‘D&D Descent in Avernus’ Session 0 (Part 3)

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GeekDad plays ‘D&D’: Session 68 – Cult of the Dead Three

Suddenly, the cultists all drew daggers and in turn began stabbing violently into the body on the altar. The figure on the altar, whom Arvene had presumed was already dead, let out a low moan. Arvene had a moment of hesitation. This did not go unnoticed by the leader of the cultists who angrily turned to Arvene. She beat him to the chase, however, and immediately cast Sacred Flame at the lead cultist. “Intruder!” he yelled. “Rochester it is,” came the echo from the bushes.

Last night was the third session in our online Dungeons & Dragons: Descent Into Avernus campaign. We’re playing it as the sequel to our Dragon Heist campaign; the characters remain the same, but the stakes are about to become much, much higher.

The setup

We started playing Dragon Heist over two years ago and recently completed that campaign. My players wanted to continue playing their (now) level seven characters, and so we agreed to continue—although now we’ll play fortnightly instead of weekly, due to life and things. I hadn’t told them what campaign I’d be running, but I think they might have now guessed (some of them even read this blog).  

Descent into Avernus isn’t written as a direct sequel to Dragon Heist, but it looks like a really fun story and a few quick searches online reveals plenty of helpful articles on how to segue between the two. To help do this I’m using a one-shot from Anthony Joyce and Justice Arman available on the DMs Guild called Fall of Elturel. It’s set up as a first level adventure, but with a few easy tweaks (basically giving the enemies double the hit points and doubling the number of villains), it should work well for my level seven group.

dragon heist

We play online using Roll20’s digital tabletop platform, and use Trello and DnDBeyond to keep track of NPCs and campaign information. We also stream all our sessions live on our Twitch channel: dnd_TPK. Incidentally, if you joined in to watch our stream last night you would have received the award for being our celebrated 10th ever viewer, before slowly coming to the realization that life truly is meaningless, and that they really should implement some kind of quality control system for free-to-view Twitch content.

Our Adventurers Are:

dragon heist

Little Joe, Drow Sorcerer – a keen law-breaker, mischief-causer, and scourge of the fenêtreman’s guild. Tricked into joining an evil organization and so now very suspicious of everyone.
Alan Crabpopper, Human Ranger – a Harper, private investigator, and secret wererat in denial. Recently engaged to Istrid Hrone (cleric and ex-Zhentarim agent).
Arvene Galanodel, Half-Elf Cleric/Warlock – a trickster priestess of Tymora, pact-bound to Golorr the aboleth. Still reeling from accidentally murdering 20 policemen.
Dugg, Earth Genasi Fighter – brave, muscly, and prepared to die for his friends. A paid-up member of the Dungsweepers of Waterdeep, and benevolent custodian of Waterdhavian orphans.

Previously…

Alan, Arvene, Dugg, and Joe have been through the mill. Over the course of the last six months, three of them have died and been brought back to life, two have accidentally committed heinous acts of murder, and one has become a snarling wererat once every full moon. Now, having successfully discovered the Vault of Dragons beneath their home in Waterdeep and returned some of the gold therein to the people of the city, they are looking forward to a well-deserved break.

In the previous session, having traveled to Elturel, witnessed the wondrous Companion, met Reya Mantlemorn, and agreed to rid a wood of some cultists, they fought said cultists in said wood. Little Joe also began collecting animals for a traveling circus; so far he has a talkative parrot called Rochester and a nameless wolf. 

Fist of Bane

The lead cultist, the so-called Fist of Bane, threw back his crimson cowl to reveal a scarred face marked with skull tattoos. He reached down to the lifeless figure on the altar, grabbed the amulet from around their neck, and summoned a wave of necrotic power that then exploded from him like a sonic boom. Arvene was closest and was knocked backwards ten feet by the blast, and the power of it echoed around the clearing. Alan and Dugg were also knocked down by the percussive deathly force and yelled out in pain. At the edge of the clearing Little Joe and Reya were not out of the fierce radius either, and they both felt the shock wave hit. Blood dripped from Little Joe’s nose as he looked down as the limp body of his wolf friend. Feathers fluttered through the air as Little Joe looked around desperately. “Rochester it is,” came the weak splutter in response to Joe’s growing panic.

The session picked up immediately where we left off last time. We were in the middle of a big fight, there were four dead cultists, three alive cultists, and everyone was fighting each other. Dugg, Alan, and Arvene were in the thick of it. Meanwhile Little Joe, Rochester the parrot, and Reya were on the edges of the 60-foot clearing. Little Joe’s newfound wolf friend took the brunt of the necrotic force and faded.

I felt bad killing off a character’s pet so early on in a session, but I had warned him this might happen, and it did all come down to un-fudged dice rolls. So, really, it was their destiny I suppose.

As it was quite a while since we last played I began the session with a familiar call to arms:

ROLL INITIATIVE!

The night’s first round of combat saw Dugg and Alan go toe-to-toe with two of the cultists. Dugg was very badly hurt and was using his brand new warhammer to great effect. He immediately dealt a killing blow to one cultist and turned to face the other. He heard a, “Hey, no fair. I wanted to kill one,” from Reya behind him and then, using his second wind ability, jumped onto the altar in the middle of the fray and used his warhammer like a golf club to attack the cult leader. Unfortunately, in his haste to look cool and do something impressive, Dugg (rolling a natural 1 on his attack) slipped on the altar and entirely missed his swing, launching his hammer into the air. “Err… duck,” he shouted.

