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Trail of Cthulhu Core Book

Very recently I had a great moment with my Trail of Cthulhu group, where one of the players I had introduced to roleplaying and Trail of Cthulhu wanted to try running a session. Given the nature of this blog, you can understand that I was extremely excited and supportive of this decision. It was also really great to see my other regular players equally as supportive, agreeing quite happily to the change in game-master for a session. This was convenient, because it was by far the easiest approach to “give” the player the existing group for that session and then just help them design the overall scenario. I even went to the extreme lengths of lending my actual Trail of Cthulhu book, which is rather like being given the Necronomicon for a while!

So let’s talk about why helping a player change from playing, to GMing can be a really positive idea and how an old long time DM felt about “playing”.

Helping someone learn how to run their own game is something I value a lot and so this opportunity was really great. For one thing, while I am the keeper of the group and will soon be resuming my Trail of Cthulhu duties again, with rare exceptions not everyone keeps the same group forever. People move on, they get different opportunities and their schedules change for all kinds of reasons. The sad reality of roleplaying games is that they need a person who knows how to and is capable of “running” them. This takes a lot of practice and know how to do well, which also means it can be an incredibly intimidating thing for someone new to try and do.

So by far the easiest way to start is by having someone else teach you and it’s even easier if you already know the players. In the first case, I basically helped by reading through the scenario they wrote and making myself available to talk about how to run scenes, control pacing and general structure. In the second case of allowing the player to take over my group, it avoided a lot of the pitfalls and issues for new DMs like finding players, getting them together and similar. Additionally, I was also technically “playing” in this scenario as an NPC – which meant I could help direct the players from within a bit if they got distracted. Effectively, I tried to ensure they had the least intimidating start I could possibly provide them. Of course, there is another important point here: Don’t be over helpful.

Offer to Help: But Don’t Dictate

The first and most important thing I did was not try to “Take over”  the game in any way. The investigation the player-turned-GM wrote involved a bus of convicts getting a curious opportunity to escape, which leads them to a strange and remote town in the middle of nowhere. Despite the well kept houses, friendly demeanor of the local townsfolk and a safe place to stay from the authorities, not all was well at all. Soon cultists were searching for the investigators and a glorious sacrifice to unknown terrible gods was being mentioned – with the PCs being that sacrifice! By far the most interesting part of this design to me, was how the new GM decided not to do anything overtly supernatural. There weren’t any mad sorcerers or even a lurking shoggoth to be seen!

Naturally in terms of my personal “one shot” frame of mind, I tend to make them bloody monster filled affairs. It’s an easier structure and when you’re not worried about PC survival through the entire investigation, it works really well. Here while I mentioned the idea of having some monsters like fire vampires (very appropriate for the cult in question), I made sure to reaffirm the new GMs original ideas and encourage them. This is because it was their game and if the new GM didn’t want to have major supernatural elements like monsters, they should try it that way to start with. It’s easy to forget with a lot of experience and being the “regular” DM, it can be very simple to over coerce someone into doing things your way.

Being in the “Players” chair

While I was technically “in” on the scenario because I help the player design it, there was something that I had to constantly remind myself: I wasn’t the Keeper. I honestly can’t really remember much about being a player in a roleplaying game, given the last game I played in was around 18 years ago. One thing I did know was that when I handed the group to the new DM it would be their group for that session – including myself! This meant I needed to bear a few extremely important things in mind at all times, but the most essential was to not contradict the new DM or try to be overly “helpful”.

A good example was the more combat orientated part of the investigation towards the end, with some gun toting cultists armed with AK-47s. While I was basically trying to “aid” the enemy in this encounter in a variety of ways, some of the other players got shot by cultists armed with AK-47s while trying to do useful things. Having run a lot of Trail/Night’s Black Agents, I’m aware of how much damage these weapons do and that gunshots do more damage on characters on negative HP. So the player being told they took 3 damage was naturally “not right”. It was very important that I not particularly question this or undermine the new DMs authority while the others were playing. For one, it would make them lose confidence and secondly it doesn’t make it seem like they’re the one in charge.

