Dawn of the Overmind (1998)
Bruce R. Cordell (TSR)
Levels 8 – 10
A recent very interesting conversation with a fellow scholar of the questionable and divisive art of psychology recently informed me that if I am to generate more readers I should interpose my articles with imagery with captions and possibly some cat pictures if I am to avert the looming peril of the wall of text so this will be an experimental format.
In a previous article, scholar Robert Weber remarked that the low quality of the first installment of the Illithiad adventure trilogy could be chalked up to the cancerous mis-reign of the Tyrant Loraine Williams and her loathsome ilk. While he is probably correct, my poetic soul chafes at this rational explanation. I irrationally choose to believe that Bruce Cordell is like the Marlyn Monroe of Dungeons and Dragons modules, coquettishly pouting his lips and flicking his mane of golden curls in the setting sun as he purrs; ‘If you do not like me at my worst, you don’t deserve me at my best.’ If we choose to regard the trilogy in this (deeply troubled and unnecessarily homo-erotic) light, A Darkness Gathering is nothing more than an obligatory final shit-test before a sweat-drenched, dingy liaison in a back-alley laundromat, and what a glorious liaison it is. Dawn of the Overmind is the final chapter in the Illithiad trilogy and it is a truly epic conclusion, worthy of the annals. I find it inconceivable this did not make it on the Top 30 best D&D adventures of all time, in light of other, dubious entries.
When we last left off our heroes had just unearthed an ancient Illithid nautiloid space-craft and managed to get it to work again, presumably without too many fatalities. Now it is time to leave the crystal sphere, cross the phlogiston and its strange perils and set course for Penumbra, the long-forgotten seat of the ancient Illithid empire.
The ship itself gets a nice map, and crucially, there is even some hidden treasure. The adventure begins with some nice descriptions and then we get to the phlogiston, the strange ether between stars. Two random encounters with the strange inhabitants of this nebulous realm (space ghosts and even cooler, a nebula cloud of spores that burrow into the ship and slowly pupate, creating a sort of Alien scenario if not all of the eggs are found in time) and we approach the huge starheap that contains ancient Penumbra.
Massive two-fisted double-barrelled thumbs up for Penumbra itself, a gigantic disk-shaped megastructure constructed around a sun in such a fashion that the entire gigantic super world is perpetually shrouded in twilight. Man what a great setting for adventure.
The first section proper reminds me of Ringworld, or maybe John Carter of Mars. You are given a psionic vision of your objective, the Annulus, a green psionic anti-Illithid artifact made by Illithids as a weapon to fight their civil wars, and you are off, onto a world larger then a thousand earths. Fortunately your ship landed near a primary hub so its all good.
The surface is inhabited by the forerunners, distant ancestors of the slave races of the illithids, who have forgotten their origins and whatnot. First contact, negotiation and roleplaying is needed to get yourself some sweet ass rumors, though I suppose you could just butcher everyone and cast speak with dead a whole lotta times. As expected, the natives have 99 problems and need your help, but at least they are not dicks about it and give you some warriors to assist, all of whom will die almost instantly because they have 1 HD. Nevertheless I appreciate the gesture. If you swagger around too much with all your magical shit the village thief will attempt to steal it but if you find out and kill him you will be in serious shit with the locals. A tiny little detail that adds so much. Nice set up too, classic. Help us and we will guide you to the ruins where there might be something to help you along further. As a matter of fact there are multiple instances in this trilogy where you can get aid in the form of Npcs, usually minor ones. Very welcome, and a possible nod to ye olden days when you had retainers galore and your torchbearers would blot out the sun.
