Story vs. Plot

A while back, I had a really interesting conversation with a friend about the concepts of story, plot, and player agency in roleplaying games. The conversation started with them asking me about techniques for keeping players on track story-wise without railroading. Which struck me as kind of an odd question. It seems to presuppose a directed, largely immutable story that the players are expected to follow.

That kinda sounds like railroading.

So, this has led me to a couple of new questions. How do we think about “story” and “plot” in a roleplaying game? And, furthermore, are these concepts compatible with the level of player agency that we’re looking for in our game?

I believe that, as with so many things, this is — in no small part — a problem of language. So let’s start by laying out some definitions. Many of these ideas come out of literature and I’m going to knowingly abuse the hell out of them for my own nefarious ends. Deal with it.

Story. The story of your game consists of everything that will happen if the player characters do nothing.

Plot. The plot of your game is what happens when the player characters interact with story elements.

Static events. Any event that cannot be changed by the player characters is a static event.

Dynamic events. These are everything else.

Excellent. So what do we do with these things?

Well, first off, I’d like to observe that static events should probably be used sparingly. If there’s a bunch of stuff going on that your players can’t change, they’re not going to feel like active participants in the game. If I have to explain why that’s bad, you might be reading the wrong blog. In fact, I’m going to go so far as to say that static events should only be used as “setup” and placing static events in an ongoing game will feel like railroading.

For example, if you want your game to revolve around the players investigating the assassination of the king, that assassination will be a static event that occurs before the player characters arrive on the scene in the first session. However, if you’re running an ongoing game and your players have been dealing with the king a lot, making his assassination a static event won’t seem fair to your players.

Also, it’s worth noting that a “dynamic” event that doesn’t include the player characters will feel like a static one. To return our earlier example, if the players “had a chance” to learn of the planned assassination of the king earlier in the adventure, but missed the clues, your players will still feel cheated if the king dies off-screen. See, they don’t know that they missed the clues. From their perspective, the king died basically out of nowhere with no chance for them to intervene. And that sucks.

Fortunately, the fix to this is fairly simple. According to the definitions and observations I laid out earlier, all plot-relevant events should not only be dynamic, but must include the player characters in a meaningful way. To continue with our regicide example, instead of having the assassination occur off-screen, have the assassin make his attempt while the player characters are in a position to do something about it. Maybe they’re having an audience with the king and he decides they should walk the city so as to be seen by his subjects. Then, the assassin can spring a trap along the route. The player characters’ job (protecting the king) might be a hell of a lot harder than it would have been if they had advance warning about the attack, but they’ll still have a chance to save the king’s life.

I think this should probably extend to all villains and opposing NPCs, as well. Basically, the general rule is if you want on of your bad guys to fuck with the players, their favorite NPCs, or their stuff, the players must have an opportunity to intervene.

These concepts also tie in really well with my notions of planning and preparation. Before you start running the game, you should probably have a notion of what your story looks like (i.e. what will go down in the game world without the players mucking about in it), but once the players start doing stuff, all bets are off. That’s why I write characters, rather than plot. Well-written NPCs are easy to improvise around and can easily be transplanted from place to place (or story beat to story beat) in your campaign with little more than a simple re-skin. If all you have is “A happens, then B happens” and your players do something that doesn’t fall into this mold, you’re hosed.

Story vs. Plot

Beastmen in the Deep

A month or two ago, I ran a Shadow of the Demon Lord one-shot for some friends. I’d been jonesing to give the game a shot for a while, and it did not disappoint. The system is insanely slick and it almost perfectly recaptures the feeling of the old Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay. I recommend that anyone who enjoyed WFRP back in the day or enjoys OSR games check it out post-haste.

This adventure turned out to be perfect for four or five starting, zero-level characters. Be sure to note down the professions each character has, so that you can provide appropriate information and embellishment. Also, be sure to be liberal with the boons and banes. They’re the meat and potatoes of the system, so don’t skimp. The adventure concludes with a handful of plot hooks to kickstart a campaign. At the end, everyone should gain their first level.

