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Call of Cthulhu: A Method to Madness, Part 2

February 18, 2016

Creepy Asylum-1During part 1 of the investigation of Wormwood Asylum, our characters (all patients at the asylum):

  • Alina the actress, played by me
  • Waldo the factory manager/private eye, played by Joe
  • Colonel Butler the Great War vet, played by Joe’s new roommate
  • Elliot the idiot savant, played by Antony
  • Mia the painter/photographer, not actually played by anyone this time around

had uncovered… not much of anything, really, except that a fellow patient that had a violent outburst was treated to a lobotomy as punishment. And Dr. Rice, the facility’s alienist (i.e. psychiatrist) had stopped showing up for work for unknown reasons. Also, there were strange buzzing sounds at night, coming from somewhere outside the facility.

Messenger of Fear in Sight

Elliot felt that he could stand the nightly noise no more, and resolved to track down its source. He spent several evenings timing out the orderlies’ bed check schedule to devise the perfect time to leave his room, and then finally he put his plan into motion. As he was sneaking downstairs and towards the entrance, he passed by an open door to the basement, where he could hear the handyman/janitor drunkenly singing, sobbing, and ranting. Such emotional behavior made Elliot nervous, however, and he quickly hurried past.

The front doors thankfully could be unlocked from the inside, and Elliot quickly did so and slipped out into the cool night air. The buzzing noise was louder out here, and surprisingly seemed to be coming from… up above? And not the woods surrounding the facility, as Elliot had assumed. He quickly walked around the perimeter of the building, and by the time he had made a full circuit he was convinced that the sound was originating from the roof of the asylum. But how to get up there? He would have to scale the wall, he reckoned, but he know that that sort of athleticism was beyond him. And so he hurried back to his room before he was missed.

The next day, he sized up his fellow inmates for potential climbers and settled on Waldo. Elliot tried, in his limited way, to communicate what he needed the German fellow to do. Waldo was able to pick up enough to figure out that Elliot believed that the buzzing originated from the roof and that Elliot wanted Waldo to climb up there at night to investigate. In truth, the buzzing had been keeping Waldo awake as well, and he wanted to get to the bottom of the mystery, so he agreed with a nod and a “Ja.” The sleep deprivation probably didn’t help his decision-making process, either.

The next night, they both snuck out of their rooms and crept downstairs. Waldo brought along the kitchen knife that he had stolen earlier, just in case. They made it outside, and after inspecting the entirety of the facility, Waldo selected the best spot to try and scale the brick exterior. Elliot waited below, nervously watching as Waldo slowly and carefully climbed up three stories to the roof. The sound was definitely up there, thought Waldo as he climbed, for he could hear it getting louder as he ascended.

But as he reached the top, his footing slipped, and he scrabbled to grab onto something, anything, before he fell! His hand grabbed a rain gutter, which gave him enough time to regain his footing… until the buzzing swooped right over his head! He couldn’t see, but he could feel strange appendages brush against his hair as the things passed over him! He instinctively swung his head to look, and the motion combined with the shock of the sight caused him to lose his grasp one final time. Waldo plunged to the ground below.

Elliot had been watching his companion scale the wall the whole time. When the two buzzing things flew off the roof, he was taken aback by their large, winged, and decidedly inhuman shape, and started screaming. Then Waldo fell and hit the dirt, and Elliot suddenly went silent and ran off into the woods in a panic. After hiding behind a tree, he crouched low and watched as the orderlies came out to investigate the yelling. When they spotted Waldo, they ran over, confiscated his knife, and quickly carried him back inside. After they were gone, Elliot cautiously crept back into the facility and made his way up to his room, where he laid down on his bed and started up at the ceiling for the rest of the night. The noise was gone, but there was no chance of sleep that night for him.

Drain You of Your Sanity

Miraculously, Waldo survived the fall, and didn’t even break anything. He was quite bruised and sore, however. The next day, he described what happened to Alina and the Colonel, and they all agreed that something must be done. The 3rd floor was off-limits – officially it was home to Dr. Shelley’s surgical facilities – but it stood to reason there was a safer way to access the roof from there, as it was the top floor of the building. There were two ways up to that level – a stairway and a small lift. The stairway had a door that was barred from the other side – even with a key, they would be unable to get past it. And while the elevator was locked, Waldo was reasonably certain he could get it open.

Just after their rooms were checked, Elliot padded out into the hall and softly rapped on everyone’s door. Then Elliot headed downstairs while the others hurried over to the elevator, and Waldo got to work picking the lock on its cage door. “How does a factory manager know how to jimmy a lock?” demanded the Colonel, ever distrustful of Germans in general and Waldo in particular. In fact, Waldo was a private eye, but the others didn’t know that. In reply, he muttered something about how he’s gotten locked out of his office in the past and got back to work.

