Saturday, November 21, 2015

Building a Mystery, Part 4: The Plot Thickens

Cthulhu by Fufu Frauenwahl
Greetings readers, it's been a bit now since the last entry in this series.  I'd hoped to have more of the adventure plotted before writing this post, but that hasn't really been happening - so now I'm hoping that maybe writing about the process of creating an adventure plot will help me break through that creative block and finish writing this adventure.  I'm planning to run "The Haunting of Holdernesse Hall" at Running GAGG 2016; so I have a few months, but that does not mean I want to leave anything until the last minute.

When I say I'm writing an adventure plot, I don't mean that I'm writing something that's tightly scripted, where the players are tightly bound to a railroad that they can't control or get off of.  I try very hard not to do that.  The way I generally like to write adventures is to provide a strong opening scene to hook the players in and then set up a mystery that demands investigation, either through being particularly gruesome or by playing to the nature of the Investigator characters.  I've got some nebulous ideas in my head for a couple different Call of Cthulhu scenarios in which the player characters are a CSI team, and that's how they get hooked into the scenario.

Once they're hooked into the adventure, I try to let them drive the investigation as much as possible; this is A) sometimes very hard, because sometimes players just want to sit there and be entertained and not take a proactive role, in which case they really should just be watching Netflix instead of wasting everyone else's time at the gaming table, and B) it takes a ton of effort on the game master's part, far more so than an improvisational dungeon crawl does.

To this end, I try to plot out short "scenes" that I can guide the players to when their investigation begins to flag or they start to wonder if anything is going to happen.  With these I try to include either action or a strong expository clue that advances the investigator's understanding of what's going on.  Including both is ideal, but not always feasible.  Here's an example scene from the "Nightmare on the Slopes" modern day adventure I ran at Queen City Conquest:
A Hunt Gone Wrong 
A small posse (consisting of Joe Svenson, Tom Rill, Sheriff Fred Baker, two deputies and a local hunter) is organized and sent to take out the “rogue bear,” aka Sasquatch. If this event takes place after A Robber Reappears, they may be aware that there are in fact three Sasquatches.
 Spot Hidden rolls will reveal footprints in the snow and the occasional oddly snapped branch or piece of tree with the bark peeled back strangely.
 Track rolls will allow the PCs to follow the tracks and, at least once, recognize that the tracks are doubling back and leading the hunters on a circuitous route through the dense pines.
 Listen rolls will allow the PCs to hear heavy breathing among the pines and, once a high-pitched, howling scream echoes among the trees, will allow them to hear a fainter response scream and differentiate it from an echo.
 From the time they entered the woods, the posse was being stalked by the Sasquatches. The big male went ahead, leaving tracks for the posse to follow, while the female and young male followed behind the posse. This is not something the Sasquatches would have thought of on their own; the Lloigor is directing their actions.
 The Sasquatch will attempt to lure/herd the PCs into a particularly dense stretch of woods where they can be separated among the dense, dark pines. Here, they will pick off the posse one at a time, attempting to beat them unconscious or simply disarm them and carry them off to the Lloigor’s lair. They will carry off three victims before breaking off the raid.
As you can see, I don't organize every scene around every investigator being present; with "Nightmare on the Slopes" I decided to test myself and wrote it so that the scenes could be arranged in any order and still tell a coherent story, and ultimately the investigators were not all in one place at one time until the climax of the session.  It made for a very different style of play than the players were used to, and I think it went very well.

I don't know that I'll use this style of scene-plotting, where anything could take place before or after anything else, for "The Haunting of Holdernesse Hall," but before I get too deep into scene plotting, the first thing I need is the Big Problem.

The Big Problem

The Big Problem is the Mythos incursion into our reality - cult activity, summoned horror, etc. - that needs to be addressed by the player characters.

