Task Resolution! What to handwave, and when to roll dice in your TTRPG

Last month I participated in "RPG Theory July" on Twitter. Each day, the TTRPG community had the chance to mull over some aspect of creating and playing RPGs.

One of the prompts for discussion was "Task Resolution," which is something that, it turns out, I have some pretty strong feelings about. I am surprised, in fact, to find that I'm able to articulate a coherent philosophy!

Caveat: Of course this won't appeal to everyone, it won't work at every table, and it won't fit all games.

But - if you are looking for a cinematic feel to your game, you want to skip over fiddly details, or you're just looking to use your time at the table as efficiently as possible, I think this'll be useful to you. Let's take a look!

Task Resolution & Narrative Focus

This algorithm is going to help you decide:
  • Whether a task to be resolved deserves narrative focus, and
  • How you should resolve the task's uncertain outcome.
What does this mean? I'm using Task Resolution to mean any situation where something is going to happen in your role-playing game, and the outcome is not certain. A character wants to shoot a monster, seduce a noble, or learn a difficult incantation. A monster wants to bite someone or run away. A thunderstorm produces lightning which might strike a character.

An RPG character walking across a room is not a task to be resolved - in most cases, it just happens. An RPG character running across a room and dodging a hail of bullets while doing so? THAT's a task to be resolved.

For purposes of this post I'm assuming that the game you're playing uses a randomizer to resolve uncertain task outcomes (most games use a dice roll; some use cards, or a Jenga tower, or something else). If your game resolves everything through player actions/discussion, or in general doesn't use a randomizer, then the end of the algorithm doesn't apply. You can still use the first few boxes to decide which things deserve narrative focus, though!

I'm using Narrative Focus to mean anything that you spend time talking about in the context of your story. So an out-of-character discussion about the rules, or a recap of previous events in the game, do not count as receiving narrative focus. Describing what your character does, or role-playing it, or bringing out props, or rolling dice to see what happens - all of these are narrative focus.

1. Is it interesting?

If it's not interesting, don't even spend time on it! But - what makes a task interesting?
  1. It's important to a character. Your characters are the windows through which players (and GMs) experience the fictional world of the game. If a task doesn't matter to them, it's not going to matter to the player, and it doesn't merit any narrative focus. 
  2. It affects the character's goals. This is an extension of it being important. The task being resolved has to have a measurable impact on something the character is trying to achieve. Obviously this has a pretty wide range, anything from "I want to make myself happy" to "I want to help my friend find his family" to "I need to do this to stay true to my principles." But if it doesn't affect the goal the character is trying to achieve, then character has no clear motivation to do it, and it doesn't merit narrative focus.
  3. It matches the tone and genre of the story. Think about the genre of story you're playing in. What kinds of actions and tasks would be considered important in those genres? ANY task can be worthy of narrative focus if it's important and relevant to the character, but if it doesn't fit in the mood of the fiction you can handle it off-screen, or skip it. For example, consider the task "get lunch." If the character is hungry enough, this could certainly meet the first two requirements, but in most genres we would skip it. But if the character is a noir detective living paycheck to paycheck, or a punk on the fringes of society in a barter economy, the simple act of procuring a meal becomes interesting because of the challenges and themes associated with it. 
If it's interesting, it deserves some narrative focus. And keeping the idea of challenges and themes in mind, we go on to the next decision!  We're going to spend time on it, in-game. Now the question is: do we resolve it via role-play? Or do we use the randomizing/decision-making mechanics?

2. Is it hard to do?

If it's not hard to do, we don't have to have a conversation about how to resolve the task, right? If it's easy, you just... do it. For example:

Player: "I do this easy thing, e.g.: walk across the room; talk to a guard; buy a drink; look up the capital of Burkina Faso on Wikipedia..."
GM: "OK. Great. You do it."

Of course, "hard to do" is relative. You have to calibrate it to the setting, genre, and to what's going on in the game at that moment. Heck, you can calibrate it to the character themselves - if they have a lot of skill in a certain kind of task, they should be able to "just do" much more challenging things with it than an untrained person would. Some systems (like Gumshoe) build this in deliberately, where a character automatically succeeds in an action of baseline-level difficulty once they're trained up beyond a certain point. 

But a lot of the difficulty is in the context. If the character is impaired, hassled, running low on resources, rushed, or opposed, something that would otherwise be a walk in the park can suddenly become difficult - and thus, something that needs to be resolved mechanically. 

Please note: even if it's easy, it can still be worthy of narrative focus! The distinction - and decision - being made in step 2 is about whether we need to use a task-resolution mechanic to resolve it. If it's easy but interesting, resolve the task through role-play. Describe what the characters do and how they resolve their task. Enjoy the storytelling. Then move on to the next interesting thing worthy of narrative focus.

3. Is it risky?

If the task is hard, it means the outcome is uncertain: the character might fail! If a task is risky, that means something bad happens if the character fails.  Like everything else, bad is relative to the context of the game and the scene. 
  • If failure means that the character just has to try again, this is not risky. 
  • If failure means that the character has wasted some time, this is not risky.
    • UNLESS the character is running out of time! If they are being pursued, or if wasting time means they'll lose an important opportunity, then suddenly failure does have consequences.
If it's not risky, it may still be worth role-playing the outcome, but the player and GM can decide together whether the character succeeds or fails - and since we've stipulated in these cases that failure is not that interesting, the character should succeed most of the time, right? 

If the task's outcome is uncertain and there are important consequences to failure, it's time to use a task resolution mechanic: roll dice, draw cards, whatever. Success means the character has accomplished something hard to do, in service of their goals. Failure means something bad has happened, and their goal slips farther away. 

4. Bonus Question: Does the system support this style?

I noted above that this algorithm won't work perfectly with every game, and I want to highlight one particular game where that's the case. In Call of Cthulhu (7th and earlier editions), characters increase their skill by succeeding at skill rolls. Therefore, the players have an incentive to seek out opportunities to roll. It's then up to the Keeper (the GM) to provide opportunities to roll dice. 

Does this mean that Call of Cthulhu games should be filled with a lot of meaningless dice rolls? No! But it does mean the Keeper - and scenario writers - need to hustle a little bit harder to make sure that the game is full of meaningful, risky tasks that fit the Investigators' skills. It's a challenge to be sure, but it's rewarding, and if the risks are high enough it really starts to make the Investigators sweat - and their players, too.

Want more of what I do? I have a number of best-selling Adventures and GM guides for the 7th Sea system at this link, available via DriveThruRPG! If the link doesn't work right, go to drivethrurpg.com and search for me, "Evan Perlman."

Want to see how this algorithm can help spice up combat in your games? My Electrum Best-Selling GM guide "The Good Fight" talks specifically about creating a variety of interesting and meaningful consequences in 7th Sea combat. Never again will you have an endless slog against an improbably tough villain! Instead, players will get to enjoy the feeling of total and overwhelming panic as everything goes to hell all around them. Enjoy!

