Sunday, 26 January 2014

Rats, Glorious Rats, and Derelicts: Trail of Cthulhu

If you've been paying attention to the internet this week, you probably came across this story about a ghost cruise liner crewed by cannibal rats that allegedly is about to disgorge its cargo on the coast of England. Alas for lovers of good stories, that version of events is slightly overblown. David Cameron's spokesman laughed off the idea, which means, if the PM's usual luck is in, it'll be crashing into Liverpool any day now.

With all that in mind, let's talk derelicts, and Trail of Cthulhu.

Derelicts used to be more 'in the news' than they are in the modern era. When the world's trade and transport depended entirely on shipping, people paid attention to shipping issues. Even now, the bulk of the planet's trade depends on ships, but when we want to travel from London to Australia, or wherever it may be, we don't hop aboard the next Orient Line packet and spend several weeks sailing the ocean blue. We fly, probably economy, and spend many hours regretting the lack of legroom.

But derelicts haven't gone away. The problem is, we don't know how many of them are out there, and indeed never did. We only know them when we see them - that's exactly the problem with the Lyubov Orlova - and if we don't see them, we tend to assume they're not there. Of course, that isn't so. If nobody's seen the Lyubov Orlova, that doesn't mean it sank. It merely means nobody's seen it. With nobody at the helm, it's at the disposal of the winds and tide, and often derelicts pursue a very erratic course, traveling thousands of miles through shipping lanes, with no-one the wiser.

 One study showed that, in 1887-93 a total of 1,628 derelict sightings were made, of which 200 ships were identified by name. These wrecks posed a significant hazard to navigation, and their predations became so severe that, in 1908, the United States commissioned a warship, the Seneca, whose purpose was to seek out and destroy these vessels. Unfortunately war intervened, and the Seneca was seconded to escort duty, never again to hunt a derelict.

The biggest worry with a derelict isn't that it won't be found. It is that, by the time someone sees it, it's probably too late. Even an iceberg gives some kind of warning, but a derelict carries no lights, and its course is unpredictable. At night, often the only warning you're ever going to get of a derelict is when it smacks into your hull. Imagine you're in a small craft, and something the size of the Lyubov Orlova comes out of the dark, veering across your bows. Maybe you'll get a chance to send off a distress signal, maybe not. Perhaps the last thing anyone will ever hear of you is a brief GPS signal when you sink; after that, nothing.

And of course, that's just the ships. I haven't even started talking about the other flotsam and jetsam, like the tens of thousands of containers that fall from cargo ships every year. Nor do I intend to, but if you want an interesting read, look up rubber ducks.

You see, the danger of a derelict is that you can't count on it sinking. There are plenty of examples of a crew abandoning ship, convinced it's about to go down, perhaps even seeing it 'sink' before their very eyes, only to discover later that it didn't founder at all. Perhaps it rolled over, perhaps enough air was trapped in the hull to keep it just at the surface of the water, floating almost unobserved. Not unlike an iceberg, in fact, where the vast majority of the thing is beneath the surface. Then it drifts, and drifts, perhaps for months.

In the age of sail, when ships were made of wood, sometimes a derelict would drift for years. In October 1913, according to Robert de la Croix, a sailing vessel off the coast of Tierra del Fuego encountered a three-master, apparently abandoned, with some of its sail still set. The three-master's sails were green, her rigging was green, her deck and superstructure were green. It was as though, by some miraculous transformation, she had taken on the color of the sea ... The whole vessel had turned green because she was covered with mould ... [The captain] boarded her. The deck-planks were rotted, yielding to the tread. Skeletons, still clothed, were found everywhere. One lay at the wheel, another near the hatchway to the hold, three more reclined on the poop, and there were another ten in the fo'c'sle and six in the wardroom. The ship was the Marlborough, of Glasgow. Her papers were missing, probably rotted away, so the cause of the mystery remained unknown. She had been missing since 1890, and had spent nearly a quarter-century at sea. When she left New Zealand for England she carried a number of sheep and several passengers, of whom one was a woman. The skipper, Hird, was a first-rate officer, and his crew were real sailors, not the riff-raff of the crimps. She was last seen off the Straits of Magellan, which means that an unmanned ship managed to spend twenty four years afloat in one of the most notoriously difficult and dangerous passages on Earth.

