The adventure ends with epic fights against unique undead, a sly succubus, and the ubiquitous black dragon.
When last we left our heroes, they had finally found the uninspiring Forge of Fury, made friends with the surprisingly not evil duergar, and made mincemeat out of several oddly animated household objects, such as tables and carpets. It’s like the magic castle in Beauty and the Beast but with more murder and fewer song and dance numbers.
They also discovered a new version of an old puzzle that directly links this dungeon with the one from The Lost Mine of Phandelver. It was a good call back to an excellent adventure that my players really enjoyed, even for the players who hadn’t been there the first time around. The puzzle unlocked a strange altar dedicated to Talos and they found some magical marbles that they can’t figure out. The strange part is that Talos is a human god of Chaos here in a dwarven ruin. None of this is in the official adventure and is part of my homebrewed nonsense for my Ageless One storyline.
We pick up the adventure in the Talos altar, which I had placed in the unnumbered room between 47 & 48 on the Foundry Map. As the group exits the altar back into the oddly clean and tidy bedroom, Regizar the fighter and assumed leader of the group, suddenly and without provocation, attacks the newest member of the group, Unga-Bunga, the half-orc barbarian. After the expected cries of “What the hell are you doing, Andrew?!”, the other players looked to me to stop this not-allowed action of Player versus Player combat. I look back at them and state, “Your friend has just attacked you. What do you do?”
This sparked a hesitant combat that was fun (for me) and awkward (for them) as brother fought brother and the Saviors of Phandalin teetered on a path of self-destruction. Andrew did a great job roleplaying as the fight proceeded. As Regizar attempted to murder his friends, he said odd and incongruous things like, “You dare enter the halls of Durgeddin!”, “Prepare to die vile orc scum!”, and “You face the wrath of Arundil!” The other players also did a great job being confused until Jack, playing the dragonborn thief, caught wise. He said, “Wait. Stop. We are not your enemy. Who am I talking to?”
The encounter with Arundil the ghost has the potential to be cool and unique but is difficult to pull off properly. The ghost’s best ability is Possession where it takes full control of another person. As a DM, if an NPC becomes possessed, I roleplay that character differently than his usual persona. But this always runs the risk that the players will believe that the NPC was always evil and just hid it until now. They will not jump to the conclusion that the NPC is possessed, unless you betray yourself with lines of dialog that are deliberately out-of-character or completely unknown to that NPC.
But how do you possess another player? If I, as the DM, suddenly assume control of a player’s character then the other players will know that something is up, and act with suspicion. To pull off a proper possession, you have to include the to-be-possessed player into your scheme to conspire against the group. Temporarily.
When choosing your possessed player, several things must be considered. First, make sure the player is okay with it. I find that most players would relish the chance to screw with their friends, but I’m sure there are a couple of Dudley-Do-Rights who would object. Pick a decent roleplayer. We love all our players, but some are just better at playing different characters. Also, pick a PC who can survive a round or two of combat with everyone else in the party trying to kill him. As a bonus, pick the player that the other players suspect would most likely attack his fellow players anyway.
For our group these things aligned perfectly. Everyone knows that there is something wrong with Regizar, whom they suspect is turning evil (he is). When he started attacking the group, no one was shocked. They naturally assumed that the player was being a jerk, but they were surprised when I did not step in to stop it. I do not allow PvP combat at the table, but suddenly I do now? Something’s weird. Andrew played it perfectly, speaking the lines of dialog I gave him before the session, and acting like an NPC and not his character.
Once the jig was up, the ghost exited the host body and appeared before the players. Arundil is easily my favorite NPC in this adventure. He is the only one with a backstory, he is the reason behind most of the random monsters in this surprisingly plausible funhouse dungeon, and if played a certain way, he could be the main villain of the adventure. But I am always trying to subvert my players’ expectations. With so many opportunities for combat, I was curious to see if my players would attempt alternatives to just killing everything. This failed spectacularly with the orc tribe, but succeeded with the roper and duergar encounters. And it worked well here too.
