|The fiendish Contessa Volto, masterfully painted by Chris Seaman.|
The Halloween issue of Dungeon features my latest adventure: a hellish dungeon crawl for 27th level characters entitled "Blades of the Stygian Masque". Originally conceived for Fourthcore fans, I decided to take a punt and pitch it to Wizards before writing. Given its lethality I was quite surprised they ran with it, and especially pleased that it sailed through without a great deal of mechanical change. In the twilight of the edition, it's great to see some experimentation occurring within the e-zines.
For those who don't know, Fourthcore puts the deadly back into 4th Edition, featuring truly lethal traps, cunning puzzles, and combats poised to punish poor tactics. I wanted to create a Fourthcore adventure that focused on combat over puzzles: in a sense, a "Tomb of Horrors" with deadly monsters instead of traps. 4th Edition does combat so well, so I wanted this to be my tribute to that.
My core mechanic was the hundred howling daggers: a set of flying blades spread throughout the dungeon, with each devilish "boss" carrying ten to twenty daggers. The PCs claim the daggers by slaying the bosses, enabling them to turn them against the others. Mechanically, each bound dagger adds one point of damage to every successful attack (whether ranged or melee). If assigned to a single party member - a striker, say - he or she can end up dealing an additional 80 damage per turn by the final boss encounter. The risk comes from that character then dying or falling unconscious - as this causes their daggers to fly wild, automatically dealing damage to every creature nearby until they're rebound. This created some beautifully desperate moments during playtesting, as PCs and enemies alike scrambled to bind the daggers before they eviscerated everyone on the battlefield.
Ultimately I ended up removing some of the deadlier Fourthcore elements, but I kept the daggers at the adventure's heart. I also put a lot of work into designing the opposition: giving them traits that split the party and keep the battlefield in flux. In the end I came to look upon "Blades of the Stygian Masque" as being more akin to one of the "Lair Assault" Encounter seasons, rather than a pure Fourthcore adventure. Hopefully I found a happy balance - but I'll let you be the judge of that!