Random Thursday: Freelance Factions: Society of the Smoldering Hearth

Society of the Smoldering Hearth
by Peter C. Spahn
The Society of the Smoldering Hearth is a secret order of tavernkeepers and innkeepers who worship the forces of Chaos and Destruction. The order is dedicated to killing adventurers and clergymen in the name of blessed Chaos. They select their victims carefully, preying on fledgling adventurers and minor clergymen who are less likely to be missed. Each sect incorporates the name of its tavern or inn into its title, such as the Smoldering Hearth of the Salty Flower or the Windy Sails Smoldering Hearth.

History
The origins of the Society of the Smoldering Hearth can be traced back many years ago, to a disreputable family named the Brightmores who dwelt along the frontier, near the Three Kings of Old mountain range in the Duchy of Valnwall. This family owned and operated a combination tavern/inn, brothel, and general store named The Smoldering Hearth that serviced mainly hunters, trappers, miners, and adventurers.

At the time, the Hearth was one of the few businesses in the region, and the family prospered. However, the Hearth was frequently cut off from the rest of the Duchy by snowstorms, flooded rivers, and humanoid incursions, and during these times, raiders routinely assaulted the Brightmores and robbed them of their stores.

After several hungry winters in which many family members died of starvation, the Brightmores became cannibals, feasting on the flesh of lone travelers, crazed hermits, and even small parties of adventurers that stopped to rest at the Smoldering Hearth. The Brightmores either subdued their victims with brute force or drugged their food, and then butchered the corpses and hung them in the larder. The frontier was a dangerous place where life was cheap and many adventurers never returned, so few questioned these strange disappearances.

The Brightmores were unmasked one winter during a failed attempt to kill an adventuring company named the Party Perilous. When the snows cleared, the party’s cleric ordered the Smoldering Hearth to be razed and the Brightmores were brought in chains to the City of Dolmvay to face judgment before the Church of Law and Order.

The parents and older siblings were found guilty of cannibalism and executed. The younger children were exonerated and sent to the Orphanage of St. Lucilla the Kind. The luckiest of these children were adopted by wealthy families. The rest either ran away from the orphanage or were forced to toil away in guildworks factories.

All of the Brightmore children harbored a simmering hatred for adventurers and for the Church of Law and Order that had ruined their family. This hatred led them to the dark forces that opposed the Church, and they soon fell to worshipping the powers of Chaos and Destruction.

Once they came of age, the children reunited. Pooling their resources, they opened several taverns, inns, and brothels throughout the city. These establishments ranged in quality, but all were designed to lure adventurers and clergymen through their doors. Hidden shrines to Chaos and Destruction were built in the cellars beneath the taverns and the children reverted to cannibalism, incorporating lavish feasts of human flesh into their unholy Chaos rituals.

The children soon began indoctrinating the very young and impressionable, and inducting other like-minded followers into their cult, and the Society of the Smoldering Hearth blossomed. Phrases and gestures for communicating with one another were created, and the order soon spread beyond the walls of the City of Dolmvay.

Current Phrases
The following phrases are currently used among members of the Society of the Smoldering Hearth to identify each other. These phrases change frequently, but usually incorporate the words “hearth”, “smolder”, “bright”, and/or “more”.

A greeting from a new patron to a tavernkeeper:
Patron: “The (morning/day/night) is chill and your fires look welcoming.”
Tavernkeeper: “Only for those who work to keep the hearth ablaze.”
Patron: “Aye, lest it smolders and grows cold.”

A greeting from a tavernkeeper to a new patron:
Tavernkeeper: “You look cold, friend. Come and warm yourself by our hearth.”
Patron: “The fires are bright.”
Tavernkeeper: “I can make them more so, if you wish.”

A warning that forces of Law and Order are about:
Tavernkeeper: “Greetings, friend. Shall we say a prayer before we conduct our business?”
Patron: “I am always in need of prayers. Shall we kneel before the hearth?”
Tavernkeeper: “No need. As long as the fires in our hearts still smolder, our prayers will be answered.”

