Behind the Screen – Masks of Nyarlathotep – America

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This is the third part of my ‘Behind the Screen’ reports about the Masks of Nyarlathotep game I ran at ConTingency UK 2019.  You can find the first part, which includes my introduction, background and preparation here, and the second part, which includes my thoughts on Peru here.

As a reminder, note that 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.

And now onto the main campaign…


If you’re a new Keeper and you thought Peru was ‘pretty simple’ – you’re right. America on the other hand is a wholly different challenge. Like my previous post I will present the events that took place, with additional Keeper commentary.

The Prep

It’s worth noting that I used the HPLHS Masks Prop set, but you do not have to as the new props in the the 5th edition of Masks (2018) are very good.  As I have the PDF as well as the physical set, I printed off all the handouts and bound them just in case I needed to refer to them.  In fact using the Prop set actually complicates things as a Keeper, because there is additional information in the props that might actually be irrelevant ‘fluff’ but the players won’t know that.  I don’t want to deter any potential keeper from using the HPLHS Masks Prop set, but you do need to be aware of this (this is especially so with the Roger Carlyle medical report which has lots of information in it!)

The props/handouts, which I suggest you read through carefully before the game and then ensure you have to had when required, need further management.  In the past I have read these out to the players then handled them the items.  On this occasion, I just handed them the props/handouts.  There is a problem with this approach which became very noticeable in play; there’s a lot of reading which, when you multiply by the number of players means you will have a lot of dead time as players read and digest all the information you have.  That might be fine, but beware that momentum can always be a problem in a complex investigation with a lot of leads, add in that reading time and you might be waiting around for an hour (broken up into small chunks) and the pace will die.  My suggestion IS to either read it out yourself or, if you know you have a player that can read with interest (not everyone can..) then ask them to read it out.  The players will thank you for it (not everyone at the table is typically that invested in the investigation and don’t want to do a lot of reading themselves – this is even true of seasoned Call of Cthulhu players in my experience).

Aside from the props/handouts, you of course need to read the chapter.  There’s a lot going on – though much of it is reactive, especially for the first 75% of the chapter in play.  I suggest, as a minimum that you use Post-It note or tabs in the book so you can flick back and forth; I did this a lot between the NPC part of the chapter (at the front) and the relevant section being played at the time.  I actually printed out the WHOLE campaign, and bound it into chapters – I scribbled and made notes throughout.

Taking Notes

On the subject of notes, you will NEED a campaign note book.  Mine has following loose format:

Chapter Name (actual date)

  • Themes I want to come through
  • Important plot elements I mustn’t forget.
  • Additional notes for NPCs (mannerisms, accents, real World actors you might want to inspiration)
  • New York Locations (I used the Masks Companion here and it helps a lot)
  • Any House Rules

Then at the start of each session:

Chapter Name (actual date) – (Start date in game – eg 14.Jan.1925)

  • Track in game dates (in addition to marking them on a calendar WITH New Moon and Full Moon)
  • Important implications (NPC dead, upset NPC, allied with NPC, lost a book, PC died, PC badly injured, books read and by whom, artefacts found etc.)
  • END – Short paragraph on the end situation so you have continuity the next session

NB: I’m not a good note taker! The important things for me are the tracking of days, the big events, and more importantly, the END situation.

Recording your Game

If you can, I recommend you record the audio of your game. A lot goes on in a Call of Cthulhu investigation as sophisticated as Masks, and it’s great for the players to be able to review the events afterwards.  As an aside, there is no better way of developing your own GMing skills than listening to yourself! A H2N recording device or similar, isn’t too expensive, and you can even do it on smart phones these days.  The quality doesn’t need to be great – unless you plan on releasing it as an Actual Play of course (but I don’t do that – my point is that it doesn’t need to be studio quality to be useful to you and your players)

Starting the Chapter

We started with a recap of the events in Peru and then the investigators explained what they got up in the years between 1921 and the end of 1924.  How did the events in Peru affect them?  How have they stayed in touch with each other – I think this is an important question for them to answer as you want to ensure that coming back together feels natural.  How have they kept in contact with Jackson Elias?  This is less important but it something to consider.  There’s a balance here, you don’t want someone that close to Jackson unless you’re happy with them knowing about his investigation before the game starts. There’s nothing fundamentally wrong with that but it will change the beginning of your game so be prepared.

Rose L and Jackson had a brief fling, but it broke up after a few months and they had not really spoken since.  This worked really well for the game, it made sense as there was definitely a connection between them in Peru.

