Barovia Goes to the Birds: Curse of Strahd Session #25
“Touching the Things”
By MARK WILSON
DM: A Friend
(Me) Ahk-wa – Female Aarakocra Ranger
Aial – Female Aarakocra Druid
Lhandroval – Male Aarakocra Sorcerer
Gwaihir – Male Aarakocra Bard
System, Setting, Adventure: D&D 5e, Barovia/Ravenloft, Curse of Strahd
Session #25: “Touching the Things”
PC Level: 9
The journey through the Amber Temple continues…
Lhando’s Power Grab
We spend a good chunk of time interrogating Lhando and preventing him from touching amber stones with promises/boons/flaws in them. We learn that he has become power hungry, owning to something with the wand of frost he picked up. During the Nothic chat below, we Mage Hand away from him and destroy it, but alas, he remains unchanged.
We bump into some Nothics who speak with Gwaihir (using a Comprehend Languages spell) and Lhando. They learn some secrets of Lhando (which he improv’d about our time in the circus), and Gwaihir gets some secrets from them, including rough locations of treasure, great power, a library and a “secret dead wizard” who holds all the secrets of the Amber Temple.
Following the nothic’s directions, we ignore a couple smaller “temptation rooms” and make our way toward the larger prizes. Along the way, we encounter a weird skull trap (avoided bc we’re birds), and an illusory banquet where an enchanted ewer (pitcher) of wine triggers a fight with some…undead? I forget which kind. Anyway, they swarm Aial and do considerable damage, but we dispatch them.
Aiding the Lich?!
Making our way to another secret room the nothics alluded to, we encounter what can only be a lich, though one that has lost his mind and appears weak. We tell him we’ll aid him if he aids us, and he agrees. One Greater Restoration spell later and his mind returns, and he is surprisingly helpful (we thought we were triggering another fight and had said our goodbyes, because, ya know, it’s a f—ing lich). We get an info-dump from him on Strahd and the temple.
He can act as our guide and protect us from all harm in the temple, but needs his body restored. We need to sleep to cast Greater Restoration again, so we do so.
In the night, Lhando speak with the lich about obtaining power, and Kasimir grows weary of our secretive conversations (of which there were several) and heads down to the largest chamber of amber temptation stones. He goes alone, and despite our efforts to persuade him to stay, we don’t accompany him.
Life & Death
Another Greater Restoration spell and (gulp!) the lich is renewed but still helpful, surprisingly enough! He leads us through the temple to the treasure room, amusingly chatting with an Arcanoloth in the statue in the main hall along the way, and we then mostly take gems and jewelry (too much gold to carry). OOC, Gwaihir’s player pleads further for a +1 bow for Ahk-wa, to no avail.
He then leads us to where Strahd became a vampire, and where he learned how to become a lich. The last stone, he’s never touched. Inside we find Kasimir’s dead body, at the hands of some vampires that the lich keeps off of us. We walk in, and Lhando immediately touches the untouched amber stone. It promises him the power over death, but he must wear death as a veil. Drunk with power from the wand’s curse, he accepts.
We watch as he becomes an undead version of himself, still power hungry, but now able to bring any one person back to life by touching their remains, regardless of how long they’ve been dead. In and out of character, we have a burst of excitement realizing that one of the trinkets we randomly rolled at the campaign’s start is our father’s ashes, which Aial keeps in an urn.
But it’s late irl, so we collect the wizard’s apprentice we left cowering a couple sessions ago, thank the lich, and depart the temple.
So I was successfully duped into thinking that there was some power source we might “turn off” in the Amber Temple. Apparently the narrative leads you to that conclusion. But we found out – as our DM related to us after the session – why some DMs skip Amber Temple entirely.
RP as a Savior
There are a lot of more “traditional beat ’em up” parties that would have become utterly corrupted by the temple. There are several ways that you can even lose control of your character permanently. So the fact that we’re a tight-knit group of siblings, who spent the first 45 minutes of play trying to pull info out of Lhando and prevent him from harming himself, means we had a much better chance of surviving. Still, it wasn’t without scars.
Add to that the wand, which makes whoever touches it first power-hungry, and it’s basically rigging the dungeon to make the party fall for its nonsense, and things could easily spiral for any group. Thankfully, our DM had a light touch about some of this, dropping thematic hints so that we weren’t entirely unprepared, which I think was an excellent way to handle the dungeon.
So this was the point of Amber Temple. It had remarkably little plot purpose. It was literally just a red herring that exists to get the players to corrupt themselves by touching things.
Which may be my first big gripe with Strahd as an adventure. Having “the land” corrupt the party is fine. But do it through narratively interesting ways. The earlier bits with morally nebulous decisions with no clear “right” choice, as well as our encounter(s) with lycans, were excellent. But this…this was a big “gotcha!” dungeon in an otherwise organic world. Because, let’s be honest, who plays D&D to walk into the creepy temple, look around and say “this looks dangerous. Let’s turn around and leave the place alone.”? No one, that’s who. It’s basically part of the unspoken contract at the table. Oh, here’s a dark stone with a spirit in it. Should I touch it? The players know they shouldn’t. The DM knows that the players know they shouldn’t, and the players know that the DM knows that, etc. etc. But it gets touched. Which is fine; it’s a time-tested trope of roleplaying. But dozens of those, that include numerous permanent flaws that players are asked to RP, a very real chance of having the DM confiscate your character, and boons that have every chance to be mediocre?! Nah, this was force feeding the idea that Barovia should be a negative influence on the players. It was a good gimmick taken to an irrational extreme.
We got very lucky, even with the “RP as a Savior” stuff I mentioned. Gwaihir made his save, has a manageable flaw and arguably the best long-term boon for any of us in the entire temple. None of us changed alignment (Lhando made his save as well), and only Lhando has flaws that could be troublesome long-term. But this was likely a best-case scenario. If Ahk-wa stumbled onto one she liked before things started getting dark and weird, I likely fail my Charisma check and become evil and have a permanent flaw to RP. And not even as a climactic moment, but just a random, curious “yes” response in like the 3rd room we encountered in the dungeon. That would be frustrating; if I die, things change, etc. it’s ok, I’m a big boy who understands that these things happen in D&D. But the consequences should match the weight of the action, no? I wonder how many groups stumbled their way into an inescapable spiral and just didn’t finish the adventure as a result.
For clarity, my friend who plays Gwaihir said that, to him, it was the chance to make the decision that Strahd didn’t, and a reminder that in a world of dark magic, becoming corrupted could potentially be really easy. I agree with both of those things, and it softens the Amber Temple for me considerably. As mentioned, our DM also handled things really well, so I have no long-term complaints. But it’s an interesting anomaly in the adventure regardless.
There may be some loose ends, but we’re heading toward our confrontation with Strahd in the next session or two.