Call of Cthulhu’s epic Masks of Nyarlathotep shows the perfect way to run a RPG campaign over years
Into the Months of Madness.
For many tabletop RPG creators, writing a campaign that can keep players hooked over an extended period of time is an immense challenge. Almost everyone that’s played RPGs is familiar with the experience of a campaign burning out as the GM or players slowly lose their interest in the story.
One campaign that avoids this is Chaosium’s critically acclaimed Masks of Nyarlathotep for Call of Cthulhu. Any GM starting Masks of Nyarlathotep will know that the campaign is notoriously long, with some groups playing for as long as two or three years. What they might not expect, however, is just how well the campaign manages to keep players’ attention over this time, working so masterfully to keep everyone hooked.
Each chapter in Masks of Nyarlathotep acts as a mini-campaign in its own right.
Masks of Nyarlathotep was originally published in 1984 and has seen a number of revisions over the years, with the most recent incarnation released for Call of Cthulhu 7E in 2018. The 1920s story originally unfolded over five chapters, with two additional chapters being added in subsequent editions.
Each of these chapters takes place in a different part of the world, as the players uncover and fight a global network of cults in service of the nefarious god Nyarlathotep. This structure is key to how Masks retains player attention. Whilst there is an overarching narrative and plot that build tension and stakes as the players make their way toward the conclusion, each chapter in Masks of Nyarlathotep acts as a mini-campaign in its own right.
Each time the players arrive in a new location, there is new cult activity to investigate, new leads to follow and a new cast of characters to meet. Each chapter follows a similar structure of investigation, action and climax, before allowing the characters the time to rest and reflect as they move onto a new location and do it all over again.
Masks of Nyarlathotep ensures that players are always rewarded with a short term payoff, while also making progress on a larger goal.
As the chapters progress and the players deal with the events of each location, they piece together the wider mystery of the campaign. By having two ‘levels’ of investigation ongoing at all times, Masks of Nyarlathotep ensures that players are always rewarded with a short term payoff, while also making progress on a larger goal that takes the entire campaign to realise.
What really elevates the campaign to be so uniquely successful is just how different each of these chapters are in theme and atmosphere. From investigating a dangerous beast terrorising a quaint English village to uncovering an ancient subterranean city in the Australian outback or navigating the political pressure cooker of 1920s Shanghai, every new locale in the campaign presents unique experiences for the players. This diversity of content means that players that might usually get burned out or tired of a particular campaign or setting always have something new to look forward to. With Masks of Nyarlathotep, an epic conclusion and a new mystery are always right around the corner.
The latest edition of Masks of Nyarlathotep expands on previous editions, offering a new prologue chapter set in Peru. This excellent introduction to the campaign is a welcome addition that introduces key themes and characters to tackle some of the criticisms that were made of previous editions of the campaign. This expansion to the story, as happened once before with the addition of the Australia chapter in the 1996 edition, was a commendable decision and shows the writers’ commitment to creating something suitable for new and old fans alike.
There are places Masks of Nyarlathotep’s latest edition could have gone further in reinventing itself for a modern audience.
That’s not to say the campaign is perfect. With the original campaign written nearly four decades ago, it’s not surprising that parts of Masks of Nyarlathotep feel noticeably dated. Despite significant efforts to expand and update the campaign over the years, the feeling remains that there are places Masks of Nyarlathotep’s latest edition could have gone further in reinventing itself for a modern audience. There is something unsavoury in the choice made by the original writers that the USA and UK are unique in their resident cults having their origin in immigrants from another country, while Kenya, Egypt, China and Australia’s cults have their origin in their native peoples’ history or practices.
The campaign also suffers from a significant gender disparity in well-rounded characters. Of the 101 human NPCs significant enough to have portraits, just 27 are women, many of whom are one-dimensional villains or victims. Other mistakes, such as referring to Africa as a country at one point in the Kenya chapter, are disappointing to see in what is otherwise a well-researched historical adventure.
Despite these issues, Masks of Nyarlathotep is well deserving of its accolades. The action-packed thrills that the campaign provides are so varied, and the mystery players are faced with so intricately and expertly crafted, that the campaign is guaranteed to have something for everyone.
With an experienced GM that is able to put in the time to run this campaign for their group, Masks of Nyarlathotep promises an unforgettably epic experience that will keep you hooked for as many years as it takes to reach its end.