Gamebook store

Thursday, 17 August 2017

"Murder Your Darlings" (1890s scenario)

Here’s a Victorian-era roleplaying scenario - and before I say another word, I’d better point out there are spoilers throughout. If you’re going to play it, you'd better stop reading now.
Professor Barker, creator of Tekumel, ran two campaigns. One had the players gallivanting off on interdimensional forays fighting aliens with cosmically evil plans for humanity. The other dealt with the politics and social life of Tsolyanu. If you’re familiar with Dragon Warriors at all, you’ll guess that it’s the low-fantasy option that appeals to me.

It’s particularly a problem with Cthulhu campaigns. If every scenario involves the characters facing an impossibly over-powered monster that drives them mad just by popping its face round a corner, the fun is soon going to pall. What works in Lovecraft’s stories doesn’t work so well in an ongoing campaign, not least because few of his protagonists survive a single encounter with the creatures of the Cthulhu mythos.

In our 1890s campaign, I most enjoyed the early sessions when the characters knew nothing about insanity-inducing aliens. We were investigating a tough serial killer with the ability to vanish in the London fog, and the case revolved around an ancient mummy that various people seemed to believe had magical powers. If that had been a movie, I’d have been content with just a touch of the supernatural, but when it all turns into over-the-top CGI I find I’m less engaged.

Of course, in a Cthulhu campaign there’s no putting the shoggoth back in the bottle, but it struck me that not every adventure needs to present yet another sanity-wrenching encounter from which the characters can only run screaming. So I tried out this scenario in which there’s no supernatural (I should say science fictional, rather, since we're talking about Cthulhu) element whatsoever. A caveat, though: my players, conditioned to expect the Great Old Ones behind every unexplained death, kept veering off into the realms of the fantastic. Instead of thinking Miss Wellbeck was Diana Purdey’s daughter, they suspected a vampire or reptilian shapechanger on the loose. Once you’ve taken the campaign into eldritch territory, it seems, there’s no bringing it back to earth.



INTRODUCTION TO THE CASE
In our campaign, the characters were approached by Sgt Torssen after a memorial service in Abney Park cemetery for a player-character who had died the previous session. Alternatively they could receive a telegram, be met at their club, or otherwise be recruited to the case. The important point is that one of the characters studied Jurisprudence (ie theory of law) at University College, Oxford, under Professor Arthur Goodhart.

The character is approached by Sergeant William Torssen, Oxford CID. He has been sent by his “governor”, Inspector Mordray, to request the character’s assistance in a murder case.

The police were to be helped out by Professor Arthur Goodhart, the character’s former college tutor, who was taken ill recently while compiling his notes on the case. Prof Goodhart collapsed and is now in a coma, but before losing consciousness told Dr Bright (the Master of Univ) that the player-character must be shown the case. Other characters will presumably tag along.

CALENDAR FOR 1891

NON-PLAYER CHARACTERS

Sir Matthew Ross (45), deceased, master of Deergrafe estate; served as a major in the 4th Hussars in Rawalpindi until 1877
Lady Julia Ross (42), his wife (née Walpole)
Cuthbert Ross (16), their son (at school at Stowe)
Elizabeth Ross (12), their daughter

Frederick Rolson (32) working as head groom at Deergrafe under the alias “Albert Duggan”

Catherine Wellbeck (19) lady’s maid at Deergrafe; note she is called “Wellbeck” by Lady Ross, and “Miss Welbeck” by the other servants.

Wellbeck is Sir Matthew’s illegitimate daughter. She killed Sir Matthew when, during the interview when she meant to tell him the truth, he tried to pull her to his lap and molest her – she grabbed the knife from his desk and stabbed him. Later, in Rolson’s room, she took the rook rifle and was about to shoot herself; Rolson tried to wrest the gun away and it went off.

Wellbeck is thus responsible for both deaths but neither was intentional. She is now in a state of grief and shock so extreme that any serious upset could unbalance her mind completely. A further level of stress has been provided by Jock Thouless trying to blackmail her into helping him steal the Amritsar Emeralds.

At the culmination of the scenario it is probable that Wellbeck will attempt to do away with herself, possibly by drowning in the pond where she threw the knife.

Gilbert Godwurst (50), butler at Deergrafe; he is a manager rather than a personal servant
Leonard Haynes (40), first footman
Mrs Glaze (48), cook
Mrs Darlington (52), housekeeper
Mahendra Singh (42), Sir Matthew’s valet
Timothy O’Duggan (26), coachman
Jim Wicking (15) stablehand

Albert Duggan (34), a sailor of Walter’s Ash, Buckinghamshire
Lily Duggan (29), his wife

Professor Arthur Goodhart (70), Univ, Jurisprudence; the investigating character’s tutor, currently in a coma having suffered a heart attack.

