Wednesday, 22 April 2009

Why I Don't Use Published Scenarios

As we were packing up after my most recent Cthulhu game, I blurted out, for some reason I forget now, that I'm not using any pre-published materials in the campaign. Stephen asked me why, and I gave a rushed and garbled reason. Since then, I've been thinking about it a bit more, and I thought I'd put it in writing, since that's what blogs are for, after all.

I told Stephen that I don't use published Call of Cthulhu scenarios because most of them are "rubbish", and that one of the regular players has read or run most of them anyway. The latter is more or less accurate, but I at once regretted my sweeping statement about the quality of the scenarios.

A big problem with most published CoC scenarios is that they follow a pretty standard format. The players are called in, they do some investigating, then BAM! they run into some big wibbly thing from beyond space, usually a Great Old One or Outer God. Back in my first run as a CoC GM, I had one book, The Stars Are Right!, which was a bundle of six or seven adventures, all but two of which involved such large scale threats. Azathoth turns up at the end of one of them, for crying out loud! Now this mimics Lovecraft's fiction quite well, as Randolph Carter aside, he wasn't very interested in continuing characters and ongoing narratives. That's not so good for a campaign, though, especially if you want a slower, more subtle curve from blissful ignorance to full cosmic horror.

A related problem is that there is often little invention involved in the published adventures. The entities encountered are almost always straight from the rulebook or one of the stories, which is nice and authentic, but causes disappointment at the table when you go to lots of effort to describe the strange sound of flapping alien wings, just so one of the players can go "Oh, it's a byakhee; these are easy to kill!" Yes, you could change the entities encountered, but in the well-written scenarios, things are tied together in such a way that swapping Y'Golonac out for some minor servitor would make nonsense of the story, which would require a total rewrite, which would make using a published scenario pointless. As for the weaker scenarios, there's no reason to use them in the first place.

So that's why I'm writing my own scenarios for the current campaign. It means that I'm in full control of the pace of revelation, which is what CoC is about, after all. I've also tried to steer clear of using the iconic monsters, or at least to avoid using them in obvious ways, so as to keep both newcomers and veterans speculating on just what that is crawling around on the roof. All in all, it seems to be working out well so far.

All that said, it is only fair to give credit where it is due, and a lot of the published adventures are quite good. The campaigns are also, for the most part, strong pieces of work, and their pacing is much more to my liking. I don't discount their use in the future, but I can't do much with them at this point, and to be honest, I'm having lots of fun writing my own stuff.

Tuesday, 14 April 2009

Walk Without Rhythm

A modern-day Call of Cthulhu scenario set in the UK. First played 13th April 2009.


Kevin Cooper. Ex-soldier. (Stephen R)
Toby Greenberg. Motorbike-riding rabbi. (Rich R)
"Mad Frank" Nicholson. Financial consultant. (Ben F)
Winston Richards. London cabbie with the gift of the gab. (Ad T)

Frank and Toby, undaunted by their previous experiences, returned to Stardust Investigations when the office called about a new job. There they met two new employees, an ex-soldier from Scotland, and a local cab driver, each with their own reasons to investigate the unexplained. The four quickly introduced themselves to each other, then headed in to find out more about the latest mystery.

They were introduced to two men in sharp but unfashionable suits; the pair were quite different, one short, rotund and largely silent, the other tall, slim and chatty, but there were some distinctive similarities, and the team concluded that the two were brothers. This was confirmed as the taller fellow, David Wilson, told their story. He and his brother Scott were "in the import business", he said, and they had recently come into possession of a strange statue that they were unable to sell, because it made people feel "strange". Worse, their night-time security guard, Dave, went missing a couple of days after they took delivery of the item. For various ill-explained reasons, the brothers could not go to the police, so instead approached Stardust to find out more about the statue, whether it could be sold on, and what had happened to Dave.

Arriving at the brothers' warehouse, the team discovered that the statue was in fact some kind of decorated pillar, carved with an unusual sequence of symbols, which may or may not have been a form of writing. Studying it further, they found that it was heavy, and surprisingly free of erosion and wear. Indeed, an attempt by the soldier to mark the pillar using his combat knife resulted in complete failure. Cooper also discovered a small brown stain or smudge on the pillar, and scraped off a sample for analysis at Stardust's laboratory. Meanwhile, Frank and Toby took a more scholarly approach, and after comparing notes, identified an early Mediterranean, perhaps Greek, style to the carving, although the symbols remained obscure in meaning.

On a considerably stranger note, the investigators began to notice unusual phenomena occurring around the pillar. Cooper, initially wary of radioactivity, felt a prickly itching on his back and neck, almost like sunburn, while the financial consultant and the rabbi felt as if they were being watched, a sensation that almost pushed Frank over the edge, as he began a frantic search of the warehouse, convinced that he was being followed. Pulling themselves together, the investigators stepped away from the pillar and out into the afternoon sunshine, and the eerie feelings subsided.

They decided to head over to see "Nick the Greek", the man who sold the pillar to the brothers in the first place, but found his warehouse locked up. Assuming that he'd gone home for the day, the investigators instead went to security man Dave Morris' home to look for clues. He lived in a small flat above the Dog & Bastard pub, a gloomy and forbidding place, but one in which Winston Richards felt right at home, and he soon discovered that not only did the barman have a spare key to the flat, but convinced the fellow to loan it to the investigators for a short while. Upstairs, they found the place a mess, but not unusually so. They discovered a set of football boots covered in dried mud, and deduced that Dave was a large man; they found some other information pointing to his role in a Sunday league football team, and briefly followed that lead by telephoning a couple of his team-mates, discovering that on the day he disappeared, Dave was in high spirits and seemed quite normal. The investigators also found enough personal information for Richards again to bluff his way to discovering some of Morris' medical history, including his blood type. At that point, the team decided to turn in for the day.

