Sunday, October 5, 2014

Block Island

*If you're one of my players, stop reading now.*

The first scenario I've been running in my Call of Cthulhu campaign is split between Arkham and Block Island. I was attracted to Block Island as a locale for three reasons: personal experience, horror literature, and history. In this post I'll talk about the first two. Next time I'll say something about the real history of the Island, which is actually pretty sinister itself.

First, experience. Julie and I weren't planning to go on a honeymoon after our wedding. But at the end of the weekend, as our friends left one by one, we found ourselves lonely and sad. So we decided to go for a short honeymoon after all. It would have to be somewhere we could drive (our wedding was in upstate New York), where we could still find reasonable accommodations. Shaina, a friend of ours, suggested that we go to Block Island, a small vacation spot off the coast of Rhode Island. She had grown up going there in summers and spoke of it fondly. Among other things, she emphasized that we needed to go to some place called "Rodman's Hollow", apparently a nature preserve on the interior of the island. She wouldn't say why.

Block Island was charming, with interesting geography, and a deep New England history. It still catered to ordinary people, lacking the pretentiousness (and massive wealth) of the other New England islands. The beaches were pretty and it had all the obvious seaside charms. We were able to stay at a lovely old hotel dating to the 19th Century. It was perfect. Following Shaina's advice, we eventually sought out Rodman's Hollow. It was easy enough to find on the better tourist maps. It was connected to a set of trails ("greenways") that wended throughout the island, passing alongside and through private property and connecting up with the island's beaches and nature preserves. 

Our first four attempts, on separate days, to get into the hollow were failures. (Keep in mind that this was before the smartphone and Google Earth.) We found ourselves circling around in our car where it was supposed to be on the map. When we saw what we thought was an entrance, the trail always led somewhere else altogether. Strangely, locals tended to be, on this point, uncommunicative, and the directions they gave were either incomplete or unhelpful. At times, we believed ourselves to be looking down into Rodman's Hollow, which appeared to be a valley of dark and dense woods. On the fourth try, we tried to walk directly into the hollow through the woods, but were defeated by thorny roses and dense underbrush. 

At first, the failures seemed comical, obviously a combination of tourist's ignorance and dumb bad luck. But as the failures mounted, the whole affair took on an eerie character. I couldn't shake the feeling that Rodman's Hollow somehow didn't want us to enter it. 

On the fifth attempt we succeeded. It was evening, about 2 hours from sunset when we walked in to the hollow. It had an overgrown, fey appearance. The floor of the path was covered in a carpet of lush grass. The details are a little hazy, but I remember dark tunnels cut through overarching trees, and trellised arches covered in green brambles. This fairy-like decoration was abetted by dilapidated, hand-painted signs pointing the way to trails with names like "Enchanted Forest" or "Weeping Rock". In our entire time, we didn't see another soul. The place was utterly still and deserted. At one point, we came up a hill into a glen where we saw a bald eagle feasting on the carcass of a deer. The huge bird took flight as soon as we arrived, leaving the bloodied carcass behind in the middle of the path. 

We had expected a simple set of trails in the hollow that would be easy to follow, but the criss-crossing paths seemed labyrinthine. At certain point we realized that we were lost. As the sun began to reach the horizon, a mild panic set in. We had no flashlights, and even if we found an exit from the hollow, we were not confident that we would be able to find the road where our car was parked in the dark. In the twilight, we began to run through the still glades of the hollow. At last we found a trail leading out onto a ridge overlooking a beach, resplendent in the magenta glow of the setting sun. From there we found our car, as the last light dwindled to darkness.  

I was put in mind of this experience when I later read Robert Aickman's story, "The Real Road to the Church". The narrator of the story has bought Le Wide, an old house on an out of the way island, hoping to get away from it all. She employs locals who speak an ancient dialect of French. She overhears them one day remarking in their antiquated French that her house is "where the porters switch". After pressing them, the locals reluctantly inform her that Le Wide is on the "le vrais chemis de l'eglise", "the true road to the church". When she asks them what this means, they say only that this is the road that "one takes to the church and also to ones grave". When she protests that she has never seen anyone passing by the house, they reply that this was because before she didn't know. The protagonist surmises that these must be a network of ancient trails that locals take to their church, probably direct and convenient ways that predate the system of roads. But it is only having learned of the existence of the "true road" that she begins to perceive--hear--the unnerving sounds of night time travelers passing by her home. While it is never clear what has happened by the end of an Aickman story, the truth is strange and sinister. This story, like most of Aickman's masterful tales, I found unnerving, frightening actually, and quite evocative. 

