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Running The Price of Beauty (Candlekeep Mysteries)

I’m currently about half way through penning an epic post reviewing each of the adventures in the Candlekeep Mysteries anthology (it’s now live!). So far, the adventure that has spoken to me the most is The Price of Beauty, a 5th level adventure written by Mark Hulmes.

***For DMs ONLY. Contains spoilers for The Price of Beauty.***

While most of the works in the anthology follow a fairly rigid encounter chain, The Price of Beauty was designed as more of a sandbox, with more open-ended outcomes, and immediately stood out to me as something that would be a lot of fun to DM. Aside from the freeform structure of the adventure, the central idea of a coven of hags tormenting players in the guise of spa instructors is just such a delicious concept that I knew I could have a lot of fun with it.

(And if tormenting your players with asshole NPCs speaks to you, please do check out my own adventure DRAGONBOWL, which contains more scum and villainy than your average Mos Eisley cantina).

The Price of Beauty is one of the best of the Candlekeep Mysteries

Anyway, last weekend I played through the adventure, and during my preparation I made a few changes, which addressed a few little problems I felt the adventure had. Let me share with you then my running tips…

The Price of Beauty (Hipster Remix)

Well ‘remix’ is perhaps overstating it… but here’s how I refined this excellent adventure and smoothed out a few creases. Apart from highlighting changes I made, I’ve mingled in some general advice on running the module and on leveraging all the best bits…

1. Tightening the Adventure Hook

The author tacitly acknowledges that the adventure hook is somewhat weak by including a fall back option: “If the characters aren’t inclined to investigate the portal or go after the missing acolyte… The Great Readers then summon the characters and beseech them to look into the matter.” While I like the fact that the author has legislated for this possibility, it feels clumsy to dangle a hook, and then, if they don’t bite, re-dangle the same hook but with more pressure… so I would just skip straight to the stronger hook (being asked by Avowed authorities), and offer a reward to the characters for taking on the quest.

I had a weary Keeper of Tomes himself, summon the adventurers to his quarters at the top of Keeper’s Tower and ask them to investigate the mystery of the missing scholar (due to recent sightings of winter wolves outside the library’s gates, Janussi doesn’t have any Watchers available to investigate. Note: regular members of the Avowed are peaceful scholars, not fit for such quests). I had Janussi offer the party their choice of a gold reward or a free copy of any book in Candlekeep, to be transcribed at the House of the Binder and couriered to them in Waterdeep when ready. Should they accept, he sends them to go and meet a distraught Lorris Niss.

I chose Janussi as the quest giver deliberately, as I wanted them to meet the Keeper of Tomes before he is murdered in their absence… when they get back from the spa their next mission will be to solve the mystery of the Candlekeep Murders!

I also played a little trick. After six days hard riding from Waterdeep to reach Candlekeep, much of it in subzero temperatures, the party are saddlesore and frostbitten, and so I informed my players that they are all suffering from exhaustion. A spa break should do them good!

2. Providing a Way of Getting Back

It’s not explicitly stated, but DMs might suppose that the original spa owner, Sylvarie Silversong, created The Price of Beauty as a kind of moving magical advert to attract customers to her health centre. She may have even disseminated several copies of this portal-opening tome around major cities, until one found its way to Candlekeep.

Ok, so The Price of Beauty helps folks reach the spa… but how do they get back? (This is a question the DM needs an answer to, because the players’ mission is to return to Candlekeep with Falthrax!). When Sylvarie created the book(s), she wouldn’t have wanted her customers to bring them with them to the spa – she wants the books left far and wide for the next customers to find their way to the Restful Lily. Therefore, she designed The Price of Beauty’s portal (or paid a wizard to design it) so that any attempt to take the tome through the portal fails… the customer goes through, but the book just falls to the ground at the foot of the portal. This is also consistent with the players / Lorris Niss finding the book, but not Falthrax, at the start of the adventure.

However, the adventure neglects to mention how folks get back without the book.

