Amidst the Ancient Trees – play advice & review

I ran the Call of Cthulhu (CoC) adventure Amidst the Ancient Trees from the 7th edition core rulebook by Chaosium on Roll20.

I doubt the game needs an introduction for most gamers, but CoC is a classic horror RPG where normal people – called Investigators – encounter the insanity-inducing cosmic horrors of H.P. Lovecraft’s universe and try to surviven with their lives and minds intact.

This article is one-part review and one-part advice on running the adventure, with a lengthy section on how our game went. It is one long spoiler, so if you are a player, stop reading!

A very high-level conclusion is that we had a good time. The adventure is solid, but not without flaws. It is not the classical “investigation” adventure, which is one of the reasons I picked it. It served well as a first introduction to the Mythos for the characters.

However, there are some stumbling blocks. And I probably made a mistake the way I set up the adventure. Primarily, I think the characters need stronger motivations to propel the players/characters forward towards a final conflict.

It is not a completely linear adventure, but it isn’t a sandbox either. As a Keeper, you need to make the choices available in the adventure clearer.

We had not played CoC for more than 20 years, so we were in a sense noobs, who still knew what we were getting into.

The setup

The group was me as Keeper and my three long-time friends and gaming buddies, who due to this pandemic found our games moved online, and it now made sense to play together again, despite living in opposite ends of our (albeit small) country. We made characters in advance and ran the adventure over two 3-hour sessions.

The players rolled their characters, and they were fairly mediocre, and none had a high EDU. Two did roll 80 Power, which became relevant.

tab smith
Character art one of my players found – and used the name Tab Smith.

The characters were:

 

  • A rich British dilettante living in Vermont, who had served as a liaison officer during WWI (drinking cognac and reading French poetry well behind the front)
  • A black Boston Jazz musician who owed a lot of money (motivation from the adventure)
  • A photographer of German descent who took photos for the police in Boston (and, it seemed, also more illicit photos), who wanted to get back on Harris.

So, not great woodsmen, but with some combat skills, good social skills (which they rarely needed) and good spot hidden.

Playing online

We used Roll20 as our digital tabletop but ran voice and video through Discord. I purchased the core book for CoC on Roll20 and upgraded my account to paid, which meant I saved some time setting up the adventure and taught me something about how the different assets can be used.

We could not get video and sound to reliably work on Roll20, which is why we moved to Discord.

In the first session we were on a joint call. In session two I used the bot Rythm to play music from Youtube via a Discord server. I couldn’t get the bot to play Spotify, but Youtube was quite easy. I think using a server and playing creepy music worked the best.

Short-ish recap

To help other Keepers run the adventure, it can be helpful to see how other groups went through it. Therefore you can read our version. Or you can skip down to my notes on what I liked and didn’t like, and how I would recommend adjusting it.

The group got the briefing, and one character started questioning the motivation of the kidnappers, which the sheriff answered as ‘money’, which was true. At this point I should have explained to played that he knew that Strong was a man of some means and that background, but I hadn’t picked up that he understood himself to be a local. I think it was also an initial attempt to try and figure out what the mystery was.

Harris
I used this photo for Harris.

I had found photos (mug shots from Australia) from the period to illustrate the kidnappers. It is important that the characters are able to recognize the bad guys, so I think that is important to introduce.

They were taken to the forest after their small posse had spent the morning getting ready at the dilettante’s mansion – meaning they didn’t do any kind of rumour investigation in advance. The whole hook of the adventure, I probably ran over too quickly, partly because I was conscious of game time.

They were lucky on a track roll, and advanced at a fair pace the first day and only encountered the two hunters. At night one character had a weird dream, but they didn’t notice any truck sounds.

 

Day 2

On day two they come across the track of the wounded artist, and as they can’t tell which way the track is going, they opt for going East – thus towards the camp, and agree they can go back to the Harris-track.

This is where I diverged significantly from the scenario as written. As written, they don’t get to the artist’s camp before day 3, but I couldn’t square that with a panicked wounded artist running through the woods for hours and hours at night and day. They therefore find the camp during the afternoon (before the second round of nightmares), which means they see the paintings before they had the dreams. One character had the bright idea to see which paintings seemed to be painted from memory and which were from observation, which meant he could identify which were dreams.

