Our heroes infiltrate the Goblin Stronghold where they meet a strange, creepy gnome and impersonate a god.
When last we left our heroes, they had agreed to help a tribe of kobolds with their various quests; such as rescuing a white dragon and possibly eradicating over a hundred Goblins. The price for all this help; a single iron key. The kobolds are convinced that our heroes are idiots since they would have gladly paid them in gold.
We are playing through The Sunless Citadel adventure presented in Tales From the Yawning Portal. The players are on a mission to find a missing group of adventurers and investigate tales of a magical fruit with healing properties. They are accompanied on this journey by Minsc, the greatest NPC ever written, who is also my quest giver for the adventure. Minsc is a 4th level Ranger, first seen in the computer game Baldur’s Gate. He is famous for his hilarious one-liners, his unyielding quest to “stomp evil”, and the fact that he has a miniature, giant space-hamster named Boo, that lives in his armor and gives him advice.
In the last session, the party found a magically locked door that they have become obsessed with getting past. When they met the Kobold chieftain in the next section, they noticed an iron key in a statue above his “throne”. With zero evidence, the group is convinced that this is the key they seek. And because D&D is what it is, they are not wrong.
In exchange for this key, the party has agreed to eliminate the threat of the Goblins living in another section of the citadel. The party can use any means necessary, since Goblins are scum and who cares what happens to them. The group also met Meepo, a Kobold Inventor, who was the tribe’s Keeper of Dragons until recently when said Goblins kidnapped their dragon. Meepo is desperate to get this dragon back, and has also joined the party. The players decided to sneak into the Goblin camp via some unexplored ruins but they triggered a cave-in, trapping them on the Goblin side of the Citadel.
Currently, they are standing in an ancient crypt along with three reanimated zombies because they bravely (foolishly?) blew a magic whistle that happens to reanimate the dead. Not that it matters, and purely for the macabre humor, one zombie uses his detached arm as a club and another is missing a foot and shambles with a limp. I am not a fan of this magic item, so let me say that these three zombies have a zero percent chance of making it out of this dungeon intact.
Moving on, our heroes come to a juncture (north of Room 26) . To the west is the Goblin enclave, but to the north I added that they could see humanoid tracks going in and out of the area. They failed their survival skill check so they could not tell how many tracks are involved but it was more than one. Naturally, curiosity got the better of them and the players go off to explore an easily skipped section of the dungeon (Room #28-30).
Just as naturally, they forgot to check for traps (again), and they triggered one that I added to increase the danger for my over-powered players. It is a simple gate trap originally designed to detain not kill. As the group walks through the area, two portcullises slam down, cutting off the party. Regizar the fighter and Callan the thief are in the forward section nearest the side cells, Riandon the wizard, Minsc, and Meepo are trapped in the middle, Clarissa the cleric and two zombies are blocked off toward the rear; one zombie was crushed by the falling gate. One down, two to go.
Each portcullis requires 60 Strength to lift, which is roughly 4 people. This would not have been an issue for the party was it not for the dozens of rats currently swarming the area. Jack (Callan’s player) freaked out. He hates being a front-line character for just this reason. Now, thanks to the gates separating them, he doesn’t even have any backup, which is exactly what a trap like this is good for. While Regizar and Callan were being inundated by rats, I had a few rats run between the bars to hassle Riandon and Minsc. Worse, the rats just kept coming. No matter how many rats they killed, an equal number entered the fray. Our heroes were helpless, they were overwhelmed, and they were doomed. After all their bravado, all their heroics, and all their victories, The Saviors of Phandalin, were about to meet their demise at the grubby little paws of a few dozen rats. It was wonderful.
In the end, one player had a brilliant, desperate idea. Riandon cast Thunderwave into the entire area, including his own party. A tremendous BOOM echoes in the hall, alerting anything nearby to their presence. The accompanying shockwave hurled the pestilent rodents in every direction, hitting hard against the stone walls, killing most of them instantly and knocking the rest senseless. Callan was bowled over in the blast, landing hard on his back, stunned but alive. Only Regizar had the fortitude to stay on his feet.
If these vermin had any allies nearby, surely, they heard the noise and would come to investigate. Grating squeaks and the chattering of more rats could be heard coming from the room to the north. They would be here any second. Would they have enough time to muscle these gates open before they arrived?
The answer of course is yes. They had just enough time to work together and raise the gates before the rest of the vermin horde and their diseased brood mother charged in from the next room. But now they could fight as a team, and had a glorious battle with the remaining rats before emerging bloodied and humbled but victorious.
