Friday, March 30, 2012

Off to I-Con XXXI

I'm getting ready to head up to Stony Brook for I-Con XXI. I don't think this one's going to be a full three-day extravaganza for me (still burned out from Gary Con and I'm out of town on Sunday), but if you do see me either today or tomorrow, be sure to say "Hi!" I'll be in the gaming ballroom most of tonight and part of tomorrow. If you have something you want signed, I'm more than happy to do so. If you want to take a swing at me, I ask for a $20+ fee.

Gary Con Recap Part II

I should finish this up before everything slips from memory.

Saturday morning saw me once again back at the Dealers’ Hall, hanging around the Goblinoid Games table and talking with the other OSR faces occupying around the area. Not long after I arrived, I ran into Harley Stroh and Doug Kovacs, my hither-to unmet brothers-in-arms from Goodman Games. Both are men of outstanding caliber: Harley is one of the best-natured individuals I’ve had the pleasure to meet and Doug almost physically rattles with enthusiasm. Doug brought his original covers for the upcoming DCC RPG adventures to display and I got a chance to see the piece he did for Emirikol Was Framed! Doug does great work, but you haven’t truly seen his talent until you’ve glimpsed his original pieces.

After planning to meet for drinks later with the Goodman Boys, I strolled the halls around the gaming area again. In the “Virtual Porch” room, I encountered a wandering Mentzer relaxing between games and he invited me to sit down and chew the fat for awhile. We talked about the plans for Eldritch Enterprises (they have a really sound business strategy in place and I’ll be interested to see how it plays out) and music for a bit. Another gentleman wandered over to join us and that’s how I was introduced to Tom Wham by Frank. We talked for a little while longer, but then I left Frank and Tom to catch up and headed back into the fray.

Eventually 2 PM rolled around and it was time to face certain death in Jim Ward’s Metamorphosis Alpha game. Others have provided session reports of that game and they are all spot on. I did indeed leave the last two surviving members of our away team to die on the alien asteroid ship we were sent to explore, but what’s a guy supposed to do? Our mission was to acquire alien items/artifacts/substances for the science team back on the Warden to examine. Can I help it if I was the only one to realize that the green alien goo dripping from the walls of the very first hallway we stepped into satisfied that criteria and therefore completed his mission 10’ away from the airlock? Later, when things went bad, it wasn’t me who launched the shuttle free from the ship. It was the red-headed alien nurse who would have eaten my head had I not risked detonating my “space claymore mine” inside a cramped shuttle. Jim pretty much sealed everyone’s fate when he said I could return to the Warden with the mission completed successfully and receive a personalized autograph. Having been a fan of Jim’s for many years, this was the highlight of the con for me, even if it meant throwing the last survivors under the proverbial space bus.

At 5 PM, it was time for the Gary Con raffle and auction, so I joined the masses heading upstairs to the hotel restaurant for that. I had dropped some cash on the raffle since it went to the Bail Out the Warden fund, but walked away empty-handed. A few lucky winners won multiple prizes, indicating that their luck is either superior to mine or that they bought a whole lot of raffle tickets. After the raffle came the auction, but I had a 6 PM AD&D Tournament to attend and didn’t get to see much of it. As I recall, the items on the block before I left were a copy of Divine Right, Dungeon Tac Cards, Warlocks and Warriors, and an art book of dragons (featuring many TSR alumni, plus Diesel stepped in at the last minute with an offer to add an illustration to up the bid on it). There may have been more, but memories are already fleeting. I did have enough time to place a bid in the silent auction downstairs for a copy of the old TSR mini-game, They’ve Invaded Pleasantville, but was outbid by the end of the night.

The AD&D tournament was OK, but by the mid-point I was really dragging and I more interested in wrapping up the game and relaxing after a long, exciting day than maximizing our score. We lost two players (one of whom may have been feeling the same as I was and looking for an out), but ended up successfully completing the adventure. I don’t think our team won, but then again I haven’t bothered to follow-up on it.

With my last game of the con finished, I did a final walk-around of the con space. There were a few interesting pick-up games going (including an Empire of the Petal Throne game that Allan Grohe told me about as he rushed up the stairs to play it), but I was pretty much done. I signed a few more autographs and met up with Dan Proctor and his wife, Jeff Sparks and his wife, and Harley in the hotel bar. Dan, Jeff and I got within 5 minutes of completely outlining the future of the OSR, but got too tired and called it a night. Had we been a little more awake, you’d all be suffering in the near future (the words “furry LARP” were bandied about).

I slept in a little on Sunday before making arrangements to leave. Jeff Sparks had graciously offered me a ride back to General Mitchell airport, cutting an hour of my “hang around at the airport until my flight leaves” time, so I cancelled my reservation on the airport shuttle and lounged around downstairs for a little while longer. Tim Kask joined me on a strategically-placed sofa that provided a view of the main corridor and concession area and we had a nice talk about charity work, education, and the English language before I had to grab a last, quick meal and check-out. Bidding farewell to many people as I went (and having to turn down an invite to a game of “Ticket to Ride” with Frank Mentzer and Luke Gygax), I grabbed my belongings and soon found myself on my way back to the airport.

The flight out was 1000% better than the flight in. The day was sunny and I finally got a good glimpse of Wisconsin from the air. A whole lotta lakes in Wisconsin, my friends. The landscape looked like it was covered in glittering pieces of broken mirror before we rose above the clouds and headed east.

As one final part of my weekend adventure, my connecting flight from Philadelphia to Long Island was on a small turboprop plane, not a jet. Flying over the Atlantic, a shining moon grinning down on me with its crooked smile, and the hum of the props turning immediately put me into mind of Call of Cthulhu. A weary adventurer, having witnessed unbelievable sights in his travels, arrives home once more. Safe at last, he’s nevertheless forever changed by the experiences on his adventure. And that, my friends, was Gary Con IV. Pictures to come after I do the necessary photo-wizardry.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Gary Con Recap Part I

Like the target at a snipers’ competition, Gary Con is an event viewed through many lenses. As a gamer, I experienced the con through the fun and camaraderie I had at the tables, but as a designer, it was interpreted by who I met and spoke to in the publishing industry. And lastly, as someone with a background in history and archiving, Gary Con was a place filled with those whose roots extend back to the long-ago days when this was all new and wondrous. No matter which lens I viewed the weekend, however, it was an outstanding experience.

Unfortunately, the four-day weekend began on a down-note when I received a phone alert that my first flight of the day was suffering from an hour-and-a-half delay. This alert came ten minutes before I was set to depart for the airport and threw all my travel plans askew. Forty-five minutes of trying to contact the airline on the phone without success eventually drove me to abandon my efforts and drive to the airport anyway. The clerk there managed to get me on another flight, but from another airport, making a $100 cab ride necessary to make my flight. Further complications at O’Hare delayed me again and I finally arrived in Milwaukee four hours behind schedule. Luckily, the Lodge at Lake Geneva was kind enough to dispatch a shuttle to convey me from General Mitchell to the hotel. A very big thanks to Larry the Night Security man at the Lodge for coming to my rescue!

After finally arriving five hours later than I intended, I discovered I had missed the meet-n-greet entirely, as well as the majority of games. Dropping off my bags in my room, I wandered down to the hotel bar looking for something to eat (and was again foiled since the restaurant had long-ago closed). I did spot someone in a tied-dyed shirt playing the Battlestar Galactica board game and soon found myself talking with Allan “Grodog” Grohe and Mark CMG of Creative Mountain Games. Alas, last call followed all too soon and a Diaspora of gamers was sent into the desert of the Lodge’s hallways. A brief snack from a vending machine and a long discussion with fellow gamer David(?) from Stone Mountain, GA closed an overlong travel day.

Friday arrived in much better shape. Determined to remain on New York time, and anticipating a diet of completely fattening meals during the weekend, I was up at 6 AM to take a walk around the Lodge’s grounds. Back at the hotel, I finally managed to acquire breakfast and to meet Tim Snyder of The Savage Afterworld at the concession table. Soon thereafter, the Vendors’ Hall opened and I stepped inside to discover Dan Proctor behind the Goblinoid Games’ table, which was situated next to Black Blade Publishing’s wares. I spent a good hour inside there talking with Dan and Alan, as well as meeting John Adams of Brave Halfling (who had his game boxes for sale nearby), Jeffrey Talanian (of Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea), and Jon Hershberger of Black Blade. Across from the Goblinoid Games table was the Artists’ Nook. There sat Jeff Easley, who was kind enough to sign one of his illos in my copy of the Dungeon Alphabet, and Jim Wampler, creator of “Marvin the Mage.” I can’t say enough nice things about Jim, both as an artist and a person. He’s an old-school Gamma World fan to boot and did me a solid during the course of the con. Stop reading this right now and go to Mudpuppy Comics and check out a free issue of Marvin. I’ll be here waiting.

With time to kill before my first game, I wandered the rooms, snapping pictures. There, I ran into Frank Mentzer, who I met last year at I-Con. I was pleased that Frank not only remembered me, but went out of his way to welcome me into the ranks of professional game designers. (I’ll let the “Stonehell Outhouse” comment slide, Frank.) Frank’s always a pleasure to talk to and is generally interested in my own efforts to till a row in the field of game design. That means a lot to me.

As I was wearing my Stonehell T-shirt the first day, it wasn’t long before I had my first fan approach me to say how much he enjoyed my work. I’d see Zach (a.k.a. Nogrod from Dragonsfoot) several more times during the con and he’s another great gamer, one I’d share the experience of Tim Kask’s OD&D game with later in the day.

