[reprinted from Onder Magazine Issue#2]
In any roleplaying campaign, it’s the oddities that stand out – whether it be an eccentric figure the players meet from time to time, a memorable shop, or a truly unique (if not necessarily powerful) magic item. Those are the sorts of details that make a campaign, and the world in which it is based, really come to life. As a Game Master, you want to give your players an immersive experience, as well as something to talk about for days afterward. With that in mind, and given the theme of this issue, let’s explore a magical portal that is about as far away from a ring of standing stones as you can get, which your players will never be able to forget, no matter how hard they try…
Decades ago, a band of rogues known as the Five Hands became infamous for their daring feats of thievery. Whether it was breaking-and-entering, forgery, or waylaying caravans, no feat was too audacious and no treasure was off-limits. Despite their renown in several cities and the lands between, and the high price on their heads, the Five Hands eluded capture and acquired notoriety among the commoners for their ability to thumb their collective noses at the authorities. Before long, however, local lords and magistrates turned to magical means to track down the thieves. Golems and other magical constructs that did not require food or sleep dogged them and nightmarish beings from the other side of the veil of reality began to appear on the periphery of their vision.
Sensing that the net was growing tighter, the Five Hands turned to magic as well, to evade their pursuers. They were unwilling to place their trust in magical devices that could be lost or stolen, and few dealers in such things were willing to do business with them anymore, knowing that the authorities would come down hard on them if their dealings became known. And so, using a considerable portion of the loot they acquired during their exploits, they tracked down a magician, Korwen Maradan, who was willing to endow them with permanent magical abilities. Using magical ink, Maradan tattooed the Five Hands to give each of them a special ability, but also the power of teleportation to anyplace they had visited before should they all link arms. With these endowments, even royal treasuries were not safe.
Unbeknownst to the thieves, Maradan had a score to settle with them: The magician came from a mercantile family whose once-great fortunes had been devastated by the Five Hands. His enchantments worked, but they also slowly turned the thieves into monsters. Realizing the truth of their situation, the Five Hands returned to Maradan’s isolated home, fought their way past his formidable defenses, and demanded he reverse the effects. He refused, even under torture, and they looted his home after they killed him. Although his family no longer had influence, Maradan had allies – not least of which were his fellow magicians, who took a dim view to outsiders killing one of their own, and once his death became known, every assassin and bounty hunter was on the hunt. The Five Hands’ luck finally ran out, and they were imprisoned. To compensate Maradan’s family, the thieves were flayed alive and their tattoos presented as a gift. They were displayed prominently in the family home for years before some were stolen and circumstances forced the sale of the remainder.
The Five Hands have since passed into legend, celebrated by the down-and-out and held up as a grim lesson by the authorities for miles around. While the Five Hands’ purported deeds and powers have grown in magnificence and change according to the teller, what has remained consistent is the belief that the tattoos retained their magic after their owners’ deaths – specifically, the power of teleportation. For this reason, ambitious souls have been searching for the “Gate of Five,” unsuccessfully, for years.
Appearance and Function
The Gate of Five is comprised of five sets of tattoos that once covered the arms and shoulders of each of the thieves, four measuring the arm-span of an average man, and one being enormous. After being flayed from their former owners, the tattooed skin was cured and generally has the appearance of old leather, with faded (but still legible) black designs stretching across their surfaces. Two sets have an odd appearance: One (the largest one) has the pebbled appearance similar to rhinoceros hide, and the other greatly resembles the flesh of a plucked bird. The tattoos themselves are varied, depicting women, animals, and designs clearly meant to be symbolic, such as a campfire, or an overflowing tankard.
In the center of each set of tattoos, where the shoulder blades used to be, is a larger tattoo in red. These tattoos provided the special powers (and the curses) to the former owners, and to anyone who wears the skin over their shoulders like a shawl. The effects of each are identified below:
Spread Wings (on what looks like plucked flesh): Grants the wearer the ability to fly for up to an hour, six times per day. Each time the wearer flies, there is a cumulative 5% chance that white feathers begin to sprout from his or her skin (the wearer will stand out in a crowd, and reaction rolls will be penalized due to the bizarreness of their appearance). The feathers will re-grow within a day if plucked. The feathers will fall out if the wearer stops using the skin for a month, but will re-grow if it is ever used again.
Running Wolf: The wearer’s movement rate is doubled and they acquire a wolf’s sense of smell and hearing. However, they will also age twice as quickly as long as the skin is worn and the regular smells and sounds of a city will be overwhelming. The wearer will have difficulty concentrating on complex tasks (all intelligence-based skills are halved). These effects, including accelerated aging, cease as soon as the skin is removed.
