Plot seed: Get a head


Advice


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How does a town prevent executed criminals from being raised? By cutting their heads off, of course. (Resurrection spells are still a concern, but there are not that many level 13+ clerics around.) The decapitated heads are displayed on stakes above the Tower of Justice for a minimum of 21 days, each with a placard briefly describing their crimes.

Plot seed: PCs are hired to steal a head. (I think this works best for PCs around 3rd-5th level.) You can tell the PCs why the heads are up there. They will probably assume that someone wants to cast Raise Dead. Depending on the scenario (see below) the head may have been a petty thief, someone who stabbed someone in a brawl, or a vicious serial killer.

Challenges: The heads are guarded, of course. The simplest scenario is, there are a couple of gargoyles sitting on either end of the row of heads. The town tolerates the gargoyles, allowing them to live off pigeons, rats, and the occasional stray dog, as long as they guard the heads. This makes a pretty straightforward combat. Clever PCs can try talking to the gargoyles. They're chaotic, so they can totally be bribed, with gold or with fresh meat.

Alternately, there's one gargoyle, and it's a creepy-looking vulture-headed thing. Whoops, it's not a gargoyle at all but a CR 7 vanth psychopomp! (Obviously there's a backstory. Bound by a wizard? Paying off a favor? You decide.) The vanth can be talked to, and it's not an evil creature, but at the end of the day it's not letting anyone get raised.

Alternately, there are X number of spikes up there... and each one is guarded with a Glyph of Warding... and each Glyph contains a Summon Monster III spell... and if one glyph triggers, they all do. So, depending on the alignment of the town, suddenly you're facing X number of Dire Bats, or Lantern Archons, or Dretches. There's a simple way to avoid triggering the Glyph (wear a necklace with three human fingerbones on it) which the local executioner uses but which the PCs are very unlikely to discover.

In all cases, to reach the heads you must be able to climb (fairly easy Climb check) or fly. The heads are clearly visible from the street below, so best do this at night. Bats hang out around the Tower of Justice (they have a nest in an empty room), so clever PCs who creep up invisibly will disturb them, alerting the gargoyles or the vanth that something's up (and possibly also triggering a bat swarm, because why not). Townspeople believe the heads are guarded by a curse, which is not true but should make PCs thoughtful.

Plot twist: The PCs' employer doesn't want to raise the head at all! They want the head for some other reason...

-- Demon eye. The dead man had a demonic graft: a glowing red demon eye (+8 perception). He mostly kept it hidden under an eyepatch, which his rotting head still wears. The eye still works just fine. With a high enough Heal check, it can still be removed and transferred to a new host. The PCs' employer may simply be a former colleague of the dead man who wants the eye for herself, or a wizard who wants it for research, or a cultist. Or they may be the person who sold the eye to the dead man in the first place...

-- Head fake. The employer is a necromancer who has come up with a cool new spell for creating an intelligent, evil undead from a severed head. However, he needs the fresh head of someone really evil; just killing a random person and taking their head won't work. In this scenario, if the PCs do any research or inquiry, mention that the head they're after is the head of a notorious serial killer or mass murderer. (Probably best with nongood PCs.) If they don't make inquiries, have "ATROCIOUS MURDERRER OF MANY" on the placard that hangs beneath the head. If the PCs hand over the head, soon the most disturbing rumors will be circulating, about the blood-sucking life-draining floating head thing that's terrorizing the poorer part of town...

-- Lore needle. This one is relatively benign: the dead man had a lore needle stuck in his head. This turns a person with one high Knowledge skill into someone with ALL the Knowledges, so it's definitely something a wizard, a bard, or just an academic researcher might want. In this scenario the PCs' employer is not necessarily evil, and may become a recurring NPC or a patron.

-- Brain infection. The dead man's brain was infected by something. (Possibly this is why he was committing crimes in the first place.) Options include brainworms or thoughtcrawlers (bad), brain moss (worse), or a slugspawn (very bad indeed). The PCs' employer may be an alchemist, is probably evil, and is quite possibly the person who infected the dead man in the first place. A drow or a derro, working in disguise, would work very well here, or your standard insane Lovecraftian cultists if you're going with the slugspawn. (Normally slugspawn form a spawning canker if their host dies early. This one didn't, and the cultists really want to recover it and find out why.)

Phew. Thoughts?

Doug M.


I love it. The premise hits that sweet spot for me where it acknowledges the comparatively widespread availability of certain magics in Pathfinder, but not to the extent that society breaks down or becomes alien.

What happens to heads that are taken down after the minimum 21 days? Is there some sort of skull pit on the outskirts of town?


I'm surprised the OP didn't list the two easiest plots possible.

