Call of Cthulhu is missing an act
Through all this endless back and forth about when and why it absolutely isn’t OK to drop an encounter on somebody that you thought they might like, a realization came to me – one that James Maliszewski apparently had years ago but, y’know, I can be a bit slow.
The best way to start an adventure path is probably from a sandbox.
James does this all the time in Dwimmermount, by dangling hooks in front of his players, which they just happen to find while they’re doing what they do every day – looting Dwimmermount. Here’s a magic item. It transports you somewhere mysterious, where there’s a load of peculiar stuff, that seems relevant to Dwimmermount. There’s a scroll which tells you about another location elsewhere. The guy who translates scrolls wants magic red spoons: he’ll trade info for them. Info that leads into or back to or across other plots. And so on.
Yeah, I know, it’s not rocket science. But thinking about it made me realize how often I haven’t done it in the past. How whole games have somehow decided to forego this bloody obvious method.
Including my most favouritest game of all, Call of Cthulhu, which routinely starts with some bunch of freshly rolled characters receiving a disturbing letter from their uncle – ie a mission briefing that tells you “the plot’s that way, go engage with it.” Now I’d felt uncomfortable about this method in the past. I’d agreed with other players that it was “a bit contrived,” that the PCs often didn’t have good reasons for abruptly getting in up to their necks in trouble that would probably kill them, after driving them mad. But I hadn’t really thought about what was wrong with it from an RPG point of view.
Here’s what I think is wrong: it robs your 3 act drama of its first act, which is normally dedicated to getting to know the PCs. Zak pointed out that CoC is about The Menace, and that’s what everyone cares about, and nobody’s really interested in the 1920s as a setting itself. And that’s Act 2 stuff* – the antagonist or antithesis – but skipping Act 1 means you don’t lay out the stakes – what The Menace menaces. And that’s probably why The Menace always threatens to unmake the world and all creation – because that’s a stake the players can get without any context. But if you had an Act 1 and you actually knew and cared about your characters and they had some history and some bit of the world that was their own to defend, then The Menace would have more purchase in the world: it would have specific things to get its claws into. And the PCs would have more tools or situations against which to place it.
So I still love CoC, but in future I think I’m going to seed CoC adventures in other, persistent settings. Let’s say the PCs are pirates. They do their pirate thing: they annex some secluded coves and get some reliable fences for their loot and try to recruit crewmen and follow rumours of richly-laden ships and periodically pretend to go legit so they can knock over a warehouse or a governor’s palace and so on. And while they’re doing this they get to hear about disturbing stuff, and they get to choose what to do about that. And in this way they can build up a general picture of the world and make their own deductions about what might and might not fit in it. And they’ll get to hear about some things that definitely don’t fit: that menace the world they’re adapting themselves to exploit.
The Orthodox School of Robbery would chime in at this point and say “yes, yes, but you’re still thinking about it wrong right up front there: you’re not running a CoC game at all, you’re running pirates, and if you try to force your players into one when they came to play pirates they’ll be pissed off – because you’ll be railroading in their sandbox.” Yeah well, obviously it’s player directed: as a DM I’d have to chill, have NPC schemes going on but no overall plot and all that. Sure. But there’s a cost to the pure sandbox model, too: where CoC classically lacks a first act, the classical sandbox never gets out of first. Because nothing else in the world is as important as the PCs and their decisions, the world can never develop its own “agency,” to use the buzz-word of the month. Start actually making important changes to the world because the PCs didn’t engage with that scheme you told them about and you’ll be accused of railroading them into engaging with it.
Well, perhaps. But that’s actually how the real world works. That would be a breathing, dynamic world with consequences both for action and inaction. Maybe in such a world the opinions and actions of NPCs could also matter. In a world like that there might even be room for an Act 3 that didn’t consist purely of bookkeeping – counting loot, leveling up, looking for the next dungeon.**
* CoC seems to be deliberately stuck in Act 2 all the time, actually: Sandy Petersen’s onion skin model, in which solving each mystery leads to a bigger, deeper one, is an ingenious method for turning Act 3 resolutions back into Act 2 introductions of the antithesis. And it’s orthodox dogma that you cannot eventually win.
** Note, I’m not talking about an “end game” here, I’m talking about closing particular chapters or threats or opportunity windows in the world, not the End of the Campaign.
Reward for getting this far:
Mirror of Heissenbergen. Using this mirror the PCs can capture one creature or object from the world. It will then remain in the mirror until released (say, by a magic word or gesture). If the creature or object has some sort of will of its own, roll a D30 and subtract the creature’s wisdom or charisma from the result. It will escape from the mirror in that many days, unless released earlier. If nothing has been captured but the mirror is set to release anyway, small hot stones will spit intermittently out of the mirror until the release order is canceled.
A surfeit of ogres. Every road out of town abruptly has exactly the same ogre encounter on it. If these ogres are dispatched they will be replaced within d12 hours with a duplicate. The ogres are being put there by the wife of a retired adventurer who lives in town. She’s worried her husband will leave unless he’s discouraged, and she’s got hold of a magic or ultratech replicator from his hoard, that works something like the mirror, above. It’s set to release ogres right now, so that’s what she’s using. If the PCs find the replicator it will have exactly 2 charges left. The retired adventurer may tell the PCs where he got the replicator for a consultancy fee, payable half up front, half on return, but there’s no way he’s going back in there.