NoD #135 — Mythos Investigation

Gaming’s coming up again, particularly the formidable concern of trying to launch a Cthulhu campaign next Tuesday.

A bit of Cthulhu Journaling

I’ve been mulling over the idea of running some Cthulhu. These are the creative concerns underlying this idea for me right this moment:

I’ve always failed with Cthulhu: I’ve been running and playing the game on and off for three decades. It has only ever been any good due to incidental creative energy, not because anything conscious on our part. It’s a diffuse and elusive game, for the kind of gamer I am. So tackling it again occurs with some wariness on my part.

I’ve been watching Wednesday recently: I often just outright lift particular scenario material for rpgs out of whatever is in front of me. Wednesday is an investigation horror tv show, more or less, so maybe I’ll lift some patterns from it because gotta run something concrete on Tuesday, right. Maybe crossbreed it with some Finnish era-authentic gothic horror a bit, sort of Addams Family by the way of Zacharias Topelius. We’ll see, the idea needs to mature a bit.

The deadline’s for Tuesday, and I’ve got nuthin’: As I discussed last week, this entire thing sprang up on short notice, and CoC is an elusive beast, so I still have to read and think and maybe create some play sheets. And pick a starter scenario of course.

The above might seem a bit defeatist, but I’m not even worried. It’s coming together. Let’s see what I have:

I’m calling it “Mythos Investigation”

The type of Call of Cthulhu that I want to try here is something that I just this week named “Mythos Investigation” so as to distinguish it from other creative orientations (other games with the same rules and content) that can be meaningfully engaged with CoC. I’ve been trying to tease out a succinct explanation for what Mythos Investigation is, and here’s my current stab:

Ordinary people in gothic mystery: This is the subject matter of the game. Player characters are not (do not begin as) heroic in particular, they range the gamut of types we think might reasonably exist in the setting. And they get involved in spooky shit, that’s the game. We play to find out what happens to them.

The mystery is real: The GM really has a specific set of spooky, interesting material prepared. The game’s not about improvising a story, you only find out what is there to find out. The players really do investigate. The investigation is not intended to be challenging and difficult, though; just base common sense suffices, the NPCs can help, and so on. You can get there like 80% of the time if you want to try. Accepting increased risk (see “Destiny Triad”, below) is a nigh-guarantee of success, structurally.

The Mythos is real: The GM really does craft horror phantasmagoria, and relates Mythos lore. There are no “cultists” and “monsters” in the shallowest Cthulhu gaming sense, the material is philosophically cogent. This is the payoff underneath the mystery. In a certain sense the player characters might want to know (about the true nature of reality), but it’s really the players who want to philosophize about the particulars and interpretations of occult bullshit. If they do; there is player freedom to care or not.

The Destiny Triad: Player characters, enmeshed in the gothic mystery, have real freedom of action; there is no railroad, it’s not necessary and has never been necessary for Call of Cthulhu. Specifically, each PC separately, in each scenario, has a choice between three destinies with their own distinct payoffs:
Be careful: When shit gets real, retreat and call the cops maybe. Your capability to affect the stakes of the scenario is extremely curtailed, but you will survive to fight another day while others bleed. The GM accepts this as the human choice, made by a player who actually cares about what happens to their character.
Be heroic: Identify the human interest in what’s going on, and act to defend, protect, mitigate damages. You will probably learn things man was not meant to know, but you also have a chance to make an actual difference that’s not merely ideological and symbolic.
Be curious: If you really want to know what’s going on, to Investigate Mythos, you take the risks and get the burns. You might die, but at least you’ll get to see the core of the GM’s mystery. And if you survive, you might have won important knowledge.

Real campaign continuity: Character positioning vis-a-vis the Mythos matters a hell of a lot; PCs who do not form a personal interest, either heroic or curious, in the supernatural, will naturally not recur; theirs was the story of this individual scenario that, when it runs down, leaves them free of the Mythos. Meanwhile the campaign continues mapping the stories of characters who do keep Investigating Mythos, tracing the trajectory of personal cost and dubious value of the lore gained.

