Planar Adventures

The Demon’s Axe: A D&D Adventure Starring Planescape’s Molydeus

Mordenakainen’s Tome of Foes introduces the Molydeus, a demon that stands out from its fellow fiends.  The Molydeus is the only Guardian Demon and serves a distinct and almost un-demon-like purpose: policing the will of the demon princes.

It possesses a singularly powerful magical weapon, a vorpal axe, which automatically decapitates its target should the Molydeus roll a natural 20 on its attack.  Although the axe is destroyed upon the Molydeus’s death, it retains its power even when wielded by those other than the Molydeus so long as the Molydeus lives.

In this way the Molydeus resembles the Modron, whose body parts survive when dismembered, but only so long as the Modron themselves remain alive.  When one dies, it and all its constituent parts turn to ash, and another Modron spawns on Mechanus to take its place. An official Planescape adventure, “The Great Modron March,” plays on this idea, featuring a BBEG who dismembers Modron, affixes their parts to his subordinates to create super soldiers, and keeps the Modron alive in appalling conditions.

Similarly, the DM’s Guide in the box set “Hellbound: The Blood War,” describes a pit fiend that has stolen a Molydeus’s weapon and keeps the creature alive in captivity in order to wield it.  The materials stopped at that brief description, never creating an arc for a full adventure.

Let’s do that today.

Designing the Adventure of The Demon’s Axe

Molydeus are well-suited for adventures that feature political intrigue and backstabbing.  As their purpose is to punish those who defy the demon princes, it makes sense that any Molydeus in a DND adventure is currently tracking down one or more demonic transgressors and the demon being tracked by the Molydeus is seeking to evade capture.

Our premise here is that the axe has been stolen and the Molydeus kept alive to enable another to wield it.  So who has stolen the axe? It could either be the demon that is target of the Molydeus’s wrath or a third-party who agrees to help the targeted demon evade capture in exchange for the axe.

Now perhaps evil PCs would be willing to help a demon evade capture and take the axe for themselves by locking the Molydeus away in a planar prison.  Good or neutral parties, however, may recoil from placing a creature, even a demon, in a prison of eternal torment just to steal from it. So we will introduce yet another layer to this onion of political intrigue--a fourth party who does not want the third party to possess the axe.  The quest will begin with the fourth party commissioning the PCs to destroy the Molydeus, though the fourth party will omit or mislead the PCs about key details, describing the mission as a quest to destroy a demon experiment gone wrong before it’s too late.

Ideally, this mess of political intrigue will hold itself together, and the DM will be able to keep the PCs largely in the dark, until all is revealed by the Molydeus itself at the climax of the adventure.  The PCs will need to make a difficult choice that creates winners and losers on all sides, reaping the consequences of whatever they choose.

A Horrible Experiment: Describing the Quest to the PCs

Aram Oakwright, a high ranking member of the Fated faction, invites the party to attend the unveiling ceremony of a statue of Duke Rowan Darkwood, the faction’s leader.   The PCs witness Factol Darkwood brandish an axe of incredible magical energy as he speaks at the ceremony. After the ceremony, Aram pulls the party aside to offer them a secret mission.

In his tower in the 313th layer of the Abyss, the dread Balor Illssender conducts rogue experiments in the name of the Demon Prince Graz’zt, seeking to create a powerful new type of demon that can bypass the Lady of Pain’s wards and help Graz’zt conquer Sigil.  If the Fated can pre-emptively handle this threat, Factol Darkwood hopes to be elected Speaker in Sigil’s House of Speakers, breaking tradition and replacing the Factol of the Sign of the One who currently holds that role. Aram heard of the PCs’ exploits and wants them to travel there and destroy the experiment before it’s too late.  The Fated will reward the PCs very handsomely if they succeed on this quest.

