Adventure Design in D&D - The Keep of Quoros the Nephrite
I was asked to do a birthday party game for one of my after school regulars. This group has been playing 1e AD&D, one of the deadliest TTRPGs ever designed, once a week for a year and a half. They have had 5 fatalities in that time, in a group that has varied from 8 players to its current 6.
The birthday boy asked for three things: A. He wanted to play a tortle B. He wanted an arctic environment C. He wanted to experience what it was like to do a tournament adventure at a con
We play full open sandbox D&D, so they are used to taking their time and seeing what happens. The player wanted to see what it was like to play a game like you would at a convention. I could have done one of the classic tournament modules, but I wanted to do something set in the campaign world we have been using, running a tournament in the game world he had been playing in for a year and a half was cool. So I decided to make it myself.
I used two assumptions about tournament modules: 1. They are very challenging 2. They can be scored
I added one extra, because it was important to me they finish it off. 3. It can’t run overtime
I wanted to see if my players had learned anything over the last year and a half. This adventure was pure 1e, deadly, filled with things above their pay scale, and unpredictable. Cautious parties that thought things through might survive, headstrong, combat drunk or uncooperative parties would die.
Just like real 1e tournament modules.
Here’s how I met those goals - I created a party of pregens that were all reptilian: tortles, lizard men and yuan-ti, and the sorcerer priest Kghalla sent them to the Keep of Quoros the Nephrite, located in the frozen wastes of the Land of Black Ice, to retrieve the Codex of the Infinite Planes.
Tournament Style Modules - Fast and Deadly
The environment was the first challenge, reptilian PCs travelling in the arctic would take penalties from the cold (to saves, to attacks and to speed), so I gave them each a special warmth potion. They had a limited supply, so they couldn’t dither. They could also lose them if they took certain kinds of damage (falling, major impacts). They did have some spells (e.g. resist cold) and items to use if they lost the potions, but they only had partial coverage without them. It also gave them an outside timeline. Retrieve the Codex before your potions run out, 9 days.
I designed Quoros’ Keep to be unpredictable. Adventures in keeps/towers/dungeons generally either give you a monster/NPC combat challenges, puzzles, or traps. All of these are designed to work against the PCs. Since they expect this, designing these sorts of things would be too predictable. Instead I created a keep where each room existed to fulfill a need of Quoros, none were designed with intruders in mind. So to “figure them out” or “overcome” them, would require lateral thinking.
These rooms were dangerous not because they were designed to kill, but because they were filled with powerful magical artefacts and creatures. I of course put in defences, Quoros is not going to have his tower vulnerable to attack or destruction. But those features would only activate if the PCs started to destroy his artefacts or creatures. The keep was in a remote, dangerous area (exposure outside leads to death in 4-8 rounds from the cold), so very few would be able to even reach it. Quoros was also a very high level magic user, he could handle the party. Designing the keep with these things in mind made it harder for the party to decide what to do, creating tactical opacity.
Their patron Kghallah told them that she had magically compelled an ally of Quoros, a djinn, to help them, and the djinn called Quoros away from his keep to meet. Quoros would be gone for at least a week. The PCs had to get in, get the Codex, and get out in that time or face him.
However, unknown to Kghallah, Quoros has been studying the Codex for months, sealed away in an extradimensional space connected to his keep (much like a rope trick spell, but on a larger scale and permanent). He sent a simulacrum in his stead to meet with the djinn (high level magic-users in 1e can do that sort of thing), as his study of the Codex was more important.
So when the party arrives, Quoros will be studing the Codex in his extradimensional lair, he will note their presence, but leave them be. He will note how they perform though, and their performance will determine how the adventure ends. His motivation is also unpredictable, rather than the typical “blast them for invading his space” reaction, I’m modelling a crazy intelligent high level 1e magic-user who would have very esoteric interests and motivations, and would treat the party as a minor threat. He should be eccentric, and thus behave in unpredictable ways. Of course if they threaten Quoros or attack him he will put them down without hesitation, so a lot rides on how they react if he does appear.