Here’s what you do… when the players go through the portal, they find themselves on a forest path a mile south of the spa, marked by posts with a stone lily (think of the shells marking the Camino de Santiago). Next to where the portal opens, slightly obscured by undergrowth, is a statue of an open book on a pedestal. Engraved text on the books’ pages reads: When you’re rested and looking spiffy, speak ‘Because I’m worth it!’ to return in a jiffy…

The resulting portal takes you back to the nearest unoccupied space next to The Price of Beauty.

Note: depending on your interpretation of Candlekeep’s wards (p.7 Candlekeep Mysteries), you might deem that it’s not possible for the players to enter the library using magic… in which case the portal deposits them in front of the keep’s front gates.

3. More Thematic Name for Spa (and Treatment)

The hags’ cursed paintings are a brilliant story device, no doubt inspired by The Picture of Dorian Gray, but I wondered if an actual spa treatment would be more thematic (no one goes to a spa and expects to have their portrait painted, after all).

In the end, I didn’t want to change the painting ritual, but instead I changed the name of the spa to The Plungepool & Portrait Wellness Centre. This, I decided, was the new name that the hags gave the Temple of the Restful Lily when they took over the joint, and I planted a few clues that this name change was quite recent (the Temple of the Restful Lily branding remains on the changing room lockers, for example), so that players might be intrigued why the spa changed name.

Floor plans of ‘The Plungepool & Portrait’

I believe I achieved two things here. When the players are offered a magic portrait of themselves it doesn’t seem so obviously suspicious. That’s why people come to this spa. And secondly, the name change deepens the mystery about the spa’s past and current owners.

I also felt like the spa’s signature treatment needs a swanky name, and I called it: The Perfect Self Portraiture treatment. “Describe to us your perfect self and we’ll make it a reality via our painting of a fey-infused portrait!” promise the elven spa owners.

Finally, I put a hefty gold price on the Perfect Self Portraiture treatment. 1,000 gold pieces to be precise. Any RPG player who’s ever rolled a die in anger is going to see straight through the “some small boon” trick… and the trick is already in the cursed nature of the portrait anyway. No need to double trick here!

On the other hand, if someone doesn’t have the 1,000 gold pieces, they are playing right into the hags’ hands. In this case, the three ‘elves’ might indeed be willing to negotiate a free treatment in return for “some small boon” (like eliminating Sylvarie, who has started to bore the hags. Besides they want to convert the abandoned shrine into a hall of mirrors in which to torment their favourite victims), but it will feel like an act of generosity on their part and not a trick, if you play it this way around.

4. More Believable Back Story

I don’t really buy that the hags have been running this operation for 10 years… surely some rich victim, having fallen foul of the curse, would have paid up a party of adventurers to kill the hags by now, or at least bad-mouthed them on Spaadvisor.com to the extent that business became unsustainable. Plus it feels weird that it took 9 years and 9 months for Ilmar to have a vision about the fate of his old chum Sylvarie, and come to her rescue.

It’s a superficial detail, that may never come into play, but I imagined that the hags tricked Sylvarie into accepting a cursed portrait around two years ago, and that the change of ownership happened about a year ago, when they returned to imprison the priestess-turned-medusa and claim the spa for themselves. Meanwhile, Ilmar arrived just a couple of weeks ago, and is currently being trained up as a aesthetician by Morganna. The new recruit has worked out that something is amiss, as the creepy bathhouse attendants (who are disguised scarecrows, incapable of speech) literally don’t say a word, and when he tried to check out the shrine he got chased away by a gargoyle, but he doesn’t know that the elves are disguised hags (see Preserving the Mystery below). If asked about Falthrax, he saw the dwarf yesterday, when he gave him a beard trim, and he believes he later signed up for a Perfect Self Portraiture, but hasn’t seen him since then. Ilmar is nervous about talking to the PCs as he thinks the spa owners might be on to him… (and he’s right!).

5. Preparing a Meeting Roster

There’s a lot of potential NPCs to run at The Plungepool & Portrait Wellness Centre (formerly known as the Temple of the Restful Lily), and I found it helpful to plan several of the key interactions and when they might take place.

