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Friday 16 September 2016

The Serpent's Venom

White Dwarf was getting a circulation boost or something, so Jamie (who was the real editor of the mag, whatever the punters thought) asked me to knock off a beginners’ scenario for Advanced Dungeons and Dragons. Ah, dungeons – I’m sure you know by now how I feel about those. But I did my hack duty, and it went out under the pseudonym Liz Fletcher because I already had The Castle of Lost Souls and my RuneRites column appearing in the same issue – which was number 52, April 1984, if you’re interested.

It was later modified slightly by James Wallis to appear in the platinum-rare Dragon Warriors supplement In From The Cold. I’ve taken the stats from that, but reverted it to a more generic world background. Looking at it now, I’m not sure what the ‘awkward situation’ was that Galadria had ostensibly approached the player characters to help out with, and they may well ask so you’d better have her invent something plausible. As Galadria will have researched the characters' background before approaching them, she might be able to come up with a story that relates to their recent adventures, in which case it could be quite an effective sting.

The Serpent’s Venom

An adventure for 1st to 3rd-rank characters

Players’ introduction
Finding themselves somewhat impoverished, the player characters enter the town of Overdale one cold evening, and are forced to make do with only a meager supper of bread and cheese at the Black Rose inn. Naturally they are quick to accept when a tall, slender blonde woman in robes of green and grey approaches and invites them to dine with her.

‘I am Galadria the Gifted,’ she says. ‘I know what it is to be down on one’s luck, so I extend this charitable hand to a group of fellow adventurers.’  

The charitable hand in question glitters with a number of heavy gold rings. She sweeps gracefully between the benches where the common patrons of the inn sit drinking, leading the characters to one of the partitioned tables off to one side of the room. She orders stew and mulled wine for them, all before explaining that she is  looking for a party of suitable adventuring companions to help her deal with an awkward situation.

As the food is brought, there is a brief lull in the conversation, and the characters cannot help overhearing something of what is being said by the group at the next table. ‘Treasure’ is mentioned several times. Discreetly listening at the thin wooden partition, they hear snatches of discussion—the other group are also adventurers, planning to explore and loot an abandoned temple a day’s ride to the north. The temple appears to be located in an underground complex hidden beside a lake surrounded by weeping willows. Galadria whispers that she knows the lake, having recently passed that way—it is called Willow Lake.

Suddenly one of the men at the next table rises to leave. Galadria and the player characters immediately pretend to be chatting to one another. The man who has risen says goodbye to his friends. At the door, he turns and calls back, ‘I’ll get some horses and see you back here in two days, then,’ before walking into the night.

Galadria leans forward and speaks in hushed tones, glancing from time to time at the next table as if to reassure herself that the eavesdropping has not been detected. ‘Luck has delivered us an excellent opportunity. If that group aren’t planning to depart for another two days, we can steal a march on them. I hope that none of you consider this dishonorable—they do look rather disreputable types themselves, and honor must go by the board when one’s pocket is almost empty of gold.’

Referee’s Background
This has actually been a con, an elaborate charade enacted to dupe the player characters. Galadria is the accomplice of the men at the next table. She and they are worshippers of an evil god. (In From The Cold interpreted this as a cult sacrificing to the pagan deity Balor; see Prince of Darkness. The original scenario had the god down as Set, who in the can't-be-arsed but vaguely Old Testament mythology of Dungeons and Dragons is a snake god - which explains the scenario's title, at least.) The abandoned temple was their own, but it was attacked over a year ago by a knightly order. Galadria and the others were the only ones to escape. They would like to retrieve the idol of their god and the coffers from the temple, but have been unable to do so because several of the skeleton guards of the temple were not destroyed by the knights and now patrol parts of the complex following their original orders: to attack anyone not accompanied by a full priest of the god (of at least 5th level).

For some time, Galadria and the others have been luring adventuring parties to the temple in order to whittle down the number of undead guards without risking themselves. Then events were complicated by a group of orcs moving into the abandoned temple. Their leader, a human sorcerer, instructed the orcs to board the skeletons into one section of the complex. Although many died in the attempt, this was achieved, and the skeletons do not have the orders or the intellect to dismantle the barricade.

