This is a dungeon that I built with the help of The Gollicking. Specifically, u/Mimir-Ion and u/M0rdenkainen. They really helped me reach deep inside myself to find the seething hatred for my players that I needed to make this dungeon. They brainstormed the gates with me, and made this possible.
Beneath the island of Santini is a vault, containing the ancient evil known as "Nergal". In the lore of my setting, Nergal is an eldritch abomination; an avatar of malice who would consume all that lies within reality. Really though, you can put whatever you want within the vault. I'm going to proceed as though Nergal; Avatar of Malice is what lies within.
After the Shadar-Kai were purged from The Feywild, Queen Tatiana named eleven of her noblest Eladrin knights to pursue Nergal into The Material Plane.
Tatiana’s rainbow guard eventually cornered Nergal on the island of Santini, and imprisoned him within an inescapable vault. Unable to kill the spirit of malice, they devised a series of gates that would prevent any ally of primal chaos from entering the vault and freeing Nergal.
The Rainbow Guard swore vigilance over Nergal’s vault, and swore that their spirits would guard the vault until the end of days. They built the great city of Santini, and bound their descendants to that same oath. They built great temples to the volcano god, Kilauea, and prospered upon his slopes. As the march of millenia continued, the descendants of Tatiana’s Rainbow Guard forgot what lay beneath the ground they walked upon. Nergal became a bogeyman; a thing to scare little Elven children with. The Rainbow Guard, with their shimmering fey blades, were mythical guardians who watched over good little elves in their sleep.
When The Doom came to Santini, the truth of Nergal’s existence was pushed out of legend, and into chilling, cold reality. Firsthand reports from the children who survived The Doom of Santini describe a “malevolent shadow” sweeping across the island, dueling with the specters of knights who wielded rainbow blades.
Today, Santini is infamous for being a literal ghost city. The spirits of those who died during The Doom are trapped on the island; unable to move on to the Elven afterlife because a powerful, malevolent will holds them there. For two-thousand years, these souls have replayed the last days of their lives over and over. Through the ages, many heroes, clerics and wise folk have tried to ease the suffering of the spirits trapped upon Santini, but none have prevailed.
There are many journals and firsthand accounts of a dark cave near the base of Kilauea’s Western slope, from whence a great evil radiates. Though many brave souls have entered the cave, few have ever exited. Those that have “survived” the cave have described a chilling, all-consuming hatred that sought to strip them of everything.
Panther’s Note - This dungeon is specifically meant for groups who are heavy into role-play, and very heavily invested in their characters. Additionally, this dungeon should only be run with a group that you can trust to remain friends after the dungeon is complete. Seriously, an actual shouting match broke out at my table when I ran it. I strongly recommend that you stop to consider the impact that this dungeon will have upon your players before you run it.
The Vault of Malice is an exercise in the “Sunk Cost Fallacy”. It is also a test of their character. How much are your players willing to pay in order to end an undeniable evil? Are they truly righteous? Will they really sacrifice everything in the name of Good?
The Vault of Malice was originally intended to be an eternal prison for an eldritch abomination of hatred. I have no map for this dungeon, but you can think of it as a long tunnel with a series of magical archways or “gates”. To proceed through the tunnel, you have to awaken or “open” a gate with a specific sacrifice. Each gate will have a cryptic description of what it requires in order to be opened.
At the end of the tunnel is a big, heavy, metal box. Inside that room is Nergal.
If you go through a gate without “opening” it/awakening the magic, you will simply proceed through the tunnel until you come upon the same gate again. No amount of teleportation, aetherial walking, or other kind of crazy interdimensional bullcrap will allow you to proceed through the tunnel. The only way through is to open a gate and step through it.
Handwave whatever rules you like, to justify this to your players. Keep in mind that this vault was devised by The First Elves on the specific orders of The Summer Court. It is highly magical, and quite inescapable. There is no going backwards through the dungeon. The only way to leave the dungeon once you pass through the first gate is to exit through a “Gate of Mercy”, or via Wish. (I suppose, “The Lady of Pain” could help, if she exists in your setting).
