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Cruel Shadows
Roll vs Role
by Bruce R. Cordell and Chris Sims

For the DM . . .
Shadar-kai lurk in the gloom, maddened by pain, driven by desire, and linked perversely to death and nothingness. As a people, they aren't evil, but their morals lack a stripe of humanity more decent folk of the world might expect from one another. Within the shadar-kai culture, a sometimes-cruel meritocracy, contests of wit, skill, and combat prowess abound. The shadar-kai play these games among their own kind and with other mortal creatures, seeking peak experience above all other goals.

What if two competing factions of shadar-kai held power in differing sections of an adventure site? What if each side held goals in common with the PCs? Further, suppose each bloc had reasons for working with or against the PCs, as well as for not utterly destroying the competing party? Imagine still further that the goal held by both sides might be objectionable to good-hearted characters. How do the heroes come through the darkness on top, using all available options?

Tomb of Sahyeh

The Tomb of Sahyeh is rumored to lie undiscovered within the Gloomdeeps, a cavern complex connected to the Shadowfell and now inhabited by hostile humanoids. Sahyeh herself was a shadar-kai master of shadow magic and illusion. Her legend speaks of her passage into the service of the Raven Queen at the time of her death, perhaps even becoming one of the mighty sorrowsworn. Before her demise, she built a tomb -- a place that exists simultaneously in the worlds of mortals and of shadow -- to house her worldly remains. She left her greatest treasures within: a tome of her knowledge and the shadowy orb she carried to aid her dark workings. Whispers suggest that Sahyeh's skull also holds knowledge and power accessible to those loyal to the goddess of death and fate.

Adventure Hooks

A variety of reasons can lead the PCs toward the Tomb of Sahyeh.

1. Troglodytes have been raiding outlying farms and engaging in villainy along remote roadways from their home caverns in a region known as Gloomdeeps. Innocent folk have been killed, or they have been taken for slaves or sacrifices by the pitiless trogs. Recently, a captured troglodyte revealed that its tribe has been driven from ancestral tunnels by the nearby Bloodspear orc tribe. According to the trog, orcs and troglodytes largely ignored one another until the arrival of what the troglodyte calls "shadow people."

2. Gunnar, the reeve of the small village of Vaester, notified Lady Vaester, the local noble, that "two groups of strange folk have been seen abroad." The reeve describes these folk as pale humans dressed in dark clothing. They had many tattoos, scars, and piercings, as well as vicious-looking weapons and dark beasts. Natural shadows seemed to bend around them. They harmed no one, but they headed into the nearby hills, which are known to be home to the mysterious Gloomdeeps, which is a location that orcs and troglodytes frequent. Lady Vaester, a practical and proactive woman, wants these strangers tracked and their purpose uncovered. She wants no one stirring up the savages of the hills and Gloomdeeps.

3. During an earlier expedition, the PCs locate lore about Sahyeh and her tomb. Further investigation leads them to Vaester and the Gloomdeeps in the wilderness north of the town. Legwork within Vaester might uncover one or more other hooks.

Investigation

PCs can make Dungeoneering or History checks to learn more about the Gloomdeeps. Those who have Streetwise can canvas the locals for similar information.

DC 10: The Gloomdeeps are far enough away from Vaester that they're mostly fodder for scary stories told by the locals. Sure, the Bloodspear orcs of the nearby hills have been known to raid the roads north of the village, but the problem has always been sporadic. Fallen watchtowers from the old empire dot the hills near the road, and the Bloodspears use these and shallow caverns for shelter.

DC 15: Troglodytes live in a portion of the Gloomdeeps. They're seen in civilized territory even less often than the orcs. Recently, however, something has made them more aggressive and more likely to be seen on the surface.

DC 20: The Gloomdeeps get their name from the fact that the caverns are darker than should be natural, even near the surface. According to old tales, strange creatures have emerged from those caverns -- creatures of shadow and worse.

DC 25: Some believe the Gloomdeeps connect to the Shadowfell, and that the darkness of the Shadowfell, rather than water, carved the caverns. That belief is likely to be at least partially true, because Sahyeh, a shadar-kai sorceress with great shadow powers, built her tomb in the caverns long ago. There she interred her treasures with her body.

