Everyone should be a Dungeon Master once

It’s the third session of a Call of Cthulu game, and the third time I’ve ever tried being a Dungeon Master. The party enters a tangled sewer complex. On the right, Doctor Marlene and famed actor “Kit” Kerrington; on the left, Italian safecracker Jimmy O’toole and detective Wolf Abrams. They navigate forwards by the map-shaped network of scars Kerrigan’s got cut into his back. It’s overwhelmingly humid. Buzzing noises echo distantly. There’s a green slick on the water. They decide to set fire to it.

Later, nursing some new burns after an unexpected detour, they see sunlight. Rounding the corner, it’s a foreign blue sky in the shape of a man. Glimmering Jim, old voodoo god and a humanoid hole in reality.

I jump in, goes Wolf Abrams, and I follow him! sez Jimmy. I improvise frantically – idiotically, I hadn’t prepared for this. They fall down onto a beach with sewer water streaming onto their heads from a hole in the sky. They hear the rest of the party’s shouts as deep, slow rumbles – The time’s weird here, Wolf deduces. I tell them there’s three columns in the distance, and they spend three days walking there while the others spend a half-hour trying to find rope. They reach the columns to find (Err…) three old, corroded statues - and then the pizza arrives, and I’m saved.

By the time we get back to the game I’ve figured out a plan. Wolf knocks a statue over, breaking it. Someone crawls out – it’s you as a child! Jimmy runs over to another statue and knocks it over. It’s you as an old man! He yells “Not this time, you son of a bitch!” and fires his gun at you. What’s your Handgun skill?

It was 75%, so the old man succeeds his roll easily and blasts Young Jimmy in the chest, leaving him bleeding out on the beach. Wolf dives at the old man, but fails a grapple roll and leaves him free to run over and fire three rounds point blank into Jimmy, turning him into a juddering corpse. Sanity rolls and shocked looks all around.

Ok, I tell him, You are now playing as your older self. Roll your experience checks and take -1 to Size and Constitution.

While Jimmy’s laughing and rolling, Wolf Abrams cuts off one of Young Jim’s hands and pockets it. Then he knocks down the third statue, finding a bunch of blood and a glass eye. Wolf then decides to cut out his own eye and replace it – all right in front of the increasingly traumatized Young Wolf. He cheats death with a successful first aid roll, and the whole gang trudges back. Ten Days and one hour after they left they climb out on the rope Marlene and Kit have dropped, scaring the hell out of them.

Why did I try to kill myself? Asks Jimmy, some time later.

You remembered that your younger self was going to try to kill you.

Wow. Yeah, actually, I was planning to attack him. Previously this guy had killed an old woman while robbing a bed store.

They keep heading towards a spot marked by a diamond on Kerrigan’s back. Kerrigan had missed the second session; I decided he’d been abducted. At the start of this session he’d turned up at the police station after being arrested in an alley. Naked, hairless, no memory, and with a map cut into his back marked “Find me, Peppi”. Peppi Falzoni was Jimmy O’Toole’s birth name.

Getting closer, with the heat intensifying and strange greenery appearing, they come face to face with Rake-Face Jake – a boar with antlers and six human hands for legs. With some luck and a molotov cocktail made from the still-burning green scum from before, they defeat it. Wolf takes another hand from it, while Marlene cuts the demon open and tries to tell the future from it’s entrails. She’d decided she was going to try becoming a sorcerer. I give her some vague clues of my roughly-planned end game. The moon is dead. An impostor has taken its place. She shrugs, and cuts out one of it’s six still-beating hearts to keep. Despite constant sanity checks, everyone is still infuriatingly sane. I take comfort in the fact that Young Wolf will be traumatized for life.

At the diamond they find an underground jungle, swarming with heat and insects. Wolf tries an idea roll to see if he remembers anything from his time here as a kid, and I tell him he once had a nightmare about digging, and vines, and horrible insects everywhere. Digging at a spot where a heap of blood-slicked vines vanish into the sewer-rich soil, they unearth a man with half his skin peeled off to allow the bloody vines to pump something from him. It’s Freddy Falzoni, the long-lost brother Jimmy came to Chicago to find. He was the one who rescued Kerrigan and sent him to the surface with the scar-map on his back.

