From the Armitage Files: What Are You Willing To Do?

**Potential Spoilers**

The Armitage Files is an improvised campaign structure. It uses a number of stock pieces, such as NPCs, organizations, and locations, that are strung together by individual GMs to fit player action. The adventures I create with it may or may not match any other GM’s version of the campaign. That means that reading these posts may or may not offer spoilers for other game groups.

**You Have Been Warned**

Last night was the latest session of my Armitage Files campaign. I had to poke the players a little bit in the downtime to get them to let me know what avenue of investigation they intended to pursue this session; specifically, if they were planning on continuing to look into the carnival, or if they wanted to move on to something else. The upshot of the conversation was that they decided not to bother with the carnival any longer1, but to move on to the American Preservation League.

That came in Thursday, so I spent Friday night putting together the situation for the session2, and Saturday reading over the bits of the documents and campaign book that I needed.

The game started with the usual scrambling about to try and get external confirmation of the stuff in the documents they were working from. As usual, there was none to be had, beyond confirming the existence of the APL and its leader, Fred Jahraus. This part of the investigation brought Moon, who has dropped to 6 Sanity through the adventures and has started drinking heavily, into the office of Dr. Peasley, one of the Armitage group and a psychiatrist. He recognized Moon’s deteriorating mental state3, and advised him to back off for a bit, or at least uses some sleeping pills, which he provided.

The team then joined the APL’s mailing list, under an assumed name, paying their dollar for associate membership, and donating another four dollars for as many back issues of the group’s newsletter as they could. Some analysis of the documents allowed them to map the development of the group, starting with Jahraus and expanding as it got more powerful and wealthy. The doctrines were pretty basic ones for far-right political groups in 1935 – avoiding entanglements in Europe, restricting immigration to northern European ethnic groups, reassigning electoral votes to favour areas with pure populations, things like that. Also interspersed through the documents were strange mandala patterns that seemed to be part of some sort of information system that none of the characters could interpret.

The real weirdness really started when the began following up on the group. The printer who printed the newsletters talked about how Jahraus was odd, but very friendly, even to the black worker in the print shop. The neighbourhood gossip told how Jahraus shared his house with his mother and a number of her former foster-children, many of whom were Asian or Latino, and that they were all members of the APL, as well. When Solis and Moon went to speak with Jahraus in person, they found him to be a very odd man4, and the photos in the house did not back up the stories about the all-male foster siblings of mixed ethnicity. Oh, and while they were staking out the APL house, they spotted Wally Endore, a union organizer they had run into while investigating Moon’s predicted death at the warehouse.

My goal here was to provide them with an overwhelming number of things that didn’t add up, but didn’t quite fit together, either – a barrage of inconsistencies that didn’t paint a new picture. That sounds kind of like cheating, but the thing that I decided was going on behind the scenes did not lend itself well to exposure through secondary sources, which meant that I needed to pique their curiosity enough that they would engage directly with Jahraus and company to get access with clues that would lead them to the actual secrets behind the APL.

And then, just to muddy the waters a little more, I had Austin Kittrell show up at their stake-out pad, disguised as a working-class member of the neighbourhood5. He was quite willing to let himself be searched and questioned, though he kept trying to make the point that he had come to the group in good faith, wanting to share information. And then Roxy drugged him.

She gave him a glass of gin with some of Moon’s sleeping pills dissolved in it. Their plan was basically to take him to a secluded area to intimidate more satisfying answers out of him. This is a great plan in a Leverage game, but in a mainly-Purist Trail of Cthulhu game, I thought it shouldn’t quite have the desired outcome. So, they hauled the drugged Austin out to an abandoned basement that some of Roxy’s more colourful friends knew about, and waited for him to come around.

And waited.

And waited.

I reminded them that Peasley had told Moon not to take the pills with alcohol, and they started panicking. Solis checked him out, and found him to have depressed heartrate and respiration – he was essentially slipping into a coma, and probably going to die. Some Medicine spends got him stabilized, and when he finally came around, he was in terrible shape, convinced that the group were going to kill him. Instead of an interrogation, it turned into the group trying to explain why they had done this to him6.

It was a pretty fun scene for me to roleplay, and I think it actually unnerved a couple of the players to look at what they had done, and why. I tried to make the point that the reason they didn’t trust Kittrell was that the first document said not to – they never really questioned that admonition, though they question a great deal of other things about the contents. I also made the point that they don’t really know who wrote the documents, and that the documents themselves state that parts of what’s written is unreliable.

They got Kittrell bundled home to his staff to look after him, and regrouped to decide what to do about the APL.

Paying a political rally to invite the APL to speak got the majority of the residents out of the rooming house Jahrous’s mother runs, so Solis and Roxy decided to break in, with Moon keeping a watch in their stake-out pad7. Inside the house, they ran into Mrs. Jahrous, who they frightened somewhat by knocking on the door of her room when the house was locked and otherwise empty. They wedged a chair under her door, then continued searching. They found Fred’s room, which had only one thing of interest: a bookshelf full of diaries, each of them filled with the mandala-like symbols from the newsletters. Roxy grabbed a couple, then they started back down and out of the house. Except the stairs seemed to keep climbing down to the second floor, even when you started on the second floor – they wound up caught in a loop of some sort.

Meanwhile, it was time to mess with Moon a bit. He caught the stench of the thing that had come after him in the alley outside Hutchinson’s offices way back when, and spotted the tall figure of it standing under a streetlight. There was a weird, flickering discontinuity, and it was suddenly standing on the porch of the rooming house he was in, without having changed posture in the slightest. Another flicker, and it disappeared, but the stench was coming from inside the house, now.

So, like any real hero, he jumped out the window.

Inside the Jahraus house, Fred appeared pretty much out of nowhere, confronting the pair of burglars. He told them that his mother had already called the police, and Solis bolted. Fred hit him with some weird energy that caused a bit of his chest muscle to twist up and necrotize, causing him intense pain, but he kept running down and down the same stairs over and over. Roxy, meantime, made a pretty big Assess Honesty spend to see if there was something possessing Fred, and I explained that there wasn’t. Not really. Instead, it seemed that the intelligence that was Fred was having trouble communicating within a frame of reference that others could accept, which led to his weird speech patterns. The fact that he had trouble picking up the social cues from others in this frame of reference led him to seem strangely trusting and feckless, but it was mainly because of a lack of common experience, not because he was in any way simple.

With the sirens getting closer, she kissed Fred, distracting him for a moment, which let Solis make it down to the ground floor. Fred, hearing the police approach, tried to bash his head against the wall to injure himself for when the cops burst in, but Roxy grabbed him to prevent that, and bashed her own face against the wall, tearing her dress, as well.

Moon was face-to-face with the yeti thing, now, retching and coughing from its stench. It held out a hand to him, and gave Moon a bullet covered in blood, then vanished. This freaked him out a great deal8, and he scarpered, still overcome by the smell, before the cops could snag him.

Despite Roxy’s tearful and roughed- up demeanor, the police took her and Solis into custody on the basis of the testimony of the residents of the house. With conflicting stories going around about who had done what to whom, and the fact that Roxy no longer had the diaries she’d tried to steal, our heroes spent the night in a cell and then were charged with criminal trespass, fined, and released.

We called it an evening around then, with the plan being that they’re going to keep pushing after Jahraus, whom they really dislike now.

All in all, it was a very fun evening. There was a lot of neat roleplaying for me to do, and some fun twists to the way things went. Everyone is excited about the next session. Now we’ve just got to schedule it.

  1. Solis was very interested in finding out what was up with the half-human boy from the freak show, but Moon didn’t want to risk his neck with carnies and bank robbers if there was no supernatural element involved. Roxy was the deciding vote in favour of moving on, because she had… well, let’s call them ethical issues with ratting out a bank robber. []
  2. Using Omnigraffle on my iPad. It’s bastard expensive for an app, but is the only one I’ve found that handles this kind of mindmapping the way I like. And seeing as I use that functionality for all my games, I can kind of justify the expense. It’s very, very nice. []
  3. Michael’s doing a good job of making Moon a dangerously paranoid character. []
  4. I tried to play him as a combination of Rain Man and Bob Newhart, which was an interesting kind of challenge. []
  5. I enjoy tossing Kittrell into the mix every so often. The group distrusts him intensely, for no really good reason, and he makes a good ambiguous foil for them. I’m using him as a sort-of male counterpart to Roxy. []
  6. It was very interesting to me to see this group try to justify the drugging, kidnapping, intended interrogation, and almost death of this man as a reasonable thing to have done to him, and the confusion when he didn’t seem to agree. The game has bred a charming trio of sociopaths. []
  7. Keepers, don’t you love it when the party splits itself? Especially when they leave the character with the lowest Sanity alone somewhere with some responsibility? []
  8. I just checked back through the posts, and can’t believe I didn’t mention this. The previous session, Moon came down to breakfast one day to find himself already seated at the table, eating oatmeal. He drew his pistol and shot at the apparition, which did the same to him and then vanished. After the fact, he found a bullet stuck in the doorframe by where he had been standing, but no sign of the other him, or the bullet he had fired. So, yeah, that’s why that was freaky for him. []

From the Armitage Files: Sideshow

**Potential Spoilers**

The Armitage Files is an improvised campaign structure. It uses a number of stock pieces, such as NPCs, organizations, and locations, that are strung together by individual GMs to fit player action. The adventures I create with it may or may not match any other GM’s version of the campaign. That means that reading these posts may or may not offer spoilers for other game groups.

**You Have Been Warned**

I was faced with a bit of a game quandary last week. I really wanted to keep the momentum going after the great time the group had doing the city creation for Feints & Gambits by having the character creation session follow close on its heels. The date of November 13 got bandied about, but I had an Armitage Files game scheduled for that night. And given that the last time we got together for Armitage Files, we playtested The Big Hoodoo1 which, though fun, meant that we had been away from the ongoing Armitage Files storyline longer than I liked.

We came up with a compromise: Feints & Gambits character creation Saturday night, Armitage Files Sunday afternoon. As a thank-you for my Armitage players being willing to move the game, I also made dinner2 for the crew.

