*This article was presented in two parts, with Part 1 describing the construction of the adventure and Part 2 providing a report of how the adventure played out.*
Realizing the players were relatively new to the game, I spent some time during the introduction explaining to them their characters, the foundational rules of the game, how combat runs, which one is the 20-sided die, and lots and lots of other things. …I should resist this urge.
The party (Thorkel, dwarf shock-priest of Abbathor; Skaag, warforged inhabited by the ghost of a dead commander; and Blackleaf, elf hunter and sniper) deserts their military unit and flees east across the land, looking for a place to rest and get out of the steady, soaking, drumming rain that shows no signs of letting up.
When they finally spy the little village ahead, it’s the middle of the night, and there in the road, a figure shuffles towards them through the downpour, calling something they can’t quite make out.
The party moves forward cautiously, and Blackleaf hears the person clearer than the other two, realizing it’s not a voice but a deep, gutteral groan. Blackleaf nocks an arrow in his greatbow and advances, sliding to his right, peering through the sheeting rain… and knows something is very wrong. Most of the figure’s lower jaw is missing, having been raggedly torn away, and its tongue waggles free as it vocalizes its horrible call. It’s a living corpse, the walking dead.
Blackleaf fires a pair of arrows, drilling the zombie through the throat, dropping it instantly. “Nice shot,” Skaag says, and that’s when the mass of undead claw their way from the sodden earth all around them. “Crap,” Skaag says.
Using their own bows, the undead graze Thorkel with a pair of arrows and hit Skaag in an ankle joint, but the party easily handles the abominations – Blackleaf picking them off with his deadly aim, Thorkel pulping them with his craghammer and throwing hammers, and Skaag hacking them with his halberd.
The party continues on to the modest village, which is very dark and eerily quiet, except for the constant, maddening rain. They move through the village, the roadway turning into a stew of black mud, and they glance about at the small buildings, looking for signs of habitation.
Introducing a setting element like rain is an excellent idea, unless you constantly forget about it, which I always do. If you are going to do this, either staple a note to your eyeballs that says RAIN RAIN RAIN RAIN RAIN, or, less painfully, find and play a repeating audio clip reminder during the scene or adventure. Loud, noisy town? Play a clip of lots of people chattering, shouting, laughing. Monastery setting? Play a clip of bells and chanting. Constant rain? Play a clip of a downpour.
One house catches their attention, light flickering through its wooden slats, maybe from a guttering candle, and they head towards it. As they arrive, about to peek into a window, the silence is shattered by a hound’s ragged baying, and undead surge from the buildings.
At first, the battle goes the party’s way, Skaag slashing with his halberd, Thorkel swinging his hammer and calling upon the dark power of Abbathor, Blackleaf flashing out his paired scimitars, and they put down a tougher zombie with a paralyzing claw and a corpse-dog with a nasty, dripping bite. Unfortunately, the undead just keep coming, zombies crawling from every dark corner, including two that blaze with hellish flame and fling explosive fireballs.
Just as the battle becomes desperate, two men appear from a distant building, attacking the zombies from behind with sling bullets, and a woman clutching a silver symbol blasts apart one of the fiery zombies in a burst of holy light. The remaining zombies fall on her, tearing her to pieces, but the party and the men close quickly, destroying the undead.
I combined the second and third encounter into one, and even amped up the third encounter, since the characters turned out to be extremely effective and dangerous. When constructing encounters, I recommend using the Experience Point Buy method, but always BUY HIGH and scale down if necessary. Also, I’m going to jump on board with Dave Noonan and say there ain’t no way minions should be worth 1/4 of the experience points of a standard monster. At most, minions should count towards 1/10, and I’m not just saying that because the math is easier.
The two men run up to the party, barking, “Come with us, NOW!” They lead the party across the village square and into an abandoned building. The larger man gives a little whistle, and a trapdoor pops open from the floor and a woman peers out, saying, “Who are they?”
The men say, “Come on, come on, get in, get in,” and they hurry through the opening, slamming the trapdoor behind them. The party finds space in the cramped basement, and then talk with the survivors as the village overhead fills with inhuman howls and hungry screams.
The two men introduce themselves as Seth and Ferris, and tell about the skyfire that fell around mealtime. Seth says it was a streak of light that crashed to the north of the village, and Ferris tells about the mayor calling the people together in the meeting hall, naming the skyfire as the Tear of Orcus, and saying that it foretold dark days.
The mayor took several volunteers to investigate the northern field. Nobody knows what the mayor’s group found, but it was something terrible, something dark, and it spread through the village like a disease. Since then, these survivors have been running and hiding, killing the undead where they could. Ferris says, “We wanted to go out to that northern field, but… not with all those creatures running around.”
One of the women objects to sharing the story with strangers, but Seth shakes her off, saying, “Look at them. You’ve got an elf, a dwarf, and something that must have been a human once. They’re straight out of the stories of Corranae. They have something to do with this, and I think it’s something good.”
