Something Wicked This Way Comes: A Halloween Game
This is a game set in Carlysle County, NC, which I ran this past Halloween.
Why write it up?
I was told I should by the players. Besides, it gives a chance to show what elements went into the game.
I spent alot of time trying to put this game together, and I frankly wasn't sure it would work-- some of the elements were a little stilted. The biggest weakness was that neither Dee nor I are familiar with the Wraith system -- we were pretty sure that Dee's character would bite the big one in the prelude, so I planned for her incorporeal continuation. I also was worried about making the story make sense and let everybody feel some accomplishment. How to give everybody something to do? The wraith was problematic because it was extremely difficult for her to affect the real world. The medium wasn't very experienced. The NPC ally was the most effect "big gun," but I didn't want him overshadowing the players.
Research: I pulled the Hoskin's house from a book on American architecture. The talisman of warding was taken from a picture on an encyclopedia of Victoriana. For inspiration, I read some ghost stories, and H.P. Lovecraft's "The Dunwich Horror."
Setup: The living room was decorated, with cobwebs scattered around. A couple dozen candles of various sizes were scattered around, and there was a dim halogen floorlamp that added a touch of light to read by. The mantle had a hollow ceramic skull with top hat, and from inside came the eerie green glow of a cyalume light stick. Additional light sticks assisted with character sheet illumination.
Music: Dead Can Dance would have been appropriate, but I listened to about 4 hours of it before the game, and couldn't stand much more. Enigma started us off, since I have occult associations with the music. Also in the mix was a sound effects CD, which I used for lightning and wind in the appropriate places.
The Good Guys
Lana (Deena) A mage of House Shaea (Order of Hermes). She's doing research in Harrison College's extensive library.
Jared (NPC). A mage of House Bonasagus. Imagine if John Constantine was a good guy. He's also looking up books at the college. A friendly rival to Lana.
Anjie (Joan). A medium, going to school at Harrison College.
Marjorie Hoskins 65, 5'6", dignified bearing. She delved into her father's notebooks and uncovered many secrets, becoming an occultist of some skill. She Awakened in her early 20's and quickly fell on the path of the nephandus. In exchange for helping a Thing Man Was Not Meant To Know(TMWNMTK), known as the Emissary, into our world, she is to get immortality, power, the usual sort of thing.
Harry Hoskins 38, 5'9", dark hair, receding hairline, a little pudgy. Marjorie's son (her husband died 30 years ago, in an "accident"). Owns Harry's Hamburgers. Unawakened, but aids his mother with the expectation of sharing the wealth.
Helen Barker 35, 5'7", light build, blue eyes, blonde. Maid to Mrs. Hoskins. She agreed to serve the Emissary many years ago. As part of that service, she agreed to bear a child by Harry, for the future sacrifice.
Patience Hoskins About 15, 5'1", blonde, generally innocent looking. She doesn't know all of what her family does, but she knows it is her destiny to serve higher beings; furthermore, she erroneously believes that in doing her duty she will be rewarded with eternal life.
The Emissary of N'gurrin--This is a minor yet powerful minion of a Nephandus. In pupal stage, it looks rather like a 5' long chrysilis. When awakened, its non-euclidian, 4 dimensional aspect will be horrible enough to drive most people insane.
Over the last 30 years, the Hoskins cabal have been responsible for 35 deaths, mostly drifters, runaways, and other travellers whose disappearance would not be readily noted. Of these, 27 souls haunt the prison in the upper chambers. The victims are ritually sacrificed, and their souls are channelled upstairs. Their skeletons are hidden in the forest or in the basement, but in the past few years they have been butchered and put into hamburgers, barbeques and stews at Harry's Hamburgers. This Halloween will see the great ritual: the young virgin will be delivered chanting and singing into the void, opening the way for the Emissary. The trapped wraiths will be brought out and given to the evil creature to nourish it into its full power. After that. . . who knows?
Prelude, with only Dee.
Lana fills in for her mentor at a guest lecture on Egyptology at Harrison College. She also avails herself of the magnificent library. It's here that she learns Jared, an acquaintance and sometime rival, is likewise perusing the rare book collection.
As she drives out of town, she senses a magical effect in the air <Correspondence2/Entropy 2-- drifters, lost people, and salesmen from out of town happen to show up at the Hoskins house>. She follows it to a large old Victorian place (2nd Empire style, with steep sided roofs and a tower room -- classic haunted house). Thinking she's found a Cabal, she goes up to announce her presence and assure the mages she means no harm. Lana is brought inside by Mrs. Hoskins, offered tea, and delighted with conversation. When she sits in an overstuffed chair, the poisoned needles hidden beneath the fabric bite into her, and seconds later the world shifts painfully (a Prime effect). Disoriented, she makes valiant efforts to escape, using every magical trick at her disposal, but Hoskins is much more powerful than she. Before she loses consciousness, she sends her fetch to get Jared.
She awakes, strapped naked on an alter in a red-trimmed, black-draped room. The old lady and a man and woman in their thirties, all dressed in black, are chanting softly. Mrs. Hoskins, who is painting symbols on Lana's body, explains how fortunate she is to give her soul to the Emissary, and revealing everything in the fashion of cocky villains, including that tomorrow her own granddaughter will be used to open the portal so that the imprisoned souls (Lana's included) will feed the Emissary, awakening it from its pupation. Lana's next move is unexpected. She calls down vicious spirits (Spirit 3, "Call the Mad Howlers"), upon herself, dying before the ritual of soul binding can be performed. Outside, she beholds the house's grim ramshackle aspect in the shadowlands, noting with horror the wailing souls trapped in the tower room. <I was very impressed with her imaginative suicide. It was in character, and saved me some awkward finagling -- after all if a wraith can't do much ordinarily, what could she possibly accomplish in a spiritual prison?>
Main Adventure -- Dee and Joan.
