This article originally appeared in Pyramid #23
A GURPS adventure by S. John Ross
Pawnshop is an Illuminated/Weird Occult adventure for a small group of modern adventurers of 50-150 points each. The text assumes that the PCs are known for their interest in the unusual or otherworldly, and that they are either "for hire" or have sufficient reputation to be sought out when an unusual case presents itself. The adventure is set in and around Washington, D.C. (in Georgetown, specifically), but can easily be transplanted to any modern city. Only the GURPS Basic Set is necessary for play.
Note that one or two PCs with some low-power Psi or magic are appropriate to the genre, following the suggestions for "psychic investigators" on p. B165 (sidebar). In fact, the GM may wish to encourage one PC to have a little Psychometry, as this power is useful for feeding the party information the GM wants them to have.
Washington, D.C.'s Georgetown district is known for its "college town" atmosphere - art galleries, alternative theaters, expensive shops, and a strong streak of new-age sensibility permeate the northwestern end of M Street. Weekend evenings find the streets crowded and festive, and the local intellectuals retreat into coffeehouse booths to savagely ponder verities over tense games of chess.
Just out of reach of the lights of M Street is a tiny shop of the kind that can only thrive in this kind of atmosphere: Emperor Baxley's Pawn Shop, possibly the only pawn shop in the country specializing in occult paraphernalia. Next to the predictable stacks of stereos and glass cases of cheap firearms, the casual browser will spot hand-painted Tarot decks, seemingly ancient manuscripts (carefully crafted by a local artist), crystal balls, pewter pentagrams, and suggestive candlesticks engraved with pagan slogans. The choicest items - the truly unusual - "Emperor" Baxley saves for himself, or puts on display without a price tag. Karl Baxley profits from the occasional poverty of the local new-agers, and over the years has accumulated a few items worthy of the attention of the Secret Masters. One of them - an alien artifact meant to be used as a communications device - is being used by Baxley to control minds at a distance, and to commit murder.
The Plea for Help
The PCs are contacted by Karen Kessler, a resident of Crystal City, Virginia, with a request for their services as investigators of the unusual. She will call first, and request a meeting in-person, in a public place such as a restaurant. On the phone, she sounds nervous, and gives only her name and her assurance that she is "very serious, and very concerned, and willing to pay." She will not elaborate on her problem until the PCs meet her face to face.
Karen looks like she's normally cheerful, but her face is tired-looking, now, with sunken eyes under large sunglasses, and a weary frown. Her husband died nine days ago, and the police have effectively closed the case as a suicide. Karen disagrees, and tells her story:
Ron wasn't suicidal. We were both very happy and things were going fine. I know that something was done to him to make him do what he did . . .
I was with him, at home, the night he died. We had just got back from a day in the city, doing some shopping and visiting his parents. We had stayed out a little late drinking in Georgetown and we were both a little buzzed, but neither of us were drunk, since his mother had been with us . . .
When we got home, we were unwinding, relaxing together on the couch, when he went crazy. He started shaking, and then looked at me with the eyes of . . . the eyes of a different man. He started laughing and screaming things. Pointless, ridiculous things about glory and - I'm really not making this up - how he was going to get rid of the Senate!
I tried to calm him down, give him something more to drink, get his mind off whatever had gotten into him, but he wouldn't have it. He grabbed me and smiled and said that now he finally had the power he deserved . . . and then he just ran out to the balcony and jumped off, laughing.
It wasn't him. I don't know about things like this. I don't believe in things like this. But something killed my husband. He wasn't himself, and he wasn't crazy.
The GM should note that her story doesn't flow smoothly. Karen will take long pauses to collect herself, and her mind will sometimes wander, her speech following it into incoherence. She will also explain that both her lawyer and her doctors have advised against doing what she's doing now - pursuing a private investigation of her husband's death.
But she insists firmly that her husband was somehow literally not himself. She will ask the PCs for their rates of service, and try to meet them, but she has only $1,200 available in spendable savings, and will prefer to offer $60 a day. She will promise the PCs more money later, as she gets it, and will be willing to sign a contract to the effect that she can be billed for reasonable expenses. The GM should portray Karen as sympathetic, if necessary tugging personal strings of the characters to get them to agree to take her case. If the GM suspects his players will be especially resistant, Karen could be replaced by one of the PC's Dependents, or by a close friend of the party from previous adventures.
