Looking back over the scenario reviews that I have published on this site, I am struck by the fact that most published scenarios seem to miss my personal sweet-spot when it comes to the trade-off between providing content and empowering GMs to create their own content: Those scenarios that go long on detail feel restrictive and that sense of restriction makes me second-guess and resent the author’s creative decisions. Meanwhile, those scenarios that are short on detail under the guise of allowing GMs more freedom to write and/or improvise often feel thin, poorly structured, and a waste of money. I would argue that this sense of dissatisfaction is inevitable and unavoidable.
The problem is that every group has its own energy and every GM has their own creative workflow. Indeed, before we even address the question of what constitutes a ‘creative workflow’ we need to recognise that while some groups are happy taking action and driving their own narratives, other groups will be much happier sitting back and allowing GMs to narrate a story around them. Back in the day, we would have said that the first group were simply better or more experienced players but my time in the hobby inclines me to think that this is as much a reflection of personality as it is of experience. Either way, a group of people who are happy to have a story told to them are going to want something very different from a scenario than a group that wants to create its own stories. There is no such thing as a one-size fits all published scenario. Even the greatest and most legendary of campaigns is likely to fall flat if your group don’t vibe with the type of story that a campaign contains.
Moving beyond the players to the people running the games, I think that different GMs have different levels of comfort with the idea of a mutable text. Even GMs who do enjoy improvising will sometimes struggle to deal with groups that depart too violently from narratives laid out in published materials and some people do not want to improvise at all. Indeed, if you look at your average published dungeon crawl you will find very little room for ambiguity or the kinds of mutable narratives that are unlikely to survive initial contact with a group of players determined to pursue their own goals and create their own stories. I am even tempted to say that the emergence of a non-traditional RPG scene has allowed traditional RPG designers to double-down on the use of linear narratives. After all, if you want your players to assume control over the narrative, why not play a game that explicitly gives them narrative powers?
The best RPG sessions I have ever run were those in which the players were free to explore and engage with the things that were of interest to them. While it would be impossible to produce a published scenario that allowed for every possible narrative swerve groups throw at their GMs, it should be possible to produce published adventures rich enough to encourage player agency whilst supporting a GM’s ability to deal with that freedom. This is what I mean when I talk about my personal sweet-spot for adventure design and I find it really interesting that so few scenarios and campaigns have any interest in positioning themselves anywhere near it.
Reflecting on this point, I tried to remember which (if any) published adventures manage to get that balance right and while my first thoughts went to Gary Gygax’s The Village of Hommlet (opening chapter of his famous Temple of Elemental Evil module) I then remembered the first supplement put out in support of the original French edition of Nephilim.
Tickets Please is a self-contained Call of Cthulhu adventure that is part of Type40’s ‘Adventure Seed’ series of scenarios. Like the other instalments in the series, Tickets Please is short and relies on superior production values to convince buyers that a series of really quite sparse notes are actually a viable adventure.
The Drooler in the Dark is a 5-page PDF designed to function as long-term background colour for an on-going campaign with a fixed location. Originally written in 1992 by Michael LaBossiere, the text has been updated a number of times including for the 7th edition of Call of Cthulhu. It can be downloaded from DriveThruRPG for free but the pay-what-you-want suggested contribution is 50 cents.
First published in 2020, written by Bridgett Jeffries with editing and layout work by Jared Smith, Sorrow in Tsavo is a single-session Call of Cthulhu adventure set in 1890s Colonial Africa. The PDF is 43-pages long and includes six pre-generated characters with specific ties to the story so it cannot be easily integrated into a campaign. Thoughtfully written and full of lovely touches, Sorrow in Tsavo is undoubtedly one of the best recent Call of Cthulhu adventures I have discovered on DriveThruRPG.
I have in the past remarked that Call of Cthulhu sourcebooks all too often feel like sourcebooks for a 1920s adventure game that just happens to contain elements of Lovecraftian horror.
This certainly rings true when you consider the way that setting books struggle to strike a balance between historical accuracy and game-relevant content meaning that sourcebooks dedicated to places like New York wind up feeling like Lonely Planet guides to a version of 1920s New York that was identical to our own except there’s a bunch of ghouls living in an old building.
To make matters worse, while Chaosium are undoubtedly more interested in history than horror, their engagement with the stuff of history is usually paper-thin and often amounts to little more than over-researched set dressing. Rare is the adventure or sourcebook that looks at a historical period and uses Lovecraft as a means of emphasising certain themes and ideas. Bridgett Jeffries’ Sorrow in Tsavo is a rare and refreshing exception to that depressing rule.
Written by Sam Guinsatao, Carson Jacobs, Joy Lemont, Elijah Oates, Rayce Patterson, Emily Pawlowski, and J. Tucker White, Refractions of Glasston was first published in April 2019 as a scenario for 1920s Call of Cthulhu. 46 pages long including illustrations, maps, hand-outs, and pre-rolled characters, this two session scenario is currently available to download from DriveThruRPG for free.
Set in Northwest Indiana, the adventure revolves around a glass company that claims to have created an unbreakable jar. Having arrived in town, the characters are encouraged to wander around talking to people and noticing things until they come to realise that the town’s booming glass industry has sinister underpinnings.
Okay… so that summary makes this adventure sound a little bit silly and that intuition is not without its merits. However, while Refractions of Glasston may have a few rough edges and boasts a number of perplexing creative decisions, both the peculiarity of its origins and the rigour of its execution make it an interesting piece in its own right and a fascinating counterpoint to Stygian Fox’s somewhat similar Under a Winter’s Snow (which I reviewed a couple of weeks ago).
Written by Nathan Ross, Under a Winter’s Snow was first published by Stygian Fox in February 2020 as a scenario for what is referred as ‘Classic Era’ (i.e. 1920s) Call of Cthulhu. Twenty pages long and illustrated with an array of drawings, photographs, and hand-outs, this single-session scenario is currently available for download from DriveThruRPG for the entirely reasonable sum of $4.95.
Set in small-town North Dakota in the midst of a snow storm, Under a Winter’s Snow invites players to investigate the source of a mysterious and lethal pandemic. Long on investigation and short on monster-stomping, the scenario is timely, thematically rich and full of human tragedy. The only thing that lets this scenario down is the disordered and incomplete nature of the text.
Set in early 1920s Britain, A Very British Horror is an on-going series of adventures (half of which have been published at time of writing) designed to either stand alone or function as an extended campaign. The first volume, The Folly of Ponsonby-Wild is set in a decaying B&B in the Cotswolds and it involves a traumatised friend, a deranged husband, family secrets, and a sinister cult with ties to the British establishment. I thought it very good when I played it, I thought it even better when I sat down to write about it, and I remember it now as one of the few published Call of Cthulhu adventures to really grasp the unique horrors of Britishness.
However, while The Folly of Ponsonby-Wild may be a fantastic stand-alone adventure and a great place to start a Call of Cthulhu campaign set in 1920s Britain, the second volume in the series is something of a disappointment.
Hand of Glory is part of Type40’s ongoing series of ‘adventure seeds’.
What you get for your $9 is a short, single-session adventure designed to be run with minimal preparation. You also get a set of pre-gens, and a selection of beautifully-designed handouts. What you do not get is very much of anything else.