Friday, October 30, 2015

Mini Adventure -- Lover of the Dead

"Lover of the Dead" is a D&D 3e horror adventure suitable for a group of four 3rd level characters. It can be set in any urban setting and can be easily adapted for any system because it is combat-light.
In this macabre story, the PCs are hired by an evil and not terribly bright serial killer Cleric to protect him from what he thinks is the angry ghost of one of his victims. Will the PCs unmask the madman and bring calm to the streets, or will they unknowingly aid a maniac in his twisted game?

Despite its light tone, this adventure has some very dark elements and is absolutely not suitable for children.

Since early age, the Nerull-worshipping Lorel Kooter found the company of dead women far more pleasant then that of the living. You don’t have to take them to the theater or to fancy restaurants, you don’t have to be sensitive to their needs or even speak with them – all you have to do is to strangle them and then cast animate dead on their cold, lovely bodies.
Of course, Lorel’s lifestyle did have a few major drawbacks; first and foremost him being a Nerull-worshipper, a necrophile and a murderer made him a sure candidate for a paladin's blade or a hangman’s noose. Secondly, contrary to popular belief, dead women sometimes do fight back.
But Lorel was careful, he murdered only homeless girls who would not be missed and made sure to dispose of the bodies at the local cemetery once they began to rot. To his few friends, Lorel was nothing more than a short, stocky and unassuming bureaucrat who spent his days laboring over an endless volume of financial documents at the local tax collector’s office.
One day, however, everything went terribly wrong.
Lorel returned home late in the evening and was surprised to find a dead woman waiting for him, not a mute and passive zombie, but an intelligent and attractive undead of a type that our hero did not recognize.
At first Lorel was happy about the strange visitor and he decided it was a gift from Nerull for Lorel’s devotion. After a few nights, however, the cleric angrily realized that the undead, who claimed her name was lady Beten Homed, had needs and desires, just like a living woman. Furious, he destroyed the undead and went to bed mumbling blasphemies into his pillow. However, when he woke up in the morning, he found Beten sleeping by his side, with absolutely no recollection of her destruction, but with a thousand new complaints. No matter how many times he would destroy the strange undead, it would always return, making his life unbearable.
Whether due to countless sleepless nights or simply for lack of intelligence, Lorel went out and did something incredibly stupid – he decided to hire a group of adventurers to solve his problems…

The adventure starts as the PCs are approached by Lorel, who claims his house is haunted by an unknown type of undead monster. Even superficial examination of the house, however, reveals that Lorel is not the innocent victim he claims to be. Interaction with Betern will reveal her to be a unique undead whose purpose is to punish Lorel for his atrocious crimes in the ironic way favored by the Dark Powers. The adventure ends when the PCs finely confront Lorel in the local cemetery and either slay him or hand him over to the authorities.

Adventure Hooks
Below are two ways to start the adventure, one mundane and one more dramatic:

1. "You see, I have this problem…"
The PCs are sitting in the tavern or are strolling about the town when they are approached by Lorel:
A fat little man approaches you and gazes at you through thick, hopelessly unfashionable glasses. His attire is clean and orderly but lacks taste or style. His tired face is completely generic, the kind that you forget after a few seconds. You are quite sure that unless he had alerted you to his presence, you would not have noticed him. He licks his lips nervously and says: “Excuse, but do you happen to be adventurers?”

Lorel tells the PCs that his home became haunted with a strange female undead that would not go away. He claims that the local priest tried to turn it but it just laughed in his face and chased him out of the house. This is a lie, Lorel never approached the priest with his problem. Lorel offers the PCs 400 gp if they clean his house. If they agree he happily hands them over the keys and asks them not to touch anything. If offered to accompany the PCs Lorel will politely refuse, claiming that he is no combatant. A successful Sense Motive check, or an interview of the local priest (a rather difficult task since he is out-of-town at the moment) will expose that Lorel has not been entirely honest with the PCs.
Lorel will schedule a meeting with the PCs at sundown near the temple of Pelor. His plan is to lure them into the cemetery, find out if they know too much and murder them with the aid of the walking dead, in case they do.

