A DM’s Guide to Undermountain, Levels 7 through 9
Continuing down through Undermountain, this installment of the DM’s Guide will cover the rather bizarre setup of Maddgoth’s Castle, the not-quite-dungeony Slitherswamp, and finally Halaster’s academy of magic, Dweomercore. Let’s go, DM’s.
Moving Away From Rooms
Before I get into the specific information for the next few dungeon levels, there’s something that needs to be established about rooms, areas, and the whole numbered-location scheme that is standard fare for these hardcover adventures. As we get further down into Undermountain, those numbered rooms become progressively less important. We’ll hit the two main ways that will play out, and I’ll also need to establish a convention for how I deal with numbered areas in these guides.
The Open Concept Dungeon
For one thing, a lot of the upcoming DL’s will not have a classic room structure. You got a taste of this in DL 5, where Wyllow’s enchanted forest was broken up not so much into rooms as into areas of the forest, and you’ll find DL 8, Slitherswamp, is much the same. In those parts of Undermountain, as well as others to come, the dungeon levels are divided more by function than strictly by contents. In other words, “rooms” stop being discrete areas with doors, walls, and contents (including NPC’s and enemies, as well as furniture and other set dressing), and start behaving more like a place where the party can interact with certain elements or denizens of the dungeon. The walls tend to disappear, and you’ll need to carefully consider what makes a numbered area significant beyond the cut-and-dried notion of physical barriers and borders.
The hardcover won’t always make this easy, because even on the DL’s that tend to have this open-concept layout, there are always rooms that behave like good old well-behaved map areas with walls and doors. You’re going to have to figure out which areas are which, and hopefully I can give some advice as to how that will work out. Just keep in mind that the numbered-area model is a strongly established format for adventure modules, and those chains don’t break easily.
A Collection Of People
Some of these dungeon levels don’t really act like a collection of rooms at all, and DL 9, Dweomercore, is a prime example. Halaster’s school of magic has a map with rooms and such, and they’re all neatly numbered and labeled, but that’s not how the level actually plays. This sort of thing will become fairly common in upcoming levels of Undermountain, where the motives, desires, and relationships of the NPC’s located there are much more important than what room they happen to be standing in.
In these areas that are more about the people than the rooms, DM’s need to realize that “we’re going to find that paranoid diplomat that we heard is around here” is a more useful statement of purpose from the players than “we go through the door to the west”. In a classic dungeon crawl environment, halls and entrances and compass directions are how the adventure is navigated, but in some of these parts of Undermountain that doesn’t hold true. If you’re going to be running that sort of adventure, be prepared to see the difference and then act upon it.
A Matter Of Convenience
And now that I’ve spent time telling you all how the numbered area model is somewhat flawed and not always applicable to certain types of adventures, whether they have maps or not… well, I’m going to continue to refer to places and people in the Dungeon of the Mad Mage book by using area and room numbers.
The reason for that is simply that the information about what’s in a room is almost always found under that numbered room heading, and that includes people as well. If you want to know all about a person located somewhere in the dungeon level, that information is probably going to be located with the room where that person is presumably standing.
That doesn’t mean that you can’t or shouldn’t move an NPC from one numbered area to another… you can put them anywhere that helps the story. But, if you want to look them up in the hardcover, knowing which numbered room they fall under will be useful. That’s why I’m going to continue to break the guide down by room numbers, but please don’t interpret that as my saying that associating that NPC with that room is a necessity.
Onward And Downward
As in the previous installments of the DM’s Guide to Undermountain, I’ll break up the remainder of this article into individual sections for each of the three DL’s that we’ll be covering. The same main headings will be used as well, so you can continue to look for Watch Out, Consider the Following, and Try This Instead.
DL Seven: Maddgoth’s Castle
In spite of the title, there’s more on this level than just the magic castle, but the eponymous feature definitely poses some of the more difficult conceptual problems for DM’s that I’ve ever really come across. Don’t worry, though, because it’s not all that bad once you get your head wrapped around it. And, of course, there are other things to consider other than the titular castle, so we’ll cover those as well.
Areas 4, 7, and 11b – Silt Pits: the hardcover says to use the quicksand rules from the DMG to figure out what happens when the PC’s fall in the silt. Honestly, those quicksand rules are kind of hit or miss (it’s possible for small characters to be drowning in silt immediately after stepping in it, and medium characters don’t have it much better), so it’s worth making sure that observant characters can notice silt pits in the same way that they can notice traps. You don’t have to come out and say that it looks like there’s a silt pit in the room, but describing how there’s no rubble of small rocks in the very smooth center of the room is a fair compromise. Also, the X-marks left by the giants are a warning to avoid the silt, but they’re only at some of the entrances to the silt pit rooms, so be sure to mark them on your map.
Area 16 – Central Cavern: this spherical cavern is where Maddgoth’s magic castle is located, but a full discussion of the castle will come in a bit. The reason that this area is here in Watch Out is that the stone giant Qurrok tends to spend his time here on the cavern floor, and according to the hardcover, Qurrok likes a good fight and will try to kill any of the PC’s that he notices. I decided that the stone giants needed to be a lot less hostile than the book says they should be, and made changes to all of them accordingly. Whether or not you decide to use your DM’s prerogative to change the giants’ dispositions, be aware that Qurrok is probably the only one of the giants who can’t be circumvented by stealth, and make sure to have a plan for how he will react to the PC’s.
