Trail of Cthulhu: Masks of Nyarlathotep – New York – episode 1

masksAfter surviving an encounter with cultists in Hollywood, our brave team of investigators journeys to New York to meet with Jackson Elias. It is January 1925 and the fate of the world hangs in the balance, although no one realizes it yet. The investigators soon realize their fate is intertwined with the infamous Carlyle Expedition of 1919, which met its doom in Kenya in a brutal massacre by angry natives…supposedly. Unraveling the machinations of the Crawling Chaos will take everything they have and even then they may not uncover every Mask of Nyarlathotep!

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  1. I gotta say, Ross, if there’s one specific thing I dislike about your GMing style in mystery games, it’s that you often present an introduction and then explicitly say “okay, now you have these leads, and here they are recapped briefly in case you’ve forgotten them in the past 90 minutes, so this is where the game gets more freeform.”

    you don’t need to do that! you have intelligent, synthesis-oriented players! you don’t need to disrupt their immersion by announcing that they’ve now got The Directions of Investigation. that’s a tool for if they get lost. I’ve specifically noticed it twice now, after this one–wish I could remember off hand what the first incidence was, but it was recent-ish.

    you’re better than that! so are your players! I’ve definitely heard games where players needed that much guidance, but RPPR definitely doesn’t. the tendency to break character to deliver exposition abstractly (see: interrogating the cultists, which seems super important and not the kind of thing that should ever get reduced to “he says that…” and also the debrief with the police officer, who could’ve been a strong anchor and player ally if he’d felt more like a real person than a bit of cutscene) seems really oldschool D&Dish, where NPCs exist only to further the actions of the players. in a CoC game, people gotta be people. the horror comes of the intrusion of the nightmarish on the rational, and one way to protract that horror without just hitting your PCs’ SAN/STAB scores is by making them -care- about NPCs and then wrecking them.

    I know you know this! you did it a bit with Jackson Elias here. but too often NPCs seem like vehicles of bland exposition who aren’t really human or worth remembering. you can get so much power out of any PC/NPC interaction. if you’d come up with a short speech for the cultist they interrogated to deliver in character, maybe ripe with foreshadowing, it could’ve haunted the characters through the whole campaign. if the cop who took them in had been more of a person and less of an abstract, he might’ve been their deceived ally dealing with this session’s blackmail scenario, then turned up dead when Masks next took em back to New York. every NPC can be a chamber in Chekhov’s Gun! don’t waste that opportunity!

    anyway way too much rambling now

  2. Looking for those incidents, they do ring a bell. I also feel that Ross relies of a lot of screen-wipe transitions to get players moving between locations the fastest when they’d be just as brilliant in a travel scene. On a different note…

    How do you always have an in-depth comment, Crawlkill? This AP hasn’t even been out long enough to listen to it end to end. What’s your secret? Double-speed listening? Triple? Carcosa or simulspace induced time-dilation? Spy microphone attached to Ross? I have to know!

  3. in this case, it was because I got the AP a day ahead of time by contributing to the Patreon! (TM) you, too, should give Ross money monthly and get episodes a day early, so you can have some time to think about your comments before they go up!

    support RPPR!

  4. Outstanding selection!

    Where do I find the betting pool on player character survival?

  5. oh, I remember now–it was at the beginning of Duality, where Ross sorta announced “alright, that was the introductory session, now we’re entering the campaign proper.”

    thinking more about it (as if we needed more words from me here), it’s particularly odd that Ross opts for tell-not-show in establishing narrative structure and delivering exposition, because iirc his educational background is as a film student? weirdly, both of the other tabletop podcasts I listen to, Ragnerdrok and Fandible, make wayyy more deliberate use of the language of cinema and the idea that there’s sort of a “frame” in the game than any of the RPPRrs do. they’ll sometimes talk about how “the camera” is moving, get really visual about things. dropping character portrayal for narration when delivering exposition or establishing narrative structure is a little like using title cards in a talkie, or sticking an intermission on a VHS tape. it conveys the information, it breaks things up…but it’s a little flaccid/disruptive, innit?

  6. Really looking forward to hearing the RPPR crew’s take on Masks! I’ve been hoping to hear this campaign (even if it is ToC instead of CoC)…now I just need to wait until Ross or Caleb run some Laundry Files scenarios.