Instead of making Arundil the bad guy, I played him as a tragic figure with a potential quest, if the players can convince Arundil that they are on his side. Fortunately, they had a rabbit in the hat, or rather two dozen heads in a hole. Once again unveiling their portable hole, spilling out dozens of severed orc heads, Arundil is convinced that our group is worthy to serve his needs. As gruesome as this whole hole thing had become, it has gotten the group out of several scrapes.
Arundil needs to redeem his failure to protect his tribe by recovering and properly burying his king, Durgeddin. This simple improvised quest provided a nice reminder of the otherwise ignored story behind this adventure. Of course, Arundil failed to mentioned his betrayal to his tribe, but my players also failed their perception checks, so I guess some details just aren’t meant to be discovered. Off to the unexplored Desecrated Shrine and the first of four interesting and escalating combat encounters.
I liked how this mundane undead encounter is elevated by making it an orc wight with two ogre skeletons. It is a simple yet effective tweak that makes the encounter more difficult and more interesting. It also gave me a chance to use these weird oversized skeleton minis that I have for some reason. And I like the life drain ability of the wight. It’s not as deadly as the old-school Level Drain these undead had, but still enough to put the fear of death into the players. The combat took longer than expected and the players were pretty beat up in the end.
Following the fight, they find the corpse of Durgeddin lying atop an altar. Why the invading orcs would allow their enemy to lie in state and not rend him apart and scatter his bones is beyond me. But my players didn’t care about such trivialities, so neither should we. I added that Durgeddin holds a forge hammer to his breast, which the players need to help the duergar dwarves restart the Forge. The second item they need, the EverSpark, is not here and must be somewhere else in the dungeon.
With the undead guardians defeated, it is a simple matter to bring the body back to the Dwarven Sepulcher room located in the Glitterhame. Arundil the ghost is there to greet them. I had expected the players to carry the body respectfully, but they just threw it into the portable hole to bounce around with a bunch of severed heads. I considered having Arundil be upset with this sacrilege, but decided it wasn’t worth the aggravation. Arundil spoke some hallowed words to inter his deceased king and made a few comments about Geraldine, the group’s dwarven companion, killed in Session 3 in this very room. As he drifted into the great unknown, Arundil said, “Thank you heroes, you’ve done a good thing here, help yourselves to the rest of out treasures, but beware the…” And he was gone.
Back in the Foundry level, our heroes continue looting. The next room is the Armory but everything is ransacked with just scraps of leather and metal strewn about and a gleaming suit of armor holding a greataxe at the far end of the room. Nothing unusual about that. As our group enters the room, they hear a disembodied voice yell out, “Finally! Something to fight. It’s been frickin’ ages!” Definitely normal. This was followed by more yelling, “Go for the sneak attack. Sorry, sorry, sorry. -whispering- Go for the sneak attack.”
Undeterred, the party heads into the room and is attacked by a Helmed Horror. In the book it’s a animated suit of armor, but my players are too tough for that. Throughout the fight, the players continue to hear the mystery voice. “Hit them harder, you dolt!”, “Kill, kill, kill!”, and “Ha! I’ve known hamsters that do more damage than you!” The fight was pretty standard except Regizar rolled three “Nat 1s” in a row. He was rewarded with another taunt, “Just save us time and impale yourself already.” Eventually, the Horror is reduced to a hunk of metal. But the voice continued, “Alright! Which one of you lucky devils gets to be my new champion?”
Meet Lilacor, the most meta magical weapon in the history of D&D. He’s here to kick butt and chew bubblegum and fix a glaring flaw with this adventure. The lack of bad-ass magical items. A major quest of the adventure is to find magic weapons bearing the mark of Durgeddin. But the adventure only rewards us with two, a +1 long sword in a random room and a +2 great axe in the dragon horde. Pretty uninspiring. I added more weapons and made them way cooler.
First, the +1 rapier held by the ogre chief on the Mountain Door level should have the Durgeddin mark, as it does in the original print of the adventure. I left this weapon vanilla so they could have something to sell to the blacksmith as part of the quest. I changed the +1 sword into a Flametongue sword since Andrew has craved one ever since he saw one way back in the Lost Mine of Phandelver. The weapon in the dragon horde is now a FrostBrand scimitar that is more in line with its intended player. And here in this previously treasureless room, I bequeathed my newest player the most annoyingly awesome weapon ever. Lilacor.