Lana walks toward town, unable to come to terms with the fact that she's dead. But she knows she must prevent the final ritual, and her death must be avenged as well. As she muses on her predicament, a shadowy car plows through her, causing a slight disturbance but nothing more. What's odd to her is the fact that the car stopped, and the driver jumped out to look at her. The driver, of course, is Anjie. A little frightened, she nonetheless listens to the wraith's tale of woe, and promises to talk to Jared.
Jared, having been warned by the fetch, is just packing up when Anjie arrives. Once he's sure she's telling the truth (Mind effects), he follows her to an abandoned house. Jared performs a ritual allowing him to hear and see Lana <remember the window/mirror in the A-ha video "Take On Me?" I borrowed that effect>. Explanations were given, and plans developed. Jared would scout the house, as would Lana. Anjie would hit the library as soon as it opened.
When the characters regroup on the following afternoon (Oct 31), Jared reports that some sort of ward/detection field surrounds the grounds in both the material realm and the middle Umbra; he surmises from his passive investigation that anyone with an awakened avatar (a mage) would alert the inhabitants and lead to nasty reprocussions. Lana pulled the spirit of Patience from her sleeping form and tried to convince her that granny was going to do something very bad. But the child, who had been indoctrinated since birth, was polite but firm in her denial. At that point, she discovered (or was discovered by) shadowland protectors of the house: skeletal creatures built like oversized hyenas. She vacated the premises at that point. Back on the material plane, Anjie swiped a copy of the Magnum Maleficum (not to be confused with Malleus Maleficarum) which might shed some light on the Emissary. Jared studies, Anjie sleeps, and Lana "hangs out," until dark.
Because Anjie isn't Awakened, she won't trip the spiritual alarm. Same goes for Lana. Jared thinks the ward on the house has a material focus which can be destroyed. He enacts a small ritual to allow Anjie to sense Power (Prime 1), gives her a pistol, and sends her and the wraith into the house (the bad guys appear to be in the basement). They soon find the object: an ornate table clock, whose minute hand revolves once a minute (Anjie senses a power surge analogous to a rotating radar beam). After some thought, she blasts the clock, which flies to flinders, disrupting the ward. Scuffles of one sort or another ensue. Things are confused and (to my mind) cinematic. The man refuses to fall when shot, but falls nicely when pushed down the stairs. In the sanctum, they discover Patience on the alter, the old crone chanting above her. Jared engages in a magical duel with the witch, but gradually loses ground. Anjie shoots again, but is horrified when the revolver goes click! The evil brother at the bottom of the stairs shoots drunkenly. Outside, thunder rumbles as magical energies grow.
Among the shadowy accouterments of the robed priestess of evil Lana sees a very real-looking key. She snags it, deducing that it opens the door to the shadowlands version of the tower room.
The many spirits charge to the sanctum, where by now the Shroud is pretty much nonexistent, and tackle Hoskins. As she falls, she knocks over some candles, and you can probably guess the rest. The good guys drag the young sacrifice out of the old building as it erupts in flames, and disperse before the fire department arrives. The other wraiths disperse as well, mostly to their respective rewards. Lana decides to stick around and annoy Jared (who swiped her book of True Names). The girl is sent to a chantry for deprogramming.
As usual, I winged a lot of the adventure, and for the most part it worked. The players seemed to really enjoy it. It has become my routine to pester players about what they liked and didn't like about the game, and I think they are more comfortable with telling me something stank. I hope this helps me run better games.
One thing I learned was: Wraiths can't do much in combat -- big surprise. I think new wraiths are most useful as spies, but even then it only works if someone can hear them.
Dee guessed that I warped the rules and the rolls during the game, and appreciated the fact. Every good GM does it, I'm sure, but I probably do it more than average. Did the characters really have much of a chance at defeating a Nephandus mage (Spirit 4, Prime 3, and other nasty things) on her home turf on the night a cthuloidian nightmare is to be born? Not really. But the players had to have fun. So what if one is dead and the other is a college student. Horror movies are full of relative wimps who somehow manage to survive and even defeat these unstoppable creatures. So when the ghost uses her meager, untrained powers to distract the thug that's about to brain the girl who can't shoot straight (pathetic rolls all night, not her fault), I let her. Lots of drama, that's the key. As Wayne (among others) has pointed out, letting the characters think "whew, that was a close one," makes the game much more enjoyable than "Dammit. What a wretched way to go," or "Hmm. That wasn't so bad. I expected worse."
Joan, the newest player, liked the goal-oriented nature of the story: imminent peril, and we know where it's coming from and when it will happen. Previously, she played a fledgling vampire in Baltimore, which was a fairly frustrating learning experience. I think her confidence in this game was a combination of a straightforward plot and having a couple of games under her belt. I asked her about the music and sound effects, and she liked them both. She suggested that the reoccurring sound effects (like thunder) be played loud at the beginning, then dropped to background. Both players liked the general ambiance (candles, cobwebs, etc.)