Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Retrospective: Masks of Nyarlathotep

Masks of Nyarlathotep has often been called the greatest adventure ever written for any roleplaying game and such praise is not undeserved. Published in 1984 for Chaosium's Call of Cthulhu, Masks might be called "an Adventure Path done right." Starting with a scenario set in New York City, when an old friend of the Investigators asks for assistance shortly before his suspicious murder, the adventure soon takes on global proportions, with clues pointing to London, Cairo, Kenya, and Shanghai. In each city, the Investigators gather more clues about the actions of a cult dedicated to the Crawling Chaos and seeking to usher in the reign of the Great Old Ones upon the Earth.

Two things, in my opinion, make Masks stand out. First, once the New York scenario is completed, there is no single "right" way to proceed. The players may choose to pursue any of the clues they've amassed anywhere around the world. There's no expectation that the London scenario will immediately follow the New York one, for example. This gives a great deal of freedom to the players, something that's essential in investigative scenarios if they're to avoid feeling like railroads. Second, while there is a "ticking clock" to keep the Investigators moving briskly to defeat the cult of Nyarlathotep, it's a long enough one that they can afford to take their time and undertake their investigations thoroughly. As in most Call of Cthulhu adventures, it pays to be methodical and hunt down every scrap of information you can get your hands on. Knowledge is more than power; it's the key to life and death.

Of course, the flexibility and open-endedness of Masks comes with a price: it's a very complex adventure for the Keeper to run. There are five different "main" scenarios in total, each of which includes many minor and side adventures the players might choose to undertake. Likewise, the interconnections between the scenarios, as well as with the overall arching plot of the cultists, are many and take some effort to keep straight. There are dozens of NPCs too, most of whom have secrets of their own. The end result is a massive, occasionally bewildering adventure that, if handled properly, is arguably one of the most interesting adventures the hobby has ever produced and certainly one of the best ever produced for Call of Cthulhu. Handled by an inexperienced or untalented Keeper, though, Masks is likely a recipe for disaster.

Still, I count myself among the many admirers of this adventure. I called it an "Adventure Path done right" above and I firmly believe that. Rather than having a single path from scenario to scenario, players are free to take whatever route they deem best. Investigative scenarios are very prone to railroading and often founder on a single undiscovered clue. By providing such an open-ended structure, players won't feel as if their actions are dictated by the plot nor should they run into many brick walls. Consequently, Masks has an almost sandbox-like quality to it, making it superior to most other Call of Cthulhu offerings, including Shadows of Yog-Sothoth. It's a very demanding format, both to produce and to run, which is why I suspect so few products have followed in its footsteps. That's a pity, because Masks ably takes full advantage of all the qualities that make roleplaying games unlike most other forms of entertainment, most especially the ability of the referee to improvise based on what he already knows about the overall scenario.

If I have any real complaints about Masks of Nyarlathotep it's that, like so many Call of Cthulhu adventures, it doesn't feel particularly Lovecraftian. Sure, the bad guys serve Nyarlathotep and there are lots of Mythos-related tomes and creatures to be encountered, but the whole things feels more like a pulp serial or an Indiana Jones movie than an exercise in cosmic horror. I'm willing to overlook that, since I'm not convinced that cosmic horror would actually be all that fun to play and because Masks is such a brilliant adventure in its own right, so brilliant that, it's definitely deserving of the accolades it receives in many quarters. Is it the best adventure ever written? That's really hard to say, since tastes -- even my own -- vary, but it's without a doubt in contention for the title and well worth a look if you've never had the chance to do so.


  1. I (badly) ran Masks for my friend Mike who later went off to work in animation at Universal Studios. It was later that Mike met Larry DiTillio who was writing for them at the time. I think Mike hit it off with Larry when he told him that he'd played Masks of Nyarlathotep and that he'd almost been driven insane by the Black Pharaoh.

  2. It's hard to pick a "greatest adventure" (In fact, the RPG field is so broad, I don't think I have the knowledge), but Masks is in the top 1%, surely. I consider it an absolute "must" for aspiring adventure writers to study, for many of the same reasons you cite. The "clue tree" format -multiple clues allowing multiple paths to the climax, thus preserving player choice- is far and away my preference for investigative adventures. And Masks is probably the best example.

  3. Definitely an excellent adventure. I ran it for my old gaming group back around 2004 and many of them still talk about it fondly to this day.

