May 30 2010

The Terror of Merton House

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BEWARE: Spoilers ahead for the scenario “The Unsealed Room” from Secrets.

Last night was the second session of the opening adventure for Arkham Special Cases Unit, “The Unsealed Room.” I provided the players with a short player handout with a bit of background flavor information and a few retroactive rulings (still getting the hang of CoC), and then the session picked up right where last week’s left off, leaving Shady Hills Retirement Home after having revealed to former Sheriff Perry that when he and the others broke into Byron Merton’s house and drove a stake through his heart, they were actually simply killing a man, rather than slaying a vampire. (Or as Lee put it, “We personally caused a 104-year-old guy to lose SAN.”)

So the players took stock of the situation. In 1936 Byron Merton, amateur occultist and would-be wizard, decides as a lark to cast the spell “Summon the Crimson Horror From the Stars” that he found in an incredibly rare hand-copied draft of Cthulhu In the Necronomicon he acquired during his years as a soldier-of-fortune across Europe. He is surprised and horrified not only by the fact that the spell works, but by what it summoned … a star vampire, an invisible alien thing that floats about and drains the blood from living things and makes a constant noise like creepy laughter, only made visible as a nightmarish tangle of tentacles and grasping mouths by the fresh blood coursing through its veins (or by application of the Dust of Ibn-Gazi). The star vampire, apparently blocked by the spell from harming Merton, then goes on a killing rampage that convinces Sheriff Perry and others that there is a vampire in their midst — and Byron Merton, creepy guy recently returned from Europe and who only ever seems to go out at night, is the obvious choice.

Merton meanwhile, realizing remorse for the first time in his life at the innocent lives taken by the star vampire, concocts a plan to destroy it using the Baneful Dust of Hermes Trismegistus, a formula supposedly deadly to creatures not of the Earth. The first batch he tries is not successful — the baneful dust being notoriously difficult to concoct in the right proportion — so as a temporary measure he lures the star vampire into a steel-lined room hastily-assembled in Merton’s house and locks it in, using an Elder Sign to bind the door. His plan from there is to try again to brew a working batch of the Dust of Hermes until he gets it right — but he never gets the chance. While Merton is lying in an exhausted sleep after a night’s battle with horrors from beyond, Sheriff Perry and his entourage sneak into the house, find Merton collapsed in bed during daylight hours and seize upon that as proof (if weak proof) that he is indeed a vampire, and drive a stake through his heart. They then put forth the idea that Byron Merton “went back to Europe,” make arrangements for a law firm in Kingsport to take over managing the property (i.e., keep paying the taxes and otherwise leave it the hell alone), and go on with their lives. The “vampire attacks” stop, of course, because the alien creature is locked in the steel room, which just adds credence to the Merton-as-vampire theory, and life carries on for seventy years.

At which point, enter Alex Walden and his buddy Randall Hume, researching Walden’s next book on New England ghost stories and folklore, who come upon the rather garbled story of “Byron Merton, the Arkham Vampire,” and reading between the lines come to the conclusion that there’s more to it than just talk. They rent a house near the Merton place, sneak over there, and break in to explore. Being just slightly more foolish than Byron Merton himself, they find a door sealed with an occult sign and think, “A-ha! Something good must be behind that, let’s break it open.” The star vampire is released and, being hungry after seventy years locked in a steel room, immediately slaughters Hume. Walden flees headlong into the night, but the star vampire pursues him to the rental house, where it slays Walden and his dog, and where the investigators came in.

And now, they need to figure out what to do about it.

Sherman Bath headed back to his place to keep perusing Cthulhu In the Necronomicon and trying to learn the Elder Sign spell. Dr. Parker, Dr. McCullen, and Maureen Gould all headed over to Miskatonic University to round up a chemistry grad student (“Hey, man! Name’s Dobie, what’s up?”) to help them make up a batch of the Baneful Dust of Hermes. The end result was a glittery gold powder, as the recipe indicates should be the case, but they have no more idea if they’ve gotten it right than Byron Merton did. They did discuss the possibility of making more than one batch with different formulations, so that if one doesn’t work they will have others to fall back on, but alas, they didn’t actually do that. They decided instead that with another nightfall rapidly approaching, they should take steps to prevent another innocent person from getting killed; in the hope that the star vampire will be satisfied with a handily-provided bit of livestock instead of needing to hunt up another jogger, they traveled to McSweeney’s farm outside of town and bought a goat, which they then staked to the ground just outside the back door of the Merton house. From the ASCU SUV parked a safe distance away, they set up surveillance to try to observe and possibly video what happened.

And observe it they did. They were still mucking around with the video recorder when the back door of the house quietly slid open and suddenly the goat began acting in an extremely peculiar manner — and then began thrashing and kicking as it was horribly slain before their eyes. Maureen and Dr. McCullen both failed their Sanity checks as the freshly-sanguinated form of the star vampire became visible; Dr. McCullen simply fainted in his seat, but Maureen calmly got up out of the driver’s seat, went around and got into the back of the SUV, and curled up into a ball, making horrified whimpering noises. Dr. Parker, the only one who maintained his composure, quickly jumped around into the driver’s seat and sped off before the creature finished off the goat and came after them. After regaining their wits in the relatively friendly and brightly-lit parking lot of a movie theater, the three of them went to Sherman Bath’s house to fill him in on the latest developments.

The four of them put their heads together, but still can’t make head or tail of the Elder Sign spell, so Dr. Parker comes up with an alternate idea. As a member of the staff at Miskatonic, he not only has access to the Orne Library, which houses the Latin Necronomicon, but also to the ultra-rare items in the collection, including one of the only known extant copies of the Greek version from which the Latin one was derived. The team put on their gloves and face masks and went into the Clean Room to peruse the ancient text. There Dr. Parker and Dr. McCullen both managed to learn the Elder Sign spell (much to Sherman Bath’s annoyance when he still couldn’t figure it out). Then they all headed back to their respective homes to try to get something resembling rest, anticipating a hard day on the morrow.

