The Lazy Man’s Guide, Youtube help in Scenario Construction, and four of the best suppliments to grab to help.

In Ye Booke of Tentacles IV, Sandy Petersen presented an article, “the Lazy Man’s Guide to Creating Call of Cthulhu Adventures. It is a small article, and if you can find a copy of it, I highly recommend it. I found it at Yog-Sothoth.com a few years back, but a recent perusal did not bring it up, I am unsure of its availability, though I recommend finding it if you can. A simple means of using short summaries of films or novels as a starting point and how to take it and ‘run with it’ is presented, and is a good means for creating scenarios.

In YouTube, you will find many videos of varying length and quality, I found two to be pretty good.

The first is more critiquing the linear nature of published scenarios to his experience (a point I do agree with, in a lot of cases, though I think a good Keeper can work with and around this in most cases, depending on how extremely linear the scenario is built) for a large chunk of his video, his other points are very good, which leads to one of my other recommendations later in this post. This one brings up an excellent point, and how he lays it out is worth paying attention to, particularly when you are creating an ‘event driven’ scenario. A time frame is a component often neglected in how a scenario may be written, and the exceptions to this do tend to shine a bit because of it. The title for this video is RPG Discussion: Writing Call of Cthulhu Investigations, posted by Wolf3118, and the link is as follows, it runs just over eight minutes. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hv9Ye3UDMgk

The second is one in a series called Dm’s Tips, I specifically point out episode 37 Story Boarding 101, by Sean Connors. This series I am still working through, but I have found them to be universally good for scenario construction for any rpg, this particular episode is on the topic of storyboarding and focuses on a Call of Cthulhu scenario. This technique is particularly good at creating a non linear scenario structure, which anyone whose read this far knows is an issue I have with CoC scenarios. The less linear the better. I have found that in my own scenario construction, this is a very handy (read important) tool to add to the kit, and I also find that when converting a published scenario to fit into a campaign or one shot I will be Keeper for, storyboarding it helps me deal with any reservations I may have with it and bring it into a focus more appropriate for my gaming style. (I actually will do a post about my own storyboarding style soon, but it uses this principle as a basic starting point.) the url for this video is http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ProvmFdEkLQ

The supplements I’m recommending, the first is a web page. A Keeper can use this page to springboard entire campaigns easily with this page alone. Starting as an article in the Pagan Publishing magazine the Unspeakable Oath, Steve Hatherley presented us with these Tales. Each one is a story seed, a brief summary of a story hook/opening. Then three possible interpretations are presented, and of course, this also encourages the Keeper to think of their own as well. I have not been to the page in some time, it looks like it hasn’t updated for a while, and navigating it isn’t as easy as it used to be, I’m having trouble finding an exact core index page so far, but if you do get into it, you will find literally hundreds of seeds worth tinkering with. the home page is http://www.talesofterror.net/ and with a little work with it and Google, I have no doubt you can find it. I have been able to find at least one of the sub pages, so I stand by this recommendation.

The second and third recommendations are sources for somewhat random structures, so there may need to be some tinkering to make them work right, and in both cases, fleshing out after them falls to the Keeper, so it’s not a ‘pre fab scenario’ source. The first of these is available as a pdf at Yog-Sothoth.com, in the Files/Utilities & Guides section. This is a document that allows one to randomly generate the skeleton and population of a scenario. It was designed for the d20 version of Call of Ctulhu, so an additional conversion may be necessary in a few spots.

The next recommendation is sadly out of print, but worth tracking down on Amazon or Ebay if you can. Gary Gygax’s Insidiae is another random adventure generator, a book that is geared towards fantasy games, but can still be applied to the Call of Cthulhu framework. Again, this needs fleshing out and application, but is an excellent resource.

The fourth one was hinted at in Wolf3118’s Youtube video, and upon reflection, is worth a read if one is stuck or wanting to get into world and adventure building mode on a base level. The Dungeons and Dragons 3.5 Edition Dungeon Master’s Guide is largely devoted to the concept of scenario building, pretty much from the ground up. You still need to convert concepts from fantasy to horror, and the DMG obviously is geared for its gaming system, but the ideas are valid. Granted, you aren’t having to build the world from the ground up, but there is a lot of room to change your setting world that this can help with. To be honest, this is not the best specific tool for CoC scenario building, but it can be useful for a ‘jump start’.

Lovecraft Country (or not), and the World at Large

The beginning statements of this entry will be, to most who are reading this blog, the equivalent of my doing a whole paragraph on ‘water is wet’. For that, I apologize, but I’m laying the groundwork for the rest of this entry.

