Wednesday, 17 September 2014

Starter Set Sandbox 13 - Kryptgarden Forest

I am tempted to say, DON'T GO HERE. Kryptgarden Forest is the demesne of the gargantuan green dragon Claugiyliamatar, also known as Old Gnawbone. She appears in all her glory in the upcoming D&D Epics adventure DDEP1-1 Corruption in the Kryptgarden but you can read about her in her Wyrms of the North article on the WotC website (or in Dragon 233 where the article first appeared).

Realmslore
FR11 Dwarves Deep
Well, this is almost completely irrelevant but the Kryptgarden Forest was known as Tsordvudd to the dwarves of the fallen dwarven kingdom of Besilmer. (I suppose that can justify an ancient dwarf-built outpost on the outskirts of the forest. Actually, that is useful. Being able to throw together a short dungeon with a logical reason for being where it is is surprisingly handy, especially in a sandbox campaign.)

Cormanthyr: Empire of the Elves
A timeline entry in this book reveals that some of the first settlements of the ancient elven/eladrin realm of Illefarn were in the Kryptgarden Forest. Lost Empires of Faerûn mentions that it is subsequently known as Rilithar upon the dissolution of Illefarn.

The North
Oh look, on the subject of a dwarven citadel - although I think this is hinting at Southkrypt which I covered in another post - here's the section on Kryptgarden from this boxed set:
Named after Southkrypt, this small forest is believed to be the second-most-powerful source of the evil that pervades the dwarven ruin, the first being the Sword Mountains lying just north. The eastern outskirts of the forest are often used by the inhabitants of Westbridge for hunting purposes, even they don?t delve farther than a few hours? walk into it.

Unsubstantiated rumours of another dwarven citadel in the hills near the center of the forest have circulated in recent years. A mad adventurer, apparently the lone survivor of a nine-man adventuring company, was captured on Khedell Path in the plains west of Red Larch. He babbled about a citadel of erect insects casting spells? and hurling weapons that killed a man from 500 paces.

According to the man's crazed tales, the insects are able to camouflage themselves (probably magically) to the point where the only way to find the creatures is by scent and tracking. He's a known liar, yet he was found with nothing in his possession and strange burns along his arms and back that cannot be explained.
Putting It All Together
Firstly, there are green dragons. I would look again at the early 5E description of the effects of green dragons on the environment which I included in my post about Thundertree. And clearly any campaign that plans to end with something other than a TPK needs to avoid Old Gnawbone herself. (She has 26 hit dice in Corruption in the Kryptgarden and is CR28 in Dragons of Faerûn.)

I suppose that also means there are kobold servitors of those same green dragons. That would certainly help ensure more level-appropriate encounters.

Secondly, there are both dwarven and elven/eladrin ruins in Kryptgarden Forest. That's a logical reason for a range of small and medium dungeons some of which may even play host to a green dragon or two... or their kobold servitors.

The former presence of elves also suggests that Kryptgarden Forest would make a good base for the xenophobic Eldreth Veluuthra. Perhaps they inhabit a refurbished ruin of Illefarn and have been capturing slaves to help them rebuild?

Finally, there are those mysterious "erect insects". I suppose the mantis-like thri-kreen could fit the bill but I rather like the idea of using spellweavers instead. The Shackled City adventure path including a spellweaver-themed adventure Secrets of the Soul Pillars in Dungeon 109 and the Ruins of Karran-Kural could be used here. There is also a supporting article, The Ecology of the Spellweaver, in Dragon 338 which could help flesh out a spellweaver-themed adventure rather nicely.

Summing Up
As you can tell, I am not particularly enthused about adventuring in the Kryptgarden Forest. There are two main reasons:
1. Look at the map. It's difficult to get there from Neverwinter or Phandalin.
2. I have to give Old Gnawbone her due. She's too tough and that's her turf.

However, running a spellweaver-themed adventure is on my gaming bucket list and that's about the only thing that would persuade me to manipulate my players into sending their PCs there. For now it's the proverbial "Here be Dragons!" from old maps of the world....


Tuesday, 16 September 2014

Starter Set Sandbox 12 - Phandalin & Wave Echo Cave

Realmslore

Until Lost Mine of Phandelver was published, all we basically has by way of information about Phandalin and Wave Echo Cave was this:
Phandalin was an important farming center located northeast of Leilon, where the Triboar Cutoff East fades into a trail. The road was abandoned after years of orc attacks obliterated every caravan that passed down the road, conquering Phandalin in the process. When the orcs were driven out, the village was left largely in ruins, and it remains so today.

Under the leadership of a chieftain called Uruth, the orcs expanded steadily, building a realm called Uruth Ukrypt (Home of Uruth). Its name echoes today in Kryptgarden Forest. Too lazy to support themselves by farming, the orcs devastated the game in their realm and subsequently took to raiding human holdings for food. Some 400 years have passed since then, during which time concerted human attacks decimated the orc kingdom and nearly drove the creatures from the area entirely.

No one lives here now but monsters, though passing hunters and rangers often camp in one of the more secure buildings. It still has three usable deep wells, one of which is considered to be heavily tainted with an undetectable poison that kills the imbiber three days after ingestion. Orcs and half-orcs are supposedly immune to the toxin.

The orc attacks forced gnomes and dwarves to abandon a mountain delve near Phandalin where they mined mithral in a union they called the Phandelver's Pact. This lost lode was called Wavecho Cave because the roll of waves beating on the shore could be heard in the natural cavern. Shortly before the
mine was abandoned, a lode of platinum was discovered. The size is unknown, but a very old dwarf who worked the mine remembers that the vein "held great promise".

Phandalin is the best preserved of the many ruined keeps and villages scattered along the Sword Coast, most of which are little more than heaped stones, graves, and cellars hidden by reed grasses and creeping vines. Many of these areas shelter predatory beasts or passing adventurers.
And that's pretty much it. (I am quoting from The North boxed set.)