Ron Kessler's Death
The Kessler "suicide" is meant only as the adventure's teaser, so the GM shouldn't make it too challenging. It should draw the players in and pique their interest, not discourage them. The following are the likely avenues of investigation, and their potential results. Note that at some point after they go to the police, the PCs will be followed and attacked (see Sergeant Henle, below).
Rosalyn Kessler: Ron Kessler's mother was with the couple on the Saturday night that Kessler leaped to his death, and with Karen again later that night when she heard the news about her son. She lives in Maryland, just outside of the District, in a high-security apartment complex. She is unlikely to trust the PCs if they turn up cold, but will talk to them (reluctantly) if Karen calls ahead. She believes that Ron committed suicide, and possibly that he was mentally ill. She'll describe the day of the suicide: The trio had lunch at her apartment, then went into the city shopping, first in D.C.'s miniature Chinatown, and then onto Georgetown, where they parked at a distance and walked most of M street, hitting nearly every shop they could. While she remembers that they visited Emperor Baxley's, and that she found it unsettling and wanted to leave, it doesn't stand out as a relevant detail, and she had similar impressions of half the places they visited. Even if questioned directly about the shop, it will have to be described as "the occult pawnshop" or somesuch, since she doesn't remember the name. She does confirm Karen's assertion that Ron seemed happy and content with his life, but will likely not confide in the PCs with her true belief: that Ron was for some reason unhappy with his marriage. She blames Karen, but doesn't really acknowledge this consciously, herself.
The City Police and/or Morgue: If the PCs are private investigators licensed in the state of Virginia, or have police Contacts that are appropriate, getting the information on the Kessler case will be reasonably simple. If they are simply independent operators, some "social engineering" will be necessary, possibly in the form of lies or bribes. This is one case where Karen will be of no real help; the police are already leery of Mrs. Kessler due to her steady hounding of them over the past week since the death was officially declared a suicide.
The official reports contain all the data on the body, but the body itself wasn't revealing. The fall killed Kessler; there were no unusual drugs present in the body, no injuries not attributable to the fall, and not even enough alcohol to count him as a drunk. But the police report does contain a vital clue: A few feet away from the body was the shattered remains of one of the knickknacks Kessler purchased in Georgetown: glass painted with many colors, which Karen identified as having been a small goblet. This is a detail that Karen remembers (Ron was clutching it throughout his tirade), but she didn't consider it important - it was just what he happened to be holding, as far as she is concerned. At this point, the PCs might agree.
If at any point the PCs decide that the glass is important (and they should, fairly soon), careful questioning will reveal two other recent cases where painted glass items were found near bodies. One was a car accident on the Capitol Beltway, where the dead driver had a painted shotglass in his mouth, and another was chalked up as a drug-related homicide, where one of the victims was carrying a painted-glass pipe. Investigation into that incident will reveal that the victim in question is the one who started the gunfight.
The Kessler Apartment: Shopping bags from the entire shopping trip can be found, but again, Baxley's place is just one of many. The bag might be useful later, however, since it has the address clearly printed on it. The Kesslers were comfortably middle class (Karen works at a nearby college library, Ron was a construction foreman), and their home reflected ordinary tastes, but contains no evidence of what might drive a man to suicide. Use of Psychometry in the living room or on the balcony will pick up a troubled "vibe" from the night of the suicide, and the Psi will get the impression that some other presence was at work, implying that Ron didn't kill himself of his own volition.
Other Tenants in the Building: The Kessler's had neighbors only on one side of their 12th-floor condominium: Kevin Wayler and his young wife, Yvonne. They are a polite couple, happy to be helpful, but they only remember that there was screaming next door, most of it Ron's. They will also point out that they had never heard that kind of yelling from their neighbors before.
The Stained-Glass Grail
The shards of glass found near Kessler's body are very significant, although this will not be immediately apparent to the PCs.
Several months ago, an impoverished youngster entered Baxley's emporium with the find of a lifetime: a large goblet made of multifaceted colored glass which seemed to capture and magnify ambient light. The youth explained that the goblet had once been the property of his great-grandmother, who told him that she used its magic to help their family. The boy didn't believe in magic, but he believed in his electric bill, and was willing to part with it for a reasonable sum.
