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Friday, 13 November 2020

"The Bloofer Ladies" (scenario)

A little late for Halloween, here's a short adventure seed for a Victorian horror campaign, possibly but not necessarily something like Tremulus, Call of Cthulhu or The Yellow King. This adventure assumes some background:
  1. The player-characters were previously involved, months or even years before the events of this scenario, in an adventure such as “The Night of the Jackals” in Cthulhu by Gaslight (see video playthrough below), or any scenario which ends with a mansion being gutted by fire. 
  2. The villain of "The Night of the Jackals" adventure is now in a mental asylum in Hampstead.
It’s not necessary for you to have run that specific adventure, just as long as there has been some earlier scenario that ended with a house fire. That ought to be easy enough to engineer in a Victorian horror/investigative campaign!

An invitation to the theatre
It is Tuesday, 4 August 1891. Bram Stoker (44 years old) sends a message asking the characters to come to the Lyceum Theatre at lunchtime to talk about some eerie experiences. It is feasible that at least one of the characters has met Bram Stoker before (at a dinner party, perhaps, or at their club) but that’s not essential for the scenario, as long as he could know them by repute.

The Lyceum is in Wellington Street, off the Strand, with the Wellington pub on the corner. As the characters arrive, Henry Irving (53 years old) is rehearsing a scene in a play Stoker has written. Stoker is business manager of the Lyceum but is not yet established as a novelist, though he recently had some lukewarm reviews for The Snake's Pass.

Irving is not impressed, disparaging Stoker in front of Annie Oakley (31) and her husband Frank E Butler (44) who are both crack shots with a .22 rifle and are on a break from Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show, which is currently touring Europe.

Irving finishes the scene, one where he comes up behind the actor playing Jonathan Harcourt (sic) who cuts himself while shaving. In character as the Count, Irving reaches for the blood on Harcourt’s cheek but recoils from a crucifix around his neck.

‘Take care,’ says Irving, putting little feeling into his delivery of the lines. ‘Take care how you cut yourself. It is more dangerous than you think in this country. And this is the wretched thing that has done the mischief. It is a foul bauble of man’s vanity. Away with it!’

Stoker, watching from the stalls, jumps up brandishing a copy of the script. ‘Then you break the shaving-glass, Henry.’

‘Oh? Why don’t I do this while I’m at it?’ And Irving slowly tears up the script. ‘Absolute twaddle, Bram. “The children of the night, what music they make.” Pah.’

‘Well, maybe if you said it with an accent…’

‘I know how to read a damned line. And as for “Count Wampeer – ’

‘Vampire, please.’

‘It’s been done to death in the penny dreadfuls, old chum. Warney the Wampeer. Forget it. I might as well stick a stake through my career and bury it as play this old hokum. Just stick to managing the accounts, will you? I say this as a friend – you have no more talent as a playwright than McGonagall has a poet.’

Stoker’s story
With Irving’s criticism stinging his ears, a flushed Stoker takes the player characters to his office. There, if distracted from his public embarrassment, he explains why he asked them to come and see him.

In 1885 (on October 24th to be exact) Stoker went to look at the wreck of a Russian ship called the Dmitry, which had been washed ashore at Whitby. There was a coffin broken open on the sand and he remembers the crest: a crude copper symbol, a rozeta solara with a serpent or dragon curled over it.

Stoker goes on: ‘A large black dog raced across the sand and started barking at me. I conceived the notion that it was warning me off the casket. Probably it was nothing of the kind. Perhaps the beast was merely made nervous by the smell of death. But it gave me an idea for a play I may one day write.’

That was six years ago, and Stoker had almost forgotten it until an incident near Hampstead Heath a couple of weeks ago:

‘It was evening. I’d emerged from the Heath after a long walk and was looking around for a pub. I was wandering deep in thought, so I don’t know the road I was on. A carriage pulled up and a man and woman got out. The woman was beautiful but very pale, and stared ahead of her as though in a dream. She wore a cloak, under which her dress was white. The man, whose face I scarcely noticed though I recall he was tall and gaunt, led her into the driveway of a large house. I had the impression the house was unoccupied, though I couldn’t see it for the high hedge that surrounded the property. As I crossed the road, I happened to glance at the open carriage and saw that it bore the same symbol inside the door that I saw on the coffin at Whitby: a serpent on a rozeta solara. At first it didn’t register, and I had gone a few yards before I realized where I’d seen it before – or thought I had, for I had barely glanced into the carriage. I hesitated, and had a mind to go back for another look. Then the man came back out of the drive.

‘It was like looking at a moving image in a zoopraxiscope. He was at the hedge bordering the property, or so I thought, but as I turned my head he was already passing me. And as I then looked back it was as though another blink had occurred, and he was already climbing back into the coach. It rolled off and was swallowed in darkness. It was most odd. It seemed to me as though he had either moved at unnerving speed, though he seemed merely to be walking at a normal pace, or else I experienced a series of momentary blackouts. For a moment I thought of looking in the driveway of the house to see what had become of the woman, but my nerve failed me. At any rate, I abandoned all thought of a pint and went straight home. Then yesterday he saw this piece in the paper.’

