Vicious Venues
Murky Hollow
By Skip and Penny Williams

The Murky Hollow includes encounters of EL 5-7, but is suitable for use with any D&D campaign.

Locals take care to avoid this marshy valley at night, when strange vapors and weird apparitions rise from the very ground to befuddle the unwary visitor, or even choke off life. By day the valley seems unnaturally green and silent, as though something terrible has gone to ground in the surrounding wood and lies, brooding, until it can go forth again at dusk. What power lurks in the murky hollow?

Background for the DM

The murky hollow is a shallow valley that sometimes floods during heavy rains. Throughout much of the year, a narrow stream flows through the bottom, but the stream dries up in late summer and in winter. A series of mineral springs and small geysers, however, keep any number of small pools and bogs full of water year round. When the stream flows, all these small bodies of water are connected.

The vapors the locals fear are usually nothing more than normal fog coming from a few of the hot springs (and the occasional geyser eruption). During the day, the springs and geysers merely make the place seem cloyingly humid, but at night the air temperature drops, giving rise to banks of shadowy fog.

Tales of weird apparitions and inexplicable deaths in the hollow have a basis in fact. Rotting vegetation lying in the streambed gives off marsh gases that sometimes spontaneously ignite, thus creating natural will-o'-wisps. A few of the geysers vent massive clouds of carbon dioxide (and traces of other gases) from time to time as well. This gas is beneficial to the plant life in the hollow, but people and animals caught in an eruption can literally drown before they're aware of the danger.

Choking Gas Cloud Trap: CR 5; gas; timed trigger; no reset; gas cloud 15 feet high; Search DC --; Disable Device DC --; Cost:--.

An eruption releases a cloud of gas 15 feet high and 3d4x10 feet in diameter. The cloud drifts on the wind for 1d4 hours before finally settling in some low area (the gas is heavier than air). The gas isn't normally visible, but it contains some water vapor and might form a light fog (partial concealment, 10% miss chance) at night or in cold weather. The gas is mostly odorless, but it might have a slight hint of sulfur smell. Gas eruptions can occur any time of the day or night.

Characters most often encounter the gas by walking into a stagnant cloud of the stuff, but they may encounter a cloud on the move (a cloud typically moves at a speed of 10-30 feet a round in the direction the wind blows). In the worst case, a cloud could settle over the party and then stay in place.

Upon first encountering the cloud, characters can make a DC 25 Survival check to notice telltale signs of the cloud (heavy air, a hint of rotten egg smell, animals in distress) or a DC 30 Spot check to notice visible signs of the cloud's presence (usually dead or dying animals). A successful Survival check reveals the cloud's basic nature. A successful Spot check reveals some clue, but provides no real information about the cloud, but a DC 20 Knowledge (nature or geography) check reveals the existence of such clouds.

Creatures in a cloud can speak, and they seem to breathe normally, at least as first. In fact, once inside the cloud a character effectively begins holding her breath because there's no oxygen in the cloud. After 1d4 rounds of involuntarily holding her breath, a character can make a DC 15 Wisdom or Survival check to notice the problem. If this check fails, the character noticed nothing unusual until she must make her first Constitution check to keep holding her breath (see page 304 in the Dungeon Master's Guide), or until someone else mentions the problem. In addition, the gas snuffs out any nonmagical flames the party carries. Torches, lanterns, or candles flicker immediately and go out 1 full round later.

The gas isn't toxic, and surviving an encounter with a cloud merely requires getting out before passing out. A character can do this by moving to the edge of the cloud or getting more than 15 feet above the ground. A character could accomplish the latter by finding a hill to scale or climbing a tree.

After becoming aware of the hazard the gas clouds pose, a character can make a DC 15 Survival check to avoid further contact with them. Doing so entails avoiding low ground and staying aware of the prevailing wind. Movement on the local or overland scale (see Chapter 9 in the Player's Handbook) is reduced to one half while avoiding gas clouds.

In addition to the natural hazards, the hollow could be home to any number of mischievous or hostile creatures, as noted in the next section.

The Setup

A narrow country road crosses the hollow, so the characters could pass through it on their way somewhere else. The road connects two villages, and local people pass through the hollow fairly often, but usually only during daylight. The characters also might be drawn there in response to any number of rumors or tall tales, as noted below:

  • The hollow was once home to a fairly rare species of tree, locally called blackwood, which crafters highly prized for making musical instruments and other fine carved items. The last blackwood tree was cut down more than a generation ago, but recently a sprig of blackwood with green leaves turned up in the marketplace in a village not far from the hollow.

