The Rhythm is an intriguing concept to add to your campaign. Something that happens all over the world in an orchestrated effort. To what end if for you to discover. The Rhythm is a myth. A legend. A story told to weary travellers who only want a night’s rest, but have to weather the telling before they get to sleep. The story usually goes like this:
“It’s a deep thrumming noise, you know, like nothing I ever heard before. And I do know my way ‘round loud noises,” the blacksmith said. “You just need to hear it yourself. I couldn’t tell you when to wait for it, though, because it happens without any pattern as far as the learned ones in the village can tell. Sometimes it’s weeks between bangs. Sometimes a couple of days. We’ve had months of silence, too. If you ask me, it’s kinda scary. But then again, would you hike up there,” he added, pointing up to the sheer cliffs of the mountains circling the village, “to look for something scary?”Blacksmith from a village deep in the mountains, interviewed by travelling schollar
- What is going on?
- Beating the Rhythm
- Seriously, what’s the Rhythm?
- Using the Rhythm in your Campaign
- Who are “They”?
- How to become one of Them
- Building the Mechanism
- Knowing when to Strike the Rhythm
- The Beat marks the Spot
- Where the Beat Drops
- How the Beats Collide
- Who’s behind the Rhythm?
- What’s next?
What is going on?
Many remote places have stories like this to tell. A mysterious sound that emanates somewhere nearby, deep, ringing, and infrequent. Those who set out to investigate find it near impossible to track something that might not happen again for weeks or months. The regions in question are always inaccessible, whether in mountain ranges or dense vegitation, and hard to traverse even for experienced travelers.
You can trace these acoustic events back hundreds of years in some regions. Nobody has ever come forth with a good explanation, at least not one anyone could prove. Nothing serious or even loosely related ever followed these sounds. None of those searching for the source ever actually vanished, as is proper for a good mystery. So, people did the sensible thing – they got used to it.
Beating the Rhythm
The huge creature stirred in their abode, which was a fancy name for a slightly deeper crag in a remote valley deep in the mountains. The bright morning sun shone through the entrance already. It was late, but not too late. The hermit brushed frost off their thick white fur as they made their way up the slight incline, leaving the cave they called home.
The mechanism stood in the center of the valley. And, as expected, it was covered by last night’s snow. The hulking entity started to push heaps of white aside with huge hands, growing ever more careful the closer they got to the mechanism. A little while later, they had found the main lever and freed it from snow. It was not necessary to clear the entire device, so they just waited, one hand hovering over the lever. They had seen the right moment, in a dream. The most recent one of many.
It had taken months to salvage and steal materials in secret, and eventually construct this mechanism after it had come to them, also in dreams. They had already chosen this life, alone and in seclusion, years before that. But the mechanism had been welcomed. It gave them purpose.
Waiting patiently, they watched the sun rise by its light on the peaks, while the mechanism was still in shadow. Then, the first rays slipped over the nearest ridge and hit their eyes. This was the right time. They pushed the lever and braced themselves.
An earth-shattering sound, equally felt and heard, burst from the device. For one glorious moment it rang through the valley, echoed against the neighboring mountains, and shook the ground itself. It felt like being crushed and torn apart at the same time. Then it was over, and silence returned to their still ringing ears.
The hermit knew that there was purpose to this. A design too grand for them to know – or grasp. They knew that the sound would travel, and travel far. And they knew that at least for a little while, their work was done. Time to check the traps for something to eat, then prime the machine again.
All that was left to do then was to enjoy a life of purpose. The next dream would come eventually.
Seriously, what’s the Rhythm?
All over the world, a small number of individuals have constructed mechanisms that produce an impact or an explosion. This creates a deafening sound audible for miles. Beyond that, the beat travels on through the very fabric of the world.
At some point, waves from different locations, created at different times, will converge. But nobody knows where, or for what purpose. Some hidden power is orchestrating this, but even those operating the devices do not know who or what it is. Or what the end goal is.
But if you read along, you might get an idea about what this could mean to your campaign world.
Using the Rhythm in your Campaign
The intention is to drop an interesting idea into your existing campaign and watch what happens. There are no definite answers here, just a collection of ideas to inspire your story. Pick which combination of ideas you enjoy most, or wait and let the actions of your players guide you.
If this has piqued your interest, here are some questions to guide you. Further down, you will find potential answers.
