Our heroes go a quest filled with kobolds, goblins, a dead dragon cult, and the nastiest tree in the world.
Our campaign is taking a break from the intrigue of Waterdeep Dragon Heist to go kill some monsters in one of the classic funhouse dungeons presented in Tales From the Yawning Portal. This will be a recurring pattern in our campaign; run a chapter in Waterdeep, then a dungeon in Tales. In my head, I have a way to tie them all together with my Top Secret end game adventure. Hopefully, I can pull it off. We shall see.
Today’s dungeon is The Sunless Citadel, first released for the 3rd Edition D&D. It features a turf war between groups of kobolds and goblins that have moved into an abandoned temple which was swallowed by a ravine during some ancient cataclysm. Many role play options exist as the players decide which faction to support or even pit both tribes against the other.
The lower level has been converted into the laboratory of an insane Druid who controls an abominable affront to nature; a tree borne from the corpse of a vampire. In addition, the Sunless Citadel once belonged to an evil cult and many of its traps and puzzles are still active. Oh, and of course, there’s a dragon.
This adventure is written for beginner characters, levels 1-3. But my players are all 6th level, so I will need to scale all my monsters and traps upward to give them a good challenge. There are three ways to increase combat challenge – Increase the number of enemies, Increase their hit points, Exchange to a more powerful monster. For example, one fight called for 3 skeletons. I increased it to 5 skeleton with max hit points. The level 1 boss changed from a hobgoblin to a Hobgoblin Warlord, a much harder foe. I did the same for the traps; a 10′ pit just got spikes added at the bottom and so on.
This was also the first session that we played after the pandemic hit, and our players were split between two houses. I wanted to see if it was possible to run a remote session, completely for free, without using the typical D&D online services. You can, but it is time consuming.
I set up my computer with all my maps in Photoshop where I added a Fog of War layer on top that I could remove as the players discovered each room. I set up three phone cameras, mine and my two boys. One focused on the computer screen, one showed us sitting around the table, and one looked straight down over the battle mat for combat. Then I set up a Zoom call between these three phones and our remote players. It had a few rough edges but it worked really well, and I’ve used this setup a few times now. Okay, on with the adventure
When last we left our heroes, they were the talk of the town after rescuing the crown prince of the city. They were caught in the whirlwind of celebrity; written about in the local paper, recognized on the streets, and wined and dined at elegant noble parties. It was during one such party, when an uncouth ruffian crashed the gates.
The front doors of the noble’s home are kicked open by a large bald man with a purple tattoo on his head and very large boots on his feet. In a loud, booming, slightly dim-witted voice, he cries out, “Out of my way you silly servant. I’m on a mission of goodness and will not be deterred by the likes of you and your puny boots. I am seeking the Defenders of Trollgate. A man in a floppy hat (Volo) said they would be here. Boo and I need your aid. Evil has struck, and we must strike second, before the evil strikes back. Right, Boo?” A hamster sitting on his shoulder squeaks in approval.
This is Minsc, perhaps the most popular NPC of all time. First appearing in the RPG computer game, Baldur’s Gate, he is beloved the world over. He is infamous for his classic one-liners, his unwavering mission to “stomp evil”, and the fact that he talks to a hamster that lives in his armor. Minsc claims this hamster, Boo, is really a miniature-sized, giant space-hamster and that it gives Minsc guidance and advice. Minsc does not remember how he met Boo, and no one but Minsc can speak Hamster. Obviously, a guy like this belongs in every D&D campaign. BTW, Minsc has had several classes over the years, but I play him as a 4th level Ranger with the racial enemy, Gnoll. Sadly, there are zero Gnolls in this adventure; better luck next time.
Minsc explains that he was part of a group hired by the residents of Secomber, a few days south from here. For years, a group of goblins has entered the town every spring and sold them a magical fruit that heals anyone who eats it. The town has tried several times to cultivate this fruit, but every time the seeds take root, they mysteriously disappear. Minsc and company were hired to investigate these goblins who live somewhere in the local badlands called the High Moor.
But while Minsc was sleeping, during their first night on the moor, the rest of the party just vanished. He awoke the next morning and they were gone without a trace. He is convinced that something evil took them and it is his mission in life to rescue them. But he can’t do it alone, even with his faithful hamster by his side. “And everyone has heard the stories of the Saviors of Phandalin, travelling the North, doing good deeds, and living in Waterdeep. Please, you must help me smash evil with goodness.”
This combined several story hooks and subplots, it was presented by a single, fun NPC, and avoided the whole tedious gathering rumors in town phase common to most adventures like this. Unbeknownst to them, Minsc’s party wasn’t kidnapped or evaporated. They had abandoned Minsc because he is crazy. But neither Minsc nor my players know this yet, so off they go.
