Tuesday, May 10, 2022

Masks of Nyarlathotep Retrospective

Third time's a charm.  Last night, after 11 months of play, my group completed our Masks of Nyarlathotep campaign.  It was my third attempt at running it.

Lots of spoilery thoughts about the campaign in general ahead.

The first time I ran Masks, we were playing Call of Cthulhu 6th edition using the 2nd edition of Masks, run on Roll20.  I had a group of four including two real life friends and two players recruited online.  We completed New York fairly smoothly, although with extremely cautious play the investigators mostly turned information over to allies in the police force rather than confronting any threats directly.  This kept them out of trouble but also overlooked a lot of possible information.  From there they set off to England and quickly stumbled into trouble, making all the wrong enemies.  We got our first investigator death in London, but before we decided how to bring in a new investigator, the player of another character (one of the randos recruited online) had to be removed from the game due to general assholeness, and so we decided to take a break.  Sadly, we never picked it back up.

Second attempt was with 7e and the new edition of Masks, this time using Foundry.  I'd just completed the Two-Headed Serpent campaign and had an enthusiastic group.  After the pulp shenanigans of THS, I wanted a more subdued, classic experience, so I decided to run it very straight.  This turned out to be a poor fit for the group, who were just way too passive to take on the huge amount of investigation required for Masks.  We did play through the new Peru prologue chapter and had a good time, but New York was just too much.  After a couple sessions of terribly indecisive play, we called it off.

So then last year I got an in person group back together.  This included the two real life friends from my first attempt at running Masks, as well as a coworker who'd never played Call of Cthulhu.  We decided to try Masks again, given that the two previous players had only seen a small portion of the original campaign, it'd been over 5 years, and the new edition had enough changes early on to keep it fresh.  I also acquired the HPLHS prop set to add some excitement to the experience and we settled on a weekly game on Monday nights.

I decided to for a medium pulp experience this time.  I can't remember now the method used for rolling stats but they ended up with a crew of absolute beefcakes.  We also used the pulp double HP, 100 bonus skill points, and a single pulp talent each, although no talents that required luck mechanics.  I did allow luck burns but only for skill/attribute checks, and no luck recovery - the entire campaign.  I felt like the luck mechanics were the biggest problem in my THS campaign, but this worked out great.  Everyone burned luck at least a couple times throughout the campaign, but it was always extremely important when it happened.

While Masks of Nyarlathotep is known for being a meatgrinder of a campaign, we actually did not have any player character deaths.  Several close calls, and by the end their mental faculties were a wreck, and they lost quite a few allies along the way, but all three investigators saw it through to the end.  The pulp rules we used were definitely a factor here.  Although characters were worn down to 0 hit points a couple times, no one ever sustained a major wound.  Most attacks just don't do enough damage - short of an extreme/impaling hit - to hit that threshold.  So even though the damage would add up over a fight, they avoided longer term impacts.  I don't try to pull any punches.  I roll all the attacks and damage in the open.  The most I can say I did that could contribute to the survival was just leaning into the pulp feel of action by allowing a little more craziness to happen than I'd normally allow in a Call of Cthulhu game.  Aside from that, most of it just came down to very smart play, and I think that even had we been playing classic rules that we wouldn't have had more than one death.

The investigators were:
Sandy - a Rosie the Riveter inspired, hard-nosed mechanic.

Atreyu - a doctor with a criminal background and a disturbing obsession with knives.

Tommy - a pragmatic, somewhat skeptical, private eye.

Sandy and Atreyu played by my returning players.

Now, the campaign.  The quick summary is that we played through Peru, then New York, then off to Shanghai, and finally Cairo.  England, Kenya, and Australia were never visited.  They managed to destroy Penhew's rocket and recreate the ward on the Red Pyramid, and that's where we decided to call it a successful ending.

Peru worked out great.  New to everyone, it was very successful at introducing Jackson Elias.  Since Jackson was introduced as a corpse in the previous edition, my returning players had actually forgotten his name and so didn't make the connection that he was going to die until they arrived at the Hotel Chelsea in New York.  Jackson benefited from ridiculously lucky rolls throughout the Peru adventure that really helped the crew out in some entertaining moments, so the players all quite liked him.  Peru is low on the investigation side of things so I embraced the pulp action a bit more here.  I think our most memorable scene was fighting some kharisiri while on top of a truck that was careening out of control down a windy, cliffside road.

In New York we repeated the discovery of Jackson's death, but the collection of clues provided by the HPLHS set really made that feel fresh and new anyway.  There are so many paths of investigation in New York that the chapter is quite replayable.  Our group met with the Prospero House crew and setup a base of operations and support team there.  We had a bit of an action scene at the Carlyle estate when the investigators helped thwart some cultists attempting to steal Roger's books.  The new Hilton Adams plotline added a lot of new investigation work for the group.  They ended up teaming up with Mr. Adams' friends to ambush the Ju-Ju House.  That turned into an absolutely chaotic mess, which successfully broke up the Ju-Ju House but failed to apprehend the cult leaders.  This was probably the biggest failure of the campaign, as while they were in Shanghai and Egypt they learned through telegram of the murders of their accomplices there and the execution of the innocent man.

