My current campaign has culminated in by far the most unexpectedly haunting, beautiful and tragic moment I’ve ever played in all my years as a Dungeon Master. I run a gritty game, where death for both characters and NPCs, both friend and foe is a constant threat. Our main cast includes a Rogue named Jack Pot, a Fighter named Arrigo, an Artificer named Leoni, and a Bard known only as “Poet”. A major recurring faction in their game is a group of highly secretive assassins from the Underdark known as The Shade Maidens, who run on special homebrew mechanics and have powers based around flowers that they enchant and make potions out of.
We’ve played about eight games so far, but they had their first run-in with the Shade Maidens in their very first game. The players are hired for their first mission by a city councilman who fears that he is the target of an assassination. The artificer asks why he believes this, and the councilman tells him that a young female dark elf, who appeared about fifteen or sixteen, gifted him a purple flower. He tells them that he heard stories about people with a price on their head receiving flowers from Drow women, and that this gift was some sort of mark of death. They call these harbingers of death “Shade Maidens”. Players roll history for knowledge of the Shade Maidens, and as far as they know, they are a boogeyman invented to scare people. They accept the contract to protect the councilman for the next 48 hours, certain that he’s just being paranoid and that this job was easy money.
The rogue and bard team up and use disguise kits to make him a very convincing disguise to hide his identity, and take him to a filthy Inn where no one would ever look for a wealthy politician. They buy him a room and tell him to stay in there while they keep watch. The party was on the lookout for a female dark elf acting suspicious, but all they find is a single Drow woman behaving normally, doing nothing suspicious besides simply not interacting with other people around her.
While they were fixated on her, however, a single human man kicks down the door of the councilman’s room, moving in a direct line almost as if he magically knew his exact location. He wielded a small, narrow dagger wreathed in a visible red aura. They fight him, but he mostly ignores them, taking attacks of opportunity and wrestling his way out of grapples to corner the councilman. Eventually he reaches the councilman, and strikes him with his dagger, piercing less than an inch deep into his target’s stomach. The councilman, despite suffering a very minor wound, drops dead instantly.
My players were perplexed, because in my game all NPCs with names get to take death saving rolls, but this one had died instantly. They asked me if I was going to roll death saves for him, and I smiled and said “no, not this time”.
The Councilman’s assailant drops the dagger, and looks on in horror, confused and afraid that he’ll be arrested and hanged for killing the councilman. The party and town guard rush in and question him. He tells them that he knows nothing; he remembers nothing except for being given a beautiful yellow flower by a young Drow woman. The town guard arrested him for further questioning until his innocence can be proven. The party reconvenes at a restaurant that operates as a front for Arrigo the fighter’s criminal family. Defeated and disgraced, they decide to put all other missions on the backburner until they can uncover who was behind the assassination. They conclude that a member of a rival crime family was trying to get the councilman out, so that he could get his man into office, who he could in turn bribe out of enforcing the law on his turf.
At this point Jackson “Jack Pot” Potter joins the game. His player was late to the game so he missed out on the opening mission and the other players crudely fill him in, leaving out the details about the flowers. The party decides to shake down a brothel that’s run by the rival crime boss. They start asking questions and chatting with the brothel’s bartender. He scoffs that the brothel had recently hired a young dark elf, and expressed his disgust that the succubus madame would hire her even though she was clearly no more than sixteen years of age. The party suspects that she may have had something to do with this, and send Jack Pot to buy her time, and gets keys to her room, instructing him to get information from her and call for help if needed.
Once in her room, she immediately remarks that he’s not the one she expected but that they could have a good time anyway. She sits him down on her bed, rubs his shoulders, and invites him to smell some aromatic purple flowers she had on her counter. He does, and I tell him to roll a constitution save, which he fails. The player is now nervous and cuts to the chase, asking her about the assassination of the governor. The moment she hears this, she becomes hostile, drawing a dagger that glows red.
Jack Pot calls for help and the party comes storming in, rolling for initiative. During this fight, she forces the gnome artificer Leoni to smell a purple flower, and he too fails a constitution save. Miraculously, none of them die, and they manage to knock her out and take her away from the brothel for questioning, setting it ablaze on the way out.
