Undead and cultist encounter for parties of 3rd-level or higher, with stat blocks for use in D&D 5e.
The desert is often a place of death, strewn with the bodies of those who were not prepared to face its inhospitable climate and vicious beasts. But worse yet is a cult that has appeared to worship this very death in its many forms. They call themselves the ‘deathtouched’ and are led by a resurrected murderer, opposed only by the ex-sheriff who now hunts them across the desert.
The tale began with a murderer by the name of Heinrich Malletum terrorizing a small town in the desert. He killed at least five people before being caught by the town’s sheriff, Jesse Masters. Malletum was hanged for his crimes. Yet not a week had passed before the mayor of the town was found dead, bearing the same marks as Malletum’s other victims. The sheriff, suspecting an accomplice but already dreading the truth, personally inspected Heinrich’s grave. They found it empty.
The final murder seemed to have been a message and a parting gift, as Heinrich Malletum then fled into the desert. Whether he simply came across the deathtouched cultists or was already a member, no one is sure, but his next reappearance was as a figure of leadership amongst their number. What had previously been an insular commune and disparate bands of odd, violent preachers became a united force almost overnight under Malletum’s command, inheriting his thirst for killing and targeting anyone traveling the desert.
Sheriff Masters knows the situation will only grow worse until Heinrich Malletum is permanently removed. And with the cult’s powers growing and their practices becoming more brazen, time was of the essence. They resigned, handing the position over to their deputy, and left the town. Jesse vowed to only return once they had succeeded, lamenting the role they played in Malletum’s actions and believing that it was their responsibility to bring it to an end.
Since then, the ex-sheriff has stalked the desert and hunted any cultists they have come across using careful guerilla tactics and their own experience with the desert. Each group has brought them closer to finding Malletum but has also further revealed the extent of the cult’s influence and abilities. Their quest has weighed heavy on them and the final confrontation may ask for more than they have left. If they are to finally defeat Heinrich Malletum, they are going to need help.
This is Part 2 of a larger adventure. To learn more about the desert town, the people in it, and how the adventure begins, refer back to ‘Gallows’ Rot, Part 1: The Next Noon Saloon‘. And stay tuned for Part 3, where the adventure concludes in a confrontation with Heinrich Malletum and his most faithful followers!
(LG nonbinary half-orc spy)
A half-orc stands proudly but with a discerning grimace on their face. Their eyes flash across you as their hand flicks to their side, brushing aside their leather coat to reveal a hand crossbow tied to their hip. Their clothes are weathered and damaged by sun and sand, with noticeable battle scars that have been hastily patched. The individual relaxes slightly, their hand raising to lift the brim of their hat and their sneer being replaced by an inquisitive grin.
Jesse Masters was, until recently, the respected sheriff of a desert town. They were the protector of a close-knit community and the prime contributor to the area’s safety, apprehending all manner of bandits, thieves, and highwaymen during their tenure. They kept the town peaceful and the community loved them for it. That was until Heinrich Malletum arrived, bringing his profane zealotry and killing a number of townsfolk before Sheriff Masters apprehended him. His hanging should have been the grim end to the affairs but death did nothing to stop him.
When the killings continued and Malletum’s grave was found empty, Jesse felt a great deal of personal responsibility and believed that they knew what had to be done. They handed their position as sheriff to their deputy and departed from the town to hunt the growing cult, swearing to only return once Malletum was permanently dealt with. And so they travel the desert, expunging any and all Deathtouched cultists as they close in on their prey.
Jesse is a focused and driven altruist who is entirely devoted to their current course. They have a habit of hyper-focusing, which is currently fixed on Malletum and has grown towards obsession during their time traveling alone, burdened by their feelings of guilt. This has worsened with each new discovery of the cult’s rituals, as Jesse sees each of the cult’s advancements as her own personal failures for not discovering and stopping them sooner. Though they try to remain pragmatic, doing so seems to take them more and more effort the longer they spend hunting cultists and witnessing their acts. As a result, Jesse is initially paranoid of others and abrasive to any interaction that might come across as a distraction. This quickly subsides if the party expresses any interest in helping, as Jesse is able to quickly verify that the characters are not related to the cult. They would be glad for the help, especially if they are close to confronting Heinrich Malletum.
The party is likely to be fighting alongside Jesse against the cult. And though Jesse is the driving character for the adventure, you do not want them to overshadow the characters, especially in combat. The party should ultimately still feel like the deciding factor in the adventure’s outcome. If your party is lower than 4th-level, consider reducing Jesse to a scout to keep them more in line with the individual characters.