2. What the hell is going on there?
As the PCs are walking the streets late at night, they suddenly witness the following scene:
The moon shines high in the night sky, painting the grey streets in a sickly yellow color. All windows are shut. Except for the low murmur of cicadas and the rare bark or fit of drunken laughter, the streets are quite. You hear a loud fight between a man and a woman, you don’t understand what they are saying but the tones are extremely harsh.
Looking for the source of the fight you notice a lone lit faraway window where two dark silhouettes seem to be in the middle of a fierce argument, suddenly the masculine silhouette makes hits the feminine silhouette with what appears to be an axe and she disappears.
The streets are quite once again.

If the PCs come to investigate they will encounter Lorel dragging out the mutilated corpse of a young woman. If questioned by the PCs, Lorel will claim that his house is haunted and ask for the PCs’ assistance (see previous hook for details) in cleansing his home.

The House of Corpses
If the PCs accept Lorel’s offer to investigate his home either because they honestly want to help him or because they want to check what’s really going on, read the following:

Just like its owner, the house can be best describes as “unassuming”. It is a modest two story brick building with a flat roof and a blank oak door. There is a feint odor of rot coming from the house.

All doors and locks in the house are of good quality.

1. Living room
Lorel’s living room is spacious and well-furnished but suffers from negligence. The big fluffy sofas and dining table are covered in dust and the large carpet on the floor is soiled by some dark brown substance. There is a large oven in the room but it seems to be rarely used.
In the corner of the room there are spiral stairs leading both up into the bedroom and down into the basement.

This room is in a rather sorry state as Lorel spends all his afterwork hours having fun with his latest victim in the basement, reading in his bedroom, or praying to Nerull in his makeshift shrine.

Clues: A careful examination of the musty carpet will reveal that objects where dragged not only from the house but also to the house (specifically to the bedroom) and that the substance that soils the carpet is blood and viscera. Magical examination will reveal the blood to be human and elven.

2. Bedroom (EL 4)
The bedroom is small and mostly bare. It is governed by a large and tidy bed. On a nearby stool there is a glass of brandy, an open book and a gore-smeared cleaver. An open closet reveals a dozen identical suits and tens of old and timeworn books.
A young woman with slightly pointed ears sits on the table by the bed and weeps. She wears a white burial gown with some blood stains. Her pale skin is covered in a web of bruises and bluish veins.

The book on the stool is a religious treatise on Nerull written by Nolar Sokler, high priest of Pelor. The cleaver is smeared in Beten’s brain matter, its blade is notched by many unspeakable acts. There are many tomes in the closet, most of them are pornographic novels or popular history, but three of them are rare and expensive tomes that deal with the occult and the necromantic arts.
Lorel is not a complete idiot and cleaned his bedroom before inviting the PCs, so the PCs are not going to find corpses in the closet or blood stains on the bed. However, he did not remove the greatest piece of evidence of his monstrous deeds – Beten.

Creatures: The moment the PCs enter the room Beten storms at them screaming: “Where is Lorel? What did you do to him, you thugs!” She will not fight unless physically attacked. If the PCs act friendly towards her, she will calm down tell them that Lorel is her husband and will complain that he loves his stupid job more than he loves her. She will answer honestly and to the best of her ability to the PCs’ questions if treated with the respect due to a member of the junior aristocracy. Under no circumstances however, she will accept the fact that she is dead. She will shrug of any evidence, no matter how convincing by saying, "there's magic in the world. Crazier things have happened."
Beten is described in detail in the end of the adventure.

Treasure: Under the bed there is a small locked chest where Lorel keeps his money and souvenirs from the girls he's killed. Those include cheap rings, necklaces and bracelets and some small articles of clothing like gloves or scarves. The chest is protected by a glyph of warding (inflict serious wounds for 3d8+5 damage) which is activated if the opener doesn’t say “Zalanalaika” while opening the box with both hands. The trophies in the box are worth 144 gp. The occult books in the closet could be sold for 120 gp apiece to a serious book collector. While not strictly illegal, openly dealing in such books is likely to attract the attention of overzealous clerics and paladins.

