Baräsh saw the odd fox-like Arcanaloth spot him, drop the scrolls they were carrying, and point a vulpine finger his way. Suddenly a bright blue streak of electricity flew out from the finger tip and arced across the room, slamming into Baräsh’s bare chest and shocking him fiercely. It leapt to Kosef, and from Kosef to Brundle, Brundle to Gimble, and then to the others. They all yelled in agony as the lightning bolt scorched their bodies. Ireena fell silently to the floor.
Last night was session 51 in our online Curse of Strahd D&D campaign, and to begin with we were in a whole heap of trouble. To make matters worse our Gnome Druid wasn’t able to join us – he’d forgotten what day of the week it was and was halfway through a Super Mario Maker marathon and he couldn’t possibly stop midway. Otherwise we were all present and correct and there were no interruptions.
Our party of adventurers, Engong and Her Associates, have been exploring the Amber Temple, searching for the means to destroy a vampire, Lord Strand Von Zarovich. So far we have not had much joy. Instead of finding a secret weapon to defeat our foe we have found only curses and evil contracts. In fact, our leader, Engong the half-orc monk, has made so many pacts with evil god-like entities imprisoned in the temple that she has herself turned completely evil and disappeared into an abyssal void. This left the rest of us leaderless and confused. So last session, as we wandered aimlessly round the temple, we were caught entirely off guard by a fiendish, fox-like Arcanaloth, who seemed to be guarding a giant amber statue.
Engong and Her Associates are:
Engong – Evil Half-Orc Monk, Leader, has a manic grin and is covered in oily fur:
Baräsh – Dragonborn Paladin, death-obsessed bully with black voids for eyes;
Gimble Timbers – Gnome Fighter, numb on his left side, mourning his pet dog Kevon;
Kosef – Human Rogue/Wizard, craves power above all else, played by me;
Victor – Human (Teenage) Wizard-in-Training, recently resurrected, NPC;
Ireena – Human Fighter, Strahd’s would-be bride, devotee of the Morning Lord, NPC.
Brundle Swash – Gnome Druid, occasionally turns into a bear, gets electrocuted a lot, ABSENT;
Before the Associates had a chance to react to the attack, a swirling black circle that seemed to rip through reality opened up in front of them. They heard a thud, followed by a groan, and a familiar looking oily-fur-covered half-orc monk came crashing down and landed heavily at their feet. A giant skeletal hand had pushed her through the void, and it pulled at the edges of the vortex which stretched taut for a second and then rolled up swiftly like pulling a cord on a kitchen blind. Engong looked up at the party, who were still reeling from the Arcanaloth’s lightning bolt, she stood up, dusted herself down and said, “Right. Good. You’re all here.”
As this session started we were all expecting our DM to shout “Roll Initiative!” After all, we ended the last session getting lightning-bolted by a crazy fox-person. Instead as soon as Engong arrived we heard the voice of an old man shout from behind the statue, “Eh! What’s all this noise? Nephi? What’s going on?”
What followed certainly took us all by surprise. A very old looking wizard, in tatty ripped robes stepped forward, leaning heavily on a cane. He looked almost dead. His skin was taut around his features and he had clearly not seen the sun for a very long time. He was also very confused. He called for Nephi, who turned out to be the Arcanaloth that had attacked us, and began questioning us about who we were and what we were doing here.
We were all primed for a fight, so didn’t answer his questions. Instead we stood facing him, weapons pointed in his direction demanding to know what was going on. The old man called again for the Arcanaloth to join us, and the weird, fox-like person appeared magically in front of us. She apologized for the lightning bolt and introduced herself as Nepharon.
Baräsh used his divine senses to discover that the old man was undead, probably a lich, and the fox-creature was a fiend. We then explained that we were looking for a way to defeat Strahd. It was at this moment that Gimble Timbers realized that Ireena was dead. The lightning bolt was too much for her.
A fair trade
Gimble was devastated by Ireena’s death; he has been obsessed with her since their first encounter in Barovia. The Lich, seeing Ireena on the ground, tried to bargain with us to let him consume her soul – apparently Liches need souls as nourishment to survive. Gimble was not keen, but now-evil-Engong was willing to hear an offer. We asked for information on Strahd, but the Lich had none.
Nepharon the Arcanaloth, however, did. And she was willing to trade. First she revived Ireena using a resurrection spell as a show of good faith, much to the Lich’s disappointment. Then she made us an offer, “You must become avatars of my will. I ask for 10% of all future earnings, and you will do my bidding whenever I need. I can give you knowledge of how to defeat your enemy in return for your pledge.”
The Arcanaloth was very persuasive. We each failed our charisma checks against her very high persuasion roll and accepted the offer. Although recent events proved that it doesn’t take much for most of us to make a deal with a devil (or fiend) – old habits die Strahd. She held out a piece of parchment with a contract written on it and we each signed in blood. She smiled and handed over a small black tome. It was the Tome of Strahd, the secret to defeating the vampire that we had been searching for. We now had it in our possession, but at what cost?
