Guest Writer: Matthew Sunrich
I don’t know about the rest of you, but I start getting in the mood for Halloween around the second week of July. By then, summer, with its unrelenting sunshine, stifling humidity, and scourges of mosquitoes, has worn out its welcome, and I long for cool weather, falling leaves, autumn colors, ghost stories, horror movies, haunted houses, and, yes, pumpkin-flavored everything. It’s ironic that fall is, from a metaphorical standpoint, associated with death because it’s the time of year when I feel most alive.
As far as I’m concerned, Halloween should be celebrated similarly to the way Christmas is. One day is not enough to contain its sheer awesomeness. An entire week (or more) should be devoted to it. For most people, it’s not a big deal, and the idea of a “Halloween season” is ridiculous. They just put a jack o’ lantern out on their front porches on October 31 and hand out candy to the neighborhood kids for a couple of hours. But it’s also a holiday with a lot of avid fans who indulge in it. Every year, these fans anticipate the unveiling of new costumes, decorations, and variegated bric-a-brac at their favorite retail outlets, and companies such as Spirit Halloween and Halloween City set up stores packed with everything spooky imaginable during the months of September and October, making it possible for those of the right persuasion to do all of their shopping in one convenient place. There are even a handful of year-round Halloween stores, which makes more sense, to my way of thinking, than a year-round Christmas shop.
It comes as little surprise that fantasy fandom and Hallowe’en enthusiasm frequently go hand in hand. After all, they share a lot of the same elements: vampires, werewolves, witches, mummies, et cetera. Even though Halloween is, in modern terms, strictly a commercial holiday, it has origins in European folklore, which is also the source of a large proportion of fantasy’s trappings. Elves and fey creatures dwell in the same deep forests that spawned the monstrous entities and terrifying apparitions associated with All Hallows’ Eve.
With this in mind, Goodman Games released a Halloween-themed module for its Dungeon Crawl Classics line in 2016 with the bizarre title The Sinister Sutures of the Sempstress. Here, author Michael Curtis serves up an inventive, spooky adventure for four to six 6th-level characters.
Dungeon Crawl Classics is a series of sword-and-sorcery modules that was originally designed to be used with the various rule sets of Dungeons & Dragons under the Open Game License. It has since switched primarily to using its own rules. The distinguishing characteristic of its adventures is the concentration on recapturing the spirit of the original version of D&D, as imagined by Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson in 1974 (games in this vein are termed “retroclones”). It’s hard to deny that while modern fantasy RPGs offer lots of attractive options, sometimes players just want to engage in a simple, straightforward dungeon crawl populated with familiar monsters and traps.
The thing on the cover of the module defies concise description. Spilling out of a wardrobe, it appears to be a patchwork of body parts straight out of a Lovecraftian nightmare. While clearly an amalgam of sewn-together bits, it seems to be the result of scant thought in terms of composition. It is, in effect, the opposite of Frankenstein’s Monster. Flesh golems are, of course, a fixture in fantasy games, but generally their creators attempt to make them appear humanoid, both for functionality and as a distortion of the human form that will likely cause revulsion in those who encounter it. Victor Frankenstein, the original monster maker in terms of actual chronology, remarked that he tried to make his creature as beautiful as possible, though we know that didn’t quite work out. One of thing’s hands brandishes a dagger. How effective it will be in using it will remain to be seen.
Sempstress is described in the Introduction as being, not surprisingly, “horror-themed.” It can be played in a single session, preferably on Halloween, or incorporated into an existing campaign. The eponymous entity “was born from mankind’s subconscious fear, fashioning herself whole cloth from the terrors and phobias of a hundred cultures.” She has existed for untold ages, feeding on the fear and blood of humans and demi-humans. A thousand years before this adventure is set, a group of brave souls rose up and drove her into the “cosmic netherworld,” in which she wove a dimension for herself where she could heal and regain her powers. A composite of rooms stolen from the places she once terrorized, this dimension is called The House of Tattered Remnants.
Her powers restored, she is now able to create pathways to the physical plane and is ready to plague the world once again, starting by wiping out the descendants of those who imprisoned her. You guessed it: The characters in this adventure are the descendants in question. These hapless souls are not safe anywhere, as the Sempstress is capable of attacking them through doors and chests in any location as long as garments are stored within. Bedrooms are, thus, particularly susceptible. Like many villains, she prefers to serve as mastermind and send others to do her dirty work.
