Saturday 22 October 2011

Let the corpses do the talking

Just recently, whilst running Team Adventure through a couple of wilderness hex crawls, I’ve rolled up two encounters where I’ve used dead monsters rather than live ones. To be honest, I thought at the time of the first encounter (a mountain lion) that it would be a short-lived combat if it even came to that; a good set of rolls on the archery would either finish it off or drive it off. Worth bothering with? Nah.

Yet the dice decreed that a mountain lion was encountered by the party. Well, didn’t have to be a live one, did it? As the party were on the trail of a mysterious lumbering shape in the mist (in reality a lone hill giant) I suddenly thought that the best way to give them a hint about what they were facing would be to present them with one of its victims.

Flash forward a couple of sessions and the party were heading north again, en route to a different dungeon. The encounter roll called for ogres – but the previous week, I had run a big fight with ogres that nearly led to a TPK and I felt that to do another one so quickly would be samey and uninspired. So, once again, I converted a live encounter to a dead one. Two dead ogres, riddled with arrows and hacked about. Who could have brought down two ogres without any sign of taking casualties themselves? If the party had wanted to investigate, I would have allowed them to do a CSI although kids don’t often have the patience to conduct such an investigation with sufficient thoroughness that they pick up the clues that they’ll need to survive.

Now I’m running a wilderness into which the party are the first to venture for quite some considerable time; it stands to reason that they are not going to come across many fresh dead adventurers. They may well find monster bodies that have been killed by other monsters; examination of the claw or tooth marks (or the fact that the bodies have been scorched or drained or frozen, or whatever) can yield information that will stand them in good stead if they encounter the killer a few miles further on. They may feel that something that could take out a pack of ogres (or giants or trolls…) is not worth investigating just yet. And if they do press on regardless, then on their own heads be it.

In a campaign where the party is entering an area, either of wilderness or dungeon, that has previously been traversed by others (although not necessarily cleared) then it’s almost a racing certainty that there will be bodies. Depending on the nature of their death, their remains will give the party more than just a few gold pieces or a new sword or two. The use of gelatinous cubes to clear up the dungeon corridors is just a cop-out, in my view. A well-travelled dungeon or wilderness will be scattered with sad remains – even a few fragments will be enough in some cases to warn of both the presence of danger and its nature, be that monsters or traps. It doesn’t have to be as unsubtle as littering a room with statues to warn of a medusa, basilisk or cockatrice. A brace of corpses with their skulls cracked open and emptied is a good sign that our tentacled friends the mind flayers are out and about. Learning about the effects of various venoms and toxins can point to imminent danger as well. And what about humanoid tribes that deface their enemies in particular ways? Not just lopping their heads off and sticking them on spikes; maybe they remove the eyes and replace them with coloured stones, or prize the heart of a fallen warrior as a delicacy or totem of power. If the latter is the case and a body is found with the heart intact, what does it say about the way that person was killed?

An example – a body is found in a room that appears fairly innocuous. In its hand is a crumpled piece of parchment that appears to show part of the dungeon that the party have just explored. But the ink on the parchment is smeared and blurred as if it has been soaked. The room is in fact a water trap; the body is that of an adventurer who triggered the trap and drowned as a result. The water receded and the map dried out but still shows the signs of its immersion. A party who finds this might wonder about the map and draw its conclusions in time to prevent them suffering the same fate.

Speak with Dead

Of course it might be thought that all this CSI Greyhawk could be avoided with the use of that oh-so-handy Speak with Dead spell. However, the spell has sufficient circumscriptions in the DMG and PHB that its efficacy as a one-shot cure-all is satisfactorily reduced. Consider the following:

When the spell is cast, to whom is the cleric actually speaking? Are they conversing with the departed soul? In which case, where is that soul now? Enjoying the benefits of celestial reward or having its ass fried off by a guy with horns? If the first is the case, then the soul will be particularly testy at having its bliss interrupted (and if the body is in an area where clerics pass by regularly, this might not be the first time the soul has been disturbed) and if the second is the case, all the cleric might get is some demented shrieking as the soul may very well be insane after its time in hell.

