So, I'm running an All-Druid campaign set in a vast swamp. The party stumbled into a mystery involving a village, some Troll attacks, missing children, and memory loss – all predicated by a Hag and a Dryad working together to keep an Aboleth asleep.
I had never run a Hag before, and to be honest, I was getting a bit worried on how to make her both scary and intriguing. Then I came upon this post which changed everything (my undying thanks to /u/rcgy). Its a masterpiece of horror theory and it turned what was bound to be an average encounter into something that my party is still talking about.
I'm going to discuss the mystery I set up, how the Hag was introduced, how I made the encounter better, and the resolution, in the hopes that it is of some future DM who was in the same boat I was. Apologies as I have had to include a fair bit of story to give context. Let's get started!
There is a village in my swamp called Vagr. Its a timber town, a stop for the lumberfolk who cut trees further upriver and float them downstream towards the port where they will be sold. Its a town of transients during the timber season, mostly, with only a few hundred locals year-round.
The party initially was just 1 Druid. When they came into the town, they learned of a series of ongoing Troll attacks that came every few days, and during each attack, a child went missing. The strange part was that the child was taken from a locked room, with no signs of forced entry, and the parents had no memory of ever having a child.
The Druid was puzzled, and started to poke around, trying to find out what was going on after discovering that the head of the Watch, a man called Captain Jort, seemed to always disappear for a short time during the Troll attacks. The Druid decides to try and track the trolls to their lair, and upon doing so, discovers that the Trolls are being "kept in line" by a group of Harpies. Even more weird.
The Druid also finds out that a Dryad is nearby, and, thinking that the fey could somehow help the village, is shocked to find that the Harpies and the Trolls are "cooperating" under the Dryad's orders. The Dryad is vague under questioning, and says "Tell the Baba that this isn't funny anymore." But after that the trail went cold (the player ran out of ideas) and so the Druid contacted their Circle and asked for aid. During this, I had 2 more players join the group, both playing Druids, and they were sent by their Great Druid to go to Vagr and help with the investigation.
The Druids assemble and discover that 5 children have gone missing during the past 3 weeks, and they interview each of the parents, and none of them can remember having a child, and a few of the fathers grow hostile at the questioning.
During this, the village finds out that Captain Jort has been disappearing, and they angrily confront him, which escalates, and he ends up committing suicide and his home is burned to the ground. A new watch leader, Captain Flint, is appointed, and sure enough, a few days later, the Trolls attack again, and another child goes missing. The Druids, thinking that Cap'n Jort was involved, are now puzzled.
The Real Deal
So when I first thought about introducing a mystery into this village, I wanted it to be something complex. I'm a huge proponent of using layers in just about every aspect of my games. Building mysteries, for me, are easy. I think of the thing that is hidden (the secret) and then build backwards, using layers of obstacles – who/what is hiding the secret. This way when the party bumps into one of these obstacles they may or may not uncover a "clue". Anyway.
So I decided to use misdirection, as I like it as a narrative technique. I "famously" did this to a friend of mine who played a cleric of war who was actually worshipping a god of deception who was pretending to be a god of insanity who was pretending to be a god of war. It was a blast.
So in this case I decided that the Trolls and the Harpies were being controlled by the Dryad to allow a Hag to snatch the children to feed to an Aboleth that was in torpor. This powerful green Hag is 1225 years old, and was here when the swamp was still mostly uninhabited, plying her cruelty on whatever wildlife she could catch. She was tricked by the Dryad into becoming the mechanism to keep the dread Aboleth asleep. This has been her task for a thousand years (every 100 years 7 children are taken) and she has fulfilled her duty without fail, until, perhaps, now.
The Hag's psyche is split in two – the Nana (as she calls herself) who sees herself as the foster mother for the kids that will be fed to the Sleeper, and takes her role seriously, but her other side, Lele, is an insane witch who just likes causing misery and pain. This creates quite the experience in her presence, and she knows how disconcerting it is, but claims she cannot control either side of her mind, and enjoys the advantage it gives her.
The party is about to interrupt a ritual older than 3 generations of wild elves, and if they succeed, the consequences will be dire.