When 2 PM rolled around, it was off to the wargaming room for a game of Dungeon!, an activity I last enjoyed when Reagan was in the White House. Running the game(s) was Dave Megarry, the original designer of Dungeon! Dave took the time to explain the origins of the game, as well as bring the original Dungeon! prototype board for us to “ooh and ahh” over, but the real bomb shell was yet to come. I had encountered Dave and his wife upstairs an hour earlier as they unloaded a large table from the back of their car. I gave them a hand wrestling the dark green table through the front doors of the hotel, not thinking much of the activity other than I was giving a fellow gamer a hand. Only during the event was the identity of that table revealed: it was Dave Arneson’s ping pong table, the same one where he played the original Blackmoor campaign on decades ago! Having never met Dave in person, this was the closest I’d ever get to him and it was an incredibly cool experience. I could see that the opportunity was not overlooked by fellow Dungeon! player, Tavis Allison of the Mule Abides and Adventurer, Conqueror, King. I’ve met Tavis before and, knowing his interest in the history of our hobby, was certain he was just as floored by playing at Dave’s table as I was.

After finishing the Guinness Book of World Records’ Longest Game of Dungeon Ever (the other game’s players packed up, departed, and went on to marry and see their children graduate from college before we finally completed our game), it was back into the Vendors’ Hall to hang around the Goblinoid Games table. There, I met Jeff “bighara” Sparks and his wife (who is not at all still angry about a game Jeff ran 10 years ago), and signed a few more copies of Stonehell Dungeon.

At 6 PM, I got to play OD&D with Tim Kask. The adventure saw us exploring a frigid glacier and the mysterious Tower of the Phoenix located within it. I had a blast, even though we lost a few party members before we actually got inside the place, and, in true old school fashion, forged the legend of Sigurd Bear-Breaker. Facing down a certain TPK, my dwarf drank a potion of giant strength and challenged two giant polar bears to a wrestling match. He broke both their spines and allowed us to continue the adventure to its completion.

Tim was another pleasure to finally meet, especially since he was one of the judges on last year’s "Three Castles Award." During a break in the game, Tim invited me to the VIP Smoking Lounge (otherwise known as the patio off Tim and Frank’s room where they had stashed one of those big standing ashtrays they had somehow “acquired” the days before) and we talked about the old days of Dragon, the Dungeon Alphabet, and artists. Like his partner in crime, Frank Mentzer, Tim was very gracious, kind, and encouraging in regard to my design efforts. It was great getting to talk with him outside of the game.

The game ended around 10 PM and I had the chance to talk with some more fellow gamers (both newly met and by this time old friends) up at the bar. Eventually, the day’s events began to take their toll and I excused myself to grab a few hours’ rest before starting in all over again the next day.

Monday, March 26, 2012

I am a Complete Bastard

Just got home from Gary Con and it'll be awhile before I can decompress and sift through the outstanding experience for choice nuggets. Until then, this post explains the above.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

I'm Such a Sell-Out

Yeah, I know I said I wouldn't be posting until next week, but here's one piece of good news worth breaking radio silence for: The Dungeon Alphabet has sold out---again! The last of the second printings have left the warehouse and an impoverished nation must rely on what copies remain available through vendors.

Don't fret, however. A third printing is on the way and it might have some new surprises. Maybe those of you at GaryCon can ply me with black lotus powder and I'll let some details slip...

Off to See the Wizards

I'm off to GaryCon first thing tomorrow morning, so this will be the last you'll hear of me until next week at the earliest. Due to technical limitations, I'm not going to be blogging from Lake Geneva, but keep an eye out for me in various photos that might turn up online during the weekend.

This trip marks my first vacation in far too long. I depart having turned in my final draft of a Secret Project that I've been working on for a publisher of some renown in the OSR, so I'm footloose and fancy free. I've also received word that Dan Proctor will be attending GaryCon thanks to a last minute cancellation, and Goblinoid Games will have a booth there. Dan has kindly offered to display Stonehell Dungeon amongst his wares, freeing me from having to sell copies out of my hotel room like a black market smuggler. He might have a single Stonehell T-shirt, too. If not, I will. If you need an XL classic black Tee, hunt me down.

I'll see some of you tomorrow!

Wildwyck County: Case of the Wretched Writer, Part II

And now, the finale... 

 Three weeks passed and the investigators gleaned a few more nuggets of information during the hiatus. Luis completed his reading of the partial copy of Cultes des Goules. It provided him with a greater and more unsettling understanding of the forces that might very well be lurking in the dark corners of the world, as well as containing ancient incantations named “Draught of Dreams,” “Fortify the Mundane Blade,” “Call Forth the Forager of the Dead,” and “Draw the Voorish Sign,” but nothing that gave more insight into what Desmond was up to.

Jonathon and Wolfgang learned some historical facts about Newgrave and the Old Dutch Church. There was a Corbin Vickers, the patriarch of the Vickers whaling family who died very rich in 1710 and that it was he who constructed the mausoleum to house his and his family’s mortal remains. In a small monograph written by Alistair Philips and titled Folklore, Fables, and Frightful Tales of the Hudson Valley was a short account called “The Goblin in the Graveyard.” This three-paragraph tale told of a legend that there were once mysterious hoof-prints found in the snow around Newgrave during several days in December of 1712. A party of men tracked the prints back to the cemetery and staked out its grounds. They glimpsed a terrifying “hobgoblin cavorting amongst the stones” and fired at it with little effect. They eventually cornered it near a large mausoleum and stabbed it with bayonets before setting it alight and scattering its ashes in the Hudson River. After that, no more hoof-prints were seen.

Research about the church determined that it was founded in 1716 and it was the oldest church in Newgrave. However, there were also at least two references to the church standing on its current site prior to that date, making for a discrepancy in the historical record. They also learned that in 1883, the church took out a loan to make renovations on the building. As part of that process, an independent inspector examined the church to determine its structural integrity. During the inspection, a forgotten sub-cellar was found beneath the church. It was deemed not a threat to the church’s structural stability and no other mention of the subterranean space was given in the historic record.

Most disconcerting, however, was the discovery of a recent news article reporting the abduction of a young boy from his home on the night of October 13th. Freddy Cole was taken from his bedroom in an act that mimicked a similar kidnapping on September 28th, a date just prior to the investigators arrival in Newgrave. Something or someone was stealing children in Newgrave and the investigators had an idea of what if not who was responsible. Calls were made, telegrams were sent, and the four found themselves standing on the platform of Newgrave’s train station once again on the morning of October 26th, 1920. All three had acquired firearms in the previous weeks and now sported handguns and a single sawed-off shotgun between them. Venturing out to the parking lot, they found Desmond’s car parked in the lot (albeit covered in more leaves and debris than when they left it). They climbed in and returned to his home.

Gaining entry with their key, they found the place as they left it. The groceries left in the icebox had turned and it took a little time to clean the place out, but in short order they had a base of operations again. A trip down into the basement revealed that the earthen floor was undisturbed and that nothing had burrowed into the home in their absence.

Their plan was to return to Desmond’s apartment to see if he or another had returned to that place and then to scope out the Old Dutch Church, posing as individuals with interest in genealogy and historic architecture. They crossed their fingers that James would not be remembered by Reverend Mortensen as they were unwilling to split their numbers in light of their experiences from the weeks before.

The trip to the apartment showed that eldritch forces had not been idle since they departed Newgrave. Climbing the stairs to Apartment C, they found that the door had been broken open and that there was a definite cloven-hoof shaped mark in the wooden frame. A similar mark was found inside by the now-open floorboard that had covered the cavity in which the partial Cultes des Goules and bloodied knives were once secreted. The blood stains in the bathroom were gone, as if licked clean. Clearly at least one ghoul had discovered Desmond’s secret hideout.

The party stopped to check the apartment’s mailbox on the porch and question the downstairs neighbor, but the mailbox held only a note from Cook’s landlord reminding him that his rent was due and that the downstairs neighbor worked the nightshift at one of Newgrave’s many factories and slept most days. He hadn’t heard or seen anything unusual. The foursome headed for the church, aware that evil was afoot.

They discovered the Old Dutch Church open and heard Reverend Mortensen puttering around in the choir loft sorting hymnals. He came down to greet them and no look of recognition clouded his face when he saw James. It seemed the old minister was a little absent-minded. Sticking to their cover story, they asked the reverend some questions about the church, specifically the fact that there were references to the church prior to its construction. Reverend Mortensen said he was no scholar, but did state that it was common for the early Dutch settlers to meet in the home of a prominent citizen prior to the construction of a central place of worship, so it might have been those meeting that led to the discrepancy in the historic record. The existence of the sub-cellar was not spoken of by either side and the reverend graciously gave the investigators permission to look around the church while he sorted the worn out hymnals in the loft above.

When the clergyman returned to his labors, Luis slipped outside and gave the exterior of the church the once-over. The team wanted to get down into the basement and find the sub-cellar, but weren’t certain how to reach the lower level of the building. As Luis searched the outside, Wolfgang sauntered up to a door beside the altar and slipped into the sacristy when the reverend’s back was turned. In that space, he discovered not only a set of stairs to the basement, but a side door leading outside as well.

