Monsters, Horror, Gaming

Month: September 2013

St. Severine’s Skull: Hexenburg Castle – Approach and Watchtowers


A few words on the design and general “philosophy” of Hexenburg.  While the Castle is sprawling, much of it is empty.  What monsters there are in the ruin, however, tend to be quite dangerous for a low-level party.  The idea is to use a few powerful monsters to their greatest effect, rather than cramming every room with lots of weak monsters.  There are a few exceptions to this (the Goblin tribe in the Dungeons, or the hordes of undead in the Catacombs), but largely the Castle should feel big and mostly empty.  This is to encourage a feeling of paranoia and uncertainty amongst the players.  As they enter each room, they should feel uncertain what they’re going to find.  Each encounter should be a dangerous one where the stakes feel high, not a run-of-the-mill hackfest where the players mow through squads of monsters with relative ease.  Play monsters intelligently; they should employ clever tactics against players, using special attacks, dirty tricks, spells, terrain, disarming attacks, and the like.  They should retreat when wounded, rather than fighting to the death.

Hexenburg is a cursed place – a place where evil and darkness hold saw.  Dead bodies allowed to lay on the grounds can spontaneously reanimate, and the very stones of the place seem to whisper black obscenities on those who tread upon them.


As an incipient blizzard swirls around you, Hexenburg Castle at last comes into view: a foreboding mass of dark stone, half-reclaimed by the forest.  The trees in this part of the forest seem sickly, tree-trunks mottled by blight, scabrous bark peeling.  The path winds up the raised earthwork motte of the fortress, then passes over a rickety old drawbridge spanning a snow-clotted ditch.  Old wooden spikes are visible in this moat, to deter any trying to scale the walls.  The crenellated battlements are beginning to sag and crumble but the gatehouse is still mostly intact.  Past the walls rise several towers – two largely intact, one a broken stub – and a formidable keep.  Rotting mangonels are visible on the walls.

Perception DC 20 to notice a light flicker in the window of the west tower.  DC 15 to notice:

Scattered on the path leading up to the castle are a number of bones, broken weapons, cloven shields, and other remnants of an old battle – likely the very battle that resulted in the castle’s ruination at the hands of marauders from the north.

A thorough search of the battlefield produces a masterwork longsword.

Watchtower Table

There are many watchtowers in Hexenburg Castle, which may or may not be searched by the players.  The following table allows for random generation of watchtower contents.  Each tower has 4 levels and thus four randomized rooms.  Roll on the following table if the players decide to go poking out in a watchtower:

