A new month brings with it new releases, and that means you may find yourself asking how you can use your latest purchase right away. This month, we delve into the horrifying mysteries of Lords of Madness: The Book of Aberrations. This D&D sourcebook is the latest in a series that includes the acclaimed titles of Draconomicon and Libris Mortis. This time around, the tome is organized a little differently. Since -- by their very nature -- aberrations don't have as much in common with one another as do dragons or undead, Lords of Madness presents "mini-sourcebooks" on each of six different races of aberration that pose significant threats to civilization, from the ancient aboleths to the starspawned tsochari (a new race of aberrations introduced in Chapter 7: The Wearers of Flesh, and if that chapter title isn't enough for you to flip to page 121, I don't know what it'd take).
Of course, the book also presents a host of new aberrations as well, some of which are related to existing creatures (such as the beholderkin) and others that are either brand new to the game or welcome reintroductions of monsters that have graced previous editions of D&D. Lest you think the whole book's just for the DM, I should point out that Lords of Madness wraps up with a 50-page chapter devoted to the aberration-hunting player characters, providing a wide range of feats, spells, prestige classes, organizations, magic items, and . . . shudder . . . grafts for your so-called heroes.
With such a wide range of topics, Lords of Madness can seem a bit imposing for the DM who wants to use it right away. Thankfully, the book includes several short adventures to use in your campaign, including a beholder cult headquarters and a crashed neogi starship. This column uses one of those sample adventures, and add some adventure hooks to get your group into the action as fast as possible and fleshing it out with a couple of new options presented in the book. As my personal favorite among the many aberrations, I've chosen the mind flayer as the featured representative for this column.
What You Need to Read
This encounter is pretty straightforward, but you will want to check out these sections to prep for the session.
- The Lair of Sarkt (pages 82-88).
- Read the monster description for the intellect devourer, which is found on page 202 of the Expanded Psionics Handbook. If you don't have this book, the adventure suggests that you substitute a spirit naga, but I recommend instead using one or more of the new illithidae (pages 154-156 of Lords of Madness); see The Adventure, below.
- Learn the rules for the resonance stone, a new magic item that appears in area 12 and is found on pages 69-70.
- If you make any replacements or additions as suggested in The Adventure, you'll want to review the relevant information before play begins.
- To add appropriate color to the final encounter, you may want to skim Chapter 4, particularly the sections entitled The Illithid Mind (page 63) and what may be my favorite paragraph header of all time, The Flow of Fresh Brains (page 74).
Sarkt, an outcast among mind flayers, has settled in a ruined temple once dedicated to Blibdoolpoolp, goddess of kuo-toa. Here, he has gathered a number of new thralls around him to help protect his lair from both the predations of surface adventurers as well as the retribution of his own people. All in all, it's a pretty straightforward lair.
As written, the adventure is best for 7th- or 8th-level characters, but with only a few simple changes it can be tweaked up or down a couple of levels. If you do this, remember to adjust treasure values accordingly to make sure that your PCs get a fair reward for the challenges they overcome. For a lower-level party, try the following changes:
- Reduce the number of intellect devourers in area 4 from two to one, or (if you don't have Expanded Psionics Handbook) replace the recommended spirit naga replacement with a chuul (CR 7).
- A party in need of assistance might be able to free Oristel from the charm that keeps him in thrall to Sarkt, which turns a deadly enemy into a powerful ally when heading into the final encounter.
- Unless you want some dead PCs, consider changing Sarkt from a mind flayer sorcerer to a mundane mind flayer (reducing him from CR 10 to CR 8).
On the other hand, if your party is particularly tough or large in number, try these changes:
- Start the adventure with a bang by placing a hungry roper at the corridor intersection outside the lair (which makes area 1 an EL 12 encounter).
- Double the number of kuo-toa present in any room (adding a second cleric to area 5). While the individual kuo-toa aren't really a challenge for high-level PCs, they may be able to keep the characters away from the clerics for an extra round or two.
- Throw in another tough thrall in area 7 (such as the half-black dragon fighter or ogre barbarian from the Monster Manual).
- To ensure that the final encounter is tough enough, give Sarkt a shield guardian to protect him from attackers.
Though the adventure represents a fine encounter with an iconic aberration, it doesn't use many of the new elements presented elsewhere in the book. Here are a few options that allow you to introduce your PCs to material either helpful or unsettling; use as few or as many as befits your interest and time.
- Replace the intellect devourers with a single embrac (CR 7) or a pack of four kigrids (EL 9). Both of these new monsters are found in Chapter 8.
