Vicious Venues
Altar of Ghostly Wealth
By Skip and Penny Williams

An abandoned temple beckons adventurers with the promise of great riches -- if the PCs can figure out how to reach them.

Background for the DM

The altar of ghostly wealth was once the heart of a temple dedicated to an evil deity. It was so named because of the unusual method the priests used to safeguard their offertory implements. The temple's collection of chalices, salvers, censers, and other ritual objects was placed in safekeeping on the Ethereal Plane, using an effect similar to a permanent Leomund's secret chest spell, except that the priests could make the items visible to worshipers on the Prime Material Plane (see The Altar, below). When the items were on display, people could see them, but anyone who tried to touch or take the items would find his or her hands passing right through them.

The ruined temple containing the altar could be located just about anywhere, but placing it underground or in some secluded outdoor locale is best. If located underground, the temple simply can be part of a dungeon. If outdoors, the temple might be a lone ruin or part of a lost city. In any case, the temple's interior should be dark and forbidding. In a dungeon, achieving the right atmosphere is a snap, since dungeons always seem at least a little dark and scary. If outdoors, the temple might be overgrown with giant trees or leafy vines that cast the temple's interior into a cool, perpetual gloom.

The Setup

The PCs might learn about the altar through rumors of a ghostly treasure that can be seen, but not touched. Or they might receive a treasure map to the altar chamber, along with cryptic notes about a ghostly treasure.

Entering the Altar Chamber

The chamber containing the altar has one entrance: a pair of huge double doors.

The shadowed depths of a shallow alcove half conceal the titanic likeness of a leering face with demonic features and an obscenely long tongue. The image covers a pair of great bronze valves, each nearly as wide as a human is tall and twice as high. The metal's surface has become pitted and green with age, making the face seem diseased and ghastly. The seam between the two valves runs down the middle of the bas relief face like some horrible scar.

The frame around the massive doorway has been carved to resemble a writhing mass of biting vipers. Humanoid limbs and torsos are visible here and there in the mass of serpent bodies, as though struggling, futilely, to win free of the snakes' rapacious coils. The area has a parched and sour odor, like a kettle left to boil dry. Countless tiny bones and bone fragments crackle underfoot like dry autumn leaves.

The alcove is about 3 feet deep. The litter of bones in the alcove represents the leavings from some predator that once made its lair above there. At the DM's option, this creature could still be present (see Creatures, below).

Despite their fearsome look, the doors pose no threat. They're old, but harmless by themselves. A pressure plate on the floor triggers a set of counterweights that opens the doors whenever a weight of at least 100 pounds is placed in the alcove. A search of the alcove (DC 20) reveals the pressure plate, which looks just like a trap to any adventurer. A successful Disable Device check (DC 20) jams the plate but also jams the doors shut. An exceptionally successful Disable Device check (DC 30) allows a rogue or character with the stonecunning ability to surmise the plate's true function. In any case, the doors must be forced open unless the plate is depressed. In the latter case, the doors swing slowly inward with hardly a sound.

Bronze Doors: 2 in. thick; hardness 8; hp 40; AC 5; break DC 27 (when stuck).

Creatures (EL 2, 3, or 5): Some crafty hunter might lurk near the alcove -- perhaps a choker, ethereal marauder, or phase spider.

Choker: hp 16; see Monster Manual.

Ethereal Marauder: hp 11; see Monster Manual.

Phase Spider: hp 42; see Monster Manual.

Tactics: The alcove resident waits quietly in hiding until the PCs become preoccupied with the doors or with the pressure plate that activates them, then picks out a likely looking victim (preferably a character who has grown impatient or bored with the search) and attacks.

Beyond the Doors

The altar is only a short walk from the doors.

A draft of cool, dry air that bears the scent of dust and mold escapes as the great doors open. Beyond is a vast, dreary chamber with a vaulted ceiling. Cracked pillars stand in a double row like tired soldiers. Chunks of fallen masonry lie scattered all about. Here and there, a translucent globe, covered with centuries of grime, gives off a feeble light.

