685 The Horrid Descent – Level-0 Gauntlet

You shall comply, as you have no other option. You either participate and do your best or you stay back and starve to death. Your choice, ultimately…

Darlen, the Mage

Mages and scholars debate the differences be­tween sentient races and wild creatures. Bi­ological and mental contrasts are easy to discern and gauge. Others are shrouded in overlapping concepts where the veil between sentient and wild is difficult to sort out. Darlen, a powerful mage who is well-versed in this subject, believes that the fierce, self-preservation instinct found in all animals, lives al­though in a dormant state, deep within sentient beings.

Self-preservation is present in all thinking creatures, but the animalistic violence of a trapped animal is sel­dom seen in humans, who often break under stress and indulge in other behaviors like self-pitying, begging for their life, or fear-paralysis. Still, Darlen believes this wild instinct can be coerced to appear when people are ex­posed to the right circumstances and environment.

The Experiment

Darlen has designed a sort of obstacle course filled with deadly guardians and traps. Without mercy and fo­cusing only on his research and optimizing the experi­ment site, he subtracts peasants from their homes via magic, puts them in the closed demi-plane, and gives them no other option but to attempt to survive. He has performed this experiment twice already, resulting in the needless deaths of twenty-seven people. Now, he is ready to bring the third group into his artificial dungeon.

Adventure Hooks

Taken by Force. The characters suffer terrible misfor­tune. They have been chosen at random by Darlen, the mage, to be part of his experiments. With powerful mag­ic, the mage put them to sleep and moved them to the demi-plane. The peasants shall awaken in strange cir­cumstances and with no recollection of how they came to this strange, apparently-underground place.

Spies Among Us. Consider this second adventure hook for up to two party members. They are contacted by a cloaked figure who roughly explained the self-pres­ervation experiments and offered them a deal. “Be a part of this experiment voluntarily, reach the end, and betray any other survivors. If you kill one of them, I shall take you under my wing and teach you my magic.

Level 0 Gauntlet

  • Danger. Risky. Check for a Random Event every 2 crawling rounds and after loud noises (3-in-6 chance).
  • Light. Some areas have braziers with permanent light spells; the rest are dark. All denizens are dark-adapted.
  • Demi-Plane. It takes 2 crawling rounds to remove a limestone brick with shovels from the wall to open a pas­sage. Beyond the dungeon wall, there is nothing but a gray empty void. It cannot be traversed by mortals.
1 The mage’s voice says: “Do not falter. I have faith that some of you have what it takes to push through.
2 A set of bones drops from an opening in the ceiling. They belonged to one of Darlen’s past victims. A hollow dart pierces the hip bone. Foreshadowing the trap in area 6.
3 A shadow appears before the party (Reaction check). If friendly, it reveals he was also forced into this experi­ment. He died when he fell from area 8 to area 9.
4 A fine thread lies ahead. If tripped, a spear erupts from a nearby wall dealing 1d6 damage (DC 12 DEX check).
5 A glowing rune on the wall stands out. If touched, magic creates an exact copy of the person. The doppelganger is scared and believes to be the original (Reaction check).
6 Arcane forces glimmer as a person is created from thin air. The person belongs to the previous group of victims and has been returned from stasis (Reaction check). Their group got as far as area 6 before all of them died.

1. Descending Staircase

As the stupor leaves and consciousness returns, an empty chamber with a single, descending staircase is all that can be seen. Memories of reaching this place are cryptic and elusive. Nothing about that is certain.

The party of peasants was magically trapped in this demi-plane by Darlen, the mage. They were put to sleep and teleported here to participate in the mage’s deranged ex­periments of self-preservation. The party carries whatev­er items were randomly generated during character cre­ation and a trinket of sentimental value (PC’s choice).

The only way forward is the stairs that lead to area 2. The cold, limestone-brick walls are decorated with geo­metric patterns and etchings of stars and moons.

2. Welcome Hall

The stairs lead to a large pillared hall overseen by a defaced statue of the goddess Gede. The statue’s visage has been crudely replaced by Memnon’s sigil.

When the characters arrive, the sigil on what should be Gede’s face glimmers. The mage’s voice then says:

Welcome to my humble abode. You have been chosen as test subjects. You need not know what my purpose is; only that you are trapped and the way back to your lives is at the bottom of this dungeon. Take what you want as you progress. Good luck and godspeed!

  • Treasure. Each of the four gilded vases is worth 2 gp. Each one contains a single, randomly-generated item from the Starting Gear table (SD, page 33).

