Saturday, July 18, 2020

Professor Vlinderkaai's Sempervivarium

"Ever since its dawn, the human race has tried its hand at defying death, and in a sense its efforts have grown ever more succesful. And yet, for all the years we have stolen from the reaper's bony clutches, little is different about how we live them. The back of grandmother still gives out, the joints of the old ironsmith still ache. In fact, our attempts at cheating that thing on the pale horse have only resulted in it cheating us in kind: those years we've won are naught but feeble embers at the end of our time, rather than the flames of youth we so desire.

Therefore my ventures in this life have been to combat not that blade that must swing when all is done, but that clock whose hand we may hold still, to never let ring its twilight hours."

-- Professor Dr. Joris Vlinderkaai, prologue to his first book

Dramatic as he was, professor Vlinderkaai nonetheless put his money where his mouth was and sank a great deal of resources into that dream of his: to find the cause, and by extension the cure, for ageing. To this end, he used his allowances from the University, and when that ran out, all of his family fortune to travel the world, collect extraordinary specimens, and perform bizarre experiments to further his understanding of the ageing process. These ventures found their heart in Vlinderkaai's base of operations during the latter half of his life: a great terraced house on Island Street, transformed over the years into a laboratory known to his neighbours as "That bespectacled madman's unholy petting zoo- bloody hell, the racket those monkeys make! And the constables just let him carry on!" and to his colleages at the University as the Sempervivarium.

On his sixtieth birthday, Dr. Joris Vlinderkaai disappears without a trace. When going to look for him in his Sempervivarium, the University staff finds it to be full of reality-defying monstrosities and the insane works of professor Vlinderkaai's obsession. They run out howling. Someone more stern or more expendable must delve into the laboratory instead.

If you're playing an alt-history type game, this outlandish abode would be located in Amsterdam. If not, then it can be in whatever early 20th-century city with a university you'd like it to be.

Art by Mike Mignola

The Foyer (Entrance)

The Sempervivarium's foyer as you find it built in 19th-century colonial style, is dusty and the walls are covered in framed family portraits. They are all different families, and each frame has a piece of paper attached to them noting all of the members' ages, remarks on their diets, their blood types, and so on. It seems the whole hall functions as some sort of large scoring board. Next to the coffee table there is a Chinese vase containing ocean floor slib that houses a 300-year old talking clam named Ming. It seems to have memorised random fragments of conversation in the hallway, both yours and those of Vlinderkaai and his visitors. A set of bell jars containing increasingly worn skeletal knee joints are set on a drawer and a glass case with pinned flies whose wings have deteriorated is mounted on the wall.

Every time you enter a new room, roll a 1d6. If it's 1-3, you find random rooms repurposed into laboratories with jars of fruit flies, liquid medium full of tiny worms, mice in various states of dissection and preservation, bookcases, diagrams on the walls, and so on. In each of these you will encounter one Creature. If it's 4-6, you find one of the following rooms. Roll a d6 to know which. In them you have a 1 in 6 chance to encounter a Creature.

1 - The Okinawa Room:

A large greenhouse-like room that reproduces the setting of a Japanese rural village. It is populated exclusively by people over 100 years old. They eat very little, and will find it impolite if you eat excessively in front of them or take more than your small share. Unaware that they are living in a laboratory. When they find out they react as you would expect.

2 - The Mitochondric Room:

A room full of chemical apparatus and glass tanks with highly reactive oxygen mixtures. Getting into contact with them causes damage, mutations, and this. Tread very very carefully- the pipes of the apparatus are all quite leaky.

3 - The Early Room:

A room with beds and wheelchairs that house people with various afflicitons of fast ageing: children with wrinkled skin, arthritis and grey hair stare at you miserably. A baboon in a doctor's outfit feeds them pale beige pudding and tends to them as well as a baboon can.

4 - The Pygmy Room:

A room containing many animals, all of which are smaller versions of themselves. Small mice, small birds, small reptiles, etc. You feel like a giant in this room. All of the animals' cages have labels with their ages: they are far older than they should be for their species.

