Saturday, March 12, 2022

Death and Skullport (an Undermountain play report)

I'm still playing catch-up on older game reports for our Undermountain campaign.  The objective of the players has been to find a way through the dungeon to the underground pirate city of Skullport, which is home to the headquarters of the secretive Xanathar's Guild, the major thieves' guild in Waterdeep.  The Black Staff, a wizardly protector of Waterdeep, has commissioned the players to eliminate a threat facing Waterdeep - the minds of ordinary citizens are being replaced by intellect controllers under the control of a mind flayer working with the guild.  After months of play, the players are getting close to their objective!  Last game, they agreed to act as ambassadors to the hobgoblin nation of Azrok and take a diplomatic missive to Xanathar's agents.

As an aside on Undermountain (I'm using the 5E Dungeon of the Mad Mage) it really does a fine job of creating a living underworld, with connections between inhabitants, between levels, and story elements that can drive the campaign forward.  I recommend the dungeon master develop story reasons for the players to be interested in Undermountain that fit their own campaign and the play styles of the players.  For my group, the aspiration to be members of the Harpers and the group 'Force Grey' gave them sufficient reason to take on complex quests from figures like the Blackstaff. The books Dragon Heist and Dungeon of the Mad Mage provide you a lot of "lego pieces" to customize a cool exploration based campaign.  It's classic 1970's dungeon crawling, but with 5E systems.

Skullport from Dungeon of the Mad Mage

Skullport is a harbor town located in a large cavern on the shore of an underground lake.  Apparently there used to be locks and waterways to reach the city from a hidden sea cave on the surface, but that way no longer allows large sailing vessels to reach the port, and the population of the town is dwindling.  The mouth of the harbor is guarded by an oppressive fortress squatting atop the aptly named "Skull Island".

There are several cave passages between Undermountain (level 3) and the town of Skullport; the slow moving Sargauth River that flows through level 3 also leads to Skullport harbor.  My players used a passage guarded by the hobgoblin kingdom, the "Ghost Way", where they indeed needed to skirt a haunted cavern to reach Skullport.  We spent 1-2 game sessions with the players carousing around Skullport, visiting pubs such as the Black Tankard and the Dragon and the Flagon, while seeking the location of one of Xanathar's agents to give the wax sealed scroll with a message from the hobgoblin king.  Word reached the commander of Skull Island, an 8' tall half-ogre champion called Sundeth, who flew out of the dark cavern on a wyvern mount to receive the character's message.  Sundeth dispatched a courier to take it to Xanathar; the players foresaw something like this happening and made their rogue, Teukros, invisible in advance.  Teukros was able to tail the courier to an entrance to the thieves' guild, in the basement of an inn called the Gut and Gartner.  A long arc of the campaign was coming to a close and the players were now ready to return to the surface, share their intelligence with the Blackstaff, and identify what comes next.

There's a saying "you can lead a horse to water, but you can't make them drink…"  It applies equally to RPG players.  There have been several times during the course of the campaign where the character's faction connections, be it Force Grey, the Harpers, or even the Zhentarim, have made it clear there are friendly agents in Skullport who could aid the characters in getting back to the surface if they're able to make contact.  My group of players considered this tact and declared, "seeking out friendly agents sounds too much like work, let's figure out if we can sneak or fight our way back through the drow city".   (The last time they tussled with the drow a character died and the rest of the player characters fled for their lives).

Backtracking through the hobgoblin kingdom, making their way to the drow outskirts, and sneaking through the drow city was certainly a legitimate option to try.  They came up with an intricate plan to go "light-free" and  guide their blinded characters with ropes, while sneaking along the outskirts of the ruined dwarven hold and avoiding drow patrols.  Unfortunately, they had a barbarian in the group.  Bosko, their goliath barbarian, got frustrated about not being able to see in the darkness; he tossed his drift globe in the air, yelled the command word for daylight, and charged into a nearby intersection, daring the drow to come out and fight like men.

There was a movie in the late 1960's, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid - it tells the story of the legendary train robbers and gun fighters.  At the end, Butch and Sundance are living as outlaws in Bolivia where they are identified by the local police while eating at an outdoor café.  The Bolivian Army arrives and surrounds them completely, and the movie ends in a hail of gunfire.  That's a good metaphor for what happens next to my players.

Bosko and some of the frontline fighters (like Alfred, the duelist fighter) created one front at an intersection, dueling at a  drow elite warrior and some flunky soldiers.  Virsk (cleric), Teukros (rogue), and Ace (their elf wizard), were embattled on a nearby street fighting a gaggle of quaggoths, including a quaggoth shaman who was frying Virsk with a heat metal spell.  Giant spiders were bearing down on them from above and plopping into the combat, and ordinary drow soldiers would pop out of an alley, fire a sleep dart with a hand crossbow, and then duck back out of sight, using effective hit and run tactics.  It was all very exciting and cinematic (for me).

One of the things I like to do stylistically, when it makes sense, is to use "cut scenes" to raise the tension at the table.  It's a good technique to give the players information their characters don't know.  In a situation like the pitched battle in the drow city streets, I'd describe (in between combat rounds) how forces are mobilizing in other parts of the city; bells are rung and drow soldiers fall out of the barracks with their gear; the drow priestess abandons her meditations and brandishes her freaky tentacle scourge as she makes her way out of her sanctuary.  As a dungeon master, this transparency gives the players necessary information to make choices, raises the stakes and tension, and relieves my conscience in case the reinforcements flatten the player characters if the players don't switch strategies.  The key to being a fair bare-knuckled DM is to give the players the information they need to plan and make choices so the consequences aren't arbitrary (particularly when a TPK, total party kill, is looming on the horizon).

