A friend of mine over at thecbg.org is running an online game set in a version of my Witiko Falls setting.
Check out their beautifully put-together version of the setting over on the Obsidian Portal..
The characters in this session were:
XP Awarded: 200 XP.
Yam and the Lengian priestess of the spider goddess had been down in the Whorl for some time, and half of their group seemed to have disappeared – perhaps claimed by the strange, chittering presence that haunts the twisted, endless spiral. Sent by Professor Valdemar Sluice to retrieve the Viridescent Tablet after his last expedition mysteriously vanished, the pair are the last of their party. Only after long study of the glyphs on the walls was the pair able to apprehend a means of egress. Focusing doggedly on not-escaping, the gnome and the Lengian exited the Whorl – only to bump almost immediately into another party, consisting of a waspkin, homunculus, and two humans. The two groups conferred and quickly realized that they shared an employer, that one expedition had followed the other, and due to the temporal distortions of the Whorl the two had arrived in the Old City almost simultaneously despite setting out a week apart.
The two parties, briefly confused, agreed to join forces; after all, Vespidae, Garvin, Caulis, and Armand seemed to be down two members of their own expedition. Vespidae, waspkin senses unaccustomed to distinguishing between individuals with much particularity, became momentarily bewildered by Yam.
“We’re down two gnomes,” Caulis said.
“No, one gnome!” Vespidae insisted, pointing to Yam. “See? One gnome left.” It fell to the creature’s companions to enlighten the waspkin as to the mistake.
“Have you found the Tablet yet?” Yam demanded single-mindedly. “Yam would like to find the Tablet now.”
United at least for the time being, the expedition surveyed their surroundings: a vast, cyclopean space of unfathomable age, resonant with unnerving echoes. The ceiling soared high overhead, lost in darkness. A complex network of platforms atop pillars, connected by sinuous ramps and bridges, filled the chamber. Below yawned an impenetrably black void: there was no telling how far down it goes. At various locations throughout the chamber the bridges led to doorways. Armand bewitched a stone with a glimmer of light and cast it into the abyss, but the stone was quickly lost in the unmplumbed blackness, and none could hear it hit the bottom.
The party unfurled the partial map provided them by Professor Sluice and noted that while several bridges were broken or damaged, the sketch was essentially accurate.
They began their exploration methodically, beginning at the passage directly opposite the exit of the Whorl. Walking the bridges was an eerie experience, with the void below gaping endlessly. Something fluttered off in the darkness to the west – bats, perhaps, or something else with leathery wings?
The passage to the north led to a kind of specimen chamber, filled with a series of titanic crystalline cylinders holding the bodies of various life-forms. Though the creatures were quite still, as if trapped in amber, they looked healthy, with no signs of decomposition. Each cylinder had a small, glyph-graven control panel. The creatures included some sort of bony-plated lizard, a gigantic sloth, a sabre-toothed tiger, a six-armed insectoid thing with a clutch of tendrils sprouting from its neck round a many-fanged maw, a shaggy proto-human woman, a being like a fleshy barrel with a dozen tentacular arms, an enormous snail, a giant alligator, a winged crustacean with a multitude of eyes, an albino penguin, and a tentacled worm of unfathomable colour. Caulis and Yam investigated the controls and figured out how to thaw out the specimens, but decided against it.
The twelfth specimen-container was shattered into many pieces, as if something had escaped. The console here was broken into many pieces. Whatever escaped seemed to have a gastropodal lower body but a vertebrate upper half. Investigation turned up some ancient, crusted stains on the floor – some old mucilaginous trail, left by the escapee long ago.
The party began exploring adjacent chambers and corridors, first finding a passage blocked entirely by stone. Next they wandered into a vast, nonagonal chambe in which a complicated machine of gleaming, iridescent metal sprawled complexly resembling nothing so much as a gigantic, sinister loom. There were two booth-like receptacles at the base of the elaborate machine. Arm-like mechanisms hovered over both receptacles, as if awaiting something.
Experimentation with this machine produced bizarre but fascinating results. Inorganic material placed in the intake booth was ignored. Garvin, curious, placed some of his own hair in the intake booth. The device went quickly to work, taking samples of the hair, cutting it up, removing fragments of skin, only to begin weaving hair… and then sinew and blood-vessels, bone and meat and pulsing organs, membranes of skin. What appeared in the other booth was a naked, identical copy of Garvin, slack-jawed and vacant-eyed. Garvin, mildly horrified but intrigued, helped his duplicate from the booth. The man seemed unconscious, though he had a pulse and seemed to be in good condition, though missing scars and tattoos Garvin possessed. The duplicate was unable to walk on its own; they laid the comatose form down on the ground.
While Lengian silk confused the Flesh Loom – perhaps it was unable to process dream-matter – a weft of wool placed in the intake booth produced a dull-eyed sheep, as comatose as the Garvin.
Pressing on methodically to what they had decided was the “south” of the Old City – not that such directions meant much in the dimensionally fraught passages – the expedition next passed into a long hall filled with unsettling light of indescribable hue, emitted by a swirling ball of light and heat that hovered near the apex of the ceiling like some monstrous lamp. Below it, seemingly nourished by its rays, were weird vegetal growths like creeping vines that ensnared a series of glyph-graven protrusions of stone forming a complex lattice-like structure not dissimilar to a garden trellis. Globe-like clusters like succulent grapes clung to the vines. A thin mist suffused the room.
Drawing on her arcane knowledge, Sister observed that the light seemed to be a miniature star, and that lingering beneath its rays might be hazardous. Closer examination of the “grapes” proved unnerving. On closer inspection, the clusters were revealed to be tiny spheres in which were contained glittering swirls of light, almost exactly like stars. Looking into one was like looking into the sky on a clear night. The swirls of light moved and shimmered within the strange fruit. A thin membrane covered each fragile globe.
Caulis, fascinated by this weird vegetation, carefully cut one of the vines free and then grafted it to its homnucular body with the aid of a spell. The vine took quickly, almost eagerly, merging with the living root.
Curiosity getting the better of her, Sister fed one of the grapes to the newly-cloned sheep, which seemed to possess enough instinct to move its mouth and chew, with help. The adventurers watched as stars began to spread from the sheep’s mouth and through its face, suffusing its skin and then its wool…
Unbeknownst to his new companions, the amnesiac Alexander casually ate half a dozen of the grapes.
Annoyed at the tardiness of their compatriots, Yam decided to venture down a passage to the north. Yam’s feet crunched on the bones of what looked like bones and babies. With a yelp of “nope!” the gnome retreated, but Sister and Vespidae had already followed the illusionist into the chamber, at the centre of which lay a great and filthy nest made from the pages of countless books – torn, shredded, and soiled, their crabbed glyphs obscured by spit and muck. The discarded metal husks of the books lay to one side.
As they investigated the nest, something stirred in the shadows, unseen by the party. Then came an insectile shriek as something pierced straight through Vespidae’s arm – a hideous organic barb connected to a sinuous tendril! The thing on the ceiling hissed and began retractiung the tentacle, slowly reeling the waspkin bard upwards towards the ceiling. Alarmed, the party directed their lights to the ceiling to discover the thing which had escaped from the specimen chamber, a beast from out of time: a thing somewhere between a reptile and a carnivorous slug with a long, essentially boneless lower body like that of a gastropod, save with reptilian scales. Its upper body had a lizard-like head and forelimbs. Bristling from its abdomen near where the lizard-half of the creature met the slug half – not that the being really had such incongruent parts – were a series of slimy, tentacular feelers, one of which had extruded the chitinous love-dart now impaling Vespidae. The horror adhered to the ceiling by means of a sticky mucus.
Alerted by Vespidae’s shriek, the rest of the party crowded into the being’s nest. Garvin, skulking in the shadows, sent a quarrel towards it, but the bolt ricocheted off the ceiling. Vespidae managed to squirm free of the hideous dart and flapped weakly to the floor, bleeding profusely. The slug-lizard monster squealed in frustration and extruded half a dozen additional tentacular love-darts like grotesque harpoons.
Thinking quickly, Yam conjured an illusion of a gnome (closely resembling Yam) to run out towards the creature, taunting it. The slug-thing sent its tendrils towards the illusion and they passed through it, but with careful modulation of the illusion Yam managed to make it appear as if the illusion had actually been harpooned. Meanwhile, Sister healed the faint Vespidae with a swift prayer to the Spider Goddess, sealing the wound with a holy webbing.
Caulis and Armand now attacked the beast from out of time directly, searing it with spells of fire and acid. The slug-thing hissed in pain but continued to reel in the illusory Yam. Thinking quickly, Sister added her own touch to the illusion, causing the bleeding “gnome” skewered by the tendrils to begin chanting in a low voice, eyes turning red, staring up at the horror. As more spells pelted its squamous hide, the horror relinquished its “grip” on Yam’s illusion and withdrew, squirming along the ceiling into a dark corner of its lair. The party rapidly retreated, Garvin covering their escape with his hand crossbow.
Renewing their exploration, the party next made their way further south into a circular room filled with shelves upon which rested thousands of delicate crystals, some of them glowing softly with light of various hues, some dull and dark. There were at least one hundred shelves encircling the entire room and extending upwards to the high, domed ceiling.
In the middle of the room was another complicated machine made of gleaming, iridescent metal, untouched by rust. The machine extruded from a sort of slab upon which lay a withered, near-skeletal corpse clad in rotten shreds of clothing. The corpse was held in place by a series of restraints. A kind of clamp eerily reminiscent of a long-fingered hand cradled the skull of the cadaver.
Investigation of the corpse revealed a scroll clutched in its fist, upon which was ritten some kind of mytsic chant or incantation.
The party began experimenting with the machine, operated this time by Yam, whose gnomish mind seemed to grasp its intricacies intuitively. Hypothesizing, the adventurers first removed the corpse, then strapped in the comatose sheep. Activating the machine, they watched as the crystal flared and then dimmed. The sheep’s eyes opened wide and it began bleating wildly, seemingly panicked, and thrashed in its restraints. The party swiftly reversed the process, and the sheep fell slack once more, the crystal glowing again. Stars were still spreading through its coarse wool.
Next the adventurers retrieved the body of Garvin’s duplicate from the chamber of the Flesh Loom, alert lest the wounded beast from out time assail them again. Returning with the comatose clone, they strapped it into the machine and again the crystal dimmed. “Garvin” stirred, opening his eyes.
“Where am I?” he asked, looking around. “Please, let me free… I have been confined for too long… wait… is that Alexander?”
Questioning the man, the adventurers realized he was Xavier, another member of the doomed expedition of Alexander. Somewhat distressed at being placed in a new body – not to mention at the sight of his own corpse – Xavier was nonetheless grateful to be alive and awake once more. He described a sense of time passing in the crystal, though he was dull and insensate during this time, without any means of apprehending his surroundings.
Thinking quickly, the party noted that they might be able to put Xavier back in his body after all. Taking a sample of the corpse’s tissues, they hastened back to the Flesh Loom yet again and placed some of his dead flesh in the intake booth. The Loom whirred to life, producing another clone – this one of a thin, aging but handsome man. Garbing the man in a robe of spidersilk spun swiftly and discretely by Sister’s spinnarets, the expedition returned and transferred the consciousness of Xavier from Garvin’s duplicate back into the crystal, and then into the body of the Xavier-clone.
Returned to his former body with relief, Xavier described much of his expedition, including further details of the “Reality Garden,” the “Pestilence Archive,” and other chambers within this part of the Old City. He and the rest of the adventurers emerged once more into the vast chamber at the centre of this part of the First Library, continuing to explore.
Meanwhile, the sheep was beginning to move its mouth, almost as if speaking, and seemed increasingly able to walk on its own…
The expedition next came to a chamber with a round gateway in its middle, showing a bleak landscape of piceous stone, with rivers of black tar that seem eerily animate and, in the distance, a series of impossibly high spires stabbing at a clouded black sky. Lying on the ground just on the other side of the portal was some sort of machine that lookeda bit like a rifle, but far more intricate and adorned with weird glyphs. The object lay near a pool of the same black, tarry substance elsewhere visible. Vespidae directed his Unseen Servant to pick the object up. Instantly, the pool of slime writhed and gibbered in an alien tongue from a multitude of gelatinous orifices and lashed out at the Servant with pseodopods, engulfing it utterly. The rifle-like object fell to the ground and the party cautiously retreated.
The party’s explorations next took them to an irregular chamber centred around a central statue or monolith – a weird polyhedral mass of unlikely projections and brain-aching angles. The overall impression was of a vastness of unfathomable wings. The massive object exuded a palpable sense of numinous dread. The thing was made from some kind of shimmering crystalline substance that for brief moments looks almost organic – when looked at from the corner of the eye it seemed to move or throb subtly. A basin or depression was evident before the idol.
Sister, drawing on her theological knowledge, identified this as a manifestation of the Many-Angled Angel, who was worshipped by the Librarians for its ability to pervert the laws of time and space. She knew nothing of the being’s liturgy or rituals and the so the party again pressed on.
This time they entered a high-ceilinged chamber containing numerous shelves bearing hundreds of books – the great treasures of the Librarians. These ancient tomes were bound in delicate metal and had pages of an incorruptible vellum-like membrane able to endure the long millennia without rot. The books here would each take months or years to translate fully. The party seached through several of the shelves, with Caulis taking some spellbooks. Garvin discovered a particularly large tome with a sinister glyph on its cover and carefully stowed it without opening it. This would later be identified as none other than the Myxonomicon, one of the Greater Mysteries of the Librarians and one-thirteenth of the great work known as the Organon of Magic: but more on this in time.
The next chamber proved somewhat unusual. The characters immediately entered… and then found themselves leaving it, as if no time had passed. Except that Garvin now bore a strange, glyphic tattoo, Sister was injured, Armand had a hideous boil on his forehead (that eventually turned out to be a third eye growing beneath his flesh), and other characters had either lost or gained small items.
Curious, the party sent the sheep into the anti-memory chamber and took a short rest in the musty darkness of the Old City. The sheep came trotting out several hours later, its wool now utterly suffused with stars and nebulae and swirling vortices of light and darkness. It bleated strangely with what sounded like countless tiny voices. Alexander was also developing subcutaneous stars, though his were less developed.
Next the characters wandered into an incredibly long, nonagonal hall decorated with hundreds of monstrous statues, each unique, each more grotesque than the last. The beings these statues depicted came in a myriad of shapes mingling aspects of cephalopod, worm, crocodile, crustacean, jellyfish, bat, spider, starfish, lamprey, and toad. One horror, for example, rested on a squirming mass of suckered tentacles, had a chitin-plated body sprouting hundreds of pincer-tipped limbs, and had half a dozen many-eyed heads somewhere between those of an insect and a monstrous lizard. The statues were arranged in no discernable pattern.
Scholars amongst the party identified these as statues of the Nine Hundred Progeny of the Plenitudinous One, also called Carcethotep, the Fecund Chaos, and the Cancroid Progenitor. Rather than tempting fate ande eager to find the Tablet, however, the expedition pressed on without investigating further. They came next to a long, heptagonal chamber whose walls were riddled with thousands of small holes which made them think of mouths, though they certainly did not resemble the mouths of any humanoid being. Vespidae investigated closely and detected a musty smell and a low, barely audible chant emanating from the mouths. Xavier warned that the mouths were a protective measure and urged the party to recite the chant he had discovered. The party began to do so, and the mouths gradually closed as they approached. Garvin noticed that they also closed whenever he neared them, curiously. Spreading out and still reciting the hastily-copied chant, the party managed to close all of them mouths at once, at which point they remained closed permanently.
They proceeded through the doorway at the end of the hall and into a vast, octagonal chamber hat proved incredibly cold; icicles drooled from the entrance, and breath plumed visibly in the air. Stone shelves lined the walls, filled with hundreds of glass phials containing liquids of many colours. A zigzagging spiral ramp allowed access to the lower shelves and disappears into the floor. Xavier identified this as the Pestilence Archive, where the Librarians catalogued various diseases. Taking care not to touch any of the phials, the adventurers proceeded down the ramp into the room below.
At the middle of this chamber could be seen a plinth, upon which is sat a metal tablet, gleaming in the musty darkness. Carpeting every inch of the hall save the plinth itself was a strange, gently pulsating purplish-red lichen. This layer of liver-hued growth glistened wetly and exuded a damp, slightly acrid reek. Throughout the chamber were half a dozen curious mounds of lichen between three and six feet in height. Unlike many of the chambers in the Old City this hall was quite low, with a ceiling only twelve feet or so above.
Not wishing contact with the lichen, Armand began using a ray of frost to freeze it, destroying it in small patches in order to clear a path to the Viridescent Tablet. However, one of the rays struck a mound of lichen. With a dull, inhuman moan, one the mounds oshivered, spraying bits of damp lichen everywhere. The thing wrenched itself from the surrounding lichen and raises what the adventurers realized were arms, covered in the revolting, throbbing lichen. It moved towards them as if to embrace them, mewling pathetically from a black pit of a mouth, blinding groping.
The party leapt quickly into action, with Garvin sending a crossbow quarrel directly into its “face,” where its eye might be. Sister conjured a sacred flame to incinerate the creature while Caulis, Yam, and Armand attacked with spells of their own. The thing was too slow to close the gap and was quickly destroyed. Armand resumed his careful clearing of the lichen and managed to clear a path to the plinth. The plinth itself seemed to be free of any obvious traps.