Once the lock was open, Waldo got into the elevator and rode it up to the 3rd floor. It was noisy, but he prayed that Elliot’s distraction would keep anyone from hearing. After exiting the lift, he found the stairwell and opened up the barred door for the others.

Speaking of the distraction – Elliot sat himself at the piano in the common room downstairs, and started playing Beethoven’s Fifth as loudly as possible. When the orderlies came to escort him back to his room, he did his damnedest to keep playing, and then to keep them from restraining him.

Now that everyone else was on the forbidden 3rd floor, they started poking around. The door to Dr. Shelley’s operating room was closed, and voices could be heard from inside. It sounded like the doctor and Nurse King, but attempts to eavesdrop on their conversation yielded nothing. Down the hall was a storage room of some sort, filled with medical implements, chemicals, drugs, and… weird metal canisters. They were marked with unfamiliar characters, and were oddly heavy. One of the canisters was hooked up to what looked like a two-way radio apparatus. The peculiar device also had a pair of camera lenses mounted on top in a manner that would allow them to swivel around. After examining the control knobs for a minute, Waldo managed to turn it on. Quiet static hissed from the speaker for a few seconds, and then a crackly voice emerged.

“Hello? Who’s there? Hello?! Where am I?! What’s happening?!” said a voice that was somehow familiar, and sounding as if it was coming from very far away.

“Wh-what?” stammered Alina. “Is… is it a record player?” she wondered aloud. “Or a radio broadcast? Or…?”

Waldo shook his head and took up the microphone. He depressed the switch and quietly but clearly spoke into it, “My name is Waldo Adler. Who is this?” The voice had been asking question after question with a tone of rising panic, but after Waldo switched off the microphone, it fell silent. And then it screamed.

Moving with haste, Waldo quickly shut the device off, and the room was quiet once more. Concerned looks were exchanged, and the Colonel went to the door to see if the doctor or head nurse heard the commotion. But no one exited the operating room.

Back downstairs, Elliot was eventually caught and overpowered. The orderlies stuffed him into a straight jacket, injected him with a sedative, and hauled him away.

The group upstairs abandoned the storage room and headed for the roof. The Colonel went first, but there was no one and no buzzing things up there, this time. There was, however, a skylight that looked down into the operating room. From that vantage, they could see Dr. Shelley and Nurse King hunched over a workbench filled with papers and devices. If the pair had any idea they were being observed or that patients had broken into restricted areas, they showed no signs of it. They did look up, though, when the door to their chamber opened, and the orderlies entered, dragging an unconscious Elliot between them.

Face the Thing That Should Not Be

Elliot’s body was heaved up onto the operating table. The orderlies undid the arms of the straitjacket, and then secured his wrists and ankles with restraints in the table. After the two burly men left, Dr. Shelley and Nurse King started tracing lines around Elliot’s scalp. It seemed they were intending to perform a lobotomy on the poor fool.

The Colonel grew quite irate. He commanded that the others wait on the roof, and scrambled through the hatch back down to the floor below. Soon, he burst into the operating room and demanded that they release Elliot. In response, Nurse King drew a strange knobby device from her pocket. An arc of electricity leapt from the device to the Colonel, who then slumped to the ground, stunned.

Alina clutched Waldo’s arm. “What do we do?!? WHAT DO WE DO?!” she hissed. Waldo, forgetting the genre conventions of the current game, decided to play the hero – he backed up, ran for the skylight, jumped, and crashed through the glass to the room below. His intention was to land on Nurse King in true action-hero fashion, but instead he hit the surgery table and landed awkwardly on Elliot. Then he fell unconscious from the falling damage.

To say that Dr. Shelley and Nurse King were shocked at this development would be an understatement. Alina, shaking with fear, rushed down to the 3rd floor and ran for the storage room. She grabbed the canister that was hooked up to the weird radio, yanking it free of the connections, and hurried into the operating room. The doctor and nurse were brushing off broken glass and inspecting their new guests when she arrived. “You let them go!” Alina screamed at them. “Or I will destroy this thing!” She held up the canister, as if to smash it on the ground before her.

“No! You can’t!” exclaimed Dr. Shelley. A grim-looking Nurse King aimed her electricity device at the actress, and Alina instinctively hurled the metal canister at the nurse’s head. King ducked and the canister hit the wall and broke apart, releasing fluids and… a human brain! Shelly yelled, “No, you fool! That was Dr. Rice!” In the chaos, a bin got knocked over, and more brains spilled out onto the floor.

Alina shrieked in horror. Finally, she had discovered the fate of the asylum’s alienist. And the extent of Shelley’s lobotomies.

