This is going to be a sort of unusual series, as I’ll be brainstorming and gradually creating the text of an adventure that… after editing… I plan to sell. You know, much like how the rest of my Tribality Publishing releases were Harbinger posts first? Anyway, the goal is first to entertain you, my discerning and fashionably dressed readers, and secondly to make progress on creating this adventure during the portion of my writing week that goes to Harbinger. Anything here is subject to change, of course.
The Demigod in the Dungeon
The core of the idea is that there’s a bad guy that can’t be killed through any known means, but can be imprisoned through a complicated process. I’m going with “demigod,” since I expect a lot of settings can tolerate the addition of a heretofore unmentioned demigod. The demigod is in a particular dungeon for, you know, reasons, and that’s where the PCs go to bind them. Over the course of several sessions of adventure, and probably a few levels of advancement, the PCs go to various areas of this dungeon to gather or craft things they need.
- The place where the PCs are going to bind the demigod is also their “home base” within the dungeon, with features that they can upgrade. They’re going to be in multiple fights here over the course of the adventure, ideally creating attachment to the scene and lending more weight to the choices the PCs make there.
- Because so much of the adventure takes place in a dungeon, I have to do a little extra work to make sure there are plenty of chances for social interaction. To solve this, a group of about five NPC allies accompany the PCs into the dungeon. I’m not sure what all I’m doing with them, but when things are looking bad for the PCs, one of them betrays the PCs, or more if the PCs have alienated them. The GM can choose or randomly determine which NPC turns traitor. All of the NPCs are written with potential motivations for treachery.
- The adventure includes several crafting skill challenges, with experimental mechanics. My currently thinking is that they’re roughly based on the chase complication tables. I dunno.
- I want the PCs to have interesting ways to spend treasure that they find in the dungeon, without necessarily leaving the dungeon. Right now my idea for that is that there’s a dragon present who is willing to trade with the PCs, but is either not someone they’d want to fight, or would just wipe the floor with them. (I don’t prefer the latter.)
- I want the PCs to go into the dungeon and seal the door behind them. I want a sense that they can leave, and it’s better to leave than to have a TPK, but they shouldn’t leave without good reason. On the other hand, I need to account for ready access to new PCs, if and when someone bites it or new players join the game. One of the dungeon wings is an actual prison, but people are not simply behind bars (because I don’t want the PCs to recruit a dozen NPCs who don’t yet need to be PCs, pressuring the DM to describe them and implicitly locking those future PCs into… anything). They’re imprisoned in a more exotic way, perhaps as figures in a tapestry or painting that start moving when they’re suddenly able to emerge, or in some kind of cryosleep where, again, they wake when it’s convenient and not before. Stands-in-Fire’s Planescape game uses something like that cryosleep conceit to good effect. Or maybe the new PCs are just dead, and come back first as quasi-undead, and gradually become fully alive – just like Dust to Dust’s Returned.
- There’s a mechanism suggesting why areas of the dungeon scale along with you. Maybe it’s something to do with the demigod’s power growing, maybe it’s bad stuff that you’re forced to unleash within the dungeon, I dunno. I’d like a sense that the dungeon starts out challenging because it’s unfamiliar. Over time it’s getting more difficult faster than you’re getting more powerful, but your increasing knowledge of the dungeon and its tricks means you can stay even with it.
- I’m pretty likely to showcase my Soul Marking and/or Vile Hunger rules here, both because they suit the tone I want and to demonstrate their ideal use.
A Digression on Mega-Dungeons
I have to admit, I love having way more dungeon space to play with than the adventure could plausibly need, especially if there are reasons to go to a bunch of different places, but some things are just going to get left unexplored. The Endless Paths of Od Nua in Pillars of Eternity were a huge draw for my imagination, because oh look, optional megadungeon. If the main plot is getting tedious or you just don’t have enough time in this play session to get into the flow of the story, you can dip into the megadungeon. Tabletop play sessions aren’t quite the same, and I want to pay attention to those differences.
A feeling of completion is important in games, and if you care about completing the mega-dungeon part of the adventure, good on you. On the other hand, I love that Waterdeep: Dragon Heist emphasizes replay value by offering four campaigns in a single book. I’m imagining something like:
- You need adamantine, and that’s not readily available in the outside world. You could get it from either the Dwarven Quarry, which is full of hook horrors, or by dismantling the adamantine trip hammer mechanism, which risks angering the smithing-god to whom it is consecrated. (Placating the smithing-god would be a skill challenge, just like excavating the adamantine from the mine would be.)
