Ah. The first encounter.
Normally I’d describe what it is first, say what I like about it, then say what I think it should be.
The thing is that what it is is complicated to talk about. In particular, the deadliness of this encounter varies widely from DM to DM. I think this is because the text really doesn’t do a good job of handholding for new DMs. Mind you, a complicating factor is that most of the relevant rules changed between 3.0 and 3.5. (And trust me, you want to use the 3.5 version. That’s what we went over for the prospective twig blight encounter. It’s relatively simple to grasp while having some strategic depth; the 3.0 version is a lot harder to learn and understand for simple situations.)

The basic concept is this: when a character climbs down the cliff, they are attacked by Rodents Of Unusual Size.
The two key features of this encounter is that it is quite dangerous on its own, but has no ripple effects for the rest of the dungeon.

When I say that this encounter has a high chance of outright killing a PC, I want to be clear that I don’t intend that as a criticism. If a PC is going to die, now is the best possible time, provided that you’ve properly prepared for it.

The problem with main character death is that a main character is entangled with the ongoing story, and you can’t easily swap in another character to take over their role.
You can mitigate this by having backup characters already created. At a bare minimum, this means the unfortunate player won’t have to roll up a new character in the middle of an adventure. If the backup characters hang around on the periphery of the story, they’re at least established characters. Of course, keeping them involved enough that they can seamlessly become main characters is a pain. Even just creating them is a pain. Creating and maintaining backup characters is like creating detailed writeups of towns — technically it’s always better to do it than to not do it, but it’s not necessarily the best use of your time.
If you have a backup character available, though, dealing with PC death that happens right at the start of the story is uniquely easy. The PC hasn’t had time to acquire any narrative weight.

The other problem with character death is that it kills fear.

Suddenly they realize that the death they feared is more of an inconvenience than a source of terror. They remember that it’s all just a game, and that they just lost…they are out of the game and death is no longer the great unknown. It’s going to take them a while to settle back into character.
Which means that — counter-intuitively — if you want to scare a player you should make every effort to avoid killing them.
When it comes to movies, people like Spielberg regularly use this sort of thing to create nail-biting moments. If you take yourself out of the movie for a second, you know Spielberg isn’t going to let the dinosaur eat the little girl. You know she’s going to live until the end of the movie. Yet when the dino is snapping and missing her face by an inch it’s still edge-of-seat time, because you’re immersed in the movie. This often works even when you’ve seen the movie before and there can be no doubt in your mind about the survival of the girl. You’re fully aware that the real threat is zero, yet the perceived threat is off the charts. (Assuming you’re into dino movies. Naturally tastes differ.)
If you’re too gentle, the illusion will be broken and the player will realize you’re all bark and no bite. The real art of scaring the player — behind the monsters and spooky sounds and blood and frightening imagery — is to strike the right balance between these two extremes, to make the perceived threat as high as possible and the real threat as low as possible. Again, killing the player is bad, but revealing that monsters aren’t an imminent mortal threat is worse.

Games and the Fear of Death

But that’s actually okay, because we’re not trying to make anyone afraid, right here. We want them to be afraid of the twig blights. And the twig blights do this exactly right: perceived threat high, real threat almost nil. But right now, we’re not trying to make anyone afraid of rats. They’re not going to be afraid of rats. The first encounter of the dungeon is about setting up the rules of how you’re supposed to approach a dungeon. If you’re careless, you will die.

The flip side is that while the encounter is individually difficult, it’s nigh-impossible for this first encounter to have any lasting consequences. (Except for, you know, that one character dying.) The monsters in the initial encounter aren’t affiliated with any faction, so if some of them escape, it won’t result in a posse chasing the PCs. In fact, they’re literally wild animals, so even if all of them escape, it’s not like they’re going to seek revenge.

It’s best to explain this latter by considering the alternative. Suppose that the module didn’t force the contrivance of the kobolds just happening to show up and lay siege to the goblins. And suppose that the module didn’t contrive to have these rats just happen to show up here after the previous adventurers passed. In that case, the first encounter would be…a goblin ambush. Right? The goblins are the primary antagonists (at the moment). Goblins like ambushes.

In that alternative, it’s very possible to effectively fail the entire adventure in the first encounter.
(There exist complex social problems that communities fail to unite to oppose, but mass murder by strangers is not one of those problems.)

Nor is an ambush necessarily a bad thing. Ambushes are great.

Ambushes in D&D can be underwhelming if you just throw them in without considering why this particular monster would lie in ambush.
There are a few possible reasons.


First, perhaps this monster is particularly fragile, but has an attack that degrades the target’s ability to defend themselves.
For example, a puppeteer can be easily squished by hand, but has the psionic ability to charm victims [Expanded Psionics Handbook].
A puppeteer really doesn’t want to meet someone without the adventage of surprise. In terms of game mechanics, no surprise means an opposed initiative roll — which the puppeteer might lose, and then it’s all over. With the advantage of surprise, the puppeteer gets a “free” standard action to use for its psionic charm.

The key abilities a monster needs for this role are stealth and effective range.

Stealth, in this context, means detecting the target before they detect you. Enhanced senses are just as useful as the ability to remain unseen…to a point. That point is the monster’s effective range.

The effective range of a puppeteer is exactly 25 feet — the range of a psionic charm. If the target comes within 25 feet of the puppeteer without detecting the puppeteer, then the ambush has succeeded. (Well, “succeeded” — the target might still resist the charm, or be saved by their companions, or any number of other things. The puppeteer might find to its chagrin that the target is not a humanoid — other more powerful creatures can use psionic charm on creatures other than humanoids, but a puppeteer has only manifester level 1 [Expanded Psionics Handbook]. The puppeteer might still get squished eventually. But it successfully executed the ambush.)

If a monster has no ranged attacks, such as a dire rat, then its effective range is the distance it can charge in the surprise round — its movement speed. For a dire rat, that’s 40 feet horizontally or 20 feet climbing.

Your Hide check is opposed by the Spot check of anyone who might see you…Normally, you make a Hide check as part of movement…
Use this skill to notice bandits waiting in ambush, to see a rogue lurking in the shadows…or to see the monstrous centipede in the pile of trash.
Typically, your Spot check is opposed by the Hide check of the creature trying not to be seen…
The Dungeon Master may call for Spot checks to determine the distance at which an encounter begins. A penalty applies on such checks, depending on the distance between the two individuals or groups…

Player’s Handbook, pages 76 and 83

A Spot check takes a penalty of -1 per 10 feet of distance [Player’s Handbook page 83]. Thus, the longer the ambusher’s effective range, the easier it is to Hide.

A puppeteer has a Hide bonus of +22 [Expanded Psionics Handbook]. That’s…high. If the puppeteer takes 10 to Hide, that’s an effective Spot DC of 33 (the puppeteer’s Hide check result is 32, and the puppeteer is almost certain to win a tie on the opposed check with its much higher bonus). Even if the target is proceeding very slowly and cautiously, rolling multiple Spot checks every time they take a step, they won’t see the puppeteer until it’s too late — at 30 feet they have a Spot penalty of -3, and even rolling a 20 they’d need a Spot bonus of at least +16, which very few creatures have. Meanwhile, the puppeteer has 60-foot blindsight [Expanded Psionics Handbook], so unless the target has very specific defenses (such as the Darkstalker feat or being incorporeal), the puppeteer will know it’s coming.

But what if the target never comes within range? Then the puppeteer would have to move. And while a puppeteer is great at lying in wait, it’s not so good at moving silently. Even though a puppeteer isn’t very big, depending on the surface it has to move on, it may make a lot of noise when skittering forward. (If you don’t believe me, clearly your apartment has never had cockroaches.) Even if there’s some form of cover the puppeteer can use to hide while moving, the target may be alerted to its presence by hearing it.

Every potential ambusher has strengths and weaknesses like that. If the ambush fails for any reason, then the would-be ambusher must choose fight or flight — try a desperate attack anyway, or attempt to flee. Which it chooses depends on its intelligence and its own estimation of which is more likely to allow it to survive. A puppeteer, being an intelligent creature has a third option — attempt to surrender. Maybe even try to bluff that it really wasn’t going to attack, honest.

Lack of reach

Characters are flat-footed until their first turns in the initiative cycle. A flat-footed creature loses its Dexterity bonus to Armor Class (if any) and cannot make attacks of opportunity.

Player’s Handbook, Glossary

It’s pretty unusual for a creature’s Dexterity bonus to Armor Class to make that big of a difference, especially at low levels. And lots of things can deny a Dex bonus to AC. That second clause, though, is interesting. Tiny and smaller melee-oriented creatures typically provoke attacks of opportunity just trying to close with their opponents.

They must enter an opponent’s square to attack in melee. This provokes an attack of opportunity from the opponent.

Player’s Handbook, page 149

This is related to the “monster is fragile” condition, since this makes the most difference when they really can’t take even a single hit (as most creatures of that size cannot).
For example, a tiny monstrous centipede normally cannot easily get close enough to bite, but in a surprise round it can dash 20 feet (either horizontally or vertically along a wall) to attack [Monster Manual, Chapter 3: Vermin].

Of course, while some ambush predators in the real world have reason to be worried about their prey fighting back, most are more worried about their prey getting away.


If a creature has short effective range and slow movement speed relative to its prey, then ambush may be its only way to get close enough.
An example is the alligator snapping turtle.

Alligator snapping turtles have long, narrow tongues equipped with an appendage that looks like a worm to attract prey. Algae growing on these turtles’ backs lends camouflage among the muddy river beds they inhabit…When hunting, these ambush predators stay motionless in the water and reveal the worm-like appendage on their tongues to lure unsuspecting prey.

Smithsonian’s National Zoo & Conservation Biology Institute

The “my tongue is totally a worm” gambit is probably not going to fool any player characters, but works well enough on the turtle’s prey.

In D&D, an assassin vine is a technically-ambulatory plant, but is far too slow to chase down prey, so it camouflages itself and waits in ambush [Monster Manual].


An ambush on a group could be for the purpose of getting at the back ranks who would otherwise be protected. This obviously has a great deal of history in real-world military strategy, and it’s also applicable to adventuring parties with squishy wizards.

But to finally get to the point, sometimes the purpose of an ambush is to catch the targets in a vulnerable position — a position that they wouldn’t put themselves into if they knew there were nearby enemies waiting to attack.

Tactical advantage

The obvious example is catching individuals alone, but in the case of PCs, they almost never split up even when there aren’t enemies nearby.
Which isn’t to say it’s impossible — if there’s a place where only one party member can reach (perhaps only one character is a good enough jumper to leap the chasm), and they’re given a reason to investigate the area, an ambush could theoretically catch them there.

For high-level parties, this often just means catching them without their buff spells up.
For low-level parties, this means catching them while they’re attempting to navigate difficult terrain.

Technically, any difficult terrain will work if the ambushers attack with ranged weapons. An ice bridge, for example.

An ice bridge is a slippery surface. Anyone walking on it must make a DC 10 Balance check to move at half speed along the surface for 1 round…If a character moves through a square that overlaps the edge of the bridge (no matter how much of the square remains ice bridge and how little remains open air), he must instead make a DC 22 Balance check.
If the character falls prone, he might slide across the icy surface. The chance for sliding and the direction he slides depends on the situation that made him fall. Simply falling while trying to move brings a 25% chance of a 5-foot slide in the direction he was moving. This assumes he has moved 15 feet or less when he falls; he slides an additional 5 feet if he has traveled more than 15 feet in the current round.
Sliding can provoke attacks of opportunity if the character slides through a threatened square.
Falling as a result of being attacked brings a 50% chance of a slide directly away from the direction of the attack. The character slides for 5 feet in this case.
If a character slides while on a square occupied by the bridge’s edge, or if he slides into such a square, he immediately falls off the edge of the bridge and takes falling damage…

Dungeon Master’s Guide II, pages 52–53

You are considered flat-footed while balancing, since you can’t move to avoid a blow, and thus you lose your Dexterity bonus to AC (if any)…If you take damage while balancing, you must make another Balance check against the same DC to remain standing.

Player’s Handbook, page 67

Of particular interest, though, are paths that are difficult for the ambushees but not for the ambushers.

The most obvious example is cramped tunnels populated by tiny creatures.
For example, suppose that the PCs see an obvious threat ahead of them, such as a spiked pit. But a search reveals a hidden crawlspace that goes around the pit.
Lurking nearby, invisible, is a quasit — a demon about the size of a housecat but eight times as vicious [Monster Manual]. If the characters try to crawl through the crawlspace, the quasit ambushes them.

Restrictive tunnels can impede movement in two ways; they can have low ceilings, forcing tall creatures to crouch or even crawl. They can also have narrow widths, forcing larger creatures to squeeze through tight openings…
Any creature fighting in a cramped space loses its Dexterity bonus (if any) to Armor Class…
Narrow or Low: An area that is smaller horizontally than a creature’s space or smaller vertically than a creature’s height falls into this category, so long as the constricted dimension is at least one-half the creature’s space or height, respectively.
A creature in such a space moves at half its normal speed because of the cramped conditions, and running and charging are impossible. The cramped creature takes a -2 circumstance penalty on attack rolls with light weapons and a -4 circumstance penalty on attack rolls with one-handed weapons. It cannot use two-handed weapons at all.
Narrow and Low: An area that is smaller in both the horizontal and vertical dimensions than the creature’s space falls into this category, so long as each of the constricted dimensions is at least one-half the creature’s space or height, respectively. A creature in these conditions moves at one-quarter normal speed and takes attack penalties equal to twice those indicated above.
Crawl-Navigable: An area less than one-half but at least one-quarter of the creature’s height is crawl-navigable. The creature can move through such space by falling prone and crawling at a speed of 5 feet (1 square), but it must remove medium and heavy armor, backpacks, and other bulky equipment (although they can be dragged along behind). The normal penalties for being prone apply. The only ranged weapon a creature in a crawl-navigable space can use is a crossbow.
Awkward Space: An awkward space is narrower than narrow, lower than low, or smaller than crawl-navigable, but not quite a tight space. A creature in such a space can move 5 feet (1 square) with a DC 15 Escape Artist check. Fighting in an awkward space is possible only with light weapons, and the creature takes a -8 circumstance penalty on its attack rolls. The only ranged weapon a creature in an awkward space can use is a crossbow.
Tight Squeeze: A tight squeeze is an area larger than the creature’s head but smaller than its shoulders, as described in the Escape Artist skill description. The creature can move 5 feet (1 square) with a DC 30 Escape Artist check. Fighting in a tight squeeze is impossible.

Dungeon Master’s Guide II, page 55

Note that a creature’s space is standardized by creature size — 5 feet for Medium-size creatures. For simplicity, every creature in the same size category has the same space, just as every Medium-size creature has exactly 8 feet of vertical reach.
However, a chamber that is not narrow is defined to be “low” based on a creature’s actual height.
The category of “narrow and low” at first appears redundant, since circumstance penalties stack anyway, and the effects of “narrow and low” are the same as the effects of “narrow” and the effects of “low” applied simultaneously.
But there is a slight difference: for the special case of a cramped tunnel, as opposed to a chamber that has a low ceiling but is not “narrow”, the height is standardized to the creature’s space rather than its actual height. So in a low-ceilinged chamber, it’s possible for a six-foot-tall human to be hampered while a four-foot-tall dwarf is fine; in a cramped tunnel, you don’t worry about the minutiae and everyone of the same size category takes the same penalties.
This only applies to this one special case; the definition of “crawl-navigable” uses the creature’s actual height (and width is irrelevant unless it’s narrow enough to constitute an “awkward space”).

The definition of “awkward space” appears to simply be an error. If any space “lower than low” were always an “awkward space”, then the category of “crawl-navigable” would be entirely superfluous.

Water is another obvious inconvenience to ambushees. Ancient warfare in the real world often revolved around using and abusing the natural barriers presented by rivers, since crossing under archery fire was nearly impossible and if you happened to catch your enemy in the process of crossing, it was all over.

If you are underwater, either because you failed a Swim check or because you are swimming underwater intentionally, you must hold your breath. You can hold your breath for a number of rounds equal to twice your Constitution score, but only if you do nothing other than take move actions or free actions. If you take a standard action or a full-round action (such as making an attack), the remainder of the duration for which you can hold your breath is reduced by 1 round. (Effectively, a character in combat can hold his or her breath only half as long as normal.) After that period of time, you must make a DC 10 Constitution check every round to continue holding your breath. Each round, the DC for that check increases by 1. If you fail the Constitution check, you begin to drown.

Player’s Handbook page 84

Aquatic monsters can strike from murky water rather than fire arrows from the shore.
For example, a bloodbloater swarm that happens to be within 30 feet when character swims past can reach them in a surprise round. (They’ll hear it coming once it starts moving, but by then it’s too late.)

The bloodbloater is a fairly small, flat, disk-shaped ooze about 8 inches in diameter with a bulge at the center. It is milky white with flecks of red.
Individually, a bloodbloater poses little threat. However, these oozes tend to congregate in swarms…

Fiend Folio page 16

A bloadbloater swarm is a particularly good example because, like a monstrous diving spider, it deals Strength damage. That directly penalizes Swim checks, and if the character is carrying any gear, it might cause a light load to become a medium load (-6 to Swim checks) or even a heavy load (-12 to Swim checks). The monster interplays with the hazard of the swim itself.

For another means of complementing the water hazard with monsters, if the characters need to swim underwater for some reason, they might run afoul of a sea snake or giant leech or leech swarm, any of which can deal Constitution damage [Stormwrack] and thus reduce the length of time they can hold their breath — so suddenly they need to get to the surface much earlier than planned.

Note that when swimming on the surface of the water, Listen DCs only increase by 1 per 20 feet of distance and 1 per 30 feet of distance underwater, rather than 1 per 10 feet of distance [Stormwrack page 87]. This can make stalking at a distance harder, but the ambient noise of the water usually increases Listen DCs by at least 5, and land creatures such as humans take a flat -10 penalty to Listen checks if their ears are actually underwater [Stormwrack page 87].

Our last category of difficult-for-some-people terrain is two in one:

A narrow ledge (or the stone wall of a tower shell whose wooden roof has long rotted away) requires precarious balancing — but monsters with climb or fly speeds can ignore it entirely.
Alternatively, suppose there is no ledge and and the characters just have to scale a cliff. Again, monsters with climb or fly speeds have no difficulty. (It’s good to have the ledge, though, to enable multiple approaches — PCs can choose to try to balance or climb.)

This is the complication that The Sunless Citadel uses for the dire-rat ambush.

Do we have special rules for this situation, as we do for ice bridges, narrow tunnels, and water? Boy howdy, do we.

Solving a Rubik’s cube while playing Guitar Hero

The D&D combat rules are not hard to learn. Really, they’re not. You don’t need expertise in the quasi-chess of positioning to play the game; all you need is to be minimally competent, and that’s much easier. You can quickly learn how to handle most situations. Most situations.

But there are edge cases. Climbing is one of them. This setup complicates simply knowing what actions are available as options on your turn. Can you even draw a weapon? Can you cast a spell? Most players, even if they read the Player’s Handbook, never thought they were going to need to know the rule for shooting a crossbow one-handed. When choosing spells to cast on their allies, they probably didn’t pay much attention to which spells actually required them to touch their ally versus which spells reached out to Close range (25 feet, maybe far enough here) versus which spells reached out to Medium range (110 feet, definitely far enough here).

You need both hands free to climb, but you may cling to a wall with one hand while you cast a spell or take some other action that requires only one hand. While climbing, you can’t move to avoid a blow, so you lose your Dexterity bonus to AC (if any). You also can’t use a shield while climbing.
Any time you take damage while climbing, make a Climb check against the DC of the slope or wall. Failure means you fall from your current height and sustain the appropriate falling damage.

Player’s Handbook page 69

Normally, operating a heavy crossbow requires two hands. However, you can shoot, but not load, a heavy crossbow with one hand at a -4 penalty on attack rolls.
Normally, operating a light crossbow requires two hands. However, you can shoot, but not load, a light crossbow with one hand at a -2 penalty on attack rolls.

Player’s Handbook, pages 115–116

Mercifully, D&D always assumes characters are carrying their gear in the most convenient way, so drawing any weapon is a move action you can take one-handed.
Characters with a positive Base Attack Bonus — at first level, that means the martial classes, paladins, barbarians, rangers and fighters — can draw a weapon as a free action combined with a regular move [Player’s Handbook page 142] — but not when taking special move actions such as balancing, swimming and climbing. So drawing a weapon takes a move action, and they can’t have had their weapon out in hand already, because they needed both hands to climb.

In fact, since climbing requires both hands, a character who draws a weapon is now stuck in place until they sheathe it or drop it.

Can you cast spells? Yes, in fact, you can, but most people probably won’t know that without looking it up.

A somatic component is a measured and precise movement of the hand. You must have at least one hand free to provide a somatic component.

Player’s Handbook page 174

That’s not even all the rules you need to know.

I want to be clear: the problem is not the encounter concept. This is a great concept. The problem is everything that came before this encounter…or rather, everything that didn’t come before.

What this module desperately needs is an opportunity for the players to use the climbing rules, and the combat rules (separately!) before this encounter.

In the Arkham games, after the introduction is done, the game throws you into a very simple combat scenario against a small group of foes. The game makes it easy for you to learn and provides minimal distractions while you try to work out the basic controls. A few minutes later you get one more reminder of how this stuff works, just to make sure you’ve mastered the fundamentals. Once you have them down, the game begins layering new ideas on top and combining them in different ways.
(I’m comparing to Batman not because I think Batman is the Best Thing Ever, but because it’s broadly liked and less likely to attract some yah-hoo who wants to dismiss an entire 1,200 word column because he really hated one of the video games I praised. If you don’t like Arkham, there are lots of other games that properly teach you to play. Don’t be that guy.)
Teaching the player how to play the game is one of the most important jobs of a game designer. In a movie, if I don’t understand the introduction I can still watch the rest of the movie and try to figure it out as I go. But if I don’t learn how to play a game then I might find myself unable to proceed.
This is a level of complexity completely inappropriate for the opening of the game, even if the rest of the tutorial wasn’t such a mess…there’s plenty of room to ramp up the challenge later once the player has the basics.
No, this doesn’t ruin the game or anything. I had to retry this mission twice, which was a small annoyance.

