We began Dwimmermount session 14 with Vale the wizard, Y'draneal the elven thief, and fighting men Ivor and Curteff standing before the Red Gates of the ancient, mountain fortress.
Working from a spreadsheet, I gave a quick recap of the various "quests" that had been dangled in front of "The Fabulous Five," including mention of those objectives completed by rival adventuring companies. For example, The Seekers had finally discovered the lost Dwimmerling cemetery, destroyed the degenerate dwarves guarding it, and clashed with evil spider-things. I think that this may have been one of the first times that it really began to sink in for my players that rival parties really can steal some of their thunder if they don't act swiftly and decisively to exploit every opportunity the megadungeon offers.
Not all of this news was bad, however. At least some of the talk from another group of explorers revealed that a previously sealed chamber was enchanted to transport its occupants to other levels of Dwimmermount, if only the proper key can be found.
They paused for a time to rip up some orichalcum plates, never discovering their purpose, but fortunately the noise attracted no wandering monsters.
Heading below they chose a fresh hallway more or less at random and soon came to a sealed door beyond which sighs, groans, and strange muttering could be heard. The notion of turning back never seemed to arise as blades, boots, and eventually magical fire were all employed until the door finally gave way.
Empty eye sockets flaring with hatred and the cold of the Abyss beyond the stars, two shriveled dead things lunged through the shattered portal, springing upon the hapless Ivor!
As they tore at Ivor, their blows wracked his very soul, and it was time for me to make a call again:
To level drain, or not to level drain?
As I've noted before, one of primary problems with level draining undead ISN'T that getting nailed by them sucks -- I like that quite a bit! -- it's that losing a level mid-scene breaks immersion while players reduce hit points, adjust saves, reduce attack bonuses, reduce spell slots, and groan over how many xp just vanished ... and with multiple undead in the mix, odds are pretty good that it will just happen again next round. Ugh.
Instead I just ruled that all damage dealt by draining undead resulted in permanent hit point reduction.
Bingo! No extra mechanics like "negative levels" added and no down time for recalculation ... just instant fear!
Slash and hew as they might, the party's mortal weapons were powerless to harm the evil dead; only Vale's Magic Missiles and Ray of Frost seemed to accomplish anything. As Ivor's once-impressive 30 hit point total dipped down to a mere 14, Curteff made a bold move: he grappled with the undead, pinning one against a wall and trusting his plate armor to ward off its deadly blows. The gambit worked and Vale was able to dispatch the creatures back to the Void before they could do more harm.
Spells depleted and Ivor a gibbering wreck, the party looted the once-sealed room that had held the undead, finding a cache of azoth-infused arrows and as much coin as they could easily carry.
Rather than delve any deeper, the party chose to run the gauntlet, racing past the shadows and back up to the Path of Mavors.
Since they were running headlong, I gathered up the dungeon map and had each player describe their route by turns. Aided by his elven eyes, Y'draneal, dashed ahead and escaped with unerring precision. Curteff made a wrong turn at the statue of Mavors and felt the chill bite of the pursuing shadows while Vale and Ivor fled the other direction.
By the session's end, the group was able to limp back to Muntburg; wealthier, but weakened from their harrowing experience.