Saturday Night Eldritch Fever: Session 1

A highway somewhere on the Texas plains with a blue sky and a few clouds.
Photo by Rebecca Swafford on Pexels.com

Recently, I started running Call of Cthulhu for some friends. While I’ve played the game several times, the only time I’d ever actually acted as Keeper (GM) was running a duet game or two for my son. Additionally, rather than use pre-written content (scenarios), I decided to create and use my own content.

I’m also relying on the CoC rules as little as possible. I prefer to focus on what makes sense based on the shared fictional space, such as NPC interactions & attitudes, the obvious results of physical actions, etc. When we do roll, a “failed” roll will rarely mean that the character doesn’t achieve their goal, but rather that other complications arise or maybe they only get a partial success. They always get the bare minimum information on any sort of investigation, for example; the investigation can’t halt due to a failed die roll.

The minutiae of the rule system don’t make these games work, but rather the group collaborating on telling an interesting and somewhat unpredictable story. (I considered running this with Cthulhu Dark instead, and perhaps by the end of the run I’ll have more thoughts on that.)

Thoughts on 1970s Texas as a setting

HP Lovecraft wrote many of his stories focused on his own time and place: 1920s-ish New England. This wasn’t necessarily because it had any particular specialness to it (beyond his own xenophobia), but it’s when and where he lived.

Rather than use any existing setting, I took inspiration from that approach (minus the horrific racism he espoused) and set our game in my own backyard. Cosmic horror need not be limited to a few specific times and places, and there’s nothing quite like being able to use my own intimate knowledge of an area. So I set it in my own backyard (north central Texas near Dallas), as I’ve lived my entire life here.

Also, while I find the Great Depression heavily underutilized in RPGs, I decided to fast forward to a somewhat modern era. This allows me to infuse more culture into it – we typically know much more about the 1970s than the 1920s – while still stopping short of the tremendous access to information than the 1990s heralded.

A sign with the words "REJECT WHITE SUPREMACY"
Photo by Brett Sayles on Pexels.com

I’m intensely aware of the own racism (systemic and interpersonal) infused into the ongoing history of my region. Lovecraft would have nodded approvingly at many of the terrible policies and actions of the politics and culture in Texas. On the one hand, acting as if that sort of thing didn’t happen is a sort of erasure. Even if we were playing a game set in (say) 1920s New York, pretending that society wasn’t intentionally oppressing non-white folks would be impossible for me because it would be disrespecting the very real problems my own family (Puerto Rican recent arrivals to NYC) suffered in that exact time. Similarly, when my grandfather lived in Texas and Oklahoma in the 1950s and 1960s, he and my family encountered significant prejudice that still echoes down into my life.

On the other hand, none of us are playing Call of Cthulhu to focus on systemic injustice. My players and I have to deal with that already on a day-to-day basis, and as much as we might wish to wave a hand and erase the racism, queerphobia, and imperialism that still exist, we can’t do that in reality.

So I’m trying to strike a balance: systemic racism definitely exists both in the past and present of our game. We won’t pretend like Texas never seceded or that white supremacy hasn’t been a major driving factor in state politics and culture ever since. On the other hand, we’re not going to shine a light directly on it. NPCs won’t actively persecute the black trans woman investigator and nobody’s going to drop any slurs about the non-white NPCs. The horrible truth of the game isn’t “Texas has been run as a white man’s ethnostate for nearly 200 years” but something much more in the vein of cosmic horror – even if that first part is indeed a horrible truth.

Narrative

The Texas Department of Public Safety investigated a report of a bus between Dallas and Jackson that was found abandoned early in the morning on Thursday, July 15th, 1976, near Eustace. The driver and handful of passengers were reported missing. Several weeks of investigation turned up nothing. While the investigation is still considered pending, the Highway Patrol has had no further comment on the matter. The investigators start in the last location where everyone on the bus was seen alive: a diner in Mabank.

Our group consists of:

  • Sierra, a black trans woman journalist from a Dallas TV station
  • Bobby, a white Austin-style hippie working for the family of one of the missing passengers
  • Wendolyn, a military housewife from Georgia connected to a different missing passenger

Sierra and Bobby, who already have some history together, run across each other in the Mabank Cafe. Once they realize they’re both looking into the same incident, they immediately sit down and start comparing notes and talking about what happened.

