A DM’s Guide to Dead In Thay
The original Dead In Thay was put out in 2014, and was actually part of the playtesting process for the 5th Edition rules; now it appears in a convenient home version in the anthology hardcover Tales from the Yawning Portal. I used this adventure as an epilogue to my Tomb of Annihilation campaign, because we finished up a few months too early to jump right into Dragon Heist, and I needed something to fill up our weekly game nights until the release date. Whether you plan on using it as part of a larger campaign or as a stand-alone adventure, here’s my best advice on how to make it a success. As usual, lots of spoilers and various boring DM stuff to follow, so if you’re planning on playing through this module, better to stop reading now. As for you DM’s out there… on we go.
A Really Long Guide
I didn’t realize how long this guide was going to be when I started writing it. With all of the mechanical issues, and discussion of individual areas and situations, and general advice on running the dungeon, and even an alternate ending to try out… well, it’s significantly longer than most of my articles, and that’s saying something.
Anyway, consider yourself fairly warned. In a lifetime of long-windedness, this article still stands out as one of the longest things I’ve ever written. It’s more than just D&D article long. It’s more like grad thesis long. So make sure to take your restroom break and have your drink ready before you start in.
Fairly warned, onward!
Sectors, Zones, and Areas… Really?
The unusual thing about the Doomvault, which is the proper name for the dungeon in which Dead In Thay is set, is that it’s split up into a lot of different pieces, and that there are specific requirements for moving between those pieces. This is mostly a good thing, but there are complications and even outright problems. So that’s where we’re going to start with this article: the basics of organization and movement that apply to the Doomvault as a whole.
Three Types of Progressively Smaller Pieces
Let’s get it right up front: this is a really large dungeon. There are 107 numbered areas described, as well as the interestingly-shaped but not-numbered Phylactery Vault. Fortunately, the designers have broken it up for us a bit, both in layout and in theme, making it more like nine smaller dungeons, each with a theme of its own. And that makes it all a bit more manageable.
The nine “smaller dungeons” are called sectors, and eight of them are connected by hallways and passageways, so you can move from one to the next if you find the right route. One of the sectors isn’t connected in this way, but that’s done deliberately, as part of the adventure structure, because it’s the last sector that you visit before going into the Phylactery Vault and ending the adventure. Each of the sectors has a theme: demons, golems, aquatic beasties, and so forth. That really does make the sectors very much like smaller dungeons within the big one, where the party can take things one themed bite at a time, like a nine-course gourmet dinner. But we don’t stop with sectors. Oh no. That would be too easy.
Every sector is subdivided again, this time into zones. You get four zones for every sector, and according to the introductory text, each zone is supposed to “explore one facet of that [sector’s] theme”. I’m sure that’s meant to sound very profound, but what it really means is that each zone is kind of a self-contained adventure space, where you have a challenge to overcome that doesn’t really spill out of the zone. And then of course each of these zones are divided into areas, and these are the normal numbered areas that are the bread and butter of published adventures.
All of this is fairly straightforward, although the “sector” and “zone” terminology is a bit arbitrary, and lacking in overall flavor. I introduced the dungeon layout to my group using the sector-zone-area terms, but only in order to explain how things fit together, especially when I got to the magic gates part, which we will be discussing shortly. After that initial explanation, I tried not to use “sector” and “zone” as part of the usual table talk, because I felt I was breaking the group’s immersion by using words that didn’t have a fantasy vibe to them. Sectors and zones might be fine for science fiction or spy drama genres, but they just sound a little off for D&D.
If I were to do it again, I would just come up with better terms to use in place of “sector” and “zone”. Probably “realm” and “domain”, or something along those lines. Again, anything you choose for your own game is going to be just as arbitrary as the hardcover authors’ choices, so don’t worry too much about making the terms intuitive, because they probably won’t be. Just be consistent, and remember that it’s the little things like this that are vital to creating the tone of the adventure. This is a good chance to learn from my mistakes.
All that being said, I’m going to use “sectors” and “zones” as terms for the purposes of this article, because there’s no reason for me to add another layer of complication on this dungeon while we’re trying to discuss it from a DM perspective. Tone is vital for running games, but not so much for discussing how to run games, so I’ll use the terms the book uses.
Gates, Gates, and More Gates
So, it turns out that all of these sectors and zones are separated by a complicated system of magical gates. Complicated systems are not my favorite thing, but that’s neither here nor there. The Doomvault is essentially a high-security research facility, run by some very paranoid lich overlords, so having a means of restricting just about everyone’s access does make sense in context.
All About Glyph Keys
All of the gates are operated by “glyph keys”, which are basically crystal pendants on bronze chains that can be magically attuned to open specific magical gates. If you read the description of how they work on page 112, there’s a whole process for sharing attunements between glyph keys using Arcana checks, complete with DC’s and force damage.
The upshot here is that the PC’s do not need to have dozens of individual glyph keys to keep track of, because they’re essentially building a “master glyph key” a little bit at a time. As the PC’s make their way through the dungeon, they’ll defeat enemies who are carrying glyph keys, and then they can consolidate the new attunements with the old. I wouldn’t even worry about the official method for transferring attunements, because it’s just going to be unnecessary tedium.
I assigned each sector a number, and each zone a letter, so I could express (for example) the Swine Run in the Blood Pens as “2B” for short. One of the players was in charge of keeping a list of which key attunements they had collected, and I gave her the long-form names and the short-form abbreviations so she could note them down as they went along. This also meant that I didn’t need to spend time and brainspace on tracking what parts of the dungeon they had already visited. “Do you have 4C yet? OK, now you do.”
There’s an additional way to gain key attunements, and that’s by using contact stones located in various areas. Essentially, contact stones are a way to contact Syranna the Rebel Red Wizard back at the gatehouse, at which point she can attune glyph keys remotely, adding an attunement to the zone where the contact stones are. I’m not really sure how to phrase that more clearly, but I can tell you that I never had any reason to use the contact stones when I ran this adventure, so you might just want to leave them out.
White Gates and Black Gates
According to the hardcover, there are two types of gates: white and black. The short version here is that white gates are actually much like locked doors, which you encounter in the middle of a corridor and have to unlock to pass through. Black gates are more like teleportation circles that allow you to jump between non-adjacent rooms. Black gates also have an additional plot function, but we’ll get to that in a bit.
Using the Gatehouse
The gatehouse is the starting point for the adventure, and also the safe haven for the party to take rests and such.
As far as getting started on the adventure, page 112 gives seven entry points to which the party’s ally Syranna can send them via black gate from the gatehouse; you can either choose one on your own, or offer the players the choice. Either way, I suggest you make it a one-time choice, so that they have to make their way to additional sectors “the hard way” by exploring, instead of just zipping back to the gatehouse and going directly to the next sector of choice.
Any black gate can be connected to the gatehouse, so if the party needs a long rest, or even a short rest, they can teleport back to safety as long as they can find a black gate to use. The hardcover is actually a bit ambiguous as to whether the party can rest in the gatehouse, or whether they actually need to leave the Doomvault through the gate in the gatehouse to rest. I think we’re safe to assume that resting in the gatehouse is fine, because otherwise it would be almost impossible for the party to rest, which they’ll obviously need to do several times during the adventure.
The hardcover does mention on page 113 that there are “a few” areas in the dungeon where the party can gain the effects of a rest. For the record, that rest is always only a short rest, and I can count only three such areas. Additionally, a PC generally has to drink out of something questionable in order to get the benefit, which is not something smart adventurers do. In short, that’s really no help at all.
That’s OK, though. Just because the characters are resting for 8 hours doesn’t mean it has to feel restful to the players. My suggestion is to let them take their long rests, but “get a little impatient” with the players when they’re adjusting their character sheets for the rest. Give them about two minutes, and then say something like “OK, ready to go?” or whatever you usually say at the end of a long rest. When they aren’t ready to resume the adventure yet, you’ll have created a sense of being rushed for the players, which will carry over to the PC’s because player brains and PC brains are connected. Pester the players every minute or so until they’re ready to go back to the adventure, and those 8 in-game hours will seem like nothing… and sometimes perception is reality.
By the way, if you’re searching for a reason for Syranna to help out these adventuresome interlopers, my idea was to recast her as the disgruntled architect of the Doomvault. She designed it, oversaw the construction, implemented the gate security system… but she was told she was creating a place for researching academically interesting creatures. Now that she’s found out that her research complex is being used to weaponize creatures instead of learning about them, she’s angry. And because the whole thing was her creation, it makes perfect sense to her to know all of the ins and outs and explain it all to the PC’s.
Black gates are marked on the map as fairly obvious black circles, but white gates are marked on the map as patches of slightly lighter gray in the middle of corridors that are a bit darker gray, and they are incredibly easy to miss. Before you do any other prep for this adventure, I strongly suggest you search your maps for all of the white gates and mark them more clearly. They will be important for a long time. You’ll probably also want to make sure to mark the white gates that lead from one sector to the next; they’re much less common than the white gates that just lead between zones within the same sector, and they’re also more important to keep track of. Also, don’t rely on looking at the map to find all of the white gates. You should also read through the area descriptions, to make sure you don’t miss any.