Shadar-Kai

A successful Arcana check can tell PCs more about shadar-kai, as detailed in the shadar-kai entry of the Monster Manual.

Gloomdeeps Encounters

When the PCs finally decide to go to the Gloomdeeps, they're likely to meet orcs, troglodytes, or other creatures before meeting shadar-kai. They might even meet shadar-kai fighting troglodytes or among themselves, divided along factional lines (see below).

Shadar-Kai
Shadar-kai within the Gloomdeeps fall into two factions -- one serving a shade witch named Yalda and another serving a shadow adept named Hutahn. These two factions are geographically separated in the caverns. They're competing to find connections to the Shadowfell within the Gloomdeeps, the Tomb of Sahyeh, and Sahyeh's skull and tome. The winner of the contest will receive promotion to a leadership position and other rewards in Telnyda, a distant shadar-kai town in the Shadowfell.

When constructing encounters, have the PCs meet Yalda loyalists before meeting Hutahn loyalists if you want to make it harder on the players. Yalda's followers are likely to give the characters a bad taste about shadar-kai that could have ramifications across the entire adventure. If you'd rather ensure some social encounters with shadar-kai, Hutahn's faction is the best first contact.

The factions have come to blows, especially through orc lackeys. That said, neither faction wants to eliminate the other shadar-kai, and neither leader wants to slay the other. They want to defeat one another at the task at hand, among other goals (see Important Characters).

Hutahn's Faction: Hutahn's shadar-kai are losing ground in the contest to find Sahyeh's tomb. Yalda has numerous orcs at her command, and Hutahn has only his loyal followers, a few dark creepers, and a pack of shadow hounds. At first, Hutahn's shadar-kai are indifferent to the PCs and wise enough to realize that they could use a few allies. Diplomacy is likely to make them more than willing to lead the characters to meet Hutahn.

Yalda's Faction: Yalda's shadar-kai are likely to be leaders among small squads of orcs. As part of the currently ascendant faction, they have little reason to negotiate with interlopers. They're unfriendly but willing to talk at least long enough to give the PCs a chance to leave. In response to Diplomacy or Intimidate, they might even reveal that they're part of a shadar-kai expedition searching this place. Exceptionally charming or menacing PCs, or characters that defeat an orc squad without slaying its shadar-kai leaders, can gain audience with Yalda herself. A beaten shadar-kai gladly trades the opportunity for an audience, or information about such a possibility, for his life. He won't reveal other information, except under duress, saying that Yalda can explain everything.

Orcs
Bloodspear orcs within the caverns have no interest in peaceable relations with the PCs. Only a shadar-kai among them or a token that proves an allegiance with Yalda is likely to prevent them from attacking intruders in the caverns. Defeated orcs respond best to Intimidate, and a particularly successful intimidator gets them to reveal Yalda is looking for something called the Tomb of Sahyeh.

Troglodytes
The troglodytes of the Gloomdeeps are universally hostile. Capture at their hands means one is bound for sacrifice.

Others
Creatures native to the Shadowfell have found their way into the Gloomdeeps. This includes creatures such as shadow hounds, spectral panthers, and shadow bats, as well as wraiths and a few other undead. A few aberrant creatures also live in the deeps, perhaps as an outgrowth of the connection to the Shadowfell or the depravity of the troglodytes.

Important Characters

The leaders of the shadar-kai factions are the most prominent characters in this scenario.

Hutahn
Hutahn is a matter-of-fact soldier who has seen a lot of battle in his life. He's competing with Yalda more for the excitement and to make the witch really earn her reward, rather than to gain anything for himself. He decided to oppose her on the spur of the moment, so he had less time to prepare and gain a footing in the Gloomdeeps.

With regard to the situation, Hutahn has a gamut of feelings. When it comes to monstrous creatures such as orcs, he's a cold killer. He has no qualms about killing orcs and troglodytes, but he prefers to merely wound Yalda's shadar-kai followers. Hutahn is Yalda's brother, and he doesn't want her killed, but he's willing to accept her death, if it occurs, as fate's hand in this affair. PCs who kill Yalda in fair combat needn't worry about Hutahn's retribution (unless you decide they should).

