The Alexandrian

Go to Eternal Lies: The Alexandrian Remix

Eternal Lies - The Mouth

Campaign Props (Zip)

This is a special props packet containing a bunch of campaign-wide material that doesn’t fit conveniently into any of the individual locations.

Letters of Inquiry: These props are specific to the characters who played in my original campaign, but I’ve included them to provide a template for creating your own (including the necessary fonts). I actually printed these letters and physically mailed them to my players so that they’d arrive roughly a week before the campaign began. (I used the Veteran Typewriter font to address the envelopes, using the character names.)

Calendar: A simple wall calendar from October 1934 to December 1936 (which should be more than sufficient time to complete the campaign). I printed off fresh months as I needed them and posted them on the wall. The calendar conveniently includes the phases of the moon for easy reference once that becomes significant in the campaign. I had the players keep a log of where they were and what they were doing each day.

Reference Documents: For use when the players learn about either A Spell to Open the Sky or the Rituals of Self-Denial, regardless of where they learn about them.

The Mouth: This image had a tendency to manifest itself throughout the campaign.

MAPS

Eternal Lies - Los Angeles (1932)

Campaign Maps (Zip)

These 16 maps are designed to be printed at a large, poster size and used as the centerpiece for each location’s diorama. This can be surprisingly affordable: I was able to go down to my local FedEx/Kinko’s store and get them printed off for a couple of bucks each.

When I initially started this project, I thought it would be relatively easy in this internet era to find period-appropriate maps for each city. That turned out not to be even remotely true, which is why some of the maps are a decade (or more) out of date. In a few cases, however, I’ve been able to provide multiple options for a map and you can use whichever one you feel is most appropriate. (Or all of them if you want to go hog wild.)

Go to 1.1 New York

Eternal Lies - Pelgrane PressEternal Lies is an amazing campaign written for Trail of Cthulhu by Will Hindmarch, Jeff Tidball, and Jeremy Keller.

The basic conceit of the campaign is that a decade ago a band of occult investigators battled against the summoning of an ancient and monstrous evil… and failed. Now the PCs need to piece together what went wrong and try to salvage whatever they can. It was explicitly designed to be a spiritual successor to the Masks of Nyarlathotep and, like that classic campaign, features a freewheeling, international investigation of epic scope.

Long-time readers of the site may recall that I consider Masks of Nyarlathotep to be one of the best RPG campaigns ever published, and that it also provided the core concept for both the Three Clue Rule and Node-Based Scenario Design. Despite the incredibly high esteem in which I hold the Masks of Nyarlathotep, however, I’m of the opinion that Eternal Lies is even better.

It’s probably unsurprising, therefore, that a few months back I started prepping to run Eternal Lies. As is often the case, however, I got a trifle ambitious with my plans. The result was large expansion (and a slight revamping) of the entire campaign, and over the next couple or three weeks I’d like to share with you the material I developed in the form of the Alexandrian Remix of Eternal Lies.

SPOILER WARNING

This should probably go without saying, but from this point forward there will be huge spoilers for Eternal Lies. Literally stuff that will spoil the entire campaign for you.

As a particular warning for players in my extended gaming network: I’m planning to run this campaign again at some point in the (probably near) future. If you’d like to be able to actually play the campaign, I’m afraid you’re going to have to tune out of my website for a little while.

DESIGN NOTES

There are several core elements which make up the remix, and I think the material will be a little clearer if I explain its structure.

First, there are LOCATION DIORAMAS. The campaign, as published, is broken up across nine distinct locations. For each of these locations I prepped a diorama which could be hung on the wall near the gaming table. The centerpiece of each diorama was a large, poster-sized map. This was accompanied by a variety of photos, drawings, period advertisements, and the like. The idea was to provide a rich, visual reference for the players.

Eternal Lies - New York Diorama Photo

The dioramas were also intended to be persistent and interactive. As the PCs gathered clues and other materials in each location, they could be added to the dioramas. And as the PCs moved to each new location, the dioramas from the previous locations would remain. Over the course of the campaign, the gaming area would become immersed in the 1930s through a slow, inevitable, kudzu-like growth.

