Last night, the intrepid party started back on the trail to figure out exactly what they needed to do to survive, and or succeed at the Call of Cthulhu adventure. The party realizes that the best thing that they can do is follow the lead to the Moors, to visit Seth Gray at Hob Lea House near Ugthorpe. Now according to Wikipedia:
In the 1930s, Ugthorpe had two cobblers, a watchmaker, a joiner and a bacon factory with its own slaughterhouse.
The Wiki article goes on to talk about how slaughtering of animals occurred on Tuesdays and Thursdays. All useful information, but not terribly good for adventuring. It is good to know that there was a bacon factory there. That means that no matter how bad things get, there will always be the good possibility of some bacon.
So the party gets onto the bus, and rides from Whitby to Ugthorpe. The bus to Ugthorpe has some difficulty making it up the steep hill leading out of Whitby and the nurse is concerned that the bus might also have difficulty stopping on the way back down.
The bus does not go into the village of Ugthorpe itself. The stop is on the moor road; they
must walk from there, which should take them about half an hour.
The party must find Hob Lea house. Most of the party goes into the pub. The people who went into the pub immediately become consumed by the local beer, which is watered down, the wine is from Slovenia and the liquor tastes like it wasn’t aged more than a few minutes.
The doctor and nurse go to the post office and ask how to get to the Hob Lea House. The postmaster gives good directions. Note that the 1929 British postal service has good customer service, as opposed to the shite that exists at the Vancouver Washington post office on Caples Rd, especially with Mr. Raiders near the blue door. Yes, I am talking about you, you horrible excuse for a stereotypical government worker.
The party needs to walk a couple of miles to get to the Hob Lea House. Everything in Britain seems to be a two mile walk. The walk is easy, and nothing happens untoward the party, at least that is what they decide happens, regardless of what the adventure says.
On arrival, there is a considerable delay after ringing the bell while Seth hobbles to the door. He is highly suspicious of the people at his door initially, but once the doctor introduces the them group as friends of Frederick’s and show Seth the journal, he is reassured and lets them in. The house is in surprisingly good order for one so obviously infirm.
Seth offers them tea and cake and insists on serving it in the well appointed parlor before discussing anything.
He was disturbed, but not surprised, by his friend’s death. (The papers are delivered every day. This all began for him about seven years ago when he met Jake Pearson at a spiritualist meeting. Neither of them was impressed with the medium or the séance, but Jake had some interesting things to say and Seth liked him. They became friends and went to a number of supposedly paranormal events, all of which turned out to be rather
obviously faked. In frustration they tried to debunk them, usually unsuccessfully, until one night when they were helped out by another member of the audience, Elliot Elder. He really seemed to know what he was doing and they teamed up for a while. Elliot then introduced them to three like-minded individuals, Alex Hunt, Michael Green and Steven Mason.
They all got on well and when Elliot suggested forming an investigative group they readily agreed. Fortunately, as he was only slightly less infirm then, it didn’t involve too much travel on his part. What travel there was involved libraries or book shops of one kind or another. It was fascinating researching and resolving mysteries in the real world. As his group spent most of their time proving that there were no real supernatural agents involved, it seemed they were at least doing no harm, and perhaps occasionally even some good. Besides, he had recently retired (he was a bookseller and librarian before that) and needed something worthwhile to do.
After the first couple of years, however, the group witnessed certain events that convinced them that some of these things were real. After that they began to investigate in earnest and it all became very serious. About a year ago, they got a hint of something really big. Elliot and the rest of the Seth Gray group went all around the country following leads and they became quite obsessed. Seth even tried to put them off once or twice, but they were always able to come up with evidence that he was unable to dismiss. He doesn’t remember any details. The investigators should be given the impression that his general infirmity has sidelined him.
With his more disinterested perspective, and perhaps a little hindsight, he thinks that the things they had been investigating noticed them in turn, and he is now sure that they are after them.
