Our heroes lose half their team, and then have to fight the mad druid and his homicidal plants. And vampires!
When last we left our heroes, they had descended down into the Grove level of the Citadel, they killed some things, they collected a few more zoo specimens, they pocketed some treasure, and Regizar turned bat-sh!t crazy. His player, Andrew, had been trying to work out a new take on his character and it didn’t end well. Chaotic Neutral never ends well.
In fact, this whole adventure has been a mess, but it is not the module’s fault. I blame 2020. Everything is 2020’s fault! We started this dungeon in March and we are still in it in October. With this much gap between sessions, no one could remember what was going on and no one cared.
The year has been so stressful, that two of my players need to take a break from campaigning for a while. To be fair, the Zoom sessions were not fun for them, and I had a hard time keeping them engaged. We are in-person D&D players and they just aren’t ready for social gatherings yet. We are still good friends and they have an open invitation to rejoin the group when they are ready.
I’m actually quite sad about this. We have spent two years as a group with these characters. I had hoped that the campaign would be an epic quest of redemption and destiny. I wanted a story where these four unlikely companions, through shared victory and defeat, grew from lowly mercenaries into pillars of society and saviors of the realms.
But alas, for the time being we will have to journey on without the services of Callan, vagabond thief and solver of puzzles, and his dwarven frienemy, Clarissa the Creepy Cleric, treasurer, secretary, and keeper of handouts. They will be sorely missed, but first we have to get them out of this dungeon.
Fortunately, my son Andrew’s best friend, also named Jack, wants to join the group. Huzzah! And he wants to be a Dragonborn Thief. Okay, this can work. I even have a great moment where his character can be introduced. For the time being, Jack can play as Minsc, the slightly daft NPC who has accompanied our heroes while they search for Minsc’s old party who disappeared awhile back. I was excited to play again and then the phone rang. Apparently, this is the weekend Jack’s grandmother is coming to town. Aw, c’mon!
So, now it falls to just Andrew and James to stop Belak and his army of sticks from his nefarious, ambiguous schemes. Just two boys, five NPCs, two dogs, and a hamster. BTW, Andrew will be playing as his fighter, Regizar, and the thief, Callan, while James will play his wizard, Riandon, and the cleric, Clarissa. We left off in a shrine dedicated to some skeletal dragon named Daurgothoth (initially Ashardlon in the module) and I am morbidly aware that all this foreshadowing will lead absolutely nowhere. They had just defeated an undead Shadow, but it had done some major damage and drained a lot of strength from the thief. In fact, every character was down to about half health, and this would become a real problem later on.
I knew that the coming battle was going to take most of the session, and I wanted to jump right into it, so I quickly got them out of the Shrine Room, past the next room and down the long, boring corridor to the entrance of the grove. But first, they made a near-fatal detour into Belak’s study.
There is nothing terribly interesting here, except for a very mean trap. Players can expect to find mechanical traps in a dungeon, especially this one. But it is very unlikely that a group of novice players (which this adventure is written for) should expect a glyph of warding, which is a magical trap often triggered when opening a non-descript book. Worse still, the book in question is written in draconic, meaning the most likely target to read this book is the wizard. When he opens it: 22 points of damage to everyone in a 20’ area! Even at 3rd level, there is no way that a wizard has 22 hit points. Dick move, D&D, dick move.
This is the first time my players have ever encountered anything like this. I tried really hard to make them wary of this book. I described it as crackling with magical energy and even directly said that there is something sinister about the book. Unfortunately, Andrew, playing the recently Chaotic Neutral fighter who happens to read draconic, just opened the book anyway. Now, if was playing with low-level characters, I would make the blast radius 5’ and set the max damage at 10hp. Teach them a lesson, but not kill them. Since Andrew’s fighter is a 6th level fighter, I kept the radius at 5’, but I let him have the full blast. Only after did I realize that the party’s tank now has only 20hp left. And they’d used up most of the cleric’s healing and had no potions. They were screwed for what I had in store for them. I threw a few extra Potions of Healing in the room because I felt sorry for them.
I also added my only real handout here – Belak’s Journal. Like so many D&D villains, Belak just sits in the final room of the dungeon, waiting for someone to kill him. Because of this, the players get no real sense of the character until the very end. Who is he? What does he want? Why does he live in this weird dungeon surrounded by goblins and sticks? Plus, there are numerous story/plot questions that plague this adventure:
- Where does this magical fruit come from?
