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Drovers & Dragons: The Yazak Blood Drive

by Steven B. Wilson

Your players want something different? Well...challenge accepted. So here you are, you greenhorn cowpokes, a cattle drive Mystara style! 1500 head of cattle across 1500 miles (as the dragon flies). Inspired by the Deadlands Blood Drive trilogy, parts of the Tortles of the Purple Sage adventures, and random snippets of creativity from the Vaults of Pandius, the party posse rides herd on an epic cattle drive across the Yakak Steppes.


"I've had enough! I'm pulling up stakes and headed out -- I'm leaving for good! This here Red Curse has a stranglehold on the’s no bueno. I'm gonna take my herd and leave."

"I've got a solid crew, but I'm shy a few. I'm looking' for experienced trail riders, but I'll settle for anybody who knows which end of a wheellock the bullet comes out of. But pickin's gettin' slim and I want to get on the trail before we get too far into spring..."

That's Sutter - the old rancher and lifelong resident of Little Big Rock, Cimmaron County. When he hired us, we weren't sure what exactly we were getting ourselves into. He had grabbed a rolled up map and unfurled about a foot of it that showed the Gulf of Hule region.

"You want to know where we're headed," he asked. He jabbed a gnarled finger at Cimmaron County. "We're here, but where can we go? Can't go northeast. They wouldn't let us through the other baronies and blast it all if I'd go anywhere near Hule."

"My herd is too big to load up on ships, so going south is out of the question." Sutter slid his finger to the east, "The Red Curse still lays upon that land and it's no bueno for cattle. North is...the Pampa Rica...good land, but cut off. Besides, still too close to the Curse for my likin'. So I ask you again...where can we go?"

We stood around blinking. Where exactly was this old man going with this?

Then, with an unsettling glimmer in his eye, he unfurled the rest of the map. All five feet of it. Slamming his hand down at the far end of the table that made us all jump, he shouted, "Richland! By the Immortals, Richland!"

With a triumphant grin, he looked around the table. "Look, it's on what's called the Grass Coast, that's gotta be good for cattle. It's run by the LB Trading Company so it'll have access for selling the beef. By the Immortals, even the name is good...Rich Land."

As my eye scanned across the map, I saw nothing between here and there but forests, jungles, and existing nations. How were we going to get cattle through all that? I wasn't the only one who wondered.

Our resident preacher (he'd give a black eye to anyone who called him a "cleric"), spoke up. "Um, sir...are you expecting to drive your whole herd through every town and city on the way there? I can't imagine we'd be allowed to..."

"Yer not paying attention, son. I said I wanted to get out of the Red Curse, and I mean as soon as possible. We drive the herd north, across the Yazak!"

I stood in shocked silence and blinked. We all did. I think Sutter saw the panic and doubt in our eyes. He rushed back to the side of the table where we were and started speaking again in what I'm sure he thought was a soothing voice.

"Okay, look here. We drive the herd up the New Hope River through the Sierra Desparata. There in the hills is a good crossin' that the herd will have no trouble fordin'. The trail is well traveled by others movin' their stock between Cimmaron and Guadalante. We should have no problems. When we enter the Pampa Rica, we head northwest to skirt them mesas up there. It's Kuttai territory, but I doubt they've seen anythin' this big goin' through. By the time they mounted a big enough war band, we'd be off and away."

From the mesas, we turn west across Huptai territory. They spend all their time raiding into Eusdria and Bellayne. We should be able to slip past with little to no trouble. From there, it's easy goin'. Wide open plains with a few river crossings. Before you know it, we'll be in Richland livin' the rich life, ha!"

"I reckon it'll take us three or four months for the whole drive. I'm offerin' ya sixty gold per month and I'll even provide all yer horses. What d'ya say? Jus' imagine, me with my Cimmaron beef raised on the Grass Coast, and you out on the frontier, able to build a new life how ever you want!"

It was crazy. Insane. I don't know if it was the money, the adventure, or the sheer audacity of it, but for each of our own reasons, we all accepted. We had less than a month to transform ourselves from dragon-slayers to cow-punchers. How hard could it be?

