For those with access to one, the Dungeon Master’s Guide has a tone of great encounter tables. Chapter 5, pages 108 and 109 have two great ones. Each item on these tables can generate a good encounter. Mixing them can generate a great one.
The following idea combines Monuments #19 (circle of standing stones), and Weird Locales #16 (skeletal ferry captain) and #20 (floating earth mote). Next, it’s important to note either the special abilities of monsters or NPCs, and pay special attention to any flavor text. When all the pieces fall into place, you can really have an encounter with depth. The intent is to give your players something unusual and thought provoking.
Now your encounter will create a moment where your players will ask more questions than receive answers. They’ll struggle with how to proceed socially and may even have moral or ethical questions. This will add depth to the player character dynamic. That’s the basis for this whole encounter. You might even use something like this to start an adventure, or expose character background features. How you fully utilize it is up to you.
Suggested level: Any
One evening as the players are settling in for a night, they will witness an unusual event. Fog will build all around. In the distance, they will witness a green flash. They will then see a small bobbing green light slowly approaching, no bigger than a lantern.
It will only approach so far, but never closer than 100’ to their encampment. If the players ignore the light, it will slowly fade away after an hour, only to return the next night in the same eerie manner. If they investigate, once they breach the fog to a distance of 100’, they will see a strange sight. An gondola made of a black wood will be seen floating slightly off the ground. The boat will be lit by a lantern suspended by a central post – emitting the strange green light. The ship’s pilot will be a singular figure, the size of a human child, in dark clothing and hat with a decorative mask like that of an expressionless boy’s face.
The childlike figure will beckon them to board silently, and a ramp will lower to allow them access. If they choose to attack the figure or the gondola, they will find their attacks passing harmlessly through. The gondola and the figures are extensions of The Shadowfell, and thus cannot be harmed by conventional means.
Should they board, the boat will silently turn around, and the fog will take on the appearance of a milky pool upon which the boat will glide. In the distance will be a small island, no greater than 200’ in diameter, surrounded by the same milky white fog and “water”. Upon it, several ancient standing stones mark it’s border, all at least 15’ tall. In the center of the island, and single figure can be seen.
This is Emelia. She will turn and face them in an non-threatening manner. Her expression is sad and filled with longing (Insight DC :12) She is young, beautiful, and dressed in a white hooded robe. Emelia is a ghost, cursed to remain on the island in the Shadowfell. She cannot leave voluntarily. She will plead with one of the members of the party to allow her to possess them. Only then can she board the gondola, and escape the island.
The players can engage her in conversation if they so choose. They will find out (Persuasion DC 13) that she was once the wife of a noble, whose name is lost to eternity. She fell in love with a rival noble, and had an affair with him. She become pregnant with his child. When this fact was discovered, she and her unborn child were murdered and buried in secret. This island prison now holds her spirit. If one party member allows her to possess them, she can cross the barrier and pass on.
A successful Insight (DC 15) check will unveil that the gondola pilot is the spirit of her unborn son. If she becomes free, so does the pilot.
“Emelia” – Ghost, as per Monster Manual page 147.
If the party allows for possession, and Emelia successfully escapes the Shadowfell, the lantern from the gondola will remain behind with them. This lantern will essentially be identical to the Gothic Trinket #29-30 “A lantern with a black candle that never runs out and burns with a green flame”. It may not be much, but will be a permanent “light spell” that they can cart around in item form.
Lots can happen here. The Ghost can be attacked, and will defend itself if attacked. She will not wish to engage in combat, but will do so if pressed. Her intent is to escape, not to fight to the death. She might wait for the right moment to possess an attacking foe if needs be.
Her preferred path is for one of the characters to willingly allow her to possess them. If this happens, that character will feel a disturbing chill, and will hear her voice in their head. They will be overcome by an uncontrollable urge to leave the island. The possessed character will know that they can use the gondola to leave the island. They will recognize the boy for whom they are. If they can cross the barrier (the milky water) and leave the fog, then the ghost will exit the character’s body unharmed, and will fade into nothing. The fog will disappear, and the characters will be back at their campsite.
