Prisoner of the Castle Perilous

A Walk Through the Planes – Part 121: The Last Vestiges of Third Edition




While Elder Evils would’ve been a strong, worthy way for Dungeons & Dragons‘ Third Edition to come to an end, that wasn’t what came to pass. During the weird period of time between the publication of that final book for Third Edition and the first books for Fourth Edition, Wizards of the Coast needed to keep interest in the game, plus they’d unceremoniously removed the licensing for Dragon and Dungeon from Paizo… without actually hiring a new set of editors, designers, etc. to make the magazines, despite having quite a lot of time to prepare. Eventually, both periodicals would be rebirthed as true online entities, but in the meantime they pseudo-existed as sets of articles that Wizards called issues. Essentially, this is a bit of a lost period for both magazines, and occasionally what they contained can be difficult to even find today. Which isn’t to say that they had nothing of value, just that they were weirdly mismanaged, which—this isn’t a mark against the many writers and illustrators who contributed to them. 

Still, Wizards didn’t want to put the resources into publishing anything truly substantial for Third Edition, which meant that the freelance contributions tended to be less of the magazines’ old regulars. I decided to rope all of these contributions together more as a historical curiosity than as a selection of articles to actually hunt down and pursue. It’s all just as “official” as any other releases for these magazines, but you can tell that the publisher’s heart had moved on by now. If you thought that Paizo losing the publishing rights to these magazines was the end of them until Fourth Edition you’d be wrong, but not in a way that’s all that relevant, as for the most part these articles all disappeared into the depths of the internet, only to be dredged up by real weirdos like me. 

Cultists gonna cult. The art for this article was drawn by UDON Comics, and from hereon out many pieces of D&D art would be made by similarly titled entities rather than individual artists.

The most relevant of these releases, and the one I originally planned on covering with its own article, is “Prisoner of Castle Perilous,” by Stephen S. Greer from Dungeon #153 (January/February 2008). Remember how back in Second Edition it seemed like we were always headed to the Negative Energy Plane in order to foil liches’ plots? Well this is a nice homage to that era of adventure, and more than that another riff on the old Tomb of Horrors. I’m tempted to quote the entire adventure background, but instead I’ll just summarize it by saying that Acerak made a clone of himself to watch over a prison made up of one tower from Moil, which you also probably remember from Second Edition’s Return to the Tomb of Horrors. Acerak himself died with the culmination of that adventure, but his clone lived on, forgotten, and began growing in power to the point that soon he might become a demilich like his progenitor. At the moment, he’s still stuck in the tower daddy made him guard, but once he sucks the souls from a few more heroes he’ll be essentially full-on Acerak 2.0. For one of several reasons, the PCs need to go there, likely rescue someone having their soul sucked by his soul-sucking artifact, and defeat Acerak’s clone. 


Given that it’s meant as an homage to Gygax’s original Tomb module, it shouldn’t come as a huge surprise that almost all of the plot is in this preface, while the actual adventure is essentially a dungeon crawl. This is totally fine, and I actually kinda like the clone solution to bringing back Acerak, as it hearkens to the kinda-terrible 90s superhero comics I grew up on. That being said, it’s a dungeon crawl designed for 18th-level characters, so not something I can see myself ever playing. For the capstone of the edition, though, it’s a good idea, and Greer does an excellent job creating a new gauntlet that may even prove a challenge to adventurers of this level, though on that count I have trouble telling from just a read through.

Highlights of the tower include its voidstone doors (as a method of making infiltration difficult for even this level of PC), a hilarious head-in-a-jar keeping out divination, and an eladrin being kept in a bottle between a pair of card playing death giants. There aren’t quite as many traps as in the original Tomb or its Return, but the ones included do seem deadly. The main demerit here comes not from the adventure itself, but that even at this late stage Wizards insisted on using its asinine encounter format. Admittedly, there are a lot of encounters for a single location adventure like this, but even so it splits the content awkwardly, and sometimes important information is hidden in the encounters that isn’t even related to them (a full sidebar about other castles floating in the Negative Energy Plane is relegated to this status). If you’re looking for even more adventures concerning Acerak, this is a good place to look, and I was impressed with the whole work, sans the cartography by Kyle S. Hunter, but it’s essentially a small footnote on the whole Acerak saga that doesn’t lead to anything else particularly noteworthy. 


That wasn’t the only planar jaunt in this issue, though, the next article being “Teleport Gone Awry” by David Noonan. The idea here is to offer up an idea for a “similar location” players could accidentally teleport to when they have a miscast. In reality, it’s just an excuse for Noonan to bring back his beloved Mind Flayers of Thoon. There’s not really anything else here, but we do learn what Thoon soldiers will say in these instances, including “Slaughter for Thoon!”, “All will burn for Thoon!”, “Walk with Thoon!”, “Death blooms in the name of Thoon! Thoon! Thoon!”, and “Stand and fight! Thoon is Thoon!” Which, you know what, I suppose they’re right, Thoon is Thoon. 