He gives them a bunch of plot info on the horrible evil in the center of the sewers, teaching them how to defeat it before Jimmy tearfully cuts his vines and lets him die. It’s a lovely moment, spoiled only by Kerrigan finally going insane. The gang decides to enlist the help of Glimmering Jim against the greater evil, so they set out to burn the Hand and Heart of Rake-Face Jake in sacrifice to him. On the way there, they find a vat of goo in a massive insect hive.

The party decides to drop the catatonic Kerrigan inside.

Agape, but grinning, I hurriedly flip through my notes and tables, trying to figure out what I should do. Leaving him there, they find Glimmering Jim. Marlene burns Rake-Face Jake’s hand and asks him for help, then burns Young Jimmy O’Toole’s hand and asks him for power. The heart she keeps. Glimmering Jim shudders between silhouettes of a boar and a man, then expands and swallows her before winking out of existence. I decided not to tell Jimmy O’Toole that Glimmering Jim now owns his soul.

Back at the insect-pit they shoo a group of insect-man hybrids away from Kerrigan’s coffin and bring him out. Having rolled on the Random Demon Attribute table, I told him his skin had gone. After some screaming they plunged him back, and he emerged with a solid black exoskeleton that acts as 2 hit-point armor covering his whole body. This is a guy with 75 points in Acting. He’ll need them all just to pretend to be human.

They hear distant screaming and Marlene plummets in with a new spell: The ability to create a portal in Time itself. With that, the session is over, and we file into the night, laughing and chattering.

ADDENDUM

The previous sessions were nothing like this. Here’s a graph of the rest of the campaign:

I didn’t spend that much time in Boringsville on purpose, but I always started somewhere normal (or at least, relatively normal- they spent their time in 1920′s Chicago, often fighting gangsters and the police. Luckily, that’s an interesting enough setting to sustain an entire campaign on it’s own), then tasked the party with getting somewhere weird. They kept taking longer at that than I’d thought, and I kept deciding to ramp up the weirdness in the next adventure – with the final result being this graph. In the end, I think those hours spent dealing with normality really brought out the weirdness and wonder in the new stuff. I wouldn’t do it again, though; it’s WTFington from here on in.

My players were never scared, and I’ve come to believe that’s fine. Horror is a fantastically entertaining emotion, but it’s also a whip to keep the players in line. Making the players lose sanity when they see the monsters- and making the monsters inspire terror in general – is a mechanic that stops the players from screwing up your adventure by doing stupid things.  If you’re losing sanity points just by looking at the thing you’re not going to trying to try to distract the monster with ballet, or cut off their dick and feed it to another player (It’s happened). A player that’s terrified isn’t going to be making fun of the monster, belittling it, banalifying the game world- you know. Their Jobs.

If my players were scared they wouldn’t have jumped through the humanoid portal, or left a guy in an insect goo-pit, or cut out their own eye or tried to bargain with the monster or any of the exciting, interesting things that they did this session. They would, instead, have snuck around the sewers in the most boring, safe way they could. It just seems like a scared party just would have led to a much less interesting adventure.

If I make a new campaign, I’m going to turn down the fear and turn up the pulp. Make a sandbox setting where the Old Ones have won; with Cthulhu ruling the world the game can become a real rogueish sandbox. Make every single interesting thing in the world an obvious front for horrible conspiracies, Deus Ex style. Open up a map of the world; crazy Voodoo gods in the jungles, cool robots in the arctic, Sandworms besieging Australia, Mayan gods destroying Mexico and a massive grub known only as “The Missus” as the monarch of England. Let the players globetrot through crazy pulp sandbox adventures as they please. Keep the sanity, and the low hit points, because an edge of terror is always good and adventures are strange, horrible things that kill many and leave those that survive forever changed.

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About Jack McNamee

In the third year of a game design course in Queensland, Australia. Thinking a whole lot about games. Scrabbling desperately against the oncoming future.
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2 Responses to Everyone should be a Dungeon Master once

  1. BeamSplashX says:

    This sounds fantastic. It would be nice to do a mostly-improvised first session of a game and try and turn that into a story. Maybe improvise the first two sessions to maximize the shakeups. After that, I imagine the players would like at least one good answer.

  2. Jack says:

    @BeamSplashX

    Zak Smith (Who is my Gygax) advises doing a normal session first – something that’s just the place the party is in and it’s immediate surrounds – then plan out the sandbox, incorporating the stuff that the initial screwing around has brought up. Personally I’m just going to dump them in through a magic portal. (Keep it under your hat).

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