Second, there are PROP PACKETS. These are, again, grouped by location. I used a handful of physical props which, in the absence of 3D printing, I’m unable to share with you, but most of the material are paper props of various kinds.

  • For newspaper articles, I printed them on sheets of 8.5” x 11” newsprint.
  • Most of the photos are designed to be printed directly onto 4” x 6” photo paper.
  • Larger photos are designed for 8.5” x 11” photo paper. (In some cases, multiple images are arranged so that they can be printed on a single sheet and cut out.)
  • For telegrams, I found that simply printing them on yellow paper was extremely effective.
  • For the record album, I have included an MP3 audio file and also a CD label that can be printed using the Neato CD labels. (The CD is obviously anachronistic, but the ability to actually take the prop and play it is pretty awesome.)

Most of these props are original (albeit often sourced from period photographs and the like). But several of the props were originally developed by and shared by others on Yog-Sothoth.com. I’m including my copies here because most of them have been altered or repurposed to fit into the rest of my campaign schema, but if you end up continuing to develop Eternal Lies material for your own tables I heartily encourage you to pop over to Yog-Sothoth and share your work with the larger community.

Third, there are my CAMPAIGN NOTES. As with the dioramas and prop packets, these are broken down by location. They serve as a quick reference for running the campaign, but obviously also contain all of the other alterations and additions I’ve made.

NODE STRUCTURE

One of my biggest goals with this remix was to enrich the node-based structure of the campaign.

As written, Eternal Lies has a fairly straight-forward structure: A short track of investigation takes you from New York to Savannah and then to a mansion in Los Angeles where you discover a book which contains clues pointing to four other locations scattered around the globe. While investigating those locations, you’ll discover additional clues which will combine to form a “final Eternal Lies - Node Structurerevelation” pointing you towards the conclusion of the campaign.

I liked the open-ended, go wherever you want structure. What I didn’t like was the book. First, it was a single point of failure: If the PCs don’t find the book, the rest of the campaign doesn’t happen. Second, it feels a little too on-the-nose in the metagame: It felt like the GM saying, “Here’s your menu for the campaign. Please make your next selection.”

I wanted something a little more organic. I wanted things to feel messy and real. I wanted to give the players a greater sense of charting their own course, instead of just picking from a menu of three options. And I wanted the choice of sequence to have a more meaningful impact on how the investigation played out.

First, I significantly decreased the importance of the book and liberally spread clues pointing to the other cult locations throughout the Los Angeles investigation. I also mixed things up by adding additional clues to both the New York and Savannah investigations: It’s now possible to go from New York directly to Los Angeles, for example. Or to follow a lead from Savannah and go directly to Bangkok.

Second, I radically increased the cross-pollination of clues between locations. For example, in the original campaign the only “access point” to Bangkok was the book in Los Angeles. In the remix campaign, investigators can be pointed towards Bangkok from Savannah, Malta, Mexico City, and Axum.

So if the investigators, for example, take the first clue they find in Los Angeles and skedaddle before completing the rest of their investigation there, everything will be just fine: Wherever they’re going, they should be able to dig up more clues to keep their investigation alive. (In a worst case scenario, of course, they might find themselves doubling back to Los Angeles.)

THE FINAL REVELATIONS

The biggest weakness in Eternal Lies are two revelations that the PCs have to make near the end of the campaign. The first of these is the revelation that the Devouring Mountain, where the ultimate villain of the campaign is located, is Mt. Kailash in Thibet. In the campaign as written, this revelation is theoretically split into three clues:

  • A map in Bangkok showing that the villain is located at Mt. Kailash.
  • A clue in Malta that the villain can only be reached at Mt. Kailash during a certain time of the month.
  • A clue in Mexico City that reveals that Mt. Kailash is the Devouring Mountain.

I say “theoretically split” because it’s pretty obvious that once you get a map pointing you directly at the location, you can pretty much brute force the rest of the problem (which causes the entire campaign to short circuit).

