Our heroes finally get that stupid iron key, plunder the tomb of some ridiculous thing, and the dragon abandons the adventure.
When last we left our heroes, they had defeated the Mad Druid, Belak and foiled his plans to infest the land with a horde of nasty, carnivorous Blights. They even managed to destroy a “vegetated” vampire, curing several fellow adventurers, including one, a Dragonborn Thief named Aragon, who will now join our merry band of mercenaries. But there is still the matter of the mysterious iron key and a white dragon somewhere in this dungeon. So today, we’ll wrap up all the loose ends and I’ll give my review of The Sunless Citadel, as presented in Tales From the Yawning Portal. Due to the pandemic, we are still playing with just Andrew as the fighter and thief, and James the wizard and cleric.
Following last week’s epic battle, I kind of rushed through the denouncement and treasure recovery. To recap, Belak, the Gulthias Tree, Erky the traitorous gnome, and the vampire, Gulthias are dead. Sharwyn, Sir Bradford and Aragon are saved and reverted to normal thanks to a potion concocted from the ashes of the vampire. I added Aragon to be the character that our friend Jack, who is just joining our D&D group, will play. Jack is unable to join us, so his character will still be “recovering from his ordeal” and too weak to engage in combat. Sir Bradford and Sharwyn are NPCs from the same adventuring group as Minsc, who accompanied our party for this adventure.
Having accomplished his mission to find his friends, Minsc will leave the party and travel with the two NPCs back to the town of Secomber and deal with the whole Blight infestation plot of this dungeon which we never bothered with. Before they go, Sir Bradford vows to render aid to the party whenever they need and Sharwyn gifts them with a magical Ring of Shocking Grasp. This ring has 3 charges and can cast the spell normally or be released during a successful unarmed strike and can be used by any class. Andrew, as the newly Chaotic Neutral fighter, immediately claimed this item, as I expected. I ignored Sir Bradford’s magic sword, Shatterstrike, because while I love its ability, I didn’t want it to go to the fighter, so I will repurpose the weapon later for a different character. And don’t forget that Belak has a Wand of Entanglement, this is an easy item to overlook.
The book also makes the mistake of never having the player’s even see one of the mystical Gulthias fruit, which the whole adventure is based around. I added that the players find a basket of these fruits. There are 4 of the healthy colored fruits (one for each player) and 3 of the pale sickly ones. Each healthy fruit heals 60 hit point (or 15 per each ¼) and cures blindness, deafness, or disease. Subsequently, each pale fruit causes 60 hit points of damage and the same three afflictions. These could be useful for our new thief/assassin should he ever bake some pies. The fruit will not spoil but once bitten or cut it must be consumed within an hour or lose potency. As a bonus, James will have a bunch of seeds to plant his own Twig Blight garden. Yea.
My players are excited about getting out of this dungeon and back to Waterdeep where the real action is, when I have Meepo, the Kobold Inventor/Dragon Handler remind them about the reward his chief promised them and the dragon, “Calcryx, who is still lost and scared somewhere in that awful goblin camp. Sob. My poor Calcryx.” Both players had completely forgotten about these plot hooks. They were interested in the reward but they didn’t care at all about the dragon, which was weird since I expected James to try and capture it for his zoo.
Since my player had no interest in the dragon, as they climbed out of the vine covered pit to the upper Fortress level, they see the dragon flying upward and out of the chamber, which is open to the sky 100’ above. Meepo cries out, “Calcryx, come back. We’re here to save you!”
Calcryx calls back, “I don’t care what you want. I want freedom! What did you think, that I would just sit in my room, waiting for you to kill me? Later, losers!” And with that, Calcryx abandoned the module. Will we ever see him again? Probably. But for now, this means that Meepo will be banished from his tribe and he can become Riandon’s minion and help him raise his secretly stolen green dragon egg, which is what we wanted anyway.
Back with the Kobold Chieftain, Meepo is summarily dismissed and the party receives their due reward, a single iron key. I privately enjoyed myself as I watched Andrew feel cheated about this reward, consider reneging on the deal and fighting everyone, then realize that this was exactly what they had bargained for, and that he had no recourse. Heh heh. Andrew was also upset that I would only allow them a short rest before they tackled the rest of the dungeon, but I had already granted them two back-to-back long rests because they kept getting their asses kicked, so no deal.
At last, we can enter the secret, sealed-for-a-century sanctum of the Cult of the Undying Dragon. Incredibly, this is the section that I did the most changes to. Not one room was left unchanged. But the biggest change if with the nature of this tomb. The book has it as the honored and revered tomb of a disgraced priest who turned himself into a Troll?! What? This makes zero sense and betrays the entire dragon theme of the dungeon. Plus, it is ridiculously convoluted to properly explain to the players. Maybe this made sense in the complete eight adventure arc of the original publication, but no longer. So, just keep this as the tomb of an honored Dragon Priest, maybe one who can levitate and wears a mask. (Skyrim Easter Egg!)