Adapting Other Adventures
 

Red Hand of Doom
 

If you've been reading my other posts and my rough ideas for the Cragmaw tribe to be orcs seeking to rebuilt their lost realm of Uruth Ukrypt, you can imagine that a place like Phandalin, once reduced to a monster-filled ruin by the orcs of Uruth Ukrypt, would seem to the orcs as a logical target for the modern day depredations.

One of the few genuinely good adventures published by WotC in the 3.xE era was, of course, Red Hand of Doom. (And, unfortunately, its success led to WotC thinking that Tiamat was the "go to" BBEG for the next two editions with the execrable pseudo-adventure path Scales of War for 4E and now the Tyranny of Dragons RSE for 5E.)

And while the hobgoblins of Red Hand are very different in play to an orc horde, I think the structure of that adventure can help inform a mini-campaign based on a rising orc threat with Phandalin one of the targets on the way to, say, laying siege to Neverwinter.

I will be starting another Neverwinter-based campaign shortly and I expect the orcs to play an even bigger role in that campaign and Red Hand of Doom is definitely going to inform some of the design choices I make.

Of course, some Lost Mine of Phandelver DMs are probably looking at my idea to turn the Cragmaw tribe into orcs rather than goblins as something they don't want to do. In that case, Red Hand of Doom might be much more useable "as is" other than stat block conversions.

With a bit of work it might also be possible to tie it into the Tyranny of the Dragon storyline if that's something that interests you.

Anyway, I'll stick with the orcs and maybe have a balor general driving the horde forwards....

Keep on the Borderlands
 

One of the really interesting things about B2 Keep on the Borderlands, and particularly the Caves of Chaos, is that it makes nearly no sense. Why are all these evil humanoids, many of whom are fundamentally opposed to each other, dwelling in close proximity without some sort of civil war taking place?

For me, that's not just a rhetorical question. I want to know what is uniting them and keeping them at relative peace with one another.

But before I post some ideas about the answer, let me throw out a suggestion: What if Phandalin replaced the titular keep? And related to that is this: What if Phandalin became the party's home base to scout out rumours of evil humanoids in the Sword Mountains which ultimately lead to the Caves of Chaos from Keep on the Borderlands?

So, what is uniting the evil humanoids? In the final section of the Caves of Chaos - marked with the letter K on the original map - there is a series of chambers that includes THE TEMPLE OF EVIL CHAOS (room number 58). I think whatever unites these disparate evil humanoids is the power represented in this temple.

And here are some FR-appropriate options:

Bane: The Black Lord is the deity of tyranny. Since the Spellplague, he's also been the official deity of Thay because of a deal struck between him and Szass Tam. Maybe this is a Thayan temple to Bane where they perform various arcane and necromantic experiments while also moulding these evil humanoids into an army of conquest. (This probably makes the most sense and also fits in well with the presence of Thayans in the Neverwinter region.)

Cyric: The Prince of Lies is a creature of chaos, murder, and strife. He is also the patron deity of most of the Zhentarim (this is in the 4E era rather than the 5E era where the Zhentarim are now almost player-friendly!). I do like the idea of Zhentarim recruiters training disparate humanoids to perform raids on various caravans and settlements only for the Zhentarim to then turn up and offer protection money to drive the humanoids away.

Garagos: The Reaver the chaotic evil version of Tempus, and possibly Tempus's predecessor as the deity of war. And Garagos is not happy about being supplanted. What if he and his bloodreavers (his clerics) decided to mount a campaign to increase his influence once more? Gathering war-like humanoids could be part of that. I also note that Menzoberranzan: City of Intrigue referred to the tanarukka (tanar'ri-blooded orcs) of the Scourged Legion and that their leader was now a bloodreaver of Garagos. That's another option beyond the ideas I have previously posted about the Cragmaw orcs being directed by clerics of Luthic.
The Scourged Legion


Ghaunadaur: I admit, I like drow. I like really evil drow. I like the traditional Gygax-created pre-Drizzt drow. And as much as I like spider-flavoured drow, I also like the insane servitors of Ghaunadaur. (On that note, one of the best combats I ever ran in 3.5E involved a drider cleric of Ghaunadaur. It took five hours to run 15 rounds and, at the end, we all thought it had only been an hour-and-a-half. It was brilliant.) What about an outcast drider cleric of Ghaunadaur with his (or her) fellow drow heretics gradually building their strength to raid a drow outpost somewhere beneath the Sword Mountains?

Lolth: Ahhh, drow again. Some of you may be familiar with the idea of the Demon Weave (just click on the link for more information otherwise) so maybe these humanoids are being used by the Lolthite drow to gather various items and sacrifices as part of the preparation for the creation of the Demon Weave. It also ties in with the drow BBEG at the end of Lost Mine.

Shar: Shar used to be my favourite evil deity but the whole return of Netherese city of Shade and its Shadovar caused me to lost interest in her. However, it would make sense for a band of Netherese as part of an experiment to determine if these various humanoid tribes can be turned into effective troops.

Tiamat: Again I admit I don't like Tiamat but, if you want to use her, look at Red Hand of Doom for inspiration and make this one of her temples. Frankly, this could potentially tie in really well with the Hoard of the Dragon Queen and the whole Tyranny of the Dragons story. Unfortunately, it's not something I can get excited about....

Summing Up
 

Let's face it, for all of its faults, Keep on the Borderlands is a great starter adventure. Maybe you could use it as part of a Lost Mine of Phandelver-inspired campaign with multiple delves in between completing chapters of the adventure proper?

I must admit, I already have an introductory adventure planned for my next Neverwinter campaign but I am sorely tempted to move the action to Phandalin and kick off the campaign with an updated version of the Caves of Chaos....

Oh, and I have nothing to offer regarding Wave Echo Cave so I simply made it part of this post. Sorry.

Starter Set Sandbox 11 - Mount Hotenow

There are not enough volcanoes in D&D. This is your chance to rectify that oversight.