These are my favorite types of encounters; ones that really mess with a player’s expectations. Most sessions, like dungeons, tend to follow a predictable format; a series of smaller encounters, leading up to a grand finale. They did not expect such a dramatic encounter at this point and time. On top of that, I kept ratcheting up the tension. What started as a nuisance trap turned into a hazard to overcome when they couldn’t lift the gates easily. Then it turned into a combat encounter, but they were not concerned since it was only pathetic rats. They became worried when they learned than there may be an infinite supply. But they were truly in fear when they each had a dozen rats on them and were taking 6-12 (1d6+6) points of damage each round but could only kill 3 or 4 of them in turn.
Just how many rats were there? I don’t know. I would have kept throwing rats at them until somebody, anybody came up with that one great idea. Did I know what that idea would be? Nope, but it could have been anything; Splash oil and set it on fire, cast Sleep, Sanctuary, or even Fireball, perhaps either the fighter, thief, or cleric could have found the release lever that was nearby on either side. Would I have killed them if nobody came up with an idea? Yes. But I was confident that someone would and someone did.
Next, I altered Rooms 29 & 30 as well. In the book, #29 is a large, empty room except for a (trapped) fountain and two additional pits traps that have already been jammed in the open position. Room 30 is behind a closed door and is the main rat hovel and the location of the dead body of one of the adventurers the players are looking for. But how exactly do giant rats open doors and why is this area defended by so many traps?
I envisioned the first room to be an old ceremonial chamber currently filled with ruined pews and a small altar before the fountain. I altered the traps to better reflect the draconic nature of the citadel. I gave my players this description:
“As you approach the room, the hallway is filled with 20 or so spears jutting from holes in the floor, walls, and ceiling. Many of the spears are broken from something smashing through them (the previous adventure party). Examining the spear tips, you find residual poison coating on them. This trap was triggered less than a week ago when someone opened the painted green doors leading into this room. This is the first painted door you’ve seen in the citadel.”
All of this is to make the players aware of the special nature of this and other subsequent sections. The door is green to indicate that this is a poison trap honoring Green Dragons. Would real people advertise a trap by painting the door? Of course not. But players need obvious clues. It is far too easy for DMs to hide lethal traps in mundane things, which is sometimes fun, but is ultimately boring and mean. Plus, your players will feel proud of themselves when they make all the connections and are able to “defeat” the next trap. Moving on.
“Entering the room, you discover that it is some sort of ceremonial chamber. Rows of rotted wooded pews face a stone fountain. The fountain is dry and carved with depictions of diving dragons. The fountain has a slight green tinge to it. In the far-right corner, you see a disgusting refuse pile that was the hovel of the rats. In this pile, you see the freshly eaten corpse of a human dressed in leathers. On the left wall, you see a closed door, painted blue. As you move about the room you discover that the floor is inlayed with metallic lines of bronze or brass, but you can’t determine if it creates any sort of pattern.”
Now the blue door may be obvious to you now, but it was not to my players. Yet. The players all picked a section to explore. They found the magic runes on the fountain, but no one repeated the phrase out loud, so they did not trigger in-the-book poison cloud trap. Had they done so, I would have kept the damage low, because I rationalized this was all part of an initiation rite and the cult would not want to kill every potential acolyte.
There was a funny moment when Minsc (investigating the corpse who was the victim of the spear trap) vowed to avenge his fallen comrade. “No! This injustice will not go unpunished. I shall seek my revenge against every cursed rodent in the world!” Boo squeaks indignantly. “Oh, no, Boo. Not you. I didn’t mean you.” More squeaking. “Okay, okay. No hamsters will face my wrath.” Squeak, squeak. “…Or gerbils.” Throughout the rest of the session, Minsc would occasionally argue with Boo about which rodents were on the no-kill list.
The thief checked the door for traps, but he did not mention anything special or indicate that he suspected this door. If he had I would have let him roll with advantage. Which would have been useful, since he rolled a Natural “1”. We have always played that any “1” is a critical failure or miss, even though this does not officially apply to skill checks. As such he triggers the trap and electricity surges from the door and along the metal paths in the floor, electrocuting everyone in the room for 4d6 points of damage.
Following the beat down that they just took from the rats, this nearly killed everyone. In fact, the mighty Regizar went to zero hit points (finally) and should have rolled death saves, except someone took pity on him and stabilized him. Hopefully, when they see a painted door in the future, they will be far more cautious. Sadly, both remaining zombies perished in the surge as well. But I wanted to keep Meepo alive, so I had put him in the hallway harvesting poison and dead rats.
