where we wake up electrified out of the coma by our own souls’ airplanes roaring over the roof they’ve come to drop angelic bombs the hospital illuminates itself    imaginary walls collapse    

– Allen Ginsburg, Howl

Cthulhu City slides into The Fall of Delta Green like a cartridge into a chamber. As written, Great Arkham’s a nightmare reflection of the 1930s, but updating it to the 1960s is relatively trivial. The sinister gas-masked Transport Police and oppressive surveillance state fit perfectly; mistrust of the government resonates even more after the Kennedy assassination and Kent State. Some specific suggestions to bring the city to the era of the Fall.

  • Old Arkham hasn’t changed – so it’s now an absurd throwback, a foolish or desperate attempt to turn the clock back to a pre-war era.
  • The Depression-era Hoovertowns and hoboes in rotting Salamander Fields become drop-outs, dope fiends and draft dodgers.
  • Hippie communes and flower children dance amid the standing stones out in Billington’s Woods near Dunwich.
  • Mayor Ward is more of a Kennedy-esque figure – young, handsome, inspiring, as compelling and sinister as the Black Pharoah of Nyarlathotep.
  • The city’s textile industry has given way to the military-industrial complex – the Northside factories churn out cryptic, obscure machinery for the war effort, but it’s never clear if the components are for Vietnam, or for some other facet of the Cold War, or some stranger conflict.
  • The international jet set, cosmopolitan and jaded, fly in to the new Danfort Airport in Kingsport from Monte Carlo and Milan, London and Beirut, Baharna and Celephais. The airport crawls with Transport Police, and its bizarre hypergeometic topography means that some would-be travellers have ended up lost in its endless shifting concourses for years, roaming naked and starving past departure gates that never open. Stephen Alzis summers in Great Arkham.
  • The raid on Miskatonic University resulted in the shooting of a half-dozen students by Transport Police. Protests and riots have wracked the city since then; there are regular clashes between Transport Police and students. Anarchist cells meet and plot in the attic of the old Witch House.
  • The Marsh gang import and distribute heroin shipped in the holds of the infamous Black Freighters.
  • The battle between the various cults and factions is no longer so covert. Fringe scientists from the Halsey Institute (formerly the clandestine Halsey Fraternity) openly advocate for experimentation in necromancy and revivification; pamphlets and graffiti on the sides of cyclopean towers advocate for the Witch Cult or the Silver Lodge. Mayor Upton was shot by a brain-washed assassin.
  • Armitage wasn’t a librarian or occult expert – he was a chemist, experimenting with drugs that altered human perceptions to enable them to see the true nature of reality. After the Raid, he went underground, moving from one hidden lab to another, sheltered by the Black Panthers and other groups, manufacturing more potent solvents to dissolve the great illusion and reveal the ultimate truth.

And what is that ultimate truth? The DELTA GREEN setting suggests some new options for the ultimate reality behind Cthulhu City…

  • The Revolution Will Be Dematerisalised: Curwen and his allies mastered hypergeometry and fractured reality in the 1750s. We’re still a colony – it’s simultaneously the 1960s and 1770s, the Transport Police are Redcoats, the revolution is always coming. DELTA GREEN’s a conspiracy founded by Captain Whipple and the “band of serious citizens” who raided Curwen’s house; the characters flicker back and forth between the Mythos-conjured hallucination of the 1960s and the ‘reality’ of the 1770s.
  • Interzone: Cthulhu City’s a surreal nightmare. Monsters on the streets, monsters under your skin. Gangs of shrieking cultists roam the night, pursued by agents of absurd alphabet-soup government departments. The city’s accessed by drugs, or by trauma, or by psychic reflexes triggered by the right poetry. It’s Al Amarj on the Miskatonic.
  • The Vorsht Letters: A DELTA GREEN Agent, Isaac Vorsht, vanished in 1962. His car was found abandoned on a back road near Salem; he hasn’t been seen since. Somehow, though, he’s still sending reports to the DELTA GREEN Steering Committee about his experiences and investigations in ‘Great Arkham’. Vorsht’s reports never seem to acknowledge the bizarre nature of the city, or describe how he got there. It’s as though he’s slipped into a parallel dimension – but if he has, how are his letters getting into the conventional US postal service? Oh – his most recent letter thanked DELTA GREEN for assigning the Agents to his operation. The Steering Committee don’t know what to make of it, but clearly the Agents are fated to investigate the case…
  • Project PLATO: PLATO’s mandate is to prepare a defensive posture for humanity in case of alien invasion. “Great Arkham” is a PLATO construct, a simulation designed to determine how the population might behave if the Mythos were to become more public. Are the Agents under hypnosis? Brainwashed with LSD and subliminal messaging? Critically injured and comatose Vietnam veterans in an electronically generated shared hallucination? Or did MOON DUST just salvage some Mi-Go technology? Are those cyclopean towers actually gigantic brain-cases…

 

A scenario seed for Trail of Cthulhu by Adam Gauntlett

The return of a Deep One infected with bubonic plague causes a public health crisis in 1930s Hong Kong.

History

Hong Kong in the 1930s is a sophisticated and wealthy British colony, administered largely by British Ta-Pan. Its laws are British, its culture is Chinese, and there is a demarcation between the two: British Tai-Pan control the east portion of the territory as a kind of Little England, while Chinese culture dominates the west portion. The territory lives under British law, enforced by European, Chinese, Indian and Eurasian policemen. By the 1930s the law is stricter and more effective than it was during the bad old days of piracy and bribery, but Hong Kong is still Hong Kong – mercantile, and willing to do all kinds of business.

The territory suffered greatly during the Third Pandemic of bubonic plague, which broke out in China in the mid-1800s. More than 12 million died in China and India, and at its height 100 people a day died in Hong Kong. Hundreds of thousands of people fled the territory when plague hit, and plague continued to be a problem for many decades after the initial, deadly sweep.

If the Keeper doesn’t want to play a scenario set in Hong Kong, the action could be moved to a coast city with significant Chinese population, like San Francisco.

Hungry Ghost Folklore

A hungry ghost is the soul of someone who died with bad deeds or evil intent staining them, and thus ended up in the hell of hungry ghosts. This is rare, and should not be confused with the more common ancestral dead. The bad deeds the hungry ghosts committed in life transform them into animalistic spirit-demons, obsessed in death with whatever it was that they committed crimes for in life. So a man who drives children away from water, keeping it all himself, will become a hungry ghost obsessed with water. Anything a person might have coveted or become gluttonous for – food, drink and sex are common drivers – can inspire a hungry ghost.

Hungry Ghosts are portrayed as emaciated corpse-like beings, often with shrunken throats or needle-point small mouths, as this prevents them from consuming the one thing they want to consume. The object of their desire might disintegrate or burn to nothing when they try to devour it.

The chief difference between ancestral ghosts and hungry ones is that an ordinary ghost will fade over time and vanish, if not properly taken care of. This is why, at ghost festivals, people take care to offer sacrifices, food, drink, hell money, to care for their dead. Whereas a hungry ghost will never fade, but it will bring bad luck to whoever attracts its attention. Some traditions have it that a hungry ghost is a beloved ancestor who was ignored after death, or whose descendants didn’t pay the proper respect during ghost festivals – all the more reason to be generous.

Ghost Festivals

These happen in the 7th month of the lunar calendar. The realms of heaven and hell open up and disgorge their dead, and the living celebrate the return of beloved souls while at the same time fending off the attentions of unclean spirits, Representations of physical things – houses, clothing, money – are sacrificed, or burnt, to help the beloved souls, and keep them safe and happy. Prosperity incense is burnt to guarantee a bright year ahead. Miniature paper boats and lanterns are let loose fourteen days after the end of the festival to guide those spirits home again.

This scenario takes place shortly before the festival.

The Return of Zhao Fei Hong

The family Zhao have been shipbuilders since time immemorial, and from the early 1800s onwards some of the family have succumbed to Deep One promises. The minions of Cthulhu said they would show the Zhao the secrets of shipbuilding, and in particular the right rituals and magics to perform in order to ensure theirs were the best and fastest chuan afloat. There was a price, and from that alliance came a number of Deep One hybrids who settled in Hong Kong’s Kowloon Docks.

During the plague outbreak one hybrid, Fei Hong, fled the colony, but was too late to avoid infection. As a hybrid, Fei Hong could not be killed by the disease, but a quirk of his hybridization meant he became a carrier, and was subject to crippling, painful symptoms.

