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Notes on a Mystery (Part 2): Creating Tension

One of the players in my Call of Cthulhu game was an experienced GM who had been playing tabletop RPGs for years, with way more experience than me both when it comes to playing a character and crafting a fun story for players. When I first brought up the idea of me GM’ing a game of CoC he was intrigued but said that, in his experience, he didn’t think that creating horror was possible in an RPG. After our second session of CoC had ended and my group stepped outside for fresh air he admitted to me, shaken, that I had proved him wrong and that’s all thanks to one word: Tension.

I’m a horror fan. My favorite author is Stephen King, I hold a scary movie marathon every year on halloween, and I frequent subreddits like r/horror and r/writing to understand the nature of spooky storytelling. I guess that’s why Call of Cthulhu was such an appealing system to me. And, from all my experience learning the craft of horror stories, I can tell you that creating a gripping, tension filled environment is key to scaring your audience; in Call of Cthulhu or otherwise.

Here’s what happened.

After their first in-game day, the players found themselves being questioned in connection to a grisly killing. The night before, they had heard a woman’s scream and, running to investigate, found a young man who was covered in blood and looming over the savaged body of a young woman. The killer fled into the darkness when the party had found the murder scene and half of the players ran after him while the other half tried to save the doomed victim with First Aid (she was still barely alive at this point, but died seconds later from blood loss). Two players rolled a successful Track roll and caught up with the killer only for him to disappear into a cloud of smoke. They Party regrouped at the murder scene only to be handcuffed and taken into custody by the local cops for questioning.

They were released the next in-game morning, free to investigate the murder of the young woman and her strange killer who could vanish like some stage magician. Two of the players, The German Professor and Ms. Price the journalist, heard rumors that there was something wrong with the body of the victim and went to the county morgue to ask questions. What they didn’t know and what I only knew, however, was the nature of the killer: a vampire. This meant that the victim was set to reanimate at any moment.

The trap was set, my prey were walking straight into it, and it took every ounce of will power in my body not to grin and cackle like a lunatic.

Of course, I played it cool; acting as if the entire scene at the morgue was a straight up questions-and-answers-type deal with no hint of danger. The Medical Examiner greeted the players, traded jokes (“you came at the right time,” the M.E. said, “it’s positively dead in here.” Yes, bad puns are my specialty) and lead them downstairs into the basement where the dead bodies were stored and autopsies were performed. The M.E. lead the party passed the body of the victim on the operating table, a blanket draped over her lifeless form, and into the office adjacent to the operating room. More questions, more vague answers. Finally, the players concluded that they had learned very little but may have made a possible ally in the M.E. so they left the office, expecting the scene at the morgue was over. That is, until I fed them one last detail…

The operating table with the murder victim on it was now empty, the blanket previously covering her cast aside onto the cold ground.

“Oh, shit;” was the collective response of The Professor and Ms. Price.

The description was soon followed by the sounds of bare feet pitter-pattering against the linoleum floor and then concluded with all the lights in the basement going out. Something I emphasized by getting up from my chair, running to the light-switch next to me, and flipping it off.

Before I had even gotten back in my chair The Professor said, “My character runs for the exit.”

Here’s where I made the one mistake I regret from that encounter. I told him to stop and think instead of just letting him flee for his life. If I did, I could’ve had the newly risen vampire ambush his character in the dark while he was away from help or just attacked the remaining Ms. Price who was now a friend short. But, instead, I told him to stay where he was while I explained the situation to the players. They could either run for their lives and risk fighting a vampire in the darkness  or they could try and find the circuit breaker in the basement to bring the lights back on and even the odds for the coming fight ahead. I even had the M.E. lend them a flashlight to help them navigate in the blackness.

I know, I coddle my players too much. It’s a fault I’m working on.

This is basically how I view my players

Anyway, both players agreed to find the circuit beaker, which was located in a supply closet, and turn the lights back on. I could’ve just let them go straight for it but instead with each step I tolled them to roll for Spot Hidden while I played ominous music from the Rule of Rose soundtrack to set the mood. The players cringed and made their rolls, expecting an unseen, undead monstrosity to ambush them both each time. But I had other plans for them.

The first time, only Ms. Price rolled a successful Spot Hidden. I told her that her flashlight had found a smashed container of donated blood on the floor, nothing that could induce a Sanity roll but it helped keep the players on edge as the maneuvered their way around the puddle of blood.

