Monday, March 5, 2012

Welcome to the SCD - A Campaign for Cthulhu Gaming

In which the phrase, "Luca Brasi sleeps with the fishes", takes on a wholly different meaning from the Godfather movie.

My Monday blogthulhu posts the past month or so have been promoting a theory on structuring a Cthulhu sandbox to maximize player choice and avoid common problems in horror gaming.  Now it's time to bring it all together in a sample campaign structure.  This is for 1920's or 30's Cthulhu gaming, but the theories behind what makes this type of campaign structure work apply to historical and weird horror gaming in other periods, as well.

The Campaign
It's the 1920's in the Big Apple - gangsters, prohibition, the jazz age, and the Harlem Renaissance.  But even on the mean streets of the city, there are some crimes that defy explanation, some events that can't be solved through conventional policework.  When New York's Finest and the suits at One Police Plaza are confronted with bizarre enigmas and mysteries, those cases get shuffled to the NYPD's Special Crimes Division - the SCD - and their set of dusty offices down near the archives.

Special Crimes is an unpopular assignment with the rank and file; folks that make detective there get stuck on long assignments and rarely make sergeant or lieutenant in the boroughs or precincts.  Detectives in the division don't exactly buck for promotions, either.  It's a close knit group with a lot of secrets, and officers get a bit distant after they've experienced a few SCD cases, as if they've seen too much.  The chief has tried to have the division closed a number of times, but the commissioner keeps it open, and there's someone in the mayor's office that has a vested interest in the group.

The Big Apple attracts all sorts of creeps and cultists; sorcerers seeking forbidden tomes, high society dabblers in forbidden magic, decadent art collectors, crazed wizards, and blasphemous deep one cults among the shady crews near the docks.  Somebody has got to stop all these nutcases from calling down their ancient horrors, and that group is the SCD.

Players in the campaign take on the role of detectives in the SCD and the various contractors that work with the police.  The great thing about the police procedural genre is there are always contractors and adjuncts to the department getting pulled into cases.  Because of the occult nature of SCD's cases, the department employs psychics, sketch artists, hard-boiled private detectives, a local priest, and even a few scholarly professors, for those times when they recover indecipherable eldritch books or strange relics.  A psychologist might be a regular consultant for profiling perpetrators.  A nosy reporter or journalist could be in on the secret, helping to piece together clues while keeping the horrible truths off the front page.  Players will have some wide open choices.

NPCs and Organizations
A campaign like this will have a ton of familiar, recurring NPCs; you've got all the folks in and around the NYPD, the political side of the force, characters like the commissioner, the chief, and the lieutenant in charge of SCD.  There's constant pressure to stop the bad guys while hiding the truth.  Then there's the folks that support the genre, archetypes we can borrow from Film Noir like the street pigeon, the cop on the take, the femme fatale, the gangsters, and the movers and shakers in New York society.

There are a lot of interesting organizations that can be worked into a New York city-based campaign.  The Fate (from the Delta Green setting) has existed for centuries in New York, so I'm sure there's a 1920's version that can be used as a secret power behind the streets.  Organized crime will be a big influence.  I'll probably transplant the Hermetic Order of the Silver Twilight from Boston to New York and put that occult society in the background.  There might even be a government branch related to Project Covenant that could be an erstwhile ally from time to time.

This campaign uses two Cthulhu gaming themes from the D20 book - Hometown Heroes and Badges and Guns.  New York is big, but the cast of characters will be small enough that the Five Boroughs (hah - five Burroughs) and their varied neighborhoods will become familiar, with locations and regulars that recur over time, like the university and its library stuff, the denizens of the favorite pub, the coroner, and the beat reporters for the daily news.

Badges and Guns gives the players a bit of formal authority and the power to bring legal and governmental resources to bear, but constrains them in other ways - like the pressure to keep their exploits off the front page of the newspapers, and to get things done quietly without embarrassing the mayor.

Solving Common Problems
Let's look at how this structure solves some common problems with Cthulhu gaming.

Active Plot Hooks
One of my biggest gripes with most published scenarios are passive plot hooks; plot hooks that are related to the character's relationships and backgrounds, and not their jobs or activities.  The first problem solved by an organization like the SCD is that it provides a funnel for active plot hooks.  There's a backlog of cases, and the Keeper can introduce new crimes all the time, because the organization is actively taking on cases that fit the occult profile.  It's The X-files for the Five Boroughs.

