Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Call of Cthulhu: Actual Play

When we sat down to play a little one-on-one Call of Cthulhu last Thursday, I wasn't sure whether I wanted to do a campaign or a one-shot. For now, it stands as being the latter, but things were certainly left open-ended enough at the end of the scenario that things could get picked up again, either with a new group or with more solo gaming.

Either way, here be SPOILERS. Fairly warned be ye, says I.

Des and I had sat down for character creation a couple evenings before we played. Being the proud owner of Secrets of San Francisco, I knew I wanted to set the game there, but outside of that it was anything goes. I did something I don't normally do when I run Cthulhu: I let Des re-roll her attributes. Normally, I don't see much point in allowing this--it's Cthulhu after all!--but her first set of rolls were truly atrocious. I don't think there was anything above a 10. And particularly with a single player, you want at least a decent Sanity going in to things. It's a shame, too, because Des had a rather inspired idea to do a wheelchair-bound character based on her attribute rolls. What a great idea that was! The more I think about it, the more I wished we'd stuck with that first set of rolls. Ah well, lesson learned.

The second set of rolls had a much nicer spread, with a few highs and a few lows. Perfect. Des decided to do a young artist, a sculptor. Her roll on the Income Table came up a "9"--obviously he had struck it rich in the art world!

For the start of the game, I ran a sort of "prelude" adventure, set one year before the main events, in which we explored where Des's character, Vincent, got his jolt of artistic inspiration that turned him from a struggling artist living on Portrero Hill to a local celebrity. Essentially, I ran the introductory adventure out of Dreamlands, in which a friend, having discovered the Dreamlands, decides to commit suicide so he can live there forever. Before he dies, he gave Vincent a box of chocolates as a gift; the chocolates were coated with a magical powder that granted access to the Dreamlands. Vincent visited his friend in Ulthar and walked around the countryside a bit, taking in the otherworldly sights and imagery.

(This little intro was meant to set up further adventures in the Dreamlands if things had moved in a campaigny direction. As it is, I'm now more taken with the idea of doing an all-Dreamlands campaign featuring the wheelchair-bound character Des almost made. Oh my, the potential!)

At any rate, this also established in my campaign world a new art movement, the Fantasists. Forerunners of the Surrealists who take their inspiration from the Mythos, Vincent would be one of them; others would include Richard Upton Pickman, his students, and others (like a certain London-based artist who pops up in Masks of Nyarlathotep).

With that little interlude out of the way, we flashed forward to "present day"--summer, 1924. Vincent had moved out of his Portrero Hill rat's nest and bought a cozy cottage in the sleepy little rail town of Sausalito. Or perhaps it should be called "Sauce-a-lotto" since, as I found out in the course of preparing for the adventure, it was basically the rum-running capital of the West Coast! Great stuff, and lots more campaign potential there, of course.

The adventure I was running was "Mr. Corbitt" from Mansions of Madness. It's a story of a kindly old neighbor and his rather, um, unspeakable hobbies. I was very much put in mind of The 'Burbs, and was half-tempted to give Des an oafish neighbor and addled WWI vet (and a punk-ass kid) to interact with in the course of her investigations of the mysterious Corbitt residence across the street from her cottage.

Things kicked off when, in the course of bidding farewell to some party guests on a Sunday evening, Vincent spotted Mr. Corbitt pulling up to his house. He took two cloth-wrapped bundles from his trunk and made his way to the front door. Fumbling for his keys, he dropped one of the bundles; the cloth fell open, and Vincent stared in disbelief at what looked like the hand and fingers of the severed arm of a small child! Mr. Corbitt hurriedly picked up his package and headed inside. A light came on in his basement, but this was quickly obscured by a drawn curtain.

Vincent tried to put the event out of his mind--surely he hadn't seen what he thought he'd seen. Perhaps it was a bit of an old marble sculpture (then why did it make an audible slapping noise when it hit the concrete?). Still curious, Vincent in time headed down to the local newspaper morgue to see if he could find out a bit about Corbitt's past.

He turned up a couple articles describing the death of Corbitt's father during a hiking trip in the Himalayas and the death of Corbitt's wife during childbirth a few years later. Tragic events, certainly, but no overt signs of weirdness. There was an item in the latter article about the midwife attending the birth going into a coma from a stroke she suffered during the labor. Vincent took the ferry to San Francisco and visited Saint Mary's Hospital, only to find out that the midwife had expired shortly after being admitted. (Unfortunately, he didn't make a good impression with the doctor who handled the case, or he would have found a clue in the midwife's last words as she briefly came out of her coma before expiring.)

Heading back to Sausalito, Vincent decided to follow Corbitt during his weekly Sunday afternoon drives. This proved difficult, however. Vincent was fairly certain Corbitt had spotted him, but nothing came of it--Corbitt went for a scenic drive along the Marin County back roads, then returned home. (Another clue missed! Two successful driving rolls would have tracked Corbitt to the public dump where he procured amputated children's limbs from a mentally disturbed hospital worker.)

