A DM’s Guide to Undermountain, Levels 4 through 6
While the uppermost levels of Undermountain offer more of a classic dungeon crawl experience, things begin to change as you get further down. Descending through DL4 and DL5 can involve a lot more interplay between the party and the various inhabitants of these lower levels of the dungeon. As far as DL6, I didn’t like the way it was set up and therefore decided to rewrite it, as I tend to do fairly regularly. So, DM’s, let’s get down to it… we’re exploring deeper and deeper, and you know that means better and more interesting trouble to be found.
If you recall, I suggested in an earlier article on Undermountain that you make some notes about why the various factions on any particular DL are attractive or unattractive as allies of the party. If you don’t recall, the short version is that you list the major factions, and then come up with both reasons why and reasons why not to support them. Some of these will be easy choices, and some will be hard choices, and the parts of this article about DL4 and DL5 will definitely demonstrate why you should brainstorm about this.
The fact of the matter is that the players are going to have to choose their allies and their enemies, and they might not always be sure about who they want to choose. Having the basics about that sort of thing already considered as part of your own preparation will help you to deal with their choices: maybe they choose an ally for a particular reason, but you also know how that can backfire because you’ve already considered the other side of the situation.
So, get into that habit, because it’s going to be very useful from here on in… we’re getting away from DL’s that are mostly maps and rooms and traps and treasure, and into DL’s that are plots and stories and choices. Be prepared for that.
Because the party will be participating in resolving plots, it’s going to become increasingly important to figure out what happens after they’re finished with each DL, and it’s going to be a different sort of aftermath than on the more dungeon-crawly levels. I’ll get into this a bit in each section below, but bear in mind that the way things will stand on each DL is going to depend on whose side the PC’s take, and how far they’re willing to take it.
Things are going to be much different than deciding that more dungeon wildlife will show up, or that enemies that were wiped out will be reinforced with new ones. There are NPC’s with personalities and agendas in play now, and they are going to cause entirely different types of consequences for the party.
As before, each DL will get its own box to set it apart from the others, and I’ll break down each part into Watch Out, Consider The Following, and Try This Instead, just like in the previous guide. On we go.
DL Four: The Twisted Caverns
There are a few other notable features in DL4, but the main thing going on here is that an aboleth is poisoning the waters and turning the other denizens of the DL into mind-controlled thralls. This puts said aboleth into a direct conflict of interest with the local tribe of kuo-toa, whose food source is being polluted and whose members are being abducted. The drow are here, but they’re playing a waiting game to see how things turn out between the kuo-toa and the aboleth, and the other denizens of this DL also don’t come into the conflict much.
Area 4 – Slaad Undercover: the Alchemist is really a green slaad. But, the Alchemist doesn’t want to get into a fight, or reveal that he’s actually a slaad in the first place. He wants to brew potions and try to find his control gem, so don’t turn him into a combatant unless for some completely incomprehensible reason the party decides to turn on a disorganized and scruffy young gentleman and kill him. Even though the hardcover says that he shouldn’t, I actually had the Alchemist express an interest in “fine emeralds” for his potions, and offer rich rewards if the party found any for him, leading to the possibility that the party might recover the control gem from Area 21a and return it to the slaad, without realizing exactly what was going on. Still, that slaad might then be an unexpected ally in a future tight situation, and having some favors for the PC’s to use in a tight spot is a good idea.
Area 7 – Crazy Darribeth: this area is not so much a hazard for the players as a challenge for the DM. Darribeth, the wizard living in this cave, is floridly delusional, and has to be played as such. I would point out that the hardcover says that her madness can be cured by greater restoration or somesuch, but I wouldn’t play it that way if I were you. If your party decides to rescue her from Undermountain, it’ll be a much more interesting challenge if she’s non compos mentis most of the trip.
Area 11 – Lots of Drow: this doesn’t require much explanation. Drow are bad news, and there are enough of them in this area to cause serious problems for even an experienced and well-equipped party. This wouldn’t be much of a problem, or even worthy of specific mention, except for the fact that one of Halaster’s magic gates is in this area. So, even if the party wisely decides to steer clear of the drow for now, they run the risk of showing up right in the middle of their outpost if they use the corresponding gate on DL2.
