Happy New Year, adventurers! I’m happy to say that the new year has brought the first of several new series. The first new series is Encounter of the Week, a series of standalone encounters that can be dropped into any game session at a moment’s notice. These encounters will capture your players’ interest and make them excited to explore, while also not pulling focus from your adventure. This makes them perfect additions to a travel montage, or to save yourself from a deflated game session.
In 2018, I wrote three Halloween-time encounters—The Haunted Cornfield, The Banderhobb Coven, and Beware the Drider’s Snare—but these three scenarios were more like mini-adventures than individual encounters. This encounter series will be short and sweet, and each encounter will focus on a single pillar of D&D: combat, exploration, or social interaction. Don’t forget, Dungeon Masters, that even though an encounter can be themed towards either combat or social interaction, some combat encounters can be turned into interaction encounters through clever roleplaying, and interaction encounters can likewise be turned into combat encounters by a few misplaced words, or just through sheer bloodlust.
This first encounter, the Abandoned Festival, takes place in the aftermath of a New Year’s celebration. During their travels, the characters stumble upon the festival grounds, but something’s wrong. Where has everyone gone?
Combat Encounter: The Abandoned Festival
This encounter is balanced for a party of 3rd-level characters, but can be scaled up to fit a higher-level party.
A simple combination of black powder and a lit match. The firework makers of the Festum Annua spared no expense in their preparations for this year’s New Year’s spectacle. The lead pyrotechnician, a brilliant woman named Song Ling-i, created an explosive mixture of sulfur, charcoal, and saltpeter, and wrapped it in enchanted scrolls that would give her black powder explosions a beautiful flash of color. Her apprentices, eager to play a role in the year’s most dazzling exhibition of sight and sound, produced dozens of these.
Song, however, created the show’s pièce de résistance herself. She assembled it in the center of the festival grounds: the Sorceress with the Robe of All Colors. It was a 9-foot-tall statue of woven paper in the shape of a mighty sorceress with hands outstretched and clad in ash-white robes. Each of the woven strips of paper were tiny scrolls covered in arcane script, which when ignited together, would create a fireworks display in the night sky the likes of which the world had never seen.
However, something went wrong. One of Song’s apprentices was jealous of her gifts and wished to disgrace her. A single strip of paper had been tampered with. It bore a sigil that invoked the powers not of illusion and evocation magic, but of conjuration. When the Sorceress was lit, the slip of conjuration that had been inserted into the statue vanished in a burst of sulfurous smoke. The statue did not explode into the night sky as expected. Instead, the image of the blazing statue strode from her pedestal and hurled a fireball into the crowd, and devils from the Nine Hells appeared from thin air in the festival square. Song was their first victim, and the devils tore her soul from her body and forced it into her statue as it rampaged across the fairground. Song’s nameless apprentice, who had hoped to merely disgrace his tutor, was horrified at what happened, but his meager protestations fell upon the devils' deaf ears. He, like all the others unable to escape the festival grounds, were burned to ash.
The characters stumble upon an abandoned New Year’s festival ground. The entire scene is charred and sooty, and a singed-gray, nine-foot-tall statue of a woman is crumpled on the ground in the center of the square. When the characters examine her, the statue animates, speaks a short riddle, and bursts into flame. Three devils from the Nine Hells emerge and attack; one devil represents sulfur, one represents charcoal, one represents saltpeter. The only way to end the encounter is to reduce the three devils to 0 hit points and hurl them into burning statue in the correct order: saltpeter, charcoal, sulfur. The statue then shoots up into a brilliant display of fireworks, and the devils are destroyed.
When the characters arrive at the abandoned festival grounds, read or paraphrase the following:
A derelict arch stands before you, in the middle of the open plains. Though the canvas draped over its metal frame is singed, it is clearly legible, and reads: “Festum Annua.” Beyond the arch is a festival square surrounded by tents and stalls, but all have been blackened by what could only be a rampant wildfire. The entire scene reeks of sulfur. In the middle of the square are the remains of a tall statue. Its features are too charred to make out from a distance.
Exploring the Festum Annua
If the characters enter the festival grounds and explore, they find several tents and food stalls that are charred almost beyond recognition. They once sold festival food and hosted jugglers, but everything is burnt to a crisp. There are no burned bodies to be found, but characters who succeed on a DC 15 Intelligence (Investigation) check can see eerie scorch marks on the ground in the shape of people, like motionless shadow puppets.
If the characters examine the charred remains of the statue, read or paraphrase the following:
The statue looks like it was made of tightly-woven strips of paper, made in the shape of a tall woman wearing a flowing robe. The paper is little more than gray, crumbling ashes, but it somehow retains its shape, and even its delicate facial features are visible. As you examine the statue, however, you hear a quiet crackling noise.
The statue’s ashen-gray head has turned to face one of the characters, its charred paper cracking as it does so. Each creature within 30 feet of the statue must make a DC 11 Dexterity saving throw, taking 7 (2d6) fire damage on a failed save or half as much on a successful one.
At Higher Levels. If the characters are at least 5th level, increase the save DC to 13 and the damage to 14 (4d6). If the characters are at least 11th level, increase the save DC to 15 and the damage to 28 (8d6) fire damage plus 28 (8d6) thunder damage. If the characters are at least 17th level, increase the save DC to 19 and the damage to 42 (12d6) fire damage plus 42 (12d6) thunder damage plus 42 necrotic damage.
The statue explodes into a column of flame, and from within can be seen the faint silhouette of a woman. A booming, female voice shouts: “You are in danger! Flee! Flee for your lives!” As her voice echoes about you, three devils with burning eyes and sneering faces appear in the festival square in a burst of sulfurous smoke. Each is branded with a unique symbol on its stomach.
