The following is an adventure expanding on the information given about Burma on page 176 of Trail of Cthulhu. It should be adapted and modified to best suit the selected PCs. Examples are given of how investigative abilities can be used but be ready to adapt this should characters not have the necessary abilities. The text should be paraphrased to reflect the PCs current situation and actions.
More information about Saya San can be found here.
The PCs become involved in an attempt to capture rebel leader Saya San during the Burmese uprising of 1931.
The Horrible Truth
In ancient times the Serpent-Folk were ousted from the lands now known as Burma. When the kingdom was conquered by the British in 1885 those Serpent-Folk who were still active saw it as an opportunity to take back what once had been theirs.
Using their power of illusion they devoured several important people within the British authority. Under the pretence of cultural misunderstanding they did everything they could to insult and degrade the Burmese people. This would goad the people into revolting, which the British would be forced to quell. The Serpent-Folk enjoyed the spectacle of humans fighting and killing each other.
A former carpenter and current political activist, Saya San, has recently stumbled on the power to defeat the British and the Serpent-Folk with them. On October 1930 there were earthquakes in Pegu and Pyu. Saya San was in the area, speaking with the rural communities to gain support against the British. Investigating he discovered a newly opened fissure that led to a hidden temple, deep underground.
The temple dated back to the rule of the Serpent-Folk. Stone work revealed how the local people had called upon the power of Galon, a mythical bird that found its way into Hindu mythology. Using the power of the Sun it eliminated the naga from the country.
Or that is how Saya San interpreted what he found. In truth Galon was actually Cthugha, the Great Old One often associated with the element of fire. The rites Saya San found told him how to summon Cthugha and use tattoos to bind him within his body.
This makes Saya San virtually invulnerable, since his insides are now filled with the pure energy of Cthugha. Anything entering his body, whether it be a bullet or poison is instantly destroyed. Filled with boundless energy Saya San has himself crowned Thupannaka Galon Raja, promising the people that they will remove the British, revitalize Buddhism and share with them his magic.
A year later and ruling from his palace in Tharrawaddy Saya San is inspiring revolts across the country. The British are having a difficult time maintaining control and the Serpent-Folk are becoming nervous.
Saya San has survived several assassination attempts direct at him using poisonous snakes. The fact that he is referring to the British as naga make the Serpent-Folk believe that their presence has been detected when in fact it is just a coincidence.
They wish to remove Saya San once and for all and will use the player characters to do it. What they don’t realise is that while there is a way to kill Saya San, by disfiguring or removing his tattoos, this will unleash a huge fireball as Cthugha escapes its confinement.
The PCs Meet Booth Gravely and receive a request, order or are blackmailed into dealing with Saya San. On the way they witness a Revolt first hand before making their way through the jungle and encounter a Plague of Snakes. Reaching Alaungtang Hill they have a chance to Meet Saya San and discover the Secret of Galon. They then get caught up in the The Final Battle where their choices will affect the outcome of the Burese Uprising.
Meet Booth Gravely
Either as a group or individually the PCs are summoned to the office of Booth Gravely, Special Rebellion Commissioner in Tharrawaddy. His office is filled with maps of the local area, marked with the latest sightings of troop movements. There are also many glass tanks filled with a variety of snakes native to the area (Russell’s Viper, Cobra, Krait and Green Snake) along with some large pythons.
Booth Gravely has a military bearing, speaking in a commanding voice with every expectation that he will be obeyed. He will begin speaking to the PCs behind his desk, appraising them of the situation before he makes a tour of his snakes, handling them without fear.
In no uncertain terms Booth Gravely says that the problems facing the country are due to Saya San. If he was to be removed then the rebellion would be quashed. If something isn’t done soon Britain is likely to loose the country.
So far efforts to strike against Saya San have failed, only furthering his followers belief that his tattoos grant him invulnerability. Booth Gravely believes that the PCs can succeed where others have failed.
