Lazy's man guide to constructing a CoC or Horror adventure
This is a great article posted on another site (who reposted it from another site, who took it from another), but I thought many would enjoy it here. It is The Lazy Man's Guide for Constructing a Call of the Cthulhu Adventure, written by Sandy Petersen, original author of the Call of Cthulhu.
I have decided to show how I create CoC adventures as I think it would be useful to Keepers everywhere. To do so, I've simply created a scenario here, and written down the thought processes involved so that you can see what I am doing at each step along the way. The way it's presented is unconventional, quite different from the normal scenario write-up, but I think it is clear and straightforward, and should be an excellent teaching mechanism for new Keepers, as well as a resource for experienced Keepers. I have also explained at various points how I solve common problems that arise during a CoC adventure.
Step One - The Situation
First, figure out an interesting situation that would be fun to get the players involved with. The easiest way to do this is to pick out a scene, or even an entire plotline, from a film or story you like. Don't worry if it's well-known - by the time we're done, your players won't recognize it.
Any film or story will do - whether good or bad. To show how it's done, and to make the situation as hard as possible for myself, I went to a cult horror film site, and picked the 45th film (because I'm 45 years old). It turned out to be Devil Times Five, an incredibly bad exploitation film I've never seen. The plot synopsis was 'Five teens escape from an insane asylum and take over a mountain resort.' So ... from this I will create a scenario. Watch and follow along to see how you could adapt these methods for your own adventure. Of course, you should have an easier time than I, because you won't pick your plot randomly.
Right off the bat, I don't want to use mere teenagers as the villains. This is a Cthulhu story, so let's make them cultists. The escaped lunatic idea is cool, so let's not have ALL the villains be cultists - just one. If we make it an asylum for the criminally insane, and say the other four escapees are escaped inmates that the cultist recruited, we start getting what looks like a fun scenario - being held hostage by a group of homicidally insane bad guys should make the adventure plenty scary.
Where shall we have it happen? If I was doing this scenario for an American audience, I'd place it in the Rocky Mountains. Since most of my readers will probably be Europeans, let's put it in the Austrian Alps. Let's move on.
Step Two - The Plot
Look at your basic situation and try to see how it can be developed into a story. What is the bad guy trying to do? Are there other important characters? If the plot unfolded without player-character interference, what would happen? To help do this, you can use some simple steps.
Substep Two/A - Who Are Available as Victims?
Most Call of Cthulhu investigations have a moderate-to-high death rate. Frankly, you need to provide bystanders, villains, or allies to be killed in the stead of the player-characters. This is no problem in our scenario - we can have as many people as we want in our 'mountain resort' to be terrorized or killed by the bad guys.
Substep Two/B - How are the Players Going to Get Involved?
Obviously necessary, but often non-trivial. Fortunately in this particular scenario, the method is obvious - have the player-characters be guests at the resort so they are taken hostage with the rest. They have no choice, now.
Substep Two/C - How can the Plot be Prolonged?
Many possible adventures are not suitable for Call of Cthulhu because they wouldn't last long enough for a good game. More importantly, we need to have excuses to delay the villain's plot to give the player-characters time to figure out what is going on and thwart it. In our particular situation, why wouldn't our pack of madmen simply murder all the people at the resort in creative ways and move on? Since we've made one of them a cultist, one logical answer is that he is here to DO something. After all, why come to the mountains in the first place? Perhaps it's not coincidence. After a little thought, we conclude that the bad guy is planning to hold a ritual on the mountaintop, and he needs to keep (some of) the people in the resort alive until the time for the ritual.
Substep Two/D - Why Don't the Authorities Intervene?
This is not a problem in every adventure. Often, in fact, the authorities CAN'T intervene because the bad guys haven't done an obvious crime, or because the (the authorities) are hunting the good guys, or because it would be pointless. In this case however, a hostage crisis could bring out the SWAT team and end the scenario way too fast, so we need to keep them at bay, at least until the climactic ending sequence. The best way to keep the authorities out of action is to cut off the mountain resort's communications. The villains can do this themselves by cutting the telephone cables. If we're hosting the scenario in modern times, the players are likely to claim they have cell phones. This isn't really problem—cell phone jammers are legal and easily available. A small one that would fit in a suitcase would be sufficient to blanket the entire resort hotel. Even better, anyone trying to phone into the hotel would simply think that his connection's phone was turned off, so there's no clue to the outside world at all. Of course, if the people at the hotel were held incommunicado for too long, presumably someone would get suspicious, but we only need to hold them hostage for a day or two for the scenario.