- Who is behind the rhythm? Is it a deity, a demon lord, an artifact from a civilization lost in time, or an entity from beyond the known realms?
- What is the purpose of the beats? Are they benign, simply meant to give some lost souls purpose? Are they beacons, guiding wandering spirits? Are they designed to weaken an underground structure somewhere? Or is there malevolence behind them, creating shatterpoints in the fabric of the world for something to come through eventually?
- What happens when the rhythm fulfils its purpose? Will a primordial evil be set free? Will an ancient prophecy be fulfilled? Or will it serve to complete a ritual that began even before the first civilisations formed?
And here are some ways to incorporate this idea into your campaign without knowing all the details.
- A curious scholar has gathered reports about noises in the mountains, and pays a group of adventurers to investigate.
- A mayor wants a party to find the source of one such sound after it caused an avalanche that nearly burried their village.
- A party member starts having dreams about a weird mechanism, and feelings of some grand design.
- By chance, the party comes across one of the hermits creating these sounds. They are invited to witness the next event.
- The party is after a group of cultists and uncovers ties to these mysterious noises.
Who are “They”?
Whatever is behind the rhythm has a knack for finding people who consider themselves lost. They have already left civilization behind. Some chose to live alone in a remote location long ago. Others are seriously considering it, with this calling being the last push they need to make the leap.
A number of these chosen individuals are what some consider monsters, especially members of the civilisations they left behind. They often suffer from the bad reputation of their kind, or the specter of acts they comitted earlier in life. Beyond that slight bias, this illustrious group can include any heritage.
The individuals making the noise do not know the bigger picture. They found a purpose, a task to fulfill, and nothing more. Most do not even know that there are others out there who do the same. Some will be content with not knowing. Others may try to piece something together a theory that will be more informed by their own biases than anything else.
How to become one of Them
Whatever is behind the Rhythm choses those who beat it based on some arcane logic. Whether there are conditions to meet beyond feeling lost is unknown. Roughly half of those serving at any time already left their old lives behind when it chose them.
There is never any direct contact or two-way communication. Just dreams that convey the important points: the task in broad strokes. The need to be far away from civilization. Preferably high up in the mountains, or, if none are near, hidden deep in a dense forest or jungle. And the need to trust in something greater. Once they are settled, the next step quickly follows. Building the mechanism.
Building the Mechanism
The mechanism that creates these penetrating sounds can operate in different ways, depending on your preference or the region that it was built in. Once someone has received their first dream and did not shy away, they will receive more and more visions about a mechanism they are supposed to create. Sometimes, the dreams include hints as to where to find the necessary materials.
No matter the method used, they will see the finished device in their dream. They also dream of single parts moving apart and together again to show how they fit as a whole. Most actual builds will differ slightly from the dreams due to the materials and skills available to the builder. As the construction progresses, the dreams will adapt to what the mechanism actually looks like. Even memories of past dreams will change so the mechanism always feels like it was meant to be that way.
Here are a couple of mechanisms that would do to create a sufficient beat. Remember that you can add as much science or magic to any of these to fit your needs.
- One of the simplest ways to create a loud noise is to take a heavy, sturdy object, raise it up using ropes, chains, or even just a ledge, and let it drop. This method favors narrow crevices and a low supply of materials. Stones tend to shatter on impact eventually so they need to be replaced every now and then or, if possible, banded in metal. Using a large chunk of metal is preferrable, if available.
- A similar, but slightly different method involves a weight affixed to a rope, which is then raised to the side so it can hit the slope of a mountain like a hammer. Here, too, metal is better than stone, and either topography or a pulley is required to lift the weight to the side.
- This option requires some knowledge in chemistry to make work, but the ingredients to make a small explosive might be harvested or stolen relatively close to the site. The explosion is used to propel a large weight up to smash down again and cause the desired noise. On top of supply issues, this is also inherently dangerous and prone to failure.
- Another variation that works with explosives requires a deep hole, which in turn could be made with magic. A charge is lowered down into it, then a stone is dropped, triggering the explosion that shakes the surroundings and sends a shockwave through the land.
- There are arcane means to achieve the desired effect, including thunder spells directed at the right spot in a deep crevice. While this is a possibility, it is more likely that the hermits chosen are unskilled in the arcane arts, thus using one of the methods mentioned earlier. Under the right circumstances, they could make use of an artifact that allows them access to the required spells at least every now and then.
