As I’ve discussed a bit on Twitter, I’m working on a multi-level dungeon crawl for 5e D&D. I was inspired by the Basic Set for original D&D, which included a sample dungeon and tips for expanding it. I first found this when I was a kid—it was my dad’s—and fell in love with D&D. So when I pulled it out recently, a lot of nostalgia for a nice old dungeon crawl came back.
At some point I will write on why sword and sorcery, episodic campaigns are so great, and that’s what I was going for with this dungeon. Given the great response to the Tales from the Yawning Portal—a published book collecting classic dungeon crawls—I doubt I’m alone in this.
So after reading through the D&D basic set dungeon, I decided to make my own that would bring characters from levels 1 to 5. I recently ran a group of players through the first level, and am close to finishing preparation for level 2. In these posts, I will follow the format of my other walkthroughs (see here for the most recent), discussing what happened and providing some of my thoughts on the experience. I am going to wait to discuss how I put the entire dungeon together until after the players complete it, in case any of them read this blog.
We ran level 1 at the great Killer Rabbit Comics and Games in South Burlington, VT. At the table were Nailo (an elf ranger), Callie (a Halfling rogue), Crohm (a human fighter), and Black Lotus (a drow monk). Callie’s player dropped out after the first session, so she was replaced by Uatu (Halfling warlock).
The adventure opens with the group sitting in a tavern in the village of Slyhow, down on their luck. They met each other, decided to go adventuring, and set out for the wild borderlands. Travelling from town to town, they found it difficult to get started in their careers. After being kicked out of the city of Fayrfeld for not paying bar tabs, they ended up in Slyhow, where they had just spent their last coin on a round of drinks [I am considering setting future adventures in and around these two towns, and building it into a broader campaign]
Suddenly, a nervous man—Jonn—walked up to their table. He told them he works for Randulf, the local sorcerer—my readers may recognize him—who requested the group’s help. Jonn led them to the edge of town, where Randulf’s tower perched gloomily on a cliff. They ascended winding staircases till they reached the top level, where Randulf waited for them.
He was an older man, wearing a sickly gray cloak. A bat fluttered around the ceiling. Randulf introduced himself, and asked the group’s help. Apparently the river that flows by the town had dried up a few weeks ago, and the town was starting to suffer. It flows from the highlands to the west of town, and cuts into and out of a hill a half days’ journey from Slyhow. Something caused it to stop flowing, and he wants the group to investigate.
When they pressed him for more information, he admitted it may be more dangerous than it sounds. The hill was the site of an unknown wizard’s tower, who disappeared a century ago, before the town’s founding. The river flows through caverns in the mountain, some of which are not natural. Over time, monsters moved into these caverns, and there have been periodic raids on villagers and merchants who traveled too close to the hill. The group sensed there was something more he wasn’t telling them, but they couldn’t get any more information [they rolled well on insight, but Randulf is crafty]
After signing a contract in which each member would be paid 100gp for restoring the river, the group went back to the inn. Word must have spread while they slept, because the innkeeper gave them a free, hearty breakfast and townsfolk had gathered outside the inn. The whole village cheered them as these excited adventurers headed out into the wilderness.
After a few hours they reached the hill. The dry riverbank they had been following curved to the north, and a switchback path up the hill veered off from the road. The group followed this path to the top of the hill, where they found stairs leading into the ground on its southern end. They investigated a bit, and found a dammed up area where the river used to flow from on the north end. They also found goblin tracks, although they couldn’t identify how many or how recent they were [the ranger used his survival skills well]
The group descended, warily. The room they entered looked like an old pantry, with dust covered barrels and shelves arrayed around the floor. Besides the dust, they saw a strange yellow soot covering all surfaces. Suddenly, Nailo shouted; he had noticed a dire wolf slinking in an alcove of the room. It attacked.
Callie moved to hide in the shadows as the dire wolf burst past her. Black Lotus, in turn, leapt down the stairs and tried to kick the wolf but missed. Nailo fired an arrow, hitting the wolf in the side. This enraged the dire wolf, and it lunged and bit him, wounding him severely.
