As part of what is now an annual tradition my Planescape players will be spending October in Ravenloft. I will be posting the adventure here as I run it for them. Last year’s adventure, “The Savour of Madness,” can be found in its entirety on this blog under the tag of the same name; the first part of that adventure can be found here.
The adventure focuses on a group of vampires, a brood of decadent belles and their gentlemanly attendants led by the alluring Damienne Seuzeneau. These depraved creatures dwell in a ruinous estate, the Belle de Nuit Plantation, its fields long gone to seed, attended only by ghouls and their own misbegotten spawn. Beneath the plantation lies their true lord and master, a repulsive elder vampire of primordial age that has transformed into the form of a gigantic leech. It is attended by its ancient kindred, vampires so old they have sloughed off most of their human semblance altogether and appear as monstrous hybrids of leech and human.
Whenever their thirst grows great, those vampires still capable of passing for human put on the remnants of their best finery and travel to the nearest town to take passage on a passing steamboat. Rather than simply draining a few passengers or crewmen dry and then departing, however, the vampires enact a far more sinister scheme. They long ago discovered that all of them carry a wasting disease that causes delirium, fatigue, and weakness in humans – a nightmarish form of marsh fever, made more virulent by its vampiric hosts. Unaffected by the sickness themselves, the vampires infect as many on board as they can, and the disease quickly spreads on its own with the aid of local mosquitoes. Once those aboard the boat begin to succumb to the disease, the vampires (sometimes with the aid of mentally dominated crewmen) seize control of the boat, slaughtering those aboard in a haematophagic frenzy, an orgiastic feast. Those they do not drain are locked in their cabins while newly-acquired spawn steer the vessel back to their lair. They drink from the remaining victims for a few more weeks, eventually sinking their stolen steamboat into a deeper part of the bayou. They send a few servants to sell what valuables they took from the dead in town, acquiring funds for their next journey and for other expenditures.
The characters, having strayed into Ravenloft, encounter the vampires after taking passage themselves on a steamboat, the Somnambulist. The boat quickly falls prey to the creatures’ malignant marsh fever, potentially afflicting the adventurers themselves. In the ensuing struggle for the boat, the characters may or may not fight off the vampires – if they fail to prevent the take-over the surviving characters will be locked in their cabins. If they succeed on fighting the vampires off, they must seek them out in the depths of the plantation in order to fulfil the terms of a Voodoo divination concerning their return home.
This adventure was loosely influenced by the AD&D Ravenloft adventure RQ1: The Night of the Walking Dead, and draws inspiration from George R.R. Martin’s antebellum Gothic novel Fevre Dream, Anne Rice’s Interview with a Vampire, and China Miéville’s The Scar… and perhaps a little True Blood. Most Souragne material in Ravenloft emphasizes Voodoo, and while this adventure includes a bit of Voodoo, I wanted something that played more on the Southern Gothic tradition of vampire literature. The idea of a steamboat adventure through disease-infested swamp obviously owes much to Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.
Notes on Running the Adventure
Some of this advice is repeated from the Savour of Madness Adventure.
Ravenloft sessions are ideally played in the evening, preferably by candlelight. If you’re playing a regular campaign in which your players are whisked off to Ravenloft, I suggest making a “transition” from the regular game: at first, make them think an ordinary session is occurring, and then, as the Mists roll in, turn out the lights and light candles.
I use music extensively in my games, but it’s particularly useful in horror games, where mood is everything. For additional atmosphere, I recommend using swamp sounds, such as those found at tabletopaudio.com/ – specifically the “Swamplandia” track. Other possible swamp sound compilations can be found here:
When players discover documents, make sure you have handouts prepared (preferably aged and crinkled). Hand them the documents and have them read them aloud, squinting in the candlelight to discern the writing.
If characters are making Perception rolls and only one or two characters passed the roll, you may wish to scribble down what they saw on a piece of paper and then pass it to them rather than telling the whole group.