Baxley, raking over the strange goblet with a jeweler's loupe, didn't even haggle the asked price, fascinated as he was with the the material, which clearly wasn't glass, but some kind of fused collection of gems. He closed his shop early that evening, to take it upstairs to his apartment to examine it over a few beers. The first thing he did was to wash it out in the sink - it was still covered in cobwebs and dust.
When he poured the water out of it, it wasn't water anymore. What emerged from the goblet was like melted glass, but cool to the touch. Frightened but fascinated, Baxley found that he could mold the material into nearly anything, and that it would harden permanently after a few minutes.
He also found, after he had saturated himself with alcohol and constructed half a dozen cups and crude statues, that by holding his "gemstone Grail" and concentrating, he could make his new glass artifacts glow with warm light. As the hours wore on, the goblet's magic reached out and touched Baxley's mind.
Baxley's "Grail" was an entity, an ancient product of alien sorcery from the days before the glory of Atlantis. Built originally to help form a network of communication between alien minds, it can be utilized by a human Telepath to reach out through it's "glass" creations to read and control minds. Baxley was only a latent Psi, but that was enough (see Baxley's character description for details of the Grail's powers).
Karl "Emperor" Baxley
Occult pawn-shop owner, black, age 43, 5'9", 260 lbs., impressive smile, wears boots, blue jeans, and an Irish sweater. Carries a riding crop and calls himself "emperor of the Occult World."
ST 8, DX 10, IQ 11, HT 10.
Basic Speed 5.0; Move 2 (Heavy Encumbrance from Fat disadvantage)
Dodge 2; Parry NA; Block NA
Damage: Thrust 1d-3; Swing 1d-2.
Advantages: Empathy, Danger Sense, Luck (Twice Per Session).
Disadvantages: Delusion ("I am reincarnated from all the great emperors of Rome"), Fat, Paranoia. Due to the influence of the Grail, Karl is even more insane, having gained the Sadism disadvantage.
Psi Powers: Through his "Grail," Baxley has the equivalent of Telepathy Power 21, with all Telepathy skills at 17 (see the GURPS Basic Set, chapter 20, or GURPS Psionics if available). These skills only work while Baxley is holding the Grail, and only work on subjects with one of his alien-glass creations either in hand or kept close on their persons (in a pocket will do).
Furthermore, the Grail grants him the power to immediately sense when there are "victims" available (such as when anyone is touching one of his painted-glass pieces). The only other difference from the normal Psi rules is the nature of the Telecontrol: the victim has total memory of the events, but is convinced that the decisions were his own. Had Ron Kessler been interviewed as he dived to the blacktop, he would have rationalized his suicide on the way down.
The potential Telepathy power-level is actually much higher; Baxley is still becoming accustomed to the device.
Quirks: Affects an "imperious" air - including occasional dips into ridiculous melodrama; talks to his pet baby kangaroo; delights in his newfound power and actively seeks "worthy foes."
Notable Skills: Accounting-11, Computer Operation/TL7-11, Detect Lies-10, Driving/TL7 (Automobile)-9, History-10, Hobby Skill (Book Restoration)-11, Hobby Skill (Glass Painting)-11, Literature-10, Merchant-14, Occultism-13, Sign Language (AMESLAN)-10.
Karl Baxley has long been regarded by his friends as a likable and only occasionally intolerable eccentric. Every-body knows he's crazy, and that his speeches about the glory of Rome are more than just fun, but he always seemed basically harmless before he purchased the Device from a down-on-his-luck collector who had no idea what it did.
When roleplaying Karl, the GM should slip into melodramatic tirades at random, then drop back into what is essentially reasonable speech. Throughout the adventure, note that his pawnshop is "Closed Due To Vacation" - Karl is addicted to his new power, and spends most of his waking hours in his apartment, using it.
One of the policemen on the scene when Kessler jumped to his death was Sergeant Paul Henle. It was Henle who handled the broken glass goblet, and Henle who was responsible for bagging it and turning it over as evidence. Under the control of Emperor Baxley, he kept a single piece, and keeps it in his shirt pocket at all times. As a result, Karl has a policeman he can use.
