The selection of a campaign defining threat is a tricky thing. If the issue is unassailable, the PCs are likely to feel as if a deus ex machina has been pulled off upon their behalf if they defeat or stymie it. Too weak, and the players may feel as if they've been robbed, or that the threat wasn't equal to their abilities. Many GMs opt for a big bad and dragon set up, but the issue there is that it can come off as trite, especially considering a setting in which Power Word: Kill exists. Organizations or factions are more believable and flexible, since they can survive the deaths of individual members. For the setting I use at my home table, I chose rats. Evil, intelligent ones: the humble Cranium Rat.
First introduced as antagonists for the Planescape setting, Cranium Rats are in short psionically active rats that grow more intelligent the more of them that are in close proximity to each other. A handful of cranium rats aren't much more clever than normal rats, but an average sized warren has the intellect of a genius--and the spellcasting abilities to match. Normally a relatively minor threat, cranium rats can quickly become a destabilizing influence on a region if left unchecked.
Volmusia is a relative backwater, known more for it's amber and timber than anything else. Conceived of as a westmarches style game, this article presents a number of locations that serve as the primary quest line with regard to the local cranium rats, known as the The Chittering Chorus.
Community: Sans Souci
Population: 250, Mixed (50% Human, 30% Dwarves, 20% Elves)
Major Industries: Fishing, Off-putting Chanting, Timber
Unsafe, Civilized, Docks, Defensible (Walls), Contested (Cult of the Night Below & The Chittering Chorus), Possession (Corantine Empire), Personages (Gossuthia, Saundra Galacia, Helie de Saint-George)
Heading north and west of Ambershore Watch for nearly a week and a half along the coast will bring you to the only other Corantine possession in this region of Volmusia. It doesn't get a lot of visitors, even though it is closer than Ambershore Watch. The reason is simple, Sans Souci is uninviting as hell. The locals make sure any unfortunate visitors to their town feel as unwelcome and ostracized as possible, freezing any foolish enough out to settle in the area - if they don't sacrifice them outright in some ritual to Gossuthia. It had been like this for decades, Sans Souci was one of the only places to escape relatively unscathed when the Burning-Tree Confederacy forced most of the Corantinian population from the region, but they had never been a player in regional politics to begin with, given that they had served an entirely different master than those around them. Back when the town was founded centuries before, several bad winters had reduced the inhabitants to absolute privation, and having no clerics or other holy folk in the area, they couldn't even beseech the Gods for aid. Instead, Gossuthia heard, and answered their prayers; it was easy to provide for the citizens of the town with it's powers, and soon it had them utterly dependent on it for survival.
Using It's pull on the town, Gossuthia soon had them actively worshipping it, swelling it with mystic power beyond it's dreams. The Cult of the Night Below was born during that time, and it has been going strong amongst the inhabitants (and beyond) since that point. The worshippers dress in robes the colors of the sea, and they perform bloody rites during the zenith of both the sun & moon, throwing the bodies of the victims into the sea to show their devotion to the horrors that their oblations have attracted. The system was disrupted by the arrival of a shipment, one that had passed through the illicit docks of Port de Chardons, and along with it came the Cranium Rats. Quickly sensing something deeply amiss as they read the thoughts of the inhabitants, The Chittering Chorus has decided that for their own continued safety they must wrest control of the inhabitants from Gossuthia. A violent, if subtle, war erupted between the psychically dominated inhabitants and the Night Below traditionalists, leaving several dozen of the citizens dead and the rest of the town with massive gaps in their memories. The psychically dominated members of the community led by Helie de Saint-George (Fighter 7/ Rogue 1) retreated to the Saint-George Manse on the edge of the town and plotted their next move. The Cultists of the Night Below, led by Saundra Galacia (Warlock 8) have let the town settle into an easy détente, worried that if they were to simply storm the Manse they would attract too much attention and give their existence away to the greater world.
|Helie de Saint-George|
While the cause of the oddness of the places is unknown, the general eeriness of the place has been well-established locally. Any one who makes even the most casual of inquiries to merchants who have been there will be told to stay away.
Both Helie and Saundra are paranoid of outsiders, constantly doubting their intentions and wondering if they have secretly been sent by the other. Dealing with them rationally will be quite difficult.
Years of neglect, isolation & madness have taken their toll on the town, and the whole place looks liable to go up in flames or be washed away by the sea. The occasional fires are easy to fix, and the inhabitants feel that it keeps outsiders away.
Treasure & More: Sans Souci has never been a wealthy place, the closest they have to a noble patron are the mad members of the Saint-George family, and they were nothing more than up-jumped Corantinian pirates. Regardless, the two cults have centralized their wealth in the Saint-George Manse in the case of the Chittering Chorus or in the caves of the Starless Cove in the case of the Cult of the Night Below. The accumulated wealth of the Manse would be worth about 4,500gp, if they were to somehow carry off a bunch of statues and paintings.
