Fantastic Locations: The Ghost Hills

I originally wrote about the Ghost Hills a few years ago, and it got kind of parked until I decided to expand on the material for use in a new campaign.  That fell through, so I figured I’d present it here, along with some of the supporting material.  The original post used the proto-template that evolved to the larger template I use today.

This is, of course, prompted by the RPG Blog Carnival I’m hosting on Fantastic Locations.

The Ghost Hills

Role

Theme

A desolate, unwelcoming range of hills, shrouded in death.  Cake is not an option.

Threat

Full of barrows and other burial sites, any of which may contain undead creatures that can awaken and sally forth at almost any time… and periodically do so in large numbers.

Reward

  • Many items recovered from the area have an affinity for death-related magic (positive or negative).
  • Magic items may be found, along with other treasures, though all are likely to be tainted.
  • There may be caches of dark lore in places.
  • Great souls (fallen heroes) may be found and interacted with.
  • The Heart of Death (death-aspected wellspring, may be useful for those aspiring to immortality).

Relationships

I have not yet defined entities for all of these.

  • The Ghost Hills Guard patrols the hills watching for stirring undead to keep things under control, maintains the Bastions, and tries to keep fools from seeking their deaths (or rather, treasure, but it usually amounts to the same thing here).
  • Several Bastions, places where the power of the Ghost Hills is weakened.
  • Specific cairns and barrows (these might be defined as a group then itemized, rather than one entity each)
  • Neighboring kingdoms (see below).
  • Bleak Fen (a swamp downstream, where little grows that is not twisted).
  • Krachy Prizrak (ruins of Hrad Prizrak after the castle was torn down, center of power for the area).
  • Miroslav Prizrak; even if he is dead he was a major influence in his time.
  • Miroslav Prizrak’s patron (since he caused this happen) and his servitors.
  • Ghost Hills War, the event that caused this place to have the nature it does.  Currently included below as ‘History’.
  • The Heart of Death, the focus of the rituals described in the History section below.

Identification

Description

Rugged hills with ragged vegetation, many bare places where plants will not grow.  Cold mists almost always, shadowy most of the time, rarely if ever any true sun — even when there is sunlight, it is pale and unwarming.  Anywhere there is bare earth is likely to be sticky, noisome mud.  Burial sites almost everywhere, barrows and cairns almost always in sight.

Signature

Those who survive the Ghost Hills usually have a bleak fatalism about them, members of the Guard certainly do.  Unless treated properly, wounds taken here never heal quite right and leave distinctively darkened scars.  Most items retrieved from the area have some clear deterioration (pitted surfaces, blades that never take a proper edge, and so on).

Location

On the ‘corner’ of three kingdoms.  This was originally a barony measuring a few hundred square miles, and the containing duchy (about 10,000-12,000 square miles) was abandoned by the kingdom it was part of to make a buffer zone around the former barony… and all three kingdoms provide armsmen for the Guard.  Downstream of the Hills is the Bleak Fen.

Most people include the surrounding (former) duchy as the ‘Ghost Hills’, but while that buffer area does have its grisly reminders of the events of the past and is underpopulated compared to most areas, the Ghost Hills Guard know that it’s just a lonely place, not the true Ghost Hills.

Mechanics

  • Poor visibility due to mist, ranges from half normal at best to completely fogged in (5-10 foot visibility).
  • The cold is usually just uncomfortable, with no ill effect itself on people adequately dressed.  Those left out overnight with inadequate protection from the cold are likely to suffer at least mild hypothermia (and frankly have worse problems anyway, so let’s not think about the cold too much).
  • Varying negative energy dominant.
    • Most places, ‘negative influence’ means that living creatures do not recover naturally (no hit points recovered for a night’s rest if playing D&D 3.x RAW, do not recover ‘hard to kill’ if using my variant hit point model).
    • In the darker shadows (barrows and the like) it is often minor negative dominant (d6 necrotic damage per minute — damage per round per RAW is too high for my taste).
    • The area closest to Krachy Prizrak, and the ruins themselves, are ‘full minor’ negative dominant (d6 necrotic damage per round, per RAW).
    • Anyone who dies here is likely to be entombed in a barrow or cairn and reanimated as undead, though dormant.
  • Barrows are usually occupied by dormant undead (as described above).  Magic items recovered from these places are usually tainted and perverted by death (most ‘energy damage’ effects become necrotic damage, unless there’s a cooler idea), other items have a taint.  Almost everything and anything may be cursed.  When a barrow’s occupants are destroyed and the tainted items removed the barrow will collapse.
  • Cairns are occupied by fallen heroes, those powerful souls who were able to resist the malign powers of this land.  Their lingering souls still offer protection to the living; inside a cairn living creatures can heal naturally (and recover ‘hard to kill’ normally).  Disturbing the contents of the cairn (especially removing the body of the hero or his belongings) may destroy the sanctity (and usefulness) of the cairn.  However, items found in these places are generally ‘clean’, without taint, and of some form useful against undead.  Holy weapons, undead bane, ghost touch, and so on are relatively common.
  • Cairns and Barrows often behave as Shrines (something else I need to write up), holy ground that usually has minor effects but here may be more powerful, as indicated by their durability — anything that can stand up to the dark power present is pretty hardy.
  • Bastions are like larger, more powerful cairns, and are most often abandoned churches and temples in otherwise destroyed settlements.
  • Most other items recovered have a magical affinity for death magics, positive and negative.  They may be more likely to take on necrotic energy effects, or powers useful against the undead.
  • The ‘great souls’ are the spirits of powerful heroes (mostly in cairns, but not all were good enough or strong-willed enough to avoid barrows).  Consider them to have the ghost template, or something similar (they are mostly incorporeal undead, though there could be some corporeal ones).  They may be interacted with as normally as might be expected under the circumstances, and may be willing (or coerced) to help, either with information or advice, or actual tangible assistance.

