So…remember that last blog post, in which I threw aspersions and praise on Arc Dream? (Me neither, but let’s pretend!) It occurs to me that my entire take on the published investigative horror scenario might seem negative. It’s one thing to go poking at scenarios in hopes of exposing their decrepit foundations. It’s something else altogether to have anything constructive to say about what you discover.
Here is a hypothesis: the more complex a mystery is, the more simply it must be laid out for anyone other than its contriver to understand it. And yet, the tradition of classic Cthulhu-type scenarios is baroque on every level, especially in the presentation of information. It’s probably got something to do with all the flapper girls, Model T’s and other Roaring 20s semantic elements that Chaosium used to colonize our consciousness. Cthulhu games often feel like they are shooting for qualities like excess and decadence. (In fact, I’m half-tempted to get into another lecture about why investigative scenarios so disproportionately seem to happen to rich, stylish characters…certainly not to anyone who’s truly poor—unless you’re playing Cthulhu Dark or something like that—and let’s face it, not enough of you are.)
Everything in mainstream investigative horror scenarios is rich and overstuffed, especially the copy! Content may be limited by all important trigger warnings, but few ideas, characters, or words are—even extra letters are left in…outside of investigative horror scenario writers, wtf says “amongst?” (If you just indignantly said “I do!” but don’t write horror scenarios, then may I suggest that you have just found your true calling.)
Most investigative horror scenarios seem to proceed from a notion that mystery is equivalent to complexity. In terms of a good, solid investigative scenario, I would, in fact, argue for simplicity since, the GM and players will certainly complicate any mystery just by playing through it. So there’s often little justification for lengthy NPC bios, elaborate bits of cosmic lore that have no chance of coming up, or dense descriptions of places the PCs may never visit. I think that most of these ideas about mystery and complexity are derived from mystery fiction, wherein the Twist is often the thing, (just ask Chubby Checker) and the accrual of narrative material adds gravity and an air of unpredictability to the mystery.
But the GM who bought your scenario wasn’t shelling out for a collection of your short stories. They’re shelling out for a scenario that they can run at their table, and to expect them to do a lot of work to translate your short story into an RPG scenario isn’t necessarily unconscionable, but, well, I think you should feel pretty bad about it.
If I sound like I’m being that one asshole in your novel writing workshop, I apologize—because the writing is not the only thing about these scenarios that is overly busy. The graphic design often lines right up, with redundant sidebars, stat blocks, and props. The unfortunately predominant state of mind seems to be: this scenario is good, therefore it can’t be short.
As a GM, I want my scenario to be short, but deep. Give me a good clear summary of a situation and some evocative possibilities about where it might go. If you sketch it well, the GM will gratefully unroll your scenario in front of their players, and then, it is likely that everyone will have fun. But here’s the thing, in my opinion: sketch. Leave room for all of it to breathe— the players, scenario, and especially the poor GM who shelled out for your work. Your name will be sung gratefully in these parts!
As to what that sketching might look like…well, I‘ll try to get to that soon, but I am pretty certain that it will involve a magical concept known as bullet points…