Designing the Ziggurat Part 2

So, last night the players finished the ziggurat that was the Hall of Human Beauty!  It was delayed a little (as we normally play Tuesdays) by my father stopping in to visit so for those who expected a post a couple of days ago, I apologise, but I did not want the cat let out of the bag so soon.

Part one of this blog mentioned my secret third desire for this designing, which was to boost my players with a little bit of magical treasure.  I have found that the treasure in this particular adventure path is a little slim in things that my players want.  There is enough of it but being a generic adventure path they can not design to everyone’s game.  I should be adjusting as I go I suppose BUT I also like the idea of truly random treasure.  The idea that 4th Edition DnD introduced where you get a wish list of magic items from your players and use them as the treasure troves grates on me.  So my players have pretty much sold nearly all the items they have come across and bought what they want, having it sent to Saventh Yhi.

Image of Ultimate Equipment from paizo.com

Well, I wanted to boost their treasure reserves with this adventure and give the new treasure generator a go that came in the Ultimate Equipment Guide from Paizo.   It harkens back to the style of treasure generator seen in the second edition of the game where creatures gave certain amounts of treasures of different types (e.g. A, B, F, G) where each letter corresponded to a type of treasure (coins, jewels, art etc.).  I decided to do two treasure “hoards” and so saved up all of the encounters that could or would generate some treasure and tallied them into hoards.  This adventure path does packages of treasure well but very few hoards.  The first treasure “hoard” was the minor one (as it should be) and as it so happens it was located in the very next room that the PC’s would encounter in the hall, the room of statues.  I had a large oval chamber in my designs that contained many statues, apparently abstract statues of humans working in service of the serpentfolk, building, creating, singing and the like.  All of the statues were in various forms of precious metals and had lifelike poses but abstract designs.  In reality these statues were made by the serpentfolk casting hold or dominate person on the human, having them hold a pose and then pouring liquid metals over them to create the statues (ouch!).  Each of the individuals belongings were then deposited in a recess underneath each statue (and hence the treasure).

The players came into this room and found it completely dark.  Their light caused dancing shadows to eerily play off the walls that had script in Aklo explaining the purpose of the statues (i.e. to show off the great partnership of humans and serpentfolk) which enticed the rogue/sorcerer into the room to have a scout for traps and read the script.  Unfortunately for said rogue/sorcerer he noticed that the dancing shadows were in fact two greater shadows and five normal shadows.  A quick roll of initiative had the shadows act far swifter than him and they surrounded him quickly.  He took some severe strength damage as they came in but not quite enough to kill him.  The rest of the party also got faced by two of the normal shadows and the cavalier took some strength damage also.  The rogue/sorcerer decided to acrobatic out of the way but unfortunately did not beat the CMD of the two greater shadows.  This meant a dead rogue/sorcerer as they both hit with their opportunity attacks.  The rest of the combat went quickly.  The cleric used breath of life on the rogue/sorcerer to bring him back.  Without a clear definition that I could find of what a death effect was I allowed it and said that for every ten hit points healed the rogue/sorcerer would have one point of strength returned and be brought back to life.  This left him on two strength but alive while the rest of the party cleaned up.  As an aside I went looking for exactly what a death effect is and am still a little unsure.  General consensus is that it is an effect that ignores a characters statistics that could be depleted and requires a fort save or die.  If that is true I think I was OK in my ruling.  If anyone from Paizo is reading, could you comment with some kind of clarification if I am wrong?


So, the party had a bruised ego.  In the first ten minutes of the nights game the party had the member that had died the least (only one death prior to this) down and out.  it was lucky the cleric moved swiftly to save him as he had rolled one round to rise as a shadow himself.  Then the inevitable detect magic came out and they found the treasure.  Their ego’s restored somewhat by a clerical stash of goodies and some subjective restorations handed around healed up the attribute loss and they were ready to go again.  Veritably keen to get on with it as I had dropped a couple of hints that there may be a bigger hoard to be had than what they have found.  So, now it is time to reveal the remainder of the maps and how I had planned the epic finale.

