We were delving through the vaults the other day, one of us holding torch and the other the pitchfork – those ghouls just don’t know when to give in – and we found this little gem that Mark wrote in 1989 about writing and running Call of Cthulhu tournaments in Melbourne, Australia. (I know we look young but that is because we have a painting by George Upton Pickman stashed away that is very Picture of Dorian Gray.)
Czocha Castle, the venue for CarcosaCon
Anyway, here are Mark’s thoughts from that era, edited for clarity and condensed for a fun blog-sized read. This is from Dagon Magazine no. 25, the legendary Call of Cthulhu fanzine which burrowed out of the UK in the 1980s, edited by our dear friend, the late and forever great Carl T. Ford.
Some of the ideas are of their era, but others still stand, and are an insight into how we learned to run and write for this wonderful game.
Writing and running Call of Cthulhu tournaments
From Dagon 25, 1989
… First up, the objective is to have fun. The scenarios have to be as exciting, scary, tension-packed and as entertaining as possible. Keepers are free to add or embellish scenes, so long as they basically stick to the scenario for the convenience of those taking part in subsequent session(s).
Time elapsed plays no part in the scoring, so Keepers are able to pace it as they see fit, with only the real restraint of leaving enough time for a break before running their next team. Keeper intervention is encouraged to keep the game moving if the players are bogging down, rather than sitting and waiting for them to come up with a decision. This intervention ranges from the gentle introduction of extra evidence, to adding a conclusion the players may have missed via an Idea roll, right down to the large glowing hand which descends from the sky holding a sign saying THIS WAY FOLKS. (Such has been needed on occasion!)
One problem we always face is finding actual space to play at the venue. It’s fine to lump a whole heap of screaming D&Ders in one loud overheated room with each other, but each Cthulhu team needs seclusion, so that a proper atmosphere can be built up, and so they’re out of earshot of other players – overhearing something upcoming in a D&D adventure gives you a tactical advantage; in Call of Cthulhu, it spoils the fun.
In a con held in a hotel this can be tricky. Thus, tournament Cthulhu has been played in stairwells, basements, lofts, outside under the spreading dusk, in hotel bathrooms, corridors, store rooms, and stranger places; in truth, an odd environment adds to the atmosphere. Candles were standard equipment until one venue complained about the strange puddles of cooled wax left across the building. Anywhere it’s dark at a Melbourne con, you’re liable to hear screams issuing from it. Most con goers have learned to cope with this, and it helps the game’s mystique no end (“Why are those people in there screaming?”).
For scenario setting, we traditionally stick to the 20s, but we have made forays into the 50s, 60s, and early nineteenth century. The writing style tends to be sparse, so that the tournament in print is more of an outline which the Keeper supplements with their memory of the play-test and own diabolical ideas. As for content, we tend to skirt brand-name Mythos, finding it convenient to invent our own beings when needed. This helps us to throw the players. We’re also past masters of the art of vicious twist – players have been led to stop rituals that shouldn’t be stopped, perform rituals that shouldn’t be performed, they’ve been deliberately possessed (several times), they’ve discovered things about their own ancestry they rather they didn’t, they’ve had dreams without knowing it, they’ve been dragged into Dreamlands without wanting to go, they’ve been framed for crimes they didn’t commit, and in some cases they’ve been deliberately driven mad and killed and then pulled from the illusionary wreckage. In short, we’ve given them the worst good time we can manage.
That the players do have a good time is stamped on their faces. I have seen them leap back in horror; scream (genuinely); read a ritual in the dark with only five matches to use (they cheated, they lit the box); chant hoarsely twenty times; and look at each other in stunned disbelief. Perhaps our best example of player absorption: the Keeper was running for a group of young players in a darkened room. The designer of the session stole softly in to listen, and by and by they all forgot he was there. When there was a sudden event, he thought he’d make it dramatic by suddenly stretching out his hands and screaming “Yaarrrr!”. Three of the players leaped out of their skins, but the fourth, on reflex, spun in the chair and landed a neat right hook that decked the intruder!
The last and worst remains to be discussed; the means of the characters’ destruction. The plots are usually fairly linear, as these are easier to run and take less words to explain. As per usual, clue-following trails link strong scenes of horror – heads flying through restaurant windows, zombies walking backwards in the moonlight, black things sitting on the wings of aircraft, a high chapel full of slowly falling black drapes. What is especially liberating about writing for a tournament is that it is a one-off scenario, so you can do whatever you like with the characters in shaping their prior life and future destiny. You needn’t stay your hand out of compassion that it’s a four years’ running character. At the end you can cheerfully put them through the grinder and watch them squirm…
That’s an edited excerpt. If you’d like to read the full article, Paul MacLean of Yog-Sothoth.com created a PDF of the original, and has graciously granted us permission to host it here. Here’s it is, including descriptions of all the events we ran from 1984 to 1988:
Crawl back to your crypts then, and remember to always keep your players in the dark…