Bloodroot Grove and Other Shrubberies on My Bucket List

DM notes, maps, and advice for running DDAL09-08 In the Garden of Evil.

SHARE THIS:

A hungry, corrupted forest full of terrible creatures bent eating the characters and taking their souls awaits. Good times. Seriously, I don’t know what more you could want. I’ve run this adventure three times now and I absolutely love it. There are great opportunities for dramatic scenes, twisted stories, as well as exploration, and deadly battles. 

Click here to buy DDAL09-08 In the Garden of Evil on Dungeon Masters Guild.

Here there be spoilers! DM eyes only lest ye be cursed!

Overview

The story centers on the players finding and redeeming a lost unicorn, Zhalruban, and her Hellrider, Shalrel. They were rumored to disappear into Blooodroot Grove right after the fall of Zariel. This sets the stage for the party to take a feverdream walkabout through a corrupted forest in a search for The Heart of The Grove.

Everyone knows forests are delicately balanced, interconnected ecosystems full of wondrous beauty. Bloodroot Grove is no different, except that it is indelicately unbalanced, unhinged, literally bloodthirsty, and full of mind-shattering horror. 

I like to think of it as “Alice In Wonderland meets Mirkwood.” The corruption caused by the contract the Zhalruban signed makes it malevolent and always thirsty for blood. Roots and vines will move to trip the characters just to get a quick sip of blood. The forest will try to guide the characters into dangerous situations where they might bleed which can be used to help set up the encounters.

Like everything in Avernus, time, distance, and directions in Bloodroot Grove are warped. As a DM, you have a lot of choices to make. I really played up how hard it was to tell where they were or how long things were taking, for example. There are also landmarks leading to the Heart of the Grove the party  could find by talking to the various denizens in the encounters.

Bloodroot Grove

If the Heart of the Grove is the heart of the story, then the quest through the woods to find it is like a Fantastic Voyage through the corrupted body. This is where you get to build a story of an epic journey through a hellish forest.

There are 10 possible encounters in the forest. The adventure suggests rolling a d10 to decide 3-4 encounters. I think it’s better to choose the encounters you think are the most interesting. 

In order to find Zhalruban, the characters need two pieces of information: That Zhalruban is in the Heart of the Grove, and that they need to discover where the Heart of the Grove is. This incentivizes them to talk to various creatures, making things interesting, quick. I suggest choosing a mix of social, exploration, and combat encounters to fill out the story. You can also give the players some agency by providing a nodal map of landmarks so they have a couple of choices about where to go next. 

You should also consider adding some “pure flavor” scenes — such as carnivorous plants sucking the blood from fresh corpses and fields full of bones.

The Encounters

B1. Carnivorous Plants

This encounter has a generic feel, but the flavor of it can really set an ominous tone. I wove the visuals of the forest being inhabited by voracious carnivorous plants into the descriptions for when the party was traveling. I also stole the assassin vines and put them into B3 to make for a more interesting combat encounter.

B2. Fallen Devil

This one has great RP potential due to the number of ways you can play Malenkthis. Like everything else in The Grove, perhaps he should not be what he seems. Try giving him a very likable personality — like your favorite eccentric great-uncle — where he’s helpful and gregarious. Then, toss in that hilarious time he tricked the priestess at the orphanage so he could steal the souls of the children. Why, look! He still has their contracts written on his staff, isn’t that a lark?! What might he want in exchange for leading the party to the Heart of the Grove?  Well…

B3. Great Oak’s Fall

One of the joys of The Great Oak’s Fall is that it delivers a dose of a true horror. If you’d like, you can choose to play up the maliciousness of this story, describing the gruesome corrupted plant pouring vile poisonous nectar into the struggling treant’s mouth. Maybe you add a couple of hidden assassin vines waiting to ambush the party while they try to save the poor treant — creating an even greater sense of urgency:

The treant struggles with violent, shuddering spasms as it tries to tear free and turn its mouth away from the noxious flower, but the vines dig into its bark with a crackling sound and force its head back. The flower pours viscous black nectar into its mouth until it is overflowing. The treant coughs and gags but is forced to swallow. Slowly the spasms subside and its eyes roll back and glaze over. As you look close, you can see the vines burrowing into the treant’s bark and pulsing as they feed on its sap.

B4. Harvest Farm

You have to love the visual of a very fastidious chain devil tenderly caring for his garden. What if he had an extreme need for perfection and grew angry when his efforts make the garden immaculate went awry? What might he do?

B5. Obelisk of Silvanus

This is the oasis in the desert of the forest. If the party is in a particularly bad way you can have them encounter the Obelisk and get a rest. Of course, that would be insanely generous of you… though they might need it for what’s to come.

B6. Pit of Anguish

Gibbering mouthers have all the things: An amoeboid body covered in grotesque eyes, toothy mouths, a mind-melting cacophonous wail of terribleness, bizarre warping of the ground around them,  AND they spit giant loogies of blinding goo. I mean, seriously, what more could you want?

