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Erik Red
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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, exciting, 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. See you again shortly.

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....
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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 Dodd
New Zealand
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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
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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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