Given that virtually all of these adventures revolve around the kind of one-dimensional fantasy cultists I've recently been complaining about, there's not a lot of scope for the kind of socially-focused, nonviolent-solution-oriented adventures that I usually try to turn adventure paths into. Some of the material in it appeals to the horror fan in me, though, so I'm going to do what I always do. I'm going to rewrite it, de-railroad it, and then cut it to the bone. There's got to be a serviceable short horror-fantasy hexcrawl in there somewhere...
Cults of the Sundered Kingdoms: Condensed Edition
(NB: Hexes are 6 miles across.)
Setting: This adventure takes place in a distant province that no-one cares about: a region of damp, misty hills, right on the edge of the wilderness. There are only three things that most people know about the area:
- It's got a port town which should, by rights, be a backwater, but the local merchant's guild somehow manage to wring a real profit out of the place.
- The main exports are wine and precious metals, though in recent years the wine's been pretty substandard.
- It has a horrible reputation for monsters, hauntings, and heresies. Seriously, man, don't even go there. All the locals are probably cultists or something.
Everyone Hates Backstory: Thousands of years ago, a prehistoric warlord invaded this region. Unable to defeat him in battle, the holy men of the indigenous inhabitants called upon forbidden powers, sacrificing themselves to empower six obelisks with dark magic that would allow their clans to defeat the invaders. (They are located at 0101, 0104, 0108, 0302, 0501, and 0805.) It worked, but the obelisks have remained magically tainted ever since, broadcasting a low-level hum of demonic power into the surrounding area. The region has been plagued with cult activity of one kind or another ever since.
About a century ago, Lord Wynston Mathen, a crusading knight notorious for both his piety and his brutality, was granted a fief in the region in recognition of his services in some far-off holy war. Unbeknownst to him, his wife, Madrana, was secretly a witch, who bathed herself in the power of the obelisks and bore her husband not-quite human children as a result. When the knight discovered this, he killed first her, then his children, and then himself. But one child escaped the purge, hidden from his murderous father by servants loyal to his mother's coven; and their descendants still live in their old manor house today, nurturing the awful thing in the pit that their ancestress first brought there in its larval form.
As the Thing in the Pit has squirmed its way towards full maturity, its psychic emanations have harmonised with those of the obelisks, increasing their power. Cult activity in the region is on the rise. The Mathen family is getting bolder, making pacts with the ancient monsters of the forest, carrying out murders and abductions almost at will. The authorities are getting worried: social order seems to be breaking down across the region, and they don't know why. Perhaps, for a suitable fee, the PCs would be willing to investigate...?
A Quick Note on Cults: Even though the villagers at 0101, the Mathen family at 0105, the monks at 0108, the cultists at 0703, and the bandits at 0805 all serve the same dark powers, the influence of the obelisks has led each of them to do this independently. They are not aware of one another's activites, and will not regard each other as natural allies if they encounter one another.
0101: Deep in these woods, in a hidden valley, an isolationist clan live in a fortified village, with one of the six obelisks standing proudly at its heart. They are descended from the original inhabitants of the region: only they still remember that the obelisks were originally enchanted in order to drive invaders from their lands, and they regard them as sacred sites. Unfortunately, countless generations spent living in the tainted magical aura of their obelisk has rendered them fearful, violent, and paranoid, suspicious and terrified of the world outside. They are currently convinced that the soldiers they killed at 0202 were just the advance forces of an invading army, and are preparing for a battle to the death.
The clan have preserved their language and culture through a brutally-enforced culture of xenophobic insularity, and will frantically resist any attempted contact from the outside world. Any outsider who does stumble across them is assumed to be a spy and executed at the foot of a great tree which stands just outside their village: the corpse is then devoured by the gigantic three-headed rook that lives in its highest branches, which the villagers regard with reverence. So total is their isolationism that the other inhabitants of the region don't even know they're here, attributing their occasional victims to bandits or spiteful fairies. Anyone caught in the traps at 0102 or 0201 will be brought here for questioning and execution. If the tribe's elders feel their world is ending - either because they're threatened with annihilation or because someone might actually bring them into contact with the outside world, which they regard as pretty much the same thing - they will awaken the toad-dragon at 0301.
