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Twisted Tales: Predatory Architecture

by Darren Maclennan

An adventure plot about what happens when the neighbourhood goes bad


This adventure is designed for use with an established and somewhat skilled character group, preferably one whose homes (and loyalties) are centered within a fairly large city. This adventure is well-suited to high fantasy, but will work in a modern supernatural setting such as Unknown Armies or Call of Cthulhu with significant modifications - for example, the group/cult in question won't be looking for government support, but will be more interested in serving their own ends, and the effects may need to be toned down, or isolated in some way from mass government support or media interest. Science fiction will also work by replacing the magic with super-science or alien technology. You could even make this work in Mordheim, Games Workshop's city-based skirmish wargame, provided that you created rules for mobile buildings.

It starts out with a bang. A four-story (or similarly large) government building - a hall of records, or a guard hall - suddenly collapses/explodes, scattering bits of itself across four or five city blocks and killing dozens of people. It also traps at least a hundred people inside of itself, compounding the catastrophe. The entire town slows, and then shuts down as the local authorities - and anybody that they can press into service - tries to dig the survivors out and bury the bodies before disease breaks out. The player characters, of course, are going to get involved, since their talents are needed within the search area. Declining to help will see them run out of town fairly quickly.

It's a fully-fledged disaster area. Everybody's temper is on edge. There's a lot of dust in the air, cutting visibility down to fifty feet or so; everything's filtered through a thick, brown-organe haze, which coats the characters and forces characters to wrap something around their faces to filter the dust from their lungs. The bodies that have been recovered have been laid in the street, given whatever shrouds are handy, and left there. Rats scurry around the corpses. Stray dogs eye the more mutilated bodies and let their tounges dangle. Discarded bits of equipment, from the local authorities, are everywhere. The sun is barely visible through the dust. Everything is very, very quiet, broken here and there by the clank of steel, hoarse screams, or chunks of building being moved.

Dramatize the digging through vignettes. Have them find a survivor who's been pinned by a pile of rubble. If they simply yank him out, he'll die. The application of supernatural or magical healing abilities screws things up even further, as the body heals itself around the chunks of building that have punched through the body. If they're fast, and quick, and do what they can to avoid screwing up - intelligence and/or healing skills will do nicely, as will clever use of powers or technology - they can save the person.

They'll find others. Some ideas for scenes in this part of the adventure:

  • Give the impression of constant danger through the loud creaks and moans of settling timbers - and the occasional large collapse. The building is still falling down, just slowly.
  • A pair of guards go into what looks like a safe space, only to be crushed a second later when a shift in the rubble tosses part of a floor onto them.
  • Somebody screams in the rubble. He can't be found, no matter how much the characters try to find him. The screams die away after a while.
  • A set of valuable records - stuff that the city absolutely needs, like internal secrets, or license registries, or what have you, stuff that'd take years to replace - needs to be removed from the rubble before it's destroyed. Guess who just got picked for the job?
  • The characters discover somebody in the basement, but they'll have to take the long way around to get to them. When they arrive, the person that they were after will be have been killed by a timber that didn't seem unstable when they first found him.

Leave the players with the impression of utter instability - as if the buildings around them could start collapsing at any moment, for no particular reason. You can vary the length of the building rescue scenario as long as you want, but eventually, everybody within the building is either rescued or dead. Weirdly enough, some people were killed by very unusual means within the building. For example, a timber comes down on the exact top of somebody's head, driving it through their bodies, or a glass picture frame cuts somebody's throat. If the characters do some forensic examination, they'll realize that the people were killed after the main collapse. One or two weird killings would be normal in a collapse like this, but this seems almost as if the building was attacking its residents. In addition, if anybody's sensitive to magic, they'll notice a strong 'vibe' coming from the site of the disaster. It won't be strong enough to trace, but the players may be able to trace the taint down to a pair of corpses - an adolescent and an old man, both of whom were crushed by falling timbers.

For the next week, nothing much happens. Research into the corpses will reveal their identities - James Morgan and Eric Curtis, or Morgan and Curtis if you're in a medeival setting - but there's no explanation of who they were or what they were doing in the building at the time. They don't have residence within the city, they don't have any real form of identification within their clothing - they're from out of town, but nobody can seem to track down exactly where. The only clue is a pair of talismans, one on each body - a bundle of sticks, glued together at odd angles.

The next event occurs a week later. Feel free to throw in a mini-adventure in the intervening time. The players can research the talismans that they've found. They're apparently an attempt to represent a four-dimensional space, which will be a trick and a half to understand even with the knowledge of what the talismans are. When the next collapse hits, the player characters will no doubt be interested in finding out whether the weird talismans are there, or those carrying them.