The next morning, Toby and Frank went to the British Museum to visit Professor James Hutchinson, an expert on early Greek carving, and showing him a series of pictures of the pillar they'd taken the day before, easily convinced the scholar to follow them back to the lock-up for a closer look. Hutchinson was quite excited by the pillar and set to immediate work analysing it.

Meanwhile, Cooper and Richards went back to Nick's warehouse, and found it still closed. Noticing a video shop directly opposite, they asked the teenager behind the counter if he'd seen anything of Nick of late, and the boy confirmed that he'd spotted him a couple of days previously, when a large man in a dark blue hooded sweatshirt had visited the warehouse. Nick took the man inside, and about ten minutes later the man left, but the boy didn't notice Nick leaving. After answering a call from Stardust HQ confirming that the stain on the pillar was blood, and that it matched Dave's type, the pair headed back across the road and forced the rear door. Inside, they were immediately assaulted by a putrid rotting smell, which got worse as they approached the main office. Covering their faces, they made a quick search for any evidence of the pillar's origins, and while they found a record of its delivery to the Wilson brothers, they found nothing about how Nick obtained it. They also noticed that one of the desks had been moved, and that there was a significant amount of dried mud on the surface, as if someone had stood on it in dirty boots...

Back at the Wilsons' Hutchinson reported the surprising news that the pillar was made of a substance he'd never encountered before in all his time working with stone. He also couldn't decipher the symbols, but confirmed that the general style of the piece was early Mediterranean. At that moment, they heard David Wilson outside, with considerable surprise in his voice, exclaim "Dave!"

Hopping up on the desk, Cooper nudged aside one of the office's ceiling tiles, and discovered a bloated and decayed body stuffed in the cavity. Assuming that they had found Nick, Cooper and Richards were deciding what to do next when Frank telephoned and told them that Dave had returned. Pausing only briefly to make an anonymous call reporting Nick's death to the police, the soldier and the cabbie jumped in the car and raced off back to the Wilsons' place.

Dave Morris shambled clumsily towards the Wilsons' warehouse, putting the investigators on guard, and to everyone's surprise engaged David Wilson in an attempt to buy the pillar. His speech was slurred, and he ignored any discussion of anything other than the item; to Greenberg's eye, Morris seemed as if he were half-asleep or even drugged. Wilson attempted to stall Morris, but the latter became more and more insistent, eventually becoming physically rough with his employer. At this point, Frank and Toby leaped into action, but were interrupted by a wail from behind, as Hutchinson came running out of the warehouse, swinging a crowbar, and with an insane gleam in his eyes!

A brawl ensued, with the professor getting in a number of heavy strikes with the crowbar, and Morris continuing to prove a threat. The timely arrival of Cooper and Richards helped to swing things back in the investigators' favour, and the scholar was subdued, but not before giving everyone a bruising. The group quickly made a plan and told Morris that they would sell the pillar to him; he immediately turned around and stumbled off, apparently to deliver the message to the "buyer". Frank set off in pursuit, while the rest of the team borrowed a rifle and a shotgun from a "special delivery" the Wilson brothers had been looking after.

Rushing after Frank, the team followed Morris back to a rough area of town, and a crumbling Victorian terraced house. Sneaking in behind Dave, the investigators started to search the building, finding nothing in the front room other than a mouldy sofa and a few pigeons; however, the smell of wet earth was strong everywhere. Greenberg felt a pressure on his mind, as he had once before in Ipswich, and began to worry as the team entered another room and found Morris meeting with a large figure in a dark blue hoodie. Sensing danger, the investigators attempted to end the meeting without conflict, but the hooded man lifted his arm to reveal that his "hand" was in fact a bundle of slugs, worms and other unsavoury creatures, the sight of which shook the team's sanity.

A fight then broke out, with Frank and Cooper opening fire on the hooded figure, and Richards attempting to subdue Dave. They discovered that whatever the thing in the hood was, it was rather resistant to firearms, with each strike spattering all kinds of nastiness against the walls, but otherwise having little effect on the thing. Then it drew back its hood, to reveal that its entire body was made up of this oozing, shifting mass of vermin, a confirmation which snapped the investigators' already battered minds. In a haze of madness, Richards snapped poor Dave's neck, and the rabbi found himself drawn to the monster, feeling some kind of kinship with it, and stumbling into Mad Frank's increasingly erratic firing line. Eventually, the monster fell, but Greenberg was badly hurt, and the entire team was insane, going their separate ways as they fled into the night.

An interesting session this, as I had two new players and two veterans, and the split was quite obvious. Frank and Toby were played as having some definite hangups based on their previous experiences, and even though Stephen and Ad were not new to Call of Cthulhu, they did a great job of playing their characters as being unused to such strangeness.

The two halves of the group also separated for the middle bit of the investigation, something which worried me at the time, as it's always difficult to juggle a split party, but I decided to play it on the fly as a series of mini-cliffhangers, so that when one group was just about to achieve or discover something, I'd switch to the others, and so on. I think it worked well enough, especially when things started to go wrong.

Speaking of which, the end of the scenario came as a shock, as the players all rolled quite poorly for Sanity loss, each one of them going indefinitely insane (three months for everyone except Toby Greenberg, who's out for six!). That's not something I've seen in all my years playing or running the game, even during Horror on the Orient Express. The players all approached their characters' insanity in unique and interesting ways, with the standout being Greenberg's vision of the worm-thing as some kind of symbol that God had forgiven him for the murder of a young woman in the previous scenario. I can't wait to see where the character goes now. I also heartily approve of Mad Frank's decreasing sanity manifesting as a type of Rambo-like crusade against the Mythos; I can definitely see him running into a Deep One nest wearing a belt of C4.