Interdimensional Interlopers in Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes
Hello Frontline Gaming readers!
I think it’s fair to say that the recent Iron Hands release is a bit…uh…controversial in the 40k community. So! While GW goes back to the drawing board with their nerf bat – this week is a perfect opportunity to give Dungeons & Dragons a try!
“But Sean!” you say as you attempt to speak with me through your computer, “I like Warhammer 40,000 because it’s sci-fi and has cool aliens! Dungeons & Dragons is just boring wizards and knights*.” Well, Reader-Who-Is-Talking-At-Their-Screen, that’s just not true! D&D has been flirting with science fiction since the beginning. Even way back in 1980, Gary Gygax used the classic adventure Expedition to the Barrier Peaks, to pit dwarves and elves against robots and ray-guns in a crashed spaceship.
This week’s randomly chosen monster comes from Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes and continues the long tradition of infusing science-fiction elements into Dungeons & Dragons’ fantasy world.
*Also, you’re wrong, wizards and knights are cool
(Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes, Pg 208)
I’ve had a nerd culture epiphany this week. I have been subconsciously putting githzerai and githyanki in the same mental category as the Yuuzhan Vong of the old Star Wars Expanded Universe. I hadn’t read any of the New Jedi Order books as a kid – but I knew I didn’t like these new villains who weren’t in the original movies. I simply didn’t like the Yuuzhan Vong because they didn’t fit within my definition of “Star Wars”. I think I can admit that I’ve been unfairly dismissing gith as “not goblins, orcs, or zombies” and thus not a traditional enough D&D monster for my campaigns.
But I’ve really come around to the idea of gith while researching this week’s article.
After reading their chapter in Mordenkainen’s, I’m convinced encounters with gith are excellent stepping-stones for parties transitioning between the “Heroes of the Realm (Levels 5-10)” and the “Masters of the Realm (Level 11-16)” tiers of a long-running campaign (Dungeon Master’s Guide, pg 36). Githzerai’s otherworldly origins will expand your player characters’ knowledge of the D&D multiverse and their role as supporting characters allow githzerai to introduce the greater dangers of the cosmos to your party.
Otherworldly Origins. Gith are the former slaves of the fallen mind flayer civilization. Long before mind flayers terrorized the children of Hawkins, Indiana; the squid-faced, brain-eating creatures ruled “hundreds of worlds” until their gith slaves staged a violent revolution that collapsed their empire. (Volo’s Guide to Monsters, pg 71). Once free, the gith people fractured into two warring tribes: the githyanki and githzerai.
Today, the githzerai culture flourishes in Limbo; a chaotic and transient plane of existence where monks and priests hone their potent psionic abilities in the elemental voids.
Supporting Characters. Githzerai are defined by their relationships with other D&D races. At a factional and philosophical level, they oppose their murderous githyanki cousins. On a racial and instinctual level, githzerai fear their former mind flayer masters to the point of perpetuating their genocide. Without these adversaries, Mordenkainen’s Tome states that githzerai “prefer to stay in Limbo” where their mental abilities provide them the power to directly control the very nature of their adopted realm (Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes, pg 94).
Since your players are unlikely to stumble into a githzerai who is meditating in her extra-dimensional hidden sanctuary; the Gith’s “Endless War” will drag these alien beings to the material plane and into the path of the party in our scenario today.
The Scenario (Appropriate for Level 8-10 characters)
Sir Godfrey Aballeve is a human nobleman of about forty-five years of age. In his youth, he served in the King’s Army as a successful and well-respected cavalry captain. When his father died of a fever eight years ago, Sir Godfrey returned to his ancestral home, a medium-sized city tucked into iron-ore rich hills, to manage the family’s affairs and holdings.
Thanks to the interest from loans, successful land speculation, and a healthy dose of good luck – Sir Godfrey has turned his inheritance into a fortune. Sir Godfrey’s popularity has only grown in recent years as he regularly finances public works and festivals out of his pocket. The poor mule driver who no longer has to worry about breaking a wheel on uneven streets respectfully removes his hat in the presence of the aristocratic benefactor. And Sir Godfrey easily ignores the side-eyed glances of his fellow nobles and whispers of ulterior motives. His focus is elsewhere.
