Saturday, 21 February 2009

The Unfilmable

A modern-day Call of Cthulhu scenario set in the UK. First played 19th February 2009.


Claudia Henshaw. BBC World Service journalist. (Manoj A)
"Mad Frank" Nicholson. Financial consultant, circling the drain. (Ben F)

After the horror in Ipswich, the team spent time in therapy to try and deal with what they saw. Frank and Claudia were the first to return to active duty, and were assigned to investigate a potential case of spontaneous human combustion reported by the fire investigator working out of the Blackwall station in south-east London. The pair headed over to meet with the investigator, and he took them to the scene, explaining that he wanted them to see everything for themselves before he told them what he thought was going on. The "incident" occurred the day before, in the late morning; neighbours heard a long, piercing scream from the flat in question, tried to gain entry, and upon failing, called the police, who then called the fire brigade.

Claudia and Frank entered a small flat, which showed the signs of a lonely man down on his luck. In the bedroom they discovered a notebook full of ideas, marking the flat's owner as a creative type; Claudia's knowledge of psychology led her to suggest that the individual's creativity was often frustrated. In the living room, they found a vast collection of films, mostly of the horror and suspense genres, and a small library of books on film history and theory. One section was made up of the output of one director, a Terence Masters, who Frank recognised as a fairly prolific maker of horror films in the 60's and 70's.

In the kitchen, the pair discovered a human body curled up in one corner. Although the sight and smell were disgusting, both investigators were hardened after their experiences in Ipswich, and were barely affected. The body was a shrivelled husk, apparently burned in a great heat, but there was no sign of burning anywhere else in the flat, and even the corpse's clothes were whole and undamaged. Claudia and Frank headed back out to chat to the fire investigator, who confirmed Masters' identity and their findings, and expressed his dislike for the spontaneous human combustion phenomenon; it was something they could not deny, but nor could they explain it, and his hope was that the investigators from Stardust would be able to help. He suggested that Claudia and Frank head over to the post-mortem examination, which he had booked and ready pending their investigation of the scene.

The pair then went to see the coroner, who expressed an immediate dislike for them, calling them "charlatans" and "faux psychics", but Claudia turned on the charm and went some way to softening him up. The examination revealed that despite appearances, the body was not burned at all, and rather that it had been subjected to rapid and intense desiccation; if he didn't know the body was new, the coroner would have said it was some kind of mummy pulled from an ancient tomb.

Claudia and Frank then hit the books, and their research turned up two further cases of similar deaths, both in the past year. One was an actor, and another a retired cameraman, and both had worked with Masters on an unreleased 1968 horror film called Curse of the Sign. Digging further, the pair discovered that the film had a reputation as being cursed, and that almost everyone involved in the production had died; certain deaths and accidents during the production period led to the company destroying all existing prints of the film, leading it to pass into fan legend. The investigators pulled two names from their researches: Udo Bellinger, a film enthusiast who saw the unfinished film in a pre-screening in 1968, and Belinda Irons, the lead actor in the production.

Bellinger was by now independently wealthy and spending most of his time on the renovation of the famous vintage cinema in the Hobb's End area of London. Frank became sick at discovering this, as the Hobb's End swimming pool was the scene of his encounter with some bloated malformed creature which ended with the death of his friend; the team passed by the blackened remains of the famous building on the way to the cinema, and Frank's composure was shattered. Arriving at the cinema, the pair gained an interview with Bellinger, and while Frank turned to tea and cakes to soothe his frayed nerves. Bellinger confirmed that he had seen the film, and described it as an intense and disturbing experience that he had no wish to repeat. He briefly sketched out the plot as he remembered it, but explained that many of the details were obscured in his mind.

(He describes an abbreviated version of The King in Yellow.)

Bellinger knew that Belinda Irons retired to Exmoor, where she had become a recluse due to failing mental health, or so the rumours claimed. Bellinger hadn't seen her in person for at least five years. Figuring that someone was trying to kill off anyone involved with the production of Curse of the Sign, Claudia and Frank made plans to head out to Exmoor the next day. They procured a van from Stardust, and spent the morning driving over to Exeter, where they tried to track down Irons' address. They found a rough location, but no exact address, so went to a pub in the area to find out more. Perhaps through luck, perhaps through charm, or perhaps through Frank buying and eating most of the pub's menu, the publican was amenable to the investigator's questions and confirmed that Irons lived just a few miles up the road. Claudia and Frank decided to head over in the morning, and secured a room at a local hotel.

