Call of Cthulhu Aboard R.M.S. Lusitania

Call of Cthulhu games often take place in different historical eras, most commonly in the 1920s. My current game is set a decade earlier, in the 1910s, based in Boston Massachusetts. I’ve been greedily mining newspaper articles as adventure seeds – often a small police report can serve as an inspiration for an adventure.

However, with our game approaching mid-1915, there was a major historical event that seemed perfect for inclusion in our campaign – the sinking of R.M.S. Lusitania on Friday, May 7, by a German U-Boat. Several years ago I read Erik Larson’s Dead Wake so I had a decent recollection of the sinking and I gave it a quick reread – bolstered by the fact that the unabridged audiobook was narrated by one of my favorite readers, Scott Brick. Also assisting were websites like The Lusitania Resource where I was able to get info like deck plans, crew, and passengers, etc.

Perhaps the most interesting inspiration came from one of the passengers, Charles E. Lauriat, a famous bookseller. He owned the store founded by his father, which went on to become a chain of bookstores in the northeastern United States that endured until 1999. Check out the description of the bookstore from Dead Wake:

The store was long and narrow and jutted far inward from the street, more mineshaft than showroom, with books shoring the walls all the way to the high ceilings and stacked on counters down the center. A flight of stairs led to a balcony full of collectors’ books and “association books,” those made valuable because their owners had been famous or otherwise noteworthy. One attraction for book aficionados was the store’s Old Book Room, in the basement, filled with “great gems” that, according to a privately published history of the store, had come into the marketplace mainly “through the breaking up of old English country house libraries.” The display windows on Washington Street drew crowds of onlookers at lunch hour. Rare books were displayed in the windows on one side of the front door, new books on the other, including those with the most garish covers known even then as “bestsellers.”

Tell me that does not sound like a place of interest to investigators? Charles Lauriat was making one of his regular transatlantic voyages, in search of new acquisitions and carrying some rare works, such as a copy of A Christmas Carol that Dickens had owned and used during a copyright infringement court case.

Some more research found another interesting passenger, the retired Royal Navy Commander Joseph Foster Stackhouse. Stackhouse was returning to England and planning to lead a British expedition to the Antarctic. He had been in the United States to raise funds for an expedition to map uncharted Pacific Ocean islands. Another real-world figure with a bit of a historic past. Unlike Lauriat, Commander Stackhouse did not survive this voyage.

With some interesting pieces in place, I needed to link them together. I decided that Lauriat had received an anonymous offer to purchase a forbidden Mythos tome en route to England – one the investigators had been looking for.

I invented a bit of history here. I decided that Stackhouse had already made an earlier Antarctic sojourn and had found some very odd things. He’d found a crashed starship, containing frozen “Things”. John Campell’s classic novella Who Goes There? featured these and it became the basis for the 1950s film The Thing From Another World and the 1980s John Carpenter film The Thing. In that work, scientists uncovered a spaceship with a hateful-looking, three-eyed alien, frozen and apparently dead for millennia. In the novella, the Thing thawed out. It killed and ate animals and people. The mass it acquired could be used to spawn new Things – and it had the capacity to change shape, allowing it to take the form of what it consumed. It also gained the memories of what it consumed, allowing it to pose as one of them. In this adventure, Stackhouse came across a pair of them and packed them in dry ice to keep them frozen. He also found a Yithian lightning-gun – perhaps left behind by a Yithian investigation of the crash.

I added a fictional character, one Ethan Roberts, inspired by Ethan Rayne of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, a chaos-loving sorcerer who had once been a friend of Rupert Giles. Roberts would be the merchant selling the book – as well as selling the frozen Things and Yithian Lightning Gun – with another potential buyer being the embattled and soon to be replaced First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill. Unfortunately, when loading the boxes containing the Things aboard Lusitania, one of them was damaged, causing the dry ice to fall out of the crate and eventually awakening one of the Things. The challenge of the adventure became surviving a voyage with the Things slowly infesting the ship – and soon, the Earth.

