Friday, May 3, 2024

Rotting Effects in D&D

As I re-acquaint myself with the rules of Basic/Advanced D&D, I'm remembering some of the odd bits and pieces of the game that we had to figure out for ourselves back in the day. One of these bits is the effect of "rotting" as a result of a select few monsters found in the game, most notably the mummy and the violet fungus.

5e uses a system of damage types to reconcile many of these incongruities from earlier editions, so for these monsters (and others like them), the game applies a set amount of damage and classifies it as "necrotic." In the case of mummies, the victim continues losing hit points from necrotic damage over time and can't heal until a Remove Curse spell is applied, whereas violet fungi get 1d4 attacks that do straight necrotic damage (up to 4d8 in a single round, which is nasty but not that dangerous to mid-level and higher characters), with no other lingering effect. It's a simple system that makes clear exactly what happens to the victim (one of the things 5e tends to do pretty well), but doesn't carry the same degree of threat as their AD&D counterparts.

For the AD&D versions, both creatures' rotting effects are extremely deadly at any level, but the actual physical results are not entirely clear. I started running a campaign for my tabletop group using a hybrid of the "Advanced" versions of Old School Essentials and Labyrinth Lord rulesets, but I lean heavily on AD&D to help with some of the behind-the-scenes granularity, and to adapt some of the monsters and magic items that aren't in OSE or LL.

"Why not just run AD&D?" you may ask. Ease of entry, mostly. The girls have only ever played 5e and were getting overwhelmed by the increasing complexity of the game as they leveled up, so I wanted to give them an easier set of rules to manage that still provides a fair range of flavor to play with. I also need to re-acclimate myself to the "old ways" of running the game, so it seemed like a good way to go. My plan is to ease them into AD&D as they get more familiar with how the older system works.

In any case, I dropped a single violet fungus into the dungeon I'm running, but as I read the Monster Manual entry, I found it to be fairly vague on what happens when the fungus touches someone. They get 4 attacks as a 3HD monster, and if one of their branches makes contact with a target: 

The excretion from these branches rots flesh in but one melee round unless a saving throw versus poison is made or a cure disease is used.

This immediately brings up several questions in my mind:

  1. No damage is listed, so what effect does "...rots flesh..." have?
  2. Does it matter where you are hit? AD&D doesn't have a hit location rule, so do we make one up or does the rot simply kill you outright?

  3. Obviously, if you fail the saving throw vs. Poison (also categorized as a save vs. Death), you have one round to apply a Cure Disease or the rot takes effect, but why is it not Neutralize Poison instead to match the save category (as far as I know, avoiding disease does not involve a saving throw)?

  4. It's not an issue in OSE/LL, but in AD&D, Cure Disease has a casting time of 1 turn (10 rounds). Does this mean you need to start applying it within one round (minute), but you then need 9 more rounds of uninterrupted casting to avoid the rotting effect? Neutralize Poison has a casting time of 7 segments, which seems more usable under these circumstances, but you would still need to cast it within 3 segments of the victim being touched or, presumably, the rot would kill the victim before the spell was complete (unless, again, you simply need to start casting it within 1 round to prevent the effect).

The online consensus seems to be that if a violet fungus hits you, then you will die in one round if you fail the save and have no Cure Disease spell available. That's pretty rough, especially since the text does not say explicitly that the victim dies. In a Q&A on enWorld, a participant asked Gary Gygax about this and offered their house rule that had the rot effect reduce a victim's CON instead of killing them. Gary weighed in thusly:

[A]s far as I can recall, no PC ever got zapped by a violet fungi (sic) in my campaign either. Anyway, as nearly as I recall the procedure I envisioned in regards its touch:

  1. Subject victim makes a roll to save vs. poison:
  2. Success means contact avoided and no damage occurs.
  3. Failure means contact with the fungi and subject rots away at the end of the round.
  4. A cure disease or neutralize poison spell cast immediately--within 6 segments of contact, will stop the effect.

Your ruling regarding loss of points of Constitution is an interesting interpretation, but some damage would have to be included with each point of Con loss, or no flesh would be rotting.

So, Gary confirms that the rotting effect causes death in one round, but then suggests that a Neutralize Poison spell would also prevent this. He then also, inexplicably, reduces the amount of time you have to (start to?) cast a curative spell from one round (60 seconds) to 6 segments (36 seconds), neither of which permits the casting times of either solution to complete within the allotted round to prevent death. I won't even get into the fact that he has the saving throw completely negate the violet fungus' successful attack roll, which should have some effect, right?

How does the mummy's rotting effect stack up? According to the Monster Manual:

Their unholy hatred of life and their weird un-life state gives them tremendous power, so that a blow from their arm smashes opponents for 1-12 hit points of damage.

It seems fairly clear from the description that the mummy's damage comes from the force of the blow and not from any rotting effect. It follows this sentence with:

The scabrous touch of a mummy inflicts a rotting disease on any hit. The disease will be fatal in 1-6 months, and each month it progresses the diseased creature loses 2 points of charisma, permanently. It can be cured only by a magic spell, cure disease. The disease negates all cure wound spells. Infected creatures heal wounds at 10% of the normal rate.

So, here we have a definitive disease that is not only fatal, but also reduces an ability score, cannot be recovered from naturally, and inhibits regular healing. There is no saving throw to prevent the disease, but a victim has at least 30 days to find a cleric and get rid of the rotting effect. There is also this final detail:

Any creature killed by a mummy rots and cannot be raised from death unless a cure disease and raise dead spell are used within 6 turns.

Thus, if the mummy drops you by damage, you're probably out of luck unless a 9th-level cleric happens to be nearby. This version of the rotting effect is radically different from the violet fungus, save for the fact that Cure Disease is the solution. It's curious that Gygax didn't make the mummy rot a curse, in line with the mythology of this particular monster, though 5e and OSRIC do, requiring Remove Curse instead of Cure Disease (which I like better, thematically).

I dug further and found a few other instances of "rotting effects" in AD&D. Demogorgon in the Monster Manual has a special attack:

[H]is tentacles also are deadly weapons, each causing 1-6 hit points of damage to any opponent, but those opponents which are of lesser stature (particularly those hailing from the material plane such as humans, dwarves, elves, etc.) will be subject to rot – a limb becomes useless in 6 melee rounds and drops off in another six; the body sustains damage which permanently removes 25% of the person's hit points in 6 melee rounds, cumulative per hit. A cure disease made within the 6 melee round limit will save the member so that it will heal in 1 to 4 weeks, and body hits will be restored entirely with the cure if made within the 6 melee rounds after the hit.

The description differentiates between limb and body hits (but no head shot), indicating a requirement for some sort of "hit location" roll. Frustratingly, it only gives 6 rounds to apply a Cure Disease to prevent the rot, which is still less than the 1 turn casting time for the spell. It also suggests that after 6 rounds, a Cure Disease will not prevent a limb from rotting off.

The loss of a limb doesn't affect a character's hit points, and it's unclear if the 25% loss from a body shot represents the character's maximum hit points or current hit points, although common sense dictates it's a quarter of the maximum, meaning four body shots and a victim is done. Also, interestingly, a victim can recover use of a rotting limb naturally if it doesn't progress too far.

Two creatures in the Monster Manual II have a rotting effect. The boalisk has a gaze attack:

[A]ny creature meeting its gaze (indicated by failing a saving throw vs. petrification) becomes inflicted with a rotting disease identical to that of the touch of a mummy.

I have a mild logic issue with a disease-gaze, but okay. Surprisingly, the save is to avoid the boalisk's gaze, which is not how other gaze weapons work (e.g., a medusa), and if surprised, you get no save at all. In either case, the infection is automatic if the save fails. You can avert your eyes to avoid its gaze, however.

The tri-flower frond has an attack similar to a violet fungus. It puts a victim into a coma-like sleep, then leans over them and:

...looses a shower of sticky enzyme which causes 2-8 points of damage per round until the victim is completely rotted away. Each flask of water dumped upon a victim in the same round as the damage is done will reduce damage by 1 point; total immersion in water removes the sap entirely.

