From the Armitage Files

Last Friday night I ran my first session of the Armitage Files campaign for Trail of Cthulhu. It was also my first time running ToC, or any GUMSHOE game, and I have to admit that I was a little anxious about it.

As I mentioned back here, the Armitage Files campaign is largely improvisational, and very much player-directed. I tend to do a fair bit of prep work before a game, building myself a nice, comfortable set of notes for play. Once I’ve got the notes, I don’t mind if I have to deviate from them, or if I decide in play that the something I came up with earlier doesn’t fit, but I like to have that depth of preparation to give me the raw material for improvisation.

Given that this was my first attempt at a ToC game, and that I was not as familiar with the system as I might have liked, I didn’t want to just jump into the main campaign. Instead, I fleshed out a complete, if short, adventure as a sort of intro. I figured that would give me some more experience building scenarios and running the game before I waded deeper into the campaign waters.

The main set-up of the campaign is that the characters are called in by Armitage and his friends to investigate a strange series of documents that have started showing up. So, I wanted the intro adventure to give the characters a reason to interact with at least a couple of the major recurring NPCs from the Armitage Inquiry campaign frame. Roxy’s backstory had her looking into a suppressed report concerning the Miskatonic University expedition to Antarctica, and Aaron is a dealer in rare books, so I figured that this would give me a couple of threads to tie those characters into the plot. Dr. Solis, being a friend of the other two and a member of MU’s School of Medicine, could provide necessary introductions and open some professional doors, metaphorically speaking*.

To that end, I had an orderly from the sanitarium show up at Aaron’s shop, offering to sell him a strange manuscript. He claimed it was a journal written by someone attached to the university, and offered a page as a sample for Aaron to examine. They arranged to meet the next evening, but the fellow didn’t show.

Because, of course, he was dead.

I built the scenario around a standard MacGuffin setup, deciding that the book in question was a journal written for therapeutic reasons by Danforth, one of the survivors of the Dyer-Lake expedition to Antarctica in Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness. It had been stolen by an orderly after hearing Danforth’s alienist talk about how valuable the contents were to his treatment and misunderstanding the reference. The orderly then offered it around to several dealers in odd books, leaving some of the loose pages with prospective buyers to examine.

I created the journal as a full resource tome by the guidelines in the ToC rulebook, reasoning that this would be a valuable item for the characters to use throughout the campaign, and a good way to introduce some Cthulhu Mythos knowledge to the characters. Here’s the write-up of the book:

Danforth’s Journal

Danforth’s experiences and readings have given him a mad insight into the proto-history of the earth. He has combined his memories of the Antarctic expedition with his reading of the Necronomicon and other forbidden texts, syncretizing a fairly accurate – if rambling and obtuse – understanding of the Mythos, which he has written into his journal.

The book is a small, bound journal of 300 pages, with green leather binding, filled with cramped, rushed script and odd diagrams. Several pages have been torn out and replaced at different places in the book, and other notes have been penciled in over top of the ink writing.

Resource Tome: +1 Cthulhu Mythos, 2 dedicated pool points for questions about Antarctica, proto-history, and the nature of time.

Magic Potential: 1

Spells: Constructing the Star-Stones of Mnar (Elder Sign), Dho-Hna Formula, Fabrication of a Compound for Examination of Non-Linear Time (Compound Liao)

Having created the book and the basic set-up, I mapped out who the interested parties would be, keeping one eye on the Scenario Spine Worksheet in the campaign book. Given that I wanted some conflict (at least potentially) in the adventure, I created a wealthy lumber magnate with an interest in the occult and a lack of morals who was also offered the journal, and a few others (including Cyrus Llanfer at the Orne Library) for the characters to investigate. I made the orderly’s death the result of a drunken, joking use of the Dho-Hna Formula, which happened to be incomplete because of the page that had been left with Aaron. The incomplete spell let the cold and layered time of the polar city overlay the viewer, reducing him (and his wife) into freeze-dried mummies in seconds.

Meanwhile, the lumber magnate had sent some men around to get the journal before anyone else could buy it. They were ready to buy, but were determined to get the book. Finding the orderly dead, they took the journal and snuck back out. They then burgled another bookshop (whose owner had tipped his hand to the lumber magnate by telling him he might have a very interesting book to sell him in a few days) where a page had been left, stealing enough other books that the owner figured that these books were the real target and that the page had just been snatched up because it was in with the receipts inside the safe.

And, of course, Dyer was desperate to get the book back before too many people found out about what happened on the expedition, and the alienist wanted it back for his research.

