This scenario covers some pretty dark material, even for a Trail of Cthulhu game. Most notably it covers severe depression and suicide as its primary subject matter. If this is something that would disturb you, I’d advise that you skip this particular play report as it is integral to the investigation!
Masks of the Dreamer: Promethean (Part 1)
When I wrote this investigation, due to the subject matter of a twisted sorcerer who preys on vulnerable suicidal individuals to switch their bodies with them. This kind of internal censor I have is something I lovingly call “The Grimdark Trigger” and is based off the ridiculous extremism in the writing for Warhammer 40k. In essence I ask myself “Would this be too grimdark for your average Warhammer sourcebook?” as kind of a sense of “You’ve gone way too far”. On the other hand, as I’ve wrote in the past I don’t feel that suicide, depression and serious topics should be off the table* for storytelling if approached respectfully.
Given that I am currently writing this now and you can see it’s a “Play Report”, obviously my decision was to keep this investigation and not bin it. In the end I decided to keep this investigation because it introduced some intriguing new interactions for Aastasia’s sources of stability, provided some further plot impetus and finally introduced a major feature of this campaign: The Masks of the Dreamer. Until this investigation I had only hinted at the mysterious masks, which different cults, sorcerers and powerful rulers had used throughout history. Much of this hinting hasn’t even been directly in sessions, but in some of the activities of the players behind the scenes!
Of course before anything else could occur, I needed to emphasize to the players how their actions in the Blue Wedding had impacted the game. It’s important to not gloss over difficulties such as being interviewed by the police, unwanted media attention and similar if you want to build a world that feels realistic. I emphasized that this had made life difficult for Joleen, who couldn’t get the correct things organized to retrieve the U-Boat while authorities were still crawling all over her affairs. Despite the fact the police came to the conclusion Joseph was behind the murders and the investigators had helped, there was considerable interest in their involvement even afterwards….
In any event, beginning this investigation, I actually decided to put a stop to creating new characters and tried to use as many existing ones as possible. Ironically, one of the main things I have been underusing in this game for a while is the staff of the bookstore (other than Jasmine). Morgan Hughes is actually one of the staff who frequently moves heavy objects like old antiques and similar up or down floors. He also functions as a delivery man and the guy you send to pick things up. This character has also been almost entirely ignored by me for one reason or another, which is a great shame because he’s a product of the player’s creation when we initially made the store together.
So when I opened this up I had Morgan approach Anastasia and Keith in private – the two investigators he personally has some trust in – to ask them to look into something for him. A friend of his called Henry Chiles had recently tried to take their life, but thankfully failed and was institutionalized in a hospital instead. The odd thing about the whole affair was how Henry didn’t seem to recognize his former friends and family anymore, such as his old girlfriend. Initially Morgan thought it was just PTSD or otherwise related to the trauma of Henry’s near suicide attempt, but that changed when he visited the Chive’s house.
Morgan used an opportunity to sneak up to Henry’s room and have a look, where he found strange symbolic writing soaked into the floor. He recognized it immediately from some of the odd books and things the investigators had been doing around the store, immediately figuring it to be something terrible. His absence had been noticed too soon to really take a good set of photographs or otherwise copy down what he saw, but he was pretty concerned given the way his employer (Anastasia, for the record) tends to act around similar things. As a favor to Morgan for his loyal service to the store, he wanted the investigators to go and have a look into what happened to Henry. If nothing else than to put Morgan’s mind at ease, by eliminating the possibility that Henry now has some kind of drooling insect spirit in him or worse.
Initially for this investigation, I had Maggie, Anastasia and Keith with the players of Eva and Damian away. This made for a very tight team and particularly Maggie was going to be of great importance initially. Some time ago in this campaign, Maggie had asked Jenn to forge her a proper medical license as a psychiatrist. Naturally, with their potential victim and or suspect currently institutionalized in a hospital, Maggie having such a license would be extremely useful for getting in. Of course this was entirely deliberate on my part in writing this and it’s always important to consider what your players can do (or their different skills) while designing investigations in trail.
You might wonder what would have happened if Maggie’s player couldn’t make the session and thus thwart this bit of preparation? Here is where you need to prepare at least a couple of backup plans in advance if you make something specific like this. In Trail of Cthulhu, you should consider how another investigative or even general ability might compensate. A good “catch all” ability for getting into facilities like this is bureaucracy or even credit rating, which both involve exercising considerable influence in people you know or outright money. Another way could have been to let the investigators use digital intrusion to hack their way in (by faking credentials, or valid visitors permits or similar).
The important takeaway piece of advice here is that when you *do* write an investigation with a specific player in mind for certain scenes, always make sure to prepare back up plans or be aware of your options if they aren’t able to come. In my case, I was very fortunate in that the player of Maggie was able to attend the game, but if Maggie wasn’t present I had sufficient backup plans in place to get around that problem. Additionally on thinking about it this kind of plan can also fall over for another reason. If you have a combat or action scene before the part the investigator is required for, which might maim or kill them beforehand, you can end up with the same effect.
Don’t make your backup plans as elaborate as whatever your plan A was, or you’ll be spending an infinite amount of time working on your game and probably go crazy. Just make sure to have a few loose ideas you can immediately run with when required, especially if something happens to the character or characters you were relying on to solve a certain situation.
With that out of the way, we can move on to when the investigators arrived at Henry’s house to see several members of the family talking to a pair of bobby’s (slang for a British Police Officer). The two middle aged individuals, one man and a woman were most likely Henry’s parents, with a very elderly woman (grandmother), another younger man (friend) and the most interesting character was the girl in the wheelchair. I decided to drop a big hint there was something special with her when she stared directly at Keith in a highly curious way, like she knew something was strange with him. Naturally this caught the players attention and would later lead to an important conversation.