As with many authors, Lovecraft in his writing created fictional towns and cities for the setting of many of his stories, replacing existing cities with these fictional areas, and creating a few out of whole cloth to represent some concepts he wanted to present, usually reflecting a conglomerate of areas he had encountered. Arkham, Massachusetts, as the first example, is a stand in for Salem. Geographic features similarly were invented, notably the Miskatonic River, and the Miskatonic River Valley. Part of the reason for this practice is that it allows you the freedom to add features you want in the location that don’t necessarily exist without worry of contradiction, and on a larger scale, you have the freedom to have some pretty major things happen to said locations without people grousing about wanton destruction of landmarks, entire cities and the like.

This tradition was carried on to other media as well, notably, to my experience, in comic books. The DC Universe went for a large portion of its time with no ‘real’ cities used, though gradually real locations did start to phase in. Metropolis and Gotham both standing in for New York City (the first for the promise of a bright city of tomorrow, the other for the dark and corrupt city that many feared), and each of the major heroes tending to have their own ‘home base’ city. Back to Lovecraft.

Lovecraft’s fictional areas co-existed side by side with their real-life counterparts, but he tended in much of his fiction to avoid the real locations (though not always, he cited real locations in New York City, so it was not through any fear of using real locations that what was to be eventually known as Lovecraft Country was created.

As other writers began to write stories in the shared universe of Lovecraft’s fiction, they often would use his settings, occasionally adding their own. In both his own writing and that of others, not just the New England region would have these additions, but spots would show up all over the world. In addition to Arkham, Innsmouth, Dunwich, Kingsport, we got the Nameless City in the deserts of Saudi Arabia, the City of the Elder Things in Antarctica.

Most other writers would add one or two elements, a town here or there. One of the few who ran with the concept was Ramsey Campbell, who created his interpretation of the Severn Valley in England (in response to some constructive criticism from August Derleth), and in this Campbell created more in the way of new locations than pretty much any other writer.

The actual term Lovecraft Country was a term actively used for a time by Chaosium to describe the fictive locations in New England, and several supplements released in that time frame dealt with those locations, guides to the areas, with setting specific scenarios often appearing in them.

In the game, Chaosium joined in the fun in their modern era campaign, creating a new city in California that they could devastate in an earthquake, Samson, a metropolis located approximately midway between Los Angeles and San Francisco.

The reason for this entry is a discussion of an issue that any Keeper building a CoC campaign has to consider, even if only for a few moments. It is very common for a Game Master in any role playing game set on a recognizable Earth to set a campaign in a local region or at least one familiar to the players (to some extend in a counter to the ‘avoid trashing landmarks’, I’ve had very few such campaigns that don’t take some glee in altering the local landscape a bit in the game world). So the question arises, “do you use Lovecraft Country locations (or their counterparts) or not?”

If you only use local landmarks, then you have to determine which real locations can sit in for any needed locations (is there a local college that can stand in for Miskatonic University, for example).

I have to concede that what I have tended to do is to use established cities (Highly recommending the “Secrets” guides from Chaosium if the city you want is one of their covered regions), and adding smaller fictive locations for towns in the surrounding countryside. To cite an example, I live currently in the Kansas City area, and when that is the base of operations for the characters, they are dealing with real Kansas City locations through the history of the city, depending on what era is being covered (I think I just realized what another entry will go into, huh). But I also tend to pepper in about a dozen manufactures locations that co-exist with other small towns over the surrounding states, standing in for modified versions of Lovecraft’s towns in a few cases, as locations I can add for my own ideas, and stand-ins for prewritten scenarios that I plan on including in my campaign (if I can ever motivate the players into checking them out).

In theory there is no reason I couldn’t use, for example, the real Camdenton (a nice good sized town at the Lake of the Ozarks) for a setting, and in fact, I have done so, but it is nice to add some that you can use without having a gamer turn to you in mid game and go ‘That down doesn’t have that going on there’ if you play fast and loose.

For an example of that last phenomenon, my current gaming group includes three people who have moved into this area from southern California in the last few years, being very familiar with Los Angeles and San Diego, so if I set a campaign in the modern version of either of those cities, I would have to deal with their real memories of the area compared to my limited exposure to the region. I would have less concern about a campaign set there in the 20’s era, because the addition of the different time frame does put some remove from it, but still, their familiarity with the region necessitates a high level of research.

So ultimately, of course, it is for the Keeper to decide how much of the ‘real world’ or how much of ‘Lovecraft Country’ to fit into your campaign. The main decisions are what works for the players, what works for the Keeper, and how willing you all are to stretch disbelief if using familiar territory.