To make it like a tournament module I built in a scoring mechanism.
There are 8 rooms in his keep. They are evaluated on their interaction with each room with respect to three criteria: survival, understanding and benefit. Each room has three points to be scored. Each room that produces a fatality they lose one of the room’s points, each room where they can’t figure out how the room works they lose one of the room’s points, each room where they don’t benefit from the room they lose one of the room’s points.
There are 24 points to be had.
On the principle of 2 out of 3 ain’t bad, I decided that if they score over 16 they have “impressed” Quoros. When Quoros appears he will talk to the party before delivering his decision, if the party has not impressed him (scored less than 16) but they give a convincing argument for why Quoros should give them the Codex, roll an encounter reaction roll and see what happens, just know that a hostile result will probably end up in a dead party.
If they score 16 or more he will be impressed by their performance, and will offer to return the Codex in a month when he has finished his studies, and they have then “won” the adventure, as they have secured the Codex for Kghallah. So some groups will just win, some groups will win big, and you can compete against other groups. If they score less he will banish them from the keep with a teleportation spell and the adventure is over.
If you want to evaluate individual players, for each room you have a group vote, including the referee, on which player contributed the most to survival, understanding and benefit, ties are decided by the referee. So in principle a point might not be given out for a given category, e..g. If no one figured out the room, each point can go to a different player, and individuals can get more than one point, but each room has three points to allocate. Each player will get a score, if the top score is possessed by more than one player, the referee will decide who “won”.
To keep time from running over, when you reach the last half hour of play, see where the party is at. Total up their score so far, and divide this by the number of rooms completed multiplied by 3. So for example, if the party completes 4 rooms, and scores 8 points, that would be 8/12 or ⅔ and they have “won”. If by some twist of fate they only go into one room, you score them on that room, if they get at least 2 points they have “won”, but at least one of those points has to be “understanding”,
Quoros is not going to be impressed by a group that can’t figure out ANY of his rooms.
So it’s not really possible to run over time with this module. As long as they have completed a few rooms Quoros can appear and either reward them or banish them. Just keep an eye on the clock, and when you have about 20 to 30 min left have Quoros summon them and evaluate them.
A few other features, they have a two day trip to the keep, there is only one encounter in that time, with an NPC and monsters that have information. If the party gets the information they get a break in the keep, if they don’t they lose that advantage. It isn’t necessary, but it helps.
The inside of the keep is lit with a low blue light, and the basic design is a tall cylinder with a spiral staircase that follows the inside of the cylinder’s surface all the way down to the bottom. The entry is at the top. Once in the keep there were 8 rooms, each very large, there were no doors on the rooms, all are open to entry and evenly spaced on the stairs. The stairs have no railings, only the wall beside you, and if the party moves at regular speed down the stairs they have to make a saving throw once between every room to see if they slip and fall off the stairs. If they do they fall the distance to the ground. The tower is 400 feet tall, which means it’s 50’ between rooms, and the first room is 50’ down. The fall is deadly from high up. If for example they were heading from the 3rd room from the top to the 4th room from the top, they would fall 250 feet.
If they move at half speed they don’t have to make the saving throw.
Also, there are 8 ice golems (stat as stone golems) imbedded in the walls between each room and below the last room. If the party attempts to damage any of the artefacts in any of the rooms, one of the ice golems emerges from the wall, enters the room and attacks. Note the tossing around fireballs in the keep will trigger the emergence of other ice golems and will fill the area with superheated steam that does half the damage of the fireball to the party,
Quoros resides in an extradimensional space, he can manifest a door from this space to any room in his keep at any time. When he decides to evaluate the party the door appears inside of the room they are in and he beckons them to enter.
I won’t go over every room here, but just to give a flavor, here is one example of a room from the keep and how it was played in our session.
