Mythos Ghosts

anathemaA few weeks ago, I attended Total Con and received a welcome invitation to join in on a Masks of Nyarlathotep campaign scheduled to begin in a few weeks. Unfortunately, the game’s Sunday night meeting schedule conflicts with my own local gaming group and I had to regretfully decline. However, the invitation got my Call of Cthulhu synapses firing again and I’ve been thinking a great deal about what to run in the future. We’re over a year into our ongoing The One Ring campaign, but I’ve already alerted the players that I’ll be calling a brief hiatus once we hit an appropriate milestone in Middle-earth. After that, it’ll be time to switch gears for a bit and something Cthulhu-related is a viable candidate.

This has thinking about how to interpret supernatural events in a Mythos-themed setting. It’s a topic I’ve attacked before with various success. Sometimes I’m turned off by the fact that in Lovecraft’s work, it’s the Mythos at the bottom of everything. From a literary standpoint, this conceit provides a solid foundation and accomplished what H.P. wanted—a different bogeyman than the traditional ghosts, vampires, and werewolves that filled the genre prior to his efforts. But from a gaming standpoint, it can be a little “same same” if the players know there’s a Mythos beastie behind every bit of backwoods folklore.

At the moment though I’m enjoying the mental exercise of trying to twist various Mythos phenomenon and entities into classical monsters—or at least as the seeds that spawn the folklore that hint at traditional monsters and evil things. You can’t get much more classical than a ghost, so I’ve start there. Off-hand, I can’t remember if Lovecraft ever wrote a story that features the restless spirit of a dead person inhabiting a crumbling building (“The Shunned House” is close, but not quite). If he did, the story is hiding in the far stacks of my mental library and I’m sure someone will remind me of it or it’ll come to me at 3 AM some stormy night [Author’s note: Or before I finish writing this essay!]. Until then, however, let’s say Howard never did and instead think about how he could have used a ghost in his stories and still plays by the Mythos rules.

