Heavily obscured by the OGL scandal, and with the distraction of a Hollywood movie hitting the cinemas, DMs with a low passive Perception may have barely noticed the release of WOTC’s latest adventure anthology, Keys from the Golden Vault, sneaking up onto their local game-store’s bookshelves.
Which is a shame, because it’s a really buccaneering and well-designed adventure collection, and arguably the best yet from WOTC.
While the anthology contains many gems, and maintains a high quality throughout (full review coming soon), one caper immediately stood out as an adventure I wanted to run at the earliest opportunity… and that was The Stygian Gambit, by Sarah Madsen (who penned the excellent A Deep & Creeping Darkness from Candlekeep Mysteries).
*SPOILER ALERT. This post is intended for DMs who might be interested in running the adventure, NOT for players who should look away now.*
Heisting a casino, of course, is a popular movie trope – and one which I’m sure the vast majority of D&D players would want to transpose onto the gaming table – but the fact that the author levels up the heist location by creating a Hell-themed ‘Afterlife Casino’ which is reached by ferry along the River Styx, partially funded by the arch-devil Mammon, and staffed entirely by tieflings, definitely raises the excitement levels.
The adventure has several other plus points:
- An awesome map, with lots of cool sub-locations like baths, laundry, circus, restaurant, jail cells and vault.
- A credible, working casino setting that makes sense (within a fantasy world).
- The chance for players to mix pleasure with business, and indulge in a few games of skill and chance.
- A two days time limit built into the story, giving PCs the perfect chance to case the joint (day 1) then perform the robbery (day 2).
- Two targets of differing difficulty (the more accessible golden Erinyes statuette, and the more protected casino vault), giving the players an interesting risk vs. reward decision to make
- Plenty of scope to execute the heist in different ways
- Plenty of scope to customise the adventure and insert your own NPCs and other intrigue
- The almost inevitable epic moment the players exit the casino by plunging down a 100-feet-high waterfall
Overall, The Stygian Gambit provides a fun, well-thought-out location that makes for the perfect stage for a great heist. Indeed, when I DM’ed it last Friday night it proved to be one of my favourite ever gaming sessions!
Here’s how I ran it..
The Stygian Gambit: Hipster Heist Remix
In planning the session, I tightened a few nuts and bolts, fleshed out some bits that only got lip service in the published text, adjusted the difficulty level in several moments, and added a few more toys for the players to interact with.
Having run the session, I think all my changes proved pretty successful (those that came into play, or I didn’t completely forget… see Behemoth!), so hopefully they are worth sharing…
I should note that the majority of my players are 4th level, so adjust any stat blocks as you deem fit.
Personalising The Adventure Hook
I’m currently running a ‘West Marches style’ campaign in Waterdeep, recycling a lot of the excellent Dragon Heist campaign material, so for my running of the Stygian Gambit, it’s Davil Starsong who offers the players a dirty job (not Verity Kye, or the Golden Vault).
A new casino, hidden in the cliffs of Mount Waterdeep, has refused the Zhentarim’s generous security terms, and Davil thinks its appropriate that the owner rues his mistake. He wants the party to steal the Erinyes statue to cause maximum embarrassment to Monsieur Togglepocket (and he wants it done on the night of the tournament, so there’s no chance for the gnome to find or craft a replacement). Davil offers them 250 gp each for the statue, and makes no claim to anything else held in the casino’s vault, making this a fantastic potential score for the party (the payment in the adventure as written is rather stingy!).
Unlike the adventure that appears in Keys From…, Davil has no map of the casino (that’s the players’ job!), and no bag of holding (I’m not a big fan of bags of holding…. they’re the ultimate D&D fudge), but his agents have ascertained that the location is warded against divination magic and inbound teleportation (possibly outbound as well, they are not sure).
These changes I think helped the heist really develop satisfactorily, without any easy wins for the players.
Dialling Up The Devilry
Given the theme of the casino, I was a trifle disappointed that the actual devilry involved is very little indeed, and may even go unnoticed by the players, or not really come into play.
