It’s a rainy, dismal night outside my window, and the best I can say about it is that it encompasses everything I remember about Halloween from my childhood. It’s cold, it’s wet, and the only real reason to be outside at the moment is to scrounge for candy on the backstreets. Since I’m not eight years old, however, I’m not particularly interested in venturing outside. The idea of costuming would be interesting, if I had enough other people around to encourage me, but without a dedicated group of people to dress up with, it seems like a lot of unnecessary work. And if I wanted any amount of candy, I’d just go off and buy myself a bag.
These days, it would hearken to a proper horror game night, were there anyone within reach. I could see pulling out Touch of Evil or Last Night on Earth, but the best I could do right now is gather perhaps one other person. And that doesn’t really justify the trouble.
My usual fallback would be to run a Cthulhu adventure.
I’d mentioned back in August that I had cultivated a habit of running one adventure on a repeated basis. This adventure would be “The Haunting,” a little haunted house scenario that tends to be included in the Call of Cthulhu mainbooks and has become something of a favorite over the years. It’s a relatively simple little module, dealing with the characters being asked to investigate the strange happenings at a little house in the Boston suburbs. Most of the action is divided between researching the history of the place and actually looking around the house itself. It was put together to serve as an introduction to the game, and it is singularly effective on that basis.
Over the years, I’ve spent a lot of time on this module. I’ve played in it, I’ve run it directly from the book, and I’ve adapted it into other systems for the sake of the players I had sitting at my table. I’ve even toured a local house that now serves as my inspiration for Walter Corbitt’s house. (In all seriousness, it had an identical floor plan, even down to the basement that seemed to only go under half of the house. It was a little unsettling.) I’ve grown to love it, and whenever I find myself settling into a new gaming group, this is one of the first that I bust out.
The simplicity of the adventure (the house itself has three bedrooms upstairs, a modest living room-dining room-kitchen layout on the main floor, and a rather small basement) allows any amount of modification, depending on how the GM wants to portray things. I’ve seen it set in rural locales, on the outskirts of a Jazz Age negro resort town, and brought up to the modern day. Characters have gone in as guileless dilettantes, hardened mercenaries and paranoid conspiracy theorists, based on how the players want to approach it.
And none of it matters.
Part of the appeal of the adventure to a GM is that it is unapologetically deadly. I’ve never misled players on this point. If they are sitting down for a Cthulhu game in general, it is generally understood that their survivability hinges directly on their choices, and the game itself is an unforgiving system. I’ve never run this game as anything other than a one-shot, and for what it may be worth, I’ve never figured out how a character could reliably survive. I’m sure that there are ways to survive, but it hasn’t happened in any of the sessions I’ve run. That said, I’ve seen GM’s who try to help their player characters live through the scenario. For my money, they’re merely running the module wrong, which robs their players of the full experience.
The adventure starts with the characters being hired by a mutual acquaintance, whose rental property is gaining something of a reputation. The most recent residents have met with a series of dire misfortunes, and if this isn’t cleared up, he may not be able to rent the house again. The characters are given a vague sketch of some of the problems, a key to open the front door, and a promise of a modest reward for dealing with the situation. From there, they are free to start investigating.
This is where the adventure really shines, encapsulating the particular nuances that Call of Cthulhu brings to the hobby. Investigation is largely unknown in most RPG’s, which prefer a more visceral approach to problem solving. Lovecraft’s writings tend to be more cerebral, and the structure of the game rewards players who try to emulate this. In the module, there are some nine listed locations, only one of which is the house itself. Of these, six are locations for research purposes, ranging from the local library to the Boston Globe newspaper archives. (Of the remaining two, one is the generic “house where the investigators meet,” and the other is something of a red herring.) It is expected that the characters would do their homework, figure out some aspects of the mystery that they are confronted with and prepare themselves accordingly. In some Cthulhu adventures, this tends to be the phase of the adventure where the characters come across some sort of weakness that they can exploit or an insight into the kind of foe that they are facing. In this case, however, the best that the characters come away with is a gnawing sense of dread. There are no particular weak points that they can use against Walter, and all the research tends to do is highlight the fact that their foes is possibly immortal.
Once they’ve done their due diligence in regards to the events leading up to the recent unpleasantness, the only remaining course of action is to physically enter the house itself. And as I have said, the layout of the place is extremely simple. There isn’t actually much to the adventure, in terms of the house itself, with most of the rooms serving as foreshadowing to the actual points of conflict. The main level of the house has nothing particularly interesting to be found, other than the remnants of the former residents’ daily lives. There is a weird notation of a sealed cabinet where the lost Diaries of Walter Corbitt have apparently been sealed up for over fifty years, but this has no particular bearing on the adventure.
Upstairs, however, things start to get weird.