Some or even all of those points probably seem obvious, like they’re obviously how you play Call of Cthulhu, but it’s a sprawling game and played in a wide variety of ways. There’s a lot of very common CoC stuff that I intentionally left out of that bullet list, and what I left in I intend to pursue with focused play technique rather than the painfully generic (and old) BRP chassis.

More on applied CRedux

I still don’t have an opening scenario (should probably do something about that), but I do have some observations about the rules. I’m mightily tempted to not use the less-than-ideal CoC rules mechanics for this, even as I do want to use a trad-style system. Basically, something like CoC but better. So I’m messing with adapting my Cyberpunk 2020 hack CRedux into this. A bit of busywork, but conceptually actually fairly simple; CoC and Cyberpunk are structurally very similar games as it is, and the specific creative interests I’m interested in them overlap heavily.

Besides improved dicing tech, a key technical tool that CRedux brings into the exercise is the notion of lifepathed character creation. This actually works out beautifully in some ways for Cthulhu, which has always had the concept of “Occupation”, a sort of loose framework that helps a little bit with the tyranny of choice involved in the BRP skills point-buy. Basically, a CoC Occupation is a character identity declaration that comes alongside a list of ~8 skills (out of the hundred that the game lists on the character sheet). A player must expend the bulk of their skill purchase points glob between these occupation skills, with a smaller portion reserved for free distribution among the entire list.

Occupation doesn’t really do much for CoC itself (it’s better than nothing, but far from ideal), but it’s actually a bit funny how effortlessly the concept and the actual occupation listings attach into a CRedux (Ars Magica) style lifepathing system. Instead of choosing one occupation for your character, you trace their life arc through the years, time spent in one or more occupations, and this then determines which skills the character has trained over time. The skill points during each career segment are split evenly between the occupation skills of that career (with a bit of prioritization if you really feel like needing it). It’s actually a surprisingly simply prepared and managed method of lifepathing, as the boring part of defining what occupations go with what skills has already been done.

The nuances on this are coming out pretty good, perhaps I’ll put up a more thorough explanation of how the system plays later. After field testing it next week.

Coup de Main in Greyhawk

We’ve had some scheduling irregularities recently, and those continue, but it seems like we do tend to have at least one game each week, either on Sunday or Monday. The game’s open to visitors, newcomers, inexperienced players, cats and dogs.

Sunday Basic today 15.1. is going to be Maure Castle with Tommi, as Teemu’s unavailable. Usual starting time of 16:00 UTC.

Monday Coup session #114 is scheduled for Monday 16.1., starting around 16:00 UTC. We skipped last week due to my Helsinki trip, but should continue normally here. The adventure’ll be either more of the Ytragern Manor, or more of the Farden Situation.

And, some old campaign reportage as usual.

Coup de Main #94

I notice that some numbering irregularity caused this session and the last one to swap places; this should be session #93 and vice versa. I guess I don’t care enough to fix it, doesn’t matter for the campaign chronology because this was a one-off filler session: it was the Monday after Ropecon (the big Finnish rpg con), and Tuomas was otherwise occupied, so I stepped in to run a game for the unfortunates who hadn’t gotten their fill over the weekend.

This does imply a mostly non-Finn crew, which was interesting, because most of our regulars are Finnish. The events of the session could easily have proven most inconsequential, but it just so happens that this was the session where I got to introduce the “Farden Situation”, a dumb adventure that we’re still trying to solve six months later.

I’d have the bare bones of the Farden Situation in my folders even longer, since adventurers first stumbled into the Farden Valley (a remote cluster of villages at the edge of the Mist Marsh); the premise is that the local villages are at the brink of socio-economic downfall due to increased riding from the lizardmen living in the depths of the marsh. Some individual player characters have occasionally expressed interest in the situation, but it’s not the most “hooky” affair imaginable.

Now, though, we were bringing mostly new characters and mostly new players (funny how that happens, sometimes several people just suddenly want to check the game out at the same time) into an untapped scenario, so it felt almost like a new campaign start. Because the adventure itself is inherently a bit exploratory, the session ended up mostly involving investigation and interviewing the locals.

