Come Strange Eons, even Cthulhu Campaigns may last
There are a lot of factors working against the Keeper who hopes to have a long-term campaign. Classic scenarios and printed campaigns only serve to highlight this by clearly delineating a set period of time, range of scenes, and tasks to accomplish before one could be said to have reached ‘the end.’ Venerable heavy hitters like Masks of Nyarlathotep, and Shadows of Yog-Sothoth take such a heavy toll on sanity and life that only the most pessimistic GM could predict it, and few groups can come close to surviving. Even for a shorter offering like Spawn of Azathoth, survival rates are low. While maintaining an enjoyable atmosphere of mystery, discovery, and growing fear as discussed in my Discomfort, Fear, Terror, and Vast Cosmic Horror on a Dime a Day entry will help keep the players coming back, what will also help is for them to have characters to come back to.
What then can be done to have a group play for an extended period with a sense of real continuity?
In my experience, one of the first things I needed to do was to adjust what I perceived as being ‘long-term.’ Using Masks of Nyarlathotep as an example, I would say that completing such an extensive storyline with one group of Investigators would be the most one should reasonably expect. It is not unheard of for this story to wipe out entire groups of Investigators. Worse, it is not unheard of for this to happen in just the second chapter. The more active and adventurous the Investigators are, the more likely they are to expose themselves to perils both mental and physical from which they cannot recover. The result, is that to truly have a long-term campaign, one either has to have moderate investigations with a minimum of sanity-shattering experiences, or alternate between those and things of comparatively greater peril, but shorter duration. Even so, the wear and tear will get at even the most bookish Investigator. The closer your play-style comes to pulp, the faster the Investigators will meet one end or another. Making the campaign a sandbox, empowering the players to be proactive in their approach to the activities of their investigators, and resisting most impulses to tweak events into a typical story, will make the likelihood of having your campaign last increase significantly (if not always dramatically).
The second thing that I found it necessary to do was to adopt the conceit of the Generation Game or Legacy Game, which I have already explored somewhat in earlier entries (here and here and here). Having players take responsibility for family lines of Investigators, or for leaving discoverable paper trails and quests for future investigators, relieves the pressure on the player to preserve a single character throughout the life of the play-group, while still providing them a sense of building and advancing over time. In addition, for a game built around concepts like ‘strange eons’ having plots and adversaries which move in their totality with glacial slowness over multiple human generations, yet can flow with lightning-fast rapidity from moment to moment within each of those generations, better captures the essence of the genre than having this happen over the course of one quiet Thursday afternoon in May.
The third thing that I decided needed in any campaign of length is self-sustainability. This decision came about as I tried to fine-tune my approach to pacing campaigns. As is no doubt obvious, any campaign needs to develop at a reasonable pace, with new information gradually being uncovered and comprehended, in a similar, but ultimately not identical, fashion to that occurring in individual stories. One of the primary differences, would be that Investigators would learn at a comparatively early stage in the campaign what forces they are aligning themselves to oppose. As I worked on this, it began to seem necessary to have the overall investigations become self-sustainable, and totally player-driven. This stems from what I was learning about the foundations of the horror genre – namely that players scare themselves. To achieve that end, and to free them to scare themselves more completely, they need to be put in positions where they are able to choose to have their characters do the things which those Investigators would fear beyond measure – without force or coercion on the part of the Keeper. In-character decisions, made for in-character reasons, which might or might not be to the detriment of that character’s peace of mind, or soundness of body, are exactly where a campaign needs to go in order to take on a real life of its own. The players, through their characters, need to become invested in seeing the overarching story through to its conclusion on a deeper level than simply being put in a limiting situation and being required to solve the problem therein or perish.
The next thing which I felt was required for maximizing the life of a campaign was to limit the use of Mythos entities to 1 theme and as close to 1 overall plot as possible (barring interspecies politics). Play up the Low-level Cultist to Local Cult Leader to Regional Cult Leader to Servitor Race to Greater Race to Old Ones to Great Old One relationships and keep the variety of non-human opponents as low as possible. Use the incredible variety of Call of Cthulhu to give the RPG legs with your group, as opposed to the campaign. Having new horrors arrive with each investigation not only increases their decent toward madness significantly, it crowds the universe of the characters producing that tired ‘monster of the week’ feel, and worse – strains the fabric of the genre. There are fascinating beings beyond measure in this game, and the temptation to use lots and lots of them is strong. Fight it.
The last item I came to feel was necessary, is more mechanical in nature than my other suggestions. Over the years, I have found that, should combat crop up, using a combat system, such as was put forth in the 4th Edition, which includes hit locations, the effects of trauma, and the peril of permanent injury will actually work to increase the life span of Investigators. While the survivors will be horribly maimed – they will be survivors. Having this tool in place, allows all concerned to stop fighting at more realistic points in combat than using HP alone often will. Of course, doing your very best to resist the temptation to use cool Mythos monsters as opposition for combat should be something which can be left unsaid, for to yield to it leads to madness, and a quick end to the campaign.
As always, I hope that what I have put forth here will encourage others to share their methods for getting the most of this Great Old Game.
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