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Masks of the Dreamer: Hellfire Auction (Part 2)

The session today resumed after a weeks break, as I was running some pregenerated adventures at the usual game time for new people at the club I go to, so the first thing to do was recap a little bit about what happened to Maggie’s source of stability, Brian. Naturally Maggie’s player wisely decided to inform the rest of the investigators as to the potential issue with Brian being threatened by an (as yet) unknown party. Unfortunately amplifying the tension over the past week was the fact Maggie arranged this meeting over the phone with Brian, which meant it was extremely likely whoever was watching tapped the call and knows about it.

I’ll take a diversion here and talk about Sources of Stability in Trail and why they are a wonderful concept for a GM. Sources of Stability are what investigators rely on to get them through the relentlessly horrible things they experience regularly in various jobs or encounters. These can be close friends, family, other investigators (at times) and so on. The best thing about them is they provide a non-HP, sanity or stability means of attacking an investigator indirectly. If your sources of stability are threatened or even murdered, you can take major hits to your characters psyche and even lose whatever stability you put into them permanently (typically 3 at maximum). In essence it gives a way of building tension, drama and worry for a player without inherently having to put their investigator at risk. It’s a brilliant and intuitive system, which I noticed the 7th Edition of Call of Cthulhu added an analog to as well.

Of course I actually had three equally valid options for how to run this particular scene:

A) I actually genuinely considered just having Brian be there in the cafe perfectly fine, the players find some suspicious folk looking at them and such, but there is no obvious indication anything was wrong whatsoever. They just have a lovely chat over coffee and Brian pulls out some kind of unexpected twist: Like he’s cheating on his wife and suspecting a private investigator was on his tail.

B) He’s just outright dead and the players find his mangled body in some way. This option was the direct “Your enemies are not messing around and you done goofed” method.

C) Brian has been captured or otherwise taken, where perhaps some deranged hitman or similar makes the characters do something hideous for his return or otherwise imperils him. This option had by far the most potential in terms of adding a new character and did give the characters a chance to get him back.

After carefully thinking about things, I broke down a later investigation and added material into this one so Option C was the best choice. Here the investigators arrived at the meeting to find no Brian in the cafe, a strange man wearing his clothes and asking for the characters repeatedly. Suspiciously the network of CCTV cameras outside was taken off-line for maintenance as well, which only made the investigators more paranoid. Eventually Anastasia and Maggie went over to the guy in the cafe to use their womanly charms to distract him and find out what was going on (Eddie, wearing Brians clothes, had instructions from a certain deranged killer as to where to lead the investigators). After getting the note leading them to the public bathroom, they found a locked stall with shoes and trousers covered with blood.

Naturally there was the worst assumed at this point, but upon Keith trying to drag the shoe a mannequin fell over dramatically and they saw it wasn’t Brian. Opening the stall revealed a web camera, a note taunting the investigators and a cell phone, which soon rang directing them to a nearby apartment. The renovated apartment had a table, with a webcam and a laptop in it, with a selection of sharp tools and so on. A taped off section of the table, indicating the field of view of the webcam, was also present.

Yep, the players knew then they were dealing with a grade A sociopath at this point.

Here the characters had to do one thing to save Brian: All “Smile” wanted to see was someone cut off their hand. Simple right? There were a few other rules to this as well, such as not asking too many questions or fingers will get off Brian (I didn’t want the players thinking they could casually pump the hitman (hitwoman?) for information) and most importantly, 10 minutes. To make this feel suitably tense and dramatic, I had the real players – not just the investigators – decide all of their actions on the clock. To give them a bit more of a chance, due to the nature of a roleplaying games discussion, I gave them a time dilation of 2x so in real time they had 20 minutes. 20 real minutes to decide in Maggies source of stability Brian lived or died.

The tension was palpable but the players solution was, well remember that guy in the cafe called Eddie who had been set up to give the investigators the information in the first place? Well, they got the idea to cut his hand off as after all, Smile didn’t say if they had to cut one of theirs off. Anastasia promptly lured Eddie away from the cafe and towards the cafe in question, with Eddie stopping to waste time, dilly dally around and generally ask questions. There was a growing sense of desperation as the other players waited in the apartment for this to happen. I think I was able to fillibuster nearly half of the time just doing this. Then once in the apartment Anastasia, Damian and Maggie (Keith and Jenn did not want a part in this) wrestled the man to the ground, then proceeded to cut off his hand.

Mechanically this is an utterly dreadful and awful thing to do, so I ruled that anyone trying to do it needed to succeed at a stability test in the first place. Oddly enough, Damian and Maggie both failed and took substantial hits to their stability, as they just couldn’t do it to (what I made clear) was an innocent person. Anastasia was ice cold though and succeeded at the difficult check, attempting to use the power saw. Now if you know about modern power saws, many of them have a nifty safety feature that means if they detect moisture from say, a persons arm, they can actually stop dead instantly. This one did exactly that and then a mad scramble was on for another implement: Until Anastasia pulled her knife and started hacking through (at another cost to everyones stability).

Eventually the knife got stuck and with literally only a minute left, Damian regained his nerve enough to pick up the knife and finish the job, while Maggie used a hot iron to cauterize the wound (and Eddie rapidly faded into shock/unconsciousness). This pleased Smile, who let them know where Brian was and gave them a “sporting” chance of recovering him by racing across town before a bomb went off! At the same time Anastasia started to clean up the crime scene, such as by dumping the hand down an insinkerator and due to nobody remembering to use any first aid on Eddie he died of shock (costing Anastasia 1 point in an interpersonal skill or stability, as the Night’s Black Agents Burn rule I implemented in this game indicates for killing a person). Meanwhile another last minute rescue of Brian by Keith, after dragging him out of the room and through the window to the ground moments before the bomb went off capped off a dramatic start.

At this point I let the players ease their tension by stopping the game for a food break, but in reality I now needed to think about how to handle this situation. For one thing, it was pretty damn horrible and there should be some kind of lasting consequence to an action like this. While Anastasia did try to hide the physical evidence, I actually called for another Paranoia Check at this point (Paranoia works like Heat does in NBA, I’ll make a post on it by itself soon!) because dear elder gods. DEAR ELDER GODS. They did manage to succeed at that roll, but as I sat there contemplating how to handle this I came up with the perfect consequence and impact upon the story later in the game…

In any event there was still an auction to actually attend, a flute to get and monstrous entities from other planes to appease. What could possibly go wrong? As this post is already long enough, we shall return for a Part 3 and the thrilling conclusion to the Hellfire Auction, where the investigators decide to make enemies of just about everyone else.

And again, it’s not like anything could possibly go wrong with this in future, right? Right?