An old fan of the Dark Conspiracy roleplaying game recently asked if this adventure was still available somewhere. Thanks to the magic of the “Wayback Machine,” I was able to recover it from my old website long ago, when the Web was new.
The nature of the adventure requires no stat blocks, which makes it easily adaptable to games besides Dark Conspiracy, if you like.
The Fright or Flight Instinct
Originally published by Corsair Publishing
© Lester Smith
Corsair Publishing introduction: “This unusual adventure, written by Dark Conspiracy designer Lester Smith, is part of an upcoming adventure anthology for all horror role-playing games, to be published by Corsair Publishing. Originally, however, it was designed as a two-part convention event for the Dark Conspiracy RPG, to demonstrate the wide range of horror settings possible within that game. Despite that broad expanse of horror themes, however, there is a delightful cohesiveness to it all, a dark secret that lies behind its events. Part of the referee’s fun in running the adventure is in watching the players adapt to the unfolding situation, as new layers of truth are revealed as their characters progress through the story. That story also provides plenty of room for you, as referee, to improvise and to personalize events to match your own players.”
Because this adventure was originally designed for convention play, it opens without the need of the player characters knowing one another. Soon enough, they will be thrown together as a party. This makes it a perfect starting point for a new horror campaign. Instead of inventing relationships among these new player characters, the group can watch those relationships develop naturally during the course of play. Be warned, however, that the events they go through in this adventure are extreme and will have a few long-lasting effects on your campaign overall. There are recommendations at the adventure’s end for helping you to shape the player characters’ final decisions concerning the situation. Still, it is worth considering to run this adventure as a one-shot event, retiring the characters from play afterward. There is fun enough to be had here to justify running it as a sideline from your normal campaign.
In order to allow you, as referee, to experience the adventure with something of the same sense of mystery that your players will feel, the events are written in the order they are likely to occur, without explaining ahead of time what is happening behind the scenes. This way, you can have fun reading through the adventure without knowing all its secrets ahead of time and can imagine yourself in the situation, trying to reason out what is really happening. Consequently, when you run the adventure for the players, you can identify first-hand with their reactions and can adapt the events to heighten their horror. By the time you finish reading the piece, however, all the whys and wherefores will be abundantly clear. A few pieces of referee advice are saved for the end, as well, to keep from giving away too much early on.
One word of advice ahead of time, however, is that the adventure works best if you play someplace where you can split up the players from time to time when it becomes necessary for purposes of the story. There are secrets within that are best revealed to some characters before others.
And now, our tale begins…
Wherein the heroes discover that a sanctuary can sometimes be a snare.
The adventure opens on an airliner, in flight somewhere over the American Midwest. Ask your players to each imagine some reason for their character to be taking a trip by plane. That accomplished, you can then choose a pair of appropriate cities to act as points of departure and destination.
It is assumed that the player characters are scattered in different seats throughout the plane. You should take a few minutes to role-play with each character, acting the part of a flight attendant or fellow passenger. It doesn’t matter whether that interaction is pleasant (flirting with a flight attendant, joking with a neighbor, talking with a bright-eyed youngster, etc.) or unpleasant (being whined at by a nervous passenger, being jostled by a rambunctious kid in the seat behind, or listening to a neighbor’s whistling snore). The point is to get each of the players firmly into the scene, and to give each of their characters some connection to a non-player character or two, if possible.
The flight itself is fairly bumpy, with rough weather predicted. Roughly halfway through the journey, enormous black clouds begin to pile miles high along the horizon to one side of the plane. (On the plane’s other side, the sun shines cheerfully upon the checkerboard of fields below.) As the ominous cloud bank draws ever closer, it flickers with lightning, and the air grows progressively more turbulent. Soon it becomes obvious that there is no way of flying above the storm, and that the plane will just have to weather it out.
After one particularly violent lurch, the seat belt warning light comes on (you can play up the delay for a bit of humor), and the pilot makes an announcement, while the plane begins bouncing like a bronco.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” he says, “as you can see out your windows, we are entering an area of strong storm activity. There is no cause for alarm, however. This aircraft is fully capable of weathering pretty much anything Mother Nature might choose to throw our way.” He chuckles to show that he’s not worried, though it sounds a bit forced. “Still, for your safety, we ask that you remain seated, with your seat belts securely fastened and your carry-on baggage stowed.”
Outside, rain and hail begin pelting the plane, and lightning flashes blindingly close, followed by a tremendous clap of thunder. The plane lurches like a small ship on the high seas, as it is swallowed by the storm clouds.
Player characters seated on the side from which the storm first appeared might spot something unusual at this moment. Have their players make a perception check at a high level of difficulty. (Ideally, the check should be difficult enough that only one of the characters, if any, will likely pass it.) If someone succeeds at this test, between intense flashes of lightning, that character catches just a glimpse of a shiny, disc-shaped craft nearby, paralleling the plane’s flight, before it is hidden again by the clouds.
The flight continues for a few more minutes, the plane lurching about. Suddenly, there is a particularly bright flash of light and clap of thunder, followed by the sound of metal groaning and popping. To the horror of passengers seated by the plane’s right-hand windows, they see the wing on that side slowly tear loose from the fuselage and then whip away in the high winds. Immediately, the plane begins spinning wildly out of control, nose slanting toward the ground, overhead luggage compartments spilling their contents, oxygen masks dropping, passengers screaming, and anything not fastened down now tumbling wildly about. In this chaos, there is nothing that the characters can do to solve the problem—they are trapped, like everyone else, within an aircraft spinning to its doom. Within moments, there is a horrendous crash, and the world goes black.
