Masks of the Dreamer: As Above, So Below.
I had plenty of time to think about how I wanted the tone and pacing of this campaign to go. Last week marked a notable escalation in how the investigators enemies were behaving, but so far in the actual game there haven’t been a lot of hints as to who they might be and what they are doing. With this investigation I decided to consciously move the plot more towards giving important clues as to the answers of these questions. Additionally, I wanted to give the players and investigators a situation that was a little bit different to a “normal” investigation.
For one thing, this entire investigation takes place in the underground of London, exploring lost tunnels, old telephone exchanges, watery reservoirs and more strange but long since forgotten subterranean structures. This means that once the investigation begins to its very end there is no light, no sun, nothing except the comforting darkness of the tunnels. It’s also obscenely cramped so the investigators have to be very careful about the way they walk through the tunnels and who they leave behind them.
Another big departure in this investigation was how “supernatural” it felt. Most of the previous investigations have certainly had some unpleasant encounters, dark rituals and similar, but I’ve deliberately avoided being overly supernatural. This investigation right from early on makes things clear that something really terrible stalks these tunnels and there is something quite wrong with the parties guide, Melissa Danneke. In fact, core to this investigation is the inevitably give and take between Melissa – who is armed with a shotgun – and the thing stalking the party through these tunnels.
So possibly the most important part of this investigation to bear in mind is how Melissa and the entity stalking these tunnels “The Mangle”, build horror and tension in different ways. In terms of pacing, I decided to hold back the encounter with the actual “Mangle”, a stitched together corpse of the late Richard Carlyle animated by hatred and mythos magic, until as late into the session as possible. Meanwhile, I tried to show Melissa increasingly losing her grip on reality as different things happen (Some I made explicit, others I hid unless the PCs specifically were watching for them) until she becomes quite the danger herself.
Melissa is a 23 year old PhD Student who has an interest in Urban Archaeology, but also clearly knows more than she lets on at several points. She actually started this investigation some time ago by approaching Anastasia about old charts, maps and similar books about England with the players store. For first access to these things, Anastasia asked that the investigators be able to come with Melissa on any expedition to look for the tomb of Richard Edward Carlyle (cleverly, that investigation had established why this guy was important at the same time). Naturally something came by the store of great interest to Melissa and she agreed to ask the investigators along as part of her crew to explore the place.
Naturally this being a horror game called “Trail of Cthulhu” what could possibly go wrong?
When the characters met Melissa at her van, which was filled with different equipment, climbing gear, strange diving suits and similar, there was another fellow with her. The tall, blonde and strongly built fellow called Torvald was a post-doctoral researcher from her lab and generally nice fellow. As a general rule, he sort of acts as the “voice of reason” for this investigation, frequently pointing out how insane everything that is happening around them is and trying to encourage everyone to head back. I wonder how that will work out?
In any event, Anastasia greeted Melissa and noticed that there were a couple of interestingly labelled books on the drivers seat – but unfortunately behind her watchful gaze. Thankfully Maggie and Jenn were already on their way to making a complete distraction by flirting with Torvald, who was showing them the ground penetrating radar (albeit, antiquated equipment). Melissa was not impressed with this once she noticed and marched over to berate him for using the universities equipment so irresponsibly.
This gave Keith and Anastasia the perfect moment to go looking through some of her notes and financials. Once again I found another use for Accounting (which is becoming awfully handy this campaign, given I never managed to use it last one) as they discovered Melissa’s expedition was being partially funded by True Blue UK – albeit in a roundabout way through subsidiary companies. Naturally this automatically put the investigators on edge, because nothing associated with TBUK has been good so far. Her notes were a different matter, making note of strange occurrences in the area, that Richard’s bodyparts were distributed to other countries after he was hung, drawn and quartered but were all stolen (under awful circumstances of course) and that a killer urban legend called “The Mangle” for his weird stitched together appearance existed in the area.
An urban legend of a strange badly scarred man in a long coat couldn’t possibly be real right?
After this the investigation began proper, with the characters descending down a old well into an underground cistern system. This was away from the original chapel site where Richard’s heart and brain were supposedly interred back in the 1600s, so they would have a fair hike underground, in the darkness. At this point I want to note that after Anastasia’s traumatic view of the Haunter the party summoned at the end of the last investigation, she’s developed severe nyctophobia (fear of darkness). So if she was ever thrown entirely into the dark it could have some severe consequences.
Here is where I put the first “device” to up the tension around things, which was Melissa sneaking into the place a pump action shotgun. Here is where it’s important to emphasize what makes this shotgun scary, which is if a character attempts to rush at Melissa to grab the gun she can stand and shoot. What this means is that the character is hit automatically at point blank range, taking 3x the damage. I also added the cinematic gun damage rule from NBA, meaning if a heavy firearm drops you to negative health it does an additional +6 damage. In short, this can trivially instantly kill any investigator and so builds a lot of worry as Melissa’s mental state increasingly deteriorates. Naturally the shotgun caused some consternation, but Melissa fobbed off the complaints by saying that it was for potentially dangerous people or “animals”.
Those with bullshit detector got a strange sense she was not being entirely honest and that there was definitely a specific reason for it, but decided not to press her just yet. Not that the investigators should be scared of her, right? Especially when the investigators noticed Melissa was looking at a fairly detailed map of the place, which even if she figured out rooms from the ground penetrating radar they were using, was oddly specific about *what* was down there.