Social Encounters: Hutahn is friendly when the PCs come to him, unless the characters have killed his followers -- then he's unfriendly. Diplomacy is the best bet when dealing with him. He is frank, revealing most of the situation and answering most questions. The only facts he's coy about are his relationship to Yalda and why he's here to oppose her. He knows "sentimentality" might hinder good-hearted folk from seeing the "fun" in the little game he and Yalda are playing. He paints her as a cold woman who would abuse any power she acquires. Certainly, she can't be trusted to keep any bargains she makes with non–shadar-kai.

Friendly PCs receive an offer of alliance. If they report to Hutahn any information they gain about the tomb and the relics therein, as well as connections to the Shadowfell they find in the Gloomdeeps, Hutahn can focus on thwarting Yalda and her minions. He's willing to pay for Sahyeh's skull and tome if the PCs find them before he does. Hutahn doesn't know about Sahyeh's orb, but he might suggest new terms if the characters reveal they have it. A contest of skill or a duel might be in order. Only if the PCs break their word does Hutahn attack them after a bargain has been struck. He even allows them to keep Sahyeh's orb if they refuse to part with it through contest or payment.

If the PCs instead ally with Yalda, Hutahn's shadar-kai show them the same mercy they'd show Yalda's orcs. Only if the characters leave the Gloomdeeps with Sahyeh's relics does Hutahn seek to recover what should belong to the shadar-kai of Telnyda. He'll even rejoin his sister's side if necessary. Otherwise, a victory gained by Yalda through her use of the PCs is merely another instance of fate's hand in the matter.

Combat Encounters: If the PCs fail to impress Hutahn or if they otherwise trigger an armed conflict with him or his followers, it may seem that the shadows themselves draw their blades against the characters.

Patrollers (Level 6; 1,250 XP): Hutahn's faction contains two or more separate groups charged with patrolling the portion of the Gloomdeeps under their putative control. PCs might well meet a group of patrollers before they meet Hutahn.

  • 2 shadar-kai chainfighters (level 6 skirmisher)
  • 1 shadar-kai gloomblade (level 6 lurker)
  • 2 shadow hounds (level 6 skirmisher)

Shadow hounds attack first, trying their fearful baying attacks as a minor action, then flashing into melee to attempt a shadow ambush, each against the same PC. After the shadow hounds have acted, the chainfighters move in with their dance of death ability to shift up to 6 squares and make 3 spiked chain attacks as they move. While their enemies are distracted, the gloomblade strikes from concealment granted by its veil of shadows, and potentially blinds a target (using its gloomblade power). It continues to attack its blinded prey, hoping to sustain the blindness round after round.

These shadow creatures all have some limited ability to teleport short distances. While they can't get far or even appear in a noncontiguous space, they could take advantage of cavernous terrain. For instance, one fight with Hutahn's patrollers should occur within a wide hall or passage that contains a parallel balcony or passage 15 feet above the cavern floor. This is low enough to allow the shadar-kai to shadow jaunt to it; the shadow hounds could reach a shelf 35 feet above the floor. Such balconies or shelves could provide convenient escape routes should a fight with PCs go poorly.

Hutahn's Cadre (Level 9; 1,900 XP): The other group of Hutahn's faction PCs can meet is the group that contains and protects Hutahn himself. The shadar-kai warrior's personal bodyguard thinks little of sacrificing themselves to protect their leader.

  • Hutahn, shadar-kai warrior (level 8 elite soldier) 700 xp
  • 2 shadar-kai warriors (level 8 soldier) 350 xp each (700)
  • 1 dark one dark stalker (level 10 lurker)

Hutahn is elite, which provides him with +2 AC, +2 Defenses, and 100% more hit points than a regular shadar-kai warrior. He also can make three katar attacks with one standard melee attack instead of two.

During any encounter that PCs have with Hutahn, whether social or combat, Hutahn's dark stalker ally initially attempts to keep its presence hidden through a combination of Stealth and invisibility. If hostilities break out, the dark stalker uses its dark step to appear in the middle of a group of PCs, then releases its dark fog to plunge characters into darkness. It spends future rounds attempting to kill PCs that it can keep in the dark, or those it can attack from invisibility.

Hutahn and his two warriors wait for the dark stalker to act first so they can take advantage of the darkness created by its dark fog. While they can't see in total darkness either, they can attack any PCs caught outside the fog. If one restrains a target with its cage of gloom attack, the others attempt to focus their attacks on that target, assuming they do not have to risk opening themselves to free attacks from their adversaries.

A fight with Hutahn's cadre likely occurs in a cavernous chamber that he has controlled long enough to prepare features that provide tactical advantages to his cadre. Of those features, two are concealed 10-foot by 10-foot by 30-foot-deep pit traps on either end of the chamber. If pressed, or if convenient to do so, Hutahn's warriors may attack an adversary then shadow jaunt to the opposite side of one of these pits, hoping to lure characters to an unexpected fall.

Hutahn does not use his encounter shadow jaunt to lure PCs across a trap. Instead, if the situation seems dire for him, he begins his round with shadow jaunt to move to a prepared wall of the chamber and become insubstantial. He uses his standard action to move through a section of the stone wall (specially treated to allow an insubstantial creature to pass through as if it had phasing 1/day), which leads to a tunnel blocked off from the main chamber. This tunnel leads to other portions of Gloomdeeps and perhaps safety for Hutahn.

Yalda
A privileged witch among the shadar-kai, Yalda is used to getting her way. Despite a sense of entitlement, she's a capable and resourceful leader. She came to the Gloomdeeps of her own accord to fulfill the wishes of a more powerful shadar-kai in Telnyda. If her interfering brother hadn't chosen to make this quest hard on her, she believes she'd already be out of the Gloomdeeps with her prizes. Her biggest flaws lie in such conceit.

She believes she has the situation in hand. The Bloodspear orcs work for her after she defeated one of their prominent warchiefs, and they now hope to share in the spoils of this venture. To Yalda, they're simply meat shields. Yalda allows her own followers to do as they wish with regards to Hutahn's minions -- injury and death is the cost of their misplaced loyalty. She believes herself indifferent to Hutahn's doom as well, although she does nothing actively to bring him serious harm. The truth is that Yalda's rage and thirst for vengeance at the death of her older brother Hutahn would know no bounds, as PCs could discover.

Social Encounters: Yalda's arrogance leads her to believe she needs no help from worldly mortals in accomplishing her tasks. However, if the PCs are sharp enough to gain an audience with her, she's willing to use them to get what she wants. She is unfriendly when the characters first meet her, but she responds to Diplomacy.

An amiable interaction might lead her to offer an alliance to the PCs, but she lies about the whole situation if she can get away with it. Yalda paints Hutahn as a villain of the lowest order, indicating her pact with the Bloodspear orcs is one of mutual protection that has helped the tribe and will continue to elevate them above the "bestial" state typical to orcs. She creates terms much like those Hutahn offers, giving the PCs a token to get them past orc patrols, but she ultimately has no intention of keeping her word. She's even willing to use any attraction for her tattooed, pierced flesh displayed by PCs against them.

If allied PCs return to her with information, she pays but acts disappointed that the characters haven't accomplished more. In the case of Sahyeh's relics, Yalda reveals her true intentions, ordering a group of her orcs and shadar-kai to take the items from the heroes. Only a timely and extremely successful use of Intimidation can prevent such a battle. PCs can also use Intimidation if they defeat the first wave of Yalda's footsoldiers. The shade witch has no intention of dying in the Gloomdeeps, and she's willing to bargain if she thinks it might cost her life to further betray or reject the characters. This doesn't mean she's above tracking the PCs and attacking them later, and she may even attempt to get Hutahn's help.

Combat Encounter: Even if player characters initially placate Yalda and strike a bargain, it could prove ultimately impossible to avoid coming into conflict with the vengeful woman.

Yalda's Court (Level 8; 1,815 XP): Yalda commands perhaps a full hundred orcs. Of these, Yalda keeps most occupied searching for the items she seeks from Sahyeh's tomb, with each team led by one of her loyal shadar-kai. So far, they've failed her.

For her own protection, Yalda always keeps a "court" of orcs who've proved their loyalty to her by allowing themselves to be pierced and tattooed according to shadar-kai custom.

  • Yalda, shadar-kai witch (level 7 controller)
  • 2 orc bloodragers (level 7 elite brute)
  • 5 orc warriors (level 6 minion)

Even during a social encounter, Yalda's court never lets PCs get closer than 10 feet from their mistress. When combat begins, the orc bloodragers charge the PCs and spend their extra action points to make an extra attack each at the end of their charges. Each bloodrager does not yield ground and fights to the bloody end.

While her court keeps PCs occupied during the first round of combat, Yalda surrounds herself in deep shadow to gain concealment (and continues to sustain the effect every round with a minor action). She prefers to attack PCs at range to begin with, using her beshadowed mind power to shut down the ability of PCs with ranged powers of their own to effectively target the powers. If forced into melee, PCs find her ability to deal blackfire touches something to avoid.

Yalda's Court, Wave Two (Level 5; 1,100 XP): The thing about Yalda is that she is devious, and being devious, she expects a double cross. She always keeps a small force of loyal shadar-kai nearby that can respond within 2 rounds to any attack on her person.

  • 2 shadar-kai chainfighters (level 6 skirmisher)
  • 1 shadar-kai gloomblade (level 6 lurker)
  • 1 shadar-kai warrior (level 8 soldier)

Wave two shadow jaunts into the space from upper balconies if all other entrances are blocked.

Like Hutahn, Yalda's audience chamber has been under her control long enough for her to prepare the room's features to her court's tactical advantage. The main feature is a shrine to the Raven Queen Yalda has installed in the chamber, and Yalda stands as close to it as possible. The shrine has a terrain effect: It turns all bright light dim and dim light to darkness in a radius of 5 squares. In that same radius, all creatures not tattooed and pierced according to shadar-kai custom (and truth be told, secret ritual), take 1 point of necrotic damage each round.

Yalda attempts to bargain for her life, and failing that, flee using her shadow jaunt power to insubstantially escape to a subcave below her audience chamber.

Customization

The tomb and surrounding Gloomdeeps are mere hooks for you, the DM, to use. The shadar-kai factions, tomb, and treasures briefly mentioned here can be fleshed out and easily dropped into a dungeon of your own design. They can also be changed to your liking. The whole scenario is assumed to be for 6th-level characters.

Orcs and troglodytes of the Gloomdeeps are left vague so as to be less important than the shadar-kai. That fact also makes them easy to modify. Maybe the orcs have a displaced chieftain or shaman, creating a fourth faction in the Gloomdeeps. And what if the troglodytes are the only ones who know the way into Sahyeh's tomb? Maybe they unknowingly bear the only key. In any case, such a twist adds to the prominence of these otherwise background monsters.

3rd Edition
Although different from those in 4th Edition, shadar-kai appear in the 3rd Edition Fiend Folio on page 150. This scenario assumes the shadar-kai leaders are 5th- or 6th-level NPCs (Yalda is a sorcerer or shadowcaster (Tome of Magic 111), Hutahn is a rogue) in an adventure designed for 4th-level characters.

About the Authors

Chris Sims started out working for small d20 companies in 2003, then landed a freelance editor gig for Wizards RPG R&D. Wizards finally got annoyed enough by his constant applications to hire him as the Duel Masters editor in 2005. From there, Chris wheedled his way into RPG R&D as an editor, and finally became a story designer after masterminding a few choice assassinations. His credits include Monster Manual V, Secrets of Sarlona, Rules Compendium, and the Eberron Survival Guide (thanks, Logan!).

Bruce Cordell is a D&D designer, but during his twelve years in the game industry, he has dabbled in miniatures, board games, collectible card games, d20 games, and more. Bruce has over a sixty listed credits to his name, including the Expanded Psionics Handbook, Libris Mortis, and Expedition to Castle Ravenloft. His body of work also includes three published Forgotten Realms novels (Lady of Poison, Darkvision, and Stardeep), with more on the way.