Now, without further ado…

*   *   *

Beastmen in the Deep

You are riding with a trade caravan on a risky rout deep into the frozen south. Why are you with the caravan? What drove you to brave the danger and the cold? Who or what did you leave behind?

The caravan is moving through a mountain pass. The clouds sit low and the snowfall is heavy. You know that through this pass lies your destination and a not-insignificant reward. It is nearly nightfall when the jotun raiders attack. The first sign is boulders falling from the sky, thrown by frost giants on the mountainside. Then the raiders rush your caravan, their numbers far larger than your meager guard can hope to repel. The situation seems hopeless until you spot a cave entrance a short ways off. What do you do?

There are a large number of jotun (around two dozen, if anyone asks) and a pair of frost giants. They are thoroughly occupied with sacking the caravan. The cave entrance is maybe twenty yards away, but there’s plenty of cover on the way (snow drifts, errant boulders, etc.).

The cave inside is fairly small (no larger than 10 ft. wide and deep) and plain, but there a small passage that heads deeper (~4 ft. diameter, ~20° down). Once the party is assembled inside, unless they do something clever, two jotun raiders follow not long after and attack. If the group lingers, more raiders attack periodically (every few minutes or so).

[The map below is courtesy of the unparalleled Dyson Logos! Cartography is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.]

20170806_125626.jpg
Hopefully this is mostly legible. The players enter through the doors at the bottom of the map.

The passage opens up into the antechamber of some sort of ruins. The stonework is magnificent and well-preserved (canny observers will note that it’s dwarven in origin). There’s a single passage leading deeper into the ruins. Immediately inside the passage is a corpse. Old and desiccated, its been perforated by a dozen or so small, bladed darts. Nearby (perception challenge) there is a broken tripwire. He was a human male in his mid-twenties. He is wearing a still-serviceable suit of hard leather armor. By his right hand is a pistol (discharged) and by his left is a small wooden puzzle box (this minor wonder vibrates slightly when within 100 yards of a troll or giant). He is carrying a belt pouch containing 1 ss, 7 cp, two loads of powder and shot, a healing potion, and an incantation that bears “enhance senses” and “arcane armor”. His sword and lantern are also close at hand.

The ruins are occupied by beastmen (fomor) led by Rhoderic the Cruel, a doomsday cultist (use cultist stats, but he has Power 1 and the following spells: Harm [1], Arcane Armor [2], Magic Dart [2], Unerring Darts [1]). They are assembled here to use the portal to reach the portal to the Bone Marsh (in the Northern Reach) to attack the coastal city of Derge.

See the map for descriptions of the dungeon. Several rooms are detailed below.

Burial Chamber: The far end of this room is dominated by a large stone coffin. Resting atop it is a jeweled hammer. The coffin is adorned with the likeness of a dwarf in heavy armor and this inscription: “Disturb not the rest of Kurag Trollsbane, lest ye face his wrath.” If the hammer is removed, a Barrow Wight emerges from the coffin and attacks. It will not surrender or retreat.

  • (Perception challenge) The door to this room has not been opened in quite some time – at least dozens of years.
  • This is the only door in the complex that locks from the inside (i.e. it is safe to sleep with the dead).

“Abandoned” Room: The door to this room is blocked, but the bottom has been smashed away. A small character could crawl through. This room is the home of Snot Spittle, a goblin man who got lost in the tunnels years ago and ended up here. Snot will probably ambush whoever comes through first with a wooden mug, but can easily be subdued or talked down. He’ll agree to give them his life savings (~2 ss in assorted coins) if they help him escape.

Locked Chest: This chest contains a bag of coins (3 ss, 11 cp, 87 bits), a suit of brigandine armor, a ritual blade, and a gold-framed mirror in a black velvet bag. The mirror looks directly into the Void. Looking into it confers 1 insanity. If the viewer succeeds a Will challenge with 1 bane, they learn one secret. This can be a new school of magic or an immediately useful piece of information, the viewer’s choice. It only has this beneficial effect once per character.

