The story you are about to hear is true. The names have been changed to protect the innocent.
This is a story from my time DMing at a local comic store in my hometown. I had a small table of three players at the time, which I was very grateful for. I’m okay with bigger groups (my limit being eight players and a DM) but with a smaller group I would have more time to try and develop their individual stories, using elements from their backgrounds to seed future adventure hooks, which helps with the verisimilitude I strive to create as a storyteller. I told them all that they would be starting at a town called Pumpkin Hills, located at the south-eastern edge of a country called Hucroinia.
The party consisted of Greethen, a blue dragonborn storm sorcerer who had come to Pumpkin Hills after receiving a letter from his arcane master, only to find the old wizard had died under mysterious circumstances and a strange man was now living in his house (more on that later…). He was played by my youngest and yet most veteran player M.
Next, there was Dren, a half-orc barbarian who had left his mercenary tribe to seek out fortune, glory, and a wife to bear his child as to replenish his clan’s ever-dwindling numbers. He was guided by ancestral spirits who aided him in battle. He wasn’t a particularly bright guy, but he’d have your back in a fight. He was played by my newest player, D, who was kind of quiet but very friendly and cooperative.
Lastly, there was an elf rogue whose name sadly escapes me. He was a member of an adventurer’s guild and had come to Pumpkin Hills to meet with the local representative, the strange man living in Greethen’s late master’s house. He was primarily interested in loot but would never turn on the party and saved their butts through clever thinking and precise stabbing more than once. He was played by J, another new player.
The party was united in a local tavern one dark night, when the spirits of those buried in a nearby ancient mound were disturbed by a pair of necromancers and their wight master lairing in their tomb and using their bones to create undead minions. The party was hired by the town council to find out what was causing this haunting, as they were unwilling to send the town guard to investigate the burial mound because it was hidden in the Witchwood, a supposedly haunted forest that everyone in town feared and avoided.
In addition to the town council hiring them, they were also approached by the aforementioned man who now lived in Greethen’s dead master’s house – a half-elf named Dudley Nightshade, who worked for their adventurer’s guild. Dudley looked a lot like a Tim Burton character: spindly thin, pale to the point of looking sickly, and dressing only in black and grey. He always spoke softly and had a fondness for dark humor. His sinister name, mannerisms, and appearance made Greethen suspicious of him. Dudley claimed to be a friend of the dragonborn’s late master, but Greethen never heard his master ever mention Dudley at all. Greethen suspected Dudley of using some kind of psychic magic to kill Greethen’s master, as no wounds were discovered on the corpse, but its expression was one of sheer terror. His suspicion intensified when Dudley agreed to only let Greethen read his master’s research documents regarding some ancient prophecy he had been researching if Greethen would join the adventurer’s guild. All in all, Dudley was aloof, strange, and pushy.
Greethen wanted to investigate Dudley, but that would have to wait, as the party was itching to plunge into the shadows of the Witchwood. Once inside the enchanted forest, they battled against zombies, found an enchanted pool that polymorphed whoever drank from it into beasts, and negotiated for safe passage from the two dryads who lived there. Before long, the party arrived at the burial mound and proceeded to tear through it, destroying the undead, killing the necromancers and the wight, and getting a bunch of cool loot, including a magical warhammer for Dren the barbarian. They returned to Pumpkin Hills and were celebrated as town heroes, showered with praise from the locals.
Greethen enjoyed the gold and the glory, but he was still suspicious of Dudley’s intentions and whether or not he had a hand in Greethen’s master’s death. He shared his suspicions with the party and together they made a plan: Dren was not a member of the adventurer’s guild but he would express interest in possibly joining to Dudley, asking him to join him for dinner so that they might discuss what membership would entail. Meanwhile Greethen and the rogue would break into Dudley’s house and examine everything he had to see if they could find any clues to his intentions. Greethen wanted to find answers but the rogue really just wanted to rob Dudley.
The plan initially went off without a hitch, as you might expect. Dren and Dudley enjoyed a nice dinner whilst Greethen and the rogue snuck under the cover of darkness and broke into Dudley’s house. The rogue picked the lock on the door and they snuck inside and quickly made their way to Dudley’s bedroom. There, they found a strange locked chest, trapped with a dose of sleeping gas that thankfully didn’t knock both of them out when it went off. After the rogue woke up Greethen and they opened the chest, they found a bag of money along with various useless odds and ends, items of sentimental value to Dudley.
