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Masks of The Dreamer: The Rending Box Part 2.

When I last left you, my player characters were pondering what to do with the Rending Box, having discovered it was deliberately sent to them by an unknown third party via a bribed courier (who they chased down). Application of the Nights Black Agents Thriller chase rules have worked very well, so I worked another one into this session and the pace issue that plagued the start of the game seemed to be well behind us. Both of these are excellent advancements for the game and it seems that I have things back on the right track between supernatural horror elements (for a Cthulhu based game) and not trying to constantly “Monster of the Week” everything. Creepy is still more important than outright trying to gross out players or go for a load of different monsters constantly.

This session there was a long and protracted debate about what to do, particularly because one of the other players – the shops “Forger” type – had come back this week and so did his character Jenn. Jenn was quite distressed to learn what was happening to her sister (also a Source of Stability) and wanted to figure out more about how things got this way. During this time I decided the best way to involve this player was to give them a note, written by a strange “bald” man and then leave it to them how they proceeded. Naturally the note was a written warning to the shops owner, but this being a horror game, Jenn decided to keep that information to herself…. for now. This led to one of the great things about how Bookhounds of London is set up: The players own a store that can potentially have all kinds of neat stuff! In this particular case, they happened to have a book called “Trouble Dreams”, which let them learn more about the exact nature of the box… and how to thwart it.

Once again, this is the strength of GUMSHOE as a system, where if you need a player to have a plot related book like this they don’t have a random chance of failing to find say, the important rituals that can save the day (potentially). GUMSHOE systems like Trail of Cthulhu expect that trained experts can get the relevant information out of the book and then the interesting part is what the players do with it. I fundamentally agree and in this game I decided to give the players a terrible and entirely confusing choice. The first ritual they were able to pull out of the confusingly written tome, which was filled with awful enough secrets of the universe by itself, was one where they could find another person and then force them to become the target of the creature haunting Jasmine. This was the “Obligatory evil” option presented to the investigators and gave them an out if they were willingly wanting to morally compromise themselves.

Then there was option B and delightfully it had the exact effect I wanted: The player was completely confused what it meant to “Enter Dreaming Dark”, which was a ritual intended to allow a caster or group of casters to enter extradimensional spaces. Spaces like the Dreaming Dark, a place between realms and worlds filled with horrific terrible things. Or an endless universe of unicorns and puppies; one doesn’t want to make too many assumptions. This option was deliberately extremely vague and was an immensely high risk, because it presented no immediate obvious solution (while the other ritual clearly did) and there was no indication it even did anything that would help. Additionally to these two spells, driving Keith (who read the books) slightly more towards insanity by increasing his Cthulhu Mythos and Magic abilities was another worthwhile result. Meanwhile a steady stream of failed stability tests was slowly raising that growing Paranoia rating as well….

The best thing I decided to do with this game, even if I’m not a fantastic artist inherently, was choose to turn the systems of ritual magic used into a codified language. There is some clear and great inspiration for why such a system works great and is extremely evocative, while also not being a huge amount of extra work. It seems to have paid off hugely in this game, with my players immediately after this session finished becoming very interested in piecing together how the spells work and why certain symbols (Parastion) keep reoccurring.

In any event, we continued on and the investigation moved to where the box had originally come from: The Weeks family. Arriving at their house they found a man in a semi-catatonic state in a wheelchair and his wife, who was busily attending a garage sale. Here some of the players noticed that there were some interesting sounding occult and similar books that were on offer, plus I was able to drop some pretty big hints in this scene towards what was happening. Karin opened the box in the mail where it activated beginning the fateful clicking plus whirring of doom, while Paul got a similar threat to the one sent to the investigators store, he acted erratically, lights were smashed in their house, scratches were along the wall, eventually Paul had used the second ritual and made a “Bargain” with something for the life of his wife (who was the one who touched, so was therefore targeted, by the box). The investigators had no idea what the nature of that bargain was and why it had rendered Paul catatonic, but it could offer a clue to a solution… Whatever is in the box? It can at least be spoken to…

Here one of the players noticed eventually that a car kept coming by as they were exploring the garage sale and they eventually realized it was no confused tourist. Someone was keeping an eye on Paul and Karin, but many of the characters decided they wanted to just head back to the store. Here is where asking simple questions like “How many cars are you taking?” pays off as well as a core GUMSHOE concept: Drives. Drives allow you as the Keeper to direct how the investigation works, because once Damian noticed the car and surveillance of the house, he was immediate curious who they were. Perhaps they were working for those who sent the box? Naturally his desire to want to know meant that as the only character who could really competently drive at the time, the investigators ended up chasing down the dark green ford and eventually cornering it after a brief car chase (London and cars do not go together well).

