Thursday, May 10, 2012

[Campaign Analysis] Bell, Book, and Candle: Freshman Year

Well sir, another campaign has wrapped up. As I did last time, I'm going to post my thoughts here on "[w]hat worked, what didn't. Expectations going in and how those expectations morphed and changed over the course of the campaign."

This was the first campaign of the year for me and my group, as I'd taken the holidays off from running anything greater than a one-shot in scope. After running a Cthulhu campaign the previous year, I had been pretty certain that I'd opt for something different this time around for the first campaign of 2012. But then I started thinking about the fun of running a student-based campaign set at Miskatonic University. Despite having owned and run Call of Cthulhu for nigh on to 20 years, I've never set an extended campaign in Lovecraft Country. I was also excited by the idea of getting a second crack at running CoC. My San Francisco campaign had started up just before my life got considerably more hectic last year; furthermore, there was an unprecedented level of player turnover in that campaign - I was using MeetUp.com to arrange the meetings, so every session seemed to feature a new face - and that kept me from establishing a comfortable rhythm with the group.

Unfortunately, my determination to get it "right" this time, combined with the fact I had several weeks to prepare, proved my undoing. There's a sweet spot somewhere in campaign preparation; you don't want to have too little time to prepare, but there's just as much of a danger in overpreparation. I do think I had the right idea in sending out "acceptance letters" in the mail as a way of announcing the campaign concept. But ultimately I was undermined by the sheer volume of detail offered by Lovecraft Country and the Miskatonic University sourcebook. I mean, just look at that list of NPCs! And that's after just one academic year of play.

Originally I had a thought of emulating Pendragon's structure of limiting a single adventure to a single season - in this case, one adventure per semester. In that way, we could get through all eight semesters, from Freshman to Senior, in probably no more than a dozen sessions (my own Golden Mean for campaign duration). But I waffled, wanting to simultaneously take advantage of all the material I had to work with as well as create a more organic, believable world. So I ran a semi-sandbox, presenting my players with a "target rich environment" (to borrow a term from Beedo) which they could interact with at will.

In this sense, the campaign was a terrific success. The players pursued the threads that interested them, and some of our best sessions were ones where I simply riffed off their stated goals, using my copies of the M.U. sourcebook and Arkham Unveiled to fill in the gaps when necessary. Still, it took us nine sessions to cover the Freshman year - nearly the entire time I had allocated for the whole campaign! At that pace, we'd be playing through Christmas, and there are many more and different games I want to run before the snows fall again. Plus, that much supernatural chicanery (even with the periodic red herrings I threw into the mix) crammed into a span of eight in-game months was, I think, wearing for the group; player-contributed adventure summaries went from detailed to non-existant, for example, as enthusiasm waned.

In the end, I decided to mothball the campaign as the Spring semester came to a close. I haven't decided if this will be the final end, or merely a break. I could see returning to the framework, running each academic year in six to nine session bursts. Or else I might do a fast-forward to the 25 year renuinion - Arkham in the late 1940s would be a real trip to game in, I'm sure. Three of the four PCs survived their first year (albeit with some mutilations) and could be present as adults (a bit of a hat-tip to IT).

My first hesitation in returning (and what might drive me to go with the latter option) is that I found adventuring in Lovecraft Country to be strangely anticlimactic. It's actually a lot more fun and interesting to take your own setting and inject the Mythos into it. Lovecraft had his fun with Arkham and its surrounds; it's his "campaign world," so to speak. I've now found that I prefer to introduce NPCs who the players don't immediately recognize, to explore locations that are fresh and new.

My second hesitation is regarding running Call of Cthulhu as a campaign, period. Horror games are so very difficult to pull off properly, because you have to put the PCs in jeopardy; killing off NPCs only gets you so far, plus it can create a certain jadedness if every NPC in the campaign ends up dead and/or re-animated. But in a long-term campaign, you can't kill PCs off willy-nilly; the player needs to feel a connection to their character, and that is lost if they're rolling up someone new every session or two. The best approach is to emphasize CoC's nihilistic mechanics, highlighting degrading Sanity and physical mutilations. But the dice don't always cooperate in that regard, so that too is tough to pull off. In the future, I might limit my Cthulhu gaming to one-shots or mini-campaigns of three to five sessions' duration. That way I can kill of PCs with impunity and damn the consequences. Horror gaming in a campaign context, if I do decide to run more long-term Cthulhu campaigns, might just be limited to concepts that encourage a sort of "fearless monster hunter" mentality and are designed to absorb PC casualties: Delta Green, Golden Dawn, etc. Or else games of moody atmosphere, like World of Darkness or games like Grimm or Ghosts of Albion. I might also try a reboot of a university campaign that focuses on PC adventures in the Dreamlands, so it becomes a conflict between maintaining grades and social reputation in a mundane world by day and having fantastic, grotesque adventures where the group fights for the fate of a world not their own by night.

Although Bell, Book, and Candle left me feeling somewhat ambivalent, I do consider the campaign to have been a solid success. I learned a great deal about what I like and don't like, but more importantly, we all had a great old time. I succeeded in my goal of introducing certain themes (namely: death - ghouls, re-animation, corpses, earthen tunnels, things best left buried, etc.) and laid the seeds for other themes (i.e. magic and sorcery) that could be explored in future installments, should we return. It was not the best campaign I've ever run, but it was very far from the worst, and I'm mostly just happy that I've managed to build a stable group of outstanding and enthusiastic players. Everything else is simply...academic.

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