‘The Sense of the Sleight-of-Hand Man’ Actual Play in Inverness, Report 2: The Road to Inquanok

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.

Previously: Report 1.

Game date: 3 July 2013

Night fell over the road to Inquanok. The cliffs that rose to the north, shielding the Dreamers from the ill-fabled Plateau of Leng, vanished into darkness. So did the cliffs that fell away to the south to the crushing sea far below. Sam Ford rested in the boughs of a great tree that towered over a little brook near the road. Richard Parker rested on the ground nearby. Elissa Von Dale struggled to light a fire with no sense of how to do it.

Owen Banks, standing watch as he had done many times in the army, saw evil little sparks take light to the east in the shadowed ruins of Sarkomand as its masters began the night’s work. Then he saw one solitary spark off to the west, a little campfire a mile or two farther along the road. Surprised—for they had been warned of the dangers of this road at night—he crept nearer to investigate.

When he got near, he saw that it was a tiny fire tended by a wizened little old man who had some strangely-formed bird cooking on a wooden spit. The old man looked up into the darkness toward him after a moment and beckoned. “I hear you over there,” he said. “Come closer. Share the fire, though there’s not much to share.”

(Owen’s Sneak skill is at base so of course he did not succeed. The alert old man heard him easily.)

Owen came closer. He introduced himself as “Owen, of Ohiyo,” the way one of the  adventure heroes in his own noves might.

The old man smiled. “My name is Puko,” he said. He waved down to a dark shape next to him. “And this is my friend, Hero.”

It was the black body of a cat, stiff and dead.

Puko and Hero

Owen didn’t know what to make of that, but he sat and tried to be friendly. He had a long talk with old Puko. At first he was cagey and said only that he was from a land far away. But after a while Puko said he thought Owen was from even farther away than that. Judging from the way he talked and his ignorance of essential things, he suspected Owen was a Dreamer from Earth. Surprised, Owen admitted that must be true. He wanted to know more.

Puko told him many things. He said his land was often visited by Dreamers from Earth. “We call them Dreamers because that’s what they call themselves,” he explained. “They say they go to sleep in their own beds and they awake in our land. Then when they leave our land I suppose they go back to their own beds.”

But he said that he did not think that Owen had come in that way or in his own body, the way other Dreamers did. And so he did not know whether Owen would go back to his own body and his own bed if he went to sleep again in this land. But he doubted it.

Puko said that some Dreamers from Earth had great power in this land. He did not know why or how, but he had heard stories of Dreamers working wonders without ever studying magic or praying to the fickle gods.

Owen showed Puko some of the red gems that he had taken in Sarkomand. Puko nodded and frowned a little. He said they were called Blood Gems, perhaps for their color but perhaps for other reasons. He said the Men from Leng, who sailed on the Black Galleys of Sarkomand, gave them out in trade for slaves in whatever port would welcome them. Some ports refused to trade with them but many were greedy for the Blood Gems, which could be gotten nowhere else. Puko had heard that the Blood Gems had some strange spiritual significance, but he did not know whether that was true.

He said the Black Galleys seemed to especially prize Dreamers from Earth as slaves, when they could take them. He did not know why; but everyone knew that the sailors of the Black Galleys served Nyarlathotep, the Crawling Chaos, and perhaps Nyarlathotep had some special interest in Dreamers.

Nyarlathotep, Puko explained, was the messenger and mind and soul of the Other Gods, those mindless and strange powers that guarded the feebler gods of Earth and Dream. The name distressed Owen. Wracking his memory, he remembered the name Nyarlathotep from rumors of a showman or inventor of some kind back on Earth who had captured the imagination of occultists. But Owen just knew of rumors; that Nyarlathotep had never come to America. Could the name possibly be a coincidence?

(He made an Occult roll to get that tidbit. Foreshadowing!) 

Puko said that Owen and his friends—for he had seen and heard them coming from far off—ought to seek out other Dreamers for more help. Some Dreamers were quite wise and accomplished. He had heard that King Kuranes of Celephais was such a one, and he had heard that the mysterious new king of Ilek-Vad might be another. They were far away, across the sea, but it might be worth the journey.

Whatever came, Puko warned, Owen and his friends should avoid the servants of Nyarlathotep, who often held evil intent for Dreamers such as them.

As they talked Puko let Owen eat a wing of the “neena-bird” that he had cooked, and he ate the rest. Then he put out the fire and said he should retreat to his little cave where he took shelter at night against the great spiders and other dangerous creatures that often came to the road.

Before they parted, Puko asked for a favor. He asked if Owen, a Dreamer from Earth, could try to wake up his cat, Hero.

Owen was a little nonplussed, but he agreed to try. He took out a Blood Gem, thinking it might have some power, but that didn’t work. Then he prodded the stiff body and softly called, “Wake up, Hero. Wake up, good kitty.”

Owen felt something strange. It felt like something deep in his mind twisting and breaking and changing.

And the dead cat shuddered. Its stiff limbs twitched and flexed. Its sunken, closed eyes blinked open and looked around in surprise. And the cat stretched and sat up and began to lick itself. With each stroke of its tongue its coarse fur grew softer and healthier.

(The Sense of the Sleight-of-Hand Man has a new set of rules for the ability of some characters to alter the reality of the Dreamlands. To preserve suspense I decline to divulge them here.)

Puko did a little dance and crowed, “I knew it! Thank you! You are a powerful Dreamer after all!”

Hero looked up from his grooming and said, “I think he’s right. You are a powerful Dreamer.”