After many years in isolation – for not even his fellow Deep Ones welcomed the poor sufferer – Fei Hong has returned to Hong Kong seeking a cure. Medicine has improved since he ran away in the 1860s. Surely there is something that can be done to purge him of this hideous taint?

Some of the family Zhao have taken him in, out of familial loyalty, while others reject the prodigal. However none of them will betray the family secret. They seek a solution, one way or the other.

Pernicious Rumor

Two tales circulate.

The plague has returned! This story is particularly common among dock workers, sailors and those who work in Kowloon opium dens and boozers. According to popular report there have been several small outbreaks of plague, which the colonial authorities are either ignoring or covering up. Some doctors are taking this seriously and carrying out their own investigations. Some of these so-called doctors are no better than quacks, which doesn’t help credibility.

 Hungry Ghosts Haunt Kowloon! Spending 1 point Oral History traces this tale to members of the Zhao family. According to rumor, hungry ghosts have returned to plague honest citizens in Kowloon, only a few days before the Ghost Festival. People are terrified, crying out for spiritual aid. Anyone who can settle this unquiet spirit is welcome. Many charlatans and would-be exorcists flood the district, promising anything and everything in exchange for cold, hard cash. Keeper’s note: this rumor is being spread by the dissident Zhao, who are treating Fei Hong as a hungry ghost. Even those friendly to Fei Hong are superstitiously afraid of what he represents – a cursed immortal, in great pain, who cannot die.

The Kidnap

Doctor Victor Richard, a French researcher and philanthropist, is seized at his clinic by armed gunmen, an event that shocks the colony to its core. The Tai-Pan are outraged, and the colonial administration goes into action. Police raid the usual suspects – any would-be Chinese Tongmenghui revolutionaries, known Triad hangouts, anyone who hasn’t paid enough bribes – but nothing is found.

Enquiry either among police officers (Cop Talk) or the employees and patients who were at the clinic when it happened (Oral History), or diligent study of news reports (Library Use) notices this core clue: the gunmen were wearing many luck amulets and charms, intended to ward off evil spirits and hungry ghosts. A point spend further discovers that they weren’t your usual Triad thugs, but were roughnecks, manual laborers and, judging by tattoos, dock workers.

Doctor Richard’s specialty is treatment of infectious diseases, and bubonic plague in particular. In the most recent outbreak in India, he achieved fame by his brave and relentless fight against the disease. When he came to Hong Kong he acquired notoriety because he offered to treat poor Chinese for free, behavior his Tai Pan neighbors thought eccentric.

Plague Spreads

Investigators who check find that there are isolated incidences of plague, particularly in or near Kowloon Docks. So far there haven’t been more than a dozen, but they are documented, genuine cases of plague. The media’s been told to keep quiet to avoid panic, but doctors are pressing for full disclosure so people can take some preventative action. Any investigator who checks (Medicine, Evidence Collection) can trace the outbreak to a particular section of Kowloon Docks, where the family Zhao have their shipbuilding business.

Hungry Ghosts

Tracing the rumors, evidence concerning the criminals, or evidence concerning the plague, leads to the Zhao dockyard.

Only some of the family support Fei Hong, and it’s those who captured Doctor Richard and are keeping him in an old junk tied up at the wharf. He’s guarded by two armed men at all times. His patient is Fei Hong, who finds movement difficult and breathing painful. However for purposes of combat the hybrid Deep One has the same statistics as any other Deep One. Fei Hong knows a spell, Wrack, which when he casts it makes the target feel as if they’re suffering the final stages of bubonic plague.

There are from three to six other Deep Ones at the dockyard; the precise number is up to the Keeper, and should depend on the investigators’ fighting strength. If they come well-armed with high-caliber firearms, add more Deep Ones. These are Fei Hong’s companions, and are also members of the family Zhao. None of them know spells.

If the investigators try to win the support of those Zhao who want rid of Fei Hong, this can be done through Streetwise spends. For every point spent, remove one Deep One. In story, the rebel Zhao take care of those Deep Ones so the investigators don’t have to.

In total, there are a half-dozen dedicated, armed human cultists willing to fight to keep Fei Hong safe, or cover his escape. None have any weapon more dangerous than a handgun, and most have knives or clubs.

See P. XX a column about roleplaying by Robin D. Laws

Buffy’s hometown had one. You fall into one when you open a Hellraiser cube. The Stranger Things gang can’t seem to stay out of them. Like any basic horror trope, the sinister portal to another world fits any GUMSHOE game that journeys into fear.

The default gate we think of in this context exists somewhere else, already halfway to hell: out in the woods, in a basement lab, in the attic of a haunted house.

Your sinister gate could flip the script by appearing in the middle of a busy city, unnoticed as such by thousands of passersby every day. An illusion, or our collective desire not to see that which should not be seen, masks it. Forms it could take include a metal gate across an alleyway, the steel sidewalk hatchway memorably seen in Russian Doll, or a bricked-over old door in the side of a wall that opens… under the right conditions.

The mythology of The Esoterrorists rules out a simple gate between our world and the Outer Dark. When its denizens can move easily into this world, it’s game over: the game’s big threat, the tearing of the membrane, has occurred, and the demon apocalypse has begun. For this game you’d have to adjust the gate trope into more of a pocket dimension. It exists as a metaphysical carve-out, a piece of this world operating under the physics of the other one. The Outer Dark Entity inhabiting it still had to through membrane-thinning summoning magic to create the pocket world behind the gate or door. It can’t leave the pocket dimension, and so has to lure people to step into it before it can corrupt, eat, or otherwise mess with them. To get rid of the creature, the agents must learn how to destroy the gate, sending it back to the Outer Dark. Or maybe getting rid of the creature in some other way causes the gate to disappear.

In Trail of Cthulhu, the gate could take investigators into a non-Euclidean space, the Dreamlands, another time, another planet, or some combination thereof. The pocket dimension might be a minor manifestation of Yog-Sothoth itself. The clues the investigators discover might describe it as an an avatar, spawn or virtual replica of the full deity. It might lure in victims to destroy them, or to mentally dominate them so they can go out into the world to do its bidding. In the indifferent manner of Mythos foes, a sapient dimension beyond the gate could simply exist as an anomaly, minding its own cosmic business, harming humankind by proximity without care or intention. The Colour Out of Space, but in gate form. In that version, scientists and curiosity seekers enter it out of their own tragic desire to understand what should not be understood and experience what should not be experienced. The investigators realize that it’s the flame, and the victims destroyed by it—who share their own mission and personal qualities—are the moths. To end the menace, they must learn more about it, which once again confronts them with the terrible central paradox of Mythos-busting: too little knowledge and they can’t act. Too much, and their minds crumble, and they can’t act.

In three out of four of the Yellow King Roleplaying Game sequences, an innocuous-looking gate seen from a city street could indeed act as a portal to Carcosa. Perhaps people have to have read the play, or at least gained some dread second-hand awareness of it, to perceive and enter it. Or maybe it just sits there, a warp in the world’s logic, for any Belle Epoque boulevardier, Continental War soldier, or curious gig-economy worker to stumble into.

In the Aftermath sequence, set in an alternate present after the fall of the totalitarian Castaigne regime, all gates between worlds have been blasted shut. Your gate can’t go to Carcosa. But it could have come about as a partially successful attempt by fugitive parageometrists to create one. Maybe it has taken on consciousness of its own and must feast on people to survive. Having already snacked on the regime experimenters, it now attracts others to devour. Or it appears as a hell the ex-insurgents’s revanchist enemies try to pull them into.

Alternately, in any sequence, the realm behind the gate might the intangible fortress of a reality-warping Carcosan entity. It’s a lair, not made of rock or drywall or debris, but of changes to the prevailing metaphysic. Like most beasties, it can leave its nest, but is safer and tougher when within its confines. This gives you a monster that can head out into the broader environment to take victims. The Difficulty Adjustment for the creature goes down outside the lair, and up within it.

Or the pocket realm could represent its vulnerability, a sort of battery of impossibility energy it relies on to survive. To banish it to Carcosa, or cause its disintegration, the team must destroy the micro-dimension while the creature is elsewhere.

You could adapt this last idea to The Esoterrorists or Trail just as easily.

Like any GUMSHOE menace, the sort of mystery you choose to weave around your gate helps determine how it works and the information the investigators must gather to overcome the threat. The obvious scenario premise: victims are disappearing into the gate, and the PCs must figure out what’s going on and destroy it. In a forgiving game, like a Fear Itself outing starring feisty kids, previous victims might still be found deep in the weird realm. In typical horror modes, they’ve been long since consumed. Success means preventing others from meeting their fate.

