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How to create a ToC scenario in 6 steps

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Any scenario needs a structure.


There are different ways to approach a scenario creation, each of them suits different Keepers' style.


Yet, ToC mechanic is integrated too deep in this process with its Core and Non-core clue mechanic.


So, although this may be a universal approach, suitable for any investigative game, I'll try to explain the process of a ToC scenario creation as I see and my use it. It takes 6 steps.


1) Generate the idea. Something your scenario will be based upon. A haunted house (The Haunting). A cult with a twist (Keepers of the woods). Something like a "Rise from the Deep" movie (Grace under preassure). Mass madness and a carnival (Tell me, have you seen the yellow sign?) and so on. Once you've got an idea - you have something to develop.


2) Brainstorm. Take a pen, a paper (or any preferrable way of fixing an information) and always carry them with you. If you come up with any idea about your scenario - write it down. I found out that most ideas come into my head right before sleep (which sometimes makes my wife laugh but sometimes can be quite annoying for her, heh) - so I try to keep a notebook near my bed.

All these notes are your Lego pieces from which you will create your game.


3) Create history. Ignore the PCs for now and write down a chain of events from the very beginning of a conflict (it can be as far as several days, weeks or even years before the moment the PCs appear) and up to its end (remember - no PCs for now! You have to know what will happen if the PCs won't intervenue at all). When you will know the story from its very beginning and to its end - it will be easier for you to create an adventure from it.


4) Assemble. This is the main part where you mix your history, your brainstorm results and PCs and their possible actions in one potion. The main ToC premise is that PCs must come to a location and get a clue there which in turn will lead them to another location where they will get another clue - and so on until the end of the story.


This means that we need two types of bricks: locations and clues which will tie them together.

So, write down a chain of locations you want your players to visit.

Then for each location create a clue that will lead PCs to the next location. This is the spine, or what is called "a critical path" - the shortest way from the beginning of an adventure to its end.


If it is easier for you - you may write the locations starting from the last.


Let's have an example.

1) The idea: Mr. White is a well-known merchant in gaslight London. His opponent. Mr. Black, is a good merchant too, but he is vile and is a cultist. They both have a conflict because of several drugstores selling opium.

Mr. Black kidnaps Mr. White's daughter and demands money and the ownership of several drug-stores in exchange for the release of the daughter, yet of course he won't do it - she will be sacrificed to summon something.


2) Brainstorm.

- catacombs under the Tower;

- opium-smokers' house;

- underground temple;

- a mirror to summon an entity;

- a spawn of Tsatogua dragging a cultist away;

- a box of ingredients to summon the Spawn;

- something else.


3) Assemble.


LOCATION 1: Introduction

A talk with Mr. White. He has already given the ransom away, but his daughter is not yet released. He has his men found one of those who took the ransom - a german marine with a scar named Mr. Seemann who likes to spend time in an opium house named "Lotos Flower" (CLUE 1 - leads to LOCATION 2).


LOCATION 2: "Lotos Flower"

Arriving here PCs find out that the marine is in a room on the 2-nd floor. On the staicase they bump into a huge black-bearded man with a box who hurriedly runs down and away. When the PCs enter the room they find the marine dead. There's a marine's notebook near is bed with an address of a book store in a poor part of London (CLUE 2 - leads to LOCATION 3).


LOCATION 3: Book Store

The store is closed, yet there's a light in the upper window. The dog starts barking somewhere nearby. The PCs enter but when they go upstairs they are nearly thrown aside by the same huge man rushing downstairs and into the cellar. The PCs run after him - but the cellar is empty exept for a huge angry dog in the corner.

Examining the room upstairs reveals the book, describing the ritual and the map of the catacombs (CLUE 3 - leads to LOCATION 4)


LOCATION 4: Catacombs

The PCs go into the cellar, negotiate with a dog and find that some crates in the corner are movable. They move them and get into the catacombs.

In the catacombs they move lower and lower, and find a breach in the wall that leads even deeper - according to the map that's som old Tower dungeons.

