Unearthing a Colossus
I have set about the task of creating from scratch a setting and adventure of suitable magnitude to elevate characters of zero [or] first level to what might be level eight or nine.
I believe it is proper to call it a mega-dungeon only because the number of keyed entries will certainly exceed 400. The map above is a flattened top-down view of the roofs and parapets of a castle that reaches eight stories high and at least one dungeon level deep. Intentionally, not much can be discerned from such an image as the project is in its infancy. Still the maps are at roughly 90% and all keyed with exception of the dungeon. Some of the background has been drafted and spreadsheets of details are underway.
This adventure is being designed to tackle the infancy of character progression with an option for starting at level zero, if such a thing sounds intriguing. Through its development, I plan to explore the limits of background narrative (much as I did in The Night Wolf Inn) without impinging on the sandbox. Of course, this means far more underwriting than I normally do for a module with a goal not of forcing story upon players, but of enriching the location with a deep consistency and sense of place. I fantasize that this might be my last supplement, though I think I said the same at least twice before.
I can't begin to guess how many hours or sessions one might wring from the realized end-result, mainly because I've already gotten over 50 hours and 10 sessions from A Fabled City of Brass, which I did not anticipate running on so long.
A Fabled City of Brass has 171 keyed locations.
So this thing is double if not triple the scope. The only thing that reigns in my fear of not finishing it is that I am currently without deadlines and quite excited by the premise.
Precisely what the premise is, I have already hinted at in previous posts and won't elaborate here. Suffice to say, it has much to do with illusions and with maxing the utility of low-level play. It is also certainly not about orcs. I shriek in horror at the boring destination, whose only excuse for existing is that it is a first level adventure.
By embracing fragility, the low-level adventure has the potential to be every bit as gripping as one where liches are casting Power Word Kill and there's no reason that low-level character death has to be delivered on an orcish mace. Instead, I'm hopeful that a more enchanted----though perhaps cursed is a better word----setting will help even low level characters feel like they are in an epic place.
[note: I'm ok with dying on an orcish mace and have had a lot of fun doing so over the years. The standard fare of low level modules is not something I disdain entirely, nor is it without its place. Be less offended.]
Due to surgery this month (I'm recovering fine, thank you) and at the risk of being grossly premature, I'm substituting an early draft of Player Character available background for the adventure in place of December's post.
Note that this early stab is certainly subject to change and contains no spoilerish DM-only material that would extrapolate on the mysteries presented or ruin the mystery. In fine, you can think of it as what your player character might learn prior to heading out for the adventure location.
Yes this will be strictly for AD&D. Yes the title is quite intentional. Yes, the backstory will matter in meaningful ways without foisting narrative on the players' endeavors.
And so, without further gilding the lily:
Castle of the Silver Prince (very early draft)
Thashyn Unoo, only child and heir to the Granite Throne, lost his mother at age Eight—old enough to appreciate how her death confined him to a suite of palatial rooms and how those magnificent yawning chambers amplified his orphaned footsteps but silenced everything else that might have made him real.
Like a convulsion that ends in vomit, or rage-smashed bottles against the wall, the childish paintings and prose Thashyn unleashed in the aftermath served as evidence; stains of tumult; the ugly proof of sickness caused by bitter despair. This difficulty served as the reason Thashyn was put away and his father did not come often for the royal physician said the boy was inconsolable and potentially incurable as well. “He is a deeply disturbed child and there are no medicines in my repertoire beyond those that will deliver him to sleep.”
So the prince slept the sedate sleep of the addict before he was ten because that was what the physician thought best. His father, King Nicodemus Unoo, abdicated care to the doctor and sought to move past the tragedy by taking a new—some might say excessively young—mistress, of such exquisite beauty that one courtier described her as a silken apsara carried by the wind out of Pandragor.
The wedding was the first time Prince Thashyn heard his new mother’s name: Xie al Ahmerig, which meant something mysterious, loosely translated as “I, the pen, blush.” She materialized suddenly as if conjured—whole and captivating; full of cunning laughter and meaningful glances. She vanished similarly after the nuptials, like a parlor trick along with his father; the pair to honeymoon like regal birds in the Healean Range.
They would not return for several months, leaving the prince to endure the physician and remain sequestered his mother’s rooms—the same rooms where he had been the one to find her, blood curling beautifully in the warm milk of her bath, like cherry dessert in cream. The same tub he now bathed in when lulled by tranquilizing toddies, prodded into the same bath where she had lain, to be scrubbed by the paid, efficient hand of the doctor as if to exfoliate his mother’s death.