Give the players a few moments to wonder whether you have actually killed all of their characters out of hand. It should be fairly obvious from the previous scene that there is pretty much no chance of anyone surviving such a crash. But that’s what miracles are for.
One by one, the player characters begin to regain consciousness. Start with the character with the highest luck rating, if your game has such a thing. Otherwise begin with the highest health or constitution.
That first character wakes lying face up in thick mud, a light rain pelting his face and chest. The air is filled with the smell of jet fuel, smoke, spilled blood, and roasting flesh. When the character sits up and looks around, he views a scene out of nightmare: The plane is scattered in ragged pieces over a half mile of plowed fields, lit by patches of burning wreckage and intermittent flashes of lightning. Mangled human bodies and body parts are strewn hither and yon, intermingled with jagged fragments of metal and glass. But from all indications, the player character himself is unhurt. It would seem that the soft patch of mud in which he landed both cushioned his fall and protected him from flying pieces of wreckage. However, it doesn’t seem possible that anyone else can have survived.
Now it is time to wake up the second character; someone seated next to a window. This one comes to consciousness hanging upside-down, still belted in his seat, within an arc of fuselage which remains pretty much intact. All that remains of the passenger who was seated next to this character, however, is a lower torso. (For dramatic purposes, this passenger should be someone the player character was talking with earlier during the flight.) Something sharp and heavy must have whipped through the fuselage, cutting the victim off at the waist, seat and all. Two other passengers nearby—one directly in front of the character, and one directly behind—remain pretty much whole but have suffered fatal, and gory, wounds. A few body parts from other passengers litter the floor (what was the ceiling) all about.
After the two now-conscious player characters have had a few minutes to take in the sights and discover each other, you can let them begin to find the other characters, still alive, though lightly wounded, amidst the general wreckage. If necessary, groans will lead the first pair to the others. They find these characters in various situations: one buried within a spill of pillows and blankets, another lying just under a large piece of plastic paneling, and so on. Remember, however, along the way, to also have them discover pieces of other passengers they remember from the flight. Set the level of gore to suit your own players. (The point is to be brutal enough that the characters want to do anything but hang around, but not so gory that your players actually pick up and leave the game!) Remember, too, to call for fright, horror, and/or sanity checks appropriate to your game rules.
As the last of the player characters is discovered, the group hears a whistling sound, like an incoming artillery shell. Suddenly, the plane’s missing wing comes falling out of the sky, right into the middle of the wreckage. It lands with a heavy crash, spilling aviation fuel in every direction. As a result, the area turns into a virtual inferno, the heat driving the characters away. Blazing fuel continues to pour from the ruptured wing, igniting everything flammable in its path. One of the craft’s oxygen tanks suddenly erupts as a result, and the characters can hear the hissing of various others scattered about. There is soon to be a major explosion.
The only visible shelter is a lighted window in a building on a hill, a mile away. If the characters don’t head toward that sanctuary, you have every justification to fry them all in a sudden explosion and start over from scratch with new ones.
Heading toward the house, the characters slog through the mud of the field for a hundred feet, then come to a gravel road. Although it cuts across their path at first, it curves in the direction of the house, and it offers a much easier surface to walk upon. Eventually, it leads them to a weedy gravel driveway that climbs up the hill directly to the house.
As the group nears the house, they can recognize it as a two-story, Victorian-style building. The light they viewed from the crash site is shining in an upstairs window. The house crouches upon the crest of the hill, surrounded by little more than wind-swept grass and a few gnarled trees. If the characters scout around the yard in the dark and rain, they discover the tumbled ruins of a carriage house to the right of the main building, but there is nothing of interest under that pile of timber. Meanwhile, the wind and rain grow ever more intense, giving the group every reason to seek shelter inside the house itself.
There are two main entrances to the building: a front door and a back. The back door is securely latched from inside, and the small porch sheltering it has collapsed, leaving a three-foot jump just to reach the sill. (In effect, there is no way of entering through the back, short of using a chainsaw or fire ax to bust that door open and then clambering over the sill through the hole. As the player characters have no such tools, they’ll have to enter through the front.) The front door is sheltered by a wide porch, which has been screened in with an unusual arrangement of wrought iron shaped like exotic flowers.
Once all the characters are on the porch, the porch door clicks shut behind them and refuses to open again. Furthermore, the wrought-iron foliage proves too narrowly spaced for anyone to squeeze out through it. The group is trapped, with no choice but to proceed deeper into the house. If they delay too long, lightning strikes the grillwork, blinding them all, deafening them with the thunder clap, and even burning them with sparks. That ought to give them reason enough to move along.
The front door to the house itself opens easily—though with an eerie creaking, of course. The building’s interior is very dark; whatever light is shining upstairs doesn’t make its way down this far. There is a light switch on the wall just inside the door, but nothing happens when it is flipped. Apparently, there is no electricity. There is, however, a three-pronged, silver candelabra on a table just inside the door, along with a box of farmer’s matches. It is too windy to light the candles while the door remains open. But once the grop is inside, there is little trouble. Still, the house is drafty enough to make the candle flames flicker ominously, casting huge shadows along the walls. Whoever carries the candles will have to shield the flames constantly to prevent them from blowing out. (It’s surprising how much tension such a small detail can add to the situation.)
From the foyer, the characters can see three doors along the left wall, which stretches all the way to the back of the house. The back door can be viewed dimly, in an alcove directly opposite the front door. The right wall bears a door from off the foyer, then opens into a main hall with a stairway climbing upward to the second floor.
