Friday, 17 April 2015

Unlikely inspirations, episode 1

In this sporadic series, I'll present some plot ideas drawn from unusual sources. I'll aim for something that's a usable kernel rather than a mere scrap, but equally it's not going to be a fully-fleshed out plot - I generally won't be doing that unless I'm using it for a game of my own, in which case, you'll get to see it afterwards.

The general idea is that I'll throw out the gist of a scenario (in a fairly general sense of 'scenario'), and challenge readers to identify the source of the idea before I reveal it. If I'm feeling particularly strong, I might even offer interpretations for more than one game.

With that out of the way, let's proceed to our starter for ten...

The Fires of Wrath

Dungeons and Dragons seed

This is written with my own campaign world in mind. The Thousand Citadels are the archipelago serving as homeland for myriad dwarven clans in my campaign world. Breng and Perag are nearby human territories. Adapt as appropriate.

As the party approaches a sizeable settlement in a large valley of Breng, Perag or some other human territory, they see smoke billowing and distant flame. Alarm horns howl and bells ring to summon citizens to battle the fires. Should the party investigate, they discover a sudden and massive fire has torn through the town. Moreover, there have been several such incidents in recent days, in two nearby towns and even further afield. Witnesses report seeing creatures of living flame, and a sinister hooded figure skulking in the shadows. To add to their troubles, malevolent spirits have begun emerging from dark corners to terrifying and hunt the townspeople.

GM's summary

A supposed pilgrim and devotee of Moradin gained the trust of the temple at Karak-a-Thuzzar, devoted to Moradin’s aspect of the Forger of Life. Betraying that trust, the pilgrim stole a holy artefact and fled, taking refuge beyond the Thousand Citadels. In accordance with dwarven ways, a priest of the temple took up the vow of the Grudgebearer, sworn to seek out the fugitive wherever they might hid and bring them to justice. The pilgrim, pursued, flees ever further into human lands, battling the Grudgebearer whenever they meet. The flame magic unleashed in their battles wreaks havoc on settlements and leaves a sinister reputation for a hooded, sullen dwarf who is apparently stalking through the land, regularly seen around the scene of devastating fires...

The Shadowy Dwarf

The Grudgebearer is a priest of Moradin tasked with bringing the fugitive to justice. The betrayal, misjudgement and loss of face bring unthinkable shame to the temple, and they will avoid speaking of it unless compelled to do so. They try to remain discreet, but blending in isn’t the easiest task in human territory, especially for a dwarf with an eyepatch. Beneath the patch is a glass sphere bearing the holy symbol of Moradin, from which they can unleash righteous wrath. Their walking cane is a magic item that transforms on command into a gleaming sword. They are a formidable adversary even for a group of adventurers; the temple sends no soft-bearded weakling on such an errand.

The Grudgebearer is no villain and bears no ill-will to bystanders nor adventurers, but will brook no interference with their sacred mission. They will not kill innocents, even misguided ones, and will take steps to protect them, but cheerfully slay bandits and the like. The deaths of innocents will generally be seen as further blood on the Betrayer's hands, whether victims of fires or anyone the Grudgebearer is forced to kill in self-defence during their mission. They will deny accusations of wrongdoing, and will resist arrest rather than accept delay, but death would mean failure.

They will grudgingly divulge some very general outlines of the situation if brought to that point. Most likely, they will only admit that they are pursuing a dangerous fugitive from dwarven lands, and that one is responsible for the fires. A dwarf or priest of Moradin stands a better chance of learning a few details, including the nature of the shame. The Grudgebearer is reluctant partly for fear that someone else will capture the Betrayer, since this would make it hard to drag them back to face justice. Moreover, the Betrayer is dangerous and could easily kill a party of guards with the power they wield, so alerting the human authorities isn't necessarily a safe option either. Despite the collateral damage wrought so far, hunting the Betrayer down in person seems the safest way for all concerned.

The Grudgebearer is (both mechanically and in-world) intended to handle threats alone, and is trained in dealing with groups of enemies. Mechanically, they need the ability to fight multiple enemies at once, with defensive training and multi-target attacks. They will tend towards control rather than brute force, looking to bypass or repel lesser adversaries in order to reach the real target. They have divine powers of Moradin, fire resistance and some stealth ability. As with any potential solo adversary, they should be able to act more than once in a round, handle stun-locks and deal with the likelihood of multiple PCs unloading their most powerful abilities in one round.

Since I don't have the DMG for 5e, I actually can't build an example Grudgebearer. I'm not even sure how you build antagonists in 5e. I've seen mention that you can build PC-style NPCs, but I'm not sure that's the way to go anyway, since it becomes limiting. They need to be a suitable solo encounter that can hold their own against the PCs.