Inside the storeroom, they found a treasure trove of exquisite silverware; plates, bowls, tankards, goblets, cutlery, all inlayed with carved dragons. Perfect for a dragon cult or anyone trying to open a tavern. This is a great treasure to give out. They already have plenty of gold and they will never sell or really use these things, yet it still feels like an ample reward for all the hassle they just went through. I also took mercy on them and allowed them to take a fully rejuvenating long rest, instead of using my homebrewed rules I outlined in my Death & Dying post.
Finally, the players are ready to infiltrate the Goblin enclave (#31). Since they are now paranoid of traps, Callan checks everything, so they find the tiny bell alarm and disable it. To get past the caltrops, Riandon casts Spider Climb and falls in love with his new favorite spell as he spends the next hour running around on the walls and ceilings, disorientating his foes. Regizar just barrels down the hall, heedless of the damage, while Callan uses his magic arrows. They quickly take out the sentries and even manage to kill the one who tried to flee just before he got away.
They did the same with the next guards, all while under fire, running through a Goblin target range. They now had free rein within the compound and as long as they were smart and stealthy, they could get to most any area unmolested. They chose to go to Room 34, The Stockade, where the party met a strange and creepy gnome stuffed inside a tiny cage.
This is Erky Timbers. He is yet another NPC adventurer looking to join the party. According to the book, he’s just a guy seeking his fortune (alone and foolishly) and happened to get caught by Goblins, but mysteriously he did not suffer the same fate as everyone else they’ve caught. And he conveniently knows all about this place and will gladly share everything he knows. Yawn.
In my story, Erky claims to be an adventurer seeking out rumors of the Gulthias Tree, under which, he claims, a fabulous treasure is buried beneath its roots. Erky admits that he was unprepared for all these monsters and was captured about a month ago. He will gladly split the treasure with the party if they take him along. There is just one thing that might make the players suspicious of his claims…
I based Erky on Peter Lorre, who played every creep in every movie from the 1940s. Think Igor from the Frankenstein movies or Ren from “Ren & Stimpy”. Plus, he keeps getting more and more anxious the deeper into the dungeon we go. And he keeps muttering to himself about “appeasing the master.” So far, the group has let him tag along, but when I push it too far and the players confront him, he will run away and secretly follow them like Gollum in Lord of the Rings.
If asked, Erky states that three other adventurers were captured a week ago, but they were moved to the lower part of the dungeon. Erky also knows that the Goblins recently had some sort of coup, where the old Goblin king was overthrown by a brutal Hobgoblin. The Goblins are now split between those loyal to the old king and those who like the new regime. No one will speak out against the new warlord, but many are afraid that they have angered the Goblin god, Maglubiyet.
My players role-played this section very well and were able to receive all this information. This gave them a number of ways to solve their Goblin problem.
- They can do as the kobolds suggest and kill all the Goblins.
- They can side with the deposed Goblin king. He is chained to a post in Room 40. If the party agrees to kill the Hobgoblin usurper and his loyal followers in Room 41, the king will promise to make peace with the kobolds.
- If the players speak with the Hobgoblin Warlord, he will tell the players to kill all the kobolds and he will give them safe passage to the lower level. (He is lying and will betray them later.)
- They can release the dragon and coerce him into attacking his Goblin kidnappers. The dragon will then go on to attack the kobolds, which it also hates.
- They can come up with some other insane idea that I had not considered.
There are a few other wrinkles that can complicate any of these plans, but these were my basic solutions. My players don’t have all the information they need to formulate a plan yet, so they journey on, with Minsc and Meepo, and now, Erky along for the ride.
The next room they entered was the pantry (#38). A hilarious debate ensued regarding the “Elf Pudding”. Half my players thought that it was pudding stolen from the Elves and the other half were convinced that it is pudding made of Elves. Also, inside this room, I placed a large, 300 pound, poorly carved statue of the Goblin god, Maglubiyet. The group took note of this and moved on.
They ignored the northern part of the dungeon completely and made their way to the Goblinville (#40). The group was sufficiently stealthy and was able to spy on the camp undetected. I doubled the number of Goblins in the area to over 80 and made half of them combat ready. The Goblins were going about their day, blissfully unaware. Immediately, all four players had the same idea at the same time.
Get Rid of Goblins Plan #6: Riandon cast Tenser’s Floating Disk and they put the Maglubiyet statue from Room 38 on it. Riandon cast Invisibility on Regizar, who also got on the disk. Back at Goblinville, they sent the statue into the center of town while Regizar, who speaks Goblin, invisibly yelled out, “You pathetic worms have angered the mighty Maglubiyet! I shall destroy you all. Flee now or face my wrath!” Meanwhile, Clarissa made it rain inside the dungeon using a rare function of Create/Destroy Water, while Callan loosed a bunch of flaming arrows into the straw huts, which immediately caught fire, then smoked and smoldered from all the rain.
