Wednesday, March 25, 2009


Do you have a campaign or gaming session that, even after many years, sticks out in your mind? The one you and your buddies like to mull over when you are deep in your cups on a hot summer night, "Ah yes, remember when...?" The one you wish all the rest could be like...even if you know deep in your heart it was so perfect that you could never again approach that?

I've had a few really fun campaigns over the years, ones that went over and above what you get out of gaming with friends..some that come to mind are my AD&D Ruins of Undermountain campaign that lasted about 2 and a half years that involved about a dozen players, over 30 characters, and never left the walls of the City of Waterdeep but twice in all that time period; the Villains and Vigilantes campaign I ran in the 80s that was the absolute antithesis of anything superhero long before it was "hip" for comics to do so (the group was led by a 12 year old megagenius and they killed all their defeated bad guys to prevent any recurring foes); the "all brothers" AD&D Forgotten Realms campaign I ran in the early 90s that had myself and my two brothers gaming every Monday night from dusk until dawn for a couple years. Maybe a few others. But the #1 campaign I ever ran was Call of Cthulhu's Masks of Nyarlathotep in 1985/86.

Now, at this point of the 21st century, Masks' greatness is not a secret. It has long been discovered by the masses, reviewed, lauded, and called not only the best CoC supplement ever, but possibly the best all around RPG supplement ever (Rick Swan's Guide to Roleplaying was the first to name it thus, but many have followed). It is epic in the way only a few published campaigns have been epic before or since. A true world-spanning adventure, it is like a Lovecraftian Indiana Jones pulp novel, with separate chapters for New York, London, Cairo, Kenya and Shanghai (this was before the "lost" Australian chapter was added) as the characters rush around the world to prevent...well, the end of the world, of course. An ill-fated expedition to Africa by dilettante Carlyle and his entourage turned into an unspeakably evil ceremony and may hold the key to releasing Nyarlathotep's full power on earth, unless the lost members can be located and the evil plan discovered in time. The players travel around the globe, finding clues and the means to stop the evil plan, and end up in Shanghai for the spectacular denouement in a live volcano of all places (think James Bond, Lovecraft, Doc Savage and Astonishing Tales pulps all rolled into one....)

I won't go into too much detail since I assume most gamers are at least passing familiar with this incredible campaign by Larry DiTillio and Lynn Willis, and I don't want to ruin anything for those who hope go play in it someday. The original box set was a thing of beauty, with separate books for each location/chapter, each crammed full of detailed Mythos goodness. I had purchased this as soon as it came out in 1984, because at the time I had a CoC group that would meet on the occasions when my youngest brother Matt came into town on vacation (he and my mother moved to South Texas after I graduated high school, and I only saw him on holidays and during the summer). Along with my other brother and who ever we could rope into playing, we managed to work our way through Shadows of Yog Sothoth and several other stand alone adventures in the early 80s(the entirety of The Asylum was one such endeavor). Unfortunately it remained somewhat of a guilty pleasure since I couldn't get anyone except for my youngest brother (also a huge Lovecraft fan) to play it on a regular basis (most of my D&D buddies were terrible CoC players, going through characters like crazy, as they tended to play gangsters, private eyes and ex-WWI vets so as to load up on guns...which as any CoC veteran knows, is not going to help a whole lot)

Anyway, I bought and read through Masks when it came out and was pretty excited...I started working up a campaign in a notebook, and made notes on and off for the next year or so. On one of his visits I told my brother Matt about the campaign, showing him the box and books, and he got excited too. So we decided to tackle it the next time he was up for the holidays. I ended up getting some cheap "mood music" cassettes of African, Chinese, Egyptian to play in the background during the various chapters, along with a few old 1920 National Geographics for visual aids (the first time I had ever done something like that). The African music actually got to be quite the favorite by the time we finished, and the mags got a workout too, as I used several old, grainy B&W photos to illustrate locations. Nowadays such props are looked on as essential, but these were quite the novelty back in the mid 80s, and much appreciated by the players.