The Rocky Desert
Large rocks and stone cliffs disrupt the desert landscape, separating the sands into multiple elevations and providing small patches of shade for tiny reptiles to scurry into as you pass. The air ripples with heat and pillages your body of moisture, each wind current carrying a choking spray of coarse sand. And yet, despite the aggressively inhospitable aridness, small pockets of flora have fought their way to the surface, with cracked wood and dried leaves still clinging to their last shreds of life.
The desert is a dangerous and inhospitable place, even without considering the creatures that live in it. Only those who are accustomed to traveling the sands know how to do so safely. This also makes it the perfect place for the Deathtouched cultists. They hide in the shadowed ruins of temples and civilizations that have been lost to the desert sands and celebrate what they see as the land’s inherent closeness to death, owing to its danger and the scores of lives it has taken. The cultists prey on smaller parties that leave the safety of towns and caravans, their presence only adding to the threat of the area. Fortunately, the stones and valleys of the desert can also be used against the cult, should one have the tactical mind to do so.
Map & Asset Downloads
The Rocky Desert battle map is only one example of where Jesse might attempt to ambush the cultists. Fortunately, it is also only one of a collection of different desert maps that we have in our gallery, ready for you to use. We also have a pack of desert map assets to help create your own, as well as a PDF containing advice for running a desert adventure and a collection of 20 desert encounters that you can use alongside this one!
The Deathtouched Cultists
The cult that has been spreading its influence through the desert refers to itself as the ‘Deathtouched’, a name originating from their gruesome combination of beliefs and rituals. They derive power from venturing as close to death as possible, ‘touching’ something that they believe awaits them on the other side. In practice, the cult’s agents replace select parts of their own bodies with those taken from the dead thralls, permanently anchoring them to their enigmatic patron and granting them various abilities based on the replaced limb or organ. This belief system is also why they choose to follow Heinrich Malletum, whose return from death blessed him with a suite of necrotic gifts.
Much of the cultists’ backstory has been left intentionally vague to allow it to be adjusted for your own setting and story. Malletum may be the villain of the standalone encounter, or the cult’s patron could be used as the antagonist of a larger adventure. Similarly, the Deathtouched can be changed to be the followers of a vampire, lich, or even a mummy, if you wish to reduce the cult’s scale. Do what fits best for your own campaign!
A human shape with leathery, sunburnt skin stumbles with each step. It is clad in only scraps of old clothing that are stained with blood and grime, as well as similarly soiled bandages that are wrapped to cover its eyes. More disturbing are its arms, which end in the same wrappings some inches below the elbow. Additional cuts, bruises, and other wounds cover its body. The creature groans and sputters painfully, yet it continues marching in spite of the damage.
The deathtouched thralls are the lowest of the cult’s members. They are undead that have been raised from the bodies of the cultists’ victims to serve as mindless but obedient attack dogs. Though similar in some ways to zombies, the thralls are less durable, which is somewhat made up for by their faster speed and blindsight.
The thralls are also the unfortunate sources of the cultists’ deathtouched transplants, leaving them without hands, eyes, or tongues. The cult venerates these ‘sacrifices’ and sees the creation of thralls as them imparting their enemies with the greatest of gifts, allowing them to serve their patron as pure vessels of death, unabated by thought, emotion, or identity.
Though it is not directly stated in the thrall’s stat block, it is important to remember their lack of hands. This prevents many interactions, such as picking up objects, and is likely to give them disadvantage on skill checks made to climb. These deficiencies help to emphasize the state that the thralls are kept in, showing the brutality of the cult.
The shifting sand parts, giving way to grey and brown scales that hang in patches from the half-decayed body of a large serpent. It is held together by bandages and decorated with strips of fabric and plates of dull brass, yet its body moves healthily and with purpose, its milky, sunken eyes not distracting you from the fangs that protrude as its mouth opens.
The cult’s other minions come in the form of deathtouched serpents, the risen corpses of some of the desert’s most threatening animals. They are commanded by the deathtouched eyes and tongues, slithering beneath the surface of the sand until told to strike.
The serpents are chosen not only for the danger they pose to their enemies but also for their venom, which the cult uses in their ritualistic practices. Certain rumors, even amongst cult members, also imply a connection to stories of snakes biting victims even after being beheaded, though the senior cultists deny this playing a factor in their choosing the serpents.
The individual is wrapped in desert robes that fasten at the knees and elbows. Protective plates of metal, the color of faded brass, are affixed within this clothing. Their face is completely obscured in the cloth, save for a small opening that exposes their eyes, and the robes likewise end shortly below the elbow on the right arm. The exposed hand appears faded and sickly in color and is clenched around the handle of a curved sword.
At the bottom of the cult’s faithful are those known as the deathtouched hands. The hands act as the foot soldiers of their raiding parties and have been granted the hands of the dead, increasing their strength and melee fighting ability. As such, their primary role is as guards and assistants to higher-ranking cultists, carrying out any menial labor as well as engaging enemies alongside their thralls. They are a fanatical vanguard that not only accepts but actively celebrates death.