Stat-wise Lilacor is a +2 great axe of sharpness that also grants immunity to charm for the wielder. But it’s true value is in its dialog and its history. Lilacor is a talking sword with a distinct personality that is best described as “murder hobo”, perfect for my homicidal barbarian. It constantly taunts the player to kill more and offers advice on how to kill better. Lilacor is completely meta, knows all about the “real” world and often breaks the fourth wall. It is the Deadpool of D&D weapons. As for history, Lilacor comes from the Baldur’s Gate video game series, and is my favorite weapon in the game. Originally it is a +3 greatsword, but that is too powerful and my player uses an axe, so axe he is. Voiced by the same guy who does Winnie the Pooh (seriously), Lilacor has soundboards and YouTube videos dedicated to its pithy prose. You can check its best quotes here. Lilacor the Talking Sword. I’m gonna have a lot fun playing this NPC for a long time.
Moving on, we come to the last encounter of the level and another tough one to pull off. Inside a musty library is Idalla, a beautiful human woman, just sitting at a table crying. Sob. She is not trapped or restrained in any way. But of course, she needs our help. Doubly of course, this is a trap and she wants to kill the party. This is the NPC archetype I call The Backstabber.
The Backstabber’s job is to deceive the party, trick the party into believing they are something they’re not, and then betray the party in a most dramatic fashion. Almost every dungeon has a Backstabber NPC. Just in the seven adventures in Tales from the Yawning Portal, you have Idalla in The Forge of Fury, Dasa Zotz in The Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan, Quenef in White Plume Mountain, Pencheska in Dead in Thay, Obmi in Against the Giants, and everything in The Tomb of Horrors.
Doppelgangers, Illusionists, Lycanthropes, Hags, Onis, and Succubae make up the bulk of the Backstabbers as they can all alter their appearance, but there are plenty of Thieves and Assassins disguised as everyday folk in the mix too. Almost always they are found as a “prisoner” within the dungeon. Why else would a “good” person be hanging around in the evil dungeon? So, they lie to the party, join the group, and attack later. But there’s a huge problem with this setup.
The real problem is that the Backstabber NPC is really intended to be a death sentence for one player which was fine in the old school days when life was cheap but no longer really appropriate in 5th edition where the hero never dies. Take the case of a doppelganger. Its goal is to kill one PC privately and then assume his identity and kill the other PCs one by one. The first victim has to be cool with throwing his character away, playing a doppelganger for a while and betraying his friends. This is great in a horror one-shot or as a set-up to an adventure where the first victim is predetermined to be the sacrificial lamb between the DM and that player. But to arbitrarily kill off a player’s beloved hero in the middle of a modern campaign? You’ll have a mutiny on your hands.
This traitor in the midst trope can be an awesome twist to the narrative (the start of Out of The Abyss is a great example) but it requires a lot of work. It shouldn’t be dropped into the dungeon just mark it off a checklist. Cool Traps? Check. Obligatory dragon? Check. Backstabbing NPC? Check. Plus, throwing in a Backstabber at the tail end of the dungeon with no prior set-up will rarely work, because no party is going to fall for it. Hey, this sketchy person we just met in the deadly dungeon wants to join our group, should we let them in? Of course not. That leads us back to Idalla.
Neither Idalla’s fake story nor her real story makes any sense. She claims she was captured by some evil wizard that lives below. If the rest of the group would go kill the wizard while one player stays behind with me for “protection” that would be great. Maybe this lie stinks by design, but it still stinks. Who is this wizard? How long have you been here? How did you get past the orcs and dwarves? And her true story is even worse. Summoned by Arundil, she killed him centuries ago. Now she spreads rumors to lure others here to their doom. How has she spread these rumors? Where? Why doesn’t she just leave? What has she been feeding on for the past 500 years? Why doesn’t she feed on the dwarves next door?
Keep the lie simple and believable. If you want to create drama with the duergar then have Idalla say that she was captured by the duergar and has traveled the Underdark for over a year as their slave and cook. I kept it even simpler; she was magically teleported here by Arundil, which is true. How and why, she does not know, which is the lie. “If you brave men would only kill the ghost, then I would be free to leave with you fine handsome gentlemen. Oh, you’ve already banished the monster? Great. Let me get my things; they’re right here in the next room. Won’t one of you strong boys come and help me?’
