Saturday, July 4, 2015

The Somberlain

"In all of my travels, I've seen but one road with neither beginning nor end. I'll wager, though, many an unwise traveler has found an end of sorts on the Somberlain."

-from the journal of Greyfavell the Wanderer, 6th of the Flame, 7,487

Background: Several hundred years ago the wizard Greyfavell, on one of his morning walks, discovered a road near his home that was not there the day before. Spurred by the curiosity of a true wizard, Greyfavell decided to follow the road. He explored it for months, sustained by magic and driven by the desire to unlock its secrets. He returned with a handful of answers and four times as many questions. Despite the strange nature of his discoveries on the Somberlain, he was shocked to learn that only hours had passed in his own world. 

How it works: The Somberlain seems to be a separate and independent world; however, it is capable of anchoring itself to other worlds through at least two points. Greyfavell found a way to alter these anchor points to create entrances and exits, allowing travelers to cover vast distances almost instantaneously. Instantaneously, that is, only in the user's home world; travel on the Somberlain always takes longer, but has the benefit of easily-traversed terrain and and only slight danger provided travelers stay on the road, do not encounter many open tombs or the things drawn to them, and act sensibly.  
     Greyfavell found a number of stones inscribed with magical glyphs on his first expedition that, when placed on the ground precisely 10' apart, create a portal to the Somberlain. The person placing the stones must hold in their mind an image of the place that is as detailed as possible--if they've never been there, an accurate map or at least a picture will be of help. It's possible to go somewhere unknown, but risks increase and include exiting somewhere far from their destination, exiting somewhere incredibly dangerous, or, if the stories are to be believed, exiting onto another world entirely. The portal will remain stable as long as the stones remain in place, and the traveler can close the portal once on the Somberlain by picking up both stones within a a round of one another. It is important to note that if this step is not done quickly, there is a 65% chance the second stone will fade with the portal.

 -Travelers multiply the distance they would normally travel to a destination in their own world by 2d3 when attempting to get there via the Somberlain. Each day spent on The Somberlain equals 6d10 minutes in their own world. The time disparity has been known to fluctuate; a recent unauthorized journey conducted by students at the Mage's School in Fadun resulted in a student trapped on the Somberlain for approximately forty years while gone for only a few hours in local time. (There is a 1% chance time will behave this way.)

-Exiting the Somberlain is somewhat tricky, as perception of time and distance feels somewhat elastic while traveling its length. Travelers will most likely get to their intended destination if the person who summoned the entrance gate is still carrying the stones used in the summoning; when they near the site where they should build their exit gate, they will feel something akin to déjà vu. This sense lets them know when to summon the exit gate. The more one travels on the Somberlain and creates gates, the better they will be at recognizing this feeling (+1d4% chance per successful trip, see below).

-If the creator of the entrance gate is no longer capable of holding the stones or summoning the exit gate, exiting becomes trickier. If someone else has access to at least one of the stones used to summon the entrance, their chances of getting to their destination remain good. If the original creator is gone and someone else in the party is using a different set of summoning stones, there is still a slight chance they might succeed.

Percent Chance of Reaching Destination Via Exit Gate*
Gate SummonerKnowledge of Destination# of Original Stones% Chance of Successd20 success
same as entrance gategood290%3-20
different persongood250%11-20
*+1d4% per successful prior trip on the Somberlain

Improperly Summoned Exit Results (d20)

     1-         The portal opens up somewhere very, very far from your destination. Perhaps it will lead to a parallel universe, an alien world, or your DM gets to use that crazy adventure they've always wanted to run but doesn't fit into your campaign world whatsoever. 

     2-        The gate opens up d100 feet from the summoned entrance gate.

     3-        Inside the belly of a giant creature, reroll for location.

     4-        50 miles from destination in a very unsafe location.

     5-6-     50 miles from destination with something dangerous between it and their current destination.

     7-8-     10 miles from destination in a very unsafe location.

     9-10-    1 mile from destination in a very unsafe location.

     11-12-  50 miles from destination in a relatively safe location.

     13-14-  10 miles from destination with something dangerous between it and their current destination.

     15-16-  10 miles from destination in a relatively safe location

     17-18-  1 mile from destination in a relatively safe location, but some danger nearby.

     19-20-  1 mile from destination in a relatively safe location. 

What it looks like: 

(Think the film The Mist, art by Zdzisław Beksiński and Stephen Gammell's illustrations from Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark.)

