Masks of the Dreamer: Recovery of U-571: Part 1 This excellent piece of concept art comes from a very exciting upcoming horror video game, called Soma.
After a hiatus for a while from my Trail of Cthulhu campaign, we return now with the moment that defines the journey towards the end of this campaign: The recovery of U-571. This German submarine was lost during WW2, for reasons that the investigators don’t know but my players are fully aware of. While giving my players a degree of metagaming knowledge about what happened isn’t always the best idea, here it works because of how late into the game we are and the investigators are already aware of things like Deep Ones. So the prior knowledge my players bring, which their investigators wouldn’t have, does not significantly impact this investigation in a meaningful way by changing how my players would make decisions.
The gains from allowing the players to directly play through and see exactly what happened to the submarine were many. For one, it gives them a satisfying feeling of seeing how their actions changed the actual game world – such as entering the sub to see the bullet ridden uniforms and skeletons of the panicked sailors trying to open the door to the deep ones. Secondly, it allowed me to give the players who “won” some degree of interesting narrative control over what happens in the story in future from this point. Some of these effects won’t be felt immediately, but will have a lot of influence over how the game ultimately comes to its conclusion.
In any event, I actually had one main problem to overcome before I could get into this game properly. That hiatus from the game I mentioned, meant there was a substantial gap between when I last ran Trail of Cthulhu and when we resumed playing. Naturally by this point players tend to forget what has happened and important bits and pieces sometimes go missing – including on my part! So one of the first things I did was write up the earlier post about the general plot of the game, so everyone had a bit of a refresher on what was going on. Then when I restarted the game, I deliberately slowed the pacing of the plot right down in the first part.
I’ve written about the importance of pacing in the past on this blog, especially because initially my pace was far too slow. On the other hand when returning from a break you should slow things up much more for multiple reasons. The first is that a slower pace lets me deliberately reintroduce NPCs and other plot elements back to the party. Secondly it helps both me and my players ease back into character, with plenty of time to give reminders about “Why are we doing this again?”. Taking extra time like this is a good idea, especially when you come back from any kind of long break between sessions.
When the investigation began again, I started by reminding the investigators what was going on in London and how their new “ally” Joleen had finally come through for them. She had the permits, the ships and the equipment to allow them to explore the sunken wreck of the lost German submarine. I took time to remind the players that the submarine was important because it’s crew apparently discovered and subsequently visited the lost city of R’leyh – a site of great importance to the Old and Esoteric Orders of Dagon. Ensuring that the investigators got a hold of whatever secrets were on board the sub was their highest priority.
Of course finding this information about R’leyh wasn’t the only thing of great importance to the game either. In the last investigation they acquired a strange mask, which they learned from the sorcerer inhabiting Henry was actually important in some way for entering into R’leyh itself (which is why Henry and their accomplice, Anastasia’s mother, hid it in the first place). Here is where all that tension and paranoia I’ve been instilling in them for the past few months is still paying off: Nobody wanted to leave the mask in anyone’s individual care, but also didn’t want to leave it behind when they went to look for U-571. The result of this was interesting, as the players eventually compromised by having two warded* boxes and the mask in one (under Eva’s care). This meant they could carry it around with them, it would be warded against the Dagon aligned crew of Joleen’s ship and ensure all the investigators could watch it.
With the immediate “What are we doing” and “How do we resolve this problem?” questions out of the way, I decided to actually reintroduce Henry into the game at this point. Walking into the bookstore to have a peruse, I wanted this moment to emphasize that Henry was now fully allowed out and about. Not to mention that the sorcerer knew exactly where the investigators called “home”, itself a kind of veiled threat. At this point I wanted to know if Keith was around and then tried to get a rise out of the investigator, by having Henry mention how “close” his relationship was getting with Anna. Minding, this didn’t actually work because Keith didn’t mind what Anna chose to do with Henry, which was a bit less dramatic than I was hoping for.
Either way, once I was done with this encounter in the bookstore I just decided to see if there was anything in London the investigators wanted to do before leaving. Naturally a lot of this is “behind the scenes” sort of style, so can’t be openly shared yet, but some of these investigators are getting up to some really interesting things in their spare time. Usually directly at the cost of their fellow investigators of course, which is most of the fun of these behind the scenes aspects. Remember that within this group somewhere is a potential traitor, who has since the very start of the game been working against the rest for their own sinister agenda. The investigators as a result have good reason to make contingency plans against one another, after all it could well result in something heinous being summoned to Earth….
In any event, after securing some extra equipment, flares, spear guns and other things that would be handy underwater, the party headed off to Joleen’s boat the “Sea Spirit”. Here they would get accustomed to the unusual crew and the other complication I threw in, just to spice life up a bit.