I think for this scenario, the Big Problem needs to be that Gol-Goroth has grown tired of the meager, irregular sacrifices its tiny coven of cultists has been able to supply over the years, and has demanded something more from them; I'm leaning in the direction of this sudden change in desire relating to a milestone in its cycle of existence on Earth; if we go with the idea that the year of the scenario, 1928, is the 200th anniversary of Lady Elizabeth of Holdernesse throwing herself off the balcony in response to the miscarriages caused by Gol-Goroth, maybe Gol-Goroth was revived in 1728 and now needs an extra strong offering to maintain his toehold in our reality.  Maybe he's just sick of squatting in a basement and wants to improve his lot.

Maybe, he's reached out and made telepathic contact with the current Duchess, and has offered her restored youth and vigor (perhaps an empty promise, perhaps not) in exchange for a sacrifice of the right kind.  Such as, for example, the American Heir(ess).

Maybe that's why the American Heir(ess) was contacted and invited to Holdernesse in the first place!

I like this.  I like this a lot.

Opening Scenes and Hooking the Players

Now that we have our Big Problem, we can start hooking the players.  The opening scene needs to introduce the player characters to one another, possibly in media res, as well as introduce the players to the major NPCs.  Lester Dent advocated introducing all the characters of a story in the first 1500 words; it worked for churning out pulp adventures in the 1930s, and it will work for you in producing a Call of Cthulhu adventure now.

Heck, that'd be a good project in and of itself, using Lester Dent's Master Plot to write adventures.  One thing at a time, Bill, one thing at a time...

"The Haunting of Holdernesse Hall" is actually proving to be a less than ideal adventure to use in showcasing how to build an adventure, because I'm realizing how much of it is going to be predicated on the player characters interacting with one another.  And while this is great for me as a game master - I get to sit back and watch the players drive the session and just respond to them, rather than lead them by the nose - it does not lend itself towards interesting discussion or a valuable look under the hood of adventure design.  But we've come this far, and we're not going to chicken out or start over now.

So.  Opening scene.  This I do have already in my notes, drawing off, again, the novel The Evil of Pemberley House.  The session will open with the American Heir(ess) getting picked up at the nearest train station by the Chauffeur just as the skies open up in a torrential downpour.  On the slow drive back to the Hall, their car is shot at - by former associates of the Chauffeur, feeling he chintzed them on their shares of the last heist, but the players and their characters may not necessarily find this out at this point.  The rain will halve all shooting percentages, making death or injury at this point far less likely, but if things start to seem rough the Groundskeeper will hear the shots and (hopefully) come running.  The two ne'er do wells will scurry off into the woods if they see their attempt isn't looking so sure.  The Heir(ess), Chauffeur, and Groundskeeper will make it to the Hall without further incident, where we introduce the other three PCs as well as most of the NPCs.

We're technically starting the adventure off with a red herring, which I've never done before, but I think it should work very well for seizing and holding the players' attention.  I'm a little hesitant about it because this is, recall, a convention game, limited to a four hour time slot, so I can't get too sprawling in my adventure design.

Following this I'm going to run a scene introducing the Duchess and showcasing her attitude towards each of the PCs - including utterly vitriolic towards the American Heir(ess).  I won't say too much about this scene, other than to note I've ripped off a few lines of dialogue wholesale for the Duchess from the Colonel in THE BIG SLEEP.  I ain't ashamed.

I should note, following up on that, that I tend not to script NPC dialogue if I can help it, because there's no predicting what players will ask or say to NPCs, and if I write a piece of dialogue that I consider especially good, the temptation will be there to use it when not appropriate.

So that's two scenes right there,  I'll probably drop a reference here and there within those scenes to the Holdernesse Ghost and the legendary Lambton Toad to whet player curiosity and to quietly get across that these are things relevant to the adventure as a whole.

