Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Building a Mystery, Part 3: Send in the Nouns

So, in the last segment I began to flesh out the scenario skeleton I came up with in part 1.  I filled in some of the details relating to the NPC who brings the investigators into the adventure (i.e., the Duchess of Holdernesse), the supernatural hook (the Holdernesse Ghost) and the locale (Holdernesse Hall and the Roman ruins underneath).  In this section, we'll flesh things out further, with a focus on People, Places and "Things."


This isn't just the NPCs, but covers the Investigators as well; since this is a convention one-shot, I'll be providing pre-generated characters, which is a nice opportunity for me to tie the player-characters into the story.  This is actually something I know I have a lot of trouble with, so I'm going to be extra careful about ensuring the characters are well-connected to the adventure.  But before we get to the Investigators, let's take a look at who all's in Holdernesse Hall during the course of this adventure (drawn from The Evil in Pemberley House).

The Duchess
The Butler
The Maid
The Groundskeeper (secretly a plant from Scotland Yard)
The Chauffeur (not so secretly a former career criminal)
The Cook
The Duchess' live-in Physician
The Duchess' two adult Grandchildren (children of her adopted son)
The American Heir(ess)

I don't want to go crazy with tons of NPCs running around because A) that's harder for me to keep track of, and B) it's harder for the players to keep track of.  It makes good sense from a story perspective that the Holdernesse fortunes are not what they once were, and with the Duke dead and the family consisting of the aging Duchess and her two adult grandchildren, the property has probably gone somewhat to seed and they don't have the staff of servants they once had.

Furthermore, rather than have these characters running around as NPCs and then trying to shoehorn in six player characters (I don't run convention games larger than 6; for that matter, I don't run games larger than 6, period.  I learned that lesson the hard way), I think it might make for a very interesting and role-play heavy session to have the player characters be six of these individuals, and provide, alongside a pregenerated character sheet, a brief blurb detailing what the character hopes to inherit when the Duchess finally croaks and what they're prepared to do if things don't seem to be going their way.

This is something I've begun doing lately with convention games that's proven to be a lot of fun - providing the Investigators with reasons in their back stories not to trust or want to work with each other, and then put them in a situation where survival requires them to work together.  I attribute this to lots of years spent watching horror movies; look at Romero's zombie films, for example -- the zombies are actually not that dangerous and easy to escape from, but the living characters tend to spend so much time bickering and arguing and trying to assert their dominance over one another that they all get munched.

And I don't go crazy with Investigator back stories for convention games; a few sentences and a list of equipment is enough.  Here's an example from a recent one-shot:

Sheriff Fred Baker: Nominally, you are the law in Pine Valley. It’s a small enough, sleepy enough town that you and two deputies are enough to cover almost every situation, even the crowds of drunken tourists at the annual Winterfest. Now a trio of bank robbers may be hiding out in the vicinity of Pine Valley after stealing $25,000 from a bank in Bluff Creek, and pursuing them are a pair of FBI agents. You’re not too keen on having Feds stepping all over your territory like this, and you’re hoping to catch these guys before the Feds do. Wouldn’t that look good in the papers? Equipment: Cell phone, badge, Glock 27 (17 bullets), handcuffs, squad car.

So you can see I don't get overly detailed.with these back stories.

Looking at the list above, who do I want to be the investigators?

For the Investigators, I'm going to go with the American Heir(ess), the Duchess' two adult grandchildren, the Groundskeeper (who is secretly from Scotland Yard), the Chauffeur (a former career criminal who may or may not be trying to make good) and the Duchess' personal physician.  We will come back to them later, possibly in another blog post, but rest assured that they will have back stories making them horrible greedy people who would not appear out of place as replacement characters in a game of "Clue" (or "Cluedo," for those outside of North America).

For now, let's take a look at the NPCs.