The Discovery Channel Film Crew
One of the ideas I had for this investigation was that Joleen was only able to get some of the equipment on “Loan”, which meant the Discovery Channel made a lot of sense and it delightfully complicates matters because they naturally wanted to be involved. As a result the investigators not only had to deal with a potentially strange crew and whatever agenda Joleen might have, but also had to worry about this film team following them around. To make matters worse, this film team would also be coming down with them to the bottom during the investigation of the wreck. So the investigators would have to be careful about what they showed the film crew, because anything they saw might potentially give important clues or information away.
Of course there is also a really basic reason why I wanted this concept of having a discovery channel camera team as well: Who else do I slowly pick off one by one under dreadful circumstances? Well, that isn’t saying the actual investigators were safe in any way whatsoever…
With the expedition underway and a couple of weeks before the ship reached the remote area off Iceland the submarine had sunk, there was plenty of time to get familiar with the crew. I made specific mention of how unusual, deformed and occasionally outright hideous some of the crew were. To the discovery channel people, led by Zachery Miles the main narrator and general expert on the expedition, this was just the result of some very “positive” hiring practices. The investigators knew better and immediately recognized them as deep one hybrids, as many of the strange deformities were really the mythos influence in their genes beginning to show through (near fish eyes, gill slits and similar). Despite being “allies”, most of the crew showed outright dislike of the investigators and the majority of the most “obvious” hybrids hid in the lowest bowels of the ship – only appearing on deck at night.
Meanwhile Zachery attempted to get as much time with the investigators as he possibly could. Additionally, I tried to encourage a kind of reality TV type style where players were interviewed one on one, asked pointless questions and general reality TV type shenanigans. On another hand, every now and again I ensured that Zachery let slip every so often that he knew more than he was letting on about the activities of mythos related entities. In particular I made a call back to my previous Trail of Cthulhu campaign, where Zachery and his crew investigated the disappearance of several archaeologists from South America. An important event in that previous campaign, because it is where one of the main antagonists of the previous investigators originated from. Although Zachery didn’t find the answers to his missing archaeologists he was looking for, he certainly seems to have discovered something else in those jungles… but what he encountered he wouldn’t say – preferring to return the topic back to the investigators “expertise”.
At this point, I really wish I had thought to give the players some incentive to go and interview or chat with the other members of the discovery channel crew. There was actually some really interesting bits of plot and information to be gleaned from some of the others, but none of the investigators had any real incentive to ask them. Possibly I can put this down to being so firmly distracted by the rest of the crew (who were certainly very weird) and me not thinking to emphasize the potential dark history Zachery had. Of course now I’ve wrote this down my players will definitely do so in a future session, but it’s worth while noting from a GMing point of view that it is okay to give players a little nudge now and again. Especially if it isn’t entirely clear that there will be a benefit to actually going down a certain route, like talking to the other members of the crew alone. I also feel I should have helped the guest player of Zachery a bit more in emphasizing his own unusual behavior and for me, I should have indicated through the other discovery crew that they had a bit of nervousness/trepidation towards him.
In any event I did manage to get across the “wrongness” on the ship and how the crew behaved. The best way of doing that was to emphasize “dinner” and how the crew loved to eat what I described as “Fish slop”. Essentially anything normal people don’t eat about seafood, Old Order of Dagon cultists and hybrids love it. Unfortunately for my investigators, this happens to be what the chef knows how to make and they tend to eat it every night. For those like Keith, who happen to also happen to avoid seafood at all costs, this was quite the predicament. This is the first time in Trail that a player used the preparedness skill, where the goal was solely to have some trail mix (or anything else) they could eat that wasn’t fish.
One thing that was very important during this time, was to emphasize the nature of the investigators “allies” and to plant some doubts about what they were doing with them. For example after dinner one night the investigators found several hybrids throwing “stuff” overboard, which resembled a fisherman “chumming” the water to attract sharks. Naturally Damian, whose drive is curiosity, wanted to know what was in one of the sacks. Damian soon regretted it, as the mulched up bits of people that were within caused him to dry wretch considerably and step back in shock (failed stability check). Thankfully, Eva was there to make sure he didn’t attract any unwanted attention and the investigators were soon holed up in their rooms for another night.
The Secret Idols
After this the investigators decided to examine the lower portion of the ship some more, in order to see what the hybrids might be up to. After some exploration, they eventually found a locked room in the aft of the ship, which had one of the hybrids standing outside. Naturally Keith was called in to deal with this, because I previously established that of the investigators the crew really disliked having him anywhere nearby (due to Keith’s own strange blood). Once the hybrid caught wind of Keith it promptly left and so the investigators had a small window to open the door to the curiously locked room. Incidentally as a GMing tip here, if you want players to look at something or go somewhere – make that spot the most difficult one for them to get too (EG it’s in a locked room). Nothing draws a players attention to something like it being guarded or more difficult to enter/reach than elsewhere.
