Friday, September 26, 2014

Cold Start

Working Title: Cold Start


Cold Start is a yearblog dedicated to Lovecraftian roleplaying. The goal of this blog is a single entry every day for 2015—new locations, groups, NPCs, artifacts, tomes, and ideas for players and gamemasters to user or take inspiration from in their games. Each entry will be about 500 words in length and posted ever day. While each entry is designed to be as easy to port into your game as possible, taken together the entries are going to connect and build on each other as part of an arcing plot. To make it easier on readers, every 28 entries will be collected and released as a stand-alone “chapter,” and at the end of the year all 13 chapters will be collected as a single PDF.

Cold Start uses the Basic Roleplaying System as embodied in Call of Cthulhu 7th Edition, with notes and references to how the material can be used in related games like Trail of Cthulhu and The Laundry RPG. While set primarily in the modern day, it will also have notes on how the material can be adapted for other eras, particularly the popular Classic (1920s-1930s) and Gaslight (1890s) periods.

Unlike these games, the emphasis of this blog is going to be on Lovecraftian roleplay rather than Cthulhu Mythos roleplay. Investigators will not stumble onto the Necronomicon or Book of Eibon in these pages, nor run afoul of the typical cults of familiar Elder Gods and Great Old Ones like Cthulhu, Yog-Sothoth, Yig, Shub-Niggurath, and Tsathoggua. While that doesn’t mean there won’t be references to the Deep Ones or the Elder Things or whatnot in these entries, they certainly won’t be called out by their old familiar names, and gamemasters will be free to make or ignore such connections as convenient for their games.

This is all completely unofficial fan material; I have no affiliation with Chaosium or any other Lovecraftian roleplaying game company, though I think they’re a great bunch.

The Long View

Humanity are an accident, but there is purpose in their creation. Their creators were nothing like them, but they left behind biological machines which evolved into all life on Earth. But humanity’s history does not end there; over the millions of years life has evolved on this planet, others have found and attempted to use this technology, and humanity has evolved away from its original purpose. A 7 billion strong disease bred up from what was originally the biological substrate of a weapon aimed at other dimensions.

And they are not alone. Other pieces of the technology have survived, cropped up from time to time. Other species have hacked the human genome, trying to shape the old one’s technologies for their own purposes. Human science and technology has advanced to the point where it can begin to manipulate the basic building blocks of its own existence, though its tools and understanding are somewhat crude…ascended apes playing with quantum computers.

Normal Cthulhu Mythos supplements are, frankly, fucking boring. Lots of dry detail, poorly-fleshed out and useless NPCs, staid plots. This aims to be a little different. It is, at heart, like Farcast in that it will present new NPCs, locations, groups, skills, tomes, spells (well, not “spells” spells, let’s avoid the occult-y angle for a bit), alien technology, etc. It will probably use the CoC 7th edition ruleset. I’d like for it to reference, but not in any way directly rely upon established settings (Bookhounds of London, The Laundry RPG, etc.) and Mythos Entities (Cthulhu, the Elder Things, the Deep Ones). Ideally, I’d like it to be a slow peeling-back of the onion, exploring each idea and then revealing a bit more with each twist. General setting is modern day, with assumptions that players and gamemasters are going to convert it to 1920s (or even 1890s) as they will. Key words: aliens offscreen, body horror, links and clues between entries. Lovecraftian, not necessarily Cthulhu Mythos. Also, I want to avoid typical “reads book, goes insane” stuff.

Again ideally, everything in the first entries will tie in, eventually, to things farther on.

So, brass tacks: what’s the plan?

Month 01: First Taste
Grantwell, New York, near the border with western Massachusetts. Grantwell is situated near an artificial mound of great antiquity. Having begun to identify some distinguishing characteristics of the site and its artifacts, researchers go looking for similar artifacts that might have cropped up nearby over the past several hundred years of European occupation of the site – tomb robbers, treasure hunters, amateur archaeologists, heirlooms, etc.