At this point, Yam produced from a bulging pack a curious item – a piratical flag. Waving off quizzical entreaties Yam draped the flag over the Tablet. Armand, having got a quick glance at the runes on the Tablet, began bleeding from the nose. He picked the Tablet up and the party made haste to leave, even while the remaining mounds in the room stirred, alerted by the loss of the Tablet. With the lichenous shamblers slowly pursuing them, the party hurriedly left the chamber and made their way back to the Whorl.
The trip back to the sewers proved easier than the descent, although Garvin, shaken by his experiences, was momentarily tormented by what sounded like the voices of the party themselves only a few hours ago, heading down the passage towards them. Ignoring these echoes, the party ascended and returned to the sewers.
On the way back to the surface the party briefly encountered a group of toshers – child sewer-scavengers led by an ancient gnome, Sly Rufus. After purchasing a key to the Reanimator’s Guildhouse from the wily scavenger, the party heard him describe how many of his scavengers were being kidnapped by the sewer witch known as Wicked Peggy. Rufus offered rewards for the hag’s death. Too exhausted from their expedition to take the man up on the matter at the moment, they requested a guide to lead them back to the streets safely, which Rufus provided at a small fee.
The party returned to Caulchurch by boat, the Tablet carried by the surprisingly strong Armand. After some small disputes with a nonetheless delighted Professor Valdemar Sluice over payment, the adventurers big one another good evening, agreeing to work together in future should the opportunity present itself.
Images: Édouard Riou‘s illustrations for Voyage au centre de la Terre, Giovanni Battista Piranesi’s Carceri, Ernst Haeckel’s sketches, engraving of Megatherium, Don Pedro’s engraving of a sheep, SEM image from Joris M. Koene and Hinrich Schulenburg, “Shooting darts: co-evolution and counter-adaptation in hermaphroditic snails,” Harry Clarke’s “Silence” and “The Tell Tale Heart,” Howard V. Brown’s illustrations for At the Mountains of Madness and The Shadow Out of Time, screenshots from The Last of Us and Dishonored.
The characters in this session were:
XP Awarded: 100 XP.
To live in Hex is to live in want of money – be you a student up to her eyes in debts, a contract lecturer living hand to mouth in dim hope of tenure, a profligate gambler left penniless from the chance-halls of Groanwell, or one of the city’s numberless poor simply trying to survive. So, when a well-funded Professor of Transmogrification offered handsomely paid work for those willing to take risks and get their hands dirty, it didn’t take long for a roster of suitable would-be adventurers to appear.
The party was instructed to meet this Professor – Valdemar Sluice, Doctor of Magical Philosophy – at his laboratory in Caulchurch, the Alchemist’s Ward. In the depths of the district the air was smoky, thick with glutinous wafts of acrid, headache-making vapour. Street-sellers hawked crude gas-masks and goggles, purchased with gratitude at exorbitant price by those coughing, weeping passersby who don’t already possess such equipment. Signs alerted those who eschew such protective measures that they inhaled the fumes of Caulchurch at their own risk, warning of unpredictable magical effects.
The door to Sluice’s laboratory was unlocked. Within was a huge chamber with a soaring ceiling. The remnants of ecclesiastical murals were still visible like flaking ghosts beneath a patina of soot, stains, and complicated charts showing everything from the movements of the stars to alchemical formulae to vivisected bodies. Several bookshelves were crammed into niches that might have held prayer-books or relics. Elaborately interconnected glassware bubbled and seethed on a series of long, finely carved tables, spattered with acid-burns. The apparatus was tended by a solitary homunculus in a somewhat ragged apron.
A small fruit-tree was growing out of the floor where an altar might have stood, a tall window of stained orange glass giving it sun, a miniature rain-cloud periodically watering it. The tree seemed like a mundane orange tree. Then, suddenly, the stained glass window shifted in colour, becoming red. The tree shivered slightly, and the plump oranges amidst its branches incarnadined, becoming apples instead.
Presiding over the laboratory from a small levitating armchair was Professor Sluice, a thin-limbed man with massive spectacles, scrutinizing the bubbling substances below and making notes in a large book. He wore a richly embroidered but rather tattered waistcoat and a yellowing shirt, giving him the air of a well-heeled but rather distracted gentleman. A great shock of dark hair shot through with grey erupted from his head. As the party entered, his floating chair swiveled; he adjusted his spectacles, and directed his chair to settle behind a large desk strewn with papers and books. After introductions, Sluice launched into his explanation of the job.
“The job is relatively simple, really,” Professor Sluice said with a shrug. “Well, in theory. Please, listen carefully, and keep your questions till the end.” He adopted the pedantic tones of a lecturer.
“You see, there’s an artefact down in the Old City I’d like to get my hands on – the Viridescent Tablet, a text much-alluded to by other works of the Librarians, and said to contain within it knowledge of disease, decay and corruption. I believe I can use this Tablet in my research into the panchrest – an elixir capable of curing any illness. Imagine we could reverse the processes of decomposition, could conquer time itself and spit in the eye of sickness… we could bring relief to those poor wretches suffering in Catch-All, perhaps even undo some of the damage we dealt to Teratopolis.
“Through long and meticulous researches I have at last pinpointed what I believe is the location of the Viridescent Tablet. The Old City, you see, possesses many hidden chambers, rooms and passages snarled in an impossible skein of paraphysical existence. We have been here for centuries, but we have only scratched the surface of the Library. There are vast spaces, enormous halls containing knowledge undreamt-of, lying beneath our feet, so close and yet beyond our grasp…” He shook his head.
“Anyway. As I said, I have found the resting place of the Viridescent Tablet. I think the Tablet is being kept in a part of the Old City somewhere beneath Shambleside and Corvid Commons – more specifically, in the tunnels below Gloaming Street. You’ll have to find your way to the sewers beneath the street, and from there into the Old City.
“Once you’re in the Old City you’ll be searching for a place called the Whorl – a single corridor that seems to be spiralling into itself forever, impossibly. I believe, however, that the Whorl is actually a kind of gateway, or secret passage, placed by the Librarians to protect the Viridescent Tablet. I am unsure how, exactly, the Whorl can be navigated, but my researches suggest that it is as much a mental as physical impediment – a kind of psychic lock. If you can find a way to open it, the Whorl should deposit you at the resting place of the Viridescent Tablet. In theory, at least…
“The tablet should be safe enough to handle, though I might recommend the use of gloves. I would also strongly advise against reading anything you see upon it, or even looking too long at its glyphs. Now.” Professor Sluice sifts through his papers and slides a sheaf tied with a black ribbon across the desk. “I have procured a few rough maps to aid you in your search, and added some sketches based on my research concerning the location of the Tablet.”
Sluice gifted the party with healing potions (which turned out to have some unusual side-effects) as well as some rough maps of the area in question. He told them that the Tablet was held somewhere in the Old City tunnels deep beneath Shambleside, one of the city’s necromantic districts, and that it was protected by something called the “Whorl,” a kind of “psychic lock.”
After purchasing some gasmasks to protect themselves from sewer-miasmas the party set out, taking a water taxi across the Radula to Stumpridge and making their way south to Corvid Commons – a crime-ridden slum in the southeast of Hex.
Crabbed roofs jutted overhead; drunkenly leaning walls of crumbling stone and rotting wood and lichen-infested brick crowded close. Most of these were rambling tenements or tiny, wretched bars with unwholesome names like the Clock & Cleaver, the Flayed Gnome, the Bloated Flea, and the Lady with the Bloodstained Fan.
These filthy little drinking holes were interspersed with a handful of shadetea houses and other drug-dens perfuming the streets with their narcotic smoke, as well as the odd pawnshop or knife-vendor. The buildings were stacked madly atop one another, held together with chipping plaster and broken planks. In places they enclose the streets entirely, forming gloomy tunnels.
Faded posters and chaotic graffiti mottled every surface: gang signs, territorial markers, wanted posters, threats, pornography, subversive political slogans. Narrow streets and twisted alleyways wound into fetid darkness in such fecund profusion they seem like living things, coiling and breeding in the grimy depths of the district, spawning fresh litters of side-streets.
Though Garvin, Vespidae, and Alabastor were stealthy enough to slink through the district surreptitiously, the well-dressed popinjay Armand attracted the attention of a group of toughs affiliated with the Crowsbeak Thieves’ Guild who accosted the party-members demanding valuables. Skillful haggling and a silvered tongue managed to reduce the “toll” by a sizeable amount and the party continued to Gloaming Street. After scrutinizing their map and asking around about the best way into the sewers they settled on the Phantom Queen tavern, which, they learned, is built atop a casino in the undercity, the Rat & Roach, and provides access to the tunnels below. Vespidae managed to smuggle the party’s weapons into the tavern by flying to an open window, aided by an Unseen Servant carrying parts of the arsenal, while Alabastor distracted the bouncers with showmanship and legedermain. The rest of the party entered and discretely retrieved their weapons from the sly waspkin. Here they discovered the reason for the tavern’s name.
Inside, a mixed crowd of humans, ghouls, and a few other species caroused in a room smelling of blood, rotgut, and sweat. More than a few of the patrons sported tattoos telling of criminal affiliations. The furnishings were crafted from bones, and some of the servers are reanimated skeletons or shuffling revenants. The barkeep proved to be a huge, jolly woman with a crude crown sitting lopsided on her head, her ectoplasmic flesh translucent – a ghost, haunting the bar she tends.
After heading down a rickety elevator into the Rat & Roach – those with Thieves’ Marks were able to enter freely, while others either forged the mark or posed as retainers – the party made their way through a series of subterannean streets. Here they found a community of ghouls and scavengers eking out a filthy, troglodytic existence, subsiting on the effluvial provender of the sewers.
The party then set out into the sewers, donning their gasmasks. Lenore, Garvin’s zoog, used its luminous eyes to light the way, sparing the party the need to kindle flames – with so many flammable gases around, torches would be perilous. Armand also provided magical light. Hoping to avoid “Wicked Peggy’s Domain” – some of the party had heard rumours of the cannibal hag and bogeywoman of Shambleside, Wicked Peggy – the party made their way south through the tunnels, eventually disovering a flooded tunnel that, according to their map, should lead to the Old City. They also discovered a body floating in the canal, with two puncture marks in its neck.
Searching for a means of draining the tunnel, the party made their way deeper into the fetid darkness, coming to an area beneath the gruesome reanimation factories above. Here they discovered a series of shafts in which rejected corpses are hurled from above.
A dirty, slanting shaft in the ceiling gaped above a pile of rotting corpses heaped before the party, all of them malformed in some way: corpses badly mangled or dismembered, burnt or broken-boned, or simply misshapen. The cadaverous heap swarmed with maggots, flies, and rats. A few of the corpses were partially tattooed with glyphs, though some look as if the tattooist made a mistake of some kind.
A rumbling sound from above could be heard when the party neared the shaft, and another body slid down to join its decomposing fellows below with a sickening smack. This one seemed to have been abandoned part-way through the reanimation process, its skin still slick with eldritch ink. It moaned dully in vacuous confusion and twitched a single working arm…
Hastening on from this macabre heap the party investigated the various store-rooms and maintenance chambers. They discovered some embalming fluid, to which they helped themselves, but were disturbed to find a quantity of thread and several sets of rusting scissors.
As they at last turned the valve to drain the tunnel in question of sewage, they heard the unmistakable sound of something moving nearby – and the eerie metallic rasp of scissors, opening and closing. Alarmed by this sound, they rapidly made their way towards the previously flooded tunnel, Alabastor casting a minor illusion to distract whatever was closing in as the party made their way down the now-drained shaft.
At the end of the tunnel the party discovered a sealed entrance to the Old City, which through arcane insight the homuncular warlock Caulis was able to open. After perusing several thoroughly looted archive chambers within the echoing enormity of the Library the party located the Whorl, a seemingly endless spiral passage winding perpetually and impossibly in on itself. Attempting to leave the way they came proved fruitless: the Whorl extended in all directions, trapping them in its endlessness. The party also tried walking backwards, again to no effect. Experiments with rope, slung between characters, proved more confusing than conclusive.
Caulis, with the aid of Armand and several others, began studying the ancient glyphs inscribed on the walls. The glyphs turened out to be a kind of metaphysical treatise insisting that time and space do not exist as differentiated concepts and events do not occur in a sequence. But because of consciousness, we perceive reality as animals existing at a finite point in space and time, a kind of subjective illusion. The author ultimately seemed to resist pure solipsism, claiming that the world-in-itself cannot be fathomed by material intelligences. Puzzled and annoyed by this crypticism, they continued their search, discovering a series of spirals scrawled on the walls, then a skeleton – judging from the bullet hole in its skull and the pistol clutched in its bony hand, a suicide. Vespidae decided to take the pistol for herself.
Searching the body produced a diary, the mouldering pages of which the party examined with mounting horror. The diary detailed a doomed expedition that became lost in the Whorl; its members seemed to include Alexander, a youth of good birth who became obssessed with the spiral shape of the Whorl, and Xavier, who disappeared during the journey.
“Mossday, 3rd of the Month of Murmurs
The date above is based only on the revolutions of my pocketwatch, which I no longer trust. Such fickle concepts as time no longer seem reliable in this wretched place. It would be one thing if we were trapped in a maze, but this is infinitely worse – there is simply no way out. We have tried walking forwards, backwards, tried separating and walking in different directions… nothing. Ever inwards the spiral twists, but we grow no closer to the center! It defies all laws of physics & paraphysics of which I am aware.
I am worried about Xavier. A steady diet of this strange lichen has left him weak and somewhat crazed-looking. Alexander seems more robust physically, being a boy of but two-and-twenty, but he fiddles queerly with that signet ring of his, and I have caught him drawing spirals in the dust when we camp and he thinks no one is looking.
I am not a claustrophobic man by nature, but this place is unbearable. I wake and sleep and wake and see the same walls, the same unwholesome markings, the same eerie grey & tasteless lichen, hear only the drip of water and the panicked heartbeats of my companions. I think, sometimes, that we must have left the Old City altogether and stumbled into some diabolical circle of Hell, that our souls are trapped here for eternity as punishment for our sins.
Magistra preserve us… I must not think such things, or I will lose what meagre shreds of sanity I still possess.
Scaleday, 7th of the Month of Murmurs
Our condition worsens. Alexander has given up all pretence and now scratches spirals on the walls with his little dagger, and stares at us quite disconcertingly if we object, saying nothing. Xavier has become increasingly close-mouthed. He goes for hours without speaking, and sometimes, when walking, I see him closing his eyes, wandering with one hand touching the wall, to keep his balance. It is as if he is trying to live a second life in his mind. I refuse to give in to such fancies.
We spent a good portion of the previous day simply studying the glyphs. They seem to mix arcane formulae with metaphysical speculation, from what we can translate; the dialect is unusual, and there is some cipher or code obfuscating portions of the text. What we have managed to “interpret” is sheer madness – a vision of the world as one single totality, a kind of throbbing, absolute unity that makes a mockery of our individual minds. I am forced to conclude that the Librarians included the glyphs as part of the torturous nature of this place – an evil jest.
Whether or not there have been previous explorers in this wretched prison, I believe we are not alone down here. In the darkness when we rest I have heard something moving, far off down the passage – though not far enough. It scrapes and scuttles, and once I swear I heard a hiss of indrawn breath. What manner of horror stalks these endlessly circling halls?
Goatday, 11th of the Month of Thorns
Xavier has vanished! One minute we were walking along together, puzzling over the glyphs – Alexander is intent upon transcribing them, believing they must tell the secret of escaping this place – and the next he had sprinted ahead round the bend. Alexander and I rushed to catch up with him, but we found no trace. There were some confused footprints in the dust, then nothing… Either he found some way of escaping, or something ill has befallen him. We lingered for some time where he seemed to have disappeared, seeking for some hidden passage or egress, but to no avail.
Something else disturbing has occured. When we made camp this night I discovered a series of spirals scratched on the wall, just like the ones Alexander has been making. Unless some other inmate of this desolate spiral has done the same, we are somehow circling back on ourselves.
When I woke this morning (morning! Ha! As if the term had any meaning, anymore…) I felt it, lurking over us, though I could not see it in the dark. I felt it move past us as Alexander scratched his spirals in the walls and crooned to himself. He paid it no heed, just kept scratching, murmuring to himself. I smelled it, smelled its rancid stench. Heard its legs skittering, skittering…
Starday? Some point in the Month of Owls, or Dust
Ink is running out, but it matters not. I will soon be quit of this place. I have discovered the secret, the secret of escape. Alexander would not believe me, he obsesses over the glyphs, will not listen.
This is all an illusion. A dream-world into which the Old City has enveloped us. There is only one way out – death. A quick bullet to the brain and I will awake, return to the real world, and end this nightmare.
The skittering comes. I can hear the Dweller nearing. I must make haste!”
Unnerved, the party pressed onward, studying the glyphs carefully. At this time, Armand intuited – through some mysterious subterannean sense of direction in no way related to a hidden ghoulish heritage (how dare it be suggested!) – that they were not moving. Caulis, with the aid of other party members, speculated that perhaps the key to defeating the Whorl was a frame of mind – to move forward without focusing on escaping. Emptying their minds, the party began again, and this time Armand did perceive movement forwards; the Whorl even began sloping downwards. Like a finger-trap, the Whorl releases its prisoners when they cease struggling.
