Saturday, April 18, 2020

Session Report - 5e Undermountain - Temple of the Azur Volcano

Life under quarantine continues, and I'm continuing to use D&D as a form of escapism to deal with the stress and isolation of staying home all day, every day, both for my own safety and to help protect the safety of "the herd" (which has got to be one of the least flattering metaphors for human society).

Some players I've run in-person games for asked me to run an online game, and one of them requested that we use D&D 5e, so I'm game-mastering my first ever Fifth Edition game. My plan was just to default to the Undermountain megadungeon from Waterdeep: Dungeon of the Mad Mage, but it turns out that the first dungeon level there is for 5th level characters, so I've been improvising a little to get the party up to 5th level so they can enter the Undermountain.

Their first adventure was in the Temple of the Azur Volcano, which I've adapted with very light re-skinning from "The Candy Island!" adventure from the Azurth Adventure Digest.


Cast of characters:
Raku Chilhuly - dragonborn guild-artificer, 1st level artificer - played by Emily
Willowbald Hornblower - halfling noble, 1st level bard - played by Steve
Nehryx - centaur outlander, 1st level fighter - played by Corey

I started by asking the players to introduce their characters to me. I had helped Emily and Steve a bit with 5e's character generation process, but I let each player come up with their own backstory however they wanted.

Raku Chihuly is a glazier and glassblower who was raised by the Glassblower's Guild. She's spent her left so far making beautiful glass objects, but wants to find rarer materials and learn to make magic items.

Willowbald Hornblower is the black sheep of his family. The Hornblowers are synonymous with their successful pipeweed mercantile house. They grow it, bundle it, dry it, and sell it, making a fortune along the way. Willowbald tried to chart his own course in life, and attempted to become a vintner, but winery failed, and now he lives on a ramshackle estate at the edge of town. He hopes to learn some new techniques for running a vineyard, or find some new merchandise to sell to try to get back in his family's good graces.

Nehryx is from far away, from a plains that's dominated by centaurs and their ancient rivals, the minotaurs. Nehryx wanted to explore up in the mountains where the giants live. He was kidnapped and enslaved by a traveling circus, variously shackled, humiliated, and physically abused, until his will was nearly broken and he was ready to die. Eventually, the circus owners wanted Nehryx to stage gladiatorial combat with an enslaved minotaur. Somehow, this final indignity rekindled some spark of vitality in both of them, they set aside their ancient enmity, slaughtered their oppressors, and escaped, eventually arriving in town with the others.

Based on details the characters provided, I decided that they're starting out in Alpenshire, a halfling town at the foothills of a great mountain range, known locally as the Grosse Bergen. (Remember, the Undermountain's got to be nearby somewhere!) That same mountain range is home to numerous giants, and apparently a deplorable traveling circus, and on the other side is the Taurean Plains, where the centaurs and minotaurs live. Alpenshire is home to one branch of the Hornblower family, who grow vast fields of pipeweed in the shade of the Bergs.

The most exciting thing to happen in the Shire in quite some time was the appearance, overnight, of a black volcano to the southwest of town (the opposite side from the mountain range). Most Alpenshire residents are a bit parochial and uninterested in things happening outside, but Willowbald, Raku, and Nehyrx decided to investigate this mysterious appearance.

After walking for a few hours, the friends arrived at a point where the grass began to give way to shiny green sand. Upon closer inspection, Raku determined that the "sand" was actually minute pebbles of green glass. The group assumed this was an effect of the volcano's arrival, but weren't sure if it had been dredged up to the surface from below, or if the grass itself had somehow been transformed into glass.

Within a couple hundred yards of the volcano, they reached a point where the green sand gave way to black sand, also made of tiny bits of smooth glass. They could see a ziggurat built into the side of the volcano, and a crowd of humanoid figures gathered around outside. The figures seemed to be roughly human-sized, but made entirely of grey stone. (Like Korg, from the Thor movies!) The three adventurers crouched behind what appeared to be either a strange looking boulder or a crystalized bush.

As the three friends watched, they were able to discern that a handful of the figures were carrying stone spears, and that occasionally these guards would drag off someone who'd been standing around. There appeared to be a few more stone figures on top level of the ziggurat, but they kept moving in and out of an entryway, so they were hard to make out. Watching the ground level again, they saw that individuals were drawing stones from a box. Most drew a black stone and went back to milling, but drawing a red stone meant being carried away.