Room of Confinement - Symbol of a pair of shackles above the door.
This room is circular and approximately 200’ in diameter. About 10’ in there is a wall of solid ice that stretches from ceiling to floor, wall to wall. The ice is completely transparent, however, there is no light in the ice, so it appears black.
There is a large globe of transparent ice here that hovers about 2 feet from the wall in the middle of the room, 4 feet above the ground, constantly turning over in every direction. Water coats the surface of the ice sphere, but it doesn’t drip.
If someone touches the globe of transparent ice it will stop turning over, if it is rolled in the forward direction and there is anyone within 10’ of the person touching the sphere they will be transformed into ethereal form and they will be placed inside the ice in a free spot, where they reform, frozen solid in the ice.
To extract them again, the person must roll the ball around, this allows one to select between occupied spots in the ice. Each time it hits a spot with an occupant that occupant lights up, and they can be extracted by rolling the globe back again, with the same process.
If they attack any aspect of the room then, and ice golem will appear in 2 rounds. If the golem is destroyed then another will appear, up until all 8 are destroyed. If all 8 are destroyed Quoros will show up and be most unhappy.
Since the prisoners in the ice are in the dark I rolled randomly on the dungeon random monster tables in the DMG to see which ones they highlighted when they rolled around the globe. I asked the players to describe what they were doing with the globe, if they said they were rolling it back towards them there was a 1 in 6 chance it would “catch” an inhabitant and pull them out, having them reform in solid form in front of the party.
If they accidentally sent in a party member they had to make a saving throw versus spell to find them again, and if they did roll a 2 in 6 chance of pulling them out. The sphere takes some practice to use. I allowed the addition of the characters Dex RAA modifier to their chance of success, e.g. if they had a RAA of 2 they would have a 4 in 6 chance of pulling out a specific target.
My group went in and one of them touched the sphere, they rolled it around and it highlighted different creatures that I rolled from the DMG as they went. The effect of everything being dark and then the "occupant" lighting up when they rolled the sphere was fun. Then one of my players asked if the prisoners were dead or alive, as the party priest had a speak with dead spell.
I asked them how they would determine if an inhabitant was dead or alive. After some further discussion they decided that they would look for inhabitants that were badly beat up, reasoning that Quoros would keep some live prisoners, some trophies of battles won. They rolled the sphere around until they found three prisoners in close proximity that were pretty badly beaten up. Then the priest PC decided to cast an augury spell to see if using the speak with dead spell on one of these prisoners would bring them "weal or woe". He cast the gem inlaid bones and they told him that the spell would be beneficial. So he cast a Speak With Dead spell and it worked on a prisoner (a centaur) that was dead but not too long dead. They asked their questions, and found out some information that helped them with a later room. Then they left before anything bad happened.
So for this room they scored 3, no fatalities, figured out the room and gained a benefit.
When they were done they had entered all 8 rooms and scored an 18, so Quoros called them to his room. They contemplated attacking, but started with parley (my players know better than to take one someone powerful without parley first, and they knew Quoros was powerful and wasn’t supposed to be there, so they were cautious). After some juicy RP conversation Quoros agreed to returning the Codex in a month’s time after he had a chance to study it further. That finished the adventure for them with a win.
I am very happy with how this turned out, they were genuinely challenged by many of the rooms, they loved the flavor of the keep, and best of all they showed that they could play smart, resisting the urge to bash and blast everything to get what they wanted. It also showed me that they had learned that high level warlocks were the most dangerous thing the game world had to offer, so they weren’t going to get aggressive unless they had to. They were genuinely TERRIFIED when Quoros showed up early, and genuinely freaked out when they survived. They showed that they had learned the system and were demonstrating tactical and strategic competence. I was stoked for them, and they LOVED the adventure.
Some time in the next few months I’m going to polish this off and publish it, I think it would be a super fun adventure for DMs with players who need a challenge that isn’t all based on throwing stronger and bigger monsters at them all the time.