All of the doors of the house—both inside and out—are of stout oak, with old-fashioned style locks (the sort with keyholes that can be peeked through, though it is too dark to see anything in this house). The walls are of heavy lath-and-plaster construction, with mahogany wainscoting below and old-fashioned wallpaper above that. The windows are all firmly nailed shut and have panes of industrial style glass reinforced with chicken wire inside.
Right-Hand Door: The door to the group’s immediate right is locked. If the characters manage to pick that lock (which isn’t terribly difficult), they discover that the door is also jammed shut somehow. Two burly characters will need to “shoulder-rush” the thing together about three times in order to break it open. When the door finally gives way, it swings open, spilling those characters across the broken remains of a straight chair just inside. Apparently, the chair was jammed beneath the door knob to prevent entry. A second chair lies on its side near the center of the room, just below a tattered corpse dangling by a noose from a chandelier.
The room itself is an old-fashioned parlor. Besides the corpse and broken chairs, its furnishings consist of a frumpy couch, two over-stuffed chairs, a liquor cabinet, and a card table with two straight chairs remaining to it.
The corpse is swarming with huge maggots, each bigger than a man’s thumb. They have eaten all the soft flesh off it, leaving only bone and sinew. Within moments from the time the door is opened, the things begin dropping heavily to the floor and crawling toward the characters. Whoever broke in the door will have to scramble to get back up off the floor before any of the maggots reach them. There are hundreds of the disgusting things, and they bite with huge, serrated jaws. A person left alone with them has no real chance of survival, though three or more characters working together could stamp on them all without suffering more than a few nasty bites around the ankles and shins. Closing the door again will prevent the creatures from coming out, as well.
First Left-Hand Door: Inside the first door to the left is an elegant dining room. A heavy oak table dominates the room, partly covered by an age-yellowed lace table cloth, and ringed by thirteen matching chairs. A sideboard stands along the right wall, bearing a tarnished silver platter and ewer. To the far left of the room, there is a corner hutch filled with delicate china and a considerable collection of cutlery.
Once a person or two has entered the room, the door slams shut unexpectedly in the face of anyone else remaining outside, and locks. A strange, misty light appears near the ceiling and descends slowly to the table, spreading to the corner hutch, as well. Then, with the groaning sound of tortured wood, the table rushes across the room like a mad bull, attempting to crush one of the characters against a wall. (Avoiding the table’s rush requires a difficult test of agility.) If it fails to pin someone on the first attempt, the table backs up and tries again and again, until successful.
Once the table has someone pinned, the doors of the corner hutch fling themselves open, and the cutlery inside suddenly leaps into the air. The various knives, cleavers, and meat forks poise for a second, quivering, pointed toward the table’s victim. Then they fling themselves across the room to pinion him. (Treat the cutlery as ten daggers for the purpose of assessing damage, each doing the minimum possible.) A nimble character might be able to dodge at least some of the cutlery, and a strong one might even manage to push the table back enough to slither down below its edge before the blades hit. (A moderate agility test halves the damage taken, and a moderate strength test avoids it altogether.) Any cutlery which misses the victim strikes the wall instead, wriggles to work itself loose, then flies in an arc around the room to take up position near the hutch once more, ready to fly at the victim again.
This activity continues until the door to the room is unlocked and opened again. At that moment, all animation leaves the furniture and cutlery. Those characters standing outside have only the word of the victims as to what the ruckus was all about.
If anyone thinks to remove the tablecloth, they find a pentagram scratched roughly into the wood, and the puncture marks of heavy nails in several places. Those nail marks are all surrounded by heavy blood stains, as if someone or something had been nailed to the table top at some time.
Second Left-Hand Door: When the door to this room is opened, it reveals an industrial style kitchen, with white tile walls, stainless steel counters, a huge stove and restaurant grill, heavy mixing equipment, a huge butcher block and enormous meat grinder, and a cement floor with a drain in its center. When the first character steps into the kitchen, have the player make a difficult agility check. If he succeeds, tell him, “You stumble slightly stepping over the threshold—it turns out that the kitchen floor is an inch lower than the door sill—and you hear a whooshing sound, like a bowstring snapping, just above your head.” When the character turns around to look, he sees a heavy wire stretched at neck level across the open doorway, part of a gigantic mousetrap-like contraption set to spring when someone steps in. If he fails the agility check, he is neatly beheaded by the trap. His headless body tumbles forward, splashing the far end of the room with gouts of blood. The head itself rolls across the floor to lodge, upside down, under the sink, where it gapes back in surprise at the open doorway.
Third Left-Hand Door: When this door is opened, the characters are assaulted by a wave of heat and the smell of sulfur. As their eyes clear of tears, they view, in the flickering light of flame from below, a set of scorched and rickety wooden stairs descending into the cellar of the house. The stairs proceed down along one wall and end at a corner of the cellar, so not much can be seen of the area from the doorway. The characters do hear, however, the growling of several large dogs.
Suddenly, dozens of immense rats come swarming up the stairs, eyes and teeth glittering, and flecks of foam about their mouths. If the characters shut the door in time, all of the rats are trapped below. Otherwise the creatures attack ferociously, climbing the characters’ clothes and biting them severely. One good hit is sufficient to kill any one rat, but there are dozens of them! There should be roughly half a dozen for each character, meaning that everyone is sure to be bleeding before the battle is over. Worse, the characters have every reason to worry about being infected with rabies. Still, the actual damage inflicted should be minimal.