I decided to flesh out the relationship between Quentin Togglepocket and the arch-devil Mammon, increasing the involvement of the latter. According to the DMG, Mammon loves the glitter of gold, so he decided to lend our friend Toggles the money to create the Afterlife Casino, in return for 80% of the profits. The Afterlife Casino then is a means for Mammon to funnel sweet sweet gold from the material plane to whatever level of hell he resides in.
To protect his assets, Mammon sends Quentin four bearded devils, two of which guard the River Styx cavemouth, with the other two guarding the opening by the waterfall (which in my campaign looks out on the Sea of Swords and would be a possible way in for thieves or aerial threats).
Mammon also sent Quentin an unruly but powerful imp, who takes the form of a fat black cat the size of a warthog, called Behemoth, as his eyes and ears. This temperamental moggy tends to enjoy the cuddles of guests (at least those who don’t flunk an Animal Handling check), while viciously raking those that mistreat it in any way. I gave Behemoth 16 hit points, and instead of invisibility, he can teleport 60 feet as an action and make a bonus action claw attack that deals 1d4+3 slashing damage. His cat tail can deliver the imp’s sting attack. Despite relishing bringing Behemoth into play, I totally forgot to deploy him during the session.
Anyhow, I also decided I wanted all the staff to be worshippers of Mammon, and made the security guards cultists instead of thugs (apart from wanting a more infernal flavour, it really helps in a heist if players can take out lackeys in a single round… otherwise the alarm would get raised and suddenly they’re surrounded by insurmountable odds), while Quentin himself is now a cult fanatic.
The head of security I named Avarice, and made her a vigilant spy who prowls the casino floor on the look out for troublemakers.
I put a small shrine to Mammon in the Employee Lounge, although if I was running the Stygian Gambit again I might put a larger hidden shrine next to the restaurant, where (evil) patrons can make an offering to improve their luck.
A huge mural of Mammon, curled atop a mountain of gold coins, in the Avernus bar area was a visual clue for my players to interpret, but probably the most successful change I made was that if a gambler runs out of money Avarice comes over and discreetly offers them a private meeting with the casino owner, who might be willing to give them a second chance to be a big winner.
This led to a cool scene whereby one of my players faked losing all his gold in order to get a private meeting with Quentin, and get a glimpse of what lies beyond the employee-only doors. He didn’t end up signing the contract that Quentin had prepared (you can imagine what was in the small print), but there was some fun banter and clues were gained.
Tweaking The Technical Details of the Heist
If I was the owner of a casino in a D&D world, then I would definitely be prohibiting magic items and spellcasting in my establishment. I added the latter to the placard-displayed casino rules (see p.35), while the tiefling meeter and greeter on the docks, whom I named Charm, has a magic detector , which she runs over all new arrivals and which pings/vibrates, like when an airport security guard using a metal detector. The magic detector works more or less like detect magic, but with a range of just 5 feet, giving the players a decent chance to smuggle magic items in using a bit of creativity.
Any magic items found are taken by two security guards to the vault, to be returned whenever the customer chooses to take the ferry back home.
This led to a game-changing scene, during my session, when one of my players, disguised as a tiefling security guard, went with a real security guard into the vault to store some NPC items. Which was lucky as the druid PC had infiltrated the vault as a flea, but had no means of getting out (nor tackling a minotaur skeleton) as he didn’t have an employee pass.
I am not a big fan of the rod device required to control the vault’s minotaur skeleton guardian. It seems fairly unlikely that players will find it, and this proved the case in my running of the adventure.
Also, given that I’ve now got ordinary security guards going to and from the vault (not just Quentin), to deposit guests’ magic items, I needed a different method for keeping Virgil under control. I decided that Virgil could be persuaded to remain dormant when the password “CALM YOUR BONES” is uttered in infernal.
This means the players need to discover the password, and succeed on an Intelligence (Performance) check, if they don’t speak the language, to pronounce it correctly.