Roll d% Result
1 A room covered in old bloodstains.
2 A room covered in fresh bloodstains.
3 Four Goblins hunting rats for stew, led by a Goblin Ranger.
4 A heap of human bones.
5 Aklo runes scrawled on a wall in blood (random 1st level Necromantic spell formulae if deciphered with a DC 20 Linguistics check).
6 Sleeping bats (they could form a swarm if threatened).
7 A human corpse nailed to a wall, with its tongue and fingernails removed.
8 A human corpse nailed to the floor with its heart, liver, lungs, and brain removed.
9 A room with dozens of Elf ears nailed to the walls.
10 Torture implements – a rack, thumbscrews, and branding irons.
11 A roosting Owlbear in its nest.
12 A severed head in the middle of the room with black gems (25 gp each) replacing its eyes.
13 Lectern with a book in an unknown language.
14 Lectern with a Vacuous Grimoire which appears to be a treatise on Hexenburg’s history.
15 A telescope and other astrological equipment.  It looks remarkably new.
16 An Ettercap lair filled with webs and web-swathed corpses.
17 Empty coffin.
18 Coffin full of congealing blood.
19 A huge pile of human teeth.
20 A very large cocoon.
21 Chalk instructions for summoning a Chaos Beast (counts as Planar Binding, but only for Chaos Beasts).
22 A large basin of stagnant water full of leeches.
23 Assassin vine.
24 A black goat, staring at you.
25 Suicide-inducing statuette; a corpse dangles from the rafters, tongue and eyes bulging.  Will DC 10 to resist.
26 An armoury with a morningstar, bec de corbin, bardiche, and handaxe.
27 Slime Mold.
28 Cursed but empty room that generates violent and evil thoughts in those who enter.
29 Wooden crates full of human body parts, carefully sorted.
30 Puzzle-box containing a random Kyton; Disable Device DC 20 to open.
31 Crawling hand.
32 8 Crawling hands.
33 Squatting leper.
34 3 Shriekers.
35 A large owl, possibly friendly, possibly aloof.
36 A map of the Catacombs scrawled in red chalk.
37 1d12 Stirges.
38 An armoury with two suits of chainmail and one suit of masterwork splint mail.
39 Dead body with a Demonic Cyst (see L6) growing out of it.
40 Cow bones.
41 Goat bones.
42 Wolf bones engraved with mystic runes and arranged in an uncanny design.
43 Nest of 2d6 giant ticks.
44 Magical circle carved into the stones.  If filled with blood it teleports those inside it to another watch-tower with an identical circle.
45 Mucus trails leading into the castle walls.
46 Shelves with 4 jars of lamp oil (1 pint each), a hooded lantern, and a spare dozen torches.
47 The husks of many, many insects.
48 Shed grick-skin.
49 Dozens of empty and broken bottles.
50 Huge heap of burlap sacks and bags, one of which is a Bag of Holding, another of which is a Bag of Devouring.
51 Extremely drunk Dwarf named Mim who’s not sure where he is or how he got there.  He’s a 2nd level Barbarian.
52 Mimic.
53 Rat’s nest containing 256 sp, 452 cp, and 22 gp.
54 Mangonel stones (as in G12).
55 Mangonel parts (as in G11).
56 An armoury with 12 longspears and 4 glaives.
57 Raven’s rookery containing 78 sp, 12 gp, and 188 cp, plus a pair of gold earrings worth 50 gp.
58 An Allip.
59 Barrels of sour wine (vinegar, essentially).
60 Dozens of broken crates.
61 Two large, feral black cats.
62 One hundred human tongues in a cauldron.
63 The lingering sound of a child crying, but nothing else.
64 Fungus that’s strangely shaped itself into the visage of Saint Severine.
65 A heap of empty buckets crawling with woodlice.
66 Three large nets.
67 An outlaw guilty of two murders and theft.  He lacks combat gear beyond a dagger, but does have a purse with 23 platinum pieces and 43 gp.
68 A pile of partially burnt holy texts.
69 A statue of St. Bastiana which weeps blood and grants an Aid spell (20th level) to those of the faithful who pray at it, but smites heathens who pray at it as per Inflict Light Wounds (1d8+5, DC 16 for half).
70 Scorch marks and the remnants of burnt furniture.
71 Empty cages made of wicker.
72 Crumbling floor; unless a character has Trapspotter or Stonecunning, they don’t get a Perception check automatically; it’s DC 20 to detect otherwise.  The hazard requires a Reflex DC 20 to avoid and deals 2d6 falling damage, depositing characters in the room below.
73 Signs of a recently made camp.
74 The skeletal remains of a marauder, armed with a broken battleaxe and hide armour.
75 A child’s doll.
76 Firewood, somewhat damp but still useable.
77 An empty wooden chest.
78 A trapped steel chest (Perception DC 20, Disable Device DC 20 – needle with Greenblood Oil, Fort DC 13, 1 Con damage, 1/round for 4 rounds, 1 save cures), locked (DC 20 to open).  Inside is a +1 Heavy Mace made of dark metal that fills a character with feelings of intense pleasure when used to kill.
79 Rotten timber.
80 A lost Black Dragon hatchling.  Will be helpful to Chaotic Evil characters, friendly to Chaotic or Evil characters, indifferent to Neutral characters, unfriendly to Good or Lawful characters, and Hostile to Lawful Good characters.  If befriended, its mother will eventually come looking for it.
81 Barrels of crossbow bolts (300).
82 A powerful Necromancer named Markus Gor, casually scratching runes into a bandit’s corpse.
83 Dead body with organs liquefied, containing a clutch of Tentamort eggs.
84 A broken masterwork greatsword (notched and bloodstained) hanging on the wall.
85 Rotting tapestries depicting scenes from the Winter Crusades.
86 A small shrine dedicated to a wolf-god, with wolf-pelts everywhere and a wolf’s head on an altar.
87 A pair of runaway peasant children from Gründorf, now very lost and very scared.
88 Dead leaves and twigs, heaped into a nest, with no sign of its owner.
89 A Gargoyle.  It will pretend to be a statue, but will then start following the party around when they aren’t watching.
90 Goblin lookout.
91 Berserking Greatsword hung on a wall, along with two bastard swords, four longswords, and six shortswords.
92 Malevolent Faun playing pan-pipes on the window ledge.
93 Pornographic graffiti, probably drawn by a bored Goblin lookout.
94 Rusted caltrops everywhere.
95 Empty shelves.
96 Buckets of small stones for murder holes.
97 Two dead Goblins wrapped in cobwebs.
98 A Halfling tomb-robber named Hippolyta here to plunder the chapel’s catacombs.
99 Tentamort.
100 Small table upon which can be found a leather pouch containing a Deck of Many Things.

