Recently, I was struck by several late-night creative bursts, during which I scribbled a number of ideas into my notebook under the faint light of a bedside candle. Maybe it’s all the time off I’ve had from my freelance work or hibernating at home to avoid the coronavirus outbreak. Whatever it is, ideas have been flowing! One was for an adventure zine tailored to my mom and her tastes. I wondered, if I were to run a session of D&D or another tabletop roleplaying game for my mom, what elements would I include to ensure her maximum fun?
A lot of what I came up with ended up in the digital zine, which I titled Talking Cats & Dryads and published this week! But I found that the piece became more than a mini-adventure. It became a sort of poem or meditation on the things my mother and I share: a love for plants, familiarity with depression, a dark yet whimsical sense of humor. I’m thrilled to share this work with the world. Download it for free, or send a little payment if you feel moved to do so.
One of the most enjoyable adventures I’ve run for my players involved a hag. In the final session, the party fought and killed the hag,who wished to reclaim her ancient dominion over a fey-touched forest. I named her the Rose Lady – as she kept immaculate rose gardens – and while the final battle was intense, I failed to establish her deeper motives. How had she come to rule the forest before? What twisted schemes and methods had first attracted attention to her? How did she recruit her wicked little minions and what did she want with the forest anyway? Looking back on the encounter, I had two qualms with my villain. First, she lacked the very things I love about hags: their twisted and scheming natures, their gruesomeness, their otherworldly strangeness. Second, I didn’t understand her place within the forest’s ecology. In the end, she’d come off as a tired old trope whose lair – a sentient hut! – was far more interesting than she was.
Since first taking my seat behind a DM screen, I’ve wanted to give my players a gripping hag encounter; I’ve just not been certain how. I’ve always loved witches, the occult, and anything involving the fey. I talk to the moon, I read tarot, I brew herbal potions; I’d be lying if I said I didn’t long for a coven of witches to scoop me up into the realm of magick. So, you can imagine my disappointment when – amidst the vast collection of well-crafted D&D modules and supplements – I just couldn’t find a hag with an interesting narrative. Volo’s Guide to Monsters has an extensive section on hags packed with names, exit strategies, Weird Magic items, treasure, and more. But pull up an adventure that features a hag and while she may be rich in body horror and the grotesque, I’ll bet she lacks a good story. There are notable exceptions in the recent Uncaged, Volume 1, a collection to which the designers in question today contributed and which offers three hag-centric modules and a new hag variant called Lauma.
And fear not, my fellow hag-lovers, for we have a delicious new supplement devoted entirely to hags and hag covens! It’s the book on hags I didn’t know I needed.
Grandmother Crookbesom’s Book of Hags, designed by Cat Evans, Oliver Clegg, Liz Gist, and Jessica Marcrum is a fabulously rich, 40-page book containing profiles and adventure hooks for 13 unique hags and covens. It’s packed with amazing lore, wickedly vivid descriptions, 3 new hag variants, Weird Magic, and more. Content warnings alert the reader to the more upsetting and/or grotesque bits and the clean, color-coded design makes flipping through the chapters a pleasant and convenient experience.
Last week, I ran a session of the Mermaid Adventures RPG for a friend’s birthday. She loves mermaids and I wanted to offer a fun, silly, atmospheric game for her and a few other players. To get the group in the mood to become mermaids, I wrote up a guided visualization and presented it at the start of the session. I later recorded it and mixed it with the same haunting song I’d used at the table, used and shared with permission from the composer, Brandon Feichter.
The Boneyard by Adam Hancock is a one-session D&D 5E adventure for levels 1-4. It’s horror themed, combat-heavy, and a great choice for Halloween season. I ran this adventure earlier this week for my husband and friends, making up a party of three 3rd level PCs. Hancock gives clear suggestions for scaling encounters up, but I found that some of the lower-level encounters worked as written for the group due to their small size and our friends’ limited experience with D&D.
The Boneyard is marketed as a 3-4 hour adventure, but my group is chatty and they take their sweet time with e’rything. Because I obsessively kept pace, we wrapped up in about 5 hours. This brief, atmospheric adventure is only nine pages long and is presented in a clean, well-organized format. The boxed text is concise and descriptive and includes a few NPC quotes, which I always appreciate and find helpful for setting key encounters. I never had trouble finding the information I needed from the module in session.
Minor spoilers below, but not enough to give away any loose ends for my players. And boy were there loose ends. This is my kind of adventure.
The Adventure: The Boneyard takes place entirely in a sprawling graveyard and has an excellent hook: the PCs meet annually at The Boneyard to mourn a fallen friend, Valos, who died in a red dragon attack years prior. Or whomever and however the DM wants. Details aside, the PCs return each year on the anniversary of their friend’s death to visit his grave and honor his memory. But when they arrive that night at dusk, things are amiss: the graveyard is locked and under repairs after a recent earthquake which ripped the earth apart and disturbed many of the graves. The PCs meet an unnerving gravekeeper named Drel and get into the graveyard one way or another, only to find that Valos’s grave has been exhumed. There is a haunting encounter here that my players bypassed entirely because they don’t trust nor go near anyone or anything, a byproduct of playing so many one-shots, in which things are never what they appear and someone or something is always trying to kill them. Anyway, it’s a cool encounter and I’m sad it didn’t happen.