The remaining worshippers of the god know about the orcs. They have evolved new tactics. Galadria will take the player characters into the temple and make a drive straight for the main shrine in order to get the sacred idol. On the way out, Vargus and the others plan to mount an ambush—whereupon Galadria will reveal her true colors and (they intend) the player characters will be slain.

The Journey to the Temple
The ride north takes the characters through rolling green countryside, through vales and gentle hill, past small hamlets and farms where peasants till the fields. The terrain gradually becomes more craggy and less populous. At one point they espy a somber black chapel or monastery across the valley. Even at a distance it is easy to see that it is deserted and overgrown.

This chapel was the home of the knightly order that raided the temple. So many were slain in the endeavor that the wounded who returned decided to deconsecrate their chapel and move south. As a consequence it is deserted.

Finally their objective is in sight. As the characters ride towards the lake, however, they are suddenly attacked by a party of five orcs who are out foraging.

These orcs will not attempt to reach the temple (if they try to escape, it will be into the wilderness) because they know that the look-out there will have seen the characters approaching and will have given the alarm, so the way in will be barricaded (see below). Galadria will try not to use her spells unless absolutely necessary. She does need at least three of the player-characters to carry the idol out of the temple, however, so she will bear this in mind

The entrance to the temple is a cave mouth on the lake shore. This is concealed behind the trunk of a weeping willow but Galadria will soon ‘stumble across’ the entrance if the characters don’t spot it. Once inside the temple, her aim will be to lead them directly to the major shrine and the temple treasury. This will involve Galadria ‘noticing’ several secret doors and although she will try to pretend that she is just doing this by luck, her eagerness to complete the mission may make her find the secret doors suspiciously quickly.

The Temple Complex

1. Entrance Passage
Crudely hewn steps lead up about six feet behind the willow tree. The passage then levels out and carries on for another five feet or so—just more than the range of torchlight.

2. Entrance Hall
Barricades to the left and right block the exit passages from this room. Sturdy ropes lead across from behind the left barricade and are secured to the other. As the characters enter, they can see several orcs peering out from the left-hand barricade.

Suddenly the ropes go taut and the right-hand barricade is pulled down. There is a noxious tittering from the orcs as four skeletons advance through the collapsed barricade and attack the characters. There is a total of nine skeletons in the temple complex, previously trapped in the passage to rooms 12, 13 and 14. They will issue forth to attack the characters at the rate of 1-3 a round until all have been killed. They will also attack Galadria, even though she is a worshipper of their deity, because she is not accompanied by a priest of the god.

The barricades are made of logs and branches. The left-hand one must be broken down for the characters to reach the orcs. This will take 4-6 combat rounds, with the orcs sniping at the adventurers all the time. Galadria will prefer to take the party this way even if all the skeletons haven’t been destroyed, because she knows about the skullghast guarding the armory and regards it as the safer of the two routes.

The orcs and their leader occupy the section of the complex covering rooms 3, 4, 5 and 6. Their leader is Althalos, a sorcerer. He regards the temple complex predominantly as a convenient base from which to raid and perhaps eventually take over the local district. Though he reveres no specific deity, he does also think there’s a possibility he may be able to tap into whatever dark sources of magical power were once associated with this place. 

3. Storeroom
This was originally the temple storeroom. Some game hangs from hooks in the ceiling for a banquet the orcs were planning. The smaller chamber off to the end is where the food is prepared.

4. Refectory
There are plain wooden benches and a table.

5. Dormitory
This is where the lower-ranking worshippers slept (Galadria, Vargus and the others). It is now the orcs’ dormitory, of course. One orc lies in bed here. He has Swamp Fever (see Dragon Warriors, p. 126), and could not join his fellows in defending their lair. Anyone who touches him has a 5% chance of contracting the disease.

6. Outer Shrine
There is a black bas-relief of a muscular red-eyed demon on the opposite wall. Originally the room was hung with tapestries and was a place for solo rituals devoted to the god. It is now Althalos’s private chamber, and he uses the tapestries for his bedding.

