It is not usually possible for our D&D group to play in person, because we all live in different places and one of us lives in Australia. But this weekend, the stars aligned, so to speak, and almost all of us were in the same place at the same time. I took the opportunity to run an adventure that had the same epic stakes as our epic meetup.
That’s me in the WINONA RYDER IN EDWARD SCISSOR-HANDS shirt.
Unfortunately, to tell you that story, I have to give you some background information.
Starting in April of last year, I ran Curse of Strahd for this group.In the course of that adventure, several brave heroes from Fallcrest were drawn to the gothic, vampire-beleaguered valley of Barovia, and they teamed up with some Barovian locals to enter Castle Ravenloft and destroy the infamous vampire Strahd von Zarovich. This we accomplished in October. (You can read the entire campaign journal here, if you’d rather read that instead of this synopsis, which frankly cannot do the story justice.)
Over the following months, I ran a few one-shot adventures tying up some loose ends. In one, the Fallcrest heroes finished their original mission of cataloguing ghosts in an unrelated mansion. In another, we explored the political ramifications of Barovia being set free from its curse and superimposed onto a valley that had been inhabited by kobolds for four hundred years. In the third, Ezmerelda d’Avenir found that third magical gem—the one that, based on the text of Curse of Strahd, you aren’t supposed to be able to find at all.
Then last month I ran an adventure for level 15 characters employed by the Inter-Planar Security Organization (IPSO). The team included:
Alan Smith, a halfling ranger, one of the Fallcrest crew who had assisted in defeating Strahd von Zarovich.
Thelma Gladhill, a halfling paladin-turned-barbarian, whom we had first met a couple campaigns ago. The last we had heard from her, Thelma was just a paladin, but she had been taken in by a tribe of half-orcs due to a complicated blood debt.
S.QU.A.W.K.S., the SeQUrity Automoton With Killer Spells, a warforged fighter built to be the ultimate scarecrow by mad scientists in the Shadowfell. We knew Squawks because he had helped Ezmerelda on that gem adventure.
Hanuman, a half-elf monk whom we hadn’t heard of before.
The team had a reasonably thrilling adventure in a spooky old observatory, the upshot of which was that an evil star named “Zhudun, the Corpse Star” had disappeared from the sky, and the explanation was to be found back at Castle Ravenloft. The guys also met a new friend:
Gwembe, a magma mephit.
I’m gonna get better pictures of the figurines for these guys later.
Return to Ravenloft
IPSO’s fancy airship could only get the five heroes as far as an interplanar crossing into the Shadowfell. Once they were on the right plane, the guys had to find a creepy old wagon driven by one of those suspicious elderly types who would only take them to Barovia for a hefty fee. The term “Barovia” is incorrect, of course: Today the valley is known as Barovkoboldia, a relatively peaceful fusion of Strahd’s former domain and the kobold nation of Koboldia. Anyway.
When he found out the guys were headed for Castle Ravenloft, the suspicious elderly guy kicked them out of his wagon, and they had to hoof it the last mile or so. The clouds were thick and low around the castle, so thick and so low that its spires and towers couldn’t be seen in the gloom. But the drawbridge was lowered, and in better repair than when Alan had crossed it last.
Using his Divine Sense, Alan did a sweep of the environs for fiends and undead. There were plenty of mindless undead still in the depths of Ravenloft, skeletons and zombies waiting in hibernation to attack adventurers, but there was also a lich around here somewhere. This information was worrying but not immediately actionable.
The team wisely decided to barge in the front door. Ravenloft devotees will remember that the front door leads to a room with four dragon statues that come to life and try to kill you. Today, however, the front door led to a blue-green void containing a solitary woman with voluminous black hair and blue-green skin.
The lady called herself Maitha, and apparently she was from a construction outfit based in the Plane of Water. She gave everyone her business card. Then she apologized for not putting up the “UNDER RENOVATIONS – USE BACK ENTRANCE” sign, and asked Gwembe to hang it up for her.
