Thursday, September 22, 2011

Cthulhu: Stranger in a Strange Land

Dramatis personae:
The Right Honourable The Lord Sebastian Macaulay, gentleman of leisure and ornithologist/entomologist
Frederick Ironmonger, publisher and hobby archaeologist

The time: February 4 1890
The place: London

Mr Ironmonger and Lord Macaulay have decided to spend the evening at the Savile Club, where they meet a friend of their, Robert Padburg, who just returned from an archaeological dig in Egypt. He brought back a small statue he wants to show them, but first they retire to a private room to avoid the attention of Edward Fallon, a most unpleasant man and sworn enemy of both Ironmonger and Macaulay.

click here to read the whole adventure

The statue is made from black basalt, in the likeness of an elephant-headed human, about a hand tall and with mysterious signs engraved into the base. Some of the inscriptions reads like Latin, but more like Latin spoken by someone who only wants to imitate the sound of the language.
It was found near a sarcophagus and judged to be 3000 years old, although it is unknown to whom the sarcophagus belonged. There are rumours of a lost underground city in the area and Padburg plans to mount an expedition, inviting Ironmonger and Macaulay.

Before the explorers to be can make any further plans, Fallon burst into the room, shoving the butler Jacob aside most rudely in the process, and grabs the statue. He's quite disappointed that he has wasted his grand entrance on such rubbish, especially as the statue refuses to do something interesting, like opening a secret treasure vault when he tries to twist its base.

Fallon leaves and the discussion is resumed, but the statue does do something interesting after all: it starts to glow and there is a noticeable drop in temperature in the room. Suddenly shouts are heard from the other guests of the club. When Ironmonger and Macaulay go back into the other room, they find that there are stone walls outside the windows. The front door no longer leads to a busy London street, but to a corridor made from roughly hewn stones. Some further investigation shows that there no longer is a cellar nor any of the upper storeys of the house.

The guests decide to investigate and leave the club. They split up fairly soon into a group led by Fallon and another one led by Macaulay, taking different tunnels leading away from a large cave. There's a noticeable smell of copper in the air and faint tracks of decidedly non-human feet on the floor, along with decidedly human finger bones. In a side-tunnel Macaulay finds a sort of key he pockets and in another big cave the groups comes across a pit filled with blood that starts to boil and move when they get close. They run and things are not helped by the screams of the other group that can be heard echoing through the tunnels.

They decide to return to the club only to find it crushed by boulders. Fallon has had the same idea - he's the last one left of the group and babbles about a monster covered in mouths, but without eyes. Suddenly, a clock strikes six - a grandfather clock has appeared on the far side of the cavern. A dark, viscous liquid starts to run out of the clock, forming tentacles and the group flees into one of the tunnels they haven't yet explored. Fallon stays behind.

The tunnel is a dead end and something is right behind the group. A frantic search reveals a keyhole that fits the key found earlier, but instead of a way to escape it reveals only a small room with a pentagram drawn on the floor. With the omnious sounds coming too close for comfort, Macaulay steps into the pentagram and vanishes in a flash of light. That sight is finally too much for Jacob who runs and encounters whatever is following the group. Padburg and Ironmonger only hear his final scream as they step into the pentagram as well.

All three find themselves in a room shaped like a cross, with several exits and a sort of altar in the middle. There's also a book on a lectern and when Padburg checks the statue, he sees that it has moved and spread its arms. Ironmonger tries to read the book and while he cannot read much of the text, he can read enough to find out that they are in the Dreamlands and that they have to wake the Snake Priest to return again. The statue is supposed to help with this, but it is not explained how.

Macaulay takes a closer look at the altar and manages to open a secret compartment that contains an amulet in the form of two snakes biting their tails. When he takes it out, it leaves a hole in the altar that looks like the statue would fit. They decide to try it since it's better than running aimlessly through the labyrinth and the statue moves again, pointing at the northern exit.

Before they can take it, Mr Ryan, another member of the club who went with Fallon, stumbles into the room and is skewered from behind by a creature that is only dimly visible, except for the scorpion's sting covered in blood. With Ryan clearly beyond help, the group runs through the exit and come into a huge white-tiled room filled with hospital beds and decaying corpses suspended with chains from the ceiling. With the creature directly behind them, they don't have time to think about this (an extremely mixed blessing) and are just quick enough to escape.

Another tunnel leads them into a vault and for some reason the creature doesn't follow them in - but leaving the vault will be impossible since there is a similar creature at every exit. The walls are decorated with reliefs showing snakes and a pillar carved into the form of a snake stands in the middle of the room. The amulet fits neatly into a slot on the pillar and a sarcophagus is raised from underground.

From the sarcophagus climbs the Snake Priest who is enraged not only because he was woken by a bunch of humans, but also because they brought the statue into the Dreamlands. He demands that the group delivers to him either the one who took the statue from its place or the one who is responsible for opening the way into the Dreamlands. Ironmonger and Macaulay choose Fallon and the Snake Priest promises them safe passage for one hour. Padburg has collapsed at the sight of the Snake Priest and stays behind as a hostage.

The statue acts as a sort of guide through the labyrinth and they quickly find themselves in the first cave. Fallon is still alive, but no longer sane. He threatens Macaulay with a revolver, but before the situation can get completely out of hand, Ironmonger manages to convince him that they know a way out of the labyrinth. Fallon comes with them, but they have to knock him unconscious when he insists that he has to take a bath in the pit of blood.

They arrive in the nick of time - the Snake Priest is just about to devour Padburg and doesn't seem all that pleased to see them. He does keep his words - after promising to bring the statue back where it was found, Ironmonger and Macaulay pass out and wake in their club, along with Padburg. Most of the other members have returned as well, except Jacob and Ryan.

I've been to the Dreamlands a few times in earlier Cthulhu adventures and it rarely was more than a hack and slay dungeon crawl - which is not the type of roleplay I like and not really the purpose of Cthulhu. This adventure had just the right mix of monsters, puzzles and suspense to make it a lot of fun and terrifying at times. Grandfather clocks always have this sinister feeling to me and I decided that Lord Macaulay will definitely remove any grandfather clocks from his house, along with any other clock that chimes the hour.

The whole mood of the story, but especially the white-tiled room reminded me of Michael Ende's book The Mirror in the Mirror - if you haven't read it, you really should. It's a collection of surreal short stories, each accompanied and inspired by a drawing of Ende's father Edgar Ende.

This was the first adventure with the characters and it was well-suited to the purpose of getting acquainted with the way the character will react and how they relate to each other. I don't know if the next adventure will be a longer campaign, but I always like adventures that are done after one evening when I'm playing a new character.

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