Last April Fool's Day, we presented our Potion Miscibility article --a throwback to those earlier days when PCs often found themselves at the mercy of the capricious and curious whims of 1st edition. In part, 1st edition was also filled with all manner of cursed items: backbiting spears, sex-changing girdles, and loadstones which, once picked up, refused to ever be put back down. In that spirit, and fitting with the theme of April Fool's, we present one of the most celebrated cursed items of all time--an item made famous, not by the game's designers, but by the player community.
Legends abound of the famous hand and eye of Vecna, of their powers and evil. Curiously, legends also circulate of the mysterious head of Vecna--legends mostly filled with conjecture, with some claiming the head confers great powers on its host, and others that it's just a story to trick the gullible. What is the final truth of the matter?
The time has come to find out....
The Head of Vecna is a short (as befits the stature of the head) scenario for characters of levels 1-12, since you never can tell who you can trick into cutting off their own head. You might want a Monster Manual handy for the big fight (of course there's a big fight!). But that's all you'll really need, unless you're a neophyte dungeon master (in which case, I have this head you might be interested in...).
The original story of the head of Vecna can be read here. Thanks to Mark Steuer, for the inspiration for this adventure; please note, the history of the head of Vecna has been altered from Mark's original tale.
History of the Head of Vecna
In ages past, the great wizard Vecna became an archlich, ruling a great empire in the Sheldomar Valley of the Flanaess. At the height of the empire (because this is when all great kings are slain), he was betrayed by his lieutenant Kas. Kas later became a vampire, while Vecna returned as a deity. His left hand and eye were reputedly the only parts of his body that survived his betrayal, imbued with great powers. But rumors of other body parts persisted (see Die Vecna Die).
Several hundred years ago, a crafty bard was caught by the city guard of the Free City of Greyhawk and mistaken for a thief. Upon searching him, they found a mummified head among his possessions. To avoid charges of bodysnatching, the bard claimed it was the head of Vecna, a powerful artifact he'd found in a deep dungeon. Somehow this story gained currency, and the bard ended up starting a cult devoted to the head of Vecna. The leaders of the cult sought Vecna to empower the head, and the god did so out of pure amusement. No one in the cult, however, beheaded himself to take on the head of Vecna and its powers.
Eventually the head was lost (or so people thought), and stories of it have circulated ever since. In reality, the leaders of the cult had prepared a place for the head should the cult ever be destroyed. When this destruction was indeed imminent, they placed the head in a cave complex they'd discovered. Then they circulated stories of the head, injecting just enough truth--they thought--to enable a clever person to find the final resting place.
It has been centuries, however, and the true head has not yet surfaced....
The PCs search for the head of Vecna, for whatever reason. They are led by clues to a cave complex in the mountains north of Ket, where they battle past headless guardians and traps to reach the Chamber of the Head. There, they must choose a head and decide whether to attach it to a PC.
There are plenty of ways to get the PCs on a wild goose chase to find a head. Following are two.
Of course, this begs the question: Why send your PCs on a wild goose chase in the first place? The answer, we believe, is that you wouldn't--or, should do so only very, very rarely. Having them consistently chase after cursed items and false MacGuffins are sure ways to alienate your players.
That said, it may be that your players already know the legend of the head of Vecna, and at some point in the campaign, their characters will catch wind of its existence. Should they be interested in tracking down this infamous item, we present the following scenario to have in store.
Alternatively, your players might never have heard the legend. In which case, they might learn of it from a seemingly trustworthy source--only to discover that they've been hoodwinked by their new "friend." In such a way, you may be able to introduce such an NPC as a recurring foil to the party: a troublemaking or outright malicious bard, or other scoundrel who really does have useful information to provide for future game sessions (think of Izzy Moreno from Miami Vice, or Superman's Mister Mxyzptlk)--provided that the PCs, once burned, can trust him again... or somehow coax the truth out of him.
A Heady Tale
The PCs begin in a tavern or bar, where they probably spend a lot of time anyway. The bar is moderately crowded, and a bard plays at one end of the room. Above the bar there is a skeletal head mounted on a plaque. If it had flesh, it would be missing its left eye. The skeletal head somehow has a regal and powerful expression. If asked, the bartender claims that it's the head of Vecna, taken from when Vecna was a mortal. He spins a story about powerful adventurers that stopped by one night and told of finding the head in a cave, and how they fought a lich and many other undead to claim it (and other treasure). The adventurers were never after the head originally, and so gave it to the innkeeper.