The gist of the Farden Situation is that the lizardmen have been stealing and killing cattle and people from the three Farden villages over the last couple of years, and nobody knows why. The villages have attempted various means of helping themselves including sending a mission to request aid from Greyhawk (the valley is technically within the Domain of Greyhawk), paying a dubious archmage to deal with it, and relying on an even more dubious shaman to protect the villages from the ravages. Internal fractures among the community have made effective action ever more difficult, and Farden threatens to die within months as hope dies.

The players focused their investigation foremost on Swampy Docs Thorp, one of the three villages in Farden. Swampy Docs is built mainly on the marsh side of the river and has been the most harried by the lizardman raids. Much of the village lies in ruins now, with the remaining villagers stubbornly fortifying their homes and joining together to defend the four larger houses. Of course developing grudges between themselves as they go, jealous and suspicious.

The players did well in splitting up the investigation between them: one snooped in the abandoned houses of the village, discovering the witch’s hut with its own live-in spider; one explored the near environs to learn more about the swamp ecology, catching hints of several relevant random encounter elements; one pumped the villagers for sociopolitical backgrounds.

After charming the villagers for hospitality and political intrigue (apparently a strange shaman has been conning the villagers with supposed lizard man protection magic, or something) the adventurers explored the witch’s hut — apparently the village witch had been taken by the lizardmen earlier in the summer, leaving a “haunted” house behind. The adventurers were quick to conclude that the haunting was a giant spider, which they proceeded to feed on the premise that it had to be the witch’s familiar. Worked great, smart players.

As the adventurers didn’t need to fight the spider, they had an easy time looting the witch’s hut. The party discovered the witch’s grimoire and a mysterious runestone that the witch had been working on before disappearing. Surely not at all quest items related to the lizardman affair.

By this point it was time to call it quits, though, so we left the situation there with the understanding that it might be a while before we’d continue the adventure. Tuomas would be running Coup-de-Gnarley stuff next week, after all.

Coup in Sunndi #68

The adventure of the Temple of the Seven Stars was in full swing from last time, so we kept going with that. The adventurers had joined forces with a star-worshipping cultivator temple monastery, currently on the brink of destruction in the hands of lycanthropic demonic cultivators. Gotta do something, but what?

This wasn’t a standard dungeon scenario, and it in fact had a lot of similarity with a traditional wargame scenario. A naively organized wargame tends to have this thing where the vast majority of the analysis and decision-making occurs at the start of the game: that’s when you learn most of the information you’re ever going to have in the game, and that’s when you make the first, easiest and most impactful maneuver choices. This can make a wargame have a bit of a threshold to play, and the same could be seen here: the siege involved a variety of concerns that the players had to examine to determine their course of action, and that takes effort.

The main ideas for what to do were as follows, roughly:
– Escape the monastery to go pick curative mushrooms as a side quest; the pharmacist hero among the Seven Stars cultivators thought that she could save her rhinocerosism-infected pal from his lycanthropy with some quest item stuff, which could then prove a turning point in the siege.
– Alternatively, engage in protracked social warfare to get the were-rhino out of his funk and sane enough to be ridden into battle against the lycanthropes. Risky, what with lycanthropy being the weapon of the enemy here, but the dating simulator parallel is just too funny.
– Said were-rhino used to be the monastery’s magic smith, and apparently his tower still has his private armory in its basement. No doubt it has defenses, but going down there and arming the inner circle disciples with D&D equipment knickknacks could be enough to make an active sally feasible.
– Another of the Seven Stars heroic cultivators, a sort of musician and wanderer type, was out of the Temple when it was attacked. Escaping the Temple and finding them, perhaps with the aid of the spirit beings they’d left behind in their tower, would be another way to add a mid-tier hero into the equation.
– Similarly, outright traveling to the Sunndian capital city of Pitchfield to request aid from the Hazelnut the Elf King (Sunndi has the peculiar distinction of their king being a half-elf), or perhaps one of the other powerful temples of the land, would be feasible, albeit fraught with diplomacy.
– The PCs could man up and enact a sally against the siege themselves. Their intelligence assessment had figured out where the Gnolls and Tengus (the main bulk of the lycanthrope army) were quartered on the temple grounds, alongside some notions about their routines and schedules. A daring rooftop raid on the Tengu barracks during the day, when the Tengus would be sleeping, seemed possible, what with the Gnolls being a bit lax. Maybe set the warehouse they were quartered in on fire?

