BEARDED DEVIL

Monsters, Horror, Gaming

Tag: surreal

Hex Session X – 5th Edition Actual Play – “The Yellow Sign Pt. 1”

The characters in this session were:

  • Vespidae, a waspkin bard/cleric – a sacred dancer with a deathwish, shunned by the waspkin community for complicated ritualistic reasons, and a devoted follower of the Queen in Yellow.
  • Garvin Otherwise, a human rogue and burglar of the Ravenswing Thieves’ Guild, with a very, very peculiar past and a zoog pet, Lenore.
  • Cephalus T. Murkwater, a dagonian barrister and monk, specializing in martial arts and magical labour law.
  • 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).
  • 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.”

XP Awarded: 650 XP.

In order to become a full hierophant of the Queen in Yellow, an initiate must claim the Yellow Sign – but to do so they must undergo a unique ceremony at the Temple of the Queen in Yellow, in Faunsweald. Vespidae, having adopted the Queen in Yellow as her new goddess after being banished from her home-nest – having inadvertently survived a ceremonial death-dance and thus been declared a pariah by other waspkin – now sought to become such an hierophant, and to this end, gathered her companions together at the Queen’s Fane.

Faunsweald

The district of Faunsweald was sleepy during the day and raucous at night, when the many theatres open their doors and the taverns open their taps. Theatre designs varied – from the older theatres of wood and plaster, open to the air, to newer closed theatres of stone and marble, most prominently including the resplendent Chiaroscuro and Fates theatres. There were a number of posters plastered about town advertising an upcoming performance of The Tragical History of Robin Redcap by renowned playwright Vittoria Wolfsheart. The play was further advertised by a man dressed in red and carrying a scythe, comically menacing passersby and cajoling them to attend the play, with threats of gruesome dismemberment and magical pranks if they refuse to purchase tickets.

The Temple of the Queen was Yellow is an extrusion of the Old City from below – a Librarian structure, alien and eerily organic, erupting from the cobblestone streets like some weird tumour. Unlike temples like that of the Mother of Spiders, the main sanctum of the Queen’s temple was open to all. Hierophants in sallow robes passed in and out of its eerie depths. As the group assembled at the temple entrance, a small gnome gyropter flapped through the air and descended into the nearby square, the gnome tinkerers Wanda and Edgar Cogswright appearing. Moments later a carriage arrived to disgorge the resplendently dressed Vittoria Wolfsheart, followed closely by an animated clay horse on which rode the arcane sculptress Magdalena Rotterthorpe – it seemed Vespidae had invited half the town to her initiation ceremony! She was, after all, now attended by a small retinue of clockwork and animated duplicates of herself: waspkin statuettes and automata, crafted by Magdalena and the Cogswrights, purchased dearly by Vespidae using her share of the adventuring funds.

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The Temple of the Queen is Yellow was an extrusion of the Old City from below – a Librarian structure, alien and eerily organic, erupting from the cobblestone streets like some weird tumour. Unlike temples like that of the Mother of Spiders, the main sanctum of the Queen’s temple was open to all. Hierophants in sallow robes passed in and out of its eerie depths. Inside, the temple resembled a surreal art studio as much as a church. Massive, nightmarish murals, paintings, and tapestries covered the walls, and bizarre, abstract sculptures like demented angels loomed over everything. Despite the vastness of the interior – indeed, the temple seems larger on the inside – the main sanctum felt cluttered and cramped, thousands of strange artworks crowding against one another. Many were enchanted to move, speak, and change forms. Hierophants of the Queen in Yellow wander the chamber, some singing or dancing, others reciting sermons somewhere between religious chants and lunatic poetry. The space was disorderly, chaotic, and creative, lit with floating magical fires in a thousand colours, many of them indescribable.

A thin man with blue-black hair approaches, clad in the garb of the Queen in Yellow – Ambrose Vasseur, the poet-hierophant the party encountered back in the caverns of the spiderfolk.

“Ah, Vespidae,” Ambrose said, bowing. “I have been selected to instruct you in your initiation. Are you prepared?”

Vespidae indicated the affirmative.

“Good. The process of initiation involves what is known as the Carcosan Rite,” Ambrose said. “This ritual must be carried out in the catacombs beneath the Temple of the Queen in Yellow – a part of the Old City. You must descend into the depths of the Temple’s lower levels, the Catacombs of Hyperreality, passing through several tests along the way. Go warily, for sometimes malignant things creep into the tunnels form elsewhere. Beware the Feaster from Afar, and also those of the Lost – failed initiates driven mad by the Rite. You will find a chamber of masks – all those who will participate in the ritual should don one of these Pallid Masks.  Deeper below, you will find a certain chamber, within which is an artwork of fantastic subtlety and ancient power. It is here that the Carcosan Rite itself will take place. The celebrant who wishes to achieve the Yellow Sign must recite a prayer to the Queen in Yellow while sacrificing a work of art within the sacred space. This will activate the Librarian Masterpiece, and the final test will be initiated. I can tell you nothing more of the substance of the Rite – you must discover it for yourself.”