But the whole week was pretty crazy, and I had next to no time to prep for the game. Add to that the fact that I didn’t really know what the players wanted to pursue after the last adventure until Saturday afternoon, and even then they sent me two possibilities, and I was really feeling the time crunch. So, after everyone left on Saturday night and I had the stew in the slow cooker for the next day, I threw together a quick outline for one of the possibilities. In the morning, I threw together an outline for the other.

Now, this is far less prep than I usually do for a game. Even with the improvisational nature of this campaign, I really like having a solid outline ready when the game starts, even if I change it or abandon it during play. But no time for that; I was going in half-blind.

I want to talk about a couple of spoilery things – not necessarily for other campaigns, but my players probably shouldn’t read what I’ve hidden behind the tags here3.

Spoiler

Okay, I really wanted to throw in a completely mundane bit this session. The group has been dealing with nothing but supernatural threats since the game started, and I really wanted to mix it up, because that way, they will wonder about other stuff. And it’s always an interesting change of pace. So, the outlines I bashed together for the two things they were interested in following up – the strong men at the carnival and the American Preservation League – were both completely non-mystical, though no less dangerous.

I also wanted them to come away from this with a win. The last few sessions have been very downbeat, with the players feeling like they’re not making enough of a difference, and even losing ground. While that may be in keeping with a Lovecraft story, it’ll kill a roleplaying game pretty quickly. So, I had things set up to resolve pretty easily if the characters grabbed the right threads, probably in a single session.

With those ideas in mind, we hit the ground running. The group used their various investigative abilities to track down the correct carnival and where it was heading next: a little town Bliss Corner, Massachusetts4. They loaded themselves into a train and went down to check things out.

They arrived in town a few days before the carnival did, and scouted out the fairground and the town itself. Roxy passed herself off as a photographer doing a feature on carnivals – photographing the fairgrounds before arrival, during setup, during the carnival, during teardown, and after it departed. That got her close while the locals hired by the advance crew were cleaning out the weeds and tall grass, but the roustabouts wouldn’t let her on the lot during setup, for fear of accidents5.

On the first night of the carnival, they paid their quarters, and went in to see the sights. I drew a lot of the description for the carnival from the excellent HBO TV series Carnivàle6, talking about the various games, a few rides, the sideshow tent, and the hootchie show in the back. They had a good time wandering the grounds, sampling the food, and riding the Ferris wheel. They spotted one of the roustabouts who seemed to be following them, and Roxy got a good picture of him from the Ferris wheel before they went to check out the sideshow tent.

Now, they had figured that this was the heart of the mystery, because that’s what it said in the documents, but I felt it was time to start them questioning assumptions about the accuracy of Armitage’s notes. So, they got in without any problem, and saw the contortionist, the fat woman, the sword-swallower/blockhead, the duelling strong men, and the half-human boy. This last one really creeped them out, and they figured that this was the weirdness that they would need to investigate and understand.

When the show was over, they were hustled out into the midway again, and the roustabout who had been following them knocked Roxy down and stole her camera. Moon and Solis gave chase, but Solis fell behind quickly, and the roustabout shouted, “Hey, Rube!” to get the rest of the carnies to get moon off his back7. The men were ejected forcibly from the fairground, and Roxy followed under her own power, sans camera.

Now more convinced than ever that there was something going on there, our heroes crept back in the middle of the night as the fair was shutting down, and hid in the trees and hedgerows lining the fairground, spying on the carnies after hours. They witnessed a meeting where the trouble they had stirred up was discussed, and the roustabout who had stolen the camera – Mitch was his name – was pretty soundly bawled out by the barker. The half-human boy, now dressed and pretty articulate after his beast-man show, suggested smashing the camera to satisfy Mitch’s worries about a picture and dumping it outside the fairground in case the police came looking for it. If things got tense, the carnival would pull up stakes early and head on to the next stop.

Everyone agreed to that, and it was done. Roxy, suspecting a trap, snuck back in the early hours of dawn to retrieve the camera from where it was dumped. She had made a Photography spend to get the picture of Mitch, so I figured that meant she would still be able to recover it, which she did. A Cop Talk spend revealed that Mitch was actually Garland Mitchell, last surviving member of the Red Clay gang of bank robbers, on the run from the feds.

That’s where we wrapped it up for the evening. Now the players have a couple of weeks to figure out what to do next, and so do I. I had expected to wrap this up in a single session, but now I have the time to expand the adventure and flesh some things out.

  1. Short, non-spoilery review: you will want this adventure when it’s released. []
  2. Lamb stew and soda bread. Did I mention I’ve been doing a lot of reading about Ireland lately? []
  3. Yeah, Michael, that means you. I know how much you love it when I do this. []
  4. I know, I know, it’s not really a town, it’s a part of Dartmouth. But the name sort of leaped off the map at me, and I had to use it. []
  5. So they said, anyway. The group immediately suspected ulterior motives. []
  6. Which I’ve always thought would be a good setting for a DFRPG campaign. Or Unknown Armies. Yeah, that’d work. []
  7. There was some fun roleplaying here as Moon mistakenly assumed that Rube was the name of the big guy who had knocked him down, and kept calling him that. Considering that Rube is a derogatory term among carnies of the time, it kept making everyone angrier at Moon. []

From the Armitage Files: The Fate of Wallace Hutchinson

**Potential Spoilers**

The Armitage Files is an improvised campaign structure. It uses a number of stock pieces, such as NPCs, organizations, and locations, that are strung together by individual GMs to fit player action. The adventures I create with it may or may not match any other GM’s version of the campaign. That means that reading these posts may or may not offer spoilers for other game groups.

In addition, this post in particular has some spoilers for the Pagan Publishing adventure Realm of Shadows.

**You Have Been Warned**

Saturday night was the latest installment of our Armitage Files campaign.

We had left the last game with the characters deciding to go snooping after Wallace Hutchinson, who had come to their attention previously during the Helping Hands investigation, because they had found evidence at one of his warehouses of a potential Cthulhu cult. Their decision had caught me completely off-guard, and I asked their permission to stop the game early so I could prepare some interesting things for the search for Hutchinson1.

See, when they suggested going to hunt Hutchinson, a wealthy businessman who had fled the police, somehow I flashed to the Pagan Publishing adventure Realm of Shadows, which is a great little campaign in itself2. Part of the game takes place down in French Guiana, at a ziggurat full of ghouls, half-ghouls, and their followers and worshipers. It’s a wonderful, nasty denouement for the RoS adventures, and I thought the exotic locale and the ghouls would make a neat departure for our campaign.

I was wrestling to make it fit, though. Sure, it would be easy enough to give the players the clues they needed to send them down there, and run them through a jungle trek and the nasty, ghoul-filled pyramid at the end, but it didn’t really tie all that well into what had gone on before in the investigation of either the warehouse or the Helping Hands. In addition, I’ve been trying not to show too many monsters, keeping them remote, mysterious, and damned frightening for the characters. Throwing them into a hive of ghouls struck me as a little too much, too fast. Besides, the whole adventure is set up as the climax to an ongoing campaign against the ghouls, and is appropriately big and horrific. I wasn’t using it as a campaign climax, and I was worried it was going to overshadow the rest of the campaign.

Then, due to some cancellations3, I found myself with an extra evening free to work on the prep for the game. After doing some fiddling with it, I had a brainstorm, scrapped the RoS idea, and came up with something that I think worked better.

So, the investigators started by digging around in the public record, looking for properties Hutchinson owned that he might use to hide out. Unfortunately, he’s a rich guy, and there were too many options with not enough information to narrow them down. They talked to the police, with no better luck – the FBI had taken over the case, because it was probable that Hutchinson had crossed state lines. But the cop Roxy talked to did mention that the Hutchinson business lawyers had been able to keep the cops and the feds out of Hutchinson’s business office in Kingsport.

Playing to her strengths, Roxy broke into the offices one night, bribing the cleaning staff to bring her in with them and then forget it ever happened. Moon and Solis stayed outside, Solis watching the front and Moon the back. Roxy was very jumpy about the burglary, still feeling somewhat nervous after what happened the last time the party split up like this4. She cracked Hutchinson’s safe and, among the watches, cash, and business papers, she found a handkerchief-wrapped bundle. She stuck the bundle and the watches into her pockets, put the rest into the cleaning cart, and headed out. For some reason5, she didn’t trust the elevator, so she put the cart into it and sent it down to the ground floor, while she went down the stairs. At the bottom, the elevator door opened, but the cart was not inside. Freaking out a bit, she ran.

Aaron, meanwhile, was waiting in the back alley, when he started to smell the sea. This was quickly overwhelmed by a pungent stench, and he turned to see a tall, humanoid shape, close to nine feet tall, in the shadows, reaching out toward him. He drew his gun, but the odour was making his eyes water and nose run. The thing closed its strangely shaped hand over Moon’s gun, which he fired. The shot brought the others running, to find him bent over on the ground, eyes and nose streaming, hacking, coughing, and retching. The group identified the creature as similar to the thing Armitage said he had encountered in the library in the latest document, and Solis found the same fibers in Moon’s mucous.

Business documents were lost in the cleaning cart, but Roxy still had the handkerchief-wrapped bundle. It contained a plate of what appeared to be metal, but upon analysis, turned out to be some sort of strange ceramic. It was etched with bizarre symbols, and accompanied by a page of a journal that seemed to translate it6. It hinted at an impending incursion into our reality of Those Outside, presaged by many strange events and conditions orchestrated by the Voice, which was one of the masks of Nyarlathotep. One of the ways the document said you could tell that the end was approaching was by the occurrence of periods of non-standard time, where perception of time and duration become fluid or porous. This really got to Moon, who has been experiencing just such events.

The other things the document told the group was that Hutchinson had been planning to go to a mine in Doylestown, Pennsylvania, to learn more from some beings that said they would have to make some changes to him before they could do so.

Somewhere in the midst of that – I forget exactly where – Aaron used his Cthulhu Mythos to get a handle on the thing in the alley7. I gave him a spiel about Sasquatch, and Skunk-Apes, and Yetis, and how they were tied to the Mi-Go, which didn’t make him very happy, so I felt my job there was done.

Anyway, they packed up and headed off to the Blue Ridge Mountains, and the small mining town of Doylestown. They decided on posing as journalists doing a story on Skunk-Apes and other local folklore, with Roxy being the primary journalist, Aaron being the editor, and Solis being the scientific expert. Talking the idea up in the local pub – and buying many drinks for the locals – they managed to get the name of a local who claimed to have actually seen something strange in the woods, as opposed to the normal friend-of-a-friend stories.