But the party’s trials were not yet over. They discovered a second skeleton – this one seemingly belonging to Garvin Otherwise! The rogue’s exact equipment seemed to have been duplicated. The living Garvin, experimentally, counted thirteen coins in his pursue, dropped one, then checked the purse of his skeletal double – which had twelve coins. Retrieving the thirteenth coin with a chuckle, Garvin reasoned he had proven the Whorl was not “predicting” his destiny in some fashion.
As the party began looting the corpse of their companion’s temporal duplicate, they heard footsteps from around a bend in the Whorl, and a haggard figure, heavily bearded and clad in rags, stumbled into view, a dagger in hand, a green ring on his finger. Vespidae, either out of panic or instinct, fired the pistol at the approaching figure, shooting off the man’s ear in a spray of blood. Screaming, the man began chanting the syllables of a spell, but the intervention of Alabastor and Armand managed to convince the madman to cease his hostility.
The party provided the wounded man with one of the healing potions provided by Professor Sluice, which turned out to be tainted with alchemical residues – inflicting amnesia on the poor man! Fortunately, this actually seemed to relieve some of bearded lunatic’s distress. He identified himself as Alexander and claimed to be on an expedition to retrieve the Viridescent Tablet himself.
Continuing down the Whorl – Alexander now in tow – the party began to feel uneasy, as skittering sounds could be heard behind them, drawing closer. As the Whorl sloped ever steeper, the skittering became louder and louder, along with a hideous chittering noise. While Bjorn panicked and ran down the corridor, the rest of the party kept a level head and continued on placidly, not focusing on escape.
Moments later, they emerged from the Whorl, quite safe, the skittering behind them suddenly gone…
Images: Gustave Doré‘s “Drury Lane,” screenshots from Outlast and Riven, Mervyn Peake’s “Ancient Mariner.”
My, this place is looking dusty!
I will hopefully be doing a bit more posting here soon, as I’m hopefully going to DMing a 5th edition game sometime in the not-too-distant future.
For now, check out this blog post I wrote on It Follows for the International Gothic Association.
The Belle de Nuit Plantation
The descriptions below generally presume that the characters are exploring the plantation at night, but they may wait for the day, in which case any Vampires of Vampire Spawn will be resting rather than active; adjust descriptions accordingly.-
The plantation should be treated essentially as an outdoor dungeon, the various buildings functioning much like rooms.
The Green Maiden
A steamboat – or what remains of one – lies beached on the bank of the bayou. The vessel has been reduced to a charred skeleton of a craft, its beams blackened, its pilothouse an incinerated stump. It looks like anything of value that might have been found in the boat has been stripped. Detritus and a few partially burnt bodies bob in the water around the vessel. Beneath the soot and burn-marks you can just make out the name of the boat – The Green Maiden.
Perception DC 20 to notice several other steamboats that have been sunk to the bottom of the bayou.
The slave quarters are now used as a kind of prison, run by the Vampiric overseer. Passengers snatched from steamboats or even bred on the plantation can be found here was well as in some of the animal pens in other parts of the plantation. A number of Vampire Spawn and other creatures also lair in this area.
The former slave cabins are grouped in a kind of village here. They’re small wooden houses, little more than shacks; many have had their doors and windows boarded up. You can hear noises coming from several of them. There are roughly two dozen cabins in all. Gaunt, shadowy figures shamble between the cabins as if patrolling.
The shambling figures are 10 Juju Zombies created by the former slave, now Vampire Dorothea, who lives in the plantation house. Being attacked by one of these undead guards provokes a Sanity check (1/1d6). The Zombies can still function in sunlight and thus ensure that the prisoners in the cabins do not escape.
All cabin doors are locked (Disable Device DC 25 to pick, Strength DC 22 to force). Those containing human prisoners are also usually boarded up, requiring an addition Strength check (DC 22) to remove the boards, unless the characters use weapons. The overseer’s key opens the doors. Most cabins have roughly the following properties:
The cabin has a rough dirt floor. Its walls are lined with mouldering bunks, and a tiny, rusted stove sits in one corner. There’s a strong smell of rot.
There are 26 cabins total. Their inhabitants and other contents are shown below:
1 – 4 Vampire Spawn slumber here during the day, but at night they can be found in the kitchen yard and elsewhere in the grounds.
2 – 6 human prisoners are crammed into the filthy room of this cabin – survivors of the Green Maiden. Unlike many, they’re not infected with marsh fever.
3 – 5 human prisoners are quartered here, all of them sick with marsh fever and hallucinating violently. A sixth has been cannibalized, her blood spattering the walls and floor, gnawed bones scattered everywhere (Sanity check 1/1d4+1).
4 – 4 human prisoners are crammed in here, not afflicted with fever badly malnourished. Two corpses moulder in the corner, but the prisoners have not brought themselves to touch them. The smell is atrocious as the cadavers begin to rot.
5 – 3 Vampire Spawn slumber here during the day, but at night they can be found working in the plantation house.
6 – 4 human corpses lie in this room, all dead from fever. An appalling stench requires a Fortitude save of DC 15; otherwise, those in the room are Sickened for 1 hour.
7 – 5 human prisoners are quartered here, 3 of them near-death from exsanguination.
8 – 3 human corpses lie here, all of them bloodless. After sundown, 2 rise as Vampire Spawn and will begin battering at the door to get out.
9 – This cabin is empty, the floor and walls crusted with old bloodstains. Till recently there were prisoners here, but they died and have been moved to the charnel house in the cemetery.
10 – This cabin is used for storage purposes; heaps of old clothes, some partially rotted, are kept here, along with piles of cheap jewellery (worth a total of 50 gp if gathered up), all of it taken from steamboat passengers.
11 – A solitary Ghoul lives in this room, which is spattered with gore from the creature’s victims – it was a passenger who resorted to cannibalizing its fellows before dying and revivifying in Ghoul form. The sight of it crouched amidst a mass of bones provokes a Sanity check (1/1d6). Unlike the Ghouls in the cemetery it has not yet been let loose.
12 – This cabin has lost its roof and part of its wall; it’s uninhabited.
13 – 2 drugged, unconscious human prisoners (former passengers) are kept here, both covered in leeches from the cistern (see below).
14 – A dying human woman and two corpses can be found here; the woman is bruised and bleeding from a pair of ugly bite-marks in her neck, and the corpses both have been staked with bits of snapped-off furniture. The woman has been severely traumatized by having to kill the two Vampire Spawn (her sisters) who attempted to drain her after revivifying.
15 – 3 swamp-folk have been taken prisoner here; they may be helpful allies against the Vampires, but are currently unarmed. None are infected by fever.
16 – The doctor Terrence Merrick is kept here, along with 2 other prisoners and 1 corpse from the Green Maiden. Though afflicted with fever the doctor may be of use against the Vampires, or in treating the infected.
17 – This damp, empty cabin has been given over to brown mold.
18 – There’s a hole in the roof of this cabin, which contains 3 charred skeletons – Vampire Spawn, newly revivified, who were killed by sunlight.
19 – 6 human prisoners are crammed into the filthy room of this cabin – survivors of the Green Maiden. 3 are infected with marsh fever and beginning to lose it; 3 are still uninfected, for now.
20 – A large hole in the floor here leads down for 20 ft. into the Nest. Otherwise, the cabin is uninhabited. Unlike the disused tunnel in the springhouse, this entrance is frequently utilized by the plantation owners and their minions in addition to the entrance in the cellars of the plantation house.
21 – 4 human prisoners from an older steamboat are imprisoned here, quite mad but otherwise reasonably healthy. They will perceive any rescuers as Undead and likely attack them or cower in fear.
22 – A swarm of rats afflicted with marsh fever instead of filth fever feasts on five human corpses here, several little more than skeletons. The rats live in the rotting walls and roof of the cabin. Being attacked by the swarm provokes a Sanity check (0/1d4).
23 – This cabin is used for storage purposes – heaps of cutlery, plates, pots, and dozens of bottles of wine, brandy, ale, absinthe, and other liquor. The cutlery isn’t especially valuable, but there are seventeen bottles of fine wine (10 gp each) in amongst the heap of bottles. The bottles could be used as makeshift grenades or as a means of starting a large fire (say, burning down the plantation house).
24 – 5 human prisoners are crammed in here, including the former captain of the Green Maiden, Mortimer Oldstone (a foreigner, as it happens, from Mordent), who wants revenge against the Vampires. 2 are suffering from marsh fever.
25 – 3 Ghouls and a Ghast feast on the jaundiced bodies of several dead prisoners here. If discovered by Vampire Spawn they will be driven off – they killed these prisoners without prior permission.
26 – 2 Vampire Spawn children dwell here during the day. At night they can be found by the animal pens, “playing.”
A wooden building somewhat larger than the slave cabins moulders at the edge of the slave quarters here, its roof decaying, its windows boarded up.
This looks to be an infirmary: there are a number of beds, as well as some rusted-looking medical equipment scattered about the counter of a large glass cabinet storing numerous bottles and jars, as well as bandages and similar supplies. Footprints through the thick layer of grime suggest that this place does occasionally see use.
There’s a masterwork healer’s kit here, along with 10 phials of antiplague, 6 phials of antitoxin, 12 doses of smelling salts, 6 doses of stillgut, 4 doses of soul stimulant, 3 doses of vitus flask, 4 potions of Delay Poison, and 6 potions of Restoration. There are various other reagents, here, but they are not especially useful on their own.
A small house only a little larger than the slave cabins sits at the edge of the slave’s quarters. It’s in slightly better repair than some of the other structures here, but fungus still mottles the wooden walls, and the chimney has collapsed. The windows have all been boarded up.
The overseer’s house is always locked – Disable Device DC 25 to pick, Strength DC 25 to force.
Inside are two rooms – the front room and bedroom.
You enter the parlour or front room of the house, a small, cluttered chamber with a ragged but rich-looking rug on the floor and faded landscapes on the walls. Old books and records are stacked haphazardly here. There’s also a few chairs, a hearth, and a cabinet of duty crockery. Cobwebs shroud the ceiling, and there’s a strong smell of mildew. A door, slightly ajar, leads to the next room.
The bedroom contains not a bed but a wooden coffin overflowing with rancid-smelling grave-dirt. Empty bottles smeared blackish-red are scattered about the room like a drunkard’s leavings. A stained, round table stands to one side, a coiled whip upon it. A heavy wooden chest sits at the foot of the bed.
During the day, the overseer slumbers in the coffin; during the night he drinks blood at the table. The overseer:
The overseer of the plantation is a corpulent, bloodless creature with red-smeared lips. At his belt a ring of keys jangles; in one bloated hand he holds a mostly-emptied bottle of half-clotted blood. His tatterdemalion clothes are stiff from old bloodstains.
This horror provokes a Sanity check (1/1d6). Statistics are supplied in the Appendix.
If a fight breaks out at night in the slave quarters he will likely come and investigate instead of remaining in the house. His keys can be used to open any of the doors in the slave quarters.
The chest (locked – Disable Device DC 30 to open) contains 123 gp
The kitchen yard is a large courtyard enclosed by a low stone wall, just behind the plantation house. Eight buildings can be found here. Overgrown with weeds and grass, the kitchen yard is nonetheless one of the more active parts of the plantation, as evinced by the well-trod paths that lead to and from several buildings and up to the back door of the house.
At any given time there’s a 50% chance that a group of 1d4 Vampire Spawn are roaming here on some errand or other, provided it’s at night. Sounds of fighting have a 25% chance of attracting a pack of 6+1d6 Ghouls from the cemetery.
The cookhouse – a detached kitchen – stands not far from the main plantation house here, and unlike most of the outbuildings it hasn’t yet reached complete dilapidation, though ivy and moss grow on its brick walls and obscure its windows. The building is long and low, with two entrances, one boarded shut. You can hear movement from within, followed by chilling screams!
A scene of horror assails you as you enter – a young man, pale and haggard-looking but still alive – is being prepared for a meal, here, as a yellow-eyed man in blood-spattered chef’s whites extracts the screaming victim’s entrails. The man has been pinned to the table with metal cooking skewers.
“Quit yer yammering and hold still,” the gruesome cook instructs irritably. “Chitterlings ain’t gonna stew themselves ya know!”
Two other pallid, shuffling figures lurk in the background, busying themselves with grimy pots and pans by the large stove. A third grinds sausage in the corner. Cabinets full of more cookware and preserved herbs line the walls.
This macabre cookery-in-progress provokes a Sanity check (1/1d4+1). There are four Vampire Spawn here who attack immediately if disturbed, provoking a second Sanity check (1/1d6). The head cook has a copy of the servant’s key.
Though salt is absolutely never used in food preparation here, four large sacks of the stuff can be found in one of the cabinets. They’ve lain here for the better part of a century: the cooks can’t touch the stuff. The salt can be used to create a safe place to rest even in the heart of the plantation.
The old laundry or washhouse of the plantation is badly decayed, a long wooden building with broken windows and a roof riddled with bird’s nests and moss. The door stands open.
Despite the decrepitude of the building the washhouse looks to be one of the plantation outbuildings still in use: clothes hang from several lines stretched across the room, and there are basins and tubs for washing. Though several are full of dirty, stagnant water, another with cleaner water is being used by a bloodless, yellow-eyed woman in rags, washing a fine shirt.
This former slave is now a Vampire Spawn. If she attacks a Sanity check (1/1d6) is required. She has a copy of the servant’s key.
A dilapidated wooden shack with peeling white paint and a shingle roof now mostly rotten, letters over the door indicate that this was the milkhouse. The windows have been boarded up.
Shelves with old milk bottles line the walls of this room, filled not with milk but with semi-coagulated blood, thinned to keep it liquescent. A butter churn with a wooden plunger sits in one corner, though it looks to have been used to churn organs and cruor rather than butter. Almost every surface has been spattered with blood.
The gruesome milkhouse provokes a mild Sanity check (0/1d3). The bottles of blood can be used to throw Vampires off the scent and to distract Vampire Spawn for 1d4 rounds if broken – the Spawn stops to lap up the blood, although they will defend themselves if attacked. Full-fledged Vampires are not so easily distracted.
The smokehouse is a small building with a sloped roof, now riddled with moss and lichens. The walls are of crumbling, discoloured brick. There are no windows, and only a single entrance. A firebox half-buried in the earth stands to one side.
Within the smokehouse, dismembered human limbs and decapitated heads dangle from where hams might once have dried. Smoke has preserved these gruesome morsels, piped in from a hole in the floor, though currently the firebox outside is unlit. Despite the preservation flies buzz about the body parts, and some writhe with maggots.
Sight of the meat provokes a Sanity check (1/1d4+1). Though there is no treasure here, the human body parts can be used to distract Ghouls or other flesh-eating Undead, as well as animals. Throwing the meat will buy characters 1d4 rounds while a Ghoul or other creature devours the morsel (obviously, Ghouls will still defend themselves if attacked while feeding).
A two-storey octagonal tower of stone, the pigeonaire has a steeply angled roof. Masses of black ivy strangle the tower and obscure the solitary entrance. Small holes in the side of the building would allow pigeons to enter or exit.
The ivy must be hacked aside to gain access to the pigeonaire; the door is also swollen shut, requiring a DC 20 Strength check to open, and locked, openable with a servant’s key.
The pigeon holes piercing the sides of the tower admit slender shafts of light here. The bloodless husks of birds, and small rodents cover the floor, along with hundreds of tiny, crunching bones. Small, leathery shapes roost in some of the pigeon-holes, and you can see a number of eggs in nests of twigs and bones as well.
During the night, the swarm of stirges that dwells in this building are out mostly out hunting – only 1d12 will be encountered here at any given time, these half-full (they will only drain 2 Con before being sated). During the day, all 36 of them roost here, and will attack any characters who disturb their nest. Like her pet mimic and many of the Undead kept in the barn, the stirges are the result of Damienne’s strange experiments. All of them carry marsh fever. The swarm will pursue characters from the pigeonaire if disturbed. If any of the stirges are killed at night their shrill keening will attract others of their ilk, and within a minute another 5+1d12 of them will arrive at the pigeonaire to defend the nest.
The only way to deter the stirges is to offer them blood – a large quantity of it can be found in the milkhouse, and there are also animals in the pens. If sufficient blood is spilled, the stirges will drink it instead of attacking, and, once sated, will ignore intruders.
Attack by the stirges provokes a Sanity check (0/1d4).
While most of the animal pens are outside the kitchen yard, a derelict chicken house moulders in the shadow of the pigeonaire, here. A fenced outdoor coop lined with etiolated straw sprawls beside the chicken house itself. The coop is strewn with scraps of some translucent, scaly substance. There’s no sign of any chickens, but you can sense something moving inside…
Within the low-ceilinged chicken house are rows of perches and nesting areas for chickens. Instead of birds, however, the house has a different occupant: a massive, coiled snake. It moves sluggishly, its eyes gleaming with an unearthly light; you can see that its body is putrescent and partially decomposed, patches of missing scales and flesh exposing rotten muscle and innards. Hissing, the undead snake slithers slowly towards you, tasting the air with its forked tongue!
This zombie constrictor (see Appendix for statistics) is one of Damienne’s experiments; she keeps it here as a pet, feeding it scraps from the kitchen. Seeing the creature provokes a Sanity check (1/1d6).