If they said it was just three damage, then it was three damage and everyone just needed to accept that. Especially me. This also went for other potential rulings as well, including a rather interesting interpretation of how the hypnosis skill would work in a combat situation. Not contradicting how the DM made rulings and decisions, especially if they weren’t things I would normally do, was paramount. Remember if you’ve given someone the group to try out DMing, you don’t want to be their biggest problem at the table or have them looking at you every 5 seconds for a ruling.

Where I did help though was in giving the plot some forward momentum from time to time. I knew in general what the “Scene structure” of the scenario was, so every now and again when the players seemed a little lost I would “suggest” some things to them. For example here I could use my experience to suggest things like potential spends on different skills, maybe this town would be a good idea to hide in (and leading the party to it) and helping the new DM along with plot pacing such as convincing the players to go to the B&B in town. Aside from the fact this just helped disguise myself as a player, as opposed to a sinister tool of the DM, it just helped keep the pace moving and I moved into a sort of “instigator” type role.

Overall I feel the structure of the adventure was very good, but I think I actually gave them quite a problem in the end – which is mentioned in their write up. The conclusion.

Tension, Atmosphere and Pacing

As I’ve mentioned on the blog before, “Horror” is the payoff of a slow and often fairly long term build up on tension. You need tension to create horror, which is the payoff for finally revealing the monster in the closet or that the main character’s wife’s head is in the box. On the other hand, in a short 4 hour scenario like this, the balancing act between maintaining an atmosphere of tension and then creating the moment where that horror becomes tangible is very tricky. Most of the Trail of Cthulhu investigations described on this blog in my own game are two sessions long. The first session typically sets up the atmosphere and tension, while the second session pays it off with a confrontation with whatever horror is there.

My big regret here was that I didn’t give the new GM enough sessions to really do their concept justice. The new GM perfectly grasped the concept of building tension and horror extremely well, with seditious member of the cult giving cryptic warnings, indications of strange disappearances and the clearly overly insular way the people of the town acted. Where things went a bit haywire was the final confrontation, which got rather seemingly railroaded into the PCs feeling they had no choice but to basically detonate themselves with the entire town. In reality, this wasn’t an unsatisfying conclusion to the investigation and was rather appropriate really. The problem with this is that it did end up being a rushed decision on the new GMs part, where they were clearly pushing against the time available.

What I should have done here was give them another session, even if they may not have wanted it, just to ensure they could have the “scene pacing” they wanted comfortably. In reality, I actually think one off scenarios are much more difficult to GM successfully than shorter mini-campaigns or even a long term campaign. Time constraints put a huge demand on your ability to sense timing, plot pacing and similar things inherently – which are all things you gain from experience. A second session would have allowed them to have a more “natural” progression from the first part of the investigation into a more suitable conclusion. Additionally having seen how what the new GM had written originally played out, it might have given them more room to fiddle with how precisely the conclusion could happen.

Summarizing Thoughts

Overall for a first effort this was extremely well done. There was a general avoidance of some common first time GMing Cthulhu tropes, such as going for a full on monster or evil tome based investigator blood bath. The investigation itself had a very twin peaks/night vale kind of feel to it, which I think was received by my regular players extremely well and definitely worked. Again, I think the decision not to go obviously supernatural for this investigation was very commendable and definitely a great idea. In saying that, I feel with a second session and then some sort of more sinister truth behind things – such as their being a dormant being or strange ritual underneath the town (also preventing potential escape, giving the investigators a good reason to stay and fight) – would have added considerably.

In the end I was really glad to see them have an enjoyable initial experience GMing. Most importantly and tellingly of all, was the fact they are willing to do it again and might even start their own game! I think by far the best thing I can take away from the experience was that it has encouraged someone to tell their own stories. Personally for me, that’s what running a roleplaying game is all about and encouraging someone to do that for themselves is a great success for me.