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  • Designing a hellhole

    Hey everyone, I'm in the process of designing a hellhole for my campaign and was wondering if you guys could help suggest ways to make it more interesting?

    I'm basing it off a superfund site in Chicago, a former gas plant that has since been razed and graveled over, but the ground remains incredibly toxic and the area around it infested with Wyrm energies.

    Right off the bat, I've decided to play with the contrast of having the physical world appear innocuous, while the umbral version is ghastly and horrific. So, Wyrm elementals are an easy first choice, with Wakshaa (toxin elementals) and H'rugglings (sludge elementals) all around. Then... what? Banes, of course, but what kind would fit best? Scrags and kaluses and the like don't really fit, as the place hasn't been the site of murders and abuse.

    What do you guys do with your hellholes? I'm going with some 11 of them in Chicago based off the number of superfund sites registered within the city limits, so don't want to just drop a Black Spiral hive on each one. How do you make yours interesting and challenging for the PCs?

  • #2
    Design of Domains and the Penumbra in general is something I wish the game had better supported because I always had lots of questions like this one. Below are some guidelines I use when creating Domains for my own chronicles.

    I give each Domain an evocative name that the local Garou know it by. This is for ease of reference IC, but it gives you as an ST a tool to help create the theme, feel, and ambience for your PCs. Naming can come after you brainstorm some ideas about the Hellhole.

    Create the actual location in the Penumbra. This may just be a reflection of how it looks now. It might also include previous constructs like the old gas plant, if it somehow accrued spiritual significance (possibly as a source of fear and ill well from the surrounding neighbors or old employees because of health issues). It might even have something brand new created there that depicts how people currently think about the area. So if you're creating up to 11 different sites, you may want to play around with this so that each site looks different while still appearing obviously hellish.

    Think how you want the PCs to enter the Domain itself. A Domain is a pocket dimension connected to the Penumbra, but isn't a part of the Penumbra itself. So you should think about how creatures can move over. It might be something as simple as a door, or the opening of a pipe one could crawl in, a mist or other blur that one enters, an obviously distorted area that draws your eye and then can be passed through (a wall has a stained and torn wallpaper, and upon investigating it one discovers the wallpaper is covering a hole in the wall; or in a gravel field, one part of the field has gravel that looks different in texture and coverage, and you see it it because there's a natty dirt colored tarp covering an underground entrance). That might be easy to spot (you just tell the PCs, or they uncover it themselves by merely searching), or it might be difficult to see - in which case have them roll Perception + Enigmas at an appropriate difficulty.

    Now comes the Domain itself which might be anything. It could have the appearance of the inside of a factory or plant; it might be nightmarish caverns under the Earth; a gas choked battlefield reminiscent of a WWI combat scene; a weltering industrial sub-basement with furnaces and other equipment; or it might look like the Penumbra but worse - familiar city streets and buildings, but it looks like the building stones and concrete are etched with acid from the pollution while everything appears to have a sick green tinge and a disgusting film covers many surfaces. Use your imagination.

    As for inhabitants, I think you are right to go for mood and feel, rather than just through any Bane at them. However, keep in mind you can easily reskin Banes by keeping the stats and charms, but renaming them. If you want a dangerous combat foe but don't want to use a Scrag, keep the Scrag's stats but say it is a spirit of caustic chemicals that leaked that injured workers and harmed the community's health. The ongoing effects even today has caused it to become powerful and dangerous. And describe it looking like something else than a Scrag.

    And since Werewolf spirit mechanics are meant to be simple, it's not important to have a D&D style monster mash. You can have an encounter with nothing but Waakshani for example, but in terms of how you describe them to the PCs - their color, form, ways of movement - they could think they are 3 or 4 different kinds of Banes. Don't name them, describe them. Let the PCs name them. Or if they ask you to tell you what they are, you can confirm "They're Wyrm Elementals of Wakshaa" but it's still generic enough that in their minds they may think each type is a different kind of Bane with different kinds of stats or even powers. You may even want to assign an extra Charm to one of them. But describing things in variety gives a very different feel than "You encounter another Waakshaani".

    Some other things to consider about its spirit inhabitants.

    It does not just mean to be Gafflings. Some of these may have a very powerful Jaggling of that spirit type. Boost up its Essence, give it some more Charms, and give it a name that it's known by (not a true name, but an evocative name the PCs can use). Perhaps Garou of the sept already know of it, or they can learn it by talking with Gaian spirits closer to the Hellhole, or by overhearing the Banes in it. Some creativity here can pay off nicely, and might even give you an ongoing antagonist in the Umbra you can use.

    Spirits that aren't Banes might have been corrupted as a result of the activities here. Maybe there's an Electricity Elemental that provided power to the gas plant that is now corrupted as a result. It now serves the Banes of the Domain. Or perhaps stray animals or other city wildlife got too close and became corrupted. So corrupted Rat gafflings, or Feral Pyschagonea, Cockroaches, or whatever are nearby. Perhaps some serve the other Banes; but others don't - but they're still dangerous to the PCs but represent a different "faction". Or perhaps they are in a state of Falling and aren't immediately dangerous. They could serve as sources of information, or the PCs might try to redeem them. You might even have a corrupted Pattern Spider. Usually Weaver spirits at industrial locations fight off the Banes so that the industrial processes can happen. But things like industrial accidents in the real world might reflect one of those Weaver spirits being corrupted. So if there was ever a leak at that gas plant that caused the local community to temporarily evacuate, or caused the plant to shut down to prevent disaster; then in the umbra it might be because the local Pattern Spider guarding it become corrupted and let it happen. Corrupted versions of other spirits is a good way to introduce some diversity and help distinguish different Hellholes from each other.