He thinks his group is being eliminated because whatever was being planned is about to come to fruition. About six weeks ago, he and Elliot had the impression that something new was happening, leading to the opposition being much more watchful and aggressive. For the last month especially, Seth’s group had all become more concerned
with their security than investigation. He suspects that someone trailed them to Whitby; but can’t be sure who, and now probably never will be. He has avoided the place himself for the last fortnight.
Worse, they never found out exactly what the opposition was up to, although he’s fairly certain that whatever they are doing—or invoking—needs people to help, and this, according to Seth, “allows you to stay ahead of them if you keep moving.” He tells them that although he doesn’t know what the prime movers in this plot actually are, he is sure they are not human.
He believes he has been too isolated for the opposition to find him so far, but it’s only a matter of time before they do. Elliot’s last visit was a risk, but they were both sure Eliot’s turn was next, and he couldn’t refuse to help his friend. As Seth is the expert on magic—yes it really exists—they spent the day trying to decide what they were facing and which defense would be best. He’d gathered the spell components here and Elliot took them back with him. He’s eager to know if Elliot made up the Baneful Dust of Hermes Trismegistus. Seth is ecstatic that the party was able to concoct the dust from the spell components, and he explains the use of the dust and says that he has other spells and weapons that might come in useful. The nurse rolls well on psychology, and determines that he is genuinely scared despite his placid appearance.
Before doing anything else, he tells the party as much of the background as he can.
The link between the church at Shelborough and what is happening now seems to be an old, pre-Celtic cult, worshipping a deity named Azathoth. Most of his references suggest it is archaic, centered in the south west, but now moribund there.
Elsewhere, however, things are different. Old cult centers have been revived and others have appeared in entirely new locations. They must have been established relatively recently, a few decades ago at most; some only a few years ago. He has uncovered hints of ceremonies being conducted in the most isolated places on the North York Moors, and
he suggests this as their best line of investigation. He only knows of one specific location, Lilla Howe, which is on the other side of Whitby and some distance from Ugthorpe, a fact for which he is very glad. He doesn’t remember anything else useful, offhand. For more information they have to look in the library.
The library is the largest room in the house but, in contrast to the other rooms, is completely disorganized. There are books and papers packed onto shelves from floor to ceiling and piled on the carpet, the desk, the tables and chairs. Seth apologizes for the mess, “it isn’t usually quite this bad.” He re-emphasizes that most of his recent research has been defensive and increasingly desperate, so tidiness and order have gone out of the window.
Unfortunately, Seth has no catalog or guide to his library or research; it is like Elliot’s journal. He just remembers where everything was, and now that it is all out of order he can’t find anything. The players make library rolls, hoping that this means something good. Not in this case, those that are successful are disappointed; they realize that the task is far too great for one day’s effort.
Seth tells the party that the Baneful Dust should work on shantaks, Xiclotlan, and star vampires, and the sort of effects it has on them. Unfortunately Seth can’t tell them much more about these creatures than their names, other than that star vampires can become invisible, shantaks can probably fly and Xiclotlan may be some kind of plant.
As there is no practical way of returning to Whitby today, the Party will have to spend the night. The house is very large and has enough bedrooms for the whole party. The rooms are well furnished and decorated, and in the same immaculate condition as the rest of the house. Seth insists on having a bite of supper first; it is beautifully prepared and presented, even though he doesn’t enter the kitchen during their stay.
The party is convinced that something bad will happen. I am not sure of where this type of concern comes from. They set up watches, or at least a few of the characters do. During the night, several characters miss their Spot Hidden rolls, so even though they are “watching”, they don’t hear anything. Matthew does hear something. It sounds like the scraping of a chair on the floor. He decides to go investigate.
Matthew isn’t sneaky enough, and he comes face to face with a small golem like creature that looks like this:
This is where the different players show their true selves. I show the picture to Matthew, but other players insist on seeing the critter, even though they are really sleeping. Most players say “wow, that is ugly”. Jason says “Wow, he is even anatomically correct” Now Jason only got a short look at the picture. What does that say about Jason? I don’t know. But he tends to play debutante characters who try to use their feminine wiles on any male character that he can benefit from… in the event that doesn’t work, then he flashes his boobs. The critters are cleaning up the house.
