A flood of vintage NYPD crime photos will be resurfacing digitally, thanks to a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. Many date from the prime period of Lovecraftian horror, making them ideal handout fodder for your Trail of Cthulhu games. These images, including crime scene images from murder investigations, bring real-life grit to a time we often imagine in a prettier, Hollywood studio production design.
A prior batch of these are already available online, licensed for viewing but not commercial use. The big images have been watermarked into uselessness for home handout purposes. But if you hit the link for printer-friendly versions you’ll get a smaller but large enough version to pass around to your players. At this scale the watermarks are absent or can be mistaken for photographic imperfections. Keepers with high Credit Rating abilities might decide to spring for actual prints.
Right now most date from 1916-1920, but the grant covers a much longer period.
You will find plenty of actual murder images, who in your version weren’t bumped off by spouses or criminal accomplices but no doubt by tcho-tchos, cultists, and perhaps a star vampire or two.
Each Keeper will have to judge for herself whether the use of very old pictures of very real murders lie within the bounds of horror fan tastes. Poll your group before springing any graphic death photos on them.
However, not all of these pix can be overtly identified as the work of crime photographers. This evocatively empty tenement courtyard shot could easily represent the home of an urban witness your investigators have to find.
You can improvise your way to an urban period investigation by picking out a handful of shots you find evocative, then constructing a mystery that will take the characters there. For an improvised, Armitage Files-style game, have a bunch on hand to spark ideas during play.
Trail of Cthulhu is an award-winning 1930s horror roleplaying game by Kenneth Hite, produced under license from Chaosium. Whether you’re playing in two-fisted Pulp mode or sanity-shredding Purist mode, its GUMSHOE system enables taut, thrilling investigative adventures where the challenge is in interpreting clues, not finding them. Purchase Trail of Cthulhu and its many supplements and adventures in the Pelgrane Shop.
With my nearly year-long Feng Shui 2 series properly ushered to its exploding, juncture-rattling big finish, and my days currently occupied by a mobile game project I don’t have to playtest, I thought the Thursday night game should slip back into the familiar waters of DramaSystem. Its nonexistent GM prep demands make it a perfect fit for my current work schedule. This also affords me the opportunity to see the game played with a group that is now well accustomed to its style and able to grab the steering wheel from the first scene and keep on roaring.
I started by picking seven of the Series Pitches found in the core Hillfolk book, Blood on the Snow, and the Pitch of the Month Club and presenting them to my players to choose from. This follows the famous rule of seven, which says that once you give the human brain eight choices it shuts down completely and asks for a mug of hot tea.
By email the players found a quick consensus for “Alma Mater Magica,” Angus Abranson’s pitch about magicians who saved the world as young students, now in disappointed middle age and back as faculty at the school where they learned wizardry. Look for it on p. 159 of Blood on the Snow.
Players had the choice of specifying whether their characters been working at Concord University for a while, or would be returning in the course of the first episode. Concord, by the way, is less like Hogwarts than it is like Durham in Newcastle. Albeit with a layer of weirdness below its quotidian veneer.
Characters who were already on staff as of the start of the first episode were:
Dr. Jacobson, aka, “Doc” (played by Paul Jackson.) No one knows his actual first name. Head of the Department of Theoretical Thaumaturgy, Doc typifies the stuffy, arrogant, out-of-touch academic. Dramatic poles: Arrogance vs. Altruism. Desire: Recognition.
Ann Snooks (Rachel Kahn), assistant at the uni library. She wants to keep her head down, advance in her modest career, and forget the craziness of her nearly world-ending youth. Dramatic poles: Assertive vs. Doormat. Desire: Agency.
Einar Halverd (Justin Mohareb), aging party animal and Professor of Troll Studies. Eager to relive the glory days before he got so battle-scarred, he’s the who looks forward to seeing the band get back together. Dramatic poles: Domesticity vs. Action. Desire: Vitality.
Just now returning to Concord University are:
Earl Pudgely (Chris Huth), once unflattering nicknamed “the Earl of Pudgely.” Bullied as a shy, awkward student, he abandoned sorcery for a mundane life as a musician in the Manchester scene. Now nearly unrecognizable as a haggard recovering addict, he has taken a post as a Counseling Psychologist in the trenches of the uni’s threadbare student support system. Dramatic poles: Respect vs. Loathing (for self and others.) Desire: Sobriety.
