As a kid obsessed with roleplaying games, The Space Gamer ranked as my favorite magazine, and their articles where game designers analyzed their creations excited me the most. This article by Steve Jackson on The Fantasy Trip made such an impression that I’ve quoted it several times in my posts. My love of designer’s notes makes writing similar posts for my adventure designs irresistible. This brings me to Curse of Vecna, my second Dungeons & Dragon adventure available on the DMs Guild. This post spoils virtually everything in it.
I run weekly, open games at a local game store. One kid started with fourth edition’s D&D Encounters program, played at my table for years, grew up and went to college. During a return home, he asked to revisit old times with a new adventure for a favorite level-7 character. A night at the game store only gave me 2 hours to fill, just time for an unforgettable hook, a bit of roleplaying, and a showdown versus a boss monster.
For the hook, I remembered playing DDEX03-14 Death on the Wall by Greg Marks and its irresistible hook: Someone fleeing pursuit dumps a pack containing a message on the characters and then drops dead. The mystery behind the hook makes it so compelling. What’s the message and why did someone die to deliver it?
The best hooks include enigmas that raise the players‘ curiosity. I decided on an unexplained message, but instead of killing the messenger, I imagined a sympathetic child unable to read the note that could get him killed. So the adventure starts when 8-year-old Mika hands the party a note that reads, “I poisoned my parents. I am a very wicked boy and I should hang.”
This idea started my most productive creative activity, one called How can this be true? I needed to explain this note.
Some fey creatures relish mischief, so I searched for fey in D&D Beyond and sought something wicked enough to work such a cruel prank. I found the boggle, “the little bogeys of fairy tales,” who “hide under beds and in closets, waiting to frighten and bedevil folk with their mischief.” Better yet, a “child might unintentionally conjure a boggle and see it as a sort of imaginary friend.” Suddenly the note came from a boggle who Mika saw as a funny-looking friend. My roleplaying encounter would feature a meeting with the creature.
But Mika had a real problem with his parents, and since I wanted a good end, they could not actually be poisoned, only sleeping. The boggle turned my imagination to fairy tales, poisoned apples, and magic mirrors. The apple has been done, but what if a mirror captured the parents’ souls, leaving the players to rescue the spirits. I liked the idea, and decided to imagine the details after I found a villain.
For a foe, I turned to my own list of monsters by function and found a mastermind likely to challenge 7th-level characters. I selected the skull lord based on fond memories of battling them and because I fancied my skull lord miniature. This choice was a small misstep. At level 7, skull lords prove very dangerous. I underestimated the skull lord because I selected it while playing lots of D&D with tactical experts. During play, I dropped the creature’s legendary actions to even the match up.
So a skull lord used a magic mirror to capture the parents’ souls, but why? How could that be true? According to Monster Manual lore, skull lords suffered a curse from Vecna. What if this lord could lift its curse by trading places with three new victims? Such an exchange felt like it fit with magic and folklore. It explained why the skull lord might seek the two parents’ souls plus a third. In the final adventure, that third soul becomes Mika’s younger sister Affie.
For the two-hour version, the players met Mika, learned about the skull lord from the boggle, and then went beyond the magic mirror to face the skull lord and rescue the parents’ spirits. I liked the result well enough to plan a 4-hour version for part of a D&D weekend.
I decided to add 2 hours by expanding the skull lord’s lair to a complete dungeon. For this, I took inspiration from Curse of Strahd. In that adventure, the players gather magic items that give them enough of an edge to beat Strahd. In my expanded dungeon, players would learn enough secrets to give them the help they needed to destroy the skull lord. This scheme enabled me to keep the overpowered villain without requiring dramatically more powerful characters. The design also let me use one of five tricks for creating brilliant dungeon maps from Will Doyle. Check number 3, “Give players goals that compel them to explore.”
As I drew the dungeon, I consulted Will‘s five tricks, and sought to use more.
I interpreted number 2, “Show the final room first,” loosely by previewing the players‘ target. I added a way for the players to see the skull lord through the magic mirror before entering the dungeon.
For number 5, “Give each level a distinctive theme,” I imagined the dungeon that traps the parent’s souls as a dark reflection of the world on the other side of the mirror. I put that behind-the-mirror reflection on the Shadowfell and I aimed for a haunted feel. This echoes the upside down on Stranger Things, the show that put the name Vecna into the popular imagination.
For number 4, “Make the dungeon a puzzle,” I turned to my idea notebook of dungeon tricks and found one that fit the creepy tone. I had imagined a tyrant who had punished murdered rivals by wiring their corpses up like scarecrows as a demonstration of power and revenge. (I would later learn of a real-life ruler who did something similar.) In my idea, each corpse lacks an essential piece, like the mule’s head that once topped the body labeled as “willful.” As the party finds and returns the missing pieces, the dead tell secrets. To explain what makes the dead chatty, I again asked, “How can this be true?” The answer came from Vecna’s rival the Raven Queen. In death, all secrets belong to the Raven Queen, and she can arm the party with secrets that help win victory.
Not all the dungeon’s tricks come from one post. To Jaquays the dungeon, I added cave-ins and shafts connecting the two levels and the surface. Plus, I filled the rooms with interactive features and things to figure out.
To develop this adventure, I ran it four times, then playtesters helped me perfect it. Nine other DMs ran the adventure and shared their results. Their experience and feedback forged a better adventure than the one I drafted.
Curse of Vecna makes a great level 8-10 one shot and also works as a side-quest that fits easily into a campaign. So grab a copy for yourself or as a gift for your favorite dungeon master.