The Call of Chicago: Framing, Drilling, Carnacking

Kenneth HiteAs I begin planning future Ken Writes About Stuff pieces, a number of solid GUMSHOE campaign frames occur to me. Longer than the frames in the corebooks, but not super complex, such settings make good KWAS PDFs. They might not support a whole book (although then again they might, if sales of the basic PDF drive me to write sequels or expansions) but they are worth exploring for a few thousand words. Frames like 1970s UFO investigation, or menagerie hunters in a fantastic Byzantine Empire, or cyberpunk resistance in a Soviet-occupied Japan, or superpowered spies a la S.H.I.E.L.D. or Suicide Squad are easy to adapt. Roles for both Investigative and General abilities are clear; the stories feel like other GUMSHOE games already.

Sometimes, however, the potential campaign frame needs something else.

As one might expect of a longtime Lovecraftian and sometime consulting occultist, I am a great admirer of William Hope Hodgson’s horror fiction. I first discovered Hodgson in the Ballantine Adult Fantasy edition of The Boats of the ‘Glen Carrig,’ an inescapably weird blend of sea story and horror sequence. But as a game designer, I am drawn inexorably to Hodgson’s nine tales (written between 1910 and 1918) of Carnacki, the “Ghost Finder.” (One of those tales, “The Hog,” shares enough imagery in common with Hodgson’s 1908 novel The House on the Borderland to make that magnificent haunted-house thriller also part of the Carnacki-verse.) Carnacki acts as a sort of proto-steampunk private occult detective, looking into reputed hauntings and, if he finds them genuine, using his “electric pentacle” to thwart the evil spirits responsible.

If you haven’t read any Carnacki stories, the rest of this column may constitute spoilers. So go read them.


Pretty much everyone’s favorite parts of Carnacki are the strange supernatural elements (the Sigsand Manuscript, the Aeiirii and Saiitii Entities, the Saamaa Ritual), the weird technology (not just electric pentacles but dream-readers, “repellent vibration apparatus,” and a whole hinted world of ghost-breaking scholarship), and the wild proto-Derlethian cosmology of Outer Beings formed from the ether held in check by sunlight and the occasional Protective Presence. You can add those to your Trail of Cthulhu or Esoterrorists game and move on happily.

But to model the actual Carnacki stories requires us to drill down and find out how those stories work in GUMSHOE. The Investigative abilities are very obvious and fairly standard — Carnacki spends Architecture in almost every tale, for example, to make sure there isn’t a mundane explanation such as creaking floorboards or drafts. So it’s the General ability opportunities that we’re looking for.What are their big conflicts? Where, in GUMSHOE terms, is the threat of failure truly present and interesting?

Real fast, then: Here are the threat points in each of the nine stories, presented in a deliberately bald and stripped-down fashion. (They’re much better than these summaries make them sound.) The General Abilities Carnacki seems to use are in parentheses afterward.

    • “The Gateway of the Monster”: Investigating a haunted room, Carnacki nearly upsets his own pentacle three times. The next night, he foolishly brings a magic ring he found inside his pentacle but resists its power, and manages to jump the pentacle and escape in time. (Stability, Athletics)
    • “The House Among the Laurels”: Carnacki’s investigation proves that the so-called haunting is caused by a criminal gang. When he returns with the police, the party makes too much noise and the gang escapes, but Carnacki has “laid the ghost.” (Stealth)
    • “The Whistling Room”: After discovering the horror in the room, Carnacki is tricked into entering it by the mimicked voice of his client. An unknown voice chants an incantation allowing him to jump out the window and free himself. (Stability? Athletics?)
    • “The Horse of the Invisible”: Carnacki and his client wound a jilted suitor in a fight, exposing his attempt to fake a haunting. A genuine ghost then kills the suitor and the hauntings stop (for now). (Firearms and Scuffling, used at penalties for darkness)
    • “The Searcher of the End House”: Carnacki successfully traps the man who has been trying to scare the tenants from the house, which is coincidentally haunted by two presences. Carnacki doesn’t even try to exorcise the presences. (Mechanics)
    • “The Thing Invisible”: Carnacki’s investigation discovers a deadly booby-trap with no supernatural component.
    • “The Hog”: A horrible monster slowly overwhelms Carnacki’s defenses. At the last minute, a defending spirit rescues Carnacki and his client. (Mechanics? Stability)
    • “The Haunted Jarvee“: Carnacki’s attempts to cleanse a haunted ship of evil vibrations fail, as a demonic storm overturns his devices. (Mechanics)
    • “The Find”: Pure deduction unravels the mystery of a no-longer-unique (and non-supernatural) book. Excellent seed for a Book-Hounds of London scenario, though.

