So, last time we played, the party had just descended from level four (Sewers) to level seven (Vats, Library Top) via a manhole in the sewers. Then family drama arose in our group and more than half the table had to leave to go deal with it.
So, yesterday we finally got back.
The hatch in L7 opens up to a very nonthreatening area: the YMCA, basically. There are showers, a cafeteria and a rec room. The cafeteria had a table of dwarves and two tables of gnomes, as well as the ubiquitous Spanish-speaking halfling line cooks and their kobold overseer (this is a running gag in the megadungeon: all the low-level food-service workers are Hispanic halflings, and all of their bosses are kobolds with Outrageous French Accents). The cafeteria also has an orc named Gladys, with rhinestone-studded eyeglass frames, working checkout. You get a plate full of brown glop, green glop, yellow glop, or orange glop for a copper. They were out of orange. They're always out of orange.
The dwarves were wearing miners' outfits. The gnomes were wearing green surgical scrubs.
The rec room has a dartboard, a pool table, a couple of chess/backgammon/checkers sets, a coin-operated beer tap, a fireplace, and some couches. It also had a deeply asleep orc, who shortly had "BALLS" written on his forehead and his hand placed in a bowl of warm water.
Then the party did some 'splorin'. They found the gnomes' apartments, and laid in wait for them. A little fairly unmotivated murder later they had a hideout on L7. A bit more exploring and they had found the Feasthall and kitchens, and, again, did some more murdering and now they have a More Different Hideout. About this time I stopped giving experience for randomly whacking low-level NPCs.
Then, having extracted a level map from one of their victims, they set off for the Flesh Vats.
Now, I had originally wanted to do this all Brave New World or Star Wars Bacta Tanks, with big glass cylinders and gleaming white floors and stuff, but I decided, instead, that there was a reason Gary-Stu used gnomes as his Flesh Vats staff: it's all fleshy and constrictive and you have to squeeze your way through it and everything's all covered in blood and eventually you find the cysts where the replacement creatures are growing.
The party made a halfhearted attempt at killing the vats with some flaming oil and some poisoned crossbow bolts, and although Ruby Red got her face singed by reopening the door while the fire was still burning and that part of the vats was convulsing, she did not encounter any of the Leukocytes, which I'm really looking forward to. They ignore gnomes, I've decided. (It gets very Fantastic Voyage in there.)
Then they took the stairs up to Level five; the stairs open into the Halls Of Bone, and a critical failure on a flaming oil toss later, the party headed back downstairs having killed only a few of the skeletons. A rest-up, a heal-up, and another foray later, they retreated in disarray with at least six skeletons left, and decided to take their chances on Level Six.
This opened out into the Dwarven Mines, where one Charm Person later the assayer was very helpful, telling them to avoid the pudding in the Big Room, and the general locations of Stonybrook Farms, with Mary the Medusa and Zeke the basilisk, the Troll Caves, Edgar's Tower, and the rumor that there was a back door to level five somewhere in the northwest corner.
So the party headed up there, figured out that it was probably somewhere in the rough 40' square that they couldn't get into, busted out their wand of Secret Door Detection, and went in through Aaron Diggory's crypt.
They read the inscriptions over the other 11 crypts, got properly weirded out, and headed up into the center of the Unholy Cathedral on Level 5. A brief but not dangerous fight with the gargoyles ensued, and then the wand was busted out to find the rooms they were sure were in the northwest corner.
This got them into Carlotta the Vampire's lair. I talked up the library and its contents of trashy vampire erotic novels. Then they went looking for the vampire, and very nearly got wiped out. Third-level characters--even six of them--have no business going toe-to-toe with a vampire, even a fairly weak one. However, Aimee's roleplaying (!!!) saved the day. She ran from the combat, back to the library, and told me, "I'm looking for that signed first edition of The Vampire Lestat." Well, one Mind check later--an easy one, because, you know, it's in a glass case all by itself set off with little skull candlesticks--she had it, and ran back to the combat (where two of five people were still standing), tossed the book into the coffin, and tossed some flaming oil onto it.
This caused Carlotta to take a break from slaughtering the party so she could dive on the book and smother the flames, which allowed the party to get enough good hits in that Carlotta changed into bat form (so she could take the book) and tried to get away.
And Aimee saved the day again: she had, clearly written down on her character sheet, the ogre-sized tube of lube she'd looted from Jack and Ennis, the cowboy ogres on L3. Which she squirted all over the bat, which dropped the now-slippery book, and the party actually managed to kill (well, "kill") Carlotta while she was trying to save the book.
I think I might have been overly nice with Level Drains--although they immediately take effect in a combat (and were enough to drive everyone they happened to unconscious), if you kill (or, uh, "reduce to zero hit points") the thing that caused them to happen, then you only permanently lose half the XP in your current level. Mainly because I didn't want to have to replay Levels One through Three again to let the party rebuild their strength.
Then the party found the abbot's kitchen staff, and were about to bust into his private chambers; at that point Amy was nodding off in her chair, so we decided to call it a night. Overall, this was six or seven hours of roleplaying. I had a good time (although it was exhausting), and we saw a couple of interesting-to-me points. #1, correctly incentivizing the players does work--once they realized that murdering NPCs wasn't helping them, they stopped. #2, random bits of stuff will assemble themselves into a coherent narrative if you just let your players run with the ball. I had no plan in mind for what the players might do with the ogres' lube, and I didn't really have much in mind for Carlotta's literary tastes, but Aimee's suggestions made perfect sense in context. #3, your players WANT to creep themselves out. We saw this with the Flesh Vats and the Twelve Named Crypts.