D&D Diary – The Sunless Citadel – Session 3

Our heroes delve into the laboratory of a Mad Druid, Riandon expands his zoo, and there’s something wrong with Regizar.

TFTYP Cover title

When last we left our heroes, they had just defeated the BBEG of Level 1, which technically completed the quest condition needed to gain their reward from a tribe of Kobolds; a single iron key. But my players knew that there was a whole second level to the dungeon, so they ignored the kobolds for now and went off to explore more dusty corridors, meet new and exciting monsters, and kill them. Or in James’s case, collect them.

They are accompanied by a whole slew of NPCs, which frankly over complicate this adventure. Two of the NPCs are the book’s fault and one is mine. And to think, that if Grenl, the Goblin shaman, had lived in the last battle, she would probably be part of the group too. Of course, she would have betrayed the group later on, so perhaps its best she died when she did.

SC NPC 3 pack
So many NPCs. Can’t…keep…track… Which one is Icky?

First up is Minsc, Ranger, quest giver, smasher of evil, possibly suffering from one-too-many concussions, who travels with a hamster named Boo that only he can communicate with. Next is Meepo, Kobold Inventor, keeper of dragons currently between dragons, and soon-to-be minion of Riandon the magical zookeeper. Lastly there is Erky, Gnome adventurer (?), recently-released prisoner, and Peter Lorre impersonator who knows just a little too much about this dungeon and the supposedly evil tree that lies at the bottom of it.

Speaking of quests, dragons, and evil trees, our heroes are allegedly on a quest to find Minsc’s missing friends, rescue a bratty dragon, and solve the mystery of a magical fruit which the now dead or scattered goblins used to sell at a local village. My players are not engaged with any of these quests and are just going through the motions of clearing the dungeon. There are many causes for this apathy; probably the DM sucks, possibly my players suck, or maybe the module’s presentation of the plot hooks suck, but mostly this pandemic sucks.

Sunless Citadel 3e Cover 1
I object! Where are all the Blights? We haven’t seen a single one!… Oh. they’re in this session? Well, I withdraw my objection. Carry on.

Obviously, there are far more pressing concerns in the world today, but D&D is yet another casualty to the new normal. I am a hand-on DM who uses props, handouts, miniatures, and pathetic attempts at acting in my sessions. Playing online just isn’t the same for me. I can do it, but I don’t like it. I can’t interact with the adventure in ways that I enjoy and I know that this lack of enthusiasm rubs off onto my players. Plus, it has taken 6 months to do just 3 sessions, and the first half of every session is all recap because no one remembers what is going on, sort of like these diaries. So, if you are feeling depressed these days about your inability to play D&D normally, you are not alone but we will survive this crisis.

One last note about the campaign, we may be losing a player, temporarily. Jim, the other Dad has had some health issues, nothing too serious thankfully, but combined with the pandemic and our abysmal current government his desire to play D&D has waned significantly. His cleric will be played as an NPC today (another NPC?), but his son, Jack, is still playing his thief, Callan, via Zoom.

Sunless Citadel Level 2 DM
Sunless Citadel Grove Level DM Map. The players first enter from a shaft in Room 42.

Following the big battle last week, the party took advantage of a long rest in the kobold camp to fully recuperate. The next morning back in the throne room, they used the vines to climb down the giant pit to the lower level. Regizar the Fighter has taken it upon himself to hate Erky the NPC. He continuously calls him “Icky” and mocks his Gnome heritage. As they descended the vines, Regizar kept “accidentally” kicking Erky in the head. And when Regizar wasn’t kicking Erky in the head, he repeatedly, recklessly, tempted fate by jumping from vine to vine. Sadly, he made every ability check. For now. The other players cannot tell if Andrew is role playing something new or if he is just being an idiot. But I’ll tell you that it’s a little bit of both. Stay tuned.

At the bottom, the shaft ends in a large chamber currently used as a mushroom garden. The bodies of several goblins are here, having fallen or been knocked into the pit during the previous battle. The book states that several skeletons controlled by Belak (the module’s BBEG) are tending the garden. But Belak is a Druid not a Necromancer, so I changed all the undead on this level into blights. In D&D, in addition to the small Twig Blights presented in the module, there exist human-sized Needle Blights and Vine Blights. They are much more thematic than simple skeletons, so I used several of these Blights as my gardeners. Alone, they are no match for our heroes and are quickly dispatched. Riandon tried to subdue them for his menagerie, but Regizar executed every one of them. Tensions rose.

SC Blights
Dude! We’ve defeated Shambling Mounds. What’s this Vine Guy gonna do?… Gakkk! Let go my neck! Can’t…breathe……..

