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Themes of Isolation and Desperation: The Wendigo 
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Evil Genius
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Post Themes of Isolation and Desperation: The Wendigo
I'm looking to run a Ravenloft-like adventure for an Eberron campaign that includes a Wendigo. Such an adventure would focus on themes of isolation, desperation, and sanity slippage. If you're a fan of minimalist horror, I highly suggest you treat yourself and read The Wendigo by Algernon Blackwood. The short story is based on Algonquian legends. You can read more about it here and here. That's a particularly difficult stage to set, admittedly.

(Some Eberron-specific details follow, but they're unimportant overall. This could take place in any setting.)

But I have an idea that it would take place in northern Karrnath, in the Icewood forest where the Madstone resides. The party, along with a number of NPCs, seek the Madstone to destroy it. Maybe once they get near the Madstone, they feel like they're teleported away somewhere in the woods. They can't teleport out or find their way. After days, they run out of food and begin to starve. Eventually, they start getting picked off. An NPC attacks another and the party discovers he has cannibalized the other one. He attacks the party, trying to bite them and will continue to do so until killed. This soon happens to another NPC and another. The party is all that's left. Then a party member starts to act like the NPCs had before they became violent. He grows more paranoid, catching brief glimpses of the Wendigo in the woods, though no one else sees it. Eventually, the PC becomes and NPC and attacks them. They're forced to kill the PC. Soon, another acts the same. The party dwindles. They seek the Madstone, to undo this, but they can't find it or a way out of the forest.

Here's the catch: this isn't really happening. When they approached the Madstone, it didn't teleport them. Instead, it put them in some dream-like state. In reality, they're freezing to death around the Madstone. This reminds me of an absolutely fanatic episode of The X-Files called "Field Trip". Of course, the party needs a way to escape the Madstone's dream world. Perhaps they realize somehow that they're hallucinating. Clues might be that they always feel cold, even sitting next to the fire. Maybe they hear sounds of animals in the woods, but can see none. But even if they know they're hallucinating, I feel like they should only be able to escape the dream by doing something thematic. I don't know. Something that's important characterization. Nothing mechanical. All roleplay.

Do you guys have any ideas of what I could do? Or perhaps you know of another Ravenloft adventure that did something similar or touched on the same themes.

Edit 1: I just started reading the Dark of the Moon adventure which takes place in Vorostokov. This has some really good ideas I can use.


Thu Nov 12, 2015 8:05 am
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Evil Genius
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Post Re: Themes of Isolation and Desperation: The Wendigo
Intriguing concept! I hope your players will go for it and not be too upset about being fooled, but if they are game for this sort of thing, it could be amazing.

When doing dream-based stuff, I like to focus on aspects of real dreams: The incongruity that seems normal, the disorientation, randomness. It's a fine line to walk before it becomes cartoonish, but there's a certain odd logic of dreams that can really sell the idea. People watching that you didn't notice before. Extra rooms in a house you know well. Objects shifting from one thing to another when you look away and look back. Trouble reading words clearly.

In your case, flashes of wakefulness may be key. As you mentioned, always feeling cold. Maybe something (a root or rock) pressing into your back but you don't see it. Pins and needles as a limb goes numb. The sound of the biting wind (when you think you're indoors).

When I ran Juste's theater IMC, I would walk over to the Player of the PC most likely to pierce the illusion and just whisper objects one might see in a theater to him ("rope... red cloth.... wood...") from time to time, with no explanation. Something like that might work here too.

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Thu Nov 12, 2015 11:25 am
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Evil Genius
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Post Re: Themes of Isolation and Desperation: The Wendigo
Gonzoron of the FoS wrote:
Intriguing concept! I hope your players will go for it and not be too upset about being fooled, but if they are game for this sort of thing, it could be amazing.
Luckily, my players trust me enough that fooling them in this manner would probably be a great payoff.

Gonzoron of the FoS wrote:
When I ran Juste's theater IMC, I would walk over to the Player of the PC most likely to pierce the illusion and just whisper objects one might see in a theater to him ("rope... red cloth.... wood...") from time to time, with no explanation. Something like that might work here too.
Oooooh, I like that a lot!


Thu Nov 12, 2015 11:36 am
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Post Re: Themes of Isolation and Desperation: The Wendigo
Ender wrote:
Here's the catch: this isn't really happening. When they approached the Madstone, it didn't teleport them. Instead, it put them in some dream-like state. In reality, they're freezing to death around the Madstone. This reminds me of an absolutely fanatic episode of The X-Files called "Field Trip". Of course, the party needs a way to escape the Madstone's dream world. Perhaps they realize somehow that they're hallucinating. Clues might be that they always feel cold, even sitting next to the fire. Maybe they hear sounds of animals in the woods, but can see none. But even if they know they're hallucinating, I feel like they should only be able to escape the dream by doing something thematic. I don't know. Something that's important characterization. Nothing mechanical. All roleplay.