To fix this, it has been recommended that the map in Bangkok is in a huge stack of papers and only becomes notable once the PCs discover the clue in Mexico City. This is unsatisfying, however, because it creates a dynamic where the penultimate conclusion of the campaign isn’t the result of the players solving a mystery, it’s just the GM telling them where to go next.

To make matters even worse, Eternal Lies then immediately repeats this mistake. At the conclusion of the events at Mt. Kailash, the GM is supposed to once again say, “Oh, yeah. Your characters now remember a piece of paper I never told you about that tells you what to do next.”

It’s as if you were playing a traditional murder mystery and, at the end of the scenario, the GM said, “Oh, yeah. Your character remembers seeing a clue I didn’t tell you about several weeks ago. Tom’s the murderer.”

To which I say: Bah! Humbug!

So as part of the Alexandrian Remix, these final two revelations have been significantly restructured.

First, the MT. KAILASH REVELATION consists of three clues:

  • Sirikhan mounted unsuccessful expeditions to several locations searching for the Maw of the Mouth, including Mt. Kailash. (Clues to this effect are primarily found in Bangkok.)
  • The Maw of the Mouth lies within the Devouring Mountain. (Clues to this effect are primarily found in Mexico City.)
  • The Rift of the Maw opens only on the night of a New Moon beneath a clear sky. (Clues to this effect are primarily found in Malta.)

So in Bangkok the PCs will essentially gain a big list of location names, with no way to distinguish which location is the one they want. (Note that the only mountain in the list is Mt. Kailash.) In Mexico City they’ll be told that they’re looking for a mountain. And in Malta they’ll be told when they need to be there (which also explains why Savitree failed). It doesn’t matter which order they find these clues in, they won’t be able to piece the whole thing together unless they have all three.

Second, the REVELATION OF THE APOCALYPSE was trickier to solve. The method I eventually adopted was to NOT provide clues that allow the PCs to “solve” the mystery. Instead, I designed four key concepts:

  • Great power requires great sacrifice.
  • Echavarria’s ritual had two layers / two purposes.
  • Edgar Job played a key role in Echavarria’s ritual, but no one knows what it was.
  • Azathoth was the true focus of Echavarria’s interest.

And then I layered material supporting these concepts throughout the campaign. I can then pull whatever subset of material they discovered to form the final, spiteful vision sent to them at Mt. Kailash. For example: “Edgar Jobs dragging a cigarette and telling you he was Chosen by Echavarria in 1924. The summoning of the Liar From Beyond as only one part of the ritual. Montgomery Donovan sacrificing his wife because he knew it was necessary to sacrifice great things to achieve great power. What greater sacrifice could there be then a god summoned from beyond the Great Wall of Glaaki? And what greater power than the destructive gaze of Azathoth!”

The idea is that, at least thematically, the answer was in front of them the entire time (instead of being delivered from out of the blue). The actual solution to the problem has also been tweaked, so even after they get this revelation, they’ll still need to figure out what to actually do about it.

NEW LOCATIONS

Those already familiar with the campaign will also notice that there are two completely new locations in the Alexander Remix: The Severn Valley and Axum. Both of these arose through actual play, and I’ll be discussing the role they play in more detail as they actually get presented.

CHANGE OF DATE

A final significant change I made to the campaign was the date: As published, Eternal Lies begins in 1937, thirteen years after the original ritual was performed in 1924.

I suspect, however, that the campaign was originally supposed to start in 1934 and the decision to move it to 1937 was made rather late in the design process (for reasons that aren’t entirely clear to me). There are a number of subtle hints to this effect in the text, but the big one is that one section of the campaign is set during the Abyssinia Crisis, which started in 1934 and was concluded by May 1936.

Rather than try to completely rework the Ethiopia material, I decided to simply crank the clock back. My version of the campaign begins in New York on October 31st, 1934.

THE ALEXANDRIAN REMIX

Campaign Overview

1.0 Maps and Campaign Props
1.1 New York
1.2 Savannah
1.3 Los Angeles

Books of the Los Angeles Cult – UCLA Lot
Books of the Los Angeles Cult – Cult’s Library

2.0 Act II – Floating Scenes
2.1 Bangkok
2.2.1 Severn Valley
2.2 Ethiopia
2.2.1 Obelisk of Axum
2.3 Malta
2.4 Mexico City
2.5 Yucatan

3.1 Thibet
3.2 Apocalypse

You may also find my System Cheat Sheet for Trail of Cthulhu useful.

