Sunday, January 31, 2016

Cult of Chaos Write-Up: Helping Hands

Last night's game was a bit more challenging than Darkness Falls - I was running in the 8pm-midnight time slot, and I'm just not used to staying up that late any more.  Add to that how warm the room we were in was, and it's no surprise that one of my players was having difficulties staying awake.

This adventure was a modern day game, that we decided was set in our locale of Rochester, NY, with the investigators consisting of a Veteran and Rookie Homicide Detective and four CSIs - a blood spatter analyst, a crime scene photographer, a coroner and a toxicologist.  They're called to the scene of the death of Dr. Robert Blake, a neurologist working for the Thompson Center for Neurological Research.  Blake was found dead in his garage in front of the vintage muscle car he'd bought as a project car, with a quarter-inch hole bored into his aorta.  The scene was surprisingly bloodless however, much the consternation of the blood spatter analyst.

Examining the body revealed that it had been almost completely drained of blood, and what little was left was surprisingly still fluid.  Ligature marks on the neck suggested that Blake may have been restrained in some way - the marks were not suggestive of strangulation.  His wife Elizabeth had taken a Valium and gone to bed early the night before, and heard nothing, while the next door neighbors reported hearing a sound like audio feedback around the time of death, and that a dark, four-door sedan driven by a heavy-set, balding man in dark glasses had circled the block slowly two days earlier.  A spilled bottle of motor oil showed Blake's footprints on the concrete floor of the garage, but no signs of an assailant.  Shreds of a mushy, gelatinous material, translucent and pale pink, were found under Blake's nails, while the neighbor's gutters and roof showed signs of damage as if something heavy had come to rest there.

In the lab, it soon turned out that the gelatinous material evaporated over the course of the next several hours, with freezing it slowing the rate of sublimation.  Talking with Blake's spouse and coworkers turned up no evidence of any enemies, mistresses, gambling debts, etc.  They learned that Blake was part of a team researching a neuromuscular disorder known as Strickler's Disease, in which over time the nerve cells degrade and lose the ability to deliver messages from the brain to the muscles.  No cure is currently available, though Blake's team has had some luck with an experimental treatment involving spinal injections of a drug cocktail designed to amplify electrochemical response in the nerve cells.

Two days after Blake's death, his coworker Dr. William Crane is found dead in the park, having suffered the same injuries as Blake - blood loss and the quarter inch hole in the aorta.  Crane's dog, a golden retriever named Bucky, had a similar hole in the neck, but retained most of his blood - but every bone in the dog's body was broken, seemingly from having been beaten repeatedly against a nearby tree.  Picking up Bucky's body resulted in blood pouring out of the wound like water from a faucet, and chemical analysis of the blood revealed that there was a huge amount of an anticoagulant mixed in - an organic substance similar, but not identical to hiruden, a substance produced by leeches for that purpose.  Analysis of the blood patterns on the grass and trees brought up a curious possibility.  A gout of dog blood had been splashed across the grass, and a computer recreation showed that it had hit the ground at a 70-degree angle.  The investigators began to wonder about an occult angle, and the possibility was raised that this gout had been drunk - and then spat out as inferior to human blood.

A pair of uniformed cops were stationed at the house of Dr. David Sandford, the other member of Blake and Crane's team, while the PCs conducted a discreet stake-out of the house of Dr. Sarah Reynolds, the head of the team and director of the Thompson Center.  A radioed message that the front picture window of the Sandford house had just imploded, followed by screams and gunfire, brought the PCs racing to Sandford's house, arriving perhaps minutes too late - both cops were dead with one having been dragged halfway out the squad car's window by his neck, and the other drained inside the house.  Sandford was dead, his aorta punctured but not drained - blood had sprayed out like a firehouse, coating the far wall and big screen TV.  Worse, Sandford's wife Abby and three year old son Tommy were curled up in the corner, Abby's body wrapped protectively around her son, but to no avail; both had been drained.  More of that gelatinous substance was found on the shards of glass from the window, and when examined in the lab were discovered to absorb the blood coating them; placing a gobbet of the substance on a clean slide and applying a drop of blood with a pipette under a microscope showed the substance sponge up the blood, darkening to a deep red when doing so.

With officers dead, it would be a matter of only about a day before the Feds arrived to take over the investigation; working on a tip from Dr. Reynolds regarding a patient who hadn't shown for a monthly check-up, the PCs arrived at the house of Ted Long, a research technician for Bower Prosthetics.  His son, Ted Jr., suffers from Strickler's Disease, but was not a good candidate for inclusion in the experimental group due to his young age.  Ted was not at home, but breaking in and doing a quick sweep of the kitchen, living room and bedrooms turned up a lot of empty fast food containers and beer cans strewn across the floor of the living room, coupled with a week's worth of newspapers - and the decaying corpse of Ted Jr., dead for about a week with a quarter-inch hole in his aorta.