Jackson sent all the investigators a signed copy of his book “The Hungry Dead”  – this is a good time to present the prop if you have it.  Also added “You can’t write worth a damn!” inside as a joke in preparation for the Will reading.

Jackson also recommended all the Investigators for membership of The Vanguard Club (from Pulp Cthulhu) and they all accepted.  This gave them reason for regular get togethers, with each other, if not with Jackson. I also used it to explain why one of the PCs was in America in later 1924 in time to receive a telegram from Jackson.

The Telegram…

The investigators all receive a telegram from Jackson Elias saying he will meet them in New York in January 1925 about ‘The Carlyle Expedition’.  Thinking that they would be going on another expedition with Jackson, they started preparing for a journey as well as researched the Carlyle Expedition, finding a number of Newspaper articles.  No library use roll needed, just provide the information.  In the interests of making this a little more multi-media, I also used the faux Pathe news videos on Youtube (I doubt they would have been ‘talkies’ but if you’re prepared to overlook this small fact, they are worth adding to the game).

The investigators did a little more research on the expedition members and Rose even reached out through the society press to one of Erica Carlyle’s friends in an attempt to speak to her.  I found that the players needed to be encouraged a few times throughout the investigation to look into the principles of the expedition; when they have some many physical leads, it’s too easy to do background research. They did it after some polite suggestions – I found it something that someone not immediately involved in a scene could be doing in the background.

The use of the a new Vanguard Club in NYC gave the investigators a central point before the game and also Jackson a place to call on the day of his murder.  I felt that the timing of this call needs to be carefully considered so as to avoid them camping at the Hotel Chelsea too early.  I had him call at about 5pm, but which time it’s already dark, and then hand-waved some time involved in ‘bringing the team’ together.

The group arrived at the Hotel Chelsea at 8pm and approved room 410 (yes, there was a ‘410? Uh oh…’ moment from the players).  One of them heard noises inside (extreme Listen roll! “You hear a long sigh, like the last breath… and the sound of multiple people moving” – “Multiple people? That’s not right!”) and they quickly tried the handle, and then busted the do in!

On the other side of the door was a man with a large machette-like sword and a weird looking headband with a red tongue-like fabric hanging down! He attacked, as did another further back in the darkness of the room, who threw a knife, and Charles M was hurt badly! (Crit with the panga! Had this not been Pulp, Masks would have started with an investigator death!) The attacker was shot and the other two ran for the fire escape.  With one of the investigators (Rose L) saving the life of Charles M, the others entered the darkened room and saw Jackson…  It goes without saying that this is an important scene, arguably the single most important scene in the campaign as it sets up everything to come after.  Jackson, their friend, lies ritually killed and the murderers are still here.  There’s nothing in the Masks campaign book about SAN loss for seeing Jackson, but there HAS to be! The Call of Cthulhu 7e Keepers books (page 155) says the SAN loss for seeing friends violent death is 0/1d6.  I decided it would be 1/1d6 – I did not want the investigators coming out of that room unscathed.

Two attackers ran and two of the investigators gave chase. There was a combination of a melee on the frozen fire escape and a chase out of the alley by the hotel and along a street.  In the alley, the fight actually caused the fire escape to loosen and John L then forced it to come away from the wall and part-collapsing, killing one of the cultists and dislocating his shoulder as a result. In the street, the third cultist was brought to the ground and knocked unconscious by John D-H. This is a serious fight! Play it out to the full. Emotions should be high amongst the players when they see Jackson dead.  As I was running it Pulp, of course the fire escape was going to collapse! Also note that the cultists have some Pulp Talents which you should use to make the fight less one-sided.

In the room, Phil started looking for clues/evidence, and poor Rose fainted when she saw Jackson’s corpse.

The clues.  There was tons of clues in the room. My personal view is that the PCs should find them all.  It makes little sense to me that the cultists would take some of these anyway (why would they?).  The PCs having all the clues from the outset makes the investigation more interesting and anyway…the handouts are great! I say don’t short-change the investigators from the outset.  For this particular scene, I use the Trail/Gumshoe approach – they have the ability so they find the clues. The rest of the chapter is about what they do with them…

The group stay at the hotel Chelsea and the Police arrive soon after, as do ambulances to take Charles and the remaining living cultist to hospital.  The investigators are asked to wait for Lt. Poole from precinct 7a to arrive to question them.  After some questioning he gets their addresses and releases them.   Poole does mention that this is the 8th murder of this kind, as it doesn’t make sense, as Robson over at 14th has already sent a guy down for it.  This is where the tone of the game can be set. As this is Pulp, I didn’t want the game to become Police-Squad-New York. I had them make some Credit Rating rolls and that was it.  They made a couple of good Charm and Persuade rolls so Poole opened up a little to them.  I decided that Poole would become an ally at this point – this proved useful later.


