This post will discuss one of the areas in the D&D Curse of Strahd campaign in some detail, so consider this your spoiler warning.
Curse of Strahd is kind of a brutal campaign adventure. I told my players this much up front – that they were in for a difficult journey. I even had them roll up two characters before we even did session one. I wanted them to be prepared. There’s very little in the way of supplies, new weapons and armor, stuff that adventurers would typically find throughout a campaign as they leveled up.
So don’t let it surprise you that, of the seven players who’ve stepped foot into my version of Barovia – only one has survived since day one. Everyone else has died.
When it came time for the characters to travel to the Amber Temple – a location within the adventure that has a reputation among those who’ve played Curse of Strahd as a “TPK temple” – I knew I had to prepare on my side of the screen.
See, some DMs wouldn’t mind that. Some DMs consider a TPK as a way to punish unprepared players that go charging in to unknown places. Some DMs consider a TPK their version of a “Flawless Victory.”
While I do consider a TPK a possibility, should the players make stupid decisions, and the dice are against them, I don’t try to pursue this outcome. I don’t play against my players. I am not trying to “win.” I am my players’ advocate. I try to help them where I can without interfering in their play. I want them to succeed.
Because, if they don’t succeed, they won’t get to finish the story. And where’s the fun in that?
So, the Amber Temple. Yes, it’s full of scary monsters. It has a couple mundane traps and puzzles. Moreover… and this is the really big deal… it has the power to actually corrupt the player-characters and turn them evil. The book suggests that, if a character is turned evil, the DM is to take over and they become NPCs. So, there’s your very-possible TPK.
And, funny enough, one my player-characters did indeed turn evil as a result of his actions in the Amber Temple. But, since he was the only one to which this happened, I let him keep the character. It was more interesting to me to see what he did with this character, and his new abundance of power and flaws, than to take him and turn him into an NPC with the possibility of becoming an ongoing nuisance to the party. Plus, that meant that that player would have had to roll up his THIRD character in this adventure, and I really didn’t want to do that to him.
So let’s talk about the Amber Temple, the challenges it provides, and how you – as a friendly, neighborhood DM – can help your players through it.
Phase 1: The Cold and the Arcanaloth
The first thing that you have to decide upon whether or not you want to focus on is the weather. The book details the “Extreme Cold” of the location as being -10 degrees Fahrenheit. It states that if characters don’t have heat sources, warm gear, or magic to protect them then they are subject to the effects of extreme cold as detailed in the “Weather” section of the “Adventure Environments” chapter of the Dungeon Master’s Guide.
Now, I’ve talked about this very condition in a previous post of mine, and I still tend to think that this extreme cold causing effects like levels of Exhaustion is just too much for the player-characters to handle, especially given all the other things they’ll be facing in the Amber Temple. I feel like something like this was put here specifically to kill player-characters.
Yes, it makes sense in the narrative of the world – Mount Ghakis (where the Amber Temple is located) is freezing cold. I get it. But, why make this so much more difficult than it already is? Allow me to elaborate a little further on this with the next thing that characters encounter within the Amber Temple.
Almost as soon as the characters enter the temple, they’re attacked by an impossibly hidden Arcanaloth that hurls its spells across a huge, 90-foot room at them. Spells like fireball, and chain lightning. Plus, it has Truesight, so going invisible won’t help the characters. Not only that, but because it’s nearly pitch black inside the temple AND because the Arcanaloth is hidden within an orb of magical darkness, the players have no hope of properly defending themselves. So that’s kind of messed up.
After just two spells, two of my characters were down, and an NPC nearly bit the dust.
Thanks to their quick thinking, the party managed to slip into one of the annexes on either side of the balcony at the temple’s entryway.
But, here’s where things get tricky. Both of the annexes have their own problems for the player-characters. X6 has a hole in the floor that leads to one of the rooms downstairs. In this room are three flameskulls. So, if the characters make any noise, they may alert the flameskulls, causing them to fly up through the hole and attack. Now, depending on how much damage the characters took from the Arcanaloth’s spells, and depending on how many of the three flameskulls immediately cast fireball on the unsuspecting party (hint, it’d be all three of them), this may just instantly kill them all right there.