In a pinch, the above table can be used for any random castle/dungeon rooms required, for whatever reason.

St. Severine’s Skull: The Wulfswald

The players have only been through this region once, but I plan to make much more use of it in future.  I think their encounter with the Wraith back in the village’s abandoned church rattled them a bit, so they tended to leave everything alone as they progressed through the woods up into the forest (refusing to enter the plague-cabin or the barrow).  They made it over the river with the aid of a felled tree.





Crossing the decrepit stone bridge that leads out of town, you press on into the depths of the Wulfswald.  The road becomes steep, and the already chill weather quickly worsens, and snow begins to fall from the corpse-grey sky.  Black, leafless trees rise to either side of the winding path.  Here and there loom standing stones, rune-graven monoliths swathed in moss and creepers.  Ravens watch you from the trees, while weasels and dark-furred foxes scurry through the undergrowth.  Somewhere, distantly, a wolf howls.

Cold weather Fortitude save DC 15 (+1/hour) or suffer 1d6 nonlethal cold damage.  Remember that characters with the Survival skill can make a DC 15 check to gain a +2 bonus to this save, and that this doesn’t stack with furs.

Anyone who can read Druidic (or make a DC 20 Linguistics check) can decipher the writing on the menhirs, which are prayers to spirits of the forest and can be “cast” by Druids like spells from wands or scrolls, creating the following spell effects: Endure Elements (Cold), Pass Without Trace, Cure Light Wounds, Barkskin, Bear’s Endurance.  Each menhir can be used once per day on one target.

If the players start wandering off the path, they have a good chance of accidentally tripping a hunter’s snare or trap.

Random Encounters

On the first time up to the castle, don’t have too many encounters.  In future (and especially if/while the party is retreating to the town), hit them with wolves, bandits, Ghouls, and other creatures as desired, making a trek back through the woods harrowing.  Here’s a table with a variety of encounters, if desired – note that wolves show up several times (when in doubt, throw wolves at them):

