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The Peculiar Disappearance of Ian Carson Hawke Part 2

So today I am going to talk a lot about how pacing and preparation are essential parts of a game like this. Most notably, in how the amount of stuff you prepare in making a very deep investigation initially actually works out to slow the game down considerably and really make nobody feel like they are getting anywhere – not a good thing. As some background I finished the first Trail of Cthulhu game (actually called “Delta Green” in November), since then I have actually been working on Masks of the Dreamer, so it’s actually “complete” as in I’ve wrote all the investigations for it. This is rather different to my normal DMing style where I am typically one adventure or an investigation ahead of the party. This means that I’ve made some strong, non-linear investigations that can go different places, but theyare very dependent on a lot of scenes.

Illustrating this today was the fact the investigators were able to find out the names of the two policemen disbarred from the case after they came close to arresting the suspect Lathan Gaspee. In reality this scene was supposed to give an indication of how another group was keeping an eye on the police from a distance, as when one of the investigators talked to the cops there was a shady fellow nearby photographing the cops interactions and the investigator in question. Where this scene doesn’t 100% work is that the cops merely confirm the lack of physical evidence against the suspect as they just had a circumstantial case involving capturing Lathan on CCTV footage around the Thames around the times they thought the bodies had been dumped. The investigators are still waiting on the identity of this mysterious fellow…

In the meantime the characters had the issue of “What do we do now?” added to proceedings, with their next lead being a fellow who responded to the Auction of the sextant whose email they had. “Loki” responded asking to meet them in the dead of the night in Duck Island in St James Park London. What could possibly go wrong? But wisely Anastasia decided not to go alone and brought Damian, Esmerelda and Keith along for the ride. Here I wanted to reinforce that some pretty serious groups wanted that item and were stopping at nothing to get it, as “Loki”, who soon identified himself as a German national called William, who definitely had the cash. Trouble was the investigators didn’t have the item and William quickly knew it: But he was still encouraged by their boldness as they apparently broke into a few places to get his details. He recognized individuals who could get things done and struck a deal: The investigators got it, he’d still honor the 10 grand payment for it and everyone leaves happy.

Here I introduce one of the main groups of potential interest, as Keith went behind William (even if the man noticed…) and saw an odd tattoo on his neck. The tattoo signified William as a member of a secretive group formed during the crusades many centuries ago, which was confirmed when he departed with the phrase “As above, So below, As I believe the world to be, So it is” in Latin. If VII becomes an enemy or ally remains to be seen, but I emphasized that certain groups of questionable origins definitely wanted it. VII were likely to want to destroy it however, which may or may not be a good thing….

That’s for my players to figure out!

Outside of this though, the players had a trip to Germany and tracked down a former owner of the sextant called Jurgan. Jurgan had put some things together and worked out – before his violent death anyway – that the dates where the sextant had often changed hands in the years or surfaces on the auction routes around the world were roughly at times coinciding with famous undetermined serial killers. Including most recently the murderer called the Thames Butcher. This was intended to be an indication that everything was more connected than it seemed initially and that the investigators had discovered something pretty significant by accident. During this scene one the players went into the very dusty attic crawlspace and found some old books by Jurgen, which made the connection between the surfacing of the sextant at auctions and various inexplicable murders (all of whom involved water in some way, or were known to kill people around water). As they left something began to follow them, trailing up dust and causing the character to have to flee.

Maybe it was just a rat? Maybe.

In any event, eventually I was able to get the investigators to go looking into the murderer Lathan’s house (they got his address earlier) and find out what was going on. Here I was able to show some of the guys sketchbooks, establish the targeting of different victims by an unknown third party and show that Lathan was having some incredibly fanciful dreams with exotic women and – as you do – cyclopean cities of darkness rising from the ocean, with a hooded executioner giving instructions as to how to brutally dispatch next. Personally this was where I got the game on track the most and we ended it here for the night, with the conclusion being next week.

The only problem was that most of this was really slow and many of these scenes didn’t really engage the players very well. So let me return to the first paragraph again and explain what’s wrong and it’s actually simple: I’ve wrote this game like we’re playing Call of Cthulhu, not Trail. In Call of Cthulhu, my instinct is always to write multiple ways to get the same information, sometimes differently, but the core clue is the same. In this game I’ve sort of unwittingly done the same thing but mistakenly called it “Depth” in my notes. Further, because I’ve had so much time to prepare and wrote so much I’ve actually buried important points under mountains of text. These two things combine to make some big problems.

