Wednesday 2 August 2023

Cannich Scots

Also known as part two of the Shadows of Yog-Sothoth segment in our Call of Cthulhu campaign. Arriving in Scotland, our three intrepid investigators take the train to Inverness then hire a car and drive to the nearby small town of Cannich. They know that the cultists behind the Hermetic Order of the Silver Twilight are up to no good here on the shores of Loch Mullardoch.

They lodge at the only hotel in town and cautiously scope the place. Violet (Cate's character) decides that everyone is a cultist until proven innocent: the guy who runs the place; the barmaid; and three men staying there, one of whom is English. [GM note: she isn't far wrong!] Playing the part of cheery, innocuous Americans, they strike up conversations with everyone regardless. It turns out that one of the three guests is an archaeologist from Edinburgh University called Andrew Kennedy. He tells them he is leaving tomorrow and after some cajoling he admits that he has been involved in an impromptu dig on the shores of the loch with Henry Hancock and his friend Adam Chisholm. They have not long returned from an expedition to Africa which Kennedy says ended in some tragedy or other (he doesn't know the details). Hancock has purchased a large house in the area, but both men have disappeared after some initial findings at the Loch. The locals are saying that Chisholm has returned to Africa, but Kennedy is spooked. He doesn't believe Chisholm would leave without Hancock and thinks something nefarious has happened - hence his imminent departure. Smart man. The characters offer to drive him to Inverness the next morning so he can catch the train, and in return he passes them some notes in Hancock's hand about local legends involving an ancient Pictish temple and a Roman expedition during which the centurion uses a magic sword to chop a golden disc into three parts. He explains this is what piqued their interest, mainly because there is no archaeological evidence for any Roman involvement in this part of what was once Caledonia. Violet muses about Hancock's name - maybe they have mutual family connections? It later transpires she is right; Hancock is a cousin on her father's side. [GM's note: pure coincidence! He happens to have the same family name as her own as established in a previous scenario. I just took advantage of the chance happening.]

The second guest is a supply teacher from the borders, here to take over from the recently retired schoolmaster (who is also the town's medic). They strike up a conversation that doesn't really go anywhere. "Cultist!" decides Violet. The characters do, though, make a note to talk to the former teacher.

The third guest is an English guy called Tommy Hayes. He says he is taking a break from work to travel around the Scottish highlands, but Scott (played by Thomas) tells his friends that this guy looks far too physically capable and is packing some sort of pistol, which is completely illegal in this country. The characters themselves have wangled shotgun licenses from their police connections in London, but proper firearms are another thing. Tommy realizes that have spotted some of his weaponry and comes clean when Violet mentions her family name. Tommy is an officer with Special Branch and is here to look for a serial killer and cannibal who goes by the stage pseudonym of 'Belphegor'. Violet decides this has to be another cultist and theorises that he has taken the name of some sort of magician or is one himself. They tell Tommy that they are going to call on Hancock to see what is going on here. He tells them to be careful; since Belphegor fled to this area, a young baby has gone missing - probably not a coincidence.

After taking Kennedy to Inverness the next morning, they return to Cannich and go to check out Hancock's house. They get the feeling from some African artefacts that Hancock and Chisholm encountered something nasty and Mythos-related while in Africa. It looks as though they came across similar happenings here in Scotland, though, because they find Hancock's mutilated body stuffed into a crawl space behind some wooden panelling; he was clearly tortured to death. There are also signs that many rooms in the house have been searched. They have the obligatory encounter in the basement when Hancock's ghost tries to scare them away, but Isobel (Beth's character) drives him off. [01 on a Power roll!] They reckon he is protecting something and give the basement a through going-over, finding one segment of the golden disc mentioned in Hancock's notes. It is part of the sun disk they saw in previous visions; an artistic representation of the same thing adorned an altar panel at the Silver Twilight 's Boston headquarters.

[End of first session in Cannich. There was a lot of roleplaying in the town hotel, followed by the now traditional creepy house investigation.]

