The Heretics' Necropolis

Round 3: Design an encounter

RPG Superstar 2014 Top 16, RPG Superstar 2013 Top 16 , Marathon Voter Season 6, Dedicated Voter Season 7, Dedicated Voter Season 8, Star Voter Season 9 aka RainyDayNinja

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The Heretics' Necropolis
In the final days of the Chelaxian civil war, the agents of House Thrune dumped the bodies of their fallen enemies into mass graves in this field. When Thrune secured its power, it continued to be used as a potter's field, for those deceased who were deemed insufficiently devoted to their Hellish masters to merit burial in the main cemetery alongside the faithful of Asmodeus. However in such a cosmopolitan city, especially under the lax rule of Mayor Jilia Bainulus, what was meant to be a censure eventually became a sacred final refuge for freethinkers who bristled under Infernal rule.

Some wealthy citizens built mausoleums for their families, even disinterring long-dead ancestors to be moved there, where altars to forbidden gods are kept behind closed doors and away from the prying eyes of the Inquisitors. These tombs often serve as secret meeting houses of underground cults to the gods of chaos, and are popular with visiting sailors who wish to make supplications to Desna or Besmara before they take to the open sea again. Just as frequently, however, they serve as laboratories of dark magic that even the devil-worshipers find abhorrent. It is generally considered polite to ignore other mourners, in case they are Hellknight spies in disguise, or necromancers looking for a fresher corpse.

One crypt in particular looms over the Necropolis in reputation, if not in size. The Bernigot family always secretly honored Calistria in recognition of their elven ancestry, however rumors emerged that their recently-deceased patriarch, Tremol Bernigot, turned his pleasure-seeking toward more gruesome hungers of the flesh. The wizard was said to dabble in necromancy and worship Urgathoa, and though a sudden illness ended his life, most in-the-know citizens were not half as scared of him in life as they are in death. In the wake of his passing, they wait with trepidation to see what horrors might emerge from his tomb.

Guarding the Gluttons (CR 6)
The howling wind has driven away any sleepless mourners or midnight trysts, leaving the Necropolis empty of any movement besides the bucking of a few scattered trees, whose scraggly limbs seem to clutch at the air. Gravestones adorned with a dozen different holy symbols spread out across the field, bathed in a bone-white light from the stars and quarter moon in the clear sky. The ornate stonework chimeras of the Bernigot mausoleum stare into the night with grotesque expressions, hinting at the monstrosities inside.

The rumors of Tremol's interest in undeath are true; later in life, he turned his devotion to the Pallid Princess, and began pursuing the study of necromancy. However his health failed him, and he died before he could secure his future as an eternal devotee of Urgathoa. A ghoul ally of his, a cleric of Urgathoa named Vergison, now seeks to animate his body into undeath and restore its power through a gruesome ritual.

The ghoul stares out from under its heavy hood and cloak, turning against the wind. "This should be easy money for you," he says. "You only have to guard the tomb for the next half hour or so; once the ritual is complete, Bernigot will be more than capable of defending himself." He reaches inside his pocket and produces a smooth wand of bone. "This will help you remain vigilant in the dark. You can keep it when you are finished; its power is beneath us." With a sneer, Vergison turns and retreats into the candle-lit maw of the mausoleum.

The PCs are tasked with guarding the mausoleum during the ritual (as followers of Urgathoa themselves, or simply mercenaries with no moral compass). Vergison provides them with a wand of perceive cues (Advanced Player's Guide 235) (CL 3rd, 12 charges) to assist in keeping watch. Strong winds (Core Rulebook 439) extinguish any mundane flames and impose a –2 penalty on all Perception checks, and the area is in dim light. The ritual takes 15 minutes to complete.

The doors to the mausoleum are slow to move, and require a full-round action to open. There is no lock, however the door handles allow the PCs to supply their own chain and lock if they wish. If they choose to search the perimeter, they find no windows on the crypt, and no obvious sign of structural weakness. A DC 15 Knowledge (engineering) check confirms that the building has not been tampered with, and that there is no indication of tunneling beneath it. The other mausoleums in the area are both sealed (DC 28 Strength check or DC 25 Disable Device check to open), and contain nothing of note besides 150 gp in jewelry in each.