Prof Goodhart is not expected to recover, but had mentioned to Inspector Mordray that the investigating player-character was the only one of his students who could crack the case. Mordray is not keen to have interference from another academic, but his superiors insist that he needs a capable man to brief Prof Goodhart if he recovers. “But don’t interfere,” he tells the characters.

An interesting character twist: the player-character never got on with Prof Goodhart. His work was always severely criticized, so he is surprised to discover that the professor had a high opinion of him.

Dr James Franck Bright (59), Master of University College; historian
Basil Fence (50), head porter at Univ
Sam Rumbucket (40), scout at Univ (on Dr Goodhart’s staircase in Radcliffe Quad)

Dr James Edwards Sewell (81), Warden of New College

Sir (Thomas) Herbert Warren (38), President of Magdalen College; literature & poetry

Detective Inspector Reginald Mordray (34), Oxford CID. He is a grammar school man, educated at the Crypt School, Gloucester, and distrusts dilettante investigators.

Detective Sergeant William “Thunderbolt” Torssen (33), Oxford CID. A real hard nut, ex-Army (“The Light Bobs”, 52nd Oxfordshire Regiment of Foot, disbanded 1881), not fond of undergraduates but respectful of dons.

Captain James Winter (42) of HMS Devastation was Duggan’s commanding officer during his time in the Royal Navy. He is currently in Portsmouth, where the Devastation is being undergoing a refit.

FACTS OF THE CASE
Sir Matthew Ross was the owner of Deergrafe, an estate near the village of Deerfield, ten miles north-west of Oxford.

On the night of Monday June 15, Sir Matthew was murdered in his study. He was found by his valet around 10 pm. The coroner estimates he was killed around 8 pm with a knife. His letter-opener, an Indian kirpan, was missing but the scabbard was on his desk along with an unsealed envelope containing ten pound notes.

When the police arrived (about midnight) it was discovered that the head groom Albert Duggan had committed suicide in his room behind the stable block. He was found clutching a Holland & Holland rook rifle he was supposed to be cleaning, having shot himself under the chin and up through the brain. His body was found around 1 am after the police arrived from Oxford. In retrospect, the stableboy and the cook both think they heard a gunshot at some time in the evening, possibly around 9 pm.

An interesting feature of the case is that Mrs Duggan was summoned from her home in Buckinghamshire to identify the body and swears that it is not her husband. However, she was given a letter written by the deceased, found in his room, and conceded that it was her husband’s handwriting. Also, it appears that Albert Duggan had packed his bags ready for a quick departure, though he had not handed in notice.

Also in Albert’s room: a note on unfolded paper, in a different hand, on his bedside table, and a calendar with a double question mark ?? written beside Monday, July 6. (In fact that’s when Jock Thouless wanted “Albert” to leave a window unlocked so he could get into the house. It’s a new moon that night.)

Albert’s body is in a refrigerated morgue at the Radcliffe. Sir Matthew was buried on June 26.

Lady Ross’s prized jewels are the Amritsar Emeralds, kept in the safe in Sir Matthew’s study.

The characters are called in on Wednesday, July 1.

June 15: the moon was in first quarter that night; weather fine; sunrise 04:45, sunset 21:20.

Earlier, on Saturday, June 6, there was an annular eclipse of the sun at just after four o’clock in the afternoon. That’s an irrelevant detail.

Weather for July is cooler than usual, with frequent thunderstorms.


WHAT ACTUALLY HAPPENED
Frederick Rolson and Albert Duggan were both in service at Windrush Hall in Lincolnshire in their younger days. Later they moved on to other jobs. Frederick continued to work as a groundskeeper and groom in various stately homes. After a stint in the Royal Navy, Albert became a farmer and settled down in Walter’s Ash in Buckinghamshire.

A few years ago at a county fair, Albert ran into Frederick, who had fallen on hard times having been dismissed from his job for theft, despite protesting his innocence. Albert agreed to let Frederick assume his identity to apply for a job at Deergrafe, Sir Matthew Ross’s house in Oxfordshire. Albert was finding it hard to make ends meet and had decided he could do better in the merchant navy, having learned his way around a ship in the Navy in his mid-20s.

So Albert let Frederick borrow his identity. He told his wife Lily he was working at a big house in Oxfordshire and couldn’t say for sure when he’d be home, but would write to her with money. Then he went off to sea. He didn’t want to admit that to Lily because she worried about him going to sea and had made him leave the Navy when they married.

Frederick has a few letters written by Albert to post off to Lily with money every couple of weeks. One of these letters was found in his room at Deergrafe, but the detectives didn’t compare it to anything written by Frederick himself. They also don’t seem to question why it gets details wrong – “Sir Martin told me he likes my way with the dogs,” “Marion, that’s the cook, is baking an apple pie and said she will put aside a slice since I will get back late from the hunt.” Etc.