Professor Stephen Kim (Scott Wachter.) A hotshot on a downward trajectory, the brilliant but erratic Kim has accepted a post teaching High Energy magic. A gift to any GM, he is the sort of reckless figure who gets plots moving. Dramatic poles: Action vs. Reason. Desire: Stability.
As DramaSystem requires, players established character relationships to one another as they created them. Given the premise of the pitch, the players described the relationships they had back in the day, which would then evolve or revert to form when the cast began to interact in the grim gray present. So far there’s been a lot of reverting.
Ann was his surrogate sister
Earl was his disappointment
Stephen was trouble
Einar is a gnat, beneath contempt
Doc was her alpha
Earl was her project
Stephen was a creep
Einar was the group weirdo
Stephen was beloved sidekick
Earl was best friend
Ann was his frenemy
Doc was his rival (the head butting was literal)
Ann was his confidant
Doc was the one you wanted respect from
Stephen was the bully he’s struggling to forgive
Einar was fear object
Earl was his target
Ann was his crush object
Doc was his academic rival
Einar was his partner in crime
Note the asymmetrical nature of certain relationships. Ann dismissively remembers Einar as the group weirdo; Einar thinks of her as both friend and enemy. Einar remembers Earl as a best friend, but Einar frightens Earl. And in a classic unequal relationship, teenage Stephen was sweet on Ann, who thought of him as a creep. This mimics real life and provides grist for the conflicting needs that generate dramatic scenes.
The next stage of DramaSystem group character creation takes these relationships and renders them active by asking players to specify something emotional they need from other players’ characters. The character named as the object of the want then explains why the desiring character can’t have it.
Doc wants Stephen to admit he’s right; Stephen doesn’t buy that.
He wants Ann to be happy; she doesn’t admit she’s sad.
Ann wants Stephen to get over his creepy high school crush; he doesn’t want to have to tell her that he no longer finds her attractive.
She wants Earl to stand up for himself and make his life better; he doesn’t want to be her project any more.
Einar wants Ann’s forgiveness; he can’t have it because she didn’t care in the first place.
He wants to relive his wild years with Stephen; he can’t have that because Stephen’s gotten too old for this shit.
Earl wants Doc’s respect; he can’t have that because Doc feels he doesn’t deserve it yet (and won’t until he admits he was wrong to renounce wizardry.)
Earl wants Einar to stop being intimidating; Einar doesn’t admit that he is.
Stephen wants Einar to not act like they’re teenagers; he can’t have it because for Einar to admit that would be giving in to entropy, which is death.
Stephen wants Earl to forgive him. Earl doesn’t trust him.
Next month we’ll look at how these elements came into play (or didn’t) during the series’ early episodes.
Forget your shrooms, your blotter dots. For me the opener to the gateway of creativity was always speed. Gobble a handful of bennies and work through the night boom flash bang. Only problem I faced or so I thought was making sure I had enough canvases on hand to last through a period of explosive muse channeling. Crank up the Skrillex, grab the paintbrushes and go. At the time I was going through a real surrealist phase. Giorgio de Chirico in particular. I was looking at so much of his work so intensely that his subject matter, those puppet-like figures, the vast empty vistas, started to creep into my own work. But what the hell call it remix culture, call it appropriation and keep painting man, that’s what I kept telling myself.
At some point the zone of chemically pure work flow takes a left turn, or at least it did for me, and the lines between sleeping and waking got blurry. I’d come to, lying on the floor in a pool of my own drool, and all over my images the wooden puppet men danced. Faceless and staring out at me, like expecting me to let them loose from the canvas. I got mad at them and repainted all of their hands to look kinda like dicks but they seemed to like that.
I take a commission to mural a door at the Cafe Arabica. So I paint the penis-handed dolls on it, piloting a ship. As I painted the finishing touches I somehow realized I’d given them permission to take me somewhere.
A couple of days later I take a turn on Queen West and all of a sudden I realize I’m dreaming. One minute I know I’m in Paris. Only not the Paris of today, but way back before World War II. Then I’m somewhere else again, on a windswept plaza. Sitting at a cafe table under a Greek statue wearing shades is this woebegone dude. I realize it’s my hero, de Chirico. Who died in the seventies. I sit down next to him to quiz him, and he’s all, oh no, now I’m bring them back in time. It was bad enough already.