He needs them to reach the palace atop Alaungtang Hill, amongst a ceremonially marked city called Buddharaja Myo (Buddhist King’s Town) and cause a distraction. Ideally they should learn as much they can about Saya San’s belief in magic in order to find a way to undermine his followers faith in him. They can then use a flare gun to summon the army who will be waiting nearby.
There are many reasons that Gravely may have summoned the PCs. If any are part of the military they may be assigned to help Gravely deal with the rebellion or have served with him before and owe him a favour.
Antiquarians, archaeologists and parapsychologists might be tempted by the reports of ancient artefacts at Saya San’s palace. Booth Gravely will indicate that when the military attack the palace those artefacts might be destroyed or otherwise lost. Knowing that this would be a great loss he is giving them the opportunity to remove them before hand.
Alienists, doctors and nurses could be persuaded to get close enough to Saya San to diagnose him with a mental illness, in order to discredit him amongst the rebels. If not they could attempt to persuade the rebels that they’ve come to offer medical aide or learn from Saya San, who has a reputation as a healer.
Journalists could be after a big story and an interview with Saya San would certainly qualify. It is possible the rebels will be equally anxious to get their side of the story told.
Criminals, hobos and private investigators might find themselves on the wrong side of the law. In order to escape punishment Booth Gravely is offering them this job as a way out. All other occupations may find themselves in similar legal trouble or even just have their assets or passports seized until they carry out their assigned task.
What none of the PCs will know is that Booth Gravely is actually a Serpent-Folk. He killed and consumed the real Booth Gravely shortly after he arrived in the country. He is co-ordinating with other Serpent-Folk in other provinces and within the army.
It shouldn’t come to a fight, especially at this stage, but game statistics for Serpent-Folk can be found on page 147 of Trail of Cthulhu.
Flattery and Intimidation do little to sway Gravely. He cares nothing for the empty words of humans not has any fear of them. He does appreciate the weight of wealth and will respond to attempts to use Credit Rating with the offer of supplies, weapons and equipment.
Gravely will be provide them with as much information as is publicly known about Saya San and the rebellion. He makes no secret of his distaste for the enemy or his belief that the man should be killed. He does try to justify it as in service to Britain. At no point will he confirm any belief in the supernatural (although he knows that it does exist).
Details about Saya San
“You recall reading a treaties written by Saya San about his traditional healing practices. You are hardly surprised that he became a rebel leader as his work was highly critical not only of western medical practices but of the British authority.”
Occult (Core Clue)
“Buddhist tattoos has long been believed to impart invulnerability or luck upon the wearer, as long as certain rules are followed. There are many different varieties, offering insight, power and even supernatural abilities.”
1 Point Spend
“You press Gravely for further details about the tattoos worn by Saya San and are puzzled. You are unsure what purpose some of the tattoos might serve which suggest that they were based on much older designs, lost to history.”
Anthropology and Theology (Core Clue)
“It is significant that Saya San has renamed himself Thupannaka Galon Raja. Galon is a mythical bird from Hindu mythology. Representing the element of air or fire it is often depicted locked in an eternal battle with the element of earth or water, the naga.”
1 Point Spend
“Galon is said to be composed of solar energy, either a being of light or of fire. You wonder if there is any connection to the myths of the Phoenix.”
“There is a thick jungle around Alaungtang Hill, which will make it difficult for the rebels to patrol. You only have to be careful of the dangerous wildlife, including the types of snake that Gravely has in his office.”
1 Point Spend
“Any settlement based at the top of the hill will have a good vantage point to spot any approaching troops. It is also one of the best places to fire a flare gun, ensuring it will be seen for miles around.”
“It is impressive that Saya San was able to have a palace built for himself in such a short space of time upon Alaungtang Hill. It speaks volumes about the level of dedication his followers have for him.
Reports of Artefacts
Anthropology and Archaeology
“The description indicate that these artefacts date back to the 11th century, with many of the designs suggesting they were created during the Pagan Kingdom, if not earlier. They would be very exciting pieces to study and have great value if you could obtain them.”