A biological substance begins to show up that partially activates part of the human wetware; these “upgrades” are mistaken as drugs, a combination of muscle-builder and hallucinogen, but the effects are somewhat random, often deleterious (especially in long-term use), and relative to the purity of the activation agent, the individual subject, and the conditions of its use. Initial focus is on the street-level distribution: the drug (sachem, or sock’em, or sock, or soc), its users and victims, distributors, clinical trials, sources (ancient and modern).

Initially, these two threads are separate but ongoing – being rural, Grantwell has had drug problems before, and for a long time. The first connections appear as coincidental – addicts looting artifacts to feed their habit, etc.

Climax: The two are inextricably intertwined: the drug is actually produced from rare earth and biological materials culled from the Grantwell dig site. Further, archaeological excavations suggest a site of impossible age – further back than recorded human history, and with suggestions that the builders were pre-human hominids.

“Every small town has secrets. Crimes small and sordid. A shallow grave in the woods nobody talks about, a mother mummifying in a freezer, the social security checks still coming every month. A sister pining for a brother locked up in county and carrying a baby without a father. You always hear stories of somebody blowing through towns like this, picking up rocks and shining a light on everything underneath, then leaving again so the survivors could pick up the pieces. Grantwell is no different from most, or so I thought at a time.”

Month 02: Supply
Revelation of the drug production sheds new light on discoveries at the site, and different interests who become aware of the project move in; Grantwell struggles to absorb the new individuals and agencies that converge on the town, and to police those looking to contaminate the site with individual delvings. Worse, the continued appearance of the drug shows that someone is still raiding the site for raw material, and local investigations focus on finding out where this is coming from.

Flash-backwards: this substance is not new, nor is it limited to a single distributor. There are three leads here: an English pharmacist of the 1890s experimenting with “mummia powder,” a modern pharmaceutical firm testing local Native American concoctions based off dirt from a local creekbed, and the actual source of the street drug, a smaller independent distributor working through less legal channels named Devon MacNeil.

Climax: The three leads are tied together with the Gothenberg manuscript, which began as an herbal and went on to explain a “leprosy” which took a Native American village and subsequent New Swedish settlement on the site of Grantwell.

“It was an age when science was still barely distinguished from sorcery, when John Pemberton was a hero and an inspiration to every chemist. They were brilliant men and women in that age, with bold ideas to reshape the world – social welfare, standardized education, eugenics, better living through chemistry – a revolutionary spirit we can still admire today. Their flaw, their tragic flaw, is that they never knew as much as they thought they did, but moved on with their plans anyway. The world was not ready – and they were, they are, tragically wrong. Of course, these days we tell ourselves we know better now, we won’t make the same mistakes – but isn’t that just what they told themselves?”

Month 03: A Secret History
At this point, Federal government agencies begin to show their interest in Grantwell, causing further conflict with local police enforcement (jurisdiction) and academia. Government involvement involves multiple agencies, going back into the curious history of various occult intelligence circles, possibly touching on Delta Green and various Laundry entities. The best sources are, surprisingly, the oldest ones: while trying to read up on modern intelligence agencies and black chambers is difficult, there are older references in the Black Goat letters of the American Revolution and back to Raleigh’s spy network in the Elizabethan era, with discrete references to Grantwell.

The most likely group to recruit investigators is Oversight, a black agency which maintains discreet vigilance on other government black agencies and projects; they report directly to the United States House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence (subcommittee: Oversight) and United States Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. Alternately, a private government oversight organization. The initial focus of Oversight’s efforts are possible unethical human experimentation being conducted by the CIA and NSA under cover of pharmaceutical research.

Climax: MacNeil has ties to military intelligence and the DEA, and the drug-distribution is a cover for unethical human experimentation with sachem.

