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May 23rd, 2010

Call of Cthulhu: Arkham Special Cases Unit

Last night I started what I hope to be an ongoing (the word “regular” doesn’t quite fit) Call of Cthulhu campaign, inspired in part by Pelgrane’s Arkham Detective Tales, in part by the recently-published Arkham Now supplement, and in a large whack by The Scarifyers.

Set in current times, the campaign follows the cases of the “Arkham Special Cases Unit” (commonly known as ASCU, affectionately or sometimes less-than-affectionately referred to as ‘Askew’). The idea is that the ASCU is a small department of the Massachusetts state police that also brings in deputized consultants, works with the odd Federal agent or two, and is tasked with dealing with those weird cases that seem to pop up so frequently in the Miskatonic Valley. I provided the players with an introductory handout, and the initial cast of characters ended up as follows:

  • Maureen Gould, special agent of the D.A.’s office, a legal eagle who has an unfortunate inability to succeed at Sanity checks,
  • Dr. McCullen (if he has a first name, it never came up), a grizzled and semi-retired coroner/medical examiner,
  • Dr. Bennie Parker, a rather corpulent professor from Miskatonic University who consults with ASCU on the side, and
  • Sherman Bath III, a horror writer and occult expert, grandson of Sherman Bath, well-known 1920s pulp writer (same character, previous campaign)

The first scenario is “The Unsealed Room” from Secrets (with a few minor modifications). Be warned that there are spoilers for that adventure ahead!

The session began with the ASCU team arriving at a crime scene: a small suburban rambler in the relatively-undeveloped areas north of Arkham, where the door has been smashed in, and inside there is a body in very peculiar condition. There are a total of five wounds that look vaguely like animal bites, except they don’t match any animal anyone can identify, but the bites themselves are fairly superficial. The cause of death is that every last drop of blood has been drained from the body! The remains of a large german shepherd are in similar condition. Sherman is also rather surprised to identify the dead man as Alex Walden, another horror/occult writer whom Sherman met at a convention not nine months previously. Various clues around the house, including the fact that a kitchen chair had been cut up and its legs turned into wooden stakes, Walden’s own book on the occult being open to the entry about vampires, and an emptied revolver on the floor, suggested the Walden was about to go on a vampire hunt when whatever it was broke into the house and got him first. There are also indications that there was another man staying at the house, but there’s no sign of him now. There is also a tape recorder near the body, which has a recorded message from the dead man indicating that he was investigating “The Merton House,” and broke open a sealed room that contained some horrific thing — Walden believed it was Merton, transformed into a vampire — that had slain his friend Hume. Walden vowed to drive a stake through Merton’s heart, wherever Merton may lie.

The team headed back to town to hit the library. (Gotta love CoC — what other game could make going to the library so tense and full of drama? That’s just awesome.) They found more information about vampires generally, as well as a partial history of one Byron Merton, a wealthy young man of Arkham in the late ’30s who was the owner of the “Merton House,” and who was implicated in a string of mysterious deaths. Unfortunately, the issues of the Arkham Advertiser that would contain the final details of that particular story were missing from the public library collection, which stymied that avenue of investigation temporarily. That afternoon, Dr. McCullen performed the autopsy on Alex Walden and determined that not just the blood, but all the major bodily sources of iron had been drained, but gathered no further information than that. Various other avenues of research turned up the address of the Merton house itself, roughly a mile and a half away from Walden’s rental house, which had not been occupied since Byron Merton “went back to Europe” in 1936.

Late in the afternoon the team headed out to the Merton house, wanting to poke around a little while it was still daylight. They found it overgrown and in a bad state of disrepair, although it had once been a beautiful house. A little bit of looking around revealed that the back door had been broken into and was hanging open, and so they pulled out their flashlights and went inside. Poking around revealed that the house had been abandoned in a hurry way back when — to the point that dinner had not even been cleaned up. In the ground floor study they found a very interesting and incredibly rare handwritten manuscript entitled Cthulhu in the Necronomicon — apparently a copy of a draft — which made Sherman’s eyes light up with the zeal of a fanatic collector and nearly led to fisticuffs between him and Dr. Parker as to who would actually get to hold on to it. They also found Bryon Merton’s journal, which chronicled his trips to strange places in search of excitement, and his declaration that casting a spell he’d found called “Summoning the Crimson Horror from the Stars” would be a “fun challenge.” (Maureen Gould: “What an asshole!”) All of which led up to the final entry, in which Merton seems to realize too late just what he’s done and is attempting to make amends by sealing “it” into a steel room and warding the door with an Elder Sign … but the journal frustratingly ended there.

