Meet Hal Billings

I was rereading a few old posts here on my blog ("I wrote that? Huh. How about that...") and got the inspiration to share this little image (drawn by my too-talented-for-his-own-good-why-can't-I-draw-like-that friend, Terry). And to share the story behind it, of course.

In the early- to mid-nineties, Terry and I were gaming madmen. We'd get together at least once a week in my flat on the second floor of a big, old Victorian-style house, sit down at my amazing, gigantic oak dining room table in my large "study" (which was usually the front bedroom of the apartment) to roll dice and eat food that was bad for us. Most often, these were one-on-one games. Terry was truly my partner in crime in this, as he and I had much the same sensibilities, but he played much more heroic characters than I did. But that was great for me, because I loved telling heroic stories. His style of playing games synced perfectly with my style of running them.

We tried one game after another during this period - Villains & Vigilantes, Cyberpunk (2013, of course), and Stormbringer being the ones we latched onto the longest, but also dipping our toes into many others, like Vampire: The Masquerade, V:tM - Hunters Hunted, Star Wars (the One True Version - aka WEG's D6 version), Everway, Gangbusters, TMNT, Pendragon, Kult, and many, many others.

And, of course, one of the games we explored was Chaosium's Call of Cthulhu ("CoC").

By this point, I had only run CoC once. The game had gone well (it was a ton of fun, actually), but I still hadn't locked into my groove as a CoC Keeper. (That wouldn't happen until two decades later.) But Terry, being the committed role player he was, leaned into the tropes of Lovecraftian horror at every turn, making my game mastering life so much easier. The few games we played were a blast - we probably would have played many more, but when we weren't playing weekly games with the larger game group as a whole, our Stormbringer and V&V campaigns kept pulling us back to them.

Probably our most memorable game of CoC is the one I'm going to recount here. One of our casual gamer friends at the time had heard about the games Terry and I were playing and asked that she and her boyfriend be included in one of them. I opted to run CoC, and they joined Terry and me in my study one evening to make characters and play a quick game.

While the trio made characters, I quickly came up with a bad guy and a scenario. I struggled a bit at first (as often happened), wracking my brain to find a good adventure idea. After a few moments of panic, it came to me: I had recently read the short story "Gray Matter" from Stephen King's collection, Night Shift. It was perfectly Lovecraftian, and all I needed was some bad guy stats and an NPC or two to deliver the hook to the Investigators. While they worked on their characters, I pulled out a CoC Minion Master sheet and got to work.

Soon, we were ready to play.

The characters, who didn't know each other, were shopping in a small market when a young boy ran in, telling them frantically that his father was sick and needed help right away. He ran out before they could do much deliberating, and - being good Samaritans - they rushed after him to render aid. However, when they got to the rundown, darkened apartment building the boy had run into, our friend and her boyfriend put on their gamer hats and, rather than following the child as he ran upstairs, began clearing the lower floor of the building.

But Terry knew better. He knew that such behavior was unrealistic, and that he had embrace the immersion and follow the boy up the poorly lit stairs - which he enthusiastically did. When they reached the top of the stairs, they found a hallway lit solely by a bare bulb hanging over the top landing. The far end, to which the boy was pointing, declaring his apartment to be "down there," was completely engulfed in impenetrable blackness. As Terry's Investigator, pulp-horror novelist Richard Whitlocke, headed down the hall, the boy remained under the light - terrified of whatever had happened to his father.

Our friends, whose characters were still checking out the lower floor - for reasons, I guess - told Terry he should have his character wait for them. But he scoffed at them - he knew that wasn't how this game was meant to go, and that what they were doing made no sense in this series of events. He knew too that, to enjoy the game, he had to embrace the story, no matter where that might lead him.

In this case, it lead him into a dark hallway. Richard drew a book of matches from the pocket of his Chesterfield overcoat and lit one, casting just enough light to see where his next few steps would put him. He repeated this process, moving slowly down the hall. Finally, he was just able to see the apartment door. Another match lit, he approached it - the ancient, worn floorboards beneath him creaking loudly as he reached the door and his match went out.

As he fumbled in the matchbox for one of his few remaining matches, he heard the floorboards creak on the other side of the door, heard the handle turn after being awkwardly fumbled with, and heard the hinges groan as the door opened. For an eternal heartbeat, he stood in the darkness wondering who - or what - he was about to be face-to-face with.

He drew and struck the match, and saw this before him:

Hal Billings, as drawn by Terry after the session

The corrupt thing that had been Hal Billings rushed the Investigator. What followed was a chaotic concoction of screams, lost sanity, wild shots from Richard's pocket revolver, and a harried flight back down the stairs. I believe our friends' Investigators rushed to his aid and used a shotgun - which one of them had, for reasons, I guess - to put down the thing before it could harm anyone. 

The threat removed, we closed the scene on our intrepid adventurers* and on the simple adventure that Terry and I would later dub: "The Trouble with Hal."

*Well, make that one intrepid adventurer, and two other people.


  1. The unfortunate Mr. Billings doesn't really appear to have the physique to "rush" anyone, but I can see where being suddenly confronted by him in near-total darkness would be disconcerting. He hasn't any pants on after all, and that's usually awkward for strangers.

    One hopes Mr. Whitlocke at least got a good story out of the incident where two random strangers he met at a market mercilessly killed a sickly deformed man in front of his child. He's fortunate to have survived finding himself in the company of such unhinged individuals - although I suppose he's had similar encounters in the past that lead him to carrying a revolver everywhere he goes.

    I can't help but wonder what your two guest players thought of the game session.

    1. To paraphrase a well-known space smuggler: "He may not look like much, but he's got it where it counts."

  2. What's the talented Terry doing nowadays? I hope he's still adventurin'

    1. I only chat with him a few times a year these days - he still draws, I guess, but I think he's without a game group, as well.


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