This past weekend I ran another FATE Core game, this time going with a foray into the Pulp mystery genre. The year was 1924, a bit early for most pulp games, which tend to focus more on the 1930s, but perfect for a game that was designed to feel a little like a Call of Cthulhu game. Naturally I did my best to touch on the tried and true tropes of the genre, there was a suicide that likely wasn’t, a touch of the occult and hints at human sacrifice, and at the end an appearance by a Dark God. All of it paced out by a liberal supply of clues, colorful characters, and a few action packed scenes to keep the party moving and interested.
The party was naturally a diverse assembly as I let the players create them at the table. Took roughly forty five minutes, which was decent since only two had played FATE before. We had a fraudulent Mesmerist and conman, a down on his luck and somewhat racist’s ex-Marine, an Irish prize fighter who had taken a few to many shots to the head, and a high rise construction worker of African American heritage. Playing off both party dynamics and societal prejudices of the time helped keep the FATE points flying.
We started in the Century Club, stolen from Evil Hat’s first publication of FATE, where our party was gathered to hear a request from a respected member in need of their aid. An old friend, and member of the club, had recently died and though the police claimed suicide he could not, and would not believe it. Being elderly and confined to a wheel chair he asked that the party look into it for him, if for no other reason than to settle his mind. The victim was a medium by the name of Lila Sanchez who lived in Chinatown and who had been found hanged in her apartment.
Visiting her home to speak with her assistance and look for clues the party had the fun of dealing with the insular culture of Chinatown and the ex-Marine’s prejudices. Once in her apartment our mesmerist gave an excellent performance as he discovered the burned remains of her diary and then hid it away before claiming her spirit had come to him. With a booming voice and hand to his temple he spoke of the death of a close friend, her sadness and pain, and of restlessness among the spirit world, the coming of darkness. If I could have awarded an Oscar I would have, but alas all I had was a FATE point. After all he had managed in that performance to give out every clue I’d sprinkled among the burnt pages and in a way that was far more dramatic and entertaining than simply the group reading them. The party also discovered beneath a rug a strange symbol, painted in blood. Suicide quickly ceased to be a believable option.
The diary I must point out was one of several clue props I’d made, typing up her entries with a handwritten font and then burning the pages so that they looked like they’d barely survived a fire. The bloody symbol I’d also crafted up in red ink on a piece of paper made to look like wood. I did my best to ensure each clue led in multiple directions, giving my players choices in how they proceeded but also ensuring they got all the information they needed to work things out. The so called “Three Clue Rule” was in full effect and I cribbed the mechanic from the Gumshoe system in that if a party member had an appropriate skill and used it I didn’t worry about the roll. After all if they don’t find the clues the game stops, and that’s no fun for anyone.
From the apartment they ended up in an Occult Bookstore where they met one Dean Blake, a scrawny scholarly fellow who they coerced and intimidated into pointing them towards one Joe Masseria; a mob boss with an interest in immortality. They also learned more about Lila’s departed friend, a professor at the university. Which naturally was their next stop, and where discovery of an ancient scroll with symbols similar to that found at Lila’s house linked her death to some ancient ritual. From his notes they discovered that the ritual required four deaths linked to the elements. The Professor, Garland Lang, had also died under strange circumstances, drowning in his bathtub, an interesting coincidence. Before they could read further we had our first fight.
A pair of thugs sent to acquire the same notes harassed the party but served as only a minor obstacle, a few good hits did help teach the party how combat worked as well as the ideas behind the Stress trackers and Consequences. And since the party decided to jump the rails by capturing one of them and having him lead them towards his boss I got to do some improve and the prep work to make the clues flexible came in handy. A house full of armed mobsters and some subtle hints kept the party from starting any trouble since they couldn’t prove their theories yet and they ended up heading toward an archeological dig mentioned in Lang’s notes.
Lloyd Hendricks, a peer of Lang’s proved to be the next victim, buried alive in his own dig. A spent FATE point by our Irish boxer turned the cop on guard duty into his cousin and I broke out my best Irish brogue. A bit of cajoling and a touch of bribery got the party onto the crime scene and filled in the final pieces of the puzzle. Information on the Dark God Nergali was in his notes, and a business card from Dean Blake was pinned to a bulletin board. The party rushed off immediately to the bookstore where a kidnapping was in progress and the store had been set aflame.
The car chase that followed was less fun then I’d envisioned, but part of that was because of how the party had made their characters, it got the job done but my normal home group may have spoiled me with an amazing chase scene in a Savage Worlds game some months back. A stealthy chase through a warehouse followed the car crash that ended the first chase and brought our party to the climactic scene of the story.
A body wrapped in burlap lay wiggling in the ritual circle as cultists doused it with gasoline, one stood above the body with a torch calling to the dread god. Our Ex-Marine took a shot and knocked the torch away while the prizefighter rushed in and scooped up the body. As the incantation was completed the God rose from flames within the circle and cursed the cultists before him. Dark flames burned his robes away, revealing the pained face of Dean Blake as his flesh began to bloat and twist and his eyes and mouth spewed fire, he turned towards the party as the Dark God fled and stumbled forward as a twisted abomination.
The “oh shit” moment that this caused was fairly cool. I was worried that in the game shop atmosphere that I wouldn’t get the right vibe for this moment. Especially since the game had started with the group making plenty of jokes and bad puns. But apparently the descriptions of the different crime scenes, the various notes, and the way I presented the twist and described the transformation worked. The Mesmerist character in particular just looked at me and denounced his conman ways as long as I let him live. It wasn’t a true Call of Cthulhu moment, but it worked.
Monster dodging, cultist killing, and a memorable moment where the Marine was set on fire and then wrestled the demon into the ritual circle where the Mesmerist remembered just enough of what he had thought was bullshit occult knowledge to trap it commenced. The final act was the solider holding the demon in the circle and then shooting him right between his burning eyes; causing him to erupt and then burnout trap with in the circles protection. Nearly killed the Marine but the rest of the group cheered.
Fun was had by all and I got a lot of compliments on the entire package. The story seemed to hold together well, they liked how the clues came out and the work I put into the props for them. This is my second one shot I’ve run at my FLGS and I’ve been asked if I might do another, so all in all I think things went well. Also I’m pretty sure at least two or three of them will be picking up FATE Core once it comes out in a month or so.
I’m think Sci Fi might have to be the next genre I tackle. After all I know Fantasy and Mystery will work, time to shoot for the stars and see what happens.