Do you guys have any ideas of what I could do? Or perhaps you know of another Ravenloft adventure that did something similar or touched on the same themes.

Edit 1: I just started reading the Dark of the Moon adventure which takes place in Vorostokov. This has some really good ideas I can use.


Great episode and the real benefits lie in the fact that the players must believe they have escaped the dangers at some point only to figure out they are still trapped. The movie 1408 dealt with that well as did the X-Files episode. Would the magical effect try to placate the players to keep them docile? It is reasonable when it's a spirit or chemical reaction (gods I just said that), but a purely magical effect has more limits in my experience.

Try to make the hints subtle. Everything feels cold to the touch and has a 'dusty' (snowy) covering on it. Have a player run their hands through their hair and pick out leaves, twigs, a bit of pine needle or sap. If it tries to placate them, take their theories and make it happen. Within reason. If they think a former villain is behind this, have them find a body of a NPC killed in a signature manner of that NPC. If they 'shake themselves awake' allow them to believe they did that and be involved in a mad scramble where they now must survive the harsh conditions they are in with severe frost damage suffered already and some mysterious monster hunting them down. Then they need dry wood and make a fire, with things falling into place and popping up as needed (eventually, maybe a dead woodsman with a pack of supplies). Have them find shelter or kill and claim food, but they still can't shake the chills or the wind. And so on.

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Fri Nov 13, 2015 12:20 am
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Post Re: Themes of Isolation and Desperation: The Wendigo
Dark Angel wrote:
Great episode and the real benefits lie in the fact that the players must believe they have escaped the dangers at some point only to figure out they are still trapped. The movie 1408 dealt with that well as did the X-Files episode. Would the magical effect try to placate the players to keep them docile? It is reasonable when it's a spirit or chemical reaction (gods I just said that), but a purely magical effect has more limits in my experience.
That definitely was part of what made the pisode great, and it's a common enough trope. I'm not entirely sure if I want to go down this route, though. I don't envision the Wendigo wanting to placate them. Personally, I don't see maintaining the dream as a conscious action on the Wendigo's part. I've been thinking about it in the context of my campaign and was considering treating it like a domain lord of a pocket domain. In some tales, the Wendigo grows in proportion to a meal, leaving it always hungry immediately after gorging itself. This, then, reminded me of the Greek myth of Tantalus who stole ambrosia from the gods to feed his people and then murdered and cooked his own son up to feed the gods in return. He was cursed in the afterlife to always be hungry and thirsty, but to have the water recede before his hand and the fruit of the tree to rise when he tried to reach for it. Similarly, the Wendigo's condition is much like this curse. I also read through the Hungry Dead section of Van Richten's Guide to the Walking Dead again and was struck by the similarities to the Ghoul Lords' salient ability to impart hunger. There are, in fact, a number of other salient abilities in this chapter that match various descriptions of Wendigo myths.

Taking Tantalus and Gregor Zolnik (from Dark of the Moon) as inspiration, here's an outline of an idea for a Wendigo darklord of a pocket domain. A band of soldiers, lost in the winter wilderness ran out of food. The wildlife was scarce and the group's hunter hadn't found anything in days. Many of the soldiers were resigned to their fate, but the hunter refused to die starving. He told the others that he would find food if it was the last thing he did, but he needed help. He took another soldier along on one last hunting expedition. Once he was well enough away from the others, he murdered his fellow soldier and ate part of him, cooking the rest. He returned to the soldiers, telling them the tale of how he and the other soldier came upon an injured elk and made to take it when they were beset upon by a pack of wolves. He was, of course, the only one who survived. The soldiers mourned his loss, but were thankful for the food the hunter had found nonetheless. They even found it to be the most delicious meat they'd ever had.

Soon, they were out of food once more and the hunter proceeded to kill another soldier. This time, they were suspicious and confronted the hunter, who confessed to what he had done and justified his actions, saying he had saved them all. Many agreed, but others did not. Those who agreed with the hunter decided that the others should be sacrificed to feed the party until they found their way out of the forest. The dissenters were subdued and killed one by one until all that remained were the voluntary cannibals. Now they all knew the others were willing to kill and were suspicious of each other. They turned on each other quickly and brutally. Some died, some were injured... and the hunter was missing. Fear took hold. Some ran, hoping to find a way out of the forest. Others stayed put, believing they had better odds of survival in a place they knew.

