Dark Things Fester in Stillwater

Tonight, I debuted the Gloam, horror rpg, system for my friends. Things went pretty well. Although, no one has died yet. One character spent a good five minutes contemplating suicide, another nearly cut her friend’s leg off with a blow-torch and almost burned herself to death by desperately lighting a giant horror on fire.

The four players are a P.I. a mechanic, a security guard and a bar manager. The room we’re sitting in is pitch black except for twenty candles in the outline of an altar on the floor representing the player’s health, sanity and group morale. There’s carefully chosen music playing in the background at such a volume that it can only be heard in the dead silence of contemplation when all the options seem too horrible to be honestly considered.

The game begins at the ten year reunion of Stillwater High, a lone kid, that the students recognize as a suicide from ten years past named Jimmy, limps on stage, clutching a microphone in his broken, crumbling hands. “Look at you… you’re all going to die…” he breathes through twisted lips. From there, hell breaks loose as the players realize that even though the reunion is winding down and half the guests are missing, the parking lot is full of untouched cars. At the entrance of the gymnasium that connects to the parking lot, the players sit and contemplate their exodus (which car to take for christ sake) when a man limps up in the shadows imploring… “Help me. Help me! Help mehelpmehelpmee!! It’s insiiiiiiiiiAUGH!” pealing off into a brutal scream.

Long, sharp bones burst forth from his shoulders, his arms and legs twist into an impossible pretzel shape behind him. Ribs explode from the chest, forming a protective shell around his newly-formed torso, as he settles down anew as a quadruped. Many more seems to limp forth from the darkness. After three rounds of 9mm have no effect on one of the creatures, the four players decide to just make for the nearest car instead of being picky. The bar manager, having a smart-phone and only enough charge to make one call, calls her bar and tells everyone to leave early for the night, letting cash and tips wait until the next day. Driving to the security guard’s house, they charge their phones, load up on food, flash-lights and whatever weapons they can find (kitchen knives and a single molotov).

In the mean-time, the crew begins receiving texts from an unknown number with disturbing pictures. Deciding that staying in one place is a poor choice, after the foundation of the house begins to shake, the players head for the mechanic’s workshop, via the bar to pick up knife-vests, flash-lights, radios and more cell-phone chargers. Along the way, they encounter more horrors in the night, but avoid them with their car. Facebook makes little mention of anything going on anywhere else.

Arriving at the back door of the bar, the manager enters the code, unlocks the door and they trepidatiously enters the bar kitchen. The bar manager receives another text from the unknown number with a picture of her closer’s face with the caption “We’ve got her. She’s in good hands,” underneath it. As the lights go on, something skitters through the kitchen, knocking over pots and pans. Further inside, they stand on the threshold of the kitchen, when something begins banging against the inside of the cooler door. Turning on the light from the outside, they prepare to look inside when the banging stops and the dishwasher begins pelting them with cutlery. Across the room, two bowls, held together lip-to-lip by a layer of flesh and a membrane of dish-cloth, begins rolling on its own accord towards them, pinging through the air and clam-shelling onto the security guard’s chest. As the bowls are dealt with and the dish-washer does its damage, one of the players whips out a home-made flame-thrower of aerosol and kitchen degreaser for good measure, managing not to blow up in the process. The combination proves effective and they survive to look in the cooler. The cooler contains the mutilated corpse of her employee.

Further into the bar, a massive crash sounds from the bathroom. A creature made entirely of the corpses of thousands of sewer vermin, and the muck they swim in, bursts from behind the bar, but the players have taken the hint and started to run before it totally manifests, sustaining only minor injury.

On the way to the shop, they run over the corpse of Larry, just outside, and bloody drag-marks leading into the repair bay proper. The bay is empty, but the lights to the office are off. They make it quick here grabbing tools and fuel.

So, they tool around in the car until morning, encountering thousands of ripped out fences, a growing army of horrors and the gradually collapsing houses around them. As the sun peaks over the horizon, they see a massive silhouette in the distance rise and disappear. “The sun won’t do us any good,” the mechanic says. At this point, she’s going a bit nutty. She has already thrown my phone, reflexively, across the room at the sight of one of the text messages. They decide to go and look for the corpse of Jimmy at the news that the investigator is here looking into the recent disappearances and cult rumours.  Rumours that ended around the same time Jimmy’s life did ten years ago.

