I’ve run the legendary MASKS OF NYARLATHOTEP four times (and been in it twice!), but in a real sense, you only get one real shot at it.
It is the holy grail of horror, and in my opinion the best, most frightening, atmospheric, awesomely realized campaign for any game. I could sit and read it again, and again, and still find something new each time.
Here are some of the lessons I’ve learned from running the campaign.
SPOILERS OBVIOUSLY FOLLOW.
1 - Introduce Jackson Elias BEFORE THE CAMPAIGN
In my games, Jackson Elias was not some obscure paper character that suddenly appeared via telegram, the player characters had been through six adventures before Masks, and in three of them, Jackson Elias was a key player.
Elias saved their bacon in Central America just four months before the telegram from New York arrived. There was a very real sense of comfort an loyalty to the character. When the PC’s entered the hotel and found Jackson gutted with the sigil carved in his forehead, their grief and rage were not ersatz.
In fact, the fire that drove the group was lit with the death of Jackson Elias. One PC spent the entire campaign wearing Jackson’s hat, another — a dilettante woman who was secretly in love with him — mourned him and wrote him love letters (before being flung into a pit of flesh eating rats by the Black Pharaoh).
Lesson one, make Jackson Elias indispensable, and then dispense with him. It teaches the basis of Call of Cthulhu; no one is safe, no one wins, and the best you can hope for is escape, madness or death.
2 - Have a Method to Introduce New Characters Without Ruining the Mood
This is hugely important. MASKS is a well-known death box and player characters are shredded at every turn (Cairo and Kenya being notable, though we’ve also had near total-party-kills in London and Shanghai). Replacing characters is necessary, but no clear direction is given on how to do this.
The games I was a player in just hand-waved replacements (“Welcome to the group waiter! There’s a cult to hunt!”) and it caused a silly feeling to creep in and fill the places where the horror should be.
In my groups, we used the GILCHRIST TRUST a framework I created where new investigators of the occult could be easily flung anywhere in the world, and had a reason to continue the fight.
Even better, the trust had access to weapons, houses, cars and more everywhere on the globe — and even better, the trust was subject to the machinations of a team of lawyers attempting to shut it down, which made for awesome roleplaying moments.
Lesson two, have a method to replace player characters as they (invariably) die. Without this method clearly in place at the beginning, introducing new characters will feel at-best silly and at worst completely unbelievable.
3 - Work Hard on the Props
There is nothing like handing out a well-made STUMBLING TIGER BAR matchbox (“Shanghai Fun & Friends”) or carefully clipped newspapers from all over the world to players who have just struggled to break into the safe at the Penhew foundation.
If you can, take the time to make the props look real (I soaked my newsprint in tea for older articles and then let them dry). When you feel the narrative is lacking something, add it in — Jack “Brass” Brady’s police file was one I added — make your own.
This has a secondary effect; the more you work on the narrative, the more you understand it, the better you can fill in these gaps, and reinforce the understanding of the maze of interrelationships in the campaign.
Lesson three, work hard before hand to make compelling props. Let the players puzzle them out (and players LOVE props). Find gaps in the story and try to fill them in with props if you can, so that when the players pull back the curtain, they find another curtain, and another, and another.
So, Keeper’s grab your dice and get going! That nuclear rocket on Grey Dragon island isn’t going to destroy itself!
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