Target Rich Gaming
The second benefit of the plot hook input funnel is what I call target rich horror gaming; there may be one or two high profile cases at any given time, but there's also a backlog of unsolved cases in the player's hands.  This is the top level of player agency, the opportunity to prioritize and pick and choose from a couple of different options.  It may not mirror how a real life department would work, where priorities are usually set by superiors, but choice is important to how I run games.  The players aren't puppets and they'll get to pick most of their assignments.

The next level of agency is making the actual investigations themselves non-linear, with clouds of clues and multiple paths of victory.  This one's all on the Keeper.

Replacement Characters
The last benefit of a campaign structure like the SCD is easy replacement characters.  By tying plot hooks to the activities of the organization, individual characters can come and go if the death toll or sanity loss mounts.  The campaign keeps chugging along.

Open Questions
I've been thinking this would be a 1920's game, but there are some compelling reasons to consider advancing the timeline to the 1930's.  I get to assume all of Lovecraft's 1920's stories are true and actually happened in the campaign's past; this lets me play with aftershocks, perhaps moving some of the key players to the city.  The rise of the fascist dictatorships in Europe means I can have Nazi agents in the city looking to carry out Hitler's occult agenda - robbing the Natural History Museum or raiding a private collection.  The players can be there for the forming of the early Karotechia.  However, by moving out of the 20's, I lose the charm of the prohibition era, with its gangsters, speakeasies, and glitzy jazz music.

The other open question is whether I should use Trail of Cthulhu or Call of Cthulhu.  Trail would work really well for a game based on police procedurals; the Trail skill system supports ultra-competent investigators.  But I'll put it to a vote - the players would probably prefer COC style character attributes and dice rolling.

There's an official Chaosium supplement for the city, Secrets of New York - that's going to the top of the reading list.  Miskatonic River Press has been threatening to release some New York based scenarios for a while, so that would be an immediate add, too.  I'm going to work my way through the various Chaosium collections looking for earlier scenarios that would work well in the city.  I'll also be skimming some of the Trail collections for suitable investigations, like Arkham Detective Tales, Stunning Eldritch Tales, and Shadows Over Filmland.

Readers:  if you have favorite scenarios that you think would work well in New York, I'd be grateful for recommendations!  I'd also like to hear any thoughts about using the 1920's versus the 1930's for this kind of game.  I have no problem replacing the plot hooks, transplanting a mansion scenario to an urban brownstone, that kind of stuff; I'd never run something as is.

I have some time to get the details of this campaign together - we've got plenty in the queue for the AD&D game before having an opening to start some Cthulhu one-shots, probably in April.  I like that this campaign could be episodic, with short adventures - we could do an investigation every few months for a change of pace, continue the regular D&D campaign, and then run another SCD one-shot in between major D&D stories whenever I need to scratch the COC itch.

Now I just need to find a great kick-off scenario.


  1. Regarding the Fate: Is Call of Duty a past event, or a possible destination for players?

    1. Here's a link for those of you watching at home who haven't read/played it.

    2. Thanks! I'll definitely check it out, it looks meaty. I need to track down some of those old Otahs before the reboot last year.

    3. I just noticed 'Oaths' was corrected to Otahs by the iPad - nice!

    4. "Don't forget to pick up some Unspeakable Oats for breakfast!"

      'See No Evil' in 16/17 might be adaptable to the 20s, if you can find a group to replace the targets of the scenario. I don't recall the contents of others enough, off-hand, to recommend any others. I'll try and get a list together in a bit.

  2. I see an opportunity to use a load of Trey's Weird Adventures material...

    I just saw J. Edgar and it reminded me of what a red-baiter he was and how he seemed to see himself and the Bureau as just this sort of unit - protecting the people from sinister threats. You could pop the serial numbers back on and make it a Pinkertons-into-FBI X files game (with plenty of scope for 30s, 40's and 50's flavour). Also, the Five Burroughs might've been a Freudian slip, but it would be really, really interesting to take it in a beat direction and borrow bits from The Naked Lunch...

  3. @ Richard

    America is not a young land. It is old and dirty, evil. Before the settlers, before the Indians, the evil is there, waiting...

  4. Ugh, don't include the Fate. It should be renamed "Mary Sue Incorporated".

    But this sounds like a great campaign setup. Plus, being in New York you are withing driving/train distance to such lovely locales as Dunwich, Innsmouth and even Arkham. Not to mention the Andirondack Mountains and other interesting locales. No telling where a case might take you. But from what I remember there are not a lot of city type settings for classic CoC adventures. The first book of Masks of Nyarlathotep is set in New York, and of course Secrets of New York which reprints a few classic adventures including one in a cemetary with lots of ghouls that reads almost like a D&D dungeon exploration.

