Tuesday, 10 December 2013

Bringing Back The Funk(ing Investigators), part one

This set of posts is based on some I made on YSDC a couple of years back. I'm doing some clean-up on them after a server move and though this set might be worth dusting off, revisiting and giving a bit more attention for a more general gaming audience. Basically it's about how to respond to the PCs not just wandering from the plot, but actively running away from because sh*t got real, man. It will still tend to be heavily mystery-centric and fairly Cthulhoid because that's how it started out.

The original posts were based on this forum thread and I'll re-post key content to protect against the next server migration.

Sorry it's long; click to skip to the end of the quote

The Investigators left. Now what?

Posted 25 July 2011 - 04:39 PM

Or; Why become a cultist? And what to do when you've won?

Or; Those aren't really my questions. Well, sort of...

(Oh man, this became looo-oong...)

Here's the deal:

I ran a scenario for my group. The ending was not carved in stone, there where at least four different outcomes I could think of. The players came up with a fifth. They ran!

Later, I told them I could do a sequel if they went back. I needed to know why they went back, so I could plan around that. No one could come up with any reason to go back...

I still want to do a sequel, but I'm stuck. So I'll shamelessly throw my stuff up here, and see if someone is kind enough to come up with ideas for me.

Background (which the players found very little of, so some of it can be changed)

1840s: The young Jemimah Ordway was unable to give her husband children. In here desperation, she was tricked into worshipping The Black Ram of the Forest (i.e. Shubby). This got her pregnant, with a three for one deal. As an added bonus, the surrounding countryside grew more fertile.

When Jemimah realized that her triplets where tied to the thing she worshipped at the black altar, she tried to turn her back on The Black Ram.

Dark Young where unleashed on the countryside, Jemimah was blamed, and burnt as a witch. The local priest, who knew stuff guys shouldn't know, used the blood of Jemimah's three daughters to bind the Dark Young in a ritual.

Unfortunately, he messed up the ritual. The Dark Young where contained beneath the ground, draining the countryside of its life. And even worse, Jemimahs descendants where forced to make yearly blood donation at the burial mounds to keep them there.

The Scenario

1930s: A few generations later, enter a coven of wannabe witches, who are basing their “studies” on the witch who got Jemimah into this. Also, enter the Investigators, who didn't at all suspect the coven, but instead assumed that they where also Investigators and/or cannon fodder.

Together they searched the decaying village of Dewsbury and its withered surroundings, before they found the three burial mounds. And started digging. The released Dark Young was so weakened that they where able to (barely) defeat it. But the Investigators decides to bail, while the coven pretended to do so.

And there we are. The Investigators are gone. The villagers are even more devastated and scared than before. Meanwhile, the coven knows where two Dark Young are buried. And once they search a bit more, they will find the blackened altar of the Black Ram of the Forest.

The few ideas I have (that are in no way carved in stone):

The coven will find out that throwing yourself on the altar at nigh will result in a sanity blasting and (regardless of gender...) quite impregnating visit from The Black Ram.

Combine this with the release of the Dark Young, and the countryside will become “healthy” and quickly start growing again (even though its late autumn). This might require the sacrifice of some villagers...

Anyway, what does a coven of witches do in this situation? Just sit tight and pretend everything is golden? Expand? Go nuts?

And how do I get the Investigators, who are hiding in Arkham, to come back to have a look at this?

All I've come up with is having a (now pregnant) male member of the coven defect and come to the players. He'd obviously die while giving birth to... something... during the visit.

But having people mysteriously visit the Investigators is getting a bit old. 2 out of 3 adventures with this group have started that way, with the third having some ties to their hang out...

Hmm... my few ideas expanded somewhat as I was typing. Might be something useful there, at least...

But please, don't let that comment stop you if you've come up with something!!!

I'll end this with throwing in a quick description of the coven members that were present:

Bethany Stather: Broke into the Investigators place, her death got them into this mess.

Father Nathan Barnes: A sociopathic priest who terrorized his flock with blackmail. Now recruits coven members from said flock. One of the covens top dogs.

Edward Kippen: Small time thief, brought in by Barnes' black mail. More errand boy than believer. Possibly pregnant nowadays...

Dale Bradford: Asylum orderly, happened to be present when the coven started. Thinks of himself as a leader because of that, while everyone else treats him as muscle.

Claire Belham: A society girl whose main function in the coven is recruiting. As a city girl, she didn't fit in very well on this very rural mission.

Those where the one present, though others should have been called in by now.

Anyway, any ideas are very, very welcome!