So we started Masks during Thanksgiving holiday (everyone rolled up characters that weekend and I set up the adventure), then when Christmas break came the next month we played nearly every day for two weeks. The group consisted of five people (one guy attended every other session or so because of work commitments); the other four were there until the bitter end. Sensing some deaths on the road to Shanghai, I had the group roll up three characters each (except for my younger brother, I had him pick from his stable of CoC characters, admonishing him of the difficulty and low survivability) and had them each run two at a time. I pulled out a few tried and true CoC NPCs from the group pile to fill in the holes. The usual CoC game I ran was based around a rich lawyer named Goddard who basically supported a group of multi-talented adventurers in their jaunts across the globe in the 1920s...sort of a Lovecraftian Mission Impossible set-up. So whatever the situation called for, Goddard could send a character to fill out a party who had a specific need, from gangster to archeologist to airplane pilot (Goddard and his mansion/base were destroyed years later, sucked into a gate in an epic campaign conclusion that spelled the end of our 1920s campaign and beginning of our Cthulhu Now campaign, but that's another tale....).

Now, the coolest part of the entire set up was two of the players. My two brothers and the sporadically attending guy were veteran gamers, and had played CoC many times. The two guys that joined us were friends of my brother, and had never played CoC before....amazingly, one guy had NEVER played ANY sort of RPG before in his life! The best part of the entire experience was watching these two guys (especially the guy who had never roleplayed) become totally immersed in their characters and the entire unfolding plotline of Masks. I have to say they had the most fun of anyone, and years later I unexpectedly ran into the guy who had never played RPGs before....he still remembered the game fondly and brought up several incidents from the game that even I had forgotten. He played an Indiana Jones type that used a whip and pistol, and in his mind he was basically acting out the Indiana Jones movies (albeit with horrific other dimensional evil creatures); I believe his character was named something silly like Ohio Smith. Needless to say he had a blast, and his enthusiasm got ahold of the entire group and translated into above-average play (and gamemastering) through the campaign. The other most memorable character was my brother's WWI veteran, Jimmy Jack Jones, who my brother had selected among several characters that had survived over the last few years from the horrors of Shadows of Yog-Sothoth and The Asylum (shout out to any old school CoC players who also ran adventures from those supplements and somehow had a survivor). Jimmy was a good old boy farmer turned sniper, and his expertise with a rifle saved the party's ass too many times to count (he personally assassinated several high priests with called shots to the head at extremely tense times of the game in London and Egypt)....when he died in the final battle by a purely random die roll, it was perhaps the most affecting death we ever experienced in an RPG up to then (due to the absolutely senseless nature of the death and the horrors he had survived from WWI, through Shadows, and all the other games we had run plus Masks). Only a really, really good RPG can give you those connections a make-believe character.

Anyway, the players very quickly jumped into the action as we started off in New York, and my youngest brother very efficiently was able to keep track of all the members of the Carlyle expedition and different locations/rumors/information through a small notebook he kept by his side during the entire campaign. The battle at Ju-Ju House was considerably epic, with a bloodbath there which included their first death (an intrepid NPC reporter woman who had managed to survive several earlier adventures but was torn to pieces by raving cultists), and the incredible swordplay of the clinically insane actor James Raven (a totally throw away NPC from Shadows that the players had adopted into their group because of his expertise with the sword and the fact he was already totally nutso) who single handedly killed over a dozen bloodthirsty cultists in a series of impaling rolls even I could hardly believe. The adventure ended with a Hunting Horror and naked, screaming, pranga swinging cultists chasing the surviving party members through the midnight, rain slick streets of Harlem, dodging cars and killing random passersby until brought down by twin sub machine guns wielded by party members, supported by two of New York's finest who showed up (who promptly went insane when they saw what they had killed, after which the party members calmly picked up their weapons and stole their police car to escape...waste not, want not!!!). Let's just say after such a riotous beginning, it only got better as time went on....

Several characters distinguished themselves: The afore mentioned Jimmy Jack, who took out both Edward Gavigan in London and Omar Shakti in Egypt with amazing impaling head shots that defied science and logic; Father Michael Flannigan, who fought only with staff and the holy book and was finally hacked apart by cultists in Kenya while holding them back as the rest of the party escaped; the absolutely amazingly average HP Jones the third, a completely average character that somehow survived over a dozen CoC adventures including this one by nothing but sheer luck, for actually coming out unscathed from Gray Dragon Island being attacked by the Bloated Woman, insane cultists, deep ones, and a shoggoth while carrying a wounded party member to safety....all by the virtue of insanely impossible luck and dodge rolls (made every dang one of them). Never have a I ran a campaign where so many characters impressed themselves on my memories for so many years afterwards; to this day I remember the Indiana Jones-like Ohio Smith dying during the final battle using his whip and pistol to bring down super villain Aubrey Penhew into the magma as he himself lost his balance and fell in after him. Who remembers the death of a third rate Indiana Jones knock off among hundreds of gaming sessions over the past 25 years? Masks just creates memories like that, it seems.

