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The Stalkbrow Bad Magic Node

by DesertNomad from Threshold Magazine issue 10

The Stalkbrow Bad Magic Node

Setting the CM5 module ‘Mystery of the Snow Pearls’ in Alfheim

By DesertNomad

The Mystery of the Snow Pearls is a companion level solo adventure – one of only two ever produced for the original Dungeons & Dragons system. In this game you are a level ten attack rank ‘I’ elf who goes by the name of ‘Christov Yetta’, sent out to retrieve one of the magical Snow Pearls that keep your home village safe. All of the text is overprinted with a layer of red static, so the module is navigated with a ‘Magic Viewer’ (which is a piece of red cellophane) and by moving between numbered sections.

This module has some fantastic locations, locations that have stuck in my memory even though it has been many years since I played the game: The Elephants Graveyard, The Devil’s Staircase, Fallen Glory... But it is unfortunately also a module with some pretty cheesy ideas in it. Trolls crying lakes of tears, a troll living under a bridge and anything to do with the annoying Gyerians. Then there are some math problem sections which just seem out of place – all in all a very mixed bag. The idea behind this reimagining is to take the best parts of the module and locate them somewhere in the Known World so the adventure can be more easily used as a one-on-one adventure with one DM and one player.

Setting the Module in Stalkbrow

The adventure gives few clues as to its location. The map inside the front cover is generic and the geographical features in the module were never mentioned in any other cannon Known World material. The background make it clear that the village of ‘Tarylon the Fair’ is in a borderland area since just beyond the village walls there is a wilderness area, but this area also has people living in it and a whole village of Gyerians. The outdoors game map is also very small, just stretching a couple of miles across. I propose that the bad magic point ‘Stalkbrow’ in the forest of Alfheim be used. This provides a reason for a thriving Elven village to be located close to a dangerous area.

A more detailed map of the Stalkbrow bad magic node was made by taking all of the information in the Elves of Alfheim gazetteer, and fleshing out these ideas a little.

Image: Stalkbrow map

The Stalkbrow Bad Magic Node

Stalkbrow is considered by many to be the most dangerous of the three permanent bad magic nodes in Alfheim - these are the places where the dark side of the elven magic that created the mighty Canolbarth forest shows itself by allowing monsters to seep through from other dimensions and by negatively affecting Elven magic. Although Stalkbrow tends to generate less monsters than Thornbrush and Dragontree, it is famous for creating emanations which interfere with spell casting, and magically spread ideas of evil, mischief or strife among the nearby elves. The elves have therefore learnt to avoid the area, and patrol the borders to stop creatures leaving or unwitting Elves entering. The force that patrols this border is called the Shadowguard, and in addition to elves also includes human wizard and druid volunteers. In fact, many human illusionists are drawn to the job despite the risks to their sanity from long term exposure to the node, since there is much they can learn from the way that illusion magics twist and turn through the area.

Stalkbrow is named because the negative magical effects are centred on two low hills that resemble a pair of brows in a creased frown. Those brave enough to get close to the hills (within about five miles) report that the bad magic point actually drifts, and carries with it a vague mirage-like image of the central hills. To those within this area, it feels as if the hills are actually stalking them - hence the name. This effect also prevents those who are trying to walk to the hills to ever get there. The Stalkbrow hills are only visible out of the corner of your eye and always seem to be off to one side no matter which direction you walk towards them, frustrating any conscious efforts to reach them.

The magic effect extends about 16 miles north to south and 24 miles east to west, with the actual area changing a little day by day as the Stalkbrow effect slowly drifts. Within this area the weather changing magic of the elves is blocked, which means that the original weather patterns of the area are experienced instead. Therefore, the Stalkbrow area still consists of flat to gently rolling scrubland with precious little rainfall. This is quite a novelty for Alfheim, as it is the greatest area within the forest without any of the mighty oaks the Elven homeland is famous for.

On the western side of the Stalkbrow are the Vorsh Plains. These are not large, just 15 miles north to south and 10 miles east to west, but they are the best example of what Canolbarth used to be. They consist of arid scrub land covered with dry grasses with a few hardy trees widely spaced apart. This is not difficult country to transverse, although water can be a problem away from the main rivers, but it is wide open country and difficult to hide in.

With the exception of the village of Gyer, no civilised creatures live here. There are, however, rumours of bands of outcast elves eking out a desperate existence on the plains, with the area being close enough to the bad magic point to protect them from their magical brands of exile, but far enough away to not cause madness - at least not quickly.

