Steampunk Monster Hunters #1: “By The Skin Of Her Teeth”
The first session of the Steampunk Monster Hunters campaign had a bit of a rough time getting going. A couple of players had real-world responsibilities and couldn’t make it, then one of the remaining players had to cancel at the very last minute due to unfortunate circumstances, leaving us with a team of only half strength. Nevertheless, we decided to soldier on – happily, as it turned out, since everybody who made it had a great time.
- Lucretia Gasser Buttersnaps, Philanthropist Commando
- Mercy Patton, Philanthropist Sage
- Nayler H. Knuer, Philanthropist Techie
Our story begins in London, in early May, 1851. Steampunk London is much like our world’s London, aside from the air traffic, mechanical men, and Babbage engines. Mad scientists have gone public; Knuer carries on active correspondence with a Baron Frankenstein, on the Continent, who’s doing amazing things in the medical sciences. The British Empire dominates the world, partly thanks to their early adoption of Babbage’s technology. Steam-powered high-tech revolutions need steam, made by burning coal, which leads to smoke and smog, so goggles (and sometimes, gas masks) are common fashion in London.
Our heroes each received an invitation to a clandestine meeting after hours at the Crystal Palace, the site of the Great Exhibition, in Hyde Park, London. Mr Buttersnaps, a psychic and spiritualist, received an invitation but wasn’t able to make the meeting, due to being locked in his own liquor cellar.
When they arrived, they were shown to a series of rooms that had been curtained off for privacy. Drinks were served. At the bar, our heroes met the Texian, Samuel Colt, who fell to discussing technology with Knuer. Soon, their brainstorming led to bar-top gadgeteering, rapidly producing a prototype seven-barrel shotgun.
The meeting’s hosts, Charles Dickens and Lady Ada Lovelace, introduced themselves, and explained the reason for the get-together. They, along with Mr Colt and some number of others, were members of an Association, who had come to realize that England and the entire human race was under assault by the forces of supernatural darkness. Our heroes were aware of this, having encountered various monsters in their pasts. The Association proposed a mutually beneficial relationship, in which the heroes were given support and information to be used to carry the fight to the monsters.
After clarifying that nobody was proposing the murder of actual humans, only monsters, the arrangement was accepted. Colt celebrated the agreement by presenting Mrs Buttersnaps with a pair of cutting-edge prototype pistols with replaceable cylinders. Miss Patton attempted to approach Lady Lovelace to flirt, but was blocked when Knuer, on the same mission, lured Lovelace away to talk about technology.
Dickens then handed over the group’s first case-file. Lady Estella Havisham is a patient at the Swallow House Sanatorium in Crawley, halfway between London and Brighton. She had reported to a relative about being frightened by a large jungle cat on the sanatorium grounds. While Lady Havisham has a history of depression and binge drinking, her relative had never known her to hallucinate or make up unbelievable stories, and so the story came to the attention of the Association. This prompted Lady Lovelace to perform a Babbage engine analysis, which had revealed a statistically-improbable number of suicides in and around the sanatorium over the past three months.
Our heroes set to discussing the file over drinks. Mrs Buttersnaps mentioned that she knew of several different kinds of were-cats around the world, but none that could disguise their kills as any kind of suicide, while Knuer had known demons to drive people to suicide, but never in the form of a big cat.
Miss Patton opened up her bag and stepped inside, descending into it to consult her library. There, her research pointed towards the likely culprit: a skin-changer, a compulsive serial killer spirit with the ability to take the shape of a person or animal by putting on a flayed skin. A skin-changer might both wear the skin of a predator and drive people to suicide for sick thrills.
Knuer and Mrs Buttersnaps were both startled to see Miss Patton exiting her bag bearing a book with a description of the monster and a detailed illustration. Patton and Knuer combined their knowledge and the contents of the bar to mix up a concoction that could spoil a preserved skin. Mrs Buttersnaps discovered the potion’s corrosive properties when she tasted it, but Knuer was able to provide some quick first aid.
When Mrs Buttersnaps returned home, she found her husband was still locked in a liquor cellar… but this time, it was a different liquor cellar.
That night, Miss Patton dreamed that she was seeing through another being’s eyes as it searched through dusty attics and storerooms. She glimpsed a hazy vision of the being discovering a hidden package. When the package was unwrapped, it revealed a dried monkey’s paw.
The next morning, our heroes left town aboard Knuer’s steam carriage, bound for Crawley. The trip took the bulk of the day, so when they arrived, they obtained rooms and went to discuss the case over dinner. Prompted by the discussion, Knuer went to the local library to do some research.
Back in the days of piracy, he read, Captain James Swallow had made his fortune in the Caribbean before coming back to Crawley to build a sprawling house. After his mysterious death, the house and grounds had gone through many hands before finally becoming Swallow House Sanatorium.
He was also able to find newspapers from the past several months, allowing him to make a list of the dates and circumstances of the recent suicides.
When he brought this information back to the others, they speculated that perhaps Captain Swallow had left behind some treasure that the skin-changer was now seeking. Furthermore, upon seeing the list of dates, Mrs Buttersnaps noticed that there was a pattern to them, perhaps something having to do with the phase of the moon; it seemed that two people died, at regular intervals, for each new moon. This indicated that they had about a week before the next expected event. She also realized that the pattern had started abruptly in early February, with no suspicious deaths in January.