The Somberlain is a 10’ wide gravel road. Sealed tombs made of black stone (approximately 15’x15’) flank the road every 10’-20'. Large dead trees, twisted in bizarre ways, occasionally overhang the road. The Somberlain exists in an almost eternal twilight blanketed by a heavy fog that reduce visibility to 15’. It maintains a constant temperature of about 45° F.


"I have learned a very important lesson, one which I shall abide for the remainder of my travels: when something strange reveals itself to you on the Somberlain, RUN."
-from the journal of Greyfavell the Wanderer, 21st of the Scythe, 7,480 (expedition 1, day 21)

The Tombs

"Ah, but what is locked behind those impenetrable black doors? What empty vessels lie entombed in those blasted catacombs, and what shape had they in life? I have given years of my life trying to answer these questions, and I am now afraid I may never know."
-from the journal of Greyfavell the Wanderer, 29th of the Child, 7,488 (expedition 15, day 40)

-Leaving the road is treacherous and not recommended. For each 15’ a player moves past the tombs, the temperature drops 10° and they must make a save vs. spells or lose their sense of direction. When they move, roll a d8, and instead of their intended direction they will move:                

Away from the road, the players will hear whispers and start to see faces at the edge of the fog. If they move towards them, nothing is there. If they get 50’ from the road (now at a temperature of -5°), they must save vs. petrification or succumb to a combination of the cold and the psychic assault of the whispering voices. On success, they regain their senses enough to attempt to find the road; there is a 50% chance they will do so. If they fail the save, the fog closes in on them and they are lost, only to return 1 day later as a wight-like being that will plead with other party members to follow them into the fog, where true knowledge awaits.
     Greyfavell has hypothesized that since the wight-beings resulting from travelers straying from the road seem identical to the transformation that overcomes travelers who enter the House of Silence, the former party must somehow end up in the House. However, he was not able to confirm this and his last experiments with the House of Silence resulted in his swearing off the Somberlain entirely.
 - For each day spent on The Somberlain, there is a 25% chance a darkness will fall over the course of an hour and travelers will encounter a series of 1d6 opened tombs. The inside walls of these tombs are completely covered with indecipherable alien glyphs that seem to vibrate when viewed (an effect similar to viewing opposite colors placed beside one another).  Looking at the glyphs too long creates a strange “brain zap” feeling. In the center of each tomb lies an empty sarcophagus, also covered in the strange glyphs.
     For each opened tomb, lurking nearby will be a night creeper. 

Night Creepers
No. Enc.:            1d6
Alignment:          CE
Movement:         120' (40'):
Armor Class:      4 (16)
Hit Dice:              2+1
Attacks:               2 (claw/claw)
Damage              1d6/1d6 plus CON drain
Save:                   F3
Morale:                10
Hoard Class:        None

 Zdzisław Beksiński
Night creepers surprise on a 1 or 2 on a d6 roll. Night creepers move silently, but can be given away by the wet, muffled sucking sounds coming from their bandaged faces. 
     In combat, night creepers attack with their claws. For each successful attack, there is a 50% chance of doing 1d10 temporary CON damage that lasts for 1 turn (save vs. paralysis). If a player’s CON score drops below 0 they are paralyzed and the attacking night creeper will pull the player into the nearest open tomb and deposit them in the sarcophagus, where it will then replace the lid and close the door. It is unknown what happens inside of the tomb at this point; if anyone has done so, they have not survived the ordeal or the Somberlain itself to tell the tale. 
     When reduced to 0 HP, a night creeper's body curls up like a spider and cracks open, revealing it to be a hollow shell with about a gallon of foul-smelling black liquid inside. 
      Night creepers are immune to sleep, charm and paralysis spells.

The House of Silence
"Today I mourn the loss of many colleagues and students, and beyond that I believe my travels have come to an end. For the doors of The House of Silence remain forever open, and I often awake at night terrified that all roads may eventually lead me back there, someday, for it now knows me."