Arriving at the cemetery, amidst massive piles of dirt (one with a running shoe protruding from it) from exhuming corpses and huge holes in the ground of unknown origin, the investigators go to look at Jimmy’s grave, driving the car as close as physically possible to the grave before getting out. Leaving the bar manager in the car for a quick escape, the others make their way to the grave. While they’re gone, the manager receives a text and sits, staring in horror, at her phone, calling to the others. The others are occupied, though. The ground beneath their feet is a roiling bed of dew worms. The woven worms try to pull them down, while they try to rip and cut their way out with knives. The mechanic manages to free herself, going to the aid of a companion, stabbing him in the hand in the process. Giving up on the knife, the mechanic goes for the blow-torch from her shop, scorching her foot and the security guard’s leg in the process. Once free, they make a break for the car. Once inside, they snap back to their senses. They’re all covered in dirt, hands bloody and bodies bruised from their attempts to, as their watching companion noted with horror, burrow head-first into one of the nearby mounds of dirt. Clutching a rock in her arms, the mechanic turns and looks outside at her blow-torch sitting benignly next to the grave where she had put it down.

They determine that Jimmy’s grave has been disturbed, the soil having been recently churned, grab their stuff and leave. Where? Well, the text the bar manager got had a picture of a twisted body, Jimmy’s, with the caption “He’s in good hands 😉 ” sitting on a hospital gurney. So, they make their way, brimming with luck on encounter rolls, to the hospital. The hospital is a nightmare. A shell of twisted flesh, braided through with miles and miles of chain-link, now covers the surface almost entirely, except for three breaches. Two are up high, out of reach, but a third, the size of a car, opens up into what they determine is the hospital lobby. Upon realizing the scope of the disturbance, they decide to avoid the hospital altogether.

Remembering the bomb-shelter beneath the school, and having access to a copy of a book on the local cult’s beliefs and ceremonies, including a cypher of their “language,” they make their way there to look for some way to prevent the disaster from getting any worse. They talk about leaving town but, between the massive thing in the distance and the gridlock they saw on the highway earlier, they determine that the best thing they can do is make it to the school’s shelter.

Returning to the school, they enter through the gymnasium doors, which are still propped open. From deep inside, they hear a loud, low, constant, haggard breathing. Once inside, the giant rubber divider curtain begins to descend while the emergency lights, powered by the shelter’s underground generator, begin to crumple, seemingly for no reason, As they make a break for the other side of the gym, the inside of the school, a man, an old classmate, claws his way out from underneath the curtain. Something catches his leg and he screams for their help. However, at this point, they “assume it’s a necrotic horror until it’s proven otherwise” and carelessly leave him to die. This is actually the character’s players cracking a bit under the pressure.

At this point, we open the door a bit, letting in a rush of air; like it’s an actual breeze. We realize that the enclosed space and the fire have been slowly depleting our oxygen. We all burst into nervous laughter, joking about how how strange it would look for someone to find us, five dead people, clutching identical water-bottles, sitting around a burnt-out candle alter, with a wax pentagram drawn playfully on the floor.

Moving on, walking into the hallway, the players decide to head for the principle’s office, pulling the fire-drill plan off the wall with a crowbar as a map. A little way down the hallway, they find a room, full of half-rotten corpses, with a female body, clutching a flash light and a gun inside. The woman has a hole in the side of her head, the gun is a 9mm and the flash light is always welcome. Around the corner, with the office in sight, they find another interesting door leading to a room that’s brightly lit with a complete lack of shadows. A collection of knives sits on a table near the middle of the room. They decide that it’s best not to mess with anything and move on.

A small hand shoots up, streaking slowly down the glass, leave a trail of blood in its wake. Inside the office, they find a small girl, clad in red, waiting for the “prince pal” to see her because she’s been naughty. Pulling off her coat, she shows her bleeding lacerations, “See, they punished me. It huuuuurts! Will you play with me until I can see him? Huh?!” She pulls out a pair of scissors, the ends dripping a dark, viscous liquid. “Let’s play!” The players immediately pull guns on her, planting one bullet in her chest to cries of “You’re mean!” Lunging with her scissors, she leaves a trail of blood on the Investigator’s pant leg before taking a bullet to the head and staying down for good.