7. Robing Room
Several black robes with a stylized eye design in white over the abdomen hang on hooks around the room. A wooden cupboard contains six black iron crowns, with tines in the form of rough, icicle-like spikes. There are five moldering corpses in the room, two of which wear rusting armour. (Roll a d20; on a 1, the player-character with the highest perception will notice that Galadria is unusually disturbed by the sight of these corpses. The three unarmoured ones were priests of the temple; the other two were knights slain in the attacks.)

8. Major Shrine
This is a large chamber of black marble veined with quartz. On the altar stone there is a solid onyx idol to the god, with eyes of red gold and a leering forked tongue, this is the idol Galadria wants. (Note: as a worshipper of the god, Galadria should perform a genuflection as she crosses the threshold of this chamber. She won’t actually do this because it would be an obvious giveaway, but from that point she will be at –1 to ATTACK, DEFENCE, MAGICAL ATTACK, MAGICAL DEFENCE, STEALTH, PERCEPTION, and EVASION, until ritually absolved by a priest of the god.)

There are two traps on the idol that even Galadria doesn’t know about. Firstly, if touched anywhere except behind the head, it will shoot out its forked tongue (speed 19, damage 3, normal poison) to strike any character standing directly in front of the altar stone unless they have taken specific precautions against this. Armour will not help, unless the player has specified that the character is wearing a full-face helmet, or has his visor down, in which case the tongue will have no effect.

Secondly, a 5’ × 5’ trapdoor will open directly in front of the altar, dropping anyone standing there down a sloping chute to room 17 unless they can evade its Speed of 16. The idol is worth 450 florins and radiates a palpable aura of evil.

9. Priests’ Dormitory
There are five beds with decaying linen. There are two corpses here. It seems that an armored knight slew one of the sleeping priests but was then struck down from behind.

10. High Priests’ Room
Two decomposing bodies lie together on the floor. The armored knight thrust his sword through the High Priest, but the latter locked his hands around the knight’s throat and choked him even in death. The knight’s sword has not rusted, unlike his armour. A black pentangle amulet hangs on the far wall. The high priest was trying to reach his Amulet of Sovereignty over Violence when the master of the knightly order caught up with him. The knight’s sword is +1.

When the characters have been in this room for two combat rounds, a shadowy form will rise from the high priest’s corpse. It will attack anyone except a worshipper of the god. It is the high priest’s spirit, now a wraith. The strength of the god’s spirit in this place, and the high priest’s fanaticism, are such that the he was able to become a wraith in far less time than usual.

If this wraith is struck with the paladin’s sword it will be destroyed immediately because some of the paladin’s goodness has remained in this weapon which was the cause of the priest’s death.

11. Library
Shelves around the room are stocked with numerous books, all of which deal with the revolting and terrible rituals of the priesthood of this deity. Any character of the True Faith who reads one of these books through completely will be subject to a magical attack of 16, permanently losing a point of Intelligence if affected.

12. Barracks
A bare room. This is where the skeletons remained when ‘off duty’.

13. Tomb Chamber
Two sarcophagi contain the mortal remains of earlier high priests of this temple.

14. Cells
Manacles hang from the walls. There is a decayed corpse chained here. This is where victims were kept awaiting sacrifice to the deity.

15. Armoury
A skullghast (see Bestiary, p. 66) guards the special weapons of the temple. The skullghast will attack anyone except the High Priest, so Galadria knows better than to enter the room. The skullghast will not leave this room, even to pursue intruders, as its orders were to stay and guard.

The special weapons and armour are a +1 morningstar; a +1 mail hauberk; two +1 shields.

16. Treasury
The temple coffers contain 328 florins, guarded by two zombies.

17. A Dank Chamber
Contains the temple’s special guardian, which will attack any who fall down the chute into its lair. It is a nargut (see Bestiary, p. 42). It usually subsists on small creatures such as rats and moles which burrow into its lair (the priests used to feed it regularly). A human should provide quite a feast! 

Leaving the Temple
As the characters leave the complex, they are ambushed by Vargus and the other worshippers of the god. The player-characters will recognize them from the overheard conversation in the inn; this may allow them to work out what has happened, if not immediately then later on. Galadria will turn on the party now, if she hasn’t been killed in the temple.

