by S. John Ross, Copyright 1991, 1999
This adventure is designed for a group of 3-6 Old West characters of 100 to 120 points each. It can be inserted into any horrific (or merely casual) Old West campaign with little work. It is a strange, action-packed yarn of terror on the rails. It works with any character types. Ownership of GURPS Old West or GURPS Horror is not required for play. It is written to stand alone; the only rules required are in the GURPS Basic Set.
This scenario is easily adapted to other games, such as Boot Hill or Western Hero. If moved forward 50 years (which will change only a few details) it could be used for Gangbusters, non-Lovecraftian Call of Cthulhu, GURPS Cliffhangers, etc.
In this adventure, fright check modifiers are placed in parentheses, such as "a fright check (-2/+4). The first modifier is to the actual Will Roll. The second one modifies the roll on the Fright Check Results Table. If there is only one number, it affects only the will roll. No parentheses indicates an unmodified roll.
It is mid-winter in 1882. The adventurers have boarded the #40 long-haul, westbound over the Rocky Mountains. Meeting the train just west of Denver in a dining stop at Brown Creek, Colorado, they were among the last passengers to board before the haul up into the snow-laden hills. Their baggage checked, they have settled into the train's third Pullman car, and braced themselves for the journey westward. The people in the cars are clustered forward to the heaters, and the conductor is muffled for the weather. Frost plays about the edges of the windowpanes.
Despite the harshness of the winter, the passengers are assured of their safety as tickets are taken. In a few minutes, the train butch passes through the cars selling newspapers and heavily salted peanuts, returning a few minutes later to sell soda water . . .
The spirits of the passengers are high, and early card-games and recitations have already begun as the dark forests begin to crawl beside the train, and #40 moves into the mountains' evening.
GAME MASTER'S BACKGROUND
The route that #40 is taking is one long feared by employees of the railroad. Any winter nights through the high Rockies usually means terrible nightmares, and the superstitious rail-people were quick to label the route as "the run of the devil." During the summers, the bad dreams subside.
In general, this aspect of the route has not spread outside the train workers. A single night of bad dreams, no matter how horrible, unlikely to stick in the mind of a passenger as the fault of the route.
The cause for these dreams, which are generally chilling (literally) visions of immeasurable smothering darkness and crushing weight, are the mental emanations of Rononatha, a spirit entity inhabiting the mountain on the west side of Cray's Canyon, along the route. This is a primordial spirit of the cold and dark, acknowledged and feared in some form by all the local Indian tribes. 450 years ago, he and his son, Haimannock, were cast into separate pits at the cost of a brave medicine man's soul. Separated, the evil spirits sank into despair. They could not work their powers over the living when separated and imprisoned. It seemed that the shaman's loss had brought a great victory for mankind.
Haimannock was reawakened, however, when the North Colorado
Mining Company began drilling into the bowels of his mountain prison. He
has waited all summer, holding his anger in check lest he frighten the
miners away. Now midwinter has come, and he could bring his power to bear
on a single weak-willed miner named Anthony Berstock. Presently in Anthony's
body, the old spirit seeks out his father. By bringing together the right
"blood elements," in offering, Haimannock can awaken his father
from his deep slumber.
The train involved (the "number 40") is a fictional example of a typical train of the early 1880s. It is modern for the period, with air braking, flexible canvas guards between cars, Janney coupling (automatic car-links that eliminate the need for dangerous manual linking of cars), and so on. Some of the cars are mapped for reference. Others (such as the freight cars) can be easily extrapolated if the need arises. In general, any conflicts in scenes #3 and on should not use Advanced Combat, as the tactical element can ruin the atmosphere of the game. All cars except the caboose have interior and roof dimensions of about 63 by 10 feet, and measure 70 feet in length. The 29 cars are as follows, moving backward from the engine:
The Porters' Cars: These are a humbler version of the Pullman drawing-room, where employees may sleep, wash, etc. The first car is for the porters and baggage-master, while the second is for the "butch," telegrapher, conductor, etc.
The "Drawing-Room" Car: This is a comfortable Pullman car, with six "staterooms" and an open "drawing room" area where passengers relax. It is richly decorated, with large mirrors, fine leather, etc.
The Smoking Car (Map A): This is a large "lounge" car. At the fore end is a bar. The rest of the car is sitting areas, which will be crowded in the evenings with Whist-players and talking passengers. The Butch tends to lurk in this area when not on his runs.