1 Point Spend
“The design of the artefacts described put you in mind of similar relics found in the Pegu area of Burma. You recall tell that there was an earthquake there in the last year. Could the tremors have unearthed these treasures for Saya San to find?”
Now they have their mission the PCs are free to make their preparations. Alaungtant Hill is a days journey through a thick jungle, although they can try to find a car to drive some of the way over rough trails.
Those thinking of fleeing will find that rebels have removed sections of the railway tracks, meaning no trains will be coming or going until this is repaired. Similarly the telegraph poles have been chopped down, preventing communication with the outside world.
Reassurance and Streetwise can be used to find a local willing to act as a guide through the jungle towards Alaungtant Hill. No one is willing to go all the way, for fear of being caught up in the conflict.
Oral history will reveal that Saya San is well-liked, with many supporting his cause. They will complain about the British rule, how they are disrespectful to their religion and how they are driving people into poverty due to taxes on the rice trade.
If you wish to inject a little action into the adventure at this stage the PCs may witness a revolt first hand. A small squad of British soldiers is engaged in a battle with a group of Galon’s army, followers of Saya San. Armed only with spears these local charge into gun fire, believing their tattoos will grant them invulnerability. They are wrong.
The PCs can side with the British, which will gain them support later. Make a note of any soldiers they speak to and make sure that it is these same soldiers who come to the rescue at the end of the adventure.
Alternatively the PCs can help the Burmese, helping them escape or treating their wounds with the medical skill. This, along with the reassurance ability, can lead to the PCs being taken to Alaungtant Hill by the rebels.
Plague of Snakes
By whatever means and whether they go alone or with a guide the PCs will eventually be passing through the jungle that leads to Alaungtant Hill. It is hot, humid and filled with danger. Birds can be heard crying amongst the tree tops, unseen life moves through the undergrowth and there is always the possibility of rebels waiting in the shadows.
Just as they are nearing Alaungtant Hill they hear the voices of two rebels patrolling the jungle. They haven’t noticed the PCs are in casual conversation, discussing their hopes for the future. Give the PCs a chance to either hide, decide whether to attack or announce their presence.
This should be a tense scene and makes what happens next a complete surprise. Whatever they decide the rebels are soon distracted by the presence of a poisonous snake. If they are able they will attempt to back away, only to find another snake moving into their path. More snakes emerge from the jungle, until the ground is carpeted with them. The unfortunate two men are quickly overwhelmed as the snakes bites and wrap themselves around their bodies.
During this the snakes move past the PCs but will not harm them. Make it clear that the snakes are aware of the PCs, they are just choosing not to attack them. In fact if the PCs brought anyone else with them they will also be victims of the snakes.
Even if the snakes are attacked, they will retreat rather than retaliate. If the PCs work this out they can try to save the rebels of their companions by freeing them from the snakes. A 2 point spend on Medicine or Outdoorsman can save one person from the venom of the snakes. If they save a rebel this can get them into the palace as an ally.
The snakes were sent by the Serpent-Folk, using magic to control their kin. The PCs were protected because Gravely wants them to succeed in their mission.
Evidence Collection (Core Clue)
“Your mind goes back to the last time that you saw such a collection of snakes in one place. It was in Gravely’s office.”
1 Point Spend
“In fact these are the same snakes. You recognise the unique discolouration and patterns caused by recent shedding of skin on these snakes as you did in the snakes that Gravely kept as pets.”
Outdoorsman & Biology (Core Clue)
“You’ve never seen snakes to behave in such a manner. The co-ordination and precision in their attack suggests a far more sophisticated level of intelligence than you’ve ever encountered in such reptiles.”
1 Point Spend
“The snakes are deliberately not attacking you. You see them come close enough to strike only to turn away and slip into the undergrowth. You’ve not sure why but it seems that the snakes have no interest in doing you harm.”
