This encounter is intended for five PCs of 3rd level
A friend of mine and frequenter of “Save VS Weekend” recently mentioned that he was firing up a new campaign with an “Oriental Adventures” styled setting. He ALSO added that he’d be using some of my encounters to spice things up. Well it just so happens that flattery gets you everywhere with me, and in honor of his pending game, I decided to try my hand at an encounter that would capture the feel of the campaign.
In attempting this I recalled a time a few years ago (back in the 3.5 days) when I was beeseched to run an Oriental Adventures campaign. I never went through that “hardcore Japanophile” phase that a lot of my peers did in middle school/early high school (right around that time that you discovered anime and got serious about the martial art you were taking because it was a cool sport). As a result my chops on medieval Japanese culture and folklore are left wanting. Add to that lack of knowledge base the fact that an Oriental Adventures game will likely incorporate elements of mythology from China, Korea, India, Vietnam…Basically its a flavor of setting that’s just as deep, varied and anachronistic as the “traditional” grecco-western medieval european setting we tend to assume for D&D.
The DM needs to have the best working knowledge of the setting – even if he or she is just making it up as they go. A few Kurosawa movies and the occasional “Katana = Masterwork Bastard Sword NERD RAAAYGGGEEE111!!!!” forum discussion just wasn’t enough background for me to feel up to the task, and I scrapped the idea. I didn’t want to run “D&D with katanas,” I wanted to run a game that felt different and had different conflicts that reflected the kinds of tensions and archetypes you find in traditional Japanese fantasy fiction. I just wasn’t cut out for it.
But don’t get me wrong – when it’s all said and done, samurai and ninja fighting undead monsters and crazy demons is always awesome.
So in writing this encounter I wrestled with what easy to recognize, practical elements could be throw in to make this stand out as appropriate for a game in Rokugan or some similar setting. It’s a pretty big question and I didn’t even begin to dredge up most of the possible answers – but I played around with set dressing, architecture, monster choice, and player motivation. Even if my “Shinto-ish” shrine lacks some glaring oversights to the more informed, and ultimately this ends up feeling like “just another D&D” fight – I’m hoping that it’s at least a good one, and finds its way to your table.
One of the PC’s has heard rumors of trouble at their family shrine. Situated on a rocky hill outside a nearby village, this particular holy place attracts a modest number of pilgrims each year, and is dedicated to the PC’s heroic ancestors, the mightiest of which are immortalized in 7 foot tall stone statues, each posed in full armor as though they were proudly guarding the shrine’s pavilion with naginata in hand. The shrine bears special significance to the PC as it is dedicated to those he or she hopes to make proud, and one day join in the afterlife. If these rumors are true – the defilement of the shrine stands as a great dishonor.
Unbeknownst to the players it has become a macabre pantry for a penanggalan – a horrific vampire that can detach head, lungs, stomach and entrails, and fly about seeking prey before returning to it’s body to resume appearing as a normal human. This particular penanggalan was a sorceress of some skill before she was turned into the horror she is today. Using what fraction of her arts remain in her twisted mind, the creature has animated the statues of the PC’s ancestors to facilitate her ruse and serve as guardians should someone attempt to investigate the shrine. When a pilgrim arrives, she greets them as a friend and fellow traveler until the poor soul gets close, then the creature springs out of her body and strangles the victim with her own flailing entrails. Thus far she is well fed, and the shrine is gaining a reputation as those pilgrims who seek it do not return.
This disgrace will not stand! Though the common folk are prone to wild rumors and baseless superstitions, too many have given similar account to all be fools. Someone, or perhaps worse, something, has been waylaying the pilgrims traveling to your family’s prized shrine. It is there that the spirits of your most ancient and honored ancestors are meditated upon. They would not be happy to know that those seeking their wisdom are coming to harm. Nor would they be pleased with you, should you let such dishonor stand.
