The relentless thud of unliving feet sounds behind you. As fast as you run, you cannot lose them because they never sleep, never tire, never stop. Claws and teeth bared, they seek your blood, your life force, or—perhaps the worst fate of all—they seek to make you into one of them.
Undead have always been a true horror of the Dungeons & Dragons game; one of the reasons is that players are subtly bothered by enemies that are already dead (and thus don’t have the same outlook on… life). Face it, undead are just creepy. And some, like vampires, are downright terrifying because they’re so hard to destroy and they… just… won’t… die!
In this month of love in the real world, Steal This Hook delves into the horrors of the undead. Introduce these hooks into your campaign when you need a jolt to heat up the lives of your PCs!
Who Put That Pile of Bodies There?
Reaching the river just as night falls, the adventurers make camp in a somewhat secluded spot and settle in for a rest. The woods have been quiet all day long, and there are no tracks near their camp site. The river seems very low, but it could be the dry season (Nature check DC 15 to know this is not the dry season, or that this area never has river levels this noticeably low). As the night passes, the river flow becomes even slower, and shortly after midnight something floats by the camp (Perception check DC 10 to spot it, and DC 20 to realize that it is the head of an elf). If they don’t identify the object right away, they can follow it downstream and do so. However, by this time the river is barely flowing, and the head is part floating, part rolling along the bottom.
Several hours’ travel upstream, the PCs come upon a horrifying sight. The blockage in the river is caused by a huge pile of dead bodies! Several have been eaten… at least, partially.
How can anyone resist the mystery of a pile of bodies?
Select or generate story elements from this table.
1. The pile of bodies has obviously been there a long time. The bodies on the bottom have been there weeks or months, while the top ones are more recent additions. Some on the lower levels have been chewed upon, or eaten entirely. The pile blocks the river almost completely, like a beaver dam. Unblocking the river is the easy part; solving the mystery is more difficult.
2. Strangely, there is very little gear or clothing with the pile of bodies. It is as if this is a dumping ground for useless bodies.
3. These bodies are the remains of an undead army that a necromancer created and lost control of. He had to destroy them, and dumped them all here. This dumping ground, by the way, is miles from his base, but there are tracks of a large creature pulling a wagon that lead back there… where the necromancer is busy trying to make more undead that he can control.
4. The bodies were placed here by a reaper (see Open Grave p.178). It has been collecting bodies from the area and depositing them here for later transport to an evil temple. The bodies are destined to become undead servitors of some kind.
5. The bodies were dropped here by undead giants (or live giants) who repelled an attack of adventurers on their home. The home location is many miles from here, and the undead giants live there in peace (perhaps with live giants as well). See the Society section of Open Grave starting on page 15 for ideas about peaceful undead communities.
6. An elven necromancer in a nearby settlement is dumping the bodies here. They are potential recruits for his army, and he wants to complete one massive ritual to animate them all as a kind of gestalt zombie. He or she wants as many bodies as possible, and has stationed a number of dangerous creatures (especially undead) near the body pile to slay anyone who investigates.
A character knows the following information with a successful Religion check.
DC 15: Common folk regard reapers as embodiments of death that escort souls to the Shadowfell, but their true nature is more sinister. Reapers are servants of Vecna, and they are sent out by the god and his followers to collect souls for profane rituals.
DC 20: Reapers are failed undead imitations of the Raven Queen’s sorrowsworn. Although Vecna did not succeed in copying the powerful servants, he has nonetheless found use for reapers. Many reapers are also in the service of demon lords, especially Orcus, who uses them for the same foul purpose as Vecna does.
DC 25: An abhorrent reaper is a paragon of its kind. The creature collects souls of only the most powerful creatures. Abhorrent reapers also serve as guardians for powerful undead.
DC 30: The Raven Queen despises reapers and dispatches sorrowsworn and other powerful servants specifically to eradicate them. Her followers have been known to reward individuals who dispatch reapers.
Damn You Halflings, Anyway!
The man shambled into the tavern and up to the bar, and even tried to order a drink. However, the flesh dropping off his body scared everyone out of the place (except perhaps the PCs) as most people ran screaming for the front door. “Been a long time, Tomersaid,” said the bartender to the corpse as it struggled to make its wishes known.
“What happened to you? Now, don’t get worked up,” he said as he put a beer down on the counter then backed away quickly. His disappearance through the back door leaves only the PCs and one cowering waitress in the room with the zombie beer drinker.
If the PCs ask around, they'll learn of only one known necromancer in the whole region, a halfling wizard named Piotorr. Piotorr’s family try to keep his activities under control, and as a result he does not have a reputation for robbing graves and animating the relatives of townsfolk. So what is happening here?
Select or generate story elements from this table.
