While personal hooks and drives ensure that your investigators are the ones to actually investigate the Mythos, what brings them together, as opposed to pursuing their own solitary mysteries? The Trail of Cthulhu rulebook offers several campaign frames; here are three more.
Ghostly Sorcerers Against The Mythos
Other ugly reports concerned my intimacy with leaders of occultist groups, and scholars suspected of connexion with nameless bands of abhorrent elder-world hierophants. These rumours, though never proved at the time, were doubtless stimulated by the known tenor of some of my reading—for the consultation of rare books at libraries cannot be effected secretly.
Aeons ago – perhaps in fabled Lemuria, or dream-haunted Atlantis – a band of sorcerers dedicated themselves to protecting humanity against the forces of the Mythos. (It is whispered by some that their goals were not entirely benign, that they were secret worshippers of the dread god Tsothoggua, and they were sent to shepherd humanity to some awful fate far in the future.) These sorcerers abandoned their physical bodies, becoming psychic shadows that leapt from mind to mind, host to host. For countless thousands of years they have travelled down the generations, guarding and guiding. Those touched by the sorcerers are not wholly possessed – they retain their own minds and memories – but are imbued with an irresistible conviction to delve into mysteries and battle the Mythos.
Such activities are, of course, perilous, and many hosts perish – but the sorcerer’s psychic shadow endures, and soon finds another body to inhabit…
Anywhere and anywhen. The assumed baseline is a globe-trotting Pulp game in the 1930s. All the investigators are hosts for these sorcerers, so they instinctively recognise and trust each other. They’ll also recognise the next host, so when the hardbitten detective dies half-way through a session of Eternal Lies, they recognise that the next player character – the Peruvian physician – is also host to a sorcerous shade, and welcome them into the group. (A setup ideal for high-lethality campaigns!)
Playing up the contrast between the relatively mundane investigators and the cosmic conflict they’ve been dragooned into. Lots of sorcery and survivals from previous eras, so heavily Pulpy – investigating secret societies, banishing ‘demons’, checking on ancient sealed tombs. While the player characters don’t have direct access to the sorcerers’ memories or powers, flashbacks and dream sequences are likely a recurring feature.
Given we’ve got sorcerers from the dawn of time possessing human bodies, the Great Race of Yith are likely antagonists, along with cultists of Yog-Sothoth and other deities. This campaign frame benefits from a large range of foes, to give the impression that humanity’s always only days from destruction, but that this threat is repeatedly averted by the efforts of the sorcerers.
Literally, whoever was nearby when the last investigator died. While the sorcerer-spirits gravitate towards ‘useful’ hosts over time – your usual band of detectives, professors, journalists, globe-trotting archaeologists and the like – the sorcerers just take whatever hosts are available. The waiter at your hotel, the old woman who showed you to the ancient cave, random gangster stooge #3: anyone can be a viable next host.
The sorcerers. While they don’t have true personalities any more, and are just psychic shadows that inspire humans to throw themselves into the fray, some traits do survive from host to host.
By spending a point of Cthulhu Mythos, an investigator may permit their sorcerer-shadow to take control. Depending on circumstances, the sorcerer-shadow might perform some act of sorcery, or take some unlikely action that helps the investigation (“why is Susan leading us into that old graveyard?”).
“Ghost wizards vs the Cthulhu Mythos”
The Inn on the River Skai
It was sunset now, so Carter stopped at an ancient inn on a steep little street overlooking the lower town. And as he went out on the balcony of his room and gazed down at the sea of red tiled roofs and cobbled ways and the pleasant fields beyond, all mellow and magical in the slanted light, he swore that Ulthar would be a very likely place to dwell in always, were not the memory of a greater sunset city ever goading one on toward unknown perils. Then twilight fell, and the pink walls of the plastered gables turned violet and mystic, and little yellow lights floated up one by one from old lattice windows. And sweet bells pealed in the temple tower above, and the first star winked softly above the meadows across the Skai.