In the morning, as with every morning the investigators spend here, the whole house, including the library, is spick and span, with breakfast laid out. In the library, the things they need for that day, including Mythos items and tomes, are laid out on the desk for them by the Hob, with the appropriate spells already written down. This allows the investigators to circumvent the requirement of reading a lot of books, for which they simply do not have time.
The items consist of a map showing Lilla Howe and an old reference to sites of Azathoth worship that mentions it. When he sees this, Seth remembers that he got this, along with quite a lot of old Celtic Gods material, from a professor at Durham University; one of the few places he has traveled to in the last couple of years. The professor’s name was Benjamin Graham, (a name they have from Elliot’s journal). There is a bus timetable with the Ugthorpe and Flask Inn stops circled.
Two spells have been copied out; these are Voorish Sign and the Healing spell which have been prepared for them by the Hob. The doctor grabs the spells, and reads them taking some sanity damage. He is able to cast either at will, assuming he has the requisite magic points.
Now this is where I get frustrated with Call of Cthulhu, as a game. The game is full of anachronisms. You have to accept that the game adventures have plot holes. But in this case, the two spells are not in either the CoC 5.6 book, the CoC 6.0 book, nor the newest CoC 7.0 book. On top of that, the spells are not listed in this adventure book. This makes it kind of hard to apply the spells in the role playing environment, if the attributes are not listed.
At least it is not as frustrating as being ignored by Mr. Raider by the Blue Door of the Caples Avenue Post Office in Vancouver Washington. Yes, I am talking about you, you sorry excuse for a federal worker. It is people like you and your “Stand Down” comments that give all government workers bad names. People like you create frustration to the unwashed masses who must deal with your ineptitude.
Where was I? Oh yeah, I was going on and on about Mr. Raider at the Blue Door. Before that, I was whining about having to actually use my imagination while running an RPG.
The party catches the Scarborough bus at the same stop on the moor road they used yesterday. They have to wave down the bus; this is a request stop only, as is their destination. They have to ask the driver to let them off at the Flask Inn, as he doesn’t recognize Lilla Howe.
Seth does not accompany them due to the state of his health. The trip obviously requires a long walk over the moors and besides, he is in no fit state to defend himself if there are fisticuffs, and he doesn’t want to be a burden to them.
The bus stop is right outside the Flask Inn, a 16th century coaching inn, which provides accommodation as well as beer and food. The landlord has enough rooms for the party, including the two other guests currently staying at the inn.
The adventure states “A successful Navigate roll finds the appropriate path behind the inn.”Now nobody in the group has tried to take any great navigation. Eric’s Traveler has taken 30 points, but fails to make his navigation skill check. The rest of the party all has 10% in navigation… which isn’t easy to roll. Nobody makes the navigation skill check.
Now, for a long time, I have disagreed with the Gumshoe type of game. The Gumshoe game exists because people thought that Call of Cthulhu would come to a bad pause, or the adventure would not be workable if the party failed their rolls. I like a lot of what Kenneth Hite writes. He is brilliant. but in the beginning section of Trail of Cthulhu, the author writes:
Another part of what makes Call of Cthulhu so great is its emphasis on investigation, on gathering clues instead of treasure. We designed GUMSHOE to make that easier, clearer, and more direct. GUMSHOE exists to solve a problem that many people found with running Call of Cthulhu – one bad die roll can derail an adventure. You didn’t find the diary, so you didn’t get the spell, so either Arkham is destroyed or the Keeper has to scuttle ‘round and plant the diary somewhere else. In Trail of Cthulhu, the GUMSHOE rules guarantee that you will find that diary. (We don’t promise not to destroy Arkham.) This is not the entirety of what GUMSHOE offers, but it was the starting point for GUMSHOE’s laser-like focus on investigation.