4 Pullman (Passenger) Cars (Map B): These are where the heroes are, along with the rest of the ordinary passengers of the train. Each compartment has cloth-upholstered couches that fold out into beds, and can be closed off for privacy by curtains. The open area is a sitting area, and the floor near the foot-warmer (an open grill by the heater) is a popular spot in the cold weather.
The Baggage Car: This is where the passengers personal cargo and luggage is kept. The baggage-master sleeps in the first porter's car.
2 "Zulu" Cars (Map C): These are crowded and dirty, with hard, un-upholstered wooden seats. Each car has approximately 90 passengers aboard, mostly immigrants bound for the west. Entire families are here, crammed into the seats and occupying the floors. At night, the passengers of the zulus sleep on boards laid across the seats, with whatever bedding they can devise. Pets and children are constantly underfoot in the aisles. The cars are springless (for a very rough ride) and are poorly ventilated. The rail company offers tickets west on such cars at very low fares, in order to profit from the vast waves of emigration.
7 Freight Cars: Four of these have just been added at the last stop. They are loaded with timber, cloth goods, or whatever else the GM deems appropriate depending on the location chosen for the adventure.
The Caboose: Home and workplace for the long-haul's brakeman.
Prologue: In the Smoker
The scene begins at about 9:30 PM. The PCs are in the smoking car, mingling and socializing. Outside it is dark, with only rushing shapes of black trees against the occasional grey field of snow. The moon is out in full. The car is cold near the windows, but the crowd of anxious passengers is enough to keep the car cozy.
Paris Moses is presently playing hymns on his accordion, and an odd mix of grubby miners, cowboys, and wealthy-looking city folk are singing along or politely listening. At one table, Hadrian Cook, a Kentucky gambler, is running a serious game of high-stakes poker. The table is surrounded by grim-looking easterners, but Cook would welcome a new player or two. Minimum bet is 5 dollars. The "train butch," Joe, is moving among the passengers doing business, and the conductor is present. See the NPC section for details on these characters.
The characters should be allowed about 10 minutes' mingling and roleplaying to start. Introduce some the NPCs, or some of your own, to get the players into the scene. The attitude among the passengers is positive, but any conversation with the Chester (the porter tending bar) will reveal him to be tired and worried. He prefers not to talk about his mood. Characters that insist on pressing questions will recieve a -2 reaction penalty on any attempt to gain information from the porter.
There are 250 passengers on board #40, 180 of which are in the Zulu cars. The GM should feel free to develop as many as he sees fit for roleplaying purposes, and to include them at any logical opportunity. Interaction with the NPCs should be encouraged by reward - asking the right questions could help the PCs a great deal, for instance. The following NPCs play some part in the adventure as written. Stats were considered unnecessary. Assume that any person has most attributes around 8-12, and any appropriate skills at (1d+9) unless otherwise noted.
Paris Moses, Lawman and Preacher: This is a tall, gaunt fellow with a thin, hoarse voice. His smile is perpetual, and he is very kind. He and his wife, Deborah, are travelling west where Moses is to be a new sheriff in California. When speaking of matters religious, Moses' voice grows powerful and resonant. He will actively attempt to aid the PCs with advice, and has a .32 revolver in his bag on Pullman car #1.
Joe the Butch: Joe is the fourteen-year old "rail butch" on this route. He makes regular runs through the passenger cars, selling all manner of items, from newspapers to biscuits and fruit to discreetly offered "adult" literature, all at terribly high prices. An employee of the company for two years, he is a veritable fountain of gossip and info for the PCs, should they decide to ask. He has a broad larcenous streak, and will demand a few cents for anything.
Mary Henderson, Writer: Mary is a popular travel writer, reporting on the trip. She spends most of her time reading or writing in the Observation Room in the smoker. She is, however, a true journalist of rare form. Once trouble begins, she will place herself in nearly any danger to get details for her editors. She lacks any real empathy, and may seem cold and tactless, which she is.
Hadrian Cook, Gambler: Hadrian is a rotund, bearded Kentuckian heading west to seek his fortune as a gambler. He is a heartless con man by trade, and has decided that running a few games on board (and cleaning up on traveler's nest eggs) would be a way to pass the hours. He wears a heavy black coat and a shiny red vest. He keeps a rear-slung Smith & Wesson Russian under his coat. He is a coward, but will make a show of wanting part of any "action" that might occur, backing out at the last minute due to a "sprain."
