Over the weekend I had the chance to run a 5e game set in Krevborna (1). The characters included Kahl, a cleric who has had previous experience with the darkness that overruns the land; Herman, a former whaler and current bard who seems to have bad luck at sea; "Philip," a rather more savage whaler who is rather handy with a javelin; Oskar, a revolutionary-minded printer and wizard who is currently on the run.
Each member of the party had boarded the ship The Sea Raptor at various southern points heading west. However, such an uneventful passage was not to be.
The captain of the ship, Guile Robart, invited his guests to take dinner with him in his cabin. The passengers were joined by a young, curly-haired fop named Martinus di Rosalba (2), the son of a wealthy family. As each guest took turns divulging as much of their story as they were comfortable with, Martinus revealed that he had left his ancestral seat to seek his wayward sister Emilia, who had fallen prey to a romance with a member of the family's help and run away from home (3). The characters seemed to take an instant dislike to Martinus, as his conversation was peppered with classism and a casual disregard for the common man's plight.
In the late hours of the night, the passengers were awoken by the sound of frantic yelling and hammering in the holds below. After investigating, they discovered that the ship's hull had been breached upon a rocky shoal and was taking on water. Captain Robart, mindful of his passenger's life and limb, took his guests to a lifeboat, instructed them to row for the lighthouse that could be seen in the distance, and hoped that the gods would be with them (4).
After a life-and-death battle with the sea, our heroes managed to drag themselves onto the shore of the lighthouse's island. As they approached the lighthouse amidst a terrible nor'wester, the party realized two things: the lighthouse's lamp was aimed in such a way as to deceive passing ships into foundering on the rocks and that they were being approached by crab-like things whose tread sounded oddly like the march of armored men.
As it turned out, the crabs were not natural things, but rather mechanical constructs with awful scything claws (5). Scything claws that they didn't manage to do anything with; Herman quickly lured a few of the crabs into position where a boulder could be dropped on them by his allies. A few magic missiles, rapier thrusts, and thrown javelins later, and the scuttling nightmares were nothing more than piles of twisted wreckage.
More crabs appeared along the shore, so the party decided it was time to seek shelter in the lighthouse. The first floor was sparsely furnished: there was a staircase leading to the next floor in the center of the room, rough-hewn table by the fireplace, and a cabinet of curiosities against one wall. Oh, and a life sized-doll standing beside the cabinet. A life-sized doll dressed in a frilly dress and bonnet. A life-sized doll with dead eyes and a spiderweb of cracks spreading along her cold, white porcelain face (6).
The cabinet of curiosities was cautiously explored. It contained a number of human and animal skulls (including a beauchene skull), a grisly shrunken head, three chipped obsidian daggers (later revealed to be used be an obscure, ancient cult in G'Henna that practices human sacrifice to appease the god Zhakata), an obscene paperweight, and a black-lacquered box containing tarokka cards (7).
The Doll was motionless and inert as the party poked around the ground floor. However, when examined closely, she tilted her head and greeted the interlopers with a kindly, "Hello." The Doll's movements seemed...too natural, too human-like...two of the party members found themselves disturbed by her presence. Nevertheless, when questioned the Doll explained that the lighthouse belonged to Dr. Hesselius Reichmann (8), who was sleeping upstairs, and would the party like to meet him?
And meet him they would.
(1) - The basic seed of the adventure was borrowed from the "Bride of Mordenheim" adventure in the Book of Crypts 2e Ravenloft supplement. I made heavy modifications to it and added a lot of complexities that aren't there in the original. (I find this is the only way to make published adventures actually usable, but I digress.) I also didn't want the characters to encounter a major villain like Mordenheim straight away, so I changed things up and substituted my own Dr. Reichmann instead.
(2) - Martinus di Rosalba's name was inspired by Ellena di Rosalba in Ann Radcliffe's The Italian, but I played him as Ellena's inverse: instead of a pure-hearted character who is unaware of her noble origins, Martinus is all-too invested in his aristocratic family's privilege and a bit of a foolish knave to boot. The disdain the players developed for him would factor into the moral quandaries to come.
(3) - I threw in Emilia's (possible) elopement because I had just re-read Thomas Hardy's "Barbara of the House of Grebe" a few weeks ago. Her story could be something that comes up again later if we continue with this as a series of adventures.
(4) - Herman's back-story of having been a crew member on other ships that had gone down fit perfectly here. Here's another (presumably) sunken vessel he can write a tragic song about.
(5) - 5e doesn't really have any low-level mechanical monstrosities, so I just reskinned some regular goblins for the crabs. Shhh!
(6) - I stole the idea for The Doll from Bloodborne's Plain Doll in the Hunter's Dream.
(7) - I will take any opportunity to add a cabinet of curiosities to a game.
(8) - I went through a lot of potential names before I settled on Dr. Hesselius Reichmanm. The Hesselius bit comes from the doctor in Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu's In a Glass Darkly, while "Reichmann" had just the right "Nazi doctor" vibe. Not that I'm saying that Reichmann is up to some terrible experiments on human subjects. What would give you that idea?