The two detectives descended into the basement, despite hearing a wet, slithering, rustling sound down there.  The rookie's head began to hurt, but the veteran detective suddenly had an epiphany - the rookie was the killer he'd been seeking this whole time! She certainly knew an awful lot about the case, and suddenly it all made sense to him.  Drawing his gun on her, he disarmed her and put her in handcuffs - an especially traumatic experience for her, as after seeing the rotting corpse of Ted Jr., she'd latched on to her partner as a security blanket.

He brought her upstairs to the bafflement of the CSI team, and exclaimed, "You should see all the evidence down there!" and led them into the basement after depositing the rookie in the back of a squad car, still handcuffed.

Down in the basement, with a burst of audio feedback noise, the toxicologist is attacked, grabbed and pinned by some invisible force.  He manages to squeeze off a shot at where he thinks its center of mass must be, but the shot goes wild.  The sound of gunfire snaps the veteran detective out of the mental haze he'd been in.  The blood spatter analyst fires off three shots at the area the toxicologist had been shooting at, without success.

Blood began to drain from the toxicologist, flowing up and filling previously invisible veins and capillaries, creating the image of an octopus-like creature floating in the air above the toxicologist, an image of empty space between visible veins as long, trunk-like tentacles flailed out, a pair of enormous, three-clawed hands clutching at its victim.

The toxicologist faints in shock, while the blood spatter analyst and the coroner descend into hysterics, with the blood spatter analyst particularly screaming "There it is! There's all the blood! THERE'S ALL THE BLOOD!"

The veteran homicide detective and the crime scene photographer open fire on the creature without result, and the thing flails at the detective with a number of tentacles but can't seem to latch on.  The photographer managed to break the creature's hold on the toxicologist, but when the bullets aren't doing anything, she grabs the coroner and flees up the stairs while the detective swings wildly with a length of lead pipe.

When the photographer and coroner brought back-up to the Long house, they discovered the drained bodies of the veteran detective (he was only five days from retirement, too), the blood spatter analyst and the toxicologist, with no signs of a floating blood octopus to be found.

Meanwhile, in Epilogue land, Ted Long was arrested that day trying to half-heartedly rob a blood bank; his only comment as he was loaded into the back of a squad car being "What took you guys so long?" His rantings about an invisible demon from space that took over his life after he summoned it to help care for his son land him in a sanitarium, where three years later he breaks out, steals a lighter and a gallon of gasoline, and immolates himself on the lawn.  His last words were reportedly a sobbing "I'm sorry, Junior!"


So a good time was had by all, and this session I had four players who had little to no prior experience with the Call of Cthulhu RPG, and everyone had a great time, though they missed some interesting clues by giving the Long house a light skim before descending into the basement; mixed in with the garbage in the living room was Ted Long's journal, which would have netted the PCs a handout of select journal entries detailing Long's frustration with the doctors at the Thompson Center and his conviction that if he can devote the time to it, he can find a cure for Strickler's Disease and save his son.  A chance reference he'd come across years earlier in his work as a prosthetics research technician led him to Ludvig Prinn and assertions that his day-to-day chores were attended by invisible servants, leaving Prinn free to devote himself entirely to his studies.  Requesting the relevant pages from De Vermis Mysteriis from the Huntington Library, he set about summoning one of these "invisible servants" to handle Ted Jr.'s care while Long researched the disease.  It went poorly for him.

I thought this added a strong dimension of pathos to the events, but the players didn't search the living room, so it didn't find its way into their hands.  C'est la vie.

This is my first time playing around with using a CSI team as investigators, which worked well - they all had an immediate reason to begin looking into the unnatural aspects of the case and had a lot of good skills to work with.

They ended up getting so involved in investigating the initial scene of Robert Blake's death that they spent close to a third of the time slot there; it ended up being a good thing they fought the Star Vampire in the basement, because as is we wrapped the game up with less than a half-hour left in the time slot.

Looking at the demographics for the two games I ran this weekend some interesting things jump out at me.  First off, four of the twelve players I ran for this weekend, a solid third, were women, which is wonderful.  The Geneseo Area Gaming Group, at least during my association with the club (which has been restricted to attending Running GAGG since graduating in 2009) has always been very inclusive and supportive; the very first person I saw upon walking into GAGG for the first time as a freshman in 2005 was a lovely young woman named Bridget, who happened to be playing the crime scene photographer last night; in the ten years of my knowing her it was the first time I'd gotten the opportunity to run a game for her.

Given how strongly gaming conventions in general are associated with men, and the extent to which RPGs are seen as a hobby unwelcoming to women, it's heartening for a third of my players this weekend to have been women.  I hope next year it's a solid half.

I did have a total of six out of twelve players - or half - who were either brand new to Call of Cthulhu or who had only played one or two sessions prior to the one they had with me this weekend.  And they all had a blast, which means I'm counting these two sessions as roaring successes for the Cult of Chaos.

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