-from the journal of Greyfavell the Wanderer, 30th of the Child, 7,488

Stephen E. Fabian
The House of Silence (as it was called by Greyfavell, who never returned to the Somberlain because of it) can part the heavy fog of the Somberlain and reveal itself to travelers. It is a huge house with multiple stories, and its doors always remain open. Lights burn in the windows, but no life has been seen inside. Even the most hardened adventurers can tell from a glance that The House of Silence is not a place to take lightly. It is said some weaker-willed travelers feel drawn to the yawning doors, watching in silent horror as their bodies rebel and step off the Somberlain, propelling them onward to the eerie luminescence inside. (Save vs. spells, rolls are halved, rounded down. Failure results in the traveler walking willingly into the House of Silence. On a successful roll the character resists; they may try to rouse any comrades under the sway of the House of Silence--assisted characters are allowed two more saves, the first halved as before, the second as normal.)  
     Greyfavell noted there is a weak, mysterious force that can aid wanderers against the insidious influence of the House. When party members succumb to its influence, there is a 40% chance a shimmering blue and green crescent of flame will appear between the House of Silence and those whose minds have been clouded by it. This flame will warm the surrounding area and break the House's spell long enough for the travelers to escape. If they linger for more than d6 rounds or touch the flame in any way, it will disappear and those who were under the effects of the House return to their previous state without a save. 

Random Encounters

At the start of each day on the Somberlain, roll on the following table (d100):

1-50 -no encounter; the road inches ever onward, monotonous, quiet and eerie.

51-75 -darkness; 1d6 open tombs/night creepers.

76 -the party encounters a completely insane level 7 magic user named Varla; she speaks an unknown dialect of common and after some discussion realizes she is from the party's future. She will freely share interesting tidbits about her past/the party's future but is either wrong or lying 50% of the time. Will attempt to travel with the party long enough to kidnap someone in hopes she can sacrifice them in the House of Silence, which she can find within four hours from any given point on the Somberlain.

77 -a very thin donkey is hitched to a tree. In its pack is feed, a length of rope, two Somberlain stones, a small vial containing a powder that bubbles and creates potable water when exposed to air (3d20 uses) a spyglass, a jar of ink, a quill pen made from an almost metallic feather and a handwritten journal in an indecipherable script. An hour before the darkness signaling open tombs falls, the donkey will start singing a somber, alien song in a high, keening voice, its eyes welling with tears.

78 -1d6+1 Qullan (1E Fiend Folio, p. 74). Their war paint is darker than usual, all blacks, grays and dark blues. Each has a gray sun painted around their right eye. Each member of the group wears either skins or is naked, but one, a foot taller than the rest, wears a black, ankle-length reptile skin and is shaved bald. It carries the typical Quallan broadsword but also carries a pouch with two Somberlain stones.

79 -The party starts at the sound of several large, winged things flying overhead in the fog. Whatever they are fly by several times and are not heard from again. At least for now...

80 -a battered suit of hermetically sealed plate mail armor lies on the side of the road; its shape is humanoid but does not correspond to any common humanoids enough to fit comfortably. If alterations were made, the suit can protect against extreme temperatures and can hold an 8 hour reserve of back-up air. However, its makeup will be alien to even the best mundane blacksmiths and it will challenge all but the best enchanters. Failed attempts at refitting the suit render it damaged beyond repair.

81 -The diskos - A weapon is embedded in the trunk of one of the dead trees. When examined closely, it is a 3' long shaft with a handle and trigger on one end and a shielded metal disc on the other end. Pulling the trigger retracts the shield and the disc glows and spins rapidly. The spinning action of the weapon makes it extremely unwieldy to the untrained, with a -3 to hit. For each natural 20 rolled, a cumulative + 1 is added, up to a possible +3 to hit as the player begins to understand how to use the diskos. The weapon does 2d8 damage with a 50% chance to dismember on natural 19 and 20s. The diskos only contains a number of charges equal to 2 times the WIS of the first character to touch it. At zero charges it becomes a 1d6 damage bludgeoning weapon.

82 -a small metal vial containing 1d50 gray pills. Each pill counts as a full day's rations for one person. There is a 1% chance each pill has become tainted, leaving those who take it sick for a full day when failing a save vs. poison.

83 -the skeleton of a dwarf, its head stove in with a solitary Somberlain stone.

84 -A gold coin worked with black enamel; on one side a a pyramid beneath a black spherical object set in an equally black sky, on the other side an image of an alien being with a superficially feline features.

85 -A 30' stretch of road where a man's voice can be heard counting down backwards from 856 in a thick, guttural accent. When he gets to zero, he pauses, takes a deep breath, and counts again. The voice seems to come from a distinct point on the road, but there is no discernible source. (10% chance he will say the name of one of the PCs when he reaches zero; if they stay within range by the time he counts down to zero again, the named character must make a save vs. spells or walk off the road into the fog.)

86 -3d4 metal horses; perhaps once strange mounts, they now stand motionless and rusty on the Somberlain. Their open saddlebags lie long ago plundered.