The really straight forward one is a love one wants to bury the head in a respectable way. Even if your cousin was scum, seeing his severed head every day has got to get to you. Even worse if it was your son or brother.

And the most Pathfinder reasons is...you want to Speak with Dead. Without the head the spell will fail.


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Rumors have it the head is actually a long lost artifact, the Head of Vecna!

Oh wait, wrong universe.


I assume that the PCs are evil or at least selfish neutral? I don't see many good or lawful PCs stealing heads of criminals so that they can be raised.


TheGreatWot wrote:
I assume that the PCs are evil or at least selfish neutral? I don't see many good or lawful PCs stealing heads of criminals so that they can be raised.

I'd call it a nonlawful act, but not necessarily an evil one. If the town's government is oppressive, and the dead man was convicted for some relatively trivial crime, I think the CG rogue would have no problem shimmying up that pole.

Getting a NG or LG character up there would be harder, but you could probably manage it if you press your thumb on the scales hard enough. "That's the head of Navarth, the mad poet. Annoying but harmless. One day he composed a satire on Duke Bluto Saunce Pite. When the Duke's men had him arrested, they found his medicine -- oil of taggit. Navarth took it to fall asleep, but the Duke had him tried and executed for possession of a poison..."

Doug M.


Emo Duck wrote:

I love it. The premise hits that sweet spot for me where it acknowledges the comparatively widespread availability of certain magics in Pathfinder, but not to the extent that society breaks down or becomes alien.

What happens to heads that are taken down after the minimum 21 days? Is there some sort of skull pit on the outskirts of town?

Reasonable question. 21 days is a minimum. Probably they stay up until the space is needed, so it could be months if things are slow. Perhaps then the next of kin are allowed to claim them, and if nobody does, yeah they get tossed in a hole in the local potter's field.

An interesting option that just occurred: get the town executioner to do it for you. Hey, he's up there all the time, and the traps and monsters won't go after him. Of course, it's worth his job if he's caught, so you'll need to hit him with Charm or Suggestion AND ALSO bribe him. And then he's a witness who could conceivably finger the PCs. But if a group of PCs successfully pulled this off, I'd give them the full xp.

Doug M.


Meirril wrote:

I'm surprised the OP didn't list the two easiest plots possible.

The really straight forward one is a love one wants to bury the head in a respectable way. Even if your cousin was scum, seeing his severed head every day has got to get to you. Even worse if it was your son or brother.

Oh, you could certainly use this as a red herring. PCs' employer /claims/ to be the dead man's brother or whatever, but this seems unlikely on its face (he's not from around here, he's a gnome, whatever) and a bit of investigation will show the dead man didn't have a brother. (Or alternately, you can drop the information that the heads eventually get taken down and given to the next of kin.) So the PCs will reasonably jump to the obvious conclusion, which is Raise Dead.

Quote:

And the most Pathfinder reasons is...you want to Speak with Dead. Without the head the spell will fail.

This is perfectly okay. Just, there's no plot hook. "Head is actually super valuable" or "Employer really wants to use head to bring about catastrophe" pulls the PCs in. "Employer wants to talk to head"... might? depending on what they want to know? But you'd have to build it out a bit.

Doug M.


Defenses
Summon monster is okay, but not really exciting after a (potential) fight with gargoyles and a pyschopomp (which may or may not happen, since the PCs don't actually know whether raising dead is involved, so may not even mention it as a possibility). Maybe one triggering is okay (it can bring multiples creatures, however many you need for the job), but maybe using a variant magic mouth trap (unless you have the necklace or other symbol) would be different. The skull either begins shouting or is programmed to speak a convincing phrase, either to frighten them or to waste their time while the guards (or gargoyles) come to investigate, assuming they weren't dealt with, or both. Something like, "If my treasure you seek, see what I see from here and that word speak", then the PCs are all looking around, calling out random things, "Steeple!", "Heads!", "Completely ordinary-looking gargoyle statu...oh...!"

Maybe a variant cackling skull spell (just in case you don't think the normal one would work on just a severed head) that starts shrieking and can cause a thief to become shaken and maybe fall (maybe onto a few empty and waiting head-spikes a little lower.

Plot
Common enough trope: the killer had part of a map tattooed to his head (he was bald or shaven at the time, but his hair grew in later) and the employer needs to have a look at it before it rots too much. If the PCs aren't careful (ie. pick it up, pull it off the spike, or carry it around by the hair), it may pull out and reveal some of the tattoo. Maybe the deceased knew about it, but couldn't really see it too well (even if they used several mirrors, it would be distorted), so speak with dead might not be entirely accurate (or maybe that has to happen with some of the missing parts, but the directions from the head are backwards or reversed because of the complicated mirror use while viewing it). He couldn't go after it because it's just one part of a larger map.

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