X15, now, has inside of it 5 berserkers, 1 gladiator, and 1 dire wolf. That’s 7 enemies. Depending on your party’s size, the odds could be against them. Remember about 5E’s Bounded Accuracy mechanic as well as how the size of a group of enemies can outnumber a party and put them at a great disadvantage?
And, beyond X15 is the hallway X17 to the north, and that has another three flameskulls in it. More on X17 later.
So right at the start of the Amber Temple, the characters will be attacked and surrounded by a large number of dangerous enemies. The TPK could happen all within twenty minutes of gameplay, and before they’ve even explored two or three rooms. That’s intense.
Phase 2: The Hallways of DEATH
Next are the two hallways that branch north off of areas X6 and X15. X8 is the northeast hall, and X17 is the northwest hall.
Let’s talk about X8 first, since that’s the direction my players ended up choosing while under fire from the Arcanaloth. Luckily, they quickly discovered the flameskulls in the room below, so were careful not to make any noise.
Down hallway X8, though, there’s a chance the players will attract the attention of a huge amber golem, using the stone golem monster stats but with only 145 hit points. My party actually slipped into the Lecture Hall, area X9, as the golem came tromping down toward them. Here, they met the wizard apprentice Vilnius. Vilnius is a shady, evil character who just wants to survive long enough to escape the Amber Temple. His master, the wizard Jakarion, brought him here and promptly died.
Or maybe Vilnius has gone mad, and so the mage attacks the party, and that’s one more threat to deal with.
Let’s talk about X17, though, and how this one area of the Amber Temple can potentially send your party into a downward spiral of madness and evil. Ready? Let’s go.
The hallway X17 contains the charred remains of Jakarion the wizard. First of all, he’s dead and charred thanks to the three flameskulls in this area. So if the party hasn’t dealt with them yet, they probably should. I had a way around this when I ran the game. However, that’s not the worst part. Lying next to Jakarion’s corpse is his staff of frost. When a player-characters picks this up, they immediately gain a new flaw – no saving throw.
“I crave power above all else, and will do anything to obtain more of it.”
This is a very interesting flaw, and one that may not have a severe impact on the player-character who gains it…oh, that is until you remember what the Amber Temple houses: Power, with a capital P.
If the characters make it through X17, they then can find their way to X22, X24, X26, and X27 – a veritable gauntlet of making your players distrust you, the DM, and possibly die.
Phase 3: Puzzles and Death Traps
So we’re moving right along here. Assuming the characters just went down X17, they’ll eventually reach X22, which contains a huge, lavish, delicious-looking and delicious-smelling feast of glistening meats, fresh fruits, tantalizing wine, and enough seats at the table for all.
Haha, wait, it’s a programmed illusion.
In fact, the only things that are real in this room are the table and a green copper ewer sitting atop it. Not even the chairs and torches on the walls are real. As soon as somebody picks up the ewer, all the illusions immediately fade – plunging the room into darkness, mind you – and SEVEN SPECTERS APPEAR to attack he-who-holds-the-ewer.
JESUS. …Remember, these things drain maximum hit points. Until you’re dead.
However, if your group is smart enough to NOT touch anything in this room because perhaps they ALREADY don’t trust you, they may move right along and eventually reach area X24 (also please note that the crumbly balcony area X23 could also collapse under too much weight, causing characters to plummet 30 feet and take 3d10 fall damage).
X24 is unassumingly sinister. There is a statue here that resembles the giant one in the main temple area. This statue has upon it the sympathy effect of an antipathy/sympathy spell. That is to say a character must succeed a Wisdom saving throw or be drawn to the statue and sit there until it dies of exhaustion and starvation. There’s also, seemingly, no way out – so if your party cannot discover the secret door leading to area X26, then they may become discouraged and turn around.
If they do find X26, they’re going to wish they hadn’t.
Once the door opens, hundreds of skulls come pouring out of it. The entire 30x20x20 room is packed full with them. The book says it takes one character 5 minutes to wade a path through them to the other side (another secret door, remember – so, at first glance, it’s just a dead-end room full of skulls). Further, there’s an iron chest stuck upside-down to the ceiling of this room with sovereign glue. The chest is sealed with an arcane lock.