Some people see the name "Hotenow" and wonder if it's a play on "Hot Enough". It could be. The name was not invented by Ed but by Paul Jacquays who wrote FR5 The Savage Frontier and which, in turn, was based on his The Enchanted Wood sourcebook/adventure for DragonQuest.

Among his many early RPG claims to fame is the dungeon masterpiece Caverns of Thracia which, in turn, has inspired one of my favourite web articles on dungeon design, Jacquaying the Dungeon. While Gary Gygax was championing incoherent randomness in both his adventure and rules designs, Paul Jacquays was writing such adventures as Caverns of Thracia and Dark Tower (published by Judges Guild) where there was some sort of design logic. He really was a breath of fresh air in the early days of this hobby.

Realmslore


FR5 The Savage Frontier
 

In a section on the Neverwinter Wood, Mount Hotenow is mentioned in the context of the Neverwinter Wood:
This forest east of Neverwinter seems to have a magical quality about it, or at least an air of mystical secrecy. The always-warm Neverwinter river, which flows out of the wood, has its source deep beneath Mount Hotenow, a sleepy volcano in the northern wood. Fire elementals are said to live deep within Hotenow. The steep mountains to the north of Hotenow hide griffon lairs.
FR11 Dwarves Deep
 

In a section of the fallen dwarven kingdom of Gharraghaur it mentions:
Gharraghaur was the first of the great dwarven kingdoms to fall to orc attacks; its people were too busy mining to arm themselves in numbers enough to withstand the orcs before it was too late. At its height, the borders of this realm were as follows (using the old dwarven names wherever possible): east from the sea at Lyntara, a blue-veined, uninhabited rocky headland north of present-day Port Llast, to Glaurimm, the lofty volcanic peak known today as Mount Hotenow.
Neverwinter Campaign Setting
 

When Mount Hotenow is first mentioned in this book, it is in connection with the volcano's eruption that reduced Neverwinter to something little better than a ruin. However, the volcano is subsequently introduced as follows:
For untold generations, this volcanic peak quietly fumed in the depths of Neverwinter Wood. Rumoured to be the source of the warmth of the Neverwinter River, Mount Hotenow once featured in the bedtime stories of Neverwinter's citizens as the home of fire giants, red dragons, and other blazing beasts. People looked upon the fantastic peak as a thing of beauty - until its wrath was unleashed against Neverwinter in the cataclysm. Now jutting like a broken tooth from the forest, Mount Hotenow still fumes, the land occasionally quaking with the echoes of its fury.
It is later further described:
What resembles a mouth to the Nine Hells gapes open at the southwest edge of the Crags, in the form of the volcano known as Mount Hotenow. Its occasional rumblings and sporadic gouts of smoke are ample reminder that it is never entirely at rest. Hot springs and magma flows run beneath its rocky exterior, ensuring that Neverwinter River never freezes. It's small wonder, then, that the mountain stars in so many local legends. Some believe Mount Hotenow does sit atop a passage to the Hells; others say it's a doorway to the Elemental Chaos. Still others claim it hides the entrance to Gauntlgrym or is the home of a mighty red dragon. Stories of demons, giants, and all manner of flame creatures have existed here since before recorded history. Today, an often-told tale in Neverwinter and Helm's Hold suggests that anyone who dares to enter Mount Hotenow's caves is cursed to die in fire within the year.
The fire giant Gommoth is then mentioned, a hunchback exiled from his tribe and self-styled king who reigns over other fiery creatures (fire elementals, magma beasts, and salamanders are mentioned).

Putting it Together 

Hall of the Fire Giant King
 

The first thing that sprang to mind when I was looking at Mount Hotenow for my extant Neverwinter campaign was, naturally enough, the idea of setting an adaptation of G3 Hall of the Fire Giant King there.

Chris Perkins wrote an excellent conversion for 4E in Dungeon 200 but it is for level 18 characters due the level of fire giants in 4E. As I have mentioned elsewhere on this blog, I reduce the level of monsters to match their 1E hit dice so, IMC, a normal fire giant is a level 11 soldier. That said, as I only plan to run my campaign to about level 12 or so, it might end up being the final adventure and, if this is the case, I suppose stopping another eruption of the volcano might be the basic plot.

Alternatively, Ed Bourelle of Skeleton Key Games produced a book of maps called Dungeons of Doom that was published by Green Ronin. In it, he includes some maps of dwarven halls inundated with lava - these could be ruins of ancient Gharraghaur - and I could imagine setting that location in Mount Hotenow. If I did that, I would probably cut back on the fire giants and go with azers - fiery dwarves - instead. However, I would reserve a fire giant or fire titan as the final "boss monster".

That also suits my collection of miniatures better as I only have a single (Huge) fire titan. I could make him a level 11 elite soldier which has the same XP value as a level 6 solo soldier. At that level, I could make this fiery dwarven delve into an adventure for characters around levels 4-6, particularly as my azers are levels 2-5, matching their hit dice in 1E.

I could still use the basic plot of stopping the volcano, but at a much lower level.

White Plume Mountain
 
I must admit, I only thought of this while writing this post.

For those of us who have been playing D&D since the 1980s (or earlier), thinking about a volcano in the context of D&D should almost automatically produce memories of playing in and/or running S2 White Plume Mountain. It was also expanded and republished for 2E as Return to White Plume Mountain.

The original is a bit of a fun-house masterpiece with a lot of interesting and even weird encounters that many of us can still remember 30+ years later, such as the invisible giant crab in a clear bladder inside lava. The author Lawrence Schick has subsequently admitted in interviews that it is based on some samples he produced for dungeon encounters as part of his application for employment at TSR and that he never saw it as an actual adventure to be published, per se. That said, I like it. It really has a certain charm... and I dare any DM reading this to run it in Mount Hotenow!

I also noticed that the conversion work has already been done for 5E DMs. In conjunction with the re-release of the 1E adventures S1-4 in hardcover as Dungeons of Dread in 2012, WotC also included stat block conversions in at least one of the 5E playtest packets.