The next day, the pair headed up to see Irons, who turned out not only to be exceedingly paranoid, but armed with a shotgun. The investigators managed to convince the ageing actress that they were of no threat to her and managed to get inside the house, where Irons provided them with tea, coffee and sandwiches, while also keeping them at a distance, shotgun loaded and at hand. During a scattered and confusing conversation, Frank and Claudia came to the conclusion that Irons had a copy of the film, but could not convince her that ownership put her life in danger. The actress became increasingly irritable, but the pair didn't want to leave quite yet, so formed a plan. Frank attempted to distract Irons, while Claudia pretended to leave, instead circling around to get into a position from which to disarm her.

Claudia leaped, and got into a struggle with Irons. The gun went off once, missing everything except the ceiling, and the two women continued to wrestle, until the second barrel fired straight into Claudia's guts, flinging her across the room. Frank entered the fray them, knocking Irons to the ground as she attempted to reload, and retrieving the weapon. Frank quickly applied first aid to Claudia's wound, going some way to stop the bleeding, then called the police and an ambulance. Then, pretending that he'd reloaded the gun, he gave it to Claudia then made a quick search of the house and found a strongbox in the attic in which, wrapped in heavy blankets and curtains, he found an old film canister containing Curse of the Sign. Also finding a small projector elsewhere in the house, Frank chucked both in the van and awaited the emergency services.

Frank and Irons were taken into custody, and Claudia was rushed to hospital. Over the next couple of days, the investigators' stories were confirmed and they were released from the enquiry, Claudia convincing the hospital that she was well enough to travel and check in for treatment at home. Instead, they returned to their hotel, set up the projector in their room, and watched the film, with Claudia making a digital copy.

(The film was a fairly faithful adaptation of The King in Yellow, and the opening credits featured the Yellow Sign, in a Thing style burn-through effect. Frank became quite affected by the viewing, and watched it a second time while Claudia retired to bed.)

Frank tried to convince Claudia to watch the film again with him, as he was certain that it contained some kind of truth, but the journalist was unconvinced; as they argued, Frank's mobile rang, and an Officer Gibson asked if the pair were available to go to Irons' house so that they could put some final details together. Sensing a trap, the pair took the film to Exeter train station and secured it in a luggage locker, while Claudia called the police station to confirm that there was in fact an Officer Gibson, and that he was involved in the investigation at Irons' house. Satisfied, they returned to the moors.

Arriving, they found a police car and a forensics van parked outside, the house lights on, and the front door ajar. Calling and knocking produced no response, and Frank became jittery, deciding to return to the van and the waiting Claudia. Just as he was opening the door, something large slammed into the side of the van, but Frank refused to look around, and jumped into the driving seat. Frank slammed the van into gear and sped down the drive, and a confusing and panicked series of events occurred. Shots rang out, Frank was hit and a number of dog-like creatures assaulted the vehicle, and while Frank crushed at least two below the wheels of the van, he eventually lost control, and it ground to a halt in the scrubland to the side of the driveway.

The pair climbed out of the van, sensing their demise at the jaws of whatever these dog things were, and were hailed by a man's voice from somewhere in the scrub; Frank recognised the voice as "Officer Gibson", but could not place its point of origin. A tense discussion followed in which it became clear that the voice wanted the film destroyed, and nothing more than that, and the investigators managed to convince him that they had the only copy and that they would be happy to have it destroyed. At this, the owner of the voice stepped out from his hiding place and introduced himself as Thomas Church. A dishevelled man with a manic look, Church seemed to be an investigator like Claudia and Frank who had been tipped over the edge by his discoveries; he was aware of Stardust Investigations, and had even heard of the incident at the Hobb's End swimming baths.

Achieving a sort of cease fire, the pair took Church to the train station, and gave him the film canister. A look of great relief passed over the man, then he took out a bottle of some sort of paraffin, poured it over himself and the film, and set himself on fire. He burned in complete silence, and by the time anyone was able to put out the flames, Thomas Church was dead. Claudia and Frank were taken in for questioning once more, but claimed they had been kidnapped at gunpoint by Church, a story supported by the illegal handgun he carried, and the CCTV footage from the train station backed their story of suicide.

The pair then returned home, shaken and disturbed yet again, and clutching Claudia's DVD copy of Curse of the Sign, unsure of whether to report it to the management at Stardust Investigations.

Yep, this scenario is indeed named after the movie forum at "The Unfilmable" was a nice fit for a story about a cursed film, so I just had to use it.
This scenario saw me use the critical wounds table from BRP for the first time. I'd been wanting to use this for a while, as the collection of mental and physical scars is part of the fun of the game for me; the CoC equivalent of experience points and +1 swords. Claudia only just survived an instant kill from the crazy lady's shotgun blast, but got away with massive organ damage instead, reducing her CON and Move by two points.