Should the characters desire to open it, and are able to get it open… well, then, the floor just disintegrates and whichever poor schmuck is standing in the room plummets 30 feet to the room below (again, 3d10 fall damage) – a room in which four poltergeists wait to fight whoever disturbs them. Again, the poltergeists use the specter stat block! Jeez! Oh, AND the iron chest turns out to be empty. HA. HA.
But let’s say none of that happens, and they find the secret door to area X27.
Phase 4: OH YEAH, THE LICH
Liches are saved usually for use as a BBEG in an entire adventure or campaign. They are extremely powerful. It’s very unlikely a party of 8th-9th level characters who have made it thus far into the Amber Temple with all its dangers will be able to face off against one. Or, at least, it’ll be a harrowing encounter with probably a death or two.
Area X27 is the home of such a lich, namely Exethanter. He is the guardian and keeper of the knowledge and power within the Amber Temple. Now, luckily, the book states that the lich has no design for Barovia, nor does he desire an alignment with or the deposing of Strahd von Zarovich. He merely exists here, and the Amber Temple is the most important thing for him.
Also luckily, he’s lost much of his memory. I feel like this is the narrative’s way of making him somewhat less of a threat to the party, should a battle commence. He doesn’t remember much of his spells, or even his own name. In fact, the lich doesn’t remember the passwords to the various books in his library or vaults containing the dark vestiges. So… he’s kind of useless. And pathetic. Based on the book’s information alone, I feel like the encounter would be sad and almost meaningless – simply a reminder to the party of the pure hopelessness of Barovia, and how its darkness can even snuff out the power of a creature such as an immortal lich.
However, when I ran this section of the Curse of Strahd adventure, I took some inspiration from Chris Perkins and how he ran it for the Waffle Crew in “Dice, Camera, Action!” In his Amber Temple, Exethanter was still somewhat aloof, but was in fact friendly and helpful to the party. I thought this was an interesting idea – and a great way to turn a trope onto its head. The ever-evil lich creature now acting friendly and accepting of the adventurers? Now that’s interesting. And it was fun, too!
This also allowed me to direct the adventurers through the Amber Temple without having to face off against all the severely powerful monsters. With Exethanter guiding them, no creature would touch them (it even says so in the book). Exethanter was able to chase off the Arcanaloth, move past the obedient flameskulls, and evict the berserkers camping out in X15. He also banished a death slaad that was hiding inside on of the amber vaults! I didn’t want my lower-level party to have to face all of these things and have this area of the campaign adventure take SEVERAL sessions because of all the combat they’d be enduring. That felt too distracting to the narrative, to the tone of Curse of Strahd.
The Amber Temple is literally a dungeon-crawl stuck in the middle of a gothic horror.
Phase 5: The Lower Level
Above is the northern half of the lower level of the Amber Temple. You can see X39, where the four poltergeists wait for people to fall through the floor of the trapped X26, as well as area X40, which serves as a treasure room and is guarded by another amber golem – and this one is at full hit points.
X36 is the western hallway – thankfully unguarded. The room X38 is haunted by another poltergeist (specter). X35 on the eastern side of the lower level, however, contains a deactivated shield guardian. If a player-character has already found the amulet that goes with it, they can control this beast! So that’s pretty cool.
X5a on the main floor is where the statue of the faceless god stands. Its head is hollow, and full of a spell of magical darkness. This is where the Arcanaloth lairs. From within the darkness, it casts its spells at creatures who cross into its line of Truesight. It’s a nasty fellow.
Here’s the other half of the lower level. X31 is a giant tomb that contains (amazingly) no threats. However, the eastern hallway of X32 has a coven of 3 Barovian witches (!!!) and their 3 brooms of animated attack. Holy cow!
Phase 6: The Dark Vestiges
Okay. Whew. There are SEVEN areas that contain amber sarcophagi, which each house a dark vestige of a god – power that the player-characters can obtain. Remember Jakarion’s staff of frost and the flaw it bestows its wielder from earlier? Yeah, here’s where that causes things to go downhill fast.
If a character gains Jakarion’s flaw of craving power, then it makes absolute sense that that character would then want to get most if not all of these powers that the Temple offers. That’s what the character in my campaign did. He had picked up Jakarion’s staff, and started gathering all of the dark vestiges as soon as he heard about them.
