Ask Uncle Von: Habitat and Habits of the Pripyat Beast

Dr. Shiny gave me a buzz the other day and said:

Can I have some GM advice? I recently ran a Call of Cthulhu game set in Pripyat (with two Pripyat Beasts wandering around). The problem is, with such a large play area, there are too many places to run away and hide, and only so many times the creatures can randomly stumble over the player without it becoming ridiculous after a while. It was a really good game (and I really want to use Pripyat again), but how would you go about plausibly upping the risk of an encounter?

First things first: here’s what he’s on about.

When the secondary nuclear reactor exploded, it spewed forth a torrent of radioactivity. The inhabitants of the surrounding towns survived just long enough to dig mass graves for their dead. The unprotected and ultimately doomed clean-up volunteer force sent a flurry of distress signals, reporting the emergence of jumbled beasts from underneath piles of bodies. These creatures, sickening amalgamations of people and livestock, varied in appearance.

art and text by Keith Robertson, Drawing and Painting the Undead.

So, basically, it’s an eldritch horror spawned of radiation and Forces Unknown acting in terrible, unconscious concert to bring forth a shambling wossname that rends and devours the living. So far, so good, and something I’d expect intelligent players to use the environment provided to avoid or defeat. It’s a good monster.

The problem, as I see it, Herr Doktor, is… well, in classical roleplaying terms, it’s that you’ve built a city-sized dungeon and you’ve only put two encounters in it. I might, if I were a bit of a git, call it quite a severe case of Maliszewski’s Syndrome.

You have a few choices.

First, and this is my least favourite one, you engineer the environment so that there are fewer ways to avoid your two Beasts. I always thought that part of the dungeon’s popularity, as a setting for RPG events, was that it offered a way to keep things segregated and tidy and players moving along a general route between planned events – they could certainly move around them in a different order, revisit them, bypass them and generally subvert them, but they’d be interacting with the stuff you put in there because the space they’re moving through doesn’t really let them do much else.

I don’t like this sort of thing. Not letting people do things is not how I think RPG is formed. I also think it sits ill with the open-ness of the devastated cityscape; have you ever played through a computer game that won’t let you go down side streets even though you can see them, right there?

Second, I suppose you could always just put more Beasts in. There were 50,000 people in Pripyat. How many of them died there? How many of them came back? In this case the horror of the game becomes much more conventional – “what happens if these things get out? look at the size of them! look at their claws!”

Whether this one works or not is largely down to what you want your game to be About. If it’s About managing, controlling, and otherwise limiting the actions of the Beasts, which pose a terrible threat to something-or-other, then having more than two Beasts seems sensible. But you only had two, which makes me wonder whether your game is About the Beasts at all…

Thirdly, and this is the one that I prefer, you refocus your expectations as a GM away from “the players encounter the Beast” and towards… something else. I usually go for “make players feel something” – not setting out with a specific something in mind, but always looking for ways that things can be turned up, so that whatever the players happen to be feeling can be intensified.

I wouldn’t set out with a theme and mood in mind for Pripyat – I’d set out thinking “what else can I put in this nuclear-blasted city besides the Beasts, and how can I make that into an encounter?” It does have to -be- an encounter – let’s not have too many rooms containing a mysterious gewgaw that you either find or don’t find and that’s the end of it. I think there have to be people – survivors.

Survivalists, even. There are supposed to be 3,500 or so people still inside the irradiated area – those who couldn’t or wouldn’t leave. There’s potential horror there. There could be living miners. Beast-hunters. Black marketeers, on the lookout for some tasty irradiated material. Tourists, if we’re going to go a bit crazy – touring the scene, gravely assessing the devastation, and scooping up some decayed crystals to show Grandma when they get home. People who derive a certain illict thrill from being there.

Perhaps someone like Elena, too, whether her story’s true or not: a kind of adventurer, there for the same reason your PCs are there – whatever that is. Someone a bit more ambiguous – are they there because it’s there, are they there because they want to feel all dangerous and free-spirited, are they there because someone has to see it and tell the world? They’re not on the tour, that’s for certain

I’d treat it like a dungeon, or like a WoD city, rather than a narrative, in the way Call of Cthulhu scenarios tend to be devised. There always seems to be a sense of linear flow to the pre-written Cthulhu stuff – this happens, then this happens, the PCs need to go here and do this and then that and then the other before that happens or they all get eaten/driven mad by grobble monsters. I think it’s something to do with the literary source of the game; there’s a tendency to think about it as a related narrative, a kind of ghost walk, something which has its shape before the players come to it and which they explore rather than devise.

What I’d be tempted to do would be to draw up a bunch of factions and NPCs – people who are all there, for whatever reason they’re there – and let them react to the Beast and let the players react to them. In other words, don’t make the game about the Beast, and don’t get hung up if the players only encounter the thing once.

It’s a big place. Put more stuff in it. If necessary, include a Quantum Beast – no matter where the players go or what the players do, they will encounter a Beast at a dramatically appropriate point. The important thing here is making sure that the players’ choices continue to have an impact after the Beast has turned up; that the places they’ve gone and the people they’ve interacted with are affected by and affecting because of the Beast’s appearance.