William Shakespeare's Rape of LucreceIn 1592 a massive outbreak of the plague hit London (over the next two years 15,000 people would die). As was common during times of plague, the theaters were closed in an effort to slow the spread of the disease. Acting companies were forced to leave the city on tour and the demand for new plays became virtually nonexistent.

During this time, Shakespeare wrote his two epic poems: Venus & Adonis and Lucrece (now more commonly known as The Rape of Lucrece). These poems were dedicated to the Earl of Southhampton, and the popular hypothesis is that the young Shakespeare — faced with destitution in the face of the plague — sought out a patron for his poetic arts. Even more hypothetically, it may have been Southhampton’s patronage which made it possible for Shakespeare to purchase a share in the Lord Chamberlain’s Men in 1594 when the plague came to an end.

Shakespeare never wrote another epic poem, but, perhaps unsurprisingly, the tale of Lucrece continued to influence his work: Macbeth goes “with Tarquin’s ravishing strides” to murder Duncan; in Coriolanus the downfall of the Tarquin kings (as a direct result of the events depicted in Lucrece) serves as a backdrop for the political drama; Hamlet, like Lucrece, dwells on the death of Priam and the weeping of Hecuba as an analog for his own grief; in both Romeo & Juliet and A Midsummer Night’s Dream the imagery of raped Philomel transformed into the singing nightingale is evoked (as it is in Lucrece); in Twelfth Night Shakespeare even gives us a little personal product placement for Lucrece (by using it as Olivia’s signet ring).

Originally posted on August 10th, 2011.

When Shakespeare sat down to write The Merchant of Venice, he was tapping into the well-established Elizabethan genre of the “Jewish Villain”. After The Merchant of Venice itself, Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta is the most famous example of the genre, but it was only one among a dozen or more plays of the same type which had been written in the 1580’s and early 1590’s.

And the genre was currently hot stuff.

In 1594, Queen Elizabeth’s personal physician, Rodrigo Lopez, was convicted as part of a conspiracy to poison the the queen. Lopez was a converted Jew from Portugal, and his identity as a marrano (or hidden Jew) played a major role in the publicity surrounding his trial.

The salacious nature of the case hyped interest in Jewish villain plays. For example, The Jew of Malta, originally produced in 1589, enjoyed renewed success and a fresh spike of interest that lasted for several years (as indicated in Henslowe’s Diary by the frequent performances it received). So The Merchant of Venice, like a modern Hollywood blockbuster, was pretty much calculated to take advantage of the current theatrical trends.

One can see the influence of the genre on The Merchant of Venice when Shylock first turns to address the audience and, like Marlowe’s Barabas, uncloaks his villainy:

How like a fawning publican he looks.
I hate him for he is a Christian:
But more for that in low simplicity
He lends out money gratis, and brings down
The rate of usance here with us in Venice.
If I can catch him once upon the hip,
I will feed fat the ancient grudge I bear him.
He hates our sacred nation, and he rails
Even there where merchants most do congregate
On me, my bargains, and my well-won thrift,
Which he calls interest: Cursed be my tribe
If I forgive him.

But in the process of creating Shylock, Shakespeare applied his natural instincts as a playwright. There are few authors in the history of the world with Shakespeare’s grasp of human psychology or his ability to evoke it in his characters. Shakespeare couldn’t simply conjure up the image of a Jewish boogeyman on the stage; he needed to understand the root and nature of it. He needed to create Shylock’s soul. And a few lines later, he begins to find it:

Signior Anthonio, many a time and oft
In the Rialto you have rated me
About my moneys and my usances:
Still have I borne it with a patient shrug
(For sufferance is the badge of all our Tribe);
You call me misbeliever, cut-throat dog,
And spit upon my Jewish gaberdine,
And all for use of that which is mine own.
Well then, it now appears you need my help:
Go to then, you come to me, and you say,
“Shylock, we would have moneys”, you say so:
You that did void your rheum upon my beard
And foot me as you spurn a stranger cur
Over your threshold, moneys is your suit.
What should I say to you? Should I not say
“Hath a dog money? Is it possible
A cur can lend three thousand ducats?” Or
Shall I bend low, and in a bondman’s key,
With bated breath and whisp’ring humbleness,
Say this: “Fair sir, you spit on me on Wednesday last,
You spurn’d me such a day, another time
You call’d me dog: And for these courtesies
I’ll lend you thus much moneys”?