While the published adventure states all staff are tieflings, I decided that a few are other humanoids dressed up as tieflings… after all, it must be hard to find so many tiefling staff members!
This little tweak means that characters can pose as staff without having to be fluent in infernal, although obviously if they can pass as a real tiefling they are more likely to fool any fellow staff members they are legit.
Rethinking the Display Case Trap
As written, this trap paralyses everyone within 15 ft., who fails a DC 17 Wisdom saving throw, for one minute – with no repeat save! This is the kind of trap that can ruin a session for a player, by taking them out the game completely. The obvious solution is to just throw in a repeat saving throw, although I actually swapped out the effect for the slow spell, which does a great job of restricting players without taking them out of the game. I gave whoever smashes the case disadvantage on the save (assuming they do so with a melee weapon… the smart thing to do is smash the cage from a distance).
Waterfall: Should PCs Go With The Flow?
Given how close the Erinyes statue is placed to the waterfall, I was concerned that the heist could prove as easy as snatching the Mcguffin and running – which is why I placed two bearded devils as guards here. Oh yeah, these badasses have polearm master and sentinel feats…. so you can’t simply run through them.
A smart player might choose to duck these devilish bouncers, and the points of their glaives, by throwing themselves into the streams of the River Styx… which is fine, but that does increase your chances of bashing your brains out on the rocks on other side of the waterfall.
Now one way out is two ways out, both dangerous in their own way.
In all cases, players will take some bludgeoning damage simply from hitting the water, while a Constitution saving throw will be needed not to freeze up in the icy waters of the Sea of Swords (the adventure took place in the month of Hammer in my campaign).
Another Way Out…
Given the danger of the waterfall exit, and the slowness of paddling upstream in a ferry, back the way they came, I wanted to offer meticulous planners a third way out of the casino, so I placed a teleportation portal (not a teleportation circle, as they don’t work how you think!) in the Clerk’s Office. The portal is activated by a key (an obsidian ring), and leads to a similar portal in a disused tower in Southern Ward, near to where Quentin lives. The boss doesn’t like to take the boat home!
Quentin wears a ring, Avarice has one too, there’s a spare in his office, and he’s also given one to his new girlfriend Anais Bellefleur, who he met during earlier rounds of the Minauros Invitational tournament.
Potentially the bearded devils have a different ring that enables them to take Mammon’s share of the profits back to Minauros, in hell.
The keys/rings temporarily deactivate the casino’s teleportation ward, at the same time as they activate the portal. (Note: I ruled that teleporting to other points in sight within the casino is fine, even when the ward is active).
Patron’s Role in the Planning Stage
While Davil Starsong gave my players the job opportunity, I had their regular patron, Drake Griffonheart, the head of their adventurer’s guild, give them a little ‘masterclass’ on the four stages of pulling off a heist. Which are:
- The Stakeout
- The Planning
- The Execution
- The Getaway
The reason behind this was to ensure that the party didn’t just wade into the casino without a plan, expecting to battle some CR appropriate threats and then walk out with the loot, as perhaps they might when turning up for a traditional D&D one shot.
By breaking down the heist into four stages, I think it really encouraged them to think about how they should tackle the quest and it gave the whole session that bank job vibe that Keys from the Golden Vault was designed to evoke.
I also stressed that this was a stealth mission, and both Davil and Drake emphasised that they should avoid killing anyone. The point was to make a mockery of the casino’s security measures, not massacre innocent employees (who admittedly turn out to be devil worshipping cultists, so there’s some moral leeway for bloodshed) or gamblers.
I also gave them a chance, after they’d completed the Stakeout, and started the Planning phase to request any useful items from Davil or Drake that could help them with the heist. Having visited the casino already, they knew already they’d be searched for any magic items on the way in, but they asked for rings of feather fall and potions of invisibility and managed to smuggled them in. Obviously, don’t give the party everything they ask for here (rolling high for both Davil and Drake’s ability to source equipment, my party got just two rings and three potions for a party of six), and the more they ask for, the less chance they will get any one thing, as their patrons have limited time / resources to secure the items.