They go deeper and find tha ancient Temple. (No clue - ONE WAY ROAD to LOCATION 5)


LOCATION 5: Temple

Here PCs find a group of cultists (including a big bearded man who is Mr. Black of course) who are going to sacrifice a drugged young girl (daughter) to summon a Spawn using ingredients from the box. A final fight ensues, a creature is summoned (after sacrificing a girl or if the PCs killed a cultist near the mirror) and them the PCs return back.



This was the spine and the critical path on an adventure which consisted of locations and clues which in ToC are called Core Clues.


To colour it up a little wi should add some Non-Core clues in each location.


LOCATION 1: Introduction. Here we may get a non-core clue: a discription of Mr. Black as a big strong bearded man, ruthless and violent.


LOCATION 2: "Lotos Flower". Here we can get some more non-core clues: a big footprint in a pool of blood will link the murder to a big man on the stairs (as well as some information of a way the marine is killed - a mega-strong knife punch right in the heart), and a square print in a dust on the wardrobe will link it to a box.


LOCATION 3: Book Store. This location can give us a whole bunch of non-core clues: a disription of a ritual will tell us that time is short and that a sacrifice as well as some ingredients are needed. The maps will tell us of an undergroung temple and Tower dungeons. The bookshop itself can tell us that it's owner is some Mr. Blook and his clothes can tell that he is a very big man indeed. We can also leave a bloodied knife in a kitchen sink just to confirm players' suggestions.

A book can also give ideas as to what the PCs can meet and how to defeat the Spawn.


LOCATION 4: Catacombs and  LOCATION 5: Temple may contain no additional clues, but we can plant two combat encounters here: one with several thugs guarding the breach in the wall, another with cultists near the temple. 


Now as we have the spine and places Core and Non-core Clues we can assign different abilities which will reveal these clues (CLUE 1 is given with no ability use. CLUE 2 may be obtained with a Language: German use CLUE 3 may be recieved by Library Use or Archeology or History. 

Non-core clues can be assigned ther abilities as needed.


So, we have a basic ToC-based adventure.


Of course it is linear and railroady as hell. Of course it can be fixed a little. It is owr step 4.


5) Expand. Think of at least 2 other clues that can lead you to each of locations 3-5 (going from Location 1 to Location 2 is a plot start), and think about places where they can be obtained.


Say, LOCATION 3: Book Store can be reached by investigating into Mr. Black's property (CLUE 2b) or by chasing Mr. Black (on foot or by cab) (not exactly CLUE 2c, but close). In this case CLUE 2b can be obtained in some LOCATION 2b: Hall of records.


LOCATION 4: Catacombs can be found by investigating a London smuggling underground (CLUE 3b) or by reading a newspaper which tells about a recent downfall at some street near Tower (CLUE 3c).


This is a 3-clue rule. In ToC a "failed-roll chokepoint" is not a problem, so here it will help us expand the plot and create some more alternative ways to reach the end.


Also feel free to put any clues not stricktly in the previous location - but earlier (a clue to location 12 may be found in location 8) or place several clues in one location. The locations themselves also don't need to follow each other in numerical order (Location 10 can lead to locations 11, 12 and 13, where locations 12 and 13 can lead to location 14 while location 11 can lead to location 15 - and both locations 15 and 14 can lead to location 16 and the climax of an adventure).


Of course don't forget about Stability rolls, shattering of Pillars of Sanity an Sanity itself - they may not be crucial for plot development, but they can be crucial for game process.


6) Review. After you have created all this - take a closer look at your plot once more. Erase incostistences and plot holes. Add more characters and places (as well as clues). Make it richer and more vivid.

Then review it once again.

And again.

And again.

And keep reviewing it right until the game itself.

And even after the game - write down all the ideas that appeared during the game (be sure - they will) and review your scenario again to make it even better.



Pfff. English is not my native language so that was a lot of writning. Sorry for possible mistakes =)


If anybody has any other suggestions on writing ToC scenarios - your ideas are deeply appreciated.