Step Three - The Wow Finish
Every scenario should have a great climax. The upcoming ritual gives us a terrific possibility. In addition, if the investigators have somehow managed to contact the authorities, the police could show up (in a helicopter) just as the ritual is performed and some kind of awful frost-breathing monster shows up to destroy said police helicopter and show the players that mere human techniques are of no avail against the forces of the Unknown. Or, perhaps the cops show up safely and there is a big gunbattle in which the investigators are trapped between the cops and the villains. Trying to get from the resort to the relative safety of the police without getting mistaken for a bad guy and shot might be interesting, especially given that there is likely to be tear gas and smoke blanketing the area at the time. (You can provide gas masks for the villains if you need them immune to the tear gas. Might be even scarier to have them NOT immune and firing off shots randomly around them as they choke and wheeze.)
Step Four - Finalize the Plot
Okay, the situation is that an evil cultist, committed to an asylum for his activities, has recruited four lunatics and escaped. He has arrived at a 'mountain resort' and taken the player-characters hostage, among others. Either tonight or tomorrow night (depending on how much time you want to give your players), the 'planets will align properly' so he can perform an evil ritual, and he no doubt plans to sacrifice his hostages at that time. What will happen if the PCs don't interfere? The villain will try to keep his victims under control and terrorized. To keep his insane buddies happy, he'll let them kill a few people for fun. During the ritual, he'll sacrifice his hostages and achieve his results. It's probably best to let the results be unspecified, so that you can adjust them to the situation at hand. You may not know until the actual event whether you want the ritual to summon a monster, or turn the cultist into a monster, or whatever. If the ritual gets thwarted by the players, then you can have it be as fearsome as you want (after the fact). Example: Keeper - 'As you throttle the cultist and stop his chanting, the huge black hole in the air starts shrinking. Just before it vanishes you see Cthulhu's dread visage peeping through.' Players - 'Wow we're glad we stopped THAT!' If the ritual is NOT thwarted by the players you can have it segue into your next adventure - now they have to figure out a way to close the gate / eliminate the monster / stop the plague of madness / whatever you wanted to have happen as a result of the ritual. Another possibility - if you want to get your players to the Dreamlands or somewhere else exotic, have the ritual transport them all there.
Step Five - Create the Characters
Work out personalities and 'trademark' features for the main villains and good guys. In our case we have five villains, and we may as well as work out the basics for all five of them. Naming characters can be a pain. I have three techniques for getting character names for my adventures.
1) I use names of childhood friends that my players won't know.
2) I get them out of a phone book opened at random. (Only good for locals.)
3) I get them from a movie filmed in the characters' nation of origin.
I used technique #3 here—I simply looked up an early Peter Lorre movie on the internet and stole the names of the first five cast members. Hans Albers, Anna Sten, Heinz Ruhmann, Ida Wust, and Kurt Gerron. Two are female, but that's good.
Now for the bad guys. Since the scenario probably will revolve around the players' interaction with them, we need more distinctive personalities than most cultists get to have. Here goes—
THE CULTIST - HANS ALBERS
He worships Ithaqua (since his ritual requires the mountains). If you don't want Ithaqua you can use the Fungi from Yuggoth or whoever else you want haunting your mountains. Hans is quite intelligent and charismatic and manipulative, which is how he convinced his crew of lunatics to come along with him. He needs to survive until the very end of the scenario, so we must give him a means of so doing, considering that he will be a prime target for the investigator's acts of violence.
Here's one way to ensure his survival—when a person is killed, Hans can do a ritual that 'absorbs' the victim's essence, thus giving him unnatural health (in game terms - huge hit points). This may also explain what his ultimate goal is - the final ritual is to make him invincible and immortal. And maybe his lunatic chums, too. And of course, if he absorbs life from murdered people, he has a nice relationship with his lunatics - they kill 'em, he absorbs the life.