CR 1 (and CR 1/2)
The same robes and armor cover another figure who carries a bow. The needed quiver is strung behind their belt, while their exposed right hand wears an archery glove. Their face, rather than being open between the wrappings, is covered by a metal eye mask that is fashioned to resemble the matching area of a vulture’s skull.
A step up from the hands are the deathtouched eyes, who have been given the eyes from sacrificial thralls in place of their own. The vision granted from this transplant is perfect for the deathtouched eyes’ roles as supervisors and captains, as well as aiding them as archers in combat. They can see in the dark, spot targets with only a glance, and those that have climbed from the rank of a deathtouched hand can impart the hands’ necrotic magic into their arrows.
Two variants of the deathtouched eye stat block are included; one that ascended from the rank of deathtouched hand and an additional one that did not. Not having transplanted hands denies the eye their Death’s Arrow and Death’s Hand abilities. This affects the eye’s damage and therefore their Challenge Rating.
Given the wild west stylings of the encounter, both Jesse and the deathtouched eyes are the perfect opportunity to make use of any optional firearms rules that your campaign might be using. It won’t fit every setting, of course, but you can turn the eyes into necrotic gunslingers by swapping their bows for rifles and crossbows for pistols.
Longer, more decorated robes cover them, with a scarf that is drawn into a hood over the wrappings on their head. Both hands are free of the clothing but wearing golden rings and bands and with tattoos visible on the discolored skin. And beneath the hood is a complete mask of angular, aged brass, crafted in a shape similar to a jackal’s skull.
Amongst the cult members, there are those who have ascended through the ranks of hand and eye to earn the right to, as their beliefs put it, “Speak with the voice and authority of death”. The meaning of this is more literal than some might expect. These prophets are the deathtouched tongues, whose transplanted tongues have given them the gift of powerful magic. This honor positions them above even the eyes and sees them act as the cult’s priests, who speak with authority second only to the highest leaders of the cult.
The deathtouched tongues have many abilities and spells they can use in combat but many of these trigger from different attacks or require the same type of action to use. For example, though the spiritual weapon spell is a potent source of damage, the tongues must choose between using it or triggering their Death’s Scream ability. This decision is likely to depend on enemy positioning and which option can do the most damage. The same goes for their hand crossbow and Death’s Arrow or scimitar and Death’s Hand.
Balancing the Deathtouched Cultists
The most critical factor in balancing the encounters is the presence of Jesse Masters. Working with Jesse elevates the party’s effective level, increasing the Challenge Rating that they can overcome. Though it is not an exact science, you can consider Jesse to be a +2 to the party’s CR level when balancing against enemy creatures.
This goes hand in hand with Jesse’s tactics of ambushing traveling groups of deathtouched in the desert, giving the group a further advantage of choosing the theater of battle and potentially gaining a surprise round. Both of these should be considered, as they allow you to pit your characters against a threat that might normally be too much for them, requiring them to make effective use of their additional resources in order to overcome it.
For these encounters, the deathtouched simply need to be chosen to achieve your target CR. There is no central enemy character and their presence and numbers do not need to factor in the cult’s structure and different ranks. This makes fine-tuning each encounter far simpler.
The adventure should also include multiple groups of cultists, to show their growing influence, which gives you time to adjust and experiment and allows you to use the stronger deathtouched tongues and deathtouched eyes without worrying about balancing them all in a single fight. The first encounter may be a small scouting party to gauge the characters’ effectiveness with Jesse and leading to them learning of a larger caravan moving in groups nearby. This is also valuable for planning the later climactic fight against Heinrich Malletum himself.
If you wish to balance the fights even more finely and inject more variety into them, you can also expand the cult with other appropriate creatures. They may keep jackals or even living giant snakes as pets, or perhaps they are assisted by regular undead, such as zombies or skeletons, in addition to the deathtouched thralls.
Here are some examples of cultist groups that you may use to achieve different CR levels:
CR 3: 1 deathtouched tongue, 1 deathtouched hand, 1 deathtouched serpent, 2 deathtouched thralls
CR 4: 1 deathtouched tongue, 1 deathtouched eye, 1 deathtouched hand or 1 deathtouched eye (without hand), 1 deathtouched serpent, 2 deathtouched thralls
CR 5 1/2: 1 deathtouched tongue, 2 deathtouched eyes, 1 deathtouched hand or 1 deathtouched eye (without hand), 2 deathtouched serpents, 4 deathtouched thralls
CR 7: 2 deathtouched tongues, 1 deathtouched eye, 2 deathtouched hands or 2 deathtouched eyes (without hand), 2 deathtouched serpents, 4 deathtouched thralls
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