Areas 16 and 17 – Chuuls: of course, the aboleth is in Area 16, and is sort of the “end boss” of this level, but I think the chuuls who willingly serve the aboleth are more dangerous. This is because they have the ability to grapple their enemies and then drag them down underwater to drown them. It can take a lot of physical damage to knock out or kill most PC’s, but even the strongest can’t survive more than a few rounds without air, and that makes these creatures extremely dangerous. In fact, it makes them dangerous enough to get tedious, so I’ll propose a slight hack to the rules to fix that. Normally a character has to use its action to break a grapple, but in this situation that leads into a vicious cycle: chuul grapples PC and pulls him under, PC breaks the grapple and swims up for air, chuul follows PC on its next turn and grapples and drags under again. That means that it’s very difficult for PC’s to use their action to actually attack the chuuls and bring the battle to an end, because they keep using their action to break the grapple and not drown. The fix: allow PC’s to attempt to break the grapple without using their action, so they have a chance to fight instead of just avoiding drowning.
Area 24 – Too Many Troglodytes: this is going under the area where the troglodytes actually live, but it’s far more likely that the party will encounter these troglodytes when the aboleth summons them as reinforcements. The aboleth also has kuo-toa thralls, but they aren’t brave and will run away if the aboleth is killed and its control over them broken. The troglodyte thralls would not run away, because they’re feral and hungry pack hunters who would immediately see the party as food once the aboleth was dead and they were no longer subject to its control. So, the troglodyte battle wouldn’t necessarily happen in Area 24, but it’s fairly likely to happen somewhere here; the troglodytes have plenty of time to come when summoned by the aboleth, because the party is going to be busy with chuuls and the aboleth itself. Once those are out of the way… troglodyte dinner is served.
Consider The Following
The drow on this level obviously pose a problem for the party if they happen to find themselves in Area 11 or Area 12, and if the party decides to battle it out with them. If the party makes a tactical withdrawal, the drow probably won’t pursue them, because the real reason they’re here is to find out who wins the conflict between the kuo-toa and the aboleth, and then to seize control of the DL away from the victor.
That makes them a more important part of the aftermath for this DL, instead of part of the initial adventure here. However, the aftermath complications get more involved when you consider the location of Halaster’s magic gates on this level.
There are two gates here in fairly close proximity: a gate to DL2 in Area 11c, and a gate to DL6 in Area 10. Area 11c is right inside the drow outpost, and Area 10 is where the local driders hang out. It stands to reason that the drow don’t know how to operate either of these gates, simply because if they did, they wouldn’t be treating them so casually: if you understood that there was a useful and potentially dangerous magic gate nearby, would you really choose that location as a place for your soldiers to sleep, or leave it in the hands of social outcasts?
However, if the party uses these gates, then the drow will realize what they are and how to work them, and that means that the drow will have the means to access DL2 and DL6, and will therefore have the potential to expand their territory into those levels. It’s also worth mentioning that the gate in Area 10 can easily be operated from the DL4 side, but requires a specific key item to operate from the DL6 side; that means that if the party is on the run from the drow and decide to escape through that gate, there’s a definite probability that they will be followed through by drow pursuers who will then be unable to return through the gate. Remember, gates stay open for one minute, which is plenty of time for pursuers to make their way through.
Long story short, here, is that the drow don’t matter so much as a faction in the struggle for dominance on DL4; they’re content to sit quietly and make their move after the party resolves the situation for them and leaves them with just one enemy to overcome instead of a more complex arrangement. These drow really become important when they start to interfere with traffic through the magic gates, and then to interfere with affairs on the DL’s where those gates lead as soon as the party demonstrates what the gates do and how to operate them.
Also, the drow matter very much to the aftermath on DL4 itself. Once the aboleth is dead (which we can be quite certain of as an outcome), the drow will have very little trouble subverting the kuo-toa tribe and turning them into helpless slaves, and bringing in reinforcements from the Underdark and other DL’s. If the party returns to this level later on, they’ll probably find that the kuo-toa are now worshiping some cobbled-together likeness of Lolth. That could also get very interesting, because the collective belief of kuo-toa in a particular idol actually accrues real divine power in that idol… would a kuo-toa version of Lolth actually become a different entity altogether?
Try This Instead
The setup on this DL is fairly simple: aboleth against kuo-toa, with a few other NPC’s tossed in and around for flavor and to provide information. It’s also pretty apparent that the party will be taking the kuo-toa’s side in this conflict. Kuo-toa are usually pretty evil types, and as fish-headed humanoid creatures they absolutely fail the “sympathetic adorable weakling” test that often makes players react to putative enemies like goblins and kobolds with tolerance instead of violence.
Still, slimy disgusting fish-headed monstrosities are better than bizarre ancient alien intellect thrall-making aberrations, so it would be a very strange party indeed who would choose to take sides with the aboleth instead. Also, if a party did try to ally with the aboleth, it would probably try to enslave or murder them anyway, sending them back to help the kuo-toa (if they survived, of course). So, whether we really like them or not, the kuo-toa are the “good guys” here, as long as the aboleth is around to be the “bad guy”.
