The Sunken Ziggurat

This week I’m doing something a little different. I haven’t had time to write anything new for you guys, so I’m going to edit and publish a dungeon that I wrote (with the help of my good friend/fiend, KC) and ran for my D&D5 group last year. The dungeon was designed to be the quintessential Vecna-themed adventure, packed right to the tits with secrets, lies, traps, and the undead. However, with a little bit of tweaking, I think it could be made to fit any setting that features an ancient cult that worships the undead. As written, the dungeon should be a solid challenge for a 6th level party.

Also, please note that the dungeon was written for an on-going campaign, so there might be some stuff left in there that doesn’t make a ton of sense out of context. If you’re interested in the background, my players had been pursuing the agents of a powerful and mysterious necromancer named Khorvan, and had finally tracked them to the Ziggurat. The dungeon ends with a showdown with Khorvan’s two powerful apprentices, a barbarian sorceress named Hezra and a nobleman-turned-heretic named Philippe du Blanc. Naturally, you’re going to want to re-write and re-skin big sections of it anyway. And, as usual, if you end up running some or all of this, please drop me a line and let me know how it went!


M. Hamhock out.

*   *   *

The Sunken Ziggurat is a four level dungeon with the bottom two levels partially or entirely below water. It was built centuries ago as a monument to Vecna and stands a celebration of secrets, misdirection, and horror. The Ziggurat is situated in the middle of a fetid mire, the land itself poisoned by the dark magics contained within. However, over the centuries, it has slowly been sinking into the muck. One side of the dungeon is now substantially lower than the other. Most floors in the dungeon slope left to right (as viewed from the Entrance on Level 2) at about a 10 degree angle. Keep this in mind when reading the room descriptions below.

The majority of the rooms and passages of the Sunken Ziggurat are marked with five-foot tall bas-reliefs of a largely featureless Mask of the Faithful. However, each Mask features a some detail that hints at the horrors beyond. No two Masks are alike. The arrangement of the Masks allows Vecna’s faithful in the Hall of Apotheosis to view the majority of the Ziggurat through a limited clairvoyance effect.

The whole of the Ziggurat is suffused with an aura of necromancy. This emanates from the unhallow in Zekkara’s Tomb above and from the Orb of Unmaking below. All undead in the Ziggurat gain the benefits of false life (10 extra HP) and bless (+1d4 to all attack rolls and saving throws). Also, all Necromancy spell effects get +1 to their save DC.

Note: All of the horrors in the Ziggurat can be bypassed by kneeling before each mask and reciting a line of the Book of Vile Darkness. However, some of the Masks or traps have been damaged or triggered, so avoiding them is impossible. The cultists have taken to avoiding these routes. See the descriptions below for more information.

Level 1 – Hall of Worship

Top floor of the Ziggurat. Only accessible via stairs within the structure. This is the least disturbed part of the Ziggurat. Once, ages ago, Vecna’s high priests used to come up here to worship before Zekkara’s tomb, but now even the most dedicated cultists fear to tread here. This entire level is under the effect of unhallow (preventing elementals, celestials, and fey from entering the area) with the additional effect being vulnerability to necrotic damage (Charisma save DC 16).

Room 1 – Burial Antechamber

This 20’ x 20’ room is an opulently decorated antechamber. The walls are painted in bright colors and gold leaf showing the triumph of Vecna’s armies and hundreds of prostrate forms (living and undead alike) bowing towards the door in the far wall.

Across from the stairwell, there is a large stone door featuring the high-relief likeness of a powerful woman wearing a featureless mask. She is wearing simple robes (similar to the cultists) and wielding a staff of living snakes.

The room contains ornately carved furniture featuring red velvet and inlaid gold and silver designs. It is remarkably well preserved. The whole set is worth in excess of 1000 GP.