Kitchen: The beastmen keep a slave here to cook their food – a large, four-armed clockwork named Ohm. It doesn’t want to stay, but cannot conceive of leaving. A successful Intellect challenge or a reasonably compelling argument will convince it to join the party.

The Letter: Rhoderic, I am pleased to hear that preparations are nearing completion. All is ready here, and your arrival is much anticipated. Altheon and I are confident that Derge shall be ours within the month. Be sure to keep my mirror safe. I long to look upon His face again. -Dannika

 

Beastmen in the Deep

The Temple of Elemental Weirdness

What up, nerds? As a creative exercise (and to force myself to write more), I’m trying to take more of my idle day-dreaming and shape it into something that one might actually be able to use at the game table. What follows is something that I’ve been kicking around in the ol’ back-brain for a while now. If I like what pops out in this post, I may even develop it into a full adventure.

Recently, I got my hands on a copy of Princes of the Apocalypse, one of WotC’s official adventure paths for D&D5. It’s… fine? I mean, it’s mostly uninspired stuff, but there are some quality ideas kicking around in there. With a fair amount of tweaking and rewriting, I think it could be perfectly playable. However, it got me thinking about the old T1-4: The Temple of Elemental Evil modules. I’ve always been a huge fan of ToEE. It’s goofy as hell, but a ton of fun. Not only do you get a completely bonkers funhouse megadungeon, but the adventure is packed to the gills with implied intrigue and hints to a broader cosmic conflict playing out in the background.

One lackluster read and a fair dose of nostalgia later, I find myself inspired to try to put together my own adventure in this vein. The basic premise is ToEE with weird fantasy and Lovecraftian horror themes. For now, I’m going to call this project the Temple of Elemental Weirdness.

Some Brief History

Millennia ago, long before the age of men, the gods of old longed to know their nature, purpose, and place in the universe. Thus, they forged a mighty lens with which to gaze into the cosmos. Each of the gods of old poured some of their power into the lens so that their vision might penetrate even the fabric between worlds, secure in the knowledge that they were the most powerful beings in the multiverse. This hubris, however, proved to be their undoing.

As the aperture of the lens opened, the gods of old gazed into worlds undreamed of and, beyond that, a luminiferous void, vast beyond comprehension. And there, lurking within the void, something gazed back. In witnessing the existence of such entities, the gods of old inadvertently gave them life and, in naming the shapeless horrors of the void, alerted them to the existence of our world. Azathoth, Lord of the Nameless Void, was born.

A great battle raged. Many of the gods of old perished at the hands of Azathoth and his vile spawn. With a tremendous expenditure of power and lives, the gods of old were finally able to close the aperture and seal the horrors of the void from our world. Unable to unmake that which they had wrought, the survivors dubbed the lens the “Chaos Gate” and sealed it in the Eyeless Chamber deep within the earth.

The ages rolled by.

As the gods of old faded into history, then into legend, all knowledge of the Chaos Gate was lost. However, the horrors of the void never forgot about us. Over the millennia, they have found innumerable methods of projecting their power into our world. Slowly, but surely, they were named and found followers among mortal madmen and those who hunger for power. Finally, mere months ago, Azathoth – empowered by years of unwholesome worship – summoned all of his might to draw a mortal to the Chaos Gate.

Recent Events

Francis Waddleton was a miner by trade. For years, he toiled in the Iron Hills, scratching his meager fortune out of the living rock. Two months ago, however, on a starless night, he dreamed of gleaming diamonds in the dark. When he awoke, he knew precisely where to dig. That very morning he began his search for the Eyeless Chamber.

As he worked, tirelessly digging for the Gate, others arrived to join in him in his quest. The first was a strange sorcerer from the South, garbed in tattered yellow and wearing a pallid mask. The second was an astronomer from the East, leading a legion of dreamers and carrying a telescope that looks into other worlds. The last was a mad fisherman from the West, bearing forth the blessings of Father Dagon and Mother Hydra. The sorcerer spoke to Francis of a prophecy carried to this world from dim Carcosa.