The problem that we run into here is that according to the hardcover, Noolgaloop, the archpriest of the kuo-toa, wants to use one of the PC’s heads to finish off the new idol he’s building. Obviously this puts a chill on the relationship between the party and the kuo-toa, which is unfortunate because it leaves the PC’s without a side to take in the struggle for dominance on this DL.
So, leave that bit out. Just don’t make it a thing. Or, tweak it a bit, like I did.
I created another kuo-toa NPC, the subordinate priest Ruubilogg, who doesn’t agree with the creation of a new god for the tribe. The hardcover tells us that the new idol is being created because the old one, Bulba-Slopp, failed to defend the tribe from the aboleth and must therefore be replaced. That’s what Noolgaloop is doing, but Ruubilogg is a traditionalist and wants to restore the worship of Bulba-Slopp. And, instead of wanting a PC’s head to complete the new idol Klaabu, Noolgaloop wants to use Ruubilogg’s head.
Now we have workable conflict. The party can be on the kuo-toa’s side against the aboleth, and they can also deal with this infighting among the kuo-toa tribe. Will they restore worship of Bulba-Slopp by defeating the aboleth, or will they help to complete Klaabu by murdering the old god’s faithful priest? Will they just avoid the whole situation, kill the aboleth, and let the kuo-toa sort it out themselves? And, if they choose that last option, what risks do they run in their future dealings with the tribe after not having provided their support to the winning priest?
DL Five: Wyllowwood
DL5 can get very interesting indeed, because there’s a story to be told here: the arrival of Wyllow, her love story with Crissann, the coming of the dragon Valdemar, the transformation of the dragon by the sentient sword Tearluai, and Crissann’s ultimate demise. The interesting part is that different NPC’s on this DL will tell different versions of this story, and will propose different actions for the party to take… and the side they choose will have lasting implications.
I’m not going to break this down by area as in previous DL guides, because Wyllow’s demesne doesn’t break down into areas that are actually rooms in most places. Instead, many of the areas, and representing the majority of the DL, are actually just broad areas of forest, separated by the marble walkways that run throughout.
The big “watch out” here is that Wyllow will come down and personally kill anyone who harms any creature in her forest, and as an archdruid she has more than enough firepower to do it. The cloakers notably do not count, but any animal or plant that is harmed or killed will bring swift and overwhelming vengeance.
So, I strongly recommend that you mostly avoid bringing the party into contact with the various creatures described in the different areas of forest. Some encounters, like the awakened trees, can be largely non-violent, but encounters with aggressive beasts are a problem. Wyllow doesn’t care who started a fight, or whether it could have been avoided: her one rule, “harm not lest ye be harmed” is applied uniformly and without exception or mercy.
Essentially, if you want to play this out as a story instead of an immediate battle with Wyllow (that the party will almost certainly lose), it’s better not to instigate any fights with forest creatures. I advise leaving off any wild animal encounters, and just narrate that the PC’s can hear various creatures rustling around among the trees.
Consider The Following
As I’ve said, there’s a good story to be told here, and the party can hear different versions from the various NPC’s who know about how the situation on this DL came about. I’ll give you a few different versions of the story here, which do not run according to the “official” story given on pages 69 and 70. Why not? Because that version is pretty lame, all things considered, and I want a story that will drive conflict. In the next section I’ll provide some ideas for how to introduce the different versions of the story, and then provide the party with some hard choices.
