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 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