A Short Campaign
Summary: A one-shot cosmic horror wilderness campaign that can be used for a solo player.
System: Pathfinder 1 or 2, 5E D&D, Potentially Others
Target Players: This campaign assumes a level 1 or 2 (or low level) character to start with, for players with little to no experience in tabletop roleplaying games. For a solo player, it is recommended they use a ranger or similar skilled character class. Non-player character ideas are provided to help address party gaps.
Assumptions: It is assumed the world is a fantasy medieval or early modern world, perhaps with non-human races (elves, dwarves, etc.). This setting is written for a human-dominated world, but it can be adjusted for your campaign world. For example, the setting could be changed to a remote island for a pirate campaign or a poor neighborhood for an urban campaign. With some stretch, it could even be changed to a space colony for a sci-fi setting.
Background: The town of Twin Pines is a remote colony town, a dot on the map that exists only to bolster the claims of a distant nation. Most of the two dozen residents had good reason to leave and settle in the middle of nowhere, but they keep the town eking along. There have been two recent sources of trouble.
The first was a meteor that crashed into the nearby Coldwind Lake, fed by the river that runs past the town. The second was a group of military deserters turned bandits that have cut off the major route in and out of town. They are a small unit led by a rough man named Baldwin, whose leadership has been erratic at best. Nevertheless, there is another factor involved.
The meteor was not just a rock. It was an ancient probe from a pre-human civilization or ancient entity stirring for the first time in millions of years. It has deployed sensors and surveillance systems to observe local wildlife and culture. It developed an organic humanoid "probe," an independent hunter built to assess the capabilities of the dominant species. This being has begun to pick off the brigands one by one, collecting grisly specimens for the probe that spawned it.
The players start off blissfully ignorant of this. They may have been stuck in town, summoned by Sheriff Curtain, or be locals. They are called to Sheriff Curtain's office, the largest building in town: a large log cabin that also serves as town hall, jail, and armory. They are given the following briefing.
"There's at least a half-dozen brigands who cut off the only road into town," the Sheriff says, stroking his graying beard. "We've got a week of supplies, before things get really ugly."
Sheriff Curtain is a late-middle aged man, nicknamed Curtains, for his typically rough style dealing with outlaws. Local lore will reveal him to be a former deputy sent out to the colony for his rough methods of dealing with violent criminals. He will explain that the town is isolated, and due to seasonal thaws and landslides, the road is the only safe route out of town. Whenever someone tries to leave or arrive at town, an arrow arcs from the forest as a warning shot. Further attempts result in a fatal shot. As such, many travelers are stuck in town, or precluded from arriving, until the bandits are dealt with.
Curtain offers a few possible recruits to assist the players. These include:
-Old Agatha (Alchemist Artificer in 5E, Alchemist Poisoner in 2E Pathfinder): Resident herbalist, midwife, and baker, kindly Old Agatha Goodwife runs the local alchemy shop and bakery. She makes poisons to protect food stores from vermin, and she has no problems with poisoning larger vermin. She leaves behind her apprentice, Jude, to run the shop if she leaves.
-Kapal Rath (Life Cleric in 5E, Healer Cleric in Pathfinder): Once a nobleman who traveled to a distant land, he came back with the adopted name of Kapal Rath. He covered his skin in gray ash, he dresses in rags, a club made from a femur, and he uses a bowl made of a human skull. He believes that by consuming filth and waste, he purifies it. He lives in a filthy hovel in a ditch near town.
-Deputy Denver (Thief Rogue in 5E, Rogue in Pathfinder): Dara Denver was a petty thief descended from a family robbed by their rivals, who sold their belongings to a dozen museums. She tried robbing her heirlooms back, and she was caught. Now, she acts as a local locksmith, security consultant, and de facto right hand of Sheriff Curtain around town. She is based in the Sheriff's office or helping secure doors and windows around town.
