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  • Writer's pictureMac Boyle

The College of Grotesque Arts -- Week 0 (Above Ground)

Okay, let’s establish some background so we can get a handle on what we’re doing. This dungeon is going to be located out in the wilderness, in a region I’ll call Ller Tul.¹ Looking through the manuscript, the thing that stands out to me is that there are a lot of grotesques.² This brings me to another theme I’m going to try and employ in this project — weird old D&D cliches are Fine, Actually. We’re already doing a megadungeon, kind of an old D&D cliche in itself, so why not lean into that?

Specifically, I’m thinking about the owlbear. Their entry in the AD&D Monstrous Manual starts with, “Owlbears are probably the crossbred creation of a demented wizard…”. So let’s say that this is the origin of all these critters we’re going to be seeing in the dungeon. (Don’t expect me to write full stats for all of these, by the way.) So let’s expand on that.

Ller Tul is sparsely populated, and primarily known for the unusual nature of its wildlife. The latter, and to some extent the former, is the result of a collective of eccentric wizards taking up residence out in the Ller Tul wilderness some centuries ago. For decades, they experimented with critter hybridization. (Theories about why they stopped and where they went are… inconclusive. “Eaten by something they made” is a favorite.) Most of their hybrids haven’t survived, but a number of them turned out to be more-or-less viable species, and have thoroughly colonized the region. (Others are said to be unique, but very long-lived.) Their long-abandoned home and laboratory is a source of much curiosity. The PCs can be sent there to retrieve any sort of magical item, arcane text, or other such McGuffin that is rumored to still be within.

Only a small part of the structure is above ground — the individual quarters of the twelve wizards involved.³ Though it made the most sense for purposes of security to do their work in a vast underground complex (how’d they make a vast underground complex? magic, keep up) it seems that they weren’t particularly enamored with subterranean life, so they built above-ground quarters that emulate the classic “wizard’s tower”. You’ll also find less-fancy living quarters for various apprentices, employees, and so forth — what? Surely you weren’t expecting these wizards to go without research assistants? Or support staff? This was a complex endeavor; the classic idea of the lone researcher may be romantic and all, but for serious mad science wizardry, you need a campus.

The campus is still inhabited, though not by anyone linked to its original use. It may be an abandoned complex that still carries the stain of the magical atrocities once performed there, and it may be situated far from any center of civilization, but if you’re out in the wilderness for some reason anyway, and you need a roof over your head to keep the rain off, it’s not the worst option. Over time, the rotating population of these crumbling buildings has become more organized, and now form a group calling themselves the Gatekeepers.

The Gatekeepers

The Gatekeepers are, essentially, a large gang of bandits. They apprehend anyone traveling through the wilderness where the campus is situated — there is a road through this area, it’s just not very well-traveled. They also make some efforts towards self-sufficiency: much of the area within the walls of the campus has been converted into a garden, and members of the Gatekeepers regularly go on hunting expeditions. The gardening, hunting, and banditry is enough for a somewhat marginal existence, but the Gatekeepers also maintain one additional income stream, from which they take their name: they guard the entrance to the dungeon below campus, and charge entry. (People entering the dungeon is pretty rare, and people coming back out is even rarer, but they know a monopoly when they see one.)

When adventurers (or, occasionally, foolhardy researchers) come to access the dungeon, the Gatekeepers welcome them cheerfully. “Ah, going into the lower levels? Excellent idea, all kinds of interesting stuff down there. Dangerous, though, so we don’t really go ourselves. Happy to let you through, sell you supplies, whatever you need. That’ll be 100 gold per head.” If the party refuses to pay, the Gatekeepers will make an effort to prevent them from accessing the stairs down, but if it comes to violence, they’ll surrender if it looks like the battle will be harder than it’s worth. Any party who fights or sneaks past the Gatekeepers to get into the dungeon will be attacked on their way back out, and the Gatekeepers will fight more stubbornly to keep them from leaving than to keep them from getting in.

The Gatekeepers do have plenty of supplies and niceties they’re willing to sell to adventurers — they understand the concept that the people who get rich in a gold rush are the ones selling the pickaxes, not the people looking for gold. Any dungeon-crawling equipment you could get in a proper town is available, for ten times the price you’d pay elsewhere. They also offer food and lodging for a similar markup. If a party decides to take the prudent route of exiting the dungeon every so often to replenish supplies and sleep somewhere other than a hard stone floor, the Gatekeepers will pressure them to purchase lodging in their “guest quarters”, insisting that they can’t guarantee their safety otherwise, wink wink.