As that last line implies, he’s talking about a video game. If he dies, well, he just restarts the mission. Death is rather more disruptive in our context.

Assuming you’ve been sticking to the main story missions, this is very likely your first time on a bike in this game. You might expect that a game would give you a few seconds to get used to a new system before you use it under pressure — GTA 4 has certainly been kind of hand-holdy up until now — but in this case you need to learn how to drive a bike during a high speed chase through twisting streets.
And if you mess up, then you’ll likely get knocked off the bike. And by the time you recover, the guy you’re chasing will be gone and you’ll fail the mission. So you need to learn to drive in a situation where you can’t make mistakes.
While you’re learning how to ride this bike, the game starts explaining how to drive and shoot at the same time. Driving and shooting is a challenging activity. It’s even harder at high speed. Harder still when you’re doing a lot of weaving around and chasing an unpredictable target. And harder STILL on a bike. So now you’re trying to drive, watch out for cars pulling in front of you, watching where your target is going, and aim your gun, all at the same time. And you have to do all of this under time pressure where almost any mistake can result in complete mission failure?
This sudden difficulty spike doesn’t even feel deliberate. Just a couple of missions earlier the game wasted several minutes on a tutorial to walk across the street, pick up a brick, and throw it. (A mechanic that doesn’t seem to get used again.) And now all of a sudden it’s throwing you into the gameplay equivalent of solving a Rubik’s cube while playing Guitar Hero.
And maybe we could forgive this sudden difficulty if it was for a good reason, but this biker guy isn’t some boss fight. This isn’t a moment of narrative climax. He’s never been mentioned before and isn’t a big deal.
Let’s look at how other games handle their mechanics. Let’s look at the Arkham series.
In Arkham, the game begins with a simple base of brawling mechanics and gradually layers depth and complexity as you master these elements. These elements combine to give you more options in a fight. New enemy types require different approaches.

It’s also bad when games simply take concepts for granted. For game designers, its important to remember that for some small percentage of players out there your AAA shooter will be their first AAA shooter. Crouching, jumping, and using cover are obvious to most players but can be completely mysterious to a newbie. If game designers take too much for granted then they run the risk of making their games too insular. Even if the player knows about all of the mechanics, they might forget which buttons do which things if they step away from the game for a while.

So: good concept, but it needs more preparation beforehand. So this encounter is fine and we just need to add that prep-work? Well, no. It’s not only players who get confused when something complicated is thrown at them.

Up to now, I’ve been intentionally vague about how the encounter is set up, avoiding direct quotes and talking about the concept only.
That’s because I think the text as written is very unclear about the details, and different DMs come away with different impressions of what is supposed to happen. Consequently, the lethality of this encounter varies wildly (and unintentionally!) based on the DM.

It’s one thing if a DM looks at an encounter and decides to make it harder (or easier). It’s something else entirely if a DM accidentally makes it much harder (or easier) than normal without even realizing the significance of the change. Encounter Level 1 sounds, well, standard for first-level PCs, so the DM isn’t necessarily expecting anything radically outside the norm. They aren’t necessarily expecting that they have to pay very close attention.

It’s hard to get broad data, because it takes so much time simply to explain to a DM what the question is, or for them to explain their answer. But let’s take a peek at some campaign journals.

We are playing PHB only 3.5 to make it easier on the new players.
Beware the rats in the first encounter: they put down two members of the party when we played. Admittedly there were only three people there that session, but they included a Paladin with STR 18 and CON 18 (he was one of the ones who went down). Many other groups have had similar experiences.


I will echo what Capellan said.
The initial rats can easily kill characters. Why? Because they have the advantage of being able to ambush and flank a lone character climbing down the rope. We didn’t have anyone die there, but did have some folks go unconscious in this fight. Not a real pleasant way to start an adventure.


I messed up here. There are three dire rats in the rubble of the landing 50 feet down from the top of the canyon. They are supposed to attack the first thing down. I had forgotten this, so they didn’t appear until everyone was already down the rope, and the PC’s actually beat them at initiative, so they were skewered quite easily. From reading on-line it seems that the intended set-up is quite deadly; several writers indicated having killed the first PC down the rope.


When a DM doesn’t mention problems, sometimes if you probe you find out they deliberately made a change. Sendric replaced the three dire rats with one. Danno eliminated the ambush entirely.

Now, certainly there are counterexamples. For example, DragonFriend’s group made short work of the ambush. But, uh, that group was made up entirely of third-level gestalt characters, so there’s that.

In my Sunless Citadel adventure, one of my PCs almost got killed right off the bat by dropping into a giant rat nest, not ten minutes into the session.


I started a new campaign last night, running the Yawning Portal version of Sunless Citadel in Eberron for a group consisting of a mix of lapsed and current players. The first thing that happened was a tense, close-to-TPK fight against 3 giant rats.


As I said before: If a PC is going to die, now is the best possible time. But I claim there are two big problems here:

  • First, the structure is confusing in such a way that the lethality of the ambush is highly DM-dependent. How this plays out depends crucially on assumptions that the DM often doesn’t even realize they’re making.
  • Second, the structure is confusing in such a way that if the party does lose a member, it won’t be at all clear what they did wrong.

The problems all revolve around the description of the situation being vague and scattered.
The problem starts right away.

Anyone standing next to the ravine immediately notes a sturdy knotted rope tied to one of the leaning pillars. The rope hangs down into the darkness below…Player characters can also see older and weathered hand- and footholds carved into the cliff face.
Descending: Player characters can easily climb down the knotted rope (Climb check DC 0), using the wall to brace themselves. They descend 50 feet to the citadel foyer (area 2). Attempts to climb down the naked rock using the carved hand- and footholds are more difficult (Climb check DC 10). A failed Climb check indicates that a clumsy climber falls from a height of 25 feet. The fall inflicts 2d6 points of damage.
In addition, you should note whether the player characters take extra care to move quietly. Allow those who want to move quietly to make a Move Silently check (opposed by the rats).

The Sunless Citadel, page 5

The what? Rats? Move Silently rolls. Are there any other important rolls I should be making right now?

(The reference to a citadel foyer is simply a misprint, and is fixed in the 5e update. It’s pretty harmless, because no such place exists. It does make me curious about the previous version that apparently gave the PCs the option to use the rope to bypass Area 1, whatever Area 1 was in that version.)

A sandy ledge overlooks a subterranean gulf of darkness to the west. The ledge is wide but rough. Sand, rocky debris, and the bones of small animals cover it. A roughly hewn stairwell zigs and zags down the side of the ledge, descending into darkness.

The Sunless Citadel, page 5

What about the rats? And why wasn’t this ledge described when the PCs were looking down the cliff face? Could they not see it? (Honest question. There’s no mention of magical darkness or anything and it looks like light should reach here just fine, but the description of the ravine kept making reference to darkness, like how “The rope hangs down into the darkness below” as if they can’t see where the rope terminates.)

Even PCs with darkvision cannot see the far wall of the chasm, which is 250 feet to the west, nor the bottom of the subterranean vault, which is 80 feet below [the ledge].

The Sunless Citadel, Area 1: Ledge

If you have more description of the ravine then why wasn’t this in the description of what the PCs see looking down?
Well…looking at the map, the western wall of the ravine is actually an overhang, so the wall gets further away the deeper down you go.

So I assume this means that when you are fifty feet down, on the ledge, the far wall is 250 feet to the west, whereas at the surface it was clearly stated to by only 40 feet away [The Sunless Citadel, page 5].
You constantly have to make assumptions like this when reading the description. Which wouldn’t be a problem, except that making assumptions is shortly going to become a dangerous habit.

The odd mention of darkvision makes it sound like they’re assuming it’s night. The 5e update removes this and just blandly gives the distances…I’m guessing this is something that happened due to multiple versions, where the original had the PCs traveling by night, possibly due to time pressure. I can certainly see the argument for why that would be desirable: more tension, and you get the scary twig blight ambush. But it looks like they ultimately removed the time pressure out of concern for fragile first-level PCs pushing forward too hard too fast.

Perhaps a previous version gave the PCs a reason to arrive by night, but the actual module supplies no such reason and says “Player characters who arrive during daylight hours have a good view of the site” [The Sunless Citadel, page 4]. There’s no reason not to have a description of what the PCs see immediately at hand when they look down. (Unless we make changes to get them to arrive by night.)

I don’t give the module a hard time for, say, not detailing what happens if you go the long way around to try to descend a gentle slope into the ravine. You can’t predict everything that players might do. But this is a linear dungeoncrawl. You know perfectly well exactly where the PCs are standing and exactly what they can see from there. That’s the point of a linear dungeoncrawl. Lots of dungeoncrawls have boxed prewritten read-aloud text. This module has boxed prewritten readabloud text — but it’s out of order from how you’ll actually need it.

In order to describe what the PCs see when they look down at that “good view of the site”, you have to collect information scattered across the next two pages. It’s not a lot of work, but it provides ample opportunity for the DM to make a mistake or forget something. Most parts of a dungeon are forgiving of little descriptive details getting lost, but there is an ambush here.

There are some bits that — for no clear reason — are only revealed “After PCs deal with the monsters” and “search the ledge”.

Extraordinarily large rat prints are likewise abundant. The search also reveals an old ring of stones that contains (and is covered by) the accumulated ash of hundreds of fires, though no fire has been lit here for a few years.

The Sunless Citadel, Area 1: Ledge

You mention the extraordinarily large rat prints after the PCs deal with the rats? That’s…that’s not how foreshadowing works. And why do they need to search to see the old fire-ring? Why wouldn’t all that ash immediately stand out at first glance on the sandy ledge? I have no idea what the writer was imagining this looking like.

We talked about “dungeoneering” and players learning to anticipate the internal logic of the world. The danger here is that the first impression the players get is potentially that there is no internal logic of the world, that enemies just spawn in when you reach the spawn point like in a video game.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. What about those rats?

three dire rats are sniffing around the rubble. They hide amid the debris at the first scent of PCs above.
A dire rat looks like a more feral, 3-foot-long version of a normal rat.
Tactics: Dire rats attack the first PC down the rope who fell or didn’t move silently.
The dire rats may gain a surprise partial action due to their initially hidden position, and they use these partial actions to close the distance between themselves and their target.
The rats attempt to flank the PC, which means that while one rat moves to attack, a fellow rat moves directly opposite the first rat. Both rats gain a +2 bonus to their attack rolls against the enemy when flanking.
Creatures who fall off the ledge take a lethal 8d6 points of damage.

The Sunless Citadel, page 6

First let’s notice that the module does a lot of handholding for the new DM. That’s good!
It explains what a dire rat is, it explains about flanking and surprise. (“Partial action” is a 3.0 term; in 3.5, this was standardized into the eponymous standard action. It doesn’t really matter, the content of the rule is basically the same.) It even tells you the damage from a fall so you don’t have to go hunting for that rule in the extremely unlikely event that somebody falls off the ledge.

That’s all good, but it makes it that much more glaring that the ambush doesn’t explain some of the most important rules it’s using.

The rats “hide amid the debris at the first scent of PCs above.” Here’s a question that I bet didn’t even occur to you when you first read that: is that a conditional statement, or an absolute statement? Is that saying that the rats hide if they smell the PCs above, or that the rats do smell the PCs above and hide?

The answer is perfectly clear at first glance. The problem is that to one person it’s perfectly clear one way, and to the next person it’s perfectly clear the other way. If you read it in full context — not just an out-of-context quote — it’s usually “perfectly clear” the second way. The description of the ledge, quoted above, certainly doesn’t contain a parenthetical or anything for the possibility of the PCs seeing the rats when they look down at the ledge. If you’re just reading the module without paying extremely close attention, you just assume that somewhere it clarified this and you just overlooked it.

Another question: do the rats reach and flank their target in the surprise round?

The boxed text doesn’t give us anything to go on as far as how big the ledge is, what it’s shaped like, how it’s laid out. Fortunately the map clarifies this: the ledge is about 25 feet wide by 20 feet deep.
Of course, the map still doesn’t mark where the rats hide nor where the rope dangles. My point is not that this is absolutely critical information — we can reasonably assume that the rats can indeed reach and flank the PC, and we can proceed to assume that any descending PCs can find their footing to help their friend, even flanking one of the rats, if they want. Rather than mark explicit locations on a grid, we just picture the distances in the abstract and figure any reasonable-sounding movement is possible. My point is different: It seems like almost any reasonable arrangement would result in the PCs passing right next to at least one of the rats when walking from the rope to the stairs. And yet, if the PCs can make a Move Silently check, then they can just stroll on by. Doesn’t that seem kind of weird? The rats’ noses are sensitive enough to detect the PCs well in advance of the PCs seeing the rats, but somehow not quite sensitive enough to notice when the PCs they smelled earlier pass right next to them.

Now, I’ll be the first to say that having consistently applied rules is more important than the exact content of the rules. As long as it’s the same each time, players can just learn “okay, this is how odors work in this world” and roll with it.

And indeed, Third Edition made a big effort to standardize scent abilities. A few specific monsters have exceptions, but for the most part, dogs, cats, rats, moonrats, and dire rats all have the same rules for their noses. Which is a great thing. Scent is a standard-issue complicating factor for stealth — and whether you’re facing humans with guard dogs or lizardfolk with guard snakes, you know (if the game has allowed you to learn) how you need to plan around it.

So what are those rules?

The creature can detect opponents by sense of smell, generally within 30 feet. If the opponent is upwind, the range is 60 feet. If it is downwind, the range is 15 feet. Strong scents, such as smoke or rotting garbage, can be detected at twice the ranges noted above. Overpowering scents, such as skunk musk or troglodyte stench, can be detected at three times these ranges.
The creature detects another creature’s presence but not its specific location. Noting the direction of the scent is a standard action. If it moves within 5 feet of the scent’s source, the creature can pinpoint that source.

3.0 SRD

Uh…huh. It appears somebody else also thought that dire rats ought to be able to notice if a scent comes within 5 feet of them. But more importantly…those ranges. PCs atop the cliff are at least 50 feet away from the rats. But maybe there’s a downdraft carrying odors down the cliff?

a cold breeze blows up from below, bringing with it the scent of dust and a faint trace of rot.

The Sunless Citadel, page 6

That’s great, that’s evocative, but compliments later, complaining now. There’s no downdraft. There’s an updraft. An updraft!

The stealth and detection rules changed between 3.0 and 3.5. But the scent rules didn’t. Those scent rules are straight from the 3.0 SRD.

Ideally, the introductory module of Third Edition would introduce players to the scent rules by example, showing them what monsters with Scent can smell and cannot smell. Once the players understand how the world works, they can start planning for it.

Failing that, the module could at least introduce the DM to the scent rules and how they apply to this situation. But this is ridiculous. The first encounter of the introductory module of Third Edition is an ambush that relies on Scent, and it isn’t even consistent with the shiny new Third Edition rule for scent. I have no idea how this happened. Maybe the module was written before the rule was finalized?

The only way to make this work is to ignore the fictional world and make a beeline for authorial intent. How did the writer think this was going to play out?

And that, at least, is pretty clear. Pretty much every DM picks that up without any complicated analysis. Rats jump out. They attack.

But there are still some headscratchers. What if the PCs succeed on their Move Silently checks? Sure, it’s very unlikely that every PC will beat every rat. But for the sake of argument…what happens? Do the PCs ever find out that they bypassed an encounter here? I’m all for rewarding players for good stealth hygiene, but only if they, you know, understand the consequences of their decisions, at least in retrospect. It’s a perceivable-consequence thing. And what happens to the rats? Do they wander off? Do they hang around indefinitely, until the PCs come back?

The three dire rats are “Drawn by the occasional surface animal that accidentally falls into the ravine.” [The Sunless Citadel, page 6] Leaving aside the absurdity of enough animals regularly falling off the same twenty-five-foot-wide stretch of cliff to sustain three dog-sized scavengers, does that mean the dire rats just…stay here?

The module doesn’t seem to really contemplate the possibility of the PCs succeeding at the Move Silently check that it reminds the DM twice to roll.

After PCs deal with the monsters, they can search the ledge at their leisure.

The Sunless Citadel, page 5

What if they search the ledge before dealing with the monsters? I mean…they find the monsters, right? Do the PCs get a surprise round in that case? It’s hard to picture how the PCs could possibly uncover the rats without the rats smelling them first.

Searching brings up another point. The module never mentions the PCs rolling Spot checks opposed by the rats’ Hide checks. That wouldn’t strike me as strange, except that it does do so much other DM-handholding — it explains what a dire rat is, it explains about flanking and surprise and falling damage, it reminds you twice to roll those Move Silently checks. It’s weird. It’s not very weird, but I bring this up because I suspect quite a few DMs, newbies especially, never do roll those Spot checks.

It also never mentions rolling Move Silently checks while climbing. The rats only ever attack characters on the ledge. I’d hail this as an attempt to simplify the encounter for new players by avoiding forcing them to deal with the climbing rules and the combat rules at the same time…except that in the absolute simplest case, a kick-in-the-door party of four hardcases all climbing down together, three of them will still be climbing when the first is attacked. More importantly, if you didn’t want to mix the climbing rules and the combat rules in the first encounter, there’s no good reason to have the first encounter here — the rats could jump out somewhere else.

As a first pass to whip this into some semblance of order without changing too much…we have two options. Either the wind is blowing down, or it’s blowing up.

Option 1: Downdraft. The rats can smell PCs when they get within 10 feet of the cliff.
It seems like some sort of initiative check should be called for to see whether the rats can react fast enough to hide before the PCs see them. But whatever, assume they can. But we can say that the rats are huddled in one corner — maybe that’s the only place there was cover — so the PCs can walk past without ever coming within 5 feet. I’m not fond of this, because of the weird questions it introduces if the PCs do just walk past.

Option 2: Updraft. The rats cannot smell PCs atop the cliff. The PCs can make Move Silently checks opposed by the rats’ Listen checks — with the rats taking a -5 penalty for distance and a -5 penalty for not watching for anyone coming from above. If the PCs succeed, then they see the rats, and can automatically chase the rats away via any number of methods, such as dropping a torch down onto the ledge. (Dire rats aren’t afraid of fire, but they do have a healthy fear of fire falling from the sky.)

On the flip side, if the rats hear the PCs, then they hide — and burst out of hiding when they catch the PCs’ scent coming closer, that is, when the PCs are 15 feet up from the ledge. Dire rats can charge 20 feet straight up the wall and attack in the surprise round.

This seems broadly consistent with the intent of “a Move Silently check gets you through”. Moreover, in this version, the Move Silently check actually has a realistic chance of success and a clear win state. On the flip side, the ambush can be absolutely brutal if it isn’t spoiled.

Mind you, having the rats attack a climbing character introduces even more obscure rules to know. The character can let go of the rope and just drop 15 feet to the ledge, but they’ll still provoke attacks of opportunity from the rats. (The rules don’t even explicitly cover the case of falling…but they’re effectively being bull-rushed downward by gravity.) They’ll take 1d6 falling damage unless they can make a DC 15 Jump or Tumble check. If they can’t make either of those, well, they could attempt to use the dire rat below them as a “soft or yielding surface” to take 1d6 nonlethal falling damage instead of lethal damage. That requires adjudication…personally, I’d say the rat isn’t big enough to serve as a cushion for Medium characters, but Small characters can do it if they can make a touch attack and an opposed grapple check on the way down. On the flip side, the rat takes normal damage-for-falling-objects regardless of what checks the PC makes, though it’ll only rise to the level of actual hit point damage (as opposed to just making the rat angry) if the PC plus all their gear weighs at least 200 pounds.

But this…all of this is just minutiae. It’s necessary minutiae — we can’t have the really important design conversation without first being clear about what the encounter actually is, which requires squarely facing the fact that the description is weird and ambiguous and different DMs play it very differently depending on which rules they already know and what subconscious assumptions they bring to the table.

If we started the conversation by saying “The encounter is XYZ” then people would object that “That’s not what it says at all!” And they’d be right, because the text doesn’t really clearly say anything.

But amidst all the different die rolls, there’s one key point: this encounter is deadly. Exactly how deadly varies. But it’s deadly.

That, by itself, isn’t a problem to be solved, it’s a concern to be managed. As I said before: If a PC is going to die, now is the best possible time.

But if we’re going to kill a PC in the first encounter to make a point, we’d better actually make that point. A PC should never die in the first encounter unless it is absolutely clear what they did wrong.

…always clear what you did wrong: Maybe I overlooked an attack warning, or punched the wrong guy, or failed to stun somebody first.
But now it’s not at all clear what my mistake was or when I made it. Clearly I shouldn’t have been in the middle of this attack when that guy punched me, but how could I have avoided that using only the information available at the time?

Suppose a party sends the rogue to scout ahead. The rogue gets jumped and killed by dire rats. Clearly they shouldn’t have sent the rogue to scout ahead, but how could they have concluded that using only the information available at the time?

Just to hammer this home, we’re not talking about a small chance here.

Assume three dire rats flanking a target wearing leather armor with a +2 Dexterity bonus for AC 14.
We’ll assume that the victim is not denied her Dex bonus to AC.
Each flanking rat has an attack bonus of +6, only missing on a 7 or less, for a 35% chance to miss. Probability 0.35.
The probability that all three miss is 0.04.
The probability that two miss is 0.24.
The probability that only one misses is 0.44.
The probability they all hit is 0.27.
(The probabilities don’t quite add up to 1 because they’re rounded for ease of reading.)
Since rogues need Dexterity, Intelligence, and often Charisma and Wisdom and even Strength, Constitution might well be a dump stat. Assume a Con of 10, so 6 hit points.