In two days, Sir Godfrey’s largest construction project to date – a massive dam and aqueduct system – will launch with lavish opening ceremonies. The dam will not only provide better and more stable irrigation to the neighboring farmland, but even the urban dwellers will benefit from the crisp and fresh mountain water provided by the aqueducts.
But the hushed court conspiracy theories concerning Sir Godfrey are too mundane. He doesn’t desire the Duke’s seat of power. Nor is he bribing the unwashed hordes of the city’s poor to be the footsoldiers of an uprising. No, Sir Godfrey Aballeve doesn’t have motives of his own at all.
Twenty-five years ago, during his campaigns with the King’s Army, the man who was Godfrey Aballeve encountered a cabal of mind flayers. After weeks of mental torture, Sir Godfrey’s psyche shattered and the alien creatures grafted a new persona onto the shell of the former hero. Sir Godfrey became a useful thrall who his illithid masters positioned to be loved by his people – a perfect puppet to enact their schemes.
The new dam hides an alien secret within its construction: a new breeding pool for the cabal’s elder brain and sanctum for it to continue its technological research. Once complete, the lair will be close enough to the city to use its occupants as breeding stock and a perpetual food source.
But the project has not gone unnoticed. Spies in the employ of a githzerai rrakkma – led by the Most Enlightened Master Azazag have discovered hints of mind flayer technology at the heart of the dam and seek to destroy this potential boon to their enemies.
It is likely that by reaching level 8 or 10, your party will have made names for themselves in your campaign world. Your player characters’ past deeds are likely being recounted around tavern hearths and appearing on government officials’ reports.
Sir Godfrey Aballeve can be introduced to your party in one of two ways. 1) If one of your characters has taken the Noble Background, you could add a bit of personal stakes to the upcoming drama if Sir Godfrey was related to a party member. It could be through marriage or Sir Godfrey could be a cousin on your PC’s mother’s side. Whatever seems to make the most sense in your particular campaign. 2) If your party is entirely comprised of low-born folk; then Sir Godfrey simply invites the party to be guests of honor at the opening ceremonies of the dam due to their regional fame.
Either way, a servant of Sir Godfrey’s approaches the party and asks them to accompany the servant to her master’s home to take a meeting with the noble. Upon arriving – the party may be surprised to find that one of the richest men in the city is rather humbly renting a room at a miners’ boarding house.
The apartment has all the telltale signs of an overworked individual. Stacks of correspondence held in place by equally impressive stacks of dirty dishes. Sir Godfrey’s dining room table is completely covered with architect sketches and other blueprints. The modest apartment is cramped by the presence of personal secretaries, representatives of the Mason’s Guild, and Sir Godfrey’s bodyguard, right-hand man, and fellow mind flayer thrall- the half-elf Mellcaan Ironhand.
As a lunch of tea and fine cheeses is served, Sir Godfrey requests that the party participate in an inaugural ritual the night before the actual opening ceremonies. If the party has a cleric, druid, or paladin – the nobleman happily requests the PC share some of their divine influence to wish good fortune upon the dam.
Of course, Sir Godfrey is setting a trap. Or rather, his illithid masters seek to lure the party into the bowel of the dam to subjugate their minds and add more powerful slaves to their growing army. Player characters who make a pass a DC 17 Wisdom (Insight) check into the noble’s motives sense that the noble seems supremely distracted while speaking to the party. It’s difficult to get an exact read on Sir Godfrey’s true desires because his only purpose is to serve the elder brain and its colony.
That evening, the party is led to the nearly finished dam by Sir Godfrey, with Ironhand accompanying. The construction site is three and a half miles south of the city walls. To pass the time, Sir Godfrey, with polite interest, asks the party to detail some element of their past adventurers. Did the barbarian really hold off twenty charing orcs? Did the wizard truly blind a beholder with firebolt? Sir Godfrey is happy to let the party indulge is some self-aggrandizing.
The gravel road snaking its way to the dam site eventually transitions into the stone brick which makes up the roadway of the dam. However – the casual atmosphere is interrupted upon reaching the suspiciously ajar gates of the dam’s roadway. Sir Godfrey expresses further surprise to find the guards he had stationed are nowhere to be found.