(The following is just a rough outline…plenty of room to add and customize as desired)

Part One: The Yazak Trail (Late winter to mid-summer)

• Day 1: Breaking horses and rounding up cattle (on the Bushwack Prairie)
• Day 8: Unwelcome Visit (an Inheritor attempts usurp control and threatens Sutter if the cattle leave)
• Day 9: Supply Run (Little Big Rock – shootout with Inheritor and lackeys)

Head ‘Em Up!
• Day 13: Inheritor Attack (with assistance from goblin tribes)
• Day 23: Into the Yazak (crossing the New Hope River and loss of Red Curse legacies)
• Day 44: A Long Dry Spell (desert crossing between mesas and Southold hills)
• Day 47: Abandoned Wagons (scene of recent Huptai attack)
• Day 67: Headwater of the River of Dreams (Huptai camp and sleepy time!)
• Day 83: Lookin’ for the Lupin (trading cattle for guide in crossing the Plain of Dreams)
• Day 109: Crossing the Lower Shady (spring melt from Southold hills makes for a dangerous high-water crossing)
• Day 121: I Dream of Plaktur (in an attempt to find a shallower crossing of the Upper Shady, the spirit-haunted city of Plaktur gives restless dreams)

Southold Plateau
• Day 130: Sign of the Hupkur (scene of recent Hupkur attack)
• Day 135: Keep off the Grass! (minions of Hupkur ogre warlord warn of trespassing)
• Day 137: Dog Leg (unexpected arrival at a Hupkur camp controlled by ogre warlord, imprisonment and loss of herd)
• Day 138: Unexpected Allies (some in Hupkur camp are not happy with warlord…)
• Day 138: Battle of Southold Gulch (fighting the ogre warlord to regain herd)
• Day 181: Richland (arrival at Richland)

Part Two: Northway Drovers (Late summer to mid-autumn)
North to the Northway!
• Change o’ Plans (cattle prices in Richland not to Sutter’s liking – hears of free rangeland to the north near Cropland – offers PCs a share of the cattle if they help start new ranch)
• Counting Coup (occasional non-violent raids from the Tai-Luk goblins – steal a horse or two, count coup, stampede some cattle, etc.)
• Outbreak (new cattle Sutter purchased came with additional critters – possibly underground aranea as described in Tortles of the Purple Sage)

At the Gates of Chaos
• Chaotic Alliance Comes A-Knockin’ (claim ownership of herd)
• Eight Legs, Again (aranea (?) attack on cattle meant to mimic previous outbreak)
• Wild Prairie Fire (fire set to attempt to stampede cattle)
• Death from Above (wyverns? dragon?)
• From Bad to Ugly (small earthshaker-like automaton)
• Escape from Chaos (Sutter decides to not follow the coast and attempt a different route to the north)

Along the Old Northway River
• Sinking Sand (crossing of the Old Northway River)
• Tai-Luk, Ho! (back in Tai-Luk territory, Tai-Luk show of force paces the herd just out of range)
• Trapped at the Dravish Ruins (Tai-Luk effectively quarantine PCs and herd in Dravish ruins with settlers affected by disease and vampirism)

The Empty Valley (badlands near river force multiple crossings and backtrackings to make any progress to the north)
• Death on the Wing (more flying critters)
• A Bridge Too Far (an old bridge not far from Dravya being constantly fought over by…)
• Ghost War (a ghostly horde doomed to forever fight over the bridge…unless that bridge somehow is destroyed…)
• Mud Water Cove and the End o’ the Trail (arrival at the rich grasslands of their new home)

Part Three: Range War! (Late autumn)
Dirtwater Blues
• Northern Star Ranch (rival ranch that thinks they own the whole region, they are having troubles with their own herd)
• Enter the LB Trading Company (the one organization that everyone respects)
• Dirtwater (a small little village at the mouth of the Yalu River – LB Trading Company is building the future port Sutter will use to sell his cattle, town has a growing “Tortletown” as they use tortle labor frequently)

Opening Volleys
• A Pox Upon You (disease hits the new ranch)
• Peace Talks (attempt to smooth over relations with the Northern Star Ranch – NSR starts to call in favors and thugs from Cropland)
• Wolves in the Fold (magically modified wolves attack the herd)
• A Long Shot (sniper from Northern Star)
• Rustle, Rustle (Northern Star stealing cattle)
• Strangers in Town (duel)

