Sunday, June 30, 2013

NPCs and Three Things

One of the things I like in the Trail of Cthulhu books is an NPC approach they use called "three things" - give the referee three different colorful elements about the NPC to help characterization at the table.  I'm reading through the draft Eternal Lies (sidebar:  the Eternal Lies campaign is excellent) and I'm glad to see the authors used the "three things" approach for the NPCs.  Too often, game books present NPC's through material that isn't immediately gameable, or ever gameable, like background, or history.  ZZzzzzz - nothing puts me to sleep faster than, "Let me tell you about my character."

Here's a three-things-style example - the old coot's "three things" include: a bulbous nose (red and veined from alcoholism); he squints and picks at the gap where he's missing a few side teeth; he usually starts his sentences with "The way I reckon it..."

The coot description could still have the same background and motivation you'd see in a typical NPC write-up if it's necessary to give him history notes; "three things" is emphasis on observable things that actually matter during roleplaying.

But you have to put your energy into what's actually important for your game.  In a dungeon crawling game, NPC's aren't that important and are just another flavor of monster (with the same amount of screen time - they're around long enough for a good death scene).  But if you're going to spend time writing about the history and mental state of the NPC (lord help me) you might as well spend some time on a few observable descriptions and mannerisms.  Those are the kinds of things that are actually going to make the NPC memorable.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Work in Progress - Harrow Home's Moors

Two weeks stretch before me, with unprecedented creative writing time.  My family was able to make the annual pilgrimage to the grandparent's lake house for a two week vacation, while I'm stuck here over the upcoming holidays due to work commitments and a large project going live this weekend.  Without kids and a wife to dote on, what to do with all my time?  More writing.

Two projects jump to the forefront - compiling the Black City notes into a manuscript, and laying the foundation for a future game, Harrow Home Manor.

The Black City is the megadungeon we've been running for the past year and a half (at least up until the recent excursion into Call of Cthulhu).  The elevator pitch is like this:  what if Vikings found Lovecraft's City of the Elder Things somewhere beyond the North Sea?  It's fairly gonzo.  It has ancient aliens, creatures of Norse myth, and extraterrestrial computers masquerading as Asgardians.  These next two weeks are a good time to get my notes into a cohesive manuscript and decide how to move forward to make it shareable/publishable.

The other one is Harrow Home Manor.  The manor is a crumbling ruin on the Yorkshire moors, in an alternate (gothic) version of England, Dread Albion.  The star-fallen cyst of a sleeping god was carried onto the moors and enshrined there by ancient people; the site has been inhabited by Picts, Celts, Romans, Britons, Norse, Normans, and even the Templars.  Structures sink into the earth, pulled down by the cyst's awful gravity.  A journey beneath Harrow Home is a trip back through time, where the deeper one delves, the earlier are the ruins and styles of the architecture.  When players eventually find the cyst of the sleeping god, it's a cracked, egg-like structure the size of a truck, an oozing miasma.  Cave paintings in the lower levels show how it was the size of a grapefruit when it was first carried to the site, getting progressively larger over time.  What's going to come out when the egg hatches?

Whereas the Black City is gonzo and high adventure, I want Harrow Home to borrow more ideas from Call of Cthulhu and have a strong horror theme.

Before I develop too much tunnel vision on drawing and stocking dungeons, I'd like to sketch the sandbox first.  (See what I did there -- tunnel vision, drawing dungeons?  And they say I'm not funny.)  Here is the first take on the hex map for the moors and surrounding areas.  Time to make sketch notes on the locales and remove any of the modern settlements - or find their 16th and 17th century names.

Monday, June 24, 2013

How I Came to Love the Doctor Who

"Well, let's see - you've got a time machine, I've got a gun.  What the hell.  Let's kill Hitler."
--Melody Pond, Doctor Who "Let's Kill Hitler"

I recently started watching Dr Who on streaming, and discovered what all the fuss has been about!  While the Star Trek franchise is losing its way in an attempt to make itself modern and gritty and militaristic, Doctor Who is showing us a view of science fiction that's still fairly optimistic.  And it's full of madcap fun - like the episode quoted above, where The Doctor and his time machine get hijacked by River Song to return to 1930's Berlin on the pretense that she wants to assassinate the Fuehrer.

