Stage magic and the Cthulhu Mythos pair beautifully. Lovecraft himself collaborated and ghostwrote for Harry Houdini. Over the decades, several scenarios have capitalized on this thematic association, including the two-pack of adventures from Games Workshop published in 1986 featuring The Statue of the Sorcerer and The Vanishing Conjurer. Other notables include The House of Memphis in Mansions of Madness, volume 1, and Miskatonic Repository offerings, Death is the Final Escape andThe Maw. Of these, our personal favorite is The Vanishing Conjurer by Mike Lewis and Simon Price, which features evocative cover art by Lee Gibbons, a promising hook, and a novel roleplaying opportunity baked into the scenario. As reviewed in the October 1986 issue of White Dwarf, the plot was noted to be “a little linear,” and, from a contemporary perspective, the investigation is a bit too constrained. Despite these limitations, the adventure contains great promise, and the authors mention it as a possible addition to a Masks of Nyarlathotep campaign. Sadly, this scenario is long out-of-print and proves costly to obtain (running around $80-100). Nonetheless, we tracked it down, tweaked it, and ran it at Chaosium Con and Origins in 2023. For those interested in bringing this adventure to the table, either as a one-shot, introductory adventure or as added flavor to your Masks of Nyarlathotep campaign, we offer a series of suggestions, provide pre-generated investigators based on our modified hook, as well as a copy of our play notes.
As written, the scenario begins in London’s West End and deploys Howard Horne, a theatrical agent, to recruit the investigators to search for his missing performer, Philip Leclair. The motivation to track down this promising young magician is thin, particularly since Horne is presented as a bit of a mid-tier bumbler with no legitimate connection to the investigators other than being “an old friend.”
When running this as a one-shot, our pre-generated investigators are members of a stage magic act about to embark on a promising European tour. The talented, but still affordable, Leclair has been booked as an opener through Horne, who received his payment in advance. With a money-minded manager among the pre-generated investigators, the hook is generously baited. With just one weekend in London before the continental tour kicks off, the investigators are given a firm deadline to solve the mystery.
In the original version of the scenario, the investigators watch quasi-antagonist, Karl Weiss, performing at the Chancellor’s Theatre before they meet Horne. His act involves vanishing ducks, and the apparatus Weiss uses forms a core of the mystery, as Weiss has stolen the idea from the missing Leclair. To elevate the level of intrigue, introduce the Mythos early, and better tie Weiss to later events, we modify the apparatus to be a magical disc hidden in a water-filled tub that “disappears” the ducks. Spot Hidden rolls note strange mutations and deformities on the act’s ducks. Successful Art/Craft (Stage Magic) checks recognize this as no simple illusion. Only a successful Cthulhu Mythos roll correctly identifies it as some sort of summoning or gate magic being performed.
After the show, the investigators meet with Horne, who reveals that their opener has disappeared. Through discussion, he offers up two clue nodes by providing Leclair’s South London address and floating Weiss as an alternative act if they can’t manage to locate Leclair.
The most direct investigative path takes the investigators to Leclair’s flat. This leads to a delightful encounter with landlady, Mrs. May Drinkwater. Incidentally, this led to a number of jokes at the table about her husband Will, and so on. An agreeable woman, she kindly allows access to the apartment. Within, we hide an audition card for the Ancient Order of Sorcerers (see below) in the band of a top hat stored on a wardrobe shelf. We also place a book alongside a number of magic texts on Leclair’s shelves. The book, an amateur’s magic text, belongs to Karl Weiss and cements a connection between the two performers. It also serves to raise suspicion about the nature of Weiss’ talents. The remainder of the apartment contains mundane magic props, except for a small collection of strange-smelling, colored powders hidden in his medicine cabinet. We added these unusual ingredients to hint at Leclair’s recent dabbling in Mythos arcana. The effects of these powders are up to the Keeper’s discretion, but we’ve included red (flammable), black (explosive), and green (acidic) in our runs. This leads to some fun research and experimentation.
If searching out Weiss for conversation, he is readily available before and after his nightly performances at the Chancellor’s Theatre. We depict him as cagey and mysterious, yet grandiose and egotistical. According to the scenario, he is German, but we prefer to imply this may be an affectation by placing German language textbooks in his dressing room. This pairs well with his reticence to disclose his relationship with Leclair, which becomes difficult to deny when they present the book recovered from Leclair’s apartment. His actual skill as a stage magician may already be in question. With adequate social skill and/or Psychology rolls, Weiss discloses information about Leclair and their mutual ties to the Ancient Order of Sorcerers. He balks at vouching for them, but suggests they simply audition and supplies them with a card, as needed. In truth, Weiss learned that Leclair retrieved a book from Master Soo’s study and used it to uncover powerful, real magic. Weiss recognizing an opportunity first studied with Leclair then reported his “friend” to Master Soo. The magic employed by Weiss in his act was first taught to him by the eager Leclair.