Crouching Cat: The wearer makes no sounds when walking, regardless of what they are wearing on their feet, and has perfect balance (all acrobatic feats are twice as likely to succeed and the wearer can fall up to 30 feet without being hurt). The side-effect is that the wearer sprouts whiskers from his or her face and a feline tail from the base of their spine while the skin is worn (reaction rolls are penalized due to the wearer’s altered appearance). The wearer also becomes an obligate carnivore and develops a strong urge to be clean (they must bathe at least once per day, or become highly irritable and unable to focus on complicated tasks).
Armored Man (on what looks like rhinoceros hide): The wearer’s endurance increases (blunt objects do no damage, and bladed or piercing attacks do half damage), and mundane poisons have no effect. The side effect is that the wearer’s skin becomes extremely thick and leathery (reaction rolls are penalized due to the wearer’s bestial appearance). Skin returns to normal once the hide is removed.
Silhouetted Man: People cannot see the wearer if they look at him or her directly, but they can be perceived using peripheral vision (area attacks have full effect, and enemy attacks are penalized by 30%). This effect is off-putting to most people and may cause alarm (reactions will be highly negative), and each hour the skin is worn results in a 5% cumulative chance that the wearer will be sucked into another plane of reality.
Those in the know about such things – criminal organizations, but also magicians with unconventional tastes as well as a handful of morbid art collectors – know the Five Hands’ secret for evading the authorities lay in their tattoos, known as the Gate of Five. The Gate could only function if all five thieves linked their arms together and thought of the same destination at the same time, and that destination was symbolized somewhere on one of their skins. Maradan’s spell encoded each destination with a single tattoo, but since the Five Hands had shared so many experiences it was unnecessary to give each thief the same designs. Transportation was instantaneous and, to an observer, the Five Hands would simply wink out of existence. The original destinations were safe houses, taverns, and secluded places outside of towns and villages (such as caves) that they visited often enough to know that they were secure. Should the chosen destination have proven to be unsafe, the Five Hands could immediately teleport again – it was common practice for them to have at least one agreed-upon backup destination. The Gate of Five still functions today, but only if the five skins are tied together and one person holds each skin. The would-be travelers can concentrate on a single tattoo to activate the enchantment, but unless they understand the symbolism they will not know the location it represents (or even if it still exists), which means they could be in for a surprise when they arrive. The Gate of Five will not function if it senses that the chosen destination will immediately kill the users (such as a cave that is now underwater), but it will work if the danger is at least 50 feet away. Tattoos retain their magic only as long as they are undamaged; a scratch, burn, or other disfigurement that clearly breaks even one of the lines in a given design will destroy the link with that tattoo’s destination. There is no limit to the number of times the Gate of Five may be used in a day.
Use in a Campaign
Many folktales (some possibly even having a basis of fact) surround the Five Hands, their exploits, and their grisly fate. Some stories imply that not all of their loot was recovered and that their biggest hoard awaits discovery. Treasure-hunters have been seeking it for decades with no success, and some believe that the Five Hands’ hidden secret for escaping the law, if rediscovered, could be the key to unlocking the mystery. An adventuring party could be offered a few clues as a start, which could be the launching point for a series of adventures to recover the five skins, figure out how they work, and use them to locate the treasure. This should be a difficult task for low- to medium-level players, as the powers of each skin make them worthy treasures on their own, and anyone who possesses one of them will probably not be inclined towards negotiation. Should the players manage to re-assemble the Gate, they will undoubtedly attract the attention of many unsavory people who would not be above assassination to get it for themselves. The Gate of Five will provide the players with a portable teleportation device that can be used to send them to whatever adventure location the Game Master desires, there just has to be a tattoo associated with it. It can be useful for avoiding potentially tedious overland travel, but its limited range prevents the players from using it to circumvent every obstacle placed in front of them.
Alternatively, the restless spirits of some, or all, of the Five Hands may seek out the players in order to help them address an ancient wrong – perhaps their crimes were motivated by vengeance against the authorities for committing even more heinous acts. In such a case, the unjustly-accused spirits will get no rest until their names are cleared, but in order to do this, their skins must be recovered. An adventure of this type would unfold as above, but the end goal might require the destruction of the skins to finally set the spirits free. This is a handy way of removing the item from the game without requiring heavy-handed tactics from the Game Master. Regardless of which method is used to introduce the Gate of Five to a campaign, players will never look at a portal the same way again.
 Lethal rivalry between magicians was, of course, perfectly acceptable.