Area 23 – Castle Courtyard: entering the courtyard from the roof of the castle isn’t a bad plan for getting inside the castle itself, but trying to open one of the doors from the courtyard into the first floor hallway will summon a magic sword that will try to kill the interlopers. According to the book, a dispel magic spell is needed to get rid of a sword, otherwise it stays around for a full minute attacking the party. If your party isn’t the kind that goes in for a lot of spellcasting, you might want to give the sword an AC and some hit points rather than just letting it hack away at the PC’s for ten rounds without any way to stop it.
Area 32 – Southeast Guest Room: nothing dangerous here, but there’s a joke, and it was kind of wasted. Well, at least it wasn’t high-level comedy, left to go up in smoke. I suggest a slight change: using the hookah will grant the effects of a calm emotions spell, and also cast heroes’ feast for the benefit of everyone in the room. If you don’t get it by now, maybe someone at the table will.
Area 33 – Ungrateful Slaad: why would the slaad decide to kill the party for letting it out of the octobass? Slaadi aren’t actually evil, nor are they stupid, which means there’s no reason why this particular slaad should choose to repay the party’s kindness with violence. There’s no reason why this needs to turn into a battle, nor is there even a reason why the slaad needs to reveal itself instead of continuing to impersonate a helpless old wizard. Something that I love about slaadi is that they’re great for showing up as someone completely unexpected when the party needs a favor repaid, so consider letting this one depart amicably.
Area 37 – Control Console: this room is actually very silly, and I’m only mentioning it here because some of the controls would be very useful to Maddgoth’s homunculus if it were to come under attack. A homunculus isn’t brilliant, but it’s definitely smart enough to turn off the lights, turn on the fog, or lock the whole castle down for an hour. It might even hit the button to electrocute the whole control room in a pinch; after all, it knows it can’t be killed, but presumably its enemies can.
Consider the Following
This section is basically going to be all about the crazy shrinking zone around the castle, as well as how the party might go about getting into the castle. I had to sit down and give this a lot of thought, because the scaling down of everything inside the zone is kind of a cute gimmick, but not very transparent to work with. After sketching half a dozen diagrams, considering the possible ways for the party to interact with the shrinking zone, and even doing a little bit of trig, I think I got it more or less straight. And now, I offer it to you.
The Shape of Things
The basic layout is that the central cavern of the DL is basically a sphere shape, with a radius of 90 feet. In the floor of the cavern, which is the lowest point of the sphere, there’s a spire that goes straight up for 80 feet, and the castle floats 10 feet above that. This puts the center of the floor of the castle at the center of the sphere.
Around the widest part of the sphere, or the equator if it helps to think in terms of a globe, there are flat ledges running around the edge. These ledges are specified as being 90 feet above the floor of the cavern, which means that they are level with the castle. If you look at the map of the DL, the ledges are about 80 or 90 feet horizontally from the castle, give or take.
The shrinking zone is a sphere with a radius of 40 feet, which means that creatures that get more than about 50 feet from the ground, any of the ledges, or even the ceiling, will enter the shrinking zone. People and objects that enter the zone are reduced to one-twelfth their normal size, which is convenient because it means that one foot outside the zone equals one inch inside the zone.
So far, so good. Now let’s look at what happens when the party begins to interact with the zone.
Real Distance and Relative Distance
The notion of a miniature castle that everyone shrinks down to size for has a certain eccentric charm, but dealing with the transition between big and small is a bit cumbersome. Fortunately, most of those transitions will be in the context of getting to and from the castle from the rest of the cavern.
First, remember that for anyone standing outside the shrinking zone, the castle is between 90 feet away (standing on a ledge or the floor) and 40 feet away (flying or floating just outside the zone).
However, once someone enters the zone, they are now about 480 feet from the castle, as measured in relative distance; those 40 feet get multiplied by 12 when the person entering the zone gets 12 times smaller.
A Shift in Perspective
Let’s stop a moment and think about how all of this looks to a character interacting with the cavern and the castle. The first thing to realize here is that there needs to be a way to see the castle from the floor of the cavern or from the ledges, otherwise there’s no reason to even try to reach the center of the cavern. The easy solution is to just have it well-illuminated from within, which means that the PC’s can see the miniature castle. Remember that the castle is only about 15 feet on a side in real distance, so from one of the cavern ledges, it looks like there’s room for about six castle-lengths of distance between the ledge and the castle. From just outside the shrinking zone, it looks like there are about two castle-lengths from the viewer to the castle.
Once the viewer enters the shrinking zone, though, the castle is now about 180 relative feet on each side, and it’s now 480 relative feet away from a viewer at the edge of the zone. That makes it about two and two-thirds castle-lengths of distance between the viewer and the castle, if the viewer is just inside the zone instead of just outside it.
