Vicious Venues03/19/2004

The Blasted Heath

In a barren wasteland where the cold wind blows over rolling ground, unhindered by wall, tree, or hill, nothing but sickly grass grows in the sandy soil. One hears little here, except the moaning wind and the plaintive calls of unseen birds. Surely bold adventurers have nothing to fear in this empty place -- or do they?

Background for the DM

The heath is best located near a settled area, but make it some distance from any large towns or cities. The area might be barren from a combination of harsh winds and poor soil. Or, perhaps, the heath was once verdant farmland laid waste in the dim past by a rampaging dragon or other fearsome monster.

Today, no one lives on the heath save for a covey of hags who pose as three wise women. They claim to find lost items, mix love potions, tell fortunes, and provide other magical services for those determined enough to make the journey to their decrepit cottage. The hags can provide many of these services legitimately, thanks to their covey abilities. Mostly, however, these businesses simply provide a smokescreen that allows the hags to keep tabs on the communities that border the heath and serves as a lure that brings them a steady supply of victims.

Rumor has it that evil fey (or evil undead, depending on who is telling the tale) hunt on the heath, ensnaring any mortals they find. The hags started these rumors to account for the steady disappearances among their customers. Local superstitions and gossip (as well as numerous victims) keep them going. The hags don't always wait for their victims to come to them. Occasionally, they stage a nocturnal raid on a village themselves.

Recently, a swanmay named Icara came to the heath to try and locate the source of the disappearances. Icara is unusual even for a swanmay, and her presence hasn't ended the unease the locals feel about the heath.

The Hags

The hag covey consists of three greenhags. They dwell in a sod hut built into a low hill near the center of the heath. The hags use their disguise self abilities to appear as three half-elf sisters: one old, one middle-aged, and one fairly young. They tend gardens of vegetables, flowers, and herbs. They also keep a goat and a few ducks and geese. To the casual viewer, they seem perfectly harmless.

Greenhags (3): hp 49 each; see Monster Manual, page 143.

Icara the Swanmay

Icara usually can't be seen at all, thanks to her greater invisibility ability. Creatures that actually catch a glimpse of her (with a divination spell or on occasions when she chooses to become visible) see a petite humanoid female about 3 feet tall. She has a svelte, muscular figure and bronze skin. She has little hair, but sports a natural mohawk of wiry, flame-red hair and slender, coppery spines. Slits in her studded leather armor accommodate her gossamer wings, which have an amber tint and red-gold veins. Her large eyes are yellow, with green irises and vertical pupils, like a cat's. Icara is an inveterate do-gooder, but her appearance doesn't inspire confidence, especially not in ignorant folk.

As one might guess from her description, Icara comes from differing parents; she's a half pixie, half copper dragon.

Raised by the pixies, Icara was fortunate enough to see her dragon father reasonably often, since he lived nearby. His presence and longtime association with the pixie colony kept her from feeling like an outsider, and the young half-dragon grew up with a sunny personality and a love of pranks and practical jokes unrivaled in her community.

When she grew to maturity, her unusual strength made her the ideal candidate for protecting her community against threats of all kinds. Already better with the sword than any of her companions, she took up the ranger's path and honed her already exceptional skills at archery to a level unmatched in the area. But Icara yearned for something more, and once she was reasonably certain that no foes dwelt within a two-day flight of the colony, Icara set out to explore the world on her own terms, fight evil wherever it was hidden, and have a few laughs.

Icara heard the rumors about the blasted heath and decided to check them out herself. She has her suspicions about the three weird sisters who live on the heath, but she hasn't yet caught them doing anything wrong.