I worked with the theory that I should construct a scenario around a place I actually knew, drawing on things that had actually frightened me. So I decided that at the heart of the scenario would lie in a hidden hollow in the interior of Block Island. It would be a place that worked to keep people out, but once inside would be difficult to escape. A dark and disorienting fairy woods, it would be a living place, home to something with a hatred of mankind. The island would be criss-crossed by ancient trails of hidden purposes, nearly impossible to perceive until your mind had been readied to receive the truth. These trails would connect to the hollow, and perhaps other places. This was the seed of the adventure that grew in the fecund soil of Block Island's colonial history. I'll talk about that history next time.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

House Rules for Combat in Call of Cthulhu

Combat is deadly in Call of Cthulhu. So the stakes are high. Close range with firearms provides enormous bonuses to hit: you literally double your skill with the weapon at close range. The result is that if you have 50% in the weapon, you only miss 1% of the time. I found that players naturally were wanting to utilize this advantage for themselves and minimize it for others by moving into and out of close range in the middle of combat. I needed some house rules on moving and shooting. Furthermore, I had an investigator who was badly injured and I wanted to introduce some official rules on injuries and recovery, so I wasn't just making it up. Here are the results. (The stuff on initiative order is by the book.)

Movement Rates:

A character can always take a 5’ step in a round, whatever else she is doing. A character can walk safely 30’ in a round. She may sprint 60’ in a round.

Order of Initiative:

Combat occurs in the order of dexterity. A player announces what her investigator will do when it is her turn to act. An investigator may defer her action to any point later in the round. She may also give conditional actions. For example, she may wait for someone else to act before she acts, or declare that she will shoot anyone who moves towards her. 

If an investigator is carrying a loaded firearm and expecting to have to use it, it is readied. Anyone with a readied firearm adds 10 to her dex for the purposes of determining who goes first, provided she is solely shooting.

An investigator charging 30’ and then attacking with a grapple or melee weapon subtracts 5 from her dex for the purposes of initiative. An investigator moving 60’ subtracts 10.

Firearms Penalties and Bonuses: 

*Note: All fixed amount penalties or bonuses are applied before scores are doubled, halved, or quartered.

Close range (=dex or less in feet) x 2 
Long range (up to twice base range) x .5
Extreme range (up to triple base range) x .25
Target has partial cover x .5
Target has near total cover x .25

An investigator may take a 5’ step and fire without penalty. 
An investigator may move 15’ and fire with a -10 penalty. 
An investigator may move 30’ and fire with a -20 penalty. 
An investigator cannot fire while running wildly.

An investigator firing at a target moving 30’ takes a -10 penalty.
An investigator firing at a target moving 60’ takes a -20 penalty.

Damage and Death:

An investigator who falls below three hit points is unconscious. 
An investigator who falls below 1 hit point is dying. A dying character loses 1 hp per round, until someone makes a successful first aid check on her.
An investigator who falls below negative two hit points is dead.

An investigator who suffers more than ½ her hp in damage receives a minor wound. This wound should have one real world consequence. Some examples: the investigator must wear the off arm in a sling or suffer pain, the investigator walks with a limp and -5 to movement, or needs to wear an eye patch and takes -10 to firearm shots, or has an obvious shiner and takes -10 to credit rating or persuade checks among high society types. 

An investigator who suffers an impale receives a moderate wound. This wound has one real world consequence and also provides -10 to all physical checks. 

An investigator who falls below 3 hp receives a major wound. This wound provides one real world consequence and also provides a -20 to all physical checks. 

*Note: The penalties to all physical checks for being impaled and falling below 3 hp stack.


Successful first aid restores 1 hp. 
Seeing a doctor or going to a hospital restores 1d3 hp (-1 if you already got first aid).  
For each week that passes after the wound, the investigator recovers 1d6 hp.
Minor wounds go away on their own in 1 week. After a week the real world consequence no longer applies.
Moderate wounds and major wounds will not heal without medical treatment. 
Penalties to all physical checks from moderate wounds and major wounds heal at the rate of 5% per week if the investigator is active. If she is in a hospital or resting at home, she heals at twice that rate--10% per week.
The real world consequence from moderate and major wounds are removed only once the entire penalty to all physical checks has been reduced to 0%.

Example: A Pinkerton with a .45 in his hand emerges from the back door of the house a mere 10' from Rust. Distracted by another investigator at first, the Pinkerton does not see Rust until he sprints 60' into the woods. Being a seasoned veteran and natural born killer, the Pinkerton's skill with a .45 is 80%. The base range of a .45 is 15 yards. The Pinkerton first takes a -20% penalty for firing at a sprinting target, so his skill check is at 60. Furthermore, after his run, Rust is 70 feet from Pinkerton, well into long range, so that is halved to 30. Furthermore, Rust has partial cover now that he's in the woods, so that number is halved again, and the Pinkerton will need to roll 15 or less to hit. Unfortunately for Rust he rolls a 12%! Rust takes a whopping 10 hp as the slug enters the back of his right shoulder! Rust had 11 hp to start, so he falls to 1 hp. Since he has fallen below 3 hp he is now unconscious, but since he is above 0 hp, he is not dying. When he regains consciousness, his shoulder injury will be a major wound, requiring medical attention, and giving him -20% to all physical checks in the near future. He'll be wearing an arm in a sling and will not easily be able to perform actions like climbing a ladder or riding a bicycle. Since he's working on a case, and cannot afford to lollygag around all day, his penalty will decrease at the rate of 5% per week. At that rate, it will be a full month before his arm comes out of the sling!