From the Armitage Files: Kingsport Yacht Club

**Potential Spoilers**

The Armitage Files is an improvised campaign structure. It uses a number of stock pieces, such as NPCs, organizations, and locations, that are strung together by individual GMs to fit player action. The adventures I create with it may or may not match any other GM’s version of the campaign. That means that reading these posts may or may not offer spoilers for other game groups.

**You Have Been Warned**

We’re trying to squeeze in two Armitage Files games before I leave for GenCon, because when I get back, two of the three players head off to Europe for about a month, and we won’t get back to a regular schedule until September. Given that this summer has already seen some challenges in scheduling the game, we wanted to get a little momentum built, to make sure the game doesn’t wither and die.

That’s why we got together this afternoon to play, and are planning on doing it again next Saturday night.

We had finished off the Monument Creek storyline last session, and the characters were taking a couple of weeks to rest up after the beating they took on that little outing. As is my usual practice, I asked the group to let me know about a week in advance what reference they were planning on following up next. They decided to look into the Kingsport Yacht Club, because the Captain from last session was heading to Kingsport Harbour with the idol when they blew him up. And the Yacht Club was near the harbour, so…

Now, I cheated a little bit on the prep for this one. I had already decided that the group was going to receive the next document this session, so I wanted to tie in a few extra threads to the storyline for the Yacht Club, because it’s probably going to be the last one from these documents that gets investigated. Maybe not, but I think the pressure of a new document, with new hints, is going to get the group fired up about some of those. That meant that I wanted to draw in a few of the things that had featured peripherally in the earlier investigations, specifically Austin Kittrell and Diamond Walsh.

That seemed like it was tailor-made for stealing one of the spines from the Scenario Spines chapter of The Armitage Files, which I did, choosing The Dweller Within. I tweaked it from the basic structure to better suit what my group are starting to show as their play style, did up a few sets of stats for various things along the way, and away we went.

Their first step was to try and infiltrate the Kingsport Yacht Club by having Dr. Solis pose as Arthur Matthews, a recent widower returned from South America with a daughter (Roxy, starring as Mary Matthews) who wanted him to meet the right people and start getting involved in the local society circles, so that he’ll stop paying so much attention to her life. Roxy’s high Credit Rating meant that she knew the names of several people who were members, including Austin Kittrell, a wealthy party-boy (and collector of strange documents) with whom she’d had some minor dealings previously. He knew her too well, though, so she and Solis went to Samuel Hepburn, a lawyer who didn’t know her as well, and prevailed up on him to put Arthur Matthews forward for membership.

Why Dr. Solis? Well, Roxy is a woman, and Aaron is Jewish, so neither would have a chance of getting in. Welcome to 1935.

On the night of the membership drive, Aaron went along with the pair, disguised as their chauffeur. While Solis and Roxy were hobnobbing with the other members, prospective members, and their families, Aaron was hanging out with the staff below stairs, trying to pick up some gossip. The character, unfortunately, doesn’t have a lot of skill in that area, but his roleplaying and the things he paid attention to got him some solid information. For example, among the waiters, cooks, maids, and drivers, there was a pair of goons in bad suits sitting by themselves with a bottle of whiskey. Aaron decided to see what he could get out of them by pulling out a deck of cards (with dirty pictures on them) and gambling with them for some whiskey. Over the course of the evening, as he lost a fair bit of money to them, he found out they were Walsh’s men – the gangster who had been transporting the idol for the Captain in the last investigation. He also found out that Walsh was married to Zora Gardiner, daughter of Oliver Gardiner, and president of the Yacht Club. The men were bemoaning the fact that, ever since the wedding, Walsh had been getting soft, and was now trying to get respectable by joining the Yacht Club.

Aaron also caught sight of a small figure – possibly a child – hiding in the bushes when he went to check on the car at one point, but didn’t get a good look at it, nor did he follow it into the shrubbery.

At the party, Solis and Roxy met the Gardiners, Walsh and his very pregnant wife Zora, and Dr. Lynch, the club secretary. They found that Gardiner had a fondness for local history, especially that of the native peoples, and that the club library – the province of Dr. Lynch – contained many books on local and maritime history. Other than that, and a strange encounter between Austin Kittrell and the disguised Roxy, everything went very well, and our heroes retired at the end of the evening with every expectation that Arthur Matthews would soon be receiving an invitation to join.

Over the next few days, they did a little more research on the Gardiners, and on Walsh and the Yacht Club. Their digging turned up the origins of the extended Gardiner clan in Merry Mount, in the early days of Puritan settlement, where they made good money at fishing. A Cthulhu Mythos use reminded Aaron of a passage from The Book of the Voice, which spoke of how the pre-European inhabitants of Merry Mount (called Mounte Dagonne by the early French explorers) had worshiped an ancient sea-god, and were said to have interbred with the children of this god.

Further research turned up a pattern of stillbirths, miscarriages, and deaths in childbirth among the extended Gardiner clan over the past year. All of the physicians of record were listed as Dr. Lynch, which struck them as odd, because they knew Dr. Lynch was a surgeon, not a GP or OB/GYN. At this point, Aaron’s player was getting very nervous about things, so he spent a Cthulhu Mythos point, and recalled hints he had seen in old books about how the offspring of the sea-god’s children would be vulnerable and mortal for the first two-score years of their lives, until they shed their mortal form and returned to the realm of their god. Some of the men who had made pacts with these creatures had sought various ways to force this transformation in utero, eliminating the vulnerable period of the god’s grandchildren. He recalled how pregnant Walsh’s wife – Gardiner’s daughter – was, and how in two days, there would be a spring tide, a time of power for Dagon.

