by Adam Gauntlett
A scenario seed for Trail of Cthulhu, in which the Investigators must find out who’s been breaking into the Empire State Building.
The Empire State in New York is conceived in the booming, prosperous 1920s, but it breaks ground on October 1st, 1929, when the building previously on that site, the glamorous Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, is demolished. On October 4th, the stock market implodes. By the time the Empire State is complete, 45 days before its anticipated due date, the Great Depression is well under way. It becomes an icon when King Kong climbs it in 1933, but it is an icon without tenants. For the first few decades of its existence the observation deck at the top floor makes more money from fascinated tourists than the rest of the building put together. Despite this, the building’s lights are kept on all the time, to create the illusion of occupancy. Defeated Democratic Presidential candidate Al Smith, an investor and president of Empire State, Inc, occupies the top floors. Altogether there are perhaps 20 tenants for the whole building, including Smith in a skyscraper meant for 20,000. Hence its nickname: the Empty State Building.
The Waldorf-Astoria, New York’s iconic hotel, opens in 1893. It’s a heavy, weighty, Germanic design, stuffed full of antiques, marble facades, and dignity. At its height it has 1,300 rooms and is the first hotel in New York to feature electric lights and private bathrooms. Though laughed at for its pomposity, dignitaries and the wealthy flock to it, to eat one of Oscar of the Waldorf’s celebrated meals, or dance in the Waldorf’s iconic ballroom. New York’s fashionable women compete to outdo each other on what becomes known as Peacock Alley, the main corridor of the hotel that ran the full length of the building, all along 33rd Street.
The investigators are hired by Empire State, Inc, to look into a problem. Rumor has it that people are breaking into the Building at night and wandering around the ground floor corridors. Though nobody’s prepared to confirm this, it’s said that one of the people who have seen this is Al Smith himself – but Al isn’t talking. The Trust that manages the Building would very much like to have this handled discreetly. Can the investigators find out who’s breaking in, and how?
All anyone knows about the intruders is that they are always seen by someone inside the building. So far, they’ve never been spotted by someone on the outside looking in, which is odd, as the intruders are never seen on any floor except the ground floor, where they ought to be visible from 33rd Street. Nobody can agree on what the intruders look like, except that they’re very graceful.
“They’re always dancing,” says building superintendent, Max Baum. (Forties, pugnacious, family man, former Democrat ward heeler who worked on Al’s campaign).
Opening Scenes: The Stake-Out
If the investigators check, it soon becomes clear that there’s no easy way into the Empire State. All the ground floor entrances are locked, and once locked they don’t open again till eight a.m., when the cleaning staff arrive. Max has the master keys. Only Al Smith has his own key so he can come and go as he likes. The other tenants have keys to their offices, but not the building itself. The building closes to the public at 5 pm and the main entrance is monitored by door security until 8 pm; after that, should a tenant still be working in the building, once they leave they can’t get back in. None of the locks have been tampered with.
Some tourists do get locked in the building after the day is done, “goofing around after a trip to the observation deck,” Baum says. With such a large, empty building it can be difficult to monitor every corridor. Baum thinks the mysterious figures are tourists who deliberately stay after hours, probably for a bet.
The only slightly supernatural connection the Empire State has is that it once hosted a séance to contact the ghost of Thomas Edison, in 1932. It was a publicity stunt dreamed up to attract tenants. “A flop,” says Baum. “Just like all the other stunts.” Privately he wonders if these intruders are yet another stunt, dreamed up by Al Smith in a fit of desperation.
Staking-out the ground floor after hours finds little unusual. Occasionally the investigators hear footsteps or smell what might be fine cooking. Anyone with access to a radio (the doorman has a portable one, to keep him from going stir crazy) hears old broadcasts from 1926, the year NBC aired its inaugural radio show from the Waldorf-Astoria’s ballroom. Comedian Will Rogers hosts the show, which is mainly music and comedy routines. The doorman doesn’t realize what he’s listening to, but he’s a Will Rogers fan, so he always turns the radio up when Will is on. (Keeper: Rogers dies in a plane wreck in August 1935, so depending on when this scenario is set he may already be dead.)
Midpoint: Haunted City
At some point during the stake-out the investigators discover a jacket, hastily discarded near the elevators in the lobby. It has a long tear down one sleeve, as if someone was attacked and forced to drop it in the struggle. Among the items in its pockets (most of which are irrelevant but the Keeper can have a fun time describing) is an iPhone.
Of course, the investigators won’t have any idea what one of those is. It’s a funny flat brick with a cracked glass screen to them. However, it still has some juice and its owner didn’t believe in locking it, so it can be accessed. Without internet or towers most of its functions are unusable, though it has plenty of saved video content – cat gifs galore, funny cat videos, and production footage of Exploring the Apple by Sarah Dansky, whose latest episode, still in progress, is NYC’s Seven Most Haunted Buildings. Footage shows that Sarah wears the same jacket found in the lobby in some of the establishing shots.
‘There are so many spots here that have paranormal activity, and I’m going to be getting into many of them today,’ Sarah smiles. One of which is the Empire State. According to Sarah, mysterious figures were seen in the lobby and ground floor of the Empire State, linked, she says, to an incident that took place in the Waldorf in 1926. ‘However, the owners of the building called in notorious paranormal expert [investigator name] in [one year prior to the current investigation] who was able to solve the problem.’