How Keys Connect Places: the Short Version
The hardcover gives an explanation of how the glyph keys grant passage through the gates, but it isn’t exceptionally clear because they give an example that references a lot of area numbers. And, of course, gates don’t connect areas: they connect zones and sectors, so why are we talking about areas in the first place?
What it boils down to is this: if you have a glyph key for a zone, you can use any white gates that connect that zone to another zone. That includes white gates that connect to zones that are actually in a different sector. You can leave the zone using the white gates, and you can also enter the zone using the white gates.
Also, if you have a glyph key for a zone, you can travel to a black gate in that zone from any other black gate in the entire Doomvault, including the black gate in the gatehouse and the gates in the Temples of Extraction.
I’m going to suggest some changes to the gate system, but that’s how the gates and keys work in the hardcover, as written. Onward, then.
Black gates also have a function not strictly related to traveling between zones, and it has to do with what you need to accomplish to make it to the Phylactery Vault…
How to Make It to the Phylactery Vault
Getting into the Phylactery Vault and finishing the adventure requires some creative use of the black gates. There are two main things that have to be done in order to access the Phylactery Vault: getting a key to the Temples of Extraction sector, and disrupting black gates.
Getting to the Temples of Extraction
Eight of the nine sectors of the Doomvault are connected by passages with white gates, which makes it possible for the party to explore their way through the complex and gather up glyph keys that grant access to additonal zones. Some of those zones will contain black gates, which makes it possible for the party to jump between different sectors without having to go the long way around, so moving around the Doomvault gets easier as the party explores more areas and collects more glyph keys.
However, the ninth sector, called the Temples of Extraction, is not connected to any of the other sectors except by black gates. There are four black gates in the Temples of Extraction, one per zone, so the party will need a glyph key attuned to one of those zones in order to use a black gate to reach the Temples. There are glyph keys for each of the four Temples zones scattered throughout the rest of the dungeon, so the party will have to obtain at least one of them in order to proceed.
But that’s not all they need to do…
Disrupting Black Gates
If you have a glyph key tuned to a black gate, you can “disrupt” the gate. It’s an interesting word choice, because a disrupted gate continues to function normally, but as with sectors and zones we’ll continue to use the hardcover terminology. There’s an Arcana check for this as well, but the only penalty for not making the check is to take some force damage, at which point the PC’s can try again.
This is another thing that might not be worth rolling dice over, especially since a DC 15 check is not that difficult for characters who are leveled appropriately for this adventure. I would only recommend using the check mechanic if you want to have an extra source of damage to wear down the party; otherwise you’re just as well leaving it out.
The hardcover is actually quite vague as to how the party is supposed to learn about this process. On page 112 we find that “as the adventure progresses, the characters learn that disrupting a number of black gates is essential to reaching the Phylactery Vault.” How do they learn this? Does someone tell them, or do they find a scroll lying around, or maybe it’s written on the mirror in the lavatory?
In all seriousness, it looks like the way for them to learn about it is to actually travel to the Temples of Extraction and examine a shrine there (more on the shrines later). The problem with that plan is that the party can go for quite a long time in the dungeon without obtaining a glyph key for the Temples of Extraction… which means that when they eventually do go there and learn about disrupting the black gates, they might have to backtrack significantly in order to actually find gates to disrupt. That’s assuming that they even realize that the Temples of Extraction should be visited at their earliest opportunity, which is questionable; we’ve been taught by movies and video games that you wait until the end of the adventure before you go to the final area, so the players might choose to wait to go to the Temples even if they obtain a key early in the adventure.
In my case, the PC’s learned about disrupting the black gates because Syranna told them about it before they went into the Doomvault in the first place, which equates to that I (the DM) told the players, because going into a dungeon with no idea as to what your goals are there is not something that smart adventurers or smart players do. It’s not something smart DM’s encourage, either: even if the goals are something vague like “kill orcs and find treasure”, at least everyone knows what’s going on, and if other goals emerge that’s well and good. “Wander aimlessly until we figure out what we’re doing here” is not a good goal for anyone, even just to start out with.
Putting It All Together
Once the party has disrupted six black gates, and gained access to the Temples of Extraction, they can use any of the black gates in the Temples of Extraction to access the Phylactery Vault, where the adventure comes to a close.
Changing the Gate System
I found myself rather unimpressed by the whole system of gates and how they work according to the hardcover, so I decided to make some changes. The idea here was to make it necessary to explore the entire dungeon, because the way the adventure is written makes it possible to reach the end while leaving almost all of the Doomvault unexplored.
Black Gates, Revised
As previously discussed, the party needs to disrupt six black gates in order to access the Phylactery Vault. The problem here is that every zone in the whole dungeon has a black gate in it, which means that the party could disrupt their six gates without having to explore more than one sector and half of a second one. In fact, they could explore one sector (the Abyssal Prisons for example) and get a glyph key for the Temples of Extraction there. They can then travel to the Temples, learn (presumably) about the need to disrupt gates, and then return to the Abyssal Prisons to disrupt the four black gates there. Then, they can explore an adjacent sector (maybe the Blood Pens) just long enough to find and disrupt two black gates there. Then, they can use the second Blood Pens gate to travel back to the Temples of Extraction, coming in through a black gate, and then step immediately back into that same gate to jump into the Phylactery Vault, and game over.
When there are eight sectors worth of content in the dungeon, it seems like a massive waste to let the party ignore most of it. Of course, they might end up exploring more than they need to by accident, because they don’t actually understand what they’re supposed to be doing, but the operative word there is “accident”. Let’s not rely on happy accidents. Also, the players probably aren’t going to want to skip over dungeon content, but there’s often a tacit understanding that the DM intends for the party to complete just as much as they need to in order to complete an adventure. If the players don’t actually understand how big and diverse the dungeon is, they might not understand that they want to explore it… if the solution to the adventure is readily available, why would the players assume that there’s more dungeon waiting uselessly out there somewhere?
Also, because of the large number of black gates, it’s very easy to travel around the dungeon. The party will usually be able to obtain a glyph key for their current zone from an enemy in that zone, which then means they can travel back to that zone from any other zone in the entire Doomvault. This seems excessive to me, especially when the point of the keys and gates is to restrict access, both in the game world (Syranna’s vault security reasons) and at the table (pacing for the DM).
Oh, and about pacing? The nine sectors are essentially stand-alone dungeons, which means that the DM can prepare them separately. Separate maps, separate groups of stat blocks, all of that. It’s modular, which means that you can focus on the current sector and not worry too much about the others. But, if it’s possible to pop out of any zone in any sector, and then into any other zone in any other sector, that leaves the DM scrambling to change gears between sectors… and suddenly they aren’t so modular anymore, and everything needs to be ready to run all at once. And we DM’s are after all only human, although it often seems as though we are more.
The major change I made with the black gates was to limit them to one per sector, instead of one per zone. With only eight black gates available to disrupt, suddenly a lot more of the dungeon needs to be explored if the party is going to find and disrupt six of them, and then use the seventh one to travel to the Temples of Extraction. If you wanted to require them to disrupt seven gates, and therefore explore all of the dungeon sectors, that wouldn’t be unreasonable either. I think allowing the party to skip over a sector that the players don’t like is a worthwhile compromise, though, so I kept it to six.
Also, with only one black gate per sector, the party will generally have to explore more of the sector in order to find the gate. When I chose which black gates I was going to keep, I always chose one from a zone that didn’t connect to another sector, meaning that the party was going to have to explore at least two or three of the zones within any sector in order to find the black gate for that sector. They might want or need to explore the remaining zone(s), but the minimum possible effort required to succeed in each sector is increased overall, which means that the adventure is more challenging overall, and uses more of the dungeon content. Waste not, want not.
The final change I made to the black gates was to make them non-functional after being disrupted. I thought the idea of “disrupting” gates that would then continue to operate normally was a little silly in the first place. With black gates that only work before being disrupted, and are useless afterwards, the adventure takes on a different sort of structure. The party arrives in a sector from an adjacent sector, battles and explores their way through it, finds the new sector’s black gate, and uses the black gate to travel back to the gatehouse to rest and recuperate. Afterwards, they travel back into that sector, disrupt the black gate, and then proceed to the next sector by means of white gates (and gray ones, if you take my advice in the next section). Rinse and repeat a few times, and the overall adventure becomes a series of themed mini-adventures, which makes a lot of sense for a dungeon complex which is made out of themed sectors.
Gray Gates, and Why to Use Them
There is no such thing as a “gray gate” according to the hardcover, but I created them when I ran this adventure, in order to fit a particular need. On the official map, there are white gates that lead between zones within the same sector, and there are also white gates that lead between zones in different sectors, and all of these look the same and operate in the same way.
I changed the white gates that lead between sectors into gray gates, although in retrospect I would probably choose a different color, like silver or blue. I only chose gray between it’s between white and black, and the aesthetics of gray aren’t so great. Again, just a matter of tone, but tone is important too.
