‘The Sense of the Sleight-of-Hand Man’ – Actual Play in Inverness, Report 1: From a Nightmare to a Dream

Sense-of-the-Sleight-of-Hand-Man-cover-620pxIn June 2013 I began running The Sense of the Sleight-of-Hand Man, our new Call of Cthulhu campaign set in H.P. Lovecraft’s Dreamlands, for my local gaming group in Inverness, Alabama. I’m writing up these summaries of their adventures and mishaps.

WARNING: SPOILERS! These actual play reports will explicitly divulge details about the campaign. If you expect to be a player in The Sense of the Sleight-of-Hand Man, stop reading now.

Game date: 19 June 2013

Novelist Owen Banks, private eye Sam Ford, occult author Richard Parker, and singer Elissa Von Dale all struggled with life in New York in the busy, bustling days of the 1920s. But they all found their way to the same way to cope: the opium, morphine, and heroin that flooded the city streets.

Ford found his investigative gigs fewer and farther between. Parker’s marriage fell apart as his writing foundered. Banks lived off the proceeds of a couple of early successes and spent more and more of his time in a haze, deadening the pain of wartime memories. Von Dale, for all her considerable talent, received offers only for performances too lurid for her pride, the same pride that refused to let her go home to the midwest where her mother and sisters waited in judgment.

On one unhappy day in the autumn of 1925, all four of them came together against their wishes. Only Owen and Richard were friends and had shared many drug-dazed evenings together. All four owed money, quite a lot of money, to a Hell’s Kitchen dealer named Mr. Lao. They had owed it for too long. Now Mr. Lao’s men, evil-countenanced men with knives and swords and revolvers, came to collect. One at a time they gathered the four debtors in Packards and drove them to the Peach Blossom Restaurant, Mr. Lao’s base.

No food was ever served at the Peach Blossom because the place was dedicated to mixing opium powder into heroin. No police ever bothered it because Mr. Lao paid them very well to stay away and paid his Tongs even better to stand guard by the dozen.

Mr. Lao greeted his debtors and had them make themselves comfortable at a tall, multi-stemmed pipe. He laughed at their distress. He said he was going to give them one last smoke so they would leave this world in comfort. He mixed the drug himself in a little alcove while they waited in despair.

Richard Parker wept for a few minutes, then grew curious about the ancient, hand-stitched books that sat on a table. One was in a script he had never seen before. The other was in English. It was written by a famous English occultist who had vanished, along with a hundred followers, at the end of the 19th century. In the book he described visiting a place he called the “Land of Fancy” while under the influence of “bywandine,” a rare admixture of opium. In the Land of Fancy he mostly lived in a fabulous city called Celephaïs, but he mentioned other lands, such as the grim ruins of Sarkomand where the Men from Leng sailed out in their infamous Black Galleys.

Owen spied on Mr. Lao and saw that he was mixing a strange, discolored powder with the drug. Lao saw him spying and admonished him for it in evil tones.

Then Lao put the mixture in the pipe and told his “guests” to indulge themselves. The alternative, he said, would be less pleasant. There would be more screaming from them if they were awake for what was to come after.

The four doomed souls smoked and soon floated into drug-induced oblivion, expecting to never wake up.

Mr. Lao, by Dennis Detwiller, (c) 2013

Mr. Lao, by Dennis Detwiller, (c) 2013

The Collector

They were surprised to awaken in a strange place — and even more surprised to find themselves in strange bodies. Richard, a scrawny New Yorker, good-looking but with hollow, haunted eyes, was in the body of an enormous hulk of a man. Elissa, a pale, nervous flapper with short dark hair, was in the body of a tall, olive-skinned, powerful blonde Amazon of a woman. Owen, withered from wartime injuries and always bespectacled, was a scruffy Scythian brute. Sam, nondescript but thin despite his frequent boxing, was an albino-pale strongman with powerful muscles and a long fair hair.

The place was a sprawling ruined city, inconceivably ancient. They woke in a great pile of bodies, all still living but comatose.

A guardian of some sort, a hideous little fat man, was shocked and outraged to see them stirring. He called himself the Collector and said he served the masters of the dead city, which he called Sarkomand the Great. The Collector said his masters were called the Men of Leng, and they in turn served other masters, the moonbeasts, whom the Collector had never seen. His job was to collect artifacts and valuables from the comatose bodies which the moonbeasts brought to Sarkomand. The Men from Leng then would dispose of the bodies by sending them into the Underworld to trade with the creatures there for useful medicinal fungi and strange foods. No body left here had ever awakened until now. The Collector was terrified that his masters would find out about it and blame him.