The head radiates strong magic of all schools, but not overwhelming magic. This is due to a series of Nystul's magic aura spells that the adventurers put on the skull--which is actually that of a lich, just not of Vecna.
If questioned, the bard can relate that there are a lot of stories of the head of Vecna circulating, and that he has heard at least a dozen. He knows that this head is not the real head of Vecna, but that the real head does exist, and can recall its story from the background information, above. The bard also says that the stories all place the head of Vecna in different locations, but if you take all the stories together (as he has done), you can deduce that the head is in a cave complex somewhere in the Yatils Mountains. He can even back this up by showing how the stories each provide some of the details to the head's location (that part is left to you--;hey, you thought you'd have nothing creative to do here?).
"What's That in the Road, A Head?"
Map for this Adventure
The map for the tower was generated using Dungeon Tiles and the Dungeon Tile Mapper. To generate the map, paste this code into the Import New dialog of the Dungeon Tile Mapper, and then print the result.
(* bonus points if you can tell me where that quote came from)
The PCs are traveling from somewhere to somewhere else (as PCs are wont to do), when they come across a melee between humans and orcs. In the center of the melee is the object over which they are fighting: a skeletal head. It has a powerful and sneering expression on what's left of it, and radiates strong divination magic.
If left to themselves, the humans and orcs will fight until all of the orcs are dead and two humans remain. They these two will begin arguing over which one is going to attach the head to his body. If asked, they claim this is the famed head of Vecna, a powerful artifact left from ancient times when the god Vecna was a lich. They know the story in the history above, and believe that if one replaces one's own head with the head of Vecna, they will receive great power and knowledge from the god itself.
The head is not the real head of Vecna (there are, after all, a lot of fakes), but it has one property unique to all other false heads of Vecna: it can direct its owner to the site of the real head. Casting any divination spell on this fake head causes it to glow brightly with a blue flame. Then it levitates and points its eye sockets in the direction of the real head, as blue beams shoot out of the eyes to a range of 30 ft. The beams remain until the fake head reaches the location of the real head.
The Guardians of the Head (EL varies)
After a long, hard road filled with danger and random encounters (that DMs are free to concoct themselves), the PCs reach a small cave opening high up in the Yatils Mountains about 120 miles north of Ket. The opening is small, about 3 ft. across, and difficult to find because of brush growing in front of it. However, trackers can locate the tracks of small animals leading through the brush to the cave on a successful Survival check (DC 15). The cave can also be found on a successful Search check (DC 18).
the Cave Complex
The following conditions apply within this cave complex.
- It is completely dark (natural darkness) in all chambers except the final one.
- The first 20 ft. tunnel is natural stone and earth, and the remaining areas are worked stone.
- The temperature is a stable 55 degrees F.
Once the PCs squeeze inside, they enter a tunnel about 3 ft. wide and tall that goes 20 ft. into the mountainside before opening into a large hallway. The hallway is 20 ft. wide and filled with the ruins of fallen stone pillars. Looking back, the PCs can tell with a successful Survival check (DC 15) that the entrance was at one point completely filled in, but that in the years or centuries since then something dug the hole that they used to enter. The skeletons of a couple small animals are lying amongst the wreckage of the hall.
The walls of the hall were once covered with depictions of Vecna fighting Kas, his former lieutenant, and of Vecna's armies laying waste to towns and cities. However, this horrific artwork has felt the ages of neglect and damage, and scattered images can barely be made out anymore; it takes a successful Search check (DC 10), not a Spot check, to even notice that there are remnants of wall paintings at all.
The pillared hallway goes 40 ft. before opening up a little and passing the guardian statues. In alcoves in the second 40 ft. section of this hallway are four headless statues, two on either side of the hall. These are the guardians of the head, and activate as soon as something Medium-sized (that's right, a party of all Small creatures won't activate the guardians at all) gets to the middle of the first 40 ft. section of hallway.
Creatures: The headless statues wait until at least half of the detected creatures are between them, and then attack. They fight until destroyed.