Fury speeds you up the rocky slope to the shrine, your allies close at your heels. Beyond the bright and normally welcoming Torii gate is a startling sight. The statues of your four most famous ancestors are moving, their weapons now quite threatening. They menace a pilgrim who has collapsed near the altar, an older woman with hair as pure as snow and a lovely face that has weathered well the sixty or more years she must have spent walking this world. As her tear filled eyes lay on you she cries out for help, and the statues slowly shift their sightless gaze down hill at you.
The nefarious penanggalan has seen the PC’s approaching from up high on her vantage point and adjusted her usual plan. Rather than luring them close to her within the shrine as she would a single or pair of pilgrims, she’ll play the role of damsel in distress. She commands the statues (slightly modified and “re-skinned” stats for Iron Defenders) to engage individual targets, locking most of the party down in melee combat. At first, the penangalan will maintain her ruse, taking her action to run to the arms of the nearest PC. Once she is adjacent, on her next turn she will detach from her body and attack, gaining combat advantage from the obvious surprise that all but the most cautious PCs would likely feel. Afterwards she engages the PCs as normal. If any one PC is dealing her significant damage, she flies off behind the roof to regroup and make a gliding charge back into the fray.
Trees: The trees can be climbed with an Athletics DC 12 check. Squares containing tree trunks are passable, and the trunks can be used as cover by those occupying their square.
Bush: This overgrowth provides partial concealment. In addition, a Perception DC 20 check reveals the hiding place where the penanggalan has stashed the bones and personal effects of its victims. Consider leaving a treasure parcel here composed of some coins, potions, and ritual scrolls/books.
Torii Arch: This gateway between the mortal and spirit worlds now serves as a faint warning of the corruption within (represented on the map by its two base pillars). Passing under the bright red arch, there is a vague sense of unease and wrongness beyond. The arch stands about 18 feet base to top. It looks something like this (Scroll down a bit). Squares containing the red pillars of the arch are impassable but provide cover.
Purified Water: This bowl contains the purified water one uses to wash themselves before entering the shrine to pray. It is sanctified, and will deal Ongoing 5 Radiant damage if splashed on the penanggalan, but has no effect on the animated statues.
Shrine: The shrine is elevated above the ground by 3 and a half feet – vaulting up requires and extra square of movement. The outer edge of each outside square contains the wooden beams supporting the shrine’s ceiling – it is otherwise open to the outside. The Shrine’s appearance is something along these lines – though with the corruption nearby, the shadows cling diligently to it, and no birds dare rest on it’s wooden roof.
Altar: During their struggles, ambushed pilgrims have knocked the contents of the altar to the floor – a sure sign that something in the shrine is amiss. Candles, figurines, and prayer parchments are sewn about the surface and floor nearby. Making a Religion DC 20 check as a move action to beseech the ancestor spirit’s aid will earn the PCs the favor of their otherworldly wrath; granting a +1 bonus to attack rolls for this encounter. This check is automatically made if a PC makes an attempt to tidy up the altar (also a move action).
Statue Bases: When the penanggalan animated the giant statues outside the shrine they smashed the stonework bases they once stood on as the magic giving them life struggled to take hold. This debris is now rough terrain.
Slope: The hill slopes downward towards the south. It does so gradually enough as to not effect movement rates, though you might consider having creatures undergoing appropriate types forced movement to also slide one square downhill
Cliff: The precarious cliff-side behind the shrine drops down 20 feet (2d10 fall damage). It would require an Athletics DC 15 check to climb.
x4 Iron Defenders/animated ancestor statues (Monster Manual pg. 156) – SPECIAL NOTE: give the iron defender’s melee basic attack a reach of 2 squares and 1d10+5 damage. They are set to guard the penanggalan but will stick to their tactics unless she is bloodied, in which case they will move to intercede whatever PC is attacking their master.
x1 Penanggalan Bodiless Head (Monster Vault: Threats of the Nentir Vale pg. 82) – make the following adjustments and drop the monster’s level to 7 – HP 82 (bloodied 41) AC 21, Fort 18 Ref 20 Will 20 Melee attack bonus +12, Attack bonus vs other defenses + 10, decrease skill bonuses by 1, XP 300