Nameless Horrors

If you’ve followed the Call of Cthulhu 7th Edition Kickstarter, you may have noticed that one of the funded stretch goals is a collection of scenarios called Nameless Horrors. This is a project that Matt, Paul and I have worked on for a while. Each scenario follows a few specific design constraints, inspired by years of playing and running Call of Cthulhu.

Call of Cthulhu has been around for a long time by RPG standards — 32 years at the time of writing — and it has a dedicated following of players steeped in the game and the Mythos. Many of these players have read the core rulebook and played a fair number of published scenarios, giving them a good knowledge of the canon creatures.

This introduces a problem. On the whole, creating an atmosphere of unease relies on a fear of the unknown. As soon as you can identify a threat and name it, you stop seeing it as something mysterious and sinister and start looking at it as a problem to solve. If you are trying to keep your games horrifying, you need to be creative about how you handle Mythos entities.

There are a few ways to do this. The easiest is to keep descriptions vague and never mention monsters by name. A twisted shape crouching in the darkness, a flash of inhuman eyes that catch the light like cat’s, and the sweet stench of rotting meat all hint at the nature of the ghoul stalking the investigators. As soon as you mention the word “ghoul”, however, the tension evaporates. Experienced Call of Cthulhu players start making mental notes about firearms damage and average numbers of hit points instead of wondering if their characters should run for their lives.

Hiding the identities of creatures is difficult is when players are experienced enough to guess them from hints, the evidence in the scenario or even the context (“We’re by the sea. I bet it’s deep ones.”). There are only so many ways you can obfuscate clues, although misdirection sometimes works well.

There was one specific event that inspired me to pitch Nameless Horrors to Paul and Matt. I was playing Call of Cthulhu at the Milton Keynes club. Our investigators were poking around in some tunnels, and started having problems with headaches, weakness and lost time. Unbidden, part of my mind said, “It’s a lloigor” and from that point a large part of the tension and excitement of the game was lost.

The reason that this collection is called Nameless Horrors is that the Mythos entities portrayed are entirely new and, in most cases, have no names. They are strange, alien and unpredictable.  At no point should your players find themselves on familiar ground.

Another constraint was that there should be no easy solutions. A lot of the scenarios I played and ran when I was young involved spending the first three-quarters of the game gathering enough information to know what and where the threat was before stocking up on shotguns and dynamite to destroy it. You were expected to resolve the situation through violence, and while there may be a heavy toll in death and madness, the investigators would probably triumph.

While some of the scenarios in Nameless Horrors may end in violence, depending on how the players approach them, setting things on fire or blowing them up won’t necessarily leave the investigators better off. It may be possible for them to survive and save the day to some extent, but their lives will be changed by the experience.

The last aspect of trying to make the scenarios as unnerving as possible was that they all be standalone one-shots. While there are many classic Call of Cthulhu campaigns, the games I always remember most fondly are those that felt like short, intense horror movies, with everything on the line for a group of characters in a desperate situation. There is no expectation that you will protect your investigator’s life and mind so that they can continue to the next adventure.

We hope that these constraints have led to a collection of scenarios that will surprise your group and keep them watching the shadows with fear and suspicion. There are many new terrors to be encountered, and while you don’t know their names, they know yours.

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