The wonderful thing about the game, I would hazard the only reason I am actually interested in it, is the lack of safety rails. I was confounded and delighted when the players decided that no, this is too difficult and risky, we cannot and shouldn’t try to do anything in this situation. I think that the presence of so many powerful heroes and monsters in the scenario kept them on their toes; D&D adventurers are used to basically being dungeon bullies, so being level 1–2 here, with some NPCs of level 4–5 among the allies, and 8 werewolves (6 HD a pop) as the core of the enemy force, probably cast a long shadow in their minds.

Even after concluding that the right course to take is to retreat and leave the monastery to its fate, the challenge of actually getting out alive remained; the adventurers had been lucky on their way in to not attract the attentions of werewolves; on the way out the chances were high that the wilderness-tracking, keen-sensed creatures tasked with preventing any escape would discover anybody walking out and stalk them for days if required to catch them.

The arrangement the players ended up with was to make some vague mushroom-related promises (a bunch of the ways to aid the siege do involve first busting out with a small team, after all) to score some alchemical aids for covering their tracks. The party would split, with the two Rangers being the only ones to try the escape, while the others would remain besieged for now. This included the monk whose home the 7⭐ is, and Sipi’s character who I think was just in principle inclined to think that there was hay to be made in this siege still, it was too early to bail on it.

The actual wilderness journey out of the temple was nerve-wracking, what with the unseen werewolves. The Rangers used all their skills to obscure their scent and move quickly. They avoided the main road (kinda obvious I guess) and, with the aid of alchemy, made their escape without ever seeing hair nor hide of the werewolves. Kinda amusing how the PCs never ended up encountering any of those during the adventure.

We wrapped up the session after the two Rangers successfully escaped the temple. Vague noises were made about perhaps moving on the mushrooms or finding more direct help for the monastery now that a couple of PCs were out, but I wouldn’t hold my breath; the tenor here was more that of ruthlessly practical adventurers giving up on a lost cause than anything else.

State of the Productive Facilities

We’ll hopefully return to regular routine with Coup de Main tomorrow night, and then on Tuesday it’s time for me to field my Mythos Investigation Cthulhu stuff. I imagine the latter will be eating up my attentions, it’s not like I have anything nearly complete figured out for it yet.

1 thought on “NoD #135 — Mythos Investigation”

  1. “Occupation doesn’t really do much for CoC itself (it’s better than nothing, but far from ideal), but it’s actually a bit funny how effortlessly the concept and the actual occupation listings attach into a CRedux (Ars Magica) style lifepathing system. Instead of choosing one occupation for your character, you trace their life arc through the years, time spent in one or more occupations, and this then determines which skills the character has trained over time. The skill points during each career segment are split evenly between the occupation skills of that career (with a bit of prioritization if you really feel like needing it). It’s actually a surprisingly simply prepared and managed method of lifepathing, as the boring part of defining what occupations go with what skills has already been done.”

    I think you’ve literally described Chaosium’s original RuneQuest character creation process, i.e., the process used to make characters for the first “BRP” system (before it was adapted for use in CoC): you roll for your Culture and then your Occupation (spoiler: your dad is probably a Farmer, so you’re probably a Farmer), and then you accumulate something like 20 skill points per year you spend in that Occupation, distributed per the specified formula (e.g., “Farming x5, Swimming x1, Endurance x2” and so on). CoC, being a more “modern” setting, used a much more freeform point-buy system (at least in the editions I played). So you’re bringing the history of Chaosium/BRP game design full circle!

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