2 Point Spend
“You recognise the breeds of snake and know that they are hostile to each other. They’d fight each other to the death before sharing a meal together. Their behaviour is completely unnatural.”
“You’ve read accounts of spells that could command snakes to target specific victims. You never believed that they were true until now.”
1 Point Spend
“This resembles ‘The Curse of Snakes’ spell described in numerous arcane texts from Egypt. From what you understand the spell was translated from an old, inhuman language.”
Atop the hill is Buddharaja Myo, a city in name only. There are only recently erected wooden shacks, which most of the Galon army live in. The only stone structure is Saya San’s palace, which has qualities of a temple to it.
Several followers live here, spending their days preparing for battle or in prayer. During the night there are only a small patrol and look outs. They know it is only a matter of time before the British attack and they are willing to die to protect their leader.
Stealth is useful to explore the area without being noticed while Shadowing could be used to follow one of the rebels as they move through Buddharaja.
If they don’t want to use stealth the approach of Westerners will cause some alarm. They will need to show that they mean no harm if they don’t want to be speared. Luckily for them the rebels will be curious about what this small group want to so boldly announce their presence.
They won’t react well to attempts of intimidation or the brandishing of weapons. They are likely to be taken prisoner or killed. They have no fear because they believe their tattoos will protect them from any harm.
“You praise the rebels for their values and the righteousness of their beliefs. To their delight you acknowledge the benevolent wisdom of Saya San and his teachings and beg them for a chance to meet him for yourself.”
“Hands raised and speaking in a soft voice, eyes cast down, you convince the rebels that you mean no harm. You don’t resist as they surround you or even when they manhandle you, searching for weapons. Assured of your peaceful intentions they lead you into the city.”
“You begin reciting what you know of the Buddhists religion, particularly as it refers to your current situation. The rebels are astonished at your knowledge and passion. You are clearly not the same as the Westerners who refuse even to remove their shoes before entering their temples. For the moment they are willing to hear what you have to say.”
Meet Saya San
Saya San can be encountered in his palace. If the PCs use stealth to enter unannounced they will find him in quiet contemplation. If they attempt to do him harm he immediately address them, as he was aware of their presence the whole time, and explain they can try to kill him but he is protected. Indeed any weapon will cause no damage to him.
If they announce themselves or have been invited in by the rebels then Saya San is guarded but hospitable. He knows they have come far and endured much but his motive is only so that they can take his message back with them, that the British must leave his country.
Saya San is happy to discuss the situation with them, as far as he understands it, but is secure he is the one who has the power. The PCs find him to be intelligent and passionate if suffering from a touch of megalomania.
It is up to the PCs whether they reveal to Saya San about the imminent attack or if they try to persuade him to surrender. Saya San is confident that he can defeat any opposition. He’ll ensure he is around for The Final Battle.
“There is an intensity in both Saya San’s voice and his eyes that convinces you that he believes everything he says. There is never a moment of doubt in anything he says or does.”
Anthropology & Occult (Core Clue)
“You turn the conversation to his tattoos and Saya displays them proudly. He explains that they are the source of his power and give him his invulnerability. To prove his point he bids one of his followers to bring in a boxed snake. Released the venomous snake bites Saya’s outstretched wrist. The lid is closed and for a moment Saya closes his eyes, beads of sweat forming on his brow. A moment later he opens his eyes and smiles, even the wound on his wrist fading away.”
1 Point Spend
“Pushed to explain further Saya says he has learnt to embody the power of Galon. He has unlimited power within him, healing his body and giving him the energy he needs to eradicate the hated enemy of the land, the naga.”
2 Point Spend
“You ask where Saya learnt of the tattoo design and he confides that he discovered it in an underground temple in Pegu. These tattoos were used in the time of legends to defeat the naga and drive them from the land. So it will be again.”