So, why not? While "fun houses" are not normally my cup of tea, it might work as a way of finishing a campaign based on Lost Mine of Phandelver with something that is very different in tone, but still rather deadly.

Gates of Firestorm Peak

This is, without a doubt, one of my favourite adventures of all time. It's also a reminder that Bruce Cordell was once a great adventure writer. Firestorm Peak? Hmmm, that sounds like another name for Mount Hotenow. This could slot right in....

Summing Up 
I do like the idea of Mount Hotenow threatening to erupt again and I think a lava-filled dwarf-created dungeon ruled by a fire titan and populated with his azer slaves is something my players and I would enjoy. Of course, an adaptation of Hall of the Fire Giant King would also be interesting but that's at a level where I would be looking to finish the campaign and, to me at least, it doesn't strike me as the sort of adventure that has the campaign finishing on a high note.

Starter Set Sandbox 10 - Starmetal Hills & Berun's Hill

To the best of my knowledge, "Starmetal Hills" has only been mentioned twice before in Realmslore. The first time was in Demihuman Deities and then in the Interactive Atlas which compiled a host of 2E-era FR maps on CD-ROM and which is a collectors' item today.

Berun's Hill, however, appears in quite a few sources so that's what I will be focussing on here.

Realmslore 

FR1 Waterdeep & The North/FR5 The Savage Frontier

I'll quote only from the first one but they say largely the same thing:
This local landmark is a bare-topped, conical hill that commands a splendid view of the valley of the river Dessarin to the east. This lookout has often been used in times of trouble to watch for advancing orc tribes coming down from the north and east. It is named for the famous ranger Berun, who met his end here at the hands of such a horde.

He failed to stop the orcs, but slew over three hundred single-handed ere he was overwhelmed. Bandits sometimes watch from the hilltop for the approach of likely victims. Northern legend has it that a dwarven tomb lies under the Hill, rich in golden armour and treasures, but none have ever found it, and no dwarves of today know any more of it than the legend.
Both sources also note the following about Berun:
It is probable that Beorunna (or Berun in the Northman tongue) was a hero of the pre-Uthgar people who merged with the followers of a renegade from ancient Ruathym. Legend holds that Beorunna destroyed Zukothoth, a type IV demon, in the cavern, collapsing it in on both of them.
The North
 

The boxed set had this to say about Berun's Hill:
This local landmark is a bare-topped, conical hill that commands a splendid view of the valley of the Dessarin to the east. This lookout is used to watch for advancing orc or barbarian tribes coming from the north and east. It.s named for the ranger Berun, who met his end here at the hands of such a horde. He failed to stop the orcs, but single-handedly slew 300 before he was overwhelmed.

Northern legend mentions an ancient dwarven tomb beneath the hill, rich in golden armor and treasures, but none have ever found it. Bandits often watch from the hilltop for the approach of victims, a much easier treasure to obtain than riches long since lost.
Demihuman Deities
 

To me at least, Demihuman Deities offers the most interesting information about Berun's Hill and my subsequent ideas are going to draw upon this:
In the Year of the Crown (1351 DR), nearly fifty priests of the Finder-of-Trails established the Vault of the Lost Wayfarer in a great natural cavern at the heart of Berun's Hill that had once been the crypt of Maegar, son of Relavir, grandson of Anarok, of the Royal House of the Helm of Gharraghaur. The existence of a dwarven tomb beneath the tor has long been the talk of legends in the North, but the Marthammoran priests who finally found the cavernous vault discovered that it had been plundered long ago by duergar who had tunnelled up from below. 

Berun's Hill and Twilight Tor - Mrinolor and Anaurdahyn in the tongue of the dwarves - are the southernmost and northernmost tors respectively, of the Starmetal Hills, a range of knolls that runs parallel to the Long Road west of Longsaddle and has been the target of several meteor showers in recent millennia. Berun's Hill and, to a lesser extent, Twilight Tor command a splendid view of the Dessarin Valley to the north and east, and both hilltops have long been employed by the followers of Marthammor both to worship the Watcher Over Wanderers on moonless nights and to observe passing travellers and caravans on the Long Road. 
Under the leadership of Immar Mistwalker, High Old One of Marthammor, son of Gadlyn, blood of Dorn, the Watchful Eyes have gradually extended their aegis over a region stretching from Wyvern Tor in the foothills of the Sword Mountains to Twilight Tor and from the town of Triboar to the Neverwinter Woods. Thanks to the regular patrols and ready assistance of the Watchful Eyes, small dwarven holds in the area have been able to reestablish long-sundered trade links with the neighboring human communities along the Long Road and the River Dessarin.
Putting It All Together 
So, we have some hills named Starmetal which suggests that meteor strikes seeded the area with various metals and ores. (This, of course, also explains the dwarven interest in the place.)  We have the legend of a dwarven king buried with treasures of gold. We also have a dwarven temple which, if you continue reading Marthammor's section in Demihuman Deities, can have its features described in such a way so as to differentiate it from, say, a temple of Moradin.

I rather like the idea of several smaller sites - played out mines hosting such creatures as basilisks, derro, and troglogdytes - as well as surface encounters with perytons, wyverns, and their ilk. A dragon wouldn't go astray, either. In 4E terms, I would probably use a grey dragon (a fang dragon pre-4E) although a young red dragon could also be appropriate for the terrain. I think I would avoid orcs - they've been featured enough in these posts already - but goblins, ogres, and maybe a handful of hill giants might work well in this area.

But to me at least, the centrepiece of any adventure(s) set in the Starmetal Hills is the exploration of the Vault of the Lost Wayfarer.

When I was preparing my current Neverwinter campaign a couple of years ago - and the picture I have chosen for this post provides a hint of the direction I took - I decided to make Vault the site of a potent earth node that was used to seal away a potent diabolic creature, an aspect of Malkizid the Branded King. (Malkizid was invented by Rich Baker and appears in Champions of Ruin. Personally, I completely ignore any reference to Asmodeus in any published D&D material and use Malkizid instead. He's far more interesting.)

