Out of the Box D&D Encounters, Series 2, #43 – “The Broker”
Out of the Box introduction
Whereas I believe that this idea is not totally new, I think it bears recognition with some context. Many Game Masters do not have a problem coming up with an end villain, but side quest minor bosses or recurring bad guys can be a challenge. These lesser characters tend to suck up the air of a campaign, as they spend more time in roleplaying moments and interact more often with characters in the trenches of the campaign. These “under bosses” spend more time early in a character arc interfering with the success of the party. Because of that, they are more important overall in the development of the style of each character, because they are there at the start. These lesser villains set the stage, foil early plans, and can reoccur even later in the campaign. These villains will continually factor into the game world unless thwarted in a meaningful way. They may even become allies if the circumstances or price is right. “The enemy of my enemy,” if you will.
When it comes to villainous swarms of sentient bees, accept no substitute. Fritz von Meyer has been representin’ since 1977 in the pages of Marvel Comics. [Image courtesy Marvel Comics]
More often than not, these villains take on a very recognizable form. This is usually done to speed up the process and facilitate an easier insertion into an existing campaign. Changing this practice on occasion will make a specific nonplayer character more memorable. Changing them dramatically will make a group of characters question their surroundings. The following is one such example.
In a setting where the characters might be in pursuit of criminals of some sort, we’ll add a figure referred to as The Broker.
Establishing this encounter means some work is necessary to set the stage. The Broker will have been viewed as a spy, rogue, criminal, and very difficult to catch. The Broker will have never been fully seen by anyone, and surrounded with rumors and conjecture. There is a very good reason for this — the Broker is not human. In fact, the Broker isn’t even humanoid, nor is it singular. Taking a hint from the old saying “a fly on the wall,” the Broker is actually a very specific swarm of insects infused with psionic energy called a Mind Hive.
Urban/Tavern (a center or population where crime exists)
Any (but 4+ recommended)
The Broker — Mind Hive
Drazhan — bandit captain, except as noted
Commoners (several, with around 5 or six “canaries”)
The clues have lead here. These adventurers know the Broker is here. His criminal information brokerage has hidden in plain sight for a long time. No one has been able to corner him or catch him — until now. These adventurers hope to change that. Thus they enter the Mead & Greet Inn. The tavern is crowded. It usually is in the evening, especially when travelling caravans and merchants come into town. The tavern floor has perhaps six round tables scattered to the left of the entrance into this 30 ft. square chamber, and a long bar stretches along the right wall. A wooden stairway lunges upward in the far left corner, and a warm hearth in the center of the right wall provides needed warmth.
Everywhere there is the sound of conversation, scattered laughter, and the smell of ale and pipe smoke.
It looks innocent…typical…almost so normal as to avoid suspicion. Perhaps that’s the intention. Yet there’s something off. Characters with a passive Perception of 15 or higher will notice scattered patrons here at the bar are looking at the party, even when there’s no need to. They may notice some patrons are going out of their way to lean on the bar, stand, move their chair, or take some action as to always have a line of sight on the characters. These observers are commoners, and there are no more than five (GM’s discretion). Should a character notice one or more of these observers, success on a DC 15 Intelligence (Investigation) or Wisdom (Survival) check determines the number of lookouts or “canaries” active in this current chamber of the tavern.
Characters may wish to inquire within to resolve their plan. This would normally become a heavy roleplaying scenario, and the GM should certainly facilitate that. A GM would be wise to create setting appropriate names for the commoners within this tavern. The bartender, though, should be someone special. In this case, the person behind the bar is a heavy set individual named Drazhan. Drazhan is a barrel-chested individual with a full beard of thick curly hair, a shaven head and eyebrows heavy enough to polish the bar with. He stares at any new patrons with ice blue eyes, even more distinct given his coffee-colored complexion. He will bellow a welcome to his establishment. This is intentional, as he wants every canary to notice any stranger coming into his bar. Therefore Drazhan will be loud and outgoing in his greeting. What the characters do not know is Drazhan is also a lieutenant, and answers to the Broker directly. He is a bandit captain , but isn’t wearing his armor, and keeps his scimitar hidden behind the bar.
If he is asked about the Broker or any operations this criminal den might be up to, he will lie to the best of his ability. He will also alert the Broker in a special way. Every time the name of his boss is mentioned, he will laugh loudly. A character who succeeds on a DC 14 Wisdom (Insight) check reveals he is putting this laugh on, but the reasoning behind it will not be evident.
Every one of the patrons in this bar will have a key behavior they do. One might be a sneeze, or a cough, or a cheer, or some other loud behavior other canaries will pick up on. Each of the five canaries will know what the other canaries signal noises are. When there have been a total of three such signals, the bartender will ask a serving boy or girl (GM’s choice), whom he will only call by their sex (”Boy” or “Girl”) to watch the bar temporarily while he takes care of something in the kitchen.