If the gate moves around from place to place, the investigators could uncover about the nature of the threat in an early scene. The mystery shifts from “what is this thing?” to “where will it show up next, so we can banish it?”

Human antagonists might have constructed or conjured the dimension to accomplish some wider goal. There the investigators have to identify them and stop them from realizing their plan.

Finally, a weird pocket realm could appear as a side element. A magician or parageometrist creates it as a trap to lure nosy parkers.

A pocket realm that moves from place to place could even appear as an Antagonist Reaction, waiting on the other side of any door or gate to ensnare the investigators.

by Adam Gauntlett

The Vampire

The opening of a new Odeon cinema sparks a vampire craze, and presents the Bookhounds with an unusual opportunity for profit.

This is nominally set in 1936, the year Dracula’s Daughter is released, but could be restaged at the Keeper’s convenience.

Odeon

The Odeon chain of cinemas get their start in 1928, when founder Oscar Deutsch opens his first cinema in Brierly Hill, West Midlands. Deutsch’s empire accelerates rapidly when he joins forces with architect Harry Weedon, and together they designed and built 257 Art Deco picture houses, becoming the dominant face of cinema in the United Kingdom. New builds sprang up like weeds. In 1936 alone, Odeon opened 33 cinemas across the country.

Hook

It has been a quiet month for the store. People just aren’t buying, because building works have thoroughly gummed up the whole street. The noise and dirt killed walk-in trade. However the worst is over, and the new Odeon cinema a few doors down, gleaming and modern, is about to have a gala opening night. Universal Pictures’ Dracula’s Daughter shall be the first big show, and already crowds of eager teens flock to the place like a shrine. It doesn’t matter that the film’s got an A certificate, which means under sixteens need a parent or guardian; the cinema doesn’t care who it lets in, so long as they pay. The whole street’s going to be swarming with non-book buyers, and all any of them will be interested in are vampires. The queue to get in the Odeon snakes right past the Bookhounds’ front door.

Do the Bookhounds lean into it and become expert in all things Vampire, or do they buck the trend?

No Sale

The Bookhounds can ignore the Odeon. If so, the store suffers a Reverse. Old friends are put off by the queues of people, and none of the vampire crowd spend more than a few minutes in the “musty old mausoleum.”

Shenanigans!

The Bookhounds might try to interfere with the Odeon somehow. Exactly how is up to them; pranks, complaints to the Council, summoning supernatural allies, or anything in between.

However the Bookhounds may not realize that architect Harry Weedon has innate megapolisomantic ability; this is discoverable on a 2 point spend, Architecture and/or Occult, and anyone who makes this spend knows the cinema must have megapolisomantic significance. This is why the Odeon chain has been so successful; the characteristic Art Deco design, use of faience (tin-glazed pottery), rounded corners, vertical feature for adverts, all contribute to create a kind of megapolisomantic engine, a new lever. Weedon’s innate talent, in combination with Deutsch’s enormous drive, create these minor places of power. Each cinema is a magical shrine, and the audience are its worshippers. If Weedon and Deutsch realized this and played upon it, they might achieve miracles. As this is an accidental partnership, and since Deutsch’s premature death in 1941 ends their collaboration, what could have been a significant change in the city’s landscape becomes a brief fad, soon forgotten.

However when a cinema is first built its power is at its strongest, and it creates a megapolisomantic guardian to keep it safe. The guardian only lasts a few years, and is always based on the first film showed at that cinema – in this case, Countess Marya Zaleska, Dracula’s daughter.

Attempting shenanegans brings the Bookhounds in direct conflict with the paramental entity.

The ‘Vampire’: Abilities: Athletics 10, Health 8, Scuffling 6; Hit Threshold 4; Alertness Modifier +0; Stealth Modifier +2; Weapon: ‘bite’ attack, +1; Special Attack: Mesmerism holds enemies in place, helpless, at a cost of 2 Health per target. Helpless enemies are automatically hit, if attacked; Armor: non-silver physical weapons do minimum damage, and it can re-form 1 Health point per round. If reduced to 0 Health it dematerializes for 20 minutes. Only magic can kill it; Stability Loss -1. Weakness: any arrow shot from a bow affects this paramental as if the arrow was made of silver. Appearance: pale, black-clad.

New Blood

The Bookhounds might try to engage with the Vampire crowd by bringing in vampire related merchandise, making standees to draw people into the store, or some other clever stunt.

This has a chance of bringing in a Windfall. The sudden interest in vampires is a temporary thing; eventually the Odeon will go on to different films and the magic will fade. This means the Windfall is unsustainable, but even as a temporary benefit it still raises the Credit Rating of the store by 1 so long as it is active.

Exactly what triggers this Windfall is up to the Keeper, and player initiative. The more involved the players get, the more likely a Windfall should be; half-hearted attempts shouldn’t be rewarded. Any spend from the Bookshop Stock pool definitely gets the Windfall, as customers flock to the shop that has just the right stock. This represents the Bookhounds coming up with Genuine – or ‘genuine’ – vampire related merchandise. Potential high-priced items include:

  • A complete set of the periodical The Dark Blue in which Sheridan LeFanu’s Carmilla first saw print.
  • Copies of the Boy’s Standard 1886 Victorian penny dreadful Spring Heeled Jack.
  • Le Capitaine Vampire (1879) by Belgian writer Marie Nizet. As it’s not in translation this will be difficult to sell to casual buyers, but collectors love obscure material. The bragging rights are greater.
  • Pulp magazines like Weird Tales often feature vampire stories, and cover art.
  • Illegal copies of the 1922 silent film Nosferatu, or stills from same.
  • Copies of the latest pulp fiction, Vampires Overhead (1935) by West Indian Alan Hyder.

Most of this stuff is cheap to get, but given the spike in demand can fetch double or triple the usual price. It probably isn’t the Bookhounds’ usual stock in trade; it’s more modern, pulpy, fare. However it gets the cinema goers through the door, and that’s the main thing – particularly if they buy.  Illegal items, like the Nosferatu stills or any forged item, might provoke police interference.

The Collector

The Keeper should introduce this antagonist while the characters are deeply involved in their own machinations.

The megapolisomantic nature of the Odeon design wasn’t lost on Doris Bidwell. Bidwell is an amateur megapolisomancer with ambition, looking for something to use as a power base. Recent squabbles within the magical community have put Bidwell on the defensive, with an urgent need to strike back.

The Odeon looks to Bidwell like a chance at salvation – but for that to work Bidwell needs to avoid the attentions of the Vampire while at the same time getting close enough to the Odeon to start the working.

As it happens there’s a bookshop conveniently placed close by.

Bidwell poses as a customer, a moneyed collector, always poking around the shop, never buying. Bidwell’s after something special, and seems to have good Credit Rating in spite of her peculiarities. To look at, Bidwell’s the sort of person Scrooge might dream up after a bad bit of cheese: always dresses in black, down-at-heel, Bohemian without the charm. Bidwell clearly knows a lot about books, and can talk intelligently on public affairs and international relations, which makes Bidwell seem like a Radical. Bidwell does have Radical friends, and is often seen in Soho and North London fleshpots, but his real allegiance is to Crowleyite wannabe black magicians and offshoots of the occult group Ordo Templi Orientis. It’s thanks to arguments with this fraternity that Bidwell’s looking for a new power base.

Bidwell’s plan is to get enough material from the Bookhounds – bits of clothing, hair, even blood if possible – and make that into a lure, which Bidwell will hide inside the shop. That lure, Bidwell thinks, should be enough to draw the Vampire away. It doesn’t have to be distracted long; a few hours is enough. Or so Bidwell thinks; if Bidwell had any real intellectual acuity she wouldn’t be sniffing round the Odeon looking for a power base.

Bidwell has two problems. One is the Bookhounds, and the other is her former friends who now oppose her schemes. These Occultists have no love for the Bookhounds, but they may interfere, to frustrate Bidwell.

If Bidwell succeeds then her next step is to take revenge on her enemies, which may or may not include the Bookhounds. She sets up shop in the Odeon, going to the cinema night after night, sometimes in the company of a pale woman dressed in black.