Community: Port de Chardons
Major Industries: Piracy, Fishing
Unsafe, Barren, Defensible, Docks, Possession ( Red Slit-Eye, Starry Night, Mother Lode & Timberaxe Pirate Gangs), Personages (Chaga The Witch, Treasure Trove, Gold Teeth, Rotvald the Mad, Sek, Seranto, Teloric, Haypenny), Monsters (The Chittering Chorus, Rat-Slaves)
A notorious pirate haven, Port de Chardons is located nearly a week's sail to the north-west of Ambershore Watch and while condemned by both the local and regional governments, the two communities have a brisk trade between their locales. Located upon the nearly lifeless island of Lappsala, the town itself it built a half-mile away from the docks on a rocky plain, with cliffs surrounding the settlement on two sides and rude stone walls protecting the other sides. Built primarily of crudely hewn stone and timber that was either stolen or recycled from scuttled ships, Port de Chardons is a pretty sorry sight - but there is more to it than initially meets the eyes. Due to the huge amount of Dwarven refugees from the eruption of the Dolche Range, a lot of the sturctures of the town are tunneled directly into the limestone that makes up the majority of the island of Lappsala. The majority of the buildings in the town are built underground in such a way, and one of the gangs, The Motherlode, keep all of their members in this way, having honey-combed the natural caves near the docks with even more to suit their needs.
|Wharf Rats of Chardon|
As mixed of a place it could be, it was significantly better before the arrival of The Chittering Chorus arrived. The group of Cranium Rats from the stars quickly began to take control of one of the pre-existing pirate gangs by psychically dominating their captains and then removing any memory of their meddling. Using their knowledge of shipping routes, and their ability to smugle themselves onto any ship of their choosing, they have amassed an impressive pile of hidden booty, which they use to further their own expansion. The always paranoid Chorus has already begun to make in-roads onto the mainland, shipping themselves en masse to Sans Souci & Maison de Glace as a back-up to their domination of Port de Chardons. The main thing frustration to the Rats and their servants is the tendrils of Gossuthia and it's cult, the war has resulted in a huge turn-over of minions on both sides. The contention originally started as the Rats moved inland, coming into conflict over control of the inhabitants of Sans Souci with the Cult of the Night Below.
The Rats are extremely paranoid, regularly reading the surface thoughts of any visitors to the town. If they detect anything, they will begin to move against the interlopers
None of the pirates within the Starry Night are aware of the fact that their gang has been infiltrated by psychic rats, but if they were to somehow be cleansed they would remember much of what has transpired.
The pirates intentionally attack ships headed to Maison de Glace, rather than Ambershore Watch out of a belief that they locals will be less likely to respond if they are spared. They've been right in that belief so far.
Treasure & More: The amount of money that the various pirate gangs (along with that of the Chittering Chorus) have collected is staggering, easily 15,000gp or more in various forms. Most of it however is under heavy lock and key, or simply hidden somewhere near to the island, generally some gods-forsaken finger of land close by.
Community: The Retreat of the Troupe/Stone Teeth Town
Population: 1360 (94% Cranium Rats, 6% Quaggoth)
Major Industries: Pointless Trade
Unsafe, Possession (The Lurking Troupe, Stone Teeth Tribe), Personages (Rell, Tenj, Vada, Yuve, The Lurking Troupe) Monsters (Cranium Rats, Quaggoth)
The newest settlement in the Mushroom Forest, the town known as Stone Teeth Town is only a scant few months old and wider knowledge of it hasn't been disseminated into the wider region yet. Visitors to the town are greeted by a surreal and unnerving spectacle: Quaggoth crudely imitating a surface settlement, complete with clothing, dwellings and even a few shops which sell odd replications of surface goods. The bestial Quaggoth, while not unintelligent and often powerful Mystics, are not known for organizing into anything larger than extended family groups that generally consist of no more than a dozen members. Experienced underground travelers would find the entire display to be utterly baffling and grow rightly suspicious. The formidable creatures have been dominated en masse by a rogue thought-hive of cranium rats known as the Lurking Troupe and are being used as a test run for their theories. The Chorus does not tolerate discordant tunes being sung and the rodents which would eventually make up the thought-hive were exiled due to their strangely cooperative views when it came to other intelligent beings. The Lurking Troupe believe that the Chorus' current plan of aggressive expansionism is going to eventually lead them to square off with an enemy too powerful for even their mental abilities, or even worse than that it could attract the attention of the Baatezu and land them back in Dis. Significantly more given to partnership with humanoids than domination and extermination, the Troupe hope to craft an approach in which they can live in symbiosis with others, to use them as a shield and a shell with which under to hide.