“This is D-IX. It was a mix of oxycodone, cocaine, and methamphetamine that the Nazis experimented with as a combat drug. Your genuine super-soldier serum, miracle in a pill. It was developed too late in the war for them to put it to much use, and after the war both the Russians and the Americans played with it and passed…although every generation or so some hot-shot at the Pentagon digs it up and argues we give it another shot. This is the kind of mentality that this agency was designed to defend against. You look at the individuals afflicted with physical mutations by catalyst and think them monsters, but the FBI and DEA can handle those. We’re here to prevent the military and the CIA or any black-bag unit from picking this stuff up and playing with it. Make no mistakes, ladies and gentlemen, there are monsters here, but they aren’t the ones with hyperdeveloped pineal glands—they’re the ones that call for loyal Americans and prison inmates to volunteer for secret experiments with dangerous technologies just to see what happens. We are those who watch the watchmen.”

Month 04: Distribution
A wider investigation for artifacts from the site or similar drug-related mutations reveals another possible pre-human archaeological site: Bierton, England (outside of London). Bierton is designated Site Two, and the trail at first seems cold: most of the “excitement” involving digs, drugs, and birth defects occurred back in the 1890s. However, that still gives an entire community with several generations of exposure that the Grantwell does not. Fortean outbreaks, police cold files, and obscure science journals all provide additional hints and clues.

Bierton has history, with the earliest records going back to the Doomsday Book, but archaeological evidence going much further back than that; the site has probably been continually occupied for at least as long as London, although it has produced few luminaries, including the chemist William Tomlinson. Long occupation has buried or destroyed most of the prehistoric site, which has been badly mismanaged or mischaracterized; new analysis of old data shows some considerable anomalies.

Climax: Anthropologists examining “the Bierton Man” in the local museum (long regarded as a fake, possibly a diseased ape skeleton) discover something that looks like a Neanderthal bearing similar mutations to sachem users.

“1886, Liverpool, UK: Martha Leeds, a widowed clothier undergoing ‘electro-chemical therapy’ for her arthritis and dependence on laudanum grows a third eye in her forehead. Doctors who examined the organ say that it is a primitive, undeveloped, light-sensitive organ; when blindfolded Mrs. Leeds could confidently identify the source, although not the color, of any light in the room, from a torch to an electric lamp.”

Month 05: Mutations
Continued focus on Bierton, the mutations there are strangely consistent, and better hidden, but with a much longer history. Investigation reveals a second catalyst agent. Pursuing this angle leads to considerable red tape, a closer look at Bierton’s inbred local families (the Gittens, Biers, etc.), with the ultimate origins appear rooted in an 1890s-era pharmacist, although folklorists trace possible precursors back into prehistory.

In-depth look at the mutations brought on by the drugs, both physical and mental. Continued investigation reveals some transitory links between the Bierton and Grantwell sites – individuals who connect the two – but insufficient to explain some of the weird correspondences between the sites, like linguistic similarities in the local dialects. These form the initial thrust of 1890s and Colonial-era subplots connecting the two sites.

Climax: Until this point, evidence has pointed to the catalyst being a natural substance—but examination and comparison provides the first hard scientific evidence that this catalyst is an artificial, designed substance.

“People look at the fossil record, and they think it’s like a newspaper archive. Every issue there forever, waiting to be called up from sour-smelling microfiche. But fossils, they’re the exception, not the rule. What we see as fossils, they’re random snapshots taken over the last half a billion years. We know, we really know, so little about the history of development of life on this planet, that it gets hard to imagine. So artists paint their pretty murals, and watch Tyrannosaurus stride side-by-side with Ceratops, and the people think 'This is how it was.’ All settled in their heads. You might as well pick any three words from the Bible and try to guess the rest of it from that.”

Month 06: Collation
Use of the drug continues to spread through underground channels, with the first reported uses in New York City and London, spurring news reports and increased public interest. Government agencies move assets into place to deal with new outbreaks and trace the distribution. Collation of further scientific and historic data reveals – aside from the apparent steady use in Bierton and the massive problem in Grantwell - sporadic previous outbreaks, and possible maps of the spread which mirror, in part, disease epidemics going back centuries.