Catherine Wellbeck had been engaged as lady’s maid a few months ago. She is secretly Sir Matthew’s illegitimate daughter from a liaison with his wife’s maid in their early years in India two decades ago. Catherine only learned the truth when her mother made a deathbed confession last year.

One summer evening Catherine made an appointment to see Sir Matthew in his study after dinner. She thought from the occasional looks he had given her that he recognized her as his daughter, but instead of listening to what she had to say he tried to force himself on her. She stabbed him with his letter-opener, threw it in the pond behind the house, tore the page from the day-planner that indicated she had an appointment with Sir Matthew, then went along the passage to the library, pausing to wipe her blood-stained hand on a drape.

She had intended to go to her room, but then had second thoughts and turned back to call on Frederick (whom she knew as Albert, and with whom she had begun a surreptitious early-stage relationship) but he said she would have to turn herself in. There was an argument, she seized the rifle he was cleaning threatening to do away with herself, he tried to wrest it back the gun went off, and “Albert” fell dead.

The next day, remembering the blood stain on the drape, Catherine went back and cut out the stained lining. It’s obvious that a small pair of sewing scissors was used.

It’s also obvious that if “Albert” had stabbed Sir Matthew, his obvious route back to the stables would have been out of the French windows and across the lawn and yard. In fact, as a groom, “Albert” would not normally go through the house at any time. He would certainly have had no reason to be in the passage where the drape is.

Nobody has noticed that Catherine is grieving intensely, or if they have they assume it is out of devotion to her master rather than for “Albert”.

The coachman thinks Sir Matthew was angry with “Albert” because he heard his master say, “Damn you, sir, you will beggar me.” Actually that was a jocular remark; “Albert” used to carry money for Sir Matthew’s bets on his afternoons off.

Other servants saw Sir Matthew surreptitiously hand an envelope to “Albert” from time to time. That was money for betting; see above.

Lily Duggan has told the police, “that’s not my husband,” but nobody is paying her much attention. After all, he was shot in the face.

The gun was found clutched tightly in “Albert’s” hands, recorded by the coroner as a case of instantaneous rigor, yet Prof Goodhart notes that neither hand was clamped on the trigger.

Was the gunshot heard? Yes, in retrospect, but at this time of year you sometimes hear a shot in the distance. It could have been a hunter or a farmer shooting a fox.

Other plot threads

Jock Thouless happened to see “Albert” at a hunt meet and recognized him as Frederick Rolson. Jock is a house burglar who, years before, got Frederick to be his inside man at Greycotes House, where Frederick worked. The theft was discovered, suspicion pointed at Frederick, but to avoid a scandal the family (Brisbane) dismissed him without references rather than call in the police. That was in 1886. Now Jock wanted “Albert” to let him into Deergrafe on the night of the new moon, ie July 6, but “Albert” was doubly reluctant – older and wiser, but also not wanting to blacken his friend’s good name. So he was thinking of running off before that night.

In fact Jock has decided to go ahead with the burglary anyway, and if the characters spot the note on the calendar they may lie in wait for him. (Night Vision VII, Stealth 13, Brawling 13, carries a cosh.)

UNIVERSITY COLLEGE
Master: Dr James Bright
Head porter: Basil Fence
Scout: Sam Rumbucket

The character is put up at college in rooms below Dr Goodhart’s on staircase IX of Radcliffe Quad:

Radcliffe Quad is remarkable in one aspect: the quadrangle proper is set out on the same axis as that in the Main Quad, but both High Street and Logic Lane curve round at this point. There are therefore barely any square or rectangular rooms in the whole quad, but they are all slightly irregularly shaped.

Admitted to Prof Goodhart’s study, the character may have flashbacks to the striking (and awful) black and red carpet that he remembers from many grueling tutorials. That’s just a character touch, it has no plot significance.

Throughout the investigation, the character finds references in Prof Goodhart’s notes to “B.H. would have an answer” [Ben Herzog was the PC in our campaign; obviously the initials will be different in yours] and realizes that Goodhart admired his unconventional intelligence but deplored what he saw as a diffusion of talent.



Dr Goodhart’s notes mention the possibility of fingerprint identification “as proposed by Sir William Herschel and Francis Galton of the South Kensington Museum”. That’s just a historical touch, it has no bearing on the case.



At the end of the scenario, while replacing Goodhart’s notes in his file, the character finds a box labeled: “The Ripper Case”. He finds this by noticing that the walls in Prof Goodhart’s rooms, unlike the set below, are squared off in one corner. This conceals a cubby-hole where he left the Ripper case. (This is what Prof Goodhart actually meant when he aid the character must be “shown the case” – he didn’t consider Sir Matthew Ross’s murder that important.)