Creatures: Two grymps received word of the rumors surrounding Tremol and chose to investigate the mausoleum. Ten minutes after the ritual begins, they arrive and begin to scout out the tomb. They use Stealth (Perception DC 26 to detect) to hide among the gravestones as they search for the best avenue of approach. Hiding from the grymps requires a DC 18 Stealth check. When they finish a circuit around the mausoleum (taking 2 minutes, which leaves 30 rounds before the ritual is complete), they identify the best opening to use Stealth to slip past the PCs, and use their meld into stone spell-like ability to pass through the wall; if discovered, they ignore the PCs and rush to get through the wall.

Grymps (2) CR 6
XP 1,200 each
hp 33 each (R2)

Once inside, the grymps begin slaughtering the human acolytes of Urgathoa to attempt to disrupt the ritual; between the two of them, they can kill one acolyte per round. When slain, an acolyte’s cries can be heard clearly by the PCs outside. Because they were willing sacrifices, they make no move to defend themselves, and their deaths do not interfere with the ritual. Once the acolytes are slain, the grymps move on to Vergison (flat-footed AC 16, hp 45, Fort save +6), who focuses all of his attention on completing the ritual. Vergison does not need to make concentration checks to maintain the ritual, but cannot move or take any actions. If Vergison is killed, the ritual abruptly ends with no effect. If he completes the ritual, any remaining acolytes are killed instantly.

The grymps rely on their spell resistance to protect them from magical attacks by the PCs, but if they are challenged with physical attacks, they retaliate and use their vanish spell-like ability to gain sneak attack damage; when these abilities are used up, they take to the air and refocus on Vergison and the acolytes with their bows (the ceiling is 15 feet high). The grymps are wholly dedicated to their cause, and fight to the death rather than flee or surrender.

Hazards: The necromantic energy of the ritual has partially animated the remains of many long-dead Bernigot ancestors in their burial niches. Anyone entering a square in location A is subject to a grapple maneuver by their mindlessly grasping hands (CMB +2, CMD 12). In addition to a combat maneuver check or Escape Artist check, creatures can break the grapple against themselves or an adjacent ally with a sunder attempt against the arms (hardness 2, hp 6).

Development: Once Vergison is slain, or the ritual is completed successfully, the grymps flee through the stone walls as they came. If captured and interrogated, the grymps begin as hostile. A DC 17 Intimidate check, or a DC 22 Diplomacy check after they have been made indifferent, persuades them to reveal that they were tipped off to the ritual by members of the Bernigot family.

If the ritual is completed successfully, Tremol Bernigot is reanimated as a wight, and he and Vergison thank the PCs for their service, promising future work in exchange for riches and power. If the grymps escape, or are captured and released, they alert the local authorities to the threat of the cult of Urgathoa.

Liberty's Edge Digital Products Assistant

Hi! I’m Crystal and I’m one of your judges this round. I’ll be looking at your encounter not just as a GM and writer, but also as a professional cartographer, to see how much fun it would be to run and if the map helps or hinders the experience. For a little background, I’ve been writing for RPGs since the late 90’s, and am the author of The Harrowing and Pathfinder Adventure Path #80: Empty Graves, and I try to apply the standards of pitch, challenge, fun, and map design to my own writing just as I’m applying them here.

Criteria Details:

Is the idea clear, evocation, and easy to sit down and run without a lot of extra prep time. If it needs extra prep time, is it worth it? This also includes whether or not the formatting adheres to Paizo’s standards.

Is the challenge level-appropriate? Does the presumed challenge players face match up with the numerical CR? If not, is there a good reason why not?

Is the encounter going to be memorable, or is this just a speed bump on the way to the treasure room?

Map Design
The map doesn’t need to be vitally important to an encounter, but it should never, ever ruin an encounter. And if the map or environmental elements can add to the flavor of an encounter, or give players more options, all the better.

I think the basic concept of this encounter is solid: “Guard this stone building against monsters than can walk through stone.” It’s something unexpected and ultimately means that any preparations PC make are likely to work against them. Where it falls down is requiring the PCs to be evil, because good characters aren’t going to help a ghoul raise an undead abomination via human sacrifice, and I think even chaotic neutral characters would think twice before helping evil undead profane a shrine to the chaotic neutral goddess of revenge.

Overall, I think this is a good challenge. The grymps have the initial advantage, but they’ll be focusing on the acolytes rather than the PCs at first. As a GM, though, I’m curious why fey who obsessively hate and hunt the undead wouldn’t focus on the ghoul directing the ritual rather than the mortal acolytes.

Like I said, I think the general idea is a good one: guard this location, but then break into this location. The extreme length of the ritual means the PCs are far more likely to just kill the grymps than need to delay them, so mentioning the ritual length in rounds implies some unnecessary bookkeeping for the GM.

Map Design
The map is unremarkable and doesn’t offer the players much space to fight with that giant ritual circle and acolytes taking up most of the floor. This encounter doesn’t need a map, and the map actively hinders the encounter.

The basic idea is fine, but with extremely limited utility and a bad map. I do not recommend this encounter for advancement.


Nice map reference, I do really like the shading, very nice. The design could be more exciting.

I do not recommend this encounter for advancement.

Paizo Employee Developer , Dedicated Voter Season 6, Star Voter Season 7, Star Voter Season 8

Hey Joseph, congratulations on making it to the top 16.

I am the developer of Pathfinder Society Organized Play, which means I see lots of short adventures and self-contained encounters over the course of a year. It’s a developer’s job to read through, revise, and fact-check pretty much everything, so it’s tough to boil down what I’m looking for into a couple of clever headers. Essentially, I’m approaching this round like I would a scenario turnover, which involves marking up a copy of your encounter and providing feedback on what you did and how you might improve—my teaching experience in action.

My Style:
Since tone is a little hard to express while in this medium, I encourage you to read my comments in a friendly way; it’s how I intend them. As I warn many freelancers, I ask the question “why” a lot. Sometimes I do this because I am legitimately confused. Sometimes I do this to get the freelancer thinking in a certain way. Sometimes I know what the answer is, but I want to illustrate that there’s not enough information for the GM to understand what’s going on.

That said, this is a tough round, for we’re going from 16 to four contestants.

My Criteria:

Setting: Does your encounter fit in Golarion? Is it an urban encounter? Is the CR appropriate for the setting and the encounter? Is it clear how a GM might use this encounter?
NPCs and Creatures: How well did you incorporate the Round 2 creature into your encounter? Does it feel like a natural fit, or was it forced? Does the creature have a chance to shine? Do your NPCs fit in the location? Do their motives make sense? Is there an opportunity for roleplaying (appreciated but not essential)?
Numbers: Are all of your statistics and calculations correct? Are your skill check DCs reasonable?
Style: Did you watch Paizo’s styles, both in terms of writing and formatting? The more closely a writer can match Paizo’s styles in the turnover, the easier it is for me to develop. The easier it is for me to develop, the more eagerly I assign that author more work.

The title is evocative and creates just enough sense of meaning without fully explaining the mystery of the site—very nice. The silent act of rebellion against House Thrune is also appropriate, though I’d be careful about the scope of the site to ensure that it’s not a well-known secret; I doubt Cheliax would entertain its continued existence for long. I’m not entirely certain how Thrune agents would react to a graveyard with headstones bearing dozens of symbols of not-Asmodeus.

I think you bring things back to a comfortable level of secrecy in the final background paragraph, in which the locals fear what the Bernigot patriarch would be like after death. Adding in a hint of rumor also develops possible plot hooks. Cheliax is a dangerous place without being outright lethal, and it’s a solid choice for a low-level adventure like this.

It seems this adventure is intended for evil PCs—or at least PCs who have lost their moral compasses. Paizo’s adventures are almost all made under the assumption that the PCs are good or neutral, knowing that most appropriate encounters are easily justified by or adjusted for evil PCs. Guarding a cleric of Urgathoa while he creates an undead creature is almost impossible to justify for good characters. That makes this encounter hard to implement for the average GM, which could make it a tough one to pitch. Even so, an evil encounter against good-aligned fey is different.

NPCs and Creatures
An Epic-difficulty encounter can certainly be tough at 3rd-level because their resources are limited. Having made that point, though, and recognizing that epic-encounters are allowed in the Round 3 rules, I’m happy to overcome my momentary surprise and get back into things. In fact, on examining the grymps more closely, their CR may be a little high for these circumstances; some of their abilities are more potent against undead than against PCs.

I do appreciate there being an opportunity to socialize with a ghoul. That gives me a great roleplaying opportunity no matter which side of the screen I’m on. His motivations make sense, and the results of this encounter could easily play into future adventures.

Your use of grymps is spot-on, even down to their presence in Cheliax. The tactics fit perfectly, and despite being a very difficult encounter by the numbers, I imagine this would be a solid challenge for most groups. What I’m not as excited about is that the grymps’ ability to turn invisible and pass through stone walls means there’s almost no precautions that the PCs can take to do prepare for the attack. PCs on guard duty tend to get creative, yet they’re almost guaranteed to “fail.” It forces the dramatic encounter inside the mausoleum, but it cheapens the PCs’ actions earlier.

The encounter calculations and most of the skill check DCs are appropriate. Make sure that in your shorthand stat block you print the grymp’s actual CR (4) and not the CR of the encounter (6). The Diplomacy and Intimidate checks in the Development section are a little odd, partly because Intimidate in that circumstance would temporarily shift the grymps’ attitude to friendly and secure their cooperation.

Except for negligible errors, your formatting is good. Be careful with your comma usage, especially in the construction of compound sentences (e.g. “The doors to the mausoleum are slow to move, and require a full-round action to open,” which is not a compound sentence, so it needs no comma). I recommend being careful about agency—who or what is actually doing the action? “A DC 15 Knowledge (engineering) check confirms that the building has not been tampered with…” suggests that the Knowledge check is actually doing the action. I prefer something like “A PC who succeeds at a DC 15 Knowledge (engineering) check realizes that…”

Closing Thoughts
I was at first quite hesitant about this encounter, but it grew on me. Assuming that the PCs are evil is really risky for the reasons I mentioned above, and although I admire your gamble in taking that route, it could ruin an otherwise solid pitch. The ease with which the grymps can bypass the PCs and force combat in the mausoleum is of-putting, but perhaps that’s just how the encounter’s intended to play out. I’m very much on the fence about this one.

I do not recommend this encounter for advancement.

RPG Superstar Season 9 Top 32 , Marathon Voter Season 6, Marathon Voter Season 7, Marathon Voter Season 8, Marathon Voter Season 9 aka theheadkase

Interesting intro. I'll keep reading!

Although I'm a little skeptical about citizens waiting in trepidation at what his crypt will open up to unleash.

Verrrrrrrry interesting choice, making the encounter be about the PC's guarding an obvious necromantic ritual. This could be very polarizing.

I don't have many real complaints about this encounter. It's memorable, especially the choice to make the PC's guard the necromantic activities and the monsters (the grymps) be the investigative force for the city.

I think ultimately that may be the downfall...what happens if the PC's interrupt the ritual or if they decide to kill Vergison? Evil or morally ambiguous characters wouldn't really have any motivation to stay guarding. Especially since there's no gold for reward just promises of future work for the PC's if the ritual is successful. The crypt would have lots of stuff those kind of characters would probably want to steal.

Overall, the deciding factor may just be the complaint above. While a bold choice, there are a host of issues that can arise because evil folk don't necessarily work together. Weak reject for now.

Okay, rules-nazi/lawyer time. One error I caught, because I've tried to use it myself, is that meld into stone specifically states that "Any time before the duration expires, you can step out of the stone through the surface that you entered." Therefore, the grymps could NOT pass through the walls to gain access to the mausoleum.

Star Voter Season 6, Dedicated Voter Season 7, Marathon Voter Season 8, Marathon Voter Season 9

Well done Joseph,
Is the encounter fun? Guard duty is guard duty, but I give you kudos for switching up the 'caravan'
Is the encounter difficult to interpret? Pretty straight forward, map is clear though I would have liked a bigger difference between A and a.
Does the monster fit? Other than the tipped off by family the grymps would not show, which is weird because the ghoul has been working here for a while. Also I think they would attack the undead first, not the acolytes as a) he is undead, and b) he is performing the ritual.
This way to Dragathoa (I like to see beyond the encounter... Only in the reward for doing good work means you'll get more work. But again kudos for setting up a work for evil (or at least necromantic) adventurers.

RPG Superstar Season 9 Top 32 , Marathon Voter Season 6, Marathon Voter Season 7, Champion Voter Season 8, Marathon Voter Season 9 aka GM_Solspiral

The Good: Love the intro, the ghoul was a good choice as was the grymps.
The Bad: Where's my loot?
The Ugly: As others have pointed out it's likely the ghoul is going to get murder-hoboed before the grymps show. My crew has an extreme prejudice policy towards undead and necromantic rituals in general.
Overall: 7.5/10 - Really above average. I like it but I'm not in love, if you make it it will be mostly on the merits of that strong into. You have writing chops for sure.

Star Voter Season 7, Star Voter Season 8

Pathfinder Adventure Path, Lost Omens, Rulebook Subscriber

First impression: I like the name! Not too fond of the map-- kind of boring. In the intro, I see references to a mayor, but not to the city the encounter takes place in-- only that it's in Cheliax.
Upon Reflection: I'm going to agree with Crystal about the map. Very gutsy move about requiring evil (or at least amoral) PCs. I'm not a personal fan of running evil games, but I know there's demand. That said, the RP encounter with Vergison the ghoul is nice. That would be fun to roleplay as a GM. However, you did not provide any stats for Vergison-- what level cleric is he? How do you know if/when the grymps kill him? You also have a very big error in the grymps' tactics that would require a rewrite of the encounter: their meld into stone ability does not allow passage through stone. Frankly, that's probably good. I absolutely hate encounters that encourage the players to make an elaborate plan but throw a monkey wrench that will almost certainly invalidate anything a 3rd-level party is capable of doing. That always frustrates players and makes them angry or annoyed with the GM.
Overall: Pretty good idea for an encounter, although a risky premise. But the implementation of the idea is problematic given that the spell the monsters' rely on doesn't actually work the way it needs to, and you provided no stats for the PC's ally-- who will also be fighting the monsters. Even then, it will boil down to "fight the monster in the room". I'm going to give this encounter an A for the writing, background, and set-up, but a D for implementation due to the errors and lack of stats for the ally. Overall a C+.

the ghoul doesn't have stats because for whatever reason he will not stop the ritual and takes no actions of anykind

Liberty's Edge RPG Superstar 2008 Top 32, 2011 Top 16 , Star Voter Season 6, Star Voter Season 7, Star Voter Season 8, Star Voter Season 9 aka JoelF847

Not a fan of submitting an encounter that's only reasonable to use for evil PCs, that's not a niche that Paizo publishes, and not usable by most GMs.

In addition, there's a lot of assumptions combined with missing details. Why would the PCs necessarily stay outside of the mausoleum in the first place? If they're inside guarding it, a lot of the encounter's challenge goes away. I'd also want more details on the ritual - does is matter if anything disrupts the circle of acolytes - if something crosses it, does that spawn an effect? Why are the acolytes there even if killing them doesn't disrupt the ritual? Would the ritual work if they weren't present even?

If you're going to include a ghoul cleric, you need to full stat block. PCs always do unexpected things and you don't know if you'd need the full stat block. What if they use Diplomacy to request some additional spellcasting from it beforehand? What if they use Command Undead on it to get it to fight the grymps?

Also, I just don't buy that the ghoul sits there and lets itself be killed just because it's doing the ritual. It's hired mercenary PCs to guard it, which is great to help keep the odds in its favor, but does it really trust them to keep it "alive" if it starts taking undead bane attacks twice a round? Couldn't it kill the grymps, then start the ritual over?

Too many problems with this encounter for me unfortunately.

RPG Superstar 2014 Top 16, RPG Superstar 2012 Top 16 , Marathon Voter Season 6, Marathon Voter Season 7, Marathon Voter Season 8, Dedicated Voter Season 9 aka motteditor

Hey Joseph,

I'm trying to go back and catch up on everyone's encounters.

I'm sure you're sick of reading that it was gutsy to aim at evil PCs, so I won't belabor that point any further.

I will say that I liked the idea of a necropolis as a location. Certainly could be a memorable spot and you've very nicely made this one feel dark.

I really like your first read-aloud text. While I thought there were a couple spots that were a bit clunk earlier in the description of the location, I thought you really nailed that. It's evocative and sets the mood perfectly, with really great visuals that I have no trouble seeing.

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