Wednesday, 7 October 2015

Top 11 greatest Call of Cthulhu scenarios I've run

Here's a list of what constitute the best scenarios for Call of Cthulhu that I've run over the course of over 25 years now of being a Keeper. I am purposefully not going into great detail on each in order to avoid spoilers, so sadly can't comment too much on detail. In many cases I've run them more than once, and for beginners to Call of Cthulhu or indeed to first timers for tabletop role playing games generally. I've ranked them from tenth to first in order of enjoyment.

I note right from the off that all of these were published in the last century. It may be because I've actually run very little CoC since moving to Brighton and have spent most of my time as a player, the vast bulk of it playing d20 games. Several scenarios were also used in a campaign I ran at university in 1991-92 with a brand new group of players who had never picked up a polyhedral dice before. We huddled over them on wet Sunday afternoons in London after we'd run out of beer.

Most I have played multiple times, and this has frequently been because I reach for them when presenting the game to newbies or at short notice. This is because I know they work, that they entertain, and I can get back into them very quickly. Some are also good starting points for campaigns, providing a premise for investigators to get together in the first place.

11: The Garden of Earthly Delights - Michael LaBossiere, 1995

Part of a small trio of adventures that came out as Strange Aeons, set in different times and places. I've now run this adventure four times, including once online. It takes place in 16th century Spain on the eve of the death of King Philip II. The investigators are all members of the Inquisition, sent to a remote village in the Pyrenees to follow up on rumours of a virgin birth and the Second Coming. A Spanish player has noted that many NPCs are blessed with Latin American names - just don't play it with any European Spanish, as they'll scoff at the New World feel (or change the names)! English speakers will probably not notice...

10: The Secret of Castronegro - Mark Pettigrew and Sandy Petersen, 1983

A 1920s adventure, this originally appeared in the Cthulhu Companion, although I came across it in the third edition hardback that Games Workshop licensed. I have found this to be a good follow on adventure from The Haunting (see below). I think one of its strengths has to be its sandbox characteristics, along with the fact that it takes place in New Mexico rather than in Lovecraft's New England. I've just had so many enjoyably moments running this one, I had to include it. It takes a bit of a pounding from some critics, but to be honest, I don't feel much of the criticism is warranted. Kenneth Hite seems to like it, so that's got to be worth something.

9: The Horrible Secret of Monhegan Island, Gary Pilkington, 1984

Released to support Grenadier's range of Cthulhu models, some of which I still own, this came in a slim, 'dungeon module' style format along with The House in the Woods (see below). It may be very hard to find now, as it was not released by Chaosium. Again, a traditional 1920s adventure, it starts with a missing person. It works extremely well as a sandbox, and comes with some natty black and white floor plans. This scenario yielded what has to be one of the most entertaining investigator deaths in my experience, triggered by a critical failure on a demolitions roll.

8: The Key and The Gate, Chris Hind, 1990

Published in an issue of White Wolf magazine, this is a classic era adventure in Arkham. It is very short and can be easily completed in an evening. It would also be quite a good introduction to the game, if you can lay your hands on it. To be honest, you could transplant this to the university town of your choice - it would work just was well in 1930s Oxford. It is probably not as enjoyable for very experienced players, as it includes some very common Mythos tropes, but for newer players dipping their toe in the water for the first time, very entertaining. It partly relies on the investigators taking decisions which they might not if being run by experienced players.

7: The Surrey Enigma, Marcus L. Rowland, 1985

The adventure that got me into CoC in the first place, this appeared in White Dwarf magazine. I love this one for a number of reasons, including the atmospheric, pre-war English rural setting of my grandparents' youth, when the village bobby used to ride around on his bike. There is very little I can add without spoiling the plot of this one, but if you can track down a copy of the magazine, well worth it. Unlike The Key and The Gate (above), this was very much written for experienced players, and includes some nice misdirections that can catch them out if they are too suspicious. One of the NPCs in this game later went on to be a long-running player character in our campaign when he was recruited into the party (an original investigator went insane).

6: The Edge of Darkness, Keith Herber, 1992

This now appears regularly as one of the introductory scenarios for the game and is an excellent adventure in its own right. It was published with both the 5th and 6th edition core rulebooks. Herber did a great job with it, and I've run it with both seasoned and new players. It can even serve as a follow on from The Haunting, and it can also be a good tool from bringing together a group of disparate 1920s investigators to begin an episodic campaign. At the time Chaosium was focusing on developing the Lovecraft Country setting, and Edge of Darkness would be an ideal way to kick off a Lovecraft Country campaign.

5: Death In The Post, uncredited, 1987

Part of the Green & Pleasant Land guide that Games Workshop published as a UK setting for British investigators, Death In The Post was a revelation for me, as it broke away from the location-based ideas of adventure design I'd been used to, pitting investigators against a shadowy enemy and a fast moving plot. It can be quite exciting, although it really needs a more experienced Keeper to run it: for example, I had to come up with the layout of an Oxfordshire manor house on the fly. This scenario feels more like an episode from the TV series Spooks (MI6 in the USA) than your traditional CoC investigation.