“Rochester it is,” came the reply from the edge of the clearing.

Meanwhile, Alan achieved a similar feat as Dugg in quickly dispatching his cultist. As the robed ne’er-do-well fell to the ground, Alan began rifling through his robes in search of anything that might provide a clue as to what was actually happening. He rolled 14 on his Investigation check and discovered a small ring, a broken dagger, and a folded piece of parchment. It was a letter which read:

Head to the Bathhouse in Waterdeep
and retrieve our Queen’s stolen treasure.
The bathhouse is located in the northern
portion of the Trades Ward. It has a
walled garden and frolicking nymphs
carved into its front gates.
If Lord Cassalanter thinks he
can use our queen’s treasure to buy the
loyalty of the Cult of the Dead Three
he is sorely mistaken.
I’ll be looking for you in Waterdeep
when I arrive. Bring the treasure to me
then Ulstiss will come for you.
-Wyrmspeaker Rezmir-

At this stage, this did nothing to dispel Alan’s confusion, so he screwed it up and shoved it into a pocket to continue fighting.

Another round of combat, in which Arvene, Reya, and Little Joe all threw ranged attacks against the cult leader, was all it took to take out the Fist of Bane. As he fell, Little Joe heard a moan coming from the woods to the north of the clearing, which ignited his curiosity.

Working things out

With the Fist of Bane and all his cronies dispatched, the heroes tried to piece together what had happened whilst searching the bodies for more clues, and loot. They didn’t find very much.

However, when they checked out out the body that lay on the altar, it became clear that there may be more than one cult in play in this particular scenario. The deceased, altar-based cultist had black robes; whereas the cultists they just fought had red robes. Upon investigation, the altar-cultist appeared to be a member of the cult of the dragon; Alan then realized that the “queen” mentioned in the letter could well be Tiamat, queen of the dragons, and the pieces began to fit together.

The Dragon cult had been using these woods as a means to store their stolen treasure horde prior to taking it to the next location. The red robed cultists—The Cult of the Dead Three—had ambushed the dragon cult and were performing some sort of ritual. 

Still, it made little to no sense as to why any of this actually mattered, nor did the connection to Lord Cassalanter in Waterdeep make things any clearer. I find that when any group I am in plays Dungeons & Dragons and we get into a situation with more than one faction at once, no one really has any idea what’s going on, so it’s best not to worry too much. Eventually there will be a fight and that’s all anyone really needs to know.

The Fall of Elturel

Having defeated the cultists and cleared out the woods, the party decided to head back to Elturel and report to the faction leaders so someone could make the decisions. Reya was still disappointed not to have killed any of the cultists herself, and Dugg remained suspicious of her adventuring credentials—especially when she puked up at the sight of a pile of dead bodies in the aftermath of the battle. Nonetheless, she maintained that she was a high-ranking captain in the Hellriders and very important.

An hour or so passed as they made their way out from the woods and crested a hill. Here they could see the city of Elturel half a kilometer away, still basking in the glorious perpetual glow of the Companion. But as they neared the city the ground began to shake and a dark cloud passed over them.

Suddenly, the cries of horrified citizens and children felled the air as the material plane split open. A tear ran through the sky, accompanied by the most horrific ripping sound. A chasm opened up in the ground beneath the city of Elturel revealing the fiery depths of hell beneath it. Alan, Arvene, Dugg, Joe, and Reya stood dumbstruck as they watched Elturel and the Companion above become ripped into the hellish void, as massive infernal chains latched onto the city and dragged it down into Avernus. The inferno was blinding and accompanied by a deafening blast that stifled the screams of those trapped in Elturel. In an instant Elturel was no more. Elturel has fallen. Joe turned to his parrot. “Don’t!” he hissed. End

Afterthoughts

This was a cataclysmic end to the session, and one that will spark the touch paper of the rest of the adventure.

The ending of this session marks the end of our segue into the next campaign. We’ll begin in Chapter 2 of Descent into Avernus—as the players try to figure out exactly what they just witnessed. For our campaign, we’re swapping out Baldur’s Gate for Waterdeep, and changing some of the NPCs to ones which the players already know, such as the Cassalanters, and hopefully before long, Alan and Co. will join Elturel in Avernus on a desperate mission to save the world.

What did we learn?

DM Tip: Be sure to let your players know the stakes prior playing the game. I had a discussion with Little Joe’s player before this session began, suggesting that two pet companions were going to be tricky for us to handle—especially when the campaign proper gets underway. So it didn’t come as too much of a surprise when his newfound wolf friend succumbed to the Fist of Bane’s necrotic blast. This is going to provide an essential motivator for Little Joe to get revenge on the cult responsible and hopefully drive the story in the right direction. If I hadn’t warned Little Joe’s player first, however, it could have gone differently. So it’s important to be up front about the perils of the campaign with your players—especially if a campaign is going to take them directly into Hell. Which this one may or may not do. It will.

Also, I might have felt bad about Little Joe’s wolf dying if he hadn’t brutally murdered the cultist after interrogating her last week. I’d like to think that next time that player will think about the consequences of his imaginary fantasy character committing unnecessary murder, but he likely won’t.

Next time we’ll pick up five days later. The players will just be arriving in Waterdeep along with the news that Elturel has fallen.

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