They sought this fellow out and, after some Flattery, Reassurance, and outright bribery, he told them the story of going up on a nearby mountain with his dog, and how the dog was vivisected in a few short minutes it was out of his sight, and his glimpse of something he said looked like a giant grasshopper with a rotten pumpkin for a head. Moon identified this as a crude description of a Mi-Go.

A little investigation at the local newspaper turned up a story about the mine being closed in about 1820 and the whole production moved to a neighbouring mountain after a series of caves were discovered and a team of engineers were lost in them. Local folklore said that the original mine was cursed. This seemed like a good target for investigation.

In the mine, they found the caves, and saw that many had ropy, pulsing tubes of some fungal matter running along the walls and ceilings. In one chamber, they found many of these tubes joined by masses of strange fungus that emitted strange smells and colours, while they worked almost like hearts to move bizarre liquids through the hoses. In another, they heard strange buzzing voices persuading a flat, tinny voice that it was time to leave. When they made it to the place they had heard the voices, all they found was the vivisected body of Wallace Hutchinson, along with a number of empty cylinders made of the same substance as the plate they had found, marked with similar symbols. Moon managed to catch sight of some indistinct shapes flying up through a chimney in the chamber carrying one of the cylinders, but the shots he fired at them had no effect.

The group planted the dynamite they had brought to bring down the caves8, and fled the town.

Not sure what they’re planning next, whether they plan to go back to the warehouse and snoop some more, or to move on to something else. Whatever the choose, it should be fun.

  1. What can I say? I was tired after running the D&D Game Day at Imagine Games, and not as nimble on my mental feet as I wanted to be for this change in direction. Also, their decision sparked a bit of an idea that I needed to do a little research to pull off the way I wanted to. []
  2. Of course, so is everything else by Pagan Publishing. If you like Cthulhu games and you haven’t looked at their stuff, you’re doing yourself a disservice. []
  3. First, of my new Dresden Files RPG city-building session, then of the Fiasco game I had proposed to replace it. []
  4. Deep one vs. gangster, with a birth and a grenade thrown in. []
  5. Certainly it was nothing I did or said… []
  6. I spent Saturday morning creating these as hand-outs. Unfortunately, the plate was just printed on cardstock, but it still looked pretty good. []
  7. He is using it a lot, which is really helping him burn through his Sanity. []
  8. Gracious even in defeat, huh? []

From the Armitage Files: The Death of Aaron Moon

Wrapped up the latest Armitage Files session about half an hour ago. We usually go later than this, but I was tired and my brain was a little worn out by running the Red Box D&D Game Day at Imagine Games this afternoon. That was a fun session, with some great moments, but it ate up a lot of my energy, not to mention my prep time. So, when the game took a turn that I was completely unprepared for, I asked the players if it was all right if we stopped early to give me some time to come up with cool stuff to happen down this unexpected avenue.

Well, not really to come up with the cool stuff: I’ve got some good ideas right off the top of my head, but I want to do a little research into certain actual places and events, as well as to read a couple of Pagan Publishing scenarios that I half-remember and want to crib stuff from.

But before I get into any specifics, I need to say:

**Potential Spoilers**

The Armitage Files is an improvised campaign structure. It uses a number of stock pieces, such as NPCs, organizations, and locations, that are strung together by individual GMs to fit player action. The adventures I create with it may or may not match any other GM’s version of the campaign. That means that reading these posts may or may not offer spoilers for other game groups.

**You Have Been Warned**

A couple of sessions back, I gave the group the third document. I’ve come to understand that the rate at which the documents are given to the group does more than set the pace by providing (or not providing) more avenues of investigation; it also drives the tension of the story. I made it clear that the documents were going to come at a rate of my choosing, and that things might get very bad for everyone if they didn’t keep up the pace. They would not have time to investigate everything in every document, so they needed to choose carefully what they thought was most important, and figure out where they could have the biggest impact.

Basically, I made it clear that the documents were a countdown.

Anyway, the thread they decided to follow was the death in the factory. The name of the dead person was scribbled out, but with his knowledge of paper and inks, book restorer Aaron Moon was able to clean off the scribbles to read the name of the slain investigator. It was his own.

The following spoiler is safe for my players to read, but players in other campaigns may wish to give it a miss, because it gives away a bit of a secret.

Spoiler

The Armitage Files book recommends that the name of the dead person be that of the character most likely to be talking with factory workers. Now, my characters are all equally unlikely to be welcomed on a factory floor, so that idea didn’t work well for me. Instead, I decided that the name would be the name of the first character who asked about the name. That idea sort of got derailed, because the first character to express an interest was Roxy Crane, and the rest of that section of the document made it clear that the dead person was male. So, I changed it to the second person to look at things, which turned out to Aaron.

That freaked him out a bit*, and he poured on a little more solvent to eat away that section of the document and hide the fact that it said he was dead* on a factory floor somewhere. Dr. Solis decided to give it a try, and he also uncovered Aaron’s name, using his chemistry expertise.

Well, that was enough to really light a fire under everyone, and they started scrambling to find out where this factory was. The one link they had was the name Will Moran, which helped them track down Hutchinson Manufactory, a company in Kingsport that produced machine parts for diesel engines, primarily for ships.

My players are really starting to dread Kingsport.

The name Hutchinson also sounded familiar to them, and they managed to figure out that the company was owned by the missing chairman of the Helping Hands, who was currently sought by the police for questioning about his involvement with the deaths of numerous transients. I did this because I wanted to start weaving some more common threads into the narrative of the game, making things more cohesive and seeing what patterns emerged in the minds of my players.

This is, I think, an important thing to do with this campaign, because it doesn’t have any inherent cohesive storyline. The Keeper and the players have to distill one out of the play sessions. I like this idea, but it’s a bit like paper-making, in my opinion: you need to make sure there are enough threads in the pulp for the final product to hold together. So, I wanted to weave in some older loose ends and overlooked references to see what overarching theme and plot might coalesce.

Our heroes drove out to Kingsport to stake out the factory, and saw labour organizer Wally Endore being frogmarched* off the property. They persuaded them to let them drive him home, and plied him with alcohol while trying to find out if anything odd was going on at the factory. His answer was basically, “You mean, besides being picked up in a saloon car and given bourbon to answer questions about a factory I’ve only been to three times?”

But they did find out that the factory operated 24 hours a day, except that it closed down on Sundays. They dropped Wally off at his boarding house, and decided to send Dr. Solis in undercover as a health inspector worried about disease-carrying rats. His investigation allowed them to update the blueprints Roxy had tracked down for the buildings with what entrances and exits were currently functional, and to generally scout the ground. They returned just before dawn on Sunday to investigate the room where Aaron died/will die.

Nothing in the paperwork or records revealed anything of interest, but Roxy found a thin sheet of veneer tacked to the underside of a workbench. When she pried it open, it revealed a strange symbol that seemed to try and worm its way into her head. In best Cthulhu tradition, she immediately called Aaron over to have a look at it, too. Aaron went a little farther: he copied the symbol down on a bit of notepaper, making it wiggle even more in his head.

Things dragged a little at this point, as the gang kept looking around for more information. I finally remembered to download the Scene sign that WatsonSE told me about after my last post (Thanks, WatsonSE!), printed it out, and waved it at the players.

Back home, Aaron found that the glyph was similar to ones found in certain defaced idols in the sunken ruins of Nan Madol, origin of Ponape Scripture of dark reputation. He decided to use his Cthulhu Mythos to gain more information, along with a 1-point spend, so I told him that the symbol was a representation of Cthulhu’s eye, and was used to draw the attention of the sleeping Old One.

This is leading to a theme that I wanted to emerge in the game, and I’m glad to see it working. See, I’ve been listening to some interesting audiobooks about physics, and one of the things that I’m trying to pull in is the observer effect, twisted to make it more Mythos-cool. I want to avoid having the characters actually encounter any of the big names in person, but I want the idea of attracting the attention of one of the old gods or titans is dangerous in and of itself. I started it with the Chaugner Faugn thing I did a while back, where it was the attention of the thing that was sucking the temporal potentiality from those it paid attention to, and I’m continuing it with this little sigil thing.

Figuring out the nature of the symbol led Aaron right down to the furnace with his little sketch, and he watched until it was ashes. Roxy had defaced the one carved in the factory, as well.

At this point, the group decided that they really needed to track down Hutchinson and see if he was running a factory full of Cthulhu cultists. I had already decided where Hutchinson was, roughly, but I hadn’t done the research I wanted to do to have a solid foundation for improvising this section of the investigation. It’s also offering me an opportunity to either increase or decrease the complexity of what’s going on: I can either make the Hutchinson thread connect to the death of Aaron Moon, simplifying things, or I can make it a different, parallel avenue of investigation, complicating the investigation as the characters have to decide which line to pursue and which clues belong to which mystery*.

But I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: I like to be prepared for the improvisation I’m going to have to do. So, because it was getting late, and I was tired and my brain was less than agile, I begged my players’ indulgence, which they graciously granted.

I wrapped up the evening by dropping the other shoe about the glyph: both Aaron and Roxy had disturbing dreams, featuring the ocean, drowned people, and something huge and terrible rising from the depths.

Tomorrow, when I’m a little more on the ball, I’m going to schedule a few more games, so that we can get back to a regular schedule. I’ve missed running this game, and am glad to be back to it.

 
 
 

*Though not as much as it could have – my players were rolling great guns on their Stability tests tonight. Almost made me wonder why I was bothering. Back

*Or would die, if you adhere to their current opinion of what the documents are. Back

*Frogmarched is in the WordPress spellcheck dictionary. WordPress is not. Nor is spellcheck, but that’s most likely because of the neologism of the compound. It likes spell-check just fine*. Back

*As a word geek, these things interest and amuse me. Back

*Arturo Perez-Reverte played with this trope to great and entertaining effect in The Club Dumas. Back

From the Armitage Files: The Blessed Event

We’ve just finished up the latest installment of our Armitage Files campaign about twenty minutes ago. I’m posting this tonight because tomorrow I have to work on writing other stuff – some homework for the excellent D&D 3.5 campaign run by my friend, Clint. Monday is going to be busy getting ready for GenCon, so if I want to get this posted before then, I’ve gotta burn a little midnight oil.

This is also the last Armitage Files game for more than a month, because a couple of my players are heading off to Europe for several weeks.

Anyway…

**Potential Spoilers**

The Armitage Files is an improvised campaign structure. It uses a number of stock pieces, such as NPCs, organizations, and locations, that are strung together by individual GMs to fit player action. The adventures I create with it may or may not match any other GM’s version of the campaign. That means that reading these posts may or may not offer spoilers for other game groups.

**You Have Been Warned**

We wrapped up the Kingsport Yacht Club storyline tonight, though I don’t think any of the characters really counts the resolution of the situation as a win. Which is good to happen occasionally in a horror game – endings that the characters are ambivalent about are a standard trope of the genre. If they can’t tell whether or not they’ve won, it increases the bleakness of the story, which is fitting for a Cthulhu game.

At the end of the last session, they had put together the idea that Diamond Walsh was being used as a puppet by the Gardiners, a wealthy family that ran the Yacht Club. He was being offered both respectability and a child, in return for his mob connections and being a surrogate father for the Deep One half-breed his wife was carrying. This foetus had been surgically altered in utero by the family doctor, Lynch, to try and make it breed true as a Deep One from birth, rather than having to wait decades for the transformation, making it a sort of Deep One messiah.

To try and get more evidence on what was going on, they broke into the doctor’s home to loot his home office for clues. Good spends with Arcitecture and Streetwise let them find a retired bootlegger on the street who let them in to the rum-running tunnel that connected several of the houses and ran down to the water. They used this to get in to the doctor’s home, where they found evidence that he had indeed been conducting surgeries in his home, rather than at the hospital where he had surgical privileges. They also uncovered a book hidden inside a hollowed-out copy of Gray’s Anatomy.

The book on its own was nothing terribly special – it was a copy of Secret Mysteries of Asia (p106 in Trail of Cthulhu) – but it contained a number of hand-written notepaper pages folded into it, detailing rather unsavoury surgical experiments carried out by the doctor, including a lengthy and detailed accounting of several unnamed pregnancies where prenatal surgery had been conducted on the foetuses, implanting fish organs. Most of the experiments ended in the death of the subject, but one pregnancy was still continuing, according to the notes.

But they didn’t read the notes right away, because they heard someone upstairs, and went quiet to avoid detection. Unfortunately, something heard them – just not the doctor, who had awakened to use the bathroom and then gone back to bed. No, the thing that heard them was hiding in the tunnel when they crept back in, and shot small bone blowgun darts into Solis and Moon as they tried to flee through the low, narrow tunnel back to the house where they had got in. The darts had some sort of hallucinogenic poison on them that laid out both men just after they escaped. Roxy had to get her bootlegger contact to help her carry the unconscious men out to her car, and warned him to take a long vacation. Which saved him from being home that night when his house burned to the ground.

The next little bit convinced me that I need to make up a SCENE card, as suggested in the rules. The group discussed what they should do, finally settling on sending photographs of Lynch’s notes to Walsh with a note telling him where to get in touch with them if they wished to talk about what they meant. Once that was done, though, they started looking around for more clues, when I didn’t have any more to give them through research. We flailed about with that for a bit until I finally said, “Look. There’s no more information here for you. Get on with things.” This is a change in mentality that is difficult for me to get used to, but the idea of the SCENE card to hold up when the characters have found everything there is to find sounds like a much better idea to me know than when I first read it.

But we did get on with things. The gang wound up in Kingsport, with Solis and Moon… assisting Walsh with inquiries, let’s say, while locked in his basement, and Roxy out on the loose trying to keep track of where things were going. They told Walsh that Zora was probably either at the Yacht Club or out on a boat, where her crazy family were about to do something horrid to her and the baby. Walsh sent men to both the club and the harbour, but decided to hang on to Solis and Moon in case they didn’t find anything.

Now, I had the group of men sent to the harbour not report back, thinking that would get people out there to see what happened to them, but it didn’t. Instead, the blunt force trauma to Solis’s and Moon’s heads shook loose the memory of the bootlegger tunnel running down to the water, so I moved the climax of the adventure there.

Roxy followed the next wave of goons from Walsh’s to the doctor’s house, then crept over to the small cliff where she could look down on the tunnel mouth and see what was happening. I told her she saw a number of naked men lit by braziers of burning sulfur, and a very pregnant woman sitting in the water about to give birth. I also told her that there were strange ripples in the water, and glistening hands reaching up from below the surface to help hold Zora still.

Things got a little hectic around then. Zora was screaming in pain, the men were chanting, one of the ripples out in the cove started moving toward Roxy’s perch on the clifftop, and the goons burst out of the tunnel and started shooting everyone down there. Roxy threw a stick of dynamite down, throwing up a wave, and then strange, silvery shapes started coming out of the water to attack the men coming out of the tunnel. Zora got washed out of sight by the dynamite wave, and a Deep One came leaping up the cliff wall right at Roxy. She missed it with a thrown rock, and then it was on her. Her bullet hit, but didn’t seem to do much damage, and then the thing slashed her a couple of times with its claws. Roxy turned and ran, throwing her last stick of dynamite behind her. She missed the creature, but the explosion collapsed the overhanging clifftop, and the thing dropped out of sight.

She hurried back to Walsh’s, and convinced him to go out with the rest of his men to try and save his wife. He left, after threatening to come after Roxy if she had played him false, and gave her the keys to let Solis and Moon out of the cellar. They then set out after the crowd to see what they could do.

It was all over but the shouting by the time they got there. Two more houses on the street were in flames, and the water was littered with bodies. The police and fire wouldn’t let them get any closer, and they had to head home. Newspaper accounts over the next few days told of a gang war that left many dead, including Oliver Gardiner, Dr. Lynch, Walsh, and Zora. The more lurid papers wrote of how Zora seemed to have been torn open from the inside.

So, not a good ending for the home team, but they’re all alive, and can press on with their investigations. Whatever they decide they should be.

From the Armitage Files: Kingsport Yacht Club

**Potential Spoilers**

The Armitage Files is an improvised campaign structure. It uses a number of stock pieces, such as NPCs, organizations, and locations, that are strung together by individual GMs to fit player action. The adventures I create with it may or may not match any other GM’s version of the campaign. That means that reading these posts may or may not offer spoilers for other game groups.

**You Have Been Warned**

We’re trying to squeeze in two Armitage Files games before I leave for GenCon, because when I get back, two of the three players head off to Europe for about a month, and we won’t get back to a regular schedule until September. Given that this summer has already seen some challenges in scheduling the game, we wanted to get a little momentum built, to make sure the game doesn’t wither and die.

That’s why we got together this afternoon to play, and are planning on doing it again next Saturday night.

We had finished off the Monument Creek storyline last session, and the characters were taking a couple of weeks to rest up after the beating they took on that little outing. As is my usual practice, I asked the group to let me know about a week in advance what reference they were planning on following up next. They decided to look into the Kingsport Yacht Club, because the Captain from last session was heading to Kingsport Harbour with the idol when they blew him up. And the Yacht Club was near the harbour, so…

Now, I cheated a little bit on the prep for this one. I had already decided that the group was going to receive the next document this session, so I wanted to tie in a few extra threads to the storyline for the Yacht Club, because it’s probably going to be the last one from these documents that gets investigated. Maybe not, but I think the pressure of a new document, with new hints, is going to get the group fired up about some of those. That meant that I wanted to draw in a few of the things that had featured peripherally in the earlier investigations, specifically Austin Kittrell and Diamond Walsh.

That seemed like it was tailor-made for stealing one of the spines from the Scenario Spines chapter of The Armitage Files, which I did, choosing The Dweller Within. I tweaked it from the basic structure to better suit what my group are starting to show as their play style, did up a few sets of stats for various things along the way, and away we went.

Their first step was to try and infiltrate the Kingsport Yacht Club by having Dr. Solis pose as Arthur Matthews, a recent widower returned from South America with a daughter (Roxy, starring as Mary Matthews) who wanted him to meet the right people and start getting involved in the local society circles, so that he’ll stop paying so much attention to her life. Roxy’s high Credit Rating meant that she knew the names of several people who were members, including Austin Kittrell, a wealthy party-boy (and collector of strange documents) with whom she’d had some minor dealings previously. He knew her too well, though, so she and Solis went to Samuel Hepburn, a lawyer who didn’t know her as well, and prevailed up on him to put Arthur Matthews forward for membership.

Why Dr. Solis? Well, Roxy is a woman, and Aaron is Jewish, so neither would have a chance of getting in. Welcome to 1935.

On the night of the membership drive, Aaron went along with the pair, disguised as their chauffeur. While Solis and Roxy were hobnobbing with the other members, prospective members, and their families, Aaron was hanging out with the staff below stairs, trying to pick up some gossip. The character, unfortunately, doesn’t have a lot of skill in that area, but his roleplaying and the things he paid attention to got him some solid information. For example, among the waiters, cooks, maids, and drivers, there was a pair of goons in bad suits sitting by themselves with a bottle of whiskey. Aaron decided to see what he could get out of them by pulling out a deck of cards (with dirty pictures on them) and gambling with them for some whiskey. Over the course of the evening, as he lost a fair bit of money to them, he found out they were Walsh’s men – the gangster who had been transporting the idol for the Captain in the last investigation. He also found out that Walsh was married to Zora Gardiner, daughter of Oliver Gardiner, and president of the Yacht Club. The men were bemoaning the fact that, ever since the wedding, Walsh had been getting soft, and was now trying to get respectable by joining the Yacht Club.

Aaron also caught sight of a small figure – possibly a child – hiding in the bushes when he went to check on the car at one point, but didn’t get a good look at it, nor did he follow it into the shrubbery.

At the party, Solis and Roxy met the Gardiners, Walsh and his very pregnant wife Zora, and Dr. Lynch, the club secretary. They found that Gardiner had a fondness for local history, especially that of the native peoples, and that the club library – the province of Dr. Lynch – contained many books on local and maritime history. Other than that, and a strange encounter between Austin Kittrell and the disguised Roxy, everything went very well, and our heroes retired at the end of the evening with every expectation that Arthur Matthews would soon be receiving an invitation to join.

