BEARDED DEVIL

Monsters, Horror, Gaming

Month: October 2014

Fever in the Blood

vampyre

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.

Synopsis

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.

Influences

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.

Sanity

Sanity rules of your choice are highly encouraged.  For a basic d20 Sanity system the rules found here work adequately, and are assumed throughout the adventure..

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:

Swamp Sounds

Swamp Sounds 2

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.

Alternate Hooks

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

BAYOU!

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.

Leeches

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.

Bodies

Soundtrack

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 daggers

2 purses, empty

The following slightly water-damaged diary, tucked into an inside pocket and so spared complete obliteration:

journal0001

journal0002 journal0003 journal0004 journal0005 journal0006 journal0007 journal0008 journal0009 journal0010 journal0011 journal0012

Alligators

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!

Soundtrack

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.

Boat

bayou3A 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.

Within…

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.”

MarieLaveau

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.”

The Swamp

bayouNavigating 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.

Swamp-Folk Ambush

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.”

The River

Joseph_Rusling_Meeker_-_Bayou_PlaqueminesAt 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.

Les Hiboux

Soundtrack

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

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.

Inside:

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…”

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.”

Condemned: Criminal Origins – Retrospective

Condemned-Criminal-Origins-744-8.1

I picked up Condemned: Criminal Origins some time ago, but only recently finished playing it, searching for something to scratch the survival horror itch until Alien: Isolation and The Evil Within hit Steam. It’s a grubby little linear neo-noir horror game that occasionally rises to rapturous heights of dread, but which remains fraught with frustrations. Despite its flaws the game remains a somewhat underrated title heavy on atmosphere and bone-crunchingly intimate action.

Condemned2

I’ll get my grievances out the way. First and most damningly, Condemned has absolutely terrible controls. I played the game on PC, which may have made things worse, but even on a console, the inability to jump or crouch at will in a first person game is pretty much inexcusable, in my opinion. The game also lacks any kind of stealth element, which is unfortunate, as stealth would have greatly contributed to the feeling of oppressive gloom the game relies on so strongly. While enemies can hide from you, you’re more or less unable to conceal yourself. You have pathetically low stamina, can only run for short distances, and walk at a snail’s pace, especially down stairs. There’s no ability to lean round corners, either, which is infuriating when fighting enemies with firearms. Limitations can be great in horror games, don’t get me wrong – one of the best things about Outlast and Amnesia is that you’re unarmed, for example – but the poor controls in Condemned don’t enhance the experience appreciably. Less vexing but still irksome are the clunky forensic tools, which feel grafted on rather than integrated organically; they’re only accessible at certain key points with one notable exception, a high point towards the end of the game where you wander round a mouldering old farmhouse using a UV light to follow trails of glyphs drawn in blood throughout the building. Though harder to execute it would have been much better to allow complete access to the entire roster of tools at all times, so that you could actually select the right tool for the right job instead of essentially being handed clues on a silver platter. As it stands the forensic minigame feels less like an exercise in puzzle-solving and observation and more like a hoop you have to jump through. What’s especially frustrating about this is that the tools themselves are quite cool, and you can sense the potential in the forensic element: the idea of a hybrid investigation/combat game with strong horror elements, built around forensic puzzles and violent setpieces, is incredibly compelling, but what we get instead is a combat game with a fringe of investigation and a façade of puzzle-solving. My final complaint pertains to the last area, which suffers from the classic “disappointing last level” syndrome (AKA “Xen Syndrome”) and feels unfinished and dissatisfying, with repetitive by-the-numbers boss-fights and a locale (an abandoned orchard) that throws the putrescent urban atmosphere the rest of the game had used to superb effect completely out the window. For orchards, the final level is bizarrely linear: a spooky farm is a fine idea, but it should either involve “Children of the Corn” style fields, hedge-mazes, or sprawling, open spaces filled with tress, not a series of fenced pathways leading you inexorably from one dull fight to the next with unlikely firearms and pill-bottles scattered around inexplicably. It’d have been much, much better if the game had simply ended in the farmhouse, which is a masterfully executed area – non-linear, creepy, requiring actual exploration and even a bit of puzzle-solving, with a final fight that feels bracing and genuinely scary rather than tacked on and frustrating.