- Character Levels 1-2: 3 Medium headless statues (EL 5, Medium animated object, Monster Manual p. 13)
- Character Levels 3-4: 4 Large headless statues (EL 7, Large animated object, Monster Manual p. 14)
- Character Levels 5-6: 4 Huge headless statues (EL 9, Huge animated object, Monster Manual p. 14)
- Character Levels 7-8: 4 headless flesh golems (EL 11, Monster Manual p. 135)
- Character Levels 9-10: 3 headless clay golems (EL 13, Monster Manual p. 134)
- Character Levels 11-12: 4 headless stone golems (EL 15, Monster Manual p. 136)
* All headless statues have blindsight 120 ft. instead of their usual vision modes.
Aftermath: The 10 ft. corridor beyond the headless statues leads past a series of traps to the Chamber of the Head (no, it's not a bathroom).
Here's Looking at You, Kid
This corridor holds several traps to deter intruders from reaching the final chamber. Here's a suitable opportunity to drop in a few of the traps presented in Dungeonscape that you might have been waiting to unleash upon your players, or a few traps of your own invention. In any case, four traps are presented for your use.
The Local Union of Dungeon-Keepers
The PCs might be the most recent visitors to these caves, but they surely aren't the first; and, the cultists originally building the caves certainly planned for multiple attempts by tomb robbers and other suspect adventurers (such as the PCs). Yet after so many years, who would remain to reset the traps and clean up the litter of bodies? Otyughs and gelatinous cubes only go so far...
That's where the local union of dungeon-keepers comes in. Befitting the less than solemn nature of the scenario, you might introduce the PCs to this dedicated group of professional gnomes, tasked with managing the cave complex.
These gnomes have done so for centuries, instructing the next generation in the care and upkeep of the caves. Occupying a series of worked tunnels hidden beneath and between the various traps, the gnomes only appear when a trap has been set off by "another damn fool adventurer." The gnomes' job is to then reset the trap and dispose of any corpses--so that they don't pile up at the bottom of a pit trap, for example, until the whole thing is clogged solid and rendered useless.
Yet the gnomes have grown complacent over the years, and may emerge too quickly after a trap has been sprung. In which case, the PCs may catch sight of them and negotiate for passage through the gnomes' private tunnels, past the following traps. If treated deferentially, the gnomes will display great pride in the traps, describing their workings in elaborate detail. They know nothing about the Chamber of the Head, however, except that they live in mortal fear of its resident vampire.
The Vecna Pit
Starting 30 ft. beyond the chamber of the guardians, the floor of the next 10 ft. section becomes a tiled section. The tiles are 2 ft. square, with rows and columns of five tiles. Each tile bears a letter in various languages; one set of letters is written in Common, and spells "Vecna" in a path from this side to the far side. In fact, all five of the paths (which do cross over one another) also spell "Vecna" in Draconic, Infernal, Giant, and Undercommon. This may bring back memories of the "Jehovah" trap in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade ("...but in Hebrew, Jehovah starts with an I"). This one works slightly differently...
Trap: Each of the first tiles is safely anchored to the corridor on this side, so stepping on them entails no risks. Stepping on any of the second tile triggers the trap. The second tiles are all stuck magically to the first, and stepping on any one triggers a dispel magic effect; this releases the second tile after someone steps off of it. Because the tiles are interwoven underneath to remain in place, once the second tile is released then all of the tiles (except the first row) fall into the spiked pit below.
Spiked Pit Trap: CR varies by APL; mechanical; location trigger; automatic reset after 10 minutes; DC 20 Reflex save avoids; pit depth 10 ft. per average character level (avg character level d6 damage); multiple targets (anyone on the pit); spikes (Atk +15 melee, 1d4 spikes per target for 1d4+2 damage each); Search DC 25; Disable DC 40 (for the actual mechanism) or 5 (for putting something across the tiles to walk on).
The corridor turns and goes down a set of stairs 20 ft. long. In the middle of the stairs is a portcullis trap, triggered by someone stepping on the bottom step. The portcullis drops and blocks the way out, but is otherwise harmless unless one is under it when it falls.
Portcullis Trap: CR 1; mechanical; location trigger; manual reset; Atk +10 melee (3d6); Search DC 20; Disable Device DC 20. Note: Damage applies only to those underneath the portcullis. Portcullis blocks passageway. Bars hardness 10, 30 hp each, portcullis Break DC 25.
Immediately beyond the stairs is a pit 20 ft. across, 10 ft wide, and 20 ft. deep. It is filled with acid (2d6 damage per round of exposure) for characters levels 1-9. For groups of average character level 10 or more, there is also an acid-born gelatinous cube beneath the surface of the acid.
Acid-born Gelatinous Cube: hp 54; Monster Manual p. 201; it is also immune to acid.