3. The archive

The chamber contains two bookshelves with a recount of Darlen the mage’s past two experiments. There is not enough information to warn the characters of any threats. But it does contain a list of twenty-five people previously kidnapped by Darlen. All of them are marked ‘dead’ except for one person labeled as ‘in stasis’.

  • Abjuration Aura. An enchantment protects the doc­uments and scrolls in this chamber. If any are damaged or destroyed, they reform after 24 hours without harm.
  • Treasure. Searching the room for 1 crawling round yields two torches, a magnifying glass, and a crowbar.

4. The Mystery Salves

The chamber contains two plinths. Unmarked, gilded vases rest on them. If inspected, both contain an irides­cent, lustrous fluid. A bronze plaque on the wall reads:

What can fill a room without taking up any space?

If a character states the answer (light or darkness), the fluids change nature. One is clear and blue, the other is dark and tainted. Drinking from the blue one heals any damage. It can be used once per day. Drinking from the dark one burns the innards and causes 1d6 damage (DC 11 CON check). Without answering the riddle, drinking from either vase incurs a 3-in-6 chance of it causing ei­ther effect. They randomly change each minute.

5. Circles of Meditation

The chamber contains a rune-etched circle, seven clay urns, and an automated crossbow trap.

  • Crossbow Trap. Approaching the crossbow or step­ping on the meditation circle facing it causes it to shoot. The bolt deals 1d8 damage. Stepping on the circle with the back to the crossbow does not trigger it.
  • Meditation. Spending 1 crawling round on the cir­cle grants the person a one-time use of the augury spell.

6. Hallway of Death

Stone flower-buds decorate the east wall while dozens of punctures dot the opposite surface. The outline of a secret door is visible in the middle of it.

The length of this hallway is crisscrossed by a dozen fine threads of different lengths and angles. They are bare­ly visible under torchlight. A character can cross the hallway with extreme care not to trip any of them (DC 11 DEX). Alternatively, the party may attempt to trigger them from afar. The first thread is 10 feet into the hall­way. Upon triggering them, poison darts are shot from the stone flower-buds. All creatures in the corridor take 1d6 poison damage (DC 12 CON for half).

  • Secret Chamber. A character can spend 1 crawling round to find the brick button that allows access to this chamber. It contains a 70 gp, 250 sp, a potion of healing, three torches, an oil flask, and a shortsword.

7. The Armory

The chamber contains a shaft that descends to area 8 and several stone surfaces. In this chamber, the charac­ters find a longsword, two daggers, a set of leather ar­mor, a shield, a rope 60 ft., and a crossbow with six bolts.

8. The Faceless Guardians

A large aperture on the chamber’s center leads down to a lower chamber. Four standing sarcophagi; the lids decorated with runes, slowly begin to open.

Four zombies emerge from the enclosures. They wear the tattered clothes of peasants and townsfolk. They were brought here in life in the first group of test sub­jects. The undead abominations attempt to push the characters toward the center and down to area 9.

9. The Homebound Portal

A detailed magic circle of stained glass and mosaic borders is surrounded by several sarcophagi. Two stone plinths hold grim mounds of human bones.

This chamber is 30 feet below area 8. Creatures that fall here take 1d8 damage (DC 12 DEX for half). Other­wise, the characters can descend with ropes in 1 crawl­ing round. The bottom chamber is desolate and silent.

  • The Bones. The remains were recently cleaned; they bear countless bite marks left by insects (DC 11 INT).
  • The Standing Sarcophagi. Inspecting any of the en­closures reveals the crawling sound of hundreds of scar­abs within. Opening any sarcophagus triggers the others to open too. A flesh-eating scarab swarm emerges from the enclosures and attacks all living creatures.
  • The Corner Sarcophagi. Darlen’s voice is heard when any of them is opened: “Bravo! You are the most successful subjects so far. The path back home is close. One last trial and you shall be free.” The inert bones on the plinths clatter as they coalesce into four skeletons.

Returning Home

After overcoming all challenges, the magic circle glows. Survivors may step on it and be instantly trans­ported back home with whatever items they can carry. Despite the terrible circumstances of this event, it lights a spark of adventure in all survivors. They train and be­come would-be adventurers. Perhaps the characters’ primary motivation is to enact revenge on Darlen, the mage. It will not be easy to track the elusive magic-user. Alas, confronting him is an adventure for another day…

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