352 – The Thinking Rats

Background Lore

The world is full of wonders, fantastic places, and great things to do. The many domains and fields of mastery that a person can choose from make it very flexible for people to decide what they shall do for the rest of their lives. From common farming and harvesting to horse dressing or sword fencing, there are countless professions. One might even have to change professions once or twice in their lifetime since some jobs require skills that are not always easy to acquire. Others, however, are born with gifts. Myth has it that all people are born with a gift, but they often go unnoticed. If one is lucky enough to figure what it is, that person is sure to find glory and riches, make a groundbreaking discovery, or become famous in some way.

Ernest Mole is a person with a gift but he hasn’t found about it yet. He lives in Mi-Jen, a blossoming town. Ernest is a simple young man with very little ambitions. He is shy, quiet, and calm. He doesn’t like too much action in his life. He doesn’t have many friends either. He enjoys the routine and the quiet life of Mi-Jen. A great deal of the villagers are farmers, harvesters, or tend to their businesses. He is a worker. He knows a bit about masonry, brickwork, and other similar arts. He is stronger than the average man and he doesn’t mind back-breaking labor. When the project to build a sewage system occurred to the community leaders, strength and stamina were the two most important characteristics for the job. Mr. Mole and many strong villagers enlisted right away.

Ernest loved the project. He enjoys working hard and physical labor keeps his mind busy throughout the day. Plus, the pay was good and this was a long-term project; his income would be secured for a while. The excavations started. The plans were followed and scores of men dug and picked the earth from dawn to sunset. Morning and afternoon shifts were implemented every day of the week. Ernest was in the afternoon shift. Some fortnights after that, a decent-sized tunnel was already dug. However, that was only the tip of the iceberg of the massive task.

One day, while Ernest worked, he found himself alone in one of the digging sites. The rest of his team were eating their lunch but, as usual, he lost track of time and kept hammering the hard rock. Then, when he gave a step backward to find some ground and launch a heavy blow, he heard a squeaky voice say: “Ouch!”. At first, Ernest was taken aback because he knew he was alone. He turned to see if someone was hidden in the dark trying to play a joke but no one was there. The little voice helped: “Look down”. Ernest couldn’t believe his eyes when he noticed the words came from a tiny rat at his feet. He was never afraid of rodents. If anything, he likes them. Even though he felt ridiculous for doing so, he replied: “Sorry, I didn’t see you there”. He reached for a piece of bread to give to the rat. Appreciating the gesture, it took the bread with its tiny hands and swiftly vanished through a crack where the floor meets the wall.

Assuming he imagined all of it because he went on too long without taking a break, Ernest stopped to have some food. He went home thinking about what happened. For some reason, despite its awkwardness, he liked the little conversation with ‘Tiny Hands’, as he named it. And he hoped he would find his new friend again the next day. Ernest stayed alone while the rest of the workers left for lunch, this time on purpose. From a pocket, he produced a piece of cheese he brought from home and called his friend. Tiny Hands appeared, followed by three more of his kin. Tiny Hands, whose real name was Big Foot, introduced Chunks, Cat Slayer, and Ratchel. He realized then that the rats were not speaking the common tongue. It was he who could understand their squeaks and squeals. It was even more surprising for him to see that he replied in the same fashion. The rats couldn’t maintain a difficult conversation. They could only express simple desires like hunger. But Ernest knew the rats liked him. They would flee otherwise.

After sharing the food and learning their names, the rats prompted Ernest to follow them. The rodents instructed the man to use his hammer on a particular part of the tunnel’s wall. Ernest noticed the wall was weak and that a few hammer blows would bring it down. It took him a minute to comply. Hammering the wall revealed a large natural cave that had been under the town for ages. The rats ran through the opening and met with dozens of more rats. The cave was dark but Ernest could distinguish the rats’ furry bodies thanks to an eerie green light that emanated from patches of luminescent fungi. Scores of rats welcomed him. Everybody knew already about the human that could talk to them. All rats wanted to squeak at him and be squeaked at by a human. He gave them all the food he was carrying at the time and promised to come back with more.