Here’s the issue, though. When a character accepts a dark vestige, it must then succeed on a DC 12 Charisma saving throw, or have its alignment shift to evil.
So, even a character that didn’t get Jakarion’s staff could still technically go to one of these sarcophagi and accept a dark gift, and turn evil.
I’ll go ahead and detail all TWENTY of the dark vestiges offered within the Amber Temple so that you can see how insane this place is. I’ll also list out which of the various vaults contain further threats to the party foolish enough to seek them out.
X33a. Vault of Shalx
Three flameskulls occupy this room.
- Dark gift of Fekre, Queen of Poxes
- Cast contagion as an action.
- Can be used a total of 3 times.
- The beneficiary reeks of filth.
- Dark gift of Zrin-Hala, the Howling Storm
- Cast lightning bolt as an action.
- Can be used a total of 3 times.
- One side of the beneficiary’s face sags and goes numb.
- Dark gift of Sykane, the Soul Hungerer
- Cast raise dead as an action.
- Can be used a total of 3 times.
- Beneficiary’s eyes glow sickly-yellow.
- Gains the flaw, “If I help someone, I expect payment in return.”
X33b. Vault of Maverus
- Dark gift of Savnok the Inscrutible
- The beneficiary gains benefits of the mind blank spell.
- FOR A YEAR.
- Beneficiary’s eyes melt away, leaving empty eye sockets that can still see.
- Dark gift of Tarakamedes, the Grave Wyrm
- Beneficiary grows skeletal wings, and a fly speed of 50 ft.
- Beneficiary must consume at least 1 pound of bones or grave dirt daily by dawn or DIE.
- Dark gift of Shami-Amourae, the Lady of Delights
- Cast suggestion as an action.
- Saving throws against it have disadvantage.
- Can be used a total of 3 times.
- Beneficiary grows an extra finger on each hand, and the flaw, “I can’t get enough pleasure. I desire others to create beauty for me at all times.”
X33c. Ghastly Vault
Seven ghasts with the spider climb ability guard this room.
- Dark gift of Drizlash, the Nine-Eyed Spider
- Beneficiary gains benefits of spider climb ability.
- Beneficiary grows an extra eye somewhere on its body, which is blind and ever open.
- Dark gift of Dahlver-Nar, He of the Many Teeth
- Beneficiary instantly reincarnates when it dies, a new body appearing within 10 feet of the previous one.
- Can be used a total of 3 times.
- Beneficiary loses all of their teeth until it reincarnates for the 3rd and final time.
- Dark gift of Zantras, the Kingmaker
- Beneficiary’s Charisma score increases by 4, to a total of 22.
- Gains the flaw, “I won’t take no for an answer.”
X33d. Breached Vault
Four nothics guard this room, but don’t attack unless provoked.
- Dark gift of Delban, the Star of Ice and Hate
- Cast cone of cold as an action.
- Can be used a total of 7 times.
- Beneficiary gains benefits of a ring of warmth.
- Gains the flaw, “Fire terrifies me.”
- Dark gift of Khirad, the Star of Secrets
- Cast scrying as an action.
- Can be used a total of 3 times.
- Beneficiary’s voice becomes a low whisper, and its smile becomes cruel and evil.
X33e. Vault of Harkotha
A death slaad waits in this room, invisible.
- Dark gift of Yrrga, the Eye of Shadows
- Beneficiary gains truesight for 60 feet.
- Lasts for 30 days.
- Beneficiary’s eyes become starry voids.
- Gains the flaw, “I believe that all life is pointless and look forward to death when it finally comes.”
- Dark gift of Great Taar Haak, the Five-Headed Destroyer
- Beneficiary gains benefits of a belt of fire giant strength (STR score to 25).
- Lasts for 10 days.
- Gains the flaw, “I like to bully others and make them feel weak and inferior.”
- Dark gift of Yog the Invincible
- Beneficiary’s hit point maximum increases by 30.
- Lasts for 10 days.
- Oily black fur covers the beneficiary’s face and body.
X33f. Vault of Thangob
- Dark gift of Norganas, the Finger of Oblivion
- Cast finger of death as an action.
- Can be used 3 times, after which beneficiary must succeed a DC 15 Constitution saving throw or drop to 0 hit points.