Once captured, they begin interrogating the Drow girl. She resists at first, sworn to some oath of secrecy, but begins to give in when they start negotiating for her freedom. She explains that her name is Ellala, a newly initiated Shade Maiden on her first mission. She explains that she had marked the councilman for death, by making him smell an enchanted flower that both made him visible to all other Shade Maidens and made him vulnerable to attacks from their enchanted daggers, which delivered instant death to anyone who was marked. She explains that she had marked both our Rogue and Artificer for death, and makes a deal with them. Her real target was a man named Arcturus, a criminal scumbag, who in turn was the contact for a slippery pirate named Gilrock. She agrees to let them come to the Underdark to have the mark of death permanently removed from them if they let her go and manage to kill Arcturus and Gilrock within a time limit.
The party releases Ellala, and goes their separate ways. They spend the next several missions traveling the world hunting down the two targets that they owed to the Shade Maidens. During this time they gradually form a friendship with Ellala, sending and receiving letters from the Underdark. They find that she is particularly endeared to them, because as violent and contentious as their first impression was, they were still kinder and more patient with her than the horribly cruel Drow assassins that had trained her. They eventually track down and kill both her targets, and receive an invitation to the Underdark to be cured of the mark of death. Their invitation coincided with an important festival in the Underdark, and Ellala’s 16th birthday.
Time passes, and they travel to the Underdark by a portal provided by the Shade Maidens. It’s a huge party, and before having their mark of death removed, the party decides to stay and enjoy the festival. Upon re-uniting with Ellala, she introduces her to her two closest childhood friends, who were one or two years older than her. One is Jayellar, a geeky 17-year-old male Drow, who was training to be a dungeon architect, and the other is Bella, the stunningly beautiful 18-year-old dark elf. All were wearing handmade friendship bracelets made by Bella, except for Jayellar, who appears to have lost his. The party gets to know them, and learn that Bella was restoring a subterranean mushroom farm and was planning on growing them as a career. She laments that she was relegated to this job because she wanted to be like her friend Ellala, and become a Shade Maiden. Bella reveals, however, that she was forbidden from becoming a Shade Maiden. She explains to the party that upon completing their training, new Shade Maidens ingest a potion made from red flowers that grants them their unique powers, but that this potion has a small chance of killing whoever takes it. Several of her blood relatives had taken the potion, and died instantly. This led her family and house to believe that her bloodline carried a genetic predisposition that made them unable to take the potion and become Shade Maidens, estimating that Bella had only a 10% chance of surviving the potion and a 90% chance of instant death.
Bella describes a distinct interest in the power that Shade Maidens get from enchanting flowers, particularly the yellow flowers, the ones that grant the power of mind control. “How intoxicatingly romantic it is to think that you can hold that kind of power over someone,” Bella says. “The power to bend will, the power to make someone your own”. Her friend Jayellar balks in response, and jokes, saying, “Bella, pretty much every man in this city is so in love with you that they would do practically anything for you anyway. Some women too, even. Why do you care about that?” Bella laughs and says it’s not as easy as it looks, that being beautiful is nothing compared to the power of a Shade Maiden. For a moment she seems cold toward Ellala, as a strong envy toward her friend for managing to become a Shade Maiden became noticeable. This however passes in time, and the trio remain good humored nonetheless.
The party departs and seeks out a Drow Priestess to remove the mark of death. They arrive at a temple of Lolth, and are greeted by a priestess named Esperanta and her Drider servants. For those who don’t know, Driders are dark elf/spider hybrids. When asked, Esperanta explains that each one of the Driders were once Drow from her house who had committed acts of treachery, and were transformed into monsters as punishment. Apart from the horror of becoming a Drider, the worst part of the punishment was that upon transformation, you gradually lose nearly all your memories, until you eventually don’t even remember who you are or why you were even cursed to become a Drider in the first place, until you’re reduced to at best a mindless servant with little free will, at worst a creature that is more like an animal than a sentient being. They kept them hidden from normal folk, and called them “The Punished Ones”. Becoming a Drider is considered by most Drow a fate worse than death.