  • The Duchess:We gave the Duchess a little bit of back story last time, but who is she now? I'm picturing her as a little physically infirm, but mentally still completely present, despite her advanced age.  You can tell she was once a very beautiful woman, but now the flesh of her face has drawn tight and her aquiline nose and high cheek bones, coupled with the wattling of loose skin on her neck, gives her the appearance of a gigantic vulture.  Her tendency to dress exclusively in black does not soften that impression.  She's bitter and cynical, having seen little in the past several decades of life to endear her to people in general, and people connected with her late husband even less.  She's quick with an acidic comment, and not terribly susceptible to flattery, but if you express a genuine interest in hearing about her life, she's happy to talk for hours about people she's known and places she's been.  She despises the American Heir(ess) on principle, dotes on her two grandchildren (though can be quick to comment on their failures or setbacks), enjoys conversation with the Chauffeur (living vicariously through his stories of criminal exploits) and relies on the Physician.  
  • The Maid: Youngish, maybe late teens/early 20s.  Slender and waifish, kind of a delicate mental disposition, prone to overreaction.  She's been carrying on a relationship with the Butler, despite him being twice her age.  I'm basing her heavily on the maid who goes crazy and runs into the lake in "The Adventure of the Musgrave Ritual," and I think her going cuckoo-bananas during the adventure could provide a good red herring/side route of investigation if the players bog down on the main storyline.  I think she must be a strong believer in the legends of Holdernesse Hall and its surrounding environs, and maybe the instigating factor in her going cuckoo-bananas is discovering she's pregnant by the Butler.  Being terrified that the Holdernesse Ghost will cause her to miscarry, she wants the Butler to A) make an honest woman out of her and B) take her out of Holdernesse.  In interacting with the Investigators, she'll be all smiles and curtsies to everyone except the Chauffeur and Groundskeeper, whom she views as below her, seeing as they work outside the Hall proper.  
  • The Butler: Late 30s/early 40s, big beefy guy, bald/shaved head, but not dumb muscle; going off the butler in "The Adventure of the Musgrave Ritual," he's trained as a schoolteacher but couldn't find work in that field, and so accepted a position as Butler for Holdernesse Hall.  He's done excellent work at Holdernesse for twenty years now, and even the Duchess can't find fault in him.  In addition to schtupping the Maid, he's been applying his intellectual abilities lately to the "Holdernesse Ritual" - a meaningless bit of doggerel that's been a family tradition for centuries, with each Duke having to memorize and recite a few lines of call-and-response upon ascension to the title.  The Butler is convinced the call-and-response is actually coded directions to buried treasure hidden on the grounds of Holdernesse, and is working on figuring out just where it is.  This gives the Butler reason to sneak around and act suspiciously, drawing the attention of the Investigators.  Right now I'm 50-50 on whether I want it to actually lead to buried treasure, or be coded direction as to how to get into the tunnel from Snake Hill, and thus tie the Butler/Maid subplot into the main Mythos action.  In interacting with the Investigators he'll tend towards aloof deference, though he'll look down on the Chauffeur and the Groundskeeper.  
  • The Cook: I don't have much in mind for the cook, to tell you the truth, but it makes sense that she'd be present and can provide an extra witness to weirdness that she can report to the PCs if their investigation stalls, and an extra body to stumble across once the Mythos really bleeds up into the Hall.  I picture her looking like Kathy Bates.  

I'm not going to bother assigning detailed stats to these NPCs, because it's very unlikely to come up; my usual method if it does come up is everyone has completely average stats (in older editions of CofC, I'd say a 10 in each ability score, with 7th that becomes a 50), and a percentage chance of success on a skill roll somewhere between 30 and 50 percent for most skills, or no chance of success for unusual skills (the Maid, for example, should not have a good chance of success when trying to Psychoanalyze).  The NPCs aren't there to show up the player characters, they're there to go mad and die as a warning to the player characters, so I never make their skill percentages very high.

I also tend to sneak little references or hints into NPC (and at convention games, Investigator) names, something that subtly hints at their natures or calls back to a piece of source material; for example, in the Kolchak: The Night Stalker-inspired one shot I ran at Queen City Conquest, one of the Investigators was a reporter named Carl McGavin - after Carl Kolchak, and the man who brought him to life, Darren McGavin.

The naming thing is something you should feel free to skip if it doesn't suit you - I know it's kind of needless effort on my part, because in my own games it tends to end up fairly obscure (for example, I ran a campaign a couple years back based on the film QUATERMASS AND THE PIT, and there were a number of villainous NPCs whose last names were all taken from actors who'd played Quatermass over the years) and I've never once had a player, in my home games or at a convention, catch a reference.


Having already covered Holdernesse Hall, the Roman ruin, and Lambton Moor in some detail, I won't go back over them here.  However, I would like to address the town of Lambton, as the possibility exists that the players may decide to visit the town to look for information not readily available in the Hall.  I'm not going to detail the entire town of Lambton, as that's outside the scope of this adventure, but I will detail three locations that Investigators are likely to check out: the Pub, the Church and the Newspaper Morgue.

