Call of Cthulhu : The Black Monolith

This week’s Call of Cthulhu game was based on Robert E. Howard’s short story, The Black Stone, originally published in Weird Tales in November 1931. That issue was a treat for amateurs of the Cthulhu Mythos—it also contained the Tale of Satampra Zeiros by Clark Ashton Smith, another member of H.P. Lovecraft’s inner circle.

A scan of the original magazine is available on The Internet Archive and the full text of The Black Stone is on Project Gutenberg.

I had the audacity to make a few changes to Howard’s original story for the game scenario. The mad poet Justin Geoffrey was an Englishman (not an American), who had died in 1921 in Bedlam. After combing through his medical records and searching esoteric books in the libraries of London, the investigators took the Orient Express across Europe, to find out what horrors he had witnessed that had driven him to insanity.

Upon reaching Stregoicavar, the subsequent events unfolded in a similar way to Howard’s tale.

Midsummer’s Eve

Heedless of the warnings of Stregoicavar’s innkeeper, the investigators headed out to the mysterious monolith on Midsummer’s Eve, Friday 23 June 1922 :

I came out into the glade and saw the tall monolith rearing its gaunt height above the sward. At the edge of the woods on the side toward the cliffs was a stone which formed a sort of natural seat. I sat down, reflecting that it was probably while there that the mad poet, Justin Geoffrey, had written his fantastic People of the Monolith. Mine host thought that it was the Stone which had caused Geoffrey’s insanity, but the seeds of madness had been sown in the poet’s brain long before he ever came to Stregoicavar.

A glance at my watch showed that the hour of midnight was close at hand. I leaned back, waiting whatever ghostly demonstration might appear. A thin night wind started up among the branches of the firs, with an uncanny suggestion of faint, unseen pipes whispering an eerie and evil tune. The monotony of the sound and my steady gazing at the monolith produced a sort of self-hypnosis upon me; I grew drowsy. I fought this feeling, but sleep stole on me in spite of myself; the monolith seemed to sway and dance, strangely distorted to my gaze, and then I slept.

The Congregation

Waking in a dream-like state at midnight, the investigators were witnesses to a ghostly and sinister ceremony :

I opened my eyes and sought to rise, but lay still, as if an icy hand gripped me helpless. Cold terror stole over me. The glade was no longer deserted. It was thronged by a silent crowd of strange people, and my distended eyes took in strange barbaric details of costume which my reason told me were archaic and forgotten even in this backward land. Surely, I thought, these are villagers who have come here to hold some fantastic conclave—but another glance told me that these people were not the folk of Stregoicavar.

Sanity Check 0/1D3

Elaine Gibbson — success, 0 SAN loss
Sister Cassia — success, 0 SAN loss
Brother Francis Xiao Chong “Bug” Moreing — failure, 1 SAN loss
Doctor White — failure, 2 SAN loss
Doctor Charles Redd Herring — success, 0 SAN loss

Noone loses 5 or more SAN in one roll; everyone stays under control.

The Carnal Dance

The rhythm of the swaying bodies grew faster and into the space between the people and the monolith sprang a naked young woman, her eyes blazing, her long black hair flying loose. Spinning dizzily on her toes, she whirled across the open space and fell prostrate before the Stone, where she lay motionless. The next instant a fantastic figure followed her—a man from whose waist hung a goatskin, and whose features were entirely hidden by a sort of mask made from a huge wolf’s head, so that he looked like a monstrous, nightmare being, horribly compounded of elements both human and bestial. In his hand he held a bunch of long fir switches bound together at the larger ends, and the moonlight glinted on a chain of heavy gold looped about his neck. … the people tossed their arms violently and seemed to redouble their shouts as this grotesque creature loped across the open space with many a fantastic leap and caper.

Sanity Check 0/1D6

Elaine Gibbson — success, 0 SAN loss
Sister Cassia — failure, 4 SAN loss
Brother Bug — failure, 4 SAN loss
Doctor White — failure, 3 SAN loss
Doctor Herring — failure, 1 SAN loss

Noone loses 5 or more SAN in one roll; everyone stays under control.

The Toad-god Appears

I opened my mouth to scream my horror and loathing, but only a dry rattle sounded; a huge monstrous toad-like thing squatted on the top of the monolith! I saw its bloated, repulsive and unstable outline against the moonlight and set in what would have been the face of a natural creature, its huge, blinking eyes which reflected all the lust, abysmal greed, obscene cruelty and monstrous evil that has stalked the sons of men since their ancestors moved blind and hairless in the treetops. In those grisly eyes were mirrored all the unholy things and vile secrets that sleep in the cities under the sea, and that skulk from the light of day in the blackness of primordial caverns. And so that ghastly thing that the unhallowed ritual of cruelty and sadism and blood had evoked from the silence of the hills, leered and blinked down on its bestial worshippers, who groveled in abhorrent abasement before it.

Sanity Check 1D6/1D20

Elaine Gibbson — success, 5 SAN loss
Sister Cassia — failure, 15 SAN loss
Brother Bug — failure, 15 SAN loss
Doctor White — failure, 13 SAN loss
Doctor Herring — success, 5 SAN loss

Everyone loses 5 or more SAN in one roll, so has to make an INT check. If the roll is failed, the investigator represses the memory and does not become insane. A successful INT check means Temporary Insanity.