OXFORD POLICE STATION

(Kemp Hall Passage, just off the High Street.)

In 1870 Kemp Hall was altered by Honour & Castle for use as a police station. Jackson’s Oxford Journal in October 1870 reported:


The headquarters of the Oxford City Police are now transferred to Kemp Hall, High Street…. The premises, though rather out of the way, being down a passage, are central, and in the rear of the Town Hall having communication with the Superintendent’s residence, and with the City Court. On the ground floor is a spacious office and library (the books for which remain to be contributed) and above are dormitories for 14 constables. Inspector Barratt and P. S. Barrows will live on the premises. There are three good lock-up cells, in one of which are the remains of old carvings; also cellars and necessary appurtenances.

Detective Inspector Reginald Mordray (34), Oxford CID. He is a grammar school man, educated at the Crypt School, Gloucester, and distrusts dilettante investigators.

          “It should be open and shut, this case, but some details are proving elusive.”

Detective Sergeant William “Thunderbolt” Torssen (33), Oxford CID. A real hard nut, ex-Army (“The Light Bobs”, 52nd Oxfordshire Regiment of Foot, disbanded 1881), not fond of undergraduates but respectful of dons. He offers some facts from the crime scene:

          “No signs of forced entry. The only odd features regarding the room are the missing letter-opener, the open envelope of £10 notes, and the page torn out of the desk diary.”

          “No footprints in the garden, although it had been dry for several days anyway. The French windows to the lawn were open – Sir Matthew's usual habit in summer – and it would have been logical for Duggan, if he was the killer, to exit that way, turn right across the yard, and thence go direct to his room behind the stable block.”

P.C. Wilbur Brodie (22) was one of those first on the scene. He knows:

          “Duggan had the rifle clutched by barrel and stock. His hands were already stiff. I couldn’t move the fingers.”


THE MITRE
A hotel on the High Street. The other characters could stay here.


RADCLIFFE INFIRMARY
Dr Roger Baynton is treating Professor Goodhart.

Dr Peter Garrett pronounced death on both Sir Matthew and Duggan, and performed the autopsy on Duggan’s body.

Duggan’s body is in the refrigeration unit here.

CORONER’S REPORTS

“The knife wound was from in front, striking almost directly sideways (ie not upwards or downwards) into the left side of Sir Matthew's throat. But he was found slumped obliquely across his desk, suggesting that he was seated side-on to the desk (with his left side towards the desk) at the time of the attack. That's also consistent with the pool of blood across the desk.
  
“Duggan was found with his left hand on the barrel and right hand on the stock. His hands were clutched tightly on the rook rifle, one on the barrel and one on the stock, in a manner consistent with cadaveric spasm, commonly called ‘instantaneous rigor’, which occurs sometimes when the point of death is accompanied by violent emotion or a struggle. Incidentally Mrs Duggan says her husband was left handed. But then, she says that's not him.”


THE DEERGRAFE ESTATE
First they are taken to Mr Godwurst’s office.
(Observation roll: there are framed photos on the wall.)
          There is a photo of all the servants, taken recently (1891).
          There is a photo of Sir William, Lady Ross, Mr Godwurst, Diana Purdey, and Singh (the valet) in Rawalpindi (1870).
A character who studies the photographs and makes an IQ-5 roll will recognize the resemblance between Diana Purdey.

Mr Godwurst may be able to answer some of the characters’ questions:

Miss Wellbeck was hired recently. What were here credentials?
“Wellbeck was recommended to her ladyship by a former servant from her ladyship’s time in India, I believe. I was not involved in her selection. That’s quite usual for a personal servant such as a lady’s maid or valet, as they are not servants of the estate.”

How about Duggan’s credentials?
“Duggan came to me with letters of recommendation from Windrush Hall in Lincolnshire, where he served as stable hand, groundsman and later junior footman from 1872 to 1879. His lack of references after that time were explained by a term of service in the Royal Navy, and he had a letter from his commanding officer at Lowestoft, a Captain Winter of HMS Devastation if memory serves, verifying that Duggan was granted an honourable discharge after five years with the Mediterranean fleet.”

Can Miss Wellbeck read and write?
“A lady’s maid must provide her mistress with companionable conversation and write letters for her. I believe that Wellbeck sometimes reads in the library, but only novels, you understand.”

Could Duggan have been an imposter?
“Unlikely. He had a thorough knowledge of his job and of Windrush Hall in particular. Somebody who simply came across those letters of reference could not so readily have passed himself off as one with extensive experience in service. However, I confess I was a little surprised to see they had made him a junior footman, as I would not have said he was quite tall enough for that.”