They opted to follow the drag marks north of the camp, and then I moved on to Night 2.

Night 2

One of the characters with nightmares got up, and was awake. He rolled an extreme success on spot hidden, and noticed Louis, the hidden servant of Gla’aki. He challenged him with the rifle he found at the artist camp, which made the servant attack. The character rolled another extreme success and did something like 24 in damage on an impaling shot. He shot him through the heart, and the servant played dead, as per the adventure. They naturally notice that he has been dead for a very long time etc. and decide to flee back to town back along their own trails. I forgot about the explosion and the weird light, though, from the dig site.

As the characters are no woodsmen, I made the very plausible call that they – instead of backtracking the whole way – end up out on the road, with the truck rumbling into sight. Here they learn some useful information, but find the driver odd and rude. I tried not to overplay it, though. He told them they were welcome at the site, but could walk.
They decide to walk to the dig site, as they might be able to catch a ride back.

Then I have another posse stumble into the road ahead of them, coming from the other side of the road. They could inform them of the sounds of gun shots during the previous night and the general direction (Harris’s cabin). This way I presented two clear choices to them (the dig site or going after the kidnappers). And this is where we ended the first session.

Second session

They chose to go the dig site, to see if they could get a ride home. On the way there, they come upon the road to the cabin and decide to investigate, making their sanity rolls as they see the same path as in their dreams and the cabin later on.

They go into the cabin, where they see the civil war outfits, an old rifle. When the photographer gets his gear set up for an amazing photo, he notices the pale blue light. They find the trap door and enter the cellar (with the big camera on a tripod). They find the coffins, and, as I share the art from the adventure, they can see a book. I rule that the coffin is open, and the pick up the book and the spine which is also in there.

coffins
The art reveals a clue. The adventure doesn’t say which coffins are open. Maybe I should have ruled that only the two coffins with occupants were closed? 

This is when the two servants emerge. The characters have a shoot first, ask questions later policy, at this point, and open fire. They discover to their chagrin that the two “zombies” don’t react as they thought to their onslaught, as the first servant played dead after getting hit. When they realise their attacks are ineffective, they flee up to the cabin and into the sunlight.
They opt out of going to the lake, and go back to the road and on to the dig site, but without reading the diary…

The group gets to the site and are able to talk their way into a conversation with foreman White. They are lured into the shed with the Turner gang and the kidnap victims. White reveals the captives (for dramatic effect) and a fight ensues. The players roll really well. One manages to escape through a window, where he begins fighting with two of the surveyors, before fleeing.

The dilettante officer knocks White down and barges into the room with the prisoners, and begin to set them free. The jazz musician, who grew up in a tough neighborhood, smashes a lit oil lantern on one opponent and sets his hair on fire. crits White with a gunshot, which I rule gives him a penalty dice due to damaged bone and sinew. Turner of course shows up, and he begins casting spells at the musician, but fails every single time, as the opposing PC has 80 in power.

Ultimately, the PCs cut the prisoners loose and smash open one of the barred windows and make their escape by stealing the truck. They return to Bennington and basically succeed, as they rescued the kidnapped girl, but fail to stop Gla’aki’s servants – and really without knowing what was going on.

Combat map element
I create a simple cabin layout in Roll20, to ensure everyone understood who was positioned where. I didn’t use grid movement as such.

 

My opinion and adventure issues

We had fun, and I think the system ran quite smoothly, despite it being the first time I’ve run a Basic game in decades.

It is not a bad adventure. It has fun action and the mood is quite cool. But it has a couple of significant problems.
The overarching problem is the loose connection between what the players have been told is the objective and the actual plot.

 

The briefing (or inciting incident) I could probably have run better. One of my players thought it would have worked better, if we had discussed they setup during character creation, and I think he is right. I just opted to have them create characters that weren’t designed for this adventure specifically. In hindsight, the other way might have been more fun.