The Investigation

I will not go over the entirety of the investigation and completion of the America Chapter; it took about 20 hours of gameplay but provide the highlights and my commentary.

Keeper-ing the Investigation

Consider how you want to actually run it.  The players have a lot of information at their hands, many avenues of research, interviews, more research, more interviews, places and people to watch.  This chapter has so much going on that there is a danger that you as Keeper become confused or, more likely, the players forget to follow up on leads (that their investigators would not).

My Tips for running the Investigation:

This will be a multi-day investigation so it’s worth creating a structure to help you.

  1. Divide each day into Morning, Afternoon, and Evening slots (in your head, you don’t need to present that structure explicitly to your players unless you want to of course).  The investigators can explore one avenue of investigation per slot: Interview a person, use a library, visit to a location, etc.
  2. Decide on the important scheduled events you want, and how to introduce them to the story, the obvious ones are:  The funeral.  This is held on the Saturday (the murder is on Thursday evening) so it shouldn’t be too hard for them to find out. You really want them to attend! (Why wouldn’t they?), The Reading of the Will. This is held on Monday and they should find out about it at the funeral.  Again, you really want them to attend this. The interview with Jonah. This is pretty much mandatory to really get a sense of the global conspiracy and the danger Jackson is in.
  3. Keep a calendar and be aware what resources are available each day.  It creates verisimilitude if they can’t meet someone because they don’t work on Sundays, equally if they know offices are closed, then they can take advantage (as happened in my game – one of the investigators broke into Medical Affairs Board on the Sunday)
  4. Start each day with the investigators meeting over breakfast – ask them where?  In a dinner, in a hotel, in someone’s apartment? It doesn’t matter but it helps sets the tone, and you can ensure that they have access to newspapers without contrivance.
  5. Ask each investigator what they intend to do in each slot of the day (“So, what are your plans this morning?”). They can work in teams or separately. Make sure you ask everyone what they want to do so they have the spotlight, before you actually run through the events.
  6. If someone doesn’t want to anything with anyone else or is a bit stuck, remind them that they can do some background checks on the principles.  Page 139 of the Masks campaign talks about this, and leaves how the information is found, open. I suggest that you let the investigator/s in question draw on their background or profession to help them gather this.  I found it gives that player a chance to shine and re-enforces their investigators unique skills.
  7. Have them come together for dinner, before the evening ‘slot’ and encourage them to summarise what they’ve done.  Don’t be afraid to draw their attention back to the initial leads, or remind them of important things they have said (in character) that they plan to do next.
  8. If they having scheduled events coming up (for example – Interview with Erica Carlyle, Visiting Sing Sing, the reading of the Will), add that to the calendar.
  9. Each ‘morning’, as they meet over breakfast, remind them what they have planned for the coming day.

You will also need to make notes (as I mentioned above).

I found that using the above structure helps you as keeper, and helps the game flow. It also ensured that all the players were involved and that, even when the group split up (as is typical in an investigation like this), each PC had fair ‘screen time’ and their timelines remained level.

What happened in my game

The group pursued various leads as follows:

  • They went to see Doctor Lemming – he told them about Silas at the Ju Ju House.
  • They interviewed Erica Carlyle (this happened a week after the murder) and impressed her so much that she allowed them to borrow the books on the assurance they would return them.  They did.
  • The phoned the (somewhat batty!) Miriam Atwright at the Widener Library in Harvard. She told them about the theft of the book and ‘the smell’
  • They stole Dr Huston’s file on Roger Carlyle.  The Prop Set has a full folder of information. It’s almost too much info and takes ages for the group to digest (let alone understand). NOTE: It is possible to remove the papers without breaking the seal, you can bend the metal fastenings. 😉
  • They attended the funeral and met Jonah Kensington – following it up with a meeting later where he shared more information (London and Nairobi notes)
  • They attended the reading of the Will and Ramsey’s office and heard the recording (which I played as part of the Props set – the impact is much greater when they hear Jackson’s voice ‘from beyond the grave’)
  • Two of the PCs travelled to Arkham (actually their home-town) and met Proff Cowles at the Miskatonic Uni.  He showed them his photos, and I played the recorded lecture from the Props set.
  • They spoke to Arthur at Emerson Imports who warned them about Silas.
  • Through various means they found out about most of the expedition principles.
  • They met with Rebecca Shosenburg who then introduced them to Millie.
  • The met Millie and were seen by the cult.  This caused a chase and a nasty scene on the streets of Harlem.  Only the persuasiveness of Rose L stopped a full-scale riot.
  • They had a particularly messy encounter with Captain Robson and his men.  This became a true ‘Reservoir Dogs Moment’ with guns pointing in all directions.  Robson shot one of the PCs and only the fact the game is Pulp saved him.  The group left quickly but some vowed revenge against Robson…
  • They met Hilton Adams.  He confirmed the name of the Cult, the leader, and the Ju Ju House – which they already knew was on the list of places they needed to visit. He also told them of Fat Maybelles (Note: They didn’t meet up with his friends in Teddy’s Saloon.  By then the investigators wanted to keep their visits to Harlem to a minimum)
  • John D-L decided to keep watch on Fat Maybelles.  He was across the street all day and just before he was about to leave a group of men walked up. They were led by M’Dari and he was beaten unconscious.  That was the first Investigator death!

