Monday, March 12, 2012

Scooby Doo Cthulhu Gaming

Good news - my group loves the idea of playing detectives and investigators in the SCD, the NYPD Special Crimes Division, last week's campaign idea for my upcoming Cthulhu campaign.  I'm sifting through my Trail of Cthulhu scenarios and Chaosium's backlog to identify a good set of adventures to relocate to New York.  We're still undecided whether the rules will be Trail of Cthulhu or Call of Cthulhu; we like the Trail clue system but the Chaosium combat system… and we didn't discuss whether the 1920's would be more fun than the 1930's.  But campaign planning is moving forward.  Joy.

However, sifting through all these published scenarios brings me to a soapbox moment, a mini rant on what I call "passive plot hooks", or Scooby Doo Cthulhu.

The suggested plot hooks for most Cthulhu scenarios involve the players being asked to perform a service or investigation on behalf of a friend, loved one, relative, or an employer, usually with no direct reference to the occult or supernatural… and yet, miraculously, as the players get involved, it becomes obviously clear within a short time that this is another full blown Occult Investigation™.   Over and over again.

When every scenario starts with an innocuous letter from an old friend or relative seeking help, and leads to madness and insanity, either credulity stretches beyond belief or you stop picking up the phone and opening your mail.

I understand why scenario writers resort to loading pre-existing relationships onto the players; those loaded relationships create instant motivations for the characters, and a bit of cheap emotional resonance with the subject matter.  "You have to go to Dunwich for Aunt Patricia's Christmas dinner, she sent you a letter with an invitation, and just happened to invite all of your colleagues for dinner as well.  You wouldn't want to hurt her feelings."  Sure, it always starts  as Christmas goose and tarts, the cultists and the awful rites to Yog-Sothoth only come later.

If you are running an endless parade of one-shots, with new characters that begin as ordinary folks with no previous Mythos experience, then I suppose it makes sense their first induction into the world of occult horror would come indirectly through the benign summons of a friend, relative, or mundane employment opportunity, which goes terribly wrong when a monster shows up.  But if you try to run your campaign in this mode, you end up with Scooby Doo; no matter where the Mystery Machine goes, there's always an occult mystery that needs to be solved by the gang at the precise moment when they're driving through.

This is why they're passive plot hooks.  There's no looking for trouble; trouble always finds the crew of the Mystery Machine.  No matter how cute you think are Daphne and Velma (or Fred), I'm asking you to say no to Scooby Doo Cthulhu gaming.  (I was always partial to Velma).

My first task when identifying scenarios for use in the SCD campaign is to ruthlessly strip the passive plot hooks and reposition the entry point of the scenario so that it gets on the radar of an investigative organization like the SCD. This might mean advancing the inherent timeline a bit, or moving the action closer to the boiling point.  So be it.  Let's take a look at a few popular introductory scenarios that are burdened with Scooby Doo plot hooks, and flip them around to work with the SCD.  (This technique would work great for your Delta Green setting Cthulhu game, too).

Edge of Darkness
"Edge of Darkness", from the core book, begins when the player characters arrive at the bedside of a dying man, Rupert Merriweather.   "The investigators are all friends, relatives, past students, and former colleagues of the man."  How convenient.  The characters go on to learn that Rupert had a dark secret, and if the characters don't take up his cause, something terrible will happen. "Ruh-Roh, Shaggy."

Let's change the entry point but leave the rest of the scenario intact.  With no one to turn to, Rupert wrote a letter on his death bed and had his last words sent in a package to the local police, warning them about a coming horror.  Whenever anything weird and unusual shows up in the mail, like Rupert's rambling death bed letter, occult journal, and weird Egyptian box, it gets routed to the mail room of the SCD and ends up sitting on a shelf somewhere.  It's not until the actual murders and disappearances start to happen in Ross's Corners, the place where Rupert warned the horror would begin, that this plot hook bubbles up to become a potential case.

The desk sergeant:
"We got a note off the wire about a mutilated woman's body found out near this small town, Ross's Corners.  Yeah, I never heard of the place either.  Normally I wouldn't pay attention to an isolated murder, and just let the locals handle it, but I remembered this kooky old guy sent us a box a week or so back with a letter, saying that once he was gone, bad things would start happening out at Ross's Corners."

"O'Malley, maybe you should get your team together and consider looking into it.  I bet Charlie in the mail room remembers where he put the box with the kook's letter and book.  You never know - this could be a real SCD case after all."

Mister Corbitt
The collection Mansions of Madness features "Mister Corbitt", and this is another popular kick-off scenario.  In this case, one of the investigators just happens to be the neighbor across the street from a guy that may or may not be a major sorceror.  Apparently, our nosy future investigator likes to peer out the venetian blinds at his neighbor, and sees him carrying a mysterious bundle into the house… and something flops out of the bundle that looks like an arm!  Yikes.  It's totally reminiscent of Hitchcock's Rear Window, which should be awesome.