The adventure had a certain “perverseness” to it.  The players all knew exactly what the relationship between the serpentfolk and the humans had been from their experiences in the adventure path up until this point.  They were still very wide eyed about what this true structures meaning was and why would the serpentfolk have allowed such a thing?  From my perspective it gave me a chance to run with some undead which just happen to be a personal favourite of my own and also to litter the place with traps to eradicate the pesky wandering humans that the serpentfolk loved so much.  This gave our rogue/sorcerer some challenges to prove his worth on.  In fact, the very next set of stairs that they came to had a set of “pulverisers” on them.  These are essentially walls that spring in toward the players crushing them in between for damage that were mentioned in the “Vaults of Madness” module in this adventure path.  The rogue/sorcerer spotted them, went to disable them as they were mechanical in nature and rolled the first 1 of the night causing the trap to get everyone in the party.  Again bruised the group continued up the stairs until they came to a “meditation” room with a brazier burning a light blue continual frame in the centre of the room.

3rd Level of the Hall of Human Beauty
contains the oval room of statues on the right

This room was in fact a trap known as the “Double Death” trap also from the “Vaults of Madness” module which involved a double stage trap.  The first stage is a minor pit trap triggered in the centre of the room and then effectively two rounds later the edges of the initial trap fall away (making anyone standing on the edge looking in fall in) and the pit floor that was initially in place opens to reveal a larger pit with spikes.  The rogue/sorcerer again spotted the trap and then (you guessed it) rolled a second 1 to fall into the top level of the pit.  The rest of the players ran forward to the edge of the pit to help him out and the rogue/sorcerer spotted the second trap.  He moved quickly and this time actually managed to make the disable device roll (getting the DC perfectly).  So this left only a corridor and two rooms to go.

I had wanted this to be a build up to an epic couple of battles.  One was designed to please the cavalier in the party so she could highlight her leadership qualities and have a duel of epic proportions and with the final encounter I wanted to make the players make a moral choice of treasure over safety.  But amongst all this I also wanted to build the reputation of the serpentfolk being reprehensible creatures with no hope of redemption.  So, as they entered the final corridor the tone of the Aklo on the walls shifted and in this area, the private halls of the curators, the true rules of serpentfolk/human relationships was spelt out.  It spoke of the humans that were bred like cattle below ground as slaves and of the treatment of such creatures being of lower worth than the moulds that clung to the walls of the caverns.  It spoke of the hatred of the Azlanti and detailed the extended tortures that they would put any captured Azlanti through to make them pay for their perceived wrongs.  the corridor put the players in the picture perfectly of how the serpentfolk really operated.

They then came to the first “curator” as I like to think of them.  The undead serpentfolk who continue to watch over their museum.  It was this challenge that was designed to test the cavalier and her devotion to her friends.  The room was an opulent room filled with what seemed to be 5 statues of serpentfolk warriors with great swords.  Four were identical but one that stood in the centre of the room was much different.  The cavalier entered and on entering the centre statue spoke and called her out for intruding on the inner sanctum.  I had spent all day yesterday getting this guy’s stats right as I wanted to understand him through and through.  he was Lossal the Serpentfolk Fighter (level 7) Graveknight.  He specialised in disarm techniques, had a +3 greatsword and a +3 suit of full plate that combined with some special feats gave him a 34 AC.  He offered a challenge and the cavalier stepped up.  The cavalier in the party is a monster of offensive power.  She had easily bested the Gorilla King in the “Vaults of Madness” and things that stood against her tended to get chopped up into tiny little pieces.  But last night the opponent was balanced perfectly.  He would disarm her and she would go for a lesser weapon and they would both hit each others armour or deflect blows with the odd strike slipping through.  He had about 110 hp and the cavalier around 150 hp.  The rest of the party largely sat back and watched, with one throwing in a spear when she had run out of weapons.  the battle got down to the cavalier, largely weaponless and on 50 hp remaining had the graveknight down to 5  hp.  It had lasted around 12 rounds of combat and with none of them having any idea how badly wounded the graveknight really was the rest began to enter the fight.  The rogue/sorcerer finished it with his oath bow, drawing the ire of the cavalier.  Still, a +3 greatsword was nothing to sneeze at and they entered the final chamber.