4: Puppet Shows and Shadow Plays, Adam Scott Glancy, 1997

Part of the original Delta Green setting book, this was written, I think, as a way to introduce players to the DG premise. Investigators are now leading the FBI investigation into disappearances along Route 66 in the American southwest. Brilliant in that it does not draw on traditional Mythos elements and accounts for the fact that the players ARE the ultimate authority in this scenario, with all that entails. It STILL managers to blow their minds. It can easily form the basis for an introduction to a domestic US DG campaign, and will probably even hold up if you moved it to 2015 rather than 1997. I've no idea whether it will be updated or even reprinted in the new DG offering. I hope so.

3: Uncle Timothy's Will, Keith Herber, 1990

Published in the original Blood Brothers adventure anthology, I include this just because it was enormous fun to run. I have even used it with a solo investigator and it worked incredibly well. It is worth considering if you have only one player. It can be completed in a single session. The premise is that of a traditional horror movie, and Mythos elements have been stripped out, but you could easily shove them back in. I suspect it may originally have been written by Herber as a Mythos adventure, but then tailored to meet the specifications of Blood Brothers. Lots of entertaining surprises in this one, but personally I think it is better with only a couple of investigators at most.

2: The Haunting, Sandy Peterson, 1983

One of the original introductory scenarios for the game, the first adventure I ever ran for CoC, and the only one that has forced my players to abandon the game because they were too terrified to continue. A brilliant showcase of the system for players who are used to dungeon bashes. It is small, self-contained, scary, and is still talked about today on Cthulhu podcasts (I think the Miskatonic University guys were discussing it only last month). Ordinarily, I'd still choose this one for new players, apart from the fact that my number one choice does an even better job.

1: The House in the Woods, Gary Pilkington, 1984

A work of genius, I've run this several times, normally for players less used to the setting or the game, and it has always gone off a treat. I just love the spooky atmosphere it portrays of 1920s backwoods New England, the hidden but ominous threat, the massive sense of the unknown. It appeared with the Horrible Secret of Monhegan Island (see above), and like that adventure, features lovely black and white floor plans for your Grenadier miniatures. There are similarities here with Edge of Darkness (also see above). I once ran this for friends at very short notice when a regular GM cancelled at the last moment. We generated characters, played the scenario to its conclusion, and had time to discuss it, within three hours. It is short, but it feels like an episode of The Twilight Zone. Every time I run this adventure, it ends the same way. And you could almost LARP it.


  1. I tend to subscribe to the theory that while Call of Cthulhu is an excellent game, its adventures are often bad examples of it. That said, some CoC adventures live up to the quality of the game itself, and some of my favourites are on this list; I'm quite fond of "Edge of Darkness" and "The Surrey Enigma" and "The Haunting" is an amazing piece of work.

    I have never heard of "The House in the Woods" and assuming that Ben and Manoj haven't either -- or Ben's forgotten it! -- I would like to put in a request right now for you to run it for us!

  2. Always had a soft spot for The Secret of Castronegro - 3rd edn was my introduction to CoC.

    When DG first appeared, I loved it - but thought Puppet Shows and Shadow Plays was quite weak. Convergence being the one *everyone* remembers ;)

    A year ago, though, I persuaded some friends to try DG, and I looked over Shadow Plays again as the window for playing was too narrow for Convergence.

    It is a great scenario, and I can confirm it updates to "right now" very nicely. The ready availabilty of maps and images through Google Maps really makes evoking a sense of place very, very easy and effective.

  3. Apart from DG and The Haunting I have not read or played the other scenarios here!

    Ran lots of sandbox stuff from the Arkham country books, Masks of Nyarlathotep, Horrors Heart, Fungi from Yuggoth, Delta Green and Countdown scenarios and read the other DG stuff (Eyes Only & Targets of Opportunity ) & Detwiller's excellent The Sense of the Sleight of Hand other bits and bobs.

    Love Call of Cthulhu & I think I will like Trail of Cthulhu too now we have got our head around Gumshoe as a system.

    Parenthood is proving far more demanding than I ever imagined. ... so yes! If you feel up to it Stuart please run a golden oldie! ;)

  4. The Surrey Enigma ended up having quite a profound -- and semi-destructive! -- effect on the late stages of Horror on The Orient Express when I ran it back in the late 90's. It wasn't at all planned, but something from that earlier one-off adventure came into play at a crucial and unexpected time in the longer campaign.

    1. Yes, I can imagine how that could have unforseen consequences!

  5. Do you know where I might get The House in the Woods? I'd love to run it.

    1. Yes, it is the second adventure in the Monhegan Island adventure published by Grenadier Miniatures in the 1980s. I'm not sure how widely available that is now.