In Heaven, Everything is Fine

A modern-day Call of Cthulhu scenario set in the UK. First played 5th February 2009.


Dewi Evans. Professional rugby player. (Tony)
Toby Greenberg. Motorbike-riding rabbi. (Rich R)
Claudia Henshaw. BBC World Service journalist. (Manoj A)
Archie "Hacker" Lang. Ex-soldier and dustman. (Stuart F)
Frank Nicholson. Financial consultant. (Ben F)

Frank had been played in a previous scenario I had run, and as a result had developed a fear of water (particularly swimming pools). The rest of the characters were new, but each had a minor experience with the Mythos.

The characters had all responded to an advertisement for supernatural investigators posted by Stardust Investigations Ltd, based in London. They all arrived at the same time, and after a brief interlude for tea and biscuits, were introduced to the man who ran the company, a slim middle-aged Japanese fellow named Maru. He explained why they had been picked, what the job involved, and what they would get out of it; as well as financial rewards, the hope was that in discovering more about the supernatural in general, on behalf of the company, the individual investigators would come to better understand their personal experiences. All of the investigators agreed, although Evans was sceptical and Nicholson was reluctant to go any further without access to artillery. Maru stressed that the company would not assist them in any illegal acts, including the acquisition of firearms.

Their first job was to investigate a haunted flat on the Avalon housing estate in Ipswich, about two hours from London. They set about procuring ghost-hunting equipment such as cameras and night-vision gear, with Nicholson visiting libraries and bookshops to pick up anything he could find on exorcism and spirit contact, and the rabbi consulting his books for advice of exorcism. The rest of the group, armed with a list of names associated with the flat, began a ring-around. They discovered that the Avalon estate had been built on a Saxon burial site, and that a team from Cambridge University were forced to abandon their investigations of the site by Ipswich council, who wanted to build the homes as quickly as possible; the head of that dig was still annoyed by the events, even decades later, but confirmed that there was nothing unusual or untoward about the site, although his investigations were obviously incomplete.

They also spoke to some of the previous tenants. The Lund family were most helpful, describing a series of noises beginning almost immediately after they took up residence, strange smells, and most disturbing of all, finding that while asleep, they had been lifted out of their beds and moved towards the door of the flat. Another previous tenant, a somewhat famous writer, was unavailable, while the third proved to be very unhelpful, unwilling to recall her experiences in the flat. All of these tenants had lived in, and abandoned, the flat in the past six months; before that, a man named Ben Willis had lived there for years, but had disappeared without a trace, leading to the housing association attempting to find a new tenant, so far without success.

The group then headed up to the estate, finding it to be pretty typical. Claudia Henshaw documented the trip extensively with a camera, and it was through the camera's lens that she noted that the tower block containing the haunted flat seemed to be in better repair than the rest, with no obvious structural fatigue, graffiti, or other signs of urban decay. They went to the flat, finding it empty and clean, albeit with a slightly musty smell, and made a thorough investigation of its nooks and crannies. They attempted to set up their surveillance equipment, with little success at first, as none had the requisite training, and the instructions turned out to be in Korean. Eventually, by group effort and trial and error, they got their gear in place, and settled down for the night.

Almost immediately, the presence made itself known to them. The rabbi was tapped on the shoulder, only to find no one behind him, and shortly after, the team heard a slight squeaking sound coming from the bathroom. Investigating, they found that the words "GET OUT" had been written on the tiled wall in permanent marker. Greenberg was setting up an extra camera in the flat's airing/boiler cupboard when the door slammed hard on his back, leaving a nasty bruise, and Evans was hit on the shoulder by some thrown object; looking down he discovered that the object was in fact a dead, and quite decayed, pigeon. The team checked their surveillance footage and saw the writing appear on the wall, and the dead pigeon appear in mid air, but the cameras could not pick up the animating force.

Surmising that Willis was somehow still tied to the flat, the team attempted a sort of seance, setting up a rudimentary ouija board. They made contact, with the "spirit" spelling out "OPEN EYES"; the team responded to this by asking "whose eyes?". They heard squeaking again, and saw the word "YOURS" appear on the wall in front of them, again written in marker. They asked a few further questions, and eventually, the word "14E" appeared on the wall. The team were in flat 8E, and guessed that upstairs, they might find answers.