Fixing Up the Old Corbitt Place: Some Notes on "The Haunting"

"Verulam," a house for sale for the first time since 1924. Source: HouseCrazy

Here is a house. It sits alone, in a largely commercial neighborhood that's long passed it by, brooding in the shadows of newer buildings.

This house has an unfortunate reputation. Its owner cannot sell it. Things have happened here. Things remain here. You stand at the threshold.

Will you enter?

Call of Cthulhu's Stalwart Introductory Scenario for 30+ Years

For many people, The Haunting is the introductory Call of Cthulhu scenario. Packaged with pretty much every edition of the game, its most recent version is available in the free Quickstart Rules for 7th Edition. This Scenario has been many peoples' first taste of what Call of Cthulhu is all about, and as such we want it to showcase the best and most exciting things the game has to offer. 

I ran it recently, for a group that had never played Cthulhu before. In preparing it for them, and in gauging their reactions and noting their choices during play, I started to think about whether this scenario really does everything we might want it to do as an introduction to Call of Cthulhu. 

Before we go further, let me note: for my money, "Edge of Darkness" is a better scenario to introduce people to the game, especially the version that appears in the starter set. Nonetheless, you really can't go wrong with The Haunting, but perhaps there are ways to tweak it so you can go a little more right. This post is absolutely riddled with spoilers for the Haunting, but I've tried to speak only obliquely about some of the more delightful surprises.

What's Wrong with The Haunting?

The biggest thing to keep in mind is that this scenario is meant to be an introduction. It's meant to be run, sometimes by a first-time Keeper, for players who are brand-new to the game, or nearly so. And so it has to account for a few things right away:

First, new Investigators (and some seasoned ones, honestly) may be too hung up on "What's my motivation? Why would I go into this obviously creepy house?" They may not yet have learned the valuable Scott Dorward aphorism, "When playing a horror game, engage with the fucking scenario!"

Second, they may be tempted to skip all that boring background research and go straight ahead to poke around in the old mansion. This is, technically, "fine," in that there aren't any Cthulhu Police who will kick in your door and force you to experience all the content available to you... yet. But in reality this cuts out half the gameplay and much of the archetypal CoC experience, so really, it's not fine.

Next: it may be played in a Convention setting, so keeping it at or under 4 hours is important. Mostly this is accomplished by clear signposting of clues and occasional Keeper interventions to help the Investigator stay on track. 

Then: some problems arise when the Investigators actually get to the house, especially if the Keepers are as new as the players. 

First, the description of the rooms leaves the Keeper to come up with many of the scares, and to decide how to pace them out. This is a good thing for more experienced Keepers, but may be a downside for a newer group.

Also, 7th edition CoC has a chase mechanic. And it's cool! But it's not featured in this scenario at all! Later on I offer an option for a chase.

So - let's take these problems in order. I'll talk about what I did, but naturally this is not authoritative. Feel free to address the problems in a way that works for you and your group, or to ignore them altogether as the ramblings of a paranoid madman with delusions of grandeur. You would not be wrong!

What's My Motivation? And Why Not Head Straight for the House?

Many of the issues I've heard people mention with this scenario come right at the beginning. What if they don't need the money? Why even go to all this trouble, even for the not-inconsiderable sum being offered by the landlord Mr. Knott? And once they've taken the case, so to speak, why not just go straight to the house and poke around in it?

As far as motivation goes, you - the Keeper, presumably - can and should take care of that before play even starts. Once everyone has their Investigator, just be upfront with them: "The game we're playing tonight revolves around exploring a haunted house. So, at some point, you're going to want to do that. OK?" Good - that takes care of that. And, in fact, the text in the Quickstart does advise you to do just that. But inevitably, someone would say "Wouldn't a rational person run away now, knowing what we know about the house?" To which the Keeper must respond "Indeed, but you are an Investigator, not a rational person. Now press forward!"

As far as the problem of making sure they go to the house eventually, but not without doing some digging into its history: I admit - I cheated a little. I wanted to set things up so that the Investigators *would* eventually go to the house, but that they would accomplish other things first. As Keeper - as someone, that is, with the ability to alter the narrative by fiat - I built myself a backdoor to use in case things were threatening to off the rails.

It is March 3, 1920, in Boston. You stand in front of an aging, abandoned brick house. This house holds tight to its secrets. Now - let’s flash back to a couple of days ago, and find out why you're here, and what you've learned about this place before you arrived.

Then we go straight into the meeting with Mr. Knott, a few days prior. Is this the most elegant thing ever done in an RPG? No. But it worked for me, and if the Investigators seemed to be stalling out or running low on session time, we could always have the option of "flashing forward" again, bringing them back in front of the house, and moving ahead with the investigation.

Of course, once they're sitting down with Mr. Knott, other pitfalls present themselves. The Investigators may quibble with Knott's real estate strategy - why not just lower the price and take the loss? I heard one Keeper wondering why Mr. Knott wouldn't just knock the place down and build an office building. Or, the Investigators may just say "All right, let's go check out the house. If we don't find anything, it's clean!"

The solution to this, I think, is to have learning the history of the house be an explicit objective given to them by Knott. In the case of my group, Knott told them:

"My wife is a member of the Boston Historical Society, you see. You know how the ladies of these New England historical societies are. Not so bad here as in someplace like Marble Head, of course, but as she tells it, you're no one until you've made a contribution to their quarterly journal. She's let me know, in no uncertain terms, that publishing a full and detailed accounting of the Corbitt House’s history would be just the thing to improve her standing with that group."

And with that we've established a key objective. It's not enough simply to investigate the house itself. The Investigators need to know the history of it: who lived there, what happened to it, how it came to be the way it is. This way, Mr. Knott has a stake in compiling that information - or rather, having the Investigators compile it for him. 

Having an explicit objective to find the history of the house also helps the Keeper and Investigators stay on track. They can focus on building out the ownership history of the house: from the original owner, to Corbitt, down to the Macarios and eventual acquisition by Mr. Knott. Then, once the history is established, the Investigators might reasonably wish to speak to the Macarios, or explore the Chapel of Contemplation. Or, they could just go to the house, which is a perfectly reasonable thing to do at that point! So let's do that!

Stepping Up the Scares at the Corbitt House

As written in the scenario, the Corbitt house has a few decent scares in it, but almost everything is left up to the imagination of the Keeper to find ways to provide a creepy and unsettling atmosphere. Without getting too far into specific spoilers, the current scenario gives:
  • Some signs of decay downstairs
  • A potentially-lethal encounter upstairs
  • The final encounters with Corbitt and his weapon of choice
Now, if you're running low on time, that's fine! But if you have an hour or two left in your session, you can afford to luxuriate in some more creepiness. And an inexperienced Keeper may not have anything ready to go that is both effective and in keeping with the theme of the house and its history. 

