The Mystery of Willow’s Grave, Part I
This is the story of the first Dungeons & Dragons game I led as dungeon master for a couple of friends.
Over the Easter weekend, I acted as dungeon master in a game of Dungeons & Dragons for the first time. This was a one shot I hosted for two friends of mine, with a third player joining on short notice on the day of the game. The story is set in End-World, the setting I created especially for this game.
For some personal reasons, we were not able to finish the adventure, but we are planning to do so as soon as possible. What follows is the account of this first gaming session.
A Storm is Brewing
A magical storm rages over the easternmost part of the Old Empire. Relentless rain, driving hail storms and flash floods have ravaged the countryside for three days now. In the small town of Willow’s Grave, the townspeople have hunkered down to sit out the storm. Until the weather improves, public life has basically come to a stillstand.
Most of the inhabitants of Willow’s Grave have locked themselves into their homes, hoping that the storm will blow over without damaging their meagre belongings too much. Some have gathered in the local tavern, the Weeping Willow Inn, to drink and gamble away the time, hoping that company will distract them from their worries.
Among the townsfolk waiting out the storm at the Weeping Willow are three adventurers, foreigners from out of town. They were brought together here, in this town, out of circumstance. The half-elf druid Lysandra met the sorceress Antiope travelling west on the road towards civilisation deeper in the Empire. She recognised the sorceress as a fellow half-elf and magic practitioner right away. Both agreed that it was probably better for two women, and two magic users, to join forces instead of travelling alone through the backwater countryside. Especially since the inhabitants of the area were known to be prejudiced and relatively hostile towards those gifted in the arcane arts. Both had heard stories of past witch hunts in this area.
When the weather got worse and Lysandra started to detect a magical component to it, the two half-elves decided to wait out what was coming in the next settlement they came across on the road. Soon after, they reached Willow’s Grave. They rented rooms at the inn for a few nights, stowed their travelling gear and then went back downstairs to the common room of the tavern. They soon discovered a tough looking dwarf barbarian sitting on his own in a corner.
His name is Argol Coalhand, a mountain dwarf travelling south along the same road the two half-elves were using in the opposite direction. Argol was heading back to his home in the Grey Mountains when the weather started to turn. Travellers moving along the road in the opposite direction told him of worsening conditions and a river that had spilled its bank and blocked the road ahead. Argol didn’t like it when he had too much sky over his head and he hated when that sky then turned hostile, so he decided to retrace his steps and to sit out the bad weather in the last town he had come through — which is how he ended up in the small inn of Willow’s Grave, where he met Lysandra and Antiope.
The Party Gathers
Since they were the only strangers in town, and as such seen with much scepticism and suspicion by the townspeople, the two half-elves and the dwarf naturally gravitated towards each other and struck up a conversation. Over several days, they shared many a meal and many drinks — especially on the part of Argol where the drink is concerned — while swapping stories of their adventures and waiting for the weather to improve so that they could continue their respective travels.
The druid Lysandra, sorceress Antiope and barbarian Argol
It did not take too long for Antiope and Lysandra to figure out that Argol had something of a murky past. By the stories he was telling, it seemed obvious that he made his money in rather shady ways. But he seemed to be a reasonable sort of fellow and treated the two half-elves with a jovial sort of respect, buying them many a round of ale.
After three days of drinking and swapping stories, the three wanderers began to be bored. In the afternoon of the fourth day, they started to discuss what they might do in town to pass the time. None of them were interested in the gambling and dice games of the locals and all three of them were starting to run out of money. As they had no idea how long the storm would last, the idea came up to do something productive and earn some money. Sitting around in the common room of the tavern, they started listening to what the locals around them were talking about.
It seemed like all work around town had come to a halt on account of the fierce storm raging outside. The main topic of conversation, aside from the storm, seemed to be what many in town thought of as the impending doom of the township – the failure of the crops all around. Apparently, this was the third season where the crops had failed. As a result, food supplies were running perilously low. More interestingly, the people at the tavern were also talking, in hushed tones, about several disappearances around town in the last few months. As the travellers learned after listening for a while, it seemed that at least five people had vanished from their homes or while going after their daily business in the village.