The Ivy Walls Tavern
The Ivy Walls is a two-story inn/tavern made of stacked stone with ivy-covered walls. The first floor contains a common taproom, kitchens, and several private rooms, with a cellar below and a walled courtyard and stables out back. A small shrine to St. Ronnad of the Flagon is located above the taproom hearth, while a larger shrine to the dark saint Oricus is located in a secret room in the cellar below. The second floor contains private sleeping chambers. The Ivy Walls serves common quality food.

The Ivy Walls can be placed in any city, town, or rural setting. Any map of a two-story tavern can be used, and the tavern/inn should otherwise function as a normal business of its type. The Labyrinth Lord should even consider introducing the tavern early in the campaign, before any contact with the Smoldering Hearth sect is made.

The Smoldering Hearth of Ivy Walls
The Smoldering Hearth of Ivy Walls is a Smoldering Hearth sect led by the tavernkeeper Robard Compten and his wife Esther. The sect is careful to select only fledgling adventurers (1st-3rd level) or minor clergymen who will not be missed. Once per month (0r twice per year in rural areas), they abduct and devour their victim(s) during a ritual feast held in the cellar shrine. The Ivy Walls sect occasionally hires out as assassins to plotting noble houses, merchant families, or even rival adventuring companies. In this case, the victims are lured to the inn by the promise of free room and board before being attacked.

     Robard Compten
Robard presents himself as a fat, bumbling tavernkeeper who lives only to serve his customers. He may even be used to provide a bit of comic relief. In reality, he is a cruel, calculating man who cares only for personal power. Robard is a pious man who dreams of becoming a high priest of Chaos and Destruction. He wears an obscure Chaos holy symbol beneath his shirt, but has been unable to master even the simplest prayers (cleric spells). Robard and his wife Esther live in private quarters on the second floor.

Robard Compten: treat as 0-level human with AC 9 or 8 (leather armor), hp 4, ironbound club (Dmg 1d4+1) or dagger (Dmg 1d4), small Chaos holy symbol, 1d4 gp, and 1d6 sp. A locked chest in Compten’s room contains a charred spellbook with three 1st-level spells, a treasure map, a cameo locket (250 gp), a silver drinking stein with the crest of House Feron (250 gp), a gold ring with onyx stone (150 gp), and a pouch containing 45 gp, 200 sp, and 45 cp.

     Esther Compten
Esther is the friendly, middle-aged wife of Robard Compten. She presents herself as a dutiful, kindhearted woman who tends the bar and is extremely protective of her staff. However, Esther is even more cruel and calculating than her husband. Esther is responsible for drugging the drinks of the sect’s victims. She harbors a desire for children’s flesh, but has yet to act upon these urges. Local children often bring her wounded animals (birds, kittens, puppies, etc.) to care for, and she rewards them with a copper coin or sweet treats. These animals never live long, and often end up in a pot of Ivy Walls stew.

Esther Compten: treat as 0-level Chaotic human with AC 9, hp 3, dagger (Dmg 1d4), 1d4 sp. A locked jewelry box in Esther’s room contains a pair of antique gold earrings (350 gp), a gold locket (150 gp), and three gold rings (100 gp, 75 gp, 25 gp), as well as numerous pieces of costume jewelry worth a total of 5 gp.

     Nadlin the Harlot
Nadlin is a harlot who cares only for wealth and pleasures of the flesh. She is charming and outspoken, and is perhaps the most honest person in the Ivy Walls sect. Nadlin has developed a taste for human flesh, and incorporates biting, bleeding, and rough play into her harlotry. She is only allowed to work the common taproom after the evening meal is completed and respectable folks have gone to bed. Nadlin is responsible for relieving the sect’s victims of their weapons before they are drugged or subdued. Nadlin lives in a private room on the second floor.

Nadlin the Harlot: AL C; MV 120′ (40′); AC 7 (Dex); T3; hp 9; #AT 1; Dmg 1d4 + special (dagger + poison); S 9, D 16, C 11, I 10, W 12, Ch 13; SV T3; SA backstab, thief skills; ML 7; XP 95; pick locks 27%, find/remove traps 20%, pick pockets 30%, move silently 30%, climb walls 89%, hide in shadows 20%, hear noise 1-3; potion of poison, four gold bangles (50 gp each), gold disc earrings (100 gp), gold leaf pattern ring (75 gp), jade and silver earrings (75 gp), 1d10 gp, 1d8 sp, 1d6 cp.