Here’s a crude AnyDice program for calculating the damage:

function: damage multiplier for attack bonus ATTACK_BONUS:n against armor class AC:n {
 DIE: 1d20
 result: (DIE + ATTACK_BONUS >= AC)

function: damage from attack with attack bonus ATTACK_BONUS:n against armor class AC:n with potential damage DAMAGE:d {
 DIE: d20
 result: [damage multiplier for attack bonus ATTACK_BONUS against armor class AC] * DAMAGE

function: damage from NUMBER_OF_ATTACKS:n attacks with equal attack bonuses ATTACK_BONUS:n against armor class AC:n with potential damage DAMAGE:d {
 if NUMBER_OF_ATTACKS <= 0 {result: 0}
 result: [damage from attack with attack bonus ATTACK_BONUS against armor class AC with potential damage DAMAGE] + [damage from NUMBER_OF_ATTACKS-1 attacks with equal attack bonuses ATTACK_BONUS against armor class AC with potential damage DAMAGE]
output [damage from 3 attacks with equal attack bonuses 6 against armor class 14 with potential damage 1d4]

(Very interested if someone has better functions for damage. I couldn’t get it to properly take account of critical hits. Fortunately I don’t think those make a big difference.)

Those three attacks have a 40% chance of dropping the unlucky rogue outright. That’s without taking possible critical hits into account.

That’s 40% just from those first three attacks. No matter what actions she attempts to defend herself. No matter what support her allies can provide from above.

One of my players also reminded me that it doesn’t help that these are…well…rats.
Really big rats, yes. But still. Rats.

Getting stomped by rats in your first-ever fight is incredibly disheartening. At that point, there are pretty much two possible reactions: either “We suck at this game” or “This game sucks.” Which one you get depends on the players’ personalities, but both are equally bad.

We can force the description into some semblance of order…but how do we deal with the design problem here?

Telegraphing is the art of tipping your hand. It is letting the players know (or giving them clues) as to what’s coming.
Let them see the green slime before they have to deal with it. Or let them fight a troll in a straight up fight to make sure they discover the important weaknesses. Also, find a way to let them see the gas pockets in action.
The party enters a room and see a big patch of green slime on the floor covering the skeletonized remains of a giant toad. They can walk around it. It isn’t mobile. But they can poke it, prod it, examine it, and they can discern what happened. They can tell from the bones that the toad was dissolved. They can tell from the stains on the ceiling that the green slime had been on the ceiling once. They might discover (by experimenting) that the green slime dissolves flesh, wood, and leather, but that it can be killed by fire or extreme cold. The point is, they can have as much knowledge as they are willing to earn about the green slime.
A little while later, they come to a hallway about ten feet long and five feet wide. And the ceiling is one big patch of green slime. Fortunately, they have learned to look up. They see it. It’s just that seeing it doesn’t solve the problem.
I assume the players know everything and see everything coming. If my players encounter a troll, and I really want it to be a tough challenge, they will encounter it in a mine that is filled with pockets of invisible, explosive methane gas. Let them have fun with THAT! let them fight a troll in a straight up fight to make sure they discover the important weaknesses. Also, find a way to let them see the gas pockets in action. I did that once. The druid cleared the room with a gust of wind or something and then the wizard blasted the trolls with fireballs.
In the Gassy Troll Mine, the party might encounter a single troll at the entrance. Let them work out its features. Then, a few steps into the mine, they find blasted scorched stains and an adventurer holding the ruined remains of a lantern. In another room, they nearly pass out from the “heavy air.” Now they know there is invisible explosive gas. Then let them wander into the room with three trolls. See if they do the math. If not, you will still get an explosive climax.

Telegraphing: The Fine Art of Ruining Surprises

We need to make it clear, ahead of time, that this is a deadly situation. I don’t mean in any subtle way. I want to put a body here. Add a halfling rogue to to the previous adventuring party. There’s a makeshift cenotaph of stones piled atop the cliff, with his name on it. There’s a Small-sized humanoid skeleton on the ledge — the bones are in a miscellaneous jumble, but the skull is obviously humanoid. There’s also a set of broken antlers.

Players might not know exactly what’s going on, but the fact that the previous rogue died here at least warns them against sending their rogue down alone. If nothing else, they’re prompted to thunder down all-swords-drawn. Sometimes there is no good cautious action and you just have to commit to a full attack, sending the meatshield in first.

After finding the rats, they’ll hopefully put together what happened. I complained before about not knowing what the campfires were supposed to mean, so I’ll be explicit here what I’m trying to communicate: the rogue went down first, and died. The others made his cenotaph while Karakas the huntsman shot a stag and tossed it down to the rats. The well-fed rats growled menacingly but otherwise let the adventurers pass unmolested. Karakas attributed this to his Wild Empathy; the others attributed this to the fact that predators don’t hunt when they’re not hungry.

The unlikely choice of a stag is just because it results in an identifiable skull that gets players’ attention. Players will presumably conclude at least that there must be a story behind it, because the notion that an animal would just randomly fall off a cliff is ridiculous.

This is by no means a perfect solution. One big problem is that it’s really hard to get players to conclude the presence of dire rats — or any predator — when their presence doesn’t make a ton of sense in the first place. The module handwaves the rats by saying they’re “Drawn by the occasional surface animal that accidentally falls into the ravine.” [The Sunless Citadel, page 6] That’s…I’m sorry, that’s just dumb. I wouldn’t harp on such a minor background detail, not least because there is no given way for the players to ever learn this explanation, but we need this to at least seem obvious in retrospect.

(Oh, there was a clue. It was just silly. The ledge is littered with “bones of small animals” — and if you immediately conclude that lemmings frequently throw themselves off this cliff to their deaths, then you might infer that scavengers might hang out around here, but there are any number of more likely explanations. For example, maybe the bones are detritus from a goblin open-air kitchen. In fact, the ledge explicitly was a goblin open-air kitchen.)

The description of the location doesn’t help either.

A sandy ledge overlooks a subterranean gulf of darkness to the west. The ledge is wide but rough. Sand, rocky debris, and the bones of small animals cover it.

The Sunless Citadel, page 5

I don’t know what that looks like in the writer’s head. I do know that the picture the comes into my head when I read that isn’t the one we want. I know this because the picture in my head has no room for lurking predators the size of dogs. What, is a rat lying on its back holding a large rock over itself with all four paws?
Normally vague descriptions aren’t a problem, but again: first-ever encounter. Surprise attack. Likely character death.

But we can fix that. We can make it more clear that this is a dangerous area.

But. Honestly, I’m not so sure about putting a monster with Scent in the first encounter at all.
Using monsters with Scent scrambles the scouting tactics that usually work. That’s not a bad thing, the possibility of monsters with Scent makes the game more interesting: Scent is easy to defeat by spreading red herring all over, but nigh-impossible to work around without cluing the guards in that someone is up to something right this second, even if they don’t know who or exactly where.

But using Scent first means that players don’t get taught the basic “rules” of stealthy scouting first. (Which is just as well, since stealthy scouting is practically nonviable in this adventure, but we’ll gripe about that later.)

the game begins with a simple base of brawling mechanics and gradually layers depth and complexity as you master these elements.

After the players have figured out how to scout a location, then you start throwing spanners in the works like Scent.

(The 5e update doesn’t use Scent as a complicating factor…insofar as Scent is completely changed around in 5e, and is opposed by a Stealth roll. Leaving aside what a character is meant to be actually doing in-universe, this makes the very existence of Scent entirely pointless. Everything is one undifferentiated soup of “Perception” with no differences between monsters. This does not strike me as an improvement.)

Really, after we talk about the dungeon as a whole and we have the context to start talking about more radical changes, I’m going to advocate replacing this wholesale with a dire bat that’s been stealing goats, and put the dire rats somewhere else entirely, in a pit “baited” with the shiny treasure of the dead, half-eaten adventurer. But for now…a corpse here is at least a step in the right direction.

But we can’t change this encounter yet. The dire rats here are part of a larger “faction” of monsters in the dungeon — and you should never change one encounter with a particular faction without first considering how that’s going to change the broader flow and feel of the dungeon. (I’ll tell you one thing right now: The Sunless Citadel uses dire rats as an environmental hazard for PCs exploring around the edges of the dungeon, which is going to come out of nowhere if we haven’t previously established that Here There Be Dire Rats.)

The Sunless Citadel does a lot of things right, and we shouldn’t muck about making major changes until we’ve catalogued what it does right so we can be sure we won’t destroy that with our changes.

Explicit evidence that the previous adventurers bypassed the rats gives us options for clarifying what’s up with the rats here (so we can telegraph better).

  • Dire rats came after the kobold-goblin war started piling up bodies. In this case, there used to be a goblin ambush here, from a well-hidden blind — which is now torn open, with goblin body parts scattered everywhere. The original module didn’t reveal the invasion this early, but it’s going to reveal the invasion very soon; it makes little difference to go ahead and reveal it now. Though we do have to make a point of mentioning that nobody ever approaches the ravine, so the Oakhurstians don’t know yet about the invasion. (So there’s still a “Suddenly revealed complication!” feeling.)
  • Goblins feed the dire rats. No goblin wants cliff-watch duty, but dire rats serve as an able buffer against invaders. So why didn’t the dire rats serve as a buffer against the kobolds? Because the kobolds — capable miners — came from an unexpected direction, an Underdark tunnel that the goblins thought collapsed and impassable.

In this case, the fact that the Durbuluks keep dire rats is common knowledge in Oakhurst, and can be easily obtained in advance.

This dovetails nicely with Balsag’s pet dire rats, but of course most of the dire rats aren’t actually trained — they just hang out and allow the goblins to live as long as the goblins keep feeding them, sort of like the relationship between you and your cat.

Two things to note here.
First, we can only make useful information on the Durbuluks available in Oakhurst if we radically shorten the backstory timeline. (One of the many reasons I want to shorten the timeline.)
Second, if we shorten the, er, forestory timeline, making the missing kids missing for less time and putting time pressure on the PCs to find them quickly, then we can’t toss this information in with everything else under a DC 10 Gather Information check. If we did, the lesson the players would take would be “even if you’re under time pressure, the only way to survive is to ignore your mission and spend hours puttering about” which is an awful lesson. Fortunately, if the Durbuluks keeping dire rats is common knowledge in Oakhurst, then Kerowyn Hucrele can know it — and she’s obviously motivated to provide as much strategic intelligence as she possibly can, even if it isn’t much.

Given all that, when the PCs see an open-air goblin kitchen (which in this case has been more recently used), evidence of one of the previous adventurers, and they know that the Durbuluks keep dire rats as guardian beasts somewhere in this area….well, if they don’t expect an ambush, that’s on them.

Addendum 1: Improving The Sunless Citadel

I mentioned that I have doubts about this ambush and personally I’d like to replace it entirely; I should expand on what this series is and is not.

The introduction to Rutskarn’s sadly-never-finished series on Fallout 3 is a bit of a guiding star:

I’m trying to address the idea that a different approach to characters, storylines, and setpieces would have made F3 even more enjoyable.
This exercise is most certainly not about:
* Reinventing the game to make it “mine,” or “real Fallout.” I’m not going to question the game’s grand design. If Bethesda decided early on they wanted super mutants, the mean fascist Enclave as villains, the brave virtuous Brotherhood of Steel as heroes, and the GECK as a deus ex machina that helps purify DC’s water supply, then I’m going to keep all that in my treatment. If I was making my own game, I probably wouldn’t have a good side the player has to join and a bad side the player has to fight. But I have made my “own” games, and none of them were as successful as bootleg Fallout 3 mouthwash. As much as possible, I’m going to trust in the building blocks Bethesda chose to use; where my treatment varies will have more to do with mortar and the arrangement.
Mostly, this is because if I start changing the whole game it’ll become decreasingly possible to say if my alterations are improving anything. It’s easy to imagine an ideal version of a game that doesn’t exist, and claiming that this fake game would be better than a real one is even less useful than just asking you to imagine different writing.
* Proving I’m “better” than Bethesda’s writers. Firstly, I have absolutely no guarantee that you or anyone else will agree that my treatment works better. I’m throwing this out there as a thought exercise, no triumphant flourish, no filled-out application letter. Even if you do think you like my version better, please remember that I’m not only editing an existing draft, I haven’t had to preserve its merits through dozens of editing sessions, discussions with corporate, distillations through dialogue writers, encounters with scripters (“It turns out that whenever an NPC says ‘goodbye’ in a wistful voice, the game crashes on Windows XP?”), and voice-acting sessions. In short, writing for games is hard. Writing this series is easy.

If we swap out an ambush by three dire rats for an ambush by a dire bat — three small enemies for one large flying enemy with its own little subplot — it’s hard to really call that an improvement. It’s basically something completely different. Perhaps more importantly, making changes on that level inevitably leaks through my own personal style, which makes this less about The Sunless Citadel itself. I’ll talk about that after this series is done — it would be somewhat disingenuous to talk about fixing the dire-rat ambush here when I really just eliminate it altogether — but it doesn’t really add anything to this series.

We will make changes when the description is actually incoherent.

I thought the phrasing was a little unclear, but no big deal.
Except it turned out I wasn’t the only one who had interpreted that phrase differently. In no time at all, in fact, the conversation included four mutually incompatible interpretations of what the arcane cage did and they were all legitimate interpretations of the phrase “create a wall of arcane magic to enclose the area between the four statues”
In trying to work out how this encounter is supposed to work, we can try to narrow the possibilities down by taking two facts into consideration:
… except these doesn’t actually work.
After writing up this whole analysis, I was looking through my friend’s copy of the Player’s Handbook and discovered something that only serves to deepen the confusion over what the arcane cage is supposed to be doing.

Speaking of which, there’s one last thing to clean up.

Attempts to climb down the naked rock using the carved hand- and footholds are more difficult (Climb check DC 10). A failed Climb check indicates that a clumsy climber falls from a height of 25 feet. The fall inflicts 2d6 points of damage.

The Sunless Citadel, page 5

This isn’t important like the scent business, since it’s unlikely the players will eschew the rope. But in Third Edition, climbing is a bit more refined than that, with degrees of success:

With each successful Climb check, the character can advance up, down, or across a slope or a wall or other steep incline (or even a ceiling with handholds) one-half the character’s speed as a miscellaneous full-round action. The character can move half that far, one-fourth of the character’s speed, as a miscellaneous move-equivalent action. A slope is considered to be any incline of less than 60 degrees; a wall is any incline of 60 degrees or steeper.
A failed Climb check means that the character makes no progress, and a check that fails by 5 or more means that the character falls from whatever height the character has already attained.
DC 10 A surface with ledges to hold on to and stand on, such as a very rough wall or a ship’s rigging.
DC 15 Any surface with adequate handholds and footholds (natural or artificial), such as a very rough natural rock surface or a tree.

3.0 SRD

Failing a Climb check doesn’t make you fall — failing a Climb check by 5 or more makes you fall.
If it were just a question of climbing a cliff unopposed, it might be reasonable to skip all the complicated climbing rules and just make a single all-in Climb check to see whether the character succeeds or fails — and arbitrarily say that if they fail, they were “eh, about halfway” when they fell.
(In fact, any sequence of Climb checks can be probabilistically equivalent to a single Climb check, though the 2d6 damage is simply handwaving.)
But this cliff is not just a cliff. There is an ambush here. Whether a climbing character gets attacked by rats themselves, or simply has their friend attacked by rats while they’re climbing, we’re going to need to know exactly how much distance they can cover in each round of combat. That requires using the full Climb rules.
That being the case, I think what they really wanted here was a DC 15 Climb check for the wall. Failing by 5 or more means falling, and that’s…sort of like failing a DC 10 Climb check to fall as the module talks about.

The rats, of course, with their +11 Climb bonus, have no trouble with the wall.

We’ll also make changes when something clearly isn’t working like it should — as how the twig blight ambush simply never happens.

But the goal of this series is not to question the basic underlying ideas.

But, having said that, that isn’t the (only) reason for not mucking with the basic concept here, that is, the deadly ambush. In fact, I want to offer a defense of what the encounter is trying to do here.

A Difficult Discussion on Difficulty

The Sunless Citadel has expectations of players, and I choose that word very carefully. Different adventures expect different things from players, and when the actual players don’t match up to those expectations…sometimes it ends well, but often it doesn’t.

The Sunless Citadel’s expectation is that players will not be cavalier, and I choose that word very carefully. Some adventures do expect the players to be cavalier. Sometimes that is literally a PC’s job title.
Temple of the Dragon Cult tasks a party of cavaliers with hunting a dragon. At the start, the dragon is on the other side of a rockfall. They can hear the great beast breathing. To reach it, they take the long way around through trap-and-monster-infested tunnels.
Oh, and incidentally, these cavaliers are all 10th level. And they’re backed by a literal army. A rag-tag band of misfits such as might traipse through the Sunless Citadel might actually be stymied by a rockfall, but these cavaliers…no. Faced with the choice of digging through some loose rubble or adventuring through an expansive deadly dungeon, they choose the dungeon. Because…well…because if they didn’t, there’d be no adventure.

This is not railroading. Railroading would be if the dragon was separated from them by a permanent Wall of Force that The Gods Themselves had made immune to Disintegrate. The module just…doesn’t countenance the possibility of the cavaliers trying to approach their alleged goal directly. The loose rubble has no details provided. The solid stone walls in the dungeon have full stats provided, in case the cavaliers decide to go through those for any reason (such as for dramatic effect). But the loose rubble has nothing. If the players did try to go through it, the DM would be completely on their own. But if the players tried to go through it, then something has already gone irretrievably wrong.

In many games, the cavaliers would, in fact, be expected to walk into the dire-rat ambush.

No matter how obvious the trap, you cannot complete the game unless you walk into it.

The Grand List Of Console Role Playing Game Clichés

The opposite extreme is more like old-school gaming. As one old-school gamer impatiently put it to other players: “Of course it’s going to try to kill us. EVERYTHING tries to kill us.” The expectation on the players is that they will treat everything as an ambush, even when that is ecological nonsense. Every innocuous item can be, and is, a monster that has evolved for millions of years specifically to prey on adventurers (it has no other food source). In that kind of world, “giant rats hang out here because animals regularly accidentally fall off the cliff” would be waayy below the ambient level of absurdity.

The expectation of The Sunless Citadel is somewhere in the middle.
Basically, take the world seriously as a place characters might actually live in. Treat the dungeon like an actual threat to life and limb. Do what you would do if you were actually standing there. Roleplay.

Contrast to standard fantasy fiction: The protagonist doesn’t succeed by having a plan or being cautious, they succeed by having a righteous cause and having faith in the author a higher power. Often they cannot complete the plot until the sensible strategy has failed them and the desperation move has been invoked.

An example scenario: the mighty sorceress Toyota goes to rescue her daughter, who has been kidnapped and mind-controlled by the Big Bad Evil Guy.
Destroying the mind-control device requires blasting through dozens of meters of magically-reinforced Unobtainium, which is of course completely impossible.
So, naturally, Toyota calls upon a heretofore untapped reserve of inner strength and does just that.

Pictured: Dungeon Bypass

Simultaneously, Toyota’s sidekick/“bodyguard”, Subaru, confronts her older sister, who has also been kidnapped and mind-controlled by the BBEG (it’s kind of his thing).
Prior to this point, Subaru has always lived in the shadow of her sister, and never won a single sparring match. So when it turns out that the rescue will require Subaru to defeat her sister in single combat (because of course it will), naturally enough she despairs. But after receiving a pep-talk, she pops up, shrugs off her injuries, and knocks out her sister with one punch.

Maybe this all sounds a little ridiculous as I’m describing it, but I want to stress that this is all standard stuff. Physical power, magical power, it’s all one — a character’s “statistics” are determined entirely by where they happen to be in their Character Arc at that moment.

Let’s complicate this a bit. Toyota and Subaru have been drawn on the trail of their loved ones by a hard-fisted detective by the name of Destiny, who keeps going on an ordered universe and how the disappearances are connected to each other and also to seemingly insignificant events.
Throughout the story, Destiny has been plagued by flashbacks, usually accompanied by whiskey, to when her abusive mother forced her to pretend to be her dead twin sister Chance and fight goblins in the sewers as Chance was supposed to.
Destiny abandons the main fight in favor of following a hunch to track down the Big Bad Evil Guy himself. She sends her twin children to disable a doodad while she engages the BBEG directly. Well, “directly” — he’s not a physical threat, but he is defended by mooks to provide some background action while hero and villain have a conversation.
At the climax, the BBEG accuses Destiny of being no different from her mother, sacrificing her children for her obsessions, prompting her to fall to her knees in despair.
Said children happen to turn up at that exact moment and deliver a rousing speech about how they’re fighting for what they believe in, prompting Destiny to rise up and win the fight — but this instance is a little different. Because Destiny is more of a cerebral character, it would feel ill-fitting for her to just mysteriously get stronger or weaker at dramatic moments. So instead, she changes strategy. She shucks her magic armor, revealing that it was holding her back all along.
She easily dodges the mooks’ attacks and captures the BBEG.

Is this fundamentally different? No. Not at all. The armor thing is just a fig leaf. No one is expected to believe it, they’re just expected to know to not question it. The victory doesn’t follow from any rules of the world established implicitly in previous scenes. It’s enforced by the narrative.

There’s nothing wrong with that per se, but I think that style is ill-fitting for D&D. (That’s why I’m talking about The Sunless Citadel and not something else.) The primary point of having a set of rules is so that the rules by which the world operates are implicit in every scene. When the characters fail, and especially when the characters succeed, it follows from the established rules of the world.
(The secondary point is to facilitate clear communication between players and DM — two people might picture a cliff differently, but if they agree that the chance of successfully climbing it is 55%, they’re on the same page about everything plot-relevant.)

The point here is not about realism. It might very well be realistic that no armor is an improvement if the mooks are incredibly strong iron golems whose fists can crush stone.
But this example is chosen precisely because that idea doesn’t translate to D&D at all. The rules of the game are too coarse-grained to even notice the distinction between attacks that armor is more effective against versus attacks that dodging is more effective against. All attacks get boiled down to a single attack bonus, and all defenses get boiled down to a single Armor Class. There technically is a trade-off in that heavier armor restricts the maximum Dexterity bonus, but in any given situation there is one right answer that maximizes Armor Class.

But suppose that Destiny needed the magic armor to protect her from, let’s say spiders made of fire. Previous scenes established this as one of the constraints. And her children disabling the doodad eliminated the spiders made of fire. Their successful return directly causes her victory in the same moment that she completes her character arc.

This is not the same thing as her character arc causing her victory. We could imagine situations like if a character was deathly afraid of blood and consequently didn’t use edged weapons…but we’re fine with the idea that the character arc and the arc of the plot are logically unrelated, as long as their moments of rising and falling tension overlay correctly.