The adventure begins ideally in the characters’ homes, though a room in an inn is also acceptable as long as a closet, chest, or wardrobe is found within. While sleeping, the characters are attacked by Patchwork Stalkers, the Sempstress’ terrible minions. After defeating the Stalkers, the characters determine the pathway through which the monsters came and enter The House of Tattered Remnants. The House resembles a “gloomy, dilapidated Victorian mansion,” and mind-bending horrors and dangers lurk everywhere. The walls are made of living flesh that spurts blood when cut. Looking to the outside reveals enormous graveyards filled with giant maggots, the entrails of a rotting god, desolate stretches of land filled with plague pits and gallows, and cities with non-Euclidean geometry (a la R’lyeh, the city in which the dread Cthulhu dwells in Lovecraft’s fiction).
Further exploration reveals “marionettes” made from corpses and controlled by monstrous, deformed arachnids, a ballroom where fierce gladiatorial battles are fought, specters that steal precious memories, bats fashioned from rags, animated dresses made of the skin of albinos, and an array of chambers designed to challenge the characters’ mental integrity.
The two-page map included is a swirling mass of chaos hovering above a yawning abyss. Though it’s only meant to be viewed by the judge (the DCC term for the person running the game), it creates an atmosphere of tension that will, without a doubt, carry over into the game’s narrative. It’s virtually impossible to look at it and not feel like reality as we know it has ceased to have any meaning. The broken window in the center is the focal point of the whole thing, reminding us that all attempts at escape are futile.
The “mini-boss” is The Custodian of Parts. He is responsible for inventorying the Sempstress’ collection of vile components from which she creates her minions. Not unlike the thing on the cover of the module, he is not easy to describe. Imagine a fat man with three crab legs who fell off a tall building and broke almost every bone in his body and most of his teeth in the process, and you’ll come close. It is suggested that he was once human, but his association with the Sempstress changed him into the monstrosity he is today. He possesses a weapon called the Bright that he claims can kill her, but the adventurers must dig through the filth in his chamber to find it. (For added fun, the module suggests that the judge can fill a bowl with cold spaghetti and peeled grapes, blindfold the players, and force them to dig through it.)
The Sempstress herself is the final challenge of the encounter. She is a beautiful woman dressed in a patchwork gown; however, she is twelve feet tall and hovers above the floor of her massive, high ceilinged room. Rather than attack outright, she attempts to inveigle the adventurers, claiming she is an innocent prisoner in the House and that the Custodian was the one who summoned them. She will continue to lie to the party for as long as she can, but if they don’t believe her, she will send more of her minions after them. In addition to the aforementioned Patchwork Stalkers, they will also face Reality-Tailors, powerful sorcerers wearing flowing robes and crow-like plague-doctor masks with the ability to reshape matter and energy for their own purposes. If she is forced to fight for herself, she attacks with needle-like fingers that not only inflict damage but also suture body parts together, rendering them useless.
While the Bright is not required to fight the Sempstress, it certainly makes things easier. It destroys her minions, weakens her, and forces her to engage the adventurers herself. Regardless, defeating her causes the House to fall apart and allows the characters to return to their own world through the same means by which they entered. The judge is left with many interesting possibilities when the module is completed, if he or she chooses to make it part of something larger.
The Lovecraft influence can be seen perhaps most prominently in the form of one of the adventure’s greatest dangers: “unraveling.” The House of Tattered Remnants, not unlike the Great Old Ones in Lovecraft’s stories, cannot be comprehended by the minds of terrestrial creatures, so every time a character is exposed to the environment, they must make a will save. Failing the save results in loss of stability, which is somewhat analogous to sanity in the Call of Cthulhu RPG. There is, however, an unfortunate twist. The character suffers one of several effects that give them doll-like characteristics, including having stitches appear on their skin, having their hair turn into yarn, having an eye replaced with a button, or having clothing become permanently grafted to the body. (A more horrific version of Neil Gaiman’s Coraline comes to mind.) A character whose stability reaches zero literally unravels and is absorbed into the fabric of the House. Stability can be regained, but it is a slow process.
This is one of the strangest adventures I’ve ever encountered, and I mean that in the best possible way. It represents unbridled imagination and the ability to bring nightmarish ideas together in unique ways. It’s certainly not a typical horror tale, and it’s likely to remain with the players long after the final dice have been rolled.
It may not be apparent, but there is something vaguely off-putting about seamstresses. When I was a kid, I was always disturbed by dressmaker’s dummies and the ubiquity of tiny needles in their work areas. They reminded me of sinister laboratories, and the fact that they were often located in basements just made it worse. There is a particularly frightening episode of The Smurfs called “Tailor’s Magic Needle” in which the Smurf in question, known for his irascibility, acquires an enchanted needle that, of course, winds up turning evil and goes around poking Smurfs and sewing indiscriminately while screaming “Needle, needle, needle!”. (You could always tell that the crap had hit the fan when the third movement of Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” started playing.) I can’t say for sure whether Curtis was inspired by the episode (probably not), but it’s interesting to consider.