Engong took the first watch. She paced around the room, studying the model castle, and taking in every inch of its fine detail. It was amazing how somebody had perfectly crafted Strahd’s impressive stronghold. Suddenly her bag began to shake and vibrate. A vivid green glow started to pour out from within, then smoke billowed forth. With a hideous screech, a pristine skull wreathed in green flame erupted from her pack, followed by two more. “Oh no,” she thought, “Here we go again.” She was still grinning madly.
Last night we played the 49th session in our epic online Curse of Strahd D&D campaign. Our level seven characters have been suffering the torment of Wizards of the Coast’s latest harrowing adventure, set around the legendary Castle Ravenloft, and last night’s session gave us no let-up from the torment.
Our party of five were all able to play last night, and aside from some minor microphone hiccups, there were no problematic interruptions; for once technology and children behaved themselves in equal measure.
Last session only three of us were able to play so the group was separated, breaking the golden rule of D&D: Don’t split the party. We were exploring the Amber Temple, an ancient prison that promised to hold “knowledge of the ancients that will help us destroy our enemy,” as if that wasn’t a vague enough objective.
All we have found so far are numerous broken sarcophagi, each holding a different ancient, powerful, demonic entity, who all attempt to seduce us with dark gifts. Three of our party have accepted these gifts, only for them to have semi-dire consequences. Engong our leader took two dark powers—the power of endurance (additional hit points), and the power to spy on our enemies—and her skin became covered in dark oily fur and now an evil grin permanently adorns her face. Baräsh, our once pious paladin, accepted the dark gift of Truesight, and now he believes all life is pointless and is obsessed with dying a glorious death. And our wizard non-player-character, Victor, joined Engong in accepting the power to scry on others; he too gained a permanent evil grin and now only talks in whispers.
Meanwhile, after rejecting all the obviously evil “gifts” and trying desperately to remain unfazed by the Amber Temple, Kosef the Rogue innocently picked up a staff from a deceased wizard and became immediately cursed with the permanent character flaw, “I crave power above all else, and will do anything to obtain more of it.”
Engong and Her Associates are:
Engong – Half-Orc Monk, leader, has a manic grin and is covered in oily fur;
Baräsh – Dragonborn Paladin, obsessed with death and has black voids for eyes;
Kosef – Human Rogue/Wizard, craves power above all else, played by me;
Brundle Swash – Gnome Druid, occasionally turns into a bear;
Gimble Timbers – Gnome Fighter, has lost his pet dog called Kevon;
Victor – Human (Teenage) Wizard-in-Training, recently resurrected, NPC;
Ireena – Human Fighter, Strahd’s would-be bride, devotee of the Morning Lord, NPC.
One hour earlier, as one half of the party ran up the stairs, the gnomes dashed in the other direction out of the corridor and entered the large chamber with the ominous amber statue. They were hot on the heels of the nothics, following to see if they could find out more about this odd place. Remembering the rays of fire that greeted them here before, Brundle Swash kept to the walls as he dashed up the stairs. Suddenly the room was bathed in an emerald glow as green light shore out of the arrow slots along the wall. This startled the strange skittering nothics and Gimble Timbers watched as they all made for a small, unnoticed crack in the wall, scrambling to safety.
All this was happening simultaneously with what occurred in last week’s session. In fact, the green glow was the rest of the party being attacked by three fearsome flameskulls. So Gimble and Brundle, fearing the green light meant an imminent attack, followed the nothics into their hidey-hole.
They emerged in a large chamber lit with braziers and candles. They were greeted by the horrid perfume of the ancient dead. The nothics had clearly made this room their nest and ignored the gnome adventurers as they explored, refusing to answer any questions. Amongst the debris, which was mostly ruined books and tattered robes, Gimble found a small ring. It was clearly magical but neither he nor Brundle could identify it. At this point they heard a large thud coming from somewhere above them. Assuming the noise was Victor, no doubt pressing a button he shouldn’t, they decided to go find the rest of the party.
Leaving the room, Brundle headed up the stairs again towards where the green lights had come from. But before Gimble had a chance to follow him, a burst of electricity shot out from the amber statue, hitting the stairs. Both gnomes ran for cover and eventually, after dodging three more bolts of lightning, found their way to outside the room where the rest of the party was beginning their rest. A green glow was seeping out from the cracks around the door.
Gimble opened it and saw a compact room with a model castle in the center, Engong thrashing a glowing bag against the wall, two emerald skulls unleashing fire rays, and the rest of the party looking around dazed and confused.
Flameskulls: round two! We had just fought these creatures last session, but for some reason we decided to put their skull fragments in a bag and carry it around with us. We hadn’t realized that they would reassemble after just an hour and resume their evil activity—apparently only sprinkling them with holy water would prevent this. At least this time our party was at full strength to fight them. Which made it a much quicker combat than before.
After the encounter we continued our rest and awoke eight hours later with hit points and spell slots fully restored. Sadly, all those who had gained additional flaws and detrimental features still had those to contend with.
What could go possibly wrong?
Once we had recounted our individual adventures, mistakes and all, Baräsh had a proposition that he believed would help us in our quest to defeat Strahd. He suggested one person take ALL the dark gifts here in the temple and use them to scry on Strahd, looking at him through truesight, to see his natural form. Baräsh was convinced that Strahd was created here in the Amber Temple and herein we would find his weakness.
None of us could come up with a good enough reason not to do this—apart from me saying, “it’s insane, let’s not do that”—so Engong volunteered to be the one to take all the pacts. We headed back to a previous room and Engong accepted two more gifts: truesight (her eyes turned into dark nebulae) and the strength of fire (her strength score became 25!). She also gained two additional flaws: “fire terrifies me” and “I like to bully others and make them feel weak and inferior.”
But that wasn’t all. When she took her third dark pact, our DM asked Engong to roll a charisma saving throw. She failed the roll and her alignment permanently shifted to evil.
Having taken the required gifts, Engong then used her abilities to scry on Strahd. She was looking for evidence of his true form. Our DM explained what she saw:
“You see Strahd standing angrily in his dungeon. He is yelling at a collection of vampire spawns, who all flinch as he does. He is clearly angry. But you see no evidence of him being created by these dark powers.”
With that settled, we wanted to continue exploring the temple. Brundle, Gimble, and Kosef were all convinced that the secret to defeating Strahd could still be found here, and we hadn’t investigated the east side of the temple at all. As we crossed the main amber room, Gimble glimpsed a bespectacled, human-sized fox, wearing elegant robes, walking on its hind legs and carrying a number of scrolls under one arm. He saw it for only a second and then it vanished.
We explored further and found more amber rooms. One had walls that were polished like a mirror, only our reflections were silently screaming at us, waving their arms in the air as if desperately warning us of the danger ahead. We ignored the warnings and came to a corridor with multiple exits. Ahead we could hear voices around a corner, so Kosef and Brundle, intending to avoid the voices, opened the first door they saw. They were faced with a giant, vaguely man-shaped construct, whose head scraped the 10-foot-high ceiling of this small room. An investigation check revealed it to be an inactive shield guardian—if only we could find the control amulet…
Earlier, Baräsh had also taken the strength-of-fire pact, so he also gained the flaw “I bully others…” Thankfully he didn’t also become evil. But, when he saw three hags in the corner of a corridor, he couldn’t help but start to bully and mock them.
“Hello friendships, you must be the ugliest hags I’ve ever seen. Has anyone told you it’s not cool to wear black tatty robes? Nobody likes you.” The three hags all raised their heads and as one they turned to face the dragonborn. He grinned, turned to Engong and Victor, who were also grinning, drew his mighty war-hammer and charged towards them screaming murder, seeking death, and imagining glory. END
OK, we HAVE to stop collecting these clearly evil powers. If it wasn’t already obvious enough before, now one of us actually IS evil. What this means for the party remains to be seen, but surely our goals can no longer be aligned?
This whole Amber Temple, although lots of fun, seems to have slightly derailed the campaign. If I were DMing, I’d be really worried about how all these new flaws, alignments, and serious fundamental character changes would affect the game. But to give him his due, our DM seems to have taken it all in stride and is showing no outward signs of panic. In fact, I think he’s really enjoying corrupting us all and turning once good characters to the dark side.
Also, I’m pretty sure that the fox-person Gimble saw was an Arcanaloth. This is a super powerful fiendish creature who devours knowledge. Hopefully it’s a helpful, fiendish, knowledge-devourer who will aid us in sessions to come…
What did we learn?
DM Tip: Players make stupid decisions. Give them a choice and they’re bound to take the one option you least want them to. As such, it’s OK to have a back-up plan, just in case they go off the rails. Alternatively you can let them make poor choices, and see just how far down the rabbit hole they want to go. In our case, the campaign book suggests that once a player turns evil through making dark pacts, the DM should take control, using them as an NPC. Our DM decided not to do this, instead warning Engong that there will be times when he will seize control of her, making her act according to the dark powers’ will.
Player Tip: Don’t get too worried or bogged down in whether you’re “playing right.” It doesn’t matter if you’ve been playing a rule slightly differently from the rulebook; as long as you’re all having fun, then you’re doing it right.
Next week we’ll begin by dealing with these Hags. Then we’ll have to work out how to manage our party, now that our leader has turned evil. Perhaps this is the moment Kosef has been waiting for to seize power. “Kosef and Co.” sounds like a good name for an adventuring group…