Friday 21 July 2023

Shadows of Yog Sothoth

...well, sort of. I played in this campaign when it first came out then bought it off the guy who owned it. Since then, I've run it sixteen times, almost all of them in the '80s. The latest was for my current group, who have just finished it.


As a campaign, it has a lot to recommend it, especially in the adrenaline department. After all, how often do you get to have a finale on R'lyeh itself, with the possibility that Great Cthulhu will appear in person? It is, though, showing its age, especially in the movement between episodes. These can be a little contrived and railroady (apparently this is now a fully acceptable gaming term); they also do not take into account player agency. 

I changed out several elements, primarily to provide more foreshadowing. The 'chapter' set in early Hollywood would make a good scenario in itself, but my players have a disconcerting habit of going straight for the main payoff. I know this from their Stormbringer campaign. I had a feeling they would want to move straight from Cannich to Easter Island, thus cutting out California and the attempt by the Silver Twilight to kill them that forms 'The Worm That Walks' scenario. This is why I introduced the Yellow Sign/Elder Sign hybrid before running Shadows, as well as providing quite a bit of foreshadowing in earlier scenarios.

The other issue is the sheer lethality of the thing. I only have three players and the death rate promised by a faithful run-through of the campaign would wipe out any continuity. I'm happy for one of them to die or go mad when the time is right but I don't want a Total Party Kill and that is something that could happen quite easily. So I toned it down a little. That plus the re-ordering of chapters made it into quite a memorable experience.

This is the reprint; I still have my old original in its ratty state.

Scott: early-mid 20s, served in WW1

Isobel: early 20s, journalist with a "colourful" background

Morris: early 20s, waste of space dilettante

Violet: Morris' other body (it's a long story), 18 years old

Boston, June 1922

For a while now Morris has been attending the grand lodge of the Hermetic Order of the Silver Twilight in Boston, a fraternal club with more than a passing interest in the occult. Morris was originally invited to join by Dr Edward Call, a physician friend of Henry Armitage at Miskatonic University. Armitage is the characters' contact with the so-called Gorgons, a sub-unit within the Bureau of Investigation that deals with mythos-related incidents. Call felt that something wrong lurks behind the club's gentlemanly facade and asked Armitage if he knew anyone who would make a likely candidate for an invitation to join, while also being up for some behind the scenes investigation. Morris fits the bill because of his social class. 

Morris has attained enough Occult knowledge to progress to the second rank of the three levels of the Order and he now feels he knows the building well enough to continue the investigation. He has observed that the first two floors are freely open to members, although the library holdings are carefully tailored to each level of progression. The first floor (in American - ground floor for everyone else) constitutes the main area for members, including reading and dining rooms. The second floor is mostly comprised of a large lecture hall in which investitures take place. The club building closes at midnight.

The place is run by the so-called Grand Magus John Scott, a pimply, pock-faced man of indeterminate age with a strangely archaic twist to his words. He is helped by a staff of grim-looking, efficient stewards; Morris is certain they carry .45 revolvers in shoulder holsters and also have batons of some kind in their rear waistbands. These servants are always on guard in various locations, stopping anyone going up to the top floor or down to the basement area. According to John Scott, the top floor is out of bounds because it is being renovated. After-hours snooping around the outside of the building, however, convinces the three characters that the top floor is often occupied (lights on) and that neither Scott nor any of his impassive goons ever seem to leave the lodge. The characters are already convinced that Scott has been resurrected because they have come across references to a ritual that does this by reducing the target body to 'essential component salts' and then enacting a spell over them. The results are at best imperfect and successful resurrects often have a pock-marked look to the their skin. The three investigators have already found the grisly results of failed resurrections.

Morris pretends to leave the Order building, but instead hides in a store cupboard. He lets in Scott and Isobel and they case the first floor - nothing to be found. They do the same to the second floor and finally make their way to the topmost level. Here they come across a variety of rooms that clearly indicate there are three further, hidden levels to the Order, each of which requires advances in Cthulhu Mythos knowledge. They find the books for all three levels in an especially well-stocked Occult and Mythos library on the top floor. They sweep the remainder of this level, finding various rooms dedicated to each of the three top cult levels. There are altars and drapes that probably hide some horrible murals or something, so they leave those well alone - no need to lose Sanity! Finally, they encounter John Scott himself in a strange room that has been plastered to resemble a white womb with no angles of any kind anywhere. Scott disappears through a Gate drawn onto the floor, scuffing some of the symbols as he vanishes in order to ensure there will be no pursuit. 

