One Missing, Five Found
A worried parent or sibling NPC approaches the party, requesting they find a missing child. The NPC has searched everywhere they can, and needs people to investigate the disappearance. The NPC gives the party a description of the child. There should be some enticing reward, whether it is satisfaction for doing the right thing, information from the NPC, or something else of value.
After some investigating, the party gets a lead. The child was last seen near a rockface known by the locals to be dangerous. Some say strange creatures live there and make horrible noises in the night. Some say a cult gathers near the base of the rockface to worship and make sacrifices. The rumors vary, but the fear about that area is real.
Upon searching the rockface, the party finds a narrow, nearly-hidden entrance to a cave. The dark tunnel winds into the ground, and from the darkness, a child’s voice echoes through the cave as they cry out for help.
As the players get closer, or with a good perception/listen check from a greater distance, the party hears that it isn’t one child’s voice, it is five. And the voices, while the words differ, sound disturbingly similar.
As the party moves deeper into the winding cave, a wavering red light shines in the distance. Following the light leads to them to a circular room. A cauldron filled with roiling red liquid hangs over an open flame. Both the hot liquid and fire light up the room, showing five figures, each one chained to a different pillar made of stone.
All five of the figures look exactly the same: a young, frightened, desperate child asking for help. All five claim to be the real child and say the other four are evil mages using magic to disguise themselves.
Detect magic spells and other spells or devices that can detect, disrupt, or disbelieve magic are suppressed, so the party cannot simply solve the issue with magic. However, other spells work.
The chains that hold each of the children are long enough for each of them to reach each other, but all of them remain close to the pillar they are chained to. They all appear weathered, their faces and clothes dirty from days without cleaning them. They all appear dehydrated and hungry.
The party must decide what to do.
The party may find a way to figure out who the real child is, and that is great. There are many ways to solve one problem, even if the GM doesn’t think of it. My players often surprise me with creative ways to solve intricate problems I throw at them.
There is a way they could resolve this situation without using magic, class abilities, or anything related to the mechanics of the game, though using some mechanics to solidify the player’s theories could help.
All five children look the same and sound the same, but they do not act the same. They all say they are the real child and the other four are mages. One of children has self-preservation as their top priority. The other four have escaping as their top priority, even if it means leaving or murdering the other four. Once freed, the mage or mages that escaped can rain destruction down upon the world, giving your campaign a new antagonist to exist in the background when you need a plot device or something done, or as a main contender in the story. As always, it’s up to you as the GM to decide.
If the players chose the real child or if the mages think they are about to lose their chance, the mages will do whatever it takes to escape, since players and the mages can cast spells. You can give the mages some sort of disadvantage for being chained. If you’re playing Pathfinder or D&D 3.x, I suggest giving the mages an arcane failure chance between 10%-40% (Similar to different grades of armor), depending on how challenging you want it to be. For Savage Worlds, you could give them a penalty by reducing the die type they use to cast spells.
The mages will go as far as collapsing the cave so no one can escape, and then fighting the players. Since the mages do not need to eat or breathe, they can reopen the cave if they win.
Who are the mages?
The four mages are part of a cult that did meet atop the rockface long ago. They had congress with an ancient being that offered access to the arcane arts in exchange for allowing each of them to house a piece of itself within them. With a piece of the old being within them, they would not need to eat and would not age like mortals. However, they were not invulnerable and could die. Upon their death, their parting souls would travel to the being and bestow the wealth of knowledge, power, and experience they had to itself.
Once they agreed, the being broke off pieces of itself and buried each piece into the five mages that agreed.
The mages became a powerful and feared cult with unpredictable magic that seemed to outclass even experienced spellslingers. They pillaged and took what they wanted while destroying anything that tried to stop them.
Then a small party of adventurers challenged them, and won. Having learned of the origins of their power, they knew that by killing the mages, they would feed the being that gave them power, making it even more formidable. Instead of killing the five mages, they buried them deep in a cave with an ever-boiling cauldron and never-dying fire that filled the room with a magical essence that suppressed their magical abilities. Then the adventurers destroyed the entrance, leaving the mages locked in an inescapable room.
Over time, the power of the cauldron faded, and the five mages were able to use their otherworldly power to cast simple spells again. They chipped away at the solid stone walls with small splashes of acid. As they made a path to the outside, the essence from the cauldron spread thin, allowing the mages to cast more powerful spells. When they breached the wall to the outside, the magic of the cauldron was all but gone. It’s only remaining power was keeping anyone within the cave from detecting or altering magic.
The only enchantment that did not fade was the chains themselves. The chains cannot be broken, but they will unlock when someone who is not chained tries to set them free. Thus, the mages cannot escape without tricking someone into letting them go.
What happened to the fifth mage? That’s up to you. Perhaps it escaped. Perhaps the other four mages ate him, bones and all, so they could trap another person with them and plot their escape.
The events that led to the sealing of the five mages happened just over a hundred years prior. What wasn’t forgotten about the event resides within fiction and speculation surrounding that area. With some research, players could discover what really happened and even learn about the being the five mages submitted to. If it suits your campaign, you could have a new antagonist, either as a background character or as a main villain they must eventually face.