After Wolfgang slipped out, Luis returned and his arrival caught Reverend Mortensen’s attention. Looking down from the choir loft, the clergyman noticed that one of the four was missing, but a quick lie about him being in the washroom deflected the reverend’s suspicions. Meanwhile, Wolfgang had descended the stairs to find an unlocked office, a community room, and a robing room in the basement. All seemed ordinary, but there was a locked door at the end of the single hallway. He slipped back up the stairs while the three others left the church to see if they could find another way into the area where Wolfgang had vanished. As they rounded the corner, Wolfgang stepped outside, the door closing and locking behind him!

James once again proved to be more than a match for a lock and the four snuck back into the church and down the steps. Quietly inspecting the rooms below, they found nothing out of sorts and James got them access to the locked room—which was the boiler room. Old boxes of clothes and household goods destined for the church thrift store stood in heaps and a cobweb-covered oil burner kicked on in the gloomy, dusty space. As quietly as they could, the foursome looked about for a door leading to the supposed sub-cellar, but without avail. Hearing the reverend walking overhead, they determined to flee the building before being discovered and to come back later if need be. Luck was with them and they made it back to their car without being discovered.

As it was only early afternoon, the team decided that since they didn’t find the entrance to the sub-cellar, they might as well bite the bullet and go back to the mausoleum. So with much more firepower and light sources than last time, they pulled into the cemetery and made it back to the crypt. Inside, they discovered more cloven-hoof prints and saw that the stone slab to Nathaniel Vickers’ interment niche had been replaced by another stone. Knowing that Corbin Vickers was the family patriarch, they paused to defile his resting place, but found only bones and a collapsed, worm-eaten coffin.

They moved the stone to Nathaniel’s niche and made their way into the tunnels below. Both Jonathon’s and Wolfgang’s girth made their entrance a slow, grunting one, but eventually the four crouched in the low tunnel—Luis in the lead, Jonathon behind him, and Wolfgang and James in the rear ranks. Guided only by the downward slope of the tunnel and their torch beams, the investigators descended.

They came to the first of several side tunnels, each one being a mere 3’ in diameter and sloping upward at a greater angle. Luis shimmied up the first and came up through the bottom of an empty coffin, its contents sucked clean like the tasty nougat of some obscene candy bar. Once he recognized where he was, Luis shuddered and slid back down the shaft. As the team worked their way deeper into the warren, they encountered another side passage that Luis explored and found it terminated in a den filled with old bones that had been cracked and their marrow licked clean. Luis decided that they should stop exploring the side passages and continue straight down the main artery. The rest agreed and they forged ahead.

As they continued an unknown distance further into the earth, a glimpse of dim light was seen ahead, like the glow of many candles. Shutting off their lights, they crept forward to witness a ghastly sight. The tunnel terminated in a large earthen cavern. The walls were decorated with bones set in patterns both mundane and arcane. Candles stood everywhere. Several pillars adorned with bones rose up to support a gallery above their heads and three other tunnels exited the space. Upon the far wall hung a gruesome parody of "The Last Supper" wherein Christ and the Apostles dined on human flesh and drank blood.

But by far worse was that which squatted in the center of the room. A massive, bloated thing rising 15’ in the air with a body like a noisome grub and a human/dog head that was dwarfed by its giant girth occupied the room. Its massive gut roiled as if something within begged release and an obscene slurping sound emerged from its toothless maw. Standing before this beast was a ghoul, one that appeared far more human than the others they had seen. In fact, this ghoul still bore the familiar facial features of Desmond Cook!

Whether it was disgust or pity, the investigators wasted no time in bringing their weapons to bear and firing on both the beast and Desmond. Wolfgang drew his sword-cane and hoisted his girth up one of the pillars, waiting to drop down on Desmond once he rushed them. James fired directly at the beast, but his shot proved to be much less effective than anticipated. Luis and Jonathon also fired, but missed as the Desmond ghoul charged.

The fight that followed was rough. Wolfgang tried to set Desmond alight with a kerosene lamp and failed, while Jonathon and Luis battled their friend with both guns and a shovel. James’ shot caused a ripple to occur in the beast’s massive gut and a moment afterwards a small, child ghoul emerged from a vaginal-like opening that ruptured the creature’s stomach. The child ghoul rose from a pool of foul liquids, took unsteady steps like a newborn colt, and then rushed towards the four investigators looking to eat its first meal.

In the fight, the Desmond ghoul was slain, but the child ghoul worried Wolfgang’s flesh horribly and the giant German nearly died. James continued to pour bullets into the beast, aiming at the birth canal that now stood open in its belly. The child ghoul continued to fight Luis, and another ghoul appeared on the gallery above, staring down at the fight hungrily. Jonathon gripped the injured Wolfgang and made for the exit, but encountered a pair of ghouls coming down the tunnel. He readied his weapon and prepared to die fighting.

As all looked grim for the four, Luis’ next blow killed the child ghoul at the same time James’ final round slammed into the beast. With a horrendous shriek, the great, maggot-like thing died and the remaining ghouls began to wail and meep piteously. Their birth father slain, they vanished up the tunnels as the beast began its death throes. Flailing about as death claimed it, the beast slammed into the cavern walls and a shower of dirt and bones began to fall. The four investigators wasted no time in heading back up the tunnel and they climbed out just as a gout of dirt, stench, and debris blew out of the mausoleum and a large section of the Old Dutch Cemetery collapsed into the ground to leave a massive sink hole littered with ancient bones and decayed coffins. They limped back to their car and drove away from the scene before they could be stopped by authorities.

The four had learned the fate of Desmond Cook, if not necessarily all that led to his final state or what gave birth to the creatures beneath the earth. Their sanity shaken, but intact, and with wounds of their own to attend to, the foursome left Newgrave, NY with one less source of evil lurking in its shadows. It was a victory for the forces of light in that embattled place known as Wildwyck County.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Wildwyck County: The Case of the Wretched Writer, Part I

The following adventure was a play test for an investigation intended to introduce new players to the wonders and horrors of the Wildwyck County setting now being detailed in Fight On! magazine. Look for it in an upcoming issue. And for the record, the Wretched Writer is not me, despite what some might say.

As noted previously, I’m running Call of Cthulhu as the alternate game for my group, allowing me to take a break from straight fantasy and to better develop the setting I’m working on for Fight On! The last two Sundays saw four new investigators tackling a curious case in Wildwyck County, NY. What follows is a précis of that case.

The case began on the last day of September, 1920, when four men of diverse backgrounds were contacted by their mutual friend, Mr. Desmond Cook, a writer and bon vivant. The four men—Jonathon Fairchild, an English professor at Bishopsgate College; Wolfgang Heisenberg, a reconstruction aide (read “physical therapist”); Luis Johnson, a New York City book dealer; and James Stone, an art historian and sometimes fortune hunter—each received a telegram stating that Cook was on the verge of a great discovery, but that his life might be in danger. Having no one else to turn to, the telegram asked them to come to his home in Newgrave, NY, a small, historical city on the bank of the Hudson River. Although all four had previously lost contact with Cook following the deaths of his wife and child from the flu, they were not callous enough to turn their backs on a friend in need and departed for Newgrave the following morning.

The men arrived outside Cook’s rented home and became acquainted. After discovering their common reason for arriving, they knocked upon the door, eliciting no response from within. From the tone of the letter, this gave them concern and they quickly gained entry via a forced rear door and picked front one. Inside, the home showed signs of recent occupation and all evidence pointed to a single, bachelor resident. The fireplace held an inordinate amount of ash and charred wood as if a large blaze had been set in the near past and further examination of the home turned up other baffling and fearsome clues.

A bullet hole marred the wall near the cellar door and a search of the basement showed that a section of the earthen floor had been disturbed. The ground there was soft as if excavated and then filled in, but the group’s search turned up no buried bodies…which had been their initial concern. Ascending the steps, the group noticed an odd foot print on the lowest riser. To all eyes, it appears to be the mark of a cloven-hoofed animal, a large one at that. It was as if Cook had kept a billy goat under the house for unknown purposes.

Tossing the rest of the house uncover a fired revolver lying beneath the sofa and several clues amongst the drawers of Cook’s desk. A short journal indicated that he’d be engaged in certain research and experimentation, and that he was looking for something or someone in Newgrave. A particularly foreboding entry alluded to a “St. Carnivorous”—who or what that could be was open to much speculation. Furthermore, a note from a local book seller informed Mr. Cook that his purchase had arrived, while another letter from his landlady stated that the new locks he had requested had been installed. The apartment address given in that letter did not correspond to the house’s location, revealing that Cook had taken lodgings elsewhere in the city. A final clue was discovered when one of the investigators ran a pencil over the notepad they spotted on the desk. Someone had written a name on the pad and they were able to decipher the words “Na__h___el V_ck__s” impressed on the sheet below.

Climbing into Cook’s automobile (which stood parked at the curb, its keys in his desk) the foursome sped off to Aged Treasures, the book store mentioned in the note. Near the business district, they found the shop, a freestanding building with a green and gold sign declaring its name and purpose. The building’s interior was crammed with secondhand books and creaking shelves. The owner, a man who appeared more butcher than book seller, stood to great them.

Their initial attempts to clandestinely discover the title that Cook bought through the seller, Mr. Antoine Delacour, were unsuccessful as he prided himself on maintaining the anonymity of his clients. But when they produced the telegram Desmond had sent them and demonstrated that they already knew Cook had purchased a book through him, Delacour agreed to reveal the title of the book—provided they kept that fact to themselves. When they agreed, it was revealed that Cook had purchased a partial copy of the Comte d’Erlette’s Cultes Des Goules. Other than the title, Delacour could provide them with no other clue as to what Cook was involved in or where he was.

