Strahd was badly hurt and needed to strategically withdraw. In an instant he transformed into a swarm of bats and darted away, dropping a small vial at Engong’s feet. Curious, she picked it up and un-stoppered it. A jet of wind burst forth like a hurricane. And there, in the center of the party stood a large purple-skinned man holding two gleaming scimitars ready to fight. Baräsh drew his hammer. Gimble readied his bow. Engong’s fists were glowing, and Brundle stood protectively over the unconscious Kosef.
Last night was the 56th session in our ongoing, online Curse of Strahd D&D campaign, and for the first time I would be DMing the session. Our usual DM has just set off on a secret government space mission to colonize Neptune. He will be away for the next three weeks and I have been given the reins to take charge of our session and will strive to ensure I don’t break his campaign.
Note: If you think you see our DM loitering around Hawaii, that’s not him; it’s just a very sophisticated Life Model Decoy.
Rather than carrying on directly with the story, which would require knowledge of the campaign which I shouldn’t have access to, I planned to run a one-shot story from Savage Encounters’ latest supplement, The Mines of Chult, which is available on the DMSguild. I chose the Library of Xer’Stan for last night’s adventure. As well as missing our DM, we were also one gnome fighter down last night, which I was hoping might make my job a little easier…
While searching for ways to defeat Strahd, the party explored the Amber Temple and stumbled upon an Arcanaloth called Nepharon. She forced the party to sign an infernal contract making them her eternal slaves. For now she would let them freely roam Barovia, but at some point she would return, expecting service and loyalty.
At the end of last session, the party was facing a giant, screaming genie. They were all hurt from the battle with Strahd and Kosef had been magically put to sleep.
Nepharon and Associates:
Engong – Evil Half-Orc Monk, Leader, has a manic grin and is covered in oily fur;
Brundle Swash – Gnome Druid, occasionally turns into a bear, gets electrocuted a lot;
Baräsh – Dragonborn Paladin, death-obsessed bully;
Kosef – Human Rogue/Wizard, craves power above all else, played by me; Asleep
Gimble Timbers – Gnome Fighter, numb on his left side, has a pet dog Kevon; Absent
Victor – Human (Teenage) Wizard-in-Training, Missing, NPC;
Ireena – Human Cleric, Strahd’s would-be bride, blessed by St. Andell, NPC.
A strange foggy haze descended on the party. They could feel it affecting their minds, forgetting where they were, what they are doing. For a second they ceased to exist. Then the fog lifted. Their minds coalesced and re-formed. Engong, Brundle, Ireena, and Baräsh stood facing one another, only a vague memory of recent events. Out of the fog stepped a familiar figure. Her fox-like appearance, those big eyes, that big nose, those sharp teeth, those ears: Nepharon. “Well. Don’t just stand there gawping. I have a job for you.”
The Library of Xer’Stan
The session began with Nepharon, the party’s fiendish patron, describing a “bit of research” she needed the adventurers to complete. She had transported them to Chult, a strange foreign land where monsters roam. She needed something from the Library of Xer’Stan and it was their job to go and get it.
Naturally, Engong and Baräsh were reluctant to acquiesce, but a quick demonstration of her power made them change their minds. She told them a guide would be along shortly, and to follow it to the Library of Xer’Stan. Brundle was confused as he remembered that teleportation and planar travel spells didn’t work in Barovia, but Nepharon was very powerful, so he dismissed the concern.
They were standing in a clearing in the middle of a jungle with no clue of where to go when a dinosaur, an allosaurus, stepped out from the jungle brush. It stopped, looked at them and bounded off back into the dense tropical forest. Guessing correctly that this might be their guide, the four of them rushed to follow.
Brundle and Baräsh reacted first and led the way. They rolled survival checks to track and follow the dinosaur. Baräsh was able to keep up, but Brundle fell behind, with Ireena and Engong following. Further successful rolls from Baräsh meant he kept pace and eventually it led him to another clearing. The dinosaur was clearly angry at being chased and, before the others caught up, moved aggressively towards Baräsh. But the dragonborn paladin, feeling an affinity with the 8-foot-tall lizard, stepped forward and gently patted its snout. He rolled a natural 20 on his animal handling roll and charmed the beast. But this happened just as Brundle, Engong, and Ireena got to the clearing, and their loud arrival spooked the dinosaur and he bolted into the jungle.
The mining camp
From the clearing they followed a path and discovered an abandoned mining camp. There were some wooden crates and chests amongst tattered tents and empty mess tins. Baräsh broke into one of the chests and found an ornamental hawk made of solid gold. He threw it away. Brundle ran after it and recognized it as being very similar to one he and Kosef had found whilst in the Amber Temple, so he put it in his pack.
In the middle of the camp was a wooden platform suspended over a mine shaft. The four of them climbed onto the platform and Engong passed the intelligence test (DC 14) to work out how to raise and lower it.
They descended down the shaft about 45 feet and it opened up into a large chamber. There were three exits from this room. The shaft to the west was blocked by a stone slab, a shaft to the east continued upwards at an angle, and the way downwards was blocked by a pile of logs and slabs.
They went east and started climbing up the shaft. There was a step ladder built into the passage to make it easier and a strange flickering light that got brighter as they closed in.
