Wednesday, June 27, 2012

A Conversation with Armitage

Armitage Files Session 3

Last Sunday we had a quick Google hangout session involving Dr. Krombach and Glen Cameron.

The day following the events of The Red Box part 2, Mr. Cameron and Dr. Krombach kept their scheduled appointment with Dr. Armitage. Mr. Perrin could not make it as he was engaged in a tense conversation with some gangsters (again in Red Box part 2).

Armitage greeted the investigators in his office along with two of his colleagues, a Dr. Dyer and Dr. Peaslee (who is known to Dr. Krombach).

What followed was a discussion about the mysterious document, the relegation that a second document had arrived and what course of action should be taken.

Armitage confirmed the handwriting was indeed his although he had no significant knowledge of any of the people, events or other items mentioned in the documents. A second document, written in a far less frenzied style, and apparently composed earlier that the one received by Glen Cameron, had appeared on the Desk of Armitage a day earlier. Tests on the documents revealed;

  • Human blood, rat's blood and blood from an unknown phylum on the first letter
  • Soot, pulverized concrete and pulverized bone dust on both
  • Both were slightly radioactive

Dyer advanced the theory that Armitage may have written the documents during a mental break of some sort - Peaslee (a psychologist) disagreed saying he has found no evidence of such a break. Deter then suggested that Armitage may be controlled by some force and writing them unaware, and that it may be a good idea to keep the librarian under observation for the next while. Armitage agreed to the observation proposal. Dr. Krombach put forth an interesting theory that somehow Armitage’s mind may have been duplicated (using complex Jungian reasoning) and that the duplicate was writing the letters. Peaslee was very intrigued by this possibility.

Mr. Cameron advocated the theory that the letters had come from the future, a possibility that seemed to resound with Dyer. Peaslee himself had no theory and advised the group to remain open minded, reminding the group that there was more evidence than the content of the letters - the soot, dust and other physical evidence alone seemed to indicate a very unusual origin.

Wait... This is my laundry list...
Armitage himself felt that there was not enough information to understand where the letters were coming from, but he was greatly concerned that they indicated that he had failed at something important that then lead to some sort of terrifying event. He felt strongly that he himself should not be the one to investigate it, or even those too close to him such as Dyer or Peaslee. In fact he was very worried that his advice, or even slight involvement, may contaminate the discovery of the truth and possibly the aversion of whatever disaster was referred to in the letters.

Knowing he was asking a great deal from the investigators, Armitage formally requested their involvement in leading further inquiry, to which they agreed. Armitage then handed over the second letter which had the following leads:

  • Human blood, rat's blood and blood from an unknown phylum on the first letter
  • Soot, pulverized concrete and pulverized bone dust on both
  • Both were slightly radioactive
  • The Tears of Azazoth is a tome of some sort
  • A circus, a strong man and something hidden in the freak show
  • The New England League Of Amateur Astronomers
  • A traveling salesman named Philip and his wild stories about the Helping Hands organization
  • Black roadster and truck with "something" in the back observed leaving hospital
  • Temporary agent Olson is at the army base

Armitage wished the investigators luck and said he would avoid contact with them unless it was of the greatest importance. Dr. Krombach approached Dr. Peaslee and asked for psychoanalytic services, to which Peaslee agreed. Finally, when Krombach reached his apartments, he received a telegram from the PI Fred Monroe which simply said "Found her".

And that's where we left it.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

The Red Box, part 2

Armitage Files Session 2... continued

Driving around for a while, the investigators figured it was time to revisit Kittrell. It was late night by the time they knocked on his door and Kittrell seemed distant and blurry when they tried to speak with him, the same foul dusty smell in the air. Dr. Krombach was observing keenly and quickly noticed when Kittrell slipped up and mentioned that "those stupid gangsters wouldn't be able to tell one red box from another".

Suddenly realizing that Kittrell had kept the original red box and sold the gangsters a substitute they demanded to see it. Mr. Perrin became quite physical and roughly slapped the playboy. Kittrell laughed. "When an empty cigar box from hell in a burst of flame, what do you do with it? You put cigars in it and then smoke them!". Moving up to his desk Kittrell continued, "only I didn't have any cigars, so I dumped in cigarettes". He brought a dusty cheap red cigar box onto the table and pulled out a cigarette, lighting it. Wreaths of smoke surrounded his face, his eyes suddenly glowing through with a hideous wormy light.

After I finish this smoke,  I'm gonna
unleash some eldritch whoop ass.
The investigators were stunned as Kittrell dragged on his cigarette, "Somehow these have helped me see more clearly, see things others can't see, invisible things all around. And now that I can see them, I can ask them to do things.." and suddenly he raised his arm and twisted his hand in a complete circle. Mr. Cameron felt something hideous, cold and worm like wrap itself around his legs with a crushing strength. Of course, all chaos then broke loose. In the ensuing struggle it became apparent that Kittrell had somehow gained control over invisible entities of some kind. Guns were fired, legs were cracked by unearthly worms, punches and kicks thrown, as the investigators tried the wrest the red box from Kittrell. It ended with an epic toss of a pistol down a hallway into the outstretched hand of Mr. Perrin as he grappled with Kittrell, allowing him to fire point blank into the villain's forehead.

And with that the investigators fled, red box tightly in hand, broken, bruised and with sanity on the edge. Mr Perrin dumped serval hundred dollars into the doorman's hand on the way out of Kittrell's apartment "Tell them it was Walsh's men" he implored. They drove far out of town, finding a cheap hotel along the main road. Checking in they repaired themselves as best as possible and wrapped the red box in bed sheets. But not before a curious Mr. Perrin stole a look inside - to be confronted by a fairly ordinary interior, but with a sudden ominous feeling of staring down a dark tunnel.

The next morning, after a sleepless night, the three headed back to Arkham to make themsleves as presentable as possible for their meeting with Armitage later in the day. For Mr. Cameron and Dr. Krombach, this was uneventful. Mr. Perrin, however found the gangster's roadster waiting at his mansion. he soon found himself seated in his living room two gangsters standing to the sides while the weasely fellow who had purchased the fake red box identified himself as Henry Nugent, a lawyer in the employ of one Diamond Walsh. Walsh was interested in why the investigators thought the box was dangerous, and was "concerned" about the nature of his dealings with the Kingsport Yacht club, specifically the president of the club, a Mr. Oliver Gardener.

Mr. Nugent had a deal. The blame for Kittrell's shooting had somehow, and here he grinned knowingly, been pinned on Walsh's men. It was an easy wrap to beat and no one would be the wiser. In exchange for keeping Mr. Perron's name from the police, Walsh would be asking Mr. Perrin and his associates to do a little digging for him. Mr. Nugent would contact them with the details in a few days time. Exhausted and bloodied, Mr. Perrin agreed...

And that was the end of the first session. Whew. That was a slightly more verbose summary than I intended.

Comments on the session:
  • The players were in top form, with lively in character banter and hypothesizing. They get so much momentum going, that I hardly need to do anything at all.
  • Special kudos go to Todd, Dr Krombach's player, who actually seems to be studying up on Jungian psychology. I'm almost afraid of the next time he talks shop with Peaslee.
  • "It's not a 14th century spice box! It's 16th century!" - Mr. Perrin. Better words to start a fight with a wizard, I've never heard.
  • Gotta add more... something... to combat.
  • Gotta remember to reward following drives - Mr. Cameron's player was exceptional at allowing curiosity to get the better of him.

Friday, June 15, 2012

The Red Box, part 1

Armitage Files Session 2

Our first tabletop session of the Armitage Files had three players present. Dr. Krombach and Glen Cameron from the short Google hangout session and a new investigator, Fredrick Perrin.

The action picked up right where the Google Hangout session ended. Dr. Krombach and Mr. Cameron had spent the night deciphering the cryptic letter left in the wake of the Fairweather thing's attack. They decided that they would attempt to contact Dr. Henry Armitage, whom they assumed the letter was addressed to and who Dr. Kromback knew through a a fellow alienist, Dr. Peaslee. They would also follow up on the Kittrell lead and Mr. Cameron called on one of his sources (as he often writes about high society scandals) - a wealthy collector of strange artifacts, Fredrick Perrin. Perrin immediately invited the two to his mansion just outside Arkham and was obviously intrigued by the strange tale brought to him, so much so that he invited himself to participate in further investigations.

It was a short drive to Arkham university and the three soon found themselves interviewing the venerable head librarian himself. Dr. Armitage was greatly disturbed by the letter and appeared to take it quite seriously. He allowed that the handwriting was quite like his own, though obviously quite wild. He did not have any significant knowledge concerning the names and other things mentioned in the letter, and he certainly had no recollection of writing it himself. He asked if he could have the letter examined by his associates and that the investigators return in two days discuss the results. The investigators agreed and left the University, but not before stopping by the office of Dr. Peaslee. Dr. Krombach asked his colleague a few questions regarding Dr. Armitage's health, to which a worried looking Peaslee answered that Armitage was quite robust for a man his age. Dr Peaslee was spied walking hastily towards the head librarian's office once the investigators had departed.

Don't open the Red Box! Don't open the Red Box!
 Aww never mind...
Having two days to wait, the trio decided to pay Austin Kittrell a visit in Boston. Kittrell was a known playboy with a reputation for acquiring questionable items for high society clientele and Mr. Perrin, being an avid collector of strange artifacts, had availed himself of Kittrell's services in the past. Mr. Perrin had called earlier and Kittrell had invited them up for the evening to his luxury apartments. On arrival the investigators were lead to Kittrell's large and fashionable den where they proceeded to fish for information. Kittrel was smoking foul smelling cigarettes that he retrieved from his desk, the ouder reminding the three of the dusty smell of the Armitage document (and when asked for a cigarette, Kittrell provided one from a different location). Despite their questioning nothing seemed to stick until the Red Box was mentioned. Dr. Krombach noticed that Kittrell was visibly shaken at the reference and they pressed for more detail. Admitting it was indeed unbelievable, Kittrell told that two nights before a red box appeared in what seemed, for all the world, like a circle of blue flame right on his desk. Perhaps just as unsettling was that a month previously a small, weasely man had contacted him and told him to be on the look out for a red box. "You'll know it if you see it" he'd said and informed him that his employer would pay well for it. Kittrell had contacted the man who would be coming by the next evening to pick it up. Asking to see the box, Kittrell presented them with an aged red box covered in Arabic script. It was worn and in an archaic form so Mr. Parrin, who knew Arabic took a rubbing to examine later.

The three then departed for the evening back to Mr. Perrin's mansion, but not before Kittrell gave some advice, "The guy whose buying this box, you don't want to get mixed up with him".

On the way they back, the theorizing began and it was felt that Diamond Walsh was the buyer, which could well mean a midnight visit from a few gangsters to warn them off. At the mansion, pistols and shotguns were prepared just in case.

But in the early hours something else came thumping on Mr. Cameron's second floor bedroom window. Mr. Cameron was horrified to find not a gangster but the figure of the Fairweather thing. Arms still ropey, and clothing quite torn and shredded, the thing seemed to be regrowing Fairweather's face, but scrambled and misshapen as though it were being extruded from the vacant hole. The terrified Mr. Cameron shot wild and the crouching thing dropped from the window and into the dark snowy night. A frantic race out the front door found footsteps in the snow leading to a small wood to the rear of the mansion. Deciding not to pursue, the three investigators retreated inside, arguing over the nature of the apparition.

The next morning the three went to check the snow covered footprints but were not very interested in following them into the wood. On the way back to the house though, Mr. Cameron heard an odd whisper; "come to me". His curiosity getting the better of him, he told the others that he would continue checking about. The other two headed indoors and began to discuss Mr. Cameron's mental state when Mr. Cameron happened to look out the window and spotted Mr. Cameron entering the wood, followed by a dark furtive figure. Picking up his shotgun, he and Dr. Krombach raced outside again.

In the wood Mr. Cameron was confronted by the Fairweather thing. The face still scrambled, it began asking questions "Where is this? Why have I been brought here?". Seemingly frustrated by Mr. Cameron's inability to answer (who seemed transfixed), the thing's face started to open and inky black tendrils began to flow out. Mr. Cameron suddenly came too and fired his revolver but missed. The thing ran and he gave chase, managing to hit it once before it escaped. The other two hearing the shots blundered in and found the shocked Mr. Cameron. Not sure what they were dealing with, the three regrouped at the house and decided it was time to  check in on Kittrell and confirm their suspicions that he was indeed selling the Red Box to the gangster Diamond Walsh.

Arriving in Boston the investigators staked out the street in front of Kittrell's apartments. Sure enough a roadster soon drove up and two obvious gangsters leapt out and opened the door for a smaller, weasel faced fellow who entered Kittrell's building. A few minutes later the weasel man returned to the car carrying a bag about the size and shape of the red box. The roadster drove off and though not entirely in agreement with this course of action, the investigators followed. It took about three blocks for the experienced gangsters to notice their tail and pull over. The two thugs got out and aggressively stared down the investigators' car, hands in coat pockets.

Mr. Cameron summoned his courage and approached the gangsters on foot. They laughed rudely when he asked to speak to their boss, but Mr. Cameron persisted and presented them with his card saying "Tell your boss that the box is very dangerous" and then returned to Perron's car. Slightly mystified the thugs conferred with the small man in the back seat. They then looked up and started running for the investigator's car. Mr. Perrin sensing imminent doom stomped on the gas and u-turned to drive off.

The gangsters did not pursue.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Stapler vs. No Face

Armitage Files Session 1

I'll start by introducing our hapless investigators;
  • Dr. Wilhiem Krombach - a German Alienist who, despite a few encounters with the truly supernatural, remains shakily convinced that there's still a logical explanation for all this, and that he's just the scholar to figure it all out. 
  • Glen Cameron - Journalist, now a firm believer that unnatural things are afoot and rather convinced that the privileged elite are in on it, driven by a dangerous sense of curiosity. 
  • Eliza Crumpot - Sophisticated high society gal, but driven by some deep instinct to seek out the the strange and terrifying. Currently has a ghostly mental construct of long dead poet in her head and is missing. Fred Monroe is searching for her. 
  • Fredrick E. Perrin - Heir to the Perrin Penguin Paints fortune and passionate seeker of all things ancient, odd and rare. He is a new investigator and has yet to experience the mythos. 
  • Fred Monroe - another new investigator, he is a P.I. driven to avenge the gruesome death of his brother and is currently tracking down the elusive Ms. Crumpot who fled six months ago after the last mystery.
The mystery starts on Friday evening, January 6, 1933 and involves only two players - Dr. Krombach and Glen Cameron. This is a short introductory session using Google Hangout.

A bit of background: at the end of the Invisible Path, the quick scenario we played in the fall, the fellow who plays Dr. Krombach wrote an excellent "six months later" piece in the form of a journal entry. Amoung many interesting and colorful tidbits, Dr. Krombach spoke of testing a milder version of the Liao compound found in that scenario on two subjects. One was Harry Fairweather, the troubled ex-butler of an industrial magnate who had met his end at the hands of a possessed maniac. The other was fellow investigator Glen Cameron.

Liao unhinges the user in time, bringing visions of the past or future. The two had experienced what appeared to be the primordial past in the first tests. But something terrible happened during the most recent trial - the two found themselves not in a pre-human jungle with ominous ruins, but in the burnt out husk of a modern city, an old haggard man nearby furiously writing something near a small fire. Fairweather was attacked by something unseen and when Mr. Cameron made a dash for it he was blocked by the old man pressing a letter into his hand.

Awakening suddenly, Mr. Cameron found himself back in the sleep laboratory of Dr. Krombach. In his hand was a letter, the same it seemed from the vision. Although groggy he also realized Krombach was being strangled by Fairweather. With a shock he saw that Fairweather no longer had a face, just a gaping void as if it had been torn away and inky darkness lay beneath. Just as disturbing, Fairweather's arms appeared to be rubbery and boneless. This is where play started.

After a semi serious debate about just making a run for it, Mr. Cameron leaped to the good Doctor's aid. In the ensuing struggle the two investigators attempted to subdue the unfortunate Fairweather. There was a stabbing with a sedative (too mild), bashings with a heavy stapler (ow) and good thrashing with a standing lamp (surprisingly effective). However, the Fairweather thing managed to smash through the window, fall three stories and limp off through the ice storm raging outside. But not before giving Mr. Cameron an evil knowing stare (as well as a faceless monster can stare).

Recovering with some schnapps the two investigators huddled about the mysterious letter and spent the rest of the night deciphering it. And that's where we ended for the evening.

A few comments about the session: Dr. Krombach's player did a marvelous job of attempting to rationalize everything. Krombach has a "science can explain everything" Pillar of Sanity. So for him, the transformation of Fairweather was a shared hallucination caused by the drug (he himself must have accidentally imbibed some while preparing the formula). Fairweather's attack was due to the slightly stronger dose he had administered. The mysterious letter didn't come from the old man in the vision, but was dropped by Fairweather. His concern then was finding the obviously wounded Fairweather and returning the letter to the one it was addressed to, a Dr. Henry Armitage (who he knew of through a fellow alienist, Dr. Peaselee). Mr. Cameron's player did an excellent job of being frantic and immediately leaping to the wildest conclusions about the supernatural nature of the events (so far, he is the only one to actually witness the mythos - a pair of Hounds of Tindalos - from the previous adventure).

Although combat is not a central feature of the game, I want this to be a very pulpy campaign, so it will definately be part of our sessions. Though the simplicity of the rules is a definate plus in my books, combat was almost too simple (though still quite dangerous), and I'm slightly worried that it'll come off too hand wavy. I may look into adding a bit more structure, especially around initiative.

And here's a summary of the leads and clues found in the mysterious letter;
  1. It rambles about a great many incoherent things, obviously written in a frenzy, covered in what looks like blood and dust, has a picture of a woman with the face carefully torn away (the photo that is, not the woman, leaving a gaping black hole)
  2. It's addressed to a Henry Armitage
  3. It says this is the first letter, others will follow.
  4. Mentions a man by the name of Austin Kittrell - seemingly a high society type
  5. Also mentions an Alan Gardner, President of the Kingsport Yacht Club
  6. Perhaps connected to Gardner, Diamond Walsh a notorious Boston gangster, is also spoken of
  7. Positively rages and warns about a "Red Box" that is associated with a book, "mind wasps or hornets" and "The Tears of Azathoth"
  8. Something about "Face Stealers"
  9. Briefly mentions a new sanatorium and a mysterious patient 
  10. Advises that the receiver (presumably Armitage) not conduct the ensuing investigation himself- rather he should recruit outsiders (ta-dum!)
Next up, our first tabletop session.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Armitage Files

The Trail of Cthulhu campaign I'll be running this summer is based on the Armitage Files by Pelgrane press. I say "based on" because of the unique nature of the campaign.

 Hex 0704: Sleepy Shoggoth under a log
Unlike a traditional Cthulhu campaign (or any investigative campaign for that matter) which is usually a series of connected adventures each with a set of clearly structured events, characters and goals, the Armitage Files is more of a toolkit. It's been aptly described as a sandbox "investigation" and is roughly analogous to old style sandbox fantasy modules in that the Armitage Files' handout documents provide a map (not an actual map in this case, more of a collection of tantalizing leads) to possible investigations. Each clue in these documents has a corresponding character, organization or place description, with the option of it being innocuous, stalwart or sinister. One can think of these as the same kind of thing as encounters on a hex grid - e.g. go to hex 0143 and you'll find an abandoned wizard's tower. In the Armitage Files you follow up on the Yacht Club lead from one of the handouts and there's something there waiting for you. Like a hex map, the investigators don't need to follow up on everything, just the things they find most intriguing. And also like a hex map, there's no strong connection or common theme (apart from a mythos theme of course) between the investigative encounters (for lack of a better word).

This is both a boon and a challenge. It's a boon in that each of these "investigative encounters" can be quite short, doable in a session or two. And because they're not strongly connected, it lends itself to self contained episodic play quite well. It also means that you don't need to have a full complement of players at each session - you can go with whomever shows up, with the PC's of absent players being off stage (presumably recovering or taking care of other business). In fact, the structure (or lack there of) almost encourages subsets of players to chase after particular leads, without much risk of them becoming wrapped up in a longer term investigation that would exclude the other players. Simple side investigations can be done through e-mail or, as we've already tried out, through Google Hangout (or other conferencing software).

The challenges are that, firstly this requires more work on the GM's part - you've got to have two or three investigative encounters ready to go. There's some good advice in the Armitage Files that suggests a GM query the group before a session on what leads they're going to follow up so that they can prep in advance. The Armitage Files also suggests a style of play called "improvisational" where the GM does no prep and builds the mystery with the open collaboration of the players. This may work for some, but to me this pulled the lid off too far - a good deal of the tension, I feel, comes from the players being in the dark as much as their PC's.

The second challenge is establishing and building a coherent narrative to the overall campaign. There's a real risk of The Armitage Files becoming a set of disjointed encounters with no build toward a satisfying conclusion. This will require work again on the GM's part to provide that narrative that connects the encounters. I've approached this by building a general narrative framework into which I can slot the investigations. Each mini investigation may be self contained, but they will contribute generally to an overall, evolving story. What's going to be great here is that player input, mainly obtained through listening to the players hypothesizing about what's going in, is going to be a major contributor to that evolving story. I've done this, as I'm sure many GMs have, on a limited scale within the constraints of a published campaign or scenario, but with the Armitage Files this will play a much greater role.

It's an exciting challenge and we've had two sessions so far that have gone well. A quick intro session over Google Hangout where the first of the mysterious Armitage documents comes into the hands of two of the investigators, and a regular table top session where the players followed up on a lead from that document. Already the players have thrown in some unplanned and interesting twists that would not have occurred within the structure of a more traditional campaign.

Next post I'll summarize those two sessions.

Monday, June 11, 2012

The Invisible Path

The first Trail of Cthulhu adventure I ran for our group was last fall. It was "The Book" from Arkham Detectives Tales by Pelgrane Press. The group had never played a Cthulhuesque game before so I was eager to have this go well.

The adventure was good and spooky, with the players having lively discussions over their various theories of what was going on. It ended with the investigators becoming murderously paranoid in a cheap hotel room. Ultimately one investigator was killed (by the hand of another investigator no less), one was retired due to obvious mental instability, one ran off with a strange voice in her head promising secret and wondrous knowledge, and the last two decided to continue experimenting with a mysterious narcotic that appeared to transport the imbiber into the distant pre-human past. All in all an excellent first run. The best part of it is that I had very little to do with the end game - the players drove the whole thing.

Oh evil temptress with your flashy green cover
This was also the first time I'd run a Cthulhu game using the Trail rules. I quite literally grew up running Call of Cthulhu (purchasing the boxed second edition when I was 13) and it was my go-to game for years. Switching systems seemed like a bit of a betrayal, but I'd been drawn in by a number of elements of Trail; the spooky old photo visual style, the treatment of the mythos with alternate explanations for the major entities, the character drives, the approach to building mysteries and the simplicity of a single d6. Oddly enough, the whole "players automatically receive core clues" thing which is the main selling point (as well as point of contention for some) did little for me, as I'd already been doing that in practice with Call for years. I have to say that I wasn't disapointed - I quite enjoyed the rules in practice. However I think the main Rulebook could do with a bit of a re-org and layout exercise to make things clearer and easier to find.

I look forward to getting to know the system better over the summer. Next post I'll talk about the campaign we've started - the infamous Armitage Files (actually I don't think it's "infamous" but it just sounds cool when you say it like that...)

Sunday, June 10, 2012

The Best of Intentions...

Initially my idea was to start this blog as as a resource for the players in the Trail of Cthulhu game that I'll be running this summer, but I'll also use it for my general game related musings for any who happen along.

Our group meets once every two weeks, and we play a variety of games. There's six of us in all, five of which have played and GM'd for years and one player that is entirely new to RPGs. It's a great group, very imaginative and lively, and I really enjoy our games. But it can be challenging both as a player and a GM to remember just what happened last session.

So as far as the Trail of Cthulhu game goes I'll be keeping a running summary of important events, clues and other interesting tidbits here. And when we shelve the Trail game (we tend to switch games every few months), it'll not only serve as a bit of a record so that we can pick where we left off when we return to it (hopefully), but I can continue to chat about game related stuff in the meanwhile.

That's the plan anyway. As I've never actually maintained a blog we'll see how long this lasts...