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. 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.
Last night was the 57th session in our ongoing Curse of Strahd D&D campaign. Our DM was away for the second week running so it was up to me to take the reins once more. I was running the Library of Xer’Stan, a one-shot story from Savage Encounters’ latest supplement, The Mines of Chult, which is available on the DMSguild. Also absent was our dragonborn paladin Baräsh, who last week had gained a new dodo ally. He was very worried that something might happen to Raphael the dodo in his absence.
The game began on time last night. But only just. I was nearly late, which as I was the DM would have made things difficult. The reason I was late is because of my 18-month-old son. Actually, it was because I was discovering what happens when he invents the game: “How many cherry tomatoes can I put into the washing machine output pipe without anyone noticing?” Naturally, this resulted in me rolling up my trouser legs and wading across the kitchen sea to perform some impromptu plumbing. Mario makes it look so easy! The answer, by the way, is six cherry tomatoes with bonus points for a moldy carrot.
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.
Last session she appeared mid-battle and summoned the party away on a mission to explore a mine in Chult. They were looking for the Library of Xer’Stan.
Nepharon and Associates:
Gimble Timbers – Gnome Fighter, numb on his left side, has a pet dog Kevon;
Brundle Swash – Gnome Druid, occasionally turns into a bear, gets electrocuted a lot;
Engong – Evil Half-Orc Monk, Leader, has a manic grin and is covered in oily fur;
Ireena – Human Fighter, Strahd’s would-be bride, blessed by St. Andell;
Kosef – Human Rogue/Wizard, craves power above all else, played by me, Asleep;
Baräsh – Dragonborn Paladin, death-obsessed bully, Absent;
Victor – Human (Teenage) Wizard-in-Training, Missing, NPC.
As Brundle scratched his head, confused by the recent turn of events, he was surprised to see an odd purplish aura surround Baräsh. The dragonborn‘s body began to shimmer, and then wobble and turn to static, as if he was being re-tuned. It happened in an instant, but where Baräsh had stood seconds before, now stood Gimble Timbers with Rapheal the dodo perched on his back. “Right,” he said. “Let’s go.”
I knew this was a bit cheap, but it was how I dealt with the changing line-up. Barash’s player couldn’t make it and Gimble’s could, so I shifted reality to accommodate the difference. As the story unfolded it would become clear why this worked in the story, but the party quickly adjusted and carried on regardless.
They left the room they were in and continued to explore the mine further. This took them deeper down into the ground and as they descended there were deep rumbling sounds that they couldn’t explain. Naturally this had the desired effect and put them on guard. Gimble Timbers was leading the way, with Brundle, Ireena, and Engong following behind.
The ghost of Izek Strazni
After finding the skeletal remains of some of the mine’s ex-inhabitants, they came to a point where the tunnel began to rise up and suddenly a ghostly apparition appeared before them. The ghost was mostly human, although it had one large clawed hand. They instantly recognized the ghost of Izek Strazni, a guard from Vallaki whom had the misfortune of running in to the Associates in the mortal sense.
After the usual amount of wailing and howling, the ghost recognized the party, especially Ireena, whom he was obsessed with in life, and tried to warn the party from descending deeper into the mine. “The Library of Xer’Stan is wrought with peril. The Alhoon has trapped every inch of it and you will not survive meeting him,” he said.
The party didn’t heed his words. They were more concerned with why denizens of Barovia were turning up in this strange land, which they had been told was Chult. It was at this point that they began to figure things out.
They were completing a mission for Nepharon, but it was not in Chult as she had told them; rather it was in Kosef’s dream.
Just before they were whisked away, they had been fighting a genie in Barovia. Kosef had been knocked unconscious. Then Nepharon, their Arcanaloth supervisor, arrived and gave them the mission. That is why the mine was full of people from their past. That is why they could hear loud rumblings (Kosef snoring). And that is why every spell in the spell book they found was Kosef’s favorite spell Grease. It also explained how Baräsh and Gimble Timbers were swapped out, as, in Kosef’s mind, they are pretty much interchangeable anyway.
Before they got a chance to really consider what it meant to be inside the dream of their companion—this was a serious chance for some meta-gaming—the ghost attacked, gliding forcefully at Gimble Timbers and slamming him into the tunnel’s stony wall.
A quick battle ensued, with the ghost of Izek desperately trying to prevent the party from reaching the Library of Xer’Stan. It focused its attacks on Gimble Timbers, but the gnome was able to resist the specter’s Life Drain. After two rounds of combat the ghost was destroyed and the party found themselves at the door to the eponymous library.
