Creating an Eternal Lies One-Shot

Eternal Liesby Ruth, aka CthulhuChick

As someone who’d begun running Trail of Cthulhu this past year, Eternal Lies was already a temptation before I learned that my good friend Leah Huete would be doing some of the artwork. After that it became a must-buy and I began planning how I would run it. Unlike some Trail supplements, EL is a long campaign. Besides having a busy work/grad school semester ahead of me, I wasn’t sure I could find the players to commit, but about a dozen friends indicated their interest in playing at GenCon. So, I set about creating a 4-hour con game which would capture a snapshot of Eternal Lies without spoiling the campaign for the players, should they ever be interested.

I realized that to create a satisfying one-shot, I should use the materials to create 1) a problem, 2) a complication 3) a threat/red-herring and 4) a bizarre complication (the dream), 5) hints at a solution, 6) the horrifying reveal and final battle, and tie them all together into a simple plot.

SPOILER ALERT: If you don’t want to know anything at all about the adventures in Eternal Lies, best skip the rest of this post.

First, I discarded the introductory frame story. This was no longer about a group of investigators who’ve been called in to help a wealthy woman uncover her father’s secrets. I made the adventure take place entirely in the environs of Savannah and created a character, Hierald Mendez, whom the investigators owed a favor. Two years earlier, at the 1929 Barcelona International Exposition, they had all teamed up to fight an entity which was preying on unwary tourists. Detective Mendez, of the Savannah police department, had saved their lives in an unspecified way which left him without the use of his left hand.

Second, I made the withdrawal from Nectar a bit more dramatic. Savannah had seen a rash of disappearances–housewives, businessmen, factory workers (even though this was the Depression), and vagrants. Now junkies suffering from withdrawal were being found wandering naked back into town. Just 6 so far, but their symptoms were disturbing and they had to be drugged, with a possible lobotomy lurking in their future. This was enough to bring the investigators into Joy Grove, where they would meet up with Henslowe, who was terrified that the Mouth was talking again.

Third, I changed the backstory so that Edgar Job was dead and Samson Trammel had moved back South to live in Georgia. I gave them a shared tie with Henslowe and the two dead investigators at Miskatonic Business School, so that Trammel would have a reason to have Irish bodyguards (since the Mexican ones suited to California would not fit in well in Georgia). I cut out Ramon Echavarria entirely.

Outline of the Game

1) Savannah on the Ground

Sets up the problem, the connection with Mendez, and the need for the investigators to visit Joy Grove. When they arrived, I took a survey of which weapons and special objects any of them were carrying and gave them three choices of places to stay–a ritzy place in the good part of town (credit rating 5-7) with medium privacy, a nice bed-and-breakfast on the edge of town with a solicitous couple as hosts (credit rating 3-7), and a cheap hotel in a bad part of town where nobody pays too much attention to anyone (credit rating 1-7).

For later use, I researched local military establishments and discovered that Savannah’s Ft. Screven had its large guns decommissioned between WWI, when it was active, and WWII, when it was used for training. I decided that a great deal of its ordinance would end up in the basement of the central police station, so that the players would have reasonable access to explosives.

2) Joy Grove

Played out similarly to the game, with the addition of the 6 Nectar addicts. Edward Culver attacks them on their way to visit the addicts. When they’re heading back out to meet with Dr. Keaton, Douglas Henslowe approaches them with his story about how he thought they’d closed the mouth, but it’s re-opening now. Henslowe has marked himself with a mysterious sigil (I used the alchemical symbol for brimstone here) in ink and has painted it on his cell to ward against the mouth, but it doesn’t protect the rest of the Asylum. Keaton considers this “humoring” Henslowe. As I killed off Job, he can’t be encountered, but investigators may still see mouths while sneaking off to investigate and find a bit about Job in Henslowe’s file.

3) Thugs

Played exactly as in the adventure.

4) Dreams

Played exactly as in the adventure.

5) The Ruined Job Mansion

I combined elements from Henslowe’s mansion & the ruined farm in California to create this place. It has two main clue points. First, the ruined mansion is being used to store Nectar for further distribution. The investigators can find signs that there’s been more traffic than expected here. It can be found with a simple search, since no one had anticipated people coming out there.

Second, the accountant (from California, again) can be found here living in a carriage house. Initial questioning will only uncover that he used to work for the Job family, as his father had done. Evidence collection discovered the sigil painted in inconspicuous places in the room. It also notices ledgers which Accounting reveals are for rather large sums of inflow for sales of “vials” and “jugs.” There’s a note stuck in the ledger with “Atlanta: [next week's date].” Interrogation/Intimidation will get more out of the accountant, who’s not involved in the cult but getting well-paid to handle the Nectar business.

6) Trammel’s mansion

Played much like in the adventure, but with a Southern setting. Bodyguards are Irish. At the end of the adventure, they somehow encounter a dispatch from Bangkok about the mouth there, thus removing the closure they’d worked so hard to achieve. I decided to have them recover it from Trammel’s office and get it translated later–but if they’d not gone in there, it probably would’ve floated out of the exploding house to land at someone’s feet.

