Wednesday, June 23, 2021

Forever Fibbing

I bought Eternal Lies soon after its release in 2013 but Stuart's children were part of our gaming group at the time, and I was aware that the campaign was full of content that wasn't appropriate for them, nor could it be removed without undermining some of the key themes. Almost a decade later, Stuart's kids are far too cool to play with us old fogeys, so I was able to get the campaign to the table at last.

We've been playing since June 2020 -- with a couple of gaps -- but I haven't been posting summaries here because, well, the authors ask that no details of the plot are revealed in reviews or other discussion. I intend to respect that, although it will make this review a bit tricky in places. Bear with me.

I'm going to reverse the usual Good, Bad, and Ugly order here because -- spoilers, dear reader -- this campaign has major problems, and I want to end on a positive note. As much as I can, anyway.

The Ugly

The book is massively overwritten. This is obvious from the first page and was part of the reason why I didn't push to get it to the table earlier, as I feared it would be a lot of work to get it to a playable state. I was not wrong. The book has around 400 pages but there are probably about 100 pages of actual content; the rest is faff, nonsense, guff, and vast swathes of pointless repetition. Also, there's quite a lot of repeated information, and furthermore much of the page count is taken up with repeating what you've just read a few pages earlier.

There's also an issue with the tone of the writing, which I admit may be a matter of taste, in that it comes across as smug, arrogant, and hypocritical at times. For example, there are a couple of places were the very concept of dungeon-delving is ridiculed, but then we get at least three actual, honest-to-Gygax dungeons. Maps are considered tools of the imagination-challenged, except when they are not. It's a bit sad and almost embarrassing to read.

The Bad

Oh crikey.

Perhaps the biggest issue with the campaign as a whole is that, aside from a couple of places, there's not much in the way of player choice. The overall structure is somewhat similar to the classic Masks of Nyarlathotep -- which I suspect is deliberate -- in that once things get going, the players can tackle the main campaign locations in any order, but that's where the flexibility ends. Each location is a little railroad, literally in one case, which doesn't even have the decency to be a knowing joke.

(A quickish aside: my understanding is that the entire point of the Gumshoe -- I'm not capitalising it until you tell me why -- philosophy is that the players cannot fail to find essential clues, and so the investigation never stalls. To my mind, this means you can design adventures with a rich and -- if you want -- complex structure, knowing the players will not be blocked from accessing that structure because of a failed skill roll. The authors of Eternal Lies, on the other hand, seem to have taken it to mean that they can force players to experience a sequence of set pieces; it's the sort of structure that we all knew was bad in 1990 so it's a bit baffling to see in 2013, even more so in a game line that I thought was supposed to encourage the opposite. Thus endeth the asideth.)

The grand irony is that despite the rigid design, there are holes in the structure big enough to pilot the Alert through that cause some parts of the campaign to be tricky if not impossible to access. The most egregious is the climax of the entire campaign, which happens for reasons the players have no way of knowing, so the authors crowbar in some quasi-flashbacks to get the players there. One of the major non-player-characters is sort of halfway to working it out, so can nudge the players in the right direction, but -- and look at this for a clusterfudge of bad design -- if the players are sensible there is no reason for them to encounter this NPC at all, so the adventure as written has them beaten unconscious, stripped of their equipment, and dumped literally at the NPC's feet.

(I wasn't going to do that to my players, so in my game, the players arrived at the location and did what they came to do, then decided there was no reason to pursue the NPC, and left.)

This isn't something Gumshoe can fix, because the NPC's name and location are clues the players find whatever happens, but you still need a reason for them to meet the NPC, other than "some thugs knock you out", and the GM shouldn't be doing the work that a £40 book should be doing.

What's worse is that the climax only happens as a result of player action. This is supposed to be a final ironic twist, but because there's no way for the players to realise this, it can come across as arbitrary and random. For the GM, who can see the workings behind the curtain, there is a further disappointing revelation: if the players do nothing, nothing bad happens. The bad guys carry on, but they don't "win", indeed the way they are written -- which is one of the good parts of the campaign; see below -- means that they cannot triumph.

