Friday, October 30, 2015

Halloween adventure: The ghost at the party

Halloween and superheroes are kinda opposed to each other: a horror story is about loss of control and superheroes are all about having control (they have different powers). But we can certainly dress a superhero story in Halloween/horror trappings, and if it looks enough like a duck, perhaps it will quack.

Loss of control is certainly a theme, but it usually happens with villains such as Mysterio, whose whole gig is putting the hero off balance and doubtful. They tend not to be written as actually horriffic, though. The Man Who Has Everything is a horror story, but it's not presented that way.

So instead, we're going to dress up an adventure in Halloween clothes...a costume, as it were.

We could go for an obvious and physical villain, such as a vampire or werewolf or mummy or  a humanoid swarm of insects or worms...eww; I'm saving human tent caterpillar nest for later), but for this one, I think we'll go totally non-physical.

A ghost. This is mostly because I wondered how the heck you make ghosts scary...they never do anything (well, okay: there's possession and poltergeist activity, but your basic ghost doesn't have the superpowers of even a bug-zapper). But if we're just dressing it up, well, we can say that the ghost is trying to get revenge on the bad guy.

So this has a simple structure: the bad guy wants something, the ghost gets the heroes involved and puts them on track every time they're in danger of getting off track, providing directions of the place to run to, or where the bad guy is. The ghost is mute in the normal, physical plane.

Threat

A PC is looking at a map of the city (even a transit map) and a ghostly finger comes up or out through the map, right where the Van Doo mansion would be. The PC gets a sudden chill.

Investigation

Any player characters who live in the city know:

  • At that place in the city is the Van Doo mansion, which has been held for over a century by a trust fund, but recently sold to a young man. We'll call him Luther Canning, but really, whomever works in your campaign is fine.
  • The story is that if you're in the house at midnight on Hallowe'en, a ghost appears and grants you a wish. (The trust has to clean it up every year because someone breaks in.)
  • Luther Canning is going to host a costume party: tickets are $100 a piece, but some are being given away free.
The story and the party are all people re talking about.

Without a roll, anyone who asks can find out:
  • Years ago, the mansion was owned by the Van Doo family, wealthy industrialists who made their fortune off the backs of the working class. 
  • The Van Doos were philanthropists, too, but most of that drew to a close when their children Judas and Peter were born. 

With actual investigation (that is, a roll of some kind; the better the roll, the more of these they get):
  • The children, Judas and Peter, were conjoined twins, They lived a solitary existence to avoid being treated as freaks. 
  • The twins' parents died natural deaths before their sons were in their teens.
  • One of the twins--apparently Judas, but the two were identical--suffered some kind of accident that left him a vegetable, and left the other in sole charge of their body. He had an operation in Europe that removed the other, and he married later, several times. Alas, all his wives died, and he died childless before he turned fifty.
  • The young Van Doo men received packages from Asia and Europe.
  • Records from booksellers and antiquarians (or occultists) indicate that someone was fascinated by black magic, because many of these packages contained grimoires of black magic.
  • Some of the books contained actual spells, though they were stolen from the house and never recovered.
  • Luther Canning didn't buy the house; he fulfilled certain conditions of the trust and had it given to him.
If that isn't spooky enough to get them involved, some time before midnight on Hallowe'en night, a young man appears to any PC who isn't at the mansion (preferably in a way that looks like he's stealing from an occult bookshop). The young man looks like Luther Canning, the one who bought the mansion, but his back is curiously bent (and Luther Canning is supposedly at the mansion and party). He runs like a deer, though, disappearing even when the PC thinks he is caught.

A PC with astral vision can see the young man when he vanishes....but a PC with astral vision should know this is some kind of occult mojo.

The chase leads to the Van Doo mansion. Clearly the young man went inside.

The party is in full swing, and things are great. Whether the PCs are inside or outside, they might well notice the men closing the metal shutters over the windows. 

If asked, the men say, "Hurricane shutters. In case there's a storm."

The young man appears just in time for the characters to see he's going down to the basement through a strong door.

