A couple of friends wanted to play the Pool, and picked a Lovecraftian scenario. So I updated my Cthulhu version of the Pool (available here: https://drive.google.com/file/d/1xAJJUfMEksHb8TTC7pRdn_Hlh6fDyCbU/view?usp=drivesdk) and the players made one character each. They wanted a period piece, so we went with 1920s Seattle.
The first thing I did in my prep was read about Seattle in the 20s. The population at the time was 315,000, wages were about $35 a week, $1750 a year on average. A full, fancy lunch at a restaurant cost 40-80 cents, and a slice of pie 5 cents. There was no TV. Commercial radio had just started. There are phonographs and telegraphs; there were phones, and you could call throughout most of the country by this point. The Great War had ended in 1918; and the deadly 1918 flu pandemic was mostly over by 1920. Prohibition was in full swing, and smuggling booze was big business.
The famed Seattle General Strike of 1919 had just drawn global headlines. The strike was one of the first citywide work stoppages in a major U.S. city, and terrified the business community that a Bolshevik Revolution was about to sweep the country. The FBI swooped in to stop the strike, arrested the labor leaders, and shut down the labor newspapers.
This led to the country experiencing its first Red Scare, a time of national hysteria that brought crackdowns on trade unionists, socialists, anti-war activists, and so on. Vigilante groups such as the Seattle “Minute Men” formed, with the goal of discovering German spies.
The Ku Klux Klan was a powerful component of the Democratic Party at this time, and led an anti-immigrant crusade. In the same vein, Woodrow Wilson’s government launched the “Palmer Raids,” where the federal government rounded up and jailed or deported more than 500 immigrants throughout the country.
There were several incidents of political violence. In what’s come to be known as the Centralia Massacre, a vigilante group marched on the local headquarters of the IWW. In the resulting shootout, 3 of the vigilantes were killed. The police stopped the confrontation and arrested a Wobbly member, Wesley Everest. Later that evening, a mob raided the jail and lynched him from a bridge.
So, when I looked over this bit of history, quite dramatic and violent, I found myself drawn to the horror of the Centralia massacre incident. What if, I wondered, the slain man had a relative that wanted revenge – and was willing to go to extreme lengths to get it? In a Lovecraftian context, that would mean getting the power to identify Everest’s killers, and then bring to them a bloody justice. Suppose that was his son, who made a deal with a spawn of Nyarlathotep to gain dark powers. With that as a seed, I brainstormed from there.
In order to get the spell needed to identify his father’s killers, Everest would need a particular spell. How? Perhaps from a dealer in stolen or exotic goods. Let’s call her Gwendolyn Love, who does business out of a speakeasy. Love has her own problems – a rival, let’s say; Dave Vance, of Vance Export-Import Co., Ltd.
Vance will be a pretty bad guy. Looking over the history, I notice the KKK was quite active, holding large public rallies. Let’s make him their Grand Wizard, and have him be an actual sorcerer with a few spells in his pocket. He and Love have a gangland-type competition, not only in liquor but exotic goods such as scrolls. They’d each like to take the other out, and are looking to recruit others to help.
In addition, the local KKK suspect Everest knows or has some book or scroll from which he gained sorcerous powers, and are harassing him to get their hands on it.
Now, what about a starting scene to let the players know about and get into the thick of the situation? Well, suppose a couple of KKK thugs went a bit too far in harassing Everest, and he responded by letting the spawn of Nyarlathotep loose, killing them. The release of sorcerous energy would be felt by the PCs, who when they went to investigate would find the dead men, and a matchbook with the name “Jake Everest” circled.
I made a few notes on a few locations – the speakeasy, the Vance Company warehouse, a farm used for a KKK rally, and so on. I fleshed out the NPCs more, and my prep was done.
The characters created by the players included:
Name: Joseph Harbinger
Studying as a Jesuit exorcist, Joseph Harbinger discovered a book of arcane formulae that could twist reality. One formula summoned the Whispering Void, which told him secrets that destroyed his faith. He left the order and seeks the Book of Thomas the Other, rumored to contain proof of a benevolent god. Pursuing the book, Joseph had an education in the seattle underworld and persuading people.
Jesuit exorcist +1
Arcane formulae that could twist reality +2
Summoned the Whispering Void +1
Seeks the Book of Thomas the Other +1
Proof of a benevolent god +1
seattle underworld +1
persuading people. +1
Name: Silas Whigham
Accompanied by Jenkins (a rat) and plumbing tools, Silas leads the Subterranean Hygiene Intelligence Team. He knows the city’s underground, which is why politicians, detectives, and military officers call on him to deal with unspeakable messes. Silas inhales mind-altering fumes venting from underground: He’s convinced they inspire his prophetic visions. Silas uses his workman demeanor to persuade citizens that his activities are safe and authorized. Possessed by a demon, he has developed secret mental reserves to resist his dark master.