Scientists identify virions in both types of catalyst, and identify cases where mutations associated with sachem-use are developed independently of sachem-use, apparently because of virion infection, including slurred and disjointed speech – which linguists show has relation to the peculiar dialects in both Grantwell and Bierton.

Climax: Continued exposure to sachem reveals spontaneous development of a language isolate. Focus on this language shows some possible historical outbreak sites, and opens up further avenues of research.

“Towns dry up, everywhere. Little places that were never cities. Factories close up, families move out. Nature comes back in. There’s places I’ve driven through where the buildings are empty shells, one good spark would be the true end of it. But some people carry on. Places like that linger on for a good long while. They die by generations. I’ve seen it in my own time. This is different. Almost…planned.”

Month 07: Enemy Action
Disaster in New York. A strange massacre and explosions leave dozens of drug-users dead, their labs burned. Picking over the pieces reveals more clues to the source of sachem – and efforts being made to improve it – as well as a sophisticated distribution network. The source of the conflict does not appear to be government agents, but another group which is directly targeting the drug-users.

The “talking disease” associated with sachem use continues to spread on the outskirts of New York and London, causing periodic quarantine measures and release of information to local hospitals and police organizations, widening the circle of those who know “the truth” about the drug. Drug-users living and speaking in close proximity shown to develop the “talking disease” much faster and to a more complicated level of development.

Climax: Evidence of individuals experimenting with both catalysts reveals the combined effects are invariably fatal – and that this might have been done on purpose, implying a much greater understanding of catalyst than expected.

“They left the money. Broke all the expensive glassware, burned the catalyst, burned the bodies, broke into the filing cabinets. Look at this desk, the chairs. This was an office. There was a shotgun strapped under the desk, there was a safe under the carpet. He got a shot off before they killed him – that green stuff on the wall isn’t paint - popped the safe, and whatever they took from inside, they left the money. Whatever happened here, whoever these bastards pissed off, they were focused and disciplined enough they didn’t touch a damn thing except their objective. Now that scares me.”

Month 08: Breakthrough
Excavation at Grantwell has hit a breakthrough with the discovery of a tunnel leading off a local mine which leads through several layers of previous settlement to the lowest levels of the site – presumably the earliest habitation – which far predates known human colonization of North America. The cavern at the end is an almost-alien world of specially adapted flora and fauna, the entire environment catalyst-rich (the first discoverers are already severely affected).

The artifacts in this lowest level show only limited relation to those uncovered at the higher levels, or to the Bierton artifacts. Stranger, the technology is – while within the limits of human ability – strangely advanced given the age; the equivalent of finding a Renaissance-era castle dating from before the last ice age. This underworld is designated Site Zero.

Climax: Some of the artifacts are too old, predating homo sapiens as a species. Worse, an unknown number are missing.

“In four thousand years, the pyramids still have their shape. In four thousand years more, they’ll be rubble mountains, hills rising above the desert, with a secret heart. Nothing we’ve built in the last thousand years will last that long. All the old cities will have been made new again, or lost forever. But this? Take a look at this. Rounded some, lost definition. Probably spent time underwater. Bad earthquake at least once, you can see how that sheered these couple, here and here. But if I move this back to the way it was…just like that…do you see it? Can you picture it? I couldn’t tell you how old it is, but I can tell you straight off that nature doesn’t build square hills on a grid…”

Month 09: Evolution
Catalyst-users in England and Bierton are disappearing, reappearing only as surgically altered and mutilated corpses. The attacks are consistent with a single group, but similar assaults in other regions appear to show a similar thought process at work with other groups. First appearance of surgically augmented users, humans with various mutated tissues and organs from sachem-users and infected humans grafted on using a variety of techniques. Some of the augments go mad, others pass for human. The most advanced look barely human…but it seems apparent that they’re trying to become something else.