Bookhounds of London is an award-winning setting for 1930s horror roleplaying game Trail of Cthulhu by Kenneth Hite. Bookhounds’ London is a city of cinemas, electric lights, global power and the height of fashion, as well as the horrors – the cancers – that lurk in the capital, in the very beating heart of human civilization. Whether you’re playing in two-fisted Pulp mode or sanity-shredding Purist mode, its GUMSHOE system enables taut, thrilling investigative adventures where the challenge is in interpreting clues, not finding them. Purchase Bookhounds of London in print and PDF at the Pelgrane Shop.

See P. XX

a column about roleplaying

by Robin D. Laws

A well-designed modular element for an RPG, whether we’re talking about a GMC, location, conspiracy, or occult tome, does more than extrapolate from an evocative premise. The text you write, explicitly or otherwise, indicates to the GM how it will be used in play.

Let’s look at roleplaying’s archetypal modular element, the one that has launched a thousand bestiaries, the creature. Or, if your core game prefers, monster, or foe, or alien life form.

In some cases the utility of a creature, or other modular element for that matter, goes without saying. That happens when the core activity of a game is so hard-wired to its modular elements that their function at the gaming table needs no further elaboration.

Take the venerable first mover and perennial market leader, Dungeons & Dragons. Its core activity is: fight monsters in fantastic environments.

(This greatly accounts for the enduring popularity of D&D and its stickiness as a concept. Not only does it have an exceptionally clear, easily enacted and highly repeatable core activity, it tells you this right in the brand name. Fantastic environment = Dungeon. Monsters = Dragon. It’s all right there.)

A well-wrought D&D creature design requires you to address its activity by showing the GM how it behaves in a fight, and how it interacts with its environment. In 5E, the stat block focuses on the former, and the descriptive text on the latter.

Different iterations of D&D have favored one over the other. The classic “Ecology of the X” magazine article format traditionally goes into way more extrapolative detail on a creature’s relationship to its environment than any DM can possibly put into play at the table. 4E, and its spiritual descendant 13th Age, focus much more on what the creature will do in a fight than in the broader world. A stat block might represent not a category of being, but a particular sort of orc or demon or pirate who attacks in a specific way, with its distinctive spell effect or weapon.

D&D casts such a shadow over trad RPG design that the very term “trad design” might mean “has a little D&D influence in it somewhere.”

It’s easy, then, to lose track of what you’re doing by applying D&D assumptions to the creation of creatures for other games. Making an adversary useful and easily playable in another rules set requires you to step back and consider the core activity you’re writing toward.

GUMSHOE games all have slightly different core activities, all of which can be expressed including the verb investigate.

  • Intrepid volunteers investigate the cosmic secrets of the Cthulhu Mythos.
  • At the behest of a benevolent conspiracy, trained professionals investigate an occult conspiracy to tear apart the world.
  • Ordinary people investigate their way out of horrific situations.
  • Burned spies on the run investigate the vampire conspiracy intent on destroying them.
  • A freelance starship crew investigates interstellar mysteries.

To design a GUMSHOE creature requires not just a focus on the tropes and themes of the setting—an eldritch abomination, a psychically invasive modern horror, an alien life form—but the creature’s role in the investigative action.

GUMSHOE’s emphasis on structure helps you do this. If you look at the scenario format, you can see that a creature might be:

  1. central to the scenario’s key mystery
  2. a secondary obstacle adding challenge and suspense along the way

In case 1, the creature is either the source of the mystery, or adjacent to the source. The PCs have to interact with it in some way to bring the case to a close. That’s your:

  • salt vampire feeding on the crew of the mining outpost
  • resurrected sorcerer bumping off anyone who uncovers his secret
  • ghost taking vengeance on its killer’s descendants

Many instances of case 2 fall into the broader category GUMSHOE calls Antagonist Reactions. When the heroes start poking around, the primary villain sends some lesser creatures to harry them. Secondary creatures might also be keyed to specific investigative scenes, as guardians or obstacles the characters must overcome before gathering clues. Examples include:

  • the gargoyles the corrupt priest sends to trash your studio
  • the mutated dogs in the abandoned lab
  • the faceless homunculus hitman known only as Mrs. Blank

Your description of a GUMSHOE creature might suggest ways it can appear in either role. When writing up Mrs. Blank, you could indicate how she acts when the PCs are tracking her through her trail of victims, and then what she does when she shows up at the behest of the vamp conspiracy to treat the agents to some silencer music.

Accompanying any core activity is a game’s default identity, the description of a typical PC group: ordinary people, trained professionals, burned spies, starship crew, or whatever. Take that into account also as you design your creature. Show the GM how to get the characters into contact with your entity. In other words, your description needs at least one plot hook demonstrating its introduction into play.

Super easy, again, in D&D: unless you say otherwise, the creature occupies the fantastic environment, ready to defend itself when adventurers show up to fight it.

The more specialized the default identity, the more guidance GMs need getting your creature into their games.

Let’s say you’ve designed a ghost that materializes out of printer’s ink. What motivates the typical group for this game to confront it? The answer differs if the PCs are ordinary people (Fear Itself), burned spies (Night’s Black Agents) or security pros who respond to assignments from their handlers (The Esoterrorists, Fall of Delta Green.) The question in the first two examples is “Why do the PCs care?” In the last case, it’s “Why do their handlers care?”

Keep these essential questions in mind as you first envision your creature, and again as you revise your text. You’ll probably spot passages that explore a rabbit hole of iterative detail but don’t figure into a GM’s key concerns:

  1. What does it do in my scenario?
  2. What does that scenario look like?
  3. Why and how do the PCs encounter it?

This quick Trail of Cthulhu adventure first appeared in the Dragonmeet 2018 program book, and is based on genuine historical events that took place within a few minute’s walk of the convention centre. 

The Window on Standish Road

  1. What was reputed to be the appearance of the mischievous person?
  2. In white sometimes, and sometimes in the skin of a beast; a calf skin, or something of that sort.

In 1804, Francis Smith was convicted of the murder of a bricklayer named Thomas Millwood, having shot him on Black Lion Lane in Hammersmith, only a few minute’s walk from this very convention centre.

Smith offered a novel defence, arguing that he had not intended to kill Millwood, but that his real target was the ‘Hammersmith Ghost’, a phantom that haunted the churchyard. He mistook Millwood for the supposed ghost and shot him in the face.

Several accounts describe the ghost, which was said to be the spectre of a butcher who committed suicide several years earlier. For example, Thomas Grove testified that: “I was going through the church yard between eight and nine o’clock, with my jacket under my arm, and my hands in my pocket, when some person came from behind a tomb-stone, which there are four square in the yard, behind me, and caught me fast by the throat with both hands, and held me fast.” Some described the ghost as a figure in white; others claimed it had eyes of glass and an animal’s head.

Two days after the shooting, a local shoemaker, John Graham, came forward and admitted that he was the ghost; he’d dressed up as the phantom to scare his apprentice. Smith was initially declared guilty of murder and sentenced to hang, but in light of the intense public interest in the affair, the case was referred to King George III, who mercifully spared Smith’s life and sentenced him instead to a year’s hard labour.

The Hammersmith Ghost was consigned to the history books and to the legal texts, where it remained as a precedent regarding the consequences of mistaken action for 180 years. Case closed… or is it? For Gamemasters who want to bring the horror out of the past and into their game, we present this quick scenario for Trail of Cthulhu.

The Horrible Truth

Sorcerer and necromancer Jerominus Cornel still haunts London, more than a hundred years after his death in 1802. He hid himself away into a mirror dimension using a magical lens, emerging infrequently to steal occult knowledge from other scholars, using books and intimidation to drag them into the mirror world.

The Hook

Scene Type: Intro

Leads-Out: The Graveyard, Background Research

1937. In an obscure second-hand bookstore, the investigators find an incredible prize – a battered copy of Balfour’s Cultes de Goules, a 1703 work describing the ghoul cult throughout Europe. Such a rare occult book is worth a considerable sum to the right collector.

Tucked in the back of the book are a handful of loose pages, covered with almost illegible handwriting. Close examination with Languages reveals that it’s the confession of one John Graham of Hammersmith, written in 1810.

