Over on the Google+ Pelgrane Press RPGs community, Johan Lundström voiced concerns about the order in which his players would tackle the locations of Eternal Lies, our world-spanning Trail of Cthulhu campaign, and the impact that might have on plot and pacing of the campaign. Eternal Lies writer Will Hindmarch responds as follows (***CAUTION*** Contains spoilers for Eternal Lies below the image—for Eternal Lies Keepers only!)
Great questions. These concerns are totally valid! Fortunately, the game and the campaign have features built in to help you pace and adapt the campaign to suit your needs.
First, be careful to lay out the options for Act Two such that the players and their characters are choosing from multiple options with a bit of intel to go on. Their patron in the campaign can buy them all the boat trips and plane rides they need to take on the chapters in the order of their choosing. If Malta or Bangkok catch their interest, the logistics of travel don’t have to play a part in their decision. If Ms. Winston-Rogers summons the Investigators back east for a meeting to discuss what they’ve uncovered so far, you can emphasize how easy it is to travel in this campaign in Ms. Winston-Rogers’ own words.
The episodic format of Act Two is intentionally designed to give the long-running campaign a bit of a familiar, recurring structure in the middle. That serialized feeling can be a feature, rather than a bug! Given how long it might take to play out a given locale, the ability to recenter and quickly understand the format of the investigation between locales can be helpful. Use scenes set at home, between chapters, to adjust and modulate the pacing, especially if the PCs are moving quicker than they seem to like. This isn’t meant to slow them down, but to add variation to the kind of challenges put before them.
How you pace and portray the big choices is important, too. It is fair game to play up the danger and mystery of the Yucatán expedition to help the players and their characters question if they really are ready to go there yet. If they attempt the Yucatán expedition early in the campaign, that’s their choice. Let them enjoy the benefits of that—and experience the consequences. It is an undeniably big encounter, at the end of that locale, but whether it’s climactic or not is a matter of structure and storytelling, right? Consider how the campaign goes forward differently as a result of their choice, including how to introduce new Investigators, if necessary.
They have made great progress in battling their foe, and earned an edge against it, but can they trust the words of a spiteful alien god-monster? Is it even accurate? Knowing how to cast the spell isn’t enough! Other locales have clues that tell them where and when to cast the spell. And if they somehow press on without gathering sufficient clues, the Investigators live or die by that choice, too.
To carry the campaign forward after any locale that feels highly climactic, maybe treat that as something akin to a season finale, and treat the next session as the premiere of the next season. This also signals you, as the Keeper, to portray choices and consequences in later locales so that they are climactic, too; maybe by being more personally consequential than epically climactic.
The structure of Eternal Lies is designed to help Keepers and other players modulate the experience, and to keep the story going even if the Investigators cannot keep going. The premise picks up the threads of an investigation that met with disaster. If new Investigators meet with trouble, more Investigators can pick up the threads too, carried forward by the players already. Each locale is a jumping-on point and a seam for the Keeper to use to reorient the players and new characters. The feeling of setting out for locale #3 (whichever one that is) can echo or allude to the Investigators’ previous trip. That can be comforting or foreboding, depending on how the last trip went.
The flip side of it? If the Investigators are doing very well, making smart choices and getting great results, they get to enjoy the benefits of that for a little while.
But remember: they don’t know what the next locale holds. They don’t know how far, how vast, how perilous their future might be. The fear of what happens next is greater for those who haven’t read the book. Use that. They might find a later locale easier than an earlier one… but they can’t rely on that feeling. You have the power to keep them wary, but enticed to press forward despite their fears. The menace and the mystery of the experience is in your voice, Keeper.