The world that I create when running D&D sessions is not united against my players. It does not exist purely for them.
Factions attack each other. Battles are won and lost. Schemes succeed and fail.
Or at least they do in my head when I remember to take them into account, because my own brain has a limited amount of processing capacity and simulating an entire world is a little bit beyond it.
What I'm trying to say is that I don't want my players to feel like there is some sort of bias against them. I want them to have interesting encounters in which they are key players, but I also want the world to feel alive and for things to happen without them.
I want them to feel like their presence is not required for the cosmic machinery to turn.
The following story is a good example of this.
Of a tenuous alliance that all comes crashing down because the creatures involved have motivations and intentions of their own.
If you're planning on playing through the Dungeon of the Mad Mage and want to go in blind, this blog post spoils some stuff on the third level.
You have been warned.
Dark, Gloomy and Full Of Dead Things
Three figures stand around their cauldron peering intently into the images dancing across its surface. Snippets of events past, present and future.
A gigantic spider, dead. Her followers, slaughtered. Strands of silk running from their corpses deep into the mountain.
A looming presence, face shadowed by a dark helm. A shade at his side and a growing army at his back.
A labyrinthian network of caves leading to a ramshackle collection of buildings, eyes at every window. Blood spattered coins clinking on the cobblestones.
The images skittering across the surface of the water come into focus. A group of figures, walking nonchalantly down the river, its surface bending and bobbing with their steps.
Looking up from the scrying pool, the crones eye each other suspiciously.
"I am the most charming" says the tallest, hawk-like nose dripping with moisture, "They will listen to what I have to say and perhaps we can refill the larder".
"By all means sister" rasps the short one, sharp teeth in her too wide mouth clicking quietly as she speaks. She looks at the tallest eagerly, hatred in her tiny black eyes.
"We will wait in the pools" gurgles the last one, matted seaweed clinging to her mottled skin. "Should you need us, you have only to call" she lies.
And with that all three move away from the cauldron into a nearby cavern, their brachyuran familiars scuttling along behind them, chitinous legs clacking quietly on the hard rock.
Two of the hags slip silently into pools of murky water, while shadows detach from the corners of the room and wrap themselves around the last, obscuring her features until she looks like nothing more than a wizened old woman.
Then, waiting. Patience. They understand the game.
They don't have to wait long.
The sounds of violence filter through from the direction of the river. The five interlopers heroically butchering the pitiful creatures that live there.
The tallest hag makes an approving noise in the back of her throat. "They are just as unthinking as I knew they would be. This will be simple" she whispers quietly to herself.
The first to enter the humid cavern is all too human, fair of hair with a cloak wrapped around him. He sticks to the shadows, but the shadows here belong to the hags, not to him.
Following close behind the man comes a dwarf, stocky and reeking of the arcane, along with a blue skinned figure touched by the very essence of water. Bringing up the rear, two more, a small goblin and a well-manicured woman with an imperious posture.
"So, are you the ones that killed all of the dark elves?" the tallest hag asks, already knowing full well the answer.
"Allow me to introduce myself, I am Coral Black, and I would like to offer my services. What do you need? Information? Charms? I'm sure we can come to some sort of arrangement"
They listen as she speaks. Quietly considering. She offers snippets of information, and they give back titbits in return. Nothing of real value is exchanged.
She teases them with knowledge about the caves and tunnels connected to the river and what lives within. Of the fungal caverns below, seething with abhorrent life.
Their interest piqued, she brings up the matter of payment.
Flesh. Young and tender. Innocent and unmarked.
It is too much. She oversteps. Arrogance and hunger blinding her. Making her believe she has ensnared them in an unbreakable web of temptation.
They recoil at the thought of trading innocence for knowledge. The blue skinned one sparks a magical light and the shadows are burned away, revealing the hag for what she really is.
Pallid skin, soft and squamous. Knotted hair, long and tangled, slick with algae. Talon like hands, stained with old blood. Thin lips stretched taut across shark-like teeth. Beady black eyes, filled with hate.
She glares at the light-caster, and he begins to drown, water filling his lungs. The fair-haired ranger looses arrows charged with lighting into her, driving her to the ground.
Tallest no longer.
