Monday, November 2, 2009

Halloween One-Shot Adventure: The Winner

The weekend was a busy one and kept me off the computer most of the time, so I was unable to post the contest winner on Halloween. However, below you can find the winning adventure proposal, "Wolves in the Throne Room", by Zak Smith, author of the "Playing D&D With Porn Stars" blog. A violent, surreal, festival of horror in a terrorized castle overrun with demons, witches, and just whacked-out craziness.

And very many thanks to the other adventure submitters. While I didn't get enough submissions to warrant putting them all together and publishing them as some kind of supplement, their entries were greatly appreciated.

Thanks again everyone, and I hope you all had a great Halloween!

Wolves in the Throne Room

Three-Part-Summary:

Hook-

It is winter. The dead of night. The PCs return home after a battle, adventure, border skirmish, Goblin War, etc. As they approach, lights flicker on in dark windows all over town—the townspeople shout : “They have returned!”.

The PCs are received as heroes and carried on the shoulders of the townspeople to Castle Vornheim for a banquet with the lord of the city. (Possible variant—one of the PCs is the lord of the city, and when s/he returns home, the banquet celebrates his/her homecoming.) During the feast the PCs meet various noble-type NPCs, (high priestess, head chef, lord’s three comely daughters, advisor, jester, juggling dwarf—tiny human entertainer, not an actual Dwarf—minstrel,court painter, etc.) most of whom quickly beg off and go to bed before the banquet ends (it’s the middle of the night). There are rumors among the superstitious commoners about how The Hunter Has Come.

The PCs and the lord finish their meal surrounded by a handful of tedious sycophants. Then the lord and some of the PCs are poisoned (they don’t immediately die, they just get woozy and occasionally have hallucinations that one or other of the guests at the table has a wolf’s head. After a while, if the lord is an NPC s/he goes into a coma, if a PC, s/he is just saddled with disturbing hallucinations and occasional vomiting at inopportune moments.) Everyone seems shocked. However, after careful questioning, torture, or spell-induced confession, most of the sycophants will turn into wolf-headed demons and attack the PCs. (They’re immune to normal weapons but, luckily, the cutlery is silver.) The remainder are innocent and will cower in the corner.

Line-

Someone’s tried to poison the Lord. The various NPCs in the castle all act confused. Some actually are, some are magically disguised agents of The Hunter—who is, of course, responsible for the poison.

These agents include but are not necessarily limited to:

-a grey-haired witch named Thorn who controls evil creeping plants and wild animals (boars, stags, ravens, etc.) and is always accompanied by a wolf (or, when disguised as a daughter of the lord, an annoying lapdog).

-a blond witch named Frost who controls cold, wind, and ice and who is always accompanied by a snowy owl

-a black-haired witch named Dread who creates fearful illusions (her attacks, for instance, always appear to do much more damage than they actually do—players should be fooled “the dagger rips your arm off, lose 12 hit points”) and is always accompanied by a raven

-all the castle guards, who refuse to open the castle gates or let anyone out. They turn into wolf-headed demons under stress.

-a few random important-seeming NPCs who turn into Deceivers (Stag-head, snake-arms, goat-legged minor demons) when under stress. (When you hit a deceiver, save vs, spell or else you’ve been deceived and are hitting one of your own party members).

-various magic creepies who stalk the corridors spying for the witches and attack the PCs in their sleep if they try to rest while in the castle, such as (for example) Eyes of Fate: human hands with snake tails and eyeballs set into their palms which cause anyone who look into them to go temporarily blind or insane. When slain they turn into gloves—grey if they belong to Thorn, black if to Dread, white if to Frost. The glove will fit the offending witch, even if she is magically disguised, but no-one else (Likewise, any other foe appearing in the middle of the adventure should, when defeated, provide a clue to the identity of the witches and demons, a piece of information that will help the PCs in the "sinker" battle, or a magic item that will be useful at the "sinker" if used properly.).

Some of the NPC nobles will know legends about The Hunter, and the villains will confess some information under duress. They say things like “Horned is the Hunter”, “The Frost is his shield, Dread is his strength, The Thorn is his fist” and imply he is an avatar of the demon Belphegor, there to usurp the power of the city’s lord and overwhelm civilization with wild things. Also, some kind of ceremony is coming.

