Monday, 16 July 2012

Dark Weavings - What about a Dread Ring?

Further Ideas for Dark Weavings

Dread Ring

Dungeon 70 contained one of D&D's truly landmark adventures - Kingdom of the Ghouls - by Wolfgang Baur. It was so popular that it was also updated and expanded for 4E (the original was 2E) by Open Design, Wolfgang's company.

I mention this because for about 15 years now I have wanted to run something inspired by Kingdom of the Ghouls. Elturgard would be an interesting setting for such an adventure because, of course, it is protected from undead by the Companion, the second sun raised by Daelegoth Orndeir to the glory of Amaunator.

What if the Thayans determined that Elturgard was the perfect site for their next attempt at a Dread Ring? What if the Dread Ring ritual can be modified - and improved! - by using the Companion as a power source? Of course, that ritual would then leave the Companion as a thing of darkness hanging in the sky... and that is when the ghouls would appear from below ground.

The other thing about the Thayans is that the church of Bane has a special place in Thay as a result of the bargain struck by Szass Tam with the Black Lord. I have been wanting to have a clash between Bane and Cyric for a long time - tyranny versus strife - and Elturgard makes an interesting setting for this because of the presence of the Cyricist Zhentarim in Darkhold.

Furthermore, it may be that Bane is behind the Eye of Justice Heresy that has corrupted many of the Tormite paladins in Elturgard. Perhaps this is also part of Bane's plan for revenge against Torm for slaying his avatar in Tantras during the Time of Troubles?


One of the other things that attracted me to Elturgard as a potential setting for a campaign is the presence of gnolls in the Reaching Wood. 

Gnolls are (IMO) underused - although I used them a lot in 2E - but they are also really mechanically interesting in 4E.

The Thayans use a lot of gnolls in their armies. What if the Thayans promise their gnoll legions dominion over the Reaching Woods and the gnolls that dwell there in exchange for their support for the latest Dread Ring project? What if the Thayans also provide the gnolls with the means to summon a (minor) aspect of Yeenoghu in order to demonstrate their supremacy and right to rule over the gnolls of the Reaching Wood?

There is also a connection between gnolls and ghouls. In 1E, Yeenoghu was owed fealty by a tanar'ri lord, later named Doresain, who was the lord of ghouls. Doresain's loyalties changed over the editions - I forget the details - but Yeenoghu might be persuaded by the Thayans to lend his support for this endeavour in exchange for Doresain's renewed pledge of loyalty.

Obviously, the idea is not exactly developed as of now but I think it would be easy to build a link between the gnolls and the White Kingdom, as the kingdom of the ghouls is known.

Lord of the White Field & Bark at the Moon

4E's adventures have been pretty ordinary but one of the highlights has been Lord of the White Field from Dungeon 184. It was designed for 6th- to 8th-level characters and involves ghouls. If I run with the ideas in this post, I will have a logical reason to use this adventure.

There is also the two-part adventure Bark at the Moon from Dungeon 185 for 5th- to 7th-level characters. This involves werewolves and the werewolf infested Werewoods, formerly known as the Wood of Sharp Teeth, make up part of the western border of Elturgard. While no link with the ghouls or gnolls currently springs to mind, it would be an interesting adventure to run. Perhaps it is the Thayans building one of the Dread Ring towers that has disturbed the werewolves?

What about the Drow?

Of course, the problem with these new ideas - the Thayans and the ghouls - is how also fitting the drow into the story without it feeling too cramped. My original plan was to have the drow antagonists come from the sole Lolthite drow house - House Zauvirr - in Sshamath, the City of Dark Weavings, but perhaps I should have them come from Undrek'Thoz, the segmented drow city that is under Thay?

There have been alliances between the drow of Undrek'Thoz and Thay and this could simply be an extension of one of those alliances. One of the segment-cities of Undrek'Thoz is dominated by House Vrasl who are noted as being expert necromancers. Perhaps House Vrasl now owes fealty to Szass Tam and have sent some of their necromancers with the Thayans to Elturgard to assist with the construction of the Dread Ring? Perhaps they also have some experience with magic involving darkness? (And considering their racial powers, this makes sense.)

How Does This Look?

If I include the Thayans I will have the following power groups/organisations involved in this campaign:
  • the Darkhold Zhentarim;
  • the beholders of the Gauth Grottoes;
  • the drow of Sshamath (?);
  • the drow of Undrek'Thoz;
  • the Eye of Justice heretical paladins; and
  • the gnolls of the Reaching Woods.
Will this feel too crowded?