Naturally notorious paranormal expert [investigator] has no idea what Dansky’s talking about. However, further footage shows Sarah in the basement of the Empire State, (where she’s not supposed to be), discovering a safe deposit box hidden behind a false wall, put there by the paranormal expert. She gleefully holds up the box to the camera, and says she’s going to take it to ‘a historian’ for further analysis, in the last video clip. On the lid of the box is carved the Yellow Sign.
So What Really Happened?
The Waldorf, in its early years, faced the same problems the Empire State now faces. No guests, no future: Astor’s Folly. John Jacob Astor IV, later to drown on the Titanic, solved the problem with a charity ball that attracted the wealthiest families of New York, thus establishing the hotel’s reputation. Or so everyone thinks.
In fact, Astor, a devotee of science fiction, utopian, and author of A Journey In Other Worlds, hatched a scheme. He would push the hotel’s bad luck forward in time. It was his moral right to do so, he felt; his success was worth the price of future failure for someone else. He pushed that bubble in time forward as far as he could by burying it beneath the Waldorf, in a kind of capsule. There was a very nasty incident in 1926, when the protections weakened and it looked as if there might be an outbreak during NBC’s 1926 broadcast, but by then Astor was long-dead.
What he’d done was seal entropy away, and Hastur shall not be denied. On that spot, throughout the timeline, the Thing that wears its Mask dances. It brings despair, tearing things apart at their foundations as Samson brought down the Temple. Its surface manifestation is financial ruin – the same fate that nearly brought down the Waldorf is bringing down the Empire State.
This means two things: first, time is weak here. The future and the past walk hand-in-hand at the Empire State. Oscar of the Waldorf still makes Thousand Island Dressing in the kitchen, Evelyn McHale continually tumbles to her death in 1947, and Lt Colonel Smith’s B-25 will always and forever smash into the north side of the 79th floor.
Second, time gets weaker whenever someone uncovers Astor’s time capsule, which is what Sarah Dansky did in (insert date here). When that happens, the capsule reappears at some point along the timeline, and whoever finds it has to bury it again or live with the consequences.
In this instance the capsule reappeared the year before the events of the scenario, which means the investigators have to discover a way to contact their past selves. Luckily for them there may be a way: the Empire State has its own post office and internal delivery system, and right now time is very weak indeed. If they can find a way to get a letter pre-dated to a year ago, and then send it from the Empire State, they’ll get the letter in time to do something constructive.
Or the players can come up with an ingenious scheme of their own. Whichever works.
What’s In The Capsule?
Who can say? It might be Dansky’s iPhone, mysteriously repaired, now filled with The King In Yellow audiobooks, each read by a different horror author. It might be Astor’s unpublished science fiction novel, Entropy Denied. Evelyn McHale’s signed photograph, an Empire State snow globe, a mint-in-box Robin D. Laws (with Kung Fu grip!) figurine – whatever the Keeper likes. Of course, opening the capsule weakens the timeline almost to destruction …
Currently the capsule is held by Sarah Dansky, which means the investigators will have to get it back from her, and then get it to their past selves.
The King Dances
Meanwhile Hastur gnaws away, Níðhöggr to the Empire State’s Yggdrasil. This manifests as the Dancers, which are encountered whenever the timeline weakens. They are people past, present and future; Astor might be waltzing with Sarah Dansky, or McHale with Lt Colonel Smith. They have fallen to Hastur, as must every soul who comes too close. They are the Peacocks drifting through the marble halls of Astor’s temple to wealth. Always beautiful, always impeccably dressed, and each with their own masque not unlike something seen at Venice Carnival. Their dance is mesmerizing, but it can be fatal: anyone who gets too close risks seeing Hastur, which lurks behind their hypnotic, intricate parabola.
Mechanically, each encounter is a Stability check, with the Mythos Difficulty modifier. Potential checks include Supernatural Manifestation at a Distance, Supernatural Creature Up Close, and Speak With Someone You Know to be Dead. If this last happens, and the investigator fails the test, then that investigator’s next brush with the Dance will be a direct encounter with Hastur, with all the Sanity-blasting impact that implies. The Keeper may choose to have it be the invisible form, for less damage, if desired.
If the capsule isn’t reburied, the Dance will continue. Perhaps the Empire State will never pull out of its financial nosedive, or perhaps it will become a new temple to the Yellow King. Perhaps …
With modification, this Trail scenario could also be suited for Robin Laws’ Yellow King RPG.
Author’s note: I’m well aware the present-day Empire State is open from 8am to 2am. For this scenario, I’m assuming the opening hours were different in the 1930s, when the building was nearly empty.
Adam writes, and writes, and writes. Among his credits are Pelgrane’s Soldiers of Pen and Ink, Dulce et Decorum Est, The Many Deaths of Edward Bigsby, and Silver Ennie Award winner The Long Con. You can find him on Twitter at @ag_Karloff, and online at http://karloff-shelf.blogspot.
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 print and PDF at the Pelgrane Shop.