Most Gatekeepers are low-level warriors, experts, and commoners.⁴ Higher-level members of the Gatekeepers are as follows:

Agnes, mid-level fighter. The leader of the Gatekeepers. Tall, muscular, and heavily scarred. A deserter from some military or other — she’s not forthcoming about her personal history. No nonsense, all business.

Ratikin, mid-level rogue. Scrawny, sketchy and amoral. Agnes’s lieutenant, though the party may or may not meet him. He generally does the dirty work, such as creeping about at night to steal from adventurers who have chosen to camp outside rather than pay for lodging.

Markewart, mid-level wizard. Middle-aged, bald, and pudgy. Originally one of the slow but constant trickle of researchers who thought they could find something interesting here. Markewart took a different approach and joined the Gatekeepers rather than enter the dungeon, providing his arcane services in exchange for full access to the remnants of the above-ground library. He will be happy to buy any interesting arcane tidbits the party may find, but jealously guards the material he’s already found and organized.

Shulgi, clay golem. A mindless construct that stood immobile by the entrance to the dungeon for centuries before Markewart figured out how to make it accept orders again. Used for heavy lifting and intimidation, mostly — Markewart is hesitant to send it into combat unless entirely necessary, at least until he figures out how to make more.

The Buildings

First, here’s a sketch of the campus as a whole. Note the wall (maintained as best as the Gatekeepers can manage), the guard towers at the corners (usually manned), and the gatehouse (scrupulously guarded). I’m saying to note them now because they’re not getting their own description. On this map, squares represent about 20 ft; on the individual building maps, squares are 5 ft.

1 — Quarters

One of two buildings formerly used to house staff. As mentioned above, the wizards who built this place weren’t the types to do everything themselves or through magical constructs (Shulgi excepted). There’s a certain romance to living alone in your wizard tower and taking care of everything through magic so you don’t have to deal with civilians wandering around, but once you move into a laboratory complex with eleven other wizards, that ship has sailed. At that point, you might as well keep your magic for other purposes and hire staff for the mundane stuff. And then hire staff to manage that staff so that you don’t have to think about it yourself. And for that matter, you might want to take on an apprentice for research assistance… and before you know it, you have dozens of people working here and they need somewhere to live. These buildings are still kept up fairly well, and basically used for their original purpose — the Gatekeepers live in them just like the staff used to, though the original furnishings have long since fallen apart and been replaced by whatever the Gatekeepers could knock together. (They also sometimes have to double or triple up, when the ever-shifting roster of the gang exceeds the number of rooms.) Five of the smaller rooms are reserved as “guest quarters”, and furnished as crude approximations of the sort of generic room you’d find in an inn. Staying in them costs ten times as much as an equivalent inn, but you’re really paying for a guarantee that the Gatekeepers won’t steal your stuff in the night.

2 — More Quarters

The second of two buildings formerly used to house staff. Neither this nor the previous one have keyed rooms because all of the rooms would be keyed something like “16 — nameless Gatekeeper lives here”.

3 — Storage

This used to be a barracks; the wizards contracted with a mercenary company to provide guard service and occasional monster wrangling. Whichever mercenaries were on the rotation stayed here. Nowadays, the Gatekeepers use it as a storage building for all sorts of mundane goods. There’s nothing hugely interesting in here unless your party is really against paying the Gatekeepers’ inflated prices for supplies.

4 — Stable

This was and still is a stable. Not a lot to say about that one. About half of the stalls are occupied by either cows or horses. The room in the center is more storage, but it’s all horse- and cow-related stuff.

5 — Dining

Everyone has to eat. A few keyed rooms for this one:

1 — A fairly traditional hall. Long tables and crude benches where the Gatekeepers eat, replacing the much nicer tables and benches that rotted away long ago.

2 — Kitchen.

3 — Food stores.

6 — Library

What’s a wizarding organization without an extensive library? Sadly, those books that weren’t plundered long ago have fallen apart, faded, or been eaten by vermin. There are also a few other rooms in this building that used to be offices for some of the staff. Keyed rooms:

1 — Library. Most of the shelves that lined the room once upon a time have fallen apart and been cleared out. A small shelf and desk occupy one corner of the room: this is where Markewart tries to piece together what’s left into something useful. Most of the books on the shelf were formerly parchment scraps that Markewart rebound or recopied, filling in lacunae with best guesses and trying to make something out of the mess — a few are ones he brought with him or purchased later. His project has been moderately successful: he’s pieced together a lot about magical theories that are not known elsewhere, and his personal spellbook has become quite extensive. Another corner of the room is occupied by a sturdy table, scarred and stained, with a selection of odd-looking devices; this is a makeshift laboratory for testing out ideas Markewart gathers from the scraps. Markewart doesn’t like strangers coming in here, so if you’re seeing any of this, you probably snuck in and should be ashamed.