In this case, the poisonous (?) enzyme rots via straight damage which can be healed normally, apparently, if the victim survives (which is more in line with 5e's necrotic damage type). Unlike all other rotting effects in the game, Cure Disease spells have no effect on this affliction, but does (should) Neutralize Poison? Nope...just regular water.

From the Fiend Folio, the death dog has a rotting effect with its bite attack:

Each bite delivers 1-10 hit points of damage and the victim of a bite must save against poison or die as a result of a slow, rotting disease in 4-24 days. Cure disease will be an effective remedy.

So, similar to a mummy attack (physical damage plus infected with a disease), but with a violet fungus' save vs. Poison to resist the rotting effect. Again, the bodily effects of rotting aren't described or given any details other than death after a specific amount of time. Also, 4–24 days isn't "slow" in comparison to the mummy's 1–6 month mortality period.

Deities and Demigods has two gods with rotting effects. Lu Yueh, the God of Epidemics in the Chinese mythos, can:

...cast a rotting sickness as a spell that will kill his enemies who fail to make their saving throw versus poison in 2 melee rounds.

Kiputytto, the Goddess of Sickness in the Finnish mythos, can:

...cast a sickness (saving throw applicable) that will take away 5 hit points from its victim per turn until dead or cured. Anything that touches her will rot away, including swords, armor, claw, or fang.

What about Basic D&D, which is sort of what I'm running now? Holmes' Basic has the mummy's touch cause healing rates to take 10 times longer, but it carries no lingering effects to Charisma, nor is the disease fatal in and of itself. Cook's and Mentzer's Expert rules' version of the mummy rot prevents magical healing and increases natural healing time tenfold. Cure Disease removes the affliction in all Basic versions. 

The Rules Cyclopedia contains a jade dragon that has a disease-causing breath weapon:

A victim who fails his saving throw takes full damage [from the breath weapon], and he and all items carried become infected with a rotting disease. This disease causes all nonmetal items to rot away in 1d6 turns unless a cure disease spell is cast on them during that time. A victim cannot be affected by any healing spells, nor healing item, save a cure disease effect. The disease also inflicts 1 point of damage per turn (but not cumulative in the case of multiple failed saving throws). If the saving throw [vs. Breath] is successful, the victim takes only half damage and avoids the disease.

I have another logic problem with a disease rotting away non-living items, but okay. And does one need to cast Cure Disease on their items to prevent them from rotting as well, or will one spell cover the  person and all their gear? This form of rotting disease has no other effect except death and the infliction of 1 point of "necrotic" damage every 10 minutes. Its terminal duration is 10–60 minutes, though, so I don't get the point of the persistent damage, which will only amount to 1–6 points. Goofy.

Since the common thread of most Basic and AD&D rotting effects is that they are diseases—which makes biological sense—I consulted the Dungeon Master's Guide section on Disease. Rather than try to catalogue all known diseases, Gygax wisely chose to focus instead on the effects of disease on bodily systems, which makes it easy to extrapolate and even create unique diseases for one's own campaign world.

There are three disease categories that somewhat fit the bill for the rotting effects we see in AD&D monsters—connective tissue, muscle, and skin diseases. For each disease category, you're supposed to roll d8s to determine its Occurrence (either Acute or Chronic, which doesn't really apply here as they are all Chronic), and Severity (Mild, Severe, or Terminal, with the last one being the only viable outcome for all creature effects):

Connective tissue diseases (such as leprosy) permanently remove 1 point each of strength, dexterity, constitution, and charisma for each month of affliction - thus only an acute, mild attack will not cause such loss. Terminal cases will last until constitution is at 0, i.e. treat them as chronic, severe cases. (d8: 1 = Mild; 2-3 = Severe; 5-8 = Terminal)

Muscle disorders of chronic nature cause the loss of 1 point each of strength and dexterity, severe attacks having a 25% chance of causing such loss permanently. Terminal cases take 1-12 months. (d8: 1-5 = Mild; 6-7 = Severe; 8 = Terminal)

Skin afflictions of severe nature are 10% likely to cause permanent loss of 1 point of charisma. Chronic, mild attacks are also 10% likely to cause such loss, while chronic, severe attacks will be 25% likely to cause such loss. Terminal cases will take 1-12 weeks for fatality. (d8: 1-5 = Mild; 6-7 = Severe; 8 = Terminal)

Obviously, connective tissue diseases are the best match, given the permanent loss of bodily function and high rate of mortality.

Finally, we can compare the effects of several magic items in the DMG. A Periapt of Foul Rotting confers an effect that closely resembles the description of a connective tissue disease:

[The bearer] will contract a terrible rotting disease, a form of leprosy which can be removed only by application of a remove curse spell followed by a cure disease and then a heal or limited wish or wish spell. [T]he afflicted loses 1 point each of dexterity and constitution and charisma per week beginning 1 week after claiming the item, and when any score reaches 0, the character is dead. Each point lost due to the disease will be permanent regardless of subsequent removal of the affliction.

The Remove Curse spell ostensibly removes the cursed items' connection to the bearer, while the Cure Disease+Heal/Wish combo restores the bearer's bodily integrity. Limited Wish is a curious solution because the spell states that its effect has a "limited duration;" perhaps it merely pauses the disease's progress for a time.

The Staff of Withering can be used to strike an enemy and cause: of the opponent creature’s shrivel and become useless unless it saves versus magic (check by random number generation for which member is struck).

While this isn't exactly a "rotting" effect (rather, it is an aging effect), it explicitly brings hit location generation into play as part of the effect.

Lastly, AD&D magic artifacts have a potential Major Malevolent Effect with a rotting effect:

Body rot is 10% cumulative likely whenever a primary power is used, and part of the body is lost permanently.

Body rot affects extremities - toes, fingers, ears, nose, lips, eyelids, hands, feet, arms, legs, head in that order - 1 member per operation. Nothing can prevent the loss or restore the member.

Presumably, this effect would also require determination of a random location, with a high degree of detail to cover extremities (hands/feet), digits (fingers/toes), facial structures, and genitals.

I'm not a big fan of "save-or-die" effects, so I want to tweak the violet fungus' rotting touch, but I still want it to carry the same level of threat for players as poison and energy drain. If we take all these various details into account, the ideal rotting effect should incorporate most or all of the following:

  • A saving throw vs. poison (more precisely, death; i.e., necrosis).
  • The progressive onset of a chronic, terminal connective tissue disease.
  • A specific body location for the necrotic effect.
  • Loss of one or more of the victim's ability scores: Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, and/or Charisma (which can be tied to bodily location).
  • Loss of hit points as physical integrity deteriorates (per Gary's guidance).
  • Diminished healing rates (magical and natural).
  • Cure Disease as a counter to the rotting effect's onset/progress, plus Heal or Wish (or Regenerate) to restore lost ability score points.

This is what I ultimately worked up to redesign/define the violet fungus' rotting effect: 

If a branch hits, it's excretion does 1d4 damage and infects the victim with a rotting disease unless a saving throw vs. Poison is made. If successful, the victim takes half the damage and avoids the rotting disease. If failed, determine where the branch touched the victim's body by rolling 2d6: (2–3) head, (4–7) arm*, (8–10) leg*, (11–12) torso. *Roll 1d6 to determine (1–3) right or (4–6) left.

The victim immediately loses one point of Constitution and an additional point of another ability score, based on the location touched by the branch: Strength (arm), Dexterity (leg), Constitution (torso), or Charisma (head). On each subsequent round, the victim takes an additional 1d4 damage and loses another point in the location ability score. If a victim loses 50% of their original ability score in any location, then their limb rots off (arm or leg), they fall comatose (torso), or they go blind (head). A victim whose Constitution or Charisma score is reduced to 0 dies. These effects are cumulative per area struck.

The casting of a Cure Disease or Neutralize Poison spell during the course of the infection prevents the further onset of the disease. If applied during the first round of infection, these spells prevent the loss of any ability scores, but not the initial damage. A Cure Disease spell also restores any lost ability scores that have not fallen below 50%. Only a Heal, Regeneration, or Wish spell can restore lost ability score points that have fallen below 50%, revive a comatose victim, or restore sight to a blinded victim, and only a Regeneration or Wish spell can restore a limb that has rotted off. A victim who dies as a result of rotting must first be Raised, and then receive a Heal or Regeneration spell to recover lost ability score points.

