Welcome to the latest installment of the eager DM's best friend. In this month's Use This Book Tonight we'll delve into a disturbing little tome called Heroes of Horror.
As its name suggests, this book is all about introducing elements of the horror genre to your D&D game. Like the previous volume in the Genre Series, Heroes of Battle, Heroes of Horror is chock full of material both for DMs looking to add a new flavor to their game as well as for players who need extra ammunition against the inevitable things that go bump in the night. If you've ever wanted to run a game inspired by the great classics of horror film and literature -- from Dracula to Evil Dead, from Halloween to The Blair Witch Project -- this is the book that'll show you how to do it.
But you needn't change your whole game to benefit from the terrifying tips and tricks contained between these covers. You easily can add just a little taste of fear to your campaign to remind the players that sometimes all the +3 swords in the world aren't enough to cope with the stuff out there that warps and corrupts mind and body alike. The adventure here is an example of exactly that.
What You Need to Read
Here's what you absolutely, positively have to read before running this encounter:
- The first sample tainted scholar prestige-class character described on page 118. Since he is the primary villain of the adventure, you need to familiarize yourself with his attack options -- some use new feats or prestige class abilities described in the book. Try to skim the rest of the prestige class entry, particularly the information on Playing a Tainted Scholar, for tips on how this NPC might act when encountered.
- The Hidden Sanctuary map on page 117. It's pretty simple: Area 1 is an average wine cellar, with a secret door (Search DC 25) disguising a spiral staircase. This leads in turn to a bare stone hallway with a dangerous guardian (see below) that stands before a wooden door. Behind that door is a meeting room, used when fellow pursuers of hidden knowledge visit Vexan to trade secrets. Finally, a steep sloping passageway ends in a typical necromancer-type laboratory, complete with "operating table" and shelves of various horrific tomes and pickled organs. And yes, Vexan sleeps on the table at night -- he's that perverted. All rooms but #4 are normally kept dark.
- Consider skimming Chapter 1: Dread Encounters for tips on how to add some appropriate flavor to the session. The sections Stand-Alone Encounters and Creating Horror are particularly useful in setting the stage for an appropriate emotional reaction from players.
A wizard named Vexan has spent too many nights delving into forbidden secrets, becoming more and more depraved along the way. Now his taint has overwhelmed what remained of his better judgment, and he lurks beneath a local tavern, preying on the guests for his foul experiments. Though he tells his victims that their deaths are all in the name of knowledge and higher learning, for some reason they're never reassured. Luckily for them, the terror doesn't usually last more than a few days.
Vexan's typical modus operandi is to spy on visitors to the inn (using alter self to take the form of a different stranger each night). When the time is right, he assaults a lone guest with a maximized ray of enfeeblement (spontaneously maximized with his blooded metamagic class feature and using his blood component class feature to increase his caster level to 8th). This ensures that the ray will reduce the victim's Strength score by a penalty of -8, which is usually enough to render the victim virtually incapable of fighting back. If needed to quiet a resisting victim, Vexan follows up with a touch of fatigue, further reducing the victim's Strength by a -2 penalty. This one-two punch reduces an average target to a helpless state, at which point he dispatches the victim and uses dimension door to retreat to his lair.
One of Vexan's more prized possessions now guards the tainted scholar's subterranean lair. A gray render zombie (as described on page 267 in the Monster Manual) stands in the middle of area 2. It attacks anything other than Vexan, fighting until destroyed. It won't pursue fleeing characters.
As written, this adventure is appropriate for four characters of levels 4 to 6. For a weaker party, you can have Vexan out gathering supplies (or even getting a victim) when the PCs investigate his lair. Also, replace the gray render zombie with another zombie from the Monster Manual, such as an ogre zombie (CR 3) or one or two troglodyte zombies (CR 1 solo or EL 2 together). For slightly tougher parties, you could add a glyph of warding with hold person cast on the floor just inside room 2 (a gift from a cleric ally of Vexan), additional guardians -- such as a spectre or greater shadow -- in room 3, and maybe a few shadows in Vexan's company. For a particularly challenging fight, have the PCs interrupt Vexan in the middle of a gathering of fellow scholars in area 3, adding one, two, or more tainted cabalists to the mix, perhaps even with undead minions of their own.
This encounter is easy to add to your game. The next time the characters visit a local inn, they're unlucky enough to choose the one that Vexan lives beneath. It might even be the inn they've been frequenting for months -- only now does the tainted scholar's dreadful plot come to light.
