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  • Gallows’ Rot, Part 3: The Deathtouched Catacomb – Cultist Hideout Encounter for D&D 5e
Gallows' Rot, Part 3 The Deathtouched Catacomb - Cultist Hideout Encounter for D&D 5e - Banner Large

A necromantic cult encounter for parties of 3rd-level or higher, with stat blocks for use in D&D 5e.

Amongst the desert’s many ruins are ancient temples that were once dedicated to long-forgotten gods but are now abandoned and desolate. It is in these ruins that the Deathtouched make their camps. They retrofit the crumbling dungeons and places of worship with their own effigies to replace the old beliefs with their own, celebrating the deaths of both the civilizations and any memories of them.

In their investigation of the cult, Jesse Masters has learned that no single ruin acts as the cult’s headquarters. Instead, its leaders travel between the camps. They never stay in one place for long and always keep their next destination a secret from their subordinates. This transitoriness makes it impossible to rout the cult’s leadership in a single strike while inspiring constant loyalty and readiness in the followers who eagerly await the next arrival of one of their priests.

But Jesse’s target is not just any of the cult’s leaders. They are after Heinrich Malletum himself, the mysteriously resurrected murderer who now stands as the Deathtouched cult’s blackened heart. If they can succeed, they will deal a crucial blow to the cult’s hierarchy and belief structure. But doing so requires locating Malletum and, even more critically, overcoming the suite of abilities he was gifted upon his return from death.

Locating Malletum. The locations of the Deathtouched leaders are known only to each other, though some of their direct lieutenants may also have pieces of information. The deathtouched blessed are all aware of Malletum’s current whereabouts. They do not give this information easily and are difficult to threaten or interrogate due to their fervent celebration of death.

Deathtouched tongues may also have some knowledge of Malletum’s location. If Jesse or the party interrogates a tongue for information, roll a d20. On a 10 or lower, they do not know anything helpful. On an 11 or higher, the subject has a piece of information that can help, such as the last temple Malletum visited, the direction he was headed, or the site of a recent attack that bore the same marks as his previous victims.

Looking to shorten or expedite the adventure? You can skip the need to find Malletum by having the characters meet Jesse after they have already found a good lead on his location. This may be enough to find Malletum or might require another encounter and interrogation first, such as with another deathtouched blessed or a deathtouched tongue, for which you can skip the roll for determining whether they have information.

The encounter in the Deathtouched catacomb is the conclusion of the party’s battle against the cult. To learn about Jesse Masters, the town they once protected, and the cult’s many soldiers that roam the desert, refer back to Parts 1 and 2 of the ‘Gallows’ Rot’ adventure…

Heinrich Malletum

(CE male elf deathtouched blessed)

The man is cloaked in a dark, almost black leather coat. Its collar is high enough to nearly reach his wide-brimmed hat, shrouding his face in darkness and leaving only a pair of ravenous eyes visible. Beneath the leathers are glints of tarnished brass armor that covers his chest and reinforces his gloves and boots, all inlaid with intricate decoration.  

Deathtouched Leader (1x1)

The man who came to take the name Heinrich Malletum is an enigma of his own choosing. His arrival in town was unceremonious and unheralded, which only furthered the shock when, just two days later, his first victim was found, having already rotted for almost as long as Malletum had been there. It didn’t take long for Sheriff Masters to narrow their investigation to Malletum, though the latter’s elusiveness allowed him to claim additional victims before his eventual execution. 

Master’s inquiries into Malletum’s past, meanwhile, found little but vague possibilities and potential past killings. From the deaths of two parents sharing Heinrich’s heritage to a path of what may have been his accelerating list of murders, nothing could be concretely pinned on Malletum.

Whatever Malletum’s past, it has scrubbed away any sense of decency he may ever have possessed. He pursues nothing but the fulfillment of his own hedonistic desires, which most often devolve into sadism and brutality. Heinrich is a narcissist in both conversation and combat. He does not care for anyone but himself and sees even his followers’ lives as expendable. This has only worsened since his execution, with his defiance of death and the worship of the Deathtouched cult deluding Heinrich into a deep messiah complex. He may once have been just an opportunist with a band of convenient apostles, but the current Heinrich Malletum is a true believer in both the cult’s message and his own predestined importance to it.