Challenge

The basement has the rooms shown below, and they are decorated as for a house of horrors. There are columns to hold up various rooms (those are the circles)

After coming down the stairwell, guests are supposed to go in a counter-clockwise direction. The room to the furnace/"crematorium" is locked from the stairwell side, if it happens to be closed when the PCs come down. The rooms are:

  1. A graveyard at night, with  zombies (paid employees in costume) crawling out of the grave and grabbing at guests, which leads into...
  2. A mausoleum (the former cold cellar), with the shelves made up as crypts. Vampires (more employees) are exiting the crypts; one might even be threatening the guests. There is an iron gate at the end that opens to the door, and the door leads to...
  3. A dungeon torture chamber, with items like a rack, a Judas chair, a brazen bull, a strappado, and burly torturers in hoods.
  4. A crematorium, with a box built around the furnace, so it looks like a crematory furnace, and a blackened flaming corpse exiting the furnace; flaming arms grab for the guests, who can then exit through the door and go back upstairs. There are two doors out, but one is locked. It leads to...
  5. The room for the black witchcraft ceremony. This is the room where the reincarnated Judas Van Doo will kill a sibling in order to get the power placed in this new body. While he's in this room, he has access to the power, but he doesn't have it outside the room.

The walls are lead-lined, and the material strength is high enough that any normal human (up to strength 6 in ICONS) can't break through.  There are air vents, so someone with shrinking or intangibility or just jeezly great strength can break through the walls.

The young man--now the reincarnation of Judas Van Doo--has his powers. He has really four powers, though they might all be the result of a generalized sorcery power:

  • He himself is a shapeshifter, and knowledgeable about the black arts. The more power he uses, the more he will look like Judas Van Doo, strange scar, bent back, and all.
  • He is resistant to damage, either through his shapeshifting abilities or as the result of a localized spell.
  • He can make objects become what they appear to be.
  • He can animate objects.

If one of your player characters is actually mystic, there might be some mystic resistance.

As the player characters move through the rooms, he makes the various things come alive for them:

  1. The zombies really attack.
  2. The vampires really attack.
  3. The torture devices in the torture chamber come alive, and attack.
  4. In the crematorium, the flaming corpses become actual demons, who attack.
  5. The PCs must then get through the last locked door. (It's okay if the PCs go through the wall and cut the gauntlet short, but then various things from the different rooms will follow them, and they'll have as much of a free-for-all as you want.
And, as the players move through, the young man -- the ghost of Peter Van Doo -- is just out of reach until he appears in the red square of the witchcraft room. He is not visible to Luther, which might confuse some players.

Luther has a victim--a sibling, preferably of Luther's but any sibling will do--bound on a table in the middle of the pentagram. There are runnels to catch the blood and guide it down to a fancy ceremonial jar under the table. When filled, the power will be complete Luther's, even when he's out of the room, but it has to be filled by midnight (but not started before whenever the players get there...he couldn't do this before sunset, and the nearer to midnight the better).

And before the players enter, Luther makes the cut, and the blood starts to flow.

Comeback

If the players have dealt with each problem along, the way, all they need to deal with is a sorcerous shapeshifter who doesn't have to pay attention to the victim any more and can fight them. (He won't turn into a snake; apparently it never works.)

There are two conditions that have to be fulfilled as closely before midnight as possible:
  • The jar must be full of blood. It is fastened in place, but a clever PC might be able to free it or redirect the blood or remove the jar somehow (or break the jar, but it should be very tough).
  • The victim must be brain-dead. Dead-dead is acceptable, but brain-dead will work, too.
If necessary, the ghost becomes visible to unnerve Luther/Judas. If the clock starts striking midnight (you can hear it throughout the house), Luther will abandon any fight to try and smother the victim.

A Peek Behind the Scenes

Just so you can see how much I jump around, here are bits of the original draft:
Ghost story. Right.

Let's suppose that bad guy X once killed the victim, and once a year--on the anniversary of the murder--the ghost can try to make it right. The ghost can't do anything: it doesn't suck powers away. It can be scary, sure, and it can create the illusion of itself somewhere (those with astral vision will be able to see the real ghost; the illusion is always at the same place the ghost is, it just looks solid).

(In fact, Young Justice did exactly this: the lovely episode with Zatanna and Artemis out on the town on Halloween. I'll try not to imitate Young Justice, but some of the choices I'm going to make are the same.)