I actually fleshed out about eight full scenes, with all the clues that the characters might find and where they would lead. I created a hand-out of the journal page, and a list of names of people that the orderly had approached about the book for the characters to find on his corpse. I even worked in some names that occur later in the campaign, laying the foundation for those adventures down the road. And then I set the characters loose on the adventure.

Turns out it’s a whole lot easier to improvise in the system than I feared. I thought that my lack of familiarity with the different skills and how they work would be a real detriment, but it turned out to not really be the case. Here’s what I found:

  • Having a solid idea of what’s going on behind the scenes is vital, but once you’ve created the answer to the mystery and the way things fit, it’s very easy to see what clues may exist and what scenes are going to come up.
  • The skills all say what they do right on the tin, so it’s not hard to determine if there’s something in a scene that a skill might find when the player asks.
  • The focus of the game, the structure of the rules, and the nature of the mechanics all focus on one thing: getting the clues into the hands of the characters. This outlook is incredibly helpful to the GM running the game, because it causes one to always look for a way to give a clue to the players.
  • It takes a while for everyone to get into the swing of the way investigative abilities differ from general ones, and when you should make a spend or not, and stuff like that, but not a very long while. Things were flowing very smoothly and quickly by about half-way through the evening.
  • Going back to the first point above, improvising and changing scenes came very easily for a couple of reasons: one, I knew the shape of the whole thing, so it was easy to come up with appropriate reactions. Two, the mechanical lightness of the system really encourages roleplaying and talking as solutions.

All in all, I’m very pleased with the way the game went, and had a lot of fun. I’m feeling a lot more confident about the campaign.

And how did things go for our intrepid heroes? Pretty well. They managed to really upset Danforth and his alienist, talk their way around the thugs that the lumber magnate was going to have threaten them for the journal page, and completely missed what could have been an exciting climax as lumber magnate tried the (incomplete) Dho-Hna Formula himself, leaving behind another freezer mummy. But they made a good contact in Dyer*, recovered the journal after the death of the lumber magnate by the expedient of Aaron approaching the lawyers about helping to liquidate the magante’s library, and then burned the book.

Yep, you heard me. They burned the book. This marvelous resource tome I had created for them.

In character, it was a good choice, and I didn’t want to penalize them for it or try to talk them out of it. So, I’ve decided that this makes Dyer a staunch ally for them, one that will go to the mat for them if needed later in the campaign.

It was pretty late by the time we wrapped up, but I really wanted to get the first two Armitage documents into the players’ hands that evening, so they can start giving me ideas of what they’re going to investigate, and I can start building the spines I need to run that. So, I glossed over the intro material, gave them the print-outs, and sent them home. This morning, I sent out a more detailed background on what’s going on, along with a request that they start discussing what references in the documents pique their interest most. Once I have an idea of what they’re twigging on in the documents, I can create the structure I need to be able to run the adventures in the same sort of loose, player-driven fashion that I did in the intro scenario.

I’m looking forward to it.


*Because Roxy can handle opening the literal ones. Back

*That is, after they got over their initial theory that he was killing everyone who knew about the journal. Back

Armitage Files: Characters

Last Friday night, I got my three players together to create characters for the Armitage Files campaign I’m starting. This was our first time through the GUMSHOE character creation process, and I was anticipating a few problems, but things went very smoothly. Turns out that character creation is not as difficult as it first seems, as long as you have a good idea of what sort of character you’re planning on playing and are willing to discuss things with the other players.

I’m going to come right out and say that having a good, strong character concept is vital to making the process go smoothly. I was worried that players who hadn’t read the character creation rules would be floundering when it came to picking skills, but that turned out not to be the case. One player hadn’t read the rules, but she had a solid, strong concept that she wanted to play, and we were able to map it to the profession, drive, and skills that worked for her very easily.

When time came for picking investigative skills, all three characters worked together to make sure that they got everything covered. But more importantly, they made sure things were covered in a way that made sense for their characters. The only investigative skill that got left out was Physics, so I just won’t make any clues that rely on that skill.

So, who are the characters?

  • Roxy Crane, a thief and scam artist whose family has amassed a large enough fortune to give her access to the upper class.
  • Aaron Moon, who runs an antique bookshop, does manuscript and book restorations, and never ever produces forgeries. Well, hardly ever.
  • Dr. August Solis, on the Miskatonic University faculty of medicine, who has had occasion to assist the officials with a bizarre case or two.