The Baba both loves and hates her role. While she yearns to be free, her duties surrounding the agreement are light, and most of her time is spent in pursuing her own aims in the region (she seeks to resurrect two of her sisters to form a coven).
I was going to just mimic Baba Yaga and have the Hag be in a turtle shell on turtle legs (cause, swamp), but I realized that wasn't going to work, and I needed to make the Hag more permanent during this cycle. Luckily I had an abandoned fort just north of the village on my map that I hadn't done anything with. Perfect place for the Hag to squat.
I named the Hag, "Baba Lele" (lay-lay) (and it was a bitch finding a name that sounded cool) and figured she was using a form of Dimension Door to snatch the kids away and was using Captain Jort as a thrall, who was feeding these "memory" wipe potions to the families of the missing kids. After he was dead, the Hag chose a different villager to fulfil this role (more on him later).
The Druids were detecting strong Conjuration magicks from the family homes of the missing kids, but beyond that, had no real clues to go on.
So I had to figure a way to drop some clues in front of the Druids that could potentially point them towards the Hag, or at least the knowledge of her existence. I also had to make the Hag scary as well as powerful, and I had no clue how to do that. Hags are manipulators and schemers and I wasn't real strong on those kinds of villains, at least not how to roleplay them if confronted.
There are three pieces at play – The Dryad, the Hag, and an Aboleth, who the Dryad called "The Sleeper". She told the party – "The guardian (herself) keeps the hunter (the hag) who keeps the slumber (the Aboleth)". The drama between the Dryad and the Baba is as old as time, and they both play to the best of their abilities, with the Baba always trying to subvert the original wording of her agreement at the time she was tricked, and the Dryad always closing another loophole with precision and logic. She hates the Hag as much as the Hag hates her, but the Hag is the best tool to use, the one with the least variables – and she is bound with a powerful geas.
The post I mentioned earlier saved my ass. I also went and read The Trajectory of Fear and a few articles on "how to" do horror, and I let all this bubble in my head for the 2 weeks the game was on hiatus.
The Druids provided me with a great way to point them towards the heart of the mystery. The new Thrall was stalking the family of the 6th (out of 7) child to be taken. The party, however, had set themselves up on a stakeout to watch that house as there was a rumor that Captain Jort had also been hanging around the parents a little too much and acting odd.
They confronted the thrall and I had the Hag's contingency kick in – the guy was Disintegrated and a local memory wipe (within 10') went off. The thrall also dropped the potion that he was to give to the parents after the next kidnapping. Only 1 of the party made their save against the wipe. Had all 3 been wiped, that part of the campaign arc would have most likely been over.
They cast Detect Magic again (first time it had been cast outside) and I decided to up the mystery. I said that the party detected a latticework of dozens of Wizard Eyes above the village – in essence a network of "spy cameras".
Well. That got them talking. They discussed a bunch of ideas about what to do next, and ended up going to talk to the Dryad again. Well the fey had been using most of her concentration to keep the Trolls and Harpies in check, and also keeping herself safe against the Hag, whom she feared. I also had to keep the tension high, so while the party was away from the village, the 6th child was taken, and the 7th was going to be taken the next day.
I decided that I was going to let the party know the Hag existed, and also give the tiniest, tiniest hint of the Aboleth. (I actually did a crop of the 5e illustration to show just a small part of a fin and and eye)
The Druid speaks in rhymes and riddles but the party figures out that a Hag is involved and they deduce that she is probably squatting in the old fort, so that's their destination next.
Oh. There's an NPC that they knew, dubbed "The Fireblaster" (a direct ripoff of Peter Dinklage's astounding performance in an otherwise terrible film, "Pixels") who had been privy to all the party's conversations and had followed them to the Dryad, but took off towards the fort ahead of them, which the party didn't discover until they went back to the village to sleep. Instead of sleeping, they rallied the village Watch and Captain Flint to keep an eye on the village children by putting them all together in the local temple. They were very worried about Fireblaster, and kept saying that "he's probably dead"
My Next Problem
So now they are bee-lining for the Hag's lair and I had to start scaring them. I figured some spooky weirdness would suffice, so as they were marching North, I started dropping illusions in their path. This is direct from my prep notes:
- In a tree ahead you can see a large, thick water moccasin wrapped around the trunk several times and it is very dead, but has a brightly colored party hat strapped to its head.