Searching the area for creatures which would be capable of meeting the threats that they were liable to face underground, preferably with psionic natures similar to their own. The Quaggoth were perfect for this task in every way except for their violent and anti-social natures, a problem which was easily (if somewhat coarsely) rectified by the cranium rats through judicious use of their mind-warping talents. Having only a few examples of organized groups outside of their own, the rats decided that it would be expedient to simply imitate the humans of Sans Souci and the rathbuni, given that they were both a great deal more peaceful and quiet than the often cannibalistic deep bears. Raiding the surface for the necessary materials, the Troupe soon had their "community" clothed and living within approximations of surface fashions & dwellings, adopting surnames and fake professions to better complete the attempted illusion. Fresh meat is brought in from the surface or warped in magically, supplemented by attacking either Skum or Chorus patrols for additional fodder. The Stone Teeth Tribe is one of the largest in the history of the Quaggoth species, citing nearly a hundred members to their name. This is only possible due to the influence of the Troupe so far, but they hive-mind hopes that within a generation or two they will have largely "domesticated" the beings under their control and will no longer have to police them for cannibalistic urges or other anti-social behaviors. For their part the Stone Teeth consider themselves to have attracted the direct attentions of a whimsical, powerful and capricious deity who seems to delight in teaching them ways that they consider to be taboo, confusing and devilishly effective. The vermin that surround them are seen as representatives of that god and it is forbidden to harm or eat them. The current chieftain of the tribe is an especially ferocious thonoth specialized in biokinetics by the name of Vada. While initially a skeptic, Vada has become one of the most ardent followers of the Troupe, regularly proselytizing to the other tribe members on their behalf and destroying those who still question the new order. Other notable members of the community include the town's "blacksmith" who goes by the name of Tenj, a town crier by the name of Rell and a young female named Yuve runs something charitably called a bar.
The town itself consists of little more than a large limestone cave with a great deal of speleothems. A number of rude wooden huts have been built from scavenged materials for the deep bears to live in, while holes have been chewed into the cave walls and floors to house the Lurking Troupe. Purposefully isolated, Stone Teeth Town is located underneath the eastern edge of the Rainwood, a few days east of where Aedui Village would be above ground and about three days down into the earth.
Unlike their fellows in the Chorus, the Troupe are liable to keep themselves hidden and will try to divine outsider's intentions by reading surface thoughts and invading their dreams. It is entirely possible to work with them long-term as long as you treat with them honestly. They want the usual things, psychic might, Quaggoth, juicy gossip.
The Quaggoth of the Stone Teeth Tribe are considered dangerous lunatics by the rest of the deep bears, but the Stone Teeth are ceaseless in their efforts to convince more of their species to join them and their numbers continue to grow.
In addition to their fierce Quaggoth servants, the Troupe has also dominated a pack of Bulettes. The landsharks are generally used to maintain or enlarge the cave system that the village is situated in, but they are also handy for defense. There are ten of the creatures in total and they live underneath the tow itself, in the same warrens as the vermin.
Treasure & More: The Cranium Rats and Quaggoth understand that money can be exchanged for goods and services, they don't necessarily grasp the logic which underlies the value placed upon it. Thus it's possible to be charged wildly different prices for the same goods, depending on when or the way in which one asks. Most of the goods which the Quaggoth have stockpiled are simply stolen from caravans from the surface, so the quality tends to be vary wildly. Conversely, they have more stolen currency than they could ever feasibly spend and are more than willing to trade for better goods.
Area: The Chorus' Redoubt
Hostile, Enchanted (Psychic Resonance), Possession (The Chittering Chorus), Monsters (Cranium Rats, Various Dominated Creatures), Personage (The Chittering Chorus)
Home to the group of interplanar refugees known as the Chittering Chorus, a group of Cranium Rats responsible for large-scale disruptions of the political landscape of The Mushroom Forest and beyond. The Chorus' Redoubt appeared in the area only within the last two years, the twisted knots of oddly textured miles of caves that they now call their home was hollowed out by the rat's collective power and the efforts of hundreds of psionic slaves. Appearing suddenly from a portal that they had torn open to escape their enslavement in the Iron City of Dis on the second layer of Baator, the Cranium Rats found themselves on a pirate vessel from Port de Chardons known as the Merry Miser. The Chorus only had a few dozen members at that point, so instead of outright domination they nudged the crew to run the ship aground near the northwestern corner of Volmusia near the dying sea-side town of Sans Souci The Chorus moved underground after a desperate landing and their subsequent attempted infestation of St.George Manor was discovered by members of the Cult of the Night Below. Unwilling to risk direct confrontation with the Cult and Gossuthia while they were still relatively weak and ignorant of the local area, they migrated the majority of their numbers down into the Mushroom Forest below.
