Vicious Venues
The Hanging Tree
By Skip and Penny Williams

A gnarled old tree has served as an execution place for decades. Are the ghosts lurking under the shade of the tree merely memories of unhappy events, or are they more real than that?

Background for the DM

The hanging tree has a well-deserved reputation as an unsavory landmark and is best avoided on dark nights or any time the powers of evil have representatives abroad in the land. Unfortunately, avoiding the hanging tree isn't always so easy. The tree stands at a fairly well-traveled crossroads, and the locals simply try to give the tree a wide berth and pass it by as quickly as they can.

The tree has earned its name over the years. It has several thick, horizontal branches about 10 feet above the ground, and at least two generations of executioners have used these branches as an ideal natural gallows. Executions still occur at the tree, and the bodies usually hang there for weeks afterward. The bodies warn passersby that criminals will pay the ultimate price for their misdeeds if they're caught. In fact, the authorities in the area are fond of hanging entire gangs of thugs and highwaymen from the tree's branches. The tree, which is old, gnarled, and blighted, has a sinister look to it even on the brightest days. It presents a truly macabre sight when a whole collection of corpses hang from its branches like hideous, rotting fruits.

Some years ago, a gang of a particularly notorious highwaymen led by Black Bryan Battani was executed at the tree. Bryan Battani claimed to the end that he was only an honest tradesman from a nearby town. He refused to reveal where he hid his ill-gotten gains and insisted that he worked for every copper he had. He declared that his wife and daughter would not be denied their inheritance.

Several local tales mention the hanging tree:

  • Black Bryan Battani still lurks near the tree, waiting to rob and kill again to satisfy his lust for gold.
  • The tree is dangerous, but not because of any ghost. It's the tree itself that is evil. It has become twisted from being involved in so much death and suffering, and now it kills anyone who ventures beneath its branches.
  • Black Bryan Battani hid his lost treasure under the very tree where he was executed, and now he remains there still, guarding the loot.
  • Anyone who eats the roots of the herbs that grow beneath the tree sees a vision of a great treasure.

One or more of these rumors could be true, at the DM's option. Be sure to adjust as appropriate below, though.

The Setup

If the PCs decide to examine the tree, play up the place's sinister appearance and reputation:

The ancient tree stands gnarled and crooked at the junction of two country roads. The roads seem wide and smooth, and someone has taken the trouble to keep the shoulders neatly trimmed. The tree, however, rises from a mass of tangled bracken. A somber curtain of shadow seems to hang about the tree's knobby branches and spotty leaves, leaving the weed-choked ground below wrapped in gray gloom. Strands of old, rotted ropes dangle from several branches, and these seem to sway unnaturally.

The rancid scent of something dead seems to ooze out from under the tree.

The ropes hanging from the tree once were used to hang people. The swaying, though it seems unnatural, is caused by a natural eddy in the wind around here. The smell comes from a thick bed of herbs -- genuine mandrakes -- growing under the tree.

Creatures (EL 6, 8, or 9): Depending on which local rumors the DM decided are true, nothing could be here, or the place could hold an animated tree, or the ghost of Black Bryan Battani, or both.

Animated tree: hp 66; the tree functions exactly like a tree animated by a treant. Use the treant statistics from page 178 of the Monster Manual, except that the tree has a speed 10 and no skills or feats. On its own, the tree has a CR of 6.

The Ghost of Black Bryan Battani: Exp3/Rog4; CR 8; Medium-size undead (Human); HD 7d12; hp 46; Init +7; Spd 30 ft., fly 30 ft. (perfect); AC 15, touch 15, flat-footed 15; Atk none SA corrupting gaze, malevolence, manifestation, sneak attack (+2d6); SQ evasion, rejuvenation, traps, turn resistance +4, uncanny dodge; AL NE; SV Fort +3, Ref +9, Will +5; Str --, Dex 16, Con --, Int 14, Wis 10, Cha 14.

Skills and Feats: Appraise +6, Balance +5, Bluff +6, Craft (blacksmithing) +7, Craft (locksmithing) +7, Diplomacy +2, Disable Device +7, Disguise +10, Escape Artist +10, Gather Information +6, Hide +7, Intimidate +2, Jump +4, Listen +12, Move Silently +7, Open Lock +8, Pick Pocket +15, Search +6, Spot +5, Tumble +13; Alertness, Blind-Fight, Combat Reflexes, Improved Initiative.

Corrupting Gaze (Su): The ghost can blast living beings with a glance, at a range of up to 30 feet. Creatures that meet the ghost's gaze must succeed at a Fortitude save (DC 15) or suffer 2d10 points of damage and 1d4 points of permanent Charisma drain.

Malevolence (Su): Once per round, an ethereal ghost can merge its body with a creature on the Material Plane. This ability is similar to magic jar as cast by a 10th-level sorcerer (or the ghost's character level, whichever is higher), except that it does not require a receptacle. To use this ability, the ghost must be manifested and it must try move into the target's space; moving into the target's space to use the malevolence power does not provoke attacks of opportunity. The target can resist the attack with a successful Will save (DC 17). A creature that successfully saves is immune to that ghost's malevolence for one day, and the ghost cannot enter the target's space. If the save fails, the ghost vanishes into the target's body.