The Vorsh Plains are crossed by several dry canyons, cut by the infrequent downpours in this region. These are not well explored (at least by Christov) and can be dangerous due to their steep sides, limiting options for escape and posing a risk for landslide.

The most dangerous area of Stalkbrow is of course at its centre, and consists of the badlands and the hills rising up in the middle of them.

The Stalkbrow Badlands are a small area of almost totally arid dirt with small rocky outcrops spread between pancake flat land. Nothing grows here except the occasional tuft of yellow grass.

The Stalkbrow Hills harbour the centre of the bad magic effect and consist of a tortured and alien landscape of undulating hills in random patterns and colours. Needless to say, few have ventured into this spot, it is said that even monsters struggle to survive here due to the magic energies that stream across the surface of the rocks. The hills do have a few trees growing on them in contrast to the badlands below. Stunted and twisted oak trees struggle to the size of small shrubs, as in a sick parody of the huge oaks that grow in the Canolbarth Forest a few miles away.

Across the north of the Stalkbrow area runs the Ragged River. This is not a large waterway, but it flows with a furiousness far beyond what it should. People say that this is due to the effect of the dark magic from the Blighted Forest. Downstream of Gyer, it is only safe to cross at the Far Delta. This is an expanse of marsh lands a few miles across, named because it is the delta further from Tarylon. The delta is filled with many different types of marshland birds and Christov has often hunted and collected eggs here.

In the south runs the Black Spring Creek and its tributaries.

This small stream used to be crystal clear, but something in the Blighted Forest has corrupted it, and now only black, silent water flows through it. The creek empties into the lake via the Near Delta, which is now a small patch of dark marsh empty of life.

The Lakes of Selinar are famous through Alfheim for their beauty and the giant freshwater pearls that can be found in their waters. The south-western most of these lakes is also the largest, and connects into the other Selinar lakes lying on the boundary between the Longrunner and Feador clans.

The western end of the lake is not an obvious place for settlement due to its proximity to Stalkbrow, but Elves have been visiting this part of the lake for centuries as it contains the best and biggest fresh water pearls that can be found. About 80 years ago four pearls were found of incredible size and beauty - they were about the size of grapefruit, perfectly round and glowed with a dazzling white light when held close to each other. They were named 'The Snow Pearls' due to their exceptional clarity, and it was these pearls that lead to the founding of a new settlement called Tarylon, as the pearls allowed a new sapling of the Tree of Life to prosper despite the proximity of Stalkbrow. Although Tarylon is at least a couple of miles safely outside of the maximum effect of the bad magic node, it was built with an eye on defence. The entire settlement is surrounded by white walls and slim towers, raised entirely with Longrunner magic from the rock beneath the forest. These beautiful shining walls, combined with the blessing of the snow pearls and the great lake have lead to Tarylon being called "Tarylon the Fair" by its inhabitants and those who visit.

Perhaps the saddest parts of the Stalkbrow area for an elf are the Blighted Forests in the north and south. These are areas of the Canolbarth Forest which have been twisted and diseased by the bad magic over a long period of time. No-one knows why, but these areas are slowly increasing in size as the centuries pass. Within them few trees grow, and the trees that are there slowly rot as they are consumed by fungi and disease. The only living things that flourish are toadstools, wood imps and their spider mounts, who seem to have made these black woods their home.

Changing the Mystery of the Snow Pearls Map

The original map is generic and bland, and contains many filler encounters. The map below can be used to take the best locations and place them in the Stalkbrow area.

Image: Stalkbrow locations

A New starting location for the player character (location 1 on the original map)
This is Christov’s hut, the small house he has cut out of the forest for himself.

B Village of Gyer (location 30 on the original map)
This smelly location is home to about 200 Gyerians - bipedal birds with a moderate level
of intelligence.

C Fallen Glory (locations 9 and 10 on the original map)
This network of caves was home to a small tribe of dwarves back when the Canolbarth
area was in its original form of rolling hills. Now it is inhabited by a collection of corrupted
plants and animals, with a mad giant as self-proclaimed king.

D The Raker’s Den (location 17 on the original map)
The small collection of caves set into the canyon wall is well hidden from below, and
holds a dozen rogue elves banished for committing terrible crimes. Now they terrorise
this area.

