An adventure hook for use in fantasy tabletop games :
A long road popular with merchants winds through a rolling hill side. Along its path, an old manor gate hangs off its hinges, ajar and rusted, one side collapsed outward. Through its overgrown passage, a path leads uphill, snaking past hundreds of circular holes all 5 feet wide and 3 feet deep. Some are filled with stagnant water, others lay dry, coming to coned points at the bottom. At the top of the hill, the old manor sits atop a flattened plateau abandoned, its windows dark. Reaching the apex, old bits of cloth can be seen fluttering from the railings and balcony, giving only the merest hint of the fabulous colors the many years of sun has bleached away. Out of the corner of your eye, dirt flicks into the air, launching from one of the holes gouged into the hillside. The front door creaks, opening and closing with the breeze.
Lord Pettleton Hemswick’s estate is the perfect location for a highway stop. You only require two things to take possession: the deed and a house free of squatters.
Note to DM
The Hemswick Estate is a game I ran after hearing a fellow DM lament their lack of improvisation skills. This adventure is broken down to the bare essentials. With only one speaking character (and a wailing ghost at that), the house itself tells the majority of the story through the pacing of information. In Dungeons & Dragons 3.5, giant ants are a perfectly acceptable challenge for level one characters and more thrilling than your average bandit or dire rat. One of the wonderful and frightening things about DMing a tabletop RPG is that the players can do anything they imagine, and that should be rewarded. However, this also means your best designed castle defense can be skipped by a druid who can walk through stone, meaning any adventure cemented in its pacing is doomed to fail. There are a number of things you can plan out ahead of time that will help you reveal information at the correct times in the game.
First, find an ironclad excuse for them to inspect the house and not destroy it (i.e. the employer or quest giver wants the house in the best condition possible and cleared of any vermin). Once the players discover the house is infested with giant ants, how likely are they to set it ablaze? Giving the extra step of recovering the deed in addition to reclaiming the house can help them avoid this thought process.
If you play with a visual aid or grid, draw out the entire estate ahead of time. Keep it basic. Mark only locked and open doors, the sizes of the various rooms, and leave it at that. Another pitfall DMs fall into is over preparing their maps. This leads to two problems. First, the players see a room before they should and make metagame assumptions on where important elements are located. Second, you are more likely to assume the players know as much as you do from your drawing. Instead, when players choose to open a door and explore a room, draw it out as you describe it. Everyone is in the moment and nobody cares if your table is lopsided or the red carpet isn’t red. This also allows you to control the pacing of the environment. You can certainly lock a door, but what if it gets picked? What if your paladin breaks it down to reveal a major plot point moments into the adventure? Nobody but you knows how it should have been. Take your plot point and move it to a later reveal.
Try to keep the monsters a mystery for as long as possible. Let players assume what they want about the holes outside, and allow them to see the floorboards ripped up showing a tunnel leading into darkness. Scratches in the wall and a beckoning ghostly hand can all add to this effect.
Foyer - A grand staircase leads to the upper levels. Locked doors prompt characters toward the servant’s quarters. A half-door (also known as a Dutch door) near the entrance reveals a large walk-in closet full of coats. One of the coats still holds an invitation to Lord Pettleton Hemswick’s party.
Servant’s Quarters - Four bunk beds stripped of their belongings and valuables.
Butlers Room - Broken antique mirror and warped silver serving tray. The suit hanging in the corner has in its pockets a key that unlocks the basement.
Laundry - Deep basins with rusted waterlines, their contents entirely evaporated.
Kitchen - The mess and long decayed food stuffs of a feast in progress. Bells running from the ceiling jingle softly as the adventurers walk by. A dumbwaiter on the wall is sealed shut with a thick, crusty goo.
Butchery - Possibly the characters’ first hole, dug straight through the floorboards. The hole leads into the basement and outdoor barn.
Conservatory - Dried up plants and an overgrown sitting room.
Dining Hall - The site of Lord Pettleton’s demise. His body sits in the lord’s chair, the long table stretching out before him. The table cloth is pulled half way off its charge toward a door. A large pile of plaster and chiton lays in the middle of the table. Scraps of its festive wrappings still scatter the floor. Pettleton’s dart took him in the throat. The other two managed to crawl some feet away before succumbing to its poison.
Library - Once a magnificent athenaeum, the books make perfect wood pulp for the queen’s growing family. The queen once implanted larva in the walls and sealed them up with half-digested pages and saliva. Now in ruins, the queen grows her family elsewhere. A bronze spiral staircase leads to the upper levels, the door it leads up to chewed through.
Ballroom - A lovely wooden dancehall ruined by an ant tunnel straight through its bandstand. The tunnel leads to the basement and outdoor greenhouse.
Basement - Originally made of three rooms, the basement has been hollowed as a nursery for the adolescent grubs. On the back wall, the dumbwaiter sits open with long trails of slim sliding down its track. As the players enter, a gooey little grub descends on a long rope of slime to be delivered safely to the bottom. Workers usher the grubs out onto the floor.
Study - Pettleton’s primary haunt and one of the few rooms kept in its original condition. Players are allowed to enter if they have communicated their intentions to purge the house or have already dealt with the ant queen. The desk still contains the rejection letter from a hopeful invitee. The study leads to the attic.
Upstairs Foyer - Two soldier ants stand guard outside the master bedroom.
Master Bedroom - On a broken four posted bed, the queen layers her enormous abdomen, depositing her birth directly into the dumbwaiter. She is attended by workers that help her undulate her rolling bulk. Upon her defeat, the hill’s many holes burst with ants carrying young in their mouths as they scatter.
Attic - Reaching the rafters might allow players to bypass several soldier ants in the upper halls and skip straight to the master bedroom if they can navigate the rafters safely.
Pettleton Hemswick’s ghost is curious of the players’ intentions from the second they arrive. He reveals himself to those who show the most respect for his estate first, motioning them to follow him through the basement door or to make their way upstairs. If they take items from the house during their adventure, Pettleton forbids them to enter his study. If they set the house ablaze or cause large amounts of damage, he attacks the players after they have defeated the ant queen. Upon his defeat or submission, he relinquishes the deed in a flash of light.
Lord Pettleton Hemswick owned a rather luscious winery though made the majority of his fortunes off of business ventures in the far west. Obsessed with curiosities and antiques, Hemswick liked to throw lavish parties to show off his newest imports. At what would be his final party, he was to unveil a great gem, planning to give it as a gift to his unrequited love. At the height of the party, the plaster casts were removed, revealing not a gem but a cracked chrysalis. The giant ant queen inside awoke, launching its poisonous barbs at those nearby. Three died immediately, including Pettleton himself. Having no need to appease a rich dead man, the guests fled the estate and servants looted the house. In the commotion, the ant queen scuttled into the library, eventually making her way upstairs. Over the last 10 years, her brood has made the manor their home with little disturbance from passersby. The spirit of Pettleton still lingers, begging visitors for help but only succeeding in driving them away with wailing moans.