Both times I ran this, the party fought and killed the gibbering mouthers, which is hilarious because the gibbering mouthers only have a speed of 10 ft. and the party could have just run away once they escaped the pit. 

It reminded me of that scene from Undercover Brother, where the guard gets run over in slow-mo by the golf cart.

B7. Tree of Skin

One of the greatest adventures in Bloodroot Grove is the Tree of Skin. The visuals are creepy as all get-out, with the skins of fallen heroes being nailed to the tree. The unfolding story of Hir’Ket, the scheming of Derrith and the poisoned well all provide a number of interesting ways you might choose to play it out. 

The interesting thing, is it changes every time. During one adventure, the players took Hir’Ket’s side and killed Derrith and his terrible flesh golems. Another time the players did not trust Hir’Ket at all and attacked him without warning, never experienced  the unbridled joy of the golems.

I suggest that you play it very evenly between Hir’Ket and Derrith; it provides so many more entertaining options when the parties must choose between the two evils. With the right party, the strategy discussions can be as entertaining as the gameplay — this is important to remember as you evolve your style as a Dungeon Master. Knowing when to be patient and when to get things moving is perhaps the single most essential skill a DM can learn.  

B8. Sickened Orchard

This is another encounter I incorporated more for descriptive flavor as the party was hiking through the forest than an actual encounter.

B9. Troop of Woe

The Troop of Woe are more fun than a barrel of corrupted devil monkeys. Seriously, I have to say this one is so fun it’s mandatory and you should run it early so you get the most out of it. 

The imps and girallons are mischievous trash-talkers, that want nothing more than to have fun at the characters’ expense.

This is basically a full-monty license to mess with your players until they reach the Heart of the Grove. 10/10 would harass the players again!

B10. Untainted Husk

If you feel like tossing your party a bone, this is it. I’m not sure why you would ever be that benevolent but you do you.

Bonus Objectives

A. The Bleeding Heart

I like this scene and ran it twice. It gives the players a chance to be heroes and rescue Lancel Darkblade from certain doom. And his wound gives them an urgent reason to seek Zhalruban. There is also some great storytelling potential with the time dilation between Lancel’s perception of time versus the players’. I played up how distraught Lancel was when he learned it had been over a hundred years on the Prime Material Plane since Zariel rode into Avernus.

B. Steel Willows

If you have time and your players are feeling their oats I would soften them up with these fun loving murderous chain devils. 

The Heart of the Grove

I think the final scene, as written, has some issues. The whole thing with Zhalruban not feeling “worthy” doesn’t feel right and did not play well the one time I ran it. I mean, come on, she’s a powerful unicorn the rode into hell with Zariel. And why does it seem like the devils are just standing around waiting for… something?

Keeping with the theme of blood and taking inspiration from the Harry Potter scene where Voldemort is feeding on the unicorn in the forest, I figured that unicorn blood is a powerful opiate for devils. So they wrote into the contract that they also get to drink Zhalruban’s blood. They are now strung out and addicted to her blood. 

This gives the players a chance to talk to Zhalruban and investigate the heart to figure out what is going on while the devils loll about in a stupor. 

If the players are able to convince Zhalruban that the devils have been lying to her and the contract is broken she will get up and turn on the devils. At this point the devils realize they might lose their fix and attack and fight to the death. You can give the devils a level of exhaustion or the poisoned condition to simulate the effects of the unicorn blood.

Each time I’ve run it the party has been full of veteran players with optimized characters so I thought the devils as written were way too weak to be challenging. So I upped them a horned devil, 2 bone devils, and an invisible orthon clinging 15 feet up on the wall. It was a glorious battle.

The Heart of the Grove is literally the beating heart of the forest. Here is the box-text I wrote:

The tunnel winds and twists down into the tree. Tangled roots, slick with dark red ooze, cover the floor. You swear you can see them pulsing. As the path gets steeper and steeper, footing becomes difficult and you have to be careful not to slip. The walls seem to bear down and menace you from all sides as the last bit of light fades behind you fade to utter darkness. After what seems like minutes or maybe hours you hear a pulsing “thump thump” ahead of you. The tunnel turns sharply to the right and opens into a large chamber. 

A cavern full of roots and the whispers of the dead welcomes you. A great beating heart of plant matter and strange ichor festers in the center of the cavern, pulsing with dull red light.

Laying on her side behind the heart you finally see Zhalruban. The once great unicorn is now drained of hope and light. Wide-eyed, gaunt, and covered in corrupted lacerations, Zhalruban pants, and shudders.

Devils lie next to her, splayed out across the floor. Their eyes rolled back in their heads as they drool and mutter incoherently. As you watch, one of the fiends pulls itself up, reaches over, and slowly slices into Zhalruban’s flank with a claw. The wound oozes blood and the fiend groans with pleasure as it laps it up. Zhalruban lets out a weak, pitiful whinny but does not move as her clouded eyes meet yours.

Battlemaps

Here is a preview of the battlemaps I made for the adventure. Check them out: