Sunday, September 25, 2016

At the Mountains of Harrogate - #TrailOfCthulhu

Okay this is not strictly a gaming post but it will I'm sure be of interest to some gamers.   HP Lovecraft's "At the Mountains of Madness" has been turned into a play and I went to see it last night at the Studio Theatre in Harrogate.

It was the last performance in Harrogate but I know it's also been performed in other venues and will continue to be:  The production company's website is Here

The play is a one-actor piece, with Royal Shakespeare Company actor and RADA lecturer Tim Hardy delivering a bravura and strung out performance as a desperate William Dyer pleading with his fellow scientists not to repeat his mistake and carry out an exploration of the heart of Antarctica.  He reluctantly recounts the tale, aided by radio-broadcast flashbacks of the voices of the other members of his team and incredible lighting and audio effects.

The piece was dramatic, compelling and very true to the original tale and I really recommend that anyone who gets a chance to see it does so.   There was also a Q&A session afterwards which was fun and it dawned on me how many of Lovecraft's tales would suit this format - the tale of a single survivor recounting the horrors they have encountered.

Here's the trailer.   And by visiting the Icarus Theatre site linked above you can support the company and get a CD of the entire performance.  

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Commonplace Cullen - #TrailOfCthulhu #FearItself #Esoterrorists

A friend of mine shared the following humorous graphic on Liber Faciem recently:

And there is more than a modicum of truth to it. I've recently taken to jotting down simple ideas as they occur to me using the web tool Trello as a scratchpad (though anything would work of course) because I know full well that if I wait till I actually have some time to myself the ideas will all have run together like coloured plasticine and their bright hues lost in the murky brown average of "Uhhhh what now..."

My list was originally going to be a list of potential story seeds for my Trail of Cthulhu campaign but having taken the time to review them I think that some may be more suited to one-shots of a Fear Itself nature or possibly (in one particular case) an Esoterrorists investigation.

I'll probably get round to fleshing out one or more of these at some point and figured that if I post them here it will provide a spur in my side to actually get on and do it, and there's also a chance that some other GM/Keeper/Asylum Attendant may be able to take one or more and run with any kernel of inspiration they can winnow out of them.    Given the nature of story it's likely that there may be recognisable elements from other stories, any such resemblance is coincidental and unintentional on my part.   I've never been one for buying published adventures so if it turns out that one or more of these is "OMG that's just 1987's CULT OF THE RECIPROCATING EEL!" then I apologise in advance.

The Kernels

MORGELLONS - Fibres growing out of the skin. From what? Others see it as delusion. Only very advanced cases show visible evidence to others.  Science treats it as a neurotic delusion - are they covering up the truth?  Perhaps dual reality.  A body horror version of Hildred Castaigne's crown.

MISSING FOOTAGE - images shot during controversial horror movie supposedly contain something far worse than the film itself. Who has it and what does it show? Death of the infamous director in a suicide triggers the investigation.  Director to combine elements of Browning and Whale though Whale's suicide was much later.  Who redacted the film and why?  Is the missing scene still being shown to specially chosen audiences?

RAILWAY CARRIAGE - empty when it emerges from a tunnel.  Obvious assumption some sort of dimensional abduction... perhaps twist it around.  Other passengers and crew are cultists committing "simple" act of ritual murder disguised as vanishing (Esoterrorists counting on "vanishing carriage" myth spreading?).   Anomalies in timetable may reveal a missing hour when the crime took place.   Duplicate carriage swapped out to minimise time gap & forensic traces?

SCHOOL - A remote boarding school for the children of the privileged falls prey to malevolent stalking forces that begins to feed upon the staff and older children. The younger kids are untouched... and possibly to blame?  If adolescents engender poltergeists maybe pre-adolescents open the door to something worse, hungry and jealous.

FINAL DREAMS - the distorted dreams of an dying man in the grip of dementia take on bizarre and terrible life in the world around him.   In his youth he witnessed something dreadful and that ancient atrocity starts to colour the present.   

STONE VOICES - a meteorite in a museum display reacts to changes in the stars. It begins to change and affect the people around it as it yearns for home.  If it cannot contrive a way to return home (and how could it, it's a rock) then perhaps it will draw home to it.

SOUVENIR - A man returns home from England with a social illness that proves far worse than expected. The touch of Y'Golonac contaminates with its fetid touch wherever the victim goes.

ENDLESS - An immortal is in a cycle of living, faking his own death, returning to claim his legacy.  Something goes wrong and his legacy is sold on to a third party.   The immortal wants it back quickly because time is running out... he has been keeping something under control all these years and now his control is slipping.

AFTER ACTION - Office staff working for the FBI deal with the aftermath of a raid that ended strangely.   The reports are heavily redacted and point to strange cultic violence.   The field team are traumatised.   Something was unearthed there that continues to affect everyone concerned.   The PCs are the backroom  team and the effects manifest through the accounts of the field team and through the footage they compiled.

THE EQUATION - A student of mathematics vanishes.   The trail leads to odd places and to a reclusive savant that set him onto an obscure set of mathematical problems that unlocked a new paradigm.   They centred round some strange symbols that made sense in the context of the equations he was working with.   Texts and voicemails from the missing man come in, each more cryptic and desperate than the last.   It soon becomes dreadfully apparent that he no longer exists in the mundane world and communicates only by electronic traces, having lost all sense of self.   Worse the same fate will befall anyone who has witnessed those symbols.

PATIENT 23 - Closure of asylum, redistribution of patients - One patient an unidentified John Doe – ten years incarceration – violent & incoherent.  New doctor dealing with John Doe including sedation & hypnotherapy – the patient becomes thoughtful in his quieter periods, brooding.  She has brought back some reason to him.  New doctor kills herself – this brings PCs into the story – She realised the truth and could not bear to live with it.  Scalpel to the throat.  Case files suggest incoherent rambling speech from patient – incomprehensible syllables and odd imagery – starts to infect PC’s dreams – bleak vistas with distant odd spires. Information requested by doctor arrives – identified the patient as someone declared dead a month before admission.  Lead to the man’s past and cultic connections.
The doctor who killed herself shows up again, lacking all higher reason, breaks out the John Doe- she is now as undead as he.  And they wish to spread the gift.

PORTMANTEAU - The entity manifests through its worshippers and its area of influence, but never entirely through one single victim.   An eye may form on the body of one of them, a mouth on another, a grasping tendril on yet another and so on.   If the victims meet they may meld together in some way to begin reuniting the jigsaw entity.   The mouths whisper disconcertingly and work to instruct their host in foul magic designed to spread the contagion further.   The eyes drive their hosts to witness dreadful things and send them to the scenes of accidents or disasters or to view the endless night sky for hours on end.   The tendrils pierce and draw nourishment from lesser creatures and can infect a victim with another aspect of the creature.   The worst are the ulcers that ooze a corrosive slime that while it does not affect the host will corrode and degrade their surroundings.
"The bringer of peace" = misunderstood "he arrives in pieces"

IN PEACE - Characters wake up with little memory in some out of the way place.   They discover their healed wounds.  They realise they are dead.  Who killed them and why did they come back?   Can they live again or is their happy ending simply a natural death?  What do they need to do to stay animated...

GATE - Characters investigate mysterious events involving a disappearance.   Their route leads them to a mysterious symbol that is a gate.   They find themselves somewhere strange and gradually discover they are aboard an infested space station in the far future light years from earth (or possibly above a deserted earth that has fallen to horrors)

There's my brain-dump so far.  If anyone feels like they want to expand on anything here I'd be fascinated to know how you'd take it.

Saturday, September 10, 2016

HP Lovecraft and the Opera Ghost #TrailOfCthulhu

I came across something today that puzzled me at first and then intrigued me.

I found this essay online - "The Horror on the Wall" by ST Joshi about Lovecraft's opinion of movies, and in it was a passage about a favourite of mine which I am glad to hear that Lovecraft also rated highly - the Phantom of the Opera, starring Lon Chaney (in my opinion one of the finest actors who has ever brought his art to the screen.  That is only my opinion but you are entitled to disagree and that's fine as long as you don't mind your opinion being held in justified contempt by right thinking folks).

Lovecraft saw Phantom in 1925 and wrote this:
 ". . . what a spectacle it was!! It was about a *presence* haunting the great Paris opera house . . . but developed so slowly that I actually fell asleep several times during the first part. Then the second part began--horror lifted its grisly visage--& I could not have been made drowsy by all the opiates under heaven! Ugh!!! The face that was revealed when the mask was pulled off "
Well quite. Chaney's self devised make-up was a wonderful piece of grotesquerie, replicating so near as could be achieved the death's head look of the novel's Phantom rather than the mild sunburn of the latest cinematic abomination to take the name.

But what intrigued me most were the next words in Lovecraft's letter (emphasis mine):
"The face that was revealed when the mask was pulled off . . . & the nameless legion of things that cloudily appeared beside & behind the owner of that face when the mob chased him into the river at the last!"
As you young people say, "Wait, what?"    Nameless legion of things that cloudily appeared...   I don't recall any cloudy appearance of things, nameless or otherwise.

Now the ending of Chaney's Phantom is not ideal.   The novel and the originally shot ending of the 1925 movie both ended on a note of poignant drama as the psychotic Phantom releases the object of his fixation to live a normal life with her beloved Raoul, and then himself perishes alone of misery and a broken heart.   The originally shot ending of the movie truncated this to happen in minutes rather than weeks but nonetheless ended with a mob breaking into Erik the Phantom's lair and finding him dead at his organ.

A surviving still of the original ending, now alas lost

That was shown to test audiences comprised, like most movie test audiences, of movie goers who naturally eschewed such moments of drama and poignant character resolution and demanded some active justice so Carl Laemmle had the sequence reshot as a carriage chase involving an angry mob pursuing Erik through Paris, beating him to death and throwing him in the Seine.   There would presumably have been a custard pie fight too, as crowds love those, but I guess the custard wasn't delivered in time.

Anyway, those are the two endings I know of for the 1925 Phantom.  Lovecraft of course saw the ending from the final cut of the movie in which Erik is chased, battered and thrown in the river.  But I haven't seen a single nameless legion of things cloudily appearing in that sequence.  Unless you count Parisians of course, but to be honest I think Lovecraft rightly included them in the word 'mob'.

Erik serenades Christine at the cemetery where her father's body lies
- a scene cut from the final version
The film had a troubled history.  The director Rupert Julian didn't seem to have a cohesive vision for the work and lots of the scenes veer wildly between the macabre, the comical and the just plain baffling.   The character of The Persian, an unnamed figure from Erik's past appears as he does in the novel but is suddenly renamed Inspector Ledoux of the Surete for no good reason and doesn't bother to change out of his fez.   The ghostly rat-catcher of the novel appears and is entirely unexplained, and so on.   Scenes were filmed, used, recut, moved, dropped and reintroduced throughout the production.   In 1929 the whole thing was recut and scenes were added and dropped to conform to a new vision of the whole, including scenes shot from alternate angles during the original filming.   Most cuts of the movie you can see these days are drawn from the 1929 version as the original negatives of the 1925 version are in poor condition.

This video clip compares and contrasts the key unmasking scene from the 1925 and 1929 versions to illustrate the differences that exist.

Returning to the question in hand then, did Lovecraft, in 1925, see something we don't have in today's version of the film?  Did he simply imagine them, dredging up eldritch additions from his imaginative depths?
Were there actually nameless legions of shadowy things that appeared to witness Erik's demise?  Certainly no such things appear in the novel as there is no equivalent scene in the novel.    Was there a cut, that Lovecraft saw, in which things appeared there on screen at such a key moment?  If so what were those things and why were they so ruthlessly expunged from all further cuts of the movie?

And if surviving film of that original sequence with Lovecraft-witnessed nameless shadowy Things still exists what would happen if it was found and viewed?

That's one I'll mull over for a while but I thought I would throw open that question to any Keepers out there who may want to revisit with Lovecraft's eyes this cinematic conundrum.

What new surprises lie in store?

Monday, September 5, 2016

Found Carcosa #TrailOfCthulhu

I’ve been plundering the themes and flavours of Chambers’ work recently but today for the first time I came across this little gem.

The Carcosa mansion, built in 1896 to 1897 was intended as the residence of the British High Commissioner in Malaya.  It’s now a luxury hotel though given the antecedents of the name I suspect that the much vaunted Hotel California would be a safer place to visit.

The name was taken straight out of Chambers’ work as Sir Frank Swettenham, the aforementioned High Commissioner, explained:

To the Editor of “British Malaya”
[British Malaya, May 1936]
In the April magazine your correspondent in Malaya asks me, in courteous terms, to tell him why I gave the name “Carcosa” to the house that was designed and built for me at Kuala Lumpur by the late Mr. C.E. Spooner, assisted by Mr. A.B. Hubback – as he was in those days – and I have no objection to answer the question even though the simple truth may spoil a number of excellent stories. When this house was finished and occupied I read a book which interested me. It was called “The King in Yellow” and at the beginning of this book there were some verses with a note explaining that they came from Cassilda’s song in “The King in Yellow”, Act 1, Scene 2. Here are two verses: -
“Strange is the night where black stars rise, And twin moons circle in the skies, But the stranger still is Lost Carcosa.”
“Song of my soul, my voice is dead; Die thou, unsung, as tears unshed Shall dry and die in Lost Carcosa.”
I did not call the Resident General’s dwelling “Government House,” or “King’s House,” because neither seemed an appropriate name in Protected States. I did not give it a Malay name, because it was to be the residence of a British Officer; so I took a book name as has often been done before.
As to the word Carcosa, I imagine it was the Castle of the King in Yellow, but the book explains nothing about either the place or its occupant. That apparently can be found in the play, to which there are only occasional allusions. Probably it is a word created by the author’s fancy, though it looks like a combination of the Italian words cara and casa and would mean “desirable dwelling,” as indeed I found it.
The only curious fact is that this name was prophetic for, as I understand, the house has lost its name and is thus, “Lost Carcosa.” The occupant, I am told, is now styled “F.S,” instead of “R.G.”
Yours obediently,
19 April 1936.

Oh and the logo of the hotel is a yellow sign.    Clearly a coincidence.

Next question – how long can I resist the urge to send one or more of my groups of player characters to Malaya…

Rolling out the rules #NightsBlackAgents

I've been running a Night's Black Agents campaign for a while now, the Pelgrane game of elite spies versus vampires and the rules, the ideas for structuring campaigns and the atmosphere have all combined into being one of the most involving and exciting games I've played in a gaming career that goes back far longer than I am comfortable admitting.

For most of those years of gaming I've been pretty emphatically anti-crunch.  I've played with players, lovely each one of them, that fall everywhere on the spectrum from "pure story" to "pure number crunching" but I've always been biased toward the former end.   Consequently I've tended to favour systems that are light on mechanics and that de-emphasise combat detail in favour of narrative immediacy.

However in Night's Black Agents the details actually do their damned job and make the game more exciting.   The core mechanics of the Gumshoe system are simple enough to make intuitive sense and even when adding in all the Thriller combat options and the expanded options from the Double Tap supplement things just flow well enough to convey the action in detail without slowing things down or taking the focus away from what's happening "on screen."

In last night's episode we ended up using rules we hadn't touched before and, other than a moment when I totally blanked on how suppressive fire worked and had to look it up, everything just shot along at a hair-raising pace just as it should.

Rules that were new to us included:

Sneaking into the concealed terrorist headquarters in a run down part of Siegen using the extended Infiltration rules from Double Tap (made harder by the fact that combat-monster Hans has no infiltration skills and had to be nurse maided past the tricky security by Rowan... but it was worth having him along when a botched roll led to a sudden encounter with a single sentry... that ended a second later with a silenced single shot from Hans)

Deciding halfway through the infiltration that some sort of escape-diversion might prove handy later and Hans making a cherry-rich Preparedness spend to have already taken care of that by placing flashbangs and noisemakers adjacent to one of the other exits prior to their ingress.

Our heroes becoming trapped in a dead-end attic corridor after rescuing a pair of prisoners, and the campaign's first use of Suppressive Fire as Hans emptied his MP5 downrange.   One of the enemy tried to risk moving for a better angle and got his head blown off, the others kept well out of the line of fire.    This was followed up by one of the surviving bad guys lobbing a grenade into the corridor so we also got to play with the explosive rules and - more specifically- the panicky use of Athletics skill to leap for cover before the damn thing went off.

Honestly I can't recommend this game enough.   As it happened in last night's session there wasn't even the sniff of the supernatural so even if you're only interested in playing high octane modern action this is definitely worth checking out.