- What is the Gulthias Tree?
- Why do the goblins sell this fruit to the village?
- Who keeps digging up the town-planted fruit seeds?
- Is there a connection with the recent assaults in town?
- How did the other adventuring party become thralls of the tree?
- Is there a cure?
In the module, these answers can only be found in a long, boring, and implausible “conversation” with Belak in the final scene, which is too late to care about any of it. The whole thing is basically a badly written villain monologue with the added “fun” of forcing the players to ask just the right questions.
My players are “stab first, ask questions later” players and they won’t make it two seconds into this “conversation”. Plus, I wanted there to be a cure for the enslaved adventurers. Where’s the fun in rescuing someone only to have them die 24 hour later with zero chance to succeed? And of course, Belak would not reveal any of this information to some nosy heroes, but he might write it down in a journal. In addition, my cure requires them to dig up the corpse of this alleged vampire at the root of the tree, creating more challenges for the party. And as always, by writing it down and handing it to the players it tells them that this is important and is a reference to help them remember the details later.
Finally, we enter the Grove proper. The party was so beat up, I ignored the fight with the goblins at the entrance, but I left the 10 Twig Blights scattered around the first chamber. They basically had three options; charge through like usual, sneak through as a group, or sneak and kill. They had the thief do option three. Twenty dice rolls later, there were 10 dead blights and the party was able to move on stealthily and safely.
Finally, our heroes reach the heart of the Grove, sneaking their way through the bramble engulfed ruins until they reach a small collapsed tower near the back of this unnatural cavern. Our heroes look out over a small clearing. A purple haze permeates the air and a small stream (which I added to the map, stay tuned) runs through the area. The stream runs past an enormous black tree, its bark is cracked and split and a reddish sap seeps from its wounds like blood. The tree appears dead but a few small, white blossoms sprout sporadically here and there on its branches.
In front of the tree, a large man, with wild, vivid eyes, dressed in brown and green, is issuing orders to a half dozen Blights nearby. This must be the Mad Druid, Belak. Behind Belak stand three other adventuring types; a female mage, a male fighter with a holy symbol of Amaunator (a lawful good god), and a dragonborn thief. But these three have thick, coarse skin like flesh-colored bark and the eyes have a dead yellow glow to them, you know, like an Imperius Curse. Minsc starts to cry out, “My comrades!” But is quickly muffled by the players and gently bitten by Boo.
Of course, these three are the remnants of Minsc’s old party turned into enslaved supplicants of Belak and the Gulthias Tree. The first two are Sharwyn Hucrele and Sir Bradford as listed in the book. But the third is mine, or more specifically it’s Jack’s. This is the character he wants to play. But first he’s going to try and kill his new friends and pray they don’t kill him first. For this part, we pried Jack away from his grandmother and called him on Facetime, so he could watch how his introduction to the party played out. BTW, I had initially buffed up all of Minsc’s old party members and the druid to 6th and 7th level to better match the player’s abilities, but since they were so beat up I knocked all the adventurers down to 4th level and the Druid down to 6th.
Andrew and James immediately guessed that the three “adventurers” were under some sort of Domination effect, but they disagreed about what controlled them. Andrew was convinced that it was Belak, while James said it was the tree. In an uncharacteristically brash moment, James launches a fireball at the base of the tree. The area erupts in flame; most of the main bad guys make their saves and take half damage, but two blights are incinerated and the tree is on fire.
Belak cries out, “Stop, you know not what you do!” Both boys hesitated, just in case everything they’ve heard so far was wrong and I was about to give them some new information. This allowed me to move the bad guys into a better position and have a few put out the tree. I tried to run the Belak role play as it is written, but as predicted, this lasted about two seconds. As soon as Belak said, “The tree, she is beautiful, no? It lives, though she appears dead. She has a primeval power to those who know how to tap it!” Andrew exclaimed, “Yup, he’s insane. I attack.”
The battle was a suitably epic finale, but it lacked the fun and excitement that it should have had. The problem was two-fold. Both players were playing two characters, but they had no experience playing the alternate character and thus played them badly. And because they had to spend so much focus on that, they could not have fun playing their own character, and thus played them badly too. On top of all that, because they were so low on health and abilities, they were afraid to do anything outrageous and possibly die.