At one point while their backs were turned, a large snake made of glass or rock crystal slithered up behind them, its eyes set on swallowing Willowbald whole. Nehyrx managed to engage the monster with his spear, and prevented it from getting past him, fairly quickly subduing it.

Resuming their vantage point, the group debated what to do. Nehryx thought about his travails with the circus, and worried that the rock people who were being led off were unwilling victims, and wondered what fate might befall them. Willowbald suggested trying to talk to some of the stone creatures, and pointed out that he knew magic that would allow them to communicate, even if they didn't speak the same language.

The group approached the edge of the gathering, trying to find someone who was standing somewhat apart from the others. They tried talking to one, but it didn't appear to recognize their language, or show any interest in them at all. Willowbald tried casting his spell to comprehend languages and asked the creature what was going on. When it spoke back, Raku and Nehryx just heard unintelligible growling, but Willowbald translated for his friends.

Upon questioning, the stone figure revealed that their home had unexpectedly risen to the surface. No one seemed to know why this had happened, but the head priest had a plan to return them home. Unfortunately, this plan would involve sacrifices. The figure wasn't happy about the situation, but understood the sacrifices to be necessary. Likewise, it assumed that while no one wanted to die, the lottery system was fair, and the ones who were sacrificed would be doing their part to save the others.

When Willowbald offered "But what if no one had to die? What if we could help you?" The stone creature perked up. It called over to a group of nearby guards. "They volunteer as tribute! They volunteer to help us by being sacrifices, so none of us has to die!" Willowbald tried to correct the misunderstanding, "No that's not what I meant-" but the guards didn't seem to be listening to anything else he had to say.

A brief combat followed. Raku's fiery dragon breath seemed to fuse two of the guards into lifeless stone. Willowbald distracted another with an illusion of the crystalline snake. Nehryx interposed himself bodily between the living guards and his friends. He was speared once and decided to run for it, helping the two onto his back to gallop away. The stone guardian threw its spear but declined to give chase. Nehryx was felled and had to spend an hour out in the field coming to, but the guards returned to their posts and their people. After Nehryx recovered, he, Willowbald, and Raku returned to town.

125 XP (snake 50 + three guards 25/each)


Raku Chihuly - dragonborn guild-artisan, 1st level artificer - played by Emily
Willibald Hornblower - halfling noble, 1st level bard - played by Steve
Nehryx - centaur outlander, 1st level fighter - played by Corey
Demic - minotaur entertainer, 1st level paladin - played by Ben

After Nehryx healed up from his injury, and the volcano did not disappear back down into the earth, the three friends were joined by Nehryx's old companion, Demic. Demic had been enslaved by the traveling circus even longer than Nerhyx, and had already fought in countless gladiatorial matches by the time the two first met. The two maintained a campsite together, just outside of town. They were both larger than human-sized, while everything in Alpenshire was built for halflings, so they were more comfortable outside and on their own.

The group marched back out to the volcano and circled it warily from a distance, not wanting to get close enough to attract the guards' attention. Raku used of the empty wine bottles from Willowbald's run-down estate to collect samples of the interesting sand, believing that she might be able to melt it down and make glasswork out of it. The group watched the ziggurat for some time, but it seemed significantly less active than before. Not entirely deserted, but with only a handful of stone guards and other stone humanoids around. Miraculously, they weren't disturbed by any more strange wildlife during their scouting trip.

(At this point, I reminded the players that if they weren't interested in the ziggurat, that there was probably some adventure to be had up in the mountains.)

Although worried about the guards' spears, Nehryx and Demic reasoned that there must be someone in town who would pay them to investigate the temple, and thus no reason to risk their lives for free until they found that person. Willowbald and Raku also wondered if anyone in town had ever heard of something like this happening before anywhere else.

Their first stop was to see Willowbald's favorite aunt, Dinah Hornblower. Although he was not on great terms with the rest of the family, Aunt Dinah still had a soft spot in her heart for her wee nephew. The group went to her public house, The Laughing Halfling, where Willowbald was able to determine that nothing like was part of the town's collective memory. He did get a couple leads though. Old Man Bassoon had been complaining about the volcano's effect on his soil, and Black Iris, who spent a lot of time up in the mountain sourcing implausibly-discounted goods, was very worldly and might know rumors from distant lands.

