Saturday, October 31, 2015

Building a Mystery Part 2: Adding Flesh to Bones

Happy Halloween, readers! When we left off at the end of Part 1, we had the skeleton of a Call of Cthulhu convention one-shot.  In this post, we'll begin to add flesh to that skeleton and develop it into something that will knock the socks off six players when they sit down to my table, unsuspecting.  The steps covered here are not always ones I go through one at a time; often, and indeed in this case, I've got multiple trains of thought and development running in my head simultaneously, and I'll flow back and forth between steps, as ideas I come to in one train inspire me to revisit ones in other trains.  I'll try to break this process down into steps that a reader could follow and work from.

The skeleton I had at the end of the last post was "the Duchess of Holdernesse is 103, has no blood descendants to inherit the title but plenty of people looking to inherit the property and money associated with the title.  The property, Holdernesse Hall, is reportedly haunted by the ghost of a murdered ancestor, whose appearance may affect the resolve of those seeking wealth from the aging Duchess.  The Hall itself is built atop the ruins of a buried Roman temple."

Much of this is taken from the novel The Evil of Pemberley House, with additional material coming from Arthur Conan Doyle's "The Adventure of the Priory School" and Ken Russell's psychedelic film adaptation of Bram Stoker's The Lair of the White Worm.

I finished The Evil of Pemberley House on Wednesday, and re-read "The Adventure of the Priory School" Thursday on my lunch break, along with another Sherlock Holmes story: "The Adventure of the Musgrave Ritual," which I think will also find its way into the delicious stew of this adventure, and I'll be re-watching THE LAIR OF THE WHITE WORM over this weekend to refresh it in my memory.

This is, for me at least, an important part of the fleshing-out process; by reacquainting myself with the media I want to borrow from, I can sometimes pick up on elements that I didn't necessarily remember from prior read- or watch-throughs that will make for a richer adventure, or, (as in the case of being inspired to reread "The Adventure of the Musgrave Ritual") my memory will be jogged and some other bit of inspiration will be brought to my conscious attention.

One thing that occurred to me today is that, by moving the time-period of events from 1972 to 1928 and keeping the Duchess of Holdernesse 103, the events of "The Adventure of the Priory School" don't quite work; if we place that adventure in 1904, when it was published, then the Duchess was 79; far too old to be having a 10-year old son.  Even if we set the events far earlier in Sherlock Holmes' career, say, 1882, she's still too old to have a 10 year old son.  So we need to either make her a significantly younger woman, or rewrite Holmes' interaction with Holdernesse Hall (given the popularity of the BBC's Sherlock, and Holmes' enduring popularity as a character, I believe that the players will respond very positively to following in Holmes' footsteps).  

I did some brainstorming between files while at work today, and jotted down some notes during my afternoon break on how I'd adjust the back-story.  Here's what I came up with:

"During a period of estrangement between the Duke of Holdernesse and his wife, during which the Duchess was on the Continent, the Duke was the target of a blackmail scheme, threatening to make public his predilection for prostitutes.  The Duke hired Sherlock Holmes to retrieve the incriminating documents from the blackmailer, the notorious Charles Augustus Milverton.  During the course of this, Holmes determined that the Duke's secretary, a young man named James Wilder, was Milverton's agent in the Duke's household, funneling information to the blackmailer.  He also determined that Wilder was the Duke's illegitimate son, and that he'd taken part in the scheme to further his own desires - to be officially recognized as the Duke's son and thus be placed in line for inheritance.  Milverton was sent to the gallows, Wilder was forgiven by the Duke on the condition he leave England for good, and with Wilder out of Holdernesse, the Duke and Duchess were able to reconcile.  The Duchess returned to Holdernesse with a young boy she adopted in France following the death of his parents.  The Duke would die of a heart attack three years later in 1885, leaving the Duchess to run the estate."

I think that's pretty solid back-story for the Duchess right there, and can form part of the knowledge of the Hall that at least a couple of the PCs are privy to from the start.  Plus, if I go through with the idea that one or more of the PCs is a grandchild of James Wilder, it sets up conflict between them and the Duchess, and I love interpersonal conflict in Call of Cthulhu games, which I will come back to later.

Even better, with the popularity of Game of Thrones, players who grokk ideas of bastard sons and muddled lines of inheritance are at an all-time high.

So moving on from the Duchess, what's the deal with the ghost? Above I mentioned a "murdered ancestor" but my thought processes on this point (and I literally have a page on my notebook where I have written and underlined, "What is the deal with the ghost?") ran more in the direction of "died unpleasantly."

The story behind Bess of Pemberley's death, as given in The Evil in Pemberley House, is a bit long and involved - long and involved enough that it's not something that can be conveyed quickly and effectively at the gaming table, and not something that the players are likely able to hold in their memories once conveyed.  Rather than reiterate the sad story of Bess five or six times in a three-hour session, I decided to come up with a simpler tragedy.  Here's what I came up with:

"In 1728, Lady Elizabeth, the Duchess of Holdernesse, threw herself off a balcony to her death after having three miscarriages in as many years.  She was 21 at the time of her death, and this year (the year in which the scenario will take place - 1928) is the two hundredth anniversary of her tragic passing.  It is said her ghost appears in the room that was once her bed-chambers three nights every year -- the night before, the night of, and the night after the anniversary of her death, precisely at the stroke of midnight each night.  Moreover, her presence is felt year-round at Holdernesse; in two hundred years, no woman has successfully carried a pregnancy to term while living in the Hall, invariably either experiencing a miscarriage or failing to conceive entirely.  Every Duke of Holdernesse born since 1728 was born abroad due to Elizabeth's Curse, as it has become known."