Don’t railroad players. They may devise novel ways of approaching the scenario – perhaps they manage to trap the vampires inside the Somnambulist’s cabins somehow and kill them there, or maybe they convince the captain using magic or money to evacuate the boat and burn it while the vampires are inside. Be ready to improvise! That said, the vampires are exceptionally intelligent and have a wide array of powers at their disposal, including mind-influencing effects and the ability to transform into animals. They should not conveniently forget these abilities to enable the PCs’ plans. Allow player agency, but pull no punches.
Alternate Settings and Systems
This adventure would be adapted to other settings very easily. The assumed setting is Ravenloft, specifically the Domain of Souragne; however, any steampunk or vaguely 19th century setting would do. If you wanted to run it in a historical setting the adventure could easily be transplanted to antebellum Louisiana, although Florida, Alabama, or Mississippi would also work well. The adventure would fit admirably in Privateer Press’ Iron Kingdoms, especially near Corvis.
The system used is Pathfinder, but other systems – Lamentations of the Flame Princess, Call of Cthulhu in any of its variations, d20 Past, or even Fear Itself or a similar GUMSHOE-based game – could all be utilized instead.
Here are some alternate means of involving the characters in the adventure:
- The characters have been hired by the local authorities to investigate the disappearance of several steamboats over the last few years.
- A local merchant’s son has gone missing after a steamboat journey – his vessel never arrived. The characters are hired to find out what happened to him.
- A wealthy trader lost a very valuable piece of cargo – gold, a rare jewel, or some similar item – when the boat carrying it disappeared; he has employed the characters to recover it.
- The characters simply require passage down the river on some other errand and are in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Into the Mists
Perception DC 20 to notice a mosquito alight on a character’s arm…
As you walk, a dense shroud of sallow mist the greyish-yellow of spoiled meat congeals around you, miasmatic tendrils caressing your limbs and face. The sudden fog brings with it a blast of humidity; caught in the swelter, you feel yourself begin to sweat, even as a cloud of insects swirls about your head. Along with the sticky heat the mist carries a foul stench, the reek of stagnant water and rotting vegetation. Taking another step you nearly stumble as your foot splashes into knee-high water and soft mud below. The mist, for a moment nearly too thick to see through, parts a little to reveal the twisted hulks of bald cypress trees, their curving, contorted trunks emerging from the water, bark gleaming like pale flesh in the glimmer of sickly moonlight shining through the tattered canopy above. A chorus of batrachian croaks resounds throughout the bayou, as if welcoming you to this dripping, fetid swamp.
While in Ravenloft, non-Evil characters suffer a -2 penalty to all Charisma checks. Evil spells are empowered. Divination spells are impeded (Spellcraft DC 15+level to cast). Detect Good/Evil spells simply don’t function, nor do regular planeshift spells or other spells that interact with other planes (though extradimensional spaces still function normally).
Below are a number of swamp encounters to be used as desired before the party arrives at Marie’s hut.
It won’t take the characters long to acquire a few unwelcome guests: leeches. Upon emerging from the water:
To your horror, you discover that you have acquired several parasites – fat, greenish-black leeches, their jaws clamped to your skin, sucking away at your blood!
The leeches do not form a swarm but do require a Perception check to spot (Stealth +24) to avoid. On a failure, 1d6 leeches latch on to the character, draining 1 point of Strength and Constitution. They also require a DC 15 Fortitude save to avoid 1 Dexterity damage from poison (1/round for 2 rounds).
They can be removed by hand or with salt or fire. Each hour the characters spend wading or swimming in water they must make a second check or acquire another 1d6 leeches and another point of damage (and another dose of poison). A Survival check of DC 20 can allow a character to deter leeches for one hour without making Perception checks.
Perception DC 15 to see the bodies:
A dark shape bobs in the water, exuding a reek even fouler than the ambient fetor of the swamps. As it floats nearer you see that it is a human corpse, clothing tattered and sodden with water; a moment later, a second cadaver floats into view.
On closer inspection:
Bloating, darkness, and decomposition make determining the cause of death difficult, but judging from the extreme pallor afflicting both men you’d say they died of blood loss. Though drained of blood their skin is also discoloured, sallow and unhealthy-looking. Closer inspection reveals a number of semi-circular bite-marks on the bodies, including a series of particularly vicious bites around the face, neck, and shoulders of both men.
