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The party set off from Vomturum, intent on seeking out the tower of Wendrake Shadowmend, a mage who had taken up residence not far from the mines and who had begun abducting dwarves. In order for the group to be allowed access to Vomturum – and a route to the surface – they would have to storm his tower and either slay him or stop his activities through some other means.
First, though, they would have to get to the tower.
As the party made their way through the twisting tunnels of the upper underdark, they began to encounter signs of inhabitation – but not the kind that looked welcoming. They came across lines of cracked bones and skulls on the ground, laid out carefully and following lines that were invisible to the party. They found strange pictographs inscribed onto the walls, some in blood, some in slime, still others in awful-smelling dung that was unnervingly fresh.
Remembering that they had been warned about warring tribes of troglodytes dwelling nearby, the party were on the lookout – none of them had encountered troglodytes before, but the things they had found seemed disgusting enough to fit with a word like troglodyte.
It wasn’t long before their vigilance was rewarded. As they made their way along a tunnel they began to see that the air was lightening up ahead, a dull red glow emanating from a small tunnel that broke off from the passageway they were following. They began to move towards it, but then something made them stop in their tracks – a low, fetid, crawling stench that increased the closer they got to the tunnel mouth. Soon they began to hear noises, the pad of heavy feet on the ground, the crunch of bones being bitten and sucked on. The party set about laying an ambush, and their first vision of troglodytes was of a small group of the disgusting creatures walking right into their trap.
With a surprise round and a chance to stack the battlefield in their favour for once, the party made short work of the trogs – especially with Manbearpig’s sunblade dazzling the troglodytes and making it all but impossible for them to land a blow on any member of the party. The stench did get the better of Thorak and Wartsanall briefly, but it wasn’t enough to turn the tide in the troglodyte’s favour and they soon died a bloody, shit-smeared death.
After a moment to regroup, the party pressed on through the tunnel – which ended abruptly in a sheer drop with a narrow natural stairway leading down to a ledge below.
Beyond the drop was a vast cavern that stretched on for what looked like half a mile. The walls to either side were peppered with roughly constructed watch towers and narrow, precarious-looking ladders that seemed to be constructed of bones. The marks and symbols the party had seen smeared on the walls of the tunnels marked the towers on the left side of the cavern, while those on the opposite side – maybe 1000 feet across – carried different marks. On both sides of the cavern, armed troglodytes stood guard, staring out over the gap towards one another.1
As for what was in that gap… well. Did I mention that the floor is lava?
The floor is lava.
A hundred or so feet below the point on which the party stood – about 80 feet below the platforms and bridges – the cavern floor was coated in a slow-moving flow of lava. More lava flowed into the chamber from holes in the ceiling and walls. In the middle of the cavern, tall, thin spikes of rock formed something like stepping stones between the two sides of the chasm. On either side, bridges stretched out from the opposing complexes to some of these spires, but any bridges that once connected the two sides properly had long since been dismantled.
The stairs down from the tunnel mouth led to a narrow landing that wound along the west wall of the cavern and towards the front area of the troglodyte complex on that side. The group decided to sneak along and try to evade the sight of the guards on either side, seeing how far they could get across the cavern before the troglodytes noticed them.
At this point I had them all roll Stealth checks – obviously – and something I’ve never before witnessed happened. Four of the group rolled natural 20s (including Manbearpig and Thorak, who rolled at disadvantage due to their armour and both rolled two natural 20s), with the exception of Ha’an – who rolled a natural 19.
Just to clarify, that’s seven rolls of the dice, five of which resulted in natural 20s. I have no idea what the odds of that happening are.
As for the guards? I rolled a brace of 2s and 3s, and a few natural 1s. I’ve never rolled worse.
I’ve mentioned before that natural 20s shouldn’t be automatic successes on skill checks, and 1s shouldn’t be auto-fails – that only applies to attack rolls and saving throws – but in this case it seemed cruel not to allow it. None of us will ever see rolls like that again, so why not enjoy it?
As they made their way along the narrow shelf of rock, they could see that the guard immediately above them seemed to have fallen asleep at his post. Those on the far side of the cavern appeared to have gathered together and begun to gesticulate at each other – it looked like an argument was taking place, though from this distance it was hard to be sure – and the others on this side were obscured by the sheer rock wall that the party were hugging the bottom of.
