Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Trail of Cthulhu: Playing Not So Quiet

Pelgrane Press publishes quite a few very high-quality modules for Trail of Cthulhu, several of which are in the recent compilation Out of Time. The Black Drop is definitely the best Cthulhu adventure I've ever played in any system. But running these as one-offs presents certain difficulties, as does getting players up to speed with the style of Gumshoe. This piece is about my experience running one of the modules in Out of Time, Not So Quiet, both for my local players and at a local game convention. It's got my tips for running it and Trail of Cthulhu in general.

Needless to say, there are massive spoilers ahead for the module.

Here is the brief teaser for the module, copied from Pelgrane Press website: Bullet-ridden, bruised and bloody, the Investigators, soldiers and nurses in the Great War, are brought from the frontline to Military Hospital Number Five. Once the haze of morphine clears, they sense a brooding malevolence and they will soon realise there are worse things in this life than a bullet wound.

One of the biggest problems with running Cthulhu adventures is getting everyone on the same page with respect to style. People's RPG experience with the Cthulhu mythos runs a very wide range, from action-adventure thrillers to stark psychological nihilism. With one-shot modules, if players don't know what to expect, it's hard for them to know how to respond. It's terrific that Trail of Cthulhu supports a wide range of play styles, and has put some effort into defining "pulp" and "purist" both stylistically and mechanically. But players often need more. Not So Quiet is not really purist in the strict sense of the style, but is constrained (with only one real location, Military Hospital Number 5), psychological, and fairly dark. I would say it tends strongly towards purist. But when you tell a group of random convention players that a module is "purist" or "very pulpy", what some seem to hear is that it's "a little bit more purist/pulpy than what I'm used to", or "hmm, I wonder what purist means? Maybe I should ask? Nah, I guess I'll find out". The standard experience of Call of Cthulhu seems, in practice, to be well into Trail of Cthulhu's definition of Pulp, with boardgames like Arkham Horror or Mansions of Madness going further that way still. The more purist – and in my opinion much more authentic – Trail of Cthulhu modules are a rather different experience. Not So Quiet has very little action – it's easy to play through it without any action scenes at all – and the players are going to have to do some scary stuff and get hip-deep into the cult to succeed. I still haven't figured out a good way to strongly telegraph the style of the module without spoiling too much of it. I'm open to suggestions. Robin Laws recently wrote about the many disadvantages of premise concealment, so it may just be a matter of getting up in front of the players and saying "this module is darkly purist, has no built-in action scenes, and is going to require heavy use of your interpersonal skills". For one of these one-off modules, the messaging here is really important and I'm still figuring it out.

Along these same lines, supplied pre-generated characters with detailed backgrounds are often tricky. Both The Black Drop and Not So Quiet use them. In The Black Drop, the characters' backgrounds directly influence the story, which seems to be the default expectation of players. Chekov's Gun and all that: if my background says I want to visit Betsy Cove to make some astronomical observations, then trying to do that should drive the story forward. But Not So Quiet doesn't work this way. The players all have backstories that set them up to be in an emotional place to sympathize with the cult in the module. But none of the apparent plot devices are actual plot devices. This has really tripped up players I've played with. The Paul Remi player has inevitably spent a bunch of energy trying to track down his friend Paul LaFarge who went missing at the hospital, but there just isn't anything there in the module as written. And Hauptmann Ranaulf Keppel has always presented major problems. He's a downed German airman behind enemy lines trying to pass off as Canadian, and his player has always embraced this, spending time trying to keep a low profile, hoard supplies, or plot an escape – all of which can easily be counter-productive in terms of keeping the module moving in the right direction. His enemy-combatant status is entirely irrelevant to the story. Nobody is looking for him, and there is no chance he'll be found out unless he jumps up and down screaming "Ich bin Deutscher!". His background was really problematic even when I very explicitly told players up-front that they should let their backgrounds inform their characters' states of mind, but were flavor and not plot points in any way. If you have fewer than 6 players, I definitely recommend ditching Keppel. Otherwise, keep his game stats, drive (Ennui), and flavor but change his background. As written it's a completely irresistible time-sink. Paul Remi's background could also usefully be generalized to make his player less likely to get sidetracked.

