Every adventure begins with a subtle or not-so-subtle hook—that carrot or stick which motivates the characters to risk their lives for gold, glory, or the greater good. Some hooks are instantaneous and unavoidable. When a dragon drops from the sky into a screaming dive straight toward you, the adventure is on whether you like it or not. Most adventures, though, benefit from having some groundwork laid before the main structure gets built. Clues need to be sprinkled in the characters' paths, rumors whispered in their ears, unsigned notes left in their saddlebags, or magic relics of unknown origin discovered in a forgotten tomb or delivered to their rooms in the dead of night. These types of hooks are most effective when players have time to wonder about them for a few game sessions before their meaning becomes clear.
That's the purpose of this article. It presents the hooks and rumors you can sprinkle around the inn weeks before launching characters into an adventure. If you inadvertently insert a few leads into the game which never pan out, you've still made the world feel like a bigger place than your dining room table.
Andok Sur is an ancient necropolis in the Nentir Vale’s northeastern reaches. It was introduced in the Dungeons & Dragons novel The Mark of Nerath. This adventure locale features two encounters that you can use in any D&D campaign setting. The necropolis is equally well suited to the Chaos Scar, Faerun, Eberron, Athas, or your home campaign. It is intended for characters of levels 3–8 to explore, but can easily be adjusted upward to challenge characters of higher levels.
Beyond the storm-shrouded peak of Thunderspire Mountain, hidden beneath the desolate reaches of the Old Hills, the necropolis of Andok Sur rests in eternal slumber. At least, it had been resting until the lich Magroth entered the entombed necropolis and attempted to raise an army of undead. Though Magroth failed, Andok Sur remains active, lending new dangers to the Old Hills and the surrounding areas.
What Everyone Knows
The Old Hills cover a large portion of the northeastern section of the Nentir Vale, bordered by the Trade Road to the south and Lake Nen to the north. They roll away from Thunderspire Mountain to the southwest, and eventually rise into the Dawnforge Mountains to the east. The area is difficult to travel aside from the few roads; ravines and depressions crisscross the land, and the worn hills form walls that give the otherwise open country a feeling of oppressiveness and confinement.
Various threats roam the Old Hills and the surrounding environs, including bandits, goblin and kobold tribes, giant spiders, drakes, and the occasional drow or duergar raiding party from the depths of Thunderspire.
Becoming Aware of the Situation
You can sprinkle this information into the campaign as rumors overheard in the inn or marketplace, or it could be presented directly to characters by a patron or concerned citizen.
Rumors of Undead: Since Magroth stirred up Andok Sur, undead creatures have been seen wandering the region. Zombies, skeletons, and ghouls are the most common, but wights, wraiths, ghosts, and even a vampire have been reported. Most of these sightings have occurred along the chief trade road through the area.
The Hole: Walking or riding into the Old Hills from the base of Thunderspire leads to a relatively new feature of the area. A gaping hole in the earth shows where part of the hillside collapsed into the ground. The sinkhole opens to reveal a huge cavern containing a sunken city. Characters could hear about this from travelers or stumble onto it themselves while traveling or searching for something else.
The Abyssal Plague: If you incorporate the abyssal plague into your campaign, Andok Sur is where it originates. Characters should be drawn to the area if they're trying to solve the mystery of the plague's origin, because this is where it was first reported.
Characters who live in the area should already know something of the history of Andok Sur. If they're newcomers, the basics can be gleaned by talking to locals. Spending a few days on research can turn up the rest. The most likely sources for additional information are scholarly sages, bards, priests of established churches, and libraries (if any exist in the area—actual libraries may be few and far between in a points-of-light campaign). You could restrict the most obscure historical information to characters trained in History, but that's not strictly necessary. It really depends on how much you want characters to know beforehand about what they're getting into.
History, DC 15: Andok Sur was ancient when the empire of Bael Turath was just a collection of loosely allied city-states. The place was established by the warrior tribes of the Eastern Valley and dedicated to the Demon Prince Orcus. In those years, it was an aboveground site where warrior tribes interred their still-living enemies. Tombs and mausoleums filled the necropolis as houses fill a town.
History, DC 24: Centuries past, the vampire lord Zarguna turned Andok Sur into a vibrant City of the Dead centered around worship of Orcus. Zarguna's shadowy hand commanded almost all of the Eastern Vale. As the city grew in size and power, it attracted the attention of other influential agencies, including the growing empires of Bael Turath and Arkhosia, as well as the nearby dwarven empire of Mithralfast. Even divine powers saw Andok Sur as a threat to the natural world. At the height of the city’s power, a great earthquake rocked the Old Hills. In an instant, the City of the Dead was shattered. It fell into the earth and was buried, to be forgotten by time and history.
Object Reading Ritual: If characters obtain an object from Andok Sur (possibly through the use of Streetwise or Thievery), they can learn whatever you care to reveal about conditions there up until the time the object was removed.
Streetwise, DC 16: Weeks ago (or months, depending on your timeline), a group of adventurers foiled an attempt by a vampire lich to raise the dead of Andok Sur and restore the city to its ancient glory. They didn't wipe out all the undead or return them to rest, however, and now those undead are spreading across the landscape.