    This could be pure invention, or it could be true. In the latter case, the treant Diobemun (see the Creatures section) is involved.

  • Travelers foolish enough to visit the hollow at night and lucky enough to escape with their lives report any number of odd sights and sounds, including strange, eerie lights in the darkness, insane giggling or maniacal laughter (or both), and long lines of ghostly figures stalking through the fog.

    The eerie lights are genuine, but they're merely swamp gas burning. The giggling and laughter are most likely fanciful inventions, though a few mischievous local boys (or gnomes) may be behind those incidents. The lines of ghostly figures also might be mere imagination; however, they're most likely gnomes (see the Creatures section).

  • Most victims of the hollow appear to have choked to death. Often they're found lying right on the road or path they were using, but, from time to time, they apparently ran wildly through the surrounding woods before staggering to a halt and then dying on the spot. No one has ever found footprints or other signs of an attacker at the death sites, though there have been signs of scavengers from time to time.

    Most of the incidents described here can be attributed to gas eruptions, but perhaps the allips that haunt the hollow hold responsibility for at least a few of these deaths.

  • The hollow is a great place to go hunting. Everyone knows that the biggest deer hide in there. They know they're safe. Whatever lurks in the hollow attacks only people.

    Actually, animals frequently die in gas eruptions, and the PCs can verify that just by asking around. A DC 15 Gather Information check uncovers several tales of local people finding dead animals (choked to death) in the hollow. Still, Diobemun the treant doesn't bother animals.

  • Years ago, a caravan laden with gold and gems was lost in the hollow when orcs ambushed it. The drivers in charge of the wagons and pack animals carrying the loot tried to avoid capture by moving into the surrounding woods, and they would have made it if not for a flash flood that scattered and drowned them. Their spirits still haunt the place and will do so while their precious cargo remain undelivered.

    This tale could be true. The spirits could be allips (see the next section) that originally lost their lives foolishly trying to save their cargoes instead of themselves.

A Visit to the Hollow

The hollow could exist almost anywhere, but the following text assumes a hilly or mountainous area.

The rutted track that winds through these hills might be called a road, but it would take a generous soul to do so. Where big rocks aren't sticking up just far enough to make a wheel take a spine-jarring hop (or stub a toe), there are deep ruts just wide enough to twist an ankle or make a cart sway and dance like a drunken sailor. It seems as though some relief lies ahead. The track slopes down into some kind of valley or hollow between the hills. Trees and all manner of undergrowth lie thickly there. Some sort of light mist seems to cloak the ground under the leaves.

The track continues through the wooded hollow and out the other side for a distance of perhaps a mile and half. The stream mentioned earlier (if it's flowing at all) lies roughly in the center of the wood, and it must be crossed via a ford. The track proves reasonably firm and dry, though still both rocky and rutted at the same time, but the ground on either side is positively soggy.

In addition to occasional gas eruptions (see the previous section), PCs could encounter any of the following in the hollow.

Get Out of My Wood! (EL 7)

The treant Diobemun has dwelt in the hollow for at least a decade, drawn in part by the lush plant growth that the gas eruptions engender.

Diobemun, Treant: hp 66; see page 244 in the Monster Manual, except alignment neutral.

Tactics: Diobemun has developed a deep loathing for nonplant life, and for humanoids in particular. She doesn't even care for other treants, or for other plant creatures. Diobemun considers most treants foolishly sentimental and far too prone to forgive destructive activities by humanoids, and she thinks most other plant creatures are brainless louts.

Diobemun spends most of her time in the depths of the wood, where she tends a vast number of saplings she has grown from seed. Her charges might include blackwood trees or other varieties once thought extinct. If so, she probably found the seeds preserved in one of the hollow's bogs and coaxed them to grow.

Characters are most likely to meet Diobemun when they're attempting to avoid gas clouds, since doing so involves innumerable detours. The treant sometimes also hides near the track passing through the hollow just so that she can keep an eye on humanoids passing through the area.

Diobemun knows she can't just attack everyone she meets, but she's not above steering gullible newcomers toward areas filled with quicksand (see page 88 in the Dungeon Master's Guide), particularly if they inquire about lost treasure or wrecked wagons. She seethes with rage if she suspects visitors of mistreating the forest in any way.