Since the players are in charge of both the character arcs and the strategies, it’s the job of the players to make them match up. It’s fine if the players choose to walk into an ambush if they think that’s appropriate for the arc, but they’d better be prepared to not to that when the time is appropriate to not. If the players are expecting the characters to succeed via divine favor, then…well, then I’d ask what we have this whole edifice of rules for anyway, but the point is that a cavalier attitude won’t be a good fit for this adventure, The Sunless Citadel.

It is very bad for the story to fall apart in bits and pieces over the course of the entire adventure until it finally collapses at the end. It is less bad for the entire edifice to shatter immediately. Given the choice, we always want to fail faster.

If the adventure requires a cavalier attitude, then you want to make that absolutely clear early on — for example, by placing the alleged goal on the other side of a trivial obstacle and expecting the PCs to opt for the path of most resistance.

If the adventure requires a non-cavalier attitude, then you want to establish that early on.

The Threshold Guardian’s job is to ensure the protagonist is worthy of passing the threshold, and thus they act as part of the tests the protagonist must face in the journey. A hero who depends on his strength might attempt to overcome Threshold Guardians, while a hero who depends on his wits might evade, bribe, learn from and even convert the Guardians to his cause.

The dire-rat ambush is in fact harsher than the main body of the Citadel. After this point, the PCs will never get ambushed just walking around — they’ll have to specifically do something to provoke it. Almost all the “ambushes” are by the Citadel-remnant “faction” of undead and guardian spirits, who only attack if the PCs disturb them. The kobolds will only think to set an ambush if the PCs pick a fight with them and then leave them to their own devices — and even then, it’s a weak ambush designed for the PCs to survive. In-universe, the kobolds are theoretically intelligent enough to realize that this ambush can’t possibly succeed in killing even one of their enemies, never mind all four, but nevertheless. (The text doesn’t bother to supply a handwave for this, since it’s unlikely the players would ever find out anyway, but you can always assume that their other warriors are busy offscreen somewhere with their war against the goblins.)

For example, three kobolds from one of the rooms keyed to area 16 could be evacuated and stationed in area 15 with orders to set an ambush for returning PCs. Or, four goblins from one of the rooms keyed to area 36 could be redeployed to area 32 to guard against another PC intrusion.

The Sunless Citadel, page 8

The goblins, as far as the text is concerned, never lay ambushes for the PCs, instead beefing up their Maginot Line. This isn’t necessarily dumb on their part — they don’t know what’s going through the PCs’ heads, and there’s a certain logic to hoping to deter further attacks from these random interlopers.
The only way the PCs can get surrounded and overwhelmed by goblins is if they charge heedless into goblin territory.

Once PCs close into melee range, one goblin draws its short sword, while the other attempts to flee toward area 33 to call out a warning.

The Sunless Citadel, Area 32: Goblin Gate

If things go badly for the goblins, a goblin here attempts to warn the goblin warriors in area 39.

The Sunless Citadel, Area 33

The goblins in [Areas 36] respond to any sound of conflict in area 39…

The Sunless Citadel, Area 39

We don’t want to draw people in if they’re only going to be disappointed later. Ideally, if someone dies here, then the players will adjust to fit the rest of the adventure.
But even if they don’t…well, it’s probably better that they quit now than drag this out any further.

Addendum 2: Death is Bad

Having defended the idea of (potentially) killing someone here, we should address in more detail why that’s a problem (but less of a problem now than it would be later) and how to mitigate it.

Most stories can’t survive the deaths of the main characters. I mean, there are exceptions. Game of Thrones is pretty popular these days. But for the most part, the more you’ve invested in a character, the bigger the problem you have if they unexpectedly die.

It’s worth remembering that in other story-heavy games, death is normal and expected to the point that frequency of protagonist death is the barometer by which we measure difficulty. Now, different people have very different ideas of how much of that there should be.

Player1: Pfft. That game was a cakewalk. I only died maybe once a level.
Player2: That game was a pain in the ass. I died on almost every level.

But pretty much nobody would peg that number at zero. Even in “ironman” or whatever you want to call it, death just means you restart the adventure from the beginning.

Yes, I’m being deliberately obtuse here. But take a second to really ask yourself what the difference is. And don’t say “computers”. You don’t need a computer to restart from an earlier point. All you have to do is wave your hands and say “so mote it be.”

The difference is that this is a multiplayer game. Typically, when someone dies, they’d like to reload, but the other players won’t. And since this is a story-heavy game, it would be weird for the dead character to just inexplicably respawn the way they do in multiplayer computer games. Which leaves us with the quandry.

There’s no one solution; rather, there are several piecemeal solutions.

Telegraphing is always good (when you’re not leaning on restarts).

So the boulder is “unfair” because Dark Souls doesn’t telegraph the possibility of traps before you encounter them and Batman is “fair” because the rules and the threat were made clear ahead of time.
“But Shamus, the boulder isn’t some random thing. The game is teaching the player to watch out for traps.”
Obviously. The difference is that Batman does the same thing, but it does so before you encounter the danger. Batman doesn’t teach you about the weak ice by letting you jog over it, fall through, die, and then try again armed with that foreknowledge. It telegraphs the danger before you face it, while Dark Souls reveals the danger by having it run over you.

But telegraphing isn’t always enough. Sometimes the telegraphing doesn’t work as well as you thought it would. And sometimes the players simply screw up.

You can give the bad guys reason to take the PCs alive. In fact, The Sunless Citadel does this with the Durbuluks. If the Durbuluks are previously established to capture and ransom humans, it’s not so odd that they’d capture and ransom a PC. But this excuse wears a little thin if the PCs have already murdered, say, twenty-five goblins. And it wears a lot thinner if any of the PCs have previously been captured and released.

More importantly, for some adventure setups that just doesn’t work: it’s painfully obvious that the bad guy has no reason to let the PCs live.
The various contrived “captured by the enemy” scenarios often end up annoying the players more than if they just died in the first place.

A nuclear option is to build in resistance to death for long-running characters. In D&D, any character who remains a protagonist long enough eventually reaches the level where Raise Dead (Reincarnate, etc) becomes available. This is in addition to their ever-growing pile of hit points — an 8th-level barbarian can be perforated by a volley of arrows, and somehow every single one of them will miss hitting anything important. (Attack damage increases too, but not as quickly, so longtime characters are indeed more durable than first-level characters. This can be immediately noticeable on the jump from first level to second level.) The possibility of magical resurrection means that even if the character is ridiculously overmatched or killed by some unstoppable effect like drowning, they’re still not done. But that’s a very heavyweight solution that we don’t want to deploy at low levels.

Which leaves us with…backup characters.

So that name-drop of Game of Thrones wasn’t an accident; it makes for a good case study. The protagonist Ned Plantagenet is captured and executed by his rivals, the Lancasters. But that isn’t the end of the story. His sons still have to escape from capture by his enemies, and his daughters still have to escape from capture by an unrelated pack of enemies. His wife is still on a diplomatic mission to forge an alliance with one or both of the other warring factions. His oldest son inherits his title and his war. Ned’s death just means that the other characters get more screen time.

Meanwhile, across the Channel, in Easteros, there’s a parallel storyline about Anatasia, last of the Romanovs. She faces just as many mortal perils as the other characters, but she miraculously survives every time — because she has no narrative inheritor. If she dies, the story ends; consequently, she cannot die.

The lesson here is that for a story to survive character death, there must be previously-established characters with just as much of a stake in the central conflict.

This obviously poses a problem for episodic storytelling.
Nobody asks what the connecting through-line is of the various episodes of the Odyssey, because it’s right there in the stinkin’ name: Odysseus. The main character. Similarly, the connecting through-line between The Sunless Citadel and The Forge of Fury is the main characters.
But within the boundaries of an ongoing adventure, if we introduce backup characters, then we can use them as replacements at need.

Of course, that gives us the new problem of explaining why they don’t go with the main party in the first place. It’s useful to have some ongoing threat to play defense against — if Oakhurst is plausibly threatened by something, then characters have a plausible excuse to stick around as defense, even if the threat never actually materializes.

The twig blights, as they stand, don’t really qualify. Trying to come up with a tortured explanation to justify why the twig blights are a serious threat can only succeed in drawing attention to the fact that they’re really, really, really not. (Leaving aside the unexplained maybe-lab-grown twig blights in Belak’s lab, there are only a couple dozen twig blights total at two-ish per year for twelve years, and each twig blight is considerably less formidable in combat than an ordinary wolf. Some of them have probably already gotten themselves killed by large herbivores.) The twig blights’ apparent-but-not-real danger works great for the horror elements, but only if we don’t invite the players to think about the twig blights as a larger setting element.

So for the moment we can let this go and just have any backup characters stay behind for individual custom-crafted reasons…but there is an idea I want to float here. It ties thematically to the same primal fear posed by the dire rats — the medieval fear of plague. If the twig blights spread Fantasy Rabies, causing ordinary animals to turn hostile, that could present an ongoing low-level but widespread danger. Of course, then destroying the Gulthias Tree wouldn’t actually solve the problem, only prevent Belak from making things much worse.

If the Gulthias Tree caused any animal that died nearby to animate in 1d4 hours as a zombie, which then went shambling off in search of the flesh of the living, that would present an ongoing cataclysm. One highly amusing possibility comes if we introduce a mind-control effect that makes animals throw themselves off the cliff to their deaths — the bodies are eaten by dire rats before they can animate, until the PCs clear out the dire rats.
But in that case the problem wouldn’t start until the PCs were already in the dungeon, in which case they might not find out about it at all.

Sunless Citadel: Here There Were Dragons

At the road’s closest approach to the cleft, several broken pillars jut from the earth where the ravine widens and opens into something more akin to a deep, but narrow, canyon.

The Sunless Citadel, page 4

Two of the pillars stand straight, but most of them lean against the sloped earth. Others are broken, and several have apparently fallen into the darkness-shrouded depths. A few similar pillars are visible on the opposite side of the ravine.

The Sunless Citadel, page 5

I’m going to be harping on this a lot, but the Sunless Citadel is really good at getting across a palpable feeling of decay and decrepitude.
I didn’t really understand what the Sunless Citadel was doing with this the first time through. This is hard to really appreciate without seeing someone screw it up; that’s one of the reasons it’s worth digging into bad modules even with no intention of fixing them. Fortunately, other people have already done that for us.

We’ve barely finished talking about Chekhov’s Gun, and Thunderspire Labyrinth is doing it wrong already…the module isn’t subtle in showing off its flavour. The players approach the undermountain through “a 50-foot-tall stone archway hewn out of the mountainside”, on each side of which “a towering minotaur statue stands […] glowering down at travellers.”
This is foreshadowing. This is giant letters writ across the shape of what is yet to come, spelling out “Here Be Minotaurs” in stark red writing. This is telling players that Thunderspire is watched over by ancient guardians, and those guardians have the head of a bull.
Unfortunately, it’s not to be. There’s not hide nor hair of a living minotaur to be seen throughout the length of Thunderspire.
It’s not the last time we’re going to see this kind of misguided foreshadowing, either. We’re going to see a beholder-themed Chamber of Eyes that’s missing a beholder, a Horned Hold devoid of horns, and a Tower With No Doors featuring a very prominent door.

Eleven Foot Pole

Even as your players come to this doorway, they’ll be sharpening their weapons and patting each other on the back and declaring, “Oh boy! Beholders!” Beholders are a classic enemy and one of the great things about 4th Edition is that the Monster Manual II comes complete with low-level versions of iconic monsters, so that even a 4th-level party can tangle with an Eye Tyrant.
There’s no Beholders in the Chamber of Eyes, or anywhere else in Thunderspire for that matter. Possibly they’re hanging out with the Minotaurs and the Mages of Saruun. Never mind that the developers inexplicably drew a Beholder on the dungeon’s door – it’s all just a fake out. If you don’t reset their expectations quickly, your disappointed players will spend hours searching the Chamber for secret doors, convinced they still haven’t found the room with the Beholder in it.

Eleven Foot Pole

I think it would bother me less if these minotaurs at the gate were clearly crumbling, entire limbs broken from their bodies, their once proud eyes now dead and vacant. It would set the scene a lot better.

Eleven Foot Pole

Nobody is going to be expecting dragons in the Sunless Citadel.
Nor does it ever become clear what happened to the Citadel itself; it doesn’t really matter, because it isn’t relevant to the story we’re telling in the present.

Maybe something like the book found in Balin’s Tomb in Lord of the Rings, detailing the civil war and eventual collapse of the city? Balin’s Tomb and Mountains of Madness – in both these examples, the past of the dungeon complex has a direct bearing on the final resolution of the story. The fall of the dwarves is important because it’s building up to the Balrog; the ancient things living in the Mountains of Madness are still alive and active. Understanding the prologue is critical to comprehending the finale.

Eleven Foot Pole

The Sunless Citadel is a castle that’s been thrust down below ground level by ancient and terrible, but now long-past, magic.
The citadel has been long picked-over. Exploring the crumbling ruin is a post-post-post-post-apocalyptic feeling — there were vast forces at work here at some point, but you and your adversaries are just rats in their long shadow.
It’s a good setup for a long-running campaign. One of the unusual features of D&D-descended games is the very wide range of power levels in a single game. High-level adventures are supposed to look radically different from low-level adventures. The Sunless Citadel introduces those elements while keeping them firmly offscreen where they can’t upstage the actual story.

And if it were just some goblins squatting in an old ruin, that would be fine. It would be a serviceable adventure. But there’s more going on under the surface.

Nobody is going to be expecting dragons in the Sunless Citadel; indeed it’s only the PCs who bothered with a Gather Information check who even know that there was “an ancient dragon cult” here. And in this case, that is as it should be. Even without specifically mentioning it, we’re setting up what we need to.

The Sunless Citadel failed to properly set up the goblins and didn’t set up the twig blights to a degree that even comes close to reflecting the size of their eventual role in the story — but here is where it really starts to shine, when setting up the kobold cult. The kobold cult is never explicitly referenced before they show up; they’re a surprise. But the module is building up the themes that the kobolds will rely on. A once-proud site now defiled by interlopers.

the pillars are generally worn and broken, and graffiti in the Dwarven alphabet covers most of them. Characters who know Goblin (after translating the letters from Dwarven) recognize the inscriptions as warnings and threats against potential trespassers.

The Sunless Citadel, page 5

The ruined Citadel itself is a palpable presence in the adventure, seemingly just a backdrop — only to suddenly become important to the plot when we meet the kobolds who want to restore it to (their imagined version of) its former glory.

Having said that, it does garble the message a little bit that, if you stop to think about it, these pillars the goblins are defiling can’t have been original to the site. Pillars on two opposite sides of a ravine sounds like a rope bridge has rotted away — and in the original time of the Citadel, there was no ravine here and thus no need for a bridge. Unless, I suppose, the ravine was already here before the Citadel got buried…it isn’t ultimately all that important.

The Citadel still isn’t important for what really happened so long ago — whatever that might be. The Citadel is important for the ideologies and fervent beliefs that hinge upon it now.

But of course, the people who are making the strongest impression right now aren’t the kobolds — they’re the goblins.

Gang Tags

graffiti in the Dwarven alphabet…Characters who know Goblin (after translating the letters from Dwarven) recognize the inscriptions as warnings and threats against potential trespassers.

The Sunless Citadel, page 5

I like this. It’s tough to introduce a villain in a game, because obviously when they actually meet the players are going to win. The trick is to introduce them before they actually show up — show their effects on the land around them. This graffiti is establishing the goblins…but it’s mostly establishing them as losers, as befits an adversary that the PCs are soon going to outgrow. I mean, really now. Graffiti. This is not, as a rule, how Dark Lords mark their territory. More often they let impaled corpses stand as mute testament to what happens to trespassers. Or at least bas-relief carvings of a king stabbing someone’s eyes out. But the Durbuluks don’t have the resources for that. They’re not destitute like the kobolds, but they’re not rich either. If they lived in a city, we’d call them a street gang. They’re bottom-feeders, scavengers who prey on the weak.

So we’re starting to get some good setup of the upcoming factions. We also get…uh, this.

A successful Search check (DC 13) reveals that the area in and around the pillars has hosted countless small campfires, some of them recent (about a month ago). However, someone went to some effort to hide the evidence of the camps from casual scrutiny.

The Sunless Citadel, page 5

Remember the Gather Information section, when we talked about how it’s important to have a list of what information you’re trying to get across to players? Yeah, that would be really helpful right about now. If the players investigate further, I have no idea what further clues they might find, because I have no idea what the truth is.

In the first place, what is this even saying? Did someone try to hide the evidence of all the camps, or just the ones a month ago? It sounds like it means all. But that makes no sense. The goblins have no reason to hide their camps. Their gang tags are right above the camps. The goblins aren’t hiding their presence. Quite the opposite.

A month ago is when the human adventurers passed through here. But they had no reason to camp here. The players will surely be aware of this, because they have been considering (or will soon be considering) the question of whether they need to camp here…and they don’t.

Plus, “some” of the campfires were recent, not “one” of the campfires.

That leaves…the kobolds? I guess…the kobolds camped here about a month ago? For…some kind of recon?

To be clear, if that was the intent (I’m not totally sure it was), I’d be all for some environmental storytelling, hinting at the kobolds’ presence as the players roughly follow the timeline of the kobold invasion — first see where they staked out the ravine, then see the goblins they killed, then finally meet the kobolds.

But the clues are weird. Maybe the kobolds showed up right before the adventurers a month ago, fine, but why camp here? I guess…maybe the kobolds weren’t sure whether there was anyone squatting in their holy temple (because none of the kobolds talked to anyone in Oakhurst) and since they weren’t sure whether whoever left the graffiti might be long gone, they camped here figuring it was a small risk and they could retreat if they saw anyone? And then they did see a goblin, shanked the goblin and retreated? That’s possible, but it’d be poor storytelling because there’s no sign of the kobolds returning the second time. If we’re going for environmental storytelling of the kobold invasion, there’s a big chunk missing.

Honestly, lacking anything better, I would just drop all mention of these campsites. It doesn’t seem to lead anywhere coherent.

There is, however, some clear evidence of the adventurers’ passage.

Anyone standing next to the ravine immediately notes a sturdy knotted rope tied to one of the leaning pillars. The rope hangs down into the darkness below.

The Sunless Citadel, page 5

Of course. The adventurers went down. They never came back up. So their rope is still here. There’s that mute testimony; this is far more unnerving than the goblins’ deliberate threats.

I do have a nitpick, though.

Judging by its good condition, the rope couldn’t have been tied there any longer than two or three weeks ago.

The Sunless Citadel, page 5

This has to be an error, and it’s sort of archaeologically interesting because it shows that the timeline went through multiple versions in different drafts of the module. The adventurers “delved into the Sunless Citadel a month past.” [The Sunless Citadel, page 3] The campfires — whatever the heck was supposed to be going on there — date to “about a month ago” [The Sunless Citadel, page 5].

In the citadel itself, PCs find “month-old tracks made by three or four humanoids (not goblins or kobolds)” [The Sunless Citadel, page 15].

What happened to the adventurers after that? “The goblins caught three of them over a month ago” [The Sunless Citadel, page 19].

Nor could the kobolds have arrived after the adventurers [The Sunless Citadel, page 14] so the kobolds didn’t leave this rope.

It’s kind of weird that the 5e update repeats all of this verbatim, despite the fact that it’s a clear and simple misprint.

Obviously we shouldn’t be telling the players that “the rope couldn’t have been tied there any longer than two or three weeks ago,” because if the players are paying attention they’ll think it’s a clue that someone else came down here after the month-past adventurers — when it’s not a clue at all. Fortunately it’s an easy fix — just say the rope has been here a month instead of “two or three weeks”. (Unless, of course, you shorten the timeline as I’ll advocate later.)

This rope brings up another thorny issue when introducing new players to the game.
Because there’s a cliff, and the PCs need to get down it. They need rope.

No rope! And only last night you said to yourself: “Sam, what about a bit of rope? You’ll want it, if you haven’t got it”: Well, I’ll want it. I can’t get it now.

Samwise the Brave

You could tell players “Hey, make sure you buy rope” but that would just be annoying. They should be able to learn to play the game by playing the game.
The Player’s Handbook provides example “starting packages” to clue players in as to the sort of gear they need — but obviously those packages don’t include things that the party needs, like rope, only things that the individual characters need.

Of course, in this case, there’s a rope waiting for the PCs when they get to the ravine.

The first encounter with the lockpicking mechanics is right next to the means to circumvent them, which accidentally teaches the player that these aren’t worth the investment of time or resources.


it teaches you bad habits you’ll need to un-learn once you get to the “real” part of the game.

I don’t mean that we’re trying to encourage players to have rope, per se. But I submit that having-the-stuff-you-need is part of the game, and an important part.

“Dungeoneering” is a cutesy word I use, lifted from the Alexandrian’s old joke:

Player: I want to explore the dungeon.
GM: Okay, make a Dungeoneering check.
Player: I succeed.
GM: Okay, you kill a tribe of goblins and emerge with 546 gp in loot.

The Alexandrian

You don’t have to use this word, but I think it’s important to have a word to keep track of this concept, because it can be difficult to pin down and describe on the fly.

Dungeoneering is the third stage of the three-stage process of players acclimating to the world. I don’t think the first two stages really need names of their own (people with fancy degrees might call them “perceivable consequence” and “intention”), since they’re simple enough concepts but we need to talk about them first to clarify what dungeoneering is and is not.

In the first stage, the player learns the literal rules. They learn their options for stealth and detection. They learn how to climb a cliff and under what circumstances they might fall. They learn how to move the little chess pieces around in combat, and they learn they can get a bonus for flanking an enemy.

In the second stage, the players develops the ability to make plans. It’s not just that they know (or can look up) what a car is, what a train is, and what a plane is. They learn to chain together multiple elements of the world the way a native would, as naturally as a person in our world realizes that getting from one place to another might involve a plane and a train and a taxicab, a kind of car you can hire for a single trip. They think of elements of the world as tools in their toolbox, and instinctively reach for the appropriate tool in any situation.