I chose Eragon the dragonborn thief as my victim for two reasons. My succubus would surmise that the thief would have a lower wisdom score than the wizard and lower health than the two fighters; perhaps she could kill her victim in just one kiss. I took the player, Jack, into the other room and had him roll his save. He failed and is now charmed. Back at the table, he readily agreed to follow Idalla into the back bedroom. Along with Unga-Bunga, whose player, Nick, also wanted a piece of the action. Even as a brand-new player, Nick knew it was a trap, and didn’t care; this chick was clearly flirting with him. I feel like I badly played this bit, and I wish I could have been a bit more subtle, but it did succeed in splitting the party, so mission accomplished.
Inside her bedroom, Idalla brashly offers them a kiss for rescuing them and Unga-Bunga is all for it, no silly charm spells or deception rolls needed for this guy. Thirty points of damage later, Unga-Bunga decided to end the make-out session. Idalla ends her charm on Eragon and attempts to charm Unga-Bunga to go in for the killing kiss. This was a mistake as I legitimately forgot that I just gave that character a sword that made him immune to charm. Oopsie. Freed from her charm, Eragon cries out to his teammates, “Get in here! She’s a demon.” Lilacor chimes in, “Yeah, a demon in the bedroom. Booyah!” Yup, I love that sword, er, axe.
The real lesson here is that despite all my overthinking (and exhaustive writing) about the setup to this encounter, my players went along with it willingly. I guess my best advice is to not worry about such things and just play. Anywho, onto the battle. The last two characters run into this now cramped room to take on the succubus, whom has revealed herself in all her lingerie glory. She rolled a 5 for her initiative, which means the whole group will get a chance to wail on her before she vanishes into the ether. This is another out-of-left-field ability that makes the encounter disappointing for the players. Moments after her deception is revealed, she disappears, robbing them of the chance to kill her. But my players have become quite resourceful and manage to thwart my plans. Almost.
Both Unga-Bunga and Eragon get a chance to avenge their wounded pride by hitting the demoness for some moderate damage. But it was Riandon who hits me with the coup-de-grace. Andrew (Regizar) and James (Riandon) have been with the campaign from the start, and I have kept them wallowing at 6th level for far too long. After the roper session, I allowed them a rest and advanced everyone up a level. This put the wizard and fighter at 7th level, the thief is 6th, and the newly joined barbarian is now 4th. (I’ll bump him up again at the end of the adventure.) The big news for the wizard is that this opens up new 4th level spells. And which one did he choose? Polymorph.
Ah, Polymorph, one of the more vaguely worded and easily abused spells, right up there with Find Familiar and Wish. But it’s one of the most fun spells in the game, so of course, I’m gonna let him play with it. Riandon (and the rest of the party) was convinced that this demon was way more powerful that she was and they were determined to incapacitate it before it could attack.
How best to incapacitate a foe? Turn it into a gerbil. Idalla failed her save, and instantly morphed into a very sexy hamster. Before it could scamper away, Regizar grappled the rodent and held on tight. Now, I know that polymorph does not work on shapechangers, and thus the succubus should be immune to the spell. But this conclusion was so much more satisfying than what I was going to do, which was turn ethereal and run away, that I ignored the Rules as Written and went with the Rule of Cool, as always a good DM (which you are) should do.
A furious discussion took place about what to do with this gods-forsaken gerbil. They wanted to be sure that they could do the most amount of damage in a single strike, hopefully enough to kill it outright. Their weapon attacks weren’t enough and the thing would scurry away as soon as Regizar released it. They had some powerful spells and they considered wasting a fireball on a single rodent, but it still might not kill it and it would still run away.
They decided to strap the hellish hamster to some sticks. Using their half-baked knowledge from catechism classes and The Exorcist movies, they tied the rodent to a crucifix. Then they went looking for an appropriate death for the demonic degu. They didn’t have to look long as they shortly found the gaping chasm that leads down to the dragon’s lair. Using more movie logic and some dropped rocks, they determined that a hundred plus foot drop would be the most damage they could muster. With zero fanfare and zero voices of dissent, they threw the crucified gerbil into the abyss.