- You find, one after another, a trail of headless wooden baby dolls
- A bush of thorns is covered in confetti
- You see three open graves. A carved tombstone adorns each hole. They say "Kiraku", "Fetu" and "Ten Hogs" (character names). Inside are coffins. Inside the coffins are (illusionary) what look like your own dead bodies.
- A dead and rotting Wild Elf (illusionary) that looks like Captain Flint is hanging from a tree with a sign around its neck that says "NO RUNNING NO TALKING NO GUM CHEWING"
- Somewhere, faintly-heard festival music is playing on the wind.
This definitely got the party spooked and again said that Fireblaster was probably dead (I decided right there and then that he wasn't, but instead got taken by the Hag).
But the real problem was coming up – how to roleplay this Hag that the party was determined to confront in person.
The Final Solution
There is a whole bunch more at play in the narrative here, but none of that applies, so I'm going to gloss over that and move right to the scene where the party confronts Baba Lele (the fort was full of weird shit as well). I'm going to paste my notes from my prep, and then talk about how it went.
An aside before that. Roleplaying NPCs for me is hard. I can never seem to stay in the role long enough to make it convincing, but this time I nailed it. I used a very laconic southern woman's accent that I stole from the amazing John Slattery from his narration of the audiobook of "Duma Key" (Stephen King). Without this inspiration, I highly doubt it would have gone as well as it did. Anyway. My notes:
"The door to this chamber is unlocked. Inside is a scene of horror. A large wooden table, set with plates, forks, knives, spoons, and glasses hosts a disemboweled, dismembered, decapitated, human corpse covered in frosting and burning candles. Some sort of red gelatin fills the torso cavity.
Happy Birthday! Is scrawled in blood on the walls. Presents lay in heaps on the floor, most of them wrapped with human flesh, some still fresh and oozing. (Inside are grotesqueries).
Six children are seated around the table. Each with a party hat strapped to their head with wire that cuts into their flesh, causing slow trickles of blood to flow down their foreheads. They are dressed in what one would call "fancy party dress" and they are bound by their torsos to the chairs they are sitting in with bloodstained cord. Each are white with fear and all begin crying and screaming for help when they see you.
Seated next to the children are various grotesqueries – a doll with a frog's head stitched on, a frog with a rat's head stitched on, with a noisemaker stuck in its lips, a teddy bear that's been torn open and filled with bloody fingers, a necklace of ears smeared with glitter, a tray of fresh hearts smeared with buttercream frosting and sprinkles, mugs of blood with tiny paper umbrellas sticking out of them, and a Pin the Tail on the Dead Elf hanging on the wall."
Hanging in some kind of harness across the room, and bound as if in a straitjacket, is the pale and drawn face of the Fireblaster, his mouth covered by a gag, his eyes wide with shock. He struggles and begins making gagged noises when he sees you."
This is where Baba Lele can be found, and she enters the room with a plate full of "food" at the same moment that the party enters the room (GO TO ROLEPLAYING BABA LELE)
ROLEPLAYING BABA LELE
"I'm afraid you missed the adults cotillion but you're welcome to have cake and ice cream with us, if you favor strawberry cream."
(She gestures at Fetu) "I thought I recognized you. You're the wolfboy aren't you? Isn't that cute (looks at other and smiles condescendingly). And who's with you? The lost one? How's your Granpappy, little'un? (laughs) He surely *don’t remember me*!
I see you brought the troublemaker too (she frowns) (then laughs) but that's ok, I like trouble (laughs), usually!
You have come for the party, but there's no room at the table, as you can see and since you didn't bring Nana Trees any presents, you must be here with your hat in hand. Whatchu want anyhow? (Looks doubtful)"
NANA TREES (The Baba)
- Refined grandmother from deep-middle South.
- Gets exasperated easily.
- "Well bless your heart"
- "I don't know about THAT but I do know…"
- "Don't go putting sand in my gravy now"
LELE (The Witch)
- Barking, sharp and impatient
- Rough voice like Gollum
- LELE BACK IN THE KITCHEN WE HAVE GUESTS
- SLICE AND DICE IF WE HADS OUR WAY
- LELE SMELLS A TRICK
- EAT THEM OR BEAT THEM BUT STOP TALKING!