From this time forward – both Sir Godfrey and Ironhand have moved into the range of the elder brain’s telepathic network cast from its sanctuary in the Underdark. Either thrall can speak to or be spoken to by the elder brain at any time. Any potential threats to the illithid’s plans are immediately reported.
The patrolling sentries have already been dispatched by githzerai martial artists. Sir Godfrey, not wanting to worry the party, dismisses the guards’ absence as dereliction of duty rather than anything sinister – but Ironhand, the ever-vigilant bodyguard, certainly perks up to the added unknown element.
Beyond the breached gate, the dam’s roadway stretches across the width of the dam some fifty feet and is flanked on either side by four-foot-tall parapet walls. On the eastern wall, a gentle drop ten feet below reaches the surface of the artificial reservoir lake created by the dam’s halting of the river. Opposite this drop to the west is a 150-foot sheer drop to the remainder of the domesticated river drifting through the valleys. Mirrored on either side of the span are a set of rectangular and utilitarian watchtowers.
Near the middle of the dam’s span – the party spots a band of human-sized creatures configured in a ring encircling a singular central figure standing on top of the eastern-parapet walls. From his perch, Master Azazag outstretches a hand – and his mind – towards the base of the dam under the water.
The githzerai hunting party is comprised of 4-6 githzerai monks (Monster Manual, pg 161) and are led by the above-mentioned githzerai enlightened Master Azazag (MToF, pg 208). In addition to the abilities listed on the githzerai enlightened stat block – Azazag can also cast earthquake 1/day using his innate psionic spellcasting. To add an extra degree of difficulty, the gith’s ranks can be bolstered by a githzerai zerth (MM, pg 161)
When the player characters approach with Sir Godfrey; the githzerai surrounding Master Azazag take a defensive posture. Through their surveillance of the dam’s construction, the githzerai suspect that Sir Godfrey is a mind flayer thrall. They do not know anything about the party – but are immediately suspicious of anyone seemingly in league with the noble. Their alarm is well placed as the very instant Sir Godfrey and Ironhand laid eyes on the yellow and black-spotted skin of the githzerai – the elder brain has been screaming in their minds to exterminate the gith vermin.
The direction of this encounter will be greatly swayed by whether or not the party can communicate with the githzerai. Githzerai are only able to speak Gith – a language alien to most inhabitants of the Material Plane. If the party has some sort of method of understanding their language; or communicating telepathically – there is a chance a peaceful accord can be struck between the party and the illithid hunters.
However, because the githzerai know that mind flayers make frequent use of telepathy – any social skills checks (persuasion, deception, intimidate, etc) are made at disadvantage if being relayed through telepathy.
Whether or not the githzerai are understood, one of the monks (or the zerth if it is included) will attempt to warn the party to move off of the dam as they intend to destroy it. The monk declares the structure cannot be used to benefit the “Great Parasite Enemy”. The githzerai are lawful neutral and will avoid harming the party if possible – but not at the expense of delaying or cancelling their planned attack. As a dramatic punctuation to this declaration, Master Azazag’s mind secures a connection to the lakebed and he begins to cast earthquake (Player’s Handbook, pg 236).
The effects are immediate and the dam begins to shake violently. Beneath, the churning waters cause massive waves to crash over the parapet walls. If the spell is allowed to continue for its entire duration – the dam’s structure will be fatally compromised and will eventually collapse.
If two-way communication was able to be established, the githzerai monk will explain their mission and declare to the party that Sir Godfrey is not to be trusted. In his defense, Sir Godfrey desperately pleads with the party to assist Ironhand in defeating the strangers. He accuses them of murdering the guards and (rightfully) argues anyone downstream will be in placed in mortal peril by floodwaters if the dam is destroyed.
If the githzerai are still unable to be understood by the party – then Sir Godfrey makes the same argument, but with the benefit that the gith’s point of view remains unknown.
Once loose bricks and mortar begin to drift down from the dam’s watchtowers – the elder brain can no longer allow its thralls to remain idle. Roll for initiative as Sir Godfrey and Mellcaan Ironhand fly into combat against the gith.