I didn’t want to risk the PCs shortcutting the spa, to explore the shrine or tower, so I simply didn’t mention the shrine (which they wouldn’t be able to see anyway, when entering from the front), and I glossed over the tower, describing it as part of the main building (which it might look like from the front).

As we prepare these NPC encounters, it’s good to always keep the adventure’s themes in mind, which I’d summarise as: the fostering of low self esteem for exploitation, suffering in the name of beauty, and the hidden costs of vanity. Remembering these will help us get the best of the set up here!

i. Saeth

Most likely then, the party will meet Saeth first, who I imagine as a snotty but obsequious maitre d’. Saeth introduces the basic treatments on offer (p.82), talks up the healing properties of the hot spring, and mentions the spa’s signature Perfect Self Portraiture treatment, the cost of which isn’t displayed (it might say “ask for a quote” on the menu board, to raise a little intrigue). If someone asks about the PSP, he says best to speak to Morganna, the spa manager. Given that the players have a level of exhaustion it’s likely they will book a dip in the pool at least, if not reserve a room for the night. Saeth might finish the interaction with a little bitchy comment like: “Enjoy your stay… I’m sure by the end of it, you’ll be looking, well, presentable at least.”

If asked about Falthrax, Saeth is taken off guard and improvises a lie. He says: “if he arrived yesterday I wouldn’t have seen him, as it was my day off. Maybe check with Morganna, or one of the other managers, they might have seen him.” I gave Saeth, Deception +5. No need to roll, just use his passive Deception score to set the difficulty as DC 15. Anyone who rolls above that suspects he wasn’t telling the whole truth. You can roll on the players behalf, behind your screen, so they can’t use Insight as a lie detector.

Who let the hags out?

ii. Morganna

I wanted the party to meet the bosswoman, Morganna (Dread Morgan), next. After loudly swearing at Ilmar, who is giving her a pedicure in the lounge (“You’re supposed to file the calluses off – not the soles of my feet, you cretin!”), she makes her entrance in reception. The adventure states that Dread Morgan has “made subtle insults into an art form”, and it’s time to utilise that. Have her address each PC in turn with a bitchy little sales line.

“Don’t worry dear, a lot of people get blotchy skin this time of the year. One of my beetlejuice facials should sort out those little imperfections.”

“Our leg waxing treatments are almost painless…. and I’ll throw in that little moustache of yours for free darling.”

“If we start toning up that belly now, we should have you trim and sporty in no more than say…. six months.”

Oh yeah, prepare for your players to HATE Morganna.

If asked about Falthrax, Morganna betrays the faintest hint of surprise (I imagined that she has above average charisma for a green hag and expertise in Deception… giving her a +7), before improvising a better lie than Saeth. “Oh yes, the lovely, polite dwarf who arrived yesterday? He was quite ecstatic with our Perfect Self Portraiture treatment and he wanted to know if we had any other specials, so I sent him with one of our guides on a ‘Forest Bathing and Mindfulness Hike’. He should be back in a couple of hours.”

Apart from preserving the mystery, this lie enables the players to relax and enjoy the spa guilt-free until Falthrax returns. (Obviously, us DMs know Falthrax is enslaved in the tower).

iii. Happy Guest(s) in the Pool

The adventure comes with a list of potential guests (p.80), but you probably don’t want to get bogged down in interactions that don’t serve the adventure – esp. as this is a one shot (or at least I was trying to run it as one! It ended up being two sessions). Choose one guest therefore, who is lounging in the hot spring when the players arrive, and have that guest be a poster boy / girl for the spa’s Perfect Self Portraiture treatment.

In my running of the adventure, I enjoyed a little metagaming with my friends, by placing an old PC of mine in the pool, who famously had a micro-penis. He had grown fat and bald since his adventuring days, and they didn’t recognise him immediately from my description, but when he rose from the pool to introduce himself, a huge donkey-like appendage between his legs, they understood a) who he was b) why he was there and c) that the treatment had worked. “I was sceptical too, I must say, especially at the price of 1,000 gold pieces, but take my word for it… the so called Perfect Self Portraiture treatments are nothing short of miraculous!” says the happy customer.