5 - The Monkey Room:

A bizarre cross between a cocktail bar and a surgeon's room. Many open cages hang from the ceiling. Full of baboons, doing baboon things. Will freak out if you look like a surgeon or approach the surgical equipment, leave you alone or serve you at the bar otherwise. Many of the bottles in the bar bear the label "extract," and most of the monkeys lack their usual testicles. Above the bar there is a portrait of a man with a moustache labeled "My Unfortunate Colleague" If you fall asleep in the Monkey Room, the moustachioed doctor character will come out of his portrait, scaring away all the baboons, and try to sew monkey balls into your body. When cut he turns back into portrait canvas.

6 - The Bristlecone Room:

Room dominated by a gnarled pale tree sitting in the middle of the room in a soil basin. It has been abducted from its usual place high up in the American rock mountains, is over 5000 years old, and would like to go back.

The Frozen Room:

You find this room after all previous rooms have been explored. It's Vlinderkaai's study, most of which is frozen over. In a big block of ice behind the desk sits the professor's body, curled up, desiccated and partially transformed into a tardigrade-like creature. Vlinderkaai's epilogue (see end of post) as well as his valuable unpublished research are on the desk, and the study contains many other valuable works on science, medicine, and the paranormal.

Art by Mike Mignola

1 - The Elegancy:

A floating, translucent, featureless worm the size of a fat boa constrictor. Will attack using its mouth needle, and produce another 4 Elegancies when it kills a living creature roughly its own size by feeding. When under stress (when hurt, on fire, starved, etc) it will shrivel into a condensed version of itself the length of a forearm, which is extremely hard and durable. It will stay in this form until left alone. It floats through the air in a smooth wave-like pattern.

2 - The Melanogast:

An anthropomorphic fly in a dusty morning suit. It will eat mould off of rotting fruit, and is generally harmless and rather polite. It will be performing menial tasks in whatever room it is encountered in.

3 - Sugary Maike:

A woman called Maike made out of an odd, blubbery substance that smells like bread yeast. Her body contains tiny rings of braided fiber that accumulate the longer she exists. She will continuously produce new, toddler-sized Maikes that start anew with their ring accumulation and grow into adult Maikes. At a certain treshold, the rings become too much and the old Maike sags into a heap of blubber, vaguely retaining her bodily consistency. If you touch the rings, or an old Maike containing many of them, they transfer to your body and age you a year per second of rings sucked into you. The Room you encounter Maike in is already mostly covered in old Maikes, and overcrowded with young Maikes trying to get out.
The lifespan of a Maike is about ten minutes, during which she produces a Maike per minute.

4 - The Selection Shadow:

A shadow that is cast in the shape of a random animal, and moves along the room. When it covers you, roll a new mutation and age 10 years every turn it is on you. You cannot pass this mutation on to any offspring. Children and teenagers are not affected by the Shadow. The shadow is quick, but it can be outrun or kept at bay with light sources. It will actively chase you.

5 - The Disposable Body:

A dead man with an egg in his mouth. This egg is a chicken's egg that, when someone touches it, breaks and curses them to slowly form an egg in their body that will use up all their energy and nutrients. When complete the curse causes the victim to regurgitate the egg and die, ending in the same position as the found corpse.

6 - The Elephant Molar:

A large set of dentures made out of the teeth of an elephant, which will attack and chew on any person that it can reach, hopping around the room. It cannot be destroyed or damaged, but it can be detained, trapped, or otherwise prevented from attacking. However, it will try to chew through anything that imprisons it/prevents it from attacking people. The only way the Elephant Molar can die is when its teeth are all ground down from chewing. How long it will take it to reach this point is anyone's guess.

Art by Mike Mignola

Every non-special Room has a 1 in 6 chance to contain a random Treasure. Any Treasures not encountered during the exploration of the Sempervivarium are found in the Frozen Room.

1 - The Book Between:

Professor Vlinderkaai has published three books on the phenomenon of age, however, they are not what you would call complete. Out of fear of rejection and ridicule by his colleagues, Vlinderkaai had left his most outlandish findings, wildest theories, and plans to undo ageing through occult and supernatural means out of those books. However, he has collected them in an unpublished fourth manuscript, called The Forever People: Undoing the Locks on the Clock of Life. Collectors, wizards, occultists, desperate ageing nobles and the University will all pay dearly for this manuscript.