Streetwise, DC 24: The characters may be able to locate the NPCs who stopped Magroth's plot and speak to them directly. This shouldn't happen by chance; characters need to look for these specific NPCs and put some effort into the search to have any chance for success. In this case, the characters learn that Andok Sur is where the Abyssal Plague first entered the world. Along with the awakened undead, the necropolis holds a special significance to those blighted by the demonic infection from another plane of existence.
Beneath the Dust
This Dark Sun adventure deals with the discovery of a living relic from an age long past—a seed from a dying primordial Tree of Life. Trees of Life are supernatural organisms capable of bringing life to broad regions, which makes them of great value to anyone interested in restoring vitality to the devastated world of Athas. For this same reason, they are also highly sought after by defilers, and by sorcerer-kings in particular. "Beneath the Dust" is intended for characters of levels 7-9.
In a nearly forgotten age of genocidal warfare, elves and gnomes who were fleeing from the sorcerer-king Nibenay took refuge in an ancient tomb that connected to a small cave system. They carried a seed from a Tree of Life, and they needed to keep it out of Nibenay's hands at any cost. Nibenay’s forces tracked them to the cave, however, and besieged them.
Avor Firesworn, leader of the refugees, made a desperate, fateful decision. He entered into a covenant with an alien entity from the Gray which Avor perceived as a demigod of death. He and a few others from his band swore a binding oath to exchange their eternal souls for the chance to protect the seed even after their deaths.
Eventually, Nibenay's soldiers broke into the cavern and slaughtered everyone, but they could not find the seed. It lay beneath Avor's remains, but according to their agreement, the primal spirits of that place prevented the searchers from seeing it. Nibenay's frustrated agents concluded that the seed had been no more than a rumor, or perhaps this group had been a ruse to draw them away from the real seed's location. They sealed the cave when they withdrew, to conceal their handiwork from enemies.
Some time later, Avor's spirit returned from death as an ashen soul and began its lifeless, eternal vigil over the seed.
Ages have passed. The land is a desolate ruin. But in that forgotten cave, Avor still keeps his unceasing watch. And as the centuries ticked by, something miraculous occurred. In the dark, barren cave, the Seed of Life took root among Avor’s bones and grew into a mighty tree. Its presence caused more life to spring forth—moss grew on the walls of the cave, vines snaked through ancient battle sites, and the air became fresh.
Even Trees of Life are not immortal, however, and after many an age, the Tree grew old. Sensing the approach of its own demise, the Tree sent its roots far afield in an attempt to tear open the tomb and spread outside. The seal on the cave cracked and for the first time in ages, the world above had sign of the Tree. The primal spirits rejoiced in this event and brought forth storms to excavate more of the cave mouth, in the hope that passing creatures might notice the miracle and carry a new seed to where it can flourish.
Involving the Adventurers
Characters can be drawn into this adventure several ways.
A Mission for My Sins: Powerful defilers are always alert for signs that a Tree of Life has awakened. If characters work directly or indirectly for a sorcerer-king, an NPC defiler, or a merchant house, or if they are templars or defilers themselves, they may have received clues to the Tree's whereabouts. In that case, they've been commissioned to investigate and given the following information:
- There is reason to believe that a living Tree of Life may be growing in a region of sandy waste in the valleys east of the nearest, major trade route.
- If the characters find a Tree, they should conceal its location and return as quickly as possible. If they find a seed, they should bring it back immediately.
- The signs of a Tree are not easy to discern unless you know how to read them. In particular, primal forces in the area may be trying to draw attention to the tree.
- It is likely that other groups are also aware of the Tree's potential and searching for it.
A Mission for Their Sins: This develops along essentially the same lines as the situation above, except the characters are associated with the Veiled Alliance or a primal mentor such as a guardian druid. Alternatively, they could be approached by a neutral scholar whose divinations or prophetic interpretations have led him to suspect a Tree of Life's reappearance. In this case, they may be told (or experience) any of the information from above along with any of the following:
- Characters who have a deep primal connection may have dreams that allude to the agitation and excitement of the primal spirits in the area where the Tree exists.
- Portents point toward an artifact of great importance to the primal spirits arising in a region of sandy waste in the valleys east of the nearest, major trade route.
- Odd storms have been seen on the horizon. Storms are a common occurrence, but these have been unnaturally small, stationary, and brief—almost as if some force is trying to draw attention.
- The signs of a Tree are not easy to discern unless you know how to read them. In particular, primal forces in the area may be trying to draw attention to the tree, a fact that makes the observed storms even more significant.
- If a Tree of Life is involved, it is absolutely essential that it not fall into the hands of someone who might abuse its power. It would be better for a Tree or seed to be destroyed than for it to be captured by a defiler.
What's That Storm?: It's entirely possible that the characters themselves spot the odd storms. A perfect way to introduce the storms is while the characters are traveling between city-states either on their own or as part of a caravan. The storms can be observed intermittently over the course of several days and nights (lightning flashes are visible at night). If the characters are traveling with a caravan, indicate that most of the travelers are either unaware of the storms or pay no attention to them, but a few—templars or characters who have the look of defilers about them—do show an interest. If necessary, the characters can be approached surreptitiously by a fellow traveler who is also a member of the Veiled Alliance. That NPC is interested in leaving the caravan to investigate the distant phenomenon and needs companions for safety.