That’s when my Dreamlands adventures began. It was the 21st century in my waking life but the early thirties when I dreamt, in this weirdo place, haunted not only by de Chirico but all these other platinum names from the art history books.
When Kuranes blasted my brain and I couldn’t dream any more, I woke up that morning and standing over me were the members of my old band. Gez, Marcos and Sarah. I said you were there, you were there, and you were there. You were Buñuel, Éluard and Gala.
They laughed said I was still high, and I was. But for the last time. The same magic of Celephaïs that stole my ability to enter the Dreamlands took away my body’s response to mind altering substances. Not even caffeine works on me any more. And my work’s nothing now, a boring retread of what used to be great.
The following memo was found in the archives of the Russian Academy of Sciences. It sheds light on the complicated relationship between the surrealist Dreamhounds of Parisand both the French Communist Party (PCF) and the intelligence arm of its Soviet masters.
Regarding your request for information arising from my office’s ongoing operation against the French so-called surrealists, I am authorized by my superiors to share the following.
First, our office agrees with your assertion, in your memo of June 21st, that the sealing of the Dream Zone remains an utmost security priority of the Soviet state. The threat of supernatural forces becoming manifest in this world undermines the dialectic and our officially held doctrine of materialism. In particular the prospect of workers being able to depart this realm for another of infinite color and wonder is one which, as your message underlines, a threat to productivity we can ill afford as we struggle to increase crop yields.
We continue to work through a valued asset in the field, Elsa Triolet. Now married to surrealist poet Louis Aragon, she encourages him to undermine and discredit the group. Once it has burst apart it is our hope that its members will, unable to form a psychic collective, lose the ability to transmit themselves into the Zone. This will, we predict, close it off and eliminate it as a danger.
Unfortunately Aragon’s new-found dedication to Stalinism has decisively parted him from the group, when we would prefer him to weaken it from the inside. In January Aragon attempted to republish a poem, “Red Front”, advocating the shooting of police. This led to his indictment on sedition charges. Local party officials unaware of this office’s aims and activities repudiated Aragon’s gesture as an act of childish stunting. They further scolded him for a pornographic daydream by the Spaniard Salvador Dalí, published in a recent surrealist propaganda organ. (Dalí is the most potent of surrealist magicians, against whom we may soon contemplate decisive action.) Aragon conveyed to surrealist commandant André Breton the PCF complaint that such obscene sexual fantasy complicates what should be simple relations between men and women. An inexplicably amused Breton then mockingly included this phrase in one of his publications. (Though also a PCF member, Breton has long marched to an unacceptably eccentric beat.) Aragon has now split from Breton, blaming him for revealing internal party communications.
In short, a rupture has now opened between Aragon and Breton. Triolet pushes him toward reconciliation but the long-fraying bonds of friendship and rivalry between the two poets may well preclude this.
It is this office’s contention that relations between the local party and surrealists be taken out of PCF hands and placed in ours, preventing further unfortunate tactical confusion. If you could use your influence to recommend this transfer of authority, I am confident that our position against the Dream Zone and its art magicians would be strengthened considerably.
Experienced seafarers know better than to risk the dangers of the Stranglesea: that terrible place where castaways cling to existence in the rotting hulks of trapped ships, and deadly creatures feast on the unwary.
Now a band of adventurers must enter the Stranglesea and attempt to rescue the enigmatic engineer Inigo Sharpe from his imprisonment. But Sharpe is both more and less than they were prepared for — and the forces of an enemy icon want him for their own sinister purposes.
The Strangling Sea is a seafaring 13th Age Roleplaying Game adventure by Robin D. Laws for a party of 4-6 1st-level adventurers.
An Appalling Summoning…
Demons of the Depths, Awakened…
Slaughter on Your Mapping App…
…and, of Course, Murder Clowns
For decades, the Ordo Veritatis has fought the occult operations of the Esoterrorists, occult operatives bent on ripping apart the membrane between our reality and the demonic vortex of the Outer Dark.
Now that threat directly looms. A barbaric ritual in an underground club touches off a series of coordinated assaults designed to break our world forever.