Owen blinked in surprise. He knelt down nearer the cat. He thought it might be silly to say that he didn’t know a cat could talk. He was curious about something else. He said, “If you don’t mind my asking, where did you go before you woke up just now?”

Hero paused his grooming again and said, “I don’t mind, but I can’t tell you. Cats’ dreams are secret things. They may share them only with each other. That is our way.”

Puko continued to dance. Owen took his leave, but offered him one of the Blood Gems first. Puko took it with thanks and they parted ways.

The Manticore

When Owen returned to his friends’ camp, he was startled to see that there were three large trees towering over the copse of tiny, ill-formed ones, not the one tree that had been even larger still. He asked Elissa about that. It surprised and disturbed her. They woke Sam. He struggled in sudden fear out of the straps that had secured him to the tree and he clambered down, ready to get out of there right away. The others agreed.

They gathered up their meager possessions and set off down the western road again.

Owen told them he had met the hermit Puko and his cat Hero. He did not tell them all the things that he had learned, nor of his strange resurrection of the cat.

They walked for hours as the cold night wore on. Elissa complained; the others ignored her.

After a long time, Elissa heard something strange and told the others to stop and listen. It was a voice making incoherent noises up ahead in the night, snuffling and sniffing and growling noises. But it was certainly a voice, a human voice or something close, not an animal’s sounds. She picked up a cobblestone from the road. Owen tried to stop her but she threw it toward the sound.

They heard a funny, quizzical sort of sound and then a man’s voice growling. Then a very heavy shape coming closer.

The moon broke free of clouds and they saw a terrible shape rearing up before them. It looked like an enormous leonine body fused with a great scorpion-like tail, with a misshapen man’s face scarred and poorly formed as if melted long ago by acid.

Elissa shrieked and ran in terror back the way they had come. Sam gripped his sword and blanched. Owen stumbled, then held his hand up and tried to call on the power that he had found earlier.

“I am Owen of Ohiyo, friend to Puko and Hero,” he cried, putting on a brave face. “Turn and leave us alone!”

Again, something strange twisted inside his mind. The monster loomed over him, staring out of wide eyes that held only the slightest semblance of awareness. For a long moment it stared. And then it stumbled back and loped away into the night, howling in weird despair.

Sam gaped at Owen. “What the hell just happened?” he asked.

Owen covered the depth of his own fear and shock with a shrug. “I told it to leave.”

(The SAN losses for encountering this monster were heavy. Elissa took the worst of it and went temporarily insane.)

They eventually found Elissa cowering under a rock. With coaxing words and finally some impatient slaps they brought her to her senses and returned at last to the path.

The rest of the night went quietly, and at last the sun rose wan and pink over the ocean behind them.

Notes from the Keeper

Two important things here: Puko and my handling of the manticore.

Puko and Hero are not in The Sense of the Sleight-of-Hand Man. I added them from scratch in order to convey a lot of information that I felt was crucial to engaging the players in the story. In some games the players will get details about the relationship between the Dreamlands and the waking world from the Collector or from other characters later. I wanted them to go ahead and get past the stage where the players all pretend to be just as ignorant as their characters about the nature of the Dreamlands.

For me, part of the charm of the Randolph Carter stories is that Carter knows the score—and it’s not treated as all that unusual that he knows the score. The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath is always saying how Carter knew all about Azathoth roiling at the center of all realities and Nyarlathotep’s true nature, and knows that cats can talk and knows all about Zoogs, and all kinds of stuff that traditional Call of Cthulhu holds aside as secret and demands the players never admit knowing. So I’m treating that kind of stuff as common knowledge and giving it to the players in great detail and frequency.

Of course it comes with SAN losses along the way. But in The Sense of the Sleight-of-Hand Man, the Dreamers get SAN back pretty easily. So they’ll be fine, right?


Then there’s the manticore, specifically the use of the Directed Dreaming power to ward it off. And a related issue: using that power to resurrect the dead cat. Is any of that within the purview of the Directed Dreaming rules given in The Sense of the Sleight-of-Hand Man? None of it is explicitly listed. But I had my reasons.

With Hero, I wanted to communicate that the power was in fact possible. In Sense we actually recommend being slow and subtle with this issue, but I was finding that a little iffy. It felt like my subtle cues, meant to accumulate over time and lead to revelation later, were being overlooked by the players as innocuous mistakes in phrasing. In a live game, after all, it’s not as easy to correct yourself and get all eloquent like you can in an Actual Play report afterward. So I decided to just get explicit here at the beginning and then scale it back and rely on subtlety later as the players were exploring what they could or couldn’t accomplish.

With the manticore, well, call me a softy but I wasn’t ready for a total party kill. The players should have all run screaming just like Elissa did thanks to her failed Sanity roll, and maybe the two who stood their ground should have died like hell for it. And in a traditional Call of Cthulhu game I might have gone with that. But I thought it would be more interesting, short-term and long-term, to let the Dreamers exert a little of their power as Dreamers. That kept the characters alive which helped the players build investment in them—this is a new campaign, after all. It fleshed out the Dreaming power and revealed it to the other players, not just the one whose character had met Hero and Puko. And revealing that power gave a little context to the idea that agents of Nyarlathotep are particularly interested in Dreamers from Earth, which we’ll explore later.

A lot of those issues came up again later in this session when another Dreamer tried to exert the Dreaming power—and confirmed that it wasn’t just Owen. We’ll get to that shortly.