Friday, March 22, 2013

[Campaign Analysis] The Veil of Isis; or, "Exorcisms for everybody!"

Back in the murky mists of the mid-Nineties, while browsing the back shelves of my not-so-friendly local game store, I came across a book for Call of Cthulhu called The Golden Dawn. What struck me immediately about this book was that it wasn't published by Chaosium, but rather this other company called Pagan Publishing. I hadn't heard of Pagan before, being unfamiliar with The Unspeakable Oath and this being maybe a year before Delta Green came out, but I had heard of the Golden Dawn, mostly in a playground-rumory sort of way connected, of course, to its most infamous member, Aleister Crowley. Based on the connotations of the publisher's name and the perceived infamy of the book's subject matter, I immediately dropped the requisite ducats and took the book home to read that night.

What I found within was tremendously disappointing, although this had nothing to do with the quality of the book's contents, but rather its failure to live up to my adolescent expectations. Where I had been envisioning a sourcebook on some kind of sinister diabolical society headed by the Great Beast himself, I instead found a late-Victorian occult study group dedicated to astral travel and the pursuit of enlightenment. What was all this New Age crap? And it turned out that Crowley, still a callow youth at the time, only joined the Dawn towards the end of its tenure and was overall a minor figure in the organization (although he did play a significant role in the group's fracturing).

Of course, callow and young as I was at the time, I failed to recognize the reverberating occult significance that the Dawn continues to have to this day, and my own let-down expectations clouded my ability to see the possibilities of the Dawn as it was intended in the sourcebook: an overarching society for intrepid Investigators to belong to, a propelling force to justify their continued investigations into the occult and macabre. With hindsight, I can see the Golden Dawn as a sort of dry run for Delta Green, a different attempt by Pagan to create a justifaction for an extended campaign of horror investigation.

My last CoC campaign was cast more in the classic mode, with average folks getting swept up in events of the Mythos. As I wrote in that analysis, I was left after the campaign with a feeling of ambivalence towards this mode of play outside of the one-shot or mini-campaign. I resolved that any future CoC campaigns would need to be built around a framework; indeed, I see looking over that analysis that I even mentioned the Golden Dawn framework as one possibility.

I hadn't planned to run Cthulhu as my first campaign of the year, but when that Great Old One comes a'knocking, it's not really my place to not answer the call, as it were. The old memory of the Golden Dawn sourcebook, combined with the recent re-release of Cthulhu by Gaslight provided unexpected inspiration, and shortly after the winter holidays I convened my intrepid group for a journey into the occult backrooms of fog-swept London. After nine sessions, we wrapped things up, having seen the deaths/insanities/mind-exchanges of several PCs over the course of six years of game time. And so, with another campaign in the can, it is time once again to analyze "[w]hat worked, what didn't. Expectations going in and how those expectations morphed and changed over the course of the campaign."

It's always struck me that Cthulhu by Gaslight is a bit ill-named, as it is nominally set at the end of the of 19th century, a time when gas lighting was rapidly being replaced by electric. Aside from that quibbling literalism, the fin de sielce years were also set distinctly apart from the earlier Victorian era in other crucial ways, as the 20th century came rushing on. It's a forward-looking decade, with many of the innovations, controversies, and man-made disasters of the first few decades of the oncoming century taking root at the end of the then-current. As a result, a campaign set in 1890s is bound to have several startlingly "modern" resonances, not at all what one normally associates with the phrase "Victorian". To help my group understand this crucial difference, over the course of the campaign I made posts to a Scrapbook on our Obsidian Portal page, sharing images that I felt were indicative of the disinct tenor of the times, particularly if the images selected helped contribute to the occult and/or horrific atmosphere we were attempting to build.

Much like how the default time period of Gaslight might tweak expectations somewhat, so too does the premise behind The Golden Dawn. As mentioned above, the book is meant to provide a framework for occult Investigators to work within, as well as a ready pool of replacement PCs. But the nature of the historical Golden Dawn, with its focus on systematizing occult and esoteric lore of the previous three centuries, adds an interesting twist to standard Mythos-based investigations. The campaign featured the PCs engaging in lots of pentagram-drawing, Tarot card-reading, and (to a somewhat lesser extent) astral-projecting. One of the adventures ended quite suddenly when a PC was able to use her magic wand to paralyze the bad guy before he could get off so much as a single Mythos spell!

In fact, the presence of the Mythos was decidedly down-played in this campaign. No Mythos tomes were consulted or read, and there were only two opportunities in the whole of the campaign to even do so. Only one PC ended the campaign with any sort of Cthulhu Mythos skill, and this was solely owing to a couple bouts of Temporary Insanity. Mythos creatures were encountered, yes, but only in a secondary manner, most of the bad guys being of the more "sorcerous" and all-too-human variety.