There is also a large, high-quality chest inlaid with gold and silver. It does not possess a lock, but is nonetheless sealed. On the front face of the chest is a cipher in Common (Intelligence (Arcana) DC 16 to decipher) asking “What is gained from knowledge?” If one stands before the chest and says, “Power over the weak,” in any language, the chest pops open. This triggers a magic mouth that says, “Indeed, brother/sister. Now, wake me from my sleep.” The opener is then effected by a compulsion (Wisdom save DC 16 to resist) to walk to the far wall and press the stones required to trigger the door opening. The chest only contains a piece of parchment bearing the name “Hessian”, the name of Zekkara’s first love (the secret powering the spell). This effect also occurs if the chest is destroyed by any means.

Room 2 – Zekkara’s Tomb

Interred in the highest room of the Ziggurat is the body of one Vecna’s generals, the battle-sorceress Zekkara. The wards protecting her tomb are still quite potent, even after the thousands of years since her death. If the door is opened without touching the correct trigger stones, the entirety of Room 1 is effected as by the contagion spell (Constitution save DC 17 – including bonus from zone effect), inflicting Filth Fever (disadvantage on Strength checks, saves, and attacks).

Inside the room is a large sarcophagus flanked by four stone chairs. Sitting in the stone chairs are the mummified remains of four Vecna cultists wearing old, moldering cult robes and featureless white masks. The floor is covered in the bones of the dead. Against the back wall is an altar to Vecna (rusty with blood-stains) holding four canopic jars. Each is inscribed with an ancient secret and holds some of Zekkara’s organs.

Note: The fifth jar – containing her heart – is on Level 4 of the dungeon in a hidden compartment in the room with the Orb of Unmaking.

Regardless of whether the trap is triggered, if the door is opened, Zekkara rises. She was a 7th level Cleric of Vecna (Death domain), who, upon her death, was transformed into a Mummy Lord (modify the stat block so as to be very challenging, but not overwhelming for the PCs). She arises along with four (4) of her most trusted servants (use a buffed-up Zombie stat block). She is wearing much more ornate robes than her servants (which are still quite decayed), an amulet of proof against detection and location and bears a staff of withering (which is styled as three entwined snakes).

As she rises, she notes that the PCs are not Vecna cultists (no robes or masks) and gives them an opportunity to convert. “You are not followers of the Whispered One! You have intruded where you do not belong. This is your one and only chance: bow before Vecna’s might and perhaps you will be spared.” If they refuse, she attacks.

Level 2 – Hall of Whispers


The entry is fairly short (no more than 10’) and narrow (5’ wide), sloping down at about 20 degrees. At the bottom of entry passage is a trip wire (Wisdom (Perception) DC 15) connected to a mechanism that will release boulder at the top entry passage (2d10 bludgeoning damage to everyone in the passage, undodgeable except by the person who triggered the trap – Dexterity save DC 15). This trap should be fairly easy to avoid, but will serve to put the players on guard.

The entry passage leads perpendicularly into a long, torch-lit hallway.

Left Passage

Mask: Mouth has a small smile, but the eyes are small waterfalls of fetid swamp water. These drain into a small grate in the floor.

This passage turns right at the Mask and leads directly to the archway leading into Room 3.

Room 3 – Puzzle Box

This room is quite small, no larger than 10’ x 10’. There appears to be no other exit than the archway leading in. In the center of the room is a pedestal upon which has been placed a small puzzle box. Just inside, there is a carefully concealed pressure plate (Wisdom (Perception) DC 20). Five seconds after the plate is triggered, a stone slab drops from the entry archway, sealing everyone in the room, and the sound of rushing water can be heard echoing within the walls around them for several minutes. However, the puzzle box room remains dry. The slab can be lifted, but it’s quite heavy (Strength DC 18).

When the puzzle box is lifted from the pedestal, the symbol of Vecna is revealed beneath. The puzzle box itself is a simple sliding mechanism puzzle (Intelligence DC 14) that, when solved, pops open to reveal a small note: “Who is the weakest among you? To know their weakness is to gain power over them. Slay them. Bathe the Whispered One’s mark in their blood. Then, you will know His will.”