- You need to shape the adamantine, which means using either opening the way to the Cursed Forge and increasing the danger level of the dungeon overall, or figuring out how to drain the water out of a flooded area of the dungeon.
- You need to learn the shape that the adamantine needs to be, the runes you need to engrave, and so on. You could reactivate a portal into a wizard’s tower for one last two-way trip (but if something goes wrong, there’s no second chance), or you can bargain with the drow who make contact with you for (reason), or you can recover the celestial loom, move it to your home base, and use it to get answers.
This isn’t exactly an efficient content model, but since I’m not currently on anything like a deadline, keeping content length reasonable isn’t yet a major goal. Realistically, I’d probably try to arrange things so that you can use a particular solution to solve multiple problems, but you can only use it once, so you’ve got to think it through. At the same time, none of us want to see a campaign grind to a halt because the PCs did things wrong and got to an unrecoverable state (other than a TPK, which is sort of a separate question). Instead, you can get to a position where the options are increasingly unpalatable, which is basically ideal for the game-runner.
Where was I… oh, right, bullet-point brainstorming. I’m thinking that my target level range here is something like 5th to 9th, give or take. I haven’t done a ton of adventure writing, so I haven’t really even figured out much content I’m making here. That’s why I want to write this in the first place – to learn by doing. I know I can write a passable boffer LARP module – not the bravura works of my colleagues, perhaps, but fun.
With that level range, I can start thinking about monsters in that CR band. Since we’re talking about 5e, viable opponents are a big level range. It would be easy for me to have various humanoids as the beginning, middle, and end of the opposing roster; after all, I have an easier time generating motives and tactics for humanoids than anything else. I’m trying not to do that here.
- Nycaloth is the first thing that catches my eye. I love me some yugoloths, but using them locks me into the DM’s Guild rather than just the SRD. I’ll have to think about this.
- Pretty much the whole run of golems. Maybe I’ll come up with interesting golem variants, like flesh golems with some more interesting parts installed.
- I like using bone nagas in Aurikesh, so I’ll throw them in here too.
- Grick and grick alpha? I’m not mainly going for tentacle horror here, but still. They’re good monsters, Brant.
- I don’t think I’ve ever fielded a gelatinous cube in all my years of running D&D. I’m putting some of them in this adventure, somehow.
- Hook horrors, and one of them was previously a humanoid servant of the demigod who was transformed in order to take control of the pack.
I’m also going to have humanoids and bipedal undead, of course.
- Ghouls. Thanks, Shattered Isles Plot Committee, for making ghouls one of my favorites, regardless of whether or not a setting regards them as undead or just Weird. (Ghouls are also a major part of Dust to Dust and Aurikesh, in very different ways.)
- I like the idea that the ghouls are feeding, or are planning to feed, on the demigod. What can I say, J.M. Perkins’s Salt In Wounds setting speaks to me, and this is my riff. Ghouls that feed on the demigod get turned into minibosses if they survive the experience, maybe?
- Dragonborn. I think I want to create a variant group of dragonborn that are hostile to the PCs for (reasons), but also trying to stop the ghouls. Uneasy allies are fun. Since I’m treating the dungeon as a sealed environment at some points, I need to figure out what my story is for creatures that haven’t been in the dungeon since time out of mind.
- Duergar? I’m kind of seeing the dungeon complex’s history as a dwarven settlement that was converted into the demigod’s stronghold. It might be cool to have duergar break through the walls at some point because they think it’s still occupied by dwarves. In actually running this adventure, I’d encourage DMs to start with the duergar as a threat, but have things go badly enough for them at the hands of the demigod’s minions that the PCs wind up rescuing the last few survivors.
That’s probably about enough.
From this point forward in this series, I’m writing first draft text. I’ll use quote blocks for asides about design.
