Chris Perkins wasn’t always a professional game designer working on Dungeons & Dragons for Wizards of the Coast. Once upon a time, he was just a player and Dungeon Master, not unlike you and me, and way back in those dreamy halcyon days of AD&D Second Edition, he used to submit adventure modules to Dungeon magazine. And his modules took no prisoners.
For about eight months I’ve been running Original Dungeons & Dragons (OD&D) at my FLGS. I have a party of 6 PCs (two mages, two thieves, a cleric, and a fighter) and their pet bird-person (which is a long story I’ll get into in Part 2). They are currently travelling through my campaign setting, en route to a large city where they hope to sell all the random loot they found in the first adventure. (Old-School D&D awards XP for treature, but they can’t get the XP until they convert the statues, fine goods, and other valuable loot into gold pieces.)
They were nearing a small town at a crossroads, and as they had been on the road for a while, having a series of random encounters, I thought I’d put something interesting in this town. A problem to solve, a monster to kill, a group of innocent villagers to rescue from the clutches of evil. Enter Chris Perkins and Dungeon magazine #38 (November/December 1992).
Originally designed for the Ravenloft setting, this module, titled Horror’s Harvest, is basically Invasion of the Body Snatchers for D&D. The PCs come to a small village (called Delmunster in the original module) to investigate a meteorite. It turns out the meteorite was the seed of a doppelganger plant which is slowly taking over the town, turning the villagers into mind-controlled podlings.
I’ve wanted to run this module since I first read it. I love the eerie atmosphere, the mystery (and the fact that the players have to roleplay to solve it), and the unapologetic deadliness. Perkins is no lightweight. If you run this module (and I think you should), be prepared for character death, possibly a TPK (even in 5E), and make sure your players are too. Having cautious, tactical players who don’t take “encounter balance” for granted will really help keep the body count low.
How I seeded the module
Strictly speaking, I didn’t have to seed the module, as the party were going to pass through the village anyway (it’s on the main road). I did, however, give them some general knowledge about the place, such as anyone might know (there are no knowledge checks in Old-School D&D, so you can just tell players things you want them to know).
The village is called Trifurc (literally “three-fork”), because it is located where three major roads meet. It is famous for its claret wine. It’s technically in a forest, but the villagers cut back the trees to make room for their grapes.
I had thought about having them see the “falling star” during their journey (they usually set a watch at night), but they were actually clearing out a ghoul lair on the relevant night. During that particular adventure, the party’s Paladin fell to a ghast wielding an apparently magic warhammer. The player rolled up a new character (3d6 down the line) and got a cleric. He chose to be a cleric of Vecna.
I decided this was a good opportunity to seed the meteorite, so I asked the player if he’d like to be investigating the falling star. It would give his character a reason to be in the area and to be travelling to Trifurc. The player agreed, but being a follower of Vecna (god of secrets), chose to keep the info and his true affiliation to himself. Little did he know, he was already sowing the seeds of paranoia and mistrust that would spell doom for the entire party.
What I changed
I have never run someone else’s module exactly as written. I’m not really sure you’re supposed to (though if you do, I’m sure that’s fine too). Like many Gamemasters, I freely adapt any and all material to suit my players, my setting, and my own tastes.
I’ve already pointed out that I changed the village name, and I’m not running the Ravenloft setting, but rather my own homebrew world, which is more traditional faux-medieval-European. The area the players are exploring is loosely inspired by post-Roman empire Italy: the distant memory of a fallen empire, no real unified “kingdom”, but lots of competing city-states, mostly run by rich, powerful families, and a highly organized religion whose clergy is nearly as rich and powerful as any of the secular rulers.
The party is ultimately headed to the city of Bard’s Gate (whose name is taken from Frog God Games’ Lost Lands setting, though in my world it’s kind of a stand-in for Medieval Florence), and Trifurc is located in a disputed area which is claimed by both the rulers of Worms (inspired by the Burgundian kingdom in the Nibelungenlied) and those of Eastwych (also taken from the Lost Lands).
So the first thing I had to do was change the NPC names in the original module from the Eastern European style of Ravenloft to something Medieval Italian. (Rewriting all those names, btw, was a much bigger endeavour than I anticipated). I also removed the module’s original hook: a random NPC wizard who offers to pay the PCs to recover the crashed “comet”. As the party was going to pass through Trifurc anyway, I figured all I really had to do was make the place seem “odd” enough that they may be inspired to stop there long enough to investigate.
Then there were a few random additions. Firstly, I didn’t settle on running Horror’s Harvest until I had begun designing Trifurc, and I preserved some of my original features. Using the random tables in Matt Finch’s excellent Tome of Adventure Design, I was creating a place famous for its wine (as mentioned above), and for a breeding a strange milkable hybrid horse-cow, which I dubbed the equibous. To tie into Lazy Litch’s Woodfall setting, which I’m hoping to run soon-ish, I had the town lit by special lanterns, inside of which were trapped fairies.
Most of my work regarding the layout and districts ended up going out the window when I chose to run Horror’s Harvest, because I simply substituted the original map of Delmunster. I opted to keep the fairy lights, because the exploitation of fairies as a free light source is linked to the royal house of Worms (the “kingdom” antagonist for Woodfall), and is both a red herring (it has nothing to do with the doppelganger plant) and a seed to get the party to explore Woodfall. If they survive. The equiboi became a mere bit of “flavour” (and thoroughly disgusted my players, when they learned of it).
Day 1: Let the nightmare begin
The party rolled into Trifurc at about mid-day. They were travelling with a caravan, and technically serving as its armed guards.