These distractions allowed the party to make their way past the main gates of this first complex – unfortunately, maybe 20 feet later, the shelf ended. A bone walkway/ladder stretched out to one of the tall rock spires jutting out of the lava about twenty feet from the shelf, but from that point on the party would have to find another way across.
There were two options here – break into one of the compounds and hope to find some kind of rear exit, or try to make their way between the rock platforms to another shelf on the far side of the cavern that seemed to wind further along towards the exit they sought.
The group chose the second option. Rolling stealth again – and all rolling highly again (though not as dramatically) while I once again came up short – they crossed the ladder and transferred it to the other side of the platform, where it just about reached another spike further along the cavern.
They made their way like this as far as they could, eventually reaching a point where the ladder would no longer cross the gap between spines. This obstacle didn’t phase them, though; with a rope tied around Wartsanall’s waist being held by Thorak and Ha’an, Manbearpig picked up the halfling and simply threw him to the next platform.
This called for a beastly Athletics check that I had very little intention of allowing to succeed, but Manbearpig once again came up with a natural 20. Wartsanall aced his Acrobatics check to land safely, too, and now they had a rope line stretching between two of the platforms.
At this point the guards finally noticed what was going on. By rights it probably should have been a lot sooner – the cavern was lit, the guards were actively looking for anybody trying to cross the cavern, but everybody was having a ton of fun, the dice were falling in their favour, and I decided I didn’t want them to feel like they were being punished for doing well.
When the guards did notice they began lobbing stones at the party, but with only slings to use for ranged attacks they couldn’t get close enough. And seeing the direction that the party were heading in, they decided not to give chase.
There was one touchy moment getting to the final platform, when Wartsanall missed an Acrobatics check to land (yes, he got thrown down the cavern from post to post like a football. What of it?) and swung back into the side of the pillar he had started from, but other than that the passage across the lava cavern was surprisingly without incident.
Eventually they made it to the shelf on the opposite site of the cavern and began to follow it. It clung to the wall, making its way slowly down towards the lava and towards the tunnel in the back of the cavern wall – where the flash and rumble that had scared the troglodytes had come from.
Soon it widened out, becoming a large cliff that descended slowly, and as it curved around the party put the cavern behind them. And now they saw Wendrake’s tower for the first time – a tall, black, twisted tower sitting on an island of stone in the middle of the river of lava, 100 feet or more from the end of the shelf that the party were walking on.
This gave them pause. Manbearpig had managed to throw Wartsanall 20 feet or so between rock platforms, but this was too big an ask. Wartsanall pointed out that he had a boat stitched into his robe of useful items, but they decided that it probably wouldn’t do them much good to try and cross lava with it.
Eventually the party began to investigate the lip of the shelf they were standing on, where they found a much less natural-looking staircase carved into the rock. At the bottom was a small platform, with a rune traced into the rock.2 As soon as they touched it, a shudder ran through the shelf and a long stone bridge rose out of the lava, linking the upper platform with the island holding the tower. As they began to talk about what they would do on the other side, it began to sink – and so they sprinted up and across it, having to dive at the end to avoid falling into the lava as the bridge once again disappeared.
Safely on the other side, the party took a look at the tower – then walked up and simply knocked on the door.
And that’s where we ended the session.
1 You may be thinking that these troglodytes don’t sound much like the things in the Monster Manual, and you’d be mostly right. I used this post from /r/DnDBehindTheScreen as inspiration, and drew up a story involving two more-intelligent-than-average troglodytes who saw the possibility of rising up and taking control of their tribe by abusing the powerful of religion and worship. They were successful, but ultimately had a disagreement that led to the tribe splitting into two factions that now wage almost constant war over the territory that used to belong to all of them. I intended for it to be a side-quest on their way to the mage’s tower – I’m not a fan of “go there, do this, come back, progress” – and I wondered if they would somehow use the troglodytes against the wizard in some way. It was going to be an interesting adventure, and I spent days planning it out – but the party managed to skip past it entirely. They still don’t know what they missed.
2 I’ll admit something here – I messed up. I completely neglected to build a way for the party to actually safely cross this stretch of lava. Once I realised that, I fell back on one of the oldest DM tricks in the book – I let the party find a solution for me. They began searching for a button or a lever to unlock something or reveal an entrance, and so I let them find the stairs – which, obviously, led to a means to find the entrance.