For the most part, I disagree with this statement. However, sometimes, it is true. The party didn’t find the path. Was this because the character builds were unbalanced? Probably. Several of the characters are built with the intent of being awesome at one thing. The doctor is awesome at doctoring. The nurse is awesome at nursing. The private investigator is awesome at fighting, shooting and dodging. Jason’s Dilettante is good at showing her boobs at NPC’s. All good stuff. But in the more mundane stuff, if you don’t take any points, and only one character is minorly good at mundane tasks, then this can be a problem for the adventure.
The basic idea behind Call of Cthulhu is that all of the party members are average, or maybe a little above average. When a character is built to start out with 23 hit points, and have skills that are automatic success, there is no risk to the player. If the player has a high dodge, and has an excellent chance to make their dodge, let along burn some luck points to make the dodge repeatedly, then there is no challenge for combat. Wade in with the Deep Ones and duke it out. Building a character to have 90 sanity doesn’t make that character have to make any challenging decisions because they know that they will almost always be completely unfased by seeing something bad.
When the player takes a high shooting skill, then there is no problem with shooting the shit out every monster they see. Now, you will see in a little while that the party struggles with the fact that they have great shooting, dodge, brawling skills, but few players can throw well. The constant success of normal combat causes the players some consternation because I hold them to some of the rules such as needing to “throw” the baneful dust.
The challenge with introducing players to Call of Cthulhu is that most players come from Pathfinder or D&D, where the game is balanced and centered around the idea that you are doing everything possible to become a super hero or god (hopefully not a God). The entire play structure is centered around you level up, you get tougher, you get more better faster and cause more damage with more powerful weapons and magic… and the monsters get more, better, faster, and tougher also. The entire play of Pathfinder and D&D, along with a long list of other RPG’s are based on the idea that the balance comes from the fact that you get tougher as you go along.
In Call of Cthulhu, you never get tougher. You get better at skills. You get better at skills by using the skills. You learn from failure. It doesn’t make sense that a player would start out the game with a 90% chance to make a medicine roll. It doesn’t make sense that the player would start out with a 90 sanity. Nor does it make sense that a player would have a 70% chance to shoot and hit, along with a 60% chance to dodge.
This is complicated by the fact that instead of a normal 4-person game session, there are 8 or 9 super hero players in the game. The game isn’t balanced for that. So I improvise, first for the number of players, second for the overpowered players in the group. The problem with this is that it is remarkably easy to kill player characters off. If the player has 10 hit points, and the monster does 2d6 normal damage + 2d6 bonus damage, one mediocre hit can kill a player character. That isn’t fun for the party. So how to balance the game? That is a good question. I have doubled up on the monsters, but that only makes it more deadly, not necessarily more challenging.
Lilla Howe is a roughly two mile walk from the road, up a mild incline and across open moorland. Investigators that are used to the bustle of the city are struck by the barren wilderness and isolation. The mound itself is huge and unmistakable, dominating its surroundings. The party sees that the mound is artificial, likely a burial mound or barrow. Circling the its base is a ring of stunted Hawthorns, leaning over from the strong winds that blow unimpeded across the otherwise bare hillside.
The path becomes increasingly overgrown as they approach the mound, suggesting several decades of disuse.
As they make their way through the ring of trees and climb to the top, the view is spectacular; open moorland falling away on all sides. The Flask Inn can be clearly seen, as can rain clouds scudding up the moors. They can see and be seen for miles around; The party believes that it is unlikely that anything could happen up here without someone seeing it. There is a simple stone cross on the summit; looking to be a couple of hundred years old.
Coming back down through the trees, the party sees a standing stone. It is roughly conical, lichen covered, and very worn. It appears to be very ancient, many centuries older than the cross on the summit. The party sees a small carving on it, weathered almost to illegibility. It appears to be a carving of an insect of some kind, perhaps a wasp. The party realizes that there is something not right about it, without being sure of exactly what.
