This is the second part of my my ‘Behind the Screen’ reports about the Masks of Nyarlathotep game I ran at Contingency UK 2019. You can find the first part, which includes my introduction, background and preparation here.
As a reminder, note that this report will obviously contain SPOILERS about Masks of Nyarlathotep! If you plan on playing the campaign, please please please stop now! Even more-so that other games, knowing what is coming in a Call of Cthulhu game WILL spoil your fun! So, please accept that the information here is for KEEPERS ONLY.
I actually used the optional opening scene (page 61) with the investigators in the hotel corridor. I’ve also liked foreshadowing in my games and this felt perfect. I think the players liked it – even if they were confused.
Opening with the investigators meeting up outside the Cordano bar, with the Syrinscape music playing and serving real Pisco Sours (which are great BTW!) we started ‘The Masks of Nyarlathotep’…
I took my time with the opening scene… I gave the players time and space to introduce their characters, interact with each other and the NPCs. I hoped that the investigators would learn that Larkin was ill, that there was something on his chest (scar? tattoo?), and that the veins on his arms were very dark, reenforcing the wrongness about him. Luis de Mendoza was just supposed to come across as creepy and angry; this is easy to pull off and the scene worked well. A couple of spot hidden rolls and the PCs are wondering what is wrong with Larkin. A snappy reply from Mendoza and they all think he’s a jerk. Good.
Give clues that something is wrong here. They don’t want to be completely ignorant and have Jackson tell them something is up – otherwise the players resident the superior knowledge this guy has. Jackson should never be arrogant.
After Larkin and De Mendoza leave we spend time with Jesse (Jackson) and he spills the beans on why he’s there. He asks for their help (vulnerability is always worth introducing in someone you want the players to like – no players like power NPCs or know-it-alls!)
There was complete buy-in (phew!) and this scene is an easy one to Keeper. My focus, as previously mentioned was always on making Jackson a likeable guy with a tenacious attitude; fearless, and determined to get to the heart of the matter (these behaviours, as we know, would be his undoing).
The PCs (perhaps a little to reactively at this point – it’s early in the campaign and they are still wondering where this is going I suspect…) don’t investigate that night, but do agree to meet Jackson at the Museum the following morning (note, this is a Saturday, I checked the dates). The meeting with Dr Sanchez and the subsequent trip into the archives to find Trinidad is a little contrived (‘You all wander off into the archives and I’ll stay here’ ??) , and I had a little trouble getting some of the investigators to go without Dr Sanchez going as well. In the end two of the investigators went to find her.
They found the body (no significant SAN loses unfortunately!) and noticed the gold bar with the skin on it. They immediately thought that the gold bar might be hot so they treated it very very cautiously – though did take it.
I wanted the rest of the PCs out of the way so that Mendoza can attack Sanchez. So I had time attack (stab) at student and then start a fire – setting off the alarm. The PCs and Sanchez left the building which is filling with smoke. When they get outside they notice that Dr Sanchez is not with them so they diligently head back inside to find him (thanks guys!)
They walk back into his office to see the lamprey-mouthed Mendoza ‘kissing’ the Dr! SAN rolls are made successfully, and John L, draws his gun, fires, and gets an extreme success! He blows a hole in the side of Mendoza’s head ‘killing’ him!
Now, it’s very important to me in Call of Cthulhu, that all violence has implications. It might be Pulp but I don’t want investigators thinking that they can just go around shooting people. I asked the player if John L had ever shot anyone before. He had not. I called for a SAN roll, which he passed successfully. I had decided that the potential loss was 1D6/1d2. He lost a point. Everyone should be mentally scarred by murder. Asking these questions is important; they help the players reflect on and understand their investigators more intimately.
Also when it comes to guns there is the loud BANG and the smoke from the cartridge. The noise can be heard and the smell noticeable.
This left Sanchez with something inside him. The PCs all knew it and so did he – interestingly their answer was to take him to the hospital, which they did. Before that though I asked one of the PCs, who was examining the body of De Mendoza to make a spot hidden roll – he made it and noticed that the massive wound was being to knit back together.
Why show this now? Well I could have had them leave and discover this later on his return (as per the book), but I didn’t want to overly complicate this prologue. Actually seeing him heal was a element of the supernatural that I felt the scene needed. It worked out to be a good ‘beat’ in the story. I don’t regret doing it.