  • Graham talks about his neighbour, an eccentric chemist called Jerominus Cornel, who lived on Standish Street. He often saw Cornel visiting a nearby butcher’s shop, buying jars of blood from freshly slaughtered cattle.
    • Library Use/History/Occult: It might be worth looking into any records of this ‘Cornel’. See Background Research.
  • Cornel complained bitterly that there was too much to learn, that one lifetime was not enough to encompass the knowledge of the universe.
  • The butcher committed suicide in 1802; Cornel vanished the same year.
  • The tales of ghosts and spectral figures began after that. People saw pale figures at night, out of the corner of their eyes. One coachman nearly killed himself and his passengers when the ghost attacked him as he drove past the Black Lion inn.
  • In 1804, after the murder of Thomas Grove, Graham himself encountered the ghost of Cornel. The spectre appeared in his window and told Graham that if he did not allay suspicion, Cornel would devour Graham’s children. Terrified, Graham went to the magistrates and confessed; soon afterwards, the King interceded and put the whole matter to rest. Everyone thinks that Graham was the ghost; but it was Cornel. Cornel haunted Standish Street.
  • Graham dares not tell anyone, except this confession, but he’s buried proof of his claims in St. Paul’s churchyard. He gives the location – twelve paces south, forty east of the main gate. See The Churchyard.

There’s one other clue – Flattery or Bargain (for a small bribe) gets the bookseller to recall who sold him the copy of Cultes de Goules. He recalls the seller was a young man, very pale and sickly, who seemed nervous – he kept looking over his shoulder, as if someone was watching him through the glass window of the bookshop.

 

Background Research

Scene Type:Alternate

Leads-In: The Book

Leads-Out: The Churchyard

History or Oral History gets accounts of the Hammersmith Ghost.

Library Use digs up a few scant records on Cornel:

  • He was originally Dutch, but lived in Paris for some time before fleeing to England in 1784.
  • He was a chemist and glassblower; he made tools and equipment for chemists and doctors.
  • Oddly, one diary by the physician Francis Willis describes how Cornel offered to treat King George III’s madness in 1788; as a price, Cornel demanded access to “certain books in the possession of the King’s Library that were previously owned by Doctor John Dee”.
  • A later entry in the same diary talks about how Willis was called to the King’s Library to treat one of the clerks, who fell out of a window in Buckingham Palace.
  • The next page of the diary is missing, as if erased.

 

The Churchyard

Scene Type: Core

Leads-In: The Book, Background Research

Leads-Out: The Survivor, the Face in the Glass, Image of the Sorcerer

The old churchyard isn’t the same graveyard where the Hammersmith ghost was seen all those years ago – that graveyard is long since gone. The gardens of St. Paul’s, though, are still much as they were in King George’s day. Searching, the investigators quickly discover the right spot.

  • Archaeology:This is odd – there’s something buried here, all right, but it was recently This ground was dug up in the last few months.

As the investigators dig, they hear a disturbance on the road nearby. Shouting, and the breaking of glass – and then a gunshot rings out across. There’s a man, his features hidden by a white sheet, shouting wildly at the investigators. He’s got a gun in his hand – and he’s aiming it at them! “Don’t look at it!” he shrieks, “don’t let him see you!”

If they pursue, the man runs, firing wildly in the air. He never shoots directly at the investigators, just in their direction. A bigger danger, though, is the risk of being run-over by a car that swerves to avoid the gunshots (just like the coachman spooked by the Hammersmith ghost). If the investigators chase down the attacker, see The Survivor.

The Buried Cache

Buried in the churchyard is a bundle of pale, rotten leather attached to a mask made from the skull of a calf. Embedded in one of the calf’s eye-sockets is a curious glass sphere.

  • Chemistry:It’s not glass at all, but something much harder. It’s indestructible according to any test or tool available.
  • Astronomy:There are tiny symbols carved into the sphere – although how they were made is a mystery, given the sphere’s apparently harder than diamond. They include Arabic symbols for various stars, most prominently the Hyades.
  • Evidence Collection: The sphere seems to have some sort of image embedded in it, too small and faint to be discerned with the naked eye. Some sort of strange optical phenomenon, no doubt.
    • Craft orPhotography (Core Clue): Maybe a sufficiently bright light and the right arrangement of lens could project the image. If the investigators try this, see The Image of the Sorcerer.
  • Underneath the bundle are several more occult tomes, of roughly the same age and condition as Cultes de Goules, and likely from the same collection. They mostly deal with optics and alchemy.

After exposure to the sphere, the investigators are in danger from The Face in the Glass.

The Survivor

Scene Type: Alternate

Leads-In: The Churchyard

Leads-Out: The Face in the Glass, The Image of the Sorcerer

The attacker flees through a maze of alleyways. En route, he drops the white sheet he was using as a disguise. Finally, the investigators corner him in the yard behind a furniture shop. He raises the gun and attempts to shoot himself in the face. The nearest investigator can make a Scuffling test (Difficulty 5) to grab the gun before the man kills himself.

If successful, the investigators can Interrogate their prisoner.

  • The attacker is Edgar Smith, formerly a student at Imperial College.
  • He had a friend, Philip Black, who dabbled in the occult. Philip found an old book with a weird diary tucked in the back, and convinced Edgar to help him break into this very churchyard by night.
  • They found that awful mask – and when exposed to starlight, the eyes glowed and Philip vanished.
  • Terrified and confused, Edgar fled. He feared he’d be blamed for Philip’s disappearance, so he hid, renting a room nearby.
  • Since then, he’s seen a strange man watching him from the windows. Sometimes, he saw Philip in the windows, too.
  • A few weeks ago, he saw Philip on Kensington High Street, posting a parcel. His former friend looked bloodless and old, as though years had passed for him. When Edgar tried to speak to Philip, his friend vanished again in broad daylight, like an image from a movie projector that was suddenly switched off.
  • He has no idea what’s happening, but it all started with that damned mask with eyes of glass. Philip must have reburied the mask afterwards.

 

The Face in the Glass

Scene Type: Antagonist Reaction

Leads-In: The Churchyard

After exposure to the glass-eyed mask, the investigators start seeing the face of an old man reflected in windows, mirrors and other glassy surfaces. He might be watching them from an upstairs window or leering at them from a bathroom mirror.

If any of the investigators are ever alonenear a glass, then Cornel acts.

  • If the investigator has a high rating in any Academic ability, then Cornel might attempt to abduct the investigator, emerging from his mirror-lair to abduct the investigator by dragging him back through the mirror. (Scuffling or Fleeing contest against Cornel’s Scuffling). Captured investigators can be seen in The Image of the Sorcerer.
  • If the investigator is no use to Cornel’s studies, then Cornel threatens the investigator, saying that he must bring “men of learning” and show them the sphere so Cornel can devour them (or, if Cornel’s predations have attracted too much attention, that the investigator must bury the mask in St. Paul’s Churchyard again, to await the next generation of scholars).

Cornel

Abilities: Athletics 6, Health 12, Scuffling 10

Hit Threshold: 3

Alertness Modifier: +2

Stealth Modifier: +2

Weapon: Ghoulish claws +1

Armour: -2 vs. any (skin)

Stability Loss: +0

 

The Image of the Sorcerer

Scene Type: Core

Leads-In: The Churchyard

With Craft, Physics and Photography, the investigators can assemble a contraption that magnifies and projects the image in the sphere. Impossibly, it’s moving –it’s like watching a film recording of an old, old man in a small room. There’s no door, just a single flickering window that seems to look out over all of London, the viewpoint jumping from place to place as if the room were flickering across the city. The room’s crammed with books, occult paraphernalia and pages of crabbed notes; there’s also a large stack of human bones, licked clean and cracked open for marrow, in one corner. Hanging upside down from hooks is the corpse of Philip Black; the old man’s drained Black of blood and is slowly, slowly eating the man’s flesh.

  • If any of the investigators were captured by Cornel in The Face in the Glass, they’re visible in the image, hanging from hooks next to Black, but still alive.

As the investigators watch, the window behind him changes, becoming a window or glass surface in whatever room the investigators are in. The man looks up at them and smiles.

Cornel knows they’re watching.

And he’s coming for them.

  • Physics: There’s a clock on the wall behind the old man, but it’s moving incredibly slowly. If this is a window or image of some pocket dimension, time moves differently there. Maybe that’s why Cornel used Philip Black to run errands in our world – if he stays outside his room for too long, maybe Cornel will age to death.
  • Anthropology:Some of the notes on the table look like interview transcripts – the old man’s abducting scholars, questioning them, and then eating them.
  • Cryptography:The sorcerer’s notes can be read through the projection, although they’re reversed mirror-writing. They include a list of names of prominent scientists and occultists – did Cornel make Black send other lures to them? Does Cornel intend to abduct, interrogate and devour them too?

