Saturday, 26 July 2014

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.

11 comments:

  1. Thanks for the great ideas! We play using a VTT and my p[arty is split right now. I think I will use Shattered Circle to keep them occupied until the party can reunite again!

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  2. You're welcome! I envy you, mate. I still haven't properly run The Shattered Circle but I am itching to do it.

    Thanks for the comment! :)

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  3. Hi, you should add this post to the "5E Starter Set" label so that when viewing through labels it groups up with the others :)

    Awesome work with the work/info you provide here, keep it up! :)

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  4. Thanks, Max. I will fix that now. And thanks for the kind words! :)

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  5. I love this idea and plan on implementing it. I have some comments and some questions. There are a few other canonical details about the well that I think should be reflected in some way in the dungeon complex. In the Netheril Empire of Magic box set (I know you generally aren't a huge fan of this product...), we are told:

    -"In 1491 [NY], the Terraseer found an ideal location for an outpost that could provide water for caravans and scouts heading into the mineral-rich mountains, but they had to remove creatures that called the land home: owlbears. In what was soon to be known as the Caravan War, Netherese scouts and outriders destroyed the 3,000 owl bears, creatures given existence by the Creator Races thousands of years ago."

    You mention the owlbears, but I wanted to highlight the magnitude of this owlbear genocide. The fact that the well is still known as the old *owl* well suggests to me that there is some enduring evidence of the former residents. Owlbears aren't just animals -- they are intelligent enough to have their own 'language' (i.e., "very loud screeches of varying length and pitch") according to the 2e monstrous manual, so 3,000 of them living here probably means they built structures and had some kind of culture. Also, assuming they are still somewhat plentiful in the area, perhaps Hamun Kost is hunting for owlbear eggs & hatchlings, either to sell or to use as guardians.

    -"Once safety was provided by the warriors, the arcanists came into the town and set up one of the most elaborate piping systems available. Drilling over five miles into the crust of Toril, the arcanists provided the Old Owl Well outpost with an everlasting water supply."

    *Five miles* deep! That's almost comparable with the Kola Superdeep Borehole in Russia! So it seems to me that this 'elaborate piping system' would go deeper than even level 6 of this dungeon, and there should be some evidence of it here or there since it is such a pronounced and defining feature of this location. It's one of the reasons that the well has never ceased being a great source of water, whether the area was controlled by zhents, or orcs, etc. (probably hyperbole, but according to The North, the well has at one point or another been controlled by "every power group, save the Harpers.")

    -Additionally, from The North, "Amelior, a relatively infamous mage, investigated the well in order to determine its magical nature. His finding were inconclusive, leading him to believe that the well is indeed magical. Nothing he could do would drop--even temporarily--the water level enough for him to see how the well operates. Please note this is the only water source within a three-day ride, which gives the location some strategic importance."

    If it is still the "only water souce within a three-day ride," it really makes you wonder how Hamun Kost would be able to get away with his slave-facilitated mining/excavation operation without being noticed by tons of people -- I mean, it wouldn't just be "prospectors" dropping by, unless another source of water has been found nearby (which raises other questions).

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  6. A couple of other questions/comments, either for you or for your other readers. First, it seems as though you envision the sarrukh ruins to be primarily in the bottom two levels --do you envision the central location (#20) in that bottom level, where the 'Immortal King' presumably is, as the ancient vault from which the Netherese pilfered most of the chardolyns? And are these floors where the owlbears used to live?

    Second, who built floors 2-4, and for what purpose? Were these also built by the Sarrakh, or by the Netherese, or someone else? And how & where would you suggest connecting floor 4 and floor 5?

    Third, what do you think about using the "Sarrukh Ruin" site from Serpent Kingdoms (pp. 177-180) as a sub-level?

    Fourth, regaring Hamun Kost: He might be using slaves, but then what are all his zombies for? The zombies could be there to keep the slaves in line, but if they are capable of supervising slaves, it seems like they would also be capable of mining themselves, and wouldn't require food or rest. Why does he need to know the name of the Terraseer? Presumably that name would give access to lower floors or something else important, so it seems like a good idea to work that in to the dungeon. Perhaps his presence here is related to Rath Modar's (from Hoard of the Dragon Queen)? If Kost is using slaves, perhaps (this might be a stretch) these slaves are histachii on loan from the yuan-ti from the Mere (to tie in to your idea of running those adventures -- did you ever end up pursuing that campaign?). Supposedly, according to Serpent Kingdoms, some members of the Coiled Cabal believe that the Red Wizards and the Cult of the Dragon "should be aided, strengthened, infiltrated, and conquered from within. In this way, they can become great new 'Dark Arms' with which the yuan-ti can tame the teeming hordes of humanity" (p. 15). Similarly, I was thinking of giving Hamun a Ring of Myrkul instead of the generic Ring of Protection (it just seems sad that a vanilla Ring of Protection could possibly be anyone's "most interesting discovery so far.")

