A column on roleplaying

by Robin D. Laws

 

When we think of doing a haunted house horror scenario, we tend to look to The Haunting (1963, Robert Wise) and its cousin The Legend of Hell House (1973, John Hough.) This plot template pits a seasoned group of paranormal investigators against a home infested by supernatural menace.

You can follow it in The Esoterrorists or Trail of Cthulhu.

In the first case, prior urban legends surround the house. A famous hoax, like the one really at the core of the Amityville franchise, might have been staged there. An Esoterror cell now elects to use the ambient anxiety townsfolk feel about the place to summon Outer Dark Entities. The extra-planar monsters generate actual manifestations, attacking the Stability of the house’s current residents.

Maybe the original structure was razed years ago. So long as people remember where it was, the cell has enough psychic energy to work with to attract some suitable ODEs.

If the building still exists but lies abandoned, the entities go after occasional visitors, from meter readers to thrill-seeking amateur ghost hunters.

Believers in literal ghosts, unaware that something much nastier is behind the knocks, door closings, and apparitions, don’t stand a chance in there. The ODEs toy with them, as they do with all mortals, breaking them over time. The agents must find the cell, learn what ritual element binds the entities to the house, and destroy it. The item most likely consists of a box containing artifacts associated with the original case, or the family presently occupying the house.

In Trail of Cthulhu, non-Euclidean space has intruded into the house, eating away at anyone unfortunate enough to come into contact with it. The planar disturbance might have been conjured by witchcraft, as in “Dreams of the Witch House”, or “From Beyond”-style scientific inquiry into Things That Must Not Be Known. Either way, the investigation probes the same question: what do we need to know to sever the connection between the house and this unfathomable other dimension?

If a witch caused this and is still present, investigators have to to figure out how to find her and how to banish her. Along the way they must avoid countermeasures taken by scuttling rat-being familiars—or some other less canonical secondary threat the players aren’t expecting.

If the gate to non-Euclidean space lingers as the remnant of an old summoning, the group must discover that, identify the nature of the entities now taking opportunistic advantage of it, and find a way to close the portal. Step three may require fighting the beings mentioned in step two.

When weird science has opened the portal, the team must reconstruct the mad experiment so they can then work out how to reverse it. The scientist, now transformed and probably running about waggling his pineal gland at any who dare enter, serves as main antagonist. Or maybe the victims of the manifestations all become possessed by Lovecraftian aliens.

A third option has the malleable reality of the Dreamlands bleeding into the house. For example, your Dreamhounds of Paris surrealists could discover that a rich patron’s chateau has been infected by their nocturnal activity. Now, it might be useful to have an easy way of entering the Dreamlands while awake, especially if you’ve annoyed Nicolas Flamel and his ghouls of the Paris Catacombs. Still, you also don’t want one of your few financial supporters to become forever lost in the vale of sleep. Your task then becomes to journey into the Dreamlands and use your shaping powers to erect a wall barring its denizens from entering the chateau. Your opposition consists of dream beings who enjoy entering our world and want to keep on doing it, no matter how many people of the Wakelands they drive insane.

Fear Itself suggests another possibility: you play the family in the house. Way more haunted house movies, in keeping with their themes of the family under threat and the anxieties of property, focus on a mom, dad and kids. Paranormal experts may show up to provide exposition and perhaps exorcism, but our attention stays with the distressed family unit. Examples include Poltergeist (1982, Tobe Hooper), Sinister (2012, Scott Derrickson), Insidious (2010, James Wan), and the alien variant Dark Skies (2013, Scott Stewart.)

Here you create new characters, all closely related: father, mother, and one to three kids. You can also throw in a live-in extended family member to fill out the group: a grandmother, uncle, or a nanny who has been with the family so long she’s treated like a blood relative. In place of the Worst Things the characters ever did, one random character gets designated as the Mistake Maker. The Mistake is the decision that started the family’s collision with the supernatural. The most common Mistake is buying the haunted house. If you go with this, both the mom and the dad can be the Mistake Maker. Or the one who pushed for the purchase over the objections of the other bears that burden alone. Other Mistakes:

  • finding that weird stuff in the attic
  • opening that tunnel under the house
  • messing around in the cemetery next door
  • playing with an Ouija board (or otherwise messing with the occult)
  • arousing the ire of someone with the power to bestow curses
  • (for a disturbed kid character) torturing those animals

The GM hands out Mistake cards, some of them blank, the others including red herring Mistakes. The Mistake Maker gets the card with the real answer on it. To end the haunting, the family must determine what the real Mistake was and then somehow undo it. As ever, simply leaving the house never works—the dark forces have awakened and will now infest whatever place you run to.