With a blood-curdling squeak the polymorphed succubus plummeted to her doom. They heard the splat and waited for a few moments in case she survived and flew back up for revenge. When she did not, they assumed the best and went to loot her rooms.
The book’s listed reward in her rooms is underwhelming. All the martial characters get cool weapons during the adventure, but the wizards get screwed. Meant to reflect Arundil the ghost mage’s horde, it’s rather sparse, especially for a wizard who has raised armies of skeletons and animated multiple objects. I included Arundil’s spellbook with a few beefier spells, including Animate Object and Create Undead, to reflect that. Then I added to Riandon’s Wondrous Figurine collection with the Onyx Dog. In addition to its unique ability to see invisible creatures, I allow it to see ethereal creatures as well. This could have helped with the succubus encounter and will definitely help them with The Ageless One storyline.
Finally, we dragged on to the finale of the adventure; the winner-take-all battle with a nasty black dragon, Nightscale. A battle that is completely superfluous and unnecessary to the adventure. The dragon adds nothing to the story beyond, “Hey, we killed a dragon!” But it’s been 2 years since we’ve fought one and some of my players never have. But first a few wrapped up details.
At the base of chasm, they find the broken crucifix but no sign of the succubus. They assumed that they killed and banished the demoness. But did they? Who knows? She may be dead, or she may have barely survived and escaped to the ethereal plane to lick her wounds and plot her revenge. Then, in the western wing of the Black Lake level, they discovered about a half dozen mangled orc corpses. I altered the map to connect the rope bridge on level 1 with this level. This allows my players to recollect the bounties on all those orcs they threw off said rope bridge, and could allow the dragon to escape via this chasm and actually create the scenario painted on the cover art.
All right, it’s dragon time! To make it more challenging, I boosted its stats to a hybrid Young Adult Black Dragon, modifying an adult dragon adding her legendary actions and lair actions but dropping her health to 160. As the players approach, a preternatural fog obscures the cavern and the water tastes foul, almost acidic. Again, the party made no attempts at stealth until it was too late, and the dragon knows they’re there. She is hiding in the water, waiting for the opportune moment. The only question is whom do I target with her deadly acid attack?
This is a serious question with serious consequences. Do I want to kill the party? More importantly, do I want to play the monsters as if they want to kill the party? A smart dragon would target the wizards first, then any range weapon users, followed by the clerics and fighters last. This would be a realistic and very short fight. Not much fun for the players, whom I serve.
Also, my relatively new players still don’t think super tactically, and I don’t just mean in terms of battle like flanking and action economy. I mean in terms of their own character’s capabilities. They don’t even know what they don’t know. For example, if I (the uber-nerd with 30+ years of thinking about this game) learn that there is a dragon about, my first question is what color is it, and then I do every thing I can to become resistant if not immune to that dragon’s breath weapon damage type.
Doesn’t this make me a metagamer? I know that black dragons spew acid, but does my character? Where would he have learned this? Isn’t it more realistic that nobody has any idea what these mythic creatures can do? Thus, nobody could prepare for what they can do. Especially in an adventure like this that has no build up to the dragon, it’s just there. This adventure is written for players who already know all about black dragons and how to fight them, not for characters who are seeing a dragon for the first time. Should I punish my players for their ignorance? Of course not.
I have to find a way to play the dragon sub-optimally while still looking like she wants to kill them. Fortunately, Riandon the wizard has spent half the adventure, walking on walls and ceilings thanks to spider climb. I use this as the reason that Nightscale did not notice him or target him initially. The deciding factor is that the dragonborn thief is a Copper Dragonborn and has resistance to acid. The Black Dragon would know this and should avoid breathing of the thief. But what’s the point of a cool situational ability if you never get to use it? Thus, Eragon is my first victim. It also helped that he made his perception roll and won’t be surprised.
Creeping through the fog, hugging the wet walls to avoid slipping into the frigid black lake, our heroes scour the gloom looking for any sign of the wicked wyrm. The distant drone of dripping water is the only sound as time stands still and you dare not take a single step. A slight ripple, then the entire lake explodes in a maelstrom of scale, bone and fury. The monstrous beast erupts from the water, black as night, its cold eyes blacker still. The dragon opens her gaping maw and spews forth a steaming viscous goo. Acid!
