Or ‘The World Dies Laughing’.
This adventure illustrates how irresponsible time travel for personal gain can aide those who would wipe out humanity. It also shows that just because the PCs have caught the person responsible it doesn’t mean the problem is over.
For further information about the background of the setting you can obtain the draft rules by supporting the kickstarter.
Robert Pumpkin (who looks a lot like Patton Oswalt) is a failed stand-up comedian hailing from the near future. His problem is that no one laughs at his jokes, not even his catch-phrase “Stop me if you’ve heard this before.”
He was about to give up on his dream when he stumbled across a dying time traveller and decided to take his autochron for himself. He used it to seek out a way to make people laugh, whether they wanted to or not. Having some knowledge of history and science he headed to Kashasha in Tanganyika (what is now Tanzania) in 1962 to find the cause of a laughter epidemic.
He was shocked to encounter an older version of himself who revealed he was responsible for infecting three girls at a mission-run school with an airborne fungus that caused the laughter. The older Pumpkin explained that he obtained it from Strasbourg in 1518, something that the younger Robert still had to do.
Robert was sceptical but his older self provided him with a canister containing the fungus and suggested that he try it out. Once he believed it worked he could fulfil his destiny. To this end Pumpkin travelled to 1974 and performed onstage at the Improv, secretly releasing the fungus.
The result was a contagion that sweeps through New York and will gradually consume America and then the world. This change to history gets the attention of TimeWatch and the PCs are despatched to find out what is going on and prevent it before humanity is wiped out.
Likely Investigation Structure
- The PCs are despatched to New York in 1974, to investigate a laughing epidemic that is bringing the city to its knees. They find out that outbreak occurred in the Improv comedy club on March, 21st.
- Travelling to the night of the outbreak they not only encounter some comedy legends during their early days but also the very unfunny Robert Pumpkin. When his act doesn’t get any laughs he release a canister of gas which soon has everyone in hysterics. Stopping him reveals his encounter with his older self in Kashasha.
- Following the trail the PCs now must stop the older Pumpkin at Kashasha or jump back to Strasbourg in 1518 to find out how he obtained it.
- Finding further outbreaks throughout history the PCs learn they are dealing with The Colony. To stop it spreading they must deal with the carrier, Robert Pumpkin, preventing the epidemic before it begins. The clue being the dying time travellers final words ‘St. Anthony’s Fire.’
‘This is the way the world ends. Not with a bang but a chuckle.’ – A Misquote of TS Eliot
The PCs are despatched to 1974 New York, knowing that this is where a laughing epidemic has broken out and will continue to spread across the country. They need to know when and where it first occurred to prevent its spread. They are advised to be careful and informed where and when TimeWatch have set up somewhere they can go for emergency medical treatment.
Things are bad when the PCs arrive, with the city in chaos and the sound of manic laughter echoing through the streets. Victims can’t help but laugh, with the worst cases dying of exhaustion. Some are manic, dancing or rampaging. They encourage others to join them, in ever increasing groups. Those who die rapidly decompose, consumed by fungus.
The city has been quarantined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) but is having little luck. Just hearing the laughter can trigger hysteria. They are just beginning to work out that the initial outbreak was caused by a airborne fungal spore centred on the Improv club but they are perplexed that some victims show no sign of infection.
PCs have the opportunity to help uninfected members of the public escape from hysterical mobs, only to see the people they’ve saved begin laughing uncontrollably. PCs might begin to feel the effects themselves (either they have been infected or they are succumbing to the hysteria).
If the PCs have experience with the Colony they might recognise the symptoms. For added suspense TimeWatch might keep knowledge of this entity on a need to know basis, especially since it seems to implicate TimeWatch in a pretty major paradox.
Speaking with the CDC, stealing their data or carrying out Research lets the PCs know that the first incidences occurred at the Improve club on March the 21st. This should be their target destination.
ROBERT PUMPKIN LIVE AT THE IMPROV CLUB
The Improv club is situated in Hell’s Kitchen and played host to a number of big names such as Richard Pryor, Dustin Hoffman, Bette Midler, Steve Martin, Joan Rivers and many more. Any one of them could have been due to perform on March 21st or simply been in the audience. After the first scene this is a chance for the PCs to meet some celebrities and have some laughs.
Amongst all the well-known names the PCs will also meet unknown NPCs. Robert Pumpkin is there, nervous about going on stage and shouldn’t immediately stand out as being out of place. Instead he can act as comic relief, maybe knocking over drinks or tripping over a chair to establish his nerves.