Ambrose looked over the group. “Celebrants are welcome to attend to the ceremony and aid Vespidae in her induction… but be warned. The Catacombs of Hyperreality are not without their dangers.” With this, Ambrose handed Vesdpiae a yellow robe – made for the waspkin’s many-limbed body – and led the celebrants to the back of the Temple and through a narrow doorway into a winding tunnel that zigzagged back and forth in a convoluted tangle – it was difficult to follow its meandering, but Vespidae got the feeling it should have doubled back on itself at several points. Here and there another corridor branched off the main tunnel, sometimes opening into other chambers where hierophants worked on art projects ranging from massive sculptures to colossal murals. The group had not descended below the surface, confirming that the interior of the Temple of the Yellow Queen must be much, much larger within than it appeared outside.

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Eventually they reached a spiral ramp winding down into darkness in a large antechamber, its purplish stone contours eerily organic, giving it the appearance of an open mouth or some other orifice. A subtle music emanated from below, faint but unmistakable. The gnomes, Edgar and Wanda, decided to remain above, but both Magdalena and Vittoria continued with the rest of the party as they made their descent.

What followed was a shifting, seemingly infinitely branching series of tunnels and paths, winding in a crazed profusion through the earth in ways that seemed to defy all rational order. Vespidae led the group onwards, following the music emanating from below. Before long the group had wandered down a tunnel infested with a vibrant yellowish moss, filling the air with pungent spores. Even a slight inhalation of these spores instantly caused colours to become more vibrant and sounds more intense; the haunting music throughout the tunnels here became somehow stranger and more unnervingly beautiful.

It wasn’t long before the hallucinations started.

Cephalus was convinced his hands were fish. Garvin scampered about, yelling and chirruping, in the belief that he had become his zoog pet, Lenore, while Lenore had become him. In the resulting chaos the party delved deeper and deeper into the infinite gloom of the Catacombs of Hyperreality, till eventually the spores wore off. Something, now, seemed to be following them; they could hear wet fluttering noises from behind in the dark. They stumbled across the corpses of two twisted, only vaguely-humanoid creatures sprawingl in the middle of a tunnel, crusted black blood-stains beneath their crumpled, deformed cadavers. Judging from their rodent-like and pseudo-canine features the things were ghouls of a particularly degenerate breed. Both had had the tops of their heads neatly removed as if by a saw or some incredibly sharp blade. Their brains were missing, the inside of their skulls caked in more dried blood. Both were dressed in the shredded, mouldering remnants of yellow robes.

“The Feaster from Afar?” Armand speculated, listening again for the moist sucking sounds in the darkness behind them.

They hurried on through a bewildering series of rooms, lingering briefly over an ancient dais seemingly with the ability to distort time. Eventually they stumbled into a chamber with a huge pool of perfectly reflective liquid like a vast mirror. Vespidae peered within and looked upon her reflection, which looked back with obvious terror, twisting around to look behind her.

“It’s coming!” the reflection said fearfully. “Let me out!” It reached out, but Vespidae ignored the vision. Still, the sucking sounds had returned, and the party hurried on, deeper and deeper, still haunted by the occasional hallucination. They stumbled through a looted archive, long divested of ancient texts, in which a kind of den had been created, with some of the niches and shelves padded with detritus to form makeshift bedding. Gnawed, cracked bones were scattered on the blood-stained floor. Seeing ghouls stirring in the darkness they fled yet deeper, passing aseries of hideous carvings adorning the walls; though of obviously Librarian design, they were of humanoid appearance, resembling a group of masked revelers engaged in an orgiastic bacchanal. As the party walked down the passage the carvings animated, wrenching themselves from the wall, beseeching the celebrants to join the revel, but Sister’s use of calm emotions temporarily quieted their desires.

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Next the party came to a chamber with a number of pedestals fashioned from the same dark, purplish stone as the rest of the tunnels – seven of them. Upon each rests a pallid metal mask that perfectly fit the visage of one of the seven people in the room.

“These must be meant for us,” Cephalus mused.

“I suppose we should put them on, then…” Armand said, with characteristic detachment.