Mahendra Singh (Sir Matthew’s valet) is utterly discreet and will reveal nothing unless convinced it is in the family’s interests.

Mrs Darlington, the housekeeper, noted Miss Wellbeck’s burgeoning friendship with “Duggan” but the most she will vouchsafe to the characters is, “It’s difficult keeping a young staff in order. Mr Godwurst and I have our work cut out.”

Mrs Glaze, the cook, tries to be discreet but if got tipsy she may reveal that, “That Catherine, she was bit sweet on Al if you want my opinion. Not that Mrs Darlington would have let it go anywhere.”

THE STABLE BLOCK
In Duggan’s room:
          A calendar with a double question mark ?? written beside Monday, July 6.
          Bags packed for a quick departure (though he had not handed in his notice).
          Three letters from Lily Duggan dated May 7, May 23, and June 10 were unopened and tied up with string.
          There was a letter to Lily, signed and in an envelope, among Duggan’s effects.
          There was another letter (unfolded, no envelope) on a table.


Timothy O’Duggan (coachman, no relation to the deceased) says: “I don’t reckon as the master were any too happy with Al. I hear him say, ‘Damn you, sir, you will beggar me.’” (Actually that was a jocular remark on Sir Matthew’s part; “Albert” used to carry money for Sir Matthew’s bets on his afternoons off.)

The coachman may mention seeing Al talking to “a man in tweeds” on the day he died. “A heated discussion, as you might say. Most like he were warnin’ the fellow off not to stray onto estate lands. A rambler or bird fancier, I’d have said he was.” (In fact that was Jock Thouless, currently lodging in the village of Deerfield under the alias Mervyn Campbell.)

Jim Wicking (stable hand, 15) mentions: “I seen the master give Al an envelope from time to time. On the Q.T. like, when they thought no one was about. Money, I’m sure of that.” (That was money for betting; see above.)

MEETING LADY ROSS
Lady Julia Ross is with (Catherine) Wellbeck : “It is the sort of beastliness that one could expect out in India, not here in England.”
          Empathy roll: Wellbeck seems even more distraught than her mistress.

Lady Ross is a firm believer in spirits, seances, etc.

Cuthbert Ross (the son) has gone back to Stowe, having come down for his father’s funeral on June 26.

SIR WILLIAM’S STUDY
          The French windows were open.
          The most direct route back to the stable block would be out of the windows and across the yard.
          A page was torn out of his day planner (for June 14 to 20)
That page would have shown he had arranged to meet Miss Wellbeck on the evening of June 15.
          The safe has not been tampered with. It contains the Amritsar Emeralds.
          The letter-opener (a kirpan, almost certainly the murder weapon) was missing.
          An envelope of four £10 notes was on the desk. (That was money he intended to give “Duggan” to place a bet for him.)
          There was one drink poured: a glass of brandy on Sir Matthew's desk, knocked over when he slumped sideways across it.

THE PASSAGE OUTSIDE THE STUDY
This passage leads along the back of the house from Sir Matthew’s study to the library. From the library there are servants’ stairs (nominally concealed behind a shelf of fake books, but obvious on an Observation roll).

          Observation roll in the passage: a piece of the lining of one of the curtains onto the back lawn has been cut out, apparently with small sewing scissors.
          [Second Observation roll: there is a trace of blood still on the lining that was not cut out.]
          There is a smear of blood under the frame of the sash window here.

After the murder, Miss Wellbeck went out of the french windows, threw the knife in the pond, dipped her hand in the water, and then went back through the study towards the library, and thence up to her own room. As she passed along the passage, she noticed blood still on her hand and wiped her hand on the back of the curtain, then later came back and cut out the bloody piece of fabric.


CLUES
How will they find out the truth?

(1) The photo of the family in Rawalpindi. There is a young woman in the background. “That’s my maid Diana Purdey,” says Lady Ross. “She left my service shortly after that photograph was made. Married and stayed on in India, I believe.”

Enquiries reveal that Diana Purdey married a Captain Wellbeck. Nobody at Deergrafe is aware of that, but the characters could trace other retired members of the regiment in London who might know, or they could go to Somerset House and look up the birth records there. (Although Catherine Wellbeck was born in India, her birth is registered at Somerset House.) IQ-5 in any case to see the family resemblance between Diana Purdey as she was in the 1870 photograph and Catherine Wellbeck now.

(2) A book of water colours that Catherine Wellbeck left in the library is by Diana Purdey. There are some images of Sir Matthew aged around twenty. In the middle is a pressed flower and a very old note: “Tonight, the arbour. – M.”

(3) Jock saw Miss Welbeck dispose of the knife. He was watching the house through binoculars. He sent her a note telling her to meet him or he will reveal her secret. He wants her to help him steal the emeralds by convincing Lady Ross to transfer them to a locked box in her room. So they may see Wellbeck returning from that assignation.