It isn’t until he goes on stage and starts bombing that the PCs should really start paying attention to him. It is at this point he brings out a canister, promising that this would make them laugh. If not stopped in time the fungal spore is released and the crowd begin to laugh hysterically. The PCs should have to make an Athletics check to hold their breath in time.
If they act fast enough they can stop the problem before it begins. If they fail they can either quarantine the club, preventing it from spreading or attempt to swap out the canister before Pumpkin goes on stage (maybe being responsible for tripping him earlier so they could make the switch while he picked himself up).
If challenged Pumpkin will attempt to escape, putting enough distance between him and his pursuers to use his autochron. This could lead to a time chase, with Pumpkin having a preference for chases in comedy movies such as appearing while they are filming the car chase from ‘The Blue Brothers’ or any of the ‘Keystone Cops’ movies.
If they catch him The PCs can interrogate Pumpkin who explains that he got his time machine from a disfigured older man who collapsed in front of him. His final words were ‘St Anthony’s Fire’. He took the time machine and encountered his older self. Robert estimates his double was about 10 years older.
He’ll use this as evidence that they can’t stop him, as that would create a paradox. They have to let him go in order for him to travel to 1518 and then give himself the canister in 1962. Indeed, this appears to be supported as they are informed that the laughing epidemic now occurs in 1962, spreading through Africa first before consuming the rest of the world.
If Robert is told that releasing the spores in the club results in an epidemic in the 1970s he is horrified. He can’t understand why he would trick himself like that. All he wants is people to laugh at his jokes. He promises he will help them but it is their choice whether they allow him to accompany them.
Examination reveals that Pumpkin is himself infected but isn’t displaying any symptoms. If they fail to check the infection will continue to grow, with Robert increasingly falling under the sway of the Colony. He is now a carrier, spreading it through time.
The laughter epidemic starts on January 30th, 1962 at a girls boarding school. Three girls are the first victims but it spreads to 91 other girls over the following months. The school closes on March 18th with the girls sent home. This causes the infection to spread to other children and adults as the girls return.
The epidemic is slightly different, in that the symptoms are less severe, diminishing after 15 hours. If the PCs apprehended Robert and they prevented the epidemic in 1974 the situation changes in 1962. Those recovering suddenly get worse and the infection rate increases. Some how by changing history in the 1970s they’ve changed things in the 1960s.
Going to the day of the outbreak they can attempt to catch the older Pumpkin in the act. If they are too late they might only find the discarded canister. If they stop him they find that the epidemic still occurs, but on February the 20th, when the young Robert Pumpkin arrives (spreading the infection he is already carrying).
If they travel to February the 20th they can witness the meeting of the two Pumpkins. If Robert is co-operating with them he will let them know exactly where and when this occurs. If he goes with them he runs the risk of chronal instability.
Should the PCs allow this meeting then the situation won’t get any worse. They can also try to catch the older Pumpkin. His health is much worse and should they examine him they find that he is dying from the fungal infection. He is aging rapidly and while he might look 10 years older he is Pumpkin from only a few days (or weeks) in his future.
Tired he will repeat his catch-phrase and say that he has encounter the PCs in 1518. He explains that they can’t stop him because this is all supposed to happen. Time is playing the joke on them and the death of humanity is the punchline.
PCs can help local authorities contain the epidemic in an attempt to contain it but they still have to find a cure.
Located in France and currently part of the Roman Empire the outbreak occurs in July. The Colony has manifested in the crops, not unlike the ergot fungi. Beginning with one laughing woman dancing it spreads to 34 within a week and 400 within a month. Simply being close to an infected person is enough to compel others to join them. Victims become violent if restrained.
The authorities believe that there is some supernatural explanation, with physicians suggesting that the victims be encouraged to dance more. Victims are placed in guildhalls and the grain market, while musicians play (before they too become infected). Stages have even been built for the dancers.
The Colony started with the simple intention of spreading its influence and having the human host exhaust themselves so that its fungal infection could spread through their bodies. It spread initially by spore but it has also used its mental abilities to ensnare others. Humanity wants to be part of something more, willing to join a larger group especially if they appear to be having a good time.
Its plan changed when Robert Pumpkin arrived with his time machine.
In the original timeline there was no Tanganyika outbreak so Pumpkin came here first. The Colony infected him and had him travel to 1962 to start an epidemic there. Even if TimeWatch did turn up to eradicate it in 1518 the Colony would still thrive elsewhere.