I invited a dozen friends to play in two time-slots. I figured that a few wouldn’t be able to come, leaving me with maybe 5 players in each slot, or fewer. Instead, I ended up with two people in the first game, and seven in the second. Oh dear. All but two were new to the Gumshoe system.

Thanks to the guide in the back of the main Trail of Cthulhu book, I was able to outline which skills were necessary, and which were helpful, to the adventure, and work from there. I also used the fantastic Pelgrane Press Black Book character generator  to help me assign skills and save characters.

For the first game, I created two characters which covered the two major Trail archetypes. The first was a WWI veteran turned detective, to work in the necessary investigative and firearms/explosives experience. The second was a professor of occult folklore, which gave her Oral History and the rest of the useful skills the team needed. I assigned 24 investigative points to each character to make sure they could handle everything they needed to. It seems to have been a good balance, as some areas were running low at the end and others were fine.

For the second, I set the character generator to allow only 12 investigative points, as I was spreading them much more finely. I also split the skills into a number of overlapping professions: Professor of Anthropology/Journalist/Army Engineer/Alienist/Dilettante/PI/Retired Detective.

Two Very Different Runs

Not only was the two-player run a much smaller game, the players were very keyed in to the Trail premise that bringing out a gun meant someone might die. They did not want their characters to become killers and possibly have to deal with the repercussions. This made the game a bit of a challenge to run, as they were very cautious. I found myself railroading a bit at the end to hint that maybe they should check out the basement of Trammel’s mansion. I think this had to do as much with my expectations and goals for the session as with their play style.

I found the most interesting part of the two-player game their extreme caution regarding the thugs and the dream, two elements which are intended primarily to give an unsettling eerieness to the experience. The players decided that there must be a gang hunting them after the encounter with the thugs and spent the rest of the game on the run, even though I tried to convey that these ones were all locked up now. After her dream, the professor heated her knife, cauterized the mosquito bite, and drew the sigil all over her body, just to be safe. Both players were concerned about catching some sort of biting disease.

The seven-player game was much rowdier. Players brought an entire bottle of bourbon and a desire to shoot or whack things. For the most part, they went along with the planned adventure as the clues led them from one place to another. It certainly helped that I’d run the game before.

In each run, I found myself supplying extemporaneous information from the Nectar junkies, who were really just a ploy to introduce the investigators to the problem, then to Henslowe and his backstory. This lead to the on-the-fly creation of a factory, where one of them worked. It ended up proving useful in the large game, as half the party inspected the ruined Job mansion and half the factory. On the way back from the factory, I had that group encounter the thugs.

What I’d Change Next Time

My intention when writing the scenario had been to keep the exposure to the Nectar patients minimal, drug them heavily, and only use one for a brief come-on to demonstrate the sexual effects of the drug. It ended up being difficult for me to stonewall the players. While this didn’t lead to any problems, it means I need to either rethink the narrative way in which I could more forcefully stonewall them in future runs or come up with a small thread or even clue which can be garnered here. In the second game, I had a girl reference a character named Michael, who was later found at the Trammel mansion, which seemed to work.

I also realized, while playing, that this is the kind of game I’d only be truly comfortable running for friends. Because I knew my players and their boundaries and could judge their reactions, I didn’t find the sexual aspects of the Nectar problematic. I appreciated the writers’ decision to make it so passively-sexual that it could not be used as the basis for a rape. Still, when I run it for strangers, for their comfort and for mine, I will probably rewrite the one-shot to incorporate the Bangkok scenario. As a woman, I find it easier to negotiate through violence than through sexuality at a table.

Many kudos to Will Hindmarch, Jeff Tidball, and Jeremy Keller for the wealth of material they gave us to work with and to James Semple, for his score that I cycled through more times than I could count while preparing the one-shot.

Follow Ruth on Twitter at @cthulhuchick, and listen to her Weird Fiction podcast The Double Shadow.


4 Responses to “Creating an Eternal Lies One-Shot”

  1. deadorcs says:

    As one of Ruth’s players in the evening session, I have to admit, it did get a little rowdy at times. I’d never played a game in the horror genre (and I’ve been playing RPGs for 35 years), so I really didn’t have an innate feel as to the rhythm of the game.

    So I think in my case (I played an “old professor” type anthropologist – Mantooth Smythe), I fell back into a “take no gruff, shoot first, ask questions later” policy. I might be wrong, but I think I shocked Ruth a bit when I pulled my gun & flat-out plugged a thug that were threatening violence.

    Despite the occasional aggression, everyone at the table did an amazing job, and Ruth was definitely no exception. Handling a table of 7 very strong personalities is a challenge for any game master, and Ruth met that challenge with skill & enthusiasm.

    A++ Would play in Ruth’s game again. RECOMMEND. (and I expect to next GenCon – HINT HINT

    • Ruth says:

      Especially after the previous game I wasn’t quite expecting things to escalate that fast, but if you hadn’t played in horror games before (I didn’t realize that) I think you adapted quickly and well.

  2. Michael Daumen says:

    I have some players who are new to Trail and GUMSHOE, so I plan to use elements of “Death Laughs Last” from Stunning Eldritch Tales to introduce the Winstons. I may even have one tome – the only one Walter didn’t burn, as it is infected by the dust-thing that drove him mad – in the boathouse.

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