As dreamers, you all frequented a pleasant tavern in the city of Uthar, the Sign of the Weeping Woman, exchanging stories and wild tales with other visitors. Over time, these tales grew darker, with rumours and rumblings of terrible gods awakening. You thought these dreams no more than passing phantasies, to be forgotten on waking – but then you met some of the company in the waking world, and realised that there was a genuine and mysterious connection between you all – and that the tales you were told had an element of truth in them…
This works best in a large city in the 1930s – London, New York, Chicago or Paris. One with a rich history, and with a considerable population of potential dreamers. The campaign may also involve a degree of globe-hopping travel, so at least one investigator should have the resources needed to fund plane tickets on what would seem to outsiders to be a bizarre whim (“Why do I need to fly urgently to Rhodesia? Well, I dreamed I met a woman who lives there, and she warned me of a certain temple in the mountains…”)
The style of game tends towards the Purist, dark and morbid and mysterious, but leavened with bright and fantastical Dreams. The dream-tavern provides a sort of base of operations – and a comforting refuge from the horrors of reality. This is as close to “cozy” as the Mythos gets.
Given its connection to the Dreamlands, the dreadful Moon-Beasts make for ideal antagonists. Ghouls also cross over a great deal – if you assume that Harley Warren met Randolph Carter in the Dreamlands, then The Statement of Randolph Carter fits as a perfect one-shot in this campaign frame.
Anyone, as long as they’re capable of Dreaming. The framing structure of the tavern in Ulthar means that replacement investigators can be recruited from among the ranks of other patrons, and the players can also draw on their friends from dream for support and advice (“Does anyone in this dream-tavern know how to translate Babylonian texts?”).
The staff and patrons of the tavern in Ulthar; likely, some curious and cryptic cats, too.
If you’re using Dreaming as an investigative ability, all investigators start with 1 point for free.
It’s also worth including Correspondence as a general ability; the contacts created are fellow patrons of the tavern.
“Cheers”, but the bar’s in the Dreamlands, and when you’re awake you investigate the Mythos.
The Horrible Old Woman
The dreams were meanwhile getting to be atrocious. In the lighter preliminary phase the evil old woman was now of fiendish distinctness, and Gilman knew she was the one who had frightened him in the slums. Her bent back, long nose, and shrivelled chin were unmistakable, and her shapeless brown garments were like those he remembered. The expression on her face was one of hideous malevolence and exultation, and when he awaked he could recall a croaking voice that persuaded and threatened.
At some point, all the investigators attracted the attention of a monstrous hag, a witch like Keziah Mason. She is known only as the Witch in the Walls. Maybe some are related to her by blood; maybe they stayed in what was once her house, or dreamed of her, or simply passed her on the street. Now, she has claimed them as her agents, her catspaws, and dispatches them through gates in time and space to carry out her mysterious bidding.
Arkham in the 1930s – but the witch might transport the investigators anywhere in time and space.
Purist, tending towards the nightmarishly surreal. To a degree, this is a variation on the Bookhounds campaign frame – only instead of dealing with a variety of eccentric bibliophiles, the investigators have one incredibly demanding patron to deal with – a horrible old woman who screeches at them like a seagull.
The Witch in the Walls desires various magical relics and tomes – and the destruction of her enemies.
As this frame draws heavily from Dreams in the Witch House, then Elder Things, Night-Gaunts and other inhabitants of other angles work well – as do creatures hidden in human form.
Anyone can be – literally – dragged into the clutches of the witch. Once she’s latched onto a victim, she can open gates through the angles and whisk them away. Often, half the mystery is working out what the witch wants them to do – “why’s she dumped us all at the edge of a frosty meadow in Somerset? Is that a standing stone over there?”
The Witch in the Walls is less of a non-player character and more of a plot device or force of nature; she does not communicate with her pawns in anything but screeches and demands. However, her rat-thing familiar, Goodfellow, serves as interlocutor when needed, clarifying the witch’s demands.
“Charlie’s Angels”, if Charlie was Keziah Mason.
Trail of Cthulhu is an award-winning 1930s horror roleplaying game by Kenneth Hite, produced under license from Chaosium. Whether you’re playing in two-fisted Pulp mode or sanity-shredding Purist mode, its GUMSHOE system enables taut, thrilling investigative adventures where the challenge is in interpreting clues, not finding them. Purchase Trail of Cthulhu, and its many supplements and adventures, in print and PDF at the Pelgrane Shop.