About a bowshot away, a cloak of shadows conceals a low mass of stone.

The ceiling is about 60 feet overhead, and the chamber is some 80 feet long and half that wide. The pillars form an aisle about 40 feet wide down the center, and there are two side aisles, each 20 feet wide. There are half a dozen pillars in each row, and about a third of them have iron sconces bearing lanterns of glass and iron. Inside each lantern burns a continual flame spell. An intact lantern is almost identical to an everburning torch (except that it looks like a lantern), but the glass in the lanterns is currently so dirty that each gives off only as much light as a candle.

The altar is on top of a dais at the far end of the chamber, flanked by four massive pillars that support a vault about 80 feet high.

A character with the stonecunning ability who makes a successful Search check (DC 15) can tell that the debris on the floor is from pillars and the ceiling. The stonework in here is sound, but some deterioration has occurred over the years.

The Altar

A short flight of steps leads up 3 or 4 feet to a raised platform bearing a massive slab of silver-white marble about waist high to a human and large enough for a human, or even an ogre, to recline on with some room to spare. A layer of dust and broken masonry covers the slab and the dais.

The base of the slab has the same serpent motif as the doorway into this place. A large area of chipped stone on the slab's front suggests that it once bore a sculpture in low relief, but it has been almost completely defaced, and the area bears some dark scorch marks.

Several humanoid skeletons and loose bones lie on the dais around slab.

The debris here has fallen from the ceiling, just as it has in the rest of the chamber.

The damage to the altar occurred years ago when members of a rival sect broke into the chamber and defaced it. They did considerable damage before the chamber's guardians (see the Creatures section, below) drove them off. The scorch marks came from a lightning bolt.

The skeletons are the remains of previous visitors to this chamber who fell afoul of the altar's guardians (see the Creatures section, below). A search through bones takes about 5 minutes, but a successful Search check (DC 10) reveals a skeletal hand still clutching a scrap of parchment. The parchment contains a rubbing of some archaic characters and a short passage written in Common. Any literate character can read the Common:

Eyes, ears, hands, feet
Work together their goals to meet.
Brain, nose, tongue, heart
Work alone to do their part.

The verse in the parchment is a partial translation of the rubbing, which contains cryptic instructions for accessing the altar's goodies. The rubbing is written in an archaic form of Common, and it can be read with a Decipher Script check (DC 30) or a comprehend languages spell. (If a map leads the PCs to this place, it might contain parts of the verse, or the full verse.) The full verse reads as follows:

Eyes, ears, hands, and feet
Work together their goals to meet.
Brain, nose, tongue, and heart
Work alone to do their part.
The body star provides the key.
Two pairs and one to open me.
But all efforts fail unless they start
From one place only, the depths of heart.

The party can examine the altar without too much risk; however, if the characters do anything to damage the altar, or if they touch the top of the altar, they trigger the trap that protects it.

A successful Search check (DC 20) on the damaged section in front of the altar reveals that the whole section is made of sliding panels, though no mechanism for operating them is evident. Both ends of the altar have sliding bronze panels that each bear the same leering face the PCs saw at the entrance to this chamber. They can slide together to form complete images or open up to split the images.

Examining the altar with see invisibilityor true seeing effects reveals an exquisite collection of altar plate and jeweled chalices resting atop the altar (these items are actually on the Ethereal Plane). It also reveals several gaunt humanoid figures looming over the collection and snarling at the viewer. A detect magic effect aimed at the altar reveals strong magic of the Transmutation school.

Accessing the Items: The cryptic message on the parchment means that accessing the treasure is a two-step process. The first step requires two people, each sliding the panels on one end of the altar. The panels must be brought together, then simultaneously moved apart. When accomplished correctly, this action opens the front of the altar to reveal a circle of twelve flat black stones -- like the face of a clock without numbers.

Touching these stones brings the altar's collection of ritual items out of storage on the Ethereal Plane. Position 12 on the "clock" is the uppermost stone. One person must simultaneously touch stones 6, 4, 8, 2, and 10. (The last two lines are meant to imply that the "body star" must point down.) A careful person can manage the trick by standing on her head and touching the stones with both knees, both hands, and her nose, chin, or tongue, but doing so requires some coordination (DC 15 Balance check). The items cannot be retrieved if the magic trap protecting the altar has been deactivated (because doing so also deactivates the magic that brings the items out of the Ethereal Plane).

Traps: The altar has been enspelled with two powerful magical effects. The first calls forth undead creatures to attack thieves and vandals. The second effect is not really a trap, but it serves to recall the ceremonial items that rest on the Ethereal Plane.

Undead Release Trap: CR 8; magic device; location/touch trigger; search DC 32; disable device DC 32.

Notes: A dozen undead creatures are held under the dais in permanent forcecage effects. When anything touches the top of the altar without first deactivating the trap, from one to four of these creatures are released to attack the intruder (see the Creatures section). The undead remain for up to 1 hour before returning to their cells. Undead also are released when anyone damages the altar or manipulates the secret "clock" at the front of the altar incorrectly.

The trap has a caster level of 13. A successful targeted dispel magic effect deactivates this trap, but it also prevents anyone from activating the altar and recovering the treasure stored on the Ethereal Plane during that time.

Creatures (EL variable): A cadre of incorporeal undead creatures guard the altar. As noted earlier, a dozen of these creatures are inside forcecage cells located beneath the dais where the altar rests. At the DM's option, one to four of these creatures might already be out and lurking near the altar (released by debris falling from the ceiling). In addition, each time the trap protecting the altar is triggered, one to four (also the DM's option) more creatures come forth whenever needed.

Shadows (12): hp 19 each; see Monster Manual.
Wraiths (12): hp 32 each; see Monster Manual.
Spectres (12): hp 45 each; see Monster Manual.

Tactics: When released, the creatures rise up out of the floor and attack anyone they find in the area. They tend to remain partially hidden in the floor, altar or dais, and gain three-quarters cover. If successfully turned, they sink into the floor and remain there until the effect wears off, then return to the fight. If reduced to 5 hit points or less, they return to their cells and do not leave (even if released again) until they recover all their lost hot points.

Treasure: The collection of altar items includes two jeweled chalices, two golden salvers, and a censer. Their values depend on what guards them:

Shadows: Chalices, 500 gp each; salvers, 100 gp each; censer, 1,400 gp.
Wraiths: Chalices, 900 gp each; salvers, 250 gp each; censer, 2,200 gp.
Spectres: Chalices, 1,200 gp each; salvers, 400 gp each; censer, 4,300 gp.

On the Ethereal Plane

Parties with access to the Ethereal Plane travel might simply go to the Ethereal Plane and try to seize the items. If they do so, they discover that the altar items are encased in a block of solid crystal, and four undead creatures (of the same type that guards the altar) defend the block.

The crystal block is 5 feet square. The characters can break it open or use a stone shape spell to break into it (a disintegrate spell would destroy the whole block and its contents). The PCs must burrow through about 3 1/2 feet (48 inches) of stone to reach the treasure at the center of the block

Crystal Block: 48 in. thick; hardness 8; hp 540; AC 5; break DC 50.

About the Authors

Skip Williams keeps busy with freelance projects for several different game companies and has been the Sage of Dragon Magazine since 1986. Skip is a co-designer of the D&D 3rd Edition game and the chief architect of the Monster Manual. When not devising swift and cruel deaths for player characters, Skip putters in his kitchen or garden (his borscht get rave reviews).

Penny Williams recently worked as a Senior Editor in the RPG R&D department at Wizards of the Coast. She currently spends time on various freelance projects.


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