- THE STARS TURN, THE SLEEPER MUST NOT WAKE
THE BARGAIN STATED
Contract is verbal only. She will not agree to a written one.
If the party proposes the terms of the contract, then the hag will repeat it in her own words, modified to be biased towards her- she always has the last word.
If the party tries to clarify with a correction, she might lie, and tell them that the contract only works if she is the one to state the terms
THE BARGAIN MUST BE SPOKEN
“We can play a little game. You can choose- something to be given to you, you give something, or have something taken from you. Then, I’ll reveal what it is. If all of you do that, I will give you the missing children.”
|I GIVE YOU||Give baby doll for Elder Elmer Poe*||Fear of fire||A (fungal) lick (curse|
|YOU GIVE ME||Grandfather's true name (also a Druid)||Your most prized possession||Memories of beloved little brother|
|I TAKE FROM YOU||A foot (to make a homonculus)||Native language (Bubblish)||Sweet dreams (hounded by nightmares)|
*This doll is part of the ritual, and must be given to a girl child under 3 that will be taken by hag as Child/Minion/Daughter. If this is not done, ALL the children in Vagr will die over the next few days of horrible disease. This will also cause children to acutely fear Kiraku.
THE BARGAIN MUST BE SEALED
The party must now eat a piece of cake, that will act as a Geas – forcing the party to forget that the Baba exists when they leave. If they try to think about her, they will get crippling migraines and be unable to do anything else for 24 hours.
The scene went off without a hitch. When I was in the middle of it, it was just rolling along as if by magic. Preparing the NPC ahead of time (instead of my usual off-the-cuff) was key to the success. I had accomplished my goals – I scared the shit out of the party and I had given them some screwed up choices to make.
This is how it played out
Kiraku chose the doll. When they got back to the village, Elder Poe took it (and a Geas kicked in to give it to a girl child – ended up being his granddaughter). This also came with a curse that would repel all children under 12 – and I mean screaming, crying, and running from the Druid upon sight.
Ten Hogs chose his most prized possession. He was a Wildfire Druid, so I took his love of fire away and gave him pyrophobia. That was seriously rough and after the session the player and I talked and we worked out that he was going to change archetypes and we could figure out a homebrew "water" circle for him to use going forward. I wasn't worried about "taking his fire away" because the curse could be lifted, eventually, but the player wanted to take a different direction. Never force your players.
Fetu chose a lick, lmao. It was super gross. On the way back to the village, I had mushrooms sprout from where she licked him and his fingers started shedding spores. Upon waking the next morning, he was covered in about 50 slugs (whom I discovered love mushrooms). He was extremely grossed out, so mission accomplished.
The Baba kept her bargain as she worded it. The party left with the children from the fort. However, when they got back to the village, she teleported them back to her and left in their place the bones of the children she had sacrificed from the last 10 cycles. The party was shocked and really, really upset.
They said later that how badly they had lost hadn't really sunk in yet. But here's the thing. If they had successfully disrupted the ritual sacrifice, the Aboleth would have awakened and subjugated this entire region (I decided it was insanely powerful). The whole time they were talking about how they were going to defeat her, I was smiling inside. Misdirection. Its a great tool.
The party returned to the Dryad, who was now "normal" again and she basically told them (in riddles of course) that the ritual was necessary and she tried to mitigate their curses somewhat.
All in all, it was a success for me. They were Wild Elves, and long-lived, and Druids take the long view, so they discussed trying again in a hundred years, only this time they were going to plan and lay traps and do it smart. They still didn't realize that the ritual was necessary (they completely misread the Dryad's explanation). In short, losing isn't the end of the world.
Thanks for reading, and good luck with your own mysteries and horror arcs!
Check out all my other mad rambles here !
- How I Ran My Hag – A Campaign Breakdown
- How I Ran My Hag – A Campaign Breakdown
- How I Ran My Hag – A Campaign Breakdown
More about Dungeons & Dragons OnlinePost: "How I Ran My Hag – A Campaign Breakdown" specifically for the game Dungeons & Dragons Online. Other useful information about this game:
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