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