0102: These densely-forested hills are littered with pits, snares, and deadfall traps, built by the villagers at 0101 both to supply them with game and to keep intruders away from their hidden village. Hunters from the tribe check the traps regularly to see who or what has fallen into them.
0103: These misty hills are home to a wretched band of mutants, abandoned by their creators. Formerly local miners or farmers, they were abducted by minions of the Mathen family, dragged down to their hidden laboratory at 0203, surgically altered, and then released into the hills when the results proved disappointing. Driven quite mad by a combination of trauma, dark magic, and brain damage, they now lope across the hillsides, alternately raging and weeping. They react to outsiders with fear and hostility, and are quick to resort to violence; but with time and care at least some of them could probably be restored to something like their old selves, albeit with more insect parts than they used to have. They will react with hysterical fear if brought anywhere near the mine at 0203.
0104: In a remote, mist-shrouded valley lies a hidden cave; in the depths of that cave lies a deep, dark pit, and at the bottom of that pit stands an obelisk, which was dragged in there during some now-forgotten time of trouble centuries ago. When Madrana first came to these lands with her oblivious husband, she recognised this obelisk's power, and placed within the pit a larval horror that she had brought from her far-off homeland; now, nourished by the obelisk's dark energies and a century's worth of sacrifices, the Thing in the Pit has become a huge, gibbering monster, covered in innumerable eyes, mouths, and bladed tendrils. It is the true 'father' of Miya and Marko (see 0105), and the Mathen family come to the cave regularly to worship the dark powers in secret and make offerings to the Thing in the Pit. It is the psychic emanations of the Thing, vibrating through the magical harmonies of the obelisk network, which has amplified their evil influence upon the region. If the Thing was killed, then the effects of the remaining obelisks would be greatly reduced.
0105: In this isolated hilltop manor-house live the Mathen family: Milo, his wife Mimi, his sister Mildridge, and Mimi's children Miya and Marko. (They are not Milo's children, though he pretends they are: their true father was the Thing in the Pit.) On the surface, they look like harmless minor nobility; their children seem sweet and innocent, and their servants are very good at pretending to be dim and amiable yokels. In fact, none of this is true. Milo, Mimi, and Mildridge are all accomplished dark magicians, the servants are murderously-committed cultists, and Miya and Marko aren't even properly human: their small bodies are inhumanly resilient, they are capable of singing songs which warp the minds of those who hear them, and they are unnervingly capable wielders of carving knives and meat cleavers. (Milo also conceals a squirming mass of six paralysing tentacles beneath his clothes.) Family and servants alike have been born and raised within the witch-cult Madrana founded, and are extremely hardened to violence.
The Mathens believe that this is their big moment: the Thing in the Pit is growing to epic proportions, Mimi's horde of carrion moths (see 0302) is multiplying rapidly, and the magical vibrations from the obelisks are getting stronger than ever. Emboldened by the social breakdown across the region, they have made an alliance with the giants at 0402 and seized the mine at 0203, planning to turn it into a monster-factory. Their problem is that they're making all this up as they go along: when Wynston Mathen killed Madrana and her children, the knowledge of her original plan for the Thing and the obelisks died with her, and now they're just guessing that 'kill lots of people and make lots of monsters' is the kind of thing she'd approve of. They dream of ruling the land as terrible kings and queens, but have only vague and impractical ideas about how to bring this about.
The Mathen mansion is extremely dangerous, with mutated humans and animals locked in the outbuildings, and several generations worth of undead ancestors thumping around in the attic. There's also a network of secret passages hidden within the walls, complete with concealed peepholes for surreptitious spying: for most people these narrow crawlways can only be moved through slowly, but Miya and Marko delight in running through them at high speed, and have rigged up spring-loaded blade traps at strategic points in case anyone tries to follow them. The laboratories at the top of the house contain some unfinished mutants who the family are currently 'improving' in their spare time. These pitiful creatures are half-mad with trauma, but will happily aid any attempt to destroy their tormentors.
