Based in Southern Oregon, Fiddleback is a blog and portfolio by Brian Casey. His posts explore tabletop gaming and other topics through examination of RPGs, boardgames, and more. He is a freelance tabletop game editor and writer, and podcaster.

Fiddleback vs. The Sunless Citadel, Part 2

Fiddleback vs. The Sunless Citadel, Part 2

Time to finish up Tales From the Yawning Portal’s The Sunless Citadel adventure with The Grove. You’ll want to review the introductory article for this series if this is your first time here and get out your book to follow along.

This article covers The Grove section of The Sunless Citadel, an underground section of dungeon below the Fortress, and made up of roughly 14 rooms comprising the finale of the adventure.

Please note, this is intended for GMs and not players.

Page 26 Grove Level Map

A full-page map! Such luxury!

No pit traps or secret doors to worry about, so at least that part is over. You can even read most of the numbering. Much better than the Fortress Level Map.

42 Central Garden – Page 27

Descent from room 41 above, whether pushed or climbed down from, ends here. You can see how a good fall from above would lead to problems for any survivors. Remember that the twig blights are in ambush and therefore Surprise checks will be needed at the start of combat. And then, of course, there are the reinforcements from 43 to think about.

Meepo and Erky are a good question and I am glad you asked. This is pretty much up to you as the DM since the adventure itself provides no guidance.

It seems unlikely that Meepo would come along if he is still alive. He may have duties elsewhere if the dragon was successfully returned alive to the kobolds. Then again, the party heading deeper into goblin country may not be a pleasing prospect to him.

Erky Timbers, on the other hand, may have no reason to withdraw, and he is advertised as a loyal friend to the party. He’s probably along for comedy relief at least.

43 The Great Hunter’s Abode – Page 27

The giant rats are named Grip and Fang and all that is needed is one named Wolf to have all three of Farmer Maggot’s dogs from The Lord of the Rings.

Note that Grip and Fang might not actually be here and therefore might not be available for either this encounter or the one in 42. There’s a 25% chance they are somewhere else, but where? It’s up to the GM to decide. Most would have them off in the Underdark through the tunnel access here. Which then opens up Underdark access for the PCs. With all the problems discussed back in Northwest area 23 of the Fortress Level. If you have a great desire to stop running Sunless Citadel and side track the game into the Underdark for a few months you could segue right into Out of the Abyss from here, but let’s pretend that’s a silly idea and just focus on finishing up The Grove.

Alternately, Grip and Fang could be roaming somewhere in the Grove itself, either individually or together. This could allow you to spring them on the PCs in an otherwise empty room, or add them in to another encounter that the PCs might otherwise breeze through to make it more interesting. It’s entirely up to you how you choose to use them.

Curiously, as written, Balsag is just as likely to attack the skeletons and twig blights in 42 as he is the PCs if he goes there, or if the PCs drag that fight into here, in the previous encounter. If you missed it earlier, only goblinoids are part of the Durbuluk tribe. Twig blights and skeletons don’t count.

44 Rift – Page 27

Nothing much to see here. Just a bunch of holes which are the only clue to the nature of the tricky encounter in 45.

The rift also provides an interesting back door into the 47s should the PCs for some reason want a sneaky way in. Or out.

45 Rift Node – Page 27

Now look. Any PC prepared to stick parts of their body into glowing holes in the ground without taking some serious precautions deserves whatever happens next. Don’t pull your punches. They probably aren’t long for this world anyway with that sort of behavior.

Fire Snakes can be a reasonably formidable opponent for PCs of this level. They do stuff that the party hasn’t encountered before and will likely have at least one surprise for them. Read the Monster Manual description carefully, they need careful handling to be effective.

46 Old Shrine – Page 27

Another decent place to rest if properly secured.

47 Belak’s Laboratory – Page 27

There are 8 goblins total that could respond to problems in these rooms. Fortunately, only two of the goblins should constitute any real threat, the rest being commoners of the not-very-good-in-combat type. They’ll probably just curl up and die the first time they’re hit. Or run away to somewhere else, possibly raising the alarm.

 Someone will take the vial. And there are better than even odds that one of the PCs will drink it without any prompting from the GM. The promise of incredible magical powers is too much for many PCs to resist even without a nudge from the GM. Though, just for laughs, you could. No, don’t. Just let them do it to themselves.

Note that a fairly significant amount of real estate on this map is taken up in this one encounter. Another little hint for aspiring GMs making their own maps: Complex mapping with a single encounter incorporating them.

48 Garden Galleries (x2) – Page 28

The description here applies to both connected hallways North and South in the middle of the map. It’s not entirely clear from either the map numbering or the description. Again, repeating the mapping trick above.

49 Arboretums (x4) – Page 29

These four identical rooms are saved by the fact they each present slightly different encounters, aside from the Northern one.

By now, the PCs should have a good grip on dealing with twig blights if everything has gone according to plan so far. They’ll need it.

The fire snake is just hiding out in its room for fun. Depending on how the earlier encounter with one went, it might even be the DM's fun.