With nothing else to go on than the apartment address found on the other letter, the four piled back into Desmond’s Ford and headed towards the Dutch Hill section of town. A slight inconvenience occurred when they blew one of the car’s tires, but Luis was able to retain control of the automobile and guide it safely to the curb. A half-hour later, the men were back on the road.

At 16 Moss Stone Lane, they found a large Dutch Colonial home that had been partitioned into seven apartments. Cook’s rental occupied a section of the second floor and was accessed via exterior stairs in back of the building. The investigators climbed the staircase and once again entrance was achieved by picking the lock.

The apartment was small: an open living area, kitchenette, bath, and bedroom completed its layout. The space was almost completely unfurnished. A folding camp table stood in the living room and a cot and blanket was all that occupied the bedroom. A few canned goods lined the single shelf of the kitchenette. It was obvious that Desmond spent little time here.

In one corner of the living room was a spade and pick axe, and there were several dirty footprints on the aging floorboards. A search of the bathroom revealed blood stains around the drains of both sink and bathtub. Most compelling, however, were the three large, hand-drawn maps on the camp table. Each depicted one of the three cemeteries in Newgrave: Newgrave Rural, Our Lady of Souls, and Old Dutch. The maps were all done on butcher’s paper and were written in Cook’s tell-tale handwriting. Each bore short notes such as “No evidence,” “sealed mausoleums,” or “watchman’s route.” On the map of Old Dutch, one mausoleum was circled with an excited scrawl. It was obvious that Desmond was looking for something in one or more of Newgrave’s cemeteries, but what?

Gathering the maps, the four made to depart when James’ ears noticed a distinct difference in some of the floorboards in the room. Further investigations uncovered a cavity beneath one of the loose boards. Secreted inside it were a blood-stained butcher’s knife and cleaver, and a holographic book written in French. Two of the investigators spoke some French, and they were able to identify the book as being the partial copy of Cultes des Goules!

Although this was a major breakthrough for the investigators, they swiftly discovered that the cramped handwriting and archaic French proved to be more than a match for their translation skills. One of the four remembered that Newgrave was home to Vander Veer University, a well-respect institution of higher learning that boasted many fine academics in the “hard science” fields. They climbed back into the Ford and headed off to the university in hopes of finding a French professor or at least an English-French dictionary in the university library.

They had mixed results at the university. Asking around the Modern Languages department revealed that the university’s French professor, Pierre Britton, had neither classes or office hours that day and the secretary was loathe to reveal his home address or phone number to anyone not taking his course. The party headed to the library and was nearly stymied once again when they tried to borrow the library’s French dictionary from the Reference department. Only Jonathon Fairchild’s academic credentials at Bishopsgate College allowed them to walk out with book, and even then only after he signed a paper promising to return it in a week (He didn’t and I need to remember to charge him for a replacement copy). The foursome tried to dig up some more historical background regarding Old Dutch Cemetery, but they were informed that Town Hall or the local library might have more information than the university’s stacks.

The party decided that they should split up at this point. Luis would remain at Cook’s home to try and skim the partial Cultes des Goules for more information as to what they were up against. The other three would gather some supplies, visit the local library, and scope out the Old Dutch graveyard, and then return to the house to compare notes. After stopping at a local hardware store for shovels, ropes, electric torches, supplies to board up the doors and windows of Cook’s home, and a half-cord of wood to keep a large fire burning in the hearth, they dropped Luis off at the house, fortified it, and drove off to the library.

Hitting the historical records available at the library uncovered the fact that Old Dutch was the oldest cemetery in Newgrave. As its name suggested, it dated back to the original Dutch settlers. One legend spoke of witches’ sabbats being held in the cemetery during the 17th century and it was noted that the Old Dutch church was not located next to the boneyard, but three blocks over, indicating that the original structure had either been moved or destroyed at sometime in the past. Both the church and cemetery would be their next stop.

Driving past the cemetery, they dropped Wolfgang off to poke around while James and Jonathon visited the Old Dutch Church. Wolfgang discovered that the caretaker lived in a small cottage on the northeast corner of the graveyard and although initially easy-going, he became uncomfortable when asked about the oldest section of the cemetery. He cut the interview short soon after the topic was broached.

Over at the church, James and Jonathon weren’t having much luck. They got past Matilda, the hard-of-hearing cleaning woman, to speak with Reverend Caspar Mortensen, but when James started asking about their friend Desmond who “might be lurking around the church or cemetery, but don’t worry he’s not crazy or dangerous or anything; he just might be trying to dig up the dead for some reason” the poor Reverend gently but forcefully steered them towards the exit.

The trio reconvened and decided that, since dark was now falling, it would be the perfect time to examine the old section of the cemetery, the place where the caretaker didn’t want to go. They parked the car for a speedy getaway and headed towards the farthest portion of the graveyard. There, the lawn was unmowed, the bushes in badly need of pruning, and the stones themselves showed signs of neglect. Reading Desmond’s map by electric torch, they navigated their way to the circled mausoleum and discovered the name “Vickers” inscribed upon its lintel. This must be the place.

Jonathon and Wolfgang approached the crypt while James shone his light upon the façade of the structure. As Jonathon surveyed the door to the mausoleum, Wolfgang peered around its corner. And that when the walls of normality came crumbling down.

As Wolfie turned the corner, his light fell upon a leonine creature with a face that seemed to be a ghastly hybrid of human and Doberman Pincher. The creature crouched in the shadows, spittle and gore dripping from its jaws. As Wolfgang backpedaled away, James’ light revealed another such creature perched atop the mausoleum, staring down at the exposed back of the blissfully unaware Jonathon. James screamed, alerting the English professor and the trio made a mad dash back to the car as the creatures shied away from their torches’ light. As they ran through the old section of the cemetery, their bouncing torch beams fell upon at least two more of the creatures! They reached the car unharmed, threw themselves into it and raced back to Cook’s home.

Once reunited, the four brought themselves up to speed. James was very shaken by his encounter with the monsters and gripped his gun as well as his soup spoon as he nervously ate dinner. Jonathon was unconvinced that what he barely glimpsed in the torch-light was a “monster.” A local freak or “dog boy” from the carnival was a more likely explanation. Wolfgang, with a medical background, disagreed.

Luis, although not present at the cemetery, has his own sense of normalness challenged by the contents of the book he skimmed through. The book alleged that in days long past, witch cults called up the denizens of mouldering cemeteries to cavort with them. These creatures, these ghouls, were the caretakers of much occult lore, for when they ate the flesh of the dead they consumed their memories as well. Having dined on more than one self-proclaimed wizard, the ghouls would share their knowledge with the witches and warlocks in return for gruesome favors. Was this why Desmond was searching for a specific cemetery? To bargain with these “ghouls” for occult knowledge?

The four decided to return to the cemetery fully prepared in daylight to investigate the mausoleum. A nervous night passed without incident and the investigators headed off to the cemetery after consuming what could be their last meal.

Upon arrival, they discovered the caretaker mowing the lawn near the entrance and a generous bribe made him more willing to talk about the old section of the cemetery. He revealed that he too had heard stories of witches gathering there on dark nights in the 17th century and that his predecessor had told him tales of people coming to Old Dutch—foreigners mostly—who came in but were never seen leaving. Lastly, the caretaker admitted to seeing unusual footprints around the oldest part of the cemetery: footprints like a “big ol’ billy goat, like Old Scratch h’self might make!” He claimed that it’d take an explosion or an earthquake to leave his cottage and go into the grounds he was paid to care for after dark. He hinted that he’d pay no mind to the investigators so long as they didn’t drag him into their mess or get him fired. The four thanked him and headed deeper into the cemetery.

Arriving at the mausoleum, they noticed several hoof-mark tracks leading into and out of the crypt’s doorway. James discovered one set that paused within arm’s reach of his own from the previous night and shuddered at the thought of one of the ghouls standing right behind him. Entering the crypt, they found it to hold an empty bier and several interment niches with stone slabs. One was marked “Nathaniel Vickers” and a quick inspection determined that it could be moved. Wasting no time, Jonathon swung his pick axe at the slab and busted it into pieces.

Behind it was a niche large enough to contain a casket, but it was empty. A fetid, moist odor of loam and clay and rot blew out of the space and the four could see a hole at the back of the niche leading down into the earth. The cavity was small, but passable, and after a brief discussion, Luis volunteered to go into the niche and see what lay beyond it. With a rope tied around his waist and torch in hand, he shimmied into the niche and down the hole.

Beneath the mausoleum was a 5’ wide tunnel that led down on a 15° angle. Bits of wood and grey roots protruded from the damp burrow and Luis’ light determined that it ran thirty feet before meeting up with a smaller tunnel and then turning out of sight. The smell of moist death was thick here and Luis spent little time in the shaft. Tugging on the rope, he half-crawled and was half-yanked from the niche. The quartet exited the mausoleum to stand in the open air and sunlight and debated their next step.