Every time the characters open the cellar door, however, another swarm of rabid creatures attacks: bats next, then cats, weasels, ravens, or whatever else you can think of. This should be enough to dissuade the group from investigating the cellar any further, at least for a while. That’s exactly the point. Don’t let them into the cellar easily. Ideally, they should retreat the first time they encounter it, only to return when there is nothing left of the house to explore. The only manner of actually gaining entry is to wade through one of the waves of rabid creatures. Once a character reaches the bottom of the steps, the vermin disappear, blinking out of existence as if they never were. Still, any inflicted wounds remain.
From the bottom of the stairs, the groupu can now view the rest of the cellar. It is cluttered with junk: a few old garden rakes and hoes, bushel baskets filled with dusty canning jars, empty picture frames, broken chairs, boxes filled with rags, and so on. Dominating the center of the space, however, is a sinister-looking furnace blazing with a strange, silvery light. Chained to that furnace is an immense Doberman pincer with three slavering heads. Its six eyes blaze with the same silvery flame as the furnace. The dog is absolutely ferocious and seems entirely capable of tearing limbs off any characters who approach. The only weapons they have at hand are the garden utensils lying about the cellar, and whatever knives and such they have managed to collect from other rooms of the house. If the characters fight the dog, it should be an epic battle, appropriate for the climax of Act 1. If anyone actually touches the furnace, there is a flash of light, and that character is gone! Turn to Act 2, Scene 1 to learn what happens to the individual.
Main Hall: This corner of the house is a large, open room with various pieces of furniture arranged about it, enough for a dozen people to spend a relaxing evening. An immense crystal chandelier dominates the ceiling. The far wall of the room bears a huge fireplace (currently dark and cold) with a lion’s head mounted above it and a bearskin rug on the floor. A settee and two overstuffed chairs are arranged in a semicircle before the hearth. In the corner to the left of the fireplace, an elegant set of stairs begins, leading upward and back to the second floor. Near the base of the stairs there stands a chess table and chairs. The chess pieces are various monsters of legend.
The bulk of the area beneath the stairs is devoted to a trio of alcoves. One shelters the back door (see below). The other two are filled with bookshelves. The titles there are all of the horror genre: besides Dracula and Frankenstein, there appear to be collected here every work of Edgar Allen Poe, H. P. Lovecraft, and Stephen King, as well as various others. (If any of your players asks about any horror title, no matter how obscure, it is included here.)
A baby grand piano stands in the corner to the right of the fireplace. If a character lifts its key cover, the piano suddenly begins playing a mad and haunting tune. (This would be a great time for you to cue a CD with something appropriate to spook the players.) Upon checking under the lid, however, the characters discover that it is simply a player piano, set to begin whenever the key cover is opened.
The fireplace bears a set of folding glass doors, to keep out the cold while it is not in use. If these doors are opened, the huge pile of logs set in the fireplace burst into roaring flame. Closer examination reveals that it is a cleverly designed gas fire, with artificial logs. But there doesn’t seem to be any means of turning it off, short of closing the glass doors. With the doors open, the flames are too intense for anyone to try escaping up the chimney. But with the doors closed, there is no way into the fireplace. Breaking out the glass doesn’t help, because the metal framework is too narrow for anyone to fit through it even with the glass removed. Disassembling the framework trips the hidden switch that ignites the fire. Finally, even if someone were to brave the fire to climb the chimney, that character would discover that its top is covered by a heavy wire mesh like that in the house’s windows. In short, there is no exit this way.
After the group has had some time to explore the main hall, just before they leave, the chandelier falls as someone is standing beneath it, and ghostly laughter echoes around the room. If the intended victim doesn’t react in time (which requires a successful perception check followed by a successful agility check), he is crushed beneath its enormous weight. While that shouldn’t kill the victim outright, it should cripple the person—breaking a leg, for instance, or causing internal hemorrhaging—sufficiently that someone else will have to help carry him. Coming, as it does, after two false “hauntings” (the playing of the piano and the ignition of the fire), this murderous incident ought to cause some surprise, even if no one is actually injured by it.
Back Door: If the characters try to open the back door, hoping to escape the house, they are in for a terrible surprise. Even as they approach that door, the walls around proceed to “grow” over it! Lath and plaster extend across the door even as the group watches, like bone and muscle regenerating in a human body, and even the wainscoting and wallpaper stretch across it. By the time the characters actually reach the spot where the door once was, all they find is a wall like anywhere else in the house. The back door is totally gone, as if it never existed!
First Upstairs Room: At the top of the stairs, a long landing doubles back, with three doors along it. Behind the first of these doors, the player characters find a small study. Inside is an open roll-top desk, an office chair with a corpse, and a metal cot. An old-fashioned oil lamp sits atop the desk. This is the light which the group spotted from the crash site.
The body is that of a fat, middle-aged man in expensive shirt, trousers, and vest. He has a letter opener stabbed in his throat and fresh blood spilled down the front of his shirt and vest. On his face is an expression of utter horror. He is leaning back limply in the chair, his right hand resting on the desktop, near a pad of writing paper. His left hand dangles over the side of the chair, still dripping blood onto the carpet below. From all the evidence, the death was a suicide.
The paper under the man’s right hand bears the following scrawled words. “I regret now the entire evil endeavor, and every dark passion to which I gave sway. I pray that God may somehow find it possible to forgive us all for letting the beast into the house. And I pray that it may never escape to plague the world at large. God forgive me now for what I am about to do, but I cannot endure another hour in this cursed house.”
When the group finally prepares to leave the room, they hear a scratching begin at the desk. It is the sound of the man’s right hand writing on the pad again. Over and over again, it writes, “God help me! It won’t let me die!” If the characters check, they find that the body has no breath or pulse, and its dull eyes still stare lifelessly at the ceiling. It is most definitely deceased. But the right hand continues to write feverishly the same words over and over.
