Television is rather a frightening business. But I get all the relaxation I want from my collection of model soldiers.
Peter Cushing

Sunday 30 October 2016

The Murderer of Thomas Fell

This is a chat about how our game of Trail of Cthulhu went; as I cannibalised big chunks of a published adventure, it should go without saying that HERE BE SPOILERS. If you're ever intending to play The Murderer of Thomas Fell read no further; if you're intending to run it, feel free to nick the handouts I've created. 

I am aware that a couple of my players will read this blog. I have therefore cut out any discussion of clues set up for the next adventure or comments about which bits of the adventure I fiddled to provide hooks for the future.

Scanned this from one of my old CoC Sourcebooks. 

Part I: The House

Arkham, October 29th, 1932. Branston Gibbons, broke parapsycholgist and recent arrival from blighty, and Dr Bernard Templeton, absent minded antiquarian from Miskatonic U's History Department, arrive at 239 West Curwen Street to look for their friend Thomas Fell who has bene missing for a week...

A cursory investigation of the downstairs shows some signs of disarray as though Fell has been organising something. They find lots of evidence of Thomas' interest in stelae or standing stones.

Our two brave characters are, as it turned out, almost perfect Lovecraftian protagonists. They're academically gifted, but useless. As I observed partway through the evening they've aimed for Indiana Jones but built two Marcus Brodys. Branston, for example, enters the adventure and only then realises he forgot to bring a gun and so ends up armed only with an umbrella he takes from the stand in the hall. They miss most of the important clues on the ground floor, including all of the information that would tell them that Thomas is organising an expedition - and the photographs of the expedition members. They also, crucially, miss the unused airplane tickets which would raise the question of how they got there and back.

They are astonished to find that the core of the house has been replaced with an alien landscape; obsidian rocks and an enormous tree. Branston is of the opinion that the tree is a wrong 'un and suggests electrocuting it forthwith. Bernard decides that wiring the tree to the mains of Arkham is probably not the brightest idea.

Weirdly, given the way they were played, Branston was managing to keep a grip on his sanity, while poor Dr Templeton started to fluff every Stability roll going and started to come a bit unglued at the seams. Perhaps being a bit... odd to start with provides you with some mental cushioning against Things That Should Not Be.

The upstairs is almost entirely gone; they use the vantage point to get more photos of the incredible scene before them - and notice the stairs down to the cellar are unblocked. Like good investigators, they head down to explore what lies beneath the house. 

In heading down the cellar, they missed Thomas library which was the second door at the top of the stairs. Which they totally forgot about in their rush to get down into the cellar. Honestly, for middle aged academics these guys were more like teenagers in a slasher movie. In any case, they missed all the clues from the library, including the information on the other members of the expedition and the journal that suggests that Thomas is maybe getting mixed up in things that are not good for his mental health...

The cellar provides a lot of interest, not least in terms of a rock in a birdcage. Our intrepid heroes are unable to open this birdcage and so end up carting it round with them. they are indeed still carrying it when they find a much more disturbing stele in the next little room of the cellar...

Perhaps inevitably, it is Branston who decides to take a rubbing of the stone. As he touches the surface, red lightning claws and it him and both he and Bernard feel a sudden wrenching and falling...

Part II: The Andes

This bit I'll sort of skip over for two reasons; first it will totally destroy the adventure for anyone who has not played it and secondly it's difficult to talk about with tipping people off which bits are original and which bits I retrofitted to 

Our intrepid investigators find themselves on a mountaintop, high in the Andes. A mountaintop, moreover, which has been engineered into a massive glyph for some eldritch purpose. Here they come across the remains of the expedition; some killed by human hand... others not. 

They find one poor soul being consumed by the very rock itself, being metamorphosed into something else; he begs for mercy and asks they leave him with a gun so he can end his suffering. 

They refuse. Their reasoning is that they will need the guns themselves to defend themselves from what has killed the rest of the expedition. 

Yeah, real heroic, guys.

They leave him with a knife, though. 

So that's OK.

The final confrontation goes impressively, with Bernard - hanging on to the last shred of his sanity - showing enough wherewithal to shoot the antagonist in the back after reasoning with him enough to get him to drop his guard. And Branston rips the stone needed to return them home from the still living guts of another person, showing that beneath the dilletante exterior beats the heart of a ruthlessly driven survivor

Seriously, didn't miss a beat. The parapsychologist is a sociopath.

And so the adventure ends with our heroes returned home; shaken, older, perhaps wiser. But neither of them will probably every discuss the identity of the murderer of Thomas Fell.

The game went pretty well, I think. As I mentioned in the previous post the fairly light rules set and focus on interpretation and deduction works well in an internet gaming environment. Although this first adventure is Purist Lovecraft in design - think At The Mountains of Madness - it seems clear that the group's playstyle is more Pulp - think The Dunwich Horror - so if we play again there's a good sense of how to construct the adventure. Lots of nice loose ends to play with. 

From a technical standpoint, designing the adventures for Trail of Cthulhu is an interesting challenge as you have to ensure that the clues build up a network of deducative opportunities. In designing Call of Cthulhu adventures, the key was to build the spine of the adventure and then provide multiple methods of gaining the clues needed to progress - think of it like a flow chart or Sandy Peterson's famous image of the layers of an onion. 

But because in ToC the clues are automatic, anyt attempt to write an adventure like that will create a simple linear tale which wil quite quickly become rather boring. So the trick is to design a network where each clue provides enough to allow the party to move on in the spine of the tale but not quite enough to build up a complete picture. In essence, in a Call of Cthulhu tale you're likely to arrive at the end knowing exactly what's going on; but in ToC you could arrive at the climax missing some vital bits of information - and worse, you don't know you're missing it. That is a very interesting narrative twist. 

To finish off, here's a few shots of my notebook and some of the scrawlings that pass for planning. 


  1. Sounds like a lot of fun! And, though I'm a big fan of Lovecraft, if I played a Cthulhu game I'd want it to be more Pulp in tone, too! And on that note, I'm very tempted by the Leagues of Cthulhu Kickstarter...

    1. Looks rather interesting that. But I must be good.