87 -8 long-dead human skeletons line the road. Their bodies are laid out head to foot in two horizontal rows . Their clothing, rotten, soggy and falling apart, lies in a heap to the side of the road. Inside the heap is an Instant Fortress. The fortress is, of course, haunted: if used on the Somberlain, 8 spectral beings appearing as flayed, screaming humans will attack several hours after the majority of the group goes to sleep (3 AM if used outside of the Somberlain.) These creatures are statistically identical to shadows; they can be defeated, but will return each subsequent night the fortress is used.

88 -The fog ahead of the party clears to about 100' visibility; ahead, just at the edge of the fog, they can see themselves from behind. Attempts to run ahead end with the fog quickly closing back in to the typical 15' visibility, with the phantom party nowhere to be found. Attempts to call out to them are ignored, but several hours later, once the fog closes back in, they party will hear the same calls coming from somewhere behind them.

89 -a black, frost-covered sword stands embedded in the road ahead at a sharp angle. At 12' tall, it seems to correspond to a being roughly 4 times the size of a human. It is made of a freezing black metal and its surface is decorated in an unknown, curved script. Those who touch it and roll under half their WIS (round down) catch a momentary glimpse of white, many-limbed giants clad in black armor standing on a frozen tundra. Within sight a seething, nearly endless army of pale, multi-jointed creatures, howling and snapping their great jaws, advances like an avalanche. A small sun burns cold and distant overhead. Those experiencing the vision look to their right and see a silver-eyed white giant, his long hair whipping about his head in the wind, raise his black sword high and bellow an unmistakable battle cry. Then all goes dark and a chill seeps into their bones that remains for days.

90 -After traveling for a few hours along a straight stretch of the road, the party comes across suggestions they may have been this way before (remnants of camp, discarded items, the aftermath of battle.) If they head back the way they came, they keep approaching the same scene over and over again. If they continue in their original direction, they find the same scene 1d3 additional times before the road resumes its normal course.

91 -The party encounters a version of themselves from a parallel world, but a world where they have been trapped on the Somberlain for a very long time. They are haggard, starved, and long past the point of caring who they come across--they will fight to the death for resources or Somberlain stones. In battle they will reveal they have already killed a dozen versions of their own party.

92 -A meazel (Fiend Folio pg. 63) somehow found its way onto the Somberlain and is stalking the party. It rests in burrows dug amongst the roots of the great dead trees lining the path and follows just behind the cover of the fog, hoping it can silently garrote any stragglers. Night creepers seem to ignore the meazel entirely, as though it isn't even there. The meazel will learn from this and attempt to use this to its advantage, attacking during the spells of sudden darkness that signal a night creeper attack. The meazel carries 2d3 Somberlain stones in a mildewy sack tied around its neck.

93 -A humanoid shape stands in the road, facing the approaching party. If the party gets nearer, they see it is an 8' creature wearing heavy black platemail. Its head resembles a barn owl's, and armored talons hang slack at its side. If pushed, the creature falls over. If it lands face down or is rolled off its back, a panel of armor on its back disengages, releasing a rush of foul-smelling air. Inside are the mummified remains of a 3' grey alien, wired discs attached to various points of its body. In a crystal vial tucked into the armor is a viscous gel that, when applied to the eyes, causes 1 damage and grants infravision for 6 hours; afterward the affected eyes are very red and sensitive to sunlight for a full day.

94 -A 5' chasm interrupts the Somberlain, extending well off into the fog on either side. The chasm is pitch black and the movement of the surrounding fog suggests it is gently drawing air inward. If a light source is dropped down into the recess, the walls seem to widen the further down it goes. The light will travel straight down until it disappears entirely. For every party member who looks down into the chasm for more than one round, make a save vs. spells and make note of any failures. The next time anyone who failed their save sleeps, they will have violent nightmares of traversing a dark subterranean labyrinth with squealing pig-like creatures in pursuit. If they are not awoken, they will crawl off on their hands and knees back to the chasm, squealing like pigs, and drop headfirst into the darkness where, miles below, an impossibly huge hog-like face glows in the darkness.

95 -A night creeper is spotted nowhere near open tombs. It makes the sucking noises associated with other night creepers, but it moves jerkily, pacing back and forth near a closed tomb. While it would be folly to make assumptions about the motivations of something so alien, something about its movements suggest a sort of frantic anxiety. If the party attacks or it notices them sneaking up on it, it will attack as normal, dragging any paralyzed foes to the closed door of the tomb and struggling in vain to open it. If the party approaches it openly and without hostility, it will watch them, the suction sounds growing less frantic. It will amble off into the fog and appear 1d6 turns later with 1d4+1 Somberlain stones. It will lay them down in front of whoever approached it first, and although they will never be sure, they will swear it whispered the name of a departed loved one as it bounded off into the fog.

