BEARDED DEVIL

Monsters, Horror, Gaming

Tag: Lovecraftian (Page 1 of 2)

Hex, Session IX – 5th Edition Actual Play – “The Nightmare of Cobweb Cliffs”

The characters in this session were:

  • An ancient and enigmatic Lengian cleric of the Mother of Spiders, name unknown. She wears bulky ecclesiastical garments covering an uncertain number of limbs and goes by “Sister.”
  • Vespidae, a waspkin bard – a sacred dancer with a deathwish, shunned by the waspkin community for complicated ritualistic reasons. Now a devoted follower of the Queen in Yellow.
  • Armand Percival Reginald Francois Eustace de la Marche III, a suspiciously pale, apparently human noble and sorcerer, and certainly not a ghoul (how dare such a thing be suggested).
  • Sprigley Gilette, a hardboiled, cigar-chomping human mercenary and veteran of several brutal wars, and a relatively new arrival in Hex.

XP Awarded: 700 XP.

The Sisters of the Nunnery of the Mother of Spiders were in a state of crisis. Something had escaped from the depths of their mysterious temple into the labyrinthine caverns within Cobweb Cliffs, the Lengian District of Hex. Sister, a member of the order currently on a kind of “sabbatical” from her ecclesiastical duties, was called in to assist the spidery nuns. She brought with her the waspkin Vespidae, the sorcerer Armand, and the mercenary Sprigley, who, having recovered from his bout with insanity after his last trip to the Old City, had become devoted to a strange, demonic entity, his body inscribed with diabolic tattoos. Bringing with her the sheep known as “Cosmo,”* the group headed to Cobweb Cliffs.

*See the Ultimate Contagion Part 2.

cobweb-cliffs

Like Stingsworth or Croakmarsh, the district of Cobweb Cliffs is like another world. Lengians and their arachnid pets and servants make up almost all of the population here, moving between the eight distinct layers of the district. Everything here is coated with webs, with the thickest wefts of spidersilk supporting entire buildings. The architecture here is as alien as the beings who dwell in the district, all weird angles and eerie decorations, giving the place a crazed, oneiric illogic. To Lengians, of course, Cobweb Cliffs simply feels like home.

The group headed swiftly for the Temple of the Mother of Spiders at the top of the district, on the Street-Not-To-Be-Described. We shall refrain, in honour of the holy edicts of the Mother of Spiders, from speaking the Street-Not-To-Be-Described, since even by saying this much we flirt with blasphemy. Let us instead speak of the things which can be seen from the streets web-swathed vantage: the seven lower tiers of Cobweb Cliffs spread out steeply below, the lowest swathed in midst, and beyond, the districts of Mainspring and Little Pandemonium, the Dreamer’s Quarter, and Gloomway, the Feypark to the north, and to the west, the brooding eaves of the Tangle, past the city wall which bisects the Cliffs. The Radula can be glimpsed to the south, a great green-brown tendril of polluted water, swarming with boats and spanned by the glittering, statue-encrusted length of the Bridge of Sins. The temples of other faiths can be seen below, the Infernal Basilica of the Chthonic Gods and the gleaming glass-and-metal pyramid of the Magistra’s Cathedral. While such buildings may be larger than the Lengian Temple – at least on the surface – now in the city stand higher.

Casting its long shadow over the rest of Cobweb Cliffs was the Temple of the Mother of Spiders, deity of dreams, schemes, poison, sleep, and death. All but the outermost chambers of this imposing , tiered structure were forbidden save to Lengians, guarded by several of the multi-limbed warrior nuns of the order. Inside, the architecture was swathed with cobwebs, for spiders scurried everywhere, spinning their webs between the huge columns that supported the ceiling, half-obscuring the intricate geometric designs that decorated the walls and floor – though the temple’s inconsistent gravity often made this distinction unclear. The Reverend Mother Yaan Tsang emerged from a nearby doorway in one “wall” and walked down towards the party after being alerted of their arrival. She was a statuesque, pale Lengian with six well-muscled arms, her head partially swathed in the habit of the order. As one of the highest ranking members of the Nunnery, one of the eight members of the Conclave of Matriarchs, she was also one of the most powerful Lengians in Hex, the spiderfolk being an intensely religious, even theocratic people.

“Ah, you have come,” she said sternly, looking you up and down with her many eyes. “There is little time to waste, so I will be brief. But first, we must find somewhere more private to speak. Come.” She gestured with several hands to a doorway on another wall, indicating for the group to follow. They stepped inside a room with walls elaborately padded with spidersilk, beneath which could be glimpsed intricate Lengian sigils. “Secrets spoken in this room cannot be divulged aloud save through powerful magic,” the Reverend Mother said, closing and locking the door. “Anyone who breaks this enchantment will be subject to a terrible curse – understood?”

The party agreed to abide by these restrictions.

“Very well then,” she continued. “First, some background is necessary for those unfamiliar with our faith. Part of the initiation into Mother of Spiders’ worship involves a pilgrimage throughout Leng, in the Dreamlands. The pilgrimage is not conducted bodily but rather through lucid dreaming, here in the depths of the temple. Initiates are bound in a cocoon of spidersilk and given a dose of a powerful sedative poison, putting them into a coma for many weeks and allowing them to visit the Dreamlands for an extended period. At the end of this quest, they awaken having visited some of the most holy sites of the Mother of Spiders, glimpsing her Great Web.

“Unfortunately, some do not pass this test, and remain comatose forever. In rarer cases yet, the sleeper who awakens is not the one who fell asleep in the first place. One of our initiates, Sho-Ramsara, slept for half a year, before awakening quite suddenly. At first she seemed to behave normally, but then other initiates began to go missing. Certain signs implicated Sho-Ramsara, and when we confronted her the thing inhabiting her body revealed itself, striking several of our initiates and escaping the Temple. A being of nightmare from the darkest depths of the Dreamlands has possessed her, and now haunts the waking world wearing her flesh. Already there have been reports of disappearances in Cobweb Cliffs – we fear the thing is hunting, using the caverns beneath the Cliffs as its lair.

“We are unsure the extent of the monstrosity’s powers or its exact nature, but like many beings of nightmare it can warp reality to some degree, and wields the power of fear. Ideally, Sho-Ramsara should be kept alive – there may yet be a chance of saving her and sending the creature back where it came from, if you can bring her back to the temple. As a last resort, however, you may need to kill her to prevent the nightmare from wreaking more destruction. If you do so, we will reduce the payment by half. Are these terms acceptable?”

Again, the party agreed to this arrangement. Sister spent some time in the nunnery’s libraries seeking scrolls of calm emotions and other spells, and then the group set out, heading for the nearest entrance to the tunnels within the cliffs.

Maps below are from Sprigley’s player.

Cobweb Cliffs 1Their first stop was a cavern used as a spider farm, with countless thousands of the creatures spinning their webs throughout the room, clusters of eggs scattered throughout. Mesh structures, trellises, stalagmites, and stalactites were all covered with webs. Some of the bigger spiders were kept in spacious (but tight-barred) cages. Lengian spider-farmers clambered throughout the complex, feeding their charges insects, collecting silk, and milking venom from some of the larger arachnids. A few small outbuildings had been built on the ground or along the walls of the farm. There was also a pen in which a number of pallid hogs can be seen. The desiccated, bloodless husks of a number of piglets  were evident in a few of the giant spider cages.

Upon questioning the farmers, the party discovered this was the Tsothoth Spider Farm, a family business that produced a great deal of silk both for the weavers on the Street of Weavers and the nearby Venom Mart. The folk here seemed distrustful of outsiders but warmed to Sister, as a traveling cleric. On asking about any sign of trouble, they discovered that several of their hogs had recently been snatched. The farmers believed that those responsible might be members of the so-called “Funnel Web Gang,” a group of bandits lairing somewhere deep below the Cliffs.

Cobweb Cliffs 2

The party began making their way deeper into the tunnels. They soon came acrosstTwo Lengians clad all in spidersilk uniforms, who had cornered a thin, human man with blue-black hair, garbed in yellow robes and wearing a Yellow Sign round his neck; he looked battered and beleaguered. The masked, armoured Lengians had an authoritative stance and made no effort to conceal their activities as they advanced upon him with clearly violent intentions. Sister recognized the Lengians as members of the Ebon Web, the theocratic police force of Cobweb Cliffs

“Please! I’ve done nothing wrong! They’re going to kill me!” the man exclaimed.

Investigation revealed the man to be Ambrose Vasseur, a poet and hieorophant of the Queen in Yellow, performing his work in public in the Cliffs. Under the law of the Ebon Web this activity had been interpreted as proselytizing, a prohibited action in the Cliffs. Vespidae, seeing a fellow worshiper of the Queen in Yellow, felt compelled to intervene. Fortunately Sister was able to use her clout with the Temple to dissuade the Ebon Web officers, who slunk off into the tunnels. Ambrose gratefully thanked the party and advised Vespidae to find him at the Fane of the Queen in Yellow.

Lengian

The party pressed on, stopping briefly at the Venom Mart – a dim cavern lit by a few dull, greenish lamps, containing a bustling market crowded with numerous stalls and the customers perusing them. While the merchants in this luridly lit bazaar were almost all Lengian, the buyers were more diverse, with several humans, cambions, ghouls, dagonians, and trollbloods amongst them. They could see a fair number of gang and guild insignia here, displayed with an openness usually reserved for Corvid Commons. The goods here took a variety of forms – powders, vials of liquid, and even globes of gas could all be seen. The Mart, Sister explained, was an open secret in Cobweb Cliffs, operating beyond the control of the City Watch. The party bought several poisons here to induce unconsciousness, hoping that they would prove useful in subduing their quarry.

Delving yet deeper, the group entered the lower tunnels of the Cliffs. Continuing their explorations, the party next discovered the corpse of a Lengian sprawling against one wall of a dank cavern, limbs limp. The cadaver bore an expression of absolute terror on her face, her several eyes frozen wide in fright. There were no obviously fatal injuries; however, the wall behind her body was bizarrely changed: a cluster of roving, many-coloured eyes, blinking and rolling, some watching them intently, grows from the rock like a lichen. Armand used the spell detect thoughts on the eyes and was assailed by a million million thoughts, a slurry of surreal images, lusts, fears, anxieties, nightmarish monsters and moans of ecstasies – like tapping into the collective unconscious, a stream of dream-energy sluicing through his mind. Still benumbed by reading The Book of the Void, Armand was able to cling to sanity, but nearly lost himself in the primal welter of oneiric puissance.

Close inspection of the corpse revealed it had a mysterious Aklo tattoo, which Sister identified as signifying affiliation with the Funnel-Web Gang. Further on, the party discovered a cavern whose walls seemed mottled with some sort of fungus. Drawing closer, though, they realized the strange growths extruded from the rock were actually a series of mouths from various species, some toothless and ancient, others monstrously fanged. The mouths whispered and spoke to one another in a babbling torrent of languages, some speaking quasi-intelligible snatches of conversation, others curses softly, or singing nonsense verse. They had not ventured much further when a group of eight Lengian cutthroats emerged from web-swathed nooks and similar vantage points and then sprang to attack, hurling nets and blowing darts to try and subdue the party. After a brief scuffle in which several of the cutthroats and party-members were injured, Sister convinced them to desist, claiming that they could protect the Funnel-Web Gang  from the creature hunting them.Cobweb Cliffs 3

The Funnel-Web cutthroats led the party through a hidden path concealed by a thick cobweb. Down a short tunnel and down a web-swathed trapdoor they found a series of small caves, the walls covered in more webs. A few bunks, tables, and other furnishings were scattered about, as were racks of weapons: short swords, knives, blowguns, darts, and nets. Here they met the leader of the Funnel-Web Gang – a mysterious Lengian man, Shenzirr, swathed in dark purple clothes and spidersilk armour. Conferral with the wary Lengian gang-leader revealed much about the band of criminals, as much religious dissidents and undercity scum – a group striving against the dogmatic control of the Temple of the Mother of Spiders, gathering strength in a guerilla war against the authorities of Cobweb Cliffs. They had encountered Sho-Ramsara several times, and, it proved, could lead the party to the possessed Spider-Nun’s lair – deep in the Old City, below the cavernous tunnels of the Cliffs. Shenzirr dispatched a guide to aid the group in their journey below.

After recovering their strength, the party and their guide set out, the Lengian thief leading them deep into the earth. They passed the corpse of a leathery-winged, thin-limbed creature with curved horns, approximately humanoid but lacking any vestige of a face, which lay crumpled on the tunnel floor, its stiff limbs upraised. One its arms was broken and its wings were badly torn, but it was killed from a slash to its throat. A peculiar, eerie music with no identifiable source lingered in the air around the corpse.

“A Nightgaunt,” the Funnel-Web gangster said. “A being from the Dreamlands – a manifestation of childhood nightmares. They’ve been breeding down here, in the dark, brought through somehow to the waking world. They stray up into our territory sometimes…”

The walls of the narrow tunnel beyond sprouted dozens of grasping, clawing hands, grabbing and groping at the air. They weren’t form of rock but of flesh, erupting out of the wall in horrible profusion. Sister eyed the hands and then produced one of her scrolls of calm emotions. Casting the spell on the arms, they became abruptly slack and inactive.

Cobweb Cliffs 4

“Let’s hurry,” she urged. As Cosmo the sheep passed, on a whim Sister decided to cast the spell again, this time on the sheep. A strange shiver passed through the being, the stars and nebulae roiling within its body twinkling strangely.

“What did you feel?” Sister asked, curious.

“A strange sensation. Countless trillions of souls… all, for a moment, at peace.”

It seemed that if indeed Cosmo was now the host to other realities, spells cast on it could effect such realities. The enormity of this possibility was too much to take in for the time being, and the party pressed on, lowering themselves via spidersilk rope down a narrow chute and into a deeper level of the caves. At the bottom, they realized they had left Cosmo above… but then the sheep nudged Sister’s foot, having somehow appeared below with them.

A deep chasm gaped ahead, bereft of the helpful web bridges that elsewhere provided a means across such rifts. Bones could be glimpsed at the bottom. Vespidae simply flew across, planting pitons in the roof so that others could use more rope to shimmy their way across the chasm. Veering left at the next tunnel, the party entered a huge cavern; roosting on the ceiling like bats were dozens of leathery shapes – winged, spindly creatures, identical to the dead nightgaunt they’d seen before. Stealthily the group crept past, careful not to disturb the creatures. Cosmo simply levitated its way across the room, quite silent.

A huge doorway gaped ahead, perhaps fifty feet high, leading into a smooth-walled hall of stone beyond. The walls were carved with the glyphs of the Librarians, and the ceiling held up by titanic, tentacular statues, creatures somewhere between apes and octopi.

“An entrance to the Old City,” Sprigley noted, with a shudder from his last fateful venture into the Librarian tunnels.

Cobweb Cliffs 5

Beginning their explorations, the party first examined a stone door, using their knowledge of arcane Librarian glyphs to gain entrance to the room beyond. In the middle of this ovoid chamber was a kind of rounded pod that brought to mind a sarcophagus, with machinery and masses of convoluted conduits emerging from its sides. The pod had a door on its top which was currently open, revealing a large, empty space within. If this lid were closed, someone placed inside the pod would be in darkness. None knew what function the pod might serve. Sister volunteered to enter. At first, all was dark – but then the door opened, and Sister watched herself climbing out of the pod, moving backwards out of the chamber, everything seeming to flow in reverse. The party walked backwards out of the chamber, the door closed behind them, and they began to leave the Old City… Filled with a feeling of weightlessness, Sister “jumped” back into her body, having traveled backwards through time. She explained to her companions what had just occurred. A useful device indeed…

This mystery resolved, the party pressed on, deeper into the Old City. The walls of the next chamber dripped and oozed with a disgusting viscous slime, out of which temporarily resolved faces, mouths, hands, eyes, claws, tentacles, and other amorphous shapes. Hideous squelching sounds mingled with the cries, murmurs, and babbling of the many mouths. Moments later, as if responding to the presence of intruders, some of this abominable secretion glopped down off the wall and congealed into a gibbering, shapeless mass of metamorphic horror. The living nightmare slithered and scuttled and pulls itself forward, mewling and whining incoherently. Armand, quick with a frost-spell, slowed the creature long enough for the group to hurry into the next room.

A shattered portal stood at the centre of this chamber, which dripped with more of the repulsive slime. A Lengian – one of the gang of Funnel-Web cutthroats, judging from their garb – was trapped here, embedded waist-deep in the slime. Looming over the weakly struggling figure was a second Lengian, this one in the tattered remnants of a nun’s habit. As her prey whimpered and struggled she seems to be drawing some sort of energy from his mind, pressing two of her six hands to his temples. Though still recognizably Lengian her form was monstrously distorted, her limbs elongated, her features twisted into a ghastly expression of thirst. Strange movements could be seen beneath her robes, and something moved beneath her skin.

The fight was a frenzy of spells, bullets, and flickering limbs. Sister used calm emotions to free the cutthroat from the slime, the spell causing the nightmare-sludge to dissipate, while Vespidae, poisoned javelin in hand, flitted up to the Dream-Demon. The possessed nun launched herself at Sprigley, catching the warrior across the chest with her claws, even as she spoke words of fell magic, attempting to put some of her attackers to sleep. Bleeding and backing off from the flailing spider-monster, Sprigley fired a bullet from his enchanted pistol, the Verdant Gun, trapping Sho-Ramsara with suddenly interweaving vines and giving Vespidae time to administer the sleeping-poison purchased in the Venom Mart. Sho-Ramsara shuddered and was still, though the dream-demon within still thrashed and boiled within her flesh, quieted only temporarily through another scroll of calm emotions. Their quarry for the moment dispatched, the party retreated back into the previous room, only to find more of the squelching horrors had spawned. They hurried on, Armand launching fire spells to burn the nightmare-things, Sprigley firing off more rounds from his Verdant Gun to trap the horrors in place. With Sho-Ramsara secured they headed back to the surface.

Coming again to the cavern of the night-gaunts the group found the nest were awakened – and agitated. They rushed through, slashing with weapons, Vespidae hurling javelins, picking the creatures off, but there were dozens of the bat-like things, swarming in pursuit. Then Cosmo, turning in seeming irritation, let out a bleat of power. The ceiling of the night-gaunts’ cavern collapsed, crushing the leathery creatures with a terrible crash that made the very ground quake. Awed at this display from the eldritch sheep, the party hastened back towards the surface and to their promised reward.

Hex, Session VI – 5th Edition Actual Play – “Asylum”

The characters in this session were:

  • Yam, an eccentric gnome illusionist and local graduate student at Umbral University. Yam cares little for money. Yam is curious. Yam is Yam.
  • An ancient and enigmatic Lengian cleric of the Mother of Spiders, name unknown. She wears bulky ecclesiastical garments covering an uncertain number of limbs and goes by “Sister.”
  • Vespidae, a waspkin bard – a sacred dancer with a deathwish, shunned by the waspkin community for complicated ritualistic reasons. Now a devoted follower of the Queen in Yellow.
  • Armand Percival Reginald Francois Eustace de la Marche III, a suspiciously pale, apparently human noble and sorcerer, and certainly not a ghoul (how dare such a thing be suggested).
  • Sprigley Gilette, a hardboiled, cigar-chomping human mercenary and veteran of several brutal wars, and a relatively new arrival in Hex.

XP Awarded: 400 XP.

At their usual haunt, The Green Star, the party convened at the request of Yam, who had received word from some of their gnomish brethren in the district of Mainspring that a company of mechanists, Cogswright & Associates, who seemed to have developed what they called an “issue” with their automata. The gnomes were looking for those with strong skills in problem-solving and “robot fighting” to assist them. After stocking up on a few provisions the party set out for the whirring clockwork ghetto of the gnomes.