The first thing they noticed was that Trifurc is much smaller than they expected (indeed, my original design was for a larger town; the Delmunster of the original module is really a mere hamlet). I handed them the map – Perkins’ original map, with a few mark-ups.
They wanted to head for an inn first. In the module, the inn was called the Giggling Gargoyle, but I renamed it The Mare and Goblin, as denoted by a painted wooden sign showing a small green humanoid milking what appears to be a claret-coloured horse.
Inside the inn, they encountered the corrupt staff (basically as Perkins wrote them, but with changed names). The casual species-ism (humans looking down on non-humans) exhibited by Francesco, the main proprietor prompted the party’s halfling thief to gift a dose of poison he had crafted from ghoul livers (idea taken from The Black Hack Second Edition btw) to Stump, the Inn’s halfling serving lad and whipping boy, in case he wanted to “teach Francesco a lesson”.
Meanwhile, the cleric of Vecna went to talk to the Ludovico brothers (two teen rapscallions who fancy themselves monster hunters). He paid them a few gold pieces for information regarding the meteorite, and they promised to return the next morning to give him a full report.
Then the party met Ludo, the travelling musician, and the first podling (person enslaved by the doppelganger plant) to cross their path. They were thoroughly creeped out by his demeanour. Altogether we got more than an hour’s worth of solid roleplay, during which time the party learned:
- There was either a lightning storm or an isolated boom (depending who you ask) ten days ago.
- One villager died of a mysterious disease about a week ago.
- Another villager, a little girl, seems to have the same disease, and others may be affected.
- No one is tending the grape vines (viticulture is one of the most labour-intensive forms of agriculture, but the vineyards are empty).
- A rival caravan pulled into the village a few days ago, but disappeared mysteriously in the night.
They also learned from the halfling that the innkeepers are crooks who rob their clients, that the townmaster is a snobby recluse who rarely comes out of his manor house, and that he has the same servants as his father and grandfather before him.
The party also met “Mad” Rupert Morteni, who screamed about werewolves and then ran around the village, shouting “They’re here already!” (a quote from the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers film, intended as a clue). Part of the original module, Rupert is another red herring, and, as the party soon learned, has been shouting this nonsense for years and years (he was cursed by fairies while hunting them for lamp fuel when he was a teenager, and it serves him right).
The party wanted to stock up on some road supplies, but didn’t want to roleplay a shopping trip, so they each coughed up 5 gold pieces and sent their two hirelings, Mutt and Jeff, to Volpone’s Emporium. Then they took a walk around the village, after securing rooms and asking Stump to make sure Francesco didn’t steal from them.
The party’s dwarf fighter was formerly a baker. She had collected some elderberries from an animated elderberry bush (the berries were actually used as missile weapons against the party), and stayed behind to bake a pie. Francesco actually agreed to this, because the village’s current baker is terrible. Her baking is known as “the bane of Trifurc”, and she once accidentally gave her husband food poisoning (or was it an accident?), a detail from the original module.
As the party toured the village, they found it suspiciously quiet, apart from Rupert’s shouting, and they began to wonder if everyone was dead. The dark elf thief decided to peak through a randomly chosen window – and found himself face-to-face with the village gossip, Ezra Kourkouas, who gave them all quite an earful. This altercation attracted the attention of a small group of soldiers, led by Sir Alexander Sosius.
The soldiers were from Worms, and are not normally stationed in Trifurc, nor were they planning to stay long. The Signeur of Worms (who secrectly styles himself King), sent them here to “show the rabble to whom they really owe allegiance”.
Through good roleplaying, the party manage to talk their way out of trouble (aided by a good reaction roll and the fact that the soldiers don’t particularly like the Trifurc villagers). Unfortunately Sir Alexander hasn’t been in town long enough or paid enough attention to be of any real help, so the party moved on to visit the sick girl, Lotta Gravidius.
The original module makes it clear that Cure Light Wounds won’t heal podlings. However, I ruled that, though it wouldn’t break the doppelganger plant’s Mind Bondage, it would heal lost hit points. The plant would then continue devouring its podling immediately. In this way, the plant could “double-dip” on its feeding. My my real motivation for the change is exemplified by how the scene played out.
When the party called on Lotta, she had 1 hit point left and was unconscious. The cleric healed her back to full, at which point she woke up and immediately began exhibiting the unnervingly flat, emotionless, yet peculiarly optimistic demeanour that the party was already learning to fear.
Attempts to interrogate her were futile. She declared she wasn’t sick and that nothing odd was happening in the village. She then repeated the refrain which the players already knew to be the calling card of whatever evil force was taking over the village: “I hope you’ll stay, at least a few days. It’s such a friendly village.” It got to where you could almost see the players shudder when they heard those words.
While “healing” Lotta, they learned that the village Priest, Father Brume, had locked himself in the church and wouldn’t attend to anyone. So the party made the church their next port of call.
In the foyer of the church they found the body of Umburrow, the first podling, who had attacked the priest’s acolyte with a shovel (he was formerly the gravedigger). The priest clubbed him to death and then locked the church doors. All this happened a week ago.
While examining the body, it collapsed like a deflated balloon, long sucked dry of all its internal organs. I had the players make saving throws, and only the dark elf succeeded. Everyone else ran screaming into the village, unable to face their horrific discovery for the next hour.
This attracted the soldiers again. They investigated and also failed their horror saves. It was at this moment that Rupert returned, pointed a finger at the PCs, and screamed “Murderers! Assassins! You’re next!” Then he ran off again. The players now really hate Rupert.
Tune in next time to see how a simple passeggiata causes all hell to break loose.