Continuing from Part 10, after the party met a tired looking man and his skeletons.
The man in dark robes looked somewhat confused and bewildered, and spoke a version of the Thracian language. A couple of party members who had practiced the language managed to establish a baseline of communication. Thelma Turge, a Magic-User, was able to carry on a complete conversation using the alignment language of Law.
Thelma explained that they were the enemies of the Gnolls and Lizard-men, which got the man on their side. He introduced himself as Macreus, cleric of Thanatos. It soon became clear that he had been sealed in this area for a very long time, perhaps hundreds of years. Eventually, he provided the party with a history lesson on the caverns. Long ago, humans built a society here, achieving a great level of sophistication. Far below, a great palace stood in a place where a sun-filled forest grew miraculously underground. The cult of Thanatos was held in high regard then, and the humans kept the beast-men, the gnolls and the minotaurs, as slaves. During the reign of Agamemnos, however, the beast-men revolted, slaughtering the king and conquering seizing all levels below the first. This was before Macreus was born. During his time, humans lived only on the first level, and in the city on the surface above. The worship of Thanatos became outlawed then, and he and his brothers sealed themselves in this secret area, waiting for a safe time to reemerge. There were also rumors that once, even before the old human kingdom, a race of highly sophisticated lizard-man progenitors lived in the caverns, but of course that was nonsense. Tales of the undead lizard king served to frighten children into obedience.
It was unclear how long Macreus had been in stasis down here, but the city he described on the surface was now just ruins. The party did however tell him that the cult of Thanatos was alive and well. They didn’t tell him how many of its members they had killed on a previous expedition.
Encouraged by someone taking up arms against the beast-men and their Minotaur King, Macreus offered the party some information and help. He told them that there was a sphinx on the floor below, and that beyond that sphinx was a route to the old temple of Thanatos from its heyday. Far below that temple was the old palace, where the sun shone far below ground. He also told them of a temple to the goddess Athena, where it was said that Agamemnos stored weaponry crafted by a great weapon smith from a land far to the east.
Telling them that it was impossible to return to the first level of the caverns the way that they had come, due to a magical seal, he fished out a long rope ladder from a pit in the hallway floor. He led them to the end of the hallway, where what looked like a solid wall of rock was really just an illusion, and opened out onto a chasm. The rope ladder affixed neatly into slots in the floor, and the party began to argue about how to go down.
First they sent two retainers, Jen and Jann Halfroot, down the rope ladder. When they returned, they reported a cavern below, with an underground river running through it. On a small bridge across the river, slept a large humanoid creature.
After some deliberation, the party decided to send down their solitary thief, Jek the Stabber. Jek descended the ladder and saw the creature, a kind of stunted-looking giant, much larger than a person but with the squat proportions of something smaller… a halfling or a dwarf maybe? Small creatures stirred in cages mounted to the bridge, and baskets hung in the water.
Then Jek noticed the sack. A bulging bag propped up against a nearby wall, adjacent to the bridge. They poked it from ten feet away with a pole, making a tiny noise but not arousing the creature. They ran up to it, carefully examined it, and silently lifted it from the ground. Then Jek noticed the hallway going north, the direction in which Macreus had told the party that a Sphinx lived. The long hallway was lined on either side with eerily glowing skulls, one set into the center of each ten foot section of wall.
Jek took the sack and rushed back up the ladder.
The most interesting thing in the first half of this session was dealing with Macreus, and how much he could tell them. They did get a great reaction roll, and to their credit, used his ignorance of the current situation, and their knowledge of the existing enmity of the cultists and the gnolls to get him onto their side.
Technically Macreus only speaks Thracian and Ancient Thracian, the former of which some of the PC’s can piece together, the latter of which is supposed to be mostly lost to time. I’ve let the PC’s who speak the modern language piece together a few words of ancient in the dungeon though, and ultimately I let them carry out a full on conversation using the alignment language of Law.
Alignment languages are a weird feature of the game. B/X only has three alignments: Lawful, Neutral, Chaotic, and any character can speak a language tied to their alignment. It seems like this would eliminate any advantage for having a high intelligence and speaking additional languages, as the party’s edgy, chaotic character can just talk to all the monsters.
Because Caverns of Thracia was originally written for AD&D, not B/X specifically, Macreus actually has a two-part alignment: Lawful Evil, which makes sense for a death cult leader. So Thelma Turge, lawful magic user, was able to talk to him no problem.
There is an encounter later in the dungeon that includes a chart to roll on which takes Intelligence into account, to determine the accuracy of communication between people who don’t share a language. The intent seems to be that you can use it anywhere in the module (and presumably elsewhere in your campaign, too), but the presence of alignment languages kind of circumvents that as well.
I have come around to the philosophy that giving the players more information is almost always better than giving them less, and challenges that just occlude information from the players are usually not going to be interesting. In this case, as soon as Macreus gave them a huge exposition dump, they started plotting about whether to seek the temple, or the sphynx, about the best route out, about whether to try and return to town first or push onward. Having meaningful, actionable intelligence can be what separates an interesting, player-driven sandbox from a game where they are just aimlessly roving down corridors running into monsters.
While Thracia and other modules often have rumor tables, where new characters can roll for hints, they are often so vague as to be kind of useless until the players are more familiar with the adventure location, and they are also often seeded with false rumors and red herrings. There’s something about just saying “there is interesting and valuable stuff in places X, Y, and Z, have at it” that immediately gets things moving in a more interesting direction.