(Unavoidable spoiler inbound in this paragraph!.......) Remember also that Corbitt has use of the Dominate spell, which can create hallucinations in the minds of his victims. Also recall that one of Corbitt's objectives is to misdirect the Investigators so they stay away from his biggest secret. All right? Here we go! Anything requiring expenditure of a Magic Point (for using Dominate) is listed in its own sub-section. 

Everyone is going to have their own favored tricks and haunts, but here are a few I added. Whether or not you call for 1/1d3 SAN rolls after each of these is up to you. See how your Investigators are faring, and whether they need the extra pressure put on them.

Living Room:
  • The radio begins playing by itself. If switched off, unplugged, or smashed to bits, it still will occasionally start up the same song. I took an instrumental song, slowed it down a bit, and added a bit of reverb. I posted it on Youtube, here.
  • If the Investigators have met, or seen a picture of, Gloria Macario, one of figurines of the Virgin Mary has Gloria's face, and has reddish tracks of tears on a face of genuine misery.
Dining Room:
  • Shattered glass crunches underfoot near the walls (remnants of thrown glassware)
  • Mahogany table has gouge marks in the wood
  • Pot with some scraps of rice soup (as written in the scenario)... except, wait, my mistake. That’s not rice, unless rice wriggles and writhes.  
  • The sound of scurrying, scratching  and chewing comes from inside a pantry. If opened, no rats are found.
  • This is also where I chose to start the sounds of thumping and scratching from the upstairs bedroom. Since the stairs to both the upper level and the basement originate in the kitchen, it seems like Corbitt would have a vested interest in making sure they don't go downstairs.

Macarios' Bedroom:
  • A [Listen] check draws attention the window, where children can be seen playing just down the street. This is a bit strange because there are only office buildings there, and it is more strange because the children's clothes are at least 10 years out of date (they date to the year the neighbors made complaints about their missing children.)
  • A crucifix rotates upside down while the Investigators watch. The figure of Jesus falls off, leaving no mark of glue or fastener. Closer inspection shows he has the face of Vittorio Macario, twisted in a snarl of rage.
Spare Bedroom:
  • There is a pool of blood on the floor... and water is dripping up to the ceiling, where it flows in a line toward the window. What's the deal with that window? Why not check it out!
Empty Coal Storage Bin: 
  • The inside of the door has long scratches and gouges on it, matching the pattern of human hands.

Dominate effects, that can mostly be used anywhere.
The Keeper should make a hidden roll of the Investigators' POW against Corbitt's; any Investigator who loses suffers one of the following at any time:

  • Smells smoke, hears crackling of fire - “We have to get out!”
  • Finds a picture of one of the other Investigators with the Macarios in happier times: “Why didn’t you tell me you knew them? What else are you hiding?”
  • Sees a tattoo of the Chapel symbol on another Investigator
  • Overhears two Investigators gossiping about them: “We can’t tell [X], he’s just not ready!”
  • Sees an Investigator glaring at them with naked, terrifying hatred.
  • Remembers that they’re here to find a huge cache of gold buried in the earth floor of the basement. Nothing else matters, they have to get the gold before the police get here, they have to get the gold get the gold!

Discovering that no one else experienced any given hallucination is probably worth a 0/1 SAN loss, wouldn't you say?

Special Option for Using Very Simplified Chase Rules: An Impossible Labyrinth in the House

(With thanks/apologies to Mark Danielewski whose book House of Leaves inspired this).

Within the confines of a two-level house, there isn't much room for a physical chase. However, within the confines of the mind, and given Corbitt's tendency to use Dominate... here's what I propose. This whole encounter should take no more than 10 minutes.

The storage rooms on the main level don't really have anything going on in them, just some piles of junk. So: the first time one or more Investigators enter, they all immediately make contested POW rolls against Corbitt (with Corbitt spending 1 MP per Investigator to be tested).

If the Investigator wins the roll (i.e. gets a regular success while Corbitt fails, gets a Hard success against his Regular, or Extreme against his Hard), they experience a brief wave of disorientation: their footsteps echo strangely, the room seems unnaturally dark if it was previously lit, the air feels cool and clammy, and there is a momentary smell of musk and sour breath. Then it fades, and the Keeper may choose to call for a 0/1 SAN roll.

If the Investigator loses the roll... the find themselves standing in a long, dim corridor. It stretches on ahead and behind them, with no clear end visible in either direction. This is definitely not the room they just entered, and in fact it cannot possibly exist within the physical space of the house. Give them a moment to wallow in their confusion and disorientation.

Then, from behind them, they hear a sound: a buzzing, chittering sound, squeaking and huffing, and the trod of heavy feet, all at once. Red eyes blaze from a cloud of roiling black. It is coming towards them. It is coming closer. It will be on them in a moment... the Chase is on!

There are 3 locations in this chase, 2 of which have a Hazard the Investigator must get past in order to escape the labyrinth. To drastically simplify and adapt the chase rules, this is how we'll do it:

  1. The Chase goes round by round, just like combat. Each round, every Investigator can do one (or more) of the following: move to the next location, or perform an action that doesn't require a check, or perform an action requiring a skill check.
    1. Every Round, the Pursuer may move forward 1 Location. It is not slowed by a Hazard. If it ends up in the same location as an Investigator, and the Investigator is out of Movement Actions, the Pursuer will use its Movement Action to attack the Investigator (see step 4 below).
  2. If the Investigator rolled 2 levels above Corbitt on their POW (e.g. Hard success vs. his fail), they get an extra Movement Action each round. Otherwise, everyone gets one Movement Action. To go from one Location to the next requires 1 Movement Action, unless there is a Hazard the way.
  3. When confronted with a Hazard, the Investigator(s) must make a skill roll to get past it. If they spend 1 or 2 Movement Actions, they get one or two bonus dice on the skill roll. If they run out of Movement Actions in this Round, they can still clear the obstacle but won't be able to move until the next Round.
  4. If at any point an Investigator fails to clear a Hazard, or if they wind up at the same location as the Pursuer and they have no more Movement Actions, then the Pursuer falls upon them. As their vision goes black, the Investigator feels a hot gust of stinking breath, the claws and tiny needle teeth of dozens of furry vermin, the stab of a knife in their guts. They take 1/1d6 SAN loss and "wake up" from their experience in the Labyrinth, standing at the entrance to the storage room, back in the real house. Only a few seconds have passed. Anyone watching them experience this might not know anything is wrong, until the Investigator regains awareness and suffers the effects of SAN loss.