When the charnel star is sighted in the lightless sky, a lone visionary will undertake an impossible task and his coming will herald the return of Azathoth, He Whose Name Endeth the World. Seek ye the Herald and serve them as you serve the spawn of the Nameless Void.

Thus, was Francis declared the Herald of the Apocalypse.

Supported by the Cults of the Nameless Void, the Herald’s excavations proceeded apace. Meanwhile, around the site, a great Temple was raised in honor to the dark gods. All manner of monsters and brigands were attracted by this monument to unwholesome power. To fund these activities, the Cults sent forth groups of bandits and monsters to harry caravans and sack villages. The seemingly random nature of these attacks have made it nigh-impossible for local authorities to mount a proper response.

Last week, deep beneath the earth, the Herald and his servants finally broke through into the Eyeless Chamber. Those who bore witness to that most hideous lens were changed forever…

The Cults of Nameless Void

I’m still working on the specifics of the four cults attracted to the Temple, which I think certainly warrant their own post. So, for now, here are the names and subjects of the four cults:

Lords of the Drowning Deep – Cult of Cthulhu, That Which Dwells Beneath

Explorers of the Boundless Void – Cult of Nyarlathotep, The Crawling Chaos (Stalker Among the Stars)

Servants of the Stranger – Cult of Hastur, The Unspeakable One (Lord of Carcosa)

Princes of the Apocalypse – Cult of Azathoth, Lord of the Nameless Void (He Whose Name Endeth the World)

Starting the Adventure

The players are likely going to be hired by a local lord to figure out who’s attacking caravans and villages in his demesne. Savvy players can investigate the scene of an attack and follow the bandits back to their base of operations, in which they’d find clues leading them to the Temple itself. Hell, you could probably throw the moat house from T1: The Village of Hommlet in here wholesale. Just make sure to re-skin things to match the new themes discussed above. Maybe the bandit leader and his lieutenants are mutants? Instead of a Giant Crayfish in the caves underneath the Moathouse, you could have some sort of squamous horror? This definitely bears further consideration.

 

The Temple of Elemental Weirdness

WHO IS HORG?

Among the twisting canyons of the Fractured Stone badlands, orc tribes have waged war for centuries. Once every few generations, a leader of unparalleled skill and ferocity will emerge from the fray to unite the tribes and lead an invasion of the realms of men. What distinguishes these warriors from their lesser brethren?

All are Chosen of HORG.

None know consciously of their blessing. Subconsciously, they are aware that their prowess is somehow due to an otherworldly power, but even if they become aware of this, they will blame some deity or other source of power. Even if asked about HORG outright, they will ask the simple question…

WHO IS HORG?

HORG is not a god. HORG is not a man. HORG isn’t even an orc.

HORG is a natural force, not unlike gravity or thaumaturgic symmetry. HORG is the raw spirit of the orcish horde, born of their boundless self-loathing and insatiable lust for violence.

Only the mightiest among the orcs have ever directly experienced the touch of HORG. When Red Hand used his own severed arm to beat the Silver Knight of Castaar to death, his mighty thew was guided by HORG. When Gork and Mork laid a cunning (yet brutal) trap for the dwarven armies of Artrius Longbeard, they were inspired by HORG. When Gnarl Grimteef ate the face of the elven sorcerer Zastriel, his hunger was deepened by HORG.

The Chosen of HORG

The Seven Oracles of Brighthome have had a shared vision of a blood-stained hand reaching out of the badlands. All awoke simultaneously from their dreamsleep screaming, “HORG HAS COME! HIS SHADOW RISES IN THE NORTH!” Even the foremost scholars are unable to determine who or what this HORG is, but certainly the prophecies of the Seven Oracles are not to be ignored. Thus, the nobles of Brighthome have posted an open offer to all adventurers willing to take up the cause. A 500 GP reward is to be given to any who can find information about this “HORG”. The more pious (and paranoid) among them have begun the arduous process of rallying their levies.

