None More Black – review and Keeper advice

The Call of Cthulhu adventure None More Black, by Brian M. Sammons, appears in the Doors to Darkness adventure collection for the 7th edition of the classic horror game. All the adventures in the book are meant as introductory to the world and system, and this adventure succeeded very well as that. It was fun to play, with variety in the challenges and it had a very cool ending.

The adventure features an unexplained death of a young college student, Walter Resnick. He was found dead in his room at a local boarding house, after he had been missing for a few days. The characters could either be local officials, such as police, coroner and perhaps a college professor, or friends of the dead student, or alternately hired investigators who get embroiled in the cause of his death.

I can highly recommend the adventure as the first adventure for a longer campaign, as the threat isn’t overwhelming, or as a stand-alone ‘one shot’ introduction to Call of Cthulhu.

It was the first adventure for our pandemic-downtime Call of Cthulhu mini-campaign. We run two parallel groups of three characters. All the characters are part of the same detective agency, Duke & Whitlock, and we switch up the characters for the next adventure, where I will be running That Jazz Craze, from Harlem Unbound.
The other Keeper ran the Haunting for three other players.

We played four 2-hour online sessions with 2-3 players for a total of eight hours of game time. It can be done faster, as some of the investigation is optional.

Online play is an inferior experience to meeting physically, particularly when you try to build mood and atmosphere, but playing with only two or three players, which CoC is great for, enhances the online play experience, compared to four or more players.


In the following article, I will briefly go through what happened in our play-through and provide some advice and highlight areas where I noticed issues or areas for special focus, in case you are running the adventure.
The rest of the article will have spoilers. So, if you want to be a player in this story, stop reading and send the link to your Keeper!

Preparing for the adventure:

How you prepare for the first part of the adventure, depends on how you involve the investigators. As my characters were private investigators, I decided that Walter’s parents hired the investigators to establish a cause of death, because they couldn’t believe the ‘natural causes’ explanation coming from the authorities.

We’ve set our game in Springfield, Massachusetts, and so I needed to have an idea of the locations where the investigators would get the initial information: the coroner’s office, the police and the boarding house. I also needed some names of students, who were part of the ‘bad element’ Walter was involved with. I’ve written that into a document you can download and use.

One of my few points of criticism for the adventure would be that there is only one physical handout for the adventure. It would have been nice, if the adventure came with eg an autopsy report and some excerpts from the Dover journal.
If you feel like you have the time and skill, you should consider making handouts for an autopsy report and an excerpt from the Dover diary.

I also changed the timeline somewhat. I found it unrealistic that Jacob Dover had amassed enough money to buy a new car and an old property and got so many followers in only a few weeks, so I increased the timeline to three very active months. One of the reasons I found it unrealistic was also that three deaths among young – upper middle class – people in a university in three weeks, would certainly be a scandal and create significant police and public awareness – and not just “throwing the campus into a panic”. Even if it happens over three months, it would be a big problem for a college and something you could play up in the adventure, with for example a nervous rector as employer and the like.

First session: initial investigation

The characters three characters were: a war veteran up and coming bootlegger of Irish descent, a classically educated black jazz musician with an occult experience and a Brazilian immigrant struggling actor/stuntman. The group was introduced to the adventure when the client – the deceased’s parents – called the detective agency. Through that brief, they learned that he was dead, that it was explained as ‘natural causes’, but it was an explanation that the parents had a hard time accepting, as the young man was known as a cheerful healthy man who did lots of sports.

The players then went to the natural first points of interest: the coroner’s office, the police and Walter’s home. They had good luck getting details from the coroner, for example that the tongue was black. The police detective was up to his ears in another case, and was stumped on this one, so he shared the highlights, but they failed a persuade roll, so didn’t get speculative details. At the boarding house where he lived, they got to speak to the neighbor and learned that he had nightmares and was ‘out of sorts’.

They proceeded to Springfield College (which I found this really nice old postcard of), where they spoke to the administration and found some of the ‘bad company’ that he had been keeping.

They managed to get Paul Rodger’s name out of them, and they followed him back to his house, when he came by to sell this ‘new thing’ later on. At Rodger’s house, I had them notice O’shea, in a car on a stakeout. As one of the characters was an up-and-coming bootlegger middle-man, he knew of him, and he decided to go talk to O’Shea.

