Thursday, 19 December 2013

Bringing Back The Funk(ing Investigators), part three

So in the last two posts I talked about why Investigators might leave an investigation (more broadly, why PCs might abandon a plot thread), and ways of reigniting it. But is it a good idea? That's very difficult to say generally, but I think there are significant genre factors at play here in terms of producing a satisfying experience for everyone.

In OlderNick’s original situation, the Investigators had fled the town of Dewsbury after an encounter with a Dark Young. Some of the suggestions for getting them involved again were (in roughly the same order as I discussed earlier):

  • A friend or acquaintance went looking for them in Dewsbury and has disappeared.
  • Kidnap one of the characters and have them implanted, without a clear memory of what's happened.
  • Have one of the coven implanted with a Dark Young visit the Investigators and die.
  • News articles about people disappearing, or even the whole village, cost the Investigators Sanity until they go off to deal with it.
  • Nightmares, possibly inspired by ghosts of the dead.
  • Let it fester for a while, maybe drop in anecdotes or news reports, until they feel the urge to tie up old loose ends.
  • Fast-forward a couple of decades and have new Investigators, perhaps linking clues to the old ones.

These are all reasonable suggestions. Quite a few of them depend on the players keeping the same Investigators so they can be affected by these things. If you run a campaign-style group, that's straightforward enough, and it doesn't require any particular commitment to revisit the mystery. That setup would work well with drip-drip techniques where you keep playing other scenarios, while slowly drawing the Investigators and plot together again. If it turns out they all die, or would rather do something else, then you can go that way instead and drop the Dewsbury case, or revive it with new characters, as you prefer.

If you tend to play one-shots, things are potentially trickier; in particular, drip-feed methods won't work as such because there's no in-game time to exploit. It could be difficult to run that in a way that doesn't seem forced and predetermined; if you're running the first part of the scenario just to put in the events that drag the Investigators back in, it might not feel convincing and they will flail around for things to do in the meantime. If you can find something else for them to do for a session or two, and drop the clues or odd events around that, it might work better. Obviously, quick techniques like the missing friend above, or attacks on the Investigators, can be much simpler to handle in such cases.

Other considerations are the type of game and world you're running. In a campaign with many separate plot hooks, dropping one and moving on may not be a big deal. In a complex campaign with heavy metaplot, dropping a blossoming bit of plot before it's resolved* may complicate things for the GM and lead to lots of work to tie up loose ends and maintain consistency. Some genres (like low fantasy, or indeed low anything) tend to be forgiving of protagonists who shrug and move on to the next town, without too much trouble in terms of breaching expectations; success and interesting gameplay isn't just about defeating the antagonist. If you're just looking for a rich experience, then an interesting failure can be as good as an interesting success.

* Note that here I don't mean it's bad for the PCs not to stick through until the official end of Plot. However, if a major plot element gets introduced but doesn't see enough screen-time to resolve its implications in some way, things can get complicated. Perhaps the GM doesn't want to arbitrarily declare major consequences in one direction or another, and was expecting the PCs' actions to determine that. Perhaps it just raises questions about other parts of the setting, or undermines it. If the element is revealed but the PCs don't touch it for in-game ages, then perhaps it really should have had all kinds of consequences during that time.

I wouldn’t go back there for anything!

So why do I think that drawing the Investigators back into the Dewsbury mystery might not be the best of the options available?

In this case, there are a couple of main factors. One major point is that it seems to be a location-based scenario, and the other is that it's Call of Cthulhu.


Plots centred around a particular location are especially prone to motivation problems (which is not to have a go at those plots). If the mystery is in Cultville, the Investigators must be brought back to Cultville by hook or by crook. However, it can be quite difficult to justify the Investigators doing it of their own accord, especially where motives are fairly trivial. D&D is vulnerable to this issue because of its heavy dungeoneering focus combined with a questy approach to motivation; it tends to get around it by encouraging the creation of PCs who are inclined to go and raid dungeons full of arbitary monsters. Mission-based games skip right over the problem. In games with a less focused playstyle, the question of why the PCs should go to X and do Y is always hovering.