Some quick checking confirmed that Walsh, a forty-year-old gangster, had no children, which was so unusual as to strain credulity. The investigators came to the conclusion that Gardiner was getting control of Walsh and his business using the promise of a child and respectability. Checking with the police revealed that Gardiner’s enemies and business rivals had a habit of disasters; disasters that someone like Walsh could easily arrange. A check of Lynch’s past showed that his father had also been a member of the Yacht Club – along with Kittrell’s father – and that Lynch had been a battlefield surgeon in the Great War before traveling extensively in Europe and Asia, finally returning to Kingsport six years previously.

And so our heroes wound up arguing over the corpse of a stillborn child in a graveyard at midnight.

They had all agreed that they needed to examine a body to confirm their guesses but, when they had finally unearthed the tiny coffin (suffering some nice Stability tests), Aaron refused to allow the others to take the body from the graveyard and desecrate it farther. They had a quiet, desperate argument there in the dark before Solis finally went under the blanket with sad little body and a flashlight.

Cue Stability check, with extra Sanity loss.

He found that the body was fairly decomposed, but the limbs seemed to be a little too long and spindly, and the webbing between the fingers and toes was still fairly pronounced – unusual in a foetus at six or seven months, but not all that strange. What bothered him most were the signs that the thing had undergone surgery in utero – there were healed scars over its abdomen and torso. That and the tiny, needle teeth in its mouth.

They  reburied the body and left the graveyard, badly shaken, and unsure what to do about the situation, knowing that they have two days before something is likely to happen to Zora Gardiner and the child she’s carrying.

And that’s where we left it.

Next game is this coming Saturday, and that should put paid to this scenario, though I think they’re going to have some tough choices to make about how they settle things.

Oh, and I dropped the next document on them, while Aaron was working on the research and Roxy was talking to the Kingsport Police. Cyrus Llanfer brought it to Dr. Solis, saying that he had found it inside the Necronomicon, which he periodically checks to make sure that, for instance, no half-breed wizard from Dunwich makes off with it.

So they’ve got that to think about, too. I’m interested to see what they come up with.

Running The Armitage Files

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 -  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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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?

Ongoing Challenges


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:


One of the big challenges is reconciling the time-frame of the events with the needs of gameplay. The documents come from the future, but the information in them basically sets the scene for the starting point of a scenario. For example, in document 2, there is mention of a mysterious truck and car near the hospital, with something strange in the back. This is obviously something that the characters want to investigate, and they proceed to do so.

My issue is that the document comes from a year and a half in the future. Unless I make the truck and car and their mysterious cargo a recurring event (which is possible, of course), there’s nothing for the characters to investigate yet. What I need to do is come up with something that will culminate in the events in the documents, but have a lead-up that stretches back into the past far enough for the characters to encounter it. This can be a challenge sometimes.

Now, it’s quite possible to play fast and loose with the actual time gap between the present and the future of the documents, but that can tend to undermine the mystery of the documents themselves, so I don’t really want to do that too much – though I have, and will again, when necessary.

It’s a tough call for the designer. On the one hand, you’ve got the time gap, as discussed, so you can’t just have a few hints of something starting in the documents, because that means the characters don’t have anything to investigate, yet. But on the other hand, you don’t want to give away too much, both because it spoils the surprise for the players and because it narrows the options for the GM.

Still, there are a number of good, long-term, ongoing threads in the documents that are easy to work in to the game. They more than make up for the more problematic references.

And here’s the second:


There’s not much in the way of a climax built into the documents. Oh, there’s a climax for the Armitage in the papers: his descent into the destroyed world is wonderful to read and quite disturbing, a fitting homage to HPL and his work. But there’s very little direction as to what the end of the campaign is. The whole point of the campaign is kind of vague because of the emphasis on it being an improvised campaign, and the recommendations for getting to the end of the story – indeed, for deciding where the story ends – are not all that helpful.

That’s not a really huge complaint, when you get right down to it. Considering the type of book this is, and the wealth of tools the book gives you, it won’t be too difficult to wrap things up in an interesting manner, I think. I just personally prefer having a more solid idea of where the game is going, and how it’s going to wrap. At this point, I don’t have that, and I worry a little about things devolving into a bit of flailing about near the end, with no real strong resolution.

Of course, that just means I’m going to have to watch things closely, and start laying the foundation for the climax when I figure out what it’s going to be. For that, of course, I’m going to be looking to the players and what they focus on in play for my guides.

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.

Parting Thoughts

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.

From the Armitage Files: The Stealer of Tomorrow

**Potential Spoilers**

The Armitage Files is an improvised campaign structure. It uses a number of stock pieces, such as NPCs, organizations, and locations, that are strung together by individual GMs to fit player action. The adventures I create with it may or may not match any other GM’s version of the campaign. That means that reading these posts may or may not offer spoilers for other game groups.

**You Have Been Warned**

Saturday night, we wrapped up the Monument Creek storyline from the previous session of The Armitage Files. After the somewhat rocky Hunter game the previous evening, I put in a little extra time Saturday afternoon prepping for the game, making sure there were enough productive avenues of investigation for the characters to follow.

The game went pretty well, though. I had the characters fearing for their lives, and panicking, and going to extreme lengths to save themselves and stop the bad guys.