At this point, investigators likely distrust Weiss. We added two additional avenues to pursue. First, investigators can search Karl’s dressing room at the Chancellor Theatre. Here they spot German textbooks, but no additional suspicious tomes. In the closet, they find a burlap sack containing a collection of dead and malformed ducks completely drained of blood. The shock prompts at Sanity roll (0/1D3). If investigators wish to trail Weiss, they discover he lives in a third-floor apartment within walking distance of the theater on a poorly lit street. This opens opportunities to surveil Weiss or break into his apartment.
Watching the apartment at night, they witness weird flashes of light and strange smells, as Weiss conducts experiments and practices with his tub. We decided to remove the rumors about strange lights in the attic at the Ancient Order of Sorcerers and place them at Karl’s flat. This provides some geographic variation in the scenario and keeps Weiss in the center of the investigation.
Investigators must ascend creaky steps in a darkened stairwell to reach the apartment. They smell brimstone and burnt flesh. A rug covers a round scorch mark on the floor outlined by strange glyphs and crude Chinese characters. This represents the spot where Weiss places his arcane stone to “practice.” A shelf holds powders identical to those found in Leclair’s apartment. A journal, in a language of your choosing, details a regimented practice schedule with sessions held at the Ancient Order of Sorcerers along with the apartment. We found these small additions broadened the scope of the investigation and provided opportunities for our players to split the party.
Ancient Order of Sorcerers:
In the lead-up to his disappearance, Leclair joined the Ancient Order of Sorcerers to develop his act and learn new techniques. He discovered much, much more. Those familiar with the scenario likely noticed we changed the name from the Inner Brotherhood of Magic. First, this eliminates the exclusion of female investigators, and it implies something more esoteric. The Order is led by the reclusive Ching Lung Soo. As presented in the original text, Soo was a Chinese magician corrupted by a cult and intended to summon the object of their worship, a Star Vampire. This premise fails to inspire and ignores (or simply amalgamates) some interesting stage magic history.
We re-imagined Ching Lung Soo, as a nefarious American sorcerer masquerading as a mysterious Chinese magician while collaborating with an ancient cult. He plots to summon a Star Vampire during a charity event at the Mermaid Theatre. Sustained only by intermittent feeding on the trapped Leclair, this alien creature thirsts and will feast ravenously. Distended with blood from the wealthy and powerful audience members, the creature will then be ritually sacrificed by the evil magician in a bid to obtain vast and terrible power for his future schemes.
If you wish, you can draw upon historical stage magicians, Ching Ling Foo and William Ellsworth Robinson (performed as Chung Ling Soo), to deepen the mysterious background of Soo. Be forewarned, the name game gets a little hard to track, and we referred to them as Master Soo, Master Foo, and Robinson. This impersonator’s deception is uncovered by searching through newspaper clippings in the library, conversations with other members, and, most importantly, a mannequin bearing the hair, beard, and dark glasses integral to the Soo disguise.
As written, this location is the meat of the scenario and the heart of the investigation. In order to gain entry, the investigators must successfully audition for the Order by performing magic. This is certainly a highlight of the adventure, and the authors suggest the players perform actual magic tricks. With a stage magic act making up our group, we allowed them to perform individually or as teams. We allow conditional memberships for assistants that require accompaniment by their principal for entry. These modifications open a variety of possibilities as players concoct schemes to get the entire group admitted at once. In addition to magic tricks and sleight of hand, we permit displays of psychic powers relying on Occult, Psychology or Medium (if playing Pulp) skills.
Should investigators fail to gain admission or choose not to audition, we add an additional path to gain entry. A small bakery and cafe are located nearby, allowing for discreet surveillance. After an interval, a Chinese laundry truck appears on the block to make deliveries. A fleet-footed investigator can grab a package containing robes worn by members of the cult. Alternatively, they can watch the driver take the parcel around back and drop it off outside the slightly ajar kitchen door. A stealthy investigator can pass through the kitchen into the remainder of the house. Additionally, a small servant’s staircase leads from the kitchen into Soo’s second-floor study, where they can find tomes, a schedule for the upcoming Mermaid Theatre performance, and evidence of his charade.