This fits very well with the whole Gothic theme; a woman driven mad by personal tragedy, the implied judgment levied against her for failing in her "duty" as a wife to provide children for her husband, the rules governing her appearance and a very thematic curse that is ambiguous enough that it's reality could be argued for either way, and which also explains why the current Duchess never had any children by the Duke.

We will revisit both the Duchess and the Ghost of Lady Elizabeth later on, when we go whole hog into fleshing out NPCs, but for now I think we've got a good handle on back stories for them.  So the final thing to address in this blog post is Holdernesse Hall itself and the Roman ruin underneath it.

Regarding Holdernesse Hall, the description given of Musgrave Hall in "The Adventure of the Musgrave Ritual" really jumped out at me - a large L-shaped building, the short side having been built in the 16th century, and the long wing having been a more recent addition.  The inhabitants of the Hall live almost exclusively in the newer wing, with the original building having become largely a storage unit for the accumulated bric-a-brac of 400 years.  I would say then that the Roman ruins underneath Holdernesse are underneath the old wing that no one really goes in much any more.

To this, I want to add "Mary's Tower," a structure from The Evil in Pemberley House that gets its name from the legend that Mary, Queen of Scots once visited.  This is an open-topped stone tower, three stories tall, with a circular ramp on the inside from the ground to the second floor, and a narrow set of stairs leading from the second to the third.  I'm including this for two reasons: One, that it's the sort of thing players are likely to get interested in and want to explore (and which would make a fun site for me as a Game Master to place a skirmish against cultists or the like) and Two, because it reminds me of the open-topped tower used as a summoning site in August Derleth's posthumous collaboration with Lovecraft, The Lurker at the Threshold.  I'm going to locate this tower about thirty feet from the old wing of Holdernesse Hall, and on a slight diagonal; this may lead the players to believe that the structure predates the Hall, with the physical separation creating a sense of chronological separation.

Finally, in true Gothic fashion (or at least, in true, "I really like The Hound of the Baskervilles" fashion), I'm thinking about putting Holdernesse Hall, and the nearby town of Lambton, on the edge of, or just inside, a desolate, windswept moor.  A moor, or moorland, in this case is an area of uncultivated hill country characterized by low-growing shrubs and grasses and acidic soil, often dotted with bogs or marshland in between the hills, making the land dangerous to cross.  This creates a further sense of geographical isolation once the Investigators make their way to Holdernesse Hall, and a sense that the land itself is as unforgiving and treacherous as the NPCs in the Hall.

In the real-life Dartmoor, which formed the basis for Doyle's Great Grimpen Mire in The Hound of the Baskervilles, the granite hills are often weathered to bare stone at the peaks, with these outcroppings called tors.  I like that imagery and I think I'll include some of these tors in Lambton Moor -- in fact, I think I'll have one particularly large tor be known as Snake Hill, and have local legend state that the Holdernesse Serpent, before being slain by the first Duke of Holdernesse, laired there.

The Lambton Worm or the Holdernesse Serpent?

Now for the Roman ruins underneath Holdernesse; Roman temples don't really offer much excitement in terms of architecture, being commonly either rectangular or circular structures - however, they don't have to, because we're not designing a D&D dungeon crawl here.  A simple rectangular structure under the old wing is probably all we really need - maybe add a circular "inner temple" for interest's sake, and to house a pit or other entranceway into a cave system wherein the Thing in the Ruins lairs.

Now, obviously, the Investigators should have no prior knowledge that there's a Roman-era temple under Holdernesse Hall; kind of gives the game away too quickly, doesn't it? I would have it be known to people who have lived in Holdernesse or in nearby Lambton for some time that the Hall was built on a foundation dating back to the Roman occupation.  Maybe the first Duke of Holdernesse bricked off the temple when he built the Hall, or maybe he was unaware of it - it is a buried structure, after all, and only later did one of his descendants find it.  Maybe there's a room connected to the temple that's accessible from the Hall (perhaps being used as a wine cellar by generations of Holdernesses) but the doorway which would connect to the temple is bricked up and plastered over.

Of course, the cult of the Thing in the Ruins would need access to the temple still, and they couldn't very well keep their pagan godling a secret if they had to get into the Hall every time they needed to offer sacrifices or whatnot, so maybe there's a tunnel, either manmade or a natural fissure, connecting the temple to Snake Hill on the moors.  In fact, I really like that idea; the cultists steal out to Snake Hill and sneak into the temple through this secret passageway; maybe it's really narrow and low-ceilinged so you have to slither through it on your belly like a snake.

Hell - if one of the Dukes of Holdernesse in the past (say, perhaps, the husband of Lady Elizabeth) was a member of this cult, maybe he bricked up the entranceway in his basement for plausible deniability and established the tunnel to Snake Hill.  To tie this back to Lady Elizabeth's ghost, maybe that Duke revived the cult and awoke the slumbering Thing in the Ruins, and some malign emanation produced by the horror are what caused Lady Elizabeth's miscarriages, and those of subsequent Duchesses.  After all, the ones who miscarried in the Hall conceived and carried healthy children successfully to term when away from Holdernesse Hall.

This post is running exceedingly long and starting to get into things I want to cover in a separate blog post, plus I really want to get a screening of LAIR OF THE WHITE WORM in before Gina gets home from work - she's not much of a horror fan, and the sight of Amanda Donohue wearing nothing but blue body paint and a gigantic bladed strap-on will get me the side-eye.  So I leave you with the song retelling the story of John D'ampton, as the movie names him:

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