A Lazy Sequence

The Dying of St Margaret’s

Cover of The Dying of St Margaret’s for Trail of Cthulhu.

The Dying of St Margaret’s is the first of Graham Walmsley’s purist scenarios for Trail of Cthulhui. The scenario focuses on a group of characters who are following the disappearances of family and friends who travelled to the island of St Margaret’s and worked at the school there. It ends, as you would hope for something dubbed purist, with the characters either dead or mad.

The game starts with the players arriving at the island, and includes flashbacks for each character (more on that below). The group then takes up positions at the school and explores a fairly open sandbox. This portion of the scenario is all about atmosphere and chewing the scenery with the initial investigations taking place around the daily life on the island. The second half consists of two set pieces and moves rapidly toward its conclusion.

Bookending this structure is the character’s drives. Drives are a Trail of Cthulhu mechanic for encouraging players to put their characters into danger. St Margaret’s focuses on this mechanic by providing some additional scenes to orient the story not only around the missing characters, but on the player characters own drive. The first of these is as a Directed Scene – a special rule introduced in this scenario – which has the keeper describe a scene in media res that highlights one characters drive, and the other players take up secondary roles in the scene. Each characters drives are referred to again in the two set piece scenes in the second half of the scenario. The goal is to describe an arch from hopeful, to triumphant and finally dawning realization that everything they hoped for is worthless at the end of the scenario.

Given the scenery chewing and atmospheric nature of the scenario, a lot rests on the the Non-Player Characters. Walmsley has done an excellent job providing enough detail to make the major characters the players may encounter distinct and interesting without spending pages and pages. Instead, each character has a paragraph of description and three little hints for portraying the characters, for example:

To portray Bart:

  • Slump.
  • Sigh as you talk.
  • Shrug.

More canned scenarios should provide notes like this.

Final points about the structure: there is no physical conflict in this scenario unless the players instigate it themselves. There are notes at the end of the scenario on how you could pulp it up, but honestly, thats a waste and there are more suitable pulp scenarios available from Pelgrane.

I had a chance to run this for my normally D&D group recently. St Margaret’s is a departure from our groups normal style, but everyone was keen to give it a shot. Overall the scenario was enjoyable for me as the keeper, and I think the players all enjoyed themselves; they have agreed to play another Trail scenario so I think that is a successii. It took us two two hour sessions plus character creation to run through.

Our group isn’t big on acting and scenery chewing, as a result the scenario may not have been the best fit for us. For a group more inclined in that direction, this scenario would shine. Even if you are more like us, I would still recommend the scenario if you want something bleak.

As a Keeper one thing I found particularly challenging was keeping track of all the NPCs and the clue cloud in the first half of the scenario. After a short first session I ended up making a cheat sheet of all the clues, their suggested skills and the players who possessed those skills so that I could respond quickly. If I were to suggest one change to the published scenario, it would be to include something like this as a resource in the PDF for the keeper to print off.

A related point is that GUMSHOE’s player facing mechanics aid the keeper a lot here. Instead of spending time worrying about rolls and NPC stats, you can keep track of the clues and characters and do a better job of weaving things together. In St Margaret’s the keeper never has to roll a single die.

Some spoilers follow.

Directed Scenes was the most challenging aspect of the scenario for our group. The concept was well off the beaten track for our normal gaming. We tried it as written for the opening flashbacks and I think it was valuable for providing some backstory for the characters. These directed scenes have suggestions provided for each drive; these solutions were vital for making this mechanic work for us at all. One nitpick is that the scenario suggests interspersing these flashbacks during the prologue scene. This felt a little disjointed given how short the prologue is. When it came time to do focus on each characters drives for the Workshop scene, we opted not to use the Directed Scenes mechanic again, and instead I played the Ruminations track from Four Shadows while focusing on each players drive. If I run this scenario again, I am torn about whether I would use the Directed Scenes as written.

I have a slight nit pick about the Antagonist Reactions rules. There are three extremely atmospheric and colourful scenes that may occur at any time the keeper feels like if the players succeeded at a Sense Trouble roll. These scenes tie the prologue into the final scenes and during the first half of the game they foreshadow some of what is coming. In the first session the players rolled and failed sense trouble five times leaving these scenes unrevealed. Clearly this is an outlier, but it’s still a pity that such useful material can be blocked due to just a die roll.

Finally, the workshop scene is my highlight as keeper. It is a brief respite from the bleakness of the rest of the scenario and provides some entertaining diversions. Our group had an entertaining mishap with the machine: They uncovered the core clue directing them to the bay very early on and then continued searching to find out more about the machine. Eventually they discovered that it created some sort of portal or black hole, and determined that the characters they were following must have travelled through the portal. After some shenanigans to set up a ladder and rope from the trapdoor in the stage above as a bridge to the portal itself, one PC decided he had to see where the portal lead. After describing the foolhardy character’s disappearance to the remaining players I told the player that he was out of the game. To my surprise a second player decided that he would follow him through! With two players out, the final character proceeded to the bay and the final confrontation. I elided a lot of the final scenes due to having two thirds of the group as spectators.

In summary, The Dying of St. Margaret’s is an excellent adventure and I hope to get an opportunity to run some of the other purist scenarios in future. This may well stretch groups not used to the play style but it should be entertaining none-the-less. Finally, scenario writers should steal Walmsley’s NPC portrayal notes.

  1. I’ve mentioned these previously.
  2. We are going to run Death Across the Nile from Shadows over Filmland in a pulp style. Should be fun.
13 March 2012