John.D.L – a war veteran was tasked with dealing with the regenerating body, and he dropped a statue on the head(!), crushing it. Not pleasant and a successful SAN roll followed. They left the museum.
Overall I was happy with the scenes there. The pace of the game increases here dramatically, as does the horror – we have a desiccated corpse with strange wounds, and then a lamprey-mouthed ‘kissing’ man that spurts something into their victim! Yes, the PCs left a corpse behind, but in a Pulp game I didn’t want them having to deal with the procedural elements of that. It didn’t feel like it would help the story or the pace of the chapter.
The investigators decided it was worth giving Larkin a visit – taking the view that for some reason he was behind this. They went to his room and threw the door open to find him half asleep and sweating in a chair, the smell about his horrific. They could now see the strange circular tattoo on his chest. The man was clearly unwell and they saw the heroin syringe by the bed.
They challenged him and he played the victim. I wanted there to be a sense that he is the victim here, things are out of control for Larkin. He has already lost the battle and he knows it. They pushed him, he warned them not to push him. Then N came out and told them to play their part. There were words said and I suspect the players all knew that it was Nyarlathotep…
Larkin ‘returned’, a wreck of man, sobbing. Rose L stepped forward and tried to convince him to ‘open up to her’. She passed an Extreme Charm roll, and I decided that this would be enough for Larkin to at least try and explain. So he tried and a split second later, he sat forward, his eyes turned black and he laughed, Rose failed a POW roll, and he used Shrivelling on her hands for 20 HP! She staggered but didn’t fall! Her hands and wrists ruined.
I could have destroyed Rose of course with the Magic Points I had to hand, but that was no fun. I figured, without knowing for certain, that 20 HP wouldn’t kill her but would give them a fright. It was close though – Rose had 22 HP (Pulp remember). Still a major wound. She survived but carried the scars of that encounter and wove that into her character and dress (wearing long gloves, and hating the cold weather). I think that spell had all the impact I was hoping for, and more.
Charles put a pistol to Larkin’s head and shot him dead right there. Rose, half mad with pain ran out of the hotel and the rest of the followed with Jackson. Another murder!
I was beginning to wonder if they were a little gung-ho, but so far I was OK with it. For now.
Rose was running to the hospital in fear and pain, and the rest of them pulled her into their car. They decided to immediately leave Lima and head for lake Titicaca – Puno where Jackson said he had a friend, by boat and train.
As it’s Pulp I naturally red-lined a lot of this, but did use the ‘downtime’ to build on the friendships growing, especially between Rose and Jackson, as well as ask the PCs how they are personally dealing with what they saw and did in Lima. This was where I wove in the ‘none of you can write worth a damn!’ reference…
Rose was still suffering from the shrivelled hands, and this was proving very difficult for her. Jackson reflected on something his long-dead mother said when she first read his early works “You can’t worth a damn!”. He knew he could write well, but that she didn’t want him to at all. Stubbornly he ignored her and decided that he would follow his passion. Jackson said when people tell me I can’t write worth a damn, I just double my efforts and never give in, and don’t you – you can’t write worth a damn!!” he smiled.
I hoped this bit of improvisation was enough to embed that statement so that when it comes up later in the message it would have added meaning. I think it did.
Once in Puno, I decided that the meeting with Nayra the wise woman, would be interesting. It also helped fill in some more information about the King of Maggots and the kharisiri, and helped guide the PCs to the right place in the mountains.
This proved to be a good scene, Nayra was very entertaining to play – quirky and funny. She really broke the growing tension and there’s some interesting information to reveal from her. There’s a suggestion that the kharisiri attack in Puno, but I decided that I didn’t need an attack beat here. By now my main goal for Peru was complete – the players and their PCs were engaged with Jackson as a character.
On the way to the pyramid, the investigators camp was disturbed at night and a hand reached in and John L was nearly pulled out from his tent. Everyone woke, but there was nothing to see…
This small scene proved to be memorable and started to raise the tension in preparation for the final part of the chapter.
The investigators started to see two figures up ahead – the kharisiri but they had no way of knowing. Later they met the farmer and his son, but made no progress in convincing them that they were not threats. It was a tense moment and in the end they moved on.
