A line of red warmth drips from his nose. He turns to his companions, sharing a look of fearful determination. They each clutch their respective injuries. In the distance, the horizon skies are beginning to warm in the light of morning. Day is coming, and it brings their safety. But the shadows still lurk, darkening with approaching forms and gleaming eyes that fix on the adventurers. There are terrors yet to face this night.
Our horror encounter list continues with another ten terrifying events for the party to face, all in the lead-up to Halloween. As always, we provide each one with a detailed explanation, followed by some tips and possibilities for developing it in your own game. We want each one to be unique and distinct while ensuring you don’t miss any step of planning, no matter your experience level. They should have everything you need to feel inspired and confident in spooking your players (character) sheet-less!
One again, be sure to check out our Banahogg Swamp Adventure. It’s a full, three-part horror adventure that pits the party against a hag coven, their experimental minions, and a swamp cursed with undeath. Can your party survive through the town of Myrrholm, a 1d20 list of swamp encounters, and facing the hags themselves?
11 – A bandit stands in a clearing, wildly swinging his weapon. He screams about unseen enemies. The party approaches, catching his attackers’ notice.
The yelling could be heard from far off. It echoed through the trees and down the road, finding the adventurers’ ears. Their path followed the sound and brought them closer to the source, which continued to scream and call with sounds of intermittent battle. Eventually, they move close enough to see. Several steps off the path is a clearing, grassy and green and home to a leather-clad individual, violently slashing at the air. Blood and sweat coat his face and he slouches in exhaustion, yet his sword is clean. Catching sight of the inquisitive party, he begs them for help. Answering his plea will prevent the violence. He walks away, thankful, without mentioning that the invisible beings will now target his saviors as they had targeted him.
This horror encounter takes some inspiration from It Follows before progressing into more classical horror elements. The initial encounter is relatively easy to run. Begin by having your players, depending on perceptions scores/rolls, hear the distant yelling and calling. This will put them on edge, likely believing it to be combat. Once they are close enough, you will describe the man as being alone. Make sure to mention elements such as his blood, exhaustion, and clean blade, as they are clues about the encounter’s nature. From there, it will be up to players to decide their next course. The man’s character is actually a minor concern as he is not the focus of the true encounter. Give him a personality but don’t stress about a backstory. He will quickly part ways with the group.
One of your first planning decisions is the method of transfer of what is affecting the man. We have a few examples you might want to use. The first is the ‘hero’s curse’, transferring simply by the party altruistically helping the man. For this option, make use of the inspiring movie by having the man know that he is passing it on. Players can then seek him out later for answers and help in breaking the curse. Another possibility is having it passed on by death. The bandit’s mind may have deteriorated far enough that he welcomes the release, hence calling for help. In this case, he will beckon for the party to approach him. Have him drop his sword when they are close, thanking them and apologizing. He will then suffer a violent, final wound. Anyone touched by the spray of his blood is marked.
Even more fun is choosing the curse’s effects. This is also where we can make use of classic scares. When the party camps that night, one member might notice lurking eyes during their watch. They will stay on the edge of any regular (or dark) vision, with only a vague form emerging from darkness. Turning a light on the shape will cause it to vanish entirely. These effects will worsen over time. A later night might have the character on watch make a save to avoid falling asleep. Failing will have them awaken in the morning to humanoid tracks throughout their camp, particularly focused around sleeping players. This might progress to strange dreams that leave real, painful cuts. The cuts will slowly form arcane symbols and languages, weakening the affected characters more each day.
Be creative with your weakening effects! Exhaustion is effective but think about using a theme based on what the spirits are. The cuts could lower the player’s hit point maximum. As the symbols form, the character might find themself resistant to necrotic damage, but vulnerable to radiant and under the effects of Sunlight Sensitivity.
Obviously, the curse should have a solution. Whichever town or city the party is traveling to, consider including a temple and library that can help. Investigating old folk tales can reveal legends of spirits from border planes that will haunt corporeal beings. They use the target’s sleeping hours to draw them away from the Material Plane, allowing them to be marked over time. If left cursed, these marks will give the spirits access to the target’s body. A party member or local cleric with the ability to Remove Curse can force the spirit out, but perhaps requires a special reagent. It could mean a small adventure to find a flower that only grows near planar rifts. Allow the remove curse to apply to all affected characters at once, but consider having it make the spirits visible and vulnerable, with a shadow or wraith for each player.
12 – The party comes to a town beset by nightmares that can affect the material world. Stopping it will mean entering the realm of sleep.
