Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Retrospective: Shadows of Yog-Sothoth

Published in 1982, Shadows of Yog-Sothoth is the first separate adventure product produced for Chaosium's Call of Cthulhu roleplaying game. It's not the first adventure ever produced for the game; that honor goes to "The Haunted House," a sample scenario that's been included in the back of every edition of the game since 1981. Moreover, Shadows of Yog-Sothoth isn't a single adventure anyway but rather a collection of seven linked scenarios, each one building on the one that came before.

Shadows of Yog-Sothoth is thus an early example of the "adventure path" model so in vogue these days. The early adventures are (largely) playable independently of the others, but the later ones all assume the Investigators have completed the previous ones in order to make sense, unlike, for example, the Giant-Drow series, whose individual modules are all, well, modular. Of course, the explicit linking of seven adventures into "a global campaign to save mankind" is precisely what made this product so revolutionary in its day. Shadows of Yog-Sothoth was a complete, pre-scripted campaign in about 60 pages, giving the Keeper everything he needed to keep his players' busy for months. It's not hard to see why it was so well received by gamers and critics alike.

I know I loved it. I've probably used Shadows of Yog-Sothoth as the basis for a Call of Cthulhu campaign more times than I care to remember. This is partly the result of its being a complete campaign under two covers and partly because the campaign it offers is a terrific, globe-trotting romp from Boston to Scotland to Easter Island, filled with memorable antagonists, such as the immortal sorcerer Carl Stanford (whose name is a reference to CoC's creator Sandy Petersen, whose full name is Carl Sanford Joslyn Petersen). Along the way the Investigators get to take on a plethora of Mythos opponents, including not just Nyarlathotep but even Great Cthulhu himself. It's a heady mixture of elements that I found irresistible back in the day and pretty well defined my sense of what Call of Cthulhu was like as a game.

Nowadays, I don't think as highly of it. The individual adventures feel more than a little railroad-y in places and the overall feel of the thing has, in my opinion, more in common with pulp adventures than with H.P. Lovecraft's brooding cosmicism. Of course, for some, that's precisely the appeal and neither criticism is a fatal one. In my experience, most gamers prefer a large dollop of pulp in their CoC games and the scenarios are short and loosely written enough that their railroad tracks can easily be modified or removed entirely without doing much harm either to them or to the overall direction of the campaign.

Still, Shadows of Yog-Sothoth is an early effort and it shows. It's a "classic" product more in the sense that it came early enough in the history of Call of Cthulhu to provide a template that other products would follow and improve upon rather than being a product that still retains its power nearly three decades later. I have many fond memories of playing through it, but I don't have any desire to return to it now -- a good example of where my memories of a thing are better than the thing itself.


  1. How many published adventures are truly railroad-y anyway? Isn't the real problem the behaviour of a GM trying to force players to follow a certain path, regardless of whether or not that's written in a module? An adventure, no matter how supposedly railroad-y, is only as inflexible as the GM running it.

  2. Shadows doesn't stand up well today, but it was a "must play" back in the day. Have some great memories leading my first CoC group through it (complete with the fantastic ending of a permanently insane character attacking Cthulhu with a butcher knife...ah, good times!).
    Read now, it shows its age as a bunch of mish-mashed parts squeezed into one ungainly whole, probably as the result of too many different writers. The separate scenarios bear little connection to each other and fail to evoke the grandeur, doom and cosmic hopelessness of future CoC classics like Masks and the Lovecraft Country series.

  3. An adventure, no matter how supposedly railroad-y, is only as inflexible as the GM running it.

    Perhaps, but I still prefer my pre-packaged adventure a bit more loosely constructed than Shadows of Yog-Sothoth, whose plot depends heavily on the characters being contacted by patron after patron in order to string them along to the next scenario. That's much too heavy handed for my tastes nowadays.

  4. Shadows doesn't stand up well today, but it was a "must play" back in the day.

    Absolutely. I adore it and I suspect that my lifelong love of CoC probably owes a lot to this product.

  5. I never got to play it because everyone already owned it. Its influence on all subsequent Cthulhu campaigns cannot be overestimated, however. Occasionally I'd get a new player asking "why are we taking off around the world following a trail of illegible manuscripts and bloodstained scribbles on books of matches?" and I'd have to say "because of SoYS."