They both rolled successes on the next Spot Hidden and found a pile of blood, human teeth on the floor; as if freshly pulled by a dentist. This one did cause a Sanity roll which they both failed but I only made them lose 1D3 SAN. Mildly perturbed, they moved on.

Finally, they reached the supply closet that contained the circuit breaker. Shaking, both players were convinced that the vampire lurked inside. The Professor held the flashlight steady while Ms. Price readied her derringer. They threw open the door to the closet and I paused for dramatic effect when describing what was inside, leaving both players quite literally on the edges of their seats.

Nothing was inside. There was only the circuit breaker and some cleaning equipment. Breathing a sigh of relief, they turned the lights back on, turned to leave, and found standing in the doorway of the closet they were now both squeezed into/trapped in the looming form of the newly vampirized young woman.

It looked like both players nearly had a heart attack, quite the opposite reaction of their characters who succeeded their Sanity rolls. The fight after that was actually quite anti-climactic. Unfamiliar with the combat system I was unsure how it would go but a two-against-one fight is never good odds for anyone, even a vampire. It also didn’t help that I rolled poorly while the players almost always had successes.

Worse, the players were regaining their confidence in the situation. The Professor shouted for rope after he successfully grappled the vampire, wanting to tie it up and examine it safely. I had to turn my vampire into smoke again, however temporarily, to prevent that near-plot-derailing event from happening. My players were forced to kill the vampire, as I intended which was when I hit them with the final Sanity roll which they both lost.

Ms. Price was shaken while the previously brave Professor fainted at the grisly act of re-killing the vampire. There were no more combat encounters after that, only more mystery and storytelling, but with that first encounter engraved in the party’s collective minds’ every time I called for a Spot Hidden left every player trembling with fear and cuss-words being muttered on shaking lips.

Basically, in the words of the great poet Ice Cube:

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Notes on a Mystery (Part 1): My First Time As A Keeper

 

I had never played Call of Cthulhu before. I had never GM’d a tabletop game before. Hell, three or four months ago, I had never even roleplayed before. So when I offered my gaming group to host my first game (a Call of Cthulhu game, no less) I knew I was leaping head first into the deep end.

I was terrified, but only at first. Then, last thursday, the game started and everything (somehow) fell into place. I thought I’d record my thoughts and feelings of how the game went for all the other nervous would-be keepers out there. Maybe this will help, maybe it won’t. Maybe I’m just writing this for my own benefit. Either way, get a glimpse into the madness.

The Set Up

I had always wanted to play Call of Cthulhu. As a lover of horror fiction the aesthetics were right up my alley and I found the sanity system intriguing. When I first joined my gaming group and discovered how much fun RPG’s were I immediately set to planning an adventure of my own, ideally with CoC, but only in the loosest and vaguest of story telling terms. After my group all agreed to me GM’ing a game, I had to get serious with planning my adventure and it was then that I realized just how hard making your own adventure is.

(Yes, for my first GM’d game I created my own instead of using one from the book like The Haunting. Again, I was feeling ballsy when I did this and didn’t think it all through.)

Following that old adage of “write what you know” I had the setting already picked out: a rural Illinois college town (I grew up in and have already written about a similar area) in the 1920s. I knew what I wanted: a mix of bootegging gangsters, black magic, and a monster running around that needed to be stopped. Beyond that, I didn’t have the faintest idea of what to do or how to get the players to follow the story.

At first, I tried a straight forward story with a basic point-a to point-b progression. That is, until I remembered what kind of players were in my group and knew that they would rather spend ten minutes picking fights and fucking around than following a boring trail of breadcrumbs. I knew that if I tried to railroad my players, they’d set fire to themselves just to spite me or, and this was the part that really frightened me, derail the entire adventure on accident by doing what they wanted to do instead of what I wanted to do.

The story I ended up going with was sort of a sandbox one. I drew out a detailed map of my setting, filled it with interesting places to go (some of which had clues to the bigger myster, some were just there for fun) and decided to just let my players go nuts. Here’s my first tip to would-be keepers designing their first adventure: don’t expect anything to go according to plan and you’ll never be surprised!

My second bit of advice is this: don’t be stingy and buy the actual physical book!

At first, I just wanted a digital copy or loaned information off the internet. But batteries run out and a PDF isn’t as easy to skim through as the real deal. If you’re going to play this game you need to know weapon damages, resistance table info, spell characteristics, and a hundred other things you didn’t think of and having the actual book to flip through in front of you is a million times easier.

