26 August 2007

The Earthquake (II): Undead and Fungi and Oozes, oh my!


Yesterday I recounted how the new PCs, Lyra the Rogue/Sorceress and Bjorn the Fighter/Cleric, bumped into the remaining members of the original Party on the Nordvej. As you’ll recall, there had been a small earthquake that morning, and a landslide had collapsed a significant portion of a cliff face about a mile south of Ganesford, covering the road, and exposing something dark and sinister looking. The newly-constituted Party camped overnight in the shadow of the cliff, and determined to check the place out in the morning, when the rays of the rising sun would be shining directly into its depth.

While they waited for the Lantern (in this world, the sun is called the Lantern of Bræa, for reasons rooted in the ancient history of Anuru) to rise and illuminate the interior of the cave, the PCs spent a few moments questioning Ankallys, the NPC they had discovered digging in the rubble of the landslide. Ankallys explained that her master, a Zaran Human Wizard named Oras Rathorn, had led a party here from Vejborg over the summer in order to unearth a structure that had been covered by a landslide centuries before. Rathorn’s historical researches had revealed that there were vast treasures concealed within the buried building, and Ankallys still hoped to recover some of them in order to help pay off the enormous debts that Rathorn had accumulated on the project.

When asked about what sorts of treasures she expected to find, Ankallys got a little vague; she mentioned the “Relics of Ekruhalagar”, a hero of the ancient world, whose sword, armour and helmet should be worth a small fortune. Bjorn failed his Knowledge(Religion) check when this name was mentioned, but nonetheless waxed a little indignant that anyone - especially a mage - would consider disturbing a hero’s remains for crass lucre. More importantly, when Ankallys was asked what else they might find in the temple, she clammed up fairly quickly. Lyra, proving the adage that “a thief will always suspect you of stealing”, rolled a Sense Motive during these discussions, and determined that Ankallys knew more than she was telling.

And how.

After a night of rain, the mud-clotted hillside was a little treacherous, particularly as it was now strewn with shattered tree-trunks, enormous paving and building stones, and even a few fragments of stone sarcophagi that had slid half-way down the hill. The PCs rummaged through their packs and came up with some rope. They gave one end to Gwendilyne, who employed her fabulous Climb skills (four successive successful checks) to make her way up the slope to what proved to be not a cave, but rather the exposed foundations of a buried building that had been smashed open by the landslide. Big one, too; a hundred or so feet wide and nearly half that in height. She clambered up the stones and into the structure…and this is what she saw:

After a moment’s goggling, Gwen tied the rope off and stood back to let the rest of the party ascend. In true PC fashion, they immediately spread out to see what sorts of things they might scare up.


At this point, it’s appropriate to embark upon another little self-indulgent bit of DM rambling about dungeon design. Harking back to an
earlier ramble, you’ll recall that, in my opinion, the single most important question that the DM has to answer when designing a dungeon is, “Why is this here?” A “dungeon”, in the classical sense of an underground space filled with monsters, is either natural or artificial, and if the latter, then the question breaks down into three parts: Who built it; Why did they build it in this place and in this style; and, What has happened to it since it was built to make it the way it is today. These questions are the foundation of the “willing suspension of disbelief” upon which a successful adventure is built.

The “Broken Temple”, which was my working title for this particular dungeon, was a relatively easy concept to design and justify. It consisted of a large temple, built a little over a thousand years ago (in the period of post-bellum religious fervour following the defeat of the Shadow King), and dedicated to what was then one of the popular Servants of Esu – Karg, the Lady of Bears, patroness of courage and of warriors. The temple served as a center for Karg’s worship in Zare and became increasingly popular as, courtesy the Stjerneflåde River, trade flourished between the coastal cities and the Bjerglands. As a result many of the heroes of the War of the Shadows were interred here, along with those acolytes of Esu and Karg that did mighty works in the immediate post-War period.

(Here's a blueprint-style shot of the temple as it looked when first constructed; the Party found this architectural plan amongst Rathorn's papers when Gwen broke into the mage's room at the Gane's Tankard Tavern a few days later.)

All of this came to a crashing halt, however, a century or so after the temple’s construction, when an unstable cliff-face above the temple collapsed in a shower of earth and rubble, burying the temple completely, and covering a large segment of the Nordvej with debris. The temple’s senior clerics had been outside during the landslide, and were immediately killed; the unfortunate acolytes and low-level what-nots actually in the temple were not so lucky. Due to its heavy stone construction, the temple withstood the landslide, and those within it survived; but theylacked the divine power to extricate or sustain themselves, and there was no-one left outside to help. They had plenty of food and water, and so faced a slow and painful death from suffocation – so, courage being their hallmark, they committed their souls to Karg, and fell on their swords to avoid the inevitable suffering.