- Beneficiary’s blood turns black and viscous, like tar.
- Dark gift of Vaund the Evasive
- Gains benefits of an amulet of proof against detection and location and a ring of evasion.
- Lasts for 10 days.
- Beneficiary becomes twitchy and nervous, gains the flaw, “I can’t give a straight answer to any question put to me.”
- Dark gift of Seriach, the Hell Hound Whisperer
- Can summon and control 2 hell hounds as an action, both appearing at once.
- Can be used only once, gift vanishes when they die.
- Beneficiary can speak Infernal, and a sulfurous smoke issues from their pores when they speak it.
X42. Amber Vault
6 vampire spawn rest within crates in this room, bursting out to attack if they hear intruders.
- Dark gift of the Vampyr
- A humanoid of evil alignment must accept this gift.
- Beneficiary becomes aware of the following conditions to be met in order to gain this gift:
- Slay another humanoid that loves or reveres him/her, then drinks the dead humanoid’s blood within 1 hour of slaying it.
- Die a violent death at the hands of one or more creatures that hate it.
- Beneficiary then instantly becomes a vampire (under the DM’s control by the book’s instructions).
- Gains the flaw, “I am surrounded by hidden enemies that seek to destroy me. I can’t trust anyone.”
- Dark gift of Tenebrous
- A humanoid of evil alignment that can cast 9th-level wizard spells must accept this gift.
- Beneficiary becomes aware of instructions to perform in order to gain this gift:
- Craft a phylactery and imbue it with the power to contain the beneficiary’s soul.
- Takes 10 days.
- Concoct a potion of transformation that turns the beneficiary into a lich.
- Takes 3 days.
- Items cannot be crafted concurrently.
- Craft a phylactery and imbue it with the power to contain the beneficiary’s soul.
- Upon drinking the potion, beneficiary immediately turns into a lich (under the DM’s control by the book’s instructions).
- Gains the flaw, “All I care about is acquiring new magic and arcane knowledge.”
- Dark gift of Zhudun, the Corpse Star
- Can cast resurrection on a dead creature, no matter how long it’s been dead.
- Can be used only once.
- Beneficiary gains a corpselike appearance, and is easily mistaken for an undead.
And that’s it. That’s the Amber Temple, summed up and explained. If you’d like to read further, and see how I handled my party’s experience with this dark, cold, and hellish place, then please do. If not, the you can skip to the end. Please leave a Like on this post, and share it if it was useful to you!
How I Ran the Amber Temple
Before I officially begin, let me stress that I did scale down on some of the threats within this place. It’s meant for a party of 9th-level adventurers, but my players didn’t reach level 9 until AFTER they left the Amber Temple. And since I don’t want them to die, I knew I had to handle this carefully.
Part One: “I Swear, Officer, the Horses Were Dead When I Arrived!”
The party arrives astride their five horses, and head inside, down the long stairs that lead to the balcony overseeing the huge temple area. They tie off the horses to the banister along the balcony and WHAM!! A fireball explodes among them. The Arcanaloth hidden in the giant statue has begun its attack.
The horses are instantly fried and killed. The party tries to take cover. NPC Clovin Belleview runs off and disappears. NPC Kasimir – AKA, the whole reason they’re in the temple to begin with – is nearly killed right away.
With some quick thinking, the party starts running toward the eastern annex room, and a chain lightning suddenly streaks through three of them. Two party members drop, unconscious. The remaining party members drag their wounded into the annex. There is still no sign of Clovin.
Part Two: “Be Vewwy, Vewwy Quiet”
They quickly discovered the hole in the floor of this room, and peeked in to find the flameskulls below. They knew instantly to remain as quiet as possible, instead deciding to use hand motions to communicate a la John Krasinski.
During the time that the unconscious adventurers were recovering, two of the stealthiest party members went invisible and explored a bit. They went back out to the balcony and crossed over toward area X15. The dwarf went into area X15, while the elf went down the stairs to X5.
The berserkers and gladiator in X15 were surprised to find the door opening and closing all by itself, and the dwarf invisibly greeted them, asking if they could be of aid. They seem to have no interest, rather seeking to take care of their own kind, and so the dwarf left.