2 — Agnes’s quarters. The leadership of the Gatekeepers is located in this building in order to guard the gang’s valuables. No, not the books and stuff — this room used to be the bursar’s office, and has a vault under the floor that was formerly the wizards’ treasury. It’s still a treasury now; Agnes keeps all of the Gatekeepers’ money and valuables here. Feel free to randomly generate a treasure trove if your players want to rob them; heavy on the cash, light on art objects and magical items. (They have some of those things, but most of the time they sell them for more cash.)

3 — Ratikin’s quarters.

4 — Markewart’s quarters.

5 — Vacant.

6 — This is a hallway.

Note: Towers

Buildings 7 through 18 are wizard towers. Towers are traditional and look nice, even if you’re not doing the hermit thing. And yes, the wizards are named after the months; this is a calendar-themed project, so why not? I’ll include an image of the illustration that accompanies each month in the Luttrell Psalter, which I’m using as inspiration for what goes in each tower. Each is the same rough design, with a bed, a desk, and a bookshelf, so I’m not drawing each one; the map provided here applies to all of them. I’ll describe in each entry how that tower differs from the others.

The towers are fairly difficult to access, and the Gatekeepers have given up on trying to get in the conventional way. Each is just a long spiral staircase with a single room at the top, and the staircases are all heavily trapped with high-level magic. (If a party manages to disable the trap on a staircase, they will find that it has reset the next day; there seems to be a secondary enchantment that regularly checks for and repairs damage to the traps.) It seems unclear whether the wizards ever actually used the staircases at all, however; each one carried a magical keyring that allowed them to teleport to a few predefined locations, including their tower.⁵ Two of these keyrings are in Agnes’s possession, and the Gatekeepers have access to those towers. Two more are suspected to have been removed by previous adventurers. The locations of the remaining eight are unknown.

7 — Januaria’s Tower

There is a mace hanging on the wall that detects as strongly magical. This is Bifron, an intelligent weapon⁶. The furniture has, of course, fallen to pieces. Searching the bookshelf will reveal that most of the books here were focused on the creation of magical items; getting any useful information from the surviving scraps will be very difficult, however. Searching the remains of the desk will reveal Januaria’s keyring, once hung on a nail in the wall behind the desk, but long since fallen. There are 3 keys, linked to the following places: Januaria’s Tower, Januaria’s Laboratory, and a spot just inside the door of the Dining Hall.

8 — Februaria’s Tower

The Gatekeepers have access to this tower. The remnants of furniture have long since been cleared out and used for firewood; the scraps of books have gone to Markewart. In the center of the floor, what appears to be a large, tarnished copper basin is actually a permanent portal. One end is here in the basin, while the other slowly wanders at random through the subterranean sea beneath the lowest level of the laboratories.⁷ Februaria used this as basically a high-magic aquarium; the Gatekeepers use it as a fishing hole, and the party may find someone fishing in it if they visit. A few fishing rods lean against the wall. The portal is wide enough for a Medium creature to fit through easily, or a Large creature to fit through with some care. Hold your breath first; who knows how far underwater you’re going to be when you come out the other end.

9 — Martius’s Tower

The staircase up to the tower seems to have a number of bird skeletons on the steps. Upon reaching the top, you find that someone has already been here and stripped it of valuables; there’s nothing but ruined furniture and centuries’ worth of pigeon droppings. Against one wall, you will find the remnants of a ladder and a long-collapsed trapdoor into the area under the roof. Investigation of the attic access reveals that Martius built the top of his tower to function as a dovecote, with permanent enchantments to provide food, clean the roosts, and maintain the health of the birds that roosted there. It’s still inhabited by a huge flock of pigeons that come and go; since the trapdoor rotted and fell out of its place, they now have access to the room below. (Which, unlike the dovecote, has no cleaning enchantment.) The bird skeletons on the stairs are the result of some ill-fated exploration on their part; this isn’t a frequent occurrence, though, since there’s nothing in the staircase that might tempt a pigeon. If the players choose to search the dovecote, they may find a hidden compartment with a collection of faded and crumbling letters. Careful examination will reveal that they are of a romantic nature and signed by someone named “Maia”.