E The Devil’s Staircase (location 19 on the original map)
In the original module this was a blind canyon with a series of natural steps leading up. A
suspicious man asks Christov to retrieve his scarf from the top of the canyon, but turns
out to be a devilswine (that’s why it is the devil’s staircase). Make the staircase a dead
and rotting home tree that has been caught up in the blight.

F The Witch of the Woods (location 16 on the original map)
Despite her hideous appearance this old woman provides details on how to find the
missing snow pearl.

G The Spirit of the Black Springs (location 18 on the original map)
The once clean river now flows dark and foul. The spirit of the river has been choked
by a rock placed over the spring at the headwater of the stream. Remove this and the
river will return to its original form.

H Elephant’s Graveyard and the Caverns of Couronn below (locations 27 and 39 on the
original map)
The ‘elephant’ is a malfera, and a devious enemy. The Caverns of Couronn are the
home of the mage who stole the pearl, and consist of three concentric rings. To travel
inwards between each ring it is necessary to answer a mathematical puzzle.

Changes to the Mystery of the Snow Pearls Storyline

In the original module the player character (Christov Yetta) is the brother of the Treekeeper, champion of the village and all round good guy. This is functional, but a little dull, so consider this alternate setup.

Adventure Intro

In the Longrunner clan, Elves are named after their actions, and for this reason you have had many names through your long life. First Christov Fleetfoot, for the way you could move through the forest like water flowing through a brook. Then Christov Beastslayer for the way you slew a horde of goblins and orcs when they broke upon the borders of Alfheim. Then you were called Christov Redhair, more for you temperament than your colouring.

But the name you wear now defines you. You are Christov Kinslayer.

It has been ten long years since you were cast out from the Elven realm for the greatest of all crimes. You slew one of your kin in a moment of fury, and for that you were branded an exile. An outsider. A traitor. Even now, you can feel the magical tattoo running down the side of your neck. If you were to return into the forest it would heat, first to a dull yellow that would burn and distract. Then with time to a bright red that would cause pain. And then finally to a white heat that would make you writhe in agony until your flesh was consumed. This mark forces all those who commit the greatest and most terrible crimes in Elvenkind to leave the great forest and never return. But you found another way.

By accident you discovered that the bad magic node of Stalkbrow counteracts the magic of the brand, deactivating its power. Even so, it is a dangerous game to play, because the malevolence of Stalkbrow is known to twist people's minds and make them go wild and crazy. But by staying on the very border of the effect, you have found it possible to keep the brand down to a dull ache, with hopefully little effect on your psyche. But time will tell how successful you have been in this...

You have made a new life for yourself, of sorts. From a hut cut out of the forest you venture into the woods to hunt deer, suffering the brand for enough hours to get fresh meat on the table. You snare small animals for food and fur. You travel into the far delta to find birds eggs. Occasionally you even make forays into the blighted woods and release your anger and resentment on the evil wood imps that reside in there. Then, in the evenings as the sun sets on your back, you look across the greatest of the lakes of Selinar and gaze upon Tarylon the Fair. And you dream of going home.

It is a cloudy night, with the waning quarter moon unable to break through the clouds and with a slow, teasing wind pushing through the trees around your home. You lie in bed, unable to sleep, thinking about what has been done to you and the injustice of it. Even after ten years, the outrage makes your cheeks hot as you remember the day of your branding and the faces who watched it happen.

Your dour thoughts are interrupted by a rustle in the wind, followed by a gentle thump. You frown as you remember the wards you set this evening, like every evening, around the house. No creature should be able to approach within a hundred yards without you being alerted. But this was much closer than that. After a slight pause, you hear a set of footsteps approaching your home.

Opening the door you see that the arrival is Enan Stargazer, Treekeeper in Tarylon the Fair and also your older brother. He explains that Milgor the Mad, a Alphatian illusionist who was once a member of the Shadowguard, has stolen one of the four Snow Pearls that are needed to protect the village from the corrupting powers of Stalkbrow. Enan says that you should go and retrieve the missing pearl. If you succeed you will be forgiven of your past crime and will be able to return to your old life in the village. So begins the Mystery of the Snow Pearls!

Final Thoughts

By making these changes it is possible to save the most atmospheric and interesting locations in the adventure, and provide a setting and adventure background which make more sense. I strongly recommend anyone looking to a slightly different one-on-one adventure to buy a copy of The Mystery of the Snow Pearls as it is an unpolished gem with some fantastic ideas. You can also visit the online site where I am running the module and take a look.