Andrew, who had spent the past three sessions being reckless, now complained, “This sucks. I’m gonna die in this stupid dungeon and I don’t even know what we’re doing here.” This line made me sad. It is so tragic on so many levels, and it was nobody’s fault, least not the players. The worst is, due to a variety of factors, I had lost interest in this dungeon as well. I just wanted to get them home to Waterdeep and back to the main campaign. And I certainly didn’t want any of my players to die here, in this side-quest dungeon that has no real stakes or narrative importance.
But that’s not to say it wasn’t action packed. Regizar spent the first few rounds, running around killing Blights, knowing that his multi-attack would kill two each round, all while defending himself from Sir Bradford. The two thieves went toe-to-toe trying to backstab the other, while the cleric hammered away at Belak as he tried ensnare the party in multiple Entangle spells. Meanwhile, Riandon focused all his attacks on the tree with another Fireball and multiple Acid Arrow spells all while being assaulted by Sharwyn’s magic, who is particularly adept at Shocking Grasp. Minsc and Meepo are around taking out a few Blights, but Erky has completely disappeared (highly sus).
On the third round, the Gulthias Tree went down in a flaming husk. Sadly, none of the players ever went near it to activate the creepy tendrils that would shoot out and attempt to pull the character into the tree itself. When the tree died, all of the enslaved thralls collapsed to the ground, dying; their connection to the tree being the only thing keeping them alive. James was very pleased that he guessed correctly, and not a moment too soon, all of the party was close to death.
But I still had one surprise for them. As the shell splintered and cracked, an enormous tangle of vines and sinew and teeth slithered out of the tree. With an ear-splitting screech, it attacks. This is a homebrew monster, the Vine Creeper, which I was inspired to create when I found its mini at a convention. It is a CR 3 Monster with a low Armor Class and high hit points that can perform multiple attacks that grapple and strangle its opponents. It was a lovely, nasty surprise.
But it wasn’t all bad. The book states that if the Gulthias Tree dies, then Belak will lose control of the Blights who will attack him, causing him to flee. I was initially prepared to ignore this and have everyone fight to the death. However, my players were so low on health that I took mercy on them, plus it provided a new way for the combat to unfold instead of the usual kill everything that moves tactic.
Belak instantly transformed into a giant Worg. Ignoring numerous opportunity attacks, Belak makes a beeline for the exit and all the Blights give chase. With his massive speed, Belak is going to get away. Fortunately, the spell Clarissa wants to cast has a huge range. A ray of light streaks down from the heavens, illuminating the Belak/Worg like a torch, killing him instantly; her Guilding Bolt has struck true. Belak reverts to his human form and the Blights swarm his corpse to feed. Satiated, they did not re-enter the fray.
Unfortunately for Clarissa, moments after killing Belak, she was ensnared by the Creeper and was unable to escape for the remainder of the fight. Fortunately, she had the most hit points remaining and was able to survive the ridiculous amount of choking damage she suffered. In the end, it was Callan who crawled up to the Creeper’s head and drove his poisoned dagger, Shadowstrike, deep into its veggie brain.
But wait, there’s more. I had expected the party to dig up the presumed vampire at the root of this tree, since I had been building up to this moment and it was now a requirement to bring Jack’s character into the campaign. Like everything else in this dungeon, they had completely glossed over this plot thread and forgot all about it. So, I reminded them – by having Erky reveal himself and betray the party by casting a powerful Hold Person spell that paralyzed the entire party. “I knew we should have killed him last week,” Andrew exclaimed.
Erky is now in full Peter Lorre mode. “Must dig up the master. Yes! The master will be most pleased.” This is an exceptionally railroad thing to do. I don’t like doing it but sometimes it just can’t be avoided, so just own it and move on. Erky digs up the shallow grave and removes the stake from the perfectly preserved (but now green tinted) vampire. The vampire opens his eyes and Erky slits his own throat and offers himself to his master to feed. Gruesome. If this was Call of Chthulu, I’d be giving out insanity points right now.
The vampire rises from his grave just as our heroes shake off their paralysis. Roll initiative. A full strength vampire is one of the most powerful foes in the game, but these circumstances allow the DM to weaken the vampire as much as needed to make him an appropriate challenge for any level. I basically halved everything, hit points, damage, regeneration; plus I allowed him only 1 Legendary Action or Check and he could not alter his form.
Even so this battle was nasty. The vampire decimated the group and kept regaining lost hit points, healing almost all the damage he took each round. Almost immediately, Clarissa was charmed and rolled abysmal saving throws as usual, and so was unable to use any of her cleric abilities. Riandon was knocked unconscious and had to be revived with the last healing potion. But the vampire sensed weakness and attacked the wizard again.
