The Crypts of Zuul
Lvl ??? (est. 4-6)
Near deadline’s end, I was sent a cryptic message.
“5 days ago I got in a heated argument over sandboxes and railroads.
This is what came out of that.
Not understanding this was meant to be a contest entry, by the time I had requested and was granted access to the link I had already announced the contestants. After perusing it, I opted for a last minute dramatic reveal. Crypts of Zuul has immense potential, but it is clearly an unfinished work. It may or may not violate many of the strictures I have laid out. It is, however, far too interesting not to review.
The power of Crypts of Zuul is in the eerie beauty of its encounters, each seemingly sprung straight from the ID, intricate and beautiful, yet part of some greater design that we do not fathom. The different room contents do not make sense, and are not connected beyond the odd Key A opening Door B. With these tantalizing words HISE heralds in this labyrinth of deadly strangeness.
The dry seabed of a receding ocean. The cities have followed the lowering waters. The NEW TOWN is close to the sea level. The OLD CITY is an elevation up. The ANCIENT METROPOLIS is on a high elevation, now just a long forgotten sandstorm torn edifice perched on a high cliff. The LAST SEA is the last great water source, however it is highly toxic due to slow concentration of salts and SPICE created as a waste bi-product of the LITTLE MAKERS.
These are the labyrinthine passages beneath the RUINED TEMPLE in the NECROPOLIS OF SUUL. The NECROPOLIS sits at the edge of the DEAD SEA BASIN, perched on a cliff overlooking a vast terraced landscape. This was the last great city built along the ancient ocean. As the water receded the settlements followed. SUUL was abandoned. The underworks remain.
Only cryptic hints as to the origins and purpose of the place. Good. You need that. A blank slate with tantalizing hints that the mind will slowly combine into a coherent whole. Impressionist story telling. Perhaps not describing the appearance of the place could be used to one’s advantage, but this might be unworkable. Go for something odd. Featureless white marble tunnels or something.
The map drew my eye. It is not fully operational, and has no scale yet. I suspect the key for the map was lost, but I assume D stands for Door, D* would be a stuck door, S is a secret door and A is a locked door? The meaning of the Kanji in the southeast corner eludes. That being said, very ambitious, two tiers, balconies, walkways, multiple entrances to the surface and down (maybe even to different levels). The proper size for a megadungeon. As written it is also probably too empty, although having a very desolate labyrinth might actually work to its strengths. Maybe add 10 more encounters?
The balcony part is intriguing in concept but the verticality is not used that well. It adds to the disorientation but I would have liked to see it used more often. Maybe introduce some sort of patrolling monster that is very deadly but only Knee-High? Despite the multiple layers, it is not always clear where the higher levels are, and where the two overlap. Consider adding a clarifying sentence in the rooms where the overlap takes place?
Random Encounter table is provided, thank gygax, and monster selection is the good kind of strange. Phase Spiders, AL Miraj, fire beetles, Dark creepers, Rust monsters, Disenchanter, some Satyr-like dark souls merchant that is actually a Denizen of Leng. A Carbuncle! The Nonafel. The strangest of the monster manual entries have been harvested and their powers are combined. A whiff of Dune is sprinkled on top. A labyrinth of forgotten purpose inhabited by cryptids and creatures of darkness.
The writing has power behind it.
11. LIBRARY DOOR The large double-door to this room seems to be barred from the inside. Above the portal is scrawled the words:
Set in the door is a brass knocker shaped something like a chicken head with a ring in between its beak.
● The door will open if the knocker is raised, then lowered without making a sound.
● If the knocker is used with force, the eyes of the chicken flash, and all those within line of site of the door must make a save vs Petrification.