    One suggestion/request…Would it be possible to reduce some of the chewing sounds during the podcast? I know how important snacks are during a long rpg session, so I don’t mean to disparage any of the players. However, the audible munching of chips is like nails on a chalkboard to me and many other folks. Perhaps fellow listeners and I can pitch in for a monthly pizza fund? haha

  7. Author

    This is massively complex campaign, which I have made even more complex by adding in bits from other scenarios and source books. We meet at most once per week but we often go weeks between sessions. There’s also the problem with the plot of Masks in that the actual structure of the campaign which has many red herrings and the nonlinear nature of the plot means that the there’s no easy way to chart a satisfying narrative arc to it all.

    Anything I describe means I do not describe something else – there is a certain tyranny of time and mental focus in RPGs. I focus on the actual mystery and plot rather than NPCs that will only ever be in one scene because that’s the core of the campaign. I want to do everything I can do to make sure the players are 100% up to speed because if they forget one important thing, it will snowball out of control. Oh you never followed up on plot thread X in New York, which only is fulfilled Y sessions later on because that’s the one detail you missed when I described it once and never again. People only remember like 50% of what you say to them and Masks is brutal about missing certain things. If they screw up because of that, it’s not very interesting. If they make mistakes because they interpreted the clues or made bad decisions, that’s fair.

    I always to make sure they would have options their characters would know in mind when they make decisions. I never force PCs to use only those options and there are many times when players go off on a tangent I never anticipated. But I absolutely loathe games where the players are adrift because the narrative thread has been lost and the GM does nothing to help them. I probably would not be as active in providing options and prompts in a character-driven game, but given the width and breadth of Masks, I do not want this to become like a season of Lost. If I focus too much on set dressing or making colorful NPCs, I could lose the plot thread myself. Hell, I’ve already got multiple plot threads from the prequel games that I have to complete.

    There’s also the additional challenge of running a historical game set in a very well-documented era. We know what the weather was like in NYC in 1925. I’ve been using the Masks Companion a lot and there is a shit load of practical things in it that I have to keep track of – what’s traffic like? How effective are the cops? How hard is to get various weapons? Etc. etc. etc.

    Finally, I’m more interested in the decision making of the players than narrating things to them. Describing things to them in cinematography terms doesn’t really appeal to what I go for in games – we’re in the POV of the players, not an audience watching a movie about the PCs.

  8. fair points! I hope you don’t feel attacked when I criticize, I mean, obviously I love this shit. I think it’s the existence of the talk podcast and Game Designer’s Workshop that makes me wax critiquely in comments. you guys talk so much about game design and other metagame roleplaying stuff that it puts me in that loquacious frame of mind when I’m here. I find “fun theory” super fascinating. also I remember Caleb once saying “Ross has no tact in critique, if he doesn’t like something he just says ‘yeah, that sucks,'” so I imagine you’re okay with hearing what people think is not so great.

    still, though! couldn’t the cultist have had a speech? pleeease? think of how different Bryson Springs would feel if instead of the “and such are we to it the Fisher of Men” in-character document had been a titlecard “you read the translation of the scroll and this is what you get from it.”

    one thing that I -thought- I disliked but then got turned around on was bringing in Caleb’s PC from Sense, whom I totally hadn’t recognized until this session–I thought it was just some kind of tangent, but you did make it clear that there was actually something discoverable behind it, which is what flipped my opinion.

  9. As a patreon backer I would like to know where I go to get my day early episodes. Is there an rss feed I can link to my Podkicker app or do I have to download directly from somewhere.

  10. I believe right now there is only direct download from the Patreon page, but Patreon is working on adding RSS functionality.

  11. Whoo, Ahmri….. or however you spell the name. I am really glad you were able to toss that in there Ross. What made you think of tying the campaigns together though?

  12. Whether or not Ross Payton’s habit of listing player options well serves the players, and I bet it does from my own GM experience, these periodic lists of options make a good way to sustain the podcast audience attention.

    Players might get distracted by jokes or snacks at the game table, but common presence holds their minds to the topic. Podcast listeners might turn on the podcast and go about their commute or other daily routine, pausing for interruptions trivial (pouring coffee) or serious (that aggressive tail gater with overpowered headlights). For them Ross’s lists serve to bridge gaps in attention across such distractions.

    They work that way for me, at least. Whether happy accident or skilled technique, I hope to keep hearing them.