Knowing when to Strike the Rhythm
Once the device is built, the right time to use it is communicated via dreams as well. These dreams usually start three nights before the event and repeat every night leading up to it. The person operating the machine will know to look for it after the first dream. The fact that they receive their orders threefold will alleviate any kind of performance anxiety.
The event in question is depicted in near perfect detail. It usually hinges on some geometric quality of the surroundings around the mechanism. This could be the sun cresting a certain mountaintop, a particular tree being struck by lightning, or clouds parting in a a specific way.
The dreams themselves feel more like visions, with none of the weird elements of normal dreams. There are no strange happenings, nor are there remnants of memories that the brain is trying to shoehorn in somehow.
With all the secrets surrounding the Rhythm, nobody knows what would happen if someone missed a beat. It might be as simple as another dream, days or weeks later. Or it might be a terrible fate that opens up a new spot in the ranks of those who beat the rhythm. Conversely, it is unknown whether this has happened before, and if so, how frequently.
The Beat marks the Spot
Finding the convergence between these beats is tricky. The sound waves travel faster than any person could hope to. Beyond a couple miles from their origin, they are inaudible even for the best of ears on the surface. Predicting their speed through the bedrock adds another layer of uncertainty for anyone chasing the convergence.
To know the locations and timings of multiple beats can help you find the point where the waves meet on a map (disregarding the fact that maps might be skewed and display distances wrong). But getting this information is tricky and requires a lot of traveling. It is best to obtain it straight from the source. Or from someone who has already invested substantial resources in surveilling known beat sites, or the villages close by. If the rhythm always aims at the same spot, it is also possible to refine the results over time.
Where the Beat Drops
Once the location is found, it might provide a clue as to the point behind the whole scheme. Keep in mind that where the waves hit each other might not be visible from the surface. But more likely than not, there will be some kind of landmark. Like a stone circle, ancient ruins, or a shrine of sorts. Places of power tend to attract such things.
- There is a renowned spot of healing at the epicenter, a hospital famed for the skill of its physicians and the wide range of maladies they can heal. While they do have a selection of able professionals that are also versed in passing on their knowledge to others, they do benefit from the power that emanates from this place, which was the reason a hospital was built here in the first place.
- The convergence point of the pattern is the well in the center of a remote village where everyone seems to be content and happy all the time, no matter what happens to them. The water does taste a little stale, though.
- At the center of a putrid swamp there sit the remains of a spire, once tall enough to touch the clouds. Now it sits sunken and tilted, with its top half sliced clean off by an unknown force. The part that was cut off is nowhere to be seen.
- The place where the waves converge is littered with earth heaps of unknown origin. They are theorized to be burial mounds, but no proof could be found. Research was quickly abandoned since the mounds were pretty remote to begin with.
- The beats culminate near a slope in which a gaping cave entrance leads down a spiraling path toward a huge spherical cavern that is completely empty.
How the Beats Collide
The presence of a building in itself does not mean that the structure has a direct connection to the Rhythm. Anything found where the waves connect could be a coincidence. The real goal of the convergence could lie beneath the ground or in the very fabric of the planes themselves.
- A few minutes after the the waves converged, a claw, large enough to grasp a tree trunk, shoots up from the ground, attached to an arm at least twice as long as would be proportional for a humanoid. What follows is a creature that sports predatory features in size and ferrociousness never seen before by scholars. It frees itself from the earth and takes a moment to get its bearings.
- At the epicenter the ground bulges and eventually erupts, spouting teal radiance into the sky for over an hour as the smell of basil fills the air. The glow rises like smoke and eventually merges with the clouds.
- With a minor shake, strings of strange glyphs appear on the ground, following the natural curvature and appearing to be carved rather than drawn. After a moment these glyphs begin to move fluidly over any surface they encounter. They arrange themselves into sets that then begin to move away from the epicenter as if searching for something.
- Accompanied by a deep, dropping drone, a fountain of earth and stone erupts where the waves converge, shooting debris dozends of meters high into the sky. Once the rubble is cleared away, there is a glowing orb visible a couple of feet beneath the surface, and it appears to grow slowly while it is being observed.
- A high-pitched noise picks up as the beats draw closer, rising higher and higher until it becomes inaudible for most humanoid ears. When the waves hit, a sinkhole forms at the epicenter, going deeper than anyone can determine. Over the next few hours, a natural stairwell begins to grow from small crystals seeded in the sinkhole walls, allowing people to descend down to whatever lies beneath.