They really, really didn’t want to go down into that tunnel and they argued as to whether they owed it to Desmond to do so. Some of the evidence they uncovered was somewhat damning to their old friend (blood stains, hidden knives, ancient tomes, evidence of grave robbing) and their brush with the unnatural was more than enough to dissuade them from getting themselves deeper in the circumstance surrounding Cook’s disappearance. In the end, a compromise was reached: Luis would try to decipher and comprehend the entire contents of the book they had found and see if it contained any more information that might shine more light on what was going on and what they faced. Jonathan and Wolfgang would do more research on Newgrave, the cemetery, and the old church to see if they were overlooking something. James would seek the help of an alienist for the next few weeks to help him deal with what he glimpsed in that night-shrouded cemetery. The four agreed to speak again in three weeks and decide where to go once they had more information. Parking Desmond’s car at the train station, they headed to their separate homes and left Cook to his own devices…for now.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

The October Country: The Rowan House

The Rowan House could be any one of a hundred bed-and-breakfasts found along the south shore of Long Island but for two exceptions: 1) it is located on a sandspit extending out into the Great South Bay, where despite this somewhat precarious location, the inn survived both the Great Hurricane of 1938 and Hurricane Gloria in 1985 without damage, and 2) it does no advertising. Despite these sizable obstacles to long-term survival and profitability, the Rowan House has been in business for more than a hundred and fifty years.

Built in 1857, the Rowan House is a unostentatious, four story, shingle-style building. Erected at the end of Crab Spit on the western side of Rorkes River, the inn is reachable by both car and boat. A gravel road connects it to the mainland and a well-maintained dock accommodates luxury craft of up to 50 feet in length. The inn overlooks a small salt marsh that is home to an above-average sized population of Black-crowned Night herons and Snowy Egrets.

Over the years, the Rowan House has earned a reputation as a quiet, discreet getaway. Located within the village boundaries of Chattaquogue, Rowan House escapes the media attention normally aimed at the Hamptons, making it the perfect hideaway for the rich and famous looking to avoid the spotlight. The professional staff never reveals the identities of the inn’s guests, a service for which they are well-compensated.

Of course, with such a reputation for secrecy and an unconfirmed but much speculated-upon guest list, the Rowan House has become the center of many rumors over the years. This gossip ranges from tales of dead high-priced prostitutes efficiently disposed of by the inn’s staff in the Great South Bay to rumors of Satanic covens composed of Hollywood and Wall Street elite meeting for sabbats at the House.

The strangest of the rumors, however, is that The Rowan House is the place where the very rich or very desperate can go to reinvent themselves—literally. Hushed rumors state that there exists a power within the inn’s walls that allows those determined enough to become anyone of their choosing. For a day, a week, or even a lifetime, those willing to make the required payment are physically transformed into someone or even something else. Needless to say, this particular tale isn’t taken very seriously by most rumormongers, who prefer to envision the inn as the scene of more mundane but certainly more pornographic indulgences by Hollywood starlets.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Wildwyck County: Paul Strohd, Alternative Historian

A hint at things to come in the Wildwyck series. Again, this entry is set in the modern era, but its roots go back to the 1920s...and beyond.

Throughout New England and New York there are Neolithic anomalies. The most famous of these is Mystery Hill in Salem, New Hampshire, but numerous, less-famous examples exist. Of these lesser sites, many are slab-roofed chambers of stone, some of enormous size. Mainstream archeologists explain away these constructions as Colonial-era root cellars. More controversial historians speculate that they may have served as Native American tombs. Outright crackpots call them evidence of a widespread but undocumented Irish (or Norse, Atlantean, etc.) presence in the area. There is, however, another very unusual theory.

Paul Strohd lives just outside the village limits of Rotskill, New York. A thin, severe-looking man in his mid-fifties, Strohd hardly fits the image of the crazed crank arguing his favorite theory. He is always immaculately dressed and carries himself with an almost old-fashioned grace. He conducts himself in a precise and orderly manner, never succumbing to haste when working at a task. It is for this reason that so many people have difficulty reconciling the man with his work.

Strohd maintains that these Neolithic anomalies are evidence of an undocumented culture in New York and New England, but one that even the alternative history theorists are loathe to embrace. It is Strohd’s belief that these chambers were constructed by beings from another dimension, one that shares permanent yet uncommon connections with Earth. He has written three books on this subject, Uncanny Colonists, Walking Through Walls: A Guide to the Thought Temples of New York State (both self-published), and Ancient Anomalies Explained (Shadows Gather Books, 2004).

Strohd’s theory is that, prior to the arrival of Native Americans to the region, there were several seed colonies settled by extra-dimensional visitors scattered about the Northeast. These beings, dubbed “Exonauts,” arrived on Earth as refugees of a horrendous upheaval in their home dimension. It was their hope to establish dimensional beachheads in this world that would allow others of their species to escape the chaos raging in their native world. Unfortunately, the Exonauts were unable to achieve their plan and either died out or where absorbed by the native tribes when they arrived in the region. Their stone chambers and other anomalies remained untouched as they were considered cursed by the indigenous peoples.

Despite how ludicrous Strohd’s theory sounds, there are some campfire tales that seem to confirm that these sites are home to unexplained phenomenon. White-robed figures, hooded Viking-like entities, cloaked dwarves, and even Sasquatch-esque creatures have been glimpsed in and around these stone chambers. Whether these are the spirits of the long-gone Exonauts, glimpses of their home dimension, or some other phenomenon is, of course, unknown.

Strohd engages in regular speaking tours and is quite popular amongst the New Age crowd. His speaking fees allow him to continue his research and writing while maintaining a frugal lifestyle. This coming summer, he plans to take a three-week foray into the Adirondacks in search of more Exonauts sites and is currently looking for research assistants willing to work for room and board (or in this case, a tent and MREs).

Convention Schedule or How to See the Elusive Mike in the Wild

Most years, it’s a good convention season if I can hie myself to my local Sci-fi/Fantasy convention for a day or two of pick-up games and maybe an industry panel or three. This season, I’m really stepping out: hopping on planes, staying at new hotels, and doing battle with the ever-present threat of “the Convention Crud.” I’m gleefully looking forward to meeting many people whose only acquaintance has so far been via email or a pixilated face on Goggle+. Here’s where I’m going to be for certain in the months ahead:

March 22nd-25th: GaryCon IV in Lake Geneva, WI – This marks not only my first GaryCon, but my inaugural trip to the RPG motherland. I’ve rambled around the country a few times, but somehow always missed Wisconsin. I’ll be attending mostly as a “civilian,” playing whatever games I can and getting to know my fellow old school games both past and present, but I’ll have a few Stonehell books, a T-shirt or two, and I’m up to run some Stonehell in open gaming sessions. Please feel free to introduce yourself!

March 30th- April 1st: I-CON XXXI in Stony Brook, NY – My local con. I’ve been attending on and off since at least I-CON VIII (where Gary signed my Players Handbook). More geared to the sci-fi and fantasy scene than gaming, I nevertheless always manage to sit in on a game or two and meet fellow designers in the industry. It’s going to be hard to beat last year’s con, which saw me playing OD&D with Frank Mentzer (see my mapping efforts at 6:10) and talking a lot about the OSR, but I’m looking forward to gaming with some of the guests of honor this year. Say “Hi!” if you see me loitering or rescue me if I’m under attack by the cosplay hordes for making wise-ass comments.

June 7th – 10th: NTRPG Con in Dallas, TX – My attendance to this year’s con was completely unexpected, but I’ll be going courtesy of Goodman Games to demo some Dungeon Crawl Classics and to promote a new book or two. My flight is booked, my room reserved, and my registration paid. Now I just have to nail down what I’m running and when, and let the NTRPG Con folks know.

GenCon is most likely off the table of possibilities for this year, but some rumblings have been made to get me there in 2013 and I remain hopeful this comes to fruition. I’ve also had a request to come down to Dragon*Con, but through entirely informal channels unaffiliated with the convention organizers. Maybe one year, but it’s unlikely I’ll get down to Atlanta in 2012.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

The October Country: The Cargo Cult

Those residents of the October Country who originally hail from Earth know of the cargo cults that arose in South Pacific following the Second World War. However, those born in the Autumnal Lands are aware of another quasi-religious phenomenon that shares the same name.

Signs of the cult are not common, but do pervade almost every known trade route and method throughout the October Country. On rattling railcars bound for the Lightning Lands, on moss-covered boats plying the Snakewater Swamp, and on the beasts of burden driven by the nuleskinners of the Brackish, the signs are there: parcels, crates, and barrels chipped with travel and bearing any number of near-illegible labels and mystic symbols. Always treated with care, these containers move from town to town, never finding a final address at anyplace they go.

The origin of the cult is uncertain, but scholars have pieced together some background. In his work Transient Religions Under the Frost Moon, Professor Caspar Gellkillerson records the most commonly told tales regarding the cargo cult and is considered the primary reference source for all theologians interested in the study of this religion.

According to Gellkillerson, the cargo cult began when a large packing crate bearing certain High Magic sigils of protection was laden onto a wagon bound for the City of Candles. When the wagon arrived in the city, it was learned that the addressee had died, leaving no next of kin to receive it. The caravan master, as is custom, could claim the crate and all it contained as his own if no legal claimant was found. After a week passed with no such challenger appearing, the caravan master paid a magician to inspect the symbols prior to opening the crate. Upon seeing the glyphs, the magician backed away in fear and warned the caravan master that powerful protective charms were in place, ones that spelled doom for whoever dared to open the box if they were not “of the selected brood.”

The caravan master tried unsuccessfully to pass the crate onto other unsuspecting parties, but they always became aware of the warnings protecting the crate and refused to take it off of his hands. Finally, in desperation, the caravan master had it shipped back to its town of origin, thus beginning a process that continues to this day.