I have to say that, although it leant the campaign an unexpected flavor, I quite liked the effect. One of the great dooms of Cthulhu gaming is the dreaded "Mythos book club," in which PCs collect libraries of these supposedly ultra-rare tomes and pass the books around, boning up on Azathoth and Nyarlathotep in between gunning down byakhees and tcho-tchos (tcho-tchoi?). I quite like that the Mythos, through a combination of setting elements and PC action (or inaction in some cases) remained a shadowy, half-glimpsed and half-guessed-at force, just as it is in Lovecraft. The PCs indisputably saw some pretty messed up stuff, but the worst was always lurking just out of sight. During the first session, they held the door shut against a terrible Thing that was trying to batter its way into a shunned room in which W. B. Yeats was performing a pentragram ritual to seal a Gate to the astral plane. They never saw what lurked on the other side, for the completion of the ritual banished the Thing, but when they opened the door there were deep impressions in the ancient oak, as if whatever had been pounding had possessed the strength of many men... Classic stuff. Or the final session, which had the PCs fleeing from a long-forgotten chapel in the woods, the screams of their hired help echoing behind them, glances over the shoulder only revealing a dozen ropy, branch-like tentacles swaying above the church roof...

Empowering the PCs with non-Mythos magic provided lots of opportunities for surprises that still felt perfectly at home in a CoC campaign. For instance, I have to say my favorite moment of the campaign occurred when one of the PCs popped bodily out of the astral plane vomiting blood, landing on the parlor rug of a most shocked Florence Farr, who was in the middle of having tea with George Bernard Shaw. Absolutely fantastic.

Despite my youthful disillusionment with Crowley's lack of presence in the Dawn, I must say that when he did show up (as limited as it was), he made quite an impression. His appearance in the final adventure really added to the experience and stood as an excellent example of how, when running a historically-based campaign, a GM can turn the PCs' historical expectations against them.

As for the Order itself, I was left with slightly mixed feelings. On the one hand, as intended the Order provided a nice framework upon which to hang occult investigations as well as serve up replacement PCs that didn't need much to bring them up to speed. And, as I outlined above, the occult focus of the Order changed the tenor of the Cthulhu campaign experience in an unexpected but welcome way. On the other hand, with the Order being an actual historical fact, I often found myself wondering how much to include of the real-life drama that suffused the organization. The Golden Dawn was subject to some pretty serious internal drama, but I was wary of focusing too much on that, lest the campaign turn into a sideshow of the PCs watching various NPCs bicker. The PCs did get involved to a certain extent, choosing up sides in the factionalism and all, but in the end things focused on the investigations immediately facing the group and the NPCs faded into the background. This was only good and proper, but it did leave me wondering why one would bother with using a real-life historical organization if most of it is going to turn into so much background set dressing. I suppose that's maybe one reason why Delta Green, despite serving much the same purpose as The Golden Dawn, succeeded to such a greater degree. It's easier with a fictional organization to keep things more PC-focused.

Still and all, I was left much more satisfied with this CoC outing than the last one, and I intend to stick to my resolution for all future Cthulhu campaigns to feature some kind of structure to bind the Investigators together. This need not always be a formal organization. My next Cthulhu campaign will, most likely, be Horror on the Orient Express (as I suspect is the case for many Keepers). For that much-anticipated effort, the requisite bond will be formed from the fact that at least two and possibly three of the PCs playing through Orient Express will be PCs who survived the Golden Dawn campaign! They were all young enough that, in advancing the time by 30 years, they will end up in their late 50s or early 60s, a properly Lovecraftian age for investigators to be sure. I'll make sure that any other PCs are tied to our ex-Dawn members and away we go. Opportunities for replacement Investigators will hopefully present themselves organically as the campaign progresses.

On a meta-game note, this campaign marked a couple firsts (or at least firsts in recent memory) for my GMing bag of tricks. To begin with, I made use of background music for the first time in many years. I experimented with multi-media gaming back in the 90s, but, lacking access to a stereo remote or CD disc changer, the technological limits at the time were just too cumbersome. I realized, prior to starting this campaign, that what with the tablets and the bluetooth speakers and the what-nots, seamlessly incorporating music into a session was bound to be much, much easier. I decided to give it a try. My players were a bit skeptical initially, but quickly got sucked in by the magic and now I don't think they'll ever let me run anything without background music! Oh dear.

The other thing I did was finally realize my pipe dream of recording all the sessions to be posted as an Actual Play. Things turned out really well in that regard, and the finished product can be streamed or downloaded from the campaign's Obsidian Portal page.

Speaking of Obsidian Portal, I've been using the site to coordinate campaigns for a while now, but this campaign really cemented my enthusiasm for the site's potential. In addition to the Scrapbook and the usual scheduling and snack coordinating, we used the Forums to blue book in between sessions. The wiki provided a perfect venue to disseminate information about house rules, the Order itself, and a bit of campaign history. I even consulted with the players to plot their London homes on a map of the city!

One thing I should mention that didn't work out too well in terms of trying to add new tricks to my bag: separating players. Ever since I had a situation where the highlight of a campaign occurred when all save one player had been ordered out of the room in the name of "realism" ("If your character's not there to witness this, neither should you be!"), I've made it a point to put trust in my players' ability to keep their out-of-game knowledge separate in the name of everyone getting a chance to at least be an appreciative audience for in-game events. The opening scenario of the campaign suggested separating the players at one point, and I decided, after many years, to give the tactic a try once again. It turned out to be as pointless and anti-climactic as I remembered, and so that was, for the most part, the end of separating players from the table for the foreseeable future.

In the end, I'm incredibly pleased that I was able to finally return to The Golden Dawn and run such a fun campaign with the material presented therein. Gaslight was, once upon a time, my favorite period for Cthulhu gaming, and this campaign helped me to remember why. Onward to the Orient Express!
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