    I ran the campaign in an open-ended manner, but the group of four investigators took a pretty linear path (New York -> London -> Eqypt) as the chapters are laid out. The campaign concluded in Egypt with two investigators torn limb from limb by ghouls within the 'Bent Pyramid", the third suffering long-term insanity with a six month stay in a sanitarium, and the fourth struck permanently insane forever residing in the same sanitarium.

  4. No word of praise for Masks designer Larry DiTillio? He also wrote The Grey Knight for Pendragon and contributed to the Stormbringer line, and he wrote most of the first Citybook for Flying Buffalo. The gaming field benefited immensely from his too-brief roleplaying career.

  5. The Kenya chapter is a weak point, as it's a strange bit of railroady nonsense which seems very out of place in what is generally a very open and flexible plot. That said, I've never had a chance to run Masks; it was out of print for years, and by the time Chaosium released the revised edition, my group had just finished Horror on the Orient Express and had no stomach for another big campaign. Two transatlantic moves later, that revised copy of Masks has gone missing, and is out of print, so I couldn't run it now even if I wanted to!

    With the impending release of the fan-produced companion book, I'm hoping that the campaign will get a reprint, and I can finally run the thing! I'll have to rewrite Kenya though. ;)

  6. There was even a 'lost' chapter, set in Australia -- I don't know if it is part of the revised edition, but it was originally published in the Oz sourcebook.ounon

  7. I've played Masks 3 times under 3 different keepers. Each time the game has collapsed under its own weight, twice in the very first section. The fourth time I was asked to play I turned the keeper down because I was pretty sure the same would happen again (which it did)- and all of these keepers were all pretty good, well-established GMs. Even the very pulp-oriented GM came unstuck (this was a sort of Biggles meets Bruce Lee game). I've heard a lot of similar complaints from other people in other places, so it's not just a run of bad luck. An awful lot of people out there start playing Masks and never complete it.

    Why? I can sort of tease out three threads. First up : it's not really the game of cosmic horror that it pretends to be. The first section tips the PCs into a room full of deadly zombies. There's no lead up to this horrific sequence and the fight is so deadly that a truly Lovecraftian hero won't live through it. One player in particular was really annoyed by this. His rational man PC was really in a bind, because he couldn't explain away the living dead and that robbed the game of a lot of potential joy for him. The keeper of the pulp-oriented game felt this way as well : he felt that there was no mystery at all in the game, just a mission to collect the plot tokens to save the world.

    Second, Masks takes an awful lot of time to play through and some games just run out of time (eg the end of the academic year arrives and the group are still only in London). The keeper will have to do a lot of work as well, and if he bought Masks because he didn't have the time to create his own campaign, he may find he doesn't have the time it demands.

    Lastly, there are a lot of potential TPKs involved, some of them pretty much mandatory events. Even if you can avoid a TPK, the body count will be very high. The players' morale can suffer to such an extent that they don't want to go on.

    This said, I think that the legendary status of the campaign is now firmly established. It's aTomb of Horrors for CoC and will draw groups to it with its siren song as long as people play the game. And then there's always the matchbox...

  8. Allen,

    Too true! I thought I'd included a mention of at least his name in the retrospective, but I see now that I must have edited it out -- the dangers of posting late at night, I guess.

    Larry's name is associated with some of the best adventures ever produced for many game lines. He's one of those rare designers who's both understands what makes a good RPG adventure and how to plant the seeds for creating memorable stories with those adventures. Lots of designers err too much on one side of the equation or the other; it's a testament to Larry's skills that he got it right so often.

  9. To be fair, there are several weak spots in the adventure other than Kenya, but I'm willing to overlook them -- or at least not dwell on them -- because the overall structure of the thing mitigates them to a large extent.

  10. Yes, modern editions of Masks include the Australia scenario that wasn't in the original. I don't have any experience with it myself, so I can't really comment on it.

  11. I played through the whole thing, and it really does feel a lot more like Indiana Jones than anything Lovecraft wrote, with the result that my whole gaming group played it as a big, world-spanning, cigar-chomping, two-fisted pulp adventure. It was fun, but to this day I don't really feel like I've played Call of Cthulhu.

  12. So Masks is out of print again, eh? It always is. I was once offered to buy it, but the hand-outs had been cut out and I wasn't able to make sure it was all intact. Maybe I should have bought it. *sigh*

    My biggest problem with this is that I'd love to play it, and that's probably not going to happen. The Eternal Keeper, I am.

    Anyway. You did write James, that a truly Lovecraftian scenario might not be so fun to play. I've bought the The Dying of St Margaret's for Pelgrane's Trail of Cthulhu and it actually looks like a honest to god Lovecraftian adventure. It's supposed to be as open as Masks, which sounds nice. Is it fun? I don't know, but it at least looks damn near perfect when just reading it!

