Out of the Box D&D Encounters, Series 2, #1: Stick in the Mud
Magic items as encounters has become an accepted option within this series. However, there’s one particular dynamic that has yet to be really explored fully – sentient items. Sentient items allow for a completely new approach to magic items as it not only allows the introduction of some cool magical effects, but essentially allows for the introduction of an unusual NPC into the group. Moreover, this NPC will enter into a special relationship with its owner/wielder. This relationship is somewhat symbiotic, as the sentient item will have its own motivations, personality, and “mental attributes.” When its motivations are subverted, a contest of personalities may occur whereby both the item and the possessor vie for control of the wielder. The winner of this contest then decides how the wielder acts for a time. This sort of relationship can open up a whole series of role-playing opportunities. However, if a potential player may take offense at such loss of control over their character concept, I would advise avoiding this sort of encounter.
Description: Imagine a long journey through a vast, miserable, stinking swamp. Mists swirl throughout, and the ground shifts and squelches below every footprint. Mosquitoes, water fowl, and tiny amphibians are everywhere, creating a chorus of buzzing, chirping, and croaking. The air is humid and thick. You and your companions swat at tiny biting insects while alder bushes whip at exposed skin.
Distant at first, then closely louder as the party progresses, a strange sound can be heard over the fauna and complaints. A voice, distant and loud, echoes through the marshy world that the characters find themselves in. A successful Wisdom/Perception check (DC: 15) will determine that this distant voice is yelling in common, but the echoes of the swamp make it hard to actually determine more than a few scattered and disconnected words. Such words as “time,” “lost,” “help” and stuck” seem to ring true to those who pass the check.
Tracking where this sound comes from is more difficult than it seems given the tangled terrain and mucky ground. Those keen on finding the source of the noise will need a further successful Survival check (DC: 15) to navigate around the brambles and alders to a “clearing” filled with tall swamp grass. The ground will become even more marshy, with boggy conditions giving away to possible marshy sink holes. Treat these sink holes as “quicksand” (as per DMG, page 110). For every person moving into this marshy ground, roll 1d6. On a 1, that character risks falling into a sink hole. The character in question will require a successful Dexterity saving throw (DC:12) to avoid stepping in. A character that falls in will sink 1d4+1 feet into the mud and water and will be Restrained. At the start of each of that character’s turns, they will sink a further 1d4 feet. Any character not completely submerged can use its action to attempt a Strength check to escape. The DC for this check is 10 plus the number of feet submerged. A submerged character cannot breathe, as per the suffocation rules in the Player’s Handbook (page 183). A fellow player or other ally can pull a sinking victim to safety with a successful Strength check (DC 5 + feet sunk into the muck) so long as that character is within the reach of the ally attempting the rescue.
After each character either avoids, saves from, or successfully escapes a sink hole, allow the mists to finally fade and the tall grass to part to reveal a tiny but more solid earthy mound hidden in the swamp. Stuck into this earthy mound is what looks like a mace with its shaft buried deep into the ground. The head of the mace looks like a (Survival or Nature, DC:12) human skull. The skull wears an iron crown with spikes, and a leather strap dangles loose from its lower jaw.
The most surprising thing is that the skull is talking. It will open with such phrases as “It’s about time you got here! I’ve been waiting for FOREVER. The swamp is an awful place, right? I mean, who likes spending time with bugs all of the time? Talk about being tired of ‘buzz buzz buzz,’ I can really tell you …”
In fact, this skull never shuts up. It. Talks. Constantly. Should anyone attempt to shut it up, it will still try to talk, although muffled. A successful Intelligence/Investigation (DC:10, thankfully) will reveal that the leather strap was likely intended to silence “Chatterbonk” (A name this mace will gladly reveal if asked).
Chatterbonk, in fact, can go on at length about lots of details all depending on the DM’s whim. Chatterbonk is a +1 Mace, and is, quite obviously, sentient. He is capable (and more than willing) to speak in Common, and can see and hear up to 120’ away with normal senses. He possesses a 14 Intelligence, 12 Wisdom, and 11 Charisma (which might be higher if he gave someone else a word in edgewise). For those who truly wish to know more, he will need to be Attuned to reveal more.
The player who attunes with Chatterbonk will discover that he has a Neutral alignment and will reveal (likely through dreams and such) that he was once a human priest. He was captured by a race of aberrations and after his death, his empty skull was fashioned into a mace (Any DM should feel free to insert plot hooks within this tale). So long as he freely speaks, the player character (and those within 30’ of him) will have Disadvantage on Stealth checks. However, so long as he’s talking, anyone struck by Chatterbonk with a Critical Hit receives an extra 1d6 Necrotic damage on top of the standard Critical and heals the wielder for the amount of Necrotic damage done. If the strap is applied to Chatterbonk, the Disadvantage mechanic from the weapon no longer applies, but neither does the special Critical effect.
Chatterbonk has a mission, like any sentient item. This sacred purpose is to find the rest of his remains. For the DM’s purposes, this can be worked into an existing story line as the DM sees fit. Should the player character attuned to Chatterbonk refuse to find these remains, the weapon and the wielder will enter into a Conflict (as per DMG page 216), with a Charisma saving throw (DC:12) required to avoid. A character who is wielding Chatterbonk and fails this saving throw will be Charmed by the mace for 1d12 hours and will endeavor to seek out its lost remains.
A clever party will likely extrapolate that Chatterbonk was probably placed in this miserable swamp to get some peace and quiet …
Monsters: Chatterbonk, sort of. Unless you count the sink holes.
Treasure: Chatterbonk, unless you count the quiet you had before Chatterbonk. Mace +1. Sentient. Aberration origin. Minor beneficial effect: On a Critical Hit, the target takes an additional 1d6 Necrotic damage. The wielder is healed for the amount of Necrotic damage done as per this effect. Minor detrimental effect: Disadvantage on Stealth checks for wielder and all within 30’. Chin strap on mace silences the weapon, ending both the beneficial and detrimental effects so long as it remains in place. (Int: 14, Wis:12. Cha:11)
Complications: There are one or two. The sink holes are potentially lethal if all the player characters end up in one and no one can escape. The DM may wish to develop an “out” for this by having low-hanging willow or alder branches nearby to pull such parties to safety, or only allow the player characters to sink so far. The total amount any player character may sink in is always up to the DM. Keep in mind that, despite his oddball nature, Chatterbonk is actually a magical weapon and could prove to be quite helpful.
The secondary complication obviously arises in dealing with his constant chatter. This can lead to all sorts of role-playing opportunities, and may make stealthier characters second guess it’s value. You might wish to optionally allow Chatterbonk to possess the “Sage” background for some oddball or strange topic, giving it extra value in an information sense. This then brings this magic item more in line with an NPC role without actually having to protect an extra non-combatant.
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