This ‘Trail of Cthulhu’ adventure is inspired by the documentary ‘Of Dolls and Murders’ which explores the work of Frances Glessner Lee. Ideally it should be set around 1937 in a major city that your PCs live in. It can be adapted to ‘Esoterrorists’ or ‘Fear Itself’ with relatively little effort.
Jacob Halcom is a medical examiner, working for the police in the PC’s city. Following in the footsteps of Frances Glessner Lee he is known for creating intricate crime scene recreations using dolls and scale models. Jacob has also recently found out that his wife is having an affair.
He can not think of a way to leave her without exposing her infidelity and exposing himself to humiliation. He is familiar enough with homicides that he knows the police will immediately suspect him should he murder her. Instead he will frame some scapegoats, making it appear that she was killed in the course of a robbery gone wrong.
The PCs are those scapegoats. This works best if they have previously been involved in an investigation that has crossed the local polices’ path. It is important know that this unlikely group have a strong sense of curiosity that leads them into danger. If you wish this adventure to draw the group together Jacob could have selected them at random, due to a past encounter or through observation.
What Jacob couldn’t have counted on is that his own model crime scenes would cause the very fabric of reality to warp and give the PCs a glimpse at the fate that awaits them.
The PCs each receive An Invite To Death and learn what it means to be Life Like. Examining the Dolls leads naturally to The Doll Maker. They may also encounter The Deceit of Mrs Halcom. Arriving at The Appointed Hour they discover A Murder In Miniature. By following the clues they can Avert Disaster.
An Invite To Death
Each of the PCs receive a parcel containing a doll made to resemble them right down to the smallest detail. Each doll has suffered a grisly fate. Red paint indicates bloody wounds while others have been burnt or have tiny holes drilled in them that could represent bullet wounds.
There is no message included with the parcel, nor a return address. The accuracy of the dolls clearly indicate this was meant for the receiver. If the PCs know each other at this stage the fact that they all received similar dolls shows that this is not a coincidence. If they don’t know each other the parcels can contain each others names and addresses so that they can seek each other out and compare notes.
It is important that this puzzling turn of events spur the PCs into action. There should be suggestion that this is a sinister threat. Jacob is counting on them wanting to look into who sent them the dolls. He is unwittingly aided by an unforeseen side effect of his plan.
Not long after receiving the dolls the PCs begin to undergo a subtle transformation. They find that they are no longer hungry or thirsty and if they should try to consume anything they find that they are unable to swallow. Their limbs become stiff and if cut they will not bleed.
They are taking on qualities of a doll. Be careful that this doesn’t appear humorous. Rather it is a curse with gradually worsening symptoms. NPC doctors will suggest it is caused by hysteria, multiple sclerosis, arthritis or an allergic reaction.
The use of the Medicine ability dismisses these possibilities. A 1 point spend reveals that their internal organs are shutting down without affecting their overall health and a 2 point spend reveals that their skin is taking on dried paint like properties while their body takes on the density of wood.
This is due to the bond that has been created between the PCs and their dolls. The dolls are them and they are increasingly becoming their dolls. This is the ticking clock that should persuade the PCs to complete their investigation as soon as they can.
Occult allows a PC to recall several religions and cults that use effigies to exert mystical control or influence over a subject. A 1 point spend reveals that there are no mystical signs or symbols suggesting that this wasn’t prepared as an occult ritual.
The PCs will most likely begin their investigation on the only clue to hand, the dolls. The dolls are very detailed, with each PC represented on a 1ft to 1 inch scale. Each doll is wearing clothes that the PCs are wearing. Any item that a character prominently displays or is know for is also represented on the doll (a distinctive watch, glasses, walking cane or a signature weapon for example).
Destroying the items or clothing doesn’t have an immediate effect but the next time they look at the doll it will be wearing another set of clothes from their wardrobe or have different props. This is reality re-ordering itself and not a quality that Jacob designed.
This only occurs when it absolutely has to. Simply not wearing the clothes or not bringing the items to the moment that the doll represents (The Appointed Hour) doesn’t trigger a change in the doll until they reach that moment. In which case the PCs won’t know this until they reach that time.
Using these abilities all reveal that these dolls weren’t crafted as a play thing but as a model. The proportions are perfect, giving them a highly realistic appearance. A 1 point spend reveals that each doll is supposed to represent their dead bodies. The skin tone, wounds and the unnatural stiffness of their pose all point towards a body being found at a crime scene.