The Set-Up: Wyllow was brought to Undermountain by a wizard in league with Halaster, but became disillusioned with underground life and wanted to leave. Halaster refused this request, but created an underground forest for her to live in. The forest is completely convincing, but Wyllow knew that it was really an artificial construction meant to keep her quiet and compliant in her imprisonment. She became increasingly despondent, until an adventurer named Crissann came to her forest in an expedition into Undermountain, gravely injured and near death. She restored him to health, and a romance soon blossomed. But Crissann and Wyllow’s happily-ever-after was not to be…
What Really Happened Next: unable to tolerate Wyllow’s happiness with Crissann, Halaster used his magic to bring the green dragon Valdemar into Wyllow’s woods, knowing that it would spark a dangerous conflict. Crissann believed, quite correctly, that Valdemar would poison and ravage the forest, and therefore set out with his sentient sword Tearluai to slay Valdemar and preserve his lover’s now endangered demesne. The battle was fierce, and ended when Tearluai became lodged in Valdemar’s brain, resulting in the intelligence of the sword displacing the intelligence of the dragon. Crissann had saved the forest, but he hadn’t realized the unyielding extent of Wyllow’s edict, “harm not lest ye be harmed”. To enforce her only rule, Wyllow killed Crissann without hesitation, because he harmed the green dragon which was a living creature in the forest; his motivations meant nothing to Wyllow. Unwilling to be eternally separated from the one she loved, she bound his spirit to the rock in Area 2d, and time went on…
Mobar’s Version: the leader of the werebats wants to instigate a battle between adventurers and Wyllow; he knows that with her out of the way he can take control of the calendar stone in Area 6k to bring endless night under a full moon to the forest… perfect for werebats, although ultimately lethal to every living thing in the forest. So, his version of the story is altered to create a conflict: Wyllow soon became bored with Crissann, but was too cowardly to face him in a direct battle, and too proud to murder him by stealth. To resolve her problem, Wyllow made a deal with Halaster to bring the green dragon Valdemar to the forest, knowing that Crissann would venture forth to slay the dragon. Crissann’s sword lodged in the dragon’s brain during the battle, and while he was thus unarmed and weakened from the fight, Wyllow used her considerable power to kill him. She keeps his spirit imprisoned in the rock so that he can never be restored to life to seek vengeance against her…
Tearluai’s Version: Crissann’s sword is not just a weapon, but is a companion and friend to the adventurer, and wants at any cost to see him avenged upon Wyllow. His story is mostly true, but it emphasizes Wyllow’s cruelty and vindictiveness in order to turn the party against her. The unfairness of “harm not lest ye be harmed”, without exception, gets brought up here, as well as the fact that Crissann was unarmed and weakened by battle when Wyllow killed him. He also tells the PC’s that Wyllow has imprisoned Crissann’s spirit in the rock because she feels that he should suffer forever due to his transgression against her.
Wyllow’s Version: Wyllow’s version of the story is right in line with the truth, but the thing to bring out here is her cold and unshakable belief in the justice of her single rule. She freely admits to killing Crissann under the circumstances described in the true version of the story, but she absolutely fails to understand how anyone could question her actions.
And, finally, Crissann’s Version: Crissann is imprisoned in a stone in the forest, which I decided to place in a really spooky clearing rather than just in the woods somewhere. I also decided to dispense with the will-o’-wisp, and just make Crissann a ghostly voice. The spooky clearing is a perfect oval, with perfectly even green grass growing in it around the stone. I even narrated that the grass was all the same length but without clipped ends from being cut even; it just grows that way. Anyone who comes close enough to the stone hears Crissann speaking in a litany: “Find my wand. Find my sword. Kill the witch. Set me free.” Over and over. If the party finds the wand of fireballs here, the bit about the wand is dropped from the litany, likewise if they recover Tearluai the bit about the sword is dropped from the litany. As an imprisoned spirit, this is really the most Crissann can contribute, but his wishes are pretty clear.
And now, we create the conflict.
Try This Instead
Now that we have the stories, we just need to have them told. Tearluai can tell its story while still lodged in the dragon’s skull, using the dragon’s vocal apparatus. We use that werebat outcast Vool to accost the party somewhere in the forest and bring them to Mobar to hear his side of things. The clearing in the forest can be “accidentally” stumbled across as the party explores around.
Also, remember that there are creepy things going on in this forest. There are little voodoo dolls hanging from the trees. There’s the remains of rusted armor and weapons in the undergrowth. There are even caves full of the bones of Wyllow’s victims. It should be pretty clear to the players that they are not dealing with a nice druid. This is a dangerous druid, or at least a druid who isn’t playing games or showing forgiveness and mercy when it comes to who does what in her forest.
When it comes right down to it, you can be pretty sure that the players will decide to pull the sentient sword out of the dragon, even though the sword warns them that the dragon will go evil and violent again as soon as the sword is pulled. This gets us to the real boss encounter for this DL; bear in mind that a showdown with Wyllow should really be avoided, because she comes in at a CR of 12, and is rather beyond the abilities of an 8th-level party to handle, magic wands and swords notwithstanding.
After the dragon is defeated, Wyllow shows up to deliver an ultimatum and an invitation: the party is instructed to come to her tower to settle matters between them. When they arrive, the decisions get really difficult.
For one thing, Wyllow knows all about Mobar’s desire to get control of the calendar stone, and she can truthfully tell the PC’s that if they kill her, they’ll be killing the forest as well. Mobar and his underlings will have no doubt turned into bats and fled their lodgings, and the PC’s won’t be able to find him and kill him to foil that plan… Mobar is patient, and he’ll just wait until the time is right and then act.
Remember that this entire time Tearluai needs to be insisting that Wyllow be killed right away. He invokes the memory of his master, murdered and spirit-bound to a stone. He reminds the PC’s of all of the adventurers she’s murdered; they’ve seen the dolls and the bones, what more do they need?