Baräsh got to the top first and saw a tiny flying creature with four eye stalks giggling and dashing in and out of a beam of light. At first Baräsh wanted to join in the fun, but he then realized the small doll it was playing with was alive and not enjoying it. The monster was a gazer, a smaller version of a beholder, and the innocent creature was a Chwinga, a native of Chult that looks like a palm-sized man who bestows blessings in the form of a charm. Baräsh, being a righteous paladin, was appalled at the mini beholder toying with an innocent being and charged at it, hammer raised.
The dragonborn ran at the gazer but missed his attack, and the fiend sent out a dazzling beam and charmed Baräsh. Engong then ran up the steps and began pummeling the monster, who called himself Bizzy. She hit hard and fast, almost dealing enough damage to kill it.
I knew this would be a quick fight, but wanted to give the monster a chance, so I had the gazer try to escape. Sending a freezing ray at Engong and Brundle as it raced to the exit. Seeing it flee, Baräsh turned his attention to the Chwinga, healing it with his divine touch. “Do you know where the Library of Xer’Stan is?” he asked. No response.
This left Engong and Brundle to finish off the gazer, which they did very efficiently. Engong threw the last punch at its central eye and it deflated like a football around her fist, before schlumping down to the ground like a naughty pancake.
Meanwhile, the Chwinga was bestowing a charm on Baräsh as a thank you for saving it. This would allow him to summon an animal to aid him as a one-off boon. The intention was that this might be saved and used later at a clutch moment to call forth a powerful ally to help clinch victory. Baräsh wanted to use it immediately to summon a dodo. Of course I let him.
The dodo had yellow and green markings with a red line across its chest. Baräsh named it Raphael. Then he emptied the contents from his backpack of holding and hoisted up the flightless, stupid bird onto his back, like carrying a baby in a sling. “Dodo,” said the bird. He didn’t know where the Library of Xer’Stan was either.
Skeletons in the closet
The chwinga left and the party moved on. The next room they came to was empty save for a table and three skeletons, but still no sign of the Library of Xer’Stan.
Engong was first to examine the bodies. As she did, she recognized the clothes the first skeleton was wearing. He looked like Blinsky, the toymaker from Vallaki. She investigated the next skeleton and saw it was Irwin Martokoff, another ally from their past. Finally, she got to the third skeleton. It was wearing a wizard’s robe and a spellbook had fallen to the ground. This was Victor, their ally who disappeared in the last session. But before she had a chance to work out what was going on, the skeletons awoke and attacked her.
This was another quick fight, and the skeletons were easily dispatched after a couple of rounds of smashing and stabbing. But the party had no clue as to how the bodies got here or even what was going on. But there was no mistake, it was definitely Blinksy, Irwin, and Victor, and they were dead.
Engong stared at the skeletal remains of her past allies. Irwin’s jaw was still gnashing on the ground like a set of wind-up teeth, totally separate from the rest of his body. Baräsh and Ireena knelt down and prayed to St. Andell for guidance while Raphael watched. “Dodo,” he said. Brundle meanwhile had picked up the spellbook from the Victor-skeleton. He opened it and flicked through the pages. He recognized the spells, most were similar to those he’d seen Victor use. But after the first couple of pages, every one was dedicated to the spell “Grease.” This was very odd, the only person he’d known pay any special attention to this spell was Kosef. He’d said it was “the best spell in the world,” but none of this made any sense. END
I really enjoyed taking the reins this session and I think the players enjoyed the mystery of it all, and have begun to piece together some of the clues I have given them.
I had to alter the source material a bit, but that’s all part of the fun of DMing. The adventure, The Library of Xer’Stan, is suggested for level 10-12 characters and so far we’ve breezed through the encounters, although that will certainly change by next week’s game. It is also given an estimated run time of 60-90 minutes. We played for almost two hours last night and are only half way through, so it just goes to show that you never know how long something will last, especially if your players decide to adopt a baby dodo.
Like the other adventures in The Mines of Chult, The Library of Xer’Stan is very well put together and is easy for DMs to pick up and run. However, they do all require the Tomb of Annihilation campaign book and Volo’s Guide to Monsters to have access to the proper monsters. I enjoyed having a gazer (the not-a-beholder) and next session there will be another monster from Volo’s which I am quite excited to play.
What did we learn?
DM Tip: Letting your players do whatever they want can be tricky, and sometimes the hardest part of running a D&D or any other RPG game is surrendering control of the story while your players make odd decisions and decide to explore avenues you never previously considered. Whether it’s side-stepping a combat encounter by taming a dinosaur, or using a one-in-a-million charm to summon a dodo companion, you should be prepared to let you players test the boundaries of your world and see what happens when they do. Of course this is much less of an issue when you’re running a one-shot where the consequences (hopefully) don’t have campaign-breaking ramifications.
Player Tip: Think about the ways in which you can flesh out your character’s race, history, or backstory. Not everyone finds roleplaying easy, but there are a few simple things you can do to help. Our dragonborn paladin, for instance, regularly comes up with famous dragonborn sayings that he uses to add a flavor to his character. Recent highlights include:
“When you don’t know the right way to go, go the right way.”
“When you see injustice, you need to do justice.”
“When the dodo goes ‘dodo,’ you’ve got to go, dodo.”
Next week we should have Gimble Timbers back, but Baräsh will be absent as we continue our exploration of the Mines of Chult and, potentially, get to the Library of Xer’Stan. While there, the party will have to work out exactly what’s going on and decide if they really want to help Nepharon after all.