The next day, they traipsed out to the edge of town, to the furthest out farm, which belonged to the constantly complaining Old Man Bassoon. "Just look at these leaves! They're all withered and sickly!" Old Man Bassoon was convinced that the volcano had ruined his soil, and that his pipeweed crop was in trouble. Reluctantly, he was offering up his rainy-day fund of 500 gp to anyone who could send the volcano back underground and rescue his crop.

Later they found Black Iris, named for her dark hair and the flower she tucked behind each ear, enjoying an afternoon drink. She was a very successful businesswoman, known for finding merchandise that fell off the back of a supply caravan through the mountains and reselling it in Alpenshire. She knew that the stone people were called Azurs, that they're mostly simple rock farmers, and that they typically lived underground. She'd heard of one of their communities accidentally surfacing before. "Every Azur community has a diamond as big as your fist," Black Iris told them. "You could use it to send them back. Or you could bring it to me. I'm sure I could find you a buyer. It would be worth a king's ransom."

Satisfied that they knew enough, and had enough financial opportunities, to justify the trip to temple, arriving just before dawn and coming from the north this time, where they could see dozens of small caves dug into the side of the volcano, and a small number of Azurs sleeping individually out in the sand. They decided to wait until one woke up and use Willowbald's magic to speak to it. While they waited, a cloud of glass mosquitoes descended on them, but Raku quickly dispatched the insects with a blast of dragon fire.

As the sun rose, an early-rising Azur awoke and began rubbing its arms for warmth. Willowbald approached it to speak, and learned that Garblegrox was a rock farmer and found the weather up here a bit cold for its liking. Willowbald asked about the sacrifices and learned that they hadn't worked yet, but the high priest was calling for more. Willowbald asked about the guards and learned that there were about a dozen, working in shifts, and none of them had been chosen as sacrifices, which Garblegrox hadn't previously considered suspicious until just that moment. Finally Willowbald asked about the diamond, and learned that the high priest would probably never part with it, that it belonged to the dead king. The priest would never give up the diamond or the body of the king, so the sacrifices would continue. Willowbald thanked Garblegrox and returned to the group. They decided that the Azurs were probably suffering under corrupt leadership.

The four adventurers inspected the ziggurat again. The only visible entrance was on the top level, where a couple guards stood totally motionless. But they remembered that the other day, they hadn't seen anyone climbing the stairs, and so went to look for a hidden chamber. They found a door, and Raku was able to pick the lock. Inside were two more guards standing over a group of sleeping Azur farmers. Nehryx and Demic rushed forward to attack the guards while Raku and Willowbald helped wake the prisoners and return them to freedom.

There was no obvious way out of the room, but Nehryx and Demic both thought there must be a secret door, and soon found one along the far wall. Inside was a giant Azur lying still on a raised platform, holding a large uncut diamond. As the adventurers entered the room, the figure sat up and bellowed its name "GOORRR-GAAARRRRR!" It tosses the diamond into the air where it hovered overhead. The fight that followed was brutal. Demic leapt onto the table to strike at GORGAR from above. Nehryx first had his glaive get stuck in GORGAR's hide like wet cement, and then was trapped by tentacles that sprang from the monster's side. Willowbald tried viciously mocking the king to no effect, then assailed it with shots from his crossbow Raku rushed forward to help free Nehryx, who was able to escape with her help before delivering the killing blow.

GORGAR collapsed into a puddle of wet mud, and the diamond tumbled to the ground. Willowbald rushed forward to catch it. The group briefly debated how to destroy the diamond, including climbing up the side of the volcano to toss it inside. Demic checked the large ceremonial doors and found a room where a curtain of lava flowed behind an altar. Willowbald entered the room and prepared to throw the diamond. For a second, he felt tempted by thoughts that the diamond might be worth much more than Old Man Bassoon could pay, but rejected those thoughts and tossed the diamond into the lava. The whole temple began to rumble and shake and sink into the ground. The altar crumbled, the platform where GORGAR had lain split in half, the stairs rocked from side to side as they ran back up to the surface.

Outside they heard cheering and watched Azurs running from their rudimentary rock farming efforts to jump back onto the sinking volcano. A few remained on the surface, seemingly by choice. One approached the party and spoke to Willowbald. It was Garblegrox! "It's cold up here, but my rocks grow well, and there are friendly neighbors nearby."

Back at the village, Old Man Bassoon was still grumbling and complaining. "Yeah, the volcano's gone, but it hasn't helped my pipeweed has it?" He paid the agreed upon fee with no difficulty, but he wanted them to know that he remained troubled and put upon. Reward in hand, the group retired to the Laughing Halfling.