In game terms, Paul Henle is an ordinary man: ST 10, DX 10, IQ 10, HT 10, with a Move (and all derivatives) of 5 and skills of 9 to 12 in ordinary modern things like driving and bicycling. He has Guns/TL7 (Pistol)-13 and carries a standard issue .45 ACP. Nothing extraordinary, but the badge - and his subsequent ability to gain entry (or just respect) by intimidation - makes him a favorite of Karl's pawns. Karl likes playing cop.
When the PCs go to the authorities to ask about Kessler's death, Sergeant Henle will be present. Henle will, at the time, be under the control of Emperor Baxley, who spends more and more time controlling the policeman. After the PCs get the information they came for, Henle will follow the PCs from a distance, and pick an opportunity to try to kill them. Baxley is insane but not stupid, and he will play a waiting game if need be to get the PCs stopped, alone, and vulnerable - and then he'll open up with the pistol.
By this point, the concept that Kessler was possessed or controlled in some way should have definitely been in the air (a casual passer-by or nosy taxi driver will bring it up at some point, if the PCs are being especially thick). So, the PCs should have a reason not to just dive for cover and return a hail of lead at the offending peace officer. The hard cover is a good idea, though. Henle will take it himself, when it comes time to reload. Ideally, Henle will be incapacitated and captured, but not killed. Again, ideally, the shard of glass in his shirtpocket should be found, providing a clue.
Keeping a captured or injured policeman will prove to be a major complication - if he's conscious, Baxley will speak through him, trying to manipulate the PCs to a place where he has other minions to ambush them, or (if he's feeling particularly playful) simply to humiliate them. If the cop is unconscious or dead, simply turning him back over to the authorities is a dangerous thing: when Henle awakes, he will try to justify his actions, even if he is uncontrolled at the time. And even if he never wakes up, explaining a dead or injured cop is trouble. Most likely, the PCs will have to keep him prisoner someplace for the duration.
The purpose of this encounter is threefold: First, it should clearly establish that the PCs have a foe. The investigation is no longer a safe one. Second, it should hint that there is some link between what is happening and bits of painted glass. Finally, it puts two complicated things in the hands of the PCs: a cop who shouldn't be there, and a piece of the glass.
The line about destroying the Senate is a tease; Karl doesn't have any concern with the U.S. Government now that he is convinced he can start ruling the world directly. It's a reference to the Roman Senate, which "Emperor" Karl has a personal grudge against for reasons he could explain for hours. When the PCs encounter other pawns of Baxley, the GM should toss in more Roman references now and again. See GURPS Imperial Rome if you want to get detailed, but in a pinch Karl will just loudly complain about the ineptitude of the emperors that he's decided he isn't a reincarnation of.
Over the past few weeks, Karl has picked up a lot of potential pawns. He uses the glass-pouring properties of the Grail to churn out tons of tiny trinkets, which he then paints colorfully as a kind of "instant art" to sell inexpensively in his shop, and to other local vendors. As a result, he has literally hundreds of "agents" potentially under his control. By making his victims vocally declare the glass trinkets "lucky charms" while under his control, the rationalizing side-effects of the Grail's special Telecontrol insure that most people who own one of Baxley's painted-glass masterpieces keep it handy at all times . . .
This is a tool for the GM, who will need to improvise encounters as the investigation moves the PCs closer and closer to Baxley. Since Georgetown is visited by tourists of all kinds daily, any sort of person might conceivably have purchased or found one of the glass baubles.
All the GM needs to keep in mind is that everyone the PCs meet who are under Karl's control act like Karl. They are Karl. When they see a little old lady in a sun-bonnet shake her fist at them and shout "Drat!!!" in a villainous cackle, this should be a Big Clue that the possession line is the real one.
Karl is seriously Paranoid. Once he finds out that one of his killings is being investigated, he will become obsessed with the PCs. If the PCs have a piece of his glass, he will attempt to control one of them.
At first, Karl will attempt to be subtle and murderous - not directly challenging the party, but trying to lead them into areas where he can hurt them. It won't be very long, however, before he just goes into a tirade. He will never actually identify himself (unless the PCs are at a total loss to track him down and the pacing needs a kick of adrenaline), but he will drop any pretense of being anything but somebody possessing the minds of his victims.