Inside the office, they find the principal, slumped over his desk, with two small puncture wounds in his temple. They grab a map of the school, along with, on second thought, the principle’s keys and make their way to the stage. Passing by the brightly lit door, again, they hear crying. Looking inside, they see a woman crying on one of the desks.  Moving inside to talk to her, she sobs a brief conversation with them before the scene melts and the group realize that they’re in the company of four cultists that look bewildered at their sudden appearance.

After a brief fight, which includes the incineration of the spinal nerves of one of the gas-mask wearing, black-robed cultists, they receive a map with a few locations in the town marked off on it. Also, a collection of wicked, twisted sacrificial knives and cultists robes. Their robes and gas masks have LEDs sewn on the inside of each one, giving the cultists that peculiar glowing-eyed look. Donning them, they make their way to the stage. Going through the back door takes them through the storage room where they find a man’s corpse that has been bent completely in half the wrong way and stuck on a shelf.

Making their way on to the stage, they encounter a six-armed, necrotic horror, in the shape of a barrel with wheels on both the top and bottom, constructed from the rib-cages, lungs and flesh of a collection of creatures. The thing moves by expanding the lungs using air, hurtling arms and even its body, haphazardly, at the investigators. Rendering the lungs unusable with guns and molotov cocktails seems to be working, but one of the investigators, trying to conserve their dwindling ammunition supply, attacks with a knife and is rendered unconscious. He leaves the room for the rest of the struggle. Now, I’m timing the fight, which finishes off in roughly four minutes. The mechanic is clearly hanging on by a thread as she attempts to light the beast on fire with a blow-torch while it is lying on top of her, pinning her to the ground. She’s barely saved by the efforts of her friend.

Afterwards, the players leave the room, calling back the player that left. I extinguish the remaining candles and explain that the fight didn’t go well. The player that had left returns and I secretly start the stop-watch. I explain that he wakes up on an operating table and have a chat with him, in the form of a slim, shuffling, finger with a scalpel and some general anesthetic. Having nearly convinced him to commit to suicide, just before the real cutting starts (I have his ears on a tray at this point, though the anaesthetic renders him unable to feel it, obviously). However, the watch hits time and he wakes up on the battle field, as if from a terrible dream. We call the other players back in, re-light the candles and continue on, a little worse for wear. Crawling down into the bomb shelter, they run into a group of cultists in a large, incredibly well-lit room, with a solid white box in the center.

Approaching the cultists, robed and armed, the players attempt to approach un-molested. But, the cultists heard the noises from the stage, so they’re on high-alert. Making a secret hand-signal, which the players are unable to return, one of the cultists starts walking towards them, agitated. Of course, the players can’t return the signals because they’ve got hand-guns concealed under their clothes. So, they open fire on the approaching robed figure. The other two dash around the white box.

Circling around the box, the players find out that there’s a door on the other side. Opening it carefully, positioned with guns and cover at the ready, two robed bodies topple to the floor, their skulls freely rolling around the floor. The inside is bathed in a grey light, which stops at the threshold of the box, but prevents the light from outside from penetrating the interior. The light is being given off by an alter of 20 candles that sit twisted into the grey matter of 20 skulls. Throwing one of the cultist’s robes into the room to try to smother the candles, they discover that while the fire will easily burn through fabric, accidentally knocking one of the skulls to the ground will cause the candles to go out. Using the crowbar they’ve been carrying around, they knock over all the skulls on the altar.

A violent surge of emotion, not their own, crashes through them. It’s so powerful and so very, very alien, that they’re knocked to their knees, the security guard going so far as to vomit violently inside his gas mask.

Ten candles remain of the twenty they started with, but there’s still so much to do. The weight of their accomplishment sits on their shoulders, boosting morale, but telling of the terrors left to encounter as they think back to the hospital and the carnival ground they’ve seen marked off on the map by the cultists. Those locations are the spaces where the fabric of the world is soft, but as the cultist inside the classroom that they tortured for information said, “They (the horrors) are just being pulled into the world in the wake of something larger than you could possible comprehend.” The next session is this Saturday, let’s see what they do next…

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