The first devil bears the symbol of a double-barred cross atop a horizontal figure-eight. The second bears the icon of a circle with a horizontal bar through its middle. The third is emblazoned with a double-hourglass symbol with a horizontal bar through its middle.
Show the players these three symbols. The first is brimstone, representing sulfur. The second is salt, representing saltpeter. The third is the symbols for earth and fire superimposed upon one another, representing charcoal. Together, these three ingredients create gunpowder. These basic symbols are easily recognized by alchemists, and by most wizards. Any character can identify one symbol they can see by making a successful DC 13 Intelligence (Arcana) check as a bonus action.
From left to right: the alchemical symbols for brimstone (representing sulfur), salt (representing saltpeter), and the combined symbols for fire and earth (representing charcoal).
The Devils Attack
Three imps appear out of thin air and attack. If they are reduced to 0 hit points, they do not discorporate like most devils do. Instead, a defeated imp is petrified and topples to the ground like a statue. A successful DC 13 Intelligence (Investigation) check reveals that it has turned into solid rock—or at least something close to rock, namely, sulfur, saltpeter, or charcoal. It reverts to its true form 1d4 rounds later, with full hit points.
At Higher Levels. If the characters are at least 5th level, the devils are bearded devils instead of imps. If the characters are at least 7th level, the devils are barbed devils instead of imps. If the characters are at least 11th level, the devils are horned devils instead of imps. If the characters are at least 17th level, the devils are ice devils instead of imps.
The Statue’s Riddle
On initiative count 20 of the second round of combat, read or paraphrase the following:
The booming feminine voice rings out from the column of flame again. She says, “If you will not run, then aid me! Set these spirits to rest! First is—!” Her voice is suddenly muffled, as if a hand has been placed over her mouth. Then, a jet of flame shoots from the column, directly at you!
A jet of flame targets the closest character within 60 feet. It has a +3 to hit and deals 1d6 fire damage on a hit. The burning statue repeats this action on initiative count 20 of each round. The statue is immune to all damage and cannot be destroyed by conventional means. It is not a creature or an object; it is pure wild magic.
At Higher Levels. If the characters are at least 5th level, increase the fire’s attack bonus to +5 and the damage to 7 (2d6). If the characters are at least 11th level, increase the attack bonus to +7 and the damage to 14 (4d6) plus 14 (4d6) thunder damage. If the characters are at least 17th level, increase the attack bonus to +11 and the damage to 21 (6d6) fire damage plus 21 (6d6) thunder damage plus 21 (6d6) necrotic damage.
On initiative count 20 of the third round of combat, after the statue has shot flame, read or paraphrase the following:
The voice again booms from the statue. It says, “My actions are not my own! The devils… The Nine Hells… Everything is burning. Hear me! To create a firework, you need black powder. First, 75% saltpeter, followed by 15% charcoal, and then 10% sulfur!”
The Fireworks Show
To defeat the devils permanently and free Song’s tortured spirit from the burning statue, the devil branded with the symbol of saltpeter must first be reduced to 0 hit points and thrown into the flames of the burning statue while petrified in this way. Then, it must be followed by the devil branded with the symbol of charcoal. Then the devil with the symbol of sulfur. If a devil is thrown in out of order, it is spit back out, but remains petrified. Nothing happens if a devil that is not petrified is thrown into the burning statue.
When this is done, read or paraphrase the following:
The flames around the statue flicker and dim, revealing the gray and withered statue beneath. The face of the woman seems to smile a wan smile. Then, the statue shoots into the air with massive tail of smoke and crimson flame trailing behind it. It explodes in the sky above, showing the entire festival ground in gold and crimson sparks. The sparks coalesce into the image of a woman with short hair and smiling eyes, with a look of genuine surprise and happiness upon her face. She turns to you, inclines her head in a quick bow, and beams at you as the twinkling fireworks fade into nothingness.
The festival grounds are quiet and peaceful.
Characters who defeat the three devils and free Song Ling-i’s spirit are rewarded with a charm of the New Year, granting them resistance to fire damage for 10 days.
At Higher Levels. If the characters are at least 5th level, the charm also grants resistance to radiant damage. If the characters are at least 11th level, the charm also grants resistance to radiant and thunder damage. If the characters are at least 17th level, the charm also grants resistance to radiant, thunder, and necrotic damage.
Did you like this adventure? You can pick up more adventures I've written on the DMs Guild, such as The Temple of Shattered Minds, a suspenseful eldritch mystery with a mind flayer villain (for 3rd level characters). Fire, Ash, and Ruin, an expedition into a demon-infested volcano where you can ally with a red dragon and fight a balor (part of Season 7 of the D&D Adventurers League, for 11th–16th-level characters). The Cannith Code, an Eberron adventure in which you infiltrate a secret weapons research facility and bust out a master codebreaker (part of Embers of the Last War, a D&D Adventurers League storyline, for 1st–4th-level characters). All Eyes on Chult, in which the Xanathar Guild tries to wriggle its way into a position of power in Port Nyanzaru (Only available as part of Xanathar's Lost Notes to Everything Else; Adventurers League-legal, for 1st-level characters).
James Haeck is the lead writer for D&D Beyond, the co-author of Waterdeep: Dragon Heist and the Critical Role Tal'Dorei Campaign Setting, the DM of Worlds Apart, and a freelance writer for Wizards of the Coast, the D&D Adventurers League, and Kobold Press. He lives in Seattle, Washington with his partner Hannah and their hellcats Mei and Marzipan. You can usually find him wasting time on Twitter at @jamesjhaeck.