Vexan doesn't target any of the PCs -- he's smart enough not to pick a fight with a group of adventurers. Still, his desperation for a new test subject makes him willing to risk picking off someone else in the inn at the same time as the characters are present. This might be a fellow guest or just an unlucky local who had come in for a drink, but it's most effective if the victim is someone that the PCs have interacted with at some time. He or she need not be a friend, but the adventure will work better if the heroes recognize the NPC's absence. If this can't be arranged, instead allow one of the PCs to overhear the innkeeper complaining about a guest who disappeared without paying his bill: "The third one this month, can you believe that?" Players love a mystery, and they particularly enjoy poking their noses where they don't necessarily belong, so it shouldn't be too hard to entice them into investigating the disappearance of Vexan's latest victim.
The investigation could follow a variety of avenues, but it eventually should lead to a few tasks. Use the information below to adjudicate the search:
Asking Around: A DC 15 Gather Information check among the regulars and staff at the inn confirms that the innkeeper has started demanding gold up front for all meals and rooms. The same result confirms that the last time anyone saw the individual in question was last night (either heading back up to his room or leaving the inn, as appropriate). Should the PCs cast a wider net, they'll find that no other nearby establishments have been experiencing similar problems.
If the PCs confront the innkeeper directly, an appropriate Diplomacy, Bluff, or Intimidate check (or appropriate magic) reveals the following:
"Folks have been skipping out on bar tabs and the like, and I'm tired of being left holding the bag."
In fact, the half-dozen confirmed "disappearances" in the last three months are only the tip of the iceberg -- Vexan has nabbed more than a dozen victims during that period. He is hesitant to let the PCs search through the whole place, but he won't put up much of a fight (particularly if they start suggesting that foul play might be going on -- he doesn't want any problems with the law).
A DC 20 Gather Information check also reveals that the serving wenches have been complaining about the "dead rat" smell in the wine cellar lately. This is actually the stench of the rotting zombie one floor down, which has begun to permeate the cellar. Any PCs venturing down there will note the scent automatically if aware of it; otherwise it's noticeable with a DC 10 Wisdom check. Of course, no search will turn up any dead rats, though it might locate the secret door.
Searching Rooms: A search of any of the missing guests' rooms will turn up no left-behind possessions or the like -- Vexan took all those with him. Any of the inn staff can confirm that these rooms were discovered empty, but still locked from the inside. (Vexan uses dimension door to come and go.) A DC 20 Search check of any of these rooms finds a few drops of blood near each bed in question -- the only sign of the violent death of the guest who once lived here -- but no trail to be followed.
Whatever the means used, the PCs eventually discover the hidden staircase and head down into the darkness. Be sure to stress the sensory components of this place -- the smell (even taste) of blood and rot, the still air, the utter quiet (until an attack is sprung), and so on. Turn down the lights a bit, maybe put on some eerie music (personally, I like Bram Stoker's Dracula or the first few tracks from Aliens). Be slow and methodical in your delivery (again, until a fight starts). Your goal is to make the players feel like this dank hole is somehow different than all the others they've explored before now.
When discovered, Vexan puts up a fight at first, since he hates to lose this prime laboratory space and hunting ground. Despite his evident symptoms of physical corruption (easily winded and suffering from joint pain), he's quite capable of unleashing significant damage on the PCs. He prefers scorching ray (spending 1 hit point to raise the CL to 8th to add a second ray and spending 2 points of Con to empower it) and either fireball and lightning bolt (again spending 1 hit point to add 1d6 to the spell's damage), depending on who's standing where. The first two damage-dealing spells he casts will also be debilitating, which deals 4 points of Wisdom damage or 2 points of Constitution damage to one target of the spell (see the Debilitating Spell feat on page 120). With warning, he casts blur on himself. If outmatched, he doesn't hesitate to use dimension door (or invisibility and expeditious retreat) to flee rather than face capture or death. Any other tainted scholars encountered use similar tactics, though they avoid using area spells if those would catch their allies as well.
Vexan could escape the PCs' justice, at least for now. Unless the characters really made an impression, the tainted scholar isn't likely to seek them out for revenge, though he certainly holds a grudge. He could make quite a gruesome recurring villain, as his taint continues to affect his mind in unspeakable ways.
Even if Vexan perishes here, he probably has powerful allies who eventually come looking for him. Other wizards, clerics, dread necromancers, tainted scholars, and similar characters could plague the PCs for a long time to come. Thavik of Donegan, the other sample tainted scholar, is an example of the top end of such allies (and shouldn't be used against the PCs for several levels unless you're looking to make enemies of your players).
It's pretty obvious to anyone looking around the laboratory that this place has been used for some grisly experiments. Thumbing through the well-used books reveals a collection of particularly damnable research and theories. A Knowledge (arcana) check can reveal information about their owner as described under "Tainted Scholar Lore" on page 117.
Exactly where this adventure leads, though, is up to you. Assuming your players enjoyed their brief walk on the horrible side, Heroes of Horror holds plenty more disturbing mysteries for them to explore -- if they dare!
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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 Eberron, and Dungeon Master's Guide II. By night, however, he fights crime as a masked vigilante. Or does he?