The last big-picture issue I need to mention is the balance between gathering information via forensic investigation (looking for footprints, searching archives, testing chemical samples), and using your interpersonal skills to interview people of interest. The player advice section of the Trail of Cthulhu rulebook (largely common to all the Gumshoe games) mentions that many players prefer forensic investigations, and that you neglect personal interviews at your peril. That's great, but in one-shot modules or more casual play where people probably haven't read that, it's not much help. Plus, of course, groups have a preference to do what they find fun which may or may not necessarily be the easy or obvious way. In theory, Gumshoe as a system handles this by having a systemic bias for giving the players information if they have a plausible plan of action. It seems to me that Gumshoe modules should, as a matter of general principle, support multiple paths to important information so clues can come out either through library research or through talking to witnesses (say). Unfortunately this is not the case in Not So Quiet, and forensic investigation is going to dead-end very quickly. This is not to say that there aren't good reasons for this in this particular story; there are. But still. A lot of information exists only in the skulls of NPCs. If the players are to succeed, there simply is no option but to get out there and talk to people, figure out their background and motivations, and infiltrate the cult. So groups who haven't read the player tips section of the rulebook, aren't good at this stuff, or have a serious bias for forensic evidence are going to get quickly stymied. You can actually get something of a read on this pretty early. If the players strike up a conversation with, get some information out of, or show concern for "Cheery" Patterson in the very first scene for posted characters, that may be a good indicator that they'll "get" the module. If they ignore her or don't think she's important, get prepared to be much more aggressive about having your NPCs initiate the interactions with the players, and get ready to pull the trigger on some hard drivers. Don't overreact right away to one scene, of course – just start to prepare yourself.

Here are a few more tips to specific scenes in this module that I've picked up from running it a couple times:

The PCs are divided into two groups, posted and injured, and introduced in two separate scenes, one called Hate for the posted and a player-constructed flashback called The Last Thing You Remember for the injured. Hate is a good and purposeful scene, but the injured characters' introduction isn't providing an opportunity for the characters to bond. I'd suggest that instead of simply asking the players how they got injured, go with "how you got injured and ended up in the same ambulance with the other PCs" to let the injured characters both figure out their introductions and also come up with basic relationships. The module's splitting of the party into two groups at the outset is one of the more interesting elements of the module actually. I've told my players up-front that it's fine if the two player groups only come together late in the game. If that's the way they want to go though, they can't cordon off character knowledge from player knowledge as is the tradition to try to do in many RPGs. Don't duplicate the other half of the players' work because "that's what my character would do", or "my character doesn't know that yet"; use your player knowledge to choose something that both makes sense for your character and is interesting and supportive and moves the story forward. If the players are struggling with this somewhat unusual mode of play, don't mess around, throw the group together quickly.

The characters will almost certainly discover the outlines of the cult and the identities of several cult members basically right away, maybe 30-60 minutes into the game, in the Night Time Perambulations scene. This can be good or bad.  If they use this as a stepping-off point to start talking to those people or otherwise figuring them out, that's great and the module will work the way it's intended. If they draw on their pulp experience to think of cultists as brainwashed zombies and immediately back off and start relying heavily on forensics, that's trouble. If so, you need to start throwing the interesting NPCs at them. Have them strike up casual conversations, be bunked next to them, whatever. Save one of the interesting and sympathetic NPC for the players to get to know before they find out he's a cultist. This may be hard; aggressive players willing pull rank may make take systematic and plausible methods to identify and quarantine all the current cultists, so you may have to go with a new recruit or someone just initiated who hasn't attended the ceremony yet. Almost anyone in the hospital could turn out to be a cultist retroactively. The PCs simply must find their way into the cult. That may require extreme measures, like introducing an NPC with a ret-conned backstory who knows one of PCs who tries to recruit him or her into the cult without any prompting. You need to be really adaptable here and prepared to wing it. It's very easy for the players to go off the grid, and keeping the story's flow going is much more challenging than usual because so much key information only exists inside various NPC's heads, and no amount of Chemistry, Art History, Forensic Accounting, or Library Use is really going to help.

In the Where is Pombal? scene, the Evidence Collection core clue should include some blood. This really bugged one of my players, that Pombal had his throat slit in his tent without there being any blood left behind. He had a point I felt.