Perception DC 12 to notice a number of smaller pin-pricks or jab-marks on one man’s forearm. Close examination of the bodies provokes a sanity check (0/1d3).
While the bite-marks suggest the work of a swarm of killer leeches, the men were actually the victims of the residents of the Belle de Nuit Plantation, cast overboard after being drained. They carry the following items:
1 water-logged pepperbox pistol (treat as Broken condition)
1 rapier, rusted but useable
2 purses, empty
The following slightly water-damaged diary, tucked into an inside pocket and so spared complete obliteration:
This group of smaller alligators can catch characters unawares: Perception check (Stealth is +17) to see dark shapes beneath the water, along with a few ripples, before the gators attack:
Something dark and long swims past you, and you feel it bump against your leg. Before you can react a second shape breaches the murky surface, fanged jaws parting, reptilian eyes gleaming with terrible hunger – a vicious alligator!
There should be 1 alligator per party member.
Wild Empathy DC 20 to distract the alligators with the bodies, so that they eat those instead of the characters.
A rickety wooden flatboat bobs along in the water, here. Its sides have grown mossy and partially rotten, but it’s not yet dilapidated enough to sink. Its oars are still in the oar-locks; the whole thing is snared in the roots of a large willow, its branches drooping down to kiss the water’s surface.
This boat is still river-worthy, albeit barely. It can fit up to 8 people.
Voodoo Priestess’ Hut
A bulky shape materializes out of the fog – not a tree but a building, a small wooden house built on stilts to keep it from the water. A sodden rope ladder leads up from the muddy earth into the rickety shack, whose eaves are bedecked with curious trinkets: crude dolls, the skulls of birds and frogs, fetishes of fur, feathers, and crocodile teeth, shrunken cat’s heads, and carved wooden symbols. Candlelight flickers from inside the hut.
The door opens easily. The room within is dim, lit by flickering candles that cast black, spidery shadows on the wooden walls. The air smells pungently but not entirely unpleasantly of incense, spices, and paraffin, with a trace of decay beneath. Dangling from the ceiling and festooning the walls are more of the totemic objects that hang outside: preserved animal parts, gourds and bottles of reagents, wooden masks, dried herbs, charms, bones, powders, and other gris-gris.
Sitting at a table amidst these objects, shuffling a deck of tarot cards, is a woman of early middle years with eyes blacker than the night outside, skin the colour of caramel, and a mass of black hair cascading down her back. She smiles knowingly and beckons you forward.
“You have come,” the woman says. “The Dark Powers have heeded my prayer, called you here. I am Marie Vidrine.”
Marie Vidrine is a Voodoo Priestess, a Mambo or “Voodan” in the terminology of Ravenloft – a descendent of the Vistani and other peoples, she carries on the traditions of her ancestors, blended with those of Souragne. Try your best to do a proper “voodoo priestess” Haitian accent here…
If the characters wait for a response, or ask why she has brought them here, she says the following:
“The swamps are home to many spirits,” the woman claims. “The Loa, Mystères of the Invisible World, act as intermediaries between the land of the living and that of the dead. Though many fear them, and with good reason, they are not entirely malevolent, and protect those that serve them well. As a Mambo, a priestess, I speak often with the Loa. They have told me that a great evil has entered this land – ancient and yet foreign, polluting the swamp with its vile presence. This evil is a thing of sickness, bringing with it a plague of unnatural origins. Disease and decay – these things are part of the natural world, the cycle of life and death. This sickness is something else, something other. It perverts nature, corrupts it, rather than working as a part of it.
“I have brought you here to act as a medicine. You must find the source of the infection and expunge it, cure this land of what ails it. Only then will the Dark Powers permit your return.”
So you’ve kidnapped us?
“I asked the Dark Powers to help me expel this evil. They were the ones to summon you. Why they chose you, I cannot say. Perhaps you have attracted their favour, somehow.”
How can we cast out this sickness? Where do we begin?
“The rivers of Souragne are this land’s veins, its arteries,” Marie Vidrine explains. “I believe this evil, this sickness, is using the rivers to circulate. Like a fever in the blood, it spreads itself throughout the land. Begin at the river; travel its length. It will lead you to the source of the infection. Follow the tributary upstream and it will join the river soon enough.”