Over the next few days, they did a little more research on the Gardiners, and on Walsh and the Yacht Club. Their digging turned up the origins of the extended Gardiner clan in Merry Mount, in the early days of Puritan settlement, where they made good money at fishing. A Cthulhu Mythos use reminded Aaron of a passage from The Book of the Voice, which spoke of how the pre-European inhabitants of Merry Mount (called Mounte Dagonne by the early French explorers) had worshiped an ancient sea-god, and were said to have interbred with the children of this god.

Further research turned up a pattern of stillbirths, miscarriages, and deaths in childbirth among the extended Gardiner clan over the past year. All of the physicians of record were listed as Dr. Lynch, which struck them as odd, because they knew Dr. Lynch was a surgeon, not a GP or OB/GYN. At this point, Aaron’s player was getting very nervous about things, so he spent a Cthulhu Mythos point, and recalled hints he had seen in old books about how the offspring of the sea-god’s children would be vulnerable and mortal for the first two-score years of their lives, until they shed their mortal form and returned to the realm of their god. Some of the men who had made pacts with these creatures had sought various ways to force this transformation in utero, eliminating the vulnerable period of the god’s grandchildren. He recalled how pregnant Walsh’s wife – Gardiner’s daughter – was, and how in two days, there would be a spring tide, a time of power for Dagon.

Some quick checking confirmed that Walsh, a forty-year-old gangster, had no children, which was so unusual as to strain credulity. The investigators came to the conclusion that Gardiner was getting control of Walsh and his business using the promise of a child and respectability. Checking with the police revealed that Gardiner’s enemies and business rivals had a habit of disasters; disasters that someone like Walsh could easily arrange. A check of Lynch’s past showed that his father had also been a member of the Yacht Club – along with Kittrell’s father – and that Lynch had been a battlefield surgeon in the Great War before traveling extensively in Europe and Asia, finally returning to Kingsport six years previously.

And so our heroes wound up arguing over the corpse of a stillborn child in a graveyard at midnight.

They had all agreed that they needed to examine a body to confirm their guesses but, when they had finally unearthed the tiny coffin (suffering some nice Stability tests), Aaron refused to allow the others to take the body from the graveyard and desecrate it farther. They had a quiet, desperate argument there in the dark before Solis finally went under the blanket with sad little body and a flashlight.

Cue Stability check, with extra Sanity loss.

He found that the body was fairly decomposed, but the limbs seemed to be a little too long and spindly, and the webbing between the fingers and toes was still fairly pronounced – unusual in a foetus at six or seven months, but not all that strange. What bothered him most were the signs that the thing had undergone surgery in utero – there were healed scars over its abdomen and torso. That and the tiny, needle teeth in its mouth.

They  reburied the body and left the graveyard, badly shaken, and unsure what to do about the situation, knowing that they have two days before something is likely to happen to Zora Gardiner and the child she’s carrying.

And that’s where we left it.

Next game is this coming Saturday, and that should put paid to this scenario, though I think they’re going to have some tough choices to make about how they settle things.

Oh, and I dropped the next document on them, while Aaron was working on the research and Roxy was talking to the Kingsport Police. Cyrus Llanfer brought it to Dr. Solis, saying that he had found it inside the Necronomicon, which he periodically checks to make sure that, for instance, no half-breed wizard from Dunwich makes off with it.

So they’ve got that to think about, too. I’m interested to see what they come up with.

Running The Armitage Files

I’ve been running The Armitage Files since the middle of last March, and have got in five sessions in that time, with two more scheduled before I head out to GenCon. That’s a long enough time that I want to look back at my initial assessment of Trail of Cthulhu and The Armitage Files, and talk a little bit about what it’s like to run, how I do it, what things I find work well, and what still gives me some problems.

Basic System Stuff

I cannot get over how much easier this system is to run than I had feared.

One of my big worries was figuring out how to use the investigative abilities, and where to draw the lines between the different abilities. While running the game, I soon came to realize that the abilities pretty much did what they said on the tin, and that I shouldn’t worry about drawing lines between them. The whole point of the investigative abilities – and the system in general – is to get information into the hands of the characters. It is wonderfully focused on that single, over-arching goal, and once you get your head around that as a GM, everything becomes clear and easy.

So now I don’t worry about whether a clue would be better found by Evidence Collection or by Forensics. I just see that a character is looking where they should to find a clue, and give it to them. I keep a list of what abilities the different characters have, and I phrase the evidence in keeping with whichever of the abilities makes the most sense given the information. If they’re looking for more, I’ll ask for a spend from a particular ability, or I’ll ask them what ability they’re using to get more information.

The two important things are that the clues get found and that the players enjoy themselves.

As for the general abilities, I’m coming to a new understanding of them as we play. With difficulty ranges on target numbers for general abilities running from 2 to 8, and averaging (in game) around 3 or 4, really what your points in a general ability do is give you a pool of automatic successes for a given ability. They let you guarantee success when you really need it. So, shooting at that cultist before he sacrifices the baby? Yeah, you’re gonna want a guaranteed hit on that one, so you spend 5 points from your firearms pool. Overkill? Maybe, but you don’t want to risk failure at a critical, dramatic moment.

Spending in smaller amounts is certainly a viable strategy in game, but I recommend that players ask themselves whether they really need to succeed at something. If the answer is no, don’t spend. If the answer is yes, go all in. And if you wind up with a few failures that complicate your life? Well, that’s how stories are made, right? Complications are your friend. They make things interesting.

In general, the light system with its sharp focus on getting clues to characters makes prepping for the game very easy. Creating the mechanical side of encounters is takes little effort, and is easy to do on the fly – I can whip up a set of mundane cultists in under two minutes, and take about five to put together an interesting monster. Running the light system is a breeze, and it lets me really focus on creating the scene, and adding colour to what’s going on, rather than worrying about the minutiae of the rules.

Combat quickly devolves into desperate, panicked action, and there is a constant threat of something very bad happening to the heroes. This is the way it should be in a horror game, in my opinion. The lethality can be easily scaled to make things more or less survivable in general, and it’s even easy to do on the fly, if you want to change the risk factor in an ongoing encounter. So far, I haven’t killed any of the characters in my campaign, but I think they’ve felt the risk of it every time we get into combat, which is the vibe I want.

The real place I put in prep time is in creating the mythos pieces for the game – coming up with the history of the book they find, finding a good picture to show them of the standing stones, creating a background for why a specific cult exists and what they want, making hand-outs of some of the things they find, etc. Good, meaty story and atmosphere stuff. And that’s where I want to be spending my time.

The Improvised Campaign

I’ve got to be honest with you. I was somewhat disappointed when I started looking at The Armitage Files, because of the way it focuses on an improvised campaign. I wanted something more scripted – like the Esoterrorists adventures I’d seen, where the spine of the investigation is nicely mapped and all the clues are cleanly presented. I looked at the campaign, saw it was just a toolbox of elements to use, and grew a little discouraged.

I’m no longer disappointed.

I don’t follow the advice about running an improvised campaign the way they present it in the book, but I’m still running a very player-directed, sandbox kind of campaign. See, I don’t like having to come up with all the big, interesting pieces of the game on the fly, with little or no planning, but I do like the idea of the players getting choose what direction things are going in. My main problem with the improvised campaign idea is that I can come up with much better stuff, with more internal consistency and depth, if I have a little time to work it out.

What I’m doing sort of splits the difference between the improvised approach and the fully scripted approach. I let the players tell me what they’re going to investigate, and how they’re going to do it, before the game. I then have a few days to take a look at the source material and figure out what’s going on behind the scenes. I map out the relationships between the various involved elements – NPCs, organizations, events, artifacts, etc. – and flesh out a few details, like coming up with some brief stats for potential combatants and a writ-up on any mythos items they might find, along with something to tell them if they use Cthulhu Mythos as a hint machine.

Once I’ve got this structure mapped out and my background stuff prepped, it’s easy to just turn the characters loose on the investigation and create the clues they find on the fly, based on what they do and what I know of the the adventure secrets. And I’ve got a couple of set pieces ready to drop on them for good reveals, so the game feels like there’s a direction, a beginning and end, and all the other good things you want for the thing to have some shape.

The Armitage Documents

One of the things that challenged me at the start was figuring out how to use all the little tidbits the source documents mention. I actually went through and made a list, document by document, of all the interesting references in each document -  the Document Keys section does some of this, but there are a number of things that caught my eye in the documents that aren’t covered in the keys. I then tried to build a single spine out of each document, relating all the items to one mystery and tying everything together.

For the love of all that’s holy, learn from my mistake and don’t do that.

You wind up with a very forced mishmash of elements, where things are shoehorned in and a lot of the connections just don’t work that well. The resulting mess would have been completely opaque to the players, no matter how thick and heavy the clues were flying, because I could barely make sense of it. They would have had no chance. Worse, it would have strained credulity far too much, and that would have broken the mood and the suspension of disbelief.

The question then arises, “So how much should I include in a given mystery?” That’s a hard question to give a solid answer to, because it’s going to vary from group to group and adventure to adventure. You’ve got to look at how long you want this specific scenario to run, and how important it’s going to be for the ongoing story. Usually, I pick two or three elements from the document, and string them together, and that gives me a solid evening or two of play. I pepper the session with casual mentions of some of the other references, either from the current document or from a future one, to keep the group interested and aware that there are other things going on besides their current investigation.

Now, this can backfire on you if they latch on to something you threw in as colour and go haring off after it. That’s usually pretty easy to deal with, either by working that reference into what you’re currently doing, or by stonewalling that investigatory avenue until you’re prepped for it. Kingsport Yacht Club? Well, you need a membership to get in. And to get a membership, you need to find someone to vouch for you. Do you know anyone in the Kingsport Yacht Club? It’ll take a while to track a member down.

The risk of stonewalling is two-fold:

  1. You need to make sure the group has other leads to follow up. If they don’t have other things to look into, then you all just ran out of story and sit around twiddling your thumbs. Of course the wealth of leads in the documents should mean that that never happens.
  2. You must, must, must make the payoff worth it at the end. If you put off the investigation of an element, your players will be able to tell you’re putting it off. That’s going to make them more eager to investigate that particular element. So you need to make sure you put in the time to develop it, and to make it cool enough that it was worth the wait. Otherwise, you’ll just look lame.