As a solo, and one that's really supposed to survive an encounter with PCs, I'd want something like this:

  • A Dwarven paladin or cleric of Moradin. The given paladin subclasses don't overwhelm me - the Vengeadin would be appropriate, except that since Grudebearer already has a solemnly-sworn enemy, they really shouldn't be discarding that to focus on the PCs who just happen to be in the way. Cleric or cleric/fighter seems better.
  • Extremely tough, and self-heals. Make sure they surrender before being killed, if the party have the upper hand.
  • Casts sacred flame, guiding bolt and similar spells through the eye-symbol.
  • Able to tackle multiple targets at once.
  • Able to manipulate and control PCs, with things like knockdowns, swapping places, dazes and other options that give the solo a way to avoid being dogpiled.
  • Able to minimise or fend off the effects of stunlocks for the same reason.

Attack options are the big thing where 5e seems much, much weaker than 4e at first glance. I know positioning is supposed to be less crucial in 5e, but 4e really lent itself to making area attacks, move enemies around and otherwise causing inconvenience. Maybe the DMG has more options for customising powers..?

The Betrayer

The villain of the piece stole an artefact that bestows elemental power, allowing the Betrayer to summon and command creatures of flame. Single-minded in their mission, they did not expect such dogged pursuit. Attempting to hide amongst humans, they have disguised themselves as best as possible, even shaving away any vestige of a beard and adopting the guise of a stocky human merchant. When the Grudebearer discovers them, they fight desperately to escape, summoning fiery elementals to distract the hunter while they flee for safety. They are not much of a warrior, but have magical and thievish abilities that make them pretty formidable.

The Betrayer is only a moderate fighter, but good at mobility and survival, evading attacks and breaking free of dangerous situations. They have a broad set of magical powers, and are talented in hiding and escaping. They are fireproof, can readily summon fire elementals and related elemental creatures to defend them. As with any potential solo adversary, they should be able to act more than once in a round, handle stun-locks and deal with the likelihood of multiple PCs unloading their most powerful abilities in one round.

The nature of the mission is undetermined. The Betrayer may be a lone scoundrel or obsessive, the unwitting pawn of powerful forces, or the lackey of another power bloc. There are many groups who would like to undermine Moradin, to gain a powerful artefact of fire, or to destabilise the dwarves. Some might even launch the whole mission for the sake of the chaos it is bringing to the human lands.

See above. The Betrayer should play very differently to the Grudgebearer. They are evasive and hard to get to grips with. Rather than fighting off multiple enemies, they control a number of conjured creatures and use these skilfully to keep out of trouble.

The Moths

The presence of these powerful individuals, the artefact, and the powers being unleashed conspire to cause additional problems for the citizenry. Malevolent or destructive entities are drawn to them, and pose a risk to innocent bystanders.

This will be a campaign-world decision. In my setting, monsters reflect the local culture and its real-world inspiration to a considerable extent. I have a bastardized Classical Europe analogue where some games took place, and this plus some bastardized early psychology very loosely informs my interpretation of demons.* Basically, I decided they are physical manifestations of things like emotions and thoughts. As such, it makes sense to have them conjured up (or drawn in) by the combination of a magical artefact and a scared populace. This also allows me to blend in my Warhammer demon conversions. Another campaign might prefer to use more standard demons, elementals or some form of undead.

* I have never really thought any of the demon models in D&D cosmology make sense, but then the whole souls/reincarnation/resurrection/demons/planes thing kind of makes my head hurt.

The Moths are not especially dangerous; they are unintelligent and have no coordination. Rather than an army, or even a bandit gang, they are essentially a scattering of monsters much like wild animals. They certainly pose a threat to the locals, travellers, livestock and so on. Given time, local militias and determined citizens are capable of dealing with them, much like any wandering predator. Nevertheless, the party would certainly be a big help.

World of Darkness seed

The papers and TV news report more fatal fires, the latest in a series to have swept the town. First blamed on electrical faults, then carelessness, the evidence points increasingly to a dangerous gang of arsonists. Meanwhile, urban legends of creatures lurking underground grow more vociferous. Something is badly wrong. To anyone with a finger on the supernatural pulse, several of the locations destroyed by fires were places of some power. Rumours of attacks on those venturing below ground show alarming hints of plausibility. There are always rumours of things in the sewers, but recently maintenance teams have been attacked, and there are odd sightings late at night by passengers and workers on the underground. Now a handful of minor supernaturals have gone missing - or worse. A powerful presence is at work in this town, and fire comes in its wake.

Storyteller's summary

An entity known only as the Man of Smoke and Embers has come to the town, and its presence underlies all these sinister events. Smoke's precise purpose and nature will depend on the nature of the campaign and which content is included. Smoke has traced the location of a nexus of power beneath the city: this might be a piece of Infrastructure, a nexus of ley lines, a gate to a spirit realm, a hidden cache of magical energies, or whatever else seems appropriate. I designed this version using Demon: the Descent, which I actually own, so there's some natural bias here.