The next 20 ft. of corridor after the acid pit is clear, but the 20 ft. section after that waits a fire trap. It is activated when someone reaches the center of the section, and detonates a fireball-like effect covering the 20 ft. shown on the map. This trap goes off every time anyone crosses the center of the section, no matter which way they are going, so it is easily possible to affect the PCs multiple times.
Fireball-like Trap: CR 1/2 caster level + 1; magical; location trigger; automatic reset; spell (fireball 10 ft. radius, caster level equal to average party level, Reflex save DC 17 for half damage); Search DC 20; Disable Device DC 28.
The Chamber of the Head
At the end of the corridor, the PCs find a closed wooden door that has survived the ages surprisingly well (there are no age effects on the door). It is not locked. When they open it, present the following.
The cave ahead is dark, unnaturally so. Your light sources (or darkvision) don't penetrate more than a foot beyond the opening. The door leads to an arch carved in the rock, and runes crawl (literally) up and down the arch.
When you enter, torches magically flare to life and disperse the darkness. You see a chamber some 30 ft. across that has been carved smooth by amateurish hands over the centuries. Torches line the walls, giving off bright light with a faintly greenish tinge. Before you is a table, and on it are several small pedestals. Each holds a head, which stare at you lifelessly with their one eye. From out of the wall, a pale gnome walks smoothly toward you, gazing with a hunger that is barely restrained.
"You have reached the chamber of the head of Vecna. One of these is the true head, and the others are not. The choice is up to you."
The pale gnome is a vampire that has taken the name of Kas, although he is obviously not the true Kas of legend--and of course looks nothing at all like the images the PCs may have discovered earlier in the cave complex. As a sick joke, this vampire has been bound here to "preside" over the choosing of the head by whoever makes it this far (he does, however, believe that he truly is Kas). Each person can choose only one head; once a given person has chosen one head, they cannot physically touch any of the others. The task here is simple: choose a head and attach it to a living person to see what happens (refer to the table below).
The vampire will not interfere with the PCs while they make their examination. However, Kas has not eaten in centuries and is mad with hunger. Thus, there is a small opening to get some information from him. Kas is not supposed to say anything about any of the heads, but he is so hungry that if a PC offers to let him feed, they can negotiate some piece of information about the heads. That's right, if the PC allows a vampire to feed for two rounds (2d4 points of permanent Constitution drain), he or she can get a clue to a fake artifact. If they earn a clue, use the table below to tell them something about which head might be better to choose (where "better" could mean "more powerful" or "more interesting to the DM").
All the heads of Vecna radiate overwhelming magic of all schools, thanks to a number of Nystul's magic aura spells cast at very high level. As they are part of the "artifact," use of dispel magic has limited value in weeding out which head is which.
How to Get a Head
Depending on your goals for this adventure, attaching the head of Vecna minimally requires that the willing (or perhaps unwilling) PC lose his or her own head, and then take on the chosen head of Vecna as a replacement. Cutting off a PC's head kills him or her instantly, unless some magic is used to preserve life (note, delay death will not prevent death in this case). The usual procedure would be to cut off a PC's head, attach the head of Vecna, and then case raise dead.
The theoretic problem with this straightforward procedure is this: who comes back to the body when raise dead is cast? Is it the PC, or the original owner of the head? If you believe it should be the PC, then the procedure works. If you believe that the original owner of the head would return, then the whole procedure fails because the head's owner has been dead too long--however, resurrection would succeed, but in that case a wizard of at least 15th level takes possession of the PC's body. (This could then spawn an interesting quest to get the PC's body back and reattach the original head.)
For lower-level parties, you may wish to forgo the need to cast raise dead, and instead allow that attaching one of the following heads automatically raises the character... albeit with unknown new side effects depending on which head they have selected.
And all of that depends on whether or not you wish for the heads of Vecna to have any effect whatsoever! They may all simply be part of an elaborate ruse, resulting in nothing more than a decapitated PC (or two, or three). Alternatively, the head of Vecna may actually be a potent artifact, whose exact effects remain to be determined by you, the DM, depending on the current needs and power level of your campaign (this scenario assumes that it is not the actual head, but again, that's entirely for you to decide). Or, as continued below, the head of Vecna may be real enough... but not quite as superior as legends would indicate. A PC might gain the head (or at least a head), but with unexpected results, six of which are presented in the following table.