  1. Sorcerer trapped in the angles of time: Now that I write that, it’s clear that “The Dreams in the Witch House” was Lovecraft’s ghost story and used this as its premise. Keziah Mason manifests from outside physical reality to carry out her evil deeds and acts very much in the ghost story tradition. But whereas Mason seems to have control over her interactions with the earthly realm, we can twist this around and make our ghost be a human sorcerer who imperfectly meddled with the angles of time and space and is now trapped in its folds. Only on certain dates, during specific astronomical events, in the presence of objects charged with magical energy or even the sorcerer’s blood relatives does it the power to manifest and interact with the physical plane. An exorcism of such a trapped wizard might appear to cleanse the house, but the “ghost’s” quiescence is really due to changing conditions closing off its access from its trapped position in the cosmic realms. This remission might last several years or only until the blood relative (likely a PC in true Call of Cthulhu fashion) returns to the house.
  2. Telekinetic Phenomenon: The classic poltergeist manifests as physical effects caused by an invisible force moving objects and people and lacking a visible form. A poltergeist could then easily be a creature, human or otherwise, capable of telekinesis. Anything from powerful psychics, diabolical magicians (such as is the case in the CoC adventure “The Haunting”), Tibetan mystics, lloigor, and the like might be the root of a poltergeist haunting. All the holy water and burning sage in the world won’t stop a haunting when its cause is the deathless wizard in the secret basement crypt or the lloigor lurking around the fetid loch near the old manor.
  3. Time Traveler: That indistinct human form glimpsed in the shadows or out of the corner of one’s eye is in fact a person under the effects of liao, the Plutonian Drug, who has ventured back into time from anywhere from a few decades in the future to centuries from now. Perhaps the strain of liao is an uncommon one that grants the user the ability to interact outside the Fourth Dimension and become visible by those it is observing. That terrible death that was attributed to the “ghost” might actually be the victim of a Hound of Tindalos on the track of the temporal visitor. The liao strain has the unintended side-effect of “marking” anyone who glimpses the ghost, making it possible for the Hounds to detect them too.
  4. Dimensional Shambler: My first exposure to the dimensional shamble (outside of “The Horror in the Museum” which doesn’t call them that by name) was Call of Cthulhu 4th edition, in which it is said that these creatures “are capable of walking between the planes and worlds” and “They can leave a plane at will, signaling the change by beginning to shimmer and fade.” One could therefore theorize that the dimensional shambler also displays some sort of shimmering and fading in when they enter a dimension. If a witness sees an indistinct thing shimmer and seem to solidify in a darkened room, this might be interpreted as a ghostly apparition—especially if the witness flees the area before the dimensional shamble fully manifests in physical form. An ancient manor may be “haunted” by a shambler who is bound into servitude to the family via an heirloom once owned by the family’s founder, a black magic dabbler who anchored the shambler to a locket or ring or other personal object. Ending the haunting would be done by freeing the dimensional shambler—but that probably causes just as many problems as it solves.
  5. Mi-Go Origin: Given the Fungi from Yoggoth’s ability to manipulate physical bodies and their vast command of technology, it’s feasible that the Mi-Go might be able to create phenomenon that could easily be misconstrued as the manifestation of deceased souls. A “harmonic wave manipulator” could allow physical creatures to pass through solid matter. A “presence projector” might create a holographic image capable of speaking with those in the vicinity of its manifestation, creating a translucent form to communicate with bystanders. Even “cloaking webs” that provide Predator-like camouflage could be responsible for ghost sightings at night or in eerie, mountainous forests.
  6. Temporal Echoes: Some scholars of the supernatural postulate that ghosts are actually holographic recordings of past events that get replayed by magnetic fields or other energy patterns. This could be one possible explanation that fits with the science fiction vibe of Lovecraft’s stories. These echoes might be naturally occurring or side effects created by the working of powerful, physics-breaking sorcery. Perhaps magic points generated by sacrificing a living creature sometimes “bleed off” instead of powering the rite they’re intended to feed and scenes from the sacrifice’s life occasionally manifest in the vicinity. This could lead to “ghost dogs” and “spectral cats” just as easily as human-shaped ghosts. Perhaps each echo also produces residual magical effects tied into the rite they died to fuel, causing all manner of mysterious harm to those who encounter them.
  7. Magic: Certain spells could recreate ghostly manifestations, allowing sorcerers to feign a haunting. While a possibility, using magic in this manner sounds like a bad Scooby-Doo episode. So why would an insane wizard use spells in this manner? Perhaps it is unintentional, being instead the perceived manifestations of a magical working? A sorcerer moves out of phase with space and time as he duels a rival or works a powerful enchantment on multiple angles of reality, creating perceived ripples in the physical world. Or maybe the sorcerer is trying to generate immense emotional energy from those observing this phenomenon in order to power a greater and potentially more sanity-blasting working to summon an eldritch thing across dimensional thresholds? Terror can be generated again and again, whereas a sacrifice gives its energy only once. One last possibility is that ghostly phenomenon are side-effects of tampering with the laws of physics and anyone working a magical spell causes phenomenon to occur in the general vicinity. This could also explain Fortean events that are sometimes linked to hauntings.
  8. Natural Tillinghast Resonator: Some substance causes the same effect as Tillinghast’s resonator, stimulating the pineal glands of those exposed to it and allowing them to perceive entities in adjacent dimensions. The substance could be a hitherto undiscovered radioactive element (perhaps one brought down from Yuggoth), an herb, a rare drug, a meteorite, or any other organic or inorganic material capable of changing the body’s physiology, even temporarily. Those exposed to the substance glimpse things swimming in and out of the visible spectrum and manifest strange wounds inflicted by these spectres.
  9. Ancestral Memory: Racial memory was a favorite plot point for Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard, so adapting it to our needs in appropriate. Let’s postulate a person capable of unconscious self-hypnosis, perhaps accessing their ancestral memory when they’re in a hypnopompic state. Images of those long dead appear to them, carrying on conversations or engaging in actions they performed long ago. The subject might be susceptible to suggestion while in this state and interaction with a nefarious ancestor’s memory—perhaps those of a long-dead relative with a predilection towards serial murder—begins insinuating itself on the subject’s personality, leading to possession-like effects that are actually self-inflicted. The ghostly phenomenon would only be experienced by the subject, but their actions while “possessed” would be the vector that leads to player characters’ investigation of matters.
  10. Mythos-caused Hallucinations: The ghosts are not real, but that doesn’t mean the witnesses don’t have other problems. Some other Mythos entity is causing them to hallucinate unexplainable events. It could be the Mi-Go-manufactured spores leaking out of the Devil’s Hopyard or latent memories seeping up from the unconsciousness from that time the observer was possessed by a Yithian. The manor’s steady diet of Deep One-tainted seafood from out beyond the reef causes auditory phenomenon and makes the eater see red liquid flowing down the walls or across the floor. While the investigators are chasing spectres, the real cause is about to close in on the unsuspecting ghost-breakers.