    There is a point though, that the genre of investigative fiction lives on trails of clues and whether you think of Hansel and Gretel's breadcrumbs or railroad tracks, it's hard to get away from some sort of linearity - unless the villains are so careless that you can pick up their traces anywhere and everywhere. I'm curious how else you'd do it - location-based structures (eg Innsmouth) also exist, but they still have a mystery to be punctured, or onion-skinned, which gets you back to a sort of procedural linearity.

  6. I played this one about 12 years ago. It seemed to go well, and as a player I never felt like we were being strung along... there were clues and we picked up on them. Maybe if I were looking "behind the curtain" it would have seemed dodgy, but from a player's perspective it seemed to flow.

    Of course, after you go and defeat the main villain, you feel a little more like Ghostbusters than horror victims.

  7. ...or to put it another way, perhaps railroadiness is inevitable if you bill a game as being about investigative horror. It seems to me that Dwimmermount has plenty of Cthulhuvian elements, and could take off in that direction if the players elect to pick up the hooks, but it's not explicit that they should do so, and they have other activities - exploration and looting - to occupy their time if they leave the hooks alone. What would you do in a CoC game if you didn't follow the trail?

    That's perhaps a weakness in the genre/format, but as a trade-off you get the players' consciousness that the game is horrific and their characters will be in for trauma, which affects how scenes are received/play out: it's frustrating of John Carter becomes hysterical and cannot function, but part of the territory when Randy Carter does it. I think a reverse trade-off in D&D is the expectation that every monster is potential combat fodder, statted and designed to compete directly with the PCs on some sort of chart. Of course, you could put a squamous horror at the bottom of Dwimmermount and refuse to allow for the PCs to deal it damage with pointy things, but you'd have to do some work to tell the players that you were breaking genre, to reset their expectations.

  8. "investigative fiction... it's hard to get away from some sort of linearity - unless the villains are so careless that you can pick up their traces anywhere and everywhere."

    I like this observation a lot. From what small amount I've read & played of COC, I couldn't quite get into the game; it did in fact feel very obviously railroady to me all the time.

  9. Shadows is definitely flawed, and I wouldn't consider running it without heavy modification. It did, however, set out a template for the "classic" CoC campaign, which was perfected a few years later with the much more freeform Masks of Nyarlathotep.

    I'd love to see your thoughts on Masks, as it is generally considered the greatest campaign this hobby has produced. The Enemy Within for WFRP, and The Great Pendragon Campaign, are often spoken of as contenders for that title, so it would be interesting to see you discuss those too.

  10. Delta,

    I was actually posting about just that a few days ago.

    I have just finished playing Beyond Mountains of Madness, and it was very railroady. The thing is that if you play investigative play, there must be tracks laid down, so to speak, for there to be anything to investigate.

    I know that when someone did a poll on Dragonsfoot a while back, I realized that many old schoolers there don't seem to try to "get inside the head" of their character, and I think that is almost a must for successful CoC gaming. Interacting with other characters from within the psychology of your player character is very central to CoC, I think. When you do that, it's very tempting to design a campaign as "directed", since it's felt that's not hindering that kind of "inner play".

    Well, that's an hypothesis of mine.

    Regarding the other "greats" for WHFRP and Pendragon. Those two are very railroady sometimes...

  11. There seems to be a suggestion in these comments that CoC is somehow, by definition, a game heavy on railroading, and I'm not sure that's the case. I've been in games where the direction of the plot has been forced, but those have been almost exclusively as a result of bad GMing than a fault of the genre.

  12. Another vote for Masks of Nyarlathotep as being the greatest published scenario of all time. I wish they'd reissue it, my copy fell victim to an idiotic purge of most of my collection a few years ago.

  13. tedopon, there's a Masks companion volume on the way sometime this year or the next, and the smart money is on the campaign getting a re-release to, er, accompany the new book.

    Just another thought on "railroading"; to me, a good mystery is almost a sandbox type setup. The players have access to all the clues and witnesses, etc, but it's up to them to put these resources in the right order and to make sense of them. Just because a mystery has a single end point (and even that's not a given), it doesn't mean that there's a single path to it.

  14. FWIW You can get the PDF for Masks from the Chaosium site.

  15. a good mystery is almost a sandbox type setup. The players have access to all the clues and witnesses, etc
    Again, I think that's a question of genre: what you're describing is a classic Agatha Christie murder mystery, which is usually constrained to a single location and has clear victory conditions (find the murderer) established at the start. The gumshoe (eg Raymond Chandler) genre follows much more a trail of crumbs format, where the nature and scope of the mystery only become apparent after a number of crumbs have been picked up (no doubt somebody out there has written a really thoughtful paper on this: pardon my neophyte fumbling). Writing this is making me wonder how much of the published CoC stuff follows an Agatha model and how much follows Ray: my first guess is it's mostly Ray, but there are all those haunted house scenarios, too.