Defeating Cornel

The finale is a cat-and-mouse contest between the investigators and Cornel. The sorcerer is immortal, inhumanly patient, and can emerge from any mirror or glass. The investigators can spy on him, and know what he wants – knowledge. Can they set a trap for him? Might illuminating the mask with starlight from the Hyades create a physical portal? Or should the investigators bury the sphere somewhere it can never be found, stay away from all windows and mirrors, and pray that the Hammersmith Ghost never finds them again?

 

 

“’Wait a minute!’ the man hissed. ‘Are you after more books like that? I know where we can get some.’”

— Ramsey Campbell, “Cold Print” (1969)

The 1960s were a great decade for occult books, featuring waves of bestsellers launched by Jacques Bergier and Louis Pauwels’ million-selling Morning of the Magicians in 1963. Some of those books show up not just on bookstore spinner racks but on DELTA GREEN task sheets — or in the dorm rooms, cult compounds, and forest cabins those task sheets point the Agents to.

The Black Diamond Séance

“A.K. Porlock” (1939; English)

In 1936, thriller writer Dennis Wheatley began writing a series of “murder dossiers” intended as party games. Containing all the clues and handouts needed to solve a murder mystery, the first one sold over 100,000 copies. Rival publishers Sandestin Press rushed out their own “Sensation File” series. This one, the third and last in the “Sensation File” line, contained instructions for holding a séance complete with an “occult ritual” intended to awaken the Black Diamond (a milled shard of obsidian included in a paper packet). Fortunately the War intervened and very few copies sold. The American reprint edition (from Harmonica Publishing) comes out in 1967, riding the booming interest in witchcraft and the occult.

Hypergeometry Potential: Contains one hypergeometric ritual, which awakens a Black Winged One and ties it to a nearby shard of obsidian. Fortunately, the American edition does not include actual obsidian, replacing it with colored glass.

Dedicated Pool Points: 1 for Occult, usable to hold or otherwise interact with a séance.

The Case For the UFO (Varo Press Edition)

Morris K. Jessup and unknown annotators (1957; English)

The pre-Varo edition

Jessup, an auto-parts salesman who studied astronomy in college (M.S., University of Michigan, 1926), wrote The Case For the UFO in 1955. Parties unknown mailed a triply-annotated copy of Jessup’s book to Admiral Frederick R. Furth of the Office of Naval Research (ONR) in early 1956. Jessup recognized one of the annotators’ handwriting as that of “Carlos Allende,” a correspondent of his who had described witnessing the Philadelphia Experiment (Project RAINBOW). Captain Sidney Sherby of the ONR had government contractor Varo Press print thirty spiral-bound copies of the annotated volume (displaying each annotator in their own color of ink), including two Allende letters, and gave Jessup four of them. The annotations hint at many things that MAJESTIC does not want mentioned, even in such limited circulation; the fate of the twenty-six ONR copies remains unclear. Jessup died in 1959 in Florida, an apparent suicide by motor exhaust inhalation. Not all of his copies have been recovered.

Unnatural: 1 if the reader has experienced the ultra-violet, time travel, or communion with Yog-Sothoth.

Dedicated Pool Points: 1 for Fringe Science, especially MAJESTIC research into UFOs or Project RAINBOW

Dhol Chants

Unknown authors (c. 200 B.C.; originally Pyu?)

This set of chants supposedly “spoke themselves” as the “yin reaction” to the introduction of Buddhism to Burma in the third century B.C. The structure of the chants themselves indicates a Sino-Tibetan original, probably the extinct Pyu language of central Burma. Commentaries in Burmese date from some time around the Mongol invasion (c. 1300), and ascribe the chants to “men of Linggu.” The eccentric Sinologist Jerome Harkniss translated and edited a complete corpus of Dhol Chants and commentaries in three volumes in 1891-1899.

Unnatural: 2

Hypergeometry Potential: 3 (1 for readers illiterate in Burmese)

Dedicated Pool Points: 2 for investigations involving the plateaus of Leng or Sung.

Marvels of Science

James Morryster (1960; English)

Hasty edition in modern English of Morryster’s 1708 original Marvells of Science, bulked out with more “strange but true” facts from a variety of sources. Many of Morryster’s anecdotes involve devils, reptiles, birth defects, murderers, angels, sea monsters, and magnets. Morryster briefly quotes the Pnakotika when discussing the theory that time and Creation repeat themselves. The credited editor, Lois Gould, provides a lengthy preface siting Morryster in the intellectual disputes of the Royal Society, which mentions the Mathers and Ward Phillips. Originally a doctoral dissertation by Gould, the publisher (Stellar Press) cut the manuscript down and tarted it up with UFO and Bigfoot sightings.

Unnatural: 1 at most

Dedicated Pool Points: 1 for Fringe Science.

Randolph Carter: A Look Behind the Attic Window

Lin Carter (1969; English)

Unimaginative but completist survey of the fiction and poetry of Randolph Carter (1890-1928?), in a paperback original from Ballantine Books with a lurid cover showing ghosts and monsters cavorting across a dreamer’s face. It attempts to explicate and unify Carter’s various imaginary, dream, and theosophist settings and concepts, and includes two chapters of biography including a chapter on his mysterious disappearance in 1928. Contains a “Glossary of Randolph Carter’s Cosmos” listing and defining every place, entity, dimension, and so forth mentioned in his fiction, including several names of Unnatural import.

Unnatural: 1 if the reader has already entered the Dreamlands or otherwise had an Unnatural experience while asleep.

Dedicated Pool Points: 2 for any investigation involving the Dreamlands.

The Tablets of Nhing

Rebecca Aspinwall (1964; English)

This channeled magical text supposedly originates from the planet Yaddith. Rebecca Aspinwall drops out of Tulane Law School on the basis of her contactee experience and self-publishes her book the next year. In 1966 she sells it to Chaplet Books, who retitle it Love Visions of Nhing and, based on her “continuing revelations,” insert much sexier rituals such as “The Joining of Three Souls” and “The Orgy of the Spheres.” Aspinwall lives in Houma, Louisiana, although she often travels to college campuses to incarnate a new group of Joiners of Yaddith and draw reliable condemnation from church groups and anti-obscenity crusaders.

Unnatural: 1

Hypergeometry Potential: 1 (3 for self-published 1964 edition)

Dedicated Pool Points: 2 points for any investigation involving Yaddith, bholes, or Yog-Sothoth; also grants 1 point of HUMINT for New Agers and free-love cultists.

Überreste Verlorener Imperien

Otto Dostmann (1809; German)

Romantic prehistory of the Mediterranean world after the sinking of Atlantis, sporadically treating sites from Scotland to Romania to India wherever Dostmann believes the evidence supports his theories. His arguments range from linguistic and epigraphic oddities to antiquarian finds to folktales and songs. Needless to say, the Ahnenerbe reprinted it in 1940 as a triumph of German scholarship. The only other edition of Dostmann is the Spanish-language Residuos de Imperios Perdidos (Buenos Aires, 1954).

Unnatural: 1

Hypergeometry Potential: 2 (after undergoing a vision at one of the sites mentioned)

Dedicated Pool Points: 2 for Anthropology, Archaeology, History, or Occult involving the relevant region of the world (northern Africa, Europe, western Asia).

“Like all decadents he was exquisitely sensitive to the color and atmosphere and names of things …”

— H.P. Lovecraft, “Medusa’s Coil”

Much of the ironic entertainment of playing in Lovecraft’s universe comes from playing, well, in Lovecraft’s universe, or at least his Earth. Specifically, from playing with his names. And not just the Big Names like Cthulhu and Yog-Sothoth, but the human-scale names in his world. Meeting a supporting character named Waite, spotting a gunshot-riddled sign for the turnoff to Dunwich, discovering a slim volume in violet buckram by Randolph Carter — these very specific joys come from the very specific associations we formed with those names as readers of Lovecraft’s fiction over years or decades. Crack open your copy of The Lovecraft Lexicon by Anthony Pearsall and salt your campaign with those joys to taste.

The downside is that in order to enjoy them, the players must recognize those names as fictions within your fiction, the equivalent of seeing the “clue glow” in a video game. This endangers immersion, and mitigates against suspension of disbelief. If, as Lovecraft wrote to Clark Ashton Smith, “no weird story can truly produce terror unless it is devised with all the care and verisimilitude of an actual hoax,” then you damage terror and verisimilitude by introducing people and place names taken straight from fiction, and from increasingly familiar fiction at that.