Use the stats of a veteran (MM, pg 350) for Sir Godfrey and a gladiator (MM, pg 346) for Ironhand. Rather than a standard spear and shield – Ironhand is equipped with a longsword fortified with an illithid mind blade enchantment (Volo’s Guide to Monsters, pg 81) and Ironhand’s repulsor.
However the combatant lines are drawn for the coming fight, the earthquake is causing the following area affects:
- Crashing Waves. At the beginning of each creature’s turn – roll a d20 – on a 1-2; a massive wave reaches from the lake and falls across the section of the dam’s roadway where the creature is standing. The creature must make a successful DC 15 Strength (Athletics) check or take 2d6 bludging damage and be pushed 5ft directly away from the lakeside wall. Each round of combat increases the waves’ intensity as long as the earthquake spell continues. Add 5ft to the distance pushed on each subsequent round after the first.
- Unsteady Foundation. If the earthquake is allowed to continue for three rounds – the entire roadway of the dam becomes difficult terrain for measuring movement.
If the party joins in the combat against the githzerai, the githzerai do not hesitate to defend themselves against the party. Although githzerai monks only have a Challenge Rating of 2 – don’t underestimate these psychic kung-fu fighters. Their unarmed strikes are bolstered by 2d8 psychic damage – a damage type that your party may not have a source of resistance against. And their multiattack lets them swing twice!
The githzerai enlightened will also join in the fray – but will not willingly break his concentration on the on-going earthquake spell. This will prevent him from taking advantage of the powerful haste spell which would normally be at his disposal since both spells require concentration. The target of his Temporal Strike will be whichever enemy deals the most damage in the first round of combat.
The githzerai hunters can be defeated under two conditions a) if Master Azazag’s concentration on the earthquake is broken or b) three of the githzerai monks are killed. If either of these conditions are met, in an attempt to at least force some set-back to the illithid enemies, the githzerai take one final round to attempt to kill Sir Godfrey. On the githzerai enlightened’s next turn – he uses teleport to escape with the surviving githzerai. If for some reason this escape route fails, the githzerai use their feather fall ability to leap safely off the dam.
Of course, if the party was able to communicate with the githzerai and agreed with their goals the party may join the combat against Sir Godfrey. In that case, Sir Godfrey is incensed that his guests are betraying his hospitality in such a manner.
In this version of the fight, Master Azazag hangs back from the thick of the fight and allows his monk followers and the party to keep the thralls at bay. Quickly sensing the impending demise of its thralls – the elder brain orders Ironhand to make a delaying last stand while Sir Godfrey flees to the unfinished spawning chamber hidden inside the dam.
Assuming that the party fought against the githzerai and managed to force their retreat; Sir Godfrey will admit that “brilliant beings from beyond the stars” helped with the engineering and design of the dam’s construction. He requests that the party assist his assessment of the damage caused by the githzerai’s earthquake by joining him on a survey of the dam’s inner core.
Backtracking towards the entrance of the roadway, Sir Godfrey will lead the party down a flight of stairs in one of the dam’s watchtowers. At the bottom of the stairs is seemingly a simple storage room basement, until Sir Godfrey throws a hidden switch disguised as a torch sconce. To the sound of clicking and whirring, a secret door slides open revealing a narrow spiral staircase descending into the heart of the dam.
As a note: if Sir Godfrey fled combat alone, the party is able to track his path through the watchtower with a successful DC 13 Perception (Wisdom) skill check. In his haste, Sir Godfrey leaves the secret door open and exposed.
At the bottom of the stairs is an enormous research chamber containing the true purpose of the dam’s construction. The dam’s secretly hollow design will not only serve as the perfect hidden sanctuary for the mind flayer colony – but the elder brain has utilized advanced alien technology to harness hydroelectric energy from the river.
Rushing water pours through the chamber, spinning massive turbines which cause bolts of electricity to crackle and race through conduits high above the heads of the players. Connected to the power source is a half-constructed prototype nautiloid engine. (See page 78 of Volo’s Guide for more information on the illithid’s nautiloid interplanetary ships).