The next collapse occurrs in an old warehouse, and causes no casualties. It hits a nearby tannery, but the people are able to get out when the warehouse starts making funny noises. Some of them may even have seen the warehouse move before it collapsed, but the GM should suggest that they're simply hysterical about the building's collapse, rather than actually telling the truth.

On their way back from the investigation, one of the main events of the scenario occurs. The buildings on the street in question are fairly tall, making the street below seem like the bottom of a canyon. For the sake of atmosphere, it should be near nightfall, or already into the midnight hour. The only light comes from the streetlights, or lanterns.

When the building starts to slide into the street, like some gigantic child is sliding it across a floor, they'll probably think that it's an optical illusion, or perhaps a hallucination caused by some unknown element. The people who don't get out of the way in time manage to dive through open windows, or through an open door, but there's not much time before the building slams into the other side of the street. A hideous roar of noise fills the street, with shrill screaming following right behind. The building shudders, then slowly tries to pull itself back, doors and shutters flailing wildly. The building swings back, sending sprays of mud into the air from the force of its movement, and then slams into the other building - a small hotel - again. There's people screaming in both buildings. They're going to need help if they're going to get out.

Enter the PCs. They can feel free to stand outside and watch people be killed, but it won't play well with a lot of people.

What about the windows and doors? Since they're outside, and probably armed, the PCs will be able to catch a window, or knock a door off its hinges with the proper application of force, providing access to the inside. You could also jump from a neighboring building, since the drop between different roofs isn't too bad.

The interior of both buildings is visible to anyone coming close, as the exterior walls are being torn apart. The bottom floor of the store is filled with long tables of assorted goods, most of which have been tipped over; the upper floors are simple storage areas, and at the top, an accounting area. The hotel itself isn't much more than a series of small rooms, with a bed and a cot. At the moment, about half of the hotel has been devastated by the advancing store. The walls of the hotel literally flex in and out from the pressure being applied to them, but don't break, as they properly should. Moving around can be easily compared to being on a ship in a storm, and those who haven't got their sea legs will likely find themselves with penalties to movement.

The actual removal of people from the interior of the hotel won't be hard - most of them aren't interested in hanging around, and will gladly follow the PCs out into the street. However, there'll be two complications. One of them is Doyle, an aged ex-PC type who's been looking for a good way to die. Fighting off an attacking dry-goods store seems like a good way to do it. Once he's figured out what's going on, he'll draw whatever weapon he has handy and go after the dry good store. Therein lies the second complication - the continual attacks of the store. Hopefully, Doyle will be the last man out, and will therefore act as a gentle goad for the players to investigate the dry goods store while it's still moving.

Once inside the dry goods store, things will get more surreal. The hotel was like being in an earthquake; the dry goods store is like being inside of a living organism. Don't be afraid to make that analogy clear to the players. The walls in here flex in and out at regular intervals, and the doorways have changed shape, becoming more circular. Some of the furniture has twisted itself into complex, shoulder-high knots of wood and cloth - the interiors are alive with movement. Doyle will hack away at these for a bit, and then move upstairs. A quick intelligence check may suggest that these clusters of furniture are somehow performing the function of organs - but they won't have a lot of time to think about that before they have to help the few tenants escape, and then have to chase after the gung-ho Doyle.

They'll eventually find Doyle on the top level of the building, impaled on a dozen different beams, like a man caught in an Chinese stick puzzle. But on the far side of the room, sitting at a desk, they'll find the cause of this trouble.

He's sitting in the chair, but his body has extended outwards to touch the walls around him in the form of gloopy strands of flesh, like a spiderweb of skin. He has been tracking Doyle and the PCs since they entered the building that he's occupying; now that he has killed Doyle, he is not sure if he can take a well-armed group of adventurers. The web will retract back into his body, and he'll jump from the desk and try to quick-absorb his body into the fabric of the buidling itself. If the PCs act quickly, they'll be able to get in parting shots, but he'll be fully absorbed into the surface of the building within a minute.

Killing him will be easy enough, if they move fast. However, if they don't, they get to go for a ride. The store will pull back from the hotel, then pivot and move down the street. The store is going at a pretty good clip, maybe twenty-five miles an hour (forty KPH), and it'll be difficult to hop to the ground from the fourth floor of the building. Therefore, the characters are going to have to do something.