    Fifth, would you keep the Foundingstone as is? If the Red Wizards had any inkling that it was there, that might be another reason for them to be there.

    -As a perhaps less important matter, I'm not sure how the Old Owl Well got from the Crags, where it was built (and presumably where the Cragmaw goblins derive) to the foothills north of the Sword Mountains. It happened before the Spellplague apparently, and it did so without breaking any of the elaborate piping systems, which would seem to mean no earthquakes or the like were involved, or else those pipes are very strongly magically protected.


    In any event, supposing that my players are interested in exploring this location, I'll let you know how it goes.

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  7. Hehe... you already guessed my reply: I basically ignore Netheril: Empire of Magic but this time with good reason. This is a temperate climate. Water is going to be plentiful so the idea that it is the only water within three days' ride makes no sense. Digging five miles to find water in a temperate clime makes no sense especially in the foothills of some substantial mountains and next to one of the largest forests in the Realms.

    With those two points in mind, most of the questions you are asking take care of themselves. That said, I do understand where you are coming from but I just basically ignore N:EoM. :)

    As for the owlbears, I suppose my use of 4E as my preferred ruleset has also had an effect as I now see them as fey beasts. Nevertheless, the area is probably lightly wooded and somehow connected to the Feywild so there is nothing stopping owlbears from being common in the area. I will have to think about that some more when I actually get closer to that area (probably in November 2014 at the rate we are going).

    BTW, Amelior is actually an NPC from the DragonQuest sourcebook/adventure The Enchanted Wood written by the great Paul Jacquays. He imported a lot of NPCs and whatnot from that work into FR5 The Savage Frontier which he wrote as a synthesis of Ed's notes and his own ideas.

    As for my rough dungeon layout, those are some really good questions and I am going to admit you have put a lot more thought into it than I have. Really, I was just going to assume it was all a sarrukk construction but with some "renovations" by the Netherese who came later. I was also thinking of the beastmen slave rebellion in Caverns of Thracia and thinking maybe I would include that and have it affect some of the architecture and dungeon features. Oh, and I really like the idea of using the sarrukk ruin as a sub-level: thanks!

    Similarly, I wasn't sure about what to do with the Foundingstone. If I was going to use it it would definitely be creating histachii or yuan-ti not werespiders.

    Finally, to the best of my knowledge the Old Owl Well has always been where it is shown on the map. Why did you think it was originally in The Crags?

    Thanks very much for your posts. You've really made me think about this some more. I'll give this a couple of days to brew and maybe I will edit my post above with some revised thoughts... although I won't be revising my opinion of N:EoM! :)

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  8. I forgot to say: Yes, please do let me know how your PCs go when they visit this location and also what ideas you used, especially your own.

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  9. The poster map that came in the Netheril box set shows it in the Crags. Of course, that map was supposedly drawn by the Terraseer (and contains his notes scattered throughout like "endless caverns here" or "watch out for orcs"), so I decided that he was just intentionally being deceitful about the real location. I can think of several reasons why he might do so.

    I put in the first two underground levels, unclear if my players would explore them (we are going through the starter set and so far they have explored the cragmaw hideout, the Redbrand hideout, the Wyvern Tor, and now the beginnings of the Old Owl Well). I populated the first level with some histachii armed with picks digging, zombies shovelling the rocks into mine cars, and a handful of megalomen standing guard / overseeing. My players explored that first level and they found three chardalyns and a map of the Mere with the Wolfhill Estate marked out. They also found a Ring of Myrkul on the Red Wizard, and are having an interesting time deciding what they should do with it. It will be interesting to see if they decide to explore deeper now, or if they deal with the perhaps more pressing matter of the cragmaw castle (or Thundertree, which they've heard about as well).

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  10. I am so all over this! My players just had an encounter with Hamon that went really long but they have yet to search his body, the tent or the grounds. Now I have so many ideas to expand OOW. Can either of you please post some updates on PC experiences?

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  11. @Anon, sorry for the really late reply. It seems my Third World internet service didn't allow my reply a couple of weeks ago and I just noticed now.

    I had a look at that map and, yes, you're right that it does show the Old Owl Well in The Crags.

    I like the sound of what you have done so far and hope the Ring of Myrkul pays off for you with a trip to the Mere of Dead Men. That's such a great place for adventure....

    @Chris: My Neverwinter campaign has been going in a very different direction so I am sorry that I don't have any PC experiences to share here. I'm also a few weeks behind on session reports.

    There's a small chance of a surface encoounter with the Old Owl Well soon. I will tag you if that happens.

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