• Black Dog’s Bite (Dravish pox walker)
• LB Trading Company Steps In (Tortle from LB arrives at ranch, they thought they legitimately bought land from NSR – very upset when they realize they’ve been scammed)
• Man-Eating Cow! (magically altered bull from NSR is eating the herd…time to put it down)
• Hot Time in Dirtwater (NSR attempts to burn down LB offices in attempt to hide deception and prevent the larger LB organization from coming down on them – large battle)
• Back at the Ranch… (NSR launches full out attack on ranch)
• Falling Star (battle taken to the NSR)
• A Demon’s Roundup (el Diablo – demon bull the NSR was using to attempt to strengthen their herd with its blood – possibly escapes to roam the plains with its quasi-demon herd)

And the Sun Sets in the West
• eliminating NSR leaves PCs ranch as the only one left standing, but opens up the area for others to try their hand, contributing to the growth of Dirtwater. PCs find opportunities for leadership, or they can ride off into the sunset in search of another adventure…)

Since I'm between projects right now, I might as well spend some time fleshing this out a bit more. However, to give fair warning, I might not get through the whole outline.

First off, it would be very easy (and accurate) to see this adventure as railroading the PCs. The other option is to create an old school area map with adventure locations and let the PCs pick the route. I'm lazy. Besides, I don't want to have to make the players (or myself) track food/water/supplies/whatever. I'd rather just hand-wave that and only bring it up when the plot demands it. Besides there are plenty of opportunities for a more ambitious DM to add side quests the player may or may not choose. I just want to focus on the main plot line.

Even though I used a count of days in the outline (at least for the first section), I think I'll break it down by week. With that said, here we go:

Week One

Round-up is the busiest time around a ranch. The hands stay busy from dawn until dark, and often beyond, gathering stray cattle and horses, branding, and readying their gear for months on the trail. Experienced cowboys say it’s rougher work than most actual drives. Sutter is working on an accelerated timetable since he wants to hit the trail just as soon as possible, so the PCs work six days a week.

The work is tiring and often brutal. And it doesn’t end with nightfall either. Each cowpoke is expected to spend two hours each night riding the edges of the herd to keep it together and protect it from predators—animal, human…and otherwise. As such, PCs are not allow a long rest until after six days of work/travel.

The morning after each day’s work, a Constitution ability check is required. A failed roll means the cowpuncher is saddled with an Exhaustion level (I'm using D&D 5e rules) from the previous day’s exertion. The good news is that this Exhaustion never gets worse than one level. (i.e. if a PC is already exhausted, no need to make this morning roll.)

The exhaustion rule will play a big part in the cattle drive so make sure everyone is familiar with how it all works.

Over the past couple of weeks, the other ranch hands have been rounding up wild horses to serve as backups during the drive. To get the party’s measure, Sutter assigns them to one of his trusted cowboys, Canton, to help break horses for the saddle. Canton has half-a-dozen new mustangs in the corral he needs to saddle break. Since the heroes are new meat, he plans to let them do all the work. Five of the six are run-of-the-mill animals, but the sixth has come to be known as “Devil Eyes” around the ranch. So far, no one’s been able to break the animal and it seems to take hellish pleasure in tossing off riders that try. Though none admit it, all the cowboys are scared of the beast.

Breaking Horses

For the sake of simplicity, the rules for the 5E "weapon" labeled net will here be renamed lasso, but otherwise will function exactly the same.

The first step is roping the desired horse. This is just a standard "attack" roll. (Use the "riding horse" statistics from the Monster Manual). A successful "attack" means the horse is restrained (see Appendix A in the Player Handbook)

Once a horse is restrained, the cowpoke has to go a step further and teach the animal to accept a saddle and a rider. To break a horse to the saddle, a rider first has to mount and stay on the animal long enough for it to get accustomed to the idea. This is done by making a Wisdom (Animal Handling) skill check each round, opposed by the horse’s Wisdom (11). If the PC wins the roll, the horse gains a level of Exhaustion (and don’t forget this means a disadvantage to all subsequent Wisdom rolls). If the PC manages to win 3 rolls, the animal is saddle-broken. ("Devil Eyes" has a special ability called "Unbreakable" in which she has an advantage to her Wisdom checks, which means after the first PC success, she still makes standard Wisdom rolls at no penalty.)