One big advantage, though: the nature of the Dread Ring - a series of fortresses - provides me with easy inspiration for adventure sites. It would be interesting if one of these fortresses was actually being built by Eye of Justice heretics. The PCs think they're in the stronghold of paladins of Torm only to discover that it is a site of great and monstrous evil! (I am also thinking one of the Dread Ring towers is located underground, directly beneath the companion, and is being built by Banite ghouls.)

(I should also add that I think that Banite runepriests - as opposed to cleric or warpriests - make a lot of sense when it comes to creating the Dread Ring. Rune magic should be a key component in the creation of a Dread Ring.)

Also, the presence of the Thayans adds another reason for opening the campaign with an adventure inspired by the original Slave Lords series. Rather than having the Zhents behind it - although there is nothing stopping their involvement - it could be a Thayan undertaking.

The more I type, the more I think this idea could work....

The Aspect of Bane

At several points during the brainstorming process, I had planned for the corruption of the Companion to be the catalyst for the summoning of an aspect of Bane. (After all, I have the miniature and it cost be quite a bit!)

The purpose of the Dread Ring is to suck the power out of a region and channel it to Szass Tam, ruler of Thay. Tam wants this power to fuel his apotheosis not simply out of a lust for power but because it's the only way to escape the bargain he made with the Black Lord.

What if, at the moment that the Dread Ring starts to drain the power from the Companion, an aspect of Bane is summoned? Rather than the unleashed power being diverted to Szass Tam, it is instead absorbed by Bane via his aspect. This is the reason for the presence of the Banite runepriests during the construction of the Dread Ring. It's also the primary reason that the centre of the Dread Ring is underground beneath the Companion because the ghouls of the White Kingdom are actually servants of Bane.

When this happens, the Black Age of Bane begins. The sun loses some of its brightness - after all, a massive blow has been struck against Amaunator now that the Companion has been not only extinguished but turned into a thing of unnatural darkness - and across Toril, temperatures fall. The Black Lord is truly ascendant.

If I go with this option, Dark Weavings is no longer an appropriate title. This campaign is truly better named:

Possible Adventure Synopses

The Carrion Caves
Levels 1-3
This is remarkably simple but it may actually work as the entire idea is based on the Caves of Chaos in the much-loved B2 Keep on the Borderlands.

There is a defile in the Reaching Woods surrounded by numerous caves. These caves may be the remnants of Netherese-era mines or even dwarven delves (there are dwarves in the Sunset Mountains and Far Hills).

Representatives of the gnoll tribes are gathering after receiving gnoll dread legionnaire emissaries from Thay (these have the dread warrior template from the Forgotten Realms Campaign Guide - cf the section on Thay - and may also be half-vampires).

It boils down to this. The Thayans plan to have their gnolls summon an aspect of Yeenoghu (albeit a minor one). This will unite the gnolls of the Reaching Woods and the Thayans will be able to use them, more or less, at will.

The way I picture this adventure concluding is for the aspect of Yeenoghu to be successfully summoned in the middle of the defile so that all of the gnolls present can witness this. This happens while the PCs are also in the middle of the defile - possibly fighting a veritable horde of gnoll minions trying to prevent the summoning from happening - and then they have to face the Beast of Butchery himself.

If the PCs win, all of the gnolls present turn on each other making it easy for the PCs to fight their way to freedom. If the PCs lose, then any subsequent campaign set in this region will involve wandering gnoll packs led by undead Thayan gnolls.

The summoning of even a minor aspect of Yeenoghu requires a lot of fresh carrion. The Slave Lords - this may be a placeholder term - have been supplying the Thayan gnolls with slaves and they are currently manacled to a series of sacrificial rocks in the defile. The PCs are fighting for the lives of these slaves. Not all will live but it will make for an interesting gaming story later.

The Slave Lords of Scornubel
Levels 3-5

The rescue of the slaves from the Carrion Caves should put the PCs on the trail of the Slave Lords. Going with an earlier idea, these should be traceable to the Dungeon of the Inquisitor in Elturel.

Frankly, I will just use my earlier notes for this.

The Dread Ring Forts
Levels 5-7

I think I can get two Dread Ring fortresses into one adventure.

The first one is actually a Zhent fortress, or so the Zhents think. The Cyricist Zhents don’t realise there are Banite Zhents in their midst who have allied themselves with the Thayan Banites. The first adventure is a simple “clear the dungeon (fortress)” exercise and the primary enemy is the Zhentarim.

The second one is in the Werewoods so I can use werewolves in conjunction with the Thayan Banites. They are linked by portal and the portal key is an unholy symbol of Bane or the words of Bane’s dogma.

This second tower may also include drow necromancers of House Vrasl plus their House soldiers.

Of course, the PCs may at this point be wondering what is going on. I don’t want them to really uncover the Dread Ring plot yet and I am thinking that they aren’t able to undo the Dread Ring network. That leaves following the clues I need to include to lead them underground into....