The Ju Ju House

This demands special attention.  Make sure that you have a clear view in your mind what happens during the day and night there.  There’s a lot of information in the campaign book, but make some notes. Also consider who will be downstairs and what will be happening when they break in.  Do you want there to be a rite taking place?  Depending on your approach review the calendar and see when the dark of the moon is (in January 1925 it is the night of Friday 23rd).

The investigators, now very aware that John D-H had not returned from Harlem, went to the Ju Ju House at 11.30pm.  They snuck in through the main entrance to the shop and managed to capture Silas alive. Having tied him up, and knocked him unconscious they discovered the trapdoor and went downstairs.  Opening the door at the bottom they found the ritual chamber and then were attacked by the walking dead – which included John D-H and Millie Adams!

How could I not?!  John had been captured, killed and brought back as a Ciimba. As had Millie Adams who had been seen talking to the investigators in the Lafayette Theater.  This was truly a horrible encounter for the players; they faced the undead monstrosity that was their friend, naked with his entrails hanging down and the sign of the Bloody Tongue scored into his forehead (I even made a point of saying that he didn’t have a tongue – M’Dari has replaced the one on his headband with John’s). As for Millie, they had promised both her and her husband that they would find a way to release Hilton and they would be together again, but such is the danger of promises in Horror games…

The fight was intense but the investigators managed to kill the creatures, take evidence, and items, and leave before more members of the cult arrived. I increased the tension as Yutta – a new friend and investigator who had replaced John D-H saw people approaching the shop and the group had to decamp quickly.

They ended up in hospital as John L was badly hurt (He had faced off against 2 Ciimba, and then been shot in the back by Yutta who went temporarily insane when she saw the Ciimba!), and called Lt Poole for help. He sent two uniformed Police officers to guard them and they later spoke to him and encouraged him to raid the place.


The aftermath

With The Ju Ju House as a likely climax, and yet one that can be somewhat inconclusive to the events in New York, as a Keeper you need to decide how you want to bring the Chapter to a close.  The cleanest way is that they find M’Dari and his cult at the Ju Ju House, somehow manage to ‘deal’ with them (unlikely if they are one their own the first time they go there).  The PCs can then easily move on to wherever they want to go next in the campaign.  But it doesn’t always end cleanly.  If they go during the day, it’s unlikely M’Dari will be there. If you’ve introduced the Hilton Adams subplot (which I recommend, having run this chapter with and without him, it flows much better and the Black Harlem storyline is much more balanced as a result) then you have that to close down the various plots elements before you can satisfactorily move forward.  Page 160 of Masks campaign guide does discuss the conclusion, but I would say be prepared to improvise.

Here’s what happened in my game.

The group, after speaking to Lt Poole, decided to leave New York and stay in Boston to re-cooperate, give the Police time to raid the Ju Ju House, and the investigators time to decide their next move.  They found out about the raid, a joint effort between Precinct 7a and 14 on a suspected ‘Speakeasy’  They read that there were deaths on both sides and that Lt Poole was critical in hospital.  That Captain Robson (they hate that guys!) praised the efforts of the Police and that there was new evidence in about the recent ritualistic murders.  As Keeper, I was happy for the raid to take place ‘off camera’; it made sense from a story perspective.  However getting the police involved always comes with a cost. In this instance, Lt Poole was the victim; he had been hit with a machette in the head and was in a coma, and not expected to last the week.  The fate of their ally in the NYPD would be a reminder to them of their decision not to deal with the cult themselves. However it did look like there was enough evidence to help Hilton Adams (a bittersweet victory that would be..)