The Pub: Every role-player, I think, at heart has an instinct to go to the tavern for information.  I think this is best suited, for the purposes of this adventure, as a place to hear local lore in general - if they don't get it in the Hall, this would be a source for gossip about the Holdernesse Curse, or legends regarding the Moor (moors in England tend to be associated with ghostly dogs and miscellaneous hell-hounds; it would be wholly appropriate, I think, for their to be a Black Dog of Lambton Moor that the PCs can hear about here, which would serve as local color and possibly a red herring), maybe even a little bit of information, or at least rumors, of unsavory practices of Dukes past.  Calling this place The Slaughtered Lamb, after the pub in AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON, might be fun and get players thinking in the direction of werewolves.  Other vaguely-unsettling names, like "The Waiting Owl" or similar, would be good as well.

In case you can't tell, I LOVE providing misdirection for players.  The Mythos should never be a straightforward thing, it should heave and squirm and slip through the Investigator's fingers like a writhing ball of eels.  There should never be a straightforward or easy path that leads to the Horror Behind It All; it's only once they've dug, and dug, and dug that the Investigators should look up and realize they're in a pit too deep to easily climb out of.

The Church: I'm picturing the Anglican church in Lambton as being not just a site of worship, but also a place for the antiquarian; the vicar is also the town historian and has shelves and shelves of books, bundles of manuscripts, genealogies, reams of old papers and deeds and wills on file that can be delved into to research the history of Holdernesse Hall and its inhabitants.  For added fun, maybe the church also holds, as a sort of relic of local history, the skeleton of the Holdernesse Serpent - whether this is dinosaur bones or fakes created from cow bones and paper mache, it doesn't really matter, but it provides some interest and something for the players to try to puzzle out.

I imagine the Holdernesse Serpent display looks something like this 19th century
Sea Serpent hoax.

The Newspaper Morgue: I think most players nowadays are of too late a generation to know what this is and go visit it for information; I know I've certainly never had a player ask for the sort of information one would find here.  Maybe newspapers are just too far gone for today's players to consider.  As such, I won't dedicate a lot of brain-power or time to this one, just to say that the records only stretch back 20 years or so, with older records having been destroyed in a fire, but it's there in case a player does think of it.


These are our monsters.  I tend not to go monster heavy in convention scenarios, favoring just one monster in most scenarios.  It's Call of Cthulhu; even the weakest monsters tend to overshadow even the mightiest of mortals, so why add insult to injury? Five shoggoths are not scarier than one shoggoth, they just say that the Game Master is sick of your shit.  I prefer not to insult my players  that way.

So far we have two "Things" in this scenario: the Holdernesse Ghost and the Thing in the Ruins.  I'm not planning to make the Holdernesse Ghost particularly monstrous; I almost consider her more of an NPC that happens to be slightly incorporeal.  The 7th edition of Call of Cthulhu has this to say on ghosts:
Ghosts especially seem to haunt locations in order to communicate the awfulness that prompted their formation. Sometimes a ghost gives clues or instructions, which, if carried out, let the anxious shade dissolve and find peace. Though all ghosts are terrifying, some are more loathsome than others; a 1D8 Sanity point loss should be the maximum loss for seeing a ghost.
Maybe the Holdernesse Ghost only exists because the Thing in the Ruins keeps her bound to the Hall, savoring her suffering, and only be defeating it and banishing it from the earth can she rest in peace.

So what is the Thing in the Ruins?

I'm still working on that, to tell you the truth.  With the LAIR OF THE WHITE WORM connection, and the emphasis I've been placing on the "Holdernesse Serpent," I've been looking at some of the more serpentine monsters in the book: Chthonians, Hunting Horrors, Dholes, Lloigor...Ultimately what I want is something intelligent, that can make bargains and offers in exchange for sacrifices, and generally act like a malevolent godling.

Chthonians I think might be *too* alien for what I'm looking for, while Dholes are just absurd.  Who can fight something the size of a cruise liner? The Lloigor fits well with a lot of what I've got so far, but I'm slightly disinclined to use the Lloigor since I just used one in my last convention game.

But what if I take the "Serpent" a little more metaphorically? Maybe there are degenerate serpent-folk, like Robert E. Howard's "Worms of the Earth" down there.  Having stunted little creepy pre-humans creeping up into the Hall would give the scenario a DON'T BE AFRAID OF THE DARK vibe.

