The high vale offers pleasant views of heather waving in the breeze, slopes draped in gauzy mists, and quaint peasant huts. What sort of danger could possibly lurk behind this charming scene?
Background for the DM
The misty vale can lie within an area of rugged hills or low mountains. It's a wild and lonely place, but not too far from civilization. Shepherds use the vale for summer pasture, and the gentry from the lowlands nearby hunt in the wooded slopes above the valley floor. The valley is neither straight nor level, and one seldom can see any appreciable distance, even during a rare spell of clear weather. The ever-present veil of mist and fog is a natural phenomenon, due, perhaps, to warm winds blowing inland from the sea to mix with cooler mountain air. Or perhaps the valley and the heights surrounding it act as a natural channel that bring together gentle zephyrs from the south with colder, hasher northern breezes.
The vale has a few permanent residents, mostly hunters and woodcutters, plus a tribe of centaurs. Spring brings shepherds with their flocks, and they in turn attract the attention of some less savory visitors, including packs of dire wolves and a few ogres, all looking for easy pickings.
The PCs might simply pass through the vale on their way to somewhere else, or they might be drawn to the place for one of the following reasons.
- A druid or member of the nobility might hire the PCs to investigate rumors of poachers operating in the vale. A druid might be concerned about the overexploitation of the vale's trees and wildlife. A noble might have the same concerns, or perhaps portions of the vale or the slopes surrounding it (or both) are supposed to be the noble's private preserve and off limits to others.
- A ranger, druid, or even a paladin has vanished after visiting the vale on a mission. Perhaps the missing character was seeking out poachers, as described above, or perhaps the character was sent to deal with the monsters that threaten the place seasonally. The PCs are asked to investigate.
- Someone asks the PCs to investigate a rumor that the burial mounds in the vale had been broken into or that undead had suddenly begun haunting them. The missing NPC from the previous point might have gone to the vale to investigate the burials.
Exploring the Vale
The vale has a several features worth investigating, as noted in the boxed text below and in the sections that follow:
This winding valley looks verdant, but rugged. Dense trees and tendrils of cottony mist cover the surrounding slopes like layers of gauzy veil. The valley floor rises and falls in a series of folds and ridges. Most of these are just low hills with sides thick with grass and heather. Some of these are crowned with rows of long, low mounds with rounded tops. These mounds look as grassy as the hills where they lie.
Other raised areas have sheer stone cliffs on two or three sides, and atop a few of these stand small huts with stone walls and roofs made of thatch. Most these dwellings have surrounding walls made of loosely piled stones. The grass in these areas looks closely cropped.
Though full of bucolic charm, the vale has its secrets, too.
Burial mounds from an ancient civilization sit atop many of the highest places in the vale. Each consists of a central cairn (or several of them) made of local stones, cut to shape and fitted together without mortar. The cairns are buried in several feet of packed earth formed into smooth, regular shapes, circles, ovals, and even a few toruses (a donut shape). Native grasses grow thick and green on the mounds.
Local rumors allege that fabulous treasures are concealed within at least some of the mounds, but that all such treasures are under a terrible curse. It is said that even stepping on one of the mounds means death, especially at night. The rumors may or may not be true, but several of the mounds have undead guardians. Recently a band of grave robbers dug into one of the mounds, rousing the undead residing inside. If the PCs examine the mounds, they find one partially excavated.
Creatures (EL 5, 7, or 10): The mound builders placed undead guardians in or near the graves of their nobility. Shadows guarding the graves lie within the cairns. Guardian ghosts lurk nearby, but in the Ethereal Plane. The ghosts' bodies lie inside the cairns along with remains they're bound to protect.
Shadows (2): hp 19 each; see Monster Manual, page 221.
Ghosts (2): hp 32 each; see Monster Manual, page 117.
Greater Shadows (2): hp 58 each; see Monster Manual, page 221.
Tactics: Normally the undead lie quietly and react only if a mound is disturbed or breached. Since the attempted grave robbery, all the undead are restless. They remain out of sight by day, but stalk the hilltops at night. They attack anyone who so much as touches a mound.
A shadow's favorite tactic is to glide along the surface of a mound with its body underground and its head moving through the grass. When attacking, it simply grabs a foe's ankles. This ploy gives the shadow cover (+4 to AC) while it fights.
A ghost uses similar tactics, but they usually try to use their malevolence power once or twice before switching to corrupting touch.
About half the huts have been vacant for years. One of these contains a battered set of armor and a few shreds of bloodstained equipment. See the end of the Development section for details.
A mix of hunters, trappers, woodcutters, and shepherds occupy the rest (though the shepherds are here only during the spring and summer). As noted earlier, each hut has a surrounding wall made of unmortared stone. The walls surrounding the abandoned huts are falling apart. Not only are the elements tearing down the wall, but also the vale residents take stones to repair their own walls.
The year-round residents grow vegetables in their walled yards and also keep geese and ducks. The shepherds use their enclosure to pen their sheep at night. During the day, they drive their flocks out to graze on the vale.