Whatever color they are, the way that gray gates are different from white gates is that they’re essentially one-way gates. You need to have a key from the zone that you’re currently in if you want to travel out of the zone through a gray gate. So, if you leave a sector using a gray gate, you’ll be stuck in the new sector until you obtain a glyph key from the new sector.
Again, this helps to break the adventure down into manageable chunks, but it also makes the boundaries between sectors much more obvious. Generally the party will want to locate the black gate for any given sector before leaving that sector behind, so coming up to a gray gate makes it clear that they probably ought to turn around if they haven’t found the black gate yet.
Of course, if they only need to disrupt six out of eight black gates, and they really hate the sector they’re currently in, a gray gate lets them know that they can give up on the current sector and get into a new sector. They can always come back later, but they’ll have to explore the new sector at least enough to get a new glyph key before they can change their minds. They might decide that they hate the new sector even more than the one they abandoned, but turning around and going back isn’t a guaranteed and immediate option.
Finally, if things are proceeding according to the pattern discussed in the Black Gates section above, having found a gray gate will let the party know how to proceed with the adventure when it’s time to explore another sector. After they return from their rest at the gatehouse, and then disrupt the black gate when they’re done using it, they’ll need to travel to an adjacent sector, and finding a gray gate makes it clear how to accomplish that.
And that’s how gray gates work. I found them extremely useful to include, and I think you probably will as well.
Gates in the Temples of Extraction
First, I’m completely on board with having just the four glyph keys in the entire Doomvault that will get the party access to the Temples of Extraction, because they really only need to find one of them. If they’re going to be exploring at least three-quarters of the sectors in order to disrupt the black gates, they’ll certainly find at least one. Unlike the other sectors which I reduced to one black gate per sector rather than one black gate per zone, I left the black gates in each zone of the Temples just as they are, so that I wouldn’t have to fiddle with where the four Temples glyph keys are located or what gates they connect.
Remember that having multiple Temples of Extraction glyph keys is not just useful for accessing the Temples through a black gate in one of the other sectors. It also allows the party to move about more freely by using the white gates in the Temples, because the Temples glyph keys operate the Temples white gates just like glyph keys for other zones do. If the party doesn’t bring a glyph key for a particular Temples zone with them, they’ll have to find one once they get there… and the Red Wizards in the Temples do not want to just hand them over.
As far as connecting the Temples to the Phylactery Vault, I decided that the party needed to disrupt three of the four gates in the Temples (as well as the required number from the other sectors, of course), and then use the fourth one to travel to the Phylactery Vault. The simple reason for this is that otherwise they wouldn’t need to actually explore the Temples; with the adventure as written, they could use the black gate in any of the four Temples zones to enter the Temples, and then use that very same black gate to travel to the Phylactery Vault.
Considering that what’s going on in the Temples of Extraction is critical information towards understanding the Evil Plot that the party is supposed to be foiling in the first place, I think you’re not doing your story any favors by just letting the party step out of a black gate in the Temples and then step right back into that gate and come out in the Phylactery Vault. Having to visit each zone in the Temples is going to increase the challenge, but it’s also going to ensure that the players aren’t missing out on the story of Szass Tam’s Villainous Plans, which is why they came to the Doomvault anyway.
Areas of Note
Even though there are a lot of areas in this dungeon, and although I’ve gone through a lot of article already discussing the gates and their various uses and issues, I’m going to try to provide a breakdown of the areas in the dungeon that merit special attention, like I usually do in these guides.
Dungeon Alert Level: Something to Ignore
If you look on pages 113 through 115, there’s something about an “alert level” for the Doomvault, and when to raise it, and how to lower it. And it turns out that this alert level is mostly for determining random encounter details, such as when they should happen and how serious a danger they should pose.
Now, this is all well and good, except for the mild complication that there really aren’t any good locations to stage a random encounter in the entire dungeon. Take a look at the map: every room has something in it already, and the passages between rooms are narrow and short. Unlike moving through wilderness, or natural caverns, or even city streets, there is no space to spare in this dungeon. If you like to run your combats on a grid, you’re going to have a really difficult time finding enough grid squares for all of the PC’s and all of the enemies to even stand in, much less maneuver around.
Add this to the outright statement on page 114: “these encounters are more for atmosphere than challenge.” And then consider that keeping track of the alert level, and raising it, and lowering it, and remembering the circumstances under which one ought to roll for a possible encounter, and then finding the correct table to roll on (there are eleven of them), and also coming up with “special encounters” which happen when monsters get loose from their zones and start wandering about…
You know, as a DM, I’m quite capable of coming up with encounters for “atmosphere” without all of that. You are too, you know. Look at the random tables, choose some encounters you like, and spring them on the party when the moment seems right. If they’re slacking, or lagging, or standing around quibbling, hit them with a random to remind them that there’s tension here. No rolls, no scores to track, just your judgement.
You might never need any random encounters throughout the whole adventure. I never used them when I ran this dungeon, because the party was tearing through the areas as if all hell was liable to break loose at any moment… which is the feeling I would be trying to establish with random encounters for “atmosphere” in the first place.
So scratch the alert levels, and don’t use random encounters that are actually random. Add in extra encounters when the party needs a kick to move them along, and do it when you can tell it’s needed. You’re the DM, right? You’ve got this.
I’ll separate the rest of this section by sector, with the sector name as a heading, but I won’t pay special attention to the zone names unless there’s something that applies to an entire zone and not just to a particular area within that zone.
Before I jump into the area-by-area discussion, I would like to make a comment about “reduced-threat” enemies as found in this adventure module. You’re going to find a lot of familiar enemies in the Doomvault, but as scaled-back versions to be appropriate for parties from ninth level to about eleventh level. If you want to run this for a higher-level party, an easy way to do that is to ignore most of the reduced-threat modifications. If you’re playing on a grid, you’ll probably want to use the smaller size as given with the reduced-threat enemies, but otherwise you can throw them at the party at full power. I would also suggest using the mage stat block as a guide to powering up Thayan Apprentices, and adding some 6th and 7th-level spells for the various Red Wizards. Sprinkle in some archmages and full-power liches, and you’ve got a recipe for a pretty decent ending adventure for a high-level campaign.
Also, a word on traps that you’ll find here. The thing about traps is that there’s generally a way to disarm or circumvent them, and in most cases there’s a sensible reason why a certain action would accomplish that. There are many traps in this dungeon, some of which I’ll be covering below in area comments, that are just random: the ways in which they are disarmed or circumvented require actions that have no logical connection to the trap’s function, and furthermore are actions which no reasonable player would consider trying as possibilities for mitigating the trap.
Jamming trapdoors open or closed, plugging up the holes where gas or darts come out, carefully cutting a tripwire… we see these types of things all the time, and they have two common features. First, the PC’s can see the cracks in the floor, holes in walls, or strings across the corridor; they might not be obvious, or able to be found without searching, but they are there to be seen. Second, the ways in which they are rendered harmless make sense based on the observed features of the traps. That doesn’t mean that traps can’t be complicated or deliberately deceptive, but it does mean that on a certain level they are fair because they are not just random. There are traps here that are essentially random, and I will plan on pointing out the worst of them and offering an alternative solution that makes some kind of sense.
The Abyssal Prisons
This sector is themed around demons of all sorts. Remember that the beginning text for the sector specifies that demons can’t teleport or summon other demons within this sector due to ramped-up magical security, so you might want to limit character abilities to use teleportation or summoning magic within this sector as well.
Zone, Fiendish Arena: the primary danger here is from the vampire Issem. If this is one of the first sectors the party explores, they might have a significant problem defeating Issem if it comes to that. He has several undead allies in this zone as well, which might pose problems even for higher-level parties. On the bright side, he hates the Thayans and will aid the party against them to a reasonable extent, as long as they respect his privacy and stay out of area 3.
Area 5, Succubus: the succubus Pencheska doesn’t want to pick a fight, so she can be very helpful in providing the party with information about the Doomvault in general and the Abyssal Prisons in particular. Especially if this is one of the first sectors to be explored, you might consider giving the location of the black gate for the Prisons. She might also be able to tell them that Tarul Var has one of the Temples of Extraction glyph keys, and where to find him, if the party has been unsuccessful so far in obtaining one.
Area 10, Tarul Var: Tarul Var is essentially a reduced-threat lich, with a special stat block of his own in the hardcover appendix. He’s still a pretty formidable threat, but remember that he’s a prisoner here and might be willing to make a deal if one was offered. His abrasive manner might make friendly conversations lead into unfortunate violence, though.
Area 12, Gravity Trap: this is one of those random traps, because in order to disarm the gravity trap, one of the PC’s has to deliberately step into open air over a pit. If nobody steps into the pit, which can’t be fallen into due to a force field (although you’d never know that without testing it), then anyone entering the room gets thrown onto spikes at the ceiling, held up there for a minute, and then dropped back onto the floor. If anyone tries to move across the floor, including trying to move (or maybe even stand up, which uses 5 feet of movement) after being dropped, the trap triggers again, and 6d6 damage per trap cycle adds up very quickly.