Obviously adjust this scene for the (im)maturity of your table, but the goal here is to add a social aspect to taking a dip in the baths, while demonstrating a success story for the Perfect Self Portraiture treatment. You could place multiple guests here, or elsewhere around the spa, either buff as bodybuilders, or dazzlingly beautiful to behold, or visibly demonstrating some other physical attributes or talents.

Note: we’re not going to use Cyrena the Naiad for now…. see Preserving the Mystery.

iv. Azirssa

After the PCs have spent long enough in the pool to feel its benefits (p.84), Azirssa (Vile Sazha) arrives looking for conscripts for her work outs. There’s really no other way to run Azirssa than the sadistic P.E. teacher from your high school. “Right, enough splish-splashing around you slouches! A few minerals and a soak won’t help you achieve peak condition. I want you all out of the pool now, unless you want me to test how long you can breath underwater. You too fatso… I’ve seen walruses with less paunch than you.”

If the players refuse to budge, she says: “I should have known a bunch of soft-living, school girls like you couldn’t benchpress a walking cane. Shame, because I got a special prize for anyone who can complete today’s exercise circuit.” And she brandishes the potion of hill giant strength mentioned in the adventure text.

Now you can simply run the work outs as laid out on p.83, replete with ‘encouragement’ from Azirssa.

v. Greensong and Morty

I had the players encounter Greensong (Auntie Greenbones) in the lounge as she serves supper. She’s not as obviously bitchy as the other two, more like a batty old biddy, but you can have fun with her tendency to puke up in the presence of good deeds, while her dog Morty might attack any tabaxi in the party.

The adventure states that Greensong’s food is “delicious-looking but tainted”, however I feel the author has missed a fabulous chance to spoof the wellness industry here, so I suggest that you include a “nutrient rich, detox menu” of your invention. My players were served: Nettle & Caterpillar Smoothie, Tangle of Root Salad with Fried Grubs, and Wriggling Wormghetti with Lichen Foam.

The tainted part remains true however, and PCs will need to save against certain unpleasant effects during the night (maybe bringing them in contact with Glitter, see p.86), or whenever you feel is dramatically appropriate for them to develop an urgent need to puke / shit.

vi. Fake Falthrax

If the players mentioned earlier that they are searching for Falthrax, Dread Morgan uses her hag magic to put in an appearance as the dwarf. The fake Falthrax appears as a vital young male dwarf, with slim waistline and lustrous hair and beard, and naturally he backs up all of Dread Morgan’s lies, and additionally talks up the Perfect Self Portraiture treatment, saying he feels 20 years younger, his back pain has gone etc etc. Dread Morgan only knows a few details about the real Falthrax, so her lies can be caught out by a smart party. If the party take fake Falthrax to be the real deal, he will agree to go back to Candlekeep, but urges everyone to spend a day or two more enjoying the spa first. At some point fake Falthrax retires to his chambers (the ones originally assigned to the real Falthrax), and Dread Morgan is free to escape through the window and become Morganna again. As Morganna she will engage the party once more and say she has a free slot for a single Perfect Self Portraiture treatment before business hours are over for the day…

v. Glitter

The adventure supplies a failsafe device to instigates a final confrontation with the hags in the form of Glitter, who is encountered working late outside the party’s rooms at night (see p.86). This is a useful meeting to have in your hand, if the adventure has stalled.

Those were meetings I planned that felt essential to me, while other meetings I left up to the party to initiate. Let’s move on to Preserving the Mystery.

6. Preserving the Mystery

Possibly the weakest part of the adventure as written is how easily the mystery of the hags’ identity can be revealed. Cyrena the naiad, Ilmar the drow aesthetician, and Glitter the tiefling-turned-kobold all know the hags for what they are and are willing to talk without too much persuasion, potentially killing the story’s central tension before we’ve had a chance to milk it.

As discussed, Glitter is a good failsafe to allow the players to work out what’s happening…. but only preferably after one or more of them have already undergone the Perfect Self Portraiture treatment. If he does come into play, you should still make them work hard to gain his trust, however, and to convince him that they are powerful enough to deal with his mistresses.