For those of you wondering, yes, it is perfectly possible for people to survive aboard a wrecked ship. It's been done many times, but of course, the problem isn't surviving the wreck, it's getting rescued afterward. More often than not, the first impulse on finding a derelict isn't to search it, but to avoid or sink it. Even though, under maritime law, a derelict vessel can be salvaged for a substantial sum, many ships don't bother. They carry cargoes of their own, and are under a strict schedule. It's very difficult to bring a derelict vessel to port, and requires resources that most ships won't have to spare.

With all that in mind, consider the derelict from a Trail of Cthulhu perspective. Let's give it a Great War twist:

City of Bradford, Grimsby registration, cargo steamer, 4,200 tons. Captain: H.A. Dawes

In early 1915 the City of Bradford was challenged off the coast of Scotland by U-17, Kapitanleutnant Hans Walther commanding. Captain Dawes, mindful of Admiralty orders, tried to run down U-17, but Walther, wary of this tactic, put a torpedo into the City of Bradford. Walther watched as the crew abandoned ship, then left the scene, recording the City of Bradford as sunk.

That didn't happen, nor did all the crew leave. Dawes, enraged at the loss of his livelihood - and his pension, as he had all of his money wrapped up in the City of Bradford - remained aboard, determined to go down with his ship. Yet she didn't sink, though she did settle, listing heavily to port. The crew were never rescued; nobody but Walther knew what had happened to the City of Bradford, and he thought she'd sunk. She drifted for several weeks.

At first Dawes survived on what was left of the ship's supplies. He couldn't understand how he hadn't been spotted by someone; he was in the shipping lanes, and ought to be within sight of land. Yet the City of Bradford continued to drift, and after a time Dawes, deprived of human contact and half-mad with hunger and thirst, began to hallucinate. In his visions he was offered a new captaincy: bring my cargo to land, said his employer, and you will be handsomely rewarded. 

Thus Mordiggian gained a new hell ship. The City of Bradford has been touched by the Charnel God, and drifts through the North Sea. Dawes is occupied with catching the ship's rats and tying their tails together, all to make a new rat king. His new crew crawled over the side the same day Dawes made his promise, and their waterlogged corpses will defend the rat king so long as the City of Bradford remains afloat. Ultimately the City of Bradford will make its way down the coast to a population center, perhaps encountering - and sinking - several ships along the way. It will beach itself close to a port, and let the rat king loose. After that, Mordiggian's plague will spread, first among the people at the harbor, then the ships that visit, then the harbors that those ships visit ...

Athletics 4, Firearms 4, Health 6, Scuffling 5 
Hit Threshold 3
Alertness Modifier +1 
Stealth Modifier 0
Weapon: -2 (fist) +0 (handgun)
Stability Loss: 0
Special: Dawes is the still-living heart of the Hell Ship. Should Dawes be killed, the City of Bradford will sink, taking everything on board - including the Rat King - with it. This has no effect if the City of Bradford has already made landfall.

Drowned Crew
Athletics 6, Health 8, Scuffling 8
Hit Threshold: 2 (very slow)
Alertness Modifier: +0
Stealth Modifier: +0
Weapon: -1 (fist)
Armor: -2 (sodden flesh)
Stability Loss: +1

Rat King
Athletics 3, Health 5, Scuffling 3
Hit Threshold: 3
Weapon: none
Armor: none
Special: with each rat added, the King gains 1 Health. While the King has no attack, it can spread disease. Athletics difficulty 6, or lose 2 Health per day, with a new test every 3 days. Those sick with this plague who make an appeal to Mordiggian may transform into Ghouls. Symptoms: buboes in the groin and armpits that bleed pus when opened, fever and vomiting of blood.