Read or paraphrase the following aloud if the characters encounter Diobemun while they are not abusing the forest.

The sun filters down through the branches of the trees, producing a dappled pattern on the leaf-covered forest floor. A light breeze ripples through the branches, making a sound that almost resembles human speech. Or perhaps it really is a voice.

"Miserable rootless things, lurching around the forest," mutters something just to the side of the path.

If the characters challenge the voice, Diobemun shakes her branches and greets them.

"I said, it's miserable, that fruitless thing of searching around the forest. I am Diobemun, protector of the wood, friend of forest creatures, maintainer of the balance, slayer of the stupe -- I mean, player of the lute. What brings you to invade -- I mean, visit -- our forest today?"

If the PCs tell Diobemun that they seek treasure, she tries not to express her disgust as she directs them to the nearest deadly danger.

"Ah, you seek the shiny things that your kind craves so much. Are you sure you would not prefer to gambol about the clearings, drink from the cool streams, and enjoy the ever-present beauty of nature instead? No? Well, in that case, you must travel down that path to your left -- the one that leads into the dark cave over there. Go through the tunnel until you emerge in a clearing with a waterfall. Skirt the edge of the clearing until you reach a large stone, about your height, then turn right into the clearing. It's a little soft in there, but what's a little mud to adventurers? Anyway, when you feel yourselves begin to sink, you'll know you're in the right place. Just stand there until the hidden magic platform lowers you into the cavern below."

In battle, Diobemun prefers to ambush her foes by hiding in a likely spot and pretending to be a tree (treat as a normal Hide check, with the usual +16 for a treant hiding in a forest). She begins by animating two trees on opposite sides of the enemy, and then she uses her trample attack against anyone who doesn't attempt melee combat with the trees. She assumes that such foes are spellcasters.

A Parade of Ghosts (EL 5-7)

Groups of forest gnomes occasionally search the hollow for rare wood and herbs. They also extract salts and trace minerals from the geysers and hot springs. They keep to themselves for the most part, and they move quietly through the trees on moonlit nights, when there's less chance that they'll be spotted or disturbed. Their trips have given rise to many tales of ghosts in the hollow.

Forest Gnome Gatherers (2-4): Male and female forest gnome expert 1/warrior 2; CR 2; Small humanoid; HD 1d6+1 plus 2d8+2; hp 15; Init +0; Spd 20 ft.; AC 15, touch 11, flat-footed 15; Base Atk +2; Grp -1; Atk +5 melee (1d6+1/19-20, masterwork longsword) or +4 ranged (1d4/x3, masterwork composite shortbow [+0 Str bonus]); Full Atk +5 melee (1d6+1/19-20, masterwork longsword) or +4 ranged (1d4/x3, masterwork composite shortbow [+0 Str bonus]); SA spell-like abilities; SQ forest gnome traits; AL CG; SV Fort +4, Ref +0, Will +2; Str 13, Dex 10, Con 13, Int 10, Wis 11, Cha 8.

Skills and Feats: Climb +6, Hide +11 (+15 in a wooded area), Knowledge (geography) +4, Knowledge (nature) +4, Listen +4, Profession (miner) +4, Profession (woodcutter) +4, Search +4, Spot +2, Swim +1; Alertness, Athletic.

Spell-Like Abilities: 1/day -- speak with animals (burrowing mammal only, duration 1 minute, caster level 1st).

Forest Gnome Traits: The forest gnome gatherer has a +2 racial bonus on saving throws against illusions, a +4 dodge bonus against giants, and a +1 racial bonus on attack rolls against kobolds, goblinoids, orcs, and reptilian humanoids. He or she also has a +4 racial bonus on Hide checks, which improves to +8 in a wooded area (already figured into the statistics given above). In addition, a forest gnome gatherer has the innate ability to use pass without trace as the spell (caster level 3rd).

Possessions: Masterwork chain shirt, masterwork light steel shield, masterwork longsword, masterwork composite shortbow (+0 Str bonus), potion of cure moderate wounds, potion of endure elements, potion of magic weapon.