You approach a round, brick building with a rotten wooden door and a domed roof. Mildew mottles the decaying brickwork.
This building is a cistern, a central depression in the floor holding a large quantity of water. Buckets are piled near the rim of the depression.
Three leech swarms lurk in the water, here – Stealth is +16 in the (relatively) clean water, assuming adequate light or vision. The Vampires are breeding them in the cistern; they occasionally have a prisoner thrown into the water and drained. Their corpse is then hauled out and the leeches removed. The Vampires can then feed on the leeches, cutting them open to get at the blood within. This is somewhat easier than bringing a prisoner into the plantation house. Other times thralls will cut the leech open and drain it of blood, to be bottled and stored in the milkhouse.
Being attacked by the leech swarms provokes a Sanity check (0/1d4).
A half-buried wooden structure protrudes from a mound of dirt here. The door is shut.
The door is swollen shut and requires a DC 20 Strength check to open.
Foodstuffs might once have been kept in this cool, gloomy spring house, which has become infested with mould and mildew, puffballs of fungus riddling the walls and yellowish mould covering almost every surface, filling the air with spores and a sour pungency. There’s an old well here, leading down into darkness.
The well now connects with the Nest below the Plantation House. This entrance is not used by the Vampires or Elders and has largely been forgotten about. Perception DC 25 to hear soft footsteps padding down below, and the faint echo of a moan…
The fungus riddling the walls is dangerous yellow mould that bursts forth spores if the room is explored at all.
An old, crumbling well sits in the middle of the kitchen yard; the shaft descends down into blackness.
The well leads directly to the Summoning Pool, but it’s tricky to enter this way – Climb DC 30. Falling, however, is not especially dangerous in and of itself, since the Pool lies below. Of course, anyone who falls in will have to face several Elders…
Two rather handsome coaches stand in the carriage house here, the rotten doors hanging off the building’s hinges to reveal the vehicles within. The large carriages are black, with heavily shrouded windows; anyone inside would be safe from the sun, with the curtains drawn. Four horses would be required to draw the heavy carriages.
The carriages are fully useable. Each carriage can hold up to 6 passengers in the cab.
A repellent, rotten odour wafts from the decrepit stables, their roof weighed down by moss and hideous fungal growths. Something whickers from within…
The horses stabled here are grey, dull-eyed things covered in necromantic glyphs. A few near the back have decomposed – putrescent, hoofed horrors, their near-fleshless equine skulls gleaming. There are twelve in all. The hay here is matted, filthy, and brittle.
The horses attack any non-undead who approaches them, provoking a Sanity check (1/1d6).
Little remains of the former blacksmith’s workshop but a few scattered tools and loose timbers.
A set of blacksmith’s tools can be scavenged here.
This small building might once have been a schoolhouse. A small, dark hand-print stains the front door…
At night, young voices can be heard inside, and giggling.
Small desks fill most of this room, which has a large chalkboard on the far wall and piles of dirty books around the periphery. Old blood stains the walls, as if a group of children have been finger-painting. The chalkboard is covered in Aklo letters.
At night, several undead children and a teacher will be present – naturally, some Vampire Spawn created from passengers are children. Statistics are included in the Appendix.
Half a dozen young children – all of them pallid and well-dressed – sit in the desks, watching a lesson from a gaunt, white-skinned woman; she appears to be instructing them in some sort of religious matter, leading them in a hideous chant.
This area is mostly shunned by the Vampires, since the church itself is consecrated ground. While they dump bodies in the Charnel House, they rarely come here. However, the entire area has been overrun with Ghouls and Ghasts – mostly former prisoners who cannibalized one another and then rose from the dead due to the necromantic energy emanating from the White Leech. These feral creatures are not under the control of the Vampires, but maintain a largely peaceable relationship. However, they tend to resent the Vampires’ control of the plantation – after all, they’re former prisoners – and may prove useful allies if carefully negotiated with. Their leader, Susana Gautreau, now known as Madame Yellow-Teeth, can be found in the mausoleum.
The cemetery is a muddy, overgrown expanse, the grass nearly waist height. Dozens of rotting wooden grave-markers protrude from the damp earth, along with a handful of stone slabs, mostly hidden by vegetation. Many of the graves have been disturbed, some dug up, others clawed open. Splinters of coffins and gnawed bones are scattered about the desecrated graveyard. A dilapidated chapel stands nearby, as well as a long, low building from which an awful stench emanates. Perched on a low hill at one end of the cemetery is a stone mausoleum, its stern, graven doors violated.
At night, somewhere 20+1d20 Ghouls and 3d4 Ghasts roam the cemetery – Perception DC 15 to hear rustling in the grass. They do not necessarily attack on sight, but neither are they friendly to the characters:
Scuttling forms emerge from the high grass, crawling on all fours like beasts. Emaciated and spindly-limbed, these creeping horrors bare grotesque fangs, their pale eyes glowing in the mist. You can smell their reeking breath, a putrescent miasma that makes you gag. The things do not seem to be Vampires or their Spawn – they are too feral, too animalistic. They seem to be very numerous. Circling you and watching you carefully, they make hissing sounds and lick their scabrous lips with grey, swollen tongues.
The pack provoke a Sanity check (1/1d8).
The rickety old clapboard chapel looks thoroughly disused, the paint peeled, windows dusty and cobwebbed. Despite its decrepitude the chapel is strangely peaceful.
The chapel is a place of refuge. The Vampires and their Spawn cannot enter it and even the Ghouls and Ghasts are uncomfortable near it.
A thick layer of dust covers the floor and pews of the chapel. At the far end hangs a rusted shield with the image of an inverted silver sword and a sprig of belladonna adorning it. Scattered about are a number of musty books and scraps of parchment, presumably scriptures, as well as several holy icons in the shape of an inverted sword. One such tome stands on a lectern near the shield.
Any non-Evil character taking refuse of the chapel heals 1d4 Sanity points immediately (this only occurs once).
The book is the First Book of Ezra; it is open to the following page:
“In the time before, in a land cloaked in Mists, there was a woman, and She was Ezra.
Ezra was a healer of the sick and protector of the weak. Such was Her lot in life. Such was Her role in the grand scheme. Ezra took pride in the role Fate had given Her. Her duty was Her joy.
For many years, Ezra healed the lame and watched over Her people. Yet as time went on, Ezra began to see the Hollow. From the Mists of Death came horrors of the night. They were the drinker of blood and the stealer of breath and the beast that rends. Many were their legions. Many were the roles played by darkness in the Grand Scheme.
Ezra knew that Death would come for Her, as it comes to all in time. When Ezra entered the Gray Land, there would be no guardian to fill Her role. There would be no one to stand between Her people and the Legions of the Night.
Ezra set forth on a quest to find a guardian for Her people. She sought the One Pure Heart who would assume Her role. Ezra sought for the One Pure Heart in many lands, but ever did She seek in vain.
In time, Her quest brought Ezra to the end of all things. Behind Ezra stretched all the lands of the world. Before Ezra rose only the Mists of Death.
Ezra spoke to the Mists. Asked She, “The world is yours. You set its shape. Why do you allow its people to wander, lost and afraid?” But the Mists did not answer.
Again Ezra spoke. “Why have you filled your world with the Legions of the Night?” Yet the Mists would not answer.
A third time did Ezra speak. “All things have their role in the Grand Scheme. The Legions of the Night have their place, but Guardians and Guides have their roles in turn.” Still the Mists offered no reply.
Ezra spoke once more. “I have searched all the vastness of your lands, but I have found no Guardians for My people. I have found no Guides for the lost.” Again the Mists were silent.
For the last time did Ezra speak. “You have failed the Grand Scheme. You have created a Hollow that must be filled. If you will not watch over your people, then that task falls to me.” Upon the fifth entreaty did the Mists of Death reply.
From the Mists came a Voice, and the Voice spoke, saying, “Turn back, Mortal. You know nothing of the Grand Scheme. You know nothing of the Mists. You have reached the end of Your world. Continue and You shall find only Your destruction, nothing more.”
Yet Ezra held fast against the Mists, saying, “You cannot bid Me enter, yet I cannot turn away. I offer Myself to you so that you may know the suffering of My People. If I must be destroyed for them, then that is what must be.” The Mists of Death fell silent.
Then the Voice spoke once more. “Enter the Mists if You must, Mortal, but not as You are. Your kind has no place here. To enter the Mists, You must become as one with the Mists. Never again shall You leave them. Will You forever sacrifice Yourself to watch over these few mortals?”
Spoke Ezra, “Such is My role in the Grand Scheme. So must it be.” And with these words did Ezra become Our Guardian in the Mists.”
These aren’t especially relevant to the scenario, but they do provide some interesting insight into the lore of Ravenloft.
The shield on the wall has been imbued by Ezra with holy significance. It functions as a +1 Heavy Steel Shield; once per day it can be used much like an Elysian Shield to release a wave of positive energy that panics undead, as the Turn Undead feat (Will DC 20 negates).
A thorough search of the scattered parchments or a DC 30 Perception roll on a general search reveals a single Scroll of Sunburst (Caster Level 15th).
There are also 8 holy symbols scattered about here – usefully for repelling Vampires.
This fungus-riddled building might be some sort of charnel house. A cloying, putrid reek curdles the air.
A hideous mass of bloodless and jaundiced corpses is piled up within the confines of the charnel house – dozens and dozens of corpses stacked haphazardly, writhing with maggots, their flesh riddled with circular bites. Dragging several of these bodies out of the pile are half a dozen hunched, gruesome creatures scuttling on all fours.
6 Ghouls harvest bodies here; this is essentially their larder. The sight of this appalling heap provokes a Sanity check (1/1d10). Occasionally some of these bodies rise as Spawn and must contend with the Ghouls to survive.
The bodies have been thoroughly looted of valuables.
The mausoleum is quite large and ornate, though overgrown with writhing creepers. Its doors have been forced open, and a vile reek emanates from within…
Within the mausoleum are rows of violated sarcophagi; a black pit gapes at the far end. Squatting amidst the heaps of gnawed bones is a corpulent Ghast or grotesque size, attended by half a dozen Ghouls. The monstrous queen feasts on a human arm with long, yellow fangs. Heaped in a corner are numerous valuables – gold and silver jewellery, fine clothes, and similar items.
This is Madame Yellow-Teeth, the gluttonous Ghast matriarch (Sanity 1/1d6). She is voraciously hungry at all times and will send her minions to fetch the characters as a snack – unless they convince her otherwise. If they persuade her that getting rid of the Vampires would somehow help them, she might become allies with the party, but this is a tough sell: though marginalized, the Ghouls survive on the leavings of the Vampires, and the arrangement is mostly equitable.
The heap of valuables are scavenged grave goods totalling 3500gp (total weight is around 150 lbs).
This run-down building has clearly not been used in years. A large chimney juts from the decaying roof.
Rusting machinery fills most of the building’s interior; the air smells of corroded metal. There’s a huge wheel and a series of cranks and levers. Heaped in one corner in mouldy burlap sacks is a large quantity of raw sugar; in another, masses of rotten sugar cane are strewn. Rats swarm throughout the building, some gnawing on the sugarcane.
There’s a pack of 3 rat swarms here.
This rather nondescript building has a sagging roof and walls riddled with moss. Its windows have all been broken and the door has rotted off its hinges.
Weaving equipment, including several large wooden looms, fills this space, along with masses of rat-gnawed yarn.
An old granary stands here; unlike many of the the buildings on the plantation it’s quite well preserved, a stout building of wood and brick.
Perhaps surprisingly, the granary is filled with actual grain. Some of it is mouldy and stale, but much of it would still be edible.
The grain is used to help feed prisoners.
These animal pens have been surrounded by sharpened stakes and brambles. A few lean-looking animals – pigs and goats – wander about within.
The animals are alive, and used to feed prisoners. Animal blood can also be used to temporarily distract Spawn or stirges.
This old, derelict barn – which smells faintly of tobacco – has been boarded up, its doors barred and reinforced, the holes in the walls covered. You can hear something large shuffling around within, occasionally bumping loudly against the walls…
The shadows of the tobacco barn are black, obfuscating the thing that lurks near the far wall, but a carrion stench assails your nostrils as you enter. Then the creature moves, hauling itself from the darkness with too many limbs. Unfinished, the legless horror sprouts half a dozen arms, some terminating in blades or tools. Four heads loll haphazardly from the overlarge, stitched-together torso, patchwork scraps of flesh adorned with Aklo glyphs. The horror moans in what might be pain or hunger and begins dragging its bulk towards you!
The Failed Experiment requires a Sanity check (1/1d6).
This large barn has been firmly locked, the doors chained shut, the holes in the roof patched. Something within scrabbles and scratches at the walls as if with long fingernails.
The fleshless horrors that scuttle along the walls and floor of this barn are the stuff of nightmares – flensed corpses infused with horrible unlife, digging long talons into the earth and wood. There are three in all, some partially dissected – one has a gaping chest cavity, another has its belly slit open, and the third is decapitated.
The Dissected provoke a Sanity check (1/1d6).
This barn is abandoned and badly rotted, one wall having entirely collapsed, the roof mostly disintegrated. Mould and lichens infest the ruins.
Unlike the other barns there’s little here, though the barn might be a good place to hide temporarily.
These events can be interspersed throughout the journey. Modify and improvise as required.
Perception DC 15 in a hallway or promenade:
You notice that one of the passengers seems somewhat pallid, with a sallow cast to his skin. He’s sweating heavily and shivering, stumbling along in a daze.
The marsh fever is a virulent illness. This passenger – a cabin passenger, seduced by Francois, though without memory of the encounter – is named Bertrand Isnard. He was on his way to Port d’Elhour to take a job as a clerk. A successful Diplomacy check to Gather Information (DC 20) or speaking closely to the bartender reveals the following about him:
“He’s been aboard two days now. Was drinking last night with that fellow Francois Suzeneau; the two seemed pretty friendly. I’m not one to pry, but my suspicion is that old Bertrand wasn’t much one for the ladies, if you catch my drift. I saw Francois slip into his cabin later that night.”
Of course, the characters may not discover this information at all. If asked about Bertrand and their encounter, Francois says the following:
“He seemed a decent fellow; excellent company,” the dark-featured man says. “He was good enough to invite me for a night-cap in his cabin. If you’re implying that anything indecent went on, I’d ask you to mind your manners.”
If Bertrand’s disease is disclosed:
“As you can see, I am quite well. I thank you for your concern, but I feel perfectly healthy.”
Naturally, Sense Motive checks will shed further light on such things.
Close examination of Bertrand’s body reveals a leech-shaped bite-mark on his left wrist.
If Doctor Lafitte is summoned he will inspect the patient in Bertrand’s cabin:
Doctor Lafitte examines the patient carefully, checking vitals, listening to his chest with a wooden tube, peering into his eyes, measuring his temperature, and asking a series of questions about symptoms, which the patient discloses as headache, pain in the joints, and sudden coldness. After concluding the examination the doctor looks grave.
“It may be simply an autumn ague, but I fear the worst,” he says in a quiet tone. “I suspect this man has contracted some variety of malaria, commonly known as marsh fever. I will begin treatment at once – quinine and frequent leeching – but in the meantime someone must fetch the captain.”
This is a good job for the PCs, of course. If they can actually reach Captain Leathers he’ll begrudgingly come and speak with the doctor and the characters, plus the first mate, Pierre:
“We must keep this situation quiet,” the captain says. “There’s no sense in causing a panic. Doctor, any expenses incurred by this man’s treatment will be paid by me in full, in addition to one hundred silver dollars for your discretion.”
“I would advise that you burn the patient’s clothing,” the doctor suggests. “It may be contagious. Medical experts are currently divided as to whether marsh fever is caused by bad air, as wisdom has long held. I subscribe to a somewhat more unorthodox theory. I believe that certain parasitic organisms, too small to be seen by the naked eye, may be responsible for the disease, though I am not entirely certain how such parasites are transmitted. By burning the clothing we may prevent a spread of the ailment through the laundry.”
“I’ll see to it,” the first mate says. “Sir, you’ll be reimbursed for the expense,” he adds to Bertrand.
If the characters manage to get Evangline Pardoe, the clairvoyant, to use her hypnosis to Recall Bertrand’s memories, he will lie about the incident, ashamed of his encounter (Bluff is +1). He will only divulge the truth under duress, but will reveal the following before snapping out of the hypnotic trance:
“Francois… came to my room. Had us a night-cap. Nice fellah… mouth like a woman’s. But all those teeth! He came towards me, put his lips to my wrist…” He shakes himself, coming out of the trance. “Get this witch away from me!” he snarls. “She’s making me spout lies and blasphemies!”
Although the vampires usually kill their victims before the marsh fever can, in Bertrand’s case the fever takes him in the night, and by morning he will be dead. Because he has been fed on and died in part from blood loss he will rise as a Vampire Spawn – sometime during the next night.
The characters will be summoned to his cabin.
Bertrand lies sprawled on the bed, deathly pale, his body contorted into an expression of anguish. He’s clearly dead, his eyes wide and staring. The doctor stands with the captain nearby, looking down at the corpse.
“Close the door,” the captain urges.