This was an interesting moment for the players.  I actually had one player, who plays in many other 5E games, quip to his compatriots, "It's nothing to worry about, we'll be fine - 5E is balanced for the players to win".  The others were hearing the ominous forces winding towards the battle front and were looking for ways to escape.  There are modern DM's who embrace a "fail forward" philosophy - no matter how boneheaded the player's choices are, they'll find a way to minimize the negative results to avoid total failure or death.  Do any of you do it that way?  Character death has been part of the campaign since we started, and the players have known all along failure can be final.

This session ended with several of the characters at zero hit points or unconscious, finally succumbing tothe drow sleep poison darts flying in at them; Teukros broke off using his rogue skills ("bonus action disengage" the 5E rogue's cheesiest declaration) and creating darkness to cover the escape of him and Virsk the cleric.  Bosko, Ace, and Alfred were cut off and became prisoners of the drow (ultimate fate yet to be decided).  Teukros and Virsk stumbled into a cave that looked out on the swirling black waters of the Sargauth river.  There was a raft nearby.  We ended this game with them drifting off into the darkness, putting distance between themselves and the carnage back in the ruins.  The river would eventually take them back to Skullport.

The players of Bosko, Ace, and Alfred would make new characters for next game - thugs or outlaws that could be met in one of the dockside taverns in Skullport.


  1. Great stuff! I don't really mind at all when PCs die (in D&D this is often more of an interesting complication than a permanent loss), but I do tend to fail forward from a complete TPK. Just because a TPK wipes out all of the story continuity accrued to that point. Whatever story hooks the players were pursuing now get thrown away, and you have to start completely fresh, which is really demoralizing and usually results in the group deciding to play a different campaign instead. I've been there, and it just takes all the steam out of the campaign. Unless you've got some kind of patron sending your party on missions... then I suppose they can send the new PCs to find out what happened to the ones that TPK'ed.

    We had a TPK in my B/X campaign from some ghouls (the paralysis death spiral is real). After they were all out for the count, I stepped away from the table, went to the bathroom, and thought about what to do. When I came back I had the evil necromancer arrive and call his ghouls off (letting them eat one of the party's retainers, I mean there have to be some consequences!) and dragging the PCs into a cell to wait out the paralysis. Then he ordered them to go find a magical artifact for him, in return for sparing their lines. I thought it worked well and really gave the players some direction for the next handful of sessions. Plus they were terrified of ghouls.

    Do you use any information from the original 2e Ruins of Undermountain box set or the Skullport supplement? Either to salvage ideas and encounters out of, or just as context for what used to be there 120-odd years ago.

    1. Jesse - you outline a good test for when an old school referee should look at the fail forward option - when a TPK will irrevocably end a campaign in an unsatisfactory way. I agree with your approach - in the situation in my game, if the entire group was knocked unconscious by drow sleep poisons, I'd probably have the players wake up bound in spider webs with egg sacs attached to their bodies, and let them try to manufacture an escape, stripped of gear and under some time pressure to get help before the spider eggs hatched. The drow temple on this level even provided guidance for infected player characters wishing to avoid a gruesome Alien-style spider egg eruption.

      I've done a little poking around here or there on some of the Forgotten Realms wikis to get additional background where the Dungeon of the Mad Mage text could have used more explication; for instance the passageways between level 3 and Skullport are not covered in the book, and one of the wikis described a ghost-haunted passage (Taglath's Gap) between the dungeon and Skullport so I ran with it. However, too much FR canon drives me nuts so I try to avoid it as much as reasonable.

    2. I totally understand about "too much FR canon"! It's kind a love/hate double-edged sword for me. On the one hand, having so much existing lore available makes FR a great setting for free-form sandbox D&D. On the other hand, the weight of it can feel like a straitjacket. I'm considering running a classic sandbox in FR, using the stuff that's come out for 5e (just to be current) but otherwise mainly just using the original 1e box set as a core reference and just not worrying about all the stuff in between.

      Right now we are playing Curse of Strahd and heading towards a near TPK. :-D

  2. "Do any of you do it that way?"

    No. I've been playing too long to let people succeed - or escape - regardless of what they do.

  3. Last time we had a session I scared the three players who showed up enough that they refuse to finish the adventure until they could assemble a "full party" - and this is one of the "balanced for the party to win" adventures in Candlekeep Mysteries.

    So I haven't yet killed a character in 5e but apparently I convinced my players I'm willing to. That'd do nicely, except in as much as it meant no D&D last night. :(

  4. Hey John, if you're running Undermountain online could you give me any advice for running dungeon crawls virtually? Do you run with a virtual map or just theater of the mind, do you display a map at all? Its always been something I feel I haven't got right in my games, makes dungeon crawling a lot of prep for a kind of bland experience.


  5. Hey John, how do you run your dungeon crawls virtually? Its always been kind of tough for me to make that interesting without a LOT of prep.

  6. One question: How much of the plots is from the adventure "Dungeon of the Mad Mage" itself and how much effort did you to modify it to your needs? The Xanathar hookj sounds interesting since I have already sowed the rumors to my group about a guild run by a Beholder below Waterdeep.