Wasting little time, the rats began to aggressively move to solidify their grip over their new home, driving away or exterminating any creatures not vulnerable to domination by the Choruses psychic might. Their sudden insertion into the politics of the subterranean realm has left the rest of the Mushroom Forest unable to formulate any real response to them yet. The Cranium Rats are mystically potent, adaptable and their numbers have exploded as they breed and send out mental calls to the local vermin, who are then captured and converted through an eldritch process into yet more members of the Chorus. Even individually the rodents are smart and stealthy enough that rat-catchers or exterminators fail to blunt the threat they pose as they move into an area. The mischief quickly grows in severity to their numbers as key members of the polity are mind-controlled into destructive or otherwise subversive acts, merchants are terrorized into leaving the area and finally mind-controlled underdark denizens colloquially known as hive-souled begin to attack with unnerving coordination. Communities so affected generally tear themselves apart through civil conflict or riots as their conditions steadily worsen. Some manage to find countermeasures in the form of mindless servants such as constructs, or simply render themselves immune or resistant to the the psychic whispers enough that that they can forestall the beasts.
|The Chittering Chorus|
Several polities have fallen in this manner already, most notably a Rathbuni village known as N'Kai's Embrace and a pair of Quiet Caravans were claimed before the threat the new creatures posed was understood. Most surviving communities have simply fled from the northwestern edge of the Forest that the rats now call home, but some like the hardy hearty myconids or the Skum of the Cult of the Night Below continue to battle the Chorus even on their own turf. The motives of the Chittering Chorus are relatively simple: to build a place that will be their own, free from outside threats and with nearly inexhaustible resources. All of the Chorus' actions are bent towards this goal, their aggressive expansionism, slave taking and resource hoarding are merely facets of their overall plan to create a sub-plane capable of holding a near-infinite number of their species. To achieve their flight the Chorus requires not only psychic might, but a means through which to focus that might into carving themselves out a place permanently their own. To this end, the Chorus needs eldritch knowledge and a critical mass of collective psychic power brought on through tens of thousands of their number working in concert. The rats are willing to work with outsiders to achieve their goals, though they tend to prefer domination to cooperation (given their traumatic experiences with the Baatezu) and must be convinced that their "allies" are better suited with their wills intact than being mind-blanked by the cranium rats. Even if they are convinced to stay their hands, they are harsh taskmasters and arrogant to boot, expecting nothing less than results and capitulation.
If the full attention of the Chorus is put onto any group of individuals smaller than fifty without some sort of psychic shielding, there is essentially no way to resist their powers. Physically the area that the Chorus live in is wildly dissimilar to those around it. The walls, floors and ceilings have all been stuffed with mounds of trash, spoiled food and the remains of fallen rats, slaves & enemies, which give the walls a soft and spongy texture that traps heat and renders the environment unusually muggy and humid. The rat's nest resonates sympathetically with psychic power and when large concentrations of the Chorus are near or potent mystical abilities are used within proximity to it will sometimes miscast or act strangely. The tunnels themselves seem to lack any rhyme or reason to minds which cannot take them as a whole, they switch back on themselves multiple times, or cross paths at odd or difficult angles, resembling nothing so much as a pile of noodles tossed casually against the wall. If their tunnels were taken as a whole and somehow mapped, they would bear a remarkable resemblance to a cluster of neurons. The Chorus' Redoubt is only a relatively short distance from the northwestern shore of Volmusia, only three days away from the sea and four days travel underground. Many of the entrances to the Redoubt can only be used by vermin.
Visions of the enslavement still haunt the collective memories of the Chorus, their response to any hint of fiendish magic (or worse, summoned creatures) will be one of abject fear, followed by an overwhelmingly violent response.
Use of psychic powers in the Redoubt is inadvisable to say the least, as already stated, the area empowers all uses of a Mystic's abilities (as well as similarly psychic-themed abilities) at the cost of directly bringing the full attentions of the Chittering Chorus to bear on the intruder.
The number of dominated slaves that the rats have at their disposal fluctuates wildly depending on whether or not they've been recently attacked, or have successfully raided another community. Typically there are about a few dozen in the immediate area, with up to a couple of hundred spread out in work-gangs to expand or upkeep the cave system.
Treasure & More: Incalculable wealth has been packed into great mounds of trash and rotting corpses. Every half-hour of searching will yield 10d100 gp in assorted coins, jewels and precious objects. The rats have also managed to acquire several magic items, notably