Reaching into the gaping maw of the carved dragon the iron key slides easily into its hole and with a resounding click the stone door slides silently open. A whoosh of air and a swirling of dust signify that these halls have not been disturbed in a long time. The first room is the Gallery of Forlorn Notes which is an awesome name for such a lame room. Four alcoves hold pedestals each with a glass globe on it. Three globes are broken, but one has a Fear Charm on it, causing the player roll a Wisdom Save or run away for a full minute before trying again. Repeat ad nauseum. Boring.
In my room, five alcoves line the walls but each alcove holds the statue of a dragon, and each dragon holds a glass globe in its mouth. Each globe has a smoky mist of a different color undulating inside it, White, Black, Green, Blue, and Red. A plaque on the far wall reads, “Only those with the Power of the Five shall pass.”
It took my players quite a few minutes to realize that they needed to cast the breath weapon of the appropriate type into the globe. Then they realize that they had to be cast at the same time. (Fifth Element Easter Egg!) Of course, no party has five wizards to cast spells into snow globes, so I allow that practical examples will work as well. I made sure to seed the entire dungeon with various things that they would need for this room; vials of acid and poison in the laboratory, a flask of alchemical fire on an altar, a potion of fire breath in a fountain, a Wand of Cold usable by the thief, a Ring of Shocking Grasp, even a torch would suffice. Once they have all the pieces in place, they pay homage to the Five Powers and a door opens allowing them to proceed…
Into a trapped hallway. But not with some lame arrow trap. This hallway ends at an ominous red door. I waited with bated breath to see if they remember what lay in store behind the Green door and the Blue door they encountered previously. “I check for traps! I check for traps,” they cry in unison. Aah, moments like these make me happy, when the players pay attention and foil my nefarious plans. A few successful thieving rolls later, and they narrowly escape my Baptism by Fire Hallway.
The next room is the Dragon Riddle, and of course, the riddle has nothing to do with dragons. So, I changed that too. Here’s mine:
Invisible to all, except winter betrays me / Master of all, no man survives without me
Andrew, who unbeknownst to me plays riddle games with his grandfather every day, immediately guessed Breath, opening the next secret door allowing them to proceed. And in full disclosure, he preferred the book’s riddle to mine. Ungrateful SOB.
The Honor Guard Room is the same except for one pivotal detail. The open spiked pit is now 15’ wide and I added an invisible wall directly over the center of it. When Reckless Regizar inevitably and immediately tried to jump the pit, he slammed into the wall for 1d4 damage, fell 10’ into the pit for 1d6, right onto the spikes for 2d10. Yes! (Cabin in the Woods Easter Egg!) Coming from inside the next room, Regizar could hear something snickering at him. Shortly, the players learn that this was Jot, a Quasit, hiding in the next room, but it was really me, the DM. Meanwhile, James simply had all the other characters climb carefully into the pit, walk gingerly past the spikes, and up the other side for zero damage. They never even bothered to look for the irrelevant secret door. Nor did anyone offer to help pick Regizar up off the floor.
Inside the Tomb of the No-Longer-Failed Dragonpriest, they had a very brief, single-round combat with Jot before it flew away, mocking the party as he left. Later, on the ride back to Waterdeep, they would swear they could hear laughter in the wind. It is Jot, invisibly sitting on the wagon’s axle, plotting his next move.
Back in the tomb, the boys dutifully opened all the seals around the sarcophagus, although Andrew did remark, “I don’t even know why we are doing this. Dad’s just gonna have some ridiculous thing attack us.” And once the coffin was opened, some ridiculous thing rose up, floating above the players, demanding, “Who disturbs my slumber? Rise up, my servants, and attack these fools.” Six skeletons break through secret niches hidden behind the plaster wall and attack, you know, like Skyrim’s Draugur.
For stats, my Dragonpriest is actually a Deathlock from Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes, another great book to pester your players with. In addition to his cool and heretofore unseen spells like Eldritch Blast and Hunger of Hadar, the Dragonpriest holds a wand with a carved red dragon on it. That can’t be good. It is also wearing a death mask just so I can completely rip off The Elder Scrolls. Needless to say, it’s first action is to launch a fireball into the middle of the room, after floating away to a safe corner, of course.
From that point it was a good back and forth battle, until I cast a spell before I had fully read the rules about it and nearly crippled the party. I thought that the Hunger of Hadar was similar to a Fireball except it uses death energy instead of fire with a radius of 20’. No problem, I cast it onto my players. That’s when I realize that the spell doesn’t just explode and dissipate, it lingers, creating a sphere of death that lasts for 10 rounds doing 4d6 damage each round to those foolish enough to stay inside. This “killed” Callan who luckily collapsed just outside the circle so he would not be permanently dead. This also split the party, trapping Clarissa in the corner, Riandon with a bunch of skeletons, and Regizar with no one to fight.