There are undoubtedly numerous other possibilities I’m overlooking, some of which will stem from canonical Lovecraft works (such as “The Mound” now that I think of it) or the mass of extended writings filling out both the Mythos and the Call of Cthulhu RPG. I accept that. I wanted to brainstorm a bit without doing any research or fact-checking from the extended Cthulhu corpus of work, and this list is the result. Not a bad start and there’s a few solid adventure seeds and plot twists lurking in there. All in all, it’s a good beginning to the prolonged process of Mythos investigation planning. More to come.

The Latest “Weird Mail Thing” is Out

It began as an off-the-cuff remark that with the demise of Google+ I was going to return to the world of analog communications and correspond solely by snail mail. Go “Full Lovecraft” as I called it at the time. While intended as a jest, I soon called my own bluff and informed anyone in earshot that if they sent me a SASE, I’d send them something in return. The SASEs started coming in and the first installment of my “weird mail thing” was unleashed unto the world (Note: it has an actual name other than “weird mail thing,” but only those who send a SASE are told its true name).

Soon thereafter, I started receiving feedback from those curious enough to desire the first installment. Along with that feedback came another round of SASEs for the following mailing. That second installment went out in the mail this morning. Everyone who’s already sent a SASE for me to “bank” has their now-stuffed enveloped headed their way. Keep an eye on the mailbox.

For those of you who missed out and/or are curious, send a SASE (#10 business size) to the street address listed in the sidebar over there to the right. In return, you’ll receive the latest installment of the “weird mail thing” and become a member of a certain shadowy organization privy to materials otherwise unavailable to the unsuspecting public. If you wish your membership to be shared with others in the group (i.e. have your own address included in future mailings so that others can exchange curious letters with you), please include a note to that effect with your SASE.

I have a limited number of first installments still available. If you desire one of these, please state that in a note along with your SASE. People desiring both installments should send two SASE to the address over there to the right. I will attempt to accommodate requests for the first mailing as long as my supply holds out and on a first-request-first-received basis.

Strange Sinema: The Lost Room

the_lost_roomI’ve been poking around the verges of reality lately, investigating concepts and themes I don’t usually get to explore in the fantasy genre I predominantly work in. I somehow managed to miss ­Unknown Armies for two decades, but after skimming through a 1st edition I acquired from the FLGS a few years back, I’ve fallen for the game—hard. It scratches all the right itches that Mage: the Ascension never touched, and I’m leaning heavily towards running a short UA campaign as a mid-year break from our ongoing The One Ring game.

With that in mind, I revisited a mini-series that aired on the Sci-Fi Channel back when it was still called that. This three-part series was The Lost Room, a show I think myself and maybe six other people in the entire world knows about. As such, I thought I’d showcase it in brief here.