Conductor Morris Hawthorne: A western gentleman, Hawthorne carries himself as the perfect representative of the company. He is present throughout the adventure, trying early on to keep the passengers under control and safe. He speaks with a deep voice and a slight drawl. His face bears huge blonde sideburns.
Scene #1: Berstock Cuts Loose
At 10 PM, the train crew will move into the Pullman cars, making up the beds. As the passengers begin drifting off into their cars, the distant crack of rifle-shot is heard toward the back of the train, not more than a few cars behind the smoker! Some of the women cry out, and Cook reaches for his under-the-coat revolver. The conductor will try to maintain order, telling the passengers to remain where they are. He will take a few armed men as volunteers (the PCs are prime candidates, of course) and head back to investigate.
As the group enters #3 Pullman, they will meet those who have fled from the #4. All they can get from the frightened, confused passengers is that one man shot another, and a woman is dead. The lights in #4 Pullman have been put out, and the conductor grabs a lantern from a wall and moves forward with the party.
The spirit Haimannock, sensing that he is near is father, and surrounded by such warm blood, could not contain his instincts. With the car mostly deserted, Berstock slipped in and strangled a woman, and proceeded to tear her apart. A British traveler, napping in the back of the coach, took up a rifle to shoot at Berstock. After two shots, Berstock grabbed the rifle, and shot the man, and then the passage lamp.
When the adventurers reach the coach, they will see Berstock holding the rifle limply over the two mangled bodies, his mouth dripping with blood. He wears a tired smile and hums loudly to himself. A large bloody spot can be seen under his shirt where the rifle-shots hit him. The scene requires a Fright Check (-4) of the first person to enter the coach, and a Fright Check (-1) from all others to enter.
Berstock raises his new rifle to shoot . . .
Berstock cannot feel pain (High Pain Threshold) and can speak very little. Berstock's mind has completely given over to Haimannock, who can access many of his physical abilities. Without Haimannock, Berstock's stats and skills would not top 11. He will not aim with the gun, and will drop it and flee to the roof if the PCs fire upon him (see below). He has already taken 18 points of damage, so his actual Move and Dodge are 4 each.
The Rifle does 3d damage with a hit. It is a Winchester '73, with 2 shots left. It is described on p. 209 of the Basic Set. With combined penalties for darkness (-6) and snap-shot, he will only hit on an 8 or less.
Scene #2: The Great Outdoors
As soon as the PCs fire, or he runs out of bullets, Berstock will run back through the rear door and close it. He will then proceed to rip the safety canvas away and climb up to the roof of the car. He is confused and regrets his impulsive action, and seeks to hide from his new tormentors.
The players may think of several methods of pursuit. They could easily head Berstock off by running forward through the cars, and climbing up ahead of him. By sending some men from the rear, he could be trapped. Or, the PCs could chase him from behind, in which he would turn to be rid of them. In any case, the scene is likely to become a fight and chase on top of the moving train.
This is hazardous, with or without Haimannock. It is nighttime out, with clouds and light snow (-7 darkness penalty). The tops of the cars are covered in layers of snow and ice. This combined with the wind halves the Move of any character except Berstock, who revels in it. Every 10 seconds of normal walking requires a DX+2 roll to stand. Every round of running (speed 3 and up) requires a DX+3 roll to stand! Anyone falling must make a second unmodified DX roll. Failure indicates that the character is slipping towards the edge. In 2 rounds, he'll be off the train. A ST-1 or DX-2 roll will give the character a safe grip again, and he can stand normally.
Anyone falling off the train is likely to be out of the adventure. Damage from the fall (combined factors of speed and height) is treated as 7 yards, for an average of 10 points of damage. A faller will (at least) be knocked out or break a limb.
Play these things up in your descriptions. The players will have every reason to be scared! However, the fight should end with Berstock's defeat, provided the players keep cool heads. Berstock's "death" should be dramatic, with the still-grinning body flailing as it falls over the side into darkness. The players should - for a time - believe that Berstock is gone.