How to use Movies as Scenario Seeds (elaborating on earlier posts)

I have cited several movies as scenario seeds, with outlines of aspects of the films, and had touched on it before I began. I do feel I should elaborate on parts of that, and also touch on a technique that I found in an article online some time ago, as well on cite an example of how some of these principles have been used in published scenarios, intentionally or otherwise.

If you use a movie as a scenario seed, you should if at all possible avoid letting it be recognizable unless you can be certain first that the foreknowledge can’t help them resolve the story too readily. If possible, selecting movies you know that the players had not seen gives you an edge in this.

But optimally, the movie should be a launch point in concept, not a straight blueprint. I will cite Yellowbrickroad as my primary example, as it is the first movie I listed as a seed, and a movie that I have already fit into the next campaign structure.

The movie deals with a town with a mystery in its past, when the entire population of the town walked off into the wilderness along a path, with no survivors. The town repopulates over the intervening years, and the mystery of why the incident happened remains just that, a mystery. The initial disappearance had been classified, and a folklorist trying to get what information he could get for research on it had been butting heads with the Freedom of Information Act, and finally gets the information he requests, does his research and seeks to explore the location, finding the road and trying to find out anything he could about what exactly happened and why.

The townsfolk currently in town are hostile to the attempt, but this is underplayed a lot in the film. The folklorist’s team finds their way onto the path, and while exploring it, they gradually succumb to madness themselves, with strange things pushing them to their limits on the way. The film deliberately avoids a clear answer, though there are some fairly clear interpretations to make.

In CoC gameplay, you can leave a lot of mystery, but a scenario with no clear answer at all is not as acceptable, and turning the players on each other is not generally acceptable either. A fairly straight transition of the movie could be done to an extent as a one shot, but not as campaign play.

The first point of translation to scenario is the hook, finding a reason for the players to want to figure out the mystery of the town, and fitting it into the campaign. This is something that needs to tailor to the campaign itself, but is one of the more important steps. In my campaign, the town is the flight point of a villain in an earlier scenario and the source of some of the things that drove that villain to madness, so the question of his madness appears to tie into the town’s history.

Second, specific aspects of the town’s current population, in the movie, just one or two cold encounters with town locals, and two semi-threatening phone messages are all that the movie presents. In campaign play, this section can be huge, and in fact, to me will be. The current town will have its own mysteries connected to the bigger mystery of the earlier disappearance, and the party gets to uncover a lot, but get as many new questions as answers until they follow their villain onto the pathof the original disappearance.

Third, and here is one of the major departures, the movie never gives a specific answer to ‘what’s on the road and what led to the incident in the past.’ In a scenario that can’t be left completely unanswered, but that doesn’t mean it has to be an elaborate answer. In the Mythos, there are two convenient answers to this to a point.

The Mi go, a frequent ‘villain’ species have their own bases (the story in which they appear is set in Vermont, the town from the movie is in New Hampshire, so not a huge leap), and a desire for privacy, so they are known to interfere with human affairs to some extent to protect their interests, including humans who for various reasons cooperate with them.

The LLoigor, the other convenient answer, is a race of creatures that often have invisible manifestations, but influence the minds of humans around them, often sending humans into a spiral of depression with their own nihilistic point of view.

Either of these creatures lurking nearby could be creating the effects that lead to the story elements of the town. The Mi go tie in a little more conveniently to the easier interpretation of the villain I have tied into it from my campaign, though either could be used.

So, simple version. Take the ideas of the movie, but twist the hell out of it to make a story, don’t leave it recognizable if you can help it, and change as many elements to make it your story instead of the players re-enacting the movie.

I have run on long enough, I guess I’ll do the other part in the next post.

John Dies at the End as scenario seed (kind of spoilers)

This book (and movie) is a tough one (two) to review because at least one major plot point in the book did not make it to the movie, but the overall feel of both is strong enough that I would be remiss if I did not include this work as a potential seed, for approach if nothing else.

The protagonist is in a world that includes a mix of the horrific and the absurd, and deals with both with a dry sense of humor and self-awareness, as well as horror at the universe unfolding around him. We see minor incidents and the major situation, the dry response to it makes the movie feel like a William Burroughs flashback, or a guide to “How to be a Call of Cthulhu Investigator” for Millenials or at least Gen Y.

The story’s main characters, Dave and John, deal with the abnormal with a quiet acceptance and a smooth veneer that only cracks when confronted with truly horrific and even then they regroup quickly and respond effectively, (even if it’s to call for help). An initial minor story sets the stage for their approach to things, their ability to deal with the supernatural in their daily world and still lead otherwise normal lives. In fact, their somewhat jaded response indicates that they have been somewhat numbed by the things they’ve seen.

