Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Building a Mystery: Creating a Call of Cthulhu One-Shot from the Ground Up, Part 1

I've been reading the novel The Evil in Pemberley House, by Philip Jose Farmer and Win Scott Eckert - a part of the "Wold Newton" universe of shared fiction, it thrusts Patricia "Pat" Wildman, daughter of James Clarke Wildman (better known as Doc Savage), into a scenario right out of Gothic fiction, despite it's 1970s setting; learning that she stands to inherit the once-noble estate of Pemberley House and the titles that come with it, she struggles with whether or not she wants it, whether or not the estate is actually haunted, and whether or not her insane relatives are trying to murder her or seduce her as a prelude to murdering her.  It's a pretty enjoyable read, and I'll be writing a full review over at my other blog, Paperback Perils, within the next couple days.

While reading it, it occurred to me that the basic set-up here could be used as the skeleton to hang a Call of Cthulhu one-shot on, and from there it didn't take long for me to decide to do so; my home convention, Running GAGG, is rapidly approaching, event submission is already up and eager to take my games, and with it being the 20th annual Running GAGG, and my first as a member of the Cult of Chaos, you goddamn better believe I want to up my game.

Self-reflection being the key to self-improvement, I've been thinking very seriously about where I fall short and where I can improve as a game master, especially when running Call of Cthulhu at conventions.  To that end, I think I will be best served by writing out, and presenting to the world to comment and offer feedback on, my methods of building an adventure.

Are you sitting comfortably? Then we'll begin.

Step One: What's the Situation?

The first step, at least in this instance, is to come up with the skeleton of a situation; I won't say an adventure, or a mystery, because we're not at that point yet; for now, we're just at the point of coming up with a situation.  I often take my situations from other media; for example, at Queen City Conquest last month, I ran Call of Cthulhu adventures taking their situations from the 1977 made-for-TV movie SNOWBEAST and from an unproduced episode of Kolchak: The Night Stalker. Take a look at various movies, books, comics, etc.  You'll find something.

In this case, our situation is "the Duchess of Holdernesse is probably going to die soon, there are people who want that Holdernesse money, and the house may be haunted by a brutally murdered ancestor."

Because this is going to be a convention game, I need to be mindful of my audience; chances are, I will know few, if any, of my players before I arrive to run this game.  This is less a problem at a very small con like Running GAGG that I've been attending for years, because there are a number of "familiar faces" who sign up for my events year in and year out, but the point stands.  So I need to be real careful about what sort of material I include; to that end I'll be leaving the rampant sexuality of The Evil in Pemberley out of the adventure.

Now, this doesn't necessarily sound like a Call of Cthulhu adventure yet, but we're getting there.  Certainly, the idea of buried family secrets coming back to haunt the current generation is a very Lovecraftian one, and I'm making a note of that to ensure I come back and develop that theme more fully in this adventure.

I'm also beginning to think about what era of Call of Cthulhu I want to set this adventure in - the three biggies are the 1890s, the 1920s, and the modern day.  The novel taking place in the 1970s, I'm tempted to make it a modern game, but I think I'm actually going to go with the 1920s -- doing so preserves the clash between gothic horror and "modern" scientific sensibilities, which I like, and also makes it easier for me to tie in some of the Sherlock Holmes canon, as the novel does, without the Great Detective showing up to overshadow the PCs.  The Duchess of Holdernesse, in the 1880s, hired Sherlock Holmes to find her kidnapped son, with the reveal that the Duke's secretary was secretly his illegitimate son who kidnapped the legit son in order to force his father to publicly acknowledge him and allow him some measure of inheritance (joke's on him, British inheritance didn't work that way).  I think that's great, and ties back into the family secrets, and allows me to make one or more PCs the offspring of that bastard, giving them a deeper tie to the story.

What's the Twist?

This doesn't have to be an M. Night Shyamalan level twist.  It's my way of saying, "how am I twisting the situation to make it more original?" I generally try to avoid leaving a situation as is, because that makes it too easy for players to recognize what I'm ripping off and generally makes for a flatter, less exciting session, and the last thing I want, especially for a convention game, is a flat, unexciting session.  So here's where I'm bringing in elements of another piece of media to mix things up - For example, with my "Nightmare on the Slopes" game at Queen City, I twisted SNOWBEAST by bringing in the bank robbery and monster-in-a-cave elements from the '50s B-movie BEAST FROM HAUNTED CAVE, and the "psychic leads investigators to alien horror" element from THE CRAWLING EYE.

The Twist is where I tend to add supernatural/Mythos elements, as well as any other red herrings or complications to keep the adventure from being too linear - though as is often the case, these are best used sparingly, especially in a convention game where you're typically restricted to a four-hour block, and personally I try to keep my convention games to about three hours, giving people more time to get food or, if it's an evening game, I try to be mindful that my players might have a long commute home afterwards.

With this adventure, we already have a supernatural element, however tenuous it may prove to be over the course of the development process, in the form of the Holdernesse Ghost.  I've actually never used ghosts in a scenario I've run, which is kind of surprising upon reflection and also suits me nicely here - one of the ways I've been trying to challenge myself lately in adventure design is to forbid myself the use of more common monsters - Mi-Go, Deep Ones, Ghouls - and find ways to make adventures work with less-common foes.  Having never used a ghost before, it's fair game for me as a "less-common" monster.

But how can I twist the situation presented by the neo-Gothic atmosphere of The Evil in Pemberley House? Well, the nearest town to Pemberley House (henceforth Holdernesse Hall, for my purposes - according to Farmer and Eckert, Holdernesse is an alias Doyle used in the Sherlock Holmes story "The Adventure of the Priory School" to disguise the real participants in the events depicted, part of the conceit of the "Wold Newton" universe of shared fiction) is the fictional town of Lambton.  Lambton brings to mind the legend of the Lambton Worm, a local dragon in the northeast of England.  This brings me to Bram Stoker's novel The Lair of the White Worm, or more accurately, to Ken Russell's psychedelic film adaptation starring Hugh Grant and Amanda Donohue.

If you couldn't tell, the Twist is where my wide-ranging reading in occult literature, conspiracy theories, cryptozoology, and near-encyclopedic knowledge of trashy horror movies tends to come most in handy.

So what can I bring into "The Haunting of Holdernesse Hall" (my tentative title for this one-shot; I've found that players seem to respond well to alliteration) from THE LAIR OF THE WHITE WORM? Well, what if Holdernesse Hall was built over top the ruins of a Roman-era temple, and descending into the Hall's cellars is a descent into structures built during Hadrian's day? And what if that temple were dedicated, not to one of the familiar, anthropomorphic Roman gods, but to something loathsome and foul, something that dwelt there long before the coming of the Romans, the Britons, the Saxons, etc.? What if it dwells there still, buried but undying?

If we do this, then it turns the initial set-up -- the Hall, the ghost, the inheritance -- into something of a red herring, a means of bringing characters together before all Hell breaks loose.  Or is it a red herring? Can we tie the Thing in the Ruins to the Holdernesse of today? I don't see any reason why not.  Gothic fiction, from which this adventure is drawing heavily already, loves to deal in Dark Secrets; perhaps the cult that worshiped the Thing in the Ruins in centuries past has continued on, furtive and isolated, to the modern day, drawing in adherents here and there, never growing particularly large - and who's to say that one of those adherents wasn't a member of the Holdernesse family?

"The Haunting of Holdernesse Hall" is already shaping up nicely; I'm going to draw this post to a close, and next time I'll discuss the process of putting flesh on the skeleton we've outlined.

No comments:

Post a Comment