There are other standing stones on either side, about five meters away. The party realizes there is a full ring of stones surrounding the barrow, partially hidden in the low, thick undergrowth. They are all the same roughly-pyramidal shape. Neither the shape, nor the position of the stones in a circle round the bottom of the barrow, is typical of stone circles; if they research it later, they discover that it is unique.
While the Party is still in the ring of trees. Loren is convinced that the trees on either side of the overgrown path do not look quite the same as they did on the way in, as though one of them had moved. A larger version of the tree like creatures from the first adventure attacks skientist, the doctor and the nurse.
The combat is brief and brutal. The skientist (in pants) is dropped to one hit point, The doctor is knocked out. The nurse is grappled and takes damage.
Now this is where the question of balancing the player attributes goes. The nurse is convinced that she can take a container of the Baneful Dust and pour it on the tree that has grappled her. The adventure clearly says that the player needs to use their throw skill. The problem is that only Matthew has a decent throw skill.
Summer is not happy, since she is in a bad situation. She wants an easy out, to kill the tree like monster with the Baneful Dust. So I ask her… “The monster has grappled one of your arms and is shaking you around and you are off the ground. How do you, in one combat turn take one free hand, pull a screw top metal canister out of a closed pouch, then unscrew the lid, and pour it onto the monster, while you are being shaken like a rag doll?” Summer doesn’t like this. She tells me that she has good combat skills, just not good throwing skills. I am open to some explanation of how this could occur, but it seems like this is a problem that can’t be solved with only one free hand.
Eventually, the party kills off the two tree like creatures. The players shoot guns at them. They throw Baneful Dust at them, and eventually kill the two creatures off.
The party goes back to the Flask Inn. It is raining on the way back, and several of the players lose some temporary constitution points due to being soaked to the bone.
After a good meal served in the lounge, the party find the Inn’s other customers highly amenable and they join the investigators’ table to chat at the slightest inducement. They
are all locals except for one holidaymaker. As they are in an isolated inn on the moors, the conversation inevitably turns to the supernatural, even if the investigators don’t bring it up; more enthusiastically if they do.
If the investigators ask about local cults they are told that there are old tales of weird ceremonies up on the moors but nobody goes there now.
- A local farmer mentions more recent odd happenings, complaining that when his sheep wander in the direction of Bloody Beck and the wood near there they tend to disappear.
- Another says there is a good reason for it being called Bloody Beck and that nobody goes there at night, as it has a reputation for being haunted.
- A third man says that those that go come back with no memory of it except for being scared, and never go there again. If the investigators ask, they are told that this has only been going on for a couple of years or so.
As soon as Bloody Beck is mentioned, a young man with an obviously non-local accent joins them. Everyone around their table except the holidaymaker knows it, though, and will happily tell the investigators if they ask, as will the landlord. the man is a student up at Durham University and is often seen around here, doing some sort of research, they’re not sure what.
The man derides all the tales as foolish superstition. Abandoning such outdated ideas and using science is the only way to understand the world, and that the sooner everyone thinks this way the better.
A farmer says that there is more in heaven and earth than is known in the realms of science. The man replies that science’s remit is in all realms. The holiday maker says that such superstitions are part of the richness of the history and culture of the island.
The man eventually leaves the table, saying: “I leave you to your olden tales.” He doesn’t leave the inn, but goes to bed in an upstairs room; he and the holidaymaker are the two other guests.
During the night, the skientist awakens to the sound of the door to one of the other rooms opening. She hears footsteps going along the corridor and down the stairs, both of which are old and creaky. The skientist decides that she knows who this is, her kindered spirit, the scientist. The scientist is trying to be quiet. The skientist in pants goes and knocks on the doors of the other party members to tell them what is going on. Now, this is another location where the Gumshoe mentality would work. Nobody wants to go out tonight. They are all snug in their beds. The doctor is complaining about being hurt. You would think that being a hero of the Great War, he would be up for adventure, even if he got his butt kicked. But no. He needs to be convinced. He looks out the window, and sees that the scientist (not the skientist in pants) is walking away from the inn, in the direction of the earlier massacree on the barrow. Once the doctor sees that this is a replay, he decides that it is best not to go. The party convinces him that he needs to go.
