The Pre Written Campaign

Mentioned earlier, there are several campaigns for Call of Cthulhu that have been written whole and published as a unit.  The first of these, Shadows of Yog Sothoth, laid the groundwork for many to follow.  Chaosium followed with several other campaigns released as single volumes, Fungi From Yuggoth, Masks of Nyarlathotep, Spawn of Azathoth, and The Great Old Ones (this was actually a collection of scenarios with suggestions on how to link them into a campaign without it being part of the scenario structure automatically).  Other campaigns released later include Horror’s Heart, Coming Full Circle Walker in the Waste, Horror on the Orient Express, Ripples from Carcosa, Tatters of the King, some of these from Chaosium, some from other publishers.

all of these have in common that they were written at the same time and linked together, sometimes in a very tight connectivity, on occasion in a loose stucture.

Potential problems of scenario structure are evident in all of these to some extent, with one notable exception, Masks of Nyarlathotep.  i will mention the problems in following sections and will go into examples of those problems and how Masks avoids them.

One of the first issues with any Call of Cthulhu game, particularly campaign play, is the motivation.  Why are the characters involved in the story, what got them involved in the first part and why do they feel motivated to pursue the further developments of the campaign?  Shadows of Yog Sothoth, the first campaign, did show this weakness a little bit, in that its first scenario, “The Hermetic Order of Silver Twilight” is very vague on explaining why the characters are getting involved.  a few clues hidden in the recesses of the locations of this scenario gives vague hints about a few of the later scenarios, but the motivation to follow up on these clues is vague as well as the clues not being intuitively located.

In Masks, however, the campaign begins with a slight bit of railroading to start the story, but the characters are thrown into the story almost immediately and unless they act very timidly in the initial actions, the party finds themselves confronted with violence and threats that leave them with a mystery involving the death of a party cared for by at least one of the players.  clues may be in limited locations but clearly point the party in multiple directions.  And unlike many campaigns, the party is not guided to any single of the other locations in any given order…there is a logical progression of locations to seek out, but it is the party’s choice.

mentioned above, the links between scenarios in a campaign are not always clear or the motivations strong enough to nudge the party in their direction.  going back to Shadows of Yog Sothoth for a moment, the clues that lead to the third section, found in the first and second, are somewhat vague and lead from the United States to Scotland.  to be honest, i have found almost nothing in the first three scenarios that lead to the fourth scenario, and the item in the fourth scenario to be acquired and used in the campaign’s progression is ill defined, easily overlooked.  (in a counter to this, the fifth scenario seeks out the players, and this scenario is one of the more amazing scenarios written for Call of Cthulhu and a good blueprint for similar events in any campaign.)

In Masks, certain pieces of information are acquired almost immediately that point to three different locations for the campaign, and others that hint towards two others, a few of the clues don’t make immediate sense, but they do point towards later developments.  following the more logical course of locations will allow all of the prior clues make more sense and there are clues in each location that point at least a bit towards the other locations.  two of the locations would not be logical places to seek out immediately, and the clues leading there and from there are a bit more vague, but in the long run this is a good thing as the last two locations are better settings for whichever one turns out to be the campaign’s climax.

Campaigns usually involve a fair bit of travel, and it is fairly easy to kind of get an ‘indiana jones’ feel from them because of that.  case in point…Shadows of Yog Sothoth starts in Boston, including sections in New York, Scotland, the desert near Hollywood California, Easter Island, and a certain island in the Pacific i won’t name because just identifying it constitutes a spoiler.  Fungi from Yuggoth begins in Arkham (as memory serves, it could have been set in Boston), leading to Romania, the deserts of Egypt, Peru, San Francisco, and back to Cairo, Egypt.  Masks does have this tendency too, starting in New York City, then London, Cairo, the Kenyan wilderness, the Australian Outback, and Shanghai.  the other campaigns generally have similar travels in how they are set up..the exceptions to that being Horror’s Heart and Coming Full Circle, both of these staying in one geographic area for the most part.  I suspect there are various reasons for this, but in the long run, this is something that a Keeper has to consider when looking at these scenarios.  It is rare for a full campaign to not include some travel, and for some of that travel to be extensive.

the biggest problem with pre written campaigns is that it begs the question of where the new ‘replacement’ characters come from, the players who die or go mad or retire have to be replaced.  players travelling to exotic and possibly dangerous locations may find new characters in short supply locally, and if a replacement character is brought from their point of origin, how that character finds their way tot he party’s location becomes an additional potential problem.

