by Robin D. Laws
The Armitage Files, my recent, Silver-Ennie winning, campaign sourcebook for Trail of Cthulhu, has been hailed for an innovative approach—one I will now encourage you to steal.
If you’ve yet to check it out, Armitage presents a new take on the epic Cthulhu campaign. It provides building blocks for a player-driven, GM-improvised grand mystery series. Those elements include people, places, tomes, and organizations. Each of these entries can be attuned to the GM’s immediate needs as they arise in the story. A person might be stalwart or sinister, an organization benevolent or hostile. With some filing off of serial numbers, each can be used multiple times under different circumstances.
Tying these together are the eponymous documents that comprise the heart of the campaign, and the experience. The book arises from the observation that the player handout is the essential currency of a classic Cthulhu gaming experience. Those of us who discovered the story side of roleplaying through exposure to early, iconic Call of Cthulhu products learned to love the handouts that came with each scenario. Our characters risked life and sanity to secure them. As players, we grasped them in our hands and tried to puzzle out their significance. Though printed on humble cardstock, these brown-on-brown documents provided an imaginative portal into the terrible Lovecraftian reality our characters found themselves trapped in.
The Armitage Files also builds on an idea I explored in a Dying Earth supplement, The Kaiin Player’s Guide. It’s a mammoth, super-detailed setting book. By tradition such products have been aimed at GMs. This book is written for players, assuming their characters are residents of its decadent, white-walled city, who well know its people and pathways. They are encouraged to thumb through it, find the plot hooks they like, and proactively declare what they’re going out to interact with them.
Armitage pulls a similar trick with a series of mysterious documents. They arrive unbidden at Mistakonic University’s secret inquiry into the Mythos. Their damaged, increasingly chaotic pages are in the hand of the project leader, Henry Armitage—but he has no recollection of having written them. They read like fragmentary case files. The investigators decide which of their many details they follow up on. The GM weaves a narrative around their choices.
I always hoped that someone else would steal the concept behind Kaiin. That’s how new ideas get into the collective bloodstream of the form.
We’re cooking up various projects informed by the Armitage approach. But, as Pelgrane Press does not yet publish every roleplaying game on the market, here’s how you might borrow it for games beyond the GUMSHOE fold.
Vampire: the WikiLeaks
Hidden between the lines of an apparent spam email, the characters receive a link to a super-secure black site only they can seem to access. Every so often, a new text file appears briefly on the site, ready for download. It contains excerpts from the surveillance files of an unidentified high-level observer of vampiric activity. They might have been composed by a hunter, but seem more like the work of an intelligence agent serving a bloodsucking Prince—the one, coincidentally enough, who seems to be trying to kill them, for reasons they have yet to discover. Can they use its secrets to bring him down before he kills them? Or, in a deadly double game, are they really doing his bidding all along?
Your Favorite High-Level Superhero Game
This fits Champions, Mutants and Masterminds, or any similar game set in a wild and crazy super-world reminiscent of the DC or Marvel universes.
The heroes investigate a series of bizarre incidents in which people with low-level psychic powers go on destructive, spree-level rampages, invariably ending in their deaths. Each of the victims-slash-killers is revealed to have left a record of vivid visions received before they lost their minds completely. The records come in various forms: paintings, audio recordings, video diaries, even a comic book. Similarities of content and imagery show that they have to derive from some common, external force. Eventually the heroes discover that the source is a satellite sent from an alien future to document the event that dooms mankind. Its transport through time damaged it, causing it to beam flashes of its database to vulnerable minds. But this is just a symptom of the real crisis. Can the heroes piece together the contents of the visions and database to identify and stop the impending catastrophe?
If the handout is the basic currency of a Cthulhu game, its fantasy equivalent is the dungeon map. This one warps Armitage’s player-driven plotting to its most unfettered extreme of hack and slashery, in an approach that might be called “dial a fight.”
Deep in a supposedly impregnable underground complex, the adventurers discover an ancient artifact. On the twenty equal sides of this polyhedral device appear engravings of fearsome creatures, guarding fabulous treasures. When a character places his palm across one of the twenty surfaces, she and her comrades are transported across space and time to a place of battle. There they find the pictured monster, which they must defeat to seize the treasure. Once there, they discover that they took a one-way trip. To return home to their lives—and the treasuries they’ve filled during their long careers—they must find a side that corresponds to their home time and place.
When a face is used, a new one takes its place. As they pop willy-nilly through history and other dimensions, they eventually discover that one of the faces leads to the end of the world. Will they get home before you decide to pack up the campaign, er, before they accidentally destroy reality?
Unless you’re a master of instant prep with your favored D&D edition, you’ll likely want to have the players pick their next couple of monsters and treasures at the end of each session.
Thanks to Steve Moss for asking to hear more about The Armitage Files.