Luckily, the sacrificial goat seemed to do the trick, as the star vampire didn’t claim any other victims overnight. The team then braced themselves as best they could, acquired another goat (this time from McMurphy’s farm instead of McSweeney’s to avoid suspicion) and some Sculpey with the idea of possibly crafting another seal, and went back out to the Merton house for a more thorough exploration. Looking into the steel room, they found the previously unaccounted-for body of Randall Hume; elsewhere in the house they found the summoning room, which had an enormous pentagram on the floor, as well as the master bedroom and its grisly contents: the staked skeleton of Byron Merton. They also heard the obscene laughter of the star vampire in another section of the upstairs. Knowing that the thing disliked sunlight, they had brought along some sledge hammers and used those to knock away the wood boarding up the windows of various rooms, hoping to corral the beast to some extent.

Theorizing that there was some kind of tie between the star vampire and the summoning room, as it seemed to return there when it had no other particular plan, Sherman decided to turn the pentagram on the floor into an Elder Sign, if nothing else to give the team somewhere to flee to if necessary. He carved the necessary adjustments into it and had Dr. McCullen perform the rite. They then staked the goat in the steel room, apparently with the half-formed plan of duplicating Byron Merton’s tactics — but Maureen Gould forced a confrontation by opening the door to the room where the star vampire lurked.

The hideous laughter rolled out of the room at them. Maureen threw a dose of the Dust of Ibn-Gazi, revealing an outline of its squirmy, quivering shape as it bore down on her; she then threw a dose of the Baneful Dust of Hermes, but her aim was off and it smashed against the wall behind the thing, to no apparent effect. It then latched onto her with its tentacle-mouths and began to drain blood, causing panic and confusion all around. Sherman Bath ran off to retrieve the goat, with the rather muddled idea that the star vampire would let go of Maureen and go after the goat instead (“He’s a writer, that makes sense in his mind!” said Jamie). Dr. Parker and Dr. McCullen both threw their vials of Baneful Dust at the creature, achieving direct hits, but to no effect — apparently Dobie’s Chemistry check was no better than Byron Merton’s. (Lee: “If I ever see Dobie again, I’m going to punch him in the face.”) Maureen, her already-low strength no match for the vampire’s in a wrestling contest, simply pulled out her .38 special and began blazing away point-blank at the horror.

Maureen, although losing strength fast, is an excellent shot and poured bullet after bullet into the beast; Dr. McCullen, upon realizing that the Baneful Dust was a dud, pulled out one of the scalpels from his medical examiner’s kit and began slashing at the beast, while Dr. Parker simply began to beat on it with one of the sledge hammers. Thanks to merciful dice, Maureen had a single point of STR left when they reduced the beast to 1 hit point (no easy task, but they managed to pull it off). I told them that it disappeared in a horrid red spray of Maureen’s blood. But then, with a Listen check, they heard its giggling again, coming from the general direction of the summoning room.

(This was a conceit I added to the creature, rather than being in the “standard” star vampire writeup. As a sort of reference to the end of the story “Call of Cthulhu,” I decided to have it temporarily stymied by massive damage to to have it start to reform itself. The players were all highly confused by this turn of events, which I thought was a very appropriate thing to have happen when confronting the horrors of the Mythos.)

Dr. McCullen was the only other person who had a gun, a 9mm automatic that fired three shots per round instead of two; as Maureen had emptied hers, but was a much better shot, he handed it over to her. They then went, goat in tow, down the hall with the intent of finishing the creature off. Dr. McCullen made an impromptu torch out of one of the sledgehammers and a bit of shirt soaked in hooch from his hip flask, hoping that fire would be effective where the Baneful Dust had not been. When they got to the end of the hall, they discovered it had fled the summoning room, apparently to get away from the giant Elder Sign on the floor (much to Sherman Bath’s satisfaction), and gone into the master bedroom. There, over the dead body of the man who’d originally summoned it, they battled the beast again. Maureen, leaning on the door frame for support, blasted away with the automatic. Sherman, to keep the star vampire from draining the last of Maureen’s blood, shoved the goat at it; the star vampire greedily accepted the goat and drained it almost completely in one round, causing Sanity checks all around. This time Dr. Parker failed it, flying into a berserk fury with the sledgehammer. Dr. McCullen, on the other hand, emptied his hip flask onto the creature and used his impromptu torch to set it alight. The star vampire, burning, blasted with bullets, and being pounded by a manic professor with a sledgehammer, died in a horrific spray of gelid goo, releasing the goat — whose poor head the still-berserk Dr. Parker smashed with the sledgehammer. The rest of the party wisely held the door of the master bedroom shut while Dr. Parker smashed everything in there with the hammer, including the skeleton of Bryon Merton (“It’s your fault! *smash* YOUR FAULT!”).

Eventually the professor’s fit of madness passed and blessed silence reigned in the Merton house. After a few moments of twitchy rest, the team called in to the Captain of ASCU and requested an ambulance for Maureen, and some troopers to come clean up the mess … haunted by their experiences, but relieved to have survived and at least somewhat comforted to know that the star vampire was destroyed and the inadvertent murder of Byron Merton had in some small way put right. They each regained 1d10 Sanity, made their experience checks for the scenario, and began to look forward with a certain amount of trepidation for what future cases may have in store for them.

In short, a classic Call of Cthulhu adventure. I was quite pleased.

-The Gneech

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