Friday, December 01, 2017

Deconstructing the Serpent's Skull 4: Vaults of Madness Part II

PART FIVE: THE VAULT OF SILENCE Once again; the "vaults" exceed my expectations by being merely "mini-dungeons" that are actually more or less believable.  Now, the monsters that live in them may be less so, but the actual architecture of these vaults actually works for me (although there are still way too many of them; it gets tiresome.  Also; some of the serpentmen who pursued the elf girl earlier are here; trying to find their own way back home, but most likely woefully behind the PCs (this is the only vault that they've discovered.)  Reduced to merely three desperate individuals, the first thing you'll have to do is fight them.  As soon as they are inside, they will discover that once a zombie cult used the next antechamber, and it's still haunted by four spectres—and serves as the tomb for a veteran of the original founding of the city.  There's a magical trap, an old "chapel" of the zombie cult, including some accouterments of the cult of Orcus(! Boo-yah!) and "dire tiger fast zombies"—meant to be a much more dangerous undead encounter than normal, albeit .... odd.  The cult leader of the zombie cult's body is found in another room.  I'm not sure how the PCs would figure this out, but the module suggests that the cult fell apart when its leader, attempting to transform himself into a lich, merely succeeded in killing himself and not rising afterwards.  Whoops!  I do think that the urge to create that kind of backstory that the PCs are almost certain to not be able to figure out is a bit of sloppy module design, though.  The kind of people who write that kind of thing would probably be happier writing Golarian-based fan fiction or even novels than modules.  Another example of this is that notion that this vault was originally designed as a series of cisterns.  Unless the GM merely tells them this, or the players happen to be familiar enough with the architecture of cisterns to recognize this from the descriptions of them, I'm not quite sure what the point of even saying this is.

There's another trap, and the sound of it going off alerts the strange native vampire-like creature that also resides in this vault.  He rouses his "rawbones"—a kind of weird vomiting undead made from skinned corpses of recently killed explorers—who attack in a few rounds, and then he shows up himself later.  There's also a room with some really bad midnight spores that will cause hallucinations.  This is the room that the rawbones are in, if the PCs are quiet enough not to disturb them with the trap.  The final room is where the strange skin-stealer native vampire resides, assuming he wasn't roused earlier.  It's also where the crystals are that the PCs need.

PART SIX: THE VERDANT REFUGE  This vault is "cracked" open following an old earthquake and partial collapse, so it's largely overgrown.  Plus, there's a natural spring that keeps it well watered and kind of moldy and gross.  Here, the PCs will find first the remains of an old dwarven expedition, and if they're really up-to-date on esoteric Pathfinder lore, they may be able to put together that an old crackpot Pathfinder dwarf had crazy (yet correct, as it turns out) ideas about an underground city in the Mwangi Expanse, and disappeared on a solo expedition looking for it.  There are also some "thorny cave lions"—plant creatures bred by the vegepygmies mentioned in the last module.  That's kind of a silly concept; it's just an excuse to fight an exotic encounter and get some cheap XP.

As they get further inside, they find rampant fungal growth, including various carnivorous fungal monsters (basidironds (6) and deathcap jumpers (8) which are from the Pathfinder monster books.)  I personally am not a fan of plant people and plant monsters very much, and I think that their prevalence in the D&D oeuvre is ... kinda weird, honestly.  As the PCs go further into the stagnant, composty bog, they will fight what is basically a gigantic only semi-aquatic sea anemone where the skeleton of the dwarf explorer can be found, along with the crystals that they need.

PART SEVEN: THE LAIR OF ILLAGHRI  An extraplanar giant spider of sorts lives here; a dimension hopping Shelob, if you will, who is recently come back from an extended hunting trip on the Astral Plane, where she really spends most of her time.  This vault is covered with spiderwebs, and for some reason, the victims are animated as spider-web wrapped mummies or something.  The internal organs are replaced by tons of tiny spiders, so swarms of spiders come out it while fighting.  Anyway, there's one of these creatures that's a big sarcosuchus (dire crocodile) inside.  This "vault" has areas numbered, but it's really just a rough single chamber that winds a little bit so you can't see the rear from the entrance.  There are also boggards that are spider-mummied further up the tunnel, hiding among the general webbing in the wall.  Of course, once all the way in, you fight the astral Shelob (actually, it's proposed that theoretically the PCs could negotiate with her, and she'd give them hunts about the intellect devourer mentioned last post.  But most likely, they'll just fight her.)

PART EIGHT: THE VAULT OF THE BODY THIEF  The writer wants you to make sure that you do this vault last, and that you've also had to deal with the Gorilla King before exploring it.  There's a band of bandits or cannibals or some other hostile savages that have taken up residence here.  This is patently absurd, because the last module postulates that the PCs have probably been here for days, if not weeks, already, along with all of the other explorers, not to mention the rest of the hazards that they've had to deal with.  However, by the power of DMus ex machina, we're to believe that somehow they're here anyway.  This vault is a little bit bigger than the rest, and goes back a bit farther into the cliffside.

First, there are ape-men allies of the brigands (and not the rest of the ape-men) serving as scouts or advanced guards.  One of them offers clues that the intellect devourer devoured its brain and has been using it as a vessel.  Then there's some fake Japanese ogre mage monks (what?!) just past them, further inside the tunnel.   I should note that although I said this vault is more extensive, it's certainly not more complicated—it's basically a single, long winding passage with various keyed locations along the passageway; often quite literally no more than wide spots in the road.