Icara: Female half-pixie/half-copper dragon ranger 4/swanmay** 1; CR 7; Small dragon (augmented fey); HD 1d8+1 plus 4d8+4 plus 1d8+1; hp 33; Init +4; Spd 20 ft., fly 60 ft. (good); AC 24, touch 15, flat-footed 20; Base Atk +5; Grp +4; Atk +10 melee (1d3+3, claw) or +10 melee (1d6+3/19-20, masterwork longsword) or +12 ranged (1d6+5/x3, +2 enfeebling** composite longbow [+3 Str bonus] with +1 blessed** arrows); Full Atk +10 melee (1d3+3, 2 claws) and +5 melee (1d4+1, bite) or +10 melee (1d6+3/19-20, masterwork longsword) and +5 melee (1d4+1, bite) or +12 ranged (1d6+5/x3, +2 enfeebling** composite longbow [+3 Str bonus] with +1 blessed** arrows); SA breath weapon (60-ft. line of acid), special arrows, spell-like abilities; SQ damage reduction 10/cold iron, darkvision 60 ft., favored enemy (evil outsiders +2), greater invisibility, immunities (acid, paralysis, sleep), low-light vision, shifting 1/day, spell resistance 15, wild empathy +9; AL CG; SV Fort +8, Ref +11, Will +6; Str 16, Dex 18, Con 13, Int 18, Wis 15, Cha 18.

Skills and Feats: Bluff +8, Concentration +5, Escape Artist +8, Handle Animal +10, Heal +10, Hide +16, Knowledge (nature) +14, Listen +12, Move Silently +8, Ride +12, Search +14, Sense Motive +6, Spot +12, Survival +10; Dodge, Endurance, Rapid Shot, Sacred Vow**, Track, Vow of Purity**, Weapon Finesse.

Breath Weapon (Su): Once per day, Icara can breathe a 60-foot line of acid. Each creature in the area takes 6d8 points of acid damage (Reflex DC 11 half).

Spell-Like Abilities: 1/day -- dancing lights, detect chaos, detect evil, detect good, detect law, detect thoughts (DC 16), dispel magic, entangle (DC 15), lesser confusion (DC 15), Otto's irresistible dance (DC 22), permanent image (DC 20, visual and auditory elements only), polymorph (self only). Caster level 8th. The save DCs are Charisma-based.

Special Arrows (Ex): Icara employs arrows that deal no damage but have special effects.

Memory Loss: An opponent struck by this arrow must succeed on a DC 15 Will save or lose all memory. The save DC is Charisma-based and includes a +2 racial bonus. The subject retains skills, languages, and class abilities but forgets everything else until it receives a heal spell or memory restoration with limited wish, wish, or miracle.

Sleep: Any opponent struck by this arrow, regardless of Hit Dice, must succeed on a DC 15 Fortitude save or be affected as though by a sleep spell. The save DC is Charisma-based and includes a +2 racial bonus.

Animal Companion (Ex): Icara has a hawk animal companion.

Favored Enemy: Icara has selected evil outsiders as a favored enemy. She gains a +2 bonus on her Bluff, Listen, Sense Motive, Spot, and Survival checks when using these skills against this type of creature. She gets the same bonus on weapon damage rolls against creatures of this type.

Greater Invisibility (Su): Icara remains invisible even when she attacks. This ability is constant, but she can suppress or resume it as a free action.

Shifting (Su): Once per day, Icara can assume the form of a swan and return to her normal form. This ability is identical to the druid's wild shape ability, except that she is limited to the form of a swan.

Wild Empathy (Ex): By making a successful wild empathy check, Icara can improve the attitude of an animal as if making a Diplomacy check to improve the attitude of a person. The ability normally takes 1 minute to use, and Icara and the animal have to be able to study each other (within 30 feet under normal visibility conditions).

Ranger Spells Prepared (1; save DC 12 + spell level): 1st -- speak with animals.

Possessions:+1 wild studded leather armor, +2 enfeebling** composite longbow (+3 Str bonus), 25 +1 blessed** arrows,hellpiercer arrow**, masterwork longsword, cloak of resistance +1, oil of keen edge, 3 potions of cure light wounds, wineskin full of bright green paint, wineskin full of bright yellow paint, wineskin full of bright blue paint, 1 pound of empty sausage casings.