Roll d% Result
1 Wolves (party’s average level+1d2 wolves).
2 Cold weather worsens.  A Fortitude save is required every 10 minutes to avoid 1d6 nonlethal cold damage.
3 3+1d4 Bandits who hold up the characters.
4 Holy Hermit possibly willing to heal the injured.
5 Sudden fog gives all creatures more than 5 ft away concealment (20% miss chance).  Survival DC 20 or become lost.
6 Wolves (party’s average level+1d3 wolves).
7 One-Eyed Sally and 4 Bandits.
8 1d6 Ghouls
9 1d4 Ghouls and 1 Ghast.
10 Doomsayer driven from town.
11 2 Spriggans.
12 Hailstorm begins, dealing 1 lethal damage every few minutes to those in the open.  Determine who is hurt randomly.
13 Raiding party of Hexenlanders (2d6 Barbarians).
14 Wolves (party’s average level+1d4 wolves).
15 Leper begging alms.
16 Wandering madman.
17 1d6 wolves feasting on a woodsman (not Frederick).
18 Goblin trap consisting of a gut tripwire strung between two trees that releases a wooden battering-ram or spear (+15 melee  attack, 1d8+6); DC 20 to perceive or disable.  1d4 Goblin warriors likely wait nearby, ready to spring on those trapped.
19 Falling tree (Reflex DC 14 or take 3d6 damage).
20 Moss Troll.
21 1d2 Dire Wolves.
22 Prostitute scorned by the locals and driven into the wilderness.
23 Goblin scout party consisting of five Goblin warriors.
24 Goblin war party consisting of four Goblin spider riders with giant spider mounts or Worg mounts.
25 1d3 Dire Wolves.
26 Wolves (party’s average level+1d6 wolves).
27 2 Ghouls feasting on a dead Dire Wolf.
28 1d4 Boars.
29 Murder of crows feasting on the entrails of a slaughtered merchant caravan, thoroughly looted save for a chest with 253 gp, several sacks of grain, and a bottle of fine wine.
30 Persistent hedgehog that leads characters to a buried treasure (a chest buried by bandits – Disable Device DC 20, contains 468 sp and a Ring of Protection +1).
31 Dark Ice Grig protective of the woods.  It will attack anyone it perceives as especially ugly (under 10 Charisma) or who threatens the forest.  It also attacks axe-wielders, torchbearers, and Dwarves.  However, it can be reasoned with.
32 Previously unseen path branches off the main trail.  Survival DC 20 to avoid getting lost if this trail is taken.
33 Decapus.
34 1d4 Dire Wolves.
35 Lone outlaw.
36 1d4 Bugbears.
37 Dead horse infested with Rot Grubs.
38 Wandering minstrel camped by the road with a simpleton assistant.  May provide good cheer.  May rob characters blind.
39 Wolves (party’s average level+1d8 wolves).
40 Distressed dryad whose tree is being molested by woodsmen.
41 1d6 Dire Wolves.
42 Owlbear.
43 Standing stone decorated with entrails, emitting an Unhallow effect; any who dies near the stone rises as a zombie.
44 Bear.
45 Bear with 1d4 cubs.
46 Wolverine.
47 Ginny Greenfang.
48 Huldra seductress who may help or hinder the party, or help them find the path if they are lost.
49 Shunned wolf, exiled from its pack, wounded.
50 Hunting Red Cap.
51 Twigjack.
52 Hedge Wizard for hire.
53 Bear trapped in a bear-trap.
54 Wolf trapped in a bear-trap.
55 1d8 Dire Wolves.
56 Wolves (party’s average level+1d10 wolves).
57 Frederick the huntsman (see below).
58 Sabbat attended by witches or shamans.
59 Grugnar (see Gatehouse, below).
60 Winter Wolf.
61 Troupe of actors rehearsing in the woods (badly).  Possibly being stalked by malicious fey.
62 Forest Drake.
63 Wolves (party’s average level+1d12 wolves).
64 1d10 Dire Wolves.
65 Ghast feeding on the remains of a bandit.
66 Quickwood.
67 1d12 Dire Wolves.
68 Panicked horse with an arrow in its flank (10 hp remaining).
69 Zombie horse.
70 1d6 cannibals led by a mad Druid.
71 Dislodged boulders rolling down a hill requiring a DC 15 Reflex save to avoid 4d6 bludgeoning damage.  A successful Perception check of DC 20 beforehand alerts characters to the boulders, giving them a +4 bonus on the save.
72 Gypsies round a cooking fire who may tell fortunes, sell healing herbs, repair equipment, or slit the characters’ throats and leave their corpses for the wolves, according to taste.
73 Wolves (party’s average level+1d20 wolves).
74 Stray Cairn Wight from a violated barrow.
75 Cold weather becomes extremely severe.  A Fortitude save is required every 5 minutes to avoid 1d6 nonlethal cold damage.
76 Thunderstorm with severe winds (-8 to Perception, -4 ranged attacks) and lightning (1 bolt per hour, 4d8 electricity damage, hits anyone in metal armour or climbing a tree, flying, etc).
77 Wolves (party’s average level+3d10 wolves).
78 A group of 2d6 Elves, who may follow the characters, assist them, or avoid them depending on their general character.
79 Lost child from Gründorf.
80 Malevolent Satyr who preys on high-Charisma female party members.
81 Abandoned camp.
82 A pair of villagers having a tryst. Probably heard before they’re seen.
83 Mysterious Gnome pedlar woman who sells all manner of cures, potions, and even magical trinkets, but who Curses any character who is rude to her.
84 Barghest.
85 Lord Gobbler (see below) and 1d6 Worgs.
86 6 Kobolds from the Weeping Hills.
87 2 Ogres from the Weeping Hills – relatives of Grugnar’s.
88 Dire Boar.
89 Dire Wolverine.
90 Dire Bear.
91 Wolves (party’s average level+2d20 wolves).
92 Wolves (double the party’s average level+1d2 wolves).
93 Wolves (double the party’s average level+1d3 wolves).
94 Wolves (double the party’s average level+1d4 wolves).
95 Wolves (double the party’s average level+1d6 wolves).
96 Wolves (double the party’s average level+1d8 wolves).
97 Wolves (double the party’s average level+1d10 wolves).
98 Wolves (double the party’s average level+1d12 wolves).
99 Wolves (double the party’s average level+1d20 wolves).
100 Gigantic pack of 50+1d100 wolves led by a Dire Wolf, Winter Wolf, Barghest, or a Werewolf (determine with a roll of 1d4).

Don’t be excessive with the table; roll on it every other trip through the woods or so, or if characters insist on exploring the woods themselves because they’ve been driven out of the Castle by Goblins, Grugnar, or the murderous Red Cap.  An encounter with a flesh-eating tree, Ginny Greenfang, or a terrifying number of wolves should hopefully persuade them to return to the dungeons, where at least there’s gold and magic items to be had.


The huntsman will approach stealthily – he has +10 to Stealth in wooded areas, so characters will likely need to roll well to spot him.  This description assumes they didn’t, but if they did, just add in that a branch broke and he’s just suddenly “there.”

You hear the soft sound of a bowstring being draw behind you, and a voice says “Heel, Bridget.  I don’t think they’re bandits.”