However, the Spellplague weakened the bindings that held the aspect in check, and he was soon able to work some of his more subtle magics on the dwarves in the Vault. Now, nearly 100 years later, most of the original dwarves have been massacred and a band of durzagon from the Realms Below (more accurately, the city of Gracklstugh) now dwell in the Vault in their place. The high priests, however, is a gold dwarf and a former dwarven cleric of Marthammor before he fell to the blandishments of the Branded King.

In case you're wondering what a durzagon is, in 3E's Fiend Folio, they were revealed to be a cross between a duergar and a bearded devil. For some inexplicable reason - and this was one of the things I didn't like about 4E - 4E made this the default for all duergar. I still like to keep them separate: the psionic duergar or grey dwarves and the diabolic durzagon.

At the risk of riffing off one of the most common adventure tropes of all time, the durzagon leaders and their duergar followers are raiding the roads and trails around the Starmetal Hills for sacrifices all of whom then become fuel for the rituals that the gold dwarf heretical cleric is performing to try and free the aspect of Malkizid from this prison.

I also rather like the idea of Marthammor intervening by sending a meteor shower for the PCs to investigate or, as is noted as his way of manifesting in Demihuman Deities, a glowing spectral blue mace that leads the PCs to a group of durzagon-led duergar slavers who have just taken prisoners.

As the PCs seek to end their depredations, they discover the far greater risk of an aspect of Malkizid being released (IMC, aspects are roughly level 12 elite monsters not Epic Tier threats). Of course, if the PCs are successful, perhaps that great golden treasure unclaimed since the days of 1E will be theirs!

In short, it's a fairly simple site-based adventure in a corrupted dwarven temple with evil rituals providing both an interesting backdrop and a countdown timer for the successful completion of the adventure.

Personally, I am looking forward to running it for my group, as clichéd as it might be!

Starter Set Sandbox 9 - The Crags

Realmslore
 

The North
 

This is all that is said in the boxed set:
Beset with goblins and gnolls, these hills contain the dead mines that brought men to the area.
(I would note that "goblins" also included orcs at that time.)

Neverwinter Campaign Setting
 

The Crags are introduced as follows:
This long wrinkle of hills and ridges runs northeast from Neverwinter Wood. Goblins, gnolls, ogres, hill giants, and other creatures have dwelled within this rocky landscape for centuries. So too has the Sky Pony tribe of the Uthgardt barbarians. Rumours have long persisted that an entrance to Gauntlgrym lies somewhere in the Crags. However, the hundreds of ancient and now-dead mines that long ago brought humans to the area make for numerous false leads.
They are later described as:
Lacing through Neverwinter Wood, like a stitch holding together the earth's skin, are the Crags. This series of hills and steppes grows into a small mountain range, terminating in the awesome Mount Hotenow. But Mount Hotenow isn't the Crags' only claim to fame. Myths claim that the range's many caves, chasms, and canyons hide paths to the lost dwarven city of Gauntlgrym. Whether the paths exist or not, the mountains do house the ruins of several of that ancient dwarven city's outposts - as well as their treasures - and the monsters that overran those sites.
And then there is Morgur's Mound which is in the southern part of the Crags and appears on the regional map that came with the Neverwinter Campaign Setting:
Atop this foothill of the Crags, Uthgar - deity and founder of the Uthgardt barbarians - died after saving the North from Gurt, Lord of the Pale Giants. The mound is named for Uthgar's brother Morgur (called Morgred by some), who is said to be buried there. Once, the bones of a great thunderbeast were spread atop the hill, marking it as the holy shrine of the Uthgardt. Now, the bones are gone and whatever treasures lay buried there have been stolen. Outsiders who are discovered by Uthgardt barbarians near the mound are typically slain on sight.
The thunderbeast is actually an apatosaurus. The North also notes that, in times of great need, the shamans of the Thunderbeast Tribe can animate the bones to fight.

Putting It All Together
 

Short Version

Orcs. More orcs. And even more orcs.

In previous posts I have mentioned about the gathering of an orc horde. The Crags is a key place for such an event because it is populated with orcs. I would also note that the ritual enemy of the Sky Pony tribe of the Uthgardt is the orc.

As is also the case in many other places across the North, lots of played-out mines and dwarven ruins can be found here.

At least one entrance to the lost dwarven city of Gauntlgrym is purported to be in The Crags. That also suggests encounters with dwarves (and others) searching for the lost city, as well as some of the monsters from the upper levels of the Underdark such as dire corbies, grimlocks, hook horrors, etc....

Long Version
 

But what I find most interesting of all is Morgur's Mound, particularly now that the bones of the thunderbeast (aka apatosaurus) have been stolen. Some time ago, I read an idea online suggesting that the purpose of the ancestor mounds of the Uthgardt was to seal away some great threat or threats. This makes even more sense in the context of 4E where the primal powers were responsible for sealing away the primordials... and that made me wonder what would be the consequences of the Bones of the Thunderbeast being taken from Morgur's Mound?

Firstly, why were the Bones taken?
 

IMC (and this is based on some ideas in the Neverwinter Campaign Setting and the outstanding DDi adventure Shards of Selûne), the Red Wizards of Thay stole the bones originally because they were losing their fight with the Netherese in the Neverwinter Wood who were using the Grey Wolf tribe of the Uthgardt - all of whom are werewolves - as potent shock troops. The Red Wizards retaliated with ritual magic combining the corrupting power of the Dread Ring with the (now corrupted) primal power of the Bones of the Thunderbeast. The net result: the Grey Wolves turned on their erstwhile masters and the Netherese were massacred.

Again IMC, the PCs will soon be embarking on a mission to recover and restore the Bones of the Thunderbeast so I will edit in links to those session reports once they have happened.

Secondly, what has escaped or is in the process of escaping?
 

