On editing, revising, and improving scenarios

Call of Cthulhu is a literary game, in setting, in mood, and content.  As such, when it comes to writing for Call of Cthulhu (or Trail of Cthulhu, or any Lovecraftian game), scenario creation is very much a literary endeavor.  Horror RPGs, because of their nature, require an emotional commitment from players (ideally fear). It is therefore critical for the author to do everything in their power to create a strong foundation for that emotion.

Something critical to this process, if you want to publish something, is to go through a process of editing and revision.  Most writers ideally have a gaming group to playtest their material.  Player reaction is the first source of information we turn to.  Imagine the scenario is a machine- did it work the way you intended (or at least not catch fire and burn off your eyebrows)?  Did it run smoothly?  Sputter?  Grind gears and seize up?  Take note of what worked well, what didn’t, and what happened unexpectedly (for worse or better- sometimes happy accidents reveal new elements and strengths that you didn’t realize at first).

If you are hoping to publish, it is critical to get feedback from sources outside your immediate group.  Your players will know your gamemastering style, and your will know your players gaming style as well.  While this is great in a week to week game, it creates blind spots.  Scenarios need to be tailored in such a way as to be of use to a wider variety of investigators than a tightly scripted drama will allow.  This is the curse of the “you get a call from an old friend / telegram from a classmate / inherit an old house” curse, of which I might speak more upon later.  For the author, the problem of scenario construction is to create a scenario that is appealing to as many types of play as possible- is there investigation? action? mystery? horror?  Not every scenario works for every group, but from my experience editors and publishers tend to avoid scenarios that lean too much on one style of play.  In my case, I tend to write scenarios that are investigation heavy, with many layers of sometimes contradictory clues.  Combat is rare, and rarely central to the resolution of things.  I prefer scenarios without cataclysmic conclusions, world-ending threats, and looming apocalypses.  Small-scale, personal horror coming from low-key Mythos horror seems to be my wheelhouse.

My tastes are not everyone’s.  This is where outside feedback is critical and ideally comes from multiple sources.  Having a friend to read things is important, especially a friend with a good grasp on grammar and who is unafraid to tell you when something isn’t working.  Someone with a group willing to playtest is nice as well.

This is the same sort of aid you get from a good editor, though the relationship is different.  A friend can suggest you cut out a couple thousand words… and editor can simply cut them.  I’ve had very positive relations with all my editors; that being said, steel yourself for the moment when you are told that your work needs, well, work.  Don’t be afraid to embrace criticism- outside readers often see things you cannot.  Give every suggestion consideration; even if you don’t make that change, you gain important perspective, especially if you have multiple readers all making the same suggestion… maybe you do need to fix something.  Conversely, if you are adamant that your version is best and can articulate why your decisions about the scenario improve it, don’t give in (assuming you have the choice 🙂 ).  Either way, you have given the scenario a trial by fire and strengthened it therein.

Nothing profound, I confess, but advice I could have used when I first started writing…

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