500 gp reward
525 XP (mosquitoes 25 + two guards 25/each + GORGAR 450)


As I said, I agreed to run this campaign shortly before we got started, and only picked out this adventure because the one I'd planned on was too high-level. That said, I think this worked pretty well. In retrospect, maybe I should have gone with the hook Trey built into the adventure, of the party spotting a meteorite landing, finding the strange people at the crater, and then discovering the people's temple and their new-found meteorite worship. But my slimmed-down version did result in a new, friendly Azur settlement near their starting town, so that's not bad either.

The collaborative world-building with the players seems to be working out too, although there are some tonal differences between their various backstories. Part of me wishes I had my own bespoke campaign setting, ready to go, able to be picked up whenever I'm running a game on short notice like this.

I've seen other GMs complain online that their players just rush into the dungeon without gathering any information first. I came close to having the opposite problem! The group's search for actionable intel resulted in them earning a reward and making three new contacts, to say nothing of the way it benefited their path through the temple.

5e appears to have a lot of interesting support for earning renown within your community, joining factions and attaining favor, and I haven't done anything with those rules so far, although if I feel like I have time I might look into them. So far, I find myself playing catch-up on the combat rules.

A couple of my players are clearly quite experienced with tactical combat in 5e, probably either with miniatures, or with a digital tabletop like Roll20. My main concern is that, whatever the rules seem to say, no, you can't get advantage on every single attack roll just because you said you were flanking, and no, the Tunnel Fighter fighting style and use of a polearm still don't mean that you get an attack of opportunity every single round. I don't think this is really want the 5e designers intended, and more to the point, I don't care, because it's not what I want a game I'm GMing to be like.

Flanking is an optional rule, and furthermore, its an optional rule within the already-optional rules for using miniature figures in combat, which we aren't. So currently, there are five ways to get advantage on an attack roll - spend a point of Inspiration, have an ally spend their point of Inspiration on you, use your action to "Hide", have an ally use their action to "Help" you ... or do something cool that interacts with the environment for a one-time situational advantage.

Interacting with the environment might not be possible in every fight. Maneuvering into position can be done as an action (treat this like "Disengage" basically), or as a movement that might provoke an attack of opportunity (I don't love this, but there should be some cost for doing it faster), or by attempting a relevant skill check. If the check succeeds, you get the advantage without giving your opponent an opportunity, but if the check fails, then you don't gain advantage and your opponent gets the bonus attack. This was how we handled Demic jumping up on the platform, and I thought it worked well.

The 5e DMG also has some advice for "improvising damage" directly from interacting with the environment, (ranging from like 1d10 for making a bookshelf fall on them to like 4d10 for having a ceiling collapse on them) so depending on what you do, you might just damage your opponent directly instead of getting advantage on your attack roll.

As for attacks of opportunity, this isn't a mechanic I like at all, although I admit it's probably just a personal preference. They feel like they both force people (like me) who prefer "theater of the mind" combat to have to care about the fictional positioning of the combatants, while preventing people who do care about tactical miniatures from being able to move around as freely as they might. And its another thing that makes retreating from combat harder. Not impossible, you can "Disengage" after all, but harder.

Nehryx being a Tunnel Fighter means that intelligent enemies aren't going to risk his glaive to try to pass him to get at anyone using ranged weapons, which is really good protection for Willowbald and Raku. Unintelligent enemies, like the crystal snake, might still try it, and face his prowess. Nehryx also doesn't get an opportunity attack against someone approaching him, especially not someone he's already attacked, although he could gain that opportunity by taking the Polearm Master feat when he reaches 4th level. As a 2nd level fighter, he'll already get an extra attack every combat, because fighters are cool like that. But combat should never just be one or two player rolling all the dice while everyone else sits on their hands, even if it is a chance for the more martial characters to show off what they're good at.

All the characters have earned enough XP to go up to 2nd level. And I haven't been paying attention to the rules for Inspiration, but they've all done something to earn a point, so they'll all start the next session with that available.


  1. Sounds like a couple of great seasions. Some good observations on 5e combat, too.

    1. Thanks, Trey. I found someone else writing about this too:

      There's a certain elegance in these rules. You get the same benefit for being invisible, attacking after you've hidden, and for catching your enemy completely by surprise.

      The player with the fighter also suggested trading out fighting styles to take something that doesn't rely on fictional positioning for its benefit. I'm hoping that will work out to be more fun for him and easier for me.