Scene #3: Fears Realized
Back in the dry warmth of the train, the characters will find Hawthorne and a crowd of passengers waiting. Hawthorne asks the passengers to please turn in to bed, now that the danger is over. Grudgingly, they will agree. The Pullman containing the bodies is left alone, and the passengers of that car are moved forward. Hawthorne will then ask the PCs what happened, and then tell them what he found out from Berstock's fellow travelers (his name and work, little else). This is a good time for any questions or requests the PCs may have, but the conductor knows little outside of the normal business of the train. Both of Berstock's victims were traveling alone, and there are no living witnesses to Berstock's acts.
All involved are very disturbed and worried, but the Conductor assures both his fellow crew and the PCs that things are fine, and tells everyone to turn in. Provided there is no delay, they will have a breakfast stop on the other side of Cray Canyon at about 10 AM. There, legal matters can be taken care of.
However, peace is not to be. Less than an hour after the characters bed down, a tiny and distant scream can be heard by any characters who choose to remain awake. A few minutes later, a woman crying and speaking in a thick German accent will run through the car asking after the conductor. She is followed by a panting boy. Only the boy speaks any English, and he only haltingly (skill 7). It seems that, while they were sleeping, a man grabbed his little brother from his mother's arms and ran. He was gone by the time they were fully awake. No one else saw the man, and the baby is gone. These people are immigrants from Zulu car #1.
A porter will fetch the conductor, and Paris Moses will arrive on the scene to comfort the grieving mother. Mary Henderson (see NPC section) will ask questions of all concerned, with a seeming total lack of empathy for the mother's feelings. Unfortunately for the Mother, Henderson speaks fluent German. The Mother remembers only icy hands awakening her. Her baby, she said, did not make a sound.
A search for the infant will reveal, after some time, a bloody scrap of blanket behind the baggage car door. Frozen solid.
Scene #4: Cray Canyon, and the Tunnel
At this point, nobody on the train is sleeping, and the story of the strange missing infant and the murderer Berstock has spread among the awakening travelers. All are up in their compartments, many with guns in hand, in varying degrees of alertness. Moses and his wife have brought out their hymns in their own car, and many passengers are there. Hawthorne, at his wits' end, is in the Zulu cars attempting to calm frightened travelers, and using Mary Henderson as a translator. The porters are now speaking freely of the dreams brought on by the route, and now is the time for the PCs to hear that story. See above, and embellish as needed.
And darker things are afoot. Certain of the passengers seem entirely too casual about the events of the trip. As the night passes on, even Hawthorne becomes distant and calm, his worry lines rapidly fading into a sincere, relaxed grin. The players should suspect that something is wrong. If they don't, someone else will point it out. Only about 1 in 10 of the passengers are taken in by this "casualness," and the others react to it with a mixture of fear and anger.
Indeed, the attitude of comfort and safety descending on some of the passengers is the work of Haimannock, who wants his sacrifices to be happy. He is disturbed by their lack of joy. They should be honored in their deaths. At present, he is sitting atop the caboose, preparing his thoughts, as the mountain containing Rononatha grows ever closer.
The train arrives at the Cray Canyon Trestle at 5:15 AM, still on schedule. This is a deep, wooded ravine, in the very depths of the high mountain country. In the darkness, all the passengers can make out is a few flurries of snow falling into a black abyss. The crossing takes only a minute, and the former traces of the moonlit mountains vanish suddenly as the roar and blackness of the Cray Tunnel surrounds the train.
For a few seconds, the characters will notice an almost electric quality in the air around them, and the passengers all fall silent. At that point, a rending of iron screams against the rocks, echoing throughout the tunnel. The train comes to a jarring halt, and when the echo dies down, a distant, jubilant cry is heard from the back of the train. A great gust of wind blows along the tunnel, and some windows crack open. Every gas lantern in every room on the train flickers out.
Confusion follows, and the adventurers will wish to investigate. The first order of business is to regain the lights. If the PCs have some form of light source, or the means of relighting the passage lamps, then they may do so. If they need to return to their Pullman, and are presently forward of Pullman #2 (either in Pullman #1, the smoking car, or the Drawing Room car), then go directly to "the frozen car," below. If they are rearward of Pullman #2, then they can return with no trouble. Under no circumstances should the PCs be in Pullman #2 at this stage. See below for details.
The panicked crowd is also a polarized crowd. Now nearly a third are merely sitting quietly, while the others are afraid of what may have happened. The cold is now in the range of 15 below zero, and all present should take appropriate precautions against frostbite, etc. Characters should make HT rolls as per the "freezing" rules on page 130 of the Basic Set.