The True Purpose of Killing the Molydeus

Graz’zt sent the Molydeus, his personal enforcer, to murder Ilssender.  The Balor’s crime? Illssender, Graz’zt believes, has begun to acquire such a reputation of charm and debauchery as to rival and diminish his own.  After Rowan Darkwood learned this through his web of informants throughout the planes, he offered to help protect Illsender and catch the Molydeus in exchange for the Balor keeping the Molydeus alive and giving the Duke its axe.  The Molydeus now lies bound in chains in a secret dungeon in Illsender’s “Pleasure Palace,” the name he has given his tower. Each day, acid drips from the torture device holding the Molydeus, blinding it and rendering it unable to use its formidable strength and magic to escape.

Aram learned these facts as Factol Darkwood’s righthand man and Chief Steward of the Fated’s Hall of Records.  He also knows the means of traveling to Illsender’s Pleasure Palace, which the Balor provided to Factol Darkwood when he and his men traveled to the Abyss to help catch the Molydeus.  

Aram is a relative of the former Factol, Emma Oakwright, who Rowan Darkwood deposed and exiled in order to take control of the Fated.  Aram is plotting to bring Emma Oakwright back to power with other Fated who admire Darkwood’s ambition but are wary of his recklessness.  Before Aram can launch his coup d’etat against the Duke, he must first rid the Duke of the powerful axe that makes him an incomparable fighter.  To destroy the Molydeus and its axe, he hires the PCs, as he fears that relying on any fellow Fated to take on the task would leave him vulnerable to betrayal.  

Traveling to the Abyss

The PCs travel to the 313th layer of the Abyss according to the instructions provided by Aram.  If the DM prefers they embark on a longer journey, that may involve riding down the Styx on a boat piloted by a Merrenoloth, a Yugoloth boatsmen.  Along the way, the party may encounter rampaging demons or unpredictable waters that threaten to expose the party to the waters of the Styx, which causes all therein submersed to lose their former memories.

If the Adventure is being prepared as a one-shot, or if the PCs are frequent travelers to the lower planes, the DM may wish to handwave the journey by creating a direct portal to Ilssender’s Pleasure Palace.  The portal would be one of the windows in the devil-themed Sensorium in the Lower War, “Nine Layers of Pleasure,” and the key would be imagining a perverse act, either specified by the DM or left unnamed.

Illsender’s Pleasure Palace

I will leave the details of the Pleasure Palace to the DM.  They should match both the characters’ level and the players’ comfort level with sexually oriented or deviant material.  If the DM has any question about the latter, she should consult with the players and make sure everyone is on the same page, possibly adding safe words or other signals a player can use to signal discomfort.

The design goal of the Palace is threefold.  

First, a pleasure palace in the Abyss is a roleplaying structure to reflect on sexual mores, morality, and the taboo.  Graz’zt, the demon Prince who Illsender emulates, is described in Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes (p.148) as “a master of charm and subtle manipulation,” who “considers restriction the only sin.”  His lairs are described as “pleasure palaces where nothing is forbidden, save moderation or kindness.” In keeping with this description and in order to facilitate reflection without unduly pushing players’’ boundaries, everything that takes place in in the Palace should be consensual, though perhaps the subtle nature and critical importance of consent itself could be one of the philosophical questions prompted by the adventure.

Second, the DM should provide clues that Aram has not been completely honest with the PCs.  For example, those present in the Pleasure Palace might be aware of certain facts about the Molydeus locked in the basement.  These may include a) it is a Molydeus, a guardian demon; b) it was captured and brought to the Pleasure Palace with the help of some humans; or c) it is perpetually kept in a weakened state to prevent it from escaping.  The DM should also provide hints that Illssender does not, in fact, work for Graz’zt. On the contrary, residents of the Palace know that Illssender worries about Graz’zt’s plots against him. These hints will set the stage for the climactic scene where the PC’s encounter the Molydeus, below.

Third, the adventures within the palace should appropriately drain the party’s resources before the showdown with Illsender, the final boss. How many encounters the GM includes ought to depend on the strength of her PCs, how she runs games, and whether this is a one-shot or longer adventure.  If the GM believes a Balor is too challenging for her PCs, perhaps the Balor arrives unprepared for battle and without one or both of its weapons, having just pulled itself away from a sexual encounter. The timing of this final battle is critical, as it should occur immediately after the climactic encounter with the Molydeus.