From New York the group decided to go to Shanghai.  In part, this was because my returning players did not want to go to England, where they had met with so much trouble before, but also because the group really seized on the idea of finding Jack Brady to get answers.  In both my prior runs of this section, that idea was really overlooked, but for whatever reason it stood out more this time.  I suspect the new HPLHS props had something to do with it.  The Stumbling Tiger matchbook really stands out now, and the photo of the Dark Mistress shows very clearly some Chinese junks in the background.  Shanghai became the top choice for the group, so off they went.

Shanghai is a pretty crazy chapter in Masks and could go quite different depending on how and when the investigators arrive.  Our group managed to go there without having really revealed themselves to the cultists at all and, despite the pulp rules in effect, played an extremely cautious game.  I really emphasized the political turmoil in Shanghai, they learned a lot about the different factions at play, and I think the chapter came across appropriately exotic and dangerous, which made the players want to keep a very low profile.  Shanghai was also the longest chapter for us, as the group took their time getting to know the major players and making alliances and deals.  They ended up uniting with the Firm Action revolutionaries, rescuing Jack's girl and killing the American sorcerer, giving the sorcerer's sword-cane as a trophy to Madame Swallow in order to make amends with her, and managed to plan a raid of Penhew's lair with Firm Action, Madame Swallow's goons creating a distraction on mainland to draw back excess cultists, and the Japanese Navy in support.  They managed to blow up the rocket and cause the volcano to essentially implode, drowning the entire island into the ocean.

Obviously, this would normally be the conclusion to most Masks games.  With Jack firmly on their side, most of the investigation questions were answered, enemies across the world identified, and the main threat - the rocket - neutralized.  It's definitely an oddity of choosing the non-traditional route through it.  We were about nine months of play into the campaign, but didn't want to leave the majority of the game unseen.  We discussed options for how to proceed.  Traveling the world hunting down the other expedition members and cult leaders was one option, but seemed like it would be kind of unsatisfying.  There are always new cultists to pop up, so when is the work ever really done?  They had no real motivation to travel to England or Australia, as Jack had already been able to answer any questions they could think to look into there.  Kenya was suggested, just because it was the scene of the massacre, but the group finally settled on Cairo, to try to recreate the ward, the Eye of Light and Darkness, at the Red Pyramid.  This, we felt, would represent a suitable final goal for the group.

By this time, the investigators were well-known to the various cults of Nyarlathotep.  They would no longer be able to operate in secrecy.  They were ambushed on the boat ride to Egypt by a very multi-national group of cultists, highlighting how widespread their enemies were.  This led to one of the closest deaths, if not a total party kill, of the campaign, saved only by Sandy managing to cast a spell Madame Swallow had taught her in Shanghai and saving the boat from capsizing.  Once in Cairo, they tracked down Warren Besart and learned his story, but their half of the Eye of Light and Darkness was stolen from their hotel.  They recovered it while disrupting the ritual to raise Queen Nitocris.  Fleeing Giza in a Rolls Royce stolen from al-Shakti gave us a memorable action sequence, as cultists on motorcycles chased them in a scene swiped from Indiana Jones.  From there they met Nuri of El Wasta, collected the other half of the ward, and traveled to Dahshur, where we had our final showdown at the Bent and Red Pyramids.

On top of the Red Pyramid, they were blocked from completing the ward by some powerful presence emanating from the Bent Pyramid (opposed POW checks).  They decided for Tommy to stay on top of the Red while Atreyu and Sandy went inside the Bent to try to disrupt whatever was in there.  Tommy was soon attacked by a swarm  of children of the sphinx while Sandy and Atreyu met the Black Pharaoh.  When they refused his offers, the Pharaoh set a hunting horror to kill Atreyu and summoned a swarm of scarabs to devour Sandy.  For the past year, Atreyu had been carrying a Peruvian lucky charm he got from Nayra, the wise woman of Puno.  In an absurd moment, he managed to throw the charm over the Pharaoh's outstretched hand, which distracted him long enough for Sandy to land a shot - insignificant in damage but enough to break his power over the Red Pyramid, allowing Tommy to complete the ward.

So ended our Masks of Nyarlathotep campaign.  It definitely was not the usual experience, if Masks can be said to provide a 'usual'.  In a way, we felt like we missed out on a lot by taking the route we did, but also after nearly a year we were ready to call it finished and pursuing the various unresolved leads would feel anticlimactic.  I may, in the future, look for a way to run some of the Kenya material as its own stand-alone adventure.  The players already suggested that their characters might want to hire others to go look for Hypatia and M'weru, feeling too many lingering fears over what's unresolved, but too damaged from their experience to go address it themselves.  It could make for a fun epilogue at some point.


  1. Fantastic. Sounds like fun. Thanks for writing it up and sharing your experiences with other failed attempts at running this one!

  2. I've also run Masks of Nyarlathotep three times, with only fully completing the campaign once.

    Lots of eldritch fun, but it's a great investment of both time and energy.