From him they learned that Rodgers was selling something new on the market, and the O’shea family was interested in learning more. When Rodgers goes out later in the evening on a date with his girlfriend, O’Shea follows him, but the characters investigate the house. One character decides to search for a hidden extra key, and with an extreme luck success he finds one. They enter the house and find the stash (which they grab), the hidden notes and obviously the boots. That is where we ended the scene. If I had had more time, I could have had Rodgers coming home with his girlfriend to add tension, but they had learned a lot, and were ready to move on in the adventure.

Second session: scrambling scouting mission

There were only two players for this session, and it still worked very well. The jazz musician and the boot legger decided to scout the old slaughterhouse, without doing a lot of research. They drove out there, parked the car and snuck closer. They could see a car outside, and a little bit of light from inside. They also noticed a guard wandering around outside from time to time.

In the adventure, there is very little detail about where exactly the different NPCs are and what they are doing, so I decided that there was a Blackhead outside walking the perimeter once in a while, smoking a cigarette and such, but not very worried or aware.

The characters managed to sneak up to the side of the building, and from cracks in the gate on a loading ramp they could hear the chanting and Dover’s voice ordering them around, when a Blackhead had finished his spell. They try to peek into the slaughterhouse, but they need to climb to a window up under the roof. They fail their stealth test (which they are pretty bad at), push, and are discovered. The Blackhead who was patrolling comes running, and Willis Carter, the linebacker bodyguard moves outside and starts the car to use the lights on the car.

One of the few things I found missing was a more detailed description of the slaughterhouse, which my players visited twice.

I then initiate a chase scene. Unfortunately, the bootlegger is very slow, and is quickly caught up to by the Blackhead, so they enter combat, while the not very physically impressive black academic and jazz musician runs all out down a dirt road. As I’m not that familiar with the chase rules anyway, I move into a more fluid scene.

Carter drives after the musician and the bootlegger ends up shooting the Blackhead with a .45 and crits, and he falls over dead (neatly demonstrating the lethality of guns). The musician reaches they edge of the corrals and dives into the hedges to hide, but not before he sees, over his shoulder, some shadows rise from the roof of the slaughterhouse (the Nightgaunts). Carter stops the car on the road and calmly walks in there with his .38 and finds the musician trying to hide behind a tree. He orders him to walk with his hands up back to his car, as he intends to get him back to the slaughterhouse for interrogation.

But in the meantime, the bootlegger has arrived after his struggle, and takes a shot at the bodyguard. In the confusion , the not very combat capable musician kicks the bodyguard between the legs and runs away. The two combatants trade shots, the bodyguard is winged and seeks cover behind the car, and the bootlegger uses the opportunity to run away – as he is also out of bullets. With the two characters fleeing back to their car, we end the session.

Third session: deeper investigation

To account for the missing player in the previous session, we ret-con that he was sleeping in the car. We play out a scene where the two characters come rushing back and semi-panicking shouting that he needs to get the car moving. They drive back to Springfield and catch each other up and make a plan.

The group begins by following three avenues of investigation. The boot-legger seek out O’shea to get his family’s assistance. The musician research newspapers and town hall archives and the actor/stunt man will test the Black sample on a dog.

O’shea agrees to go and meet his uncle with their information and offer and they decide to meet later. Behind the scenes, I’ve decided that Dover concludes that the people spying on him was working for the Irish mob, and he will have his Night Gaunts kill O’shea in the evening, when they are to meet.

The musician digs out a lot more information – about Dover’s family history, the transfer of title to the slaughterhouse and thereby his address.

The experiment on a stray dog was a fun – but inconclusive – avenue. He lured a dog to him and feeds it with some meat with the Black on it. I explained how it fell asleep and made the ‘dog kicks’ of a dog dreaming. And then he had to wait for several hours before it awoke. Later on, it began whining and becoming restless, which is how I tried to indicate it was addicted. No matter what, the players didn’t dare to test the drug – which is of course wise.

After digesting all the information, they go to meet O’shea, but arrives at the scene of his death, with a man raving about him dropping from the sky. This underscores the danger they are in and increases the pressure on them.