    Also remember that there can be Emanations. These aren't real spirits, but are "phantoms" conjured by the Domain itself. They might fight the PCs (and give them stats to do so), but they are better used to create an interesting environment. Perhaps the plant/factory still "operates" in the Domain with Emanations appearing as the workers. As long as one wears an ID Badge, or wears the company uniform, or puts on the hard hat and orange safety vest, or whatever, the Emanations treat them as part of their crew. There can even be a queue of people waiting to get handed that thing, and the Garou PCs can just wait in line and talk to them, get their stuff and sneak in. An Emanation might even ask them if they are one of the temps, and a foreman might tell them to grab some mops and clean the bathroom, or move some boxes/crates, or something else. But if they don't play by the rules, then the Emanations get on the intercom and call security, alerting the Banes. Or there could be Emanations that represent the people harmed in the community and appear lost, confused, and angry. Good use of Emanations can develop how a Domain feels, and are a good distinguisher between Hellholes that might otherwise be the same.

    Then you can have other spirits that aren't the Wyrm either. Maybe there is an uncorrupted Pattern Spider left behind from earlier days keeping low, or a group of Hunter Spiders waging a guerilla war. They could be antagonists or a potential help to the PCs, depending on how they act. It's a good way to let your Theurge PC shine. Or maybe a swarm of uncorrupted Rat Gafflings scattering about that could provide the PCs a lot of useful information, if they bother to interact with them. Potential allies, neutral factions, and creatures that are hostile to both the PCs and the dominant group of Banes are a good way to make sites more interesting and distinguish them. The more powerful the Hellhole and its Banes, the more you may want to introduce other factions as a way to help the PCs while not diminishing the threat.
    Last edited by Black Fox; 02-12-2021, 01:27 AM.

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    • #3
      Something else to consider is that since you have so many superfund sites that are a Hellhole, that some of those are not individual Hellholes. Instead, some are parts of the same Hellhole. They're just different entrances of the same Penumbral Domain. You may want to do that for a particular large or powerful Hellhole. It might be something your PCs can discover and report back to the sept for Renown.

      Of course, they should probably be linked in some way that it makes sense they are all part of the same Hellhole. Similar pollution, or all sites once owned by the same company. Or there is something else that linked them out of the ordinary, like an occult Wyrm ritual done by the bad guys of your choice.

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      • #4
        Black Fox, thank you for your fantastic post. It's a treasure trove of ideas, and definitely gives me lots to work with. I feel like writing several paragraphs worth of appreciative text, but in the end would simply be repeating myself. Thanks again for taking the time to write that out, it's truly appreciated.

        Question: I've never come across 'Emanations' before. I love the idea, but in which source book can I read more about them? Velvet Curtain, Axis Mundi...?

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        • #5
          Emanations are definitely mentioned in the Umbra: Velvet Shadow books. I think they are in a few other places as well. They're generally mentioned in reference to the Near Realms, especially those that provide an experience. I don't think they're mentioned in Axis Mundi.

          I am glad the post helped. Conceiving of an Penumbral landscape was a major stumbling block for me in prepping my chronicles. The various Rage books never really gave us examples. As a result, my early games neglected a lot of the umbra and the rest I half-assed it. Players didn't complain, but I was very unsatisfied.

          It took a lot of time for me to get a handle on it and come up with guidelines to help me. I reread a lot of stuff in the books, and copied a lot of things posted for online games that I liked. Eventually I distilled it to enough principles that I could create a map of the penumbra for my chronicles so I could put down specific Domains, and knew what to do with them. It definitely enriched my setting, and provided more hooks for the PCs.

          You can apply the same concepts to other kinds of Domains. Put Webs at the core urban locations in Chicago - Weaver spirits of information at the Field Museum and universities; another one to represent the CBOT and big banks and the Gold Coast; a third at the center of government offices, others that defend the city's mass transit or other infrastructure (power, water). Put Glens at Grant, Lincoln, and Jackson Parks. Blights in the worst neighborhoods. You can quickly fill up the city that way, and provide a lot of diversity for PCs to explore. When I finally mapped out my chronicle, my Penumbra stopped being a generic setting, and actually became something the PCs had to explore and navigate. And now that I had actual Webs down, the PCs avoided entire sections of the city because they knew the Pattern Spiders were too numerous and dangerous (at least during the day, but they still had to be stealthy at night).

          I also do things like create a Domain that appears in the air, but only when the smog gets bad. When smog isn't bad, you can't see it and it is inaccessible. I had one Blight that connected all the seedy areas of sex work and drug deals, and Banes of the Defiler Wyrm used it as a means to quickly travel through the city and escape pursuers. I also have a Glen that is only accessible in the air where many of the city bird spirits reside. You can probably do something similar for the waters of Lake Michigan. So you can get really creative and have many secrets for the PCs to discover (or not).

          It takes more work up front, but I now consider it to be an essential part of the game that adds a lot. Just be sure the PCs know something about the penumbra landscape - some Domains may be secret or hidden, but most should be known to any Garou who reside in or routinely visit the city and can infodump on the PCs. Keep it small and general at first, but be ready to answer questions when the PCs are ready to ask for more details.

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