So in my first Trail of Cthulhu game I made a mistake where I said 1 session = 1 investigation. This had the effect of compressing so much stuff into one single session that it felt like a rapid fire episode of CSI in many ways. I actually just straight up embraced this concept and flew with it, which actually worked really well but I feel felt more thriller/slasher fic than slow psychological horror that I wanted to go for with this game. So hence I slowed up the pace: But I didn’t do it in the right ways. The point of slowing the game down was not to have several scenes of similar information gathering opportunities or to make an overall investigation go very slowly. In fact, what I need to remember is I have an entire campaign to reveal things, but that investigations still need to go somewhere and not take time for times sake. The psychological horror needs to come from events spiraling out of control over the campaign – but the immediate horror needs to come from the impending sense of something being really wrong on an investigation to investigation basis.

Constantly chasing different people who buy antiquities to largely get the same information several different ways is not helping that and is really making nobody feel very engaged!

Of course this is session 2 of a very long term game so there is no impending world ending disaster and I haven’t done anything some good writing and story justifications can’t very easily fix to get the game back on track. But let me work through how I’m approaching the rest of the campaign and fixing things: By reducing the number of core “scenes” per episode. In Trail parlance, a core scene is one that has to happen for the plot to meaningfully advance to a conclusion. So the investigations discover the crime scene, they have a chase versus the antagonist or a tense interview with a hostile witness – that sort of thing. The trick with this is to remove scenes that do what the investigation of Brian Kellers house did: Only slightly change the way the information is presented and only advance the core of the game a bit.

For example, going back to this investigation I would have changed the scene at Brian Kellers house like so:

1) Remember how I said I wrote a lot and got lost in my own writing (silly as it sounds, it happens very easily)? Well, I totally forgot two private security guards were supposed to be at the property. This would have added a huge amount of tension and interest to getting into the house that was squandered for no other reason that I didn’t read the line about them (which is oddly buried in a paragraph of other text, something I have ironically criticized other module writers for. DOH!!!!). This also provides a unique challenge for the investigators to overcome, as they have not traditionally dealt with armed individuals without being armed themselves.

2) Increased the amount of information that the risk provided. All of the stuff about the sextants history in strange murders and coincidences would be moved into here, removing the scene in Germany, which just slowed up the game. This also makes sense in that Brian was abducted and killed by Lathan in a targeted murder because the fellow had figured out this sextant was bad news.

3) Brian was lured to a meeting by an unknown contact near the Thames River and that’s where he disappeared, but smartly Brian unloaded the item onto another store in a private cash only sale (leaving no record that someone else could follow). It frankly gave him the chills and he didn’t want him near him anymore. This gives the guy some credit and his actions become much more explainable in the context of the game. As it is Brian feels a bit like a clueless rube who bought the wrong thing – which isn’t really the case.

4) Given some more clues and hints buried in some of the other objects that Brian collected, possibly involving the art, art history and other skills (which are being ironically underutilized initially). I feel having access to the computer, which led them to Loki could have also been utilized to show that Brian was being threatened by someone else – hence his fateful decision.

This kind of scene I feel is more indicative of what I need to be doing to really get the most of this system. For one thing, there are a huge array of skills and options presented to the investigators to use. It creates tension and drama without needing to be supernatural – something I am inherently wary of doing too early after the distinct “Monster of the week” format from the last campaign – gives the players a huge payoff in useful information to proceed with and emphasizes several things like “This item is some seriously bad juju”. By cutting down on the amount of scenes reinforcing information already given, just adding a couple of new links, I will make an investigation that doesn’t feel inherently organic or “real” so to speak. What I will do though is create a more interesting atmosphere and more easily keep everyone at the table engaged: Especially because many of the things today felt very dominated by one character at a time, as they just coincidentally tended to be more geared towards an individual player (Just by coincidence really).

A larger and more complex scene, which encourages debate in how to proceed and gives the investigators challenges across all of their skills is definitely a better way – even if it doesn’t feel as organic – to proceed. This also means I still have the same amount of time for those moments where I want to treat players more personally and 1on1, without everyone feeling like the game hasn’t been going anywhere for a while. The next investigation in the chain “The Unwanted Box”, which I can’t wait to run, is already being edited down and I think will shape up wonderfully with these ideas in place. If there is one advantage to “over writing”, it’s that you can very easily summarize something you have a lot of to something less in a short time than to create something entirely new.

The question I’m left with is if I go to being especially bold and propose a couple of small retcons, which will really get the story and pace of the game on track. Hmmm, tough decisions.