0106: On a lonely hillside stands a crumbling stone mausoleum containing the remains of Wynston Mathen, who was interred here after his suicide. Its doors are firmly locked, barred, and chained, supposedly to keep thieves out, but actually to keep the ghost of Wynston in: he is furious at the survival of his tainted family, and still hungers for their destruction. If the mausoleum is opened, his spirit will howl curses upon his descendants, and demand that the PCs swear a sacred oath to exterminate them: if they agree, then he will permit them to borrow the enchanted sword and armour he bore when crusading (which were buried with him), but if they refuse then he will resort to spirit possession. He is potentially a powerful ally, but he is just as violent and intolerant as he was in life, and insists that all problems can be solved with sufficient amounts of prayer, fire, and mass murder.
0108: In this desolate moorland stands an ancient abbey, the only manmade structure for miles around. For centuries it has been home to a contemplative religious order, who cast down the ancient pagan stones on this site and then built the abbey on top of them as a sign of the victory of their faith. As the psychic emanations of the Thing in the Pit have intensified, the order has been corrupted by the magical vibrations of the obelisk which now lies at the bottom of their well, and have degenerated into an awful parody of their previous selves. Now they enforce their vows of silence by sewing shut the lips of their novices, and kidnap travellers on the moors, either for forcible initiation or for ritual drowning within the well. Some of the victims thus drowned rise again as ever-dripping zombies, with purple lips and bluish, shivering skin: the monks conceal them beneath hooded robes and use them for manual labour.
The increasingly-crazed abbot has invited two special guests into the abbey. One appears to be a woman, but is in fact some kind of horrible flayed thing wearing a woman's skin: it handles all the tailoring work, including the sewing shut of novices' lips. The other are a family of pale, dwarfish creatures who perpetually mutter to themselves as they cook for the brothers (mostly thin gruel, suitable for pouring into the corners of stitched-shut mouths): their muttering clouds the minds of those who hear it, making coherent thought virtually impossible whenever three or more of them are in the same place, and they carry cruel concealed blades. If the obelisk was destroyed then the well would lose its power to reanimate the dead.
0201: More traps laid by the villagers at 0101 - see 0102.
0202: A battlefield. When stories of monsters in the hills reached the town at 0703, the local authorities sent out a column of soldiers to investigate: they got this far before being ambushed and slaughtered by the villagers from 0101. Now most are moldering in shallow graves: the survivors were dragged off for interrogation and execution at the village. Faint trails lead away to the north.
0203: This mine was a crucial part of the local economy until recently, when the increasingly emboldened Mathen family decided to seize it for themselves. Their mutant monsters swiftly killed or captured the miners, and Mildridge Mathen has set up a hidden laboratory in the depths of the mine, where she is experimenting with transforming her captives into monstrous minions using a combination of surgery and black magic. (The rejected cast-offs from this process can be found at 0103.) Now the mine appears empty and abandoned, but in fact creeping, black-skinned monsters loyal to Mildridge crawl silently along the ceilings, reaching down with their long, long arms to strangle intruders in the dark. Mildridge herself can usually be found working in the laboratory, grafting tentacles onto her luckless victims.
0204: The people of this mining village are in a state of panic: monsters have been sighted in the hills, people have been disappearing from the outlying farms, all the workers from the mine at 0203 have vanished, and the the soldiers who marched off into the mists to deal with the problem were never heard from again. (They were slaughtered at 0202.) Many of the residents have already fled. People speculate wildly that the ghost of Mad Lord Wyston, who slaughtered his family so many years ago, has escaped from his tomb at 0106 and brought an army of devils from hell to destroy them all. If the giants at 0402 are not stopped, it is only a matter of time before they stomp down to the village and level the place, eating all the people and livestock they can catch in the process.