Crohm had now made into the room. He swung his greatsword with all his might…but lost his grip and threw it across the room [he rolled a natural 1, I like to be creative with these]
As the dire wolf moved to bite Nailo again, Black Lotus managed to knock it prone, and the group surrounded it, killing it. They found some gold and gems among the corpses of the dire wolf’s victims, and moved on [it was risky to start a level 1 adventure with a tough monster, but I wanted to make it believable that no one would venture into this dungeon]
The group headed west down a corridor that eventually turned to the north. They came on a door in the east, which was stuck. Crohm smashed it easily—the wood was rotten—and they went through.
This room looked like the old cistern for the caverns. There was a stone pit full of refuse and muck, and a drainpipe into the ceiling that had been blocked with dirt. As the group was investigating giant rats burst from the pit and attacked.
Two attacked Nailo. He managed to kill one with an arrow before they reached him, but the other bit him, wounding him even more. Crohm roared and swung, but missed the rats and struck the stone pit; the sword bounced back and cut his forehead [another critical failure]. The rest of the group rallied, and easily killed the remaining rats. They found some more treasure the rats had hidden in their nest.
The group found a passageway to the north, which they followed into a filthy room filled with refuse and humanoid waste. Crohm investigated the waste, and identified it as goblin [I didn’t want to think about how he identified it…]
Realizing they were near more enemies, the group advanced stealthily. They went through another passage to the north, sneaking into a room containing two goblins. One was watching at an open door to the east, the other was at an alcove to the west. Black Lotus and Callie were able to sneak up and kill both goblins before they could react.
More goblins came from the north, and the group exchanged fire with them as they dove for cover. Nailo managed to kill one, and the other surrendered. Suddenly, the group noticed Callie had disappeared in the fight [the player had to leave early, and I wanted to give her a chance to rejoin later]
A little concerned about this, the group pressed the goblin for information. Crohm managed to calm the squealing creature, and got much useful information out of him [rolled a natural 20 on persuasion]. The goblin said they served Bort, a hobgoblin, who was in a room at the northern end of the dungeon. This is also where the river used to flow through. The goblin said the main approach to the room was trapped, while other approaches were locked, but there was a lever to open the locks in the northwest part of the dungeon. The group tied him up, and moved on.
To the north they found the goblin’s camp, including a good amount of treasure. This included some much needed healing potions [no one in the group could heal]
Following the goblin’s lead, they continued north down a long corridor. They came to a door in the west wall, and went inside. This appeared to be an ancient chapel, with pews and an altar. What caught the group’s attention, though, were friezes on the walls depicting horrible, tentacle beasts devouring humanoid creatures. The group moved on.
They followed the corridor all the way to the north until it ended in a door. Opening it, the group walked into an otherworldly scene. This looked like another chapel, with a pulpit in the center that seemed to have a space for some sort of sphere. The ceiling had a design of a pulpy, tentacle creature reaching out and grasping human cities, which were arranged around the corners.
In the northeast corridor of the room, a pool of water seeped under the wall and spilled into a deep rift in the floor. Whenever a stream of water fell into the rift, a burst of sickly yellow steam shot out. Beyond the rift, the group saw an alcove, with a bit of a lever visible; the rest was submerged under water.
The group edged carefully up to the rift, looked inside, and two chokers leapt from the rift.
One gripped Crohm’s neck with its tentacles, nearly knocking him unconscious. The other grabbed Nailo, strangling him [he was low on hit points]
Crohm broke free of the choker and stabbed it. Meanwhile, Black Lotus leapt through the air to deliver a knockout blow…but misjudged the height of the monster and sailed overhead [he rolled a critical failure]
Crohm, meanwhile, killed the choker he was fighting and rushed over to Nailo. Nailo was passed out, and close to death, with the choker’s arms still around his neck. Crohm roared a challenge, swung mightily to chop the choker’s arms off and free his friend…and missed, slashing Nailo’s shoulder and nearly killing him [another critical failure]
Black Lotus recovered from his missed attack, however, and killed the choker. He revived Nailo, and the group gathered their breath.
Black Lotus decided to check out the lever in the alcove. He swam underwater, struggled to lift the lever, and heard the sound of gears activating as he did.
Crohm, meanwhile, noticed a treasure chest on a shelf in the rift. He climbed into it, but didn’t watch the timing of the steam. A burst hit him in the face, and he was overcome with maniacal laughter. [The steam gives you a level of madness unless you pass a Constitution saving throw]
The group laid out their bedrolls far away from the rift, and Nailo and Black Lotus tried desperately to sleep in between Crohm’s bursts of laughter.
Tune in next week for the conclusion of The Elder God’s Cavern, level 1.