Or not. If they decide to simply hold tight, the building will move for some twenty minutes, then finally steer itself into a lake, or port, or cliff, destroying itself. It'll inflict some damage to the PCs, but it won't kill them. The resulting swathe of destruction that the building carved through the streets will not be regarded well, of course.

On the other hand, there are ways to stop the building from moving. One of them is to start tearing apart the room that the man slipped into. Once the walls of the room have been beaten up enough, the man's physical form will be disrupted, and the building will stop moving. Feel free to let them think that they have won; then, on their way out, the building attacks inwards - the characters will be attacked with actual pieces of the building. Treat various parts of the building as monsters. They won't have special attacks, but they'll have a lot of hit points, and bludgeoning attacks that can do a lot of damage. Once the PCs have escaped or fought off enough of these, the building will stop moving.

They can also try to escape the building while it's moving through the streets, for a somewhat cinematic approach. All that it'll take is good timing and a handy balcony, or store awning, for the characters to escape. The building will move on without them, eventually collapsing some fifteen minutes later.

The other option is to go after the clusters of furniture on the lower floor, which act as the building's organs - kill enough of them, and the building stops moving. If they succeed, the man will flop out of the wall, dead from internal injuries. Burning the building will achieve similar results, although without a body. The GM can hopefully a response to unexpected player actions, but keep these things in mind...

  • The building is the man's body, and vice-versa. You can damage the walls, and that'll hurt him a bit, but the furniture organs are the primary vulnerable points.
  • The man has control over the building, but he can't create an infinite amount of guardians and/or living walls/floors before running out of raw material.
  • Without interference, the man will run the building down into a body of water, or large hole in the ground, or anything that happens to be nearby. When he arrives, he'll try and steer it towards the danger, then hop out and get away unobserved, as best he can.

After the PCs have managed to pull themselves out of this situation, they'll find themselves more confused than before. They've found out, in a sense, what's causing the collapse, but there's no explanation of what kind of magic could do this kind of thing. But the man that they saw is either dead, or has escaped into the city. They're left struggling for answers.

Let them spend a day doing research. The talisman will reveal itself to be part of a spell designed to allow human beings to meld their bodies with buildings - but further study will reveal that the talisman has nothing to do with it - it's just a representation of the spell itself, no more powerful than a toy car. The authorities will be equally clueless, although more police/guards will be posted as the city is on watch for more such disasters.

Nightfall is when it starts again - and this time, a lot more buildings move. Thirty of them, over the space of some ten minutes, and the city turns into a boiling mass of moving architecture. Panic reigns, lines of communication are cut, buildings slam into each other and the city falls into complete chaos and rioting. Players will get the impression that reality is bending like warm taffy in the sun.

To emphasise the chaos, you could allow the PCs to encounter one or two random, short events - injured or trapped people, desperate authorities, opportunistic looters, etc. Pretty soon, before they make any real sense of what's going on, they'll see a young girl, maybe thirteen years old, running down the streets, closely pursued by a trio of thugs who are intent on assaulting her. The PCs will likely intervene, but not before the girl jumps into a building. Not just through a door; into the wall itself, where she disappears. Shrieks of panic are heard within as the building creates its organs; and then, slowly, the building moves into the street.

Hopefully, the thugs will have been dealt with. If not, the building will lash out with internal timbers and shards of flying glass. If the GM wants, he can play out the pursuit, with the girl shifting buildings to get at the thugs, but it's easier simply to either have the thugs killed quickly by the building, or have them dealt with by the PCs.

In any case, once the thugs have been dealt with, the girl will extract herself from the building. She'll be startled by the PCs, but if they have anything even approaching a reputation for heroism, or if they're associated with the government or law enforcement, she'll stop, and then plead them for aid. She'll be unable to speak coherently for a minute or two, but once they've calmed her down, she'll be able to explain what's going on.

It'll take time to explain, during which time the city will still be at war, but the basics are this: The girl is from a group that learned a spell that would let people meld with buildings - it is a form of sacred architecture, like a church. By joining with a building, you'd become that much closer to their god. However, there's been a schism within the group. One group wants the use of the spell to be confined only to the group's religious buildings, which are specifically built to be "possessed" by humans; the other wants to invade major cities and take them over, creating living cities. As a result, a war has broken out within the group. The girl, whose name is Minerva, came here with her grandmother to ask protection from the city's government. They were in a government building when agents from the other half of the cult (the "evil" half) attacked it, toppling it. Minerva escaped by joining with part of the building that was still standing; her grandmother wasn't so lucky. But why are the buildings fighting each other?