My original idea was to have some primordial creature of cold be freed and unleash an unnatural winter - a Fimbulwinter, if you will - across The North. That's still a possibility and could potentially work well when combined with Icespire Peak.

The next idea I had - inspired by this picture of the tarrasque's claw - was to have the tarrasque be one of the creatures imprisoned by the ancestor mounds. And while the PCs would definitely not be capable of fighting the tarrasque itself, I had worked out a level-appropriate(-ish) encounter involving just the claw of the tarrasque being awakened by a ritual being performed by some Thayans. The consequence of the PCs' failure would have been the release of the tarrasque to rampage across The North.

However, the final version is more simple, for now. I decided to have Gurt, Lord of the Pale Giants return as an undead frost giant. Of course, his honour of frost giant wights would also have been released. As of now, this is what the PCs will be facing when they eventually reach Morgur's Mound.

One of my ulterior motives for this encounters - beyond revealing some of the history of the Uthgardt - was because I wanted one of my PCs who fights with a fullblade to end up with the Sword of Gurt which I had decided was a frost brand fullblade +3. This was just in case the PCs ended up fighting the fire giant/fire titan Gommoth in Mount Hotenow.

Other Ideas
 

B2 Keep on the Borderlands: The Caves of Chaos would fit perfectly in The Crags but there is nearby settlement on the map to serve as a safe haven as per the titular keep. However, if you look at the map of the Sword Coast that came with Hoard of the Dragon Queen, Luskan (for evil PCs or PCs who really enjoy danger), Mirabar, or Longsaddle could fulfil a similar role. Otherwise, my forthcoming Phandalin post has some ideas to make the Caves of Chaos more Realmsian.

CM8 The Endless Stair: This is a non-FR adventure written by Ed Greenwood apparently as a test by TSR to see if he could deliver a product on time and on spec. I rather like the idea of a staircase in the middle of nowhere with nothing apparently holding it in place but which, nevertheless, spirals upwards with no apparent destination. Of course, at the top of the staircase is an invisible door or portal which then leads to a dungeon or dungeon-like complex. I'm not 100% sure this is even the plot of this adventure or just an idea inspired by the cover art and the title. Also, if you have access to the adventure, I strongly recommend stealing the NPC names for your FR games. (And if you know R A Salvatore, suggest that he do the same for his novels.)

G1 Steading of the Hill Giant Chief: It's very simple, The Crags are hills and hill giants live in hills. This adventure makes perfect sense here.

Grimmantle Keep: This small site-based adventure from the outstanding Lost Empires of Faerûn is actually set in The Crags. For those who don't have acess to Lost Empire, the FR Wikia has some pertinent information and all you really need is a ruined keep plus a death knight - Gaucelm Gonfrey - and its servitors which can be anything from bandits to undead.

S4 Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth: While the original is set in a mountainous area of Greyhawk, other than the riddle - which I would personally drop - there is nothing stopping a DM from setting this adventure in The Crags. The backstory would need a bit of work to make it more Realmsian - perhaps tie it in to ancient Netheril which means there might also be Shadovar competing with the PCs to uncover the site's secrets - and the sheer randomness of some of the encounters could probably do with some work, but the basic idea of a strange site with extraplanar links and a difficult-to-access vault at the centre of the lower level doesn't grow old. Similarly, the wilderness encounters adapt well to The Crags with only a little bit of adjustment required.

Summing Up
 

The Crags is a great place for fights with "normal" evil humanoids and giants but I think doing something with Morgur's Mound - particularly the idea of "re-sealing" it before something really bad escapes - could be something your players remember for a while.

Because one of my PCs is an Uthgardt, he is going to be able to command the Bones of the Thunderbeast and that means the PCs will be riding, as it were, in the thunderbeast's ribcage from where they recover the bones to Morgur's Mound. I know they're going to remember that!

All of that said, The Crags is at the edge of the map and getting there will take time and effort. I can imagine a lot of groups will simply ignore it and focus on nearer and more accessible locations. That would have been the case with my group but they have accepted the Bones of the Thunderbeast quest and now they have no choice....

Starter Set Sandbox 8 - Mere of Dead Men

Short Version
 

I simply recommend you find the Mere of Dead Men series, the first adventure path to appear in Dungeon, and run it in its entirety. It has so much potential.

The five issues are Dungeon 69 - 73, inclusive, and the adventures are: Slave Vats of the Yuan-ti, Ssscaly Thingssss, Dreadful Vestiges, Mistress on the Mere, and (the simply outstanding which is no surprise because it is written by Eric L Boyd) Eye of Myrkul.

Those five adventures have all the lizardfolk, yuan-ti, bullywugs, undead (including a penanggalan), and black dragons you could possibly need to make the Mere of Dead Men one of the most interesting adventure locations in the Forgotten Realms.

Longer Version
 

Firstly, I will just quote from The North boxed set:
A vast salt swamp stretches along the Sword Coast shore over 100 miles, reaching a width of 30miles at its greatest extent. It?s a desolate, insect-ridden place seldom visited by civilized races and home to a variety of fell creatures. The Mere has grown in recent memory, swallowing several farms and holdings along the road, and it?s now avoided by all but crazed adventurers equipped with water-breathing magic and looking for battle practice.

Several rich castles and manor houses stand flooded in the Mere, with only spires and battlements showing above the dark waters. Sunken riches and powerful magic guarded by evil creatures await those mighty enough to take it. Khelben ?Blackstaff? Arunsun advises adventurers that some of these flooded places (Castle Naerytar, Holk House, Mornhaven Towers, and Wolfhill House) have their own wards. These allow certain spells to be cast at double strength, and otherspells are negated. These effects are discovered by trial, for all relevant records are lost.

The Mere gained its name when thousands of men were slain by orc hordes striking south from present-day Triboar and east across the Stone Bridge and Ironford. The orcs pursued the men westward between the coastal peaks and slaughtered the human army as it was forced back into the icy waves.