Towns are most often bustling with some sort of conversation, work, or curiosity over visitors when the party arrives. But not this one. The people are quiet and sluggish, all showing clear signs of sleep deprivation and the accompanying exhaustion. This all stems from them avoiding their nightly rests in fear of the nightmares that await them, as they explain to the newcomers. Anyone who didn’t, or who grew too tired and collapsed, have been killed. There is a creature, waiting across the veil of sleep, hunting the people. The adventurers are the only ones left strong enough to face it but will still require bolstering if they are to try. Fighting the creature means stepping into their own nightmares and into its domain.
The reference here kind of goes without saying. Keep in mind that it will, of course, be just as obvious to players. This does put some added emphasis on your players’ ability to roleplay but in no way stops it from being workable. If you are worried that the reference will undermine the tone and tension, we would advise using as many factors as possible to separate it from the source material. The source material being Freddy Krueger and A Nightmare on Elm Street, for anyone still wondering.
As with many of our other horror encounters, the town itself is your first port of call. The people are the real focus here. They know what is happening to them, so your descriptions should show the effects of their resistance. Sunken eyes with dark bags, sluggish movements, and slow, laboring thoughts are the best places to start. Prepare a few major faces for the players to interact with, each taking different stances on the issue. Some might be more cynical and pessimistic while others could see the adventurers as a sign of hope. A good way to put players on the right track is to include a character that has tried to fight back. They will bear the scars of a fight and some memory of what happened. Perhaps the creature also made them unable to sleep, forcing them to watch as the people around them are taken.
Fighting back should not be as simple as resting for the night and having a dream fight. You might want to have the aforementioned townsperson tell the party of a lucid dreaming technique that allowed them to take weapons into their dreams. Without doing the same, the party would be devoid of equipment. Legends and stories say that destroying the creature in a dream will force it into the real world, for a time. This strategy could mean seeking out a rare herb in order to create a sleep potion, that can only be found in the forests nearby. You can use this small detour for some minor combat encounters, as well as to lay clues of what the dream creature is. Night hags are a fitting choice and might have lairs or altars in the woods.
Your players will be under the effects of the nightmares at this point. If they rest, they will be victims of vicious images and memories, with effects in the waking world. This could come down to charisma or wisdom saves to avoid stacking hit point reductions or effects similar to the frightened condition. Avoiding rest will mean the regular constitution save against exhaustion.
Facing the creature will come in two phases. Drinking the sleep potion allows the players to enter their dreams fully equipped. The creature still has full dominion here, however, and will, therefore, take on a more threatening form. A chain devil is a perfect choice, particularly for its Unnerving Mask ability. For a fight with added spectacle, consider giving it a lair action to manipulate the arena. You can use almost any battle map and the devil might be able to conjure pitfalls and covering walls as it wishes. Defeating this version of the monster will cause the party to wake and pull it into the material world. There, in its physical and weaker form, the party can deal with it on their terms.
13 – A town has divided into two factions, each believing the other to be impostors.
Arriving in the town quickly reveals the hostilities. A marked line splits the land in half, prohibiting residents of either side from crossing. Both sides believe the other to be shapeshifters who killed the originals to then replace them. Over time, the party learns that this is only partially correct. In actuality, there are members of both sides who have been replaced, manipulating the conflict for their own means. Rooting out the impostors will require a delicate and cunning approach, to avoid losing them or killing an innocent.
Similar to Encounter 2, the focus here is on social tension. You want to emphasize the untrustworthiness of everyone surrounding the party. Anyone could be the ‘monster’, watching and waiting, aking to John Carpenter’s The Thing. This means that the planning focus is on the town and people rather than combat encounters. You do not need to map out every street and structure, but be sure to have a loose idea or basic map with points of interest. A physical map, simplified to districts and markers, is great for putting in front of players and giving them control. Similarly, arrange the characters into general groups with representative faces. Save yourself the effort of planning every person by using the leaders and prominent individuals as liaisons to the masses.
The people of the town are in a tense and untrusting situation. They are hesitant to speak to anyone, though outsiders provide the unique opportunity of a third, unaffiliated party. This allows your players freedom in crossing the line and conversing with both sides. As they move and speak, be sure to emphasize the paranoia and how it has affected the people and location. Streets will be mostly empty, though eyes watch from closed windows. Your leader characters, apprehensively trusting the party, will describe the history of the conflict: unidentifiable bodies appeared despite no one going missing. Accusations were thrown, worsening with the panicked state of the residents. Their various biases, relationships, and perspectives then led to the division.
