Monday, June 10, 2013

Puppet Shows and Shadow Plays - Our DELTA GREEN Kick Off

We kicked off the temporary Call of Cthulhu the other night.  Anyone who knows DELTA GREEN is surely familar with "Puppet Shows and Shadow Plays" - it's one of the introductory scenarios in the core book that puts a group of FBI investigators right in the midst of an alien horror murder spree, and as a kickoff, it gives them the chance to discover some of the setting's conspiracies.

Background:  There's been a series of disappearances along a desolate section of highway 70 east of Phoenix, just south of the Gila Mountains.  Over the past few weeks, empty cars have been found on the side of the highway, an overnight gas station attendant went missing, and camp sites have gone abandoned.  Now a rancher and his family are missing.  The local newspaper started calling it "The Devil's Highway".  The nearest place is San Carlos, a small town on the south end of the San Carlos Indian Reservation.  A pair of FBI agents (two of the players) are dispatched from the Phoenix branch office to lead a cross-functional task force, including members of the Arizona state police and a local cop from the reservation (the rest of the players).  Here's our full cast:
  • Agent Smith, FBI
  • Agent Hudson, FBI
  • Dr House, an FBI forensics examiner
  • Woodson Brooks, detective with the Arizona State PD
  • Michael Proudfoot, sergeant with the San Carlos PD
  • Clayton Shelby, an FBI consultant

As an investigative sandbox, the adventure presents interesting challenges because of the free form nature.  The task force gives the players wide access to resources - the San Carlos police force, troopers from the state police, ATV's, helicopters, whatever they need to create some forward momentum.  Want a SWAT team?  Call them in, if you have a good reason.  Guns?  No problem - you're cops - just sign them out.  Better follow the law, though.  It's interesting running a game where the constraints aren't related to what's written in your character's backpack, but rather how do you attack a cerebral problem - deploying your resources to unravel the mysterious disappearances?

With such a large team, they were able to uncover a couple of crime scenes within a few days of launch that moved the investigation forward dramatically.  Brooks and Smith, traversing the large ranch of the missing family, found a hidden mass grave.  At another time, an aerial survey of the Devil's Highway by helicopter discovered a buried car with a putrid corpse that had lain entombed for over a month.  The autopsies performed on the various victims accelerated the mystery.

The family at the mass grave site were all drained of blood.  Barely perceptible needle wounds were found on their chests, penetrating the heart and lungs.  An unidentifed tranquilizer was used on the victims.  Over two dozen sheep carcasses were in the mass grave area too.  Police reports recorded the rancher, Victor Begay, was complaining about the missing sheep for weeks, even warned his neighbor, "I'm going to sit out there all night with a gun and kill those dang coyotes, what keep stealing my sheep."  Apparently it didn't work out for him.

The dead guy found in the buried car was in rough shape.  His heart and lungs were completely gone, and his abdomen was torn open, guts spilling out.  Really putrid stuff.  The medical examiner lost his breakfast - literally - since he made them stop and get him some Dunkin Donuts on the way to the scene.  He'll be off the boston cremes for a while.  The victim in the car was identified as a Houston cop (Kenneth Braverman), wanted for various murders back in Houston.  Before Braverman went missing, he murdered his children and kidnapped his wife.  During the forensic examination of the car, the wife's bloody finger prints were found everywhere.  Did she kill her husband, dump the car, and wander off into the desert?  Questions and more questions.

Unable to identify the bizarre tranquilizer found in the bodies, Dr House had specimens sent to the lab in Phoenix.  Late that night, they learned it was an entirely new compound, something not seen in nature.  Where exactly did Dr House find this chemical compound?

Things got a little frenetic the next day, when a package was left for the consultant, Shelby, at the hotel desk.  Like many Native American reservations, this one had a casino, and the players were all staying at the San Carlos Casino resort.  (No gambling would be expensed on their government cards.)  The package contained an article from a scientific journal last winter, discussing an unusual meteor storm over West Virginia.  Shelby is a bit of a conspiracy theorist and UFO nut, and ran back upstairs to his laptop.  Didn't he remember some UFO related rumors from around that same time frame?

West Virginia indeed had a spate of cattle and sheep mutilations around that period, followed by reports of a West Virgina "cannibal killer" that drained the blood from his victims and ate bits and pieces.  Bringing the other players in on the research, the group pieced together a chain of killings that spanned the country, moving from West Virginia, to Nashville, to New Orleans, and then to Houston - each one done by a similar cannibal killer, leaving behind similar victims - exsanguinated and partially eaten.

Here's the part that fried their noodles:  the Nashville killer was the medical examiner that did the autopsy on the West Virginia cannibal killer.  The priest that found the body of the Nashville killer (after a suicide) went on to be a killer in the next place the cannibal murders happened, the homeless guy that found the dead priest went to New Orleans and started killing, and so on.  It also seemed that each previous victim suffered a kind of monstrous injury to their abdomen, destroying the guts - shotgun blasts, disembowlements, you get the picture.

It doesn't take Call of Cthulhu players long to connect the dots and identify a potential worst case scenario.  In this case, they're theorizing that an alien thing came down in the meteor swarm, and is jumping from body to body, riding around in the host's stomach.  The last guy to have it was the Houston cop (found dead in his car), and now his wife is out there in the desert, with an alien bug in her gut and a taste for ranchers.

They also noticed from the research that the person that found the last "host" is frequently the next one to go one a killing spree.  The group's medical examiner can't wait to find the wife in the desert and be the one to do that autopsy.

That was more or less the gist of the first night.  So far, so good, the players enjoyed it, and the moment when they pieced together the chain of events leading from West Virginia to Arizona was really cool.  Unfortunately, in today's day and age, when electronic reports and lab results are stored in databases and sent across networks, there are going to be special programs that poll the data stream for anomalies, sniffers that alert the wrong kind of people.  When we return next week, an ominous black SUV has arrived in the little town of San Carlos, and a new set of players has suddenly taken an interest in this unusual murder case.

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