In a classic Call or Trail game set in the 1920s or 1930s, players tend to adopt an ironic detachment from the running boards and candlestick telephones of the setting even without guest appearances by glittery-eyed weirdos named Tillinghast or Curwen. The past is another country, one that might very well have a seaside town named Kingsport in it.

But in a 1960s Fall of DELTA GREEN game, and even moreso a Cthulhu adventure set in the present day, players’ sense of the game world begins to bleed into the “real” and away from the stage set of the past. Thus, the unreal breaks harder when it breaks: if you know in your heart that Googling “Henry Armitage” gets you a “Fictional Librarians” tag on Wikipedia, it’s harder to play along when your Investigator Googles “Henry Armitage” and gets “Head Librarian, Miskatonic University 1924-1936.” To say nothing of the knowledge that Miskatonic University itself is just a cooler Hogwarts with a slightly better Defense Against the Dark Arts program.

Compare to the national name brand!

“The story you are about to hear is true. Only the names have been changed to protect the innocent.”

Dragnet, opening narration

Alan Moore, as is his wont, has limned another approach, one that pays increasing dividends the closer your campaign gets to the present. Moore pointed the way out of this box in his comics series Providence (and before that, in The Courtyard and Neonomicon). Moore presents a Cthulhoid world with H.P. Lovecraft in it, a jetée we’ve danced before. Lovecraft’s stories, it transpires, actually happened in that world (which also has Chambers-style suicide temples in them as well) but Lovecraft, one assumes, changes the names, dates, and details when he fictionalizes them for his weird tales.

Elspeth Wade becomes Asenath Waite; the Boggs family of Salem becomes the Marsh family of Innsmouth; Ronald Underwood Pitman becomes Richard Upton Pickman. Moore interweaves real places and people as well: Manchester, New Hampshire becomes Arkham; the (historical) alchemist and Caliph’s son Khalid ibn Yazid becomes Abdul Alhazred (and also, as he did in actual early modern Latin manuscripts, “Hali”); the (historical) werewolf Jacques Roulet takes on a more important role than he did in Lovecraft’s “The Shunned House.” Moore’s “true names” (and lots of spoilers for the Moorecraftian tales) appear here, for the curious.

Presenting various names and places (especially real-world versions) as lightly coded (or de-coded, depending on which direction your epistemology polarizes) versions of Lovecraft’s names and places doesn’t break immersion because the players’ action of de-coding the game names mirrors their Investigators’ action of, well, investigating them. The player deduction that “Weldon Wycherley” is “actually” Wilbur Whateley reinforces and recuperates their character’s realization that the Weldon Wycherley in this picture seems awfully big for an eight-year-old boy. Players become alert for twins and mysterious hills and standing stones, mirroring their Investigator’s discovery of a hidden twin and a strange ruin on Sepulcher Hill. Thus, following Moore and making the various changes transparent ones helps the story and the drama along.

Or start with Earth, but even moreso! Real names and careers of Salem witches, for example, can provide an interesting warp for the Lovecraftian weft: did John Alden, Jr. traffick in other things than guns with the Abenaki? Did his ships bring in mummies and corpses? Or did the remarkably long-lived Jonathan Curwin escape accusation (unlike his mother-in-law) thanks not to his high position but to his necromantically-obtained blackmail material? With a little effort, I bet you can find real-life electrical experimenters and disgraced surgeons who died mysteriously somewhere in New England at some time between 1914 and 1922 — and if they didn’t die mysteriously, that’s where the coverup (or the weird effect of the Mythos on memory and testimony) comes in. Pick your favorite missing U-boat and say it’s the one from “The Temple.” Lovecraft already used real floods and storms for “The Whisperer in Darkness” and “The Haunter of the Dark,” and a real earthquake for the rising of R’lyeh; shift places and dates until something gameable clicks into being.

Use the same approach for real locations of Lovecraftian towns and hills: if your “Kingsport” is actually Marblehead, maybe the Old Pirate House is the house of the Terrible Old Man.  Feel free to scatter them around, too. Perhaps Lovecraft re-used Arkham to further snarl the trail: the meteorite fell near Oakham, Massachusetts; the witch Ann Foster hyperspatially disappeared from Salem rather than dying (as the records were altered to indicate); and the university with the arcane ambit is actually St. Anselm College in Manchester, or Brown University in Providence, or Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine. If you can’t find a real legend or ghost or crime that fits Lovecraft’s story, make one up — and finding out who kept it out of the history books (and off Google) can be another layer of the onion for your Investigators to peel back.

 

 

Hideous Creatures: A Bestiary of the Cthulhu Mythos expands on Mythos-monster issues from Ken Writes About Stuff, summoning a fetid host of new horrors and adding new facets to existing creatures. One section that’s especially close to my heart are the in-character documents, which present an oblique look at a particular monster in the form of a handout – diaries, official reports, letters and newspaper cuttings. Here are two cuttings that got, well, cut…

 

From The Empty Half: Travels in Western Australia

spent the morning with an old prospector, who told me of his encounter with a pair of Aboriginal hunters he encountered some years previously on the fringes of the Great Sandy Desert. According to his account, he traded with them and shared his campfire. The two spoke a little English, having learned it from the trading post at Marble Bar. When the prospector mentioned his intention to explore the region to the south-east, the two expressed alarm and told him that there was a monster living underground in that part of the desert, and that it was forbidden to go there.

During the night, the miner woke to hear the two hunters arguing in their native tongue. One of the pair grew so angry he walked off into the night, and the other in broken English offered to show the miner a place where he could find a great deal of gold. The miner agreed, and the next morning the second hunter brought the miner to a place in the desert where they found a huge formation of black rock ‘like a chimney’. The desert wind whistled across the mouth of the chimney in a manner the miner found disturbing, but he refused to show fear in front of the Aborigine, so he bravely stepped forward and led the climb down the shaft.

At the bottom of the chimney he found a large chamber, and the floor of it was littered with strange lumps of gold. They were, he said, twisted filaments of pure gold, wires as thick as a man’s thumb. They resembled driftwood, or the castings of worms, and their purity was evident to the naked eye. The miner eagerly began scooping these into a sack, while the Aborigine began to climb down the rope.

Suddenly, a huge wind rushed down the chimney, pulling the unfortunate hunter off his perch on the chimney wall and dashing him against the rocky floor. His legs broke with the force of his impact, and his scream chilled the miner’s blood. Then the wind changed direction, and lifted the hunter, whisking him away into the dark recess of the cave.

Another wind struck the miner, knocking him off his feet, and he feared he would meet the same nameless fate as his poor guide. At the last moment, he heard a voice singing from the top of the shaft. It was the first hunter, the one who had left them in anger during the night.

Impossibly, the wind changed direction in response to the Aborigine’s song, and reversed to hurl the miner up and out of the chimney like a scrap of waste paper caught on an updraft. The fall knocked him unconscious, and he woke again next to the ashes of his campfire, with no marvelous gold or Aboriginal savior in sight. Of course, he could never find the black chimney again.

When I asked for proof of his tall tale, he scowled, then turned his tin mug upside-town on the table. He proceeded to sing in an curious high-pitched fashion while staring intently at the cup. After a moment, he stopped and knocked the cup over in frustration. ‘I can make it move sometimes,’ he insisted, ‘when the wind is right, and I remember how he sang me out.’

 

A Letter from Newport

Orleans County Sheriff’s Office

Newport, Vermont,

November 3rd.

Dear Mr. Conwell,

I write in connection with your late uncle’s home on Dupuis Road, which according to Mr. Tatler of the Irasburg General Store was rented by you to a Mr. Noyes from June of this year. I wish to inform you that your tenant has disappeared in what can only be termed unusual circumstances, and that you are obliged to take charge of the property forthwith or appoint an agent to do same.

The situation, as far as can be determined presently, is as follows: Mr. Noyes took up residence of the property in June. His origin, profession and business in Irasburg was the subject of much speculation among the townsfolk, including some suggestions that he was a treasure hunter, inventor or even a foreign spy, and none of those I spoke to was able to provide any evidence for their suspicions. His only known associate was a Mr. Brown, who can no longer be questioned, having drowned last month in a sudden flood.

Other than purchasing general groceries and receiving a number of parcels at the Irasburg Post Office, Mr. Noyes appeared largely self-contained. It was evident that he had ready access to money (if you would be so kind as to make available to us details of any rental or other payments he made to you, it would be very beneficial.) Some witnesses report seeing unknown strangers visiting the farm, or Noyes driving off in the middle of the night, but these only elicited mild curiosity and did not warrant alarm or investigation.

