I’ve been running The Armitage Files since the middle of last March, and have got in five sessions in that time, with two more scheduled before I head out to GenCon. That’s a long enough time that I want to look back at my initial assessment of Trail of Cthulhu and The Armitage Files, and talk a little bit about what it’s like to run, how I do it, what things I find work well, and what still gives me some problems.
Basic System Stuff
I cannot get over how much easier this system is to run than I had feared.
One of my big worries was figuring out how to use the investigative abilities, and where to draw the lines between the different abilities. While running the game, I soon came to realize that the abilities pretty much did what they said on the tin, and that I shouldn’t worry about drawing lines between them. The whole point of the investigative abilities – and the system in general – is to get information into the hands of the characters. It is wonderfully focused on that single, over-arching goal, and once you get your head around that as a GM, everything becomes clear and easy.
So now I don’t worry about whether a clue would be better found by Evidence Collection or by Forensics. I just see that a character is looking where they should to find a clue, and give it to them. I keep a list of what abilities the different characters have, and I phrase the evidence in keeping with whichever of the abilities makes the most sense given the information. If they’re looking for more, I’ll ask for a spend from a particular ability, or I’ll ask them what ability they’re using to get more information.
The two important things are that the clues get found and that the players enjoy themselves.
As for the general abilities, I’m coming to a new understanding of them as we play. With difficulty ranges on target numbers for general abilities running from 2 to 8, and averaging (in game) around 3 or 4, really what your points in a general ability do is give you a pool of automatic successes for a given ability. They let you guarantee success when you really need it. So, shooting at that cultist before he sacrifices the baby? Yeah, you’re gonna want a guaranteed hit on that one, so you spend 5 points from your firearms pool. Overkill? Maybe, but you don’t want to risk failure at a critical, dramatic moment.
Spending in smaller amounts is certainly a viable strategy in game, but I recommend that players ask themselves whether they really need to succeed at something. If the answer is no, don’t spend. If the answer is yes, go all in. And if you wind up with a few failures that complicate your life? Well, that’s how stories are made, right? Complications are your friend. They make things interesting.
In general, the light system with its sharp focus on getting clues to characters makes prepping for the game very easy. Creating the mechanical side of encounters is takes little effort, and is easy to do on the fly – I can whip up a set of mundane cultists in under two minutes, and take about five to put together an interesting monster. Running the light system is a breeze, and it lets me really focus on creating the scene, and adding colour to what’s going on, rather than worrying about the minutiae of the rules.
Combat quickly devolves into desperate, panicked action, and there is a constant threat of something very bad happening to the heroes. This is the way it should be in a horror game, in my opinion. The lethality can be easily scaled to make things more or less survivable in general, and it’s even easy to do on the fly, if you want to change the risk factor in an ongoing encounter. So far, I haven’t killed any of the characters in my campaign, but I think they’ve felt the risk of it every time we get into combat, which is the vibe I want.
The real place I put in prep time is in creating the mythos pieces for the game – coming up with the history of the book they find, finding a good picture to show them of the standing stones, creating a background for why a specific cult exists and what they want, making hand-outs of some of the things they find, etc. Good, meaty story and atmosphere stuff. And that’s where I want to be spending my time.
The Improvised Campaign
I’ve got to be honest with you. I was somewhat disappointed when I started looking at The Armitage Files, because of the way it focuses on an improvised campaign. I wanted something more scripted – like the Esoterrorists adventures I’d seen, where the spine of the investigation is nicely mapped and all the clues are cleanly presented. I looked at the campaign, saw it was just a toolbox of elements to use, and grew a little discouraged.
I’m no longer disappointed.
I don’t follow the advice about running an improvised campaign the way they present it in the book, but I’m still running a very player-directed, sandbox kind of campaign. See, I don’t like having to come up with all the big, interesting pieces of the game on the fly, with little or no planning, but I do like the idea of the players getting choose what direction things are going in. My main problem with the improvised campaign idea is that I can come up with much better stuff, with more internal consistency and depth, if I have a little time to work it out.
What I’m doing sort of splits the difference between the improvised approach and the fully scripted approach. I let the players tell me what they’re going to investigate, and how they’re going to do it, before the game. I then have a few days to take a look at the source material and figure out what’s going on behind the scenes. I map out the relationships between the various involved elements – NPCs, organizations, events, artifacts, etc. – and flesh out a few details, like coming up with some brief stats for potential combatants and a writ-up on any mythos items they might find, along with something to tell them if they use Cthulhu Mythos as a hint machine.
Once I’ve got this structure mapped out and my background stuff prepped, it’s easy to just turn the characters loose on the investigation and create the clues they find on the fly, based on what they do and what I know of the the adventure secrets. And I’ve got a couple of set pieces ready to drop on them for good reveals, so the game feels like there’s a direction, a beginning and end, and all the other good things you want for the thing to have some shape.
The Armitage Documents
One of the things that challenged me at the start was figuring out how to use all the little tidbits the source documents mention. I actually went through and made a list, document by document, of all the interesting references in each document -Â the Document Keys section does some of this, but there are a number of things that caught my eye in the documents that aren’t covered in the keys. I then tried to build a single spine out of each document, relating all the items to one mystery and tying everything together.
