Sunless Citadel Variations: Birthright, Part 1

I completely gave the Sunless Citadel a miss during its first release, back in the early days of 3.0. As most readers undoubtedly recall, there was far more than enough D&D material to spend money, even before the OGL content glut. It has been lightly retooled for 5e in Tales from the Yawning Portal, which is a great book with some really odd up-front decisions that I can’t resist mentioning. First, I wonder if their marketing department raised an eyebrow at a book title that implies boredom, and second, invoking the Yawning Portal while including 0% Undermountain or Waterdeep content is well-nigh misleading. But that’s not what I’m here to talk about. Each dungeon in TftYP includes a sidebar for adapting it to other published settings, so in this series, I’m going to cover more settings and in a lot more lore-dense depth. My fixations being my own, I am starting with Birthright.

Specifically, I’m starting in the region of Anuire, because it’s the most traditional of the regions, and because it features goblins more prominently than other regions (with Rjurik as a close runner-up). Wherever I need a 5e conversion for a 2e Birthright rule, I’ll be drawing on Marsupialmancer’s excellent work. Marsupialmancer also contributed most of the better ideas here. Also, there’s a better-than-even chance that someone else has already done exactly what I’m doing here; I am pointedly not searching for it on Google, because I want to practice this kind of adaptation. As I get into other regions and settings and keep iterating on the Sunless Citadel, I expect the variations will grow more pronounced.

Obviously, if you’re planning to PC Sunless Citadel and haven’t already read it, I’m going to spoil the crap out of it, because I’ll be talking about what I’m changing. This is your only warning.


Location, Location, Location

Anuire offers a ton of great options for the Sunless Citadel’s location. The main constraints are that it not be too heavily traveled, because otherwise the mostly-unexplored, monster-infested nature of the place makes less sense (but I’ll play with this, too, in a later variation), and it would be nice but not mandatory if it were in or near a goblin-held domain. Consider this embarrassment of riches:

  • The Gorgon’s Crown: setting the adventure here really cranks up the tension, because even if you’re just fighting goblins, it’s like going on a low-level adventure into Mordor. If some of those goblins get away, you could have the Gorgon’s army chewing on your face (and your home domain’s face) in the next month.
    • Obviously, that makes this the best option, because why screw around with low-stakes play if you already get to be a monarch? Other than the fact that most PC-playable domains are a long, long way away. Yeah, that’s a problem.
  • The Spiderfell: Unlike the Gorgon’s Crown, the Spiderfell is smack in the middle of everything. It touches four PC-playable domains, and it’s still quite close to about three more. The domain writeup doesn’t go into a lot of depth on the regional history, but I’ll be damned if the description of the Spiderfell forest won’t have the PCs jumping at shadows before they even get to the Sunless Citadel. It’s also the most likely site (possibly in all of Cerilia) for something called the Twilight Grove.
  • Mieres and Aduria: We don’t get a lot of detail on Aduria west of Mieres, but that’s hardly a drawback for our purposes. We know that this area was once heavily populated – it was the land-bridge that brought humanity to Cerilia – so a forgotten, monster-haunted citadel that sank a bit on its foundations is the most natural thing in the world. Especially if your PCs have a few levels of being shiftless heirs apparent before assuming control of actual holdings (if it worked for Prince Hal, it could work for a Birthright campaign), Mieres is a great place to go slumming. It takes nothing at all to imagine that goblins might be found in numbers on Aduria, even if the text doesn’t call it out. (The humans that came to Cerilia were fleeing the Shadow, right?)
  • Markazor and Mur-Kilad, as puppet states of the Gorgon’s Crown, get a lot of the tension-building benefit of the first option, while greatly increasing the number of adjacent, PC-playable domains. Markazor is even a goblin domain. DMs can work a little harder to get things to go wrong here without necessarily putting starting PCs in a life-or-death struggle against the biggest non-deific bad guy in the setting.
  • Thurazor and the Five Peaks are also packed with goblins. The Five Peaks is essentially pristine wilderness except for all the damn vampires monsters, while Thurazor has the interesting benefit of being the most civilized of the goblin domains. They got them some of that fancified book larnin’. The nice thing about Thurazor, as a location, is that Cariele and Dhoesone good PC-playable domains, and they are so mixed up in Thuraz money and politics that it presents a great alternate adventure hook.

So like I said, almost too many perfect options. I’m going to go forward with the Spiderfell, but abandoning some of the others hurts me enough that I’ll try to throw in notes about using other options, if they occur to me.


Background Lore

There are some key pieces of background that we might as well tackle next: the Gulthias Tree, the Twilight Grove, Ashardalon, and “dragonpriests.” The adventure also features kobolds heavily, but as far as I know kobolds are not found in Cerilia or Aebyrnis at all.