First Draft Text
Of all the things that dwell in dark and hidden places, most are ancient beyond reckoning, but from time to time something new springs forth. The Citadel of the Iron Veil was built by dwarves in their years of glory, but as with so many dwarf-holds, it was isolated and overwhelmed by its foes. The malice of the Putrescent God took root there, and through rites too bizarre and vile to speak of, a demigod was brought forth into the world: Venalitazh, Who-Brings-the-New-Flesh, the Hungry Child, the Rune-marked Eye. As long as the Putrescent God endures, Venalitazh can never be slain.
The Binding of Venalitazh is a scenario for the fifth edition of the world’s most popular roleplaying game, intended for characters starting at 5-6 characters of 5th level or 3-4 characters of 6th level. By the end of the story, the characters will be at least 9th level. If you’re avoiding spoilers for this adventure, this is your first and last warning.
The Binding of Venalitazh is an extended foray into a single dungeon that is comprised of several discrete adventures. The course of the story is as follows:
- The characters learn of the threat of Venalitazh and, with an assortment of companions, establish a foothold within the Citadel of the Iron Veil. They can explore further areas of the dungeon and improve the area that they claim as their own. The characters meet other groups that also have designs upon the Citadel.
- Venalitazh learns of their presence and sends his servants against them, leading to escalating conflict. The characters gather the materials that they need in order to bind Venalitazh, and they construct a prison for him. In a final, desperate showdown, they seal him away.
The Citadel of the Iron Veil
This ancient dwarf-hold was founded during the golden age of dwarven expansion. At its height, it defended the mountains, valleys, and lowlands more than 100 miles beyond its gates, and it produced the rare and precious adamantine ore for which the dwarf-forges were so famed. The dwarven master smiths forged weapons, armor, and tools of great potency within the high holy fires of Iron Veil, called the Flame of Omen and the Bronze Sun.
The citadel’s forges, passageways, and homes went dark a century ago, however. The might of the dwarves waned as the numbers of their enemies grew. The last queen of Iron Veil, Kahra Bishak, ordered negotiated safe passage to another dwarven realm for the citadel’s last 200 defenders. She herself stayed behind with her sister Saadet. Ostensibly, this was a show of grief and shame for the loss, but the invaders never found either of them. Instead, they found that their numbers dwindled unaccountably over the weeks of their ransacking of the Citadel. Yet if either of the sisters had survived, surely they would have called the dwarves to move back in when the invaders had moved on, and no such call ever came.
Whatever the case, the invaders departed, but the citadel did not long stand empty. It was home to renegade wizards, undead creatures, monstrosities from the Underdark, and malign intellects. Most recently, a trio of cultists seeking new insights into the Putrescent God conducted their rites of mortification there, hoping to attract the god’s blessing. At the rite’s end, the leader of the trio was in such a religious ecstasy that he killed and ate one of his companions. Impressed with the priest’s desire for divine union, the Putrescent God placed a fragment of its power in him, and over the next month he was destroyed and transformed into Venalitazh, an infant among godlings but a vast power among mortals.
What Does This Have to Do With Me?
This adventure asks for a high level of commitment from the characters, as they’re entering the dungeon and locking themselves in until they defeat Venalitazh. It’s beyond the ordinary call of duty for an adventurer.
- Religious motivations work for religious characters, of course. Few gods want to see Venalitazh come to the fullness of his power, and many faiths and sects might unite to this end. The PCs are preferable for the effort over still more famous heroes because they don’t yet have obligations that would cause catastrophic problems if no one was handling them for months or longer.
- Similarly, any local or regional political group with an interest in protecting themselves and their allies might hire the characters, first to find out what’s going on, and later to do something about it.
- A survivor of the retreat from Iron Veil believes that Kahra or Saadet are still alive, and asks the characters to investigate the ruined citadel for any sign of her. During that foray, they learn about Venalitazh and the threat he poses to the wider world if the Putrescent God has a demigod serving him in the world.
- Venalitazh targets the PCs for abduction and transformation, as they’re powerful enough to be worth his attention but not powerful enough to be highly resistant to transformation. The characters come under attack from a group of monsters in a way that is highly unusual and not too difficult to track back to its source.
That’s it for now. Comments welcome, though it’s a long way from being any kind of finished work and a lot of questions get no better response than “I’ll figure it out when I get there.”
PS. I’m using corruptions of a lot of DtD names in this. If you see that belongs to you and you don’t want me to use it, let me know and I’ll swap it out. I needed placeholders so that I wouldn’t get stuck for hours on picking out names!