The “gates” were originally intended to be tests of character that would prevent evil beings from being able to reach Nergal, and free him. However, over the course of several thousand years, Nergal’s evil will has warped the gates. Now, they exist solely to break the will of any who would approach the vault. The more chaos, suffering and pain that Nergal can cause within reality, the more powerful he becomes.
Each gate has a cryptic message written upon it, explaining what kind of sacrifice is required.
This message is instantly comprehended in whatever the native tongue of the reader is. The fun of this dungeon is not in the puzzle of “What will this gate do to me?” but rather “Oh God. How do we choose our sacrifices?”. If your players are less clever than mine, feel free to make the cryptic warnings more explicit.
Any condition or effect caused by the Vault of Malice should be regarded as permanent. In my setting, Nergal is an extension of the Titan of Chaos; his power supersedes The Gods. Not even a God can undo the effects of a gate.
If your players are the types to go camping in a dungeon, and they fall asleep while anywhere past the Gate of Wealth, then their minds will become infected with Nergal's evil will. They will roll their saves against Nergal's magical attacks and abilities at disadvantage.
Panther’s Note - According to my own lore, Wish channels the power of primordial creation. Wish can supersede anything; one instance of Wish can undo the effects of one gate effect… You may, of course, decide otherwise.
This dungeon is the most effective if your players are motivated by an altruistic desire, rather than a greedy one. “Stop the evil” rather than “Get the l00t”. However, feel free to populate the inner vault with all kinds of fancy loot. I recommend “Rainbow Blades”, which are “Sun Blades” that deal whatever type of damage the wielder chooses.
3 of my 4 players had personal reasons for venturing into The Vault to kill Nergal. I recommend you tailor the evil within The Vault to whatever would be most likely to motivate your players all the way through.
Finally, this dungeon is most chilling if you present the players with somebody who failed to reach the end. In my game, this was an elven paladin named Lord Brightblade.
Lord Percivale Milliardo Brightblade is a sun elf paladin, head of the Brightblade Clan, wielder of The Brightblade (an artifact sword of great renown), defender of orphans, war hero and all-around good guy. He is basically an elven version of Captain America. He has been a recurring NPC for the last 3 years, and he’s quite popular with my players (His adopted daughter, Tai’irri, is an NPC sidekick in the party).
Lord Brightblade heard of the players’ ambition to reach The Vault of Malice, and free the spirits of Santini. Over a hard glass of whiskey, Lord Brightblade gave a chilling, half-forgotten account of how he had failed to pass even the third gate, and he had lived with the shame of his wasted sacrifices ever since. He told the players that he spoken with a spirit, who said there were at least seven gates... My players took all of this under advisement, but ultimately decided to go for it. Lord Brightblade gave them what info he was able to recall, and begged Tai’irri not to go.
Panther’s Note - If you want to make this a little easier on your players, you can have a ghost standing outside of the tunnel. This ghost will be helpful, and give the players the names of each gate, so that they know a little about what to expect.
As the players approach the gates, they should notice that the walls of the stone tunnel are now polished, black glass (think The Vietnam Memorial). At first, the reflections will be “normal”. After each gate, the players should be able to see reflections of what they have just sacrificed. If your players attack the visions in any way, the mirrored walls should shatter easily. Each time a wall is attacked, 7 mirror-beasts should immediately attack your players. Scale this however you like; I recommend using Displacer Beast stats from the Monster Manual.
You are free to rearrange the gates into any order you choose; the order I have placed them is the order that I predicted would cause the most pain and suffering to MY players. I have included my players’ solution to each gate.
Quote: “Whosoever passes through this gate must make a sacrifice of their material wealth.”
Effect: This gate requires a sacrifice of gold. Specifically, gold. Anybody who walks through this gate will lose all of their gold. This means gold-plated stuff. Gold in their pockets. Non-liquid assets in another location, and any piles of gold that they left sitting outside of the tunnel. There is no cheating the gates; all of their gold will disappear out of existence once they walk through this gate.