Mainspring

Stepping into Mainspring was like stepping into another world – a place of churning gears and hissing steam-valves and hammering pistons, where all the doors were made for people under four feet tall. Gnomes make up almost all of the population in the district, and could be seen flitting to and fro across streets, up and down elevators, across bridges, and along moving walkways. It would have been maddeningly difficult not only to navigate the twisted, ever-changing machine that is Mainspring but to even discern the function of a particular building, many of which seem to be multi-use, were it not for Yam, who grew up in the mechanical labyrinth. Amidst the shifting morass of pistons, gears, steam-valves, chimneys, and whirring clocks, it was difficult to tell where one street ends and another began, but with Yam’s guidance they found your way to Coil Street: a meandering street shadowed by an enormous conglomeration of buildings of bewildering size and complexity. A churning street-sweeping automaton rolled by, followed by a mass of smaller litter-collection drones spearing bits of trash with their mechanical spikes and then depositing them in the lumbering, cauldron-shaped incinerator automaton that trailed the robotic train. After a quick visit to Yam’s mother, an artificer of some skill directing construction of a new part of the unfathomable mega-machine that is Mainspring, the party made their way to Cogswright & Associates on Coil Street.

clockwork city

The rusty metal spire of Cogswright & Associates was so interconnected with the surrounding machinery it was hard to tell where it ended and its neighbours begin. Its entrance advertised the company as a “maker of fine automata,” and displayed several samples in a glass window. These included an automaton flamingo that delicately stalked back and forth across the display, an automaton ballerina who occasionally demonstrated its dancing with a twirl, and a hulking clockwork ettin, its two heads swivelling from side to side, appraising passersby. Inside, the party were met by a ten-foot-tall automaton of gleaming brass, armed with a massive halberd. It looks a bit like an oversized gnome. “Welcome, visitors,” the automaton’s voicebox croaked. “Please state your business.”

“Here about the robot fighting,” Yam said, and the robot ushered them inside a large workshop where thousands of automaton components were scattered madly – from coils and springs and gears to chassis parts and painted faces – two gnomes are tinkering. They looked remarkably like one another, though one looks male and the other female.

Tinker1

“Ah, hi Yam,” the female gnome said. “Hello, everyone. I’m Wanda Cogswright.”

“And I’m Edgar Cogswright – owners of Cogswright & Associates,” the male said, wiping a gloved hand on his apron. “Good to see you Yam. Dissertation coming well?”

Yam made a non-committal noise.

“Thank you for coming on such short notice,” Wanda said. “Can we offer you any refreshments? Tea perhaps?”

Eustace gladly accepted, and a scuttling teapot automaton poured them tea.

“You fix the scalding issue?” Yam asked, eyeing the automaton.

“Ah. We’re working on it,” Wanda said.

“You’re adventurers in Hex, so I take it at least some of you have been down in the Old City,” Edgar said, moving on to more pertinent matters. “Most of the upper tunnels have been thoroughly looted already, and it can be very difficult to reach some of the lower chambers. The Librarians put all sorts of traps and protections round the entrances.”

“So we thought, why not circumvent those protections?” Wanda put in. “We gnomes have been making tunnels for centuries. We’re really, really good at it. We don’t need to jump through the Librarians’ hoops. We can just tunnel into the lower levels.”

“Even the most conservative estimates suggest we’ve barely scratched the surface of the Old City,” Edgar went on. “There are miles of tunnels down there, almost all of it totally unexplored. The city up here, big as it seems, is tiny compared to what lies below.”

“So, we did what gnomes do,” Wanda said. “We built automata. Automaton drills to punch through layers of earth and stone and demolitions automata to blast or cut through what can’t be drilled. Automaton protectors to guard our expeditions against the unpleasant things that lurk in the depths of the Old City.”

automaton

“We drilled and delved and drilled and delved, and mostly we just found earth and boring, empty chambers,” Edgar continued. “But then we struck proverbial paydirt. A sector of the Old City hitherto unexplored, deep, deep below Hex, full of everything we’d hoped – books and artefacts and strange machines, all of the wonders of the First Library. Our plan had worked.”

“Unfortunately there’s been something of a snag,” Wanda explained. “We don’t know how it happened, but something down there started messing with out automata. At first just minor malfunctions – bots that wouldn’t take orders properly, or that started doing things on their own. But then…”

“Then things got ugly,” Edgar interjected. “Really ugly. The automata turned on us, started attacking. We lost some of our expedition. More are still down there, possibly trapped or on the run from our constructs.”

“We’ve spent a lot of time and gold on this excavation,” Wanda said. “And we want to know what went wrong. We want you to go down there and see if you can find out what made the automata go haywire – and, if you can, reverse it.”

“Don’t worry about damaging any constructs you encounter,” Edgar said. “Do whatever you need to. We can always use mending to repair them. And, of course, if you come across any of our expedition while you’re down there, do what you can to take them to safety.”

“If you can’t figure out what’s causing the automata to behave like this, there’s sort of a Plan B,” Wanda added. “Well, more like a Plan Z, really, we’ve really worked our way through a lot of plans recently. If there doesn’t seem to be any way to reverse the process we want you to blow the tunnel, seal everything back up. Eventually the automata will wind down on their own, and we can go back in and see if we can make sense of what happened. But if the tunnel remains open, the constructs might come back up… and we definitely don’t want that.”

“In either case, your reward is simple,” Edgar said. “Anything you find down there is yours. If you manage to deactivate the automata or undo whatever has happened to them, we’ll throw in a bonus of five hundred guineas each.”

“Sound fair?” Wanda asks.

The party agreed and were duly equipped with a quantity of explosives before being escorted down a flight of stairs and into a series of tunnels below the workshop, where a cable car awaited them to lead them deeper underground.

cable car

Two metal cables snaked along the ceiling in the tunnel, which descended deep into the earth. Hooked to the cables was a rickety-looking, rusted cable car equipped with a sputtering light, either magical or electric. Complex gear-driven mechanisms were connected to the cables, so that the car can be propelled along them. A lever was set within arm’s reach of the car. Armand, with a flick of the wrist, cast a light spell to arrest the flickering light, and the group piled in, Yam yanking the lever.

With a lurch, the cable car began to move, swaying vertiginously. At first it moved slowly as it approached the shaft plunging down into darkness, but then it began to gather speed before finally hurtling into the chthonic gloom at breakneck speed, the flickering light briefly illuminating the rock walls as the car whizzed downwards, spiraling deeper and deeper, occasionally dropping almost vertically. Occasional side-tunnels and branching passages could be briefly glimpsed during the descent, before the car leveled off, suspended now above a vast, dark cavern below. Stalagmites and the broken stubs of ancient monoliths rose from below, barely visible in the darkness. The car careened back into a tunnel, winding ever downwards, before emerging again into an echoing cave, this one filled with phosphorescent fungi; the party caught a glimpse of a subterranean stream flowing through the inky blackness, and then the car was swallowed once more by a narrow tunnel, bored into the rock.

At last the cable car came to a half at the end of the long, meandering tunnel, within a natural cavern studded here and there with lumps of glimmering crystal. Another tunnel bored by the same great drill that fashioned the shaft leading up to the surface stretched ahead.

crystal-cave-fantasy-wallpaper-3

Beyond a short tunnel lay another natural cavern, this one with walls not of rock but of softly glowing crystal, changing in colour from pale mauve to cerulean blue to bright crimson to gleaming white. Two passages, both obviously artificial, led deeper into the caves. Sister carefully removed some of the crystals here before the party pressed onward, coming now to a sluggish river of lava, quite broad, with occasional lumps of un-melted rock floated on its glowing orange surface. Sister tested one of the crystals here, throwing it at the lava and producing a blinding flash of light that left her eyes stinging. Armand, ignoring this, quickly cast several rays of frost to harden the lava for a few moments, allowing the party to quickly cross the river before the rock-bridge melted once more.

Next the party came to a branch in the path, and decided to head to the left, following the sound of a whirring machine, which became deafening as the party approached their source. At the end of a winding tunnel a huge clockwork machine rammed itself repeatedly into a wall of rock, slowly boring its way further with the massive drill on its front. A mass of churning gears and metal plates, the enormous automaton had six leg-like appendages, the better to navigate difficult terrain, and resembles a gigantic clockwork beetle. There was something disturbing in its aimlessness. In between its assaults on the rock a mechanical voice occasionally spoke in the gnomish language: “MUST GET OUT! MUST ESCAPE!”

Yam distracted the automaton, telling it to “Out is that way! and leading it toward the lava river while the rest of the group got out of the way. The berserk drill swiveled and barreled after Yam, their companions following; as the automaton arrived at the lava river, Yam cast thunderwave, pushing the robot into the river of molten rock. Yam’s companions arrived, Armand and Vespidae leaping on to the machine to try and wrest free its ticking analytical engine.

“MUST GET OUT OF THE ASYLUM!” the machine shrieked madly.

As the drill sunk into the lava it screamed horribly, its metal turning to white-hot sludge, and the pair managed to rip the clockwork brain free, Sprigley grabbing Armand and pulling him back to solid ground. As they did so Sister felt a strange ripple in the air, as if a spirit had passed through her. Upon examination the party determined that the mechanism had been tampered with somehow, though there were no signs of physical force such as tool-marks.

Digger

The party pressed on past the tunnel where the drill had been boring. The smooth, round tunnel broke through at last into a space beyond – a chamber with walls of ancient stone, black as midnight save for the glimmer of weird glyphs that here and there adorn its vast, polyhedral columns. An electric frisson passed through the body upon entering this primeval place, where once dwelt beings of unthinkable knowledge and power. First the party turned left; protruding from the ceiling of the vaguely cylindrical chamber they entered was a huge, complex machine of iridescent metal, terminating in a node suspended directly above a large dais – anyone standing on the dais would be directly beneath the node. To one side of the dais was a console glimmering with the arcane glyphs of the Librarians. Though Yam was eager to experiment the party cautioned against it. Sister removed a mug from her pack and placed on the dais before activating the machine. There was a loud series of unearthly sounds and a beam of light shot from the node to the mug. The mug vanished without a trace – no shards, no smudge marks, it was simply gone. Reasoning it was either a vaporizer or a teleporter the party pressed on, making a note of the machine in case they needed to return to it later. They followed the tunnel to the right to a heptagonal chamber with honeycomb-like shelves in which were piled a number of scrolls. Seemingly trapped within was a roughly humanoid automaton eight feet in height. Its eyes were fashioned from rubies that flashed with red light. The berserk automaton occasionally used these gemstone eyes to try and burn its way out of the room with a searing red beam. Detecting magic, the party ascertained that some sort of illusion was keeping the automaton penned in and decided to leave it be for the time being.

Yam's MapYam’s map of the first level.

Continuing their exploration, the party pressed on, encountering a large, cylindrical chamber with walls adorned with the glyphs of the Librarians. The floor, which at first appeared to be solid stone, became transparent upon entrance, revealing a dark shaft below, while the ceiling likewise became transparent and showed that the shaft also extended upwards. Deep down, what looked like a light could be glimpsed, possibly coming from an exit from the shaft. Puzzled, they left the chamber only to become snared in a trap-corridor which seemed to have two dead ends – the moment they turned around they found the way they had come blocked and utterly impassible. By closing their eyes they found themselves capable of defeating the trap: the wall was only present when perceived. Next the came to a trapezoid hall – some form of shrine, dedicated to an almost indescribable idol of cyclopean size that loomed near the far wall, fashioned of the same night-black stone as the rest of this part of the Old City. The being had a complicated series of many-jointed limbs dangling down from an enormous mass suggestive of a gigantic, angular, and thoroughly inhuman head, but lacking any trace of eye sockets – where eyes might be in a human head there was only smooth stone. The thing’s mouthparts were vaguely lamprey-like or cephalopodan. The overall impression was that some monstrous spider of octopus had crawled into an eyeless skull. Sister identified the deity as the Eyeless Watcher, one of the Unspeakable Ones revered by the Librarians and by some in Hex, renowned for its total omniscience and powers of foresight.

Continuing their survey the party next came to a wall of shimmering energy blocking progress forwards . There was a console to one side with a series of glowing glyph markings on it. Armand and Yam managed to decipher these runes, and after some experimentation they caused the wall to dissipate. Beyond were two rooms of note. In the first, a heptagonal chamber, were seven opalescent pods, emerging from the floor. These pods could be opened and climbed into, though this had no noticeable effect; one also seemed dim and grey. The second chamber, rhomboid in shape, looked to be an arsenal or vault with a number of unusual items. These included some kind of band, fitted for a tentacle but wearable as a bracer; a round plate of glass is set in a glyph-graven frame; a prismatic stone; an impressive-looking weapon somewhat reminiscent of a blunderbuss or short rifle, though fantastically complex and sophisticated;  polyhedral puzzle-box; and a glyph-graven wand of iridescent metal. The party looted the chamber thoroughly.

Yam took the lens. Peering through it, he discovered he could see what looked like a gnome, shouting and waving wildly! The gnome, only visible through the lens, could not be heard or otherwise interacted with; indeed, he could even be walked-through with ease. Yam urged the party to follow the supersensible gnome, who led them back through the Old City to the room with the huge machine. The gnome gestured to the dais and Yam climbed on, handing the lens to Sister and indicating that the party should activate the machine. Light shot from the beam and irradiated Yam, who found themself quite suddenly in a grey, silvery version of the same room – the Ethereal plane. The gnome, however, was suddenly audible. Yam also noticed a mug at their feet – the same mug they’d placed on the dais before.

gnome

“Oh, thank the Magistra,” the gnome exclaimed. “You must be here to get us out of this mess. I’m Isaac.”

“Yam,” Yam responded. It seemed the gnome, one of the explorers who’d delved into the Old City, had fled after the automata attacked, shortly after they’d used some explosives to enter a room on the second floor. Isaac explained that the mysterious cylindrical room with the transparent floor was a mentally-controlled elevator. He fled to this level, pursued by the automaton with cutting eye-beams, and turned himself Ethereal in order to evade it. Isaac was able to explain several other features of this part of the Old City, including the white pods, which he described as “pods of rebirth” capable of returning the dead to life.

Yam, followed by the rest of the party using the lens, proceeded to explore the rest of the same level. Yam first stopped at the room with the automaton trapped inside it, and noted something bizarre: a creature somewhere between a spider, a malevolent squid, and a throbbing brain controlling the automaton like a marionette, its limbs intertwined with the robot’s, its tendrils plunging into its clockwork innards. Next, Yam returned to the arsenal and discovered another prismatic stone identical to the one Sister took, but in the Ethereal plane. Some experimenting soon revealed that the two stones were linked, allowing sounds whispered through one stone to be heard through the other. This allowed Yam to relay everything he’d learned to the rest of the party, who now hastened to the second level, using mental commands to control the telepathic elevator.

Yam's Map 2Yam’s map of the second level.

Pressing on, the party entered an oblong chamber with a throne-like seat at its far end, though the angles suggest it was made for a non-humanoid shape. Complex machinery radiates from the throne, with several spindly metal appendages inert near the top. At the far end of the hall was a console glimmering with arcane sigils. Yam, in the Ethereal plane, noted a peculiar, blade like implement, scalpel-like, made of the same strange metal as many Librarian artefacts. Yam pocketed this and the group moved on, while Isaac speculated about the possible uses of the machine for psychosurgery. The gnome explained that he suspected this section of the Old City to be an asylum, made by the Librarians for those driven mad by the secrets they’d uncovered.

Next the group came across a series of small, hexagonal chambers along a single corridor. Investigating one, Vespidae discovered five niches, one for each wall without a door.  Approaching each niche in turn, the waspkin realized that they could materialize objects: one niche createda small sphere of bland but nutritious whitish sustenance, another materialized a crystal phial of water, a third created a small, chalky tablet, a fourth a vibrantly coloured pill, and the fifth and final niche a set of plain, white garments tailored to her waspkin form. Evidently the room was psychic to some degree. Meanwhile, Armand stopped the door from closing automatically. Intuiting that some additional effect might take place with the door closed, Sprigley volunteered to experiment, telling Armand to release him after five minutes.

800px-Clock_Cogs

The minutes passed, but when Armand opened the door, the Sprigley that emerged was not the Sprigley they’d seen enter – this Sprigley had five months of beard, seemed strangely euphoric, was dressed in white clothes, and seemed reluctant to leave the chamber. When pressed he described his time in the cell, revealed that the door had been locked from the inside. From Sprigley’s point of view, months had passed, with no sign of rescue, and so he had consumed the sustenance provided, including the chalky tablet and vividly coloured pill – one of which proved to be a sleeping tablet, the other which caused intensely pleasurable dreams. The hardened mercenary had spent the last five months of subjective time sleeping, eating, and meditating in the cell, and despite some initial attempts to force his way out, he had eventually lost the will to leave. Somewhat horrified by the evident time-shift effect of the cells, the party hastened onwards, eager to avoid any more temporal accidents.

Pressing on, the party encountered several more gnomes, but as they approached it becomes obvious they were undead creatures – from the look of things they were variously crushed or shot through by beams of energy, with clean, charred holes riddling their bodies. Yam, viewing them in the Ethereal Plane, could see that each gnome zombie was being controlled by a monstrous polyp-like creature riding upon their back or shoulders. They varied in exact appearance but combined unappealing aspects of jellyfish, cephalopod, and brain. As the zombies lurched towards them the party attacked with spells and weapons, a still-spaced Sprigley shooting one zombie dead, Armand and Sister wielding spells of arcane and divine might, Vespidae hurling javelins. Yam, on the Ethereal, attacked one the strange beings and forced it to relinquish its hold on a gnome corpse; it scuttled away down the hall, Yam in pursuit. The gnome passed through a pair of massive doors made from glistening metal, blown open and partially melted. In the chamber beyond was a hall with numerous shelves, containing a handful of small, multi-hued orbs like huge jewels that glimmer softly. Covering the floor were innumerable glittering shards. Some were large enough to recognize as the shattered remnants of orbs like the ones on the shelves. In the middle of the room was a slab of strangely reflective metal, a hand-like clamp at one end. A console and a kind of receptacle containing a black orb like the ones on the shelves stood to one side of the device. Yam was reminded of the Consciousness Extractor the group had encountered on a previous expedition to the Old City.*

Hovering above the broken glass and strange machine, swirling in the centre of the room in the Ethereal, was a roiling, amorphous mass of limbs, tentacles, and brain-matter – a coalescence of disembodied spirits, unable to find hosts. The Librarian Yam had injured scuttled up the wall and launched its at the conglomeration, rejoining the mass. Yam’s eyes widened and they beat a quick retreat, back to where the party had dispatched the remaining zombies. Sister, thinking quickly and noting the presence of the Librarian essences, had conjured an image of the Eyeless Watcher to terrify them, chasing them toward the time-shifted cell-block. Speaking through the prism, Yam described the disembodied spirits they’d seen in the huge hall. The party theorized that when the gnomes blew open the door they must have shattered the crystals containing the consciousnesses or essences or souls of the entities incarcerated in the “asylum.”

Grell3e

They carried the corpses back to the first level, to revive them using the pods of rebirth; en route they encountered an extremely elderly gnome wandering the halls, apparently another inmate of the time-shifted cells who’d been released when a Librarian was ushered inside on the Ethereal plane. The gnome, Anaximander, must have been in the cells for a few days of objective time and thus many decades of subjective time. Dazed, he could only distantly recall the details of the original expedition, but greeted Isaac as a long-lost friend. Together the group put the bodies of the dead gnomes in the resurrection-pods, restoring them to life. The grateful gnomes – Sophia, Cornelius, and Zeb – discussed possible strategies with the rest of the party to deal with the situation. While Sophia suggested use of a room called the “Emergency Time Reversal Chamber,” the party had another plan: phase the explosives they’d been given into the Ethereal plane, then use them to destroy the spirits swirling about below.

While Isaac was rematerialized using the Ethereal-Material Convertor, the party then transferred the explosives to the Ethereal, along with Sophia, the gnome expedition’s demolitions expert.They set off again for the lower level. Meanwhile, Sophia and Vespidae returned to the archive-room with the trapped automaton, pilfering a few of the scrolls contained within and using the spell protection from evil on the automaton to temporarily release it from the insane Librarian controlling it. Exiting the room using the same strategy they’d used to defeat the “dead-end” they’d encountered earlier, they managed to trap the Librarian spirit in the chamber, returning to the corridor outside with the now-obedient automaton in tow.