Granted, this problem is a potential problem with any campaign, pre written or not, when replacements have to be brought in and the party is not near their point of origin.


How Call of Cthulhu Scenarios differ from other games part two

The game, as i mentioned suggests the onion scenario structure model, explained below.  The players investigate the initial mystery and find indications of something deeper, and the events lead from one layer to a deeper one, like the layers of an onion.  in a larger sense, each scenario can bee seen similarly in the scope of the campaign, each scenario leading to the next, like a deeper layer.

many regular games use scenario structures that are more linear, going to a leads to event b which leads to event c.  early scenarios were built as ‘dungeons’ and this linear development was based on encounters keyed to locations.  as playing styles and structures matured, scenarios still had some level of event keying, but also had event driven components, and some later developments became completely event driven.  There is still nothing wrong with any of these three combinations of the linear structure, though the early dungeons often failed to take into account when players would make a run at a dungeon, withdraw and regroup, then come back in.  a sharp dm would allow at least some level of repopulation as the residents of the location driven dungeon reacted tot he player character’s intrusion.

it is easy to look at these two structures as similar if not identical, but there is a difference.  i may not be explaining it well here, but there is a difference, and i can explain it later if need be.

one of the main things to beware of in Call of Cthulhu gaming more than in any other gaming, is to avoid ‘railroading’, with the possible exception of one shot scenarios…in those, railroading is generally a good idea, to keep the story moving to its resolution.

Railroading as a Gamemaster is an inflexibility in guiding the players through the scenario as the GM sees it.  When railroading, no matter what the players try, the GM pushes the players to the adventure he wants to tell.  a railroading GM will force players to certain locations, certain actions, no matter what the players want to do.  This is very problematic, and generally players resent being railroaded.

if they are aware of it.

a GM who is creative will find a way to make any choice the players make lead to the story needed, if it is a story that the GM needs to be part of the campaign.  I cannot speak totally against railroading in Call of Cthulhu scenarios, but creativity and flexibility are required if one is going to use this technique.

some of the players in Call of Cthulhu actually expect a bit of railroading, and the way many scenarios are written kind of encourage this.

Sandy Petersen, the person who created Call of Cthulhu, tends to take it to the other extreme, pretty much stating that his scenarios start with a setup and at least a vague idea of where it’s gong, but letting teh players’ actions guide the scenario.

Personally i think the better end result for campaign play is a combination of the two approaches, which requires a little bit of deconstruction of most published scenarios before trying to fit them into the campaign’s flow.

another option involves a youtube tutorial for Call of Cthulhu scenario creation using flowcharts, laying out all of the basics for the scenario in a bubble structure, and the projected courses of action.  This tends to create scenarios that are less linear, and gives at least a little flexibility when the players invariably choose a course of action that is a total surprise (this is inevitable as any GM for any game will tell you).

i will make one of the next entries after this discussion go into the complete campaigns written before play.

so…the lessons to be learned from above for Call of Cthulhu Scenario structures and gameplay?

first, in a One Shot, railroading is okay and the rules for Horror Story structure is good.

Second, in campaign play, scenarios, regardless of their origin, should be flexible, adapted to fit into the campaign structure, if there are inflexible ‘railroad’ parts of the scenario they have to be modified in such a way to not feel like the party is being forced into a specific course of action.  (additional note about this point.  While there may be limited criteria to determine if a scenario is ‘won’ by the players, there should be more than one way for that goal to be accomplished if at all possible)

Third, and this is one that i feel very strongly about.  In a scenario, whatever happens, the end result should be a direct reaction of the player’s actions, succeed or fail.

how Call of Cthulhu Scenarios differ from other games part one

in the call of cthulhu game, scenarios are not built or played like other games, and while there are several different methods of running the games (in this at least CoC is like most games), there is no single path that is ‘best’..but the combination of the Keeper and the players determines the best type of play for the game in question

The first question as to the scenarios for Call of Cthulhu is which kind of gameplay is the scenario being used for/designed for?  a One Shot scenario is not to be played as part of any ongoing campaign and in this, it most closely can be played using the rules of Horror stories given earlier. since there is no worry about the characters’ future after the scenario, the game can focus on the story and the players can focus on trying to survive and/or defeat the evil  and/or escape the threat. Some of the best scenarios written were written as one shots.