Watching the first 6 or so seasons of the 2005 series, I'm constantly impressed by the epic scope of the show.  Worlds are threatened, all of time and space is frequently brought to the edge of extinction, and yet every season manages to break new ground and one-up the previous year.  There is absolutely nothing on American network TV that comes close in terms of writing and over the top style.  Go Brits go.

I mentioned the optimism built in to the show; humanity is just as venal and grasping as ever, but The Doctor never abandons his belief in reason and non violence and people's capability to do the right thing when it matters.  His refusal to pick up weapons and his commitment to solving problems through clever wits and diplomacy are refreshing against the rest of the field.  As an alien being encouraging humanity to strive for our better natures, The Doctor is practically a surrogate spiritual figure descended from above (albeit a humanistic rather than divine one).

I'm also seeing there's plenty of inspiration for gamers in how the series is structured.  Just about every episode features a new locale, with The Doctor and his crew rolling in just in time for the adventure - a perfect analog for your wandering characters in a sandbox RPG.  Many of the episodes feature horror themes - "The Lost Child", the weeping angels, the Silence, "The Waters of Mars".  I had a room full of kids sleeping on my bedroom floor (with the lights on) after they saw the one with the creepy gas mask kid, "Are you my Mommy?  Mommy?"  Since that debacle, I try to look ahead and make the two young ones skip the episodes that are obviously creepy.

And then there's the "Who Girls".  I'd have Amelia Pond's picture taped to my locker if I were like 13.  The Scottish accent is adorable.  My wife tells me the Doctor always has "fabulous hair", so I suppose there's something there for the ladies, too.

I've noticed that the show tends to lean a bit to the left.  When River Song is questioned by some Nazi soldiers, here's how she replies:  "Well, I was on my way to this gay Gypsy bar mitzvah for the disabled when I suddenly thought, Gosh, the Third Reich's a bit rubbish. I think I'll kill the Fuehrer."  British TV seems to be a bit more progressive in general than American broadcast TV.

I'm most of the way through season 6, and I'll need to track down seasons 7 and 8 through re-runs if possible (since they don't seem to be on streaming yet).  Tell it to me straight - is there more good stuff on the way?

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Review: Better Than Any Man

I spent a chunk of time reading through Better Than Any Man this week.  At 96 pages, with miniscule print, that was no mean task.  This booklet is chock full of adventure.  The lucky folks that picked it up at Free RPG Day got far more than their money's worth.  Over the course of the 96 pages, this supplement describes a good sized sandbox (30 miles across), a central urban settlement, and six discrete dungeons.  I'm not going to call it an adventure; this is really the LOTFP setting for which folks have been clamoring since the early days.

So why do a review of a free product with limited distribution?

It's a chance to highlight a fine game product and call out what makes it work.  I can only hope more publishers follow suit and put out good things that I like.  For you deprived souls that missed this one earlier in the month, it's my understanding that a PDF version is in the works for release over the summer.  Help is on the way.

The atmosphere behind the setting is spectacular.  It uses the "real world" Thirty Years War to establish a rich background with minimal fuss and launch the reader right into the action.  A powerful invading army of Swedes is approaching the region, forcing evacuations and pushing a wave of refugees in front of it.  The Swedes are going to crush the city of Karlstadt, where a cabal of sorcerous women, "the Seven", have recently seized power.  The threat of the invading army lends the sandbox an apocalyptic quality.  The players have the opportunity to wander and loot a war-torn sandbox in 17th century Europe.  The main line of play assumes the players engage in quests either for or against the Seven in and around Karlstadt, on behalf of the Protestant Swedes or the Catholic Germans.  Many approaches are open.  Along the way, there are opportunities to learn about the various dungeons in the area and find some bad guys to stab.

The LOTFP signature elements are present and accounted for.  The adventure has a strong horror vibe.  Some of the locales are crawling with giant insects, with all the bad things that you imagine over-sized insects would do to people.  Magic is dangerous and unstabling, leading to insane NPCs and overpowered spells with uncomfortable side effects.  The evil forces are either the ancient, cruel, undying variety, or ordinary folks doing bad things to other folks, and giving adventurers a good reason to stab them in the face.  There are mature themes and some tough elements that challenge modern players to respond - religious persecution and historical witch trials.