The Haunting is a pretty good example of a scenario with this problem: the Investigators are usually very loosely involved, so if they get scared off they have little incentive to go back. In particular, their motivation is extrinsic rather than intrinsic. And given that the antagonist's sole motivation is to scare them off, those dovetail nicely into a problem.

So self-motivation is tricky. On the other hand, heavy-handed methods can seem implausible or even unreasonable. Using the Dewsbury examples, why should the cultists go to the lot of effort to hunt down and kidnap an Investigator for implantation when there’s plenty of unsuspecting easy prey closer to hand? There is nothing special about the Investigators, so far. Sanity-draining news reports could work very well, or it could seem like railroading. The same applies to dreams, as well as some other problems - do all the characters get awful dreams, which stretches plausibility? Are they all equally affected? If not, will one player feel like they’re being victimised? And will the others be convinced they need to return to their investigation just because Professor Smith is haunted by maddening dreams, or just send him to a psychiatrist? Do they share the dreams, or indeed the news reports, with each other, and why? That will probably only work if there’s a strong connection between them in the first place, which isn’t always the case.

Location-based scenarios aren't the only problem, though. If a plot involves moving from place to place, PCs may want to proceed with the journey rather than stay to meddle in things; this is particularly true if they have a good reason for pressing on with their journey, be it metaplot or personal goals. If the plot involves a particular person, the PCs may not want to keep monitoring her or socialising with her, especially if they think she's a wrong'un. If the plot's very intricate, they may not want to follow up the leads they have.

Call of Cthulhu expectations

As an investigative horror game, Call of Cthulhu doesn't have the same parameters for success as some other genres. The details will depend on the group's preferences, but generally speaking, a "successful" scenario might mean surviving, escaping, or even just encountering something weird. Plenty of groups have fun going mad and dying. The stories that inspire them very frequently feature protagonists discovering a hideous truth and running away from it: The Lurking Fear, The Whisperer in Darkness, The Nameless City and even The Call of Cthulhu itself have this structure. The nature of the game, and the material it draws on, lend themselves quite readily to scenarios ending with panic-stricken flight, so this kind of ending may be very satisfying to a group who appreciate this authentic Lovecraftian conclusion. Obviously, if you enjoy different parts of the game and the setting, that may not be the case.

Other dark games, like Unknown Armies may find it works similarly, and that leaving the horror firmly alone once you manage to get away from it is the most satisfying option, rather than trying to find justifications for the characters to keep prodding it.

More generally, I think this is most likely to be the case in game where the PCs are relatively weak, and where they are not part of a larger organisation that can support them. These factors encourage the idea that the game isn’t all about you. If you’re taking orders from an organisation, or even just part of an egalitarian Justice League or whatever, it’s relatively difficult to justify abandoning a problem that you’re genuinely worried about (as opposed to one you aren’t interested in). That being said, on the flipside, the group could decide that they would pass on their gen to the organisation and more senior members would take over, leaving them free to move on; the special forces move in, or top-rank secret agents begin investigating, or the King dispatches powerful mages to deal with the problem. This allows a situation to be dealt with (reducing metaplot problems and logical issues about wht happens next) without obliging the party to do it if that makes little sense in context. Of course, they might be brought in on the periphery of the operation to advise on the precise nature of the threat.

Let them cower

In the original thread, I recommended OlderNick (in his situation) to accept the Investigators’ decision. Allow them to drop the investigation and get on with their lives as best they can. The cultists have won - for now. I’ve already mentioned some of the new opportunities this can offer, but fundamentally I think there are two advantages.

The first is that it can support the roleplaying aspects of the game by encouraging players to go with what seems appropriate, rather than what the situation seems to demand. If giving up a fruitless search, or running away, are accepted as just as valid ways to respond to the story as sticking like glue to an investigation that offers madness, horrible death and the disbelief of anyone you tell about it, then everyone has more room to work with. It doesn’t necessarily matter what kind of game you’re playing here; a heroic fantasy game could be enriched by an impossible quest and its learning experiences, and a mission-based military game could get interesting when you deal with the fallout of abandoning your mission, although admittedly in some cases it would get you executed.