2 - The Islands Expedition:

The records, findings and souvenirs of the first of professor Vlinderkaai's expeditions, to the Japanese Islands. This includes rare specimens of fruits and animals, pictures of Vlinderkaai visiting villages, and a wooden casket containing a desiccated ascetic monk's mummy, with a label noting her origin and the fact that she would have lived for more than two-hundred years.

3 - The Sleeper:

A core of antarctic ice, preserved in miracle glass. Inside you can just about see a tiny creature the size of a walnut, resembling a tardigrade. Labels on it estimate its age to be past the million year mark. You can see a single thin hole in the ice, the size of a needle, passing to the Sleeper's body. It's an anomaly in time, a being that should no longer exist, a crack in the clock of life. In your sleep it may speak to you in the language of the monsters before time, but it speaks so slowly that you would need years to hear it out. Its glass case is labeled "B. parachronus"

4 - The Littoral Expedition:

Items from the second expedition by professor Vlinderkaai, to the shores of Iceland. This seems to be the origin of Ming, the clam in the foyer. It includes many specimens of worms and molluscs, some rare and taking outlandish colourful shapes. Some of these animals produce highly lethal (and valuable) toxins. The notes here already make some mention of the ability of some animals to lower metabolism, body temperature, etc. to enter dormant states during which they do not seem to age.

5 - The Elixir:

A wooden box containing forty thin glass vials of clear liquid. Drinking one of them per day will repair the damage of about one year of age- not immediately, but through a process that becomes rather painful when many are taken at once: grey hairs fall out to be replaced, bones strengthen, joints un-damage, cartilage grows back, bad teeth fall out to be replaced with new ones, and so on. Roll a mutation for every 10 you've drunk in total. Drinking more than 5 within the same day will kill you.

The Elixir is accompanied by a bundle of literature on its ingredients, the process of its development, and its merits. However, Vlinderkaai notes that "it is a pale imitation of my desire, little more than a glorified monkey extract- its drawbacks increase with its functionality. More potent versions have killed all my subjects through metabolic shock. This damage reversal approach may be a blind avenue."

6 - The Last Expedition:

All material regarding Vlinderkaai's third and final expedition, to Antarctica. This includes a deed of ownership to his boat, the Philosopher, which is docked in the harbour, his polar exploration suit, various rare Antarctic specimens, and the records of the Sleeper's discovery.

Art by Claude Monet, 1861

Vlinderkaai's frozen, transformed body is accompanied by a final, neatly written note left on his desk. It reads:

"To whom it may concern, I hereby must declare that my research has been a gravely unfortunate success. After many attempts at producing tinctures and products that may give us the gift of eternal youth, and dissecting the phenomenology of the ageing body, I am met with the final answer that has been clear to me for a while, but that I was so far unwilling to accept. 

I could have expected such a truth early in my ventures, when I met the people of Okinawa, when I studied the dreams of the sleeping bears, or when I revived the worms from age-old ice, that greatest worm of which now roams my house in search of prey. Even when discovering the centuries-old molluscs of the Icelandic coasts it still eluded me, and it took my encounter with the Beorn parachronus for me to see the light be shed on the final principle that unifies all ageing theory:

To never age and live forever, it is necessary not to live at all, and rather to sleep in an endless hibernation shielded from the outside world: in other words, that is not dead which can, eternal, lie."


  1. The early room is a great scare, but that ending is chef's kiss.

  2. this is by and large the most clever and imaginative thing I've read all day, thumbs fucking up wow

  3. I like how pervasive the themes of aging, living, and to some extent procreation / legacy are throughout this module, even in some of the whackier situations. The rings of fat that are also like rings of trees, the mutating aging shadow that is explicitly not hereditary or inheritable, the elderly people in the Okinawa room who don't go anywhere and live in a simulation, the chicken egg parasite, metabolism-stifling toxins, elixir of youth, basically all of them seem to mean something (still trying to figure out the exact symbolism of the monkey balls but I'm pretty sure it's meant to mean something too).

    1. The age-related meaning of sewing monkey balls into people is that someone actually went around sewing monkey balls into people. Serge Voronoff. One of history's greatest quacks.

    2. Ah, looked into that a bit, that's interesting. Thanks for the explanation, I knew there had to be something!