It can seem a bit far fetched to send more or less armed civilians out to get armed kidnappers, that have shown their will to kill cops. Perhaps it would be more realistic, if Mr. Strong did the whole thing privately, offering money etc., because the cops were unable to pursue, until the Feds show up in force, because of the casualties they sustained?

My biggest failure was not spending more time on the motivations. They are not strong and dramatic enough, in my view, to propel the characters into danger, since the plot doesn’t propel the characters forward.

One of the players said, that he felt the adventure lacked a point where the story takes that clear twist from a rescue operation to a “foil the cult” plot – a point of no return for the characters.

The setup is classic horror: a group of people venture into a wilderness with one purpose but instead finds something dark and must combat it. However, there is no “point of no return” in the adventure where the characters MUST try to oppose the bad guys, to survive. They can just decide to go home or flee at any point.

The maps in the adventure aren’t that useful when running it. On the adventure map, the path seems linear, but I don’t think it is if you read the adventure. I made a flow-chart, where the road separated the kidnapper’s location from the starting point. That helped me a lot.

map coc
In Roll20 this is labled “player handout”. But it obviously isn’t, given the Legend on it… I found my own online and posted it on the Roll20 tabletop.

Can servants of Gla’aki be destroyed?

I struggled with how to handle damage to the servants. It says they are immortal in the adventure, but then why do they have HP? If you look up the stats in the rulebook, it makes no mention of them being immune to damage.

I liked that they couldn’t just destroy them with gun fire and brawling, but I assumed destroying their physical shapes will “kill” them – and that fire is effective to do that. I also began giving them penalty dice, if they had been critically injured, to reflect damage to their physical shell.

I’d be interested to hear what experienced Keepers have done, or what Lovecraftian Lore says…?

What would I do differently?

I would make some stronger motivations. Basically, by dialing the current ones up.

Verbs!
This is one of the best pieces of advice from Youtuber and game designer Matt Colville. There are good verbs and bad verbs. The original character motivations lack good verbs. 

– Harris killed your (brother, father, favourite uncle) and now you must get your revenge!

– You owe a Boston mobster 2000 dollars. If you don’t get the money it by the end of the week, he will burn your house down and break your legs, maybe kill you.

– Jane is your favourite niece, god daughter etc. You must rescue her!

To create the plot twist, from finding kidnappers to stopping Gla’aki. You could have one of the kidnapped, Jane or Arthur, show up after having fled the cabin. This should be either after finding Turner’s cabin or after the Hideout. That NPC can tell them how the surveyors have captured the artists and are digging out something unnatural from the earth and speaking of sacrifices. This could spur them into a rescue action.

The small stuff

Then there are some little things that were annoying or points I think Keepers need to consider:

  • The dig site art does not match the map. That meant I couldn’t use the art as a handout.
  • There are no role-playing tips for Jane of any kind. You need to make that up yourself.
  • There is no mention of the truck at the dig site, so I placed it there.
  • I think there is a bit of a mismatch between how the driver, James Stanton, is supposed to be role-played and the rest of the surveyors. I tried to make White a bit more distant, but not sure I succeeded.

Using Roll20

The Roll20 character sheets helped quite a bit with identifying Hard and Extreme successes.

The assets from the adventure weren’t really that helpful, as the maps contained the Keeper information, so that was disappointing. I don’t know if Chaosium converted the adventure to Roll20. If they did, it looks a bit low effort.

I made (a really ugly) map of the dig site in Roll20 (see above), just to be able to follow the action there, as there are many NPCs to keep track of.

Roll20 was great for quickly Googling a photo of that car they drive or the gun they find, and then moving it on to the screen. Playing in a historical period, where photos exist from, is an advantage when playing online.

Summary:

Amidst the Ancient Trees was a fun adventure, but with too vague motivations and nothing that propels the characters from trying to find a kidnapped girl to stopping Great Old One’s servants.

The fact that it has a limited number of paths for the characters to take, I think makes it a good introductory adventure. However, I think it needs some modification.

I could have succeeded better in creating a scary mood. But that wasn’t the adventure’s fault 🙂

It worked well on Roll20, but wasn’t fully adapted to the platform.

 

 

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