Masks of Nyarlathotep

Last night we wrapped up Masks of Nyarlathotep. It was certainly the most challenging and satisfying campaign I’ve ever run and for those of us who GM Call of Cthulhu, running it is sort of a capstone/bucket list sort of endeavour. I’m feeling rather chuffed and I thought I’d offer some thoughts.

We did our session zero in December of 2020. We were running bi-weekly and there were many many cancellations, about evenly divided between having more than two players out and me being fried for various work-related reasons (I was dealing with a major project that continually went off the rails due to the non-IT people involved) and not being up to run. And the complication of the campaign is a big part of that. It’s easy to show up and grind out a dungeon crawl. You thrown an encounter at people and play it out and everyone’s happy. But all the moving parts. I always felt like I needed a couple of hours to figure out what was going to happen and then I needed to be pretty on point to be able to actually run it. Sometimes I was just too damned tired.

And most amazingly, everyone survived. Granted, two of the players were indefinitely insane and two of them had to blow all their luck to survive, which is a special pulp rule. But they did live, mostly due to two extremely important criticals that happened at just the right moment. That and the pulp rules in general. And when I started, I was still smarting a little I think from losing so many players when I tried to run The Dracula Dossier and I said really specifically that if you want to run this scenario, it’s incredible, but it’s a two year commitment. And all but one was able to stay and we picked up two more during the game. For the last six months, we’ve barely played because as we got closer to the end, we wanted everyone there. So last night, obviously, everyone was late, including me. And we started with one player missing who managed to log in an hour into the session, which was actually perfect timing as he was an action oriented character (gangster) and that was when the action was just about to start.

I think I did an ok job. I ran it in Pulp and my players were definitely pulpy. Some of the more fiddly and interesting political bits got glossed over in favor of “let’s go to the mansion and just kill the guy.” I could have played the NPCs a little more dangerously. One encounter that ended farcically easy did so because I neglected to notice that the NPC had a spell that protected against damage. In that instance, I gave him a “blaze of glory” since he was a major NPC and had a Hunting Horror chase the group through the back roads of rural England.

I think my biggest surprise was exactly how intimidating I found the campaign as we went through it. It’s one thing to look at the book, but I’ve run a lot of Call of Cthulhu, even if it was mostly short scenarios. And I’ve run some long campaigns–Borderlands and Griffin Mountain for Runequest. And other than the cast of revolving players, I was loving The Dracula Dossier. But there’s something about running “The Greatest RPG Campaign Ever Written” that is just plain scary. How do you do the game justice? How do you make sure that your players get the best experience because they’re probably not going to be doing a three year CoC game again and choose the same scenario?

I got a lot of help along the way. There are so many resources for Masks from the Companion to Facebook and Discord groups for Keepers. I snagged a lot of third party maps, though I mostly stuck with the ones from the book. But far more than anything else, the Dark Adventure Theatre production of Masks of Nyarlathotep–a mock 1930s radio play produced by the HP Lovecraft Historical Society–was by far the most helpful. I’d listen to each chapter before I ran that particular segment of the campaign. It gave me a sense of the overall shape as well as particular angles to take the NPCs. The depiction of Robert Huston in Australia was pretty much taken directly from the radio play. It’s also entertaining as hell as are all the Dark Adventure series.

But it was a hell of a lot of work. Next up, we’re going to run Dragonbane/Drakar och Demoner. And a big part of that is because it’s all set up ahead of time for me in Foundry. And it’s short and easy to digest, while still being challenging and interesting. And it’s still BRP, probably a better version if we were being honest than the aging CoC rules are.