I wanted the characters to have some history together, so I stole the novel-writing idea from FATE games, and had them each create a story, then add themselves into the stories created by the other two players. I put a couple of restrictions on the stories, to reflect the fact that I wanted them to have no Cthulhu Mythos knowledge or encounters, no magic, and no overt supernatural encounters in their past. Weird stuff was okay, but nothing that couldn’t be traced back to human agencies. Here are the novels they came up with:

Doctor Solis, with his strong background in forensics and chemistry, is approached by the Arkham Police to consult on the mysterious disappearance of a local occultist. Solis follows leads and discovers a disfigured body which he attempts to examine but is denied the opportunity by the police department. Solis catches sight of the corpse’s hand and sees a ring with an occult design. He is referred to Aaron Moon who believes it to be a stylized Baphomet symbol. Aaron runs into Roxy, describing the body and ring, which she recognizes to be a local hood hired by a local book collector. The cops pick him up after an ‘anonymous’ tip.

Aaron Moon goes to Boston to confer on a recently discover personal library that contained several Andalusian – Judaic tomes. He discovered that the centre-piece of the collection was in fact a forgery and the owner accused Moon of switching the forgery for the original. Hearing the heated argument, just down the hall from the big party, Roxy sneaks in and distracts the owner so Aaron can flee. Doctor Solis uses his skills in forensics and chemistry to help Aaron prove his innocence to his clients.

Roxy had accidentally made the acquaintance of a young man who worked for the US Survey Department , at a local speakeasy. Returning to his apartment, they find his door ajar and documents stolen – the documents Roxy was going to nick – from an Antarctic expedition. Roxy approaches Dr. Solis at Miskatonic University to seek his expertise in Languages as a way of determining the potential value of the mysterious expedition documents. The documents are mentioned over drinks in the faculty lounge. Moon overhears and tells them that he had recently been asked to “quietly” assess some expedition documents. He tells Roxy where the gentlemen in question are staying…

So, there’s our cast of characters. I’m looking at next Friday night to run the first session.

I’ll let you know how it goes.

Armitage, What Have You Gotten Us Into?

Y0u may remember some previous posts I did about Trail of Ctuhulhu, from Pelgrane Press. If not, check out the links to see what I’m talking about.

Anyway, after my friend ran a playtest of the system, I decided I really wanted to try running it. While I was waffling over whether or not I would actually do so, Pelgrane Press published The Armitage Files. As is fitting for a Cthulhu product, it pushed me over the edge*. I ordered the print and pdf bundle from IPR, downloaded the files, and got to reading.

Normally, I do my best to avoid spoilers in published adventures. Here, I don’t really need to try; the product is less a complete campaign than a wonderful set of building blocks to put together your own campaign using some great props and a loose framework.

Here’s the basic set-up: mysterious documents, in Henry Armitage’s own handwriting, start appearing in unlikely places around Arkham. Armitage has no memory of writing them, nor of the events, people, places, etc. they describe. The other members of the Armitage Inquiry insiders have various theories, ranging from good ol’ Henry being nuts to the documents being letters from the future. With their general scholarly bent and understanding of researcher bias, they decide to bring in some outsiders to investigate these documents, and to find out what’s going on.

Enter the PCs.

The content in the books is of three different types: the documents themselves, a selection of raw materials for scenarios, and instructions on what to do with them.

  • The Documents. These are beautiful, and are designed by Sarah Wroot. They take the form of hand-written notes on lined paper, much of it stained with… stuff, and some clippings, photographs, etc. tacked on. Large pieces of the text are crossed out, stained over, or otherwise almost illegible, so each document comes with a transcription of the text – more for the GM than the players, I’m thinking. Information-wise, the documents each contain several references to people, places, organizations, items, and events, many of them only vaguely explained, and with links between the different references more hinted at than spelled out.
  • The Raw Materials. There’s a chapter each for people, organizations, places, and tomes and magic. Each one identifies most of the references in the documents – a few are deliberately left out to allow the GM to design something appropriate to his or her campaign – in a few different versions. For example, each NPC has three different settings: sinister, innocuous, and stalwart. The GM chooses which role the NPC is going to fill, and uses that version. In addition, each NPC has three extra names and quirks to allow the GM to use the same set of stats for multiple different anthropologists or whatever.
  • The Instructions. The basic instructions are simple: let the players direct the flow of the investigation by picking out the references that they care about in the documents, and then use the building blocks to put together a scenario for them on the fly. There are lots of examples and instructions as to how to do that, along with a few sample spines for some of the documents and a rough (empty) outline of scenario structure.

I have to say that I find the approach to be a little intimidating. I’ve played in exactly one session of Trail of Cthulhu, and haven’t run it at all. While I generally don’t have much trouble running improvised scenarios, it’s not my main comfort zone, and I prefer to have a bit of a structure to fall back on; really, I like to do my improvising ahead of time ;).