This ability allows a PC to remember a police officer or detective mentioning that their department had used dolls to recreate a crime scene. A 1 point spend allows the PC to know about the existence of Jacob Halcom and that he creates dolls similar to these as part of his job as medical examiner. A 2 point spend means that the PCs has met Jacob and even seen one of his recreated crime scenes.
Using this ability a PC can go through the unusual process of working out how an individual doll was ‘killed’. The exacts details are left for the GM to decide, based on how many PCs are involved and their character. Jacob intends to murder them in such a way that it appears that they murdered each other.
To this end one or more of the dolls shows signs of being attacked from behind. Blows to the head and stab or bullet wounds in the back are all key to convincing an observer that the victim was surprised by their assailant.
Other dolls will show signs of being in a fight, bloody knuckles and nails (which might require the use of a magnifying glass to see) indicating that they went down fighting. Blood on their clothes (without the presence of a wound on the body) indicate that one or more of the dolls bled on to them.
One doll may have been strangled, rope burns visible around their neck. Jacob may pick this victim to be the one responsible for betraying the others, maybe hanging himself out of shame. Alternatively the supposed killer could have intended to burn all evidence of his crime but accidentally set fire to himself, resulting in a badly charred doll.
A 1 point spend indicates that only someone a medical examiner would be able to model deaths with such a level of accuracy. A 2 point spend indicates that all the deaths occurred within a short duration of time and proximity given the lack of decomposition represented on the dolls and the interconnectedness of the wounds and injuries suffered.
These clues should point the PCs in the direction of Jacob Halcom, or at least the police.
The Doll Maker
Customise this scene to fit the city where the PCs live and their past history with the police. The use of Cop Talk and Flattery are useful when dealing with the police, while Intimidation will at best get them turned away and at worst result in them ending up in one of the cells.
Police officers are happy to confirm that the dolls are like those made by Jacob but have never seen those ones. They will question how the PCs obtained them, not believing that they were sent in the post. They are unlikely to believe that this any form of threat or curse.
If the PCs behave oddly this will be remembered by the police later, supporting the fiction that Halcom creates. He’ll attempt to portray them as unstable men who menaced and stalked him. Pay attention to anything the PCs do that could support this claim as they’ll have a chance to hear these accusations later.
A Cop Talk, Bargaining or Credit Rating spend can persuade the police to let the PCs gain an audience with Jacob. He is currently examining a body in the morgue (which may unsettles PCs who haven’t yet encountered a dead body).
Jacob pretends not to know anything about the dolls, nor creating them. He admits that they do look like his handy work but reveals that several weeks ago some of his modelling supplies, including some base models (from which these dolls could have been built), were stolen. He says that he has suspicions about who might be responsible for the theft (and thus responsible for sending them the models) but he keeps the list at his home, for fear that the suspect will find it. He will invite them to his home that night to go over his findings. He’ll try to persuade them to keep this quiet.
If the PCs reveal the strange curse placed upon them by the dolls Jacob will act surprised. It takes him a moment to realise he can turn this apparent madness to his advantage. He’ll quickly invent a story about having a cursed book, inherited from a relative long rumoured to be a witch. He’ll invite them to study it that night, to find a way to break its dark magic.
Assess Honesty will reveal that Jacob is not telling the PCs everything. A 1 point spend reveals that the way he is tenderly handling any dolls they give him suggest they are his handiwork. A 2 point spend convinces the PC that Jacob wasn’t surprised by their arrival and in fact looked very pleased with himself when they arrived.
If they accuse him of deceit he’ll initially deny it. Only if they indicate that they aren’t going to go to his house does he panic and tell them that the reason why he did it will be revealed if they go to his house. He’ll craft his lie to appeal to the PCs, for example saying that his wife’s life in danger, a terrible occult horror will be unleashed or offer them wealth.
Ideally the PCs should believe enough of what Jacob tells them to go to his house, that this is just the next step in their investigation to find the true mastermind behind these events. If they decide not to go then the dolls curse worsens. It only begins to diminish when they agree to go to his house. This is destiny tightening around their necks like a noose.
Should the PCs use violence, intimidation or interrogation on Jacob this will all support his later story to the police that he was attacked and abused by them. He’ll tell them that they demanded to know where he lived and how much money he had.