A leader’s labors. Heinrich’s role as the leader of the Deathtouched keeps him busy but never stops him from indulging in his own vices. His time is spent traveling to the cult’s different camps and temples to speak with his followers, imparting wisdom and inspiring them to practice the same sadistic habits he does. He spends between one and three days in each location before moving on. While there, Heinrich is also granted a private sleeping area and any luxury the cult can provide.

While traveling, Heinrich is accompanied by a small escort of experienced, combat-capable cultists. He uses the time that they are in transit to satisfy his desire for violence, attacking travelers and small settlements along their path. Though Heinrich does this solely for his own pleasure, the raids also serve to leave injured, desperate survivors, who are later abducted to become deathtouched recruits.

The Deathtouched Catacomb

Brazier-lit halls of dull stone branch in different directions, cracks in the old structure letting flecks of sand fall through the orange light. Your senses are assaulted by decay and putrescence, the air filled with the fetid burn of rot and rancid alchemy, but you are kept alert by the flickering of shadows and sounds of movement from further inside. What you can see of the passages and rooms bears heretical decorations and shrines that cover whatever purpose this place once served, the catacomb now as devoted to the cult’s worship as the cultists themselves are.

Heinrich Malletum has only recently arrived at a set of ancient catacombs that the Deathtouched have converted into a temple. The ruins, which lay under the broken remnants of a village, once served to carry out honored burial rituals for another, unknown religion. The cult has scrubbed away any identifying reference to these old customs. They have been replaced with the cult’s own shrines and spaces, while the structures above are used as the basis for the cultists’ tents and living areas.

The Deathtouched catacomb features a small central laboratory for its resident deathtouched ritualists and deathtouched keepers to work. A hallway then leads to a room with metal cages, where the keepers hold their subjects as they work, while another hall runs in the opposite direction to a crypt that houses ancient corpses but is now filled with the cult’s deathtouched dreamers. Members of the cult patrol and move through these spaces freely, save for the crypt, where only the ritualists, keepers, deathtouched tongues and higher-ranking cultists are permitted.

Ceilings and light. The catacomb’s halls all taper to 15 feet in height, while its rooms rise to 20 feet. Braziers are maintained which, combined with broken sections of the ceiling that allow daylight through, fill the ruins with bright light.

Dreamers’ crypt. One of the catacomb’s main rooms is a crypt constructed to house a set of sarcophagi. The presence of the ancient corpses inside led the cult to devote the room to housing a group of deathtouched dreamers. Read the following when the characters reach the room:

The doorway opens into a larger rectangular chamber that loops around a central square column. The walls on either side are set with alcoves that hold thick stone sarcophagi, each one’s lid cracked open just enough for the musty stench to drift out. Sections of the room have given way under similar neglect and let mounds of rubble and sand swallow much of the far corner. And slumped against the various coffins and debris are collapsed humanoid forms, all frozen in crumpled poses.

The deathtouched dreamers sleep in the crypt. They are scattered randomly and with no comfort and initially appear as emaciated corpses. The dreamers’ nightmares are also hidden in the shadows, wandering through the crypt and attacking anyone that draws too close.

Map & Asset Downloads

The deathtouched catacombs are described to fit our ‘ancient desert catacombs’ battle map but can be expanded for a larger encounter. You might attach the ‘ancient desert temple’, ‘ancient desert ritual room’, or any of our other desert maps and assets to build a larger camp for the cult. We even have a short book detailing how to run a desert adventure, with 20 desert encounter examples…

The Deathtouched Faithful

In addition to visiting leaders, the cult’s many camps and temples are populated by their worshippers, those who have joined the Deathtouched but have not taken the combative role of a hand or greater. This includes new recruits, as well as those who pursue a closeness to death so ardently as to sacrifice their own life. Some temples also serve additional purposes, such as creating the cult’s deathtouched serpents and thralls or carrying out transplant rituals on the cult’s soldiers.

Deathtouched Recruit

CR 1/8

A person steps forward in tattered clothes, their skin sunken and their eyes despondent. A knife glints in their hand as they raise and grip it defensively, their expression growing wilder.

Deathtouched Recruit (1x1)

Those who are newest to the cult are housed in its camps, where they carry out menial labor while being gradually indoctrinated by their superiors. These deathtouched recruits are rarely kept willingly and none truly escape. They are taken as survivors from the cultists’ attacks on travelers, often allowed to wander the desert until they are moments from death, when the cult then abducts them. Their physical well-being and mental resistance are worn down the longer they remain, until they eventually break and accept a role within the cult, most often becoming a deathtouched hand or deathtouched dreamer. Those who attempt to flee, meanwhile, still end up as a part of the cult in the unfortunate form of a deathtouched thrall.

