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I'm in the midst of creating a campaign for my CoC group. By now, most of the material we played basically came down to these endings:

a) Run away and hope whatever it was doesn't follow you anywhere. Technically, this is how Mountains of Madness and most Innsmouth stuff ended. b) Kill the head cultist or somehow interrupt whatever evil thing they did. c) Die or go insane while attempting a) or b)

It's not that it isn't climactic, or that it isn't fun or not Lovecraftian, it is that it is a repeating pattern, which bores me personally a bit. Also the group seems to acquire a "shoot, then ask" tactic when it comes to any NPC who doesn't offer candy or a surrender on the spot.

It's not that I run out of ideas for a storyline or a setting, it's how to present a climax that is not fixed on killing anything or finding a counter-spell or running away. Is there even such a thing? Am I looking at the problem from the wrong viewpoint?

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Is the boredom you mention in the context of playing end-to-end CoC campaigns, or has it set in despite interleaving with other campaigns? \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie Apr 2 '15 at 18:47
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    \$\begingroup\$ Both, but maybe boredom isn't the right word, because I'm not bored per se. It's more a feeling that, in either readily available or homebrew stories, everything falls quickly into stereotypes, especially at the storys climax. \$\endgroup\$ – Scorpio Apr 2 '15 at 20:07
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I think you think you have a problem you don't actually have. Pretty much any genre can be boiled down in the same manner you boiled down CoC. (e.g. Fantasy ends with "kill the baddie, get the reward".) Just because something is iterative doesn't mean that it also can't be varied. That said, let's try and work with practical advise to vary up the feel of your climaxes.

Antici...

The tension of any good story, but more specifically any good horror story, comes in not knowing what's coming around the corner. More importantly, knowing just enough to know that what's coming around the corner is not going to be good. I'm sure you're already well-versed in the art of ratcheting up suspense as a CoC Keeper, but it's a good thing to just drive home and focus on for your game. Small hints, very little threat, keep that other shoe up in the air for so long oh my god why won't it just drop?

By the time they get to the climax it will be a cathartic relief even if it is still just flee or die.

...pation

And the payoff is the "oh crap" moment. Every CoC game/session should have an "oh crap" moment. It's the revelation, the glimpse into the truth of what is going on where the characters (and by extension the players) realize exactly how much trouble they're in and how outclassed they are. Cause the secret about CoC and its derivatives is this: that "oh crap" moment is the climax. All that running away, or fighting the cultist, or dying horribly, that's just the wind down, the after-effects, the epilogue. CoC at its heart is an investigative game where characters carefully delve into knowledge Man Was Not Meant To Know. So that revelation, when they finally discover something, is the setpiece that your session should be built around. All that other stuff is just the release of the tension of the last several hours.

Same s@*!, different day

But that's not to say that the ending stuff has to be the same all the time, it's just that it will often follow a formula(e). But don't be afraid to vary it up. The characters run away a lot? Stick 'em in an extendable hallway scenario right out of a nightmare (The thing is chasing you and no matter how fast you run you can't seem to go anywhere!) Note that this doesn't mean you have to kill them, just vary up their experiences. The characters always want to kill the big bad cultist? That guy was actually casting spells to try to prevent a summoning of a dark eldritch monstrosity, but he was so insane that he couldn't communicate effectively to the PCs. Vary up their expectations, keep 'em guessing. Cause ultimately that's what this game is about.

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If you are running a one-shot (which may run over two or three sessions), then I am afraid the only practical outcomes are success or failure: the fortunate Investigators return to their former lives, sadder and wiser and with a few stories to tell to the few who may believe them.

But a long-term campaign needs to touch on the wide scope of the evil uncovered: after all this is a global, if not interplanetary, conspiracy. After killing the high priest and scattering his minions, the characters find on the body a letter from a priest claiming dominion over all Cthulhu-worshippersw in the country. While they are hiding from the Hastur-cultists, a band of Yog-Soggoth worshippers burn the temple to the ground. Why? Well, that's an interesting question; perhaps they could capture a cultist and ask him about the "territory wars"? And that old man they keep bumping into in the Restricted section of the library need not be either an ally or a cultist: he could be completely deranged or investigating some other Old One (or both, of course). The latter possibility is the more interesting. He might ask the party for help; even if his interest is purely academic, it will be a relief to discuss the Mythos with somebody who does not call in a doctor immediately (though that maniacal laughter is a bit worrying).

And there can be no final success. If you have orchestrated events properly, the campaign can end with the Mayor or government minister congratulating the investigators and telling them that, though the events and unfortunate deaths will be kept quiet, they have earned the gratitude of the authorities, who will be more on their guard in the future. But the inexorable Old Ones are still out there, cold and dark as the gulfs between stars. You may even wish to end by hinting that, though any sensible character has vowed to leave the Mythos well alone in future, it may not leave them alone...

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And now for something completely different...

As a GM, you've made the common assumption the cultists are competent. It's time to mix it up.

  • "Brothers of the Order of Darkness? No, that's them down the hall. They meet Tuesdays. This is the Ebon Brothers of the Darkness Order. Completely different. Bloody Brothers of the Order of Darkness...."
  • "Cultists? Damn right cultists. They stole my lawn gnomes. I had 215 of them. My retirement investment. Damn Mormons and their King in Yellow..."
  • "Why we ladies were getting in touch with the Inner Goddess. Last year our club tried yoga, but after Linda threw her back out with the Congress of the Laughing Penguin, we decided to try something less strenuous. And then Ernestine found this darling bookshop and...
  • "Guys gotta help me. I know that I'm a stinkin' cultist, but... there was a mix-up of luggage. Some poor shmuck has a set of cursed magic items and is wandering around Las Vegas. We gotta find them before dawn!"

CoC can be really dark, so there's nothing wrong with a one-shot to lighten the mood. Have lots of incompetents all looking for the same dangerous McGuffin, getting in the way. Have them accidentally summon completely incompetent critters that really just want to go home, and who will give the PC's rewards if they just get them the heck out of this wacky planet before they explode. Have the undead who have been scaring everyone just want to clean up and take care of the graveyard without these pesky kids chanting all hours of the night and getting black candle wax on headstones.

Give murderhobos other options:

Have a case where winning doesn't mean killing someone. Maybe to solve the problem the PC's just have to

  • Switch out the ancient ceremonial knife for a harmless ginzu knife.
  • Redraw the crop circle backwards to tell the aliens to go home.
  • Get Big Bad 1 to eat Big Bad 2. Or Cult A to attack Cult B.
  • Explain to the teenage kids that this isn't just a game they're playing.

If your cases can only be solved by violence, then that's all that gets rewarded, and that's all you'll see.

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