Initially the investigators decided to try prying some information out of the Bobby’s who were leaving, with Maggie using a combination of psychoanalysis, cop talk and flattery to derive that Henry attempted suicide about three days ago. They also learned that someone had anonymously tipped off authorities he was doing it and the ambulance was able to get there just in time before he bled out. The place had been a total mess when the ambulance arrived and they said some weird “occult” symbols were found. Here the police dropped some interesting hints to the investigators, notably that Henry had been talking to someone else he had met online and that apparently they forged some kind of suicide pact. While the police weren’t wanting to say much about the other suicide scene, they did mention that the other person was a woman and that she didn’t make it.
The investigation soon turned to interviewing the family and getting into the house to look around. Here I deliberately made this easy for them, because Morgan is actually a really good friend of the family and had informed them he had people coming around to check on how Henry was doing. Additionally, he had mentioned in advance that they had some knowledge of situations like this and that Maggie was a psychologist. This naturally helped to get the family on a friendly footing right away and they were soon invited into Henry’s household.
Here Maggie distracted the family with her interpersonal skills and empathy for what Henry was going through, while Anastasia and Keith (under the guise of making tea or going to the bathroom) went up to Henry’s room. The combined skills of Keith and Anastasia let them break into Henry’s room and then find most of the important evidence. Notably skype chat logs with a woman called “White Witch” and reconstructing the magical ritual that Henry followed that night, which Anastasia recognized as a dangerous spell called “Transfer Essence”. While they were doing this, Maggie learned of the deep depression Henry fell into after a car accident, which left his fiance Anna paralyzed from the waist down (she’s the girl in the wheelchair from earlier).
At this point Anastasia and Keith returned, while Anna grew tired of the conversation and went out into the backyard to be alone. This was a prime opportunity for one of the investigators, notably Keith, to talk to her to find out what was happening. Meanwhile Maggie and Anastasia continued to find out as much as they could from the family, including that Henry was currently under psychiatric care. When it was pointed out that Maggie was an actual psychologist, the family were quite keen to have her talk to Henry as he hadn’t been communicative with just about anyone since the suicide attempt. I made sure to communicate a rather desperate air about how they were viewing things.
Outside, Keith and Anna had an important conversation about how she felt “Henry” wasn’t really in there anymore. This started when Anna asked Keith if God could make a mistake when sending a soul back to earth from heaven, like in the case of a suicide or accident, leaving someone with the wrong “soul” inside. Naturally this is kind of a strange question and when pressed further, Anna conceded that her accident had left her seeing strange things. Sometimes she could see weird “auras” around certain people, which she noticed around Keith in particular but also Henry after she saw him in the hospital. Outside of the aura, she wasn’t sure why Henry could suddenly speak Russian and didn’t seem to recognize her when she visited.
Magic? Suicide? Strange conversations with people on the internet? Something wasn’t adding up here and it didn’t sound good. The basic platform of the rest of the investigation had now been laid and they had enough evidence to either confront Henry, or attempt to find out more about the other woman involved. I think rather smartly, they decided to find out who the other woman was first and go there to gather more evidence. An early confrontation with Henry could be disastrous if they give away their hand without a strong position, especially if sorcery was involved.
At this point the most interesting aspect of the investigation was the players inherent paranoia and speculation. The initial working theory was that Henry attempted to use the spell to heal the injury Anna sustained, which was an interesting idea actually. Then when it was revealed there was a second person involved along the way, they began to speculate who it might be inside of Henry – especially because he could now speak Russian and many prominent members of the VII cult are also from there. One of the really interesting possibilities was Anastasia’s missing mother, who her father (before he died) implied was still alive somewhere.
It was at this point I knew I had done the right thing by keeping this investigation and not binning it. The paranoia, confusion and speculation was making for a compelling narrative! In a game based on any kind of mystery, if you are getting your players to come up with their own ideas, speculation and potential suspects you have done everything correctly. This is basically the “Shouting at the TV” effect, which many of the better police procedural type shows like CSI, Criminal Minds, Sherlock and others get out of their viewers!
Moving along in the investigation, they decided to call in a favor from a police officer they knew and get the address of the other woman involved: Lydia Hylein. Heading to this house, they found that something was amiss with the outside of it as Keith’s faerie stone (which can see magical effects and auras) showed that some kind of spell was on the house. It seemingly ignored Maggie and Anastasia, but reacted strangely and aggressively towards Keith’s approach of the house. As a result, he ended up stuck outside and needing to distract Lydia’s husband Tyler, while the others broke in through the upstairs window.
Here they confirmed what they knew from Henry’s room, which was that Lydia had used the same transfer essence spell and targeted him directly with it. What’s worse is that Lydia had done a thorough job as well, using a programmable timer and a hair trigger to aim a shotgun at her original bodies head. Moments after Henry would have switched consciousness (and therefore bodies) with hers, he would have been instantly killed by the resulting blast from the shotgun. Additionally, Keith found from Tyler that someone had come shortly after Lydia’s suicide who spoke Russian and had cleaned up whatever happened. Finally, from a recently used incinerator in the backyard they found burned pages of what looked like “spells”.
The picture was now becoming pretty clear: Lydia had found Henry online, then persuaded him into engaging in this bizarre “suicide pact” and used the transfer essence spell to force her spirit into his, while ensuring Henry didn’t survive the process on her end. Some library use and research also revealed that these weird mutual suicide pacts had multiple occurrences to the police, with strange “occult” symbols being found. This raised a horrible prospect that Lydia might not even be the original perpetrator, which was seemingly corroborated by Tyler as he said Lydia started speaking Russian shortly after a failed suicide attempt some 8 years beforehand.
All that was left was to confront whoever was in Henry’s body directly and see what they would do…
*Honestly, no pun was intended.