0207: A funeral procession of hooded monks walk along the road towards the abbey at 0108, singing dolefully and carrying a chained coffin. The monk at the head of the procession carries a bell, whose mournful tolling can be heard from a great distance: he is the only one who will speak, informing anyone who asks that his brothers are under vows of silence, and that the coffin contains the corpse of a pious man whose last request was to be buried in the abbey churchyard. Attentive PCs will notice the coffin keeps moving slightly, as the (live, but bound and gagged) man inside it struggles to escape. The monks plan to carry the man to the abbey, where they will lower the coffin into the well, drowning its occupant and potentially raising him as an undead servitor.
0208: These pathless moors are inhabited by a few wandering lunatics in threadbare robes, escapees from the abbey at 0108. Their scarred lips bear witness to their status as ex-initiates, and if questioned they moan and whimper about needles, locked coffins, and something dreadful in the well.0301: In a half-flooded cave in these wooded hills lives an ancient bat-winged toad-dragon, slumbering the centuries away in a pool of mud and slime. The only people who know of its existence are the villagers at 0101, who regard it as the last line of defence between themselves and the outside world, to be awoken only in times of dire emergency. If disturbed, it will ravage the surrounding countryside in a grumpy croaking rage before retreating to its cavern to sleep once more.
0302: Another of the obelisks once stood here, but it toppled centuries ago and has been overgrown and forgotten by the world. It was recently rediscovered by the Mathen family, and Mimi Mathen has been deliberately channeling its power into a nearby cave system in order to mutate the large moths that live there into huge, carrion-eating horrors whose wings emit a mesmeric drone that reduce all who hear it to imbecility. These moths now infest the hills around the obelisk, and Mimi, who regards them as her pets, visits them regularly.
0306: This impoverished moorland village is mostly devoted to sheep-farming. Its people are a superstitious breed, who mutter darkly about strange and evil goings-on out on the moors at night. They know there's something odd about the monks at 0108, but selling supplies to the abbey is an important part of the local economy, so they don't do much about it except warning people to be careful when travelling over the moors.
0402: A gang of mutant giants camping in a valley. These brutish creatures, their minds and bodies warped by the influence of the dark powers they worship, usually dwell much deeper in the wilderness, but the Mathen family has enlisted them as allies and now they are raiding the surrounding countryside. They're bold enough when terrorising peasants, but have no intention of risking their lives and will flee from serious opposition. They're currently waiting for one of their number to return from his foraging expedition to 0403.
0403: This farmhouse is currently under attack from one of the mutant giants from 0402, who is trying to steal livestock for their dinner. If the PCs try to intervene he will throw living sheep, goats, and members of the farmer's family at them as improvised missile weapons in an attempt to scare them away. If this proves ineffectual he will flee towards the camp at 0402.
0407: Formerly the best vineyards in the province, these fields have been warped by the effects of the cursed water from 0408. Now the grapes grow huge and disturbingly blood-coloured, and anyone eating too many of them will experience first rages, then madness, then mutations, just like the unfortunate guests at 0408. (Drinking wine made from them would be even worse.) Monstrous mutant rats infest the fields, gorging themselves on the tainted grapes and anything else unfortunate enough to wander into their territory.
0408: This large and luxurious manor house was built by Arvath Morrick, a winemaker and amateur alchemist, who grew rich on the profits of his vineyards at 0407. Five years ago, he held a grand feast to celebrate the marriage of his daughter, Larissa - but when he failed to invite his long-term rival Kyran Eldoran, who had once hoped to marry Larissa himself, the embittered man decided to curse the whole wedding party. A dabbler in the arcane arts in his youth, Kynan hacked a large chunk off the obelisk at 0805 many years ago, planning to study it further when he got the time. When he heard about the wedding, he decided to amplify its rage-inducing powers and then bribe a servant to throw it into the fountain which provided the manor with its drinking water, hoping that it would cause so much fighting and aggression that the wedding would be ruined (and maybe even called off).
Unfortunately for Arvath and his guests, what Kynan had actually achieved was less a controlled amplification than a drastic short-circuit, which simply resulted in the entire store of magical energy within the rock being transferred into the water. The food and drink at the wedding feast turned most of the guests into mindless, feral beasts, who began attacking people and animals at random. Arvath barricaded himself and Larissa into his study, gave her a dose of a potion to place her in an alchemically-induced state of suspended animation to delay the effects of the water she'd already drunk, and then killed himself before the madness seized him. Ever since, the Morrick manor and its grounds have been roamed by feral monsters that were once the wedding guests, who hunt in howling packs and live off grapes and rat-meat from the vineyards at 0407.