Creating a social network of characters can be very difficult. Luckily, this encounter’s design works to make it easier by only splitting them in half, rather than multiple factions. The simplest approach is to arrange them by families and alliances. Each side is following people they believe they know and can trust, based on existing relationships. Perhaps the mistrust actually sprang from two rival families or businesses, who instinctively blamed the other as being the impostors? Their workers and supporters then blindly rallied behind them as their paranoia overtook their clarity.
Naturally, you also need to plan and run the villains behind the scenes. Counter to what the people believe, the doppelgangers have actually infiltrated both sides of the line. They work to propel the conflict by egging on the already tense hostilities. Your party’s goal will be to investigate various physical and conversational clues to uncover the stolen identities. This means that the doppelgangers should be intelligent but never flawless. Checking one of the mutilated bodies might reveal a mark that links it to a particular family. Listening to different stories could likewise reveal a single person who seemed to be present at multiple influential moments. If your party is having a hard time, consider letting them see a grey figure sneak across the line. Perhaps they even walk in when one is attempting to kill a new victim?
The doppelgangers should also have a tangible motivation. While having them worship a god of war and chaos and inciting clashes in the town as offerings is very in-theme for horror, it is not your only option. As noted, the encounter focuses on the unsettling terror of disguised monsters. This means that their goals do not have to play into any sort of cult horror. They might instead be a family of doppelgangers led by a vengeful patriarch. He was born in the town long ago, driven out as a child for his ghoulish appearance. His resentment grew throughout his life as he trained his children, using them as a means to enact his own revenge on the people that cast him out. This decidedly human element removes the need for a climactic fight by allowing the younger doppelgangers to be ‘defeated’ via careful convincing.
14 – Miners have evacuated their tunnels in fear of the sounds and visions within. Heading in, the party finds strange mushrooms growing from a central source and spreading magical spores.
There are few things in the world that could make the Ironwallow Mining Company stop its work. Coming upon their mines, the party is told of varying stories of what was seen within. Monsters, visions, and screams all apparently fill the tunnels. These occurrences have left the miners rattled and confused, sharing stories of their individual experiences. Entering the tunnels to put an end to the events, the party begins finding evidence of small, unidentifiable mushrooms growing along the walls. The growths cluster together in larger groups as the tunnels dig deeper and release clouds of spores when disturbed. This mist has the party begin to hallucinate all manner of shifting monster and visions of their fears. None of it is real, so why are they leaving real wounds?
This horror encounter lends itself best to a bounty picked up from a city or settlement. This brings the advantage of being able to keep it in your back pocket and use it as a detour any time your party is looking for work. And, of course, they will be paid for completion of the task. If you would prefer it to be roadside, the sight of workers camping on the edge of the mine should be enough to spur curiosity. The foreman would surely offer pay to any travelers capable of purging the tunnels.
Once your players arrive at the mine, have them meet with the foreman. He will be their primary information source, describing what happened. Relay that a group of miners broken through a cavern wall before the oddities started. The group that did so were nowhere to be found after the evacuation. He can also relay that some workers mentioned seeing mushrooms, though none were there previously. Interacting with the general workforce will give some perspective on the visions. Include five or so with different stories, specifically including monsters and twisted memories. Many of the miners will have very real injuries from claws and blades. Charismatic persuasion could also reveal one worker who heard wicked cackling echoing from deep inside, accompanied by a sickle-wielding humanoid shadow.
Inside the tunnels, start off slow. The first hour or so of exploration can be uneventful until the party comes across the mushrooms. Nature or arcana knowledge cannot identify them, though a roll might recognize the spores or indicate how unnatural they are. They will grow more densely as the party progresses and the spores will fill the air. Be creative with their effects. Use traumatic and defining character memories, including monsters they have previously faced. The visions could shift and change, randomly disappearing or transforming into other creatures. Use your knowledge of your players and characters to make use of their specific fears. Over time, mix in the aforementioned echoes of laughter or enormous, scythe-bearing shadows cast from around a corner.
A fun trick you can use for individual illusions is to have different party members seeing different things. Use a general description but slip certain players notes with unique details. One could even see and be subjected to a certain creature’s abilities, while their companion believes they are fighting something completely different!
The fight’s climax will come in the cavern that the foreman spoke of. The same mushrooms will cover it, centered around a dimensional rift to a plane of madness. Dispelling the rift, and likely burning the cavern, is the objective. Inside, have the hallucinations reach their peak. The players might have a hazy vision that shifts between reality and hallucinations, neither perfectly clear. The illusion could include a monster that shifts between previous villains the party has faced. In reality, the party fights the lost miners. They have been twisted and malformed into the shape of redcaps with cordyceps-like mushroom growths. These redcap-myconid hybrids will savagely laugh and scream, mindlessly attacking the party. Perhaps the villain illusion is covering their leader, a myconid sovereign?