1. The corpse in the bar, Tomersaid, is a relative of the Glowynn family. He died recently, and was buried in the cemetery. His family is very superstitious; they blame Piotorr, the only known necromancer in the area. They swear vengeance as soon as the reports of Tomersaid’s unliving state reach them.
2. Is Piotorr the only necromancer in the area? Maybe not. Perhaps there is another who is trying out his or her talents. Or maybe this unknown necromancer is trying to incite violence against Piotorr and his family, and maybe against all halflings in the area. By doing what only Piotorr is known to be able to do, this secret necromancer could then lead rallies in the streets and incite violence.
3. In a strange twist, Piotorr did not animate Tomersaid, but knows who did. Piotorr is trying to protect this other person from discovery and persecution, and thus does things to throw off the hunt for the real perpetrator without incriminating himself. The resultant situation becomes very confusing for the PCs (and the law) to sort out, and could likely result in Piotorr’s death.
4. Tomersaid is actually still dead. His body is possessed by a spirit vampire (see Open Grave p.189) to feed on others in town.
5. Tomersaid is only one of many bodies that have been unearthed and stolen from the cemetery. Soon more townsfolk will return from the dead, sort of, to claim even more victims.
Either in a tavern or on the streets of a town, the PCs cannot help but overhear this snippet of conversation. “We’re the last of the Goldiron clan, and we’re here to find the clan ancestral home,” says the dwarf woman. She acts like the leader of the group. “We think that a branch of our family lives at the citadel; they would be the only relations we still have left in the world.”
“Yeah, all our kin were killed by orcs a couple months ago. Only the four of us survived,” says a younger male dwarf, then nods toward the dwarf woman. "I think she worries about just the four of us going into the mountains alone. After what happened to the others, Bardryn has been especially careful in our travels.”
“That’s enough, Orsik. We don’t need to tell our whole story to these people.” Bardryn starts to turn away, but then turns back to add, “Truth be told, I would be interested in some people who could go with us tomorrow into the mountains to find the citadel. Can you recommend anyone?”
If the PCs themselves are interested, Bardryn is willing to pay 1 treasure parcel in non-magical rewards for escort to the citadel, which is about four days’ travel into the mountains.
This hook can tie very well into the Overlook area, if you have run (or intend to) Siege of Bordrin’s Watch from the Dragon Magazine Scales of War Adventure Path. It is a largely dwarven area with possibly abandoned citadels.
Select or generate story elements from this table.
1. The dwarven citadel was abandoned by the dwarves many years ago, as old age took its toll on the residents. They moved to distant lands, leaving little trace to their new home.
2. Recently, a vampire lord set up shop in the abandoned citadel and brought in a legion of vampires, vampire spawn, and even some vampire thralls (see Open Grave p. 219).
3. Years ago, a wizard named Altoor fled to the citadel after stealing an artifact of immense power and evil from a rival wizard. Hoping to master the artifact in the solitude of the citadel, he was instead mastered by it and transformed into an undead lich or mummy. Since then, he has been following the commands of his master (the artifact) and collecting other servitors. Thus, the whole citadel is full of zombies, ghouls, wights, and more.
4. The dwarves did not abandon the citadel, and are still there to this day. However, they have been… changed. Years ago, a vampire infiltrated the citadel and set up its home in a forgotten catacomb. From there, it has been slowly creating vampire thralls of the dwarves. Now most of them serve the vampire, and would see the newly arriving dwarves and the PCs as yet more servants to add to their master’s numbers.
Vampire spawn are useful servants, but sometimes a vampire requires servants that are more hardy and subtle. By feeding on a subject’s blood over an extended period of time, a vampire can condition a creature to be a strong yet obedient servant. “Vampire thrall” is a template you can apply to any living humanoid to represent that creature’s service to a vampire lord.
Prerequisites: Living humanoid
Defenses AC +2; Reflex +2; Fortitude +2; Will –2
Saving Throws +2
Action Points 1
Immune disease, poison
Resist 5 necrotic at 1st level, 10 necrotic at 11th level, 15 necrotic at 15th level
Vulnerable 5 radiant at 1st level, 10 radiant at 11th level, 15 radiant at 21st level
Hit Points +10 per level + Constitution score
Requires combat advantage against the target; vampire thrall’s level + 2 vs. Fortitude; 1d12 + Charisma modifier damage, and the target is weakened (save ends). In addition, the vampire thrall regains hit points equal to one-quarter of its maximum hit points. Increase damage to 2d12 + Charisma modifier at 11th level.
The vampire thrall’s master can speak and be spoken to by the vampire thrall as if both had telepathy 20.
The vampire thrall takes the form of a Medium black wolf, gaining speed 8 and the savage bite power, described below.
Vampire spawn’s level + 4 vs AC; 1d10 + Strength modifier damage, and the target is knocked prone. Increase damage to 2d10 + Strength modifier damage at 11th level.