Fix this one by making the trap cycle continuously, so that it’s always switching between gravity and no gravity, with the normal gravity lasting for several seconds and the lack of gravity lasting only long enough to fling someone into the ceiling and then immediately drop them. Observant characters might notice pebbles or cobwebs jumping up and down abnormally, and an object held in front to test for danger would jerk up and down as well. If the party can time the gravity changes, running through at just the right moment could work. Having something on the floor to hold on to, such as pitons hammered in at intervals, would also be a possibility. You can even allow a dispel magic spell to temporarily stop the gravity changes.
Area 15, Teleportation Maze: this is tricky to run, so make sure you’re clear on it before anyone enters the room. Otherwise I recommend you skip the teleportation bit and just play cat-and-mouse with the glabrezu, where it moves into range, attacks, and then moves away and out of sight among the pillars; let the PC’s have as many opportunity attacks as they like, because the glabrezu can easily soak up some extra damage. If you’re going to locate the black gate for this sector in the worst possible place, this room would be it. Also, as a note, this is an example of a complicated trap that is not random: figuring out where not to stand based on what happens when moving around the room isn’t necessarily easy, but it makes sense based on how the trap is observed to behave.
Running the Maze: Step By Step
This is a fairly complicated room, so this box provides a step-wise process for making it work. To use the process, first complete Step Zero, and then begin at Step One whenever a PC’s turn comes up. You’ll run through the steps for each character, until the steps direct you to advance to the next character (or the glabrezu) in the initiative order. You should be able to run the sequence as below until all of the PC’s are either out of the room or dead, and probably having it broken down into steps will make it easier to understand and run without all the step-counting.
An immediate change to make to this room is to move the ceiling down from thirty feet to ten feet when you describe it, and change the falling damage accordingly. The reason for this is so that you don’t have to worry about who’s on the floor and who’s on the ceiling when they try to hit each other with melee weapons. Trust me, you’ll have plenty to worry about without having to track that particular detail.
Step Zero: roll initiative for all of the PC’s, as well as for the glabrezu. Make sure the players understand that you’re not starting a battle at this point, but that movement speeds will be important, so having six-second rounds to keep track of movement will be required. They don’t know about the glabrezu yet, but of course that will only become important when it sees one of them. Also, roll a d20 to determine the glabrezu’s location in the room (or just choose a location that seems good to you), and make a note of which numbered locations it can see from that location. Don’t give yourself more trouble over line-of-sight than you need to. This isn’t a time to bring out the ruler; just eyeball it and you’ll be fine.
Step One: a character enters the room for the first time, or reaches the top of the initiative order while in the room. Check to see if the glabrezu has line-of-sight to the character; if it does, then it sees the character and may begin to attack on its next turn, at your discretion. Proceed to Step Two for that character.
Step Two: Roll a d20, and teleport the character onto the ceiling of the room above that number on the map. Note here that there’s no save to avoid being teleported. Check again to see if the glabrezu has line-of-sight; if it does, then it sees the character and can begin to attack on its next turn. The character rolls a DC 15 WIS save. On a failure, the character falls to the floor of the room, taking 1d6 falling damage, as well as 2d4 psychic damage just because, and remains there on the floor for the rest of the round; go to Step Four for this character. On a success, go to Step Three for this character.
Step Three: a player who passed the save can remain on the ceiling and move along the ceiling (or the walls, although the walls are mechanically no different from the ceiling adjacent to the walls) without being teleported for the rest of their turn, meaning that they can move up to their speed, and then take an action. Probably the Dash action would be a good choice, to get out of the room, or possibly Dodge or Disengage to avoid fighting the glabrezu. Or they can Attack, which probably isn’t the greatest choice, but it is an available option. The pillars go all the way to the ceiling, so even if you don’t normally use a grid for movement, you’ll probably want to use one for this room; you need to know where each PC is and where the glabrezu is at any given time, as they maneuver around the pillars. At the end of the player’s turn on the ceiling, the character drops back to the floor (whether any damage is taken from the fall is at your discretion, but I would recommend no damage; after all, they passed the save). Go to Step Four for that character.
Step Four: a character standing on normal floor, that is to say a floor grid square without a number, can move along the floor on their next turn normally, but will immediately go back to Step Two if they step on a numbered space. A character who has landed on a numbered space due to failing the save will repeat Step Two on their next turn. Advance to the next character in the initiative order, and complete Step One for that character, proceeding as before.
To finish up with explaining the steps, if any characters are waiting outside, make sure you offer them the opportunity to go in before skipping over them in the initative order.
The last thing to know for this room is how to manage the glabrezu. This is fairly easy, because the glabrezu knows how the room works, and will avoid stepping on any teleportation squares. You’ll be keeping track of who the glabrezu has seen as you go through the steps for the PC’s, so you’ll have a list of possible targets for the glabrezu when it comes up in the initiative order. Assume that creatures on the ceiling can reach creatures the ground and vice versa when deciding who’s in range to be attacked. If the glabrezu ends up on a teleportation square (perhaps because a character pushes it onto one), just roll the d20 and the save as you would for a PC; hopefully that won’t happen often if at all.
The Blood Pens
The theme here is essentially vermin and general disgust. All of these dungeon creatures have to eat, so of course they have a pig farm down here. Monsters love bacon. The real dangers in this sector are mostly from the Thayans and undead who are tending the various areas, rather than from the creatures being kept here. Although hogs will eat human flesh, so I guess that’s another flavor of horror.
Area 16, Pits and Traps: the floor here is covered with dead bugs, making it very difficult to see the pits full of dead bugs that are distributed around the room. The pits are probably the most dangerous thing here because of the risk of falling in and suffocating due to dead bugs in the nose and mouth. There are platforms that look like a good way to cross the dead bugs, but they’re trapped: every character who steps on one needs both a CON save and a DEX save to avoid taking damage and falling off. Care to calculate how likely it is that a party of four PC’s will each be able to cross by stepping on each of thirteen trapped platforms? Let’s just go with “almost impossible”, and let’s assume that after a few goes around with the platforms the players will get smart and just decide to cross through the bugs. It’ll probably only take one of them falling into a dead bug pit for them to realize that they need to come up with a plan to avoid that happening again. Just off the cuff, poking the ground in front of you with the end of a quarterstaff would be one way to do it.
Area 23, Blood Vines Trap: this is a rather nasty trap which mostly ends up with vines full of thorns grabbing the party and restraining them while various undead attack them. If the PC’s get loose, they take damage while pushing through the vines to get out of the room, and if they move quickly (which would seem like a good idea to get out of the room) then the vines will grab them again. My recommendation is to keep the trap but remove the undead enemies, which makes the experience miserable but probably not fatal; a bit of trial and error will get the party through all right if they have the time to figure it out without being beaten to death.
Area 25, Dreaming Garden: the book says that Thuria, the Red Wizard who lives here, wants to pick a fight with any intruders. Wouldn’t it make more sense to start a conversation with them and wait for the intoxicating plants to start putting them to sleep, and then attack?
The Masters’ Domain
This is a sort of hangout for various Red Wizards and their lackeys. The only thing here that I consider truly nasty and dangerous are the Temples of Despair, which cover areas 26, 27, and 28. They look about the same, with pillars and gargoyles in each one, and six sets of double doors, most of which are fakes that lead to nothing.
The subterfuge is compounded by the fact that the fake doors are locked, and take effort and skill to open and discover essentially a closet. And, when any of the doors are opened, different bad things start to attack the party… but even though the rooms are just about identical except for color, the attacking creatures are different for each room. Also the pillars in each room do different nasty things to anyone who touches them.
Oh, and just to be thorough, if the party successfully finds the correct set of doors to exit into the next room, it doesn’t look like they’ve found anything, because the real door behind the fake ones is concealed to create the impression that the PC’s have found yet another false lead. I suppose they could make Perception checks to find the secret doors; after all, the DC is only 20. But wait! Every time they unlock and open a set of double doors, things start attacking them, which makes it unlikely that they’ll take that particular moment to start searching the back of the closet they’ve apparently opened.
But wait, again! As a farewell surprise, the secret doors lead into hallways that contain not one but two deadly pit traps that send the unwary tumbling twenty feet down onto stone spikes. Because the hallway has a bend in it, there’s not even a clear space to jump over the two pits, even if the characters could do 15-foot standing jumps.
Adventurers check in, but they don’t check out. This is probably the most miserable place in this entire sprawling dungeon. This is actually probably one of the most miserable places I have seen in any published dungeon ever, including the Tomb of Horrors variety that are deliberately over-the-top bloody-minded. It definitely makes my Top Ten. Probably the Top Five, if it came to that.
My recommendations to make this even survivable are to remove the effects caused by touching the pillars, and to make the secret doors behind the fake double doors obvious instead of secret. Also, remove the pit traps from the connecting hallways. Keep the double doors locked, because the number of attackers increase every time doors are opened, and having the doors locked at least stops the PC’s from flinging them all open quickly to find a way out, which would cause them to quickly be overwhelmed. Remember, this is just to make this zone survivable. It’ll still probably be a miserable experience.
The Far Realm Cysts
This is where they keep the aberrations, and some truly nasty magical surprises. Fortunately most of the area is occupied by run-of-the-mill undead. Also, the two centerpiece creatures of the whole sector have been changed into reduced-threat versions, which I would call unfortunate, although it makes it easier to survive their attentions.