Let’s Sprinkle In A Little Intrigue
Possibly the only thing missing from the published adventure is a dash of intrigue… some NPCs, schemes and subplots to interact with, while carousing through the casino.
A Lover… And Double Dealer?
As mentioned, I decided that Anais Bellefleur is Quentin’s lover and I made sure the players ran into her, to give them a chance to flirt with her and possibly steal her teleportation ring (she doesn’t have an employee pass however, and has to ask security to let her through the doors if she is using the teleportation portal). I had her loudly declare she was going to the baths to bring this sub-location into play too, as there’s no real reason to go to the baths baked into the adventure – here she will remove the ring and put it with her clothes in a trunk.
I didn’t have time to develop Anais further, but it would make sense if Anais is conniving to raid the vault herself… a much more lucrative pot than the statuette, which in any case she has no guarantee of winning.
A Slave and Potential Ally
Secondly, I placed a masseuse called Caress in the spa. Caress is not actually a tiefling, just a human with fake horns. Nor is she a signed up member of the cult of Mammon. Rather, she is a slave bound by a bracelet of cooperation (a magic item from DRAGONBOWL, that is programmed to inject poison into the veins of the wearer, should certain conditions be violated) to work for the casino.
Caress turned out to be a key NPC, as she caught the characters trying to sneak into the laundry room, but was bribed from raising the alarm by a promise to rescue her from bondage.
A Disgruntled Employee
Similarly, I placed Mixer, a disgruntled barman in the Avernus section of the casino, as someone who could be pumped for reliable info on what lies behind the employee-only doors.
Finally, I also placed an exotic pet merchant, called Marvyn the Marvellous, into the casino for some added tension, as this NPC is an ongoing antagonistic of my players in our Waterdeep campaign. It is Marvyn who supplies Quentin with the circus’s menagerie of wild animals.
Probably you have some familiar allies or enemies of the players you could insert for social reasons, to advance subplots, or to add complications.
Playing the Games
Raising the Stakes
I like forcing my players to part with their coin, so – aside from charging 1 gold piece for the ferry ride – I had cashiers insist on a min. of 20 gold pieces worth of tokens be exchanged at any one time. Gamblers can trade back any number, but the idea is to encourage a little betting!
The Rat Race
One of the coolest features of the Afterlife Casino is a rat racing track, but no rules are presented in the adventure text for betting on the rodents… so I invented some:
There are 9 rats in total, and each wears a number that corresponds to a name on a blackboard. Some rats are faster than others, but due to differing levels of interest, fatigue, hunger etc., the race is mostly decided by luck (in this case a d20 Athletics check). Punters can bet on any rat at odds of 9-1, but each gambler must pay a 10% fee on their stake to the house, as well as on any winnings.
Gamblers can improve their odds of selecting the winning rat by succeeding on a Wisdom (Nature) check. A DC 10 Nature check allows a PC to spot the pudgier two rats (those with negative Athletic modifiers), a DC 15 can identify the four fastest rats, and a DC 20 the two fastest.
If the house realises that folks keep betting on a certain fast rat and winning, they will feed it sedatives and/or give some of the slower rats uppers.
Three Dragon Ante
I liked the idea of playing the actual card game, but I couldn’t find it online or in any gaming stores in Spain at short notice. I also liked the d12 simulation presented in the Keys from the Golden Vault. However, given I was running Stygian Gambit as a one-shot, and I had six players at my table, I needed something quicker and dirtier… so I cribbed a skills test from DRAGONBOWL, which also features a casino as part of the fighting tournament.
Players stake 50 tokens and make one Intelligence check (adding proficiency bonus only if they are proficient in Three Dragon Ante) for strategy, one Charisma (Deception) check for bluffing, and one Wisdom (Insight) check for reading their opponent’s hand. They total the three checks and minus 40 from that total. The difference is what they’re up or down in tokens, after an hour of play. If any of their rolls was a natural 20 they double any gains, a natural 1 and they double a loss.
