Excerpts Archive | 11/10/2008
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Excerpts: Heart of Darkness

In today’s Draconomicon preview, we enter the lair of an elder purple dragon -- a series of caverns once home to a clan of beholders that carved them from living rock.

A lair for five 18th-level adventurers

In the depths of the Underdark, an elder purple dragon and his minions dwell in a complex of twisting passages and almost organic contours. The people of the surface might claim that the beast is no danger as long as he stays below, but dwarves and other deep dwellers who have suffered his depredations disagree.


Only the eldest dwarf sage recalls that these caverns were once home to a clan of beholders that carved them from living rock. What happened to those creatures, no one can say, but their home did not remain abandoned long. For over a century, the purple dragon Orukurtz has used the Heart of Darkness as his home and the center of his ever-expanding territory.

Orukurtz in Battle

The elder purple dragon is a canny strategist and rarely, if ever, engages in a straightforward battle. In some ways, the Heart of Darkness is not only a set of individual encounters but also a single running encounter with frequent interruptions. In each encounter presented below, Orukurtz appears briefly several rounds into the fight. He launches a single round’s worth of attacks (or perhaps two, if the PCs try to impede his escape), and then departs again.

Until the end of the battle, use the dice to determine when and if the dragon returns, in the same fashion as determining when a power recharges. Roll d6; on a result of 5 or 6, the dragon reappears. (Do not roll on the round following his departure from the battle; the dragon is absent for at least 1 round as he makes his way through the twisting tunnels of his lair.) Each time that Orukurtz appears, his tactics are similar: He attacks briefly and then departs. Specific tactics are detailed in the encounter spreads; use these as examples to determine the dragon’s behavior in any optional encounters that you use.

Assume that each time the dragon appears in a single area, his breath weapon, bloodied breath, and frightful presence have recharged.

When the dragon reappears, he can do so through any of the entryways to the combat area. He knows his lair well enough to speed through it, and he appears from whichever entrance is most tactically advantageous. Alternatively, he might phase in through a wall if doing so grants him combat advantage. Otherwise, he uses his phasing movement purely for escape.

Orukurtz never rejoins an ongoing combat after all the other monsters are dead. It’s easy enough to hear the sounds of battle—or lack thereof—so PCs who kill their opposition and then sit with readied actions, waiting for the wyrm to reappear, are doomed to disappointment. Because of this running battle, each encounter has three possible level ratings.

  • The initial encounter level assumes that the PCs spend most of their time battling the other creatures present, but that Orukurtz makes appearances as described above. On the average the dragon fights for roughly one out of every three rounds, so this level treats him as a hazard and uses one-fifth of a level 19 solo’s normal XP (2,400 XP).

  • The second (the lowest) encounter level is the level of the encounter if Orukurtz does not appear, whether because he has been slain, he has fled the lair, or the PCs have somehow blocked his access to the area.

  • The third (the highest) encounter level is the level of the encounter if Orukurtz chooses to stay and fight, rather than continue to depart and come back. He does so if the fight is the last one remaining in the lair—that is, if the PCs have defeated all other tactical encounters, as well as any optional encounters that you choose to include. (Other circumstances under which the dragon might stay and fight to the end are provided in the tactical encounters.) The PCs gain full experience points for Orukurtz (12,000 XP) when the dragon is finally slain or defeated. That XP amount is included in this encounter level.
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