I welcome any feedback or alternative ideas.

Tuesday, April 16, 2024

The Temple of Oblivion – Part 3: The Temple Ruins

<< Part 1

<< Part 2

The campaign began in 2016 as an ad hoc test of Roll20 and an introduction to 5th edition D&D for one of my long-time gaming friends. I never intended it to be a full-on campaign, but more people joined the "playtest" and before I knew it, we were gaming online every week. The party ballooned at one point to 7 players plus 3 NPCs, but by the end, after a series of interpersonal conflicts/meltdowns between some of the players (and, in one instance, between myself and one of the players), the group had shrunk to 3 PCs plus 3 NPC followers. 

Most of the first half of the campaign was fairly free-wheeling, with several different, mostly unrelated adventures. By the second half, however, the party had discovered an evil idol with a curse, and became the quarry of a trio of mind flayers who were after the idol. The curse prevented the party from simply throwing the idol away (it reappeared among their belongings the next day), and also served as a psychic "homing beacon" for the mind flayers as they pursued the party.

The mind flayers already possessed one of the idols after the players missed an opportunity to retrieve it, and were actively using it to summon other aberrations from their alien realm. Working through their human proxies—the Cult of Khoss—the mind flayers harried the party across my campaign world, with the PCs barely staying one step ahead of their pursuers. 

The party discovered the hidden location of a third idol (of three needed to open a dimensional portal), but a moment of carelessness caused one player's NPC follower to fall into the clutches of the cultists, who sussed out the idol's location and secretly implanted the NPC with an intellect devourer (a fact the party never discovered until it was too late). The compromised NPC was allowed to be "rescued," and he rejoined the party as an unwitting and unaware mole.

The party raced the cultists to find the third idol, but failed. As part of that failure—to the players' utter horror—the intellect devourer burst from the NPC's skull, killing him instantly. (Regrettably, this was one of my finest DM moments as the NPC was popular with the players and his grisly death really caught everyone off guard). The loss was even more painful because one of the players had innocently put the NPC in a position to be captured in the first place.

Having gained sufficient levels to take on the enemy, imbued with a burning desire for revenge, and gifted with some inside knowledge from rebel cultists seeking release from their thralldom to the mind flayers, the party decided to end their constant harassment by attacking the source.

Thusly, they came to these ruins and made their way through the secret entrance to the temple complex. Originally, these ruins were intended to be the setting for several low-to-mid-level dungeons, including parts of the Caverns of Thracia, but the party didn't glom on to the site early in the campaign, so I repurposed it for the high-level conclusion instead. The climactic battle would take place within the Temple of Oblivion, where the party would confront the mind flayers who needed all three idols to open the dimensional portal and bring through their elder brain master.

By this point, we were all feeling a bit fatigued. We were more than 110 sessions in when the party made it through the secret entrance shrines, and I was definitely ready to wrap up the campaign and move on to something new. So, I presented the players with a choice of entrances into the pyramidal complex via one of the two smaller pyramids. I then roughed out two gantlet-style point-crawls, rather than developing full-on dungeon levels that might have taken the players another 15–20 sessions (or more) to get through. 

One pyramid was already opened by the mind flayers and full of their thralls. This was a route that was "cleared," but difficult to sneak through without getting noticed. The other pyramid was still sealed and could be opened with the idol the party possessed, but it would require them to overcome the monsters and perils present in the point-crawl dungeon.

They chose to navigate the unopened pyramid (the Temple of Death), so I designed a dozen or so encounters and a path with several detours so as to not make it a completely linear experience. Success in certain areas made it possible to avoid other encounters, whereas failure took them down side-paths that ate up valuable time and resources. The players were aware that the mind flayers' plans were underway, and that the longer the party took to resolve this situation, the more difficult the path forward would become.

I'm not going to post the full point-crawl write-up like I did with the secret entrance shrines, as I'm not terribly proud of using this method, but bits of it were good and I am fairly happy with the encounter design work. I will, however, post a summary of the point-crawl below the cut for those interested in what occurred.

The following is the map and general key for the temple ruins. I'm also including links to a full-sized "clean" version of the map, as well as a version with an isometric grid. I'm extremely proud of this map and regret that I was only able to use it for a short period at the end of the campaign. I hope to repurpose it for a future site, but hopefully it will inspire others to make something of it as well. 

I built it as an homage to one of my fave AD&D modules: I1 Dwellers of the Forbidden City, as well as the superlative Caverns of Thracia by Jaquays (which I renamed as The Caverns of Eternal Night). In the beginning, I wasn't certain what would go in the Halls of the Ancient Ones, but when I retooled the map for the high-level group, I determined that it would be the extended lair for a nasty beholder, another holdover aberrant god of the ancestors of the hillmen who once lived here. It also fit the eye motif well, which was kind of a happy accident.

The Temple Ruins

>> Full-size "clean" version (no grid)

>> Isometric grid version (scale = 20x20-ft. squares)

General Features
The interior of the temple mound is a squarish ravine, approximately 1,200 ft. across (E–W) by 1,400 ft. long (N–S). The ravine is quarried out into three distinct layers, the lowest of which is about 400 ft. below the ridge line.

  • The eastern and western sections of the ruined Temple City are on this level, as is the Moat surrounding the Pyramid Platform.
  • The tunnels which pass beneath the causeway and connect the two halves of the ruined city are also on this layer.

The second layer is the terrace level, which partially rings the walls of the ravine, approximately 80 ft. above the ravine floor.

  • The Temple Gates, the eastern and western Terrace Ruins, the Causeway, and the Pyramid Platform are all at this level.

The third layer is a steep, terraced slope rising to the ridgeline above.

  • The sheer cliffs are draped with thick vines and scrub.
  • Numerous caves and dark clefts dot the cliff wall, most leading into empty or abandoned chambers, though some may be occupied by various creatures.

Notable Locations

Temple Gates
The entrance to the ravine is bottlenecked by two 60-ft. high cliff escarpments with a narrow pass between them.

  • The mind flayers' hillman thralls have built a 40-ft. high timber palisade to close off the avenue, with two 20-ft. high doors providing ingress.
  • A dozen bowmen watch the entrance from atop the escarpments, which can be reached via stairs carved into the interior cliff.

Hillman Camp
Beyond the gates is a camp of four dozen hide tents and crude lean-tos occupied by up to 100 hillmen, all of whom are psychically-enthralled by the mind flayers and awaiting their ultimate fate as chattel to be devoured.

  • Many fires burn within the camp, covering the area in a pall of hazy smoke.
  • Groups of zombie-like hillmen can be seen standing near the fires, milling listlessly about, or half-heartedly fighting for sport.

Terrace Ruins (East and West)
A wide shelf of natural rock is carved into the south wall of the ravine and continues along the base of the eastern and western walls. Both terraces are built up with clusters of multi-level structures, with courtyards and narrow avenues between.

  • Vines shroud the cliffside ruins, forming a thick canopy above the avenues (which are dimly lit during the day, dark at night).
  • Various dark doorways and openings are cut into the cliff walls along both terraces. At the farthest point of each terrace is an enormous portal.

  • The portal to the west is carved like a demonic face with a gaping maw; before it is a sacrificial platform. This is the entrance to a mystical underworld known as The Caverns of Eternal Night.
  • The portal on the eastern terrace is carved with a temple-like façade, with tall stone doors and an open eye in the lintel above—the entrance to a tomb complex called The Halls of the Ancient Ones.

  • Carved into the terrace wall near each of the portals are stone stairs leading from the top of the terrace down to the ruined city below.

The ravine floor is bisected by a 120-ft. wide stone avenue stretching from the temple gates to the pyramid platform. Rows of tall obelisks line a central path from the Temple Gates to the Pyramid Platform.

  • The surface of the causeway is 80-ft. above the ravine floor.
  • Four wide stone stairways descend from each side of the causeway into the foliage-shrouded ruined city.

