We’re happy to present our first dungeon adventure – and just in time for Halloween!
Horror elements are tricky to insert into fantasy RPGs. Sure, there’s no shortage of monsters and ghouls, but creating a genuine sense of dread is challenging when resurrection is just one Cleric visit away. Which isn’t to say fear is impossible, just that it usually comes from subverting the expectations of dungeon crawlers who think they can wander into any dangerous locale and emerge unchanged.
Marshall’s The Curse of Skeleton Cove emerged from some Halloween-themed discussions about how to unsettle your players while still keeping to the usual “loot everything” mentality. We’d love to hear how it works with your player groups!
A convenient, pay-what-you-want PDF of this dungeon has been submitted to DriveThruRPG.com. Check that link within the next day for your copy!
Legend tells of an apprentice necromancer who foolishly believed dark magics would bend to his untrained whims. The end result was an undead plague, as skeletons swarmed the land with chaos and abandon. Scores of adventurers and heroes fought to purge the menace, and they almost succeeded. Only one region still suffers from the spell – the land now called Skeleton Cove.
For some unknown reason this coastal inlet continues to summon skeletons, no matter how many parties clear its caverns – or go missing in its depths. Eventually, a cleric band installed permanent wards preventing the undead from crossing its boundaries. But that hasn’t prevented young heroes from believing they will be the ones to finally loot and clear the caves under Skeleton Cove…
Skeleton Cove contains a series of caves the party can enter from a relatively peaceful beachfront. As legends promise, it will be filled with skeletons willing to fight to the undeath. What they won’t realize until it’s too late is these skeletons aren’t simply undead – these are cursed heroes transformed by dark magics. And the heroes will likely join them.
The good news is Skeleton Cove’s dungeon still contains the secret to lifting this ancient curse. The bad news is you’ll have to survive the hapless adventurers following in your footsteps!
BEFORE ENTERING THE DUNGEON
Skeleton Cove and its monsters are considered common knowledge in the surrounding villages, so everyone is willing to share information. Shopkeepers will suggest bludgeoning weapons (at a 20% mark-up) if they learn you’re headed to the caves. “It’s their weakness! Shatter their bones to pieces!”
That said, no one knows the true secret behind the skeletons. If the party finds a hero who previously visited the caves, they abandoned the quest before reaching the altar. At best, they only offer a partial map.
UPON ENTERING THE CAVES
Cry havoc and let slip the dogs of war! Players should have an absolute blast cutting loose on incoming skeleton hordes, sending skulls and bones flying with each strike. If you have some badass, empowering combat music lined up, play it here.
There are 78 skeletons in total wandering the caves. When exploring, encounter d6 skeletons for each hallway and d4 + 5 for each room until this number is depleted. They all reanimate at sunset, even if their bones have been destroyed. (HP 13, AC 13, Melee and Ranged Attack +4, Damage 1d6+2)
Roll a d20 before each skeleton encounter. On a 15-20, roll a d10 on the table below and give a single skeleton the displayed special item. Reroll for repeated results.
1) A Potion of Duck, which transforms medium-sized creatures into a duck for six hours. Only works on the living. Ducks are immune to the altar’s transformation spell.
2) 1d4 Cure Wounds spell scrolls.
3) A magical bow. Twice a day before firing an arrow, the wielder may say a command word. If the arrow hits its target, all of the targets allies within a 5 foot radius use make a DC 15 Wisdom save or gang up on your victim with reflexive melee attacks.
4) A club which heals its wielder for damage value when fighting undead.
5) A warhammer which deals an additional 1d8 electricity damage. This extra damage is not doubled when used on skeletons.
6) A maul which carries one Turn Undead spell per day. The command word to activate the spell is printed in Celestial on the weapon’s handle.
7) A magical shield. When an attack misses the shield wielder, roll a d20. On a 19 or 20, ordinary weapons shatter against the shield – even if the weapon is a bare hand – while magical and rare items are dropped. If the shield is used as a bludgeoning weapon against skeletons, make the same roll to see if they shatter apart.
8) A flail which deals triple damage on critical hits. Double this final value against skeletons.
9) A ring of magical shielding. This ring protects its wearer from the effects of the first three magical spells cast on them each day. (Remember this if the wearer is an NPC skeleton!)
10) A near complete set of magical full body plate armor – only a single gauntlett and the helmet are missing. The complete set grants 25 AC and full immunity to magical spells. As it stands, the armor only grants 18 AC.