Area 36, Nerfed Aboleth: yes, this is where Classic Aberration Number One lives… the aboleth! A reduced-threat aboleth. Honestly, a party leveled for this dungeon can probably handle a normal-threat aboleth, and I for one would much prefer to give them a chance to beat a regular monster and feel a sense of accomplishment and pride.
Area 39, Nerfed Beholder: and here’s Classic Aberration Number Two… the beholder! A reduced-threat beholder. A beholder with its two most dangerous eye rays, the ones that actually kill people instead of just inflicting status effects on them, conveniently removed from contention. No death ray, no disintegration ray, no really impressive amount of danger. And as with the aboleth, a party leveled for this dungeon can probably take on a real beholder, although not easily, and I think they ought to be given the opportunity. At the very least, bring back the death ray or the disintegration ray. Fighting a classic enemy that can’t kill you is somewhere between boring and insulting.
Area 45, Soul Sucking Altar: another bit of trickery and misdirection, this is an altar with outlines of weapons and other potentially magical objects on the top of it. If the players wisely decide to cast an identify spell on it, the DM is supposed to give the technically correct but highly misleading information that the altar “imparts additional power into magic items placed on its surface.”
The “additional power” in question is to make the item glow slightly purple, and to change its appearance in slight ways that have no mechanical effect. In short, your statement about additional power was accurate, but you just didn’t say that the additional power would also be completely worthless. And that’s not dishonest at all, right? But we don’t stop there.
If the identify caster can make a piddling DC 20 Arcana check (which is not part of how the spell works according to the PHB description, by the way), then the DM can reveal the highly important fact that the altar “also draws in the life force of creatures near it,” which is a polite way of saying that it sucks the soul out of a random person nearby and into an object placed on the altar, leaving them comatose unless they hold the object in question. If the afflicted character lets go of the object for an hour, or if the object is destroyed, they die.
So, all in all, a fun way to tempt your players into harmful actions, and to basically lie to them about the dangers of those actions if they take the very prudent precaution of casting an identify spell on a mysterious magical object. Because you really want your players to not trust you. Really.
The Forests of Slaughter
This is where the really fun monstrosities are kept. Anything that looks like it was cobbled together out of bits of normal wildlife will probably end up here. There’s nothing much to comment on as far as unexpected or overwhelming challenges from monsters; what you see is essentially what you get in this sector.
There are a couple of environmental hazards, mostly relating to detrimental effects for characters who go in among the trees. Each of the zones in this sector has a different bad thing that happens to anyone who enters an area of trees, with a DC 15 WIS save to avoid the effect. It’s quite unlikely for players to send their characters off into the woods when there are plenty of paths through the terrain that don’t require going off into the woods. And, after the first character has to make a WIS save after venturing among the trees, the rest will probably not repeat the performance no matter what the result of the save is. You might consider having the hostile creatures try to push or drag PC’s into the forest to suffer the ill effects.
There are also plenty of magic pools that any seasoned adventurer should feel no temptation whatsoever to drink from, much less drink from over and over, even when bad things start to happen after drinking. Probably you won’t have any issues there, but you never know.
The Ooze Grottos
Unsurprisingly, this is where the oozes are kept. Many of the oozes are “sentient” versions, which means that they have an INT stat of 5 and can understand Common (but not speak it) and be charmed, which is honestly not much of a difference from normal oozes when it comes down to it. Perhaps they could be negotiated with, or deceived in some way, but probably they’ll just fight and die like regular oozes, because the PC’s have no way of knowing that they can think.
Area 64, White Maw: this is actually a fun idea, where the entire interior of the room is covered with a layer of one massive gray ooze. As soon as everyone is inside, the ooze covers up all of the doors, and the party is trapped in the middle of it. The ooze is intelligent enough to converse telepathically with its captives, but the hardcover seems to be set on the ooze eventually deciding to kill them all. Even if you do want to run the combat where the ooze is extruding bits of itself from the walls to attack the party, it might be fun to toy with them a little bit first, remembering that it’s only fair for them to have a realistic chance of negotiating their way out if you offer a conversation. It’s really quite a dangerous battle, but it has the virtue of being a novel idea. Remember that this ooze is intelligent enough to surrender and let the party leave if it feels that it’s too risky to keep the fight going.
Area 65, the Ooze Master: this is a dangerous fight for melee combatants, because standing near the Ooze Master’s pillar of goo starts to break down the characters’ bodies in order to suck them into the pillar. PC’s who stand well back and use ranged weapons and spells shouldn’t have too much trouble here. Looking back, I think it would have been interesting to give the Ooze Master an ability to snag enemies and reel them in, sort of like a roper does.
Areas 69, 70, and 73: Puddles of Oozes: this is not so much a warning as something my players did that I found novel and highly amusing. Their chosen tactic when confronting various Red Wizards and their minions in these areas was to sneak up behind them and push them into the various vats and puddles of oozes they were monitoring. It worked quite well, because pushing someone from behind is pretty much an automatic success in my book, and anyone who falls into a bunch of oozes is not coming back out again.
The Predator Pools
All of the things that live in water and will kill and maybe eat you are kept in this sector. When you run these combats, remember that deep water is always nearby, and that most of the enemies here can breathe underwater. Brush up on your rules for grappling, because the best tactic for aquatic beasties is to grab hold of their foes and drag them underwater to drown. Even PC’s with high hit points can only survive a few rounds underwater without an opportunity to start holding their breath… or when said breath is squeezed out of them by something large and crushing.
Area 76, Spirit Naga: nagas are always trouble because they can’t be permanently killed, and they know it. This particular naga has a swarm of thralls who will defend it in a battle, and who pose a quandary for players who are sensitive to moral dilemmas. If left to their own devices, these thralls will eventually be eaten by the naga, but that might not make it any easier to hack them up when they form a wall of bodies defending the naga.
A note on the combat rules: generally when the PC’s defeat an enemy, that enemy is just dead, with no unconsciousness, death saving throws, or the rest of the things that happen when PC’s are defeated. It’s true that according to the PHB a character can decide to knock an enemy out instead of killing it, although I frankly preferred the 3.5E version where you actually had to choose non-lethal damage, which was harder to deal with normal weapons, if you wanted to knock your foes unconscious.
However you handle the killing of enemy creatures, make an exception for nagas, because they can only come back from the dead if you kill them. Keep them alive and helpless, and they can’t pull their usual trick of just coming back in a few days with no way to stop them.
Area 80, Underwater Black Gate: just a quick note that this is where you should put the black gate for this sector if you really want to make it hard to find.
The Golem Laboratories
Again, not surprisingly, this sector is all about the different types of golems. Some of them can be quite formidable, but if the party isn’t well equipped with magical or adamantine-reinforced weapons, even the relatively less powerful golems can be a challenge to defeat. Having all of your melee damage cut in half is a very serious problem. Also, you should consider letting the party know about some of the special properties of golems, such as how to prevent them from regenerating, or that flesh golems will become stronger from taking lightning damage. I wrote a whole article about passive knowledge checks, and it’s worth a read, but the upshot here is that characters with Arcana proficiency would know about golems even if the players might not, and you should volunteer that sort of knowledge without being asked or requiring a check in many cases.
Area 91, Laughing Skulls Trap: this can get out of control very quickly with just a few bad rolls, because the skulls create a cumulative penalty to various character stats, which in turn makes it harder to roll saves that prevent additional cumulative penalties to the same stats that govern the saves. Of course, in order to start a possible vicious cycle, someone has to actually go and stand in the mouth of one of the skulls. Why would anyone do that? There are apparently corridors to other rooms through some of the skulls, but all of those other rooms can be accessed without climbing into the skulls.
Also, climbing into a skull decreases the DC of the Arcana check needed to activate the black gate in this room. How would anyone know that the Arcana check would be influenced by skull-mouth-entering? I have no idea. Besides, there’s no reason given why it would be problematic to just re-roll the Arcana check until it succeeds; a DC of 20 is high, but not so high that a character with decent INT and Arcana proficiency won’t be able to make it within a few rolls. Apparently there isn’t a penalty for trying and failing, which means that I probably wouldn’t even require a roll in the first place.
This room gets a shrug, because the skulls trap is quite original and yet also useless in context; I’m not even going to propose a not-random alternative here, because the random thing is what’s required to set off the trap, and anyone climbing into the mouths of giant skulls deserves to get tossed about a bit, especially when you could accomplish the same thing by just going around another way.
Area 92, Deva Imprisoned: this room is rather problematic for a couple of reasons. First, entering the room triggers a chain reaction that releases one increased-threat four-armed gargoyle each round until a total of six have been released. That’s a lot of enemies to pile on quickly, but it gets better when the sixth one releases the deva from the statue.
Normally devas are good-aligned, but this one is insane from captivity and starts attacking the PC’s. Of course, they could discover using an Insight check that she’s only beating them up because she’s off her head from being locked in a statue, and then they could use a Persuasion check to calm her down and get her to fight on their side. The problem here, as always, is that players are more inclined to fight back against enemies who are actively fighting the party, instead of using their precious actions to roll checks, and figure out that they should then roll more checks to maybe stop the battle.