Shit is going full on Sword & Planet now, as you battle degenerate cannibal forerunners, fight a gigantic Spider (The Hungry One, could have been straight outta Warriors of Mars) and probably murder an Illithid Lich (The Vivimancer) with hithereto unseen mind-control magic (extra point for avoiding a cliche, an undead wizard that controls skeletons is something we have in fact seen before). His servants don’t attack instantly but try a variety of ruses first. The vivimancer himself pulls a trick and hides among mummified Illithid. As he dies, his minions become mindless husks. And another artifact is probably looted from the corpse: the staff of ancient Penumbra, made from the unbreakable
scrinth substare the disk is made of. Cordell cuts the brakes and heads for the sound barrier. This entire section is amazingly good. Small side note; If your players are anti-social shitbags, you can sociopathically murder your way through all the encounters and find a map to the entrance of the ruins as well as some adventuring gear on a dead guy in the spider’s layer. Time to follow in the footsteps of the ancient hero Arak and descend into the interior of Penumbra, the mysterious Capital Subterrene!
So, while the thralls lived on the surface the Illithids lived inside Penumbra, protected from outside contact since there was no need for entrances because Illithids can teleport and thralls cannot. Fortunately for us the legendary hero Arak has managed to bore a tunnel into the indestructible psionic supermaterial and now we can go down.
Instead of lame stairs for assholes and idiots we have to find a way to climb down a 200 feet deep tunnel with some old pitons (that have a small chance of breaking loose!) and a further 200 feet down until you hit the cavern floor. Now you might be thinking but waitaminute Prince, isn’t substare indestructible, how can there be pitons therein? And I reply in turn: Yea, thou ignorant harlot, is not the substare covered by a layer of regular dirt/rock so shit can grow on it, hath thou not perused Ringworld?
This section is divided up in three levels. The first section is a city that the mind flayers sank under the earth during the galaxy wide thrall revolt. It is haunted by Grammites (palette swapped hook horrors) but Cordell does the smart thing and gives them a nice coat of paint and different behaviour. Some more fun stuff includes a faded temple, complete with a pathetic trap to give it that rundown decaying feel, and pronto, we are locked in battle with the last remnant of Maanzecorian, the Illithid deity that was killed through unknown agents (Bruce Cordell because the Illithids didn’t need two deities) long ago. When was the last time you killed the last crippled remnant of an alien god? Suck it Maanzecorian!
This section has some nice shit, the primary antagonists remain the grammites and their loathsome grammite queen, there are plenty of ambushes, there is an opportunity to help out some Forerunners and do some tradin,’ a possibility of TPK if the players are idiots (always a feature not a bug, and a mandatory component to any, no exceptions, any decent adventure, yes, even for Alma mater or some fruity WoD game where all you do is kiss dudes and lament about being eternally young or whatever the hell VtM is about ask Von in my comment section or check out his blog or some shit), some psionic treasure that is like the magic treasure but with a nice palette swap, giving it a more alien feel (and not all the treasure is useful in this adventure, also a feature not a bug), and its a wrap. Good beginning with lots of combat/sneakin’ and explorin.’ Crucially, the level is not self-contained but some tunnels are given to provide at least the illusion of a vast underground world, complete with some random procedures for throwing grammites at the players until they wise up and go back.
The second level, after a nice 200 feet drop, empties into a series of tunnels and rooms hewed out of the bedrock by the Grimlock slaves of the ancient mind flayers. These are not your grandmother’s grimlocks, thus they are not just blind but also eyeless to make them even creepier.
Two tribes of grimlocks have started worshipping the ancient hero whose footsteps you follow and now they are fighting over possession of the holy ground. Faction play! Awesome. Grapple with pit traps, an ant trap, Grimlocks (complete with nice ambush tactics oh Cordell how could I have ever doubted you), Grimlocks, revenant Grimlocks, more Grimlocks and a super awesome sonic amplification trap that requires everyone to be super duper silent to get through it and that if telegraphed really well could be one of the most awesome, memorable encounters in this level sans another we shall get too shortly.
A point of criticism: some of the information that is provided throughout the entire adventure in a certain location should really be at the beginning of the adventure section for clarity. As it is it can be managed but each section requires careful reading and possibly some note taking to get it right.
So anyway, there are plenty of opportunities to ally with one of the two factions, meet the alpha grimlock of one tribe with his tentacle gauntlet that can extract brains, easily the most metal weapon in history, die horribly if you are an idiot, and so on. The shrine proper that everyone cannot shut up about needs a key, (of course!), we get an honest to god puzzle section where we must solve riddles or get increasing amounts of damage that is actually handled tastefully, and a cherry on the proverbial cake, a smackdown with a mutant grimlock that fires psionic energy from his single mutant eye (naturally any nearby grimlocks will consider it a god and turn on you) and horrific biogenetic vats that no longer function properly, but that players that are willing to risk it all can take a drink from (anyone remember that magic stone that you could eat in B1? I love random shit that challenges the player to throw up his hands and just say fuck it gimme all you got sucker. This is incidentally why the Deck of Many things is just so damn cool).
A sip from the Tumorogenesis tanks has a pretty good chance of leaving your character a crippled mutant freak in dire need of either a heal spell if the GM is merciful or a mercykilling if the GM is not (seriously your stomach climbs up your esophagus and serves as an external organ -4 Cha time to take him behind the barn little Timmy). On the plus side you can get super awesome psionic powers or ability scores, the chance is pretty low though. If you kept to the level requirements this should be interesting, if not I see some possibility for abuse, provided the players figure out that a heal spell reverses the effect.
The third section is another nice 600 feet tunnel, but you can still use pitons for the first 100 feet? What is that grandpa? You didn’t bring 600 feet of rope and you never learned levitation? Time to climb a perfectly flat vertical surface like a chump!
The third section is within the Sustare proper and they go full on lovecraft. Ancient, dark tunnels, the hideous remnants of the Illithid race in tadpole form, not dangerous unless you are an idiot, in which case they are very dangerous and the already foreshadowed Unredeemed Beast. You meet the shade of the legendary Arak who naturally failed in his quest to retrieve the Annulus, and he is warning you to seriously not wake up the Unredeemed Beast.
He is fucking right, the Neolithid, the hideous result of a mind flayer tadpole not being implanted in a suitable host and instead forced to feed on its kin for decades while it grows ever larger, is a formidable and Lovecraftian horror. Fortunately for you idiots, it is asleep. Unfortunately, there are several ways in which you can wake it up, and one of those ways is having the super bitching gauntlet from section II. If you are a moron and it wakes up there are several ways in which it can be lured, evaded or temporarily kept busy, but Jesus what a fucking horror, its attacks are atrociously powerful and it is coated with poisonous mucous and to top it all, it breathes acid. Nice detail, the acid that dissolves the body leaves the brain intact.
“I AM DEATH. MY BREATH CAN DISPERSE YOUR FLESHY FORMS LIKE MIST, REVEALING THE JUICY SWEETMEATS THAT I HAVE BEEN SO LONG DENIED!” Its no Shakespeare but I’m sure you can make it work.
Also included in this section is what appears to be another bottomless shaft but what is actually a disintegration shaft to kill stupid players that are not cautious. Automatic seal of approval. Man I hate players. If you manage to kill the Neolithid (not impossible, but pretty fucking difficult) there is, of course, delicious loot to be had.
Right, so, we have the Annulus, a super powerful device that negates psychic shit, and negate it super hard, so now we discover what the Overmind actually is, who our mysterious benefactor actually was, what the mindflayers planned; the whole shebang. The mysterious Strom, whom I suspected was actually the mythical Adversary of Illithid legend (half true), contacts you and opens a gateway (nice description too, I don’t hate boxed text that much in this one). The seal is fading but you have a couple of days to rest up, get your shit together, maybe cast some spells. And the last act begins!
