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Scenario Seed: The Dyatlov Pass Incident

This Monday's scenario seed is another example of how you can easily find inspiration for horror-mystery ideas simply by doing a little bit of online research. On this occasion we look at some grim real-world events known nowadays as the Dyatlov Pass incident...

The Actual History

In late January 1959, ten hikers, most of them students from the Ural Polytechnical Institute in Yekaterinberg, set out on an expedition into the northern Ural mountain range in Russia. All of them were experienced hikers and skiers and most were in their early twenties. However, three days into the trek one of the group was taken ill and returned to civilisation, leaving the other nine to continue.

By late February there had been no word from the group, who were now declared overdue. Searchers followed their route and were able to establish that by February 2nd, they had made camp on the slopes of Kholat Syatl (a peak whose name translates into English as 'Dead Mountain'). But what happened after that is still not really known.

The group's tents had been slashed open, apparently from the inside. The hikers had fled the camp, leaving their possessions behind, not wearing their boots or outer clothing. Five bodies were found relatively soon, less than two kilometres from the camp. There were indications they had tried to climb a tree. It was several months before the rest of the group were discovered, buried under snow in a ravine.

Six of the trekkers had died of exposure, but the other three had suffered chest and head trauma. The strange circumstances did not end there: two of the corpses were missing their eyeballs, one its tongue, and the inquest report allegedly stated that some of the clothing worn by the victims was highly radioactive. Another group of hikers who were about thirty miles away that night reported seeing strange lights in the sky.

In 2020 a fresh investigation of the incident by the Russian authorities concluded the group had died as a result of an avalanche, with the inexperience of their leader as a contributing factor.

Night on Dead Mountain

Whatever really happened to the group, we're mainly interested in any sparks of inspiration it throws up for scenario ideas. My own inclination is not to stick too closely to the facts, in any case, not least because there's something off about using the details of the deaths of real people as RPG fodder. So let's stick with the basic concept of a group of hikers vanishing in the mountains in mysterious circumstances and see where we end up.

There's a good chance that any scenario derived from this seed is going to involve a trip up into the mountains and a few nights camping out. It's worth bearing in mind that this would be a memorable experience and demand proper preparation: this would be a good time to break out any resource management and wilderness survival mechanics your game system may have (and think about stealing some if it doesn't already have them). We're edging (at least) into the realms of survival-horror here so it makes sense for the players to really be aware of whether or not their characters have had a hot meal recently.

Possible Structures

There are two or three obvious spines to build this kind of scenario around: the first one is to have the players actually run the members of the doomed expedition themselves, and then unleash whatever horror you have planned for them. (This would potentially suit a more specialist system like Slasher Flick, which is specifically designed for this kind of situation.)

Alternatively, they could play either the rescue party of investigators sent later to try and work out what happened. Naturally, history repeats itself, but with an important difference - the player characters will hopefully have managed to gather clues which may allow them to fend off whatever menace the dead group encountered.

The other possibility is the quirk of the sole survivor of the group fortuitously leaving shortly before they met their deaths. Are they as innocent and lucky as they appear? Did they have a premonition? Or are they somehow involved in whatever happened? Even if they are, have they got away quite as clean as it appears? Could something in the mountains have caught their scent and be drawn down out of the wilderness to complete the hunt?

Something Nasty in the Wilderness

Depending on what system you're using, you have options for using many different monsters and antagonists depending on the feel you're going for (anything from a human madman to a cryptid to some kind of supernatural force).

If you're thinking in terms of a Cthulhu Mythos scenario (and this premise does feel like a natural fit for that kind of game), then there are two obvious choices of antagonist given the location of the events: Ithaqua (given the freezing conditions), or the Mi-Go (given the hikers were up a mountain and strange lights in the sky were witnessed by observers in the area).

Personally I always find Ithaqua one of the less interesting and inspiring Mythos entities, but if you wanted to run this as survival horror, having the Windwalker pursue them through the wilderness might be effective (if Ithaqua is in the form of a less-powerful avatar - maybe the Wendigo, or a monstrous sasquatch - it might give the players more chance of actually being to fend him off). Getting lost and running out of supplies becomes a much more serious situation with a Great Old One lurking in the treeline.

Alternatively, you can run this as more of a mystery scenario, playing up the possible UFO angle and making the Mi-Go responsible for the deaths and some of the mutilations of the corpses. This lends itself more to a 'clever' solution than using Ithaqua as the antagonist - the players will have to find clues to figure out what's going on and how to ward off the Winged Ones.

There are lots of other ways you could use this true story as the inspiration for a scenario. If you've used a real unsolved mystery as the basis of an adventure or campaign, please share your story in the comments. Until next time...

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