A drug making the recreational circuit has potentially fatal effects, but in the process gives imbibers insight into a surreal experience or a heightened reality (open to interpretation) , and John is exposed, as is Dave in an accidental mild dosing (when trying to help John). John dies (not at the end, but nearer the midpoint), and Dave reluctantly tries to resolve the mystery of the drug, its effects, and trying to help his friend, and himself.

These experiences tie into incidents with alternate worlds, expanded consciousness, and an encounter with an inhuman villain that comes across as somewhat lovecraftian in spite of much more mundane origins. I really can’t dwell on the plot without dumping an excess of spoilers, but the story is, while definitely not for everyone, a wonderful journey for those who relate to it.

My only real complaint about it in the sense of using it as a scenario seed is that the players end up coming across (in the story the movie ends up telling) as pawns being played against the villains and a party the protagonists are allied with, and have used as a resource to help them in dark times. The implication that they are less the heroes than the sidekick is my issue, and this is something I try whenever possible to avoid in any gaming scenario.

Strangely, the statement about John dying, and the title are not really spoilers, but you have to actually watch this movie to get that.

The Big Bads in the neighborhood

To be upfront I am not talking about the Great Old Ones or the Outer Gods in the game, I am making a statement about the levels of power in the game, and when and how you should cross certain lines as a Keeper and scenario designer.

A threat of some kind has to exist in any scenario, scenarios are stories and stories are based on conflict. No conflict, no story. Call of Cthulhu is not, however, simply about combat, a clash with a gangster or a cultist can be just as deadly to an experienced character as to a novice. Granted, a character who has been around a while may have some better armament in a few senses, notably spells. But a gun in the hands of a normal human opponent is just as deadly if it hits. Unlike some rpgs, a character does not gain the ranks of power that make them immune to lesser threats. And for every gain in power a character in CoC has, he has usually put his sanity at greater risk, and this is more often than not more fragile than it was earlier. Skills can grow, spells can be learned, but…

In the face of this knowledge, certain foes are an ‘even’ challenge early in the game, about as tough as a player character making an even fight an even challenge. This still leaves combat risky and challenging, and in a game world without magical healing and resurrection, smart players learn caution in any potential conflict.

These ‘even’ challenges are things like ghouls, deep ones, mi go, byakhee and the average cultist. Encoutners with small groups of these types can form combat encounters that round out the adventure, as long as they serve to further the story, and hopefully strengthen the player character’s position in their situation.

Then you begin to encounter the slightly greater challenges, leaders of small cults, lesser wizards, dimensional shamblers, and monsters that are a little tougher, little being a very relative term. We start to cross into the territory where a single encounter with a single one of these creatures can put the entire party in danger, and at great risk. Encounters with singles of these entities should be relatively major encounters, if not the climax of lesser scenarios, and largely begin to become the events player characters should try to prevent from happening if possible (stop the summoning, circumvent the wizard, banish the monster, etc).

After this we begin to encounter the much greater challenges. These are things like the Dark Young of Shub Niggurath, shoggoths, cthonians, star spawn of Cthulhu, Dholes, Lloigor, Nyarlathotep in his least forms, and greater wizards. These creatures form the climax of more major adventures, are creatures to thwart without combat if possible, or flee from.

After this we start to encounter the biggies, Cthulhu, Nyarlathotep in his lesser forms, Cthugha and the various Great Old Ones. These are definite major climaxes in the scenarios where they appear, to be avoided or circumvented if at all possible. Encounters with these are to be avoided by the players if they possibly can. If any of these actually show up, it will take luck or preparation established in the scenario for the player characters to survive these encounters, if not the risk of the end of that particular campaign world.

Above this, we have the Old Ones, entities whose mere presence should be catastrophic and almost certainly the cause of multiple deaths by player characters, and very likely the end of the campaign in a very bad way. (There are some exceptions to this, to an extent, Yog Sothoth peeks in now and then without the world ending, but generally in a few of his avatars, and when he takes an active interest in our universe, it’s bad news.)

The main reason I’m bringing up all this, is because in published scenarios, it is more than a little surprising how often you run into monsters that parties should not be able to beat, and sometimes in an incidental role. Case in point, in the book Before the Fall, the scenario “the Innsmouth Connection” has a shoggoth as a scenario topper. In the book Curse of the Cthonians, the scenario “Dark Carnival” has a plotline that hints at a shoggoth, but turns out to be a cthonian working with the general villains of the piece (as if that’s better). Dark Young, shoggoths and cthonians show up with alarming regularity, let alone tougher creatures.

