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Investigation 1: The Peculiar Disappearance of Ian Carson Hawke

After a long break from the end of my first Trail campaign (seemingly forever in fact), I resumed running Trail of Cthulhu and it has been going very well. My second campaign takes a lot of inspiration from different GUMSHOE systems and some of the other stuff they’ve published: Notably I cross bred Bookhounds of London with Nights Black Agents. I used much of the modern themed stuff from Nights Black Agents and many of the combat options that book provides, as well as the wonderfully thought out chase rules. Meanwhile Trail contributes the majority of the occupations, investigative ideas, creatures (though the Vampires in Nights Black Agents are beautifully thought out) and so on. Bookhounds of London has a really fantastic idea where the players have a store that they run, own or are a part of in their daily artifact/book trade. I expanded the idea to “antiquities” in general, so that I could have magical artifacts, curious fetishes and all sorts of other things than classically Cthulhu sinister tomes turn up.

The players got into this really well once we started the process, naming the store “A’Tuin Golden Rose” in semi-honor of Terry Pratchett. Then they really got into the description of the store as well, where each player contributes one sentence or thing about it: For example the store has a walled off door to a ruined basement, it’s disorganized as to where stuff in it actually is, there are two stories and it’s very dimly lit (among other things). This kind of creative process gives everyone an immediate feeling of ownership of this important part of the game and is a wonderful idea. I really recommend this approach for when you make this sort of “Home base” sort of thing for your characters in any campaign.

Story wise, I learned a lot from my previous Trail of Cthulhu game, which concluded at the end of last year. The main lesson was that I designed Delta Green with a “Monster of the Week” format and the desire that one investigation ended in one session. Masks of the Dreamer – the new campaign – abandons this idea and instead makes investigations as complex or short as their plot demands to get a satisfying resolution. My inspiration for this was less American procedural crime shows like CSI, Criminal Minds and NCIS, but with Cthulhu monsters and more the way British crime shows work. Lots of gritty detective work, interviewing suspects, maybe a chase or so but a very strong focus on individual characters.

That focus on characters was the one underlying theme of everything I wrote, which meant abandoning a rapid fire “Monster of the Week” format in favor of a lesser list of characters and to try to have as many reoccurring NPCs as possible. One thing to assist this was using a burn rule from Nights Black Agents, where for every character a player kills they lose either 1 point in an interpersonal skill or 1 point in stability. This represents the chilling effects of killing people, becoming distant from others or increasingly unhinged. Nothing stops a player from putting build points awarded at the end of each session into these: But this actively means a player’s character is working on retaining their humanity and senses despite killing others. In effect, you have a choice of staying who you are or becoming increasingly haunted with your actions.

First session of the game was very slow and was mostly a confused investigation, as the characters attempt to track down a reliable client – Ian Carson Hawke – of the store who took some items from them on promise of later payment. Their main cashier worker, Jasmine, thought nothing of this and allowed him to take the 3000quid of world war related items (both wars it should be noted) and also to take a double armed sextant. The sextant in particular seemed to catch Ian by surprise and he was very insistent on being able to take it immediately. Jasmine acquiesced and just thought the old guy would pay next month (he is normally very reliable). Cue one month later, a letter and no response and Jasmine realized she couldn’t get back in contact with Ian.

Oops. Now to tell the boss and her main associates!

The player characters are:

Anastasia Vologda – The stores owner and daughter of a rich Russian aristocrat.
Mistress Esmeralda – Local fortune teller and not dodgy at all. Nope.
Keith O’Connell – A local occultist who spends much of their time hanging around the store.
Damian Wolf – Technically not an employee on the books, but used to sort out unruly customers or collect on renegged auction deals.
Jenn D’Audrey – A person of… shall we just say less than scrupulous nature.

Additionally their NPC staff are:

Jasmine D’Audrey – Sisters with Jenn and runs the shopfront most days. Studies accounting at the University of Westminster at night.
Therese-Morgan Deblanc – A former policewoman and forensic investigator, who got bored of being retired and took a role in the store. Is the only person in the game who actually knows where everything is in the store.
Morgan Hughes – Former bouncer, he handles the stock and moving the bigger heavier items from floor to floor. Also does the deliveries. A meat mountain.