Investigation leads back to MacNeil, who seems to be both continuing to spread the use of sachem and to be selectively culling users for his own experiments, including implanting Site Zero artifacts directly into test subjects. A few recovered artifacts of this type show them to be very dangerous and difficult to handle.

Climax: MacNeil isn’t alone in his experiments; many of the abductions show characteristic tell-tales of alien abduction like missing time – and accounts by survivors are remarkably similar.

“All along, we thought we had a handle on it, but we’ve just been playing catch-up, picking through the rubble. This – this is new. This we haven’t seen before. More than that, this is something they haven’t seen before. They want to know what it is. I’m guessing, of course. I can’t know what they’re thinking. I’m probably projecting myself on them, trying to make them fit into my little human picture of the world. But it’s obvious, isn’t it? They want to know what’s going on.”

Month 10: Leaks
The situation is made worse by a massive intelligence spill by rogue, independent operators – possibly MacNeil, possibly someone else – spreading knowledge of how to produce sachem on your own, provided you have a sample to start with, and “benefits” of using it, including prolonged lifespan. More damning leaks include evidence of government-run “concentration camps” and “detention centers” for “talking disease” victims and sachem-users, supposedly highlighting deplorable and inhumane conditions.

Diplomatic efforts are made with regard the group that has been attacking sachem-users, now confirmed to be based on the Bierton community and the oldest families. Research at other key sites shows that mutants/augments can further interact with some of the artifacts from Site Zero. Focus on the camps/detention centers shows increased development of the viral language.

Climax: Researchers discover that the most-developed users are susceptible to certain verbal commands issued in the viral language – the neural changes necessary to properly process and develop the language bypass conscious thought processes. However, this is equivalent to talking to a computer in machine code, and accidents can cause strokes and advanced mental degeneration.

“There are channels to go through, a hierarchy. You have to understand…the old ones can’t think like us anymore, they don’t talk like we do. We have to go through their children, the ones that are still human enough to translate the concepts. They’re not stupid, they understand guns, and superiority of numbers, but they’re also confident. They know things we don’t, and that gives them leverage. The thing I’m concerned about, sir, is that they think there are things we need to know. They’re scared, but it’s not of us.”

Month 11: Revelations
Refocus on Bierton shows a much greater understanding of – and access to – catalyst and related technologies; the locals have been playing dumb while attempting to obfuscate the surface sites as much as possible and seeking to shut down MacNeil and related operations. Their recent response has been led by the leaks, which show that catalyst-use has been spreading too far, too fast, and getting too advanced – drawing attention from other beings.

Scientific analysis seems to back up much of the Bierton narrative – particularly, samples of catalyst from multiple levels between Site One (Grantwell) and Site Zero with those at Site Two shows that the catalyst substance has been subject to artificial alteration (and possibly natural mutation) at different times.

Climax: First contact with a non-human through the Bierton group, using a posthuman intermediary (great-grandma Gittens). Creature is terrestrial and based off the same precursor technology, but followed a divergent evolution and is non-sapient; little more than a biological computer with eyes, and occupies a Bierton-equivalent of Site Zero. Intimation that this is more or less what humanity was designed to be, but by whom and for what purpose yet unclear.

“It confirms what Dr. Holdein suspected. We have been operating on the assumption that catalyst technology all stems from a single source; our top scientists have speculated that our species – perhaps all life on this planet more complicated than archaeobacteria – has been the product of deliberate modification at some point in the distant past. Shaped by an alien science. Now…now we know that is not the case. This isn’t the first time this has happened. It wasn’t a one-time thing. If this information is correct, we are looking at interference in our development by different parties over an extended period of time. Wherever we came from, whatever made us—something else found us, and they decided to tinker.”

Month 12: Madmen
Fortean-like mix of elements, all vaguely or directly related to elements of catalyst-use, medical experimentation, precursor artifacts, or abductions from outside. As disparate as disappearance of material from certain meteorite craters, murder and kidnapping of scientists and their families, new groups playing with catalyst, weird meat-machines built from mutants with damaged programs that resort to cannibalism.

