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Masks of Nyarlathotep, Session 1 [spoilers toward the bottom]

April 18th, 2012 No comments
TONGUES BLOODY TONGUES

TONGUES BLOODY TONGUES, street art from Los Angeles via thedirtfloor.com

I’ll be posting occasional updates as my groups investigator’s proceed through this campaign to the sanity-wrecking finish. All posts on this campaign will be tagged “call of cthulhu.”

Once we had a group of investigators ready to risk life, limb, and soul, I decided to give my players some homework. I didn’t ask them for detailed backgrounds, as I’ll be running Masks out of the box. I don’t want them to feel their carefully crafted backgrounds are being ignored, so we’ll let them emerge in play.

What I did ask them for was to help me out in bringing the 1920s setting to life. I asked each player to dig up period photographs or illustrations of the following for their PC:

  • a portrait of their character (my favorite so far is of a PC who was disfigured in the Great War)
  • a picture of their character’s place of residence, with a street address (easy enough to do for 1920s Chicago)
  • a picture of their investigator’s automobile, horse, or other mode of transportation (one player found pics of a restored 1920s bicycle, complete with old broadside ads)
  • a picture of their investigator’s tools of the trade, possibly including a weapon (for our group, this ranged from a pile of law books to an archeologist’s kit)
  • for the group, a period map of our starting locale — 1920s Chicago — and a period world map, printed in large format so that we can spread it on the table during play or tack it to a wall in the play area

T.'s investigator, Dr. Raymond Tindel, practices bartitsu...

Only players with lots of time on their hands will do this kind of thing without an incentive, and my group are all busy people. So I game them the following incentives:

  • Each PC who collects and prints out all the photos I requested gets to add 1 point to any attribute other than EDU or POW, or 1 extra point of income, or 3d2 points to add to any skill currently under 80.
  • For the group coming up with the maps, each PC gets to put 1 point into any attribute other than EDU (i.e., including POW), or 3d2 points to put in a skill under 80, or 1 extra point of income.

...gets around by bicycle...

The incentives were designed to be good enough that players would actually go after them, but not so good that they skew game balance. It seems to have worked, as all of my players have been busily collecting photos, and one player brought a beautiful set of maps to spread out on the table.

We made a few decisions straight off about how to handle the many clues, notes, and handouts that are part of playing Masks:

  • We won’t be doing an Obsidian Portal site for this campaign, much as we love OP. We’re going to keep to the pre-digital 1920s feel, through and through.
  • There’ll be a physical folder for each investigator with one pocket for info they’re carrying on them, and another for info/clues/journals they’ve stashed away.
  • If cultists capture or kill an investigator, anything in their “on me” pocket is fair game for the Keeper to plunder or destroy. If anyone gets swallowed whole by Glaaki, that moleskine full of investigatory notes¬† in her breast pocket has a future as Glaaki-spoor.

...uses tools like these for archeology..

Now then, spoiler alert! If you ever plan to play Chaosium’s Masks of Nyarlathotep campaign for Call of Cthulhu, read no farther.

If you’re a keeper or a player not worried about Masks spoilers, read on…

Once play began, the investigators took the initiative to do the initial leg work right quick. The dice were not being kind on their initial Library Use rolls, so I Gumshoed things a bit to make sure they got all of the initial clues about the Carlyle Expedition. I was less charitable when they started digging on the expedition members.

Here their backgrounds helped, though. One investigator was an archeologist, so he’d heard of Sir Aubrey Penhew. Another was an alienist, so was able to quickly find some facts about Dr. Robert Huston.

...and keeps a 1917 S&W in case things get nasty.

Fortunately, my players are smart and asked good questions. I didn’t have to do much prompting on where to try looking things up; they came up with plenty of creative ideas on their own. (For instance, the alienist in the group went straight to psychology journals, figuring the relatively tiny number of working psychoanalysts at the time would make Huston easy to find).

One player, who’s playing an underworld type, had no applicable skills and was sidelined a lot during this first session. I’m going to have to work to keep him involved during the first chapter, but once the investigators are out in the field, there should be a lot more for him to do. Unfortunately, this boredom may have contributed to him making some really unwise tactical decisions when the investigators got to Jackson Elias’s murder scene. He dove into combat (not having played CoC before) and got taken out by a knife wound almost immediately.

