One of the things we here at Yawning Portal want to do is to inspire others. Not just discuss general issues, but really share or give ideas, show some of what we have done and discuss our successess and our failures. This is the first of our series of looking back on roleplaying campaigns we have been part of through our time as players and storytellers. Here we wax poetic, recount memorable moments, identify problems with the structure of the story, congratulate ourselves on the stuff that went well, look back on what didn’t and genuinely reminisce on some of the best (and worst) moments in our gaming career. The objective is to inspire other storytellers, maybe even players, and perhaps plant seeds for future campaigns in your minds. This is the first of several parts as few campaigns can be squeezed into a few pages of text easily.
For me it’s a World of Darkness campaign I called Sleep of Innocence that was born during a conversation with a friend while we were walking my dog. During the conversation the simple question “What if the Pensive kids would have entered H.P. Lovecraft’s Dreamlands instead of Narnia?” and ran from there. I carried the idea around in the darkest pit of my soul for about six months where it grew potent and terrible while I bided my time to spring it on my group of unsuspecting and innocent players. I compared the two worlds in an effort to find similarities that would reinforce the feeling of this being Narnia but through a terrible and cracked black mirror.
Cast of characters
I quickly decided to use the new World of Darkness book Innocents as my jump off point for this campaign as it brought me a way to tell a story involving kids in a system that I already knew like the back of my hand. The campaign could have been told using Chaosium’s Call of Cthulhu but I decided on World of Darkness for a variety of reasons. The primary reason for this was to give me an easy way to contrast the player’s power level between the Waking World and the Dreamlands as I had the children not suffer the standard Innocents drawbacks to their dice pools while in the Dreamlands. This worked wonderfully and I would certainly keep this part of the campaign if I ever run it again. Once I had my system I put together a short hook for my players to set the parameters for character creation and create cohesion in the story. It read as follows…
“Early spring 1945 the Phillips children are sent to live with their aging aunt on the coast of Massachusetts while their widowed father takes part in a secret research experiment for the United States government”
…I set the age restriction of the children at between six and thirteen and then allowed my players to run with it while I started creating the primary location for the campaign, Smythe House in Massachusetts, and its senile and aloof owner. My players did not disappoint and worked wonderfully together in creating the Phillips children giving them great interpersonal relationships and meaningful connections apart from being siblings.
Oldest was Peter, the athletic one, who at thirteen was used to protecting his younger siblings and took care of them for his father while their mother was fighting a losing battle for her life. While not particularly smart he had some cunning in him and was very sure of himself. Even at the age of thirteen he was almost as large as a grown man and would grow to be quite large as an adult.
Next were the twins – bookish, timid and smart Michael and headstrong, charming and imaginative Miranda, who were as different as night and day while still being inseparable. At age eleven they still were smarter than Peter and often led the group, both in play and adventure.
The unruly trickster of the group was Nicholas who, at age nine, could be counted upon to cause constant trouble for all involved. He was constantly active, climbing trees and jumping in puddles, and was perpetually dirty in some way from his quest against boredom. He was almost never found without his bicycle that he kept in working condition himself even if he did not necessarily treat it well. If caught for some of his constant shenanigans he would often try to shift the blame on one of his siblings and seldom took responsibility for his actions.
The youngest was shy young Adrian, age seven, a quiet child who missed his father terribly and relied on his older siblings for support and comfort. He was timid and bookish like his older brother Michael but gravitated more towards Miranda or Nicholas as progenitors of fun and distraction. He was most often found with a book somewhere playing in the corner, not being trouble.
Having my players characters ready as well as the jumping point of the campaign, I went into full blown creation mode. I like to know where I desire the campaign to end, as I have described in my article on Murphy’s Law, so I set about actualising my desired endgame. I decided that a climactic showdown with the messenger of the Outer Gods, Nyarlathotep, while trying to forstall the end of the world as we know it was a very powerful high note so I worked from there. Tying the nuclear test bombings of the Manhattan Project with shockwaves echoing through the dreams of the scientists and Nyarlathotep’s fascination with human nuclear testing I theorised that these bombs would ring out in the Dreamlands and had already started to shake the Outer Gods out of their slumber in the forbidden mountain city of Kadath. To stop them waking completely the children would have find a specially made flute and journey to this frozen city on the plateau of Leng so that they might lull the gods to sleep with the flute music while the final two bombs exploded over Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Too add insult to injury their own father was to be one of the men building the bombs that would potentially ruin the world.