“As you can see, the patient expired,” the doctor says. “He was raving madly towards the end, gibbering and hallucinating. He seemed to believe he’d been the victim of some monster, and kept demanding drink. He became violent and had to be sedated. Shortly after, death took him.”
“We will need to get rid of the body,” the captain says, rubbing his eyes. “And we will need to do it surreptitiously. If the body is seen it may incite a panic.”
“My suggestion is to burn the body,” the doctor says. “Throwing it in the river may contaminate the water. But if he were taken ashore and cremated, there would be no risk of spreading the infection.”
“You’ve already been exposed,” the captain says to you. “And you seem men and women of substance. If you assist me in disposing of the cadaver, I would consider you my guests aboard this vessel, and the fees for your passage and meals would be reimbursed.”
If the characters agree…
“We are due to stop to refuel at a small woodyard tonight,” the captain says. “That would be an opportune time to go ashore. The passengers will mostly be asleep.”
If the characters go through with this plan, Bertrand will reanimate before being cremated:
As you lay the body out on the swampy earth, its limbs suddenly twitch. Jaundiced eyes flutter open, swivelling towards you, as the cadaver groans, opening a mouth filled with new-grown fangs, hundreds of tiny teeth crowding the inside of his cheeks, giving his gaping rictus the appearance of a lamprey’s maw. Crooking his hands into claws, the undead Bertrand rises, hissing with bloodthirst!
Sight of the creature provokes a Sanity check (1/1d6).
A dark-haired young woman approaches you, a worried look on her face. She’s well-dressed and wears gold-rimmed spectacles.
“Please, have you seen this man?” She holds out a locket containing a small painting of a handsome, dark-haired young man in a pale suit. “He’s my brother, Martin. I can’t find him anywhere aboard; he seems to have gone missing.”
The siblings are Martin and Lisa Favre, travelling to Port d’Elhour to sell some of the town properties of their dead father. Martin was seduced by the beautiful Angelique, but she was over-eager in her feeding and killed him accidentally. He’s currently stowed in the bathtub, in the locked bathroom of Angelique’s suite (the lock is DC 25 to pick), the top-right suite on the Cabin Deck (Suite D):
The corpse of a young man lies sprawled in the bathtub, bloodless and inert, eyes staring blankly at the ceiling. He’s naked, and his body is covered in small, round bite-marks, like those of a leech – particularly around his neck.
Martin will reanimate as a Vampire Spawn under Angelique’s control within 24 hours, so the disappearance will eventually be “solved” – Martin will claim to have been wandering the ship, gone ashore during a stopover, etc. Lisa will be relieved but still a little unnerved. Of course, she’ll be next – Martin will Dominate her and lead her to Angelique.
If asked about Martin before he reanimates, Lisa has this to say:
“I saw him last night, in the Saloon. I’d gone to bed – I’d been feeling a trifle light-headed – but he was drinking with some of the other passengers. This morning, I knocked at his cabin door, but there was no response. I haven’t seen him since.”
If Martin’s cabin is entered, all that characters will ascertain is that his bed was not slept in. Speaking to the chambermaids will confirm that his bed was unused. Lisa last saw Martin speaking with the traders (Gustave, Renault, etc). Renault will confirm this, but adds some more details:
“Ah, the dandy-boy? Yes, he drank with us for a time, but then he became somewhat distracted by a young woman, one of the beauties aboard this boat… the blonde, young one, I forget her name. He began speaking with her, and they seemed to be quite merry. After that I confess my memory gets a bit fuzzy! I had been imbibing a good deal myself…”
If asked about Martin, Angelique has this to say:
“The handsome young man? Yes, we spoke last night. When I retired for sleep he was still in the Saloon.”
Sense Motive vs. Bluff to discern the lie.
This is a good event to spring on the characters if they seem at loose ends or unsure of how to proceed. It is ideally placed in a somewhat out-of-the-way location on the ship (i.e. not the Grand Saloon), at night.
Perception DC 15:
Over the hubbub of the boat and its passengers you hear the unmistakable sound of a scream, somewhere up ahead. The shriek is cut off, as if someone muffled it.
Racing ahead reveals the following:
A thin, red-headed woman lurches from the shadows, her dress rumpled. She looks pale and confused. Her garments are stained with blood – her own. A wound at her wrist drips onto the deck. She stumbles towards you, shaking her head.
“How…” she begins, as if unsure of herself. “How did I get here…?”
The woman is Charlotte Soileau, a deck passenger. She has no memory of what occurred to her. Close inspection of the wound reveals what looks like a leech-bite.
Henri lurks in the shadows – his Stealth is +17. A successful Perception check reveals his silhouette just before he assumes his gaseous form:
A wisp of fog lingers near the deck here, bilious and yellow in hue, like a patch of curdled air.
If Evangeline hypnotizes Charlotte at the behest of the characters (using her Recall ability), she can retrieve the following:
“There was… there was a creature. A thing, it looked like a man – handsome, well-dressed – but its mouth was all wrong, filled with hundreds of tiny teeth. I remember he came toward me, gliding out of the shadows, and suddenly it was like I couldn’t move, couldn’t look away. He bit me, and for a moment I broke the spell, managed a scream, before he clamped his hand over my mouth. He was strong, stronger than anyone I’d ever met, and his touch was cold, clammy and moist.” She shudders.
Of course, Charlotte has been infected by marsh fever. She will begin showing symptoms after a day, but by then things will have gotten considerably worse aboard the Somnambulist.
This event should take place on the first day of the journey.
The horn of the steamboat blows, and you can hear whistling steam as the Somnambulist begins to speed up. Passengers and crew alike rush out onto the promenade to see what’s going on. A second steamboat – slightly smaller than the Somnambulist but still sizable – is pulling up alongside it: the Nightjar. Painted in darker colours than the Somnambulist, the Nightjar is also a sidewheeler, sleeker and lower, with three decks instead of four.
Both ships sound their horns again, and suddenly fire and white smoke burst from the Somnambulist’s smokestacks, and the vessel begins rapidly accelerating. The Nightjar sounds her horn once more and likewise speeds up – it looks like the two boats are going to race. Money begins changing hands amongst the spectators.
This is a good chance for the characters to make some cash, but it also means that the interior of the boat is basically abandoned, giving them a chance to search rooms or cabins if they wish. Only the conspicuously absent vampires are still in their suites.
Those that want to observe the race can observe the following:
The two steamboats round a bend in the river, the Somnambulist a little ahead of the Nightjar. Another bend is imminent, forcing the steamboats to turn rapidly. On the Nightjar’s decks you can see crew and passengers cheering for their own boat.
Perception DC 25 to notice:
Through the trees obscuring the river round the next bend you can see a third steamboat – it seems to have ran aground! If either the Nightjar or the Somnambulist take the corner at the wrong angle they could plough into this vessel!
The characters may want to try and warn the pilots, in which case the Somnambulist will steam ahead and win the race. Otherwise, the boat will graze the steamboat run aground and lose, while also being hampered itself:
The Somnambulist turns the corner only to face a third steamboat, run aground on the riverbank! It’s too late to stop and the vessel continues on, smashing into one corner of the other vessel. It slows to a stop with a grating of gears – something must be wrong with the engines.
The smaller vessel, called the Gypsy Moth has been wrecked, smashed nearly to pieces. It was a snug sternwheeler, built for cargo rather than passengers. Curiously, there’s no sign of the crew…
This delays things considerably. The vampires had nothing to do with this incident, however – rather, it was the swamp-folk. They attacked this vessel and took the crew captive, dragging them into the swamp, as a Survival check of DC 12 will show:
The soft earth discloses several sets of footprints leading both to and from the steamboat wreck. You also note several bloodstains, not yet fully dried, on the deck of the grounded steamboat, as well as a number of bullet-holes riddling the wood and nearby trees.
If the characters want to take the time, they can track the footprints deep into the marsh to find the swamp-folk camp – about a dozen swamp-folk dwelling in four crude shacks, half-eaten human and animal remains strewn about their cooking-fire. Numerous bear-traps and spiked pits will be found en route. 4 of the crew can be found still alive, kept in a deep pit (30 ft.) outside the camp with thorns and sharpened stakes around its edges; while alive, their hamstrings are cut.
The observation lounge has been shrouded in thick curtains and lit with bubbling lamps. A small crowd has gathered – it looks like a good number of the cabin passengers are in attendance, though notably the preacher is absent. The genteel men and women you saw in the saloon earlier are all here, as well as a small number of the crew. The medium sits at a large table at one end of the room.
“Greetings, ladies and gentlemen,” the clairvoyant says theatrically. “Welcome. I am Mademoiselle Evangeline Pardoe, spiritualist and clairvoyant extraordinaire. Tonight, we will make contact with the Spirit World! As the steamboat passes down the river, we may encounter the shades of those that met their end upon it, or the ghosts of lost relatives or friends, drawn through the Veil… but first, let me warn you. No matter what occurs – no matter what manifestation may appear – do not approach me. For your own safety I urge you to keep a healthy distance.”
The spiritualist closes her eyes, palms upturned. She speaks in a low voice.
“Spirits! I call you from beyond the Veil. Speak to me now, if you would commune with the living!”
The characters will be able to recognize many of their fellow cabin passengers – including Damienne Suzeneau and several of her relations – in attendance.
You may wish to improvise or prepare scenes specific to the characters. However, several results of the channeling will not vary. The following constitutes a list of spirits that Evangeline channels:
The Good Father: The clairvoyant opens her eyes, her irises glowing with a pale light. Her expression changes drastically – it’s almost as if the flesh of her face was rearranging itself – and she assumes a stern glare. Standing from the chair she assails the audience with a thunderous, booming voice, mostly certainly not her own.
“The pit of fire and the gnashing of teeth!” the spiritualist declares. “All sinners will burn in the lake of brimstone! Punishment eternal awaits those of you who dare to disobey the laws of god and nature… thieves and liars, murderers and violators, adulterers and deviants… all will be consumed in the flames come the end-times. This sickness, this sickness is a sign, I tell you! A sign from the heavens that the end of all things is nigh!”
Ghostly blue flames flicker from the woman’s fingertips as she points at the audience, gesturing imperiously.
This is the spirit of the priest from the Green Maiden; he doesn’t realize he’s dead. If convinced of his own ghostly nature he becomes very distraught that he’s not in the promised paradise and will attempt to burn up Evangeline. She will suppress him but will come out of the channelling singed and smoking.
Claude: Again the clairvoyant’s eyes open, and again an unearthly luminescence shines forth.
“Where… where am?” a voice says. “Am I… am I in Souragne? Is this the vessel known as the Green Maiden?”
This is Claude, one of the Green Maiden’s passengers. His memory of his time aboard the vessel is garbled, and he can only communicate fragments – mist, fire, blood, screams and laughter, mad dancing, the feeling of breath on his neck. However, upon seeing Damienne Suzeneau he begins to recollect a few things:
“You…” the man says, looking towards Damienne Suzeneau. “Madame, are we acquainted? I could swear I have met you before.”
Damienne raises an eyebrow. “It is possible, sir. I have met many people on my travels, though I have never taken passage on this Green Maiden. Perhaps we met on some other vessel?”
Sense Motive vs. Bluff (+20) to notice that Damienne seems amused, as if in on some joke.
Madame Roslyn: Once again the clairvoyant opens her eyes, a soft blue glow shimmering from her irises. She looks around curiously.
“Ah,” she says in a pleased, knowing tone. “A séance. How appropriate… I had sometimes imagined that, one day, I might converse from the other side of the Veil.”
Unlike many of the other spirits, Madame Roslyn can communicate a few more concrete details. If asked about the circumstances of her death she can provide the following information:
“My death was quite sudden, I believe. I was on a steamboat, much like this one. There was some sort of sickness aboard, some variety of fever. Quite ghastly. It seemed to be driving the passengers mad. I had locked myself in my cabin, listening to the commotion outside… but then the insects began creeping in, buzzing and crawling. I remember them quite distinctly – a veritable swarm of mosquitoes. They seemed to seep like a cloud of black mist beneath by door and then to buzz all around me. Quite understandably I was alarmed, and began waving my arms to bat them away, but they formed a kind of dense cloud, like to the figure of a man, almost solid. The cloud embraced me, and I could hear the buzzing of thousands of wings… and then I remember nothing else, till I had passed the Veil and entered upon the Spirit World.”
Madman: Yet again the clairvoyant closes her eyes only to open them again, but this time the light shining from within is red, not blue. Her body contorts and twists, hunching over, her muscles tensing, the veins in her neck standing out. The audience gasps.
“It is coming!” she says. “The Thousand-Suckered-One, who dwells in the City of Black Liquid! The Thirsting Sire who spawned the Pallid Brood! Beware his harbinger, the White Leech from the Mists of Time! Beware the Squirming Man! Iä! Iä! They are here! The Afflicted Ones! Beware their yellow breath, their crimson lips, their eyes like pits of night unending!”
The characters can ask questions of the spirits, which they may or may not answer. They may also request that Evangeline contact a certain spirit. If they know the name of the spirit, and especially if they have something of their body, or a personal possession, contact becomes more likely. Each attempt to contact a spirit requires a Concentration check on Evangeline’s part (+10). The DC for contact is 15+1 per year the character has been dead.
This event needs to be triggered carefully, if at all. It might need to be sped up if the characters are moving quickly (discovering who the Vampires are, making plans against them)… or, alternatively, excised altogether. Consider it an option. The story plays out perfectly well without it, but it can provide a stronger bridge to the plantation portion.
The vampiress Isabelle does not agree with Damienne and her coterie. She wants to break free of the Elders and believes the vampires should abandon the plantation and move to Port d’Elhour or another city; she’s tired of the rural lifestyle and believes the devotion of the other vampires to the White Leech and the Thousand-Suckered-One a doomed fanaticism. If approached carefully, she will be willing to betray the vampires, to lead the characters to the plantation, and to provide them with useful information.
However, it should be clear that Isabelle is no saint. This is not a vampire with a soul – she’s just as bloodthirsty as the others. It’s merely that she’s a decadent, and her hedonistic ways clash with the values of the others.
Here’s a physical description:
One of the women seems aloof from the rest of the group – though just as finely dressed and elegant as her compatriots, she speaks little, sipping periodically from a glass of dark wine and casting bored-looking glances around the room. She wears a black dress perhaps a trifle more risque than those favoured by those around her. Long crimson tresses fall past her white shoulders.
She can reveal some details of the ceremony to summon the Thousand-Suckered-One, and how it might be averted:
“The night of the ceremony draws near; the time of Alignment approaches. It will be marked by the appearance of a red moon in the sky – the result of an eclipse, the earth caught betwixt sun and moon. At this time the Elders will awaken, stirring in the Nest. My kindred will prepare the sacrifices for slaughter, shepherding prisoners down into the darkness. These will be bled into a vast pool in a cavern deep beneath the plantation house of Belle de Nuit; cauldrons of blood will be overturned till the pool turns red. The Elders will bite their own wrists and add their own blood to the Summoning Pool as they chant the Aklo words of the Crimson Rite. Red moonlight shed through a narrow shaft in the ceiling will shine upon the Pool, transforming it into a portal, a wound between worlds. From out of that rupture the Thousand-Suckered-One will emerge, to slake its thirst and wreak red terror on all that stand in its path. It will devour everything, leave the land empty and desolate.
“My kindred have deluded themselves into believing the coming of the Thousand-Suckered-One will usher in an era of vampiric domination, a paradise for our kind, when all will be subjugated to our rule… but I see the truth. The Thousand-Suckered-One is an elemental thing – an incarnation of the Thirst. It has no intellect, no taste, no refinement. It exists only to consume. My kin call mortals cattle, animals, but they do not see the irony in their own judgement; the Thousand-Suckered-One is little better than an animal, a great verminous parasite, a mewling, idiot god. Why would I want the mortals enslaved when I can already bend them to my will as I please? Why would I want their civilization destroyed when it provides me with endless pleasures?”
This should likely take place 2-3 days into the journey, after the characters have settled in a bit.
There’s a tremendous grinding, shearing sound from the lower deck, followed by a wrenching sound and a series of colossally loud bangs. The Somnambulist shakes violently, and the engines stop.
The Somnambulist is now dead in the water, stranded on the river. If the characters investigate on the main deck they’ll discover the following:
The boiler room is in a state of chaos – a significant section of the boiler machinery has blown, and it looks like a small fire was only barely suppressed. Burst pipes leak steam and moisture throughout the room, and a badly scalded crewman writhes in pain on the floor, while other deckhands desperately tend to the ruptured workings of the boat. It doesn’t take an engineer to confirm that without repairs to the boilers and associated pipework, the Somnambulist is not going anywhere.
Search for the spare parts that would normally have been used to conduct repairs reveals that they’re missing; in fact, they’re hidden in the cabin of Narcisse and Phillipe.
The Sickness and the Atrocity
The sickness and the atrocity happen after the sabotage, with the latter taking place about 2-3 days after the former, but you should play fast and loose with the timeline when required. Details on these events can be found in the Somnambulist notes. The sickness progresses gradually, so you may want to introduce it bit by bit. The atrocity happens much more rapidly, when the vampires decide to commit to their slaughter. Both can be averted or mitigated with clever thinking – in no sense should they be considered inevitabilities.