Somewhat perturbed by the absence of Scott's goons, the three characters go down to the basement. Here they find a series of archaic chambers, including some vast cavern-like rooms carved from the rock, as well as a guardroom with little jars of salt marked "Custodes". So this is where the guards go to sleep! They find another library with even more seriously dodgy books, including a Greek translation of the dreaded Necronomicon. Here they grab a letter to Carl Stanford, a senior member of the Order, from one Duncan MacBain in Scotland, reporting a dig at a sacred Temple site by some Americans. MacBain says he is going to wait until the Americans find It, whatever It is, and then kill them to take It. It seems to be an artifact of tremendous significance to the Order or rather, the Cult, as the characters now call it. The Boston Lodge seems to be just one of many tentacles of a large, perhaps even worldwide, conspiracy; a Frenchwoman named Anne Chantraine is mentioned, as are several European occult organizations. Another unpleasant surprise is an altar to Cthulhu and a bas-relief on the wall behind it that shows Cthulhu triumphant, with a strange disk-like representation of the sun as a sort of halo around his head. This is exactly the image they saw on the Mauretania via the Glass of Mortlan artifact.

The last thing they find is an enormous artificial chamber with weird noises coming from cells set into the floors and sealed with what look almost like manhole covers. The words of the resurrection ritual are chiseled into the walls in huge letters in Latin - so the things in the pits will be failed experiments. They manage to rescue a member of the Order who is sitting in a side-cell counting flies.

Emerging at last from the building, they realize that Scott has fled and contact Armitage to ask for a clean-up crew to deal with the place, especially what lies beneath. They now have a sense of urgency about them, since whatever is happening in Scotland needs to be stopped, so they will use their Gate to Gloucestershire to hop over quickly and then get the train northwards. Before they leave, they see newspaper reports saying that the renovation work on the Lodge building seems to have caught fire and the whole place has collapsed, falling into and permanently sealing its own basement.

Monday 5 June 2023

A Moral Dilemma

 The next scenario is "The Condemned" from Arkham Unveiled, in which an entombed sorcerer finally gets free and tries to wipe out the descendants of those who read him away. So don't read on if you are going to play this one yourself.

The characters have arrived back in Arkham after their survival horror escapade in the Lake Michigan hinterlands. A few days later, Isobel's newspaper is running a story about events that have befallen two Miskatonic University students who went camping near the river after semester ended. One is missing and the other currently resides in Arkham Asylum.

Basically, the premise of the scenario is that a final lightning strike has finally taken out the middle of an old ruined bridge upstream that housed the paralyzed body of Sermon Bishop, an immortal sorcerer who was entombed alive over 100 years ago by various Arkham worthies (the Mythos has a long history in this town). He is deposited on a sandbar near the campsite of two students and uses a mind swap spell to take over the body of one of them, Henry Atwater. In this body he ambushes the other student and bludgeons him to death. He then buries his own previous body with Atwater's mind in it, together with the body of the student's best friend and heads off to put in motion his plans for revenge on the progeny of his oppressors. Modern life has changed everything beyond recognition, though, and he is found rambling by a motorist. Realizing he needs more information about this strange new world, Bishop pretends to be insanely incoherent and is taken to the Asylum. The newspaper states that something horrible has happened to the two students and notes that a search is being organized for the one who is still missing.