PUBS IN DEERFIELD
There are two: the Keg of Porter (inn with a couple of rooms) and the smaller Prince Charles. The Keg of Porter has one guest, Mervyn Campbell (34), ostensibly an ornithologist on holiday. (It’s actually Jock Thouless.) He signed in on June 12 for four weeks.

Haynes (the first footman at Deergrafe) sometimes drinks here. He saw Duggan talking to “Campbell” in a lane a few weeks ago, but won’t think to mention it unless specifically asked. He’s never seen Campbell in the pub, so doesn’t know he’s staying in the district.

Jock saw Miss Welbeck dispose of the knife. He was watching the house through binoculars. He sent her a note telling her to meet him or he will reveal her secret. He wants her to help him steal the emeralds by convincing Lady Ross to transfer them to a locked box in her room.


LILY DUGGAN’S COTTAGE
Lily lives in Walter’s Ash, Buckinghamshire.

She is a simple soul and could be overwhelmed by too many grand gentlemen. But if the characters are diplomatic:

          “That’s not my husband they got there.”
          “They’re calling him a murderer.”
          “Served at Windrush Hall in his younger days.”
          “He was in the navy when I met him at Lowestoft. Well, actually I first saw him at the P of KL [port of King’s Lynn] but we only met socially in Lowestoft a few weeks later.” (7 years ago)
          “Typically goes off for three or four months, then he might get a few weeks at home. The last time was in April*. It was our anniversary.”

* Cross-checking with Mr Godwurst at Deergrafe reveals that “Al” had no time off in April.


As a model for Deergrafe I used Greys Court in Oxfordshire. There are useful notes about Oxford in Victorian times here, and your players might also find my edited version of the Dickens guide to Oxford useful.


Post mortem
As I said at the start, my players seemed so strongly to expect and favour a fantastical denouement that I whipped up the following epilogue so as not to disappoint. Your first priority as referee is to make sure they have fun, after all.

Before I go, some backstory. In our campaign, the players had gone up against some Dagon cultists on the isle of Jura. They encountered some “witches” sacrificing a man in a Wicker Man moment, and one of the PCs, Benjamin Herzog, murdered the head witch when she was already in custody. This didn’t sit well with the others, especially Royal Navy officer Daniel Reaver, but the deed was done. Life goes on.

And indeed unlife went on too, because the “witch” was a powerful psionic who managed to hold on to a semblance of existence by distributing her personality around the PCs’ subconscious minds. So they had been experiencing a few ghostly flickers, Benjamin especially.

At the culmination of the investigation, overcome by guilt and grief, and realizing her secret must soon come out, Miss Wellbeck drowned herself in the lake. The psionic witch’s psyche transferred into her body and visited this grisly little scene upon the characters as they sat in the bar of the Mitre hotel that evening.

Incidentally, you need to know that Benjamin Herzog suffers from claustrophobia and Ailean Gris from the delusion that he was abducted by aliens – mental weaknesses (it's GURPS, you see) that the witch was quick to exploit. These notes are very specific to my players’ characters, but hopefully the episode will inspire you to come up with something creepy, should you need it to finish off the adventure.
Return of the Witch
As the characters sit discussing their investigation over postprandial drinks in the Mitre lounge, the fire flattens like a frightened animal. There is a mournful groan from the chimney. The windows suddenly fog up. Nobody can escape. If they run upstairs or out of the door they will find themselves back in the lounge.

The window shatters and Miss Wellbeck floats in, deathly pale and clad in a white shroud. It is in fact the witch who has taken over and reanimated her body and brought it here from the morgue.

She controls a small zone – just the lounge. But here she slows time (or otherwise holds them, eg spellbound “you are going to get up, you’ve decided to, but not yet it seems”) to deal with each in turn.

How do they know who she is? Let them intuit it from her Scottish accent and what she says to Daniel Reaver. She deals first with Reaver, then the rest, and Benjamin Herzog last.

To Reaver she says: “You brought no ill to the women. Your hands are not stained with our blood. You may go.” (He is teleported outside into the High Street.)

Ailean Gris finds himself strapped to a table in an alien vessel. Drifting shapes like the fins of tropical fish, in which float sensory organs, surround him. Their arms are delicate as daddy-longlegs but are many and capable of exerting surprising force. They put up human-like masks as they bend to look at him: paper drawings of his friends’ faces. One says: “The sensory distortion field is out of alignment. The subject may be able to perceive that it lives no longer on its native planet but as a captive here in our dimension.”

Then Ailean sees the head of his dead servant on a long angle-poise strut. It watches as saws and probes are deployed to remove his organs and replace them with machinery. “Now you are no MacLean but a MacHine. Freewill is lost to you. The tick-tock of the gears is all that drives you. Now you have written on your innards, in the entrails of your brain, that you may not harm a witch.”