Now that the scenario is over, I’m safe revealing (most of) what was going on, so here it goes:

In the construction of the new army base, the soldiers had dug up a strange crystalline statue, roughly man-sized, that looked (if you squinted just right) like an elephant-headed snow man made out of faceted spheres, disks, and cones. This was a focus for Chaugnar Faugn, which I used with a bit of a twist.

One of the great things about the Trail of Cthulhu rulebook is that the inestimable Ken Hite gives several different interpretations of each of the Great Old Ones, and I liked this idea of his:

Chaugnar Faugn is a moving cluster of sentient, malevolent discontinuity that leaves crystallized “elephant-gods” or idols behind it when it encounters our universe. It sometimes alters human hosts likewise into twisted pachyderm-like monsters. It builds up energy to transit along its lifeline by severing the lifelines of other time-bound entities, such as humans or serpent-folk, and drinking their potential existence.

I decided that this was sort of a mythos-flavoured version of the Observer Effect, in that Chaugnar Faugn’s immaterial attention drained the potentiality from life forms when he focused on a given space/time locus, and that the draining took the form of a crystallization, producing the idols. And the presence of something interesting around an idol (ordered information, in Charles Stross’s Laundry parlance) draws Chaugnar Faugn’s attention.

So, the story is that one of the privates unearthed the idol, it got some blood spilled on it (digging foundations is hard, sometimes dangerous work), and the attention of the Great Old One was drawn to the site. Now, the sign of the increase in entropy – the life draining – in the area is that more of the idols form in the things being drained. Bugs and worms drain quickly, and are transformed into the tiny idol-crystals that our heroes found last game. Larger, more complex life forms take longer, and the conversion process is slower, as the crystals form within their bodies, forcing their ways in between the existing organs and under the skin. If the level of attention focused on this locus is high enough, humans can also be converted completely to idols, but more often, they just die as the crystal intrusions in their bodies prevent them from working properly.

This is what they saw happen to Private Lonnie Pennick.

Anyway, for reasons that the players did not uncover, the Lieutenant in charge of the construction snatched the idol and hid it away, planning to transport it to Kingsport and put it on a ship.

Back to the game.

The morning after Pvt. Pennick’s death, our heroes returned to Arkham – Dr. Solis went to conduct the autopsy, Aaron went to do some more research at the MU library, and Roxy went to have breakfast. Aaron’s research turned up a link between the tiny crystals and the dolmens they had heard were up an Monument Creek, and the history of a native tribe who left the area pretty much over night about six hundred years ago. He then asked to use his Cthulhu Mythos skill for more information.

Now, I had prepared for this with a passage from the single mythos tome that Aaron had read, but somehow I lost the print out of it, and couldn’t find the electronic file, which made me sad, but I was able to give him what I remembered of it, as well as a little sketch of the elephant-headed creature depicted in the petroglyphs at monument creek. I told him that the Book of the Voice contained a reference to the Stealer of Tomorrow, with the head of an elephant, whose sign and presence was his idol, and who stole the future from all he looked upon.

Somewhat shaken, Aaron went to have a drink in the University Lounge, then went to Roxy’s house. When he arrived, he found that only about a half-hour had passed, though he had done at least three hours of research. He had another drink, and a little lie-down.

In the meantime, Dr. Solis performed the autopsy, removing a number of “calciferous tumours” from the body – strangely crystalline structures that looked more like faceted, milky quartz than anything biological. I also told him that the tumours were not growing off any of the organs in the body, but seemed to have formed in between the organs, forcing them aside, though there were no obvious entry wounds. When he lay out the pieces of crystal, he found that they formed the rough skeleton of the same snow-man-like figure shown by the tiny crystals they had found.

He came up with the theory that they might be activated by living biological material, so he took one of the tiny crystals, put it in a beaker, and added some blood. His blood.

This wonderful little sacrifice drew Chaugnar Faugn’s attention immediately. I hit Solis with a number of time-distortion effects, as well as the concomitant Stability checks, and then with some Health checks as the crystals started to form in his body.

We had a great little scramble, as Solis quarantined himself and sent for Roxy and Aaron, and they roped in Moore from MU and a couple of his grad students to haul an oscilloscope, amplifier, and speakers down to the hospital to use sound waves to shatter the crystal in Solis’s body. I liked the idea, and so it worked, though it hurt him a great deal and laid him up in the hospital for a couple of days.

While Solis was in surgery to have the crystal shards (very, very sharp crystal shards) removed from his body, Roxy and Aaron drove out in the dark to Monument Creek and hiked up to the dolmen, where they discovered a story about how the Stealer of Tomorrow descended on the local tribe after they had found a crystal idol, and how their shamans had turned its attention away, and then left the area to make sure they never drew it back. Aaron was able to decipher the medicine song they used, and he and Roxy drove back to the hospital to exorcise Solis.

We had another tense scene, with the exorcism drawing attention again, and several time distortion effects, and the beginnings of crystals forming in everyone’s bodies, as well as the small life forms in the room and the leaves of the trees outside. In the end, they were pretty roughed up, but managed to drive off Chaugnar Faugn’s attention.

Remembering the story of how the native tribe had found a crystal idol that started the whole mess, Roxy and Aaron drove back out to the army base and questioned the Lieutenant about any idols being found. He was quite concerned, and very sorry for Solis’s state, but could offer no explanation. He asked for Solis’s hospital room number so that he could go visit, and they gave it to him.