Locations & Hazards:

  1. Seemingly-endless corridor. The floor is smooth grey stone, the walls rough wood, the ceiling shrouded in darkness. All sounds echo strangely here, and it is impossible to accurately judge distance by sound. There are doorways visible in the walls "up ahead" - the direction is unimportant.
    1. The Pursuer is at a hypothetical "Location 0" - it can be seen and heard, but it is always "behind" the Investigator, whichever direction they're facing. It can appear to be behind multiple people even if they are facing different directions.
    2. Whichever way an Investigator chooses to go, they will reach the next Hazard, and then (if they make it) the next Location. Directions and geography are subjective to each person experiencing the Labyrinth.
  2. Through the first doorway they enter, they find themselves in a hallway scarcely taller and wider than a crawlspace. The walls here are made of planks nailed to studs, with little space between them. At the far end - maybe 25 yards away - is a door. They briefly have a clear glimpse of the door: It is clad in old leather, thick and wrinkled, grey and sickly-colored.
    1. With a [Spot Hidden] roll they notice 2 things: first, that the door gently flexes in and out, as though breathing. Second, that flames dance just behind the wooden plank walls, and that the flames are growing.
    2. HAZARD: A fire has started, and the hallway is quickly filling with smoke. At Keeper's discretion, the Investigator must make a [Navigate] roll to find their way to the door, a [CON] roll to avoid succumbing to the smoke, [Dodge] to avoid falling fiery timbers, or any other appropriate challenge. If they fail the roll, or retreat back out to the corridor, the hallucination ends with SAN loss as described above. If they succeed, move to Location 3.
  3. Beyond the leather door lies a low-ceilinged stone chapel. 3 walls are bare stone, marked only by the presence of inverted crucifixes with blasphemous depictions on them. The fourth wall, impossibly, is a towering stained glass window in impossibly varied and subtle shades of black and gray. It depicts a man upright but positioned as if in the grave, thin, long-fingered hands crossed over his naked chest. Halfway up the window, a panel of glass is missing; it is large enough to allow a person to clamber through. His face is indistinct, but two red eyes burn fiercely in it.
    1. There are several rows of pews. They are made of the same stiff, grey leather as the door in the previous location, but they look hard and unyielding as stone. Sitting on them, 17 figures in tattered silk robes. As one, they turn to stare at the intruders, then rise and point accusing fingers. Their hands are skeletal; their hoods are empty, save for two blazing red eyes. 
    2. HAZARD: The robed figures will come for the Investigators. As the labyrinth operates under a sort of dream or nightmare logic, it's not necessary to have a detailed combat. Any reasonable approach should be allowed here, but each Investigator has time to make only one roll. [Brawl] would see them through the crowd; [Throw] would work to shatter the window; [Climb], improbably, would allow them to scale the stained glass and escape. One success is all they need; one failure is all it takes for them to fall to the robes, and then the Pursuer. 
    3. Either way, after this location, they wake from the Chase. If they escaped with a successful roll in Location 3, they take only 1 SAN loss. If they were caught, they take 1/1d6, as described above. 

Wrapping Up:

I hope this was useful to you! On my playthrough, my Investigators had had enough by the time they reached the basement. One was already nearly dead from the upstairs bedroom encounter, and another was down to a precious few SAN. After their encounter in the main room of the basement, they went back to the kitchen, turned on the gas, and send the house up in a fireball. Honestly, I can't blame them.

Oh, one more piece of advice: In the scenario, it mentions that Corbitt might summon a dimensional shambler if he gets into trouble. I don't love this idea, because it is not really thematically in line with the rest of the scares. It introduces something really out of context that, I think, would be more distracting and confusing than scary. With the added scares (and optional heavy SAN loss, especially in the Chase scene), you should have more than enough fuel to reduce your Investigators to quivering psych patients. You can mostly leave the Mythos out of this one.

Finally: My thanks to Jon Hook, of the Miskatonic University Podcast.  In addition to being a great writer and a patient discussant, Jon is also forever dreaming of the Old Corbitt House. He has some great ideas for increasing scares and making this doughty old adventure feel new again, and you should ask him about them sometime - or better yet, seek him out at a con and play through it with him!

Want more of what I do? I have a number of best-selling Adventures and GM guides for the 7th Sea system at this link, available via DriveThruRPG! (Edit: For some reason if you click the link on mobile it goes to the homepage, not the site I was aiming at. To find what I've written, go to drivethrurpg.com and search for me, "Evan Perlman." Good luck!)  They are reasonably popular and inexpensive, so check them out! And now, it's been announced that 7th Sea will live under the same Chaosium roof as Call of Cthulhu - so there's some nice synergy for you!

Mythos Tomes Should Be Freaky, Right?

This is not going to be a dramatic revelation, I know, but: introducing mythos tomes (in a Cthulhu Mythos game), or even spellbooks (in a fantasy game) should be An Event.

I've had a tendency, until recently, to think of these books as simply in-game resources. In the case of Call of Cthulhu, it seemed at first like a simple transaction for the Investigator. They pay a certain cost in Sanity, they gain some terrible knowledge, maybe a spell or two, and they have a resource to use for later. Simple, right?

But man, does that elide a whole bunch of interesting role-playing and world-building opportunities.

At the conclusion of the Zone Rouge mini-prequel-campaign, the Vienna Club investigators picked up a very old book. The Latin title was clear enough: De Vermis Mysteriis. [Ominous thunder rolls in the background.] We didn't have time to dive into the book in-person, so we saved it for off-screen discussion via our FB group.

Here's how I framed it for the Investigator who was heading up the research into the book. Mechanics details come from the CoC 7e Keeper's Guide:

"First, the initial inspection:

The book is a great, hefty thing. It's bound in leather, though it's a strange sort of leather indeed. No visible pores, none of the usual crinkles common to products of the time. This is either exceedingly carefully bound, or else made of some other material... or both. 

Picking it up, the first thing you notice is that the cover feels... gritty, somehow? Like that time you went to Coney Island with Albert [ed. note: his brother] when you were kids, and you swam all day, and then you remembered your mom said to come home an hour ago so you went home without showering off, and all the rest of the night you felt gritty and uncomfortable. 

Despite being a little uncomfortable to hold, you really admire the raised lettering of the title: "De Vermis Mysteriis." It catches your eye, and you spend a full minute or two just following the curves and surfaces with your vision. 

You know enough Latin to puzzle it out yourself: "Mysteries of the Worm."

Only after a few minutes looking at the title do you notice a few splashes of blood - recent blood - on the left edge of the cover and the bottom edge of a few of the pages. That, you reason, belonged to von Sebottendorf, before your friend caused his head to become mist.

Flipping through it, you notice a few things:  
*It's mostly printed in a very ornate German Blackletter style. ******Reading this with any degree of speed requires a successful Language: German roll. ******Translating is possible - with the help of a fluent translator, it can be done in 1d10+4 weeks, If trying it yourself, without any German language, it's going to take 4d10+12 weeks, and will be full of errors. 

* Throughout, there are marginal notes written in a much more modern German hand. These are easier to translate, and can be done without a roll, but it will take time if you are not fluent. In some cases, a German term appears in the margin to be translated into both Turkish and Arabic. [ed. note: These notes are by von Sebottendorf, though I don't know if the players will pick up on that.]"

The CoC Keeper Guide urges you to make Mythos Tomes feel weird and dangerous, and that's absolutely right. This is, in a sense, what separates Mythos knowledge from Occult knowledge. This is not just having to think about things that seem strange to a rational modern mind. This is having a direct, tactile, emotional and intellectual experience of the strange. It may trigger memories. It may affect your ability to concentrate. It's going to throw you off a little bit.