In short, OlderNick posted about a game where the Investigators fled the scenario altogether after discovering the secret of the village. He was interested in ways to do a sequel investigation, and the assumption seemed to be that this would mean getting the same Investigators back into the mystery. In this case, it didn't sound like just a Keeper trying to corral players who've lost interest, but a team effort to get back to the game without just handwaving things.

I posted a couple of things at the time, and eventually decided it was interesting enough to merit a longer exploration of the topic, using OlderNick's situation as an example.

And how do I get the Investigators, who are hiding in Arkham, to come back to have a look at this?

So how do you get Investigators to come back to the site of horror, and is it actually your best option?

Let me just self-indulgently quote myself for a minute, because I think I phrased this pretty well the first time:

Your Investigators went to investigate a mystery, got freaked out by horrible supernatural events, and ran for their lives...
The terror has emerged, they’ve survived and dealt with the immediate threat, and scuttled off to hide...
They are scared, most likely mentally scarred (and perhaps physically scarred) and hopefully impressed with their own puniness and smallness against the horrors that lurk beyond our ken. Let them cower behind locked doors; let them tell stories when the gin they crave to drive away the horror loosens their tongues; let them shiver inexplicably when they walk past a mound and shun forests and whisper words of warning to sceptical friends.

In this specific situation, I felt it would be a more... powerful? interesting? fun? idea to leave the Investigators be and close off this scenario here. In the film version, this could be the final escape shot, the surprise twist cultist-in-the-back-seat ending, or the protagonists in a bar fifty years later clutching bottles of gin. This isn't necessarily an end to the story altogether (that's where sequels come from), but a firm end to this particular chapter. However, there are lots of factors that could influence how you decide to proceed from this point.

Why did they leave?

I think the first thing to establish is why the PCs have left the plot (which might mean physically leaving the area, as in this case, or just abandoning their investigation) and how that relates to the players. Similar concerns may apply to some non-investigative plot threads, such as fetch quests.

  • The worst case would be that the players just aren’t interested in the plot, so they don’t feel any particular inclination to pursue it. At that point, you need to think about making serious changes, or just moving on to a new scenario. It could be an intrinsic problem with the plot not matching the group’s interests or expectations (too clichéd? not clichéd enough? too technical? too subtle? too stomach-churning?), or it could be the way you’re presenting the scenario and another approach might work wonders.
  • A related but healthier situation is that the players are interested, but their characters don’t have much motivation to keep going. It could be they’ve just got the wrong kind of characters to be interested in the mystery in question: rich aristocrats won’t find payment much incentive for grimy and dangerous investigations, and homeless muggers have other concerns than elaborate plots by mystic scholars to influence the political system. Alternatively, it could be that the clues or events so far aren’t what’s needed to draw them in, but they’ll be motivated once you find the right hook.
  • The third possibility that strikes me is that the players, or the characters, don’t know what to do. If they run out of clues and leads, then wandering home or going back to the day job might be the obvious thing to do. Or they might have lost track and started following red herrings. At that point you should still be able to get things moving again.
  • OlderNick’s example is a different thing again. The characters themselves have lost motivation to keep investigating, not because they’re bored or out of clues, but because they found out too much and are terrified. They have very strong motivation to drop the investigation like a hot potato and avoid the whole business. In this case the problem is horrendous non-Euclidean truths, but in another genre it might be realising the Mob are involved (and you're an average Joe), uncovering evidence that the President is part of a secret werewolf conspiracy and then finding bugs in your fountain pen, or working out that the Duke is planning a coup and you really don't want to be forced to pick sides.
  • In another genre, you might find similar issues cropping up if the PCs feel overwhelmed by the opposition in a particular enemy stronghold, get stymied by a devious dungeon full of secret architecture, or are all playing retired planetary governers who really have no reason to do grunt work for a corporation.

In general, so long as the players and GM are invested in a particular plot strand, it’s worth trying to keep things going. However, there are various kinds of changes you may want to make to oil the wheels.

That doesn’t necessarily mean keeping the same PCs. In fact, in some situations it’s much better to roll up new ones. If an character isn’t a good fit for the scenario and loses interest, the game will probably go much better if you replace them; I don't think "incompatible motivation" is that different from "incompatible concept" or "incompatible morality", if it makes it difficult to play the game you want to play, then change something. Changing the whole party is a bit drastic, but Call of Cthulhu is the kind of game where that's not such a big step - even if you play campaigns, you could well let your usual party start a scenario, then step aside when it turns out not to suit them, and let someone else take over. In another genre, this may feel like more of a problem. Broadly speaking, the more work required to create a character, the more reluctant I suspect you'd be to do that.

If the characters are just terrified, then it really depends what kind of game, genre and scenario you’re running, and how much your group is invested in character concepts versus handwavey metagamey considerations, which is what I'll discuss next.

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