What would drive a man to such depths of villainy? Revenge. Revenge for his way of life being mocked. Revenge for his livelihood being threatened. Revenge for being treated like a dog. Revenge for his daughter being stolen from him.

The result is a deeply unsettling play because, even as it takes the form of an anti-semitic genre, Shakespeare’s gifts create a completely believable, psychologically rich, and utterly believable Jewish character to serve as its villain. It is much easier to deal with bigoted literature when it stars vapid, mindless caricatures. But it is deeply disturbing when a genius finds exactly the buttons necessary to turn the soul of man into the most horrific stereotypes and then proceeds to relentlessly push them.

It has been argued that The Merchant of Venice was designed from the beginning to highlight Christian hypocrisy and the painful dangers of bigotry. I don’t know if that’s true (there’s much to suggest that it isn’t). But as we delved into the play, I became increasingly certain of this: As he explored the hateful depths of the Christian bigotry he used to create Shylock’s villainy, Shakespeare found that he didn’t like it very much.

Beyond the ambiguous boundaries of the play itself, consider Shakespeare’s later contribution to Sir Thomas More. More has confronted a riot of Englishmen seeking to attack and exile immigrants:

Grant them removed, and grant that this your noise
Hath chid down all the majesty of England;
Imagine that you see the wretched strangers,
Their babies at their backs and their poor luggage,
Plodding tooth ports and costs for transportation,
And that you sit as kings in your desires,
Authority quite silent by your brawl,
And you in ruff of your opinions clothed;
What had you got? I’ll tell you: you had taught
How insolence and strong hand should prevail,
How order should be quelled; and by this pattern
Not one of you should live an aged man,
For other ruffians, as their fancies wrought,
With self same hand, self reasons, and self right,
Would shark on you, and men like ravenous fishes
Would feed on one another.

Shakespeare characterizes those who would act on their racist impulses as specifically destroying “the majesty of England” in one of the most effective evocations of the dangers of irrational bigotry in all of English literature. How easy is it to see Gratiano’s bull-headed racism in The Merchant of Venice as one of those “other ruffians” that “with self same hand, self reasons, and self right would shark on you”?

And then there’s this: Phrases like “I am a Jew if I don’t do X” and “if you don’t do X, then you are a Jew” were a common parlance in Elizabethan English. Given this important context, consider anew Shylock’s most famous speech:

I am a Jew: Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? Fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer, as a Christian is? If you prick us do we not bleed? If you tickle us do we not laugh? If you poison us do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that. If a Jew wrong a Christian, what is his humility? Revenge. If a Christian wrong a Jew, what should his sufferance be by Christian example? Why, revenge. The villany you teach me I will execute, and it shall go hard but I will better the instruction.

I am a Jew. In saying that, Shylock is claiming for himself something which was inherently shunned in the language of the time. And then he transforms it and humanizes it. He forces the audience to put themselves into his shoes.

Shakespeare, too, had used the “I am a Jew” turn of phrase routinely, turning it into a punchline for Two Gentlemen of Verona (twice), Henry IV Part 1, and Much Ado About Nothing. He also used other Jew jokes in Love’s Labours Lost and A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

But after writing The Merchant of Venice, Shakespeare abruptly stopped using Jew jokes. In fact, depending on when one dates the composition of Much Ado About Nothing, after writing The Merchant of Venice, Shakespeare never used another Jew joke (although he would continue writing for another 15-20 years).

We know this wasn’t a shift in the language: Other writers were still using the phrase. But in writing The Merchant of Venice something had shifted in Shakespeare. In creating the soul of Shylock, he had transformed his own.