Second Upstairs Room: The door to this room stands open when the characters reach the top of the stairs. A look inside reveals this to be the master bedroom. A huge, four-poster bed with white satin sheets dominates the room, attended by a pair of end tables, a chest of drawers, a make-up table, and a wardrobe cabinet. Lying coiled in the middle of the bed is a stained leather whip, resting neatly atop a woman’s folded, scarlet satin nightgown.
The chest of drawers contains nothing but a man’s underclothing in its lower drawers, and a woman’s in its upper ones. The make-up table contains the expected toiletries, and a pair of handcuff keys in an ash tray atop it. The wardrobe, when opened, reveals the nude corpse of a young woman manacled to a clothes hook, her back flayed to bloody ribbons by whip strokes. The bones of her ribs are visible through the lacerated flesh. From the looks of things, she has been dead for a few hours at most. If the characters investigate any closer, they find the scars of old whip marks along her arms and legs.
Investigating the end tables next to the bed is a problem. If anyone approaches within a yard of one of the bed posts, a manacle lashes out, snake-like, to fasten itself around a wrist or ankle. Its other end is firmly bolted to the inside surface of the bed post. The manacle then attempts to wrestle the character face-down onto the bed, where manacles attached to the other posts now writhe, also trying to clasp onto him. Anyone trying to help the victim is attacked by the whip, which leaps into the air and flails about wildly. If the victim ends up held by all four manacles, the whip begins lashing him.
The rest of the group may decide to wrestle the whip down and cut it to pieces. When cut, it shrills like a wounded animal and bleeds profusely. Meanwhile, the manacles lift their victim off the surface of the bed and try to pull him apart in four directions.
In order to loose the victim, someone will have to wrestle with the manacles and unlock them. The handcuff keys on the make-up table fit all their keyholes. The characters will need to somehow prevent the manacles from fastening onto someone again, however. One way of doing this is to use a knife to pin the chain to a post or the wall. Otherwise, one person will have to hold each manacle—without being grasped him- or herself—until all have been opened. Then everyone can jump back out of reach at the same time.
Third Upstairs Room: This final upstairs room is a small nursery. Upon opening the door, the characters see a hefty crib against the inner wall, its interior cast in shadow by the their candles. There is also a chest filled with antique toys—all somewhat grisly by modern tastes, consisting of such things as Punch and Judy puppets, a hooded headsman doll, a horned devil nutcracker, a few toy shrunken heads, various frightful monster dolls, and so on. A rocking chair rests just to the left of the door, near a small dresser.
In the crib, the group finds the desiccated remains of a toddler, probably two years old at death. The body appears to have been mummified somehow. The skin is dry and papery, shrunken tightly onto the bones beneath.
As the group examines this tiny body, its eyelids slowly open, revealing the shriveled organs within the sockets behind. The characters must all pass a horror test to avoid standing frozen under its awful gaze.
Next, the lips draw back to reveal an impressive set of teeth, all filed to a point. The mummy climbs laboriously to its feet, then launches itself with lighting quickness at the nearest character, grappling him with claw-like hands, and attempting to tear out his throat with its teeth.
Destroying the thing is not terribly difficult; it comes apart fairly easily. But it is surprisingly strong and tenacious, the hands and jaws continuing to clench even after torn loose from the rest of the body. Whomever the thing first attacks is sure to suffer several bloody wounds before it is finally defeated.
Dead Men’s Eyes: If any of the player characters die within the house, don’t let that player know it right away. As the fatal blow is struck, take the player away from the rest of the group and describe the scene in such a way that he believes his character has actually survived. Work to keep the victim unaware of his death until the other characters discover the body. A character killed in the dining room, for instance, would think that he slipped down below the table as the door was opened, avoiding the flying cutlery. A character beheaded in the kitchen doorway would believe that he stumbled going in, and was narrowly missed by the wire. Unless there is a specific reason for the character to look backward and see his own dead body, he has no reason to suspect that he has been killed.
Such victims are still present in the house as a spirit, and they can affect things by touch, including other characters, though these spirits are entirely invisible and inaudible. Keeping each such player separate from the rest of the group, find out what he plans to do next, then describe the results to the other players as performed by a ghost. Once you know their reactions, it is time to go back and describe them to the ghost player. At first, there should be some confusion, as the living characters see objects move and feel someone touching them, while each dead character wonders why no one pays any attention to him when he speaks. Before long, however, the realization will begin to sink in. If you handle the situation deftly, a ghost character will be as shocked as everyone else at the discovery of his corpse, but he then can have quite a bit of fun haunting the other characters.
Depending upon how the dead character acts, it make take awhile before the others realize that they are haunted by their own friend. When you have had enough fun with the situation, let the spirit begin communicating with the rest of the group in whispers, to simplify running the adventure. The other characters can begin to hear him, though they still cannot see him.
Wherein the heroes learn that all is not as it seems—it’s actually far worse!
In the basement of the house, whenever someone touches the furnace, there is a flash of light and that person disappears. To anyone remaining within the basement, it seems as if the person has been disintegrated. (If it is a “ghost” who touches the furnace, there is still a flash of light, though—of course—no one actually sees the “ghost” disappear.)
To the person who touched the furnace, however, things appear much different. One moment, that character is standing in the basement of the house. The next, he is a disembodied presence floating within a stream of binary computer data. To the character’s perception, this stream seems a silvery tunnel, within which data flows back and forth. For some reason yet unknown, the character can understand the data as it flows past. The data running in one direction is a computer program simulating a haunted house—the very house in which he was previously trapped, in fact! Data running the other direction proves to be the responses of the remaining characters to that program!