We have all the maps and tiles you could need to construct the mine, tunnels, AND cavern! Encounter 19 has even more options if these don’t cover what you need…
15 – A man approaches the party’s camp in the dark of night. His odd behavior and sluggish mannerisms betray a disturbing nature.
The party’s travels bring them through open country, far from civilization. Along the way, they pass a pair of well-armed travelers who have clearly seen battle. The two are friendly and jovial and pass by amicably. Hours later, the party finds a ransacked homestead. It sits just off the road, doors recently broken and the interior robbed of most valuables. Hidden heirlooms remain, well hidden. Investigation of the exterior reveals a set of shallow graves, one of which has been excavated. That night, a man approaches the party camp. He can be seen nearby by those with keen sight but will eventually come closer. He sits and speaks, slowly and with a confused mind. Closer inspection reveals that the man, coated in dirt and scars, might be a product of the day’s events.
This horror encounter makes use of a series of progressive clues to build a story, with the party acting more as observers than instigators or victims. The first of these comes with meeting the two travelers on the road. It should be like any other passing group, though the party will notice their weapons. Specifically viewing them closer will reveal dirtied hands and boots, sweaty brows, and even spatters of blood. They will not reveal the truth if asked about it, of course. Have them twist events by describing a scuffle with highwaymen or beasts, jokingly suggesting that the party has likely seen similar. Don’t use wording that makes their ruse obvious to players. The pair want to avoid conversation and should understand how to avoid suspicion.
The second step is finding the homestead towards dusk. It will be situated a little ways off the path, connected by a small dirt road. As a start, have the most perceptive characters see signs of damage. A broken door and shattered window should do the trick. In addition, include some living livestock or horses to show that it was likely a recent attack. Your players will catch on quickly. The interior should make use of all the classic signs of distress. There will be hours-old blood, dirty bootprints, scratches matching the travelers’ weapons, and drag marks leading out the back door. The graves will be nearby. Include evidence of a family within the house to further explain multiple graves. The largest, however, will be strangely empty. Investigation reveals that the bodies are, of course, fresh.
As a minor note to account for less moral-driven parties, make it clear that the attack was part of a robbery. Show that dressers, footlockers, and the like have been broken open and rifled through in search of valuables. High investigations should, however, reveal a hidden compartment in the floorboards. Inside will be several valuable heirlooms in the form of jewelry and a sword that gives off a magical aura. It might only be a +1 shortsword; anything remotely valuable will lure your players into taking it. This serves to increase the tension in the climactic meeting.
The real horror of the encounter comes from when your party makes camp. The father of the attacked family, risen as a revenant, will find them. Have him stand outside of darkvision range, able to see the group by the light of their fire. He will watch, motionless, until they are ready to retire. After some time, he will walk into their camp. His form is large and strong, wearing basic clothing and a soil and blood-caked coat. A scarf around his neck covers an unhealing gash along his throat that renders his voice raspy and strained.
There are important roleplay and description aspects to keep in mind when he does approach. For one, he is not hostile to the players. Do NOT let them know this! Have him move slowly and speak as if his thoughts are foggy and indistinct. His tone will be harsh and wrathful but he will not make any move against them. Instead, he will probe them for their destination and intentions. If offered food, he will hold it without taking a bite. Ultimately, your goal is to make players feel that they are on the edge of combat, without ever initiating it. If you want to increase the tension, make the man’s undead state more obvious. Cover him in blade wounds, even missing fingers, but do not have him acknowledge them.
The conversation should be aided by the reminder of anything the party took from his house. He will know of anything they hold and his intentions are to reclaim them, primarily the sword. Returning the belongings will see him leave, noting that the party is lucky to not be the ones he seeks. If they try to keep anything of his, he will simply remain. Make use of the revenant’s persistence, sleeplessness, and intelligence.
16 – A hulking beast has murdered several residents of a town. The first was the daughter of a man who now seems to have something to hide.
The first victim was a young girl, whose body was never found. Whatever was responsible returned some days later, beating a lone drunkard to a broken mess in the dead of night. Several more deaths occurred between then and the time of the party’s arrival. The only evidence is the sound of heavy footsteps near the scenes and the impact wounds on the bodies. A local physician likens them to the force of a horse’s kick. When cries during the night draw the group to a dark alleyway, the only glimpse they get is a large, humanoid form escaping from its victim.