Once inside I described a small semi-circular room, which had a dingy table with a red velvet top and a large woven mat in the center of the floor. On the table were two idols with one being more “male” and the other being more “female”, but both resembled Deep Ones with one main difference: Extremely well endowed genitalia wise. One statue had a large circular like “penis” forming the base and did in fact have a pair of breasts as well**. The other one had multiple vagina like holes and a multitude of breasts, which was the closest thing to identifying (initially) the two statues as being male or female. Naturally what happens when you describe entirely creepy statues with odd genitalia? Someone has to go and touch them.
This excellent statue of Mother Hydra, by the incredibly talented Jason McKittrick, is a good representation of what I had in my head when describing the two idols in this game – in this case I envisaged Father Dagon as resembling this.
Anastasia went in close to examine them and touched the statue corresponding to “Dagon”, which immediately caused her quite a shock. For one thing the statue was weirdly warm to the touch, with a distinctly fleshy texture and upon being touched writhed about as if alive. Despite being in one pose initially the statue moved about and then looked directly at her, sitting in a new pose (Something close to the above picture). Naturally after this happened and gave Anastasia a suitable shock to her stability, she promptly began to see if she could smash the statue or cut it with a bladed weapon. This only resulted in the idol hitting the floor with a fleshly “squish” sound, instead of a loud “thud” expected of a stone statue and the knife couldn’t penetrate it whatsoever.
Some uses of investigative skills later, with the other investigators staying well away from trying to touch the statues, they learned some important background information. Dagon was actually worshiped in ancient times, notably in Mesopotamian nations and later elsewhere across the Pacific, Mediterranean and other coastal or seafaring cultures. Generally Dagon appears as either a fertility or harvest related god, but always with a noted affinity or depiction as a fish. Some depictions are more inhuman being more fish than man, but there are also depictions where Dagon is shown to be half-human (often top half) with the bottom of a fish. Occult wise, worship of Dagon is associated with cults that practice human sacrifice and have been purported to summon beings from the oceans for cross breeding purposes. Something the investigators know all too well is a distinct fact. Much of this information was important for providing context as to what Dagon actually is, as I’ve not really said much about Dagon through the campaign (outside of interactions with crazed cultists who worship it).
Outside of Dagon there was something very important to this little encounter: Introducing the concept of Mother Hydra. Mother Hydra is Dagon’s matriarchal opposite in the hierarchy of the Deep Ones, where he/she/they are an equally important entity that the Order of Dagon worships. Here I emphasized that the two entities are frequently interchanged throughout history and occult lore, sometimes it’s “Mother Dagon” and other times “Father Hydra”. Very often, like with the idols found here, Dagon and Hydra can be depicted as being either gender and with a mixture of male or female features. Essentially I wanted to put the investigators off a bit with this and make them wonder as to what the true nature of these things were.
While the others examined and explained the nature of these strange idols, some sharp eyed observation from Eva noticed that the heavy woven mat had a lot of strange scratches around it. Moving it revealed that this room was slightly more than a place of worship – a vent below seemed to provide a watery passage from inside the ship straight to the open waters outside. Evidently it was being used fairly often and recently, as some of the fresh scratch marks would attest. Something or a group of somethings perhaps, were coming and going from the ship through this room. Naturally where none of the investigators would be able to see what it was of course, which clearly put the party a bit on edge.
Just to make the situation more tense and enhance the drama, the investigators could then hear several footsteps beginning to approach the formerly locked room. It would appear that the hybrid from earlier might have been easily intimidated by Keith, but he evidently decided to come back.
And this time he’s brought friends.
*Ward is a spell that I have provided in this game, but it’s not quite a catch all “Blocks mythos related things” plot device. Indeed it actually has a lot of compromise to it, as the wards only block the servants of specific Gods or higher beings. For example you can ward an area against deep ones and members of the Cult of Dagon, but you automatically make it easier for certain other cultists or creates in opposition to Cthulhu/Dagon to enter the warded area. Essentially this continues my long standing dislike of the idea of a universally protective symbol against the mythos, such as how the Elder Sign has been interpreted.
This specific point probably deserves its own post to discuss actually.
**In my mythos games, I take the view that worshipers of Father Dagon and Mother Hydra view them like fertility gods. This has a lot of support in my opinion from Lovecraftian fiction directly, given the predilection that Dagon and his warped servants, the Deep Ones have for interbreeding with humanity. It’s worth noting that this talk of strange genitalia and similar was not done for “squick” factor or to make players uncomfortable, but rather because I genuinely feel it adds to the sense of strangeness these gods have. Used appropriately, this kind of strangeness can be disturbing and add to a sense of just how wrong mythos entities (and their interactions with humanity) are. It’s also worth placing them into the real historical context of the mythological (as opposed to Lovecraftian Mythos) Dagon as well.
The key is to not overdo or overemphasize to creepy levels unusual genitalia and similar things (unless of course your players are all very comfortable with a game moving in this direction). A scene like the one described here gets the point across very well – hammering on the idea constantly throughout the campaign might make everyone wonder if you’re trying a bit too hard.