My Players: The very first gate was oddly difficult for my players. They spent about 30 minutes testing the gate, to see what would happen. The Paladin, and the “ascetic-hippy” Bard had no issue with the gate. The Wizard deeply regretted that he hadn’t spent his money on more scrolls before going in. The cleric was a Cleric of the Forge, and he had plated his armor in gold. He was very bitter about losing his gold plating. They knew that this gate was coming, because Lord Brightblade warned them about it.
Quote: “Whosoever would open this gate must recite a great deed that they have accomplished.”
Effect: This gate will undo a past deed that a player performed. This may cause a significant chunk of your setting history to be rewritten, or simply, somebody else took care of the problem. DM may have discretion on whether or not a deed was great enough to open the gate. DM may have discretion on whether or not “lesser” deeds are also erased.
My Players: The Paladin undid that time he freed a captured princess by instigating a slave revolt in The Pirate Isles. Because this slave revolt was undone, the slaves of Chain Town were never set free. The historical rewrite became that, after waiting for her sister Empress Aquila to send official rescuers, Princess Lucia lost faith with The Holy Empire. She eventually freed herself, forswore her oath to The Imperial Navy and became a vicious Pirate Queen.
Quote: “Whosoever would open this gate must sacrifice their ego.”
Effect: This gate requires a sacrifice of the “lasting memory” of a character. After that character is dead, nobody will remember their deeds. They will exist vaguely in the minds of those that they loved, but there will be no clear memories of that person. History will completely forget them.
My Players: This gate confused my players for a while. They didn’t know what it meant to “sacrifice their ego”. Also, according to Lord Brightblade’s account, this should have been the Gate of Love. I allowed my players to make Insight, History and Arcana checks to determine what would happen to them if they sacrificed their ego. The Bard eventually made the sacrifice. In the mirrors after this, I showed him a vision of all his poems and songs being misattributed to other bards.
Quote: “Whosoever would open this gate must speak the name of someone cherished and beloved.”
Effect: This gate will irrevocably, and instantly, kill the person who is named.
My Players: This is where the dungeon got interesting. I placed the first Gate of Mercy near this gate. I also placed an elven skeleton, wearing exquisite Elven plate mail, propped up against the wall in this room. Important to note, death is permanent in my setting, short of Wish. After the use of some spells, my players made contact with this ghost; Lord Tristain Brightblade. The elder, and all-around better, brother of Percivale Brightblade. Tristain and his younger brother had entered the dungeon together, intent on freeing the suffering souls of Santini. Tristain had sacrificed his ego before the previous gate. The brothers had quarreled here, at the Gate of Love, and each refused to be the one to go forward. As their supply of water began to run low, Tristain finally prevailed. The elder BRightblade had refused to drink another drop, until Percivale was convinced to open the gate. Tristain there died in the tunnel, and due to the sacrifice of Ego, Percivale forgot him. This gate is where my players got into a shouting match. I had made a shortlist of all the characters that my players could name, that I would accept. Eventually, the Forge Cleric named his aged grandfather. THe gate opened, Tai’Irri and the Cleric gathered up Tristain’s bones into a Bag of Holding, and everyone proceeded through. ,
Quote: “Whosoever would open this gate must forswear the gift of the Gods of Life.”
Effect: This will sterilize a character. They will be incapable of siring/bearing children, unless Wish is involved.
My Players: This was a particularly malicious dig at my players. We’ve all been gaming together a long time, and they are all very invested in having “legacy characters”. Children or grandchildren of their previous characters. One player (The Bard) is on his 3rd generation. Another (The Cleric) is on his 2nd generation. Anywho, The Paladin opened this one. His character is literally the last of his order/house, who were sworn to end Nergal, and he thought it was fitting. The mirrors after this gate showed a series of children vanishing from existence. My players “realized” that this gate must be why Lord Percivale Brightblade adopted Tai’irri, rather than marry and sire his own natural heir. (That’s not really why, but it is now!)
Quote: “Whosoever would cross this gate must forswear their future success.”
Effect: Give each player a nat-1 chip. At DM’s discretion, use that nat-1 chip to turn a roll into a nat-1.