The Deceit of Mrs Halcom
If the PCs are suspicious of Jacob they may decide to investigate him or follow him using shadowing. Eventually Jacob will meet his wife early in the afternoon. After a brief encounter Jacob will return to work. If the PCs follow Mrs Halcom they’ll find that she meets up with a young man and witness them engaged in a romantic liaison.
This sets up Jacob’s motivation, although it is not essential that the PCs learn this yet. If they do witness it they may even feel sympathy for Jacob, being deceived by his wife.
If the PCs are so bold as to approach Mrs Halcom she’ll try to buy their silence. Flattery and Reassurance will result in Mrs Halcom confiding that she suspects that her husband knows about the affair. A 1 point causes her to recall that she saw him working on the dolls sent to the PCs at home, when he thought she was asleep.
If the PCs use violence, threats, intimidation or interrogation then Mrs Halcom will panic. She’ll make a commotion and contact the police as soon as she can. This will later be used to support Jacob’s account of events.
The Appointed Hour
Sooner or later the PCs should end up at Jacob’s house, preferably at night. If they have the dolls with them they’ll notice that they are wearing the same clothes as they are now. Unless your players routinely describe what they are wearing it is easy to engineer this so that their PCs put on the appropriate clothes from their wardrobe without thinking.
If they specify they are wearing a different outfit from the doll then they’ll find that the doll has changed to match them. This requires a stability check, the difficulty and penalty increasing the more they try to fight against it. Even those around them feel the strain of reality rewriting itself.
Jacob lives in a small, four room house. He’ll answer the door promptly, getting them inside before any one passing by can see them. He’ll say that his wife is in bed as she isn’t feeling well. He’ll make small talk and give them just long enough to get their bearings before saying that the list, mystical book or whatever macguffin he used to lure them there is upstairs.
This coincides with the clocks chiming the current hour. Simultaneously the PCs feel queasy and pass out.
A Murder In Miniature
The PCs awaken in the house, or at least that is how it first appears. If they brought their dolls with them they awaken where they fell. Anyone who didn’t bring their doll finds themselves some where else in the house, in a pool of red paint.
Searching the house (consisting of a kitchen and living room on the ground floor and a bathroom and bedroom on the first floor) reveals that a life sized doll version of Mrs Halcom is in the bed upstairs, her face beneath a pillow. Forensics or Evidence Collection reveals she is supposed to look like she was shot in the head. A 1 point spend indicates that the red paint on the far side of the bed reveals she was shot there before being moved and the pillow placed on her face (Jacob couldn’t look at her after he shot her and so moved her).
Any PC who had their doll with them finds that it is missing. A life sized version is found elsewhere in the house in a staged crime scene. This is where they are supposed to die. Play up the dread the PCs feel, that someone intends to kill them here.
Evidence collection,craft and art reveal that furniture, food and machinery are just props. This isn’t initially apparent because it is all life sized and incredibly detailed. Only close examination reveals that it isn’t real. A 1 point spend reveals that the clocks all show the time 1 hour from when the PCs passed out.
The front door is impossible to open, as are the windows. Both are impossible to break. For all intents and purposes the PCs are stuck here. Worse still their transformation into dolls continues with their skin turning into flaking paint and their limbs becoming increasingly stiff. There is a real danger that they will loose their mobility.
The PCs will also begin to hear muffled voices. Gradually they’ll become aware of a black space just outside of their perception. It is as if there are spaces that are missing that their mind is forcing them to ignore. They get the impression that they are in a dolls house, exposed before some unseen audience.
Observant PCs may also notice that Jacob isn’t here. Finding him could be another reason to search the house. It will also be a clue to the fact that Jacob is entirely absent from the crime scene.
To proceed the PCs must uncover the clues that are vital to preventing their deaths.
There are several props that were not there when the PCs entered the house. In the bed room there is an open safe. Near one of the PCs lies a bag with money (greedy PCs will find that it is fake, as so much else is in the house) and assorted safe cracking tools, weapons and crowbars. A 1 point spend suggests that they have stumbled upon a robbery, if they weren’t involved in it. A 2 point spend reveals signs that this tableau was deliberately staged to make it look like they robbed the place, killed the wife and turned on each other.
This investigative ability allows the PC to understand some of the muffled voices. They realise that they are detectives commenting on the crime, as if they were looking down on the PCs from on high. The detectives constantly refer to the PCs deaths in past tense.