Behind you stands a tall, sinewy man dressed in poorly tanned furs, a huge black dog beside him.  The pair must have approached you almost silently.  The man is incredibly grizzled, his face deeply lined and grimy, his eyes deeply sunken, his thin lips curled back in a sneer.  A large wen in visible on his face, and he suffers from goitre as well.  He carries a longbow and an axe at his waist.

The huntsman’s name is Frederick, though he doesn’t volunteer this information.  He disapproves of outsiders and will try to warn players away with phrases like:

“If you know what’s good for you, you’ll head back the way you came.  There’s nought but death up in these hills.”

“The Light has forsaken these woods.  Its servants are no longer welcome here.”

“Mark my words – if you go into that castle, you won’t come back out.  That place is cursed.”

After reciting his cryptic warnings, Frederick melts back into the gloom.


The snow falls even more thickly, and a soft wind moans through the wood, making branches creak and murmur.  The path begins to zigzag upwards.  Following it round a sharp turn you find yourself face to face with a large, white wolf – at first you didn’t even see it in the snow.  The creature regards you with incurious, piercing blue eyes.  It takes you a moment to realize that the object held in the beast’s jaws is a bloody human arm.

Give the players a moment to react, but have the wolf lope unhurriedly back into the wood pretty swiftly.

Abandoned Cabin

Down a short track that diverges from the path a dilapidated old cabin is evident, riddled with moss and half-shrouded by the now heavily falling snow.  Scrawled on the door in crimson paint is a red X, a plague mark.

The cabin’s door is swollen shut (Strength DC 20 to force):

A musty, sour smell hangs in the air within the shack.  This must have been a woodsman’s shack – there are rows of animal pelts hanging from the ceiling and wooden racks for drying furs, as well as an array of skinning knives and other tools.  A wood-axe leans against a wall on which an unstrung bow hangs.  Contorted in a bed in one corner of the cabin is a desiccated corpse, clutching a ragged blanket.  There’s a small chest at the foot of the bed.  A wolf-skin rug covers the floor, and there’s a cold hearth on one wall.

The cabin is the perfect place to regain some health lost to the cold.

There are plenty of furs here.  The chest (unlocked) contains a Cold Weather Outfit (+5 Fortitude vs. exposure), 5 silver pieces, and a masterwork dagger set with a small emerald.  There’s also an axe and a composite longbow.  A thorough search turns up 50 arrows, as well.

Beneath the wolf-skin rug is a trapdoor, swollen shut (Strength DC 15 to force).  Finding the trapdoor requires a DC 20 Perception check, unless the players note that they specifically want to check under the rug.  Below:

You enter a small root cellar, where various preserves, dried meats, nuts, and withered roots are stored.  Most of the food here has long gone bad.  There’s also a small wine-rack here, and a wooden chest.

There are 8 bottles of common wine here.  The chest contains 126 silver pieces, 246 copper pieces, and a Potion of Bear’s Endurance (5th level).

Broken Bridge



You come to the banks of another river, or a different loop or tributary of the same river.  Here, however, all that remains of the bridge here are a few posts and splinters – flooding must have destroyed the rest.  The current here is quick and the water looks very cold indeed.  The river isn’t very broad and might be jumped, but it doesn’t look like it could be forded here.

Swim DC 15 to make it across (1d3 non-lethal on a failure), but expose yourself to some very cold water (Fortitude DC 20 or take 1d6 non-lethal cold damage).

Another possibility is to simply try and jump the river (Acrobatics DC 20).

A better solution is to cut down a nearby tree (perhaps with the woodsman’s axe) to form a makeshift bridge (crossing is Acrobatics DC 5).  However, chopping down a tree may be noisy, alerting creatures nearby to the characters’ presence.

Finally the characters could follow the river for some distance in either direction till the find a spot to ford it.  In this case, be sure to harass them with traps, snares, and wolves, wolverines, or bears.




As you progress deeper into the hills, the wind picks up, sending swirling snow across the path.  Off to one side looms an earthen mound with a huge, dead tree atop it.  Set at the base of the mound is a stone door marked with runes.

The stone door is DC 23 to open.  The runes are non-magical, simply proclaiming the barrow “The Resting Place of Sigmund Trollsbane” in Druidic (Linguistics DC 20 to translate).

The Barrow serves two purposes.  The first is an alternate route in or out of the Castle, which can be very helpful.  Characters who wish to can bypass most of the tombs and simply walk through B1, B2, and B7 to enter the gatehouse Dungeons, facing a few dangers – spiders, a trap, and an assassin vine – on the way.  Those who wish to tempt fate can attempt to plunder the tombs themselves.  Removing a few grave goods is probably safe, but disturbing the remains of the dead is definitely not.  The cairn, frost, and brute wights who lurk in the barrow are fairly powerful foes for low-level parties, more than capable of decimating a foolhardy group, and even the groups of zombies can be very challenging.  The barrow is certainly not mean to be “cleared out” easily.  The rewards of plunder, however, are rich: magical rings, masterwork weapons, amulets, and scrolls.