Thorkel and Blackleaf recognize the name Corranae, explaining that over two centuries ago, this was where an army of humans, elves, and dwarves waged war against a demonic host. Thousands were lost, but the host was destroyed. They realize that their undead enemy today doesn’t only include the transformed victims from the village, but also the countless fallen from the battle of Corranae.
When dealing with some kind of mystery or information-gathering game, you must dole out the information generously and repeatedly. Not because the players are moronic toddlers, but because… hmmm… No, seriously, they’re not moronic toddlers. It’s just that being in a life-or-death situation is very different from sitting at a table talking about being in the situation. Players forget. Players get distracted. Players will listen to all your exposition and then say, “What was that? Could you repeat that? What were we supposed to do now?”
They settle in for the night, Skaag taking motionless watch, the others finding fitful sleep full of nightmares. They rouse after six hours, and one of the women prods open the trapdoor and reports that morning never came. It’s still as dark as midnight, and the rain continues to fall.
As the party discusses their options, Seth offers his father’s enchanted greatbow and hide armor, which Blackleaf gladly accepts, and also distributes three healing elixirs. They decide to go north to investigate where the Tear of Orcus fell, asking Seth to lead them.
This was a stupid move on my part. When determining the treasure, I figured Blackleaf the archer would take the bow and someone else would take the hide armor. Only no one else could effectively use the hide armor, so Blackleaf got both magic items. Duh.
After confirming the village has quieted, Seth takes the party to the edge of the northern field, where they can detect a faint blue glow coming from the distant edge, almost like a sunrise glaze. Across the ravaged fields, blackened as though by fire, they see the source of the glow, a large partly-buried sphere, and jutting from the mud are clusters of skeletal limbs, as though an army of dead had attempted to pull free from the earth but couldn’t.
I decided to skip the undead battle here since it felt like it would just be more of the same. The party had already fought zombies and skeletons and knew what that was like. By setting the scene but skipping the battle, I got my atmosphere (after all, they didn’t know something wasn’t about to happen), and I could just let them do their investigation.
“Go check it out,” Thorkel tells Seth, who makes a terrified squeaky noise, and Skaag says, “Don’t listen to him. Blackleaf, do you see anything?” Blackleaf notes the tracks of a large party that moved through this field, a directed march straight to the glowing sphere, though the tracks that came back from the sphere seem disorganized, shuffling, and unfocused. A unit marched to the sphere, but something not unified came back. Thorkel examines the skeletal limbs jutting from the ground, determining that they were recently animated and, based on the broken and gashed bones, had first died many years ago from combat wounds.
Whenever you introduce any interactive NPC, there’s always the risk the players will want to employ him as cannon fodder. This is understandable, if a little anti-heroic. You’ll have to remember that not everyone plays the game to realize his inner hero, and take appropriate steps. If it comes right down to it, you can tell the players, “Hey, you guys are the heroes here, not them. You should go check it out.” In this case, it was another player who let my NPC off the hook.
Skaag thanks Seth for his help and sends him home, and then the party moves cautiously toward the sphere. They immediately note that the sphere is the source of the explosive devastation, that it must have struck the ground in a powerful blast. Also, the sphere looks perfectly smooth, like a pearl, and doesn’t appear to be any manufactured material, like glass or steel. Its glow is soft, almost lulling, consuming, and it gives off the faintest breath of cold, though Thorkel is pretty sure the chill isn’t caused by a change of temperature, but rather a kind of absence.
Stepping forward, Skaag extends his halberd to lightly touch the sphere, which makes a soft, wavering chime. He tries to move, lift, or break the sphere, but can’t, even with Thorkel’s assistance. When called over, Blackleaf immediately spies a shallow tear-shaped cavity in the sphere’s surface. Though unable to find the missing piece around the sphere, Blackleaf does notice signs that a large party stood nearby, and one of their number knelt beside the sphere, right where the cavity is located.
This may have worked well as a skill challenge, but I let it play out as pure investigation with Perception, Insight, and Religion skill checks here and there. They players were entirely engaged, examining the setting carefully and talking to each other about their options. They only turned to me when they had a question about one of their conclusions.
Blackleaf points out that while the movements of the large party became very random and disorderly at some point, the tracks of the person who knelt marched straight out of the field back to the village. Thorkel and Skaag exchange glances, saying simultaneously, “The mayor… he must have taken the missing piece back to the meeting hall.”
I did not lead the players to this conclusion. It was one they came to on their own as they evaluated the evidence. It was one of those rare moments where you get to see the light come on in their eyes and they figure out exactly what’s happening.
Despite the rain and darkness, Blackleaf easily follows the tracks to the meeting hall, Skaag and Thorkel close behind. The tracks march through the huge front doors, which are hanging open and unguarded.
The party circles around to the back of the hall, where Skaag hefts Blackleaf up on his shoulders to look over the 10′ tall palisade. Blackleaf sees a large open area with smaller buildings, and there are several zombies shambling about through the rain. A wooden parapet runs along the inside of the wall, connecting the four corners of the hall.
