Sunday, 29 January 2012

Lawrence Bacon Must Die!

This post contains spoilers for Tatters of the King. My players shouldn't read on, nor should you if you intend to play this campaign.

You've been warned!

08 tory railtrack ubt
Right, so I think my players have broken the campaign. To be fair, it's not the most well-designed thing in the world, and regular readers will know that I've been struggling with it since we started. Tatters of the King is not the most egregious railroad I've ever seen in an rpg product, but it's far from flexible in its plotting. The writing assumes that things will happen in a certain order and at certain times, and leaves little room for player agency; it does not seem to have occurred to the writer that most players will not be content to sit on their hands and wait for the next clue to drop into their laps.

On the plus side, the non-player characters are written in exhaustive detail, so the Keeper has more than enough information on their personalities, goals and methods to play them in an organic way and respond to the players' actions. In that sense at least, Tatters of the King is quite a well-written scenario. I made a decision early on to ignore the heavy-handed plotting and run the campaign in a more sandbox style, and the strength of the NPC detail has made that quite easy.

Until the players met Lawrence Bacon, that is.

Bacon's one of the key antagonists, a member of the inner circle of the cult that the players are trying to defeat. What is supposed to happen is that the players fight and kill him, and then, as a result of his death being reported in the press, receive a clue about the cult's whereabouts. The delay between the fight and the news of Bacon's death being published gives the cult enough time to get on with their ritual to bring the city of Carcosa to Earth, leading to an exciting finale as the players rush to get to the cult before the ritual can be completed. It's quite a well-written climax, with lots of interesting choices for the players, and the appearance of Carcosa is quite evocative; I was looking forward to running it.

In my Tatters of the King, Lawrence Bacon is far from dead, and not in your general Call of Cthulhu immortal wizard way, either. Instead of the expected fight, the players surprised him -- through use of a spell the campaign gives them, so how this didn't come up in playtesting I don't know -- and subdued him before he could get a single spell off in his defence. Then they made use of their connections to have him committed to an asylum under maximum security, and began to interrogate him about the cult's plans. He is their enemy, so despite their cleverness he hasn't told them everything, but even so they now know where the cult is and what they're planning to do, and they know it much earlier than they should. As a result, they're now in a position to stop the cult and save the world, which is good, but -- and this is the tricky bit -- they'll be able to do it before any of the interesting stuff happens.

I could have stopped all this. I could have had Bacon resist their attempts to subdue him, but it would have involved fudging rolls and undermining their very sensible plans. I could have had him resist their attempts at interrogation, but again their approach was a good one and I couldn't have blocked it without being unfair. I could have the ritual happen early, despite their cleverness, but then we're getting into Quantum Ogre territory. Besides, it was fun to play through, and that's the point of the hobby at the end of the day.

It is just not in my nature as a GM to fudge things to such an extent, but I'm left with the problem of delivering a finale to the campaign. There's nothing in the book about what to do if the players are clever and efficient and turn up early to the party, but that's fine as I can make it up for myself; the bigger problem is that sneaking up to the cultists and bashing them over the back of the head before they've had a chance to summon a single byakhee doesn't seem like much pay-off for months of play.

Perhaps I am worrying too much. One of the more interesting aspects of the cult is that a key member -- Alexander Roby, the asylum inmate who involved the players in the first place -- isn't a villain in a traditional sense; he does want to bring Carcosa to Earth, but only so that he can live there, and it's his colleagues who want to use the city to then summon a Great Old One. As written, the climax involves the players having to figure out how to remove Roby from a place he considers to be more or less heaven; the most efficient way is to kill him, but can the players get past the rest of the cult to do so? Even if they do, can they make that choice?

It's a good, meaningful ending, and it more or less remains intact in my version of the campaign, except that it won't be taking place against the backdrop of Carcosa. So my gut reaction is to let it all play out as it will, but I worry that it won't be enough of a dramatic ending for my players after all the work they've put in. Am I concerned over nothing?


  1. I think your dilemma is a perfect encapsulation of the pros and cons of the two approaches to campaigning (sandbox vs. scripted). On the one hand, you wanted to encourage player agency so you opened up the plot and made it more sandboxy. But then the players did exactly what you do in a sandbox and came up with a workaround you would never have expected and "beat the game"--and kudos to them! You were right not to fudge the dice or bust out Quantum Byakhees.

    But on the other hand, as you say, the cool climax written into the adventure is now kiboshed unless you do some really fancy GM acrobatics (and then what's the point of opening up player agency?). It's the very heart of the railroad: "Hmm, this climax is really awesome; how can I ensure it happens?" I ran into a similar issue just this week, running a CoC one-shot as I prepare my next campaign. The scenario was "Tatterdemalion" from Fatal Experiments. The climax also features a trip to Carcosa, but there's a built-in way to GTFO and return to Earth as soon as the PCs arrive. Bizarrely, the scenario authors assume the party won't take it, largely based on a chain of logic that involves intimate knowledge of how gates work and the party assuming the trip back would work differently than the trip over. Naturally, the party did the sensible thing and skedaddled back to Earth (and still managed to save the day), but in so doing, they missed out on a tour of Carcosa and a climactic appointment with the King in Yellow, both of which would have featured much mind-bending fun. Or there was this adventure I ran (for a D&D campaign) from an issue of Dungeon that assumed the PCs would engage in a thrilling chase, hopping from boat to skiff across a marina, in pursuit of a person of interest. Instead, one of the PCs had a dart laced with drow sleep poison and simply shot the NPC as he tried to book it, knocking him out and forestalling a large chunk of the written adventure. So it goes. It's just a risk you take when you run pre-fab scenarios.

    As a GM, I don't mind showing the group what was behind my smoke and mirrors after the fact, so if I were in your shoes, after the anti-climax of busting up the cult I'd tell the group exactly what happened and congratulate them on a job well done--but I'd also mention the climax that should've happened, just for everyone's amusement.

    1. That's good advice, thanks! The chap who introduced me to Call of Cthulhu all those years ago would often to a post-mortem explanation of the scenario after we'd finished it, and I enjoyed seeing how things "should" have happened, so I may very well do so with Tatters.

      My key concern is that the finale -- whether it's the one in the book or one that arises from play -- is enjoyable for the players; when your group torpedoed the end of "Tatterdamalion" did they still have fun in doing -- as mine have done -- the sensible thing?

    2. "...did they still have fun in doing -- as mine have done -- the sensible thing?"

      Absolutely! I've run that scenario twice; the first time, the group (a different set of players) went through the Carcosa bit and everyone died. When I mentioned this during the post-mortem after this latest running, everyone expressed shock that the previous group had done that and were more than happy having done the sensible thing.

      Of course, the scenario did not hinge on the group going through Carcosa and there was still a climax to play through (one that featured a PC furiously playing a violin solo on a broken ankle, of all things). You might want to cook up a suitable climactic "clan bust" a la "Call of Cthulhu" to end things with a bang. It won't be as cool as the climax as written, perhaps, but your players won't know the difference (til afterwards, at least).

  2. Having just played in the above campaign Kelvin describes, I can say I thoroughly enjoyed it. I was not really aware of either any railroading or any crack papering going on from a highly skilled GM. The ending was more akin to Miller's Crossing than Call of Cthulhu, with a deadly and brutal firefight going on in frosty Scottish woods, but enjoyable all the same. As the player of the character that administered the coup de grace to Alexander Robey, I can safely say the party would not have agonised long about removing that particular piece from the puzzle! There were two seasoned players of CoC in the party as well as one playing in his very first, and I wondered whether the group's speed of execution was partly to do with our familiarity with the milieu?