The kitchen off the tavern’s main room is small — perhaps only 10 ft. deep and running 15 ft. wide, running parallel to the layout of the bar in the next room. It has a small hearth on the right wall in which rests a bubbling cauldron of brown stew. Prep counters run the left wall beside the kitchen entrance, and boxes and barrels of dried goods line the far wall. A ladder ascends through a trapdoor in the ceiling to the left of the kitchen door, up which Drazhan scrambles.
If Drazhan can escape all the way up, the trapdoor will reveal a further passage above, 5 ft. square and ascending another 15 ft. to another trapdoor leading to the roof. Upon the roof of this flat-roofed building is a collection of stacked boxes scattered over the roof in random locations. Drazhan will be standing in the middle of the roof, and will appear to be talking to himself. He will be talking as if to warn an invisible or unseen person about strangers asking questions.
If or when the characters interrupt the bartender from what he’s doing, Drazhan will run to the edge of the roof and jump off, using a concealed rope an.
Once Drazhan has jumped, nothing further will happen unless the crates are disturbed. These crates will buzz and hum as if filled with insects, and will smell faintly of honey and beeswax. This is the Broker’s apiary, and he will tolerate no disturbance or interference with his home. The Broker is actually a mind hive, and will first contact the characters with telepathy. It will be formal and polite, but will always have a threatening undertone. It congratulates the characters for their persistence, but will inform them their pursuit is in vain.
The Broker’s first action will be to use a spell like fear, suggestion (“walk away from this; it’s not worth your time”), or even sleep. It may even show itself and take a humanoid form, filling out ragged grey peasant’s garb with a dark cowl kept stuffed within the apiary. If truly challenged in combat, it will disperse into its swarm form and then fly away.
It is the Broker’s intention to escape to continue its activities. The characters may wish to pursue. This will be difficult without a fly speed, but not impossible. The Broker has no treasure on itself, but for those willing to break open all of the crates and hives, a successful DC 20 Intelligence (Investigation) check reveals a hidden compartment containing a ledger of names and times. What this information means will be up to the GM, but it should be an important clue in the investigation of the crimes of the Broker. It is heavily encouraged the GM customizes this information to fit their campaign or adventure.
There are a few to consider. The characters might become frustrated with how hard it is to pursue or catch the Broker. They may just decide to fireball the tavern. They may split up to find out different things and face the Broker at reduced strength. They may try to jump off the roof of the inn to pursue the bartender. Players are the wild card in every situation. My advice would be to remain calm, and address each problem as it rises.
Perhaps the Broker returns to see if the ledger is still there. Perhaps extra clues may be allowed given the fact Drazahn is not the mastermind his boss is. Add or subtract clues as you need, and remember to listen to your players. They may come up with some wild theories. If one of these theories is better than what you have planned, feel free to steal that idea and place it in this or future encounters. The ledger is your key. It may have clues to future locations of the Broker, or even the masters whom created it.
Born of tyranny and darkness. Within regions controlled by the Vespidroi, no life is sacred. Everything is there to be dominated and altered. Mind hives occur when hives of wasps, bees, or other flying, hive oriented insects are discovered and altered to the will of the hive lords. Bombarded with psionic energies and foul alchemical gases, mind hives are born and infused with superior intellects and resilience. These swarms take on a personality of their own, serving as spies, lieutenants, and assassins for their insectoid masters.
The whole is greater than the sum of it’s parts. Mind hives take on an intelligence beyond standard swarms after their conversion, becoming individuals embodied within the collective of the swirling mass of creatures. Their alteration can produce unique personalities as the many tiny minds all contribute a quirk or two. This produces complex personalities that can be hard to judge by outside observers. A mind hive might be both a lover of fine art and a vandal, an insidious master thief and given to acts of twisted justice. Regardless of these quirks, they are always loyal to the Vespidroi that created them.
Pretenders. Mind hives are able to somewhat mimic humanoid shapes, and often hide their twitching, crawling mass under cloaks, robes, and other loose clothing. In this guise, they walk in the shadows, manipulating the masses and spying for their Vespidroi masters. This form can be scattered like a normal swarm in an instant, allowing for a sudden escape.
The numbing buzz. Imbued with psionic energies, mind hives use their wings to create soothing and hypnotic noises to ply their prey. Worse yet, these noises are also conveyed telepathically, so not even the deaf can avoid their insidious power. A target thinking it can avoid this ability by plugging it’s ears may find itself asleep, compliant, or running for it’s life.
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