Ready for tonight's game? This month, we brave the perils of fire and sand with Sandstorm, the latest core D&D sourcebook. This tome follows the path first trod by Frostburn, its rather chillier cousin. Sandstorm explores how to add elements of "the waste" -- a term for an environment characterized by heat, dryness, sand, and dust -- to your game, whether as an ongoing shift to desert-based adventuring or even as a taste of such a barren place. This column focuses on the last lonely remnants of a once-powerful race, the marru, and their newfound genocidal mission, which brings them out of the desert and into the lives of the player characters.
What You Need to Read
Though this encounter is pretty uncomplicated, you should check out these sections to prep for the session.
- Read the monster descriptions for the three varieties of marruspawn used in this encounter -- the marrulurk, marrusault, and marrutact (pages 168-172).
- Familiarize yourself with the new spells suggested for use by the marrutact (sunstroke on page 123, desiccate on page 114, and body blaze on page 112).
- Two of the suggested new spells use new rules from the book (heatstroke and dehydration); these are detailed on pages 13 and 15, respectively. If you don't use the spells, you won't need these rules.
- One of the aspects of the setup includes speed zyme; read page 173 for details on the potionlike zymes.
Marruspawn in a Nutshell
The term "marruspawn" refers to three subraces of monstrous humanoid bred by the marru for use in warfare. Though the advanced marru have died out, their creations still lurk in forgotten corners of the world. In recent years, these jackal-headed warriors, assassins, and wizards have found a new cause: to move out from the waste and wipe out all other races not of the marru.
All marruspawn share a few common racial traits, including discriminating hearing (the auditory version of scent), low-light vision, and minor resistance to fire. Singularly suited for survival in waste environments, the marruspawn are nevertheless perfectly capable of being encountered elsewhere, thanks to their newfound mission.
Three varieties of marruspawn exist. The halfling-sized marrulurks serve as spies or assassins, with significant powers of stealth and sneak attack. The marrusault stands nearly as tall as an ogre, and it is a ferocious warrior. The human-sized marrutact is the natural leader of marruspawn, with arcane talents to bolster its intellect and aptitudes.
The Encounter (EL 9)
Bent on carrying out the proclamation of genocide against non-marru, a small party of four marruspawn has left the friendly confines of the waste with murder on the mind. The group includes two marrusaults, a marrulurk, and a marrutact. Together, these creatures bring a variety of talents to bear in combat, making them formidable indeed.
Normally, this team of marruspawn would be an EL 8 encounter; however, the ambush setup makes this significantly more deadly. It's recommended that you add 50% to the experience point reward for these creatures, which results in the EL 9 listing shown above.
As an EL 9 encounter, this marruspawn team would normally prove a challenging fight for four 7th- or 8th-level characters, a routine encounter for 9th- or 10th-level PCs, and pretty simple for characters tougher than that. If your characters are lower level, consider dropping one of the marrusaults (which reduces the EL to 8); conversely, you can add one or two marrusaults for tougher or larger PC groups. It's probably not a good idea to add more marrulurks -- despite their low individual CR, unleashing multiple death attacks on your PCs is a good way to end up with dead characters (and unhappy players). A party of 2nd- to 4th-level PCs might do well to face only a single marrulurk, without any muscle or brains to back it up.
When describing these creatures, be sure to stress their bestial appearance and the unusual, foreign style of their garb and weaponry. Though the PCs may mistake the marruspawn for gnolls or gnoll relatives, it should be clear to the PCs that these monsters "aren't from around here."
To add another waste-related element to the encounter, consider swapping out one or more of the marrutact's spells for new spells from Sandstorm. Good options include sunstroke (page 123) in place of true strike, desiccate (page 114) in place of detect thoughts, and body blaze (page 112) in place of dispel magic. If you plan to use these spells, be sure to check out the rules for heatstroke (page 13; this is caused by the sunstroke spell) and dehydration (page 15; this is caused by the desiccate spell).
This small party of marruspawn has ventured out of the waste to hunt non-marru prey, and the PCs are unlucky enough to run across their path. While this encounter works best in a setting not too far from a desert or other desiccated environment, it's perfectly reasonable to decide that these marruspawn have simply managed a prodigious journey from their original home. (Maybe they've even left a swath of unexplained killings in their wake.)
