Saturday 9 July 2022

At the Hour of Death

The lost tomb of Sierk the Carver may have passed from memory, but it's nearer than anyone suspected. But be warned, wizards don't die peacefully. Great danger awaits anyone who arrives at the hour of death.

At the Hour of Death is Trilemma Adventure #55. It's a pocket dungeon that you can locate almost anywhere underground. If an ogre misses a player and bashes a wall, a secret door in a castle hallway, a crumbling brickwork. Anywhere there's enough room for the circular tomb, below.

For ages I've wanted to do something with scheduled patrols, moving guards whose routes and schedule the players could learn and then anticipate. What better way to do this than let the players actually manipulate the schedule?

A few notes:

There's more treasure in this adventure than most of what I do. It's meant to be suitable for classic dungeon crawling: low-level adventurers avoiding threats to get what treasure they can before they run into trouble they can't handle.

The skeletal infantry are meant to be both hostile and very dangerous. They're there as a lethal "minute hand" that sweeps around the perimeter of the tomb. Make this clear with their coordinated movements, the shouting of the lamp-bearers to direct them. For gritty power levels, at least, it should be obvious that to attack them frontally means getting stabbed by a forest of spears.

Other than the skeletons, however, this adventure is meant to work with a reaction table (of the sort you get in early editions of D&D). If you don't have one handy, use this one from ALM:

Roll d6Initial NPC Reaction
Assume the worst: The NPC assumes the party is here for violence or exploitation. If weaker, the NPCs avoid, posture and prepare defenses. If they have the advantage, maybe they think it's best to deal you a blow while they can.
Wary: Set boundaries (socially or physically)
Mistaken Assumption: The group makes a confident, incorrect assumption about the party's purpose or identity. They've heard rumours, and your presence confirms them.
Uninterested: Dour and sullen, self-absorbed, or perhaps more interested in their own problems or private discussions. Either way, they aren't making time for the party.
Curiosity: You're the entertainment. Maybe that's good, maybe that's really bad, depending on their nature.
Common Cause: So glad you turned up, now we can help each other!

Magical Compulsion

This adventure holds the possibility of an NPC gaining a measure of control over a PC. The inhabitants of the dungeon have been compelled to follow the magic of the game board and don't realize their decisions have been influenced. Imposing this same fate on a PC, however, would effectively sideline the player. No fun! There are a few options that you might try:

Wrong Trousers: The player remains in control of their character, but whatever they choose to do, they also walk a half move in the direction the game board pulls them. They can resist and take other actions, but it's like being in a swiftly moving stream. A variant of this is the "drunk walk"; the only effect of the compulsion is that when they try to walk, they just happen to step where the game board wants them to.

Kicking and Screaming: Instead of affecting a PC's will, they're seized by an unseen force that drags them. This will quickly become the focus of play as the party tries to stop a fellow adventurer being dragged away.

Lights on, Lights Off
: The compulsion comes in waves, only taking effect for one minute of every ten. This lowers the stakes of the compulsion. This is a decent option for a single PC party, also.

In on the Joke: Some players might be happy to portray someone under the game board's influence. For this to work, they need to have worked out the effect of the game board, and the specific player needs to be down to portray someone acting against their own interests. They (of course) must also know what the game board is compelling them to do so they can run with it. Here, the fun is their interactions with the rest of the party.

Update: Finding the Panopticon

Brent Ellison asked me to clarify, is there really no stated way for players to figure out the mirrors? That's true! It's not at all guaranteed that a determined party would ever reach the Panopticon, especially since neither Sierk nor the Physician seems likely to tell them. Some ways it might happen:
  1. The party develops a friendly relationship with the Physician (e.g. 'Common Cause' from the table, above) and he simply tells them to help them out of a scrape. This depends on whether you think the Physician knows this will kill Sierk (as that would violate his oath).
  2. The party moves the Beetle piece to the study, and the Physician arrives through the mirror.
  3. The Physician flees combat by taking on mantis form and fleeing through a mirror.

* * *

As always, thanks to my patrons on Patreon who have graciously donated to support this little project!


  1. I've been playing about with Dragon Heist, the published WOTC adventure, and there's an annoying gap between L2 and L3 (where the adventure *really* kicks off) where the party are supposed to "do stuff" in the city for an entire level worth of experience - small errands for various factions that the party may want to undertake to build favour are presented, but nothing that really pays or gives much xp.... and at the same time, the characters are trying to build up 2 thousand hp to refit a tavern they just inherited.

    After a day or two of my characters scurrying around the sewers protecting sewage workers for a few sp, and that getting old, I decided they kicked in a wall fighting a wandering monster, and found the forgotten Panopticon.

    I ran it very much in a "Labyrinth" inspired style - the phalanx of skeletons easily avoidable because of their bickering, the Physician playful and not hostile at all, initially.

    When they finally worked out how to get through the mirror (the Physician dropped hints) and released Sierk, the sale of the oxen + odd carvings and treasures at market gave them a substantial chunk of purse towards their aims, and they also took the wine barrels and had the cleric purify a barrel a day to revert the wine to a reasonable saleable copy - so they had stock for their tavern too out of it, it worked really well with the particular challenges and themes of that part of DH and I would thoroughly recommend it for any DM looking to fill a gap in that particular campaign (it's a shocking screaming hole in a not inexpensive campaign book I can't believe they published, but who am I to complain, this one shot really helped).

    Thank you !

    1. That's really delightful, Sho. I think this is the only adventure I've written where you can accidentally break into it, but hearing it worked out for you makes me glad.