Further up, there's a poison needle trap and more guards with a crude foyer or sorts in the mud.  Boggard thugs and another ape-man lieutenant make up the encounters here; another of the boggards has a bad eye and leaky head—unmistakable evidence of the intellect devourer's touch, which hopefully is familiar to the PCs by this point.  There's another trap (sigh) as you go around another corner, and two advanced gorillon guards and a roper which also gives off intellect devourer victim clues.  The Kaava bush-devil is the boss monster of the bandits here; an awakened flesh golem that leads them and is a real monster.  Unfortunately (for him) he's become the main focus of the intellect devourer's attention, so he's not even himself.  He's also a flesh golem made up of ape and baboon parts rather than human corpse parts, so imagine Frankenstein's monster with gorilla arms and a mandrill head, etc.  Kind of a cool visual.

Finally, beyond a secret door, you'll find the intellect devourer's lab.  Disembodied brains hang here, the crystals the PCs are looking for.  There's also an explanation for how the possessed vessels can regain their nominal control; their brains are still alive and revert to control of the body, although by remote through the crystals.  The brains don't know that they're disembodied, so after a period of control by the intellect devourer, they just think that they've blacked out and go on acting like themselves.  This is a pretty nice Lovecraftian touch, and it reminds me sharply of the mi-go brain canisters referred to in The Whisperer in Darkness.  There are six brains, although only five creatures/NPCs are revealed as hosts; the 6th is generously left up to the GM to do with as he sees fit.  (Yes, that generously was a little sarcastic.)  The intellect devourer itself (along with some flying monkey guards) is the "final boss" of the adventure.

CONCLUDING THE ADVENTURE  Presumably, they PCs, now that they have the crystal McGuffins needed to repair the teleportation device, will go to the underground city, which makes up the next adventure.  We have included here an "Ecology of the Chaura-ka" article (the halfling sized ape-people.)  The description of them, while specifically stating (and I'm paraphrasing) between that of a monkey and a chimpanzee; about three feet tall when upright, but usually hunched over to smaller size_ makes them sound pretty much exactly like carnivorous gibbon-people, actually.  Maybe with not quite so elongated arms.  They aren't strictly speaking carnivorous, but rather omnivorous, but they are infamous for eating the flesh of their human victims.

The chaura-ka are, mostly, worshippers of Angazhan, the King Kong demon-lord mentioned last time.  Rumors are that they were actually a tribe of humans who made war on the demon-lords worshipers and were cursed to rise from the dead as the first ape-men, which is kinda cool.  I like the concept of ape-men at the best of times, and this idea of making them the jungle equivalent of low-level threats like goblins and orcs is pretty nifty.  One of the better Pathfinder ideas, actually.

Then there's a section on loads of traps (ugh) a handful of which I have to grudgingly admit are kind of clever—but some of them are complicated enough to serve as a set-piece for a scene all by themselves.  I'm definitely a fan of minimizing the appearance and importance of traps, and their prevalence in "pure D&D" has always been one of the major turn-offs for me personally.

And as always, it ends in a small bestiary.  We've got the impudulu, an African thunderbird and shapechanger, the obambo, a kind of jungly revenant or ghost, the popbala, a kind of werebat, the sabosan (bat-people), and tikoloshe (aquatic undead monsters).  Most have their origin in African folklore.

So; what encounters will I need to run this module, and do I already have stats that cover me in FANTASY HACK?
  • something that mimics the midnight spores
  • dire tigers (I have sabertooths, which is specifically what they are meant to be, I think.  As needed, attack and damage and hit points can be slightly increased to replicate a more "dire" version.)
  • more white apes (addressed two modules ago)
  • Wicked Witch style flying monkeys
  • the Gorilla King
  • keches (addressed last module)
  • bat people (might modify fury stats, if I decide I actually want these)
  • giant slug (I got nothing.  It would never occur to me to have the PCs fight a giant slug.  Maybe just give them some rock salt?)
  • stone golem (I've pointed out that I probably need this for a long time now)
  • megapiranhas (addressed last module)
  • piranha-men (use Deep ones)
  • giant Venus fly-trap (really more of a trap than a monster anyway)
  • ooze mephits
  • mud genie
  • mud elemental (I doubt I'll do anything with these three; the concepts are just not my speed.  However, modifying a water or earth elemental would work in a pinch.)
  • serpentmen (addressed earlier)
  • dire tiger fast zombies (use sabertooth stats, but give it undead immunities)
  • rawbones (wights with maybe a unique special ability or two)
  • another alternate vampire type
  • I'm going to skip all of the plant monsters altogether.  I'd need two kinds of fungus monsters, "thorny lions" and the sea anemone polyp.
  • the extradimensional Shelob
  • mummies that are full of spiders (reminds me of a creepy idea from the Monsternomicon actually.  I'd probably just stat these as wights that explode into a swarm of spiders on being killed.)
  • boggards (addressed earlier in the series)
  • man-apes (addressed earlier in the series)
  • a flesh golem, although granted, he's described really differently, which is fun
  • ogre-mages (I don't like these.  They're not really ogres; they're oni of some kind.  Sorry; my fantasy is more specifically based on Western civilization.  I don't need them.  And yes, I can still have Western civilization exploring the jungle without having to feel like I'm recreating Nyambe or Imaro.)
  • the intellect devourer, or mi-go, or some other form of brain parasite monster

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