Friday, 29 July 2011

The Old Ousatonic - Spine

Now I'm going to talk about the final piece of the Trail puzzle: the Spine. For the Old Ousatonic, this is as follows:

The Spine

The Call: Core Scene. The protagonists are contacted by Richard Fulton, a fellow stockholder, and are told that the Ousatonic stock that they own may be worth something after all. Fulton dies (is murdered by cabal henchman Gerry Packer) before he can say more. Clues lead to Train Enthusiasts, and Mishap or Murder?

Train Enthusiasts: Core Scene. The protagonists discover that they aren’t the only shareholders who were contacted by Fulton. This may lead to A Meeting of Minds, Crooked Accountancy and The Waterwitch Curse.

Mishap or Murder? Protagonists who use Cop Talk or similar in the previous scene may investigate Fulton’s death further, and discover that the police suspect foul play. This may later connect to The Unpleasantness of being Klein.

A Meeting of Minds: Core Scene. Other Ousatonic shareholders meet with the protagonists to discuss their options, but all are pessimistic. The stock hasn’t been worth a dime in forty years, and the older among them blame the Waterwitch.  Connected scenes: Crooked Accountancy, The Waterwitch Curse.

Crooked Accountancy: Protagonists who investigate the Ousatonic stock further discover that the shares are being quietly bought up by persons unknown, via a shady accountancy practice, Gilmore & Klein. This may lead to an antagonist reaction from the private investigator, Gerry Packer. Connected scenes: The Truth – Or Is It? and The Unpleasantness of being Klein.

The Truth – Or Is It? The protagonists discover that the cabal want the stock because the New York, New Haven and Hartford Railroad Company want the land, and if that deal goes through, the Ousatonic shareholders will get a substantial payoff. However there’s a problem; a surveyor hired to look over the Ousatonic property has gone missing. Connected scenes: Another Meeting of Minds, The Packer Ultimatum, Wither Jones?

The Unpleasantness of being Klein: If the protagonists follow up on the Gilmore & Klein connection from Crooked Accountancy, they find Klein has been murdered (by Packer, though they may not realize that), and that his Ousatonic paperwork has gone missing.

The Waterwitch Curse: This is a blind alley which the protagonists may follow, if convinced that a decades-old curse has something to do with their current problem. They can learn all about the canal boatman’s curse, and the 1849 train wreck that it is supposed to have caused. However they may discover an important clue: the astronomer Morgan Hatfield was also interested in the Waterwitch. What connection does he have? This may lead to The 1849 Disaster and Trouble in Paradise.

The 1849 Disaster: The protagonists can, if they wish, visit the site of the 1849 train wreck that put an end to the Ousatonic railroad. This doesn’t have any actual significance, and is an extension of The Waterwitch Curse blind alley. However they may discover further clues: an unusual fish kill, which provides further evidence of Colour involvement.

The Ghost and Mr Chicken Antagonist Reaction In which the ghostly boatman makes his final appearance, courtesy of the cabal.

The Packer Ultimatum: Antagonist Reaction Gerry Packer, now a double murderer, intends to make the big play. He’ll use what he knows to blackmail the cabal, but for that to work, he needs to deal with the protagonists. So long as they keep poking around there’s a risk they’ll connect him with the killings. Packer has several alternative reactions, depending on protagonist involvement.

Trouble in Paradise: The protagonists, following on The Waterwitch Curse, learn more about Morgan Hatfield. They discover that he recently stole an artifact from a museum and has since disappeared; nobody, not even his fiancée, knows where he is. His apartment tells an odd story; clues there may help protagonists when they reach Wither Jones? and beyond.

Wither Jones? Core Scene. The protagonists trace surveyor Jones. Is he somehow mixed up in the Ousatonic fraud, or is he connected with the Waterwitch curse? The truth is he fell into a trap, accidentally set by the astronomer Hatfield, and was badly affected by the Colour. If the protagonists don’t rescue him, he’ll escape and live long enough to give clues that lead to The Canal House.

The Canal House: Core Scene. Possibly for the first time, the protagonists discover what they are truly up against. They find Hatfield’s final resting place, in the old Canal House, and discover his last letter to his fiancée, in which he details what has happened to drive him to this desperate step. Connected scenes: Trapped.

Trapped: Antagonist Reaction. The Colour makes itself manifest, and attempts to drain the protagonists’ life energy. The Colour is traced back to its hiding place, the forgotten Red Rock Canal. It has already sucked the life out of everything near it; it hides here, in the cold canal water, when the light is too strong for it.

Postscript: A final resolution, in which the true value of the Old Ousatonic is revealed, and the Colour (possibly) dealt with.

I both do and do not like the Spine, as a game concept. I can certainly see how useful it could be to the Keeper. This, with the possible addition of a spreadsheet, gives a clear picture of the scenario's contents and how they all fit together to make a cohesive whole. Keepers who fear they might get lost in the details will find the Spine a godsend.

My concern is, the Spine isn't uniform. Each scenario writer has their own idea of what a Spine ought to look like. The Ousatonic's Spine is broadly similar to the Spine in The Kingsbury Horror, found in the core rulebook. It gives the title of each scene and a brief description of what might be found therein. Incidentally this is also why I give my scenes such descriptive titles. The Ghost is a bland descriptor that might be overlooked when searching in haste through the scenario book. The Ghost and Mr. Chicken, less so, particularly since it ties to an old Don Knotts comedy about a fake haunted house, and the scene happens to be about a fake haunting.

The Spines in Stunning Eldritch Tales, on the other hand, are nothing like that. Some of them are barely a paragraph long, the kind of paragraph that reads andnowthishappenedthenthatohandbytheway. Others are a collection of bullet points, barely fifty words long. I don't pretend to have read every single published scenario, but I'd bet money that Graham Walmsley, for example, has a completely different take on the Spine to say, Robin Laws. I'd feel happier if we were all singing from the same hymn sheet on this one.

That, and I can't help but think the Spine takes up a lot of space. This doesn't matter so much for a .pdf product, where word count isn't a problem. It matters a lot when writing for other publications, like The Unspeakable Oath, where word count is strictly monitored. Every word spent on the Spine is one that can't be used in the scenario. This probably isn't a problem that will occur often, since I'm fairly sure the Oath is the only outlet besides Pelgrane itself for this material. Still, a market's a market, and Oath readers are just as likely as anyone else to be intrigued by a new Cthulhu game; all the more reason to make sure Trail material gets in the Oath.

That said, from a writer's perspective, creating a Spine helps focus the mind. Starting from the Introduction, it's easy sometimes to get lost, wandering through forests of the mind and praying for a breadcrumb trail. The Spine helps avoid that, by forcing the writer to lay the trail and then do the actual writing. So by the time it comes to write that scene where the protagonists discover the corpse of accountant Klein, I already know where that fits into the overall plot, and what it leads to. It simplifies the writing process.

Going back to the Ousatonic, remember when I mentioned earlier that the Colour would have to be encountered accidentally? Some players might be fooled into thinking that 'there's no Mythos here!' After all, the initial hook and follow-on scenes don't have any real beasties for them to encounter. However there are little hints scattered here and there, in scenes like The 1849 Disaster and Trouble in Paradise, which will tip off clever players that all's not well. However they will have to be clever players, and here's the rub: very few players are as clever as they like to think they are. Most, in my experience, are either blinded by their own brilliance or in too much of a hurry to think about the implications of the information they have in front of them.

Of course, that's when the Keeper needs to hit them, and hit them hard, with the consequences of hasty action.

Keepers who want to read the complete text of the Old Ousatonic can find it here.

Thursday, 28 July 2011

The Old Ousatonic - Awful Truth

Now let's talk about the meat of the scenario. What will the protagonists encounter?

The Awful Truth

Though there’s a lot of talk about ghostly canal boats, much of it is being pushed by a cabal within the Ousatonic stockholders. They’re hoping to cloud the debate, and snap up as many shares as they can before the price gets pushed up. The cabal sees the disappearance of the surveyor as a godsend; the more people get caught up in the hoodoo angle, the less likely they are to pay attention to the share price.

However there is a Mythos angle. A larval Colour was brought to the Red Rock Canal four months prior, and has been growing there ever since. While it is nowhere near strong enough to leave, it has power sufficient to deal with wandering surveyors, and possibly also the protagonists.

I like the Colour out of Space; it's a breathtaking, atmospheric short story. However as an RPG antagonist it has its flaws. It doesn't travel. If the protagonists are to encounter it, they have to go to its location. It doesn't have much of a written history; no mention in those worm-eaten grimoires, and even if there were, they wouldn't point to its current location, only to where it had previously been. So I can't drop too many clues, as there wouldn't be many to begin with. I suppose I could generate a few newspaper articles and bombard the players with them right at the start. A lot of the old Call of Cthulhu scenarios started that way, but it seems contrived. The protagonists won't have a reason for doing anything, other than The Plot Says This Way, Therefore This Way We Shall Go.

So if I want the protagonists to face a Colour, it probably has to be a completely accidental encounter. They were looking for something else, and found It. The encounter probably also has to take place in a remote location, since otherwise there'd be plenty of other people trying to investigate. I suppose you could make a story out of that - say, make the Colour the centerpiece of a circus freak show - but it doesn't seem to fit with the short story's concept. 

So here I have a remote location, the wilds of New England and an abandoned canal with a mysterious past. I lure the protagonists in with the prospect of riches - someone's trying to cheat them out of their Ousatonic profits! A bit Cat and Canary I admit, but it works, and it gives the protagonists a very personal reason to penetrate to the heart of the mystery. 

One thing I've noticed about players: as a rule, they tend to think that if they've encountered the plot, they've 'solved the mystery.' They don't look beneath the surface, preferring instead to take most things at face value. So I can drop a few Colour hints without worrying too much that this will give them pause. Odds are, they'll trot obligingly into the lion's den - and then the fun begins! 