Forest Gnome Guide: Male forest gnome ranger 3; CR 3; Small humanoid; HD 3d8+6; hp 19; Init +2; Spd 20 ft.; AC 17, touch 13, flat-footed 15; Base Atk +3; Grp +0; Atk +7 melee (1d4+1/18-20, masterwork rapier) or +7 ranged (1d6+1/x3, masterwork composite longbow [+1 Str bonus]); Full Atk +7 melee (1d4+1/18-20, masterwork rapier) or +7 ranged (1d6+1/x3, masterwork composite longbow [+1 Str bonus]); SA spell-like abilities; SQ favored enemy (plants +2), forest gnome traits, wild empathy +3; AL CG; SV Fort +5, Ref +5, Will +2; Str 12, Dex 15, Con 15, Int 10, Wis 12, Cha 8.

Skills and Feats: Heal +7, Hide +8 (+12 in a wooded area), Jump -7, Knowledge (geography) +3, Knowledge (nature) +5, Listen +6, Move Silently +3, Search +6, Spot +7, Survival +7; Dodge, Endurance[B], Rapid Shot[B], Track[B], Weapon Finesse.

Spell-Like Abilities: 1/day -- speak with animals (burrowing mammal only, duration 1 minute, caster level 1st).

Favored Enemy: The forest gnome guide gains a +2 bonus on his Bluff, Listen, Sense Motive, Spot, and Survival checks when using these skills against plants. He gets the same bonus on weapon damage rolls against creatures of this type.

Forest Gnome Traits: The forest gnome guide has a +2 racial bonus on saving throws against illusions, a +4 dodge bonus against giants, and a +1 racial bonus on attack rolls against kobolds, goblinoids, orcs, and reptilian humanoids. He also has a +4 racial bonus on Hide checks, which improves to +8 in a wooded area (already figured into the statistics given above). In addition, a forest gnome guide has the innate ability to use pass without trace as the spell (caster level 3rd).

Wild Empathy (Ex): The forest gnome guide can use body language, vocalizations, and demeanor to improve the attitude of an animal (such as a bear or a monitor lizard). This ability functions just like a Diplomacy check to improve the attitude of a person. His bonus on the check is +3. The typical domestic animal has a starting attitude of indifferent, while wild animals are usually unfriendly. The forest gnome guide and the animal must study each other for 1 minute. This ability can also be used to influence a magical beast with an Intelligence score of 1 or 2, but the forest gnome guide takes a -4 penalty on the check.

Possessions: Masterwork chain shirt, buckler, masterwork rapier, masterwork composite longbow (+1 Str bonus), 3 potions of cure light wounds, potion of endure elements, potion of magic weapon.

Forest Gnome Leader: Male forest gnome bard 3; CR 3; Small humanoid; HD 3d6+3; hp 13; Init +1; Spd 20 ft.; AC 15, touch 12, flat-footed 14; Base Atk +2; Grp -3; Atk +3 melee (1d6-1/19-20, masterwork longsword) or +5 ranged (1d4-1/x3, masterwork composite shortbow [+0 Str bonus]); Full Atk +3 melee (1d6-1/19-20, masterwork longsword) or +5 ranged (1d4-1/x3, masterwork composite shortbow [+0 Str bonus]); SA spell-like abilities; SQ bardic knowledge +5, bardic music (countersong, fascinate, inspire competence, inspire courage +1) 3/day, forest gnome traits; AL CG; SV Fort +3, Ref +5, Will +4; Str 8, Dex 13, Con 12, Int 14, Wis 10, Cha 15.

Skills and Feats: Appraise +5, Bluff +7, Concentration +7, Escape Artist +7, Gather Information +5, Hide +12 (+16 in a wooded area), Intimidate +4, Jump -7, Listen +5, Move Silently +4, Perform (sing) +8, Profession (miner) +3, Profession (woodcutter) +3, Sense Motive +3, Sleight of Hand +4; Dodge, Persuasive.

Spell-Like Abilities: 1/day -- dancing lights, ghost sound (DC 12), prestidigitation, speak with animals (burrowing mammal only, duration 1 minute). Caster level 1st.

Bardic Knowledge: The forest gnome leader may make a bardic knowledge check with a bonus of +5 to see whether he knows some relevant information about local notable people, legendary items, or noteworthy places.

Bardic Music: The forest gnome leader can use his song or poetics to produce magical effects on those around him.

Countersong (Su): The forest gnome leader can counter magical effects that depend on sound by making a Perform check for each round of countersong. Any creature within 30 feet of him that is affected by a sonic or language-dependent magical attack can use the bard's Perform check result in place of his or her saving throw if desired. Countersong lasts for 10 rounds.

