Thursday, July 21, 2011


Tonight I finished running the epic Masks of Nyarlathotep campaign for Call of Cthulhu. It’s not the first time I’ve run it – in fact it’s the third time – but it’s the first time in more than a decade I’ve revisited this Cthulhu classic, and I thought I’d share my approach and reflections.
I describe Masks as the James Bond Call of Cthulhu campaign. It features half a dozen exotic locales, improbable villains, deadly threats, all based around a fairly tenuous plot. In short – it is a blockbuster with all the good and bad that entails. The problem with this setup is the lethality of the campaign as written – I usually end up with a box full of character sheets donated by all the players whose characters have died or gone insane during the course of the campaign. Such a high character turnover can have negative impacts, stretching the already weak continuity of the chapters, diminishing player investment in characters, or even initiating ‘the Indiana Jones effect’.

To be fair to Masks, you have to consider the context of the campaign. It was written in 1984, when the gaming world was dominated by modules featuring monsters, treasure and dungeons. It added investigation, glamour and unusual encounters to this framework, even allowing the players to determine the order in which they resolved the chapters of the campaign. Since it's first edition it's had a whole chapter added along with a plethora of entertaining side adventures. Nevertheless, while innovative for its time, the campaign still has its fair share of linear plots, railroads and dungeons. In short - Masks is an imaginative classic that set the benchmark for all subsequent Cthulhu campaigns and continues to attract new Keepers, despite suffering from most of the pitfalls of old-school games. Judging by posts on the Yogsothoth forum there is pretty much at least one Masks campaign happening at any given time, someplace in the world – probably a lot more than that. The oft discussed fan-written Masks Companion has been years in the development and will apparently weigh in at more than twice the size of Masks.

As a GM, when facing the fairly harsh setup of Masks, you have three choices: play it straight and butcher a lot of PC’s; pull your punches and effectively run a watered down version of the game; or, change the game setup to support the campaign style. This run I chose the last option. I wanted more-or-less one set of characters to run through the campaign. I wanted to keep the continuity and play a style of game that supported the tenuous leads and unremitting, escalating and overwhelming danger of the campaign. So I designed the Pulp Cthulhu rules to support this style of game.

Players received an open cheque to create their characters – I wanted over-the-top characters and was willing to consider anything. Most players received a special advantage based on whatever background they came up with, all had the option of starting with Cthulhu Mythos and spells and everyone started with 1D3 Fate Points. Each fate point could be spent to avoid a catastrophic wound, reduce the impact of temporary insanity or gain 2D6 sanity points between chapters with an appropriate narration. In addition each Fate Point would generate a fortune point each session, which could be used to re-roll any failed skill check or automatically pass a luck roll. Characters gained 1 Fate Point for each chapter of Masks they completed.

Because I expected the characters would be a lot tougher I also introduced the major wound rule from Basic Roleplaying, which meant serious injuries would have consequences both in terms of stats and story for the characters, despite their hardy natures. And this system worked very well – we had a sorry collection of severed noses, horrific burns, major muscle damage and scars by the end to add plenty of colour to the characters journey.

All in all, it was immense fun. I greatly enjoyed the characters and the game, and loved traversing the familiar terrain of his campaign through a setup and system that better supported the game than in my previous outings. Many thanks to all the players who helped bring this game to life.

Campaign Statistics
Sessions Played: 16
Chapters: 7
Number of Players: 7
Number of Characters: 8 (plus Bullit the dog)
Total Fate Points Expended: 39
Fate Points Expended in Final Session: 12
Character Deaths: 0

EDIT: You can check out a players perspective of this campaign over at Andy's excellent blog.

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