The 4th and final level of the Hall of Human
Beauty where the curators reside

The final chamber was a voluminous circular chamber with a dais rising up in the centre of the room from a 35 degree angle at the edge of the room.  On top of the dais were two clay statues holding a bronze pedestal on which rested a hoard of treasure that the PC’s had never seen the like of before.  Unfortunately, and unbeknownst to the PC’s, a demi-lich was buried amongst the treasure in torpor.  The party were wary in this room.  They knew a lot of the treasure was magical but nothing comes for free.  With an excellent perception roll the monk spotted the secret door (which was the way out of the ziggurat) and also that the skull with encrusted jewels.

Just because I know he will want it mentioned, the player or the rogue/sorcerer (also known as Cam) had made the call about five minutes into the game that he thought the game would end with a demi-lich if Pathfinder had one, which he wasn’t sure of.  I gave him a blank look and he took it for me not knowing what a demi-lich was.  how naive these players can be.

Anyway, as the monk stole the black pearl off the top of the treasure, the demi-lich rose out of the treasure pile and let out the wail of the banshee (which Cam had read earlier in the day and knew they were in trouble).  The cleric (cohort of the cavalier) had for some reason put spell resistance on the monk and not the cavalier and it failed to protect him but he made his save.  The only other creature in twenty feet was the cavalier who failed her save and took two hundred hit points in damage, killing her instantly.  The skull rested back on the treasure pile, the warning scream over and this is where I wanted the party to have the moment of crisis.

I looked at them and asked them what they were going to do with an evil glint in my eye…

The monk without missing a beat said “I’ll pocket the two rings.”

So much for the moral dilemma.  The battle was joined and it was an epic battle indeed.  The players impressed me by fighting in a methodical manner to work out what would defeat the creatures damage resistance (in short nothing does) by checking most of the normal items that do bypass damage resistance.  Eventually the alchemist made a dungeoneering check and worked out that the fight was going to be a big one.  Ironically, the alchemist had only one fire bomb left after using them in the battle with the shadows and fire is something the demi-lich was not immune to.  So the battle became one of doing damage in twos and threes whilst the demi-lich tried to suck everyones soul away.  I forgot about the level draining that came if you saved from having your soul drained so the players got away with that but the demi-lich did manage to drain the soul of the cleric and thus, the way to raise any dead from the battle.  Toward the end of the demi-lich’s hit points it animated the two clay golems (of course you knew they had to be) and the monk was happy as now he could actually do something.  However, in the end the golems knocked him down just a moment after the alchemist destroyed the demi-lich.  The golems then nearly killed the alchemist and the only one left was the invisible rogue/sorcerer.  The golems believing everyone dead returned to their altar and picked up the treasure deactivating.  The rogue/sorcerer then dispatched them with extreme prejudice and healed the alchemist and the monk.

So, there you have it.  The design from go to woe. The final two encounters gave the game an epic feel, with the final encounter giving them a massive reward in a memorable setting.  One of the players commented this morning how he loved the overall theme and building of the design that was used.  He liked how it built from the naga’s into the theme of the Hall of Human Beauty (which was part of the Adventure Path) and the building of the undead to the final encounter which had people wondering if this finally would be the total party kill (TPK) that they all feared.

I was pleased with the side adventure.  I was exceptionally happy with the balance achieved in the game and that I got the players to the level they needed to be.  They are all going to head back to the surface now to lick their wounds and heal permanent negative levels (which I have applied retrospectively after forgetting them) although there is argument of what to do with the slowly regenerating graveknight and the demi-lich.  Some of the players want to dump them in the Argental Font below but others fear that might corrupt such a great artifact.  I have my own ideas but I’ll not share them here.  And finally, I loved the treasure generation system.  There was stuff included that I would not have thought of by myself but pleasantly surprised some of the players with its usefulness like the vest of escape that was present.  Two thumbs up on the treasure generator Paizo 🙂

When designing start with an idea or a theme.  Build a blank map, or mind map out a few connections. Fill those connections or rooms with details that support your initial ideas and then just build from there.  Use the core rulebook and the GM guide to build encounters and use your head to build the story and the background to the adventure.  With this background set there will be a bit more richness to the story.  It is not important that the players find out every detail of the backstory, but just enough of it so they know that there is one and you will have built an adventure which will live on in the players memory.  My players will probably remember this not as the “Remember when we killed a demi-lich?” tale but as the “Remember the Halls of Human Beauty?” and that makes me smile.

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