- Erik Red(Erikred)Australia
The time has come,' the Walrus said,
To talk of many things:
Of shoes — and ships — and sealing-wax —
Of cabbages — and kings —
And why the sea is boiling hot —
And whether Nyarlathotep has wings.'
Many years ago, as an excited teenager, I read through the boxed edition of Masks of Nyarlathotep. And hasn't it lived and changed over the years. I never ran the campaign then, but dreamed of doing so. And yet, some decade later, I'd gone off the idea for several reasons. One: I was more interested in writing own campaigns. 2. I had read Edward Said's book 'Orientalism', and I struggled against the general sense that -- like the Indiana Jones movies that I loved -- this was all just a bit, er, orientalist. A bit too close to Lovecraft's own racism, if you like.
So, when I picked up the new edition, I was pleased to see the writers had tried to address this. But it's an uneven job, really, since the very structure of the campaign is still bound up in the same sort of things: "cults" of (mostly, not always) blacks or Easterners, worshiping the "pagan" gods, er, Old Ones. In this case Nyarlathotep. Having said that, the writers have done their very best to ameliorate this, and I'm happy to go with it, simply because it's still a well-written, generally exciting, world-spanning, at times moving campaign with wonderful support supplements (like the soundtracks from Syrinscape) and the glorious - if pricy -- props from the HPL Historical society).
I told my players: look, this is kinda orientalist, but if you're happy to overlook that, it'll be great fun.
And it is. What follows then, will be a review in sections, as we play through the locations. It won't be session summaries but an actual review, with some tips for Keepers planning to run the campaign.
So a few more comments generally. I say the campaign is fun. And it is. It is ... fun, but not deep. A lot relies on the players and their ability to develop their own investigators. A lot of the fun rests on the Keeper and their ability to give each of the NPCs their own depth and invent little stories for them. A lot relies on the Keeper to lend the story atmosphere. A lot relies on the Keeper's ability to unify the campaign as much as possible. The demands on the Keeper are HUGE, and that's partly because the structure of the campaign and chapters have, as I will discuss, their problems.
One problem -- defenders might see it as a strength -- is in the episodic nature of the campaign. For an overarching narrative, we ultimately want NPCs who return, again and again, and indeed have their own stories. Our NPCs are simply left behind. There is a solution to this, but it really relies on the Keeper doing extra work to bring some of these NPCs back. I'd recommend having some of them, (like the Australians the Cowles) pass through the cities where the investigators find themselves. Or have the cultist leaders themselves return (maybe tracking down the investigators and foiling them, of attempting to). Maybe this was in the writers's minds when they put the campaign together -- but if so, there's no evidence of it.
The episodic nature also results in a lack of depth in the principal characters. Really, there just isn't enough advice about exactly who this Nyarlathotep is and what he wants, about the principal members of the Carlysle expedition (and their motivations), about who the villains are and what their motivations are. The campaign sets up two mysteries -- what happened to the Carlysle expedition and what is this "great plan" that seems to be occurring -- but when the characters show up, they're mostly cardboard cutouts. We want to find out more about the Carlysle expedition along the way -- to solve some mysteries about it. We want more about their relationships. More about their pasts. More about their motivations. But ... as it's written .... barely anything. My advice for Keepers is to add as much of this as possible. Put in a touch more about the Carlysle expedition that the investigators can discover -- about Hypatia Masters's desire for a child. About M'weru the priestess's poetry, or what she did to Carlysle, about Larkin and his connections with M'Weru and Nyarlathotep, and so on... you'll have to work it out.
All of this is, frankly, the stamp of the "classic" (ie. second generation, after the 1st gen of AD@D) nature of the campaign. It just ends up rather superficial. A better rewrite would have included more on Nyarlathotep and his "thousand faces", more on the characters (and understanding their stories), more to unify the campaign rather than keeping it as an episodic thing.
It's about here that I'd recommend this video by a player of an earlier version of the campaign, which puts its fingers on some of the campaign's problems. Note that he says he'd recommend it -- ish.
And so, on to the chapters, in which things get decidedly Nyarlathotep-y....
PERU -- a high-altitude prologue
In which the characters join an expedition to an ancient Peruvian pyramid. Sure, it starts in a bar, but we forgive that. It's not innovative, but it works. The leader is Augustus Larkin, and his monstrous side-kick De Mendoza -- and it turns out that there's more to meet the eye to these two. The third primary NPC is Jackson Elias, who proves essential for the player's motivations later on. The decision to change Elias to an African-American is essential (to avoid the racial overtones mentioned above). Rapidly, Elias informs the PCs that there's more to Larkin than meets the eye. A trip with him to the local archeological museum probably reveals De Mendoza to be a 'kharisiri' a fat-sucking vampiric creature. As a monster the kharisiri is very nice, as is the maggot each keeps inside them, that when regurgitated can then turn other humans into kharisiri.
