Monday, 31 October 2011

Hell Fire

As some of you may already know, my latest Pelgrane project. Hell Fire, has hit the electronic shelves. I'm very pleased to see it; it's been a while in gestation, and there's nothing like the satisfaction you get from seeing a creative work of yours take wing.

I thought I'd talk a little bit about the scenario writing process, and use Hell Fire as an example.

When I first pitched to Pelgrane, lo these many moons ago, it was for the scenario that eventually became Brick Kiln and appeared in the Unspeakable Oath. It didn't really appeal to the folks at Pelgrane, as it felt a bit too much like a haunted house scenario, and they were trying to steer clear of those. Then we talked about The Zeppelin Raid, a scenario which has yet to see the light of day and is based on a painting I saw at the Queen's House in Greenwich, London. Initial response was positive as they thought there were actually zeppelins in the scenario, something I hadn't really planned on, and parts of that idea were recycled into Suited and Booted, a Call of Cthulhu scenario that, as luck would have it, also ended up in that same issue of the Unspeakable Oath. From zeppelins war stories inevitably followed, and I successfully pitched Not So Quiet, which is now part of the Out of Time collection.

Since then we've talked about several other projects, one of which became Hell Fire.

I enjoy history. My personal bookshelves are split about 50/50 these days between history, (a broad term in which I lump such diverse subjects as stage magic, occultism, the Great War, piracy on the high seas, Prohibition, Victorian England, Medieval Europe and the great ocean liners of the early 20th Century, among others), and fiction, much of which tends to be historical fiction (ie. this sort of thing) these days.  So the attraction of what amounts to a spy story set in the 18th Century and involves the Chevalier d'Eon and a heavily disguised Benjamin Franklin ought to be fairly obvious. That I was then able to set part of it in Bermuda only sweetened the deal.

Why disguise Benjamin? Well, the answer has nothing to do with worries I may have had about plunging a real person into the depths. After all, the real person did have (nebulous) links with Dashwood's Hell Fire Club and may or may not have been involved in espionage, both of which subjects are important parts of the scenario. No, the reason for changing the character was that, as written, the odds were fairly high he'd die (though of course in an RPG scenario nothing is certain) and I didn't feel entirely comfortable changing established events to that extent.

One of the major problems with writing for print is how to get the characters in the same room following the same plot. Many of the old Chaosium scenarios assumed that the characters were 'into that sort of thing' and were likely to take a leave of absence from their jobs and scuttle off to, oh, Mississippi, or Maylasia, at the least hint (delivered by newspaper clipping, more often than not) that Something Wicked This Way Went. There wasn't any attempt to rationalize it. While this does have its good points - frankly I'm not sure you need to rationalize that sort of thing - it does create an atmosphere of desperate cliche right at the start of the session, which really isn't something you as Keeper want to foster. It's the horror equivalent of going to the travellers inn and talking to the mysterious man in the hooded cloak, and not (for example) the barmaid with the bubbly personality who doesn't have an adventure hook but does seem like more fun to be around.

Another option is to be summoned to the plot location by a dear old friend. This has been done more than once, and starts off at least one famous campaign. I've used it myself in Brick Kiln, though I tried to add to it by saying that the dear old friend wanted them to value something he'd picked up in France. Again, it's not a bad way to start a game, and it does get them all in the same room at the same time, but it has been used many times now and is starting to look frayed.

A third is pure accident: the characters end up at the plot location by chance and then have to deal with what follows. I used this in Not So Quiet, and it's an important part of the scenario Mr Corbitt in Mansions of Madness. I like it as a concept, but it's the sort of thing you can only really get away with in one-shots or in the opening scenario of a campaign. Otherwise it starts to feel as though the characters are the unluckiest group of misfits since Scooby Doo, wandering by simple chance from disaster area to disaster area.

A fourth, which is the Hell Fire option, is to start with the characters already up to their necks in trouble, forcing them to start swimming or drown. As they're already heavily involved in the plot (or what appears to be the plot) they've every reason to start working together, since if they strike out on their own they probably won't make it. I haven't seen this in published scenarios that often. The Cthulhu Now scenario In Media Res, first published in the Unspeakable Oath issue 10, uses it, and there are others. The idea lends itself to pregenerated characters but I suppose there's no reason why that has to be so. Nor does it have to be a one-shot; you could start a decent Golden Dawn or Delta Green campaign that way. Of course it does assume that all the characters have broadly similar beliefs or tastes. In a Golden Dawn setting all the characters would have to be members of that occult group, while in Hell Fire the protagonists are all members of the same Club.

The trick is that whatever option you (as writer) choose, it has to be sufficiently open to cover all the bases. You don't know what player characters will come tramping through the front door, not bothering to wipe their boots and tracking mud all over the clues. It might be one of several scenarios in someone's campaign, or it might be a one-shot. They could be anybody. A group of tweedy academics from Miskatonic, professional spook hunters a la Carnacki, or a few darn kids and their talking dog; the list is endless, but the point is you have to consider all possibilities, and close off as few of them as possible. So you can't afford to be too picky, when it comes to the opening scenes. Yes, the dear old friend ploy may be riddled with cliche, as might the funeral gambit or the haunted house scenario. That shouldn't matter. What should matter is efficiency: does this format serve the purpose of getting the group to the plot as quickly as possible? If the answer is yes, then go for it.

In RPG writing, the plot is what's important. The opening scenes are just a means to an end. This is slightly different from fiction writing, in which the opening sentence is supposed to be where you put your wow factor; in fiction, you're trying to tempt the reader into reading the whole thing, so the first thing they see is critical to your success. In RPG writing, that isn't so. The characters will never know what your first sentence was, and they certainly won't care too much about the ropey opening scene if what follows is sufficiently engaging. People soon forget about the desperate, threadbare nature of the plot hook in Masks of Nyarlathotep (for example) because once they're invovled in the plot it occupies all of their attention, and to this day Masks is considered one of the best Call of Cthulhu campaigns out there.

Of course, if the players don't like the plot, they'll probably also complain about the opening scenes, but that's just them babbling. They didn't like the whole of it, so they'll pick apart the whole of it. At that stage it doesn't matter if the opening scenes were first class or rubbish; they're just part of the target area which they're currently carpet bombing.

That's enough of that, I think. Next time, something other than RPG stuff!

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