Poet, the Bard, inquires about the process of gaining the powers of a Shade Maiden. Esperanta smirks, and says, “Men, like you, are forbidden from becoming Shade Maidens. The potion that grants them their power kills one woman of every ten who take it, but nine of every ten males who take it. I’m amused by your ambition though, so I’d like to see you try”. A Drider retrieves a potion of red flowers, and leaves it before Poet. I warn his player that he has a 1 in 10 chance of getting Shade Maiden powers, and a 9 in 10 chance of dying instantly. The player agrees, and I say to roll percentage dice, and his player asks me if he can use his inspiration to roll twice. I agree, and he rolls with advantage. The potion enters his body, and Poet gains the powers of the Shade Maidens. For about ten seconds at least. Moments after drinking the potion, his limbs stiffen, his skin turns flushed and red, and his heart stops. Poet dies then and there in the Underdark, seeking the power of the Shade Maidens. His player says “whatever, it was worth the risk”, and begins rolling up a new character. She asks if her new character can be the sister of Arrigo, our Halfling fighter. I say it’s cool and she gets to work.
The party mourns the death of Poet, but the priestess seems amused. She explains that he died a good death, that for a person to die risking it all trying to achieve their ambitions is the most noble death one could have. They ask her where a good place to bury their friend would be, and she guides them to a field of flowers where the Shade Maidens grow the flowers they use for their potions and enchantments.
The party travels to the flower field to bury Poet, but are attacked by a fungal monster who seems obsessed with burning down the field of flowers. They defeat it, bury Poet, but among the dirt and burnt flowers they find the charred remains of a friendship bracelet, and a burnt letter. I handed them a physical letter, which I had burnt with wood embers. The letter is barely legible, but it was meant for Bathajaun, a name the players recognize as belonging to an infamous Mind Flayer in the Underdark. The letter negotiated some deal for great power in exchange for access to the writer’s memories, and had instructions to meet them at some unknown rendezvous. The signature, also burnt, only reveals that the person writing it had the letters “ella” in their name.
This made Ellala, Bella, and Jayellar all suspect.
They ruled out Ellala because the “E” in the signature was not capitalized, and debate on who could be their prime suspect. They decide that Bella was their prime suspect, and decide to investigate her Mushroom farm she was renovating. At this point Poet’s former player, now playing a cleric named Luciana, introduces herself to the party as Arrigo’s sister and the secret fiance of the late Poet. The party leaves for the mushroom farm, but Luciana’s player says her character will hold back because she has to leave the game early to meet someone.
The remaining PCs find the mushroom farm overrun with Mindwitnesses and Intellect Devourers, known servants of Mind Flayers. They trek through it, solve some puzzles, fight some monsters, and eventually reach a room where Bella, behaving strangely and with a distinctly violent twitch in her left eye, attacks them with mind-controlled Thralls. I had planned to have this encounter with one more player at the table than what we actually had, so they were quickly overwhelmed and Bella’s thralls stomp the whole team into submission without her having to lift a single finger. The whole party was knocked out.I closed my DM screen, and told them I would meet them next week. This game had taken an unexpectedly perilous turn, and I had to figure out how I was going to conclude it. This is where things get real.
The next week’s game rolled around, and my players were playing a five-member party backup level 3 characters that were all siblings, sent to rescue their main original characters after receiving a distress signal sent from deep underground by their sister Luciana. The new team was an all-Halfling search and rescue squad, rappelling bravely into the Underdark to find the original cast of characters who had mysteriously gone missing down there. The new team included a Rogue, a Barbarian, a Bard, a Cleric, and a Fighter. They drop down an abandoned Duergar mine shaft and climb down for what seems like forever, and eventually find themselves among a field of enormous luminous mushrooms where their sister Luciana has been surviving for the past week, living off of collected dew and edible fungi. She explains that her brother and his companions have been taken and are likely under the influence of a mind-controlling Drow named Bella. She guides them to Taithone, the Underdark city where the previous characters had first united with the Shade Maidens. When the rescue team reaches the city, they find the entire town is in ruins and that nearly all of its population is behaving in a zombified fashion, under the control of Mind Flayers and their Intellect Devourers.