For this horror encounter’s description, we will actually start with the true story that players will work to reveal. The little girl was the daughter of a sculptor within the town. One unfortunate day, she was playing in his yard while he worked nearby. Blissfully running in front of her father while he moved a large section of stone, the sudden distraction saw the material falling over and crushing her. In mournful desperation, he cleaned and hid the evidence. Overcome and maddened by his guilt, the sculptor saw to immortalize his sweet daughter. He encased her remains in clay, carved to resemble her cheerful demeanor. This inadvertently gave life to a golem. He seeks to hide the creature but it frequently escapes, unleashing mindless violence on those that scream at the sight of it.
Like many of our other horror encounters, the basis for this is an investigation. In this case, it is not particularly difficult. The father has eroded to visible madness and is distraught over his daughter’s death and subsequent events. Have other townsfolk mention his reclusiveness, understanding the reason for it. In conversation, play him as being disturbed and absent, struggling to admit that his daughter is gone. At the same time, play up his guilt without directly revealing the reason for it. “Whoever did this truly is a monster” is an appropriate line that only becomes more chilling as the party learns the truth. He will attempt to hide the basement in which she hides, claiming it to be a private workplace. If he is questioned in the day after an attack, an insightful character might notice signs of sleep deprivation.
Checking the scenes of the murders will reveal basic physical clues. The victims are connected only by the method of killing and that they were out alone at night. Speaking to members of the guard or the closest equivalent to a mortician will have them note that the wounds resemble a horse’s kick, though larger and rounder. Tracks can be found leading from multiple sights, all disappearing after a certain distance. In truth, the father has been sweeping them away at night. This means that they do not directly lead to his yard, though extrapolating them on a map will see the lines converge in that area.
The climax will come from entering the basement, luring the golem, or threatening the father. The first is simple, with the creature initially hiding among statues before flying into a ‘defensive’ assault. If the party aggressively threatens or interrogates the father, they will hear heavy shifting in the room below. This will lead to a similar fight as the first, with the golem acting more violently to protect its ‘father’. The party may also manage to corner it after a murder, despite it trying to escape. In all of these cases, the sculptor will rush to place himself between the combatants, begging for his daughter to not attack or be harmed. Keep note of the golem’s hit points, as its Berserk ability may lead to it disregarding his identity and battering the creator aside. Naturally, he won’t have many hit points of his own.
Statistically, it is simple and fitting to use a clay golem. Their abilities make them formidable opponents for an entire party and the necromantic undertones of the body buried in its form help explain the health drain of its Slam. Significant damage could begin to break it apart, revealing the disturbing contents. If CR 9 is out of your party’s capabilities, consider replacing its statblock with that of a flesh golem. You might remove the Acid or Lightning Absorption features, returning the clay golem’s Haste as an addition to its Berserk state. In combat, remember its ability to grapple targets, particularly if your group is favoring area spells.
17 – An inn sits as a rest stop in the lonely countryside, run by a strange family. The real owners were actually killed weeks ago, now imitated by an oblex.
The Weary Wayfarer is a well-kept, comfortable establishment. It sits along the road, days of travel from any settlement, as a welcome sight for its patrons. Few travel the particular road, but those that do have always been impressed by the Wayfarer’s warm and welcoming interior. Another couple is staying in the rooms when the party finds themselves at its doors. The building is beautiful and inviting but something about the workers is amiss. The family of owners seems distant, almost robotic. During the night, a call is heard from a neighboring room. The resident oblex has taken another victim and added them to its simulacrums.
Just like small towns, isolated hotels and inns have been a horror mainstay for decades. This makes the Weary Wayfarer a perfect setting but also one that needs a particular effort to disguise. It is important that you not telegraph the encounter beforehand. Position the inn as a welcome sight after days of travel, possibly under consistent rain. A resident of the previous town may have also mentioned it as a place of reputation. Finally, don’t have the proprietors immediately seem strange. Act as if everything is normal, at first. Your players should be glad to find it and eager to spend a night. The only thing that seems out of character should be the floorboards, some which creak and shift as if not securely fastened. “An old problem from the wood expanding in rain,” the owners will say.
A fun element to mix into the party’s first night is to target a charisma-focused character. We all know the type: the bard that will hone in on anything with a remotely attractive description. Pose the family’s youngest, a friendly and striking young man or woman, as being susceptible to the party member’s charms. Go along with it as far as the player will take it, ‘fading to black’ if necessary. The implications of this will come later. One thing to note is that, if this does come to pass, the man or woman will snuff any lights within the room to ensure the party member does not notice their tether to the elder/adult oblex.