As they donned the masks, the horror behind them once again grew loud, and the group decided to see what was chasing them. Armand summoned a minor illusion of the group while the real celebrants ducked down a side passage and the thing drifted into view: a black, sac-like thing, which to the learned eyes of the sorcerer was obviously not native to this plane. It possessed a bewildering array of shriveled tendrils tipped with dripping razor-like claws, and its very appearance further strained the already-frayed sanity of those present. It seemed to sniff the air as its derangement spread, trying to scent the reek of madness like some psychic bloodhound, but then the trap was sprung, a conjured cloud of daggers viciously tearing at its flesh, javelins and crossbow bolts from Vespidae and Garvin striking its black, oozing flesh. Cephalus leapt forwards with a flurry of blows, and the thing squealed and sent a blast of psychic energy towards the celebrants, inducing crushing headaches and cranial bleeding, blood spurting from nostrils, eyes, and ears as they thing’s horrific, ab-real wail rent space, time, and thought. Its tentacles flickered out, attempting to caress Cephalus’ squamous flesh, but the dagonian struck again, and the thing was at last dispatched, deflating like some monstrous balloon of shadows and otherworldly slime.

Bloodied but alive, the group pressed on, when a woman in filthy, tattered yellow robes lurched into view. She wore a ghastly, uncanny mask made of some pale, unknown substance. In one hand she carried a paintbrush dripping with blood; in the other, the severed, quasi-canine head of a monstrous ghoul. She used the brush to paint the walls of the tunnel with curious symbols.

The woman looked at the group with mad eyes.

“Who are you?” Vespidae asked.

“Jeanette,” she replied, tilting her head strangely. “That blood…” she said, eyeing Cephalus.

“The Feaster from Afar. We killed it.”

Jeanette whooped for joy, spraying blood throughout the passage. “You have slain it! It has hunted me for years, now…”

“Years?”

“Yes. I sought the Yellow Sign, but never attained it. I… I lost my sacrifice. My artwork.”

“Then why not return to the surface?”

“The Catacombs of Hyperreality do not permit it. Once a celebrant undertakes the Rite, it must be completed.” She giggled, unnervingly. Sister and Garvin exchanged glances, Garvin fingering his hand crossbow.

“Well, you should come with us!” Vespidae said. “Do you know where the entrance to Carcosa is?”

Jeanette nodded, pointing down a tunnel with her bloody paintbrush. “This way. I will show you.” She led on, Vespidae following while the others shared wary looks.

Once again the party heard footsteps behind them. Garvin, putting a finger to his lips, slipped back into the shadows and backtracked, discovering a band of feral-looking, sinewy creatures with greyish-yellow, scabrous skin prowling in the gloom. Hunched and quasi-humanoid, they had grotesque faces resembling those of bats and dogs and tails like those of monstrous rats. Their skins had been ritually scarified and some carried jagged bone weapons. Their mouths, crowded with fangs, dripped with slaver. These, two, were garbed in filthy yellowish robes – perhaps the descendants of initiates long lost in the Catacombs of Hyperreality.

Garvin returned, and Vespidae conjured an illusion of the Feaster from Afar, sending the phantasm back along the hall, while Sister added wet sucking sounds. There was a chittering of fear and the warped things retreated, fleeing from the illusion.

Jeanette, meanwhile, led on into a vast chamber whose walls had been painted with an incredibly elaborate scene which utterly surrounded all who stepped within. The scene was that of another world, marked by the twin suns, pitch black in colour, sinking below the horizon of a vast lake swathed in mist. There were a plethora of malformed moons overhead. The sky was the colour of bone and dotted with ebon stars. The scene was that of an endless waste, a desolate plain of dead grass. Perched on the shore of the lake, rising from the eerie mist, was a resplendent city – a series of spires and domes, ornate and ominous, like and yet unlike the Old City of the Librarians. The architecture seemed less alien, somehow, and yet more unnerving for its slight familiarity. It was like a city half-remembered from a fever dream. On the floor of the chamber was inscribed the glyph of the Yellow Sign.

Vespidae and Jeanette both prayed, reciting the Carcosan Rite. Abruptly, the celebrants found that the walls of the chamber were no longer there – the landscape merely extended around them, seemingly quite real. They had somehow entered the Masterpiece. Black water lapped at the shores of Lake Hali and the shadows lengthened as the twin suns set and the group pressed on towards the city – Carcosa.

Near the edge of the shore was a sinister black object fashioned from what might be obsidian. Though no one actually saw the statue change shape it seemed to have assumed a new form each time it was looked at – an abstract arch or twisted column, or other forms – misshapen creatures of unknown varieties with aspects vaguely reminiscent of fungi, jellyfish, sponge, worm, and anemones. The group circled the statue warily, but Magdalena became utterly fascinated and took out a sketchbook.