10 — Aprilius’s Tower

Notable is a large wall decoration, still hanging after all these years, over the remnants of the desk. It is wrought in gold, and looks like an oversized mask made to resemble some sort of cattle with impressive horns. Searching the bookshelf reveals a focus on magical applications to agriculture and animal husbandry. Many of the scraps are not written in proper scribal hand, and are probably Aprilius’s personal notes. They seem to be detailing plans for some sort of pastoral utopia with magically-created, chimeric livestock.

11 — Maia’s Tower

This room looks like it’s been recently inhabited; all the ruined furniture is gone, and a makeshift firepit in the center of the floor hints at what happened to it. The only surviving piece is a large, floor-to-ceiling metal birdcage against one wall, which seems to have been cleaned out and repurposed as a storage cabinet. In addition to various mundane tools and supplies, there’s a stack of surviving leaves of parchment from the bookshelf that used to be here — however, they don’t appear to have been magical texts, but instead some rather depressive poetry. The whole place gives the impression of a campsite that gradually became a permanent residence; the makeshift sleeping area doesn’t look like it’s been abandoned for long. You might want to leave in case they’re coming back.

12 — Junius’s Tower

The original furniture is intact here — anyone with a passing knowledge of spellcraft will quickly realize there’s an enchantment on it to keep it from weathering. It’s elaborately carved and well-constructed. The posts of the bed end in brass donkey heads for some reason. The desk is huge and serious-looking, with dozens of empty pigeonholes. The chair is sturdy but looks uncomfortable. This room is also suspiciously clean, and the various parchments and decaying books are missing. Careful searching indicates that someone is still living in this tower as well; better go, just to be safe.

13 — Julius’s Tower

Someone’s looted this place already. All that’s left is the remnants of furniture and a large pot against one wall. It probably used to be a potted plant, but now it’s just a pot full of dust. An extremely careful search will find a hidden compartment in the wall behind the pot that the original looters missed. Inside is a manual detailing how to create a clay golem. It's not in perfect condition -- the compartment was sealed pretty well, but it has been in there for centuries -- but it's sufficiently intact that any magic user with enough power to follow the instructions is likely to have enough knowledge to fill in the gaps.⁸

14 — Augusta’s Tower

There seems to be more ruined furniture in this one. In addition to the bed, desk, and bookshelf, there are remnants of a couple chairs and a table. Also, in the ruins of the bed, there is a human skeleton — the original occupant of this tower.⁹ The keyring is lying near the skeleton, and has 4 keys, linked to the following places: Augusta’s Tower, Augusta’s Laboratory, a spot between the Library and the Dining Hall, and a spot by the road outside of the closest town. Searching the bookshelf indicates that the previous resident of this tower practiced the Enchantment school in addition to their interest in creating hybrid creatures. You could probably learn a thing or two from the remaining leaves of parchment. There appears to be an elaborate abstract mosaic covering the floor, though it’s mostly obscured by bits of furniture. Searching through the furniture pieces will yield a number of valuable art objects and a silver jewelry box that contains a variety of particularly fine jewelry (use a random generator if you want specifics). The art objects are mostly sculptures of various monsters in precious materials,¹⁰ and each is worth a few thousand gold (if you want a specific value, just roll a d4 and multiply the result by 1000).

15 — Septembria’s Tower

In addition to the usual wrecked furniture, there is a stone altar against one wall. On the altar is a crown, a knife, a mask of reddish stone, and a small statue of a camel. Examining these objects and the carvings on the altar will allow those informed on such matters to deduce that this is an altar to the powerful devil Paimon. The remnants of books in the ruined bookshelf are mostly written in Infernal, and seem to have been detailed technical descriptions of the Nine Hells and how to harness infernal powers for one’s own ends.

16 — Octob’s Tower

The Gatekeepers have access to this tower, and have cleared everything out of it. The room is bare except for a faded mural painted on the walls. It appears to have once depicted a forest scene filled with colorful birds. If there's ever a major threat to the campus that seems beyond their ability to fight, the leadership of the Gatekeepers and a few chosen minions will retreat to this tower as a sort of bunker to wait it out.

17 — Novembria’s Tower

There’s something odd about the ruined furniture in this tower. Examining the pieces suggests that it was built for someone with a non-humanoid shape. The surviving leaves of parchment on the bookshelves appear to be from treatises on the finer points of polymorphing.