  • Five wide tunnels pass under the causeway, joining the east and west sections of the ruined city. The pyramid moat passes through the northernmost tunnel.
  • The causeway is crumbling, and the surface has collapsed into a large hole at the midpoint which spans nearly the entire causeway. Broken passages and chambers can be seen in the collapsed levels below—mostly storehouses and slave quarters, but quite extensive.

Ruined City
To either side of the causeway are the ruins of the greater temple complex—religious buildings, dormitories, and shrines once used by the ancient denizens. These structures are now crumbling and overgrown with thick foliage.

  • Remnants of the ruined city poke through the vegetation, but the true scope of the area remains mostly hidden by the heavy growth.
  • From the heights, the glimmer of water can be glimpsed in places, suggesting that areas of the ruins are partially-flooded.

  • A constant din of croaking frogs, squawking birds, and other unidentifiable bestial sounds is heard from within the ruins.
  • Down in the ruins, at street level, the ravine floor is paved with cracked and weed-choked flagstones. Tumbled pillars and broken statuary lie everywhere.

  • The interconnected buildings, platforms, and gangways form a labyrinth of interior and exterior locations. Vines cover the exterior walls, forming thick canopies overhead and choking the narrow avenues.

  • The northern sections of ruins on either side, near the moat, are flooded and marshy from periods of heavy rain when the moat occasionally overflows.
  • A tribe of predatory lizardmen claims the western side of the ruins as its territory.

  • A catoblepas roams the marshy areas of the eastern ruins.

Pyramid Platform
Three massive ziggurats—a large central pyramid flanked by two smaller pyramids—stand on a raised platform, 80 ft. above the ravine floor. The platform is surrounded by a wide moat of brackish, algae-covered water, 20 ft. deep.

  • Each pyramid has three tiers, with a steep stair that climbs the exterior to a pavilion-like shrine at the summit (see The Pyramids below for details).
  • The central pyramid is 300 ft. high, with a square base, 320 ft. to a side.

  • The smaller flanking pyramids are 190 ft. high, with square bases, 160 ft. to a side.
  • Wisps of smoke waft from the pavilion at the top of the western ziggurat, but nothing can be seen within.

  • At the base of the western pyramid, near the stair, a modest but well-set camp has been established. The enthralled cultists dwell here (see below).

Cultist Camp
This closely-arranged collection of fabric tents is sufficient to house 50 or so cultists. In the center is a larger, pavilion-style tent.

  • The camp is well-defended by zealots. Iron braziers burn at night to keep the main areas illuminated.

The Pyramids
These massive ziggurats were central to the ritual practices of the ancient people who inhabited this region. The pavilions at the top of the east and west pyramids conceal entrances into each ziggurat.

  • Each flanking pyramid contains many passages and chambers across multiple levels, leading down into the platform, where there are even more levels and chambers.

The western ziggurat is the Temple of Sleep; below it are the Halls of Slumber. The ziggurat can be entered via the pavilion at the top.

  • The mind flayers used one of the evil idols they possess to enter the Temple of Sleep, then moved into the Halls of Slumber. The dungeon was full of traps and guardian constructs, but the mind flayers sacrificed many hillmen and cultists to clear the way down.
  • The Halls of Slumber connect with the Halls of Entropy beneath the central pyramid, which leads to the summoning chamber inside the Temple of Oblivion.

The eastern ziggurat is called the Temple of Death; below it are the Halls of Silence. The ziggurat can be entered via the pavilion at the top, but it is currently sealed.

  • The pyramid's pavilion can be opened with one of the idols. Within the Temple of Death are many crypts and tomb complexes.
  • The Halls of Silence also connect to the Halls of Entropy below the Temple of Oblivion.

The ancients called the central ziggurat the Temple of Oblivion; the dungeons below it are the Halls of Entropy.

  • The pavilion at the top is sealed and there is no way inside the pyramid via that route. The pyramid's interior can only be accessed from below.
  • There is a temple deep in the heart of the pyramid which can be entered from below, via the Halls of Entropy. Within this enormous vault is a dimensional portal to an alien realm, which now stands partially open, allowing the mind flayers to bring forth various aberrant minions to aid their cause.

  • The three idols control the portal, and can be used to open or close it. Without all three idols present, however, the portal is unstable. The mind flayers are using their two idols to try to stabilize the portal, so that they may summon forth a great aberration (an elder brain) into this world. Their ceremony continues apace; the mind flayers' leader is also using the idols to amplify its power and transform itself into an ulitharid. The dimensional portal can only be fully opened (or closed) when all three idols are emplaced in the summoning chamber.
  • Worse, the mind flayers have captured a legendary magical creature (a gynosphinx) that dwelled within the temple pavilion, which they intend to infect with their larvae once they can completely subjugate her, and then sacrifice her to the elder brain.

The Dungeons
Below the cut is a summary of the point-crawl dungeon I designed to bring this campaign to a conclusion. 

Thursday, April 11, 2024

Adventure Sites I Is Now Available!

I had the pleasure of being a finalist in Ben Gibson's Adventure Site Contest over on his Coldlight Press blog. The contest guidelines were to present a short lair or dungeon setting on 2 pages (plus map) that could be played straightaway, and completed in a session or three.

My submission, Etta Capp's Cottage, is part of a compilation now available on DriveThru RPG for the low, low price of free!

Adventure Sites I

I'm proud to have been selected for inclusion and am thrilled to find myself in the esteemed company of some of the OSR's luminary creators.

I look forward to next year's (?) contest and am already looking through my catalog of previous adventures for a worthy submission.

Tuesday, April 9, 2024

The Temple of Oblivion – Part 2: The Secret Entrance

<< PART 1: The Temple Valley

The party learned of the existence of a secret entrance into the temple ravine from the cultists, but I left it up to the players to decide how they wanted to proceed. There were a number of obvious ways into the area, and by this point the players ranged in level from 7th to 9th, so they had the resources to try any number of approaches. The party had some additional info about the site they acquired during their previous adventures which, combined with the visual details they could see from the vantage hill, gave them a fairly good overview of what they would need to do.

They opted to try to find the secret entrance and avoid a frontal approach using either force or bluff. From the vantage hill, they headed north, winding through the gullies between the hills. They encountered swamp trolls in some flooded ruins, and then entered one of the main valleys to the northeast of the temple mound, passing into the zone of corruption.

They crossed the valley and began moving south toward the eastern face of the temple mound in search of the concealed stair. During this part of their exploration, they encountered a band of hillmen patrolling the valley. With the band was one of their shamans, who was already infected by a juvenile mind flayer. The levitating creature was being led along by ropes, and appeared to be psychically scanning the valley for intruders. Fortunately, the encounter distance was outside its detection and the party avoided the hillmen.

The party found the secret cliffside stair and ascended it, where they learned that they needed to "unlock" the secret entrance by performing a series of rituals in each of six separate shrines. They were ultimately successful, though they struggled in a few places. They also managed to avoid fighting the harpies in the aerie.

I created the image to the right as a vertical map for Roll20, which worked really well to convey the creepiness of the site and give a sense of scale for what was to come (1 square = 5 ft., both horizontally and vertically). The imagery of the façade depicts the ancient civilization's aberrant "gods": a mind flayer, a "frog-demon" (slaad), and an "evil eye" (a beholder, which wasn't immediately obvious to the party). 

Each of the shrines can be entered from the façade map, and contains a small puzzle complex that, when solved, releases one of six switches to open the main seal to the secret entrance. The individual shrines are described after the cut below.

As with Part 1, I've stripped out the 5e-specific monster stats and details (including specific saving throws and ability checks) from this write-up for a more generic presentation and easier adaptation if anyone wants to use this in your own campaign.

The Concealed Stair
Hidden among the foliage at the base of the eastern face of the temple mound is a winding switchback stair that rises precipitously up the steep, vine-shrouded hillside. Carved into the cliff at the top of the stair is a shrine complex which protects a secret, ritualistic entrance into the valley. Using this route to enter the temple ravine is not a simple matter, however.