In this world-spanning campaign of interlocking scenarios, your agents conduct the high-stakes investigations required to stop them.
Until now, Esoterror’s cosmic endgame has been described in background material but never taken center stage in adventures your agents can take part in.
They’ve read the training manuals. They’ve attended the briefings. Now it’s time to deploy their knowledge in the field, staking life, limb and mental stability against those who would destroy everything we know.
After a gore-spattered prologue, Worldbreaker gives your players the choice of four harrowing scenarios they can tackle in any order.
From caverns deep below Belize to an arm’s dealers warehouse in Transnistria, from Silicon Valley offices to haunted, rebel-held forests of Nigeria, your agents unravel the schemes of monsters both metaphorical and literal. Battle deconstructed animals, opportunistic demons, body-stealing parasites and otherworldly PR agents.
Put together the pieces leading to the climactic intervention against the conspiracy’s mastermind and the mightiest, most destructive Outer Dark Entity to ever squeeze through a hole between realms.
All adventures written by Robin D. Laws, creator of GUMSHOE and the Esoterror setting.
Can you keep the world unbroken? And how many agents will you lose along the way?
Dreamhounds of Parisalready stretches Trail of Cthulhu’s default time frame by covering events of the surrealist movement from the 1920s. While researching the book I found some details ripe for Lovecraftian parallel that fell on the other side of the time divide.
Although the surrealist movement never recovers from the Occupation and the flight of key figures out of Paris, their lives don’t end there. André Breton, the stuffy, bullying chief ideologue of surrealism, winds up in New York City in 1941. He does not enjoy it there. He makes little attempt to learn the language. In the face of American informality, his ultra-serious, parliamentary way of running surrealist meetings seem patently ridiculous, even to him.
One pleasure occupies his unhappy days in the Big Apple. Throughout his career he has been fascinated by non-Western artifacts, venerating the superior wisdom of the cultures that created them. Rare ethnographic objects litter the shelves of New York antique shops. No one else yet shows much interest in them, so he is able to amass an impressive collection of authentic pieces for a pittance.
Breton, never been able to travel to the Dreamlands, now denounces dream imagery as useless. He declares that surrealism must return to the magic of its earlier automatism period, when the group met to conduct seances. Can this be anything other than the influence of ancient items of power among his tribal antiquities?
In 1942, he declares the need to create a new mythology. He proposes the existence of the Great Invisibles, undetectable beings who surround humanity at all times. Without clearly spelling out whether they’re a metaphor or a force he literally believes in, he describes them as “insubstantial nodal points of human desires and aspirations toward the marvelous.”
Investigators steeped in Mythos knowledge, who bump into Breton and his new myth maybe in a one-shot sequel scenario, feel their hackles rising at the sound of this. Is this Yog-Sothoth posing as a positive force? A fresh scheme of Nyarlathotep’s?
Shortly after the war, Breton’s inquiries take him to Haiti, where he witnesses a voodoo ceremony. Something he sees changes him.
After returning to Paris, he announces that surrealism is no longer about ending the world as it is known, and that the apocalyptic voices they once followed lead to a path of destruction. He delves further than ever into alchemy and the esoteric. In 1953, he starts work on L’Art magique, a book on the connection between magic and art. He finds it tough going, in part because one of his voodoo dolls doesn’t want him to write it, and keeps staring him down from its perch on his office shelf. Acknowledging in 1956 that his tribal fetish objects control his life, he keeps trying to rearrange them in hopes of restoring himself back to health and mental focus.
This might inspire another one-shot sequel investigation. Do the PCs free Breton from the bondage of these objects, or decide that he must be contained by them in order for the world to go on living?
The surrealist films your player characters help to create as the Dreamhounds of Paris one day wind up on YouTube. The ones fit for human observation, at any rate.