In His Enthusiasm is Commendable, Dr. Watts is written as the red herring. I'd be flexible with this. As written he lacks the psychological profile of a cultist, but he's also been the one NPC my players have consistently found interesting enough to engage with, perhaps because he seems intriguingly crazy but obviously not a cultist. But he too could have a dark secret of some kind, perhaps a family member who is insane which drives his research, which might make him an additional access point to the cult if the players go that way. As an aside, there is a natural affinity between Watts and Keppel – Keppel has decent Electrical and Mechanical Repair to latch on to Watts or his equipment as a way to resolve his problems. This has some potential; I didn't figure out that was what the Keppel player was doing in one game until it was too late to work with it. But while it can be a fun roleplaying moment if it doesn't take too much time, and if Keppel (or another character) and Watts bond I think you could improvise a route into the cult there, ultimately this whole thing is a red herring as scripted so either activate it and hook it back into the mainline of the story, or don't let it get bogged down.

Throughout this, keep the player's drives at the ready. Another possible issue with the module is that since many of the characters are clearly and explicitly part of a military hierarchy, there is an obvious and entirely plausible option for them to try to get someone else to resolve their problems for them: report it to their superiors and get them to deal with it, or call in the military police. In the early stages, it's easy to rebuff this. It's a supernatural cult, after all, so you can go to the standard bored/uninterested authority figure. But as dead bodies pile up and military regulations are flagrantly broken, it gets harder and harder to keep things on track if the characters are insistent on following this honestly quite plausible path. Either you reflow the entire module, or the players are doomed to fail. As written it's possible to temporarily suppress the cult's activities by resorting to extreme measures via the chain of command. But this is not how these stories work, and from a practical story-telling point of view it's just not an interesting way to go. For the players to succeed, the cult needs to be stamped out, the only really good way to do that is through infiltration, and only the PCs are in a position to do that. As a consequence of all this, I really think you need to head anything off early, before the option even becomes established. If characters are faltering in their commitment to the cause, call hard drivers until they get the point: Ennui, Curiosity, Arrogance, and In The Blood on the pre-gens are all easy to work with. While ideally of course you'd prefer to not have to invoke the game mechanics associated with drives (other than to hand out stability points when players do the right thing and get into trouble on their own), you'll be far better off if you bring the hammer down earlier, at the first sign of issues, rather than waiting until after things have gotten well and truly derailed. If you're not sure how your players will react to the events, it'll pay to spend a little bit of effort ahead of time thinking about how you'll use the drives if players are not actively deputizing themselves to deal with the problem.

Despite the impression all this may give, I actually think Not So Quiet is a very interesting module. I like that it's dark and constrained, and the idea – that the cultists are just normal people who have suffered as a result of the war, just like everyone else, except that they truly think they've found a good way out – is great, and it both twists around the traditional narratives and gives the players difficult questions to wrestle with. It's a compact module that does what it sets out to do, and gives the GM lots of levers to control pacing. But it's also a difficult module to set expectations for, to get the players into the right frame of mind, and it's very easy for them to flail. None of the times I've run it has it proceeded anything like the way it's laid out in the book. The GM has only a few limited ways to plausibly move around the trail of clues, so the bottom line is you have to be flexible and potentially aggressive in how you use your NPCs. At the end of the day, this adventure is all about the NPCs, their losses and sacrifices. In your gamemastering, focus in on them as your primary tools and the key to telling the story.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011


We wargamers have this genre called "Card Driven Games" (CDGs). Back in the early aughts, this was popularized by GMT to mean "games vaguely based on the ideas in Hannibal: Rome vs. Carthage, a game we know many of you like a lot". But things have sprawled now, and the CDG brand – to the extent it means anything at all anymore – has come to encompass a lot of games which have little or nothing in common. The Kaisar's Pirates, Empire of the Sun, and Combat Commander all show up on GMT's "CDG" page, for example.

What has diluted the idea for me is our propensity, as gamers, to focus on mechanism rather than something that actually matters. Cards, activation points, and events are mechanisms, but if that's all you know, you really know next to nothing about a game. Adding in the topic – say, the First World War – doesn't help much. We're now at the point where "a CDG on the First World War" would be an essentially vacuous description.