Minerva will be able to answer that question as well. Presuming that they don't lock her up, she'll lead them to where a small store is moving through the street. It'll slow down enough to let them inside, at which point a middle-aged man with pattern baldness will step out of the floor. He introduces himself as Waits. If the PCs can guarantee him the support of their governmnent - or, barring that, the support of the PCs themselves - he'll agree to call off his side of the group in exchange for protection from the government. If you can, make sure that the PCs think that this is the end of the scenario (and indeed it can be, if you want to cut it short). They've been through two action sequences, they've saved a young girl and got the low-down on what's going on, and now all that's left is to find the buildings that the other half of the group is in and kill them. Waits can explain how it's done.

They are not that lucky.

Killing the first few buildings won't be hard. All that it'll take is a quick charge through the door, followed by a thrust to the second floor. That's generally where the heart-organ is, and after that's dead, the person inside the building dies with it. The local authorities will be able to do the same. After a dozen kills, however, the buildings are abandoned, and the people inside seem to simply disappear. At that point, the buildings stop moving. Then a police station, guard house or its equivalent, collapses, trapping or killing those inside, and making a clear threat. At that point, most people decide that sleeping on the streets (or outside the city) is the better choice.

Waits and Minerva work frantically on a solution to the problem, but they're hampered by the fact that the members of the group that are on their side aren't showing up to help. Either they're all dead, which is unlikely, or they're still pursuing a guerilla war against the other half of the group. In which case, why haven't they joined with the authorities? Why risk being slain by the guards, or by the PCs?

It takes time to find out. Waits discovers one of his friends hiding in another hotel, only to learn that his friend isn't really..."there", as he puts it. While his conscious mind is there, it's been changed dramatically, from having spent too much time within the building itself. Initially, Waits says that his friend is still looking for signs of the enemy group within the city. Half an hour later, they'll find Waits, dead by his own hand. He's swallowed an entire box of nails - the kind that you use to make a building with. Minerva will be heartbroken, and will retreat into a building to mourn alone and look for answers.

Fifteen minutes later, she'll come out. The PCs may be concerned about her committing suicide, but what she says will make them aware of the horror that drove Waits to suicide. The people in the buildings aren't just in their buildings anymore. There's also no schism in the group anymore, perhaps because the splinter group are all dead, or perhaps because of something far more stranger. Thanks to their extended time in the building, they are conciousnesses have begun to spread out, and are forming into a hive mind. They've also begun to spread out in a far more disturbing fashion: the streets are now their arteries, the buildings are now their cells.

The entire city is now alive.

So, now what? Such a large event has a lot of implications, and the ending will depend largely on how the players react. Some options follow.

  • The characters don't need to do anything - the people inside of the buildings are simply hibernating, slowly forming a group mind within the city. Minerva will continue her research into what's happened, but the scenario has ended for the moment. Later on, Minerva can make a discovery about the group mind that'll lead to one of the other options.
  • The characters can force people out of the buildings by doing a particular geomantic ritual on the rooftop of the building, but they'll have to figure out a way to isolate and trap a particular person in the hive mind. It'll be easy the first time; shortly thereafter, the entire city will begin to react. One member can control a single building; moving back and forth between the two requires building-to-building contact, so it'd be easiest to take them in a sparsely populated area of the city. Players can use tactics to flush people into such areas and then trap them. Alternatively, a collection of extremely powerful mages could perform the same ritual on the entire city, but this would be a massive undertaking.
  • The group turns out to be friendly to the aims of the city, since the "evil" members of the group were killed off in becoming part of the city. The characters must negotiate a treaty with the living city, which will involve some harsh concessions for both sides. There might even be the need to restructure parts of the city to accomodate the group. On the other hand, in the event of an invasion, the city will literally defend itself. An enterprising mayor could even turn "The Living City" into a major tourist attraction.
  • The characters themselves must learn the spiritual art of melding with a building in order to fight the group - they will literally be able to phase through walls, and can occupy buildings. Combat will primarily be mental duels, with the loser having their conciousness dispersed into nothingness. Once the PCs have supplanted the group, do they give up the abilities, or do they keep them? And if they keep them, do they fall into the same trap as the group did?

Inspirations for this scenario include Warren Ellis' Jack Hawksmoor and Terry Gilliam's short film "The Crimson Permanent Insurance" which featured in the movie "Monty Python's Meaning Of Life". Terry Pratchett's "Reaper Man" also has some great ideas on organic buildings (in that case, a gigantic and malevolent shopping mall).


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