–Shrine Façade
The switchback stairs emerge onto a flagstone plaza built into a natural cleft in the crumbling hillside, 100 ft. above the valley floor. Flocks of giant black vultures perch among the rocks.

  • The back wall of the cleft is a garishly-carved façade, 175 ft. high. A 15-ft. diameter, carved stone seal is set into the façade’s base.
  • Thick leafy vines drape across the rocks, but the grotesque faces carved into the façade still leer out from beneath the foliage.

  • Narrow stairs climb to a series of ledges at varying heights across the façade. Darkened portals on these ledges are carved in the images of a mind flayer and a crowned frog-demon, and lead into the hillside.
  • Near the top, a treacherous stair rises to the highest ledge, where four unadorned portals also enter the hillside.

  • Carved above the topmost portals, at the façade’s apex, is an enormous stone eye (which is closed currently).

–Crossing the Plaza
The plaza is 120-ft. wide by 50-ft. deep and made of cracked mossy flagstones littered with the bones of various animals and humans.

  • As the party crosses the plaza, the vultures become agitated and begin squawking noisily.
  • Three rounds later, a beautiful chorus of women's' voices (harpies) begins to rise above the vultures' din. The sound emanates from the portals on the topmost ledge (see below). Any PC in the plaza who can hear the singing must make a save or become charmed and begin ascending the narrow stairs to the top.

Each round thereafter, while the PCs remain in this area:

  • The singing continues (as above).
  • Vultures descend on the party: Each non-charmed PC is attacked by 0–3 giant vultures. There are hundreds of vultures in the area, so trying to methodically kill them all will be fruitless.

When the PCs enter one of the façade’s shrines (see below), the vultures disperse and the singing stops.

  • Whenever the PCs reemerge into the plaza, or as they climb the façade using the stairs and ledges, the singing and vulture attacks resume.
  • Each time the singing resumes, it counts as a new encounter for purposes of saving against the charm effects. 

  • The charm effect can be ameliorated by stuffing wax or cotton in one's ears, but vulture attacks against intentionally-deafened characters are +2 to hit.

Façade Seal
A massive, 15-ft. diameter stone disc is set into the cliff wall. Its face is carved with the images of a mind flayer and a frog-demon wearing a crown. 

  • Each figure is oriented toward its respective shrine on the lowest level.
  • The figures flank a columned doorway with a peaked lintel carved with an open eye. The doors in the image are closed.

  • This seal can only be opened by activating the switches found in each shrine (see below).

–Navigating the Façade
The stone steps that climb the façade are only 1-ft. wide. Each horizontal ledge on the façade is 4 ft. wide.

  • PCs on a stair should climb at half their normal movement rate. Moving any faster risks falling if they fail a Dexterity check. Likewise, being struck in combat while on a stair requires a Dexterity check to avoid being knocked off.
  • Failure indicates a fall from their current height to the nearest ledge below (1d6 damage per 10 ft. fallen).

  • Movement and combat is normal on a ledge (no Dexterity check required).
  • Climbing the façade itself is not difficult as there are plenty of handholds and vines, but the going is slow (quarter-speed) due to loose stonework and entangling foliage, and the relentless vulture attacks ramp up the risk factor.

–The Broken Ledge
The ledge across the middle of the façade is divided by a 20-ft. wide gap. A mass of vines between the two ledges seems to provide a way across.

  • Using the vines to climb cross the gap is easy, but a Deadly Mancatcher plant lurks hidden among the vines. It attacks anyone disturbing its foliage.

    • DM NOTE: This was a custom 5e monster, but it essentially combines the Mantrap (from the 1e MMII) with an Assassin Vine (3e through 5e MM).
  • The central “heart” of the mancatcher is a 6-ft. bulb suspended 10 ft. above the gap between platforms. The bulb is totally obscured by vines and other normal plants, so direct attacks against it suffer a major penalty for cover, and only area-effect spells can target the creature.
  • When this encounter occurs, the vultures cease attacking to avoid getting close to the vines. The singing continues unabated, however.

  • Shrines 5 and 6 above are attained from within shrines 3 and 4.

–Darkened Portals
The six carved portals on the façade's ledges lead into shrines containing the lock-switches that open the secret entrance (see separate shrine descriptions after the cut below).

–Foul Aerie
The stairs from shrines 5 and 6 descend to a central ledge which is the landing for an incredibly steep stair up to the topmost ledge. There, four arched portals enter the hillside, leading into the lair of a flock of (4) harpies and a harpy matron (a larger and more powerful harpy who, in this case, is also a vampire). 

  • Neither the harpies nor their lair can be seen or targeted from below, and the harpies do not emerge from their lair to attack the PCs directly.

The steep stair is essentially a 40-ft. ladder; each “step” is only 6-in. deep, little more than finger- and toe-holds. Worse, the entire stair is covered in slick bird dung.

  • Climbing it reduces a PC's movement by half. They must make a Dexterity check for each round of movement they make on the stair, or fall back to the ledge below, taking 1d6 damage for each 10 ft. fallen).
  • Charmed PCs climb with enchanted purpose and do not need to make a Dexterity check (although their movement is still halved).

  • If another PC is on the stair beneath a falling PC, they also suffer 1d6 bludgeoning per 10 ft. the falling PC drops, and the struck PC must make a Dexterity check (–1 per dice of damage they took) or also fall the rest of the way down the stair.

–Ill-seeming Eye
When the first seal is opened (regardless of which shrine the party tries first), the lidded eye begins to open slowly. It opens fully in one hour, at which point it animates and begins frenetically scanning the plaza.

  • Each round, there is a 1–2:6 chance the eye emits a death ray of cold purple light that strikes one random target in the open (save or die instantly). The eye does not target the vultures.
  • The eye will remain active for 8 hours, after which it closes again. 

Saturday, March 23, 2024

The Temple of Oblivion – Part 1: The Temple Valley

When I was bringing my first 5e campaign to a close, the PCs were trying to rid themselves of a curse they had acquired after finding and removing an evil idol from a warded vault deep beneath the earth (intending to have it destroyed). The idol depicted a tentacled, demonic figure that they could not rid themselves of—no matter what they did or where they tried to leave it, it always reappeared among their belongings.

Part of the curse revealed the party's location to sinister beings from beyond (mind flayers) who sent their minions to attempt to retrieve it. These minions included gnolls, frog-demons (slaad), and members of the Cult of Khoss. The cult misguidedly thought they could subvert the mind flayers to their cause, but soon found themselves under the thrall of the alien geniuses.

A faction of the cultists who remained free of the mind flayers' control made contact with the PCs and divulged that the mind flayers' base of operations (and the source of the idol's cursed power) lay within the Howling Hills of northwestern Remedios, among the ruins of an ancient civilization that once worshipped the mind flayers. The cultists provided the party with another piece of crucial information: The mind flayers already possessed two similar idols, but needed the party's third idol to open a portal to their beyond-realm, through which "something" would emerge to conquer this world.

Finally, the cultists gave the party directions to the site. The cultists' plan was to convince the party to go to the temple and do the dirty work of wiping out the mind flayers (or at least distracting them) while they freed their enthralled comrades and escaped the area. Whether the party succeeded or not was irrelevant to the cult (Glorious chaos!); they simply wanted to extract themselves from a situation that had gotten out of their control. This was the background for the campaign's grand finale.

I originally intended for this site to be a megadungeon setting for the campaign's low- to mid-levels (I even incorporated part of Jaquay's Caverns of Thracia into the mix), but the players didn't bite on the hooks that were presented early-on, and ended up doing other things. Once they acquired the curse, however, I had some ideas for retooling the material into a higher-level, end-game scenario.

The following is the adventure setting I worked up, though I've removed the 5e details. I may or may not post the actual dungeon crawls that accompanied the adventure, depending how frosty I feel about doing the extra work of de-5e-ing it, but I'll see how it goes. Mainly, I wanted to post the regional map and the temple ruins map for anyone to use and adapt into their own scenarios. (I think the temple map may be the best map I've ever created.)

Part 1 covers the immediate region around the temple, which the party had to navigate to attain the temple. Part 2 will cover the secret entrance into the temple ruins (which the party discovered), and Part 3 will cover the ruins themselves.