One of Dudley’s knick-knacks was the doll. It was a small porcelain doll about a foot tall that resembled a little girl with pale skin, bright blue eyes, and long dark hair. It was wearing a magenta colored dress and painted pink lips with a rather vacant smile. Neither Greethen or the rogue gave it much thought and they just tossed it aside onto the ground. By this point, they were getting nervous that Dudley might come back at any minute, and I’m loving it. They’re really roleplaying very well here. Eventually, the stress becomes too much and they decide to make it look like Dudley was robbed – er, by someone else, I mean. The rogue opens the bag of holding an announces he’s taking everything from Dudley’s chest.
Rogue: Yeah, everything, the gold, the books…
Greethen: Don’t forget the doll!
Rogue: The doll too, yeah.
DM: What doll?
Greethen: The doll I put on the floor.
DM: There’s no doll there. What doll?
Rogue: (with an “oh crap” expression on J’s face) …I turn around and look for the doll!
DM: As you turn you briefly see a flash of movement. A small figure was perched at the edge of the staircase. When it darts out of sight it’s almost as if an invisible hand had simply grabbed it and yanked it away. When you run to the top of the staircase and look down, there’s no sign of anything unusual down there.
Greethen and the rogue are naturally freaked out by this, thinking they’ve just accidentally released some sort of horrible monstrosity upon the world. When I switch over briefly to Dudley and Dren leaving the tavern and returning to Dudley’s home to sign the paperwork that will make Dren a full member of the guild, the two begin panicking in real life. I duck behind the DM screen to hide my smirk. Desperate to stop the Creepy Doll, as well as to cover up their crime, the two come to the only obvious solution: they decided to set Dudley’s house on fire.
The two of them busted out flasks of oil and quickly used magic and tinderboxes to set the place ablaze, hoping it would kill the Creepy Doll. It didn’t. The two ran into a nearby copse of trees and hid, emerging only once townsfolk notice the fire and begin to form a bucket brigade in an attempt to put out the inferno. Although they kept the fire from spreading, they couldn’t extinguish it in time. Dudley returned home just to see the last dying embers smoldering on the blackened husk that once was his house. The poor guy was devastated, almost catatonic, and the party seemed to finally realize that Dudley probably wasn’t evil and they had just ruined his life.
The party actually did work to help Dudley recover. They convinced a local farmer to put the guy up until he could build another house, and they donated money to him to help him out. Because of this, I refrained from changing their alignments to evil, as they had tried to make it up to Dudley, albeit without confessing to what they’d done. Dudley never found out what they had done and remained friendly with the party. He asked them once or twice if they had seen a doll matching the description of the Creepy Doll anywhere around town, hinting that he believed that it was responsible for the arson. He otherwise wouldn’t speak of the doll, and seemed hopeful that it had been destroyed in the inferno.
As for the Creepy Doll itself, it showed up occasionally to make trouble for the party. Usually it was juvenile but unpleasant pranks, like putting nails in their boats of planting a sharp knife next to their heads whilst they slept. Another time it alerted a ghostly assassin to their presence, which nearly resulted in the death of a character. Sometimes they’d see it around town, watching them from behind windows, but it always vanished before they could do anything about it. The most trouble it caused them was actually getting them banished from the town itself during the “Werewolf Incident.” But that’s another story…
The funniest thing, I think, is that I didn’t really have a plan for the Creepy Doll’s origins or anything. It wasn’t possessed by a ghost, it wasn’t a lich’s animated phylactery, and it wasn’t some sort of evil gnomish contraption. I just thought it’d be a cool thing for Dudley to have given his appearance and tastes, and my spur of the moment decision to make it alive and malevolent resulted in excellent roleplaying, suspense, skullduggery, arson, and ultimately redemption.
If there’s a moral to be had here, it’s this: players like to do random things, unexpected things, things that you didn’t plan for. It’s only fair to return the favor. So the next time your players are rooting through a pile of tchotchkes kept in a dark and secret place, maybe introduce them to Creepy Doll. It’s always eager to meet new “playmates…”