Now I could have the players roll against their Deception skill, but many times story is more important than random chance, so they succeed spectacularly. Goblinville is pure pandemonium. Goblins are panicking everywhere; running, screaming, knocking each other down, and trampling each other in their haste to get away. They run out the western door and up the stairs, which I added to this section of the dungeon and described as a series of connected ledges leading up to the surface. In just a few minutes, the entire area is empty, except for one old, wrinkled Goblin chained to a post in the center of the room, who is yelling at the group, “You fools! What have you done?”
Turns out, this is the deposed Goblin king, King Kerplop. When the kids laugh at his name, he feigns indignation, but I purposely gave him a silly name so the kids would subconsciously know not to take their actions too seriously, just in case they decided to murder everyone. He goes on to explain that the Goblins have never bothered the kobolds before and it wasn’t until the Hobgoblin, Durnn, overthrew him that all these problems began. Defeating Durnn is the real dilemma, not scattering his defenseless tribe.
Had the party been escorted through the front door, the king would have called out to one of the guards and asked to speak with the group. Had the party snuck in, they would have still been able to speak with the king had they approached peacefully. As it was, their plan was still perfect and they didn’t care one whit about this old Goblin king’s issues. In fact, they brought him to the Kobolds as a prisoner before they went to take care of Durnn.
The battle with Durnn was a suitably epic finale. The center of the room is dominated by an enormous hole in the floor, similar to combat conditions in the Yawning Portal but with less room to maneuver. The giant hole drops 80 feet to the level below and its rim is covered in vines to climb and possibly save you from a fatal fall should anyone be inevitably pushed over the edge.
The book lists the fight as 4 Hobgoblins, a Goblin shaman, and a Twig Blight. Obviously, I increased this slightly. On the far side of the room are about twenty goblinoids. A dozen Goblin archers stand around in groups of four watching the doors. Six Hobgoblins and the Goblin shaman surround two thrones, but it is the occupants of the thrones that are surprising. The largest Hobgoblin you’ve ever seen, dressed in the finest plate mail armor, sits on the lesser throne. He looks positively furious. Upon the grand throne, a small Goblin is hopping and dancing. He is dressed in a garish pink and purple outfit and is holding a broken arrow like a scepter. Occasionally he throws tomatoes at the guards, who take this abuse without complaint.
This is a Nilbog (goblin backwards) one of the stranger entities of goblinkind. I’d been reading Volo’s Guide to Monsters and really wanted to show off goblin society. So I filled the room with all the variety of goblin. I had Goblin Bosses and their awesome Redirect ability which allows them to dodge attacks by making it target a nearby minion. The shaman was a 4th level Warlock, two of the Hobgoblins were Captains, and the big boss was a Warlord with a ton of abilities. But I wanted the true zaniness to come from the Nilbog.
Unfortunately, I bit off more than I can chew. The fight was still awesome and the players didn’t know anything was amiss, but I was not happy with how I played this character. Basically, he came off as a minor nuisance rather than the agent of chaos I anticipated. A Nilbog is a demon sent by Maglubiyet to harass goblins who displease him. He cannot be killed outright and when his host body is killed, he infects the nearest Goblin who becomes the new Nilbog. He is such a disruptive influence that tribes who have this parasite often treat him like a mock king just to appease him and avoid his wrath. Such was the case here.
In combat, he can cast Mage Hand, Vicious Mockery, Tasha’s Hideous Laughter, and Confusion. All these spells are good for aggravating players and keeping them ineffective for a few rounds, but they are all very similar and it gets boring quickly. For his defenses, every player must first roll a saving throw just to attempt to hit it and it has a bonus reaction that allows it to ignore one attack each round and even gain hit points. The problem is that my players can “kill” it in just one hit. It would then jump to a new host, which was funny at first but quickly turned annoying. Ultimately, the Nilbog is just way too powerful for low-level players, but merely a minor obstacle for mid-level play.
Aside from this, the battle was spectacular. The bad guys were spread out to avoid Riandon’s area effect spells. That didn’t stop him from launching a Fireball at some of them, barbequing a third of the Goblins and a Captain. Riandon’s flying leopard, Chuy, dive bombed a group, knocking a couple more goblins, screaming, over the edge of the pit to their doom. Chuy was “killed” in the process and reverted to his Wondrous Figurine form, but it was worth it.