That night, Miss Patton had the same dream again, seeing the discovery of a monkey’s paw, but this time, the vision was much clearer. She saw that the dried paw was clutching something shiny. She also observed enough details to know the paw’s hiding place: stashed in a niche up a chimney in a cellar of the sanatorium’s main house. She felt sure she could find the location again. Likewise, she felt sure that the skin-changer was seeking this thing, clearly some object of power.
The next day, the heroes went to visit the sanatorium, claiming that Mrs Buttersnaps was seeking a place to care for her husband – a story which was, if anything, overly plausible. They made it some ways past the gate before they were intercepted by Dr Lorry and Nurse Pecksniff. The staff accepted the cover story, and were willing to let the heroes tour the facility. Knuer verbally probed the doctor’s medical knowledge, hoping to possibly expose a hidden monster, but discovered that the handsome young doctor knew his stuff.
Dr Lorry summoned Nicholas Smike, the head orderly, to show our heroes around the grounds, then bid them good day before leaving with Nurse Pecksniff. Knuer was somewhat smitten by Smike’s rugged good looks and mutton chops, so as the group walked around the sanatorium, he worked his way close to the orderly and offered a rather direct proposal. Offended, Smike attempted to punch Knuer, who evaded the attack but slipped and fell on the muddy ground. Mrs Buttersnaps quick-drew one of her new revolvers and shot Smike’s smoking pipe from his mouth, causing him to pause and re-think the situation.
At the commotion, the older Dr Provis Magwitch approached, demanding to know what was going on. The heroes introduced themselves, diplomatically smoothing over the incident as a blameless misunderstanding. Still angry but knowing to quit when he’s ahead, Smike stormed off. Kneur struck up a medical conversation with Dr Magwitch, determining that he, too, was a real doctor, if a generation behind on his training.
Playing off their common professional knowledge, Knuer interrogated the doctor about the sanatorium’s staff and recent happenings around the place. He learned that the third doctor, Dr Lizzie Hexam, had only arrived at the facility a few months ago, having arrived in early January from Haiti.
While noting that they needed to see Dr Hexam later, the heroes decided they wanted to see someone else first. Miss Patton mentioned that one of her distant cousins, Lady Havisham, was a patient, and asked if they could please see her? Having been put in a good mood by Knuer’s conversation, Dr Magwitch was willing to go along, and so the heroes found themselves pointed towards an elderly woman sitting watching a croquet match.
The heroes introduced themselves as friends who had been sent to look into her big cat trouble. Relieved, she explained that she had been sneaking around after-hours when she saw the beast. When questioned closely, she told them that she had seen the cat leaving the sanatorium’s ice house. In appreciation, Knuer slipped her a bottle of brandy that he Gizmo’ed out of his pocket.
The heroes quietly slipped away to check out the ice house. After some searching, Miss Patton found a space hidden behind a loose board, where she discovered a collection of large glass jars full of noxious chemicals and preserved skins. The first skin was a jaguar’s. The second was the skin of a human man. The heroes kept control over their stomachs as they pulled the jars out and used their skin-spoiling concoction to destroy the skins. Smelling the chemicals from the jars, Mrs Buttersnaps was certain that she had smelled the same thing earlier in the day, without realizing its significance. Someone they had met that day was the monster!
But what to do now? Lie in wait, in the cold ice house, hoping to jump the skin-changer when it came to change identities? That didn’t sound appealing, especially since they didn’t know how often the monster would change skins. Instead, they decided to go looking for the monkey’s paw.
Moving unobserved, the heroes made their way inside the main house and into the cellars. Miss Patton was able to locate the place from her dream. Reaching into the chimney, she pulled out a leather-wrapped package, which turned out to be a dried monkey’s paw, tightly clutching a gold doubloon!
Just then, Mrs Buttersnaps, on lookout, heard approaching footsteps. The door was thrown open, revealing Nurse Pecksniff. “What are you doing-?” she started to demand, before her eyes widened as she spotted the monkey’s paw in Miss Patton’s hand. Then Mrs Buttersnaps punched her right between the eyes with a two-and-a-half pound pistol.
… to no effect at all. Nurse Pecksniff snarled at our heroes, then, surprisingly, turned and fled!
The chase was on, but it was clear that one of the heroes was much fleeter of foot than the others. Knuer tossed Mrs Buttersnaps his shotgun, and then she was off in hot pursuit. To start with, she was reluctant to draw attention by shooting at Pecksniff. First, she tried to slam the monster off its feet, leading to a sort of running scuffle where neither party was able to harm or slow down the other.
Finally, the chase led into the kitchen, where Pecksniff snatched up a butcher knife. Mrs Buttersnaps tried to shoot the knife out of its hand, but was only able to slightly wound it before it stabbed her solidly in the torso, knocking her out!
When the others arrived, a few seconds later, they found Mrs Buttersnaps bleeding on the floor, but no sign of the monster. Knuer pulled some advanced medical supplies from his pockets and stabilized Mrs Buttersnaps.
Having lost the monster but foiled its plot, the heroes withdrew, claiming that Nurse Pecksniff had attacked Mrs Buttersnaps. They brought the paw back to London, planning to hand it over to the Association for safekeeping.
Cool Point: Miss Patton, for the prophetic dreams that were seen as key to cracking the case
Booby Point: Mrs Buttersnaps, for nearly being gutted by the monster