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The Lost Expedition/Blood and Ink

This can't ever end well.

When I began to think about what I might like to do for a future campaign when one of my other games ends, I decided I still wasn’t truly done with Trail of Cthulhu yet. Even though the end of Masks of the Dreamer is in sight in a few months – with the players in that game eventually moving onto a Star Wars campaign – there was still more Cthulhu in me to get out. After sitting down and thinking about it for a while, I actually had a lot of trouble with one question: Did I want to make it an historic set game or not? Traditionally Call of Cthulhu and Trail of Cthulhu usually have a setting focused around the 1920s to 1930s (basically when Lovecraft was still alive), but I have always been a big advocate for setting my Cthulhu games in the modern era: EG 1990 to the present date.

On the other hand, a lot of the material published by Pelgrane press tends to focus on the 1930s and in particular, Mythos Expeditions adventures are set around this time period. Reading the adventure about Africa got me thinking that in all the games I’ve ever ran, I’ve never actually ran a game inherently set around that region of the world. The 1930s in Africa would be a really fascinating and extremely different change of pace from anything that I’ve run before, so I was immediately attracted to the idea. On the other hand I also still wanted to have my modern cake and eat it as well, but I was really keen on setting something in an historic setting.

Then when I was looking through my DVDs the inspiration I needed to gel two disparate ideas struck me: True Detective.

I won’t go into too much detail about True Detective, other than to say it is truly excellent and you should watch it if crime procedurals are of interest to you. The core conceit of the show is that two detectives involved in an old case are being interviewed by their more “modern” counterparts. The older officers give some interesting, often conflicting and usually embellished versions of the truth of what happened to their latter counterparts interviewing them. This creates an interesting dynamic between what happened in the past case and how the two detectives eventually pursue things many years later. The core idea of an investigation in the past and then subsequent interviews by later investigators was the gel I needed for these campaigns.

The basic concept for these two campaigns, which are inherently linked, is that in the modern era an old relic is stolen from the British Museum of Natural History. Initially the investigators who step up to look for it assume it’s been done for money, or for some particular collectors showcase. Of course this being a Cthulhu campaign, there are far more sinister overtones and it soon seems this artifact has a very bloody history. In order to piece together who stole the artifact, why they stole it and what they plan to do with it the investigators need to delve into the past. Where did the artifact come from? Who found it? What happened to the original group of explorers who did find it?

The artifact is stolen!

This sets up the “time jumping” style of the game, where the modern investigators use the letters, diaries, correspondence and even taped interviews of those who knew (or even potentially were) members of the “Lost Expedition”. The Lost Expedition was an ill fated exploration of Africa by a group of largely western explorers in the 1930s. The rather unfortunate name comes from the fact the majority of them disappeared under unknown circumstances – which the investigators of the modern day need to piece together in order to answer the true significance of the modern heist.

On the other hand Blood and Ink is the historic, 1930s set campaign and follows the so called “Lost Expedition” directly. In order to get that “True Detective” feel, where the past events seem embellished and even possibly deliberate lies, Blood and Ink was designed to be a highly pulpy game. If you think of something like Indiana Jones, but facing mythos infused horrors and NAZIs with madness inducing magic, you’ll be on the right track. This is supposed to be in stark contrast with the modern investigators in The Lost Expedition, who are in a highly purist style game. This means there is more overt enforcement of thing like restrictions on health, stability, no “weird” kind of abilities like hypnosis and so forth. Meanwhile the 1930s characters can take more punishment, can regain sanity and don’t lose stability permanently on killing people (a rule I borrowed from Night’s Black Agents).

Vine Covered Temple

With this basic concept in mind, it provides me a lot of room as the GM to present some very interesting roleplaying opportunities. The most important of these is that the players are inherently involved at all steps along the way: The historic accounts of what happens are basically derived from character they play in the 1930s. Their modern counterparts then need to interpret what happened and use that to proceed in their own investigation. In other words, the players are essentially deciding how well their modern investigation goes through their action with their “past” investigators. Essentially imagine a normal campaign where you find a diary of the past describing a terrible event, which would give you an important clue to advance the story. In this game, the players are essentially playing what happens in the diary and deciding the full nature of that clue through their actions there.

Another advantage – outside of letting me have both my 1930s and modern game cakes together – is that I can run sessions with vastly contrasting styles. The more ridiculous, action orientated, semi-monster hunting and gunfight with NAZIs pulp style of the 1930s game is meant to give it a deliberately unrealistic “Is this all bullshit?” feel. This is because these events are happening either from an unreliable narrator – potentially a crazy player character for example – or from a source that can’t easily be corroborated by other evidence (such as some letters or other correspondence). This is juxtaposed against the methodical, tension filled and unknown allegiances feel of the modern campaign – where the investigators can never be truly certain what the real motivations behind anyone really is.

In order to make these games feel quite different in other ways, the players will even engage with me as the GM differently. Players who want to do secretive behind the scenes stuff need to hand me physical hand written notes in during the 1930s game. On the other hand, in keeping with the more paranoid and secretive tone of what is happening in the modern one, I will fully accept the use of electronic messaging via facebook or texts to my phone. This will fully provide the possibility that players might be doing something in the modern game, but nobody knows, while strange happenings in the 1930s will be more overtly obvious.

Another difference I wanted to put in was the insertion of the Correspondents skill into Blood and Ink. Inspired by the Network ability in Night’s Black Agents, this seemed like a really clever idea and allowed me to give players an option to expand what their characters knew in a logical way. For example you might not have studied what this strange plant you’re looking at is, but it’s a very thankful idea your roommate at Oxford was a botanist and you still communicate on odd plants you find (sending him back samples). This skill in the 1930s pulpy game keeps things moving along and gives the investigators a lot of flexibility in how they use their investigative points. On the other hand, it’s not used in the modern game because I want to make nutting things out and piecing the individual clues together the focus of that campaign (and thus, investigators to be more specialized in their skills).

Without giving anything away, this is going to be an extremely ambitious and difficult campaign for me to run. With two sets of investigators to keep track of and a plot that jumps between two time points, it will require some very careful thought to work well. It will be especially important to ensure that the game doesn’t feel “railroaded” and to give my players a lot of influence over how the plot plays out and why certain events happen (or in fact, don’t happen). In the end though, I think this will be a highly compelling and fascinating game to run. Plus it definitely accomplishes one thing if it does work: I get my historic cake and my delicious modern icing, then I can eat them both!