In GUMSHOE terms, “The Thing Invisible” and “The Find” use Investigative abilities exclusively. “End House,” “Laurels,” and even “Horse of the Invisible” are conventional “Scooby-Doo” type stories, with the occasional haunting as unnerving scenery: again, mostly Investigative abilities, with a few Mechanics, Stealth, or Weapons ability tests at the end against human foes. All very standard stuff, Hodgson’s engaging prose notwithstanding.

What we really need is a system to model the confrontations with the “ab-Human” entities in “Gateway,” “Whistling Room,” “The Hog,” and “Jarvee.” These confrontations have two big systemic problems:

  • the ab-Human foes cannot be weakened (although Carnacki tries in “Jarvee” with his “repellent vibration emitter”) — this means only the PCs’ defensive rolls count. This is boring, the mechanical equivalent of “roll ten CON saves against dying in the desert.” Similarly …
  • a single failure by Carnacki means doom. This essentially one-and-done format makes the final scene anticlimactic, or a death trap. Worse, a boring death trap. (“Roll again. You survived? Roll again. You survived? Roll again.”)

Mechanically, this leads to passive, un-suspenseful, irritating play. Hodgson covers up the essential passivity of Carnacki by vigorous narration (including the cocksure “summing up” at the end), and covers the essential lack of suspense (we know Carnacki survived, because he’s telling the story after surviving it) during the confrontation with evocative, terrifying prose. But a game system can’t depend on such things. Even Hodgson had to pull a GM fiat out of his hat and have NPC “Protective Forces” show up in two of the four tales. So how do we build Carnacki-style confrontations with the supernatural (“sittings”) into GUMSHOE?

I can think of two options using existing GUMSHOE mechanics:

  • Change the cosmology such that a “sitting” becomes a fight; perhaps each “round” is an hour of sitting. (Hours the contest goes on = hours of nightfall, or from midnight to dawn.) Carnacki rolls and spends from his Pentacle ability pool, weakening the Ab-human’s Aberrance. (The better the pentacle, the higher the bonus, just like weapons.) The Ab-human rolls and spends from its Aberrance ability pool, weakening Carnacki’s Stability. (Does the creature gain Hit Threshold from being super-Aberrant, or do bonus Stability damage, or both? Should Stability damage vary by manifestation?) When Aberrance reaches 0, the thing is exorcised or prevented from harmful manifestation until the next sundown. When Stability reaches 0 (or -6), Carnacki does something panicky or twitchy to open the pentacle, and he gets munched.
  • Run the sitting as a Thriller Chase, as in Night’s Black Agents. Again, perhaps each “round” is an hour of sitting. Carnacki rolls and spends from his Stability pool; the Ab-human rolls and spends from its Aberrance pool. The side with the higher result moves the Psychic Balance toward 0 (exorcism/prevention) or toward 10 (pentacle overwhelmed; Carnacki munched). Pentacles add bonuses to Stability rolls (or act as “armor” against Aberrance rolls; same thing mechanically).

Ab-humans might have automatic “spends” on every roll, being inhuman; or, possibly, just add an automatic bonus, like an Alertness Modifier (Vileness modifier?), such that the Ab-human has no pool to drain. This provides mechanical distinction (an Ab-human now doesn’t “feel” like a normal GUMSHOE monster) but the invariance might flatten the contests back out.

Maybe the Pentacle always depends on a Mechanics test to set up, preventing the “oh, well, it’s just a poltergeist and my pentacle automatically gives me +3” ennui. Further, maybe the difficulty of the Mechanics test varies depending on how much of the underlying manifestation Carnacki understands. This works once (the first time the GM reveals the modifier) but not consistently, but adding one more mystery factor might still be worth it.

Like combats and Thriller Chases, both will still depend on GM and player narration to add color to the bald dice contest, but at least we’ve got a contest in both directions. I suspect a little thought will give us ways to use other abilities to influence the contest, as with Tactical Fact-Finding Bonuses. If the Ab-human powers vary, and the NPCs can be counted on to respond in dangerous and panicky fashion, that also varies the showdowns.

That takes care of the first big problem; for the second, we could possibly add a Fleeing/Athletics parachute (as in “Gateway” and possibly “Whistling Room”) to allow Carnacki to get away from the haunting site alive, though scarred somehow. Or, if a successful exorcism grants Carnacki XP (to apply to better pentacles, etc.) then a sudden life-saving intervention (as in “Whistling Room” and “The Hog”) costs XP.

Even then, potential Carnacki Files GMs should probably follow Hodgson’s lead and restrict pure “sittings” to a minority of adventures. Lots of other mundane plots, or manifestations that don’t rise to the level of catastrophic, or excellent steampunk adventures, can be fit into the Carnacki frame. And when I figure out exactly which system to use (or if my so-far inchoate notion of rolling all the Ab-human’s dice at the beginning and applying them throughout the haunt pans out) then I’ll have a frame to fit them into.

Out you go!

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