Creatures (EL 4 or 6): The shepherds live and work in pairs, each with four riding dogs for herding and guarding the sheep. The year-round residents are either loners or families with a single combatant in residence at any given time. Each of these households has two riding dogs.
Shepherds (2): Male and female human expert 1/warrior 1; CR 1; Medium humanoid; HD 1d6+1 plus 1d8+1; hp 9; Init +0; Spd 30 ft.; AC 12, touch 10, flat-footed 12; Base Atk +1; Grp +2; Atk +2 melee (1d10+1, greatclub) or +1 ranged (1d8/x3, longbow); Full Atk +2 melee (1d10+1, greatclub) or +1 ranged (1d8/x3, longbow); AL N; SV Fort +3, Ref +0, Will +3; Str 13, Dex 11, Con 12, Int 10, Wis 9, Cha 8.
Skills and Feats: Climb +5, Handle Animal +3, Heal +3, Jump +4, Knowledge (nature) +4, Listen +3, Profession (herder) +3, Spot +3, Survival +3; Alertness, Iron Will.
Possessions: Leather armor, greatclub, longbow, 20 arrows, 50 feet of hemp rope, 3 tindertwigs, 5 torches, thunderstone.
Hunter, Trapper, or Woodcutter: Male or female human expert 2/warrior 1; CR 2; Medium humanoid; HD 2d6+2 plus 1d8+1; hp 14; Init +0; Spd 30 ft.; AC 12, touch 10, flat-footed 12; Base Atk +2; Grp +3; Atk +3 melee (1d12+1/x3, greataxe) or +3 ranged (1d8+1/x3, masterwork composite longbow [+1 Str bonus]); Full Atk +3 melee (1d12+1/x3, greataxe) or +3 ranged (1d8+1/x3, masterwork composite longbow [+1 Str bonus]); AL N; SV Fort +3, Ref +0, Will +3; Str 13, Dex 10, Con 12, Int 10, Wis 11, Cha 8.
Skills and Feats: Climb +6, Handle Animal +5, Heal +5, Hide +3, Knowledge (nature) +3, Listen +5, Move Silently +3, Profession (hunter, trapper, or woodcutter) +3, Ride +2, Spot +5, Survival +6, Swim +3; Athletic, Self-Sufficient, Track.
Possessions: Leather armor, greataxe, masterwork composite longbow (+1 Str bonus), 20 arrows, 50 feet of silk rope, antitoxin, 2 tindertwigs, alchemist's fire, bullseye lantern, flask of oil, tanglefoot bag, small steel mirror.
Riding Dogs (2 or 4): hp 13 each; see Monster Manual, page 272.
Tactics: These simple folk aren't looking for a fight and are willing to put up with considerable bluster from the PCs, so long as it's only verbal. If they feel they're in any real danger, they sic their dogs on the PCs and then shout for help. The nearest neighbors come running (1d3 shepherds and 1d3 hunters, trappers, or woodcutters, each with a dog). It will take each human/dog pair 1d10 rounds to arrive at the scene. The locals don't pose much of a threat to the PCs, but an unlucky group could suffer some damage.
In a fight, the dogs press the attack while the humans either drop back to make ranged attacks or maneuver into flanking positions.
Development: If the PCs are even somewhat friendly, these locals are happy to chat for a while. They can give brief descriptions of the notable areas in the vale, and they have some other information for the PCs, though not all of it is quite reliable.
- The barrow mounds? Stay away from there! Jubal's uncle Ogden plain up and died from just stepping on one! Hair turned white, heart stopped, it was awful! Or so they say, happened, oh, nigh onto forty years ago! Course, some folks a lot like you were here last summer and they just had to poke around. Dug a great big hole in one of the mounds. At least we think they did. Haven't seen hide nor hair of 'em since. Some say the wolves got 'em. I'm not so sure. What happened to all their gear? Tell me that!
The strangers succumbed to undead attacks; the PCs can find the hole they made (see the Barrows section). Later some centaurs visiting from their camp found the bodies and buried them.
- Now if you want to see something really strange, poke around the base of that cliff yonder! You'll find all sorts of old bones down there, all stone. From stone giants, I guess. There's all sorts of peculiar carvings and paintings on the rocks -- from giants working small, I guess. You'll find that stuff all around here. Watch out, though. There's caves full of nasty beasts under the cliffs.
The speaker refers to the bonefields. The warning about monsters is genuine; the rest is pure speculation (and very far off the mark).
- Then there's the old stone circle up over yonder. You can't see it through the trees. The centaurs use it as a burial ground, so we stay away from there. Oh yeah, there's centaurs about. You don't see 'em much. Sometimes they come here to trade for salt or to swap breeding stock. They run some sheep and goats in a bowl somewhere over the other side of the ridge.
This statement is accurate. If the PCs insist, they can get directions to the stone circle.
Though everyone in the vale is willing to help each other in a pinch, there is currently some bad feeling in the vale. The PCs might hear both sides:
- Now a lone rider was poking around here just a few weeks ago asking a whole lot of questions about those strangers [the vanished grave robbers] and prying into everyone's business in general. Now it's a good bet that was really somebody sent by the earl just to get a look at what's going on up here. That earl owns half a mountain over and won't let nobody hunt on it, at least not till he been out hunting on it, and nobody here's got a problem with that. We all stay out of the earl's preserve, so he's got no cause to send to send any bailiffs up here snooping, no sir. 'Course those shepherds yakked all day. Probably said we'd been poaching. How do you like that?