They move on to Dover’s address and locate his apartment, which they force open. As I understood the adventure, Dover spends most nights at the Slaughterhouse, so he and Carter are not home. They find the journal, and the end of the session is the musician doing a first reading of this ‘mythos tome’, but he decides not to learn the spell Call the Black, mainly because of the additional time it would take.

Fourth session: the showdown

This time, all three characters approach the slaughterhouse stealthily in the spring rain. Now there is a guard circling the outer perimeter, and the bodyguard was sitting inside the car smoking (out of the rain). They get to the north side of the building and with a very good strength roll kick one of the old gates in. Both the bootlegger and the stunt man/actor are good with shotguns, and they kill two blackheads in the first round.

In the second round, Jacob Dover emerges from the old office and begins casting his spell and the two Nightgaunts attack, but the bootlegger manages to fight off the two Nightgaunts and the stuntman blasts Dover. At this point the bodyguard has also entered the room, and shot at the musician, who is in cover. But in the third round they gun down the two Nightgaunts, with some good rolls, and the bodyguard flees into the night, after seeing Dover gunned down.

The musician begins to search Dover’s room, as I decided the old inspection room was used as his office, and that the deed to the slaughterhouse, as well as his cash, was in there, given that there is nothing in his apartment, and he spends most of his time there. At the same time, the others search the main area.

At this point, I decide to introduce the Raw Head and Black Bones. I did that for two reasons: I think they deserve a ‘big monster’, and I felt like the fight against Dover and the Blackheads went a little too easy to be a good climax. If they had been less capable gun fighters and they had been wounded and barely made it, I think surviving the Blackheads and Dover would have been victory enough.

But as it happens, it forms out of the black ooze and bones. The musician fails his sanity roll and flees in the car parked outside. The two tough guys shoot a couple of shots, with little effect, before it glides over to the stuntman and whacks him with an average damage roll … and kills him instantly. At this point, the bootlegger runs for his life. RIP Francisco Oliveira (you can see the obit I wrote afterwards to the left, which reflects how the characters had to obfuscate the cause of death).

The musician flees to a bar and begins drinking, and he regains his memory and composure in the morning.

The two remaining detective regroup at the office. They decide to go back with gasoline and burn the slaughterhouse in the early morning, and – as it is still raining, which should keep the monster inside – I let them end the adventure with that.


There is of course a police investigation of the fire and the bodies found, but I think the police simply want to quiet things down at this point, and are happy the Black is gone, so nothing further is done, even though I’m sure they could easily figure out that the characters were involved in the shooting (see the newspaper clip at the end, for my wrap-up).

Conclusion and final thoughts

We had a lot of fun with the adventure. It is classic Call of Cthulhu investigation, but it isn’t overly complex to reach a conclusion, so it is good for players new to the game. It also has enough optional elements that it will not feel railroaded, despite it being linear from the college to the slaughterhouse.

I was perfectly happy to have the players meet the Irish mobsters and make a deal with them even after O’Shea died, but they players didn’t want to wait a couple of days – until the funeral was over to try to negotiate that deal – so they went to the slaughterhouse themselves. I think, if you introduce O’Shea, that many groups will consider allying with the mob, unless they are very upright citizen types, and having a few mob goons along means that you can really use Raw Head as a terrible foe at the same time as they face the Blackheads.

I wish that the slaughterhouse had more information about its contents and that the map of the slaughterhouse clearly indicated what was where. I also think the slaughterhouse is too small at about 50×30 feet. I regret not increasing the dimensions to double or triple the size, as I think it leaves more room for dark corners and a wild skirmish.

You can also play up the political elements of the story. Three dead college students would be a big problem anywhere. Particularly for a game with characters more tied to the institutions of the city, this could be a big factor in pushing them to resolve the situation.

As I mentioned above, it would also have been great with a couple of more handouts, as it is one of the aspects of a CoC adventure that really entertains and adds that special ‘feel’.

Next up for our mini campaign is the adventure That Jazz Craze.

I wrote a newspaper article to ‘wrap up’ the lose ends, which enables us to move on to the next episode of the mini-campaign.

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.