If a significant amount of blood (10 HP) is shed on the mark, there is the sound of stone grinding on stone, then the secret passage into Room 4 opens.

Room 4 – Drowned Men

Mask: The mask on the far side of the room is weeping like the one marking the Left Passage and its mouth is open wide.

This room is fairly wide and long, at least 20’ x 50’. There is a Mask of the Faithful on the far wall and a door in the right hand wall 45’ back. Next to it is a lever. Above the Mask is an inscription: “Prove that you chose correctly.” There is no lighting except small candles illuminating the inscription.

If the pressure plate in Room 3 was triggered, this room is flooded with three feet of murky (almost opaque, advantage on Stealth checks for submerged creatures), fetid swamp water. When the secret passage opens, the water level equalizes between the rooms and anyone who succeeds a DC 15 Wisdom (Perception) check catches sight of a rotted, animate corpse crawling out of the Mask’s mouth into the water.

The water quite restrictive as well (half movement, disadvantage on Dexterity checks and saves) and conceals five (5) drowners (the reanimated corpses of dead men – use Ghast stat block). The undead immediately attack.

The door in the back of the room leads to the two stairwells, but is locked. The lever next to the door drains the water from the room and unlocks the door. The exit from Room 6 can be seen across the landing.

Right Passage

Mask: The mouth is frowning, as if the face were slightly concerned.

This passage turns left at the Mask and leads directly to the door leading into Room 5.

Room 5 – Whispered Lies

The entrance to this room is an archway similar to that leading into Room 3. However, a cockeyed slab of stone is blocking the doorway. There are small gaps in the doorway through which one can see into part of the room beyond and hear the sound of a waterfall. Anyone who takes the time to listen can make a Wisdom (Perception) check DC 20. Success allows them to hear the “whispered” whirring and clicking of the still-functional mechanical traps inside. The stone slab is heavy, but not stuck in place, requiring a Strength check DC 15 to displace.

This room beyond the doorway is quite large, easily 30’ x 40’, and is entirely unlit. It once housed an elaborate blade trap. However, it has since suffered catastrophic damage. A chunk of rock from the inside of the Ziggurat’s wall came loose and smashed through the floor, partially destroying the elaborate deathtrap. A small waterfall pours through a crack in the wall, covering most of the surfaces in scummy water. Now, only part of the floor remains and what is there is slick with swamp water and unstable. Additionally, the wreckage of Room 10 is visible through the shattered remains of the floor.

Moving across the floor requires a Dexterity (Acrobatics) check DC 14. Furthermore, whenever a character crosses the room, roll a d6. On a 1 or 2, the floor gives way and the character falls into Room 10. To further complicate matters, some of the mechanical blade traps are still functioning. On a 3 or 4 (on the earlier d6 roll), the character is attacked by a set of mechanical blades (+8, 3d10 damage).

The door on the far side of the room stands closed. Anyone listening at the door can hear a dull roar within.

Room 6 – Shouted Truth

Mask: The eyes are closed and the mouth is open, as if the mask were shouting.

This room is moderately sized, no more than 20’ x 20’. There is no lighting. The mask is situated in the middle of the far wall. There is a stone door in the back left corner, but it is magically locked. The door can be forced with a Strength check DC 18.

This room roars with wind. All unprotected flames (such as torches) are immediately extinguished upon entering. Lanterns have a 1-in-3 chance of being extinguished. Additionally, the door into the room is blown closed unless held open. Anyone attempting to communicate in this room must shout at the top of their lungs. The roar of the wind also serves to conceal the subsonic commands constantly droning here. Anyone who listens carefully can make a Wisdom (Perception) check DC 19 to hear the string of mystic commands in Infernal. Regardless of whether or not this check is successful, everyone who spends more than a few seconds in the room is effected as per the confusion spell (Wisdom save DC 16).