3. Basement (EL 4)
Except for a box with a few bottles of brandy, two large cheese rolls, and a large collection of gardening tools, this dunk and filthy basement is empty.

Clues: There is a small opening filled with loose bricks behind the brandy box. It leads to the shrine. If the box is moved then the opening can be uncovered with a DC 17 Search checks.

Traps: If anyone tries to pass through the opening without saying “Zalanalaika,” they triggers a glyph of warding that summons 1d3 large fiendish monstrous centipedes that fight the PCs for 5 rounds and then disappear.

Treasure: The gardening tools include a masterwork scythe, because of the many dark deeds in which the scythe was involved, it radiates feint evil.

4. Shrine (EL 4)
The small opening reveals an evil-looking shrine, decorated with blasphemous signs of death and decay. It is the sort of location you'd expect to find in an evil dungeon, not in a posh neighborhood of a sleepy town.
A dead woman stands on each side of the shrine. One is relatively fresh, with greenish skin and bloated features. The other is almost completely decayed, revealing more bones than flesh. The smell of death in the room is nauseating.

Loral worships his vile god and animates the women he murders in this room.

Creatures: As long as the shrine is whole, the zombies (Lorel’s latest victims) receive the following bonuses: -6 profane penalty on turning checks, +2 profane bonus on attack rolls, damage rolls and saving throws and +4 hp [incorporated into the stats]. Additionally, all Good and Life spells are cast with a -1 level penalty.

Zombies (2): hp 21, 18; Monster Manual 265.

Traps: The stench of death in the room is so overpowering that anyone entering must make a Fortitude save (DC 15) or be nauseated for 1d3 minutes.

Treasure: The shrine is worth 100 gp to the right buyer; however it is extremely unlikely that the PCs will ever have peaceful dealings with that sort of people. Furthermore, owning such an item, is in and of itself, a very serious crime that can land them in a world of trouble with both secular and religious authorities.
Source: Xiwik

The Madman’s Demise
After exploring Lorel’s home there are two paths that the PCs are likely to follow; they may go directly to the authorities with the evidence they have collected in Lorel’s home or they may confront the killer themselves. That former will trigger an immediate manhunt that will result in the death of three city guards and Lorel’s escape from the city. The second, more heroic, path will lead to a life-and-death encounter in the cemetery. 

Battle at the Cemetery (EL 8)
At their meeting, Lorel tries to lure the PCs into the cemetery claiming he found the reason his home became haunted. If the PCs show no signs of knowing his true identity and bring him some sort of a proof that Beten is truly dead, Lorel will thank them, pay them the promised 400 gp and go back to his home. If the PCs accuse him of any crimes or start asking uncomfortable questions, Lorel summons 4 zombies he buried in advance and attacks.
Stats for Lorel can be found in the end of the adventure. 
Zombies (4): hp 19, 16, 15, 13; Monster Manual 265.

Development: If the PCs shout for help, four temple guards (warrior 1) will arrive within 3d6 rounds and aid the PCs.

Ad Hoc XP Adjustment: If the PCs discovered Lorel’s true identity award them XP as if for CR 4. If the group is mainly lawful, award them XP as if for CR 2 if they hand Lorel over to the authorities instead of simply slaying him.