Strangely, some might say, the prince found little horror in this ritual. The tub was where she had often been and he felt closest to her there. When he was lucid and alone he would crawl into the empty tub with blankets and pillows and rest his head against the porcelain to gaze through the open windows at a far wide country beyond that seemed unconnected with every particle of his existence.
There he would whisper her name, Agafia Katea, as if terrified of forgetting it and—wracked with sobs—know that she was changing from what was once real into an ideal. The clarity of his memories, he acknowledged became embellished by his own sense of loss juxtaposed with a reality he could not change. This notion took root in his mind, which he described in writings that evolved with the years, becoming less crude. With competence, his diary explained that he understood his emotions were not reality; that his feelings were simply cultivated by his mind. These constructs and lenses shaped his self-perception as well as his perception of the world.
And yet, the imagery of his mother’s death had become irrevocably endowed with meaning as he brooded. The curlicues of milk and florets of blood wending together in her final bath, assembled themselves into messengers, into philosophic texts, into an ornate design of opposing impulses. In the milk, existed his mother’s love of fine things, her desires and pursuits. In the blood, existed her fear, her flight and ultimately her escape. And in the prince’s dreams these symbols expanded and broadened. In white, he saw fey movements as of the manes of wild unicorns, so fine and elusive, which his dead mother pursued almost blindly. And in red, he saw blossoms of flame and serpentine malice, the shapes of dragons that terrorized her and chased her to an equally myopic end.
These fancies distilled into theories and ultimately solidified into beliefs. He presumed that all motivation was either founded in desire or fear. Desire led to pursuit, whose corollary was exposure—as the seeker risked everything in chasing their unicorn. The transformation that came from such obsession, Thashyn wrote, was vulnerability for, having sacrificed so much of the self in pursuit of the elusive, a crisis of identity became inevitable. Fear provoked pursuit’s opposite: escape. The corollary there was concealment rather than exposure as the fearful sought to protect themselves. The transformation that came from fear was armor, the opposite of vulnerability. But to tirelessly defend against harm required a certain obsession with the self at the expense of others, a kind of narcissism, and ultimately the risk of megalomania.
All this, the young prince concluded by age fifteen so that, with pen and brush, his luxurious solitary confinement filled with striking prose and watercolor paintings, both of which—now refined—featured countless white unicorns and red dragons.
In Prince Thashyn’s mind, there was no safe path through life. Desire and Fear both led to madness.
Shortly after his fifteenth birthday, word came concerning the hunting accident. When he was well enough to travel, said the physician, his father would return to court. But seven days deeper, when his father made the journey, asleep in a box of Healean Pine, the irony was not lost on the prince, who would write that his father’s desire had given rise to pursuit which exposed him to vulnerability and ultimately loss of self. The mausoleum was chiseled with a strange epitaph dictated by the prince, which remained opaque to all: “In pursuit of unicorns”.
As sole heir to the Granite Throne, Thashyn’s coronation immediately followed the interment. Inauspiciously, his first act was to call for the head of the royal physician who had tormented him seven long years and failed to safeguard his father’s health. This, of course, worried both court and kingdom for the reclusive prince had long been labeled unwell. As the physician’s head was stripped by crows, Thashyn’s step mother—who had been entirely absent since the marriage—came to see him.
He surmised self-preservation as the reason, but this would prove only partially true. And though he wished to loath her, she was still young enough to trigger an avalanche of schoolboy stirrings as for a young teacher, surprising him on the first day of class.
Compounding the danger, she was kind and tender, genuinely surprised by his intelligence and almost immediately intrigued by his wild paintings and peculiar philosophic mutterings. An old spirit in a young body, she once said.
It was Xie, his step mother, though he never thought of her in that role, that drew his theories even further, like spider silk from his mind, stretching them beyond his previous assumptions that both desire and fear must end in madness. Such discussions were natural of course, when they were alone together, both of them conscious of what they had fallen into, of the peril and wrongness and mutual understanding that neither of them felt wrong.
She was young of spirit. His was old. Her position at court was vulnerable while his was strong. In their minds, the inevitable had come to pass. Whatever dysfunction existed hid carefully. Xie had become the prince’s everything, in some ways a mother, in others his first love and—in his mind—a perfection of both bliss and ecstasy. For her, it was perhaps harder, though we cannot know for sure. We are left to speculate that Thashyn was precocious and clever and charming and that she tolerated his immaturity because he was now her only protection from a court that had discovered the scandalous truth.