Down below, Yam and Sophia returned to the hall and began setting up explosives. As they did so several of the Librarians swirling above detached from the conglomeration and attacked, squealing horribly. Yam used colour spray and acid splash to deter several of the creatures while Sophia finished configuring the explosives. The timer ticked down as the two Ethereal gnomes beat a hasty retreat. The explosion was defeaning in the Ethereal but, of course, did not damage in the Material plane. Librarian body parts were strewn about the chamber, the walls painted with their Ethereal ichor, but Yam and Sophia returned quickly to the first level and rematerialized. With everyone back in the Material plane the party hastily retreated from the Old City, once again employing spells to cross the river of lava. Though secrets still remained below, the party had managed to release several of the automata from their immaterial puppeteers, returned the lost gnome expedition-members to life, and looted the complex for several artefacts of doubtless considerably value. Not bad for an afternoon’s work in Hex…

*See Hex Session II: “The Ultimate Contagion”

Images: “Steampunk Wallpaper,” “Tinkerer” from Talisman Miniatures, Skyrim concept art, Fable 3 wallpaper, “Crystal Cave 2” by firedudewraith, screenshot from Atlantis: The Lost Empire, “Rock Gnome” for 5th Edition Dungeons and Dragons by Chris Seaman, Clockwork at the Liverpool World Museum by SomeDriftwood, “Grell” from 3rd Edition Dungeons and Dragons MM.

Hex, Session V – 5th Edition Actual Play – “The Van Lurken House”

The characters in this session were:

  • Yam, an eccentric gnome illusionist and local graduate student at Umbral University. Yam cares little for money. Yam is curious. Yam is Yam.
  • Garvin Otherwise, a human rogue and burglar of the Ravenswing Thieves’ Guild, with a very, very peculiar past and a zoog pet, Lenore.
  • Vespidae, a waspkin bard – a sacred dancer with a deathwish, shunned by the waspkin community for complicated ritualistic reasons. Now a follower of the Queen in Yellow.
  • Armand Percival Reginald Francois Eustace de la Marche III, a suspiciously pale, apparently human noble and sorcerer, and certainly not a ghoul (how dare such a thing be suggested).

XP Awarded: 600 XP.

Two things brought the party to the house of the wealthy Van Lurken family, one of the elite merchant dynasties of Fanghill. Yam, on instructions from Umbral University, was to investigate the whereabouts of a promising young illusionist, Annette Van Lurken, who had not appeared for orientation. Garvin, on the other hand, was responding to information from the Ravenswing Thieves Guild. It seemed that the Van Lurken House had been abandoned, or so it looked from the outside, and the Guild wanted an enterprising young Fledgling like Garvin to see what valuables he could make off with – and it so happened that the Guild had both a map of the house and a set of keys to the doors within.

Thief Concept Art

Garvin met his contact, Veronika Foxstalker, at the Witching Hour Alehouse. The gloomy interior of the tavern  is familiar to every Guild-registered thief in Hex, as the place serves as the secret backdoor to the Midnight Market (at least it does currently; the door to the Market has shifted over the years). The barkeep, Mortimer Croak, was a grey, one-eyed presence behind the bar – an ex-thief who’s somehow managed to stay on the good side of every guild and gang in town. The grizzled old burglar was missing an alarming number of body parts, including his left foot, the pinky on his right hand, and his right eye, but he’d managed what few thieves in Hex pull off – comfortable retirement from crime. Garvin made his way to Veronika, a wiry woman with prematurely white hair – rumour claims it turned that way after a job-gone-wrong in Grey Hook. She slid over a map of the Van Lurken place – or at least its upper floors – as well as the key ring.

“This is what we’ve managed to get our hands on,” she said. “And it came dearly purchased. In fact, there’s a little more to the mission than we’d previously let on. You see, a while back we sent a team in to the Van Lurken place: three men, good thieves all of them. Only one came out, and he wasn’t right in the head. Shaking, raving about things ‘rustling in the walls’ and the ‘Unclean Chair,’ whatever that means. He wouldn’t speak about what he’d seen in there, but he had this map and key-ring with him. He… he stank, as well, smelled simply awful, and nothing we could do seemed to be able to get the reek out. A few days later he fell badly ill. We tried both magic and medicine but it didn’t take. When we found him dead… gods, I’ll never forget the stink, or the way he looked. It was like he’d been dead for weeks, he was so rotten. We burnt the remains.

“But that means there are two men unaccounted for, still inside. They’re most likely dead, but on the off chance they’re not, obviously you should try to get them out of there. And if they are dead, try to find their bodies – not to bury, but because they were carrying some valuable Ravenswing items with them. One had the gloves of thief’s sight, which lets the wearer glimpse what lies behind walls and doors. The other wore the boots of wall-walking, which let the wearer traverse walls and ceilings. The Guild would like both of these returned and will pay one thousand gold pieces for each.”

Garvin nodded, mulling the information over. “Is there any kind of automated security inside?”

“There may be a few automata, and the Van Lurkens did employ a house guard,” Veronika said. “But they haven’t been seen either. The servants are missing as well.”

After discussing a few more particulars Garvin took his leave and went to meet some of his companions at the Green Star to convey what he’d learned. The party then set out for Fanghill in the early evening.

fancy street

The richest residential district in Hex is Fanghill, a place of gated mansions and opulent museums and well-tended parks. The district is built on the slopes of a great hill whose top commands an impressive view of the city. The Eyes patrolled the streets heavily, and many private guards could be seen as well at gates and walls, protecting the well-heeled nobles, scholars, merchants, and professionals who make their homes here.  Unlike many parts of the city it remained well-lit at all times of day or night courtesy of magical lamps glowing with a soft effulgence.

The party quickly located the Van Lurken place. In contrast with some of the more fanciful houses in Fanghill – houses made to look like gigantic heads, mansions of Murkstone that shift and reshape themselves, and buildings whose dimensions should be impossible but which magic has granted a tenuous stability – the Van Lurken house was incredibly mundane: a three-storey house of solid construction, baroquely adorned but otherwise quite normal-looking.

van lurken

The place was certainly dilapidated, though, the garden shriveled and dead, the paint faded. The windows were dark and shrouded with curtains, obscuring the interior. Armand and Yam both noted that the decay the house exhibited seemed preternaturally advanced. While Garvin investigated the servant’s entrance and the others kept watch, Armand briefly questioned a servant doing the washing next door, who confirmed that the house had been abandoned for some time, describing the occasional muffled and uncertain noise from within and noting that none of the guards or other servants had been seen leaving. She also noted that Jasper Van Lurken, a young man and heir to the Van Lurken fortune, had recently returned from a business trip.

VanLurken0001

Entering through the side door using the key supplied by the Ravenswing Thieves’ Guild, the party began their explorations in the servant’s quarters of the house. These were quite empty, though there were signs of struggle or hasty departure, perhaps interrupted – chests emptied, clothes and blankets strewn across the floor. Bloodstains mottled a wall in one of the chambers, though there were no sign of any bodies. A thorough search, however, turned up a loose floorboard under which was stashed an impressive quantity of jewellery, including a silver necklace set with obsidian, a sapphire ring, a bloodstone-encrusted hand mirror, and a pair of exquisite ruby earrings.

More evidence of violence could be found in the laundry room, which contained various buckets, presses, and other equipment for cleaning garments, including a mangle that had been put to a horrid use, evinced by the bloodstains and shards of bone clogging its rollers. Quantities of soap and other cleaning agents were stored here. More bloodstains marred the walls, including one curious stain which began on the ceiling and then wrapped around to the wall and out of the room. Puzzled and formulating theories, the party also checked the butler’s pantry, a dusty but untouched room full of expensive silverware, before heading into the front hall – eerily quiet save for the occasional mysterious rustling from within the walls. Apart from some confused footprints in the dust, there was no sign that anyone had been there for quite some time. Cobwebs shrouded the ceiling, and the walls were grimy and blotched with mould, filling the air with a musty stink.

A huge grandfather clock stood to one side, also swathed in cobwebs. Across from the clock was a large painting of the city of Hex, obviously painted from the vantage of Fanghill. In the foreground was a park scene with a picnicking family. Close inspection of the painting revealed a small, black cloud on the horizon made of small dots, like a swarm of insects. Yam noticed that this blotch seemed to be getting slowly larger while no one was looking. Leaving the painting for now, the party next moved to the kitchen. This room now absolutely swarmed with creeping vermin – maggots, flies, centipedes, cockroaches, and other bugs. The place was in disarray, pots and pans scattered everywhere, wood from the hearth strewn across the floor. There was a stairway in one corner, leading down into darkness. Erring on the side of caution, the party opted to leave the room undisturbed and proceeded into the dining room.

glutton feast

The dining room was laid out with gorgeous silverware and crystal. This fine cutlery was wasted on a spoiled feast – it looked like the pantry was emptied, but all the food was rotten, covered in mould and flies. Mixed in with the decomposing food were what looks like human body parts. At the head of the table was a macabre chair fashioned entirely from bones. Seated upon it, presiding over the table like a patriarch at a family meal, was a grotesquely swollen maggot-like creature with thin, vestigial arms and legs dangling from its bloated, pale body, shoveling morsels of carrion and decaying fruit into its mouth. The thing did not look up but continued to listlessly gorge itself with putrid sustenance.

Garvin noted a bowl on the table that did not seem to be tainted by the corruption. Angling themselves around the maggot-horror, the party debated a course of action. Vespidae, acting with typical insectile directness, attacked the creature with a javelin and it instantly leapt up, scattering plates and body parts as it surged towards the waspkin, who took to the air. Horrified and disgusted, Armand and Yam engaged the creature with spells, pelting it with balls of fire. Garvin retreated, avoiding the thing’s blows, and it turned, launching itself at Armand. Between them, however, the party was able to destroy the creature, engulfing it in arcane flames. Armand made sure to destroy the osseous chair completely while Garvin and Yam investigated the bowl, discovering that it bore a glyph from the city of Nornhold, a monastery-city of silent ascetics. Food touching the bowl seemed to be restored to ripe purity. Experimentally, Yam took the bowl back to the front hall, carefully cut the still-growing insect-swarm from it, and placed the scrap in the bowl. Magically, the dark blots on the painted canvas disappeared. At this moment, something could be heard, moving around upstairs. Tracking footprints in the dust, the party ascended to the next level.

amnesia 2

They first investigated a large games room decorated with the heads of beasts hunted in the nearby Tangle: hippogriffs, owlbears, wild boar, and even a wyvern. A large musket also hung on one wall, a heavy crossbow on another, and a spear on a third. Also on one wall was a huge painting of a hunting scene in the Tangle, depicting several of the Van Lurken ancestors and their hounds. The painter had included several clever details, including some small fairies hiding in the underbrush and twisted tree-branches, and an enchanted pool reflecting some of the mortal hunters as otherworldly, elfin figures.

In the middle of the room was a billiards table spattered with blood: a corpse sprawled on the table amidst the billiard balls, his neck ripped open. His stiff fingers still clutched a broken pool cue, which was curious, since he was also armed with a short sword and hand crossbow. Judging from his dark clothing and half-mask he was a burglar of some description. Close inspection of the corpse revealed a Thief’s Mark and a Ravenswing broach, as well as the gloves of thief’s sight, which Garvin carefully took. These could be used to look through walls and doors to see what lay beyond, enabling the thief to scout the next chambers.

Noting the pool cue, Yam immediately surmised the possibility of vampires and took the improvised stake.

Next the party went to the music room, a beautifully furnished, baroquely decorated chamber filled with instruments – a flute, dulcian, chalumeau, violin, bass viol, viola pomposa, hurdy gurdy, sackbut, and harpsichord. The instruments were beautifully enamelled and made from precious metals and exotic wood. The party helped themselves to several, but avoided the macabre-looking instrumments placed amongst them: a flute fashioned from a human femur covered in abstract etchings, and a set of drums made from two bisected human skulls whose open tops were covered in flayed human skin. Armand, disgusted and alarmed by these objects, broke them apart and burnt them with fire bolts.

VanLurken0002

Yam’s player’s annotations.

Garvin used his newly acquired gloves to investigate the portrait gallery, but recoiled from a scene of dismemberment and death.

“Let’s just avoid that room,” he said, and moved on to the study, noting its  large window, ornate writing desk strewn with papers, and numerous bookshelves.

On one wall was a map of the city of Hex, while on the other sprawled a map of the known world, including the nearby lands of New Ulthar, Nornhold, Sempiternia, Teratopolis, Tetractys, Verdigris, and Erubescence, and other places more distant: the city-states and kingdoms such as the Vassen Empire, Blodvinter, Purulence, Ganglion, Finchport, and Xell. The map even included more mysterious realms such as the distant continent to the east across the Blushing Ocean and the Entropic Wastes to the south.

The study also included a large bust of Master Melchior, famed enchanter, archmage, founder and still-living president of Master Melchior’s School of Thaumaturgy & Enchantment, and another bust of Keziah Elderwold, founder of the Metamorphic Scholarium and Mother of Modern Alchemy. The two busts stared at one another from either side of the room.

The party first investigated the papers on the desk, which proved to be the diary of Leopold Van Lurken.

Mazeday, 10th of the Month of Crones

Jasper set out for Erubescence today. Nicolet is fretting, of course, but the boy is old enough to begin taking an active hand in the business, and now that things have settled down between Hex and the Crimson Lands the time is ripe for trade. The Sanguine Lords and Ladies have skill in necromancy to rival the finest of the Académie Macabre, but they lack technological know-how – they’ve relied so long on undead labour they’re centuries behind the things gnomes are building now in Hex. Between that and the Sap we should make a fortune. I’m sure Jasper is fit for the job, and besides, there’ll be plenty of more experienced men with him.

Here at home, Annette has sent off her application to Umbral University. She’s tried her hand at a few cantrips to great effect. She’ll make a skilled illusionist, even if I would have preferred if she’d chosen Master Melchior’s School of Thaumaturgy & Enchantment or the Metamorphic Scholarium, even Fiend’s College… something useful. Illusion is just so frivolous! I suppose it makes a good school for a daughter on the marriage market, however – not that we’re in any urgent need of a match. I expect that every penniless noble for leagues will be battering down our door soon enough in hopes of getting their manicured fingers on our money.

Goatday, 16th of the Month of Snails

Jasper returned today after some weeks in Erubescence, and is full of strange tales: of the Bone Giants and the Tower of Teeth, of the Nurseries and the Grey Matrons, of the Blood Church and its great rival, the Cult of the Pallid Worm, who finds some small favour here in the guise of Mordiggia, the Charnel Goddess. He has brought back with him much gold, and contracts for further trade signed with various nobles and merchants in the Crimson Lands, and objects also, for sale here in Hex. These include a number of mysterious crates which he has insisted we store in our own cellars – Jasper claims the contents are far too valuable to leave in our warehouse in the Swelter.

The boy seems invigorated by his journey and full of an almost feverish excitement, though truth be told he is somewhat pale and thin of cheek; this is, perhaps, no surprise given the shroud of darkness that prevails over much of Erubescence, conjured by the Sanguine Lords and Ladies so they may walk freely even at noon, when their kind would normally be turned to ash. Still, I dislike the wild look in his eyes, or the curious, twitchy way he has taken to fidgeting…

Meanwhile, a pair of Nicolet’s earrings seem to have gone missing. She suspects the maid, Miranda, claiming to have found her once in the midst of trying on a necklace. Miranda claimed to have simply been cleaning the piece. I have had Geoffrey search the house, including the servant’s quarters, but he has turned up nothing. If Miranda did steal the earrings she must have already sold them, but without evidence I cannot bring myself to dismiss her.

Scaleday, 22nd of the Month of Snails

I fear for poor Jasper’s health! The boy seems averse to sunlight and has acquired an unhealthy pallor. Were he not quite free of bite-marks, happy to eat garlic, and perfectly visible in mirrors I would think him stricken with vampirism, courtesy of some Erubescent un-dead. He now spends all of his hours either cooped up in his room or else down in the basement gazing on the artefacts he has amassed, most particularly a large and singularly hideous stone idol dedicated to the Pallid Worm. I do quite understand his obsession with the outré and bizarre: after all, I myself possess a cabinet of curiosities filled with treasures from half a hundred lands, gleaned through years of meticulous collection, and have spent hours gazing on such oddities as the Instant Maze or the skeleton of a zoog, or speaking with the curious stone-elemental Gabbro, who walked the earth as a giant many aeons past and now, through the slow action of wind and rain, has dwindled to the size of a pebble. I’m sure, one day, he will have his own collection of such items. But still, it is unhealthy to spend so much time in the damp and dark – mould will get into his lungs and only worsen the queer hacking cough he seems to have developed.

Annette has been accepted to Umbral University and has already begun experimenting with more advanced spells – she even ensorcelled the mirror in her room, so that it could change your reflection, making it wear different clothes or altering your hair. And I dared think illusion-magic frivolous! Can you imagine what blushing young ladies and vain dandies would pay for such an object?! There are more than enough such folk in Fanghill. We could make our fortune over again, selling such things.

On the domestic front, Nicolet is concerned that the house has developed an infestation of some sort – perhaps some animal has died in the walls?  The cook found an alarming number of cockroaches in the pantry, and only this evening I discovered a maggot in my mutton! I quite lost my appetite.

Mossday, 3rd of the Month of Blushes

The physiker, the alchemist, and a priestess of the Magistra have all been by the house, but none can do anything for poor Jasper, and Nicolet is starting to panic. Neither spell nor prayer nor vigorous leeching nor medicinal potion has had any effect on him, and he retains an increasingly ghastly pallor – he looks like one of those horrible, degenerate ghouls one sees lurking in Shambleside, and his skin has a slick, slimy texture, as from a fever. He babbles strangely, keeping us awake late and night with gibberish chants, and often refuses to open his eyes, but bumbles about the house with them closed, his hands wrapped about his body. It is most strange. His room has taken on a rank stench, even with frequent cleaning, and seems infested even more thickly with the vermin that now plague the house in distressing numbers. And, of course, we still find him sneaking down to the cellars, despite having locked the door – he must be stealing the key. I must make arrangements to remove the thing from the house.

I fear some strange madness has taken him, a sickness contracted in the Crimson Lands. If he does not improve soon the authorities may well come knocking, to put the boy in Catch-All! I would not let such a fate befall him, for even the thought of that pestilential slum makes my skin crawl with horror, but to escape the Plague District he may need to be smuggled out of the city – perhaps sent to one of the sanitaria in the mountains, or some quiet place in the country.

The whole house has taken on a horrid gloominess in light of Jasper’s condition – the shadows denser, the light dimmer. Mildew and mould seem to be spreading up from the basement. Paintings that once were bright now seem grim, the faces of portraits ill-favoured. Even the grandfather clock, chiming in the front hall, seems to groan with an unhealthy sound, as if the mechanism itself were taken ill. There is a queer rustling sound in the walls. Even Annette seems subdued. I only pray she has not contracted whatever sickness plagues my eldest son. More than once Jasper has been found out of bed, lingering at his sister’s door in a way that is most disquieting, his eyelids squeezed shut, his clammy hands pawing at the door.

Starday, 12th of the Month of Blushes

Gods preserve me… I have locked myself here in the study, but fear I will not live out the night – or if I do, I shall not be unchanged. There are things which creep under the door, even now. There is no escape, unless perhaps I risk leaping from the window. I can hear the servants screaming elsewhere on this floor, as Jasper and Annette wreak their blood havoc. I scarce recognized her, nor Jasper either – for what stood before me, smeared in blood, was not my son, but some awful white eyeless thing, spewing blasphemous prayers to an unclean goddess. Whatever he touched began to decay, maggots bursting forth from furnishings and floorboards at his touch. Great tides of writhing worms and beetles and flies swarmed through the halls and filled the mouths and bodies of the servants, making them into grotesque puppets.

There are chittering sounds coming from outside the door, and somewhere a flute is playing a shrill and malignant tune. I pray only that Nicolet is spared, and that when the corruption that has taken this place is discovered it will be rooted out and expunged. Should anyone find this journal, I plead with you – kill whatever it is that I have become, and my children as well, and burn this house to the ground. Whatever evil has seized this place, it must not spread!