The players then got into an argument about where to go next. Everyone wanted to go in a different direction. After a lot of bickering, Andrew (not Regizar) says, “We’re going east and I’ll fight anyone who disagrees with me!” Now, I know that Andrew is speaking in character, but no one else does, so I tried to diffuse this in game through Minsc, “There’s no need to get testy, boys. There’s plenty of dungeon for all of us.” Andrew replied, “Shut your face, Minsc, or I’ll stab you and your rat!” Clearly, Andrew has become lost to “playing his character.”

Let me explain. Andrew wanted to explore playing an evil character, but I didn’t want it to ruin the campaign and I tried to turn it into a plotline. So, I gave him a cursed item. The Zeitbrille, which I handed out way back in the Lost Mine of Phandelver- Session 14,  is a homebrewed legendary magic item that gives him more powers over time, but it is slowly turning him not good. And here is where I bit off more than Andrew could chew. I wanted Andrew to play each alignment as he descends downward, and right now he is playing the bane every DM, Chaotic Neutral.

Magic Items
The Zeitbrille. Awesome cosmic power. May require slight alignment adjustment.

Ugh, Chaotic Neutral. Why does everybody think that, as Chaotic Neutral, you can do whatever stupid thing you want, with zero repercussions and screw everybody else?! It’s like an excuse to be a total jerk. Even when there is a fully evil character in the party it does not disrupt the game as much as Chaotic Neutral.

I don’t want to belabor this point here and maybe I’ll do a dedicated post on Alignment someday. But part of the issue is that people playing Chaotic Neutral feel the need to act Chaotic all the time. Every single moment is a moment to do something stupid. And Andrew fell right into this trap.

Icespire Cover3
And if you wanna see how I screwed up Chaotic Neutral the first time around, check out this Campaign Diary.

I tried to prevent this from happening. I had a long talk with Andrew before the session about this alignment, and we even faced this issue in our other campaign, The Dragon of Icespire Peak. I gave him several ideas about subtly playing this alignment. I told him that this was supposed to be a slow descent into madness and that we didn’t want to be too obvious too soon. Most importantly, I told him that none of these new behaviors should directly affect the other players nor disrupt their enjoyment of the game. Andrew agreed to all this. I am so naïve.

Now, I didn’t want to halt the game and I didn’t want to let the other players know that Andrew and I were cooking this up together. So, I discretely said to him, “I get what you’re trying to do, but you got to tone it down. Remember, you can’t ruin another player’s fun.”

“Sorry, Dad.” This reprieve lasted less than five minutes and only got worse from here.

Balsag full
Balsag!

The party headed north into the cave of the snickeringly named, Balsag the Bugbear. I didn’t help matters by constantly having him refer to himself in the third person. “The mighty Balsag is gonna to rip out your spine and eat your face,” etc. To balance this encounter, I made Balsag a Bugbear Hunter and his two pet rats are now wolves. Immediately, Riandon cast Animal Friendship at 2nd level and pacified both wolves. I had forgotten that I had given him these simple Druid spells to help with his zoological efforts but James did not forget. James never forgets. This infuriated the Bugbear. “You mangy fleabags. Balsag is gonna turn you into a rug after I kill these fools.” Alas, Balsag could not keep that promise and soon lay dead in a pool of his own Balsag juice.

Unfortunately, Andrew also did not keep his promise and went full Chaotic Stupid again. “Give me one of those wolves, James.” James, mind you, not Riandon, the character. I am now aware that this alignment is just an excuse to be a passive aggressive jerk to his little brother.

James, “No, they’re for the zoo.”

Andrew, “Give me a wolf or I kill Meepo!”

Me, “Knock it off, Andrew, we’ll deal with the wolves later.”

“Sorry, Dad. Can I burn the Bugbear’s body?” No!

The Sunless Citadel
I think I prefer this drawing of Balsag from the original module.

Heading south, they come to the fissure in the hallway from when the citadel slid into this chasm; except instead of a measly 10’ drop as written in the book, it is a bottomless crevasse. Immediately, Andrew, in character, says, “I jump across the chasm.”

“Knock it off, Andrew.”

“I’m doing it.” He said defiantly.

“Fine. It’s a 20-foot jump, your Strength is 18 meaning you can jump 18 feet. Give me a DC20 Athletics check to make it the extra 2 feet.” Of course, he fails his roll, but… He has a new ability from the Zeitbrille that allows him to ignore and reroll any 1 dice roll per day. And he uses it here and succeeds.

Sunless Citadel Level 2 PC
Sunless Citadel Grove Level PC Map. The gorge my idiot son tried to leap across is in the bottom left corner.

I describe the event that everybody sees and remembers Regizar missing the jump and falling to his death. And also, everybody sees and remembers Regizar making the leap and he is just able to grab the ledge on it other side and he is currently hanging from his fingertips. This should have been exactly the type of memorable takeaway that would have all the other players questioning what is going on. Instead everybody just remembers that Andrew is acting stupid.

Meanwhile, Andrew is still hanging from his fingertips. With a heavy sigh, James’s Riandon uses Misty Step to teleport over to the other hallway and help Regizar up. But Andrew is still not done “playing his character”. Andrew’s Regizar grabs Riandon’s hand and demands, “Give me a wolf, or we both go over the edge.”

“Andrew, knock it off!”

“Sorry, Dad.”

SC Wolves
Now, I can understand why Andrew wanted a wolf so badly, they are some of my best painted minis.

Ropes are slung for the other players to cross and when they come upon a hidden shrine, they find a wand of Ray of Frost, which I added to this room. More importantly Callan the Thief, discovers that he can attune to this item and use it. This will become important in the final chapter of this adventure.

Next, James cast Spider Climb and used it to get to the other secret room further down the chasm. In the book, Belak keeps a Flying Snake here for no discernible reason. But I’ve now made the area inaccessible to Belak. So, I placed a creature here solely for James’s benefit and his zoo.

As Riandon enters the room a hideous beast materializes through the far wall as if passing through the very rock itself. It is short and squat with a huge, gaping maw protruding from the top of its body. Its skin is mottled brown, orange and red and covered in scales or it may be stone. It has six legs, or it might be three legs and three arms, and it has three eyes, one between each set of appendages. These eyes gleam like gems and yet they appear sad. The best word to describe it is – Alien.

SC Xorn
There is nothing funny or strange about these guys. Move along.

This is a Xorn, one of the stranger creatures in the D&D universe. But it’s no mere monster. It’s a peaceful being from another plane of existence that can travel through solid rock. It is intelligent and speaks its own alien language. But of course, it looks like a hideous monster and tends to consume what PCs value most, treasure, so it’s easy for Xorn encounters to end badly.

Immediately, James channels his best Mark Wahlberg talking to animals, “Oh, hey little fella, how’s it going? So, you’re a cool little monster, hunh, what’s that all about? What’cha doing there? You good? Okay, well say hi to your mother for me.”

SC Mark Wahlberg
If you are not familiar with the Saturday Night Live skit “Mark Wahlberg Talks to Animals” then this whole joke is wasted on you.

The monster responds with a series of grunts, clicks, and guttural sounds. You can’t tell if this is an actual language or just random noises. James continues, “What’cha want big guy? Are you hungry?” The creature starts non-aggressively grabbing for your coin purse. It makes more noises and you think you hear the word, “pennies”.

While James is thinking of a response, Andrew says, “I stab the beast with my sword.” You aren’t even in the room, Andrew! –  I tell him. “Fine, I pick up Icky the Gnome and throw him over the cliff!” No! “Fine, I steal the magic wand from Jack.” (BTW, this isn’t even half the things he tried to do during the session.)

“Andrew, knock it off!”

“Sorry, Dad.”

Meanwhile, James realizes that pennies mean copper pieces, so he gives some to the Xorn. The Xorn is now sitting up like a playful puppy, wagging his tongue out of the mouth on the top of his head. Through some bad hand signals, James convinces the Xorn to wait for him by the wagon, topside. Now, I had planned to give James a scroll of Comprehend Languages along with the treasure from last week’s battle, so he could have a real conversation with this thing. It has a whole backstory about how it got here, but I forgot to give him the scroll, and this “Lost Dog” bit was way funnier anyway.

Back to the main adventure, the party enters Belak’s Laboratories and Gardens. But I am tired and worn out from dealing with Andrew’s shenanigans and I’m just running through the motions. I didn’t have anything memorable to put in these rooms, so I’m just reading straight from the book although I did ratchet up the creepy factor on his experiments. But I replaced all the goblinoid workers with various Blights, and I had a bunch of dead goblins as the victims of Belak’s experiments. I also made sure that they found the various vials and flasks of poison, acid, and alchemist fire that I added to these areas, and like the magic wand, will become important later on.

The Sunless Citadel
Sunless Citadel Grove Level Map. From the Original module. The Labs and Gardens are Rooms 47, 48 & 49.