A 1 point spend allows the PC to work out that the police were told by Jacob that the PCs had supposedly accosted him outside work. He didn’t head home, for fear that they’d followed him and when he did go to his house found that they’d murdered his wife and each other. Make sure that the unseen detectives mention any supporting evidence from the PCs prior behaviour.
A 2 point spend allows them to hear a detective wonder how the PCs got in since there is no sign of a forced entry. They also don’t understand how the group were able to sneak upstairs without awakening Mrs Halcom and why they’d fight over the money before they left. If they didn’t learn of Mrs Halcom’s affair the detective will mention it now.
This unseen detective is dismissed by the other voices, who tell him that he is just making things more complicated. It is simpler for them to believe the story before them.
Those who have knowledge of the occult will experience sensations associated with out of body experiences and visions. These feelings intensify when they return to the location of their ‘death’. They get a glimpse of Jacob killing them, which should require a stability check.
A 1 point spend allows them to witness other events, such as Jacob killing the others or his wife, arranging the crime scene and telling the police about what happened. A 2 point spend allows them to perceive that they are in a model of the house with police detectives watching them. These detectives change, adopting different fashions and technology suggesting that they are perceiving things over a vast span of time.
This is the key to understanding what is happening here. In the normal course of events this crime scene will be a nut shell model for detectives to examine and hone their skills on. This focus on what did and didn’t happen creates a weak point in time. These events will be replayed in minds for decades.
The PCs have unwittingly tapped into this psychic energy through their dolls. The dolls are part of the crime scene, as they are and so they’ve gained a glimpse of their fate.
If you wish to add an added threat to this scenario the dolls could come to life. They will try to kill or absorb the PC they represent. They could also attempt to murder the other PCs, in an attempt to frame their likeness as their creator intended.
Being made of wood these dolls are extremely flammable. Fire makes a good weapon but could also set the rest of the house on fire, since that is also a model.
Whether the PCs kill the dolls or are killed themselves they can still proceed to the next scene.
Once you feel that the players have a good grasp of the crime that they are about to be framed for proceed to the next scene. Try to make this feel like it is a result of the players and their characters drawing the correct conclusion, rather than something inevitable.
The PCs should suspect that if they hadn’t found the clues they had then they would have spent the rest of eternity as motionless dolls, being studied by detectives.
The PCs find themselves back in reality, lying on or near where their woke up in the doll house. Jacob was surprised when they passed out but has taken this opportunity to bind them and move them to the appropriate locations. He plans to kill them, one by one.
When the PCs come to reassure them that they can escape, they only need time. If they can just distract Jacob long enough they can get free. This is their opportunity to stun Jacob with what they have learnt. This should be very tense, with Jacob on the verge of killing a PC unless they say something for him to stop.
For a one-shot or for a take no prisoner GM you may kill one or two PCs. Try to pick those who have lost the most stability or sanity. If you had the dolls kill anyone in the house then those PCs will die in reality here. If the PC is abled body and sane at least give them a chance to either dodge or only be hurt, rather than killed.
The more the PCs can reveal about Jacob’s plan the more he will hesitate. He’ll begin to suspect that if they can work out what he has done then others will too. PCs can capitalise on this by revealing flaws in his plan (such as the lack of forced entry or how unlikely it would be that they’d commit such a crime) which will cause Jacob to rethink his current plan.
Ultimately one of the PCs should get free. They can then either use scuffling, grab a gun and use firearms or stealth to defeat Jacob. He isn’t a fighter and can be easily defeated. To increase the tension he should be just about to kill a PC, meaning that his attacker better defeat him straightaway before he can strike the killing blow (or pull a trigger).
You may tempt a PC with an easy escape from the house at the cost of their companions life. Do they try to get away now or risk everything to save the others?
Once they have defeated Jacob they will have to decide what justice he deserves. Will they hand him over to the police or will they kill him themselves. If they’ve already killed him then it will be much more difficult to prove their innocence, especially with all the work Jacob went to to make it look like they were criminals.
Regardless the PCs are free of their curse, their bond with the dolls broken. They may wish to keep the gruesome effigies as a reminder of their adventure or destroy them in order to be free of their influence forever.
The PCs have survived a weird event that for once had nothing to do with the Cthulhu mythos. Unless of course you wanted to reveal that Jacob was taught his craft by an avatar of Nyarlathotep or that the time distortion they experienced was caused by the approach of Yog-Sothoth. This could lead to a further investigation for the PCs that survived.