As a gamemaster for D&D, I need to create antagonists for my players.
I mean, who doesn't enjoy eventually triumphing over a threatening villain?
One of the ways that I create antagonists is to nurture them organically, piecing them together over time and evolving them in response to the things that my players are doing, or to events in the antagonists sphere of influence within the world.
The flying menace at the core of the following story is a great example of an organic antagonist.
He definitely bugged my players, that's for sure.
If you're planning on playing through the Dungeon of the Mad Mage and want to go in blind, this blog post spoils some stuff on the second level.
You have been warned.
There Was An Old Mage Who Summoned A Fly
From across the planes, I could hear the summoners call, promising violence. All I had to do was accept and allow myself to be pulled from the Crawling City, letting those tendrils of magic wrap me in their embrace.
I could tell that the summoner was strong. Experienced with weaving the winds. That meant interesting work, and power to be gained.
It was an easy decision.
As the air ripped apart in front of me, the yawning hole beckoning me forward, I could see a torchlit cavern filled with misshapen lumps of metal. He stood in the middle, robes whipping around wildly, long white beard plastered against his chest by the tempest.
His eyes were mad.
I stepped through the portal and felt the binding take hold.
The accord struck, I was free to do whatever I wanted, as long as I stopped wandering mortals from looting anything of value from the area.
The locals were easy to cow, stupid magical abominations that they were. You would hardly know that they were once promising mages in their own right. Serves them right for dabbling in forces beyond their control.
The bronze skull was less accommodating and I quickly learned not to encroach on its territory. My muscles still twitch in sympathy whenever I smell the tang of ozone.
I didn't have to wait long before a fool blundered into my lair.
Crashing about, searching through the rubble for valuables, it was easy to get the drop on him. He fought valiantly, but his silver blade could not pierce my chitin and within moments I had him at my mercy, trident poised at his neck as he blubbered away like the soft mewling whelp that he was.
But I stayed my hand.
Not for mercy.
I had found the perfect bait.
Keeping the pitiful human alive was tiresome, but his suffering pleased me. He tried to escape once, but he was weak and quickly brought to heel.
Days passed and I grew bored. The skull was too dangerous and the dark-skinned mage to the south had warded the entrance to his chambers after I slaughtered one of his rat-things.
As I prepared to gut the human and string his entrails across my lair in an attempt to alleviate the tedium, the cavern shook suddenly, an explosion booming out from nearby. It smelled of the arcane.
Rushing to the source of the commotion, I surveyed the situation and found a roaming party of mortals, my cowardly minions kneeling in supplication before them.
She was fire incarnate, hair ablaze and the worthless creatures who had so readily prostrated themselves before me were in awe of her power. They begged her to lead them through the sealed door, to where the dark-skinned mage and his rat-things hid.
With her was a hulk of a thing, constantly bellowing in his brutish tongue about something or other and a shadow that walked like a man, wielding a wicked scythe.
They were nothing.
And yet, she opened the door with embers conjured from the air, so I was cautious. As my ungrateful minions streamed through and the cries of the mage and his rat-like helpers echoed through my chambers, I thought it best to wait.
To bait the trap and let them come to me.
They were slow to return, but return they did.
I watched as they ambled through the caverns, swaggering as they killed the gibbering creatures in the empty tunnels around my lair. Arrogant.
Lurking in the darkness, I let them approach the bait. He moaned and called out for help, like I knew he would, and they went to his aid.
Vomiting forth a billowing cloud of virulent smoke, I struck. Confused and terrified, the fiery one struck back, causing a violent explosion that rocked the cavern.
I was nowhere near it of course.
The lumbering oaf picked up the bait and they made to escape, so I harried them relentlessly and herded them towards the freshly re-warded door leading to the dark-skinned mage.
I filled the area with the infinite void of the abyss, and they were blind.
But I wasn't.
I slaughtered that infernal mage where she stood, then turned to the oaf to finish things off.
He blindly swung a net in my direction and managed to snag me, smashing me into the wall before scooping up the bait and fleeing through the door the fiery bitch had somehow unlocked before her untimely demise.