     Bethany Drewery
Bethany Drewery is a young, attractive barmaid who ran away from home years ago and has struggled to make it on her own. Esther and Nadlin bully her mercilessly when no patrons are around. Once they believed Bethany to be completely cowed, they starved her for days and then forced her to eat human flesh as the first part of her indoctrination into the Society of the Smoldering Hearth. As expected, Bethany is terrified that the authorities will learn of her cannibalism. Given time, however, she is likely to accept her fate and become a full member of the sect. Bethany lives in a small hall closet on the second floor.

Bethany Drewery: treat as 0-level Neutral human with Cha 13, AC 9, hp 2, dagger (Dmg 1d4). Beneath her pallet she keeps a gold pendant necklace (150 gp) bundled in cloth. The necklace was a gift from her mother, and the engravings upon it could lead to future adventures, if the Labyrinth Lord desires.

     Wolter Toms
Wolter Toms is a large, intelligent man who has fooled almost everyone at Ivy Walls (including the Comptens) into believing he is nothing more than a dim-witted bouncer. Wolter is secretly a Chaos priest who pays homage to a fat, bearded saint with goat horns and batlike wings named Oricus the Demon Lord. Wolter often works in conjunction with Nadlin the Harlot and is responsible for subduing the sect’s victims by force, if necessary. Wolter sleeps on a pallet in a small cubbyhole in the cellar where he can guard the entrance to the shrine of Chaos.

Wolter Toms: AL C; MV 120′ (40′); AC 9 or 8 (leather armor); C2; hp 14; #AT 1; Dmg 1d4+2 (ironbound club + Str); S 13, D 9, C 16, I 10, W 13, Ch 10; SA spellcasting, Turn undead; SV C2; ML 8; XP 56; goat-horned skull holy symbol of Oricus the Demon Lord, 1d6 sp, 1d4 cp.
Spells: 1st: cause fear, cure light wounds.

     Stefan Roster
Stefan is a grizzled, overweight cook who wears stained aprons and is seldom seen without a wad of pipeweed stuffed into the side of his mouth. Stefan is known for his tasty Ivy Walls Stew, which contains a mixture of spices, vegetables, meats, and flecks of chewed pipeweed. Stefan is responsible for drugging the food of the sect’s victims, especially when numerous victims are involved. Stefan sleeps in a small chamber adjoining the kitchens.

Stefan Roster: AL C; MV 120′ (40′); AC 8 (leather apron); F1; hp 6; #AT 1; Dmg 1d4+2 (ironbound club + Str), 1d6+1 (cleaver + Str), 1d4+2 (thick knife + Str); S 13, D 9, C 13, I 11, W 9, Ch 11; SV F1; ML 8; XP 16; 1d8 cp and a pouch of pipeweed.

     Kevinn the Stableboy
Kevinn is an orphaned stableboy who knows nothing of the Society of the Smoldering Hearth. Robard, Wolter, and Stefan routinely beat Kevinn for the smallest infractions, but the boy stays because he has nowhere else to go. It won’t be long before his indoctrination begins. Kevinn loves horses and secretly aspires to become an adventurer. He adores Bethany and would do whatever she says. Kevinn sleeps on a pallet in the stables.

Kevinn the Stableboy: treat as 0-level Neutral human with hp 2 and shiny green rock (1 gp).

     Old Man Kelly
The venerable Old Man Kelly is actually Kellen Brightmore, the youngest child of the original Brightmore Family. Old Man Kelly acts as spiritual advisor to the sect. He spends almost all of his time sitting in a chair beside the main hearth, telling stories, playing castles (chess), and engaging patrons in conversation. He is well versed in local legends and lore and may use this information to gain the trust of an adventuring company. Old Man Kelly knows that Wolter Toms is a Chaos priest and the two often conspire together. Kelly seldom sleeps, but when he does, he usually sleeps in his chair, and there is very little that escapes his notice.