Since the sacking of their temple by the knights, these remaining worshippers have devoted their efforts to recovering the idol and the temple coffers. Losogon, although but an acolyte, is their spiritual leader now but he is not a leader of men, so it is Vargus, as an officer of the temple guard, who gives the orders. Galadria, by virtue of her intelligence and personal power, wields much influence, but the others do not see her as leader because, in the religion to which they belong, women are seen as inferior. 


  1. "Can't be arsed vaguely OT..." He he, well put ! You should write your memoirs of working with GW, Jackson & Livingston et al in the 80s, possibly in the form of an adventure game book ?

    1. That's really one for Jamie, as he was there full-time. I used to show up in the morning every now and again with a bottle of vodka and a pack of menthol fags (very louche in those days) and bang out a scenario or column (often both) to order. The more D&D or dungeon-based the editorial demands, the more vodka I needed to get through it ;-)

  2. Dave that sounds even better . Now I can envisage a retro - cool TV show along the lines of Deutschland '83. I suspect David Bowie would have been more Tekumel than dungeon crawl, but then again, there was 'Labyrinth'

    1. I was terribly cool back then. Not so cool that Bowie would have played me in the movie, but maybe Robert Powell. (The Cumberbatch of his day in many ways. Modern me is more Paul Merton.) Since the '80s is now a thing in TV drama, maybe Jamie and I should pitch it to the Beeb...?

    2. I'm now imagining Richard Hannay casually creating roleplaying gems while defeating sinister agents of the Kaiser (while dressed as a dandy highwayman).

    3. I did indeed have that dandy highwayman phase, James, but luckily all photographic evidence of the time has been destroyed.

    4. Definitely pitch it to the Beeb, Dave, it'll give Poldark a run for its money !

    5. Gosh, I'd better get down the gym to tone up for that shirtless scene.

  3. Dave, it seems like the scenarios you post you tend to hold slightly at a distance, as if you mostly post old hack and slash stuff you're slightly embarrassed about. What would a scenario that reflects what you love and currently play look like?

    1. I'd hardly say that, Erik. It's true that I churned out a few old dungeon bashes for White Dwarf, and those (like this one) I only post here for completeness's sake. I never was a fan of D&D or dungeons. But mostly I post scenarios from my own games that I am completely happy with - well, insofar as a perfectionist can be. For example:

      "The King is Dead" - a scenario set in 5th century BC Greece:

      "The Hollow Men", set in Legend:

      "Silent Night", a scenario and mini-campaign setting:

      "Wayland's Smithy", also for Legend/Dragon Warriors:

      "More Precious Than Gold", set in the Ophis/Questworld universe:

      "Internecine!" - a Tekumel scenario:

      Still not enough for you? Well, coming up this Christmas we have "A Box of Old Bones", a rare Dragon Warriors scenario from White Dwarf 71.

      Of course, most of the time real campaigns don't yield scenarios written out in long form for publication. The best moments in a game are specific to the characters and are often improvised to boot, so really can't be reproduced in a format that others can usefully play from. But I do tend to write up specials in advance (my group does four of those a year) so there should be plenty of upcoming scenarios that I'm not at all embarrassed about. Just don't ask me to stick up for dungeons!

  4. Do you have any scenarios suitable for the Fabled Lands game books? I'm kind of on a Fabled Lands kick right now in anticipation of the release of The Serpent King's Domain. I got a bit excited when I saw the article/dungeon title because I thought it might be a tie-in.

    1. I was all set to say there were no FL scenarios, John, but then I remembered this one:

      It was originally a Tekumel scenario, in fact, but would fit very well in the high fantasy milieu of Over the Blood-Dark Sea.

      Serpents keep coming up. Think how confused I was when the company who took over the Dragon Warriors licence called themselves Serpent King Games.

    2. I did write up a scenario for the Fabled Lands RPG a few years back. Sadly, I've since then deleted the blog where I hosted it. It was translated into French for publication in the French version of the Sokara sourcebook - but, eventually, that book was cancelled.

      If I can track it down, though, maybe I can beg Dave to post it here...