PS: the plot above is a real mini-adventure I kept 4 or 5 years ago. The funny thing of it was that its structure was based on a starter D&D scenario "Crypt of the Smoke Dragon" (can be downloaded for free here)

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Very nice expose and detail, Vincent VV !

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Tony Williams

I think the approach is valid for CoC also ( in fact any investigative game ). Some rule-specific things would need to be tweaked ( SAN rolls vs. Stability tests, which CoC skill to use vs. ToC ability ). ToC's Core Clue vs. Non-Core Clue differential  will help highlight to CoC scenario designers which clues they should not hide behind difficult CoC skill tests so as to not cause a deadend if the players roll badly.


When flowcharting the scene structure I also think it is best to start at the last scene and work backwards:

What is this scene ? How do the players learn about the existence of this scene (the clue) ? Which clue leads to this scene ? Which scene holds this clue ? And so on, backwards, until you get to the first scene.


There are two nuances to add to the approach: what Robin Laws terms "Leveraged Clues" and "Floating Clues" ( not terms for actual clue mechanics in ToC, more terms for design types ).


The players need to obtain a "Leveraged Clue" to then use against a previously encountered person/object/scene to bring out the "real" clue ( an obvious example is finding out someone is doing something shifty which you can then go back and blackmail them into revealing the "real" ToC clue ).


A "Floating Clue" is a clue the Keeper withholds until he/she thinks it is an appropriate time to drop on the players ( perhaps the players need to have achieved certain tasks or obtained certain items before the Keeper thinks they should progress via the Floating Clue ).


It seems like after your initial scepticism of ToC you are embracing the system, Vin.

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@chicklewis - thanks. i hope it will be of some help to somebody. =)


@Tony - yes, you are pretty right about leveraged and floating clues - I thought about including them in the description but then decided that it would have brought too many complications and the neÑessity of additional notes and clearances. So I ended up with just basics. 


I also did not cover more global questions as the whole "How to design a Cthulhu adventure" thing needs a rather big article, not a small thread. =) But if such topic is neÑessary here (after all those Stealing Cthulhu and other professional things) - well, I can give it a try although it can be a real challenge for my linguistics. =)


ps Not that I fully embrace ToC - I still haven't played using it, because of my too slow pace with preparing the adventures - but for now I'm strongly oriented on playing either Dead Light or Keepers of the woods using ToC. After it I would be able to compare it to other systems I studied, including my homemade one - and then finally we would be able to talk about "embracing". I promise to write my first impressions and experieces with ToC to you in PM first, before posting them in some topic. =))


pps heh... "embracing the system" looks like "embracing the sacred knowledge". Is cult of Cthulhu really real? =)))

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Very Useful! I'll have to bookmark this! ;)

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Very nice. My main system is rather different, having evolved from something to yours after many years, although I do also use yours.


1) Learn about the subject. Read Lovecraft, around Lovecraft, read history, listen to podcasts.

  All Lovecraft, Ken & Robin, HPL Literary Podcast, Fortean Times, Ligotti, Harman, Grau, Barron, ...

2) Have a basic idea and relate it back to what you know.

  What if the PCs were English magicians and got their power from Ley Lines?

3) Run the thing.

  Use the template from Improv: be obvious, try not to say no, reincorporate. Have a list of names for NPCs.

4) Use what the players say and their characters do to inspire situations and the actions of their antagonists.

  The character sheets with the sources of stability, pillars of sanity and drives provides a massive amount of targets for the Keeper. G

5) Use time between sessions, tea breaks etc, to return to 2)

  Takes notes of what's going on, give NPCs motivations.

6) Try to change things round and introduce uncertainty. Don't use Lovecraftian names directly unless you really have to.

  Use the alternate Mythos Gods (ToC p88). Describe things instead of naming them. Have cultists talk in weird incomprehensible ways. Undermine the normal.

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My Lazy Man's Guide is as follows:


1. Watch Dateline Mysteries, 48 Hours Mystery, First 48, etc etc and note down those you found interesting.

2. Change the means, motive or opportunity for the murder to something supernatural. 

3. Run the scenario.

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Very good breakdown.

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