The true horror encounter begins during the night. A cry will come out from the hallway between the party and the couple, whom the players will have briefly spoken to earlier. One of the two will rush out to meet the woken party, telling them that the other had gone to investigate a sound. Skillfully investigating the area can reveal scratch marks, resembling fingernails, leading to a section of loosened floorboards. Moving the boards opens into a crawlspace beneath the building. The soil below is sodden from rain and slick with a strange ooze. The victim is nowhere to be seen. Unknown to the players, the oblex has dragged the missing individual up and into a secret back room of the inn to consume them.
Once they return to their beds, briefly note that the rain outside has worsened into a storm. This will build in the morning when the owners warn the party that the weather is unfit for travel. They are welcome to stay, of course, at a discount for the unfortunate circumstances. During the morning meal, have the couple reappear. The ‘victim’ will have returned shortly after last night’s incident, having found nothing and reassuring their partner to not worry. They had simply followed the sounds outside, determining it to be vermin.
This is where your players can continue noticing details. They will likely make an effort to question or inspect the couple, which can reveal a tether leading from one of them and into the floorboards. It is hidden mostly beneath their clothing, running from the nape of their neck, down their back, and out the bottom of their pant leg. Once your players realize this, it is up to them to investigate. Try to pinpoint when the oblex notices this through its simulacrums. As soon as it does, they become enemies.
The oblex itself will make use of the crawlspace and back rooms to move around. Its tethers use the same spaces, curling through floorboards to connect with the people. The primary combat will involve fending off the human targets while following their tethers to the creature. It will personally engage once found, making full use of its magic and movement abilities while continuously spawning simulacrums. If one of your players did… ‘engage’ with it the previous night, consider giving them a wisdom save to prevent being temporarily frightened or poisoned by the memory.
18 – A seaside town has taken to worshiping creatures that lurk beneath the waves. The voices promise godhood to those that can impress them.
A rough and grime-coated town lies on the stormy coast, isolated and sustained by fishing trade. Its people are cautious and uninviting, urging visitors to see to their business and leave. Unfortunately for their xenophobic mindset, strings of disappearances within the town have led to the party’s arrival. Investigation of the abrasive locals slowly reveals the existence of a town-wide cult, led by the current heads of the founding families. They join in the worship of creatures that whisper from beneath the water’s surface, offering potential power. The party must stop them, but doing so may have unforeseen side effects.
What would a series of horror encounters be without one inspired by Lovecraft? In particular, this draws heavily on The Shadow Over Innsmouth and the creatures also inspired by it, the kuo-toa. Your party will be playing the role of investigators, either contracted by a previous victim’s family or by simple happenstance. This means that your focus should be on creating a living, breathing town as a sandbox for your players to explore. It does not need to be large and your focus should be on the most important characters. The five most prominent could be the Mayor, guard-captain, tavernkeeper, dockmaster, and an allied investigator for the party to find. These five can later act as your high priests and priestesses.
A key aspect of the town is that everyone is a part of the cult and trying to have the party move on. They will be rude and unhelpful, accepting only bribes and yet still holding back key details. Players will need to be clever and cunning to properly investigate. To get them started, have the contractor give them some basic information, such as where the supposed victim was staying. The tavernkeeper will still refuse to let them in, citing that the person has not checked out and therefore no one else can be let in. Sneaking in can have players find hastily-written notes and journals; a classic board of red string and clues. These can first lead to the warehouse that the person was preparing to search, where the party will find evidence of their kidnapping.
The purpose of the clues is to create an organic network of information that eventually leads the party into a series of tunnels. You can make the investigation as sprawling as you feel comfortable running. Keep in mind that locals will grow less comfortable with them as they stay longer. Their actions might also attract the attention of higher-ups, such as the Mayor. The allied investigator character is entirely optional, serving as a way for you to nudge players in case they run out of ideas. As a planted double-agent, the character will ultimately work to undermine the players by bringing the group underground as their own sacrifice to the ‘gods’. This allows you to intermittently assist players before turning the tables on them. Sacrificing those skillful enough to uncover their plot could even be the priests’ ultimate goal to impress the beings by ‘protecting’ them.
The encounter’s climax comes once the players travel through the caves and find the hidden temple. Their journey from arrival to this point should have increasing amounts of religious symbols and texts to be found, revealing the town’s history. If you’d like to include other instances of combat, have cloaked priests summon creatures for the party to face, either in their room at night or during investigations. The visible, cloaked figures will prompt your players forward, while the monsters can pose as tests of their value as sacrifices. When they eventually reach the temple, centered around a pool of water containing watching shapes, the party will face the cultists. The opponents do not need to be skillful in combat, as they have not received their ‘blessings’. The head priest will have magic, but the fight should be over quickly.