But it was through their subnormal relationship that they examined their own roles and labels, the expectations and quiet castigations uttered at court. She was his desire. And he had been her fear. And so their talk inflated further the mythology he had wrought with ink and colored wash. Theories were proposed and acknowledged between them that perhaps, although fear of ejection from court—of loss of status and stability—had initially driven her to visit him, that this potential truth no longer held. And although, to protect herself, she might have subconsciously fabricated her new identity, this was no longer an act of pure self-interest. She had, recounted the prince in one of his diary entries, claimed to have beaten the dragon, to have embodied her new role with genuine veracity of heart and thereby achieved immanence.
Thashyn agreed, perhaps because he wanted to believe, and wrote that his desire for her made him vulnerable, obsessed, which might have led to a kind of madness in one so young, but also that perhaps this madness was precisely the loss of self required to achieve bliss, enlightenment and ultimately transcendence, things over which mortal convention no longer held sway. And this was the narrative they both settled on, that if their linkage was madness, then perhaps madness was a road that did not necessarily lead to anguish. Perhaps madness could be beautiful.
Whether such notions could hold true for the duration of their highly speculative lives would never be known for the prince took ill with fever and for three months lingered on the edge of further kingdoms. When his sickness broke he learned from unreliable tongues that Xie had left court and traveled back to Pandragor. Her reasons for doing this were quite simply that when he had fallen ill, she had come to her senses, seeing not a man but a child languishing in bed; that her role had become something she could no longer tolerate in herself and that she had decided to put it right with her leave.
This tale was confided with an air of secrecy to the prince, as though not broadly known, which caused Thashyn to wonder how his advisers had managed to gain her confidence sufficiently to learn of such inner strife. Given her memorable assertion of having beaten the dragon, the brazen averment of her insecurity landed with counterfeit gravity and rested as an obvious lie.
Thashyn’s heartache resembled that of losing his mother all over, only worse because now, drunk with love, he had lost his everything.
Thus, at age seventeen, after a bout of debilitating fever, he queried the guard to a man, hoping to unearth some detail. This succeeded. More than one soldier confessed to knowing that Xie had been quietly threatened for abusing her position and for provoking Thashyn’s illness with the goal that she might rule after him as queen. So, Xie had left the castle though not for the reasons given him by the court. And if she had left of her own volition, it had been while fearing for her life. Her departure had been sudden and without witness. It happened one deafening, stormy evening—as through the casting of a spell. Whether she had fled or been disposed of in some careful way remained impossible to ascertain.
This knowledge filled Thashyn with such malignant repugnance that, at only seventeen, he ordered the guard to arrest everyone that had lived at court during his illness, which amounted to six hundred thirty souls including servants and children of the nobles.
At fifty pounds and five heads per basket it amounted, very nearly, to one hundred twenty-six totes, like so many cabbages, and an almost total decimation of noble households in the Kingdom of Greymoor. The grim harvest shook the kingdom to its foundations such that, near the end of the third day, whispers of treason leapt hot and fast even among the guard.
Who would be left to govern? An enraged boy?
The slaughter finally ended when guards with ties to various houses refused to herd their charges to the cadre of axemen. By then, the courtyard was a soup of red mud. Thashyn watched from his balcony as the planks that were lain for navigating the gruesome mire, soaked up the scarlet dragons leaping off the blocks—or so he must have imagined them.
He had locked himself away in his mother’s suite with foods to spectate over his judgement but when the executions ceased and a knocking sounded at his door, he felt he understood how this would end. Thayshyn Unoo gathered some of his writings and paintings and collected several magical texts from Xie’s stacks. He put them into a pack along with some food and disappeared.
When the guard broke down the door, they found the suite empty, the windows open to the blood scented breeze.
And this is all we really know about the person who would later be called the Silver Prince, who abandoned crown and country after seeking to destroy both and vanished like his lover after becoming what he had termed “the dragon”.
He would appear again, years later, still a young man by all accounts, but profoundly wizened at age 24, after having absconded through green mists to lose himself in the Witchocracy of the Country of Mirạhyr. His re-emergence, of course, brought panic and tumult to his former homeland but he was beyond the reach of Greymoor and the Witchocracy where he took refuge was a dangerous landscape for incursions of any kind. According to story, assassins were sent but met no success. Eventually the new government of Greymoor conceded that justice would never find Thashyn Unoo.