Concluding the Adventure
If everything went well for the PCs and they managed to see through Lorel’s deception and defeat him in combat, then they are hailed as heroes, rewarded with the Medal of the Vigilant Citizen by the mayor. For the next week or so, their names never leave the local newspaper and job offers come flowing
On the other hand, if the PCs allowed Lorel to escape, either because they failed to slay him or let the local watch handle the case, they have gained a terrible enemy. Lorel will never confront the PCs personally, but he will hurt their loved ones, burn their homes and soil their reputation. Finding him will be extremely difficult. Only the gods knows how many friends, relatives or loved ones will the PCs encounter as shambling zombies before their nightmare will be finely over.
If the PCs failed to uncover Lorel’s true identity, simply “killed” Beten and accepted the payment, then they will soon learn that the man who hired them suddenly left town, claiming that his house was haunted and that he couldn’t live like this.
Whether Beten is tied to Lorel’s house or will follow him wherever he goes, constantly complaining about the poor travel conditions and that she doesn’t receive enough attention is up to the DM.
If you feel particularly sadistic you may have Beten “attached” to one of the PCs instead of just disappearing upon Lorel’s death or arrest. In that case the PCs will have to somehow divine the cause of her manifestation and set it right. Possible options include:
  • bringing to justice her murderous husband, now a powerful robber baron enjoying the full defense of the law
  • saving her young sister from being spoiled by her parents just like Beten was 
  • finding someone who would actually enjoy her company.
New Feat: Necrophile (general)
You are attracted to corpses and lesser undead. Not only you don’t find the dead repulsive you actually enjoy their presence. 
Prerequisite: Any non-good alignment. 
Benefit: Continuous association with the dead has its benefits – firstly you gain a +4 circumstance bonus on saving throws against poison and disease as your body becomes more and more accustomed to poor sanitary conditions and constant contact with diseased tissues. Secondly, you gain a +2 circumstance bonus on Diplomacy and Turn checks made against lesser undead, as they find your company more pleasant than that of normal mortals.

Beten Homed, Female Unique Undead Aristocrat 2: CR 3; Medium undead (augmented human); HD 2d12; hp 13; Init +6; Spd 30 ft; AC 12; touch 12, flat-footed 10, Base Atk +1; Grp +0; Atk or Full Atk +0 melee (1d4-1/19-20, dagger) or +3 ranged (1d4/19-20, dagger) SQ turn immunity, undead traits, rejuvenation; AL CN; SV Fort +0, Ref +2, Will +7; Str 9, Dex 14, Con –, Int 11, Wis 15, Cha 13. 
Rejuvenation: As a ghost, except that Beten automatically reappears in Lorel's bedroom in 2d4 hours as long as Lorel is alive, having no recollection of any of her deaths. 
Turn Immunity: Beten may not be turned by any means. 
Skills: Bluff +6, Knowladge (history) +5, Knowledge (Nobility) +5, Perform +6, Sense Motive +7 
Feats: Acrobatic, Iron Will 

Notes: Beten is not a mean person, but she is unbelievably annoying. She could start a sobbing and screaming over literally any issue. She demands constant attention and her thankfulness is almost as cloying as her anger. As a child, she was a spoiled brat who made her noble parents’ life miserable by her constant barrage of unrealistic demands and terrible tantrums. Their response was to marry her, as soon as law permitted, to a young rural knight who made a fortune out of raiding orc raiders on their way back to the camp. The said knight, a man only slightly more civilized than an orc, strangled Beten in a fit of rage only a few months after the wedding.
Now, some unknown force has animated the annoying girl without her previous memories but with all her charming personality. She woke up in Lorel’s bedroom and quickly reached to the conclusion that she is his wife and that she must have suffered some kind of a head injury or illness that resulted in amnesia. The fact that she never feels neither hunger nor cold or that no matter how hard she tries, she can’t leave Lorel’s bedroom, do little to dissuade her. 

