Looking Over Dungeon Delve: Deceitful Descent


It's still just cover art

Premise

A diabolical cult has infiltrated a temple and proven too much for the local magistrate and militia to handle.


Good

The first and second ideas for expanding the adventure are decent in broad strokes, though the first especially would benefit from veering into political play instead of being a straight case of exterminating the remnants of the cult.


The stalwarts’ stat block does a good job of baking in their tactics (they want to flank, attack often [particularly by charging], and focus down one opponent at a time) by having a list of passive benefits for fighting in that way while keeping the active abilities simple (everything keys off of its basic attack).


I liked numerous minion cultists in Temple of the Zealots, and I like them here, too.


I like that Moore was willing to have the blue orb in area 1 be strictly decorative instead of forcing mechanical details on every bit of the tile art.


The suggestion to use recognizable people for the entombed victims of the ice cell trap is great.


Area 3’s encounter being about disrupting the ritual rather than simply fighting is great, and the ritual sidebar has awesome outcomes for both a successful and failed ritual.


Likewise, including a surrender/parley condition for the succubus is great.


Salvageable

Having the party just happen to approach the temple as the magistrate is about to be sacrificed is a lazy way of approaching this adventure. If the party was excluded from the magistrate’s investigation, someone should approach them to secure the temple for further investigation, if not to check out the temple on the magistrate’s behalf. Time and metagame permitting, the more interesting approach would be for the party to be the ones doing the investigation and concluding that they ought to check out the temple (there are plenty of inspirational references for this, from pulp literature like The Shadow Over Innsmouth to movies like Svaha: The Sixth Finger, to say nothing of other adventures like N1: Against the Cult of the Reptile God or Better Than Any Man).


I liked the implication from the area 1 boxed text that the temple was sunken (as the “roof partially blocks your view”), since it connects well with real-world spiritual underworlds (like the Abrahamic Hell) often being thought of as below the ground. As such, I’d recess the temple’s floor rather than raising it to feed further into that imagery.


The frost hounds’ ice spike ability feels very weird (inflicts damage over time [automatic hit, save ends] if an adjacent enemy makes an attack that doesn’t target the hound). I’d prefer giving the hound a bite attack instead with the same reaction conditions.


As usual, if the magic item on the mirror altar can be used by the deceiver behind the tapestry, the deceiver should be using it (though there is some counterargument in this case that the deceiver wouldn’t want to risk an offering intended for their patron by using it for self-defense).


The GM should feel free to use something other than “an innocent young woman” as the succubus’s disguise if a different look would be likely to have a stronger impact on the players.


The succubus is finally a better controller mechanically than the hexer from The Broken Tower, though using mind-control effects is often more frustrating for the players than limiting sight or movement are. Thus, I am putting this under “Salvageable” because there are many groups for whom the actual play experience of dealing with the succubus will not be enjoyable.


I like the bowl of blood taking damage for the cultists, but I think setting a limit to how much damage it can absorb or to how many times it can absorb attacks per round would be better than having an Insight check to tell the players how to deal with it.


Bad

The third idea for expanding the adventure is just throwing in another encounter and so is a bland, self-limited idea that doesn’t really expand the adventure.


The cultist minions having 16 Strength makes sense only from a gamist treadmill perspective where the imagined world scales together with the PCs’ levels.


There’s a typo in the area 1 brazier details (“a mnor[sic] action”).


The area 1 pillar details say they “occupy 1 square each”, but the tile art has them on gridline intersections with creatures in some adjacent squares, so it’s not clear which squares are supposed to be occupied.


The boxed text for area 2 mentions the fountain and statue separately (when they are a combined item on the map) and makes no mention of the gong (which is a key feature for proceeding).


The deceivers’ stat block has an abundance of finicky gimmicks, making them annoying for both the players (with their unlimited teleports after melee hits) and the GM (with different conditional +1-to-hit bonuses and needing to track who is an eligible target for infernal wrath).


The ice cell trap description does not mention how a body can be removed if the cell freezes over.


Rolling an Insight check to solve how to open the doors is bad puzzle design. Having a fairly low DC to force the doors open with either Thievery or Strength isn’t much better, though I will give some credit for saying that such approaches can work.


The Insight check boxed text for area 3 doesn’t provide much insight, as I’d expect the devils to be more intent on repelling intruders seeking to disrupt their ritual than on standing around “an innocent young human woman” who is presumably freezing to death in a frigid pool.


My personal dislike for kytons notwithstanding, the chain devil stat block feels bloated with multiple redundant abilities listed for different use conditions and with their hellish chains potentially being at odds with drawing victims close enough for the succubus to dominate.


Taking damage from a beard aura is all kinds of dumb, and the claw attack is a waste of space in the bearded devil’s stat block.


The icy bowl in area 3 is weird. I understand the link to Levistus, but it feels out-of-place for it to be nothing more than a minor obstacle. I assume it was included due to a lack of more sensible tiles in the set.


Overall

It’s hard to believe this adventure was written by the same person as Orc Stronghold because the two could not be more different in quality. While it has a fairly standard beginning, having a reasonable chance for the magistrate to either live or die in the first encounter is a great way to add a different dimension of tension to that situation, the ice cell traps are high point of multiple solid combinations of flavor and mechanics, and the third encounter is almost guaranteed to make players take notice when they realize the cultists are trying to complete their ritual instead of fighting back.


That said, there is certainly room for improvement. Aside from the “Salvageable” and “Bad” points mentioned above, the temple’s descriptions need far more flavor. How does area 1 seem to be dedicated to a benevolent deity, and how is that façade broken under closer inspection? What are the deeper areas of a temple dedicated to an archdevil really like? What are the tapestries and ornamental pieces depicting? Is the statue in area 2 really just a piece of superior cover, or does it have some actual link to the archdevil? What are the remains of the sacrifices in area 3 like? Is there really nothing behind the tapestry or in the bowls in area 3?


Tying in with greater context is fairly simple; just make the party be part of the investigation that uncovers the cult’s location on the front end, change Levistus to whatever other powerful being ruling over frigid wastelands makes sense, and play out the results of the ritual on the back end. I’d be inclined to replace the chain devils in area 3 as well, but that might just be my anti-kyton bias.


The succubus can be a skeevy thing to include, especially since the stalwart’s cry of “Mother!” in area 1 all but confirms a history of rape. If that would not be appropriate for a given group, changing the cry to something like “Master!” and replacing the succubus with an exalted sorcerer using the same stat block (perhaps reskinning the kiss as a fingertip tap on the target’s forehead) can clean the slate.


All in all, this is another one of the best adventures in the book. Being easy to expand upstream, presenting pretty good and varied design in the individual encounters, and providing obvious consequences to sort out no matter how it ends, it’s an all-around winner.

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