Following the atrocity, the vampires steer the Somnambulist back to the Belle de Nuit plantation…
A horn sounds over the water, cutting through the chittering of insects and the other sounds of the night. Light glimmers on the river as a vast, pale shape pulls into view round a corner – a huge steamboat, two enormous wheels churning the water to either side, propelling it forwards. Four decks tall, flat-bottomed, and over three hundred feet long, the boat is truly massive, its huge iron chimneys jutting a hundred feet into the air, breathing out plumes of steam into the black sky. Despite its behemothic size, the vessel has a delicacy about her, with wrought iron railings teased into the semblance of flowers, women, and gargoyles. The cupola of the pilot house glitters, catching a ray of moonlight. Even at this distance you can see that the boat’s woodwork is ornate, carved and painted with images of trees and fanciful beasts. The curved wheelhouses bear the steamer’s name: the Somnambulist. As you watch, this pale beauty pulls into the wharf, and a gangplank comes down. You can hear roustabouts yelling and other crewman shouting instructions as the boat begins to disgorge cargo while taking on new freight, fuel, and passengers.
The steamer stays in Les Hiboux for a short spell; the characters can purchase passage for 5 silver pieces per day (for a place on the main deck), 5 gold pieces per day (for a personal cabin), or 10 gold pieces per day (for a suite).
The Somnambulist should be thoroughly explored. Feel free to provide the deckplan to the players – this will help them visualize the boat and navigate it.
The next section of the adventure should play a bit like a murder mystery. The steamboat may feel claustrophobic, at times, and the characters will have little to do save to converse, carouse, and explore. Encourage them to get to know the different crew-members and passengers before proceeding to the “Events” which precipitate later portions of the adventure.
The main descriptions of different areas of the boat are delivered as if the boat were empty, since at different times of day or night different individuals will be present or absent. Adjoining most descriptions are supplementary descriptions to be added for Day and Night, as well as during the Sickness and during the Atrocity that will likely take place later on. These descriptions should of course be modified as required.
Every day that the characters spend on the Somnambulist they have a 25% chance of being exposed to marsh fever via mosquito, +25% per day. Marsh fever has the following characteristics:
Onset 1 day; Frequency 1/day
A pair of grand stairs sweep up from the main deck towards the boiler deck, the broad steps leading upwards into the grand saloon above. Rich, ornately patterned carpeting covers the stairs, lending the ascent an air of luxury.
The boat’s eight boilers – huge, metal cylinders – run along either side of this large room, fixed to brackets that suspend them off the floor. Furnaces stoked with wood heat water in these boilers; steam-lines radiate out from the boilers along the ceiling towards the adjoining engine room.
Day/Night: The boat’s firemen are busy loading the furnaces with more fuel, sweating profusely in the heat. The boilers fill the air with the sound of hissing steam.
See the Firemen under Crew for more details.
Sickness: With the boat dead in the water, the boiler room is currently unoccupied, the furnaces cold.
Atrocity: Someone has restarted the furnaces, but instead of coal the furnaces are stuffed with dismembered body parts, the boilers filled with blood instead of water. A white-faced, mad-eyed crewman – or possibly a passenger – hacks a corpse to pieces with an axe in the middle of the room.
This Vampire Spawn (Sanity 1/1d6) attacks anyone who interferes with his butchery.
The engine room is a greasy, churning mass of machinery, powered by the steam-lines that run from the boiler room into this one. Here the boat’s massive engines turn the two wheels on either side of the vessel, propelling it through the water. The air smells of hot metal and steam, but not of rust – the engines are well-maintained. Portholes command a view of the river outside. A series of bells that ring occasionally seem to indicate when the boat needs to turn, slow, or speed up.
Day/Night: The engineer barks orders to assistants here, ensuring that the engines are kept running smoothly.
See the Engineer under Crew for more details.
Sickness: With the boat currently drifting, the engine room is quiet, the great paddlewheels still.
Atrocity: The engines churn once again, tended by dull-eyed, shambolic crewmen.
The crew here are either Vampire Spawn (Sanity 1/1d6) or simply Dominated humans.
The galley on the boat is large and well-stocked, with a pantry, barrel after barrel of preserved food, and several long tables for preparation. Knives, cleavers, pots, pans, and other cooking implements hang from pegs along one wall, next to the stove. Stacked in the corner are cages containing live chickens, robins, pigeons, pigs, rabbits, and other animals. Haunches of cured meat dangle from the ceiling, alongside bushels of herbs and netting containing potatoes, turnips, leeks, onions, and other vegetables. A dumbwaiter connects to the floor above.
Day: The kitchen staff are busy preparing a meal, here, slaughtering chickens and plucking their carcasses and dicing vegetables and herbs.
See Chief Cook and Assistant Cooks under Crew below for more details.
Note that salt can be found here in very significant quantities, which is very useful for protecting rooms at night against the Vampires or otherwise deterring them (unlike most Vampires, the residents of the Belle de Nuit are deterred by salt, not garlic).
Night: The kitchen is deserted at night, the kitchen staff having turned in for the day.
Sickness: The cook and one of her assistants still labour here, though they look somewhat worse for the weather, wheezing and groaning, their skin pallid. Several of the animals slumber fitfully in their cages, but others look as if they might have died. Flies buzz about them. Lethargic, the kitchen staff have let the place become grimy and unwashed. A soup lies cold and congealed on the stove, and a haunch of meat gone bad festers on a table.
Atrocity: The cook is in the midst of butchering the corpse of a passenger here, carefully removing organs and disjointing the man as if she were carving up a chicken. She hums to herself as she cooks. On the stove, blood and brains simmer in a thick stew next to a panful of eyeballs braised in a fragrant wine sauce. Half a dozen decapitated heads, their eyes plucked out, lie amidst discarded onion skins, chicken bones, and other kitchen detritus in the corner. The galley is covered in blood and feathers. Perhaps most hideously, the smells in this room are quite delectable.
Seeing this culinary grotesquery provokes a Sanity check (1/1d4+1). The cook is not hostile unless someone messes with her meal, in which case she attacks them with a cleaver (1d6).
The cargo room of the boat is crammed with crates, barrels, and boxes of every size and description. Labels indicate shipments of indigo, tobacco, cotton, grains and other foodstuffs, and similar goods. In addition to trade goods, the boat’s fuel supplies can be found here: lumber, coal, and barrels of lard, stored neatly away from the rest of the freight.
Day: Passengers, roustabouts, and other deckhands lounge around here, some playing cards or dice, others eating, reading, or talking. A few passengers nap, lying against the walls of the cargo room.
Night: Poorer passengers sleep in amongst the cargo, unfurling bedrolls and blankets on the floor to provide some small degree of comfort. A few sit up, gambling or reading by lamplight.
See the Deckhands section for more details.
Sickness: A great chorus of nauseous groans fills the cargo hold with echoes, as dozens of deck passengers languish here, leaning against crates or the walls or one another. One vomits blood, a great gout of blackish, putrid fluid. Deckhands and roustabouts vainly try to keep order, but they too are afflicted, sluggish. A woman in the corner is ranting about rats and fending off anyone who comes near with a hatpin, while a man of middle years seems to be self-medicating with copious amounts of alcohol, swilling the stuff in great glugs as if terribly thirsty.
Atrocity: Looters openly pry open crates, scattering everything from tobacco and grain to fine clothing about the cargo room. The floor is slippery with blood; several corpses are strewn about here, some with throats slits, others covered in hideous leech-bites. Hallucinating passengers shriek and tear at the crates or else huddle in the corners, ranting and gibbering.
The promenade on the Main Deck is fairly plain and very low to the water, with only a small railing and a few feet between the promenade and the river. The walkway curves around towards the enormous paddlebox containing one of the sidewheels.
Day: By day the air is hot and unbearably humid, mosquitoes buzzing in a thick black cloud about the promenade, feasting on anyone who happens by. Passengers lean against the rails, watching the water and swatting at these bloodsucking insects, while the occasional crewman wanders by on their way to some other part of the vessel.
Night: By night the promenade is nearly deserted. The air is muggy and close, though the night brings with it an eerie chill.
Sickness: Passengers and crew lurch along the promenade like damned souls, aimless, some staring out across the river vacantly, others slumped against the wall. One deckhand retches over the rail. Now that the ship has stopped the mosquitoes have grown even thicker than usual and now swirl about in a dense, buzzing cloud.
Atrocity: You arrive on the promenade in time to see a jaundiced, mad-eyed crewman throw himself from the deck into the river below with a splash. Bodies of the sickly, the dying, and the dead are draped across the floor or leaned against the wall. A feral-looking woman with torn skirts and flushed skin is rifling through the belongings of the fallen, poking the bodies with a hatpin to ensure they’re dead or passive enough to loot.
The Grand Saloon runs nearly the length of the boat; a huge dining and living area, all gilt and polished hardwood, with a crystal chandelier, long tables, a number of private dining booths, and a fully-stocked bar where bottles of ale, wine, and liqueur are stored. The floor is richly carpeted and the walls decorated with fine oil portraits and landscapes, including pictures of steamboats racing down the river and several paintings of women that verge on the scandalous. The plans for the Somnambulist are also framed here, for all to see. Stairways lead up from the Grand Saloon to a gallery encircling the entire room, adjoining the passengers’ cabins. Doors lead to the library, the barber’s room, the steward’s office, and a dance room.
Day: By day, the Saloon bustles with passengers sitting, talking, eating, smoking, and otherwise wiling away the time. Many drink coffee, though a few are already at the bar, some obviously nursing hangovers from the night before. They’re a variegated lot aboard the Somnambulist: men and women in plain country garb mingle with those whose finer clothes mark them as well-heeled merchants or gentility.
Night: The Grand Saloon comes alive at night, with passengers and crewmen alike drinking wine, beer, whiskey, sherry, absinthe, or steaming black coffee, carousing merrily. The bar is nearly packed and the tables are crowded as well.
Sickness: As sickness takes hold of the boat the Saloon has become increasingly deserted. Now only a few passengers linger here, drinking away their sorrows or sprawling in chairs, eyes staring up at the ceiling, dancing with unknown visions. A few wander the length of the Saloon, endlessly pacing up and down, like prisoners in a cell. The bartender keeps her post, grimly pouring drinks for those that need their whistles wet.
Atrocity: The Saloon is in a state of debauched frenzy, as a dozen diseased crewmen and passengers gorge themselves in a cannibalistic feast, the butchered body-parts of the waiters and several others spread over the long tables, wine glasses brimming with blood and looted liquor. Presiding over the feast is Damienne Suzeneau and several of her relatives. She raises a crimson glass in toast.
“To the White Leech!” she declares, taking a deep draught.
This assumes, of course, that Damienne is alive and on the boat. The Saloon has no windows, so it’s safe from sunlight.
This scene provokes a Sanity check (1/1d6+1).
The private dining room is well-appointed and spacious, with a large table set for up to twelve, side-tables for serving, and a cabinet of china. Windows looks out along the promenade. A painting of the river hangs on one wall.
During both day and night the dining rooms may be filled by passengers eating or drinking. They also make good places to hide, or to pull characters aside for a quiet talk.
Sickness: A few sick passengers lounge about the private dining area. A half-eaten meal lies on the table, not yet cleared away by the crew. The tablecloth is askew.
Atrocity: The words “The Thirst Is All” and “Hail the Thousand Suckered One” are daubed on the walls in blood here. The table and chairs have been broken to splinters.
The barber’s room includes several chairs, cabinets full of tools, oils, and salves, a countertop, and a large mirror. A selection of scissors and straight razors are evident on the countertop.
Day: A heavy-set man with a bristling red beard is having his whiskers trimmed in the barbershop at present.
See the Barber under the Crew below for more detail.
Night: At this time of night the barber’s room is empty and dark.
Sickness: A woman is seated in the barber’s chair, but the barber is absent. She’s slowly cutting her own hair, giggling to herself, and then quite deliberately eating each hank of shorn hair.
Atrocity: A decapitated corpse is strapped into the barber’s chair here. Four bodiless heads sit on the counter, their hair partially cut. The mirror has been broken, covered the floor in shards of glass. Hair sticks in the drying blood covering the floor.
The heads provoke a Sanity check – (0/1d4).
The steward’s office includes a dumbwaiter and series of shelves and tables storing table linens, cutlery, and other serving implements.
Day/Night: See the Steward in Crew below for more detail.
Sickness: The steward’s office is in a state of disarray – drawers opened and linens rumpled, cutlery littering the floor. There’s no sign of the steward himself.
Atrocity: A corpse chokes the dumbwaiter – it looks like someone attempted to climb up the shaft and got stuck on the way out. Everything in the office has been looted.
The Somnambulist’s library is small but cosy, with several plush leather chairs and a few small tables. The books here are mostly for the entertainment of passengers: novels, plays, volumes of poetry, travel guides, and atlases are all common. There are also some books of history, and a number of religious works. A large gas lamp and a number of candles provide illumination.
Day: Several passengers are seated at tables and reading or browsing the shelves.
Night: At night, the library is quiet and still.
Sickness: Great stacks of books have been taken off the walls and piled haphazardly about the tables. The doctor is here, combing madly through a medical text, a look of frenzy on his pale, sweat-smeared face. There is a strong smell of mildew and decay.
Atrocity: A small fire has been started here by a pair of serious-looking passengers with a book of matches and some lamp-oil. They’ve heaped most of the books into a great pile and have lit it ablaze, but fire keeps burning itself out and they’re forced to add more oil and matches. If the heap gets properly lit the whole boat might go up in flames!
The dancing room on the boat is a long hall with a mirrored ceiling and wooden floor, cleared for dancing. The walls are adorned with paintings of celestial figures dancing through the clouds. There’s a huge piano here, and a dais for other musicians to play on.
Day: By day, few frequent the dance room, though a few off-duty crewmen linger here on a break.
Night: A lively dance is in full swing, one of the crew playing a rousing piano tune while passengers accompany on other instruments. The room is quite crowded with bodies, the skirts of the ladies twirling and flashing.
Vampires are not reflected in the mirror above – anyone looking carefully (Perception DC 20) will notice this if dancing with one.
Sickness: A couple dances madly in the middle of the room, though no one is playing the piano. Deck passengers slump against the walls or lie on the floor of the hall, oblivious to the world.
Atrocity: A pile of mutilated and bloodless bodies sits in the middle of the dance floor – at least a dozen of them, perhaps more, along with a number of dismembered limbs and random organs. Several refined-looking passengers waltz around it, their footprints bloody, while a crazed, pallid man plays piano.
Some remaining Vampires can be placed here; the piano-player is a Vampire Spawn. The corpse-heap provokes a Sanity check (1/1d4+1).
The storage rooms are locked (Disable Device DC 25), but the iron key carried by all crewmen opens them.
Boat’s sundries are stored here – spare linens for beds and tables, additional cutlery, uniforms and other clothes, pillows and pillowcases, candles, lamps and lamp oil, rope, tools for carpentry, spare wood, nails, furniture, art, and even mechanical components for the engine.
During the sickness/atrocity these rooms may have been broken-into and looted.
On the boiler deck the promenade is some distance from the water, but the muddy stink of the river is still palpable. The promenade is well-lit, with lamps along its length; occasional doors admit passengers to the interior of the boat.
Day: The promenade is crowded with passengers and crew alike, some peering over the rails, others perambulating the length of the ship.
Night: The promenade is quiet, with only a few passengers out for a walk; most are either in their cabins or merry-making in the Grand Saloon.
Sickness: A few passengers shamble along the length of the promenade in a daze, barely aware of their surroundings. One man is attempting to climb down the railing to the main deck below, for some reason.
Atrocity: A naked passenger with a stolen knife runs up and down the length of the promenade, screaming about the Pallid Brood and the Thirsting Sire and slashing the air.
This long gallery stretches the length of Grand Saloon, a railed walkway looking down on the room from above. Lining the gallery are dozens of doors leading to the many cabins of the Somnambulist. At the far end, doors to the larger, more expensive suites can be found.
See Grand Saloon for more information.
Most cabins are locked. Each and every cabin has its own key, and duplicates are kept in the captain’s cabin; the locks require a DC 25 Disable Device check to pick.
The cabin is small, but well-appointed and nicely decorated, with a desk, chair, a mid-sized bed, a wardrobe, and a night-stand, along with a small wash-basin and chamber pot. There’s a window that can be shrouded with curtains for privacy, and two doors – one leading out onto the promenade of the cabin deck, the other onto the gallery above the Grand Saloon.
By day most cabins will be empty; by night, there’s a good chance (50%) they’ll be occupied by sleeping passengers.
During the sickness most cabins will be occupied by sick passengers, naturally.
Here’s a list of the cabins’ occupants:
1 – Rachel & Simon Zeringue’s cabin
2 – Perrine Alva’s cabin
3 – Edouard Duplessis’s cabin
4 – Christophe Galafante’s cabin
5 – Father Eugene Fontenot’s cabin
6 – Quentin & Antione’s cabin
7 – Juliette’s cabin
8 – Gustave’s cabin
9 – Renault’s cabin
10 – Bertrand Isnard’s cabin
11 – Guy’s cabin
12 – Evangeline Pardoe’s cabin
13 – Lisa Favre’s cabin
14 – Martin Favre’s cabin
15 – Doctor Armand Lafitte’s cabin
16 – Michel’s cabin
17 – Andre & Marianne Jarossay’s cabin
18 – Margeurite & Mathieu Faillard’s cabin
19 – Celestine Maurin’s cabin
20 – Carmelite & Manuel Toutant’s cabin
21 – Empty (this and the remaining cabins may be occupied by the PCs)
22 – Empty
23 – Empty
24 – Empty
The suites are all locked (Disable Device DC 30 to pick); their owners have keys, as does the captain (kept in his cabin).
