Your Whispering Homunculus: When You’re Alone, You’re Alone
Master Pett’s Your Whispering Homunculus presents only the finest in British gaming. Indeed, you are not likely to find a more comprehensive assortment of miscellany anywhere.
(So much more than just another bloke in a dress.)
“Tonight, mucoid thing, our brave heroes must venture into the wilds!”
“You are so clever master, but how will you convey such a sense of wilderness and menace to your subjects?”
“Shadows and string my pet, shadows and string…”
Isolation and fear can be a challenging mood to achieve in roleplaying games, but they are the very elements that make a great adventure. The problem is—how to capture that feeling while sitting around a gaming table with plentiful supplies of food, drink, and company?
Here are a few suggestions…
Not knowing what’s behind you: Natives of different terrains are a damn sight more experienced at crossing it than the PCs are. When writing such encounters, give that local advantage to the enemy: they live in the terrain all day, every day. Orcs should know how to use boats in swamps, climb trees in forests, or navigate by secret signs in sulphur-choked volcanic regions. Use this advantage to hint at what is lurking behind them.
Also, keep the pursuers’ identity secret as long as possible: the orcs hang back, use poison arrows, set traps. What is imagined is often far worse than what is really there, unless…
Knowing precisely what’s behind you: Let them see the monster. Have it chase them but make it a good 3–4 CRs higher than they can handle; have it attack and then have something happen that makes it flee. In this version, the PCs can climb cliffs faster than the terrible clumsy menace behind, can seek shelter in a long cave from the gargantuan beast, or run quicker across open fields than the oozing horror. But the horror never sleeps, of course.
Eventually, they should discover a way to kill the creature through trickery, or brains over brawn…
Setting traps: The PCs must rest, but their enemy may not need to. They may keep watch and plan ahead, using signals to tell those ahead of the PCs that they are on their way. Sudden horrific traps, such as walls of iron spikes emerging from the swamp, are terrible because they won’t be expected, or maybe the enemy wishes to capture the PCs alive.
Don’t be afraid to use psychological weaponry. For example, if the PCs have buried a dear fallen comrade, the bad guys must dig up the body and have it waiting ahead, perhaps restored as undead. Have the enemy desecrate offerings to gods and lay them on the trail, or single out the same PC for attack every… single… time.
Warnings: Alternatively, NPCs or dire scenes of mayhem deliver dire warnings of what will happen to the PCs—or what has happened to others. This injects that feeling of loneliness and terror. Suppose the PCs find the bodies of another fallen group of adventurers, and just suppose that something horrible has been done to those bodies. Or maybe there are warnings carved into trees, on rocks, on bodies… Specific, credible warnings work best: offer names and details that make it clear the PCs are watched.
It’s Behind You! Try using monsters that have a great escape route such as vampire spawn. These creatures can keep coming back again and again, generating a war of attrition that slowly wears the PCs down, using up potions and spells. Slowly, rest becomes impossible, hp drops, things get desperate…
Summoning: Summoned monsters are expendable, but the summoner is not. Remember that an individual spellcaster can call large groups of creatures and, if well planned, can do so from a safe distance. Consider a druid with woodland stride and trackless step calling repeated groups of animals to attack the PCs. These attacks wear a group down, but the undergrowth is too thick for the characters to pursue, and they must come up with some plan to lure the druid closer…
Three Sample Situations
Here are three detailed situations for you to consider, offering a few specific suggestions. Be sure to gauge the CRs carefully, and remember, if the PCs get fed up fleeing from that monster that you know will kill them, what will you do if they just turn around and wait for it?
Consider, above all, how your players may react to the situation and take it from there. What works for one group may drive another to boredom—no one knows your players like you do.
The fog is dense, and has lasted days. Visibility is down to just a few dozen yards, and shapes loom within it: mostly these are trees and rocks… but sometimes, they move away.
The Misrethen are a tribe that has lived in the area for centuries, and they know the lands intimately. They also know all about the fog, and they use a series of guide shapes to help them move. These guide shapes are slightly altered trees and rocks and are very difficult to spot (Perception DC 35). Each shape depicting animals such as wolves and foxes, and their secret code is known only among the Misrethen. Deciphering them requires a DC 35 Survival check. The code helps the tribe move at normal speed no matter what the situation.
When the Misrethen discover the PCs in their territory, they begin to stalk them, always keeping a good few hundred yards away, whispering, planning. Perhaps the PCs overhear these whispers, or maybe they don’t know anything until the first time they are attacked. Long before that, they learn that the Misrethen have a terrible appetite—for human flesh…
The Jungle Volcano.
The air is choked with sulphurous fumes and gases. Deep vents open up suddenly in the ground, and the earth shakes.
Then the madman appears.
The madman is fleeing an unseen menace, which has (literally) ripped his companions apart. He doesn’t know what the menace is, just something that comes out of the mist.
The madman is much higher level than the heroes, as were all his companions.
Elementals make great villains here: they can move where characters cannot, vents and gas do not bother them, they never get tired, never need rest. Try thinking of creatures like will-o’-wisps. You’re going to need to make the creature tough enough to frighten the higher-level NPC, so you’re also going to have to think of a way for the PCs to finally succeed. Perhaps the menace is a demon bound to an artefact in the heart of the volcano. Or maybe some huge totem holds the key to the creature—a riddle to its former identity that, when presented, forces the creature to dissipate. That disappearance may just be for a limited time…
The Tainted Forest.
The forest is thick with thorns and briars, the trees seem diseased, the air is alive with dreadful biting creatures.
The forest is no ordinary place; this place is evil, tainted by something that lives at its center, something terrible.
In this grim wilderness, swarms are the menace. They come every night, but before they do, the PCs come upon a frightful scene: the skeletons of a similar group to them, bones bleached. Thinking the skeletons long dead, the heroes search their belongings, only to find that the food is still fresh.
Here the heroes must reach and destroy the menace—think along the lines of shambling mounds or evil trees or perhaps a druid who has good reason to keep folk away—but the swarms come every night, again and again.
The PCs need to find a way of keeping the swarms at bay. Perhaps some root repels them when burnt, but the root is hard to find, and there is never enough…