  13. As one of the players in this game, I feel the need to defend Ross a little bit. The recaps that he gives at the beginning of the sessions are incredibly helpful. In part, this is because we often go three or four weeks between sessions. (Some of us travel for work regularly and there were holidays/family emergencies/etc. that necessitated longer than desirable breaks). Even when we do go back-to-back on sessions, Ross’s recaps offer us time to compare notes and get our heads back in the game. Plus, there are some “tangents” that Ross bolted into Masks. Sometimes we get so caught up in those that we do need the occasional reminder of “Oh, so THAT’S where the original narrative thread was!”

    As to the “quick-slide transitions” and the elimination of possible NPC narratives and speeches, this may be more our fault than Ross’s. We are a very pro-active group and, especially when it’s getting on 10 or 11PM, some of us sort of “force” things to move a little faster because of low blood-sugars and a need to be up at 8 AM the next day for work/whatever. Ross is very sensitive to player energy levels and input (great GM in those regards) which means if there are faults in the final product, we are just as much to blame as our fearless leader. On the whole, though, we wind up having a blast.

    P.S. As to the betting pool on character deaths, if that does become a thing for this game, someone please keep odds and records and post them on here. It would be hilarious for us players. 🙂

  14. Author

    It is valid criticism – I mean, horror games are about atmosphere as much as anything else and cool speeches and other bits of set dressing go a long way to making that atmosphere work. But, like I said, there’s only so much I can do in any game and in this campaign, I want to make sure that the end game is built upon a solid foundation I established in earlier games. That means keeping all the relevant plot threads running for the duration and minimize loose ends. I’m fine with a lively discussion too! It means people listened and cared enough to comment on the game. That’s a lot better than a deafening silence 🙂

  15. I really enjoy the references to Sense of the Slight of Hand Man.

    The money-drop was great to listen to.

    As far as the “copying” of negatives goes, that was typically reserved for motion picture production (and even then, they often used multiple cameras to film multiple negatives to ship out to different labs to create internegatives in order to mass produce film reels). Having said that, it could be done per request at a lab, or as Ross suggested, the “animation” route by taking the picture of the picture.

  16. Nice to see this & once I get a stable group here for a campaign, I’ll try to push to running Masks. Should be fun to hear how this one turns out with it being in Trail ruleset.

  17. well, good to hear I don’t make you feel discouraged, Ross. so many hours of my life would I have to fill with other and less hilarious words if you were to evaporate. (…I was thinking of asking a friend of mine in the corporate educational complex if she might be interested in hiring Caleb for “twice the salary” she had when she was teaching, then I thought ‘but we’d lose Caleb if he moved to the East Coast,’ then I thought ‘but shouldn’t I wish the best for him?’)

  18. I have to wonder if the players realized that Amri was a Caleb character as NPC, would they have been A: willing to withold anything she was actually after, or B: left her unsupervised in their office for any amount of time. Were it actually Caleb, he’d have probably scrounged up enough info to steal their money, frame them for any number of weird crimes, stolen both the opium and bywundie, and rig up any number of improvised homemade explosives if they didn’t do what he asked for.

    Or maybe I’m reading too much into this coming straight off of mainlining Tribes of Tokyo this past week. 😀

  19. I love how much of this was devoted to the crass capturing of money rather than the bad guys. The Amri bit was also great, although a reference to the Queen of Cell blck B would have also been cool.

    Oh please go to Australia. Please do. Terror Australis is one of my favourite supplements.

  20. my two current favourite gaming radio players are the YOGcast crew & the RPPR crew–i share their character with humour in gaming (even in horror) and love hearing the differences

    so i’ll be comparing this run through the Tomb of Horrors of Call of Cthulhu with the YOGcast run

    should be fun — it’ll be neat to see how this crew handles character death and if they’ll go the route of ‘ok, you now have to pretend you know nothing and ‘create a new character’ or some other thing

  21. I’m kind of disappointed Caleb won’t be playing.

    Did he read Masks beforehand or something? Or did Ross just not want Masks to get further complicated by Caleb’s social engineering?

  22. Author

    Caleb can’t play because of scheduling issues. I want him to play at least one session of it though.

  23. if you can work out the scheduling, you should switch to PCing an NPC and have Caleb run a Mythos deathtrap session. …just make sure the PCs’ notes-for-sequel-PCs are thoroughly in order.

  24. I once read (I forget where) a recap of a Masks campaign in which the GM had a player who wasn’t part of the main group roleplay as the minions of Nyarlathotep between sessions. Basically they would respond to the actions of the PCs and plan traps (death or otherwise) for them. This seems like a perfect job for Caleb.

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