As it is getting dangerously close to sundown at this point, the team makes a very brief foray upstairs, where they do indeed find a steel room, which did indeed once have a clay seal inscribed with the Elder Sign (“tree” version) on the door, but which is now hanging open. They were also highly disturbed to hear a continuous stream of unsettling, otherworldly laughter [1] from further into the house. Wisely deciding that now would be a good time to leave, they grabbed the journal and the manuscript, as well as a cigar box of strange silvery ash they found in the study, and skedaddled back to town.

Sherman took the manuscript to his apartment and began to study; the rest of the team decided it was time to hit up the Miskatonic library for some more hardcore research. There they found the missing issues of the Arkham Advertiser from 1936, including a reference to “Sheriff Jonathan Perry of the Arkham Special Cases Unit” (dunh-dunh-dunnh) who announced that an arrest was imminent in the mysterious murders (but that rumors of a vampire were nonsense), but then no further details on the topic. Maureen also followed a trail of descriptions similar to the phenomena they had encountered so far that led her to the Necronomicon itself in the special collections room. (Fortunately, she and Dr. McCullen were both trained in Latin and could read it.) There, they found a full description of the monster, a “shambler from the stars” or “star vampire” [2] — unfortunately Maureen failed her third Sanity check of the evening and fainted. (A Mythos-induced moment of temporary insanity! I need to remember to award her “mad insight” at the beginning of the next session.)

The team gathered at Sherman’s house and compared notes. On Alex Walden’s laptop they found his notes about the Merton house and just what he and Hume were doing poking around in there. Apparently Walden was researching an upcoming book and stumbled upon the story of Byron Merton. Reading between the lines of official reports, he came to the conclusion that Merton had not “gone back to Europe” after all and that there was more to learn at the Merton house, which was what had prompted him to go to the Merton house and poke around — and while there to break into the sealed vault warded by the Elder Sign. There was also a notation of “Shady Hills Retirement Home,” strangely incongruous with the macabre story at hand; the team quickly made the connection that the fate of Sheriff Perry had never been established and so he might be there. They decided to head home for the night and try to see Mr. Perry in the morning.

After a night of less-than-restful sleep, they were awakened in the morning by a call from the uniform police units summoning them to another murder scene — this time a jogger from a small apartment complex a few miles away from the Merton house, again completely drained of blood — the pattern was beginning again. After investigating the scene and making their report (“Mauled by a bear.”) they called the Shady Hills Retirement Home and found that there was in fact a Jonathan Perry living there — 104 years old and generally disinclined to talk to strangers. But when he heard that state police investigators were asking to see him, he relented and told them he’d see them in the afternoon.

The rest of the morning was spent on more research on the dust of Ibn-Gazi (mentioned in the Necronomicon as well as Walden’s journal as making the star vampire visible) as well as the “dust of Hermes” mentioned in Walden’s journal. This ended up being “Baneful Dust of Hermes Trismegistus,” a recipe for which they found in the draft of Cthulhu In the Necronomicon. Sherman, much to his annoyance, couldn’t make out the spell, but Dr. Parker learned it easily, giving them a potential weapon with which to fight the horror.

The final encounter for the evening was their visit to former Sheriff Perry at Shady Hills Retirement Home. After a bit of coaxing, they got him to reveal that he and some others, convinced that Byron Merton was a vampire, had snuck into his house during daylight hours, where they found him fast asleep and looking as pale as death. Obviously, he must have been a vampire! So they drove a stake through his heart and left him there, closed up the house and covered up the incident, putting forth the story that Merton had “gone back to Europe” and thus saving the good citizens of Arkham from the undead menace. (Um, oops.) When asked if they found a vault with a clay seal over the door, Perry couldn’t remember at first, but then affirmed that they had indeed spotted such a thing, but had left it alone. When asked if he heard any strange laughter at the house, Mr. Perry denied it vehemently and a bit suspiciously. When it was hinted that Merton may not have actually been a vampire, Perry became visibly rattled and left the room, muttering repeatedly that he was “very, very tired.”

And with the awful realization of the truth of Byron Perry’s fate and the implications of how that led to Alex Walden and Randall Hume’s demise, as well as that of the poor innocent jogger, the session drew to a close. Next session … dealing with the monster!

-The Gneech

[1] Can you believe this is a ringtone? To get a rough semblance of the effect this had on the players, play it on a continual loop and gradually increase the volume from almost-inaudible to quite loud. They were glad to get out of there!

[2] Created by Robert Bloch and first described in Weird Tales

Originally published at gneech.com. You can comment here or there.

I Predict!

Locke wakes up in bed with Suzanne Pleschette, who tells him it was all a dream and to go back to bed. Yes, I KNOW she's dead.

-The Gneech

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