In 1928, expat American photographer and painter Man Ray and French poet Robert Desnos collaborate on the film L’Étoile de mer, or Starfish. They film portions of it in the Dreamlands, thereby initiating its lead actress, Ray’s lover, as a dreamer. Getting camera equipment there means going in waking form, not as dreamers. That requires the filmmakers to haul it through Paris’ portal to the Dreamlands, the Catacombs. Fortunately Desnos is on good terms with the ghouls who dwell there and guard the gateway. He and the former human alchemist Nicolas Flamel go way back. Although our veiled senses want to assume that the entity shown in the film is an ordinary starfish in an aquarium, true seers immediately grasp that it is a multi-tentacled avatar of the Old Ones. The creature also manifests the dreamstuff of cabaret singer Yvonne George, for whom Desnos suffers terrible pangs of unrequited love. But that’s a long story, best described in the pages of Dreamhounds of Paris
Five years prior, Ray’s first short film, Retour A La Raison (Return to Reason) debuts in circumstances that for decades eclipse its innovation as a purely abstract piece of cinema. André Breton, the surrealist movement’s oddly doctrinaire leader, is feuding with Tristan Tzara, self-proclaimed impresario of Dada. Tzara stages a night of avant garde performances, including a screening of Retour A La Raison. Breton has no beef with Ray, but considers various other program items, including the participation of surrealist arch-nemesis Jean Cocteau, outrageous. So midway through he leaps onto the stage and breaks the arm of a writer named Pierre de Massot with his cane. In the ensuing mayhem, the innovations of Retour a la Raison go by the wayside.
In 1926 Ray makes Emak Bakia (Leave Me Alone), a longer exercise in abstraction, including stop motion animated sequences and another glimpse of the glamorous Kiki. Breton dislikes this one, too, because it also features the poet Jacques Rigaut, who he has excommunicated from the group. Through a true dreamer’s eyes the elements of filmed sculpture, the departure from narrative, can only be seen as a filmed incantation. The English title gives it away: just what entity is the filmmaker trying to keep at bay? After talking about it for years, Rigaut shoots himself in the heart on November 9, 1929, measuring with a ruler to make sure he hits the organ squarely. Does Ray’s filmed conjuration backfire on Rigaut? Or is his suicide its final, necessary component?
Cinema history does not look kindly on Ray’s last film, 1929’s Les Mystères du Château du Dé, which is hard to regard as anything other than him filming his rich friends and patrons farting around at a manor. However, since the main rich friend is surrealist patron Charles de Noailles, this gives you a great visual of what your characters might see when invited to hobnob with the well-heeled at a villa outside town. However, it can’t entirely be a coincidence that it prominently features d6s, the patron die of GUMSHOE.
More about de Noailles in a moment.
The most notorious surrealist film of all remains Un Chien Andalou, a collaboration between longtime friends Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí, both at the very beginning of their long careers. Its central image of a razor slicing across an eyeball freaks out film students even today. On the night of its 1929 debut, a nervous Buñuel hides in the wings, his pockets full of rocks. He expects to have to hurl them at angry audience members when they attack him. Instead, the film receives a stunned but rapturous welcome from Paris’ avant garde. It exerts enough power to convert a resistant Breton, who declares them true surrealists. In Dalí’s case, this is an embrace he’ll later come to regret. What they don’t tell him is that they saw many of its key images while exploring the Dreamlands. If you play either Dalí or Buñuel, you may see the eye slicing image again, in the early moments of the introductory scenario.
The Buñuel-Dalí collaboration hits the rocks—rocks populated by skeletal priests—as they try to follow it up with L’Âge d’or. Dalí wants to further emphasize imagery from their Dreamlands explorations. Buñuel, drunk on the works of the Marquis de Sade, prefers an anti-clerical theme. They clash further when Dalí becomes obsessed with Gala, voracious wife of the poet Paul Éluard, who Buñuel can’t stand and at one point nearly strangles to death. When they show the finished film in Paris in 1930, scandal erupts. The city’s rightist police chief demands that all copies of the blasphemous film be destroyed. Its funder, aristocrat Charles de Noailles, has to distance himself from the surrealists, or face social ostracism. But he does squirrel away the negative, allowing for its rediscovery in 1971.
During their waking adventures, the surrealists discover links between rightist forces and the Parisian occult underground. What magic were they trying to stop by ordering the destruction of L’Âge d’or?
Ray, Desnos, Kiki, Tzara, Buñuel and Dalí all appear as playable PCs in Dreamhounds.