Jenkins (rat): +1
Plumbing tools: +2
Subterranean Hygiene Intelligence Team: +1
Knowledge of the underground: +2
Vision-inducing fumes: +2
Mental resistance to parasitic demons: +2
I had the players introduce their characters and say what they were doing, and then described the initial scene. Unfortunately, I immediately ran into a problem: one of the players got angry with me, accusing me of railroading. The player of Harbinger refused to go to the scene I had prepped, instead wanting to go to the university in pursuit of the Thomas tome. At the time, I was taken aback; I was confused by the response. I went with it the best I could. My notes on the Thomas tome were minimal at best, so I quickly made up a few things – the tome is in Palestine, owned by a man named Mazran. Other people wanted the book as well, for different reasons. Both Love and Vance would have the contacts to broker a deal, but everyone involved was a backstabber. With this background in mind, I kept playing, alternating scenes between the two players.
After the session, I asked this player what was going on. It turns out he and I had a basic misunderstanding: when I did my prep for the game, I did so with no regard for the PC backgrounds at all – similar to how I’d prep for running a dungeon crawl. The player, on the other hand, assumed the exact opposite, that I would base my preparation on his character background, as he wanted pursuing the tome to be his central focus of play. Ron has some terminology for these two approaches for GM prep, and also distinguishes a third option that’s in between the two, but unfortunately I can’t recall them or where to find them, so he’ll need to clarify if he wishes. But the point is, the problem arose because the player and I had different expectations of what the focus of play was going to be. Once I learned what the player wanted, I then prepped the next session accordingly.
Anyway, Joseph Harbinger wound up at the Blue Royale, the speakeasy where Gwendolyn Love operated. For a price, she got him the contact information for Abdullah Mazran, the current owner of the tome.
Meanwhile, Silas Whigham pursued the clues he found on the dead klan members, and managed to sneak into Jake Everest’s apartment. Once inside, his luck ran out. After several failed rolls, he became possessed by another spawn of nyarlathotep, who Everest had been keeping in a box he’d hidden away. While the entity didn’t have total control, Whigham’s player would have to make rolls to resist when it did.
Behind the scenes: between scenes, I made brief notes about what the NPCs were up to. Everest went to Love in pursuit of the pnakotic manuscript, from which he could learn the spell Azathoth’s shadow (this would give him the ability to look into the past and discover his father’s killers). Everest wouldn’t be able to afford to pay cash for the scroll, so what would Love accept in exchange? She agrees to give him the manuscript if he kills Vance. As this is happening, Vance is preparing to lead a KKK rally. He plans to use the energy of the rally to cast a spell at Love, to kill or enslave her.
The session ended and the players advanced their characters according to the standard Pool rules.
It would take a bit of time to describe the rest of the game in detail, but here are some of the moments that stand out:
Since the KKK rally was widely advertised, Jake knew where Vance would be, and followed him there. Silas encounters Jake at the rally, and they have a conversation. They can see the spawns in each other, and Jake is slowly losing his humanity. He reveals he is going to kill Vance. Vance arrives, heading for the speaker stage, and Jake closes in for the kill. Silas has the chance to intervene, but chooses not to. Jake kills Vance, and loses control to his spawn, which proceeds to massacre a number of the rally attendees.
Harbinger locates and makes a deal with another antiquarian, a Mr. Said, who wants the Thomas book for himself but is willing to let Harbinger study it. Their plan involves taking Mazran’s son hostage, and demanding the book in exchange for him. To get the son requires Harbinger to cast a kind of dimensional gate spell, which unfortunately goes disastrously wrong. Said is sucked, screaming, into the void. Harbinger is left with nothing.
Silas is concerned that Jake will lose control and let something horrible into the world if his plan succeeds, so he follows him.
Harbinger goes back to Love, but fails to get anything out of her. Angered, he destroys the entire building with dark magic. He then goes to a church and causes a priest to lose their faith.
There is a final scene where Harbinger, Silas, and Jake are in a church. Jake is ready to cast his spell, and begin to take vengeance for his father. Silas repeatedly tries to do things but his player keeps failing his rolls. Finally, they both try to stop Jake, Silas grabbing him around the neck and holding him as Harbinger’s void spell consumes them both, then himself, leaving no trace of any of them. IIRC, both players succeeded in these final rolls, and both chose to do a monologue, so they collaborated on it.
Although I enjoyed the game overall, I felt bad because the players kept failing rather spectacularly on critical rolls – and I saw my role as to make sure these rolls had serious consequences. My impression was these multiple failures frustrated them a bit, but I didn’t know what I could do about it.
As always, I appreciate any comments, questions, or analysis. Players feel free to jump in, give your impressions, and fill in any gaps if you like!