The crate arrived back from whence it came, but the original shipper could not be found. The poor depot clerk who accepted the crate soon found himself in the same situation as the caravan master. It took him two weeks, but he eventually smuggled the crate onto a riverboat headed north and dusted his palms of the problem. In each new place the crate arrived, the process was repeated and the box, now showing signs of wear and tear, and covered with faded shipping labels, continues its endless journey looking for someone “of the selected brood” to take possession of it once and for all.

In time, other containers joined the original crate under similar situations. Some are no doubt “copy cat” shipments sent by pranksters who heard the tale of the crate and mocked up their own with fake sigils and blatantly erroneous addressees, but others bear the same fearful warnings etched upon their wooden exteriors. More telling that these containers were of legitimate origin was the effects produced when two or more crates found themselves in close proximity in a warehouse, riverboat, or railcar.

When multiple containers come near one another, unnatural events occur. Spontaneous growths of vegetation, chilling fog banks, whispered songs sung in unidentifiable tongues, and other happenings have been reported. These so-called miracles were what created the first of the Cargo Cultists—men and women who reported seeing visions, receiving supernatural healing, and other mystical revelations when near the containers. These cultists continue their strange religion, often acting as unofficial (and often unwanted) guardians of these containers as they make their endless journeys. When several containers appear at the same location (always by happenstance for the Cultist never act to guide the boxes on their travels or determine where or when they will arrive), tent revivals spring up to attract the few but fervent believers the Cult has. There, the devoted witness miracles and testify about the coming of the One the Crates are Destined For.

The Cargo Cult is tolerated, mostly because they keep to themselves, pay the costs of keeping the crates moving, and are not a violent or proselytizing sect. They’re nevertheless considered one of the weirder religions in the Autumnal Lands and associating with it adherents (or worse, joining them) is a sure way to damage one’s prestige.

Wildwyck County: The Black Magic Club

A little ahead of the era in which the Wildwyck County material appearing in the pages of Fight On! magazine is set, but Black Magic Club has its roots in the 1920s and its original incarnation will appear in the period Wildwyck County supplements.

Once a month, in the old wing of Rotskills’s Brodhead Library, a cabal of men and women gather after night fall. Herbal potions are brewed, elixirs sipped, and ceremonial foodstuffs consumed. When the preliminaries are completed, one of their members begins to speak, weaving a captivating spell.

This is no occult coven, however. It is a meeting of the finest storytellers in Wildwyck County. For nine decades, this group has met in the Freedman Reading Room on the night of the full moon to tell tall tales, trade old legends, and recount historical anecdotes regarding the town of Rotskill. Limited to a membership of thirteen, the Black Magic Club began at the onset of Prohibition. With liquor outlawed and the taverns forcibly shut, some young men formed private and semi-private social clubs to hide their alcohol consumption. The Black Magic Club was one such organization and the only one to remain after the repeal of the Eighteenth Amendment in 1933.

The club got its name from the quick retort one member uttered not long after the club’s formation. When pressed by his wife as to what he was doing out at such an hour, Caleb Brown, a founding member of the social club, sarcastically replied, “Black magic.” When he regaled his fellow members with the anecdote, the name stuck.

Although the club’s membership is limited, the group does host occasional seminars and open houses to raise awareness of the importance of preserving oral history and folklore. It is safe to say that, amongst its members, there is no greater repository of local legend and history in town. This doesn't mean that they are completely free with all their tales: some things are better forgotten—or at least restricted to a close circle of people best suited as custodians of such knowledge.

The Black Magic Club’s current membership is comprised of Michael Harris, librarian and town historian; Selma Andersen, president of the local chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution; Bill Miller, a retired chemistry teacher; Thomas Cook, lawyer; Albie Soape, bar owner; Jessica Allgoode, self-proclaimed “woman of leisure”; Freddie McDougal, auto mechanic; Cal Harris (no relation to Michael), theatre owner; Sebastian Smyth M.D., endocrinologist; Robert Ericson, author; Ellen Guinness, retired seamstress; Jake Forlin, college student; and Gordon Swims, former editor of the Rotskill Crier. It is likely that one or two openings in club membership will be forthcoming. Ellen Guinness has stage II liver cancer and Jake Forlin has one year remaining at the university. Forlin’s membership in the Club is a most unusual one. Previous members have all been long-time residents of Rotskill and most have been in their late thirties. The Club, as is its right, won’t comment on why Forlin was granted entrance into their esteem body.

The Black Magic Club has self-published several anthologies of popular local legends and stories. Copies of these books are available in the Brodhead Library’s collection and offered for sale at Brick Alley Books on Main Street.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

The October Country: The Ghost Machine

I'm still banging away on projects and preparing for GaryCon (14 and a wake-up!) so the consolidation of blogs continues. Today's post is all about a strange device that appeared in my dreams.

I mentioned at the end of last year that the October Country material has taken on a sometimes uncomfortable life of its own, making it difficult for me to escape its powerful allure. It is indeed heady stuff to my mind and the autumnal land and its parts have invaded my dreams more than once…or maybe I’m merely travelling there more often in my sleep. The following came from a dream I had two nights ago. I was exploring the attic of a decaying hotel and found this bizarre, unwieldy-looking, antique typewriter there. After blowing the dust off of it and figuring out how it worked, I began having a two-way conversation with the ghost of a murderer. The typewriter model cited in the post below is a different one from my dream, but of all the antique typewriters I could find, it comes closest to the strange device I found in that attic.

The device known in certain circles as the Ghost Machine is unusual in appearance, but not abnormally so. It tends to draw stares not because of the function it can perform, but rather because it is rare to encounter a typewriter in the 21st century—especially one that is more than 100 years old.

Those few individuals knowledgeable of the history of these obsolete business machines recognize the Ghost Machine as being a North’s number 1592, manufactured in London in 1892. The machine (and the company that manufactured it) gets its name from the obscure English lord who financed it. Individuals with more than a passing knowledge of Victorian Era spiritualism know that Lord North held a deep interest in the afterlife, so it comes as no surprise that the Ghost Machine serves as a conduit for the dead.

The Ghost Machine allows for conversation between the living and the dead—even with those who have never demonstrated the slightest talent for mediumship. When using the Ghost Machine to communicate with the dead, PCs with the skill of Medium add a +20% bonus to their percentage. Those without the skill can utilize the device with a base 20% chance of success, modified by other conditions as normal.

The Ghost Machine is simple to use. When a clean sheet of paper is inserted into the typewriter’s “holding basket”, the machine is ready to function. The typewriter’s operator need only type a question onto the paper and wait for a reply. If the Medium skill roll (or the base 20% chance) is successful, and there is a cognizant spirit within a half-mile of the device, that ghost will become aware of the Machine and likely be drawn to its location. Spirits with a POW of 13 or less are compelled to seek out the Machine and its operator; those with POWs of 14 or better will be intrigued but cautious, and may or may not approach the location of the Machine depending on their personalities and goals.

Once present, the spirit can communicate with the living by means of typing out a reply via supernatural manipulation of the Ghost Machine. The Machine seems to operate on its own as the keys strike and the reply appears on the page. Although the typewritten reply is typically in the same ink as the original query, there have been cases where the reply seems to be typed in blood, ectoplasm, or even ordinary water. The ghost must spend one MP for each full minute spent in typewritten correspondence, and once it does, is compelled to answer any question typed during that period. After the minute expires, it can choose to spend another MP or cease conversation. If during the minute period, the Machine’s operator ever types a question the spirit wishes not to respond to, it and the operator must engage in an POW Opposition Test. If the spirit is successful, it can obfuscate the truth or simply not reply.

For unknown reasons, the Ghost Machine tends to attract angry or harmful spirits. If there is more than one spirit within the area affected by an operating Ghost Machine, the most dangerous of the ghosts present will always be the one to make contact. It is for this reason that would-be mediums lacking proper talent and training are cautioned against using the Ghost Machine without proper precautions and supervision.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Wildwyck County: The Case of the Haunted House: Part IV

Back at the farm, they took precautions against possible possession. Weapons were unloaded and locked away, and the three kept close watch on one another for uncharacteristic behavior. Charlie’s wounds, incurred when dragged through the glass, were dressed and Chuck began to read the three small books liberated from the closet.

One proved to be an out-of-print book dating from the late 1800s. It was a commercially-released treatise of demonology, available through special dealers and more liberal-minded book stores. Although the information within was unsettling, it was nothing that had not been covered in other texts before. One section of the book was dog-eared, however, and the phrase “Knights of the Silver Twilight” was underlined several times. The investigators tucked this tidbit away to follow up on at another date.

The other two books were personal journals, scrawled in the spiderlike hand of Walter Corbitt, himself. Deciphering the scribbles would take some doing, and Chuck proceeded to brew a pot of coffee before delving into the arcane memoirs.

Reading the journals took two days, but the information within opened Chuck’s mind up to frightening new vistas of reality. In addition to several unsettling implications about the nature of the cosmos, the books also explained the process required to “Summon the Shimmering Walker.” It would take some weeks to master that process, so the journals were put aside for safe keeping. The investigators had learned their lesson about revealing ownership of strange books to outsiders.

Speaking of which, during the period while Chuck decrypted the journals, Joseph and Charlie attempted to track down the whereabouts of Father Sullivan. Father Andrew revealed that he was quite concerned about the missing priest as he had himself learned from the church records that Father Sully was an only child. Although finding his excuse for his sudden disappearance false, Father Andrew was loath to allow the two investigators into the absent priest’s quarters. He was hoping that this disappearance was due to poor decision making rather than a criminal act. Having experience with Irish priests in the past, Father Andrew was fervently hoping Father Sullivan would return soon, bleary eyed and shameful, but in sound health.