On the 21st of September, gunshots were heard from the direction of the farm on Dupuis Road. The next morning, neighbors investigated and found no trace of Mr. Noyes; after several days of continued absence, Mr. Tatler contacted the sheriff and we entered the farmhouse. (Mr. Noyes is still missing, as is his automobile.)

Inside, we discovered the house to be in disarray. Furniture and other belongings were strewn around, and the hearth was overflowing with ash and partially burnt debris, suggesting that Mr. Noyes attempted to incinerate a large amount of material. We found several broken electronic devices and other items we cannot readily identify. The deputies who handled these items are now seriously ill, and have developed alarming skin lesions. The doctor here in Newport is baffled, and finding out precisely what chemicals or other substances Noyes possessed may be key to their recovery.

A possibly related matter is the heavy metal case that I discovered in the paddock out back of the house. It was partially buried in the earth, as if it fell from a height. I do not know if this case belongs to you, or Mr. Noyes, or some other individual, and am wary of opening it until I can ascertain its provenance. I enclose a photograph of the case, which now rests in the storeroom of the Orleans County Sheriff’s Office.

If there is any information you can share regarding Mr. Noyes and his acitivites on your uncle’s property, we would welcome this assistance with our investigations. As I wrote earlier, you are obliged to come and take charge of the property immediately, or dispatch an agent to do same.

If you have any questions or information, please telephone me at the Newport Office.

Yours,

Deputy Sheriff Adams

 

SaveSave

By Hao Zhang

There’s an idea, a saying that when a thing travels, evolution, alteration, and other unexpected outcomes go with it. This idea sometimes can lead one to pleasant views. And this is how we at Labyrinth see it.

Before we formally begin the mumbling, we’d like to notify you dear readers that we wrote this article majorly based on our personal impressions and memories, therefore it would not be a bad idea to treat what we are about to recount as a mere story:

[the beginning]

By the end of 20th century, there were rumors and legends being told on the Chinese-speaking part of the Internet of stories about a sort of game, a unique kind of playing, which allows its players to freely act out the characters and to experience their adventures in a way that no other form of gaming can provide. It’s called Tabletop Roleplaying Games.

For many of us players in China—a place that’s literally a half planet away from where TRPG was born, this was how we first heard of it.

By the end of 1999, an article was published on the nation-wide magazine Popsoft, it was likely the very first systematic introduction of TRPGs written in the Chinese language. Due to the magazine’s popularity, we can also safely say that it was likely the first time TRPG was introduced to the mass-public of Chinese players.

Shortly after that, the Dragonlance novels and RA Salvator’s Forgotten Realms novels were published.

Following this, the D&D 3.0 edition core rule books.

For the first time, TRPG doesn’t just exist in the “introduction threads,” for the first time those who formerly could only say “I’m curious about this TRPG thing” could actually become a player.

And this was the beginning of an actual TRPG player population in China.

Since the stories about TRPG were mostly spreading within the video gaming communities (Popsoft itself can be arguably deemed as a video game magazine, too), most of these early players are also video game players. It’s interesting to mention that before many of these first TRPG players ventured into the world of TRPG, they first played CRPGs like Baldur’s Gate and Planescape: Torment.

That said, due to the fact that the fantasy novels were basically introduced to Chinese youth at the same epoch, among the first TRPG players we also have a lot of fantasy novel readers. But in most cases a Chinese TRPG player is both a fantasy novel reader and a video game fan.

To put this on a larger scale, we can say that most of the first TRPG players were the Chinese young people who are fascinated by western pop culture in general.

And since then, TRPG began to flourish in China… as many of us once so hoped.

Actually, since then, until the D&D 3.5 and 4.0 rule books both got published in 2009 by two different entities, it was mostly just silence.

The number of TRPG players in China remained relatively low for many years, the lucky ones who managed to talk their friends into TRPGs mostly play in local board game cafes, and the less-lucky-but-determined ones could only play online.

Due to the lack of actual games, many TRPG players here formed an online reading habit and became rather knowledgeable about various pop culture subjects. At first it was heavily focused on D&D and genres like high fantasy, but soon other games/systems (like World of Darkness, Sword World RPG, and GURPS) and other genres were explored.

Thanks to these knowledgeable pioneers and their activeness in all sorts of video game forums, while TRPG itself seemed very insignificant and marginal in China, the influence it had on the entire Chinese pop culture is tremendous: together with fantasy novels and animations, it inspired a whole generation of web novel writers and game designers, it’s like the Illuminati society for Chinese pop culture aficionados, you just cannot call yourself an insider without stating your admiration and interest in TRPG…

Speaking of Chinese pop culture, it’s also hard to avoid mentioning animations and other Japanese pop culture works. If the the influence of earlier works like Slayers was still largely limited to the anime fan community, the impact of classics like Record of Lodoss War was just huge.

As more animes and light novels were made since the late 2000s, this impact from Japan got more significant and began to turn Japanese pop culture fans into TRPG players.

From the Japanese pop culture fanbase emerged a wave of new players whom are introduced to the TRPG via light novels, manga, J-CRPG, anime, and Japanese-style visualized AARs (in some of these AARs the characters have “Yukkuri” version portraits of Touhou characters and they often talk in the voice of Google), a considerable part of these AARs are CoC AARs.

And thanks to Nyaruko: Crawling with Love, today a lot of people among us here in China are used to refer Nyarlathotep as Nyaruko even in non-anime discussions.

Despite that many earlier “western school” players are also anime watchers, due to the cultural differences that existed in the two different worlds, the “Japanese school” players have a small cultural gap with the “western school” players. That said, fusions can be also widely observed.

And while TRPG in China slowly evolved here, “another secret cult”—the Cthulhu culture also crept into the Middle Kingdom and gained its own place.

It’s hard to tell which one arrived first: the CoC game, or the literature works associated with Cthulhu mythos, or maybe they appeared at the same time in one online thread? We can only tell with certainty that some of the literature was published along with some other fantasy novels here in PRC during the first decade of 21st century.

If TRPG is a marginal cult, then in general the Cthulhu culture was even more marginal, when TRPG was still recognized by the pop culture geeks and hailed as an important source of inspiration, Cthulhu mythos was like a whisper, only murmured in the least visited corners of Chinese-speaking Internet.

The very reason for the Cthulhu pop culture itself looking so alike to the in-work secret cults and mysteries, was probably that the Cthulhu-associated works were never (or at least just rarely) systematically introduced, if somebody in the 2000s would have searched “克苏鲁” (the Chinese transcription of Cthulhu), he would most likely only get scattered information: a couple of books, some short introductions to HP Lovecraft, some longer articles full of specific terms, and some “Iä! Iä! Cthulhu fhtagn!” replies here and there.

Of course this mystery doesn’t last forever, as the Chinese pop culture community grows and the earlier fans expand their explorations into more and more different worlds (resulting in more translated works and even original works), and as the Japanese creators started to use more Cthulhu-related references in their works, now it becomes much easier for anyone interested to get information. On top of that, we at Labyrinth even have Trail of Cthulhu translated and published.

We’ve been saying that a majority of the Chinese TRPG fanbase are into western pop culture (and they play western characters more often than not during games), but as most of them are still born and raised in China, a cultural difference still exists. Here’s a quick example, for many Chinese players, the Prohibition Era is something they are unfamiliar with, and thus moonshine and bootlegging can be interpreted in unexpected ways…

This doesn’t mean they can’t enjoy the games though, many players smartly avoid such issues with characters from backgrounds they are unfamiliar with. And the Chinese players are sometimes very into playing out their characters’ personalities and charms , some creative folks here even play with largely minimalized rules to have greater freedom (meanwhile some others deem this unorthodox).

So this is how the things feels like at a glance and how they became so. So far TRPG culture and Cthulhu culture have grown slightly bigger than they originally were when they first arrived, but these cultures are still young here and will have a long way to go to until they can be considered as fully fledged.

But as long as the legends of TRPG are still being told and the Lovecraftian mysteries are still being whispered, this story will just live on.


Hao Zhang is the founder and CEO of Labyrinth Culture
Ever after his engagement in the localization of D&D 3rd Edition Core Rule Books in 2000, Hao has always been an over-serious aficionado and a zealous promoter of TRPG. He founded Visionary e-magazine, the first magazine in China that focus solely on TRPG in 2005 and co-founded Khan Kon in 2011. The games he brought to Chinese players include Fiasco, Trail of Cthulhu, and Pathfinder.
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