Isobel gets herself assigned to the case as a reporter for the Arkham Gazette and heads off to the campsite, along with Scott and Morris. They have arrived later than the rest of the locals, who have been up since dawn and are quite far into the woods in their search pattern. That explains why they haven't spotted the large number of crows gathered on a sandbank at the riverside, so the characters investigate that and find two bodies, one of which is still alive, although a bit mad. They don't know this yet, but Henry Atwater in Bishop's immortal body has just spent a couple of days buried alive and staring the battered, decaying corpse of his best friend in the face. He jump scares the three characters, screaming "Atwater - Henry Atwater" before collapsing. The party notices fragments of some sort of sigil that appears to have been around the neck of this unknown man, now falling apart.

There then follows a series of events as Bishop escapes from the asylum and continues his killings and the characters do a lot of research at the Arkham Historical Society. They figure his plans quite quickly and Morris realizes that Atwater has actually been body swapped. As Violet, Morris visits Atwater and calls him by his real name; the man is still mad from his experiences, but will start to recover (albeit slowly) now that someone has recognized who he actually is. Violet feels sorry for the student because she knows almost exactly how he feels. The group is too late to stop the first death, an old woman who is beaten to death with a fireside poker; Bishop then uses the same item to carve the numeral 1 in her forehead. 

However, the group has pieced together the so-called Sign of Barzai that was used to paralyze the sorcerer. They also find the location of Bishop's house and get the police to surround it while they go inside. The plan is to surprise him and use the Sign on him. They are somewhat surprised when Bishop emerges from somewhere secret inside his old house but manage to capture him; basically he surrenders when he sees all those firearms pointing at him. In this body he is not immortal.

This creates a moral dilemma for the characters. To the outside world, it seems as though they have captured the mad murderer Henry Atwater when in fact they are holding the old magician Bishop in Atwater's body. In the meantime, the student is alive in Bishop's immortal body. Cue a long discussion about what to do. They have a Mythos tome that Bishop was looking for, courtesy of one of the old families Bishop was trying to attack - basically, it's his book from all that time long ago and contains the ritual he used to achieve immortality. Technically, they could use this book to summon the strange entity that conferred immortality on Bishop so that it can take his soul, but that would mean a dangerous ritual followed by seeing whatever that thing is, which would not be too good on one's sanity. Instead, they decide to keep Bishop paralyzed. He will be executed for double murder, which he certainly deserves, and also provides  a way out for them. This way he gets what is coming to him, but they don't have to deal with a powerful and unpredictable Mythos entity. Atwater, who will eventually recover in Bishop's body, is given over to the Gorgon Sisters at the FBI and they say they'll take care of it. There should be some way for them to transfer Atwater back into his old body after Bishop has been killed.

The characters then go off to investigate the secrets of Bishop's house. They find a hidden tunnel that leads to the Miskatonic River and also links up with another tunnel from an old farmhouse which, according to records, belonged to Bishop and his partner in magic, one Simon Rousell. Here they find a secret alchemical laboratory, long since trashed and emptied, apart from the remains of an experiment in a cellar:

It looks like two intermingled bodies, both completely mindless, one of which has been eating their own slowly regenerating flesh for one hundred years. They don't know how to destroy this thing, so they head off to consult Henry Armitage.

It turns out that he has news for them, and it may help shed some light on their current experiences. The professor whose life they saved on the Mauretania has sent a report from Jerusalem. He says that he has identified a strange resurrection ritual in a terrible place hidden in the ancient city. There is a way to reduce a cadaver to component salts via some sort of complicated alchemical process. Apparently, a ritual is then enacted and the person comes back to life. Most often, according to the professor, these things often go wrong and the salts are contaminated or incomplete, in which case the resurrectee turn out to be some sort of blasphemous thing - similar to the one the three characters have just encountered. Atwater says he will arrange for it to be dealt with (it's amazing what you can do with gasoline nowadays). At best, whoever is resurrected often looks as though they have had a bad case of acne - the skin doesn't usually reform perfectly. He also says that the last piece of the professor's report is encouraging: apparently if you can memorize the ritual, you can say it backwards and so destroy a person who has been resurrected. The characters realize the description of John Scott at the Hermetic Order of the Silver Twilight exactly fits the description of a resurrected person provided by the professor. Morris goes off to continue his long term infiltration of the organization, and is now a Level 2 member out of the 3 full levels.