Meanwhile, in the north, a new champion has risen to lead the orcish horde. Agog the Many-Sighted has slain the nineteen chieftains and united the tribes. It was in this moment that he felt the touch of HORG. Armed with this horrifying new power and an army ready to kill and die at his command, he makes final preparations to march south to conquest and slaughter.

Assuming no interference, in one month, Agog will have fully assembled his armies and will begin his march. Without warning or aid, the nobles of Brighthome will be unable to assemble their armies in time to successfully oppose the horde. Brighthome will be destroyed and Agog will continue his march into human lands. There is no telling what horrors will be wrought before an army of sufficient strength can be raised to stop him.

Agog the Many-Sighted (Armor: as plate, HD7, HP35, move 30′, d10 Harvester)

Agog is scarred, intelligent, and bloodthirsty. He has felt the touch of HORG as a divine mandate to slaughter, permitting all manner of forbidden magics. His first act as the empowered Chosen was to summon the Carcerian demon, Kkz’laarog, and bind it into the demon-scythe, Harvester. If the demon were to ever break free from the scythe, he will exact his vengeance on Agog, then wander the world attempting to find a way back into Hell.

Using foul blood-sorcery and the demon-scythe, Harvester, Agog has added the eyes of numerous slain foes to his head. He can see in all directions and detects cowardice as a paladin detects evil. When Agog slays a foe with Harvester, it shears off a body part of his choosing, which he may add to his body for 1d4 days. If the appropriate ritual is conducted (requiring the appropriate blood sacrifices and devil worship), the addition becomes permanent.

However, Harvester is always hungry. Without a consistent flow of blood, the scythe will begin to drain the life of it’s keeper. Unless someone is killed with Harvester once every 1d4 days, 1d8 HP is drained from its keeper. The character’s HP maximum is reduced by this amount until Harvester’s thirst is slaked. If the character’s HP maximum is reduced to zero in this way, the character is immediately slain, their soul consumed, and Kkz’laarog breaks free from his bonds to rampage across creation.

If he knows battle is immanent, Agog will slay his mightiest orc warrior and perform the vile ritual to add their strongest arm to his torso. This improves his to-hit and damage with Harvester by +1. Agog is empowered by HORG, Kkz’laarog, and repeated blood sacrifices. He has the following spells prepared: Enlarge, Cause Fear, Summon, Enthrall, Phantasmal Force, Stinking Cloud, Cause Disease, Drain Life, Divination, and Insect Plague.

WHO IS HORG?

Simplicity and Brutality: The Attraction of OSR Games

Lately, I’ve spent a lot of time reading and thinking about “old-school” games. It’s almost become an obsession. And for a quite a while there, I had a really hard time figuring out exactly what was attracting me to these games. However, while on a trip to New York for a buddy’s bachelor party last weekend (sweet, merciful Satan, I drank WAY too much), I had a conversation with one of his friends in which I was finally able to articulate what about these games really gets my motor running. So, please join me for a brief journey into my wannabe-game-designer-brain that I like to call…

Simplicity and Brutality: The Attraction of OSR Games

For the uninitiated, “OSR” refers to the “Old School Revival”. More specifically, updating the rules and concepts of the earliest days of our hobby for modern use. In practice, this ends up with games like Labyrinth Lord, Swords & Wizardry, and Lamentations of the Flame Princess. The rules for all three of these games are free online (click the links above), so take a few minutes and have a look. Don’t worry, I’ll wait.

Pretty simple right? It probably looks like your favorite version of D&D, but with a hell of a lot less stuff. And that’s the first major draw. The simplicity of these games lends them a certain beauty. Instead of having rules for every damn thing, the GM is expected to make rulings. A lack of skill lists or task-resolution mechanics can be incredibly freeing. So, instead of juggling a long list of modifiers and then figuring out if “athletics” or “acrobatics” is more applicable to the situation, the question becomes, “Can your powerfully built, athletic warrior jump the chasm?” Almost certainly. The drunk halfling, on the other hand, probably can’t. Furthermore, your character’s stats are way less important in these games. Because attribute modifiers are usually somewhere in the vicinity of +/- 1, you can’t just brute-force dice-roll your way through problems. The game mechanics are intentionally left fairly abstract to encourage creative problem solving.