The Old Ousatonic

I'm going to start by talking about a Trail scenario, the Old Ousatonic. This scenario has not been published, which is why I'm using it for illustrative purposes. The introduction and hook are as follows:

The Old Ousatonic

A Trail of Cthulhu scenario set in New England in the Thirties.

Note: while some facts and names have been borrowed from the real world (eg. the Housatonic Railroad, misspelt Ousatonic), this fiction is not intended to resemble any actual company, person or place.


The protagonists, being stockholders in the Ousatonic, are intrigued to discover that their stock might actually be worth something. However a long-forgotten tragedy resurfaces, possibly indicative of troubles to come. What happened to the Waterwitch so many decades ago, and does this have anything to do with the mysterious disappearance of a surveyor hired to value the line?

Okay, let's talk specifics.

I enjoy working in the real world. By that I mean I'll take history and twist it slightly for my purposes, but that means I need to know my history. It's not enough to rely on wikipedia, though I cheerfully admit I do use online resources to help me nail down a few specifics. Even so, my personal bookshelf is groaning with the weight of reference material, everything from reprints of 1890s Baedeckers to histories of the Golden Dawn to Randi's book on Flim Flam. I tend to concentrate on specific eras: 1930s England and USA, particularly Prohibition in the United States; Victorian England; the Great War; piracy, whether the Golden Age or modern day.

In this case I took a small slice from a book called Abandoned New England, by William F. Robinson (1976 New York Graphic Society). It's a coffee table volume (I wonder how many homes still have coffee tables?) about the ruins that dotted the New England landscape back in the 70's. Some of them have probably vanished since then, but for all I know the others are still hidden away in some long-overgrown spot. It covers a wide range of topics, from paths, post roads and coastal schooners to railroads, tanneries and mines, and for someone wanting to know about sites that could be used for spooky purposes a book like this is a godsend. They still lurk in second hand bookstores, and I'm always on the lookout for something that might be useful.

At this stage I knew I wanted to write something for Trail, and as the default option is the 1930s, that was when I decided to set the scenario. Leafing through the Abandoned New England book, I first picked up on the old canals, built by shareholders to make a profit by shipping goods via what amounted to artificial rivers. Most of them didn't perform, and the shareholders were left with worthless paper stocks. The first glimmering starts to form: what if there was a ghostly canal boat, the Waterwitch, that was supposed to haunt an abandoned canal lock?

Abandoned New England even gives me an interesting quote: Its channel, where once floated a queer navy, is dried up, and in most places overgrown with trees and bushes; its locks, and the shanties built to accomodate the lock tenders, are crumbling in the dust . . .

So now I have an atmospheric location and an out-of-the-ordinary antagonist. Intriguing, but why are the protagonists there in the first place?

Well, the canals failed because as they were being built the steam engine was invented. The railways were faster and more capable, forcing most of the canal companies out of business by the 1850s. As the canals were often constructed in exactly the route that the rails wanted for themselves, the rail bosses often came to an accomodation with the canal companies, using canal land rather than blaze their own trail. Thus I have a link between my Waterwitch and the Ousatonic Railroad. However by the 1920s and 30s the railroads were also going out of business, unable to compete with the automobile and airplane. This led to a rapid cycle of buyouts, as the smaller lines were swallowed by the larger ones who sought monopoly control in a desperate attempt to stave off bankruptcy. By the mid 1930s it was all up for the rail bosses; they just couldn't compete.

So here I have a possibility: there's someone out there who wants the Ousatonic, because it occupies land that someone else - one of those monopolizing rail bosses - finds useful. If the protagonists are stockholders, that puts them in the spotlight. I don't even have to change any character's backstory to make that happen. The Ousatonic's been defunct for decades, and the stock has been passed down through the generations. The share certificate could even be framed and hanging on the wall; some of those old stocks were quite beautifully engraved. The stock's something that the protagonists could have had for years without ever needing to be aware that they had it, inherited from Old Uncle Joe or whoever, just like those musty old bibles, bits of furniture and other dusty tat that we all seem to accumulate from previous generations. 

Done and done: mystery, atmospheric locale, and a realistic reason for the protagonists to want to investigate! 


Hello there!

I'm Adam. I post as Karloff on the YSDC forums and contribute The Bookshelf to their ongoing podcast, Yog Radio. I write, and have been published by Chaosium, Pagan Publishing, Miskatonic River Press, Pelgrane Press, and the Escapist, among others.

In this blog I'll be expanding on my Bookshelf reviews, concentrating initially on the books I've already covered for Yog Radio and then dealing with new material. I'll also be talking about my RPG work, describing the creative process as best I can. I hope this will be useful for Keepers and players alike! I'll probably concentrate on Trail of Cthulhu, Pelgrane's latest, as I find that the most interesting of the current horror tabletop games.

I hope you enjoy the blog!