This statement will come only from a trapper, hunter, or woodcutter.
- Now a lone rider was poking around here just a few weeks ago, asking a whole lot of questions about those strangers and prying into everyone's business in general. Now it's a good bet that was really somebody sent by the earl just to get a look at what's going on up here. That earl owns half a mountain over there and won't let nobody graze on it, but nobody here's got a problem with that. Not worth your while to graze sheep on a wooded mountainside. We all stay out of the earl's preserve, so he's got no cause to send any bailiffs up here snooping, no sir. 'Course those squatters yakked all day. Probably said we'd been up there. Imagine that!
This statement will come only from a shepherd.
The mysterious "lone rider" might be a person the PCs are seeking. In fact, the rider spoke to almost everyone in the vale. It's up to you to decide what the NPC was doing in the vale. The character camped for the night in one of the abandoned huts and some of the local monsters attacked (see the Bonefields section). The mount fled, but the character died. The monsters devoured the corpse and shredded most of the character's equipment in the process.
The PCs won't locate this area unless they poke around a bit (or get directions from the locals). In prehistoric times, primitive hunters periodically stampeded herds of game over some of the cliffs. The stony ground at the cliff bases are still littered with ossified bones and ancient rock art.
Creatures (EL 3, 5, or 7): A few dire rats, wolves, or ogres might lurk near any of the bonefields.
Dire Rats (8): hp 5 each; see Monster Manual, page 64.
Wolves (4): hp 13 each; see Monster Manual, page 283.
Ogres (4): hp 29 each; see Monster Manual, page 199.
Tactics: The dire rats simply swarm over the PCs, trying to bite as many different characters as they can. The wolves split into two groups and try to attack the party from two sides at once. If they trip a PC, every wolf nearby attacks the prone character. The ogres pick out the strongest character and make a gang attack, hoping to cripple the party by knocking out the best fighter first.
The same people who left the ancient artwork in the vale built this monument. The circle consists of a ring of menhirs about 90 feet across with four massive boulders set outside at the cardinal points of the compass, plus one more positioned so that it lies directly below the rising sun on the summer solstice. The local centaur tribe keeps the place tidy. They use the circle for druidical ceremonies and as a landmark to fix one of their territorial boundaries.
Creatures (EL 5, 6, or 7): A small party of centaurs is encamped near the stone circle. They've been hunting and are currently busy drying over a smoky fire some of the meat they've harvested .
Centaurs (2 to 4): hp 26 each; see Monster Manual, page 32.
Tactics: The centaurs resent any intrusions into their territory, but they're polite about it. If the PCs ask permission to stay awhile, the centaurs readily grant it. (They don't really mind trespassing, but they like to be asked first.) If insulted or attacked, they demand that the PCs leave, then attack if the group doesn't comply. In battle, they pick out the most belligerent PC and gang up on that character if possible. They get in close and use their many melee attacks to wear down the foe and perhaps convince the rest of the party that fighting isn't such a good idea. A centaur reduced to 10 or fewer hit points drops out of the melee but stays nearby to use its bow.
If the PCs decide to talk, they can learn the following:
- The stone circle is an ancient astronomical observatory, not any kind of burial site.
- Some humanoids are buried near here. Some time ago a group of centaurs found four dead bodies near one of the burial mounds in the vale where the humans live. Realizing that these people didn't live in the vale, the centaurs carried the corpses into the forest and buried them. They thought about repairing the big hole these apparent grave robbers left in the mound, but thought better of it. Their tribal druid has warned them to stay away from the burial mounds.
- There was a lone human on a white horse poking round these parts not long ago. The rider asked a whole lot of questions. The rider returned to the vale after talking to the centaurs and never returned.
At your option, the centaurs might tell the PCs what kinds of questions the rider asked, and those will depend on what the NPC was doing in the area. Someone looking into poaching would have asked about activities in the vale. Someone looking into the grave robbing would have asked about the desecrated burial mound and probably also asked to see the graves where the suspected grave robbers were buried.
About the Authors
Skip Williams keeps busy with freelance projects for several different game companies and has been the Sage of Dragon Magazine since 1986. Skip is a co-designer of the D&D 3rd Edition game and the chief architect of the Monster Manual. When not devising swift and cruel deaths for player characters, Skip putters in his kitchen or garden (his borscht gets rave reviews).
Penny Williams joined the roleplaying game industry as Game Questions Expert for TSR, Inc. in the 1980s. Since then, she has served as RPGA Network Coordinator, PolyhedronNewszine editor, and Senior Editor and Coordinating Editor for the RPG R&D Department at Wizards of the Coast, Inc. Now a busy freelancer, Penny edits for several game companies and runs the online playtesting program for Wizards products. When not enhancing the cruelty of the deaths PCs will suffer at the hands of designers, Penny puts up jam, works jigsaw puzzles, and tutors students in math and science.