One thing I will say for Masks — the first combat encounter is a teaching moment for players who haven’t done CoC before. The cultists NPCs are dangerous, especially to a group with no guns, but they’re explicitly trying to get away — so the chance of them killing any PCs in the very first combat of the campaign is almost nil, unless the players are extremely stupid.

Next week, they’ll be dealing with police. And I have a feeling they’ll want to dig a lot deeper on the Carlyle Expedition than they did the first time around.

Call of Cthulhu Investigator Relationships, Fiasco-style

April 12th, 2012 No comments

Masks: Behold the epicness.

After years of D&D, Eclipse Phase, and Pathfinder, my gaming group is finally getting down to some Call of Cthulhu. And since we’re not fucking about, I’ll be running Chaosium’s legendary Masks of Nyarlathotep campaign.

I played my first game of Fiasco at PAX East last weekend. I decided on the spur of the moment to grease the wheels on our character creation session a bit by stealing Fiasco’s index card method for setting up relationships between characters.

I put an index card between each player at the table. Their PC would have a strong tie to the person on their left, and to the person on their right — strong enough that following them to chase down murderous cultists wouldn’t be implausible.

It worked great! We ended up with the following PCs and relationships:

  • A skeptical ex-soldier who’d been conscripted into the Great War early in his university years, employee of a wealthy antiquarian.
  • The antiquarian, once an artifact hunter for a government agency, now a supplier of ancient curiosities to museums and collectors. He in turn regularly employed…
  • …a smuggler, formerly an acquirer of officer luxuries for the Army quartermaster corps during the Great War.
  • The smuggler’s uncle, a successful lawyer, who during the War gave legal counsel to the skeptical soldier.

I started with the obvious ones.

My fifth player wasn’t present, but to keep things symmetrical, her character will know exactly two other PCs.

Since it’s a globetrotting CoC game, I then had the group come up with one NPC contact on each continent (they don’t yet know which ones will be relevant). Each of these NPCs has a strong connection to at least one PC — strong enough to step in as a group member if anyone dies or goes insane far from the investigators’ home base in Chicago.

I didn’t have a chart of relationships handy for our group, but here’s one you can use for Masks,¬† or for just about any 1920s CoC campaign.

It’s given in the numbered format used by Fiasco playsets, but I don’t actually recommend randomizing like you’d do in Fiasco. Give it to players as inspiration. Unlike Fiasco relationship charts, these relationships are designed to encourage cooperation between investigators, rather than setting them up for later conflict.

  1. Home Town
    1. Aunt/Uncle & Nephew/Niece
    2. Old School Chums
    3. Spiritual Leader & Congregant
    4. Businessperson & Employee
    5. Shopkeeper & Supplier
    6. Secret Society Members
  2. Academia
    1. Colleagues
    2. Student & Advisor
    3. Museum Curator & Acquirer
    4. Doctor & Patient
    5. Librarian & Researcher
    6. Greek House Members
  3. Chattering Classes & Bohemians
    1. Correspondent & Editor
    2. Entertainer & Fan
    3. Reporter & Source
    4. Artist & Patron
    5. Revolutionary & Tradesperson
    6. Occultist & Aspirant
  4. Government
    1. Officer & Soldier
    2. Comrades in Arms
    3. Civil Servant & Official
    4. Cop & PI
    5. Party Operative & Supporter
    6. Agent & Asset
  5. Gangland
    1. Fence & Contact
    2. Smuggler & Customer
    3. Prostitute & Client
    4. Lawyer & Defendant
    5. Hired Gun & Boss
    6. Detective & Snitch
  6. The Smart Set
    1. Sporting Partners
    2. Financial Professional & Client
    3. Alienist & Patient
    4. Dilettante & Bodyguard
    5. Collector & Antiquarian
    6. Heir/Heiress & Advisor

Important thing to keep in mind: These relationships don’t have to be in the present; they could well be in the characters’ pasts. But if so, they should have been strong enough for the characters to trust each other and work together years later.

Going insane is so much better among friends, after all.

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