Effects of Insanity

A Bout of Madness

Elaine Gibbson realises that her father is not dead after all, and he has come looking for her. She runs down the mountainside, tree branches tearing her clothes, all the way to Stregoicvar. She collapses sobbing in the inn as she comes to her senses.

Sister Cassia staggers down the mountainside, becoming more and more angry at the obscenity and injustice of the world. Normally she is serene and in control, but now she is overtaken by an unfamiliar, white-hot rage which threatens to consume her. She awakens at dawn and finds herself in her bed in the inn. She has a thumping headache and her entire body hurts. Hauling herself out of bed, she looks in the mirror and sees that her face is bloody and bruised. Her fingernails and hands are streaked with blood—her own or someone else’s, she is not sure. She does her best to clean herself up using the basin of water in the room. She tries the door, but it is locked.

Brother Bug sees the throng of worshippers morph into a crowd of angry protestors. They are hungry and demanding to be fed. It is the Boxer Rebellion! Across the crowd he can see his parents, but he cannot reach them. They are reaching into the air towards him and crying out, but he cannot hear what they are saying. He presses into the crowd but they are too many. His parents are swept away by the flow of people and are carried out of earshot and out of sight. Brother Bug is trampled under the crowd and passes out. In the early light of dawn, he awakes, still lying on the hillside by the Black Stone. Shivering, he picks himself up and makes his way down the mountain to the village.

Doctor White flees down the mountain, searching for Robin. Until now, he believed that the world was more or less safe, rational and predictable, subject to the laws of science and human mastery. His ideas of the universe have been exploded by the terrible revelation of a being of unbridled power and cosmic indifference to the fate of mankind. He has to save Robin! He reaches the town and collapses on the steps of the old stone church, sobbing in desperation and futility. He can do nothing to help her.

Doctor Herring sees his estranged wife, holding his daughter by the hand, dragging her away from him. He runs towards them, but the faster he runs, the faster they recede into the distance. He rushes down the mountainside, through the trees, branches slapping his face and arms. He eventually emerges near the village, but they have gone. He is filled with an overwhelming sense of hopelessness and collapses at the edge of the village. He awakes as the sun begins to rise, feeling desolate and alone.

Insanity and the Cthulhu Mythos

Insanity brought on by non-Mythos stimuli yields no Cthulhu Mythos knowledge. But mental trauma from exposure to Mythos creatures, tomes or spells results in learning more of the Mythos.

Elaine Gibbson, Brother Bug, Doctor White, Doctor each gain +5% Cthulhu Mythos, as this is their first time to experience an otherworldly entity at first hand.

Sister Cassia has already encountered a Mythos entity, in Scotland, so she gains +1% Cthulhu Mythos.

Note that maximum SAN is equal to 99 - Cthulhu Mythos.

Indefinite Insanity

Investigators who lose more than one fifth of current SAN in one day become Indefinitely Insane (Sister Cassia, Brother Bug, Dr. White).

After the initial Bout of Madness, control of the character returns to the player. They are however in a fragile state of underlying insanity. Any further SAN loss (even a single point) will result in another Bout of Madness.

Investigators suffering from Indefinite Insanity may experience delusions. If a player thinks their character is deluded, they can make a Reality Check. Success means the investigator sees through the delusion (if they are in fact deluded). Failure means the loss of 1 SAN and provokes a Bout of Madness.

Indefinite Insanity lasts until the investigator is cured or recovers. This could involve a period of rest, nursing care, psychoanalysis (if available) or instituionalisation.

The Bones of Boris Vladinoff

The driver of the coach pointed out to me a great heap of crumbling stones on a hill nearby, under which, he said, the bones of the brave Count lay. I remembered a passage from Larson’s Turkish Wars. “After the skirmish” (in which the Count with his small army had beaten back the Turkish advance- guard) “the Count was standing beneath the half-ruined walls of the old castle on the hill, giving orders as to the disposition of his forces, when an aide brought to him a small lacquered case which had been taken from the body of the famous Turkish scribe and historian, Selim Bahadur, who had fallen in the fight. The Count took therefrom a roll of parchment and began to read, but he had not read far before he turned very pale and, without saying a word, replaced the parchment in the case and thrust the case into his cloak. At that very instant a hidden Turkish battery suddenly opened fire, and the balls striking the old castle, the Hungarians were horrified to see the walls crash down in ruin, completely covering the brave Count. Without a leader the gallant little army was cut to pieces, and in the war-swept years which followed, the bones of the noblemen were never recovered. Today the natives point out a huge and moldering pile of ruins near Schomvaal beneath which, they say, still rests all that the centuries have left of Count Boris Vladinoff.”

Before their Midsummer’s Eve misadventure, the investigators had spent a couple of weeks digging around the tomb of Count Boris Vladinoff. They were able to uncover the Count’s bones, still buried under chunks of the fallen castle walls. Together with the bones was a sealed lacquered box, crushed out of shape yet still intact. It contained a yellowed parchment and a small squat object wrapped in silk.

The parchment is written in Arabic script.

Unwrapping the silk, you find a squat idol carved of gold, depicting a hideous toad-like creature.