Harken ye to the tale of Olaf the Implacable, scion of the twin deities Helion of the Sun and Bellarion of War, and his trusty guardian "Captian" Garl Stillwaters, former sea dog & sword-swinger extraordinaire. The two hapless would-be crusaders are stationed in Outpost, the northernmost bastion of the Solaran Empire. Regular shipments of tithe and foodstuffs from the town of Grenville have trickled to nothing, and no one from the town has been seen or heard from in over a week. Traffic on the road from the southern empire is at a minimum, with only the largest caravans and military supply groups making it through. Most curiously, these caravans report dead silence on the road; even the regular Kobold raids have stopped.
The irritable Bishop Alaric, patriarch in Outpost, has ordered Olaf to investigate Grenville and report to Chaplain Godfrey in the temple there. He and his paranoid yet resolute companion leave in the morning through the Verdant Hills toward the town, encountering little on the way except a few emaciated Kobolds attempting to steal their food. Righteousness prevails, and all is eerily quite until they reached the outskirts of the town where they encounter an unconscious man who has been thrown from his cart. He had been fleeing Grenville as fast as possible when his cart wheel was smashed, killing his horse. His guard, Orik, stands nearby, confused as to what made his boss flee the town without him.
Olaf revives Saul who, after first reacting in utter terror to the sight of the cleric, eventually explains that he is under contract to run supplies to the town. He reported to the temple to collect the tithe as his man went to the inn to grab a quick flagon of ale. As he opened the door to the temple, though, he saw what he described as horrible human-like monsters tearing people to pieces, and tossing them into a black cauldron where the altar once stood. At the back of the room a man in black wearing what looked like the symbol of Bellarion, a soaring hawk over a golden sun, but corrupted somehow. He fled as fast as he could, leaving his guard behind. Orik caught up to him and found him and the broken cart, not knowing the terror his master had experienced.
The two novice adventurers approach the town with great caution after sending Saul on his way back to Outpost. As they enter the town, they notice that all buildings have been stripped of any consumable material, particularly wood and foodstuffs, though they find a few valuables scattered left behind unprotected. As they near the square, they pass by the stone walls of the Inn, the only stone building in town other than the temple. On the granite walls they find large raven's head drawn in blood, its eye piercing their very souls as they pass through the desolate streets. The symbol belongs to the Cult of Vultura, mistress of decay, disease and carrion.
Just as they enter the square, they spot about a dozen figures behind them, dazed expressions on their faces as they shamble ever closer. The two get the sense that they are being herded towards the temple, but are able to take advantage of the zombies' slow speed and dispatch them with ease.
Clear of the rather slow and obvious ambush, they proceed through the square and notice it's filled with what must be the charred remains of the entire region's harvest. Human and a few Kobold corpses are scattered about, many missing limbs or other body parts. Steeling themselves, they bravely enter the temple to find out what plague has befallen this town.
Inside they see that the temple is in ruins, the pews scattered about, the altar broken and in its place a bubbling cauldron as Saul described. Inside, four more of the undead villagers await them, along with a man in dark priest's garb whom they recognize as Godfrey. A black symbol of the Carrion Lady hangs about his neck. Godfrey laughs triumphantly as he sees Olaf enter, and he proclaims that Olaf will be his first acolyte. His zombies come after them, focusing on Garl by Godfrey's command. Godfrey himself nearly smites Garl to death, but the Olaf is able to use the blessings of light to repel the evil spawn and slay the dark priest.
Wizened by their experience, they head back to Outpost, neither of them looking forward to telling Alaric of the food shortage that will soon plague the town....
This was adventure was the first I have planned in a very long time, though I was able to put it together over a few lunch breaks at work. We played maplessly over Google Hangouts, and all things considered it well rather well. The zombie ambush was partly a skill-challenge, and they would have been hard-pressed to defeat Godfrey at the temple with a dozen zombies behind them. However, I knew going in that this part of it was too hastily thrown together. As well, the zombies turned out to be a minimal threat with a too low attack bonus, but a rather high experience reward. Garl and Olaf were able to gain two levels from 4 encounters. Godfrey in contrast was probably too overpowered, (a 3rd level Dark Priest), and I will try experimenting with custom villains next time around.
The next adventure will be within Outpost, and I'm going to keep striving towards a balance of minimal preparation time but well-conceived encounters to take full advantage of mapless combat.
Feel free to send me any comments about your experiences with the Next playtest, or this adventure specifically.