Adventure

Lovecraftian Horror – The Strange & Sunken Fate of Karl Heinrich

July 18, 2019

One of my favorite H.P. Lovecraft stories is “The Temple”. It’s a straightforward but moody account of a German submarine crew dealing with one horrible problem after another – a cursed item, an engine malfunction, mutiny, madness, suicide, and then finally its lone survivor staring straight into The Impossible. It has all the hallmarks of the Lovecraftian horror genre – in a measly 5,000 words!

This month, I worked with a friend to write a RPG adventure sequel to “The Temple.” Mimicking an author’s specific style and finding the right balance between homage and uninspired copycatting is one of my favorite challenges in adventure design (which I’ve written about before).

I’ll avoid the hot debate over whether Call of Cthulhu adventures ever accurately tap into Lovecraft’s ennui, and instead talk about something else that challenged my sanity — completely pivoting away from my original idea for this adventure.

When my friend Jeff and I sat in a coffee shop to think about how we’d sequel “The Temple” we immediately landed on ideas I thought were obviously brilliant. Twenty years after the events of the story, the investigators would be hunting for the stranded U-29. Of course, they then find themselves in a similar precarious situation as the original story. They’d be trapped underwater, in a forgotten city, surrounded by eldritch foes, with time (and oxygen) running out. It was like Aliens to the original Alien. Easy!

But by the time I finished writing the adventure, it was nothing like that description. Now, most of the adventure takes place on an island in the Azores. The main nemesis is a Portuguese taxi driver. The U-boat isn’t even underwater. And there are Nazis.

So how did I utterly bail out of the original idea and get to this radically different take? I devised three Danger Signals that might tell you it’s time to pivot your concept:

  • Freedom of movement too limited. The underwater setting started confined and finished confined. While a confined setting works great in horror fiction, that’s a problem in RPG adventures, especially if the players don’t automatically get the nuances of a setting. For example, PCs confined in a house will automatically think to check the basement… and feel rewarded for their creativity. PCs confined in an alien setting will need constant direction. For example, when stuck in a WWI submarine, non one will have a clue that there’s two torpedo rooms. The GM better have a map and an explanation.
  • Socially awkward. NPCs add tremendously to the flavor of an adventure. This is especially true in horror adventures where antiquarians serve up heaping of creepy backstory, cultists horrify with their plans, and scantily-clad college freshmen are the first to get murdered by the serial killer. The original setting of my adventure made it impossible to easily inject new NPCs. This meant it gave players too few opportunities to ask for help, or use their social abilities.
  • The Genre Started Pulling Apart. The original concept had the investigators moving to different underwater locations, with the finale taking place in the labyrinthine temple. However, as I plotted this out, it started to feel too much like a dungeon. Even in the most pure Lovecraftian game, once players get into a closed environment (presumably inhabited by monsters), it’s rare group that doesn’t fall into the gravity well of “get out the guns and wipe ’em all out!” I realized the dungeon-like finale would likely end up violating my core premise of a moody, haunting horror adventure.

When faced with all three Danger Signals, I massive pivoted the adventure so that only the first act takes place in the original underwater setting, looking for the vanished U-29. The adventure moved to the Azores, mysteriously infected by the disturbance in the temple, complete with an open-ended harbor to explore, interesting personalities, and some horrific surprises. I think this new concept works better, and actually serves as a more interesting sequel to Lovecraft’s work.

It also would have been possible to avoid the Danger Signals by changing other aspects of the adventure. I could have ignored the limitations of 1930s technology and given Freedom of Movement with more-modern equipment. I could have loosened the genre and filled the final temple with air, given the PCs some big guns, and helped it play out like the finale of the The Mummy (now with Deep Ones). I like my final solve better, but my point is the same – if you see multiple Danger Signals in your adventure, rethink and pivot.

What do you think? What other Danger Signals are there?

Download the adventure The Strange & Sunken Fate of Karl Heinrich here:

The Strange & Sunken Fate of Karl Heinrich (Call of Cthulhu)
The Strange & Sunken Fate of Karl Heinrich (Call of Cthulhu) – Printer Friendly
The Strange & Sunken Fate of Karl Heinrich (GURPS Horror)
The Strange & Sunken Fate of Karl Heinrich (GURPS Horror) – Printer Friendly

If you run the adventure or play in it, all that I ask is that you let me know what you thought and how it went. Tweet me @SageThalcos

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