It’s been a couple of weeks since I finished running a small Call of Cthulhu campaign (or a long adventure) with the pretentious title of Cthulhu at the End of Time and I’ve spent the time from then to now thinking about what worked and what didn’t. It was a difficult but very interesting scenario to run partly because it’s set essentially in a fantasy world and partly because I had less and less time to prepare for each session.
The scenario is based on two Mythos stories. The Shadow Out of Time is one of the foundation tales of the genre and deals with scientist creatures who send their minds forward and back through time in order to study each era of existence. Most people are at least passingly familiar with this story. The second is more of an unknown factor. Till All The Seas by R. H. Barlow is one of Lovecraft’s more successful revisions. The story deals with the last man alive on a far-future earth baking in the glaring red light of a swollen sun. For me, the two ideas dovetailed quite nicely.
Imagine, if you will, an earth in the far future turned to desert baking in the orange light of the swollen sun. Humanity has retreated to the poles following the evaporating oceans as they retreat. Cities creep forward slowly to maintain contact with the drying seas leaving abandoned and decaying ruins behind. At the poles, of course, the sun does not set but revolve about the horizon.
The amnesia motif worked to about 80% of what I wanted. The character awoke surrounded by city-guard with know idea that five years had passed. A lot of player interaction and paranoia was centred on figuring out what happened during their missing time. The problem in running this motif soon became evident. The players did not understand what was normal for their characters in this setting and so had nothing to compare non-player characters reactions to them or who they could expect to trust. In hindsight, this could easily have been prevented by spending a session showing the characters’ lives were like before the missing time and giving them a few solidly established relationships with a small number of NPCs.
The second problem is solely my fault. Until we actually played through the adventure, I was not entirely sure of the plans of the villains of the piece. I knew that there were three possible or likely outcomes: the characters sacrifice themselves to defeat the villains and thereby doom humanity (this is what eventually happened), the characters save themselves to defeat the enemy and thereby dooms humanity, or the characters join forces with the villains (which to me was looking likely until the final session). Luckily, the villains actions were hidden from the public so it never became an issue.
I’m not sure whether it was an artefact of my current literary interests or the lack of preparation for the amnesia motif but the scenario devolved at times into pulp action fantasy – not that this is a bad thing in itself. It’s just not what I intended. (Part of me wants to run more adventures in the same world specifically as pulp action fantasy. I think that would be dead cool.) The issue that became apparent is something I reckon I always knew but had not been conscious of. Cthulhu doesn’t work unless you can establish all those little details of everyday life, deviation from which signals the approach of the Mythos.
Overall I was pretty happy with the campaign-ette. I achieved nearly everything I wanted to except Lovecraft’s ontological horror. I’ve made a bunch of notes and I’m sure I’ll run it again in the future – better, stronger, scarier.