Mannequin_People

Such deficiencies aside, Condemned is mostly very enjoyable in a pitch-black, hallucinatory sort of way, throwing visceral splatterpunk combat, psychological horror, and grungy noir atmosphere together into a blender and pureeing into thick, pinkish-black ooze. Obviously taking its cues from such films like Se7en, Red Dragon, Silence of the Lambs, and Memento, the game takes place in Detroit Metro City, a rundown metropolis infested with vagrants, junkies, squatters, and criminals, an increasingly deranged and monstrous lot who menace the protagonist, Ethan Thomas, at every turn. Punning on the dual meaning of “condemned” – in reference both to Ethan’s quarry, the malevolent Serial Killer X, and to the series of decrepit stores, metro-stations, sewers, office complexes, and public buildings that Ethan has to trek through. Though the graphics are beginning to look a bit dated, the game remains very effective atmospherically, and despite taking place almost entirely in dilapidated buildings it somehow manages to avoid feeling homogenous. A mixture of scripted events and AI capable of stalking the player enhance the sense of paranoia the game cultivates: you can never quite be sure when an enemy is going to pop out or sneak up on you from behind, and several enemies are much more mobile than you, particularly the scrawny, ghoulish squatters encountered from the Metro Station onwards, who can scarper down low tunnels or haul themselves up walls. The tendency of enemies to run away if injured only to return is particularly commendable – there’s nothing creepier than landing a blow only for the enemy to dash off into some shadowy, slime-encrusted maze, a maze you’re going to have to slog through to reach the next area. Particularly effective sections include the burnt-out shell of a library, with holes in the ceiling and floor that you can fall through or climb down; the whole place is infested with what seem to be burn victims, but it’s never fully explained who these people are or why they’re here. This utter dearth of explanation really works in the game’s favour, giving the whole thing an air of sublime horror. Birds are inexplicably dying, the city’s homeless all seem to have suffered a psychotic break simultaneously, and Ethan is definitely losing his mind, but exactly why any of this is happening is unclear. I haven’t played the second game, but I’ve heard it explains some of these details, and while I understand the motive for doing so I like that this game keeps the overriding reason for the collective madness of the metropolis more or less mysterious.

Uber_Addicts

Enemy design is largely very good: although there aren’t really any non-human enemies and most of the opponents can be described as some variant of “vagrant,” there’s quite a bit of variation in enemy types and armament. The vagrants all look like they’re slowly rotting, with some literally resembling the undead, but unlike most zombies the crazed homeless are twitchy and fast, moving more like rabid marionettes or the Infected from 28 Days Later than shambolic Romero-era flesh-eaters. The animations for the various enemies really sell the creepy; the putrescent Mannequin enemies are especially effective, hiding in plain sight amongst regular store mannequins only to advance with the slow, menacing stride of a slasher-movie villain. While, as I mentioned, I didn’t particularly like the final stretch of the game, the last boss has wonderfully horrific design, like something out of a Clive Barker novel or film. I will say, however, that the game shamelessly, unavoidably, and unapologetically exploits middle class anxieties about the homeless. There is literally no effort to make the homeless seem like anything more than a bunch of addled urban monsters. The addition of non-violent or even helpful homeless NPCs might have mitigated the feeling that the entire game is a kind of grotesque class war, but no such luck: the world we’re being painted is a kind of conservative nightmare, a hardboiled reality where whole districts of the city have been given over to the ravenous, deranged underclass. We are told of one part of the city for example, described as “a nasty area filled with nasty people, and the people down there are different, they go beyond nasty.” There’s no real effort made to make the homeless seem like victims; where in Outlast, for example, the game is very much aware that it’s presenting the inmates of Mount Massive as monstrous, it also shows us again and again that the current state of the inmates is the result of experiments carried out by institutional authorities, by people who should know better. Nothing of the sort is attempted in Condemned. I’ve heard in Condemned 2 that an evil cult is shown to be behind the whole thing, but, really, that’s not much of an improvement; a clichéd fear of non-Christian religion isn’t all that much better than fear of the subaltern. All that said, Condemned exploits bourgeois anxieties about the homeless very effectively. Spotting one of the inhuman squatters indulging in a cannibal feast produces an undeniable frisson of revulsion, a strong “get the fuck away from me or I will cave your face in with this sledgehammer” response, and that’s exactly the response the game is aiming for; in this sense it’s an aesthetic success.