The door to 14E was opened by a twentysomething young woman, who did not look happy at being disturbed at ten at night by a bunch of strangers. Despite their eclectic appearance, the team managed to convince the woman that they were sent by the council to investigate a potential vermin problem, although Nicholson had started to become unhinged by this point, so it was considerably more difficult convincing the young lady to let them in, but succeed they did, although she warned them not to wake her baby. They discovered nothing untoward, until Nicholson saw a figure on the woman's television who did not belong in the programme she was watching; this unkempt hermit-like figure seemed to be waving directly at Frank, until the consultant touched the screen, and the man faded away.

As Frank started shouting about "the man in the telly", Henshaw tried a more forceful line of questioning and interrogated the young woman about what was going on. Meanwhile, Lang on a hunch headed to the baby's room, pickaxe in hand. The young woman threatened to call the police, and began to do so, until Nicholson tore the 'phone out of the wall. Entering the baby's room, Lang felt an immense force on his mind, pressing from the "outside", and something in him snapped. He ran screaming from the flat and into the corridor outside, on the way finding his perception of his surroundings changing from the tidy, well-managed building he saw before, to a crumbling nightmare of mould and concrete, with unnatural fleshy tentacles snaking along floor, walls and ceiling, all apparently coming from the baby's room.

The rest of the team saw the burly ex-soldier running from the room, but couldn't see what got him so riled. Evans followed Lang, while Henshaw and Greenberg went into the baby's room, and Nicholson continued to threaten the young mother. The journalist and the rabbi were suddenly overcome with a desire to protect the woman, and a chaotic struggle between the members of the group began, as Nicholson entered into a flailing fistfight with the young woman, earning himself the name "Mad Frank", and Henshaw and Greenberg tried to contain him. Outside, Lang heard footsteps echoing up the stairs, while Evans continued to try and comfort the ex-soldier; scrambling up the stairwell came a pair of emaciated figures, a woman and an old man, both emaciated and sickly-looking. Both had a sinewy, throbbing tentacle wrapped around their shoulders and neck, apparently trailing away back into the baby's room, and the tip thrust into a facial orifice; in the man's case, this was his ear, but the woman had the thing inserted into an eye socket. These two leaped to attack Lang while more footsteps could be heard below.

There followed a desperate struggle as the team found themselves fighting each other and the new arrivals. One by one, the investigators came to see the actual reality of the situation, all except Henshaw, who remained convinced that the baby needed to be saved from her apparently insane companions, and ran from the flat with it clutched in her arms. Eventually, the rugby player snatched the baby-thing from Henshaw, and Lang subdued the journalist, leaving Evans to do the final, dirty work.

With the death of the creature, the alternate reality faded away, and Henshaw saw the truth. The investigators found the rest of the building's tenants, either in their homes, or on their way up the stairs weapons in hand, all in a malnourished state, and all in some form of coma after the death of the child. Back in 8E, the team found Ben Willis, Nicholson recognising him as the man from the television, dancing and smiling madly, and apparently unaffected by the child's domination. As the tentacles infesting the building began to disintegrate into a slimy mush, the shaken team packed up and made ready to return home, with Evans in particular considerable less sceptical than before.

This scenario had a number of inspirations. For a while, I wanted to do something with an alternate, underlying, reality like that of the Silent Hill games, but I didn't want to do exactly the same thing. I also wanted to do a classic haunted house scenario, but this group are mostly veterans, and have done The Haunting (my usual go-to for that kind of scenario), and I also wanted to put a twist on the concept. Combining the two, I came up with the idea of the "ghost" actually being a real physical being attempting to warn people, but hindered in this by being trapped in a parallel reality. The baby was partly inspired by a similar entity in a Savage Dragon comic, of all things, and is probably a Whateley-esque spawn of Hastur.

As written, the false reality created by the child could have been broken in a number of ways. Any method of altering perception would have worked, such as drug or alcohol use, and if the worst came to the worst, I had a dream sequence prepared in which massive clues would be given as to the true nature of the situation. As it was, the child's Mind Blast power snapped the mind of one character, instantly revealing the grand deception, and once it became apparent that there was literally more than meets the eye going on, the rest of the players forced their way through the "illusion" with straight POW versus POW rolls. I do think the child's POW was a bit high, which made things a bit more tricky than they should have been, particularly for the rabbi and the journalist, both with a POW of just 9; however, it did work out well this time, as Greenberg's player played him as knowing that something was not right without being able to exactly figure it out. Henshaw's complete inability to break out of the false reality provided a tense finale with her apparently doing the right thing in protecting the child from a bunch of madmen. The maternal implication (all the other investigators were male) was a happy coincidence. All that said, I think I will reduce the child's POW for future runs.