“Please, go on without me,” the sculptress said. “I can’t give up this opportunity…” She began sketching wildly. Vittoria, her former paramour, smirked wryly. Everyone else shrugged and continued towards the city.

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Overheard they could see several winged shapes flitting amongst the clouds – things somewhere between bat, bird, and insect. They circled above, clearly scanning the ground for prey, until one of the creatures broke from the flock and began to descend. It was only through Sister’s timely use of thaumaturgy that the Byakhee was spooked, shrieking in alarm at the conjured chittering of some massive spider-thing and scattering its fellows. The party hurried onwards, into the city of Carcosa.

The streets of the alien city of Carcosa lay empty as night fell. Vespidae could not shake the feeling that she had been here before. The haunting music all of the group had heard since entering the Catacombs of Hyperreality seemed to emanate from a huge palace at the centre of the city. There were suggestions, here and there, that some catastrophe has recently befallen Carcosa; many doors were engraved with mysterious glyphs, perhaps indicating some sort of curse or plague or other calamity. The windows were dim. The only building where anything seemed to stir is the Palace.

A pair of masked guards – human in appearance, though with a disquietingly alien quality to their movements – presided over the doors of the Palace. Seeing those approaching to be suitably masked, the guards relaxed, and Vespidae swiftly explained her mission, describing the other party-members as her trusted companions and guests. Suitably persuaded, the guards relented and opened the Palace doors, revealing a vast space beyond.

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Within the palace the party found themselves in a huge, opulent chamber of several levels, teeming with masked men and women of the same ilk as the guards at the gate. They were attired in splendid but alien costumes, dripping with gemstones of unthinkable colours and perfumed with unfathomable scents. Most were engaged in feasting, dancing, and drinking; the food consists of meats and fruit of unknown origin, while much of the drink is some sort of pale, greenish wine. A huge ebon clock presided over the carousing masses, counting down to the thirteenth hour.

The group set about exploring the chambers of the Palace. In each room they found a new gallery, all packed with revelers. The walls were crammed with paintings, uncountable thousands of them – although among them, Vespidae spotted some of the paintings burned at the Van Lurken House. Those parts of the floor not filled with party-goers were taken up by statues and fountains and similar artworks. All of the art ever sacrificed to the Queen in Yellow seemed to have rematerialized here.

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Sister, Armand, and Cephalus were all being drawn into the crowd, while Vespidae flitted nimbly above, oblivious to the temptations of the guests. Offered food, the party-members wisely refused, but Sister became drawn into the strange, rhythmic dance of the party-goers. Cephalus force his way through the crowd to the Lengian, who was being swept along by several masked and merry dancers, barely managing to extricate the priestess of the Spider Goddess before she was subsumed in the churning crowd of the otherworldly revelers.

As the thirteenth hour approached, murmurs of the Queen begin to circulate. The hands of the clock at last ticked over, and as the clock chimed thirteen a figure descended from a grand stair. Clad in a voluminously tattered yellow gown and wearing a pale mask, the Queen in Yellow took her seat to preside over the masquerade.

“There is one here who would swear themselves to my service,” a voice says from behind the mask. “Approach, hierophant.”

Vespidae buzzed forwards.

“What do you offer for my gallery?” the Queen asked.

“A dance,” Vespidae said, and began her most elaborate ritual dance, a dance inspired by the ceremonial dances of the waspkin, yet unfettered by their strictures and dogmas, a dance of passion and inspiration rather than mechanical repetition. The crowd had grown hushed as all watched the would-be hierophant flit and whirl, surrounded by the statuettes and automata. The dance climaxed in the ritual destruction of these simulacra, incorporating burning hands to lend their sacrifice an incandescent flair. The Queen sat silent for a second, then gently applauded; moments later her party-guests burst into uproarious applause. All quietened as the goddess – or whatever avatar of her they saw before them – spoke again.

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“I make few demands of my subjects,” the Queen in Yellow declared. “But this I require: all those who would serve me must endeavour to shape their lives into a work of art, to pursue Beauty in its multitudinous forms, without cheapening themselves with the sullied tawdriness of morality, justice, or reason. Are you willing to reshape yourself into a Living Symbol?”

Vespidae nodded. “Yes, my Queen!”

The Queen in Yellow nodded. Jeanette now came forwards and fell to her knees. “I have nothing to offer,” she said. “But I wish to remain here, and serve you.”