They wanted to dig more into the history of the book:

"By asking around the Occult circles and checking in certain disreputable books, you learn the following:

* The book is credited to a man named Ludwig Prinn, and indeed that name appears among the blackletter Latin in the first few pages.

* The only printed copies the occult community is aware of were printed in 1542, in Cologne, Germany. The original text is supposed to be much older, though whether written by Prinn or someone else, no one can authoritatively say.

* It was vigorously suppressed by Church authorities at the time - you can infer what vigorous suppression looked like in 16th-century Cologne. 15 copies were known to have survived at the time, but some have since disappeared. It is not known what happened to the author.

It is known to discuss, in part, the Arab and near-East world of antiquity, and supernatural entities and occurrences of that time. One account by an 18th-century scholar in Yorkshire says that the part she was able to understand mentioned "the habits of creatures such as the famous djinn of lore, and how one might attract such a being." Other sources dispute this as a translation error."

Finally, as they turn their attention toward researching Ludwig Prinn, the likely author of the piece, I plunder liberally from the Wikipedia entry on the (fictional) book, and make a few tweaks to tie it more directly into the 11th-century Constantinople setting, where [SPOILERS FOR HORROR ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS] a gentleman named Sedefkar is being tutored by one he calls "The Skinless One..."

After much searching, following of fizzled leads, and chasing of circular references, you track down a copy of an English book currently held in the Swiss Academy of Art in Geneva. Written in Kent in the mid 1700s, it is titled: "Lives of the Lesser Magi: Being an Treatyse upon Severall Ockult and Heretickal Persons of Minor Repute."

In its two pages on Prinn, you find:

* An "alchemist, necromancer, [and] reputed mage" who "boasted of having attained a miraculous age" before being burned at the stake in Brussels during the height of the witch trials (in the late 15th or early 16th centuries).

* Prinn, maintained that he was captured during the Ninth Crusade in 1271, and attributed his occult knowledge to studying under the "wizards and wonder-workers of the Seljuks and Ottomans" before and during his captivity. 

* Prinn once makes mention of time spent in Byzantium or Constantinople in the 11th century, writing that "there are legends among the crusaders concerning my deeds and those of my fellow Seekers of Truth.

And that's where we've left it for now. The descent into terrible knowledge and madness awaits! As well as a pair of somewhat-but-not-devastatingly-useful spells, which may help out in the coming Orient Express campaign.


Want more of what I do? I have a number of best-selling Adventures and GM guides for the 7th Sea system at this link, available via DriveThruRPG! They are reasonably popular and shockingly inexpensive, so check them out! And now, it's been announced that 7th Sea will live under the same Chaosium roof as Call of Cthulhu - so there's some nice synergy for you!

After-Action Report: Dead Man Stomp

The Conclusion of the "Zone Rouge" Mini-Campaign Went Pretty Well

Just a quick update: I was finally able to run the conclusion of Zone Rouge! My Investigators finally caught up with the villainous Rudolf von Sebottendorf and his cadre of followers in Paris. Along the way, the encountered the cursed jazzman, trumpeter Leroy Turner, who lived in the close-knit African-American expat community in Montmarte. 

There were some very tense scenes in this scenario, and it was awesome! Some highlights: 

  • The Investigators getting a glimpse of how complex the web of 1920's occult secret societies actually is. At some point we drew a diagram.
  • Dr. Percy Fawcett, adventurer and intelligence agent, handing his gun to a barely-stable Leroy Turner in exchange for being allowed to look at the man's silver trumpet.
  • Confronting von Sebottendorf and a kidnapped Turner in an underground chapel to the martyrs of Paris, with only one way out. On top of that, the knowledge that a blast from that trumpet would bring dead saints climbing out of the walls.
  • A John Woo-style standoff in that chapel, which... could have gone worse, I suppose. von Sebottendorf ended up with his head dissolving in a cloud of red mist, and Percy Fawcett's life came down to a 60% chance on a dice roll. 
I think it's safe to say I've gotten over my reluctance towards endangering the Investigators. 

I still want to improve my descriptions of scenes, so I'll keep working on that. 

In two weeks, we head to London, to start out on the marquee campaign: Horror on the Orient Express! 

Zone Rouge Scenario 3: Dead Man Stomp!

In which I get to use the headline "MAN DIES THREE TIMES IN ONE NIGHT!" in something other than the opening of Horror on the Orient Express!

The scenario "Dead Man Stomp" originally appeared in 1989's "1920's Keeper Kit" - which I do not own, and have never had the pleasure of seeing - but probably received its widest exposure from being included in the 5th (and possibly 6th?) edition rulebooks.

Most recently, it was revised, updated, and included in the 7th edition's Starter Set - which you should buy! It's great! 

I chose Dead Man Stomp to be kind of a capper or climax to my "Zone Rouge" mini-campaign, which is itself a prequel to Horror on the Orient Express.

In the last two scenarios, the Investigators have been bouncing around the Verdun area of France, in pursuit of Rudolf von Sebottendorf and his nefarious efforts to overturn the political and occult situation in France. The Investigators are backed by Hugh "Quex" Sinclair, section chief of the British Secret Intelligence Service. von Sebottendorf is backed by a mysterious entity he encounters only in his dreams, an entity calling itself "En Kalif." Sharp-eyed anagram fans who are also familiar with Horror on the Orient Express will recognize that [SPOILERS! SPOILERS! SPOILERS!] En Kalif is a pseudonym for Fenalik, one-time owner of the Sedefkar Simulacrum and current (as of 1921) comatose vampire.

Twice now the Investigators have interfered in von Sebottendorf's activities, and now things are coming to a head. They are barreling towards a final confrontation in the Montmarte neighborhood, in Paris. 

There will be 3 parts to this post:
  1. A recap of the campaign timeline so far! 
  2. Converting Dead Man Stomp from Harlem to 1921 Paris, including a number of ties and call-forwards to the Horror on the Orient Express campaign
  3. Adapting Dead Man Stomp for use at the table!

Image from Pixabay; in public domain.

How Did We Get Here?

Briefly, here's what Rudolf von Sebottendorf's been up to, and how the Investigators have gotten up his nose so far! Note that historical events here don't line up perfectly with real history.


  • Late 1917, von Sebottendorf and some kindred spirits in Munich get together and found the Thule Society (wiki link).
  • Early 1918, von Sebottendorf arrives in Verdun.
He has been having vivid dreams. Most frequent of all are his dreams where he is taught by an enigmatic presence calling itself “En Kalif.” It appears mostly in the form of mist; he has never seen its real face. Sometimes it speaks to him in old Turkish, sometimes in French, sometimes in a language he does not understand. It promises to teach him secrets of the esoteric world.

In return, En Kalif asks that he help sow unrest in France. En Kalif's reasons are his own. 