The Adventure (pre-game)

When game day finally came we played for about three hours, at least half of which was spent on character creation. Here’s my next piece of wisdom: be patient.

The rules for CoC are actually quite simple when you actually get right down to it but for first time players, they will seem daunting. What skills actually do are vague and they don’t always fit into what the players are thinking they do. Players will also obsess over some of the most inconsequential things in the name of role playing. One of my players, we’ll call her Ms. Price, ended up being the group’s bankroll with over three million dollars worth of modern day currency in assets.

But, since she was used to playing games where money had to be spent before playing, she spent most of her character creation time trying to spend the loads of money she found in her possession. If I hadn’t stopped her and told her she didn’t need to spend it all, she probably would’ve bought everything in the Equipment section part of the book.

Speaking of equipment, I initially wanted my players to start without weapons to add to the horror atmosphere. But with two of my player’s characters being a war veteran and a cowboy (we’ll call them Ace and Roy respectively) I had to relent and allow them some basic weaponry. But I had to invoke keeper’s law to keep them from starting the game with weapons like a field cannon or a box of hand grenades.

The Adventure (so far)

Now we come to the main event. The game started with five players (technically six but our sixth player won’t show up til next time). They were: Ms. Price, wealthy heiress and investigative journalist; Ace, a fighter pilot from the Great War turned stuntman; Roy, Texarkana tough guy and gunslinger; the Professor, a German scholar of languages; and finally our group’s PI, whom I will refer to as Dick Whiskey. (His actual character name was only slightly more ridiculous than that)

Our sixth player, who was in Canada at the time, already had his character prepared. One Johnny Dubois, a southern gentelman/occultist. I justified his absence from the rest of the group by saying he was spending the first day of the adventure shut up in the local library looking for rare (read: mystical) books. We’ll find out how well that works out for him in part two of this little diary.

With the characters assembled I had the adventure start on a train ride towards the game’s setting as an opportunity for them all the get to know each other and role play a little. I played some music from the Boardwalk Empire soundtrack for period appropriate atmosphere, which is something I can’t recommend enough to other keepers.

Anyway, five minutes into introducing each other, Roy tried to punch the Professor for basically being German in post-WWI America.

Already the game was going swimmingly.

Fortunately, Ms. Price played peacemaker and got the team to at least tolerate one another, if not necessarily work together. When the train pulled into the station, my players were unleashed on the world and things went surprisingly to plan after that. They met up with the old friend professor who had invited them all to the picturesque town and he gave them a tour of the town.

Note I didn’t say the game went smoothly but nothing plot derailing happened during that first day of gaming.

Roy continued to be an abrasive dick to just about everyone. The only reason he didn’t succeed in punching (and, at STR 18 and a +1d6 db, probably killing) the Professor was thanks to the Professor rolling a successful Dodge. After he got off the train, he went right to work getting even more weapons (he had started the game with a bowie knife and a revolver, he then bought another, smaller revolver and a rifle). Once in the gun store to buy more weapons he very nearly started a fight with the local rambling/exposition spouting old man but showed restraint and didn’t try to murder him with his fists. He spent the rest of the game looking for people to fight but amazingly didn’t get into one due to one reason or another.

Ms. Price played better and is already showing signs of being the most promising player. Once off the train she went to the town’s local Fall Festival to play some games. She saw that a small child was crying next to the ring toss and his mother was trying desperately to console him and failing. Intrigued, she gave the ring-toss game a try only for me to reveal that the game was rigged and the only way to win was to score a critical success.

She got it on her first try.

I didn’t expect that to happen. Hell, if I had to title this post as anything else it’d be “Damn, I didn’t expect that to happen.”

That’s my final and most important lesson to would-be keepers: be quick on your feet. You can bend and manipulate the situation as much as you like but you will never be able to predict what will happen in a game and what the players will do once left to their own devices. From picking fights with NPC’s with no real stats, to winning unwinnable games, to just not cooperating with each other; you gotta think quick on how to keep the game going and keep it interesting for all involved.

Ideas For Next Session

All in all, my players really enjoyed the game, even though it was mostly set up with only one spooky thing happening. Most players had enough to do but some eyes noticeably glazed over when characters followed the group and found themselves in situations out of their usual element.

Come next game session, I’m introducing some new events/characters so every character will have something to do without straying too far from the main plot. Let’s see what new shenanigans they get up to next week.

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