The basement furnace is the node connecting the two perceived realities. “Outside” that node, characters perceive themselves as living, breathing beings trapped within a three-dimensional haunted house. “Inside” that node, they perceive themselves as disembodied spirits within a computer data stream.
If a character follows the program data back through the furnace, he appears within the basement of the house once again, apparently “in the flesh.” (Even a character who was previously a “ghost” seems alive once again.) Touching the furnace then returns the character to the data stream.
If a character follows the data stream in the opposite direction, toward the source of the program, he soon finds himself within a computer CPU. For that character, it is now time for the next scene.
Most likely, the entire group will explore the CPU together. It is only natural for characters who have touched the furnace and experienced the data stream to pass that knowledge along to anyone else remaining within the house. It may be that they returned to the house in order to do so face to face. Or they can piggyback their thoughts onto data passing by, in which case those characters remaining within the house can hear these thoughts as if by telepathy. Characters within the data stream can even reach out to change the passing data slightly, molding the apparent reality of the house to their own will—creating letters of blood on the basement wall, for example.
(Unfortunately, however, tampering with the data stream in this way alerts the CPU to their absence from the house and their presence within the computer itself. This is a bad thing, as is explained under “Scene 3: Intruder Alert!”)
Once the group reaches the CPU, the characters discover a multitude of different programs running data in every which direction. Reaching out to “eavesdrop” on various streams of that data, they discover miscellaneous life-support programs (lighting control, temperature control, and even gravity control), a semi-dormant navigation program, a power-plant monitoring program, several door controls both large and small, and data from various video monitors.
The Video Monitors: If your players are like most people, the first data streams their characters will check out are the video monitors. When the group begins eavesdropping on the video data flow, they are in for a series of shocking surprises.
Monitor One: Through the first monitor, the characters find themselves looking out across the daylit surface of the moon. The earth can be seen hanging near the horizon, against the deep black of space. In the immediate foreground is a curve of silvery metal, which reveals that the monitor itself is part of some structure currently resting on the moon. As a matter of fact, that structure is a flying saucer!
Monitor Two: The second monitor gives the group a view into a futuristic engineering room manned by six humanoid extraterrestrials. The aliens are short, fragile, bulb-headed beings with large, lidless black eyes, and wearing silvery jumpsuits. The room itself is a conglomeration of milky glass panels, silvery rods, and strange crystals, lit by pastel-colored lights that shift and blink. The center of the room is dominated by an immense, throbbing column of glass and metal which would seem to be a power plant of some sort.
Monitor Three: The third monitor reveals a dimly lit, circular chamber with a glowing mist covering its floor. The perimeter of the room is lined with pedestals rising knee high from the mist, and shining with a pale blue light. There are twelve pedestals in all. Each has a single ET standing rigidly atop it.
Even as the characters watch, another ET enters the room—ascending from the mist in the center of the floor—and walks to one of the pedestals. The ET atop that pedestal suddenly stirs, steps down, and walks to the room’s center, then descends into the mist, disappearing from view. Meanwhile, the newcomer steps up onto the vacant pedestal and goes still.
Monitor Four: The fourth monitor shows the bridge of an alien space craft. Four ETs in silvery suits man the various panels there, while one wearing a gold foil suit studies a three-dimensional hologram of the earth’s solar system. The far wall is dominated by a window looking out across the lunar surface.
Monitor Five: Through the fifth monitor, the characters peer into what would seem to be a medical laboratory. At the room’s near end, an ET technician mans a control panel connected to a wide, glassy tube running from floor to ceiling. Inside that tube, floating in a yellow-tinged fluid, are several human brains. Each has various electrodes attached, with wires running down to the assembly’s control panel.
There are exactly as many brains as player characters. It shouldn’t take much for the group to realize that they are staring at their own cerebral organs. As verification of this, at the room’s far end, a medical robot stands near a series of tables bearing the horribly dissected remains of the characters’ bodies. The open, emptied skulls are clearly visible from the group’s current vantage point.
Give the players a few moments for these revelations to sink in, then add the fact that, to the other side of the medical robots, several android bodies stand lifelessly, patches of synthetic skin peeled back to reveal the electromechanical workings inside, and their own heads open and empty. The faces of all but one of the androids is a featureless blank. One, however, is acquiring the facial features of one of the player characters. A scanner is poised over that character’s remains and is reading the facial contours and projecting that image onto the front of the android’s head. Even as the group watches, the android’s face morphs to match the projected image. (As referee, choose the player character least oriented toward brainwork, the most oriented toward physical action.)
It should be evident to the characters, then, that the android bodies are intended to house their human brains eventually, presumably after the ETs finish their experimentation and conduct whatever brainwashing techniques they have intended. It seems that the aliens never expected the characters to escape the “haunted house” program. As a matter of fact, the ET manning the console near the “brain tube” seems to be growing more agitated by the moment. Apparently, it has come to this ET’s attention that the group is loose within the ship’s computer system. If the characters haven’t already caused the intruder-alert program to fire, that ET initiates it now. (See “Scene 3: Intruder Alert!” immediately below.)
When the computer first becomes aware that any of the characters has escaped the “haunted house” program, an alert sequence is launched. That sequence has several interesting effects.
