Monday, May 13, 2019

Play Report: Lighthouse at the End of the World (Esoteric Enterprises 1)

Rick Shrieber was the kind of history teacher that came into class in chainmail, waving a foam sword about and shouting in Middle English. He had a plush Holy Hand Grenade he'd throw into his colleague's room across the hall. His car had a sticker that read "My other ride is Shadowfax."

And now he's dead. Pancreatic cancer.

Four of his old students piled in an hand-down Honda Odyssey to visit the viewing hours, in a tiny little town in the middle of nowhere in southwestern Pennsylvania. They were:
  • Gerard Valentine, a warehouse drone. 
  • "Sanz" Sanford Hernandez, a social worker.
  • "Cap'n" Jerry Clyde, proprietor of a  party boat in the city, the "Naughty Crab"
  • Ryan Grimmer - Occupation undefined.
Gerard and Sanz had kept in touch online in the years since, and ended up organizing the carpool. Capn' was pulled in after Gerard stumbled across him on the Naughty Crab during a pub crawl night. sanz, Cap'n, and Ryan were the Terrible Three, who quit their shitty fast food jobs during the summer of their junior year simultaneously by dumping a bag of ice over their shitty fast food manager. But all that is years past now.

The visitation goes well, as well as it could given the circumstances. It's late by the time they leave, and dark well before they are done grabbing something to eat.

The road is empty, dark, silent. Nothing but woods out here, isolated. It's late enough that the local NPR station is wrapping up the BBC news hour, ready to start its night program of Indian music.

In the distance, there's the flash of blinker lights. Sanz (for he was driving the van) comes to an abrubt halt, and the group file out to investigate. Gerard immediately calls 911, and through good luck has a decent connection.

The car had swerved off the road and hit a tree, though not enough to do major damage. The group creep forward to investigate: the driver's-side window is covered in blood. Sanz creeps around the front of the car, finding the driver duct-taped to his seat, left hand attached to the wheel and loose strips indicating that the right had been as well. In the front seat there is a footlocker, wrapped up in a bungee cord.

Gerard, his curiosity getting the better of him, wraps a hand in a bandana and opens the passenger door. Inside, he sees that the man's limp right arm is holding a revolver, and the back seats are filled with a jumbled mess of camping supplies: a tent, a propane stove, bags filled with convenience-store food, Snoballs and Slim Jims. The revolver has three of six bullets remaining: the man's head is a pulped mess (I described it akin to a cobweb made out of meat). There are no bullet holes in the window, or anywhere else in the car.

In the trunk the group finds more cardboard boxes, these filled with VHS tapes and stacks of DVD-Rs, labeled with random letter and number combinations. Gerard tucks one of the tapes into his jacket. Cap'n attempts to take the gun from the man, but is interrupted by a harsh, hissing voice.

"I wouldn't do that..."

The panic barely has time to set in before the lights of a car appear. The state trooper looks exactly like one would imagine: mustache, a bit of a gut, middle aged, straight out of central casting. A cursory inspection of the wrecked car shakes him, and he goes back to his patrol car to radio in to headquarters.

This is when the door of the crashed car opens.

The dead man tears out of the car in a sprint towards the police officer. Sans manages to grab a rock and smash it into the dead man's knee, bringing him to the ground. He tries to pin him there, as the officer brings out his gun, but the dead man's strength might be greater than he had in life. He shakes off Sans, leaps to his feet, and shoots the trooper right in the head.

"...Do it properly this time..."

The dead man shoves the revolver in his mouth and fires twice, and is finally still.

They steal everything in the crashed car, all the tapes and boxes and other supplies, and load them into the van. Both the trooper's gun and the dead man's revolver are taken - in taking the latter, the group finds an ID card for the US Department of Energy.

The solution is unanimous: DRIVE

As the van tears away down the silent road, the gang glimpse twin rows of men in suits, standing in the woods at the fringes of the headlight cones, heads turning to follow them.

Sans' house is closest (the original plan was to stay the night there and then everyone returns home come Saturday), and there is a terrible, tense car ride for nearly 20 minutes.

But they do not seem to have been followed: They arrive safely but shaken. Sans immediately begins telling his sister Sam (with whom he shares the house after inheriting it from their parents) everything that happened.

The door has barely shut when Gerard gets a phone call from a clearly-masked number. He answers, perhaps foolishly. A text-to-speech voice speaks:

"We can help you. Go to the church. Enter the door in the garden behind it, go down the stairs, and knock twice on the red door. Remain there until we come for you. Remove the batteries from your phones."

The gang don't waste much time. Sam is dragged along, and the directions are followed to the letter. By this point it's well past midnight.

The room behind the red door is small, concrete. There's a folding cot, a sink, a toilet with a shower curtain, a table with some magazines and a bit of food. One bare bulb.

Three hours pass.

Knock, knock

The door creaks open to reveal a tired-looking woman in her mid-thirties, wearing a sweatshirt. She introduces herself as Abigail, and in short order breaks the news:
  • The party is fucked - they've gained the attention of the people no one wants to notice them.
  • She's part of a secret civilian paranormal organization called Lighthouse.
  • Lighthouse is willing to help disappear the gang in exchange for their recruitment. There really isn't another option that involves a good ending.
  • For the time being the gang needs to get out of the way. 
Getting out of the way involves a journey to a place called the Stygian Library. Abigail removes a piece of chalk, draws a doorway on the wall while chanting in sonorous, bell-like tones, and the concrete unfolds to reveal a small candlelit room of mahogany and brass, smelling of books.

DM Comments

This was a load of fun to run, and the players had a blast. It was a bit railroady-cutsceney, enough that I am not entirely satisfied with the outcome and want to tweak the balance more in the future. But, on the plus side, next session will open up to normal freedoms. The setpieces were effective (and totally my jam in this genre), but they kinda overshadowed the players' abilities to act.

On another plus side, I did a lot more communal setting-building than I normally do (the teacher in particular) and the players got riffing quick.

Level 0 and the transition between normal life and the supernatural remains some of the greatest game material. Further refining it is a long-term progress.


  1. And now, the Esoteric Enterprises content truly begins.

  2. I've only seen straight-fantasy takes on the Library - a more modern version sounds great.

  3. Looking forward to more of this! I can picture this as a TV series actually :)

  4. Dan I'm really excited by this. The Lighthouse is pretty amazing. More more more.

    How does Esoteric Enterprises work, as a system?

    1. It's still got OSR bones so it works as you'd think in general. The main deviations are the Flesh/Grit HP split and the horrible wounds when you hit 0 or below

  5. I've said this elsewhere, but this reads really well, like a short story. Very atmospheric indeed, I love your writing here.