Who’s behind the Rhythm?
Here are ideas for you to take inspiration from, or pick up verbatim. Remember that the ultimate mastermind – or natural force – behind the Rhythm is up to you. You can make it fit a number of different styles of play and kinds of story. These proposals come with an adventure (or campaign) hook, but here, too, feel free to mix and match.
- Few deities know how the world was really created, despite every single one of them spreading a version of history that lets them appear to be a key figure in the process. In truth, the world was created by a third party, now gone from the known cosmos. And it is not static. There are massive mechanisms deep beneath the ground, deeper than any mine has ever reached. And they need to keep working in order to prevent creation from crumbling. When the gods discovered these devices they pooled their resources to create a system that would deliver vital pushes in the right spots to keep things moving for eons to come.
Hook: After the gods moved on to further their own designs, a single exarch was left overseeing their former joint mission to keep the world turning. They are doing their best, but they are reaching their limit. They are looking for someone to help them maintain the secret order they built, but if they could, they would much rather have someone venture deep underground to find out what went wrong and, if at all possible, restart the original engine behind the mysterious mechanisms.
- The power of a benign deity, now forgotten, has dwindled over time. They felt it coming, but could not avert their fate. Now, they exist as a mere speck of divinity, bereft of any real influence in the world. But they can still touch people’s dreams, sometimes. Once tasked with making sure that an ancient terror, banished beneath the surface, was kept at bay, they found a new way to subdue their old foe – through converging sound waves created by those few who still worship it without even knowing.
Hook: If one of those beats misses its mark for whatever reason, a minion of this eldritch evil could reach the surface and wreak havoc. That would be a good time for the forgotten god to reach out to some promising individuals to stop this creature, which is now sure to hunt for the hermits to break this last line of defense against their master.
- When one of the demon lords realized that they had a knack for invading people’s dreams and manipulating them that way, they thought not much more of it than another way of tormenting mortals. After sowing mistrust and doubt that way for centuries, they grew bored and devised a convoluted plan to lure people in and set them up for loneliness and despair. The idea with the mechanisms had been a random one, something to hinge all their victims’ attention and importance on, only to eventually pull the rug out from under them. The first beats had happened at random. They spread, which the demon lord had not anticipated, and met in a nondescript location. The demon went about their nefarious business, when they felt something stir. Something ancient. Something huge.
Hook: Power is good, but control is better. The demon lord wants to know what it is that it managed to contact. Through backchannels, they task a group with researching its scheme in order to find out what it is they are contacting. And whether it is beneficial to continue.
- A mage, working as a common enchanter by day, came across a forgotten tome in the local library. They spend years trying to decipher the code it was written in, until they finally realized that it detailed the most complex ritual they had ever seen. Flowery sidebars hint that the gods themselves were supposed to deliver the beats. Working on this as a side-project in their spare time, they devised a complex scheme based on scrying, divination, and dream manipulation, to perform this behemoth of a ritual through other means, without knowing what the end result would be.
Hook: The mage is looking to spread the load of this endeavor over multiple shoulders, still considering this kind of a side-project of little importance. He can either task a group to conduct certain spells at certain times, piquing their interest, or check up on one of the target locations on a specific day to investigate the possible outcome of the ritual.
- The rhythm is part of the grand design put in place when this world was created. It was initially facilitated by huge beasts that roamed the lands in primordial times. They knew instinctively when and where to stomp to create energy waves that fostered the growth of the world and stimulated planar progress. For some reasons, these beasts went extinct. The lack of rhythm was not in itself harmful, but it halted the developement of the plane. Eventually, select people began to have dreams, and the rhythm started again, developing the plane, once more, towards an unknown goal.
Hook: A traveler between the planes wants to learn more about the rhythm, and whether it can be used to help smaller, stagnating planes to develope. They send out groups to investigate the sites where the rhythm is made or where it converges. They provide planar test equipment based on crystals to gather data about what is happening. Unrelated to the rhythm, these devices also attract extradimensional predators when activated.
While I hope this provides you with lots of inspiration, there are still many things for you to fill in and adapt to your campaign and setting. You can use this to lead up to some big event you had planned for your world. Or as an interesting riddle to keep your players guessing.
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