Zed Lopez

A Good Cthulhu Scenario Is Hard to Find

A little while ago, I was preparing to run a Cthulhu scenario for my gaming group. I was excited about The Past Is Doomed which had a bunch of cool handouts. And I read it, and I figured I must not be understanding something, and I read it again, and, sure enough, the whole thing hinges on obscuring one particular connection that should be straightforward to find, and it’s extremely contrived that it could be buried so deeply. Once the players do finally get that, they know where to show up for the weird-shit climax. And it’s an interesting weird-shit climax but I wanted a mystery with more heft.

With time running short, I looked to some much recommended scenarios in the Call of Cthulhu 6th edition rulebook. The Edge of Darkness teases with leads to follow, but they’re inconsequential. The only thing that matters is the address of the farmhouse – everything that’s relevant is to be found there, and then you have your bossfight against the monster. So I looked to Dead Man Stomp. It’s a series of scenes for the characters to observe; the rails here are so rigid that the scenario explicitly says more than once “no matter what the characters do, this thing happens.”

Finally I grabbed Mortal Coils and went with Mysteria Matris Oblitae. This one actually offered an interesting mystery, but I still wasn’t thrilled with it just leading to an unwinnable bossfight. (In our case, the characters realized it was unwinnable, skipped town, and survived. The scenario’s situation is bad, but it’s stable and contained.)

Last night I read The Color of His Eyes from Secrets of San Francisco. This featured a really interesting situation… and very little opportunity for the characters to do anything. An NPC has a plan that’ll fix the problem if he’s not interfered with. The characters could kill the NPC or otherwise wreck his plans… and then there’s no way to address the problem and things are screwed. The best thing the characters could do is knock off early and go out for drinks. (I think this could possibly work in the context of a campaign in which the characters would have to encounter the consequences of their actions, but I don’t think it would make for a satisfying one-shot.)

This is all I want:

  • a satisfyingly twisty mystery for the characters to unravel
  • for the characters’ actions to feel meaningful
  • for fight-the-monster climaxes to be an exception rather than the rule

I should elaborate on “feel meaningful.” A standard trope of Lovecraftian horror is the hopelessness. In the long run, we’re doomed. We are insignificant in an uncaring universe, and sooner or later we’re going to end up under something’s boot; it may never even know it squished us. But though the long run is hopeless, not every short run has to be. And even if the situation is unwinnable, the characters should still have meaningful choices, and for the choices to be meaningful, the players need to feel they have consequence.

Once I ran The Dying of St. Margaret’s (with the author’s ultralight Cthulhu Dark system.) It’s one of a set of so-called Purist Adventures in which there’s very deliberately no winning. But we had a good time. Because there was a satisfying mystery to unravel, because the characters managed to help some of the people, because they chose at the end whether to seek the answers when they were fairly certain it would kill them. One character decided not to, and she survived.

So, again, the characters don’t necessarily need to be able to win; they don’t even need to be able to affect much, but it’s crucial that their actions feel consequential.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the last was written for Trail of Cthulhu and everything I’ve complained about has been for Call of Cthulhu. But that’s a discussion for another entry. (Pace, CoC fans; I know there are also good CoC scenarios, and I’m not saying “Trail rules, Call drools.”)