Tinkering with Call of Cthulhu: The Auction – Part 1

The Auction is a classic adventure for Call of Cthulhu taken out of the 1983 collection, The Asylum and other Tales. I dearly fell in love with the idea of the scenario and used it for my own Cthulhu Savage Worlds game. For folks not familiar with the scenario, players participate in an auction set in Vienna during the 30s for several rumored occult items. After the auction well…let’s just say things go a little pear-shaped.

It’s a great adventure full of intriguing theme and certainly one of the better scenario setups. For new fans of CoC, it’s one I highly recommend pleading with your keeper to take a peek at and consider running it themselves. I’ll leave it at that with the details. If you’ve got interest in playing it, go shoo and let the rest of this grumbling be for just the keepers and GMs. Spoilers ahead.

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As I mentioned I’m a fan of the Auction. It works well as something to fold into an existing campaign or for a one shot. It’s not perfect however and seems there are some glaring hitches with the the adventure. One is the auction itself and the other is somewhat the greater mystery that presents later, of which seems to causes problems when running it. I’ve opted to break this up over into a couple of posts talking about how I handled it for my players and the changes made to make it a more engaging adventure.

The first issue I’ve got is the auction itself. For a continuing campaign, this is likely a decent adventure hook. It’s something to allow players to establish contacts in Europe and a means to pick up a few occult items. However I’d put money on most people playing the Auction as something of a one shot session. Most folks aren’t going to have an ongoing Cthulhu campaign.

There is a different draw to getting investigators to participate, and that as being cooperative bidders for a third party. For my game this is the route I took and felt it made a stronger hook. Players are asked to utilize their occult expertise to ascertain the authenticity of certain items and cunningly bid on lesser trinkets to drain the resources of other bidders. All in hopes that the group can eventually scoop up some items their patron is keen on obtaining. I loved this idea and recognized it could be a sort of mini-game within the game.

As written the Auction sounds enticing. The players themselves will likely be excited to participate in it. Who wouldn’t enjoy an evening soiree culminating in an auction for supernatural items? The problem is once you actually start running an auction, it gets old fast. If you dig around, there are some live play podcasts that painfully demonstrate this. There’s a lot of excitement for the first few items, but then PCs realize how repetitive the entire thing is. You can hear one player in a live play recording illustrate this tedium as they quipped something along the lines of, ‘Are we going to go through the bidding for all the items?’

What cements playing the auction out as a useless exercise is the twist in the middle of the event. There is a murder and the entire auction is halted. Half the items players likely have researched and pondered over won’t even be bid on. I loved the concept, but actually playing out an auction just seemed to mess with the pacing. It had some merit but a faster resolution was needed and players had to have a stake in all the auction lots, just not the ones they were interested in.

Firstly, I had their patron tell the PCs he was interested in about 6 different items from the auction list. He forwarded them a line of credit including a lengthy legal agreement. They would return all the funds placed in their accounts that were unspent and hand over any items successfully bid. I didn’t use actual numbers for cash though. Instead I gave every player 3 credit markers. These represented funds that would be used for the auction. NPCs had 3-4 markers themselves. If anyone was out of markers, they were out of the auction.

PCs got a list of wanted items from their patron. To sweeten the pot some, if a player got an item and had 2 credit markers remaining at the end of the night, they’d get a cash bonus. In game terms, I offered players a bennie if they won a bid for an item desired by their patron regardless of cash spent obtaining it. Thier objective was to try and gain as many items on the list, while carefully bidding on unwanted items to run through the NPC’s cash. If they blew all their cash and got items not wanted on the list, they were stuck with a bill and/or having an NPC they owed a big favor to.

Each auction bid round required players and NPCs to make trait test based on either persuasion or intimidation as primary checks. Secondary trait checks could be made with a -1 penalty for notice or smarts. I felt a -2 penalty for being unskilled would not apply and smarts could always be used. Intimidation and persuasion might be considered an odd choice, however they seemed good candidates in either goading NPCs to bid, or putting up such a strong front they could stare down competitive bidders. Gambling could also likely be a decent choice for a secondary skill.

Roughly half of the NPCs would be wild cards. Before each auction item, I randomly determined which NPCs would be actively bidding. At least half of the NPCs (rounding down) would bid on an item if they had 3 or more credit markers. If all NPCs had 2 or less credit markers, at least one NPC with some credit remaining would always bid, and this lone bidding NPC should be a wild card if possible.

Now winning or losing an item depended on what was being bid for. Players had to have at least 2 credit markers to bid on an item. NPCs needed at least 3, but would bid if they had less depending if any other NPCs weren’t bidding (as mentioned above).

For lots that the patron wanted, the PC or NPC that got got the highest check on their trait test won the item, and would spend their 2 credit markers. If a player or NPC aced their trait test they could take back one credit marker (multiple aces have no effect i.e. at least 1 credit marker was lost if they won a bid). Note that these were not trait challenge rolls or tests of will. Each player/NPC made the appropriate check and the highest roll won.

For auction items the patron didn’t want, the player/NPC with the lowest trait roll would ‘win’ the unwanted item paying 2 credit markers. For each ace that PCs or NPCs rolled beating the lowest trait score, that player/NPC put in an extra marker up to a maximum of 4 (or 3 if they were an PC). So not only had the others gotten the player/NPC to be the highest bidder for the unwanted the item but they had severely overbid for it.

In the case of a tie, players can put in an additional marker to automatically win over NPCs (or other players). If both players put in a marker, they make another check and keep rolling until one player wins. Players didn’t get this extra spent credit marker back if they won the bid, even with an ace.

This set up for a mini game. At the start there were several NPCs bidding for items. If players rolled well for unwanted items, they would slowly decrease the number of NPCs attempting to bid for future rounds. PCs also wanted to try and roll as high as possible for the patron lot items. If they got lucky and aced their rolls, they might win a bid and not spend as much cash. Plus there was always a bonus of getting a bennie if they won the item.

This worked great. It resolved fast. It kept everyone trying to roll high regardless if it was an item their patron wanted or not. Players wanted to gain items as it gave them bennies. They also were engaged and active in just about all the auction lot bids. I scrambled the lot list order some and made sure only half of the 16 items were bid on so only 8 items were bid for. Yet this moved pretty quickly and allowed me to get onto the second part, the murder mystery.

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