Next the group began investigating the bookshelves and busts in search of a trigger for the secret door implied by the map, eventually discovering that the eyes of the two busts were buttons which could be depressed. When Melchior and Keziah seemed to be winking at one another, a bookshelf swung open, revealing the cabinet of wonders beyond.

cabinet

Behind the secret door lay a small room in which all manner of strange objects were jammed. These ranged from the merely odd to the fabulously strange, even by the standards of Hex. These objects included:

  • A stuffed wyvern hatchling.
  • A medusa’s death-mask.
  • A perfectly reproduced miniature model of Hex that had been enchanted to include illusions of tiny little people moving about in the streets and in and out of buildings.
  • A Lengian skull.
  • A zoog skeleton.
  • A puzzle box engraved with maze-like symbols.
  • A small painting of a Vegetable Lamb.
  • A gnomish automaton soldier approximately 1 foot tall.
  • A gnomish automaton angel approximately 1 foot tall that, when wound up, offers patronizing sermons in the name of the Magistra.
  • A bottle of greyish-green liquid, the bubbles of which contain weird, surreal visions of strange landscapes, as well as scenes of everyday life.
  • Six eyeballs of indeterminate species floating in liquid.
  • A minotaur horn.
  • A beautifully realistic child’s doll of ambiguous sex. The doll had a minor enchantment: when the drawstring on its back is pulled it temporarily assumed the semblance of a real child.
  • A dark blue rhomboid stone.
  • A shrunken cat’s head.
  • A letter of some kind.
  • An orchid made entirely out of pink crystal.
  • A potion of gaseous form.
  • A flask of endless coffee.
  • A miniature shovel large enough for a gnome or a small child.
  • A tiny cosmological model made of intricate clockwork showing speculative locations of the Dreamlands, the Underworld, Faerie, Anathema, and the mortal plane.
  • A tiny potted plant that produces small, multi-coloured berries
  • A small, green fish in a glass bowl.
  • A Librarian Voidcraft in a bottle modeled on the vessel glimpsed through powerful telescopes at the edge of the solar system.
  • A gently snoring stone which is in fact a minor earth elemental, as the party discovered, called Gabbro.
  • A porcelain mask.
  • An ornate pocket-watch engraved with the letter “A” on the back.

Manfredo_Settala_-_Cabinet_of_curiosities

After rifling greedily through these riches and plundering the cabinet thoroughly the party heard something approaching from down below – an eerie skittering, slithering noise. Garvin crept quickly and stealthily through the corridors while the rest of the party remained near the study. The thief was first to spy the source of the noise: a flushed, fleshy creature creeping up the stairs out of the gloom on limbs that seemed inadequate for its corpulent, worm-like bulk. Bloated and blotched with pink, the monstrosity was clad in the tattered remnants of what might have been a finely-tailored dress, twisted round its sinuous body. Its neckless face had vestigial features, though its mouth remains rather horribly humanoid, with full, red, womanly lips and pointed white fangs. A few patches of long, dark hair sprouted from the creature’s scalp. The thing seemed mostly blind but remained cognizant of the world around it. The remains of the snapped-off pool cue protruded from its body.

vampire mouth

Still concealed, Garvin crept through the corridors of the house and fired at the horror, but his bolt embedded itself in the thing’s bulk to little noticeable effect. The monstrosuty surged towards the rest of the party and a fierce battle ensued, Vespidae hurling javelins and performing waspkin battle-dances while Yam and Armand desperately assailed the monster with acid and fire spells, the latter of which proved highly effective. Garvin, firing more bolts, was scratched by one of the monstrosity’s clawed appendages, a terrible wound that tore through leather and flesh. Blood pouring from this great tear, he slipped into unconsciousness while Vespidae, in desperation, cast dissonant whispers, causing the worm-like creature to flee – not down the passage but by burrowing down through the sagging, rotten floorboards. It dropped nimbly to the floor of the front hall below, where Armand and Yam continued their arcane bombardment from above. Engulfed in flame, the creature shrieked and withered, shrinking and shrivelling to assume the form of a young woman, scorched and unconscious. Yam, surmising that this was likely Annette Van Lurken, hurried down to the front hall and thrust the remains of pool cue through her heart. Annette vomited up copious quantities of blood and lay still. At Yam’s urging she was locked in the butler’s pantry, the gnome reasoning that she might be revived later by Umbral University, and perhaps even restored to life.

“We should burn this place down,” Armand said. “Like the diary said.” The effete sorcerer was clearly perturbed by the house.

“Not yet,” Garvin said. “There’s still the other thief. Let’s try the third floor.”

Exploration of the third floor was brief, preceded by careful scouting using the gloves of thief’s sight to look through the ceiling. The party quickly located a man who might be the thief in question, seemingly suspended from the ceiling in the guest room. Ignoring the nursery, the group briefly ventured into Annette’s room, a bedchamber with a large makeup table and several boxes containing jewellery – necklaces, earrings, and other adornments. There was also a wardrobe, open, revealing many beautiful dresses, a resplendent four-poster bed with silk sheets, and a large mirror, which the party very wisely avoided looking into. Seizing a few oddments of jewellery and a wand lying on the makeup table, the party next entered the guest chamber, a simple room with modest decorations. Seemingly suspended from the ceiling was a man in dark, bloodstained clothing and cloak, which somehow was not dangling towards the floor but remained swathed around him. The man stood stock-still and deathly pale, but his eyes were open and his breathing shallow. His neck had been savaged nastily and was scabbed with dozens of ugly puncture-wounds. There was one window here, but a glyph was scrawled upon it in blood, indicating an arcane lock.

After supplying the thief with a potion of healing and helping him down, the party learned his name was Felix Stonemouth, and that he ahd been imprisoned in the chamber for some days or perhaps weeks, being slowly drained dry by Annette.

Fire_interior

As the party prepared to leave the house, a buzzing became audible from the master bedchamber – a horrible whining, droning sound, as of some monstrous insect. Hastening down the stairs, the adventurers glimpsed a single dainty, hairy leg pick its way out of the bedchamber doors. With a shudder the party hurried onwards, withdrawing down the stairs and through the front hall, out into the cold, starless night, Yam making sure to retrieve the comatose, staked body of Annette Van Lurken. Once safely outside Armand lit the house ablaze with a series of fire bolts. As the place burned, Vespidae took to the sky and uttered a prayer to the Queen in Yellow, asking that the goddess receive the artworks consumed in the conflagration as a sacrifice. Whatever lay below in the still-unexplored cellar would be trapped beneath the burnt wreckage of the house…

Images: Thief concept art, Jacques Rigaud‘s View of the Chapel at Versailles, screenshots and concept art from Amnesia, Domenico RempsA Cabinet of Curiosity, Manfredo Settala’s cabinet of curiosities, from “Museo o Galeria,” Ben Templesmith’s 30 Days of Night cover, still from Dark Shadows.

Hex, Session II – 5th Edition Actual Play – “The Ultimate Contagion Pt. 2”

The characters in this session were:

  • Yam, an eccentric gnome illusionist and local graduate student at Umbral University.
  • An enigmatic Lengian cleric of the Mother of Spiders, name unknown. She goes by “Sister.”
  • Vespidae, a waspkin bard – a sacred dancer with a deathwish, shunned by the waspkin community for complicated ritualistic reasons.
  • Garvin Otherwise, a human rogue and burglar of the Ravenswing Thieves’ Guild, with a very, very peculiar past and a zoog pet, Lenore.
  • Caulis, a homunculus warlock liberated from its master; has made a pact with certain Faerie Powers.
  • Armand Percival Reginald Francois Eustace de la Marche III, a suspiciously pale, apparently human noble and sorcerer, and certainly not a ghoul (how dare such a thing be suggested).

XP Awarded: 200 XP.

expedition 2

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.”

Piranesi_Carcere_XIV_Prisons_The Gothic Arch

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.

Inner Space

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?

nature

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.

Crystal Palace Megatherium

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.

sheep

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.

growths

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…

Unbeknowst 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.

love dart

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.

pillars

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 graps 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.

448px-Clarke-TellTaleHeart

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…

city

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.

expedition

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.

GuestsoftheGreatRace

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.

haeckelcovers3

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.

Bloater

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.

Dunwall_sewers_1

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.

Hex, Session I – 5th Edition Actual Play – “The Ultimate Contagion Pt. 1”

The characters in this session were:

  • Bjorn, a gnome bard, a former industrial worker in the Boiling and a somewhat deranged inventor of clockwork instruments; in posession of demoniac bagpipes.
  • Vespidae, a waspkin bard – a sacred dancer with a deathwish, shunned by the waspkin community for complicated ritualistic reasons.
  • Alabastor Quan, a gnome rogue and failed circus ringmaster; wielder of a cursed dagger and member of the Ravenswing Thieves’ Guild.
  • Garvin Otherwise, a human rogue and burglar, also of the Ravenswing Thieves’ Guild, with a very, very peculiar past and a zoog pet, Lenore.
  • Caulis, a homunculus warlock liberated from its master; has made a pact with certain Faerie Powers.
  • Armand Percival Reginald Francois Eustace de la Marche III, a suspiciously pale, apparently human noble and sorcerer, and certainly not a ghoul (how dare such a thing be suggested).

XP Awarded: 100 XP.

The party was hired by the eccentric alchemist Professor Valdemar Sluice of the Metamorphic Scholarium in Caulchurch to retrieve an object called the Viridescent Tablet from the Old City: a text of fantastic power said to disclose certain secrets of decay, disease, and time which Sluice believed he could use to concoct the Panchrest, a form of alchemical cure-all.

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.

Drury Lane

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.

Shambleisde, Grey Hook, & Corvid Commons

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.

Sewers 001

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.Sewers

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…

bodies

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.

drain

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.

Passage

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.

Crazed II

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.”

5th edition Hex campaign

I’ve started a new 5th edition D&D game in a setting I’ve been working on, set in the city of Hex – a magical university town built atop the ruins of the much older archive-city built by the sinister and long-departed Librarians. Influences here include China Miéville’s Bas-Lag novels, Jeff Vandermeer’s Ambergris, Scott Lynch’s Gentleman Bastard Sequence, K.J. Bishop’s The Etched City, Terry Pratchett’s Discworld, and (naturally) H.P. Lovecraft: it’s a big, greasy urban fantasy with a vein of eldritch horror.

Hex Close UpMap Screenshot III

Here’s an overview:

Endless shelves filled with hieroglyph-graven tablets of primeval metal stretch for miles beneath the earth, down aeons-old tunnels that curve and twist in ways that make the mind ache, plunging into cavernous archive-chambers and coiling in upon themselves like some impossible stone snake. Within this lightless immensity the knowledge of the inscrutable Librarians – visitors to this world, now departed or dead – is meticulously recorded, written in gleaming books and upon monoliths of incomprehensible size, arranged according to a system so alien and maddeningly complex that none have ever deciphered it fully. This the First Library, the Old City which drew explorers and scholarly spelunkers from many lands, daring the uncanny and dangerous depths where tenebrous things now lair, seeking for the secrets buried deep in the incalculably ancient labyrinth.

Many centuries have passed since those first sojourns underground, and now a new city thrives atop the old: Hex, the Inkstained City, the City of Secrets. A six-sided sprawl, this centre of magical learning is home to some of the world’s finest institutions of arcane education: the Académie Macabre, Fiend’s College, Umbral University, the Institute of Omens, the Warders’ Lyceum, the Citadel of the Perpetual Storm, the Metamorphic Scholarium, and Master Melchior’s School of Thaumaturgy & Enchantment. Magi, wizards, sorcerers, warlocks, and witches can be found in the winding streets, flocking to the source of esoteric lore with which reality itself can be reshaped.

Vast libraries containing translations and interpretations of the alien glyphs of the Old City fill the towers of the city. Hex came into being slowly. With the first influx of the wise and wealthy came others: librarians and archivists, of course, but also scribes and scriveners, porters and couriers, mercenaries and bodyguards, concubines and cooks, and other servants – and then, later, book-sellers, parchment-makers, ink-dealers, quill-cutters, vintners, and ale-brewers. These were followed, of course, by dockworkers and grooms and tailors and victuallers and masons, and later by craftsmen and labourers and merchants of every sort. Soon what had begun as a few remote camps and archeological digs became a fully-fledged campus that later fractured and flourished and overgrew its boundaries, till one day the seething, scribbling enormity of Hex came into being.

Now Hex is a modern metropolis, a frenzied urban imbroglio teeming with traders and cutthroats and decadents. Gaslight, buzzing electric lamps, and glimmering magical crystals bathe faces both beautiful and vile in their variegated glow. The universities have become vast – huge, ornate, and unthinkably wealthy, their spires stab at a sky now criss-crossed by flitting familirs and hot air balloons and skycabs drawn by hippogriffs, manticores, or dock-tailed wyverns. Trade bustles along the banks of the Radula River while alchemists culture homunculi in their cauldrons and necromancers reanimate the corpses of the poor to labour in the city’s churning factories. Temples to a hundred deities burn sacrifices and fill the air with weird chants, prayers to strange and sometimes malformed gods inspired by the primordial gods of the Librarians. Above them all the wizards still scribble in their spellbooks, while deep below adventurers plumb the twisted darkness in search of yet more secrets…

Map Screenshot IVMap Screenshot IMap Screenshot II

I’m going to be posting a campaign diary here along with excerpts from the background material I’ve prepared for the game.

My format for this campaign is a little unusual for me. I now have a large gaming group – about 10 regulars, plus a few occasional players – so instead of trying to get everyone together regularly I’m attempting a more open, West Marches style game where players come and go. As it happens, about half of my players are actual real-life librarians, so it should be interesting to see them descending into the massive megadungeon that is the Old City.

Witiko Falls

Overview

The following comprises campaign information and scenarios for a sandbox-style surreal horror game set in the superficially normal town of Witiko Falls.  The campaign format is intended to combine elements of a horror one-shot with the openness of a sandbox game in a kind of “small town horror anthology.”  The idea here is that each session or two the players will pursue one of the many plot threads within the town.  Their characters are very likely to die in any given session, but new characters will appear in the next session; only the town remains constant.  The players assume the role of outsiders entering Witiko Falls for the first time.  They might be conspiracy enthusiasts, lost travellers, drifters, private investigators, bumbling tourists, campers, touring musicians, or even a family moving into town.

GUMSHOE (especially Fear Itself or Esoterrorists), BRP, Fate, d20 Modern, and similar systems are all viable candidates for running a game set in Witiko Falls.  Personally I’m going to run games using the GUMSHOE system as represented in Fear Itself, so I will assume that system is being used, but this assumption won’t often intrude on setting details.

Witiko Falls

Rockies

A remote community hidden in the depths of the Rocky Mountains somewhere near the convergence of the Idaho, Montana, Canadian borders, Witiko Falls was established as a scenic health resort in the 1880s.  Over the last few decades of the nineteenth-century the town became a popular destination for the rich and sickly, resulting in the founding of numerous sanitaria, insane asylums, spas, and other health facilities, a number of them making use of the local hot springs and caves nearby.  The town enjoyed a period of prosperity and growth until 1920s, when it went into a slow decline and began to garner an unsavoury reputation after a series of bizarre incidents and disappearances.  The Great Depression catalysed the closure of many sanitaria during the early 1930s, including the famous “Crow Castle” in 1933.  With these closures, many left the town, and its population dwindled till only a few eccentrics called the place home and the forest began reclaiming the old facilities.  Witiko Falls was well on its way to becoming a true ghost town when members of a U.S. Federal Government agency (which agency, exactly, remains uncertain) arrived shortly after the end of WWII and refurnished the Castle for purposes they have never disclosed to the public.  The little-known town is now home to a few thousand souls, a friendly but somewhat secretive folk who largely ignore the brooding presence of Crow Castle, its mysterious occupants, and the unmarked vehicles that periodically pull into its wrought-iron gates.  Few come to the town, now, save the very occasional tourist, lost travellers looking for the road to Coeur d’Alene, gamblers heading to the Beavertail Casino, spelunkers hoping to explore the caves, and members of a small cabal of ghost-chasers or conspiracy theorists who believe the town is “the Roswell of the Northwest”; all but the lattermost are shyly welcomed by the hospitable (if inscrutable) locals.

Tone

Witiko Falls seems normal, but this appearance is but a layer of banality sitting atop a vast reservoir of roiling eldritch horror like the skin on a glass of old milk.  Something squirms beneath the flesh of the town – some old unpleasantness, always lingering at the edge of vision, embedded deep in the place’s tissues like a tick. It makes you itch, makes the hairs on your arms stand on end.  It gives you a knot in your stomach.

The ideal tone to cultivate is one of subtle but definite wrongness.  Little, seemingly innocuous (but still unsettling) details should conspire to create an atmosphere of paranoia and queasily mounting dread.  The players should always feel that something is just a little bit off, without being able to point, exactly, to the source of all the ambient oddness.  Each adventure should consist of a series of glimpses, whiffs, intimations of some colossal and nameless ugliness, some elemental strangeness at the heart of the town – culminating, ultimately, in a brief but spectacular explosion of visceral horror of immense power, hitting players like a punch to the stomach.  Be restrained, but then really let loose…

Influences

Outlast, Silent Hill, Fringe, Twin Peaks, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Gormenghast, House of Leaves, Welcome to Night Vale, The Shadow Over Innsmouth, Books of Blood, Slithdale Hollow.

Soundtrack

Twin Peaks Soundtrack

Fire Walk With Me Soundtrack

The Fog Soundtrack

Fringe Soundtrack

The Shining Soundtrack

Nightbreed Soundtrack

Hellraiser Soundtrack

Red Dragon Soundtrack

Outlast Soundtrack

Call of Cthulhu Soundtrack

Silent Hill 2 Soundtrack

Phenomena

The town of Witiko Falls may seem relatively normal on the surface, but those who linger begin to notice a number of unsettling phenomena.

Anisocoria

Everyone native to Witiko Falls is afflicted with anisocoria – they possess differently sized pupils.  All those born in the town, regardless of ethnicity or background, suffer from this (harmless) condition.  It seems to become more severe with each passing generation: a second-generation resident of the Falls, for example, has a greater disparity in pupil size than a first-generation native.  The affliction is known as the “Eyes of the Witiko.”

Parasomnia

Visitors to Witiko Falls often seem unable to obtain a good night’s sleep.  Many of those who first arrive in the town immediately begin suffering from some form of parasomnia, even when they have no prior history of sleeping disorder.  The most common include night terrors, sleep paralysis, somnambulism, and somniloquy; sexsomnia and sleep-eating have also been known to manifest.  Even those who avoid such symptoms tend to suffer from nightmares and especially vivid dreams on first arriving in town.  In particular, new visitors tend to dream of happy childhood memories, memories horrifically marred by the presence of shadowy “things” watching from just outside of the dreamer’s peripheral vision; sleepers will inevitably wake moments before finally properly glimpsing those watching them in their dreams.  This condition persists for a variable amount of time, sometimes never fully dissipating, although natives of the town seem to sleep soundly enough.

Batteries

For unknown reasons, batteries only last half as long in Witiko Falls.  This phenomenon is one of the few associated with the town that can be consistently and quantifiably documented.  Laptops, cellphones, flashlights, and other battery-operated devices all drain their batteries at double the normal rate.  All other electronic devices perform completely normally, unless one counts the television program The Ritualist.

The Ritualist

A television program that seems to be exclusively broadcast in Witiko Falls.  The extremely campy show features an occult detective similar to literary figures like John Silence, Thomas Carnacki, Simon Iff, Steve Harrison, Harry Dresden, and other supernatural investigators, and is comparable to similar programs such as Baffled! and The Night Stalker.  The program seems to have been made in the 1970s, although some episodes make references to events that occurred in the 80s or even later.  The eponymous Ritualist is Felix Mortimer, a hardboiled American detective who deals with supernatural crimes.  Most of Mortimer’s cases take place in a fictitious east-coast city named St. Lazarus, though episodes also take place in a range of other locales including London, Cairo, Istanbul, and Shanghai.  Extremely episodic and formulaic, The Ritualist is never broadcast in order, although it would be difficult to discern the correct order in any event.  The program is (apparently) syndicated and appears on multiple channels in lieu of regularly scheduled content.  TV guides do not mention the program, but it is available through on-demand and subscription services accessed within the town.  As far as can be ascertained, the program has not been broadcast outside of Witiko Falls, no record of its production or broadcast has been found, and none of the actors have been located.  Those few DVDs and videotapes of the show taken out of Witiko Falls eventually fail to play properly once they have left the town limits.