If a portion of the party stays behind on the island, they may be trapped forever in the Shadowfell. that alone is a massive complication that may require the stranded characters finding a way home. That is up to the individual players and DM to work out. It may also be a great way to introduce the Curse of Strahd setting, or Ravenloft in general. Any character who jumps over the side of the gondola while it’s in transit will similarly be lost in the Shadowfell.
If the characters refuse and wish to leave in peace, that too is possible. A successful Persuasion (DC 20) check might negotiate a release from the island. However, should they successfully leave the island via the gondola in this manner, they will be haunted by visions of this girl and her child, who might return via a similar encounter in a month’s time.
As stated before, this can test a party. Many have very plain views on undead of all kinds. Some faiths, like that of Kelemvor, are very clear on their approach. The number of variations on personal views, faith, morals and ethics can have this encounter go a number of ways. It may start a discussion upon the island that may affect how the party interacts for a very long time. It’s important for any DM to watch this carefully and adjust accordingly. It may also be a great opportunity for character growth and may add to the depth of the party as a whole.
I fell into gaming in the oddest of ways. Coming out of a bad divorce, my mom tried a lot of different things to keep my brother and I busy and out of trouble. It didn't always work. One thing that I didn't really want to do, but did because my mom asked, was enroll in Venturers. As an older Scout-type movement, I wasn't really really for the whole camping-out thing. Canoe trips and clean language were not my forte. Drag racing, BMX and foul language were.
What surprised me though was one change of pace our Scout leader tried. He DMed a game of the original D&D that came out after Chainmail (and even preceedd the Red Box). All the weapons just did 1d6 damage, and the three main demi-humans (Elf, Dwarf and Halfling) were not only races, but classes. There were three alignments (Lawful, Neutral and Chaotic). It was very basic. I played all the way through high school and met a lot of new people through gaming. My expected awkwardness around the opposite sex disappeared when I had one game that was seven girls playing. They, too, never thought that they would do this, and it was a great experiement.
But it got me hooked. I loved gaming, and my passion for it became infectious. Despite hanging with a very rough crowd who typically spent Fridays scoring drugs, getting into fights, and whatnot, I got them all equally hooked on my polyhedral addiction. I DMed guys around my table that had been involved in the fast-living/die young street culture of the 80s, yet they took to D&D like it was second nature. They still talk to me about those days, even when one wore a rival patch on his back to the one I was wearing. We just talked D&D. It was our language.
Dungeons and Dragons opened up a whole new world too. I met lots off oddballs along with some great people. I played games like Star Frontiers, Gamma World, Car Wars, Battletech, lots of GURPS products, Cyberpunk, Shadowrun, Twilight 2000, Rolemaster, Champions, Marvel Superheroes, Earth Dawn...the list goes on. There was even a time while I was risiding with a patch on my back and I would show up for Mechwarrior (the clix kind) tournaments. I was the odd man out there.
Gaming lead to me attending a D&D tournament at a local convention, which lead to being introduced to my paintball team, called Black Company (named after the book), which lead to meeting my wife. She was the sister of my 2iC (Second in Command), and I fell in love at first sight.
Gaming lead to me meeting my best friend, who was my best man at my wedding and is the godfather of my youngest daughter.
Life being what it is, there was some drama with my paintball team/D&D group, and we parted ways for a number of years. In that time I tried out two LARP systems, which taught me a lot about public speaking, improvisation, and confidence. There was a silver lining. I didn't play D&D again for a very long time, though.
Then 5E came out.
I discovered the Adventurer's League, and made a whole new group of friends. I discovered Acquisitions Incorporated, Dwarven Tavern, and Nerdarchy. I was hooked again.
And now my daughter is playing. I introduced her to 5E and my style of DMing, and we talk in "gamer speak" a lot to each other (much to the shagrin of my wife/her mother...who still doesn't "get it"). It's my hope that one day she'll be behind the screen DMing her kids through an amazing adventure. Time will tell.
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