Marie can use Disguise Other to transform obviously non-human PCs into a more human-like form for the purposes of investigation (technically this spell is not on the Witch spell list, but in my opinion it should be).
Marie will also impart a word of warning as the characters leave:
“A word of warning,” Marie says. “The swamps are home to many beasts, some of them in the skins of men… there are ill-bred folk who dwell deep in the marsh, and do not take kindly to outsiders. Be wary as you seek the river, for they are a cunning people, skilled in the ways of pain.”
Navigating the waterways of the swamp is tricky, as they form a kind of watery labyrinth in which it is easy to get lost. A Survival check of DC 15, however, will set characters on the right course. You can read out this atmospheric text, if you wish:
The waterways of the swamp are intricate and many-branching, forming a labyrinthine mass of intersecting streams and pools. Crickets, frogs, insects, and night-birds haunt the black, dripping undergrowth, which emanates a stench of both decay and fecundity. The moon has clouded over now, and a few drips of rain patter on the trees and water.
These inbred swamp-dwellers are little more than bandits, waylaying passersby, sometimes killing them for fun or meat, more often simply robbing them and leaving them for the gators. There are 6 in all – see Appendix for statistics. They are well-concealed, their base +7 Stealth check is increased to +9 due to Favoured Terrain, and swamp-sounds and generally unfavorable conditions add an additional +4 for a total of +13. A successful Perception check will reveal that the party are being tracked:
Someone is following the boat in the underbrush – at least two individuals, judging from the discrete signals they’re exchanging in the form of bird-calls. You don’t get a good look at them as they’re well-concealed by the drooping mosses, gnarled trees, and other foliage, but they seem to be humanoid, and you think you catch a glint of metal.
If spoken to, the swamp-folk attack immediately, without a surprise round. They begin by attacking with nets (remember to use touch ACs) and prepare ranged weapons:
Suddenly, a net flies from the undergrowth, followed swiftly by another. A bedraggled figure clad in poorly tanned skins, scraps of alligator hide, and a broad-brimmed hat steps out of the undergrowth, a handaxe in one hand and a pistol in the other.
“We’ve got ye surrounded,” the man says, with a near-toothless grin. His features are misshapen, his brow overlarge, his eyes small and glinting. He spits into the river, keeping his pistol trained on you. “Best be dropping those weapons and putting aside thought o’ struggle. Behave yerselves and we’ll let ye live. Give us a struggle and things’ll go bad fer ye.”
The swamp-folk retreat if more than 3 of their number are killed. If captured, they can be interrogated concerning the source of the sickness, and can also be forced to act as guides. It takes a successful Intimidate check (DC 15) to get them to divulge information in this manner.
They know little of the vampires’ doings but do know that steamboats have been going missing on the river:
“Heard tell o’ fever on the river,” the malformed man reluctantly admits. “And other troubles besides. Steamboats goin’ missin’, spirited away off the river by some bogey. One night, Eustace an’ I were trapping gators down by the riverbank, saw a steamer comin’ by, folks laughin’ and singin’. First we thought it was jus a reglar ol’ party they havin’, them fancy folks in the grand saloon, but then the boat come nearer and we sees there ain’t no lights on, not anywhere on the boat, not even the pilot’s house, an’ its well past sundown. How they’re steerin’ without runnin’ argound I can’t rightly say.
“Then we started hearin’ the screams an’ whimpers, like folks were bein’ tortured, skinned alive… Now I ain’t no lily-livered dandy what grows faint at a few shrieks. I done my share o’ reddish work by candelight, and never minded the squealin’ – maybe even enjoyed it some. But these sounds… twas Hell itself on that boat that night. Set my teeth on edge. Eustace and I high-tailed it home after that.”
At last you reach the river itself, a greenish-black expanse of water twisting and turning through the swamplands like the coils of some impossibly long snake. The current is not particularly strong, here, and mosquitoes buzz about the riverside in a thick and irritating cloud.
Lights glimmer from out of the fog ahead – a village, perhaps, on the riverbank.