Admitting your Mistake to everyone else might cost Stability points, or require you to do something in the story to gain permission to reveal it. GMC paranormal investigators can help, but might also push you further into insanity when the entities destroy their minds or bodies. The GM might further pare the Fear Itself ability roster, making sure that those left to the group are the only ones needed to answer the scenario’s questions.

To take the most obvious choice, run the family-based haunted house scenario as a one-shot. It could on the other hand make an interesting way into an ongoing Fear Itself series where the family uses what it learns in this first scenario to go out and fight other occult dangers. Think “Supernatural” with an entire family unit instead of two brothers.

In the latest episode of their well-laid podcast, Ken and Robin talk Crate Man, secret maps, prepping Cthulhu and the raid on Powell’s.

New creature for The Esoterrorists or Fear Itself

A hole opens up in the road outside your house. You pay no attention to this. Guarded by construction fence, it shows every sign of being regular repair work. Maybe they’re fixing the water mains. Or resurfacing the pavement. But then it gradually dawns that you never see anyone working on it during the day. It couldn’t possibly have opened up during the night, could it? You’d have heard them, and been disturbed by the noise. What construction projects get done in the darkness?

Projects by the workmen do. These beings from the Outer Dark materialize beneath busy urban areas. Drawn to neighborhoods in flux, they absorb and reflect anxieties of homeowners and renters alike. The nature of the change matters not. They show up where foreclosures are rampant, and where rising rents threaten to price out longterm residents. Anyone who gazes down into their holes becomes a psychic power battery. Once empowered they sneak from their tunnels, unlock your doors, and to stand over your bed at night, drinking your essence. As you start to die, your symptoms mimic those of hazardous chemical exposure. Doctors may try to find the source of the contamination, but no matter how many soil tests they perform they never turn up the real truth.

To end an infestation you have to descend into their tunnels. Once underground one finds a labyrinthine dig defying ordinary geometry. Stopping them means finding the original gateway to the Outer Dark. The workmen, with their helmet-like heads, glowing eyes and skulking bodies, individually pose no greater threat than an ordinary person. But there are so, so many of them. And if they take you out in their subterranean home ground, you join their ranks, slaving eternally for more scraps of emotional residue…

Abilities: Athletics 6, Health 6, Scuffling 6

Hit Threshold: 3

Weapon: +1 (pick-axe or shovel)

Alertness Modifier: +1

Stealth Modifier: +2


The Esoterrorists are occult terrorists intent on tearing the fabric of the world – and you play elite investigators out to stop them. This is the game that revolutionized investigative RPGs by ensuring that players are never deprived of the crucial clues they need to move the story forward. Purchase The Esoterrorists in print and PDF at the Pelgrane Shop.’

The Seventh Circle_cover_400l“Whereas the hand of God crafted this fine world, there are places, like that damned rock, that were not touched by His hand, but by those of another. Whatever it is that calls to those who walk its on shores, it waits in the darkness, within the rock, waiting to be let out. If you’re planning on going over there, may God protect you…”

You are the presenters and crew of a paranormal investigation television show. The show is building up to the end of its current season and has been presented with the opportunity to record an investigation on the remote Scottish island of Eilean Mòr. The island has a history of strange disappearances that stretches back over the last hundred years, but more recently a house was built there by a famous architect, Nathan Glaas, who went missing immediately after its completion. Even though no-one has entered the building in the last seven years, it is far from empty…

The Seventh Circle is a Fear Itself adventure for 4-6 players by Matthew Sanderson, author of The Love of Money. It is designed as a stand-alone adventure with pre-generated characters provided, but it can be tweaked to accommodate characters in a pre-existing group.

Stock #: PELG014 Author: Matthew Sanderson
Artist: David Lewis Johnson, Jethro Lentle, Martin Pikkaart Pages: 88 page perfect bound

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See P. XX

A column on roleplaying

by Robin D. Laws

With Kevin Kulp’s TimeWatch RPG blasting through Kickstarter as only a chronoton can, you may be asking yourself if you can put time travel in other GUMSHOE games. We at Pelgrane are not in the business of telling you not what not to do with GUMSHOE. (Unless you want to use it to light your Hibachi indoors. In which case, don’t do that.)

