This is a long one, but I promise it’s good. Settle in and here we go.
I am a relatively new GM, doing so for only about one and a half years, and was able to convince my wife, a coworker, and a few of my friends from college I don’t get to see regularly (who are new players) to play in a Curse of Strahd module to transition into a home-brew campaign setting of mine. To briefly introduce their characters, there is: Alwyn the Human Battle Smith Artificer, Agnes the Half Elf Whispers Bard, Lorelai the Aasimar Divine Soul Sorceress, and Moira the Half Elf Swashbuckling Rogue. By the time in the module my story starts, the party has made their way through the village of Barovia and completed most of what the town had for them.
While they were doing some shopping at the general store, Moira was strolling through the village keeping an eye for anything strange. Down the street from her she heard some screaming and arguing. A hunched woman in dark robes with a wagon was trying to put a screaming child into a burlap sack, as the boys parents slammed the door, leaving him alone with her. Bolting back to the party saying, “Boy in bag!” before darting back in the direction of the confrontation. Confused, the rest of the party followed. The woman with the cart could hear and see them coming behind her and quickened her pace, but the wheels of her cart stuck in the mud, letting the party catch up with her.
“Oh! Hello dears. Can I help you with anything? Perhaps a pastry?” the crone feigned.
“What do you have in the bag?” questioned Moira.
“Just some delicious pastries.” The crone reached to a second bag underneath the larger one on top, pulling out some slightly squished pastries. “Would you like some? They’re delicious. Only one gold for a small sack!”
Alwyn at this point rolled a high enough insight combined with the obvious misdirection of the crone to grasp the situation. “And what have we here?” He reached in, opened the larger of the two burlap bags and a scared and dazed child climbed out and collapsed to the ground near the cart. All eyes went to the woman, and the boy darted away.
Lorelai and Moira followed the boy while Alwyn and Agnes continued to question the kidnapper. “He is my nephew! He is coming to live with me for a while to help me with my baking!”
“So why the bag?!” Alwyn asserted. “I think you’re going to need to come with us and answer some questions.”
As he made a move to prevent her from leaving, she cast a sleep spell, preventing Alwyn from stopping her. Agnes was immune due to being Half Elf but was too stunned by the interaction to prevent her from teleporting out of the situation. Once she disappeared, Alwyn woke up, and inspected the cart. He took some of the remaining pastries and burned the rest, cart and all, in the mud lined road. He was able to work out an antidote to counteract the adictive nature of the pastries the woman was selling, and the boy was returned to his real aunt, not wanting to go back home to his drugged out parents.
Another day passes and the party is finished in the Village of Barovia. They begin escorting an NPC named Ireena away to the safety of the west-most village of Krezk. While following the road to the next village of Vallaki, they pass by an ominous run down windmill, Old Bonegrinder. With a few perception rolls, Alwyn notices a cart with a squirming burlap sack being wheeled into the windmills lower floor by a familiar looking old woman.
Feeling unprepared to deal with what the woman could be, Agnes’ pet raven Poe is sent to scout the building. She has a ribbon that lets her speak to animals so its a solid plan. Upon his return he informs her that he heard them threatening a child and most likely harmed him and threw him in a cellar or something. Ireena jumps into the conversation, “We can’t just let them hurt these children!”
Alwyn at this point is too concerned that they wouldn’t be able to survive the fight. “We need time to prepare. Let’s get to the next village, get some supplies, and come up with a plan.”
Ireena and the rest of the party slump into their seats in the wagon and ride quietly the rest of the way. Upon reaching Vallaki, they head straight for the Blue Water Inn, talk with the locals a bit, get rooms, and begin discussing their plans of action. Alwyn is a ‘direct and simple’ approach kind of guy and suggests making a huge bomb, one powerful enough to destroy the woman, who they now suspect to be some kind of hag, and any others with her. One big flaw of this plan is, any explosion big enough to do that could collapse the windmill and kill the children inside if there are any. They think the child they saw being taken in was already dead most likely. They discuss bargaining with them, seeing their numbers, and coming back, or even just buying the children they have off of them.
Eventually, the night falls and they go to sleep. Agnes and Alwyn, however, are visited and have horrid nightmares throughout the night, seeing a twisted woman’s face briefly. Hit points reduced and the benefits of a long rest taken from them, they now didn’t have the resources necessary to follow through with the bomb. Being an ingenious man, Alwyn heads to the market, buying salts, charcoal, and processed sugars to make concussive and smoke grenades to give them an edge in the coming fight. They had to hurry and stop them tonight to prevent them from coming back and draining their life-force slowly over time.
They work on a plan on the way there as Alwyn begins crafting the grenades (the wagon is modified to be a mobile workshop). Agnes and Lorelai figure out how to save the kids. Lorelai is a protector Aasimar and can grow wings to get up to the higher floors, Agnes has feather fall so the kids can jump safely from the higher floors, and out of the clutches of these evil hags. Moira and Alwyn go in and distract them while the others get the kids. If they have to fight, Alwyn says that anyone who can needs to steal a stone from them to keep them from disappearing and escaping. They feel confident, but they need to know more. They send Poe once more to the windmill to gather information to better prepare.