  • Early 1918, he meets Marion Alard of the Alsatian Circle, and begins to tutor him. He refuses to introduce Alard to En Kalif, and by the end of the year they have broken off their acquaintance, and he hears no more from Alard. He does not learn of Alard's death.
  • 26 April 1919, German Communist forces in Munich break into the headquarters of von Sebottendorf’s Thule society, arresting - and eventually executing - a number of prominent members, as “right-wing spies.” Surviving members of the Society blame von Sebottendorf for betraying them; he does not deny this.
  • In the summer of 1919, he goes to Paris to establish a new society. Creatively, he calls this "the Paris circle." Based in vaguely Rosicrucian and Martinist traditions, they pursue occult knowledge and try to fight the emerging Communist factions.
  • In November 1920, several of von Sebottendorf’s Alsatian Circle agents in Verdun die or go missing: Marie LeCroix [in "Lumiere Morte"] and Rupert Merriweather [in Edge of Darkness] chief among them.
One of the Vienna Club's members, Percy Fawcett, goes temporarily mad after the events of Edge of Darkness. He is cared for in Charenton Insanse Asylum, and has an unpleasant encounter with a new nurse, Martin Guimart! (See Horror on the Orient Express, book 2.)

  • In the spring of 1921, the dream visits of En Kalif cease without warning and von S grows increasingly desperate to maintain and expand his authority.

This is because Fenalik the Vampire has been discovered and partially awoken where he was trapped in the cellars of Charenton Insane Asylum. His dream consciousness, which was scarcely holding it together before, now disappears entirely until Fenalik fully regains himself in 1922.

  • In April 1921, a German member of the Paris Circle, one Peter Mann, begins to conspire with surviving members of the Thule Society back in Munich. He has lost faith in von Sebottendorf, and the Thules want revenge.
  • In June 1921, von Sebottendorf learns of Mann's betrayal. He decides to keep him around for a while before destroying him.
  • In July of 1921, the Vienna Club Investigators arrive in Paris, advertising a golden sarcophagus with strange markings in it. von Sebottendorf is interested, and sends Mann to a jazz club, Le Grand Duc, to look it over. Here, he will have Mann killed. 
The sarcophagus is the same one that Marion Alard gave to Rupert Merriweather. Alard was killed in Paris a few years prior, when he was asking around in the Parisian occult community and "the wrong people" got wind of it. The "wrong people," in this case, were one of the Makryat duplicates, or perhaps Makryat himself, who was in Paris at the time. He stabbed Alard through the heart, but realized the box was not with him. He has learned patience and caution since then.

Converting Dead Man Stomp to Fit the Mini-Campaign

Spoilers, obviously, for Dead Man Stomp. Gratuitous spoilers. 

One of the virtues of "Dead Man Stomp," as written, is that it's not strongly tied to any particular place. It works pretty well in any urban environment that has a strong Jazz flavor - and for that, the Montmarte neighborhood in Paris works very well!

Montmarte in this era was the center of a small black American community. Many of the residents had fought for the U.S. in WWI, and then settled in France after the war. Montmarte was home to a number of soon-to-be-famous jazz clubs - le Grand Duc, Bricktop's, Chez Florence - and some other landmarks worth integrating into a game: the Grand Guignol theater, and several prominent churches and cathedrals.

The older of the two churches in the neighborhood, the Church of St. Pierre of Montmarte, (wiki link) is home to the "Martyrium of St. Denis," a chapel (built roughly on the spot of the original place to bear that name) that is associated with two significant church events. First, the martyrdom (by beheading) of Denis, the first Bishop of Paris. In the legend, he was beheaded, which failed to prevent him from standing up, picking up his head, and walking down the hill a while to a more favored dying spot. Second, the Martyrium is the place where the Jesuit Society was founded.

So - lots of history, lots of atmosphere! And, thanks to the bones of centuries' worth of saints and parishioners... lots of bodies who can be ripped from their eternal rest by the mad squeals of Leroy's trumpet. Could the climax of the scenario occur here? Reader - it must!

The only thing that's potentially a setting problem in this conversion is that Paris did not have Prohibition in the way that American cities did. Granted, there was a minor prohibition which forbade absinthe, but all other drinks were readily available - something that appealed to many of the famous American expats who made their way to Paris during the annĂ©es folles (wiki link).

The biggest issue when converting this for use in my campaign is that I need it to cap off the Investigators' pursuit of Rudolf von Sebottendorf. Therefore, I've taken the step of replacing the mob outfit in the scenario-as-written with von S's "Paris Circle."

The other thing I've done is foreground the threat (or opportunity) posed by the Paris Circle, as a secondary threat in addition to Leroy Turner's mythos-related trumpet that can raise the dead. This gives the Investigators opportunities to decide how they want to "deal" with von S, and it also adds some pressure and forces them to make some choices: will they go after the Paris Circle and ignore Leroy? If they pursue Leroy, will their quarry get away? Will they team up with von S to deal with Leroy? What happens then?

Changes to Names & Locations

In the next section you'll see me refer to some of these names. Here's a conversion list, to help forestall confusion!

Harlem -> Montmarte, Paris
Small's Paradise (jazz club) -> Le Grand Duc
Pete Mancuso (mob accountant) -> Peter Mann, German nationalist and Rosicrucian occultist
Joey Lawson -> Josephe Laurier, member of Paris Circle, combat veteran
Archie Bonato -> Rudolf von Sebottendorf, occultist, spy, general villain
Garage (mob headquarters) -> Martyrium of St. Denis (Paris Circle headquarters)

I did not change the names of the African-American characters, as it's reasonable that they could all be expats living in France.

I've had to do some wrenching on the mechanics of this scenario as well, for reasons of playability and design that I'll get into in the next section.

Adapting Dead Man Stomp for Use at the Table

Dead Man Stomp has a lot of good things going for it. Most particularly, it has: 

  • A lively setting, full of jazz and passion and danger and death
  • 3 really good set-pieces: the shooting at the club, the jazz funeral, and the climax with the risen dead.
But if there's a consistent knock on the scenario, it's that it is VERY railroad-dependent. Investigators are almost literally moved from one set-piece to another, where they witness things, and - unfortunately - don't have a whole lot of plot levers to pull. 

And - as sometimes happens in Cthulhu games - if the Investigators don't choose to pursue a particular lead, it can leave the group stranded without a functional scenario. Now - as written in the 7th edition Starter Set version, these clues and prompts ARE there in sufficient number to keep things moving. However, the way they are laid out in the text - which is almost exclusively done in big narrative paragraphs - makes them a little hard for the aspiring keeper to map out.

So I mapped it out! In the prior post I talked about how I format scenarios for use at the table - generally, a lot of outlines, bullet points and bold phrases.   But for this, I needed something a little more at the global scope. I needed - a MAP!