Let's take a moment and address the "controversy" around the mature themes.  There are some gruesome pictures depicting people and insects and the insects doing bad things to the people.  There's a full page picture of some people doing bad things to other people as part of their menu planning.  I just have to wonder - when the orcs and the goblins in Keep on the Borderlands are kidnapping merchants and their wives, are some of these people thinking they get taken back to the monster lairs to play patty cakes and get treated to some tea and scones?  The author here is making explicit what's been implied all along in these games that feature monsters and people and the monsters doing bad things to the people.  Let's just say no to the orcish patty cake games, okay?

But I wouldn't hand this over to a kid, either.  Two movies might feature people getting shot by other people; one ends up with a PG rating because it doesn't show the blood and the brains and the splatters, and the other gets an R rating because it shows us all the stuff that the first movie glossed over.  This book earns its R rating.

I recommend this one a lot.  Using a quasi historical setting really shines here.  Mind-numbing gobs of mundane exposition gets completely skipped because you can assume the referee already knows a bit about portraying European culture and a historical region.  The price is right for getting handed an entire campaign - just keep your eyes open for that free PDF to end your deprivation.

One last thing.  If you haven't read the adventure through all the way, the author is playing a bit of a game with the title of the book and that "alluring" cover.  There aren't actually any poor tentacle monsters being maltreated by their lady summoners.  The author is taking advantage of a long tradition of sensational covers used to sell books (or in this case, to push the buttons of uptight game store owners).

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Happy Father's Day and Free RPG News

Free RPG Day was partially successful.  None of the "game stores" in the area participated, so I had to drive out to the King of Prussia area in PA to find the nearest place.  Despite calling ahead the day before, it was still a mess when I got there.  The guy I spoke to on Friday told me to swing by when they opened at 10am, the clerk at 10am Saturday said they weren't giving away the free RPG stuff until noon, and it would be through random drawings, and I needed to hang out all day to have a chance at getting something.  (I'm not kidding - that's how they were managing it).  After a quick call to the manager, the clerk came to see things my way, and I was able to grab the primary book I was after (the LOTFP "Better Than Any Man").  There were some other things to get at the shop, and I went home mostly happy.  I'm used to stores in year's past letting you pick more than one title, so I missed out on the S&W and DCC items this year.

"Better Than Any Man" looks fantastic - it's 96 pages, well produced, and covers a ton of adventuring locales and plot hooks.  I've only had the chance to leaf through it, but if appears to treat game balance and your campaign setting with the same callous disregard we've come to expect and love from the LOTFP line.  I'll get a review up this week.

Out of the blue, has put up their massive reference book for Masks of Nyarlathotep.  Happy Father's Day indeed!  This thing has been worked on as a community project for over 5 years, and for a long time, it looked like it was going to be commercial (like maybe a Chaosium "monograph").  One reason I've held off running Masks so long was the possibility of seeing this thing get finished.  It combines the efforts and experiences of many Mask's keepers on getting the most out of the campaign.  Now I'm glad my players recently chose to do a few Delta Green one shots, it means when we circle back and take on Masks at a later time, I'll have the companion to look at.

(I'm going to recommend anyone grabbing to drop some Innsmouth Gold in the Yog Sothoth tip jar - as a 550 page PDF monster, I'm sure downloads of the Companion are going to rock their bandwidth costs).

I'll just point out to the OSR folks - yes, it's true, sometimes these labors-of-love community projects make it through to the end.  Hang in there, Petty Gods.

Pelgrane Press recently had a pre-order for their massive Eternal Lies campaign for Trail of Cthulhu.  This one has been in playtest and writing for a few years, and the snippets you hear from the playtest reports are absolutely glowing.  It's pretty clear the writers set out to create a sweeping campaign that pays homage to MASKS while breaking new ground, and the overarching structure is reminiscent (in a good way).  So far, I've been reading the pre-release PDF on the tablet, and I'm super impressed with the campaign so far.  It releases later this summer  - maybe in time for Gencon, if I'm lucky.  I'll put together a better preview once I've gotten through the whole thing.

(Understandably, Eternal Lies one is not free, but I've been meaning to mention it on the blog).

Monday, June 10, 2013

Puppet Shows and Shadow Plays - Our DELTA GREEN Kick Off

We kicked off the temporary Call of Cthulhu the other night.  Anyone who knows DELTA GREEN is surely familar with "Puppet Shows and Shadow Plays" - it's one of the introductory scenarios in the core book that puts a group of FBI investigators right in the midst of an alien horror murder spree, and as a kickoff, it gives them the chance to discover some of the setting's conspiracies.