I’ll detail the barrow in a later post.

Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs – First Impressions


I recently bought Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs, sequel to the brilliantly macabre survival horror game Amnesia: The Dark Descent.  The first Amnesia remains one of the scariest games I’ve ever played, and the best adaptation into game form one could hope for of a classic Gothic novel of the late-eighteenth or early-nineteenth centuries, with a generous bit of H.P. Lovecraft thrown in for good measure.  I have replayed Amnesia several times now – the game is short in theory, but often takes a long time in practice, because of the paralysis of terror that fills you while you play it – and it has had a very strong influence on my tabletop games and other writing (even, possibly, on my scholarship).  It remains one of my favorite games of all time, up there with Thief: The Dark Project and Half-Life 2.  I’ll post a full review of A Machine for Pigs once I’ve completed it, but here a few of my first impressions.  Needless to say, there may be some gentle spoilers below.


Some background on the game may be useful: while the first game was developed entirely by the Swedish indie company Frictional Games (also responsible for the Penumbra series), the second was developed by The Chinese Room, a studio best known for their unconventional exploration game Dear Esther.  The game takes place about a hundred years after the original, in Victorian London rather than rural Germany.  Already with the choice of setting the game distinguishes itself from its predecessor.  The Dark Descent was a game centered round the idea of an ancient, terrible, and largely unknown force: “the Shadow,” a mysterious, Lovecraftian entity, summoned accidentally out of Egypt by the hapless protagonist, Daniel.  The game fixated on tropes taken from the original Gothic of the eighteenth-century (I may have to write a proper academic article about this…): the aristocratic secondary villain Alexander, the crumbling, black castle, the hidden tunnels, the remote location, the emphasis on the unseen and the unknown, on what Ann Radcliffe would call terror rather than horrorThe Dark Descent is a game of the “terrorist” school.  The game punished you for even looking at the monsters in The Dark Descent: when a monster appeared you caught a glimpse of it and then ran, because otherwise you were dead (you have no weapons, and two or three hits kill you), and looking at a monster drained your sanity.  You had to painstakingly scavenge and ration your tinderboxes and lamp oil: your most valuable resource was light, allowing you to navigate the tenebrous labyrinths the game delighted in (especially the Storage and Prison levels, which could be real mazes).  On the other hand, light was dangerous, because it could alert monsters to your presence.  There was certainly gore in The Dark Descent but it was used very sparingly, and often there was more a suggestion of violence than actual bloodshed – torture rooms where old implements slowly rusted, or half-remembered flash-backs of people screaming.  Sound was vital to the game’s strategy of fear, but The Dark Descent really didn’t go in for the jump-scare much: it was more interested in slow-burning paranoia.  Instead of being startled you’d end up crouched in a corner, your character’s sanity draining in the darkness, willing yourself to open the rotten old door from behind which you think you heard a bestial groan.  While in many ways A Machine for Pigs replicates aspects of this experience, it owes much more to the Gothic resurgence of the nineteenth-century fin de siècle – a predominantly urban Gothic more attuned to social disorders, science, and the boundaries of the human.


So, A Machine for Pigs.  Firstly, the gameplay remains largely the same as Amnesia: The Dark Descent – first person, you have no weapons, you wander around a sprawling environment trying to find your way down deeper into the complex.  There are some very key differences, however.  Most prominently, A Machine for Pigs does away with the inventory entirely.  You have no sanity score, and your health is invisible (in the previous game, these were displayed in your inventory, symbolically represented as a heart and brain); you can still pick up items, of course, but you can only move one at a time, you can’t stow them in pockets as capacious as a Bag of Holding.  On the one hand, losing the inventory annoyed me, because one of the thrills of The Dark Descent was the intense relief at having found an object you needed for one of the game’s puzzles, and the rationing of your tinderboxes, lamp oil, and laudanum added a resource-management element that contributed to the overall anxiety of exploring Brennenburg.  However, there is an upside.  Constantly in The Dark Descent I found myself looking for opportunities for respite from the harrowing experience of actually playing the game – not just lingering in areas that felt safe, but obsessively going through my inventory items, examining them, trying to combine them.  The inventory screen took me out of the world for a moment, relieving the tension.  Without the inventory screen in A Machine for Pigs there is less opportunity for such relief, forcing me to spend more time in the game-world itself.  The lack of sanity score is interesting: your sanity no longer drains in the darkness (a consequence of the original protagonist’s nyctophobia), so there’s less of a compulsion to use the lantern, which is now electric.  As a result, I use my lantern less, but when I do I find myself using it purely for light rather than to keep my sanity from draining.  While I miss the anxiety that dwindling resources provoked, in a sense I’m actually more immersed with the electric lantern, because there’s no dissociation: while in the past I was using light not only to see, or to combat my own fear of what lies in the darkness, I was using it to make sure a statistic didn’t drop.  Sure, that statistic had consequences in the game (woozy vision and minor hallucinations and all that), which also added a lot, but there was still a degree to which my immersion was slightly undermined.


