Cthulhu, horror, roleplaying, RPGs

Those Within, coming to a con near you

It has been silent here for several months. Apologies for that! There are a few new pieces of content that have been placed on hold that should have been released here a while ago, but have been held up for various reasons (life, jobs, family – the usual). However, one major project that I have been working on for the past few months has been Those Within, a scenario for 7th Edition Call of Cthulhu.

I came up with the concept for this scenario towards the end of 2016. Originally, it was an idea I was toying with for a scenario for the new Delta Green roleplaying game, release by Arc Dream Publishing. The basics were formulated from a mishmash of inspirations, including Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Faculty, The Girl With All The Gifts, and video games such as The Last Of Us. However, when Chaosium announced their scenario writing competition for Call of Cthulhu 7th edition, I saw the opportunity to try and get a scenario out there via the biggest publisher of Lovecraftian roleplaying games and I just had to seize the bull by the horns and see if I could compete with some of the best scenario writers out there.

In order to make the scenario fit with Chaosium’s call, I had to strip everything Delta Green out, which practically left the skeleton of the scenario’s core ideas and concepts behind, requiring it to be fully fleshed out again from the ground up. I decided that I wanted the players to be as isolated as possible, that I wanted the investigators to be as mundane as possible, and for the scenario to evoke that overwhelming sense of dread and cosmic horror that Lovecraft’s own fiction instils. The extent to which I managed this will be determined by how the scenario is eventually received, but I would like to think that I gave it a good shot! Nevertheless, I realise that this kind of scenario isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, so there are some elements that allow for the investigators to achieve a successful outcome. Of sorts…

The biggest issue for me before starting to write the scenario proper was where to set it. A flash of inspiration from sources currently unknown (or unremembered at least) led me to place it in a Victorian lead mining community. Originally, I was going to use Reeth in Yorkshire, but the village is surrounded rather closely by other villages and towns and wasn’t isolated enough. So I moved the setting north into Northumberland, and the village of Ninebanks, which is located out on the moors and is relatively cut off from most places. The period’s absence of cars also limits investigators’ abilities to remove themselves easily from the horrors at hand. The other aspects that caused some consternation were the cast of characters and how they all fit together in terms of their relationships and how what is taking place in the scenario actively affects them. This was quite complicated and involved a fair bit of back and forth about how I wanted them all to come across.

In addition, the big bad (which I am not going to go into here due to spoilers) needed to be changed. In the Delta Green scenario concept, agents in the 1960’s were to be investigating a commune/cult that claims it can heal the sick, but in fact is conducting experiments involving the implantation of foetal Dark Young into their members. Cue body horror, lashings of gore, and conspiracy involving Magestic-12, worshippers of Shub-Niggurath, and so on. I wanted to keep aspects of body horror in the scenario, and imperil the investigators from the outset, but Shub-Niggurath is overplayed as an enemy in Cthulhu scenarios, so eventually I settled on another option (again, no spoilers…).

The original pitch for the scenario turned out as follows:

September 1895, England – The isolated lead mining community of Ninebanks, nestled in the Northumberland moorlands, is struck down by a mysterious illness. People are changing – becoming distant, emotionless, and constantly seeking warmth. Others are sick and dying. After death, their corpses are quickly shrouded in a strange fungus rife with black fruiting bodies.

The investigators are members of this community, each with a tie to the village, whether through their husband, wife, children, or parents. They must find the source of the illness and, if they can, cure it. How they deal with this, while they and their loved ones are exposed to the infection, is at the core of the horror.

The investigation starts in media res as the annual Harvest supper takes place. As the villagers draw together, Elizabeth Northton, a local farmers wife, is taken ill and shortly afterwards dies. Her children haven’t been seen at school lately and are acting strangely. And news of a newly discovered lead mine is received with joy by most, but terror by those who know what may lurk within.

While the investigation progresses the sickness begins to spread. As they follow the clues, the investigators discover the source of the blight – a parasitic organism summoned to Earth in years past. It has been lying dormant until it was disturbed by the local mining activities. Now it is seeking out hosts to replicate and grow. Where the host is not compatible, it is killed and used as a food source, while the fungal bodies allow it to spread further afield. Where it finds a compatible host, it takes it as an incubator, from which something much more terrible will birth itself into our world. Can the investigators find a way to stop this plague before something far worse is released?

I was exceptionally surprised to find out that the pitch was selected as one eleven to be written up into full scenarios. There were over 100 pitches submitted to the competition, so to be chosen as a finalist in the first round was an amazing privilege. Now, I just had to write the damned thing up into something comprehensible and playable. I will tell no lies – writing Those Within was one of the most stressful experiences I’ve put myself through. I spent far to long playing around with the concepts and ideas I wanted to the scenario to cover than I should have spent writing. In addition, I tend to overwrite scenarios and cover multiple eventualities that a Keeper may have thrown at them by their players. The Keepers of the Woods, my previous scenario for Trail of Cthulhu, took about 6 months to write up into a full scenario from the one sheet adventure I produced for Pelgrane Press’ competition on RPG Geek. I had about a third of that time, and only 14,000 words. But through determination and lots of coffee I managed to finish it off and turn it in on time. Of course, there are bits and pieces in it that I was not entirely happy with at the point of submission, and I would love to tinker with it further, but deadlines are deadlines. Overall, however, I was satisfied that I had turned out something reasonably good.

I wasn’t expecting to be named as one of the winners who would have their scenario converted into something that would make an appearance at forthcoming conventions, so it was a bit of a shock to get an email from Mike Mason, the line editor of Call of Cthulhu, informing me that they had selected my scenario to be one of the six winners. Chaosium announced the results of the competition shortly afterwards, and it was still unbelievable that my name was up their with the others. Though they did spell my surname wrong… I guess you can’t have it all!

A huge and hearty congratulations to all the other winners from the competition too. I hope that I get a chance to play their scenarios, all of which look immensely creepy and fun.

Those Within will be available to play as a convention scenario run via Chaosium during 2017. I believe its first outing will be at Gen Con in July. If you have a chance to play or run the scenario, please do let me know how it goes!

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