Last week we left the party as they fled The Wheelhouse via Sureshank’s secret tunnel, leaving Tarnswood behind with Bronson in tow. This week we’ll venture into the uppermost reaches of the Underdark, where things start to get a little weird…
At this point the party are on the verge of 4th level, and after letting them do what they wanted for the most part, it’s time to start laying the seeds that will form the bulk of the campaign for the forseeable future (assuming the group take my hints and follow the clues I leave them – if they don’t, we’ll wing it).
With that in mind, it’s time for that old warning again – that is, if you’re in my gaming group, don’t read any of the footnotes in this post. I’ll be talking about things that are yet to happen, the larger movements that the group don’t know about yet. Don’t spoil yourself, because spoilers suck.
The passage was narrow, and the group spent the best part of 12 hours marching in single file through a passage that narrowed to only a couple of feet wide in places. it led inexporably northwards and down, plunging deep into the earth and never breaking off into multiple passages. When the time came for the party to rest, they instead decided to press on; so far they had encountered nothing, but with no real place to camp and being forced to fight single file, they worried that an ambush in the night could be the end of them. So, sucking up the point of exhaustion, they pushed forward.
Some time the next day the path began to widen, and the group breathed a sigh of relief. Shortly afterwards they came across a broken wagon, and after inspecting the area they realised that they had been walking along the tracks of other wagons for some time. Sureshank had told them that she received supplied from a settlement a few days up ahead, and the tracks and the abandoned cart seemed to lend credibility to that claim.
Here the chambers were bigger, and other passages broke off to dip further into the silent darkness underground. The party were wary, scouting down side passages and sending Nanook up ahead to warn of danger, but the promise of exploration and danger didn’t tempt them. The wagon tracks – clearer now the passage had widened – led stadily onwards, and they chose to follow them. If they had been made by people, then logically they must lead to where people could be found – and people would know the way back to the surface.
Another day or so of travel – this time with sleep – saw them pass more abandoned, broken wagons, along with small campsites that showed signs of use within the last week or so. Aside from that, though, they saw no signs of life, and boredom started to set in.1
Just as they were beginning to reach their wits end – and starting to worry about supplies – the tunnel widened into a much larger cavern that stretched further than even the full light of their driftglob Orby could reach. Other tunnels emptied into it; the floor was criss-crossed with footprints and wagon tracks, and the space was filled with the debris of discarded tools, scraps of rotten food that had been dropped, and other evidence of regular usage.
It was another hour of walking across this enormous cavern before they saw anything new. As their light played out through the darkness, it came to a deep rift in the earth well over a hundred feet wide. A long, sturdy-looking bridge stretched out across it, with deep grooves in the stone marking the place where countless wagons had been rolled over its surface. The far end was out of sight, but it was clear they had reached their destination.
They set out across the bridge. The cavern below was vast, with no bottom in sight – only rock, and darkness. As they crossed their lights began to illuminate tall worked-stone walls on the far side, with a small stone hut sitting beside a gate in the wall. Dark forms could be seen crouching atop the wall, and the glimmer of steel spoke of crossbows pointed their way.
As they reached the edge of the bridge, a group of heavily armed dark-skinned dwarves stepped out of the hut and lined up in front of the group, while one stepped forward with his hand outstretched and said something in language none of the party spoke, though it was clear he intended for them to stop.
I had expected – given their past conduct – for the party to fight their way into the settlement, and so I built what would have been a fun combat. I was really excited to show off duergar and their enlargement ability, and I wanted to see how the party would deal with ranged enemies in a heavily defensible position.
That never happened. Instead, Pstan stepped forward, telling the group to stay back, and began to speak to the duergar in dwarven. Now, by the Monster Manual, duergar don’t speak dwarven – but a) this group were living by the surface and trading with surface creatures, and b) this was one of the first times the group had tried diplomacy rather than bludgeonary, an approach I’ve been hoping to encourage, so I decided to let it happen. Suddenly, the duergar spoke dwarven.
So Pstan started trying to barter with the dwarves, but nothing he offered seemed to hold any value. They didn’t want gold, or magic items, or food. And they would’t say what they wanted – just for the group to produce something of value, or go away.
There’s a reason for this. We’ll get to it in a minute.
As with the last time something like this happened, it was again Ha’an who stepped up. He began to sing, and I had him roll a Perfomance check – which was, of course, a natural 20. Now, 20 isn’t an automatic success on skill checks, but I was impressed with his thinking outside of the box, and I like the idea of songs being used as trade, so again I allowed it. The duergar allowed the group to pass, and they skipped around the combat entirely.2
The rest of this session sort of turned into a shopping trip. The group made their way into what was essentially an underground village in an enormous subterranean cavern with multiple tunnels leading off it. It was clear that lots of mining was going on in the nearby area, and there was a lot of bustle as duergar went about their business, trailing entourages of svirfneblin who seemed to be acting as either servants or slaves.