The rest of the working teams found the tunnel. It was said that the newfound caves were a blessing since the already dug cave formations would serve as tunnels for the sewers in the future, or possible maintenance rooms. Either way, the cave was found beneficial for the project. Ernest was happy to hear this since nobody minded the rats. The rodents almost always hid unless there was only him around so this made it possible for him to spend time with them every day. He never had so many friends in his life.

One night, Ernest dreamed that his rodent friends learned how to speak the common tongue. All town became friends with them and fed them. Everybody smiled at Ernest and thanked him for teaching the rats to talk. The dream ended with him being named Human-Rat Ambassador. In his dream, he acknowledged it and appreciated everyone’s comments and compliments. But when he woke up, as much as he wanted the dream to be true, he knew he didn’t have the means to teach the rats how to talk the common tongue.

As if his prayers were heard, a nomad merchant in a covered cart arrived in town some days after his dream. His name was Arnelius. The trinket seller claimed his items were lucky charms and voodoo magic whatnot. Ernest thought the merchant was his best possibility to make his dream come true. He approached Arnelius and explained his situation. Talking to the merchant, Ernest realized this was the first time that he told anybody about his gift. He panicked for a second and thought this wasn’t such a good idea but he regained his resolve when he remembered his title as Human-Rat Ambassador. He described what he wanted to Arnelius and asked if he could make it possible. The merchant was very interested in his story. With an intrigued look, he invited Ernest to step into his cart.

Inside the merchant’s ambulant home, Ernest watched Arnelius perform a sort of ritual. He prepared a concoction using herbs, some silver dust, animal skin, lizard claws, and in the end he added Ernest’s blood by cutting the palm of his hand. Ernest was so hypnotized by the whole procedure that he didn’t even notice when his hand was cut. Arnelius gave Ernest a bowl with a gooey mix. He instructed him to prepare food with it and feed it to the rats. The human’s blood would react with the rest of the magical ingredients, and cause the rats to present the desired result the day after. Or so Arnelius claimed.

Ernest was so excited to have witnessed such a ritual that he was certain it would work. He opted to bake something for the rats. He thought that they would like a large apple pie. The next day, when he was done baking, it was almost time for his shift. He didn’t show up to work so no one would see the pie and ask for a piece. He waited until lunchtime and rushed straight to the tunnel while saying sorry out loud for being late. Everybody was busy eating and no one stopped him. Ernest felt an enormous satisfaction when he saw the rats devour the whole pie. The rats told him the pie was delicious and Ernest spent the day trying to make them talk in common even though he knew he had to wait for the magic to work.

The morning after, the usually calm town of Mi-Jen received some dire news. Five men of the morning shift are presumed dead. Giant, vicious, monstrous rats attacked them. The ritual worked in a wicked way. Those who fled the tunnel in time say Darren, Warrick, Lorenzo, Ballack, and Dylan are still inside. The word traveled fast, and soon, the whole town was aware of the situation and a crowd gathered outside the excavation site. No one dares enter after seeing the scratches and blood marks on those who managed to escape on time. When Ernest heard the news, he rushed to the site.

A trio of city guards holds their ground at the entrance of the tunnel. They placed large planks and improvised a blockade. Sir Vollan, the man in charge, doesn’t want to risk his men and would rather pay some coin to mercenary strangers. He ordered his scouts to look for sellswords in taverns and inns. He offers 15 gold coins each if they can get rid of the presumed infestation in the tunnels. The pay goes up by one piece of gold for each living survivor rescued. So if the five missing people make it out alive, they earn 20 gold pieces each.

When the group of adventurers gets to the scene, the crowd moves aside to let them pass. The injured survivors tell the adventurers the rats are huge and aggressive. And one of them claims he heard one of the rats talk and demand apple pie. Ernest, frustrated and hopeless because they won’t let him pass, begs the adventurers to let him go with them. He tells them he can negotiate with the rats. He claims he knows them and that he talks to them. His desperation makes him look like a mad man.

If the heroes let him come along, he thanks them deeply and promises they won’t regret it. If the adventurers decide to enter without Ernest’s help, he falls to his knees in front of the tunnel’s entrance as the heroes go in. He cries and sobs and then yells at the sky: “Nooo! Tiny Hands!”.