The Queen nodded again. “So it shall be, celebrant.” She raised her hand, and in that moment the scene seemed to dissolve, and now the party were in a chamber with exquisitely painted walls, a rendering of the scene they had just left. There was no sign of Magdalena, or Jeanette; both, it seemed, had been left behind in the artwork, and, indeed, a tiny figure which would be Magdalena could be glimpsed through a window, still studying the statue on the shore of Lake Hali, while Jeanette knelt before her goddess. Around Vespidae’s neck dangled the eldritch holy symbol she had come seeking: The Yellow Sign.

A single exit led up a spiraling flight of stairs, which brought them immediately back to the surface into the Fane of the Queen in Yellow in the city above. Ambrose greeted them.

“Welcome, hierophant, to the Order of the Queen in Yellow.”

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.

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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…

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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.

Condemned: Criminal Origins – Retrospective

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

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

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

Uber_Addicts

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

 Oro_Dark_Primary

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

condmned combat

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

Condemned-Criminal-Origins Background

Works Cited

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

Outlast: Whistleblower – Review

Whistleblower

I have now finished Outlast: Whistleblower twice, once on Normal and once on Nightmare difficulty.  Not only is the game one of the best examples of quality DLC I’ve ever seen, it’s a brilliant follow-up to the original Outlast, deftly interweaving the two storylines in such a manner that they feel like halves of a single whole; on my second time through the game I began by replaying Outlast on Nightmare, seguing directly to Whistleblower afterwards, and the entire experience felt seamless and perfectly paced.  Those who enjoyed the first game will find this semi-sequel just as gruesome, harrowing, and delightfully disgusting as the last.  I heartily recommend it for anyone who likes horror games, especially those who enjoy the hyper-vulnerable weapons-free style of things like Amnesia.

Mild spoilers will follow, but I will refrain from revealing the details of the ending.

Slabs

The story of Whistleblower is, if anything, richer and more gratifying than that of Outlast; or, rather, it deepens and builds on the foundation Outlast created, transcending its workmanlike horror plot to offer a far more narratively satisfying experience.  Here you play as Waylon Park, the Murkoff employee who alerted Miles, the former protagonist, to the diabolic excesses of Mount Massive in the first place.  The scenario feels similar to something like Michael Crichton’s nano-disaster techno-thriller Prey: your character is a Snowden-esque programmer, so morally revolted by the actions of his employers that he can no longer stay silent.  The story is such that I almost want to recant some of the statements I made in my original Outlast review – specifically that the story was entirely incidental to the mechanics of hackle-raising horror that the game deployed so expertly.  In Whistleblower, the latent anti-corporatist critique in Outlast is made much more explicit, personified in the sinister and coldly calculating Jeremy Blaire, a ruthless executive who wants to keep the illegal experiments of Mount Massive secret.  The presence of Blaire – and his single-minded dedication to secrecy – gives the narrative a locus for the player’s hatred. In Outlast our antipathy towards Murkoff is essentially abstract, the organization faceless, its employees already dead or warped by the time the story begins, whereas in Whistleblower we actually see just how appallingly amoral they really are, up close and personal.  In Outlast, chronicling and exposing the horrors of the asylum always felt secondary to escaping, surviving.  In Whistleblower you really want to take Murkoff down: they’re so despicable, so ethically bankrupt, that you feel a real desire to see them stopped, shamed, and punished.  Whistleblower also leads me to reconsider my previous objection about the dearth of female inmates.  It’s now clear that the designers didn’t eschew female characters because they were squeamish or thoughtless: they are saving those characters for a sequel.

It’s important to note that most of the hate isn’t directed at the Variants but at the despicable economic and institutional forces that made them what they are.  This is made especially prominent in Whistleblower where you see one character, Eddie Gluskin before being subjected to the Treatment.  “I knew it was coming,” he declares.  “You filthy fucking machines! You fucking machines! No! No, not again. No! No! Jack-booted fucks, I know what you’ve been doing to me.”  Later, we see that the madness Gluskin exhibits is, in part, an internalized manifestation of his own violation at the hands of Murkoff employees.  In another memorable scene early on, strapped into a chair in the manner of Clockwork Orange and subjected to hypnogogic programming, Waylon has his face licked lasciviously by one of the scientists, heavily implying that the scientist is abusing patients.  Its moments like these that redirect our hatred away from the individual inmates – who we pity and fear, perhaps, more than we can truly hate them – and towards those in actual positions of power, the scientists and executives that constitute the vicious biopolitical machine that’s ultimately responsible for the horrors we’re exposed to.