Background:  There's been a series of disappearances along a desolate section of highway 70 east of Phoenix, just south of the Gila Mountains.  Over the past few weeks, empty cars have been found on the side of the highway, an overnight gas station attendant went missing, and camp sites have gone abandoned.  Now a rancher and his family are missing.  The local newspaper started calling it "The Devil's Highway".  The nearest place is San Carlos, a small town on the south end of the San Carlos Indian Reservation.  A pair of FBI agents (two of the players) are dispatched from the Phoenix branch office to lead a cross-functional task force, including members of the Arizona state police and a local cop from the reservation (the rest of the players).  Here's our full cast:
  • Agent Smith, FBI
  • Agent Hudson, FBI
  • Dr House, an FBI forensics examiner
  • Woodson Brooks, detective with the Arizona State PD
  • Michael Proudfoot, sergeant with the San Carlos PD
  • Clayton Shelby, an FBI consultant

As an investigative sandbox, the adventure presents interesting challenges because of the free form nature.  The task force gives the players wide access to resources - the San Carlos police force, troopers from the state police, ATV's, helicopters, whatever they need to create some forward momentum.  Want a SWAT team?  Call them in, if you have a good reason.  Guns?  No problem - you're cops - just sign them out.  Better follow the law, though.  It's interesting running a game where the constraints aren't related to what's written in your character's backpack, but rather how do you attack a cerebral problem - deploying your resources to unravel the mysterious disappearances?

With such a large team, they were able to uncover a couple of crime scenes within a few days of launch that moved the investigation forward dramatically.  Brooks and Smith, traversing the large ranch of the missing family, found a hidden mass grave.  At another time, an aerial survey of the Devil's Highway by helicopter discovered a buried car with a putrid corpse that had lain entombed for over a month.  The autopsies performed on the various victims accelerated the mystery.

The family at the mass grave site were all drained of blood.  Barely perceptible needle wounds were found on their chests, penetrating the heart and lungs.  An unidentifed tranquilizer was used on the victims.  Over two dozen sheep carcasses were in the mass grave area too.  Police reports recorded the rancher, Victor Begay, was complaining about the missing sheep for weeks, even warned his neighbor, "I'm going to sit out there all night with a gun and kill those dang coyotes, what keep stealing my sheep."  Apparently it didn't work out for him.

The dead guy found in the buried car was in rough shape.  His heart and lungs were completely gone, and his abdomen was torn open, guts spilling out.  Really putrid stuff.  The medical examiner lost his breakfast - literally - since he made them stop and get him some Dunkin Donuts on the way to the scene.  He'll be off the boston cremes for a while.  The victim in the car was identified as a Houston cop (Kenneth Braverman), wanted for various murders back in Houston.  Before Braverman went missing, he murdered his children and kidnapped his wife.  During the forensic examination of the car, the wife's bloody finger prints were found everywhere.  Did she kill her husband, dump the car, and wander off into the desert?  Questions and more questions.

Unable to identify the bizarre tranquilizer found in the bodies, Dr House had specimens sent to the lab in Phoenix.  Late that night, they learned it was an entirely new compound, something not seen in nature.  Where exactly did Dr House find this chemical compound?

Things got a little frenetic the next day, when a package was left for the consultant, Shelby, at the hotel desk.  Like many Native American reservations, this one had a casino, and the players were all staying at the San Carlos Casino resort.  (No gambling would be expensed on their government cards.)  The package contained an article from a scientific journal last winter, discussing an unusual meteor storm over West Virginia.  Shelby is a bit of a conspiracy theorist and UFO nut, and ran back upstairs to his laptop.  Didn't he remember some UFO related rumors from around that same time frame?

West Virginia indeed had a spate of cattle and sheep mutilations around that period, followed by reports of a West Virgina "cannibal killer" that drained the blood from his victims and ate bits and pieces.  Bringing the other players in on the research, the group pieced together a chain of killings that spanned the country, moving from West Virginia, to Nashville, to New Orleans, and then to Houston - each one done by a similar cannibal killer, leaving behind similar victims - exsanguinated and partially eaten.

