Monday, 18 May 2009
Kevin Cooper. Ex-soldier. (Stephen R)
Claudia Henshaw. BBC World Service journalist. (Manoj A)
"Mad Frank" Nicholson. Financial consultant/journalist. (Ben F)
Christina Palmer. "Security advisor". (Jon D)
Winston Richards. London cabbie with the gift of the gab. (Ad T)
Archie Tanner. Ex-soldier and Stardust Investigations security guard. (David H)
With the Lamberley Creature sedated and restrained in the back of Frank's van, the team followed Stardust manager Haruki Maru over to the company's storage facility. There, Maru answered some of the investigators' questions about the organisation for which they worked, telling them that humanity itself was in danger from ravenous supernatural entities intent on its destruction, and that he was using the company to find out more about these entities, to discover their weaknesses, and find a way to defeat them. Even having seen the things they had, more than one of the team detected the merest hint of paranoia in the businessman's words, and perhaps sensing that, Maru took them to one of the storage lockers to show them the contents. Inside was a cryogenic tank within which was some kind of unusual insect-like thing almost as big as a man's head. Its size and unnatural number of limbs were disturbing enough, but the oddly expressive face, frozen in a state of palpable, intelligent, fury gave all among them cause to shiver. Returning the creature to the tank, Maru claimed that it had been found inside the head of a madman a few years beforehand. Following up, he then went on to explain the reason for his crusade.
In 1981, shortly after finishing university, Maru and some friends went travelling, stopping in Miami for a short visit to his sister Nanako, a local artist. Arriving at her flat, the group discovered that she was not in, and neighbours had not seen her in at least a couple of days, all of which was not a surprise for her brother, as Nanako had always been somewhat unreliable. With a shrug, young Haruki Maru left with his friends to enjoy some of the Miami nightlife. Returning the next day to find no change, the group managed to convince the building superintendent to let them into Nanako's home, and discovered that the artist had recently been engaged in a frenzy of activity, producing a series of paintings and sculptures all concerned with the same mysterious building or structure. Alessa Langley, one of Maru's friends, and an artist herself, could tell that much more creative energy and inspiration had been poured into these recent creations than any of Nanako's previous works. The group also found a telephone number for a local news reporter, and upon calling it discovered that he and Nanako had met in connection to a story he'd done about homeless children occupying Miami's abandoned Freedom Tower, a local landmark and a good match for the building depicted in Nanako's recent works.
The tower itself had been fenced off and the group discovered that it had been through a succession of owners, none of which had managed to do anything with the property. They also discovered that the architect killed himself soon after the building's completion, throwing himself off a balcony, seventy-eight metres above. At the tower itself, they noticed a scruffy-looking boy giving them suspicious glances and, once their wallets were lightened somewhat, found out that he was one of the street kids who had, up until about a year before, been using the tower as a shelter. The youngster revealed that no one had slept in the place in a while, after some of the children failed to wake up; with something approaching morbid pride, the boy claimed that the Devil himself had been stealing the souls of children while they slept, so the survivors had moved on to other places to bed down.
Maru and his friends were not convinced until a casual enquiry at the local county hospital confirmed that there were indeed a number of children in some sort of mysterious incurable coma, and that they had all been discovered in the Freedom Tower. The whole thing was suspicious and unnerving, and the group decided to break into the abandoned building and see for themselves what was going on, fearing that Nanako had come to harm. Arriving after nightfall, they sneaked in and began to explore, tip-toeing over fallen masonry, discarded food containers and mouldy reclaimed furniture. A strange cold breeze blew through the building, and the nervous among the group likened it to the breathing of some enormous creature, somehow all around them yet unseen. Aside from the breeze, and the sounds of the city outside, the building was silent, until a scraping sound from the basement suggested that something living occupied the building.
Venturing into the lower depths of the tower, the group discovered a series of sub-basements arranged in a loop, and it fell to the history student Stephen Hurst to notice that there seemed to be an unused, hidden, space underneath the centre of the building. Galvanised by this discovery, the friends set about looking for a way into this central space, at last discovering a hidden door opening into a cramped crawlspace. It was Eric Donald, the brash young comedian, who volunteered to go first, scrambling into a large open area, just as his torch flickered and died. A small panic broke out, until Eric took off his jacket and using some paraffin, lit it, providing just enough light with which to explore the room, as Maru and his friend Austen followed. The chamber had all the appearance of a church or ancient temple, a triumph of architecture gone to waste hidden underground away from the eyes of man. In the centre of the vast room, set into the stone floor, was a reflective black ring about two metres in diameter, and in the centre of that sat a hunched humanoid figure clad in filthy grey rags.
Figuring that this was the lost Nanako, Eric walked over and put a hand on the figure's bony, far too thin, shoulder. It turned, revealing itself to be an impossibly old man, withered as if all life had been drained from his body. Despite the wretch's appearance, he proved to be fast on his feet and leaped for Eric, arms outstretched. Another wave of panic washed over the group as Maru produced, and fired, a revolver and a small melee ensued, during which the old man doubled over and began to retch. Those in the chamber stared, wide-eyed as a grey formless sludge erupted from the man's nose and mouth, falling in an unending stream to the stone floor, then beginning to bubble and writhe. As the mass grew far beyond what could have been held within the man's body, it also began to form itself into some kind of nightmarish living shape, spikes and tentacles emerging and melting away even as the friends watched. Then a set of three oily black eyes opened in the mass and looked back at them.
Maru remembered nothing after that, until he woke a couple of days later, back at Nanako's flat. Two of his friends were missing, never to be found, and Nanako too never returned home.
"And that," said a haggard-looking Haruki Maru, back in the modern day, "Is why we do what we do."
With this session, I knew I had to give the players something, some rationale for investigating the unknown, and some payoff for their adventures so far. For about three seconds I considered having Maru giving a speech about his "mission" but I chucked that out in favour of trying out a flashback idea I'd been kicking around for a while. I also had a new player joining, so running the session as a quasi-one-shot meant that if he decided not to come back, the narrative wouldn't be disrupted too much. All in all, I think the trick worked well, and everyone seemed surprised when I handed out new character sheets a quarter of the way into the session. I perhaps should have streamlined the flashback a bit, to make it more of a sequence of highlights rather than an scenario-within-a-scenario, but I also didn't want to railroad the players. This session also saw me running the game for six players, which seems to be just beyond my comfortable upper limit, and I think I lost control of the group a couple of times. Still, all in all it was another fun session, and a successful gaming experiment.