A quick arcana check from Brundle revealed that there was definitely magic in there, but that the door was not trapped. Engong, the ever-present and dutiful leader, told Gimble to enter first, and he did.
The Library of Xer’Stan
The gnome fighter gingerly entered and saw a large well-lit room. He could see bookcases all along the walls, two large tables filled with potions and books and scrolls, and a small chest. As he walked forward he triggered a glyph on the floor which lit up and four magic missiles shot down from the ceiling and smashed into him. He was not happy and dived to the floor, forgetting the Raphael was still strapped onto his back. The Dodo was hit by the fifth magic missile and let out a mournful cry.
Gimble got up and, fearful of more glyphs, began tossing books from the bookcase across the room. There were three more magic tiles on the floor and his books set each of them off. The first book was hit by an Enlarge spell and quadrupled in size. The second was incinerated. And the third caught a Polymorph spell and was turned into a very confused camel.
A haughty laugh began to echo around the room. “Hahaha. Well, that is not what I expected to happen. Do come around here and show yourselves. I want to see you before I disintegrate you all. Has Nepharon really sent you here to your deaths? How fun.”
The voice belong to Xer’Stan, the Alhoon whom the party had been sent to find. He held an amulet called a Periapt of Mind Holding that Nepharon wanted but he did not want to part with. Thus another battle ensued. This time it was with a mutated Mindflayer (in short, an Alhoon is a Mindflayer in search of immortality). As soon as he saw the party, Xer’Stan tried to disintegrate Brundle. The gnome druid took 50 points damage and was immediately disintegrated. Thankfully, as this was all happening in Kosef’s dream, his body reformed instantly, although he remained unconscious on the floor.
A second battle followed, this time against a much more powerful foe. The Alhoon sent a number of lightning bolts against the party, at one point exploding the camel who was providing a useful distraction. Engong got a number of punches in; Gimble and Ireena focused on long range attacks and healing Brundle. And, once he was restored to health, Brundle turned into a dire wolf and set about ripping into the villain.
Eventually, after a very hard battle that saw Ireena make the most of her healing abilities, Xer’Stan was defeated and the party grabbed the Periapt of Mind Holding.
As soon as Irena held the amulet, the tunnel began to shake and the walls crumble. The four heroes were transported out of the mine and found themselves standing at the clearing where the dinosaur had met them hours earlier. Before they could get their bearings, Nepharon appeared in front of them. Fox-like and cunning, she took the amulet from Irena’s grasp and thanked the party. “Now,” she said, “I think you’d better get back to that genie. He’s about to make some pretty serious alterations to your rogue’s physiology.”
Once again I really enjoyed DMing this session, but am excited to return in my usual player capacity next week. The Library of Xer’Stan is a great one-shot adventure and was very easy to run, which is exactly what I needed. Naturally I changed the story a little in order to fit our campaign, but the foundations were there, and proved to be solid. I have to admit to changing one of the monsters too; it was supposed to be a Spectator and not a Specter that they fought this session. In truth, if I had read it properly beforehand I would have kept the Spectator in and thought of a different way to include Izek Strazni.
What did we learn?
DM Tip: It’s not unusual to have a situation whereby not all of your party can play every session. Just look at live D&D streams like Critical Role or Dice, Camera, Action! and you can see that. As a DM it’s always worth considering how you might deal with this. Some ignore the fact altogether and say that everyone here knows everything that occurred previously as if they were playing. Some come up with elaborate stories and narratives to explain it. While others might have the characters be present even if the players aren’t, perhaps under DM or a nominated player’s control. There’s no right or wrong way of doing this. But it is well worth thinking about. Last night I cheated by having one player mysteriously turn into another, but this was OK as it was all just a dream…
Another example from a campaign I ran had the party’s wizard find a magical bag of holding. This was an extra-special bag of holding and it would suck any absent characters into it, and would spit them out when their player returned. This meant there was always a narrative-focused reason for missing party members. In this instance the bag eventually gained sentience and a mind of its own, and turned out to be evil and tried to devour the whole universe. Of course, that doesn’t have to happen to your group. But it could.
Player Tip: Think about how you can help your teammates. Sometimes, if you think you might not be much use against a particular enemy, you can use your action to “help” another player. This may seem like a waste of a turn, but giving an ally advantage in a fight could be the difference between hitting a monster and doing lots of damage, or missing them entirely.
Next week our DM returns and we will finally face the genie that Strahd let out of the bottle a fortnight ago. What effect our sojourn in the Library of Xer’Stan will have on the campaign’s bigger picture remains to be seen. But for now our paladin and gnome just want to know if they can keep their new pet dodo.