If the rock was removed from the fountain, then the curse would end - but the fountain is dangerous to approach, as the clouds of water vapour it emits contain so much magical energy that they gather into animate, semi-sentient clouds of poisonous mist, and try to pour themselves down the noses and throats of any who approach, thus perpetuating the curse. The manor house is full of valuable objects (albeit mostly thoroughly vandalised by the now-feral guests), and if Larissa was removed and restored from her alchemical sleep, her surviving relatives in the town at 0703 would pay a handsome reward for her recovery.
0501: Deep in these woods stands an ancient tower of bone, the home of the demon revered by the cultists at 0703. Its doors have remained shut ever since its master was summoned away, and only powerful magic will now permit entry. Within, undead guardians and servitors wait endlessly for his return, empowered by the obelisk which stands in the tower's basement. If the demon's binding is broken (by breaking the crystal skull at 0703), then it will return here at once: the tower's doors will fly open, and it will begin preying once more upon the people of the surrounding area.
0507: This village is devoted to grape growing and wine-making, although its fortunes have been in decline ever since the loss of the best vineyards to the curse of Morrick Manor. (See 0407 and 0408.) Many of the village's leading citizens were guests at the Larissa Morrick's wedding when the curse took effect: their relatives are desperate to find a way of rescuing them from the cursed manor and restoring them from their beast-like state, but everyone who's tried to retrieve them has ended up falling victim to either the guests or the mists. Kynan Eldoran, the man responsible for the curse, lives in a large house just outside the village: horrified by the consequences of his deed, he has burned all his magical books and now lives on as a wretched, broken man. If he learned that Larissa was still alive, he would do everything in his power to save her. If the villagers discovered he was responsible for the curse, they would lynch him on the spot.
0604: The bandits from 0805 attacked some travelling traders here, murdering them and stealing their horses and wagons. Now a pack of wolves (actually transformed bandits) are busy devouring the half-eaten corpses scattered across the road, and will react with uncharacteristic savagery if disturbed. Cart tracks lead away into the woods to the south-east.
0703: This town is a surprisingly prosperous-looking place, with many fine public buildings and a quay and harbour which would not look out of place in a city twice its size. Almost all the wealth of the community is concentrated in the monopolistic hands of the local trade guild, the Merchant Venturers, who defuse resentment at their success by making regular lavish donations to the public good. In fact, the upper ranks of the Venturers are all part of a secret cult, which summoned and bound the demon from 0501 generations ago using an enchanted crystal skull: now they keep it locked in a shrine / prison beneath their guildhouse, and force it to grant them skill in persuasion and success in business in exchange for annual human sacrifices. When attending cult meetings, they wear plain white masks and deep purple robes. The time for their annual offering is approaching fast, and they're eagerly looking around for people who probably won't be missed - the more of them the better!
The demon (which looks like a gigantic blue-furred apeman with a snaggle-toothed mouth too wide for its head) deeply resents its captivity, and longs to return to its tower of bone. If anyone breaks into its shrine, it will start melodramatically declaiming things like 'Stop them, you fools, before they have a chance to break the crystal skull!', in the hope that the intruders will do just that. If the skull is broken it will instantly abandon its cultists and teleport back to 0501. Without its assistance, the Merchant Venturers will swiftly decline to just being a minor-league provincial trade association, taking most of the local economy with them in the process.
Concluding the Adventure: Killing the Thing in the Pit will cause the psychic emanations of the obelisks to gradually decline to their normal levels; the people who live near them will still tend to be strange, paranoid, and violent, but not to their current monstrous levels. Damaging the obelisks will reduce their effects further, but not end them - even if smashed to rubble, they will continue to broadcast low-level psychic emanations. Grinding them to gravel and scattering them across large areas would probably reduce their effects to barely-noticeable levels, though.