From the talk, it became apparent that most people seemed to blame a woman for the disappearances. Apparently, she was living on her own on the outskirts of town. The term “witch” was mentioned in hushed voices a few times. The suspected witch’s name seemed to be Yzebel and one of the people who vanished, a woman by the name of Maurelle Windhouse, had lived close and seemed to have visited her quite often.
Finding Something to Do
After listening to these stories floating around the room for a while, the three travellers gather at the bar. Antiope turns to the barkeep, a portly human male by the name of Eamon Alliser, who is currently busy cleaning a number of grimy pewter tankards, and asks him if the town needs help with anything. She explains that the three adventurers are getting quite bored and want to start earning their keep if they are to stay much longer in town. Eamon starts to consider the question, still intently polishing his tankards, but before he can answer, a somewhat younger man with brown hair sitting at the bar to the side butts in. He tells Antiope that by far the biggest problem the town is facing is the mysterious failure of its crops and the resulting shortage in food supplies, which, he says, have reached worrying levels. From what the three adventurers have gathered by listening to the other patrons, this man’s name is John Carter and he owns the biggest of the farms in and around Willow’s Grave.
Barkeep Eamon Alliser and farmer John Carter of Willow’s Grave
Carter tells the three travellers that there is probably some coin in it for them, if they can figure out what is causing the mysterious crop shortages: “People would probably throw some gold pieces together, if you helped us out with that.”
Antiope, Lysandra and Argol debate this offer for a moment, but come to the conclusion that there’s nothing they can do about the crop failures. Lysandra who, as a druid, has some experience with herbalism, theorises that because this problem has persisted for several seasons, it must have a very deeply rooted cause. If she was to investigate that cause, it would take at least several weeks, she estimates. In any case, she adds, they would have to wait until the magical storm blows over, as it is causing so much magical disturbance that her druid senses are useless for any nuanced investigative work outside in the fields.
After a few seconds of silence, during which everyone thoughtfully sips their ales. Argol turns to Eamon the barkeep and asks: “But what about the people who have been disappearing around town? What would it be worth to you if we solved that issue?” Their landlord, who is continuing to busy himself with his cleaning cloth and the tankards, thinks for a moment again and then turns to John Carter. “What do you reckon, John? We could start a collection. I’m sure everybody would be mighty glad if these guys could take care of the …” Eamon hesitates and then continues in hushed tones. “If they take care of the … the witch … for us. Right?” At this Carter looks at the barkeep thoughtfully, turns to the side and looks the three adventurers over thoroughly, and nods. “I am sure that could be arranged”, he finally says.
“How much?” counters Argol, taking a large swig of his ale. After thinking on it for a bit, Carter offers forty gold pieces. But Argol is not having it. He slams down his tankard on the bar and acts very annoyed, complaining loudly that the lives of their fellow villagers seem to mean so little to the people present. With this display he manages to get Carter to commit to sixty gold eventually. He also manages to talk Eamon into providing all three of them with free ale for the remainder of their stay at the Weeping Willow, should they be successful.
Visiting the Witch
The three adventurers decide to start their investigation into the missing people by visiting Yzebel, the woman everyone in the village seems to harbour suspicions about. When asked about her, Eamon goes into a long rant about how she never comes to town and how he can’t even remember haven seen her in his tavern once. Apparently, to a barkeep, not visiting the local tavern is the most suspicious thing one can possibly do.
Before the three adventurers leave the inn to follow this clue, Lysandra takes some wildflowers out of her pack and decorates the inside of the door frame of the tavern entrance. While she does it, she mutters a few words in Druidic. “For good luck”, she tells the others in Common afterwards.
