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.


  1. Yup - rubbish Kelvin! There are loads of great scenarios for CoC - so from one blogger you game with, you're talking out your arse son! ;)

    No Mans Land
    Horrors Heart
    Unseen Masters
    Adventures in arkham county & all the short adventures in the classic New England setting
    Delta Green/ Countdown/ Eyes Only
    new adventures in the Miskatonic Valley

    all of these have small scenarios, lots of great rpging, flavour, no deities etc etc

    Masks of N - great campaign! Can't go wrong! Yes - you probably get at least one TPK - but worth every one! ;)

    So - heck - :P

  2. Right then...

    No Man's Land is in the wrong era and can't be converted, has a big list of monsters straight from the core rules, and a Great Old One.

    Horror's Heart tries to do something different by using werewolves, but then shoves them into a subplot before going into more of the same cultist stuff. Also, it's appallingly badly written.

    Unseen Masters follows the standard CoC scenario structure by the book, and features at least three Outer Gods.

    Delta Green is in the wrong country. The adventures do score points for innovation, though, as they do something a bit different with them, steering clear of the usual structure and monsters. Except for the last one in the first book, which has Mi-Go and, yes, a Great Old One.

    The Arkham County scenarios are bloody awful in most cases, and I can't imagine running them with a straight face. Most of them also use the usual gang of monsters (although not many gods, it must be said). Yawn.

    I've not read New Tales of the Miskatonic Valley, as I believe you wanted to run it?

    Apart from all that, you've read all of these, so I can't really go on and use them, even if I wanted to.

    So, no, not all the scenarios are rubbish (although a couple of them most definitely are!), but that was never my point. They remain rather unusable for me though.

  3. couldn't agree less with you Kelvin - but weirdly - this is normally what happens when we debate games!! lol!! Lot's of negative sentiments in there. As I say, I have run most, and I/ the gamers/ other groups as well (eg feedback via reviews on rpgnet/ as well as friends)say the same things I've noted..... I have found pre-written stories excellent ways of helping design 'sandbox' gaming in CoC (for Arkham Country), as well as the building blocks to modern campaigns. All very useful - but obviously tools to be used intelligently by a GM, not always as they are.

    Let's hope this is like what I have experienced in bands - a creative tension between the members, rather than a force driving folks to explosion/ implosion! ;)

  4. They're not negative sentiments. I've stated my criteria for what I find useful in a published scenario, and I've explained why the titles you suggested don't fit those criteria. Some of the books you mentioned are quite good, but I still can't use them!

    That said, I don't think I've ever seen a good review of Horror's Heart!

  5. Thing is with pre-written stuff is 'does it speak to you/ does it get your imagination going'....? If so, the next step: as a ref - what do you need to do with it.

    I have never found a complex narrative driven plot that doesn't need work - fleshing out npcs, music, props, working out how the game could flow in the real world.... player choices....

    I approached running Horror's Heart in the same vein. Loved it. Had a great mini-campaign - it rocked. As did another mate Jules who ran it with his group. They all loved it.

    Thus.... heck - it seems to be opinions. Difference is I ran it, as did Jules, and it was great fun. What else can I say? lol!!

  6. Opinions, eh? Well then, how in your opinion, should I run a campaign set in WWI and featuring ghouls and Great Old Ones, when my game is set in the modern day, and I don't want to use ghouls and Great Old Ones?

    There comes a point where you're changing so much stuff that it's not worth using the original work at all. I see no point in buying a book and rewriting it entirely, when I could just write something of my own for free.

  7. lol! Obviously! Why on earth would anyone want to rewrite No Man's Land?!! It's a one-off 3 part scenario - which is great fun, and with which I had a ball! Got everyone dressed up in Camo'; got a couple of stage lights from the drama hut at work (for search beams to be turned on occassionally with one; the other had a red filter on, and I put it on when bad things were starting to happen; made a prop which glowed weird green when things were getting really freaky..... etc etc.... They gave you advice on what props would work (and they did).....

    & the story was a blast. Great rpging experience. But no - would be no use for a modern campaign

    BUT I was simply pointing out that there are many good CoC campaigns out there - i.e. your opinion is simply that on this one! Was never suggesting you shoe-horn a WWI game into a modern one! That would be insane! Insaner than mad Frank my character! ;)

    & as for the other modern ones, I am not suggesting you use them either, since I have read and played (run) most of them!!

    See you later!

  8. Well, the whole point of my post was that the scenarios aren't rubbish, but that they're merely of no use to me in my current campaign, so I have no idea what you're on about!


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