There is an inscription on the exit door: “A well-spoken secret can cut deeper than any knife. Wound another and the Whispered One will set you free.” If a character stands before the door and shouts a secret with the intention to harm another, the door pops open. However, the magic of the door can be tricked. If any statement is shouted with appropriate conviction (Charisma save DC 16), the door will open. Through the door are the two stairwells. The exit from Room 4 can be seen across the landing.

Stairs Up

Mask: The eyes are closed and the mouth has a small smile, as if the face is resting peacefully.

These stairs are well-carved and covered in a layer of dust. It is clear that no one has used them for quite some time.

Stairs Down

Mask: The masks mouth and eyes are twisted into a savage grin.

These stairs were once well-carved, but have since been eroded by the passage of many feet and swamp water leaking from a crack in the wall underneath the Mask.

Level 3 – Hall of Secrets

Room 7 – Entry From Level 2

This small, but fairly wide room (15’ x 45’) is lit by torches. There are two doors leading out of this room. The door in the left wall (leading to Room 8) is a stone slab that can be raised into the ceiling using a wheel set into the wall beside the door (see additional info about this below). The door on the right is unlocked, but leads to the flooded chambers (Room 10). When a character looks through this door, something terrifying should be barely visible stirring in the waters beyond. The walls of this room are decorated with an intricate mural featuring Vecna’s greatest victories (specifically, the sack of Fleeth, the slaughter of its citizens, and building the mountain of heads). There is an inscription in the middle of the mural: “You seek knowledge, brother? Prove you are worthy of the Whispered One’s secrets. Demonstrate what lives inside your heart and receive his blessings.”

In the center of the room is a small well. It’s extremely dark inside, despite the room being well-lit (due to a permanent darkness effect). When a character investigates the well or makes noise in the room, the voice of a small child emanates from the well (another magic mouth). The child is on the ragged edge of panic and wants desperately to escape. While they remain in the room, she begs them to help her.

The well is actually quite shallow (the Hall of Apotheosis is directly below) and contains a blade trap. Anything lowered into the well (such as a rope) is neatly severed, accompanied by the almost indiscernible sound of the well-oiled blades emerging from the inner walls of the well (Wisdom (Perception) check DC 20). If a character reaches into the well, they must make a Dexterity save DC 20 or take 5d10 damage. If this trap causes more than half of the character’s total HP in damage, the limb in question is cleanly severed. On a successful save, they take half damage and suffer no additional ill effects. Furthermore, whenever the trap is triggered, the child’s voice cries out and begs, “Please stop! It hurts! Help me!”

Additionally, when the wheel is turned to raise the door into Room 8, the child’s voice cries out in pain and begs them to stop, “Please stop! It hurts! Help me!” As the wheel turns, the child’s voice becomes increasingly shrill and desperate. When the door is opened fully, the voice is suddenly cut short.

Room 8 – Grand Library

Mask: The eyes are open wide in surprise and pleasure.

This large room (15’ x 40’) is well lit by carefully arranged lanterns and candles. The door out (to the short hallway leading to Room 9) is set in the back wall. The are half a dozen large bookcases filled with books on a variety of forbidden subjects (necromancy, demonology, and ritual magic feature heavily). One of the bookcases against the back wall is hinged and when pulled outwards reveals a secret passage that the cultists use to bypass Room 9 (Intelligence (Investigation) DC 16 to find evidence that the bookcase can be moved). Most of the volumes are in remarkably good condition (this is the elevated side of the Ziggurat, so this room was spared from the majority of water damage). The room also contains a number of tables, chairs, and lecterns for study.