Search Program: For one thing, the alert sequence launches a search program within the house construct, in an attempt to seek out the missing characters. To any characters yet within the house, it appears that a half dozen huge, ghostly hounds exit the furnace and begin searching the building and its environs. These spectral beasts sniff their way through every room in the house, passing through walls to do so, and they even search outside the house, their baying echoing on the wind between crashes of thunder from the storm outside.
As each character within the house is located (including the ghosts of any dead characters), a single hound crouches before him, growling menacingly to keep the character in place while the search continues for others. Any characters who decide to battle a hound discover that weapons pass right through it, to no effect. It can be fought only bare-handed. Other than this special effect, use attributes appropriate to a wolf in your game system. If a hound is killed, its ghostly body disappears, ceasing to exist. Its target is then free to act as he wills.
For their part, in battle, the hounds seek first to knock down their victims, then seize them by the throat. Each time a character is wounded by a hound, he must pass a strength or agility test (player’s choice) of average difficulty to avoid being knocked down. The next time a fallen character is wounded, he is considered grasped by the throat. Until grasped, however, the character can try to stand instead of trying to attack each round. This requires success at a difficult test of agility. Any character seized by the throat finds himself paralyzed, completely unable to act.
Data Sweep: At the same time that the search program is running blood hounds through the house, an anti-virus program is launched within the computer itself, to sweep any intruders from within its own CPU. To characters within the computer, that anti-virus program seems something like a flood of glowing water seeking to drown and crush them. They must pass a difficult willpower test to avoid being overpowered by the program. Characters who fail are rendered unconscious, thereby locking them within their own brains and out of the computer. Characters who manage to resist the program can attempt to revive their fallen comrades by passing another difficult willpower test. They can also help battle the security program running within the haunted house—if they become aware of it by eavesdropping upon their friends there. By passing a difficult willpower test, a character within the computer can unravel the data flow of one hound, causing it to disappear from within the house as if killed.
Each active character within the computer has time for only two such attempts to waken a comrade or battle a hound, however, before the ship’s crew is alerted and begins to make life even more difficult for the group. Which brings us to the final effect of the security program…
Crew Alert: Even as the hounds are hunting and the anti-virus program is sweeping, the computer also sounds warning klaxons within the ship itself, alerting the crew to its invasion.
Kill the Brains!: The first reaction is that the ET in the med lab tries to destroy the characters’ brains by releasing a neurotoxin into the fluid in which they float. All the conscious characters feel a sudden stab of headache, followed by a wave of dizziness, as the poison begins its work. Unless they do something quickly to counteract that poison, the characters are all going to die!
Fortunately, the same system that delivered the poison can deliver an antidote. All that is required is for a character to locate the med-lab data stream (which search takes but a moment’s thought) and then succeed at a willpower roll of moderate difficult to modify it. That done, the antitoxin is released, and the characters’ headache and dizziness begin to subside. (A cruel game master might reduce each character’s intelligence rating by one point, however, to account for the damage caused by the neurotoxin, and/or have the characters each lose a few points of skills, at random.) Having taken control of the med lab program, the characters also become aware that they can now control the surgical robot, if they haven’t already thought of that.
Kill the Computer!: Assuming that the characters are successful in thwarting the neurotoxin (otherwise, they will all be dead within moments, and the adventure will be over prematurely), the ETs now try to shut down the computer itself. Any characters monitoring the video feed notice the aliens working feverishly at various control panels, which then begin to go dark. One by one, systems shut down on the ship, as the computer itself begins going off-line, one program at a time. The characters can stop the shut-down process by succeeding at an average test of computer or electronics skills, or a difficult test of their intelligence attribute. Each character can attempt each of the three tests once.
Once the shut-down sequence has been halted, to restore programs which have terminated requires a difficult test of computer or electronics skills, or a very difficult test of intelligence. Again, each character can attempt each test once.
It takes ten combat turns for the computer to shut down all its programs, but the players needn’t know that. Nor is it necessary for you, as game master, to keep a list of all the programs running and which ones are terminated. Concentrate upon drama instead, telling the players such things as, “The video monitor you are using suddenly flickers off, preventing you from seeing anything more on the bridge,” or, “The haunted house program just collapsed in on itself.” Life support programs are the last to go, of course, with gravity being the final one.
As the group battles the computer shut-down and work to restore halted programs, let the players know that their characters are actually taking control of the entire computer from the inside. Within moments, their will extends over the entire device. Soon, they have only to think and the computer instantly obeys. In effect, they become the mind of the alien ship itself!
Prepare to Repel Boarders!: Their attempts now thwarted, both to kill the characters and to shut down the computer, the ETs begin arming themselves with energy beam rods. With the humans in control of the ship, they must be prepared for serious trouble.
Once armed, the ETs begin shooting control panels, trying to cripple their vessel. They know that events have progressed too far for them to regain control, so all that is left is to deny this technology to the humans. Because the equipment has been built to withstand punishment, however, this is an arduous, time-consuming task. Even the cylinder which houses the characters’ brains can endure a few minutes of direct fire by the ET in the med lab before it is breached. Still, the heat begins warming the fluid inside, so unless the characters want their brains to be cooked, they need to deal with this ET quickly! Probably the best way to do this is to attack the alien with the surgical robot, which is under control of the central computer. To keep other ETs from entering the med lab, of course, the group will need to latch the door, which like everything else is under computer control.
Most likely at about this point, the characters will decide to install their brains into the android bodies and go hunting ETs. After all, no one likes to be a bodiless brain, and the group can use the med lab’s surgical robot to conduct the necessary operation.