So what, then? Well, this is how the players, and the PC’s, learn that there’s something not quite right about the situation. Between one moment and the next, the perceived distance between the viewer and the castle increases by about 30 percent. Basically, the castle would appear to take a sudden leap away from the viewer, and the apparent size of the castle would also seem to take a twist.
If you’ve ever looked at something through the wrong end of a telescope, and then taken the telescope away from your eye and “seen” the object suddenly get “closer”, this would probably be sort of like the opposite of that. Headache inducing, I would imagine. Narrate that, and it should be pretty obvious that something strange and magical just happened.
And by the way… you might have noticed the place on page 100 where the book says that characters entering the shrinking zone will see the castle suddenly become twelve times larger. Whoever wrote that was apparently not thinking about the fact that the viewer gets a lot smaller and the relative distance to the castle gets a lot larger. So ignore that part.
The reason all of this matters is because getting to the castle works much differently depending on how the PC’s go about it. As with anything in D&D, it’s not possible to think of all of the ways that a party might attack a certain challenge, and that’s a feature instead of a bug. We can, however, look at the situation from a few relevant angles that will cover a lot of the possibilities.
Getting To Maddgoth’s Castle
There are three basic routes or methods for reaching the castle from elsewhere in the cavern, and conveniently those three methods can be used to account for a fairly broad range of specific plans that the players might choose for the party.
Climbing the mithral spindle is probably the most obvious thing to try, but of course the hardcover has made sure to provide enough extra details to make that impossible. The spindle can’t be damaged, which would indicate that you can’t use climbing gear like pitons to ascend. And you would need some kind of gear, because the spindle is also perfectly smooth, without any hand or foot holds. Not that any of that matters, because they’ve also made sure to say that it’s not actually possible to touch the spindle due to a magic force field. The only way I can think of to climb the spindle is to put a strap of some kind around it and hike oneself up a bit at a time; if you’ve seen workers on power poles, or Disney’s Mulan, that’s what I’m talking about. Of course, you’re the DM, so you might choose to remove some of the spindle’s features to make the climb less impossible.
Direct transit is the term I’m using to cover any method of reaching the castle by moving towards it in physical space. Climbing the spindle would actually fall under this category, but I’m more interested here in other approaches. The important thing to remember about direct transit methods is that the distance for a character traveling from the wall of the cavern will be in excess of 500 feet, due to the shrinking effect making the relative distance to the castle while inside the zone suddenly much longer. This means that rappelling from the roof of the cavern will need a 500-foot rope instead of a 100-foot rope. It also means that effects that cause characters to fly need to be evaluated to make sure that the character can fly 500 feet before the effect ends; the fly and feather fall spells will work fine, but some class abilities will come up short. By the way, the sidebar on page 100 about damage from falling off of the castle is correct, but also note that falling from the ceiling onto the castle will also deal 20d6 damage on impact with the castle roof.
Teleportation is the third possibility, and it’s the one where the distances can really get tricky. The short version here is that spells like dimension door will generally work when traveling from outside the shrink zone to the castle, but not when going the other way: coming from the outside, you’re measuring the range of the spell in actual distances of 90 feet or less, but from the inside you’re starting with almost 500 relative feet to travel, plus the actual distance when you move out of the zone.
I’m making an assumption here that isn’t clearly stated in the book, but that I think is fairly solid: spell sizes are measured in terms of the size of the caster. So, if the caster is normal-sized, spell sizes are in actual feet, but casters who have shrunk will cast spells with sizes in relative feet. You can always tinker with this if it doesn’t seem right to you, but try imagining what would happen if a PC decided to cast fireball while inside the castle. If the size of the spell is in relative feet, you get a normal fireball with a 20-foot blast radius. If you instead decided that a miniature caster inside the castle would cast a fireball measured in actual feet, the relative blast radius inside the castle would be over 200 feet, basically incinerating everything inside. That’s why I’m assuming that spell sizes scale inside the shrinking zone.
A final word of advice about the shrinking zone is that you should probably explain how it works to the players after giving them the chance to experiment a bit. The fact of the matter is that the mechanics of the shrinking zone are fairly complicated, and it will be extremely difficult for the players to figure out what’s going on just by trying different things and observing the results. Part of the reason for that is that DM narration of strangeness like the perspective shift in the blue box above generally doesn’t adequately describe what’s going on, in part because you’re trying to explain something weird that nobody at the table has ever experienced before.
So, let the players tinker around with the shrinking effect. Describe the weird perspective shift the best you can, narrate that the flying speed doesn’t seem to be covering the distance like it should, or that the 100-foot rope from the ceiling seems to be coming up a few hundred feet short of the castle roof. The players will get the idea that something strange is going on, at which point you can just explain to them about the size and shape of the zone, the shrinking ratio, and all of the rest: they’ll have had a chance to experience the oddness, so they won’t need to feel like you’ve just spoon-fed them an answer.
Try This Instead
The ongoing battle between Otto the Faerie Dragon and Maddgoth’s homunculus provides some opportunities for DM mischief and player creativity, and I’ll give you some ideas to try on that situation. Also, the stone giants are rather unexciting to deal with, but that can be easily remedied as well.