The Grand Library is under a major abjurative effect. In order to protect his followers’ library, Vecna wove a spell of forbiddance over the Library. Any tome placed on the shelves can never again be removed from this room. Anyone attempting to do so feels a mild compulsion to return the book to its shelf (Charisma save DC 14). If this compulsion is overcome and a character continues with the attempt, they take 1d10 necrotic damage every round while in possession of the stolen volume. If a character destroys one or more of these volumes, they must make a Constitution save DC 16 or take 5d10 necrotic damage. If a character is reduced to 0 HP by this effect, they immediately perish and rise as a zombie.

This room also contains a secret passage that bypasses Room 9 and opens into the hallway to Room 11. One of the lanterns is actually a lever that opens the passage behind one of the bookcases in the far wall. Detecting this is fairly easy (Wisdom (Perception) check DC 15).

Three cultists (use Cult Fanatic stat block), attired in robes and featureless white masks, are here studying at any given time.

Room 9 – The Prisoner

Mask: The face is twisted into an open-mouthed frown, as if it were bemoaning some great tragedy.

The Mask of the Faithful is on the left wall of the short hallway between Room 8 and this room. Directly across from the Mask is a lever. The entrance to this room is an archway that is blocked by a heavy, well crafted steel portcullis (Strength check DC 20 to raise). The room itself is not much bigger than 10’ x 10’. The inside of the room is not lit, but the torches outside shed plenty of light inside. Exactly opposite the entrance is an archway leading out, which is also blocked by an identical portcullis. The stone floor of this room is stained with old, dried blood, vomit, and sewage. Any character who makes a successful Wisdom (Perception) check DC 16 will notice remarkably similar stains on the ceiling of this room.

This room is currently occupied by a haggard-looking man in filthy, ragged clothing. This man is Weston, a bandit and treasure hunter from a nearby settlement. He and his companions (mostly deserters) headed into the jungle looking for ruins to pillage several weeks ago. The discovered the Ziggurat and decided to investigate. His companions were slowly killed by other death traps and undead, and Weston ended up in here. The cultists have kept him alive (feeding him and not pulling the lever) because they find his suffering entertaining. Weston merely wants to escape.

Pulling the lever across from the Mask causes the ceiling to slowly descend and crush anyone and anything within. It takes five rounds to reach the floor. The lever is locked in place until this process is complete. Returning the lever to its upright position raises the ceiling and opens the two doorways. This also resets the pressure plate in the floor. The weight of a single person will cause the two portcullises to slam down into place.

The passage on the other side of this room leads to Room 11.

Room 10 – Flooded Wreckage

Several rooms were destroyed when the chunk of rock from Room 5 crashed through the ceiling here. Since then, this room has almost completely flooded. The water is 10’ deep at its shallowest point. The resulting mess has created a long, misshapen room approximately 80’ x 20’. It seems the original floor plans for these rooms would have been quite a bit wider, but wreckage fills part of the room.

Anyone falling from Room 5 takes 2d6 damage from hitting wreckage on the way down, then splashes into the water.

Among the underwater wreckage, several undead are concealed, ready to attack the unwary. The room contains 4 skeletons, 3 zombies, and a beholder zombie.

There are two doors in this room leading to Room 7 and Room 11.

The room contains the wreckage of several Masks, but their features can’t be discerned.

Room 11 – The Final Test

Mask: The mouth and eyes are twisted into an expression of almost euphoric joy.

This room is a 15’ cube. The two doors into this room (from Rooms 9 and 10) are set across from each other in the center of their respective walls, each bearing and flanked by two neutral Masks. The described Mask is in the exact center of the outer wall and is flanked by two neutral Masks. The wall across from the described Mask bears three neutral Masks. The room is unlit.

Once the weight of more than one character is on the floor, both doors slam shut and lock in place (Strength check DC 18 to force them open). Next, a magic mouth is activated that asks a series of questions. The voice appears to emanate from the Mask of the Faithful described above.