Initially the characters start by wandering through different tunnels, a strangely unnatural carved out cavern (complete with unusually smooth stone and slime) and then an old telephone exchange. If you’re wondering, in London it’s not uncommon if you can get into certain places to find entirely abandoned things like this. Many of the bits and pieces in this investigation are based on real things you might encounter underground, which this wonderful article in the Guardian elaborates on if you need inspiration. The telephone exchange was where I dropped the first hint that Melissa was not alright, as she picked up a phone and then listened to it for a while, before throwing it down in disgust. When Maggie checked it should could hear nothing and Melissa was confused why nobody heard it ringing, but otherwise continued on.
Remember that in this investigation, Melissa is armed with a substantially more powerful weapon than the investigators. If she loses her marbles…
Eventually the investigators came to a solid brick wall, which when hit with a sledgehammer to progress “bled” somewhat and then crumpled. After going through, the wall was back in place and they couldn’t tell where they had come from anymore. There was no route back now. Continuing on the investigators ran into a grisly scene once they reached an old metro tunnel: Scratch marks, complete with fingernails still jammed into the ground or hanging onto the rail track, backpacks and blood. Just the thing they wanted to see! Looking around, it seemed something exceptionally violent had happened here and when Anastasia followed the source of the smell, something wet dropped on her shoulder.
By instinct she looked up and saw a horrifying sight, several bodies just stuck on the ceiling and seemingly writhing around. When one was shot down using a handy spear gun, it hit the ground with a thud and the investigators discovered that a large bunch of maggots were all over the corpse. The state of the corpses and maturity of the insects put these bodies at least a week old. Meanwhile, Jenn was looking through the “bodies” stuff to find that they were urban explorers and that their trip into these tunnels had only been just today. Only hours before the investigators moved through this place.
Maybe that whole “Mangle” legend was true?
At this point, I decided to have Torvald perform his “Voice of Reason” role, appealing to the investigators and Melissa to go back. Both Melissa and Anastasia told him to hold his nerve and go stick it, especially because they were so close to their objective. They could tell the police once they were done and confused, with seemingly no support from the others, Torvald just grudgingly accepted the insanity going on around him and carried on. What choice did he have? Just between you and I, Torvald is a little unsettled and scared of everyone now. These people just look at bodies, bloodstains and see weird shit without even reacting that much!
Here is where I decided to start emphasizing that these tunnels are really wrong, as a burned body began to stumble out of the darkness towards the investigators. A burned body, which was lacking any teeth and missing his left hand. The same hand that a certain Anastasia had cut off an innocent man recently…. After the initial shock the lights went out with a deep rumble and upon everything coming back there was no more man in the tunnel. Being underground can cause some really bad hallucinations after all….
Moving carefully through more narrow tunnels and the rest of the old transit system, they came to a maintenance office. This place was built right next to the old chapels catacombs, so breaking through the wall should get them right where they needed to be! After smashing through, the characters were greeted with a very strange sight: Candles everywhere, some clear mythos symbols painted around (Parastion in particular) and when they listened carefully: Chanting. Someone was in here?! But had they beaten the characters to Richards tomb? Melissa wasn’t wasting time finding out and went ahead with Damian to observe who was chanting.
Several figures, dressed in white and covered with white makeup, or strange white masks with puffy hair and a sad expression sat in a circle. The woman in the center was chanting in Egyptian “Hail to the Return of the Dark Pharoah”, while the others chanted in Latin “As Above, So Below”. Damian decided to head back to the others to get some support, but Anastasia was determined to see what was happening for herself, but bungled the sneak roll: Hitting something and making a loud bang causing the chanters to see Melissa.
Several shotgun blasts later and all that remained were corpses. Melissa had quickly taken the initiative and simply executed this lot as soon as she could. The investigators examined the bodies, but couldn’t determine who these people were or what they were doing. Melissa at this point pulled out a license to one of the investigators and said “I think these are the psychos who killed those explorers”, which may have been true. Yet the investigators couldn’t shake the feeling something just wasn’t right about Melissa’s statement.
It was at this point that the main door to Richard’s tomb was found to still be secured, but a strange shimmering energy could be sensed from it (probably from the clear mythos symbols covering the entire thing – someone sealed it with some serious magic). At this point Melissa suggested that Keith walk up to the door to “translate” something on it, but the door itself opened up as soon as he got close enough to it. Written upon the occult symbol that appeared on it (in Greek) was “Esoteric Order of Dagon”. Then the tomb door slid open.
Within was a sarcophagus and a variety of artifacts from Richard’s life that had been buried with him. The party saw quickly to taking the new puzzle box, a tome called “On the Primordiality of Man” and a strangely shaped stone, which Anastasia pocketed (finding that it gave her a strange warm and safe feeling, so she was not keen to put it back down!). Melissa and Torvald quickly went and opened the sarcophagus, making a huge find: The brain and heart of Richard Carlyle was here! Except that her “Thesis” was about his entire body being buried here and not being split up as history claimed, yet this didn’t even seem to occur to her as an issue…
I don’t need to tell you that this, combined with some very strange notes about making a metallic cylinder device with an odd voice box control system in her backpack, really raised the investigators level of suspicion up to 11. Minding, Melissa kept her deal and so did Anastasia: The investigators took the artifacts, Melissa took the body parts and everyone won right? Time to go home and forget about crazed monsters.
Well, when they tried to leave after they got back into the original room in the catacombs they encountered a hunched over man in a long ragged set of clothes standing where the former chanters were. When he turned around, there was very little of his face left – just an eye, part of a jaw, a sloppy tongue hanging partially out and a foul smell. Long clawed hands and a really ominous attitude. It seems those “Urban Legends” weren’t so much legend after all and here is where I left the investigators hanging until the next session as Melissa dryly stated “Ah Mr. Carlyle, you’ve been expected”.
Next week, things get really dramatic!