Vengeance in my black heart, I followed, just in time to see the heavily wounded dark-skinned mage emerge from his hole. We locked eyes for a moment and then he struck me with a bolt of electricity, forcing me back, too exhausted to respond in kind.
As I made my tactical retreat, I caught a glimpse of the big oaf thundering down the hall and away from me.
But I knew he would be back.
I'd killed his friend and vengeance is universal.
Goblins come sometimes, but they are weak and easily dispatched.
The dark-skinned mage still lurks to the south, having slunk back to his hole after our last encounter. He fears me but I cannot pierce his makeshift fortress, freshly warded as it is.
The lightning licked skull is gone, but I am not as free to wander as I initially believed. There is a barrier beyond her laboratory, one I cannot pass. The summoners binding won't let me.
That cursed mage with the mad eyes has trapped me here, in this tiresome cavern, with its rough walls and empty tunnels.
But I am no tool to be discarded and ignored.
I will break my own shackles.
I will take the life from the pointless dregs that still roam this fetid dungeon and I will form it into a knife that I can use to cut through the bonds that keep me here.
I will carve a hole through the great wheel, and I will go back home.
It was almost done.
The swarm grew, fed by the paltry corpses of the goblins and their brutish kin. Its seething mass blotted out the feeble light of this place and the monotonous buzzing soothed me. Strengthened me.
Then the oaf returned, new friends in tow.
They had a fiend of their own with them, a half-blood, weak and pitiful. But he knew of the planes and had enough magic, inept though it was, to try and force me to return from whence I had come.
Had I crafted the ritual for nothing?
But no, the binding of my mad-eyed summoner was stronger and the half-bloods maladroit magic backfired.
Disgusting. Weak. Useless. I would use his blood to fuel my own attempts at escape, but he was prepared for my assault and encased himself in crystal in a vain attempt to eke out another day of life.
The rest were no match for me, my trident piercing flesh, my poisonous breath choking lungs and they fled away in panic, carrying the dying half-blood with them.
I let them go.
I had work to do.
Yet again they came. More this time.
The half-blood and his ranger friend, along with a runt of an elf, a planetouched bumpkin and an ape masquerading as a man. No oaf this time. Too cowardly to face me again.
They incinerated the swarm! The ritual was ruined.
They would pay.
But it was not to be. The half-blood had been practising and had a measure of my binding, forcing against it with his borrowed power. I could feel the magic he was using welling up from somewhere else and there was nothing I could do to stop him.
I was caught halfway, stuck in-between the planes, in the nothingness of that place.
The binding of the mad mage on one side, pushing me towards the material. The strength of the half-bloods patron on the other, forcing me back to Gehenna.
The binding stretched, thinning, then snapped and I knew that the half-blood had won.
As a thank you I forced myself back for a moment, just a moment, and vomited forth a cloud of choking gas.
Something to remember me by.
I am home.
The infinite bleakness of Gehenna welcomes me. The tormented slopes and stabbing crags echo with the suffering of mortal souls. The Crawling City and the rest of my kin writhe and bargain, chitter and fight, slaughter and teem and I am content.
Free to do what I wish.
Free to go where I want.
Free to take what I need.
But I cannot get the thought of that place out of my head. The caverns and tunnels, the honeycomb warrens that now stretch out before me in my mind's eye.
The terrible knot at the heart of everything.
It calls, and I must find a way back.
You Can't Trust The Insect
The Mezzoloth in the story was originally written as a one-note encounter, best summarised as "bad bug demon menacing human adventurer". After it managed to actually kill a player character, I thought it deserved a little bit more attention, so spun a bit of a story around it.
It all flowed easily from there.
Mezzoloths are mercenaries at their core, like most Yugoloths, and will gladly accept bargains and contracts from more powerful creatures if they think there is something in it for them. They usually come out on top, but not in this particular case.
Finding itself trapped in the dungeon and bored beyond belief, it did what fiends do best: plot and scheme and try to wheedle its way out of the deal.
It eventually got what it wanted, though probably not in the way it intended, and learned a valuable lesson.
Never trust a mad-eyed mage.