Meanwhile, the elf tried sneaking downstairs, but she slipped and fell on the slick stone steps. This gained the attention of the Arcanaloth, who fired another fireball at her. The elf, a rogue, escaped any damage thanks to her evasion ability, and went into the hall X5d, whose walls were polished to reflection. Only…the elf’s reflection did not obey her actions. Instead, it frantically waved her arms and silently screamed, “NO! NO! GO BACK!” over and over again, successfully spooking the elf to run back up the stairs.
The two invisible adventurers unknowingly met up with each other at the top of the stairs as they ran back toward the annex, dodging fire bolt after fire bolt fired from the Arcanaloth (his Truesight allowing him to see the invisible adventurers). They successfully returned to the annex room unharmed.
Part Three: “Time to Get A Move On”
The reunited group rests for the night to recover. The next day, they all awaken and explore the annex. The shardmind wizard finds secret doors that lead to a room containing a wand of secrets, which he keeps.
Together, they decide to head through another pair of doors down the northeastern hallway X8. They note the crack patterns in the marble floor, and surmise that something big must have caused them. As they stealth forward, Kasimir sneezes, and the group hears heavy THUDDING approaching them. They quickly duck into the Lecture Hall, area X9, and shut the door – the shardmind waited just long enough to see a large, amber statue quickly lumbering toward them.
Inside the Lecture Hall, the group searches for another way out, but quickly spots a human man hiding behind the lecturn – Vilnius the mage with singed clothes and large burn scars on his face and hands. He is distrusting of the group, but explains he was brought here by his master, Jakarion the wizard, almost against his will. Then, the fool got himself killed by skulls on fire. Vilnius ran for his life, and was nearly killed by a huge amber statue, and so he hid in here.
The group convinces Vilnius to come with them, as there is strength in numbers, and they can help him find a way out. But his one condition is that they get rid of the statue that surely wants him dead now. So the group exits the room and defeats the amber golem.
They move ahead, and find the balcony at the northern end of area X5, with the giant statue next to it, area X11. This leads them to area X12, and the shardmind uses his wand of secrets to find the secret door that leads downstairs to area X14. A few adventurers stealth down there and find ghasts in a green room with amber obelisks. They return to the group and shut the door as the ghasts notice them and give chase.
Part Four: “I’m a Lich, I’m a Lover, I’m a Child, I’m a Mother”
The group returns to area X11 and sees a balcony across the way, on the other side of the statue. The dwarf climbs across the front of the statue to reach the other balcony, and the half-elf casts spider-climb on the human so he can carry a rope across and hammer it into the wall with pitons so the rest of the party can cross too.
However, this noise attracts the Arcanaloth in the statue. It comes out after the human drops onto the balcony, causing it to collapse under the combined weight of him and the dwarf. The dwarf falls, but the human is able to jump back onto the wall with spider-climb.
The Arcanaloth begins to question the dwarf and uses spells to hold the human in place. Then, the doors where the balcony once stood open up, revealing something else the noise attracted – a lich. It casts spells at the Arcanaloth, telling it to “shoo!” The Arcanaloth runs, disappearing into the temple.
The lich then greets the adventurers and tells them to meet him over by the southern balcony, next to area X15. The party does so, with Vilnius taking the opportunity to run up the stairs and out of the temple. The lich welcomes them to the Amber Temple and leads them into area X18, at which time they find Jakarion’s body. The human picks up his staff of frost, and immediately gains that crazy flaw I detailed earlier.
The three flameskulls bow obediently out of the way as the lich leads them into the dining hall with the programmed illusion. Upon questions from the party, the lich reveals that the feast is not really there, but the ewer is…and they’re free to take it if they want.
The reason I did that is because the ewer can purify poisoned liquid, as well as magically produce tasty wine once per day. And those qualities are excellent in this campaign setting. I legit wanted them to have it. But they didn’t trust me, and didn’t take it (at this point).
Since the X23 balcony had collapsed, I had to invent secret doors from X22 to X24 in order for the lich to lead them on. He took them through X26 (at which point the human with the new flaw eyed the upside-down iron chest for a few moments), and then into X27 – his lair.
