Saturday, December 3, 2011

I Advance Masked

I couldn't resist the Andy Summers reference for this piece. I'm sure it will all make sense once you have recovered from Police-related nostalgia and read the latest dispatch from my dungeon.

I wanted to bring back that hint of Lovecraft that appeared fairly regularly in 1st Edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons and fit so well with the elements of the game's pulp fantasy appeal. Beyond the slimy and tentacled horrors such as mindflayers, beholders, and aboleths, players got to glimpse at the Elder Ones in any number of ruined (or active and secret) temples and cults. A step further, we find gods like Tharizdun (god of entropy and madness) and god-like elemental powers playing well with the sphere of alien intelligences bent on spreading destruction in the world. Pictured right is the cover to The Temple of Elemental Evil, the classic mixing of eldritch, elemental, and fiendish creepiness.

It's certainly easy enough to place those elements in a regular dungeon-delving setting. On the group's first outing they took a medallion shaped like a mindflayer head from leader of hobgoblin mercenaries, so from the start they know that they face a faction of horrific overlords and probably a mixed of sneaky and/or crazed cultists. In time, they learn of an as yet-explored abandoned(?) temple in the wilderness. Even better, they begin to piece together a cult-driven conspiracy within the safety of the adventuring base, a human/dwarven mountain enclave.

When it came time to expose the secret horrors playing in the lowest levels of the town's ancient catacombs (built by dwarves and elemental beings), I had to make it memorable without being too overpowering for a low-level group. I re-purposed some game mechanics for traps and monster powers and did some cosmetic things that gave the adventure more personality.

I reasoned that the corrupting influence of evil and alien powers could certainly transform the faithful into sentient undead, so I used ghouls as the local cult leaders. I thought about beefing the head honcho up as a cleric, but I settled on letting him be a ghast (a ghoul with the advanced template in the Pathfinder RPG) and substituted a cleric's channel energy power for the normal stench ability. Instead of using two claw attacks for these monsters, I had them used curvy, sacrificial swords (short swords) instead - the damage was the same, but the image made for a better fit. Once these creeps put on silver fish-faced masks and some robes, they weren't just any old ghouls - they were devotees of the Old Ones.

Their minions were simple skeletons as far as game mechanics go. However, I determined that the skeletons were sentient - not because they needed to do anything complicated, but because the players needed to get an understanding of the madness and hate that drove them. Furthermore, the skeletons were the remnants of skum (an aberrant race of fishlike humanoids created by eldritch horrors long ago). These guys were dancing around a large black marble altar when the adventurers arrived. Yeah - I did fudge here - I really didn't want to beef up the skeletons to match Skum stats, but they were no less a challenge for all that. Like the ghouls, they gave the encounter the feel and power level it needed - both were memorable to the players.

Lastly, the ghouls were served by zombie slaves - human and dwarven victims of the cult. They were definitely playing the animated servant role as defined by the game, but I did have them provide a disturbing chorus as part of a summoning ritual the party intruded upon.

In the next post, I'll talk a little bit more about the elemental elements of the game.

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