Unfortunately, the approach is a bit too passive for the SCD campaign.  Our investigators are professional detectives, not the local babysitter and her friends who spy on the neighbor out the window and imagine dark things going on behind closed doors.

Let's keep the basic facts the same, where the babysitter or neighbor actually does think she saw something weird, and calls the local police.  A nervous teenager isn't a big priority, so by the time a patrol car swings by to speak to the sitter and knock on Corbitt's door, the man is already gone again.  The officer snoops around the house to allay the babysitter's fears, checks out the weird looking green house in the back, and then drives off.  All clear.

The player characters get involved when they're called down to the morgue to check out a corpse - our local patrol officer was seen a bit later at the gas station, getting torn to pieces in broad daylight by some kind of "thing", only there was nothing there.  Wounds just opened up spontaneously on the screaming cop.  The terrified gas station attendant can relate the whole incident.

Desk Sergeant:
"We've got a report of a patrol officer being lifted into the air and ripped to pieces by an invisible monster over on 3rd Avenue, in broad daylight.  O'Malley, why don't you take someone over to the morgue and check it out.  They've got a witness down at the precinct giving a statement - the gas station attendant.  Make sure you test him for booze.  If he checks out, it sounds like we might have a case. "

The group is able to trace the officer's dispatches, so they'll end up at a similar starting point - looking at Corbitt's house from across the street while speaking to the babysitter about the arm she thought she saw flopping out of a package.  But this entry point is more action oriented and horrible, and the investigators will also have a nifty coroner's report and toxicology analysis on what really might have happened to the dead officer.

So that's what I'm doing the next few weeks - reading through these old scenarios, seeing which ones can be positioned to work in the SCD campaign, and fixing the plot hooks.


  1. I actually think the ToC concept of Drives makes it a little less ridiculous. Some people hate it for being heavy handed and robbing players of their free will, but I think it's an idea to run with.

  2. I would agree - if you're not using a framework like the SCD, to explain professional investigators, TOC's drives help justify the Scooby Doo approach of ordinary folks consistently in the wrong place at the wrong time.

  3. I dealt with this in my now-defunct psuedo-Mythos campaign by having all of the players employed by a major East Coast university who had a particular alumnus who a) made large donations on a regular basis and b) had a particular interest in researching some of the more...fringe areas of anthropology. Very similar to your model in terms of the adventures flowing logically.

    Bit sad that we abandoned it (too many kids being born around the same time) as I was feeling pretty clever that I'd sold it as a "steampunk campaign" without mentioning that things might take a Mythos-based turn...I'd managed to get at least three adventures into a "slow burn" without tipping my hand.

  4. Beyond the three actual Scooby Doo scenarios I've collected from various 'occult investigation' games, I've also got a shortlist of two things for my DG game:

    1. Plots that focus on the conspiracy angle, playing off the fact that the characters are involved in shadowy, black budget or criminal organizations: forgery ops, some sort of 'cleaner' job where you have to dispose of some bodies, stealing documents, or being forced to respond violently to surveillance by others. Funeral in Berlin or something like Three Days of the Condor / All the President's Men is what I'm going for.

    2. Character stories which focus on bad-jacketing targets and trying to tempt them into acting in their character's interests. They're already, essentially, occult vigilantes: I'm wondering what it'd take for them to become regular vigilantes too. Since they're in various Federal agencies already, it would be cool to, say, dump a scenario which involves the CDC covering up a secret viral outbreak on the CDC character. If the threat is entirely mundane instead of supernatural, does that change the essentially paternalistic attitude of the intelligence community?

  5. At first blush I thought that would be a bit too modern and cynical for the SCD campaign, but a flavor of it would work really well, even back in the 20's or 30's. The SCD will be part of the local NYPD, so there can be some inter-agency tension with the FBI and Project Covenant, and I could see either of those groups doing a bit of bad-jacketing. Thanks for the ideas.

    I'm looking forward to Pelgrane's Night's Black Agents, that book should offer a lot of support for this style of play and should be fairly compatible straight across with Trail.

  6. Inter-departmental rivalry might work just as well. At least some of the cops in the NYPD are crooked. (Or there is a variety of crookedness on display.) Plenty of beat cops would look askance at a bunch of detectives who investigate leprechaun attacks, especially if the SCD is ordering them around at a 'crime scene.' ("I'll let you know if I find the pot o' gold, Detective.")

    And the DAs would hate the SCD, since none of their cases would even make it to trial.

  7. I gotta admit that I like the plot hook involving the nosy neighbour. I'm surprised I haven't seen it before. It looks pretty cool.