For whatever reason of its own, Smoke has begun tapping this power, unleashing havoc. Unwholesome creatures have been loosed upon the city, lurking in its dark places and beginning to prey upon the populace. Using its new-found resources, Smoke is destroying or destabilising places of power within the city. Other entities oppose its actions, and their confrontations have spiralled into yet more devastating fires.

In Demon: the Descent. Smoke is a demon. It has gained access to substantial Infrastructure beneath the city, and is tapping its power to fuel its plans. Smoke has been creating significant numbers of cryptids, or at least carelessly allowing them to form through contact with the Infrastructure. These are the creatures seen by those venturing underground. Smoke is using aether sapped from the Infrastructure to destroy lesser locations, as part of a long-term plan against the God-Machine. Its opponents have been a rival demons, angels, or mortal hunters of the supernatural. Though its plans might be selfish or well-meaning, Smoke has little concern for individual humans. It has no compunction about killing off humans who get in the way, let alone those that confront it.

I don't have the other books, so I don't have enough information to craft adaptations for every setting. Also, that would take forever. A Storyteller who wants to use a particular game should be able to manage that much. Smoke can be a mage bent on tapping into some power-source for experiments, or a strange promethean, if necessary. That being said, exactly what Smoke is is the least important issue - it can probably be used as-is for more or less any game. It's more important to adjust the trappings, such as the metaphysical explanation for what's going on, and the nature of the tunnel-lurkers.

The Man of Smoke and Embers

The Man of Smoke and Embers is a Descent Demon - or perhaps an angel. When he chooses to adopt his inhuman form, which is fairly often, one eye becomes a gun while his forearms become curving mirror-like blades. His demonic form is a jigsaw of red-hot metal and glass, constantly trailing ash and sparks from the cracks between them as he moves. As an NPC, maintaining cover isn't a major concern.

Presence 1, Manipulation 4, Composure 1
Intelligence 1, Wits 5, Resolve 1
Strength 3, Dexterity 3, Stamina 2

Stealth 4, Brawl 3, Firearms 2, Athletics 2
Expression 3, Intimidation 2, Subterfuge 2
Science 4

Embeds and Exploits: Combustion (Wits + Sci), Diversion (Man + Exp), Never Here (Man + Ste), Incendiary (Str + Sci)

Demonic Form: Blade Hand, Rivet Arm (Eye), EMP Field, Night Vision, Fire Resistance, Glory and Terror, Plasma Drive, Rain of Fire.

The Lurkers in the Tunnels

A number of small, verminous creatures have been transformed by the Infrastructure's power into cryptids. A few suggestions are given here, but mix it up.

Unrats have Dexterity 5, Intelligence 3, and Size 3. They gain Variable Form transformations into tangles of metal shards when threatened. Instead of squeaks, they make static-like crackling noises and can communicate a little more effectively than normal. They have highly elastic bodies that stretch revoltingly and can ooze slowly through cracks.

Uncats have lost all Intelligence and behave as through programmed. They become Size 4, Strength 4 and Intelligence 0. Their Composure and Resolve become 5. They gain Alternate Composition of copper wire for Armour 1/1. They gain Aether Eater and are immune to electricity, conducting it safely away.

Unbeetles have Presence 4 and Intimidation 5, Size 6, Strenth and Dex 2, Intelligence 3 and Wits 4. Their bodies twist, allowing them to walk upright and hunched like an ape. Their delicate gossamer wings allow them to fly rapidly. Their mandibles are Bite Lethal 2. They are fairly shy, and fight mostly when cornered or alarmed, but are attracted to sweetness and ozone. They gain Stealth 3 and Brawl 3.

The hunters

A small group of supernatural-hunters are working against Smoke. They might be locals if the PCs are new arrivals, otherwise assume they followed the creature from out of town. They probably began by hunting down the cryptids, but soon learned of Smoke's presence and began trying to stop its activities.

They are largely mortal, though tough, but may have limited supernatural abilities. Unfortunately, they are more a loose association of individuals than a team. In two previous confrontations, only pairs or threes of members have encountered Smoke, and they were no match for it - three were killed and two badly injured. The hunters should be a potential asset to the PCs, but can't simply do the job for them.

The solution is below. Placed your bets?

Sirens are screaming and fires are howling way down in the valley tonight.
There’s a man in the shadows with a gun in his eye, and a blade shining oh so bright.
There’s evil in the air and thunder in the sky and a killer’s on the bloodshot streets.
And down in the tunnel where the deadly are rising I swear I saw a young boy down in the gutter who was starting to foam in the heat...

Bat out of Hell, by Meat Loaf.