Candlekeep Mysteries – Price of Beauty

Our group is continuing to do adventures from Candlekeep Mysteries.  The next one up for me to DM is “Price of Beauty” by Mark Hulmes.  Coming off ‘Book of the Raven’  I see some big picture similarities.  This adventure is a place to explore more than a plot.  The idea here is that the PCs somehow come to this location.  It is a spa run by three elven women.  But there’s some shady shit going down.  As you might expect by any sentence in 5E D&D with the phrase ‘three women’ this is a hag coven.  

The big plot here that requires the party to intervene is that the hags have a ritual, they each know 1/3rd of it, and it gives people temporary blessings but after a while they get inverted.  The strong become weak, the brave become cowards, and so on.  It’s very Ravenloft, they’re very similar to the Dark Gifts.  The big picture goal is to stop the hags, undo the rituals, and free the cursed people held prisoner here.  There is a hook tying it to Candlekeep, the last person to have the book, ‘Price of Beauty’, is missing.  And the book itself can create a portal to this spa.

I think this is the 3rd Missing Scholar and 2nd Portal-in-a-book of the 6 adventures so far.

The meat of the content in this adventure is exploring this spa.  There are some minigame skill tests to win a potion.  The pool is closed because there’s a monster in it.  There are some guests at the spa with hooks that are probably completely pointless because we’re doing a one(ish) shot.  There’s a couple buildings on the property that no one’s allowed to go in.

Then you have the hags.  Most adventures focus on The Coven as the character and spend their creativity on the hag names.  This adventure dives a little deeper giving each hag a standard 5E NPC length profile of a few sentences complete with ideals, flaws, and bonds.  The text goes through 1) what the hag looks like in their true form 2) what their illusory form is and 3) how to portray them.  This is a great touch and really makes them come alive as characters.  Morgan likes to make people afraid but loves scary people.  Sazha hates dwarves and is afraid of fire.  And Greenbones loves her dog but literally gets sick around virtuous people.

From a rules perspective, these are all Green Hags.  The Coven specifically uses their 5th Level spell slots to cast Seeming to disguise the staff so the Coven isn’t punching at full power.  I have 3 PCs so that’s edging into potential deadly encounter territory.  One thing I could have really used here is a discussion of tactics.  There’s a different list of Coven spells for these hags but I’m probably going to change it a bit more.  There is zero reason for Alter Self to be on this list.  Witch Bolt sucks, just give ‘em Magic Missile.  Glyph of Warding and even the Seeming spell cast on the staff are more plot/adventure elements than something needing to be addressed in the monster’s stat block.  Just say some stuff is trapped and there’s an illusion.  Why do stuff that screws with the math that helps me determine “will this encounter be a cakewalk or a fuckfest for my players?”

In terms of things I need to change I can start with the names. Each Hag has their actual hag name, like Auntie Greenbones and then their stage name, Greensong in this instance.  Just for the sake of cutting out a variable I’m probably just going to give them the one name.  I’ll also want to change the one hag’s name, Dread Morgan/Morganna to something entirely different.  With all due respect to all actual Morgans, Morgannas, Morganthas, and Morrigans out there, in a D&D game when players hear the name Morgan or some variation they think “Hag. Roll initiative.”

That reveal is the biggest potential pitfall of this adventure.  At some point in this adventure, the PCs are going to learn that the place is run by Hags.  If my veteran D&D players walk into a place run by three women they’re going to start blasting immediately.  I might make the Hag’s servant Saeth another woman just to throw the PCs off.  When do you time the reveal?  Is there a best time?  Does anyone give a shit when this happens if it’s fun before and fun after?  Will I feel like I’m missing out if the players figure out the reveal fast?

I like this adventure but I see pitfalls.  If the PCs go in with the Candlekeep mission to Find A Missing Person they’re going to ignore the other NPCs and rooms that make up the bulk of this adventure.  Because we’re doing Candlekeep adventures as oneish-shots I can’t insert this as a location the PCs come across in their travels.  Also because of that the PCs don’t have much incentive to linger with the spa’s services or RP with the guests.  I think this is a good location, cool stuff going on, but I think it would work better as an addition to a campaign with established PCs rather than a probably-two shot.

So, the version of this adventure I’m dreading is Murderhobo SWAT team realizes “Hag Coven” right away and shoots everybody and there’s a long boring combat with no RP.  I don’t think that’s likely but that’s my worst case scenario, which, hey it’s still D&D with friends.  Plus I think the PCs versus the Hag Coven, their scarecrows, their gargoyles, their hell hound, and their Cambion servant is going to lead to The PCs getting smoked.  The feather in the cap version of this adventure has your PCs uncovering and then using the Hags’ flaws and ideals to turn them against each other and give up their secrets.  Each one has a third of their magic ritual and they want the rest.  Each one of them hides their ritual somewhere near their person.  Each one of them has specific loves and hates.

This is a good adventure.  It fulfills 5e’s obligatory “every campaign must have one hag coven” rule.  It’s a good expression of the prevailing TTRPG advice right now which is to give your players a situation, not a story.  They’re thrown into this little sandbox with a lot going on, a lot to uncover, and you know what if they just wind up shooting everyone in the face then go with the gods.

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