Though this represents the weirdness I added to the voyage there’s a lot more potential for those so inclined. Some examples include…

  • Three German stowaways were seized at the start of the voyage. Were they spies? Pursuing Ethan Roberts?
  • Alta Piper was the daughter of spiritualist Lenora Piper. She was due to cross aboard Lusitania but felt unease, claiming to have heard a voice warning her “If you get into your berth, you’ll never get out.” She eventually backed out of boarding the ship – by default, constantly packing and unpacking until the ship left.
  • Theodate Pope was an early feminist and wore a variety of hats – socialist, architect, and spiritualist. She traveled with her friend, Professor Edwin William Friend; the two seeking to gain funds for psychic research in England. Though Pope survived, neither Friend nor her maid, Emily Robinson, were so fortunate.

Another good inspiration is Pelgrane Press’s adventure RMS Titanic: The Millionaire’s Special, for Trail of Cthulhu. Obviously, this adventure deals with Titanic which sunk a few years earlier. It does give great insight on being trapped on a doomed vessel with some sort of horror loose…

Actual Play Notes

How did this adventure work out for us? We had three investigators making the ocean voyage, all of whom working in some function for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts in dealing with the supernatural:

  • Colin O’Connor: Civil engineer from Dunmore, Ireland. Employed as a civil engineer by the city of Boston.
  • Lola Diaz Azar: Archaeologist hailing from Puerto Rico, born of a Puerto Rican mother and Middle Eastern father. An agent of the New England Watch and Ward Society, specializing in occult tomes.
  • Nathaniel Quincy, MD, Captain, US Army (Ret.) Former army doctor served in Nicaragua and the Philippines. Now working as a medical examiner for Essex County.

The three went aboard the Lusitania posing as experts for Charles Lauriat, looking to obtain a copy of Adam Jones’ R’lyeh, annotated by Rev. Thomas Miller that a Boston Cthulhu Cult had stolen – the cult had been defeated, but the book still missing.

Their meeting with Lauriat, Stackhouse, and Roberts took place midway through the voyage. With an expense account, they were able to purchase the book and lightning gun – though not at the best prices (some failed rolls while negotiating). However, when they looked at the aliens Stackhouse had found, they discovered one missing…

They did receive an anonymous note to meet in the baggage room the next morning to learn what became of the missing Thing. Sure enough, it was a trap. They were attacked by a pair of the Things, both looking like baggage handlers. And one was still frozen. Clearly, they were reproducing. One cleanly got away, the other was seemingly killed by gunfire – but then made an escape as its wounds regenerated. While looking like crew members, the prehensile tongue was most definitely not human…

Fearing what would happen should they reach England with reproducing Things, they attempted to sabotage the engines, only to discover a fair number of the crew were now actually Things. They barricaded themselves in a stateroom as they planned their next, desperate move. Early in the morning of Friday, May 7, they snuck into the radio room at a brief moment it was vacant and sent a radio message with the ship’s location and course, hoping to attract a German U-Boat – all the talk on the voyage had been of U-Boats.

Either way, with them passing close to Ireland, it was time to depart. They snuck off in one of the lifeboats, lowering it into the water shortly before dawn. This proved extremely dangerous, with the ship traveling at over 20 knots. The lifeboat nearly smashed upon impact with the water – a critical luck roll allowed it to survive. With that, they began rowing towards Ireland. Several hours later, at 2:10 PM, a German U-Boat did attack Lusitania, striking her with a torpedo and sinking her in under 20 minutes. All of the Things went down with the ship. But of the 1,959 passengers and crew aboard her, 1,198 died. Were the investigators directly responsible for that? Or would she have sunk no matter what? They’d never know.

Perhaps most frighteningly, all three made their sanity checks, showing a cold acceptance of the deed they had performed…

~ Daniel Stack

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