 Oro_Dark_Primary

Disturbing class dynamics aside, bashing in the skulls of the vagrant hordes in Condemned is another strong suit. Firearms are incredibly rare, as is ammunition for them, so most of the combat is melee – an unusual but highly effective choice, as it means you have to get up close and personal to dispatch your enemies. The various weapons – everything from sledgehammers and fire axes to paper cutters, piping, mannequin arms, a burning 2×4, and plenty of others – all come with advantages and drawbacks, and since you can only have a single weapon at a time (another stroke of genius), finding and choosing weapons becomes a major tactical element of the game. These choices are further complicated by the fact that certain weapons allow access to key areas – the sledgehammer, for instance, is required to break off padlocks. The actual nitty-gritty of combat is kinetic and brutal, a visceral back-and-forth requiring careful positioning, timing for blocks, and a gruesome selection of hands-on finishing moves. There aren’t any combos, which is a bit disappointing, but I’ve read that this is remedied in Condemned 2. You can however, effectively invent your own combos by learning the timings and habits of your enemies, knowing when they’re going to suddenly lurch into an attack and when to close in for the kill, when to kick and when to run while your Taser recharges – the addition of the Taser to your arsenal makes combat significantly easier, but the recharge time on the weapon means that its utility is limited when facing multiple foes, which is often. Condemned offers a lesson in how to do action right in survival horror: keep the player-character fairly fragile, restrict ammunition brutally, and force the player to get up close and personal with enemies.

condmned combat

As a narrative, Condemned isn’t wildly original – as I noted, it cribs quite heavily from various noir-horror sources – but it knows its genre well, and plays it to the hilt. The greatest strengths of the story are its various elisions, its gaps and unknowns. Why are the birds dying? Why are the city’s homeless all gone berserk? What is happening to Ethan? What motivates the sinister Serial Killer X, and who is the lurid, mutilated devil we catch glimpses of in visions? Many such questions are never given wholly satisfying answers, but such loose ends give the story a feeling of uneasy irresolution. The game is also quite effective at presenting what’s effectively an unreliable narrator – no mean feat for a first-person game. At many points throughout the story it’s unclear whether certain events, creatures, or phenomena are supernatural or psychological in nature: is Ethan just crazy, or is some occult power at work? This sort of ambivalence is central to certain subgenres of horror. As structuralist critics like Tzvetan Todorov and Terry Heller argue, when there is significant hesitation between a natural and supernatural explanation for events we have ventured into the world of what Tzvetan calls the “fantastic,” further subdivided into the “fantastic uncanny” – when the events receive a rational explanation by the story’s end – and the “fantastic marvelous” – when a supernatural explanation is accepted. In the middle is the “pure fantastic,” in which ambiguity is sustained to the very end of the story. Outlast, for example, is of the first class: what seems like a supernatural creature sealed under the mountain and summoned by a “conjuring” (the Walrider) is revealed to be a predatory nanobot swarm; Amnesia is firmly of the latter category, as supernatural forces are increasingly implicated and even what seemed potentially earthly (Alexander, the shaking of the castle, the darkness) are revealed as otherworldly. Condemned seems to vacillate between natural and supernatural explanations so thoroughly that it lands in this third, rare category, one shared by many of Poe’s stories as well as Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw. Even what seem like patently supernatural elements – the weird, acrobatic monster that you face repeatedly at the end, for example – the possibility of a more rational explanation lingers, especially if Ethan is going mad. You receive injuries from what seem to be spectral foes, but they might be psychosomatic wounds “inflicted” by hallucinations; at certain points objects seem to shift of their own accord, but this could simply be Thomas’ addled mind “rearranging” his perceptions. Heller identifies horror tales of the pure fantastic as the “most terrifying” (14) and while this assertion seems to me to somewhat overstate things, there’s some merit to his suggestion that the pure fantastic is in some sense the most threatening of the three genres, insofar as it blurs the boundary between fantasy and reality. It’s a rare videogame that attempts the kind of ambiguity offered by a pure fantastic tale of terror, and a rarer one still to actually sustain and pull off such ambiguity, as Condemned manages.

Condemned-Criminal-Origins Background

Works Cited

Heller, Terry. The Delights of Terror. Chicago: U of Illionois P, 1987. Print.

Ravenloft Table

The last two years, I’ve surprised my players with a jaunt to Ravenloft, bringing out candles and turning out the lights to set the mood. This year, they knew they were heading back beforehand – there was no way I could surprise them three times – but they surprised me with a blood-spatter tablecloth and coasters!

Ravenloft Table

With the lights off (as Ravenloft should be played):

Spooky Table

Expect more Ravenloft updates akin to last year’s Savour of Madness here soon!

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