Note that the normal penalties to multiple Telecontrol attempts apply; Karl will have two or three simultaneous pawns at most, and usually only one at a time. His supply of people who own guns or other weapons is extremely short - but he has plenty of pawns who are capable of car chases and hit-and-run attempts!
Setting Up the Challenge
The GM should aim for a subtly creepy atmosphere. The investigators are being stalked by a madman's mind. Furthermore, they may have an increasingly large pile of tied-up bodies, and a boxful of colorful glass junk.
All of this should, in short order, lead the PCs directly to the lair of the enemy. Divination or psychic examination using the glass shards themselves can provide a direct route, if the GM is feeling generous - but remember that physical contact with the glass puts the PCs in immediate peril of control.
More likely, interviews with victims will lead a painted-glass trail to Georgetown, and a showdown on M Street. In enough time to include some interesting encounters, but not so much time that it frustrates, the PCs should eventually find out that all that colored glass comes from Emperor Baxley's Pawn Shop.
A narrow two-story building sandwiched between a comic book store and a consignment clothes shop, the pawnshop has windows full of lurid esoterica, from used books of modern magic to cheap statuary, human skulls from medical supply houses, and crystal and pewter enough to supply the free world for decades. A sign on the door is written in flowing calligraphic script: Closed Due to Vacation. At night, the only light is on the second story, where Karl lives.
The Front Door: Flaked green paint, with bars behind the windows. There is a +2 bonus to pick the lock; it's cheap and old. Note that breaking in through the windows works fine if the PCs have some way past the bars. Karl once bought an alarm system for insurance reasons, but it no longer works. He trusts some painted charms on the bars to protect him from theft, but they have no real magic in them whatsoever.
The Pawnshop: Emperor Baxley's Pawn Shop resembles a cross between an ordinary pawnbroker's and a crowded occult bookstore. If the PCs need to stock up on their aromatherapy supplies, used audiocassettes and video games, postcards featuring paintings of naked women wrapped around asteroids, wedding rings, or pewter unicorns, this is their chance (the total value of the jewelry - if sold at another pawn shop, comes to less than $800.00).
The GM should feel free to improvise if the PCs want to get a chuckle out of browsing, but the only really unusual thing they might notice is a large cat-bed with a blanket in it. Hanging over it is a recent photo of Karl hugging his pet baby kangaroo, Gimpy Shawn.
There is a display shelf full of colorful painted glass items: bowls, plates, goblets, pipes, picture frames, and more. These are all made from the alien glass, and touching them will alert Karl instantly, and open the PC who touches them to control.
Behind the Counter: There is a 12-gauge under the counter, but it's cheap, and has been loaded with the same shells for seven years. Use the M870 stats from the GURPS Basic Set weapons tables, but the gun has a malfunction number of 13. Also behind the counter is access to the many guns for sale (the keys are on Karl's personal keyring, but the glass is breakable). Baxley doesn't stock any ammunition, however. He directs any firearms customers to a local sporting goods store. Next to the shotgun is a small can of pepper-spray.
The Storeroom: Karl Baxley has, unwittingly, made himself a minor Secret Master. He has pawns, a plot to take over the world, and a miniature, private Warehouse 23. In addition to crates of more of the same junk found outside (including piles of stereos and televisions that Karl plans to someday sell for scrap), there are valuable things here. And dangerous things. If the PCs have the ability to detect magical or psychic emanations, they will find one or two of them here. They are unknown to Karl. The nature of what can be found is left to the GM, since any "magic items" introduced into a long-running campaign should be hand-picked. The Occult section of GURPS Warehouse 23 can easily be mined for possibilities. Perhaps Karl got the Crystal Skull for $7.50 at a yard sale, or has Aaron's Rod propped up against the wall. Items such as the Crystal Bell and an Oracle Gem are more likely - and just as dangerous (see Warehouse 23, Chapter 3).
The Stairs: There is a single, wooden, unlocked door concealing this narrow stair. It leads upstairs, past a window and onto the apartment landing (see below).
The Landing: The door here is unlocked.