The Climax: The True Nature of the “Experiment” Revealed

After working their way through the Pleasure Palace and expending a significant amount of their resources, the PCs should finally reach the dungeon room holding the Molydeus (I picture the torture scene in the Princess Bride as the setting for this encounter, though it could be more like a converted BDSM dungeon).  There the PCs find a twisted abomination of a demon, much like Aram told them. Closer inspection reveals, however, that the demon is not being transformed into a powerful new weapon, but rather is being tortured and imprisoned.

As they approach the Molydeus, it asks the PCs if they were sent by Lord Graz’zt to free it.  When the PCs say no, disappointed, it asks them to free it and tells them it needs to hunt down the person who stole its axe and imprisoned it here.  At this time, the Molydeus does not know that its captor was Factol Darkwood, though it has seen its captor and could give a physical description.

If the PCs continue to engage it in conversation, it will correctly surmise that whoever sent the PCs to kill it wants to deprive whoever possesses the axe of access to the weapon.  The players then must choose between killing the Molydeus, leaving it in captivity, and freeing it.

At the climactic moment the players resolve how they wish to handle this decision, Illssender breaks into the Dungeon, declares his outrage that his Pleasure Palace has been thus defiled, and attacks the PCs.  If Illsender defeats the PCs, he enslaves them and sends them off to the front lines of the Blood War under his unit’s command. Otherwise, once the PCs defeat Illssender, resistance within the palace fades and the PCs are free to return to Sigil at their leisure.   

Consequences of the Players’ Choices

If the players leave the Molydeus chained to its torture device, Factol Darkwood will retain his weapon and Aram’s plot will be foiled.  Aram will come after the PCs and attempt to destroy the evidence of his treachery by murdering them. If the PCs report all of this back to Factol Darkwood, he will promote the PCs, and they will become his trusted agents.

If the PCs free the Molydeus, it immediately will assist them in fighting Illssender.  Thereafter, it will hunt down and kill Rowan Darkwood. Aram will not know of the fiend’s plans, however, and will believe that his own plot has been foiled, so he will first come after the PCs and attempt to kill them to destroy the evidence of his treachery.  The Molydeus may later murder Aram as well.

If the PCs kill the Molydeus, its weapon will disappear and Aram’s coup d’etat will succeed.  The rebels will kill Rowan Darkwood, and Emma Oakwright will regain her title as Factol of the Fated.  The PCs will become one of Emma’s most favored and trusted agents. She will not tell the PCs the link between their actions and the Duke’s death.  If she learns that the PCs know of this connection, she will either murder the PCs or frame them for the Duke’s death.

Making the Scenario Your Own

Note that almost all of the specifics here could be replaced to suit the needs of the DM’s own campaign.  The PCs could be approached by the deputy of any organization, told to travel to any location, and asked to kill any being that is keeping alive the Molydeus.  The key plot point that holds it all together is that the questgiver wishes to overthrow its boss but must first deprive that boss of the Molydeus’s powerful axe, which can only be accomplished by slaying the Molydeus itself.

Political backstabbing of this type is common to all fantasy worlds, so the adventure of The Demon’s Axe could be a one-shot adventure in a common fantasy world, or a whole adventure path in a Planescape campaign.

Footnote

The Molydeus is unique for another reason: its representative miniature ranks among D&D’s most rare and expensive.  Ral Partha produced an unpainted metal version in its acclaimed Planescape 11-series, then re-released the miniature in gem-studded pewter under the Partha Pewter label.  The Molydeus typically fetches the highest auction prices among 11-series miniatures. TSR and WOTC have never released a pre-painted Molydeus.

References

This article referenced material from the official Planescape publications Hellbound the Blood War, pg.24, and The Factol’s Manifesto, pg. 62.

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