There was some trouble with language – few of the people here spoke common or dwarven, and none of the party speak undercommon – but they managed to find one merchant who spoke a little bit of broken common. He directed them to a place where they could resupply – they specifically asked for somewhere that would sell unusual or magical items, and luckily I had something for that – and also inquired about obtaining a guide to take them back to the surface.
First, the guide. They were introduced to a small svirfneblin who they were told would be able to lead them to the surface. He spoke none of their languages, and they couldn’t pronounce his name, so they named him Gnomeo. Gnomeo will turn out to be something of a trouble-maker, but we’ll get to that next week.
First, they had to see a man about some weapons. They visited a few merchants, but to their surprise they found that their gold was worthless. All of the trade seemed to be being done in copper, and when they looked closer at the goods being carted around the town they saw that it was almost exclusively copper that was being mined and sold. Pstan immediately acquired a pick and decided to go off and find an unclaimed seam of copper ore, and the party began pooling their resources to buy healing potions and some minor magical weapons. 3
After scrambling to convert their gold to copper to buy cool stuff, they headed across town to the shop they had been told about – and Manbearpig saw a familiar sight.
In the old game, Manbearpig had had several dealings with a merchant from Standing Rock called Barnum Rekel. There had always been hints that Rekel was more than he appeared to be, and those suspicions were confirmed now. Rekel’s shop looked exactly the same from the outside as it did in Standing Rock, except for the fact that it had somehow been uprooted and transported to the upper levels of the Underdark.
Inside, they found the shop exactly as Manbearpig remembered it – and Barnum Rekel greeted him like an old friend. They immediately began to browse the weapons and goods that Rekel had for sale – only to discover that Rekel wasn’t interested in the copper they had just spent hours mining and converting. Rekel – just as Manbearpig remembered – was interested in only one thing, and that thing was gold. He also reminded Manbearpig of a deal they had struck a long time ago – that Manbearpig would bring interesting trinkets and specimens he found on his adventures to Barnum, in exchange for money and information.
Manbearpig had nothing of the sort, but Rekel did have something of interest to Manbearpig – a sunblade. Manbearpig immediately went back out into the town with the group’s supply of copper, and began converting it into gold. He found that the exchange rate was rather favourable, and soon he had enough money to buy the sunblade.
Then, with Gnomeo following, the group set out into the Underdark – and we left the session for the night,
1 I should note that actual boredom didn’t start to set in. This whole journey took a couple of minutes in real time. I did have a random encounter table, but the roll came up empty, and that was fine. I didn’t plan any combat here for a couple of reasons; the first was that I wanted to give them a chance to try and talk to Bronson, should they want to (they didn’t); secondly, this is a well-travelled route and, as such, is kept fairly clear and safe; and thirdly, I wanted to introduce them to the concept of the Underdark without encouraging them to stay below ground for any extended period of time. At some point we’ll venture into the darkness and they’ll encounter horrific things, but I’m waiting until they’re more mid-level. I wanted to give the impression that while there is a lot to explore down here, mostly it’s long periods of walking in which nothing happens. They’re free to explore if they want, but at this high level of the Underdark they pretty much have to go looking for trouble to find it. That will of course change as – or if – they go deeper.
2 Although the duergar are pretty evil in game terms, it makes no sense for me to have them simply attack on sight. These dwarves are traders first and foremost, so while they’re protective of their settlement, they have no reason not to allow strangers in who appear peaceful and have something to trade.
3 I know this sounds stupid. Why would I decide that copper is the currency down here, and why would I give them free reign to buy magical weapons? It’s actually fairly simply. In a later session they’ll come across evidence that the copper is being put to strange uses, and while they might not question it or understand it yet (and as I write this – we’re a few session ahead of these journals – they still haven’t questioned it), it all ties in to the bigger plot that is brewing, waiting for them to find it once they trek across the desert in search of the X on their treasure map. As for the magic? I honestly can’t remember if I’ve written about this previously – and if I haven’t, I intend to – but I’m not hugely concerned about game balance at this stage. If they end up with anything that’s too powerful, it’s very easy for me to adjust for that. Plus, they’d specifically asked for magic weapons; as a DM, it’s my job to provide the game my players want to play. If they want magic, they can have magic – I’ll simply adjust the encounters I build to account for that. But once they get to the desert, resources and weapons and all that sort of thing are going to be hard to come by. They might feel powerful for a few sessions while they swing their new toys around, and that’s great – because once things get more dangerous, it’s going to feel even more deadly in comparrison.