AFTER THE TRANSFORMATION
Every creature in the dungeon, living or dead, is reanimated as a skeleton. PCs keep all their stats, gaining the benefits and vulnerabilities of a skeleton. In particular, they take double damage from bludgeoning weapons. Healing spells and items will have no effect – PC skeletons only heal at sunset.
Players cannot strategize or speak in character once the transformation has occurred. They have no tongues! Spellcasters lose the ability to cast spells with verbal components, including bards. Clerics and Paladins also lose their connection to the divine, and are unable to prepare additional spells. Divine scroll spells can still be cast without difficulty.
Skeletons will not bother player characters after the transformation – most have gone mad from endless reanimations and will ignore the undead.
Shortly after activating the altar a party of NPC adventurers armed with bludgeoning weapons will enter the caves. All attempts to communicate or negotiate are at -10, since they’d be attempting non-verbal communication with hostile characters. Displaying a written message fails if hostile skeletons attack the NPC heroes at the same time. If so, raise the skill throw to -6. (HP 20, AC 16, melee and ranged attack +4, damage 1d6+2 doubled)
When any skeleton dies, it either reanimates at sunset or when the altar is activated. It automatically loses 1 intelligence modifier. Upon reaching zero intelligence or less, it becomes a mindless creature content with destroying all living things.
If a skeleton is killed by an NPC adventurer with ample looting opportunity, any gold and unique gear will be stolen. Roll a d20 upon reanimation. On a 2-20, the looting hero is a skeleton wandering the halls. (You just need to find it.) On a 1, the hero fled the cave and with the loot.
If players attempt to leave the cove as a skeleton, they will clearly be able to see a mystical domed barrier surrounding the region. Crossing it destroys the skeleton, turning it to ash. They will reanimate inside the dome at sunset.
A skeleton altar is located in a large room in the center of the dungeon, guarded by two Skeleton Minotaurs. They will immediately move to stop anyone who appears to be disrupting the altar. (HP 67, AC 12, Attack Bonus +6, Damage 2d8+4)
The altar itself is made of the bones of several humans and animals. Its surface is caked with the blood of ancient sacrifices. Three jeweled skulls are on its surface – red, green, and blue. A close inspection reveals all three have spinal cords which reach into the altar. Touching or attacking any of the skulls or attempting to dismantle the altar activates the altar.
A gold chalice has been left on the altar surface – drinking from it causes good characters to vomit and take d6 damage. Once per day, an evil spellcaster may drink fresh blood from the chalice to fully regenerate their health and automatically reprepare all spells cast that day.
The necromancer maintained three libraries across the cave network, mostly filled with spellbooks stolen from other, more capable spellcasters.Most of its contents have fallen apart from time and decay but a successful DC 20 Wisdom check will retrieve 1d6+2 random spell scrolls from each location. Each library has a smaller version of the altar from the main chamber, although no jeweled skulls rest on it.
Searching each library will also retrieve fragments of a non-verbal ritual which will completely reverse the curse.
Collecting all three fragments reveals that the ritual can only be completed by the undead. Any living creature attempting the ritual will activate the altar, magically resetting the entire process.
The ritual requires three undead participants who are still in control of their mental faculties. Each participant must rip the correct jeweled skull from the altar with a DC 20 Strength check. The skull must then be carried to a library, placed on the altar, and have a flame lit in its mouth. The undead being carrying the skull must hold it with both hands and cannot make attacks during the delivery. The correct order for removing the skulls is blue, green, red. Pulling the wrong skull magically resets the ritual, teleporting the skulls back to the main altar.
Starting the ritual attracts the attention of heroes who suspect the skeletons are attempting to breach the barrier. Upon removing the second skull, four 3rd-level Clerics (HP 24, AC 18, Attack Bonus +5, Damage 1d8+3 doubled) arrive at the cave entrance to try and stop you.
Once all skulls have been placed one of the three undead participants must stand on the beach at sunrise, where they will be granted the ability to speak the following phrase – “We bring an end to the skeleton curse, may these undead magics forever disperse.” If the ritual is completed, all animated skeletons in the region are freed from the curse and return to life at normal intelligence.
If the heroes succeed there may be awkward conversations with any surviving Clerics or heroes, depending on their chosen actions. The heroes might also have to answer to the original owners of any loot they retrieved while fighting skeletons in the caves.
What if the heroes are repeatedly killed, and become mindless skeletons? Perhaps another party will brave the dungeon, succeed where they failed, and resurrect the undead..