Two days of uneventful travel later, they arrive at the campsite of the missing party. With no clues to be found, our heroes continue on blindly in the direction the previous party was heading. About a day later, they find the cliff top descent into the Citadel. Sometimes, I like to have the journey to the dungeon be an adventure unto itself, but due to this pandemic’s split player setup, I just wanted to jump right into the adventure. (He says 1000 words into this recap.)
I like that this dungeon has an unconventional entrance. Because the entire building has collapsed into a deep ravine, the players have to climb down onto the top of one of the battlements to gain entrance. Although it isn’t, it feels like a Reverse Dungeon, where the players start in the middle of the dungeon and have to work their way out. Later on, I will further enhance this feeling. Also, here was the first of the dozen traps in the adventure.
I like all the traps in the adventure, but I do wish that there was more variety. There tend to be a lot of pit traps and stabby weapon traps, which can get a little boring. But I really wish that the map actually showed where all the traps were. There were numerous times when the trap is only mentioned in the text and I completely forgot to include it during the adventure.
Good thing I added several more traps and divided them into three categories. First, there are the traps set by the kobolds. These consist of pit traps and items dropped from doorways. The goblin defenses involve guard posts, alarms, and heavy weapons. Then there are the original citadel traps. These are more elaborate, are located in unoccupied areas and involve damage based upon dragon breath weapons.
I changed this first trap (area #3) to be a weakened section of the rooftop. When Regizar the Oblivious walked over it, he fell 30’ into a collapsed tower onto jagged rubble for 4d6 damage. Regizar has 60+ hit points, so his player, Andrew, laughed it off… until I had dozens of rats swarm him while the rest of the party struggled to get a rope down to him. He wasn’t laughing by the time they hauled him out of there. At this point, my players tend to be dismissive of low level monster. But this and another rat encounter next week, will prove them wrong.
The next room (#4) includes a strange reference to “Ashardalon”. The Sunless Citadel was initially part of an eight adventure storyline that culminated in a battle with an ancient red dragon named Ashardalon. This reference was not removed in Tales From the Yawning Portal reprint even though it has no bearing on any of the other dungeons in the book. You should change this reference to foreshadow something relevant in your campaign. For my campaign, I kept the citadel as a dragon cult, specifically the one dedicated to turning dragons into undead liches. So, I changed the reference to the most powerful dracolich in the game, Daurgothoth.
The party proceeds down the southern path but was quickly stopped by a locked door (area #6) that the thief could not pick. The players are relieved that they now had a definitive goal – Find that key. Heading this way also gave them a big clue about something they missed earlier. The Fog of War that I created left a big black spot on the map. Thanks to this, they found the secret door to Room #5, avoided the needle trap, killed the skellies inside (this is where I had five skeletons instead of three), and obtained their first ever magic arrows.
Moving on, I added a pit trap in the hall leading to the kobold section and added spikes at the bottom. Callan the Thief found this trap just fine, but then Regizar the Foolhardy decides to jump over it anyway. I was very disappointed when he made his ability check.
The next room made James very happy. Way back in Phandelver Session 4, James was jealous when Droop the Goblin joined our group and Andrew claimed him to be his personal squire. To balance this sibling rivalry, I told James that this adventure had someone that would be perfect for his character, but I wouldn’t tell him what. But first they had to get through the door.
Regizar the Brash just kicks the door open (area #15) and is rewarded with a bucket of poisonous centipedes dropped on his head. A minor nuisance to an almighty, 6th level fighter, but it was very funny. Inside, they discover Meepo, the Keeper of Dragons for the kobold tribe. Unfortunately, this tribe no longer has a dragon. It had been stolen by the gang of goblins in the northern wing of the citadel. James instantly recognized that this was “his guy” because, unbeknownst to his fellow players, his character, Riandon, owns a slightly stolen green dragon egg that is just waiting to hatch.
Immediately, Riandon offers to help recapture the dragon, which Meepo (and the move-the-story-along gods) obviously accepts and takes the party to meet his leader, Yusdrayl. Little do they know, the dragon does not want to be recaptured and is openly hostile to Meepo, but we’ll burn that bridge later. Meepo is a Kobold Inventor, one of the monsters from Volo’s Guide to Monsters and probably one of the funniest NPCs to run. On any round of attack, he might throw breakable urns filled with centipedes, spiders, or slime; swing a spear with a scorpion tied to it, or fling open a cage with an ill-tempered skunk inside; all things perfect for injecting a little more chaos into any combat.
Meepo escorts the party to the Hall of Dragons and the Dragon Throne (#19 & 21), all while giving them a little tour of the colony and deactivating all the traps that he set which he is very proud of and explains all the details of, much to the chagrin of the players, except James; he loves this guy! I play Meepo as an excited kid who is just thrilled to be on an adventure, like a kobold Charlie Bucket. James is just thrilled to have his own (eventual) minion.