Because “maybe” is a big thing here. The perception for most players (and DM’s, tangentially) is that there is not much overall chance of resolving armed confrontations with Persuasion and Intimidation checks and the like, and the best plan is just to fight back. I don’t really like that about D&D, but that’s how it usually goes.
Area 94, More Faking Out Your Players: there’s a lot going on here, but the thing I find the most annoying is that there are four archways which each have four glowing stones, and the stones change color when touched. Nothing really happens when the color changes, and there’s not any puzzle to solve or combination to enter. Nevertheless, the DM is supposed to pretend that there is, by numbering the stones so the players can specify exactly which stone they want to touch, randomly choosing a new color for that stone, and then “pretending to consult your notes” so that the players think it matters. That’s right, the hardcover wants you to pretend to have notes, in as many words, in order to trick your players.
Those of you who have read some of my other DM’s Guides know by now that I really despise this sort of thing. It’s dishonest, it erodes trust between the players and the DM, and most of the time (like with these color-changing glowing stones) it does nothing but waste everyone’s time. The fact of the matter in this particular room is that being able to pass through the archways has nothing to do with glowing stone colors and everything to do with touching one of the copper plates on the walls, but the DM is supposed to pretend that the glowing colors matter… until, when exactly? Until the players decide that the color changes mean nothing, and decide to try something completely unrelated? Why would they ever decide that the color changes are a shill when the DM is doing everything possible to pretend that the color changes are meaningful?
It’s dishonest, and it’s also stupid. I hate both of those things.
Area 95, Random Assortment of Fiery Elements: I have not yet figured out what the point of this room is. The efreeti is imprisoned in this area by the smoke, and it’s easier to charm with magic while it’s stuck there. No idea why anyone would want to charm it, though, because that only prevents it from harming you for one hour, at which point the spell ends, and the efreeti realizes it’s been charmed, and then it gets angry and kills you. The efreeti demands to be released, and attacks if the PC’s don’t release it, but the very next sentence says that the efreeti can’t break free from the smoke… so that means it can’t actually attack anyone? What good are magical smoke bindings that don’t prevent the prisoner from attacking? Also, there are urns here that purport to be binding vessels for an efreeti, but neither actually has an efreeti inside, and they also can’t have an efreeti put into them and trapped; instead they have magic smoke inside that grants fire resistance.
So: an efreeti who’s easy to charm, but threatens violence if not released, but can’t do anyone any harm unless released… and if he is released, then what? Apparently he goes rampaging through the dungeon killing Thayans, as long as the PC’s don’t kill him first, which they might have to if he starts attacking them as specified. What direct benefit does any of this have for the party? I still have no idea.
Area 96, Pointless Fire Trap: again, this is one of those traps that can only be avoided by doing something arbitrary, but is rather fatal. This one involves setting the entire room on fire, dealing 6d6 damage per round for five rounds to anyone inside, although there is a possible DEX save for reduced damage, and there’s nothing that says it’s not possible to just run out of the hallway to get away from the flames. The trap can be avoided by climbing through the area along the walls, without touching the floor, but why would anyone try that? Maybe because the read-aloud text says that they’re rough, so anyone can and should naturally conclude that they should be climbed upon. Right. This would be another one of those traps that’s essentially random; if you want to keep it, at least put some vents in the ceiling for the fire to come out of, or have a detectable magical effect that sets the trap off. Or just do away with it.
Also, the Iron Golem Foundries do not, in fact, contain an iron golem. Not even a reduced-threat iron golem, which would be a reasonable challenge for a party in this dungeon. I vote to put one in that room with the mysteriously pointless efreeti, instead. At least then it would be clear what to do… kill the iron golem. Much simpler.
The Temples of Extraction
At long last, here we are. It’s a little disappointing, though, because everything here is just a set piece, and none of it does anything important. And yet, it’s supposed to be the most important part of the whole Doomvault. This is where the Evil Plan is taking place, but there’s no real benefit to interfering with anything here. Granted, the hardcover gives very specific ways to interfere, complete with DC’s and damage to be rolled, but none of it affects the outcome of the adventure.
The idea of the Temples of Extraction is that Szass Tam has a collection of magical shrines, designed and built to siphon off the divine energy of the Chosen, who are mortals imbued with power by various deities of the Forgotten Realms pantheon. There’s one of these shrines in every single area of this sector, and each one has the Chosen of a different deity trapped in it.
Some of the Chosen are good individuals who are associated with a good deity. Some are evil, and are associated with an evil deity. By making three separate checks, a character can release one of the Chosen from a shrine, which presumably is a good thing to do. Of course, releasing an evil Chosen might be a bad thing to do. It doesn’t really matter, though, because the good Chosen don’t know anything about the Doomvault and can’t help, and the evil Chosen can’t do anyone any harm because they’re weak and feeble from being drained. And even if none of them are released, it makes no difference to the rest of the adventure: the events in the Phylactery Vault play out just the same each time.
Probably there should be some requirement to release some or all of the Chosen, and return them to wherever they were before being captured, but I didn’t have to come up with anything like that because I went to an alternate ending of my own when my group got to this point; they weren’t here to fight Szass Tam or foil his plots, they were here to destroy Valindra Shadowmantle’s phylactery instead (she was the lich hiding out in Chult, and my group was playing through Tomb of Annihilation right before we ran Dead In Thay). That having been said, I’m going to go over the rest of the adventure just as it’s been written, with the usual sort of commentary. And then, I’m going to finish off this monstrous article with my suggestion for a better endgame, but with the caveat that it hasn’t actually been played, and so your mileage may vary.
So, to return to the adventure as given in the hardcover, the party can go around freeing the Chosen, fighting the Red Wizards, and so forth, but it doesn’t change any of what happens afterwards. In fact, the rooms in the Temples all contain dangerous enemies as well as some very hazardous area effects. Also, releasing most of the evil Chosen results in a battle, and releasing any of the Chosen requires lots of ability checks with the possibility of taking damage if any of the checks are failed.
The short version here is that exploring these rooms and trying free the Chosen is really a very bad plan, and without any benefits from releasing any of the Chosen (two-thirds of whom are evil to begin with), it’ll become obvious fairly soon that the best thing to do here is to move on before anyone gets killed. So, eventually the party will use one of the black gates in the Temples of Extraction to gain access to the Phylactery Vault, and then…
The Phylactery Vault
First, the Phylactery Vault is basically like the inside of a hollow d4, with each of the edges measuring around 200 feet long. Each of the four surfaces of the interior has mostly the same features, and each of the surfaces has its own gravity, which means that there are no upside-down areas to fall from here; a creature standing on any of the four surfaces will remain there instead of falling off.
Fun With Trigonometry
This little fact wasn’t going to get a blue box all to itself, but after the wife and I spent a significant amount of effort figuring it out, it’s definitely not getting overlooked.
If that demilich were to float in the exact center of the Phylactery Vault, it would be about 50 feet above the center of each of the interior surfaces, so within shortbow range. The furthest away it could get from the center of any particular interior surface is about 170 feet, which is more like longbow range.
For those who might find it to be interesting trivia, the height of a d4 that has one-inch sides is about 0.86 inches. And I’m not planning to show my work. Every DM should marry a mathematician.
There’s a dark pool of some kind of liquid in the center of each face, which does nothing except deal necrotic damage and prevent healing for creatures standing in it. There’s no reason to ever stand in one, and there are plenty of other places to stand that aren’t in or near the dark pools. In short, they are pointless.
There are several three foot high white pedestals, which guard against undead intruders. Conveniently, they do not affect the undead boss enemy who shows up here. Because it’s unlikely for any of the PC’s to be undead creatures, these pedestals don’t affect anything that happens here. If one of the PC’s did happen to be undead, they would just have to not stand directly next to any of the pedestals to avoid being harmed. These are also pointless.
There are also three tetrahedral sepulchers on each interior face, so essentially three d4 shapes sticking out of each of the inside faces of a hollow d4. Confused yet? Well, there are pictures. The sepulchers actually do make a difference to the adventure, because they’re full of lich phylacteries, and three of the sepulchers have to be destroyed. Why three, when there are in fact twelve of them? I suppose three is a nice round number, at least.
First, the doors to the sepulchers have to be either unlocked or broken off. Then the doors turn into four-armed gargoyles that attack the party. After that, one of the PC’s has to make an Arcana check, or a Religion check, to disable the sepulcher. Actually, they have to make three such checks in a row, with a DC of 15 for each check, because three is still a nice round number. And there’s a surprise, too… remember all of those glyph keys that the party has been taking from people all over the Doomvault? Remember how we said at the beginning that we could consolidate them by adding new attunements to existing keys? Remember how the party, being helpful and good adventurers, gave away many of the glyph keys to needy imprisoned creatures so they could escape? Well, turns out we should have kept all of those, because each one that the check-rolling character is holding grants a +1 bonus to the check. Surprise!