So the guys ran around to the back of the castle and took the servant’s entrance, which led down to the Larders of Ill Omen. The dungeonesque basement had been scrubbed clean recently—and not by someone with an eye for detail, judging from the corners still caked with centuries of grime. On the other hand, whoever was in charge of the castle now had put up yellow caution tape to rope off the elevator trap. Things could be worse. Obviously.
[Extremely cheap dungeon: Cut up a cardboard box that a LEGO set came in! Very hastily apply some gray paint, then draw on grid lines. Glue features like doors and wine casks to the surface. Rooms are connected by poking toothpicks into the corrugations of the cardboard. Now the dungeon is modular! You spent: like $5.]
The basement hall led to a room that Alan remembered well: The Hall of Bones, a room full of bones, with a great table made of bones, and chairs made of bones, bone-hewn bowls and plates and cutlery, bones forever. A bunch of kobolds were already hanging out in the Bone Zone: It was Isabol, the frustrated aristocrat, and her cronies in the Koboldian Sovereignty Movement. The PCs had no idea who these kobolds were but the players were all too familiar with Isabol’s nonsense.
Isabol was currently occupied in a meeting with a green shadow dragon named Kvinitadze, trying to convince him to support her cause or something. When the IPSO crew interloped, Isabol immediately suspected they were assassins sent by Princess Bolinda, and sicced her underlings and her dragon-associate on them. A battle ensued!
Gwembe got caught in a swordfight with Hibolgo the swashbuckling kobold rogue. Alan cast Wall of Wind and then Squawks cast Fireball, severely damaging several kobolds and almost destroying Sibolius the war-priest of Tiamat. Hanuman jumped over the bone-table to attack Kvinitadze, easily dodging bizarre “bullets” that the kobold artificer Bolstik was shooting out of something called a “gun.”
Sibolius and Bolstik both ran away.Even Kvinitadze, an actual dragon, couldn’t stand up to these level 15 heroes for very long. He was too cool to run away, though. He just politely asked people to stop stabbing him.
Meanwhile Isabol mostly hid behind the dragon. Without the Onyx of the Skügge Rune to grant her magic powers, she was as defenseless as any kobold, even considering how rich she was. A critical hit from Squawks’s scythe managed to break off one of her horns, which deformity the Dungeon Master immediately and heartlessly applied to her construction paper miniature.
Isabol fell. Hibolgo called out for Sibolius, the healer. Hibolgo came back to heal his liege, but someone else walked in with him.
It was Patrina Velikovna, the new master of Castle Ravenloft. As soon as Isabol got a hit point, Patrina started hollering at her about how she wasn’t supposed to be in the castle at all, and certainly not using it as the HQ for her little secret club. She shooed out all the kobolds present, and then she shooed out the dragon.
(But what happened to Bolstik? We never found out.)
Having dealt with the Koboldian Sovereignty Movement, Patrina turned her attention to the IPSO weirdos. When they said they had come to Ravenloft because the star Zhudun was missing, she eagerly explained that this was her doing, and it was totally fine. It was better than fine, actually. She offered to explain everything, leading the guys up a long, long, long stairway in the process:
At some point in the arbitrary past, the star named Zhudun was split into three parts: its Shell, which oscillated between the Regular World and the Feywild; its Shade, which hung in the sky in the Shadowfell; and its Vestige, which was sealed in the Amber Temple not far from this castle. Now, Alan knows that my brother made a pact with Zhudun to bring me back to life, and I think you also know how before that my brother had me stoned to death and then Strahd killed all the dusk elf women and doomed our race to extinction? I’m going to fix that.
I have a deal with Zhudun, currently in progress, that will get all those dusk elf women raised from the dead. My end of the deal is to reunify the aspects of Zhudun. That’s why you saw Zhudun disappear from the sky in the Regular World—I yanked the Shell of Zhudun into the Shadowfell and it fused, or something, with the Shade of Zhudun. That part was actually pretty easy.
The second part is harder, but it’ll only go through after Zhudun holds up its end of the deal. When Zhudun reaches its maximum luminosity tonight, it will resurrect all the dusk elf women. Then I’ll do the ritual that fuses the Vestige of Zhudun together with the Shell and the Shade, and it won’t be a Corpse Star anymore.
The ritual itself is too arcane for you guys to comprehend. But the problem is, for the effect of the ritual to extend over such a huge distance, I need a psychic lens. I need some extremely powerful minds to reflect, or refract, the Vestige of Zhudun up into outer space.
Patrina led her friends out into open air: The open air of the Spires of Ravenloft, which rose above the thick clouds by Patrina’s magical will, affording an utterly clear view of the night sky above.
[Relatively cheap castle: Roll big pieces of cardstock into cylinders and tape them together. Paint them gray, then make a stencil of bricks and paint that on there a few times. Crenellations are craft foam. (“Craft foam” really seems like a material for babies but, as it turns out, it’s extremely versatile and easy to work with!) Clouds are polyfil spraypainted black. You spent: Like $20. Okay probably a little more.]
Patrina had already recruited some “extremely powerful minds” for her ritual: They included a Yester Hill berserker, who did not speak Common; Ezmerelda Belview, a surly bat-winged mongrelfolk from the Abbey of Saint Markovia; Bianca, a werewolf whom Squawks had met briefly; and Boltulmak, a PC from the kobold adventure whom the Dungeon Master had appropriated without permission.
These guys and the IPSO guys assembled on the roof of the south tower while Patrina made the final preparations. The IPSO guys definitely understood that a ritual that empowered Zhudun could only be bad, but they couldn’t guess at whether the upside of resurrecting the dusk elf women would be worth it or not.
Patrina stood on the roof of the north tower with the amber sarcophagus containing the vestige of Zhudun. She got out a Sending Stone and called up her brother, Kasimir. She looked straight up into the stars, and by following her gaze one could see the eerie point in the sky that was also Zhudun, waxing gibbous, growing in luminosity by the second. Patrina asked her brother to hold on: The position of the sarcophagus needed a small adjustment. She pushed her hands against the block of amber and her body instantly became a skeleton; the skeleton quickly turned to dust. Her Sending Stone and a scrap of paper fell to the floor.
Squawks flew up to grab both articles. He got on the phone with Kasimir and explained that his sister was a pile of dust. Kasimir did not seem perturbed by this; he insisted that they needed to get on with the ritual. Unfortunately, the scrap of paper Patrina had left behind provided few clues as to how to do that.
Fortunately, Thelma Gladhill is kind of a genius. She reasoned that the diagram described Patrina’s “psychic lens,” an eldritch non-Euclidean parabola around the sarcophagus defined by the positions of four lucky participants. Patrina had also scribbled notes to the effect that Intelligence was not the key feature of the powerful minds she needed; she needed Wisdom, maybe Charisma. Patrina knows what the ability scores of Dungeons & Dragons are, because she is an archmage.
The guys quickly tried to determine who the best participants for the ritual were. Now, I don’t know if this came across in the recaps of the Starhaunt Observatory adventure, but whenever a Lovecraftian horror was trying to drive you insane by staring at you, whenever something unspeakable tried to sever your grip on reality, the guy to put on the front line was Hanuman the monk. Hanuman’s mind was like a perfect diamond, flawless and indestructible. He was an obvious candidate. Alan Smith: Also pretty good with the Wisdom saves.
The rest of the IPSO team decided that they should stay in reserve, and instead of volunteering for the ritual they volunteered the berserker guy and Bianca the werewolf. This meant that Boltulmak and Marzena were also on the sidelines.
Everyone got into position: Hanuman on a platform right by the sarcophagus, Alan in the room below the sarcophagus, Bianca on a platform off the south tower, and the berserker guy way at the top of the highest tower.
Zhudun reached its apex and its maximum luminosity. The amber sarcophagus shattered, and a wisp of blackness floated out of the debris and hovered about thirty feet in the air. Squawks’s Sending Stone went dead.
A thing appeared right above Castle Ravenloft: A giant black sphere, striated with glowing bands of awful color. The immense gravity of the thing caused the towers of Ravenloft to quake and crack. Zhudun, the Corpse Star, had manifested itself in the Shadowfell. The berserker guy failed his Wisdom saving throw. So did Hanuman.
It was not clear what could be done to correct the situation. Marzena and Bianca got the heck out of there immediately. Boltulmak shot a single Fire Bolt at Zhudun and made to run away. Gwembe combined his warlock abilities, granted by the Mephit emperor Chilimba, to execute a killer combo: He hit Zhudun with an Eldritch Blast, which he turned into a Fireball. Then, he teleported his target—an evil, intelligent star, at least a hundred feet across—into the Plane of Magma.
This wasn’t going to last forever, so people took the opportunity to regroup. Hanuman, having failed his saving throw, was dominated by Zhudun, and started trying to attack his comrades. So Squawks slapped him around until he came to his senses.
There was no one around to slap the berserker guy. He had seen Boltulmak attack Zhudun, so he did what he thought Zhudun would have wanted and jumped out of the tower onto Boltulmak. This was a fall of some 160 feet, I think, and when they connected, both parties took 60 bludgeoning damage. This wasn’t so bad for the berserker, whose body was made up mostly of hit points, but Boltulmak was out for the count.
Zhudun reappeared, having taken a ton of fire damage from its trip through the Plane of Magma. Once it got a chance, it tried to retaliate by unravelling Alan Smith’s essence: Alan’s body became wispy and indistinct, and he was at risk of ceasing to exist—but he got better.
Then Zhudun summoned some Star Spawn, a trio of unseemly entities that seemed to be mostly limbs. Gwembe was happy to handle this, and cast Banishment on two of the beasts. They disappeared to the Far Realm where they were birthed.
But they would come back if Gwembe lost concentration on the spell, and so now Zhudun tried to erase Gwembe from existence. The paralyzing effect of becoming wispy caused Gwembe to drop like a stone from the air, toward the clouds around Ravenloft and the ground below. He would definitely lose concentration once he ran into something solid.
Alan and Thelma beat back the remaining Star Spawn while Hanuman and Squawks used their respective powers of flight to rise up and attack the surface of Zhudun directly. Squawks swung his magic scythe around and Hanuman, like Superman, flew fists-first into the evil star, smashing it repeatedly with his magical hands.
Zhudun began to shrink and buckle under this assault. In a desperate effort to survive, the star tried to suck Hanuman and Squawks beneath its surface, but the guys were too strong. They kept punching and scything and flying up and up at their foe until Hanuman finally punched that star out of existence.
Gwembe stopped fading away, and like Peter Pan he flew back up the tower to safety. Alan and Thelma were safe; Hanuman and Squawks landed back on the tower with everyone else. The agents of IPSO had emerged unscathed.
But below them, on the southern tower, Boltulmak’s broken body had breathed its last.
The Sending Stone started getting reception again. Squawks picked up and spoke to Kasimir again: The ritual had been successful! All the dusk elf women had been returned to life, a few minutes ago, right when the guys had summoned that star. Squawks pointed out again Patrina had been destroyed.
“Oh, she’ll be fine,” Kasimir said.
“And how is that, exactly?” asked Squawks.
“Well, she’s—I shouldn’t—” Kasimir stuttered for a second and hung up on him.
Squawks tried to use *69 on the Sendint Stone but was unsuccessful. He did manage to call IPSO headquarters (no doubt incurring roaming charges for an interplanar call) to let them know that their mission had been a success: Zhudun would not be a problem anymore.
Hoping to touch base with Kasimir, the team made a trip out to Vallaki and the dusk elf encampment. Indeed, the dusk elf women had been resurrected, and their race was no longer doomed to extinction. The dusk elf men were excited about that, but they couldn’t say where Kasimir had gone. A bit worrying.
As far as I’m concerned, though, it was a total success.