Operating Room

One of my major worries was that Whistleblower was going to be a very by-the-numbers DLC, with recycled environments and gimmicks – a series of environments and enemies mostly identical to those from the first game.  Fortunately this was not the case at all.  While a few very brief segments of the game took place in the same parts of the asylum as the original, even these areas were drastically altered – different doors blocked off, rooms in a less severe state of disarray, etcetera.  The vast bulk of the game, however, took place in original environments, prominently the outbuildings of the asylum utilized for work and recreation (the Vocational Block), as well as a large area shrouded with clinical plastic wrap.  Great attention was paid to making these areas feel unique.  As with the original the atmosphere of Whistleblower was phenomenal, the paranoia palpable.  The twists from the first game – like losing the camcorder and thus night-vision capability – are not replicated, but there are new ways of complicating things for the player.  One sequence, more eerie than terrifying, takes place in a mist-shrouded series of tennis and basketball courts; the moisture in the air makes the night-vision mode a useless blur of white static.  Like Miles, Waylon is also injured badly at one point, but whereas Miles loses several fingers Waylon manages to sprain his ankle, slowing his speed to a limp for a tortuous segment of the game.  This is a brilliant move and ramps up the terror considerably.  Just as losing the camcorder pulled the rug out from under your feet, taking away something you’d taken for granted, so does injuring Waylon’s leg radically reshape your experienced, depriving you of your most valuable defense against Mount Massive’s inmates, your mobility.

Cat's Cradle

The enemies in Whistleblower are just as horrifying as those in Outlast, and the major, named Variants all feel unique.  The original antagonists (Chris Walker, Father Martin, the Brothers, Trager, the Walrider) make cameos or briefly pursue Waylon, but don’t take centre stage.  Instead we’re faced with the anthropophagic Frank Manera, whose insatiably ghoulish appetites complement Murkoff’s profit-driven voraciousness perfectly, and the sublimely disturbing Eddie Gluskin, AKA “The Groom.”  Like Trager in Outlast, Gluskin steals the show.  A misogynist murderer (possibly with an out-of-control Oedipus complex, judging from his obsession with Harry von Tilzer’s and William Dillon’s “I Want a Girl”), Gluskin’s gentlemanly demeanour and penchant for folksy twentieth-century barbershop songs belie his absolute brutality; he might’ve been stolen from the pages of de Sade, and his Freudian quest to fashion himself the perfect Bride in an asylum full of men somehow manages to surpass even Trager’s bloody cost-reduction-cum-experimental-surgery in its capacity for terror.  I will not spoil precise the details of Waylon’s encounter with the Groom (although the following paragraphs verge on spoilers, so read at your own risk), but they will sear themselves into your memory.  On this note, those who find sexual violence in games deeply off-putting to the point of being unable to play or enjoy games that include such themes should probably avoid Whistleblower.  While the game in no way glorifies or normalizes sexual assault – far, far from it – Gluskin’s sadism is undeniably sexual.

ick

I’ve heard some suggest that the Groom’s inclusion in the game makes Whistleblower transphobic and/or homophobic.  While I can understand this interpretation, I’d like to articulate a counter-reading, because I think there’s far more going on with Gluskin than mere transphobia or homophobia: what’s horrifying about Gluskin isn’t, in fact, his queerness or same-sex desire, but his relentless heteronormativity, his misogyny, his patriarchal violence.  Gluskin is not Buffalo Bill; he doesn’t want to become a woman, and nor do his Brides.  The game thus isn’t pathologizing transgender people or demonizing the rejection of binary gender: it’s actually criticizing the opposite impulse, the forced assignment of sex and gender.  The Groom’s all-pervading desire to produce Brides for himself directly mirrors the logic of heteronormative gender assignment: as Judith Butler might put it, any assignment of sex or gender is irreducibly a kind of violence, an oppressive act.  As she writes in Bodies That Matter:

…“sex” is an ideal construct which is forcibly materialized through time.  It is not a simple fact or static condition of a body, but a process whereby regulatory norms materialize “sex” and achieve materialization through a forcible reiteration of norms. (Butler 1-2)

Our horror of Gluskin is not necessarily fear of the idea of gender transgression per se as it is horror at the idea of the forcible imposition of gender, an imposition carried out by the patriarchy in the name of the social order: hence, for example, Gluskin’s endless talk of happy families, the joy of childbirth, the supposed frailties of women.  “I want a family, a legacy,” Gluskin rhapsodizes.  “To be the father I never had. I’ll never let anything happen to our children.”  His obsessive reiteration of this ’50s ideal constitutes a kind of performance that he wants to trap Waylon and the other would-be Brides in.  It is no coincidence the character is associated with bonds and ropes, most notable in the cadaverous cat’s cradle at the heart of his domain, a graveyard of abjected Brides who failed to meet his misogynistic ideals of femininity.  Gluskin wants to produce women only to subjugate and destroy them, to reduce them to birthing-machines and, ultimately, corpses.  As Waylon scribbles in a note titled “Blue Beard’s Wives”: “Whatever story he’s telling himself, he’s not making women to bear his children, he’s making women to kill them.”  The Groom’s inevitable failure and frustration occurs in part because his Brides fail to live up to his idealized, unattainable image of womanhood.  Were Gluskin simply a rapist he would be boring and forgettable – “vulgar,” to use his own term.  What makes him both more compelling and infinitely more terrifying is the twisted ideology that underlies his impulses, an ideology all the more unnerving in its familiarity.  Through Gluskin, Whistleblower manages to make all that patriarchal society wants to seem wholesome and natural – binary gender, the nuclear family, the “biological destiny” of women – instead seem decidedly monstrous.

Frank!

The design of all three major antagonists – Blaire, Manera, and Gluskin – is perfect: Blaire, suited and unruffled, the perfect avatar of American capitalism-gone-wrong; Manera, nude and blood-spattered, with a hillbilly beard bedewed with blood; Gluskin, dapper and slick, not a hair out of place, a loving grin forever fixed on his disfigured face.  The gameplay is more or less identical to that of Outlast: barebones stealth segments and paranoid exploration interspersed with the occasional, impossibly intense parkour/chase scene.  There aren’t any significant innovations here, but I wasn’t particularly expecting any.  The game is short, but not all that much shorter than the original Outlast.  It could certainly be played in one sitting, though, and in fact the Insane mode of the game disallows saving, much like Justine.

I have a few minor criticisms, more nitpicks than anything.  While Waylon’s use of the camcorder is justified, his note-taking makes less sense than Miles’ (where did he even get a notepad?).  They just about justify it in that Waylon is writing to his wife in case he turns up dead, but why not speak into the camcorder instead?  Generally, Waylon’s voicelessness is more noticeable and jarring here than Miles’ was in Outlast.  Miles was all about being a witness, an observer, a cipher: his silence makes thematic sense.  Waylon, though, is all about spreading the word, about speaking out: for the early part of the game your goal is to find a radio.  There are scenes where you’d think Waylon would speak to other characters, especially Murkoff’s employees.  One could argue that he’s too nervous about the repercussions of his whistleblowing to speak, but that seems a bit unlikely.  I’ve seen some reviews with other nitpicks that actually aren’t accurate, such as this Joystiq review that claims that your character goes from naked to clothed instantly (he doesn’t: there’s an animation that’s easy to miss where he pulls on a pair of ragged pants).

Whistleblower sets up the tantalizing possibility of a sequel or sequels.  My fairly blind guesses as to the nature of the sequel(s) are that:

  • Female characters will be present in the sequel.
  • The protagonist will either be a government employee, possibly sent to infiltrate the facility, or an activist who wants to take Murkoff down (my hope is that the protagonist will also be female, since we’ve had two male protagonists so far).
  • The sequel will probably take place in the U.S. but in a fairly remote location – my guess is either the Alaskan wilderness, the Florida Everglades, or (in an homage to Half Life) New Mexico.  No idea where they’d go if it wasn’t in the US… an island somewhere?  Siberia?  Central America?
  • For at least part of the game the facility will be more operational.
  • While there will be no weapons (or perhaps very limited weapons, maybe a Taser) my guess is that the character will have some sort of additional equipment, or else the conceit will be slightly different (maybe a mobile phone instead of a camcorder).
  • There will probably be expanded stealth mechanics incorporating distractions, disguises, or technology.

These are just stabs in the dark, however.

Overall, I can thoroughly recommend Whistleblower to those who enjoyed the first game.  It is, if anything more deeply and lingeringly unsettling, but those with the stomach for viscerally graphic and psychologically disturbing horror will find a superbly dark and powerfully affective game.

Planescape Play Report – Olympus Burns

It’s been quite awhile since I posted, but here’s what my players have been up to in my Planescape game recently.

Battle_of_the_Milvian_Bridge_by_Giulio_Romano,_1520-24

Context:

  • Mount Olympus and its surrounds on the plane of Arborea has become a war-zone.  Anarchists (members of the Revolutionary League) posing as Athar have stirred up resentment and hostility towards the Olympian pantheon who reside on the Mountain, claiming them to be decadent and tyrannical rulers.  This, in turn, has caused the powers of the gods to wane as they lose worshippers.  The Revolutionary League is always aiming to dethrone authorities and undermine the fabric of society, which they believe is hopelessly corrupt.
  • As a result of the Anarchist machinations, war has broken out as inhabitants of Arborea rise up against the gods.  The gods, still powerful, are fighting back to put down the rebellion, but are reluctant to unleash the full force of their powers lest they appear to be the very vicious tyrants they’re being painted as.  Many, such as Apollo, have abandoned their palaces for Zeus’ temple-fortress at the top of the Mountain.
Fall of Rome
  • The slaughter, unfortunately, has “destabilized” the plane.  Each of the Outer Planes is associated with a set of Alignments; when events and beliefs on the plane shift, planes begin to “slide” into one another.  So, as a result of the war, parts of Arborea (Chaotic Good) are beginning to slide into the Abyss (Chaotic Evil).  This has been facilitated by the fact that Arborea, as a plane, is a place of grand passions – the plane actually amplifies emotions.  This includes emotions such as hatred, fear, and anger.
  • As the plane slides into the Abyss the Doomguard (crazed entropy-worshippers – basically the heavy metal Faction) have joined in the fun and started randomly burning, pillaging, and generally revelling in Arborea’s desecration.  The Doomguard have brought with them three flying Ships of Chaos, powerful “Entropy Weapons” capable of great destruction.
  • Meanwhile, Tanar’ri – that is, Demons – are emerging out of the Abyss and into Arborea at the places the planar boundaries are weakest.  They’re now running amok, some of them magically enslaving the native inhabitants to do their bidding (so, for example, there are hordes of cannibalistic Maenads running around who’ve been Charmed by incubi and succubi).  They seem to be allied with the Doomguard, and indeed Tanar’ri crew can be found on the Ships of Chaos.
bacchanalia
  • The Blood War – the eternal, now many-millennia-long conflict between the (Lawful Evil) Devils and the (Chaotic Evil) Demons – has started spilling into Arborea, as the Baatezu (Devils) suspect the Tanar’ri of attempting to “outflank” them using Arborea somehow.  So there are also platoons of Devils and their mercenaries stomping around Arborea’s hinterlands and attacking Tanar’ri wherever they find them.
  • The Harmonium (a Faction dedicated to stability and order) have arrived in force on Arborea to try and stop it from sliding whole-hog into the Abyss.  They’ve brought with them the Mercykillers (a Faction of executioners and bounty hunters) to help enforce order and try to end the conflict.  However, so far they seem to be having the opposite effect, their presence only leading to more fighting and carnage.
The whole situation is based on one of the players’ back-stories.  I’ve played it out as a hexcrawl, with Mount Olympus at one end of the map and a bunch of hexes in the middle full of forest fires, gorgons, mad minotaurs, Blood War skirmishes, and rebels.  The tone is sort of Apocalypse Now meets 300, with a little zombie/cannibal survival horror thrown in.  So far, my players have done the following:
  • Cut their way through swathes of Bacchae-infested wilderness, holing up for awhile in a ruinous trade-town stripped bare of every scrap of food from an orgiastic horde of the Raving Ones.
  • Rescued some prisoners from the anthropophagic Dionysian revellers, killing the Bacchae in mass numbers though liberal use of Fireball and Cloudkill.
  • Repaired one of the downed Ships of Chaos (Doomguard “Entropy Weapons” literally made from the souls of the damned) and psychically bonded with it.
  • Picked up an Earth Genasi mercenary (a new PC), a Lawful Evil Monk dedicated to becoming “One with Stone.”
  • Used the Ship to engage in high-stakes aerial combat with a flock of Harpies and Vrock before seizing a second vessel of the same sort, killing the mixed Tanar’ri/rebel crew and confronting the Anarchist wizard captaining the thing.
  • Joined up with a beleagured battalion of Harmonium and their Mercykiller death-squad (the Ranger also decided it was a great idea to sleep with the head torturer).
  • Raided the abandoned and thoroughly desecrated Temple of Apollo and re-took it from demented Baaetzu legionaries driven mad by prolonged exposure to the Chaotic/Good energies of Arborea – their passions eventually got the better of their discipline.  Their leader, a depraved Bone Devil, was keeping a Medusa as a kind of pet; the party freed her and used her to petrify the Devil’s lieutenant, an Erinyes.  The Hardheads have now adopted the Temple as a base of operations.

Oh, and they did this:

tumblr_n7fm3ncf8I1ro0bsbo1_1280

They have sort of a habit of taming & domesticating weird horrible things.

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

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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.

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