A scenario seed for Trail of Cthulhu by Adam Gauntlett
The return of a Deep One infected with bubonic plague causes a public health crisis in 1930s Hong Kong.
Hong Kong in the 1930s is a sophisticated and wealthy British colony, administered largely by British Ta-Pan. Its laws are British, its culture is Chinese, and there is a demarcation between the two: British Tai-Pan control the east portion of the territory as a kind of Little England, while Chinese culture dominates the west portion. The territory lives under British law, enforced by European, Chinese, Indian and Eurasian policemen. By the 1930s the law is stricter and more effective than it was during the bad old days of piracy and bribery, but Hong Kong is still Hong Kong – mercantile, and willing to do all kinds of business.
The territory suffered greatly during the Third Pandemic of bubonic plague, which broke out in China in the mid-1800s. More than 12 million died in China and India, and at its height 100 people a day died in Hong Kong. Hundreds of thousands of people fled the territory when plague hit, and plague continued to be a problem for many decades after the initial, deadly sweep.
If the Keeper doesn’t want to play a scenario set in Hong Kong, the action could be moved to a coast city with significant Chinese population, like San Francisco.
Hungry Ghost Folklore
A hungry ghost is the soul of someone who died with bad deeds or evil intent staining them, and thus ended up in the hell of hungry ghosts. This is rare, and should not be confused with the more common ancestral dead. The bad deeds the hungry ghosts committed in life transform them into animalistic spirit-demons, obsessed in death with whatever it was that they committed crimes for in life. So a man who drives children away from water, keeping it all himself, will become a hungry ghost obsessed with water. Anything a person might have coveted or become gluttonous for – food, drink and sex are common drivers – can inspire a hungry ghost.
Hungry Ghosts are portrayed as emaciated corpse-like beings, often with shrunken throats or needle-point small mouths, as this prevents them from consuming the one thing they want to consume. The object of their desire might disintegrate or burn to nothing when they try to devour it.
The chief difference between ancestral ghosts and hungry ones is that an ordinary ghost will fade over time and vanish, if not properly taken care of. This is why, at ghost festivals, people take care to offer sacrifices, food, drink, hell money, to care for their dead. Whereas a hungry ghost will never fade, but it will bring bad luck to whoever attracts its attention. Some traditions have it that a hungry ghost is a beloved ancestor who was ignored after death, or whose descendants didn’t pay the proper respect during ghost festivals – all the more reason to be generous.
These happen in the 7th month of the lunar calendar. The realms of heaven and hell open up and disgorge their dead, and the living celebrate the return of beloved souls while at the same time fending off the attentions of unclean spirits, Representations of physical things – houses, clothing, money – are sacrificed, or burnt, to help the beloved souls, and keep them safe and happy. Prosperity incense is burnt to guarantee a bright year ahead. Miniature paper boats and lanterns are let loose fourteen days after the end of the festival to guide those spirits home again.
This scenario takes place shortly before the festival.
The Return of Zhao Fei Hong
The family Zhao have been shipbuilders since time immemorial, and from the early 1800s onwards some of the family have succumbed to Deep One promises. The minions of Cthulhu said they would show the Zhao the secrets of shipbuilding, and in particular the right rituals and magics to perform in order to ensure theirs were the best and fastest chuan afloat. There was a price, and from that alliance came a number of Deep One hybrids who settled in Hong Kong’s Kowloon Docks.
During the plague outbreak one hybrid, Fei Hong, fled the colony, but was too late to avoid infection. As a hybrid, Fei Hong could not be killed by the disease, but a quirk of his hybridization meant he became a carrier, and was subject to crippling, painful symptoms.
After many years in isolation – for not even his fellow Deep Ones welcomed the poor sufferer – Fei Hong has returned to Hong Kong seeking a cure. Medicine has improved since he ran away in the 1860s. Surely there is something that can be done to purge him of this hideous taint?