My personal gaming style is to allow player madness and death as fits the story, but to avoid pointless character deaths. I do suggest caution when using established scenarios, think of the campaign you’re fitting it into, of the gameplay you and your players want.

Prince of Darkness as Scenario Seed

One of John Carpenter’s stranger films, the second in his ‘Apocalypse Trilogy’, is Prince of Darkness, a movie from 1987 that has generated a lot of debate on the Internet Movie Database (I do notice a trend in that it is a rare movie that doesn’t have a fair bit of debate on the IMDB, but maybe that’s just the movies I look up. I also note that several of the films I like have a real love/hate thing going in the IMDB comment boards.) This film has Donald Pleasance working with Carpenter again, this time playing a priest who learns of a line of priests who have been guarding a secret, learning this on the death of the most recent of these guardians. This leads him to a crisis of faith, of sorts, and he seeks help from modern science to uncover the truth behind this secret, to prove it and release the knowledge.

A priest having a crisis of faith is pretty much a standard in movies, and in horror films in particular. This time, the crisis is not questioning the existence of God (That question is, interestingly, never addressed at all in this film, though the nature of the Devil and of Jesus is brought into question), but more the matter that this priest is confronted with something that proves that the current understanding of religion as he, and through him, the Catholic Church, had taken as a given is in question.

The science the priest turns to is an acquaintance who is a professor of quantum mechanics. Exactly why this particular science is called in is not really explained, though it does turn out that some of the concepts do prove significant in the story.

The secret involves a bizarre artifact kept in the basement of an old church, and texts identifying the contents of the artifact, and the story behind it. As the texts are examined, it is disclosed that even the people keeping this secret seemed over the years to disagree over parts of it and tried to obscure some details or change interpretations of parts. The artifact is a large container of what appears to be glass and metal, and a green swirling liquid that appears to be glowing.

A potentially unintentional parallel structure in the story is the comparison between this artifact and its story revealing that the perception of religion is unveiled as something other than what it seems on the surface, and the scientists exploring this discussing quantum mechanics conversationally wherein which one’s understanding of reality is similarly revealed.

The artifact proves to be mysterious, and the force behind/inside the fluid is stirring (waking), and extending influence in the world around it, trying to break free and bring about an apocalypse. This force gradually begins influencing lower life forms around, insects and other invertebrates in the immediate vicinity, then some of the less stable among the local homeless population, who begin lurking around the periphery of the church where this is unfolding. The students forming the investigation team begin to be taken over or taken out, and in the usual movie style, for a good chunk of the film the people are unaware of the death toll rising around them.

The possessed and the undead inside the church slowly whittle the population of the investigators down until they feel comfortable striking outright, and one of their number becomes the specific host for the force that has managed to escape the artifact and seeks to free a greater, more malevolent force. The homeless outside become a barrier keeping the investigators inside, killing the few who try to leave. A subplot involving a recurring dream that all inside the church have is a taunting clue itself. The darker evil seems to lurk in a realm that the force inside the church can access through mirrors (exactly how and why is never revealed)

I like this film, though there are flaws of sorts in it, some of them far from obvious to the average moviegoer. The ending is a bleak victory in the story with a final scene development that implies that the story is far from over, and the darker evil is far from defeated. Some of the flaws in the movie are very technical and I won’t really go into them. But a few are worth bringing up.

First, the exact connection between quantum mechanics and the investigation is a bit unclear, as such. And a lot of the discussion between the professor and students is, as far as quantum mechanics goes, pretty basic stuff. Grad students in quantum physics wouldn’t have to explain Shroedinger’s cat to one another (as happens early in the film), and the professor is giving an impassioned speech to his students in his first speaking scene, but it would qualify as a first year introduction to Quantum Physics class opening day speech. These moments are in the film to set more background in the concepts to an audience that may not be familiar with them. Second, there is a question as to ‘why is this happening now?’ that never quite comes up, except for a brief news article in a background tv about a supernova’s light reaching Earth that hints this may be the change that sparks the events of the story. Third, there is no explanation given for why the mirror is a viable bridge to wherever the greater evil lurks. Fourth, it is a bit vague as to why a few professors would round up some of their more advanced students to handle a research project that had the potentially far reaching repercussions that are hinted at in this film, though the rationalization that it is what they could throw together on short notice and low to no budget does make at least some sense. Another example of ‘movie logic’

Now as in most of the other films I discuss as story seeds, to make a scenario out of it, I would possibly take a lot of the set up and settings, but the conclusions and the mechanics of a lot of it, I would likely change. I would be more likely to intensify the quantum mechanics angle if the players I was presenting it to could handle it. Shifting it into more Lovecraft territory may actually work in a strange way of making the movie make more sense for those who were confused by the original.