With no new information learned and the journals completed, the three decided that they could hide from their inevitable task no longer and drove back to Ashton to confront the house and the forces that inhabited it once and for all. Arriving on site, they discovered the upstairs windows still smashed, but the doors closed and unlocked. Suspecting either the wind or a concerned neighbor to be responsible for the shut doors, they ventured into the house one last time, tense and alert.

They made their way to the cellar door without delay, throwing upon its locks and descending down the creaking, rotting stairs. At the bottom, they discovered a small cellar with oiled dirt floor, several cluttered workbenches, an old barrel, and a side room that once held coal and firewood. Three of the walls were brick; the fourth was closely fitted wooden boards. This irregularity led them to believe that the wooden boards concealed another chamber and Charlie and Joseph took to demolishing the timber with their pry bars. They opened a gap large enough to look through and shone their electric torch into the small space beyond. A fetid stench filled their nose and the chittering of rats—dozen and dozens of rats—arose from the junk-filled cavity beyond.

As they peered inside, Chuck gave out a scream behind them! Turning, they saw a bloody wound across Chuck’s back and a rusty knife floating in mid-air before him! The knife slashed again, barely missing him. Joseph leveled his shotgun at the knife and let loose a blast, hoping to strike the invisible force wielding the weapon, but to no avail.

The three battled the knife, grasping a wooden barrel lid and using it as a shield. Despite their best efforts, both Charlie and Chuck were gashed by the blade, Chuck bad enough to lose consciousness as blood ran from his myriad wounds. As Chuck tumbled to the earthen floor, so did the knife, inert once again. Joseph applied first aid to Chuck, while Charlie heaved the bloodied dagger into the open barrel and then nailed the wooden lid in place to seal up the peculiar poignard.

Despite Joseph’s best efforts, Chuck remained unconscious and the two alert investigators debated a full retreat. Thinking back upon the battle, however, the both realized that the blade stuck slower and slower as the fight dragged on, as if the eldritch forces behind the attack were growing weary. Rather than risk giving those unknown powers the chance to recuperate, they decided to press on and see what lay beyond the timber barrier.

The rats had fled during the fight, so it was without incident that the two cleared an entrance into the space beyond. There they discovered another wooden wall, this one bearing the phase “Chapel of Contemplation” carved into the aged boards. Some more hard labor later, an entrance had been made into the chamber beyond that final wall.

The space beyond was obviously the remainder of the cellar. The floor was earthen and the walls were brick. It held little, but what it did contain gave the two pause. A crude pallet lay in the center of the room. Atop it was the thin, almost feral-looking, form of a naked dead man. A small table holding papers stood in the far corner and cobwebs hung like streamer from the ceiling above. The investigators moved towards the table, thinking that the paper would shed light on this final conundrum.

As they approached, the dead man rose to his feet. A stench like rotting corn wafted from his wizened form and white, burning eyes glimpsed the two. Charlie raised his revolver and blasted away at the walking dead man. His first shot struck the corpse in the skull, blowing away a part of its skull but to no effect. His second shot took the body high in the chest, blowing another hole in the corpse and causing a spray of stinking, black blood to erupt from its back, painting the walls with gore.

The corpse closed on Charlie, swinging ghastly claws at the terrified shamus, but missed their target as he scrambled away. Joseph swung his shotgun like a club, striking the corpse to little discernable result other than to gain the attention of Corbitt’s corpse. As the undead sorcerer moved in for the kill, Charlie fired his last shot at the body, blowing away the rest of the dead man’s skull. A cry erupted from the corpse, the chittering of rats sounded in the walls, and the body collapsed to the floor. Moments later, the body crumbled to dust, revealing a black stone amulet and chain where the corpse had lain.

The two attempted to collect the papers from the table, but time had nearly destroyed them and they too turned to dust when touched. Gathering a Mason jar from the one of the worktables near the stairs, Joseph looped the chain of the amulet onto his pry bar and deposited the necklace inside the glass container, securing the lid once inside. The two gathered up the unconscious Chuck and departed the site with great alacrity.

The trio was successful in uncovering the forces responsible for the Willow St. house’s uncanny events and despite the wounds suffered, emerged victorious. Fletcher Dobbs paid them the promised $100 bonus, a sum that came in handily as both Charlie and Chuck were admitted into the care of the good doctors at Ashton Hospital with knife wounds allegedly incurred during a mugging attempt. They are currently resting and recuperating, leaving Joseph in possession with both Corbitt’s journals and the mysterious amulet at his farmstead.

Wildwyck County: The Case of the Haunted House: Part III

Despite this turn of events, the trio decided to venture into the house on Willow Street. Parking outside, they approached the home, its curtains drawn as if to protect its gruesome secrets. With the key Mr. Dobbs had given them, they entered to see a gloomy hallway stretching from the front door to the rear of the house. A pair of French doors stood on their right, open to reveal the living room beyond. A trio of doors stood along the left wall of the hallway, the portals shut tight to protect their contents. The air was stale and dusty, with a faint hint of rotting food beneath it.

The investigators began with the living room, discovering it to be filled with numerous crucifixes and Catholic icons—even more so than could be expected in the home of devout Italian immigrants. Seemingly out of place amongst the religious paraphernalia was an outré painting that hung on the far wall. The piece was an odd mixture of style. It depicted the unmistakable Catskill Mountains to the northwest, their profiles easily identifiable to residents of the area. However, beyond those picturesque peaks was an abstract image that gave the impression of being a city of glittering gossamer drifting amongst the mist-shrouded mountains. Checking the painting closely, the signature “Nelson Blakely” was discovered. Who was this gifted painter and why was his work both evocative and slightly unsettling?

Connected to the living room was a modest dining room, its mahogany table set for dinner for three. A soup tureen sat on its dusty surface and another door beyond led out of the room, presumably to the kitchen. The scent of rot was stronger here and the investigators chose to move deeper into the house, discovering the kitchen and signs that rats had been at the pantry.

Exiting the kitchen, they entered the main hall to find themselves at the far end of the house. A set of stairs led to the second floor, while another closed door stood across from them. This door was sealed tightly—someone had installed a lock and no less than three deadbolts on the door. Besides the stairs was another door that led into the house’s mudroom. Old coats, buckets of coal, and a door leading outside were within this room, and the investigators noted that the exterior door also bore three deadbolts and two locks. Some resident of the house was concerned about his or her safety to paranoid levels.

The two well-secured doors made the three realize they had never inspected the inside of the front door, and they returned to the front of the house to do so, finding four deadbolts—rather new ones—to have been installed there as well. As they were yet unwilling to ascend the stairs, the three started with the first closed door off of the main hall.

The room beyond was stacked with junk: old water tanks, broken bicycles, rusting pipes, and other bits of trash that had accumulated in the house since its construction. Against one wall was a set of cabinets, sealed tightly by 2x4s nailed across its doors. The investigators attacked the lumber with their pry bars, suspecting that something of value or interest lay concealed within.

As they did so, a loud, booming, pounding was heard from upstairs as if an angry fist was pummeling the floorboards above. Charlie cried out nervously, “We’re getting into your cabinets and there’s nothing you can do about it!” The thumping repeated itself.

Chuck continued to attack the cabinets while Charlie and Joseph watched. With the screech of rusted nails coming loose, the last piece of wood was pulled free and the cabinets opened. Inside were three small books, dusty and dropped askew on the bare shelves within. These tomes were gathered with some caution and the sounds above ceased.

Charlie inched down the hallway, drawing his .38 revolver and taking up position at the bottom of the stairs. Joseph and Chuck proceeded to check the next room, only to find more junk: smashed furniture, broken boards, and other detritus bound for the fireplace. Chuck grabbed a long board, hefting it in his hands.

As the three reached the bottom of the stairs, the sound of scratching, long nails dragged across a hard surface began from the floor above, causing Charlie to rush from the house in a panic. The remaining two stared up the flight of stairs before grimly making their ascent. Charlie hovered by the front door, watching his friends vanish from sight. At the top of the stairs, Chuck and Joseph discovered another long hallway running the length of the house. Four doors stood along the left side of the hall; the right side was pierced with three curtained windows that let only a trace of sunlight into the house. Advancing to the second door from the stairs, the one from which the scratching seemed to be coming from, they tentatively grasped the handle.

The sounds stopped.

Pausing to steel their nerves, they opened the door to find a Spartan room beyond. A large bed, lacking a mattress stood against one wall. A chest of drawers occupied a corner next to a closed window. From the ceiling dangled a single bare bulb, swaying gently at the end of its cord.

As they stood in the doorway, the sound of tapping was heard. It seemed to come from across the room, near the shut window. Chuck threw the light switch, but the house was without power. Joseph stepped into the room cautiously and approached the window while Chuck covered him. Reaching the window, Joseph gazed out the pane, looking for the source of the tapping.

The bed frame lurched across the room, carving long scratches in the dry floorboards as it sped towards Joseph like a locomotive. The surprised Pole threw himself out of its path, missing being hurled through the window to the grounds below by inches! The iron frame crashed into the plaster wall, creating a spider web of cracks throughout the plaster around the window. As Joseph climbed to his feet, blood began to flow in rivulets from the shattered plaster. The two rushed down the stairs, nearly crashing into Charlie who had crept back into the house after the sounds ceased. The three poured out the mudroom door and ran down the alleyway to take cover behind their parked vehicles.