If I replace the "Serpent" with "Toad" we get even more options, and helps disguise what I'm stealing from LAIR.  Perhaps a Nagaae, one of the bloated servants of the Great Old One Cyaegha, is down there.  Or speaking of Great Old Ones, maybe something akin to Gol-Goroth (identified by Chaosium with the tentacled toad-like horror in Robert E. Howard's "The Black Stone") is even down there.  I've never used a Great Old One in an adventure before, and a convention one-shot where players are expecting their characters to go mad and die would be an appropriate place to use one.  Gol-Goroth is not exceptionally powerful, and the creature in "The Black Stone" was even cornered in a cave and killed with fire and blessed steel, so it would be entirely possible for the players to score a victory.  For a tougher fight, Byatis could be an option, being imprisoned in England (not that we need be beholden to the source literature) and being variably known as "the Berkeley Toad."

The more I turn this over and over in my head and chew on the matter, the more I think my two best options are to have it either by a Lloigor or Gol-Goroth in the ruins.  The Lloigor is pretty much perfect for what I have in mind - it's intelligent, sadistic, reptilian and has some nasty powers and thick, bullet-resistant scales.  Gol-Goroth, meanwhile, straddles a line between "god" and "monster," something I've enjoyed toying with ever since I first saw the 1982 film Q: THE WINGED SERPENT.  From the stats in the 6th edition book (since it hasn't been formally updated to 7th edition yet), I'm guessing it's something of a sadist, given that "the toad-thing's worship usually involves orgiastic dancing, copulation, flagellation and human sacrifice," It's as smart as a very smart human being as well, and knows the spell "Create Gate" (which seems a little pointless to me, and I'd swap that out for something else, something it can dangle over a greedy human's head to ensure their service).  It's not armored the way the Lloigor is, but instead its unearthly atomic structure causes all physical attacks to deal minimum damage.  No weird powers other than spellcasting, instead preferring to stomp, strangle and eat its foes.

Honestly, I keep getting this nagging feeling like I bungled the Lloigor's powers in the adventure I ran back in September featuring one, and maybe I could use this adventure to make it up to myself and "get it right." On the other hand, Gol-Goroth's minimal power set makes it a much easier creature to run, operating largely as a physical brute rather than a subtle manipulator.

Plus, if we count the toad-thing in Howard's "The Black Stone" as Gol-Goroth, then there's a literary antecedent to ghosts hanging around this thing - in the story, the ghost of Gol-Goroth (slain, recall, by fire and blessed steel) still squats on its ancient monolith, surrounded by the ghosts of its followers, on Midsummer's Eve.

Yeah, the more I think about it the more I think I want to use Gol-Goroth as the Thing in the Ruins.  So go back and replace all references to the Holdernesse Serpent with ones to the Holdernesse Toad or the Lambton Toad (and that skeletal relic in the church is now a hippopotamus skull that someone paper mache'd up to make it more imposing). Because of the creature's toughness (55 hit points are a lot harder to kill when every weapon does minimum damage) the players will have to be a bit smarter in confronting the monster; I think through records in the Hall library, as well as at the Church, they'll be able to find both Roman-era accounts of the creature and medieval-era accounts of the first Duke "slaying" the toad, and between these the Investigators will be able to synthesize a means of either permanently banishing/killing the monster or at least sealing it up for another couple hundred years so that it becomes someone else's problem.

And who knows, maybe that first Duke's sword is still hanging over a Holdernesse mantle, silently charged with some enchantment that will let it actually harm the monster - "Blessed steel" and all that...

Anyways, this post is running very long and I think I've covered much of what I wanted to say with it, so join me next time when I start synthesizing a story out of the elements we've come up with so far.


  1. Cool post. I agree that in a game like Call of Cthulhu, one shoggoth is more than enough. Five just seems like showing off, gilding the lily, or (as you mentioned) adding insult to injury.

    Also, bonus points for referencing Quatermass and the Pit!

    1. Quatermass and the Pit is my favorite of the Quatermass stories - and tied with Halloween III: Season of the Witch as my favorite Nigel Kneale screenplay.

      Thinking back on it, I haven't used a shoggoth in a CofC scenario since 2007, when I was running the published "Shadows of Yog-Sothoth" campaign; a shoggoth is sent to sink a boat the PCs are on in a late chapter of that one.