The Overmind is a ring-shaped megastructure (!) built within the ethereal plane, around a strange ether vortex to a sort of still-born multiverse (!), a place that could have been but never was, where the Illithid hegemony was never ending and the thrall revolt never took place. The Overmind uses the power of suns, harnessed via ancient pre-fall psionic tech, to basically switch universes, make that universe real, and make this one nonsense (!). Outside the Overmind, Githyanki (the escaped slave enemies of the Illithid) on Dragons desperately try to reach the Overmind but they are halted by a fleet of Nautiloid dreadnoughts. And you have the only thing to blow it. Are you ready to save the multiverse?
The last section involves a meeting with Strom, who turns out to be some weird wizard with crazyherbs that allowed him to survive the transformation into an Illithid with his sentience intact (he has additional doses so of course you can obtain those, and yes, Cordell provides rules for those seeking to follow in his deranged footsteps). The conceit is that you need to be within 500 feet to trigger the Annulus’s 1/year super special awesome grand nullification power and kill the Overmind. If you are an idiot and you used the Annulus on the Neolithid or on the wrong part of the Overmind, fear not, Cordell provides an additional, if much harder/more unlikely, way of resolving the scenario successfully (you have just cost yourself 50.000 xp). If you fuck that up too, there are several suggestions given to handle your campaign world now being nuked, with some of them feeling like a consolation price you give to special children (i.e the device does nothing), though some of them are alright (team up with the Gith and run a messed up Illithid Empireverse campaign until you find a way to use the Overmind to reverse everything).
This section proper is probably the weakest in the book. Its still full of disturbing, creepy, fun and imaginative loot, most of the Illithids are fighting to defend the Overmind and the few that wander around can actually be duped into thinking the party are thralls or subverted via hostage taking. What defies credibility is the alternate solution to the scenario: get an Illithid scientist to give you the passcode to disable the device because he feels bad man that the device will not be used anymore after the universe has been won forever. Uh.
Also, I feel like Strom gives the players too much information, this is too railroadery, I mean it makes sense, but it’s no fun. Some ideas are thrown around (there are some demiplanes within the Overmind because they are experimenting with demi-plane creation or something), but it feels tacked on and not properly developed or up to the standards of the rest of the adventure.
The adventure ends in the Engine Consumate, where the party faces none other then Lugribosk, Avatar of Ilsensine, God of Mind Flayers! Fortunately for us the ethereal plane cuts off his powers somewhat, thus, he will fake death/disability after a single blow and then take the 10 rounds to transform into his worldslayer changeling SS1 form and kick ass. Coincidentally, it takes about 10 rounds to use the Annulus’s primary ability (and turns if not hours to fill in the passcode sorry PCs I guess you are fighting Lugribosk!). There is, again, amazing loot to be had if you actually kill it, but it is far more likely a chase back to Strom’s quarters takes place where 1-3 dudes have to stay behind and hold off Lugribosk so he is on the Overmind when it explodes with the incandescent fury of a thousand caged stars. What an awesome way to go.
The loot in this section is fucking great btw. If you loot Lugribosk during his transformation or if you manage to kill him you get a kickass ring which is, like all great loot should be, cursed. 1/month you may target an enemy and if he fails his saving throw his head explodes and his brain ends up in your hand, drawback, user will start to crave brains over time and will eventually transform into an Illithid. Nice.
What is there left to say? Dawn of the Overmind is an absolute joy to read and I cannot imagine people not having fun playing it, unless they are unexperienced or children that cannot stand losing. The high difficulty might be somewhat off-putting to some people but if you made it to level 7-10 you should be ready for this type of shit. There are some minor layout trifles but do not I REPEAT not let that stop you from checking out this amazing science fantasy trip. 2e had some stinkers but this was not one. A genuflection towards Bruce Cordell is in order.
Final Verdict: What do you fucking think? 9 out of 10.
Postscriptum: I suspect based on the conversation I had that my control group cat pictures condition will be about as effective in enabling readers as relevant pictures with caption but I cannot be sure. Anyone have a definitive answer?
PostPostscriptum: Added some paragraphs and cleaned it up a bit.