This is the village of Les Hiboux, named after the owls who live nearby. It’s a pretty pitiful settlement – a dock, a saloon, a tiny church, a few houses, and a woodyard:
A squalid little village clings to the riverbank here, its crude wooden buildings infested with moss and fungi. There’s little here save a rickety old wharf jutting crookedly out onto the water, with a woodyard nearby. A tiny saloon with a couple of wagons parked outside spills light and music out into the night, but apart from the drinking hole and a rundown church, the only other buildings of note are a few mouldering old houses, some of them so rotten-looking they’re like an extension of the swamp itself. An owl hoots, perched on a sign that declares the village “Les Hiboux.”
The church looks to be only a few years away from rotting away entirely, but despite its dilapidation there’s evidence it’s still in use – the inside, visible through the square windows out front, is swept and moderately clean, and there’s a book and a few ecclesiastical oddments and icons near to the plain, wooden altar. Candlelight in the rear window suggests that whoever ministers the church lives within it, too. Out back there’s a small hill, a mound of solid earth that serves as the village’s cemetery – a few rows of wooden stakes and a handful of stone grave-markers.
Les Hiboux’s local priest is Father Chastain, an old drunk who spends most of his time dipping into the sacramental wine, sleeping, and unsuccessfully seducing the local women. There’s little reason for the characters to disturb him at this time of night, however.
The Red Moon Saloon
The saloon is a disreputable looking two-storey establishment that bleeds lamp-light, laughter, and piano-music into the night; a crescent-shaped, crimson sign declares the place the Red Moon. One of the windows is broken and has not yet been repaired.
The Red Moon is lightly crowded with travelers – mostly merchants, by the look of them – as well as a small handful of locals. Garishly decorated with pornographic paintings and decapitated animal heads, the place is tended by three fancy-girls in red and white skirts and bodices, their faces heavily painted. A scarred woman of quite a different stripe leans against one wall, cleaning her nails with a knife and keeping an eye on the clientele, while a pock-faced fellow with masses of greasy red hair serves cream sherries and glasses of pale wine to those seated at the scratched wooden bar. A crooked old man plays piano in the corner.
The bartender, Moon-Faced Bill, is a good source for local gossip and rumour. He’s got a copy of the steamboat schedules for the major packets, including that of the Somnambulist, a side-wheeler arriving this very night.
If asked about marsh-fever, trouble in the swamps, or the steamboat disappearances, he can be convinced to pass on what he knows for at least 10 gold pieces or with a DC 22 Diplomacy check, DC 17 for female customers.
On the subject of marsh-fever:
“Keep yer voice down!” the barman says, leaning in close. “Don’t want to spook people. I can tell yer not from round here, but a word of advice – don’t go mentioning sickness to just anyone. People hear the word ‘fever,’ they start panicking, start acting irrational. Truth be told, I have heard tell that there’s been a few cases on the river recently. Boat awhile back called the Dervish got hit bad, lost a dozen crew and passengers besides. But what’s queerer’n that’re the disappearances…”
“There’s been boats gone missin’, just disappeared into the night, like somethin’s snatched em right off the river. Not many, mind you, but enough that old Bill here’s noticed. I pay close attention to the packet schedules, see – keep copies here in the saloon – and I noticed some boats that’ve never turned up. Not late mind you, just gone. Last was the Green Maiden, supposed to dock here to take on wood and cargo nearly a month ago. Never showed up, an’ it didn’t just pass by neither, an’ I been watchin’ close.”
Any idea what’s behind it?
The bartender shrugs. “There’s plenty o’ stories. Phantom boats that steam up in the night with hordes o’ ghosts aboard, hungry wraiths that board a vessel an’ turn the passengers into new recruits, kill em and bind their souls to the river. Gators the size o’ paddle steamers that can swallow a boat whole. River spirits that hate the sound of an engine an’ make the river fork an’ twist in unexpected ways, lurin’ boats to their doom. You ask me, it’s a bunch o’ rot, probably. More likely there’s some group o’ bandits out there ambushing boats on the river an’ then sinking em after. Still, most cutthroats wouldn’t go after a boat the size o’ Green Maiden. Too many crew, too many passengers with pistols.”