In terms of its capacity for fright, the game has not disappointed so far.  Having played the first game, I fully expected the first segments of the game to be devoid of monsters and so felt relatively safe as I explored the first levels – a Victorian manor house, in significantly better repair than the mouldering fastness of Brennenburg – but as I got further and further into the game my anxiety started to ramp up, unsure of when the first real danger would appear.  Even despite my knowledge that I was unlikely to encounter anything in the first half hour or so of play, the game still managed to unnerve me significantly.  The Shadow periodically shook Brennenburg, dislodging stones and knocking over rotten beams; in A Machine for Pigs the same role is played by the eponymous machine (whatever it is), the “Factory” as the journals and phonographs describe it, a behemothic construct of gears and piping which I’ve only caught hints of so far, having just now descended into a series of tunnels below an old chapel or church attached to the manor.  This, in itself, is fascinating.  Numerous texts in the game indicate that Oswald Mandus, your protagonist this time around, has a deep disdain for God, referring to him as a hog, swine, etc – a position probably connected to the heavily implied death of Mandus’ wife.  At the same time, man and machines are complexly deified and degraded in the journal entries and recordings.  On the one hand humanity’s capacity for creation and vision is exalted, but on the other hand humans are consistently referred to in animalistic terms (most commonly, of course, as pigs); machines are likewise spoken of in rapturous terms, yet Oswald spits on Babbage’s vision of a thinking machine.  While in the first game much of the terror revolved around ancient, unknown, and alien powers, like the Shadow, in this game the evil is man-made, modern, and disturbingly human.  There are hints that Mandus brought something back from a fateful trip to Mexico – references to and models of ziggurats, ubiquitous Mesoamerican pig-masks, the suggestion that Mandus fell ill after returning from Central America – but the fiendish machine, and the Moreau-esque monsters which, at this, point, I have only caught the barest glimpses of, are (I think) Mandus’ creations, not some outside force’s (the Gatherers in The Dark Descent were created by Alexander, of course, but Alexander is almost certainly not human, but a supernatural being of some sort: he wishes to return to the world he came from).  The focus on humanity itself and our creations rather than on horrific outside forces is far more in accord with late nineteenth-century Gothic works like Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, The Picture of Dorian Gray, The Island of Dr Moreau, and The Great God Pan – even when supernatural forces are involved in such stories they are usually tied to or released by human science, or at least human willpower.

As for the monsters themselves, as I said, I’ve only caught the barest glimpses so far, but from what little I’ve seen they’re going to be very unique.  The monsters in The Dark Descent were mostly fairly slow: the Gatherers could get up to a decent clip when roused, but most of the time they were shambolic, lumbering zombie-like through the castle’s passages.  Justine, The Dark Descent’s semi-sequel, went the same route with its Suitors – speedy enough when riled up, but usually slow and ponderous.  The monsters in A Machine for Pigs, in contrast, seem much, much faster.  They flit, quadruped, across passageways and catwalks, charging on all fours from place to place.


The game so far is also much more concerned with the domestic, a pleasingly Victorian transition.  I liked Daniel in the first game but he was basically just an individual: there was no exploration of his family, and his back-story was explored only when directly relevant to the game’s plot.  In contrast, Oswald’s back-story is far more detailed.  We know the names of his wife and children, his social status, his profession (industrialist/philanthropist); we get a much better feel for Oswald’s personal obsessions and interests in this game.  The game seems to be setting him as a mysophobe, someone intensely disgusted by and paranoid about filth and animality – fitting, considering his adoration of the clean, cold sterility of machines.  His motivations are similarly more socialized and contextualized: while Daniel was basically on a quest for personal revenge (revenge for what Alexander had turned him into), Oswald is out to save his children, children I’m coming to think he may have badly abused in the past, given the unsettling cages (gilded, but still undeniably reminiscent of pig-pens) that he’s placed over their beds.

I’m looking forward to completing the game, though I’d estimate at this point I’m only about 10-20% through at most.  When I’ve finished I’ll post a more thorough review, and perhaps talk about some of the things Amnesia can teach us about game design.