The Dragonpriest continued to hammer away with a variety of death inducing spells; Eldritch Blast, Poison Spray, Firebolt. Riandon collapsed and Clarissa had to disengage to save him from the skeletons. Regizar had to through the circle of death just to have a few swings at the floating bastard. Andrew couldn’t believe that this jerk with no name was going to kill everyone. Finally, Clarissa cast his Mass Healing spell. It only healed 7 points, but it was enough to bring everyone back for one final assault. Everyone unleashed their highest damage output onto this ridiculous thing in put it down for good.
With the thing dead, they ransacked the room. The gathered up the requisite gold and gems and scrolls and Riandon has another cool wand, but nothing here compensated for the hassle of getting to this room in the first place. Just before exiting, Andrew stated that he took the mask off the priest and pocketed it. Good Boy. He asked what it does and I have no idea. I know that I want it to do something, but I haven’t figured out what exactly. So I said, “You have no idea. It is clearly magical, but you’ll have to investigate further to figure it out.”
And so, concludes our adventure into The Sunless Citadel. Our heroes gather up their spoils, pack everything into Riandon’s wagon and set off on the journey home. Over the course of 8 ragged months, The Saviors liberated a tribe of kobolds, fought over 120 monsters, earned 18,000XP, found some new magic items, picked up a new follower, Meepo, and introduced a new companion, Aragon, the Dragonborn Thief/Assassin. But still everyone was left with a sense of having accomplishing nothing. They had rescued kidnapped damsels and foiled a nefarious scheme to destroy a town and infect the land with an unending pestilence but none of that mattered. They were just nameless faces with “whatever” plans.
Part of the problem is all of the shifting tones of the adventure. This is a village adventure, a small community of people with a problem and no one from the city will bother to help them, except perhaps our heroes. But by shoehorning it into Tales From the Yawning Portal, the story now involves somebody travelling all the way to the city to talk about the situation which ruins any sense of urgency or engagement. Then the dungeon itself is one-half plot driven and one-half Funhouse, but both styles detract from and weaken the other.
But the biggest problem is the story hook. The players need to be shown the backstory not told it. The players need to experience this backstory. Do not start this adventure in the Yawning Portal. Have them arrive in the village of their own accord. There they witness the sale of the fruit from the goblins to the town mayor. After the goblins leave, they notice the mayor talking to a group of adventurers who leave town in the same direction. Asking around, they learn that the mayor has sent that group to learn where these goblins get this fruit. Immediately after this, another man runs up, looking for the other group, but they’ve already gone. Maybe this new group of heroes (the players) can help.
A local farmer has gone missing, and there is a lot of blood found where he was working last. They can also learn that there have been numerous mysterious attacks on livestock over the past few years, but this is the first human victim. Run the players through a short wilderness adventure that ends with finding a cluster of Twig Blights and their lair filled with dead animals and the farmer. Really play up the vampiric nature of these Blights. Now maybe the players ignore all this and want to follow the other group. That’s fine too, just have them find the ambush site and the dying thief’s story below.
When they return a day or two later, all the villagers are surrounding a wagon which just arrived carrying the nearly dead thief of the previous group. The mayor calls for magic fruit to revive him. Healed but still too injured to adventure, the thief says they were ambushed and separated and he does not know the fate of the rest of the group. Now, the players can be asked by the mayor to find out about the goblins and the Hucrele matron to find the previous group and leave with a greater appreciation for both missions. I would even add a third quest given by some local sage to find the ruins of an ancient dragon cult and retrieve any artifacts, particularly a ceremonial mask or other item, to give them an incentive to explore that final bit of dungeon.
The dungeon itself is really good, and for low level play, very little needs to be changed in terms of monsters and challenge. I would still create a distinction between the traps set by the various factions (kobold, goblin, or cult). I would really play up the “Yojimbo” gang war between the kobold and goblin and give your player numerous means to support either side. And depending on your group, carefully decide whether or not to have Erky, or other NPC, betray the party. Once in the lower level, I would still add a way to cure the Gulthias affliction, and if you intend to run the second adventure, The Forge of Fury, I would add a cryptic map to its location in with the Dragonpriest treasure.
With the right introduction, The Sunless Citadel is a very good low-level module to start a new group with, but not really one to base an entire campaign around. It plays like a very long one-shot to whet your player’s appetite before you begin the proper campaign. It is also very encapsulated and doesn’t fit well into most existing campaigns. I had hoped that it would be an interesting diversion for my group, but it just proved to be a distraction. Hopefully, your group will have a less dis-jointed and more cohesive time running through your own Sunless Citadel.
Next week, The Saviors return to Waterdeep expecting a warm welcome only to find themselves wanted for questioning in multiple cases of murder and arson! And in some cases, our heroes just might be guilty.
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, if you have no idea what something is, just tell them they have to investigate it back in town, and Game On!
Times have changed and times are strange / Here I come, but I ain’t the same / Mama, I’m coming home – Ozzy Osbourne, who would also make an awesome NPC.