The campaign I'm currently running, using the Pathfinder rules, is set just after a major war between the otherworldly demonic armies and the races of man. A lot of refugees arrive at one of the few major metropolises left standing only to find that its inhabitants, the high elves, have vanished, leaving only the newcomers to reclaim the city and find a balance of power. The PCs are mercenaries that pick and choose their missions from the various factions. On a typical week, I present them with three missions. Any unused missions end up getting discarded, their monsters and dungeons recycled and reused in later missions.
Because of this structure, I can get pretty experimental with my narratives, so long as I keep them relatively brief – a single three hours session, typically. For this reason, it seemed ideally suited to test out a new kind of monster: the burlap people.
On RPG.net's Tangency Open forum*, a poster named teucer discovered that across from his work were two really creepy burlap people.
Yeah. Creepy. The original plan had been to have the group investigate a carnival, but, seriously, how can a decent DM look at those things and NOT put them into a session?
So, while heading home from wiping a nest of goat demons, at around nightfall they come across a small village of yeoman farms about to celebrate their Firstwinter Feast. At the end of harvest, and preferably before the first fall of snow, they create burlap of effigies of the remembered dead, attaching a small token from that person's life to each of them. Each effigy is hung up with twine, and if you pull on the ends, they dance. At the height of the Feast, they're burned on a bonfire.
Gavin, the party's cleric**, concludes that this ritual actually makes a kind of sense – undead happen when a person's spirit comes back and is neglected, so having some mind paid to them would help them pass on peacefully. A bad idea though: a recent innovation from the village's head, Goodman Gregor – the creation of burlap effigies for all the unremembered dead. Unfocussed sympathetic magic could be disastrous. This seems like really bad news to Ojka, a hungry ghost monk who knows something about how to properly focus life energy.
While the party's settling into the traveller's hovel, under the good graces of Gregor, he's confronted by Audra, the village witch, a crazy woman dressed in rags and tatters. Before the group can talk to her, Gregor whisks her off to help with the preparations for the Feast.
The group has a plan – Tanaquil***, as a high-Charisma woman, is quite capable of distracting most of the village as she distracts the menfolk and keeps the women busy getting back their attentions while Gavin and Subra**** talk to the witch Audra. Last year, she says, Gregor went to the big city for a few weeks to arrange the sale of some livestock and when he came back he had this new idea, based on a book a priest had given him.
Subra sneaks into Gregor's house and steals out the book, which has the symbol of the Tolling Bell, the icon of a chaos cult, the bell that tolls down to the end of all life. Meanwhile, the rest of the group confronts Gregor who gives a confused confession – the man who'd given him the book was a chaos priest the group killed a few months ago, who'd implanted the idea in the man's head and sent him back to the village hexed.
As he finished his tearful confession, he was silenced by twine lashes reaching out from the darkness. Subra found herself facing off against a small platoon of the burlap people while Ozca jumped into the bushes to save the Goodman while Gavin, Tanaquil and the witch fought off the largest bunch of them. The villages fell like wheat before the scythe, only to rise again, their movements now under the control of the eerily graceful burlap people who created them.
Before he died, the Goodman was able to choke out that there was an altar in his basement. Subra, still close to the house, and Ozca, who found his fists practically useless against the burlap people, ran into the house while Gavin and Tanaquil continued to fight, trying to save as many villagers as possible (or, in the case of Gavin, get rid of as many burlap people as possible while avoiding any obvious villager deaths).
In the basement, Ozca took out the altar with a single flying kick. But that only finished the ritual. The spirits of the dead villagers along with the spirits freed from from the burlap people coalesced into a horrid human form, that of the dead chaos priest. The battle went well, but with so much magic being thrown around in the basement of a house not much better than a shanty, the building soon collapsed. The party escaped, but so did the priest, vanishing into the night.
The burlap people were quieted, and the surviving villagers solemnly, wordlessly, threw them on the bonfire, along with the bodies of their dead. Before the party went back to their home, hoping to catch a few hours sleep before leaving the next morning, Audra said to them, “If you see any, let us know – next year we'll need more cloth than ever before.”
* I'd link to it, but you can only access the forum if you have an account there.
** Human cleric of chaos and mercantile expert.
*** Yes, like the drug.
**** A sylph burglar, modelled after Parker from Leverage.