The Frozen Car: any attempt at movement through Pullman car #2 will reveal that the car is frozen solid. A sheet of ice two inches thick covers the car, including the doors connecting it to the other Pullmans. It is also frozen to the tracks. This represents the first act of Rononatha as he has awakened to the cry of his son. It has satisfied him temporarily, and now Haimannock/Berstock roams along the tunnel gleefully preparing the entire train with chants. He is being joined by many of his "new followers," including Hawthorne and Mary Henderson.
The PCs will catch a few of these leaving the train. They will refuse advice to stay in away from the cold, saying cryptically, "I am to free my Father." They may be forcibly held back, but will fight for all they are worth if an attempt is made. Any movement by any non-Possessed passengers (PCs included) will cause 1d Possessed to attack.
These are circling the train in a curious pattern of moving triangles. They will attack all of those "lesser honored" who attempt to interfere. Few of them are armed, and even those will merely attack with punches and grapples.
On any encounter, roll 1d. On a 1, Berstock is also with them. His stats are unchanged, and any damage he has taken is still there, including broken limbs from the fall off the train, etc. However, his form cannot be killed. No matter how much damage it takes, it will not cease to be animate. The PCs CAN cripple it normally, but this will do nothing to prevent the ceremony from continuing (see scene #5).
If a Posessed Passenger is captured, he/she will revert to his own right mind. This will reveal the "death by fire" principle to the PCs, as the passenger remembers the spirits fearing it. However, this information can only be gained on a Good reaction roll or higher, due to the state of panic likely to settle on any of the formerly posessed. It is possible, of course that the fire idea will simply occur to the PCs.
This scene and the following one are highly variable, as the PCs must determine much of the endgame pattern. They have the following things to discover, in any way they can:
Scene #5: Cold Blood: The Climax
How this scene goes depends entirely on the actions of the heroes in scene #4. At daybreak, the plan of the two spirits is simple - bring in the freezing wind and freeze all the blood solid, sacrificing them for freedom. If this is successful, then Father and Son may once again roam the earth, ending daylight and pushing the world towards their sunless, frozen ideal.
The goal of the PCs should be to end the madness spread by Berstock and his father-spirit, with a minimal loss of innocent life. Several solutions exist (see above), and these listed suggest others. Imaginative groups will come up with all sorts of things once the facts are made clear.
As an option, the above methods (which are straightforward and conducive to a more action-oriented group) could be bogus. Feel free to invent your own. This is necessary if some player has read the adventure. Perhaps the solution is to expose Berstock to direct morning sunlight, or to destroy a totem image of Haimannock, which is secreted in Berstock's bag in the baggage car. Perhaps there is an Indian, or even a shaman, aboard the immigrant car, who holds some ancient key from his family. Or some combination of all of these. Any interesting cargo that you permit to exist is bound to become the tools of desperate and creative heroes.
In previous runs of this adventure, most groups hit upon the fire method, find the explosives, and blast the tunnel. Some groups think to try to round up the possessed innocents first (with the help of the other passengers, who vastly outnumber the possessed), and some not. And while the blast-the-tunnel works well in both burning and burying Berstock, it also stops traffic along the rail for a long time . . .
The GM should suit the solution(s) that suit his group's roleplaying and tactical style, and reward logical new solutions that the players may invent!
ENDING THE ADVENTURE
In addition to the standard Character Point award (see p.B184), the following special modifiers apply to Cray Canyon Cold Snap:
Killing of any Possessed innocents (this does not include Anthony Berstock): -1 CP per killed innocent, maximum -3.
Injuring the same: -1/2 CP for every innocent hurt, maximum -3.
Destruction of Berstock's Form by flame: +4 CP.
Burial of Berstock's Form (trapping the spirits together): -1 CP.
Note that if the lesser method of ending the awakening (burial of Berstock's Form) is used, that the two spirits will be active again within months. So that is, at best, a pyrrhic victory. Any survivors of the can contact help by using the telegraph lines that run along the rails. This is true even if they collapse the tunnel, as the lines run above the mountain, not through it. The winter will quickly return to more survivable levels of cold, and they will be rescued within a day, back within the "peaceful" fold of frontier civilization.
For an updated (non-GURPS) version of Cray Canyon