After a long pause and several nervously smoked cigarettes, the trio resolved themselves to re-entering the house and searching the remaining upstairs rooms. They returned to the upstairs before fear could overwhelm them again.

In the second floor hallway, they began to open the curtains to allow more light in and it was then that they noticed that someone had nailed the windows shut. As they had to put the “haunted room” behind them in order to explore the rest of the second floor, there was concern about possible routes of escape. Charlie produced his pry bar and began to break each window, clearing the glass from the frame as Joseph and Chuck started with the far room.

That room turned out to be the master bedroom: a queen-sized bed, more religious statuary, a bible, and dressing table lay within. As the approached a bookshelf on one wall, the two noticed that the sound of breaking glass had stopped. Chuck turned in time to see Charlie put down his pry bar on the window sill, reach down and grip a handful of jagged glass. Slowly, as if sleepwalking, Charlie opened his mouth and started to raise the razor-sharp shards to his face, intending to eat the broken glass. Chuck launched himself across the hall, tackling Charlie to the ground before he could dine on his possibly fatal meal. Joseph came out of the bedroom at his heels just as the door to the haunted room began to rattle in its jam, shaking as if in the grip of hurricane winds. The two gripped the dazed private eye between them and dragged him towards the stairs. As they passed the thundering door, they glimpsed blood oozing from beneath it to pool in the hallway. That was enough for the intrepid investigators and they fled from the house, rousing Charlie from his inattentive state, and then driving out of town to seek sanctuary at Joseph’s farm…

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Wildwyck County: The Case of the Haunted House: Part II

On the morning of Thursday the 7th, the trio once again met at Joe’s Cup & Saucer to plan their day’s excursions. In light of the discovery beneath the ruined chapel, a descent was in order, but more research was warranted before they placed their lives on the line in that crumbling cellar. Charlie, having had dealings with Wesley Carroll at the Sentinel, knew that he was off on Thursdays and that the investigators might have better luck accessing the morgue with him away from the desk. Also, further information regarding the Chapel of Contemplation’s conflict with Ashton’s Finest was needed, which meant a trip down the local constabulary headquarters.

The three men arrived at the Sentinel and found that Carroll was nowhere in sight. In his place was Steven “Sparky” McDowell, the paper’s intern and would-be newshound. Enthusiastic to a fault and somewhat uninformed regarding the paper’s policy on restricted access, Sparky obligingly got the investigators to the dingy back room that contained the paper’s archives. There, the men found further confirmation of the stories that Jim Dooley had spun at his newsstand the previous day as well as another article that never saw print. This one told of a French family, the LeFevres, who occupied the house on Willow Street in 1880 only to move out when the parents died and three of the children became crippled in violent accidents. The house stood vacant from then until 1909.

Leaving the Sentinel’s offices before being discovered, the trio went to Ashton’s central police station to see if they could access the records concerning the 1912 raid. Luckily for them, the desk sergeant on duty was Sergeant Richard “Dickie” Schultz, a cop that Charlie had dealt with in the past, sharing information and sometimes money in exchange for leads in his private cases.

Dickie had been a cop in Ashton for several years, but had no knowledge of the 1912 raid—a fact which allowed the investigators to look at files that seemed to cover a minor event in a closed case. Pursuing the official records brought new light on the Chapel as well as unnerving implications.

In 1912, the police collected several affidavits from Drybog residents implicating the Chapel of Contemplation in a series of missing children cases. A raid was launched on the Chapel, during which three policemen were killed and seventeen cult members died in either gunplay or fire. Fifty-four church members were arrested, including Pastor Michael Thomas, but only eight were ever convicted and sentenced. Pastor Thomas was given 40 years in the Snake Hill Penitentiary on five counts of second-degree murder, but escaped in 1917. His whereabouts are currently unknown.

Although this was all very surprising to the three long-term residents of the Ashton environs, even more disturbing was evidence that there had been a cover-up. The autopsy reports on the slain church members were all cursory, lacking common details usually found in such reports. This indicated that the medical examiner had not actually performed autopsies—he merely filled in the forms and swept the deaths under the rug. Other evidence in the official reports hinted that the entire raid had been silenced by a local official with some influence, explaining why the biggest criminal action in Ashton’s recent history was entirely unknown by its citizens. Who was involved and why they hid the raid was not clear. It might warrant more investigation at a later date.

In a related note, the file contained an aged news clipping going back to the previous century. The brief news item mentioned a similar raid conducted against the Congregational Church of Rotskill, NY in 1731; another lead or a further smokescreen?

Departing the police station with this knowledge, the investigators stopped at a local hardware store to acquire a coil of rope, pry bars, and a trio of electric torches. They piled into their vehicles and returned to the ruined chapel in Drybog. After ascertaining they were unobserved, Chuck and Joseph shimmied down a rope to explore the sodden cellar, leaving Charlie to keep an eye out for anyone seeking to stop them.

The cellar was damp and moldy. Ankle-deep water had seeped into the basement over the last eight years and the hole above let in scant illumination. Throwing their torch beams about, the duo perceived a blocky pair of filing cabinets in one corner and a massive, mold-covered desk in another. Near the writing table were two piles of rotted cloth, protruding from the stagnant water like mildewed islands.

The filing cabinets drew their attention first, and rifling through them uncovered a sheaf of decaying church records. Compiling all the partially-filled drawers into a single one, the two tied a rope to the drawer and Charlie hauled it out of the basement to be examined in detail later.

The desk proved empty, but chained to its surface was a massive folio bound in mildew-stained leather. The rusted restraint was easily broken and the tome carefully removed from the site. The two basement spelunkers then discovered that the piles of cloth contained the sodden bones of humans; perhaps church members who perished in the 1912 raid and whose remains lay undiscovered in the Chapel’s basement until now. Keeping a cautious eye on the bones, Joseph and Chuck scampered out of the basement and the three departed the site to sift through their finds.

Taking the records and book back to Joseph’s farm, the three quickly learned that the church records were precisely that: daily accounts pertaining to the operation of a religious institution. However, nestled amongst the mundane accounts was a small journal. Written partially in a cipher to hide the identities of various cult members, the investigators were nevertheless able to discern the name Corbitt amongst the alias. Specifically it was written that Walter Corbitt was buried in the basement of his home “in accordance with his wishes and with the wishes of that one who waits in the dark.” At last! A break in the case!

Elated to fine a possible cause of the house’s unsettling difficulties, the three turned their attentions to the large, leather-bound tome. Unfortunately for the three, none of whom graduated high school, the archaic Latin that the book was written in proved indecipherable. As it was beyond their own skills to decipher, the investigators decided to bring in an outsider to assist them.

Piling back into their cars, the three drove back to Ashton to pay a visit to St. Michael’s, the most prominent Catholic church in town. There they introduced themselves to Father Theodore Sullivan, a long-time resident and priest. Claiming that they were employed by a collector of rare books, the three told the good Father that they were hired to ascertain the authenticity of this particular book after their employer purchased it in an estate sale. Father Sullivan examined the book carefully before declaring it to be in Medieval Latin and seemed to contain certain instructions. It would take some work, but he could likely make heads or tails of the old book in a few days—at least enough to provide the three with a summary of its contents for their employer. The investigators agreed and left the book in Father Sullivan’s care.

With time to kill while the priest translated the ancient text, Joseph headed down to Ashton’s Templeton Price Memorial Library on Castle Ave. Within its quiet environs, Joseph found Miss Agatha Coleridge, the library’s foremost reference librarian. Producing his journal, Joseph showed Miss Coleridge the symbol he copied from the chapel’s crumbling walls. Together, the two consulted the library’s scant occult collection to no avail. Just as Joseph was about to give up hope, Miss Coleridge declared that she had an associate at one of Newgrave’s larger repositories of knowledge and that she’d be willing to forward the symbol to him and see if his library’s collection could shed more light on its origins. Unfortunately, the process would take a week or so. With no other options, Joseph agreed.

It was Saturday the 9th when the three finally decided to enter the house. Knowing that there were reported phenomenon on the second floor of the house and that Corbitt’s earthly remains were likely interred in the building’s basement, those two locations were deemed the most probable places to focus their investigation. To be safe, the trio staged a watch on the building from the late hours of Friday afternoon into Saturday morning. Working in shift to observe the house, they discovered that no one entered the place, nor were there signs of activity within its old brick walls.

Prior to their entrance, they reassembled at Joe’s Cup & Saucer to compose a missive to their employer, Mr. Dobbs, informing him that they had a break in the case and expected to have an answer soon. They finished breakfast and returned to St. Michael’s to see if Father Sullivan had completed his survey of the archaic text.

Arriving at the church, they were greeted by Father Andrew Dewey, the assistant priest at St. Michael’s. Father Dewey revealed to the three that Father Sullivan has departed the church abruptly the previous day, explaining that he received word that his sister was deathly ill and he was rushing to her bedside. Father Dewey expressed some surprise at this turn of advents, as Father Sully had never mentioned that he had siblings in the years the two had worked together. The investigators inquired about the book they had entrusted with the good Father, but Father Dewey could provide no information other than he knew nothing about such a text and that there was no such tome in Father Sullivan’s quarters in the rectory. Needless to say, this was very distressing to the three and they begged Father Dewey to alert them the instant he learned of Father Sullivan’s current whereabouts…