He hands them yesterday’s Westminster Gazette:

The neighbourhood of Hampstead is just at present exercised with a series of events which seem to run on lines parallel to those of what was known to the writers of headlines as “The Kensington Horror,” or “The Stabbing Woman,” or “The Woman in Black.” During the past two or three days several cases have occurred of young children straying from home or neglecting to return from their playing on the Heath. In all these cases the children were too young to give any properly intelligible account of themselves, but the consensus of their excuses is that they had been with a “bloofer lady.” It has always been late in the evening when they have been missed, and on two occasions the children have not been found until early in the following morning. It is generally supposed in the neighbourhood that, as the first child missed gave as his reason for being away that a “bloofer lady” had asked him to come for a walk, the others had picked up the phrase and used it as occasion served. This is the more natural as the favourite game of the little ones at present is luring each other away by wiles. A correspondent writes us that to see some of the tiny tots pretending to be the “bloofer lady” is supremely funny. Some of our caricaturists might, he says, take a lesson in the irony of grotesque by comparing the reality and the picture. It is only in accordance with general principles of human nature that the “bloofer lady” should be the popular rôle at these al fresco performances. Our correspondent naïvely says that even Ellen Terry could not be so winningly attractive as some of these grubby-faced little children pretend—and even imagine themselves—to be.

There is, however, possibly a serious side to the question, for some of the children, indeed all who have been missed at night, have been slightly torn or wounded in the throat. The wounds seem such as might be made by a rat or a small dog, and although of not much importance individually, would tend to show that whatever animal inflicts them has a system or method of its own. The police of the division have been instructed to keep a sharp look-out for straying children, especially when very young, in and around Hampstead Heath, and for any stray dog which may be about.

“The Westminster Gazette,” 3rd August.
Extra Special.

The “Bloofer Lady.”

We have just received intelligence that another child, missed last night, was only discovered late in the morning under a furze bush at the Shooter’s Hill side of Hampstead Heath, which is, perhaps, less frequented than the other parts. It has the same tiny wound in the throat as has been noticed in other cases. It was terribly weak, and looked quite emaciated. It too, when partially restored, had the common story to tell of being lured away by the “bloofer lady.

Stoker himself cannot remember other details, such as where the house was, but hypnosis or even just careful questioning would help. For example, he was on the north side of the heath and he said the carriage was soon lost in the darkness, meaning the house must have been quite near to where the electric street-lights run out.

Things the characters can find out:
  • The house turns out to be the burnt-out ruin of Kandahar House, which in this scenario is located on the Bishops Avenue in Hampstead, east of which the newly installed electric street-lighting peters out. 
  • The names of the two abducted children were Sally Vane and Jimmy Murdin. (Whether they can be rescued or are already dead depends on the bleakness of tone you're striving for.)
  • The symbol Stoker saw (he sketches it) is Romanian and is the ancestral crest of the Counts Vârcolac, a noble house now thought extinct.
At the ruined house
The players have been here before, and will remember the house when a family was living here (Colonel Hollingsworth’s, in the original scenario), so there is something melancholy in seeing the sooty brickwork, charred timbers, blistered paintwork and weeds growing through the weather-ravaged ruin. The smell is of dank ashes, brick dust and decaying wood.

The stairs are unsafe but can be used with caution to reach the upper stories. The characters find evidence that somebody has been searching the house: fallen rafters that have clearly been recently moved, cupboards that largely escaped the fire but that show signs of having been broken into, and so on.

The “Bloofer Ladies” will be encountered up in the vast cavernous space of the attic. They are to all intents and purposes vampires, though in our campaign that’s a science fictional effect (engineered retrovirus) rather than a mark of the undead.

Count Vârcolac is long gone. The characters may encounter him eventually, but not in this scenario. He left his “brides” here to search for an item in Col Hollingsworth’s collection of ancient artifacts. It doesn’t much matter what that item is; it can be a MacGuffin for a future adventure.

The Butterworth Hospital 
A private mental asylum in Hampstead run by Dr Algernon Mahler. Other useful NPCs are a burly male warder, Stackpoole, and a nervous young psychiatrist, Dr Hiram Carver.

Mounir Faez from the published “Night of the Jackals” adventure is a patient here. Faez is unable to take control of complex minds, but is slowly building a “hive mind” of insects he has captured. That’s just a seed you can build on or ignore as you see fit; it’s not an essential element of the scenario, though it could of course inspire Stoker (if the characters give him a full account later) to create the character of Renfield.

There are no real twists here. The characters go looking for vampires in Hampstead and they find them. OK then. In my campaign the surprise factor was that they didn't expect vampires (it's not a fantasy game, as I mentioned) and the fun was to be had in meeting Stoker & company and experiencing the retooled elements of Dracula. I tend to use my notes as a springboard for improvisation, and so rarely bother to pre-plan twists as I expect to use the "plot" as a McGuffin while the characters' actions and interplay create the story. If you're going to run the adventure, it will work best as the teaser episode of a longer search for Count Vârcolac, something like this.


  1. Curious to know if you're aware of the Ghastly Affair rpg. Might be right up your alley!

    1. How have I not heard of this? Just grabbed all the free stuff off their site to try it out. I'm not very familiar with High Gothic literature (we can't count Northanger Abbey or Frankenstein) but I like the feel of the time and Oliver Johnson did his never-completed doctoral thesis on Lord Byron IIRC, so this ought to appeal to our gaming group. If so, expect some GA scenarios to crop up here before too long!