Sunday, April 14, 2013

The Incomplete Crown of Nyarlathotep

Masks of Nyarlathotep is a good rpg campaign, considered one of the best ever written, and with good reason. I have never run or played it, alas; my original gaming group had just finished Horror on the Orient Express when Masks came back into print, and we were too exhausted to dive straight back into a major campaign, while my current group is made up of people who have either run or played it in the past. I have read it a number of times and while that means I have of course missed out on some of its highlights, its strengths are such that most of them are still apparent outside of play.

One of the aspects I like most about the campaign is the structure. The players get to a certain point early on at which the whole world opens up as a setting for play. It is revealed that the cultists the player-characters have just tackled in New York are not alone, and there are allied cults all over the world working together to bring Nyarlathotep to Earth.

Er, "spoiler".

There is a time limit, but otherwise the player-characters can take on the various cults in any order. Although the campaign feels epic, it doesn't do it through imposing a strict narrative order.

We've been playing Paizo's Carrion Crown campaign adventure path, a glorious and cheesy homage to classic horror topoi, and it's been great fun. We've also been tracking down a maliferous cult, and in the most recent session -- about two thirds of the way into the campaign as a whole -- we discovered something of their plans, including a map of where in the setting they'd been and where they're going. It's a bit like Masks of Nyarlathotep, except this cult seems to have only planned one step ahead of us.

To be fair, Pathfinder campaigns do not seem to feature the most flexible narratives, even when they are accompanied by the trappings of a sandbox, so it's no real surprise that Carrion Crown didn't open up in a similar way to Masks, but it is still disappointing, because finding a map with "Go here next!" on it in big red letters -- I exaggerate, but not much -- only draws attention to the linear nature of the plot.

The Pathfinder campaigns are released in monthly instalments, but that shouldn't prevent a more open structure to a Masksified Carrion Crown. I doubt many people play the things as they are released, and besides, Paizo could have chosen a publication order without imposing a narrative order; Masks of Nyarlathotep is a physical book and is by physical necessity presented in a certain sequence, but it doesn't have to be played in that sequence.

Perhaps a more open structure would have been difficult to meld to Pathfinder's level-one-to-level-twenty power progression, a mechanical issue about which Call of Cthulhu doesn't have to worry; tackling Nyarlathotep in Shanghai is just as difficult as fighting him in Cairo in Chaosium's system, but Pathinder characters in the same situation might find themselves too powerful as a result of their experiences in one location to find much of a challenge in another. All that said, D&D players have been running open sandbox games with the same kind of progression for decades and Paizo should be able to figure out how the maths of their own core system work.

Carrion Crown is fun to play, by far the best of Pazio's offerings we've played so far, but I can't help but imagine how much better would it have been if they had pinched the structure of Masks of Nyarlathotep. The latter campaign may be almost thirty years old now, but it seems it can still teach the game designers of today a thing or two.


  1. Totally with you Kelvin.

    Like the rest of us...certainly Manoj and you, I have the craving to play
    1) a sandbox
    2) where pcs can affect the narrative
    3) there are various ways of interacting with the narrative
    4) thus the outcomes of various factions can be influenced.... beyond they win/ lose in a predetermined battle which will happen anyway in the same way (like Mass Effect actually was rather than what it promised!)

    Thus Carrion Crown is a ride - not a sandbox.

    I think also, as you point out, the system of PF prevents a massive sandbox.. because of the issue of CRs..... you would need, online, a series of encounters you can print off, depending on the party level. This I think is possible -but requires work by Paizo. The adventure books could focus on npcs, personalities, hooks, encounter areas - but all stats for critters online via a password.....

    Masks is a great campaign. Played 2/3rds of it. After 2 TPKs it ran out of legs! Oh well!

