I just got back from vacation and I find myself tired. I want to unburden myself of things. One of those things is that I’ve had this D&D campaign inside my head and in notes for about a year now. It’s like a relationship I can’t let go of because there are still things I want to do in it. I’ve decided I want to get these thoughts written down and then move on. After this post, I’m archiving this campaign and moving on to new ones. If you want them, here they are. This is the red pill folks. Take it and I show you how far the rabbit hole goes. If you do not want to know the lore and direction for my D&D campaign, The Mark of Mercy, please stop reading now.
First, a recap.
A bit more than two years ago I started running Curse of Strahd. When we completed that book we wanted to continue the story and there was golden opportunity that came up during the book to do just that.
This will be spoilers for Curse of Strahd but I have mentioned this before. Part of the adventure is a dungeon called The Amber Temple. In this place are a number of different sarcophagi made entirely of Amber. These great rectangular blocks of the stuff. And the walls and doors of the temple interior are also coated with amber. Inside each Sarcophagus is a tiny mote of utter darkness. Picture a bug or a leaf that gets caught in Amber. And these are vestiges of the Dark Powers of Ravenloft. They are gods caught and trapped and they offer gifts/curses to those that try to talk to them in the Ravenloft campaign setting.
The temple has a few other relevant features. It was built by wizards long ago, they’ve since gone insane and turned on one other and now guard the temple as flameskulls. There is a lich in the temple who has forgotten everything it once knew. Also near the temple is the base for an order of paladins led by a Silver Dragon. Their mission, before Strahd wiped them out, was to guard the temple.
So what happened is that there is a Cursed Staff of Frost very close to the entrance of the temple. The curse forces the bearer to covet power. So naturally, the character that picked it up started taking on the gifts of the Dark Powers. Each time you take a gift you make a saving throw and if you fail you become evil and an NPC. As this is divine work there is no way to remove this in Curse of Strahd, this is basically a death sentence.
But that’s no fun. So I got an idea. There is a room of Dark Powers, separate from the others, that grants significantly more powerful gifts than the rest of the temple. One gift grants you the power to cast Resurrection, one time, on anyone no matter how old the corpse. One nameless god can make you a vampire, this is what Strahd did.
Then there is one Sarchophagus inhabited by a Dark Power named Tenebrous. In Curse of Strahd, it can make you a lich if you can cast 9th level spells. As a level 9-10 dungeon, that is impossible in Curse of Strahd. But for reasons I’ll get into, I had Tenebrous offer this evil PC a choice: Free them and Tenebrous will wipe your marker clean. No more curses, no more gifts. Above the table, this was something I offered to the player so that they didn’t have an unplayable evil character. And I knew this was the hook for the sequel campaign. Everyone defeated Strahd, great, now let’s go hunt down that evil god that we accidentally released into the world.
I decided to set the sequel in Eberron since I know that published setting better than Forgotten Realms or some homebrew setting. I had some ideas that were very Eberron specific. So the way we got there was, after defeating Strahd, the Wizard Mordenkainen, who is in Curse of Strahd as an NPC, offered to telelport the players on to an oracle to find this escaped God. I think I said he would send them to Heimdall on Asgard, as he knows everything in the universe.
But instead, the PCs wake up on Eberron. They find themselves in a floating castle under attack and repel the invaders. They are told that they are in Arcanix, a wizard school/research facility. The wizards there have just cast the “Conjure Mightiest Heroes Spell.” See, the kingdom that Arcanix is a part of, (Aundair) just got through a century long war and finished 4th out of the 5 combatants. They are riven and they need help. So their wizards cast a long and involved spell to try and bring forth the strongest heroes in all existence to help them out. They wanted The Avengers, They got the PCs.
Their first mission was to go rescue the students that had been kidnapped from Arcanix by the raiders. The Raiders were members of a group called The Order of the Emerald Claw. They seemed to be trying to open some kind of gate full of Aberrations and needed magical blood to do so. They were also working with a Dragon. The PCs stopped them and rescued some of the hostages, most notably Wrey ir’Wynarn, sister to Queen Aurala ir’Wynarn. This gets the PCs in good with the military brass in Aundair.
This is the first paragraph of many where I need to stop and explain to you, the audience, lore about what’s going on the world beyond the adventure itself. The Dragon the PCs met was not actually a true dragon, but an Emerald Claw warrior who was permanently Polymorphed into this form by a wizard known as Mordain The Fleshweaver. Mordain’s grasp of the spell was imperfect so the dragon kept changing color when he recharged its breath weapon and also started to “Get Aberrant” when it got low on HP. Eberron does not have much in the way of powerful untouchable NPCs like the Forgotten Realms, but there are a few, normally one or so per faction. Mordain basically cut a deal with the Emerald Claw that they would break into a vault in Aundair to bring him a potion he wanted to make super soldiers with, and they would also agree to break into this Aberrant Gate for him since he wanted that magic for himself.