Ernest Mole

Neutral good human (age 34)

Mr. Mole wears simple working-class clothes. He is usually covered in dirt and sweat due to his work. He has a serious face. He is not himself lately. He has spent too much time with his rodent friends and he has formed a bond with them. Ernest can communicate with Tiny Hands and the rest of the rats. He could be a crucial piece to solve this puzzle.

Personality Trait. “Nothing is more satisfying than a well-earned paycheck.”

Ideal. “I’ll make my dream come true. Tiny Hands and the rest of the gang will talk like me.”

Bond. “I must protect Tiny Hands and the gang. They’re my only friends.”

Flaw. “I’m too shy and I have low self-esteem.”

Area Descriptions

The following descriptions of areas 1 through 10 correspond to the underground cave in Mi-Jen.

Terrain. The ground of the cave is somewhat uneven. There are rocks and human bones scattered around the floor of some chambers.

Stretch Tunnels. Some of the tunnels in the cave are narrower than 5 feet wide. Medium creatures moving in such areas must follow the rules for squeezing and move at half speed.

Light. Luminescent fungi are present in some areas of the cave. They produce 5 feet of bright light and 10 feet of dim light. Removing the fungi from the ground causes them to stop shining after 1d6 minutes.

Smells and Sounds. The entire cave smells of filth. The blood and human bones are fresh. They emanate an iron scent. Squeaks and squeals echo through the narrow tunnels and sections of the caves.

Mutated Rats. The ritual failed but it managed to give some of the rats a certain amount of consciousness. The small rats are ordinary and didn’t suffer any change. The giant rats in this module use the stats of the giant rat in the Monster Manual with the following modifications:

  • Increase the Intelligence score to 6.
  • They speak and understand Common.

Parley with the Rats

Ernest. Although Ernest can communicate with the rodents, the rats are deranged and mutated. The only rat that recognizes him is Tiny Hands. The rest of the rats attack people on sight, including Ernest. He tries to parley with all the rats they encounter but fails to do so until they meet Tiny Hands. See area 4 for more details about this encounter.

Direct Contact. It is still possible to attempt to communicate with the rats without Ernest’s help. Though only Tiny Hands can handle a normal conversation. The rest of the rats in the cave yell random words in common and attack. Social interaction doesn’t work with them. A successful DC 15 Charisma (Persuasion) check allows a character to parley with Tiny Hands, provided none of the adventurers attack or harm other rats present.

1. Entrance

Two different mounds of human bones lay on the ground. The dirt is stained in a dark crimson tint due to the blood that dried there. A faint squeaking sound comes from behind a couple of large rocks to the southeast of the cave. A successful DC 13 Wisdom (Perception) check reveals an oversized rat gnawing at some bones. Any attempt of interaction causes the rat to pounce and attack. At the same time, hundreds of rats come out of cracks on the walls and climb on the invaders to stop their advance. One giant rat and two swarms of rats attack the adventurers.

When the swarms drop to half their hit points, the rats disperse and flee. And when the giant rat drops to half its hit points, it retreats yelling: “No, I don’t want to die!”.

2. Stairs

A passive Perception score of 14 or higher reveals some words being spoken from the floor below (area 3). The sound echoes through the cave’s tunnels. Coarse and harsh voices pronounce words in the common tongue. The words “Ernest”, “apple pie”, “cheese”, “humans”, and “trap” can be discerned.

3. Cave

Half of this section of the cavern is in complete darkness but the exit leading to area 4 can be distinguished due to more luminescent fungi in the middle of the tunnel. Two large rats gnaw at the bones on the floor when the adventurers arrive. The rats look at the invaders, then at each other. One of them says: “Oh no, let’s go!” and the other replies, “Yes, inform the boss!”

4. Ambush

The natural luminescence faintly outlines the shape of a corpse. It is Lorenzo’s. There are claw marks all over his body and a pool of semi-dried blood has formed under him. A successful DC 10 Wisdom (Medicine) check reveals Lorenzo is still breathing. When one of the adventurers kneels to check on the corpse, a low-pitched guttural voice yells: “apple pie!”. Three giant rats come from area 5 and two swarms of rats emerge through cracks on the walls and ceilings. A passive Perception score of 13 or higher reveals the presence of the hidden rats in area 5. The adventurers can try to communicate with the rats then if they wish to do so. (See Parley with the Rats).

