Last session, the party finally beat the Mortuary Temple of Esma and recovered the Sixth Ring of Immortality from dungeon level three. In case you hadn't guessed, this post contains spoilers for the module.
For me, this event was a strange mix of satisfaction, nostalgia, longing, and perhaps, well, feeling old.
I created the adventure in the 80's and, although I polished it up and changed a few things, it remains more or less true to both the original adolescent text and to the meta-environment that defined so many dungeons of that time. Until January 7th, 2019, no party had ever reached dungeon level 3, let alone obtained the ring.
Back in the 80's, my group of players would often assess a dungeon's threat level and, if it seemed too high, flee -- perhaps (but often not) returning later.
Back then, there was no dragon in the upper works. I added it to the rewrite after deciding it would have moved in during the intervening decades and placed Phantromas' spell book in the hoard. Phantromas (we tried to pronounce his name differently each time we said it) was one of the original characters in that campaign from long ago.
Anyway, I found it entertaining to leave traces of that earlier expedition, such as the fact that they had smashed the sarcophagus in area 4 of the upper works before descending to dungeon level one. It was room 1-22 of the first level that killed at least one character and it was there that the rest decided to flee and never return.
I remember that game clearly because it took place in the unfinished basement of a rural farm house in Minnesota, dim lights, ratty sofa, voices tempered so as not to wake the rest of the house.
But this go around, the players and dungeon master were the house and there were plenty of shouts when unexpected successes turned up on the dice.
The new party consisted of Centien (Rngr 7); Ibram (Lyan 6); Albin (Ftr 7); Evanore (Cl 7); Edgar (MU/Th 4/4); Treyton (Pal 4); Mortimer (MU 9): a powerful group to be sure. Nevertheless, things got rough.
Dungeon level one is a nightmare-puzzle, which had reset over the course of the three months that the party took to recover, make scrolls and potions, and handle other matters in the campaign world. When they returned, they realized no one had taken notes on the puzzle's solution and it was thanks to one player (primarily) that they managed to piece it all back together and return to dungeon level 2.
It was there that they began the Red Stone Quest in earnest, were surprised by the bulette, and lost control of their water elemental in the drowned rooms while the wraith attacked. The wraith went after the paladin of law while the elemental, of course, turned on Mortimer (the 9th level MU who had conjured it). What was wonderful (and this was a moment of shouted-joy) was that Mortimer was wearing the Syulian Scarab, recovered from room 1-10 and when the elemental utterly flubbed its to-hit roll, Mortimer managed to regain control. Meanwhile, Evanore the CL turned the wraith so the party was saved and the Red Stone Quest moved on.
The culmination of the Red Stone Quest proved too much for Albin and Centien to justify and so, when the remaining five characters descended to dungeon level 3, the 7th level Ftr and the 7th level Rngr (out of prudence) remained behind.
Mind you, they didn't know what might happen, but they felt apprehensive enough to stay on dungeon level 2.
It was therefore that when the darkness of dungeon level 3 was filled with arrows and crossbow bolts, and when the undead shock troops began their charge, that the party was also lacking two of their strongest fighting men.
The skeletal giant hurled boulders. The MU/Thf started blowing charges on his wand of lightning. And Mortimer, the 9th lvl MU started rolling one at a time, for each of the 12 magic missile spells coming his way from the east. After all the rolls were done, his ring of spell turning had saved him, but he was down to almost zero hp.
The party made a fighting retreat to the west, but the undead followed...including the terrible flying remains of Cloven Carpathia and the apparitions of sundered chlorotic mysterium. Mortimer used his next round to cast shield while Evanore healed him. Edgar blasted anything that moved with lightning. Still, the clouds of arrows and bolts rained down and the two players left on dungeon level 2 started asking if they could hear the sounds of combat from below.
I (kindly) advised them "No." They grumped about this over the course of two rounds until finally I said, "Ok, tell you what, if you want to go down, I'm not going to stop you."
The player of Centien (who had not completed the Red Stone Quest) then paused and said, "Well now I don't know if I should. Now I think maybe you were being kind to me."
I did not respond.
The battle below raged on.
A fireball took out Cloven Carpathia (who had swung with his terrible staff and shockingly missed Mortimer). Cloven, who was overhead, and the other fliers burnt up while everyone's hp were in or nearly in the single digits. As the final undead began to crumble, I think all but one of the potions had been used to survive the battle.
This guy was one of the last to go down.
The party finished off the undead cult, ignored the level's other major distraction, found the ring and beat a retreat up the stairs...though I think the Lyan lost most of the hp he'd regained from potions due to the holy meridians.
The party did not need the temples to exit the dungeon for they had, in their possession, a minor artifact: Pritchard Cordy's Sinister Boots of Planeswalking. This was the item, in fact, which had dissuaded the ranger from completing the Red Stone Quest. And so, they left Esma, not likely to return.
It was euphoric for both players and DM alike. For them because the module is utterly grueling and yet, they had managed to haul away something like 80% of the treasures. For me it was euphoric in that most of them had survived (Treyton, the 4th level paladin died in that final battle) but also because a party of characters within the approved level range had finally beaten the dungeon I wrote so long ago.
Tomorrow night, the players will be wielding low level noobs, setting out through the Astral Plane for Zjelwyin Fall. Since this is another module I wrote, I'll let you know how it goes.