She screeches to her sisters, calling for aid, but they lurk without helping. Watching. Waiting to see what will happen.
Realising the betrayal, she summons what magic she can and wraps it around the ranger, twisting his form. He shrinks, skin turning cold and hard, legs splitting and drawing into his body, hands merging into pincers.
But the rest are on her before she can finish the enchantment and she is unceremoniously beheaded by the dwarf, head rolling loathsomely across the floor of the cavern.
The killing done, the interlopers panic and flee, realising the precariousness of their situation. Taking their transformed and wounded with them.
The remaining hags wait for a moment, then emerge from their pools.
Eyeing each other, they approach the fallen crone.
"Perhaps we can raise her" says the shortest, kneeling over the already cold corpse. "We have just the trinket for this occasion".
She looks longingly at the severed arm hanging from the waistband of the other hag, still fresh as the day it was ensorcelled.
The last hag pounces on the shortest one, intent on murder. She screeches and they tumble to the ground, slashing at each other. Finally, there is an ear-splitting howl followed by a horrendous wet gurgling sound as the shortest hag's throat is ripped out, head lolling unnaturally as her corpse collapses to the ground.
The survivor sags, deep gouges across her body, streaming ichor. Tufts of seaweed-like hair missing from her scalp.
Then she smiles.
Three hags is a coven. A tenuous alliance. A precarious balance.
Two hags is betrayal waiting to happen.
She unloops the severed arm from her waist and gently strokes it, muttering an incantation. The fingers move, grasping at something that cannot be seen. She takes the arm and gently brushes the fresh corpse of her shortest sister.
The body twitches and contorts, limbs pulled by invisible strings. It burbles quietly through the hole that used to be its face and awaits further instruction.
The still living hag repeats the process with her tall sister, corpse rising aberrantly, legs at awkward angles.
"Sisters! It is good to have you back" pants the hag, puffing from the exertion of the spell. "Go. Hide in the pools. Wait for the interlopers to return and we will wreak our vengeance"
The shambling abominations gurgle their assent and dutifully lumber off to do as they are told.
The remaining hag limps back towards the cavern containing the cauldron, then moves past it. As her barnacled feet scrape ominously across the ground, the quiet whimpering in the dark grotto intensifies.
The larder is almost empty.
A few pitiful goblins huddle against the far wall, chittering away in their primitive tongue.
But the real prize is the child.
She strokes his hair almost lovingly and he shudders in terror, sobs coming out in great heaving gasps.
"Shhhhhh Delvin. Think about how you'll never see your family again. Never feel the warmth of the sun on your face" she croons, voice heavy within anticipation. "How you'll die here, alone, without even these wretched goblins for company"
"But not yet. I want to savour that meal and I don't have much time"
The hag moves across the room, roughly picking up one of the remaining goblins. Weak from the imprisonment it ineffectually bats at her with its hands, trying to push her away.
Her mouth opens wider than should be possible and with one great bite, she violently rips off a leg. The goblins keening wail echoes through the larder, then suddenly dies off, as it passes out from the trauma.
The hag consumes the goblin utterly, sucking stringy meat from fragile bone until there is nothing left.
She straightens, wounds closing then heads further into the darkness, through the larder and into the tunnels beyond.
She has work to do. Preparations to make. Effigies to construct.
And the trinkets and charms gathered by her coven are all hers now.
Get Your Slimy Souls Off Me!
As a game master, I've never really run a hag before, let alone a coven of three.
They are fun, but somewhat challenging, as any D&D player worth their salt is immediately suspicious of a random old lady or three that starts giving cryptic advice, asking weird questions and making morally objectionable requests.
Still, hags are interesting because they are inherently antagonistic.
They hate things, just because. Sea hags, like the ones in this story, hate anything that is beautiful and good. They sow discord, corrupt those they encounter and would not hesitate to eat a baby.
They also don't like each other very much, as the story shows. Covens consisting of multiple hags are useful as a game master, because they give the hags greater magical abilities, but they are extremely precarious.
The resulting encounter might not have been the most challenging for my players to surmount, but it made sense in the scheme of things.
It fit within the world and it showed that there was more happening than just what my players could see for themselves.