The Gulthias Tree

Whenever you run into a reference to a clearly-fantastical monster that isn’t a goblin, orog, gnoll, or dragon in Birthright, and especially if it could be a one-off monster, it’s an awnsheghlien or ehrsheghlien (for those rare few goodly one-off monsters). Since Gulthias and his Tree are Bad News, Gulthias must have been some kind of awnsheghlien. Now, there’s already a vampire in Birthright; he takes the definite article and dwells in Brechtür. It would be a terrible breach of style in Birthright to repeat an awnsheghlien, but that’s fine – literally every one of them has a power-of-the-blood theme, because that’s a core setting conceit.

Now, in the Sunless Citadel text, it’s a stretch (though a compelling one) to have a staked vampire be the source of twig blights and such. But I’m thinking that Gulthias – hrm, how about Gwyltheias – was an elf, tainted by Azrai’s bloodline after Deismaar (like y’do), who returned to his creepy dark forest (it probably used to be larger than it is now – Tuarhievel and the Sielwode have the same problem) and fought with the Spider for some time. Long enough, at least, that Gwyltheias became the awnsheghlien known as the Treant. As time went on, he became increasingly sessile, but also mastered the trick of creating and sending out twig blights and their bigger cousins. This became a proxy conflict between the Spider’s, er, spiders and the blights, which accounts for the Spiderfell being quite as creepy as it is. Finally, the Spider defeated the Treant in the Sunless Citadel itself, but could not slay him utterly. The Treant set down his roots for the last time and fell into torpor. The entirety of his power now goes into making the midsummer and midwinter fruits.

The Twilight Grove

The Twilight Grove was, clearly enough, the seat of Gwyltheias’s power in this forest, enough so that he used some of his elf-lore and magical power (whatever class he might have been) to create a flourishing underground forest. Looking ahead to the Grove level of the dungeon, it’s clear that Gwyltheias had some unusual stuff going on (on which more in a moment), but it wouldn’t be hard to add a few details to suggest a ruined court of some kind. I get the impression that Gwyltheias was more of a local viceroy for the elven regents in the Sielwode, and he was performing some kind of questionable magical study here as Azrai’s blood twisted his thought toward darkness.


Ashardalon is a lot tougher to fit. Birthright has dragons, don’t get me wrong – not the metallic, gem, or chromatic dragons of the Monster Manual, nor linnorms, nor… you know what, I’m not going to try to list them here. Birthright’s dragons are called Cerilian dragons, and their writeup is one side of one of the card inserts in the Birthright boxed set. It… is not super friendly to what goes on here. Marsupialmancer’s version in his Bestiary differs from the original in ways that make encounters more interesting and probable (in the sense that most campaigns aren’t set in the Drachenaur Mountains). For the record, this is the right way to ignore a game’s canon. Just so I’ve said that.

Now, if you’re not familiar with Ashardalon, the Sunless Citadel is his first textual appearance – they’re name-dropping him like mad because SC is the first adventure in a loose adventure path that leads to fighting Ashardalon and preventing his apotheosis. Since I don’t have all of the other adventures in that series, just “Forge of Fury” (because it’s in Tales), I don’t currently anticipate adapting the rest of the adventures, and thus I don’t care about operable consistency going forward. On the other hand, there’s a really nice bit of potential story here that springboards off of Ashardalon’s canonical arc. Marsupialmancer suggests that dragons cannot have Bloodline scores; if this is BR canon, he’s drawing that text for someplace more obscure than I know about at the moment. That sounds like a good rule for our boy Ashardalon to work on breaking.

How would that goal (regardless of where Ashardalon is in working on it) fit into the dynamic of Gwyltheias and the Spider? The Spiderfell is positioned right on the doorstep of human power centers. Obviously, Gwyltheias was responsible for holding this forest against the inexorable human conquest, and as that prospect went from dire to seemingly impossible, Gwyltheias cut a deal. Ashardalon, even wiser in the lore of mebhaigl than the elves, taught Gwyltheias how to make the Spiderfell impenetrable and continually growing, despite all efforts to clear it. In return, Gwyltheias worked on spells to grant Ashardalon a bloodline. The waveform of this effort’s success or failure won’t collapse until it is useful to you that it do so.