Travellers on the High Road skirting the Mere to the east often travel for three days and nights without stopping to avoid camping near here. Will-o'-wisps bobbing over the water are common night sights on this stretch of road. Legends speak of floating islands, eerie pools of magical origin, lizard men commanded by liches, a penanggalan of monstrous size, and other fantastic creatures often used to scare children and entice adventurers. More recent tales come from a brave few that ventured into the dark waters of the swamp that mention dark tentacles of gargantuan proportions, yuan-ti slavers, temples to inhuman gods, giant leeches with bullywug riders, and a will o? wisp of monstrous size that pulsed with black energy.
Even if you don't have access to the issues of Dungeon I mentioned above, I think there's enough in this description for most DMs to generate one of more adventures.

Secondly, I think the Mere of Dead Men is a great location to set 1E's I1 Tomb of the Lizard King, suitably converted to your own preferred ruleset, and N1 Cult of the Reptile god might also work here. However, if you choose to run N1, you need a village and I would actually recommend Phandalin as described in Lost Mine of Phandelver. The reptile cult can simply add another layer of intrigue to the other happenings in Phandalin.

Thirdly, I think the Mere of Dead Men offers a really good opportunity for the campaign to begin heading into epic territory....

What if 4E's HPE Pseudo-Adventure Path Didn't Suck?
 

When FR was first published, the deity of death was Myrkul, the Lord of Bones, and one of the Dark Three along with Bane the Black Lord and Bhaal, Lord of Murder. All three of them died during the Time of Troubles, the RSE that heralded the change between 1E and 2E, although Bane came back with the release of 3E.

After Myrkul's demise, Cyric held the portfolio for a time only be supplanted by the incumbent, Kelemvor. While Myrkul and Cyric were both neutral evil in alignment, Kelemvor's alignment is lawful neutral (or unaligned in 4E terms).

When Myrkul was slain, it was noted that some of his remains - a brown dust, IIRC - were scattered over the Sea of Swords and eventually came to rest in the Mere of Dead Men. It was also noted that much of his sentience survives in the artefact known as the Crown of Horns.

Now, with that background out of the way, I want to turn to 4E's pseudo-adventure path, sometimes referred to as the HPE series or six reasons to play Pathfinder (because three of the adventures are actually OK). (The individual adventures are: H1 Keep on the Shadowfell, H2 Thunderspire Labyrinth, H3 Pyramid of Shadow, P1 King of the Trollhaunt Warrens, P2 Demon Queen's Enclave, P3 Assault on Nightwyrm Fortress, E1 Death's Reach, E2 Kingdom of the Ghouls, and E3 Prince of Undeath.) I better begin with a warning: most of these adventures are absolute crap. H2, P1, and P2 are the only ones worth owning, and they have little to do with the overall plot. (It really is a pseudo-adventure path.)

What is interesting about this adventure path is not the execution but the core idea: the tanar'ri lord Orcus is seeking to supplant the Raven Queen as the deity of death. (And obviously that's not a Forgotten Realms reference.) Like some others, I did waste some time trying to extract some value from these misbegotten examples of egregiously bad design and all I could come away with was how having Myrkul try and make a comeback at Kelemvor's expense could be rather interesting.

Eye of Myrkul
 

The titular Eye of Myrkul is an astronomical feature that appears in the night sky and heralds the waxing of Myrkul's power. And when it's at its apogee, a lost temple of Myrkul rises from the depths of the Mere of Dead Men.

Let's say for the moment that a DM has run a Heroic Tier campaign (using a 4E expression) using, say, the Lost Mine of Phandelver for levels 1-5 and then the ideas relating to the orc threat for, say, levels 5-10. As the orcs are being dealt with, an undead threat from the Mere of Dead Men becomes apparent and the PCs choose to investigate. After exploring one or more of the sites in the Mere of Dead Men - and Castle Naerytar is one of them and is also featured in Hoard of the Dragon Queen - they discover this plot of Myrkul's who is using as his chosen the yuan-ti abomination Nhyris D'Hothek who has been wearing the Crown of Horns since 2E. (IMC, Nhyris has become something like a devourer, as in the Large undead that captures living creatures and" inserts" them in its chest cavity in order to drain them to power its necromantic abilities. I thought that more interesting than just another lich....)

I would also add that some of the hooks for this campaign arc could actually appear as a result of exploring beneath Iniarv's Tower which I have previously suggested might make a good setting for an adaptation of The Tomb of Horrors.

Summing Up
 

I realise the "Longer Version" part of this post won't make a lot of sense if you're not familiar with the Mere of Dead Men series. If that's the case, I hope the "Shorter Version" plus the lengthy quote from The North boxed set provides any DM reading this with enough ideas to be able to run something more than a random encounter or two in the Mere. I would also point to this Wyrms of the North article for some further background on a black dragon (or two) that may nor may not make an appearance in Eye of Myrkul....

Starter Set Sandbox 7 - Sword Mountains

The Short Version

It seems the first time anything about the Sword Mountains was published was in 1996's The North boxed set. I had thought it would have been mentioned in either FR5 The Savage Frontier or Volo's Guide to the North but it seems I am wrong.

The boxed set notes that "orcs, bugbears, kobolds, leucrotta, and other dangerous creatures" can be found here which provides a rather nice simple monster roster. (Personally, I think leucrotta are one of the most criminally underutilised creatures in D&D, something I am presently trying to rectify in my own game.)

To that list, I would definitely add perytons - also horribly underutilised, IMO - and gargoyles for flying threats particularly if the PCs are climbing, together with ogres and hill giants (it's also a perfect location for a conversion of G1 Steading of the Hill Giant Chief).

It's also tempting to simply steal the wilderness portions of S4 Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth and WG4 Forgotten Temple of Tharizdun with very little modification other than stat conversions. Similarly, 3E's Forge of Fury would also fit right in as a former outpost of Delzoun.

Frankly, I think those basic ideas are enough for most DMs to spin the Sword Mountains into a fairly interesting sandbox.