**From the Book of Exalted Deeds.

Raindrop: Female hawk animal companion; CR --; Tiny animal; HD 1d8; hp 4; Init +3; Spd 10 ft., fly 60 ft. (average); AC 17, touch 15, flat-footed 14; Base Atk +0; Grp -10; Atk +5 melee (1d4-2, claw); Full Atk +5 melee (1d4-2, claw); Space/Reach 2-1/2 ft./0 ft.; SQ link, low-light vision, share spells, tricks (attack, come, defend, fetch, guard, seek, and stay); AL N; SV Fort +2, Ref +5, Will +2; Str 6, Dex 17, Con 10, Int 2, Wis 14, Cha 6.

Skills and Feats: Hide +11, Spot +14; Weapon Finesse.

Link (Ex): Icara can handle Raindrop as a free action, or push her as a move action. She gains a +4 bonus on all wild empathy checks and Handle Animal checks made regarding Raindrop.

Share Spells (Ex): Spells cast by Icara can also affect Raindrop if the latter is within 5 feet for the whole duration of the spell. Additionally, Icara may cast a spell with a target of "You" on Raindrop (as a touch range spell) instead of on herself. Icara and Raindrop may share spells even if the spells normally do not affect animals.

The Setup

The PCs aren't likely to simply stumble onto the heath, though they might be drawn there for any number of reasons.

  • The party discovers a map purporting to show the location of something of interest to the group, such as a cache of treasure (perhaps from a group of bandits or a dragon slain long ago), a magical gate or portal, a stand of rare herbs or other valuable plants, the entrance to a dungeon or mausoleum, or a lost ruin. The map might be genuine, or the hags might have planted it.

  • Someone living in one of the villages near the heath has finally had enough of all the strange disappearances in the area and puts out a call for help, which somehow reaches the PCs' ears.

  • Something or someone the PCs expect to receive or to meet vanishes near the heath. Perhaps the PCs have purchased something rare or valuable, and the courier who carries it is lost (along with the item).

  • The PCs are hot on the trail of some NPC who has annoyed them in some way (or perhaps the character is an outlaw the PCs have been hired to capture), and the fugitive tries to hide somewhere on the heath.

In any case, once the PCs start asking around, they'll hear plenty of rumors and tales about the heath. All of them resemble one of the following.

  • The blasted heath owes its lifeless condition to the presence of a gateway to the unseelie realm, where all manner of evil fey dwell. The unnatural energies of the unseelie realm sap the life from the land. Even worse, the evil fey stage wild hunts over the heath. These last from dusk to dawn -- not every night, but often enough to make the heath a deadly place after dusk. Small bands of unseelie hunters stalk the heath even during daylight.

  • Three weird sisters, all wise in the arcane arts, dwell on the heath. Their magical art wards them from the effects of the unseelie fey. To souls brave enough to cross the heath the sisters offer divinations, prognostications, relief from magical afflictions, and other services.

Exploring the Heath

The heath is just an empty piece of open land, and the PCs won't find much there except for the hags.

This rolling expanse of empty land looks as dull and brown as last season's fields, though the spindly grass here never seems to have been cut, and the mostly barren, sandy soil shows no signs of tillage. The wind blows cold and oddly dry. The breeze sends ripples through the grass. Here and there, the wind-tossed stems beat against a sun-bleached boulder. There isn't a soul in sight.

If the PCs try to explore the place, they eventually either find the hags' hut or meet Icara, or both.

Meeting Icara (EL 7)

Icara has surreptitiously visited the hags at their hut, but she has not discovered their true natures. The hags religiously employ their disguise self and mind blank powers to avoid discovery by unexpected visitors. The hags, however, failed to notice the invisible half-dragon.

Icara spends many hours each day searching the heath for signs of unseelie fey (she has heard the same rumors the PCs have), so she's bound to locate the PCs instead. She regards any group of armed characters she meets as potential troublemakers and evildoers. To test their mettle, she devises a prank. Using her polymorph ability, she becomes a metallic dragon of Small or Medium size. She's most at ease as a copper dragon, but she might masquerade as a silver or gold, or even as a brass dragon. She then lands somewhere out of the PCs' line of sight (perhaps behind a boulder or in a gully) and becomes visible. Holding her wings clamped tightly to her back, she stumbles into view, utters a sigh, and collapses at their feet. In the meantime, Raindrop soars overhead, keeping an eye on the situation. Icara figures she can learn a great deal about how the PCs act by observing how they treat a creature in need.