This one is a bit of a problem. The adventure is already crammed with goblins, and kobolds may not be a lot of variety, but it’s something. The first level of the dungeon also wants to get some good grist out of the kobolds and the goblins having split up the dungeon, and occasionally clashing. Now, to my knowledge, Birthright doesn’t have anything lower on the food chain than goblins, so the first good option that comes to mind is a second goblin tribe, with different insignias or whatever. This doubles down on the monotony of goblin fights, though. (Also, there are no hobgoblins in Birthright, but we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.) You could always accept a modest difficulty increase in the adventure and replace the kobolds with orcs, or a steeper difficulty increase and replace them with orogs. With all the changes we’ve made to Ashardalon’s story, though, these non-kobolds kind of need a new reason to be here. Blood Enemies: Abominations of Cerilia reveals that the Spider was once the goblin chieftain Tal-Qazar (or possibly an elf who assassinated Tal-Qazar and absorbed his bloodline, functionally becoming him), and at least doesn’t invalidate my addition of the Treant. I’m suggesting, then, that the Spider controls the existing goblin tribe, and may have modified some of them to be more spider-like, while the kobolds are replaced with humans from Osoerde, or possibly Ghoere. (Plenty of great options for evil human domains around here.)

Incidentally, Blood Enemies also suggests that there’s another elf assassin in the Spiderfell going after the Spider, named Denin the Mutable. Let’s put a pin in that, because more talky encounters – especially one as ambiguous as an elf in Birthright – are always good. Oh, and how about that, the text mentions that the Spider’s true death requires “wood from a dryad’s tree.” Dryads are a thing here? I wonder if there are other attested references – but boy, wouldn’t that make more sense if it were the Treant’s wood, the Spider’s ancient foe, and it had to be given freely?


Imagining for a moment that Gwyltheias and Ashardalon made some forward progress, it’s reasonable that Ashardalon would have worked on building some kind of cult around himself. I mean, he has delusions of grandeur for a dragon. Could a dragon given temporary infusions of Azrai-tainted blood (let’s suppose that was Gwyltheias’s technique, which worked in the short term but got purged out of Ashardalon’s system in the medium term) grant spells of some kind? Sure, I would buy that. In Birthright, that might reasonably be Draconic sorcery (seriously like the only Draconic sorcery in the whole world), or a one-off Draconic Patron. The dragonpriest’s conversion to troll, of all things, seems weird even in the original context, but using the troll stats for a warped, undying monster more or less makes sense. Maybe Gwyltheias did that to him so that Gwyltheias and Ashardalon could keep taking Azrai-tainted blood from him, without limit. Anyway, the ideal outcome for story potential here is that the PCs free him and he either chases them off or escapes them, so that he can regenerate to full strength and be an ongoing foe, probably wrapping himself in a leper’s bandages and becoming an adviser to whoever the PCs really hate.


Into the Dungeon

As we shift from the sweeping changes to the smaller-scale stuff, I feel like we want to retain as much as possible, so we get as much benefit as possible out of the existing text. We need a pretty solid story impact (or consistency with the things established above) to justify changes. I’ll be going through these fairly quickly, with room number tags where appropriate.

Oakhurst becomes (or is renamed to) a village in whichever of bordering provinces it makes sense for the PCs to approach through. Change its shrine to the major religion of that province, and change the gnome priest to… probably a human, but maybe a halfling.

All references to Dwarvish runes change to Elvish.

In most cases (maybe not all, variety is good), change giant rat encounters to half-round-up as many giant wolf spiders or one-quarter as many giant spiders. CRs aren’t going to line up, but hitting the PCs just a little harder than the adventure indicates is not a big deal. The adventure is composed of a large number of small encounters, and I figure a lot of them end before the monster’s initiative comes up, as maybe two PCs in the party beat its initiative roll and one of them lands a solid hit. This is a gameplay loop that I feel like I see a lot in low-level play, as a pseudo-solution for PCs being so fragile and having such limited resources.

Meepo is one of the elements of the Sunless Citadel that many groups latched onto, because everyone wants a friendly kobold… can I get away with calling him a dogsbody?… sure, why not. Anyway, he’s a pitiable figure and potential ally, which means I’m doing the adventure a serious disservice if I don’t put something equally likable in his place. The obvious path here is reworking the story to be an outcast goblin, maybe giving the PCs more insight into the culture of Birthright goblins. If that’s not enough pathos, maybe he’s partly changed with spider-stuff, but is reacting badly to it because – surprise! – this goblin has a bloodline that isn’t Azrai. How did that happen? Beats me, work it out if the character survives.

More overtly magical creatures – a quasit, some mephits, and some fire snakes – show up in the adventure. This is pretty weird for Birthright, though not completely beyond the pale. That said, the province of the Spiderfell is rated 0/7, so there are a lot of source holdings floating around. The wizard Caine (not BR’s best NPC naming effort) holds an unstated number of them. For our purposes, let’s assume that that number is less than 7. Particularly at location 45, the text could hardly shout “this is a source holding waiting to happen” any more than it does, and since we’ve posited Gwyltheias as a potent spellcaster, it makes perfect sense that he built his stronghold on one, but lost control of it upon his quasi-death. Normally, a PC would have to spend a domain turn to establish a source holding here and it would be a vulnerable level 0 until improved, but those rules don’t account for personally exploring the area, clearing it of dangers, and so on. Anyway, if there’s a wizard or other character in the party who cares about sources in the party, a source (1) holding is a great reward – or adventure hook! For the creatures themselves, eh, strange things show up around sources, maybe don’t sweat it. At most, change the quasit’s description to be more Shadow Realm-y.

