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.
Wednesday, 6 May 2009
Kevin Cooper. Ex-soldier. (Stephen R)
Claudia Henshaw. BBC World Service journalist. (Manoj A)
"Mad Frank" Nicholson. Financial consultant. (Ben F)
Christina Palmer, "security advisor". (Jon D)
Three months passed, during which Kevin and Frank wandered, lost in a haze of insanity, and Claudia continued her researches into Stardust Investigations, before going on a sanity-soothing holiday to the United States. The team reunited at the Stardust offices, where Haruki Maru asked them to investigate reports of unusual animal attacks in the small Sussex village of Lamberley. He suspected tabloid hyperbole, but requested that the group investigate just in case. They were also introduced to Christina Palmer, a new employee who was on her first job for the company.
The team set about researching the village, finding a small number of notable mentions through the years. The village manor house, Lamberley Hall, had a long history, including use as a prison during the Civil War, and was known as having one of the finest non-academic libraries in the country; Frank's interest was piqued by this titbit. They also discovered that there were reports of a "vampire" plaguing the village in 1896, reports somewhat similar to the latest wave of attacks, as well as sightings of a large grey canine creature across Sussex, including near Lamberley, in 1939. The investigators also got hold of a map of the village and Cooper began to plot the attacks and sightings, hoping to find a pattern; looking at the map, Frank saw what he was sure was the Yellow Sign in the shape of the village, and became quite disturbed, certain that the settlement had some connection to Hastur and the King in Yellow.
After a couple of hours putting together an inventory of investigative equipment, the team headed down to Sussex in Frank's van. Arriving at the village, they split up, with Frank and Christina going to Lamberley Hall to investigate the library, and Claudia and Kevin going to interview the victims of the attacks. At the manor, Frank and Christina considered joining an official tour of the house, but instead made their own way to the library; on the way, the young "security advisor" noticed that one of the windows had been sealed with electrical tape, and taking a closer look, noted that it had recently been forced open and the connection to the alarm system cut. In the library, Frank found a copy of The King in Yellow on one of the shelves, which he then attempted to take, drawing disapproval from the security staff. While Frank caused a distraction with his strange behaviour, Christina palmed the book (which looked like Crop Rotation in the Sixteenth Century to her) into a fold of her jacket and then left the building.
Meanwhile, the soldier and the journalist interviewed two of the recent attack victims. They assembled a rough picture of the creature, literally in Claudia's case as she got out her art materials, and also found out some local gossip, including the recent tragic death of a local girl, Lucy Elton, from some unknown ailment. They were unable to meet with the third witness/victim, so decided to return the next day, meeting up with their colleagues at the village pub, where they managed to secure a room for the night. At the pub, they compared notes, Frank displayed his find (which looked like Crop Rotation in the Sixteenth Century to everyone else), and Cooper noticed a man at the bar watching them. Heading over for a casual chat, the ex-soldier discovered that the fellow was over from the US investigating the animal attacks for his website, cryptoquest.com; he became quite interested when he discovered that the group were also on the same trail, and he and Cooper made a tentative agreement to share information.
The next day, the investigators travelled just north of the village to visit the last of the witnesses, a farmer who had seen something fast and grey bothering his sheep. His recollections backed up those of the other witnesses, and he also showed them the remains of one of his animals, which he had been keeping in order to show his insurance agents. By all appearances, the poor creature had been torn apart by something much larger and more ferocious than the local fauna. Farmer Myles also confirmed the story of Lucy Elton's death, but could not understand why the team were so interested.
Cooper sensed a connection between the attacks and the deceased Elton daughter, and suspected the father of dark dealings. The group then went to Elton's house for an interview, finding the man a distraught emotional wreck. As Claudia And Kevin sat down with Elton, Frank and Christina sneaked off to investigate his home, the former searching the kitchen and garden, while the latter looked upstairs. Christina found a large number of prescription sedatives in the bathroom, a pristine child's bedroom that had all the feel of a shrine, and a bundle of photocopied sheets in an unknown language (Frank later confirmed it as mediaeval Latin) under the bed in the master bedroom. Downstairs, Frank raided the kitchen for something edible, then wandered into the garden, discovering a heavy padlock on the shed. Curiosity got the better of the unsettled financial consultant and he managed to wrench the lock off the door before shuffling inside. It seemed like a pretty normal shed until Frank noticed an area of disturbed earth in one corner, and, getting on his knees, he dug up the ground with his bare hands. In a shallow grave Frank found Mr Twinkles, the missing cat of one of the witnesses interviewed the day before, and deciding that the dead animal was an important clue, stuffed its chewed remains into his rucksack.
The team then left Elton's home and conferred on the next course of action. With the evidence they'd found, and Cooper's dark suspicions, they decided to return and confront the man. Accusing him of corruption, sorcery and other misdeeds, the group managed to break through Elton's haze of misery and he broke down and revealed some of what had been going on, although the grisly details were far from clear. He told them that "she" had "come back" but "wasn't right" and agreed to take the investigators to her. Elton led the team to the woods just outside the village, but Cooper's new phobia of trees paralysed him, and the rest of the group had to venture forth without their most effective fighter.
In a clearing at the heart of the woods, the group discovered the secret Elton had been hiding as they saw a monstrous figure lashed to a tree with ropes. It had a vague humanoid shape, but its limbs were long and thin, its skin was grey, and its head was misshapen and distended; despite the deformities, it did have the recognisable look of a human child. By this point, Elton had collapsed to his knees, his mind gone once more, and his ramblings seemed to suggest that the creature was indeed his daughter, somehow back from the dead. The investigators decided to take both Elton and his daughter back to headquarters, but nervous of tackling the creature without sufficient combat abilities, they went to fetch the waiting Cooper. Gathering his courage, the ex-soldier put his fears aside and went into the trees to see the thing for himself.
In short order, the creature was sedated, and both it and Elton were restrained and bundled into Frank's van for the trip back to London. There they were met by Maru, who, impressed with their success, agreed to allow the team to accompany him as he took the creature to Stardust's storage facility...
A bit of a scrappy one this, as I'd prepared two main plots, but due to the loss of a player, I had to drop the storyline centred on his character and hastily bulk up the other to compensate. It seemed to work, although the joins were obvious from my side of the Keeper's screen. I think the players were a bit surprised by how relatively sedate the scenario was, with no major sanity loss, and the "big" monster trussed up before their arrival, and may have suspected that I was being soft on them following the harsh ending of the previous scenario; however, their success came about mainly as a result of their actions during the investigation and the order in which they did key actions. Had they done things in a different way, they were unlikely to have had such an easy ride. All that said, there were some surprises in the dropped plot, but nothing too huge. I'm not sure if the players were surprised that their request to see Stardust's storage facility was accepted, but I enjoyed seeing them be proactive in their plans, as I've been trying to steer the campaign in a more sandbox-style direction; I think we're all keen to see what happens when they get to the facility.