The prince had seemingly ingratiated himself with the Witchocracy whose seat, in Skellum, provided him with his new title and an expanse of albeit undesirable land. Why they did this remains a mystery, though many have tried to explain it with the fabulous wealth he had somehow acquired during the seven years of his disappearance and the notion that a castle in the wilds between Greymoor and Mirạhyr would buffer rival lands.
Nothing whatsoever is known of how Thashyn’s wealth was accumulated, but it was said that his treasures rivaled those of any king north of the Ghalla Peaks. He spent this treasure freely in construction of a castle of such magnificence that it has since been classified as a wonder of the north. Certainly the landscape and its remote location must have trebled the cost. But Thashyn’s coffers apparently had no bottom and from thence the castle rose.
What transpired thereafter is yet another noisy pile of hearsay. The Silver Prince simply seemed to fade away, as inward looking as he had ever been. An enchantment came over the land shortly after the castle was finished, which caused those who braved the roads to be struck with disorienting delusions and sometimes psychosis. Nevertheless, brave the roads they did for no matter how contradictory the accounts, all who visited Xie al Ahmerig agreed on one thing, that it was the most splendid castle they had ever seen.
Its walls are not of stone at all, but of tarnished silver: lending the complexity of that blackened and rainbow-tainted gold to every finial and reflection. A sinister Mag Mell. A darksome impossibility raised above the bogs.
None who came away could ever claim to have seen the lord. Ever the recluse, it would seem, the prince withdrew and did not make himself available to any guest. This lack of hospitality certainly accounted for dwindling interest and a decline in traffic on the treacherous highland road. Not even the Witchocracy cared to check in on their adopted son.
Accounts from what can be termed the castle’s final guests disagree in almost every way except to state that there was a skeleton crew of servants in that final year but that the silver was unpolished. Perhaps because of such accounts a second year went by before anyone ventured to Xie al Ahmerig again. When they did, they found a haunted place. The servants were gone and feral things had crept down from the mountains to nest in the towers and gate houses.
In a single year, it seemed a century had passed and for a time the castle was entirely abandoned.
Two decades later, when tensions between Mirạhyr and Greymoor peaked, the Witchocracy sent a court to take up residence in Xie al Ahmerig again—to garrison troops there against invasion. This failed spectacularly as the garrison abandoned their post en masse and the court went mad. Further attempts were made by the Witchocracy to secure the stronghold, four in all, including the final hammer-fall effort powered by two thousand soldiers and a court of five hundred. It was as extraordinary an expenditure as it was a disaster and the result forever tarnished the once unassailable legend of the Witchocracy’s might. Never again would Skellum seek to occupy the castle, finally having learned—it would seem—that even without soldiers on its parapets, Xie al Ahmerig was buffer enough.
Of course, the legend still draws the curious, the morbid, and the greedy for Thashyn Unoo’s wealth is still presumed present somewhere in the castle, which brings us to the dangers of the locale.
From the earliest days of the Witchocracy’s failings, actual deaths on the property were not great in number, though for curious reasons that avoid specificity, all who died at Xie al Ahmerig were also buried there. This, apparently, has extended to pilgrims and treasure seekers. There is said to be a cemetery without the walls that accounts for every person to have met their end while visiting the property.
Including what are presumed to be some of Thashyn’s original staff plus the tragedies of the Witchocracy, combined with the trickle of what is now 270 years’ worth of sightseers—only some of whom now add to the curious and unfortunate tally—there are not yet a hundred headstones in the yard.
Still, it is an ominous sum with which any traveler should be equipped.
The enchantments on the castle have, if anything, thickened like ivy so that now, those who have visited tell of being physically expelled from the place as if it would tolerate them only so long. The manner of this expulsion is curious and the travelers claim to simply find themselves back on the road from whence they approached, which hearkens back, the attentive listener might say, to Thashyn’s belabored ideas concerning fear, escape, concealment and defense.
How he may have elevated his curious beliefs and symbols into magical wards is for idle speculation. What can be said for sure is that Xie al Ahmerig is positioned near the tail end of the Healean Range, halfway between Skellum and Woonsocket, overlooking the vapors of the vast Medysan Bog.
As Thashyn himself might once have said, if you plan to go there, drawn by whatever desires fill your heart, bring a solid pound of fear to balance it out.
and happy gaming