96 -The monotonous silence of the Somberlain is punctuated by screams somewhere ahead of the party. If they move forward to investigate, darkness falls and they encounter four pimply teenagers under attack by 4 night creepers. The teens wear student robes from the Mage's School in Fadun. They are equipped with only one first level spell each and a handful of scrolls, and two of their number have already been carried off into the nearby tombs. If rescued, they are reduced to sobbing messes, claiming they stole a set of Somberlain stones from the school's vaults in an attempt to impress some upper classmates. They lost one stone after entering the summoned gate, and the other on the person of a party member who was carried off into a tomb by a night creeper.

97 -A goblin riding a donkey cart rolls into view, traveling opposite the party. His cart is piled high with intricately woven rugs. If left undisturbed, he will doff his straw hat and greet them in passing, rolling on into the fog. If the party seems friendly and questions him, he will tell them his name is Gukrell and he uses the Somberlain to travel across the kingdom to sell his rugs; he found a set of Somberlain stones on the corpse of an adventurer his clan killed decades ago and uses them because despite its dangers, the Somberlain is still a safer road to travel as a solitary goblin than most of the roads in the kingdom. Besides, he likes the quiet. He will offer to sell his rugs at 500 gold each; they are actually quite beautiful, and if any characters have any connections to the art scenes of any of the larger cities in the kingdom they may actually recognize his work (and know that the rugs fetch a significant amount more on the secondary market.) If threatened in any way, he will warn the party that he is protected. If pushed, Gukrell will utter a command word, polymorphing his duo of donkeys into trained owlbears and he will lope off into the fog, brandishing a wand of magic missile. He will take pot shots at the party for several rounds, moving with stealth, and then use his ring of enlargement to make himself giant-sized, attacking with the stats of an ogre.

98 -A very slight crunching on the gravel ahead of the party warns the vigilant that a number of light-footed beings approach through the fog. A group of 6d6 drow, preceded by two scouts moving ahead by 60', cautiously make their way down the road. The drow squint even in the dim twilight of the Somberlain and they move swiftly and with less care than usual; it is not likely the will find even hastily hidden party members ducked behind tombs, trees, or even off the road in the fog. The clearly high-ranking drow gesture furiously to one another in their silent language, and amongst their number are two alien beings unlike anything the party has seen before. These beings are in shackles, and guards march behind them with spears at the ready.

99 -Over the course of a day's travel, the fog seems to thin in patches, revealing up to 50' of the surrounding empty wasteland on either side of the road. At first a parallel shiny gray road appears in the distance, and then indistinct shapes. In time the shapes reveal themselves; 3d6 tall, shrouded figures travel along the road, floating a few inches above its surface. They stand about 10' tall, their bodies are completely obscured, and their hooded heads remain bowed. The figures drift forward and pay no attention to the travelers on the Somberlain. If anyone dares leave the Somberlain and approaches this road, the figures will stop and turn their heads toward them. When the approacher is 10' away, they will turn their bodies toward them. If the approacher sets foot on this parallel road or makes any ranged attacks, they must save vs. death or their heart freezes in their chest (successful saves leave the character unconscious.) These silent figures will not interfere with travelers on the Somberlain and will continue on their way so long as they are left undisturbed.

100 -The fog clears enough to reveal several hundred feet of cold, empty terrain and beyond it, The House of Silence.

Commentary: Thanks and apologies to Dissection, Zdzislaw Beksinski and William Hope Hodgson for inspiration. This post from Rolang's Creeping Doom also got me thinking about weird roads, as well as a walk home from gaming at a friend's place on a very foggy Christmas night a few years ago. The players in my campaign know of the Somberlain (it is the reason why their good friend and NPC Ymanie Dellacorte was kicked out of the Mage's School), but have yet to encounter it. As a result, all of this remains 100% untested. I have some solid ideas on what the Somberlain is, but I think keeping the details a mystery will enable more folks to add it to their games. Admittedly, I would have come up with a lot of the rules parts on the spot in my game, so if they don't make sense or need clarification let me know! 
Also, I highly recommend playing Nortt's Galgenfrist album as the Somberlain's soundtrack: