BEARDED DEVIL

Monsters, Horror, Gaming

Tag: world-building

Twenty Quick Questions for Hex

For Jeff Rient’s twenty quick questions for your campaign setting.

What is the deal with my cleric’s religion?

Your cleric probably worships an Unspeakable One, an Archfiend, a Spider-Goddess, or the Magistra, a deity of machines and reason, but there are also about a thousand other gods being worshiped in the Cultist’s Quarter at any given time.

Where can we go to buy standard equipment?

St. Monstrum’s is probably the biggest market in the city. If you’re a thief, check out the Midnight Market in Corvid Commons for thief’s tools and stuff.

Where can we go to get platemail custom fitted for this monster I just befriended?

Definitely head to Wyrmsborough, where the smiths have dragon-fire forges. Also Mainspring, where the gnome tinkers live, could probably customize some platemail for you. Also, most people will look at you a little oddly for wearing platemail, though the “monster” will be fine.

Who is the mightiest wizard in the land?

Master Melchior, a brain in a jar, founder of a school of thaumaturgy and enchantment.

Who is the greatest warrior in the land?

Probably the guy in Hex you’d least like to get in a tousle with is Badrask the Limbtaker of Trollhome.

Who is the richest person in the land?

Barnabas Grimgrove, homunculus-manufacturer and alchemist.

Where can we go to get some magical healing?

Caulchurch is the physician’s quarter. Of course, the cures sometimes have side-effects. You might come away with your wounds healed but with a second head, or purple skin, or the ability to taste sounds.

Where can we go to get cures for the following conditions: poison, disease, curse, level drain, lycanthropy, polymorph, alignment change, death, undeath?

Stop in at any of Hex’s major temples – the Cathedral of the Magistra, the Infernal Basilica, or one of the fanes of the Unspeakable Ones.

Is there a magic guild my MU belongs to or that I can join in order to get more spells?

Not just a guild, but eight: 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.

Where can I find an alchemist, sage or other expert NPC?

Where can’t you find one? Go to the nearest pub, and you’ll probably find a partially drunk sage or three.

Where can I hire mercenaries?

Trollhome will get you Trollblood thugs, Corvid Commons has Crowsbeak rogues for hire, and the Zymotic Ward will get you fungus-addled hitmen.

Is there any place on the map where swords are illegal, magic is outlawed or any other notable hassles from Johnny Law?

It’s probably not a good idea to go around Fanghill heavily armed.

Which way to the nearest tavern?

Almost every district in Hex has a drinking hole, or twenty. The best drinks are in Groanwell.

What monsters are terrorizing the countryside sufficiently that if I kill them I will become famous?

There have been disappearances and missing caravans up on Mount Shudder. Something or someone is behind them. Alternatively, there are any number of horrible things down in the Old City you could test your mettle against – like Abjectus, or the Vermihydra, or the Putrescemental, or the Thanatosphinx…

Are there any wars brewing I could go fight?

Erubescence is always fighting its neighbours, so you could head up there to vampire country.

How about gladiatorial arenas complete with hard-won glory and fabulous cash prizes?

Oh, we’ve got you covered. There are lots of little fighting pits in Corvid Commons in places like The Rat & Roach, but there’s also a huge gladiatorial arena down in Behemoth Bend – the Hellpits. You don’t mind fighting otherworldly horrors summoned from unplumbed space, do you?

Are there any secret societies with sinister agendas I could join and/or fight?

Plenty of them. Like the Wormbrethren or the Antinomian Cult or the Funnel-Web Gang or the Society for the Abolition of Demonic & Infernal Servitude & Maltreatment.

What is there to eat around here?

It’s a big city, so quite a bit. In particular Hex is known for its freshwater shellfish such as mussels, oysters, and crabs, as well as snails, eels, and fish. The surrounding countryside is good farmland. In particular, pork is a very common dish, prepared in a wide variety of styles. Mushrooms and truffles are widespread, grown in the city or harvested from the Tangle, a forest nearby. Many foods in Hex are flavoured and altered using magic.

Any legendary lost treasures I could be looking for?

The city is built on a megadungeon full of lost treasure, so yes!

Where is the nearest dragon or other monster with Type H treasure?

The dragon of Mount Shudder is dead, but some of its treasure is still said to lie in the treacherous caverns of its lair. However, mostly you don’t need to look further than the ground beneath your feet. The Librarians hoarded unfathomable riches in their time.

Witiko Falls game

A friend of mine over at thecbg.org is running an online game set in a version of my Witiko Falls setting.

Check out their beautifully put-together version of the setting over on the Obsidian Portal..

Griffin McElroy’s Crystal Kingdom OST

Those looking for game table music should have a gander at Griffin McElroy’s Crystal Kingdom OST, a soundtrack he created for his brilliant 5E D&D/comedy podcast The Adventure Zone.

The Adventure Zone often comes off as (intentionally) silly in a Pythonesque, surreal sort of way, but like Python its silliness is partly deceptive, intermingled with big ideas that can suprise you – like a gigantic jellyfish entity that can espistemically quarantine objects and information from the collective memories of everyone who hasn’t drunk of its weird juices. His game reminds me a lot of Zelda, in a good way – there’s a kind of adventure-game quality with a lot of magical puzzles.There’s a very well worked-out backstory and setting operating under the surface of pop culture references and goofiness. The soundtrack definitely reflects this well.

5th edition Hex campaign

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

Hex Close UpMap Screenshot III

Here’s an overview:

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

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

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

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

Map Screenshot IVMap Screenshot IMap Screenshot II

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

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

Fimbulvinter Maps

An unpardonably long time has passed since my last post. I’m putting together the next bit of Fever in the Blood, but in the meantime here are some hand-drawn maps for my Fimbulvinter campaign, an intermittent IRC game set during the endless winter of Norse myth. It’s equal parts Viking Age sandbox and post-apocalyptic survival horror, run using Pathfinder. Most of our big combats are now played out using Roll20 using maps I draw, like these ones:

barrow0001 house0001

mountains grove0001 Map0004 Map0003 Map0002 CampBlodlands Hrafnlands Gorn0001

Witiko Falls

Overview

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

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

Witiko Falls

Rockies

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

Tone

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

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

Influences

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

Soundtrack

Twin Peaks Soundtrack

Fire Walk With Me Soundtrack

The Fog Soundtrack

Fringe Soundtrack

The Shining Soundtrack

Nightbreed Soundtrack

Hellraiser Soundtrack

Red Dragon Soundtrack

Outlast Soundtrack

Call of Cthulhu Soundtrack

Silent Hill 2 Soundtrack

Phenomena

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

Anisocoria

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

Parasomnia

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

Batteries

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

The Ritualist

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

Roads

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

Animals

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

Instructions

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

Locations

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

The Falls

Crystal Falls

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

Crow Castle

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

Camping

The Swiner

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

The Burning Bush Gentleman’s Club

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

The Beavertail Casino

Medicine Man

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

The Clubhouse

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

Witiko Falls High School

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

The Scarecrow Cinema

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

Whispering Cedars Hospital and Asylum for the Insane

Place Head Here

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

(Photo credit: Justus Hayes)

The Compound

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

The Cottage

Pioneer_Log_Cabin

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

The Mountain Shadow Cemetery

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

The Caves

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

Local Legends

The Coyote Child

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

The Spooks

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

The Scold

ScoldsBridle17-18thCent

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

The Coughers

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

The Grey Devil

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

Sewerscape: Starsnouts

Star-Nosed Mutant

The Effulgence brought many gifts to the folk of the sewerscape.  The blind creatures known as Starsnouts were given one of the greatest gifts of all – a second sight, which they call the Mindscent.  Powerful psychics and prognosticators, these Molekin are also amongst the most dangerous denizens of the tunnels.  The mass of slimy tentacles sprouting from about their nostrils are not only physically powerful, able to wrench a Ratkin’s head from his neck with the twist of a tendril, they contain psionic receptors giving the Starsnouts the ability to literally smell the minds of others and, through concentration, the power to manipulate and mutilate them.  As a result, Starsnouts are usually served by a caste of psychically dominated thralls, who perform virtually all manual labour in Starsnout settlements.  The Starsnouts themselves dedicate themselves principally to mystic matters.  Indeed, most Starsnout tribes resemble religious cults, dedicated to ancient idols dredged from the muck, particularly revering ancient machines that exude powerful vibrations: rusted jukeboxes, washing machines, autopianos, stereos, and other devices the Starsnouts are able to psychically power (such machine-deities effectively run on “prayer” – through the collective mental adoration of their worshippers).  Being blind, Starsnouts usually eschew guns and similar weapons favoured by other tribes.  They have few laws save prohibitions against blasphemy and similar malfeasances; heretics, smelled out by Starsnout inquisitors, are punished by having their nasal tentacles severed, leaving them powerless and blind.

Sewerscape: Mouldwights

mouldwight

There are hundreds of different Mouldkin strains in the sewerscape, but none more common than the insidious Mouldwight.  Shambolic husks reanimated by the fungi that infest them, Mouldwights appear as near-skeletal corpses covered in fruiting bodies, their skulls often crowned by a prodigious mushroom-cap or cluster of puffballs (depending on subspecies).  Displaying rudimentary intelligence and an alien, predatory cunning, Mouldwights roam the tunnels below in search of additional carcasses to colonize.  If they come across living beings they do not hesitate to attack, breathing clouds of toxic spores which, if inhaled, infect a host and slowly eat away at them from the inside-out, necrotizing their organs and spreading beneath their flesh, finally bursting through their skin in a horrific profusion of caps, stalks, and toadstools.  Many Mouldwights also possess lash-like, cankerous tendrils they use to pull victims towards them in order to administer their corruptive exhalations.  Mouldwights rapidly decompose their host bodies, however, and eventually the decayed remnants of their hosts simply collapse.  The Mouldwight fungi linger for a short while before withering and dying, unless a new host wanders by in the meantime.  Because Mouldwights can reproduce quickly they frequently form packs, coordinating their efforts to trap would-be prey – presumably the creatures communicate using spores since, unlike some Mouldkin, Mouldwights do not speak.  They are highly vulnerable to fire, sunlight, and fungicides, and prefer the dampest, darkest areas of the tunnels – fortunately for them, such areas are common in the mildewed labyrinth of the sewerscape.

Sewerscape: Vermigorgons

Medusa

Some believe Vermigorgons are mutated humans, warped into their current form by the Effulgence.  Others claim they were birthed in bygone days by the Biowitches of yore as living weapons, experiments that escaped into the sewers and thus survived the conflagration above.  Physically, they resemble human females (indeed, their bodies are closer to pre-Effulgence humans than most Trampkin) but with a mass of writhing, giant earthworms sprouting from their scalps instead of hair.  Through some quantum psychokinesis, a Vermigorgon can use her powers of observation to radically affect the molecular makeup of her surroundings, transmuting almost any known substance into mud simply by looking at it.  In this manner Vermigorgons can dig tunnels through the sewerscape and deliquesce predators and enemies, making them extremely dangerous foes.  The power is activated through the use of a specialized nictating membrane a Vermigorgon can almost instantly draw across her eyes; normally this membrane is drawn back into a Vermigorgon’s face.  Vermigorgons seem to dislike one another and rarely congregate in numbers.  Gatorkin, Frogkin, and other creatures are sometimes adopted by Vermigorgons as bodyguards, consorts, and servants; their lairs are usually labyrinthine mud-warrens with many mud pools where minions frequently lurk.  The motivations of Vermigorgons are frequently inscrutable and highly individualistic.  Certain members of the species have been known to collect large libraries, obsessing over matters of ancient history or mystic lore, while others lead hedonistic lives of debauchery and decadence.  Few seem to aspire to positions of real power, however – something which other denizens of the sewerscape are thankful for.

Sewerscape

Some time ago I ran an intense but short-lived forum game called Underdeep, a play-by-post strategic roleplaying game where the players adopted the role of subterranean rulers warring for control of an underground realm.  Underdeep featured a pretty typical fantasy world – deliberately vanilla (Orcs, Goblins, Dwarves, Dark Elves, etc) – but while running it I found myself wondering about alternate possibilities for underground worlds…

Sewerscape

Star-Nosed Mutant 2 CatkinGatorkin

The Great Effulgence burnt the world above to a cinder, and now only Blindghasts and gibbering Glowghosts dwell in the Lambent Lands above, lingering in the poisonous, glimmering wreckage of the megacities that once spanned the globe.  But down below, in the vast, interlinked sewer systems of those incinerated metropolises, life survived and thrived.  In the irradiated entrails of the earth, a seemingly endless labyrinth of pipes, passages, shafts, and tunnels, new societies have arisen, tribes of animals and people twisted by the same corruptive energies that desolated the world above.

The Ratkin are the most common – scabrous, plague-ridden scavengers and raiders who roam the tunnels in murderous Mischiefs, plundering and stealing, hoarding treasure in their feculent Middens.  The various Molekin tribes dwell deeper, extending the sewerscape with fresh excavations.  Perhaps most formidable of the Molekin societies are the Naked Queendoms, militant hive-realms dedicated to conquest and empire, though individually the dreaded psionic monstrosities known as the Starsnouts are more dangerous, telepathic abominations who delight in violating the minds and bodies of their enemies with their psionic powers and writhing nasal tentacles.  Then of course there are the Gatorkin, a pack of depraved, inbred, albino lizard-people with an insatiable longing for raw flesh, the nigh-unkillable, survivalist Roachkin, the conniving Batkin, the revolting, carrion-feeding Flykin, the rabid Racoonkin, and the pallid, mewling Trampkin, warped descendants of the tunnel-dwelling homeless.

Yet these creatures are not the only denizens of the sewerscape.  In the lower tunnels stranger beings stir.  The seething horror known as the Wormhost squirms through the lowermost bowels of the world while the protoplasmic Filth Elementals self-assemble out of coagulate effluvia made animate by the puissant rays that scoured the surface.  Deranged machines wander the deep places, pining for their former masters, while in certain ancient caverns of primordial origin the Wizened Ones groan in their dotage…

Inspirations

A handful: Necromunda, Redwall, Gamma World, Fallout, Metro 2033, Railsea.

Systems

I’ll be writing this as systems-neutral, but good systems would include hacked-up versions of Savage Worlds, Mutant Future, Omega World/Gamma World, d20 Modern, and probably lots of other systems.

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