The recruits kept in the cult’s camps should be in various states of duress and indoctrination. Some may attack the party, while others will only defend themselves, and others still will hide or even rush to the characters for aid. Having a good mix of these helps display the process that the recruits go through while also adding variety to the interactions within the encounter.

Deathtouched Dreamer

CR 0

A humanoid form lies curled on the floor in thin rags. The body is withered and emaciated, its skin clinging to its bones and hair faded and frayed, with every joint painfully constricted. And yet its chest still rises with labored breaths.

Deathtouched Dreamer (1x1)

The pinnacle of the Deathtouched cult’s beliefs is not to die but to exist as close to death as possible, reaching beyond the veil to glimpse the other side. It is in this pursuit that deathtouched dreamers act as valiant explorers.

The dreamers allow themselves to physically deteriorate while being given a concoction that helps to preserve their bodies for as long as possible. This suspends them at death’s door, where they experience vivid, often horrifying dreams. Ritualists then use magic to read and interpret the dreamers’ thoughts, recording their ‘discoveries’ to pass on to their leaders.

Curiously, the cultists’ dreaming manifested an unexpected side effect: meandering, ethereal deathtouched nightmares projected in spaces near the dreamers. These shades do little but wander, though they have been seen to react defensively toward anyone that approaches them. The ritualists have also noticed a correlation between the actions of a shade and the dreams of its connected cultist, confirming the connection and further inspiring the cult’s pursuit of what it means to exist at the brink of death and what power might be drawn from it.

Deathtouched Nightmare

CR 1/4

A darkened shimmer flits through the air. It is never fully visible, resembling only the shadows of a humanoid silhouette distorted beneath water and with formless extremities and an almost total lack of features. But what is strikingly apparent is its face, where the rippling contrast shows snapshots of agony and torture.

Deathtouched Nightmare (1x1)

As deathtouched dreamers sleep and drift to the edge of death, they manifest shades of their wandering minds as deathtouched nightmares. These spectral figures float listlessly in the area near the dreamer from which they spawned, locked in twisted depictions of pain and grief. This appearance extends to their behavior, as they reflexively attack anyone or anything that moves nearby. Anyone without the deathtouched ritualists or keepers’ calming magic may quickly find themselves joining the dreamers in their exploration of death.

Though the deathtouched nightmares can be used on their own, they are designed to be the manifestations of sleeping deathtouched dreamers. 

Each dreamer is connected to their respective nightmare and unconscious while the nightmare is active. When the nightmare is destroyed, the connected dreamer awakens and spends its turns attempting to Dream of Death or moving away from danger. As long as the dreamer is alive, it can create another nightmare. This makes it important to track which dreamer is manifesting which nightmare but simplifies combat by only having one of them active at a time.

It is up to the characters to recognize the connection between a nightmare being destroyed and a dreamer awakening. This, along with their ability to summon more nightmares and the nightmares’ durability and frightening attacks, means that the encounter can end very quickly with the deaths of the dreamers or it can extend as more nightmares are summoned. If you feel that the encounter might be beginning to drag, consider placing more emphasis on the dreamer awakening or prompting an Intelligence (Investigation) check to have a character make the connection.

Deathtouched Ritualist

CR 1

Ceremonial robes almost completely encase the individual, from their boots and clawed metal gloves to the tight wrappings that cover their mouth. Their face is otherwise hidden by a skull-shaped mask, long bedraggled hair falling out from behind it, while a thick tome is chained to a belt of knives and other surgical implements.

Deathtouched Ritualist (1x1)

Though few in numbers, the deathtouched ritualists are an integral part of the cult. They are the skilled surgeons and mages who carry out the transplants on the cult’s combat-ready members and interpret the thoughts of the deathtouched dreamers. These tasks require spells specialized for manipulating and restraining the minds of their patients, who have a tendency to thrash violently under the strain of the procedures. Despite being confined to the cult’s central temples and rarely seeing conflict themselves, this magic and the tools they carry allow the ritualists to function effectively in combat, particularly by supporting the guards who are always assigned to protect them.