If Ernest is present, Tiny Hands recognizes him and orders the rats to stop the attack outright. This allows for a chance to parley. Tiny Hands, who clarifies its name is, in reality, Big Foot, says the rats have become vicious because of Ernest. Big Foot cannot explain it but it knows Mr. Mole had something to do with it. His blood in the weird concoction with which he baked the pie is in the rats’ veins now, Big Foot can feel it. It says the rats are now twenty times larger and therefore need to eat twenty times more. Big Foot is afraid there’s nothing it can do about it. As long as men keep coming to the cave where they live, the rats shall eat them. With that, Big Foot orders the rats to proceed and kill the intruders while it flees the scene.

The giant rats stop fighting and flee if they drop to half their hit points or if they see one of their oversized kin die. The swarms of rats disperse when they drop to half their hit points.

5. Stairs

This section of the cave has a set of stairs that go a further 15 feet underground. The temperature below feels warmer and the air more humid.

6. Cave

This section of the cave is darker and deeper underground. To the south of this cave, there are narrow networks of tunnels. There are two swarms of rats in this area. They disperse when they drop to half their hit points.

7. and 8. Tunnels

How large this underground tunnel network and where it leads is not within the scope of this module. It is left to the DM’s discretion. If Ernest is still with the party, he comes up with an idea. He believes he can convince Tiny Hands and the rats to leave through these tunnels and find somewhere else to hunt and find food. Ernest begs the adventurers to let him speak with Tiny Hands if the opportunity arises again (If the rat leader is still alive).

9. Tiny Hands Lair

Tiny Hands waits here unless it died in area 4. There aren’t any fungi in this cavern so it is completely dark. Five giant rats protect Tiny Hands (giant rat). If Ernest is allowed to speak with Tiny Hands, he shares his idea. He tries to convince the rat leader to leave and find somewhere else to find food, otherwise, the people in town will do anything in their hands to kill them all. Surprisingly, the rat accepts. It rallies all the rats, large and small, and approaches area 10. Any attempt to harm Tiny Hands or the rats breaks the truce. Ernest (commoner) defends Tiny Hands if the adventurers try to harm it. He cannot be reasoned with unless Tiny Hands’ safety is assured.

If the characters don’t have Ernest’s help, they can still try to negotiate with Tiny Hands (See Parley with the Rats). This allows for the characters and the rats to talk in peace. Convincing Tiny Hands of leaving the town requires a successful DC 15 Charisma (Persuasion) check.

10. Cave

Any rat survivors from previous confrontations are here. They accompany Tiny Hands and the rest of the rats if convinced to leave. If Tiny Hands is not around, they beg for mercy or try to flee.


Sir Vollan pays the adventurers the agreed-upon amount. Saving Lorenzo grants the party one extra gold each, as agreed. The leader of the guards organizes his squads to enter and verify everything is safe. He proceeds to do the necessary cleaning before resuming labors in the tunnel.

If Ernest never entered the tunnel, he is outside sobbing. He cries for the loss of his friends if the adventurers report that they killed them. Sir Vollan orders his men to take him to the infirmary and verify his mental health. If Ernest entered the cave and died in it, a successful DC 12 Charisma (Persuasion) check allows a character to convince Sir Vollan that the rats killed Ernest and that they couldn’t do anything about it.

However, if Ernest entered the cave and Tiny Hands left through the tunnels unharmed, he begs the adventurers to accept a gift. He gives them a leather bag with 56 gold pieces in it. They’re his life savings. He feels so grateful to them for allowing their mutated friends to live that giving them this gold is the only way he can think of to repay them.

Ernest can know the rats are safe or not thanks to the blood link between them. If the rats were spared without his intervention, he thanks the adventurers when they come out. He appreciates their kindness and respect for living things.

Either way, Ernest leaves town the day after. Be it depression from losing his rodent friends or a departure to seek them out again, Ernest’s days in Mi-Jen come to an end.


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