The uncannily dexterous rogue barely manages to roll out of the way as the corrosive venom scars and pits the solid rock. Still a few deadly droplets dissolve through Eragon’s leather clothes and burn his skin in searing pain. (60 x ½ DEX save, x ½ Dodge, x ½ Resistance = 7hp; Jack felt like a badass, turning a death blow into a mere scratch.) There’s no time to celebrate for the attack ended as quickly as it began when the dragon dove back into the murky depths leaving no sign of her presence except the gentle lapping water upon the rocky shore.
Desperate to find the drake before she can attack again, our heroes frantically try to think of anything that will give them any advantage. Ironically, I gave them a spell in Arundil’s spellbook that would have helped them here, Control Water. I should have made it a scroll, because they didn’t think of it. Regizar blindly hurled some javelins into the lake, praying for a miracle that never came. Eragon vainly looked for a place to hide and found none. All the while, Unga’s Lilacor suggested loudly to “Stab the water! Stab the water!”
But it was Riandon who came up with the solution. Randomly casting Faerie Fire into the gloomy waters, I gave him a 20% cumulative chance to find the right hiding spot. The first castings found nothing but small blind fish dating about, but the third revealed an enormous green silhouette just below the surface. Missiles of every sort, arrows, spears, and even a trident (it was on his sheet!) flew true into the hide of the submerged dragon.
Enraged (and forgetting her tactics). Nightscale bursts from the water once more to destroy these mortal fools with tooth and claw. From this point, the players had a fighting chance to actually win, but it was still deadly. The dragon’s bonus tail attack proved particularly nasty but the wing attack was less successful; this group has some really high DEX scores. But I did get to use another breath attack. Against the one player wearing a magic breastplate resistant to dragon breath awarded during the Lost Mine of Phandelver and never utilized until now.
Some other memorable moments included Riandon leaping from the ceiling to the wall to avoid the dragon’s bite then throwing a lightning bolt straight down its gullet. Eragon made a diving attack that drove his poisoned dagger deep into the dragon’s belly. With his flaming sword, Regizar severed one of Nightscale’s wicked claws, which landed at the fighter’s feet with the middle claw extended. But the killing blow came from Unga-Bunga who drove his great axe wholly into the great wyrm’s neck. This was followed by muffled cries of joy coming from the dead dragon’s throat. When the axe was pulled free, Lilacor was still yelling, “I am Lilacor the Dragonslayer! I am the god of swords, er, axes! I am invincible!… So, uhm, what d’ya wanna kill next?”
All that remained was to collect the treasure and wrap up loose ends. As I said, I added the Frostbrand scimitar here for the thief two add to his weapon collection. He now has three elemental attacks; acid, poison, and cold. I also included a huge glowing crystal that seemed to burn with an internal flame. This is the EverSpark the duergar need to restart the Forge. The players considered keeping it, which would have been a real Tolkien Heart of the Mountain moment. But they ended up returning it to the dwarves, which helped forge an alliance that will benefit the players later.
After a very generous interpetation of Tenser’s Floating Disk, the players loaded up Riandon’s wagon with 15 stirges, 2 gricks, a hook horror, a busted suit of armor, a ripped carpet, a smashed table, a live roper, a dead dragon missing one hand, and 46 orc heads. They also threw on a couple of orc bodies to feed to the roper during the journey home.
Travelling first to the village of Amphail, they collected the bounty on all those orc heads, granting them a trifling amount of gold and a new title, The Angels of Amphail. Stopping by the county store, they cashed in one of the Durgeddin weapons for that reward. Turns out there are several non-magical weapons with the Durgeddin seal that you only learn about at the end of the adventure, including an unlisted handaxe in room 14 and the warhammer in room 33. They traded in the axe and kept the rest for trophies. Finally, our heroes bid adieu to The Forge of Fury and pointing their wagon to the southwest horizon, they head home.
Next week, we return to the civilized city of Waterdeep and in my hubris, I attempt to adapt a novel into an adventure and may have killed the whole campaign.
As always, PvP action is fine when the DM wants to screw with his players, and Game On!