Roxy felt that he was hiding something, so she and Aaron kept watch in Solis’s room that night. Shortly after midnight, someone climbed in through the window with a gun. Solis shot him to death, and Roxy recognized him as a button man for Horace “Diamond” Walsh, an underboss for the Marcuzzo crime syndicate. She hit the streets, and (with an impressive spend from Oral History and Streetwise) found out that Walsh had sent the man at the request of the Lieutenant, and that Walsh’s men were supposed to pick something up at the army base that night and drive it to Kingsport Harbour.

So, the troops loaded up with pistols and dynamite, stole a car, and lay in wait near the army base road. When the truck and its escort headed out, they followed it out past Arkham, about half-way to Kingsport, before Solis drew along side and Roxy threw three sticks of dynamite into the back of the truck.

After the horrific explosion, there was a nasty firefight, with tommy-guns and pistols on the bad guys’ side, and dynamite and pistols on the good guys’ side. Despite an unfortunate accident with one of the sticks of dynamite, which cost them their stolen car and almost Dr. Solis’s life, they managed to kill the Lieutenant and Walsh’s men, and used the rest of the dynamite to completely destroy the shattered idol that had been in the back of the pickup truck. Then they limped back to town.

I’m giving them a couple of weeks of downtime for the characters to recover somewhat, because they’re pretty beat up and need to keep their heads down. I’ve also asked them to let me know what they want to look into next.

All in all, a nice Cthulhu game, with a number of good moments. I’m liking both the system and the campaign a whole lot.

From the Armitage Files: Monument Creek

**Potential Spoilers**

The Armitage Files is an improvised campaign structure. It uses a number of stock pieces, such as NPCs, organizations, and locations, that are strung together by individual GMs to fit player action. The adventures I create with it may or may not match any other GM’s version of the campaign. That means that reading these posts may or may not offer spoilers for other game groups.

**You Have Been Warned**

Last night was the latest episode in my Armitage Files game. This story was the one I had the most trouble with sorting out from the material in the files. I was worried about staying true to what the documents said, but also working things in a manner that made sense, considering the larger things going on in the background.

Am I being cryptic? Kind of. See, while I put that spoiler warning up at the top of this post, that’s there so that others playing the game will realize that reading the post might give things away. But I really don’t want to reveal any of the metaplot to my players, even inadvertently. And I know at least two of them read my blog.

So, by way of explanation, I’m going to present a theory that my players have come up with, and show how it makes things difficult. I’m not saying their theory is correct; I’m not saying it’s not. It just happens to fit some of the pieces they’ve uncovered, and it can be used to illustrate what I’m talking about.

The players think the mysterious documents the Armitage Group have received are being sent back in time from the future, though they don’t know exactly from when, and they don’t who is sending them. This, they say, explains why the writing is admittedly that of Henry Armitage, but no one remembers the incidents or investigations mentioned in them.

Let’s assume that’s true. If the documents talk about, say, a mysterious item being transported in a truck to the hospital, and the players decide to follow that particular clue up, I need to figure out when the incident happens, what leads up to it, and what stage things are at right now. And if I want the characters to get involved and the players to enjoy themselves, I have to figure out something cool and interesting to be going on right now that also makes sense given what the documents say is going to happen in the future.

See the kind of thing I’m talking about?

What I’m saying is that it took me a couple of reworkings to get the spine of what’s going on in this particular investigation, and I scrapped a couple of very nice, interesting ideas along the way just because they didn’t fit the metastructure constraints quite properly. Oh, I probably could have got away with a little fudging, but that feels too much like cheating.

But that’s okay. I came up with a final (sort of) version that I was happy with, and it worked pretty well last night.

As a general observation, I am amazed at how easy it’s getting to improvise scenes and clues. I really thought that the investigative structure wouldn’t lend itself well to this style of play, but it actually does. I haven’t gone the whole way to improvisation that they talk about in the book, where the actual secrets behind everything are decided upon during play, but figuring out where to put clues in order to let the characters drive the actual scenes turns out to be very intuitive. And by keeping a list of the investigative skills of each character (or asking to take a look at a sheet every now and then when you need to make a judgment call) makes the rules mostly transparent. The only times I cracked a book last night was looking at a list of the skills or trying to find a particular name.

Enough of me blathering about running the game. Let’s get to what happened in the game.

This session, the characters decided to follow up an account in the second document, talking about a mysterious car and truck delivering a strange item to the hospital, and Temporary Operative Olsen still being on an army base. They located the hospital from a reference to Crown Hill, but the nearest army base they knew of was Fort Devens, 150 miles away. As for Olsen, they had no idea.

Given that they have a doctor, a con woman, and a bookseller who had been bitten badly by a rat-thing in the group, they decided on a combined approach to the hospital, with Aaron Moon checking in to have the nasty wound on his leg examined, and Dr. Solis and his lovely (if vapid) assistant Twyla Petty (again played by wealthy con woman Roxy Crane) asking to examine patient files in order to do a demographic study of illness and injury in rural Massachusetts.

The patient files showed a number of military men being treated for minor injuries over the past couple of weeks, which led Solis and Roxy to dig a little deeper and discover that the army was in the process of clearing ground and laying foundations for a new base out at Monument Creek, about 25 miles from Arkham. With no infirmary in place, the Lieutenant in charge of the work detail made arrangements with the local hospital for treatment of his men.