Roads

It is unclear whether the roads around Witiko Falls constitute a manifestation of its peculiar nature or not.  The area around the town is a mass of logging roads and disused back-country roads, and finding the town can be difficult even for those who have made the trip multiple times.  Locals can usually give coherent suggestions on how to leave the town, but periodic flooding, downed trees, broken bridges, and other obstacles can complicate travel to and from Witiko Falls.  Gravity hills and other optical illusions also pervade the roads, complicating navigation.  Not every trip is difficult; it has been observed that those who aren’t looking for the town seem the most likely to find it.  Satellite photography of the area is often curiously obstructed by atmospheric interference and technical malfunctions, and most maps of the roads are outdated and unreliable.  Some conspiracy theorists maintain that the roads move around to “protect the town.”  When asked about this phenomenon, some residents will chuckle and concede half-jokingly that the roads “have a will of their own,” but always do so with an ambiguous wink or a sly smile.  Some truckers have reputedly collected certain “tricks” to reach the town, which they sometimes use as a rest stop.

Animals

Non-human mammalian animals do not fare well in Witiko Falls.  Dogs, cats, horses, and other creatures have been known to exhibit behavioural changes, anxiety, aggression, and bouts of illness in the town.  Most blame such symptoms on altitude sickness.  Non-mammalian animals seem unaffected.  There is a pet store in Witiko Falls, but it only carries birds, fish, and reptiles.

Instructions

Periodically, residents and sometimes even visitors in Witiko Falls will receive anonymous instructions, usually in the form of letters, cryptic voicemail messages with disguised voices, text messages, or emails.  Such notes always insist that their contents and even existence should be concealed from others.  The instructions vary wildly in character but usually ask the recipient to perform some innocuous or trivial task, such as going to a certain cafe and ordering a particular drink, leaving a cold tap running in a public bathroom, turning a picture so that it’s askew in a hotel lobby, taking out a certain book from the library, or leaving a doughnut in a paper bag on a specific park bench.  The writer addresses the notes to “Agent X,” X being the surname of the recipient.  The tone is always one of intense urgency and secrecy, and the writer never reveals anything about the greater context or consequences of such activities.  Very rarely, the messages will not be mundane at all; recipients will instead be instructed to perform some hideous, unwholesome, or even violent act.  The space of time between instructions is unpredictable, ranging from hours to years.  Most residents of Witiko Falls never acknowledge the existence of such instructions and will plead ignorance if confronted with them.

Locations

Here are but a few of the many interesting locations to be found within the town.  This is just an overview; each location (and whatever secret strangeness it might conceal) will be detailed much more exhaustively later.

The Falls

Crystal Falls

The Witiko Falls themselves are reputed to have powerful healing properties, properties which initially drew the sickly to the town to bathe in or drink from the Falls’ waters to cure their ailments.  Indeed, the original form of the town was little more than a cluster of tents erected around the Falls.  Spilling out of the mountains not far from Crow Castle, the Falls feed the Green Lady River and joins the Kootenai River, itself one of the uppermost tributaries of the Columbia.  The Falls also serve as a kind of hidden entrance to the cave-system that runs beneath and around the town; though there are many other entrances as well, this is the best known.  Sleepwalkers plagued by the parasomnias that frequently afflict newcomers to the town often find themselves curiously drawn to the Falls themselves and are frequently discovered standing stock-still (sometimes having waded out into the river) apparently staring at the Falls in silent contemplation.

Crow Castle

First constructed by Sebastian Corvus, a wealthy but eccentric mystic and member of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, Crow Castle is a massive, rambling mansion built in the hills overlooking Witiko Falls.  Corvus – a somewhat decadent British occultist – journeyed to the Falls after hearing legends of their healing properties, hoping to cure himself of an unknown illness (almost certainly syphilis).  Financing construction of the huge, variegated house in 1886 using his family fortune, Corvus appeared to recover from his sickness but later contracted tuberculosis.  After undergoing a deathbed conversion he willed the entire estate to the Sisters of Penitence, the so-called Red Nuns or Red Sisters.  Following Sebastian’s death the Sisters converted the house into a lavish sanitarium for consumptives.  It remained a popular destination for sufferers of the disease until its closure in 1933.  The Sisters continued to operate a small portion of the house as a school for girls for another six years before the house was condemned by inspectors as unsafe.  Unable to pay for repairs, the Sisters quietly sold the land to the federal government.  Crow Castle itself is an enormous, curiously variegated building exhibiting features from dozens of different architectural styles.  Broadly speaking the place resembles the Gothic follies and Romanesque Revival mock-castles more commonly found in Europe during the nineteenth-century, but parts of the Castle exhibit radically different styles – notably the sphinx-encrusted Egyptian Wing, the Arabesque Rooms, and the Byzantine Tower.  Extensive cellars, basements, and tunnels can be found beneath the Castle, some of them reputed to connect to the caves that riddle the area.  As for the shadowy government officials that have operated Crow Castle since 1946, little is known.  They’ve repaired and reinforced most of the Castle – or, at least, most of its exterior – and keep a heavy watch, though their actual agents are only rarely glimpsed.  Apart from the unmarked trucks and helicopters that periodically make stops at the Castle the only signs of activity are the glimmer of lights from its windows and, very rarely, indescribable noises that awaken the townsfolk in the dead of night.  The locals themselves prefer not to speak of the Castle or its dark-suited occupants.

Camping

The Swiner

An all-night diner built in 1924, the Swiner is a novelty diner in the shape of a gigantic piebald pig, with windows for eyes, a gaping mouth for a front door, and more windows along the pig’s long body, as well as a rudely positioned back door.  The diner, naturally, specializes in pork products, particularly bacon-based meals; its signature dish is the bacon-wrapped meatloaf called the Crispy Piglet, although their pork sandwich, the Slaughterhouse Five, containing pulled pork shoulder, bacon strips, spareribs, smoked ham, and a pork sausage, is also legendary.  Less extreme dishes include ham hocks, pig’s ears, crackling, pork belly, and tenderloin, though they also have a small selection of beef and chicken dishes and a single vegetarian option, a grilled cheese sandwich.  The place is owned and operated by a pair of twins, Daphne and Gertrude; the two are identical tall, solidly built woman (the term “brick house” has been thrown around) who change their hair colour on a regular basis.  They are distinguished by their tattoos: Daphne sports the head of a Rottweiler on her left shoulder, Gertrude an English Bulldog on her right.  The diner has been in continuous operation since it was built, one of the few businesses to survive the Depression and the mid-century slump in Witiko Falls’ fortunes, and the Swiner Twins claim to still use the original recipes created by their German great-grandmother, a first generation immigrant.  Forming something of a community gathering-place, the Swiner is a popular hangout for adolescents attending Witiko Falls High School, as well as truckers and locals.

The Burning Bush Gentleman’s Club

Witiko Falls’ only remaining night-spot apart from the Beavertail Casino is the Burning Bush Gentleman’s Club, a seedy roadside strip-joint with a gimmick – all the dancers are natural redheads, or so they claim.  Why this is so no one knows, although most suggest it’s due to the predilections of the cruel-eyed but jovial proprietor, Rakish Jack, a suave, pencil-moustached, oily-but-handsome man who favours black sharkskin suits.  The dancers all sport stage names that likewise pertain to the colour red in some way: there’s Scarlet, Strawberry, Rose, Carmine, Ember, Inferno, Autumn, Ginger, and Cherry (plus usually a few more).  The place has a series of back-rooms at least nominally for lap-dances, as well as a number of offices and other “Employees Only” rooms.  The joint hovers somewhere between sleazy and classy, its kitschy retro charm tarnished by the layer of grease and nicotine that seems to coat every surface.  Though most of the patrons are locals or truckers, the Burning Bush is also a frequent hangout for the Moonbrood, a gang of bikers whose clubhouse can be found further down the road.  They’re a raucous and somewhat unnerving bunch, but they actually tend to keep order more than cause trouble, kicking out those making a disturbance or bothering the girls.  Apart from the Casino and the all-night diner known as the Swiner, the Burning Bush is the only place open past midnight in Witiko Falls.

The Beavertail Casino

Medicine Man

Built on a small scrap of Blackfoot land inhabited principally by members of the Kainai Nation (the “Blood Tribe”), the Beavertail Casino is one of the few businesses in Witiko Falls that can be legitimately described as thriving.  Grandfathered gambling laws have allowed the Native American operators to set up a proper casino here: sports betting, poker, blackjack, bingo, and slot machines can be found within, and in-the-know gamblers frustrated with the limited gambling options in Montana flock to the casino in search of a big win.  Along with conspiracy nuts and truckers gamblers make up a significant portion of the Falls’ visitors.  The Casino forms the lifeblood of the tiny Kainai Reserve, little more than a small village of fewer than a hundred souls that clings to the edge of Witiko Falls.  The Reserve itself once larger in the days of Witiko Falls’ prosperity.  During the height of the “Age of the White Plague” – Witiko Falls’ most prosperous period – the Reserve’s inhabitants traded extensively with the inhabitants of the tent city that sprawled around Crow Castle and the other early sanitaria.  Since their closure the place has dwindled, and now almost all of its inhabitants work at the Casino, save for Byron Black Plume, a cheerful old man who runs the Coffee Wigwam, a kitschy roadside coffee stand at the edge of the Reserve.  The sign of the Beavertail Casino depicts a beaver whose tail is the shape of a spade from a deck of playing cards.

The Clubhouse

The biker gang known as the Moonchildren or Moonbrood maintain a clubhouse outside of Witiko Falls, accessible down a rough dirt road well-rutted with tire-marks.  Heavy gates and a fence topped with barbed wire protect the clubhouse from intruders.  Reputedly a one-percenter outlaw gang, the Moonchildren have a few chapters scattered across the Pacific Northwest, but Witiko Falls is their original charter.  They took up residence in the town in the late 1950s and have been a fixture ever since.  The Club has a strict hierarchy signified by a series of patches portraying different phases of the moon, beginning with New Moon members, followed by Crescents, Quarters, Gibbous, and Full Moon members.  Like most outlaw motorcycle clubs they are almost exclusively male, but there are a few female members who sport a Red Moon patch.  A few members also sport a Blue Moon patch, marking them as members of the Cub’s leadership.  Mostly the Moonchildren (or “Mooners” as some locals call them – though never in earshot) deal weed to local kids and perform other petty crimes in the Falls and in neighbouring towns, though they may be involved in more serious crimes as well.  The majority of members have day-jobs elsewhere in the town.  The interior contents of the clubhouse itself are unknown to outsiders, but the Moonchildren have been observed assembling there at particular dates, especially during eclipses.  At any given time, however, half a dozen motorcycles can usually be spotted inside the clubhouse gates.  Out behind the clubhouse is a mysterious hole, called the Crater, which popular legend has it was created when a “piece of moon-rock” fell from the sky and landed in the forests.

Witiko Falls High School

The only secondary school in town, Witiko Falls High School has just under five hundred students, where once it had several thousand; consequently the entire north wing of the school has been permanently closed down.  In most respects the school seems like a perfectly normal American high school.  It has a football team, the Witiko Falls Kelpies; regular teachers teaching regular classes; a library, a field, a metal shop.  There are hints, though, of certain peculiarities.  There are several school clubs such as the Left-Handers, the Young Rosicrucians, the Pareidolia Club, and the Lucid Dreaming Club that seem somewhat unusual.  In lieu of a Homecoming Court or a Prom Court the students hold elections for figures such as the Satyr and the Nymph and representations of the Seven Virtues.  The library seems fairly normal until one begins to investigate the titles and discovers the complete works of the Marquis de Sade and an incredibly extensive collection of German fairy-tales.  Such strangenesses are dismissed by staff as nothing more than quirks of local custom and school tradition.

The Scarecrow Cinema

Formerly an opera house built in 1895 and known as the Cricket Street Theatre, the Scarecrow Cinema was reopened in the late 1970s after some vestige of life had returned to Witiko Falls.  Specializing in exploitation films, the Scarecrow is run by Mordecai Clay, a middle-aged albino film buff with a taste for the macabre.  The place is a huge, ill-maintained structure of incredible opulence, funded by the wealthy afflicted who once flocked to Witiko Falls for medical treatment.  Now the baroque foyer and halls are stained and dingy, as the cinema barely manages to cover its operating costs; word about town is that Clay is deeply in debt and in danger of bankruptcy, but remains stubbornly intent on keeping the Scarecrow operational.  These days it mostly shows old movies, second-run horror flicks, and even adult films, the latter sometimes patronized by drunken clientele of the Burning Bush who’ve been kicked out by the Moonchildren.  During Halloween the theatre is redecorated as a haunted house and local children are invited to explore dusty old rooms and halls, fake cobwebs blending with the real.  In recent years Mordecai has simply left the decorations up for most of the year, and so patrons lingering in the concession area may be surprised by animatronic ghouls and skeletons.

Whispering Cedars Hospital and Asylum for the Insane

Place Head Here

Apart from the consumption sanitaria, Witiko Falls also played host to a number of insane asylums and psychiatric hospitals, the largest of which was the Whispering Cedars Hospital and Asylum for the Insane.  The asylum closed its doors in 1953, a few years after the government assumed possession of Crow Castle, although the circumstances of its closure are somewhat mysterious; rumours swirl of unethical psychosurgery and experimentation, and of the intervention of the shadowy government agents that occupy the Castle.  Since its abandonment the asylum has become overgrown and dilapidated.  Vandals, drifters, squatters, and necking teenagers have since taken to lingering about the asylum’s fungus-eaten corridors.  Students at Witiko Falls High often dare one another to enter the old asylum, usually on Walpurgis Night or Halloween; consequently the asylum has walls covered with graffiti and carvings.  Old surgical tools, beds, and other medical equipment litter the forsaken operating theatres and wards, and adolescents dared to enter the place are usually charged with removing a scalpel, leather restraint, syringe, straightjacket, or similar object from Whispering Cedars as a trophy.  Known treatments practised in Whispering Cedars include hydrotherapy, thermotherapy, electroshock therapy, lobotomy and leucotomy, and similar treatments.  A number of suicides and disappearances have been associated with the asylum, only feeding the folkloric reputation the place has accrued over the years.  Whispering Cedars is also sometimes used by the Moonchildren as a meeting-place for drug deals.

(Photo credit: Justus Hayes)

The Compound

The headquarters of the splinter religious sect known as the Church of Christ, Cambion, the Compound, as it is usually referred to by those outside the cult-like group, can be found on the outskirts of Witiko Falls, built in and around the remnants of the St. Cyprian Lodge, a health resort and sanitarium that closed down shortly after the closure of Crow Castle.  The Compound is a heavily fortified structure complete with watch-towers, chain-link fences, and regular patrols.  The group are secretive about the specific goings-on within the Compound – which they refer to as the Fold – but actively proselytize and leave pamphlets about town, often in places of business and especially in the Burning Bush Gentleman’s Club, which they are reputed to own or have some other stake in.  Their beliefs are unique, incorporating aspects of Gnosticism, Theosophy, and Judeo-Christian Apocrypha, especially the Book of Enoch and its tales of the angels that fell in love with the “daughters of men.”  One of their chief claims is that Christ was sired not by the Holy Ghost but by the fallen angel Azazel in disguise; they believe that the angelic Grigori or Watchers who left Heaven are the true saviours of mankind, in contrast with God (“the Demiurge,” a cruel and uncaring tyrant) and Satan (“the Adversary,” who wishes to corrupt and destroy humanity).  As such they revere the Grigori as Promethean figures and their kindred – the Nephilim, or Cambions – as Saint-like figures and Christ in particular as a messianic hybrid.  Most of their materials, however, relate to the importance of love and emphasize that carnal love is never sinful, claiming books like Leviticus and other dogmas against fornication and deviance are nothing more than the Demiurge’s propaganda.  There are hints in their reading materials that their particular interpretation of the apocalypse will result in the creation of something they call the Land of Love.  The locals mostly dismiss the cultists as a bunch of slightly kooky but otherwise harmless nuts, and refer to the Compound as a “Hippy Love-Nest.”  Those passing by the road at night can confirm that the believers seem to be having a good time.  Members of the Church of Christ, Cambion have converted many of the old buildings into residences, shrines, and chapels, and also grow their own food inside.  The innermost structures of the Compound serve an unknown purpose.

The Cottage

Pioneer_Log_Cabin

An old log-cabin built deep in the woods north of Witiko Falls, the dilapidated lodge known as Fairbairn Cottage or simply “the Cottage” was the dwelling-place of a trapper and woodsman, Andrew Fairbairn, and his wife, Judith.  The full story of the pair can be read below (see Local Legends).  These days, the Cottage is a shunned and desolate place, uninhabited for many years.  Due to its extreme isolation it is sometimes used by teenage couples as a location for secret trysts.  Adolescents have been known to dare their peers to spend a night in the Cottage and carve their names in the old logs within, much as they urge one another to enter the Whispering Cedars Asylum.  Physically, the place is unremarkable – a simple two-room cabin with some rotten furnishings and animal pelts, a small root cellar, and the overgrown remnants of a garden (filled principally with hemlock plants).  No sign of Andrew Fairburn’s legendary black-wood chest or the scold’s bridle of legend can be found within, although a notched stump out behind the cabin does bear what look like axe-marks.

The Mountain Shadow Cemetery

The Mountain Shadow Cemetery is curiously free of the vague eeriness that pervades the rest of Witiko Falls, instead inspiring feelings of tranquil sorrow and melancholy.  Though rather ill-tended the place is unspeakably beautiful, with a scenic view of the nearby hills and river.  Most of the graves are plain stone slabs, but there are some older tombs and mausoleums belonging to residents from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, including the crypt of Sebastian Corvus.  Rumours persist of tunnels and passages leading from the tombs into the caves beneath the town.

The Caves

An extensive system of caves stretches far beneath Witiko Falls.  The tunnels are labyrinthine and include some very large caverns, but instabilities, collapses, and other hazards have prevented anyone from fully mapping the caves.  Sections have been mapped, and a few “in-the-know” spelunkers have been known to go caving in them, but many return claiming that maps of the caves are unreliable and incomplete.  There are at least three commonly known entrances – one at the Falls themselves, another in the woods on a back-country road not far from the Burning Bush, and a third beneath Crow Castle, though obviously this lattermost entrance has not been used in some time, at least not by the locals.  Petroglyphs have been discovered in the caves, suggesting they were known to Native American inhabitants of the region, although some of the figures depicted in the carvings have no known cognates in Native American mythology.  In the early days of the town the caves were used by consumptives too poor to afford the spas and sanitaria of the town above, and so whole communities of the afflicted dwelt in the upper caverns for a time, hoping that the air of the caves would help to cure their disease.  Legends tell of a group of such tubercular men and women who became lost wandering the tunnels and never found their way back to the surface.  Rumour has that one can still hear the echoes of their coughing, trapped forever under the earth; some claim that their spirits haunt the caves (see Local Legends, below).

Local Legends

The Coyote Child

Persistent local legend tell of the Coyote Child, reputedly raised by coyotes in the woods around Witiko Falls.  There are contradictory accounts of this figure’s origins, but most believe him to be the son of an escaped inmate from Whispering Cedars, the psychiatric hospital in town, usually identified as Patricia Brantlinger or Theresa Beville, depending on the teller.  The story goes that the pregnant inmate wandered away into the woods and gave birth in the wilderness, dying in child-birth.  The coyotes smelled the woman’s body and the blood from the birth and came sniffing around the corpse.  They consumed the dead mother but, for reasons unknown, spared her infant child and raised him as one of their own.  This all took place in the middle of the twentieth century, somewhere in the late thirties or early forties (again, details vary).  Sightings of the boy were common through the mid-twentieth century, usually hunting with coyotes, crouched on all fours.  He has never been seen inside the town itself, and none have spoken to him.  Police searches have turned up nothing.  Occasional sightings continued, and the Coyote Child is still sometimes seen; though by now he should be an old man in his seventies or eighties, he is still described as resembling a young boy of perhaps ten or twelve.  Native Americans on the nearby Reserve believe he is a skin-walker and an evil spirit.   He has often been interpreted as an omen, his appearance foreshadowing violence to come.