He can already have absorbed as much life as we need (from people murdered in the escape) so that the investigators can't easily hurt him. 100 hit points or so should be enough. Of course, the investigators are likely to try to kill him shortly after his arrival. Since he's so tough, he'll probably survive, and then he'll need to restore some of his life, by killing one of his prisoners.
FIRST LUNATIC - ANNA STEN
Let's just have her be totally romantically obsessed with Hans Alber and eager to do everything he says. To add poignancy to this portrayal, we can have him treat her like dirt. Let's make her a little bit pathetic - perhaps she has scars on her forearms, relics of attempts at self-mutilation. Each time Hans is rude or cruel to her in public, she shows up soon after with a new bandage from a shallow wound she gave herself because she was 'bad'.
Can the investigators make contact with her and talk her out of her obsession? Maybe. She's not innately bad, just obedient. She doesn't take pleasure in killing people, but is happy to do it if it will make Hans happy. If the investigators DO manage to somehow awaken her to the awful things she's doing, her likely fate is for Hans to kill her when she tries to talk him out of his plan.
SECOND LUNATIC - HEINZ RUHMANN
For this guy, I decided to have an old-fashioned serial killer. He could even be famous (i.e, the investigators have heard of him). He just plain likes killing. Modeling him after a famed serial murderer like Jeffrey Dahmer (for instance) makes his personality easy. Of course, he's happy to stick with Hans Albers because Hans got him out of the asylum, but he is a loose cannon. He may well decide to torment or harass someone that Hans wants left alone. He may even kill one of the other, lesser, villains if you, as keeper, decide the adventure is too hard for the investigators.
THIRD LUNATIC - KURT GERRON
To give the bad guys more firepower, I made Kurt Gerron an ex-cop who went schizophrenic. This way he can be a gun expert, making him potentially very dangerous. To make him more interesting, let's put him on some medication. If he gets too little medication, he goes catatonic. If he gets too much, he becomes docile and friendly. Hans Albers controls a supply of the drugs Kurt needs, and dishes them out as necessary. If the investigators can somehow meddle with the drug supply, perhaps Kurt can be taken out of the picture, at least temporarily?
FOURTH LUNATIC - IDA WUST
I didn't have any good ideas left when I got to her, so we can make it simple. She is a prostitute who murdered a client and avoided prison by faking insanity. So she is the only non-insane person in the crew, and she is probably trying to think of a way to escape the resort and her obviously-insane pals. She doesn't care about Hans' ritual, and doesn't feel comfortable around Heinz or Kurt. She is, at heart, a bad person (she is a murderer and whore after all), but she is first and foremost selfish, and if the investigators convince her that she is likelier to survive by helping them, she'll switch sides.
Of course, she is terrified of Hans and won't like any attempt to shoot or kill him, because she knows that he is practically immune to gunfire.
THE GOOD GUYS - these can be caricatures. Only the investigators will actively try to escape, since we don't want non-player-characters to get the glory. The good guys are divided into three camps:
Heroic Hostages - these may interfere with the players by bungling an escape attempt. They are also useful as early 'kills' for the villains, to show the investigators that the bad guys mean business.
Normal Hostages - take minor steps to help the investigators, but nothing too daring. They can be children or old people to explain their inaction.
Intimidated Hostages - so terrified for their lives that they are willing to betray their fellow hostages to save themselves. This won't buy them anything in the long run, but their existence makes things more interesting (i.e., harder) for the PCs.
Step Six: The Setting
To ensure that you have as clear an idea of the mountain resort's layout as possible, use the interior design of a ski lodge or hunting lodge YOU have been to in the past. If you've never been inside one, you can use a youth hostel or even a small-town hotel as exemplars. The important thing is that there is one big room on which all the other, smaller rooms open, so that the bad guys can easily control everyone.
The surrounding mountains cut off TV & radio communication (of course, the lodge gets cable, but the bad guys probably cut that ...). There are two ways out, should the investigators escape the resort - either they go down the main road (risky, because they'll probably be on foot, and the bad guys will be driving after them) or they climb over the surrounding mountains.