The suite consists of three rooms – a lavish living space with a small table, divan, chairs, and bookshelf, a luxurious bedroom with a four-poster bed, a wardrobe, a cabinet, and a writing desk, and a private bathing room with a tub. Though smaller than the sort of accommodations one would see at an inn the suite is well-appointed and richly furnished, with elaborately patterned carpets, paintings of comely women on the walls, and fine dark wooden furniture.
The vampires have booked the various suites for themselves. A thorough search of the suites turns up some incriminating evidence. In the locked cabinet in each suite (Disable Device DC 25 or use the same key that unlocked the suite’s door) the vampires all keep spare vials of blood – 12 per cabinet – to slake their thirst in emergencies. Some of their clothes will also be bloodstained, as a thorough search of the wardrobe will reveal. See Events, below, for more details. Further notes follow:
A – Damienne Suzeneau’s suite
Within Damienne’s suite’s writing desk is her diary. It may seem strange that she carries with her an incriminating document of this sort, but the idea that a mortal could actually do real harm to her is ridiculous to Damienne; like many vampires, she is very arrogant. Still, she keeps the desk drawer locked (DC 25 or use the same key that unlocked the suite’s door). The book itself is also warded with an Alarm spell setting off a Mental Alarm if opened by anyone but Damienne; thus, if read without first being Dispelled, Damienne will hone in quickly on the reader. Note that while Alarm is not a trap, it can be detected with Detect Magic.
In addition to this precaution, Damienne keeps another surprise in her suite: a Mimic disguised as a piece of luggage. The Mimic was created by elder vampire alchemists in ages past. If an intruder enters the suite, it creeps up on them and attacks:
The brown luggage trunk you noticed when you entered the suite has opened itself, revealing not clothes and personal effects but a salivating maw lined with thousands of teeth. Sprouting a mass of dark, writhing tentacles, the shape-changing horror lurches towards you, gnashing its innumerable fangs!
Encountering the mimic requires a Sanity check (1/1d6).
B – Isabelle’s suite
C – Nanette & Vistoire’s suite
D – Angelique & Philomene’s suite – see the Event “Disappearance” for more details on this suite.
E – Phillipe & Narcisse’s suite
F – Henri & Francois’ suite
The promenade here is high above the water, but you can still catch the occasional whiff of the fetid, murky river. Though the swarms of mosquitoes are less dense here than they are nearer the water, they still buzz about incessantly.
Day: Passengers drift about the promenade gazing out across the river. One young man is sketching the scenery carefully as it passes by. Occasional crew squeeze past on their way up to the hurricane deck above or the boiler deck below.
Night: The promenade on the hurricane deck is quite deserted at night – not a soul can be seen up here. Down below, you can hear sounds of merriment from the Grand Saloon.
Sickness: Few passengers walk the promenade now that the boat is dead in the water; most of the cabin passengers are probably in their rooms.
Atrocity: Passengers roam to and fro here, some crawling on all fours like beasts, others succumbing to the last stages of the fever.
Most cabins are locked. Each and every cabin has its own key, and duplicates are kept in the captain’s cabin; the locks require a DC 25 Disable Device check to pick.
The cabin is small and sparsely furnished, built for utility rather than comfort, with a desk, chair, a small bed, a wardrobe, a night-stand, and a wash basin. There’s only one door, here, and a small, curtained window.
At any given time there’s a 25% chance a crew’s cabin will be occupied – crew work both days and nights.
During the sickness at least half of the crew (probably more) will be in their cabins, languishing from the marsh fever. During the atrocity the crew barricade their cabins and the entire crew’s quarters as best they can. Several deranged crew-members will be locked in their quarters to keep them from rampaging throughout the boat.
The crew’s mess is a long, plain room with several spare wooden tables and cabinets of crockery. There’s little decoration, save for a large deckplan of the boat.
Meals are served on a regular schedule three times a day; otherwise, the office is unoccupied.
Sickness: A great heap of dirtied dishes moulders on one of the tables, not yet cleared away. A few crewmen sit here, mechanically eating rations, their movements reminding you of wind-up toys.
Atrocity: A few crewmen with pistols, clubs, and knives have gathered in this room, facing down any intruders. They’ve got a plan of the boat spread on the table.
The clerk’s office contains a large, finely carved writing desk and several shelves of books, as well as spare candles and lamp oil, ink, quills, and other writing implements. A door in the back of the office leads to the records room.
See the Clerk under Crew, below, for more details. At night, the office is dark.
Sickness: The clerk is madly scribbling in his office, and a great stack of ink-stained sheets beside him indicates he’s been working for some time.
The clerk is describing his nightmarish visions with frantic intensity, writing out long accounts of cannibalistic feasts and awful depravities.
Atrocity: Reams and reams of paper are strewn everywhere here, covered in crabbed, hastily-penned writing. Several ink-jars have been spilled. There’s no sign of the clerk.
The boat’s ledgers, passenger manifests, inventory, and other records are stored in large cabinets in this large but dimly lit chamber. Unlike most of the vessel this area looks a bit neglected, cobwebs having gathered in the corners.
This room remains essentially unchanged even during the sickness/atrocity.
The storage rooms are locked (Disable Device DC 25), but the iron key carried by all crewmen opens them.
A – Spare linens, furnishings, cutlery, and unused art are stored in this room.
B – Clothing is stored here; although not all of the boat’s crew wear uniforms those that do have spares in this room.
There are uniforms for servers, the engineer, captain, mate, and clerk here. Deckhands don’t use uniforms on the Somnambulist.
C – Firearms and other weapons are neatly stored here: muskets, pistols, blunderbusses, powder, bullets, as well as few swords, clubs, knives, and hatchets.
6 muskets, 8 pistols, 4 blunderbusses, 6 kegs of black powder, 500 bullets, 10 short swords, 10 clubs, 20 daggers, and 20 handaxes can be found here.
The captain’s cabin is always locked (Disable Device DC 30 to pick the lock); only the captain himself has the silver key.
The captain’s cabin is more spacious than the rest of the crew’s quarters. Maps of the river and the surrounding country paper one wall, and bookshelves and cabinets holding accounts, ledgers, packet schedules, and similar documents line the others. A writing desk and chairs can be found here, strewn with papers. There’s also a large, glass cabinet full of liquor – mostly bottled spirits of various sorts. The bedroom adjoining the main cabin is quite plain, but comfortable-looking, with a large bed and wardrobe.
In a locked drawer of the desk (opened by the brass key kept on the captain’s person is a key-ring with duplicate, numbered keys of every cabin aboard the Somnambulist.
The Captain is present most of the time – see his entry under Crew below for details.
During the sickness/atrocity, the Captain holes up in his cabin, emerging only to give orders to keep the barricades up and manned. He drinks heavily and guards the door with a blunderbuss.
Huge glass windows provide an excellent view of the river here while protecting observers from insects and rain. A coffee cart services those who choose to lounge in the plush chairs arrayed about the windows.
Day: The observation lounge is quite crowded at this time of day.
Night: At night, there is little to see from the lounge – only darkness. It’s currently empty.
Note that the Séance (see below) will be held here at night.
Sickness: A number of sickly crew languish here, moaning dully. One pounds his head onto the glass repeatedly.
Atrocity: The huge windows have all been smashed, covering the floor with broken glass. Several bloodless corpses are sprawled on the floor, one being feasted on by a pale former passenger with clawed fingers.
This Vampire Spawn (Sanity 1/1d6) will attack anyone who disturbs her.
A billiards table and several smaller tables featuring chess, cards, and other games adorn this spacious games room, the stuffed heads of alligators and wild boar staring down at you from the walls, along with several antique muskets and paintings of hunters and their quarry. A small bar can also be found here. The room is lit by several lamps, the floor carpeted by animal skins. The room stinks of cigar smoke, which stains every surface.
Day: During the day, the games room is filled mostly with couples and youngsters playing games of chess or cards.
Night: The games room is quite full at this time of night, riverboat gamblers engaging in games of dice, cards, and billiards for a variety of stakes.
See the Gamblers under Passengers below for more detail.
Sickness: The games room has been abandoned as sickness grips the boat.
Atrocity: A pair of gamblers attempt to play billiards with a human eyeball ripped from the socket of a nearby corpse. The results are messy and imprecise.
This tea room has a refined, feminine feel to it, with pastel walls and delicate furnishings. Paintings of romantic-looking cityscapes decorate the room, and a cabinet equipped with fine china fills one wall. The air smells fragrant here, like honey and vanilla.
Day: Ladies of sophistication currently pack the tea room, sipping their drinks and gossiping.
Night: At night, the tea room is quite empty.
Sickness: Someone has removed most of the fine china. Some of it lies broken on the floor.
Atrocity: Teacups brimming with blood sit on plates here, while the sandwich tray has been stocked with severed human fingers. Several ladies in bloodstained dresses and a few men wearing the same sip their blood with milk and honey.
4 Vampire Spawn can be found here (Sanity 1/1d6).
The high promenade here is not covered like the others below but stands open to the air, the wooden walkway spattered with rain. From here, you can see the immense smokestacks of the Somnambulist thrusting skywards, along with the ornate cupola of the pilothouse.
Day: Passengers and crew bustle about the promenade, enjoying the excellent view afforded by the hurricane deck’s height.
Night: At night, the hurricane deck promenade is almost totally empty; only a few lone crewmen are evident.
Sickness: The hurricane deck promenade is devoid of passengers or crew.
Atrocity: Several passengers are attempting to break into the crew’s quarters here, battering at them with tools and fists.
The pilothouse is a gleaming glass temple, spacious and fancifully adorned with rich red and gold curtains, a leather sofa, an oil-cloth floor, and a fine stove. Dominating the room is a gigantic wheel, almost comically large. A series of gongs and tinglers are reconnected to cords that, presumably, allow communication with the engine room; there’s also a fluted speaking-tube here allowing for more direct discourse.
Day or night, at least one of the pilots – often both – are present. See The Pilots under Crew, below. During the sickness the pilothouse stands empty; during the atrocity, it will be empty until the Vampires and their spawn seize control of the vessel, at which point the newly-made Spawn (formerly the pilots) will be taking the Somnambulist to the Belle de Nuit plantation.
Statistics for the crew can be found in the Appendix, but will probably not be required for the most part.
In total, there are 46 crew in total.
A billowing blue coat and jauntily angled cap marks a very tall, very thin man as the boat’s captain. A great shock of white hair bursts from beneath his cap. He wears a pistol on his hip and dresses finely, in a well-tailored grey suit and waistcoat. Periodically he checks the time with a gold-plated pocketwatch.
Captain Will Leathers commands the Somnambulist. He’s something of a recluse and spends most of his time in his cabin, leaving many of his duties to the first mate. He’s a somewhat taciturn individual, brusque to the crew, though still respected for his many years on the river – he used to be a pilot before becoming captain. He’s polite to passengers, though, and possesses a refined sense of chivalry.
The pale, freckled woman at the wheel chomps on a cigar and never takes her eyes off the river. Reddish-gold hair spills down her back from a tightly cinched ponytail. Unlike most of the ladies aboard the Somnambulist, this one wears trousers and a waistcoat.
Lounging on the sofa in the pilot’s house is a bronze-skinned rake of a man who puffs a cigar of his own. He’s garbed all in black, including a black slouch hat that shadows his stubbled features.
This pair are the pilots – Justine and Henry Fortier, a married couple. Henry has been a pilot for fifteen years and taught Justine the river, but now she pilots a steamboat as well or better than her husband. She’s lively, strong-spirited, and quick-witted; he’s a bit surly, but doggedly loyal to the captain and to his wife. They are usually in the Pilothouse.
The First Mate
A blustering, barrel-chested man with a full black beard and wooden teeth, the first mate of the boat is identified by his blue cap and uniform – and by the way he barks orders to the crew, occasionally threatening bodily harm to dawdling deckhands.
Pierre Duplantis, the First Mate of the Somnambulist, is a hot-tempered, hard-drinking man who ends most nights passed out from too much rum. Despite his penchant for liquor, however, he’s a strong leader, if a stern one. He has his eye set on making Anna Drake, the head cook, his wife, but his affections are not returned. He can be found throughout the ship, often on the Main Deck.
The steward is a sallow, gaunt-cheeked man whose face tells of a violent past – he’s got a glass eye, a broken nose, and a long scar along his jaw. One of his teeth glints gold. Despite his grizzled appearance he’s quite dapper in his dark, well-groomed uniform.
The steward is “One-Eyed Jacques,” a former naval officer who turned to the river trade in times of peace. He’s a crotchety, suspicious fellow assisted by several other servers – Gregory, Joseph, and George – in keeping the passengers in food brought up from the galley. He can be found in the Steward’s Office of the Boiler Deck.
The Head Cook
A stern dark-skinned woman serves as the boat’s cook, assisted by two girls who might be her daughters. She barks orders and gestures menacingly with a large cleaver, imperiously ordering soups to be seasoned, fires to be stoked, or water to be boiled.
The head cook is Anna Drake, a fierce but warm woman and one of the best cooks on the river. Her speciality is blackened catfish. She’s a demanding taskmaster but extremely knowledgeable and talented. In addition to being an excellent cook she knows a few Voodoo charms and spells, but she keeps this knowledge to herself. She’s usually in the Galley of the Main Deck.
The Assistant Cooks
The assistant cooks are a pair of dark-skinned girls, identical in every detail save for their hair – one keeps it short, the other keeps it long and tightly bound behind her head. Both wear white aprons and crew’s uniforms.
The twins Adeline and Claudette are Anna’s daughters, the assistant cooks. Unlike their mother they’re quiet, demure, and rather sardonic, given to sly glances and gossiping between one another. They’re usually found in the Galley on the Main Deck.
The boat’s engineer is a bald, fleshy fellow with the trace of old burn-scars on his hands and the side of his face, the tissue puckered and shiny. Despite his disfigurement he seems genial enough, humming to himself as he tinkers with the engines.
Archibald Jennings is kindly, but those who interfere with his engines will see his dark side – he has a terrible temper, rarely roused but awful to behold. He’s a good engineer, and has kept the boat running well for years. He’s usually in the Engine Room on the Main Deck.
A stooped man with a crooked back and dark, glinting eyes, the clerk has long-fingered, ink-stained hands and a pair of gold-rimmed spectacles. Though hunched, he is quite young, perhaps in his early thirties. He walks with the aid of a cane.
The kindly but deformed Felix Lamb is staggeringly intelligent, capable of performing complex calculations in his head. Though some passengers avoid him he is very well-respected by the crew. He’s usually found in the Clerk’s Office on the Hurricane Deck.
The barber is a cheerful, dark-skinned man with a gleaming white smile that goes well with his starched uniform.
Oliver Fox is the barber aboard the Somnambulist, a compulsively cheerful man renowned for his speed. Naturally, he can be found at the Barber’s on the Boiler Deck.
A burly blonde woman tends bar in the Grand Saloon, chatting amiably to passengers and mixing a variety of drinks. Her arms are covered in intricate tattoos – roses growing on thorny vines. Unlike many of the crew she doesn’t wear a formal uniform, preferring a flouncy black and red bodice and skirts.
Giselle LaRue tends bar. She’s a good source of gossip on the boat – she knows who’s sleeping with who, who lost his wages at cards, who’s got a drinking problem etc. She can be found in the Grand Saloon most times.
A pallid, dark-eyed young man slouches against one wall, smoking a cigarillo and watching the passengers – particularly the women. Judging from his dress he’s a crew-member of some kind, but he doesn’t seem to be doing much work.
Sly, lazy, and conniving, Fergas Gray is the boat’s porter. He frequently steals from passengers, burgling cabins when no one is watching and filching valuables lying around. One for the ladies, he can frequently be found chasing skirts, particularly the chambermaids, and Adeline and Claudette in the galley. Many stolen items and a fair amount of stolen cash can be found in his cabin on the Hurricane Deck. He’s usually found on the Cabin Deck.
A massively muscled man with skin black as coal and a bristling beard serves as the boat’s chief fireman, stoking the furnaces with the aid of three other workers down in the boiler room, sweat pouring off them constantly.
Tobias Stone is the Chief Fireman, something of a gentle giant. He is assisted by Murray, Aubrey, and John, the three other firemen. They’re to be found in the Boiler Room.
Chambermaids in fetching uniforms flit from cabin to cabin here, cleaning, tidying, and changing sheets. Most of them are quite young and have the dusky complexions common amongst the folk of this land.
The six chambermaids are Emile, Alexandrine, Camille, Delhpine, Rosette, and Isadora, and are usually found on the Cabin Deck or Hurricane Deck.
Four smartly-dressed servers circulate through the Saloon, attending to the needs of the passengers.
The servers are Henrietta, Sabrina, Byron, and Louis. They can usually be found in the Grand Saloon.
Strapping deckhands – most of them young, well-muscled men with louche manners and unsavoury personal habits, help to haul and pack freight in the cargo room, some singing work-songs, others swapping stories of the river.
There are twenty deckhands in all. In addition to hauling freight they’ll fulfil other tasks on board as needed. They’re usually on the Main Deck.