18 — December’s Tower

The ruined furniture here seems like it might have been particularly luxurious; the remaining pieces seem to be made from various exotic woods, and there seems to be more of it than in most other towers. Fallen from a mount on the wall is what appears to have once been a huge set of elk antlers. The remnants of books on the ruined bookshelf seem to be mostly about the nature of the divine.

19 — Entrance

No map for this one. It’s a simple, sturdy stone building with a heavily barred door, guarded at all times by members of the Gatekeepers. (Not only do they not want anyone getting in without paying, they don’t want anything down there getting out unexpectedly. When you come back up, you’ll have to knock to be let out.) When the door is opened, the only thing inside is a long spiral staircase leading into darkness.

1. Yes it’s “Luttrell” backwards with one of the “t”s replaced by a space, you’re very perceptive, hush. Names are hard without an established schema, and my usual pseudo-Tolkien approach to naming things (i.e. make a conlang and use it for names) is very time-consuming.

2. A “grotesque” is the technical term for all the weird hybrid creatures you see in marginalia; you may think this sounds oddly judgmental, but the insulting adjective derives from the art term, rather than the other way around. The term is used in architecture with pretty much the same meaning: technically, most things we think of as “gargoyles” are grotesques; a gargoyle is specifically a grotesque that functions as a water-spout.

3. Why twelve? Because the Luttrell Psalter starts with a calendar, and each month has a grotesque accompanying it, so I am Declaring that each one represents one of the wizards. Since we’re also doing twelve levels of the dungeon over twelve months, I feel like this fits; each level is the former laboratory and workspace of one of the wizards.

4. I’m using Pathfinder 1e terminology whenever relevant, by the way.

5.If you’re living in a tower and working in a subterranean laboratory, you get sick of stairs quickly.

6. Bifron has been dormant for centuries; if taken from its place on the wall, it awakens and demonstrates an ability to communicate telepathically. It will be surprised to learn how much time has passed, and would very much like to know what happened to its creator Januaria. (If asked, it will describe Januaria as being fairly down-to-earth for a wizard, but quick to resort to violence; physical description more or less approximates the Luttrell illustration.) Bifron seems to have been slightly damaged by the long time spent dormant; it is often confused, and not hugely reliable. Bifron functions as a +4 dancing heavy mace. It can supposedly cast charm monster 1/day, but its long dormancy has affected its ability to do so, and the spell fizzles 25% of the time. Alignment LN; Ego 13; Int 12, Wis 10, Cha 12.

7. Why doesn’t the water pressure make the basin overflow? Magic.

8. I.e., if your PCs are high enough level to actually do the requisite spellcasting, you should allow them to use the manual, so long as they take some time off to research the theories first.

9. If the party wants to try and speak with the dead wizard through any sort of magic, Augusta is (apparently) happy to communicate. If asked about her death or that of her colleagues, she claims not to know anything: according to her, she died in her sleep one night, and everyone else was still around at the time. Augusta has complete knowledge of the layout of the dungeon, but no knowledge of its current state, since her memories are a few centuries out of date. If the players are using speak with dead or any other effect limited to what the dead person knew in life, this is all technically accurate. If they're actually talking to Augusta's spirit directly, she's lying: she was assassinated by Junius. She knows this, because her vengeful ghost was able to trace the arcane "fingerprints" left from him getting a spell past her magical defenses. Acts of sabotage committed by said vengeful ghost were actually a major factor in this whole operation falling apart. If the players do end up having a genuine conversation with her spirit, Augusta should be played as disarmingly friendly, helpful, and prone to chatter. This is, of course, a facade. In life, Augusta was deeply corrupted by her own power. (Or maybe she was always like that, and that's why she wanted power in the first place.) She was charming, silver-tongued, and manipulative, and enjoyed screwing with "lesser people". This kind of thing is why one of her colleagues eventually hated her enough to plot her death. Her spirit moved on to the afterlife after the campus was abandoned the first time, but if the PCs call it back, she'll probably be quite interested in sticking around and treating the PCs (and, to a lesser extent, the other inhabitants of the complex) as her new playthings. Alignment LE; Int 20, Wis 16, Cha 18.

10. They include: a jade dragon, a silver pegasus decorated with small pearls, a carnelian owlbear, a cockatrice carved from petrified wood, a golden chimera, an opal sphinx, a peridot griffon, and some sort of strange insect encased in amber.

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