Genre: Dark fantasy
Springboard: Throughout history, warrior cultures have invested a totemic value in the bodies of the fallen. By protecting their own, they grant morale to their side. By desecrating the corpses of their enemies, they strike fear and dismay into their surviving foes. This adventure spins that idea into a gruesome MacGuffin, which the heroes are given possession of and must convey to a safe locale.
Setting: Set this in a dark fantasy world where war rages between civilization, such as it is, and inhuman barbarians. As always, adjust details as needed to fit your setting.
Premise: On the mountainous border between the civilized lands and the barbarian wastes, the Unity Army of men and their allies mounts a furious defense against an orcish horde. The PCs find themselves near the scene of the battle—likely not as warriors, but as specialists capable of carrying out effective guerrilla actions against the enemy. They’re likely mercenaries or irregulars, rather than draftees, insulated from the full rigors of a command chain. Or maybe they’ve just happened by and get hired for one job. Tailor this premise to suit the motivations of your group.
General Rudiger Kalb speaks to the PCs on the march, as he hustles to his new command, where enemy forces regroup for another run at the Grunhaut Pass. To strike deep into civilized territory, the orcs must gain control of this chokepoint between frontier and wasteland.
The pass would have been lost already were it not for the personal heroism of Field Marshal Ernst Metzger. This revered general took an arrow to the throat as his forces drove back a surging humanoid force. The orcish king, Balgrek, swearing to place Metzger’s head atop his battle standard, sent slavering shock troops to seize the corpse. Metzger’s men rallied to protect it, many of them sacrificing their own lives to spare their beloved leader this horrific indignity.
Kalb, who has taken over for Metzger, can’t spare any of his regulars to bear the body back in dignity to civilization. He engages the PCs to get it to Unity Army headquarters in Gerstestadt, the nearest major center out of the warzone. From there the body can be safely conveyed to the capitol for a hero’s funeral, with all due pomp.
They needn’t fear encounters with orcish armies on this side of the pass, because the infantry needs an easy route through the mountains. But Balgrek has sent his most rugged infiltrators up through mountain switchbacks. Such small bands could easily ambush the group on their way back through the frontier region to Gerstestadt. Nor are they the only hostiles in the pine-choked foothills or the various tunnel networks below them.
A PC sage or magical information-gatherer inspecting the body sees that the arrow wound has been corrupted by Black Stem, an occult poison favored by orcish shamans. Its magic allows them to track anyone injured by the poison—including corpses.
If a player uses a spell or some other plausible way of removing the toxin from the body, declare that they’ve scored an important success: it won’t rot from within as they try to get it north. However, there are still traces present that will allow orcish war bands to identify Metzger’s body. (If PCs don’t counter the toxin, introduce the rot as a suspense-inducing obstacle without letting it end the adventure in anticlimactic failure.)
A wilderness chase adventure, with the PCs as pursued, ensues. Use the obstacles below as appropriate, improvising others in response to player choices.
Soften the group up with a weak band of orcish enemies.
Choice of Route
The group finds a tunnel entrance that offers a faster journey, but will probably lead them into more hostile lairs than they’d face on the surface. Do they go for speed or danger?
If they pick the tunnels, they face additional encounters against predatory skulkers unrelated to the orcish threat. In exchange, worry them less over the decomposition of the corpse.
Something other than orcs ought to go for the body. Scavenging wolves, driven to boldness by feasting on orcish corpses, fit the bill if they stick to the surface.
In the tunnel network, a weird tentacled monster comes for the body.
A band of sneaky creatures either unaligned with, or loosely under the control of, orcish forces, trails the group long enough to figure out that they’re hauling an item worth ransoming. Depending on the world you’re using, these might be rat men, k0bolds, or goblins. They try to nab the body by stealth, fighting only if caught. If they do get it, they’re open to negotiation. They want shiny things and magic things, and are as happy to extort them from the PCs as from orcs.
Weird Old Man
If the body starts to degrade, either from poison rot, ordinary decay, or from damaged suffered en route, let the group meet Ordbal, a crazy hermit living on the mountainside or on the tunnels. In his pack, he carries skulls of human and orcish soldiers alike, suggesting that he is not to be trifled with. Ordbal is an immortal wizard, driven mad by his endless years. If treated with respect, he casts a spell that restores Metzger’s body to pristine condition.
When pacing seems to call for it, hit the group with a challenging group of orcish enemies, intent on grabbing the corpse. On the bodies of the defeated, the PCs find a crude map to the town of Bienenstock, to the north but still within the war zone. Along with the map are several death’s head amulets. A character acquainted with orcish lore sees that the workmanship is human, not orcish. They are symbols of Rabmar, a forbidden deity worshiped by madmen and subversives.
(This of course assumes that they win, rather than fleeing or suffering a TPK.)
If they haven’t already worked it out, a group detouring to Bienenstock discovers that the Rabmarites are acting as a Fifth Column, bringing death to the human lands by aiding the orcs. If you need it or the players want it, a fight with cultists can break out here.
The final battle on the road to Gerstestadt occurs when an elite orcish force, sheltered by death cultists, boils loose from captured farmhouses to make a last, all-out grab for Metzger’s body.
AUTHOR: Robin D. Laws
Robin designed the GUMSHOE investigative roleplaying system, including such games as The Esoterrorists and Ashen Stars. Among his other acclaimed RPG credits are Feng Shui and HeroQuest. Upcoming projects include Hillfolk, the first game using the DramaSystem RPG rules for personal interaction, and his eight novel, Blood of the City, available August 2012 from Paizo‚s Pathfinder Tales line. There Goes My Dream Job, the second volume of his comic strip, The Birds, is now available from Pelgrane Press.