The playing of Sir Ashby Phipps
So this weekend I finally managed to run the long-awaited playtest of The Perishing of Sir Ashby Phipps.
(This post is spoiler-free.)
Amongst other benefits, this means I no longer have to try and keep the details of the scenario to myself; I can actually discuss it with the close friends with whom I typically talk about all things gamey.
I was very nervous about running things. First off, in purely practical terms, it’s a really long time since I ran anything, particularly Call of Cthulhu. I think about a year. Even longer since I ran anything for this group. So I was feeling rather rusty.
Also, having spent about two years writing this scenario, obviously I had a lot of expectations and investment in it, so there was a lot of pressure for it to be worth all that effort!
And in general I don’t have a lot of self-confidence, so there’s that too.
Anyway, doubts were put thoroughly to rest by the playtest.
I ran into several early hurdles that gave me cause for concern.
The first one was that the version I’d carefully printed before travelling turned out to inexplicably omit all the text boxes. This wasn’t a huge problem, but I’d used them for a lot of marginal notes and Keeper tips, and was rather frustrated. I ended up running with my laptop instead.
The second, and the most painful, was that it turned out my players had lost their character sheets. I’d planned the scenario as a follow-up to a scenario someone else ran a couple of years ago, but we were unable to use the same characters. Rather than try to recreate them, they opted to make new characters. We kept the same theme and tone, but this meant the various little hooks and easter eggs I’d buried in the scenario were rendered useless. It didn’t really affect the game, but it was a missed opportunity and I was pretty sad about it.
The scenario basically ran very much as I’d hoped. We started fairly slowly, with lots of questioning and detective-like behaviour. They obviously had several notions that they quickly quashed as evidence came to light. To my delight, I was able to drop in bits of foreshadowing without anyone immediately leaping on them and obsessively chasing them down (always a concern), which meant the later realisations and revelations were much sweeter.
The research section was something I was a little concerned about, but it worked out well. They asked specific questions that I had specific answers to, and I was able to reward them with handouts. We realised that I could copy-paste handout text and send it to their various mobiles, which they seemed to really like – in the case of non-English books I sent them only the general description, and only provided the text later once they’d arranged for translation.
After a second round of follow-up questions, something clicked and they began piecing together the evidence. It was a joy and a delight to watch, as they put together exactly the deductions I’d hoped, pulling out recurring themes from their handouts and research, and making the hoped-for leaps of logic to deduce roughly what was going on. The players were clearly revelling in the feeling of being detectives (they said as much later) and for me it was just about perfect.
Interestingly, several entire strands of investigation were not followed up. They didn’t need to do so, and I was again pleased that I’d built the scenario to support multiple viable routes that allowed for a resolution.
By taking a cautious and sensible approach, the group managed to negotiate the final stages of the main scenario without provoking a confrontation. I wasn’t sure how they’d feel about this; a confrontation is a big theme of CoC scenarios, and brings a sense of closure. One of my main motivations for writing Perishing was to create a scenario where you didn’t have an obligatory confrontation as the climax of the scenario. Thankfully, the consensus was that it was satisfying to be able to step in and resolve the mystery using good sense and practical steps, before anything came to a head.
They didn’t choose to follow up leads to the epilogue section of the scenario; it’s hard to tell how much this was down to not really noticing those threads, and how much was simply lack of time. Due to living a long way from my group, running it as a single one-shot proved the most viable option. As a result we were all getting a bit tired, and running up against the six-hour barrier. Food and buses to other towns also become a concern. On the whole though, people stayed very focused and full of energy, which was really gratifying.
I do think it would work better as two or three shorter sessions, but I was very concerned that trying to run sessions weeks apart would just mean nobody remembered anything and all the immersion was broken. As it’s so reliant on investigation and gathering bits of clues, I don’t think it survives fragmentation as well as some other scenarios – it’s a downside of trying to write a subtle and information-heavy scenario.
Feedback and observations
Most of the feedback is relatively general and very positive, which is great. I recorded the session and discussion, though I won’t be making it public as not all of the group are comfortable with that. It’s still very useful to me though!
There were three main, modest points raised by the group.
Firstly, some players suggested that the very detailed setting of the first section was a little problematic. Since the climax of the scenario doesn’t take place there, they found that a little disappointing after investing in the rich setting. It also, I suspect, gave some slightly false expectations. We weren’t sure about this one. There were counter-points from other players, that people do generally tend to invest heavily in whatever they see first, and that reducing the detail might just detract from one of the big selling-points of the scenario. I said I’d consider whether anything can be done to pull some more of that detail into the later stages of the scenario.
Some players also felt I had perhaps too many NPCs in the early stages, most of whom don’t contribute extra detail. It’s a tricky one because it can feel hollow to have a country house with apparently only two occupants and one or two servants. I opted originally for multiple servants who can give slightly different perspectives, and offer different routes to similar information; I feel in some ways this is stronger than having X servants, each of whom has one clue to extract. I’m still mulling this one over.
A third point was a trick I missed with the research stage. There’s a certain pattern that players can deduce by tracking certain events (apologies for coyness!). A player rolled a 01 after asking specifically for that information, so I straight-up explained to her what the pattern was and its implications. The scenario suggests this is a series of two or three rolls or follow-up questions.
She pointed out afterwards that although it rewards the roll, what it also does is remove the opportunity for the player to discover the pattern for themselves and get that feeling of being a real-life detective. Instead, she suggested I provide a map and a list of locations, which the players can use to map it out themselves and draw the correct conclusions. It’s a great idea (wish I’d thought of it!) and I’ll certainly be adding that to the scenario.
It was also suggested that I need to draw out an accurate timeline of events, and that’s true, I probably should.
So, I played the game with the group it was written for. It was a huge success and I am made up as anything. What now?
Well, I do want to try and get this beast published. I could self-publish it of course (though Monographs are no more, alas) but that can be hard work, personally expensive, and also will result in a relatively low-quality product. I have no illusions about my ability to provide plans, maps and illustrations of the calibre people generally seem to want. So ideally I’d like to find a publisher who will be able to find artists and cartographers, and provide an awesome layout, and all that sort of thing.
Letting aside the difficulty of actually finding such a person – one playtest by the author isn’t a huge sample. So I’m now looking out for people interested in running the scenario themselves, and prepared to record sessions and get feedback from their players. Do give me a shout if you’re interested.