A while back, my players visited Gauntlgrym. Like most dwarven cities, this famous Forgotten Realms stronghold is mostly underground, with the usual endless corridors, mine tunnels, elaborate stonework, etc. It’s been well-described and explored in R.A. Salvatore’s books.
However, what Gauntlgrym has that makes it unique is Maegera, the ancient fire primordial trapped far beneath the city with powerful magical wards. The dwarves use Maegera’s immeasurable heat to power their forges and shape special metals, allowing them to produce equipment of unparalleled quality. What a cool idea!
This post contains spoilers for Storm King’s Thunder.
In my version of Storm King’s Thunder, the players hadn’t even intended to visit Gauntlgrym in the first place. Originally, they had traveled to Mithral Hall to seek out Clarion, a silver dragon they’d encountered earlier who was known to hang out there. They wanted to ask him to team up with them to fight the rampaging giants.
When they arrived, though, they found the Hall’s front gates wide open and signs of a large battle just inside. A slaughter, really, with dozens of dwarf corpses, smashed wagons and buildings, and rubble everywhere. After locating one survivor, they learned that fire giants had attacked the city, somehow getting the nearly-impenetrable doors to open and allow them inside. The dwarves, not knowing how serious of an assault this was, decided to evacuate through underground tunnels that connected Mithral Hall to two other major dwarven strongholds — Gauntlgrym to the west and Citadel Adbar to the east. Essentially these tunnels were emergency highways allowing for fast, direct travel.
The players escorted the lone survivor to Gauntlgrym, and upon their arrival, found the city in a state of chaos. King Bruenor Battlehammer (yeah, the same Bruenor as from the Drizzt novels) was busy trying to help the hundreds of dwarf refugees who had arrived days earlier get settled in and taken care of, while also mustering a large military force to march upon Mithral Hall to retake it, while ALSO trying to figure out just the hell had happened. Fortunately for all involved, a brief meeting with the survivor and the characters (who had seen no actual fire giants during their brief visit to Mithral Hall) provided some more information. Bruenor concluded that the giants had likely departed, but he was still going to send an army through the tunnels to meet up with the sister force on its way from Citadel Adbar, and they’d sweep Mithral Hall to make sure the giants were truly gone.
With all that being sorted, the characters hung out in Gauntlgrym for a day or two to rest and purchase some new gear. While they were doing this, they learned about Maegera and the special forges, which the dwarves were very proud of and all too glad to talk about. The party’s wizard really, really wanted to visit Maegera while they were here, intrigued by the idea of such a powerful creature. He explained to a wary Bruenor that he wanted to ask Maegera if she’d grant him some additional (fire)power to fight giants, figuring that he’d never have the opportunity again. King Bruenor was a bit leery, but figured the party had already proven themselves to be friends, so he and his high priest took the party down for a quick visit.
What no one in Gauntlgrym knew was that Maegera was gone. During the chaos and tumult of the refugees arriving, and King Bruenor putting the city under lockdown in case the fire giants were looking to attack Gauntlgrym as well, everyone forgot about Maegera and the forges for a few days. Subsequently, a small force of unknown enemies was able to sneak in, dispatch the guards that had been assigned to watch over Maegera’s prison, and somehow manage to steal Maegera herself. To make it seem like nothing was wrong, they loosed a few powerful fire elementals into the area when they departed, so that heat and light would still be present in the chamber.
(This is a heavily simplified version of canon Forgotten Realms lore. In the novels, Gauntlgrym is an entire city, and Maegera’s prison is an extremely elaborate, magical network of spells and enchantments and I think water elementals? However, I wanted something thematically appropriate yet simple for this encounter, and since there’s no actual detailed maps of Gauntlgrym, I improvised.)
The theme was simple. Incalculable fire and heat naturally meant lava. The area itself would have to be hazardous, like a volcano, except stable. Also, there needed to be some sort of wards or defenses meant to keep Maegera contained. With all that in mind, I settled on a map from my favorite D&D cartographer, Mike Schley.
At first, I looked at the northern area of the map. I’d photoshop out the colossus, of course, while the long stone bridge with the altar at the end felt like a nice, logical setup for someone to magically control, summon, or communicate with Maegera, who’d be somewhere around where the colossus was. When Bruenor attempted to call Maegera, the fire elementals would burst out of the lava and attack.
However, when I began to think about the area as an actual encounter space, I noticed a few things I didn’t like. My party consists of four players: a barbarian, a cleric, a paladin, and a wizard. Sometimes I want cramped, crowded fighting, where the characters’ movement is limited or restricted. I didn’t want that here, though. With the ledge being so crowded, I worried that the barbarian and paladin would have a difficult time moving about or even positioning themselves to be able to actually fight back. And with everyone more or less trapped together, a single AOE spell from the fire elementals would be particularly brutal, as would a lava wave or similar terrain hazard.
In the end, I felt these factors would make this area rather unfun and a bit unfair to deal with. If this were a boss encounter, then maybe I’d consider stacking the deck against the party like that, but this was just a random fight that was interesting in terms of the bigger adventure picture, but ultimately not an especially important one. So the colossus area was out.