Aaron had a nasty night. He hadn’t been sleeping well since having to kill the rat-thing a few days ago, compounded with the nasty things he read in The Book of the Voice giving him nightmares. This night was no different, with a dream of waking to find the hospital a ruin around him. Then, when he awoke for real, he somehow lost four and a half hours between looking at the clock beside his bed and walking down the corridor to the nurse’s station.

These events disturbed him a great deal and, when his companions returned to the hospital in the morning, they went to look at one of the rooms in the hospital that Aaron had seen in his dream. It was occupied by an elderly woman far gone with senile dementia, and they found no clues as to the source of the dream or the lost time. Still, Aaron agreed to stay in the hospital another night, mainly to give Roxy and Solis time to break into the administration office to look for anything interesting.

They didn’t find anything in the office, but Aaron did find an old grocery sack with the remains of someone’s lunch in it in a trash can near the loading dock. The bag was marked Olsen’s Family Market. And in the morgue, Roxy and Solis found a record of a young private killed by a falling tree, whose postmortem exam revealed strange calciferous tumours on his soft tissues. The body had already been released, so they couldn’t examine it first hand.

The next day, they went to the county office, and found out that the military was indeed building a new base out at Monument Creek, so named because of the neolithic mounds and standing stones near the source of the creek. They decided that they needed to go out and take a look at the base (and maybe the mounds and standing stones), but first went to Olsen’s Family Market to check it out. They spoke to Olaf Olsen, the owner and proprietor, and found him a genial but thoroughly mundane fellow.

So, out to Monument Creek, with camping equipment, firearms, medical kit, tracing paper, charcoal, binoculars, and bird books. They set up camp on a hill overlooking the military base under construction, and were invited down to dine with Lieutenant Bennet, who was in charge of the construction project. There they found out that Fort Devens, which is primarily a recruitment and training base, needed to expand its facilities, and it was decided to open a new base to handle the increased recruitment. Aaron knew that Fort Devens also based three divisions of military intelligence, so he was suspicious. But he also knew that Lt. Bennet’s father had written a book about the native beliefs of the Southwest tribes, so he managed to make a more personal connection with the Lieutenant.

And Roxy was the only woman around for miles.

They also learned that the base had their supplies trucked in from Arkham, which led them to the conclusion that the fresh produce was probably delivered from Olsen’s Family Market.

They retired back to their campsite, determined to head upstream in the morning to check out the standing stones that the creek was named for. Their rest was disturbed, however, by a sergeant sent from the camp asking for Dr. Solis to come see to a medical emergency.

This turned out to be a private who was pale, clammy, and severely disoriented. Dr. Solis’s examination found that he seemed to be suffering from severe anemia, and had a hard lump under his skin near his appendix. The young man responded strangely to Solis’s questions and actions, seeming to answer questions that hadn’t been asked, or answering in the wrong order. Blood drawn looked almost blue, and quite watery.

During the examination, the doctor noticed that one of the man’s ears seemed to be deformed, with some sort of ribbed growth within the cartilage stretching and distending the shape of it. As he watched, the ribs seemed to extend, stretching the skin and cartilage of the ear even further. When he touched it with a probe, the taut skin split.

While the doctor was asking the sergeant for details of when the illness had come on, the man died.

Aaron and Roxy, looking around, found some strange crystals in the mud on the man’s boots – things that looked like tiny, strange snow men, with two faceted spheres attached to each other, and a long, thin spike ending in a weird starburst jutting from the smaller sphere at right angles to the rest of the thing. A small fringe of spikes also ran down each side of the smaller sphere. The largest of the crystals was about twice the size of a grain of rice, and most were significantly smaller.

Talking to the Lieutenant and the dead man’s squadmate, the characters could find no explanation for the strange illness, nor the tiny crystals. The body was removed and would be sent to the hospital for an autopsy the next morning, and the Lieutenant warned about possible infection or influenza in the camp.

And that’s where we left things last night.

This is the first investigation that’s stretched into two nights, which is fine, because now I get to spend a little time fleshing out the back nine, as it were. I asked the players to think about what they’re planning to do next, and to let me know what their thoughts are. Sure, the game works as an improvised scenario, but if I have a couple of weeks to think up cool stuff to slip in when appropriate, why shouldn’t I take advantage of it?

Anyway, another fun game, with some nice creepy in it. Still fairly low-key, but that’s the way I like the horror campaigns. Keep the mythos strange, incomprehensible, and at a distance as long as possible, so it stays frightening.

Next game is scheduled in two weeks’ time. I’m looking forward to it.

From the Armitage Files: The Helping Hands

**Potential Spoilers**

The Armitage Files is an improvised campaign structure. It uses a number of stock pieces, such as NPCs, organizations, and locations, that are strung together by individual GMs to fit player action. The adventures I create with it may or may not match any other GM’s version of the campaign. That means that reading these posts may or may not offer spoilers for other game groups.

**You Have Been Warned**

At the end of last session, I gave my players the first two document hand-outs for the campaign, and asked them to discuss them via e-mail and come up with a couple of potential avenues of investigation that I could develop for this session. I provided a few clues to answer some of their questions, also via e-mail.

Now, I had struggled over whether or not to do that. After all, one of the main focuses of the GUMSHOE system is finding clues. I worried that providing clues outside of the game was essentially stealing thunder from the game session, and might undermine actual play. In the end, I decided to go with it for a few reasons:

  1. Some questions were things that they would just know about things, through skills like Oral History or Streetwise, and it seemed silly to wait until the game session to give them that information.
  2. Some of the questions they were asking just closed of blind alleys for them, avenues of investigation that were both uninteresting* and unproductive.
  3. I wanted them to be fully invested in the adventure during the session, and I didn’t want them suddenly deciding to jump to some other avenue of investigation that I hadn’t considered and prepared. That means making sure they have enough information to be happy with the choice they made.