Lorel Kooter, Male human Rogue 2/ Cleric 5: CR 7; Medium humanoid (human): HD 2d6+2 plus 5d8+5; hp 42; Init +7; Spd 30 ft; AC 18; touch 13, flat-footed 15, Base Atk +4; Grp +7; Atk or Full Atk +8 melee (2d4+4/X4, +1 scythe) or +8 ranged (1d8/19-20, quiver) SA sneak attack +1d6, spells; SQ evasion, trapfinding; AL CE; SV Fort +5, Ref +6, Will +6; Str 16, Dex 16, Con 13, Int 7, Wis 15, Cha 10. 
Skills: Bluff +10, Concentration +11, Heal +12, Hide +13, Move Silently +13, 
Feats: Improved Initiative, Necrophile, Martial Weapon proficiency (scythe), Combat Casting 
Cleric Spells Known (CL 5):0 – cure minor wounds (2), detect magic, detect poison, light; 1st – cause fear D (DC 13), cure light wounds, divine favor, magic weapon, shield of faith; 2nd – aid, desecrate, hold person (DC 14), invisibility D; 3rd – animate dead D, cure serious wounds 
D: Domain spell; Domains: Death, Trickery 
Possessions: +1 chain shirt, masterwork scythe, masterwork light crossbow with 40 quivers, gauntlets of ogre power*, 2 potions of cure moderate wounds, bone holy symbol, black cloak, 3 vials of carrion crawler brain juice poison** 
*The bonus from the gauntlets of ogre power is already incorporated into Lorel’s stats.
**Contact DC 13, initial damage: paralysis, secondary damage: none. 

Notes: If Lorel has a chance to prepare for combat he cast the following spells on himself: shield of faith, aid and divine favor (in that order), he also casts magic weapon on his scythe and desecrate on the battlefield.
These spells adjust his statistics as follows: hp 51; AC 20; touch 15, flat-footed 17, Base Atk +7; Grp +10; Atk or Full Atk +11 melee (2d4+7/X4, scythe) or +11 ranged (1d8+2/19-20, quiver). In the desecrated area, the PCs suffer a -3 profane penalty on turning checks and Lorel’s zombies gain a +1 profane bonus on attack rolls, damage rolls and saving throws and +2 hp each.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