I recently got to participate in a podcast, Episode 3 of the S.S. Librarianship (“We Sacrifice 3 Goats a Week, at Least…”), where I talk about Alignment, its weird history, and its often-problematic utility as a roleplaying tool.

Sewerscape: Starsnouts

Star-Nosed Mutant

The Effulgence brought many gifts to the folk of the sewerscape.  The blind creatures known as Starsnouts were given one of the greatest gifts of all – a second sight, which they call the Mindscent.  Powerful psychics and prognosticators, these Molekin are also amongst the most dangerous denizens of the tunnels.  The mass of slimy tentacles sprouting from about their nostrils are not only physically powerful, able to wrench a Ratkin’s head from his neck with the twist of a tendril, they contain psionic receptors giving the Starsnouts the ability to literally smell the minds of others and, through concentration, the power to manipulate and mutilate them.  As a result, Starsnouts are usually served by a caste of psychically dominated thralls, who perform virtually all manual labour in Starsnout settlements.  The Starsnouts themselves dedicate themselves principally to mystic matters.  Indeed, most Starsnout tribes resemble religious cults, dedicated to ancient idols dredged from the muck, particularly revering ancient machines that exude powerful vibrations: rusted jukeboxes, washing machines, autopianos, stereos, and other devices the Starsnouts are able to psychically power (such machine-deities effectively run on “prayer” – through the collective mental adoration of their worshippers).  Being blind, Starsnouts usually eschew guns and similar weapons favoured by other tribes.  They have few laws save prohibitions against blasphemy and similar malfeasances; heretics, smelled out by Starsnout inquisitors, are punished by having their nasal tentacles severed, leaving them powerless and blind.

Sewerscape: Mouldwights


There are hundreds of different Mouldkin strains in the sewerscape, but none more common than the insidious Mouldwight.  Shambolic husks reanimated by the fungi that infest them, Mouldwights appear as near-skeletal corpses covered in fruiting bodies, their skulls often crowned by a prodigious mushroom-cap or cluster of puffballs (depending on subspecies).  Displaying rudimentary intelligence and an alien, predatory cunning, Mouldwights roam the tunnels below in search of additional carcasses to colonize.  If they come across living beings they do not hesitate to attack, breathing clouds of toxic spores which, if inhaled, infect a host and slowly eat away at them from the inside-out, necrotizing their organs and spreading beneath their flesh, finally bursting through their skin in a horrific profusion of caps, stalks, and toadstools.  Many Mouldwights also possess lash-like, cankerous tendrils they use to pull victims towards them in order to administer their corruptive exhalations.  Mouldwights rapidly decompose their host bodies, however, and eventually the decayed remnants of their hosts simply collapse.  The Mouldwight fungi linger for a short while before withering and dying, unless a new host wanders by in the meantime.  Because Mouldwights can reproduce quickly they frequently form packs, coordinating their efforts to trap would-be prey – presumably the creatures communicate using spores since, unlike some Mouldkin, Mouldwights do not speak.  They are highly vulnerable to fire, sunlight, and fungicides, and prefer the dampest, darkest areas of the tunnels – fortunately for them, such areas are common in the mildewed labyrinth of the sewerscape.

Sewerscape: Vermigorgons


Some believe Vermigorgons are mutated humans, warped into their current form by the Effulgence.  Others claim they were birthed in bygone days by the Biowitches of yore as living weapons, experiments that escaped into the sewers and thus survived the conflagration above.  Physically, they resemble human females (indeed, their bodies are closer to pre-Effulgence humans than most Trampkin) but with a mass of writhing, giant earthworms sprouting from their scalps instead of hair.  Through some quantum psychokinesis, a Vermigorgon can use her powers of observation to radically affect the molecular makeup of her surroundings, transmuting almost any known substance into mud simply by looking at it.  In this manner Vermigorgons can dig tunnels through the sewerscape and deliquesce predators and enemies, making them extremely dangerous foes.  The power is activated through the use of a specialized nictating membrane a Vermigorgon can almost instantly draw across her eyes; normally this membrane is drawn back into a Vermigorgon’s face.  Vermigorgons seem to dislike one another and rarely congregate in numbers.  Gatorkin, Frogkin, and other creatures are sometimes adopted by Vermigorgons as bodyguards, consorts, and servants; their lairs are usually labyrinthine mud-warrens with many mud pools where minions frequently lurk.  The motivations of Vermigorgons are frequently inscrutable and highly individualistic.  Certain members of the species have been known to collect large libraries, obsessing over matters of ancient history or mystic lore, while others lead hedonistic lives of debauchery and decadence.  Few seem to aspire to positions of real power, however – something which other denizens of the sewerscape are thankful for.

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