Dungeoneering is the third stage, when players learn to anticipate and pre-empt the internal logic of the world. “A blind corner…I don’t like it. Looks like a good spot for an ambush.” “Don’t let the goblins get away, they’ll bring reinforcements.” “A ravine? We’ll want rope.”

The third stage isn’t necessarily natural to the in-universe characters, and so dumb mistakes aren’t necessarily a bad thing. If a player tries to run right past some goblins because they don’t know about Attacks of Opportunity, it’s a good idea to coach them to alter their course — because Attacks of Opportunity are an abstract representation of a danger that would be impossible to overlook in-universe. But an impetuous youth trying to adventure for the first time might well just plum forget to bring rope, much as how a first-time hiker in our world might completely forget to bring water. (But a D&D character wouldn’t forget to bring water; in a medieval world, anyone who’s gone on a journey of any length, including the journey to Oakhurst from wherever they were before, would have a deep appreciation for the lack of running water in the wilderness.)

On the other hand, what if there wasn’t rope? Do the PCs walk all the way back to town? That wouldn’t be so bad — it would be boring and slightly humiliating for the characters, but for the players it only takes a few seconds. But new players are all too likely to not realize that bringing rope was an option. Sure, it’s in the Player’s Handbook, but they aren’t going to read that thing cover-to-cover. More likely they’d just try to climb down, not realizing they were supposed to bring rope.

Indeed, the cliff actually enables that — if PCs are too paranoid to use somebody else’s rope but not quite paranoid enough to bring their own, there are goblin-carved handholds and footholds on the rock-face itself [The Sunless Citadel, page 5].

The conceit of a previous adventuring party helps us find a middle ground. There’s a rope waiting for them, but the rope was brought here by adventurers just like them.

In fact, there’s more we could do with this idea. The previous adventurers had a bullseye lantern — and the players might well not have thought to invest in one. Unless you’re a coal miner’s daughter, you probably don’t spend a lot of time thinking about how you could use mirrors to maximize the “throw” of a lantern.
But the module gives the bullseye lantern to Sir Braford, at the very end of the adventure — we could put the bullseye lantern with the body of Karakas, near the beginning, for the PCs to find and go “Hey, this thing is handy!”

On the other hand, using the previous adventurers as models to emulate creates a weird dynamic. Because the previous adventurers failed — that’s the entire reason the PCs are here, that’s the hook for the rescue mission. It feels more natural to use the previous adventurers to warn the players away from dangerous mistakes. “They did X, and they failed, don’t do X.” Indeed we could show where the party members were killed off, one by one, by the various dangers of the Citadel. But that brings us to the upcoming ambush.

Sunless Citadel: Dark Ravine

Player characters who arrive during daylight hours have a good view of the site, which is depicted on the Sunless Citadel Cutaway Map. If they arrive in the darkness of night, the player characters see only what their light sources (and vision capabilities) allow.

The Sunless Citadel, page 4

The Old Road passes to the east of a narrow ravine…The ravine runs for several miles in either direction, with an average depth and width of 30 feet. At the point where it most closely intersects the Old Road, it widens to 40 feet. It also plunges much deeper into the earth near the pillars described above. See the Sunless Citadel Cutaway Map.

The Sunless Citadel, pages 4–5

It’s things like this that made me want to contrive a reason for the PCs to travel by night. The module keeps making reference to what happens if the PCs travel by night, but never says WHY anyone would ever do that.

What I really want to ask, though, is this: Can the PCs see the roof of the Citadel?
Torchlight won’t reach that far. But look at the cutaway. At about…eleven o’clock, sunlight briefly streams in through the ravine to the roof of the Citadel. Sunless it ain’t.

Of course, there will be shadows cast by the pillars as shown in the image.

At the road’s closest approach to the cleft, several broken pillars jut from the earth where the ravine widens and opens into something more akin to a deep, but narrow, canyon.

The Sunless Citadel, page 4

ravine is a landform narrower than a canyon and is often the product of streamcutting erosion.


Two of the pillars stand straight, but most of them lean against the sloped earth. Others are broken, and several have apparently fallen into the darkness-shrouded depths. A few similar pillars are visible on the opposite side of the ravine.

The Sunless Citadel, page 5

(“darkness shrouded depths” It’s not nighttime! Not unless we contrive a reason for the PCs to travel by night.)

Does it matter if the PCs can see the roof of the Citadel? Well…

Ventilation: All keyed areas contain an adequate air supply, unless noted otherwise. The air is renewed from countless cracks leading to the upper open cavern and the surface, as well as many miniature tunnels leading to thriving Underdark ecologies. These cracks are individually too small for any but Fine creatures to navigate.

The Sunless Citadel, page 7

We can assume all cracks are indirect enough that PCs won’t see light coming out of the Citadel at night. But during the day, they might see smoke.

A large pit in the chamber’s center shows evidence of a recent bonfire.

The Sunless Citadel, Area 15

A permanent camp of sorts lies north of the wall, complete with a fire ring and several small iron cook pots.

The Sunless Citadel, Area 33

…a much-used fire pit. Battered cooking equipment…

The Sunless Citadel, Areas 36

But what are the odds they’d happen to be cooking at eleven o’clock, right? But…

Several small but smoky bonfires light this wide and high chamber.

The Sunless Citadel, Area 20

Several torches mounted in crude wall sconces burn fitfully in this chamber, filling the air with a haze that blurs sight…The haze never builds to suffocating levels, thanks to ventilation provided by many small crevices and cracks in the ceiling and walls.

The Sunless Citadel, Area 39

FoundryAtropos made a nice map showing the fires in Area 15, Area 33, and Area 20 (Areas 36 are depicted with their fires not currently lit on this map, and for whatever reason you can only barely make out the torches in Area 39).

So if the PCs hang around until eleven o’clock, they’ll likely see smoke coming from near the center of the Citadel, as well as slightly northwest of there. Not that they’re likely to hang around until eleven o’clock, but they can make a semi-survey of the site if they choose to.

Sunless Citadel: The Old Road

The Old Road does a good job of gradually changing the tone as the party approaches the dungeon.

The overgrown Old Road winds through rocky downs, near stands of old-growth oak, and past 1d4 abandoned farm shacks. The lonely road is empty of all travelers except for the PCs.

The Sunless Citadel, page 4

Recall that the Old Road “fell into disuse because of goblin banditry.” [The Sunless Citadel, page 3] It used to be busier.

The Old Road also skirts the Ashen Plain, a lifeless land.

The Sunless Citadel, page 3

Going by the map, to the east (the PCs’ left) are always rocky downs. To the west (the PCs’ right) are first the Ashen Plain, then rocky downs, and finally stands of old-growth oak.

The Old Road was built, presumably, by the traditional fantasy don’t-call-them-Roman precursor empire.

…the network of Roman roads covered a distance of over 400,000 kilometers, with more than 120,000 kilometers of this being of the type known as public roads. Spreading across the Romans’ vast empire from Great Britain in the north to Morocco in the south, and from Portugal in the west to Iraq in the East, they allowed people and goods to travel quickly from one part of the empire to another.
The Romans classified their roads into several types. The most important of these were the viae publicae (public roads), followed by the viae militares (military roads), then the actus (local roads), and finally the privatae (private roads). The first of these were the widest, and reached up to 12 meters (39.37 ft.) in width.
How did they create this infrastructure that has withstood the passing of time better than most its modern counterparts?
Roman roads consisted of three layers — a foundation layer on the bottom, a middle layer, and a surface layer on the top. The foundation layer often consisted of stones or earth. Other materials used to form this layer included: rough gravel, crushed bricks, clay material, and even piles of wood when roads were being built over swampy areas. The following layer would be composed of softer materials such as sand or fine gravel. This layer may have been formed by several successive layers. Finally, the surface was made using gravel, which was occasionally mixed with lime. For more prominent areas, such as those close to cities, roads were made more impressive by having the surface layer built using blocks of stone (which depended on the local material available, and may have consisted of volcanic tuff, limestone, basalt, etc.) or cobbles. The center of the road sloped to the sides to allow water to drain off the surface into drainage ditches.

Built to Last: Craftsmanship Enabled Roman Roads to Withstand the Passage of Time

In the olden days, the Old Road would have been patrolled by the don’t-call-them-Roman legions, encouraging trade; but the empire fell long ago. The Old Road remained in use for a time, but due to goblin predations, even that has stopped. Even the farm shacks are aband— uh, actually, why are the farm shacks abandoned?

Seriously, why are the farm shacks abandoned? Were they abandoned due to the Durbuluks’ predations, or more recently, due to twig blight attacks? The rumor earlier said “Cattle herders don’t graze their stock too far afield these days.” That doesn’t seem to imply they’re picking up and running away; if anything, the fact of mentioning keeping the livestock close and not mentioning emigration implies that nobody is leaving (yet).

Knowing when the farm shacks were abandoned makes a difference in describing them, if the PCs approach them. Then again, the PCs probably won’t approach them, which makes me wonder why they’re even here. Normally, if there just happened to be an abandoned farm right next to a dungeon, it would seem like an obvious basecamp for the PCs. (With the disadvantage of being an obvious basecamp, so pursuing monsters might look for them there.) But as we discussed, Oakhurst is very, very close. Close enough that the PCs never have to spend the night outside Oakhurst. So…?

We do have a potential use for a farm shack, actually. The underlying difficulty we had when arranging the twig blight ambushis that we want the initial distance traveled — on the first leg of the journey, when the PCs encounter the twig blights — to be longer than subsequent trips. That is, we want later trips to be short, to facilitate returning to rest, but the first trip to be long, to facilitate the twig blight ambush. We can do that just by giving the PCs a reasonably-secure rest stop closer to the dungeon. A farm shack would do nicely.

But the farm needn’t be abandoned. Indeed, actual travelers would be more likely to stay the night in peasants’ homes than in inns. A single traveler might even be invited into the farmer’s bed — bed-sharing wasn’t such a big deal in medieval Christendom. (Four travelers, however, will have to sleep in the barn.)

Lodging as described in the Player’s Handbook already kind of sounds like something improvised in a peasant’s home:

2sp Poor accommodations at an inn amount to a place on the floor near the hearth, plus the use of a blanket if the innkeeper likes you and you’re not worried about fleas.
5sp Common accommodations consist of a place on a raised, heated floor, the use of a blanket and a pillow, and the presence of a higher class of company.

Player’s Handbook page 131

With as heavily armed as PCs tend to be, they sort of go completely around the scale and trust isn’t an issue — if they were bandits, they’re clearly capable of taking whatever they want anyway, so it doesn’t matter whether you invite them into your home. Of course, particularly rag-tag bands of misfits may get appropriate reactions just as they do in town. And if we want to play up the vampire history in this area (though we probably don’t), we can draw their attention to the fact that local custom never actually invites anyone inside anywhere.

If the PCs are going to stay at somebody’s farm, we can take the opportunity to engage them some more, especially if they rushed through Oakhurst without asking a lot of questions.

There were people to meet who weren’t directly related to your main goal. You’d run into regular people who would tell you stories that would help you understand how this world worked.
Something like:
John Q. Peasant:
At first the plague seemed like a lucky break. Before that, the only place that would hire Humans was the refueling station, and that’s hazardous work. But then the plague hit and suddenly there were lots of jobs open and everyone wanted to hire me because I’m immune.”
(Looks down, rubs hand on back of neck awkwardly.)
But now? Nobody’s coming to the station these days, and my Turian buddies won’t visit me anymore. They won’t even talk to me. I dunno. This job won’t do me much good if the whole colony dies out. I wish things could go back to the way they were.
And then maybe he’d ask you to grab [some bullshit item] from [place where you’re already going] for him. When the quest was done, he’d give you a picture of how life on the station has changed because of your actions, or what people think of it.
The point of the quest wasn’t to get you to fetch the quest item, the point was to give you a reason to talk to this peasant before and after your adventure. This would put your actions into a more local context. In just a few lines of dialog it gives you a sense of how the culture around here works, what daily life is like, and gives you a frame of reference for how Humans are doing compared to other races. Without these quests, you might assume everyone feels the same way about the council, or other races, or Spectres, or Shepard. These moments give us different viewpoints, which make the world seem larger and more complex. It puts a personal face on a tragedy and maybe even helps build a little emotional connection. The quest reward was just a little incentive to seek out other people to talk to.

The Importance of Peasants

No Gather Information check to hear about cattle herders finding cattle pierced by dozens of needlelike claws? No problem! Here’s a cattle herder right here. I’ll call him Othic, after the horse-breeder in Of Sound Mind.

The farmhouse is also a potential source of small cute children for twig blights to menace the next time the PCs stop by. Players’ fear of twig blights isn’t likely to last past, say, the second encounter with them, since it’ll become obvious that they just aren’t much of a threat. But we can transition to making players hate the little horrors.

We could also build up the goblins further, if we wanted. The Durbuluks aren’t organized enough to actually set up taxation, but they can raid the countryside. “Durbuluks? They come through here every moon or so, taking whatever they please. ‘Course, some folks stand up to ’em. If one o’ them goblins is fool enough to let hisself get caught alone.” (shifty look) “No’ tha’ I would know anythin’ abou’ tha’.”

Of course, any such buildup of the goblins wouldn’t actually be consistent with what the module has to tell us. Timeline problems again. For now, let’s talk about the ravine the party finally arrives at.

Sunless Citadel: Twig Blights

Twig blights were revised in the Monster Manual II, and I think it was an improvement. The only difference (apart from bumping up their Hide bonus and giving them Listen) was to change the effects of their poison. The original poison was a fairly difficult Fortitude save or take…1 extra hit point in damage, immediately, with no secondary effects. There is a tiny bit of nuance introduced by that — because part of the twig blight’s damage is gated behind a Fortitude save, character with low hit points but high Fort saves, like clerics, can hold up surprisingly well. But mostly, it hardly seems worth the bother.

The Monster Manual II brought the Fortitude DC way down, to 11 — but if a PC fails the save, the effects are more serious: a point of Strength damage. That introduces some extra bookkeeping, tracking changes to characters’ attack bonuses, but it gives the twig blights a gimmick to help them stand out. With luck, the players might even get nervous when engaging twig blights, because twig blights can weaken them in a way goblin short swords can’t. (Probably not, but every little bit of enemies-feeling-different-to-fight helps.)

That wasn’t the last time the twig blights were revised. The Monster Manual II clarified that “A twig blight gains skills and feats as a fey.” — because in 3.0 plants didn’t gain skills nor feats, but twig blights were supposed to be sneaky. Later the designers realized that the whole “plant creatures don’t have skills” idea was kind of stupid, and 3.5 made plant monsters work just like any other type of monster.

The 3.5 update settled on “Hide +8, Listen +1, Move Silently +4, Spot +1” for the twig blight’s skills.

Neither The Sunless Citadel nor the Monster Manual II specified any Hide bonus for a twig blight in a wooded area, but it would be reasonable to give them a circumstance bonus. There’s no need to worry about that too much, though — with Hide, natural camouflage is already factored into handwavy DM judgements of what exactly qualifies as “cover” or “concealment” that allows a character (or monster) to make a Hide check at all.

The 3.5 update also gave twig blights Damage Reduction 5/bludgeoning or slashing as part of the 3.5 drive to unify all the various monster resistances into the Damage Reduction mechanic. If a character is holding a piercing melee weapon when the twig blights attack, they’ll find it ineffective. Don’t be coy about this; be explicit that the spear (for example) slips between gaps in the twig blgihts’ bodies and that the character will likely need to switch weapons. This would be perfectly clear to a person who was actually standing there, but might not be obvious to a player at a table just trying to figure out why their attacks don’t seem to do anything.

I think the revised stats are cleaner, simpler, and better to use, so those are what we’ll be assuming when talking about stealth and detection.

Getting back to the ambush, assume the twig blights take 10 on their Hide and Move Silently checks. Listen checks take a -1 penalty per 10 feet of distance.[Player’s Handbook Chapter 4: Skills] At a distance of 70 feet, a character with no Listen ranks but a +2 Wis bonus (or who happens to be an elf and has a +2 bonus from that) has a total -5 modifier to Listen checks, so rolling a 20 they can tie 15…but the higher modifier wins ties, so they cannot actually succeed on the Listen check until 60 feet.

So we can declare that 60 feet is when we’ll start rolling Spot and Listen checks — that’s within the plausible range for the limit of line-of-sight, if the twig blights are in foliage — assuming no character has a particularly high Listen bonus. (If all character’s Listen modifiers are particularly low, it’s still usually easier to roll a few hopeless Listen checks then to do the math to figure out exactly where they might succeed. Of course, if a character does have particularly good ears, we should take that into account.)

Of course, if the party is carrying a torch, then the twig blights will see them coming long before they can possibly detect the twig blights — and thus, by the time they arrive, the twig blights will already be concealed and stationary, making Listen checks to detect them infeasible.

If the party is not slowing down to make extra Spot checks, then each party member makes only two Spot checks, opposed by the two twig blights’ Hide checks. Assume the twig blights take 10 on their Hide checks, so Spotting them requires beating a Hide result of 19.

If either side is aware of the other before anyone on the other side is aware, then they can choose their moment to initiate combat.

Kobolds lurk in the nooks and crannies, waiting for the right time to strike. Jozan spots one of the kobolds, and the kobolds shriek and charge. The kobolds and Jozan each get a standard action during the surprise round. Kobolds that are close enough can charge adventurers and attack them. Others can move to try to put themselves in advantageous positions or shoot arrows at the flat-footed party members. Jozan can cast a spell, attack, or take some other action.

Player’s Handbook, Chapter 8: Combat

If the party comes within 20 feet of the twig blights without spotting them, then the twig blights get to charge and attack in the surprise round.

A penalty applies on Spot checks to determine the distance at which an encounter begins (which includes all Spot checks we care about), -1 per 10 feet of distance between the two individuals or groups, and an additional -5 penalty may apply if the character making the Spot check is distracted (not concentrating on being observant).[Player’s Handbook Chapter 4: Skills]

Avoiding the twig blights’ surprise charge requires Spotting them at 30 feet. Spotting the twig blights at 30 feet — with a -3 penalty for distance — requires a Spot bonus of +3 or better. (And if the character’s Spot bonus is exactly +3, it requires a roll of 20.) If a character with a +6 Spot bonus rolls an 18 for a total of 23, then they Spot the twig blights at a distance of 40 feet — the furthest distance at which the distance penalty allows them to beat the twig blight’s Hide check.

The party has the advantage that they get a total of eight Spot rolls — one for each party member for each twig blight. But it’s all for naught if none of them has a Spot bonus of at least +3.

If the party isn’t carrying a light source, then the twig blights don’t detect them before 60 feet either, but since we assumed for simplicity that the night is bright enough to allow creatures with low-light vision (including twig blights) to see as if it were daylight, most likely the twig blights immediately freeze (since the party cannot Hide while walking along the road) and still no Listen checks are called for.
If we assumed a darker night, then the twig blights would actually have to roll to Spot (or hear) the PCs.
The PCs could also potentially Hide if they abandoned the Old Road to trek through the foliage themselves — which technically they might, if they’re under no time pressure, but we’ll ignore that.

So, how does the encounter play out?

Twig blights have Int 5. They can speak (Sylvan). They know what armor is. They’ll charge whichever character is least obviously armored. (Even if that character is a monk; twig blights aren’t very bright.) If possible, they will flank that character, but that might not be possible depending on the PCs’ marching order on the road — charging from one side of the road, the twig blights cannot get around to the far side of the character and attack. (Unless for some reason the character was very close to the foliage, so that the twig blights could charge diagonally and attack from front and back.) (Twig blights won’t attack a more heavily armored character, even if they could flank that character; twig blights always prey on the weak.)

Remember that if the twig blights charge, they only get one claw attack at the end of the charge, though when they make a full attack in a round they can attack with both claws.

The most notable feature of the twig blights is their quasi-suicidal bloodlust. In contrast to cowardly goblins and plodding zombies we’ll see later, twig blights have a feral madness to them. We can play this up even as the twig blights fall to the PCs’ blows, describing how the monster madly-but-weakly flails with its claws as if it cares nothing for its own injuries.

It’s a good idea to note in advance, at character creation, how much the characters are carrying and thus how many points of Strength damage would increase their encumbrance. Since we’re in the unique situation of this being the first-ever encounter, it’s much easier to keep track of exactly how much weight each character is carrying than it otherwise would be. (When the characters are on their way back from the dungeon, you’ll probably hit the point of just totaling their load limits rather than micromanage who is carrying how many goblin short swords.)
It won’t slow the party down for long, since they’ll almost certainly be able to redistribute the weight to lighten that one character’s load, but it’ll definitely make an impression if the injured character initially can’t keep up due to being weakened by venom.

Addendum: Customizing twig blights

The 3.5 update settled on “Hide +8, Listen +1, Move Silently +4, Spot +1” for the twig blight’s skills.
That is, the default twig blight has one rank in each of Listen and Spot (with no Wis bonus).

But Listen and Spot are considered class skills if you wanted to have some differently-built twig blights, Dungeonscape-style [see Dungeonscape page 103].

All listed skills are class skills, unless the creature has a character class (noted in the entry). A creature’s type and Intelligence score determine the number of skill points it has.

Monster Manual, Reading The Entries

The number of skill points plants were given for 3.5 is “(2 + Int modifier, minimum 1) × (HD+3)”. [Monster Manual, Chapter 5: Making Monsters, Table 5-4: Skill Points by Monster Type]

A twig blight has 4 skill points — every non-mindless creature has the inalienable right to 4 skill points, no matter how low its Intelligence — and it’s buying Hide, Move Silently, Listen and Spot as class skills. The default twig blight has 1 rank in each. But it could have 4 ranks in Move Silently, or 2 ranks in each of Listen and Spot.

The Sunless Citadel doesn’t do that, of course. There isn’t any place it would be particularly appropriate to have a “sentinel” twig blight standing guard over the grove, so it works well to give all twig blights the same stats — sinking one skill point into each of Hide and Move Silently, and taking the Stealthy feat on top of that, which together with their +1 Dex bonus makes +4 to Move Silently, and together with their +4 size bonus makes +8 to Hide. (Though, even in the original module, The Sunless Citadel provided a Hit Dice Advancement range for twig blights, in case you wanted to try something custom.)