‘Spring’ a surprise on your players with a naiad…

Meanwhile, we’ve solved the issue of Ilmar giving the game away early, by downgrading him from head aesthetician to a new recruit, who is still trying to figure out what’s really going at the spa – while being under suspicion himself. See More Believable Back Story section above. Ilmar is unlikely to seek out the players, but if they sign up for manicure, pedicure, haircut, wax or shave, it’s the drow who most likely attends them.

That leaves us with Cyrena. Anyone enjoying the hot spring might notice, on a DC 24 Perception check, that from time to time the bubbling water currents in the hot spring bear an uncanny resemblance to a beautiful young girl (you could make this apparition easier to spot if someone baths alone in the hot spring). Depending on their alignment and relationship to the natural world, a player might be able to coax the naiad to show herself. Anyhow, the important change to make is what Cyrena knows, which is:

  • Former spa owner Sylvarie disappeared a year ago, when the three elves took over. Cyrena believes they may have murdered her.
  • The three elves never use the pool. Cyrena believes that it’s because they are fearful of its magic, which can harm evil creatures.
  • The new owners desecrated the Temple of Sune. Perhaps if the abandoned shrine could be restored, the foul reign of the new owners will be ended.

The changes are subtle, but important I feel. The heroes still have some investigating to do regarding the true nature of the hags, while we’ve also given them an incentive to check out the abandoned shrine, without revealing the mystery of what happened to Sylvarie. There’s even the possibility that they will kill the medusa, before putting 2 and 2 together.

7. Customising Combat

There’s a lot of nasty monster effects and sacks of hit points standing between the players and victory in this adventure, and if you’re not running an optimised party of at least four characters, you WILL need to remove / reduce some of the threats, or provide fair warning or special equipment (Janussi may even have some magic weapons lying around Candlekeep that his order of scholars don’t have a use for, while potions and scrolls are the least he can offer folks on such a mission).

One specific issue I encountered during my play was that the gargoyle (52 hp, plus resistances) watching the tower could easily slow down my party of three unoptimised characters enough to bring them into a head to head fight with the entire adversary roster at the spa, namely: a green hag coven (82 hp each, and up to 6th level spells) plus hell hound (45 hp and a 6d6 breath weapon), a cambion (82 hp and fiendish charm), two gargoyles and six scarecrows (36 hp, plus resistances and a paralysing Terrifying Glare). They wouldn’t stand a chance!

Realising in the nick of time, I improvised and removed it all together, however perhaps a better solution would have been to give the players a Perception check to see its head slowly moving, to scan the gardens. Now they have a chance to avoid it at least.

Bear in mind too, that a hag coven’s spells could decimate a rookie party of adventurers. I gave my players a Nature check to reveal some fairly well known lore about these wicked witches… that their magic is amplified when working together. I had to lower the hags’ AC, but they were able to take down one after a few rounds of concentrated fire.

Anyway, my advice is to give this a bit of thought beforehand. Small parties are particularly vulnerable here, as one botched saving throw can reduce their action economy sufficiently to ensure defeat. Some simple fixes would be to make the scarecrows more minion-like by halving their hit points, and removing resistances and the paralysing effect on their Terrifying Glare. I also don’t feel that Saeth needs to a cambion either. Just an ambitious, but cowardly, spy would be enough.

Of course, you could always encourage the players to enlist allies (the aforementioned Nature roll might reveal a rough estimate of how tough the hags might be, and the need to enlist help) … although combat can get pretty clunky once friendly NPCs join in the fray, so for that reason I prefer to adjust the threat down.

8. Destroying the Paintings

I found this section (p.79) a bit confusing, but it seems like one can destroy the painting in two ways: firstly by disrupting its magic, and then just smashing it to pieces. Or secondly by splashing it with fresh blood from a celestial. The specifics of the first aren’t made clear, but we might assume that a casting of dispel magic disrupts the wards on one painting for 1 minute. The second solution seems to be setting up the next adventure… which is fine, but I wanted to provide a resolution within the context of the adventure itself.