    Razor Coast IS FANTASTIC however for all the reasons Masks is - and more so... less epic (you are not travelling around he globe all the time) - although there are a couple of fantastic conflicts - but more heroic - I can't see players ever winning in Masks - 2 TPKs.... fighting the Bloody Tongue Avatar of Nyarlathotep is never going to be a good idea no matter how the pcs tool themselves up... they got eaten/ driven mad then eaten.... a great ride but twice bitten that campaign died in Kenya! Razor Coast avoids this...unless the players are stupid/ very unlucky, there should be no TPK. PCs may die....but more likely they are presented with personal they resolve they come out of the it affects their humanity... these are the challenges in Razor Coast.....

    The longer we dawdle with the Carrion Crown path the more likely it will bite the dust just out of entropy, along with the need to play SANDBOX! are right.... being dragged by the nose is...... blurgh.... not ideal. With you 100%.

    Lack the time to construct my own sandbox at the moment. Razor Coast, Rappan Athuk and Ptolus will have to do in the meantime. ;)

    1. "I think also, as you point out, the system of PF prevents a massive sandbox.. because of the issue of CRs..... you would need, online, a series of encounters you can print off, depending on the party level."

      And then it's claim to be a sandbox would be limited, as the world would be changing in response to the PCs actions in a way that negates their choices - no matter what the PCs choose to do, the mechanical difficulty of the task remains the same (and in a game where a great deal of action is reduced to a relatively unified mechanical system, that can end up a bit beige, whether the dice roll is the use of a social skill or a to hit roll).

      I increasingly think that the ideal sandbox system is one in which power level doesn't vary tremendously - Traveller, say. Or one in which great ability at combat can be negated by numbers and planning (the d100/BRP system tend not to reward wading through orcs or whatever, no matter your combat skills - you can only parry so many times). In those kind of systems, clever play, retreat, planning etc, can ensure the survival of PCs when the odds are against them. And it can also keep the low-level challenges in the sandbox a threat throughout the game.

    2. Hi Andy

      with you on the have x number of fixed encounters and pcs cannot change anything. Likewise with you on the d100 being a flat power level (to an extent) - since - ultimately - you have a finite number of HPs and surrounded by foot-soldiers/ spearmen, the best Knight is doomed.

      The Razor Coast has various ways through the material... and which path the pcs take, who they align with... are all up to them. Yes there are some more static encounters to throw at them.... which ones depend on what they are up to (realism - it is good to have some encounter zones mapped out due to lack of time - thus one buys off the shelf games)... but it does very well - for d20 - to give players plenty of flexibility in what causes, if any, they support....

      I really like d100 - for Cthulhu. It ain't very heroic, and it lacks the kewl feats of PF or Edges of SW and for fantasy gaming there is a real lack of support for it - hardly any creatures mapped out, hardly any premade material to make a GM's life easier.....But it is in the back of my mind to give it another go. But with it you certainly get a different feel of gaming: gritty, dangerous and potentially a high death count! Being busy, it is handy to run things off the shelf..... good to chat!

  2. I'm actually playing in Masks right now - a long ongoing campaign that started about seven years ago, although to be fair we only play about once a month and we took off about 4 1/2 years in between to play some other stuff.

    We started it with the d20 CoC rules but recently switched it to Savage Worlds, using the same characters and everything.

    I love the campaign so far and I've heard nothing but good things about it. From what I understand from the GM, we are very far "off script" but had he not told me that, I never would've known. He just rolls with the punches and adapts to what we're trying to do.

    I've not played a Pathfinder Adventure Path yet, and while I really like the Paizo guys, more and more I'm feeling that Pathfinder is just a little too rules heavy for me, and I have flipped through their Adventure Paths and agree that they are a little too linear for my tastes. There are some great ideas in there, though - back in the day, I used to pull out individual encounters or sections of the APs that were in Dungeon and slot them into my game pretty seamlessly.

    1. Whereabouts are you in Masks of Nyarlathotep?

      Pathfinder is my group's game of choice, but it is a bit too heavy for my tastes. Too often playing it feels like work and less like, well, play.

