Encounter of the Week: Crisis in the City of Caravans

The Road to Baldur’s Gate has led the adventurers to the city of Scornubel, just a scant few miles from the holy city of Elturel, capital of the realm of Elturgard. Scornubel is the shadow of that sacred city; the villainous shade of a city that is literally bathed night and day in holy light. Beyond its unsavory reputation, however, Scornubel is a major stop for trading caravans. Standing at the intersection of the Trade Way, the River Chionthar, and the River Reaching, thousands of people move through Scornubel each tenday. While all this travel is good for business, the chaos that it creates makes it fertile ground for danger.

This week’s encounter is titled Crisis in the City of Caravans, and it sees the characters entering and departing the city of Scornubel. Here, they can trade, purchase items, rest, recover, and seek out whatever mischief they wish to in the big city, giving them a short respite from the frightful encounters of the past few days of travel. However, as they’re about to leave, they catch a glimpse of… themselves!? This encounter is part of the series “The Road to Baldur’s Gate,” in which a group of adventurers will travel down the Sword Coast over road and wilderness, from the gates of Waterdeep to the threshold of Baldur’s Gate. You may use this series as an introduction to the upcoming D&D storyline Baldur’s Gate: Descent into Avernus, as an expansion to the caravan sequence in the first D&D storyline adventure, Hoard of the Dragon Queen, or piecemeal as standalone encounters.

You can keep track of this journey on this massive map of the Sword Coast, originally presented in the Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide. The trip from Waterdeep to Baldur’s Gate covers about 750 miles of both road and off-road wilderness. A small party on horseback can cover about 24 miles per day at a casual pace, with just under two days off for rest per tenday of travel. All in all, this journey takes just over a month to complete for a small party of adventurers—assuming they’re well-prepared and no serious complications arise. And note, not every day of travel needs to be represented by an encounter; the characters may go for days with only minor encounters with passing merchants or travelers.

This is the tenth encounter along this journey. The previous encounters are:

  1. The Road to Baldur’s Gate
  2. Devil in the Details
  3. Danger in Daggerford
  4. Misty Marauders
  5. Detour Past Dragonspear
  6. Trollclaw Terrors
  7. A Break at Boareskyr Bridge
  8. Najaran Nemeses
  9. Deathly Demons!
  10. Raiders of the Reaching Woods

Leveling Advice

The characters should be at least 3rd level by the time they begin this encounter. If your characters are 4th level or higher, you can adjust the difficulty of this encounter in the D&D Beyond Encounter Builder. Though this encounter series is supposed to lead directly into Baldur’s Gate: Descent into Avernus, that adventure begins its characters at 1st level. You can choose one of the following options, or create your own plan, in order to make this series flow smoothly into Descent into Avernus:

  1. Treat this series as a prologue, and start Descent into Avernus fresh at 1st level with new characters
  2. Scale up the Baldur's Gate content in Descent into Avernus from 1st to 3rd level, and slow XP gain down significantly by halving or even quartering XP values until they reach Avernus.
  3. Skip the Baldur's Gate content and go straight to Avernus.

Exploring Scornubel

Scornubel is a vast city teeming with people, especially in the summer months, when its population doubles, triples, even quadruples in size or more as countless traders pass through the city from across the Sword Coast and beyond. The city is described in brief in chapter 2 of the Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide, and in greater detail in Volo’s Guide to the Sword Coast (1994). The latter book is a vital companion if you wish to expand Scornubel into a sandbox in which your players can explore and find adventure. Also, if your characters didn’t fully explore the little trading town of Northbridge Village in Encounter of the Week: A Break at Boareskyr Bridge, this is a great place to recycle unused characters and shops.

The many merchants of Port Nyanzaru in Tomb of Annihilation could also arrive in this city to trade—and the sinister traders in Mahadi’s Wandering Emporium in the upcoming Baldur’s Gate: Descent into Avernus adventure could also show up, making this city an unsettling piece of foreshadowing for the journey to come. The latter recommendation only applies if you’re playing this encounter after Descent into Avernus is released, of course.

Mission to Elturel

The characters were tasked with finding High Overseer Thavius Kreeg in Elturel at the end of Encounter of the Week: Najaran Nemeses. If they are intent on seeing this mission through, the quickest way to Elturel is on a barge down the River Chionthar, which flows downriver toward Elturel, and then to Baldur’s Gate. These river barges are either small keelboats with a single crewmember, or larger longships with a crew of six officers and up to ten polers for major trading companies traveling the length of the river between Scornubel and Baldur’s Gate.

Travelers and adventurers hitching rides on these craft is a common occurrence; so common that most boats only charge 1 sp per head for rides of any distance, so long as they provide their own food. A character that succeeds on a DC 14 Charisma (Persuasion) check could convince a kindly captain to waive the fee entirely, especially if they’re just traveling to Elturel.

Exploration Skill Challenge: Seeing Double

This exploration encounter is suited for characters of 3rd level. If they successfully complete this encounter, they may have an advantage in the following combat encounter. If they fail, their enemies may have the opportunity to ambush them instead.

A doppelganger disguised as a nondescript human wearing middle-class clothing and a hooded cloak brushes past the characters in the midst of a busy market. Then, with just a glance, the creature assumes the shape of one of the characters (DM’s choice) and tries to slip away into the crowd. This doppelganger is part of a trio that steals peoples’ faces and uses them to commit robberies, which they can then pin on innocent travelers to collect reward money. At any point while the characters are exploring the crowded marketplaces of Scornubel, read or paraphrase the following:

People of all sorts elbow past you as you wade through a crowded market pavilion. The sound of merchants hawking their wares, the music of a half dozen buskers, and an untold number of people chattering amongst each other turns into a disorienting sea of noise.