    1. Ugh, don't include the Fate. It should be renamed "Mary Sue Incorporated".

      Aren't Mary Sues supposed to protagonists?

    2. Ironically, the Fate read like the author's protagonists rather than an obstacle or opposing force. You cannot ever defeat them, you can't even put a dent in any of their plans, if you try you will be utterly destroyed with no repercussions. None of the members can die, even if you manage to destroy them, it isn't permanent and they will come back. No matter what. I honestly think utterly destroying Cthulhu himself would be an easier task than bloodying a nose of any of the Fate. I think this is a clear case where the author fell a bit too much in love with his own creations and "Mary Sue'd" them into invincibility. But to each his own.....someone running a particularly bleak and depressing campaign where no matter what the characters attempt or accomplish the world is doomed might enjoy such a undefeatable foe.

    3. None of the members can die, even if you manage to destroy them, it isn't permanent and they will come back.

      Wait, what? I must have missed that paragraph in 'Holy War.'

    4. Knepier? Your investigators can't kill him, he can only be killed by other cult members after he railroads the player characters throughout the adventure (and it should be said at this point he's not a member of the Fate anymore, merely another antagonist to them, and thus can be destroyed).

      BTW, at the end of the adventure the only way the Players can "win" is to beg for help from The Fate, who only help them if they swear eternal loyalty to them. They should have printed up railway tickets to go with that adventure...

    5. You mean Hubert, don't you? The structure of the adventure isn't really relevant (otherwise BtMoM would be filled with 'mary sues' and diluting the term into meaninglessness). It's specifically about killing the dude off. The impression of the Fate's Teflon-like nature probably comes from the unbalanced focus in the first DG book on it's upper echelons and Alzis itself insead of the details included in EO, which actually includes a fairly useful division of labour for creating scenarios. The other Lords are way more interesting than Merriweather or Hubert; and Schmidtt/Madame A as the head of a cabal would be a good opportunity to frame the Avatar as something other than implacably cooler-than-thou.

  5. There's a third-party adventure on RPGNow/DriveThruRPG that's a sequel to "The Horror at Red Hook". I forget the title, but I believe it might even be set up explicitly as a police procedural. As for the question of era, you could split the difference and set the campaign in the waning years of Prohibition, 1932-33. A little bit of 20s, a little bit of 30s. Although it's set in Chicago, The Untouchables might provide some genre/period fodder.

    Your posts have been a great inspiration in my Miskatonic U. campaign that's just getting off the ground. I'm definitely going out of my way to present a target-rich environment and my players are loving it. The university setting provides a nice framework for replacement PCs, but I'm also looking ahead and hoping to get the group involved with the Armitage Cabal (and bringing in The Armitage Files framework) or else going the secret society route with a Templar-centered magical meddlers conspiracy. It'll largely depend on what hooks my players bite during their freshmen and sophomore years.

  6. I'm leaning towards the core book's Edge of Darkness or Mansions of Madness Mister Corbett as kick-off scenario options - both are short and evocative. I think next week I'll talk about how to ruthlessly strip out the passive plot hooks and make scenarios 'active' - something that could come across the dispatch desk of the SCD.

    Huth's Call of Duty recommendation looks awesome, I just started reading it. I'll look into the Red Hook recommendation as well.

  7. Oh, have you read Mutant City Blues? There's a neat part of character generation where the group collectively chooses a watch commander for their immediate superior.

  8. I think the setting have potential. Also, when it comes to 20-ies or 30-ies I think it depends on what feel you want. How about starting the game in 1928 and have them see the crash first hand? They get both eras so to speak? It might be a nice contrast to have the fun loving times and then the bleakness.

    When it comes to scenarios, how about the Dead Man Stomp adventure from the (5th ed) rulebook? It's set in a big city and I think New York City is even suggested.

  9. @Badmike: I think you've convinced me to put in the Fate just to see them crushed... I hate Mary Sue's.

    @Huth: now I have a good reason to get Mutant City Blues... It was on the wish list...

    I'll check out Dead Man Stomp, too.

    1. @Beedo: You'll have to change things up a bit, because as written the Fate are invincible. If you rewrote them a bit you could come up with a good opponent, just give them a few flaws and limited resources.

      Dead Man Stomp is an excellent adventure!

    2. Technically, as written, Omar Shakti is invincible; the rest of the structure, from his immortal furniture-piece Alzis on down, hangs on his presence in NY. Before he shows up, (ie the classic era, when he's still in Cairo) the situation is pretty different, as elucidated in Call of Duty.

    3. 'Call of Duty' *is* the Fate in the 20s, for those who don't have access to Eyes Only.