But, Wyllow is going to offer the party an out. She hates Tearluai, because something that can think and feel but is not alive is anathema to her. If they take the sword with them, she’ll allow them to leave the forest alive… but they can never return, on pain of immediate death. If they bring the sword back to this DL, she’ll be able to sense it right away and come swooping down to kill them, and even if they don’t have the sword her trees and beasts will see the interlopers and report to her that they’ve broken the deal.
This is a pretty good deal, really, and hopefully the players see the wisdom of taking it; otherwise you’ll get a TPK, because Wyllow would be too much for them to handle even without her displacer beast and awakened tree. If you really needed to get the party through a battle here, you might consider introducing Crissann’s vengeful spirit into the mix, and adding in extra damage or incapacitating effects to help the PC’s out. I didn’t need to try that, fortunately, but that’s the best idea I have for how to bail the party out of a bad decision here.
Hold On… Bailing The Party Out?
Yes, I just mentioned bailing the party out of a bad decision, and I assure you that I have not gotten soft in the heart or soft in the head. The fact of the matter here is that there’s a certain type of metagame thinking that is always going on, whether we like it or not:
“The DM wouldn’t throw anything at us that we can’t handle.”
Now, I know that “metagaming” is supposed to be this terrible awful thing and absolutely worthy of the scare quotes I just put around it. But it happens, and we can’t really stop it from happening. In this case, it’s not even that bad. It might even be good, as shocking as that might be.
Consider this: there are enemies that are familiar, and then there are enemies that are a mystery. It’s easy for the players to size up familiar enemies and decide whether to tangle with them; in DL5, they know that the young green dragon will be a tough and dangerous fight, but it’s something they can handle. If it were an adult green dragon, or even a young red dragon, they would probably stay back and look for a non-combat solution. The metagame thinking where the DM won’t give them unbeatable enemies doesn’t even come into the picture, because they know where they stand in regard to a lot of potential foes.
Unfamiliar enemies are a different situation, because the players have very little information to work with when they’re deciding whether to charge in swinging swords. There are really only a couple of ways for a DM to get this information across: description and demonstration. Actually, there are three ways; you could just break the fourth wall and tell them not to try it, but that’s nowhere near classy.
For description, the DM can try to describe the enemy in a way that conveys the level of danger, so if the players have never heard of a “plate devil” before, I might talk about it being ten feet tall with rippling muscles, and covered with meteor-iron plate armor bristling with needle-sharp spikes. Maybe that will clarify whether they want to tangle with it.
Demonstration is a little trickier, because it involves taking a combat action and possibly triggering the good old now-we-fight-to-the-death reaction that so many players seem to have. But, if I present the party with a “gnoll necromancer” which promptly drops a 7th-level negative energy flood or power word pain spell on them, I have just established that this unknown enemy can cast some powerful spells. Likewise, when the “darkfire demon” hits one of the PC’s for 30 or 40 damage, they now know that they’re dealing with a brutally strong melee combatant. Demonstration causes that “oh crap” moment where they become truly aware of what they’re getting into.
The point here is that the players know about dragons, and trolls, and beholders, and they have a good idea about whether they can take one on. For enemies they’ve never even heard of (like the three examples I just used, which were totally made up just for this blue box), sometimes the DM can convey the level of danger involved and allow them to make a good decision as to whether they want to fight. But that doesn’t always work, and that’s where we fall back onto the metagame thought.
Here on DL5, we have an archdruid. Nobody has ever heard of an archdruid before; in fact, the archdruid stat block is one that’s given in the appendix of Dungeon of the Mad Mage, so it’s really an unknown even if the players have been committing the heresy of reading the Monster Manual. Description of the archdruid doesn’t get us very far, because most druids probably look about the same regardless of their level of power: green and brown leather, bone jewelry, twigs and leaves in the hair. Demonstration, as previously noted, is tricky, because it essentially initiates a combat: this unknown enemy hits the party, and if one of the PC’s decides to hit back, we roll initiative and proceed on through to the TPK. As the DM, there isn’t a lot to be done to create an accurate presentation of an archdruid’s power for the players to consider.
And that’s where the players fall back on that classic metagame thought: if the archdruid were too tough for us to handle, the DM wouldn’t have put her in our way. Again, it’s probably not a thought process we really want to encourage, but in the absence of knowledge about a brand-new enemy, the players start grasping for some kind of information, and they eventually decide that the new enemy should be within their capabilities because they expect balanced challenges from the DM.
This is why I’m talking about providing extra help for the party if they get into a battle with Wyllow. They know nothing about archdruids, except that there’s one on a DL which is balanced for their character level. It is completely reasonable, especially in a dungeon with each dungeon level balanced for a character level, for the players to assume that Wyllow is an enemy they can fight and beat, just like the young green dragon.
