Saturday, 26 November 2011

The Dandy and the Madman

Spoilers for Tatters of the King follow.

Stuart was unable to join us for last night's game, so the investigator party consisted of Ric's professor of literature, Manoj's artist and Ben's psychologist. They rattled through more of the clue-finding first phase of the campaign, before heading to Herefordshire to meet Alexander Roby, one of the key non-player-characters of the campaign. This is where we hit a problem.

The sequence in which the players meet Roby is pivotal, perhaps one of the most important scenes in the campaign, but it's also a closed scene. It's designed to give the players a lot of information about the campaign -- although it's almost all hidden behind layers of obfuscation so as not to give away everything -- but there's no room for expansion or further exploration; Roby says his piece and then shuts up.

Any player worth their salt is going to try to get more out of the character, and that is exactly what my lot did, trying all sorts of methods to get the NPC to reveal more, but the fact is that there is nothing more for the character to reveal. I spent a good twenty minutes blocking every attempt to get more information and it felt like I was pixel-bitching; this is not at all my preferred GMing style, and I felt frustrated and unsatisfied by how it was played. I didn't want to break the fourth wall and simply tell them that there were no more clue tokens to pick up in that location, so I attempted to disguise that information in psychological terms for Ben's character; even so it felt like a fudge, but I'm not sure there's a better way to resolve the problem. I'm surprised that it's not something that came up in playtesting of the scenario, as further questioning seems like an obvious thing for players to do, and I don't blame them for trying.

I've mentioned before that the campaign as a whole tends towards the railroad, but most of the problems can be solved through sensible play; indeed, a good half of the initial phase of the campaign has been played out of the designed order, and I don't think the players have noticed. It's this one important scene that is more difficult to fix, perhaps because it's so important.

Also annoying was discovering that one of the key handouts -- the transcript of the meeting with Roby -- features a signature from a non-player-character who is not present in the scene! It's not the first error we've seen in the player materials, and probably won't be the last; the editing in this book is shocking in places.

By the end of the session, all three of the investigators had had a brush with insanity, and if that's not a measure of Call of Cthulhu success, I don't know what is! Next time, they're going rambling in the wilds of Suffolk on the trail of a cult worship site, without the relatively tough Hemingway to back them up in case  things get violent.

Saturday, 19 November 2011

Have You Heard of Ernest Hemingway?

My group finished the first book of the Carrion Crown campaign Adventure Path a couple of weeks ago, and in order to give Ben a bit of a rest before he runs the second book, and to give the group as a whole a change from our usual heroic fantasy fare, I volunteered to run the Call of Cthulhu Adventure Path campaign Tatters of the King. One reason for the choice was that it was one of the only campaigns for CoC that between them Stuart and Ben had not read, run or played. It also has a structure that suits our demand for something short to run between Pathfinder adventures; although it has a fair whiff of the globe-spanning epic to it, Tatters is less cohesive than -- for example -- Masks of Nyarlathotep and is structured more like a hefty adventure and its sequel, separated by a short related vignette. My plan is to run the first half over the next few weeks, and then the second half the next time Ben wants a break, perhaps after the second Carrion Crown book; one neat aspect of Tatters is that the first half can end in a classic Call of Cthulhu fashion so we could finish play there and still be satisfied.

The campaign is not perfect and as written is a bit heavy-handed in its direction, but I suspected that this would not be a problem in play and so it proved. All the necessary information is there, but laid out in an expected order that I knew wouldn't match up with how any group of players would approach it; a bit of creative reshuffling was in order, but it all worked out in the end.

The characters are for the most part not an active group, consisting of Ben's psychologist, the painter who helps him with his dream studies, as played by Manoj, and Ric's decadent Oxford don. Only Stuart's globe-trotting American author -- some bloke called Ernest Hemingway -- seems to be of much use in a more physical confrontation. The first session -- apart from the small matter of a riot breaking out at the theatre, in which Hemingway defended the meek don from a maniac wielding a broken bottle -- was less physical than cerebral, so the group's weaknesses in the latter area have not yet been exposed.

As of the end of the first session, the group had access to one Mythos tome, the professor was plagued by disturbing dreams, the painter had gone temporarily insane after reading the aforementioned tome, and the psychologist was worried about everyone's sanity. Hemingway just wanted a drink.