One figure I’d hoped to feature as a possible player character in Dreamhounds of Paris is the painter Yves Tanguy. His imaginary biomorphic landscapes seem as dreamlandish as better-documented movement cohorts Salvador Dalí, Max Ernst, or André Masson. Their undulating forms evoke a primordial soup on the verge of spawning life. His careful delineations of things that never existed suggest a place where biology itself may take revenge on unwary Dreamlands explorers.
I was disappointed to find little biographical information on him in English. It’s not that he wasn’t a colorful character. We know he was taciturn when sober, but violent when drunk. That gives a player seeking a problem-making character who tears things up something to work with. He took part in at least one armed attack on behalf of the surrealists, in 1930 joining the angry gang that descended on a bar run by former movement member Robert Desnos. Desnos’ offense? Naming the place Maldoror, after the protean anti-hero of a novel beloved by the surrealists, and thus cheapening the holy reputation of its long-dead author, the Comte de Lautréamont.
Tanguy lived in squalor but always kept himself fastidiously clean, and fashionably clothed. Concern for hygiene didn’t, it must be said, prevent him from eating bugs when out on country walks. He styled his hair to stand straight up on end and looks not entirely unlike a later exponent of the rebel ethos, John Lydon.
He was sex drugs and rock and roll before rock n roll existed in other ways, too. When movement gatekeeper André Breton first met him, he was hopped up on cocaine. His headlong pursuit of Bohemian excess wrecked his first marriage.
Tanguy roomed with two other men who would go on to shape French culture, the writer Jacques Prévert and the future crime fiction tastemaker Marcel Duhamel.
In 1936 he was pursued by the irrepressible American collector, philanthropist and art groupie Peggy Guggenheim. This could generate some interplay with Max Ernst, who wound up with her later.
Like many others in the surrealist circle Tanguy escaped to the US when the war broke out.
With so many other figures vying for limited space in Dreamhounds, this didn’t seem like enough to go on to give him more than a cursory entry. But maybe you prefer to play someone without too many established life highlights to navigate your character decisions around. If so, this spiky-haired scrapper needs only some game statistics before joining the dreamscaping fray.
When traveling through the Dreamlands, especially when accompanied by Luis Buñuel or Salvador Dalí, one may come upon La Abadía de los Putrefactos, an imposing structure of suffocating order. It appears as a counterforce after you move the Dreamlands too quickly toward chaos and freedom. Should you attempt to move away from it, it shifts its position, placing itself always in your way. With great effort, you can sidestep it, but if you do, it will be all the harder to avoid the next time it places itself before you. The only way to dismiss it, and then only temporarily, is to enter it and interact with its mummified inhabitants. Like the dream-structures they are, their corridors defy attempts to remember where you’re going. As you wend your way through its cyclopean hallways, you hear shuffling feet but likely see no one. Then you find yourself outside an arch, from which low murmurs emanate. Inside you may find a chamber of empty chairs arranged around a dusty table, perhaps strewn with the bones of a child or minotaur.
Or you might stumble upon the putrefactos themselves. Gaunt, whispering, coughing up clouds of dust, these dried-up liches wear the uniforms of authority, dressing as businessmen, military officers, and most of all, bishops and cardinals. They direct querulous stares in your direction. A skeletal functionary, its forefinger an ink-filled pen nib, records each command they make of you, skritching down a transcript of proceedings on an infinite vellum scroll,.
The putrefactos know many esoteric secrets, and may share them with you, in exchange for your deference. Bold dreamers may succeed in intimidating them: they fear satire, sex, and fire. Should you want to tamp down the liberties of a fellow dreamer, they’ll eagerly provide the poisons and gems of control necessary for the task. Waking visitors to the Dreamlands can take these artifacts back with them to the real world. They aid you as you perform acts reinforcing what the putrefactos call the stasis quo. But beware: keep them too long and they harden the arteries, induce arthritis, and degrade your bones.
Louis Aragon says that church and state will crumble if only a surrealist dreamer can find a way to destroy the abbey once and for all. The hopping moonbeasts of Leng, it is said, despise the putrefactos, and have developed a weapon to trap their abbey for eternity in the tear of a swan. Dare you venture there, and ask them for this gift?
In the Trail of Cthulhu campaign sourcebook Dreamhounds of Paris, you play the major figures of the surrealist movement as you discover your ability to manipulate the fantastical realm of the sleeping mind. Order it today, or the bulbheads will get you!