I wanted the farmer and his son to build up the tension and was hopeful that the PCs would persuade Julio (the father) to tell them what his knew. I let the dice fall (badly for the PCs) and he forced them away; sometimes knowing that they can’t resolve every situation is something every group needs to go through.
The investigators and Jackson finally reached the ruins and witnessed the kharisiri vomiting fat into the crack on the top. They heading down one of the chimney’s in to the tunnels, quickly finding the seam and following it around. Up ahead they saw something – a body, and as they reached it the thing attacked them. It clawed at Charles’ legs tearing at his flesh.
The tunnels exceeded my expectations as a location. The fact that the PCs have to crouch, and the horrible sounds (Syrinscape really helped here), led to feeling claustrophobic horror. In their fear Rose and Jackson are holding hands – which was nice. The ‘mummy’ with it’s horrible magnets proved a horrible encounter and it worked really well – it dragged one of the PCs over it. Hard to melee and also too cramped to shot (the noise and smoke as well), as well as the fact that it really can only be hurt in the head, this makes for a very interesting encounter.
After they dealt with the thing, the investigators followed the gold band along the wall until they saw the gap and the crack and puddle. After some debate two of the PCs entered the pool of fat and made their way to return the seal. They refused to look at the crack. As they worked on the wall, other PCs noticed that the some of the larva had worked their way up the pants/trousers of two PCs kneeling in the fat! Frantically the PCs pulled down the trousers and killed the larvae before they found a way into the two investigators!
This encounter is great. They saw the horrific larvae in the pool but did nothing. The look of horror on the faces of the players when I said that they are up inside their trousers working their way up, looking for a way ‘inside’ was great! Had any of the PCs dared to look in the crack, my plan was to ensure that there was a single eye looking back out at them (a shame that they didn’t look!). As one of the players shouted “Don’t look in the gap!!” One of the larva was stabbed by another PC, but it was Jackson that moved in and saved the other investigator from a horrific fate.
After dealing with the seal, they found the chamber with the resting Kharisiri and the piles of treasure. The investigators did notice that the two vampires were slowly breaking up. These were the conquistadors and they were finally dying. The investigators gave them a quick death and left. They took treasure and then left the ruins.
The wrap up at the ruins was pretty satisfying I felt. With the Father of Maggots sealed the kharisiri vampires were going to die anyway. I introduced a little bit of pathos as they reached out towards the PCs, powerless. They were once men.
After the incident at the ruins, the investigators returned to Lima, Bar Cordano and Pisco Sours. There was a good conversation. Jackson said he would name the book ‘The Hungry Dead’ and would send them each a copy. Jackson also asked them if they had heard of The Vanguard Club? He would give them the details of the new New York branch that had opened and sponsor their membership. After final sours, and the promise that they would remain in contact, they all left Peru. Rose and Jackson had a short relationship which lasted about 6 months, but they grew apart. As a final end to the events, I mentioned that Dr Sanchez escaped from hospital in Lima but his body was found later in a park – he had suffered the fate of the other kharisiri.
My introduction of the Vanguard Club (from the Pulp Cthulhu book) was always intended to give the PCs and Jackson a point of contact, as well a potential place of recruitment later in MoN. The PCs left Peru as friends, physically (Rose’s hands, Charles legs) and mentally scarred. The decision that Rose and Jackson would have a short relationship made a lot of sense and proved a hugely satisfying conclusion to the Prologue.
The Peru chapter, as a prologue, proved to be a great addition to the campaign. In fact it would make a great one shot adventure for any Call of Cthulhu game. Remember that it really has one purpose – investment in Jackson by way of a friendship that would add importance to the events in 1925 – in my game that proved to be the case.
I didn’t use the ‘Golden Mirror’ that Mendoza had. To be honest, I forgot about it, otherwise would have found a way to introduce it later (perhaps at the ruins if nothing else), and would recommend you do because of the potents therein.
As an adventure, it’s not difficult to run. The ‘hardest’ (most contrived perhaps) part for me was the scene with Dr Sanchez encouraging the PCs to find Trinidad. Highlights for me were the encounter with Larkin/Nyarlathotep, and the tunnels at the end other chapter. If you use Peru, that encounter with Larkin needs to end with the altercation with N himself (as one of my players said ‘this shit just got real!’)
One last comment, I was always aware that this was ‘just’ a prologue so I kept the game moving so we could move onto the main campaign soon enough.
Next up – my write up of the America chapter.