This is in 3 parts. In these maps:
  • Red boxes are settings, or overall activities (e.g. Le Grand Duc jazz club; "Looking into Laurier", etc)
  • Blue boxes are important clues or events that the Investigators need to witness/pick up
  • Unboxed text are generally methods or avenues for the Investigators to get their clues. 
These maps don't have every detail from the scenario as written, but they show the general relationship between people, events, motivations, and clues. They also show how messy the opening vignettes can be, which is where this system of mapping will really benefit a keeper choosing to run this otherwise excellent scenario. 

Finally, a few cosmetic changes: 
  • In the scenario as written, Turner's fiancee Marnie died when she was struck by a gray Packard. This is implied to be the same care that Joey Lawton drives. However, there's no explicit connection made and it's not implied that Leroy has any animus against the mobsters. So, I dropped it. In my version, Marnie perished from the flu, like many others of that time. 
  • The scenario relates a line of dialogue between "Louis Armstrong" and Leroy Turner which would be a big clue to the mystical nature of things, but it says "Leroy won't tell them this." If it's not available to the Players there's no real reason for it to be in the scenario. In my verison, Leroy WILL tell them this after a successful persuasion or similar roll.
I'll be running this in 2 weeks, and probably will wrap it up in a single session. I think it's going to be great! 

Next up - we head up to London for some good old-fashioned spy-vs.-spy action, in... THE AUCTION!


Want more of what I do? I have a number of best-selling Adventures and GM guides for the 7th Sea system at this link, available via DriveThruRPG! They are reasonably popular and shockingly inexpensive, so check them out! And now, it's been announced that 7th Sea will live under the same Chaosium roof as Call of Cthulhu - so there's some nice synergy for you!

I'll soon be working on writing my first-ever CoC scenario for publication, giving it the same "behind-the-scenes development" treatment you've seen so far - so watch this space for future posts on that topic!

GM Tools: Formatting a Scenario for use at the Table

When you use a pre-written scenario at the table - whether it's one you bought, or one you wrote - what tools do you use to keep everything straight and useful during play?

When I ran Dead Light and Edge of Darkness for my group, it was the first time in a long time that I've run a story I didn't write myself. In running Dead Light, I ran into a problem I wasn't familiar with: I didn't have total mastery over the setting and plot elements. By that I mean, when the players wanted to go to Location X, I had to flip back through the scenario to find it. When they wanted to talk to NPC Y, I needed to spend half a minute reading up on that person again, their motivation, their secrets, and what player actions would trigger them to do something or reveal something.

Granted, part of good GMing is being as familiar as possible with the scenario as written, but even so, it's not possible for me to hold that volume of specifics in my head while also doing all the other things a GM does at the table - remember rules, deliver information in an entertaining way, think two or three steps ahead of the players.

Plus, there are environmental factors. I always print out the adventure, because I find it hard to make a suitably frightening mood in the glare of laptop and cell phone screens. We play in a dim room (the better to support the spooky atmospherics!), the table is a bit crowded, and frankly any time I spend squinting down at a printout of the Scenario is time where the tension is bleeding away.

What I need is an OUTLINE version of the Scenario. Organized, quick to read, and - for real - in a larger font than the narrative, prose version of the piece.

Here's what such a thing looks like for the "Zone Rouge" campaign's version of Edge of Darkness. I created it for myself - and, in fact, the act of doing so was also really useful to me in terms of gaining mastery of the material. A quick guide to what I did here:

  • I already know the overall plot and theme, so I don't need to reiterate that in the "table companion" version.
  • Each top-level heading is a major location.
  • Lower-level headings are:
    • Sub-locations (a hospital room; the grounds of a farmhouse; a basement)
    • Summary of "Plot Information" that can be obtained from people and objects
    • Summary of encounters
  • As needed, bullet points provide:
    • Descriptive words
    • Brief dialogue cues
    • NPC stats and strategy
This way, I can quickly find the location or person we're dealing with in the story, and in a couple of quick seconds I can have everything I need to run that scene. I know what vital information has to get across, what the other characters' motivations are, etc. I also use special icons to remind myself when to give out handouts, play certain music tracks, etc. 

As I use this format more in the future I'll probably make it even more streamlined. But this worked pretty well for me at the last session, so I'll just make refinements here and there.

I also have the table-format layout that I use for tracking events at each interval of the ritual. This format would also be useful with things like chases! Hopefully more on that in a future after-action writeup!

So - what do you use? What makes it easier for you to run a smooth game?


Want more of what I do? I have a number of best-selling Adventures and GM guides for the 7th Sea system available via DriveThruRPG! They are reasonably popular and shockingly inexpensive, so check them out! And now, it's been announced that 7th Sea will live under the same Chaosium roof as Call of Cthulhu - so there's some nice synergy for you!

I'll soon be working on writing my first-ever CoC scenario for publication, giving it the same "behind-the-scenes development" treatment you've seen so far - so watch this space for future posts on that topic!

After-Action Report #2: Edge of Darkness

The Infamous Hobo with a Table Leg

A second-hand in-joke about "Edge of Darkness" was my first real introduction to an iconic Call of Cthulhu experience. About 10 years ago, I joined an established CoC group. I believe the first scenario I played with them was "The Haunting," like so many other players - but this group had already been through Edge of Darkness.

Our Investigators were starting to poke around Corbitt's house, prying into dark and unsettling corners, when one of the players joked: "Watch out for the hobo with a table leg."

"The what?" I asked.

"Last time, we walked into a basement without checking first, and a hobo with a table leg knocked our whole party unconscious."

(Image credit: Chaosium's Call of Cthulhu Starter Set, book 2, page 37. Note: the hobo in the Starter Set version of Edge of Darkness is not likely to be able to knock out a party. Maybe a previous version of the scenario was different... or maybe our Keeper just liked messing people up with hobos.) 

"A hobo...?"

"With a table leg," they solemnly confirmed. The need to check every dark room for furniture-wielding vagrants has stuck with me ever since.

Which is why I guess I was so disappointed in myself for letting my Investigators talk him down from his frenzy when I ran this scenario last week.

What went well this week...

My disappointment aside, this session really hummed. We got halfway through the scenario, and will finish up in early April. I'm going to detail my plan for that part at the end of this post, and if it merits a separate after-action post I'll put up a "#2a".

The first thing that went well was that I had a very clear idea of the details. I had a much easier time remembering how to describe each of the areas and NPCs the players interacted with. I realized that when I ran Dead Light I wasn't providing enough detail, and one of the challenges I had was in keeping track of the scenario information available to me as Keeper.

Most (all?) scenarios I've seen are written in a very narrative way. They will be organized with headings, but the paragraphs are often quite long. In the more thoughtfully-written scenarios, important terms are in bold, and there is some way to set apart likely [Skill Rolls] - often by using brackets. But I still found myself a little lost using the scenario-as-written "live" at the table.