The Spooks

The government employees stationed at Crow Castle are rarely seen in uniform, but common belief holds that they live undercover within the town, mingling with the locals, hiding in plain sight.  Many theories proliferate as to the identities and motivations of the Spooks, though such theories are more often discussed by conspiracy theorists than they are by locals.  Some believe the Spooks are members of some “rogue agency” or classified intelligence service within the U.S. Government, others that the Spooks aren’t federal agents at all but extraterrestrial shapeshifters masquerading as humans.  Whatever the case, the belief that the Spooks live amongst regular townsfolk in Witiko Falls is widespread and half-jokingly acknowledged by the locals, who often cheerily chastise those spouting “wild talk,” warning them that the “walls have ears” and insinuating that government agents are always listening in.  Naturally, local legend holds that the Spooks have the ability to erase or otherwise modify the memories of those who might have “made” them.

The Scold

ScoldsBridle17-18thCent

While Witiko Falls wasn’t truly settled until the early 1880s, the area did play host to a few settlers before that time, generally trappers and fur-traders, followed by gold miners in subsequent years.  One such individual was the woodsman, Andrew Fairbairn, and his wife, Judith Fairbairn, who settled in the region in 1864 in the cabin which is now known as Fairbairn Cottage or simply “the Cottage.”  Scottish of blood, Andrew was known to carry with him a number of heirlooms, which he kept in a chest of black wood in the cabin.  A trapper and hunter, Andrew strove to make ends meet as best he could, but often the pair found themselves hovering near destitution.  Judith would become agitated at such times and pressured her husband to move back east, which would enrage Andrew.  He took to employing a cruel method of punishment for his wife’s “shrewish” tongue, using one of the heirlooms taken from his ancestral chest: a scold’s bridle, used in Scotland well into the eighteenth-century as a punishment for “scolds,” or women who spoke out of turn.  He placed the macabre iron contraption over his wife’s head and would force her to wear it for hours at a time.  The muzzle was extremely painful, as spikes in the bridle would hurt the wearer’s tongue if they moved it or tried to speak.  Reputedly, during a particularly long spell of wearing the bridle, Judith decided to enact a plan of revenge.  Using hemlock she’d painstakingly grown in the Cottage’s garden she poisoned her husband’s dinner, paralyzing him but keeping him alert and awake.  She then calmly cut off his tongue and stuffed it down his throat, then sewed his lips shut, permanently silencing him; he choked on his own tongue and died.  Rumour has that the murder would have gone undiscovered had a lost traveller not come across Judith chopping up the body for burial with her husband’s own axe.  The traveller carried a revolver, to be used against wild beasts or others who might menace him; Judith, discovered, came at him with the axe but was shot and killed.  According to the traveller her mind had snapped and she was still wearing the scold’s bridle at the time of her death.  To this day, sightings of Judith’s ghost have been reported by those walking the woods near Fairbairn Cottage.  Her apparition, known as the Scold, has since become a local bogeywoman, said to prey exclusively on men who abuse their wives or girlfriends; such individuals are said to turn up dead, sometimes in the woods but often in their own beds, with their tongues cut out and their lips stitched shut, killed in the same manner as Andrew Fairbairn.

The Coughers

Also called the Coughing Ghosts, the Coughers are supposedly the descendants or spirits of tuberculosis sufferers who lived in the caves beneath Witiko Falls and became lost or cut off from those in the main grotto.  Supposedly, spelunkers have heard the Coughers wandering about the dark caverns, and occasionally found signs of their presence, such as clothing, gnawed bones, tools, or carven marks.  What, exactly, the Coughers are supposed to have eaten over the long decades between their disappearance and the present day has never been adequately explained, although cryptozoological enthusiasts point out that several entrances to the caves have been found, suggesting that the Coughers emerge from the depths to hunt wild animals – although why, then, they didn’t rejoin civilization remains equally unclear.  Paranormal theorists prefer to posit that the Coughers became ghosts haunting the caves, preying on those who explore too deeply into the tunnels.  Whether troglodytic degenerates or disembodied phantoms, the Coughers are said to be heralded by the sound of their rasping, consumptive hacking and spluttering.

The Grey Devil

The creature known as the Grey Devil is a gigantic North American opossum, possibly a mutant, that lurks in the woods around Witiko Falls, at least according to cryptozoologists and some conspiracy theorists.  Though native to the eastern half of the continent, opossums are not unknown along the Pacific west coast and can be found as far north as British Columbia, but are rarely seen in Montana or Idaho, leading theorists to suggest that the Grey Devil is an escaped pet, a prehistoric creature that has survived the long centuries against all odds, or perhaps a government experiment gone wrong.  The Native American inhabitants of the nearby reserve believe it to be a trickster spirit.  Whatever its origins, the Grey Devil – and, occasionally, its supposed young – has been glimpsed by a number of hikers and wilderness enthusiasts, often hanging from the upper boughs of a particularly thick-branched tree.  Reports vary as to the beast’s size: some claim it’s about the size of a large dog, while others insist it’s bear-sized.  Most accounts suggest the creature is interested primarily in scavenging; it has been sighted digging through trash and also attempting to exhume recently buried bodies at the Mountain Shadow Cemetery, though some also claim that the Grey Devil ate their pets.  Some theorists speculate that the smell of the giant opossum is the reason for erratic animal activity within Witiko Falls.  Its lair is popularly believed to be found somewhere within the caves below the town.

The Savour of Madness: Tunnels

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The Tunnels

cave

Soundtrack

The tunnels are completely dark.  Anyone with anything less than Darkvision will require a light.  Fortunately, lights don’t alert the Grimlocks that lurk in the tunnels to the characters’ presence, but any Intellect Devourers in the tunnels will see an approaching torch or lantern.  The Alienists flee to the tunnels if all else fails – if the inmates are set free, for example, or the asylum set on fire, or if they are simply driven back through the basement.

56 – Entrance Cavern

An incessant dropping sound fills the air here, along with the rancid stench of carrion.  Three passages lead from this round cave.

Perception DC 15:

One tunnel reeks especially strongly of rotten flesh, and another smells of mould.  What sounds like the bleating of a goat echoes down the tunnel in the middle.

58 – Heap

A vile stink fills your nostrils in this cavern, the reek of rotting flesh making your stomach roil.  A huge heap of half-eaten corpses is pied at the center of the cave, filling the air with the sound of buzzing flies and rustling maggots.  All of the corpses have had their skulls shattered.  The floor is slick with half-coagulated blood.

This is where the Alienists dump bodies they’re no longer using (those they don’t keep in the larder, anyway), keeping their servants well-fed.  The gruesome sight provokes a Sanity check (0/1d4+1).  Perception DC 20 to hear chewing sounds from behind the corpse-pile, where two Grimlocks eat.

59 – Drinking Water

water

A pool of murky water fills most of this large cavern; within you can glimpse blind cave fish and other creatures, stunted albino things.    A hunched, eyeless humanoid, its skin a mottled grey, its hands clawed, stoops and drinks from the pool.  Fungi riddle the cave walls, filling the air with their pungent smell.

A single Grimlock can be found here.

60 – Larval Pool

A huge pool of greenish, slimy liquid dominates this cavern; within the murky depths you can glimpse small, brain-like creatures swimming, propelling themselves with their tentacles in a way that reminds you of jellyfish.  Adhered to the banks of the pool are vast quantities of small, round eggs in mucilaginous sacs, reminiscent of frogspawn.

Dozens of Intellect Devourer larvae – Ustilagors – lurk in the pool.  Falling in is probably a bad idea…

61 – Chasm

A seemingly bottomless chasm interrupts the tunnel here.

Acrobatics DC 20 to leap across here; fall damage is 10d6.  Climbing down requires a DC 20 Climb check.  Grimlocks will chase characters fleeing here to try and trap them.

62 – Feasting Chamber

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Hundreds – perhaps thousands – of gnawed bones, both human and animal, carpet the floor of this chamber.  Crude images of beasts, intellect devourers, and humanoids are painted on the walls.

If the characters have been stealthy they may witness a particularly gruesome feast-in-progress:

A trio of twisted, eyeless humanoids tear apart a mountain goat here; the creature’s piteous bleats echo through the caves as they tear it open, blood gushing everywhere as they begin to gorge themselves on its entrails, stuffing dripping gobs of viscera into their fanged mouths.

63 – Mountain Tunnel

A faint whiff of fresh air and the sound of wind relieves the musty staleness of the caverns here.

This passage climbs upwards (Climb DC 15) out into the mountains.  If truly outmatched the Alienists will flee here, though this could also make a convenient escape route for the characters.  The Grimlocks use this entrance to go and hunt.

64 – Grimlock Warren

caves 3

Soundtrack

Something stirs in the darkness of this large, dripping cavern – you are not alone down here.  Stalactites loom out of the darkness, and shallow pools of water have collected on the floor.

At any given time there are at least a 15-25 Grimlocks in this large cavern, sleeping, creeping about, mating, or eating.  Here’s a glimpse of some of them:

Half a dozen loping figures emerge from the darkness – pale, malformed humanoids with pronounced nostrils and ears, no eyes, and mottled greyish-white skins.  Sniffing the air, they hiss and move towards you, and more shapes stir behind them!

65 – The Pit

A gaping pit yawns at the center of this chamber, its walls slimy, plummeting down into darkness.

This pit leads down into an intricate cavern system that riddles the mountains; it’s here that the Grimlocks entered these caverns.  Clambering down is tricky, however, requiring a DC 25 Climb check (fall damage is 20d6).

Appendix: Statistics

horrible

QUASIRIANT/DELACROIX – INTELLECT DEVOURER SORCERER 8

CR 11

XP 12, 800

Intellect devourer sorcerer 8

CE Small aberration

Init +11; Senses blindsight 60 ft., detect magic; Perception +21

DEFENSE

AC 23, touch 18, flat-footed 16 (+7 Dex, +5 natural, +1 size)

hp 164 (16 HD; 8d8+8d6+96)

Fort +11, Ref +12, Will +16

Defensive Abilities: invisibility, mirror image; DR 10/adamantine and magic; Immune fire; Resist cold 20, electricity 20, sonic 20; SR 23

Weaknesses: vulnerability to protection from evil

OFFENSE

Speed: 30 ft.

Melee: 4 claws +18 (1d4+1)

Special Attacks: acidic ray (1d6+6 acid, 12/day), body thief, sneak attack +3d6

Spell-Like Abilities (CL 8th; concentration +17)

Constant—detect magic

At will—confusion (DC 22, single target only), daze monster (DC 19, no HD limit), inflict serious wounds (DC 20), invisibility, reduce size (as reduce person but self only)

3/day—cure moderate wounds, globe of invulnerability

Sorcerer Spells Known (CL 8th; concentration +17)

4th (4/day)— phantasmal killer (DC 20)

3rd (7/day)— gentle repose, suggestion (DC 21)

2nd (8/day)— touch of idiocy (DC 18), hideous laughter (DC 20), mad hallucination (DC 18)

1st (8/day)—charm person (DC 20), disguise self (DC 18), hypnotism (DC 20), memory lapse (DC 20), sleep (DC 20)

0 (at will)—arcane mark, dancing lights, detect poison, ghost sound (DC 17), mage hand, mending, open/close, prestidigitation

Bloodline: Aberrant

STATISTICS

Str 12, Dex 25, Con 19, Int 18, Wis 14, Cha 24

Base Atk +10; CMB +10; CMD 27

Feats: Combat Casting, Eschew Materials, Extend Spell, Greater Spell Focus (enchantment), Improved Initiative, Quicken Spell, Silent Spell, Spell Focus (enchantment), Still Spell, Weapon Finesse

Skills: Bluff +34, Craft (alchemy) +13, Diplomacy +16, Disguise +23, Knowledge (arcana) +11, Knowledge (psionics) +11, Knowledge (local) +14, Perception +17, Sense Motive +16, Spellcraft +18, Stealth +19, Use Magic Device +19

Languages: Common, Aklo, Grimlock, Undercommon (cannot speak); telepathy 100 ft.

SQ: bloodline arcana, long limbs (+10 ft.), unusual anatomy (25%)

Gear (only if encountered in a host body): doctor’s outfit, masterwork dagger, keys (Eye, Hand, Heart, Brain)

SPECIAL ABILITIES

Body Thief (Su): As a full-round action that provokes an attack of opportunity, an intellect devourer can reduce its size, crawl into the mouth of a helpless or dead creature, and burrow into the victim’s skull to devour its brain. This is a coup de grace attempt that inflicts 8d4+3d6+8 points of damage. If the victim is slain (or already dead), the intellect devourer usurps control of the body and may use it as its own, as if it controlled the target via a dominate monster spell. The intellect devourer has full access to all of the host’s defensive and offensive abilities save for spellcasting and spell-like abilities (although the intellect devourer can still use its own spell-like abilities). A host body may not have been dead for longer than 1 day for this ability to function, and even successfully inhabited bodies decay to uselessness in 7 days (unless this time is extended via gentle repose). As long as the intellect devourer occupies the body, it knows (and can speak) the languages known by the victim and basic information about the victim’s identity and personality, yet has none of the victim’s specific memories or knowledge. Damage done to a host body does not harm the intellect devourer, and if the host body is slain, the intellect devourer emerges and is dazed for 1 round. Raise dead cannot restore a victim of body theft, but resurrection or more powerful magic can.

Vulnerable to Protection from Evil (Ex): An intellect devourer is treated as a summoned creature for the purpose of determining how it is affected by a protection from evil spell.

ALIENIST (HOST BODY)

delacroix

CR 5

XP 1,600

Human expert 7

CE Medium humanoid

Init +2; Senses Perception +12

DEFENSE

AC 12, touch 12, flat-footed 10 (+1 armor, +2 Dex)

hp 31 (7d8)

Fort +2, Ref +3, Will +5

OFFENSE

Speed: 30 ft.

Melee: masterwork dagger +5 (1d4–1/19–20)

STATISTICS

Str 8, Dex 14, Con 10, Int 16, Wis 11, Cha 17

Base Atk +5; CMB +4; CMD 13

Feats Alertness, Combat Expertise, Deceitful, Persuasive, Skill Focus (Profession [alienist])

Skills Appraise +13, Bluff +19, Diplomacy +13, Disguise +11, Heal +12, Intimidate +11, Knowledge (arcana) +11, Knowledge (local) +14, Knowledge (psionics) +11, Perception +19, Profession (alienist) +13, Ride +6, Sense Motive +12, Stealth +9, Use Magic Device +11

Languages: Common, Aklo, Grimlock, Undercommon

Gear: doctor’s outfit, keys (Eye, Hand, Heart, Brain), masterwork dagger

These stats were modified slightly in light of the Body Thief ability; it doesn’t make sense to me to use the host body’s Bluff bonus, for example, given that the host’s brain has been eaten.

Of course, it’s quite possible that the Intellect Devourers will switch bodies at various points.  When one of the Alienists’ hosts die, the Intellect Devourer shows itself:

The body falls to the floor, eyes staring lifelessly ahead.  Then, suddenly, the corpse twitches, limbs flailing.  There is a sickening cracking sound as the corpse’s skull breaks open like an egg, a black talon emerging from the wound, followed by a whipping tentacle.  The tendril pushes aside the fragmented wreckage of the man’s head and something climbs out.  It looks exactly like a brain, save for the greyish fungus covering it, its lashing tentacles, and the many-jointed limbs unfolding from beneath it.  The thing seems temporarily dazed.

The sight of an Intellect Devourer provokes a Sanity check (1/1d4).  Intellect Devourers can also exit the way they came in, through the mouths of their hosts, but this process is more cumbersome (they use this process when they want to leave a host undamaged).

After losing a host an Intellect Devourer will usually scuttle away, becoming Invisible (or Clouding Minds if you’re using the Psionic variant).  If the characters are injured, however, or if there are other Alienists or Orderlies around, it may attack, using Confusion, Inflict Serious Wounds, and claws.  If a corpse is around, it’ll use Body Thief on it.

ORDERLY

nomnomnom

CR 3

XP 800

Grimlock rogue 1/warrior 3

CE Medium humanoid (human)

Init +2; Senses: Perception +12

DEFENSE

AC 17, touch 12, flat-footed 15 (+1 armor, +2 Dex, +4 natural)

hp 42 (6 HD; 1d8+5d10+9)

Fort +5, Ref +9, Will +3

OFFENSE

Speed: 30 ft.

Melee: sap +7 (1d6+2 nonlethal)

Special Attacks: sneak attack +1d6

STATISTICS

Str 15, Dex 15, Con 13, Int 10, Wis 8, Cha 6

Base Atk +5; CMB +7 (+9 grapple); CMD 19 (21 grapple)

Feats: Alertness, Skill Focus (Perception), Improved Grapple

Skills: Climb + 7, Stealth +11 (+21 in caves or mountains), Swim +8, Perception +12

Languages: Grimlock, Undercommon

SQ: trapfinding +1

Gear: padded armour, sap, key (roll 1d4: 1-Eye, 2-Hand, 3-Heart, 4-Brain), 1 Potion of Disguise Self (Human)

Handouts

Here is the text of the handouts:

Valentin’s Journal

Year 735, 7th of Vendémiaire

The groundskeeper Gerard, a man from the village of Saint-Sæthryth, was found dead this morning not far from his cottage, a dog worrying at his body.  The condition of his corpse was most alarming.  The top of the man’s skull had been completely shattered and his brain was missing; what’s more the inside of his head showed a number of gashes and other marks disturbingly suggestive of bite-marks, though I am unsure what beast could have made them.  As chief physician and aliéniste here at L’Hôpital de Corbin I believe it must fall to me to conduct the autopsy; I shall have Dr Delacroix assist me.  With luck our examination will reveal some clue as to who perpetrated this awful crime.  I wish to believe it to be the work of some animal, or else nothing more than a tragic accident, and yet I fear the worst.  Many of the patients here at the asylum have violent pasts.  One woman, a hysteric, murdered her husband in cold blood when he attempted to initiate marital relations between them, mutilating the man till there was naught left to identify him as such.  Another patient, gripped by powerful delusions, was found to have cannibalized several street urchins before being sent here.  We keep the inmates under close watch, of course, but if one were to have somehow slipped away, even for a brief spell, there’s no telling what horrors they could inflict.  They are not all imbeciles, either: there is a certain deranged cunning to some of them, and they can be artful dissemblers at times.  Of course, after the body was discovered I had the entire facility carefully locked down, and all patients have been thoroughly accounted for; if one of them is responsible for this hideous crime, they are now safely locked in their cell.

There are other theories circulating amongst the staff, some of whom come from local villages – wild talk of hill-men and goblins and ghouls living under the mountains.  I almost wish it were some bogeyman responsible.  After the autopsy I may have to interview the patients individually.

Year 735, 8th of Vendémiaire

The autopsy of the groundskeeper’s body has been completed, but I admit to being even more perplexed than before.  I have carefully reconstructed the skull and examined the wounds thoroughly, and I have come to one inescapable but bizarre conclusion: the man’s skull was not caved in from the outside – as from a blow to the head – but broke open from the inside out.  A powerful gunshot might have caused such explosive fragmentation, yet there is no gunshot wound visible on the man’s face or elsewhere on the corpse.  Stranger still, I discovered subtle but unmistakable trauma to the jaw, as if it had been recently dislocated and then jarred back into place.  I also discovered lacerations, faint but still distinct, around his lips and in the inside of his mouth.