“What drives us?” [The search for knowledge]

“And what is gained from knowledge?” [Power over the weak]

“What do all men conceal within their hearts?” [The capacity for evil]

“Are you worthy of the Whispered One?” [No/never]

If any question is answered incorrectly, the features of all the Masks twist into euphoric grins, horrible, echoing laughter fills the room (from a magic mouth in Mask), and the twelve Masks begin to spew gas from their mouths. The gas is cloyingly sweet and induces a sort of euphoria, unconsciousness, and — eventually — death. For every round a character spends breathing the gas, they must make a Constitution save DC 14 or take 2d10 poison damage and become poisoned. The poison has the ancillary effect of making every face the character looks at appear to be a featureless white mask. The poison damage is nonlethal, but three rounds after a character is rendered unconscious, if they have not been removed from the room, they are killed. Three rounds after this, if their corpse has not been removed from the room, they rise as a zombie.

If all questions are answered correctly, the stairs down to Level 4 open in the wall/floor opposite the Mask.

Level 4 – Hall of Apotheosis

This cavernous hall (at least 100’ x 100’ x 15’) houses Korvan’s laboratory and the Orb of Unmaking.

Note: The Orb of Unmaking is a sphere of annihilation fashioned by Vecna to conduct his more esoteric experiments. He had originally hoped to use it to slay Pelor himself. However, those plans were brought to a halt by Kas’s betrayal. No one since has been able to take control of the Orb. The altar and obelisks were erected to hold the Orb in place and protect the Ziggurat until Vecna’s return.

Floating seven feet off the ground in the exact center of the room is the Orb of Unmaking. It emits a pale glow and a field of magical force shimmers and crackles around it. A small waterfall coming down from the ceiling is getting sucked into the Orb. A protective altar engraved with arcane runes surrounds the Orb, discouraging anyone from coming within 10’ of the Orb. Anyone who crosses this threshold must make a Dexterity or Constitution save DC 14 or be ravaged by the massive gravitational forces keeping the Orb in place (2d10 force damage). Anyone who pushes through this barrier (purposefully taking this action requires a Wisdom save DC 16) and makes contact with the Orb suffers the usual effects of the sphere of annihilation (i.e. an untimely and incredibly painful death).

There are four obelisks, one in each corner of the room (25’ from the nearest walls). Each is topped with a crystalline sphere and engraved with abjurative and necromatic runes, which glow a dim red-orange (like heated metal). Every few seconds, one of these obelisks emits a bang like the crack of thunder and mystical energy arcs from the sphere on its top to the Orb. Anyone who moves within 5’ of one of the obelisks must make a Dexterity save DC 14 or be zapped by this magical discharge (1d10 lightning damage).

Scattered about the room are the elements of Korvan’s laboratory. These include a full alchemical lab, a small (well-contained) summoning circle, and a number of tables and chairs covered in various mystic apparatus and notes.

Secret: The back wall of the Hall of Apotheosis contains a hidden compartment that contains a simple, iron-bound chest. Inside is the jar containing Zekkara’s heart, a small velvet bag containing half a dozen large raw diamonds (worth 10,000 gp total), and a small pale-pink crystal inset in a golden medallion (a wish stone).

The Necromancer’s two apprentices, Hezra (6th level Wild Magic Sorceress) and Philippe du Blanc (6th level Knowledge Domain Cleric of Asmodeus) are here, as well as a mercenary captain (use Knight stat block), 2 mercenaries (use the Guard stat block), 2 cultists (use Cult Fanatic stat block), a minotaur skeleton, and 4 human zombies.

When the players enter the room, Philippe and Hezra are conversing with a larger-than-life projection of Khorvan.

Philippe: “… and everything is prepared for your return with the catalyst.”

Khorvan: “Excellent. Ensure that the… pardon me, du Blanc, but it appears you have guests.”

Philippe, glancing over his shoulder: “Oh, them? You needn’t worry about them.”

Khorvan, frowning: “We have come too far, du Blanc, and I will not tolerate any mistakes. Deal with them.”

Philippe and Hezra bow. Philippe: “As you command.”


The Sunken Ziggurat

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