History

(Because major events usually involve so many entities, the events are typically documented separately — often as entities themselves.  This one is very specific to the Ghost Hills and, since this is an example rather than intended for actual use on my part, I’ve included it here.)

Kral Miroslav Prizrak was a minor noble (baron, in common terms) a few centuries ago who initially wasn’t too bad a person.  He was more lenient — weak-willed, he was called — on his lesser gentry and peasants and the like than most.  Relatively intellectual compared to his peers, he didn’t rely on scholars and other learned folk, but was himself a capable academician.  His studies eventually led to magic, but mastery of that power eluded him.  His frustration left him vulnerable to temptation, and when offered the opportunity to master magic he took it.  Over the next couple of decades his power grew and his patron slowly and subtly guided his steps to deeper and darker magics.

Like many such, he eventually came to fear his own death, as he knew full well what it was going to mean for him.  He found a way to escape his fate in taking steps toward immortality, something his patron had overlooked.

Or so he thought; the loophole and the information needed to wriggle through it were both made available to Prizrak by his patron.  One of the most significant tasks undertaken ended up perverting the land and warping it to be death-aspected.  People were not directly affected at first, apart from a general feeling of malaise, but their inability to heal normally from rigors of regular life eventually meant that almost all who once lived here died.  Much as a plague, the churches and temples were filled by people fearing for their lives and neglecting the farm work needed to gain the food needed to survive the winter.

Over the course of two seasons, almost all who could not flee the barony died.  Despite the situation, all were interred in barrows, as might have happened normally — save that they were outside the consecrated graveyards and no one was seen to have actually prepared the grave site.

Anguished by the wholesale death of his people, Miroslav Prizrak tried a mighty ritual that was to bring them back to life.  Another misstep, this animated the unhallowed dead of his realm.  The reanimated dead returned to a mockery of their normal lives, until the now-mad Prizrak enacted the third ritual that would ‘make things right’… at which point his realm started to grow and his undead nation pressed into the surrounding duchy.

This entire process had not gone completely unnoticed.  When news of the plague affecting the barony came out the area was quarantined (sealing the fate of the people there — had they been able to get food and other resources from outside, or been able to escape, they might not have all died) so the contagion would not spread.  As the land’s nature darkened and started to affect the surrounding areas those outside realized the size of the problem.  This eventually led to one of the largest cooperative endeavors ever by the three kingdoms (the former liege nation of the duchy containing the barony, and the two most directly affected neighbors).  Initially hundreds, then thousands, and finally tens of thousands of armed men and heroes invaded the barony.  Losses were immense because the injured could not recover from their wounds without magic, and made worse by the frequent reanimation of fallen comrades.

Troops of the time, and the Ghost Hills Guard today, learned and made sure they carried enough oil and other incendiary material that any who fell could be safely incinerated before a barrow formed and they returned in undeath.  Cairns were formed where the greatest heroes died and could not be so incinerated (usually because they were the last ones standing, either guarding a retreat or simply because everyone else died before them in a last stand).

After nearly a decade of total war, the forces of life finally managed to tear down Hrad Prizrak.  There was no need to salt the ground, everything here was dead.  As closely as they combed the ruins, though, desperately searching for Miroslav Prizrak, no positively, definitively-identified body could be found.

Secrets

Quite a few, but key ones are below.

  • Hrad Prizrak existed on both the Prime Plane and the Plane of Shadow.  A couple of years before Hrad Prizrak fell, mad Miroslav Prizrak fled into the Plane of Shadow.  He had grown in power enough, and was insane enough, that he was fairly comfortable there.  He continues his quest for immortality, and is in fact moderately successful in this effort due to the assistance of his patron, who continues to develop his protege.  Apart from some maudlin nostalgia Priznak feels little for his former homeland, since all he cared for there is dead.  On the other hand, as he grows in power he grows in madness, so he may take it in mind to return someday.
  • Because Hrad Prizrak is on both planes, when circumstances are right (new moon, midwinter solstice, anniversary of a special event such as one or more of Prizrak’s rituals, or the destruction of his castle, or his flight from the Prime Plane) the Shadow castle is evident on both planes, and usually comes with company that ends up destroying anyone found in the castle.
  • Tearing down Hrad Prizrak did not truly break the power of the Ghost Hills, as is evident from the need to continue the Ghost Hills Guard.  The focus of the rituals that so affected the barony was, and still is in the shadow realm, housed at the top of the castle’s tower.  If someone were to penetrate the tower (such as being present on the castle site when the castle reappears, managing to survive the shadow beasts that come with it, and reach the ritual room) and destroy the focus the power of the Ghost Hills would be broken.  The mists would disperse, the negative energy would gradually reduce (the least effects almost immediately, but the barrows and ‘darker shadows’ mentioned above would need to be specifically cleansed) and the land could heal.

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