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Masks of the Dreamer: Night of the Curved Knife

This session started with some looming questions hanging over the investigators heads from last session. For example, what happened with Dentharin and Richard? How were Damian and Anastasia going to reconcile their rather…. different opinions about what happened during the previous investigations conclusion. Thankfully my players started off debating what happened and what it meant, which mostly meant I could sit back and just listen.

I’ve mentioned this before on the blog, but I want to mention it again, when your players are talking about things try to just listen. You’ll get some interesting perspectives about what they think is going on and how they are planning to resolve the issue. This can give you some really important hints as to how to maybe direct the story in ways that would be interesting to their characters/players in question. It also helps if other players are explaining events, because it’s subject to interpretation more and less “Word of God” as it is when it comes out of your mouth (as the DM/GM/Keeper). This being a horror game, it also lets you see how explicit you are being in regards to the actual truth: If the players are sounding scarily accurate, which might mean you’ve given too much away, now is a good time to change the truth up.

Just a bit.

This investigation opened with the parties long term ally, Tracy Wong, telling them some information she had found that they did, in fairness, already know. That is the True Blue UK party are backed by a mysterious group with a seemingly limitless amount of power called the “Esoteric Order of Dagon”. What the investigators found new was that Tracy had heard from her contact one of them wanted to leave the order, someone high up and had a rank called “Caller”. The man was paranoid though and hadn’t set a particular place or meeting yet. He would send a text to Tracy and she was to turn up within a couple of hours at most.

Tracy if you remember was the reporter originally ambushed in the first investigation of the game by the demented serial killer Latham. Since then she had learned not to be so gung ho with these individuals and potential cultists by herself, so she recruited the investigators to go with her as “backup” just in case. Noting that Tracy hasn’t exactly been idle herself, grabbing a large knife for her own defense and then doing some martial arts training on the side as well. You never know these days what might happen and these guys she’s now investigating don’t play by the usual rules…

In any event within a couple of days, the players were contacted by Tracy and she said “Tobias just messaged me, Convoy Docks and Wharf in London, 8pm” meet me there. At this point I asked my classic question “Who is driving and what vehicles are you taking?” This is an important question, because it always makes the players paranoid I have some kind of mid transport ambush or chase planned. Even if I don’t, I always ask the question because if you only do so when you’re about to do something you might as well telegraph what you’re thinking well in advance. Pointless innocuous sounding questions like “Who is in the front?” are a very good way to build confusion and throw your players off your line of thought.

Once they reached the docks I described how dilapidated they were, with crumbling brick buildings covered in graffiti (one with a symbol of magic, Parastion, upon it) and a pair of large hanger like buildings near to the sea (the Dry Docks). From the massive dome like dry docks was a faint light, which must have been where Tobias had set up. First though, the investigators had to contend with their initial opponent: A wire fence with sharp, rusted barbed wire at the top of it. This wasn’t the most extreme obstacle of course, but on failing an athletics check (3+ only, so not too hard) a character could get cut by it dealing some damage.

Most significantly of course, getting cut by the barbed wire would leave blood and tell tale evidence the characters were there. Making any subsequent paranoia check I asked for more difficult (and we’ll see how this impacted things later).

Interestingly the investigators decided to split up a bit, with Damian, Anastasia, Keith and Maggie keeping watch outside of the docks. Jenn went in with Tracy alone, which I thought was an interesting decision and they walked right up to the docks. Here, Tracy followed Jenn’s lead but probably not for the best as Jenn didn’t look for trouble (sense trouble) or approach particularly stealthily. This alerted the vile thing inside, currently having a feast on Tobias’ corpse, to hear them coming and set up its own ambush.

The first Jenn knew about the creature was when I was describing its “Rancid stinking fish breath” on the back of her neck, then the creature promptly tearing out a chunk of her neck and back while she tried to run away. Naturally the bipedal, bulbous eyed fish thing was an incredibly unpleasant sight, but Jenn managed to hold most of her nerve and composure – attempting to swat at it (however ineffectively) with a pocket knife. The screaming at least alerted the rest of the investigators who charged straight towards the scene to try and help.

Here is where Tracy got a moment to repay the investigators initial rescue of her from the first session, where she came up behind the vile creature and attempted to plunge her weapon into its back. She managed to chip off a couple of scales, but with the others coming and no reason to hang around for a fight, the beast decided to rapidly depart – hitting the water of the sea outside at high pace where it was shortly gone. Curiously (maybe suicidally) Anastasia asked if she could go under the water looking at it, but I decided to say that it would be long gone by this point (but it was an interesting idea).

Eventually the investigators examined the scene, with the dead body of the man they were to meet, a strange ritualistic circle complete with large sea predators jaw, some new symbols of magic they hadn’t seen before and writing that translated to:

In his house at R’lyeh, dead Cthulhu waits dreaming. Come to me, answer my cries honored servant of Dagon!! Praise be! Praise be! Dagon! Praise be! Praise be! Cthulhu! Praise be! Praise be! Hydra!

This naturally began to worry my players a lot, because I believe this is the first explicit mention of Cthulhu in the actual game so far (I believe). It’s also notable because in 10 years of running Call of Cthulhu and now Trail of Cthulhu, I’ve never actually used the iconic dead dreamer as an antagonist of my game. Could this be the first?!