I have no problem with destroying an adventuring party when they make a bad decision, but they really don’t know (can’t know, even) that fighting Wyllow is a fatal mistake. They’re making a reasonable assumption, based on everything they’ve ever seen in D&D, that most enemies they encounter will be within their capability to beat. Maybe that’s not an assumption we want them to be making, but that’s beside the point… they’re going to make it anyway.
And that’s why I’m willing to provide some extra help if the PC’s get into a battle with Wyllow. Fairly or unfairly, I am part of a system that tricked them into believing that they can defeat her. It should be a brutal fight, and PC’s might be crippled or killed, but they should have a chance to win. After all, I’m the one who’s responsible for making them believe they have a chance to win even when they don’t, and that’s why I should provide them with some backup and a chance at survival.
But, as with anything, there are complications. If they leave without killing Wyllow, the sword will not be happy with them, and the less happy it gets, the more likely it will decide to ditch them and go back to Myth Drannor. They’ll also be leaving Crissann’s spirit imprisoned in a rock indefinitely. They’ll also be leaving a kind-of-evil archdruid alive, which will rankle certain types of players or PC’s. On a more practical note, they’ll be abandoning the use of the magical gates on this DL, and they’ll also run the risk of accidentally ending up here if they use a magical gate on another level for which they don’t know where the other end is.
Life’s full of tough choices, isn’t it…
DL Six: The Lost Level
DL6 goes back to being very classically dungeon-y, which might make for a nice change after the more story-driven DL4 and DL5. Or, it might be a huge disappointment after the more story-driven DL4 and DL5. Honestly, I’m not a big fan of DL6 the way it’s written, because it doesn’t have a good mix of NPC’s and factions to clash with each other. There’s the duergar raiders of Clan Ironeye, but they’re more in the way of bystanders rather than active participants, and duergar are rather outclassed by the PC’s at this point in the campaign. Otherwise, there’s just some dungeon wildlife along the lines of cloakers, umber hulks, and xorn. Really the most interesting thing about DL6 is that it’s somewhere between a temple and a museum dedicated to the legendary dwarf king Melair… so I rewrote it based on that. But more on that later.
Area 15 – Overwhelming Force: this part of the temple complex is probably the only place where the duergar will pose a serious problem for a well-equipped and competent party. There are eight of them here, plus their leader Skella Ironeye, who is a bit tougher than the standard duergar. There’s also the possibility that someone might blunder too close to the altar and let loose the clay golem while a battle with the duergar is already underway.
Area 29d – Lots of Demons: if the party releases the barlgura and a fight breaks out, the barlgura should have a pretty easy time releasing the vrock, hezrou, and glabrezu trapped in the other statues in this room. Taken all together, this represents an extremely difficult situation for any party, and without some adjustments to King Melair’s tomb it might be very difficult to avoid. My group didn’t trigger hostility from the barlgura, but if they had I would have tried to release the demons one at a time and after the previous ones had been somewhat weakened, creating a battle with less immediate danger and more danger due to continuing for a longer time than most combats.
Area 33 – The Ghohlbrorn: it’s an undead bulette. ‘Nuff said.
Areas 32, 36c, and 41 – Lurking Slaadi: there are some gray slaadi in these locations, which are a significant enough threat to bear mention. There are actually two of them together in Area 36c, which could turn ugly fast.
Consider The Following
This is basically a return to the sort of dungeon that we saw on DL1 and DL2: interconnected rooms with creatures and treasures and traps and the usual sort of trouble in them, but without a unifying conflict or plot. Even on DL3 there was active hostility of the drow versus hobgoblins variety tying everything together, and of course DL4 and DL5 as discussed in this guide each have a strong plot element to make them a coherent adventure.
But then here on DL6 we revert back to a more standard dungeon-crawly environment, and it’s kind of a disappointment. Sure, the duergar raiders are here, and there are some significant enemies scattered about, but there’s no conflict… there’s no story. And that’s a let-down after the past few DL’s, I think, and it’s a situation worth fixing.
If we look at DL6 carefully to try to find a theme to it all, the only one that really springs out is that this is a temple complex, and that the deity of choice here is the dwarven god Dumathoin, and that the primary purpose of the temple is not so much to worship Dumathoin as to venerate the dwarven king Melair. Now we have at least something to work with.