Sinker--

After the PCs have gathered some useful information, or killed some of the beasties and witches, or it’s starting to look like a player has to go home so they can feed the dog or get up early for work, a friendly NPC (I recommend the juggling dwarf or the jester) tells the PCs that “The ceremony is beginning, we must hurry!”

On the roof (or in front of the castle if they’ve already been on the roof), in the snow, the Hunter (10-foot tall human stripped to the waist in a mask with stag horns—looks just like the Master Of The Wild Hunt from the original “Deities and Demigods” book—strong, fast, scary, axe-wielding, massive AC, HP, damage), surrounded by the surviving witches and minor demons is performing a bloody pagan ceremony in a circle of candles mad from the fat of virgins in order to bring forth a major demon--Belphegor The Untamed. (If the PCs are high-level, have Belphegor himself already be there—three heads—stag head, wolf head, crow head--snakes for arms, goat legs, generally unpleasant.)

They fight the PCs. The Hunter is really just one of the NPC nobles artifically bolstered by the witches’ magic. Killing the witch named Frost lowers his armor class to reasonable levels, killing Dread lowers his hit points considerably, killing Thorn reduces the amount of damage he can deal. In turn, killing the witches’ respective animals blinds the witches.

For extra fun, have the snow on the roof slippery enough that PCs fall off the roof into the (ice-covered) moat and have to crawl out before getting back to the melee. For extra extra fun, have the (touchingly loyal) juggling dwarf and jester help out and follow the PC’s commands—the jester is actualy an apprentice low-level wizard with some cantrips (mostly useless but they might do some good against the witches’ birds).

When and if the Hunter is slain, he dwindles and changes and, if unmasked, is revealed to be one of the noble NPCs (probably an advisor but if someone else comes to the fore during the adventure, feel free to make it whoever the most interesting choice would be.) He may or may not mention that he would have gotten away with it if it weren’t for “you meddling kids”.

System:

I’d use AD&D 1e to run it, but that’s mostly by default. First off, I wouldn’t necessarily want the players to know they were going to play a “scary” scenario from the beginning-running Wolves In The Throne Room in a horror system would make it less scary and the feast less surprising (since the PCs know to expect horror and rituals and poison), running it in Warhammer would be like running it in a horror system since the PCs would be expecting cultist-type activity from the beginning, later D&D systems—and other, more “modern” systems--might involve the DM in having to weight the adventure to balance out or route around a lot of skill checks (negotiate, interrogate, pagan lore, sense intention, climb, avoid-dropping-weapon-in-snow-after-witch-cast-a-spell-that-covered-it-in-ice, etc.).

I definitely prefer to just have the PCs question the villains and NPCs “manually”. The actual rules of AD&D don’t really privilege investigation-type problem solving over cold-steel-based problem-solving or vice-versa, so the players can basically try to figure out what’s going on however they want—by threat or by wit. If the system had a lot of rules governing character-interaction then the players might find talking to the NPCs to be mechanically determined and be forced into either talking to them or threatening them by rolls of the dice. Also, a more heavily skill-based system would require the DM to stat up every NPC’s mental stats and store of knowledge beforehand to anticipate questioning by the PCs, rather than just allowing the DM to role-play the castle cast in whatever way seems right at the time. Also, the way the adventure is written, the PCs might end up wanting to talk to any kind of person that might be in a castle, from head torturer to waitstaff, so it would suck to have to stat up everyone’s Bluff and Sense Motive scores in advance. All that having been said, I think it’s a fairly system-agnostic adventure and could actually see it being run in any fantasy system.

Characters:

First, it should be noted that the GM should probably decided in advance whether s/he wants to run with the whole “the-courtiers-think-maybe-one-of-the-PCs-did-it” angle. This is only recommended for role-playing heavy groups. Otherwise, this adventure is designed to be flexible and can be run with almost any number of players.

The most important thing to remember is that this adventure will only truly be scary if the players like their characters and get attached to them and so don’t want them to die. (Most of the encounters in the adventure should be dangerous enough that the PCs might die, but ominous enough that they’ll see it coming.) Therefore, the players should be given considerable latitude in making their PCs.