Most creatures in this book are built using the standard array of ability scores: 11, 11, 11, 10, 10, 10, adjusted by racial modifiers.

Monster Manual, page 294

Nonelite Array: The nonelite array is 13, 12, 11, 10, 9, 8…The nonelite array does not necessarily make a monster better than normal, but it does customize the monster…

Mnonster Manual, page 290

We can use the nonelite array to make twig blights that have a bit more staying power, thanks to higher AC and HP, while being less deadly in their attacks.

Abilities: Str 9 – 2 = 7, Dex 13 + 2 = 15, Con 12 + 2 = 14, Int 11 – 6 = 5, Wis 10, Cha 8 – 6 = 2
Skills: Hide +7, Listen +1, Move Silently +3, Spot +4
Feats: Weapon Finesse
Hit Dice: 1d8+2 (6 hp)
Initiative: +2
AC: 16 (+1 size, +2 Dex, +3 natural)
Attacks: 2 claws +2 melee
Damage: Claw 1d3-2 plus poison (Fort DC 12, initial damage 1 Str)
Advancement: 2–3 HD (Small)

These twig blights cannot deal more than a single point of damage with each attack, so they’re less likely to drop a character, but they’re also less likely to go down without drawing blood, and they’re more likely to deal at least one point of Strength damage. That makes them a little better as “introduction” twig blights, establishing the monster’s key features.

If we really wanted to give them some more staying power, we could bump these twig blights up to 2 Hit Dice (12hp), making them very unlikely to fall to a single blow. 3 Hit Dice would also give them another feat — probably Ability Focus, to bump up their venom DC.
In that case, the 1HD twig blights mass-grown in Belak’s lab are stunted by comparison, and the PCs can cut through them like a scythe through wheat — which works out, since by that point they’re not scary monsters anymore, they’re just dumb mooks for the real villain.

We could also give these twig blights a major vampire bloodline — unlike the standard Monster Manual II twig blights, which are mostly born from other twig blights reproducing through their roots like aspen trees, these are the direct children of the Gulthias tree — the blood has not yet run thin. That would give them a +2 bonus on Climb checks, so they can actually make a DC 10 Climb check, such as the one given for the upcoming cliff. 2HD twig blights would also get Stealthy as a bonus feat. (But 3HD twig blights wouldn’t get a Strength bonus, since they cannot meet the qualifications.)

Sunless Citadel: Marching Order

Ask the players to tell you in what order their characters generally walk down corridors. This information lets you know generally where each character is with respect to each other, which is important if the PCs are suddenly attacked or if you need to determine who walks into a trap first.

The Sunless Citadel, page 4

That’s good advice. But Standard Operating Procedure is more than marching order.

When walking, do the PCs keep their ranged weapons out, or their melee weapons? (Do the PCs atop the cliff already have ranged weapons out?)
Keeping no weapons out can be a good choice too — if they keep ranged weapons in hand at all times, then getting melee weapons out requires two move actions (one to stow the ranged weapons) instead of one.

And then, of course, there’s everything to do with stealth and detection — highly relevant when twig blights are going to attack.

Stealth and detection revolves around the four skills Hide, Move Silently, Spot, and Listen.
The basic rule is trivial to remember: whenever someone tries to move silently, their Move Silently roll is opposed by the Listen roll of anyone who might hear them. You can probably guess from that how Hide and Spot interact.

The subtleties, however, can make it difficult for players to understand all the strategic options available to them. And often they do not need to. You can just assume the PCs travel at full speed. It doesn’t really matter whether the twig blights surprise them or not. Either way the twig blights burst out of the foliage and engage them in combat.

But the twig blights make for a good working example for a simplified explanation of what goes into stealth and detection — and the next encounter will be an ambush by dire rats where these rules do matter, and then they’ll be mixed in with other rules that make things more complicated. Better to consider stealth and detection in the simpler overland case first.

Being stealthy and being watchful can both be improved by traveling slower, but in different ways.
Hide and Move Silently checks both take a numerical modifier based on how fast the character is moving. By contrast, Spot and Listen allow more or fewer rolls based on how fast the character is moving. [Player’s Handbook Chapter 4: Skills] There are important differences in how those two mechanics operate: most importantly, a numerical modifier can change what is possible, while a reroll cannot. Anything that a character can Spot by taking extra time, they have a chance to Spot just with their one “free” Spot. If they had no chance in the first place — we’ll see a case of that when we get to the ravine — then taking extra time won’t help them.

(Fifth Edition calls rerolls “advantage” and replaced a ton of numerical modifiers with rerolls. Opinions…vary on whether this was a good idea.)

Hide and Move Silently assume the default case is that the character is moving as slowly as they need to — so they take a penalty if they move faster than that. By contrast, Spot and Listen assume the default case is moving at full speed — as, for example, a merchant caravan wouldn’t be on maximum alert all the time — so characters can get extra rolls by moving slower. [Skills]

Remember: Ten rounds equal one minute. (Sixty minutes equal one hour, in case you hadn’t heard.)

A character moving his or her speed twice in a single round, or moving that speed in the same round that he or she performs a standard action or another move action is hustling when he or she moves…A character can hustle for 1 hour without a problem. Hustling for a second hour in between sleep cycles deals 1 point of nonlethal damage, and each additional hour deals twice the damage taken during the previous hour of hustling. A character who takes any nonlethal damage from hustling becomes fatigued. A fatigued character can’t run or charge and takes a penalty of -2 to Strength and Dexterity. Eliminating the nonlethal damage also eliminates the fatigue.

Player’s Handbook Chapter 9: Adventuring

“Hustling” is an awkward attempt to conflate physical and mental effort to keep things relatively simple. The idea behind hustling is that no matter what speed you’re moving at, you can double it (temporarily) by hustling.

Generally, when adventurers are actually in a dungeon, they’re always assumed to be hustling — taking two actions per round. But that heightened state of activity isn’t sustainable over long journeys, not for first-level characters. But…it is absolutely possible for most first-level characters to hustle the entire distance from Oakhurst to the Citadel if they want to. They’ll take a bit of nonlethal damage and fatigue, but they can choose to accept that.

By default, Hide and Spot are rolled on the hider’s turn — each time they take a move action, they roll a Hide check, and anyone who might see them gets an automatic Spot check. [Skills]
Thus, when sneaking up on a stationary target, it doesn’t make any difference whether the sneaker hustles or not — if they’re covering, say, 15 feet with each move action, then they’ll have to make a Hide check (and, more importantly, the target gets a Spot check) every 15 feet, regardless of whether they’re taking one or two move actions per round.
And of course all the same for Move Silently and Listen. [Skills]

On the Spotter’s turn, they can choose to spend a move action of their own on watchfulness. [Skills] That lets them roll a new Spot check against the last Hide roll of the hider. (If there is anyone hiding nearby. If there isn’t, then obviously they’re wasting their time.)
Alternatively, they can choose to spend a move action on Listening, opposed by the Move Silently roll of anyone who might be there. [Skills]

To Hide and/or Move Silently without penalty, the sneaker must move less than (or equal to) half of the full speed they could move at. [Skills] Moving at half speed in this way allows both hiding and moving silently — the way you need to move, stepping gingerly and avoiding sudden movements, is pretty much the same in both cases. This moving at half speed can also overlap with a few obscure situations where deliberate movement avoids a penalty, such as picking one’s way through a field of caltrops [Player’s Handbook Chapter 7: Equipment], but not terrain that intrinsically hampers movement whether you like it or not, such as walking through foliage or up a slope, or when you can hardly see your own feet [Player’s Handbook Chapter 9: Adventuring].

When figuring the party’s overland speed, the first step is to figure each character’s individual speed.

Character speed depends on how much weight they’re carrying. [see Player’s Handbook Chapter 9: Adventuring] If someone is slowed down by the weight of gear, that can sometimes be alleviated by redistributing weight according to character strength. But there’s no interesting choice happening there — indeed, it’s usually best to just total up the weight of all the gear, total up all character’s pound limits for a light load, and see whether someone is going to have to be slowed down by encumbrance. And then just don’t worry about exactly who is carrying the rope or all the trail rations.

Since the party is presumably going to travel together at the same speed, without splitting up, each party member picks a strategy in the same speed band.
For example, if one character has speed 20 feet, the entire party might move at 2 miles per hour, and the three party members with speed 30 feet each make an extra Spot checks every three rounds (so in each round, someone is making an extra Spot check).

All these speeds might be cut in half if the party goes over rough terrain — for example, if they decide to abandon the road for whatever reason. But because that applies equally to all party members, the strategic trade-offs remain the same.

6 miles per hour:

  • Speed 30feet, hustling with no caution.

4 miles per hour:

  • Speed 20feet, hustling with no caution.

3 miles per hour:

  • Speed 30feet, walking.
  • Speed 30feet, hustling, extra Spot every round.
  • Speed 30feet, hustling, extra Listen every round.
  • Speed 30feet, hustling, half speed for stealth.
  • Speed 30feet, hustling, in subjective darkness.
  • Speed 20feet, hustling, extra Spot every two rounds.

2 miles per hour:

  • Speed 20feet, walking.
  • Speed 20feet, hustling, extra Spot every round.
  • Speed 20feet, hustling, extra Listen every round.
  • Speed 20feet, hustling, half speed for stealth.
  • Speed 30feet, walking, extra Spot every three rounds.
  • Speed 30feet, walking, extra Listen every three rounds.

1.5 miles per hour:

  • Speed 30feet, walking, extra Spot every round.
  • Speed 30feet, walking, extra Listen every round.
  • Speed 30feet, walking, half speed for stealth.
  • Speed 30feet, walking, in subjective darkness.
  • Speed 30feet, hustling, half speed for stealth, extra Spot every round.
  • Speed 30feet, hustling, half speed for stealth, extra Listen every round.
  • Speed 30feet, hustling, extra Spot every round, extra Listen every two rounds.
  • Speed 30feet, hustling, extra Listen every round, extra Spot every two rounds.
  • Speed 30feet, hustling, three extra Spot checks every two rounds.
  • Speed 30feet, hustling, three extra Listen checks every two rounds.
  • Speed 20feet, walking, extra Spot every four rounds.
  • Speed 20feet, walking, extra Listen every four rounds.
  • Et cetera ad infinitum.

If the characters aren’t under time pressure, they can travel as slowly as they want. If they want, every time they take a step, they can pause for a minute to make twenty Spot checks. Of course eventually they’ll have to rest. And eat. And drink. And if they’re worried about the heat of the day, eventually the sun will come up.

There are as many different combinations of strategies as there are different party combinations. For example, a party of three humans and one dwarf might choose to forego a torch in favor of letting the dwarf lead the way — everyone else would travel at half speed due to not being able to see, while the dwarf would take an extra Spot check every four rounds.

Of course, in order to even attempt to Hide, a creature needs some form of cover or concealment, such as foliage or darkness.

Depending on weather, we could have four ambient light conditions:

  • Humans and halflings cannot see anything, neither can characters with low-light vision.
  • Humans and halflings cannot see anything, characters with low-light vision see shadowy illumination.
  • Humans and halflings see shadowy illumination, so do characters with low-light vision.
  • Humans and halflings see shadowy illumination, characters with low-light vision see as well as if it were daylight.

Shadowy illumination provides concealment, enabling Hide checks and also giving all attacks a flat 20% chance to miss. (This isn’t the same as a -4 penalty to attack rolls; if you can’t clearly see the target, there’s a 20% chance you aim at the wrong place and miss cleanly, even if the target is unarmored and unconscious.)

In the last case, characters with low-light vision can move at full speed, just like characters with darkvision, and twig blights cannot hide without something to hide behind (but twig blights would probably hide in foliage anyway).

If the night is darker so that creatures with low-light vision see shadowy illumination, then it’s actually possible for the PCs to hide from the twig blights, even walking along the road with no cover.

We will assume, though, that we’re in that last case: humans and halflings see shadowy illumination, characters with low-light vision see as well as if it were daylight. It’s a bright moonlit night.

What we haven’t talked about, though, is when to start rolling stealth versus detection checks.

You need some form of cover or concealment to hide at all, but total cover or total concealment make a Hide check unnecessary — no matter how good Legolas’s elf-eyes are, he doesn’t have x-ray vision. In an environment with a whole lot of random minor obstructions, such as a forest, eventually they all overlap so that you have no line of sight beyond a certain distance.

What distance? The Dungeon Master’s Guide gives guidelines for when the party is in an unmapped forest. If the party looks in any given direction, their line of sight stops at 3d6 x 10 feet (in a sparse forest) [Dungeon Master’s Guide page 87]. You roll randomly. Of course, for an emplaced encounter, you can figure out how far you want the line of sight to be, just as, in a fully-mapped dungeon, you can figure out exactly where line-of-sight reaches just by drawing lines.

The DMG also has guidelines for line-of-sight in hill country like the “rocky downs” the Old Road winds through — sometimes the elevation changes obstruct line of sight, and you randomly roll for that, which thereby determines where the party happens to be in the ups and downs at that moment.

But the terrain guidelines can’t cover every situation; in particular, in this case we have a mix of terrain types. We have a broad road, going through hills, occasionally “near stands of old-growth oak” [The Sunless Citadel, page 4].

For convenience, we can just declare that line-of-sight just so happens to become possible right when it becomes possible for a Listen check to succeed on a roll of 20. That will be…uh. What are the twig blights’ skills? That’s a surprisingly complicated question.

Sunless Citadel: Rumors heard in Oakhurst

The module provides half a dozen pieces of information that PCs can get their hands on through Gather Information.

Gather Information is a skill that’s easily misunderstood. The name is vague — Appraise, Decipher Script, Listen, Search, Sense Motive, and Spot all gather information, too. 4e’s term, Streetwise, was more evocative, but Streetwise sounds like something that lets a character evade pursuit and things like that. Gather Information has a specifically narrow scope: finding people in town with useful information and getting that information out of them.

In a bit of questionable design, there’s a lot of overlap between the Gather Information skill and the class-specific Bardic Knowledge mechanic. There is a distinction, but it’s subtle. When a bard makes Bardic Knowledge checks, they’re not actually going out and doing anything — the check is made in an instant, to determine whether they’ve already gathered the information. Gather Information is something you do; a bard is something you are. A bard is assumed to be gathering information all the time — that’s part of what it means to be a bard.

A Gather Information check is done on-screen, unlike how a bard’s knowledge is gathered off-screen.

Use this skill for making contacts in an area, finding out local gossip, rumormongering, and collecting general information…
A typical Gather Information check takes 1d4+1 hours.

Player’s Handbook, Chapter 4: Skills

That is, even taking 10 on the Gather Information check itself, a character doesn’t know exactly how long they need to troll for rumors before finding anything. After two hours, if they find nothing, it could mean that they rolled a 1 on the d4 and failed the Gather Information check (or that there’s nothing more to find about the topic they’re looking for). Or it could mean they rolled a 4 on the d4 and need to keep going three more hours. Usually, of course, they won’t be under so much time pressure that this really matters.

But just because a Gather Information check happens on-screen doesn’t mean a Gather Information check is very similar to the likes of Listen, Search, Sense Motive, and Spot.

In my experience people rarely notice their own assumptions about how actions will be chunked…
Player: I want to explore the dungeon.
GM: Okay, make a Dungeoneering check.
Player: I succeed.
GM: Okay, you kill a tribe of goblins and emerge with 546 gp in loot.

The Alexandrian

Skills like Listen (hear something), Search (find something in a space max 10 feet on a side), and Spot (see something) have small chunks; skills like Handle Animal to train an animal, Heal to provide long-term care to a patient, Craft and Profession all have much, much bigger chunks. Gather Information is more like the latter. A Gather Information check doesn’t take days or weeks, but it does take hours. A “typical” Gather Information check takes 1d4+1 hours.[Player’s Handbook page 74] A Search check takes six seconds; there is no analogue to the Search skill with larger chunks, for finding treasure in an entire dungeon complex.

A higher levels, a Gather Information check includes such things as minor disguises and bluffs to gather someone’s trash without arousing suspicion, much like how a Heal check includes spotting discoloration, a Handle Animal check includes sensing motives, and a Profession (innkeeper) check includes diplomacy. The character might or might not be any good at those things outisde of their comfort zone, but when they’re in their element, they’re very effective.

You don’t target Gather Information at a particular NPC in front of you — you target a kind of information. Quite often, the character has only the vaguest idea of what information they’re looking for. But nevertheless, they expect to find something.

A module should provide DCs for Decipher Script, Listen, Search, and Spot where appropriate. But it’s not a disaster to forget to include some — they can usually be inferred from context. The module will obviously always say what’s there to read, hear, or see if there is something. Appraise and Sense Motive DCs can almost always be inferred from context, though it’s good practice to note them inline if they’re particularly important.

Gather Information, however, like the Knowledge skills, requires special handling. When these skills are used, the player often doesn’t know what they’re looking for. This is also true for Decipher Script and Sense Motive, but hopefully if a module includes a mysterious scroll or a lying NPC, it includes what the book is about and what the NPC is lying about! And of course you roll Listen and Spot checks because you know there’s something the PCs might hear or see.

Of course, there is a general direction the player is interested in. The canonical use of Knowledge skills is to get useful information about a monster in front of you. Similarly, Gather Information is most commonly used to get useful information about a dungeon the party is about to delve, or otherwise about the adventure.

The Gather Information section in this module is…very minimalist. The way you’ll usually start to plan out a Gather Information section is to make a list of what information is available. And explicitly including this list in a written module is a very good idea. We don’t just want to include tearful farmers in a scene; we want to be very clear on why they’re there.

The form of the information is just the interactive thingy you hide the information behind. It can be a dead body the players examine, it can be an interaction with an NPC, a book, a library, an oracle, an ancient tablet, six hours of alchemical experiments on a vial of poison to discover its origins, a contact other plane spell, whatever. The important part is the information itself. How you hide it in the world is secondary.
However, it IS important to be clear and unambiguous. Unless you mean to make the information a challenge (like a cryptic riddle), don’t be afraid to tell the players flat-out exactly what you want them to know. Don’t be afraid to break character. To switch from “aye, I have a lot of experience with orcs, let me tell ya” to “the old soldier explains that orcs are savage, bestial humanoids who live by raiding and pillaging the civilized races…” It is important to be as clear as possible.
the moment you allow the players to interact with the world, you’re going to have to improvise. If the PCs are examining a dead body, looking for clues, they might not ask any of the questions you expected and they might ask a whole bunch of questions you didn’t. That’s why it is extremely important to think FIRST about the information you want to impart and SECOND about the form it takes. If the PCs ask clever questions that aren’t the questions you expected, you can give them the same information you had planned on, just give it to them in different ways.
When you get good at this, though, it allows you to disguise exposition as exploration. That is to say, you can make an exposition scene seem interactive by letting the players ask questions and making sure that you give all the information you want to give in that scene in response to their questions. And if anything gets missed, you can always use the “oh, one more thing” approach. That’s where, just as the scene is about to end, the NPC suddenly says “oh, one more thing that might be useful…” and includes the thing they didn’t think to ask.
Alternatively, if the players are wandering out of a scene and there’s still information you NEED to hand them, you can impart it as part of the “winding up and transitioning out narration.” In that case, you briefly take control of the characters in a sneaky way to pass along some further information. When a player says “okay, I think we’re done examining these ruins,” you can narrate the “you finish up your exploration of the room, checking a few last things. In addition to what you already learned, you also find a small fragment of parchment that tells a little more about primordials. But there’s nothing else of interest. From the parchment, you learn…”
But none of those things will prepare you for the day the PCs decide they don’t have enough information about whatever the adventure is about and decide to do a bunch of research.
Fortunately, again, you have your list of information. You know the things that need to be imparted about the adventure. You can plant it in the new scene the players have invented. Hell, you can even turn it into an ex***tion encounter on the fly and make them earn the information.
All of this though relies on you actually having the information in your head first. That’s why, in any adventure where information plays a central roll (especially if the information is part of the challenge of the adventure), you NEED TO know the information beforehand.

The Angry GM

The module has the list of information and…nothing else. No old soldiers, no tearful farmers. No peasants.
Still, this list of information is far better than nothing, and it’s worth examining.

There are several pieces of information in the list, but before going through them let’s define some categories.

First, there’s the actionable information the characters want in-universe. This information might be critical (like the location of the Sunless Citadel itself) or it might be only minorly useful (like the fact that Rodents Of Unusual Size infest the rubble field around the Citadel).

As you know if you followed the link above, the Angry GM thinks it’s worth splitting this into “objective” information and “helpful” information. I disagree, but talking about why we disagree is a good way to clarify what “actionable information” means.

Next, there’s objective information. This is information that represents the objective of the adventure or the means to accomplish it. For example, the identity of the killer in a murder mystery is an objective. The location of the hidden shrine that the PCs have to discover through exploration? That’s objective information. Without objective information, the PCs can participate in the adventure, but ultimately, they can’t succeed. Without it, they fail at their goals.

The Angry GM

That sounds nice and all, but in practice there’s a sliding scale of actionable information — some data are more actionable than others, but wherever you decide to draw a dividing line between “objective” information and merely “helpful” information, it’s going to be arbitrary.
For example: in the Sunless Citadel, there’s a magical door sealed by a riddle. This is a side-trek that has nothing to do with the main adventure, but for the sake of this discussion, assume that the tomb behind that riddle-door is the objective. So the answer to the riddle is “objective” information, right? But…the players could also get into the tomb by breaking through the wall. Sure, that’s not the most likely route, nor is it the easiest. But it’s possible.
Inside the tomb, there is a troll. The troll can only be killed by fire or acid. So the troll’s weaknesses are “objective” information, right? But…they don’t really have to kill the troll. They could lure it out and trap it somewhere. Or just distract it. Or stealth past it somehow.
Even the identity of a serial killer isn’t really “objective” information. Maybe the players don’t figure out who the killer is, but do figure out why they’re killing, and research the relevant Elder Evil, and successfully predict where the killer is going to strike next through a combination of intelligence, luck, and divination magic. That’s enough to lay a trap and catch the killer that way, without needing to hunt down the killer at home.

