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Tropin' d20 - Matter of Life and Death

February 6, 2020

As before, this is a roll of the dice on TVTropes' random trope button to see what adventure ideas I can come up with.  I'm not sure if I'll make this into a regular article chain or not, but that's a question for the future.

Today's random trope:
Matter of Life and Death

Hmm, well, this is a trickier point to start from, since the trope is about that particular phrase or some slight variant being used to highlight the gravity of a situation.  Thinking about featuring the phrase itself does little to inspire my mind; if anything, it seems to engender the sorts of heroic epic fantasy "save the world"-type adventures that I tend to dislike for imposing more plot from on high than I like to do.  Perhaps I can find more fruitful ground by thinking about interesting small-scale matters of life and death that the players can be thrust into, either prompting them to scramble to keep themselves alive (should they be the focus) or presenting them with moral choices (if NPCs are the focus).

To correct my error in my previous Tropin' d20 post, I'll present the ideas in quotation marks and italics, followed by my thoughts on how to actually use them in a game.

1. Dying Beauties

"A curse has struck the village, and nobody knows why.  One day, everyone under the age of two fell into a deep sleep, from which nothing was able to revive them before they died of dehydration.  The next week, the same happened to the three-year-olds.  The next week, the same happened to the four-year-olds.  The people are terrified of how far it will go, but none of them seem willing to leave behind the children who've fallen asleep but remain alive."

Implementing this should be straightforward enough on the surface; it can cause a panic in a village while the players are there, or rumors can be spread of spooked-out travelers.  That still leaves something to be desired, though.  At a meta level, it leaves them lacking any clear leads on addressing the curse aside from getting everyone to leave and hoping it doesn't follow them.  At a narrative level, it risks falling into the pitfall of having bad things happen to NPCs the players don't care about yet feel obligated to get involved with because the GM presented it.  What I'd do instead is keep this in mind as a possible consequence of the players messing around with the supernatural, especially if most of their adventuring is happening around their hometown (as is the assumption in Beyond the Wall, for instance).  Let them be responsible for triggering it to give leads on how to deal with it, let it strike at NPCs who have clear connections to their characters so that they care about the consequences, and the play that comes out should be more interesting.  The obvious GM questions of what caused the curse and what might resolve it should come out organically in that way, too.

2. Noble Demon Needs Sacrifice Badly

"A protector has watched over the valley since time immemorial.  It captures and punishes all criminals without error.  It keeps all threats away from the village and the surrounding farms.  It brings rain in times of drought and grows crops in times of famine.  It restores those who have suffered injuries, disease, and even death for any reasons short of natural causes.  It grants fertility to the sterile and soothes any aches from broken hearts.  The people lead sheltered but idyllic lives, free of hardships, and any who leave are quick to return once they come to understand what they are giving up.

There's just one catch: the protector requires the oldest unbetrothed adult in the valley be sent into its lair on the first full moon of every year.  The person is never seen or heard from again."


It's a village with a cult, except the cult doesn't seem so bad.  Or is it?  First of all, the village (or maybe even the valley as a whole) should be hidden from casual discovery, in order to justify why the population hasn't grown out of control with immigrants.  If you're using rumors to plant adventure seeds, this can be a time to use some reverse psychology and include rumors of how dull and empty that area is (a risky tactic, admittedly, but hearing a rumor say "THERE IS SURELY NO ADVENTURE HERE" can catch more attention than the usual "wonders and treasure await here").  Thus, when the players overcome the illusion and happen upon the place, it'll hopefully come across as a suspicious circumstance.  Second, you have to decide whether or not the protector will try to keep the players out of the village.  Finally, assuming the protector's condition of service is true (or rather, whether the villagers believe it to be true), be aware of whether any of the PCs happens to be the oldest unbetrothed adult in the valley.  After that, let any consequences ensue.  Players can usually be counted on to disrupt the status quo wherever they go, and it should be even more likely if they're starting out paranoid about what the protector's illusion was hiding.

3. Volunteers for a Virtuous Contest

"A closed door sits within a magical threshold.  Beyond it is a room with two torture racks in the middle and a pile of wealth against the far wall.  There are no signs that anyone has moved in or out of the room recently.  Any who cross the threshold feel a tingle of magic upon entering the room, and they are temporarily unable to cross the threshold again.  A plaque on inside lintel lays out the terms of the room: a person must get on each of the racks voluntarily, and then they must turn each other's cranks until one perishes, after which any may enter or leave freely for two minutes."