Around about this time, the story can go in a number of ways. Most likely, the PCs will go with Larkin up to the pyramid, which holds a monstrous creature -- the father of maggots, which they must seal up using a golden ward found at the museum.
The setting is solid: who doesn't want to go exploring ancient pyramids in Peru? The landscape and atmosphere are nice.
A middle section in the city of Puno next to lake Titicaca is superfluous and my advice is to skip it. If you're running a long, rambling campaign where the players all have plenty of time (ah, those days when I was a student!), you might include it. But my own narrative instincts are to drive forward as quickly as possible.
The trickiest decision for the Keeper is quite how to handle Larkin, who is possessed by [spoiler!] Nyarlothotep. At some point, he's likely to come into conflict with the PCs, Nyarlothotep will manifest, and the investigators will likely kill him. But when? In Lima at the start? My recommendation would be to keep him around until the pyramid. Then he's there at the climax -- you can use him in a twist to ramp up the conflict in the final moments. And having Nyarlothotep manifest in the final scenes works best narratively, since the campaign is "the masks" of Nyarlothotep.
So what can we say about the scenario? Well, mostly, good job! Peru is nice and simple, story-wise, and that suits a starting scenario well. Why? Because you want your PCs to bond. You want them to get to know Jackson Elias. You want them to make progress fairly easily before things get tough; it's fast-enough paced, which is important at this stage. By the end, your PCs should have had an exciting, Indiana-Jonesish/Tomb-Raiderish adventure. I They'll be feeling good, the Keeper will be feeling good. Which is a good place to be before America, which starts with a bang but is a very different scenario.
America -- The Rotten Apple
Jackson Elias calls the investigators to New York. He has news: the members of Roger Carlyle's expedition of 1919 to Egypt and Kenya may be alive. Once he heard this, he travelled to find "the truth", and uncovered a vast inter continental plot of immense proportions. The investigators arrive to his hotel room to find him being killed by men dressed with strange headdresses -- and so begins a relatively typical "there's a cult in the basement" scenario. Of course, Masks is a classic Cthulhu adventure, and as such is particularly suited to new players who haven't played a million "your friend calls you with information" or "your friend goes missing" scenarios. I've said this before, but Chaosium do need to do some "new" conceptual work in their campaigns. If they could only put together a luxury campaign where the stakes were different....
Anyway, back to Masks: it follows these same classic formulae. What makes this scenario a fine opening are the lovely details, particularly the "In innocent man" subplot, where the investigators are set the task of exonerating an African-American man, Hilton Adams, who was on the trail of the Cult and framed by corrupt police. Other details include Harlem, a trip to the Westchester Estate of Roger Carlyle's sister, a jigsaw puzzle of handouts. All in all, Manhattan in winter is an atmospheric location, the cast of characters are well drawn, and there's a nice specificity to the scenario that transcends its "classic", ie. well-worn, plot.
Following the "classic" formula, all road lead to the "Ju-Ju House" in Harlem and the monstrous rites they perform once a month. In the basement lies not only a pretty horrific monster but vital clues for later chapters. The investigators either need to break in or to disrupt a rite with the help either of the (not corrupt) police or -- and here I'd suggest Keeper's tweak the scenario -- the frightened friends of Hilton Adams. This second option is pretty much ruled out by the written campaign but I'd change their attitude to a more combative one. This makes sense since they all fought in the War and have motivations to help (they were on the trail of the Cult with their friend Hilton before he was arrested). Without help, the ending could end up with Total Investigator Death ... Having said that, Keepers need to think carefully about how they'd like the scenario to end, since there's not much guidance given in the written campaign. For example, it's suggested that if the Investigators break into the basement and disturb things down there (which is inevitable since they have to fight "ciimba" or zombie guardians) then the chief cultist burns the place down at the earliest opportunity. This means that if the investigators break in they will not have the chance to disturb a ritual later (the "grand daddy/dramatic" ending). I'm personally fine with that though you are depriving yourself of the drama offered -- watching the cult drag some poor soul to be sacrificed to a terrible monster, the chanting and drumming, etc. On the other hand, if the investigators don't break in and try to disturb the ritual on their own there's a good chance they'll die. But it is important for them to get some of the clues hidden in the basement, so you don't really want failure here so early in the campaign. So here Keepers have a dilemma. As Keeper, you want to either have the characters break in and miss the ritual (my preference because you have another chance at a ritual in London and also, it make sense to keep the supernatural hidden a bit more in a campaign where there's a monster around every corner...) or ensure the investigators get help for a raid of the ritual and have them succeed.