The Temple Valley
The remnants of an ancient civilization of humans and their temple lie at the eastern edge of the rugged hills bordering Pelthan Forest in the land of Remedios. The temple complex is located within a ravine quarried from a hill at the intersection of three valleys.

The surrounding hills are rocky and foreboding, made more difficult by dense scrub, briar patches, tangling vines, and intermittent stands of short, spindly trees. Remains of the ancient “empire” can be seen everywhere: standing stones, cracked courtyards, toppled pillars and statuary, heaps of rubble that were clearly once buildings, etc.

The air in the region seems unnaturally still and stifling, and a smoky pall hangs over the valleys.

Map Key 

–Vantage Hill
The PCs followed the cult’s directions to the summit of this high hill (marked with an 'x'), giving them a good view of the region laid out before them. Several points of interest are immediately noticeable:

Three grassy valleys meet here. Stands of trees and patches of bushy scrub dot the valley slopes. Rivulets trickle down from the heights. Stubby boulders litter the valleys, poking up from the stiff grass.

–Temple Mound
This horseshoe-shaped hill is oriented north-south. The exterior and interior slopes of the hill have been quarried away, leaving a deep central ravine surrounded on all sides by sheer cliff walls.

The open end of the ravine is a narrow pass through the hill’s southern face. From the vantage hill, the top of a pyramidal structure can be seen cresting over the top of the ridgeline at the north end of the ravine, but nothing more of the temple complex can be seen from here.

Access to the ravine's interior is possible by one of four means:

1) Entering via the chasm-like mouth of the ravine. This cleft in the rock was excavated long ago. The passage is roughly 500-ft. long and 120-ft. wide, with sheer cliff walls more than 300 ft. high, but open to the sky. The cleft slopes slightly, descending ~50 ft. to the temple gates.

2) Making a steep climb up a sheer, 300 ft. high cliff from the valley floor to the ridge line ringing the ravine. Scaling the hillside is a rugged climb, even with the proper climbing tools. Where the hillside is bare, the rocky slopes are crumbling and treacherous. Where there is foliage, the cliff is dense with scrub, vines, and briars. 

The top of the ridge surrounding the ravine is a jagged shelf of rock roughly 60–100 ft. wide in most places. Short trees and scrub cover the ridge line, although bare escarpments of rock poke out of the foliage in places.

On the opposite side of the ridge is a similarly steep 400-ft. drop to the valley floor (or about 300 ft. to either terrace). The hillsides within the valley were quarried centuries ago and have better footing with plenty of ledges, but they are still overgrown with thick vines and foliage.

3) Ascending a concealed stair, hidden by scrub and foliage at the base of the eastern face of the temple mound. The narrow switchback stair is cut into the rock, and rises precipitously about two-thirds of the way up the vine-shrouded hillside. At the top of the stair is a wide stone plaza, where darkened portals lead into the cliff wall (see Part 2).

4) Flying, either magically or assisted by a winged mount.

–Zone of Corruption
The region around the temple mound is covered by a sphere of mental oppression from the mind flayers’ influence.
  • An uncomfortable buzzing sensation, which is felt more than heard, fills the air.
  • Acrid vapors seep from the ground in spots, often from puddles of orange, sulfurous liquid.

  • Pervasive vines of an unknown species emerge from the ground and spread out like black tentacles across the rocks. The vines writhe subtly, as though fluid courses through them (if severed, a disgusting, slimy sap oozes forth).
  • The hills’ natural foliage is withering and being steadily replaced by thorny scrub.

  • Intruders endure a constant feeling of being watched, especially out in the open.
  • Waves of psychic energy flash across the hills. Perceptive PCs with a high WIS score may sense these waves.

–Hillman Camp
Tendrils of smoke from dozens of campfires drift from a sprawling settlement of hide tents and lean-to shelters.

  • The camp is inhabited by a tribe of 150 hill barbarians—the primitive descendants of the ancient people who built the temple complex. Roughly 80 men, 70 women, and 45 children of various ages dwell in the camp.
  • The hillmen hunt and gather along the valley slopes for food, but know not to stray too far into the hills unless in large groups.

  • The tribe was summoned here by their chieftain, who is now a thrall of the mind flayers.
  • The hillmen believe that the gods have returned to the temple, and that their tribe has been called to witness the rebirth of their former empire.

  • In fact, the mind flayers are enthralling the hillmen to use as minions, as food, and as hosts for their hideous larvae.

–Gnoll Camp
To the south of the hillman camp is a second, smaller cluster of hide tents that house the mind flayers' gnoll minions.

  • The gnolls roam the hills immediately surrounding the camp.
  • Living in the camp are 35 gnoll males, 22 females, and 26 whelps, along with 55 hyenas, 23 leucrotta, and the gnolls' pack leader—the ferocious Blackfur Flind

  • A dozen of the pack's most powerful males serve as the Blackfur Flind's personal guard.

Additional Points of Interest
The following locations are not immediately visible from the vantage hill, but may be discovered as the PCs investigate the surrounding area.

–Hillside Ruins
Carved into the hillside here is a temple façade, where a narrow portal leads into a grand, but crumbling gallery.

  • Dark passages lead out of the gallery, which the gnolls have tentatively begun to explore as a potential new den, but they face resistance from the ruins’ monstrous inhabitant.
  • A ferocious chimera roams these ruins, and makes its lair deep in the structure’s interior.

–Flooded Ruins
Toppled structures litter this bowl-like gully, which has become a muddy bog dotted with scrub. A natural berm bisects the bog, creating a relatively dry elevated path that traverses the area.

  • (6) swamp trolls lurk in the water here. Treat as standard trolls with the following changes:

    • Their slimy, boil-covered skin gives them fire resistance. If they make the saving throw to reduce a fire effect’s damage, then their regeneration ability is not cancelled.

    • Whenever a troll takes damage, roll 1d6: On a 5 or 6, one of the troll's boils bursts open, releasing one of the following effects that fills a random space within 5 feet of the troll (1d4):
  1. A swarm of biting flies emerges from the ruptured boil and “attacks” the nearest creature that isn't a troll. The attack causes no damage, but instead gives the troll a bonus on its next attack against the distracted victim. The swarm disperses the following round.
  2. Acid spray: 2d6 damage; save for half.

  3. Diseased slime: Roll a save to avoid contact with the slime; if failed, the victim contracts a pestilent fever that continues to weaken them every hour thereafter until they eventually die of exhaustion.
  4. Sticky goop splashes on 1–2 adjacent targets, who must roll a save or suffer a penalty to attack rolls until they spend 1d3+1 rounds scraping the goop off.

–Shelter Cave
A tunnel in the hillside to the north of the temple mound will be found by the PCs should they pass through this general area.

  • The tunnel leads into a dry cave inhabited by a clutch of umber hulks.
  • Once the umber hulks are overcome, the cave can serve as a safe base of operations for the party to rest without having to journey back to town.

–Crumbling Watchtower
The ruined tower stands atop a hill to the west of the temple mound, overlooking another valley intersection. A family of (2) hill giant adults and their (3) children (treat as ogres) live within the shell of the tower. 

  • The male giant’s name is Yorg, and his wife is Nuhr. Their children are Brug, Gropp, and Furd.
  • The giants wander the east-west valley to the north of the temple, looking for food or hapless hillmen who stray too far into their territory. 

  • The giants will not venture too near the temple mound, as they are aware of the presence of the mind flayers (“Bad mojo there”).
>> Part 2

Friday, March 22, 2024

Adventure Site Contest

Ben Gibson over at Coldlight Press hosted an adventure contest for short, 2-page scenarios, so I entered a 1e/OSRIC version of an ettercap lair, titled: Etta Capp's Cottage

I posted my 5e version of this "lurid lair" a few years ago, but reworked it to not only convert the adventure to a different system, but also to trim out and adapt the writeup to fit the contest guidelines (and fix a few map details). The contest version isn't dramatically different than the original, but I had to lose some of the details (most of which were either campaign-specific or backstory bits that weren't essential to running the scenario).