One way to introduce conflict here is to create an NPC faction to oppose the duergar. The reason the “Lost Level” is called that is because it has until recently been cut off from the rest of Undermountain, and it’s just blind chance that umber hulks happened to dig tunnels that provide access. You might introduce a cadre of dwarven war-priests who have learned of the new discovery, and are bent on preserving the temple and safeguarding its artifacts. You might also go with a haunting by phantom dwarves whose purpose in the afterlife is to wreak vengeance upon any interlopers who would defile the temple or sully the memory of Melair, and who now after untold years have an opportunity to stalk and kill the infidels. The former option would be a little bit easier to play out, I think, but the idea that the ghostly guardians could easily turn against the party based on even an accidental act of sacrilege has some promise as well. You can negotiate with clerics, but the undead play by different rules, if they have any at all.
It’s also important to note that a lot of progress on this DL has to be made through a sort of casual disrespect of relics and tombs and the like. The way that the Heart of the Mountain door in Area 15b is written basically requires that the party find their way into the true tomb of King Melair… and then desecrate it by removing one of the august corpse’s hands. This sort of behavior might be problematic if you have the sort of players (or PC’s) who shy away from this sort of thing.
My current group for this campaign is quite reliable about not removing obviously sacred or culturally important artifacts in order to sell them to the highest-bidding collector. This goes all the way back to when I ran Tomb of Annihilation for the same group of players… they don’t raid tombs or steal relics. Some players won’t, and you need to recognize that and come up with ways to progress the story so they don’t have to break their taboo. The way I chose to actually run DL6 finds a way around this, but if you plan to do a more standard explore-and-conquer experience, be sure to consider what sort of behavior crosses the line for your group. Tearing the hand off of a corpse is pretty far across a lot of group’s lines, I would imagine, and it’s worth your while to come up with a way for them to proceed and profit while showing respect for dwarven religion and for entombed remains in general.
Try This Instead
I wasn’t at all happy with the provided material for DL6, so I did my usual trick of keeping the maps, the room descriptions, and some of the combat encounters, and then doing something completely different with them. Because the whole level seems to be about King Melair, and because that door in Area 15b is obviously a focal point of the temple, I decided to make the door into a “riddle door”, with a series of riddles that would allow the party to get the door open by using the various Melair-themed areas throughout the DL for knowledge or materials.
The Riddles for the Door
I decided to go with a series of five riddles to get the Heart of the Mountain door to open up, where each riddle required a different object or substance to be placed against the surface of the door. Which object or substance would be indicated by both a clue magically written upon the door and by the appearance of the place where the key object should be placed. Here are the riddles, with references.
First Riddle: “The worthy can taste the victory for which the Lord of Melairkyn first thirsted.” The stone of the door molds itself into a relief of a pair of lips below the writing, and the riddle is solved when any fermented beverage is placed against the lips. The riddle refers to Melair’s early occupation as a brewer, shown as part of the frescoes in Area 11a.
Second Riddle: “Born of royal blood and living stone, the children of Melair shall forever inherit his domains.” The stone of the door forms a circular concavity, with the outline of a crown above it. Placing the head of the stone infant from Area 11d solves the riddle, after which the stone infant teleports to its previous location.
Third Riddle: “The strike that brings wealth and prosperity to kith and kin shall ring forever in the hearts of the Melairkyn.” The stone of the door forms a raised circle, and striking within the circle with any crafting or laboring tool solves the riddle. Weaponized versions like warhammers or war picks don’t meet the requirement, though.
Fourth Riddle: “Let the blood of the undying foe, slain by the King of undying memory, testify to the worth of the warrior.” The stone of the door forms the outline of a dagger, point down, with a deep concavity in the shape of a drop of blood dripping from the dagger’s tip. Placing any fluid or flesh from the undead bulette in Area 33 solves the riddle.
Final Riddle: “As the signet of the True King salutes the Keeper of Secrets, the elect shall enter the Heart of the Mountain.” The stone of the door forms a hole into which the signet ring of King Melair, retrieved from his actual tomb, will fit, opening the door to Area 16. Once used, the ring teleports back to the tomb.
If you decide to go with the riddle door as the unifying theme of the level, there will need to be a few changes made to the way certain rooms work. Here’s the run-down:
The Door Itself
If you’re planning on using the door as a source of the riddles, then be sure not to describe it as given in Area 15b in the hardcover, because the “official” inscription does not start the party on a quest to interpret and solve riddles; instead it sends them off to find Melair’s tomb and tear one of his hands off, and we’re trying to avoid that. I basically cribbed the visual from the Gates of Moria (book or movie), with the riddle inscriptions appearing as a tracery of silver lines across an otherwise smooth and blank surface.