Climbing over the mountains should be pretty fun, actually, with the heavily-armed bad guys chasing them. The investigators should get lots of use out of agility-type skills such as Jump & Climb, and you should let them try to set up booby traps or otherwise incapacitate their pursuers. Starting an avalanche or rockslide would be good technique, for instance. The chase over the mountains could be a very exciting climax to the scenario.
Step Seven: Potential Problems
1) EARLY ESCAPE - if the investigators escape in the first five minutes of the scenario it would ruin everything. The likeliest way for them to do this is to sneak out a back window in one of their rooms and then just run off. The bad guys should be expecting this, so at least one (more probably two) will be watching the back of the lodge at all times to prevent this, except when all the lodge's people have been gathered into the common room.
2) PLAYER DESPAIR - I've seen this before; a scenario seems too tough, and the players simply give up or can't think of any way out. Usually at this point they do something really stupid, like attack the machinegun-armed thug frontally or otherwise get themselves killed. If you sense that the players can't figure out what to do, this is the time to play the Ida Wust card - as you remember, she's not really insane, just criminal. Have her covertly talk to the investigators, tell them that she's scared of Hans and the others, and that she would welcome a chance to escape, if the investigators can only think of a way that won't endanger her. This kind of secret ally will boost the players' spirits no end.
3) INCREDIBLE LUCK - either good or bad, a real lucky series of d100 rolls can sometimes spoil scenarios. Have emergency back-up plans to solve these without looking like a cheater.
'Good Luck' example: one of the bad guys takes a pot shot at an investigator to wound or scare him. You roll 1d100 and the result is 01, right there in front of everybody. Suddenly the investigator has taken 16 points of damage and is stone cold dead, according to the CoC rules. Yuck. You have two solutions: kill the investigator, or find some way to keep him alive. The best way to do the latter is to have the shot be really good anyway - say that the bad guy's shot exactly creased the investigator's skull and knocked him out cold. Explain that this is what the bad guy wanted to do. After all, he rolled an 01. You can think of other ways to neutralize an especially lucky result that you don't want. 'Bad Luck' example: the players think up a clever plan to get phone communications working again. When they go into the back room to put their plan into operation, one of them rolls '00' on his Sneak and has obviously made some kind of loud noise. But you feel that the players deserve some reward for their behavior. Off-hand I can think of one easy way to save them. Sure the noise alerts a bad guy who rushes into the room. When he steps into the room, a raccoon or cat or something suddenly runs by him, and he decides it was 'only an animal' and departs. This is a classic horror and suspense film ploy anyway (remember Alien?) and players should appreciate it. You can think of other ways to void such bad results at need.
Step Seven: Have Fun
It's only a game!
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? Responses (6)
While we speak about horror, I must add a link.
I have found it somewhere in Interesting Links. It is a little treatise on horror taken to the extreme, with delightful examples for the cruel Game Master.
Where was this when my GM was running CoC!
Now that's good...pretty much explains everything nicely
Somebody ought to point out that the same basic techniques work for any or all genres, not just horror
Good solid advice '5/5' and gets today's Hall of Honour vote
As a plot this is well structured. I like the idea of presenting the plot by following its development. I also think this post is well organized and cleanly written.
But ultimately the piece fails in its goal to provide a guide for constructing a Lovecraftian adventure. This discusses none of the themes of a Lovecraft’s work. The idea of evil cultist is not Lovecraftian. The implied relationship between other world knowledge and insanity is genuinely Lovecraftian, but you don’t present it as such. Also, as to generating the ideas you present the discussion in a very linear fashion. With the exception of when, if and how to bring the monster in, you don’t deal with possible other routes for the adventure. A GM needs to be able to roll with it when things get way of course, so plots should not be a structured as this one. The GM shouldn’t know how things are going to resolve. I am sure you wrote this in one your advice stubs. This is a fine plot, and presented as just a plot it would be okay. But as a guide to designing a genre specific adventure, this fails.
Thank you for good advice! A good and organized way to construct a game. A eye opener for a relative new PC and GM!