With judging complete, I didn't win the contest, but my adventure was selected for inclusion in a for-free publication on in the future. Congratulations to the contest winners, and thanks, Ben, for hosting the's always fun to share my work with others and get feedback to improve my dungeon design.

Here is Ben's review of the adventure, along with reviews from contest judges EOTB and Owen Edwards YT channel (review starts at 16:52).

When I first posted the 5e version, my players had avoided the encounter initially, but they returned to it a few sessions later and vanquished the ettercap-matron. I also included the encounter in my Badlands campaign (modified to fit the desert-canyon locale) for a different group of players, and ran a hastily-converted version for an OSRIC one-shot. The two versions are very different, gameplay-wise, but the creepiness of the adventure setting really worked on all the players.

Here is the 1e/OSRIC version I submitted if anyone wants to download a copy, but I encourage everyone to pick up the Adventure Sites publication from Coldlight Press once it's released. It sounds like there were some great entries and I can't wait to get a look for myself.

Saturday, February 24, 2024

The Dolmen Tomb – Area 20: Chieftain's Crypt

More than a dozen ancient skeletons grasping bronze khopeshes and outfitted in lamellar armor and wicker shields are laid out on straw mats lining the dusty floor. Against the north wall sits a carved stone throne, upon which slumps the mummified body of an obviously-important warrior wearing a bejeweled iron crown. In his gnarled right hand, he clutches an exquisite battleaxe which glows softly in the darkness of the crypt. 

Baskets and bowls of desiccated offerings surround his chair, along with three bronze coffers and six clay jars, all overflowing with treasure. An elaborately-carved stone sarcophagus rests before the angled south walls, its heavy lid slid aside. The lid is carved with ancient glyphs that name the interred as Mesharsu—Twenty-first Grandson of Pabawantu; Chieftain of the Coyote Clan.

  • Skeletons. These dead warriors do not animate unless commanded to by Mesharsu.
  • Warrior. When someone enters the crypt, the mummified body does not stir, but the ghostly voice continues to speak in an ancient language which is nevertheless understood by the party: “Who is this who now stands before Chief Mesharsu? Have you come to pay respect… or are you here to challenge my axe?

    • If someone pays him proper respect, the voice then asks: “Who do you count among your enemies?

      If the party mentions the Cult of Khoss or orcs, then any subsequent CHA checks they make with Mesharsu have advantage.

    • If someone offers a challenge, the voice says, “You believe you have earned the right to challenge me?” (See below.)

–Campaign Note: The following material is specific to my Badlands campaign. The chieftain was not intended to be overcome at this point, although there was nothing stopping a challenger from trying. It is unlikely they could beat him at their current level, but he will also not kill the character outright, preferring to simply best them and hopefully convince them to help end the clan's curse.

Like Ninu in area 14, the chief's main purpose is to provide the players with background info on the history of the Badlands and give them some direction in terms of traveling to two of the setting's major adventure areas: The Caves of Chaos and the Hidden Temple of Thera. Attaining his axe was to be a reward for successfully accomplishing the quests he offers (and in doing so, releasing the spirits of the undead interred in the tomb from their curse).

If satisfied, Mesharsu asks the party why they have come before him. He seems unbothered by the treasure the party has looted thus far, but he does note any magic relics they may have retrieved from the crypt undead with the following tale:

Know this… these relics you have claimed from my champions are powerful weapons against evil. But they also bear our curse: The curse of loss… of failure… of defeat. Hear now the tale of the Coyote clan and learn the legacy of these weapons you now possess.”

Long ago, my people dwelled in these hills, and we prospered here in peace. We were strong in those days because the earth-goddess, Thera, watched over us from her mountain temple—which was already ancient when the world was young. But we became overconfident… complacent.

We were unprepared when the invaders came: red orcs from the southern desert, the hairy-men of the western hills (bugbears), the dragon’s minions out of the east (kobolds), and goblins from their underground caverns. These evil folk hate each other, but now they marched under a common banner.”

(The party members all receive a vision of the sign of chaos—the sigil of Khoss—which appears as a burning red symbol against a smoky darkness.)

The invaders’ army was led by the priests of chaos, and they built a fortress deep in the hills to the south. From there, they waged a campaign of terror upon our clan, destroying our farms and killing my people. And not just our clan, but other peoples who lived here.”

Even worse, a priestess of Thera betrayed the goddess and revealed the temple’s location to the invaders. Without mercy, their army overran the temple and sacrificed the first-priestess upon the altar, thereby desecrating Thera’s holy sanctum.”

The first-priestess’ body was spirited out of the temple by faithful attendants. What became of the second-priestess is unknown to me, but the desecration of Thera's temple signaled the end for us.”

We fought the invaders, but they seemed endless in number. Without Thera’s protection, we were no longer strong enough to defeat them, and we fell before their evil blades. The few survivors brought our bodies here—to the clan’s ancestral burial grounds—before departing our homeland and vanishing into history.”

“...and so here we endure in shame and despair, bound to our fates and driven by our rage and desire for vengeance. I ask you now: Will you avenge the Coyote clan?

    • If the party answers YES, the voice commands: “Then go into the hills… destroy the Caves of Khoss… defeat the evil that corrupts Thera’s temple… and free our spirits from this damnation.” 
    • If they answer NO, the voice says: “Then begone, and live with the curséd treasures you take from this tomb.”

The voice goes silent (unless someone tries to take the chieftain's axe). If someone touches the axe, the mummified body animates and resists. The ghostly voice says: “To claim the axe of Chief Mesharsu, you must prove yourself worthy of wielding it by defeating me in single combat. I ask you now, before we begin, if you wish to reconsider…”

    • If a character accepts the challenge or tries to snatch the axe, then the chieftain’s mummy rises from his throne as a revenant to meet the challenge. He will fight the challenger one-on-one, but does subdual damage to them each round. If his axe scores a critical hit, however, its special trait takes full effect. When he defeats the challenger, he sits back upon the throne and becomes inanimate.
    • If the party tries to attack Mesharsu, or if anyone else attempts to interfere with the duel, the chieftain will raise 1d3 crypt skeletons as skeletal warriors* each round (18 total) to engage the party. He will also stop doing subdual damage and will turn his vengeance upon the remaining party members after defeating his challenger.

      *When a risen skeletal warrior is destroyed, Mesharsu can thereafter raise a brittle skeleton from its remains.

    • Should a challenger manage to defeat the chieftain, they have earned the right to keep the axe. Should the combined party defeat him, then Mesharsu will pursue them relentlessly as a revenant to recover his weapon and kill the treacherous characters.
    • Treasure. Mesharsu's crown is worth 3,000 gp in jewels. Beneath his wraps and not visible unless his body is searched, the chieftain wears a silver ring <300> and a bloodstone gem on a gold chain <750>.

  • Battleaxe. The chieftain's axe is of sophisticated manufacture, and the strange metal of its curved blade shimmers in the party's torchlight. A DC 15 History check recognizes the weapon to be of elfish manufacture and made of adamantine (an elf who sees it recognizes this fact immediately).

Axe of the Ancients (+2 Adamantine Battleaxe). (Req. Attunement) On a critical hit, the axe does an extra 2d10 slashing (on top of the crit damage). The target must make a CON save vs. DC [8+STR mod+PROF] or suffer a grievous wound (1d6):

    1 = decapitated (instant death)
    2-3 = arm/forelimb severed (target loses 25% of max HP)
    4 = body gored/tail severed (target loses 50%/10% of max HP)
    5-6 = leg/rear limb severed (target loses 25% of max HP).

If the target of a severed limb is not killed outright, they continue to lose 1d6 HP each round from blood loss until at least 10% of their max HP score in healing is applied.

    • The axe does full damage to objects. It also emits bright light in a 10-ft. radius and dim light in another 10-ft. radius.
    • The axe is attuned to the chief as long as his soul remains on the path of revenge, and he can summon it to his hand as a reaction when it is within 60 ft. of him.