The other type of scenario is designed for, or is modified to fit into a campaign.  (there is a third type, the ones that are written as part of a specific campaign from the beginning, i’ll go into that later).  A scenario that is designed for campaign play but was not written specifcally with a campaign as part of its structure will almost always need some tweaking to fit into a campaign model, and as part of a campaign..elements that thread through the adventures, connecting them, though there is not a driving need for every adventure in a campaign to be linked inexorably.  optimally, however, there should be a feeling after play that the scenarios always belonged together.

The Third type, the scenarios written as part of a campaign, the entire campaign built from the start, is generally good, but has several potential weaknesses.  First, the links between scenarios have to be solid, and guaranteed for the players to find, even if they feel there is some question about that.  The links have to make sense in the story too, so the party feels naturally drawn to go from scenario a to scenario b to scenario c.  it is worth noting that players in any game are likely to come up with courses of action that will catch the gamemaster by surprise, in Call of Cthulhu it can be tricky to get them back into the ‘set campaign’ unless you can be fluid enough with it and how it is presented that whatever choices they make lead them to a later and appropriate step, even if its not geographically the spot the scenario originally called for.

in the second type, one takes existing scenarios, and makes linking adventures, segues between adventures, or adds elements to one scenario to link to others ‘down the road’.

campaign play in Call of Cthulhu has many differences from campaign play in other games.  Campaign play is about characters surviving from one scenario to the next, enjoying the advancement of the characters in power and the game’s mechanics.  In Call of Cthulhu, the players become more efficient at skills, they gain knowledge and spells (potentially), but it comes at a cost, ongoing play tends to lower the Sanity of the players (granted, in a series of good rolls, the players have the chance to actually gain sanity in the long run if the rolls land right).  The fact that combat in the game also tends to be more deadly and magical healing much more limited, player character mortality is a very real threat in the game, as well as characters retired before they fall to the wayside.  the overall continuity often becomes the group more than the individual because of this. the storyline continues as friends and relatives and other investigators come into the party to replace ones who fall, go mad or walk away to save their dwindling sanity.

when reading the rules for Call of Cthulhu, the onion model is presented for scenario structure as opposed to the ‘a leads to b leads to c’ model…though i think the end result is less clearly defined…this overall is proving a rather involved post, so i think i’ll break it down into two entries, and i will go into the actual structures in part two.

The Violent Kind as scenario seed

The Violent Kind (2010) is a movie that i have trouble with on a few key points.  It has a lot of detractors on the internet, but the parts of the movie that tend to bother most of its critics are parts of the movie i like.  There is a part that few if any seem to be upset with that i have more of an issue with, and it becomes a movie that leaves a bad taste for me because of it.

The central characters, the ‘heroes’ of the piece are unsympathetic to the point that i have trouble caring about them and what is happening to them.  The two characters we ultimately are supposed to care about the most are a couple who are involved with a biker gang, both of them express unhappiness at being in it, but aside from some vague dreams and hopes they seem to have done little to get out of their situation. their friends and relatives are shown as violent themselves, drug dealing, and disturbingly unrepentant about it.  There is a party where we see somewhat less savage debauchery, and then things start to go to hell, somewhat literally.

Not meaning to speak ill of bikers and biker gangs, but there is a perception of them as unsavory and violent people, and this movie does nothing to dispel that perception.  i’ve known many people who ride bikes and are in clubs, and while i admit that some of the clubs aren’t much better if any better than the group in this film, it doesn’t make characters sympathetic when they run into something nastier than them.

about the nicest way i could put this would be if you were to film a live action film with beavis and butthead being targeted by a satanic cult.  you may want the cult to get arrested, but you wouldn’t want the cops to get there too soon, if you get my drift.

in the movie, after the party mentioned above, some people leaving the party run afoul of some vaguely defined violence that leaves one girl bloodied and gradually acting stranger and stranger, behiaving in a manner that implies possession to fans of horror films.  she becomes more and more of a threat to the few people left at the party site, and the growing panic accellerates when the strangers show up.