This is a trick/special-type room for a sadist's dungeon (bonus points if the dungeon's owner has some way of watching it from a distance).  Where it falls on the scale of momentary obstacle to cruel impossible choice depends on how easily the characters can leave without crossing the threshold, along with the value of the "pile of wealth" and how easily it can be moved.  Some care is needed to make sure that the players don't come out of this feeling like it was an unfair screw job, for which my advice is to be open minded about enabling reasonable solutions and to avoid putting any immediate pressure on the players to think about how to handle it.  The latter runs contrary to my usual advice that puzzles should have an element of time pressure, but this particular situation is an exception because the obvious solution is to have one PC kill another, which should not be treated as a casual cost.

4. Lesser of Two Evils

"A hellish portal to a nightmare realm lurks beneath the city, its presence known only to a select few.  A cabal of wizards knew the magical rites necessary to keep anything from coming through, but their numbers dwindled over the years until only one remained.  Not trusting anyone else with the details of the rites, the wizard struck a bargain with the city's ruler: they would become undead and keep their vigil forever, in return for unopposed access to sustenance.

Most of the populous lives blissfully unaware of this.  They know only that certain inns are to be avoided, that screams after dark are best left unheeded, and that people foolish enough to be out during the dead of night often go missing.  However, a traveler unaware of the proscriptions saw a shambling corpse dressed in ancient finery drag a friend off into an alley, and so calls for help and promises of reward have spread like wildfire."


Here's another one that can work either through the rumor mill (to make it even more inticing, you can include a proclamation from city's ruler(s) that the witness was just crazy, since giving players a chance to upstage the local government often works like catnip) or as something that the players get to witness firsthand (in which case, the kidnapper should be some minion who the authorities will be quite dismissive about believing exists, even if presented with physical evidence).  The setup was very much inspired by R.E. Howard's "Shadows in Zamboula", with the twist that the kidnappings are actually being used for some maybe-good purpose.  Is the wizard's claim of keeping a vigil over the portal true, or is it just a lie to take care of their needs while they work on some further research?  What's really on the other side?  Who's actually the lesser evil?

5. Thirsting Blade

"Take a powerful magical weapon.  Curse it to require a death every time it's drawn, or else it'll kill its wielder when sheathed.  Optionally, make it teleport into its wielder's hand whenever they feel anger, fear, and/or joy."

One of the classic weapon curses in myths and legends.  Admittedly, there are campaigns where the curse wouldn't seem so dire, but I don't shy away from putting the players up against foes that they can't defeat directly.  A weapon like this would throw a wrench into that, but it's usually impressive to see how quickly players figure out ways around the downside (hence the optional extra to encourage more creativity).  As with other drawbacks of magical items, make sure you remember and enforce it at all times, but don't be a dick about contriving circumstances for them to kill their friends and family.

6. An Offer You Can't Refuse

"The inn at the crossroads has been fantastically prosperous of late despite a recent rash of robberies in the area, thanks largely to their expensive but irresistible cakes.  What most don't know, however, is that the secret ingredient is a special mold growing in the cellar.  Any who eat it receive a visit from the innkeeper during the night to let them know that they've been hooked and going without the cake for more than a few days will lead to a painful death.  Sadly, there's only so much cake that can be made each day, so most of it is sold to the highest bidders.  Prepare to pay up, or die."

Here's an adventure idea that works best when it happens to the players directly, for a change, although feel free to have some rumors of the inn's delicious cakes floating around, too.  It'd be reasonable to allow saving throws against the addiction (assuming the innkeeper was telling the truth about it), although for best effect, do it on a delay after they've already experienced some early symptoms of crashing/withdrawal rather than right when someone eats the cake.  I'd tend to refrain from having any specific quests in mind that the innkeeper would ask the players to undertake, since that allows more space for their agency, sidesteps questions of whether anyone else at the inn wants to join up in doing the same quests, and makes the innkeeper more of a petty thug than someone with an actual plan.  What are the actual effects of the mold?  How long can someone go after a dose before risking death?  How much do other NPCs bid for the cakes?

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