The marruspawn are most likely to be encountered on the road between settlements, since the mighty marrusaults aren't particularly well-suited to stay hidden in a town or city. This encounter assumes that the party has bedded down for the night somewhere in the wilderness -- the exact location isn't terribly significant, as long as the marruspawn have a little cover to approach the PCs' campsite.
The marruspawn wait until some or all of the PCs have dropped off to sleep. At this point, the group approaches to a distance of 80 feet. (A successful DC 19 Listen check is required to hear even the armor-clad marrusaults at this distance.) The marrutact has already cast invisibility on the marrulurk, at which point the small assassin creeps forward (Move Silently +6) until it is within 20 feet of a PC on watch. Once in place, it spends 3 rounds studying that character and then attempts to move up quietly to deliver a death attack (Fortitude DC 13 or be slain). The blade is also poisoned with Large monstrous scorpion poison (Fort DC 14; 1d4 Con/1d4 Con). Allow all PCs (even sleepers) a Listen check against the marrulurk's Move Silently check to hear it deliver the attack; sleeping characters get a -10 penalty on the check.
If the marrulurk fails to finish off the watchful PC, or if its attack alerts others, it uses its nauseating breath on its first turn of combat to give it a chance to escape from temporarily incapacitated PCs. As soon as it has moved away from the campsite, the marrusaults each drink a dose of speed zyme (which increases their speed to 40 feet; see page 173 for details on the potionlike zymes) and begin moving into position from the same direction (covering 40 feet on their first turn and reaching the camp with a single move on the next) and the marrutact scorches the camp with a fireball (5d6 points of fire damage; Reflex DC 17 half).
Once the battle has begun, the marrusaults each utter a howl of defiance (Will DC 15 or fatigued) and focus attacks on the toughest-looking PCs (fighters, barbarians, and the like), while the marrulurk uses its longbow to deliver poisoned attacks against weaker-looking characters (particularly spellcasters). The marrulurk has four poisoned arrows. Meanwhile, the marrutact stays mobile, circling around the campsite while bombarding it with spells such as magic missile and desiccate (2d6 points of desiccation damage plus dehydration; Fort 16 halves damage and negates dehydration). It can stand up to melee combat as well, particularly if it can unleash the fiery trail of body blaze or weaken opponents with sunstroke. If at least two marruspawn have taken 15 points of damage or more, the marrutact uses its howl of healing to restore 3d8+5 hit points to any marruspawn within 30 feet (or 4d8+6 if within 10 feet).
If the PCs don't react quickly and effectively to the ambush, this has the potential to be a deadly encounter. But assuming that they defeat their attackers, they can learn a number of interesting tidbits.
- The jackal-headed attackers wear garb unusual for this area. A successful DC 12 Knowledge (local) check identifies their clothing and armor as bearing the style of a nearby desert territory. The same check result can confirm that these creatures, though vaguely resembling gnolls, are not related to that race.
- Among the treasure carried by the marruspawn are a variety of bloodstained objects clearly taken from many different people (including relatively worthless items such as hairpins, boot-laces, and the like). These trophies prove the number of victims the marruspawn have claimed.
- Anyone searching the marruspawn who succeeds on a DC 15 Search check finds that the marruspawns' armor and weapons are scored and polished, as if subjected to high winds blowing sand or dust.
- Taken all together (along with the odd magics perhaps displayed by the marrutact), the PCs might reasonably determine that these creatures hail from a desert land and have come forth on some sort of murderous mission. But what exactly are these monsters, and what has sent them into the world to hunt? These mysteries are up to you, the DM, to determine. Regardless, you've just given the PCs a great excuse to head into the waste, which allows you to make use of many more of the new monsters, adventure locations, and other material from Sandstorm.
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About the Author
By day, Andy Collins works as an RPG developer in Wizards of the Coast R&D. His development credits include the Player's Handbook v.3.5, Races of Destiny, and Complete Adventurer. By night, however, he fights crime as a masked vigilante. Or does he?