Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Building a Scenario Using Sandy Petersen's Lazy Man's Guide (Part I)

Last Saturday I ran Call of Cthulhu.  I really like CoC, but the time I've spent running it pales in comparison to the time I've spent running D&D (3.x and OS) and WFRP (2e).  Part of this is due to the fact that my long running group had multiple people in it who despise CoC.  Still, I like it a lot and it's my wife's absolute favorite game.*  However, my lack of comparative experience makes me extremely nervous every time I'm going to run Cthulhu.

The scenarios I've made that I thought worked the best I made using Sandy Petersen's Lazy Man's Guide to Constructing a Call of Cthulhu Adventure.  While I'm not claiming that any Cthulhu material I've ever produced has been particularly excellent, I thought I'd give a step by step process of how I constructed my last scenario - if only because I'm probably not going to do anything else with the notes.

Today I want to deal with Steps 1-3, which are the shortest steps in my notes.  I'll post what Sandy says to do for each, followed by what I wrote, followed by my commentary if I have any.  

There are three notes I need to make before I start.  First, this was a modern scenario.  I tend not to run my Cthulhu games in the 1920s.  I started my Cthulhu experience with the d20 version, which has surprisingly good mythos and adventure design sections even if you don't like d20 and provides information for running scenarios from 1900 - the present, breaking each decade down and discussing the adventure possibilities it possesses.  Second, I wrote these entries in order and did not go back to revise them after I contradicted them later on in the document.  When I started my notes I thought things would work one way, then as I wrote them I changed it, and during play they were even further refined.  This is how I work at all times in all places.  Third, I have omitted the part where Sandy provides his own examples.  It might be silly for me to write an article providing examples when he already provides his own example, but I actually played mine and can provide some feedback based on that.

Sandy Says
"Step One - The Situation
First, figure out an interesting situation that would be fun to get the players involved with. The easiest way to do this is to pick out a scene, or even an entire plotline, from a film or story you like. Don't worry if it's well-known - by the time we're done, your players won't recognize it. Any film or story will do - whether good or bad."

My Notes
Step 1: Researchers at an Alaskan research station discover an alien well containing a horrid entity from beyond time (a flying polyp?).  It proceeds to kill the shit outta them.

I knew I wanted to set a game in the Antarctic because I love John Carpenter's The Thing, but I didn't want to rip off the premise as much as that one X-Files episode did.  Whenever I design a CoC scenario the first thing I do is flip through my copy of the Malleus Monstrorum until I find a monster I like and then build a scenario around it.  Flipping through I saw that Flying Polyps live in giant stone wells, and I thought that would be a pretty cool thing to find in the ass end of nowhere.

Sandy Says
"Step Two - The Plot

Look at your basic situation and try to see how it can be developed into a story. What is the bad guy trying to do? Are there other important characters? If the plot unfolded without player-character interference, what would happen? To help do this, you can use some simple steps.

Substep Two/A - Who are Available as Victims?
Most Call of Cthulhu investigations have a moderate-to-high death rate. Frankly, you need to provide bystanders, villains, or allies to be killed in the stead of the player-characters.

Substep Two/B - How are the Players Going to Get Involved?

Obviously necessary, but often non-trivial.

Substep Two/C - How can the Plot be Prolonged?

Many possible adventures are not suitable for Call of Cthulhu because they wouldn't last long enough for a good game. More importantly, we need to have excuses to delay the villain's plot to give the player-characters time to figure out what is going on and thwart it.

Substep Two/D - Why Don't the Authorities Intervene?

This is not a problem in every adventure. Often, in fact, the authorities CAN'T intervene because the bad guys haven't done an obvious crime, or because the (the authorities) are hunting the good guys, or because it would be pointless."

My Notes
Step 2

Step 2 A: The players aren’t the only researchers at the station, and the other twenty or so provide plenty of opportunities for victims.

Step 2 B: The players are members of a research team that is supposed to relieve the previous team of duty.  Unfortunately when they arrive the other team is (mostly) already dead.

Step 2 C: Possessed/insane member of first research team trying to delay/kill the PCs, horrid weather conditions, and the desires of the research team could all work to prolong the plot.

Step 2 D: The authorities can’t intervene because of arctic storms.  Even if they did show up, the storm would prevent them from coming in any kind of force.

First, I hate the use of the word "plot" here, but I don't think that hinders the original articles usefulness as a guide.  The "possessed/insane member of the first research team" ended up being the crux of the session that I actually ran, which looking back is sort of ironic since it was originally intended to simply keep the characters busy if I needed more time.  The arctic storms got changed to high gusts of wind in play so that I could establish it as being more unnatural.  "The sky is clear, but there is this heavy wind that carries a strange tone on it."  That sort of thing.

Sandy Says
"Step Three - The Wow Finish

Every scenario should have a great climax."

My Notes
Step 3: The creature escapes from its ancient prison to destroy the entire instillation.  If the PCs haven’t figured out a way to stop it (likely dynamite), it kills them.

I actually put in a way I thought the PCs could stop it!  That's rare for me.  99.9% of the time I come up with a problem and let the PCs come up with a reasonable solution.  I think that a DM (or Keeper or whatever) coming up with their own solution can turn into what RPGnet forum-cant calls "pixel bitching."  Regardless of the source, the phenomenon is bad.

That's all for steps 1-3.  In the next post I'll deal with steps 4 and 5, and then I'll do a post dealing with step 6 (including maps!) and finally I hope to have a write up from one of my players showing their perspective on the whole deal.

*I've mentioned in numerous places that I'm more of a horror fan than a fantasy one, and my wife is the same way.

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