The enthralled citizens of Taithone appear to be constructing and fertilizing a pool of Cephelomorph Tadpoles, parasitic creatures that slowly transform people into Mind Flayers when implanted into their brains.
They sneak through the city, trying to find where Arrigo and his companions were being held captive. They ponder visiting the Temple of Lolth, but it seems too risky to go through the city that was heavily patrolled by mind-controlled Drow. Curious about what the thralls were doing, the cleric breaks rank and approaches them. One failed stealth check later, she’s surrounded by ten Drow thralls, who pin her down and implant a cephelomorph tadpole into her eye, and return to their work. Upon having the tadpole installed, she sees brief flashes of where Bella’s friends Ellala and Jayellar were being kept. She returns to the party and conveys this information, but upon reuniting with them she hears a voice in her head saying, “THERE ARE FIVE SURVIVORS, READY THE ROPERS AND TAKE THEM, SO COMMANDS XORAKZOR”.
She senses her eye twitching violently, and realizes that everything she sees is being shared with some outside force, likely a Mind Flayer, and removes her own eye to extract the tadpole. She rolls medicine and succeeds, removing the tadpole but sacrificing one eye in the process.
The party follows Luciana’s vision to a storehouse that merges into the foothills in the rear. The storehouse was filled with various hoarded supplies, and lined with stationary dark elves, with Intellect Devourers attached to their heads. They sneak through the short dungeon and reach a room where Bella and her mind-controlled thralls and monsters await them. They find her watching over a cocoon where her two best friends Ella and Jayellar were being held in suspended animation in some kind of preserving slime. They challenge her, and roll initiative.
Ropers drop from the ceiling and block their path as the party battles Ella. The rescue squad is once again overwhelmed by her psionic power and her supporting monsters, but the team's rogue is determined to reach her. He readies a poisoned dagger and drinks his last health potion to tank as much damage as possible, and spends his next two turns charging past the whipping tendrils of the Ropers, taking attacks of opportunity on the way. Once he reaches Bella, however, he ignores her and instead presses his poisoned dagger against the cocoon where her friends were suspended. He threatens to poison them unless she surrenders, and I let the rogue roll an intimidation check. He barely passes, and Bella surrenders.
Upon her surrender, she breaks down in front of the party, lamenting what a disaster she had caused, hoping she can help save her people from further devastation by the invading Mind Flayers. As she explains this, however, the previously stationary Drow from earlier in the dungeon awaken, and begin banging down the door, now hostile to Bella and the party. She opens an emergency exit to the foothills, and the tendrils of a Roper under her control drop down, ready to pull the party up to safety. As the room filled with attacking zombified Drow, she releases her friends from the cocoon, and sends her friend Ellala, the newly initiated Shade Maiden, with the party to help them and guide them, keeping Jayellar with her to fight off the attack.
Ellala leads the party to a cottage where a small number of survivors were hiding from their zombified neighbors. While there, they gather potions that only Shade Maidens can use, including a purple "mark of death" potion that makes enemies vulnerable to attacks by the enchanted daggers of Shade Maidens, a red potion that can grant people the powers of a Shade Maiden with a 10% risk of instant death, and a yellow potion that allows a Shade Maiden to take control of whoever drinks it and channel her deadly power through them. While in the cottage they plan their attack. Ellala speculates that the previous party they were there to rescue was likely being held at the Temple of Lolth. Ellala informs them of a secret entrance in the rear where they kept people who had been transformed into Driders, who were hidden away from the rest of society as part of their disgraced lives as "The Punished Ones".
They stealth their way past the zombies to their target, where they find the cavern in the rear that merges into the temple where the Driders live, and proceed to one by one sneak their way in. Most of them sneak through the webs, but the fourth party member failed his sneak check and alerted the Driders, who attacked in increasingly overwhelming numbers.