With this sort of background history, the next question for the serious dungeon-designer is this: What are any monsters doing here, and how do they survive? In the case of a buried temple with no external access, your monster options are pretty limited. You need to find denizens that either (a) don’t require material sustenance, (b) can sustain themselves on tiny vermin that can get into and out of the place using holes that PCs can’t fit through, or (c) use the place as a lair, but are able to get in and out of it a different way to hunt. And most importantly, if they’re all going to be in the same place, they had better not compete either for living space or for prey. To meet these criteria at an appropriate Encounter Level for a party of 4th and 5th level PCs, I decided to employ:

(a) Allips (CR 3);

(b) Violet Fungus (CR 3) and Shriekers (CR 1);

(c) A Gray Ooze (CR 4); and

(d) Phase Spiders (CR 5).

Allips are incorporeal undead who require no sustenance and can move through walls. Best of all, though, they are, to quote the MM, “the spectral remains of someone driven to suicide”, which fit the temple’s backstory perfectly. I saw the Allips as the spiritual remnants of the temple’s inhabitants, who had died at their own hands for their diety, and would therefore rather resent anyone despoiling the temple. So I decided they would show up any time any one disturbed one of the sarcophagi (about 2-3 at a time for an EL of 4-5, appropriate for the Party); but the number of Allips appearing might also be proportional to the importance in life of the disturbed individual’s remains. This last concept was key to one of the major "story goals" of the dungeon - an important factor, as this was the first of the adventures along the "myth arc" I had designed for the campaign, and a few important things had to happen to get the campaign train on the rails, and rolling in the right direction.

Violet Fungi and Shriekers “often work together to attract and kill prey”, which in a closed, underground dungeon would come in the form of rats, mice, spiders and the like. This explained why there weren’t many of them (2 Violet Fungi, for an EL of 4, and 8 Shriekers, for a notional EL of 7 – but not really, since Shriekers don’t deal damage, and there weren’t any other creatures for them to call in on their side. Also, since they are stationary, I had to put them somewhere permanent – so I stuck them in the middle of the temple (at area 4 on the map).

The Gray Ooze I stationed at Area 5, next to the fungi, reasoning that this would be the most likely place for it to find food (e.g. by intercepting rodents being drawn to the fungi by the Shriekers’ cries). The Ooze also made a decent “monster trap”, seeing as how they can appear to be a “section of damp stone” and require a DC 15 Spot check to notice. This worked just fine, as you'll see in a moment; even though I marked the Ooze on the battle map (and in a different colour than the water, no less!), the PC who sidled up next to it thought it was nothing more than another puddle.

Finally, I included the Phase Spiders as an “optional monster” in case the Party breezed their way past the other ones. My theory here is that Phase Spiders would love the buried temple as it was entirely underground and therefore relatively immune to intruders, while they could simply “ethereally jaunt” in and out of the place to hunt. The temple would be, for them, a completely secure lair; by building their webs high up in the temple’s dome by the giant statue (at Area 11), they would be out of reach of the ooze and any vermin while resting. The Phase Spiders would also offer a tougher challenge to the Party if necessary (two of them together would be EL 7, after all). As it turned out, they wasn’t necessary, so I simply deemed that they were out hunting when the PCs came to call.

So there you have it! Four different monster types, living neck and neck in a dungeon, logically and without interfering with each other. And there was another monster, too…but more about him later.

Oh, and one more thing: with no way for monsters or adventurers to get in or out, there couldn't be any treasure in the temple that had not been there already when the landslide occurred. The only possible exception to this judgement would be if the Phase Spiders had nabbed somebody elsewhere and brought him back for long-term storage in their webs; but I decided that there would only be treasure there if there were monsters as well (no risk, no reward).

(DM Rambling Off)

The first thing the PCs noticed were the long lines of sarcophagi stretching down into the temple’s interior, each at the foot of one of the massive stone pillars supporting the vaulted ceiling. Interestingly, everyone was very much in character as things got underway. The potential for loot sparked Gwen’s avarice, and she immediately asked for help getting the lid off one of them. Bjorn was appropriately scandalized; there was as yet no hint what sort of temple this was (the statue of Karg at the far end was still mostly immersed in the shadows), but he nonetheless wasn’t keen on disturbing the dead. Joraz and Lyra began poking around, while Breygon, characteristically cautious, kept an arrow nocked. He was a little more nervous than usual, seeing as how Greywind lacked the opposable digits necessary to scale the rope up into the temple. Ankallys had also ascended the rope to lend her aid, but she hung back, knowing a lot more about the temple than the PCs did. And also knowing what she was looking for.