Sitting upon the Dragon Throne, which is just a rock, is Yusdrayl, the kobold chief. But more importantly, on the wall above the kobold is a carved dragon with an iron key held in its jaws. What occurred next was the quickest role play conversations ever. I had just begun Yusdrayl’s spiel about the vile goblins next door, when the players cried out in unison, “Yeah, yeah, whatever. If we get rid of these goblins for you, will you give us that key?”
“Uhm, sure,” I reply. “Done! Where these goblins at?” Man, I’m gonna have to start improving my game with players this jaded and savvy.
I ask the group if they want to go in directly via the front door or the sneaky back door. They choose the back door. The party heads off to Goblinville with Meepo in tow. Yusdrayl gives Meepo a warning that if he cannot get their dragon back then the clan will find themselves a new dragon keeper. James’s odds of obtaining his very own Dragon Keeper have vastly improved.
Before we go further, I want to discuss the central tension in this first half of the dungeon. Obviously, these two tribes are at odds with each other, but there are dozens of monsters on both sides, generally too many for a low level party to simply hack and slash their way through. The book states that the kobolds are neutral to the party, but the goblins are innately hostile to any adventurers. I suggest that both groups start off neutral (sort of) to allow for some interesting role playing options.
The kobolds are pretty straight forward. The party will always meet Meepo before anyone else. Most parties will be sympathetic to him and play into his story. This will lead to a conversation with the kobold chief, and the party will most likely agree to help the kobolds. Of course, if the party goes on a murder spree, que sera, sera.
Assuming the party agrees to help the kobolds, make the success condition be to either end the goblin threat or rescue the dragon. If both succeed, great, but it is unlikely that a party will be able to do both. Have the kobolds describe the goblins as evil and nasty, but this is not necessarily so. The goblins will treat any adventurers as trespassers and will attack them, but if the party approaches peacefully, they might get inside without combat. Once within the goblin camp, I altered several individuals to have conflicting motives that can lead to multiple ways to “end the goblin threat.” But I will explain each one when they appear in our story.
The back door starts in a hallway just off the room where the group met Meepo. This is how the goblin snuck in a stole the dragon. But there are zero defenses here. You would think that the kobold would beef up security in this section. To correct that, I added two traps in this hallway, but more to scare the players not cruelly damage them.
The first is where the hallway narrows to 5 feet. It is a simple trip-wire / collapsing-wall trap but it is designed to hit people coming into the kobold camp not out. So, when the first player (who is still not checking for traps) hits the trip-wire, the tunnel collapses behind them and only the last player needs to roll a Dexterity check to dodge out of the way. He fails for 1d10 points of damage. While the rest of the party, digs the cleric out of the rubble, they yell at Meepo for not telling them about this trap. Meepo sheepishly explains that he forgot.
Now the real purpose of this trap is to cut off their escape route. They have no idea what lies ahead, but now they have no choice but to go forward and with no chance of retreat. This really increases the sense of danger.
Meepo remembers tell them about the next trap in the hall. But the point is moot, because the trap has obviously been triggered by a group of now-dead goblins. Again, it is a simple pit trap with spikes like the one in the beginning of the dungeon. But this time the trap is half-open with a goblin crushed between the edges while he stood on the stacked bodies of other dead goblins, when he tried to escape. I include moments like these because they tell the players that things occur in the world without the party being present. Most things in D&D tend to just sit a room, until the players come along and ruin their day. But not these guys; something else ruined their day. Meepo also claims that he has never been past this section, so no more hints!
The next two rooms were pretty straight forward. At the dry fountain (#26), James’s Riandon found and repeated the magic runes and received a Potion of Fire Breath for his efforts. Hopefully, they save this potion, since it will be very useful once they get that key from the kobolds. Next, I completely forgot about the blade trap leading to the next room; again, because it was not printed on the map.
Once inside the room (#27), I changed the 5 skeletons to 3 zombies and 2 ghouls, but I played them at full strength and without pulling any punches and they proved to be a formidable fight. At various points every player got paralyzed and one zombie just would not stay dead. One interesting thing happened during this fight. Right at the end, a player, Andrew, rolled our first “Nat 20” critical hit follow by a “Nat 100” which is a Instant Death on our homebrewed Critical Hit Table. Even though it was wasted on a simple ghoul, my players were very excited.
After the battle, the players found all the bits and baubles around the room, including the magic whistle named Night Caller. I was clearly at the limit of my DM memory, since I completely forgot what this whistle did as well. Had I remembered, I probably would have altered its power to something else. Now I was forced to go along with the book as written. As it was, when they blew the thing, I described how the zombies in the room reanimated and then stood around awaiting instruction. The three pubescent boys, who clearly did not share my aversion to necromancy, all replied, “Cool!”
Next week, our heroes attempt to stealthily invade the goblin stronghold, meet an unusual and creepy gnome (is there any other kind?), and impersonate a god.
As always, when you can’t remember what in the next room or the dungeon, it’s time to end the session, and Game On! (at some later date)
You point, I punch – Minsc, describing his take on battlefield tactics