One at a time, they began to fear the hunter was following them. They would see a figure at night, moving between the trees in the distance. They could smell the stench of rotting meat getting stronger, until their fear was stronger than their logic. They would flee... only to be caught by the hunter, or what once was the hunter. He had become the Wendigo, emaciated and frostbitten, with tattered lips, a hunched back, elongated arms, and elk antlers growing from his head. The Wendigo devoured them, only to remain hungry. Each time he would feast, his hunger only grew more intense, until he had slain all of the original party and was left to stalk the woods alone and hungry.

The Wendigo's pocket domain can appear in any winter woods far enough away from civilization. Within its confines, no one can navigate out. The forest appears to stretch on forever in all directions and despite your best efforts, you'll find yourself crossing places you've already been (think Blair Witch Project). In my particular campaign, I'd be using it within the artifact known as the Madstone. The Wendigo draws your spirit into his domain, where he hunts you and drives you to the same horrific actions as his original party. As his pocket domain is in its own spirit world, you can't escape the woods, just as he never did (and never will). In order to leave the spirit world, you must do something specific (I still haven't determined what, yet). If you don't, your body in the real world remains starving and freezing until you actually die.

Thoughts on that?


Fri Nov 13, 2015 8:46 am
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Post Re: Themes of Isolation and Desperation: The Wendigo
Ender wrote:
In order to leave the spirit world, you must do something specific (I still haven't determined what, yet).
Trap the Wendigo and starve him to death? Feed him non-human meat? Confront him with proof of his original crime somehow? Resist the urge to eat human flesh yourself? Kill and eat the Wendigo? Give the bones of his first victim a proper burial?

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Fri Nov 13, 2015 10:09 am
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Post Re: Themes of Isolation and Desperation: The Wendigo
Gonzoron of the FoS wrote:
Ender wrote:
In order to leave the spirit world, you must do something specific (I still haven't determined what, yet).
Trap the Wendigo and starve him to death? Feed him non-human meat? Confront him with proof of his original crime somehow? Resist the urge to eat human flesh yourself? Kill and eat the Wendigo? Give the bones of his first victim a proper burial?
This is my biggest dilemma. Let me tackle this individually.

1. Starving him to death sounds perfect... but if it's a spirit in an endless forest, how does one do that? If it's merely a question of a time limit and staying alive, then it comes more down to mechanics than roleplaying, which is something I'm trying to avoid.

2. Feeding him something specific also has an appeal but, again, if the spirit world is constructed to be barren, then they only have their own food (which will dwindle). One particularly gruesome idea I had dealt with the Wendigo's theme of greed. Traditional legends often relate how it was greed that drove a Wendigo to consume human flesh initially and the hunger is its punishment. In my lore above, I described the soldiers as greedy and turning against each other. What if the only way to escape the dream is to willingly offer yourself as a sacrifice? The opposite of greed is selflessness, after all.

3. Confronting him with proof might work... maybe. It would require evidence of his crime to exist in the spirit world. I'd considered that the spirits of the original soldiers are all trapped in the spirit world as well, constantly reliving their experience. The party finds them lost as well and assumes they were also transported to this "random" part of the forest just like them. Over time, they succumb to the psychosis, attack the party, etc. Once the party realizes they're in a dream state, they think to escape, assuming the soldiers are just dream figments, until some soldier pleads with them not to wake up or the dream world will be destroyed, them along with it. Are the soldiers trapped within the Madstone too? Could they be saved? Or are they just echoes of people long dead, their lives fabricated by the Madstone? Maybe the party has to release their spirits by confronting the Wendigo (and/or them as well) with their crimes. That's certainly a possibility.

4. Resisting the urge to eat human flesh feels too easy. My players probably wouldn't willingly choose to eat any of the bodies anyway, which is why I'd treat the psychosis like a Ghoul Lord's ability to pass its hunger on to others. And then, in that case, resisting the hunger is pure mechanics again.

5. Killing and eating the Wendigo makes a perverse sort of sense, but it also strikes me as playing right into the curse. It feels more like that's how you might supplant the darklord and take the curse yourself. And if anyone in my party decided to do that, I would definitely give them the hunger even once they've escape the dream... but maybe also the Voracious Hunger feat, which would let them gain strength from eating their enemies. Cue a quest to free them from this curse.

6. Laying his victims to rest is also pretty standard for this kind of story, but it doesn't strike me as related enough to the theme. I'm thinking the solution should deal with either greed, isolation, or desperation. Fear is a related theme, as well, though that's more of a natural result of the other themes.


Fri Nov 13, 2015 11:07 am
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Post Re: Themes of Isolation and Desperation: The Wendigo
While not ignoring the above post, you really can screw with the players by having a wolverine or something like that gnawing on one of the more paranoid players while the others are sleeping. This works well if the one being bitten is also asleep with another on guard. This further fosters the paranoia that they are losing control of their players, they are in greater danger than they can immediately see, and further indicators that an outside factor is influencing them within this dream world.