The group heads into the storm outside and make their way through the village. Yzebel’s lone cottage at the outskirts of town is easy enough to find. The three wanderers approach wearily. It is very dark and the cottage, which sits in its own little clearing some ways off the main road into town, is not illuminated at all. The three adventurers wonder if anyone is at home. They decide to not enter immediately, but look around the area first. Behind the cottage is little garden with what looks like various vegetables and herbs growing in it – things are hard to make out in the howling gale and pelting rain, though. There seems to be nothing of interest in the garden or the clearing surrounding the house and since the shutters on the windows are closed against the storm, the three adventurers can’t see into the cottage.
The three of them gather in front of the door to the cottage, trying to cover under the awning from the rain and hail as best as they can. As the wind is howling around them, they are trying to decide what to do next. After some quick deliberations, the two half-elves look at their dwarf companion and both decide that he should try the door. Argol shrugs, turns the door knob and is just about to give the door a shove when he discovers that it was unlocked and simply swings open.
Argol, Lysandra and Antiope careful enter the cottage. It is very dark and with the wind howling outside, they can’t hear much. Antiope takes point and after Argol has carefully closed the door behind them, ignites a magic flame in her hand to enable the three adventurers to look around. They find themselves in what seems to be a single room that makes up the entirety of the house.
Suddenly, the three adventurers hear a dry voice laugh mirthlessly. “Welcome”, the voice says. In an old rocking chair, beside an extinguished hearth, they see the outline of what looks to be a woman with long, dark hair. “Well, as the three of you seem to have found your way into my humble abode, you might as well get comfortable”, the woman says cynically and, with a snap of her finger, the hearth next to her chair bursts into roaring flames. Suddenly the cottage is filled with light and warmth. The three intruders look at each other sheepishly and Antiope quietly extinguishes her own magical flame.
Yzebel in her cottage
The three adventurers sit down on chairs around a table in front of the fireplace. In its light, the adventurers can now see that the woman is an older half-elf with dark hair that is greying in places. The woman introduces herself as Yzebel. “But I guess you knew that already”, she says with a dry chuckle. “Do you want some tea?” Before anyone can answer, she snaps her fingers again and a kettle begins to boil in the cottage’s small kitchen, seemingly without a fire underneath it. Suddenly, out of nowhere, cups appear on the table.
Antiope explains that the three of them have sought Yzebel out because the townspeople at the inn seem to think that she has something to do with the disappearances. Yzebel is not surprised by this in the slightest, it seems. She chuckles again and says: “Of course they suspect me. How predictable of my neighbours.”
As a full kettle of tea magically appears in front of them, the three visitors each fill a cup out of politeness. When all of them hesitate to drink, Yzebel reassures them: “It’s just tea. I didn’t do anything to it. You can check, if you want…” She glances at Lysandra, who uses her magical abilities to test the tea and nods at her two companions as she confirms with her druid senses what their host has told them.
All three adventurers sip some tea and Yzebel tells them that she likes her privacy, which is why her cottage is located outside of the village proper. “One of the reasons for this”, she explains, “is because people are suspicious enough of my arcane knowledge as it is.” She glances at the sorceress and the druid. “I am sure you know how it is.” She adds that she doesn’t like people much, which is why she isn’t going into town often. When Argol asks why she never visits the tavern, she drily responds: “I don’t drink. And there are too many men in there. I don’t particularly like men.”
In talking to Yzebel, the three adventurers decide that they believe her. Especially Lysandra and Antiope are well used to the prejudice and suspicion that people exhibit around those who use magic, especially when they are women. That the rural population is even more bigoted than more urban folk in this regard probably doesn’t help matters. Neither do Yzebel’s pointy ears, they decide. The group asks the woman what she thinks about the disappearances and Yzebel replies that she has no idea what is going on and that she wouldn’t be a good person to ask about this anyway as she rarely goes to town. Nor does she have much contact with most of the other townsfolk. Yzebel is, however, suspicious of the sawmill. “Weird things are happening there, even I have heard as much”, she says without elaborating further.