The PCs also found two prophecies, one in Arcanix and one at the Emerald Claw base, that seemed relevant to their situation. The prophecies foretold of something called the Epilogos and how to stop it. Later, at a feast to celebrate their return, the PCs spoke to a divination wizard who happened to have a Tarokka deck.
Also at this time, some members of the party began to develop Dragonmarks, these magical tattoos that are important in Eberron. I assigned different powers to the PCs that wanted Dragonmarks and the PCs that set Tenebrous loose I decided would develop the Dragonmark of Death, a mark of ill repute that will be important later.
The original Tarokka reading tells the PCs where in Barovia they might find The Tome of Strahd, The Holy Symbol of Ravenkind, and the Sunsword. This reading told them where they might find three items that could be combined into an artifact to bind this escaped god and prevent the Epilogos.
I was not clear enough in game what the Epilogos was. See, Eberron has this thing called the Draconic Prophecy. It is this million year old chain of events that basically gives the DM carte blanche to have anything happen for any reason. I decided that Epilogos would be the end of the Draconic Prophecy. Past this point, nothing is predicted. Everything eventually gets to this one bottleneck where creation itself ends. This is the literal apocalypse. Naturally the dragons are somewhat divided on if this is even real, when does it happen, can it be prevented, should it be prevented?
The Three Items they needed for this fetch quest were:
- The Skull of a Holy Man
- A Staff of Pure Adamantine
- A Large Dragonshard.
Then there were three people they were prophesized to have this things, in order.
- A Bishop, his flesh melting in Silver Flame (This was meant to be the evil Archbishop of Thaliost, Solgar Dariznu, but they PCs found and killed High Cardinal Martel Krozen instead).
- A small man standing above tall towers (Saidan Boromar, head of the Boromar Clan).
- A Drow woman whipping a captive (The Queen of the Umbragen).
This is pretty much where the campaign ended. In a perfect world, the PCs would’ve done some more missions for Aundair to level up, get magic items, learn about the world of Eberron. From here on I must speculate where the campaign would have gone and where I intended to push it. It is a mistake to plan a campaign too far in advance. You want the campaign to respond to the players rather than being a set of linear encounters for them to play through. So what follows is my vision of where I saw things going. Of course I would have changed things up to make the best possible and most engaging stories for the players.
In the City of Towers, Sharn, Saidan Boromar is the head of the Boromar Clan, a group of halflings that is basically The Mafia in Eberron. I like this NPC, I envisioned him talking like Bill the Butcher. He had a few quirks, like he would have informants polymorphed into rats and then petrified to put in his office as decorations. In Eberron, halflings ride dinosaurs so he has a big T-Rex head in his kitchen. His initial meeting with the PCs he would be cooking for the family in a scene I wanted to rip out of the film, Munich. I also thought maybe he would be suffering from the Death Curse, like in Tomb of Annihilation. Tomb came out about 8 months ago as of this writing and there was some great stuff in there I wanted to steal. But I was undecided on the death curse.
The Adventure would be, Saidan Boromar is willing to give the PCs this specific staff of adamantine they seek if they will help him in his mob war against Daask. Daask is a gang of ogres, goblins, and other monstrous humanoids. Their hidden base would also reveal their connection with Mordain the Fleshweaver and his super soldier potions that the Order of the Emerald Claw were seeking to perfect and release. This would be a straight up dungeon crawl to wipe this mob out, or maybe the PCs betray Saidan Boromar. Daask also had a connection to a coven of hags which would’ve made the warlock uneasy with wiping them out.
Saidan Boromar or Cavallah, the Daask leader, would’ve also given the PCs the location of Ouroborus, a lost city of gold said to be somewhere in Xen’Drik. This would be the best place to seek out the Drow Queen, the NPCs would argue.
As part of the reward for whatever they did in Sharn the PCs would also secure passage on an airship to Xen’Drik, the jungle continent and home to the Drow elves. On board the airship they would have a murder mystery.
This would be the part where I start ripping off sections from Tomb of Annihilation as the PCs make their way to the lost city of Ouroborus. On the way they would learn that Xen’Drik is weird and also full of giants and Drow. I had this vision that the PCs would finally arrive in the lost city and see the glint of golden buildings only to find that they’re actually coated in Amber. DUN DUN DUN.
This is where the plot starts to kick into high gear. In Ouroborus, the PCs find the Umbragen, a clan of Drow that draw their immense magical power from something they call “The Umbra.” This kind of well of Black Tears. But the well is drying up, if the PCs restore it, they’ll give up the Dragonshard. So the PCs would go underground to find the source of this black magical ichor and realize they’ve found another Amber Temple. DUN DUN DUN. Okay I’ll stop that.