After a few hours of travel, they finally reach the crossroads that leads to the windmill. Billy, their hired driver, is told to stay here with the wagon, if the kids come to the wagon without the party, he is to high-tail it to Vallaki and forget about them. At this point, poe comes back. He tells Agnes he hears at least two children crying, and that the windows are too small for any of the party to fit through and don’t look like they can be opened other than being broken. Yet another plan foiled leading up to the major encounter.
At this point, frustrated and ready to give anything to save the children, not only in the windmill, but ALL the children of Barovia, Lorelai charges forward. the party follows behind her. They get to the door and I describe how the towering structure leans slightly to one side, as if to avoid the evil coming from the Castle Ravenloft. The blades of the windmill stripped bare with age, unmoving in the gentle rain and wind. They knock on the door, the wood spongy and crumbling.
It’s just a few moments before a voice from the other side of the door, one they recognize, says with a gentle laugh, “What brings you out all this way dears?” The door creaks as it partially opens revealing the pastry peddler. He face going from a smile to a grimace as she recognizes them.
“Hello! We wanted to come and talk. Can we come inside?” Moria steps up with a smile.
“Well, it’s quite dirty. I need to sweep up.” She closes the door. The sound of dried straw on wood and stone can be heard as what seems to be pebbles are swept across the floor. Toads and chickens provide an ambiance to the room as the door opens again, and the stench of decay and an acrid smell overwhelms them coming from inside.
“Come in, come in. I was just making more pastries.” the crone puts on a hospitable but annoyed guise.
The party filters in and the door remains open, Ireena standing just inside the doorway. The party plainly sees scattered small bones which they immediately take to be children’s bones.
“What can I do for you today dears?” she asks.
“We came to inquire about making a deal.” Lorelai jumps to the heart of the matter.
“Oh? Would you like to buy pastries then? I have a bakers dozen in the oven right now. They should be done soon.” Cackling and gentle cries can be heard from above.
“We want to make a deal with all of you.” Lorelai says pointedly, trying to cut through the guise this woman has.
Visibly irritated and catching on to them, the woman huffs. “We really don’t mean to be so rude. You have a lovely home here and we want to do business with you all. What’s your name? I’m Moira.” Moira cuts in as she steps to the front, trying to keep things from escalating.
“Morgantha.” the woman almost spits the words. “Well if it’s not my pastries you want, then what do you wish to make a deal for?” More cackles can be heard above as she moves to the center of the room.
“The children that you have.” Alwyn bluntly adds. The party give him looks and are on edge even more than before. “We know what you are.” he prods.
Even more visibly irritated than before, she calls up, “Sisters! We have business to attend.”
The cackling stops and the cries are muted. Boxes shuffle about before two more homely women join Morgantha around a barrel at the center of the room. Once there, they all share a look. The short, hunched, portly women all begin to contort and disfigure, turning into near 7 foot tall, horned being with boils and blue-purple skin.
“So, let’s get to business. What do you have to offer for these children?” Morgantha, looming over Moira and Agnes at the front of the group, heaves upon them with foul breath.
“What would you want for the children’s lives?” Lorelai adds.
A laugh comes from all of them. “That depends on what you have to give, and what you want in return. Do you want the children we have upstairs? We will take a little. Do you want the souls that we have in our possession? Then we will take more. Or do you wish to barter for all of the children of this land? Then we will take our fill.”
The three grotesque hags lick a black spittle off their lips as they inspect them all.
“That one is Ireena Kolyana. She is Strahd’s prize. She cannot be offered.” One of the unnamed hags states.
Morgantha leans in very close to Moira and looks deeply at her, as another does the same to Lorelai, and the last to Agnes. Remembering the stone from before, Moria notices a pouch on their belts made of an odd leather. She is able to communicate the pouches existence to the group using a magical lupstick that let’s her choose to mute her voice except for one person of her choice.
“Well, what else do you have for sale?” Alwyn pipes up as he walks around the group, drawing attention away from the rest of the party. “Do you have any items for sale? Perhaps we could buy the children as slaves? Or maybe any souls you have? I could teach you how-“
“YOU ARE AS ANNOYING AS YOU ARE INTRIGUING!” one of the hags snarls.
While they’re distracted, Moira and Agnes reach for the pouches on two of the hags belts. Agnes goes unnoticed with a heigh roll. Moira Nat 1’d and Morgantha grabbed onto her arm with slimy, death-cold, clawed fingers that are much to long for her hands.
“Now, now dear. If you want one of those, you will need to be one of us.” She spews. “As for what we want in return?” Morgantha looks to Moira as she releases her arm. “Your unbounded joy, or your daughter to be one of us.”
A second hag cranes to look at Alwyn, “Your memories of a life far away from here, and all the lessons your master taught you.”
The last turns to Agnes, “Your drive. Your beauty. Your… Thirst for life.” (This got a big laugh as Agnes is played as ‘one of those’ bards and got a great deal on a magic item by providing ‘services’ to the pervy old shopkeeper in the last town.)
Mogantha turn to Lorelai, “Or… We could take from you only one thing and would guarantee the safety of all the children of this land. The feathers of an Angel, plucked from her still living wings.”
Everyone was visibly horrified at these offers and rolled insight to get the gist of what they meant. Alwyn would lose his artificer levels, Moira would lose her happiness and potentially her only daughter, Agnes would lose her beauty and take a penalty to her charisma score, and Lorelai would have all the feathers plucked from her angelic wings.
At this point, Agnes sneaks to the back of the group and her player asks if she couls open the bag she stole from the hag. I said yes, but had to look at a few things to be sure of what happened next. I rolled a percentile and got 000. And that’s when it happened.
As Agnes held the bag, she saw the imprint of a face and hands pushing out from inside. When the top was opened, a torrent of black mist spewed forth and began to take shape, eventually forming into a six armed woman with a snake torso standing about 20-30 feet tall. As the mist coalesced further, time stopped around them, and the shadowy Marilith turned into Anastacia. My wife freaked out and almost had to leave for a moment to collect her thoughts.
“Thank you for freeing me. I owe you. What can I do to repay you for your kindness.” Anastacia [Ana-sta-SEE-uh] ran a finger up Agnes’ neck anc stopped under her chin.
Stunned, Agnes stumbled, “Um… Kill the hags, Strahd, and free this land?”
Anastacia chuckled, “I am not able to do that. Think more immediate.” She drew closer, almost touching nose to nose.
“Kill the hags and save my friends and the children?” Agnes asked of the strange woman.
“That I can do.” Anastacia turned Agnes’ face to one side and kissed her on the cheek, which began to burn immediately. She then turned to the hags, began to turn back into mist, and lunged at them. Time suddenly started again, and I described how a sudden dark and suffocating mist began slamming into the hags, obscuring everyone’s vision in a black ink-like atmosphere. They could hear the agonized screams of the hags and the sounds of flesh tearing, bones snapping, and viscera splattering across the room.
When the mist cleared, and they could see again, they saw just that. A horrible scene straight out of a slasher film. Ireena immediately vomited and collapsed to the ground. The rest of the party was in shock, when the cries of the children broke through and stirred them into action.
There are two things important to what happened you need to understand before I go on. The first is, the bag was the hag’s Soul Bag which contains an evil soul. The second is, this wasn’t the first time I ran this module with most of these players. All of the players aside from Alwyn’s player were a part of a one session attempt to start a campaign that failed due to scheduling issues. They made characters, entered Barovia, and were lost in the woods when it ended. I am the kind of DM that believes “If you leave a character somewhere in the world they exist there throughout time as an NPC”. My wife’s character in particular is the issue. Anastacia was an Elf Grave Cleric to Kelimvor who had a great backstory.
She was a young elf brought along to train with the rest of the clergy of Sehanine from her city who were performing an exorcism to trap a powerful evil spirit in a reliquary to be destroyed safely at a later date. During the ritual, something went horribly wrong and Anastacia woke up to find the entire clergy dead, the reliquary smashed, and the Clergy of Kelimvor tending to the dead. They took her in and trained her and she adopted the faith. What she didn’t realize was the dark entity had attached itself to her like a parasite.
I had a few places they could run into her and I would roll percentile to see if they did and what had happened to her. Meeting her here meant that while in Barovia, she also encountered the Hags, but was killed due to their Nightmare Haunting ability and her soul, which was technically evil due to the dark entity attached to it, was trapped. Back to the story.
Above table, everyone was silent. They had no idea what happened but took advantage of it, looting the place and saving the children. Agnes’ cheek still burned and the party saw that she now had a brand of a two headed serpent that looked almost as if it had scales. An identify spell came up with the spells, Feign Death, True Resurrection, and Astral Projection, but not a clear meaning of what it was.
My wife, knowing some of what the scene meant and her character having a semi-religious upbringing rolled a religion check to see if she knew what it was. Nat 20.
I told her she did recognize it as an obscure, ancient symbol that is extremely rare and not commonly recognized, basically the nat 20 is the only reason she knew what it was. The twin headed snake is a symbol of the Aztec God Quetzalcoatl, deity of death and reincarnation, who is also linked to human sacrifice. In game, most of that stayed the same, however, she knew that there was a legend that said Quetzalcoatl had fallen into madness, craving the destruction of everything so that she could recreate it in her own image. Eventually, she was destroyed from the inside by this corruption and was banished to the Abyss, but her desire to destroy only fueled her reincarnation. She reformed as a Marilith and became one of the Princes of the Unending Darkness, or in her case, a Princess.
The session ended with them going to back to Vallaki and ending at a long rest. Everyone was drained and baffled by what happened, even me. This game lasted 7 whole hours, we usually only get to play 3-4 hours at a time. This is by far the craziest session I’ve DM’d and this is the first time anything like this happened thanks to a lucky dice roll.
Moral of the story, always keep characters from previous campaigns or that players abandon alive in the world, they could come in handy in a fight.
Image Credit- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZY30efOxvf0