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D&D General Rats that look like men?

So let's say you were doing an intro adventure, and were going to lampshade the "innkeeper hires low-level adventurers to clear rats out of his cellar" trope.

How would you play it to keep it fun / surprising? Bonus points if it works for higher level adventurers too.

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I might use it to foreshadow something in the future. The innkeepers brother who happens to be a dead/lost mage who kept things in the basement. Something there may be needed in the future like a journal. Maybe there is a mirror portal covered up with a curtain and straps that warn of danger. There could be access to sewers and catacombs from a older building that once stood here. In addition to rats being pushed up into the cellar, there are skeletons and a wight or something. You could spread things out for levels 2 and even 3 with more options.


Other ideas:

The rats are illusions created by a wizard who is covering up something secret.

The rats are constructs who are stealing parts for a warforged hidden in the basement who is building itself a new, deadly body.

The rats are actually polymorphed townsfolk, transformed by an invasive swarm of pixies.


Recently on a different forum I was informed of just how truly terrifying a swarm of rats can be. Apparently rats teeth are stronger than steel, they can chew through brick, and a swarm of them can strip a dead cow of it's flesh in a couple of minutes.

So I'm going with...a gigantic swarm controlled be a wizard. They could bring down buildings, and swarm over helpless villagers leaving nothing but skeletons behind. Plus swords and bows do little to stop them so they are immune to regular attacks.


Shades of Lovecraft's "The Rats in the Walls!" Clearly, the rats are being driven up from some lower, unknown benighted region, whether an Underdark-like realm or an aberrant wisp of some terrible demiplane. The Presence inhabiting the space plans to become a god, and has been entering the innkeeper's dreams, driving the keeper to prepare the way. The Presence needs acolytes to build its religion, so the keeper is tasked with finding "worthy applicants" (though the keeper may not realize it). The rats - and the worse things chasing them - are but the first of several tests applicants must "pass." Using the keeper as a puppet, the Presence will deliver additional rumours and intriguing info to the PCs that drive them to other adventures that further the apotheosis - retrieving or destroying certain artifacts/relics, eliminating rivals of and threats to the Presence, acquiring exotic materials, etc. Many levels later, when the Presence is ready for ascension and its priesthood has grown (the PCs weren't the only adventurers groomed this way), and the PCs have adopted the keeper as a trusted friend, will their "final test" be revealed - returning again to the cellar and a new more horrifying infestation, revealing the Presence, its burgeoning priesthood, and the PC complicity in the swell of power. And a choice: serve alive or dead!

Or maybe that's less lampshading and more like overthrusting.

Okay, they aren't rodents, they're a gang called "The Rats," regulars at the inn. The keeper got drunk one night, gambled with them, bet the inn, and lost. The keep signed over the deed that night, but after sobering up doesn't want to honor the bet. The Rats have moved into the cellar and refuse to leave or allow the keeper to access the stores. The issue is pending before the magistrate, but the Rats have a pretty solid case. The keeper's decided that some passing adventurers happening to eliminate the "rats" is the way to go. The difficulty can be modified by whether the Rats are common folk, wererats, a mix of were-types, dopplegangers, whatevers, or connected to a larger organized crime ring, etc. It could become the basis for contacts for your rogues, a nemesis for the party, etc. Or the situation could be resolved peacefully - the Rats do like gambling and showing off, so some diplomacy, gambling, cajoling, etc. could go a long way. Or the PCs could side with the Rats, in which case the keeper could be a surprising threat, whether a mage, were-something, super-mummy, etc.


Guide of Modos
The adventurers, after having heard some weird discussions in the common room, go into the cellar, wondering why the innkeeper called it the "dungeon." Turns out he/she has a sizable group of bound concubines down there, making the rats a secondary concern of the PCs. Morality questions ensue...


The Innkeeper is a wererat. He 'pays' low-level PCs to go into his cellar and clear out rats that are eating all of his stores. The PCs are actually replenishment of the eaten victuals for the Innkeeper's clientele of wererats and other connoisseurs of humanoid flesh. The adventure becomes the PCs battling the Butcher, the Cook, and a table of hungry diners to escape the Larder.


The player characters are prophesied chosen ones, destined to save the world.

The "innnkeeper" is part of a secret cabal of Divination Wizards who have taken it upon themselves to provide the training and challenges the heroes will have to face to ready them for their destiny and saving the world.

After the rats, that innkeepers cousin - exactly the same person but with a mustache - shows up as a caravan master and asks the PCs to guard his wagons.

And then - same guy, but in a cloak with a beard and a limp - is the grizzled veteran who tells them about the nearby lair of Kobold raiders. (The ethics of how the cabal captured, charmed and placed the kobolds to be cannon-fodder for the PCs is for later in the story...)

The Nobleman who hires them to "rescue" his daughter?

The Bard who sings the tale of the nearby young Dragon that catches their interest?

The rogue Warlock casting a terrible summoning that they are somehow just in time to stop?

The legendary-but-never-seen insane lich who constructs a terrible trap-filled Tomb of Unpleasantness that tests them to their utmost?

All part of the cabal.
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