If, after the vision ends, Ailean attacks the witch in defiance of the servant’s admonition, he is free to do so and she is powerless to stop him, but he must buy off the alien abduction delusion as it means he has rejected it. However, buying it off is half-cost.

Lord Tennyson Thurgood sees Harry Dakkar Singh [my own character, killed by some Cthulhoid entity a few sessions earlier]. Harry turns, silently screaming, as darkness seems to fill him up from inside, making his mouth and eyes a void. He is eaten away as if by acid from within.

If Edwards [Harry’s former valet] is there… he is lying on the slab in the morgue after the incident in Islington [a particularly traumatic earlier adventure]. Medical students are discussing the impending autopsy with their professor. Edwards cannot speak or move.

Benjamin is trapped inside the chimney. Claustrophobia roll at -3 to begin with, ie needing to roll 9 or less. Once he makes that he’s -2 next round, etc, until he makes an unmodified roll and is then okay. The only effect of a fail is to lose him all actions for the round, but remember he is at -2 on all rolls even if he finally makes it. Getting up the chimney takes four Climbing rolls – or he can drop into the fire, but then he gets burnt and has only one round to act.

If Benjamin manages to climb up the chimney into the room above, he can run down the stairs and gets three rounds to act as he re-enters her zone of control.

However, Benjamin has a very limited time in which to act. If he is not out of the chimney within six rounds, the witch curses him so that the face of every woman he sees from then on is the bloody, terrified face of one of the women he killed on Jura.
Fire: Take 1d-1 on dropping into the hearth. If that inflicts 3 or more points, clothing catches alight and he takes 1d-4 and is a further -2 on DX skills until he takes a round to beat the flames out.
If Reaver bursts back into the Mitre he has one round to act before the witch immobilizes him. (Or slows time?) Or he could shoot straight through the fogged windows if he had a gun. The fog clings to the outside of the Mitre’s ground floor like a writhing skin.

Ailean likewise has one round if he chooses to act against her, though he could move next to her first (which he can do freely) to get full value of that.

Tennyson can strike her, but if he does he remembers the incident on Jura differently. There is the gunshot, but when he looks down he sees it was his own rifle that killed the witch before Benjy had time to do so. This rewrites both their memories of the incident (but not Ailean’s or Reaver’s).

The witch can be driven away by smashing the head of her host body (3 hp) or doing enough damage to the body itself (35 hp, or chuck it in the fire). Her spirit departs anyway if successful in cursing Benjamin - she has been able to sustain her existence this long only by the urge for revenge. Either way they’re left with Miss Wellbeck’s corpse on the hearth rug – something to explain to the police.

14 comments:

  1. "Once you’ve taken the campaign into eldritch territory, it seems, there’s no bringing it back to earth."

    I think you can do it if you really want to. The best example from TV for my money is the episode, "Irresistible" from the second season of The X-Files. Donnie Pfaster as played by Nick Chinlund is a regular, mundane mortal human who is deeply disturbed and deeply disturbing.

    Think about the Joker from The Dark Knight movie. Heath Ledger's character isn't magical or supernatural or some kind of undead clown ghost. He's a human being willingly to do whatever it takes to achieve his goals - goals that are utterly insane.

    If you really want to screw with your players a little bit - go Scooby-Do on them. Have the antagonist be someone pretending to be supernatural. Let the dude dress up as a vampire with stage makeup, etc. Then, when your players break out the stakes and holy water, he and his crew will break out the pistols and shotguns.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Spot on with Joker and Scooby-Do. I think the current leaning of fantasy towards the supernatural can obscure more interesting motives / plot mechanisms. Hollywood are very quick to go for the 'it's just a ghost', but so are a lot of writers and role-players. The effort of sourcing a fantasy to a single step-off-point and then extrapolating from there maintains a lot more interest for me, eg sci-fi of le Guin.

      Supernatural is still vital to fantasy though. After all, many people claim to live in and out of the supernatural everyday in the real world.

      Delete
  2. Something like that did happen, sort of. There's nothing supernatural in my concept of that campaign setting -- it has psionics and alien creatures, but it's SF. Nonetheless, the PCs met a vampire hunter (played by Jamie) and in quite a short time he had them convinced that the murderous wbite-clad women he'd been tracking across Hampstead were in fact vampires.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Epic post, Dave. Detail in which you show your structuring of the quest / planning very informative, for roleplay or plotting. And high victorian, low fantasy is my favoured setting anyway - cf Steam Highwayman, which I'd love to show you (cheeky plug: http://wp.me/P5oRaH-7M).

