This scenario was originally written for an Exalted, 2nd Edition campaign (if you’re not familiar with Exalted, read more here and here), and has been previously posted on the Onyx Path Exalted forums, here.
Main themes and scenario objectives:
The point of this encounter was to prompt the characters to explore the boundaries of their sense of right and wrong, all in the context of ‘how far would you go to survive’. There is no right or wrong way for this scenario to play out, as it ultimately forces the characters to make decisions about who they are and to express those qualities through their actions.
Set up and background:
This encounter revolves around two characters. The first is a demon – in Exalted, demons come in three levels of power, or ‘circles’. First Circle demons, the weakest, often take on the roles of powerful monsters or mysterious beings that you might find in other game settings. Normally demons can only come into the world by summoning, though there are rare opportunities for them to come unbound into the world.
This first circle demon was a Blood Ape that had been elevated from his lowly ranks to become a citizen of Malfeas (the demon realm) and who had managed to break into creation without being bound to any sorcerous ties. He was a citizen because of his achievements in battle in service to his second circle master, and was interested in learning more about civilisation. One of the signs of his elevation was that he had been allowed to take a name, and he called himself Omthalanos – that being said, he was still a blood ape and still basically an animalistic killing machine, but he spoke Old Realm (a dead language, similar to someone speaking Latin or Ancient Greek today) and was willing to pause a few seconds before tearing someone apart, just in case they had something interesting to say.
The second character involved in this scenario is a bandit (who I named Zatarra as a nod to the Count of Monte Christo and the role this NPC could potentially play in my campaign) – Zatarra’s backstory is a key part of the moral ambiguity of this scenario: he used to be an emissary of (insert political/economic power relevant to your game here) but his convoy was attacked by bandits and he was one of the few survivors who were given the choice of joining the bandits or facing an ignominious death. Zatarra joined the bandits and applied his skills as a fast talker and dealer to their cause. Over time he was able to minimise the carnage they caused and convinced them to leave survivors. His plan backfired, however, when he did try to escape the bandit’s hideout. He made it to a nearby town where he was recognised by one of the survivors that he had helped to save and soon found himself having to flee from the law who would have executed him as a thief. The whole point of this story is that, if the characters bother to dig into it, he has done what he had to do to survive, all the while still looking out for others as best he could, and has been confronted multiple times with the choice between the life of a bandit or death, and is now trapped in the life of a bandit.
At some point in the past, Omthalonos came across the bandit’s hideout and slaughtered them all. Zatarra (an educated man, after all) recognised that some of the beasts grunts were actually Old Realm and managed to convince Omthalonos not to kill him. In very long drawn out conversations (I imagine talking to the Blood Ape like talking to Ents – his thinking time was very slow) Zatarra promised to teach Omthalonos about civilisation and in exchange, Omthalonos would restrict his murderous urges towards targets identified by Zatarra. Unable to return to civilisation, Zatarra continued the life of a bandit, picking smaller caravans and accosting them, challenging their best guard/soldier to fight on behalf of the caravan. If the soldier won, Zatarra was their prisoner, if Omthalonos won, the caravan had to hand over some of their supplies but would otherwise be allowed to go on their way. Most people in this setting have some idea of what a blood ape was and so recognised that sacrificing one soldier was better than all being slaughtered. Though not always.
The final piece to the puzzle is to create a situation that justifies Zatarra realising that the player-characters are on their way and likely to encounter his hideout. In my game, the characters were randomly attacked by a pack of free Blood Apes forcing them to use a lot of essence and flare their animas – thus giving a signal to anyone watching that these godlike figures were on their way. Zatarra, realising they’ll possibly be hunting down his demon companion, tells Omthalonos to run south until sunset and wait until Zatarra signals for him to come back (fire beacon, essence use, whatever suits your game). That’s Zatarra’s trap. Only he knows how to summon back the demon, and if he gets killed or something goes wrong, Omthalonos will soon fall prey to his urges and start killing indiscriminately.
That, in all it’s detail, is the set up for the encounter. The whole point of it is for the characters to be forced to deal with a morally ambiguous situation involving a free demon that desires to be more than it is, and a human who lives by killing ‘innocents’ but only as a way to survive conditions forced upon him.
How it plays out:
The way the vignette plays out is that the players encounter a caravan that has been attacked, one that didn’t know not to try and attack with all they have. Exactly what the players find is up to you and the tone of the game you’re running. I went with small, family caravan. Half a dozen guards and horses dead, caravans left intact with only some of their supplies taken, all of their trading goods left intact. A couple of teenagers left to look after the caravan while a couple of other survivors have gone north to buy and bring back more pack horses. Also a blood trail to follow that can (with a bit of tracking) lead them to the bandit hideout and the two NPCs.
It is largely up to the players to determine how they resolve the trap that has been set – the only thing that is certain is that if they kill or detain Zatarra in any way, then at sunset the demon gets swept up in his blood-lust and just starts slaughtering a small farming village.
In my game, a couple of characters took on the task of saving the survivors, then they tracked down Zatarra and Omthalonos, intent at first on killing them both, believing Zatarra to be a bandit-sorcerer (which would make him quite rare and powerful in the context of this game). The PCs found their way to the hideout where they were greeted by Zatarra who told them outright that he had sent the demon away, where it would start slaughtering people if not called back within a short time – essentially blackmailing the characters.
The scenario led to a discussion and lengthy debate – mostly between the player characters themselves, about what to do with this demon-allied bandit they had encountered.
One of the players – whose character was motivated by a rather vengeful approach to justice – wanted to execute him almost on sight and believed Zatarra’s use of such blackmail was further sign that he deserved to die. At this point, Zatarra pointed out that as far as the rest of the world was concerned, the characters themselves were demons on a killing spree rather than righteous heroes, as they saw themselves. Another character – a freed slave who had experienced the ‘do what you must to survive’ lifestyle – took a more compassionate approach and believed anyone who could control a demon without magic had value to the party.
In the end, the debate caused something of a rift between the characters, though they agreed to spare Zatarra and enlist him into their service and protection, provided he recalled the demon and let the PCs banish it back to Malfeas.
Power level adjustments:
I wrote this scenario for a game of relatively new characters at starting-level power. In Exalted, a single Blood Ape represents a decent challenge for one or two characters, but would be reasonably easy to overcome for a group of 5, as I had in my game. This was deliberate as I didn’t want self-preservation to be a factor in the characters’ decision making process.
At this power level it also meant that the characters had no feasible way of tracking down the demon before it started killing, meaning that they could not foil the trap.
If your game has higher powered characters then you might want increase the number of demons/monsters the point where they can be sent off in multiple directions beyond the characters’ abilities to quickly track them all down. I would caution against increasing the power level of the demons/monsters as this changes the nature of the relationship between Zatarra and the monsters on which this scenario hangs.
If you try this encounter in your game, or otherwise have questions or feedback, please leave a comment below.