In reality, the true fight comes after the cultists. See, the slaughter of the worshippers is what finally impresses the kuo-toa. Once they have seen the skills of the party, they will give rise to a new ‘god’. One way is to have the Mayor and lead cultist’s dying body slip into the water, hoping to be reborn. He will rise as a sickly amalgamation of himself, an aquatic creature, and… the party. Make note of specific spells and class abilities your party used during the previous fight and give them to this new creature as physical features. A monk’s Flurry could mean extra arms, spell components could be blended into his flesh, and racial features could visibly morph together. The realization of the party achieving what he could not and his being changed to reflect them will send the mutated priest into a raging assault.
If you’d like a concise explanation of how kuo-toa regularly operate, we would recommend watching Zee Bashew’s video. Our encounter uses them a little differently, but it’s a great way to understand the lore and abilities behind the race!
We have a collection of maps perfect for the seaside caverns, as well as tokens for the kuo-toa and their mysterious creations. There are even more in our gallery…
19 – People have been disappearing in the area surrounding an elderly couple’s farm. Heading there to investigate, the party feels that something is wrong with the kindly farmers.
A string of disappearances has plagued the quiet countryside. The hills are populated only by sparse farms and the families whose quiet lives occupy them. Coming to the area to look into the matter, the party eventually comes across an elderly couple in their isolated farmstead. The wife is kind and accommodating, inviting the strangers to stay in their son’s old room. Her husband, by comparison, is harsh and blunt, avoiding the party in favor of his chores. Throughout their search of the area, the party finds evidence of murders and violent dismemberments, all leading back to the couple. The husband warns them as they close in, resisting his wife’s control. If they do not leave, they will be added to his risen form.
This encounter functions much like a combination of Encounters 15 and 16. They function differently due to context and progression, to show how a similar base idea can develop into entirely different encounters. Unlike the mournful, repentant father of Encounter 16, the old woman here is a witch whose husband died some months ago. She resurrected him as an expertly crafted flesh golem, retaining his identity and faculties but bound to her will. Her magic was not perfect, however, and his body has needed updates by way of new parts harvested from visitors and neighbors. She does this by way of his obedient strength and her own magic. He is horrified by this, making every attempt to warn people away against her controlling magic.
The first decision to make is how you introduce this horror encounter. Having it posted as a bounty is a simple option if players are in a town. The wife could have placed it as bait to not only draw in strong specimens but also to ensure they stay with or close to the couple. You can also pose the encounter as a roadside occurrence, with some adjustment. The party might encounter the woman on the road, returning from a shopping trip, who will then present the contract to them. She could even have set a trap of having a cart broken down towards nightfall. Helping repair the wheel will earn the reward of a home-cooked meal, over which she will speak of the worrying disappearances by suggesting they are animal attacks.
Have the husband initially avoid the party in fear of being commanded to harm them. He will see to the farm, silently cutting wood and plowing fields. The players might even see him feeding the pigs a bucket of muck when they first arrive, which they will later realize was unneeded remains. Play him as being violent and rude, potentially deranged, to contrast him against his wife. He acts as a villainous red herring, directing players to wonder if he is a werewolf or the murderer. Try not to be too obvious with it, as players will quickly catch on that you are trying to trick them. Make a note to have him covered in a long jacket and scarf to cover where parts have been swapped out. If your players insight check him, casually mention that his eyes are different colors.
The investigation itself serves mostly to lead the players back to the couple. Neighboring farmhouses will be bereft of life, with clear signs of a struggle. Nothing will be stolen and no bodies will be found, though the party can find marks where a short blade hit a wall or table. When they return from their first search, have the husband cutting wood to create a mental link between the evidence and an axe. If the party stays within or even near the house that night, the husband will approach. He will be sweating and straining, struggling with words and basic movements like opening doors. His gritted jaw will manage only a “you should leave,” before the wife finds him and caringly leads him back to bed. A high enough insight can reveal that he is not angry or deranged, but distressed.
Your encounter will culminate with the party accusing the couple. The number of clues leading back to them should make it a quick investigation, whether they realize the truth or believe it to be the husband’s doing. At this point, the wife will cheerfully propel her partner by commanding, “deal with them, my dear. But be gentle; you could use a new spine.” This is when you should reveal anything the party has not already discovered. Dealing damage to the husband can tear his clothes, revealing surgery scars and obvious differences between limbs. You might also give him the ability to make wisdom saves each turn, resisting her commands on a success. For her own stats, we would suggest a green hag with toned down health, armor class, and damage values.
20 – Ravens appear, watching. Before long, the skies darken against the flock.
The lands are often quiet when traveling, outside of shuffling bushes and distant birds. It takes a special form of silence to be noticed. The party realizes this auditory void, unsure of how long it has followed them. Suddenly, a shrill caw pierces the air. A single raven watches them from a tree. They continue, slowly noticing more and more of the birds with more and more disturbing alterations to their sound and appearance. Not long after they think they are free, the sky grows rapidly overcast. They glance up to see not weather, but a shifting formation of birds, all beginning to cry out in angered screeches. One after another, swarms of the ravens dive at the travelers.
Before you start this horror encounter it’s important to know how you’re putting the horror into the encounter. Birds aren’t the scariest animal, outside of Australia and Canada, but there are ways to make them scary. Our favorite method for this encounter is to use body horror. For the first few appearances of the birds, watching the players, position them at a distance that hides detailed features. Likewise, have their caw sound relatively normal. It should only be later that the players realize that each raven has a cluster of eyes covering its head, hooked barbs on its wings and back, and a call that seems to blend with human cries, akin to the bear in Annihilation.
The other avenue of horror we use is slowly building the encounter. As stated, start with an eery silence that only a ranger or high perception check might realize. As you proceed in describing the passing environment, mix in the mention of a distant raven that caws and watches them. The party will see a few more, grouped together, as they travel for the next hour. Mentioning these should start to tip your players off, prompting an investigation. This is when the physical description of our ‘dire raven’ will come. Part of the creep-factor comes from your players’ understanding that the birds have been following them for some time. They will most likely begin to move either faster or more perceptively from here.
This encounter is one that comes without explanation, giving you freedom for expansion. One aspect that I love to include is hinting at a greater force. If the party is in a forest, perhaps they come to a point where trees arch over the road. A line of exhumed bodies hangs from nooses, each one loosely dressed to resemble a different party member. Atop the branches is, of course, a raven. The best part of this is the lack of explanation, creating terror from the unknown. Birds couldn’t have done it and whatever did is likely still watching the players.
Once your players are thoroughly terrified and on edge, it’s time to enter the combat phase. A shadow will fall over them, writhing with unusual flecks of sunlight. Looking up will reveal it to be a colossal murder of ravens that screams with thousands of voices. The creatures will dive at them as swarms of ravens to slowly chip away at hit points. A simple way to emphasize the supernatural is to enhance the damage with 1d6 necrotic damage that saps health like a vampire’s bite. You can even skin the healing they receive (which a swarm normally could not) as birds visibly multiplying within the swarm each time they taste blood. The murder’s booming voices could also have an ability akin to a chasme’s Drone, scaled-down in effect. Perhaps a one-round stun, but without the immunity after being affected?
Combat is rarely scary on its own. One of the strongest elements of this encounter is punctuating the fight with questions for players to ponder. What has made the birds appear and act this way? Do their bloodthirst and subsequent multiplication factor into it? If you really want to crank up the fear of the creatures, have the human voices within the swarms start to include an injured character’s immediately after they are drained. Your players will scare themselves with ideas of what is happening, which is often worse than anything you can write.
Your intention is to gradually overpower your players by outnumbering them rather than dealing instantaneous damage. Their escape should be a battle of attrition to reach shelter, at which point a few more swarms can breach until players manage to form defenses. Give them access to an old, dilapidated hut or some other form of cover, in case they don’t think of anything themselves. Be sure to emphasize that the swarm seems effectively infinite and will continue attacking until they can barricade themselves. Have them think creatively and practically and, above all, reward them for doing so! A few hours of pecking later, the ravens will disperse.
We have a number of maps and tiling assets that allow you to easily create travel maps. Change the road, trees, and obstacles as players move to keep them on their feet!
With that, your party makes it out the other side. The horror encounters are over… for now. Keep an eye out for our ‘Encounters by Environment – Horror’ PDF, coming soon to the gallery. It will include our full encounter list, as well as a guide on how to run horror adventures. The same ‘How to’ will release as an article not long after. In the meantime, make sure to look back at the first 10 Horror Encounters. You can also leave a comment below to let us know what you think. We love hearing what your opinions, any inspiration you find, or ideas of your own!
We may also develop some of these into full adventure outlines, so let us know if you would be interested.
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