And then, as they exited the Lab, it all fell apart. Andrew says, “Just before I leave, I set the entire room on fire and then I execute Icky.” I lost it and snapped on Andrew and I’m embarrassed to say, there was some swearing involved. Using my Dad voice, I demand, “Andrew, what the #!*$% are you doing?” That was it, one line, one curse, but the damage was done.

Everything comes to a crashing stop. I’m upset. Andrew’s upset. Everyone else is uncertain. I take Andrew outside and have a long talk with him. Everyone else waits. I have to apologize to everyone else for getting upset. Everybody seems to be okay. But weeks later, I’m still thinking about it.

I hate it when I let this game upset me. I’m supposed to be the DM, the voice of reason, the voice of authority, the voice of calm leadership. But I spend a lot of time preparing the game and trying to make it special for the players. And I absolutely hate it when a player tries to blow it up, even my own son. Every DM has a weak spot, and clearly this one is mine.

Tavern Argument
It perfectly fine to have a character argument in the game, but it’s never fun to have a real one at the table.

The important thing is to remember that just because we are DMs, it does not mean we are perfect players. We will make mistakes. We will get upset. We may say the wrong thing. We may be gods in this fantasy world but not in the real one. We are only human. When you are wrong, admit it, discuss it, learn from it, and move on. Hopefully, you don’t screw up too bad and your players can forgive you. Don’t forget to forgive yourself.

The worst thing is, those last two actions are actually perfect Chaotic Neutral actions. Random and a bit extreme, but not necessarily evil and not against another player. And he could have justified both actions in character. “Just seeing these mutilated goblins made me so angry because it made me think of my goblin servant, Droop, I just had to torch the place. And I’d been trying to tell you that this Irky is up to no good, but no one would listen, so I had to take matters into my own hand.” But no, Andrew had none of these thoughts. He just wanted to play crazy. If he hadn’t kept being the Boy Who Cried Chaotic Neutral, I probably could have helped guide him through this scene and it would have been an awesome bit of roleplaying.

Chaotic Neutral Stab Meme

We muddled through the next section of Gardens. I don’t like the way this or the previous section are presented. After the circuitous and sandbox nature of the first level, once the party gets to these rooms, the game is very linear. The players are finally on the right track and they should feel like they are moving quickly toward the final battle. Nope. Let’s hit the brakes and explore 10 needlessly similar rooms, deal with 10 minor encounters, describe 10 irrelevant pieces of flair, followed by 10 perception checks, 10 secret door checks, 3 bored players, 20 minutes lost, and a DM that needs a nap.

If I were to run this again, I would have a couple of guards (hobgoblin or blight) in the laboratory hallway. They would immediately call for help. The player thought they were going to have an easy fight against 2 measly enemies when suddenly all the doors open and 6 more pour out. After the battle, just describe all the creepy experiments, hand out one batch of treasure and move on.

As the players enter the Garden hallway, have a couple of workers wander out of a room. Once they’re dead I’d have another two wander out of a different room down the hall. Now the players have to chase them down before they can escape and sound the alarm. Repeat as needed. Maybe afterwards, the group can find a goblin hiding in one of the rooms, having escaped the experiments. Oh well, maybe next time.

Mormesk Start2
A shadow was a main baddie in the Phandelver Mine, but now he’s just a minor nuisance. My, how The Saviors have grown.

We wrapped up in the Dragon Shrine room. Just as before, I changed this from a regular statue of Ashardlon (another remnant of dropped foreshadowing in the original module) to a skeletal statue of Daurgothoth to reflect the cult’s draco-lich worship of my story. I kept the fight with the Shadow as is, which I thought would be uneventful since they had once fought one in the LMOP Session 13, but it turns out that they had forgotten about it so it still seemed fresh. I think it helped that I targeted the thief this time and Jack was shocked when his character started draining Strength. The fight was a standard affair but ended with a bang when Regizar jumped off the statue driving his magical sword into the spirit killing it and then landing flat on his face because a ghost has no corporeal body to cushion his landing. Splat for 1d6 bludgeoning damage.

I had really wanted to get to the end of the module today, but I was mentally exhausted, we’d been playing for over 3 and a half hours, and I was done. I dispensed some treasure and called it a day. Next week, we soldier on with only half the players, we have an epic battle with wizards and druids and vines, oh my, and we finally get that stupid iron key.

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, Chaotic Neutral sucks, and Game On!

You’re not playing your character, you’re being a wangrod – Matt Colville, describing Chaotic Neutral

SC Cryovain
“Hello? It’s Calcryx here, the dragon you completely missed in the upper level. You haven’t forgotten about me have you? Hello, anybody? I’m gonna get screwed here, aren’t I?”

3 thoughts on “D&D Diary – The Sunless Citadel – Session 3

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