In desperation, Riandon casts Thunderwave which knocked the vampire into the nearby stream. Here the players learn that a vampire cannot regenerate and takes damage while in running water. I added the stream to area for just this reason. If a monster has a particular weakness, it is vital that you let the players learn about it, there is no point in keeping this to yourself. But you should try to make this gained information a part of the story. Knowledge earned this way is great at immersing your player into their fantasy world.
If the players know they are going up against a particular foe, perhaps you could role play an encounter with a sage who has vital and maybe contradictory advice. Or you could use the ubiquitous journal entry handout. In my campaign, the Monster Manuals are in-game books that the players can access when they are not in a dungeon. I pretend that these are large vellum tomes only found in libraries and temples. The players can read them but they can’t write anything down, they have to remember it. James has been the only player to do this. He often waits to see what minis I am painting and looks them up, knowing that he’s gonna be fighting it eventually. I don’t mind this, since he is only 12, and tends to misremember the details anyway.
But none of those things worked in this scenario. Sure there is a stream here, but the player don’t know that I’ve added it or why, and they certainly wouldn’t assume to throw the vampire in the water. I had hoped that a character might end his turn in the water and the vampire would not attack him, or if a player was one the other side, the vampire would jump over the water to get at him. But a jedi force push into a stream is better than I could have hoped. As a DM, you must always be on the lookout for ways to tell the story you want/need in reaction to your player’s action.
Back to the battle. The cleric is still charmed, the thief was just knocked unconscious and dying, but since his player isn’t here he will miraculously make his death saves, and the vampire just ate Meepo’s scorpion and now he just has a broken stick. I’ve been doing my best to keep the two in-person players in the action; Minsc has spent a lot of time, defending the other players and taking a few hits away from them, but both players are below 5 hit points and have no means to heal themselves. Andrew is really, really upset at the prospect of dying in this dungeon. Finally, I tell him flat out that nobody is going to die here, today.
Some could argue that this is a mistake, a bone-headed DM Sin, and completely against the spirit of D&D. This is possibly true, but the true spirit of D&D is to have fun, and today the specter of death was ruining everyone’s fun. The boys had spent the previous round avoiding direct combat; unsure about what to do, but now that they aren’t afraid they had a renewed spirit of enthusiasm.
Down to his last few spell, Riandon casts his trusty Ray of Frost and manages to hit for maximum damage. Minsc gets in a good hit and even Meepo connects with his broken stick before being backhanded into unconsciousness. Finally, in a burst of energy, Regizar uses his Action Surge, charging into the vampire and knocking him prone into the running stream, then striking him twice, the final blow a critical hit for quadruple damage, killing the creature as he impaled it through the heart with his trusty sword, Talon. The Saviors are victorious once more.
“Okay, so now what do we do?” I reminded them to read their handouts. “Oh yeah, we gotta burn this guy to save these other guys.” Well said, boys, way to pay attention. They dutifully grind the vampire’s ashes into a potion which they feed to Minsc’s fallen comrades. Slowly, their skin reverts to normal and the color returns to their eyes but they are still too weak to stand without assistance.
Our heroes are thanked profusely and bonds of fellowships are forged. Minsc will escort Sir Bradford and Sharwyn home to Secomber and inform them of the twig blight infestation, but the Dragonborn, Aragon, has asked to journey with the party and pay his debt for saving him. Before they part ways, Sir Bradford vows that he will always come to The Saviors aid if called. Sharwyn gifts them with a Ring of Shocking Grasp, which is particularly useful in unarmed combat and usable by the fighter, who of course, called dibs. I ignored the paladin’s magic sword because it is only a weapon useful for low level play. This is also where they learn that the adventurers were not kidnapped but had actually abandoned Minsc. Andrew thought this was hilarious, but Minsc was not perturbed. “I understand. This happens more often than you might think.”
And so concludes the adventure of The Sunless Citadel. Our heroes make their way back to the wagon and journey on to… Wait a minute! What about that iron key that was promised to them by that kobold three months ago? And isn’t there a dragon around somewhere? Okay, next week, The Saviors discover what the iron key actually opens and I promise that the dragon shows up… sort of.
Don’t forget, 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, having fun is more important than playing by the rules, and Game On!
How many minis are you hiding back there, Dad? – Andrew, when I kept dropping new bad guys into the finale.