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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.

When I first read about it, I dismissed the television series The Vampire Diaries as very much not aimed at me. It sounded like a teen drama that was cashing in on the success of Twilight (which, to be fair, it is) and I assumed that it would have little to appeal to a middle-aged bloke. The involvement of Kevin Williamson, the creator of the Scream films, piqued my interest a bit, but not enough for me to actually watch the damn thing.

Then my friend Seana recommended it to me. Seana has been quite good at gauging my tastes in the past, hooking me on programmes as diverse as The Good Wife and Paranoia Agent. There were two complete series of The Vampire Diaries at this stage and I watched the first few episodes half-heartedly. Before long, though, I was hooked. While the premise is pretty standard for urban fantasy, the writers do two main things that set the programme apart from most television — things that I wish I saw in more roleplaying campaigns.

I’ve joked a few times that The Vampire Diaries has a rate of attrition that would give George R R Martin pause. This is only a slight overstatement — characters, even ones who seem integral to the plot, are all fair game. They die suddenly, brutally and unexpectedly. This applies to allies, antagonists and unaligned characters equally.

I'm sorry. Was that your favourite NPC?

I’m sorry. Was that your favourite NPC?

The GM section in Apocalypse World tells you to look at all NPCs through crosshairs, and this is exactly what the writers of The Vampire Diaries do. This creates a real feeling of danger. There is never the safe expectation that the protagonists will prevail, and every conflict carries the risk of death.

In my opinion, there is a balance to be found in horror games, and it’s a tricky one: if the characters seem invulnerable, or at least relatively safe, dangerous situations just become exercises in showing off how cool they are and often feel flat; if the game is a meat grinder, chewing through player characters every session, then the players never grow attached to their PCs and their deaths are emotionless inconveniences. Player characters should feel vulnerable, but not disposable. Using the deaths of major NPCs to show them the stakes can help with this.

Having NPCs threatened by the actions of player characters, monsters and other NPCs helps raise the tension, but only if they are characters that the players have come to care about.  If an NPC has been in play for a while, and the players have grown used to their presence, their sudden and bloody death can prove a strong reminder than no one is safe. Of course, the death of a player character is an even stronger reminder, but it can undermine the game if it feels pointless or arbitrary.

The main aspect of The Vampire Diaries that appeals to me relates to the post I wrote about purist adventures last week. As I mentioned then, one of my main frustrations with many RPG scenarios is that they are about stopping an interesting event from occurring. A coven is trying to raise a centuries-dead necromancer from the grave so that he can tear down the veil between life and death. Of course, it is the job of the player characters to stop this. Most of the time they will succeed, often in a dramatic showdown during the final ritual, and the status quo will be preserved. If they fail, that is the end of the campaign. While the players may enjoy the spectacle of their failure, it is unusual for their characters to have to deal with the consequences.

There was an episode of Doctor Who a few years ago which I found deeply disappointing. It was called The End of Time, and part of it dealt with the impending return of the Time Lords from the annihilation that the Doctor had brought upon them. Throughout the episode, they were pictured as moving ever closer to our reality. I was genuinely excited, thinking their return could make for an exciting arc as the Doctor had to deal with the threat they would pose to time, space and his own existence. Their return is prevented at the last minute, though, and everything goes back to normal. Everyone is safe and there is no ongoing drama. It was dull, obvious, and so terribly safe.

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Not coming to a reality near you.

In The Vampire Diaries, when a threat is foreshadowed, it almost inevitably comes to pass. The protagonists will have their lives changed by it. If a powerful new entity is being summoned, the summoning will succeed and the entity will insinuate itself into everyone’s lives. If someone is preparing a ritual that will bring catastrophic change, it will do so and the characters will have to deal with the fallout. The most interesting outcome always happens.

The most impressive trick that the writers of the The Vampire Diaries pull off is not to make the efforts of the protagonists seem ineffectual in the face of this. Sometimes they are simply outclassed or out-manoeuvred. Other times, they choose a more personal victory, such as saving a loved one in the face of the larger catastrophe. The protagonists then move on to adapting to the new threat and the altered status quo. Having the protagonists save the day be satisfying, but failures and unforeseen complications make for much richer drama.

Having major bad things happen in a campaign doesn’t have to feel disempowering for the players. Maybe a ritual happens off-screen or has already finished by the time the player characters hear about it. Maybe their goal is to undo the damage done rather than prevent it from happening in the first place. Some of the PCs may find aspects of the outcome beneficial despite the wider damage done, presenting a hard choice. However you approach it, the important thing is not to leave everyone feeling disappointed that they didn’t get to see the world change in an interesting and surprising way. Keep their lives interesting, even when it hurts.

When I write scenarios set in real places, I tend to research them quite thoroughly to avoid cries of “the town hall’s really on X street” or “that building burned down 10 years before your scenario is set”, etc. Where possible, I even try to visit the places to get a better feel for them. When I heard that there was really a place called Dunwich (admittedly here in the UK rather than in Lovecraft Country), I couldn’t pass up the chance to go there and have a look around for myself.