Wendolyn is drinking a cup of coffee in the adjoining booth and overhears their conversation. Recognizing that they are talking about the same missing bus passengers she’s tracking down, she wheels over and invites herself into the conversation. Sierra is a bit uncomfortable but Bobby immediately scoots over and includes their new companion.

Being a Southern woman herself, Wendolyn takes the opportunity to talk to the diner waitress (Flo) about the recent “terrible news”. She learns that the bus did in fact stop there for a quick bathroom and coffee break, but there was no obvious tension. One passenger, Evan, stayed in Mabank as this was his destination. He’s an old drunk who wanders about town and will probably show up in the diner for breakfast a little after lunch. A line cook named Jimbo was also working that night, but he’s not present just right then.

((Note that, because Wendolyn has a significant rating in the Charm skill and shares some background with Flo, I didn’t ask for a roll. In my judgment, and given the needs of the story, it made sense that she’d just be willing to share all this under the circumstances.))

Since Evan and Jimbo aren’t around at the moment, and Flo seems to have shared everything she knew, the group decides to head down the road to the old gas station where the bus was found. They encounter a defunct Texaco with ancient pumps, grass and dirt already starting to cover the lot, and a locked door.

An old abandoned gas station with a railroad in the background.
Photo by Alexis Bahl on Pexels.com

Once Wendolyn realizes that Bobby is going to find a way into the station regardless of the locked door, she decides to investigate the outside further so as not to directly witness whatever he does to get inside. She notices that there’s a thick black ooze dripping from the gas pumps: it doesn’t seem like gasoline, but it’s also not anything she can place. ((Wendolyn failed her Spot Hidden roll, but rather than have her miss a critical clue, I decided she just got very little information and only the absolute minimum for the investigation to proceed.))

Bobby smashes the glass in the door and reaches in to unlock it. Once inside, he and Sierra start checking around the empty store. The shelves are empty but upright and, while there are lots of footprints in the dirt (likely from the original investigation), no obvious signs of struggle. They do notice two important clues, however. For one, the gas station is owned by Macintosh Petroleum – a company owned by the family that hired Bobby to look for their missing daughter, Jill. Additionally, behind the counter, they find Jill’s handbag with her ID and a small amount of cash.

Wendolyn investigates this oily substance further, because she doesn’t believe that anything should be coming out of the pump. When she touches it with a small stick, the substance begins to crawl along the stick, regardless of its orientation or movement. (At this, she fails a Sanity roll and loses d6 SAN.) Back inside the store, she shows the other two what she’s found, but they sort of shrug and put it in a jar.

Around this time ((when they fail another Spot Hidden roll)), a car driving by slows down and the two men in it stare down the group inside a clearly closed gas station with a broken front window that was a recent crime scene under investigation by the Highway Patrol. The group decides to finish up with just a few remaining things.

First, they find that the sink in the gas station bathroom is dripping similar ooze, though the toilet is not. When placed near the pipes under the sink, the ooze in the jar tries to move toward the pipe. Back outside, they discover that the dirt in various places has this oily substance mixed into it. They find a small pool of it that’s a bit further away and isolated, then drop a match onto it. As it flares into a brief flame, all of them “hear” a scream inside their heads, like some sort of psychic outcry. ((I asked them for a POW roll, but all succeeded. That might should have been a SAN roll, but it didn’t matter after all.))

The group quickly leaves under the assumption that the local police might come investigate shortly.

Next time

I intend for this to run 2-4 sessions; based on this week’s pace, that’s likely to be right in the middle. But we enjoyed it so much that who knows what will happen when this scenario is complete? I also liked this approach with asking for very few rolls and never allowing them to miss a critical clue (although on a failed roll they got only the bare minimum and perhaps some other bad news).

Next week, the investigators want to track down the old town drunk, Evan, as well as check in with the Macintoshes (who apparently left out some information when hiring Bobby) and Sierra’s editor before trying to get into the Highway Patrol’s records.

I like to end sessions with “Stars and Wishes”, particularly when I’m playing with a group that doesn’t all know each other very well. They really enjoyed Wendolyn’s Southern accent and the RP among the investigators, as well as breaking into the gas station and Bobby (a recovering druggie) reacting to the psychic scream.

When we get back together, we’re going to focus in even more on NPC interactions and the silly voices I have prepared, plus of course they’re hoping for some forbidden knowledge.

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