Plot Crawl Campaign – Running my Cthulhu game with a pile of props

As I blogged about a while back, I am running a 1920s Cthulhu game on the side along with my regular Weird West campaign. I lifted an idea from the Secret Cabal Podcast which I found rather inspiring. Rather than your typical game where someone would initially approach the investigators to tackle a specific mission looking into the supernatural, instead it would be based on what the players wanted to look into. It’s a plot crawl campaign.

It’s much like your good old fashioned hex crawl game. While there isn’t a map of randomly generated content, it’s open ended to allow players to go where they will. Like a hex crawl game, a plot crawl has adventure seeds acting like a map of sorts with a few details laid out to grab the player’s interest. They make the choice where to go and what to look into. Sometimes more choices might branch out depending on what they investigate, but they can turn around and poke their heads into another ‘section of the map’ investigating some other adventure plot if they want to.

It’s designed to run very much as an episodic game. There really isn’t any over arching story. As things progress, you can have recurring villains, NPCs, and past events to weave back in as details if needed. It’s immensely flexible as you can tailor the game to deal with past events and players, building up a larger story, or just go for the ‘serial adventure of the week’ format instead. None of this has to be planned out either. You just think of 4 or 5 different adventure seeds and run with it. The details will be fleshed out as the game is played.

My players started the session being called together by a lawyer overseeing the estate of a recently deceased professor. All of them knew the person and had a relationship with him (be it a relative, colleague, etc.). They were each individually named in the will to be present for the opening of a trunk of the professor’s belongings. They were all led into a room, given a key to a small trunk, and left alone to go through the contents.

Inside the trunk they found different files, photographs, and other tidbits of strange information. I had made up a series of props in the manner of photographs, handwritten letters, and fake newspaper clippings. Each group of clues were given codes to match as a set (so all the clues for adventure G were together, while ones for adventure B were in another set, etc.). The players could rifle through the papers and pictures, and decide what they wanted to investigate.

For my first setting, I did kick things into high gear having the lawyer killed under exceedingly strange circumstances. This was followed up with the players being hunted by undead lackeys. All of it emphasizing that the strange did exist, and there were evil forces at play which knew the players had knowledge to secrets better left unknown.

However at the end of the session I gave the players a task. They needed to continue going through the contents of the trunk and decide that night what they wanted to investigate as a group for the next session. All the clues were fragments of some story, location, or odd supernatural thing. I made it a point that there were more papers and files within the trunk (meaning I would add more to the trunk later), however there were 5 different sets of clues and props for them to go through at first.

This really worked well for the group. It was a task to have them decide on what to do next (expect at least 30 minutes or so at your table). However it really cemented the feeling of them investigating these clues of weird, strange events. That there was another layer of occult existence under the normal world around them, and they were slowly unearthing it. Best of all, I knew exactly what the next adventure would be and it was based on what the PCs wanted to investigate further.

It is a bit of a chore to create some convincing props. However I didn’t have to flesh out any adventures. I just needed some ideas of a location, possible NPCs, and some weird thing for the PCs to look into. So you don’t have to have six different adventures fully prepared at the beginning, just a few ideas presented as six different sets of clues. As the players pick what they want to look into, I can turn around and work on that adventure specifically. Since many of the details were rather vague, I could even use an adventure generator for assembling the next adventure if needed. It really is a surprisingly flexible way of providing adventure seeds where the players get to give input on where to go next.

Something like this can be adopted for other settings and I am really beginning to take a shine to it. Maybe it would be printed public notices posted around a fantasy city, or an infonet log players would look through in a sci-fi campaign. Either way, all I would have to do is sketch out a few ideas and let the players decide what they wanted to check out next at the end of the session. If you are struggling to think of ideas for your next campaign consider running a plot crawl, with props and leads for the players they can provide some inspiration for further game sessions.