(Note: In writing this post, I realize now I could have added some extensions to the stone ledge, turning it into a loose “Y” shape. I think this would have given everyone enough room to move about as they needed. I still prefer what I ended up using, but that would have been a workable solution.)
When I began studying the southern portion of the map, I immediately liked the three separate tunnel entrances. With the fire elementals in the lava, this would allow the players to take up positions in different locations, while still having easy line-of-sight to both the enemies and each other. It would also allow them to retreat and regroup further back in the cave, forcing the fire elementals to come to them.
Meanwhile, the little stone steps could easily be replaced with a solid stone ledge — maybe the one from the colossus area — to allow for a similar altar setup. And that top tunnel extending to the east gave me the option of having an enemy sneak around and ambush the players from behind.
After some photoshop work, here’s what I ended up with:
I closed off a bit of the cave, since I didn’t plan on using it, and added the stone ledge and altar from the colossus area. I also changed the entrance path to be a metal walkway (taken from higher up in the map). I felt dwarves would want to flaunt their metalwork, and it would also make for some nice descriptive flavor — when the players entered the area, I would tell them how they could feel the intense heat assaulting them from every direction, and how they could SEE the lava bubbling and hissing right under their feet.
Since the area needed magical wards, I added some blue crystals to represent chunks of magic, unmelting ice. Each chunk would grant an adjacent creature resistance to fire damage, but then go dormant for a short time, recharging at the start of each new round. By putting them near the tunnel entrances, I hoped to encourage the players to hover near them to receive some protection, while also adding some tactical decisions by forcing the players to decide who among themselves would receive the benefits each turn.
Bruenor and his high priest would lead the party down into this chamber, and the two dwarves would make their way out to the altar to begin the ritual of summoning Maegera up from the lava. (Once again, fans of the novels will immediately recognize a few things drastically wrong with this setup, but like I said, I wasn’t overly worried about being accurate to canon.) While the dwarves were doing this, the characters would accidentally discover an invisible body at their feet, and be able to determine it was a dead dwarf. Two fire elementals would then surge up from the lava and attack. Bruenor and his high priest would take on one, while the party would be left to deal with the other.
These fire elementals were also stronger than normal, being able to cast fireball by inflicting 25 damage to themselves. If the party was having too easy of a time, an extra fire elemental would surface by the metal catwalk and sneak down the tunnel to attack from behind. This last elemental would also be a nasty surprise if any of the characters retreated to the catwalk to attempt to shoot or snipe through the gap separating the two lava pools.
Lastly, the dwarf high priest would mostly just babysit Bruenor, but if the party was in trouble he’d use his action to toss out a mass healing word to help out.
Results and Observations
The encounter went almost exactly as planned/hoped. The players clustered around the two crystals on the main bridge and enjoyed the fire resistance buffs, until the first few fireballs landed and hit them all, being nicely clumped up like that. They then split up, with one teleporting to the north tunnel entrance, while another decided to give up the fire resistance by moving to the center of the platform, so a fireball wouldn’t hit him and the characters by the double ice crystals at the same time. The party was doing well, so I had the extra elemental surface at the catwalk and sneak down the cave tunnel, where it got off a surprise fireball on at least two characters.
Speaking of the ice crystals, I did not expect the wizard to lay his hand on one and try to magically shatter it, to draw its power into himself. Earlier, he’d determined that these ice clusters were from the elemental plane of ice, which is why they were so cold and not melting, but I never expected him to try to harness the cold magic in such a way. Of course I let him do this. He had to make an Arcana check or two, but he succeeded, and as a result temporarily became an ice creature. This granted him advantage on cold-based attack rolls and made him deal double damage to fire creatures with his cold spells, but he also now took double damage from fire attacks. Additionally, since he shattered the ice crystal, it removed one source of fire resistance from the battle. A gamble, but a creative and fun one.
Regarding the two dwarf NPCs, I try not to ever let NPCs steal the spotlight from my players, because no one plays D&D to watch NPCs kill things and do cool stuff. That being said, while it was mechanically convenient and somewhat logical to have the two dwarves take on the one fire elemental in their own private fight, the players did joke about how the two dwarves only killed ONE elemental, while the three PCs took on TWO. And one of the dwarves was a legendary fighter and king! The wizard said after that this meant they should be the new dwarf kings. They understood why the NPCs behaved like this, but it was still funny. (And admittedly, they sort of had a point.)
After the battle, the chamber grew chilly and dim, and the dwarves realized Maegera was gone. This was catastrophically bad for two reasons — without her to power their forges, Gauntlgrym would be unable to produce their magical weapons and armors. The bigger problem, however, is that if Maegera was unleashed, it would essentially be like a fantasy nuke going off.
She clearly didn’t break out, since Gauntlgrym and the mountain it was under were still here and intact, but where was she? King Bruenor added it to his list of things to find out, while the party, having nothing else to really do here and feeling a bit underfoot, headed off to Neverwinter to seek an old friend of Clarion’s, a good-aligned frost giant named Harshnag.