The Mythos Magic:
While intrigue builds on the order’s first floor, the Mythos elements at play become clarified on the second floor. The importance of the second floor is emphasized by order members, especially Will Crowther, an American second-level order member, who befriended Leclair and (in our version) recently returned from Paris. Due to his recent travels, he just learned of Leclair’s disappearance and has performed no formal investigation himself, but admits that he might have led Leclair into trouble when mentioning a secret passage leading from the kitchen to Master Soo’s study. He admits he saw Leclair placing a big book with Chinese characters in his bag shortly before the disappearance. This is the same book Leclair shared with Weiss, which lead to Leclair’s punishment by Master Soo.
According to order members, Weiss spends considerable time in a locked room at the top of the stairs. Within the locked room, we place a 4-foot wide metallic disc and accompanying arch crafted of strange metals and inscribed with eldritch glyphs, similar but clearer than those in Weiss’ apartment. This larger version of Weiss’ gate disc will be used to fully manifest the Star Vampire during the charity performance at the Mermaid Theatre. A series of wards on the floor prevents the Star Vampire from attacking those who enter the room. If the investigators attempt to muck with the gate, they run the risk of a brief encounter with the invisible creature. In our playthroughs, the investigators never reach this room.
Further down the hallway is Soo’s study and quarters. A locked bookshelf contains a translated portion of The Seven Cryptical Books of Hsan, The R’lyeh Text, and True Magick. Marked pages in the books reveal the Find Gate and View Gate spells, which come in handy as investigative tools without offering too much power. The desk contains a copy of the itinerary for the charity revealing windows where the investigators can wander the unguarded house or theater. In Soo’s quarters, they find his disguise, as well as a heavy wooden gate box. In our playthroughs, this led to a dank, dungeon-like chamber in China secured by a heavy wood door or to a sister gate box in Soo’s Mermaid Theatre dressing room. More readily accessible from the first floor, these rooms are always visited by our investigators.
Other locations on the Second Floor include:
Cultist’s Quarters: the spartan room contains ten plain beds with a ladder behind the door. A Spot Hidden reveals a small trapdoor in the corner of the ceiling leading to the attic
Practice Room: contains various apparatus for escapes and illusions, including a dangerously sharp guillotine, a water torture cell, and an iron maiden
2nd Degree Library: contains more advanced and older magical texts, including rare manuals by Houdin and Dee; while rare, none seem to be extraordinary
The Star Vampire:
The scenario’s proposed climax assumes the investigators wait until the performance to actively disrupt the summoning of the Star Vampire at the Mermaid Theatre. By providing earlier clues as to the nature of the plot, as suggested above, this is unlikely to happen. Investigators will likely seek out the Star Vampire’s summoning device and attempt to act in advance of the performance. The device is hidden beneath the stage of the Mermaid Theatre directly under the trapdoor. The View Gate spell or any other attempts to use or manipulate the device result in an encounter with the trapped Leclair, who proclaims the following dialogue:
“Gods…the pain…you must help me, release me from this prison…Soo is not who he appears…you must not let this thing out…it’s so very hungry…consuming me slowly, you must open the portal…just enough for me…please…”
During every playthrough, our investigators abandoned Leclair, thinking him truly dead or bait for a trap. Instead, they opted to destroy the gate. Depending on the success of their efforts, the Star Vampire potentially manifests to allow a final encounter with the creature. Of course, some groups may choose to wait for the performance, but they will likely be the minority. Of note, two of our groups deployed Leclair’s powders to create a massive explosion. To complicate matters, Soo and his cultists may appear at an inopportune moment.
If the party chooses to wait, Soo allows Weiss to perform and then sacrifices the German magician in a ritual beheading to power the summoning. Our conception of the ritual summoning provides a nod to the real Master Foo, who used to perform beheading illusions during his act. Soo and his Chinese cultist entourage conduct an elaborate ritual before Leclair hovers silently screaming above the stage. If the investigators don’t quickly intervene, Leclair is consumed by the emerging Star Vampire. Either way, Master Soo slinks under the stage (Spot Hidden) and prepares to escape via his gate box if things go poorly.
The Remainder of Mermaid Theatre:
The scenario provides lots of information about the theatre and the police guards. Much of this is unnecessary if the investigators choose not too wait for the summoning. The main deterrents should be police and cultists guarding various locations about the theatre, especially the exterior doors. The placement and resistance will depend upon investigator timing. There are details about the Royal Box suggesting the players attempt to enlist or warn the powerful, but significant obstacles block the path.
I have run the remixed version of this scenario three times and found it immensely entertaining for myself and the players. During my initial read of the module, I agreed with comments offered by reviewers. It simply does not hold up to contemporary standards and lacks a compelling investigation, but I could not resist a chance to blend Mythos and stage magic. Below you will find our prep notes, rough handouts, and pre-generated investigators in a single package. Feel free to discard, modify, strip mine, or remake anything provided in this collection of materials.