So, for this week, I re-wrote Edge of Darkness into an outline format. The major headings were locations - it makes sense to me to organize people and plot points by the place where they can be found. Then, each type of encounter - NPC, bundle of clues, monster, set-piece, etc - had its own set of bullet points with things like:

  • Sense descriptions
  • Mannerisms (for NPCs)
  • Likely [Skill Rolls] and their results
  • Important clues that the Investigators would need to be nudged into finding if they missed all available versions of that clue
  • Name of handouts (and I also used symbols for the kind of handout: letter, physical object, song on my phone, etc)
  • I laid out details for the "Banishing Ritual" set-piece in a table format, with times noted next to the particular thing I wanted the Lurker to do to the party. I will use this at the next session, when the players get to that part of the scenario.
This system worked SPLENDIDLY for me, and my next post will be a cleaned-up version that others can feel free to use.

The other thing that worked well was pacing. Partly thanks to my bullet-list version of the scenario, I was feeling very comfortable with Edge of Darkness - I felt I had mastery of the story and the important points. Therefore, I also felt comfortable letting the players take more agency in driving the plot forward. I gave them plenty of time to discuss plans with each other, carry out those plans in-game, and decide how they wanted to approach things.

Because I knew the critical details and descriptors for each location and encounter, I was also able to give a structure to each new experience. I could provide an initial description and then react to what they did, rather than worrying about whether they were going to have the "important" parts of the encounters as written. This made for a game that flowed a lot better. It allowed for player-to-player interaction without a great loss in tension and atmosphere, and therefore it also helped the players to further develop their Investigators as (doomed) people.

Finally, we added a new player to the group this week, and he really nailed his character. His character is the closest to a "James Bond" type we have - he's the group's wetboy (assassin - "black bag" man).

John Malkovich from "In the Line of Fire" knows what's up.

There's the danger that this kind of character can derail a CoC game, because of the mystique that tends to accrue around assassins, and their image of being this cool, unflappable killing machine.

Of course, one of the major themes that I've been building in the "Zone Rouge" mini-campaign is that spies, occultists, and similar inhabitants of the shadowy world are doomed figures destined to end up alone, mad, and ultimately dead in some awful way. So, before he joined the group, we talked about how an assassin might work in Lovecraftian fiction, and I emphasized the lethality of combat in this system.

Ultimately, I gave 3 guidelines, and the player nailed them perfectly:

  • The character has to play well with the group
  • The character is more likely to be a half-broken man skating on the surface of despair than he is a heroic action-hero. He is James Bond in Skyfall, not James Bond in Goldfinger.
  • If combat is his go-to solution he's likely to come to a bad end, quickly - and this is totally fine and in-character.
This character also provided my first opportunity to try improvising a scene that wasn't included in the Scenario. The night before the group was scheduled to meet Merriweather in the hospital, this character wanted to gain access to the hospital and get the lay of the land. So I put the spotlight on him for a little while and let him wander around a dark, depressing, low-budget charity hospital. He did eventually come across Merriweather, and contemplated doing him in right then - but he stuck to the mission, which meant extracting information from Merriweather first. 

It was a cool, creepy, tense scene. It only took about 10 minutes, but it did a lot of worldbuilding and character building for us.

What Didn't Go So Well

As I mentioned above and in my previous post  about killing player characters (note: the most popular post on this blog so far, by a huge margin! I guess people really like killing player characters!), I wasn't quite comfortable turning up the "deadliness" dial in this session. As a result, the players didn't totally feel a sense of the stakes. The Investigators know the Lurker exists, they know it's killed people and animals, but the Players don't yet have a sense that this can happen to THEIR characters. 

I'm not sure I'm quite ready to try to kill them yet, but I am going to step on the gas a little bit in part two of the scenario, and see if I can at least cause a major wound or (more likely) some serious sanity effects.

In that spirit, I present my plan for the ritual! If you're familiar with Edge of Darkness, you may wonder why I'm not expecting it to go for 2 hours. Even though the ritual is usually described as lasting 2 hours starting at midnight, the mechanical explanation is that it takes 8 total Magic Points to dispel the creature, and each Investigator who is chanting (uninterrupted) contributes 2 Magic Points every half hour. 

My group has 5 Investigators in it. Assuming they have 4 dedicated to chanting, they could theoretically finish this off in 30 minutes. So if they use 4 in the first half-hour, I'm going to require 10 MPs to succeed; if they use 3, I'll leave it at 8 MPs. Regardless, the ritual should take them about an hour... assuming none of them are interrupted... 

My goal is to interrupt as many of them as I can, as often as I can, without defeating the ritual altogether. I do want them to succeed on the first try, because frankly having them wait a day and go back for a second attempt will rob the ritual of a lot of its tension. So the cost in Sanity (and perhaps physical wounds) may be high, but they will succeed unless they make some foolish mistake or choose to give up.

The following table shows the approximate point in the ritual where each thing will happen, and what [rolls] if any are needed for an Investigator to maintain concentration.

Note that I am leaning heavily on the odors and sounds the Lurker can produce! I really like the idea of unsettling and threatening the Investigators without presenting an apparent physical threat. 

In fact, when you see a sound called [Character's] Voice, it's because I'm writing out the phrase, handing it to a player, and asking them to say it to a targeted other player - even though their Investigator is not actually saying it. It is, in fact, the Lurker trying to trick the Investigators into interrupting their ritual to argue with each other, run outside, etc.

This is going to be a good time.

Finally, I ran the numbers on potential SAN loss. The big drivers are the 2 Zombies and the Lurker itself, with other events taking d2 and d3 here and there, potentially. 

As a quick check on how this might hit the players, the most vulnerable Investigator in the party has a starting SAN of 41. For this Investigator, if exposed to every SAN check in the ritual, they will (on average) lose 9.15 points of Sanity over the course of the adventure. So if I really stomp on the gas, they could
  • Get a temporary insanity from losing 5 or 6 points in a single roll, or
  • Lose more than 20% of their starting SAN (8 points), and gain an Indefinite Insanity
And this is fine! This is a good risk to bring to bear. And indefinite insanity has real in-game consequences, without necessarily sidelining that Investigator from the next adventure, which is scheduled to take place at least a year in the future after this one. I can always step on the brakes a bit with physical damage if they start shooting each other, let the Lurker out, etc. I don't plan to kill anyone in this scenario - but serious injury and serious insanity are definitely ON the table. 

So anyway - this is great, and I am excited. The ritual is going to be a peach. 

Meanwhile, a discussion topic! Do you re-write scenarios during your prep for a session? What kind of notes do you put together? And would you appreciate it if scenario writers included a "session-prep" version at the back of their scenario write-ups?

Next Post: Possibly a discussion of session prep tools! 

Want more of what I do? I have a number of best-selling Adventures and GM guides for the 7th Sea system available via DriveThruRPG! They are reasonably popular and shockingly inexpensive, so check them out!

I'll soon be working on writing my first-ever CoC scenario for publication, giving it the same "behind-the-scenes development" treatment you've seen so far - so watch this space for future posts on that topic!

Fresh Madness!

Task Resolution! What to handwave, and when to roll dice in your TTRPG

Last month I participated in "RPG Theory July" on Twitter . Each day, the TTRPG community had the chance to mull over some aspect ...