Some of the family Zhao have taken him in, out of familial loyalty, while others reject the prodigal. However none of them will betray the family secret. They seek a solution, one way or the other.
Two tales circulate.
The plague has returned! This story is particularly common among dock workers, sailors and those who work in Kowloon opium dens and boozers. According to popular report there have been several small outbreaks of plague, which the colonial authorities are either ignoring or covering up. Some doctors are taking this seriously and carrying out their own investigations. Some of these so-called doctors are no better than quacks, which doesn’t help credibility.
Hungry Ghosts Haunt Kowloon! Spending 1 point Oral History traces this tale to members of the Zhao family. According to rumor, hungry ghosts have returned to plague honest citizens in Kowloon, only a few days before the Ghost Festival. People are terrified, crying out for spiritual aid. Anyone who can settle this unquiet spirit is welcome. Many charlatans and would-be exorcists flood the district, promising anything and everything in exchange for cold, hard cash. Keeper’s note: this rumor is being spread by the dissident Zhao, who are treating Fei Hong as a hungry ghost. Even those friendly to Fei Hong are superstitiously afraid of what he represents – a cursed immortal, in great pain, who cannot die.
Doctor Victor Richard, a French researcher and philanthropist, is seized at his clinic by armed gunmen, an event that shocks the colony to its core. The Tai-Pan are outraged, and the colonial administration goes into action. Police raid the usual suspects – any would-be Chinese Tongmenghui revolutionaries, known Triad hangouts, anyone who hasn’t paid enough bribes – but nothing is found.
Enquiry either among police officers (Cop Talk) or the employees and patients who were at the clinic when it happened (Oral History), or diligent study of news reports (Library Use) notices this core clue: the gunmen were wearing many luck amulets and charms, intended to ward off evil spirits and hungry ghosts. A point spend further discovers that they weren’t your usual Triad thugs, but were roughnecks, manual laborers and, judging by tattoos, dock workers.
Doctor Richard’s specialty is treatment of infectious diseases, and bubonic plague in particular. In the most recent outbreak in India, he achieved fame by his brave and relentless fight against the disease. When he came to Hong Kong he acquired notoriety because he offered to treat poor Chinese for free, behavior his Tai Pan neighbors thought eccentric.
Investigators who check find that there are isolated incidences of plague, particularly in or near Kowloon Docks. So far there haven’t been more than a dozen, but they are documented, genuine cases of plague. The media’s been told to keep quiet to avoid panic, but doctors are pressing for full disclosure so people can take some preventative action. Any investigator who checks (Medicine, Evidence Collection) can trace the outbreak to a particular section of Kowloon Docks, where the family Zhao have their shipbuilding business.
Tracing the rumors, evidence concerning the criminals, or evidence concerning the plague, leads to the Zhao dockyard.
Only some of the family support Fei Hong, and it’s those who captured Doctor Richard and are keeping him in an old junk tied up at the wharf. He’s guarded by two armed men at all times. His patient is Fei Hong, who finds movement difficult and breathing painful. However for purposes of combat the hybrid Deep One has the same statistics as any other Deep One. Fei Hong knows a spell, Wrack, which when he casts it makes the target feel as if they’re suffering the final stages of bubonic plague.
There are from three to six other Deep Ones at the dockyard; the precise number is up to the Keeper, and should depend on the investigators’ fighting strength. If they come well-armed with high-caliber firearms, add more Deep Ones. These are Fei Hong’s companions, and are also members of the family Zhao. None of them know spells.
If the investigators try to win the support of those Zhao who want rid of Fei Hong, this can be done through Streetwise spends. For every point spent, remove one Deep One. In story, the rebel Zhao take care of those Deep Ones so the investigators don’t have to.
In total, there are a half-dozen dedicated, armed human cultists willing to fight to keep Fei Hong safe, or cover his escape. None have any weapon more dangerous than a handgun, and most have knives or clubs.