After the first sepulcher has been disabled, Kazit Gul, a demilich, shows up to defend the vault, and the party has to defeat him. The interesting geometry of the Phylactery Vault might come into play, but each of the faces is so big that a lot of combat can take place on it with no need to go elsewhere. A demilich can fly and hover, so maybe it will fly around and make the PC’s chase it.
Anyway, after they defeat the demilich, its eight diamond teeth, each with a soul trapped inside (which isn’t made at all clear), have to be crushed in order for the demilich to be permanently slain (also not made clear). Don’t bother asking who those eight souls belonged to, or how the demilich will come un-slain if the diamonds aren’t destroyed, because the hardcover has no answers for you. Anyway, the party then has to disable two more sepulchers, just as with the first one, although no more demiliches pop up when the next two are disabled. Or maybe they have to disable three more sepulchers after the first one; it’s a little vague on that point.
Anyway, the Phylactery Vault starts to crumble and disintegrate, which a character can ascertain with a DC 13 Arcana check. Or they can just use their damned eyes and make a run for the nearest black gate and jump through before the whole place comes down around their ears. Suddenly we’re back at the good old gatehouse, with Syranna telling everyone good work and offering them jobs under her new administration. Exeunt omnes.
But, I promised you a better ending, and I hope it won’t disappoint…
Ending the Adventure Better
Okay, so rewind back to where the party finally disrupts their sixth sector gate, and uses the seventh one to travel to the Temples of Extraction using one of the Temples glyph keys they found along the way. They arrive in the Temples of Extraction to find the situation just as described in the book.
In fact, all of the area descriptions in the Temples of Extraction will remain exactly the same in this revised ending, which will keep things simple. That includes all area effects described for each room in the sector, as well as any enemies present in rooms with shrines.
However, in this ending, the PC’s need to release the Chosen from their captivity in order to bolster their odds of success in the Phylactery Vault, and their chances of surviving to escape the Doomvault when their mission is complete. Most of the Chosen happen to be from evil deities, which is unfortunate, because they’ll fight to the death when released. Instead of following the “helpless Chosen” guidelines on page 156, all of the Chosen function using the stat block specified for them with full HP, spell slots, and so forth. I’ll specify which stat block to use for Chosen who haven’t been assigned one in the text.
Good-aligned Chosen can be assigned to individual players as NPC’s to aid in battle against future enemies, including enemies in the Temples as well as in the Phylactery Vault. Evil-aligned Chosen are equipped with a magic item or piece of gear that can be claimed and used by one of the PC’s in future battles; assume that these items function without requiring attunement, but otherwise just as described in the DMG. Also, be sure to narrate if a magic item is obviously being carried by the individual evil Chosen when the PC’s look at the shrines. They might not be able to tell exactly what kind of wand or weapon is being held by the Chosen, but allowing them to at least see that there is a magic item there to be claimed is a good idea. You might consider giving a description of the magic item that gives a clue as to its use, so that the players can decide whether they want to release an evil Chosen or not, depending on how much they want the mystery item.
Also, make it clear to the players which Chosen are good and which are evil. If one of the PC’s has a strong Religion check, you can probably just tell them what deities the various Chosen serve, which might help them prepare for a battle with particular evil Chosen. Remember to tell the players whether the deities are good or evil, and what their portfolios are, because it’s likely that the players won’t know even if the characters do. Even if the party is low on Religion and Arcana, you can narrate the appearance of the various Chosen enough for the players to make a good guess as to whether they’re going to get attacked or not if they shut down a shrine.
Good Chosen As Cannon Fodder
I’m about to suggest several NPC’s that can be added to the party, and that always comes with a set of difficulties. The problem I’m going to cover here is that the DM needs to make sure not to ignore that they’re fighting alongside the party now. I’ve probably brought this up in other articles, but the short version here is that it’s really easy for the DM to forget to treat NPC’s the same as PC’s, because there’s nobody sitting at the table to represent the NPC. As a result of this, NPC allies don’t tend to get a lot of attention, for better or worse.
A good solution for this adventure ending is to have the PC’s enemies always attack an NPC ally instead of a PC, as long as there’s an NPC ally in the party. These enemies would include the evil Chosen, and also any Phylactery Vault denizens. This makes it easy for the DM to remember to include the friendly NPC’s in the various combats, and it also provides the party with the added benefit of an “HP buffer”. As long as they have good Chosen allies, the PC’s themselves won’t be taking damage.
One exception here is that if one of the PC’s wants to jump between a good Chosen ally and an enemy, shouting “pick on someone your own size” or suchlike, you should definitely allow the enemy to shift its focus to the PC. Don’t let your plan to use the NPC allies as cannon fodder overwhelm the heroes’ desire to… well, to be heroic.
The book requires a series of checks to disable any of the shrines, with damage penalties for failing any of those checks, but I think it’s best for the PC’s to just be able to hit the shrine with something heavy and break it, or even to just lift the Chosen out of it. There are enough hazards here in the form of enemies and area effects, so we don’t need the additional danger of taking damage while trying to disable the shrines. Just let the party shut off the shrines if they decide to, no rolls needed.
In most cases, once a shrine has been disabled, events unfold as specified in the area description in the hardcover. There are some changes needed, which I’ll specify in the next section, along with information about magic items carried by evil Chosen.
The Chosen in the Temples of Extraction
Changes to areas in this sector to accommodate the revised ending are as follows:
Area 98, Chosen of Zehir: the Chosen of Zehir carries a dagger of poison, as described in the DMG. However, the poison damage from this dagger ignores all resistances or immunities to poison.
Area 99, Chosen of Ilmater: the Chosen of Ilmater, Kieren, joins the party using the mage stat block, with double HP and full spell slots. We’re using the mage block because the priest stats are too weak for this part of the adventure, so replace the wizard spells from the mage stat block with the usual healing spells: healing words, cure wounds, restorations, and so forth. He can also cast revivify; assume that he has the material components required to cast this spell 3 times.
Area 100, Chosen of Loviatar: the Chosen of Loviatar uses the assassin stat block to fight the party. She carries and fights with a +3 rapier; be sure to add the bonus to her weapon attacks in the stat block.
Area 101, Chosen of Ghaunadaur: the Chosen of Ghaunadaur carries carries a wand of tentacles. This item can cast the Evard’s black tentacles spell 3 times before becoming useless; use the PC’s spell save DC for casting this spell, or a DC of 15 if the PC isn’t a spellcaster. The Chosen of Ghaunadaur can cast Evard’s black tentacles on a member of the party once during a battle with them, presumably using the wand, although this won’t affect the number of charges the wand has when the PC’s get it. It just makes sense that if he has the wand, he would use it against the party if they get into a fight with him.
Area 102, Chosen of Ibrandul: the Chosen of Ibrandul uses the drow priestess of Lolth stat block to fight the party, but can’t summon demons. She carries a pair of boots of striding and springing, suitably decorated with classic drow spiderweb motifs. These are modified from the DMG version to allow a character wearing them to leap between the faces of the Phylactery Vault; be sure to let the players know about this as soon as they enter the Phylactery Vault, but not before.
Area 103, Chosen of Tymora: the Chosen of Tymora, Curran, joins the party using the gladiator stat block, and carries a +2 spear; be sure to add the bonus to his attack and damage. He also has the halfling racial trait allowing a reroll of any d20 rolls of 1. If he gets killed, a member of the party can always claim and use his spear. An interesting side note here is that the special luck effects in this room are actually the way that a lot of DM’s handle natural 1’s and natural 20’s all the time; makes me wonder if someone’s trying to make a point.
Area 104, Chosen of Bhaal: the Chosen of Bhaal carries and fights with a +3 shortsword; be sure to change the wight stat block to reflect the use of this weapon in combat.
Area 105, Chosen of Yurtrus: the Chosen of Yurtrus uses the orc eye of Gruumsh stat block with double HP to fight the party, and carries a wand of contagion. This item can cast the contagion spell 2 times before becoming useless; use the PC’s spell save DC for casting this spell, or a DC of 15 if the PC isn’t a spellcaster. As with the wand of tentacles, the Chosen of Yurtrus can cast contagion on a member of the party once during a battle with them, without affecting the number of charges the wand has when the party acquires it.
Area 106, Chosen of Rillifane Rallathil: the Chosen of Rillifane, Eira, joins the party using the enchanter stat block, because the druid stat block is really too weak for this stage of the adventure. Give her double the HP in the stat block, and the same number of spell slots. You should also substitute some of her spells with the druid classics: entangle, moonbeam, call lightning, and maybe some of the conjure spells if you’re willing to bring in extra stat blocks for the creatures summoned. If you have Tasha’s Cauldron, the summon spells are also an option instead of the conjure spells. Also, I suggest that you ignore the part from the hardcover where she exhibits a split personality, because it’s generally better for your DM credibility not to sabotage players’ good deeds.
Area 107, Chosen of Auril: the Chosen of Auril carries a frost spike shortsword, which deals 1d6 piercing and 2d6 cold damage on a hit. This basically follows the rules for a flame tongue weapon, but with cold damage instead of fire, suitable for a deity of winter. Be sure to change the deathlock wight stat block to reflect the use of this weapon in combat.