A noncombative resolution to the adventure is to no longer trust their own perceptions (eyes and ears specifically) being able to manipulate and touch things in the real world. Discovering this, they must feel around for (that alone being difficult because of the frost damage) and somehow scar the magical focal (not sure if you made it a stone or what) to damage the runes or disrupt the enchantment in some fashion. When you have them find the stone in the beginning of the scenario, you could describe it and the runes with the limited moonlight passing over the surface highlighting the odd carvings in the rock (that can be the triggering effect for the stone aka the 'spore release'). Couple the attempts to figure out their release with the final attack of the wendigo, and you have a climactic showdown where some of the players have to avoid combat with a terrible monster and others (those severely injured already who may be able to feel the stone in the real world inadvertently falling to the ground in the real world from a strike in the dream world). Hoping these ranting make some sense and help you out in any fashion.

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Sat Nov 14, 2015 12:23 pm
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Post Re: Themes of Isolation and Desperation: The Wendigo
I like that a lot, actually!


Sat Nov 14, 2015 12:30 pm
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Post Re: Themes of Isolation and Desperation: The Wendigo
Sorry if I'm highjacking the topic, but my favorite take on a cannibalism domain is Wayward on the Bone Sands. (in the Book of Secrets netbook) In that article, you have the domain formation not only because of desperation and fear but also because of excess. And the lingering evil of cannibalization isn't just one creature, but rather an affliction of madness that lingers over the domain. It shows how you can be very much alone even when in a place filled with other intelligent beings. I would recommend taking a look at that netbook article for some inspiration.

In any case, one approach you might take is for the wendigo itself to be a manifestation of the ills of the domain's people. Escaping from the stone might entail uncovering the truth and getting the transgressors to admit their wrongdoing before time runs out (the players freeze to death.) The souls trapped in the stone could be stuck in an endless reel of the last few days or weeks of the communities existence, playing over and over again until they find the right way of escaping their troubles. Of course, the players wouldn't know this until after since they would only be in for one "cycle".

If you just went with group of hunters, could have them ask to travel together, but as time wanes, more and more of them disappear or go mad. And just because one of the hunters die doesn't mean the players have one lest soul to catch to keep up the story- the lost soul might have to be tracked down as a lost spirit somewhere else in the domain. If you wanted to put in a small and falsely welcoming village, you can play with the ironic horror of being in the village as to being in the woods.

Or another way the darklord might be defeated has made him A darklord of such a domain would likely be an exploiter of the dreadful state your hunters or whomever exists in this pocket domain.


Sat Nov 14, 2015 3:05 pm
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Post Re: Themes of Isolation and Desperation: The Wendigo
The Lesser Evil wrote:
Sorry if I'm highjacking the topic, but my favorite take on a cannibalism domain is Wayward on the Bone Sands. (in the Book of Secrets netbook) In that article, you have the domain formation not only because of desperation and fear but also because of excess. And the lingering evil of cannibalization isn't just one creature, but rather an affliction of madness that lingers over the domain. It shows how you can be very much alone even when in a place filled with other intelligent beings. I would recommend taking a look at that netbook article for some inspiration.
I just went ahead and read that. It's pretty similar and I liked it a lot.

The Lesser Evil wrote:
In any case, one approach you might take is for the wendigo itself to be a manifestation of the ills of the domain's people. Escaping from the stone might entail uncovering the truth and getting the transgressors to admit their wrongdoing before time runs out (the players freeze to death.) The souls trapped in the stone could be stuck in an endless reel of the last few days or weeks of the communities existence, playing over and over again until they find the right way of escaping their troubles. Of course, the players wouldn't know this until after since they would only be in for one "cycle".
This actually makes me think it might be interesting to have the players in for more than one "cycle" in a Groundhog Day situation. Dying in the dream world doesn't kill them in the real world, so maybe once they all die, the cycle starts over. The former inhabitants don't realize it's a new cycle, but all the players do. There's a benefit then to the fact that death isn't immediately final. Maybe with each cycle, they have another chance to discover the truth of what happened to this hunting party in life.

Think of this: while the hunter was the Wendigo in my story above, most succumbed to the psychosis eventually. In the end, the only ones that were left were the cannibals, unable to trust each other. They were all alone, even though they were physically together. Maybe the party has to suss out which individual is the Wendigo by learning bits about their history in each cycle. The key here, however, is that they eventually discover that the Wendigo isn't just one person... it lives in all of them. Maybe then they can start to act outside their dream.


Mon Nov 16, 2015 2:19 pm
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