The Long/Longer Version

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I actually prefer the idea of the Cragmaw tribe being orcs rather than goblins. Part of this is because I cannot think of a reason a tribe of goblins would name themselves Cragmaw (I mean, I can, but it doesn't really resonate) whereas it makes perfect sense for orcs.

What I am thinking of specifically, is that this is a tribe that, while not matriarchal, is heavily dependent for direction on the auguries and manipulations on a group of female orc clerics of Luthic the Cave Mother. Originally from The Crags where they frequently clash with the Uthgardt barbarians, the Cragmaws are actually an offshoot of the fallen orc kingdom of Uruth Ukrypt. Their clerics of Luthic - cave witches, for lack of a better term - have been receiving signs and portents from the Cave Mother that it is time for Uruth Ukrypt to be reborn and for a new orc horde to strike at the North. However, before the horde can be formed, certain relics of Uruth Ukrypt - I have previously mentioned the Bloodbone Throne of Uruth Ukrypt - need to be found. And that is why, for example, there are orcs at Wyvern Tor.

Anyway, this search for relics leads to at least two published adventures.

Sons of Gruumsh

At its heart, Sons of Gruumsh is a site-based adventure involving the PCs delving an ancient orc fortress at the same time as a band of orcs - the titular Sons of Gruumsh - are also exploring the same location. Conveniently in the context of my idea of a quest for relics of Uruth Ukrypt, the Sons of Gruumsh are also looking for an ancient orc relics.

The orcs who are present are even attempting a ritual to invest their leader with more power. Stopping that ritual being performed can be a key part of the adventure.

I also like the complication that an Zhentarim ambassador is present seeking to form some sort of alliance with the orcs. While that would work perfectly in my own game, for those DMs reading this and running the 5E version of the Realms where the Zhentarim are not heroic but they are a player-friendly faction, this probably wouldn't work but some Red Wizards of Thay or even the Cult of the Dragon could fill a similar role.

Orcs of Stonefang Pass

While 4E is rightly derided for having some of the worst published adventures of any edition - if you see Mike Mearls, Bruce Cordell, or Bill Slavicsek given design credits then assume it is complete and utter garbage - the later adventures were actually rather good. And although Orcs of Stonefang Pass is often considered the weakest of the later adventures, I think it has a tremendous amount of potential... particularly in the context of the Cragmaw orcs.

Before I give some ideas about how to use it, I just want to mentioned the dungeon of Southkrypt first mentioned almost in passing in FR1 Waterdeep & The North. FR5 The Savage Frontier then had this to say about this dungeon:
This abandoned dwarf-hold east of Leilon is the lair of many strange and dangerous creatures. Adventurers probing the upper levels have encountered norkers and bands of ravening gibberlings. Deeper forays have uncovered xaren, vilstrak, vargouilles and storopers.... In addition to the creatures mentioned, the lower halls of Southkrypt are lair to a vampire hill giant shaman (6th level) and his three vampire hill giant slaves.
What is remarkably consistent about this group of creatures is that they are, in later edition terms, all tied to the element of earth. FR11 Dwarves Deep further explained that Southkrypt was part of the ancient fallen dwarven kingdom of Haunghdannar which was notable for being the only dwarven kingdom that took to the sea and that the sea subsequently drove those dwarves mad. To me, that sounds like Haunghdannar was touched by the power of elemental or primordial chaos, and that is very much the tack I have taken in my Neverwinter campaign where the PC dwarf actually discovered his Haunghdannar heritage and tapped into some of their elemental magic.

It's also interesting how these basic ideas from 1E products take on new life when you look at the ideas through some of the 4E concepts such as the Elemental Chaos etc....

So, assuming that, consistent with the various hints, Southkrypt is touched by the power of elemental earth, having it substitute for the dungeon described in Orcs of Stonefang Pass makes perfect sense. To summarise that adventure for those not familiar with it, Stonefang Pass is a dwarven dungeon that is a prison for an earth titan (basically a larger - possibly dumber - hill giant that is very close to an earth elemental in appearance). So, what if the cave witches of the Cragmaw orcs have determined that freeing the earth titan under their control - let's assume they can perform a ritual to bind its will - is an important part of their plan to restore Uruth Ukrypt? The earth titan can, of course, wreak havoc on a battlefield but its command of elemental earth means it's a fantastic way of delving beneath the earth to uncover more of the secrets of that ancient orc kingdom.

If you're wondering where to put Southkrypt, I think somewhere around the letter T in Sword Mountains on the regional map makes sense. And for more on the hill giant vampire, he is covered in the Children of the Night article in Dragon 236 (although I don't think I would personally use that idea).

Iniarv's Tower aka The Tomb of Horrors

This idea is completely unrelated to orcs or anything else I have mentioned to date.

Iniarv's Tower is noted as being on the western slopes of the Sword Mountains and east of the High Road and Mere of Dead Men. On the regional hex map, I would put it in the bottom row of hexes immediately to the right of the High Road.

Iniarv is noted in The North boxed set and elsewhere as being a demilich. He was also revealed in the Eye of Myrkul adventure in Dungeon 73 ( where his tower is actually mapped) as being the reason that the Mere of Dead Men exists.

That background information aside, beneath his tower seems to be a good place to insert the Tomb of Horrors with Iniarv replacing Acererak. And there is no better way to wipe out a group of PCs, especially for those DMs who are itching, inexplicably, to have their groups start again with Hoard of the Dragon Queen. (Sorry, that's my anti-Tiamat bias showing. People often complain that drow are done to death... but Tiamat, for me, is the one who has had the most over-exposure.)

Summing Up

As I have been working through these posts, it's clear that I am focussing on an orc threat to the region depicted on the map which ties in nicely with the presence of the orcs in Neverwinter. Red Hand of Doom had its goblins but I cannot think of a campaign where orcs really served as major antagonists. Tiamat has been done to death across multiple editions so maybe it's time to steal a basic idea from Lord of the Rings and have the orcs on the march?