And it should also be considered that if the dead person was particularly good (or particularly evil) in their mortal state, they may well have been rewarded by access to the big cheeses of their current spiritual abode. That soul might not be just a disembodied voice speaking from the darkness; it might now be BFF with a powerful demigod or demon prince, who may not take kindly to their friend being disturbed by pesky mortals…

Of course, it might not be the soul to which the spell grants access. It all depends on whether you have an afterlife in your campaign; it may be that what the spell does is to give a glimpse, almost a snapshot of the echoes made by the death in question. The cleric could see visions of the events leading up to and following the death, leaving him to draw his own conclusions. (this point could well be expanded upon to form another post specifically on the subject of Speak with Dead – I’ll give it some thought). The DM can relay to the cleric what they see – it may be from the deceased’s point of view, the killer’s or a hypothetical observer. Information will be limited and not necessarily reliable.

Zombie clue machine

The bodies don’t necessarily have to lie there looking gruesome. It’s sometimes more fun if they’re up and walking. A lot of the time, encounters with the undead run along rather predictable lines

DM “Out of the darkness come several shambling figures, reeking of corruption, the stink of the grave fresh upon them…”
Cleric “Ah, zombies – or possibly ghouls. No problem – I’ll step forward and raise my holy symbol, then try to turn them”
Fighter “And I’ll get my bow ready to shoot down any that don’t get turned”
2nd Fighter “And I’ll ready an oil bomb to take care of the survivors”

Much dice rolling, arrows, oil; result – charred undead, more XP, party moves on. But what about if those undead weren’t just faceless mooks? Most undead of the corporeal variety still have bodies on which can be hung pieces of armour, shields with emblems, weapons with particular hilts, pieces of distinctive jewellery. If the DM wants to drop hints as to forthcoming plot hooks, legends, lost expeditions, forgotten cultures, what better way to do it than to have those hints wandering round the dungeon, mumbling “Brains! Brains!”. If the party lacks the perspicacity to spot these hints, then more fools they.

%ge in lair

Some of you may be reading this, especially my comments about having dungeons and wildernesses littered with body parts and say to yourselves “Aha, but you’ve forgotten that most monsters tend to be either predators or scavengers and therefore would probably drag fallen corpses off to their lairs to be digested at their leisure.”
I would add “Yes, dear reader, you are quite right. Of course, why not have both?”
So bits and pieces of corpses may well be found scattered along 10’ wide passages and at the same time, other pieces of the same corpses (probably larger and more fleshy bits) may end up in the lairs of the monsters who killed them. Between the two may well be found a sticky trail of blood, further indication that something ghastly is doing the rounds of Level Four…
This of course makes the search of the monster’s lair after its inevitable demise all the more gruesome, since any remains there will have either been chewed up and tossed aside or possibly end up in the stinking pile of dung at the back of the cave. All the more fun for the party as they realise that they may have to ferret through a steaming mass of poo to get at what they were looking for.

Famous Last Words

Not a few adventurers, when confronted with a TPK in which they are the starring members, somehow find the time to scribble down a quick valedictory message which never takes the form of “Tell Mum and Dad I’m really sorry about stealing the horse before I left home…”; no, it usually serves the function of the DM letting the players know some vital clue about what awaits them. Contrived though this is, it does offer yet more possibilities for making NPCs work on after death. If they foolishly forgot to pack parchment and quill, they often considerately fall dead whilst pointing obviously towards some secret door or hidden compartment. Nice of them, eh?
Of course, after some months in the dungeon or wilderness, there’ll be little left of them save bones, and this is where the mischief makers come in. There are plenty of little critters whose sole function in dungeons, or so it appears, is to mess with the players’ heads. Jermlaine, Xvarts, Snyads, Mephits and so on. What self-respecting dungeon prankster could resist the temptation to draw up fake scrolls and messages and leave them in the bony claws of long-dead adventurers, leading those who read them not to gold and glory but into something nasty and almost certainly deadly?

And of course there is one final advantage to having corpses do the talking – the DM doesn’t have to do the voices!

1 comment:

  1. Just wanted to say having dead monsters located is a pretty cool idea.