But that’s not my main worry. My main worry is that I don’t have a firm enough grasp of the GUMSHOE system to come up with appropriate clues for the range of investigative abilities on the fly. Not yet, anyway.

That said, I’m intrigued by the set-up. I like the idea of player-directed investigation and a freer kind of campaign and adventure construction than I’ve seen so far in GUMSHOE. And I’ve got three players who are eager to play. So, I’m gonna give it a try, but I’m doing a couple of things to help me along.

First off, I’m going to run an introductory scenario – just a short, one-evening thing – to give us all some more familiarity with the system, to build ties and relationships between the characters, and to establish their Mythos cred so that it makes sense for Armitage and his buddies to call them in.

Second, I’m going to write up a few different scenario versions for the first couple of documents, so that I’ve got more of a plan going, giving me the opportunity to concentrate on setting the mood and getting the system right before I start flying without a net.

Last night, before my two players decided we should add a third, I got together with them and talked about expectations for the game. Trail of Cthulhu has two main modes: Purist and Pulp. However, this is not really a binary state, nor even a bipolar continuum; there are a number of different factors that go into each of those words, and I wanted to make sure I had a shared understanding with my players about what we all expected from the game. So, I asked them the following questions:

How do you want this weighted between action and investigation/interaction? Do you want to expect a combat or two every session, or would you prefer that combat be more rare (and potentially deadly)? Would you like chase scenes, harrowing escapes, swinging over chasms on ropes? Or would you like to have research, interrogation, puzzling over mystical clues, and creeping through darkened corridors? Indiana Jones or Sherlock Holmes? Realistically, there’s going to be opportunities for all these things, but I’d like to know which you want more, so I can focus on that area, and use the others for adventure seasoning, as it were.

They came down weighted towards the investigation/interaction end of the scale, but wanting there to be some combat, chases, and other action scenes. About 80% Purist.

How deadly do you want things? Pulp or Purist? If you’re facing down a gang of cultists, do you want to be able to plow through them with only your fists and your moxie, or do you want to have to flee because their numbers will quickly overwhelm you despite the fact you have Tommy gun? Somewhere in the middle?

Here, they had a difference of opinion. One said, “I don’t like my characters to die, especially not from a random thug with a pistol.” The other said, “I want to be afraid when confronting a six-year-old with a stick.” In the end, they agreed that, while death of characters should be a risk, it shouldn’t be omnipresent. The don’t want to worry about being killed in a random mugging, but want to have to run away from the mob of cultists with knives. So, I’m calling it about 60% Purist.

How bleak do you want things? Lovecraft’s empty, meaningless cosmos, or Derleth’s opposing forces fighting for humanity?

This one was easy. They want the Lovecraftian bleakness, but they don’t want absolute hopelessness, or else what motivation does their character have? Call it 90% Purist.

Do you want things centred in New England, or do you want some travel? If so, how much? Globetrotting troubleshooters, or daytripping specialists?

Again, pretty easy. They want to remain based in Arkham, and have many of the investigations centred there, but also want the opportunity to travel to weird, exotic locations and risk death there. Again, call it around 80% Purist.

After we had settled that, I explained my views on a Cthulhu campaign. See, in my mind, this is a horror game. That means that bad things happen, and that the main characters, while not powerless, are overmatched. They need to have that in mind during play, that they are risking their characters whenever they interact with something that’s not totally mundane. While it’s fine in a one-shot to drop a horde of monsters on a party, in a campaign setting, the primary antagonists should be humans, and monsters should be rarely glimpsed, and absolutely terrifying when encountered. Facing a single Deep One should be enough to shatter the common mortal, both body and mind. That said, the PCs will not be common mortals. Their trials against the more mundane forces of the mythos will give them the tools they need to survive, if not necessarily triumph.

Also, I warned them that I may not stick strictly to the canon when it comes to the mythos elements. They all have some familiarity with the standard Lovecraftian monsters and tropes from reading the stories and playing Call of Cthulhu. I don’t want them relying on that during play, because it undermines the alienness and horror of the mythos. I’ve told them that most of the big tropes – the Necronomicon, Cthulhu himself, etc. – will still be reliable, but the Deep Ones and Flying Polyps may not behave the way they expect, or have the motivations and weaknesses they remember.

And they agreed to all of this.

So, within the next couple of weeks, we’re going to get together and do character creation. I’ll let you know how that goes.

*Yes, I know that’s a lame joke. No, I’m not going to apologize. Back