Originally posted on December 6th, 2010.

From Reddit:

At the conclusion to this school year’s campaign, in order to pick up at the beginning of next semester, I want to have Pelor and Sehanine fight, with Pelor winning and eating Sehanine’s heart to become corrupted. However, if I just set the gods in a valley and describe what happens as they throw down, I feel like I am taking away my players agency. Advice?

My response to this is based on Part 2 of The Art of Pacing, and I thought it raised some specific points that might be of interest to others:

Right now you’re setting the agenda of the scene as, “Will Pelor eat Sehanine’s heart?” That’s an understandable impulse because it’s clearly the biggest and coolest thing happening in that particular moment. But, as you note, that agenda doesn’t mention the PCs at all and, therefore, prevents them from taking any meaningful action.

Instead of focusing on the outcome of the god-fight, you need to figure out what the PCs’ agenda will be during the fight: What is it they’re trying to accomplish and what are the obstacles they’ll need to overcome to accomplish it?

Another way to think about this would be to replace the god-fight with a similarly cataclysmic event. For example, the PCs are in Los Angeles and the Big One hits the San Andreas fault. The agenda here would not be, “Will the earthquake destroy Los Angeles?” The answer to that question is beyond the PCs’ control. The agenda will instead involve the PCs reacting to the immediate chaos and destruction around them, probably answering variations of, “Can you survive?” or “Can you save that person/place/item?”)

Or you could actually think of the god-fight as a spectator event. For example, let’s say your PCs go to a football game. There are two possibilities here: Either the event is narrated very quickly and you move on to the next interesting thing which actively involves the PCs (“The game goes to sudden death overtime, but the Vikings pull out a victory. What do you do after the game?”). Or you’re focused on an event happening at the football match which is unrelated to the game (so that the agenda is something like, “Will Carlie kiss you?”). Or the PCs are able to take actions which somehow impact the outcome of the game (by stopping the gangsters who are trying to assassinate the star wide receiver or by outfitting the home team’s shoes with Flubber or whatever).

Returning to the god-fight, you’ll find that the same techniques apply. You could spend 30 seconds describing the titanic fight in brief (but effective) detail before moving onto the next agenda that’s immediately relevant to the PCs. Or you could set agendas that:

  • Deal with the collateral damage of the fight (saving themselves or others).
  • Use the god-fight as the backdrop for some other conflict. (Which may have nothing to do with the god-fight; for example, as the gods begin to fight the PCs might be attacked by a group of assassins. The narration of the god-fight backdrops or thematically complements the fight against the assassins; maybe by-products from the god-fight affect the assassin fight in cool ways.)
  • Allow the PCs to directly affect or influence the god-fight (maybe there are local shrines to the gods that they can imbue with energy; or they could organize mass prayers; or travel to points of sympathetic divine resonance in the region and sacrifice their divine spell slots to aid their god).
  • Or the outcome of the god-fight (for example they might be able to take actions during the fight which will either aid or hinder them later while dealing with Pelor’s corruption).
  • Allow the PCs to learn something from the god-fight.

If you’re struggling to come up with an appropriate agenda, don’t be afraid of letting your players set the agenda. For example:

GM: Pelor and Sehanine start to fight. What do you do?

Players: We RUN!!

Presto. The agenda is, “Can they escape?” and you should be able to run with it from there. Even if they decide there’s no possible agenda for them to pursue (like people just enjoying the football game in front of them), it’s still a useful technique:

GM: Pelor and Sehanine start to fight. What do you do?

Players: We sit in stunned silence and watch.

Now you can launch into you 60 second description of the titanic battle playing out in front of them, but you haven’t removed their agency. (They’re the ones who chose to stay and watch.)

Final tip: Break the fight into a half dozen or so distinct beats. Describing these beats succinctly is the 60 second description, but the beats also provide a flexible structure for any other agendas that might be pursued. (If they start fighting assassins, for example, each beat gets described as the backdrop to a round of combat. If they try to save people in a nearby village, some or all of the beats provide complications to that effort. And so forth.)

Archives

Twitter

Recent Posts


Recent Comments