These strangers have been glimpsed and hinted at in scenes away from the partygoers up to this point, and we get many clues that something is not right with this small group.  This is understatement on my part, but the level of ‘not right’ accelerates at a rate and degree that is shocking

these intruders, dressed somewhat anachronistically, somewhat like a fetishist on a nostalgia binge was their costume designer, look like rockabillies and the cast of grease, by way of Bettie Page, but act like something that would have given nightmares to a convention of serial killers, begin torturing their newfound captives, and the story descends into a bloodbath, to some extent literally.

the final parrt of this movie is where the audience tends to divide on it, when these intruders are revealed to be worshippers of some unknown darker power, trying to herald the advent of this power.  It is left ambiguous as to what this darker power is, most seem to interpret it as aliens, some see it as a Lovecraftian summoning, others fall back on simple demonic forces.  The movie never resolves this question, and the ending implies that whatever is happening to the world is going to be a major change, and not necessarily for the better.

i have to admit that the ‘heralds’ make an interesting band of villains for Call of Cthulhu, possibly even recurring villains with very little modification.  they may be the only thing pulled out of this film in the end, but they have serious potential as a story element in a game.

i have trouble recommending the film, but if you can handle unsympathetic protagonists, then it is worth at least one watch

The Thing (both versions) as story seed and link to the ‘Other Antarctica Story’

The Thing, specifically the John Carpenter version (1982) and the prequel (2011) while based on the John W. Campbell novella ‘Who Goes There?’ have a very Lovecraftian feel to many, not so much because of the monster as because of the feeling of paranoia and hopelessness that the characters struggle with in both films.

The premise of both films deals with research stations in Antarctica finding an alien frozen in ice, and discovering to their horror that the creature is not only not dead, it has an excellent method for adapting to other biochemistries, and the humans fined themselves prey in a deadly cat and mouse game where the odds grow worse as time goes on.

Now while the creature from the thing has been written up as a Mythos creature for the game, it is optimum  to be used as a one shot, putting it in a campaign could easily turn into a ‘world killer’  so, setting aside the one shot possibility, how can this be used as a story seed?

look at the ending of both movies…and the beginning of the 1982 version for a moment…an antarctic research station, one of the most isolated places on the planet is left in ruins that will no longer support human life, and leaving behind a mystery to be examined, and the answers have potentially deadly repercussions for the team investigating..and the world beyond…

now let’s consider the pivotal development for the protagonists of the Lovecraft story, ‘At the Mountains of Madness’…when the protagonists arrive at what they hope is a rescue mission in Antarctica, and find a camp in ruins that will no longer support human life, and leaving behind a mystery….

in the Lovecraft story, theorized geography was postulated that led to the city of the Elder Things (revisited in the campaign Beyond the Mountains of Madness, published by Chaosium)

Antarctica today has been explored a bit more thoroughly, and even if every bit hasn’t been walked on, it has been mapped.  so by changing the geography a bit, making the city of the Elder Things buried under ice now, a rescue/recovery mission sent to answer a distress call finds a ruined station, with diary reports of an amazing fossil discovery, and tracks leading to an entrance into a cave that leads down…elements from both story can blend at this point, i hope, into a good journey for a party of investigators.

for it to fit into campaign play, the party would either need one hell of a lead in, or a tendency to globe hopping and being called in as trouble shooters.  but still possible.

Spores as a scenario seed (Evolution thrown in)

Spores is an odd film, a grade b or grade z horror flick from Russia.  Less than stellar acting, a flawed English dub (though one voice in a very minor role sounds a LOT like Clancy Brown), inconsistent cgi effects leave a film that doesn’t have much of a reputation, and there is open question as to if it warrants one.  but the potential for a seed is there.

The core plot is somewhat reminiscent of the comedy Evolution with David Duchovny and Orlando Jones, in that a meteor crashes to earth, carrying with it the seeds for a completely alien type of life, and it takes root and begins to spawn its own ecosystem and trying to spread.  These two films aren’t the only ones that take this basic concept, but are among the few that present the alien intrusion bringing an ecosystem instead of just a single life form.  The differences between the two film are worth comment, starting with the simple statement that one movie had a better budget and was filmed as a comedy, while the other was a shoestring budget and presented as a ‘serious’ horror film.

Spore begins with the crash in an area of Russia near an unnamed town, very close to an abandoned factory.  In an opening sequence, two drifters encounter an older wanderer, and they have a brief discussion before one of them encounters one of the alien life forms.  We then transition to five friends on an outing, who detour to look at the factory while en route to a camping rendesvous with other friends.  The youths encounter the aliens, and find themselves fleeing for their lives, encountering on the way two security/police officers who have encountered the drifters from earlier, and have had their own casualties en route.  The cast is gradually whittled down to a sole survivor in encounters with the various creatures that are now infesting the area.  I would normally consider this a spoiler, but in this kind of film, we’re hardly surprised at this development, and the ending is foreshadowed enough that it really doesn’t count as a surprise either.

Some of the cgi creatures are acceptably good, but a few are very weak, with motion and presentation that makes them look like ‘first drafts’ of an animation sequence.