That caveated, here’s how you might do it in the various existing GUMSHOE settings.

The Esoterrorists/Fear Itself/Trail of Cthulhu

One of my favorite treatments of time travel comes, of all places, from an old Batman comic. And not during a cool Batman phase, but from the kooky silver age. In that story, the details of which my memory is doubtless mangling, Batman and Robin go back in time hypnotically. (In fact, now Googling “Batman time travel”, I find that I like this idea because I’m remembering it wrong.) In my memory’s mistaken version of how this works, they possess the bodies of their ancestors, who happen to be conveniently located and remarkably similar in appearance in ancient Rome, the old west, the Viking era and so on.

Lovecraft likewise treats time travel as a mental journey, making it the specialty of the Great Race of Yith. In a Trail game you need go no further than to have a series of weird murders committed by a victim of Yithian possession. When the investigators capture the first suspect, the Yithian simply jumps to someone else—perhaps a PC whose player is absent that session—and forges ahead with the mayhem. To really shut down the Yithian menace, the group must figure out what the entity is trying to accomplish, and then take action to ensure that it is no longer possible. Otherwise the body-hopping from the ancient past continues.

Scrubbing the Mythos detail from this idea for The Esoterrorists or Fear Itself allows you to reverse the direction of travel. Outer Dark Entities come from the future, when they have already breached the membrane, to create the conditions that will later allow them to breach the membrane. They can’t travel directly into this time, but possess those emotionally destabilized by Esoterror provocations. Again the problem is that stopping one meat-form merely slows them down, requiring them to find a suitably vulnerable replacement. The definitive solution depends on rendering what changes they’re trying to wreak in the timestream impossible. After the Veil-Out, the Ordo Veritatis might take temporary relief in the thought that they’ve prevented a future in which their demonic foes win. But plenty of additional ways for them to do it remain, as a fresh manifestation quickly demonstrates.

Mutant City Blues

The conceit in this mutant-powered police procedural is that all weird abilities are already well explicated by science. If you do want to invent a mutant time travel ability you have to find a spot for on the Quade Diagram. Somewhere out near sector F00, where the weirdo dream manipulation appears, might fit the bill. You also want to establish the effects of time manipulation as already measurable, if not fully understood. So perhaps a time distortion field might emit some sort of radiation that enters the bloodstream, or induce over-production of a particular preexisting hormone. As members of the Heightened Crimes Investigation Unit you can perform tests on tissue samples to determine whether victims, alive or on a morgue examination table, were exposed to time altering energies. Finding out who committed the time crime would then be a matter of finding out which local mutant miscreant has the mutation in question. That said, given the down-and-gritty reality level of Mutant City Blues superheroics I would be inclined to make time travel something that tantalizingly almost seems to exist, until the detectives get to the real truth of the matter. Perhaps false rumors of time travel could be connected to the alien beings some people in the world credit with the Sudden Mutant Event that created all weird powers.

Ashen Stars

The space opera setting of Ashen Stars seems tailor-made for timey-wimey activities. Like several sources of its inspiration, it includes godlike aliens. Or at least there used to be godlike aliens, the Vas Kra, who have devolved into the all-too-moral vas mal. And with those in the mix, even if only in the setting’s past, anything can happen. That allows you to nod to this key genre element without introducing brain-cracking paradoxes that rightly belong in TimeWatch territory. Needless to say the shift from universe with time travel to universe without would be an outcome of the Mohilar War. We might take a cue here from the current, degraded morphologies of the Vas Mal, the former godlike aliens. Now they look like classic UFO grays, which hook up to the motif of missing time. Perhaps in the Ashen Stars universe, missing time derives not from hypnosis or erased memories but from proximity to time travel and its contradictions in minds not capable of handling it. Back in the 20th century, when the Vas Kra came to earth to meddle with the human mind, those taken up into their vessels suffered gaps in understanding because they brushed too close with their transtemporal natures. This leads to the theory, oft-mooted by residents of the Bleed, that the Vas Kra ended the Mohilar War by interfering massively in the past of those forgotten beings. It explains how the war ended, how the Vas Kra lost so much energy that they had to devolve, and why no one remembers that this happened. The fear that this is so leads at least one powerful movement to oppose all efforts by the vas mal to reconstitute themselves, lest time travel come back, unleashing chaos throughout the cosmos—maybe bringing back the Mohilar, too.