Passing Bedford and Cambridge, then heading down the A14, I left the main highway at Stowmarket and began a 30 mile trek across rural Suffolk along a route the signs indicated was a “tourist trail”. Driving through one village after another, the route is definitely a pleasant one and I’d recommend it to anyone looking for a piece of picturesque rural England. There’s plenty to do along the route too, including local crafts, birds of prey centers, sightseeing locations, etc. After the best part of an hour, the normal two-lane roads devolved into unmarked lanes where passing was a little tight at times, flanked on both sides by high hedgerows. Not long after, I came to a sign under a line of trees which proclaimed “Welcome to Dunwich”.

Along the main road into the village, I passed a stone wall on my right-hand side that was soon identifiable as the ruins of the Greyfriars Monastery.

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At the end of the road, in the heart of the village itself, a sign directed me to the seaside car park. Here, among the dunes and overlooked by the visitor center and cafe, I parked and instantly regretted not bringing a coat with me. When I’d set off, the weather had been warm (Yes, dear reader, contrary to popular belief, we do actually have warm weather in the UK! It might not happen often, but it had actually been warm all week leading up to this weekend in June), but on the exposed coastline, the wind coming in off the sea make it feel closer to autumn than to summer.

The information display in the car park gives a quick overview of what makes the village a place of interest for sightseeing tourists. Over the centuries, the Suffolk coastline has been eroded at a tremendous rate and much of the great town of Dunwich has consequently fallen into the sea. The map on display there illustrates just how much has been lost over the centuries. The whole upper half of the map below is now gone.

 

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The beach itself is stony and surprisingly loose under-foot. More than once my heels sank into the shingle as I wandered up and down the shore, looking towards Walberswick to the north and the cliffs to the south.

Heading into the village itself, my first port of call was the Dunwich Museum.

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Having been in operation for many years now, the museum chronicles the history of the area from Roman times onward. The lower floor is home to an impressive model recreation of the map above. Alongside a series of panels that detail the different phases of history are items that have been found in the area and out at sea – pieces of masonry, pottery, coins, and a huge bronze canon. Here, one can learn that Dunwich was, centuries ago, one of the largest ports in on the East Anglia coast. It was a prosperous harbor and its profitable fishing industry led to it becoming one of the largest settlements in the area. Whilst measures were historically taken to defend the cliffs from coastal erosion, two tremendous storms in 1287 and 1328 ripped the heart of the community, plunging much of the town into the sea and depositing huge amounts of shingle that ultimately clogged up the bay. With the port no longer viable, the town began to decline. The sea-defenses were no longer maintained and the town slid ever-more into the sea. Even now, it’s only a matter of time before the coast retreats further inland and claims the rest of the village.

Upstairs, a small auditorium plays videos of the local area and further displays illustrate the underwater surveys conducted of the area, as well as a few examples of local legends. One of these, which will no doubt work its way into a scenario set here, is the belief that sometimes sailors have claimed to hear the tolling of the church bells from one of the churches under the waves.

The staff at the museum were extremely helpful, taking the time out to talk to me, answering various questions and providing contact details should I need to dig deeper in my research. As I suspected, they had heard of Lovecraft’s “The Dunwich Horror” and were quite pleased that I had chosen to write about the area myself.

Following the Lovecraft theme, it certainly makes me smile that the local pub and restaurant is called “The Ship”, with its emblem being White. After a very fine lunch indeed, I made my way back up the road to the monastery ruins.

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The main features that remain here are the exterior walls and a small part of one of the interior structures (above). Certain parts of the area have been closed off for maintenance works, but I passed through and made my way towards the woods that lined the cliffs. Here, a couple of footpaths cut through a carpet of nettles that has grown amongst the trees. Whilst the trees themselves aren’t high, they form a canopy that lets a modest amount of light through and shrouds the place in semi-gloom that is nicely atmospheric. The paths led through to the old Saxon thoroughfare that cut through the earlier settlement.

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This led me back onto the main road and back along the monastery wall once more. At the far end of the village, passing the museum again, I came to the only remain church in the area whereas there had previously been several in Dunwich’s heyday. At the rear of the church are the ruins of what was once a leper hospital.

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From here, I passed by the two remaining graveyards (in the one connected to the church there also stands the last remaining part of the tower of last church to have fallen into the sea, moved there to preserve it for posterity), the Dunwich war memorial and found myself at the town’s sign, completing my trip.

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Whilst it might be a bit off the beaten track now, I definitely found it was a day well spent. The history of the area, which I have only touched upon above, is a rich canvas I can use to form the setting for a scenario. Whilst there might not be a Sentinel Hill nearby, and the cries of “Yog-Sothoth!” may not ring out over the rooftops, I think it’s certainly got a lot that it could bring to a Lovecraftian adventure and my hopefully my visit will add to it being portrayed in as realistic and accurate a manner as possible.