Naturally Anastasia was very displeased and after getting the relevant information from Jasmine, the characters set out to Ian’s house. They found the mail building up, some notes from his carer (Ian is pretty old) and then did what any good self respecting group of characters would do: Break in. Inside they found a layer of dust on everything indicating that nothing had been moved for a while and discovered Ian had a bit of a secret. Not having a lot of money from retirements funds or disability support, Ian had been selling many of his anti-psychotic and other medications on the side to a drug dealer called “Johnny Gat*”. Some good detective work in pulling apart his work desk revealed a hidden compartment detailing Ians deals with Johnny, as well as contact details and the amounts. The last entry tipped the characters off to something odd, Ian had been seeking to buy a firearm from Johnny. Further, Ian had sent a letter to someone called “The Spice Trader” and told him to pick up the sextant he had found.

Here I began to put leads or possible red herrings into the plot by inserting a reference to the 1649-1660 Interregnum government in England. This was a period where England was not under the rule of a monarch, after William Cromwell and his new model army successfully defeated Charles I royalist forces and then cut off his head. Ian wrote that the “Cult” had been destroyed under William Cromwell and was no threat, but the date, make and signs he found on the sextant proved the cult survived. He immediately set out to get some answers and was arming himself appropriately, but first he was giving the item to his old friend – who is possibly an Indian Gurkha that Ian fought alongside during WW2. Additionally the players found an old photo of Ian from those days in the army, baring his chest showing two distinctive tattoos on either side: A goetic pentagram and a symbol of a British unit that fought in Nepal.

Contacting his care nurse who had left a number and some notes trying to get in contact with Ian, they found that before Ian’s disappearance (last time anyone saw him was March 9th, game time it was March 29th 2014) he had met with an unusual wispy fellow of Indian descent. He saw him hand the guy a box but didn’t really remember a lot else.

Eventually the situation moved along to the players interrogating one of Johnny’s street dealers – they literally knocked him out and then tied him up in their back room, where a lovely array of tools was provided for Damian to use. However, I rapidly had the dealer decide that the big scary guy with jumper cables was bad enough to tell everything he knew about Johnny – before they decided to chat to Johnny. They learned that Ian had come to him, that Johnny hadn’t seen him since and that Ian was super scared about something. A call to a friend of Esmeralda’s with the ability to access psychiatric records the next day revealed Ian had a complete PTSD breakdown and had some kind of flashback to WW2, triggering the current more aggressive mood. At this point the gross negligence of both Ian’s care nurse (who failed to report him missing to police) and the doctor who was treating him was most… curious.

Don’t you think?

In any event, the characters tracked down some further leads on the origin of the sextant, which had been sold to them through a private sale by another antiquities dealer called Brian Keller. Unfortunately talking to Brian Keller wasn’t possible, as his house had been ransacked and blood stains in the car, a rag covered in chloroform and some drag marks confirmed the worst: Someone got to him. At best they were able to find out someone tried to outbid Brian on the online auction at the last moment, but had their bid refused at the last second due to a refusal to provide any physical contact details or a bank statement. At this point I did something normally frustrating: I just plain let the players leads go dead cold as the man from the online auction house who tried to outbid Brian (whose email they acquired) did not immediately respond and no easy progress was made.

This is when the horrible fate of Ian was revealed, as during the Dragonboat race held on the 14th of April, one of the teams oarsmen snagged something in the river and brought it up. Tangled in lines and other debris, was the delimbed, decapitated head of Ian Carson Hawke recognizable only by the immensely distinctive tattoos on his chest. Investigating the murderer led the players to Tracy Wong, a report for the Sun Herald who had been implicated in the previous phone hacking scandal and was a known tabloid hack/troublemaker. Naturally Anastasia and Tracy hit it off wonderfully with a bunch of insults and an argument on the phone hacking scandal. After that calmed down, Tracy shared some of her information about the “Thames Butcher” a murderer who has killed up to six people so far (Including Ian, which the PCs knew but Tracy did not). Most were found without some limbs, but all of them have had their head removed.

Worst of all, Tracy said that the London police were actively covering up the existence of the murderer and had been hiding their presence from the general public. Even when they supposedly had a very firm suspect in mind, a fellow called Lathan Gaspee, the police seem to have not really followed through with any particular action – even though he was clearly seen around the Thames on the night of several murders and before the most recent body was dragged up.

At this point I decided to end the session, with the players approach to determining who the real killer is being the focus of the second part….

*Yes, this guy named his tough guy nickname after the Saints Row character, unironically at that and yes, I did mention that when they met him.