One of the other risks you can run into is that the characters ignore something that you want them to follow up on, because you’ve got something cool planned for it. I’ve found the best way to push them towards something is not to push, but to drop other references to it in the investigations they’re currently pursuing. No one wants to check out the Kingsport Yacht Club? Well, the idol you intercepted was on its way down to the Kingsport Harbour. Why yes, it is near the Yacht Club. Surely there’s no connection…

One last piece of advice on using the documents – and this is mentioned in the book – is not to let the players follow up everything. Drop a new document on them before they’ve tracked down everything in the documents they currently have. Not only does this guarantee that they always have new and interesting leads to follow, it avoids the artificiality of treating the documents like a dungeon, where the characters clean out every room before moving on to the next dungeon.

Most importantly, though, is that it imposes a time pressure, a sense of urgency to the investigations, as the players see more and nasty stuff coming down the pipeline at them, and realize that they have to pick and choose what they want to do something about. They will be leaving things behind, and that will add to their anxiety and desperation, and they will worry that the investigations left undone will come back to haunt them in the future. And that’s the kind of attitude you want in a Cthulhu game, right?

Ongoing Challenges

***SPOILERS***

Generally, I try to avoid spoilers in talking about published adventures, even ones as loose as this one. But there are a couple of things that I’m still having challenges with that might give away some of the secrets of the campaign frame, so I’m hiding those behind spoiler tags. Click the Show button to reveal them, but don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Here’s the first:

Spoiler

One of the big challenges is reconciling the time-frame of the events with the needs of gameplay. The documents come from the future, but the information in them basically sets the scene for the starting point of a scenario. For example, in document 2, there is mention of a mysterious truck and car near the hospital, with something strange in the back. This is obviously something that the characters want to investigate, and they proceed to do so.

My issue is that the document comes from a year and a half in the future. Unless I make the truck and car and their mysterious cargo a recurring event (which is possible, of course), there’s nothing for the characters to investigate yet. What I need to do is come up with something that will culminate in the events in the documents, but have a lead-up that stretches back into the past far enough for the characters to encounter it. This can be a challenge sometimes.

Now, it’s quite possible to play fast and loose with the actual time gap between the present and the future of the documents, but that can tend to undermine the mystery of the documents themselves, so I don’t really want to do that too much – though I have, and will again, when necessary.

It’s a tough call for the designer. On the one hand, you’ve got the time gap, as discussed, so you can’t just have a few hints of something starting in the documents, because that means the characters don’t have anything to investigate, yet. But on the other hand, you don’t want to give away too much, both because it spoils the surprise for the players and because it narrows the options for the GM.

Still, there are a number of good, long-term, ongoing threads in the documents that are easy to work in to the game. They more than make up for the more problematic references.

And here’s the second:

Spoiler

There’s not much in the way of a climax built into the documents. Oh, there’s a climax for the Armitage in the papers: his descent into the destroyed world is wonderful to read and quite disturbing, a fitting homage to HPL and his work. But there’s very little direction as to what the end of the campaign is. The whole point of the campaign is kind of vague because of the emphasis on it being an improvised campaign, and the recommendations for getting to the end of the story – indeed, for deciding where the story ends – are not all that helpful.

That’s not a really huge complaint, when you get right down to it. Considering the type of book this is, and the wealth of tools the book gives you, it won’t be too difficult to wrap things up in an interesting manner, I think. I just personally prefer having a more solid idea of where the game is going, and how it’s going to wrap. At this point, I don’t have that, and I worry a little about things devolving into a bit of flailing about near the end, with no real strong resolution.

Of course, that just means I’m going to have to watch things closely, and start laying the foundation for the climax when I figure out what it’s going to be. For that, of course, I’m going to be looking to the players and what they focus on in play for my guides.

One other thing that’s still giving me a bit of a challenge, and that doesn’t need to be wrapped in spoiler tags, is that I need to learn to relax more into the process of the game, letting things evolve naturally based on character (and player) interest, rather than trying to run things down a plot line that I create myself. I used to be much better at this, but over the years, I got out of the habit by playing games which reinforce a more rigidly structured play experience, like D&D. I’m rusty, and keep second guessing myself.

That will come with time and practice, I know, but at the moment, I’m still a little frustrated by it.

Parting Thoughts

Ending on the challenges might make it sound like I’m frustrated by this game and campaign, but nothing could be farther from the truth. I think the game system and the campaign are fantastic, and I’m enjoying running my Armitage Files campaign immensely. My players are great fun, and also seem to be enjoying themselves, so that’s a big win all around.

This game has done a lot to revive my faith in myself as a GM who can work without the crutch of highly-detailed combat and fight-a-week-style adventures. I used to run a lot of non-D&D games, and great as I think D&D is, it encourages a very particular play style, just by the amount of rules text devoted to certain topics and the structure of published adventures.

Trail of Cthulhu is crafted for a very different play experience, one I’m out of practice with. But as I run the game, I’m remembering why I loved this style of play. The spill-over from what I’m doing here can definitely be seen in my other games, like Fearful Symmetries. It’s making me a better GM, and its doing it in a way that’s fun and low-stress.

But you folks don’t really care about that.

What you care about is this: Trail of Cthulhu and The Armitage Files are a blast to play. I’m very glad I decided to give them a try, and I look forward to each session.

The next one is this Sunday afternoon, and the following one is Saturday after. I will, of course, post the results here for you folks to peruse.

From the Armitage Files: The Stealer of Tomorrow

**Potential Spoilers**

The Armitage Files is an improvised campaign structure. It uses a number of stock pieces, such as NPCs, organizations, and locations, that are strung together by individual GMs to fit player action. The adventures I create with it may or may not match any other GM’s version of the campaign. That means that reading these posts may or may not offer spoilers for other game groups.

**You Have Been Warned**

Saturday night, we wrapped up the Monument Creek storyline from the previous session of The Armitage Files. After the somewhat rocky Hunter game the previous evening, I put in a little extra time Saturday afternoon prepping for the game, making sure there were enough productive avenues of investigation for the characters to follow.

The game went pretty well, though. I had the characters fearing for their lives, and panicking, and going to extreme lengths to save themselves and stop the bad guys.

Now that the scenario is over, I’m safe revealing (most of) what was going on, so here it goes:

In the construction of the new army base, the soldiers had dug up a strange crystalline statue, roughly man-sized, that looked (if you squinted just right) like an elephant-headed snow man made out of faceted spheres, disks, and cones. This was a focus for Chaugnar Faugn, which I used with a bit of a twist.

One of the great things about the Trail of Cthulhu rulebook is that the inestimable Ken Hite gives several different interpretations of each of the Great Old Ones, and I liked this idea of his:

Chaugnar Faugn is a moving cluster of sentient, malevolent discontinuity that leaves crystallized “elephant-gods” or idols behind it when it encounters our universe. It sometimes alters human hosts likewise into twisted pachyderm-like monsters. It builds up energy to transit along its lifeline by severing the lifelines of other time-bound entities, such as humans or serpent-folk, and drinking their potential existence.

I decided that this was sort of a mythos-flavoured version of the Observer Effect, in that Chaugnar Faugn’s immaterial attention drained the potentiality from life forms when he focused on a given space/time locus, and that the draining took the form of a crystallization, producing the idols. And the presence of something interesting around an idol (ordered information, in Charles Stross’s Laundry parlance) draws Chaugnar Faugn’s attention.

So, the story is that one of the privates unearthed the idol, it got some blood spilled on it (digging foundations is hard, sometimes dangerous work), and the attention of the Great Old One was drawn to the site. Now, the sign of the increase in entropy – the life draining – in the area is that more of the idols form in the things being drained. Bugs and worms drain quickly, and are transformed into the tiny idol-crystals that our heroes found last game. Larger, more complex life forms take longer, and the conversion process is slower, as the crystals form within their bodies, forcing their ways in between the existing organs and under the skin. If the level of attention focused on this locus is high enough, humans can also be converted completely to idols, but more often, they just die as the crystal intrusions in their bodies prevent them from working properly.

This is what they saw happen to Private Lonnie Pennick.

Anyway, for reasons that the players did not uncover, the Lieutenant in charge of the construction snatched the idol and hid it away, planning to transport it to Kingsport and put it on a ship.

Back to the game.

The morning after Pvt. Pennick’s death, our heroes returned to Arkham – Dr. Solis went to conduct the autopsy, Aaron went to do some more research at the MU library, and Roxy went to have breakfast. Aaron’s research turned up a link between the tiny crystals and the dolmens they had heard were up an Monument Creek, and the history of a native tribe who left the area pretty much over night about six hundred years ago. He then asked to use his Cthulhu Mythos skill for more information.

Now, I had prepared for this with a passage from the single mythos tome that Aaron had read, but somehow I lost the print out of it, and couldn’t find the electronic file, which made me sad, but I was able to give him what I remembered of it, as well as a little sketch of the elephant-headed creature depicted in the petroglyphs at monument creek. I told him that the Book of the Voice contained a reference to the Stealer of Tomorrow, with the head of an elephant, whose sign and presence was his idol, and who stole the future from all he looked upon.

Somewhat shaken, Aaron went to have a drink in the University Lounge, then went to Roxy’s house. When he arrived, he found that only about a half-hour had passed, though he had done at least three hours of research. He had another drink, and a little lie-down.

In the meantime, Dr. Solis performed the autopsy, removing a number of “calciferous tumours” from the body – strangely crystalline structures that looked more like faceted, milky quartz than anything biological. I also told him that the tumours were not growing off any of the organs in the body, but seemed to have formed in between the organs, forcing them aside, though there were no obvious entry wounds. When he lay out the pieces of crystal, he found that they formed the rough skeleton of the same snow-man-like figure shown by the tiny crystals they had found.

He came up with the theory that they might be activated by living biological material, so he took one of the tiny crystals, put it in a beaker, and added some blood. His blood.

This wonderful little sacrifice drew Chaugnar Faugn’s attention immediately. I hit Solis with a number of time-distortion effects, as well as the concomitant Stability checks, and then with some Health checks as the crystals started to form in his body.