That’s ten possible Chosen to release, with an effect that can be immediately observed with each Chosen released, as well as an effect that will show up in the Phylactery Vault. Each time they release one of the Chosen, the party will realize that they’ve done something significant because a resonant humming noise will get progressively lower in pitch; they probably won’t notice the humming until the first time they release a Chosen, at which point the change in the tone will make it noticeable.
Also, as soon as any of the Chosen are released, no more long rests are possible until the end of the adventure. If you’re using short rests that take an hour, as described in the PHB, you might not want to allow more than one of those, as well. If the PC’s haven’t attracted Szass Tam’s attention with their mass slaughter through the Doomvault, shutting down his shrines will definitely grab his notice. Time has become of the essence.
Entering the Phylactery Vault
We can leave the Phylactery Vault maps the same as they are in the book, because if you’re showing maps to your players, it’ll be easier to use the ones that have already been created. There’s still the matter of why there are twelve sepulchers when we’ll only need to interact with a few of them; it’s also problematic to have a dozen sepulchers each containing multiple lich phylacteries, because part of the idea behind liches is that they’re comparatively rare. That’s where we’re going to change it up: ten of the sepulchers are being used to gather the divine essence from the imprisoned chosen to create new liches to serve Szass Tam… elite liches invested with the power of the gods. Now that’s an Evil Plan.
So now we have twelve sepulchers, ten of which were being powered by the ten Chosen in the Temples of Extraction. Releasing the Chosen from their shrines stops the lich creation process in those ten sepulchers, the doors of which will have come open. Investigating these sepulchers will reveal skeletal remains of various humanoid wizards, all crumbling to dust now that their transformation has been halted before completion.
If fewer than all ten Chosen were released, then some of those ten sepulchers will remain closed, will be glowing noticeably, and most importantly will be giving off the humming noise that was heard in the Temples of Extraction, which is much louder here. At this point, the party might draw a connection between the sepulchers and the shrines, and decide to return to the Temples of Extraction to release more of the Chosen. They should absolutely be allowed to do that.
Any of those ten sepulchers that are not disabled by the release of the Chosen will remain glowing and humming, with their doors still sealed. Until the liches within are complete, or until the power from the Chosen has been shut off, these doors can’t be opened (at least not by the party at the moment; I find it rather amusing how often the wish spell is mentioned in published adventures as the only way to change something, when in fact only the highest-level wizards can even cast it, and only a few times in their lives). Basically, the only purpose of these closed sepulchers is to give the hint that all of the Chosen should be released, including the evil ones, which will be a benefit later on.
Even if all ten Chosen are released, there will be two sepulchers left over, and therefore two of the sepulchers will always have closed doors and no glow or sound about them. The doors to these can be forced open (DC 20 STR) or unlocked (DC 20 with thieves’ tools); a character who fails one of these checks is blown back from the door and takes 2d6 force damage as the doors fly open on their own. No further checks will be needed, because the endgame is set in motion as soon as one of the checks is attempted, whether it succeeds or fails.
The sepulcher the party first tries to open contains a newly-formed lich, who in life was a high elf wizardress named Aeralith Iceblossom; she has now been transformed into a lich, but is still recovering from the process and is not at the height of her powers. Use the stat block for Tarul Var from Appendix B for Aeralith. She fights the party to the death, and defeating her begins the final battle of the adventure. If the party succeeded in opening the doors to her sepulcher by rolling a successful check, give them a surprise round in their battle with Aeralith; otherwise roll initiative as the doors open and the character attempting the failed check is tossed back.
The twelfth and final sepulcher contains the demilich Kazit Gul, who has remained here in the Phylactery Vault as its guardian, and is awakened by the destruction of Aeralith; a full-on battle in his domains is enough to rouse him to defend the Vault. After the demilich is (hopefully) defeated, one of two things will happen. If all ten of the Chosen were released from their shrines, the Phylactery Vault begins to fall into ruin upon the death of its guardian, and the party can escape to the gatehouse through any of the black gates, much as in the original ending.
If some of the Chosen were left in the shrines, the Phylactery Vault will begin to fill with a dark cloud of oily smoke that rises from the black pools of liquid, and which deals 1d6 necrotic damage per round to any living creatures still in the Vault. The point of the smoke isn’t to actually harm any of the PC’s, but to get them to gather their dead and wounded and leave through one of the black gates. In this case, the black gate leads them back into the Temples of Extraction, where the remaining evil Chosen are waiting to ambush them as soon as they arrive.
If the party left a lot of evil Chosen still imprisoned on their shrines, you might want to only have some of them in the initial ambush, and then have the others arrive to join the battle after two or three rounds. Either way, at the conclusion of this battle, the oily smoke begins to fill the Temples of Extraction as well, driving the party into a black gate and thence to the gatehouse.
Either way, the PC’s eventually (if they survive) end up back at the gatehouse, leaving the Phylactery Vault empty of inchoate liches and with the demilich guardian slain. Syranna the Rogue Red Wizard will probably have something nice to say to them, and the adventure is over. Again, exeunt omnes.
When it comes right down to it, there’s still no requirement for the party to release the Chosen from their shrines, but now there’s a motivation for them to release them, or at least to pick and choose a bit. If they release only the good-aligned Chosen, they’ll gain three decent allies for the fight ahead. If they release any of the evil ones, they’ll gain some powerful items to use, and they’ll avoid the ambush ending and get the more satisfying vault destruction ending. Remember that the PC’s should be allowed to return to the Temples of Extraction if they want to deal with the rest of the Chosen after seeing that the situation in the Phylactery Vault will probably be more in their favor if none of the Chosen are left behind.
Too Much Damage?
The main problem I see with this alternate ending is that the amount of damage that the PC’s will sustain in the Temples of Extraction and the Phylactery Vault could be enough to kill them easily. As in no chance of survival, and I think we all agree that a well-designed adventure needs to have a chance of survival.
There are always a lot of moving parts when you’re trying to balance the numbers for an adventure. In this case, we need to know the character levels, whether their builds are strong or not, how experienced or skilled the players are, whether the party has good role balance, and probably some other things as well. And the fact is that I don’t know all of those factors for your players and your game. The only way to figure it out with any degree of certainty would be to play it through several times, with different variations of the above factors, and see how it goes. But I’m not going to do that.
Instead, I’m going to give you some bits of advice on how I would handle the alternate ending if I were the DM running it… because the fact of the matter is that when I run homebrew content, I adjust it on the fly if I need to. I adjust published content on the fly too, but that’s neither here nor there.
One thing to consider is providing some temporary HP for the PC’s, and any allied NPC’s, whenever they shut down a shrine. I would say about 10 points would be reasonable, just to help mitigate the damage from the harmful area effects in the various Temples areas. They’ll still take damage from the Red Wizards and evil Chosen, but the area effects won’t be eroding their health as much.
Another possibility is to provide some short rest effects, or even long rest effects, without the party having to stop for hours as with normal resting. Providing a long rest before entering the Phylactery Vault might be a good idea, maybe as a reward for freeing all of the Chosen, or maybe just because. Why a long rest? Mostly to restore spell slots. There are healing potions, and hit dice, and healing spells… but there really aren’t similar restoratives for spell slots. And going up against Aeralith and Kazit Gul back-to-back might be prohibitively difficult if the PC’s weren’t conserving their spell slots for the big showdown.
None of this is to say that you can’t or shouldn’t have a TPK if the alternate ending goes pear-shaped because of the players or the PC’s doing something foolish. You should avoid a TPK if the reason for it is that the adventure is accidentally too difficult for the party to reasonably overcome. You can’t always nail the level of difficulty exactly for your own group, and getting the numbers right for a group you’ve never even met is even harder. So, if you’re going to do the alternate ending, adjust the difficulty as necessary, on the fly. It’s what I would be doing, so that makes it OK for you to do it too.
That’ll finish this DM’s guide to Dead In Thay, which I hope will be helpful in running this adventure a little more smoothly.
Even if you don’t go with my suggested change of limiting the number of black gates to one per sector, I would strongly recommend that you find some way to get the party to explore more than two sectors of the Doomvault. The requirement to disrupt only six black gates, and then to sprinkle black gates everywhere, is the primary weakness with this adventure as written in the hardcover. It turns what can be a massive exploration and an opportunity to encounter a vast variety of enemies into a brief dungeon crawl and a demilich fight, which seems hardly worth the effort.
Also, remember that the alternate ending is something I try not to do in these guides: a homebrewed adventure element that I haven’t actually played through. Read that last blue box, and take it to heart. Even with the uncertainties, I think it’s still a better direction to go than having no reason to explore the Temples of Extraction in the first place, and leaving the Evil Plan to go mostly unexplained and not properly foiled.
So, have fun with Dead In Thay. With a few adjustments, it’s a decent adventure that falls in that “sweet spot” of character levels where the PC’s are really coming into their own as heroes, and it has the distinguishing advantage of bringing in an extraordinarily wide variety of enemies to fight without having to travel the wide world over to find them. I’ll call this another win for Tales from the Yawning Portal, and definitely worth adding to your bag of tricks as a DM.