Grenl, the Goblin shaman, was quite effective early on with her poison, bane, and wounding spells. I really tried to keep her alive, so that when the tide of the battle turned against the Hobgoblins, she could betray them and fight alongside the players. She would ultimately betray the party later on, because her real goal was to take over the entire citadel. Alas, my players really hate wizards and killed her pretty quick.
The Hobgoblins did a great job knocking around the party, but Callan and Clarissa also did a great job of keeping them separated to avoid their extra-damage flanking ability. This was easily the most tactical battle my players have fought so far and I was proud to watch it. Every position mattered, every movement calculated, every action deliberate; it was awesome.
As for Minsc, Meepo, and Erky, I have them square off against a couple of goblins and such. This keeps them occupied and part of the battle but not part of the action. When I have NPCs like this, I will often add a few extra enemies for them to deal with to preserve the balance of the encounter. Plus, I don’t have to bother rolling for their actions. I hate it when my players only get to roll for their one character while I get to roll for all the monsters and then all the NPCs. I prefer when the NPC is an actual follower, like Droop, the Goblin valet, or Chuy, that is controlled by the player. BTW, I’m really glad that they decided to leave Droop back in Waterdeep, I was afraid that I would be forced to infect Droop with the Nilbog curse.
Speaking of which, Regizar spent a good part of the battle beating this guy up with his multi-attack. As Andrew said, “This guy might avoid one attack, but he can’t dodge both. Die, you pink jerk!” Initially, it was a great surprise when they first killed the Nilbog, and suddenly another, regular Goblin would transform into a new Nilbog. But again, this got mundane and trite by the fourth time this happened. Finally, the Nilbog fell and there were no more Goblins in the room to infect. I was going to have it fly out of the room, take over one of the goblins in Goblinville and have it burst into the room, cackling, “I’m back!” but the players cleared out nearly every goblin in the citadel, so I just let this moment pass by. Maybe I’ll have it infect the Goblin King currently captured by the Kobolds, we’ll see.
Finally, Regizar faced off with the Hobgoblin Warlord. It was a terrific, knock down brawl, filled with dramatic monologs and machismo posturing. But then, just as the Warlord was near death, Andrew rolled a 1, critical fail. Without missing a beat, Andrew says that Regizar ignores the roll and rolls again, actually rolling a 20 this time around. I describe that the other players all clearly see Regizar miss and drop his sword, but in the same instant, they witness Regizar impale Durnn, killing him instantly. Durnn dies, a look of fear, shock, and confusion on his face, with Regizar’s sword, Talon, buried up to the hilt in Durnn’s chest.
The other players are bewildered. “Wait, did we see him miss? How can he ignore a roll? How often can he do this?” I explain that it is more like you remember that Regizar missed, and then in a sense of déjà vu, you see that he did not miss and, in fact, killed Durnn. I let Andrew explain that his magic goggles, the Zeitbrille, somehow imbued him with the luck to change a single dice roll. My players do not questioned this since I’ve used other iterations of “luck” before. And since everyone needs to know the mechanics of everything: he can choose any single die roll (attack, ability check, saving throw), re-roll the dice, and the second roll is used. He can do this once per long rest.
Before the session, I had given Andrew this new ability as he has become further attuned to the item’s magic. There are also some negative effects, but we’ll discuss those in the next session. I also told him about possible ways that he could explain this ability to the other players. I did not know when it would use it or what words he would say exactly.
This does a couple of things. One, it keeps magic mysterious. I only describe what the players see and let them draw their own conclusions. Two, when I explain something as the DM, the players will always take it as the gospel truth and that can often mislead players unfairly. But if an unreliable NPC, or better yet, another player explains something, then it might be the truth, or a misunderstanding, or even a deliberate lie, and it’s up to the players to figure it out. Now, I cannot say too much because my players read this post, but I will say that this is an increasing expansion of the powers and problems related to the Zeitbrille.
Since my players were pretty beat up (again) and they had to go all supernova during the fight, using up all of their spells and abilities, they hobble back to the Kobold section to recoup. Next week, our heroes descend into the Grove level, Riandon expands his zoo, and there’s something wrong with Regizar.
I’ve also created a Sunless Citadel Resources Page where I’ve gathered all the maps, handouts, and assessories I used to play through the Sunless Citadel. Enjoy!
As always, DMs never lie, but his no-good, stinking NPCs sure do, and Game On!
A den of stinking evil, Boo. Let’s give it a good shake and see what falls out! – Minsc, on diplomatic relationships