The Lost Room is about a number of mundane objects that acquired mystical powers through a mysterious event that happened in a motel room back in 1961, the aforementioned “Lost Room” of the title. These items, called simply enough “Objects” by those who know of them, have spawned a number of secret cabals, occult underworld brokers and researchers, and addicts who’ve paid horrible costs to acquire and keep an Object. Their powers vary greatly: a wristwatch cooks a hardboiled egg in a minute if it’s placed within the band, while a fake eye can destroy or recreate living flesh.

The story begins when Pittsburgh police detective Joe Miller (not the other detective of the same name on another SyFy series), played by Peter Krause, investigates a pawn shop deal gone bad where several people ended up dead over a motel room key. Miller soon finds himself in possession of that key and discovers if it’s placed in the lock of any door, that door opens to a 1960s motel room somewhere in the American Southwest. The key’s owner can then use the room to travel to any other location in the world.

Things quickly go wrong as Miller learns that the key is not only highly sought after by a number of the occult underworld’s movers and shakers, but also suffers a personal tragedy through an accidental use of the key. He’s soon on the run, trying to correct a horrible mistake and discover the truth behind the Objects’ origins.

I’m a fan of the occult underworld theme, the idea of secret cabals moving behind the scenes of modern America. The Lost Room could easily exist in the same universe as Clive Barker’s The Great and Secret Show or The Lord of Illusions, or be a case John Constantine gets drawn into. For a modern occult RPG, the entire plot could be lifted with little effort on the part of the game master and used whole cloth as the basis for long-term campaign. I’m actually leaning in that direction at the moment for the Unknown Armies game I’m plotting out. The fact that pretty much nobody knows about this series means your players will consider you a genius for coming up with such a complex and mysterious campaign spine that keeps them busy and engaged hunting down MacGuffins, dodging shadowy cabals, dealing with broken people whose lives have been destroyed by the Objects, and trying to find the cause of the event that created them.

Unfortunately, The Lost Room remains lost in the world of streaming video and isn’t available through the usual subscription services. Nobody has uploaded the entire series onto YouTube either. You’ll have to fork over $10 to purchase the three-DVD set, but that’s a fraction of the cost of a solid RPG sourcebook these days and you’ll find just as much as weird inspiration in those three disks as you’ll find in an urban occult splatbook at four times the price. If you check it out, let me know what you think. I suspect if we share similar tastes, you won’t be disappointed.

The Mass Transportation Migrant Tribe

This is the first of a series I’m calling “Thousand Word Bombs.” Each is an essay of roughly 1000 words intended to be used as inspiration for RPG campaigns. Not all will be applicable for all RPG systems and settings, but I hope people will get inspiration if not actual “use as written” benefits from them.

They are a people without a homeland, yet whose territory spans the world. They move among us unnoticed, engaged in a mission we cannot understand. You see them, but do not comprehend what you are glimpsing. Endlessly roaming, never tarrying, they are the members of the Mass Transportation Migrant Tribe.

Core Concept

There are people in the world who live their entire lives within its mass transportation networks. Buses, subways, trains, and even ships, along with the terminals that connect them, are all these people know. You can tell them by their eyes, which seem to whirl like wheels when you look at them too long, by their poor complexions stemming from a diet of snack bar fare and fast food bought from express stands, and by their shabby clothes, washed in restroom sinks.

To most observers, the mass transportation migrant tribe members are identical to the destitute and often mentally unbalanced passengers not uncommon to public transportation—and being a member of one group doesn’t prohibit acceptance in another. The tribe members, however, are anything but mad, possessing the keen intelligence and cunning necessary to survive unnoticed and in constant motion.