Without going into spoilers, for I have made a promise, this is how the campaign works:

In 1924, a cult attempts to do a Very Specific Thing. It is interrupted and although there are survivors, none of them know what the Very Specific Thing was, or even that the cult was trying to make it happen. This crucial bit of data is lost in 1924.



In 1934 -- or maybe 1937, because the campaign isn't sure when it is set (sigh) -- the players go around tracking down splinters of the original cult and dealing with them.



?????



The players do the Very Specific Thing (oops) and must save the world.

Okay then.

That ????? is a huge narrative and structural gap -- again, a surprise in a campaign which has up to that point forced players along a strict linear path -- and the authors seem to just assume that it will not be an issue. In my game the players decided that yes, they would go and do the Very Specific Thing but they didn't really have any good reason to do so, which strikes me as a problem, and the "twist" that they really shouldn't have done so after all is an even bigger problem, but now I am repeating myself.

(How very appropriate.)

The campaign as a whole is a mess of rigid railroading and massive gaps, which is a worst-of-both-worlds chimera I didn't think was possible.

The Good

There are a couple of terrible non-player-characters in the campaign, but they are not essential and are easily cut. The majority of the NPCs are at least interesting, and the main cast are quite well written, in particular the major antagonists. I am reluctant to call them villains, because while they stand in opposition to the players and represent the traditional Cthulhu cultists, they are far from traditional in their characterisation. Each of the major opposition NPCs is written as complex, with their own goals and motivations, and although the characters are technically on the same side, they have more differences than commonalities.

(The obvious approach is to use these differences to turn the antagonists against each other, but the geographical scope of the campaign does make this difficult and, alas, there is zero support for such an approach in the book. That the potential is there is at least half-good.)

The chief antagonists are layered and interesting enough that they could even be useful to the players under the right circumstances. On the other hand, they are cultists, so even if they are being helpful, the players may not trust them, which of course is fun and interesting. The treatment of these characters is nicely done and by far the strongest aspect of the campaign.

I must also admit that some of the set pieces are effective and fun, so while I can't condone the authors strongarming the players into experiencing them, I can at least understand why they are so keen to show them off. It is ironic and more than a little disappointing that perhaps the chapter with the worst writing is also the one with some of the most fun encounters, and my favourite section of the entire campaign is something of a side trek, optional and not strictly relevant to the main adventure.

I also like the general idea of the big climax, even if it is almost impossible to get there as written.

-----

For the most part I enjoyed running Eternal Lies and I think my players had fun, but my gosh the thing is a janky mess almost from page one, and running it is a lot of work. I don't even mean preparation work of the sort any large campaign needs, but rather a lot of fixing of broken parts and filling in gaps, and even ground-up rewrites in some places. I don't think it's too unreasonable to expect a better, more polished, and more complete product for £40.

I would recommend the campaign only to the GM that enjoys going to such effort, or perhaps as a source of ideas, as there are some good sections that could potentially be pulled out and used in other contexts. Otherwise, there are better, and easier, campaigns to run. You may have heard that Eternal Lies is a classic, on the same level as the venerable Masks of Nyarlathotep, but do not listen to such... lies.

Ha ha.


I ran Eternal Lies over 25 weekly sessions between the 20th of June 2020 to the 20th of June 2021 (!), with some interruptions here and there. We played it over Roll20 with a modified version of Call of Cthulhu fifth edition, rather than Trail of Cthulhu; I made good use of the official conversion notes here.

(And how cool is it that Chaosium and Pelgrane allowed those conversion notes to exist?)

Also useful was the Alexandrian Remix; Justin Alexander holds the campaign in much higher regard than I do, and I didn't use much of his actual remix material in my version, but reading it was helpful and it confirmed some of my own misgivings about the source and gave me the confidence to make my own changes. Justin's chapter summaries are far more readable than the ones in the book, so I recommend reading them if you're going to try running the campaign.

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