It’s not really about the monsters, after all. It’s about the people who run from them.

8 thoughts on “Ask Uncle Von: Habitat and Habits of the Pripyat Beast

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  1. “There always seems to be a sense of linear flow to the pre-written Cthulhu stuff – this happens, then this happens, the PCs need to go here and do this and then that and then the other before that happens or they all get eaten/driven mad by grobble monsters. I think it’s something to do with the literary source of the game; there’s a tendency to think about it as a related narrative, a kind of ghost walk, something which has its shape before the players come to it and which they explore rather than devise.”

    This is the sort of thing that puts me off CoC these days, having taken a ‘player character autonomy’ turn as a GM. That, and the fact that well done CoC, railroaded or not, depends of creating and maintaining a mood, and I’m not sure that I’d be that good at that. Nevertheless, building a ‘world sandbox’ of occult ‘dungeons’ might be a good idea for a CoC game. The PCs are professional investigators, but who have enough autonomy (in game terms, and in in-game terms, as their ‘agency’ is off the books) to do what they will. Hmmm, an idea is forming… a chance to throw Beyond the Mountains of Madness together with Indiana Jones-style romps, and all manner for short adventures…

    1. But yes, I’d agree with all your advice. Except the ‘quantum’ beast. Put more things in there, and the whole town can be peppered with suitable evidence of the beasts. Trails, sounds, spoor, etc. All fixed, no quantum evidence necessary. And, if there are enough other bits and pieces, the PCs can be ensured adventure without encountering the beasts directly, if they choose not to pursue it, or fail to find/interpret the clues. These encounters can easily be short scenarios in themselves. And these scenarios might take them closer to the beasts, or bring the beast closer to them – a gun-fight with scavengers? Gunfire, or death, might attract the beasts…

      1. That’s a fair set of suggestions. If I have a fault as a GM, it’s that I’m much more interested in characters and relationships (be they personal or political or conceptual) than I am in environments. My best games have been the ones where I’ve overcome that deficiency and sited things in a very strongly defined space, but it tends to be the last thing I think about when I’m actually designing. So I tend to be a bit crap at setting up evidence trails…

    2. Isn’t that basically Delta Green?

      (Also, I hear you with the ‘mood’ thing – I have the exact opposite problem in that I’m not interested enough in spaces and resources to really do a good ‘adventure’ sandbox, although I can run a damn good political one…)

      1. I wrote a long reply, which appears to have been eaten. Probably for the best. I said ‘yes, but’, to Delta Green (not having read Delta Green, mind). The but is autonomy to choose missions, rather than simply within missions. If PCs work for an organisation, the ordering of the adventures, of the sites explored, is railroaded. Sure, at one level removed from ‘the adventure is a plot written by the GM and the players play their parts’ level of railroading, but still more ‘railroady’ than “here’s a map, here’s a series of rumours, next session, where do you lot want to go?”

        Speaking of player autonomy, I can’t see how Only War, the FFG 40k RPG in which you play a soldier in the Imperial Guard is meant to work. Where is the freedom to make anything other than tactical decisions? Shouldn’t it be a version of Necromunda that has mated with Warhammer Quest?

        So, the CoC sandbox game, as I envisage it (whether I actually run it is a totally different thing) would have the roster of PCs as the organisation. There is nothing above them. Sure, there might be a shadowy government contact or two, but no-one gets to tell the PCs what to do. The PCs are provided with a map of the world, marked with occult sites, are fed rumours from a traditional sandbox rumour table (newspaper headlines, intelligence reports, anonymous telephone calls, etc.) and the PCs decide where to take the DC-3 for this week’s pulp horror adventure. If a meta-narrative starts to emerge, it does so from the actions of the PCs.

        Anyway, I’m running a D&D game at the moment…

  2. Thank you for this insightful response. I was playing with a single player, whose plane crashes in Pripyat (he’s the only survivor) and encounters these things. The exclusion zone being so large, leaving Pripyat on foot is impractical, so with only a single player I thought two would suffice. It’s just he managed to give them the slip and tended to bunker up in out of the way places. He actually only had one decent encounter, and the rest was tension and suspense (which wasn’t bad, but there needed to be more payoff for that tension). Next time I’ll need a way to flush him out some more.

    I put in sub-plots where he was finding the bodies and evidence of a small science team investigating the Pripyat beasts (and the cover-up later), as well as a plot strand where the creation of the Beasts (and the Chernobyl Incident itself) was orchestrated by those in command for an unknown nefarious Purpose, so there was stuff to do while he hid in the sauna.

    1. Simple answer is to flush him out with humans. Paranoid idiots who think he’s a government spy, cannibal survivors, bandits trying to steal his stuff, messed up “zombies”, whatever.

      I’ve played a lot of the STALKER computer games (Shadow of Chernobyl, Clear Sky and Call of Pripyat), and they, being set in the area of Chernobyl and Pripyat, give you a vision of the desolation and the creepiness of the place.

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