At length, with Bjorn’s grudging assistance, Gwen picked the first sarcophagus she found that had any intact writing on it: the one belonging to Nambris (at Area 6). They got the lid off of the thing and Gwen began rummaging around in its interior, looking for shiny stuff. Bjorn, who had been reading the engravings on the stone, found that the tomb belonged to one of the acolytes of Karg, a servant of his own diety, Esu, and began protesting vehemently any further looting. Gwen came up for air, triumphantly holding Nambris’ silver vambraces…and then everything went pear-shaped.

A pair of Allips floated out of the depths of the floor-stones and took form, gibbering and moaning the way Allips tend to do. Roll initiative! Will saves all around! Nobody fell victim to the hypnotic effects of the babbling on the first go-around, then everyone took their actions. Breygon and Gwen launched arrows, to no obvious effect, while Joraz backed away, further into the temple. Lyra hit one of the Allips with a magic missile. Then came Bjorn’s turn, and he hauled out his holy hammer, called down the wrath of the Allfather, and Turned both of them. Well, actually, he didn’t; it took another round of shouting and flourishing before he managed to get them both to back off.

By this time, Joraz had backed up far enough into the temple’s interior that the Shriekers got into the action. There’s nothing like screaming mushrooms to ruin your day. The Violet Fungi took a few swats at him and hit, causing damage but failing to dent his strength or constitution. Bjorn lumbered over to the rescue, while Lyra took cover, and Gwen and Breygon began launching arrows at everything they could see. I seem to recall that Gwen managed to put an arrow into Bjorn while aiming at one of the Fungi here, but I could be wrong. What DID happen was that Ankallys hauled out a scroll she had been carrying and launched a fireball at the fungi. This took down all of the Shriekers and did a number on the Fungi, but regrettably, Bjorn was in the blast radius and took a face-full of plasma on top of his other woes. Joraz by now had other problems, being in range of the Gray Ooze’s tentacle attack. While the rest of the party filled the Fungi with arrows, Joraz took on the Ooze, whacking it repeatedly with his staff. This was of course quickly dissolved by the Ooze’s acid. Bjorn lent a hand, and between the two of them, they managed to give the gooey thing quietus.

Bjorn then healed himself and the others who had taken damage – and then he made Gwendilyne put the vambraces back in Nambris’ tomb, and closed it up again. This engendered much grumbling from the Halfling, and a stern lecture from the priest about touching anything else without his say-so. The Party resumed searching the temple, and Breygon eventually located the low door to Area 8, seeing the inscription “Ekruhalagar”, and recalling that Ankallys had mentioned that name. Despite his better judgement, Bjorn helped Breygon and Joraz force the door open, then the priest took a torch and descended into the depths of the crypt whilst the others kept watch outside.

At this point, I rolled a few secret Spot checks behind the DM’s screen. Everybody was enthralled by the enormous statue of Karg that dominated the temple's nave, beneath its magnificent vaulting dome filled with odd, violet spiderwebs.

Nobody seemed to notice that Ankallys had disappeared.

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(N.B. Some parts of the following have been censored to protect the integrity of the DM's nefarious and evil plans for the Party.)
The Broken Temple of Karg

Nine miles north of Bornhavn, the Sweetvale River flows down out of the hills of the Great North Woods to join the Stjerneflade. Here lies the town of Ganesford. It’s an old town; folk have been crossing the Sweetvale Shallows here for nigh on a thousand years.

A mile south of Ganesford, the Nordvej runs past a high cliff. Centuries ago, the cliff collapsed, spilling a broad fan of earth down the hillside, burying everything in its path, and covering most of the road down to the riverbank. One of the things that was buried was a Temple to Karg, Lady of Courage and Mistress of Bears; the first such temple to be built in northern Zare after the return of the Powers in the wake of the War of the Shadows. It had been a magnificent structure of limestone and marble, boasting a gigantic statue of Karg herself, carved by hand from marble and carefully gilded – and on that black day, it withstood the terrible force of the landslide intact. But all within it were buried alive, and slew themselves rather than suffer a slow, agonizing death. Many things were buried with them, including the tombs of many heroes and clerics of the Lady, and a mighty religious relic: the Crown of Ekruhalagar. And some things that were even more important: the [CENSORED], and a clue about [CENSORED], the [CENSORED].