Should the rider lose a roll, however, the horse bucks the PC from its back. The PC has to make a Constitution ability check roll to avoid taking an Exhaustion level from bumps and bruises. The PC is free to get back in the saddle and continue trying to break the horse, with the understanding that continued failures can result is serious injury or even death.

The horse fully recovers its Exhaustion with a day of rest. Any Exhaustion the rider suffers from getting tossed on his/her backside recovers normally, per the rules.

Once the posse succeeds in breaking the five normal horses, Sutter considers them capable of handling other tasks on the ranch. Any cowpoke that bests Devil Eyes earns a fair amount of respect around the ranch for the rest of the round-up. In fact, Sutter is so impressed he gives the character the horse as a permanent gift.

Rounding Up Cattle

Over the past winter, the cows roamed far and wide on the ranch and beyond. Sutter had his cowboys combing the wilds for weeks now and they’ve succeeded in locating most of the wayward steers, but there are still a few unaccounted for.

A cowpoke searching for cattle can roll either Intelligence (Nature), Wisdom (Perception). With a success, he locates one errant cow or steer that day. Each natural 20 on the roll finds a second animal. Feel free to apply bonuses or penalties based on the posse’s plan of action as you see fit.

Roping a steer is easy enough. It’s a simple attack roll with a lasso (adjusted for range, of course). (Since there is no "cow" statistic, I guess we can just use the "draft horse" entry and call it good enough.) But even armed with his trusty lariat, a cowboy is grossly overmatched in a tug-of-war by a longhorn. An average-sized specimen of the breed tips the scales at around three-quarters of a ton, so man-handling those doggies isn’t the best option.

Luckily, when it comes to taking charge of a bullheaded longhorn, a cowboy’s best friend is his mount. A canny ranch hand can use the lasso in conjunction with his saddle to bring his horse’s strength and weight to bear against a roped steer. Once a mounted cowpoke has lassoed a longhorn, an opposed roll of his Wisdom (Animal Handling) versus the cattle's Strength (18) is made. On a success, he wrangles the animal under control and can lead it with the rope; with a natural 20, he pulls the longhorn off its feet. On a failure, the beast continues to put up a fight, but doesn’t break free. If the player is unlucky enough to roll a 1 on his skill check, the animal breaks free—possibly pulling the unlucky sod off his saddle in the process.

On the final day of the week on their way back to the ranch, they pass through a small cottonwood grove not far from the river. As they’re riding through, allow the PCs an Intelligence (Perception) roll (at a disadvantage). With a success, a cowboy spots the desiccated corpse of a cow—then another, then a third—scattered throughout the grove. Those who fail are understandably surprised by what happens next.

Out of the ground next to one of the recently captured steers bursts a giant wolf spider. The repulsive critter latches onto a captured steer (or one of the PCs horses if no cattle were caught that day). Almost at the same time, another steer (or horse) breaks through the ground, dropping into a small pit. Out of the pit swarm hundreds of smaller versions of the large spider (treat as an insect swarm of spiders), flowing over the thrashing cattle and out onto the surrounding ground.

Those heroes not surprised by the ambush can act normally in the next round. Those who failed the Notice roll the round keeping their seat and getting their mounts under control.
The spiders are perfectly content with the hamburger they’ve already procured. They do not attack any of the characters unless they attack or move to try to save one of the cattle. If the heroes are willing to write off the two cows as a loss, they easily ride free of the spiders without suffering any attacks.

Intervening on behalf of the steers quickly draws the attention of the spiders. The swarm flows off the trapped animal while their larger cousin squares off with anyone near its prey. Worse, the first hero who moves to help the cattle is in for a nasty surprise as a second giant wolf spider bursts from its hidey-hole and attacks. Once the spiders are defeated, the posse finds the steers are both a little worse for the wear, but they survive the attack. A quick search of the grove discovers over a dozen drained carcasses of cattle along with a few deer and other smaller animals. The other cowboys likely completely missed them because the husks are so desiccated that they’re only visible from within the grove itself.

The PCs have earned a well-deserved day of rest. Thus ends their first week as a ranch hand...