Getting Along With the Giants
The stone giants who live in the caverns on this DL can be tweaked to create what I think is a better adventure experience. Like many things in this hardcover, the stone giants are described as being unremittingly hostile: they consider the party to be little more than vermin, fit only to be stamped out, and that places severe limitations on how the party can approach the giants as a challenge to be overcome. It essentially guarantees a fight, which is something that I rather dislike in general about D&D. So many encounters are deliberately set up as just a fight to the death, and yet people grouse about “murder hobos” as if that isn’t a playstyle that we’re all actually promoting, intentionally or not.
Anyway, off the soap box and back to the giants. The most interesting thing about these giants is that they don’t form short-term memories, so anything that happened more than about 8 hours ago is lost to them. It’s a neat idea, especially because you can tweak it to make interactions with even hostile giants a very different proposition.
If you change the memory-loss time frame from 8 hours to about 15 minutes, the situation changes a lot. For one thing, it’s a lot easier to convey the impression that the giants are absent-minded or forgetful if their memory length is minutes instead of hours. Once that impression is given, the party can actually leverage the situation to deal with the giants more peacefully. It’s like the movie Groundhog Day, where Bill Murray’s character keeps repeating the same day, and gets multiple chances to fix his mistakes from the last go-around. If the party gets into hostilities with one of the giants, all they have to do is run away, wait for the giant to forget all about them in a few minutes, and then go back and try another approach. There’s also the interesting complication that successfully interacting with the giants only lasts a short time, which creates a nice sense of urgency while moving through the caverns: don’t slow down, because giants who were friendly to you before won’t remember you in a little while.
Otto and the Homunculus: A Battle For the Ages
So, there are two things to consider here. For one thing, Otto the Faerie Dragon is a troublemaker, with a pretty decent arsenal of enchantment and illusion spells, and I’ll give you a couple of possibilities for jerking the players around on Otto’s behalf. The second thing is that dealing with the homunculus poses an interesting problem, and you’ll want to prepare for some unexpected solutions from the players.
So, we’ll go with Otto first. Just for starters, take the “Otto’s Game” sidebar on page 101 and throw it out the window. Tapping people on the shoulder with mage hand? I think we all got over that variety of joke at the age of seven or so. Even the youngest and least powerful faerie dragons can do that sort of thing, and Otto is a violet faerie dragon… he’s as powerful and devious as they come. So, what can you do with the higher-level spells?
First, take a look at hallucinatory terrain. With a casting of that spell, Otto can make any of the caves in this DL, including the all-important central cavern, look like any type of terrain he wants, and it’ll stay that way for a whole day. Turning one of the silt pit rooms into a nice grassy clearing would be amusing, as would turning the floor of the central cavern into a bottomless pit. It’s also possible to use hallucinatory terrain together with other spells…
… like major image. With major image, Otto can create the appearance of a creature that will fit inside a 20-foot cube. According to the PHB, that’s the official size of a gargantuan creature, which means that Otto can make it look like an ancient dragon is getting ready to attack. Or a balor. Or the tarrasque, for that matter, although that might be pushing it too far for credibility.
Combine a major image with hallucinatory terrain, and Otto can have the kraken come raging out of a surging ocean, right at the PC’s. Now that’s a prank worthy of our friend Otto.
Before moving on, note that Otto has color spray as one of his spells. Please remember never to use spells that are predicated on the victims’ hit points against player characters. That includes color spray, and sleep, and probably some others as well. When the PC’s use one of those spells against a pack of monsters, it’s easy for the DM to figure out which enemies get affected, because the DM has all of the enemies’ hit points right there in front. When an enemy wants to use that kind of spell against the PC’s, it means that the DM has to ask for everyone’s current HP, write them all down, and then figure out who’s affected… and that has to happen every time the spell is cast, which for something low-level and short-duration like color spray could be multiple times per combat. I recommend replacing that sort of spell with something that just requires a save or an attack roll, which saves time and tedium.
Homunculus at Home
The primary conflict on this level is between Otto and Maddgoth’s homunculus: the homunculus wants to protect the castle, and Otto wants to live in the castle. This will probably result in the party taking sides with either the homunculus or with Otto, and it’s extremely likely that they’ll side with Otto. After all, Otto is personable and amusing, and offers the party a safe and comfortable retreat full of unseen servants and magic gates if they help him. The homunculus, on the other hand, really has only being kind of cute going for it, as well as a better claim on ownership of the castle for those PC’s who care about property rights. The homunculus also isn’t going to reward the party for helping it, either. Basically, Otto is the better choice for the party to ally with, and I would expect most players to go with that option.
The trick with helping Otto with the homunculus is that it’s very hard to get rid of a homunculus. If the homunculus dies, it just reforms in Maddgoth’s office in the castle, which is not a good long-term solution. This means that in order for the party to be successful in helping Otto, they’ll need to find a way to evict the homunculus and keep it from returning to the castle, without killing it. They’ll also need to ensure that the stone giants don’t kill it either, which is a danger down in the caves.
Unfortunately, I can’t predict what your players are likely to try in order to get rid of the homunculus. It’s one of those things that encourages wild and crazy plans, and that’s a good thing. My best advice to you is to read the homunculus stat block very carefully, and also to review spell restrictions for both Undermountain and for the castle itself. Whatever the players come up with, it’s a safe bet that the plan will hinge on the nature of the homunculus, and it will probably involve the use of magic.
For the sake of examples, my players came up with two plans. The first was to cut a hole in the floor of the castle right below the spot where the homunculus would re-form if killed, so that the moment it re-formed, it would immediately fall through the floor of the castle and die again on impact. It was a great plan, but unfortunately I had to nix it because the castle walls can’t be altered. In retrospect, I probably would have hand-waved the walls bit and let them set the homunculus up for an infinite loop of fatal falls, but it’s too late for that now.
The plan that worked was to incapacitate the homunculus and then drop it into a silt pit, with the idea that a construct like a homunculus wouldn’t need to breathe, and therefore wouldn’t drown but also wouldn’t be able to climb out of 40 feet of silt. Granted, the stat block doesn’t say the homunculus doesn’t need to breathe, but a lot of other constructs do have that feature, and it seemed close enough.
Anyway, be prepared for the party to take on the task of getting rid of the homunculus, and expect something off the wall. Remember also that any of Otto’s spells can be used as part of the plan, because Otto will definitely aid and abet.
DL Eight: Slitherswamp
The section on Slitherswamp here will be fairly brief, because my players didn’t spend much time here at all. To quote our wizard: “I don’t know what’s going on here, but I want none of it.”
In general, it’s important to note the change to the bullywug stat block, involving the use of carrion crawler mucus as poison on their weapons. The information is on page 110 near the top, and basically says that creatures hit by a bullywug spear need to make a save to avoid being paralyzed. The paralysis can last as long as a minute, and the DC 13 save is not insignificant, which makes the bullywugs here rather more dangerous than the normal Monster Manual version.
Areas 7 and 8 – Dweomercore Entrance: this is where the passage down to DL 9 is located, and it’s fairly well fortified with the mage Karstis, a flesh golem, and some assorted undead. There’s also a glyph of warding trap on the way in to soften up any attackers. All in all, there’s a significant risk here, and the party will have to get through somehow if they’re going to progress downward.
Areas 15 and 16 – Nagas’ Lair: nagas are really a terrible enemy because they can’t be killed by any of the usual means. They just keep coming back, and they will hold a grudge indefinitely against anyone involved in killing them, even though they come back. You’d think they might just shrug the whole killing thing off, as it doesn’t do any permanent harm, but I guess they’re just vindictive. Anyway, getting into a fight with the nagas in these areas will draw their thralls and other allies from all around, which can turn into a very dicey situation for the party.
Area 17B – The Naga Interactive Experience: not a lot of actual danger here, but make sure to read over how the area works. Essentially, the PC’s end up taking the places of yuan-ti as they play out the scene of the bone naga’s defeat and conversion to undead. Defeating the naga in the memory-scene doesn’t defeat the actual naga in Area 16, though, although being killed in the memory-battle can wear down the PC’s hit points a bit.
Area 19D – Yuan-Ti Abominations: if the PC’s decide to fiddle around with the creepy altar here, they get jumped by a couple of yuan-ti abominations. They come in at CR 7, which shouldn’t be too much of a problem for the party at this point. I would suggest adding an additional something of actual value to the secret compartment that has the yuan-ti summoning candle in it, just because a precedent of secret compartments only containing trouble is a good way to stop your players from looking for secret compartments.
Area 20 – Too Many Bullywugs: if the party gets involved in a fight with the bullywugs here, they will be captured or killed. There are 25 combatant bullywugs here, and each of them has a chance to paralyze a PC whenever they make a successful attack with their spear. If you have a party of four PC’s, that means they can each have the attention of 6 bullywugs, and it won’t take long for them to be overwhelmed. Fortunately, there’s every reason for the bullywugs to capture the party and bring them before their leader in Area 21B, but getting to that point might be extremely unpleasant. Being escorted through this area by bullywugs from elsewhere in the swamp is much better, and not just because it avoids a miserable losing battle: if the party is taken through this area to meet the leader, they have a strong motivation to accept any deals offered, in order to avoid having to fight their way back out through the village.
Area 21 – Slaad and Hydra: there will be more on this particular slaad in the next section, but for now just be aware that the party can end up fighting both a death slaad and a hydra at the same time in this area. If a fight breaks out, reinforcements from the whole village of bullywugs in the adjacent Area 20 can be expected to join the battle in short order, with predictable results.
Consider The Following
The thing that really stands out to me about DL 8 is that there’s not much really going on here. The bullywugs are here, and the nagas are here, and they don’t much like each other, but there really isn’t a conflict going on as in previous DL’s where there were opposing factions.
In fact, this level is full of things that just don’t matter very much. There are some ancient temples, but they aren’t doing much except standing around knee-deep in muck and being guarded. There’s a magic emerald in a pool of water that makes the water poisonous, but the water doesn’t stay poisonous if you remove it from the pool, and you also can’t take the emerald out of the pool and use it to make other water elsewhere poisonous. There are statues here, and carvings, and ghostly images, and all sorts of interesting things that appear to be fraught with meaning… but in fact none of them really do anything of consequence, if they do anything at all.
If you look at the two opposing factions, the bullywugs and the nagas, it’s hard to even tell what they’re doing other than disliking one another. The bullywugs are led by Kuketh, who is a death slaad under Halaster’s control. Kuketh hates being the king of the bullywugs, but all he does is sulk about it. Why does Halaster care enough about these bullywugs to send his servant to be their leader? No idea.
The nagas are equally baffling. They have a pack of thralls, but it’s very hard to tell just what they’re doing with these thralls. Some of them are guarding various locations, but those locations don’t seem particularly significant. What are the nagas doing here anyway, then? All I can figure out is that they’re growing fungus, catching blind cave fish, and keeping control over their minions.
That’s the thing to consider when you’re preparing to run this level of Undermountain: why do the PC’s, or the players for that matter, care what’s going on here? I’m going to suggest a fix for that in the next section, but whether you like my fix or not, you really need to come up with some kind of action for this level, and some reason for the party to get involved.
Try This Instead
Now that I’ve groused adequately about the lack of anything meaningful happening on DL 8, I’ll give you the modification I came up with to inject some significance into this whole lukewarm bog. Fair warning: my players did not seem terribly engaged by this, and in fact wanted to just get out of this DL as quickly as possible, which isn’t a shining recommendation. Of course, it’s possible that they just didn’t like dealing with the bullywugs, or they were creeped out by the nagas, or something mostly unrelated. For better or worse, though, here’s what I did.
There’s a yuan-ti temple in Area 19, and I decided that would make a good focus for some meaningful action and conflict. With a little reimagining of the layout, I turned this temple from a generic churchy place to something more sinister: this temple was constructed to house planar gates built by the yuan-ti. When they were in control, before being driven off by the nagas, the yuan-ti used to have teams of priests using the gates constantly, reaching at random across the planes of existence in the hopes of accidentally reaching Dendar the Night Serpent and bringing it through the gate to end the world.
The yuan-ti are gone now, but now they had a reason for being here in the first place, and now there’s something of value left behind. Those planar gates are useful, especially when the changes to magic throughout Undermountain make travel in or out of the dungeon very difficult. That’s why Halaster sent a slaad to rally and direct the bullywugs: he wants to figure out how to bend the gates to his own uses, and the bullywugs are decent tools to that end if properly motivated. The nagas would like to get a chance to use the planar gates as well, because any chance to bring new potential thralls into Undermountain is better than just hoping that useful creatures will occasionally happen along to be captured.
Now there are motivations at play. Kuketh, the death slaad, wants to figure out how to use the gates to Halaster’s satisfaction as quickly as possible, hoping that he’ll get out of forced service as the bullywug king if he produces results for the Mad Mage. Torbit, the bullywug second-in-command, is mostly concerned with keeping the nagas and their forces out of the temple while the work goes on. Finally, the nagas want to claim the temple for themselves, but they prefer to get control by gradually enthralling more and more of the bullywugs, until finally Kuketh finds himself without enough loyal forces to maintain a grip on the level.
I think the most likely problem with this situation is that all of the factions are rather distasteful, and that’s why my players decided to just find the way down and out of the swamp as quickly as possible. Fortunately, gaining enough XP to advance at the proper speed for the dungeon overall wasn’t an issue, because there were plenty of opportunities for XP to be earned on DL 9, in time to level the characters up to 11th before sending them down to DL 10.
So, if you really wanted to create some involvement here, I would recommend placing the exit down to DL 9 under control of either the nagas or the bullywugs, which would provide the party a reason to ally with one side or the other. If they choose to ally with the side in control of the exit, they need to help that faction out in order to gain safe passage. If they choose to throw in their lot with the other faction, then their reward for capturing the exit away from the enemy faction is to be allowed to use it themselves.
Either way, you can leave the top of the stairs under the control of Karstis and his minions, or just change those enemies into something more fitting for whichever faction you want to be in control of the exit. You might even have a standoff between Karstis and the swamp denizens, with each side trying to keep the other from invading their domains.
So, I recommend doing something to generate some conflict and interest in this level, because there really isn’t any in the hardcover version. Now you have the setup that I tried for my own game: use it, change it, or ignore it, but figure out a way to make this DL more than a muckhole full of blah.
DL Nine: Dweomercore
For this level of Undermountain, I’m going to break entirely with the usual three-part system for these guides. The reason I’m going to depart from the usual here is that DL 9 is far from usual, and the normal comments I would make aren’t terribly useful. It stands to reason that as long as the party doesn’t just start tearing the place up, most of the people and beasties living here aren’t going to be immediately hostile. What follows is my advice for running the school of magic without turning it into just another dungeon crawl where the main enemies happen to be student wizards.
If you’re still reading this, I’m going to assume that you plan on running DL 9 at least somewhat along the lines I’m going to lay out here, which means that I’m going to take a lot of the “ifs” and “mights” out of my language, and just say what needs to be done. That doesn’t mean you have to do it exactly the way I say, but I’m not going to waste verbiage with conciliatory wordings.