Here, the human finds the lich’s spellbook, and asks if his name is Exethanter. The lich doesn’t remember, but knows that that book is important to him. He warns the human not to go through it. The lich assumes the party has come to the temple for the ancient knowledge and power that lie within. They agree, so the lich leads them to the library, X30.
Here, the characters begin searching through the numerous books. The power-hungry human notices the staircase leading down. The lich tells him that some of the temple’s amber sarcophagi lie down there, and those are what contain the temple’s real power. The human, understandably, goes downstairs.
Part Five: “UNLIMITED…POWAH!! *lightning lightning lightning*”
The human examines each of the sarcophagi before accepting the dark gift of Zhudun – the power to resurrect the ancient dead. He immediately gains the appearance of a living corpse, AND fails the saving throw – becoming evil.
So now he’s an evil character with the flaw, “I crave power above all else.” Awesome.
From here, he tried to accept the dark gift of Tenebrous, but was not a spellcaster, so could not. He then accepted the gift of the Vampyr, and now knows how to become one. The human returned to the party, alarming them with his new appearance – while the lich complimented him, saying they looked alike now! The lich offers to take the human on a tour of the Amber Temple, so see all of the other dark gifts it has to offer. The human immediately accepts. The half-elf, suspicious of the outcome of such a tour, decides to accompany them.
So while the rest of the party searches the library for the knowledge they need to obtain for a side-quest they’re on, the lich guides the human and the half-elf downstairs and to the various amber vaults. The lich uses his power to expel or shoo the various unwelcome creatures that either lie within these vaults or are attempting to break in and usurp its power. This eliminates any challenges the players would have otherwise faced had they explored on their own.
The human goes and – staying true to his new character flaws – accepts every single dark gift. If you read all of the descriptions of the amber sarcophagi above, then you understand how this completely changes the human character into a walking monstrosity with myriad negative flaws and serious power.
The half-elf didn’t stand for this, however, and eventually cast a fireball at the human and lich. They responded in kind, with the lich using his own finger of death to kill the half-elf character.
Part Six: “I Think I Left the Gas On…”
The human and lich eventually returned to the rest of the party and explained what happened. The lich is upset that the half-elf took advantage of his kindness and hospitality, and said that he did what he had to do to punish such action. They understood, in a way, and did not want to further anger the lich.
I had Kasimir the NPC go down and accept the dark gift of Zhudun as well – though he made his saving throw. It is his sister he’s trying to resurrect, after all. I figured he’d want a hand in that outcome as well. Perhaps he didn’t trust the human character anymore, what with him now resembling a walking horror.
Now that the characters had the knowledge they were looking for in order to complete their side-quest, and now that the human character believes he has enough power to lend them a substantial advantage should they face Strahd, they all agree that it’s time to go.
The lich leads them back to the entrance, with the dwarf character now claiming the copper ewer at the lich’s insistence (I threw out the specters in this room because of the lich’s presence). And, with that, the group left the Amber Temple. And only one of them had died.
So there it is – how I ran the Amber Temple for my party of lower-than-the-recommended-level characters and avoided a TPK. Did I change things around? Sure I did, but not at first. I started it out just like the book says – the Arcanaloth attacks them on sight with its powerful spells.
From there, I let the players’ ingenuity guide the experience. They didn’t make any stupid decisions, in my eyes, so I didn’t punish them for that. Instead, I molded the Amber Temple into a more memorable and fun experience – one that would still have drastically influential consequences on the adventurers, namely the player of the now-evil human character.
In my version, they were thankful to have met the lich – because they eventually saw all the creatures they would have had to fight to complete their tasks. But with the lich they didn’t have to. And, in return, they didn’t attack the lich for killing their companion. Instead, they feared his power, after he had waved off things like nothics, flameskulls, a death slaad, and an Arcanaloth!
I’m quite happy with how I ran this section of Curse of Strahd. Maybe, if I ever get a chance to run the campaign adventure again, I’ll do a more brutal, true-to-book version of it and see how it turns out. But, I’m hesitant to do so, because if I do, I’m worried the players will see that they’re outgunned and run the other way – never to return. That’s kind of what happened with Argynvostholt, and that’s a bit of a shame, because that side-quest has a hugely advantageous outcome for the party should they complete it.
Oh well. Maybe next time.
Until then – Well Met!