This temple is laid out exactly like the one in Barovia leaving no doubt that it was constructed by a similar group. And inside the temple I thought it would be cool to have it guarded by Giant Lich. That’s cool right? They also find one amber sarcophagus but there’s a twist, instead of containing a black mote inside the Amber it contains a physical body, a huge creature half spider, half woman.
The Lich is here to serve two purposes. One, it can forge the items the PCs have brought into an artifact capable of binding a god. It’s also here to provide the exposition on what the Amber Temples are for, from the Giant’s Perspective.
The sarcophagus in this temple contains the physical remains of an immortal being continuously leaking blood that the drow are drawing their magic from. The body is separated from its soul to keep it inert, although it is still powerful.
The Giant Lich is part of an ancient pact called the Fidelis Lumen ac Tenebrous. It was made at the dawn of time between these great powers some call Gods to keep them from being too destructive. When one of these powers or gods interferes directly in the world they are bound in the sap of Ydrissal, the World Tree, body and soul split for all eternity. This keeps the Gods in line.
But since this fell more heavily on the Evil Gods, the forces of good would have to sacrifice their champions, called the Fidelis, to guard these prisons. And thus was the pact of light and darkness made. But, it was reasoned, they still needed something to do. And so these imprisoned gods were set over jails themselves for the worst beings in all existence. Strahd was their prisoner meant to keep these imprisoned gods busy.
Argynvost the Silver Dragon of Barovia was a Fidelis. His body, and later his spirit, was bound to the Amber Temple to prevent it from falling into the wrong hands. Of course he failed, eventually.
The Giant Lich would normally be obligated to slay the PCs but their coming was prophesized. He tells them that the Rage of War is loose. The Power named Ral Tukesh. He does not know the name, Tenebrous, but these evil gods will often lie to get what they want and guard their secrets. He tells the PCs that Ral Tukesh’s spirit is somewhere in The Mournland, a blighted part of Eberron likely trying to recover its body. Likely it was the coming of Ral Tukesh that caused this land to become blighted. If a dark power is re-united with its body, Apocalypse follows.
The PCs enter the Mournland which four years ago was a prosperous nation called Cyre and one of the combatants at war with Aundair. Then one day it ended, everyone died and the entire place became surrounded by mist just like Barovia. Yet while the “real” Barovia just faded away into a demi-plane, the Mournland is still here and full of dangerous weird monsters.
The PCs come upon a group of Warforged, constructs built to fight in war, that they realize came from within the Mournland which is supposed to be impossible. They find a facility called Whitehearth, where magical experiments were done before the Mournland came into existence. It turns out it was built atop, you guessed it, another Amber Temple. The people here tried to tap into this source of power but it seems to have backfired. Inside is a gate to wherever Ral Tukesh is.
When the PCs go through the gate, they find themselves in the Dark Sun Campaign Setting. This I ripped off from Total Party Thrill because this was a much better idea than what I had in mind.
What I decided happened was that when Ral Tukesh was free from Barovia, it did what dark powers do and sought to make a pact. It found Queen Dannel ir’Wynarn of Eberron. She wanted the strength to save her nation from war. So Ral Tukesh created a demiplane of dread for her which turns out to be a hellscape desert that will never be free from war (Dark Sun). Dannel has stripped the entire country of metal and wood to fashion an army of warforged, some of which have made it out. The Lord of Blades is one of these. She believes that once her army is rebuilt and ready she’ll march out to conquer Eberron and win the war. But since she’s a Dark Lord, it will never actually happen.
The PCs find that while outside the Mournland is four years old, in here it is nearly four thousand years later. Because this is a demiplane and warped arcane magic harms living creatures and defiles the land. There’s no metal, it’s all been commandeered down to the last kettle for Dannel’s warforged. There are several warring city-states led by former generals who fight against Dannel. The place is one great mess designed to please the Rage of War, Ral Tukesh.
I envision the PCs fighting their way to Dannel’s castle and encountering Ral Tukesh itself deep within. Since this is a desert world, I thought the final encounter would be in this great water filled chamber, Dannel’s cistern. Inside Ral Tukesh awaits, and I thought it would use the stats of Olhydra from Princes of the Apocalypse.
The PCs return to the material realm at this point only to realize they’ve made a terrible mistake. See they forgot something they saw in the Amber Temple. This is a picture of the map they were on the time.
Ral Tukesh was gone from the Amber Temple before they ever got there. The Mournland wasn’t their fault. Those millions of people that died? Not the PCs. But Tenebrous needed a living host to get out of Barovia. It’s been possessing that PC the whole time, weighing on her soul, a shadow at the corner of her eyes. And now, it has a body powerful enough to claim here in Whitehearth. And the PCs have done it the kindness of rebuilding its wand, charging it with the soul of a god, and fulfilling the prophecy to herald its return. When they return to the material plane the Mournland is gone but Tenebrous steps forward to reveal that its true name is Orcus. And it is here to end all life in the universe.