Here's the part that fried their noodles:  the Nashville killer was the medical examiner that did the autopsy on the West Virginia cannibal killer.  The priest that found the body of the Nashville killer (after a suicide) went on to be a killer in the next place the cannibal murders happened, the homeless guy that found the dead priest went to New Orleans and started killing, and so on.  It also seemed that each previous victim suffered a kind of monstrous injury to their abdomen, destroying the guts - shotgun blasts, disembowlements, you get the picture.

It doesn't take Call of Cthulhu players long to connect the dots and identify a potential worst case scenario.  In this case, they're theorizing that an alien thing came down in the meteor swarm, and is jumping from body to body, riding around in the host's stomach.  The last guy to have it was the Houston cop (found dead in his car), and now his wife is out there in the desert, with an alien bug in her gut and a taste for ranchers.

They also noticed from the research that the person that found the last "host" is frequently the next one to go one a killing spree.  The group's medical examiner can't wait to find the wife in the desert and be the one to do that autopsy.

That was more or less the gist of the first night.  So far, so good, the players enjoyed it, and the moment when they pieced together the chain of events leading from West Virginia to Arizona was really cool.  Unfortunately, in today's day and age, when electronic reports and lab results are stored in databases and sent across networks, there are going to be special programs that poll the data stream for anomalies, sniffers that alert the wrong kind of people.  When we return next week, an ominous black SUV has arrived in the little town of San Carlos, and a new set of players has suddenly taken an interest in this unusual murder case.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Green Around the Gills

A funny thing happened when we sat down last Sunday to make Cthulhu characters.  The players audibled from playing MASKS into DELTA GREEN.

Let me step back a second.  I really like Call of Cthulhu as the change of pace game when I'm uninspired by fantasy for one reason or another; I'm at the point where I want to run some published Cthulhu adventures while I get back into the habit of writing (and therefore also writing on the Black City, our fantasy campaign).

We talked about MASKS OF NYARLATHOTEP versus DELTA GREEN a week ago, and I strongly encouraged the group towards MASKS.  It features globe-trotting adventures in the 1920's and seems amenable to lots of action.  We have some younger folks in the group and I figured they'd appreciate the "Indiana Jones with tentacles and cults" style - show up, investigate a cult, then knock some heads together.  I love the DELTA GREEN setting, but it can be bleak and disturbing.  Also, something about setting a horror game in the modern day gives it more punch - there isn't the narrative distance between the fictional world and the real world.  The 1920's is practically a fantasy setting.

Apparently there is a strong allure to playing characters with badges, guns, and access to modern technology.  They love the idea of mixing UFO conspiracy theories and undead Nazi sorcerers that survived the Cold War in hiding.  If you're unfamiliar with the setting, the premise is that various world governments and secretive organizations know about Mythos magic and are secretly trying to exploit or weaponize alien technology and dark rituals; DELTA GREEN is a secretive group of government investigators and friendlies that investigate and attempt to thwart them.  Because some of the antagonist groups are secret (but illegal) projects within the government and military, the DELTA GREEN guys need to keep it quiet and stay anonymous.  It's part spy thriller, The X-Files, and an updated look at Lovecraft's mythos in the modern world.

Furthermore, the group ended up voting to play non-DELTA GREEN characters that get recruited after their first brush with the supernatural, assuming they survive.  We'll be starting with a couple of FBI agents, a forensic examiner, a war veteran, a local cop, a private detective, and a CIA analyst.  There aren't a lot of published DELTA GREEN scenarios that can accommodate a group of investigators as large as my player group, but we'll run a few of the scenarios and see how it goes.

Most DELTA GREEN scenarios are presented as fluid situations requiring investigation (generally outlined as a free-form investigation, populated with a number of factions and players - a bit of an investigative sandbox), and they usually include a timeline of events running in parallel, which may alter based on player interactions with the antagonists.  It's a challenging but interesting style to run - my preferred approach to fantasy sandboxes also tends to have background events and antagonist reactions to push the setting into motion.