It's tidier if the murder gave our bad guy magical powers, so he or she is equal to the heroes. We can claim otherwise...someone mean enough to kill is probably also mean enough to take the superpower pill when it's offered...but I want this tidy so you can drop it in anywhere. (If you have a character who can act as a psychopomp, such as Deadman or the Phantom Stranger in DC, then perhaps you could re-jigger that.)

The murder is not recent; it happened long ago, but the Bad Guy--I'm thinking out loud, so there isn't a name yet--has only just escaped from his last imprisonment. Actually, the justification for the Gentleman Ghost appeals to me here: the ghost reappears every time the Bad Guy reincorporates and comes to the fullness of his power (as they say). So the bad guy has reincorporation, but at a plot device level: he is always born on Halloween, and that night, the ghost reappears.

So they're twins. Metaphorically, anyway, so we'll make them real twins. To be even more uncomfortable about it, they were conjoined twins, joined at the chest. And to effectively kill the good twin, the bad twin had to essentially make the other twin a vegetable--he couldn't kill him because that would be killing himself.

Okay, this is nicely gross for Halloween...but what does the bad twin want, and how do the players discover all this juicy grossness?

Clearly the bad twin has become a shapeshifter of some kind, because he wanted to get rid of the other twin. (Perhaps there was a story about him leaving the city and coming back after a miraculous operation.) He wanted...love. (It might be an interesting dichotomy if the good twin was gay and the bad twin wasn't, but I think that would derail the adventure.)

We want a haunted house, so the twins were the only scions of a wealthy family...the Van Doo family. (Doo plural sounding like the French Deux, for two.) The house is still there, maintained by a trust that the bad twin set up. Because the power vessel is there.  There is some magical power, but it goes to a power vessel when he dies. He set it up that way with the reincarnation, because he had to get rid of his current body; that one had remnants of the other twin.

The names Cain and Abel seem rather obvious, and Chang and Eng has the wrong ethnicity for North America. Let's try Judas for the bad twin (called Jude; the heroes won't know it's Judas unless they look at a birth certificate) and Peter for the good. Jude of course survived and got better looking each year, after the "miracle" operation. His first wife died in childbirth; his second wife produced a single child (a daughter) before she died, and his third wife ran away. Because of her, there are stories that Jude practised black magic.

(In fact, he was trying to prepare his child as a vessel for his mind, but when he had no children, he had to switch for the reincarnation plan. Mystical tomes and such are a clue, if necessary.)

We can start in one of several ways, the day before Halloween:

  • If a character is a teenager or a young adult, there is a party going to happen in the basement of the Van Doo mansion. The character hears about it. (There is a story that being in the basement of the Van Doo mansion at midnight on Halloween gets you a wish granted from the ghost of Peter Van Doo; the mansion's management company has to clean up every year.)
  • A small medallion like a gear is stolen from a private collection. The players might investigate that.
  • The mansion is made available to a young man. When quizzed about it, the management company says that they are obliged to make it available to anyone who can answer the three questions left by Jude Van Doo in his will. The characters might choose to investigate that, because it seems odd...

Because of that and all the other stories that have arisen about Judas Van Doo, there is another story: being in the basement of the Van Doo mansion at midnight of Halloween will grant you a wish from Peter Van Doo's ghost. And every year some one breaks into the mansion to stay there until midnight. (The management company often has to clean up.) So that can be part of our hook: someone is planning a big party in the basement. It's illegal, and the party will have illegal substances. The players might hear about that and want to be there or investigate.

Characters who research the Van Doo family know that Jude Van Doo purchased mystical things, and not all of them were legal. (I rather like the idea of the "good" twin, empowered by some action of the heroes, forcing his way out of the chest of the bad guy, and pushing him inside. In fact, if I were writing a story, that's what I'd do.)

Okay, let's back up for a moment. We want only the good elements here.

  • Background: Conjoined twins, one killed the other, ghost, powers stored in urn, bad twin reincarnates. Halloween is important.
  • Latest reincarnation gets the house with the powers. The urn, or power cistern, is built into the house. Magic users will recognize this.
  • Party on Halloween night. Reincarnated bad twin plans to kill lots of people to move the power into his body. Only one death is necessary, but he has grown to appreciate excess.

And this is why it is a mistake to look at anything I haven't finished yet.... You can see things that I abandoned, and you're free to incorporate them if they appeal to you and work for you.