The Collector, by Dennis Detwiller, (c) 2013

The Collector, by Dennis Detwiller, (c) 2013

Each Dreamer adjusted to the situation in his or her own way. Richard had read passages in a strange book in Lao’s office that mentioned a city called Sarkomand as an evil place in a fantastical country called the Land of Fancy. He wasn’t sure whether they were in this new world or whether he was simply hallucinating before the end. Elissa and Owen favored hallucination. Sam was convinced that they were in some strange purgatory in the afterlife.

Still, they carried on as best they could. Richard climbed up a crumbling wall and looked around to see a plaza away to the north, dominated by enormous statues, and a long stretch of docks on the sea to the south, where three black vesels were docked.

They made the Collector take them to his home, a filthy little hovel that held his collections—including a chest full of small, uneven but beautiful blood-red stones that he called Blood Gems. The Dreamers each took a handful of the gems. The Collector did not object much; the gems were worth little to him.

And they made him show them another place where he said valuables might be found, the lair of a monster he called the Wamp. He said the Wamp slept in daylight and they ought to be safe. They crept into the lair, gagging through cloth masks on the unseen creature’s thick ammonia stench. They found a pile of swords and took a few, as well as some gold coins that turned out to be only gold leaf over lead. Choking on the fumes, the Dreamers fled—but not before Owen decided to look deeper into the laid and see the Wamp for himself. He came stumbling out again choking and retching and babbling about a sleeping eyeless face ridden with disease and evil.

The Wamp, by Dennis Detwiller, (c) 2013

The Wamp, by Dennis Detwiller, (c) 2013

The Gates of Sarkomand

The Dreamers left the Collector behind and went to the docks. The Collector had warned them against it and said the ships there were the Black Galleys of the unknown moonbeasts, but they wanted to investigate for themselves. At the docks the Black Galleys loomed in the water, black and seamless and strange, with no sails or other visible means of propulsion. Planks of the same black wood led from the obsidian docks to the decks, but the ominous look of them and the strange, unwholesome smell changed their minds.

They left the docks behind and decided to hike west. The Collector had said that a city called “Inganok” lay in that direction, a city of men and women who were not slaves to the moonbeasts and who had always opposed the Men from Leng.

Before they even set out, they were startled to spy a patrol of men. These must have been the Men from Leng, short, sturdy men in floor-length black robes wearing strange misshapen turbans that rose to two peaks over their grimy, curly hair. These patrolling guards wore cruel-looking scimitars at their belts.

Richard and Elissa quickly vanished into the rubble and hid, but Sam and Owen were seen. The guards shouted a challenge in a strange tongue and approached with swords drawn. They stopped just out of reach, gesturing and threatening.

Sam and Owen drew the swords they had taken from the Wamp’s lair and charged.

An ugly melee followed. Richard came out from hiding with his own sword and skewered a guard from behind. But another turned and Richard had to battle that one in desperate fear while Elissa tried to distract or injure the guard with thrown pieces of rubble. Eventually Richard killed this one, too, but not before it had wounded him two or three times. Sam, a dedicated boxer in the waking world and terrifically strong in this one, knocked two of the guards down with his fists. In the process their turbans fell away, revealing inhuman horned heads, and their goat’s legs and hooves showed beneath their robes. Then one of them brought Sam down with a terrible wound with its slashing scimitar. Owen brought the last guard down with a piece of masonry.

Elissa went to help Sam and was terrified by the depth of his injury. She attempted to piece him together with makeshift bandages, and the effort exhausted her — but she found him coming around and saw that his injury was suddenly somehow less severe than she had thought. Meanwhile Owen and Richard saw to Richard’s wounds and hid the guards’ bodies in the ruins.

Sam was able to struggle to his feet and the Dreamers limped through the ruins. After a long while of silence they passed beneath the towering wreck of what had long ago been a fabulous gate.

They hiked along an ancient, long-disused road that rose to the west. It took them on a winding way that overlooked cliffs on the left that fell dangerously into the sea and cliffs on the right that rose cold and hard into the sky.

As the sun drooped bulbous and red beneath their path to the west, they came to a little stand of scraggly trees around a brook where one larger tree towered over the others. The Dreamers stopped. The Collector had warned them of the dreadful spiders of Leng and other threats to the road, but they felt too exhausted and hurt to keep going. Sam climbed up into the big tree and strapped himself to a limb to rest. Richard reclined by the brook, where Elissa struggled in deep futility to make a fire. Owen kept watch and began to carve a long, green branch into a makeshift spear.

Night fell over the road to Inquanok.

Sarkomand the Great, by Dennis Detwiller, (c) 2013

Sarkomand the Great, by Dennis Detwiller, (c) 2013