This led to a rather hilarious and brutal fist fight in an alleyway against the two thugs who got out of the car who were none too happy about being followed by “Cops” (which they assumed the party to be). This fight was surprisingly more harmful to the characters than I originally anticipated it would be. For one thing, Nights Black Agents introducing a wide array of different codified moves to the game like being able to slam people into solid objects or just outright chuck them makes for some great narration – but also more damage. For example poor Jenn, who happened to be in front of the fight, ended up being whacked into the hood of a car and then thrown right across it (dropping the camera she was trying to use at the time). Meanwhile Damian got a major amount of harm caused to him by the other thug with a really heavy chain, who eventually managed to really hurt him when he punched him in the throat!

At this point the non-combaty characters realized things were going south and jumped in or rushed in to support. Being tackled to the ground by a tall occultist and then opportunistically kicked in the head afterwards by a Russian aristocrat really hurts it turns out! Then Damian recovered just long enough to give the other thugs genitals a good friendly touch with his baseball bat and it was over. Here the investigators realized that these guys had been helping the guy who sent the box to the Weeks’ family in the first place. Like before in the first investigation, they were linked to the Far Right True Blue UK party and that the “Bald Man” had given the instructions to even their leaders. Once again the investigators didn’t have solid leads on this particular facet yet. In some ways, that’s frustrating in an investigative game but unlike before, due to my stronger individual plot running through the entire campaign I am taking scenes to establish things important for later.

Now this led to the players deciding to return to the store and figure out their plan of action, which turned out (to my delight) to be the more insane option of using the interdimensional travel ritual to enter into the box. They all paid the (heavy) price for using the spell and arriving in a non-human alien world, which I described as a long black sandy beach, with a very tall cliff to one side, large streaks of black line like ink across the sky and a deep sea of black bubbling water stretching to the horizon. Here I attempted to convey just how odd this place felt as it had unusual star formations, felt obscenely cold and that the only major feature was a “forest” of inky black strands.

Yes, some of you who are dedicated mythos fans may already know what this is implying :hydra:

Eventually they investigated the strands, which turned out to be immensely tough, sticky and seemingly organic – vibrating heavily at even the merest touch. Then they discovered the little wrapped up object jerking around at about 60ft or so off the ground, which when something suitable was thrown at it made distinctly…. human noises. At this point the strands began to vibrate sequentially, with an unknown thing approaching them and eventually stopping. Wisely, even the investigator with the torch chose not to illuminate whatever terrible thing it was. Flicking the strands like a human larynx, it was able to produce speech almost like that of a woman and oddly enough… in English (cue more failed stability checks resulting in the second paranoia rating for the game….).

A tense negotiation between the investigators and whatever the hell the other thing was resulted, with a perfect image being implanted in their heads of a flute. A simple 1.8 million year old flute dug up in china, put in a museum, stolen, found somewhere else, stolen again, recovered from the site of a mass suicide, stolen again and then disappeared until it reappeared… At an auction that some behind the scenes actions had got the players invited to earlier in this investigation. Coincidence??? In a horror game? Surely not! Either way the deal the investigators struck up was very simple: They retrieved the flute for whatever this thing was and then they could suspend the contract to kill Jasmine.

What could possibly go wrong?

After this the characters stayed to ask it some questions, some it answered and others that it decided to amuse itself by giving some indication (such as naming the magic mythos symbols they had seen). Here I didn’t want to repeat issues I made for myself in Delta Green by making alien entities seem altogether too personable or that they had some kind of clear agenda (or would entertain explaining themselves in any real capacity to humans). The investigators made the deal and exited, putting an immense amount of trust in Keith all the while (as if he left first, he would have instantly severed the others connection and they would have met a terrible fate). Now they had some direction and a deepening mystery still to solve, even though they had ensured that Jasmine was fine (who instantly started to make a full recovery, even of some of the subsequent effects such as being hurt by light, seeing water as blood and of course the monstrous attentions of the entity hunting her down.

Most importantly, I get to use the excellent and very cool auction rules again next week, where the investigators go in knowing they need that flute above anything else. But who knows who else at this occult “Hellfire Club” wants the same thing or perhaps… wants the investigators to fail?