"Please help me," says Icara looking mournfully up at the PCs. "They . . . they got me. The hunters! I tried to get away, but they broke my wing. Well, actually I was hiding to watch them, and they saw me. There's a pit over by the three stinking bushes, and I covered it up with some old grass, and I was waiting to see if they'd fall in. But they didn't . . . they came for me instead.

"But will you help me? I'll give you my whole hoard if you do. Well, actually I don't have much of a hoard yet. Unless you count a crate of gingersnaps and a few rocks. They're pretty rocks, though. I'm just starting to get a hoard. Mom has one, though, and I'm sure she'd give you some if you helped me. If you didn't mind going a few hundred miles east for it. She sortta kicked me out, 'cause I dunked my brother in the tar pits to make him look like a black dragon. She said it was time for me to be out on my own. But she'd reward you, I'm sure. Unless she found out about the hole in . . . well, never mind. Anyway, I guess I don't have much right now. So will you help me? I'm really in bad shape. I think I'm gonna faint."

With that, the dragon promptly closes her eyes and allows her head to loll. If the PCs offer her healing without asking for a reward, Icara decides they are good at heart and assumes her true form, apologizing for the deception and asking them to help her find the unseelie fey. If they offer a deal for healing, she accepts and sends them to a stunted bush on the other side of the heath to collect their reward (which isn't there). If they attack her, she resumes her true form and lets them have it.

Meeting the Hags

The PCs might meet the hags by coming upon their cottage, or they might meet them on the heath while they're out hunting for victims or heading off to a raid.

At the cottage, the hags pretend to be going about their business, tending their gardens and animals. Out on the heath, they pretend to be gathering wild herbs. They all appear to be peasant women in plain dresses, carrying big woven baskets. At your option, they also might have some ogres or giants along to serve as muscle. In that case, the hags use their veil ability to make their companions look like half-elf children (visiting cousins, they explain). The hags might have an escort of four ogres, four hill giants, or four of each.

When the PCs approach, the hags greet them more or less as follows.

"Well, well, look Bertha! Visitors!" says a kindly looking old lady in a plain green dress.

"Ignore them, Maybelle," says a woman with a pinched face and a hawkish nose, wearing a gray dress. "They probably want to rob us blind. Or else they're collecting for some charity."

"I'm afraid Bertha's right," says the third lady, a rotund woman wearing a brown dress with a white apron. "No one nice ever comes out here. They might even be those bad fairies we've heard talk of. You know they can look like anything they want."

"Clara, they're no more fairies than I am. They're just travelers, and we should offer them our hospitality," says the first, wearing an aggrieved expression. "Do come to the house with us," she motions with a smile.

"Watch the oregano! You're bending the stalks!" says Bertha, waving a trowel. "Oh, these city folk are worse than rampaging bulls!"

"Are you bad fairies?" says Clara, squinting as though to see better. "They were here just last week -- flattened our tomato plants they did!"

"Mind the rutabagas now," says Bertha. "That's our winter crop! The young half-elves who came through collecting for the Church of the Light trampled our turnips!"

Creatures (EL 9, 10, 12, or 13): The hags usually don't keep any servants at their cottage. When raiding, however, they might have four ogres, four hill giants, or both along for muscle.

Ogres (4): hp 29 each, see Monster Manual, page 199.

Hill Giants (4): hp 102 each, see Monster Manual, page 123.

Tactics: When a fight begins, the hags use their weakness attacks against armored foes and make claw attacks against unarmored foes. After a few rounds, when the hags have an idea who the most dangerous foes are, the hags use their forcecage power on the most capable fighting types, then try to finish off the rest of the party. If necessary, they use their invisibility powers to thwart the PCs' attacks long enough to get into position to use or forcecage other covey powers on the party. If they have ogres or hill giants with them, they let their servants press the attack while they become invisible and maneuver to attack the more vulnerable party members.

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.

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