For the love of all that’s holy, learn from my mistake and don’t do that.
You wind up with a very forced mishmash of elements, where things are shoehorned in and a lot of the connections just don’t work that well. The resulting mess would have been completely opaque to the players, no matter how thick and heavy the clues were flying, because I could barely make sense of it. They would have had no chance. Worse, it would have strained credulity far too much, and that would have broken the mood and the suspension of disbelief.
The question then arises, “So how much should I include in a given mystery?” That’s a hard question to give a solid answer to, because it’s going to vary from group to group and adventure to adventure. You’ve got to look at how long you want this specific scenario to run, and how important it’s going to be for the ongoing story. Usually, I pick two or three elements from the document, and string them together, and that gives me a solid evening or two of play. I pepper the session with casual mentions of some of the other references, either from the current document or from a future one, to keep the group interested and aware that there are other things going on besides their current investigation.
Now, this can backfire on you if they latch on to something you threw in as colour and go haring off after it. That’s usually pretty easy to deal with, either by working that reference into what you’re currently doing, or by stonewalling that investigatory avenue until you’re prepped for it. Kingsport Yacht Club? Well, you need a membership to get in. And to get a membership, you need to find someone to vouch for you. Do you know anyone in the Kingsport Yacht Club? It’ll take a while to track a member down.
The risk of stonewalling is two-fold:
- You need to make sure the group has other leads to follow up. If they don’t have other things to look into, then you all just ran out of story and sit around twiddling your thumbs. Of course the wealth of leads in the documents should mean that that never happens.
- You must, must, must make the payoff worth it at the end. If you put off the investigation of an element, your players will be able to tell you’re putting it off. That’s going to make them more eager to investigate that particular element. So you need to make sure you put in the time to develop it, and to make it cool enough that it was worth the wait. Otherwise, you’ll just look lame.
One of the other risks you can run into is that the characters ignore something that you want them to follow up on, because you’ve got something cool planned for it. I’ve found the best way to push them towards something is not to push, but to drop other references to it in the investigations they’re currently pursuing. No one wants to check out the Kingsport Yacht Club? Well, the idol you intercepted was on its way down to the Kingsport Harbour. Why yes, it is near the Yacht Club. Surely there’s no connection…
One last piece of advice on using the documents – and this is mentioned in the book – is not to let the players follow up everything. Drop a new document on them before they’ve tracked down everything in the documents they currently have. Not only does this guarantee that they always have new and interesting leads to follow, it avoids the artificiality of treating the documents like a dungeon, where the characters clean out every room before moving on to the next dungeon.
Most importantly, though, is that it imposes a time pressure, a sense of urgency to the investigations, as the players see more and nasty stuff coming down the pipeline at them, and realize that they have to pick and choose what they want to do something about. They will be leaving things behind, and that will add to their anxiety and desperation, and they will worry that the investigations left undone will come back to haunt them in the future. And that’s the kind of attitude you want in a Cthulhu game, right?
Generally, I try to avoid spoilers in talking about published adventures, even ones as loose as this one. But there are a couple of things that I’m still having challenges with that might give away some of the secrets of the campaign frame, so I’m hiding those behind spoiler tags. Click the Show button to reveal them, but don’t say I didn’t warn you.
Here’s the first:
And here’s the second:
One other thing that’s still giving me a bit of a challenge, and that doesn’t need to be wrapped in spoiler tags, is that I need to learn to relax more into the process of the game, letting things evolve naturally based on character (and player) interest, rather than trying to run things down a plot line that I create myself. I used to be much better at this, but over the years, I got out of the habit by playing games which reinforce a more rigidly structured play experience, like D&D. I’m rusty, and keep second guessing myself.
That will come with time and practice, I know, but at the moment, I’m still a little frustrated by it.
Ending on the challenges might make it sound like I’m frustrated by this game and campaign, but nothing could be farther from the truth. I think the game system and the campaign are fantastic, and I’m enjoying running my Armitage Files campaign immensely. My players are great fun, and also seem to be enjoying themselves, so that’s a big win all around.
This game has done a lot to revive my faith in myself as a GM who can work without the crutch of highly-detailed combat and fight-a-week-style adventures. I used to run a lot of non-D&D games, and great as I think D&D is, it encourages a very particular play style, just by the amount of rules text devoted to certain topics and the structure of published adventures.
Trail of Cthulhu is crafted for a very different play experience, one I’m out of practice with. But as I run the game, I’m remembering why I loved this style of play. The spill-over from what I’m doing here can definitely be seen in my other games, like Fearful Symmetries. It’s making me a better GM, and its doing it in a way that’s fun and low-stress.
But you folks don’t really care about that.
What you care about is this: Trail of Cthulhu and The Armitage Files are a blast to play. I’m very glad I decided to give them a try, and I look forward to each session.
The next one is this Sunday afternoon, and the following one is Saturday after. I will, of course, post the results here for you folks to peruse.