What made Hannibal great and distinct was not that it used cards, although clearly that was a powerful design choice. It was that it was a combination of a game that consistently managed tension well, keeping the players in constant, high-stakes conflict, combined with card design as an effective means of portraying the flavor of the period in several dimensions. In the 2nd Punic War, the loyalty of many Italian allies was fluid and having this cleanly abstracted in the card deck is great. The players know Syracuse sympathizes with the Carthaginian cause in a way that neither Roman nor Carthaginian leaders had much control over, and the cards provide an abstract way to play that out. The cards provide reasonable trade-offs between (say) using your limited political capital to get a reluctant general to seriously campaign, and reaching out to Macedon or raising auxiliaries. The system also portrays the Romans, with their rancorous and still-vaguely-Republican Senate, as having more inherent political friction than their less-representative Carthaginian foes, at least until Rome goes all-in as represented by the arrival of Scipio Africanus. All this is easy for me to say, but it requires a lot of attention to detail to get right, especially in a game of the size and scope of Hannibal.

Sekigahara is the first game to come along in a long time that manages, like Hannibal, to deliver the whole package: an elegant, playable, high-stakes game combined with highly evocative player decision-making. It's a game where risky, high-stakes battles produce great tension, and where hidden blocks give a lot of opportunity for bluffing and hoping. It plays in 90-120 minutes of high-speed action with a ruleset that can be easily taught at the game table. But what makes it a great game for me is that at the core of the design, the cards that drive the action, is an abstraction that makes sense and is historically flavorful.

In Sekigahara, you command an uneasy alliance of factions in the quest for control of Japan. Each player controls blocks of various strengths and types from four different factions. The shifting loyalties are controlled by a deck of cards (one for each player), with each card having a symbol for one of the factions. Once battle is joined, to get a block from a given clan to actually fight you need to play a matching card. Card-play alternates back and forth, with whoever is weaker needing to commit enough strength to close the gap. Large armies can be paper tigers due to the lack of sufficient political leverage to control them, while small armies that consist of dependable troops can be potent.

Of course, this being the period that it is, we have to have treachery. Each player has Loyalty Challenge cards which can cause blocks to switch sides if a clan's loyalty is borderline (i.e., if after committing it to battle you can't play an additional matching card to resist the challenge). While these challenges seem to be hard to time and rarely successful, they do make you nervous every time you commit a block with your last card for that clan and are dramatic when blocks actually defect.

Another interesting dynamic is the way cards are cycled. After battle, you replace all the cards you spent. So there isn't a net cost in cards to fight a battle, but the overall loyalty picture of the various clans tends to significantly change. Who knows what happened during the battle to cause the shift – it's below the level of the game – but nonetheless a battle where reach deep into your hand to call on the loyalty of your Samurai is a significant event with hard-to-predict consequences for loyalty amongst your factions. You may lose influence with some of your allies while another becomes more committed.

The thing about Sekigahara is that this relatively simple system creates a lot of the subtle nuance that is the hallmark of a great game. The strongest army is usually a hard core of good blocks from a single one of your factions which you can back up with matching loyalty cards, but this can be risky as a battle that uses up your cards and doesn't bring good replacements can leave that army completely ineffective. Armies of diverse clans don't pack as much punch but there is usually someone in there you can rely on if your opponent seizes the initiative. Battles can be fought for the secondary purposes of determining clan loyalty. You need to know when to press your luck because in the last battle your opponent cycled a bunch of cards and may be looking at a weak hand. And you have to know when to take a deep breath, give up significant tempo, and repair alliances by using the discard and draw action.

The last important thing that makes Sekigahara tick is the geographical layout. The game revolves around 9 castles on the board; Tokugawa starts with 5, Ishida with 4. Both players start with strong bases on opposite sides of the board, and isolated castles strung out in enemy territory. Both sides need to be super-aggressive about taking out the opponent's armies that start in their territory and consolidating control over castles. Both sides face tough choices about how to balance aggression between marching on their opponent's core areas (and relieving pressure on their far-flung outposts) against leaving enough troops behind to clean up their own backfield. Both sides face a huge amount of pressure to take the battle to the enemy, which is great and keeps the game dynamic and moving.

The designer's notes to the game – which are recommended reading if you want to understand what Matthew Calkins has done here – talks about how important personal loyalty was to this conflict, and how the game was designed with that idea at the core. I think Sekigahara does a great job of both capturing something important and interesting about the period and conflict, and bringing it to the tabletop in an elegant, highly-playable, compelling package.