Lastly, there’s a peripherally planar-related adventure that truly straddles the line between editions. “Touch of Madness” by Robert J. Schwalb was a Third Edition adventure written as part one of a three-part campaign originally called The Tear of Ioun. However, both of its later parts were only published for Fourth Edition, and as such it would actually be quite a while before part two, “Depths of Madness,” was published (this wasn’t until Dungeon #162 in January 2009, at which point the series was renamed the Madness Trilogy). Like a lot of Fourth Edition adventures, it concerns an extraplanar invasion, in this case from the Far Realm, specifically the kaorti. However, since this is only peripherally planar, and includes three full pages detailing the background and with it talking at length about the tiresome Fourth Edition cosmology and setting, I took the liberty of skipping it almost entirely. I’m sorry, I just don’t have the time or patience for this sort of thing. 

Apparently epic binders look pretty sweet. No idea who drew it or any other pieces of art for this issue.

Meanwhile, Dragon was in a weird place where it largely focused on previewing Fourth Edition, but kept publishing a trickle of Third Edition articles as well. By this point they’d given up on the PDF format until the next edition was fully out, and instead versions you’ll find today are literally mockups from the website that fans threw together for the sake of archiving the game’s history. The last issue to have any Third Edition content was #363, in April of 2008. There’s two pieces here that I want to highlight, the biggest surprise being “Epic Binders” by Eytan Bernstein. 


Now, I hate the epic add-on of the game game as much (more than?) anyone, but I still like seeing more vestiges added to D&D. Much of this article concerns dumb epic-level rules, but there’s also four more vestiges added to the game, thereby making me as usual wrong when I say that I included all of them before. These are: Amun-her Khepeshef; Zuriel “the Bronze God”; Gaia, “Soul of the Land”; and Tkhaluuljin “the Cephalopocalypse.” Entertainingly Gaia and Tkhaluuljin became vestiges at the same time when he ate her and found her indigestible. Whoops! I also appreciate that Zuriel was a god who sacrificed himself to save his people from the githyanki… and failed, thereby killing both his people and himself. Double whoops! While this article is only academically interesting, it is entertaining to see this obscure class continue being featured until the very end. We’ll get to what became of these pacts in later editions soon enough….

The art for the Havoc Orb was even uncredited in the reprint. I like it, and the fey nonsense makes more sense in Fifth Edition than it ever did in Third.

Finally, our last bit of planar content for the edition was “The Havoc Orb,” a monster “Based on the results of the ‘You Craft the Creature’ feature on the D&D website.” As such, its author is “the D&D Community (final stats by Robert Wiese),” but it’s still a cool concept, and much to my huge surprise was brought into Fifth Edition in 2018.


The havoc orb is a living mechanism from a distant plane that leads retinues of evil fey creatures in a great effort to eliminate all chaos from the multiverse, including life. It resents even the chaos of its fey retinue, but it suffers them until all other chaos is eliminated because it plans to destroy them last of all.

The havoc orb is a living mechanism. It is created in a factory on some distant lawful plane through an unknown process. To create one, the very fabric of chaos from Limbo is taken and carefully urged into an order that is metastable. It is because of this metastability that havoc orbs go mad when confronted with a non-ordered reality that they must compute, calculate, and model internally.

These creatures are always lawful evil. They begin existence as lawful neutral creatures on their home plane, which is a place of perfect order easy for them to understand. As soon as they experience any other reality, they go mad and twist to evil. This may seem a stark contradiction to its body, but it is a creature of perfectly ordered chaos and thus coexists with its own incongruity.

The whole evil fey thing is completely unexplained and undefined, essentially seeming like a tacked on remnant of the monster’s strange real world origin, but otherwise this seems like something that could be fun to use. I could easily see this being the creation of the Harmonium gone awry, and a plot surrounding this practically writes itself.

And that’s it. The edition is done, long live the new edition. On a note for the surprising number of people following along with this column, I suspect that these articles will slow down due to both my lack of familiarity with the system—I only played a dozen or so sessions of Fourth Edition before moving over to Pathfinder back in the day, and since then I haven’t touched it—and that its revision of the game’s lore was a fucking mess and a half. But I’ve committed to checking it out, and perhaps there are some hidden gems laying within the wasteland of its craptitude. I’m doubtful, but hey, as noted above I’m wrong all the time, so let’s give it a shot and see what we can find.

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