We had a great little scramble, as Solis quarantined himself and sent for Roxy and Aaron, and they roped in Moore from MU and a couple of his grad students to haul an oscilloscope, amplifier, and speakers down to the hospital to use sound waves to shatter the crystal in Solis’s body. I liked the idea, and so it worked, though it hurt him a great deal and laid him up in the hospital for a couple of days.

While Solis was in surgery to have the crystal shards (very, very sharp crystal shards) removed from his body, Roxy and Aaron drove out in the dark to Monument Creek and hiked up to the dolmen, where they discovered a story about how the Stealer of Tomorrow descended on the local tribe after they had found a crystal idol, and how their shamans had turned its attention away, and then left the area to make sure they never drew it back. Aaron was able to decipher the medicine song they used, and he and Roxy drove back to the hospital to exorcise Solis.

We had another tense scene, with the exorcism drawing attention again, and several time distortion effects, and the beginnings of crystals forming in everyone’s bodies, as well as the small life forms in the room and the leaves of the trees outside. In the end, they were pretty roughed up, but managed to drive off Chaugnar Faugn’s attention.

Remembering the story of how the native tribe had found a crystal idol that started the whole mess, Roxy and Aaron drove back out to the army base and questioned the Lieutenant about any idols being found. He was quite concerned, and very sorry for Solis’s state, but could offer no explanation. He asked for Solis’s hospital room number so that he could go visit, and they gave it to him.

Roxy felt that he was hiding something, so she and Aaron kept watch in Solis’s room that night. Shortly after midnight, someone climbed in through the window with a gun. Solis shot him to death, and Roxy recognized him as a button man for Horace “Diamond” Walsh, an underboss for the Marcuzzo crime syndicate. She hit the streets, and (with an impressive spend from Oral History and Streetwise) found out that Walsh had sent the man at the request of the Lieutenant, and that Walsh’s men were supposed to pick something up at the army base that night and drive it to Kingsport Harbour.

So, the troops loaded up with pistols and dynamite, stole a car, and lay in wait near the army base road. When the truck and its escort headed out, they followed it out past Arkham, about half-way to Kingsport, before Solis drew along side and Roxy threw three sticks of dynamite into the back of the truck.

After the horrific explosion, there was a nasty firefight, with tommy-guns and pistols on the bad guys’ side, and dynamite and pistols on the good guys’ side. Despite an unfortunate accident with one of the sticks of dynamite, which cost them their stolen car and almost Dr. Solis’s life, they managed to kill the Lieutenant and Walsh’s men, and used the rest of the dynamite to completely destroy the shattered idol that had been in the back of the pickup truck. Then they limped back to town.

I’m giving them a couple of weeks of downtime for the characters to recover somewhat, because they’re pretty beat up and need to keep their heads down. I’ve also asked them to let me know what they want to look into next.

All in all, a nice Cthulhu game, with a number of good moments. I’m liking both the system and the campaign a whole lot.

From the Armitage Files: Monument Creek

**Potential Spoilers**

The Armitage Files is an improvised campaign structure. It uses a number of stock pieces, such as NPCs, organizations, and locations, that are strung together by individual GMs to fit player action. The adventures I create with it may or may not match any other GM’s version of the campaign. That means that reading these posts may or may not offer spoilers for other game groups.

**You Have Been Warned**

Last night was the latest episode in my Armitage Files game. This story was the one I had the most trouble with sorting out from the material in the files. I was worried about staying true to what the documents said, but also working things in a manner that made sense, considering the larger things going on in the background.

Am I being cryptic? Kind of. See, while I put that spoiler warning up at the top of this post, that’s there so that others playing the game will realize that reading the post might give things away. But I really don’t want to reveal any of the metaplot to my players, even inadvertently. And I know at least two of them read my blog.

So, by way of explanation, I’m going to present a theory that my players have come up with, and show how it makes things difficult. I’m not saying their theory is correct; I’m not saying it’s not. It just happens to fit some of the pieces they’ve uncovered, and it can be used to illustrate what I’m talking about.

The players think the mysterious documents the Armitage Group have received are being sent back in time from the future, though they don’t know exactly from when, and they don’t who is sending them. This, they say, explains why the writing is admittedly that of Henry Armitage, but no one remembers the incidents or investigations mentioned in them.

Let’s assume that’s true. If the documents talk about, say, a mysterious item being transported in a truck to the hospital, and the players decide to follow that particular clue up, I need to figure out when the incident happens, what leads up to it, and what stage things are at right now. And if I want the characters to get involved and the players to enjoy themselves, I have to figure out something cool and interesting to be going on right now that also makes sense given what the documents say is going to happen in the future.

See the kind of thing I’m talking about?

What I’m saying is that it took me a couple of reworkings to get the spine of what’s going on in this particular investigation, and I scrapped a couple of very nice, interesting ideas along the way just because they didn’t fit the metastructure constraints quite properly. Oh, I probably could have got away with a little fudging, but that feels too much like cheating.

But that’s okay. I came up with a final (sort of) version that I was happy with, and it worked pretty well last night.

As a general observation, I am amazed at how easy it’s getting to improvise scenes and clues. I really thought that the investigative structure wouldn’t lend itself well to this style of play, but it actually does. I haven’t gone the whole way to improvisation that they talk about in the book, where the actual secrets behind everything are decided upon during play, but figuring out where to put clues in order to let the characters drive the actual scenes turns out to be very intuitive. And by keeping a list of the investigative skills of each character (or asking to take a look at a sheet every now and then when you need to make a judgment call) makes the rules mostly transparent. The only times I cracked a book last night was looking at a list of the skills or trying to find a particular name.

Enough of me blathering about running the game. Let’s get to what happened in the game.

This session, the characters decided to follow up an account in the second document, talking about a mysterious car and truck delivering a strange item to the hospital, and Temporary Operative Olsen still being on an army base. They located the hospital from a reference to Crown Hill, but the nearest army base they knew of was Fort Devens, 150 miles away. As for Olsen, they had no idea.

Given that they have a doctor, a con woman, and a bookseller who had been bitten badly by a rat-thing in the group, they decided on a combined approach to the hospital, with Aaron Moon checking in to have the nasty wound on his leg examined, and Dr. Solis and his lovely (if vapid) assistant Twyla Petty (again played by wealthy con woman Roxy Crane) asking to examine patient files in order to do a demographic study of illness and injury in rural Massachusetts.

The patient files showed a number of military men being treated for minor injuries over the past couple of weeks, which led Solis and Roxy to dig a little deeper and discover that the army was in the process of clearing ground and laying foundations for a new base out at Monument Creek, about 25 miles from Arkham. With no infirmary in place, the Lieutenant in charge of the work detail made arrangements with the local hospital for treatment of his men.

Aaron had a nasty night. He hadn’t been sleeping well since having to kill the rat-thing a few days ago, compounded with the nasty things he read in The Book of the Voice giving him nightmares. This night was no different, with a dream of waking to find the hospital a ruin around him. Then, when he awoke for real, he somehow lost four and a half hours between looking at the clock beside his bed and walking down the corridor to the nurse’s station.

These events disturbed him a great deal and, when his companions returned to the hospital in the morning, they went to look at one of the rooms in the hospital that Aaron had seen in his dream. It was occupied by an elderly woman far gone with senile dementia, and they found no clues as to the source of the dream or the lost time. Still, Aaron agreed to stay in the hospital another night, mainly to give Roxy and Solis time to break into the administration office to look for anything interesting.

They didn’t find anything in the office, but Aaron did find an old grocery sack with the remains of someone’s lunch in it in a trash can near the loading dock. The bag was marked Olsen’s Family Market. And in the morgue, Roxy and Solis found a record of a young private killed by a falling tree, whose postmortem exam revealed strange calciferous tumours on his soft tissues. The body had already been released, so they couldn’t examine it first hand.

The next day, they went to the county office, and found out that the military was indeed building a new base out at Monument Creek, so named because of the neolithic mounds and standing stones near the source of the creek. They decided that they needed to go out and take a look at the base (and maybe the mounds and standing stones), but first went to Olsen’s Family Market to check it out. They spoke to Olaf Olsen, the owner and proprietor, and found him a genial but thoroughly mundane fellow.

So, out to Monument Creek, with camping equipment, firearms, medical kit, tracing paper, charcoal, binoculars, and bird books. They set up camp on a hill overlooking the military base under construction, and were invited down to dine with Lieutenant Bennet, who was in charge of the construction project. There they found out that Fort Devens, which is primarily a recruitment and training base, needed to expand its facilities, and it was decided to open a new base to handle the increased recruitment. Aaron knew that Fort Devens also based three divisions of military intelligence, so he was suspicious. But he also knew that Lt. Bennet’s father had written a book about the native beliefs of the Southwest tribes, so he managed to make a more personal connection with the Lieutenant.

And Roxy was the only woman around for miles.

They also learned that the base had their supplies trucked in from Arkham, which led them to the conclusion that the fresh produce was probably delivered from Olsen’s Family Market.

They retired back to their campsite, determined to head upstream in the morning to check out the standing stones that the creek was named for. Their rest was disturbed, however, by a sergeant sent from the camp asking for Dr. Solis to come see to a medical emergency.

This turned out to be a private who was pale, clammy, and severely disoriented. Dr. Solis’s examination found that he seemed to be suffering from severe anemia, and had a hard lump under his skin near his appendix. The young man responded strangely to Solis’s questions and actions, seeming to answer questions that hadn’t been asked, or answering in the wrong order. Blood drawn looked almost blue, and quite watery.

During the examination, the doctor noticed that one of the man’s ears seemed to be deformed, with some sort of ribbed growth within the cartilage stretching and distending the shape of it. As he watched, the ribs seemed to extend, stretching the skin and cartilage of the ear even further. When he touched it with a probe, the taut skin split.

While the doctor was asking the sergeant for details of when the illness had come on, the man died.

Aaron and Roxy, looking around, found some strange crystals in the mud on the man’s boots – things that looked like tiny, strange snow men, with two faceted spheres attached to each other, and a long, thin spike ending in a weird starburst jutting from the smaller sphere at right angles to the rest of the thing. A small fringe of spikes also ran down each side of the smaller sphere. The largest of the crystals was about twice the size of a grain of rice, and most were significantly smaller.

Talking to the Lieutenant and the dead man’s squadmate, the characters could find no explanation for the strange illness, nor the tiny crystals. The body was removed and would be sent to the hospital for an autopsy the next morning, and the Lieutenant warned about possible infection or influenza in the camp.

