From the Mind of Keeper Jon Hook
Welcome back to the Cult of Azathoth. As noted in the previous article, this series about the classic Call of Cthulhu campaign, Spawn of Azathoth, by Keith “Doc” Herber, will be full of spoilers. Also, I’ll be referencing the 2005 version of the campaign because it is the most accessible.
The rest of this article is full of SPOILERS and spiders. You’ve been warned.
The campaign begins in Providence, Rhode Island, in May 1927. It is assumed that the investigators are acquaintances of Mr. Philip Baxter, a retired professor of archaeology for Brown University. Baxter is also a founding member of the Tuesday Night Academy, an esoteric club of academics. For my game, the players created new investigators for this campaign. Some of the investigators were friends with Baxter as co-workers at the university, some were members of the Tuesday Night Academy, and a couple of the investigators only knew of Baxter tangentially through the other investigators.
The opening chapter of this campaign feels like a “pre-credits” teaser scene in a movie. The Keeper should select a single investigator connected to Baxter and enact the scene entitled A Ghostly Presence with them. In this solo scene, the investigator awakes to find the spectral figure of Philip Baxter in their bedroom. Baxter’s apparition seems to fight for his life against an invisible foe when suddenly a large bite mark appears on his head. Lifeless, Baxter’s apparition falls to the floor and vanishes. As the scene concludes, the investigator notes the clock reads 12:03 AM in the wee hours of May 2, 1927.
The full cast of investigators then convene for the first full chapter entitled Providence, Rhode Island where they soon learn of Baxter’s death. According to the newspaper reports, Baxter died on May 1st due to cardiac arrest. These accounts clearly conflict with the investigator’s nocturnal visit one day later, which pantomimed a violent death that was very much not a heart attack.
Soon, the investigators receive an invitation to Baxter’s funeral as they were collectively named in his last will and testament. While attending the funeral followed by the reading of the will, the investigators meet a host of interesting NPCs who lead them deeper into a mystery.
The primary mystery presented to the investigators is a cryptic message and package of information bequeathed to the investigators by the deceased. Baxter’s enclosed message infers he was investigating a mystery revealed through his own dreams. According to his message, Baxter recently encountered the investigators in his dreams, which he interpreted as a sign to contact them for help in case something unfortunate should befall him—which it obviously has.
The secondary mystery involves the timing and circumstances of Baxter’s death. The official coroner report states Baxter died of heart failure on May 1st, but the investigator visited by Baxter’s specter witnessed a far more violent demise on May 2nd. Disturbing flashbacks to the opening scene during the funeral and ensuing events help prompt the investigator to remember this discrepancy. The Keeper should encourage the line of thought when it occurs to the player, possibly by invoking a creepy sense of connection to Baxter’s spirit.
Allow time for the investigators to digest the metric ton of clues they collect from the funeral and the reading of the will. Due to the vast number of NPCs, the investigators face the daunting task of determining where to start. If need be, invoke the lure of the second mystery to draw the group into investigating Baxter’s cause of death. Some of the NPCs the investigators have already met are involved in the local investigation in Providence.
Philip Baxter is a widower. He has three grown children, Emmett, Colin, and Cynthia. Emmett is still a resident of Providence, but Colin lives in Florida while Cynthia is a missionary living in the Andaman Islands. Colin and Cynthia do not attend their father’s funeral. Philip Baxter had a live-in housekeeper, Mrs. Angela Vincenzo, an elderly woman who was also a nanny to the children after their mother died years ago. Vincenzo still resides in Baxter’s home after receiving it in the will. The home contains clues related to Baxter’s exploration of the Dreamlands, as well as an element that contributed to his death—a large spider that Cynthia shipped to him from the Andaman Islands. Mrs. Vincenzo potentially falls victim to the ancient spider’s terrible offspring.
If investigators exhume Baxter’s buried remains, they discover a spider bite on the nape of his neck, just under his hairline. The spider’s venom only paralyzed Baxter and dramatically reduced his life signs; it took him to the brink of death, but it did not kill him. In truth, Baxter was inadvertently murdered by his friend, Silas Patterson, who is becoming a ghoul. Thinking Baxter was dead, Patterson stole his friend’s body in order to eat the brain. Although Baxter awoke during the ritual, the ravenous Patterson still took a bite of the exposed cerebrum sealing his friend’s fate. It was this horrific act the selected investigator witnessed as Baxter’s escaping spirit relived his tragic final moments just seconds after his true death.
In the adventure, as it is written, Patterson’s theft of Baxter’s body is assisted by the mortician, Alvin Beswick. According to the adventure, Beswick is unscrupulous and greedy. But, in my version of Spawn of Azathoth, I thought it’d be more fun if Beswick was a ghoul magically disguised to appear human. The investigators discover Patterson’s secret and the truth of Baxter’s death by investigating Baxter’s home, Patterson’s life and habits, including his relationship with Beswick. Once started, the investigators find themselves immersed in a rich mystery filled with interesting conflicts and Mythos revelations, but nothing overtly deadly.
After solving the puzzle of Baxter’s death, the investigators possess a wealth of clues to help uncover the larger mystery that Baxter pursued at the time of his death. Based on the other NPCs the investigators met at the funeral and reading of the will, they may choose to go in several different directions. Like the spokes of a wheel, once the investigators finish pursuing one set of clues, they can return to this central hub of clues to decide what they’ll investigate next.
Other key NPCs include Father Julian Baxter, a retired priest and Philip’s older brother, and his chauffeur, Mr. Matthew White. Philip learned how to explore the Dreamlands from his brother. It is through Fr. Baxter that the investigators can also gain the dream brew that will allow them to explore the Dreamlands, too. Clues gained from Fr. Baxter can lead the investigators to the Ulthar and Beyond chapter, and later to the Eternal Quest chapter. While essentially a mute in the waking world, White possesses great power and influence in the Dreamlands.
Judge Mortimer Braddock is the executor of Baxter’s will. As a life-long friend to Philip, he knows secrets about the Baxter children, Emmett, Colin, and Cynthia. The investigators also meet Emmett Baxter at the funeral, and while he is a gruff character, he provides the investigators with additional clue leads. Clues gained from these NPCs direct the investigators to the St. Augustine, Florida and Andaman Islands chapters.
And finally, an investigation into Baxter’s esoteric club, the Tuesday Night Academy, uncovers clues about an observatory the club built in the Montana mountains. At this remote installation, exiled Russian astronomer, Dmitri Passelov, attempts to observe a strange comet transiting the solar system. These clues lead the investigators to the Garrison, Montana chapter.
When I ran this campaign, my players chose to explore the Dreamlands once they completed the investigation into Baxter’s death. So, the next installment in this Cult of Azathoth series of articles will cover the Ulthar and Beyond chapter. Until then, keep your eyes to the stars, and watch for changes.
For more Call of Cthulhu madness from Jon, check out the Modern Mythos Podcast.
And if you like what he and Seth Skorkowsky do, consider becoming a Patron.