“You recognise the tattoo as a binding symbol used to trap a small fraction of a Great Old One. You shudder to think how much strain Saya San must be to contain that power and what will happen once it is unleashed.” 2 Stability lost.
1 Point Spend
“The pattern of the tattoo is specifically designed to Cthugha, a Great Old One often associated with fire. A raging inferno is trapped within Saya San and should the binding be broken a terrible fiery death awaits everyone around him.” 2 Stability and 1 Sanity lost.
“You discuss with Saya San how you can turn this situation to everyones advantage. Saya says that he will allow you to leave with your lives if you agree to tell the British authority to leave unless they wish to see if true power.”
Archaeology & Architecture
“You praise the design of the palace, noting similarities to holy sites from other parts of Burma that date back to ancient times. Pleased with your knowledge Saya explains that he based the design on an underground temple he discovered in Pegu.”
1 Point Spend
“Saya can see that you are man of exquisite taste and that you alone might appreciate the treasure he recovered from the lost temple. He would be intrigued to hear your opinion of them.”
“You notice that the ground beneath Saya is glazed, as if exposed to great heat. Glancing around the palace you notice similarly affected areas, each about the size of a foot print. Saya’s foot print to be exact.”
History & Oral History
“You discuss the troubles of Burma and Saya is quick to join in. He tells you that he believes the British are evil serpents in their land, the naga. They hide themselves amongst good men, poisoning them with their venom. To eradicate them he has become Galon, their ancient enemy.”
1 Point Spend
“Saya continues further saying that long ago, before Burma was called Burma, the people were oppressed by the naga, who did not hide their true form. The people cried out for salvation and they were heard by Galon who descended from the Sun. The naga were forced to flee, although they swore they would return.”
The Secret of Galon
This scene occurs if the PCs explore the palace with or without the rebels knowledge. It is a chance for them to find out where Saya San has received his power and how they might defeat him. If the PCs were hoping to obtain some valuable artefacts before the attack this is where they’ll find them.
The Origin of The Temple
Archaeology & Anthropology
“Proudly on display here are stone tablets, dating back thousands of years. The pictograms tell of a dark time in the countries history, when they were ruled by a race of serpent men. They built a temple beneath ground where the oppressed people could hide and find a way to drive the evil out.”
1 Point Spend
“In their pursuit for the knowledge to rid themselves of the serpent men some of the more devout men set themselves on fire. As they burned they related forbidden knowledge from Galon. They sacrifice themselves to give others the weapons they needed to eradicate their enemies.”
“This kingdom was once ruled by Serpent-Folk, an ancient reptilian race who used magic to enslave humanity. It would have taken great power to drive them out.” 2 Stability points lost.
1 Point Spend
“The people here learned how to contact a primal force. The thought of such power in human hands is terrifying.” 2 Stability points and 1 sanity point lost.
Evidence Collection & Occult (Core Clue)
“You find several bowls of ink and the tools needed to inscribe tattoos. An ancient reference text is nearby giving illustrations of various designs. The most prominent seems designed to hold divine energy within the wearers body, granting him invulnerability.”
1 Point Spend
“The text warns that if the pattern of the tattoo is broken then its power will vanish. In the case of the binding tattoo the power contained would erupt outward from the wearer, killing everyone in the vicinity.”
2 Point Spend
“It does show how an existing tattoo can be altered to change its purpose. An accompanying diagram shows how you might create a focal point for the escaping energy, so that it might be point in a specific direction.”
Chemistry, Biology & Medicine
“You’d need a lab to be sure but the component parts of the tattoo ink are made from plant extracts native to Burma. A vital ingredient is extremely rare and found only in regions of Pegu.”
1 Point Spend
“The ink alone would improve a bodies immune system, bestowing a greater resistance to disease and poisons. Further testing would be required to determine to what degree this would benefit someone.”
Theology, History & Library Use
“The image of Galon as a great bird is apparently a misunderstanding of the texts and pictograms here. Most of the accounts describe Galon as a shifting cloud of flames, moving with some cruel intelligence. A single account describes it as ‘like a vast bird, feasting on serpents.’”