In Evolution, the meteor ends up in a cave, isolated from the rest of the enviroment, and instead of a multitude of creatures that effectively spring out full formed, the process of evolution begins, starting from unicellular life forms, then advancing through a parallel evolution before it derails towards the end of the film into a life form that forms a threat to its own ecosystem and ours.

Both of these films present the concept of the alien carrying the seeds of life in its invasion.  this is a viable concept, though in a Lovecraftian sense, it is more logical to seek out origin points closer to ‘The Colour out of Space’, the film version of it (Die Farbe in the original German), or certain established scenarios based on that concept.  the Lovecraftian sources are slower paced, but lay groundwork for a much better gaming experience.  Though some of the feeling of the two films that set this post in motion may be worth carrying into a scenario

(BTW, i really can’t recommend the movie Spores highly unless you are into Grade Z movies.  Evolution, on the other hand is a fun movie, and i do recommend it as a comedy worth watching, kind of a ‘ghostbusters meet science fiction’)

The rules of horror…game, story, etc.

Various authors, in articles about their writing process and story structures…have extrapolated on the ‘rules of horror’..what makes a horror story work..i am paraphrasing from memory on this, but my primary sources for the rules as i remember them come from some ‘behind the scenes’ articles that Stephen King has written, an article that Dean Koontz published in a book for Writer’s Digest Magazine, and an interview with Sam Raimi early in his filmmaking career.  I will also cross reference points i recall from others in the process, most likely, and will attribute them as i remember.

First from King, he made distinctions of great importance on three types of horror…and i will very likely not be using the same terms as him, as i’ve said i’m writing this entry while trying to remember what i read some time back. The most worthy goal is horror that is suggested, hinted at, not fully revealed or uncovered.  The next is the confrontation with horror, and the third, and least common denominator is the gross out.  the point here being, what you can make the reader/audience/players imagine with you can be more intense than what you confront them with (the confrontational horror), and that can be more intense than the visceral gross out (slight exception to this…in movies, the sight of a gore effect can be stronger because of the inherent empathy of seeing a human being suffer…even in a cheap effect)

having said that, a point that King stressed, and any writer will tell you, is that horror is lessened considerably if the protagonist is not a hero..if we don’t care about the hero.  this, ironically, is the one area where a lot of tv horror, movie horror, and the classic EC comics tends to fall apart (and the Warren comics struggled with), .  If the protagonist is unsympatheetic, or worse, a villain, then the story is less horrific.  if the protatonist is a villain, then the story is a matter of ‘dark justice’, even if the justice is disproportionate.

now the ‘more formal rules’

first, the innocent must be threatened (this harkens back to the earlier paragraph), you must have sympathetic protagonists and characters who are in danger, the reader/audience has to be aware of that threat, even if the protagonists and characters aren’t.

Second, there has to be some reason the characters are being singled out, and why they can’t just walk away from the threat, whatever it is.  Physical isolation, committment to the situation, the threat being of a nature that will follow them wherever they go and whatever they do, that the only escape from the threat is to confront it.  (in physical isolation, finding a way to flee the isolating environment counts as the confrontation

(something of a Second rule mark 2) in Lovecraftian fiction and the Call of Cthulhu game, sometimes the threat is evaded, but there is invariably a price for it, generally some of the protagonist’s sanity is eroded by the experience.

Third, to solve the problem, evade the problem, resolve the story…the protagonist and innocent must suffer (this is an extension of rule one.)

Fourth, to solve the problem, evade the problem, resolve the story, the protagonist must make a stand (this is more for normal horror fiction and movies than Lovecraftian fiction and roleplaying, but can apply to them as well.) (Sam Raimi stressed this rule, and as i remember, he phrased it ‘the hero must taste blood’)

Fifth, and this is somewhat variable, but will mark the ‘style’ of horror fiction and/or the period.  The story resolves when the status quo is restored, or approximated.  In older style horror, while some suffer, while some die, those who survive resume life more or less as it had been before, and the villains are the ones left suffering at the end.  This trait had occasional excpetions, growing more common through the fifties and sixties, gradually altering to endings where the heroe’s victory is often perceived as partial or transitory…or worse, nonexistant.  I admit to having mixed feelings about this as a trend in movie endings, but i can accept it.  i plan on going into an entire entry on that, because it has a different spin with Lovecraftian fiction and gaming.

I could probably go on for more length, but those are the rules as i remember them, and they form a good thematic structure for a starting point.