  13. Masks was the first CoC campaign I was smart enough not to buy, intending to play through it. I eventually did 10 years later and it ran out of steam. But 2 years after that, with a really experienced GM, it was fantastic. The thing is I really don't know how much of what I played was Masks. Is there a rocket in the original? I know we did the Australia section, which was Lost World goodness, and fit the generally pulpy vibe perfectly.

    In all cases, though, I found the breadcrumb trail very fragile and worrisome. As a player, if you don't know the structure/choices, it's easy to think you're running off on a tangent, especially when costly and time-consuming travel is involved. That looks great when you're reading it, but is less fun in play. It certainly didn't feel like the kind of sandbox full of hooks James describes in his Dwimmermount writeups: it felt like a bunch of opportunities to lose the thread.

    The PC death/TPK aspect OTOH is telegraphed loudly, in the CoC rules and the very first encounter. It's a message - this will likely take multiple parties to complete, there are costs even to victory. I remember one point where a TPK showed us we were succeeding. I know that's the aspect of CoC that many players find it hardest to get their heads around (myself included, sometimes), but I think it's also the aspect that makes CoC sing.

    verification word: mascess. spookiee.

  14. I've never heard of Masks before, but I wonder if this sort of adventure is impossible in D&D's level-based system? For example, if each sub-adventure allows you to level up a certain amount, then by the time you get to the 5th one, aren't you just breezing through the encounters? Certainly, this is something that a good DM could compensate for, but impossible for a publisher to compensate for. It begs the question of whether linear adventure paths are a direct result of D&D's experience system, at least from a publishing standpoint.

  15. "Is there a rocket in the original?"

    Boy is there ever!

    I've participated in a couple aborted attempts at Masks; neither got past London.

    I recently listened to a podcast of a group playing through Masks. They got all the way to the conclusion, but failed utterly to save the world because they had missed tons of clues.

    I'm very interested in running Masks with Trail of Cthulhu, since that's all about giving players as many clues as possible. There's an actual-play thread on where someone's attempting that.

    As for the zombies in New York, I'm of the same opinion--it's too much occult too soon. When/if I run Masks, I'll be toning down the occult elements in New York. For the zombies, I'll be using an idea I saw in another Masks thread and make them simply drug-crazed cultists.

  16. IIRC the zombies weren't the main issue there but the pit, which I agree is a bit of an abrupt catapult into HPL-land. In the game I played the zombies were nicely ambiguous - not obviously Romero-style but possibly not-undead zombis. Um, that's probably enough spoilers, I guess.

    Veriword: Walti. This is getting odd. What next, Harve? Sandee?

  17. Here's my write up of a Masks campaign I ran from start to finish...truly the greatest RPG experience I've ever had.

    I refer to it as a "Lovecraftian Indiana Jones Pulp novel" adventure, and that's not far from the truth. I think it would work well with a pulp adventure type of system almost as much as CoC.

    If you have each player work 2 characters, with another in reserve, the possible TPKs won't hurt as much (especially if your players, like mine, loved to split up anyway).

    I sometimes wonder at the attention level of most gamers, they speak of Masks as difficult, or impossible to follow, yet my (at the time) 15 year old younger brother managed to very efficiently keep track of all clues and adventure threads in a small notebook he kept at his side during the entire affair. Masks does require you to think and make a committment and with a enthusiastic game master (which I was, in lieu of experienced!) this can be a memorable game.

  18. Just some more praise for Larry DiTillio, who can just plain weave an interesting story. He also was one of two story editors for Beast Wars: Transformers, which also had a great story and character development. Now you've got me thinking I should get teh DVD sets to introduce it to my kids...

    Word verification: raton :>

  19. MattM, normally I'm quite happy with pdf products, but for this, I really need a hardcopy. Also, it's a massive book, and I don't really want to print it myself!

    VacuumJockey, the Australian chapter was indeed included in the 1997ish revised edition. There's a bit of general tidying up too.

    I understand the Not Lovecraftian complaints, but I'm not sure they're strictly accurate. Yes, there aren't many two-fisted globe-spanning tales of heroism in HPL's work, but The Call of Cthulhu itself has that international feel, and that story's Inspector Legrasse is on his way to being a CoC player-character. I do think there is room in Lovecraft's mythos, as written, for Masks-like adventures, even if he didn't feel like writing them hismelf. Randolph Carter aside, of course.

  20. Ah, I must be one of the lcukiest buggers out there, in that I own not one, not two, but three copies of this amazing campaign, of varying vintages.