Returning home, Vincent decided to trouble himself with Corbitt no longer, but the next evening the old man came over with a basket of tomatoes fresh from his vegetable garden. He was known around the neighborhood for his gardening hobby, and often gave his neighbors fresh veggies. On this occassion, he was also dropping by to ask Vincent to watch his house while he was out of town for a few days--pick up his mail, water his garden, that sort of thing.

Vincent agreed and thanked Corbitt for the tomatoes as well. Taking them back into the kitchen, he gave them a careful looking over. Good thing, too: he spotted little puncture marks, as if from a syringe, on the underside of each tomato. (Corbitt, suspicious that Vincent was on to him, had given him tomatoes laced with a powerful hallucinogen.)

Not partaking of the poisoned food, Vincent headed over to the Corbitt house the next day after his neighbor had departed for the train station. He walked around the grounds and found a vegetable patch and greenhouse around back. He checked out the greenhouse and found it filled with all manner of exotic flora. Good thing he didn't stick around long--a couple of the plants in there were very exotic indeed, and had a bit of a taste for human flesh...

Heading back towards the house, Vincent heard a crash from down in the basement. Looking through the basement window, he saw a darting form running from the shadows! A burgler, perhaps? Sausalito boasted a two-man police force; sometimes it was better to take matters into one's own hands than to rely on the law. Vincent decided to investigate.

Forcing the window, he slipped into the room. The form suddenly dashed from the shadows and through a door. It moved with a peculiar hopping gate, as if it was injured, Vincent noted. He followed, curious. Pushing open the door, he found himself in what looked like a combination of a science lab and gardener's toolshed. He also caught sight of motion heading up a flight of stairs, and quickly after that heard the sound of fists banging on a door. Vincent grabbed a three-pronged gardening trowel to use as a weapon in case things came to that.

Rounding the corner, Vincent was ready to shout to the prowler to give himself up when he stopped dead in his tracks. Standing at the top of the stairs, hammering on the door, was a monstrosity: a woman's head with a single leg sewn to its neck and arms emerging where the ears should be. From it emanated the sound of terrified meepings and grunts as it banged furiously on the door.

Vincent dashed up the stairs, determined to catch the abomination, but at that point it knocked the door open and dashed into the upper house. Like any good house sitter, Vincent pursued, determined to minimize any damage the thing might cause to Corbitt's furniture. The thing tore around the ground floor of the house, knocking over chairs and a china hutch, before Vincent cornered it. The thing turned, fear blazing in its eyes, and lept at Vincent, trying to bowl him over. Vincet struck out reflexively with the trowel, and the next second the thing was lying on the ground, twitching, a trowel embedded in its forehead. (Des rolled a "01" on Vincent's to-hit roll: double damage!)

Looking around, Vincent spotted a bookshelf with a set of journals, one for each year since Corbitt's fateful trip to the Himalayas when his father met his untimely end. There were also a couple tomes of an occult nature, but Des is a savvy Cthulhu player who tends to stay away from such things when she can help it. What is it with these players and trying to preserve their precious sanity? Sheesh.

At any rate, Vincent did pick up the latest volume of the diary and flicked through it. Detailed entries regarding some kind of "child" in the basement and the procurement of children's body parts convinced him to call up Bert and Ernie, the town's cops. Little did Vincent know that the "child" described in the journals was not the thing he had just killed but something far, far worse.

The two cops showed up presently and told Vincent to wait in the squad car while they secured the rest of the house. A few minutes later, screams could be heard coming from the basement. Ernie (or was it Bert?) came flying out the front door seconds later, sweating and rambling incoherently. Seemingly forgetting about Vincent in the backseat, he fired up the car and took off, somehow managing to drive back to the downtown police station without rolling the vehicle on a sharp turn.

The events of the next 24 hours quickly took on a surreal tone. San Francisco police were called in first, then the Feds. Then some guys who might have been the Feds, but might not. Then some guys in lab coats. Then the entire Corbitt house was burned down. A statement was distributed to the neighborhood to the effect that a virulent disease had been isolated in the house and that fire was the most efficacious way of eradicating the threat. A newspaper article appeared a few days later announcing Mr. Corbitt's arrest in Vancouver on federal bootlegging charges.

(Those of you who have read "Mr. Corbitt" know what was down in the basement, and why it was probably best for Vincent's sanity that he didn't go poking about down there. In the end, it was a great session filled with creepy chills and much nail-biting anxiety. Des lucked out with her Sanity checks, and rolled hot when she needed to. All in all, a great reminder of why I enjoy Call of Cthulhu so much.)

(Oh, and one other thing: I used this session to experiment with utilizing RPGDeck, software for managing background music and sound effects. It worked out great; highly recommended!)
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