The PCs must then investigate the graveyard to determine what happened to Valos’s body and to return his bones to their resting place. They encounter a number of undead creatures in the graveyard, which is sprinkled with horrific clues. The wandering undead table is varied and includes scaled options based on the level of the party, potential story clues, and even Valos’s skeleton and restless spirit. The party meets a number of distinct and compelling NPCs with enough detail to get the DM started with characterization. These include a hired spy who has information on what’s happening in the graveyard and a mysterious woman named Rasha who whispers to them from the shadows of a dusty mausoleum.
The final showdown occurs in a cavernous underground crypt with a cool terrain feature that makes for interesting combat. Turns out the baddies behind the undead scourge have a terrifying “pet” at their defense, which our party’s cleric turned for the duration of combat; good for them, sad for me. The battle was nonetheless epic and did not require modifications to up the flavor or cool factor. I have a habit of altering almost every big bad encounter I run, but this one was already pretty cool. When I ran this adventure, the party included a moon druid, a fighter, and a cleric: a strong and well-balanced group, which was good because this adventure has a lot of combat! Even so, it presents an interesting story, a ton of mystery, and great NPCs. The party kept the culprits alive, creating the potential for recurring villains!
The biggest downside of this adventure is its lack of maps. Still, there were enough details – dimensions, descriptions – that I was able to draw up sufficient maps the morning of the session. For a newer DM, this might be a bit more time-consuming. In addition, I found the villains’ motives to be underdeveloped, a problem I faced when the party decided to keep them alive and interrogate one of them. But because the adventure is so open, this could be developed further; on the other hand, perhaps that’s not so important for your one-shots. One of the strengths of this adventure is its simplicity; details are left open for the DM to decide. On a final note, Hancock includes stats for the grave-keeper, Drel, but they’re not incredibly exciting. Drel is essentially a coward who runs away from every fight, but wouldn’t it be cool for him to have a weird ace up his sleeve? He has a few tricks, but I didn’t find them particularly compelling.
To my surprise, the party didn’t insist that Rasha show or explain herself and so she remains a mystery to them. They did, however, head into town at the end of the adventure and turn in one of villains to the townmaster (they left the other one with Rasha!). It was only then that they learned of the rumors spreading amongst the townspeople: elderly and poor folk going missing and dying suddenly, strange bites on people’s necks. The session ended on a note of uncertainty. They solved one mystery only to learn that something altogether different was going on. And that is what I like most about this adventure: there are two very different storylines happening at once. In my group’s case, this truth came as a dramatic reveal at the end.
Modifications & Notes: Location: This adventure is highly adaptable and could be set in any modest to large town. I set it in a town called Marrion’s Way, a name I made up the night before the session.
Prop: Before we started, I gave one of the players a letter from a fellow adventurer, addressed to Valos. I aged the paper with coffee and planned to attach it to a bottle of liquor (but ran out of time to buy it). I imagined the players might share a shot at the end of the adventure as their PCs stood over the grave of their friend, his body laid at rest once more. The purpose of this prop was not only immersion but also to give a nudge toward the conclusion of the adventure as written. I have learned that players need nudges. I think it worked? No matter, I liked it.
Valos: To add dramatic flair, I put the PCs’ encounter with Valos in the final battle, so they had to fight their friend’s undead skeleton along with the villains. This seemed more exciting than encountering him in The Boneyard and it saved us time.
Loot: After the final battle, our fighter discovered an ancient relic (a custom set of magical gauntlets commissioned for the guard of a forgotten queen). I liked that there was a pre-written opportunity in the final location to discover something ancient and powerful and decided to make a custom item for one of the players.
In Summary: Strengths: scaled encounters, clean and attractive layout, well-organized, easy to follow, great hook, compelling NPCs, creepy, interwoven storylines, simple and adaptable Weaknesses: no maps, undeveloped baddies
Overall Impression: The Boneyard is a great adventure for low level parties, especially with new DMs. It has mystery, and is well-written and easy to follow. In addition to that, it delivers on its promise of flavorful and interwoven storylines, leaving the narrative open for exploration and play beyond what is presented in its brief nine pages. Make sure to include creepy music, howling wolves and zombie sounds, and candles if you can. This works as a one-shot or thrown into a regular campaign. Highly recommended, especially for this spooky time of year!
About the reviewer:
I’ve been playing D&D – primarily as a Dungeon Master – for nearly two years. This review is knowingly shared from a new DM’s perspective. I prefer adventures with a strong investigative and roleplaying focus, am a proud critter, and am always interested in learning and growing as a DM. Running combat effectively and managing pacing are my biggest challenges at this time.