-Big Frank (Berserker Barbarian in 5E, Barbarian in Pathfinder): Big Frank is a woodcutter, butcher, and sometimes, surgeon. He does not seem to be the brightest fellow at first, but he has a childish love of puns and knows a history of poetry from rhymes he sings to himself. When in battle, he enters a silent trance and begins dispassionately gutting enemies as though they are fish.
Curtain also suggests the party check up on Cyrus the Skywater, an eccentric wizard living in an observatory to the south. Cyrus offers weather predictions and warnings to the town, and he has not been heard from since the bandits arrive.
With any other characters behind them, the party sets off along the road. They may try to scout the bandit positions from prior ambush points. Alternatively, they might find tracks that lead into the woods. They may decide to visit Cyrus' observatory first. Either way, they will soon enter the forest.
In the woods, they follow three people's tracks. Experienced soldiers or deputies may estimate that the bandit patrol consists of two archers and a messenger or lookout. The party follows the tracks until they reach a clearing, where footprints end among signs of a struggle. They include arrows stuck in trees, panicked footprints with irregular gait, and dropped supplies. Eventually, the party will follow a strange smell (or see strange shadows), and move to their next clue.
The party will find three bodies hanging from a tree, either vivisected corpses (gorier) or skeletons (less gory option). The heads are missing in both cases. The size of the feet, limbs, and discarded equipment nearby reveals these as the bandit patrol from the road. As the party decides to move or make camp, they get attacked.
The second bandit patrol, consisting of two to three brigands, tries to ambush them. They would fight to the death, thinking the party is responsible for their friends' deaths. If they are captured non-lethally, they are uncooperative until they can be convinced (or intimidated) that someone, or something, gruesomely dispatched their allies. Towards the end of the fight, perceptive party members should catch a glimpse of something moving in the trees, something with the texture of clear water. Otherwise, the bandits deny knowing anything about Cyrus, although they can be forced to give away their camp's location.
The party may either go to Cyrus' tower or the bandit camp. If they go to the tower, they find no signs of forced entry or violence. They have a sentient door knocker that asks for the names of several constellations to enter (Arcana, Religion, Nature, or History skill). Inside they find the first floor of the tower: a lab full of half-finished potions, prototypes, and parts. Loot includes a repeating crossbow using telekinesis cantrips to accelerate the bolts (treat as longbow without 'loading' property) and a pair of healing potions.
The second floor is a small library and living quarters. There are jars of various homunculi, including a librarian that directs them towards Cyrus' research (weather patterns, constellations, fortune telling, potential ways to reach the stars through launching oneself as a projectile). The third level holds the observatory, and it was where Cyrus was last seen.
The third floor has a grisly sight: Cyrus is dead in front of his telescope, his mouth opened wide in fear. The cause of death from a Healing check would reveal a heart attack (if using less gore) or stabbing through his eye with a dagger (if more gory). The settings on the telescope reveal a particular angle corresponding to the arrival of the meteor. There is a logbook nearby, seemingly mundane and systematic until it descends into madness on the last page: "THE SKIES LOOK BACK. IT HAS SEEN ME. IT HAS-"
The party may stay, but they should be reminded they need to attack the bandit camp before they can relocate. They may either plan an ambush around the camp (consisting of a few tents around a campfire) or draw a direct attack if stealth fails. The bandit chief, Baldwin, is a fighter a level higher than the players. He has two minions with him. Once Baldwin goes down, any surviving minions scatter.
Then the real fight begins. An invisible shape descends from the trees, killing any fleeing minions as it does so. Biomechanical blades spring from its arms. It has a levitating razor disk in hand, and its head is merged with a sleek, glowing helmet. This is the Star Hunter, the being created by the meteor. It is simply a ranger with a reskinned stats block, a level above the party. As it goes down, it starts glowing and laughing evilly. The party should run from the imminent explosion (Reflex or Dexterity save for half).
By this point, the party will have defeated Baldwin and the Star Hunter. Whether Baldwin or any brigands survived, the road is now opened. Loot from the camp might've been caught in the blast and salvaged, and Curtain would present some as a reward to the party. Outside, though, the party sees something glowing beneath Coldwind Lake…