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Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Oh those college days...of TERROR!

"Oh, soon we'll be out amid the cold world's strife.
Soon we'll be sliding down the razor blade of life."

-Tom Lehrer, "Bright College Days"

Saginaw College a fictional institution on the coast of Saginaw Bay, Michigan (between the thumb and fingers of the "mitten"). It was founded in 1846 as a presbyterian divinity school when the Lowell family left a sizable bequest and their property outside Bangor to be used for the college. The school only lasted a few years before going bankrupt and shuttering its doors in 1858.

In 1889, the campus grounds and old estate manor were purchased by a consortium of wealthy patrons. The school was re-opened as a secular liberal arts college and has been in steady operation since, except for reducing its course offerings during the Great War.

The campus consists of two main sections. The "New Campus" a handful of brick buildings built during the college's inception as classrooms and dormitories, and the "Old Estate." Which consists of the old Lowell home and original buildings. These are used as administrative offices, faculty housing, and the chapel for services.

Bangor township lies a few miles south from the college along the shoreline. It is a small town of about 8,000 people. Its main commercial interests are fishing and logging, though salt industry employs several locals. There is a modest international shipping trade with Canada through the Bay as well.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Behind the Curtain

So the next big question in the assembling of my campaign is What The Heck Is Going On? This entails some spoiler territory, so rather than listing lots of plot details, I'll discuss a little about what goes on in my decision-making process.

Sandbox campaigns (nonlinear or plotless) aren't a good fit here, as there needs to events or mysteries for the investigators to, well, investigate. There needs to be a secret to uncover or a cult to thwart or similar. As the goal here is an ongoing campaign instead of a single adventure, there needs to be some sort of link between adventures. This can be as simple as receiving a new research assignment from the board that oversees your fellowship with no real connection to the previous job, or there can be a thread of common elements that lead the PCs on a progression from start to finish.

The latter certainly has an appeal from a narrative satisfaction point of view, but in my experience complex plots like that can quickly get off the rails. On the other hand, simply dropping the night's adventure in the party's laps can feel rather artificial and "rail-roady."

All aboard the Plot Train!

My theory is to steer a middle course. Events will transpire –barring PC intervention– along a certain timeline and in a certain order. The party will be given direction at least occasionally via the research project plot device, but not constantly. PCs are free to investigate matters on their own, but may find balancing their "normal" responsibilities difficult at times- which is a nice touch of realism, I think.  If things are progressing too quickly, an unrelated mystery may present itself as a break from the main plot. I may limit that a bit, so as to avoid muddying the waters too much regarding the central story.

The mysteries at work in the background will react to the PCs as well. For example, if the bad guys' next step in their plan is to perform some ritual, but the party managed to capture a crucial relic last session. Obviously the cultists will need to get the relic back first.

I have in mind that the "forces of evil" in the campaign are working toward an ultimate goal that is achievable during play. It will be up to the PCs to stop them. Delta Green isn't charging up at the last second to save the day. Thwarting the bad guys will be possible, but not guaranteed and not without a cost. I usually like to give characters a shot at a "clean win," but this is Cthulhu, darn it!

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Framing the house (of Horror)

So, for starters, there needs to be a reason for the PCs to be together and investigating various weirdnesses; there needs a coherent setting in terms of what's "normal" for the PCs; and there needs to be a progression of events that doesn't railroad, but gives incentive for the characters to pursue the plot-line.

You all meet in a speakeasy: not

One of the things I feel is important for trying to make this a campaign as opposed to a short adventure is there needs to be a sustainable rationale for the PCs to not only investigate things, but to continue to associate with one another. The hook I'm considering is to have the party all be either students or junior staff at a college or university. To further "push" them together, I'm thinking in terms of a small college, probably somewhat rural. Back in the 1920s, such a locale could be an island of learning in a backwater town or similar. These rural farming towns and the like are classic backdrops for Lovecraftian horror. The campus gives the characters some resources for research, etc. but its library and pool of scholars is limited. Plus, the daily routine of student life provides a backdrop of normalcy.


As far as a motivation to investigate, the device I'm considering is for each PC to be a recipient of a "research fellowship" from an academic society. The fellowships cover tuition, etc. and provide a small stipend for living expenses. The catch, however, is that the society periodically may assign "field work" projects to its beneficiaries. This may be simple research in the library, cataloging materials, or actually going out and tracking down clues to greater mysteries. None of this exempts the PCs from their responsibilities as students or staff, though.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Spookiness, Horror RPGs, and campaign ideas

So, back again.

I don't know if anyone is still reading this blog, but here I are.

I've talked about horror gaming in the past. It's not my usual thing, but I'm way too fond of HPL stories and Warhammer (Fantasy & 40K) to not think about it as a playable genre. With Halloween approaching, it's also not so strange that horror is on my mind.

Lately, I've been re-reading my old copy of d20 Call of Cthulhu. It's really an excellent conversion IMO. The GM section on the Mythos and running a horror game is a must-read regardless of version or system you're using.

In any case, I'm not going to argue the plusses or minuses of the d20 version vs. the BRP rules. My point simply is that I've been thinking about running a CoC campaign. This is a bit of a departure for me, as I normally prefer horror in one-shot doses and I'm more often a player than a GM for things like Cthulhu. Short adventures make is easier to build and maintain suspense. Also not everyone is up for a longer term investment in spookiness. 

All that said, I am going to pursue trying to piece together a framework for a campaign. It might not be sustainable indefinitely, but I'm after something that doesn't just come to a close after the first adventure.

CoC as a system wasn't a given for me. I took a good look at Goblinoid's Cryptworld. It's a nice, compact set of rules, but I'm just not up to speed on the Pacesetter action tables system. Perhaps if Mr. Snider will be so kind as to run a game or two at Garycon next spring, I'll get a chance to see it at work! 

Anyhow, for me that left Cthulhu. I haven't actually decided about BRP (Chaosium's classic rules) vs. d20. I'd like to give the d20 version a spin, but I may get more player buy-in with BRP. We shall see.

Next up on the to-do list was location and time period. Cthulhu defaults to 1920's but that's not set in stone. I'm leaning toward that era to avoid some of the issues with technology short-circuiting (a-heh) certain challenges. Of course it also meshes nicely with the source material.

Next up on my to-do list is a general outline of events. I have cocktail napkin level ideas, but they need organizing.