Total, there are 35 cabin passengers and 55 deck passengers aboard, though exact numbers fluctuate.
A plump, pale man, heavily jowled, preaches a sermon to a group of passengers here, reading from a leather-bound book. He wears a black coat, somewhat stained and tattered. His selected passage speaks of the terrible plagues and afflictions visited upon those who stray from the path of righteousness into sin and temptation. Some of his audience are quite rapt, but just as many seem to be listening more to pass the time than anything.
The preacher is Father Eugene Fontenot, a rabid, hellfire-and-damnation priest. He may be of minor use in a fight against the vampires – he has several vials of holy water with him, at the very least. He’s extremely pious, prudish, and judgmental, however, and will condemn anyone who exhibits signs of sin i.e. lasciviousness, gambling, thievery, etc, unless they confess their crimes and make a sincere effort to repent.
A well-dressed man sits in the lounge, reading what looks like a book of anatomy and occasionally making notes in another book to one side. He’s of middle age, with a well-kept grey beard and a pince-nez, and skin the colour of caramel.
This is Doctor Armand Lafitte, a physician of some repute. He’s travelling home after a sojourn into the swamps to treat an outbreak of pox in Marais de Tarascon. He’s a rather unsociable fellow who prefers to be left alone, but when the fever breaks out he’ll be very important (see Events, below). He has a full healer’s kit in his quarters.
Drinking quietly in one corner of the saloon is a dark-featured woman with eyes like flint, openly displaying a brace of duelling pistols on her hips. She wears a multitude of earrings and keeps her hair cropped short. Her features are partially shadowed by a black slouch hat.
This is Celestine Maurin, an accomplished duellist and pistol-for-hire, said to have killed thirteen men with her two pistols. She may be a useful ally against the vampires later in the adventure. Treat her as a 7th level Gunslinger.
A pale, rounded woman in a black dress speaks to a rapt audience in the Saloon, moving her arms theatrically.
“The ectoplasmic hand materialized from the aether and attempted to strangle me!” the woman declares. “In my trance, I was scarcely aware of this phantasmal assault. Yet even as the unctuous, slimy fingers tightened around my neck, and those present at the gathering screamed, I summoned enough strength to banish the poltergeist back to the Spirit World.”
The listeners ooh and aah, assailing the woman with questions. One asks if the woman will be conducting a séance aboard the steamboat.
“I shall,” the woman declares. “The captain has agreed to let me converse with the spirits tomorrow night, in the observation lounge on the hurricane deck. There will be a small cost of admission – only a single silver dollar.”
The woman is Evangeline Pardoe, a spiritualist and clairvoyant – and, despite her theatricality and overblown self-presentation, not a charlatan. She may, in fact, be very useful in conducting an investigation of the sicknesses and disappearances aboard the boat – particularly her ability to retrieve memories through hypnosis (her Memory Domain ability Recall).
For more details, see the Event “The Séance” below.
Four well-fed and well-dressed men are seated at the bar. Judging from the empty glasses before them and the redness of their noses they’ve been drinking for some time. From what you can hear of their conversation, they’re discussing shipments, profit margins, and similarly commercial matters.
These merchants – Gustave, Renault, Guy, and Michel – have cabins aboard the ship and are heading to the Port d’Elhour in hopes of making a major deal to ship tobacco across the sea to Dementlieu. They have a sizeable quantity of funds aboard (1200 gp in a locked chest – DC 25 to pick – in Gustave’s cabin) and spend money liberally. Most have expensive baubles (rings, watches, snuff-boxes, etc) on their persons, worth roughly 25 gp.
A pair of rather rakish, disreputable-looking men and a full-figured, heavily made-up woman play cards here in the games room. The men have a decidedly roguish cast; one, a wiry fellow with long black hair, is missing an ear and sports a series of small skull-like tattoos on his forearm, while the other, bald-headed, fidgets dextrously with a small knife, a black cigarillo dangling from his lips. Both wear leather vests and travel-stained clothes. The woman, who cools herself with a small hand-fan, would not look out of place in a brothel in her tight-fitting corset, flouncy skirts, and netted stockings. The three of them clearly know each other well from the way they are conversing.
These three gamblers – Juliette, Quentin, and Antoine – are scoundrels who roam the river and its ports swindling those they find out of their money. They can usually be found in the Games Room on the Hurricane Deck. These statistics are usable, sans magical equipment.
There are ten vampires aboard the boat: Damienne (the leader), Angelique, Philomene, Nanette, Vistoire, Isabelle, Narcisse, Henri, Francois, and Phillipe (all of these are pseudonyms, incidentally; the vampires’ real names can be found in Damienne’s diary). The ladies are all Sorcereresses, the gentlemen Fighters (see appendix for stats). They can be found throughout the boat, but can frequently be found in the Grand Saloon and the Observation Lounge, or walking the promenades. Naturally, they are seen only at night. More details can be be found in the Events section.
A group of elegantly dressed men and women lounge in the Grand Saloon, drinking wine and talking merrily with the other passengers. Judging from the richness of their attire they’re ladies and gentlemen of considerable means. The men have the look of dandies in their fine, colourful coats tailored outfits, while the ladies are all pale beauties, dark-haired and fine-boned, garbed in elaborate dresses of black, red, and blue. Certain similarities amongst the features of these bon vivants suggests they are related. The evident matriarch of the group is a beautiful woman of indeterminate age – she has the unlined face of a girl of twenty, but holds herself with the poise and confidence of a much older woman.
The vampires will try to befriend and even seduce the characters, luring them into dark corners or cabins to feed on them. However, don’t give the game away too quickly – remember that the vampires can use Charm and Modify Memory. You may wish to record Will saves so that you can roll them instead of the players.
Damienne Suzeneau, if approached, will explain her reasons for being aboard:
“Always a pleasure to meet fellow passengers,” the woman says. “Mademoiselle Damienne Suzeneau. Charmed, I’m sure.”
“My cousins and I are travelling to Port d’Elhour for the coming social season – six months of balls, parties, and exhibitions. It will be Angelique’s first proper season.” She gestures to a pale girl with dark blonde hair seated nearby, who looks over with large, curious eyes. “After so many months of the dreary old plantation house it will be a relief to reach the city.”
Any encounter with the vampires that reveals their undead nature requires a Sanity check (1/1d6).
There’s a shunned and fearful house on the edge of town, with an infamous reputation amongst the locals; the adventurers decide to investigate.
|1||…had a massive conservatory full of exotic plants that have now grown wild, making the entire house a treacherous vegetal hell. Strange hallucinogenic blooms cloy the air with their unwholesome perfume; creeping vines burst through windows and doorways; shambolic pitcher-plant things haul themselves through the overgrown passages. The house was owned by a wealthy explorer who brought the plants back from her travels from afar; her ghost still tends the multifarious blossoms, murmuring sweet nothings to the same poisonous vines and flowers that killed her.|
|2||…was converted into a leprosarium long ago before being abandoned. The deformed ghosts of the diseased dead now afflict the walls, floors, and ceilings with symptoms of the afflictions they suffered in life: weeping sores, gangrene, tumorous growths, cysts, boils, necrosis, and the like. Objects within are similarly affected: lamps shudder feverishly when lit, faucets or fountains dribble blood or pus, furniture sweats. Only the sick are safe in the house; those who are hale of body quickly become the ghosts’ victims.|
|3||…was nearly burnt down by the deranged, arsonist wife of the owner, kept locked in a sound-proofed room. The spirits of the family, their servants, and even their pets are trapped in the charred ruin of the house, manifesting as forever-burning apparitions, immolated phantoms whose touch ignites flesh and clothing. Holy water can put the spirits “out” at which point they cease to be deranged, raving horrors and become potential allies. Only once the arsonist’s ghost is exorcised will they truly rest.|
|4||…erases the memories of those who enter before locking them inside itself. Its interior is actually an extradimensional labyrinth of apparently infinite size, the haunt of otherworldly aesthetes and uncanny predators, notably certain hungry echoes whose sultriness entices wayfarers deeper into the maze.|
|5||…has become the house of a crazed Druidess obsessed with cats. She invites strays into the house with endless saucers of milk and seems to bewitch them; they follow her around in a great train, and hundreds of them can be found in the house’s rooms. The cats are multiplying, and they are getting very hungry. At night, a great mewling can be heard within, mingled with suspiciously human screams… and folk in the nearby town are disappearing.|
|6||…has become the haunt of vagrants, some of whom have disturbed the peculiar shrine found in the basement and now suffer nightmarish visions, visions of a Beast that speaks to them, giving them instructions, describing certain rituals, certain incantations, certain acts of unspeakable violence and depravity. The squatters are finding such urgings increasingly difficult to resist.|
|7||…has been taken over by local thieves who use it as a guild headquarters. Using disguises and magic they occasionally impersonate ghosts in order to deter unwanted visitors. Inside, a mixture of props and illusions make the house look haunted. Further in, past several secret doors, the headquarters is quite lavish, well-lit, and filled with riches.|
|8||…is the abode of uncountable multitudes of rats. The upper floors are the domain of mundane albeit somewhat bloated, over-large rats. The basement levels, which go down for an unfathomable distance and eventually merge with a series of tunnels and caves, are filled with increasingly disturbing mutant generations of rats: rat-kings with tails intertwined, six-legged rats, two-headed rats and blind rats with tails where their faces should be, hairless rats large as dogs, winged membranous rats, bipedal rat-children things. At the lowest level are pestilential horse-sized rat monsters birthing scores of the degenerate beasts. The mutations are caused by eldritch, radioactive crystals in the depths; those who brave the caves begin experiencing strange changes themselves.|
|9||…is infested with creeping fungus that spreads up from the basement into the main house. A brood of fungal horrors thrives in the deepest cellars beneath the fell house, but now the mildewed denizens of the place are venturing out into town and abducting those who dwell in it, dragging them down into the house’s pungent depths to infest their flesh with spores. They worship a kind of fruiting hive mind composed of the decomposed bodies of hosts no longer ambulatory.|
|10||…is filled with furniture made from embalmed human limbs, wallpaper, curtains, and lamp-shades from tanned flesh, decorations from carved bones and preserved organs, etcetera. Most of these materials were gathered from the local graveyards by the deranged inhabitant of the house, who is himself quite harmless, if macabre. However, the spirits of those whose mutilated corpses were used to craft the furnishings now plague the house and its morbid denizen.|
|11||…coexists on seven unusual planes of existence – the Roiling, the Skein, the Gnashing Realm, the Last World, the Tonguelands, Shriven, and the Plane of Wings. These places can be glimpsed through its windows at certain times of day, visited using the seven keys scattered throughout the house. But other travellers sometimes find their way into the house, as well…|
|12||…swarms with vermin of every variety – spiders, cockroaches, centipedes, flies, beetles, and others less identifiable. Wallpaper rustles and furniture teems with them. Webs shroud every surface and the floors crunch with moulted chitin. Cocoons and eggs dangle from the ceiling. The vermin occasionally shape themselves into quasi-humanoid masses; others fill the corpses of victims to use as grotesque puppets; they may or may not be demonic spirits. The swarms are being vomited forth unendingly from a jade bottle in the former owner’s cabinet of curiosities.|
|13||…is defaced with blasphemous graffiti so vile that it has achieved a kind of life. Living obscenities stalk the halls, erupting suddenly from wallpaper, returning to their papery realm when injured. Animate scribblings and pornographic caricatures made flesh seek to entrap intruders within two-dimensional reality. The graffiti was created by a mad, artistic warlock who wanders the house with chalk, charcoal, and brushes, scrawling new creations into unlikely life.|
|14||…is itself a ghost-house that appears only once every hundred years on the anniversary of its destruction; at other times it is nothing more than a few scattered lumps of rubble. Those inside the house when it disappears become trapped within it for a century, but perceive no passage of time.|
|15||…contains countless cursed mirrors in which the spirits of the former residents (and many others) are trapped, driven mad by centuries of imprisonment. The spirits can walk from mirror to mirror and can harm trespassers by attacking their reflections. They can be fought in the same way – though this is difficult and disorienting. Breaking mirrors is inadvisable: anyone reflected in a mirror when it is broken suffers terrible injuries, bones cracking, organs rupturing as their anatomy becomes hideously reconfigured. Those killed by a reflection have their souls drawn into the mirror-world.|
|16||…is the lair of an ancient family of vampires who swathe the windows with black curtains. Decades ago vampire hunters managed to trap the vampires within the mansion by consecrating the ground around the house and encircling it with running water. The vampires remain within, but have not fed in many years; as a result they are feral, emaciated things, bestial and maddened by the terrible thirst they cannot slake. The only victims they do enjoy are the periodic hunters who enter the mansion to finish the job – always unsuccessfully – and the foolish burglars who, hearing of the vampires’ extraordinary wealth, hope to plunder the mansion of valuables.|
|17||…contains portals to unimaginable past and future epochs that connect to “sister-structures” in those time periods. The denizens of such far-flung eras occasionally find their way through to the house, some monstrous mutants, others merely curious. Time within the house itself has been known to behave curiously, sometimes flowing at different rates in different rooms and on different floors.|
|18||…is the abode of a coven of hedonistic witches who use the place for their orgiastic rites to goat-headed gods and moon demons. Arcane drug-laboratories, stained altars guarded by horned servitors, cauldrons of sacramental filth, and luxurious incubi-harems can all be found here.|
|19||…was owned by an obsessive doll-maker who peopled the place with thousands of his own creations, eventually performing vile rituals to trap the souls of the living in the wood and porcelain bodies of his creations. The dolls have since murdered their “creator” but cannot leave the bounds of the house and so have gone slowly mad, forever trapped in their artificial forms, some taking on the dolls’ personae…|
|20||…is a gigantic, carnivorous shapeshifter, a living organism that attempts to lure would-be ghost-finders and looters into itself with suggestive groans and flickering lights in order to messily devour them. After consuming a group of investigators the house’s exterior doors and windows vanish, trapping the house’s prey inside. Rooms and corridors move about according to the creature’s whims until its kills and absorbs those within.|
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:
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Heller, Terry. The Delights of Terror. Chicago: U of Illionois P, 1987. Print.
Hex Session XXVII – 5th Edition Actual Play – Chainbreaker
October 13, 2018
The Variegated Company
October 1, 2018
Hex Session XXVI – 5th Edition Actual Play – The Book of Chaos
August 27, 2018
Hex Session XXV – 5th Edition Actual Play – “The Hexad Council”
July 12, 2018
Hex Session XXIV – 5th Edition Actual Play – “The False Queen”
May 21, 2018
Hex Session XXIII – 5th Edition Actual Play – “Château de la Marche, Pt. 2”
May 19, 2018
Hex Session XXII – 5th Edition Actual Play – “Château de la Marche, Pt. 1”
May 10, 2018
Hex Session XXI – 5th Edition Actual Play – “The Angel’s Eye”
January 13, 2018
How Detailed is Too Detailed: Granularity vs. Practicality
January 7, 2018
January 5, 2018
Hex Session XX – 5th Edition Actual Play – “Kaleidoscope”
December 16, 2017
October 12, 2017
Hex Session XIX – 5th Edition Actual Play – “Spring”
October 3, 2017
Hex Session XVIII – 5th Edition Actual Play – “Harrowgast”
September 9, 2017
Hex Session XVII – 5th Edition Actual Play – “Troll Country”
July 2, 2017
Hex Session XVI – 5th Edition Actual Play – “The Book of Dreams”
June 4, 2017
Hex, Session XV – 5th Edition Actual Play – “Bogeymen”
May 13, 2017
Hex, Session XIV – 5th Edition Actual Play – “The Cavern of Fear”
April 26, 2017
Hex, Session XIII – 5th Edition Actual Play – “Sewers & Spiders”
April 12, 2017
If Symbolist/Decadent Artists Ran D&D Campaigns
April 6, 2017
Hex, Session XII – 5th Edition Actual Play – “The Organon of Magic”
April 1, 2017
Hex, Session XI – 5th Edition Actual Play – “The Yellow Sign Pt. 2”
February 19, 2017
Hex, Session X – 5th Edition Actual Play – “The Yellow Sign Pt. 1”
February 18, 2017
Hex, Session IX – 5th Edition Actual Play – “The Nightmare of Cobweb Cliffs”
February 17, 2017
Twenty Quick Questions for Hex
January 1, 2017
Hex, Session VIII – 5th Edition Actual Play – “Arcady”
November 20, 2016
Hex, Session VII – 5th Edition Actual Play – “The Puppet Factory”
August 12, 2016
Hex, Session VI – 5th Edition Actual Play – “Asylum”
August 1, 2016
Hex, Session V – 5th Edition Actual Play – “The Van Lurken House”
July 8, 2016
Hex, Session IV – 5th Edition Actual Play – “Rolling the Bones”
June 13, 2016
Witiko Falls game
May 31, 2016
Griffin McElroy’s Crystal Kingdom OST
May 28, 2016
Hex, Session III – 5th Edition Actual Play – “Blood & Ink”
May 23, 2016
Game Table Pictures
May 15, 2016
Hex, Session II – 5th Edition Actual Play – “The Ultimate Contagion Pt. 2”
May 13, 2016
Hex, Session I – 5th Edition Actual Play – “The Ultimate Contagion Pt. 1”
May 2, 2016