Manifestation (Su): Bryan Battani's ghost dwells on the Ethereal Plane, and as an ethereal creature, it cannot affect or be affected by anything in the material world. When a ghost manifests, it partly enters the Material Plane and becomes visible but incorporeal there. A manifested ghost can strike with its touch attack, a ghost touch weapon, or a manifested weapon. A manifested ghost also remains partially on the Ethereal Plane, where it is not incorporeal. It can be attacked by opponents on either the Material or Ethereal Plane. The ghost's incorporeality helps protect it from foes on the Material Plane, but not from foes on the Ethereal Plane. When manifested, the ghost can be harmed only by other incorporeal creatures, +1 or better magic weapons, spells, spell-like abilities, or supernatural abilities. It is immune to all nonmagical attack forms and has a 50% chance to ignore any damage from a corporeal source (except for force effects, such as magic missiles, and attacks made with ghost touch weapons). A manifested ghost can pass through solid objects (but not force effects) at will. Its attacks ignore natural armor, armor, and shields, though deflection bonuses and force effects work normally. It always moves silently (cannot be heard with Listen checks unless desired).

Rejuvenation (Su): Bryan Battani's ghost that would otherwise be destroyed returns to its old haunts in 2d4 days with a successful level check (1d20 + 7) against DC 16. To prevent the ghost from rejuvenating, Bryan Battani's physical remains must be found and buried in his hometown cemetery.

Turn Resistance (Ex): Bryan Battani's ghost is treated as an 11-HD undead for the purpose of turn, rebuke, command, or bolster attempts.

Undead Traits: Bryan Battani's ghost is immune to poison, sleep, paralysis, stunning, disease, death, effects, necromantic effects, mind-affecting effects, and any effect requiring a Fortitude save unless it also works on objects. It is not subject to critical hits, subdual damage, ability damage, ability drain, or energy drain. Negative energy heals it, and it is not at risk of death from massive damage but is destroyed at 0 hit points or less. Bryan Battani's ghost has darkvision (60-foot range). It cannot be raised, and resurrection works only if it is willing.

Ethereal Plane: The following changes to the above statistics are in effect against opponents on the Ethereal Plane: AC 16, touch 13, flat-footed 16; Atk +8 melee (1d4+3/19-20, +1 dagger); Str 15.

Possessions: Masterwork studded leather armor, +1 dagger.

Bryan Battani was born to a peasant family nearly a century ago. Just before his 12th birthday, he ran away from home, seeking a better life. The boy, who was both strong and deft of hand, found work as a blacksmith's apprentice. Young Bryan, however, soon grew bored with his trade, and he began practicing skills more to his liking, particularly feats of legerdemain, picking locks, and pumping information out of neighbors and customers without appearing to do so. Eventually, Bryan married his master's daughter and took over the shop. He soon began working as a locksmith, as well, and he also began his career as a highwayman. He left home frequently, telling his wife that he needed to go visit his ailing father. He stated that his father was a widower who was too stubborn to leave his home and still so angry that his only son ran away that he refused to meet his daughter-in-law or granddaughter. Bryan continued this charade for many years until finally someone caught him while away from home, and he was hanged for his assorted crimes. He kept his share of the loot buried in his home garden, and although he spent most of it, he left behind a considerable cache of gold. His wife was unaware of the treasure, and though Bryan's own granddaughter and her blacksmith husband still live comfortably in Bryan's house, they have no idea they have a small fortune buried in the garden.

Tactics: The tree now has an appetite for violence and death. If anyone spends more than minute under its branches without attempting to kill anything, it attacks itself.

Bryan Battani's ghost is more subtle. His capture and execution still galls him, and he yearns to be buried decently in his adopted town's cemetery. When anyone approaches the tree, Bryan hides on the Ethereal Plane and observes the group. After a few rounds, he chooses someone who resembles his living self (usually a fighter or rogue) and attacks using his malevolence power. (If the hanging tree animates and attacks, Bryan uses that event as a cover for his malevolence attack.) If he gets control of a character's body, he does his best to masquerade as that character, but he also insists that the characters dig at the base of tree. Bryan hopes to find his bones just below the surface. His bones do lie there, along with bones from dozens of other hanging victims. Bryan knows his own bones and insists on collecting them and taking them back to his hometown for burial. If discovered, Bryan threatens to kill every character in the party, using as many "borrowed" bodies as it takes. If the characters seem willing to negotiate, Bryan offers them a share of his treasure.

Treasure: The herbs growing under the hanging tree have some commercial value. Anyone can dig up about 50 gp worth. A Knowledge (nature) or Profession (herbalist) check (DC 15) allows a character to harvest an extra 150 gp worth of herbs from under the tree due to the character's ability to efficiently deal with the plants.

Bryan Battani's treasure is appropriate to the encounter's EL. (It is a level 8 or 9 treasure.) The PCs have no way of learning about this treasure unless Bryan tells them, and Bryan insists on splitting the loot 50-50.

Development: A skilled and trustworthy player might get a kick out of playing Bryan Battani while Bryan controls his or her PC's body. Characters who show up in the home of Bryan's granddaughter looking for treasure have to be very sneaky, or very persuasive, or both.

The notorious highwayman's granddaughter (NE human Exp2/Ro 1) has a bit of her grandfather's talent for deception and she possesses a larcenous heart. She watches the PCs carefully if they visit, since she is curious to know what they really want, and she never takes anyone at face value. She has buried a smaller treasure gained through her own wits and deft hands in another spot in the garden. If the PCs start digging, she immediately suspects that they are after her treasure.

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 codesigner 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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