From here, I think 3-4 more short scenes will do it before the climactic encounter.  I want to do something with the ghost, something with the butler, something on the moor, and maybe one more scene.  And these will not necessarily be utterly discrete scenes; they may flow into each other organically.  So let's take these three and put them in some sort of order:

  1. Lights on the Moor: one or more of the PCs sees lanterns bobbing on the moor in the vicinity of Toad Hill late at night.  Investigation reveals these to at first glance belong to a small group of Irish Travellers, i.e. "pikeys," crossing the moor and valuing their privacy.  This is a front for the cult of Gol-Goroth to ensure they're left alone.  
  2. The Ghost Appears: One of the PCs (most likely the American Heir(ess), but not necessarily) is visited by the ghost.  While frightening at first, if the character can get past the fact that they're interacting with the dead (and believe me, there's going to be a SAN cost to do so), the ghost can reveal that they're bound to the Hall until "the curse" is lifted.  Like most ghosts, this one is vague, and won't just say, "yo, banish that thing in the cellar and I can go to my rest, y'dig?" Maybe they can reveal that the curse was awoken or revived by her husband 200 years ago, and that this year's calling for a big sacrifice.  
  3. The Butler's Scheme: Awoken by the ghost, one or more PCs will encounter the Butler sneaking around with some of the family papers.  If confronted, he can be compelled to explain that he believes the Holdernesse Ritual leads to buried treasure dating back centuries.  Assisting him in his calculations and investigation (with the promise of a share of the treasure) leads the PCs back to Toad Hill.  I think this should be interrupted by the maid hysterically demanding that the butler take her to town now, to marry her, and to get out of Holdernesse.  This, in turn, could be interrupted by either the cultists or the two bandits from the opening scene, leaving the players to deal with some small scale anarchy.  
And that's something to keep in mind: We have these two random elements in the form of the bandits, who want to take a cut out of the Chauffeur's loot from the last heist (buried in the vicinity of Mary's Tower until the heat's off), and the cultists, who want to appease Gol-Goroth for another year.  If the momentum of the session slows or bogs down entirely, as Raymond Chandler said, "have two guys come through the door with guns."

I'm planning for all the PCs to actually be armed in this scenario, or nearly all, for various reasons - the Groundskeeper has a fowling piece to address the issue of varmints, while the Chauffeur is an armed robber waiting for things to cool down so he can come out of hiding.  The Doctor and the Grandchildren are just terrible people who are willing to wave a gun around if it gets them what they want.  So having the cultists armed is not as one-sided a contest as it might be otherwise.  Given that the Call of Cthulhu rules do give stats for Colonel Moran's Air Gun from the Sherlock Holmes stories, and the Doctor in the novel The Evil of Pemberley House is a descendant of Colonel Moran who has the Air Gun, I'm tempted to carry that over into this adventure.  Sadly for him, given that this adventure takes place in the 1920s instead of the 1970s, I don't think he'll have access to a portable air-compressor to reload the gun on the go.  I'll look into it though.  

And that brings us to the final scene.  The PCs will find their way into the buried temple in time to see the cultist's making their offering to Gol-Goroth (potentially, this offering will be one of the PCs; otherwise, the maid, butler, or cook would be of use) and can try to disrupt the ceremony.  Gol-Goroth slithers up from the pit, making his unclean presence known, and brought face to face with a Thing of the Outer Darkness, the player characters can go mad or try to slay the beast or both.  

This is kind of a mile-high view of breaking the scenario into scenes, and I'm leaving a lot of detail out because I don't want this to be a 20,000 word blog post.  Scattered through and between the "scripted" scenes will be clues and hints to help guide the investigators through the adventure -- a medieval account of Sir Richard of Holdernesse slaying the Lambton Toad with a sword forged especially for the occasion, with three priests laying benedictions on the metal as it was being forged; a Roman-era account of a temple housing an ancient local god on the edge of a moor; etc., etc.  I'm not going to be holding the players' hands, but neither will I be letting them flounder in the wind.  

And I think that's where I'm going to leave off for this post.  

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