Table: Heads of Vecna
If a PC examines one of the heads, or actually attempts to graft it onto themselves (or another PC), roll on the table below to determine which head of Vecna the PC has chosen. Each head only appears once, so re-roll for repeated results. If the PCs have a clue from Kas, they can select a specific head. All of these assume that when the head is attached to a PC, the PC will be the controlling personality.
You might wish to expand the number of heads, and the following table accordingly, including the addition of random humanoid and monstrous heads.
1 This head radiates magic, but has no magical powers. If a PC puts this head in place of his or her own, nothing happens... except that the PC dies.
2 This head is imbued with a powerful magic. When its owner enters combat, the head spins slowly, granting all-around vision (the owner cannot be flanked or surprised). This lasts for two rounds. Then the head spins faster and faster, causing the owner to make a Concentration check (DC 15) to perform any action (DC 15 + spell level for spellcasting). This lasts for two rounds. After that, the head spins so fast that the owner becomes dizzy and incapacitated, and falls prone. It takes 10 minutes to recover from this state. The PC loses 2 points of Dexterity, which can be restored only if the head is removed.
3 This head is a talking head, spouting useless political opinions and other information at all times. The owner must make a Concentration check (DC 20) to take control of the head to do anything else, including speaking, spellcasting, fighting, or even eating. The head allows its owner to sleep on a normal schedule, but when awake it continues to speak. The head is remarkably well informed on historical matters (Knowledge [History] +25) and local matters (Knowledge [local] +20), but knows very little about anything else. The PC loses 2 points of Wisdom, which can be restored only if the head is removed.
4 This head has been imbued with the power of "rose colored glasses." The PC sees whatever he or she wants to see, regardless of whether it is real or not. The only way to bypass this vision is true seeing. The PC loses 2 points of Charisma, which can be restored only if the head is removed.
5 When successfully attached, this head randomly switches itself with another living head attached to a body within sight range. Thus, the original PC ends up with a completely different head. Each victim retains his or her own personality. Once each day, about the same time, the head of Vecna randomly switches with yet another head within sight. No harm is done to anyone in this switching process, except for the mental shock of having a different head. The head never returns to someone it has switched with in the past. Everyone who receives the head of Vecna loses 2 points of Intelligence that can only be restored with a wish or miracle spell once the head has moved on.
6 This head grants its owner a spell-like ability usable twice per day. The spell-like ability is randomly chosen from the list of sorcerer/wizard spells in the Player's Handbook levels 1-6 (roll 1d6 for level, then randomly select a spell of that level). This ability changes at the start of each day, and the owner knows what the spell-like ability will be when he or she awakens each morning. Both uses must be used by midnight or are lost. The PC loses 2 points of Constitution, which can be restored only if the head is removed.
If any of the heads are taken from the room, Kas is freed of the magic that binds him here. In that case, he attacks the PCs immediately, and tries to drain two rounds worth of blood in total. Then he flees.
- Character levels 1-9: Sample Vampire: hp 32, Monster Manual p. 250.
- Character levels 10+: Sample Elite Vampire: hp 90, Monster Manual p. 251.
Ending the Adventure
Once the PCs are done in the Chamber of the Head, the adventure is over... very nearly. Just as Kas is slain or flees, he activates a final failsafe device that he carries, which sets off the destruction of the cave system. Whether starting to fill with water, fire, or earthquake-dislodged rocks, the Chamber of the Head is the first area to be destroyed. Destruction then chases the PCs all the way back out the caves, where they must quickly get past the traps they initially bypassed (crossing the pits, raising the portcullis, etc.).
Along the way, if they haven't previously encountered the dungeon-keepers, they'll also notice a mysterious exodus of panicked gnomes fleeing ahead of them.
About the Author
Robert Wiese has been playing D&D since 1978 after he watched a game played in the car on the way home from Boy Scouts. He was fascinated, and delved into this strange world of dragons and magic and sourcebooks. Years later, he was hired to edit tournaments for the RPGA Network, and from there progressed to running the network after his boss was assassinated in the great Christmas purge of 1996. Times were tough, but he persevered and brought the RPGA into a shining new era. Eventually he met a girl who liked to play D&D too, and he left Renton for the warmth and casinos of Reno, Nevada. Now, he works in the Pharmacology department of UNR studying mouse foot muscles and the effects of RF emissions on same. He spends as much time as possible with his wife Rhonda and year-old son Owen.