50 Ashardalon’s Shrine – Page 29

Magic fire is sexy is the lesson here. PCs with this advantage to their Charisma may wish to try negotiating, persuading, or intimidating their way through some of the later encounters. It might even be possible. Whether the opportunity to do so is available to them is up to you, of course.

Shadows are unlikely to be bargained with in any manner. They can be very nasty if the dice rolls go against the PCs, given a shadow's damage reductions and lovely Strength drain ability. It’s probably clever enough to target PCs with low AC and Strength scores, making it easier to get kills and create more shadows. Honestly, the party’s best course of action is to not be curious in any way in here. Good luck with that.

51 Dragon Library – Page 29

If you put a book about Dragon Lore in front of PCs, they will want to read it. Be prepared to be asked what is in it and what it says. Maybe some stuff about the Citadel from earlier in the adventure if they missed bits?

53 Belak’s Study – Page 29

We’re not talking Cthulhu levels of dangerous books, but if you go around putting the words “Treasure” and “Fire Lords” in the title and then place a Glyph of Warding inside those same books, people will get hurt. Like it was done on purpose or something. By the way, this is another ‘gotcha’ trap. Still not a good one.

Since every other page of the book is blank and it’s still warded and sitting here in Belak’s Study, you might be forgiven if you think something tricky is going on with the book.  Your PCs might as well. You can chuckle quietly to yourself as they try to work out what the trick is.

Glyphs exploding definitely count as disturbances.

Thankfully, books about druidic theories on life and death are much less interesting to the average PC and hardly ever trapped.

54 Grove Gate – Page 30

This is just a chance to the PCs to get their bearings and survey the field for the finale to come. It is probable this fight won’t be too taxing or difficult for them.

Oh. Have Grip and Fang appeared yet? Wouldn’t that be a nice surprise just here? Could be your last chance to pop them in.

Unless you intend to add them to the last two encounters…

55 Twilight Grove – Page 30

The briars (the roundish blobs on the map starting at 55) and the twig blights here may be best dealt with by using fire to clear both out, but it may be wise for the PCs to hold some of their fire-making capability back just in case giant, evil trees prove to be flammable.

They’ve picked up a fair few things that could make a fire if they’ve been thorough. Like the Potion of Firebreath, though not the continual flame items as (per the description of continual flame) they do not produce heat or consume fuel. The Potion of Firebreath works just like the dragonborn breath weapon racial ability.

If they go the scorched earth route, be prepared with a plan for the spread of the fire, including both blights and bushes. Take a few moments and plan a path for the spread of the fire if it seems likely.

Naturally, almost anything magical the PCs do is likely to attract Belak’s notice. As are any explosions. And raging fires.

Remember that walls here provide cover and an extra slice of tactics to both sides in the conflict.

Depending on how the party is doing overall by this point, it may be worth pulling in additional twig blights from 56 to this fight to lessen the load in the next. It just depends how you feel about them. The party, not the twig blights.

56 The Gulthias Tree – Page 30

Belak uses the standard Druid build in the Monster Manual on page 346 with the noted changes in his spell list.

Between Entangles, grabs, swallows, Color Spray, Rays of Frost, and so forth, it should be easy enough to restrain, slow, or otherwise reduce the mobility of the PCs long enough to let Braford get at least a few clean shots with Shatterspike against their weapons or armor (Again, refer to pages 246 and 247 in the DMG for destroying objects). Once that’s been done and at least a few of the PCs are without their weapons, just whittle away on them as you can with the available NPCs.

Of course, PCs tend to be fairly resilient, so remembering to use the various players on the NPC team to flank (optional rule, page 251, DMG) or just to be within 5’ of each other and make use of the Help rule (on page 192 of the PHB) can provide just enough of an edge to really make this fight feel worthy.

PCs may not know what the Gulthias tree is if they don’t talk with Belak first and ask about it. Therefore, its significance may escape them. If they didn’t think to make the checks regarding the tree themselves, it is perfectly acceptable to make the checks on their behalf to see if they recall anything and then treat them to an epiphany of sorts regarding it.

Of course, the clearest course of action is for the PCs to focus on the tree and destroy it. Then, just let events take their course and allow the PCs to mop up and feel clever. Who’s a clever PC?  You are!

Again, the walls here can be used for cover and tactics by both parties. No sense playing the bad guys as extra dumb if you don’t have to.

Play this encounter as hard as you can and let the PCs really earn their victory. They’ll thank you for it. Or die trying.

Aftermath – Page 31

Page 31 of the Monster Manual has some backstory on the blights that might be interesting to share with the players and to work with if you send the PCs off chasing after the leftovers.

Hopefully everyone waved politely at the kobolds again on the way out. Meepo was, I’m sure, very helpful to everyone there for a while. If you settled the goblins in a semi-peaceful fashion, wave at them, too. Rest sure in the knowledge that nothing bad can happen here again. For about a week, until things start crawling up from the Underdark to fill the power vacuum. I mean, unless the Party took the time to block off the tunnels.