The mass transportation migrant tribe is constantly moving, their travels only interrupted by brief pauses in train or bus terminals, or subway stations, where they await their next conveyance. They sleep in short stints in bus seats or on subway benches, awakening when the rhythm of motion is even slightly broken. Unemployed, yet somehow they never lack the modest means to buy cheap food or replacement clothes purchased from newsagents and tourist shops found throughout the world’s mass transit networks.

The tribe has its own cultural customs, meeting for brief moots in larger transportation hubs to trade news, arrange marriages, and conduct secret rites. The tribe has little in the way of authority figures, but the oldest and most experienced of the tribe’s members form ad hoc “elders’ councils” as necessary. When deaths occur, if the body isn’t removed by local authorities alerted by the mass transit operators, the tribe members inter their own in hidden crypts near subway stations, in shallow graves along railroad lines, or slipped over the railings of a ferry for a burial at sea.

Membership in the migrant tribe is either a result of birth or adoption. The tribe’s arranged marriages result in usually only a single offspring and the infant mortality rate is high among the migrants. Some become tribe members because circumstances have forced their hands. More than one runaway teen or person fleeing the consequences of their actions has been adopted by the tribe, initiated into the secret nation after demonstrating their ability to endure the constant movement required for the migrant life. Ethnicity, race, gender, or religion are meaningless among the tribe, and members can be of any background.

The few esoteric anthropologists who know of and have studied the mass transportation migrants hypothesize that they number less than 500 world-wide and, aside from the occasional moots noted above, seldom travel in numbers larger than three or four. Solitary tribe members, however, remain the norm.

Possible Background

There are a few possible origins and purposes for the mass transportation migrant tribe. These are just starting points for the game master to build upon or to inspire her:

  • The tribe are the custodians of an ancient relic or other item of power that their ancestors swore to safeguard long ago. The tribe’s constant motion makes it difficult for those seeking the item to track it down, and the object changes ownership constantly in subtle exchanges that would make a three-card monte dealer jealous. Until the day comes when the rightful owner of the object makes themselves known, the tribe will remain in motion.
  • The first tribe members were the victims of a powerful curse, one perhaps laid upon them by someone whose life or livelihood was impacted by mass transportation. The mother of the first person killed by a train might have been a witch, for example, or the owner of a once-profitable stagecoach line who lost his fortune when the railroad came through and paid a hoodoo man to lay a curse on the railroad workers. Over time, those suffering similar baleful enchantments have been initiated into the original tribe, passing their curse down either in truth or simply by tradition. The tribes’ moots are really opportunities to exchange information on how their curse(s) might be broken or to plot for revenge against those who set them in motion for perpetuity.
  • The tribe members are from outside this time and place, perhaps having fallen through holes in dimensions (such as from alternate history Earths) or rifts in the time stream. Unable to integrate themselves into an alien culture, they are a people suffering from “future shock” and only the soothing rhythm of constant motion keeps them from going insane. As they move, they plot, plan, scheme, and hope to find a way home, taking in other misplaced peoples from other places and times.

Adventure Ideas

  • A friend of the PCs suddenly goes missing and all attempts to determine their whereabouts are unsuccessful. Several months later, one of the characters catches sight of the missing person standing on a subway platform as the PCs train passes by or sitting in the window seat of a bus rolling down the street. These sightings continue on and off for some time, with PCs always just missing their lost friend. Finally, after some effort, the party gets on the same bus or train as their friend and confronts them. What he/she reveals exposes them not only to the existence of the mass transportation migrant tribe, but the danger that causes their friend to become one of them.
  • The party awakens with a start as the train they’re on lurches away from the station. The problem is that they each went to bed at home the night before and have no inkling as to how they got on the train. They can easily get off at the next station, but quickly learn that shadowy, almost demonic figures, are pursuing them. It is only when the PCs are on a form of mass transit that their shadowy pursuers’ sinister attacks cease. How do the PCs solve the mystery of what happened to them and what is chasing them when they’re limited solely to whatever assets they can access on public transportation routes?