Each is a unique gemstone, existing in a void and having almost no relation to its brothers. Holographic room exhibits (yes I caught the MoBM/Frank Frazetta/Wilderlands shoutout). The corpse of a brilliant musician locked in Astral travel. A place where anything can and does happen. As a tip for the useability, if a key opens some door in another room, it helps to put a reference to that room in the key entry and vice versa. Monsters negotiate or are at least talkative, objects are cryptic but hide power, often in the forms of spells, or terrible danger that must be unlocked. Somehow there is indeed a good balance between dangerous encounters, interaction, the odd trap (a delayed blast fireball ballista!).
At the same time sometimes it seems obtuse. Why put a petrification trap on the library when visiting the library does not seem to give an immediate benefit. Can its countless forbidden tomes be utilized elsewhere in the dungeon?
At times monsters will be described as talkative but their goals are unclear.
21. HAY STACK A large 15 ft tall pile of finely cured hay crowds the center of this room. A CATOBLEPAS chews thoughtfully.
● If the beast is approached peacefully and treated with respect, it may engage the PCs in conversation. It is quite knowledgeable. “If the world was created from Ymir’s body, then what does that make stone?”
● Close, careful inspection among the haystack will reveal 3 GOLDEN NEEDLES and 1 YGG PINE NEEDLE among the dry grass.
● A prick from a GOLDEN NEEDLE will cause stone to soften, as per TRANSMUTE STONE TO FLESH
Cryptic is good but more elaboration is required in terms of how the PCs are going to interact with it. If it is wise, does it know any secrets within the labyrinth proper? This is something you could work with, in a place with so much mystery, any hint or bit of knowledge is of immense value.
There are references to ID and MANA, that are not explained. Tantalizing hints of a greater design.
The map and the encounters are not connected. That is to say, they exist in the same place but there is almost no synergy between the two. This is a mistake. A fantastic map like should have chokepoints, areas that the PCs might want to move around, shortcuts etc. One good decision, a false wall that functions like a teleporter into a wholly different area of the map. That is fantastic. Consider secret rooms with hints to their location placed elsewhere in the dungeon.
There is power in the strangeness but there is no reason that strangeness cannot be refined and strengthened by good practice. Concealing more of your treasure or giving a gold piece value to some of the treasures would not inflict harm upon it, though using a standard treasure distribution format would in all fairness ruin the effect. I applaud the use of the MM entries because in an environment like this convention and the familiar can indeed function as a hindrance not a help so the way they were used was perfect.
There are terrifying references to the Morgue Moth, the adult version of the Carrion Crawler that has taken host in a human body and bursts out, having stolen the memory of its host and now thinking itself the wizard it sprung from but it has, unfortunately, no stats. If there is any source of inspiration that can do justice to such a thing I expect it to be somewhere between an Alzebo and that Moth thing from Perdido Street Station. One hopes that in the final version the thing will stalk the players through the tunnels, with nightmarish patience.
Don’t do any faction play here, I think it might ruin it? Faction play assumes intelligible goals and the possibility of (at least) temporary alliance. There are (potentially) friendly NPCs in the dungeon, which is good, but no big bands of humanoids. Probably the best one is a Disenchanter that is willing to team up with the party in exchange for part of the treasure, but who will casually extort the players out of a Magic Compass they might potentially find. Big groups of humanoids here would probably make it feel too crowded.
The parasitic flower growing off the TREE is a semi-petrified CRIMSON LOTUS. It requires ID to bloom. This is functionally a minor artifact, the CRIMSON LOTUS WAND. It has 1d20 charges. It can generate a BURNING HANDS for 1 charge, and a FIREBALL for 3. It requires a separate command word for each effect. These once common words are now obscure. As charges are spent, the bloom retracts to a bulb. If all the charges are spent, the petals fall off and shatter, and the stem turns to dust.
Everything is customized the shit out of and to good effect. No way in hell there will be anything level appropriate.
Obviously adding the odd notation on damage or saving throws sort of does away from the power of the thing but it is necessary for gameplay.
It was done in 5 days. The imagination exults at its final form. Make this a thing.
Contest Winners on Sunday.