    I must agree on it's rightness. Playing masks during my sophomore year of college in the basement of McDonough hall ushered me out of the small bubble of AD&D and AD&D2e I had created for myself in high school and early college, and introduced me to the wonder of CoC.

    We had one of those photo albums with the 'magnetic' plastic pages, provided by our keeper (Andrew, what has become of you?) where we kept all of the clues we had found. I spent more than half of each session reading and rereading them to find clues we might have missed.

    We plumbed the depths of the Juju House and incurred the wrath of the Bloody Toungue before we fled to London. Alas, that foray was doomed by time we had fled London (see a pattern?) and we perished in the hinterlands of France.

    I have run Masks 4 times now (4 groups), and only once did the players get to the end. They even managed to save the world.

    I will run it again. Take that as a promise or a threat, as you will.

  21. John: The Basic D&D box was originally intended as a starter set to introduce folks to AD&D.
    But it sold so well, they continued the line.

    Let me rephrase my question. Why, instead of continuing to use the basic set as a vehicle to sell people AD&D (as the Holmes set explicitly stated) did TSR create the parallel D&D line of product?

    I know it cost sales and caused confusion because I was retailer in the 80s. D&D modules generally did not sell well whereas new AD&D releases did.

  22. Larry was also on the original writing staff for Babylon 5 and still works in Hollywood to this day. I wish he'd return to RPG work, but there just isn't enough of a financial incentive anymore. (If there ever was.)

  23. SKelly -- not so lucky. I own five copies of the campaign. Two of the 1984 boxed set (one with the matchbook handout, the other without), the 1989 paperback reprint, the 1996 reprint that included the scenario from Terror Australis, and the 2006 hardback reprint of the 2001 revised The Complete Masks of Nyarlathotep. It must be the obsessive in me...

    Kelvingreen -- we are hoping that with the publication of the Companion, the campaign itself will be reprinted. It certainly deserves to as 2009 marks the 25th anniversary of its original publication. I am in the midst of co-editing the companion and the likelihood is that it will be larger than the campaign itself.

  24. sirlarkins -- the Bradford Players recorded their playing of The Complete Masks of Nyarlathotep, and released it on DVD along with their play of Horror on the Orient Express, another campaign that is well and truly out of print. Indeed, unlike The Complete Masks of Nyarlathotep, it has never been re-printed... Anyway, the recording of The Complete Masks of Nyarlathotep is some sixty hours long and the players do not visit all of the campaign's locations.

  25. Whew! I just finished an 8 month version of Masks using the new, probably not so Old School Trail of Cthulhu rules. We only went through the New York and Australia segments, although to be fair there were a number of sessions at sea as well!

    The freedom to go from any of the adventure locations to any other is brilliant. I was quite surprised when my players decided, barring TPKs, to go to Australia, then Shanghai, then Kenya, then Egypt, then England! It's quite an efficient route actually.

    The campaign does require study. I'm a graduate student and I found myself reading and re-reading sections like I would a meaty monograph, or perhaps a strangely written historical document. Keeping track of who knows what, where they are, and what their motivations are was a hassle!

    As written it suggests strong pulp adventure, even goofy pulp, but I worked hard to run it as weird occult noir. Our cosmic horror came from the characters whose vaguely-defined Mysterious Background got trodden on, and the one who became a skilled dreamer and beginning magician.

  26. Oh, I want to add that I purchased it as a PDF, not a print version. I like this better as I can print the sections I want as 8.5x5.5 booklets, Traveller LBB-style. For Masks, one book for each location chapter. Very convenient.

  27. Loved this campaign, although I no longer own it. Had the original box. Ran the party, think they all died in Egypt, but can't remember. Would love the opportunity to play it myself, or run it again. Probably the greatest adventure, from my perspective.

  28. The only time I ran Masks, the result was a TPK in Kenya. Someday, I'll try again.

  29. I enjoyed this little review for Masks, I'm halfway through reading it right now. I will say I don't know how far off the mark adventures like this are from what Lovecraft really wrote, I've had the chance to go through many of his stories while listening to the HPPodcraft podcast and have been surprised as to how far off my assumed mold many of his stories are. There seems to be a fight within the culture of CoC as to cosmic horror you can't stop and pulp adventure, but in the actual stories there's absolutely no rule that characters cannot overcome cosmic forces or evil characters. In fact, quite the opposite in stories such as Shadows Over Innsmouth, The Dunwich Horror, The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, and heck in Call of Cthulhu somebody drives a boat through Cthulhu to survive.