Sure, you could craft a bulletproof category of “objective” information with clear boundaries, but then it would be so small as to be useless. And with a fuzzy boundary, pretty much any guideline for how to handle “objective” information would also apply to “helpful” information, and vice versa.

So “actionable” information is really a sliding scale to the second category.

Second, there’s context. Context is information that the PCs can’t act on. (As far as you can anticipate.) Often, the player characters don’t even want or care about context. Context is for the players. Context is information like the fact that Sharwyn Hucrele struggled with alcoholism. She was sober six months before falling off the wagon. She went after the apple in the desperate hope of a cure.
The PCs don’t need to know that. But it humanizes Sharwyn. It makes the world and the characters feel more real. It’s like the wizards in Harry Potter playing the card game Exploding Snap. It’s an attempt to convince the reader that these are real people, that they have lives outside of the plot, that their deaths matter. Because it will never be relevant to the plot, it can be vague on pertinent details. J.K. Rowling never defines the rules of Exploding Snap. (Unless she does, in which case assume for the sake of argument that she doesn’t.) What matters is that it exists and how people feel about playing it: it’s a pastime, played by several people. It’s not Serious Business like Quidditch. It’s something characters do to unwind.

Either actionable information or context can be mandatory. Mandatory information is required because without it, there is no story. Kerowyn Hucrele’s job ad is mandatory actionable information, unless we come up with an alternative ccharacter hook. (There are two possibilities in the list of rumors, though the module didn’t think them worth promoting into the Hooks section.)

I earlier argued that the history between the Durbuluks and Oakhurst is mandatory context. It’s clearly not actionable, but without it, the players won’t feel what we need them to feel.

Third, there’s foreshadowing information. Foreshadowing information is information whose significance isn’t immediately obvious. Foreshadowing information is destined to become either actionable information or context. Simply by existing, foreshadowing information foreshadows that “something is going to happen to make this significant in retrospect.”

Players might go looking for context, if they’re invested in the story; they really can’t go looking for foreshadowing information, even if they wanted to.

A Gather Information check is a uniquely broad, shallow source of information. Whatever the players need to find out, there’s almost always some piece of it or some clue that someone in the community might plausibly know. On the flip side, if the PCs ask probing questions, the NPC might simply shrug it off with “I don’t know.”
Thanks to this, a Gather Information check is a great opportunity to give some context and foreshadowing information. Just be sure to cough up actionable information too — that’s what keeps them coming back.

Sometimes foreshadowing information even gets smuggled in with a crate of context, and initially appears to just be some low-quality context. In fact, The Sunless Citadel provides an example.

The Old Road skirts the Ashen Plain, a lifeless land. Player characters who succeed at a Knowledge check (history, geography, or local, DC 12), or ask someone in Oakhurst, know that the desolation is attributed to the ancient rampage of a dragon named Ashardalon.

The Sunless Citadel, “Rumors heard in Oakhurst”

The context here is the Ashen Plain. The party will see the Ashen Plain as they walk along the Old Road to the Sunless Citadel, and this gives them context for how Oakhurst feels about it. It’s not just a big empty space — it’s the ruined remnant of a long-past disaster. It makes the world feel older, which helps when we want the forthcoming dungeon to feel palpably old. The disaster that scorched the Ashen Plain provides a counterpart to the disaster that buried the Sunless Citadel. This helps to get across that whatever buried the Citadel isn’t important to the plot — detritus from the Time of Myths is just scattered around here. People just live with it.

But in contrast to the unspecified disaster that buried the Citadel, the Ashen Plain fell victim to a rather more specified disaster, including a proper noun. And most people will just shrug that off. Yeah, yeah, Ashurbanipal, whatever.

…this sort of thing is so commonly tiresome in fantasy. An author creates a convoluted narrative of gods and wars and legends and thinks the reader will find it as interesting as they do, if only they relay every detail precisely. The result is a plodding, ponderous shaggy dog myth that competes for headspace with the dozen other lores the player had to memorize.

But in fact this is foreshadowing — for a later adventure in the same series. The PCs are intended to eventually fight Ashardalon, and this will become context for why Ashardalon is a seriously bad guy they should want to fight.
I am not a fan of the later adventures in this series; fortunately, The Sunless Citadel stands well enough on its own. If you don’t plan to use the rest of the series, this foreshadowing can be simply deleted.

(It might be worth keeping if it helped to make the world feel more immersive, but without some kind of explanation of the mechanics of dracogenic desertification, it just sounds odd. A really big fire wouldn’t prevent anything from growing there ever again; quite the contrary, ash fertilizes the ground.)

Now, with all that in mind, the other rumors.

The missing adventurers include a fighter (Talgen), a wizard (Sharwyn), a paladin of Pelor (Sir Braford), and a ranger (Karakas). Sir Braford was not a local, and he had a magic sword called Shatterspike.

The Sunless Citadel, “Rumors heard in Oakhurst”

Noticeable how Sir Braford gets sixteen words to Karakas’ two. (Eighteen words, in fact, if you count the fact that Braford gets a Sir in front of his name.) Karakas is simply “a ranger”, but Sir Braford gets his god specified with “a paladin of Pelor” and he “was not a local, and he had a magic sword called Shatterspike.” That must’ve been some sword for people to remember its name. I guess it glowed?

The mention of Karakas is valuable context, because the party is going to find his corpse later. All the information on Sir Braford is a bit of a headscratcher. Sir Braford gets a bunch of extra information, none of which humanizes him and none of which will ever be actionable. (Unless the PCs guess Shatterspike’s magic powers from the name, I suppose.)

It doesn’t consume a lot of ink, but it does consume a lot of player headspace. Sir Braford sounds important.

Quirrell: had a verbal tic (one) wore a weird turban (two) was completely spineless (three) but could apparently summon courage when necessary (four!) and emanated an odour of garlic (five).
“Oh my gods,” Milo said. “How could I have been so stupid?”
“What, what is it?” Harry asked.
“Five adjectives! Nobody gets five adjectives so soon after meeting them!”
“What?” Harry asked.
“It’s just like on the train, remember? When I told you to write down everyone who could be described with more than two adjectives? It’s why we go on adventures with Ron and not Dean or Seamus. The more unique a person is, the more important they are.”

Karakas is a ranger (one). Sir Braford is a paladin (one) of Pelor (two) who is not a local (three) and who has a magic sword called Shatterspike (four). Five if you count the “Sir”. Sir Braford sounds important. He even sounds like he would be important in-universe. Is somebody looking for this guy? Somebody is looking for the Hucreles, that’s for sure. Isn’t he a knight of someplace? Especially given that he’s “not a local”…

As it stands, it walks like foreshadowing and it quacks like foreshadowing…but it’s not foreshadowing. None of this will ever become significant later. What gives?

I think this was originally intended to be foreshadowing for the very next adventure in the series, The Forge of Fury.

Examining the story feels like an archaeological dig where we try to figure out what era the disparate pieces belong to.

The one clear reference to The Forge of Fury in The Sunless Citadel is

a sealed scroll case carved of bone, carrying an inscription. Runes in the Dwarven alphabet spell out the word Khundrukar (translation: the Glitterhame). An old (about one hundred years) crumbling parchment lies within. Age and water damage have destroyed most of the parchment, but a short message in Dwarven remains: “. . . the remaining few. By order of Durgeddin the Black, we have created a secret dwarven redoubt. None shall find us; however,…”

The Sunless Citadel, page 21

The goblins just…randomly have this in their trophy room. There’s nothing the PCs can apparently do with it, except sell it to historically-minded dwarves for 100 gp.

I’m guessing that originally Sir Braford was supposed to be a knight in the service of Baron Althon, the client in that next adventure, who’s looking for the Glitterhame. Sir Braford was supposed to be bringing the parchment and the sword (which was forged by Durgeddin the Black) to Baron Althon, but he got mixed up in the war against the Durbuluks, because paladins gotta paladin. The goblins took the parchment (which may originally have been a map) from him when they captured him. Since Baron Althon is not local, he was delayed in hearing about the loss of his knight, and so he (conveniently) won’t come looking for knight, sword or parchment until right after the end of this current adventure.

But pretty much all connection between The Sunless Citadel and The Forge of Fury has been scrubbed, and I can’t really say it was the wrong decision. There’s no real thematic connection between the two adventures; they don’t feel like two parts of the same story. Might as well make the two modules modular.

The Old Road ran right past the nearby ruins (the Sunless Citadel), but fell into disuse because of goblin banditry. No one knows for sure what the Sunless Citadel once was, but old legends hint that it served as the retreat of an ancient dragon cult.

The Sunless Citadel, “Rumors heard in Oakhurst”

The mention of the ancient dragon cult work as foreshadowing of the non-ancient dragon cult come to claim their inheritance. The mentions of goblin banditry sound like they were meant to be foreshadowing of the goblin bandits, but as we talked about before, the Oakhurstians darn well ought to just know that the goblins are laired in the Citadel. (Especially since the PCs are going to find the Durbuluks’ gang tags outside the place.) And vagueness aside, goblin banditry is mandatory context, so it shouldn’t be gated behind a Gather Information check.

The 5e update of The Sunless Citadel resolves my objection to mandatory context being gated behind a Gather Information check…in much the same way that PCs might solve the problem of a serial killer by massacring every man, woman and child in the city, thus guaranteeing that they got the killer. In the 5e update, there is no mention of goblin banditry anywhere in Oakhurst. The only way for the PCs to learn about it is after attacking, such as by capturing and interrogating the goblins.

The main villain also gets a bit of foreshadowing here:

Garon, the barkeep of the Ol’ Boar Inn, remembers the last time anyone, aside from Talgen and Sharwyn, asked questions about the Sunless Citadel. About thirteen years ago, a grim man named Belak stopped by, and he had a very large pet tree frog.

The Sunless Citadel, “Rumors heard in Oakhurst”

This is a perfect opportunity for AngryGM’s “oh, one more thing” technique. Just as the party is leaving, the barkeep mentions “You lot ask a lot of question…I remember the last time someone asked questions…”

Having said that, the timeline makes this conceit really, really stupid. Nobody else was interested in the Citadel for thirteen years? As we just reiterated, the Oakhurstians have to know the goblins are in the Citadel. That was never a topic of conversation?

(In fairness, the module will eventually get around to mentioning that the “goblin banditry” mentioned in the other rumor happened forty years ago. So everyone has pretty much forgotten that the goblins are there. Because that’s how banditry works, right? You bandit until trade drops off, and then instead of raiding the locals you just keep your head down and get by with no source of income for decades. And the locals pretty much forget about you, but the merchants obviously don’t forget about you, because banditry is the reason there’s no trade along the Old Road…yeah, we will have words about this when we get to the goblins.)

I think the obvious solution to Belak passing through such a long time ago (and other things) is to radically shorten the timeline of the adventure background — but the timeline is woven into several events, not all of which we have talked about yet. (Foreshadowing: the relevant events are goblin banditry, commerce along the Old Road dropping off, Belak learning of the Gulthias Tree, Belak taking possession of the Gulthias Tree, Belak learning the properties of the Gulthias Tree, the start of the apple auctions, the capture of a gnome, the kobolds learning of the lost temple, the kobolds arriving, and of course the lost adventurers setting out.) All of these dates can be moved around, but some of them affect the others, so we’ll talk about each as they become relevant, and at the end we’ll see how we can shorten the entire timeline.

I will note briefly that we could better foreshadow the final villain by giving Belak more history with Oakhurst. Not necessarily, something elaborate, but something that would come up when following the trail of the Hucreles. Maybe Belak is known to live as a hermit in this area, with a little hut or something, and rumor has it they tried and failed to recruit him for the adventure. (Later it will become obvious that Belak then set an ambush for them; fortunately, Belak is now spending all his time underground fussing with his new supplicants, so the PCs have no opportunity to screw themselves over with a similar mistake.)

We could also soften the blow by saying there was someone else who Garon remembers asking about the Sunless Citadel — an archaeologist interested in the temple. Not a kobold, probably, but someone who later bumped into the kobolds and served as their source of information. Not that the PCs could possibly anticipate that exact chain of events just from hearing about the archaeologist, but they can make the connection after the fact. It’s more foreshadowing, and it makes the mention of Belak less obviously forced. Might be a little too complicated to bother with, though.

Notable by absence is any mention of the vampire who used to haunt the Citadel after the time of the dragon cult but before the modern era, the vampire the Gulthias Tree grew from. (Presumably the vampire was named Gulthias and that’s why Belak calls it the Gulthias Tree, but the module never quite comes out and says so.) This is probably for the best; we don’t want players to get the idea that they’re going to run into a vampire when they aren’t.

There’s also no “reward” information available for higher Gather Information results.

The average Oakhurstian probably doesn’t know that Rodents Of Unusual Size lair in the ravine, because they don’t spend a lot of time around the ravine, on account of the goblin graffiti warning them not to spend a lot of time around the ravine. But someone probably knows. That sounds like a DC 15 Gather Information check result.

We could also provide information about the Durbuluks…but that’s tricky. Partly because the Durbuluk notables aren’t described in enough detail to say what actionable information the Oakhurstians might have. We can maybe address that when we get to the Durbuluks — figure out what deity Grenl worships and what spells she might commonly use, maybe split Durnn into a first-level hobgoblin barbarian and a third-level goblin warrior with distinct capabilities (so his famous temper can become actionable information), and of course Balsag is likely to stick in Oakhurstians’ memories. But then we run into the problem that according to the official timeline, none of the Durbuluk notables had been born the last time the Durbuluks had contact with the Oakhurstians. Yeeaahh, we’ll get to the timeline.

I’ve saved the most important foreshadowing for last: a pair of rumors with the same basic purpose: foreshadowing that there is something seriously wrong with the apple tree.

Sometimes the goblins offer another apple at midwinter. This apple is corpse-white and utterly poisonous, even to the mere touch of the skin.

The Sunless Citadel, “Rumors heard in Oakhurst”

Yes, it’s a snow-white apple.

It’s understandable that you have to poke around a bit to learn about the poison apples, since presumably those auctions are a lot more secretive. There’s no point in buying poison if everyone knows you bought poison.
But it’s worth noting that for some characters this could be a good character hook too. Maybe there was a murder, the murderer has already been caught but now you’re investigating the murder weapon.

Cattle herders don’t graze their stock too far afield these days. They’re frightened by stories of new monsters that maraud by night. No one has seen these creatures, nor do they leave a discernible trail; however, cattle and people who have been caught out alone have been found dead the next day, pierced by dozens of needlelike claws.

The Sunless Citadel, “Rumors heard in Oakhurst”

That isn’t immediately obviously related to the fruit at all, but the clear intent is that the PCs will make the connection when they’re attacked by twig blights on the road — monsters made of wood with needlelike claws. That’s the intent, but in the module as given it’s unlikely that the PCs actually will be attacked on the road.

Should the PCs travel or camp by night anywhere between Oakhurst and the Sunless Citadel, they stand a 60% chance per night of falling under attack by a pair of twig blights.

The Sunless Citadel, page 4

The ambush comes with some nicely evocative description provided:

The twig blights attack under cover of night and from surrounding foliage (if any). They sound like wind blowing through dry leaves as they shuffle forward…
If defeated, the blights appear to be loose bundles of snapped and broken twigs.

The Sunless Citadel, page 4

Here’s the thing: There’s no reason for the PCs to travel or camp by night anywhere between Oakhurst and the Sunless Citadel.

The distance between Oakhurst and the Sunless Citadel, via the Old Road, is seven miles. 140 minutes walking…

It’s a great idea for a first-level module to put the town so close to the dungeon to encourage players to retreat, rest and restock when they’re running out of steam. First-level characters are fragile, and you can easily get a total party wipe if they try to push onward.
Putting Oakhurst close enough to be easily reachable from the dungeon — but far enough that it’s still clearly separated from the Underworld — encourages players to return to town to rest.
Assuming they don’t dawdle, they can literally hike to the dungeon, do their adventuring, and hike back to town before nightfall, staying in town every night.

(To say nothing of the 60%. I have no idea why they threw that 60% in there. There are circumstances in which it might be useful to explicitly let the players know that there’s a 60% chance of random monster encounters so they can be forced to make choices e.g. whether to doff their armor for speed and take their chances on random encounters. But this is not one of those situations. The point of this encounter is to introduce the twig blights.)

Is there a simple fix? Can we make the PCs travel by night?

Well. We certainly could. It would be easy — but it would have trade-offs.

We could extend the distance between the town and the dungeon. Then PCs would have to travel by night to get to the dungeon. But then they wouldn’t be able to easily return to town to rest.

We could arbitrarily say that the PCs receive their mission at night, and apply time pressure to make them want to get moving immediately. But time pressure means they won’t want to return to town to rest midway through the dungeon. (Not to mention that applying time pressure would seem to mean emphasizing the need to rescue Kerowyn Hucrele’s children, which will lead to disappointment since it’s a shaggy-dog quest.)

Or — we could give them another place to rest, between the town and the dungeon, somewhere that’s secure against goblins but not secure against twig blights. But it’s not obvious how to do that. Mechanically, goblins and twig blights are actaully pretty similar: they’re both Small and creep up by stealth.
Twig blights are immune to mind-affecting effects, sleep effects, poison, paralysis, and stunning — but such exotica would be unlikely to protect a campsite without a very good explanation.

Put a pin in that. We may find a reason for characters to travel by night.

The mention that “No one has seen these creatures, nor do they leave a discernible trail” is notable. If they did leave a discernible trail, then they could be a plot hook in their own right — get attacked by twig blights, Track them back to where the trail stops, which is where the saplings mysteriously disappeared that same night. Then that serves as the reason to investigate the goblins’ fruit.

That wouldn’t really work, though. If that’s the hook, then the origin of the twig blights is mandatory information; gating mandatory information behind a Survival check and the Track feat is even worse than gating mandatory information behind a Gather Information check.

So why harp on this? Because it features prominently in the denouement.
Of the five paragraphs in the epilogue, three are devoted to warning people about the twig blights.

If the PCs reveal the truth behind the fruit’s seeds to the villagers of Oakhurst, the folk cut down and burn all growing saplings. You can allow the PCs to take part in the burning ceremony:
As the villagers set the evil saplings alight, the mayor turns to you with a frank expression. “You realize that our actions have set loose several of these abominations upon the world. Who knows what these twisted plants are doing now?”
Though the mayor does not know this, his words are hints at the truth of the situation. Twig blights already loose in the outer world can still reproduce via their roots, like aspen trees. If you want, you can allow the PCs to search out these twig blights and destroy them. Other options include spreading the word of the new creature to outlying areas or enlisting the help of the local rangers and druids to find and destroy the scourge of twisted plants. It is entirely up to you and your players where you go next. At any rate, if the player characters warn Oakhurst residents about the seeds, they have begun their first steps in gaining a measure of fame and establishing a rapport with local residents.

The Sunless Citadel, “Conclusions”

If the PCs didn’t spend 1d4+1 hours and a few gold pieces trolling for rumors in a bar, then they’ll have no idea that these attacks were even happening. If they even bother to mention the twig monsters to anyone in Oakhurst, they’ll be wrong-footed that there was a whole other plot thread going on that they knew nothing about.
Sharing knowledge — preferably in a parlor room — can be a great payoff if it feels like the PCs earned the knowledge, but in this case they weren’t even looking for answers about the monster attacks.

Even if the PCs did hear the rumors, they certainly didn’t pursue the matter. That would have led them to the cattle ranches, not to the Sunless Citadel. If they did go to the cattle ranches, they would have met a frustrating dead end, since “No one has seen these creatures, nor do they leave a discernible trail.”

Since we don’t really get a payoff for the PCs learning the information anyway, we could say that Karakas already tracked the twig blights, and that it’s now common knowledge in Oakhurst that planting the seeds results in monsters. That’s simply part of the hook, the reason the PCs want to investigate the fruit.

That still doesn’t give us a way to introduce the twig blights in suitably dramatic fashion, though. If they’re going to be so important in the end, making them the first encounter would be a great idea. But that brings us back to the problem that the PCs have no reason to travel by night.

The night ambush definitely sounds promising. While fall is a more traditional time for sneaky twig monsters to attack, summer can work too. In summer, “the hills are lush with growth, though the heat sometimes grows oppressive.” [Sunless Citadel page 4] Hmm. Oppressive, eh?

A character in very hot conditions (above 90° F) must make a Fortitude saving throw each hour (DC 15, +1 for each previous check) or take 1d4 points of nonlethal damage. Characters wearing heavy clothing or armor of any sort take a -4 penalty on their saves.
A character who takes any nonlethal damage from heat exposure now suffers from heatstroke and is fatigued.

Dungeon Master’s Guide, Glossary

If we could get any characters to shed their armor, that would go a long way toward increasing the impact of the twig blight attack. Because they’re designed to be potentially the first combat ever, the twig blights are actually very weak, but the fear doesn’t depend on how dangerous the twig blights really are, it depends on how vulnerable the players feel.
(But that’ll probably never happen. There are some things that real people do that PCs never do, and one of them is prioritizing comfort over paranoia. The players cam’t actually feel how miserable the characters are, after all. And the expected extra nonlethal damage is only 4/20 * (1 + 2 + 3 + 4)/4 = 1/5 * 5/2 = 1/2 per hour.)

Winter, by contrast, would shut twig blights down cold…er, so to speak. Twig blights’ main schtick is attacking from foliage, and deep snow tends to put the kibosh on that. If the PCs are after the winter fruit, we’ll probably want to replace the twig blights wholesale with something else, like a pack of wolves driven to attack humans by an unholy scion. But for now we’ll assume it’s summer.

Heat could potentially provide a reason to travel by night — if it’s too hot to travel by daylight.
Pushing daytime temperatures above 110F, as in Sudan, would make daytime travel actually impossible. That would also make it implausible to have Oakhurst so nearby, but potentially we could run the Old Road straight through the Ashen Plain and play up the supernatural aspect. But really, this isn’t necessary. Remember that the first time PCs travel to the dungeon, they’ll be first-level characters. If they’re on foot, they’re facing two or three full hours before they get underground. The risk of 2d4 points of nonlethal damage is a serious threat — that kind of damage would really hinder their expedition.