Continuing my examination, I found that the back of the man’s throat had been gashed open, as if something had been forcibly thrust through his mouth and up into his brain.  To make matters even more bewildering, the wound had been sealed with a membranous growth of some kind, and traces of other foreign material – webbing, a greyish substance resembling fungi, and some sort of congealed mucus or slime – was discovered in his emptied cranium.  All traces of the brain itself were completely gone save for some portions of the brain stem, including the bulb, pons, and a portion of the midbrain.

As I continued the autopsy my findings grew yet more bizarre – and disturbing.  The groundskeeper was seen alive the previous night, so we can assume he was killed at some point during the night or in the early morning.  However, the corpse shows signs suggesting advanced decomposition.  The body was bloated, and I discovered maggots in the corpse’s orifices and the beginnings of putrefaction setting in.  All indications suggest that the man has been dead for several days at least.  Is it possible that somehow the rate of decay was accelerated?  The mystery is maddening.

Year 735, 11th of Vendémiaire

Interviews with the patients have been concluded, but have revealed nothing new.  One of the patients, however – a certain Madame Angélique, a hebephreniac afflicted with la folie circulaire – seems to have made surprising progress.  Perhaps the rotary chair has done its work; or perhaps the leechings, or simply the fresh air, have relieved her lunacy.  Whatever the case she seems much recovered, cheerful almost to the point of euphoria and yet displaying none of the frenzied agitation typical of a manic episode.  We will continue treatment as usual, of course, but I am optimistic.  With any luck, in a few months the girl can be sent back to her husband.

The groundskeeper has been interred in the asylum cemetery; we must send for a new one, as already the lawn is going to seed.

Year 735, 16th of Vendémiaire

Another shocking episode has occurred – Patient 616, Madame Angélique, was found dead in her room by one of the orderlies, Monsieur Falret.  What’s more, the manner of her death was exactly the same as that of the groundskeeper, her skull shattered and her brain missing, her brainpan infested with greyish fungus and covered in slime.  I did not have to perform a thorough autopsy to note the signs of premature or accelerated decay on her body.  It is now almost certain that the person responsible is either an inmate or a member of the staff – how else could the killer have gained access to her room?  What is going on?

If these incidents continue, I fear for the future of this institution.  L’Hôpital de Corbin must be a safe place, a place of respite, a haven for lost and troubled souls.  It cannot be a place of fear.  I have devoted my life to this place and am loathe to lose it, but if I cannot guarantee the safety of the staff and patients here I am afraid the asylum will have to close.

Year 735, 23rd of Vendémiaire

M Falret, the orderly who discovered Patient 616’s body, has gone missing.  He appears to have left in the middle of the night, without warning, and left no note.  Some part of me fears the man must have been abducted, perhaps by the same person responsible for the deaths of the groundskeeper and Mme Angélique, but everyone else in the asylum is fully accounted for: if the perpetrator is indeed an inmate or a staff member, abduction would seem unlikely… perhaps M Falret, traumatized by the incident with Mme Angélique, found himself unable to cope with the stress of working in L’Hôpital de Corbin and, accordingly, fled?

I have spoken to other members of the staff, who report that M Falret’s behaviour has been unusual ever since he discovered Patient 616.  Colleagues describe him as detached and somewhat depressed, and report that they often caught him watching them strangely, with a curious unblinking gaze.  Such a personality shift may have been a response to trauma, and yet the orderlies at this institution are used to dealing with pain, and even with corpses – try as we might to prevent them from harming themselves, some inmates do manage to commit suicide, and the discovery of a body in its cell is not, tragically, as rare a circumstance as we would wish it.

There is another possibility, of course – M Falret may have been responsible for both murders and, fearing discovery, he has fled.  I have written to the gendarmerie alerting them to the man’s sudden disappearance.  Some part of me hopes he was responsible.  If Falret was the murderer, at least now L’Hôpital de Corbin will be left in peace.

Year 735, 13th of Brumaire

Weeks have passed since the incidents visited upon us, and I had hoped the horrors had come to an end, but I fear my hopes were naïve.  I was examining one of the inmates today – Patient 874, Monsieur Augustin – when I noticed signs of what looked to be advanced necrosis or gangrene, as from leprosy or any number of other ailments.  Further inspection revealed the rot was widespread, and that the man was host to a number of eggs already hatching into maggots.  When he saw that I had discovered his affliction Patient 874 flew into a psychotic rage, baring his teeth and uttering a sound that I shall never forget so long as I live.  I am a practiced aliéniste with a long career: I have heard men and women screaming in the night, spouting glossolalia, imitating the sounds of animals, raving in singsong or shrieking with rage or terror or both.  The sound that issue from M Augustin’s mouth was unlike anything I have heard before – a chittering, clicking ejaculation of indescribable strangeness.  It sounded like nothing human.  Were I a superstitious man I might believe him to be the victim of some demoniac possession!

He came at me with hands clawed, tearing at my throat.  I managed to wrestle the man off me, and with the aid of two orderlies he was secured.  We attempted to sedate the patient, but the normal dose had no effect, and he continued to make the same chittering, hissing expostulations.  Eventually one of the orderlies simply bashed the man on the head, sending him into unconsciousness – normally I would disapprove of such violent methods, but given the circumstances I gave my permission.  We are treating the man’s affliction as best we can, but I am flummoxed as to the cause of his illness.  There is no fever whatsoever: the man is cold as a corpse!  He has been quarantined for the time being.  I will consult every medical text I can.  Could this strange sickness somehow be related to the recent deaths?  Mysteries piled on mysteries.

Year 735, 31st of Brumaire

They are everywhere.  I do not know who to trust, who has been turned.  Delacroix has been compromised, I think – I could smell the stench of the grave upon him.  They can smell me, too.

I have barricaded myself in the office.  I can hear them outside, giggling obscenely, stalking the halls.  They speak in their abominable tongue, if speech it is.  More like the drone of insects than speech.

I have seen what they are.  These Things that now walk among us, that wear our stolen flesh.  Such Things were not meant to be seen by human eyes.

Perhaps I am mad myself.  I can no longer tell truth from reality, fact from fiction, science from fantasy.

They will come for me soon.  I will not let them take my mind, will not let them use my body like a marionette.  There is a wheellock in my drawer.  I will blow by brains from my skull before I let them feed on my mind.

To any who reads this: L’Hôpital de Corbin is no longer an asylum, no longer a hospital for the treatment of illness.  They have taken over the Intensive Treatment Ward, use the machines not to ameliorate but to exacerbate.  They torment the inmates to worsen their lunacy.

They feed on insanity.  It is like a drug to them.  As the dipsomaniac craves alcohol so do they require brains, brains addled by madness.

Someone knocks at the door.  The handle turns.  They say they are Delacroix but I know the Truth!

The gun is loaded, primed.  I go now to whatever fate awaits me.

Cordialement,

Dr Valentin Morel

Aliéniste Principal de l’Hôpital de Corbin

Quasiriant’s Journal

Entry 1:

I feel compelled to transcribe my thoughts, to put them to paper – a strange urge, and unfamiliar.  The human whose body I now control, whose mind I devoured, was much given to this habit.  We all take on aspects of our prey after feeding.  I crouch now in the damp, hunched over a sheaf of parchment, my brothers and sisters around me, and write this chronicle with borrowed hands that even now begin to decay.

We have escaped the mountains of our homeland and arrived at last in the man-realm.  The God-Brain and Its Inquisitors cannot follow us here: our thralldom is at an end.  No longer can Its servants feed upon our young.  No longer will we be used as the humans use guard-dogs, somewhere between pets and slaves.  We are free.

Soon we must feed.  We can sense the minds of humans nearby, their consciousnesses succulent, nourishing.  Our bodies are rotting; I can feel maggots squirming in my breast, eating at my host’s innards.  If we do not find sustenance soon we will be forced to abandon our hosts and travel naked beneath the sun and moon, vulnerable and exposed.  The others look to me for guidance, for leadership.  It was I who led them from servitude, who found a way to this place.

Entry 2:

I have found us a place, nestled in mountains that remind me of the homeland.  There are many minds here, consciousnesses which exude a subtle aroma unlike any I have tasted before.  The humans who dwell here are broken things, wretched, consumed with fear and despair and confusion of unspeakable succulence.  Other humans watch over them, tending to them, trying to mend their shattered minds.  Fools!  We will be Masters here soon.  I have taken the body of one of them, a man I found tending to the grounds.  The other humans suspect nothing.  I will continue the man’s duties, biding my time, watching.  Soon I will bring the others here, and we will feast.

Entry 3:

I could resist temptation no longer.  I have glutted myself, eaten my fill, devouring the mind of one of the inmates, a woman I found wandering in the gardens.  The alienists here – so the Masters of this place call themselves – allow their patients to walk the grounds if supervised.  This one must have strayed from the group, unnoticed.  I found her gibbering, raving to herself and scratching at her flesh, and when, unable to contain myself any longer, smelling the irresistible enticement of her delirium, I burst from the skull of my former host and leaped towards her, she seemed unafraid, as if welcoming me, as if eager.  The taste of her mind was ambrosial – the savour of her madness!  The richness, the subtlety of her derangement, the obscene deliciousness of her lunacy!  It is like nothing I have tasted before.  I must have more.  I will hide this chronicle in the groundskeeper’s cottage for the time being and return to the asylum wearing my new guise.

Entry 4:

I was nearly discovered.  For the past few days I have been observing operations in this place, noting routines, evaluating strengths and weaknesses.  The brood could find a home here… so many nourishing minds to feed upon!  Yet as I languished in their cell, I found myself reminded powerfully of the homeland and our mistreatment by the Masters.  A rage grew within me, seething, boiling up and overflowing, and when one of the humans entered my cell to feed my host body I flew at him, bursting from my host’s skull and leaping for his throat, forcing his jaw open and burrowing my way up, up into his skull.  I ate my fill and fled, leaving the body where it fell.  The other humans are most agitated, believing that one of their own is the killer.  Soon I will take this body and leave, and rejoin my kindred.

After the rapturous richness of the last brain I devoured this one seemed bland, tasteless.  Now that I have tasted the nectar of madness, a sane mind is flavourless.  I must return with the rest of the brood soon, to satiate myself once again.

Entry 5:

The others have made contact with a group of beings that dwell under the mountains.  The humans drove them down into the darkness long ago, and they have lingered there since, in the bowels of the earth.  Their hatred for the top-worlders is matched only by their hunger for flesh.  They will make worth allies, for though my ilk and I must feed, we desire only brains, not meat.  We will require a few bodies to use as hosts, of course, but the rest can go to sate the appetites of these blind ones, these deep-dwellers.  They can help us to keep the humans in order, once we seize control of the asylum and make the place our larder, our abattoir – for though my brood and I are powerful, we are few in number, and the humans are many.

I have told the brood of the savour of madness, the lush ripeness of an unhinged mind.  Soon we shall return and eat our fill.

Entry 6:

I have assumed control of the body of Dr Delacroix, one of the alienists here at  L’Hôpital de Corbin.  I shall continue to use this body as required, when other humans bring more inmates for us from their cities: it will be necessary to maintain the appearance that the facility is still under human administration.  Once my kindred and I had infiltrated their ranks the rest became easy.  The humans’ leader, Dr Valentin Morel, discovered our presence, but by the time he realized what we were it was too late; we had already seized control.  The Grimlocks now serve as our orderlies, and the inmates are safely tucked in their cells, like livestock awaiting the slaughter in their pens.  The cravings grow stronger and stronger.  With each brain I consume, each maddened consciousness I devour, the hunger grows more intense, the sensations dulled.  I must find a way to relive that first ecstatic devouring.

When I consumed the consciousness of Delacroix I absorbed some of his knowledge, his expertise.  There are degrees of madness, I have learned, and methods of ameliorating lunacy.  Might the same techniques, the same scientific approach, be used to cultivate rather than expunge madness?  And then there are the arts of our Masters, methods for sculpting flesh and dominating the mind… perhaps, if the two were combined, I might contrive a means of seasoning our meat, of sweetening the brains of our prey.  With time and patience, I will sow the seeds of delirium in the minds of the inmates here, tend to a garden of the deranged and the demented – and, when the time comes, harvest my crop.

Experimentation must begin at once.

Liberation of the Demon Slayer – Review

Many apologies for my long absence.  I was recently invited to review a new RPG product by Venger Satanis, Liberation of the Demon Slayer, a megadungeon-based mini-campaign with strong Lovecraftian elements.  After a busy December and January I may soon have more time to resume posting updates on modules and other projects.

Liberation of the Demon Slayer

Created by Venger Satanis – a self-styled warlock, game-master, and auteur designer – Liberation of the Demon Slayer is a sprawling, oddball adventure, combining elements of an old school dungeon crawl with imagery culled from exploitation cinema and the Cthulhu Mythos.  A strange amalgam of disparate parts, the adventure is something of a pastiche, a mutant beast of a mini-campaign that lurches from one strange scene to the next; levels of the caverns that form the central locus of the adventure include such weird vistas as a buried alien spacecraft, an abominable temple to K’tulu, a gladiatorial pocket-universe, and a magma-flooded devil’s lair.  The adventure is clearly a labour of love, exuding an off-kilter, DIY approach that brings with it a particular exuberance but also a number of curious design decisions indicative of its idiosyncratic method of creation.  Describing itself as a “grindhouse bloodbath,” the module aspires to a kind of heightened old school experience, hyper-violent and sexualized.  It’s certainly not everyone’s cup of tea, but those interested in a system-neutral dungeon crawl of the OSR mold with Lovecraftian elements and a taste for gore will probably find it to their liking.

Liberation of the Demon Slayer Illustration

The book begins with an outline of the assumed setting and a series of campaign notes.  This section is probably the weakest in the book overall; some portions, such as the unusual physical cosmology featuring living planetoids and transdimensional serpent-folk, are thoroughly engrossing, but others feel a little hackneyed, such as a superfluous reiteration of D&D traditional dichotomy of Demonic vs. Devilish.  Parts of the implied setting are quite inventive, but others feel reactionary: the setting cultivates a sense of weird atmosphere and bizarerrie one moment, then falls back on quasi-Tolkienian tropes (Elves, “Lyrthum,” i.e. Mithril, etc) the next.  It’s also not wholly clear how some details of the world’s mythology gel together – there are Old Ones like Yog Sothoth and Cthulu/K’tulu, but there are also Judeo-Christian demonic malevolencies.  Then again, the Old Ones here are portrayed very much in the August Derleth vein as malevolent entities out to foster chaos and evil, locked in a struggle against the “Lords of Light,” as opposed to the uncaring, unfathomably alien super-intelligences originally envisioned by Lovecraft, so the whole thing does hang together, more-or-less, in a slightly haphazard way.  As I’ll explore in greater detail below, it’s this slightly slapdash design method that lends Liberation of the Demon Slayer its distinctively patchwork character.

This section of the text also offers a number of optional rules, some of them more useful than others.  Given that the adventure advertises itself as “usable with practically every paper & pencil, tabletop fantasy roleplaying game,” the overall utility of some of these rules is questionable.  I’m especially unsure of the “freestyle” magic system the module recommends: given the Lovecraftian vein that runs through the module one might have expected a more ponderously ritualistic mode of sorcery, where the stars must be right and the correct sacrifices given and the right glyphs inscribed and the proper incantations pronounced (something closer, perhaps to the rites of Carcosa), rather than the free-wheeling, improvisational approach the text urges.  Still, some of the mechanics are intriguing, including the addition of a Fortune attribute and a “Dark Secrets” table that might have uses well beyond the module itself.

Liberation of the Demon Slayer Illustration 2

The campaign notes are fairly brief, however, and we quickly move on to the adventure itself.  While the module’s setup is a little clichéd (retrieve a magical artifact from ye olde dungeon or bad things will happen) and the name of the starting town, “Clear Meadows,” made me groan inwardly, the dungeon crawl itself is largely well-designed and inventive.  While a few elements of the crawl are rather workmanlike, even borderline passé – pit traps, kobolds, a fungus garden, glowing crystals – others are wildly, lavishly creative, like a techno-magical security network that the PCs can hack but which can also unleash nuclear/eldritch catastrophe on the surface, or a series of weird shapes scattered throughout the dungeon’s six levels that, when combined together, produce a range of magical effects and can eventually summon the manifestation of a megalomaniacal two-headed reptile god from beyond the furthest reaches of the galaxy, or a piece of mind-ravishing semi-sentient fruit.  What the adventure does brilliantly is replicate the kind of lunatic hodgepodge atmosphere that characterized early D&D so strongly.  In the first years of the hobby D&D threw together a strange grab-bag of influences, what James Maliszewski of lost Grognardia once called “a goulash of unspoken and contradictory inspirations”: in the case of Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson, Sword & Sorcery in the mode of Howard and Leiber hybridized with Hammer Horror, bits of the Mythos, Vance’s magic system, Tolkien’s races, and Arthurian romance, with a cosmology mostly pinched from Paradise Lost and Michael Moorcock.  Liberation of the Demon Slayer pursues a similarly madcap, wilfully incohesive approach, borrowing gleefully from a variety of sources and stitching it all together into a messy gestalt; Venger cites Lovecraft and Howard as major influences, also mentioning such controversial films as The Last House on the Left and the notorious Ilsa: She Wolf of the S.S.  If you’re looking for an adventure with carefully calibrated unity of effect you’ll be disappointed, but if you’re yearning for the chimerical helter-skelter of yore then Liberation will scratch your old-school itch.

The module’s cartography is plain but clear, and the structure of the dungeon is sufficiently intricate; there are, perhaps, rather too many enemies of different sorts crammed into a relatively small space, but this superfluity of monsters again recaptures something of the old-school feel.  The layout is readable, although occasionally Venger seems to switch from text clearly intended to be read aloud to notes to be paraphrased, without any visually obvious cue as to what sort of text he’s writing – in other words, while the module eschews the boxed texts ubiquitous in modules from later editions, it occasionally employs a kind of “informal” boxed text which might have been differentiated a little more clearly.  This is a minor quibble, however, as the module’s writing is one of its strong points, with loving descriptions of the dungeon’s multifarious monstrosities (including such unusual horrors as half-reptilian, half-arachnoid demons, giant flying vampire toads, extradimensional hornets, a psychic lion, and a light-absorbing, flesh-eating dire slug) interspersed with plainer, easily parsed information on the contents of rooms.  It’s hard to estimate the overall lethality level of the place when the adventure is written mostly systems-neutral, but one does get the feeling the dungeon is intended as a bit of an Gygaxian abattoir: the author more-or-less describes it as such, suggesting that players create multiple characters to make it through the adventure as written.  Save-or-die effects are not unknown; one entry, for example, describes a “slimy spawn of K’tulu” that permanently transmutes any it touches into bilious green slime.  These effects, of course, could easily be tweaked by those less interested in a hyper-lethal style of play.  The module is incredibly open-ended, and the simultaneous presence of things like reality-warping shapes, nuclear weapons, hungry Old Ones, and a sociopathic AI allow for the possibility for radically reshaping the world at large.  On the one hand this non-linearity enables a truly spectacular climax; on the other hand, the potential for cataclysm might make it harder to drop the module into an existing setting.

Spider Thing

Artistically, the module’s interior artwork varies quite wildly in quality; though never execrable some of the illustrations have a sketchy, bare-bones quality, but others are extraordinarily impressive, gorgeous black and white grotesques bringing to mind the work of Erol Otus.  One illustration of a vaguely insectoid eldritch horror, tentacled but also possessing disturbingly humanoid appendages, is particularly finely done.  The somewhat lurid cover, though colourful and well-executed, has a somewhat cartoonish style at odds with some of the interior art, but in its own way this dissonance makes sense, since the content of the adventure reflects the same spirit of variegation.  By and large the illustrations complement the text well, reinforcing both the over-the-top tone and the OSR sensibility.  The artwork does bring home the highly sexualized, grindhouse aesthetic of the piece, which some readers may find objectionable.  While not squeamish myself – heck, I enjoyed Raggi’s oft-reviled paean to perversity Death Love Doom – I did find the sexual politics of Liberation of the Demon Slayer somewhat dated.  Say what you will of Raggi’s excesses, he at least offers equal-opportunity obscenity, with juddering alien penises and brutally violated men as well as mutilated and exploited women.  In contrast, Liberation of the Demon Slayer serves up a bevy of all-female sex slaves, female sacrificial victims, and scantily clad female Dark Elves described as wearing “lyrthum or leather bikinis in order to show off their smooth, delicate flesh” (strangely enough, the adventure switches the usual political structure of Dark Elves from a matriarchy to a patriarchy; Dark Elf males get magic and power, females are “depraved sex kittens”).  One Devil is described as having three female concubines, presumably imprisoned against their will; two gleefully compete for his attentions despite their enslavement while the third “still requires discipline of the whip.”