Luckily, all the screaming woke up Elliot, and the Colonel groggily got to his feet. While the Colonel grappled with Nurse King over her electrical weapon, Elliot wiggled free of his restraints. After unsuccessfully trying to bring Waldo around, he joined Alina in her fight with Dr. Shelley. And, thanks to the low probabilities of success when attempting any activity that isn’t a focus for your character in Call of Cthulhu, those struggles went on… and on… and on… Combat, or really, interacting with any part of the skill system, is truly my least favorite part of playing CoC. Battles are either super-deadly or super-frustrating.

During the fracas, the Colonel noticed that King was wearing a strange amulet that he had never seen before, and ripped it off of her neck. That caused her to… change into one of the horrid winged buzzing things from the roof! The monster’s terrible pincers snapped at the Colonel, but he ignored the wounds as he continually pummeled the creature with its own weird weapon. Eventually a serious blow was struck, and the awful creature took off through the broken skylight.

Meanwhile, Alina came to her senses after getting cut by Dr. Shelley’s scalpel. What was she doing, trying to kill the doctor? She left Shelley for Elliot to deal with, and grabbed Waldo while trying to avoid looking at what Nurse King had turned into. Sobbing and bleeding, she dragged Waldo through the fluids and bits of brain on the floor until they were both away from the madness.

The doctor was knocked unconscious, and the Colonel and Elliot staggered out into the hallway with Alina and the now-revived Waldo. Elliot noticed the alien weapon in the Colonel’s hand and asked to see it. With a shrug, the military man handed it over – it didn’t look like any sort of gun he’d ever seen, and he couldn’t figure out how to operate it. But the savant was able to fiddle with it until he learned how it worked. Thus armed, they found the orderlies and commanded them to release everyone, to get them outside. And then Elliot went down to the basement and rigged the boiler to explode. Wormwood would burn, and its horrors would be mercifully consumed by fire.

In Madness You Dwell

The Colonel eventually retired to a small town somewhere in South America, where he served as an unofficial protector and guardian with the help of the monster’s electricity gun. Waldo went back to his life as a private eye, perhaps drinking a bit more than he previously had. Elliot was placed in a new facility, largely untroubled by his experience. If anything, he looked back on the episode as a happy time in his life, where his mechanical obsessions proved to be very useful and much appreciated by those around him. Alina was never the same after her time at the asylum. Much to the despair of her manager/lover, she descended further into addiction and made a complete ruin of her once-promising career and her life. The sights she had seen had broken her understanding of the universe, and she did not know how to cope.

mi-goAnd deep in the woods of New England, the terrible fungi from Yuggoth plotted to secure a new base of operations…

Apparently, if the players don’t do enough to interrupt the goings-on at Wormwood, the Mi-go eventually summon Shub-Niggurath. Which would have been bad. Considering that we could barely fight off a doctor and a single Mi-go, I don’t think we would have fared very well against an Outer God.

All in all, it was a fun little side adventure, but as I often feel when playing CoC, the system really gets in the way more than anything else. If your character has invested a good chunk of resources into a skill, you’ll maybe still only have around a 50-50 chance of succeeding. That’s just frustrating to me, as a player. There’s also a zillion skills, and they’re all independent of one another – being good at fighting with knives doesn’t help you out when you’ve got a bat – meaning that you will often be rolling checks for skills that you have no points in. Which will give you around a 10-20% of success (base success % varies by skill). While I don’t think you want a system where characters are recklessly charging into combat with horrors from beyond the stars à la D&D, it would be nice if investigators could at least move the plot forward without consistently falling flat on their faces.

I’ve always wanted to try Trail of Cthulhu as a result, but in truth I don’t know that much about it aside from the nugget that its system was designed from the ground-up for running mysteries (as opposed to CoC, which is an old-school simulation-type RPG). I wonder if characters in ToC are allowed to feel more broadly competent. Maybe next time we have a one-off horror game, we can try it out. But damn, there’s just too many games to play, and so little time.

  1. Mei Yu Lian permalink

    You survived and not _all_ of you went insane. In CoC, that’s a win 🙂

    • As it happened, no one actually went insane – the SAN losses were surprisingly mild, I thought, given that we encountered an unspeakable flying monster that was posing as a human and stealing brains. But I suppose on the Lovecraftian horror scale, flying fungi are fairly mild.

      This update’s header titles brought to you courtesy of Metallica’s “The Thing That Should Not Be”.

      • Mei Yu Lian permalink

        I noticed. And thank you 🙂

  2. Pinkius permalink

    Eh, given that none of the characters had hand to hand combat skills to speak of, I’m surprised the Mi-Go didn’t clean up it’s mess before fleeing, but that would hardly be a satisfying end would it?

    • The Colonel was a fairly accomplished fighter… which meant that he had 50% chance to hit. But it was enough to keep it occupied, and in any case the mi-go wasn’t much better. Or maybe the Keeper was holding back. Or it had spent too much time in human form, and transformed too late. Hard to say as a player.

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