Fascinate (Sp): The bard can cause a single creature within 90 feet that can see and hear him to become fascinated with him. The bard's Perform check result is the DC for the opponent's Will save. Any obvious threat breaks the effect. Fascination lasts 5 rounds.

Inspire Competence (Su): The bard can use his music or poetics to aid an ally with a task. The ally must be within 30 feet and able to see and hear him, and he must be able to see the ally. The ally gets a +2 competence bonus on skill checks with a particular skill as long as he or she can hear the bard's music. The effect lasts as long as the bard concentrates, up to a maximum of 2 minutes. The bard can't inspire competence in himself. Inspire competence is a mind-affecting ability.

Inspire Courage (Su): Any ally who can hear the bard receives a +1 morale bonus on saves against charm and fear effects and a +1 morale bonus on attack and weapon damage rolls. The effect lasts for 5 rounds after the ally can no longer hear him.

Forest Gnome Traits: The forest gnome leader has a +2 racial bonus on saving throws against illusions, a +4 dodge bonus against giants, and a +1 racial bonus on attack rolls against kobolds, goblinoids, orcs, and reptilian humanoids. He also has a +4 racial bonus on Hide checks, which improves to +8 in a wooded area (already figured into the statistics given above). In addition, a forest gnome leader has the innate ability to use pass without trace as the spell (caster level 3rd).

Bard Spells Known (3/2; 0% chance of arcane spell failure): 0 -- daze (DC 12), detect magic, light, mage hand, message, prestidigitation; 1st -- cure light wounds, lesser confusion (DC 13), magic weapon.

Possessions: Masterwork studded leather, masterwork longsword, masterwork composite shortbow (+0 Str bonus), cloak of resistance +1,wand of cure light wounds (23 charges), scroll of animate rope, scroll of disguise self, scroll of endure elements, scroll of glitterdust, scroll of remove fear.

Tactics: The gnomes prefer to stick to business, but they keep a sharp lookout for Diobemun, and that makes them a little bit jumpy. Their first reaction upon meeting the PCs is to scatter, and after that they try to hide. Read or paraphrase the following when the gnomes first hear or spot the PCs.

"Intruders!" shouts a voice from somewhere ahead. "Run for it, everyone!" The sound of small, running feet fills the air, along with bumps and muffled grunts, as though the fleeing creatures had bumped into one another.

If the PCs pursue, the bard tries to negotiate.

"What do you want with us?" says a gnome with brown hair and skin. "Are you looking for foxglove? It's a little late in the season, but I have some in my bag. Or maybe you came for rue. Or wormwood? Oh, don't tell me you came for bilbane! It blooms only once a year, and that's not till next week! You wouldn't take our bilbane, would you?"

"Sir," says another gnome, touching the leader's shoulder. "They probably want blackwood. Why don't you just tell them where it is and save us a lot of trouble? It's obvious they're going to take it; we may as well surrender it before they torture us."

"Quite right, Terbin," says the first gnome. "Very well, you have us. It's over there, across the clearing and through the trees about 100 yards. If you catch sight of a tree that seems to move out of the corner of your eye, pay no attention. It's just a magical defense around the grove of incredibly valuable, worth-a-king's-ransom blackwood trees. When you get there, say 'I've come for blackwood and I'll do anything to get it.' That deactivates the magical protection on the trees."

The gnomes are really just trying to get rid of the PCs by directing them toward the treant. No blackwood trees are in that area, but if the PCs obey the gnomes or ask Diobenum about blackwood trees, she flies into a rage and attacks.

The gnomes really don't want to fight, but if pressed, they try to keep their distance as long as possible by fleeing through the woods and firing their arrows. The bard uses grease spells and his scroll of glitterdust to slow down the party.

Not Just a Babbling Brook (EL 5-7)

A small group of allips infests the hollow. If you've decided that the rumor about the treasure caravan is true, the allips arose from the caravan drivers who foolishly lost their lives trying to save their cargoes. Otherwise, they're the spirits of equally foolish locals who spent too much time in the hollow and died in gas eruptions.

Allips (2-4): hp 26 each; see Monster Manual, page 10.

Tactics: The allips prefer to lurk in the trees, just within the 60-foot range of their babble ability. They babble for a round or two, then move in to make touch attacks. The allips are drawn to gas clouds, and they might show up to complicate things when the party is dealing with a cloud. Since the allips are undead, the gas doesn't affect them at all. Such an encounter is far more deadly than either the cloud or the allips alone, so a +50% ad hoc XP award is in order.

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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