Most prevalent theme are legends and theories of the Outsiders – the ones the Bierton group are afraid of, the ones presumably behind the bizarre missing-time abductions. Most popular theory is that they exist in states of imaginary time, only intersecting with “real time” intermittently.

Climax: Experiment to attempt and capture some data on an “Outsider” manifestation, using a particularly advanced case of mutation as bait and the assistance of the Bierton group. The event succeeds, but insufficient precautions and an unexpected “attack” by the Bierton participants leads to disastrous consequences.

“Intelligence was a fluke, or perhaps a side effect. What they wanted – and I can only guess, of course – was perception, some lizard-brain level of cognition. There’s an interpretation of quantum mechanics where a system stops existing as a superposition of states when it is observed…I don’t have the physics for it. Of course, it doesn’t work for Newtonian physics. Schrödinger's cat dies, at least at our level of perception. But that’s the trick, isn’t it? What if, the very existence of billions of things that can perceive their local environment at a certain level is enough to fix local physics? Does that work? Would that be convenient for them? Or, should I say, would that be inconvenient for someone else? A form of life or intelligence that cannot exist in Newtonian rules.”

Month 13: The New Weird
The ripples of the Outsider Experiment set off a confrontation; encounters between humanity and the intangible, unknown entities become more frequent and bloody. Oldest posthuman subject identified and interviewed. Secret histories layered on secret history, building towards the revelation that humanity – whatever its original purpose – has outlived it, and must find their own way in a universe without purpose. The catalysts and augmentations and artifacts are scraps left behind by those precursors; humans are what have evolved from what was a tailored ebola virus…and others found that technology and put it to their own uses.

Climax: Suggestions for weaving Cold Start materials into other Mythos-related games and settings, using more traditional Mythos elements, etc.

“I thought there was a greater purpose to it all. I thought there would be an end, an apotheosis. I trusted in a wisdom greater than myself, and found I was just another crank, listening the background noise of the universe, imagining the secret chiefs were whispering to me.”

The Catalyst (Sachem, Sach, Soc, Sock, etc.)
Does not improve intelligence, since humanity’s higher intellect is an unintended accident of a program run too long and unsupervised. It does increase aspects of intelligence and neural behavior, particularly stimulating the pineal gland, but not reasoning ability. Complex substance which combines nanites, retroviruses, and artificial hormones, working and interacting at multiple levels – in some cases, appearing to be almost aware.

The initial catalyst is not a single substance, but a group of related substances created to alter Earth-based life with more advances nervous systems – human, ape, cetacean, etc. – at various scales to unlock or alter various capabilities. The secondary catalyst was developed independently by another group relatively recently (~5 million years), with at least the partial intent of providing immunity to the initial series of Precursor catalysts. Errors in catalyst production and imperfect understanding of the processes used tend to be deleterious (continuous generation of exotic cancers is usually the starting point, neural changes symptomatic of Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s if you’re lucky).

Like Alan Moore’s version of Aklo, the catalyst substance comes with a pre-programmed language – partially corrupted by a few million years of evolution and hacking from various non-human races messing with it. The effects of this language can be profound, provided the recipient is hardwired to receive it (i.e. sufficiently mutated by exposure to catalyst), overriding the human personality to trigger specific emotional or mental states, or in advanced uses even instructing the remaining catalyst-structures to reconfigure the human brain and nervous system for various ends. Again, failure (because of insufficient mutation, errors in pronunciation, etc.) are fairly dire for the subject.

The Brieton-group version of catalyst was invented as a hack by a nonhuman race with a grudge against the precursors – according to their own beliefs, they were the first catalyst-derived species to gain true sentience – and was designed to turn humanity (or any other equivalent “cousin”) into a weapon that could be turned against the precursors, should any of them survive.

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