It seemed to work fairly well, and they picked two threads that they wanted to chase down in the session. I worked out what was going on with both of them, so that whichever one they felt like going after, I had an idea of what they would find.

Without giving away too much of what’s going on in the meta-structure of the campaign, I do want to say that determining what’s going on was a little trickier than I had expected. There’s a question of where in the narrative the characters come in that really needs careful consideration, and I had to rework one of the investigation spines I was building a couple of times to make it work the way I needed it to, given all the other information that I have about the big picture. That’s kind of vague, I know, but my players read this blog, and I don’t want to say too much about the overarching campaign secrets.

For games like this one and Fearful Symmetries, I’ve been using a fairly different method of creating adventures than I do with things like D&D. In D&D, there’s a lot of fairly careful balancing of combat encounters that goes into building an adventures, but the emphasis in both GUMSHOE and DFRPG is more narratively-centred, and the stats are far easier to improvise on the spot, so I find that it’s easier to shape the encounter to what I need on the fly. That means that the entire adventure structure can be looser, and more free-form and character-driven*.

What I do in these games is essentially build a relational mind map of the situation. I put the various elements that I know are part of the situation in circles on a blank piece of paper – the various NPCs, organizations, items, events that I want to have happen, etc. Then I connect them with lines and arrows labeled by the relationship between the various elements. So, I may have an arrow from one NPC to another marked Wants to kill and another arrow back labeled Wants to avoid. As I map out the relationships this way, I add more elements that are needed in other circles, mapping in their relationships as needed, until I have a solid idea of what the entire situation is, and what will happen without player character involvement. Then I look for places where I can let the characters see an edge of the situation to hook them in*.

In play, I look for ways to subtly (or not so subtly, in some cases) show a link from the element the characters get interested in to one or more other elements in the structure. As they explore this situational map, I keep thinking about responses, both from the elements the characters are interacting with, and from other elements that may be affected by the interaction, and trot those out as appropriate. These responses can be anything from cutting and running to sending some guys to explain why the characters don’t want to be poking around any more.

So far, it’s been working pretty well, and I’m enjoying both the reduced prep time* and the way I’m finding my way back to improvisational GMing.

So, when we got together for last night’s game, the characters decided to chase down a certain encyclopaedia salesman (named Philip or Philips) who may or may not have witnessed the sacrifice of a hobo by a charitable organization called The Helping Hands.

Aaron did some library legwork, finding first of all which encyclopaedia companies had salesmen in the area, and then sent them telegrams, asking for the contact information of the salesmen, and found one named Phil Hughes. The gang sent him a letter asking for him to call on Roxy, who posed as Twyla Petty, a pretty young ladder-climber who had inherited a pile from her father and was looking to better her mind in order to attract the right kind of husband. They seeded the hotel suite they rented with a number of Masonic items, because according to the documents, Phil has a real distrust and fear of the Freemasons, and they figured that this will be the first stage in setting him up for a follow-up meeting where they gain his trust and get him to help them*.

Well, it kinda worked. Phil was distrustful of the Freemasons, but he also revealed to Roxy that he was, in fact, a member of The Helping Hands, and very proud of the charitable work they do. After the appointment, they followed Phil back to the rooming house where he stays in Arkham, and then followed him around the rest of his four-day stay in town. Nothing suspicious.

So, they turned their attention to The Helping Hands, got a list of the local chapter officers, scoped out the chapter house both in Arkham and in Kingsport, and staked out the Arkham chapter house during a bi-weekly meeting. When that wrapped up with nothing suspicious, they decided to break into the building to see if they could find anything incriminating.

There was nothing out of the ordinary inside, until they found a hidden fire safe in the floor of the office. A low, raspy voice, coming out of the darkness, told them to leave it alone and get out. There followed a good several minutes of creepiness, with the group debating what to do in hushed whispers, shining their flashlight around in futile attempts to find the speaker, and a horrible moment for them when they heard little scuttling feet above them, and looked up to see a trap door into the attic.

And then something small and nasty dashed out of the darkness and sliced the back of Roxy’s stocking.

Dr. Solis, rather affronted and indignant at this sort of treatment, convinced the others that they definitely needed to open the safe now. Everyone had taken at least a couple of points of Stability loss by this time, and then the voice from the shadows said, “I know who you are.”

That was about the last straw. Roxy made a Locksmith spend to open the safe quickly, and they found inside a few bundles of cash, a deed to the building they were in and a farm outside of town, and a large hand-written ledger book with The Book of the Voice written on the title page. The thing in the darkness said, “You have sealed your doom.”

Roxy had had enough of this, and leaped across the room to turn on the electric lights, catching the thing by surprise. Aaron was looking in the wrong direction, but Roxy and Solis both saw this. Stability checks for them, and Roxy wound up Shaken. The thing vanished into a hole in a corner, and Aaron decided they had to burn the building down, so they did.

They retreated to Aaron’s shop to drink a great deal and examine the book. Here are the stats I came up with for it:

The Book of the Voice is a large ledger filled with the handwritten dictation of the Emissary, the revealed wisdom of the Voice. The Helping Hands keep it in a locked fire safe in the floor of the chapter house office. Most of it is a litany of promises from the Voice to the faithful, reinforcing their sense of entitlement and amorality. Sprinkled in among this are observations about the signs of the advent of the return of the Great Ones and what will follow.