Antiope, Lysandra and Argol thank Yzebel for the tea and get up to leave her house. They cannot suppress the feeling that, for some reason, being in the cottage gives them all the creeps. Even though they think the woman has probably been falsely suspected for stupid bigoted reasons, the three are very glad when they are finally out in the pelting hailstorm again. Behind them, the hearth extinguishes itself and the cottage is once again bathed in darkness. The door slams shut behind them, as if closed by a ghostly hand.
Trudging through the rain and hail, the three outsiders walk back into town and, standing in the centre of the village, are trying to find the sawmill. However, visibility is very bad and they’ve spent the majority of their stay in Willow’s Grave sitting in the tavern, so they have no idea where to find the sawmill or in which direction to even start looking. After walking around town for a bit and getting very wet, they reluctantly enter the inn again and trudge back into the common room. After warming themselves up and having another drink at the bar, they decide they need to start figuring out how to get to the sawmill. After talking to the barkeep once more, he points to a large table at the other side of the room. It is occupied by three human men and one male halfling who are sitting around drinking, gambling and loudly telling stories to each other. “See the big guy with the huge hands and red beard? That’s Big Nils, he’s foreman at the mill”, their host says.
Antiope and Lysandra then decide that Argol should go and join the men at the table and ask them some questions about the sawmill – chiefly among these questions would the one about where it is located. Argol then grabs his tankard of ale and reluctantly marches over to said table. But as it turns out, their fellow patrons are pretty drunk already and Big Nils, especially, isn’t very talkative at the moment. It seems that the men at the table are also pretty suspicious about the weird foreigners poking their nose into their affairs. This leads to Argol not finding out a lot. He does, however, manage to get some instructions on how to get to the sawmill, at least.
Our heroes have one last drink to steel themselves against the bad weather and then head out into the storm again. When they get to the sawmill, they immediately see that it seems to be completely deserted. Lysandra takes point on investigating the various sheds, storage buildings and the sawmill building itself, but it very much looks like all work has stopped as everyone is waiting for the storm to pass. The sawmill is completely deserted and there is no trace of anything suspicious here, either.
Reluctantly, the team of adventurers heads back to the inn. Since most of the patrons have gotten even more drunk at this point, the three wanderers turn their attention to an old man sitting alone by the fire. According to the barkeep, his name is Deckart and he’s one of the oldest people in town. It is decided that Antiope should speak with him, since the other two are of the opinion that she’s “good with people”. Antiope heads over and sits beside the old man at the fire. After some initial small talk, he quickly warms up to her, having apparently taking a real liking to the half-elf from out of town. She starts asking him about the sawmill. He tells her that it is currently shut down because of the storm. “Work there is already dangerous enough in good weather conditions”, he says. “Just look at how few fingers Nils has left, for starters.”
Antiope then asks about the rumours the adventures have heard from Yzebel about “something weird” going on at the sawmill. After initially being confused by this, Deckart tells her: “I don’t know about weird goings on at that place. It’s all rather run-of-the-mill, if you pardon my pun…” He winks and laughs. He then thinks some more about the question and suddenly says: “What I do know is that Thayer has been causing problems there. He’s weird, that one.” By asking some more questions, Antiope gathers that Thayer is a younger man who has been working at the sawmill and who’s been causing talk around the town because he’s been “acting strange lately”, according to the old man.
Thayer’s house is apparently located next to the old, broken-down church on the other side of town. Deckart mumbles something about it being a “damn shame” what happened to that church, but Antiope can’t get much more about it out of him. He starts to fall asleep next to the fire. After leaving him there, Antiope rejoins her fellow travellers at the counter of the tavern’s bar and they deliberate about what to do next. Since it is getting late, they decide to have a rest and start to investigate Thayer in the morning. Since apparently nobody has seen him in the inn for quite some time, the three adventurers resolve to search out his house right after breakfast. They have another ale together and then retire to their rooms.