Eg. Bob pays 50 tokens (worth 1 gp each) to sit at a Three Dragon Ante table. He rolls 10 for strategy, 15 for bluffing and a natural 20 for insight, total 55. He’s up 55 minus 40, after an hour of play, which is 15, doubled for his natural 20… so he’s made 30 tokens in one hour.
Keeping to the spirit of making any flutters significant for the players, I offered them a choice of spending 1, 2, 5 or 10 gold pieces per lever pull.
I didn’t have time to crunch the maths, but I wanted 666 (the number of the beast!) to be the big winning number, so I changed 5d6 (in the book) to 3d6 and drew up this quick table of returns.
Three 1s = 1 x coin (i.e. your casino chip back)
Three 2s = 4 x coin
Three 3s = 9 x coin
Three 4s = 16 x coin
Three 5s = 25 x coin
Three 6s = 100 x coin
Now that I am crunching the maths, I think it’s about right. You have a 1/36 chance of winning, and your returns average just over 25 x your stake. Those odds obviously favour the house, as they would in a real casino.
Entering the Minauros Invitational Tournament
One slight disappointment with the adventure as written is it’s hard to see any advantage in entering the tournament, or even a way to do so, given the competitors are already listed. Next time I run this, I might put a little thought into this. Winning the tournament would actually be an anticlimax, given that the goal is to steal the tournament’s Grand Prize, but could players gain some inside info or access by dint of entering the tournament?
While I enjoyed the restaurant menu provided, I feel like the author missed a trick by neglecting to include a devilish cocktail menu. My rapid efforts resulted in:
- Gin Styx
- Bloody Fairy
- Mephisto Mule
- Sulfur Punch
- El Diablo
- Master & Margarita
Post Session Thoughts
Overall the session worked a dream. I had six players on the table and they all contributed something, whether it was taking advantage of the social opportunities at the casino, fluttering some of their hard-won treasures, creating a distraction for the heist, getting into the vault, staging an anti-gambling protest, or simply waving their ‘glaive’ around in the baths.
The climax was great: the players all piled towards the waterfall with their ill-gotten gains, as security tried to take them down, or panicking crowds blocked their paths, eventually jumping into the icy Sea of Swords, where a Dock Ward former fisherman had been paid to pick them up.
I ran the adventure as a one shot, which ended up taking 6 hours, and if I were to run it again, I might be tempted to do it over two sessions, which I think would make it easier to remember to deploy some of the cool stuff which I forgot in the heat of the moment, and maybe expand the intrigue pillar further.
It might also allow for a twist, with a rival faction, or perhaps even their employers, waiting in a ship to grab the loot from them, but leaving them to freeze in the frigid ocean.
If adventures featuring epic locations, intrigue, heists and high drama are your kinda deal, then I think you’ll like my two flagship published adventures, DRAGONBOWL and Candlekeep Murders: The Deadwinter Prophecy.
As mentioned, I’ll also do a full review of Keys from the Golden Vault soon, but you can check those of Candlekeep Mysteries and Journeys through the Radiant Citadel for now, with running notes. (And I did an extended piece, similar to this article, on the Price of Beauty).
I’m also in the process of updating my big list of 5e adventures, so you’ll find more great scenarios discussed there.
To my regular readers, I apologise if I’m not bang up to date with replying to comments. I’ll try to remedy that at some stage!
Great review, thanks for the heads up (although you might want to edit somewhere round the beginning (probably by the “Here’s how I ran it” line) about a spoilers warning.
I really enjoyed your tweaks, and might pinch up a couple of your ideas, I have wanted to run an “Ocean’s Eleven” sort of adventure for a while, and the demonic background of the owners allows even paladins to participate here.
I agree with your comment towards the end of the article, sounds like if it would fit better on two sessions, probably splitting it between the planning and the actual Heist, with an initial session for gambling and recce, and a second for the actual hit on the casino (either vault or statuette).
Hi Jose Garcia
Yes good call, I probably should have inserted a spoiler alert, and have done so now.
And please do come back and let us know how it goes on your own table once you’ve played it!