Shatterspike is a lovely piece of kit at this level. Undoubtedly, whomever wields it will use it responsibly and not, for instance, run around willy-nilly breaking everything they can find with it. It will likely remain effective for a couple of character levels. After that, it will be time for the PC to think about upgrading. Since the Wand of Entangle is also lootable treasure, it is reasonable to assume that these two items used together will make an effective combo most of the time. Since you’ve just used this combo on them (successfully?), you’ll be aware of how to plan for its effects on combat and mitigate them.

Not much left to do but mop up, if needed, and then head back to Oakhurst to report findings. PCs should be level 3 at this point, depending on how thoroughly they collected XP. Congratulations! That’s the end of The Grove and The Sunless Citadel!

Wait! What’d you do with Erky Timbers?

Summary

The Sunless Citadel Grove Level is, again, pretty straight forward without too much complication. This is as it should be for a first adventure. Once more, all the intricate stuff happens in the final encounter of the level which is also the final encounter of the adventure, so that’s okay. The biggest stumbling block for the GM will be keeping track of all the moving pieces in the last combat, considering it will likely include 3 capable NPCs, a number of twig blights, possibly other monsters, the PCs, and possibly one or two friendly NPCs. Dealing with the twig blights as a group will ease the pressure a bit, no sense rolling and tracking separate initiatives for them all, that’s just more paperwork.

One of the faults of the Grove Level is a lack of interesting things for curious PCs to do. No further clues to the Adventure Hooks are really had until the very last. In fact, in at least two locations, the Shrine (50) and the Study (53), PCs are actively punished for being curious and / or thorough with their explorations. If the Shadow doesn’t make them gun shy, the Glyph of Warding certainly should.

The Grove Level is short. Really short. Almost unsatisfyingly short given the size of the Fortress Level above it and the number of things going on there versus the number of things going on here. It reads short and it will likely play short. Average groups should be able to finish it in one session. Maybe two at the outside. More careful groups will take a full two sessions, possibly with a short third. Hasty groups actually might finish out in one session. It’s entirely possible to zoom right past several locations and not be any worse off for it. Sure, you’ll miss the scenery, but that’s not where they keep the XP.

As for The Sunless Citadel adventure as a whole? It seems perfectly satisfactory. It is easy enough for the GM to run as written, even with the amount of flipping back and forth and looking things up in other books going on. It would be so much easier to run, though, if the page references were included where needed. Unfortunately, this looks like something we are going to have to deal with throughout Tales From the Yawning Portal. It’s not just a convenience, it is vital to the smooth running of any adventure. The more time a DM has to spend looking things up and hunting things down, the less actual game gets played and the more confused, frustrated, and distracted everyone becomes, Players and DM alike. There is an argument to be made for looking up likely rules ahead of time or jotting down notes, but, in the end, GMs will still be referring back to tables and various other specifics more often than not.

I confess to being sorely disappointed that there is nothing in Sunless Citadel to expand on its reason for being sunless. As mentioned in the last article, clues to the citadels fate would go a long way towards making it feel as if it mattered that the citadel was down here. These could be anything from books in the study, to scattered notes, to just some interaction within the physical confines of the citadel that were affected in some way by the cataclysm beyond just being ‘slightly rubbished’. Was Ashardalon’s dragon cult out of control and summoned something dangerous (well, more dangerous than a dragon) that dropped the castle? Were they messing with magics beyond mortal ken? Did the Dragonpriest forget to let the cat out at night? Give us something more than an oblique reference to necromantic magic.

So, being one of the “Seven Deadliest Dungeons” in the history of Dungeons and Dragons, how deadly is it? I don’t know. There are a couple of encounters that could be overwhelming for the party if they are poorly prepared or take ill-advised risks. Or if the DM piles on the combatants until the PCs can’t handle them. Beyond that, it feels like reasonable care taken on both sides of the screen should be enough to see a successful conclusion with all party members more or less intact. Aside from a couple of ‘gotchas’, there isn’t really anything the PCs can’t be prepared for if they make their rolls. Ultimately, Sunless Citadel’s deadliness isn’t baked into the adventure. Instead, it relies on the players to make it so. Overly aggressive DMs or PCs that tread incautiously — or worse, both of those at once — can spell a TPK for any party. Sunless Citadel just makes it easier to do that to beginners.

Should you play it? Well, there’s no reason not to. Provided you are okay with its limitations and willing to adjust things to suit your group, you might as well. However, it’s not as compelling a starting adventure as, for instance, Lost Mine of Phandelver from the D&D 5e Starter Set. Citadel isn’t really set up on its own to let players get comfortable with the full range of their PCs abilities and skills and there is precious little guidance for genuinely new GMs, unlike Phandelver. If you are that brand shiny new GM, or very inexperienced as a GM, it might be best to make Sunless Citadel the first adventure you run for your second group of characters.

Of course, if you are a seasoned DM, full steam ahead. Have fun storming the castle.

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In the next Fiddleback vs. Tales From the Yawning Portal we will move on to The Forge of Fury.

Fiddleback vs. The Forge of Fury, Part 1

Fiddleback vs. The Forge of Fury, Part 1

Fiddleback vs. The Sunless Citadel, Part 1

Fiddleback vs. The Sunless Citadel, Part 1