The trouble is, there aren’t enough android bodies to go around. As a matter of fact, there is exactly one too few. Someone is going to have to stay behind, controlling the computer, while the rest of the characters return to the “flesh” (albeit artificial). As game master, be sure to give some time for this realization to sink in, and for the players to wrangle over who is staying and who is going. Remind them, however, that one of the androids already wears the face of one of the characters. While this doesn’t necessarily mean that that person absolutely must get that body, it does give him some reason for arguing that it should.
Once housed within those android bodies, the characters find themselves as strong and tough as grizzly bears in plate mail. Their fists are capable of punching through sheet steel; their skins are immune to any attack less powerful than a laser; and other than their human brains, there are no critical organs to be injured anyway. Battling one of them is like fighting a diesel-powered threshing machine. While a hit from an ET energy beam rod will punch a hole in an android body, it will take at least twenty hits to wound an android sufficiently to put it out of commission. (In fact, you can treat each android as having twenty damage points, each ET as having only one, each ray weapon as doing one point of damage, and each android fist as doing the same.) With one player character remaining in control of the computer, to monitor the ship, manipulate the lights, and open or seal doors, the ETs don’t really have any chance of survival, let alone victory.
But that’s the real point of this part of the adventure. It is a chance for the players to vent their frustration upon these creatures, who had the audacity to destroy a plane full of people, just to harvest a few brains, and then subject them to the nightmare of the haunted house program. So let your group run wild, laying waste to the entire ET crew. If the ETs score a few hits on them in return, that only adds to the satisfaction the characters will feel once they have put paid to these aliens.
Once the player characters have taken complete control of the alien vessel, it is time for them to take stock of the situation and decide what they will do with themselves next. The character remaining within the computer can take some time to peruse its banks of knowledge and learns the following things:
1) Surprisingly, all of their original bodies but one are capable of being reassembled and revived. Although horribly dissected, they are being held in stasis fields which have kept their cells from fully dying. The one exception is the individual whose facial image was transferred to an android. The stasis field sheltering his body was shut off for that purpose, and the body perished during the time spent on the battle. (Still, most likely this player probably doesn’t mind the idea of his character wearing a powerful android body from now on. Unfortunately, the next bit of news should come as a shock to him.)
2) The power pack within each android body is good for only two years of operation. The packs are not rechargeable; there are no more aboard the ship; and they are beyond the capability of the ship to construct. Presumably, the only source of more is the aliens’ home planet. However, the power packs can be switched easily from one android body to another, and if removed, they have an indefinite shelf life.
3) A flight plan to earth is stored within the navigation computer. So are the coordinates for the ETs’ home world, and for thousands of other worlds every bit as inhuman, if not worse. It would seem that the galaxy is a very inhospitable place for humankind.
4) The computer memory banks also contain all sorts of technological knowledge far beyond that possessed by earth. (This should come as no surprise.)
What the characters decide to do in the face of these revelations is up to your players and you. If you wish to continue with a fairly standard horror campaign, encourage the players to return their characters to earth, in their own bodies, and to self-destruct the ship. Play up the idea that humanity isn’t ready for the secrets the vessel possesses, and that the earth would soon become embroiled in a horrible war as nations competed to capture and control that knowledge. Tell them that, despite tabloid reports to the contrary, this was the only alien ship ever to visit Earth, that the ETs are used to viewing the galaxy as a horribly dangerous place, and that they never send a second ship to a location where one has been lost. The aliens on the home world will certainly chalk earth up as just another place too deadly to be exploited.
On the other hand, if you don’t mind a more over-the-top, sci-fi campaign, the group could keep the ship, in which case they are well equipped to go exploring, or to chase down supernatural baddies on the Earth. In this case, ETs should become a regular theme of the campaign, as the characters are tracked down again and again by aliens looking to recapture the stolen ship.
In either case, be sure to award the characters plenty of experience points for this adventure. They have been through a lot, and they have earned the reward.
Now that you have read the entire adventure and understand the reasons for the various events, let us give a few general pieces of advice for running the thing to maximum effect.
First, because the haunted house is actually nothing but a computer program, run by aliens who are trying to understand and manipulate human fear, absolutely anything imaginable can happen within its confines. This house is jam-packed with horror, without needing to make complete sense. Every room has something terrible for the player characters to discover, and you can invent new events as you see fit. Just imagine yourself as an ET monitoring the program, reacting and adapting it to the specific characters trapped within it.
Second, for that same reason, you can make the events more like a movie than you might normally. Use the storm to best effect, flashing lightning at the scariest moments, and booming thunder dramatically. Portray the house itself as something alive and malevolent, out to get the characters. Let the players suppose reasons as they will, and if you’re impressed with something in particular they suggest, feel free to run with it.
Third, don’t be afraid to let the group split up in the house, if they like. Obviously, not everyone can fit through any one door at the same time. So you may find some group members wanting to go on to check out other doors while their fellows are occupied. As referee, just deal with the characters in one room at a time, sending the other players away for a few minutes while you do so. As long as you take care to keep circulating among the different sub-groups, so that no one has to sit long unoccupied, everything should work out fine. One particularly good way to keep the interest high is to leave each group at the moment of a cliff-hanger. “You open the door, and dozens of red eyes stare back at you. And then… I’ll get back with you in a moment.” By the same token, if someone dies in the house, don’t tell them directly, but rather describe to someone else how they find the body. It is much more shocking for everyone involved.
Lastly, when it comes time to run the second half of the adventure, aboard the ET ship, try to time the horrific revelations for maximum effect, but keep in mind that the player characters should win out in the end (unless they just do something completely stupid). A major point of torturing the group for so long is so that it will feel all the more satisfying when they get their revenge at the end.