Behind the Screen – Masks of Nyarlathotep – Prep

Posted on Posted in Call of Cthulhu

It’s been a very long time since I added anything to this blog (I spend a lot of time playing and not enough time writing about it perhaps…) – but I figured I would restart with series of  ‘Behind The Screen’ reports about the Masks of Nyarlathotep campaign I started at Contingency UK 2019 Convention in January.  The aim of this is to report on how the game went for me, document my thoughts, and provide some tips on play.

Please note, this report will obviously contain SPOILERS about Masks of Nyarlathotep! If you plan on playing the campaign, please please please stop now.  Even more-so that other games, knowing what is coming in a Call of Cthulhu game WILL spoil your fun! So, please accept that the information here is for KEEPERS ONLY.

So, with that out of the way, let’s continue…

The campaign plan was as follows:

Start the 5th Edition of the Call of Cthulhu ‘Masks of Nyarlathotep’ campaign, using the Pulp Cthulhu additions,  on the Monday evening at Contingency, play through to about midnight, and reconvene on the Tuesday, playing all day (with breaks for food etc.) then repeat the same for the Wednesday.  There was no rush and my plan was to aim for a good level of immersion and depth of play because we were dedicating a lot of continual time to the game.

To this end I used:

Call of Cthulhu 7E Rules

Pulp Cthulhu

Masks of Nyarlathotep 5th Edition (2018)

Masks of Nyarlathotep Companion (4E version of Masks, but very relevant for the new version still)

HPLHS Masks Gamer Prop Set

Syrinscape Sounds, supplemented by my own sounds sourced from various places

Some other physical props, including: A selection of hats (bonnet, bowler, cap, trilby), a pipe (for Jackson Elias)

A selection of Adventure Scents.

Pisco Sours for the opening scene in Peru.

The Environment

One of the things that makes Contingency UK special is that it’s hosted in a holiday camp with lodges for accommodation.  This means that you can play games in a quiet location where ( aside from the ducks quacking outside!) you can control the environment and are not worried by being disturbed. So,  I put posters up around the room, added a couple of statuettes (one of Cthulhu, one of the Black Pharaoh), some old fashioned lamps for table-level lighting, and the players (of which there were 5) could sit in comfort.  Add in the sounds, some scents, props, and hats and I was hoping that we would make the campaign come alive.

The Investigators

This were generated before the game (a session zero on Discord over the proceeding months).  We had

John L – An Antiquarian (in fact an antique theft)

Rose L – A ‘Society journalist’ for the Boston Post (in fact an investigative reporter following John L)

John D.H – An agent for the UK Secret Service

Charles M – a rich Dilettante.

Philip B.W – Chauffeur to Charles M.

Some other Keeper considerations/Preparations

All the players have 2 back-up characters, but we didn’t develop them greatly; the plan would be to do that as necessary in play.

I only had one passport (from the MoN Gamer Prop set) per player so, though we used them, the plan was to make the passports as much a record for the player as their investigator. A souvenir of the game if you will. If they lose a character we add in a new ‘photo’…

The ‘Hungry Dead’ book dust  cover (again from the MoN Gamer Prop collection) gave me some stress. I knew I wanted to use it (why wouldn’t you?!) but I really struggled with finding a right-sized hardback (and I own lots of hardbacks…) In the end (and this is brilliant!) the only book even close enough was the Pelgrane Press hardback copy of….DRACULA (redacted) – for their GUMSHOE Nights Black Agents Dracula Dossier campaign.  Seriously?!  ‘The Hungry Dead’, a fictional book about fat-sucking vampires and all I can find to fit the cover is ‘Dracula’.  You couldn’t make this up…

I made it very clear that Masks has a complex plot with many clues and NPCs, the players were asked to ensure that they came armed with notebooks and a willingness to write!

My prep work

I am also running another  campaign of MoN (Masks of Nyarlathotep is too long to keep writing!) and so had run America and England before, though used the 4e version of MoN for America, and most of England as I started that campaign before the 5e version was released in 2018. I had never run the Peru chapter.  It’s also worth noting that I received the PDF version of MoN 5e long before the printed copy and I knew I had a lot of preparation to do; I had little idea how long it would take each part and it was possible that I would be told ‘right, we’re off to Cairo!’ – I needed to be ready to pick up the other parts and run them right away.  With this in mind, I printed all the parts of the PDF (actually didn’t even use my printed copy of MoN at all in the end), bound them in separate Chapter booklets, tabbed them with small post-its so that I could move between different sections quickly (and I recommend you do this!) I printed out the pre-generated characters just in case. Printed the NPCs photos from 5e MoN onto 150GSM card and cut them out.

I then read through each of the chapters, making annotations in the margin and underlining text as I went; another thing I would never do with my printed original. My focus was always the important points (clues, NPC details, etc) and cross references and timelines.  I read the NPC entries and underlined the relevant points about each that I hoped would bring them alive.  Then I repeated the process until I was comfortable at least with Peru and America (there was no point investing huge amounts time to be intimate with the other parts since I didn’t know what order the PCs would take)

After setting up the speakers and testing the sound (oh, and making the Pisco Sours – which are yummy by the way!) I was ready to begin…

General Keeper Approach

I knew I wanted to run the campaign semi-Pulp.  No Doc Savage, but with enough combat to keep the excitement levels up. Happy with some gadgets (John L had an auto-lockpick). My reasoning is that, as much as I like deadly one-shot Call of Cthulhu games (I ran two others at the same convention – most PCs died!), in a long game like MoN, which also has a reputation as a ‘meat-grinder’ I want the players to become invested in their investigators, I also want the globe-spanning two-fisted nature of the campaign to come through.  Pulp fits.

I knew I didn’t want to go too far off the main story either – I wasn’t planning on adding lots of extra content (no plastering on ‘Horror on the Orient Express’ etc.) but I knew from experience that I would need to improvise stuff as I went. I’m experienced enough to be OK with that; in fact it’s one of my favourite parts of being a games-master in any RPG.

Specifically for Peru, my main goals were.

  1. Introduce Jackson Elias and make him likeable; I needed the PCs and their investigators to be invested in this guy.
  2. Not kill any of the Investigators. Look, I know it’s Cthulhu, but this is Pulp Masks, and I don’t want investigators dying in the Prologue! What this really means is that I’m not going fudge rolls to save them, but equally I’m not going out of my way to kill them either.  The threat level in the Peru chapter is pretty low, and we’re playing this Pulp, so I was confident that this wouldn’t be a significant issue (however…read on…)
  3. Players to become a cohesive team. For them to like their investigators and develop their own stories so we know who they are before the main campaign starts.

Oh yes, and another thing:

In Jackson’s message to the team, as part of the Will reading in the America chapter, he uses the phrase ‘none of you can write worth a damn!’. It’s meant to be a joke, or friendly jibe, but it never resonated with me as a Keeper, so I wanted to find a way to introduce the phrase in the Peru chapter in conversation with the investigators.  I thought of various ideas but nothing really seemed to fit right in my head. In the end, I did do this, as part of a private conversation with Rose L. I’ll explain what happened at the relevant point.

The next post will discuss Peru.