Depending on how long Master Azazag’s earthquake was allowed to continue – the chamber could be in various states of distress.
- 1-3 Rounds. Water seeps through cracks across the stone wall masonry at a steady rate. Maintenance will need to be performed, but there does not seem to be an immediate danger.
- 4-6 Rounds. Fissures have completely dislodged several stone blocks and water is jetting into the room and beginning to pool on the massive workshop floor.
- 7-10 Rounds. The dam is actively flooding. By the time the party reaches this underground research floor – the water has reached waist height.
No matter the amount of damage, Sir Godfrey will say whatever he can to move the party forward. In fact, the more dire the situation – the more urgent the thrall’s ushering of the party to the dam’s “control room” becomes.
On the far side of the chamber from the entrance – Sir Godfrey approaches a turn-crank sealed, watertight, metal bulkhead door. Behind this first door is a small airlock closed with an identical door. After passing through the airlock, the party is led to the unfinished spawning pool.
The room itself is pitch black until Sir Godfrey secures the airlock behind the player characters when a mechanical humming sound begins and unstable electrical lights bathe the room in dim light. Like in the research chamber, bolts of electrical energy occasionally snap across the ceiling. Opposite the bulkhead entrance is a natural cave exit that eventually leads to the Underdark. Dominating the center of the room is a steel pool overflowing with soupy mind flayer brine. Clutches of Illithid tadpole eggs are nestled along the lip of the container. The eggs have been recently transported to the dam in preparation of the colony’s relocation.
Guarding these most precious mind flayer treasures is a single mind flayer (MM, pg 221) and a pair of intellect devourers (MM, pg 191). If you’d like to make your party fear the alien brain-eaters a bit more – equip the mind flayer with a mind lash (VGtM, pg 81).
When the mind lash’s ability to impose disadvantage on Intelligence Saving Throws is paired with the intellect devourers cleverly named Devour Intellect ability – your party is in real danger of watching in horror as one of their comrades first has their Intelligence drained to 0, collapses in a braindead stupor, only to have the second intellect devourer literally replace the PCs brain with its Body Thief ability.
If Ironhand is still alive – he will also aid his mind flayer master in attacking the party. Sir Godfrey however, will quickly move away from the fray in order to focus on gently scooping up the tadpole eggs into glass containers. It takes two rounds to collect all of the egg sacs – at which time Sir Godfrey makes his escape through the Underdark cave entrance.
The intellect devourers & Ironhand will fight to the death – but once the mind flayer has been reduced to one-quarter of its total hit points; it will use it’s plane shift ability to return to the elder brain in the Underdark.
If either of the thralls are captured alive – the process for returning their minds is a lengthy ordeal. To be freed of the mind flayer’s enslavement they must receive three days of consecutive treatment including being targets of “regeneration, heal, and greater restoration” each day(VGtM, pg 76). If your party doesn’t have access to these spells, maybe they have a friendly couatl they could call upon for assistance?
So there you have it. By design – this scenario leaves your party in a bit of a precarious situation. In the short term, they are literally below the waterline of a massive dam that is in the process of collapsing. One of their party member’s brains might be drying out on the floor while their body is forcefully piloted by an intellect devourer. And possibly worst of all, the mind flayer colony now considers the party to be dangerous enemies.
But at 8-10th level; these certainly aren’t unwinnable circumstances. Sure the dam is collapsing – but does the 9th level Wizard in the party have teleportation circle prepared? Brainless party member? Seems like a bit of surgery coupled with a high-level Cleric casting raise dead or, if you don’t mind a bit of randomness, skipping the scalpel and casting reincarnate would solve that issue. And yes, the illithids are now actively acting against the party; but after encountering the illithid and its breeding pool, the party likely realizes the githzerai attack had the best intentions in mind. Will the party seek out the githzerai to form an alliance? Will they travel to their home in Limbo to learn more about the mind flayer threat?
Consider the above scenario a jumping-off point. As I discussed in the introduction – we’re using the githzerai enlightened as a path from regional threats to the wider D&D cosmos. Your party has cleared enough caves full of kobolds – it’s time to foil some interdimensional schemes.
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