Old Man Kelly: treat as 0-level human with Int 15, Cha 13, AC 9, hp 2, wooden pipe carved to resemble a horned goat (75 gp), pouch of pipeweed.

Ivy Walls Tactics
The members of the Smoldering Hearth of Ivy Walls work together to select and subdue their victim(s). If brute force is chosen, Nadlin attempts to seduce the victim and divest him or her of all weapons and armor. When the victim is most vulnerable, Robard Compten, Wolter Toms, and Stefan Roster don their armor and then burst into the room, attempting to subdue the victim with clubs. Wolter Toms uses his cleric spells only as a last resort. If a member of the sect is killed, Esther and Nadlin must make morale checks (ML 7) to either join the fight or flee.

If more subtle means are required, Esther Compten or Stefan Roster drug the food and/or drinks of the victim(s). This drug requires a saving throw vs. poison. Failure means the victim falls unconscious for 1d4 turns. Success leaves the victim woozy for 1d4 turns, imposing a -4 to attack rolls, AC, saving throws, and ability checks. The victim is unable to use thief skills or cast spells during this time (if applicable). Once drugged, Robard, Wolter, and Stefan arrive to subdue the victim(s), as noted above.

Subdued victims are tied up and deposited in the cellar downstairs. Stefan then begins butchering and processing them one by one. The meat is then smoked and roasted for an upcoming Chaos feast. Once the feast is over, the skull and bones are tossed unceremoniously into a nearby sewer line (in a city) or bog (in rural areas). The victim’s possessions are then divided amongst the members of the sect.

If the Smoldering Hearth of Ivy Walls is exposed and/or defeated, the remaining members attempt to flee. If captured, they plead their innocence and deny taking part in any Chaos rituals. They do not willingly betray the Society of the Smoldering Hearth, but magic and/or interrogation may uncover links to other tavern sects, at the Labyrinth Lord’s discretion.

Old Man Kelly plays the part of a senile old man. If his ruse is not uncovered, he joins up with another sect and continues his evil ways. He may even attempt to hire someone to kill the PCs if they begin investigating the Society of the Smoldering Hearth.

Encountering the Smoldering Hearth of Ivy Walls
The following plot hooks may be used to introduce the characters to the threat of the Smoldering Hearth.

  • The characters are hired to investigate the disappearance of a nobleman’s son named Denson val Timberwood. Denson was known to go “slumming” amongst the commoners, posing as a traveling vagabond and wandering adventurer. The investigation eventually leads the PCs to young Lord Denson’s last stop at the Ivy Walls tavern. (Perhaps one of the PCs even notices Robard wearing a distinctive piece of jewelry that belonged to Denson.) Can they save the young lord before he is butchered, or will they find only his corpse hanging from a hook in the tavern’s larder?
  • The characters are staying at the Ivy Walls when they witness a drunken clergyman being taken away by Wolter Toms. A few days later, they learn that the clergyman has not been seen since. Will they notify the Church or will they investigate the disappearance themselves?
  • The barmaid Bethany Drewery contacts the PCs and begs them to take the stableboy Kevinn away from the Ivy Walls tavern. The girl is reluctant to say why, but hints that the Comptens are not all that they appear. Will the PCs help the young stableboy, or will they wave off Bethany’s concerns?
  • A motley collection of animated skeletons staggers towards the Ivy Walls tavern. These skeletons belong to the sect’s past victims. They attempt to gain entrance to the tavern and attack anyone inside. If the characters are present, they may help defend the tavern and its patrons. Will they investigate the reason for the attack or will they leave the matter to the Church?
  • A recurring villain, rival adventuring company, or other enemy of the PCs contracts the Smoldering Hearth of Ivy Walls to kill the party. The party is either staying at or invited to stay at the Ivy Walls. While there, they are assaulted and/or drugged by Robard and his cronies. Can they survive the attack, or will they end up as the main course during the next Chaos feast?

Society of the Smoldering Hearth, Copyright 2014. Author Peter C. Spahn. Released as Open Game Content.

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