The Only Time the Party Ran Away

Posted on Mar 22, 2024 in Tales from the Table.
Part of a series called The World Rune.

You Should Spook Your Players. It’s Fun.

A few years after the events of The Hare and the Hag, when I was looking around for monsters to throw at the party in The World Rune, I realized that the villains of that session had been nothing more than a Bheur Hag and a couple of Redcaps. You could shove those enemies in the party’s face and it would be an unremarkable battle, perhaps even forgettable. But that wasn’t the case back then, because it’s not so much about the monsters themselves—it’s about the presentation. A slow, spooky build-up to a regular old monster will always be more terrifying and memorable than the scariest monster in the game randomly popping up to fight. Here’s the story of what my inspiration led to; how a single monster that the party could definitely take on made them turn around and flee as fast as they could.

The Abandoned Town

The party was traveling by airship to a city far away. They were flying over an evergreen forest when they spotted a small town up ahead. Curious, they set the ship down at the edge of the town. There wasn’t a single person in sight. Not a sound in the air–no rustling of leaves, no chirping birds. It was dead quiet. They wandered the desolate streets for a bit. Somehow, the town didn’t feel empty. Wherever they went, there was the unshakeable feeling that someone or something was watching them. As if someone was peeking out from behind a tree or a house, but whenever they’d catch a glimpse of something in the corner of their eyes and turn to look, the watcher would pull back into hiding. Just a tiny, tiny bit too fast to get a look at them.

The fields were barren. The houses were all empty. It wasn’t as if they’d been abandoned in a hurry—wherever the residents had gone, they’d taken all their possessions with them. Packed up and left, every single one of them. Not a soul in sight, except whatever it was that may or may not have been lurking in the corners of their eyes. At the center of town square, the party discovered a stone statue of someone or other. The base of the figure was coated in green slime. Nobody wanted to touch it. Nearby stood a bulletin board with a wanted poster on it, offering a large reward for anyone who could find the one who torched the crops, salted the earth, and poisoned the wells. The poster had been crossed over, and there was a message saying the bounty had been claimed. The party ignored the feeling in their guts telling them to get out of there and headed to the town jail in search of more information. On the way there they noticed several more spots of green slime on the ground and the walls of some houses.

It was a small jail for a small town. A simple stone building with a few cells inside, and a single office. One of the cells was missing a few bars, leaving a gap large enough to escape through. The ground beneath the cell door was coated in a fine metal powder, the same color as the bars. The party carefully headed into the office. Inside was little more than a crooked chair and a desk with some records on it. Looking through them, the group discovered that the man behind the town’s downfall was no one less than the local baker. According to his testimony, someone he called “the many-eyed one” had compelled him to destroy the town’s food supply. From the sheriff’s report, he seemed quite mad.

They headed for the baker’s house. On the way there, as they were walking along the treeline of the woods by the town’s edge, they heard a faint rustling sound. There was something in the woods. The unknown observer had finally made a mistake, making his presence known with nowhere to hide. They looked closer. They could just barely make out the shape of a figure behind the dense needles of a pine tree. It was standing right there, unmoving. A tall humanoid figure covered in grey and black scales. Its arms reached down to its knees where its massive hands ended in sharp claws. Pointed spines protruded from its back. In its face was a single large green eye, just above its grinning mouth lined with needle-like teeth. It stood completely still, eyeing the party as if they still hadn’t noticed it. But they had, and they didn’t hesitate to charge. Swords flashed, arrows flew, and spells burned through the air as the group struck the creature down. It didn’t stand much of a chance, but it didn’t seem to care. It laughed as they attacked it. A distorted, inhuman laugh. It didn’t stop until it was dead in the moss. Heading back to the houses of the town, nobody said a word. The feeling of unease still loomed in their heads. Something was watching them still.

The Lair

The baker’s house was the only one in town that didn’t look abandoned. It still had all its furnishings and decor. On closer inspection, everything was covered in dust. But other than being dusty, it looked quite normal. The root cellar was a different story. There was no food to speak of. The shelves were empty. In the far wall, there was a hole, perfectly round and large enough for a grown man to stand upright in. It was a tunnel, stone walls perfectly smooth and covered in that same green slime. The tunnel spiraled downward. The party was still confident that they could deal with whatever might be down there, so down they went. They tied a rope to a shelf and began making their way down with small, careful steps. One of them, the adventurer in the back, slipped, knocking them all down and sending them sliding into the depths.

They emerged from the tunnel in a dark, narrow hallway with a lofty ceiling. The stone walls were smooth, as if carved by magic. There were no doors or passages in the hallway, but there were two more circular tunnels, one on the left wall and one on the right, near the ceiling of the corridor’s far end. Using a grappling hook, the party made their way up to the left one. The tunnel led to a large chamber, scattered with papers and books in an impossible cipher. Lining the walls were huge vats of monstrous creatures floating in a bubbling green liquid. One creature was a brain with tentacles and a beak, another was a humanoid without skin or flesh. Yet another looked like a giant crab, twelve legs with claws at the ends of each one. Several others looked just like the one-eyed creature they’d fought earlier.

Wanting nothing to do with anything in that room, the party pressed on through yet another circular tunnel. This one led to another tall hallway. The walls had several wide alcoves on top of one another, like shelves. They were decorated with statues with terrified expressions on their faces. Many of them were adventurers. One was a baker wearing manacles. At the end of the hall was an opening to a vast cavern; the lair’s inner sanctum. Peering inside, the party saw a single creature. It looked like a ball of flesh, as wide as a human is tall, hovering just above the ground. Sickly pale skin sloughed off of it. Ten arms extended from the ball, each one crooked. As they stood frozen, one of the arms began to move, twisting a closed hand to face the party. The joints creaked as it opened, revealing a yellowed eye in its palm. The fingers looked like thick, fleshy eyelashes. The eye twitched to look at the party. The creature had floated with its back toward them. As it began to turn around, they saw it for what it truly was.

It was a head of sorts, with a single green eye the size of a human head in its center. The skin of its upper lip was hanging down in a distorted frown. Once turned around, it began inching closer to the party. The discussion about what to do wasn’t long. They turned to run. Beams of magical energy erupted from the creature, disintegrating parts of the walls. They made it through the gallery of statues and the monstrosity lab. The rope they’d used to climb the wall in the first corridor was still there, and they hurried down one by one. The last adventurer, noticing that the creature was right behind them, jumped. He didn’t care if it hurt, he had to get away from there.

Running up the spiral tunnel proved more challenging as the party kept slipping on the green slime. They kept falling, crawling on top of one another to reach the escape. Finally, one of them managed to reach high enough to grab the rope they’d used on the way down. He helped the others up before the creature drew near. They knocked over the shelf in the root cellar and set it on fire. Then they rushed outside, heading for their airship. Making their way through the town they spotted another one of the spiny dark grey creatures that had been watching them before. And then another. And another. Lurking behind every tree, peeking out from every house. The town was full of them. And they were all smiling.

The party had never been so happy to leave a town.

The Lesson

I didn’t expect them to run. I just wanted to spook them a little. I’m delighted with the idea of a beholder who looks like the pale man from Pan’s Labyrinth. Beholders all look different, after all. Anyway, it’s all in the presentation. Someday I’m gonna make an amazing adventure using only the most generic monsters just to prove that I can. At least I think I can.