Night’s Black Agents

What if the vampires are time travelers? They’re humans who, sometime in the future, discovered how to move through time. Problem: doing so warped their bodies. They became vulnerable to sunlight and had to drink the blood of humans uncontaminated by chrono-energy to survive. Their added strength and resistance to damage (except to the brain or heart) hardly counts as a fair trade. So they send agents back to the past, to prevent the chain of events that leads to their own development of time technology. Stopping those events requires a grand upsetting of the geopolitical power structure. To achieve this they must penetrate and destroy the world’s intelligence agencies. The PCs know too much about this, even if they don’t believe the truth, and hence find themselves on the run from somewhat sympathetic vampires from the future. Who still want to pulp them and take nourishment from their juices.

bookA while back, Sune Nødskou designed a character sheet for Fear Itself. Spencer Sanders has taken Sune’s original sheet and made it fillable, as well as including spaces for the stereotype and a few languages. You can download Spencer’s new sheet as a PDF here.

The GUMSHOE system by Robin D. Laws revolutionized the investigative roleplaying game, and is the basis for RPGs that will appeal to fans of many genres: space opera, spy thriller, Lovecraftian horror and two-fisted pulp adventure — with more to come.

Its central premise, though, can be challenging for newcomers to wrap their heads around. What do you mean investigative skills automatically work? If we don’t roll dice to find clues, what do we do?

One of the best ways to introduce new players to GUMSHOE is to run one of our 20-minute GUMSHOE demo adventures for them. These scenarios have been tested through convention play, and provide a solid intro to the rules as well as to individual games based on the system. If you are running something else with your game group, 20 minutes isn’t a hard sell to run at the beginning of a session.

Currently you can download three short GUMSHOE demos:

20-minute demos for Esoterrorists, Fear Itself and Mutant City Blues will be up next. Give these scenarios a try, and let us know how your session went in the forum.

Fear_Itself_CoverToC

Nominated for Best Adventure in the 2012 ENnie awards

The kids all say Our Lady’s Hospital is haunted. You can see why, when you look at it, that big gloomy pile of staring windows and rusting beds. They should have torn the place down years ago, instead of letting it linger on like this. I’d hate to be a patient there. They send you there to die.

You are a patient in an old, rambling hospital. Part of it is shut down, part of it lies in decay. The equipment is out of date, the staff are unmotivated and the whole place reeks of disinfectant, death and seventy years of despair. The hospital has ghosts and spirits walking the halls but they are the least of your worries. You should be afraid of what comes out at night. You should be afraid of what makes the ghosts flee.

Dr Drake, the resident surgeon is a genius and like all genuises, he has his secrets, his obsessions and his madness. One such obsession has taken root in the hospital. You can’t stop it, all you can do is try to get out alive.

Invasive Procedures is the new Fear Itself adventure from Gareth Hanrahan, author of Arkham Detective Tales, three Skulduggery settings and the forthcoming Brief Cases: Three Adventures for Mutant City Blues. Invasive Procedures includes an extract from The Book of Unremitting Horror.

Invasive Procedures now includes conversion information so you can run this adventure with the Trail of Cthulhu system.

You can download a layout map of Our Lady’s Hospital in the Resources section.

Stock #:PELG09 Author: Gareth Hanrahan
Artist:Pascal Quidault Pages: 52 page Perfect Bound

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We are $375 from a free Esoterrorists and Fear Itself, thanks to the wonders of crowdfunding. Why not take a look at all the perks still available here.

A new five star review by William Graham of Fear Itself is on rpgnow.com.

This product sets itself apart from other Horror Rules because of the way everything interacts with the entire GUMSHOE system in a meaningful and immersive manner. The Risk Factors provide believable, character driven motivations for adventuring; Stability Sources provide opportunities for backgrounds that have meaning to the characters and affect them in a very real way; and the Psychic rules bring my first experience with a subtle use of “powers” that enhances creepiness and provides players with alternative avenues of information gathering and action (perfect for real world settings).

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