Two of the three bedrooms were lived in by the former residents and have little of pressing interest. The third bedroom, however, originally served as Walter’s room, and it manifests certain weird effects as a result. For my money, this was where the adventure truly started. Up to this point, the characters have been doing the scut work of the session, looking through archives and trying to piece together the information into a working theory of what’s been going on. Only now, when they enter the sealed up second floor bedroom, do things actually start to hint at how bad things are going to get.
The room is treated as sort of poltergeist encounter, with furniture being thrown about and blood seeping from the walls. Compared to the relative normalcy of the rest of the house, this tends to catch the players completely off-guard, setting the tone for the final act of the adventure. (For my own purposes, I tend to expand the area of Walter’s influence to the upstairs bathroom, which is one room away. This takes the form of filling the bathtub with blood and having Walter appear in the medicine cabinet mirror, seemingly over a character’s shoulder. These are harmless little tricks, comparatively, but they have the effect of throwing things off well enough. In one session, this even led to a character shooting a fellow party member in reaction.) In the bedroom, Walter attempts to lure a character close enough to the window to batter them through the glass with the bedframe, a heavy wooden thing propelled by telekinetic force. Depending on how the dice fall, this has the immediate potential to take at least one character out of the adventure on the spot.
From there, the only remaining part of the house is the basement, found by a door leading off the kitchen. Hilariously, the dire encounter that awaits is foreshadowed by the plethora of locks on this door, clearly intended to keep something from coming up into the rest of the house. It’s an understated element that isn’t pointed out to the GM of the scenario, but I’ve found that it tends to be wholly obvious to the players.
The basement is largely unremarkable to a casual observer. The stairs are rickety, the light bulb doesn’t apparently work, and there’s a scattering of miscellaneous junk on the floor. (The reality is that the light bulb is just fine, but Walter has telekinetically pulled the fuse. If the player characters are resourceful enough, they can restore light to the basement with a quick trip to the fuse box; only to have Walter pull the fuse on them later when it suits him. This is one of those elements that underscores just how bad it’s going to get.) Getting into the basement itself can prove vaguely harrowing, depending, but it’s only when they’re assembled in the small underground room that things go completely off the rails.
There’s an interesting note that just occurred to me in the current re-reading of the text. If the GM wanted to utterly put the screws to the players, it wouldn’t be out of character to have Walter lock them into the basement with him. He has the power, and with the note about the fuse box, there’s really nothing stopping him. The text of the adventure limits his power to the basement and the upstairs bedroom, but having the ability to mess with the fuse box allows him a couple other interesting tricks as well.
Once the characters have made it to the basement, they have a little time to sniff around before Walter decides to fuck with them further. Initially, this takes the form of his ritual knife, a blood encrusted relic that is simply lying on the floor in the various debris. Using telekinesis, he levitates the knife and has it stab whomever is readily available. The characters invariably panic and try to deal with the knife, but by the time they have it under some sort of control, it’s usually done some serious damage to at least one of the characters. And to this point, there’s been no indication of what the hell is going on. Savvy characters who have done their research know that Walter was a particularly creepy figure in life and is buried somewhere under the house, but the reality is that there’s no obvious bit that reveals him as being a powerful undead sorcerer. (Most players will outright assume it at this point, though.)
Finally, there’s the possession thing.
Up until now, Walter’s been using telekinesis of one sort or another. (Well, and the whole “bleeding walls” thing. I added in the ability to appear in the mirror as a sop to the accounts of the former residents. It isn’t in his listed abilities, but it did add a nice flavor to things.) In his write-up, he has a form of Dominate that allows him to make telepathic commands to a victim. This is an opposed roll against a player character, but Walter is well and powerful enough to manage it. For my purposes, this allows him to direct one of the player characters to open fire on another, which is usually enough to spell the end of the scenario. Once a character has been attacked by another, things rapidly go downhill. Even if they fail, the other characters are just paranoid enough to start killing each other, and any survivor can usually be dealt with using the ritual knife or the rat swarm that lurks in the walls.
Very rarely does Walter himself have to appear. There are stats for him, and he has the ability to rise from his grave, his skin hardened against most forms of attack. Even if any of the characters are able to survive the perils up to this point, Walter is well and capable of dealing with whomever is left to oppose him.
All in all, it’s a nifty little adventure, with enough lead-up to make the final act properly dreadful. I’ve run it time and again, invariably ending with a total party kill, as I feel Cthulhu adventures should conclude. There is a slim possibility of survival, but it hinges directly on trying to run Walter out of Magic Points before he can eliminate everyone in the party. Even so, I doubt that this would be possible without at least a half-dozen characters in tow. This is literally the only way that I can actually envision anyone coming out of the adventure intact. (And even then, they would have a fair amount of damage to their Sanity.)
This is one of the few Halloweens that I haven’t managed to run this scenario, but all that really means is that I’ll be that much more prepared for the next time.