Mesharsu will not interfere if the party removes his mortal treasures below from the crypt, but neither will he offer it to them.
  • Bronze Coffers. These wooden boxes plated with bronze contain:

    • Coffer #1 = 941 cp, 428 sp, 210 gp, 6x gems (blue quartz <10>, zircon <50>, spinel <100>, tourmaline <100>, peridot <500>, blue sapphire <1,000>), a gold medallion embossed with Thera’s sigil <400>, a drinking horn studded with gold <150>, a silver salt cellar containing 12 oz. of purified salt <50>, a Potion of Invulnerability, a Potion of Clairvoyance, and a Potion of Speed.
    • Coffer #2 = 1,810 cp, 1,005 sp, 53 gp, a gold ring with a huge aquamarine <750>, a silver comb studded with sapphires <800>, a platinum statuette of a coyote <500>, and a leather-bound book written in elvish containing (3) Scrolls of Protection from: Beasts, Elementals, and Undead (one each).

    • Coffer #3 = 1,541 cp, 70 gp, a silver brooch shaped like a crescent moon <200>, a Potion of Hill Giant Strength, a +1 Shield, and a "prosthetic" golden fist (actually the head of a +1 Mace if fitted with a new haft).
  • Clay Jars. These wide-bodied, open-mouthed vessels are richly-painted and contain:
    • Jar #1 = 632 cp, 145 sp, 54 gp, 4x gems (carnelian <50>, moonstone <50>, topaz <500>, opal <1,000>), a silver medallion inlaid with a gold coyote <450>, a silver pin capped with a citrine <100>, a magnificent gold and bejeweled scepter <2,500>,  a +1 Dagger/+2 vs. Spiders, and a Blessed Ring (Req. Attunement; the wearer can cast the Bless spell upon themselves 1/Long Rest).

    • Jar #2 = 411 cp, 317 sp, 36 gp, 4x gems (hematite <10>, lapis lazuli <10>, moss agate <10>, amethyst <100>), and a silver bust of Thera with a chrysoberyl crown <1,000>.

    • Jar #3 = 401 sp, 1,236 gp

    • Jar #4 = 429 cp, 29 sp, 35 gp, 6x gold ingots <200> ea.

    • Jar #5 = 1,000 cp, 337 sp, 106 gp, 3x gems (rhodochrosite <10>, bloodstone <50>, topaz <500>)

    • Jar #6 = 597 cp, 452 sp, 45 gp, 6x Potions of Healing (in a single gourd bound with gold wire and capped with a porcelain stopper), and a Rod of Alertness.
  • Sarcophagus. The stone vault is empty save for rotting burial wrappings.


New Monsters

Brittle Skeleton
Medium undead, neutral
AC 12 (no armor)
HP 1
Speed 30

STR        DEX        CON        INT      WIS        CHA
10 (+0)    14 (+2)    10 (+0)     6 (-2)     8 (-1)      5 (-3)

Vulnerabilities. Bludgeoning
Damage Resistances. Piercing
Damage Immunities. Poison
Condition Immunities. Exhaustion, Poisoned
Senses. Darkvision 60 ft., Passive Perception 10
CR 1/8 (25 XP)
Proficiency. +0

–Loosely-Assembled. Because they are a collection of barely-held together bones, a brittle skeleton can pass through a Small opening or an ally’s space without penalty. Two brittle skeletons can occupy and fight in the same space without being considered prone.


Bony Claw. Melee Weapon Attack: +2, Reach 5 ft., one target, Hit: 4 (1d4+2) slashing.

Push-through. When faced with a line of enemies, a brittle skeleton can use its Action to throw itself against an opponent’s space, breaking apart into its constituent bones and then reforming on the other side. The brittle skeleton can only move up to 10 ft. in this manner, but can do so through spaces controlled by another creature.


Skeletal Warrior
Medium undead, neutral                                                    
AC 17 (lamellar armor and wicker shield)
HP 26 (4d8+8)
Speed 30 

STR        DEX         CON        INT      WIS       CHA
14 (+2)    14 (+2)     15 (+2)     6 (-2)     8 (-1)      5 (-3)

Damage Immunities. Poison
Condition Immunities. Exhaustion, Poisoned
Senses. Darkvision 60 ft., Passive Perception 8
CR 2 (450 XP)
Proficiency. +2

Turn Resistance. Because it is an undead animated by vengeance and is within its consecrated burial ground, the skeletal warrior has advantage on saves to avoid being turned.


Multiattack. The skeletal warrior makes two khopesh attacks or throws two javelins on its turn.

Khopesh. Melee Weapon Attack: +4, Reach 5 ft., one target, Hit: 5 (1d6+2) slashing or 6 (1d8+2) if wielded with two hands.

Javelin. Ranged Weapon Attack: +4, range 30/60,one target, Hit: 5 (1d6+2) piercing.


Parry. The skeletal warrior can use its reaction to increase its AC by 2 against a single attack.


Chief Mesharsu
Medium undead, neutral                                      

AC 12 (Unarmored)
HP 136 (16d8+64)
Speed 30                                                       

STR        DEX         CON       INT        WIS       CHA
18 (+4)   14 (+2)     18 (+4)   13 (+1)    16 (+3)   18 (+4)

Saving Throws. STR +7, CON +7, WIS +6, CHA +7
Skills. Athletics +7, Perception +6, Stealth +5
Damage Resistances. Necrotic, Psychic
Damage Immunities. Poison
Condition Immunities. Charmed, Exhaustion, Frightened, Paralyzed, Poisoned, Stunned
Senses. Darkvision 60 ft., Passive Perception 13
CR 5 (1,800 XP)
Proficiency. +3

Magic Items. Mesharsu wields the Axe of the Ancients (see above).

–Regeneration. Mesharsu regains 10 hit points at the start of his turn. If he takes fire or radiant damage, this trait doesn't function at the start of his next turn. Mesharsu's body is destroyed only if it starts its turn with 0 hit points and doesn't regenerate.

–Rejuvenation. When Mesharsu's body is destroyed, his soul lingers. After 24 hours, his soul inhabits and animates another humanoid corpse on the same plane of existence and regains all his hit points. While his soul is bodiless, a Wish spell can be used to force the soul to go to the afterlife and not return.

Turn Immunity. Mesharsu is immune to effects that turn undead.

–Vengeful Tracker. Mesharsu knows the distance to and direction of any creature against which he seeks revenge, even if the creature is on a different plane of existence. If the creature being tracked by Mesharsu dies, the revenant knows.


Multiattack. Mesharsu makes two melee weapon attacks.

Axe of the Ancients (+2 Adamantine Battleaxe). Melee Weapon Attack: +9, Reach 5 ft., one target, Hit: 10 or 11 (1d8+6 or 1d10+6) slashing. On a critical hit, the axe does an extra 11 (2d10) slashing (on top of the crit damage), and the target must make a DC 15 CON save or suffer a grievous wound (see above).

Fist. Melee Weapon Attack: +7, Reach 5 ft., one target, Hit: 5 (1d6+2) bludgeoning. If the target is a creature against which Mesharsu has sworn vengeance, the target takes an extra 14 (4d6) bludgeoning damage. Instead of dealing damage, Mesharsu can grapple the target (escape DC 14) provided the target is Large or smaller.

–Vengeful Glare. Mesharsu targets one creature he can see within 30 feet and against which he has sworn vengeance. The target must make a DC 15 WIS save or be paralyzed until Mesharsu deals damage to it, or until the end of the revenant's next turn. When the paralysis ends, the target is frightened of Mesharsu for 1 minute. The frightened target can repeat the saving throw at the end of each of its turns, with disadvantage if it can see Mesharsu, ending the frightened condition on itself on a success.

Bonus Actions

Raise Minions (Recharge 5–6). Mesharsu can use his bonus action to cause 2d3 skeletal warriors to arise from nearby bones until the supply of bones is exhausted. When each skeletal warrior is destroyed, Mesharsu can thereafter raise a brittle skeleton from its remains.

Legendary Action
Chief Mesharsu can take (1) legendary action at the end of another creature's turn, choosing from the options below. Mesharsu regains his spent legendary action at the start of his turn.

–Misty Step. Mesharsu can cast the Misty Step spell.

–Vengeful Glare (Recharge 5–6). Mesharsu can use his Vengeful Glare action.

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