Honestly, unless your GM is a huge asshole, if you come up with a decent solution to a problem, you shouldn’t even have to look at dice.*

The lethality of these game systems has always interested me, too. At first glance, I didn’t really understand how these games were playable. Like, how do you survive fights? Then it dawned on me – you survived fights by avoiding them entirely or only fighting when you knew you could win. It was a staggering revelation. Since the ’90s, RPGs have had an insane emphasis on combat. And most of that is the fucking boring, grindy, tactical combat, which I’ve already spilled plenty of ink complaining about. Fights in OSR games tend to be quick and brutal, and the smarter, better-prepared group almost always wins.

Really, what strikes me about these games is how the their mechanics incentivise certain player behaviors. A common feature of a lot of these OSR games is that experience gain from monsters tends to be quite low, but when you escape a dungeon (or other adventure site) with a bunch of loot, you get an equivalent amount of experience points. So, in addition to combat being quite deadly, you’re further incentivised to avoid fighting or come up with a creative solution. Are there some orcs guarding a chest? Instead of fighting them, maybe you could bribe them into momentarily leaving their post. Or maybe you know that the orcs have long been at war with the gnolls that live in a different part of the dungeon complex. If you could lead some of the gnolls to this room, the problem might solve itself. Or, failing that, make the drunk halfling finally earn his keep and sneak by those orcs. Once there isn’t a simple mechanical solution (a boring tactical fight), creativity is forced to take center stage.

Perhaps the best thing about these games is the community that’s sprung up around them. Take a while to dig through the archives of Goblin Punch, Playing D&D With Porn Stars (just make sure to skip the drama), Dyson’s Dodecahedron, Deeper in the Game, and I’ll See It When I Believe It, just to name a few of my favorites. These guys are making amazing, cool, weird stuff and dumping it online for anyone to use FOR FREE.

Now, of course, this style of game isn’t for everybody. Some people don’t feel comfortable without well-defined mechanics to fall back on. Also, when GMing an OSR game, the Wheaton Rule applies double. You have to be tough, but fair. When your players come up with a reasonably cool solution to a problem, let it ride. But if they fuck up, make sure they feel it. If you never let your players’ creative solutions work, you’re the one who’s fucking up the game, not them.

M. Hamhock out.

*A lot of GMs house-rule some simple task resolution mechanics in order to fix edge cases. One of my favorites is the simple “when in doubt, roll under the applicable attribute”. Another really good one is Akratic Wizardry’s saving throws as general task resolution mechanics. In fact, I really dig all their house rules. Definitely take a look.

Simplicity and Brutality: The Attraction of OSR Games

GM/Storyteller’s Screen for Exalted 3rd Edition

Hi everybody!

I’m getting ready to run an Exalted 3rd Edition game and there’s enough going on in this system that I thought having a well-crafted GM/Storyteller’s screen at the table would be really useful. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to find one out there in the wild. So I made my own!

It’s in landscape format and covers the most complex and commonly referenced rules in the game such as character advancement, combat (mostly initiative, actions, and complications), and social influence. Please note that it includes my group’s house rules for character advancement and XP rewards and I generally use “GM” instead of “Storyteller” (for brevity, mostly).

Here’s the PDF version: https://drive.google.com/open?id=0B1F07zt8JzGic1Q5cVhLcHdTcm8

And the original .docx version: https://drive.google.com/open?id=0B1F07zt8JzGiY0NabjF6NnBuV1E

Please have a look and let me know what you think. Feel free to download a copy to edit to your heart’s content. If you improve it or add cool art, please drop a link below! I’d be pumped to see it. I’m also planning on making a version in portrait format, so when that’s done, I’ll edit this post with the link.

M. Hamhock out.

GM/Storyteller’s Screen for Exalted 3rd Edition

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!

Enjoy!

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

Entrance

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