There are other challenges in "America" besides this one. The first is information placement. From the first scene there is a vast amount of information given to players in this scenario -- lots of leads to all the other chapters. Indeed, there are so many that it's quite easy for the Keeper to forget to have an NPC transmit a lead. One solution is to make it as easy as possible for players to access information: most NPCs are in friendly moods, etc. A good example in this scenario is Erica Carlyle, the sister of the ill-fated expedition leader Roger. The scenario suggests that meeting her might be difficult, but it's probably best not to bother too much with this, since we "want" the characters to find out what she knows (about the Carlyle expedition, for example) and to have her mention her brother's medical records -- since I "want them" to find those records. One reason to lean towards this style is to keep things moving narratively. Since we're talking about a long, long, campaign, it seems better to make each scenario short and sharp. "America" is going to be 3 sessions at least anyway and that's enough in one location, I'd suggest.
Another important question is whether to emphasise one or another leads to other continents. I.e., to "point" towards one other chapter. I prefer to direct Investigators to follow the path taken by Carlyle: London, Egypt, Kenya (and then on to Australia and China) -- but without letting them know. I.e. allowing them to choose somewhere else if they wish. You definitely want them to feel that they can go anywhere they want. This "sense" of freedom is essential to the fun of Masks. But London makes sense narratively -- it makes your job easier. Having said that, London presents its own problems and one of the weaknesses of Masks come to the fore there. But that's for next time....
London -- Where Things, including narrative depth -- get a little lost in the Fog
When we hit London (and the other chapters really), we start to run up against the limitations of Masks. Suddenly, problems arise everywhichway. Let's set this up first though. So, it's likely, but not certain, that the investigators will head to London. Various clues lead to the Penhew Foundation, set up by Carlysle expedition member Aubrey Penhew. The story is simple enough -- the Foundation's Director is the head of the local cult. Clues lead into the Foundation and eventually to the leader's country estate, perhaps as a climax featuring the cult ritual (why do these cults always have rituals? Hm, I guess it is true to Lovecraft and like most religions.)
Attentive readers will notice that the form of London isn't that different from the New York chapter. We have, as in many of the 1980s Cthulhu campaigns, a "there's a cult in there" storyline. It's just. not. that. different from New York. Yes, we have a rich, upper class villain, so that's different from New a York. But ultimately, the 1980s origin of the campaign is unable to be transcended. What does make it a touch different is the presence of a secondary priestess who wants to challenge the leader and overthrow him (more in this in a minute).
So the 1980s form of London feels just too familiar. The sidetrack scenarios are nice enough, and they are the bits that feel the most original, but they are the sections that you don't really want to run unless you have lots and lots of time and want a rambling campaign. It's a problem, though, when the bits with the most colour are the non-essential parts.
There just isn't enough happening of import here. There are components for the "rocket" which will be used during the great plan enactment, but there's nothing much the investigators can do which will affect this plan. What if they steal of destroy the components? Well, it would suck if that ruined the cult's plans, so, er, the campaigns sort-of (not entirely, but in effect) precludes that and the investigators are just really collecting clues to lead to the next location. One way to play this is to have the final shipment (a chase) as a central axis of this chapter. But you’d be committing yourself to the investigators failing.
Okay, so with London, my own advice would be to focus on the priestess and her plan to overthrow the leader Gavigan. You’d need to rearrange it a bit, but this is workable (and indeed suggested by the written scenario). She can masquerade as a “investigator” herself, and lead the actual investigator in a mission to stop Gavigan. Then the investigators realise at some point, “oh hey, she’s not on our side.” And the realisation comes a touch too late.... I see no real need to end the chapter with the cult "ritual" since it's not really particularly original. But let that work itself out. If the players want to witness it and stop it, fine.
And get London done quickly enough -- assuming this is early in the campaign. Make everything as easy as possible for the investigators. The other chapters have cool settings that make them more evocative.
London is probably the weakest chapter, so no need to "tarry"! Tally Ho! Let's get to Egypt or somewhere else!
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- Guest Starring...(E Decker)Austria
Erikred wrote:... Nyarlothotep will manifest ...I haven't played the new version, but this sounds terrible. As great as the campaign is, I think it already suffers a bit from revealing things too early. If supernatural elements had been kept out until at least after New York, they would be much more impactful when they showed up. Starting even earlier doesn't sound like a good thing at all.
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- Eric DoddNew Zealand
MartinboroughWorld Cup Final 14th July 2019
- I'll be interested in seeing how you go. You can obviously have something manifest at the end of the preliminary adventure without making it too clear it's an avatar of Nyarlathotep. The pulpier you play it the more you can squeeze in references, but don't forget those unconnected 'shaggy dog' cases that are nothing to do with the big N.
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- Erik Red(Erikred)Australia
Yeah, the way I ran it, it wasn't clear that this was Nyarlathotep -- simply a possession by some black-eyed demon. Secondly, I'm assuming the players don't know what or who Nyarlathotep is. The trick here is to keeep everything as vague and cryptic as possible.
But the scenario is definitely supernatural, from the beginning really. There's not really "creeping horror" more horror in the second scene.
Having said that, I was happy to go with it as straight "horror" with cosmic dashes. But I do agree, it might be nice to have had a a non-supernatural introduction. But these old-school campaigns don't hide the supernatural at all. It's straight into it.
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