  16. I could swear someone who comments on this blog wrote an extremely relevant article on this. Was it Alexander? He wrote about a “five clues” model (IIRC) for using mysteries in tabletop roleplaying. Assuming basically that PCs will not necessarily find any given clue, so you need to put out multiples, to give them a better chance of figuring out the mystery without having to railroad them. I think it was on his personal website though, and Google is not finding it. Anyone else recall?

    Word verification: "silly" = what I am, for not having saved a link to that web page. There was some good stuff on there.

  17. I recently thought up a way to do Cthulhu--or any mystery set-up-- without too much railroading, basically:

    Give the PCs massive amounts of information at the start, i.e. "there's a cult, here are the (12-ish) known members, they live here, here, and here. You're probably going to want to try to foil their world-ending scheme, which culminates on (some date) and in order to do so you must gather information from all possible sources."

    And after that, it's all them.

    The pcs can investigate the targets any way they want and in any order, and the DM has to figure out how their investigation of cultist B affects subsequent attempts to investigate cultist A, etc. etc.

  18. Zak, exactly, and that's more or less the format of Masks.

    Shimrod, it's the "three clue rule", and you can find it here.

    Both are examples of what I was talking about above, which is to give the players access to all the information, and let them work it out. A big heap of clues is little different to a sandbox hexmap, really.

  19. But in Call of Cthulhu isn't it a given?

    There is inevitably going to be cultists, some kind of monster/evil they want to summon, and um, a place they're going to do it.

  20. Raillroadiness, or linearity is natural and can not be avoided. In life, we choose paths. The real difference between a lienar campaign, which is a bad thing, and real life, is that in real life we have a choice as to which path to take (or the illusion of choice) and in D&D a bad DM forces the players along a certain path. A good sandbox setting is not about fleshing out the setting and then having players move across it, but giving players real opportunity to make decisons avbout what the player charcaters can do and where they will go. Oh, they will choose an adventure path and will pursue it, the question is, which one and how. A well fleshed out setting allows the players to do that with minimum of hassle for the DM. But more so, a good setting facilitates better adventure writing. A DM designs a 12 level Dungeon and the players want to go someplace else. End of story. Too narrow setting. A DM describes a forested tract of terrain that will have in it a large marsh, several thickets, a Gypsy village that hides a band of thieves, and an old tower. None of this information is revealed to the players unless they show interest in the forest and start asking about it. Later on, players have to pursue an enemy. Now the DM has a lot of choice. If the bad guy i an Outlaw, s/he can hide with the Gypsies. If the guy a high level NPC who knows the area like a back of his hand, s/he will hide out in the swamp. An NPC with a band of orcs or other hirelings can hide their camp in a thicket or take over the old tower. The setting ws always there, now it's an adventure, espcially with the players trying to figure out the DMs design using their own resources. How are they going to find the bad guy? That's the sandbox.

  21. Chris T

    The major difference in the nonlinear design I talked about is not the plot, but the fact that there's no order in which things have to happen and almost no actions the characters MUST take or clues they MUST find and each encounter can influence the next in any way.

    In a more railroad-y campaign each encounter can only lead to a limited number of others. In this one, twelve villains and their milieus can be tackled in any number of ways and the overall story changes accordingly.

  22. I'd love to see your thoughts on Masks, as it is generally considered the greatest campaign this hobby has produced. The Enemy Within for WFRP, and The Great Pendragon Campaign, are often spoken of as contenders for that title, so it would be interesting to see you discuss those too.

    I plan to get round to them all at some point. FWIW, I do consider Masks of Nyarlathotep to be one of the greatest pre-fab campaigns ever put to paper. It's a good example of an "old school adventure path" done superbly.

  23. I did manage to collect some of my thought on the matter over here and I guess it's ironic that I end with Masks as something special as well. I really need to get hold of that one of these days.

    BTW, I do consider The Enemy Within to be far less stellar than its reputation. The NPCs in it are excellent, and the scheming they do is cool, but taken as a whole I'm not that impressed.

  24. Shadows of Yog-sothoth is definitely flawed for many reasons. It is though, one of the few campaigns that I have played through. Nevertheless, I really wish that Chaosium had the means to produce a real edition which would have involved a full rewrite and restructuring.