Thayer’s House & The Old Church
After a good night’s rest and a hearty breakfast, the three adventurers head back out into the storm, which shows no signs of letting up any time soon. Even with it being early morning, the sky is so dark that it feels more like a faint dusk. The wind is whipping them about as strong as ever and rain and hail continues to pelt the three wanderers. All roads in town have turned into boggy creek beds. Following the description the old man gave Antiope on the previous evening, the three have no trouble finding Thayer’s house, a lone cottage sitting among a small cluster of trees. Just down the road from it is the village church, which is located in front of the town graveyard and looks very dilapidated. A side of the building has collapsed and the front doors are missing. Lysandra, Antiope and Argol take the path that branches off from the small road leading to the church and they find themselves standing in front of the cottage where, according to Deckart, the man called Thayer Whisperhorn lives.
They approach the house and Argol knocks several times, receiving no answer. He tries the door and discovers that it is locked. Walking around the house and checking the area immediately surrounding it reveals nothing of interest. The windows of the cottage are shuttered against the storm and there appears to be no light coming from inside the house. The three adventurers decide that there’s probably nobody home and that they should check on the old church next door instead, with Antiope remembering that old man Deckart was muttering something about the church just after saying that Thayer was somehow weird and involved in mysterious business around town. With their next step decided, the group heads back to the muddy road and walks onwards to the old church at the edge of town.
The old church in Willow’s Grave
The village church is fronted by an overgrown yard and a broken granite statue of a robed man standing tall and proud. But the statue is so weathered that it is impossible to make out the features of his face or what kind of deity or historic figure he is supposed to be representing. The church is similarly dilapidated: The roof has partially collapsed and a small side wing lies in ruins. It is missing its front doors and many of the once ornate looking stained glass windows are partially or completely destroyed. Beside and behind the broken church lies an old graveyard with crooked rows of overgrown gravestones and small family crypts.
Lysandra, Antiope and Argol enter the partially broken down church through the open front entrance. The interior turns out to be as run down as the outside. There is a great open space in the middle of the room as most of the pews have been smashed or otherwise pushed in jumbles against the walls. It looks like some of the villagers have ransacked the church for firewood. Large metal braziers that once lined the walls and were filled with glowing embers are lying strewn about every which way. Near the opposite wall to the entrance, in front of a large broken window, stands a large altar hewn out of granite. It seems to be the only piece of furniture in the entire church that has survived unscathed – obviously due to its sheer weight and solidity.
After investigating the inside of the half-wrecked church for a while and finding nothing of interest or value, Argol notices a stone slab behind the altar that isn’t flush with the rest of the floor. After several tries, the three of them manage to figure out how to move it. Argol wedges the blade of his greataxe into a likely crack that Lysandra identifies and, with a monumental effort of strength, levers the stone slab aside. Underneath, they discover dark a passage into the depths under the church. After working together to push the slab aside a bit further, they uncover a drop into a dark cellar of some sort. Antiope ignites a torch and throws it into the hole. It becomes obvious that this is an entrance to some crypts that lie under the church. Whatever means of descend is usually used to get down there is missing, however.
Argol gets a rope from his pack, ties it around the altar and is the first of the group to descend into the dark room. He picks up the torch and when all three of them make it down, they start looking around. They find themselves in a small room, about fifteen by fifteen feet, with no apparent exits. On the floor are a couple of granite grave covers and there’s an alcove with a reliquary on on wall. Against the other wall, there is a small altar or preparation table of some sort. There are spiderwebs everywhere. The whole room looks like it hasn’t been used in years.
Deciding on a gut feeling that there must be more to this place, the three adventures spent some time examining the room. On the wall opposite the small altar, Argol notices two mural panels that run the whole length of the wall, from floor to ceiling, depicting bones and skulls, with angels and some sort of demonic entities locked into an eternal struggle above them. He goes over to inspect the panels, his thief-trained senses telling him that something is off here. After pushing one of the panels in several places, he discovers a hidden mechanism that enables him to open the panel, uncovering a hidden passageway.
In front of the three adventurers lies a dark tunnel, leading deeper into the crypts under the old church.
Thus ends the first part of the first ever End-World Adventures D&D game. We will continue, and hopefully finish, this one shot very soon. Afterwards, you can expect a write-up of the second part of the game on this blog, of course.