(Remember that there’s no good reason to be cagey about basic rules like heat dangers — that’s just translating the characters’ experience of their world into simplified game terms that the players can relate to their characters’ statistics.)

Movement in darkness (or rather, reduced visibility, including fog and not including darkness if the entire party has darkvision) is at half speed [Player’s Handbook Chapter 9: Adventuring] due to hardly being able to see your own feet.
(You can walk carefully, or endlessly stumble and occasionally fall on your face; either way, measured by the hour, your overland speed works out to half.)
If they travel by starlight (without a torch), then instead of potentially making the trip in 140 minutes, they’re looking at 280 minutes. That still allows them to march to the Citadel, do some adventuring, and march back before dawn…but if anyone is carrying a medium load, or if there is, say, a dwarf in the party, then each way will take 420 minutes — seven hours. So if they do want to avoid the heat of the day, they won’t be able to return to Oakhurst the same night.

Of course, only the most paranoid would travel without a torch.

Sunless Citadel: Both Hooks Together

The previous adventuring party presumably wanted the apple. (We could say that they just wanted to start a war with the goblins and didn’t care about the apple, but we’ll get to that later. Right now, we’ve only talked about two hooks; we shouldn’t introduce the idea of fighting the goblins being worth doing for its own sake unless we’re prepared to expand on that into a proper hook for the PCs.)

Did they have someone particular they wanted to heal? That would be…awkward. That makes it seem like healing those people is part of the adventure. And that wouldn’t work, because the people out in the real world don’t care about those NPCs.

The standard reference here is the very embedable scene from Pixar’s Up.

The sequence establishes who the characters are and why you should care.

Imagine if, instead, the main characters met Carl, and Carl gave a speech about how he had a wife named Ellie and they had all these dreams but stuff happened and now he has a quest. And therefore he needs you to get him half a dozen bear pelts. Or something. It doesn’t actually matter whether there’s any logical connection between the story he just told and the adventure, because nobody is going to care about the story he told in the first place.

It’s far easier to get people to care about the main characters than to get them to care about some random NPC in town. Especially since, the way adventures work, the NPC will presumably never appear “on-screen” after the first scene.
Using someone with a prior personal connection to the PCs helps, but the best solution is to give ailments to the main characters themselves — that way the problem is always on-screen.

So the previous adventuring party wasn’t trying to heal anyone in particular…unless maybe themselves. But they were probably after the apple, right? If we’re using both hooks, then the apple is the center of the story. Rather than give them some completely different reason, their original reason for delving into the Citadel was the same as the reason the PCs are doing it.

But the apple only auctions for 50gp. We could go back and forth over exactly how much money 50gp is in this world, but the fact is that Kerowyn Hucrele has access to 2,000gp. It’s hard to picture the kids risking their lives over 50gp.

We talked about giving the PCs ailments that they want to be rid of but that don’t prevent them from adventuring. But as you probably noticed, that list was very carefully chosen. The Heal spell can also cure someone who has been, say, turned into a chaos beast, but that would prevent adventuring. We need the PCs to be a very specific level of ailing — the problem has to be crippling enough that they couldn’t live a normal life, but not so crippling that it prevents the story. That kind of contrivance is fine for main characters — crazy things happen to main characters, that’s why the story is about them — but it’s something else entirely to give that to four side characters. We could get away with that for one, maybe. If it’s one of the siblings, then that gives us the other sibling coming along, too. But what about the other two adventurers?

…really…the apple is worth a lot more than 50gp, right? It sold for 50gp because it was this weird unknown magical thing and nobody knew for sure what it could heal, or if it had nasty side effects, or what. But this thing is incredibly powerful. Rich people exist in the world. Kerowyn Hucrele is willing to pay 1,000gp to get her children back “of good mind and body”. The apple can save four people. Shouldn’t someone be willing to pay at least as much?

How much is the apple worth?
One obvious reference point is a staff with four charges remaining. Charged magic items have their prices prorated based on the number of charges remaining — Belak’s wand of Entangle is an example. A fully-charged wand of Entangle, with 50 charges, would sell for 375gp; Belak’s wand, with 13 charges, sells for 97.5gp if the PCs capture it whole. (If Belak manages to use any charges before they take him down, the wand sells for correspondingly less.)

If the PCs found a staff of Heal with four charges, that’s a sixth-level spell, caster level 11, so it’s worth 61115*4 = 3,960gp, and sells at half price for 1,980gp.
The apple might be worth a little more, since you don’t need to find a first-level adept to use it. Not worth a *lot* more, because at this quantity of money…you can hire an alchemist, who is a first-level adept, for a month for 30gp.
4,000gp is a nice round number. 1,000gp for each Heal. Like any magic item, it sells for half price, 500gp per Heal.

Suppose that last year, it became clear how valuable the apple really was. They figured out that it could be split into four sections and retain full power, or that it could cure a wider variety of conditions, or both. Maybe someone cast Detect Magic and noted that it had a strong aura. (The apple probably radiates magic, right? Supernatural creatures don’t, but the Gulthias tree isn’t exactly a creature…)

If the lost adventuring party expected to get 2,000gp out of this…that sounds like an amount of money worth risking your life for.

But this causes a problem for us when designing the adventure.

There’s about 12,500gp worth of treasure in the Sunless Citadel. That’s total, so it’s a maximum; the PCs might not get all of it.

Kerowyn Hucrele’s 1,000gp reward for the signet rings is still significant in light of that. That’s good. Of course, this means that a big chunk of money either exists or doesn’t exist, not based on any actions of the PCs, but based on the out-of-universe consideration of what hook we use. But there’s no reason to ever not use the rescue-mission hook — indeed, large parts of the adventure will be very confusing without it, as we’ll see — so we can just assume the reward exists and factor it into the treasure budget for the adventure.

The apple is more problematic. Not if all the PCs have a need for a Heal; in that case, we just don’t include the apple in the treasure budget and everything is fine.
And if none of the PCs need a Heal, then we can just say the summer solstice isn’t happening now, so there is no apple. Maybe the lost adventurers were just going on a scouting mission, to capture and interrogate goblins well in advance of the summer. Or they were just looking to start a war against the Durbuluks and didn’t care about the apple. If none of the PCs want a Heal, then we can discard that entire hook.

But what if some PCs have a need for Heal in their backstory, while other PCs don’t and are only interested in the apple for the money?
If possible, we’d like to enable that too. The byplay between the ruthlessly mercenary PCs and the ones with personal reasons might be interesting.
But that gives us a situation where some PCs are effectively starting in a 500gp hole.

We could make the apple worth less. The reason a magical staff can command a high price is because it can be passed from hand to hand through multiple merchants until it finds whoever is prepared to pay the highest price. If the apple is perishable — an undead apple might not be perishable, but it might be perishable if we want it to be — then it would have to be sold to someone who showed up for the auction, even if nobody who showed up was prepared to pay more than 200gp.
The module implies the apples have been transported far away — “No samples of either type of apple remain anywhere near Oakhurst.” [The Sunless Citadel, page 4] — but it’s never important to the story, so it’s easy to change.

But we don’t really want to make the apple worth less. It’s the center of the entire adventure; it should stand out in the treasure.
(And if you think that 2,000gp already doesn’t sound like enough treasure to be worth worrying about, that sounds like an argument for making the apple worth more.)

One solution is to manipulate character hooks to result in a 500gp windfall corresponding to getting Healed. Then we do include the apple in the treasure budget and everything works out.

For example, using the aboleth hook. Since the hydration requirement is so vague, we can allow a character to fill it just by carrying some extra water. On the other hand, we could say they use a hydration suit [Sandstorm page 99], which conveniently costs 1,000gp and hence can be sold post-Heal for 500gp.
A first-level character could never normally afford a 1,000gp hydration suit, of course, but we can give it to them for “free” as part of the character’s backstory, since they’re effectively starting 500gp in the hole for the Heal they’ll need. It evens out.

Using the lost-memory hook, a character can trivially recover memories of a lost equipment cache worth 500gp. (Since it’s their own equipment, which the player gets to choose as part of writing their character backstory, it’s worth full price to them, so that 500gp is in nominal prices.)

Using a phobia hook, a character might be able to go back and face a now-conquered fear as a coda to the adventure, recovering some treasure cache or family heirloom worth 500gp, perhaps something they lost shortly before the adventure.

A panicked creature must drop anything it holds and flee at top speed from the source of its fear, as well as any other dangers it encounters, along a random path.

Player’s Handbook, page 311

Alternatively, we could make sure that the characters who don’t need the Heal itself do have some immediately pressing need for 500gp. Asking new players to come up with something like that is troublesome, because new players don’t have a good intuitive sense of how much 500gp is worth. But this has the obvious advantage that the characters who are in it for the money have something specific that they’re after, just like the characters who are in it for the Healing.

Sunless Citadel Character Hooks: Serpentine Curse

Ophidianism, also called the Serpentine Curse, is a supernatural curse that spreads like a disease, sometimes tragically mistaken for lycanthropy. A humanoid bitten by an ophidian transforms into an ophidian over sixteen to nineteen days — their skin grows scaly, their legs begin to shrink and fuse together, and their tongue becomes forked [Fiend Folio page 134].

If the process completes, the victim suffers total amnesia, which makes them vulnerable to swift indoctrination into a cult, and that is where most ophidians are found: worshipping charismatic dragons, naga, or (especially) yuan-ti.
Even if the “newborn” ophidian is safely with its (former) loved ones instead of in captivity, it will usually flee those now-strangers in confusion and panic, and be picked up by its apparent family.

If the victim gets aid before the process completes, it can be halted. A third-level Healer — not that hard to find — can halt the progress of the curse with a Remove Disease spell [Miniatures Handbook page 11]. The curse can also be stopped by a chiang lung river dragon [Oriental Adventures page 156], which are very rare but are tireless foes of the Serpentine Curse and can save one victim every six seconds until they collapse from exhaustion — more than once the fortuitous arrival of a chiang lung has saved villagers from the consequences of a mass ophidian attack.

However, to reverse any progress the Serpentine Curse has already made requires more powerful magic such as Heal [Fiend Folio page 134]. A character bitten by an ophidian could have been lucky enough to get the Curse halted…but they still look snakelike, and they need the apple to cure that.

In place of the languages they previously spoke, ophidians speak the common tongue as well as the yuan-ti language, the knowledge of it shoved into their brains as the transformation erases the last vestiges of their old life. Many scholars infer that the curse was created by yuan-ti, though no one is certain exactly which yuan-ti, or when or where.

Yuan-ti are descended from humans whose bloodlines were mingled with those of snakes [Monster Manual page 262] at the direction of the dark god Merrshaulk, a deity of the destructive aspect of plant life [Monster Manual page 263].

Merrshaulk resides beyond the Material Plane in a rainforest of dazzling iridescent colors but also acid rain and deadly poisons [Manual of the Planes page 103]. It is said that though the light gets dimmer as you descend through the canopies, there is no forest floor to reach.

Yuan-ti have a bit of an identity crisis as monsters. On the one hand they’re giant snake-people who live in fetid jungles and rip the still-beating hearts out of human sacrifices in crumbling stone temples. (For reasons known only to themselves, yuan-ti are partial to taking over other people’s ancient ruins, if they’re sufficiently isolated [Monster Manual page 263].) On the other hand there are human-looking yuan-ti who live incognito among humans.

Yuan-ti are usually (>50%) chaotic evil, so yuan-ti passing for human can sometimes lead to strained relations between humans and, say, elves. Among the wood elves of the deep jungle, it is a well-known “fact” that humans and yuan-ti are in fact one species, just with different degrees of snake.

Despite the East-Asian-sounding name, as far as I can locate there is no such mythological monster in any East Asian mythology. Greek mythology, however, certainly has a snake-man: the legendary Alexander the Great was the son of a human woman and a snake. (The actual historical Alexander the Great was the son of King Philip of Macedon…as far as we know…)

That gives us something to work with. What happens when yuan-ti infiltrate the upper echelons of human society?

Begin at the beginning. Olympias, real name Myrtle (like the flower), was allegedly the daughter of King Neoptolemus I of Epirus, king of the Molossians.
When Neoptolemus I died in 360 BC, his brother Arybbas took the throne.

Myrtle was a member of the cult of the Dionysian Mysteries, known for their wine-induced Bacchic frenzy. (Bacchus was an epithet of Dionysos; his female followers were known as bacchae in the translated Latin, as passed down from Euripides’ last play, The Bacchae.) The cult’s secret meetings featured ecstatic dancing, singing, and revelry.

In 358 BC, Arybbas made an alliance with Macedon, and in 357 BC, Arybbas married his niece Myrtle off to King Philip II of Macedon, who already had three wives but nevertheless agreed to marry Myrtle. Myrtle’s younger brother, Alexander, went with her to Macedon. It was a decision that Arybbas would live to regret.
After moving to Macedon, Myrtle began to call herself Olympias and gave birth to two children, Alexander in 356 BC and Cleopatra in 355 BC.
Alexander may have been named for Myrtle’s brother, Alexander I of Epirus, not to be confused with Alexander I of Macedon. But since he was the third Alexander of Macedon, he was Alexander III, not Alexander II.

Philip II’s third wife, Philinna of Larissa, bore a son Philip III around the same time, but Philip III was widely considered stupid and not a contender for the throne.

In 350 BC, Philip overthrew Arybbas and installed Alexander — you know what, how about we just call him “Myrtle’s younger brother” — on Arybbas’ former throne. Arybbas fled to Athens (he would die peacefully in 342 BC).

Philip conquered Greece in 338 BC, and over the course of the following year created the Cornthian League. At its first meeting, the league decided to conduct a war against Persia and elected Philip commander of its armed forces.
But all was not well in Philip’s marriage. Philip walked in on Olympias sleeping with a snake, which “abated Philip’s passion for her” according to Plutarch of Chaeronea.
In 337 BC, Philip married his seventh wife, Cleopatra of Macedon, who changed her name to Eurydice upon their marriage, out of a heartfelt desire to distinguish herself from her stepdaughter for the benefit of future storytellers. Some say her name-change just made everything more confusing (not least because Philip’s first wife also changed her name to Eurydice after marriage), but her heart was in the right place.
By mutual agreement, Olympias went into exile to the court of her brother Alexander, along with her son Alexander.
Philip was heard to remark that Alexander (Olympias’s son) was not his son, and it appeared he might disinherit Alexander in favor of the newborn daughter Europa of his new wife, Eurydice. (Not to be confused with his old wife Eurydice.)

Coincidentally, at that point Alexander (Myrtle’s younger brother) and Cleopatra (Philip’s daughter and Alexander’s niece, not Philip’s new wife) asked Philip for his blessing to marry.
At this point we may safely assume that Philip took a long look at his daughter, then a long look at his brother-in-law, then at his daughter again, and finally decided that as far as he was concerned, this whole crazy Molossian family could do whatever they wanted.
In October 336 BC, Philip attended their grand wedding, where he was assassinated, no doubt by wicked Persians who were absolutely not connected to Alexander, Cleopatra, Olympias, or Alexander.
Alexander promptly seized the throne of Macedon — that’s Philip’s son Alexander, not the Alexander who was getting married that day — while Olympias arranged for Eurydice and Europa to be killed.

Alexander smoothly took over Philip’s war preparations. Just before Alexander invaded Persia, Olympias reportedly told him that Philip was right, that Alexander’s true father was not Philip, but Zeus.
She would never see her son alive again.
Alexander conquered Persia…and Ehypt…and Syria…and Mesopotamia…and Bactria…and the Punjab. But in 323 BC, he fell ill with a fever. His council asked who would inherit his recently-acquired, vast and unstable empire. His answer was simple: “I leave it to the strongest.”

Macedon fell into the hands of Perdiccas, then Antipater, then Polyperchon, and finally Cassander, ruling with the slow-witted Philip III as his figurehead. When Cassander took his army out to fight in one of the endless wars, he left Philip’s wife — the one who had convinced Philip III to side with Cassander over Polyperchon — as the de facto ruler of Macedon.
Olympias pounced on the unguarded Macedon, and Philip III discovered to his cost that his guards were loyal to Olympias, not to him. Eurydice briefly escaped but was soon also captured. Olympias executed them both, along with one hundred of Cassander’s most prominent supporters, and declared her infant grandson Alexander IV as King.
Cassander, however, returned alive and surrounded Olympias at Pydna, a harbor town at the foot of the holy mountain Olympus. Her allies tried to break the siege, but were repulsed. Olympias negotiated a surrender on the condition that Cassander spare her life, only for Cassander to execute her anyway.

That is the kind of thing that happens when yuan-ti infiltrate and take over the government.

As an aside, here’s an amusing tidbit of actual history: according to an anonymous source who spoke to Plutarch of Chaeronea, when the queen dowager heard about Alexander the Great claiming to be the son of Zeus, she joked “When will my son stop slandering me to Hera?” (Hera being Zeus’s wife, who he was effectively accusing his mother of committing adultery against.)

As a result of yuan-ti depredations, anywhere yuan-ti are known, human commmunities tend to be vigorous about persecuting any visible snake-people to the point of running them out of town. Because anyone who objects to the injustice must be a secret yuan-ti cultist, and you’re not a secret yuan-ti cultist…are you?

The Fiend Folio gives no explicit mechanics for a partial ophidian transformation, but we can make some reasonable inferences.
First, the subject’s skin grows scaly.

Their scales are typically mottled green and yellow, with brown, black, and red sometimes appearing in certain individuals. Their scales naturally change color to help the creatures blend into wooded or subterranean surroundings…+10 bonus on Hide checks in forests or underground areas due to their chameleonlike ability to alter their skin tones.

Fiend Folio pages 133–134

That’s actually a nice bonus for an adventurer, but another effect that comes with it isn’t so pleasant: their legs begin to shrink and fuse together. A full ophidian has a land speed of only 20feet/6sec but gets a climb speed and a swim speed in the bargain [Fiend Folio page 133]; the partial transformation makes no mention of getting a full-length tail, so we may infer that the victim doesn’t get the climb speed nor the swim speed.
Instead, their speed is simply reduced to 20feet/6sec if Medium-sized or 15feet/6sec if Small.
(If the Curse were allowed to run its course, then short-legged people like halflings and gnomes would get the speed loss cancelled out by an increase in overall size to Medium, but the size increase does not come in the early stages.)

A partial ophidian transformation also comes with a forked tongue — this may temporarily interfere with speech, but since full ophidians can speak normally, so can partial cases, even if it takes a while for them to get used to the new tongue.

The ophidian curse is the most mixed bag on the list — an adventurer might actually miss that Hide bonus after they complete this adventure and get their Serpentine Curse removed.

Sunless Citadel Character Hooks: Aboleth Slime


The aboleth civilization covered the world in intradiluvian times, when all the world was covered by a great ocean. In those days, the Elemental Plane of Air was further from the Elemental Plane of Earth than it is now, so that Air and Earth could not coexist in direct contact.

Aboleth ruins, when they are found (which is rarely, anymore), are not thousands of years old — they are millions of years old.
The stone structures of aboleth ruins look like nothing so much as petrified shells of giant shellfish.[Lords of Madness page 31]
Aboleth ruins are best known for their glyphs — writings which carry magical effects, which yet endure even today. Some of minor; some are very powerful. Kingdoms have been founded atop aboleth glyphs.

The written language of the aboleths is likewise complex, with hundreds of thousands of intricate glyphs similar to abstract hieroglyphics. An aboleth writes upon stone or metal with tiny, thimblelike devices made of crystal that fit over the tips of its tentacles. The aboleth dips the crystals into dense acids that are not easily washed away by water, and then etches the runes directly into the stone or metal tablets. All four tentacle tips are used simultaneously to etch the runes; a creature with only one or two hands takes a proportionally longer time to write in Aboleth.

Lords of Madness, page 29

Few wonder just what became of the aboleths.
They didn’t die out.

An aboleth’s membranes dry quite rapidly once the creature is out of water; under such conditions, it takes 2 points of Dexterity damage per hour (to a minimum Dexterity of 1). This damage can be cured by magic or by immersion in water (which cures all damage and rehydrates the membranes at the rate of 2 points of Dexterity per minute).
An aboleth whose membranes remain dry does not die. It merely enters a state of suspended animation similar to sleep, except that the creature remains aware of its surroundings. It can hear and see, but cannot detect odors or feel tactile sensations. The creature’s natural armor gains a bonus of +6 (which offsets the loss of Dexterity), and it gains damage reduction 5/adamantine. It retains the ability to think and observe, but it can take no actions, not even purely mental actions. Inside, it remains moist and functional; an aboleth in this state that is badly cut or pierced leaks and quickly bleeds to death. Left undisturbed, though, it can remain in this state forever. This is known to aboleths as the long dreaming and is considered a fate far worse than death.

Lords of Madness, page 17

But with luck, an aboleth can recover from the long dreaming. And so too can the lost aboleth empire recover from its destruction.

Tentacle +12 melee (1d6+8 plus slime)
Slime (Ex): A blow from an aboleth’s tentacle can cause a terrible affliction. A creature hit by a tentacle must succeed on a DC 19 Fortitude save or begin to transform over the next 1d4+1 minutes, the skin gradually becoming a clear, slimy membrane. An afflicted creature must remain moistened with cool, fresh water or take 1d12 points of damage every 10 minutes…A remove disease spell cast before the transformation is complete will restore an afflicted creature to normal. Afterward, however, only a heal or mass heal spell can reverse the affliction.

Monster Manual page 8

In the deep ocean — as when attacking another aboleth — this condition is usually fatal, since a creature struck will usually die before it can get to fresh water. But a surface-dweller can, with luck, obtain fresh water every 10 minutes. (Of course, a first-level character would be nearly killed outright by the blow itself, but might survive with luck and care.)

This is hugely inconvenient for the character, but not for the player.
The character has to sleep in a water-filled tub with a cloth over their face hanging into the water (the cloth wicks water upward via capillary action, keeping the face moist. This makes sleeping in a dungeon almost impossible, but Oakhurst is nearby, so the party can always return to town to sleep.

The rules are silent on exactly how much water the character needs every ten minutes. Obviously the character will have to carry extra water, but we can say for a day’s adventuring they only need, say, a gallon — eight pounds.