Deathtouched Keeper

CR 2

Blood stains, both old and new, are splattered across their thick leather apron and gloves. They are worn over the cultist’s robes and brass armor and are fastened by a belt of tools, vials, and small pouches, while their mouth is covered by a grated brass mask.

Deathtouched Keeper (1x1)

Working in close association with the ritualists are the cult’s deathtouched keepers. The keepers are skilled in alchemy and magic and are tasked with tending to several of the cult’s other ranks. They breed the deathtouched serpents and use their venom to brew the potions that sustain the deathtouched dreamers. The keepers and ritualists are also responsible for creating deathtouched thralls, the former being behind the subjugation of both them and the undead serpents.

These skills make the keepers potent combatants. They lace their weapons with the snakes’ venom and carry vials of a temporary but effective poison. The keepers have also trained their cursed voices with abilities beyond the deathtouched tongues, allowing them to compel those who have already succumbed to their magic. This, coupled with the keepers’ transplanted hands, makes them as dangerous to those they wish to destroy as they are to those they would command.

Deathtouched Blessed

CR 3

The leader wears robes with additional and more intricate plates of armor, including clawed gauntlets and a mantle and breastplate that then flow into decorated vestments. Their head is entirely exposed, with only a circlet and a metal mouth plate that resembles a fanged lower jaw, drawing focus to the dark paint smeared across clouded, yellowing eyes.

Deathtouched Blessed (1x1)

At the apex of the cult are the deathtouched blessed. These zealots are the fewest in number but greatest in both faith and power. Their abilities are not simply granted to those who ascend the cult’s ranks and instead are reserved for the special few faithful who experience death in its entirety and return, its power infusing the core of their being. These lucky few are seen as having been chosen by their patron. But the title is not only a result of their beliefs. The blessed wield the most potent magic of all the Deathtouched and are solely focused on delivering death to their enemies, more than earning them their position as leaders.

Despite being a spellcaster, the use of the spirit guardians and vampiric touch spells with the blessed’s Death’s Scream and Death’s Embrace abilities makes them powerful and durable melee fighters. They are likely to begin combat using spirit guardians and later change to using vampiric touch once they have taken sufficient damage and need healing. This lets them quickly tear down opponents while outlasting them by siphoning their life into both healing and temporary hit points.

Balancing the Deathtouched Faithful

Naturally, the encounter’s climax revolves around facing Heinrich Malletum. The combat with him should be scaled with a Challenge Rating that is difficult, though still possible, for the party to overcome. Once again, having Jesse Masters with them raises the group’s effective CR and must be considered when selecting other cultists to surround Malletum.

The rest of the catacomb should be populated to fill the cult’s needs, rather than being thought of as a series of encounters. The crypt is the most static area of the ruin, as the resident deathtouched dreamers and nightmares are largely unable to leave. Other cultists can be placed organically, going about their usual duties. This includes a deathtouched ritualist using the central alchemy station, guarded by a pair of deathtouched hands, and a deathtouched keeper tending to the cages or any deathtouched thralls or serpents present in the camp. Deathtouched recruits can be carrying out general labor, conducting worship, or simply living in their own spaces. Placing the cultists organically helps maintain a sense of realism while also putting the characters in the advantageous position of planning their attack, with the onus placed on them to decide how they act. If they struggle or get lost in their strategizing, Masters is there to help.

There is the possibility of this positioning changing if the cultists somehow learn of the party’s impending attack. In this case, they will have taken defensive positions and each rank will fight to protect those above them. The exception is the dreamers, who will be assisted by a ritualist and other guards.

Here are some examples of cultists that you may use to achieve different CR values for the confrontation with Heinrich Malletum:

CR 4: Heinrich Malletum (deathtouched blessed), 2 deathtouched hands

CR 5 1/2: Heinrich Malletum (deathtouched blessed), 1 deathtouched tongue, 4 deathtouched thralls

CR 7: Heinrich Malletum (deathtouched blessed), 1deathtouched keeper, 1 deathtouched eye, 2 deathtouched hands

CR 9 1/2: Heinrich Malletum (deathtouched blessed), 2 deathtouched keeper, 1 deathtouched ritualists, 2 deathtouched hands, 4 deathtouched thralls

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Troy McConnell

Part-time DM and author of 2-Minute Tabletop's encounters, map lore, and characters. Basically, I write about all the campaign ideas that I don't have time to run. All with the assistance of my feline familiar, Wink.

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