Note: the Tome of Strahd is a legendary artifact that tells of how Strahd became a vampire – it was a pact with one of the evil sarcophagi entities – and it reveals some of his weaknesses and how to kill him. Here’s a clip of Chris Perkins, DM extraordinaire and author of this campaign reading it to his players in Dice, Camera, Action!
Under new management
First things first, we had to change our name; Nepharon and Associates seemed a fairly obvious choice. Then Kosef, Baräsh and Ireena took a short rest in Nepharon’s quarters, while the Lich took Engong, Gimble, and Victor on a tour of the remaining rooms in the temple.
The first room was a treasure room, filled with piles of gold and jewels and weapons and armor. There was a ten-foot-tall amber golem standing guard over the treasure that the Lich said would only attack if they touched the hoard. Gimble and Engong agreed it was a good thing that Kosef wasn’t with them – he couldn’t resist stealing treasure. Then the Lich took them to a room that had six stone tombs in it. As they approached, the lid of each tomb lifted to reveal a snarling hungry vampire spawn ready to attack. A quick word from the Lich sent the vampire spawns ducking back into their coffins, sliding the lids carefully back into place. Gimble and Engong agreed it was a good thing that Baräsh wasn’t with them – he couldn’t resist killing vampire spawns.
The final room of the tour held a familiar prize. Three amber sarcophagi, each with a dark swirling mist-like entity entombed inside. Engong was very pleased. The Lich explained that the three gifts on offer here were by far the most powerful in the temple, but they came with the highest price.
Gift one: The secrets of Lichdom—only a powerful magician can earn this gift’ thankfully this excluded Engong, Victor, and Gimble.
Gift two: The power to resurrect those you have lost. Engong accepted this power and immediately her skin sank and became sallow and corpse-like. The oily fur that covered her body thanks to a previous pact became ragged and matted and patches fell out.
Gift three: The gift of immortality. Neither Gimble nor Victor were corrupted enough to accept this pact, but unsurprisingly Engong was. She accepted and her soul accepted the deal. This was the same pact that Strahd had entered into and it was how he became a powerful vampire.
The entity called to Engong, “Nourish me with your evil – I am the spirit of the vampire. I will give you life in death.”
Engong knelt down beside the amber coffin, laid her staff at its foot, and placed her head against the cool amber. “I accept this gift,” she said solemnly.
“Oh good,” said the Lich, looking on with grin. “Another one. They haven’t accepted someone in a very long time. Now there’ll be two of them. Oh good.”
“Two?” Asked Gimble Timbers, “Who is the other?
“Strahd, of course.” END
This was a really fun session; all roleplay and no combat. Not only did we finally find the Tome of Strahd, but we also found out how he came to be a vampire in the first place.
It wasn’t all good though: Engong now has the potential to become a vampire like Strahd. To complete the pact she must slay another humanoid who loves or reveres her, or die a violent death at the hands of someone who hates her. Both of those scenarios seem quite likely before the end of this campaign. She also gained another new character flaw, in addition to the ones she has been gathering in the temple: “I am surrounded by hidden enemies all around me. I can trust no one.”
What’s more, as if making pacts with evil sarcophagi-dwelling mysterious entities wasn’t enough for us, now we’ve signed a contract with an Arcanaloth too! Our party has gone from being the good guys trapped in an evil place to evil guys murdering and bargaining our way through Barovia. It would be really interesting to see how these characters would have turned out in a different campaign setting – I imagine less evil perhaps.
What did we learn?
DM Tip: The campaign books are made to be broken. As the DM you are not beholden to every aspect of the story as it is written. You should feel free to develop your own story within the framework of a campaign guide, depending on what it is your players respond to best. In this instance our DM changed quite a lot. He gave the Lich and the Arcanaloth a more interesting narrative, which allowed us to navigate safely around an area that was in danger of becoming a bit of a drag. This had two main benefits. First, it allowed some expediency; at the pace we were going it would have taken another six or seven sessions of two hours each to get out of the Amber Temple, by which time we would have forgotten why we were there and taken every dark pact possible. Second, it got us out of a really dangerous combat encounter that we were very unlikely to win.
Player Tip: Think about teamwork. How do you all work together toward a singular goal? Many online DMs give a similar piece of advice when it comes to having a session 0. This can be a pre-campaign session where the DM sets out his stall and tells you the tone of the campaign to come and the players jointly begin their character creation. From there you can all create a party that might have some synergy and be able to work together well. We didn’t have a session 0 and after 50 plus games it’s a bit late to be thinking about that, but the point about considering how our party synergizes is still valid.
Next week, armed with the Tome of Strahd, we should think about getting out of the Amber Temple. Hopefully we won’t live to regret making a deal with Nepharon the shady Arcanaloth.