The Reason We Kill

In order for a game to work smoothly GMs must be as involved in character generation as they are in designing adventures. Nevertheless, many GMs labor under the misapprehension that their responsibility starts with the first encounter, leaving the players to their own devices up until this point. This may occasionally prove to be ruinous for an otherwise good game, just like skipping the prologue and going straight to Chapter 1 may ruin an otherwise good book.
If you let players create whatever characters they want and assume they will suit the sort of adventure you’ve planned, there’s a good chance you’ll force people to either break character or break the game. Even very young players can feel that a certain job is just not right for their characters due to safety, morality or simply personal preferences. Contrary to popular jokes, not everyone is motivated purely by XP and treasure. If a PC accepts a job simply to stay with the party or because they feel that this is what the GM wants, that is a serious problem.
The easiest and bluntest way to achieve group cohesion is to be upfront with the players about the kind of adventures you want to run and help them make characters with suitable motivation and abilities. It’s important for characters to not only accept the initial hook, but also suit the genre you have in mind. Fantasy is not a genre, it’s a setting. Genre can be dungeon crawling, mystical investigation, drama and so forth. Even if you’re running a sandbox game, you’re still likely to have some genre preference. Hell, even if you have nothing planned at all, the PCs still need reasons to go about doing dangerous stuff and not stay home or retire as soon as they get their first decent payment.
Character motivations should be logical and compatible. If you allow senseless or unsuitable motivations, you might find yourself dealing with a less functional group than one with no motivation at all.
As a side note, I consider a good motivation a line or two on why a character does what it doe. Long-winded character histories are very rarely useful and almost always fall into the realm of tedious fan fiction that is more fun to write than to read.
Variations of the old “my village was destroyed by orcs so now I’m an adventurer” is the most common and least reasonable motivation used by both kids and adults. Not only is it more background than motivation, it is also the backdrop of a refugee, not of a hero. A game about refugees can be fascinating, but the motivation of refugees is usually safety and (less commonly) vengeance. They are not looking to get in further trouble. There’s a plethora of further reasons why this background/ motivation is terrible, but they are outside the scope of this article. Suffice is to say that logically, a person with this sort of motivation alone, will not answer an ad calling for heroes to slay a dragon terrorizing a foreign kingdom.
Motivations that include personal quests that may not interest the whole group are flat-out useless. Unless all PCs are siblings, “I am on a quest to find the man who killed my father,” is as good as having no motivation at all.
Perhaps not to best choice for a church intrigue game...
Source: Red Wombat
Okay. Enough talk about terrible motivations and tired tropes. Let’s talk about motivations that work.
Even such a banal motivation as “I like killing things that are bigger than me” would be better than either of the above. In fact, if your game is about killing monsters and looting lairs, it’s actually not a bad motivation. However, it might create a bit of undue tension if another character’s motivation is “I want to make a better world because the government won’t.” While the eternal refugee is a less likely candidate, he may become quite suitable if what has destroyed his village was not orcs but that particular dragon.
To help the players design the right characters, don’t say, “Design heroes in a fantasy world.” Say, “Design characters interested in killing dragons.” There’s no reason to hold your cards close to your chest since the hook will be revealed in the very first scene of the game in any case. Just like a synopsis may “spoil” the first few chapters of a book, your announcement may “spoil” the first few minutes of a game. Unless you have a concrete reason to keep the players in the dark regarding the sort of game you are planning – reveal the hook, setting and genre in advance. In fact, if you’re running a short adventure, it’s perfectly alright to start in medias res after the characters have already accepted the quest. The feeble illusion of choice created by role playing a job interview for a job you can’t reject without running the game for everyone is honestly not worth your time or effort. It’s railroading of the worst kind. If you don’t have a plan for player refusal, don’t give them fake freedom.
Now, going back to our three characters, all three will probably accept a job to kill a dragon that has kidnapped the King’s only daughter. It’s big and powerful, it’s an enemy of the people, and you have a score to settle with it, so why not? However, while the suicidal hunter, the noble hero and the vengeful refugee will all agree to go on this mission, they are likely to get into a colossal fight when it turns out that the dragon and the supposedly kidnapped princess are actually lovers skimming a devoted, but close-minded king.
If you’re running a stand-alone adventure about prejudice, this may be a very rewarding and emotional finale. If it’s an adventure in an ongoing campaign about cleansing the kingdom of monsters, it may lead to irreconcilable differences in the group and cause it to eventually break apart. These are the kind of things that you have to consider in advance during character generation and when deciding whether to approve a certain motivation or not.
The actual races and classes of the group are not less important than motivation from a story point of view, since they not only define the characters’ powers and weakness, but also their interaction with the world. For example, if your setting has no tieflings in it, it’s worth letting the players know about this, especially if they’re playing a very social character. If the King is heavily bigoted against dragonborn, this is another hot plate you better get off the table in the very start. If the orcs in your setting are a race of poets and philosophers, than a stereotypical orc barbarian better have a damn good excuse for his terrible manners. You wouldn’t want a barbarian with only nature-based skills in a purely urban adventure and you wouldn’t want an assassin in a game about reconciling a powerful merchant with his estranged paladin son. Remember, as a GM you can’t and shouldn’t accommodate all possible characters and it’s perfectly within your right to deny certain motivations and character that don’t fit into your artistic vision.
That happens...
Returning yet again to our romantic dragon adventure, a good intro would look like this:
Motivation: You’ve been hired by the King of Genericburg to kill the Dragon Ironicus and rescue the Princess. You may play mercenaries motivated by monetary reward, members of the Good Faith tasked with killing powerful non-humans to prove the superiority of the humanoid races, relatives or friends of the King or the Princess, or enemies of the dragon looking to settle old scores.
Classes: You may play all classes. However, arcane magic is punishable by death by the Good Faith, so arcane spellcasters must hide their identity. The adventure is going to be combat-heavy so make characters capable of defending themselves. Most of the adventure is going to take place in the wilderness and offer little interaction with technology or large communities.
Races: No dragonborn or tieflings, as they are killed on sight by the Good Faith. All races other than humans, elves and dwarves suffer from harsh discrimination. Unless you’re one of the former, then you’re a foreigner hired by the King.
Alignment: Any except chaotic evil, as long as you’re willing to kill a dragon and will get along with other members of the party. Members of the Good Faith must be Lawful. The Good Faith is evil (what a surprise!) but you don't have to be.

Keep playing awesome games my friends, and may your table be as calm as your games exciting.