Exploring the Underworld: A 5e Experience
If you've never run the Slaver Series each module makes it very clear that the Slave Lords and their Network, which I have worked into the Lord's Alliance, are very crafty and cunning. They are shrewd and ruthless assassins and thieves and will not hesitate to take advantage when it presents itself. Well in several failed frontal assaults they Lords have lost to the party each time. Thus this last time they realized it was better to leave the adventurers trapped in the stockade apparently pursuing them into the dungeons underneath, when in actuality they had already vacated the caves through exit 39 (see below).
The idea here is that what we are talking about is a whole other world under the earth--not exactly like the UnderDark, which serves a different purpose--that is or may be or eventually will creep its way into any region under the earth, no matter how near or far. I used the Cave regions primarily (in the NW quadrant) and area 17 as my primary infiltration points of the beginning of cancerous growths, or old festering wounds of evil that were never quite healed and kept from abscessing into the main dungeon.
Essentially my thinking was that the Slave Lords and the Drow, when they took over the stockade and rebuilt the fort in and amongst the ruins of the original keep, they found that the dungeon had become infected with nether regions of the Underworld. The Cave regions, in fact, of the Upper NE quadrant had always been connected to things deeper, darker and more sinister. However, the Drow and the Slave Lords had walled off those portions to keep them in check as they did their business. And nothing says "open me" to a group of XP hungry adventurers like a large thick iron door, crossed with chains and padlocked, hung with a hastily scrawled sign reading "Under NO circumstances is this door to be opened!"
So it was that my adventurers entered the portion of the castle that was not rebuilt by the Slavers, but the older more ancient and shadowy stone portion of the ruins that led downwards into the dungeons below. Now, remember, that the Slavers had left with the slaves, leaving the Adventurers to deal with the traps, puzzles and denizens they had left behind; in addition to whatever might have crawled out of the now unlocked, unchained and open doors which had barred the dark from dungeon below the fort. So immediately the castle seems to take on an abandoned, silent for ominous feel.
First they tackle a complicated series of doors previously used to dispose of slaves and "drop" them into cages below. Now the area is magically trapped with a high level magical sleep spell. The creepy words on the door "Somnus Loductor" (Latin for Sleep Inductor and used as a magical glyph to anchor the enchantment now on the area). However, a comprehend languages having translated the words, the adventurers falsely assumed that this was some elaborate method to "anesthetize" slaves before transport. I won't bore you with a play by play, but suffice it to say it led to a good half hour of intense and exciting play as they worked their way through and past this nefarious trap.
The next exploratory phase involved the party in a strange and somewhat creepy section of the dungeon where an escaped slave and his two female charges were hiding in the walls. The escapees constructed an elaborate haunting hoax in this section of the dungeon (this is a part of the original module) which led to a scary confrontation in which the party accidentally kills all three of the poor escaped souls hiding behind the walls. The ethical dilemma and argument this caused was brilliant and offered an excellent example of alignment based roleplay among the party.
The point is there was technically no combat in all three and half hours of play, and the party had a blast working their way through this very interesting and challenging portion of the dungeon. Atmosphere was thick, tension was high, interest was keen and all in all it was one of the best sessions we've had in awhile. Several of the players were commenting about the castle as if it were a foe in and of itself "I am beginning to hate this place!" and "What is this freakin castle trying to do to us?!" and one suggestion that they actually excavate a section themselves and drop it into their own base of operations back in Phandalin.
All of which I point out to support the notion success when the dungeon begins to take on the tone of a Mythic Underworld and exploration, critical thinking, roleplay and immersion in the setting begins to rise to the top. I had mentioned last time that my hope is to minimize combat frequency, increase combat deadliness and play more with exploration and interaction with the setting and its denizens. Adventurers get the feeling that they aren't just on a military style mission, but that they are exploring a very dangerous and insidious place that is somehow out to get them! The very heart of Dungeon as a Mythic Underworld.