Charles M called the hospital in New York to see how Poole was doing.  As he was talking to the doctor and making arrangements for the officer to be transferred to a special hospital (Charles is rich by the way), the phone was snatched off the doctor and an angry sounding police officer (“This is Wisneski! I was on the RAID!) shouted that Charles needed to come back and deal with this mess – it’s not over! This was my way of closing the chapter.  I wanted there to be closure at the Ju Ju House.  The raid had been semi successful, they had arrested cultists, Robson was convinced that this wasn’t good for him and he needed to exonerate Adams, but they had opened the ‘well’ with the Chakota in it! Those that had seen it had fled, some driven insane.  Wisneski was one of them…

The group returned to New York the following day and Charles visited the comatose Lt Poole, and promised him he would see this through to the end.  They managed to make contact with Wisneski (an NPC officer I had previously made up as one of the trusted officers that Poole sent to the hospital, and obviously subsequently on the raid).  He came to their hotel and the scene played out as a broken, angry scared police officer glugged expensive bootleg whiskey and told him what they saw – “The faces, all the faces, and cries. Oh fuck! I lost it then completely. I can still hear it” “Poole told us, you gave us the tip, YOU sent us down there.  YOU have to destroy that thing! What if some kid loses their cat and goes down there looking for it. Oh shit…”

As a group the the investigators concluded that they needed to use explosives to destroy the thing.  The problem was that none of them knew anything about explosives and they didn’t want to bring the block down! Wisneski gave them a the names of a couple of criminals with demolitions experience and, after he left, they decided to track one of them down.  The scene with Wisneski was completing improvised but proved to be very impactful. As for the demolitions experts, I turned to the Hirelings on p174 of the Masks Guide.  From that point on it was all making it up.  As I said before, you as Keeper will need to think about how you want to close the story.

The investigators headed to ‘Donnies’ a speakeasy in the Lower East Side to speak to Solly Reznik, a safecraker, on the lam.  They found him, offered him a lot of money to build them a explosive device. He agreed.  This was another improvised scene. 

The next day, the investigators decided that after the situation at the Ju Ju House was dealt with, they would head across the Atlantic to London. So they spent the day booking tickets and otherwise preparing for a low trip away from America.

In the afternoon Charles and Phil paid Capt. Robson a visit. Charles had been the investigator that had caused Robson to open fire, and Phil was the investigator shot earlier in the investigator by Robson.  Charles had vowed to ‘end’ Robson.  They spoke at the Precinct.  Robson, though didn’t apologise, made it clear that mistakes were made.  The scene ended with Charles and Phil leaving, satisfied that they had closed the story with Captain Robson.  This is was great closing scene.  Robson was changed, but not sympathetic.  It was great to explore how an NPC had changed, and more importantly, how the PCs view of that NPC changed over time.  

That night, the investigatos returned to the Ju Ju House in Ransom Court, Harlem. Charles M and Phil, went down, opened the lid and saw the thing; the many crying faces – which included the face of Dr Lemming – another loophole the cult had closed.  They dropped in the explosive device after setting the timer, and closed the lid. Leaving quickly.

They were never 100% sure that it did the job, though they did see some dust billowing out the shop before they left.

Of M’Dari, they saw nothing. They knew that he was still at large…

The following day, the investigators climbed on board a liner setting sail for Southampton.

The End

And that was it.  Peru and America together took over 2 full days of play at ConTingency UK in January 2019.  We will play Masks again at ConTingency 2020 so I have time to prepare.

Final thoughts

Masks of Nyarlathotep deserves all the respect and accolades it receives.  It really is the best campaign for Call of Cthulhu in my opinion, and the latest version dials it up to 11 (12 with the HPLHS Prop set!)

It is, however, complex with a lot of moving parts.  I have run other parts of the campaign and America is still challenging because of the shear amount of info dumped on the investigators at the beginning – though as I said, I wouldn’t take any of this away from them, it’s a fundamental part of the campaign.  As a Keeper, you need to have a structure to the investigation (as per above). Advise your players to keep copious notes; give them index cards and encourage them to create one for each NPC etc. You also need to recognise that the level of investigation involved can lead to confusion, brain-burn, and frustration. Recognise this, tell the players to expect that, and be prepared to take breaks from the game.

Well, I hope that proves useful. I genuinely can’t wait for 2020 to come around so we can continue the investigation into the mystery of the Carlyle Expedition.

If you have any questions, ask away in the comments.