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks, Martin. Apart from the science-fictional elements (which are not apparent to the average person) our campaign is historical fin de siècle rather than steampunk. If it was up to me there wouldn't be any SF/fantasy in it at all, but I doubt if most of the other players share my enthusiasm for the period without those frills.

      Good source material: Wilde, obviously. Also Three Men In A Boat, New Grub Street, The Amateur Cracksman, Israel Rank, Diary of a Nobody, The Wrong Box... All proof that there is plenty of great material for exciting adventures in a realistic Victorian campaign.

      Delete
    2. 3 Men in a Boat and Diary of a Nobody have their own 'fantasy' within them, with their idealisation of victorian ideals of family/masculinity etc: quite enough of a culture shift to cope with.

      I'll have a look at some of the others you mention. RL Stevenson had that balance on the cusp of humdrum/everyday too, I'm thinking. His Inland Voyage reads alongside 3 Men very interestingly.

      Delete
  4. http://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/48241197?searchTerm=London%20newspapers%20june%2015%201891&searchLimits=

    Trove is an extensive collection of australian news papers. This issue refers to the london strike of july 12. The article on the bottom right of the page.

    ReplyDelete
  5. I don't recall if I linked to it already, but Lee Jackson's dictionary of Victorian London is indispensable to this kind of campaign:

    http://www.victorianlondon.org/index-2012.htm

    ReplyDelete
  6. The approach taken by my GM in the short lived Call of Cthulhu game that introduced me to that setting was to provide any number of evil worshipers and minor sorcerers as the bread and butter antagonists.

    When I went on to then rip off his stories to run my own game, I found it to be a useful strategy. A power mad individual trying to make a deal with the Great Old Ones and getting screwed for the attempt is a good reminder to only delve so deep in workings of the universe. It kept my players constantly on edge about how far they should go in their occult studies - every new supernatural toy was a path to future madness.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I'm still not convinced that the Cthulhu makes for a very rewarding long term campaign. As previously discussed on this blog, the point of Lovecraft's stories is the horror of living in an uncaring universe in which our lives are meaningless specks. Well, HPL dropped neurotic characters into those stories, and at a time when confronting the fact that the universe doesn't care if you live or die was a new experience for the average person. But I figure that there are plenty of people who don't find that a disturbing picture of reality, and plenty of blunt REH style heroes who have no time for existential fears because they are men of action, not reflection. So to play in a Cthulhu campaign requires me to let the dice rolls create the story of the character. And that means it's no longer roleplaying in my book.

      Delete
  7. You could run long-term campaign in CoC but it's almost a question of "Why would you want to?" It's a bit like playing a mythic Norse campaign (Ragnorak is coming and inevitable, the best that can happen it that it's delayed), but instead of playing baddass Vikings, all the characters are basically Woody Allen at his most neurotic.

    This is one of the reason I prefer Deadlands as a horror campaign. There's room for the action-based characters to be more than bait or monster snacks. While there are Fear checks (and bad rolls can lead to the acquisition of insanities/dementias) they're not a constant weakening drain on the characters. There's hope in Deadlands. One of the main things the characters can and should do after defeating some monster is tell people about it and potentially lowering the Fear level of an area, which puts an active crimp in the plans of the Reckoners (the Great Old One-level main bad guys).

    As for realistic historical campaigns, I admit I'm not as much into those. For one thing it kind of sucks for people who are non-white/non-male the further back you tend to go. One thing I appreciate about Deadlands is that even with the South having effectively won its independence in the Civil War, there's a plot point in there about how slavery has ended, black people are full citizens in the Confederacy and most of all, bigots are bad guys who shouldn't be player characters.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. The restrictions of a historical setting are what makes them interesting to me. Our Victorian campaign, for example, featured one gay PC and one Jew, neither of whom had it easy given the society of the time. And, of course, being able to play difficult characters -- including even bigots -- is a large part of what makes roleplaying interesting.

      Delete
  8. Hi Dave, as fans of the paragraph based adventure books of old, we have a real treat this week. The kickstarter board-game "7th Continent" has arrived at the backers, and it is very much inspired by those paragraph based books of the 80s and 90s.
    The game, like Fabled Lands, is an completely openworld game with the focus of exploration.

    They have done some really clever things since instead of paragraphs in a book, they used numbered cards.
    If you ever have the chance to check out it, you should give this one a look!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks for pointing that out, Nico. It looks tempting to me not so much for the gamebook connection but as a possible basis for an RPG. And that early-20th-century setting is a draw for me because of my Mirabilis Year of Wonders comic. Anyway, if and when they put it on sale I'll consider getting it. And incidentally it's a nice case of going full circle, as Fabled Lands was inspired by Eric Goldberg's boardgame Tales of the Arabian Nights.

      Delete