The “Dwarves of Death” systems are pretty gruesome. Why go into detailing the horrific obscenities of the necrodwarves? If players are not encouraged to play these monsters, and if player characters cannot use their magic gear or pets, why outline them at all?
The two main answers—help DMs make cinematic backgrounds, and provide dozens of hooks for adventures.
Consider the motives the system creates for necrodwarves—actions that can trigger player character reactions. There are conventions and formulas for fighting necromancers, and the DM should have solid reasons to set up scenarios that echo those formulas and conventions!
- Lore. The rune object system encourages the necrodwarves to know the history of things, so they have a vested interest in getting at obscure lore regarding their items. Stealing books, infiltrating libraries, capturing loremasters, etc.
- Sacrifices. The whole rune system is built to take advantage of sacrifices great and small. To fuel some of these operations, the necrodwarves need a lot of sacrifices. Whole villages, caravans, all kinds of prisoner populations. As they seek slaves, they are made vulnerable: they risk infiltration, they grab people the characters care about, they disrupt the landscape enough to attract military response. More cinematically, the characters are heroic as they race to stop a sacrifice—of individuals that matter to them, or large scale slaughter. You’ve got necrodwarves chanting, wielding knives, overacting and generally announcing they are the bad guy that needs to get stomped right now.
- Desecration. Necrodwarves are motivated to get into the best guarded dwarven holy places. This leads to both very cinematic dungeon dressing and comfortably formulaic scenes of conflict, and also to very understandable conflicts with the dwarves charged with protecting their culture, religion, history, and boundaries.
- The Nature of Evil. Evil destroys itself in the end, so if the situation looks bleak, introduce two necrodwarves of similar stature competing to get the site for their dark master. As they weaken each other, they create opportunities for the characters.
- Quest Inversion. Normally the heroes embark on a mighty quest, and the villains try to stop them. In this version, the villain may have a quest from his or her dark god, and the characters may be the ones trying to stop the quest from reaching its completion.
Following is one possible story arc that is clearly motivated in terms outlined by the material on necrodwarves so far. The arc could be a campaign (scalable for the power level of the party) and/or each point within the arc could provide a single scenario.
Even if the player characters are not directly involved, knowing the mountain kingdom next door is struggling with this threat adds flavor to the world and motivates others who are directly confronting the necrodwarves, possibly giving them reasons to interact with the player characters in different ways (such as hiring them, chasing them away from sensitive areas, asking for their help disposing of corpses, etc.)
Fall of the Mountain King
A dwarven city in the mountains has been severely weakened. (Civil war, invasion, plague, natural disaster, etc.) As their strength wanes, the necrodwarves make their move.
Phase I. Prepare the Way. Led by a Master Meatsmith.
- Necrodwarves go recruiting, capturing dwarves and torturing them until they lose all hope and join the cult, now open to the possibility of being tattooed in the future.
- Necrodwarves go recruiting, sneaking mobs of workers to potter’s fields, mass graves, and other ready sources of bodies. Their raiding is distasteful and unsettling to settlements so violated, but the graverobbers avoid confrontation as they are conserving their strength.
- Necrodwarves clear a beachhead in striking distance of the beleaguered dwarf nation, rousting other threats or rearguards to fortify unpleasantly close.
- Necrodwarves hire, intimidate, or pact with other local chaotic forces to form alliances of mutual defense and to gain shock troops.
Phase II. Confound Foes. Led by a Lord Meatsmith.
- Hire, bribe, subvert, or blackmail agents to begin setting local forces of law on edge and against each other.
- Arrange for plentiful slaves/sacrifices/corpses. Work it out with slavers, prisons, chaotic raiders, or whatever local power is appropriate; begin showing force on their behalf in exchange, keeping them in line and offering them a real service while further intimidating local forces of law.
- Choose a local threat and bolster it, so it draws attention of the forces of law and pulls focus away from the activities of the now-quieter necrodwarves.
- Isolate the dwarves by imitating them and perpetrating atrocities on their allies and neighbors. If possible, trigger conflict to weaken the dwarves and other forces of law and to create hard feelings.
- Set up multiple safe houses in appropriate locations. Install undead defenders.
- Scout out the defenses, layout, and locations in the suffering dwarven city. Locate a suitable holy tomb of a past Thane, the more impressive the better.
Phase III. Strike! Led by a Thane.
- Choose a moment (or create one) where local militaries have their hands full. Ideally this includes the dwarven nation defending their surface gates, or gates to another underground territory. Apply overwhelming force against a select few positions to destroy the dwarven rearguard while they’re distracted.
- Conduct counter-intelligence operations to baffle the dwarves as to the true strength, location, and purpose of the necrodwarves as they close in on the Thane’s sanctified tomb.
- Once the tomb is secure, assign underlings to creating rune armor there, and strike at the harried flanks of the dwarven undercity.
- Upon trapping the hapless dwarves between their former allies and the implacable undead threat, arrange for a mass sacrifice in the Thane’s throne room, celebrating victory and creating a rune weapon to commemorate the victory.
- If possible, capture the Thane, and sacrifice the Thane to create yet another runic weapon!
Phase IV. Endgame. Led by a Lord Meatsmith.
- If the forces of law are powerful, or the dwarves prepared to continue fighting, consider pulling out altogether; leave traps, pockets of undead, desecration, and dwarf-haters in the wake of an orderly retreat from an untenable position.
- If the forces of law are distracted, pull back and use a sub-set of the dwarven city as a hidden base to continue operations, harrying the forces of law and continuing to gather sacrifices.
- If the forces of law are weak, fortify the position, summon kin, raise armies, and prepare to expand from a position of strength.
Best case scenario for the necrodwarves: they have a desecrated forge and a piece of rune armor, they have shattered the strength of a dwarven nation and created one rune weapon for the conquest and another for sacrificing their Thane, and they have new fortified areas from which to continue making mischief.
After a victory on that scale, it is likely another Thane would emerge.
Still, some of the plans are quite tenuous; intentionally or otherwise, a group of player characters could ruin everything. Disrupting grave robberies, rescuing slaves, turning allies against the necrodwarves, bolstering dwarven defenses, striking at leaders of the invasion… they could be quite troublesome.
Which is what adventures are made of.
More story seeds and campaign formula to come.