Two of them charged on into the temple while the other three held back and fought the punished ones. Inside the temple they found, crucified and near-dead, the Drow priestess Esperanta who was tasked with caring for the Driders. They revive her and she agrees to call the Driders off, and before collapsing from exhaustion she asks one request of them, "Punish the traitor Bella".
They press deeper into the temple, where they find the Xorakzor the Mind Flayer that had made the deal with Bella awaiting them at the Altar of Loth, but the people they were there to save were nowhere to be seen. Xorakzor attacks them after the team's bard fails a deception check to appear non-hostile. At this point I took the character sheets of their original characters, and each round of combat Xorakzor brought in another one of their original characters who were under mind control to fight the players alongside him. They were level 3 and he was a CR 5 monster, and he and his mind-controlled support team were thrashing the party.
They had dealt a fair bit of damage, but not enough to kill him. Eventually, they put away their weapons and take out the Shade Maiden potions, and try and force him to drink the "Mark of Death" potion. He rolls an 18 in a strength contest to resist being force fed the potion, and the cleric rolls her strength check. Natural 20. Now that Xorakzor was marked for death, the barbarian signals to Ellala the Shade Maiden that he was going to take the yellow potion and willingly give control of his body to her. At this point three out of five PCs are KO'd and rolling death saves, and the party was barely hanging on.
The turn order returns to the Barbarian and he drinks the potion down. Ellala mind controls him, channeling her power into him and enchanting his weapons, wreathing them in a pale red aura and making them deadly to anyone afflicted by the Mark of Death. The Barbarian strikes and succeeds, dealing incredible damage to Xorakzor, killing him instantly and releasing the original players from their mind control. I give the players back their original character sheets and let them interact.
Bella and Jayellar arrive at the temple and reunite with Ella and the party. As this reunion is happening, the original characters recognize Bella as the villain who had team-wiped them in the last game and put them under mind control. As soon as he sees Bella, the artificer screams at her: “You did this! All of this is your fault! How can you stand here in front of us as if you are our friend? You betrayed everyone!”
Bella begs him to understand that she wanted to fix things, that she had been driven to desperation in her search for power after a lifetime of being forbidden from becoming a Shade Maiden.
Before the party can respond, the Priestess Esperanta enters from the Drider cave in the rear of the temple and agrees with the artificer. “There’s nothing she can do to fix this. Bella must be punished”. I start playing tragic ambient music, as Bella quickly realizes what's going to happen to her.
She drops to her knees and begs from the priestess, “Please, I’ll do anything!” Bella cries “Anything, please, just show me mercy.”
Tears well up in Bella’s eyes, and the Drow priestess responds.
“You deserve death for betraying the Drow. Anything less than death IS mercy.”
Bella cries and pleads for forgiveness, but her pleas of forgiveness quickly change to shrieks of pain. Her legs begin to split vertically, her knees snap inwards and shred her leggings open as her lower limbs transform into spider-like appendages. Two more legs burst from her chest as her eyes, drenched in tears, separate into eight beady eyes. Small hairs grow from her forehead and her lower half forms into a large thorax as the once beautiful Bella is transformed into a hideous Drider. Her memory begins to slowly fade as it is gradually replaced by the instincts of a predator arachnid. She slinks into a corner, disgraced, afraid, and increasingly incapable of understanding why she's feeling so much despair.
After the priestess leaves the room, the party approaches Bella. “Here, take this” the Cleric says, drawing the red potion they obtained earlier. “You don’t have to take it, if you don’t want, but it’s what you’ve always wanted”, and offers Bella the potion that would grant her the powers of a Shade Maiden.
Bella holds the potion in her hand, pondering it for a good while, while her two closest friends look tearfully on her. She nods at her friends as if saying goodbye, and drinks it, knowing that it had a 9 in 10 chance of killing her. She rolls a percentage die, and fails. The potion overtakes her, and for a brief moment she knows what it feels like to be a Shade Maiden before the potion poisons her body. She silently bids farewell to the party who, despite essentially poisoning her, had finally given her one act of kindness and mercy in her cruel life. Her last words were "I am happy".