In his defence, Venger does forewarn readers that the content is “decadently gratuitous” and includes a note that GMs should take their group’s temperature before including sexual themes.  For my part it’s not the sexual themes themselves that perturb, nor the mixture of sex and violence – I say this as an avid devotee of Clive Barker – but the peculiarly old-fashioned nature of Liberation’s sexual content might be off-putting to some (the module is pretty clearly aimed at a male, heterosexual audience, to say the least).  As one who tends to defend “transgressive art,” I won’t belabour the point further, and the depictions, both textual and visual, didn’t bother me personally (though they aren’t especially shocking or titillating, either) but suffice to say that in its replication of a grindhouse atmosphere the module does nothing to ameliorate the latent misogyny that afflicted some exploitation films of the 70s, and that’s something potential buyers should be aware of.

Little in Liberation of the Demon Slayer could legitimately be called original per se, but it alchemically combines a number of familiar ingredients into a new and pleasingly misshapen whole.  The module takes the exploration-based megadungeon format from old-school D&D and mixes in Lovecraftian horror, exploitation-film imagery, and elements borrowed from science fiction B movies; in places I even get a kind of Masters of the Universe vibe.  Those looking for a “serious” adventure should probably seek elsewhere, but while the module certainly isn’t for everyone, those interested in a hallucinatory hack n’ slash marathon will find much to enjoy.

The Savour of Madness: Attic and Basement

 Faust 4

Attic

Attic Map

There’s not much of value in these old storerooms, but they do provide a stealthy means of navigating the third level of the asylum.

34 – Storeroom

Dusty old crates and trunks swathed in cobwebs fill this mouldering attic storeroom.

If the characters decide to investigate the crates and trunks, roll on the following table to determine their contents:

Roll 1d20 Crate Contents
1 Yellow mould
2 Muzzles
3 Fetters and shackles
4 Bedclothes
5 Parchment, somewhat mouldy
6 Orderlies’ uniforms
7 Spare rug
8 Bandages
9 Straitjackets, musty but useable
10 Spare parts for the rotary chair
11 Rusty carpentry tools and nails
12 Rusty surgical tools
13 Rusty kitchen implements
14 Lamp oil (6 jars)   and a hooded lantern
15 Healer’s kit
16 30 candles
17 50 ft. of coiled hemp rope
18 Rolled painting worth 25 gp
19 12 silver candlesticks worth 10 gp each
20 Floor plans of the asylum (basement only)

35 – Study Storeroom

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This dim attic storeroom has a large trapdoor in one corner.  The storeroom is mostly empty save for an old chest gathering dust.

The chest is locked (Disable Device DC 30 or use the Heart key).  Inside are a number of phials containing drugs of various sorts: 6 doses of Æther, 6 doses of Opium, and 6 phials of Oil of Restfulness.

36 – Hole in the Roof

A hole in the roof lets water into this old storeroom.  Years of rot have caused a partial collapse of the ceiling below – it’s a short drop down into what looks like the mould-infested remnants of the asylum’s library.

1d6 non-lethal damage unless a DC 15 Acrobatics check is made to jump down.

37 – Tower Garret

Three small dormer windows look out over the asylum grounds in this cramped garret.

The Basement

Basement Map

Soundtrack

38 – Cellar

cellar

Large barrels and kegs fill this cellar, and there’s a small wine-rack with some dusty bottles in it as well.

There are 20 bottles of fine wine here (10 gp each), and a lot of lower-quality wine.

39 – Storage

This large chamber holds supplies for the asylum above: linens, bedclothes, tools, machine parts, curtains, cutlery, spare pots and pans, and other miscellaneous objects.

There’s little of actual value here, though if the players need improvised weapons for whatever reason, some spare kitchen knives could be used as daggers.

40 – Wardrobe

This extensive storage chamber contains hundreds of suits of clothes, ranging from the white straitjackets of inmates to the plain uniforms of the orderlies to the fine coats, vests, wigs, and other garments of the alienists.  All are neatly folded on shelves or hung on pegs or hooks.

This room is perfect for characters to turn the tables on those above and disguise themselves.  In addition to 50 straitjackets and 25 orderly uniforms there are 20 doctor’s outfits and 12 courtier’s outfits here.

41 – Makeup

This small room includes a table set before a large mirror, with several smaller mirrors on its surface.  An array of cosmetics are arrayed on the desk, along with brushes and tools for applying them.  A small cabinet along one wall is filled with a variety of perfumes and colognes.

The makeup is the equivalent of a masterwork disguise kit.  The perfumes are worth 50 gp apiece (there are 30 bottles in total).  They are very delicate and bulky, however.  The Intellect Devourers use this room to disguise their rotting flesh when required.

42 – Larder

This room is locked (Disable Device DC 30, Strength DC 25 to force, or used the Hand Key).

This refrigerated room is obviously a larder.  Several shelves are devoted to mundane foodstuffs, but other shelves contain more gruesome victuals: severed limbs, human organs, and dozens of brains.  All are well-preserved; some are picked in jars, and large haunches of meat of uncertain origin dangle from meathooks on the ceiling.

Sanity check (0/1d3) for the mangled body-parts and brains.  The brains are an “emergency store” for the Intellect Devourer – they prefer to consume the brains of still-living or recently deceased hosts, but will feed on refrigerated brains if necessary.  The body parts are, of course, for the Grimlocks.

43 – The “Marionette” Room

This room is very cold – it must be refrigerated somehow, rime coating every visible surface.  Meathooks line the ceiling, dozens and dozens of them, every one of them holding up a naked human corpse.  A wide variety of ages and body types are evident, and there are slightly more male corpses than female ones.  Some of the bodies have been severely mutilated: some are missing fingers, limbs, eyes, or other features, while others sport grotesque grafts and augmentations harvested from other human corpses or from animals.  One corpse dangling near the entrance sports two heads – one male, one female – and a stitched body exhibiting characteristics of both.  Another has had its mouth replaced with the beak of a large bird and its arms replaced with massive wings.

Sanity check (1/1d4+1).  This is the “marionette” room: a chamber used by the Intellect Devourers to store hosts when not in use.

44 – Alchemical Laboratory

lab

Counters covered in alchemical apparatus dominate this laboratory, whose walls are lined with shelves stocked a variety of reagents – herbs, preserved organs, bottled chemicals, tinctures, oils, and essences, live insects, dried body parts, and similar components.  Beakers, crucibles, burners, boilers, mortars and pestles, and other equipment cover the counter-tops, and gaps between shelves are papered with alchemical charts.

Alchemist’s laboratory; no finished potions here.  If the alarm hasn’t been sounded there is a high probability of encountering an Alienist here.

45 – Potion Storage

This room is locked (Disable Device DC 30 or open using the Brain Key).  Anyone attempting to open the door who isn’t an Intellect Devourer activates a Symbol of Insanity placed upon it (Perception DC 33 to notice, Disable Device DC 33 to disable, Dispel DC 19).   In addition to a Confusion effect such a Symbol drains 2d6 Sanity points.

Racks of glass syringes line the walls of this chamber – they’re labelled using alchemical symbols.  Some of the syringes are empty, but many contain coloured liquids.

There are a lot of potions here: 30 Potions of Disguise Self (Human), 5 Potions of Cure Moderate Wounds, 5 Potions of Delay Poison, 5 Potions of Lesser Restoration, 5 Flasks of Oil of Restfulness, 3 Potions of Neutralize Poison, 3 Potions of Remove Paralysis. 3 Potions of Remove Diseases, 3 Syringes of Mindfire Serum

46 – Embalming Chamber

This chamber smells of formaldehyde and other preservatives.  Jars of embalming oil sit on shelves around the periphery, while at the center lies a partially embalmed body sprawled on a steel table, its organs carefully piled on a tray nearby, its torso split open.  Various tools, pumps, blades, and other instruments are arrayed on a worktable along one side of the chamber.

There are 10 large jars of (flammable) embalming fluid here.

47 – Delacroix’s Study

This room is locked (Disable Device DC 30, Strength DC 25 to force, or used the Hand Key).

This old storage room has been converted into a small study, with an antique wooden desk strewn with papers, some of them scrawled with occult symbols and formulae, others with anatomical illustrations, and others still with notes.  In one corner stands a naked human corpse, stuffed and mounted on a wooden base, its face frozen in an expression of terror.

Pages of Delacroix’s journal can be found here:

Basement0003 Basement0004Basement0005Basement0006Basement0007Basement0008Basement0009Basement0002

In addition to Delacroix’s journal the following scrolls can be found in this room: 1 Scroll of Insanity, 1 Scroll of Phantasmal Killer, 1 Scroll of Feeblemind, 2 Scrolls of Confusion, 2 Scrolls of Touch of Idiocy, 3 Scrolls of Fear, 3 Scrolls of Touch of Madness, 4 Scrolls of Lesser Confusion, 6 Scrolls of Cause Fear

There is a good chance Delacroix is here, or else in the Grafting Laboratory.

48 – Grafting Laboratory

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Three long, steel slabs dominate this room.  Lain upon them are inmates that have been hideously mutilated, surgically altered in uncanny and disturbing ways.  One has been given a dog’s snout, grafted incongruously to the lower half of his face, and his hands and feet have been replaced with hairy, canine paws; a second bears suckered tentacles in place of forearms and a gaping lamprey maw on his stomach.  The third victim has had her lower body replaced with some kind of overgrown grub-like creature.  At first you take them for dead, but then you see that they are breathing, barely – they’re likely sedated somehow.  Cabinets with an array of bottled chemicals line the walls, and trays of surgical instruments – scalpels, bonesaws, needles, lancets, calipers, hand drills, and more – are affixed to the slabs.

The sight of the grafted bodies requires a Sanity check (1/1d4+1).

The chemicals are mostly sedatives similar to Oil of Restfulness.  There are 12 jars of the stuff, along with 4 Potions of Cure Serious Wounds (each restores 3d8+5 hp).

If awakened, the inmates become very distressed and probably violent, refusing to believe that the characters aren’t Intellect Devourers in disguise.  The Alienists have grafted them for two reasons: firstly for their own depraved amusement, and secondly to further traumatize the minds of their victims, cultivating the delicious madness they long for.

A thorough search of the tools turns up a Wand of Sculpt Corpse with 13 charges remaining, made from a human ulna.

Delacroix/Quasiriant is often in this room with another Alienist or two, working on the inmates.

49 – Examination Room A

Studies_of_the_Arm_showing_the_Movements_made_by_the_Bicepsskull2

This room is locked (Disable Device DC 30 or open using the Eye Key). 

A large cage occupies the recessed centre of this round room.  Within, gibbering and raving in the throes of lunacy, are two inmates who have been surgically grafted together, their legs removed and their torsos fused with stitches and eldritch puissance.  The miserable pair are forced to walk on their hands, crab-like, their heads forever facing upwards, gibbering incoherently.  Curved benches are arrayed around the room.

The Dyad, as the pair are called, provoke a Sanity check (1/1d4+1).  The door to the cage is locked (Disable Device DC 30 – can be opened with the Hand Key).  The Dyad is/are basically incapable of fighting in any meaningful way.  However, if the alarm hasn’t been sounded there is a high likelihood that two of the Alienists are here, observing their creation.

50Examination Room B

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This room is locked (Disable Device DC 30 or open using the Eye Key). 

A brass cage sits in the middle of this round viewing chamber.  A solitary figure writhes in the cage; at first you take him for an inmate struggling in a straitjacket, but then you realize the straitjacket is made from flesh stretched over the man’s limbs.  He’s been muzzled, again with grafted flesh.

The figure provokes a Sanity check (0/1d3).  The door to the cage is locked (Disable Device DC 30 – can be opened with the Hand Key).

51 – Examination Room C

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This room is locked (Disable Device DC 30 or open using the Eye Key). 

In the middle of a brass cage at the recessed center of this round viewing chamber stalks a figure that has been afflicted by twisted magic.  Though obviously originally human, the creature is metamorphosing into something else, tentacles sprouting from its limbs, flesh mottling and turning a sickly greenish-purple.  The inmate’s mouth has been replaced by a fanged lamprey maw that mewls and salivates, dribbling bilious spittle.

The figure provokes a Sanity check (0/1d3). 

This inmate is becoming a Fleshwarped creature.  If released from its cage (Disable Device DC 30 – can be opened with the Hand Key) it goes berserk and attacks the nearest Intellect Devourer or orderly; otherwise it simply attacks the characters.  Its base statistics are those of a regular inmate but it has a Strength of 16, Intelligence 9, Charisma 6, and a Tentacle attack (+6, 1d6+3).

52 – Examination Room D

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This room is locked (Disable Device DC 30 or open using the Eye Key). 

A large glass box dominates this room.  Within writhes a disgusting conglomeration of tentacles, eyes, hooves, talons, and gnashing teeth – an amorphous abomination that hurls itself repeatedly against the inside of the glass, tendrils flickering, claws scratching.  Benches are arrayed around the room where observers could sit and examine the thing.

The figure provokes a Sanity check (1/1d4+1). 

The creature is a Chaos Beast, a former inmate exposed to too many mutagenic compounds.  If released from its cage (Disable Device DC 30 – can be opened with the Hand Key) it attacks the nearest creature.

53 – Implantation Chamber

view-of-a-skull

This dingy, stone chamber is dominated by a single chair, a leathery monstrosity with straps and other restraints that sits in the middle of the room in the glare of a lamp dangling from the ceiling on a chain.   A selection of bloody tools are evident on a nearby trolley – forceps, hammers, clamps, hand vises, retractors, and the like.  Strapped into the chair is a man wearing inmates’ garb, obviously sedated.  The man’s jaw has been dislocated and his lips and cheeks forcibly pulled back with metal instruments.  Nearby stands a large, glass tank on rollers, containing a sallow alchemical solution.  Swimming within the tank are four strange creatures resembling undersized human brains equipped with writhing tendrils and small, squirming limbs.

The sight of the inmate requires a Sanity check (0/1d3).  If awakened he reacts with panic and struggles, trying to flee from the room as swiftly as possible.

Four Intellect Devourer larvae swim in the tank.  This chair is used when one of the Alienists needs to switch bodies, or when a young Intellect Devourer is to be implanted for the first time.

54 – Tunnels Entrance

This square storage room reeks of rotten meat and animalistic musk.  A hole in the wall gapes like an open wound, leading into a roughly-dug tunnel winding down into darkness.  You can hear dripping from within, and the vague splash of something moving in water.

55 – Symbiont Chamber

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Half a dozen glass jars are arrayed on counters along the edges of this room, canisters brimming with bilious liquid.  Suspended the jars are various creatures, each seemingly more alien and disturbing than the last.

There is a high chance of finding an Intellect Devourer in an Alienist host in this room if the alarm hasn’t been raised, carefully injecting one of the Symbionts with a syringe containing an alchemical mutagen.

A description of each Symbiont and its abilities follows:

Jar 1: Suspended in this jar is a grotesque, fleshy thing that looks like a pair of sallow-skinned, bony hands joined at the wrists, long digits spread as if ready to clamp down upon something.  Two small, fanged maws are visible on the palms of the creature.

When placed around someone’s neck, the Necklace clamps down around them, fingers interlacing tightly – it will not choke the person to death, but it does constrict their neck somewhat, making their face slightly paler than normal.  Meanwhile, the small mouths feed on the host’s blood, tongue-like tendrils flickering from the mouths into the host’s neck.  The Necklace can be used to cast the spell Spectral Hand at will.  The Necklace occupies a magic item slot normally used for an amulet or broach.  It has an Ego of 6 and is Chaotic Evil in Alignment.  It has a speed of 1 ft.

Jar 2: Floating in this jar is a segmented, worm-like thing that somewhat resembles a disembodied human tongue, pinkish-yellow in hue.  At its base are a number of cruel organic barbs, while at its tip there’s a small, worm-like mouth.  As you watch the tongue-thing spasms and twitches, elongating itself considerably.

The Tongue is placed in someone’s mouth, it uses its barbed hooks to sever the host’s tongue (1d4 Con damage) and implant itself in its place.  The Tongue endows its host with a Bite attack with a reach of 10 ft (1d6 damage plus 1d4 acid).  It gives its user the ability to speak and understand Aklo.  It has an Ego of 4 and is Chaotic Evil in Alignment.  It has a speed of 1 ft.

Jar 3: A vaguely insectoid creature somewhat resembling a scarab beetle or cockroach swims about in the fluid of this jar, chelicerae wriggling.  The creature has a skull-shaped design on its carapace.

The Roach attaches to its host by burrowing beneath their flesh, dealing 1d6 damage upon attachment.  It feeds on the host’s blood.  The Roach functions similarly to a Scarab of Protection, endowing its host with Spell Resistance 20 and absorbing up to 12 energy-draining attacks, death effects, or negative energy effects before dying (upon perishing it erupts out of its host’s flesh, dealing another 1d6 damage).  The Roach has an Ego of 6 and is Chaotic Evil in Alignment.  It has a speed of 20 ft.

Jar 4: Bobbing in this jar is another hand-like organism, this one with seven extremely long, many-jointed fingers with membranous webbing between them and some kind of suckered tendril at its wrist.  The fingertips of the hand-thing are likewise equipped with suckers.

The Caul adheres itself to the back of a person’s head using its suckers, which is uses to feed.  It gives its user +2 Intelligence and Telepathy 100 ft. (though it does not grant the ability to Detect Thoughts).  The Caul occupies a magic item slot normally used for a cap or helm.  It has an Ego of 10 and is Chaotic Evil in Alignment.  It has a speed of 1 ft.

Jar 5: A leech-like creatures crawls along the inside of its jar, bloated and sickly-looking.  The disgusting creature has a hideous triangular mouth.

The Leech attaches itself to a host simply by adhering to a patch of bare skin.  It secretes healing enzymes that facilitate healing.  It functions exactly like Bandages of Healing but cannot be destroyed.  However, it drains 1d3 points of Con per day, not just 1.  The Leech has an Ego of 2 and is True Neutral in Alignment.  It has a speed of 10 ft.

Jar 6: The thing in this jar looks like nothing more than a fleshy corset, but then the thing twitches, and you realize it is some kind of ray-like creature with two enveloping fins or wings that can join together, interlocking.  Bony joints like struts or ribs give the thing a rigid shape.  The inside surface of the creature is lined with tiny hooked barbs like hairs.

The Bodice attaches to its host by closing itself around their torso and then digging in with its barbs.  When worn, the Bodice enhances the Charisma of its host by +4 but fills its host with lust.  If its host refuses to seek out amorous partners, the Bodice attempts to assert control of its host to fulfill its agenda, as it feeds off emotions as well as blood.  The Bodice occupies a magic item slot normally used for a wrap, robe, or vestment.  It has an Ego of 10 and is Chaotic Evil in Alignment.  It cannot move without a host.

Symbionts feed on their hosts’ blood, draining 1 point of Constitution per day – though since characters generally heal 1 Con per day, this is not severely debilitating; if a symbiont is displeased with its host, or if the host attempts to remove it, it can overfeed (1d4 Con damage once per day).  The Symbionts detailed above cannot attack on their own.  They can be attacked independently of their hosts, and have AC 20 and 10 hp, but gain the Dexterity bonuses of their hosts; attacking a symbiont provokes an attack of opportunity from the host.  Damage to a host never harms a symbiont.  In the event a symbiont is in conflict with its host it may attempt to exert control – a Will save with a DC equal to the Ego of the symbiont is required for the host to remain in control, otherwise the symbiont gains control of its host for 1 day.  While a symbiont can choose to voluntarily detach itself, removing it requires a Will save of the type described above.

faust 2

Last but not least comes the tunnels.

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