However, DELTA GREEN presents another difficulty.  The various antagonist groups and conspiracies all have powerful NPC's pulling the strings - veritable insane demigods armed with powerful magic or vast resources.  The players are the equivalent of low level characters while adventuring in Elminster's back yard, with Drizzt hanging about for good measure.  Or they're a bunch of Green Arrows stuck in the Justice League while Superman and Friends take on the cosmic threats.  There's a fine line between presenting powerful NPC's as a way of showing the players the amount of danger that's out there, versus those powerful NPCs becoming DMPC's or Mary Sue's or Elminsters or any other problematic game piece that turns the players into spectators in their own game.  It's worth calling out as a risk; White Wolf settings had the same potential traps.  Forewarned is forearmed.  I'll let you know how it goes.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

No Man's Land - Review and Play Report

While I was taking an unanticipated break from table top gaming, one of the players wanted to a Cthulhu session, so I had a rare chance to play.  He thought No Man's Land, a Chaosium tournament adventure, looked pretty good for a one shot, so he spent some time getting it ready to run, and that's what we played the past few weeks.  I'll go ahead and do a brief play report on how we did, and then a capsule review of the adventure.

No Man's Land came with a full set of pregenerated characters for the referee (with backstories) so we started play immediately.  It's near the end of World War I, and the players are part of a Lost Battalion, isolated and cut off in the Argonnes Forest, and still engaging enemy soldiers.  The overall course of the adventure had us leaving the defensive positions to scout for some missing companies in the battalion, then getting knocked off course and lost due to foul weather and the chaos of war.  Along the way, we stumbled into various encounter sites (a German outpost, a medieval village, and a camp of cultists).  The main motif seemed to be this:  an ancient evil that feeds on strife and horror, lurking beneath the forest, has reawakened due to the horrors of the war, and an ancient conspiracy of cultists (tracing a lineage back through Medieval times) prepared to open a gate to return the horrors fully to the world.

Smitty, the guest ref, did an amazing job with creating props for his rookie turn behind the screen.  During a scene in a desolate village, we fled to a lonely church where the priest thrust an old book at us (with all the answers) right before the monsters nuked the church.  He also gave us a magic crystal that detected the presence of the otherwise invisible and ethereal monsters.

Here are a few pics of the props:

(He put a cool cover on an old text book, created those fancy bookmarks, and pasted full page excerpts of the key texts into the text book, so we could flip from page to page and read passages saved by monks and priests that battled the horrors in past ages.  Very cool!)

The big climax occurred after we escaped an encampment of the cultists and made it back to battalion.  An army of zombies attacked the defensive positions, and the cultists used the distraction to sneek into the underground caves (where the ancient temple stood) and attempt to open the gate.  It was nothing a few grenades couldn't handle.  But overall, No Man's Land was super deadly; the adventure started with 6 player characters, but only 3 of them survived.


No Man's Land was an interesting experience, but not a very good adventure.  Years of running free-form D&D adventures and sandbox games have poisoned me from enjoying an adventure with such obvious rails.  As a tournament adventure, No Man's Land has an omnipresent clock that kept us literally running from scene to scene - the equivalent of "when the action slows down, men with guns kick in the door and start shooting".  The stress of constantly being harried kept the table alert and created the experience that no place was safe.  Unfortunately, it felt like no matter which way we decided to go (or how we navigated), we ended up forced to the next proscribed scene.

We (bloggers) tend to think of "railroad" in two ways - as a series of linear scenes, or as a foregone conclusion where the decisions of the players just don't matter to the outcome.  I'm much more forgiving of the former than the latter.  Both definitions of railroad were very much in evidence in this scenario.  Like I mentioned above, if you're trying to recreate the horrors of war, the meaninglessness of choice, and the absurdity of it all, pushing the players along a linear path and thrusting bad things on them with no chance of avoidance (incoming!) is a fine of way of creating that experience.  It doesn't make for a great game, although it was quite memorable, and we're still talking about it!

The setting of the adventure and themes are super interesting - it involves megalithic sites, witch cults, the slumbering lloigor, dragon-myths, and the great old one Ghatanothoa.  Plus zombies and ghouls.  One can argue that qualifies as a mythos zoo and banalizes the monsters, but I felt the varied and overwhelming Mythos elements just reinforced the apocalyptic ideas behind the scenario.  All hell is breaking loose because of the war and the reawakening lloigor, and World War I zombies and charnel ghouls are just part of the scenery.

So how do I rate this one as a written scenario?  I really don't like railroads.  Creating a high pressure gauntlet was interesting and made for a memorable experience.  I have to think there are other scenarios that have done a gauntlet while either hiding the tracks better, or preserving the sense of player choice.