The first assumption to be made when running DL 9 is that the party is welcome to be here. The starting encounter with the magical archmage hand is good to have, because it establishes that there are things here that will kick the PC’s teeth in if they aren’t careful, but when the Headmaster arrives in the waiting room to call off the attack, the school becomes relatively safe territory for the party. Not that fights and other violence can’t happen, but for the most part they’ll need to be instigated rather than just happening automatically.
That brings us to the next assumption, which is that there’s a certain state of inertia here among the students and teachers who are here when the party arrives. Sure, everyone here has friends and enemies, but they were all here co-existing together before the PC’s came on the scene, and presumably they would have gone on much as before if the PC’s had never come in the first place. Adding the PC’s will definitely upset the balance among the students, but that doesn’t mean the whole place was a powder keg on the verge of explosion prior to them showing up.
And from there, we’re on to the next assumption, which is that none of the students will attack any of the PC’s without provocation. Certain of the students might want to pick a fight, which could lead to a combat encounter. Breaking into someone’s room will probably result in violence if the offender gets caught. At some point, the party is probably going to end up attacking someone here as part of a deal or as a favor to someone else. But, with all that under consideration, the students do not attack the PC’s on sight. If the hardcover says they do, ignore that. For that matter, it’s safe to say that almost nothing here will attack on sight, except enemies like the bone devil in Area 47 or the cloaker in Area 26B, which are basically monsters that don’t belong in the school anyway. Monsters that do belong in the school, like the devils who work in the kitchen, will not start battles unless provoked: if the PC’s behave themselves, they won’t be forced into fights they don’t have at least some part in starting.
Finally, remember that even though things at the school are in a state of somewhat tense equilibrium when the party arrives, the PC’s have probably already upset the balance by the time they’ve even reached the waiting room. On their way down from DL 8, the party has probably dealt with Karstis already, and in all likelihood they’ve killed him. The NPC’s at the school don’t know about the PC’s dealings with Karstis yet, but eventually the facts will come out, and the relationships between the NPC’s will start to unravel because of it. That’s assuming that the PC’s don’t do anything else to upset the balance, which is actually very unlikely. And that brings us to the next step, which is the map of the school that really matters… not of halls and rooms, but of people.
The Relationship Map
I’m including an image with the map I created of the relationships between the different people who live on DL 9, as an example. My map was created by starting with the various relationships among the students that the hardcover outlines, and I then added some additional connections when they seemed appropriate. It’s not necessary or even desirable to have a connection of some sort between every pair of NPC’s, but it’s also highly unlikely that anyone at the school is completely ambivalent about too many of the others. If you can’t read my weirdo handwriting, at least you get the idea of a relationship map. Color coding is pretty much a necessity here, so get a few different colors of ink to represent different general types of attitudes.
Note the legend for the three colors at the lower right. Arrows indicate relationships between NPC’s, and text under a particular NPC’s name indicates a general feeling among all the other NPC’s. Also, the names along the left margin with no arrows at all are the names of my group’s PC’s at the time, so you can safely ignore those.
That’s the general idea, then. Eventually, the party will end up helping someone or harming someone else, and that will result in their gaining allies and enemies among the others. As mentioned before, this is really unavoidable because they’ve already interacted with Karstis, which means that the balance has already been upset. Remember that upsetting the balance here is a good thing, and we don’t want the party to tiptoe their way through without ruffling anyone’s feathers.
It’s worth saying here that the relationship map is what we really care about on this DL, instead of the physical map. It’s definitely possible for the party to move around the school much as they would in any dungeon area, and they’ll almost certainly start out on this DL by checking out corridors and classrooms. After all, they’ll have to meet the various students somehow and somewhere, and it might as well be by stumbling across them at their designated numbered-area locations.
The place to be careful, though, is not to enforce physical map movement when the party has some place they want to find. If they want to find the kitchen, or the illusion classroom, or a certain student’s dorm room, let them just go there. Narrate the way that they go, mention the things that they pass by, and make sure that any obstacles or other meaningful encounters along the way get properly dealt with, but don’t tell the players they have to search random hallways and check random doors to get to places that should be simple to locate.
A further extension of that is that the party should be able to find the people they want to find in much the same way. If they meet Turbulence, and learn that she has a sister named Violence and an enemy necromancer named Nylas, the players should be able to say that they want to go and meet the sister or confront the enemy. No wandering the map hoping to run across the desired person, just narrate the search a bit and let the party go where they need to go to keep things in motion.
When I did this, I used a yellow marker to make a series of dots along the routes through the school that the party used, and I also took note of the things that they would have seen along the way. That way, I could mention that they had passed the dining hall or the storeroom earlier, if they wanted to go looking for one of those places. Of course, they could have gone to those locations directly as discussed two paragraphs ago, but it’s a nice feeling for the players when they’ve already “discovered” something and can then “find their way back to it”.