This is when the other inspiration for this campaign can be revealed, the Planescape adventure Dead Gods, itself a sequel to The Great Modron March. In those adventures, the dead god Orcus comes back and calling itself Tenebrous it seeks to find The Wand of Orcus to reclaim its power. It also starts killing gods with the Last Word, my inspiration for the Epilogos.
This is when the PCs should really be running. It would be my intent to have this happen immediately after Olhydra’s defeat and I want the PCs to be scared as hell right now.
I’m not 100% certain how the next part of the adventure would work. I’m thinking the PCs need to convince the leaders of the other nations to join them to stand against Orcus. But this is when the other reveals start coming.
My idea regarding what Orcus intends to do is that each “world” for lack of a better term has a “Keystone” amber sarchophagus that serves as a direct conduit to Ydrissal the World Tree and maybe the rest of the multiverse. If Orcus unleashes his power directly into that sarcophagus, everyone else dies. I also thought that maybe the Tree itself is the sarcophagus for Nidhogg/Dendar/Khyber these are all these snakes said to have the power to end the world.
This would also be the point where it is revealed that the PC with the mark of death, Mercy, was specifically chosen for this purpose a long time ago. See, in Eberron, the Mark of Death began appearing on this group of elves a long time ago. They started producing Half-Dragon/Half-Elves one of whom, Erandis Vol, had untold power. The Dragons feared this would lead to the Epilogos so they wiped out the bloodline of Vol. They were right, but they were off by a few thousand years. Mercy was a product of this and carried the blood of blue dragons and demons before she was hidden away in the Domain of Dread, which the mark of death provided access to. They needed her specifically to open Orcus’s sarcophagus, no one else would’ve been able to do it.
I think the best and most fleshed out idea here though is that Orcus was the keystone for keeping Barovia together. Orcus was, in essence, the lock on Strahd’s prison. With Orcus gone, Strahd got loose when he returned, as he always does. Upon his rebirth, Strahd was approached by the wizard Mordenkainen who was never really Mordenkainen. He offered Strahd the chance for vengeance and to reclaim the soul of Tatyana, which Strahd thought the PCs still had in a ring of Mind Shielding. Mordenkainen sent Strahd to Eberron a century ahead of the PCs where he founded the Order of the Emerald Claw and fought in the thick of the war until he eventually replaced King Kaius III and secretly took his place. Strahd’s been in Eberron this whole time, actually helping the PCs so they bring back Orcus. Because the deal was struck a long time ago that Orcus can have the multiverse, Strahd wants Barovia and Tatyana.
Mordenkainen, I would reveal, is actually a Rakshasa. He is the actual warden of the prison that is Barovia. It is his job to make sure Strahd suffers but he actually is the servant of Orcus. He brought the PCs to Eberron and is assisting them in the guise of the Arcanix wizard, Nostromo Valar. It’s his job to serve Orcus but it’s also his job to screw over Strahd at the last possible minute to prevent him from getting Tatyana’s soul. The idea of sending Strahd to Eberron after her soul knowing that the PCs don’t have it would please him greatly.
This is actually something in Eberron. Eberron does actually have these “fiendish overlords” that are the biggest big bads in the setting and they can be released as needed. Each one has a Rakshasa servant.
Orcus needs to get to the most powerful Amber Sarcophagus on Eberron to end the multiverse which naturally is on Argonnessen, the continent of dragons. Over the centuries, a cabal of evil dragons have conspired to gain control over the Pit of Five Sorrows, where the dragons’ most powerful secrets are held. The PCs need to get there first where they have their epic confrontations with Orcus, Strahd, and the dragons. Only they have the power to return Orcus, Ral Tukesh, and Strahd to Barovia. But the gods must have their due. At least one of them must make the ultimate sacrifice and return to Barovia to serve as the new Fidelis and remain there for all eternity. This would give a bittersweet end to the campaign.
That is my campaign synopsis for The Mark of Mercy. It would of course change to suit the needs of contact with the PCs. For Strahd after 102 years of war I was planning to use something based on Grazz’t from Out of the Abyss to make him the appropriate final boss as the PCs fought him first atop the Pit of Five Sorrows (you can probably guess which draconic god is entombed there) then inside the Astral Plane between Eberron and Barovia. That would’ve been a pretty epic final level 20 fight of first Orcus and then Strahd 2.0. Doubtless this story is full of plot holes, lore that needs to be filled in. Most importantly this story needs more connections to the other PCs, Lou Lou, Le Sprig, Vang, Bastian, and Mercy. But this is just one idea. Now I’m off to go write some others.