“Everything indicates that Galon is actually an avatar of Cthugha or some larger form of the Fire Vampires that serve it. The ancient people of Burma some how learnt to summon the Great Old One to smite their enemies.” 2 Stability points lost.
1 Point Spend
“This was not enough for them and they found a way to bind this raw power to themselves. Such energy will be extremely volatile, always on the verge of breaking free in a devastating wave of destruction.” 2 Stability and 1 Sanity points lost.
The Final Battle
The culmination of the adventure is the confrontation between British troops and the rebels. If the PCs are sticking to their plan they can try to arrange a distraction, to give the British an opening for an attack.
This can be achieved by setting a fire, holding Saya San hostage or even being captured themselves. Anything that will divert the rebels attention can be the opportunity the PCs need to fire the flare gun they were given.
If they have been swayed by the rebels or fear what will happen if Saya San is injured then they may not use the flare gun. Nonetheless the troops will conclude that something has gone wrong and launch the attack any way, coming to the rescue of the PCs. Booth Gravely is intent on being on hand to see that Saya San is killed.
The confrontation is bloody with the rebels charging the troops, spears at the ready. While this will led to the death and injury of numerous soldiers they are better equipped. Machine guns are set up and the rebels are mowed down as they run straight into a hail of bullets.
During this chaotic battle the PCs could join either side. They may hide or try to escape, in which case let them use stealth or athletics to make to safety without being captured by the British troops. They may also try to take Saya San by force or use the techniques they’ve used to neutralise his tattoo.
They may know how to create a design to focus the escaping blast from Cthugha. This requires a 2 point spend on Art or Medicine and Saya San might need to be restrained. The design itself is a circle only a few inches in diameter.
Saya San can hold on to the energy of Cthugha for a short time but will eventually release a plume of fire from the design in a straight line, incinerating anything caught in its path. This could be used offensively (for example directed against Booth Gravely or his troops) or even as a form of propulsion, sending Saya San rocketing away, although whether he will survive the trip is another matter.
The most likely outcome, if Saya San stays, is that he will be captured by the troops and brought before Booth Gravely. Gravely thanks or admonishes the PCs depending on their actions. The PC with the lowest stability will briefly glimpse Gravely’s true form as a Serpent-Folk. While this is shocking it also reveals that he is the only inhuman person out of the British soldiers present.
If Saya San was taken prisoner Gravely will intend to kill him using a knife to cut away his tattoo. This will unleash Cthugha’s power in a fireball, likely killing Gravely. It is up to you to decide how big the fireball is.
It could be small enough to just kill Saya San, Gravely and some people standing nearby, leaving the PCs untouched or the whole hill could be consumed, killing everyone. If a PC wants to heroically sacrifice himself to set of the explosion and take out Gravely in the process let the fireball be small enough to spare the others and make his sacrifice mean something. If the PCs decided to flee they might just see the fireball in the distance and catch a glimpse of the fire shifting form and more as if it were a living creature before it vanishes.
Those PCs who know what is going to happen might give this information to Gravely. He knows enough about magic to believe their warnings and will instead have Saya San taken prisoner. The PCs will have saved their lives but know they have helped a Serpent-Folk continue to oppress Burma.
If the PCs were able to use the tattoo to funnel the flames they may be able to kill Gravely and escape with a minimal loss of life. In the resulting confusion a powerless Saya San escapes and will be recaptured later in the year after he tries again to reform his army.
Those who escaped with their bodies and minds intact have learnt more about the nature of reality. They may also suspect that there are more Serpent-Folk in the country, if not the world. This could lead to them going on a mission to unmask more of these monsters.
Anyone who escaped with artefacts will find that they were indeed valuable and will bring them much renown, if not further trouble. If a sample of the tattoo ink was collected then this will aide in antibiotics although the medical community is suspicious of this herbal remedy.