This section isn’t meant to guide the formation of a relationship map, or to replace the information on the various students that the hardcover includes. The idea here is to provide some options on how to integrate the PC’s into the school, and how to create productive conflicts, as ways to upset the inertia of the school and keep things interesting. Feel free to use any or none of the following ideas, but you’ll need to have something similar to work from as the party makes their way through DL 9 and meets the residents.
“The Headmaster” in my version isn’t really fooling anyone with his Halaster disguise, but nobody really feels the need to question it. When the Headmaster arrived in the waiting room to call the killer floating hand off, I decided that he would just assume that the PC’s were there to join the school. No questions, no offers, just “welcome, I’ll have someone show you to your rooms, feel free to visit the library and get something to eat after you’re settled.” Arcane spellcasters are obviously welcome as students, but it’s also convenient for everyone else in the party to also be considered students. After all, why wouldn’t they be?
Skrianna Shadowdusk is probably your best bet for creating a conflict that will break the inertia of the school. She’s arrogant and contentious, and will pick a fight with the PC’s out of contempt and misplaced entitlement. Just be as condescending as possible, and you should have no trouble setting the web on fire.
Wormriddle the Night Hag is an interesting addition, but I decided I didn’t like her cover identity as Medley the halfling student. I decided to give her the cover identity of Madame Semele and a dark and beautiful polymorphed appearance. While she’s pretending to be a visiting instructor in necromancy, the real reason she’s at the school is to make her little dolls of all of Halaster’s up-and-coming apprentices, so she can then have leverage over them if they become powerful or influential in the future. It’s a useful change, because venturing into her rooms to discover her real motives has the appeal of investigating a mystery, and the possibility for a challenging battle with the flesh golems or with Wormriddle herself.
Spite Harrowdale was my group’s ally of choice. His childlike appearance can be pretty endearing, and the fact that he was the mind flayer’s preferred next victim is also a reason to be on his side. Everyone hates mind flayers, after all. In fact, killing Cephalossk, the mind flayer student that nobody likes, is a perfectly reasonable way to make a friend out of Spite without automatically making enemies of anyone else.
Turbulence and Violence are probably the most sympathetic NPC’s in the whole school. They aren’t happy, and all they want is to leave… but they’re being forced to stay, and the frustration is causing them to get into all sorts of trouble. If you need a reason for the PC’s to create some chaos, creating a diversion to allow the sisters to escape is a solid and heroic way to go.
Remember, you’re not bound to the descriptions of motives, allies, and enemies that are given to these NPC’s by the hardcover. In fact, it’s important to remember that the details in the hardcover actually tend to be geared towards causing a bloodbath of some sort. I don’t know why the authors felt the need to do it that way, but if you look at the official information, each of the NPC’s seems to have some request that they want fulfilled… and if the PC’s say they won’t do it, then the jilted NPC and all of his or her designated buddies try to kill them.
It’s really lacking in nuance, and you’re not doing yourself or your players any favors by sticking to the text of the book when it doesn’t work for your adventure. If you like the way it’s written in the book, run with that. If you don’t like the book’s version, change it. You’re the DM, and that means you’re the one in the best position to judge what’ll work and what won’t.
I mentioned at the end of one of the previous guides that this DL is a great place to introduce complications for your spellcasting characters, if you’re into that sort of thing. When my group went through Dweomercore, one of the wizards got a homebrewed ability to amp up fire spells with the danger of unwanted explosions and incinerations of all kinds. We also had the undead warlock from the catastrophe on DL 3, who needed to find a patron other than Lolth, and I introduced a dream-sequence adventure to give him the Raven Queen as a new patron.
There are a lot of possibilities to bring in that sort of thing in a level that’s actually a school for arcane magic, but you might consider some less radical benefits even if you don’t have something special planned. Letting your spellcasters learn another spell or two of their choice is a reasonable benefit to be gained from being students at Halaster’s academy, and you might consider allowing non-spellcasters to learn a harmless but convenient cantrip like prestidigitation.
Even though wreaking widespread havoc in the school wasn’t a foregone conclusion, and even though the party didn’t end up in violent conflicts with everyone there, I decided the best overall aftermath for this level would be for the school to be temporarily closed when they returned. I put a sign on the door reading “closed for repairs, death in the family, faculty applications accepted” for when the party came by again, although it was still fairly easy to get through the entrance. Inside, their friend Spite was still enjoying the use of the libraries and the convenient free meals and housework, but the rest of the students were either gone or killed, and the Headmaster and the night hag were fired in disgrace after all of the misadventures the PC’s caused. Eventually, I’ll probably have to open the school open again, but with a new cast of characters.
The Adventure Continues
This installment of the DM’s Guide to Undermountain is at an end, but more of the massive dungeon awaits. In the next three dungeon levels, the drow and their continual infighting will be back at the forefront, with all of the deceptions, massacres, and assassinations that we’ve come to expect from our friends from Menzobarranzan.
Also, Dungeon Level 12 has an interesting feature… a labyrinth full of minotaurs. There will be a separate game-design article coming out, giving a way for DM’s to effectively run a maze with the d20 System, to be used concurrently with DL 12 or anywhere else you might need a maze to navigate.
Until then, I’ll wish you and yours the happiest of adventuring, except when misery is preferable…