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…

Using Local Myths and Legends

Having already touched on making use of local history, I wanted to talk a bit about using local (or at least regional) myths and legends in crafting Call of Cthulhu Scenarios.

The easiest (but I caution not the only) place to look is online.  A couple well-worded internet searches go a long way towards setting you on a path of further research.   Please don’t imagine that everything of interest can be found online, especially when it comes to the realm of local history and legend.  I also notice that often you’ll see a story repeated (sometimes verbatim) from one site to another.  Ah internet plagiarism.

It is better to, once you have an idea of where you are looking, to hit the old library (either public or personal) and find some dead tree fuel for your imaginative fires.

For example- based on Lovecraft’s description of Aylesbury’s location, I settled on a cluster of towns in north central Massachusetts as useful proxies for Aylesbury itself.  They all were mid-sized industrial towns with a population floating around 20,000 in 1920; this included Gardner, Fitchburg, and Leominster.  With those proxies in mind, I took to the library

There I found several books of interest- an collection of tales from the region (anecdotal history, collecting unusual or interesting events), a history of the Swift River valley (which was flooded to form the Quabbin Reservoir– not quite right but with some interesting tall tales), and a children’s book of Wampanoag myths.  I found tales of witchcraft (well, unpopular old ladies, spoiled milk, and questionable illnesses), spirits, curses, lost treasures, and all manner of oddness.

The purpose of this is two-fold; the first is generate inspiration for your writing and the second is to strengthen your foundation of knowledge, as the better you know your real-world inspiration the richer you will understand your fictional version.  The plus for fiction and gaming authors is, of course, that we can pick and chose what we include and are free to twist reality to fit our narrative.

Not all of these bore fruit of course, at least not immediately.  For example, in my reading I noticed that Mount Wachusett, the highest point in MA east of the Connecticut River, once had a hotel at the top, one destroyed in a fire… This didn’t fit for Aylesbury, either by location or the themes that Dan was seeking to expand upon.  I filed that away for future reference.  😉

I did come across an account of a late 18th century forger and con-artist who claimed to have found a method by which he could turn a barrel full of coins into three barrels of coins… now that was inspiration for my scenario for the Aylesbury book- “Shadow Alchemy”.  But more on that later.