee who are aggressively trying to assert Umberlee's dominion over the sea while elemental chaos is being unleashed by at least two other factions.
  • Cyricists who want to free Cyric despite the fact that even their experiments along those lines unleash elemental evil.
  • The aboleth who want even more water to pour into their city so that more of their fellow aboleth can be awakened.

I further realise that reads very much like a railroad... but it's meant to come across more like a framework on which to hang the rest of the campaign.