And that’s where we left things last night.

This is the first investigation that’s stretched into two nights, which is fine, because now I get to spend a little time fleshing out the back nine, as it were. I asked the players to think about what they’re planning to do next, and to let me know what their thoughts are. Sure, the game works as an improvised scenario, but if I have a couple of weeks to think up cool stuff to slip in when appropriate, why shouldn’t I take advantage of it?

Anyway, another fun game, with some nice creepy in it. Still fairly low-key, but that’s the way I like the horror campaigns. Keep the mythos strange, incomprehensible, and at a distance as long as possible, so it stays frightening.

Next game is scheduled in two weeks’ time. I’m looking forward to it.

From the Armitage Files: The Helping Hands

**Potential Spoilers**

The Armitage Files is an improvised campaign structure. It uses a number of stock pieces, such as NPCs, organizations, and locations, that are strung together by individual GMs to fit player action. The adventures I create with it may or may not match any other GM’s version of the campaign. That means that reading these posts may or may not offer spoilers for other game groups.

**You Have Been Warned**

At the end of last session, I gave my players the first two document hand-outs for the campaign, and asked them to discuss them via e-mail and come up with a couple of potential avenues of investigation that I could develop for this session. I provided a few clues to answer some of their questions, also via e-mail.

Now, I had struggled over whether or not to do that. After all, one of the main focuses of the GUMSHOE system is finding clues. I worried that providing clues outside of the game was essentially stealing thunder from the game session, and might undermine actual play. In the end, I decided to go with it for a few reasons:

  1. Some questions were things that they would just know about things, through skills like Oral History or Streetwise, and it seemed silly to wait until the game session to give them that information.
  2. Some of the questions they were asking just closed of blind alleys for them, avenues of investigation that were both uninteresting* and unproductive.
  3. I wanted them to be fully invested in the adventure during the session, and I didn’t want them suddenly deciding to jump to some other avenue of investigation that I hadn’t considered and prepared. That means making sure they have enough information to be happy with the choice they made.

It seemed to work fairly well, and they picked two threads that they wanted to chase down in the session. I worked out what was going on with both of them, so that whichever one they felt like going after, I had an idea of what they would find.

Without giving away too much of what’s going on in the meta-structure of the campaign, I do want to say that determining what’s going on was a little trickier than I had expected. There’s a question of where in the narrative the characters come in that really needs careful consideration, and I had to rework one of the investigation spines I was building a couple of times to make it work the way I needed it to, given all the other information that I have about the big picture. That’s kind of vague, I know, but my players read this blog, and I don’t want to say too much about the overarching campaign secrets.

For games like this one and Fearful Symmetries, I’ve been using a fairly different method of creating adventures than I do with things like D&D. In D&D, there’s a lot of fairly careful balancing of combat encounters that goes into building an adventures, but the emphasis in both GUMSHOE and DFRPG is more narratively-centred, and the stats are far easier to improvise on the spot, so I find that it’s easier to shape the encounter to what I need on the fly. That means that the entire adventure structure can be looser, and more free-form and character-driven*.

What I do in these games is essentially build a relational mind map of the situation. I put the various elements that I know are part of the situation in circles on a blank piece of paper – the various NPCs, organizations, items, events that I want to have happen, etc. Then I connect them with lines and arrows labeled by the relationship between the various elements. So, I may have an arrow from one NPC to another marked Wants to kill and another arrow back labeled Wants to avoid. As I map out the relationships this way, I add more elements that are needed in other circles, mapping in their relationships as needed, until I have a solid idea of what the entire situation is, and what will happen without player character involvement. Then I look for places where I can let the characters see an edge of the situation to hook them in*.

In play, I look for ways to subtly (or not so subtly, in some cases) show a link from the element the characters get interested in to one or more other elements in the structure. As they explore this situational map, I keep thinking about responses, both from the elements the characters are interacting with, and from other elements that may be affected by the interaction, and trot those out as appropriate. These responses can be anything from cutting and running to sending some guys to explain why the characters don’t want to be poking around any more.

So far, it’s been working pretty well, and I’m enjoying both the reduced prep time* and the way I’m finding my way back to improvisational GMing.

So, when we got together for last night’s game, the characters decided to chase down a certain encyclopaedia salesman (named Philip or Philips) who may or may not have witnessed the sacrifice of a hobo by a charitable organization called The Helping Hands.

Aaron did some library legwork, finding first of all which encyclopaedia companies had salesmen in the area, and then sent them telegrams, asking for the contact information of the salesmen, and found one named Phil Hughes. The gang sent him a letter asking for him to call on Roxy, who posed as Twyla Petty, a pretty young ladder-climber who had inherited a pile from her father and was looking to better her mind in order to attract the right kind of husband. They seeded the hotel suite they rented with a number of Masonic items, because according to the documents, Phil has a real distrust and fear of the Freemasons, and they figured that this will be the first stage in setting him up for a follow-up meeting where they gain his trust and get him to help them*.

Well, it kinda worked. Phil was distrustful of the Freemasons, but he also revealed to Roxy that he was, in fact, a member of The Helping Hands, and very proud of the charitable work they do. After the appointment, they followed Phil back to the rooming house where he stays in Arkham, and then followed him around the rest of his four-day stay in town. Nothing suspicious.

So, they turned their attention to The Helping Hands, got a list of the local chapter officers, scoped out the chapter house both in Arkham and in Kingsport, and staked out the Arkham chapter house during a bi-weekly meeting. When that wrapped up with nothing suspicious, they decided to break into the building to see if they could find anything incriminating.

There was nothing out of the ordinary inside, until they found a hidden fire safe in the floor of the office. A low, raspy voice, coming out of the darkness, told them to leave it alone and get out. There followed a good several minutes of creepiness, with the group debating what to do in hushed whispers, shining their flashlight around in futile attempts to find the speaker, and a horrible moment for them when they heard little scuttling feet above them, and looked up to see a trap door into the attic.

And then something small and nasty dashed out of the darkness and sliced the back of Roxy’s stocking.

Dr. Solis, rather affronted and indignant at this sort of treatment, convinced the others that they definitely needed to open the safe now. Everyone had taken at least a couple of points of Stability loss by this time, and then the voice from the shadows said, “I know who you are.”

That was about the last straw. Roxy made a Locksmith spend to open the safe quickly, and they found inside a few bundles of cash, a deed to the building they were in and a farm outside of town, and a large hand-written ledger book with The Book of the Voice written on the title page. The thing in the darkness said, “You have sealed your doom.”

Roxy had had enough of this, and leaped across the room to turn on the electric lights, catching the thing by surprise. Aaron was looking in the wrong direction, but Roxy and Solis both saw this. Stability checks for them, and Roxy wound up Shaken. The thing vanished into a hole in a corner, and Aaron decided they had to burn the building down, so they did.

They retreated to Aaron’s shop to drink a great deal and examine the book. Here are the stats I came up with for it:

The Book of the Voice is a large ledger filled with the handwritten dictation of the Emissary, the revealed wisdom of the Voice. The Helping Hands keep it in a locked fire safe in the floor of the chapter house office. Most of it is a litany of promises from the Voice to the faithful, reinforcing their sense of entitlement and amorality. Sprinkled in among this are observations about the signs of the advent of the return of the Great Ones and what will follow.

Resource Tome: +1 Cthulhu Mythos, 1 dedicated pool point for questions about the end of the world, the outer gods, and witches.

Magic Potential: 1

Spells:Invocation of the Emissary (Contact Rat-Thing)

Aaron decided to take the next couple of days to pore over the book, while Roxy and Solis went to investigate the farm – the Armitage document claimed that the sacrifice of the hobo took place in a barn. When they got to the farm, Solis went to look at the buildings while Roxy waited in the car on the main road, across the mostly-barren fields.

Now that the party was split, I decided to unload on them. Roxy, waiting on the road, saw a plume of dust coming down the road toward her. It resolved itself into a truck full of large burly men, and she decided not to wait around to see what they wanted, taking off across the field toward the barn where Solis had gone. On foot, of course, with the axe-handle-wielding farmhands hot on her heels.

Solis, meanwhile, had found a patch of disturbed earth in the barn that was thick with maggots. Digging in a little, he found the flayed forearm of a man, just as he felt the double barrels of a shotgun press to the base of his skull.

And Aaron started hearing a horribly familiar voice calling his name in his rooms above his bookstore. And then the rat-thing attacked.

I tried to run the ensuing scenes the way you would see them in a movie, jumping from focus to focus, and that worked fairly well at first, but then Aaron killed the rat-thing with his first shot the second it exposed itself, and things focused on the farm for the rest of the climactic scene, with Solis and Roxy eventually shooting and killing most of their attackers, though there was a good bit with Solis and one of the thugs wrestling on the ground over the shotgun, trying to force the barrel towards each others’ face, until Roxy pistol-whipped the bad guy into submission.

At this point, I had no idea where the adventure would go, but Roxy decided to make a substantial Cop Talk spend to get word to the right people on the police force to investigate the farm and check for the bodies in the barn. The police came to arrest the Helping Hands officers, finding one missing, but taking the other two into custody. They hanged themselves in their cells over the next couple of days.

Aaron burned the body of the rat-thing, along with The Book of the Voice*, though not until he had learned enough from it to get the Cthulhu Mythos point and spend an experience point on getting a point of Magic.

And that’s where we left it. I’ve got one scenario spine still in my notebook, and have asked the players to decide between this session and the next if they want to pursue that one, or something else.

All in all, a good game, I thought.

 
 
 

*To me, at least. Back

*I like D&D. I run D&D. D&D is fun. But no matter how much you like apples, you’ll get bored of them if they’re all you ever eat. And yes, D&D can be as rich and story-centric as any roleplaying game, but the mechanical complexity of combat means that during prep, the GM spends a substantial portion of time building the right balance and mix of opponents for combat encounters. Back

*In The Armitage Files, the hook is built into the campaign, with the mysterious documents making strange references, so that part is easy. Back

*All of which is focused on building evocative, interesting story elements, rather than number crunching. Back

*Yeah, they’ve been watching a lot of Leverage. Back

*For a bibliophile, he spends a lot of time burning books. Back