    2. Hey Kelvin - to answer your questions about where we are - we're in England and investigating a lead that led us to interact a bit with Edward Gavigan. After some sleuthing that led us to believe that he was not all that he seemed, we staked-out his office, sneaked in one night and recovered a few items of his (some scrolls and a few other small bits of ancient artifacts) and then set his office on fire to "send him a message."

      We had an encounter with some kind of strange creature at Gavigan's house (I think it was his house, but it was awhile back so I don't quite remember) that was afraid of light and we aimed our car lights at the house to keep it away from us.

      Eventually, Gavigan left town and we followed him to an estate on a sort of "island" area and lately have been snooping around there to try to find out what he's up to. We've seen him and some of his fellow cronies sacrifice a couple of young women by tying them up to what look like Egyptian obelisks but we didn't intervene since at the time only two of our party were there.

      In the last session, we attempted to draw Gavigan out by threatening to destroy the artifacts and scrolls that we stole from him, and offered an exchange in daylight at a place of our choosing - his items for information on what specifically he knows about the missing Carlisle Expedition and why it is that we believe we've seen the missing members of the expedition around London.

      The night after we sent that message, Gavigan invaded the mind of one of our party members and essentially let us know what he was substantially more powerful than we had taken him for, and that we'd better return his missing items or he could kill us (or worse) from afar without so much as a thought.

      And that's where we left off at the end of the last session... :)

      I have no idea how close any of that hews to the original story. As I said, our GM has mentioned a few times that we are "way off script" but he's rolled with our punches and dealt with things in such a way that I have no way of knowing what's part of the adventure and what he's making up.

    3. I won't spoil things by saying how close to the written adventure your experience is, but it does seem like you have an excellent Call of Cthulhu GM!

  3. Nice comparison between Carrion Crown and Masks of Nyarlathotep. Carrion Crown certainly doesn't have the same scope but it's also much shorter, filled with maps and combat stats due to the number of encounters, and - as others have mentioned - restricted by CR. It was still a lot of fun though.

    1. Hi Shannon. In many ways it is an unfair comparison but even so we have enjoyed our time with Carrion Crown. We're almost finished!

    2. Any major surprises in how the PCs dealt with things?

    3. The biggest surprise was how effective magic jar was. I was playing a necromancer and sometimes I struggled to contribute in battle; I chose the more flashy areas of spellcasting as my opposition schools as it seemed more in keeping with the setting to avoid fireballs and lightning bolts.

      (The NPCs were throwing that stuff at us on occasion which is one of the issues with the campaign, but I digress.)

      I was playing a good necromancer, one dedicated to hunting the undead, so although I was able to raise skeletons and zombies to do my bidding I chose not to. All of which perhaps left my character a bit underpowered at times. Once we got access to magic jar things changed quite a bit; at one point I took control of a qlippoth and not only circumvented that encounter but got to use the qlippoth against the enemy.

      The biggest shortcuts were towards the end, when an undead dragon attacked and I magic jarred it in the first round, and the climax itself in which I used the spell on the villain before we even got to the final encounter area and had him throw himself to his death. It was a bit of an anti-climax, it must be said.

      I'd say the other big divergence from the planned campaign was the vampire chapter; there was no reason for our party -- a cleric, an undead-hunting paladin, and undead-hunting ranger, and an undead-hunting necromancer -- to help the vampires deal with their problem and so once we got the clue we needed to progress along the main path of the campaign we moved on, missing out a good chunk of the book. I put this down to poor design; all of our character types were suggested in the Carrion Crown player guide so Paizo should have known that such an issue of motivation would come up.

      In our previous Pathfinder campaign we skipped a chapter because we were so powerful we didn't have to deal with the obstacles the published adventure put in our way, but this is the first time we've run into a situation where the characters have no reason to, er, find the path.


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