After recovery from their battles with the minotaurs, the explorers decided to continue delving and descended to the next level. After a brief discussion, they chose to climb down the shaft where Herrick died, rather than take the circular stairs they found near the room with the zombie t-rex and zombie artists.
They secured a rope to the base of one of the gargoyles and descended to the next level. They entered into a water-filled cavern and saw three giant gears beneath them. Upon each gear stood a pentagonal structure. They dangled above one overgrown with weeds and vines and dropped down into the room. Once down, they saw only two points of egress. They chose to investigate the southwest exit first.
This led them down a corridor with some viscous slime obstructing their path. They jumped over it and spotted a secret door, as well as writing on the ceiling that read “AWAKEN NAPAKA.” They recognized the name as the deceased queen in the small trap-filled crypt that almost killed them all and decided to investigate the secret door.
Behind the door, they found another slime-choked corridors, but managed to avoid it as they followed it to a set of spiral stairs that led up and a door that led out into the cavern. They confirmed the stairs were the ones they didn’t use on the prior level and went into the cavern. Stairs led to a pier to which two rowboats and a steel cage were tied. The door closed behind them. The door closed behind them and sprouted a pair of lips which shouted at them “FEED ME, SEYMOUR!” (it actually said “I’m so hungry I could eat you alive, but I’ll settle for somethin’ else. Somethin’ livin’. Somethin’ light!”) Sobek tossed one of his ever-present hunks of meat at the door, but it spat it out and attempted to snare the lizardfolk with its tongue*.
Having avoided being devoured by a door, Sobek and Kalvok entered the water to do some scouting. They chose to avoid the rowboat, having assumed they were trapped or cursed in some way. They saw some phosphorescent crabs scuttling about below the pier and Sobek gathered some up. They continued to swim around the cavern, finding the bottom of a waterfall (which they assumed was the one they encountered in an upper level) and spotting a slothful aboleth lounging at the bottom of the underground lake. It took no notice of them and they returned to the pier. Sobek fed the door a crab and they were allowed to reenter the stairwell.
They returned to the foliage-filled room and took the northwest path. Draconic frescos covered the walls, and more slime pooled on the floor, but they didn’t see anything of immediate import or danger. An exit led to the northwest led to a short corridor that took them to a control room of sorts. Reluctant to touch the controls for fear of flood the level with slime or unleashing some other form of hell upon themselves, they backtracked to the corridor with the secret door and explored the corridor beyond the words carved into the ceiling.
More slime pooled in the floor and they saw a curtain obscuring the eastern end of the hallway. They disposed of that and found a four-armed gargoyle statue. One of its arms was broken off and lay on the floor. After a few moments of investigation, they decided they didn’t have enough information about it to do anything productive, so they explored the western end of the hallway. Various relief carvings adorned the location and they found a jackal-headed carving holding a box that had a keyhole. They worked out the jade key they’d acquired earlier fit and found a secret crawlspace that led them behind the western wall. Some sort of large, stone, wheeled construct abutted the wall, but behind it, they found a shelf containing a lustrous, spiked ruby the size of a human fist. They absconded with the treasure and returned through the crawlspace to the hallway and then back to the control room.
A second examination of the controls gave them no further information, so they squeezed through the gaps between the pentagonal chambers on the gears and the connecting corridors and climbed along the gears on the outside**. Taking care, they climbed along the outside to the third, as-yet unexplored cog. Inside, they found an exit to the north barred with adamantine portcullis and an exit to the southeast. The pentagonal chamber itself had a couple puddles of slime and five wardrobes, each adorned with different art. Embedded in the wall above the portcullis were five red crystals shaped like drops of blood.
After a brief discussion, they decided to open the wardrobe with a carving of an ornate clock on the door. Beyond the door, they saw giant gears and cogs stretching as far as the could see and a spherical creature with splindly legs and small wings tumbled out. It flailed in confusion and tried to reenter the wardrobe to no avail. Thinking quickly, Sobek attacked it, destroying it and causing one of the red crystals to illuminate.
They knew then the would have to defeat something from each wardrobe to illuminate all the crystal and presumably lift the indestructible portcullis. Next, they chose the wardrobe carved with an army of orcs fighting hobgoblins. Many orcs spilled forth, but were quickly dealt with, illuminating a second crystal.
Third, they chose the wardrobe depicting ghouls gnawing on bones. Bright glowing balls of light appeared behind them. They dealt with the will-o’-wisps and contemplated which challenge to face next: whatever came forth from the wardrobe showing a night hag or the one showing twisted, screaming humanoid faces wrapped in chains…
So, I was convinced this level would cause my group no end of frustration. Their out-of-the box exploration made things much easier on me (and them). I think by the end of the next session, they’ll be ready to descend to the final level of the dungeon and I’m confident Tomb of Annihilation will be completed, one way or another, by the end of the year. After they’ve finished, I play to have a bit of a breather by play testing a couple of adventures I’m preparing for Gary Con: “Into the Wasteland” (a Fallout adventure using FFG’s Genesys system) and “The Eldritch Thing” (a D&D B/X adventure). Depending on how long wrapping up ToA takes, it’s possible we’ll be ready for the next campaign by the first session of January 2020.
* If I played this exactly the way it was written, Sobek would have been automatically eaten by the door, no to-hit roll needed, no saving throw granted. I do not like auto-hit, auto-effect traps like that. It’s an F-you to players that discourages experimentation. Plus, none of the boxed text actually mention that there are discarded crab shells strewn on the landing and stairs, which is an important clue to go along with the words the door says. It IS mentioned elsewhere in the text, but it’s a failure of editing that it’s not information included in the boxed text since it does mention everything else about the location, including the phosphorescent crabs IN the water, which they wouldn’t necessarily see from the top of the stairs… ugh.
** There is nothing I read that indicates this is not possible. The top of the rooms on the gears ARE open to the cavern and the included maps show a gap that characters should be able to squeeze through, assuming that detail is the same scale as the rest of the map. Whether or not the designers intended for this bit of outside-the-box thinking or not is irrelevant; I have no problem with it. Besides, with slippers of spider climbing, an immovable rod, and rope, there is absolutely nothing stopping them from simply climbing out of a room through the roof, so it doesn’t really matter.