This changed Pumpkin’s past, so that his younger self did travel to 1962 first, meeting his older self. To prevent a paradox the Colony had Pumpkin persuade him to again travel to 1518 (and also taking the opportunity to spread the infection in the 1970s).
The Colony is linked to the fungal infection in all time zones. Each time the PCs have thwarted its efforts it has increased its infection rates in the other time zones, hoping to spread quickly enough to change history and wipe the PCs out before they can deal with that outbreak.
During this dark time the PCs can feel that things are out of control. There is still another Robert Pumpkin to catch and there is no recorded data where he will appear, nor do they know exactly when the outbreak begins to prevent it from happening.
They can examine the local crops and find the infection. This area could be protected by mold-colonised drones, adding some action to proceedings. The PCs can try to get locals to help them deal with these protectors or simply try to burn the crops to eradicate the infection.
Staking out an area or asking locals about strangers can eventually lead them to Pumpkin. He is infected and repeats his catchphrase. However, he puts an emphasis on ‘Stop Me’. He is trying to fight the Colony’s control over his mind and honestly wants them to stop its plan.
ST ANTHONY’S FIRE
The key to finding a cure comes from the time travellers last words ‘St Anthony’s Fire’. History (Contemporary), Medical Expertise, Research of speaking to locals in Strasbourgh can reveal that it is common name given to ergot poisoning so called because those suffering from the disease were sent to be treated by the Hospital Brothers of St Anthony. Indeed locals will talk about sending people there.
The hospital is located at La-Motte-Saint-Didier (present day Saint-Antoine-l’Abbaye Isère). It is staffed by laymen who has tense relationship with the Benedictine monks at the local priory. The monks wear black habits with the greek letter Tau in blue.
Patients treated at the hospital show a remarkable recovery from the Colony infection. The reason lays with St Anthony himself. Anthony the Great lived in Egypt between 251 and 356. In addition to being associated with disease he is also known for overcoming several temptations.
The one that is most pertinent is when he was passing through the desert and the devil attempted to tempt him with a plate of silver coins and then of gold coins. Anthony threw them in a fire and cried out ‘Oh good Lord, who may escape from these snares?” A voice replied “humility shall escape them without more.”
The hospital takes these words to heart and burns silver or gold (provided through donations), often around the patients. It is the liquid or gaseous metals that repel the Colony (at least this strain of it) through a combination of biological and mental factors (for example the rejection of wealth and humility creates an effective barrier in those who witness the sacrifice).
PCs can witness this or learn this through their research. You could even allow them to travel back to Egypt to meet St Anthony and find that the story stems from his own encounter with the Colony. Whatever the means the PCs now have a cure, helping to eradicate it in all time zones and possibly curing Pumpkin.
THE DYING TIME TRAVELLER
Just who was the dying time traveller who started all this by giving Robert Pumpkin an autochron? There are two options.
Firstly it was an infected Robert Pumpkin. The fungal infection had aged and disfigured him beyond recognition. He was able to make a final jump to warn his young self, giving him the clue to defeat the Colony with his dying breath. Unfortunately he also infected his younger self. This might still happen, as the older Robert Pumpkin could be incurable by the time they encounter him. He will volunteer to make the trip, so that they can find a cure and not suffer a paradox by preventing this final meeting.
This does raise the problem that the autochron is stuck in a loop and so appears from nowhere. To solve this the PCs might give him one of their autochrons to start the cycle. They can then swap it for ‘his’ autchron closing the loop.
Secondly it could be one of the PCs. If they have become infected this can be a way for their death to have meaning. They could even introduce other factors that tweak events in the favour of the PCs (maybe giving extra clues to help them this time round.)
If they prevent Pumpkin from obtaining the autochron at all they still have to deal with the Colony outbreak in 1518 as well as dealing with the chronal instability that this has caused. If they do get infected the Colony will learn what happened and try to compel them to travel back to the future and die in front of Pumpkin to cause the cycle to start again.
YOU HAVE TO LAUGH
A final way to deal with the situation is remove Pumpkin’s motivation to find a way to make people laugh. They can simply travel to his native timeline and be in the audience during his act. As long as they laugh the rest of the audience will join in. This will give Pumpkin the confidence to improve his act and he will be successful. Even if a time traveller does appear in front of him he will resist the temptation to travel in history, preferring to stay in the present.
If you want to resolve the adventure here it could be that originally Pumpkin was responsible for bringing the Colony spore back to 1518 originally. The Colony used the loop to bring itself into existence and if they break that cycle it will no longer exist.
The joke will be on the Colony and the PCs get the last laugh.