Resource Tome: +1 Cthulhu Mythos, 1 dedicated pool point for questions about the end of the world, the outer gods, and witches.

Magic Potential: 1

Spells:Invocation of the Emissary (Contact Rat-Thing)

Aaron decided to take the next couple of days to pore over the book, while Roxy and Solis went to investigate the farm – the Armitage document claimed that the sacrifice of the hobo took place in a barn. When they got to the farm, Solis went to look at the buildings while Roxy waited in the car on the main road, across the mostly-barren fields.

Now that the party was split, I decided to unload on them. Roxy, waiting on the road, saw a plume of dust coming down the road toward her. It resolved itself into a truck full of large burly men, and she decided not to wait around to see what they wanted, taking off across the field toward the barn where Solis had gone. On foot, of course, with the axe-handle-wielding farmhands hot on her heels.

Solis, meanwhile, had found a patch of disturbed earth in the barn that was thick with maggots. Digging in a little, he found the flayed forearm of a man, just as he felt the double barrels of a shotgun press to the base of his skull.

And Aaron started hearing a horribly familiar voice calling his name in his rooms above his bookstore. And then the rat-thing attacked.

I tried to run the ensuing scenes the way you would see them in a movie, jumping from focus to focus, and that worked fairly well at first, but then Aaron killed the rat-thing with his first shot the second it exposed itself, and things focused on the farm for the rest of the climactic scene, with Solis and Roxy eventually shooting and killing most of their attackers, though there was a good bit with Solis and one of the thugs wrestling on the ground over the shotgun, trying to force the barrel towards each others’ face, until Roxy pistol-whipped the bad guy into submission.

At this point, I had no idea where the adventure would go, but Roxy decided to make a substantial Cop Talk spend to get word to the right people on the police force to investigate the farm and check for the bodies in the barn. The police came to arrest the Helping Hands officers, finding one missing, but taking the other two into custody. They hanged themselves in their cells over the next couple of days.

Aaron burned the body of the rat-thing, along with The Book of the Voice*, though not until he had learned enough from it to get the Cthulhu Mythos point and spend an experience point on getting a point of Magic.

And that’s where we left it. I’ve got one scenario spine still in my notebook, and have asked the players to decide between this session and the next if they want to pursue that one, or something else.

All in all, a good game, I thought.


*To me, at least. Back

*I like D&D. I run D&D. D&D is fun. But no matter how much you like apples, you’ll get bored of them if they’re all you ever eat. And yes, D&D can be as rich and story-centric as any roleplaying game, but the mechanical complexity of combat means that during prep, the GM spends a substantial portion of time building the right balance and mix of opponents for combat encounters. Back

*In The Armitage Files, the hook is built into the campaign, with the mysterious documents making strange references, so that part is easy. Back

*All of which is focused on building evocative, interesting story elements, rather than number crunching. Back

*Yeah, they’ve been watching a lot of Leverage. Back

*For a bibliophile, he spends a lot of time burning books. Back

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

Trail of Cthulhu Playtest

This past Saturday evening, my friend Michael ran a playtest of Trail of Cthulhu, from Pelgrane Press, written by Ken Hite. I talked a little bit about reading the game way back here, but this is the first time I’ve played it.

One of the big things standing in the way of running a playtest of the game is the character creation system. It’s complex enough, with enough choices the players need to make at every step, that it requires a pretty solid understanding of the rules before building characters. And, in a playtest, you can’t count on the players to read any of the rules. So, that means pregenerated characters, which takes more time for the GM. Also, the points you get for investigative abilities are based on the number of characters in the game, so if you’re doing pregens, you need to know how many people will be playing – in my experience, not always possible with a playtest or one-shot.

In short, I’ve always thought that Pelgrane Press could do themselves a big favour by posting some pregens for their GUMSHOE games – ideally, complete parties of two, three, four, and five characters. It certainly would have got me playing the games a lot sooner.

This need has been met for ToC by an introductory scenario available for download on their site: The Murderer of Thomas Fell. While the characters are specifically for the scenario, they can certainly be used in other adventures.

Now, I’m not going to give you a bunch of spoilers – we played the game, we sort-of-solved the mystery, and we kinda-won – which is par for the course in a Purist Cthulhu game. We all had fun and liked both the system and the story. After the game, we had a bit of a discussion about it, and came up with these thoughts:

  • The game really demands a fair bit of input from players to keep it from devolving into a story being read to you by the Keeper. Specifically, the players need to develop familiarity with their abilities – especially the investigative abilities – and how to use them in the scenes. Otherwise, it can become a case of the Keeper asking, “Okay, who’s got Accounting? There’s an Accounting clue here.” Now, this will come with practice, both the input from the players in the correct circumstances (“I use Accounting to look through the papers in his business desk to see if there’s anything hinky.”) and the way the Keeper deals with it.
  • Combat is fast and can be surprisingly deadly. Especially for humans. The bad things are always tougher than you. And this is as it should be. There was a wonderful feeling of panic in the one real combat we had in the game.
  • The lightness of the rules really lets roleplaying shine through. Even with the pregens, pretty much everything that happened was the result of character personality interacting with the situation. The ending of the adventure was pretty much entirely dictated by the emotions of the characters, with very little in the way of dice rolling or use of rules. And I found that ending to be immensely satisfying, dramatically speaking.
  • Specialization among the characters is key. While the spend mechanic means that the person with the highest rating in a skill can only outdo the others a limited amount of time, it’s good to have at least one relevant investigative ability at a higher level than the others in the group have. My character had only a couple of irrelevant ones at high levels, and he didn’t get to find as many clues, etc. Which is okay in a single session, but would get tiring over time in a campaign.
  • The scene mechanic – letting the players know when the characters have got all the available clues from a scene and telling them to move on – was something that I thought would be awkward and artificial in play, but really worked very nicely. The first time Michael used it, it was a little disorienting and surprising, but then it just worked very smoothly.