Any character with a passive Wisdom (Perception) score of 14 or higher notices the figure change shape, not just morphing from one being to another, but adopting the face of the party member that they bumped into! If the characters decide to give chase, you can use this skill challenge to represent the act of hunting down the doppelganger through the streets of Scornubel. If they choose not to follow, then allow them to continue shopping and exploring in Scornubel, and run the combat encounter below when they decide to leave town.

In this skill challenge, each turn is 6 seconds long, just like in a round of combat.

Making Ability Checks. On their turn, the character can make one ability check using any ability score and skill proficiency they like, as long as they can explain how this check could reasonably help them navigate the wilderness. For example, a character might make a Dexterity (Stealth) check, claiming that the shapeshifter has stopped on a street corner to catch its breath, and is scanning the crowd for its pursuers. Thus, the character’s Dexterity (Stealth) check could represent an attempt to sneak closer to the watchful shapeshifter. Alternatively, a character could make a Charisma (Persuasion) check to press a handful of coins into the palm of a passerby and grab their cloak without making a fuss, thus allowing them to get closer to the shapeshifter unnoticed.

As long as the player can convince you that a given ability check could help the party, that check should be allowed. As the Dungeon Master, you can either allow the players to fully describe the results of their successful or failed checks, or you could narrate them yourself. Giving narrative control to the players can let them feel more invested in the world as storytellers, but it could also pull them out of their immersion as characters. Find what works for your group!

Variant: Non-Repeating Ability Checks. If you want to make this skill challenge a little harder, but a little less repetitive, consider using one or both of these optional rules. First, once a character has made a particular ability check, they can’t use that skill proficiency for the rest of the skill challenge. For example, once the character has made a Dexterity (Stealth) check, they can’t use their proficiency in the Stealth skill to benefit another ability check until the end of the challenge. They can, however, make a Dexterity (Sleight of Hand) check, instead.  

Second, once a character has made a particular ability check, the character immediately after them in initiative can’t use that skill proficiency on that turn. For example, after character A makes a Charisma (Persuasion) check on their turn, character B can’t use the Persuasion skill until their next turn.

The DC of this skill challenge is 15. If a character makes an ability check to progress the skill challenge and it doesn’t meet or exceed this number, their check is a failure. Otherwise, it is a success. On a failure, the character’s actions have no immediate consequences.

Success or Failure. The characters’ ultimate goal is to catch the shapeshifter. If the characters win a number of successes equal to the number of characters (not counting NPC allies) in the party, they corner the shapeshifter in a dead-end alley. If the characters accrue three failures first, however, the slippery doppelganger escapes without a trace. If a character proficient in the Survival skill spends four hours searching, they are able to pick up the trail again at night, allowing the party to retry this skill challenge once before the doppelgangers escape the city for good.

Combat Encounter: Doppelganger Gang

The doppelganger that bumped into the party is named Grawchu, and it runs a criminal triad with fellow doppelgangers Chiiku and Arpoh. These wisecracking criminals aren’t murderers; if they’re confronted by any of their victims, they lay the hurt on them and knock them out, before adopting new identities and continuing their con. Since they won’t kill characters, any encounter with the doppelganger gang should be a Deadly encounter; a group of three doppelgangers is perfectly suited to a party of five 3rd-level characters.

If you need to adjust the difficulty of this encounter, take a look at it in the D&D Beyond Encounter Builder. If you need to add an additional doppelganger, then the triad still has one of its four original members: another doppelganger named Zhephos.

If the characters succeeded on the skill challenge, then they corner Grawchu in a dead-end alley. The alley stinks of refuse, and is 40 feet long and 10 feet wide. The two other doppelgangers Chiiku and Arpoh leap down from the rooftops on initiative count 20 in the second round of combat, disguised as nondescript travelers from the streets of Scornubel.

If the characters failed at this skill challenge, then the doppelgangers ambush them in the dead of night—except now, they’re disguised as three of the player characters. If the characters left town, then they’re ambushed on the road, or even on a river barge that they’ve hitched a ride upon!

Treasure

The doppelgangers each carry a coinpurse containing their day’s ill-gotten gains. Grawchu has a pouch filled with ten tiny sapphires each worth 20 gp, Chiiku has a viol case stuffed with a set of fine clothes and 30 gp, and Arpoh has stuffed its pockets full of peanuts. Hidden amidst the peanuts is a single ruby worth 100 gp. If Zhephos is present, this doppelganger has stolen a gleaming silver locket with a cameo of a wealthy Baldurian noblewoman inside it; it’s worth 200 gp.

Conclusion

With their misadventures in Scornubel concluded, the characters have a straight shot to Elturel, and then on to Baldur’s Gate along the River Chionthar. If the characters are still 3rd level at the end of this encounter, they advance to 4th level.  


Did you like this encounter? If you want to read more adventures, take a look at the other encounters in the Encounter of the Week series! If you're looking for full adventures instead of short encounters, you can pick up the 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). My most recent adventures are included in the Platinum Bestseller Tactical Maps: Adventure Atlas, a collection of 88 unique encounters created by the Guild Adepts, which can be paired with the beautiful tactical poster maps in Tactical Maps Reincarnated, recently published by Wizards of the Coast.


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 Apartand 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 feline adventurers Mei and Marzipan. You can usually find him wasting time on Twitter at @jamesjhaeck.

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