- Replace Oristel with Jasper Ringlerock (page 219). Assuming he is rescued rather than simply slain, Jasper can introduce the PCs to the Darkrunner Guild, an organization of underground guides, spies, and explorers. This replacement increases the EL of the encounter from 6 to 8.
- Place an arcane scroll of detect aberration and invoke the cerulean sign (two spells useful against aberrations found in Chapter 9) among the scrolls in area 12.
- Replace Sarkt's wand of darkness with a wand of darkbolt (CL 4th; 8 charges), a new spell detailed on page 210. His ranged touch attack modifier is +12.
- Change Sarkt from an illithid sorcerer to an ulitharid -- a particularly nasty version of the mind flayer found on page 158. This increases the EL of the encounter from 10 to 12, but it means that Sarkt can't use any of the scrolls or wands that he possesses; consider replacing these with equivalent useful items (such as potions of invisibility, barkskin, cat's grace, and cure serious wounds).
If your PCs are already underground -- perhaps exploring some area of the Underdark, or pursuing a drow war party that recently attacked a surface town -- it's easy to drop this adventure into your game. Simply include the description of area 1 as the PCs trek through a dark tunnel and they'll likely be hooked.
Of course, not every band of adventurers spends all their time tromping around underground; you might actually have to convince them to head into the deep dark tunnels of the earth. Here are a few "excuses" (i.e., adventure hooks) that might bring the PCs to Sarkt's lair.
- A sage, wizard, or art collector seeks a piece of statuary or similar artwork from a kuo-toa shrine. She approaches the PCs with a very old map in hand that directs them to the shrine now occupied by Sarkt. Of course, she fully expects it to still be inhabited by kuo-toa, which likely means that the PCs' preparations don't ready them for this adventure in the least.
- The sister of Oristel (or whichever NPC you place in area 12) is looking for her missing brother. Last she heard, he was heading into the Underdark to check out rumors of drow activity in the area, but that was several weeks ago. She can direct the PCs to a particular tunnel network, which leads them to the ancient kuo-toa shrine after a couple days of travel. She also provides a clear description of her brother, including the gear he was last seen carrying.
- As either previous entries, but the interested party also warns the PCs that recent illithid activity has been suspected in the area of the shrine and tells them to be prepared for such an encounter. This individual is actually a thrall of a mind flayer from Sarkt's original community who seeks to use the PCs to either destroy Sarkt or flush the renegade out from his hiding place. A suspicious PC who succeeds on a DC 25 Sense Motive check can sense that the character's behavior is being influenced by an enchantment effect.
If the PCs defeat Sarkt and his thralls, they have made one small area of the Underdark safe for travelers once again. Of course, it probably won't be long until some other evil force inhabits this area, but that's a problem for someone else.
Should Oristel (or whoever you replace him with) be rescued rather than slain, he is greatly appreciative to the PCs. Upon return to the surface world, he cashes in some favors to present the PCs with a reward of 3,000 gp. If he believes he'd be welcome, he offers his services to the group as a loyal comrade (if his level is appropriate, he might even be able to serve as a cohort to a PC with Leadership). This character also provides an excellent way to introduce your PCs to one of the organizations detailed in Chapter 9. Oristel could easily belong to the Darkrunner Guild, or he might have a friend in the Society of the Sanctified Mind or the Topaz Order, two groups dedicated to battling aberrations. Any NPC rescued from Sarkt would be happy to provide a positive recommendation on behalf of the PCs to any of these groups.
As talented as the heroes may be, it's probably most likely that Sarkt escapes them, at least for now. With plane shift at its disposal, no illithid with a chance to flee sticks around to be killed. If you like, Sarkt can easily become a long-term foe for the adventurers. The mind flayer won't take this defeat lightly, and he uses his talents to find out exactly who cast him from his newfound lair. Once he learns more about his enemies, he sends charmed thralls after them. This plotline is particularly interesting if the PCs' original "employer" was also an illithid thrall, since the characters may unwittingly become pawns in a long-term struggle between rival mind flayers! All of a sudden, your characters are drawn into a web of aberrant intrigue, providing them with a great reason to explore some of the new feats, spells, and other options presented in Chapter 9 for battling the horrific creatures known as aberrations.
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About the Author
By day, Andy Collins works as an RPG developer in Wizards of the Coast R&D. His development credits include the Player's Handbook v.3.5, Races of Eberron, and Dungeon Master's Guide II. By night, however, he fights crime as a masked vigilante. Or does he?