Knowing the beginning and ending of the campaign helped immensely in building the bridge between the two events. I knew I had to contrast the worlds heavily to inspire wonder and horror in equal measures, I had to devise some way for the characters to gain some amount of power inside the Dreamlands so that they could fight the crawling chaos and I had to lay out their path from the Waking World towards Kadath while also making sure that the Flute of the Outer Gods ended up in their hands. I threw myself into building the important non playing characters and once I was pretty confident that I had enough material I scheduled the first session.
I relied heavily on one of the tricks I wrote about in my article on memorable non playing characters and picked out a famous actor to be the face of each of the non playing characters of this campaign. The first one to be picked was Dame Maggie Smith as Lillian Phillips, the children’s aunt on their father’s side and owner of the old run down manor house they were sent to live in. Along with her there was John Hurt as the old mute caretaker Cornelius Adams and Loretta Divine as Miss Claudette, the aging African American housekeeper. The trick proved its worth during the campaign on more than one occasion but more on that later.
The Gilded Cage
The first session played like a dream with the children arriving to the aging manor during a cold, rainy day in spring. They had expected someone to pick them up from the train station but had to make their own way through the rain towards the once stately house. Opening the door was a strange mute man who quickly scampered away to fetch Miss Claudette once the children identified themselves, leaving them alone in the foyer while the sounds of an old record, obviously scratched to the point of ruin, echoed from upstairs. Accompanying the horrid music was the mewing of the multitude of cats lining the stairs leading up to their reclusive aunt. Once greeted by the boisterous and strict housekeeper the children were given a set of rules to follow, rules that made it almost impossible to be children at all, and sent to their room.
As the rules forbade them to play outside if there was any chance of them tracking in mud the kids had to spend the next few days inside with nothing to do. Their only contact was Miss Claudette as Aunt Lillian seldom left her room and the caretaker, though sweet, was mute and obviously not used to children. This drove the children up the wall and reinforced the feel of the house as a prison of sorts. It did have its mysteries, strange paintings of fantastical vistas and a locked library stocked with books from across the globe, but the overarching feeling was one of claustrophobia and suffocation. Nicholas was first to crack and he took matters into his own hands after hearing Michael propose that there must be a key to the library somewhere in the house. Being brave to the point of foolishness he managed to sneak past the half feral cats that seemed to guard his aunt’s room and entered it quietly. By daring and fearlessness he was able to secure the silver key from a stack of scratched records and get back downstairs, where his smarter brother waited for him, with the key in hand. Finally the children had some way to pass the time and they often snuck into the library to read the books that the former owner of Smythe house, General Ambrose Smythe cast as legendary Brittish actor Jim Broadbent, whos portrait hung above the fireplace inside the library, had gathered during his travels around the world. Michael also found some of Smythe’s own writing in the form of travel journals and gorged his bookish nature on them, making sure he took at least one with him to bed each night.
Finally the rain abated and the spring sun rose above the Massachusetts coast on the day after the daring key heist. The children wasted no time and rushed outside to play right after their breakfast with Miss Claudette. They played for a while before chancing upon the poor old groundskeeper Cornelius being tormented by some of the local kids in a mocking fashion. Peter and Miranda rushed in to help the aging simpleton and quickly came to blows with the troublemakers where Peter’s size helped immensely. The fight ended abruptly when Adrian picked up a stone pebble from the pocked marked road and threw it at the lead troublemaker with the intent of distracting him. The dice had other ideas and blood soon flowed from a large gash on the portly kid’s forehead sending the mob fleeing towards the coastal town below the manor up in the hills. After helping Cornelius to his feet and straightening some of his soiled clothes they led him back towards the manor. While on the way there he produced a strange thin knitted teddy bear of sorts, its mouth a tangle of pinkish treads instead of the smile most kids associate with bears of these sorts. After helping the old man into his shed around the back of the house the children spent the rest of the day making the most of the rainless day and frolicked in the pristine countryside.
Dreams and Nightmares
It was that night that Adrian was roused during the middle of the night by a creature standing by their bedroom door. It looked like the teddy bear come to life but had a lot more in common with a beaver or weasel then a bear. Its mouth was ringed with small pink red tentacles and some strange light, reminding them of torchlight, shone behind it from where the stairs down to the rest of the house usually sat. After Adrian roused the rest of the children they followed the strange creature, that seemed to be benign, out of the room towards the stairs and down the Seventy Steps of Light Sleep into the Cavern of Flame that lay below. There they answered the riddles of Nasht and Kaman-Tha, strange priests guarding the way into the Dreamlands. After being deemed worthy the children followed the strange creature further down the Seven Hundred Steps of Deeper Slumber and finally emerged into the Enchanted Wood…
Join me next week as I recount the further adventures of the Phillips children and their fantastical journey through the Dreamlands.