Deconstructing Dungeons – Gauntlet of Flame

This week’s Deconstructing Dungeons focuses on Gauntlet of Flame, which was published in March 2017. We’re going to take a look at the adventure, summarise it, and talk about its good and bad features, or at least those which I could improve upon.

I wrote Gauntlet of Flame pretty much straight after reading Storm King’s Thunder, and it is heavily inspired by that campaign, specifically the events surrounding Duke Zalto. Specifically, I wanted a related one-shot that might give the characters a way to learn about, or gain an advantage over, the ruler of the fire giants. Because of this, I included a few different hooks to help DMs integrate it into their campaigns.

Cover

The adventure is set in a dwarven mine-city named Citadel Grungharaz, that has been raided and occupied by a fire giant force, led by Ferrusnika; an intimidating, merciless overlord with a penchant for inventing gruesome weapons. Depending on what brings the characters to the citadel, they might be looking for a specific item hidden away in old dwarven vaults, or be aiming to shut down the forge entirely. This diversity of introduction means that the adventure could be run for lower level parties who are trying to sneak in and out of the citadel unnoticed, and for higher level parties who want to storm through and clear the place out. I recommend that the adventure be run for 5th-10th level characters, but I think this could probably be flexed even further. On a similar note, I estimate a 6-10 hour run-time, but depending on which elements of the adventure the characters engage with, I think it could be done rapidly in a single session, or drawn out across four or five.

The citadel is broken down into several sub-locales. The upper layers, controlled by the fire giants, contain a lava-flow powered forge, dormitories full of enslaved dwarves, and the living quarters of Ferrusnika and her kin. On these levels the characters have opportunity to interact with the slaves if they are stealthy, confront the fire giants if they are bold, or explore the mechanical workings of the lava mill. They may also discover the entrance to the mine below. I chose to use azers as the lower level foe in this adventure. I think they’re a fantastic monster for several reasons, not least because they’re such a strange thing to encounter – a flame-haired, metal dwarf elemental rampaging around the place, what’s not to love? It also allowed me to work in some political dynamism between the slaves, the loyalist dwarves, the azers, and the fire giants themselves. This is something that I allowed to be explored and exploited toward the climax of the adventure.

Capture1

I think my favourite element of the upper levels of the citadel is the environment itself. A towering stone and metal citadel with a river of lava flowing through its centre is an evocative image, and giving the characters the ability to use and interact with the environment is a real thrill. A few of the scenes I pictured while writing the adventure were;

  • Characters attempting to sneak into the left side of the citadel, but being spotted by the fire giants on the right, and having the chance to escape down the mine, or disguise themselves as slaves before the giants could catch them.
  • Combat breaking out between the characters and the loyalist dwarves on the rotating lava mill.
  • Characters sneaking into the operating room of the lava mill, smashing up the machinery then fleeing from the scene whilst pursued by flaming azers.

This sort of imagery inspired me throughout the adventure, and I hope that the location has as much personality as the NPCs do!

The next locale that the characters can explore are the mines beneath Grungharaz. Again here I delved into random encounter territory, using a paired down version of the Out of the Abyss random encounter tables (I’ve talked more on this subject in a recent discussion post). Although in this instance the exploration is not a hexcrawl, I think the use of random encounters here will give characters a feel for what the mine is like. Unfortunately, I think I could have done a better job of picking the encounters. They’re all rather predictable and combat-oriented, which can constrain play significantly if the characters keep failing their Wisdom (Survival) checks to navigate through the twisting tunnels.

Within the mine system are several small dungeons that the characters can explore. The first are the Caves of Cuprumzel, a kobold-littered lair, heavily inspired by the material in Volo’s Guide to Monsters, that has at its heart a young copper dragon, unable to escape from her birthing chamber. What I like most about this location is the motivations of the monsters within. The kobolds will do anything to protect their home and their dragon ruler from invaders, and might not correctly identify the characters as potential friends. Depending on how the party play their roles, they could end up wiping out the majority of the kobolds, only to find that they could have become staunch allies. Alternatively, if they anger or fail Cuprumzel, they might wish they’d dealt with a few kobolds on their way in! I liked the challenge of using a low CR creature to challenge a higher level party, which I think I achieved through copious use of traps, the kobold variants in VGtM, and related monsters with a higher CR that act as allies. All of this is inspired, of course, by Tucker’s Kobolds. If all goes well for the characters, and they are able to help Cuprumzel escape, they will have a good chance of taking out the fire giants with their small army of kobolds and the dragon on their side.

Capture2

Characters might also want to explore the vault, an ancient dwarven construction designed to store their most valuable treasures and kill any who would dare to take them. Because of the size of the vault, the giants are incapable of accessing it, which further complicated the relationship between the different parties in the dungeon. Rather than using combat encounters to make the vault threatening, I tried to use puzzles to give that classic Tolkein-like feel of hidden dwarven treasures, and a simple but particularly nasty trap involving an arcane gate and a lake of lava. I also created a monster called an arcane ooze, and tried to use it in an innovative way, by hiding a key within the body of the ooze itself. If the characters manage to overcome the challenges here, they will come out laden with treasure, and perhaps a weapon which will help them kill Zalto or the other giants.

I think I did a good job in this adventure of creating a multi-layered, politically interesting dungeon, with elements of combat, exploration and social interaction peppered throughout. Although the adventure is only 26 pages long, I think I packed in a lot of content, including new monsters and three player handouts (something I’ve only ever done in this adventure, but should do way more). I’m also pleased with the feeling and personality of the location, there are several villains in this adventure (and several allies), but I think the worst of them all is the blistering forge itself. I also gave a fire giant a huge crop sprayer filled with lava so there’s that.

Capture3

As usual, the cartography for the adventure was done by my fair hand, and scanned into the computer, using photoshop to tickle it up to standard. Going forward, I think I’ll try to get professionals to do my cartography, as I think it can really elevate the adventure (more on this when the time comes).The layout was done using homebrewery (I’ll do an article/tutorial about this sometime). The art came from a variety of places; DMsGuild creator packs, artists I contacted through DeviantArt, and Arcana Games. (there’s probably an article about sourcing artwork in me too).

Kobold Caves.n

What I did well: I think/hope that my biggest achievement in this adventure is to have created a living environment, which can be used in many ways by the characters, and which provides a chance for social and political manoeuvring. Although there is a lot of combat to be had in the adventure, I think there’s also plenty of room for social interaction, as the characters interact with the various factions throughout the dungeon. Although they’re relatively simple, I also like the player handouts, and recognise I should use more of these in other adventures.

What I did poorly: I think one of my biggest downfalls in this adventure is the random encounter system for the mines. It’s likely to be highly taxing on both the players and the DM, and I’d recommend being careful with its implementation. If I were to redo the adventure, I’d amend the encounter tables to give more chance for roleplay or social interaction, and try to make a more balanced navigation/encounter system. I also think I poorly summarised the adventure, and could have done with a roster table (like those found in SKT), and probably an introductory chapter detailing the main characters, and their motivations.

GIVEAWAY! As usual, if you share or retweet this post on social media, you are entered into a draw to win a free pdf copy of the adventure. Winner announced this Friday (22nd July 2018).

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