The White Kingdom
Levels 7-9

This should basically rip-off Wolfgang Baur’s masterpiece from Dungeon 70... except that it ends in the middle of the ghoul’s capital city where there is a tower very similar in form to the two towers or fortresses of the previous adventure but which is also clearly a temple of Bane.

Anyway, the bulk of this adventure is set in the Underdark. Now I have a good story-based reason for including Uzaglu, the myconid vampire, from one of the 2E Dungeon magazines.

(I would like to include an event involving the PCs acquiring dire bat mounts so they can fly through the White Kingdom. Something about this visual appeals to me.)

The Dread Temple
Levels 9-11

I need to think some more about how this adventure will work but this is how I see it concluding.

Two Thayan liches with various undead minions appear on the top of the temple to fight the PCs. (Alternatively, this battle could be against a lich vestige of Szass Tam - created as a level-appropriate elite or solo rather than a 26th-level minion.) While this is happening, the Dread Ring temple rises up through the earth directly into the centre of Elturel, appearing beneath the Companion the light of which is strangely muted due to the dark energies being shed by the Dread Ring temple.

With the defeat of the Thayans, the light of the Companion flares briefly once more and the PCs receive the benefit of an extended rest plus one or more boons. As this happens, an aspect of Bane appears and starts to devour the Companion.

The PCs must now fight the aspect of Bane. It is a fairly potent solo. It may be possible with powers or appropriate skill checks to weaken the aspect by “disconnecting” it from the Companion. Followers of Amaunator, in particular, are going to have a better chance of this and also an intuitive understanding that this is possible; ditto for followers of Torm.

An army of true ghouls from the White Kingdom begins to rampage through Elturel while the party fights the aspect of the Black Lord. If the aspect is still standing after a certain number of rounds then the Companion is lost. The aspect roars in triumph and disappears while the Companion hangs overhead shedding an unholy darkness. All the PCs can do now is escape... but there is still the Paragon Tier if they wish to fix what they failed to stop.

If the PCs successfully defeat the aspect of Bane in the time allowed, the Companion returns to its former glory and the true ghoul army bursts into flames as the Companion’s light removes their undead flesh from existence. This is a tremendous achievement for the PCs and they will receive numerous rewards from the High Observer and Elturgard. After all, the PCs have stopped the Black Age of Bane from happening.

This would make a more than satisfying conclusion to the Heroic Tier and I would be happy to end the campaign there.

Reskinning the Outline to be more Drow-centric

In the three or so hours since I typed the above I have been thinking about how the same sort of outline might work if I still wanted to use drow as the principal antagonists. 

Obviously, there would be no Dread Ring nor do ghouls - true ghouls or otherwise - feel appropriate. 

What could work is something like what happened to Sulasspryn as noted in the 2E supplement, The Moonsea. The drow are beneath Elturel and cause great sinkholes to open to swallow parts of the city. And in the midst of this unnatural disaster, a great spider-like temple rises up through the stone from the Underdark and, instead of an aspect of Bane syphoning off the power of the Companion, it is an aspect of Lolth.

If I go with this option, maybe I can also use the Crystal Shard. Instead of Dread Ring towers, I can have a series of Cryshal-Tirith towers created by Crenshinibon. And maybe the drow tricked the Zhents into thinking that they found the Crystal Shard when the reality is the drow want the Zhents to wield it. The drow knows its strengths and weaknesses but a Zhent Black Cloak soon discovers he is merely a pawn of the 'Shard.

If I run with this, I rather like the LFR-inspired idea that Crenshinibon is a splinter from the Shard of Evil at the heart of the Abyss. That also means that, if used to pierce the a vital place in the Demonweb Pits, it can cause the Lolth's astral realm to unravel as it seeks to reunite with its former abyssal home.

That also makes for an interesting Paragon Tier adventure. Perhaps it is a cleric of Waukeen (actually a thrall of Graz'zt) who suggests such a course of action to the PCs after Lolth's defeat at their hands. If so, that lets me run D1 Descent into the Depths of the Earth, D2 Shrine of the Kuo-toa, D3 Vault of the Drow and Q1 Queen of the Demonweb Pits - with a smattering of the 3E Dungeon adventure The Harrowing - just like I have wanted to do for close to three decades now.

And, in a perfect world, that would then segue into For Duty & Deity allowing the PCs to free Waukeen from Graz'zt's grasp. However, I have no idea how I would make that work for a low- mid-Paragon Tier party. (While I have already weakened the basic tanar'ri to a level matching their 1E hit dice, it still doesn't solve the problem of how to deal with the Dark Prince who is very much an Epic Tier entity. Unless, of course, he is distracted by the unravelling of the Demonweb Pits....)

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