After weeks of work, the Nordvej was uncovered, a retaining wall was built, and traffic flowed again on the great highway; but the temple and its final occupants remained forever buried against the cliff. Secrets cannot be hidden from the wise, however; and eventually Oras Rathorn, a wizard and wise man of Vejborg, poring over ancient documents and land grants, discovered the location of the temple and the records of the mighty treasures it contained. Gathering his apprentices, henchmen, and an army of miners, he set out for the North.

He passed through Bornhavn some months ago and took rooms at the Gane's Tankard Tavern, setting up his headquarters at the Traveller’s Rest, an inn on the south bank of the Sweetvale near the ford. It took weeks of effort to pin down the exact location of the temple; but once he had done so, Rathorn began to ply his mighty magicks to move the earth and uncover its secrets. Much to his sorrow; for the ground remained terribly unstable, and just as he was casting his spells to remove the last of the dirt from the mighty front gates of the temple, his magicks triggered an enormous earthquake, and the cliff collapsed anew. The quake was felt for miles in every direction, and this time the fall was terrible, tearing away the front of the temple, and hurling its mighty stones down the cliff and into the river. The Nordvej, Rathorn’s camp, his followers, and the wizard himself were all buried under countless tons of earth and rubble.

The only survivor was Ankallys, one of his apprentices, who had been out hunting for herbs and spell components in the forests south of the temple. She returned after the quake to find her master, her friends, and all of their possessions buried alive under thousands of tonnes of earth and rock. The slide had torn away the front of the cliff, spilling dirt and rock splinters down the hill, reburying the Nordvej and dropping the detritus of ages in a dark fan into the river.

As Ankallys struggled to find some sign of her vanished colleagues, she saw enormous blocks of worked white stone projecting out of the morass, and here and there, jagged broken pieces of enormous marble pillars. And then she saw what was clearly a sarcophagus. She raised her eyes; sixty feet up the collapsed cliff, the interior of the broken temple yawned darkly.

Hours later, she was still digging frantically through the rubble, finding only detritus and the dead, when a pair of riders arrived from the north and offered to assist. The trio was hard at work later that evening, when a party of three adventurers, accompanied by an enormous silver wolf, trotted up the Nordvej from the South.

Ankallys will absolutely insist that the party do everything in its power to recover the Crown; only by selling it could she hope to pay off her Master’s (and therefore her) debts and avoid being sold into servitude. At the same time, however, she will be searching frantically for the Tomb of Moldukar, the High Priest of the Temple from 41-101 (New Hope), at the time when many of the [CENSORED] were being hidden away forever. She will do everything she can to recover [CENSORED].


1) 1 hour after party leaves Bornhavn: EARTHQUAKE (rumbling, shaking, trees swaying, rocks rolling down hillside towards river); Wilderness Lore or History DC 20 to figure strength (moderately strong) and location of epicentre (somewhere not far to the north)

2) 30 minutes after quake, they can see the north tip of Sweetvale Island, marking the point where the Sweetvale River flows out of the Western hills to join with the Stjerneflade. At this point, they notice brown mud-swirls coming downstream, followed by enormous tree-trunks and broken branches. At the same time, Bjorn and Lyra come upon Ankallys digging frantically through the dirt.

3) 30 minutes later the Party enters a part of the road with high cliffs on the left, and a steep slope down to the Sweetvale River on the right

3) An hour after that, they round a bend and see a huge swath of the cliffs have collapsed, leaving a denuded landscape that head more than a mile up the hillside to their left. There is still a haze of dust in the air, and they can see enormous trees have been uprooted and cast down the cliff. The landslide has covered the Nordvej for at least a mile, and spills into the Sweetvale River.
[SPOT DC 14] You can see two figures down by where the slide enters the water, a mile or so away. They appear to be digging.

Note: Lettered descriptions refer to large areas; numbered descriptions refer to specific encounter areas.

A) The Road and the River

The Nordvej has been buried under 20’ of rock, earth and uprooted trees for a distance of nearly a mile. The landslide stretches all the way down to the river, and into it; but the force of the current is rapidly washing the fallen dirt and trees away, leaving only the large rocks behind.

Here and there on the slide can be seen enormous, squared building stones a yard on a side; most of them are chiselled and gray, but some are white and have been polished smooth.

If the location of Rathorn’s Camp can be ascertained with any reliability (Knowledge(Geography) DC 20 followed by Survival DC 20), it would still take 10 man-days to dig down to it (no more than 4 men working at a time). Everyone is of course dead, although there is a small chance of recovering Rathorn’s magical possessions: [CENSORED].