The Scientist is a long way ahead, apparently distracted by thoughts of something and deafened by the strong wind that is tearing over the moors (the rain has stopped). He is oblivious to the following party. Maybe he is a bad guy, and thinks that the monsters in the wood will automatically attack any non-cultists they see. Maybe not. Maybe he is just trying to get out of town before the encyclopedia salesmen arrive.
The party follows the scientist back to Lilla Howe. The sight that meets their eyes is a
large pyramid, made of some unidentifiable material, set in a clearing, surrounded by people. About a dozen of them are wearing ordinary clothes, but are getting undressed. Three others stand out from the crowd: they recognize the scientist (oh, be still, the beating heart of the skientist in pants… or the heavy thump thump of your heart will give you away!) , the other two are musicians; a naked drummer and a female flautist wearing only a cat mask. As they watch, the scientist dons a white cloak decorated with an unknown symbol on its front and a mask, making him the only one to remain clothed.
The ceremony begins with the scientist speaking to the assembled company, saying; “Welcome my Azazel, welcome all, welcome to Bloody Beck, welcome to your moment of perfection. Join hands in a ring, Azazel. [They do]. Listen to the music, Azazel [The drummer and flautist begin to play] and dance, dance around the ship.
[They start to dance around the pyramid in the center]. Now chant, Azazel, chant!”
(The private investigator knows that Azazel is a biblical reference. It is the name of a fallen angel to whom the scapegoat was sent to be sacrificed.)
They begin chanting “Azazel, Azazel, Xada-Hygla, Xada-Hygla, ’round the world, ’round the world” over and over, holding hands in a ring and dancing around the pyramid. The dancers and the central pyramid start to glow, gradually getting brighter and brighter until the dancers dissipate, just as dawn breaks,
Oh yeah, just at the dawn breaks, Matthew takes a single stick of dynamite, lights it and throws it at the pyramid. Now, I asked him several times if he was throwing one stick of dynamite, or 10. I also asked him a couple of times if he was throwing it at the pyramid, or at the crowd of dancers. He repeated that he was throwing one stick at the pyramid. Now, I did this for a reason. If he had stopped the dancers from finishing the spell (presumably by throwing a stick of dynamite at one or more of the dancers), then he would have stopped the ceremony, which would have stopped the spell, which would have yielded good things. For instance all of the investigators would have recovered up to 1d6 sanity. If he had thrown six or more sticks of lit dynamite at the pyramid, he would have damaged the pyramid to the point where the spell would have stopped, yielding the same result, 1d6 sanity regained by the players.
Had he saved the day, it would have been like this:
But, he didn’t. So they didn’t. As dawn broke, and several winged devil looking creatures flew over the party, killing all of the naked dancers. It was probably closer to this, than Cat Stevens.
When the flying creatures finished killing all of the people, they flew into the pyramid, and with a great flash, the pyramid disappeared.
Now the doctor took a total of 15 sanity points damage during this specific adventure. He has a permanent ailment, as he is now permanently scared of flying monsters, and if he sees any flying monsters, he will immediately attack, nothing will stop him. The skientist also is affected. She is afraid of women. heh heh heh.
The doctor realizes that only the scientist, and the two musicians are still around. Everyone else is gone. The private investigator realizes that after watching all of the dancers be gutted, and cut to pieces, there are no bodily remains on the grass. They are all gone. The private investigator goes “gurk”, or some such thing as his sanity is lowered. Then he informs everyone else that the bodies are completely gone. No gore, no guts, nothing. The party also has to make sanity checks.
The doctor loses it. He punches out two of the cultists, then walks up to the scientist and shoots the scientist in the knee. Now, I figure that this is understandable, since he lost 15 sanity points this adventure. Things are not going well for the doctor. He now has some decent Cthulhu mythos, but is quickly slipping away.
The adventure is not over yet. They have some more to do in the next session.