“You meet in a tavern.”
Ah yes, we all know that tired cliche, right? It makes sense to start campaigns or stories in a tavern. The tavern was the center of communal life. It’s often where “work boards” get posted in ttrpgs. Logical. Easy. Boring. Tired. Played out. But let’s not write it off as a “never do this again.” Let’s put our brains to work and find new ways to use it. Let’s freshen it up a bit.
So, I ran a one-shot for my normal group without telling them that this was my goal until the end of the session. All I told them going into the session was: Character Level, Use Standard Array for Stats, Choose either 1 Uncommon magical item and 1 potion of minor healing or 2 Common magical items and 2 potions of minor healing, and this will be a dungeon crawl.
Once we started, this was the setup narration:
It’s a cold night at the start of winter, the lean season. You’ve all arrived at the Smiling Badger, the only tavern in this small town at the edge of a large forest. Each of you has arrived on your own separate errand, knowing no one but needing a place to rest for the night. The tavern owner and innkeeper is a jovial Elven man with silvery blond hair who uses ornate arm rings to keep the sleeves of his white tunic pushed to his elbows. A massive cauldron of perpetual stew, free on this night to all, simmers in the large hearth. A trio of troubadours play rousing and a bit bawdy songs. Travelers and townsfolk fill both the communal and individual tables. You overhear bits of conversation from townsfolk worried about the lean months, praising various gods for the innkeeper who always manages to have meat to provide for the town, and wishes for continued providence by the spirits.
Please describe your character and tell us what you’re doing, who you’re interacting with (if anyone), etc.
Yes, that’s right. In a one-shot I told the players they did not have to interact with each other. Dangerous, yes. I knew I was running the risk of nothing happening. But, we also need to recognize that when we gather to play a game, part of being a good player is at least biting at the DM’s hook. And my players are good at recognizing that.
Anyway, we narrated the group actions, and then everyone went to bed in their own rooms for the night. I asked for a Constitution saving throw but did not announce the results. They woke up to a quiet, empty inn. As they walked out of their rooms, they saw a trail of blood from one of the rooms leading into the common room. [The Actual Hook]
No one was there. Not even the innkeeper.
They followed the trail of blood into the basement/larder/storage room, where it became a trail of splatters (the victim ran out of blood) leading to a locked door. The locked door led to a trapped hallway that ended in descending stairs.
At the bottom of the stairs was a room that resembled a butcher’s workroom. There were two tables with large primal cuts as well as a huge pile of blood, entrail, and bone. (This made tracking the fresh blood a bit more difficult) A quick examination revealed the bones were humanoid. At the far end of the room was a locked door that felt markedly colder.
[There was a hidden door on the right side of the far wall that led to a secret passage ending in a descending staircase]
The room beyond the “cold door” was a meat locker. Inside were several humanoid carcasses in varying stages of butchery. An investigation would reveal noticeable traits of any NPCs the players interacted with the previous night.
Descening once more, brought the players to a cavernous basement level. They can hear chanting coming from the end of a long, curving passage way (they cannot see the ending – even with darkvision). At the end, they reach a double-door entrance to what is, in effect, a temple to an abyssal spirit.Inside, they find several of the townsfolk (including the captain of the guard, shopkeepers, the mayor, etc.) performing a humanoid sacrifice to some shadowy spirit creature. The innkeeper is serving as the high priest.
This is the big fight of the session. And here’s the kicker. The cultists/townsoflk will fight to defend the Innkeeper so he can continue performing the ceremony (I’ll explain later). Setting up the fight, the majority of the cultists were standard physical damage combatants. However, two cultists were spellcasters who defending the Innkeeper directly. These two were set to have spells 1 level higher than the PCs could cast (and, of course, these two knew both hold person and counterspell). The shadowy creature also sent out a “Hungering Wraith” that fed on life energy.
Here’s the kicker: The shadowy creature was not being summoned but appeased. It is a spirit of hunger (a Fear Gorta, a Gullas, a Ghoul, a Wendigo, etc.) that was summoned to this area centuries ago by a traveler who was denied food at the inn. Ever since taking up residence, the winter months have become times of great scarcity. And the spirit came to some of the townsfolk in dreams and offered them a way to ensure survival: feeding off travelers. And for generations, they have been doing that. This sacrifice is the offering of food to the spirit, and they do this once each month during the year; and in winter months, the sacrifice must be one of their own. The majority of the townsfolk do not know the truth of the spirit who keeps them fed, but they thank it.
The Ritual: When the fight begins, count rounds. If the Innkeeper is not stopped by Initiative Count 20 on the sixth round, the spirit is sated for now and flies out of the temple, its hungering and cold spirit ripping through all living beings and imbuing them with a piece of its hunger. Yes, this includes the PCs; you can allow a Constitution saving throw (DC18-21) to allow them to become carriers who are not directly effected.
Assuming the party survives, they leave town. They can leave together, or they can go their separate ways. But they leave…hungry.
Moving Forward: What this sets up is a potential campaign where the players either work together to rid themselves of this growing hunger (Wendigo Psychosis, if yo will) that could transform them into some form of cannibalistic monster or they go their own path, allowing for a series of one-on-one shots where the hunger grows inside them, they struggle to control it (maybe they do; maybe they don’t), and eventually start to wonder if the others from that night are handling this as well as they (think they) are.
Also, if the ritual succeeds, the creature is loosed and empowered, becoming a greater danger. And what about the carriers? Will they spread this condition to others? Will the connections be noticed before it’s too late?
I ran this as a one shot, and the players actually found themselves engaged enough to want to do this as a campaign. Sadly, we’re right in the middle of one game, and I don’t feel like prepping something this involved. But it does show that we can use a tavern setting as a starting point and it not feel trite and forced. I would personally like to run the one-on-one shot options, because I think that could lead to super interesting developments that have far-reaching impacts for the characters, the story, and my world.
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