I think we can add ‘sprinkling holy water on the fiendish paintings’ as a possible way to disrupt their wards, and I’m going to consider the spa’s enchanted springs holy water for this purpose. Chucking the paintings in the very waters that the hags hated, and hoped to one day profane, just feels like the right way to end this story.

(Note: DMs might rule that, while the paintings curse continues after the hags death, the compulsion not to destroy the paintings doesn’t. Or they get a Charisma saving throw to shake off the compulsion).

More Resources

Colour maps available on the DMs Guild.

Right, that just about wraps up my remix. It’s a fantastic adventure and I had a lot of fun playing it at my table… baiting my players with the full bitchiness of spa owners sent from hell, and then giving them the opportunity to cut them down to size certainly led to plenty of memorable and satisfying moments!

You might want to check out a couple of other resources before your own running of The Price of Beauty, starting with this DM’s guide by Eventyr games, which features running tips and advice, cheatsheets and colour maps.

And here are some video walk throughs…

And a full play through…

I’m kinda assuming you’ve already purchased Candlekeep Mysteries by now! But if not, you might need to grab a copy.

What to Play After the Price of Beauty?

Maybe when you bought Candlekeep Mysteries you were hoping to a) play some adventures in Candlekeep and b) deliver some complex mysteries for your players to solve.

Inspiring and innovative as I think the anthology is, it doesn’t really do too much of either of the above. Only three of the stories take place in Candlekeep (and, of those, one is consigned to a single cellar, another to an extradimensional space, and a third features only a single tower and its basement), while I think it’s hard to argue that the anthology contains any more mystery than your average collection of D&D adventures. There are things the players don’t know at the start of each, which they will find out by the end, but very little detective work or deduction is required in between.

To address that issue I wrote Candlekeep Murders: The Deadwinter Prophecy, which first requires the players to investigate the death of the Keeper of Tomes himself, and then pits them in a race against the clock to find the Vault of Secrets, before it falls into the wrong hands. The legendary Ed Greenwood himself had some very kind words to say about the adventure, so do please check it out.

It wasn’t my intention, but by chance Candlekeep Murders makes the perfect follow up adventure to The Price of Beauty, as it’s also designed for 5th level characters and the players’ spa break is the perfect opportunity for the Keeper of Tomes to be murdered in their absence. One of the most dramatic scenarios in D&D is that of players returning home from a quest only to realise that things have kicked off in their absence – and now they have an even bigger job on their hands!

Your Experiences & Tips…

If you played The Price of Beauty, I’d love to hear how it went and if you have any tips of your own for how to make the adventure sing… comments section below!

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1 Comment

  1. k

    This article was invaluable to my two-PC Price of Beauty one-shot! I was looking for advice on how to draw out the mystery a little longer, and this was perfect. Limping into Candlekeep with 2 levels of exhaustion was a great way to kickstart their curiosity about the spa. They ended up staying 2 nights at the spa as the environment got weirder and weirder.

    Eventually on the 3rd day the barbarian agreed to do the portrait as a way to keep the coven distracted while the wizard climbed the tower and broke in to the 3rd floor. With only 2 PCs your suggestions on nerfing the gargoyles was essential, and I had Saeth escape with the scarecrows and cashbox. The final battle was in the portrait room, where the barbarian suffered the effects of the portrait’s curse as they killed Morganna, the wizard firebolted a terrified Azirssa, and Glitter joined the fray and stabbed Greensong with a homemade shiv.

    I didn’t use the Falthrax hook but I used your advice about illusory Morganna in a different way. Once the hags realised Ilmar brought the party in on his scheme, Morganna sent him to the garden then loudly broke into the party’s room disguised as Ilmar. They took the bait and chased him around the spa. Greensong pretended to fire him while Azirssa dumped the real Ilmar into the shrine. The party felt angry and betrayed and was later horrified to discover his petrified form in the shrine. They chucked him and all the paintings in the pool, put everyone back to normal, and returned to Candlekeep with Falthrax in tow just in time to receive a letter asking them to search for him! Thanks again!

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