The Armitage Files is Robin D Laws’ groundbreaking adventure of improvised Mythos investigation.
Cthulhu Confidential is Robin D Laws’ groundbreaking game of solo Mythos investigation.
Putting two groundbreaking products together is hazardous for Gamemasters. You run the risk of collapsing the ground beneath you.
However, the risk can be worth it: improvised play supports the deep investigative dives of one-on-one play.
Improvising On The Run
In a Trail of Cthulhu game using the Armitage Files, the Keeper can take advantage of the times when the players are arguing or speculating amongst themselves to plan ahead and decide on what the players might find when they follow the next clue. While the players argue whether or not they can trust Austin Kittrell, the Keeper feverishly reads over the Sinister and Stalwart versions of the Kingsport Yacht Club that Kittrell mentioned and decides which incarnation the players will encounter.
There are few such downtimes in one-on-one play. You can stall the player by giving them a handout such as a new Armitage Letter, but mostly the game will be relentless investigation and action. (There’s a reason that Cthulhu Confidential scenarios tend to be longer and more intricate than regular Trail games.) The best approach is to study the Armitage Files material thoroughly in advance, internalising it as much as possible so you can decide on the fly to connect the Yacht Club to the Nophru-Ka Panel, which of course means a visit to the Anthropologist and he can see invisible horrors clinging to the investigator which means you’ll need to set up an invisible horror encounter before the player gets there…
Sketch out potential plots and connections in advance. Identify (or ask your player) which clues are most likely to come up in the next session, work out two or three follow-ons from each clue and then pick the most appropriate one in response to player decisions. It’s a gamemastering high-wire act.
Where possible, bend the plot around the protagonist. The Armitage Files includes several handouts that reference player characters by name (Document 3, Document 4, Document 6, Document 9) – but is otherwise light on personal connections to the investigators. After all, in a regular Trail of Cthulhu campaign, there’s every chance that one or more investigators will perish before the end. That’s not the case in Cthulhu Confidential, so take advantage of the protagonist’s privileged status to ensure that the mystery revolves around them. (For those fill-in-an-investigator’s-name gaps in the handouts, put the investigator’s name in one of them and fill the others with Sources and compelling GMCs.)
Look For Solid Ground
Cthulhu Confidential uses cards to track Problems and Edges and to give detail and texture to the character’s experiences. Instead of just losing four Health, the investigator might have been Clawed by a Deep One or Punched by Butcher Brown or Fell Down A Hole – each of which causes an injury, but has different consequences and solutions. In a regular scenario, these cards can be designed in advance because the GM knows the likely encounters lying ahead. In an improvised campaign, this approach is reversed – design the cards, and then improvise encounters that lead to those cards. For example, if you’ve prepared the Fell Down A Hole problem or the Mob Tie edges, then look for ways to push the protagonist into a pit or get a favour from a mobster. Prepare a stack of Problems and Edges in advance and look for ways to bring them in (start with the Mythos Problems articles by Robin, as well as the Generic Edges and Problems in the Cthulhu Confidential appendix and build from there.)
Of course, improvised games always include unexpected events, so have a stack of blank cards to hand that you can fill in when warranted. Mark important plot twists and consequences by turning them into Problems and Edges.
For Problem cards, include specific ways to remove each Problem. For Edge cards, note exactly what benefit it gives and when it can be cashed in. Be as concrete as possible – if that Mob Ties edge gives you a bonus when dealing with mobsters, then that’s a prompt for the Gamemaster to include some mobsters to justify the Edge’s existence. (Improv thrives on constraints and prompts.)
Problems and Edges usually arise as a result of challenges; have a copy of the Challenge Difficulty table on p. 45 of Cthulhu Confidential to hand while running the game.
The Armitage Sources
The various academics and scholars in the Armitage Inquiry make excellent sources for most topics. Between them, they cover virtually every academic investigative ability imaginable, with non-academic assistance provided by the redoubtable Mrs. Pickman and Dr. Sprague. With so many professional abilities available through sources, the obvious route for the protagonist is to concentrate on practical investigative abilities like Streetwise and Evidence (although any of the usual Cthulhu Confidential protagonists could be used in an Armitage Files campaign by transplanting them to Arkham country.)
To reiterate – running an improvised One-2-One game isn’t easy. Don’t pick up the Armitage Files and assume that you’re good to go. In a conventional improvised campaign with multiple players, the Keeper has a whole group to riff off and steal ideas from. Here, it’s just you and one player, alone in a whirlwind of possibilities. Running this sort of game will be tough and exhausting – but it will also be a genuinely terrifying experience for one lucky player.