Most interestingly was the examination of the body, which revealed he had not been killed by the vile fish monster they just encountered. He had been killed by a blade that had hit his heart and that there were two such knives on the floor. A curved silver one with interesting writing, which related to Sikhism religion and a straighter blade with a strange tentacle like Kraken creature depicted on the blade. Someone else had been there and they had killed Tobias, then taken whatever he had of value on his body and fled the scene. Given that both knives had blood on them, it was pretty clear that Tobias had managed to defend himself at least.

At this point, it’s worth noting how Trail of Cthulhu works where you have “Core clues” that lead to the next scene. In this case what I really wanted the players to get was the man who killed Tobias’ blade. In Sikhism (which is a real religion incidentally) their weapon (usually a small dagger) is actually a really important symbol of their religion. If it is lost or stolen they go to any lengths to recover it and if the investigators had examined it using the Theology skill, they would have learned that all they had to do was hold onto this and whoever did this would just come to them. In this case they didn’t, probably still overly worried about the creature, but because they took possession of it I didn’t need to call out the dagger as being overly important for the moment. So it came as more of a surprise when the owner came to retrieve it later, instead of being an expected part of the plot….

At this moment there was one thing, one thing, I really hoped would happen in this game: Damian and Anastasia to have a conversation about what happened in the underground tunnels in London last session. This naturally created a lot of confusion between the two investigators, as Anastasia’s version of events and Damian’s were completely different. This is also when Anastasia realized that during the events where she got information off their captured Order of Dagon thug, that Damian hadn’t ever been present in the room. Someone else was.

It took a while, but eventually the penny dropped and she figured out who it was. Leading to the development of a very interesting, but as yet not publicly known relationship with a certain NPC. I’ve mentioned it before, but the behind the scenes shenanigans of this game are by far the greatest highlight in many ways.

In any event, I decided to spice up this scene a bit and ensure that the investigators had a limited amount of time to look around further by introducing the London Police. Once again, it’s well worth emphasizing that in general the investigators are not well armed or even that getting into a fight with the police would be a good idea even if they were (as who in the police is supported or corrupted by True Blue/Order of Dagon is unknown). So they got out of there before there were any unfortunate confrontations.

At this point I asked for a Paranoia check, but here is where the blood left on the fence and the cars came back to haunt the investigators. Leaving such blatant evidence behind was always going to draw attention from authorities or worse, but in this case it drew in the authorities.

So the next day at the shop, while the investigators debated what to do I decided to have all of the remaining action for the session revolve around A’Tuin. Firstly, I introduced two new characters to the game who will become increasingly important in a pair of interpol agents. Frank Daniels and Zuhra Afridi, wandered in to have a chat to the investigators about recent events: Most notably the disappearance of Melissa Donovan. Here the investigators mostly fobbed off the agents or deflected questions, but the relentless nature of it made it particularly tense.

This was particularly helped because I had another person who tends to come with another player roleplay Zuhra, so I could keep clear pressure up with questioning. This made the scene look and feel like an interrogation, especially because the agents were clearly more in the know than they were letting on to the investigators. Zuhra in particular is very knowledgeable about many events and when her partner left, the friendly demeanor instantly dropped. Here a more threatening tone took over and there was a clear “I know you did something, I can’t prove it but as soon as I can…” aura to the conversation emerged.

Finally, after this the tension didn’t end as the man who owned a certain silver dagger, of important significance to him, came in. This man, Sourav, who is the Indian Gurkha who fought with Ian Carson Hawke in WW2 (yes, all the way back from the very first session of the entire campaign) is the “Spice Trader” in their coded notes. The investigators did their best to pretend they didn’t have his weapon, but he wasn’t even remotely falling for it but was also not there to start a fight. Like many factions, groups and individuals in London, he’d done his research on the investigators first. He took a gamble that they wouldn’t be his enemy and after a tense conversation, a deal was struck.

He would share his knowledge on the Order of Dagon, what they were doing and a certain party on a Cruise ship held by True Blue London he had a bad feeling about; The investigators would give back his weapon and then agree to help him stop the cults activities on this ship. Eventually the investigators agreed and any requirement for a violent, grisly end to the session was avoided.

This time.

Of course normally this is where we’d conclude this post, but one of the wonderful things about this game is some of the players activities behind the scenes. One of these things finally came about between sessions after the game ended. Two players had a plot to rescue to sorcerer who had sent himself to Leng in offering for his wife in Rending Box. This player had been fiddling with the magic system I made and figured he had enough knowledge to bring the guy back.

So they prepared the correct rituals, went to the guys house and convinced Karen to let them take her husband Paul with them. After all, most other things had entirely failed so why not try the investigators technique? They had faked some MD licenses too, which always helps in convince people to let you do generally crazy, dangerous and insane things.

Paul was taken back to the investigators apartment, they cast the spell and then it seemed to work – briefly reviving Paul. Then the legs started to burst forth from the mouth, the hints of a bulbous, barely contained body and then darkness as both investigators fainted to avoid a truly more grisly fate. When they awoke there was no sign of the body, the ritual markings, Karen or anything else except for two large circular wounds on their upper bodies.

It will be some time, but I am sure when the moment of anagnorisis comes when the true extent of what they did becomes clear, it will be something truly horrifyingly beautiful.