Hobgoblins and bugbears are not attested in Birthright canon, to the best of my recollection, but it’s very common in BR for goblins to gain class levels, so replacing these with CR-appropriate humanoid stat blocks from the back of the MM or Volo’s Guide to Monsters, and simply tacking on whatever set of goblin racial traits your table uses (ahem, probably also from VGtM), is completely sensible. For variation, though, you can also sub in gnolls, since the Spiderfell text calls those out as present.

Edit: I am super wrong about this! Use hobgoblins and bugbears freely – they all fall under the “goblin” descriptor in Birthright, and are treated as one race with a lot of internal variation. Good catch, Marsupialmancer – that’s what I get for not checking my lore deeply enough.

For Yusdrayl, I favor making her a cleric of Belinik, because I favor tying in Osoerde’s temple of Belinik (sorry, “One True Church of Vosgaard”), and the church’s high priest would take interest in these ruins and the lore of Ashardalon. Maybe she’s a magician with the Acolyte background, rather than a cleric as such.

Erky Timbers, like the gnome priest in Oakhurst, is now a halfling.

Calcryx, the white dragon wyrmling, is the last big problem. Canonically, the youngest Cerilian dragon is Old, which we could generously treat as “Adult on the cusp of Ancient,” if only so that there’s some variation in dragon ages. (Marsupialmancer notably doesn’t mess around with age categories and goes straight to CR 24. Completely fair decision within canon.) A wyrmling, then, is right out. I think my answer is to replace Calcryx and all references to it with either a phase spider, brought into Aebyrnis from the Shadow Realm. The long game here is to tame it and use it against the Spider (if you put it in the hands of goblins serving the Treant and Belak the Outcast), or feed it to the Spider so he gains its phasing powers (if you put it in the hands of those serving the Spider). There’s likely to be some confusion here, but Calcryx doesn’t serve a lot of clear story relevance – the goblins stole it from the kobolds, and it doesn’t want to go back.

The midsummer fruit and midwinter fruit are awfully straightforward good thing/bad thing objects, and I have no idea why the original SC text has a staked vampire producing healing fruit. In any case, it would make sense for our Gwyltheias to bear fruit that is, in both cases, a mixed blessing. In his torpor, Gwyltheias is still trying to grant Azrai’s bloodline to Ashardalon, after a fashion, but has less control over the process than ever:

  • Midsummer fruit: A character who eats this fruit regains 70 hit points, and ends any blindness, deafness, and diseases affecting them. If the character possesses a bloodline, that character must roll a DC 18 Constitution saving throw at the start of each of the next six months. If the character fails three or more of those saving throws, their bloodline is converted from its normal derivation to Azrai. A greater restoration or more powerful magic, cast before the character has failed three saving throws, ends the effect and prevents harm. Once a bloodline is converted to Azrai, only the mightiest of magics can return it to normal. (The seeds of this fruit create twig blights as in the text.)
  • Midwinter fruit: A character who eats this fruit suffers 70 necrotic damage. If an unblooded character suffers this damage and survives, or if an unblooded character eats the flesh of a creature that died to this fruit’s necrotic damage, it must roll a DC 18 Constitution saving throw at the start of each of the next six months. If the character fails three of those saving throws, it dies. (These saving throws ignore the Legendary Resistance trait; creatures with that trait are instinctively aware that it will not help them.) If the character succeeds five or more of these saving throws, it gains a Tainted bloodline of a randomly-generated derivation. (The seeds of this fruit create twig blights as in the text.)

Aside from whatever I’ve overlooked, that should about do it for conversion. A less dungeon-driven adventure would need a lot more hooks for domain actions and politics, but as it is, this adventure plunges the PCs into the middle of an ancient feud between the Spider and another awnsheghlien, and sets up Ashardalon as a possible later storyline. I’m pleased with how well the existing text in “Ruins of Empire” and Blood Enemies plugs into what I wanted to do anyway, and I sure hope that later adaptations in other regions and other settings prove to be just as convenient.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this adaptation. For obvious reasons of owning the rights to neither Birthright nor the Sunless Citadel, this is a free fan work. If you’ve enjoyed it and want to support future works like it, my tip jar is always open. Or buy your friends, loved ones, and pets a copy of my PDFs on DriveThruRPG…

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *