Back in 1979 I started my first Skull Mountain maps, my early attempts at a 20 level dungeon. Those maps and notes are long, long gone. I did a reboot in 1986 when I moved and started all new people in the Seaward campaign, then I cleaned it up in 2002 when the kids got a little older. About 3 years ago I decided to change it radically below the third level, which is ongoing.
Background (in the game)
The origins of Skull Mountain are lost in obscurity. The Old Road existed when the elves arrived and was old then. The Keshi (human barbarians that were the first people in the region) speak of it in folktales as existing when they arrived, although they tales often contradict each other.
What is known is that centuries ago the Black Cult, devil worshipers, moved into the upper levels and used it as a base. From Skull Mountain they effectively ruled the Briars and the forests all the way to the Freshet River. Their raiding parties took captives and victims as far away as the borders of the Four Counties. The granite dwarves set more fortresses and the forest elves set more guards because of the Black Cult.
After the coming of the Robians and the crowning of the First King of Seaward, however, the new kingdom began to push against the cultists. After 50 years of conflict the forces of the cultists were broken at the Battle of the Plateau and a triumphant King Alaris led Archbishop Ulfrick into the mountain to shatter the foul altar.
A garrison was left at the mountain for a generation, but then withdrawn. Over time the interior of the Briars became ever more wild even as villages crept towards the edges. Drawn by stories of hidden treasure in the 100 years since the garrison left occasional expeditions went to the mountain but encountered little more than kobolds or a lone ogre in the ruined caves. Two years ago an expedition (of PCs) went there and wiped out a small band of bandits but found access to most of the complex blocked off.
Two different groups of PCs have noted columns of smoke coming from the area of Skull Mountain, always the morning after a Full or New moon. Ominously, those are the times the Black Cult would perform sacrifices. A few of the PCs decided to round up a team to explore Skull Mountain.
Brigid: 2nd level Barbarian (one of my custom classes). From the island of Eiru. Armed with Mor Altach, an enchanted broadsword of mysterious origins and power. Played by my wife.
The Seeker: 2/2 level Magic-user/Thief, half-elf. Has a Ring of Invisibility he took from an ogre. Played by my oldest son.
Starfalcon: 2nd level Ranger, half-elf. Excellent hit points, no magic items of note yet. Played by my second son.
"Clint": 2nd level Paladin, human. Technically, has not revealed his name. Has a Minion's Sword. Played by my third son.
Telnar: 3rd level Cleric, human. One off maximum hit points, great armor class. Played by my fourth son.
Kaspar: Henchman to the Seeker, human. 1st level Scout (another custom class).
Merle: Hireling of Clint, human. Mercenary footman with a spear, short sword, scale, and shield.
Alferd and Gerd: Hirelings of Brigid, both human (and first cousins, too). A merchant and porter. Fiercely loyal because Brigid saved them from being sacrificed by a kobold shaman.
Seeker and Clint had been on the previous expedition to Skull Mountain and still had notes and a crude map they had made. Brigid had seen the smoke and mentioned it to Clint in the town of Old Bridge. Clint knows Telnar, Telnar knows Starfalcon, and Starfalcon knows Seeker.
The group had to wait a long time for the weather to be a bit more steady and to prepare, finally setting out at the end of the month of Highsummer.
The first day was very hot, so hot the warriors shed their armor and the party was slowed. Luckily they were still in patrolled lands. They made it to the village of Esber just before Noon.
Esber was bustling with activity. The walls were freshly patched, hoardings were being constructed facing the Briars, and barrels of rain water were scattered around to fight fires. The party stopped at the Bloody Sword tavern to rest, cool off, and listen to gossip.
Others had noted the smoke besides the players and the Baron of Old Bridge had stepped up patrols near the Briars and up the Old Road. Eventually the Count had heard of this and had sent one of his own patrols to scout all the way to Skull Mountain just a week prior.
The patrol was never seen again.
So Esber is getting ready for war.
The party didn't linger, but continued toward the Old Road. They reached the entrance at twilight and camped by the entrance to the Briars without incident.
The next day was cooler, although still.
The next day was still cooler and about as uneventful until later. A black bear wandered into camp and attacked!
That's when an evening of dice weirdness began -
Brigid was on watch and armored. The bear could not miss her.
No one could hit the bear.
After far too long the bear was dead and Brigid needed a ton of healing, but was fine. The cleric went to bed and in the morning the part moved their camp off the road 100 yards (hard in the briars!) and left their tents, horses, extra rations, and the hirelings. Then the players and henchman headed to the plateau.
The party swept the plateau, all while under the forbidding gaze of the entrance (which resembles, of course, a massive human skull with an open mouth full of fangs) and found the remains of a massive bonfire on the center. From the bones in the ashes the party concluded the Count's patrol had been sacrificed and then burned, which is what legend said was the custom of the Black Cult.
The party entered the entrance cave, a massive space over 120' across and 90' high. Reflected light revealed that the massive bronze doors that guarded the Long Tunnel (which leads to the ancient Cathedral of Devils) were still shut. After a brief look around the party felt they were being watched. As they were leaving they were attacked by javelins, mildly hurting Clint. It took a few rounds to locate the attackers, but eventually the party's arrows killed two kobolds, each on a separate elevated guard post.
Searching revealed that there were concealed ancient iron ladders leading to each position. Seeker scouted and concluded neither had been on watch long and, on the higher post, found a secret door.
More dice oddness: each and every time the half-elf came within a few feet of a secret door I rolled a 1. They discovered secret doors that evaded multiple searches on the last expedition!The door led to an old, but sturdy, spiral staircase of iron going up. About 40' up was a landing with a mesh separating the interior from the flock of stirges that inhabit the cave behind the eyes. The landing was obviously long untouched. In a corner was set a crystal, seemingly enchanted, that allows people to watch the opening to the plateau from the Old Road. The staircase continued, so the party followed it.
After a very long climb they came to an iron lid secured by a locking wheel. After opening it they found themselves on the upper slopes of the mountain itself, near a concealed trail. The trail leads to the very pinnacle of the mountain which, they find, has a very large concealed hollow open to the sky. Obviously long abandoned, the oval shape has a staircase and ledge at the far end, which they walk to. Looking back over the hollow the party realizes it is a dry dock!
On the ledge iis a large device like a spyglass mounted on an articulated arm. The spyglass allows them to look out over vast distances. Seeker notices that the several joints have dials marked 1 through 4; by aligning the joints with the numbers the spyglass has 4 pre-set targets; 4th is the middle of Timber Lake (which is well over the horizon); 3rd is the sky almost directly above; 2nd is the city of High Morath, which is not just over the horizon, but on the other side of a mountain range; 1st is the peak of the Demon's Eye, an offshore volcano.
After some calculations and referring to a book Telnar and Seeker agree that the place in the sky is the location of the Third Moon at midnight on Midsummer - three weeks away.
Seeker remembers finding a long-abandoned trail to the peak from a place in the Briars on a previous expedition, but does not take the time to look for the other end.
Returning down the ladder, the party went back to the guard post -
and surprised a kobold inspecting his dead comrade! Seeker backstabbed it, killing it instantly, and Kaspar picked off the one on the other ledge with his bow.
The party slipped to the North end of the cave, finding the small outbuildings were still there, around the 'side door'. Seeker heard noises on the far side, but the door was unlocked; the party squared up and kicked open the door.
More dice weirdness! The party had 2 segments of surprise, letting Kaspar use his ambush bonuses for being a scout - and rolled under a 5 with all 4 arrow shots! Luckily Clint and Brigid made very short work of the 4 kobolds. The party then cut through a supply room and crept into a massive kitchen, surprising and killing another kobold who was guarding two human teens who were chained to the stoves, cooking.
In another bit of oddity, the party got surprise every single time they struck at kobolds!The teens had a lot to say; a monster had snatched them from their beds weeks before and carried them here to cook for the kobolds; there were about 40 kobolds all together; the kobolds ate in three shifts of 15, 15, and 10; a human male was leading the group and he had a human lieutenant, a goblin thug, and 'the monster' - a great hairy creature in robes that had kidnapped them from their village weeks ago; a strange woman in a hooded robe came by every month to give the human leader orders - everyone was afraid of her; and the next meal for 15 kobolds was going to start real soon.
The party got ready explored the vast dining hall adjacent to the kitchen. The kobolds were only using a few tables near the kitchen entrance. There was a raised dais at one end; Kaspar and Starfalcon hid behind an overturned table that had been there for years, it seemed. The rest waited in the kitchens and had the rescued slaves follow the usual routine. Before too long 15 kobolds and a goblin were seated, chanting for food. After the teens had served, the party casually walked in, hoping to surprise them.
The goblin noticed them, prompting Starfalcon and Kaspar to begin firing; they were very deadly with their bows! Brigid's rage kicked in, turning her into a death machine. Clint stuck close to her and was also mowing down foes. Telnar protected the mage - by also killing kobolds.
The fight was over in a surprisingly short time. After the goblin was cut down the remaining kobolds surrendered and were trussed up, but there was still damage done to the party. Seeker checked the other door into the dining hall...
...and saw a large figure, in a robe, rushing toward the door with a jerky, staggering gait. He slammed the door and the party prepared for the Hairy One (obviously a bugbear) to come in at them.
The screams of the teens, still hiding in the kitchen, alerted the party that the bugbear had circled around.
The bugbear burst in, attacking with a staff. The party did a fair job against him and then - Seeker got off his Sleep spell, dropping the creature before it could complete it's own spell.
The hour was late, the party was tired (the kobolds had hit much more frequently than they should have), hurt, and low on magic, and they had not just kobold captives but rescued NPCs; they left for camp. They were careful to confuse their trail, then met up with the hirelings at camp and rested. The hirelings had made camp against a spinney (an impassable ticket of briars) under a needle tree:
Like this, but with a lot of thorns
and had put up a thorn barrier around the horses and the tents as well as a sort of briar boma around the fire. All this was because of the threat of stirges so close to the mountain. The night was quiet.
The party set out at dawn, alert for ambush. The found that a tripwire had ben set over the entrance - linked to crossbows set up in the shadows. There was also a concealed strip of poisoned needles and another tripwire connected to a hidden ballista. All were discovered (the dice!) and disabled. While searching for traps the party also found that one of the horses had been brushed, fed, watered, and was saddled up, ready to ride. This one was concealed in a corner of the cave behind a natural pillar. Seeker sabotaged the girth strap so that the saddle would fall off after just a few miles of riding, at most.
Inside the first room all was quiet. They immediately found a trap on one of the doors they had not yet taken and, again, disarmed it. Beyond was another ballista set up to fire when the door was opened. It was in a long corridor and, about 120' along, the party saw a man carrying a lantern turn right at a junction in the corridor.
The party went into Deliberate Mode, checking all the doors as they passed, watching for tripwires, and maintaining a 720 degree scan. They found that the ancient complex was mostly empty with the kobolds taking up just a corner of the space that once held only the entrance guards. They did, though, find a door marked with the rune of a mage of House Relleth. The party avoided the Wizard Marked door as it appeared it had been untouched by others, as well.
The party also avoided trying to enter the obvious prison area (the locked iron grate helped deter them). But at the end of a another long corridor they spotted a man bent over a table studying something and taking note. The door to the room was open and there was a lit lantern beside him. Suspecting an ambush, the party started checking nearby doors.
In the first room they surprised a group of kobolds and wiped out all 8 in a single round. As they returned to the hall the man in the room left through a distant door. The party continued their deliberate course and over time wiped out the rest of the the kobolds and the last lieutenant, a human. But the man they had seen had vanished.
They quickly found a secret door (AGAIN!) and followed a passage then chased the man all the way to the entrance cave, where he leapt upon the prepared horse and ran off. The party pursued on foot as fast as they could, hoping to get to their own concealed horses before he lost them.
On the road, however, they found their mercenary hireling holding a horse! he explained he had been watching the road (as ordered) when a man came galloping by - and his saddle fell off, dumping him! The man had simply kept running. The party mounted their own horses and pursued.
before too long they saw him on the road ahead and called out. He turned, calmly drew his sword, and waited. Clint remained mounted, with his lance, as a backup as Starfalcon and Brigid closed in on foot. Seeker turned invisible and began creeping around and Telnar stood by, ready to assist. The fight began and it quickly became obvious that the leader was a very skilled warrior.
For a round or two.
The dice kicked in again! All day the monsters had been hitting a lot. The kobolds were obviously hitting about twice as often as statistic said they should. At the same time, the party was hitting well below what they 'should' be (their rolls vs. the bear random encounter were so terrible they joked the bear was invulnerable).
Well, that was all corrected immediately. The boss, a 6th level fighter with a magical sword, hit very seldom and did little damage. They party, though, made up for previous bad rolls in hitting and hurting the guy. After 6 rounds he was dead and the fighters, although bloodied, were all alive.
The party returned all the way to Skull Mountain and tossed the place, bringing in quite a haul of stolen goods and a few magic items.