If this adventure is run as a one-shot, the characters can be anything, though one of the characters (someone who would enjoy the role) should be designated “the lord”. If you want to go all out and think the players would enjoy it and you have time to prepare, the players can actually be pre-generated members of the court—wizard/jester, juggling dwarf, high-priestess, etc. The middle road would be allowing the characters to be whatever class and race they wanted, then assigning them jobs in the castle. Another middle road would be to write up a few characteristics and abilities for the jester, dwarf, etc. and attach them to whatever character the PC who wants to have that job rolled up.

The only tricky parts are:

1-There should be a mechanism by which the players have forgotten the exact layout of the castle—it’s been remodelled since they were gone, spell-damage has taken its toll on his/her memory, there’s a creepy enchantment on the castle that makes it confusing, etc. This will explain why the players don’t already know where everything is even though they live there. (The actual layout of the castle needn’t be terribly complex, just big, it can be from an off-the-shelf module. The important thing is running into the villains and NPCs.)

2-The witches’ and monsters’ power levels should shift to scale with the original number and power level of the PCs.

3-If the players are members of the court then that’s x number of new NPCs you have to make up to replace them as possible suspects.

(Note: “Wolves In The Throne Room” can also actually easily be run in a pre-existing campaign: if so, the characters can just be whoever the players happen to already be running, as long as they are at a low enough level that they can’t cast some spell allowing them to easily escape the castle whenever they want or instantly find out who poisoned the lord. You can also, if it fits your campaign, tell a PC that his or her noble brother has just died and s/he was elevated to the throne his/her absence.

“Wolves In The Throne Room” can also be used to kick off a campaign—while the lord and the PCs were away, the Hunter was spreading his baleful influence and many of the city’s treasures were looted, someone needs to go get them back, etc. If so, the same rules as for the “one-shot” apply.)

Mood:

You will need very tall white candles. They should be the only light source.

You will need a picture of the Master of the Wild Hunt from Deities and Demigods—if you can’t find one, find something close in a Walt Simonson Thor comic.

You will need a throne. If one of the characters is the lord, s/he can sit in it, if not, you sit in it. Also, if one of the players is the lord, you should prepare for them a stupid and embarassing crown, preferably of cardboard and from Burger King.

When you start the game, you should actually serve a feast. (You can cook while the players generate characters.) When character generation is over, bring out the good silver, a roast beast, potatoes, wine, goblets, pumpkins, pheasants. Give slices of suckling pig to passing trick-or-treaters. Eat, drink, and be merry. Pick a certain dish on the table that you know not everyone will eat and that you know the “lord” player (if there is one) will eat, write down that it has been poisoned. Role-play all the way through the feast, then, when the players have finished eating, tell everyone who ate the cranberry sauce (or whatever) that they don’t feel so well.

When the wolf demons first appear, play the opening chords of “Raining Blood” by Slayer while telling everyone to roll initiative.

Thereafter, play “Winter” by Amebix, play anything by Wolves In The Throne Room or Burning Witch. If your players don’t like doom metal…well, this is a philosophical problem much too vast for me to properly address in a D&D adventure.

Why does this adventure represent Halloween?

Halloween is a day when we, in our technologized, rationalized modernity, recognize all that is fanciful, primal and irrational. Like the Hunter, it stands in opposition to civilization. Further, this adventure includes: pagan rituals, witches, darkness, demons, death, people in disguises, and tasty treats that are bad for you. Other than fighting The Great Pumpkin, I’m not sure how it could possibly be more Halloweeny.

5 comments:

kensan-oni said...

Congratulations to Zack, our Winner! Way to go!

In case anyone is interested, I made my entry available on my Wizards Blog here.

I hope everyone else had fun making up their stories, and feel compelled to share them with others, too!

Badelaire said...

And thanks again for submitting, Kensan!

I felt like the kid's soccer coach who wants to give every kid a trophy for playing, but sadly my bank account would probably cry at the thought.

P. S. Mangus said...

Very cool scenario. This is right up my alley, and I can see this firmly placed in the sword & sanity genre my blog promotes. Congrats and nice work!

Zak S said...

Last night I was drawing:

"I think I'm pretty good at drawing evil stuff."

Mandy: "You're pretty good at drawing lots of stuff--like you draw pretty girls, too."

"Yeah, but with the evil I don't even have to try."

Anyway, YAY

Thanks!

I'm dying to see the other entries

Zak S said...
This comment has been removed by the author.