B) The Slope and the Rivulet

The slope from the Nordvej up to the Temple is precipitous; it starts at 30 degrees and is closer to 45 near the temple. It is jumbled with stones, tree trunks, building materials and such, and is very unstable. Here and there, wall stones and floor tiles can be seen. There are a half-dozen enormous, broken marble pillars scattered here and there; if these begin to roll, anyone below will be in a world of hurt. Finally, three of the Temple’s stone sarcophagi have slid down the hillside.

A Knowledge: Engineering/Geography or Survival check (DC 16) reveals that the slope is extremely unstable and could collapse at any time. Anyone climbing up the slope must make a successful climb check (DC 16) to reach the bottom of the temple foundation. The results of failure are as follows:

Failure by 1-4 pts: a large stone or log is dislodged, rolls downhill. Everyone on downhill slope must make Reflex Save (DC 14) at +6 or take 1d6 damage.
Failure by 5-8 pts: several logs and stones are dislodged; everyone downslope must make a Reflex Save (DC 16) at +3 or take 3d6 damage.
Failure by 9+ pts: a swath of the hillside is disrupted; everyone downslope must make a reflex save (DC 18) or take 6d6 damage. Person on slope must make reflex save (DC 15) or take 3d6 damage and end up buried alive
Critical Failure (natural 1): the landslide is restarted; person on slope and everyone downslope must make a Reflex Save (DC 20) or take 8d6 damage and be buried alive

1. Broken sarcophagus

This stone sarcophagus is badly damaged, having rolled several times. Climb DC 10 to reach it. The lid has been smashed partially off; it contains dry, desiccated bones and the remains of fine clerical robes. The body has a cloth-of-gold cincture (worth 150 gp if cleaned and restored) and a tarnished silver symbol of Karg on a heavy silver chain (worth 75 gp if cleaned).

2. Intact sarcophagi

Both of these sarcophagi slid rather than rolled, and are relatively intact. The Climb DCs are 14 for the lower and 16 for the higher. Both contain dry, desiccated skeletons in priestly robes over rusted chainmail. The lower one is garbed in a once-rich but now rotting silk surcoat emblazoned with the sigul of Karg. The upper one contains a MW longsword and gilded scabbard (good condition, 500 gp) and a large wooden shield (rotting) marked with the remains of the symbol of Karg.

C) The Buried Temple

Note: If any of the intact tombs within the temple are disturbed, party will be attacked by 1d4 Allips, the spirits of those who died alone and in the dark.

To get from the bottom of the temple foundations to the temple interior requires a Climb check (DC 20).

3. The temple interior and the rivulet

The temple is 60’ wide, with 30’ high walls and a barrel-vaulted ceiling that arches to 60’ in the middle. The ceiling is supported by massive marble pillars 5’ in diameter and 45’ high; these are highly polished. The floor is made of sandstone, with polished marble tiles leading down towards the nave, and off between the pillars on both sides. The walls are greyish-green stone; the doors running down the sides are constructed of some sort of black stone, harder than iron, and highly polished.

Near the opening where the temple walls have been smashed away, the floor tiles are loose and prone to tilt, and occasionally a stone falls from the broken ceiling. The creaking of overstressed rock is everywhere. Piles of fallen rock and broken ceiling stones lie here and there on the floor, and pools of stagnant, reeking water can be seen dotting the marble. A trickle of water no more than a few feet wide and a dew inches deep snakes down the apse towards the opening; water runs down the newly-broken cliff-face.

4. The Violet Fungus colony

A colony of 2 large Violet Fungi, surrounded by 8 Shriekers and the skeletons of many dead rodents, clusters around this pillar. They have no treasure.

5. The Gray Ooze

This puddle resembles the other water puddles so closely that a Spot Check (DC 15) within 30’ is necessary to detect it. It will lash out at any living creature that comes into range, and will follow any that retreat. It has no treasure.

6. The Sarcophagus of Nambris

This sarcophagus is one of the only ones with intact writings on the surface; it is carved of limestone and inset with pieces of mother-of-pear. The insets spell out “Nambris, Warrior of Karg. Born 28, Died 69, Age of New Hope. Rest Well in the Mistress’ Arms”. It contains the desiccated skeleton of a mighty human warrior more than 7’ tall, wearing rusty ancient full plate, and bearing a rusty greatsword. The cadaver wears fine vambraces, silvered and inlaid with mother-of-pearl, easily worth 500 gp.
(More to follow)
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