Due to the circumstances we could only game during holidays, so we continued the campaign during Spring Break, and finally finished up at the end of May when summer break started. The campaign was hideous, hilarious, sobering, exciting, frightening, and nail biting by turns. Twice the party was a hair's width away from a TPK (underneath the pyramids in Egypt and in Carl Stanford's hideout in China) that would have necessitated a reboot of epic proportions. Needless to say we couldn't wait to get at it every chance possible, with the two novice players practically jumping up and down with excitement as they waited for my brother to come into town during the Spring Break and Summer breaks. We gamed from 8 am to midnight a few times during the campaign, and no one was tired when we would finally have to call it quits each session. The best parts were the aforementioned Ju-Ju House, underneath the pyramids in Egypt, the horrific scene on the mountain in Kenya (probably the most outrageous set piece in any RPG ever published), and of course the final battle on Gray Dragon Island. No one was safe, anyone could die or go insane at any moment, and the fate of the world hung in the balance. By the end half the original characters had perished, and the rest weren't looking too hot (sanity scores were teetering, dangerously so on a couple of characters...James Raven, he of the 20 SAN, of course made every roll along the way and came out more or less just about as insane as he ever was before this entire Carlyle business). The end was suitably majestic ( I won't spoil it for anyone), and all the living party members had to make a final luck roll at the end to survive the explosive conclusion (this is where the poor, doomed Jimmy Jack made his one crap roll of the entire campaign, and died after experiencing all Nyarlathotep could throw at a fist sized rock that struck him on the head, killing him instantly. No heroic death for the most bad ass character in CoC history, but such is life).

I could go into minute detail of the entire campaign, but suffice to say that afterwards, every other CoC adventure seemed drab, colorless, and somewhat....mundane. Even later, battling a Dark Young in the woods outside of Jimmy Jack's grandpa's house (his grandfather became a recurring character after JJ's death in Masks) took on the gravity of the JLA coming back to earth after fending off an alien invasion to bitch slap the Riddler. "Dark Young? Suck it, WE KICKED NYARLATHOTEP'S ASS!!!" Needless to say, rather than ruin their remarkable run of luck by dying at the hands of some random Deep One later on, we retired most of those characters (and the entire campaign, via End of Days final battle that took out their benefactor), and continued with the characters grandkids in a 1980's Cthulhu Now campaign (supplement that was very conveniently released in 1987, just in time for the switchover).

Anyway, the Masks campaign is by far the standard bearer of all future campaigns I have run or will run. If I could someday again channel the excitement, suspense, and thrill we experienced the first time, I'd love to run it again, but I'm afraid that no matter who played or what happened it wouldn't match up. I don't know, maybe nearly 25 years is long enough to wait for lightning to strike twice. I still have the National Geographics, the 1996 printing "Complete" Masks (with the Australian chapter included), the old ethnic music cassette tapes ( I guess I could spring for CDs at this point), and with the power of the internet could pull up tons of reference material....but it would have to be a helluva run to top that original game.


  1. Great stories. I bought Masks in '96 but shortly after took a decade-long hiatus from gaming, so never got a chance to run it. I have no idea where the book is now, alas. I'd love to run, or play, the campaign one day.

  2. What an inspiring post! I've had Masks sitting on my shelf since I picked it up, some time around '89 or '90. I attempted to run it once around that time, to a disasterously unreceptive game group. (Not fans of CoC, for the most. More's the pity.)

    It's been on my shelf ever since... Your enthusiasm makes me want to pull it out and try again (especially since I'm really Jonesing for a CoC game these days) but - alas - the core gamers in my current group are the self-same ones who care so little for the game and effectively ended the campaign back in the day.

    My gaming circle needs some new blood. /sigh

    On the up-side, we've managed to carry a Bureau 13 campaign - well, more of a long series of one- and two-shot games - for almost 20 years, and have a good number of tales to tell as a result. (Not too many tales of player character deaths, but plenty of maimings, retirements, and drifting off into psycho-nutjob-NPC-land. So it's not all been a loss...)

  3. Very cool. This post is a fitting tribute to your best campaign! I've run Masks in its entirety twice and found the experience to be exhilarating both times.


  4. It's blog articles like these which make me very glad I'm a bout to jump into the Masks goodness.