My Players: They figured this out very quickly, and accepted their nat-1 chips.
Quote: “Whosoever would open this gate may do so by speaking the name of an innocent person.”
Effect: Kill that innocent person.
My Players: The Bard had a “pet” parrot named Bo-Bo, who had been “awakened” by the Awaken spell, during an adventure several months ago. Since he had been awakened, Bo-Bo was technically a “person”. He had never lied, stolen, cheated or whatever. They killed Bo-Bo. This is the seventh gate, and it is the gate where Lord Percivale Brightblade gave up, and left through a Gate of Mercy.
Quote:“Whosoever would open this gate must make a sacrifice of their body.”
Effect: This gate will reset a character’s hitpoints to be the minimum they could have rolled.
My Players: My players misunderstood this gate. The Cleric cut off his ear, and said “I sacrifice my body.”. CON was his dump stat, and he was reset to ~27 health, at level 14. He got very angry, so the Bard tried Greater Restoration on him… I allowed it to work, since I didn’t want my player to literally storm out of the room in anger.
Quote: “Whosoever would open this gate must forswear the gift of the Gods of Death.”
Effect: The speaker will become unable to die… THIS IS BAD!
My Players: Near this gate, I left “a pancaked corpse of an uncertain race. The body seems more a pile of viscera and broken bones than a true set of remains”. Once my players started investigating the corpse, they discovered that it was still “alive”. The insane corpse told the players of how it gave up the right to die several centuries ago. His adventure companions, a bunch of sadists, had immediately begun to test the limits of this. He had lain here ever since, wishing for death. The Bard eagerly forswore the Gift of Death, since he had given up the ‘right’ to be remembered after his death.
Quote: “Whosoever would open this gate must make a sacrifice of their mind.”
Effect: Apply permanent madnesses as you see fit. If you use a sanity system in your games, apply sanity damage.
My Players: They lied to the “pancake corpse” and told him that they would find a way to kill him, if he would open this gate. The bard rolled a combined 27 on his persuasion check… So, the pancake corpse agreed, sacrificed what little sanity it had, and went absolutely crazy. The Pancake Corpse will probably be a villain next campaign.
Quote: “Your sacrifices are in vain. You have been judged, and found wanting. Turn back, and face what you have lost.”
Effect: Nothing. This gate is a liar, and it is a “stupid test” for your players.
My Players: They saw right through this.
Quote: “Whosoever passes through this gate will find release from the burden of knowledge.”
Effect: This gate will alter the memories of the characters, and spit them outside the dungeon. Their characters will feel absolute, crushing disappointment at the loss of everything. They will only recall that they were found unworthy, after offering their complete selves to the dungeon. Apply madnesses or sanity damage as your games see fit.
My Players: I don’t DM for bitches.
Panther’s Note - Place Gates of Mercy throughout the dungeon, to tempt your players into leaving if they want.
The Actual Vault is a HUGE, “metal” box with eldritch symbols upon it. The interior of the vault is 50ft x 50ft. There should be a few dozen corpses of failed adventurers in here, as well as a few crazed, undying zombie-like minions that serve the boss.
My Players: I had a miniboss just outside the vault. The former ruler of Santini, (Mad) King Rolan. He was completely lost to Nergal’s will, and attacked anyone who approached the vault. During the miniboss fight, I used the stats of the “Moonlight King” found in Kobold Press’s Tome of Beasts.
Because Rolan had passed through the Gate of Death, my players were literally unable to kill him. However, they were able to reason with him, and exorcise Nergal’s evil will from his mind. They gave him a spare weapon, and invited him to help them fight Nergal.
Nergal’s stats were the “Ghoul Emperor” from Tome of Beasts, combined with some abilities from “Star Spawn of Cthulhu” (also Tome of Beasts). Nergal had the star-spawn’s ability to disintegrate people, and rebound psychic damage.
During the second round of combat against Nergal, King Rolan failed a wisdom save, and became dominated by Nergal’s will again. This was a tough fight, but my players survived.