Saturday, January 9, 2016

Building a Mystery, Part 5: Kill Your Darlings

art by Fufu Frauenwahl
Continuing on with my series on how to construct a Call of Cthulhu one-shot scenario for use at conventions, we come to an interesting conundrum.

"The Haunting of Holdernesse Hall" needs a massive, well, overhaul.  Reading and rereading through my notes, I realized how reliant the adventure was on the players following through on almost-red herrings and side-acts, with no real, solid "main story" to explore.  It would essentially rely on the players to follow every NPC around, get their stories, and then they would still stumble unarmed and unprepared into Gol-Goroth's lair and, presumably, gaping maw because nothing is tied together particularly well.

If I were writing a short story of Lovecraftian fiction, this would not be a bad thing; this is essentially the structure of "The Call of Cthulhu" in the first place, after all.  But I have grave concerns about it working as a convention game where we need to be on point and keep digressionary adventuring to a minimum due to time constraints.  I'm not sure if I've mentioned it previously or not, but I don't even like to completely fill the standard four-hour time slot if I can help it - I'd rather run a three-hour session, because A) that's a bit less exhausting for me to deal with as running games taking a great deal of energy out of me and B) it gives players time to find food between games, shop at the vendors' tables, etc., and not feel rushed between games.

So I'm not feeling real confident about running "The Haunting of Holdernesse Hall" right now, and that's a good thing.  I've run a lot of crappy one-shot adventures over the years, especially at conventions.  I had one mortifying experience where the Call of Cthulhu adventure I showed up to run was completed by the players in under an hour because it had been so poorly written (by me - this was no published adventure.  It wasn't even really an adventure so much as a setpiece).  But writing and running bad adventures allows us to learn and write and run better adventures later on.  A big part of my education as a Game Master was a crash-course, rewriting the classic Cthulhu campaign "Shadows of Yog-Sothoth" as I ran it.

This is okay.

I've removed the listing for "The Haunting of Holdernesse Hall" from the event board at Running GAGG XX in 2016, and replaced it with a new adventure, "Helping Hands," built using the methods I've already outlined, which will be a modern-day game with the players taking on the roles of a CSI team confronted with grisly and possibly occult homicides.  But I'm not going to talk about that.  I'm going to move on to the next stage in the procedure with "Holdernesse Hall" still being my example.

The next step, for me at least, is to create the pregenerated characters I'll be handing out and tying them in to the story I've constructed.

Six investigators is the maximum I'll do at a convention game, having learned the hard way how difficult it is for me to deal with anything more than that, and with each additional investigator it gets harder and harder to give them a reason to be there.  So I've already laid out my six or "Holdernesse Hall":

  1. The American Heir(ess): the grandson/daughter of the old Duke via an illegitimate son, as the only living blood relation of the Duke, while they cannot inherit the titles they can inherit the property.  They are hated by the Duchess for being continued evidence of her husband's infidelity.  Is not really interested in inheriting much of anything, but the recent death of a spouse has them in need of time away from home.  
  2. The Doctor: the Duchess' live-in physician, she financed his way through medical school years ago on the understanding that upon completion he'd serve her faithfully.  Was the only one present at the Duke's sudden passing.  Is of the opinion that the Duchess "owes" him for something best left unspoken, and intends to inherit much when she passes.  May or may not be descended from Colonel Sebastian Moran, the sharpshooter deemed "the second most dangerous man in London" by Sherlock Holmes.  
  3. The Chauffeur: A career criminal and long-time armed bank robber, he's taken a job with the Duchess in order to lay low until the heat's off.  In the meanwhile, he's buried the loot from his most recent bank job behind Mary's Tower, leaving it there until it's safe for him to start spreading the cash around.  Jumpy and nervous because two compatriots from the last job, whom he double-crossed on his way out of the heist, have been lurking around, looking for him.  
  4. The Groundskeeper: Posing as a simple gardener and traditional English man of the soil, he is in fact an undercover detective from Scotland Yard, looking for evidence of the Chauffeur's involvement in the recent heist in order to arrest him.  He also has his eyes peeled for the Chauffeur's former companions and may come to suspect some of his Hall-mates of causing trouble.  
  5. Grandchild #1: The offspring of the Duchess' adopted son, this one is a rowdy drunk and rugby hooligan who cares little for the Holdernesse titles and sitting in Parliament and all that, and is only concerned with the amount of rampant totty he could get with the family fortune.  Is just the sort of belligerent who isn't afraid to bully everyone around him to get his way.  
  6. Grandchild #2: The other offspring of the Duchess' adopted son, this one is more scholarly and less athletic.  Rather than bully and use aggression to get their way, Grandchild #2 is a slimy little toady, flattering and manipulating, and not above a bit of blackmail.  Edmund Blackadder would be proud.  
You can see in these brief descriptions that I've tried to give all the PCs ties to the Hall and reasons to interact with each other.  Most of them also have reasons to interact in various ways with the Duchess.  As mentioned previously, I like to give PCs in convention games reasons to distrust, or even dislike, each other, and then thrust them into a situation where they're forced to put that aside.  It makes for very memorable play, I find.  And if they die because they were too invested in bickering among themselves to form a united front against the Mythos, so much the better.  I've never personally seen that happen, but I'm sure at some point it must.

I keep the actual generation of the characters simple - nowadays I use the 7th Edition Quick-Start rules to create characters quickly and have characters be pretty roughly balanced between them.  I try to keep everyone within about 10-20 Sanity Points of each other especially; I generally try not to let it seem like one character or another is "protected" by having 20-30 extra SAN points.

So the scenes that compose the scenario are now written, the NPCs are written up, and the player characters have been generated.  What comes next?

I'll generally give the adventure a last going over to tighten any loose pieces and to look for places where I can specifically tie the player characters into the story - for example, "PC #3 will recall having read something similar to the story he's hearing from the NPC.  A search through his personal library will turn up the book he's thinking of."

If there are any handouts called for by the adventure, I'll make sure they're written here as well.  For example, if I were to be continuing with "The Haunting of Holdernesse Hall" this season I would probably do four handouts:

  • A modern book of folklore's recitation of the legend of the Holdernesse Toad
  • A medieval account of the battle against the Toad, potentially in Latin
  • A Roman-era account (in Latin) detailing a cult and its unclean, toadlike god
  • A Regency-era diary suggesting the former Duke of Holdernesse reawakened the Holdernesse Toad.
Once that's done, I make sure everything's printed out (I *hate* the idea of having my laptop at the table at a convention game - it feels profoundly disrespectful to the players in front of me, plus some conventions don't allow GMs to plug electronics in, so it's just easier to have a binder with my notes in protective sheets), organized and ready to go.  I've got a special binder that's just for Call of Cthulhu scenario notes and a special bag that I just carry my gear in for conventions.  Unnecessary, maybe, but it's part of my ritual preparedness.  

And that's it for this series.  Hope it provides some other Keepers out there with help preparing adventures.  If it does, write me and let me know.  

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