Encounter of the Week: River of the Damned

The end of the Road to Baldur’s Gate is in sight. It’s practically a straight shot down the River Chionthar, whose clear waters glow and shine in the setting sun, making it seem like a road made of solid gold leading straight towards your destination. Be careful, though. As the influence of Avernus grows ever more powerful, the danger on the Material Plane grows ever greater, and this river of gold may soon be a river of the damned.

This week’s encounter is titled River of the Damned, in which the characters embark on the final leg of their journey to Baldur's Gate. 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, 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 thirteenth and final encounter along this journey. An auspicious number, perhaps? 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
  11. Crisis in the City of Caravans
  12. Escape from Elturel

Leveling Advice

The characters should be at least 4th level by the time they begin this encounter. If your characters are 5th 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.

Combat Encounter: River of the Damned

This combat encounter is suited for a party of 4th-level characters traveling on a river.

The Trade Way reaches Baldur’s Gate not as a road of paved stone, but as a path of shimmering water. The River Chionthar connects Baldur’s Gate, the realm of Elturgard, and all lands between the coast and the Sunset Mountains in the east, making it a vital channel of trade and diplomacy between the southern reaches of the Lord’s Alliance and the lands beyond. Travel is easiest and quickest traveling westward towards Baldur’s Gate and the Sea of Swords, but dozens of pole-driven riverboats travel upriver every day.

The sight of other boats traveling alongside the characters as they sail downriver to Baldur’s Gate is nothing special—though particularly paranoid characters may react to all passing vessels with suspicion. Give the characters some time to grow accustomed to river travel, interact with scenery or civilian passersby of your own devising, or play out scenes of their own volition before beginning this combat encounter. Once the characters have played through any scenes they wish to, read or paraphrase the following:

After hours of travel along the swift currents of the River Chionthar, you watch the sun set over the horizon. As you flow westward with the river’s current, the river itself seems to glow gold, red, and pink as it reflects the brilliant colors of the fiery sunset. A moment of peace is enwrapped within beauty of the day’s last hours.  

The moment ends as two flat-bottomed barges glide silently into view. They appeared from nowhere, and quickly settle into place on either side of your vessel. A half dozen hazy, shadowy silhouettes gaze at you from their barges in eerie silence, and a gaunt figure with a skeletal face stands at the helm of each of these vessels.

Each of these ships is captained by a merrenoloth—who steers the ship from the helm—and crewed by five shadows and one shadow mastiff (for a total of two merrenoloths, two shadow mastiffs, and ten shadows between the two vessels). Merrenoloths are fiends that ply their vessels between the realms of law and chaos in the Lower Planes along the River Styx. As yugoloths, many merrenoloths are extraplanar mercenaries that take on lucrative contracts from devilish or demonic buyers. In this case, the merrenoloths were contracted by Thavius Kreeg to destroy the characters—just in case.

As captains of these vessels, these merrenoloths treat the barges as their lair and can use lair actions while on the barges—but not if they board the characters’ ship. If you own Ghosts of Saltmarsh and want to engage in ship-to-ship combat, you can use the naval combat rules presented in that book. (If you plan on playing Baldur’s Gate: Descent into Avernus after concluding this encounter series, this could be a good way to introduce your players to the vehicle combat rules expanded upon in Avernus.) The merrenoloths’ barges use keelboat statistics, and are each equipped with a ballista. Instead of one of the usual Regional Effects granted by a merrenoloth to their boat, these barges have the following trait:

Shadow Shroud. This ship is blanketed by shadow. Creatures on this ship are lightly obscured to creatures to creatures on another vessel, and creatures with the Sunlight Weakness trait can’t be effected by the sun while on this ship.

The shadows silently appraise the characters while gangplanks slide—as if by magic—from the barges, connecting the three vessels. If spoken to, the merrenoloths grimly intone that their souls have been called to the River Styx, and they first politely ask the characters to embark upon their final voyage. If the characters willingly submit to this fate, they die and are reborn in Avernus as lemures with none of their living memories. If they resist, the yugoloths and their minions attack in two waves.

Wave 1: Boarding Party

You can adjust the difficulty of this encounter in the D&D Beyond Encounter Builder.

The merrenoloths begin their attack by commanding their minions to attack. Three shadows and one shadow mastiff from each ship surge across each gangplank and onto the characters’ vessel. The other shadows lurk on the barges and defend their captain. A merrenoloth doesn’t attack unless it’s reduced to half its hit point maximum, or unless its boat is boarded.

Once all of the shadow creatures in the boarding party are defeated, the merrenoloths cast control water (using the Flood option) and flood the adventurers’ boat. The boat then begins to sink, and slips beneath the surface of the river on initiative count 20 in 1d4 turns unless the ship is successfully bailed. A creature can bail water by using a bucket and making a successful DC 10 Strength (Athletics) check as its action. If water is bailed five times before the ship sinks, sinking is averted.

Wave 2: Capsize

You can adjust the difficulty of this encounter in the D&D Beyond Encounter Builder.

The merrenoloths expect the characters to swarm to their vessels like fleeing rats. If they do so, they use gust of wind and their Fear Gaze ability to keep the characters at bay while they approach close enough to use their Oar attacks, and so that their remaining shadows can dispatch them. If the characters leap overboard as their ship sinks, the merrenoloths use the Whirlpool option of the control water spell to drown them. Once one merrenoloth is defeated, the other snarls in desperation, and teleports directly to the characters’ location. It attacks without restraint.


With the merrenoloth mercenaries and their shadow soldiers defeated, nothing stands in the way of the characters and their destination: Baldur’s Gate. They may have to commandeer the merrenoloth’s now-abandoned barge in order to navigate the river, but it’s no matter; after all, the merrenoloths won’t care now that they’ve been banished back to the Bleak Eternity of Gehenna.


The merrenoloths each bear medallions inscribed with twisting and fiery sigils. As jewelry, they’re worth 100 gp each—but a collector or archivist of planar materials might pay up to three times that amount (roll 1d3).


This is the final encounter in the On the Road to Baldur’s Gate encounter series, but it’s not the final article in this series. One last article will provide guidance on how to smoothly transition characters between this series and Baldur’s Gate: Descent into Avernus, upon the book’s release.

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, a member of the Guild Adepts, and a freelance writer for Wizards of the Coast, the D&D Adventurers League, and other RPG companies. He lives in Seattle, Washington with his partner Hannah and their animal companions Mei and Marzipan. You can find him wasting time on Twitter at @jamesjhaeck.


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