The Livingroom/Kitchen: There is a desk here, with a personal computer and a dangerously leaning stack of new-age books on it. The computer is off, but (if it becomes important) is a pretty up-to-speed machine complete with a modem and Karl's account on a local net server. His password is kept conveniently in his communication software if anyone thinks to look. He has no email waiting. There is also a dingy couch, a beaten-up coffeetable, a color TV set and VCR (the pick of the stock from downstairs - both very nice), three different-colored lava lamps, and a kitchenette with a small stove and a microwave. Judging from the contents of the kitchen, Karl exists entirely on frozen convenience foods, fruit punch flavored soda, and Pop-Tarts.
When the PCs arrive at this area, Karl will be in the livingroom only if the PCs have been clever enough to sneak in entirely unobserved. Considering the level of obsessive observation the party has been under, this would require some excellent planning. Most likely, Karl will be holed up in the bedroom ready to defend himself, with a mind-controlled drone sneaking up the steps behind the party carrying the shotgun from under the cash register (if the PCs didn't take it).
The Bathroom: An ordinary bathroom. The seat is up. The shower curtain has Snoopy on it.
The Bedroom: The Emperor is most likely here, sitting with his pet kangaroo (who looks either frightened or bored; it's hard to tell which), and holding the "Grail" in one hand and a Beretta 9mm in the other (remember that Karl uses guns at default). The bedroom itself contains bookshelves to the ceiling, books overflowing, clothes on the floor, and a large waterbed.
The Final Conflict
How the showdown runs depends entirely on the previous jockeying between the madman and the player characters. If Karl Baxley had his way, it would go exactly like this:
Phase One: The PCs, shadowed by a particularly skilled and dangerous pawn (one of the criminals or cops Karl can grab, if possible - somebody with their own gun and the skill to use it), break into the pawnshop and sneak their way up the stairs, thinking they have the drop on Karl.
Phase Two: Karl hits the PCs from both sides, catching them in a hail of skillfully-slung lead from both in front (when they open the bedroom door) and behind (from the ace-in-the-hole assassin). The last sight the pesky PCs see is Karl, grinning and pouring cool glass and playing with it.
Phase Three: The PCs' bodies are tossed into the nearby canal, and Karl goes on to systematically implement his plan to Rule the World.
What actually happens depends on the PCs. But keep in mind the penalty Karl will take for controlling the drone and firing his own gun. He's not likely to hit much. Another point to remember is the Grail itself - it's not impossible to target (-6 to be hit for size), and it's fragile. It has DR 1 and HT 2. A single point of damage past the DR will crack it; another will destroy it utterly. If that happens, even Karl will become merely eccentric again.
Wrapup, Ramifications, and Crossovers
There are many loose ends that need to be tied up. In an ongoing campaign, some of them can become major plot points. In a one-night adventure, they can be glossed over in the closing narration by the Game Master. The most important is the many scarred lives and deaths that the adventure will potentially produce. This isn't an adventure about bloodshed; it's about a single madman, and everybody else who attacks the PCs is an innocent victim. Hopefully, the PCs didn't blow them mindlessly away. If they did, show them a little less mercy in the final scene. He who lives by the sword . . . But, keep it entertaining in any case.
If the Grail survives the encounter (and it's a great target for one of those final stray shots - give it a dramatic slow-motion death), then it's potentially dangerous not only to the campaign, but also to the PCs. It warps the intentions of the users. No longer a benevolent tool for communication, is is touched by the minds of the Dero (see GURPS Warehouse 23) who used it for evil. Whether it's "magic" or "super technology" is almost a moot point. It runs on life-giving Orgone energy, however, and Karl has taken the equivalent of nearly 200 rads of radiation damage from it! Anyone possessing the Grail takes a rad per day of exposure, because of the flow of negative Orgone.
The adventure can be retooled to any contemporary or futuristic setting, from Autoduel to Space, with no troubles. It even easily adapts to historical settings and fantasy campaigns - the only real difference is the TL of the weapons involved, and the way Ron Kessler died (a leap from the 12th floor is unlikely in medieval Prague). The PCs can also easily be policemen or government agents - anyone who might be called in to look at the curious nature of Ron Kessler's death.
Article publication date: February 1, 1997
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