Secondly, if you decide to revisit the scenario with a new group, it adds layers to the story. The first group of PCs look into the mystery and give up. A second group appear, perhaps years later, and benefit from the actions and research of the original group; they may even appear as NPCs in this second investigation. A story that’s already driven off one set of well-meaning PCs may be more tantalising or ominous. In a broad sense, what this approach does is add depth to the story. Although it won’t always work, unexpected developments like PCs backing out offer some new opportunities, and might lead to some really novel scenarios. The sinister cult has overwhelmed Cultville and fulfilled their immediate aims, so what do they do next? The rune-carved monolith has hummed its strange song into the night for nine full moons, so what happens when the creature it’s calling arrives? The Shan have each found a body from the top brass of the ship, so what are their plans?

Depending on the circumstances, the PCs may have seriously disrupted the antagonists' plans before retreating, or alerted others to the fact that something is up, which might completely change the expected sequence of events. Some of the cult might be arrested if there’s been trouble (especially, given the period, if they’re foreigners). Items that cultists or creatures expected to use may have been removed or destroyed, so they need to track them down or think up a new plan. Some of their allies may have been killed, perhaps taking vital information with them and delaying for months their plan to summon Cthugha. If they think they’ve been compromised, certain adversaries will abandon their base and move elsewhere, which may require a completely different setup to achieve similar ends. Perhaps the Investigators opened a portal and fled after barely vanquishing the horror that emerged; what else might come through, or who else might find it? Or what happens to the powerful Mythos tome they abandoned in their hotel when they never return to pay their bills?

Looking again at some other genres, a more warlike setting like Pathfinder or Numenera is perhaps even more flexible here. Undefeated enemies can easily have grown in strength and expanded to take over a swathe of territory. The composition of their armies may change; any notables slain by the PCs may be replaced, or even raised as undead servants (or bionic servitors, or brains in jars). They might turn from banditry to diplomacy or even trade, depending if they're Evil or simply bad, because pragmatism is a thing.

In a more espionage-like game full of secrets, which might include social games, it may not really matter whether the PCs actually stopped their antagonists' plans. The mere fact of discovery may cause enormous headaches, changes of plan, changes in power balance, new alliances, covers-up and similar countermeasures that mean the situation changes greatly. You don't get far in subterfuge by not taking precautions. At the same time, if their manipulations have paid off, they may be in a very different position from where they started - which likely makes them stronger, but also leaves them adjusting to a new situation, and potentially off-balance.

Another point worth considering is that the PCs may have become relevant to the antagonists’ plans, in which case their disappearance is a huge pain for said antagonist. As a result, the new incarnation of the scenario might begin with the antagonists trying to capture the original PCs, providing a hook for for a new party. In The Call of Cthulhu, the original investigators were being hunted down by a cult decades after making their discoveries. In other stories, protagonists learn towards the end that they’ve been tainted or otherwise affected by their exposure to something weird, and this might be the basis for the new chapter.

This Is The End

Coming back to the beginning... the last option is, as I said, to just stop the whole thing right there. No follow-up, no sequels. Sometimes, just ending with a terror-stricken retreat is the best ending you could wish for. It’s certainly very appropriate for a horror game. It can produce a really strong and memorable story (which is a consummation devoutly to be wished), and allow some really compelling roleplaying. Quite a number of Lovecraft’s stories end with the protagonist surviving some nightmare event and living with the knowledge that Horror Is Still Among Us.

It also has some side benefits. Just letting things take their course will add a spice to future games. Players know that they can choose to run away, and that’s a choice you’ll support. They’ll know that they can actually just lose. They’ll know that the story actually isn’t all about their characters, that it’s an event they get swept up in and respond to however they do. They might know all that already, but it’s nice to be reminded of it.

However, there are definitely situations where it's not appropriate. The group might find that option frustrating and be desperately keen to come back to the mystery, in which case why punish yourselves? Some genres also really don't suit that kind of resolution; anything from Golden Age superheroes to Space Marines to Looney Toons doesn't really embrace the idea of the favoured protagonists walking away and leaving a problem unresolved, because that’s just not how those stories work.

So that’s my thoughts on resuming plot threads, and why I think trying to restart an abandoned investigation isn’t always the best option. However, there will be plenty of situations where it is, and can offer some interesting opportunities. In the end it’s a balancing act between metagame considerations, characterisation, genre and all that stuff.

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