Claiming the Crystal Crown
Obviously, if you use the stone infant in Area 11d to solve the Second Riddle, it won’t work as written to provide the party with the crystal crown needed to operate some of the magic gates. The solution here is just to put the crown in Area 16, so that when the party finally opens the door, they’ll gain access to it. Bear in mind that they might not initially want to remove it from the room if they think it’s a sacred relic that shouldn’t be disturbed; make sure to state very specifically that it’s there, so hopefully when they come to the magic gates they remember it. And if they come to the magic gates and they don’t remember it, then just remind them where they saw a crystal crown.
Removing the King’s Signet Ring
This is also a problem for parties that don’t like raiding sarcophagi, but they might just have to grit their teeth and take it. You’ll have to decide whether a fight with the demons from Area 29d will have to occur here, and there are some options. Maybe the demons will attack if anything is taken including the ring, and maybe they’ll attack if anything other than the ring is taken. Maybe they’ll attack no matter what the PC’s do with the tomb. The point here is that you’ll need to decide what the demons are doing here. I decided that they were bound to the tomb to take vengeance on those who defiled Melair’s final rest, but that just taking the signet ring didn’t count as defilement proper. I made sure to put some tempting relics in the sarcophagus other than the ring, to make sure that the party had the opportunity to get greedy and make things dangerous. The choice as to why the demons are here and how they’ll behave is of course yours, and it will largely depend on whether you feel the need for there to be a combat at this point in the adventure.
Where Is All This Stuff, Anyway?
A recurring problem here is that for all of the riddles except the Third Riddle, the party will need to find a specific room within the temple complex in order to obtain the riddle-solving item or learn enough to guess what it is. It’s possible that you’ll just let the party wander around until they find the right places, and hopefully they’ll find them after they’ve learned that they need something from those places, and what that something is. After all, fighting the undead bulette won’t do a lot of good for the Fourth Riddle if they don’t grab some piece of it to bring back to the door, for example.
My best advice on this is to either provide a trail of clues or else provide a guide to the locations. The path to the bulette lair might be marked by wall frescoes illustrating Melair’s battle with it, spaced out on the corridor walls leading to Area 33a. There could be a ghost of one of the former priests who endlessly walks a circuitous path that leads past the relevant areas and can be followed. If the party has made at least a tenuous alliance with Clan Ironeye, the duergar might know how to reach certain parts of the DL, and might trade that knowledge for treasure or favors.
Inside the Heart of the Mountain
Once the party has been through so much to get into Area 16, it makes sense to enhance the contents a bit. I decided to make two major changes, in addition to the bit about relocating the crystal crown mentioned previously.
First, I put some interesting treasure to be found. I decided that there would be several chests or jars of mithral coins, each of which is worth 1gp, or 2gp if sold to the right collector; I decided that about 3,000 of these coins would be reasonable. I also added some gemstones of various sizes and values; if you’re keeping to the requirements for certain spells to use certain types of gemstones as material components, always go heavy on the diamonds if you have a choice, because all of your back-from-the-dead spells run on diamonds.
The second highly useful thing I added was a route down to DL7, because I decided that solving this series of riddles that fit with the DL overall theme should mark the effective end of the level, and that providing a means to progress downward would be appropriate. I decided to add a spiral staircase that would end in the ceiling of DL7 Area 2, which is an otherwise empty cave. The PC’s would have to rappel down to the cave floor, but they would be able to continue the adventure without searching DL6 for the appropriate umber hulk tunnel, or returning to DL5 to find the constructed route to DL7.
To Be Continued…
That should get your party down to DL7, either by one of the established routes in the hardcover or by a route you come up with yourself. The next few levels have their own interesting features, but DL9 is worth some extra notice right here.
DL9 is Dweomercore, Halaster’s academy for up-and-coming arcane spellcasters. It has a lot of rather complicated situations that arise out of the multitude of relationships and reactions between the students and faculty, but that’s something that I’ll cover in the actual DL9 guide. For now, you need to start brainstorming what type of interesting, useful, and ultimately dangerous knowledge or training to offer each of the arcane-spellcasting PC’s in the party. By this point, you should have a decent idea of what would be tempting to your players and their characters, and you have some time to come up with something delicious to dangle in front of them.
Just an example of my own: one of the party’s wizards in my campaign really loves casting fire spells, especially fireballs. She really loves casting 4th and 5th-level fireballs, too. Her irresistible skill to learn will be how to amplify her fire spells… but each level she boosts a spell will create an increasing danger of unexpected additional effects. DL9 is a golden opportunity to offer your players Faustian bargains, hazardous skills, and dangerous knowledge… don’t miss out on it, and start thinking of how to capitalize on it now while you have some time to come up with good ideas.
All of that being said, we’re going down into caves, swamps, and magic castles, as well as the already-mentioned school for evil wizards. It’s been quite the ride so far, and I think the next few DL’s will not disappoint.