All in all, a fun game and a big success. Thanks to Michael for beating me to running the game, and to Sandy, Jen, Fera, and Tom for playing with us.

Now I just need to convince Michael to run a campaign…

Rough Magi(c)k(s)

Gonna talk about two different things, now. They’ve got similar titles, and both deal with Lovecraft; one’s a DVD and the other is a game supplement.

Rough Magik

This is a television pilot from the BBC that never got made. It’s available on DVD from Lurker Films, on Volume 2 of the H.P. Lovecraft Collection – Dreams of Cthulhu: The Rough Magik Initiative.

The set-up is simple: twenty years ago, a group of covert operatives in the UK ran into a cult that worshiped a strange, ancient god that slept and dreamed beneath the seas. I don’t recall them using the name Cthulhu in the episode, but the sculptures and themes make it very clear that that’s who they’re talking about. They called themselves the Night Scholars, and the cult was called the Dreamers. Through great sacrifice and skill, the Night Scholars pretty much wiped out the Dreamers, though most of the Night Scholars wound up dead, insane, or exiled.

Now, the cult is stirring again, and the powers-that-be in the British government find they need to reactivate the Night Scholars they had previously disavowed and driven away.

If that sounds like a great framework for a Delta Green campaign, you’re not alone in thinking so.

Now, as I said, the series never got made, but the DVD has a pretty detailed description of the episodes that would have been made. In fact, according to the list, the episode on the disk is, in fact, episode 2: An Age of Wonders. The plan was for 14 episodes, and the brief descriptions of each of them make me very, very sad that they were never produced.

I can understand why, though. This is powerful, disturbing stuff, both on a horror-story level and on a human level. The episode on the disk opens with a middle-class mother sacrificing her young children to Cthulhu. There are scenes of atrocities in the Falklands as part of the story. Some unfriendly things are said about what people are capable of.

They manage all of this on what seems a shoestring budget. They use the cheap option for night-time scenes that we all know and love from low-budget kung-fu and horror movies – film during daytime, and use a dark filter. The scenes of gore and dismemberment are done in quick cuts (so to speak) and uncertain lighting. Most of the true horror creeps in as you start to think about the implications of what you’ve just seen or heard, rather than from buckets of blood or rubber monsters jumping out at you.

There are four other shorts on the DVD:

  • Experiment 17, which does a great job of looking like a WWII German Army archive film of a paranormal experiment gone horribly, horribly wrong.
  • Experiment 18, which is a sort of sequel, and loses a lot by abandoning the stark, simplistic style of 17 in favour of trying to tell a longer, more complex story.
  • The Terrible Old Man, which is pretty good, but longer than the pay-off is worth, in my opinion.
  • From Beyond, which shows the futility of getting actors to speak the dialogue Lovecraft wrote for his characters.

There’s also a bunch of extra stuff that’s of interest to Lovecraft and/or horror movie aficionados.

As I said, I’m very sad that the series never made it past the pilot, but I’m very glad to have the pilot. You should get it and watch it, if you like Lovecraft.

Rough Magicks

This is a sourcebook for Trail of Cthulhu, from Pelgrane Press. First thing you need to do is check out this cover art. That, to me, is the essence of magic in the Cthulhu mythos. “Yay! My spell worked! My dark god has arrived and OH MY GOD IT’S EATING ME!!!”

The book is written by the illustrious and inventive Ken Hite, and offers an expansion on the magic system from the core Trail of Cthulhu rulebook. It’s short – 38 pages, including a new character sheet – and inexpensive – $9.95 for the hard copy. And it’s quite good.

The new system is pretty light, consisting of just adding a new ability (Magic), and saying basically “Use this instead of Stability when you do magic stuff.” It’s a little more complex than that, and the book does a decent job of spelling out just exactly how it all works, but there’s not that much more to it.

There is also the obligatory collection of new spells, some examples of how to use the Idiosyncratic Magic from the Bookhounds of London campaign framework, and an analysis of what magics Lovecraftian magic Lovecraftian.

The two parts of the book that I really love, though, are very short. One is a page-long sidebar called “Names to Conjure With,” which gives the Keeper a list of names of historical or fictitious magi to seed into histories or spells or scrolls or whatever. I love stuff like this, that lets me name drop and create a sense of a vast mystical world lying below the surface of the mundane one.

The other part runs two whole pages, and gives a variety of options (reminiscent of the section on Gods and Titans in the core book) for what magic actually is. My favourite has to be the idea of it being the corrupted bio-technological operating system written into the DNA and crystalline structure of the world by the Elder Things. Using magic means hacking the degenerate code fragments still in place.

Anyway, as I said, it’s a short book, so this is a short review. I like it. If you play Trail of Cthulhu, or even Call of Cthulhu, there’s a lot in this little package to take your game up a very weird notch or two.