Blackleaf grabs hold of the wall and slips up and over onto the parapet, slides his enchanted greatbow into his hand and begins picking off the zombies. The darkness is shattered by a horrific scream, and the battle is joined.
This turned out to be an extremely multi-dimensional battle, with lots of movement, strategy, and heroic moments. I felt like it translated easily into story, and there’s absolutely no cheating here in the conversion. What you read is what happened.
Skaag helps Thorkel over the wall onto the parapet, and then climbs up after him, as zombies swarm from the buildings towards the ladders that lead up to the parapets. One hideous undead creature, a wight, bursts from one of the buildings, scrambles up onto the roof, leaps across to the parapet, and races towards the party.
Skaag calls, “Blackleaf!” and Thorkel shouts, “Kill that one!”
Blackleaf fires arrows at the wight from his position on the parapet, setting it on fire with his enchanted bow, while Thorkel runs toward it, taking a moment to smash one of the ladders before the zombies can climb up it. Skaag leaps to the ground, attacking the zombies with his halberd.
The wight blasts Thorkel with sizzling black bolts, locking him into place, while zombies close from all directions, climbing up onto the parapet around Blackleaf and Thorkel.
Zombies claw into Thorkel, even as the wight unleashes a soul-searing howl, draining life force and summoning a pair of black mists with bright yellow eyes, foul residents from the Shadowfell. Thorkel’s craghammer slips from nerveless fingers and the dwarf staggers and falls.
On the one hand, you want the drama to be through the roof, but on the other, when a character falls, there’s very little for that player to do. It’s a tough balancing act, which I rarely get right.
Blackleaf nocks an arrow, sighting down the shaft with perfect aim. Time grinds to a halt. He breathes in, breathes out, and then let fly, and the arrow streaks across the meeting hall and buries itself into the wight’s left eye, blowing out the back of the creature’s skull. The wight tumbles over backwards, dying for the last time.
An absolutely brilliant use of a daily, which just so happened to destroy the big bad. I love moments like these.
Enemies move to finish the fallen Thorkel. Blackleaf puts a couple arrows into a zombie but doesn’t kill it. Skaag runs over, lunging with his halberd at one of the black mists, which blows apart with a whispery shriek. The zombie with Blackleaf’s arrows jutting from it falls on Thorkel, clawing and biting. Blood pours from the dwarf’s wounds, washed away by the falling rain.
The zombies and remaining black mist close in on Blackleaf, and he retreats, firing arrows at the zombie feeding on Thorkel but missing. “Come on!” Skaag shouts. He dashes around a zombie, which turns and rakes a claw across his metal back, flooding him with necrotic energy that freezes him in place.
Skaag growls, “No,” and shakes off the icy hold, lunging at the zombie about to finish Thorkel… but misses. “Hey ugly,” Skaag says. “Come and get me.” The zombie looks up from the dwarf, its jaws dripping with his blood, and scrambles off the parapet at Skaag.
This was my interpretation of the fighter’s marking ability, as he drew an enemy away from a fallen ally who was just about to die. Thorkel was very close to negative bloodied, so it was nice not having to actually kill one of the PCs.
Surrounded by enemies, Blackleaf drops his greatbow and flashes his scimitars in a deadly arc, while Skaag hurls himself up onto the parapet and gives Thorkel his healing elixir. Thorkel’s eyes pop open as his wounds close, and he stands, saying a healing prayer over Skaag, and then calls upon all the dark power of Abbathor to blast away the nearby zombies.
After finishing off the nearby zombies, Skaag and Thorkel move to help Blackleaf, who has already snatched up his greatbow and leapt from the parapet to the roof of one of the small buildings. Together, with hammer, halberd, and arrow, they party finish off the undead.
I had an opportunity to be a colossal jerk of a DM, since Blackleaf’s player didn’t explicitly state, “I’ll get my greatbow,” before jumping to the building. Instead, I ruled, “You wouldn’t go without it,” and simply let it happen. Players REALLY appreciate it when you give them the benefit of the doubt, and I say this as both a player and Dungeon Master.
With a quick search of the meeting hall, the party finds coins, gems, and jewelry, as well as discovering the wight has transformed back into a human, and is wearing a teardrop-shaped pendant on a chain around his neck. Hearing the undead begin to stir throughout the village again, the party rush back to the northern field and slip the teardrop pendant into its matching cavity in the glowing sphere.
The sphere hums softly, spins open, and breaks apart into a thick, foul-smelling steam. As the steam spreads, the rain eases up, the darkness fades, and the sun finds it way through the heavy black clouds overhead. A peace settles on the village even as sunrise finally comes, and the mindless hungry howls are quickly replaced by shocked cries, despairing wails, and desperate prayers. The village is restored, but not without loss.
Considering all the characters had gone through up to this point, it seemed like dirty pool to spring the pair of iron cobras on them (plus it was something like 2:00 in the morning). I elected to skip the encounter, giving the players a feeling of success, but also making the victory a little bittersweet. The players succeeded, they did what had to be done, but there was a cost to it. It just felt right.