As we have mentioned before and you well know, MoN’s fame and legacy rely in no small part on its reputation as an unforgiving PC meatgrinder. However, the latest edition mitigates this in several ways by altering some particularly deadly bits and introducing Pulp Considerations. Even still, MoN remains a dangerous campaign with a high probability of gruesome Investigator deaths and crippling insanity. While we here at Prospero House do enjoy some gory blood-soaked tales, we also prefer for them either to be thoughtfully constructed or very clearly grindhouse fare before we sit down with them.
In a similar vein, you will want to prepare your players, particularly ones new to RPGs and/or CoC, that this campaign contains the highest of stakes and their characters will be faced with potentially lethal or brain-melting situations. Couching death and insanity as exciting features of the campaign rather than a measure of player success or a potential outcome to avoid can go a long way in relieving new player anxiety. Simultaneously encouraging them to create (at least) two characters for the campaign may have them looking forward to when they get to dive into their next persona rather than dreading their first character’s demise.
Sitting in the Keeper’s seat allows you to observe what excites your players and how their characters approach the dangers populating MoN. You don’t have to spend much time playing CoC to encounter the players and their respective characters that love getting their hands on spells, tomes, and Mythos knowledge irrespective of the cost. Unless they refuse to pay attention, these players know they have a limited game shelf life. Sending them to their end through an incredible revelation or encounter with a Mythos entity should satisfy them much more than, say, getting hit by a cultist driving recklessly. Similarly, the more physically inclined players typically like to go out in a blaze of glory. Crafting a mutually satisfying death for your players will bring them back ready for the next one.
To maximize that mutual satisfaction you should lean on proper timing. Bumping off players at the start of a session, unless previously arranged, can spell disaster for your pacing. To avoid players sitting on their hands during a session, you will want to tailor your high-risk situations for chapter or session climaxes so the players can have time to pick up the pieces (sometimes literally). Once the backup is available, try to thoughtfully and seamlessly introduce the character into play.
We don’t recommend micromanaging your players’ character choices, but you can consider noticing what skills drop from the party’s pool when you anticipate intentionally murdering one of them. If this may prove particularly impactful based on where your players intend to land next, you can introduce or offer up some possible replacement NPCs.
On the other hand, if you have a player that enjoys throwing themself into harm’s way regardless of the consequences, you should, by all means, oblige them within reason. When this does happen, though, it might be helpful to check in with the player and make certain they aren’t acting out due to boredom or frustration. It never hurts to remind players, particularly those new to CoC, that running away remains a viable (and respectable) option.
No discussion about player death and MoN would be complete without touching on the total party kill (TPK). At the outset, we expressed our preference for thoughtfully constructed bloodbaths. The TPK, when deployed, should be crafted with care only to serve the story and the players. The current edition alleviated or removed some major TPK threats, but remember campaign books don’t kill PCs, Keepers kill PCs. The total party kill can be deployed for good to prematurely close a campaign if the playgroup will be disbanding due to real-life interference.
Though unlikely, all your players may be outwardly bored of their characters and ready to bring on a backup, and a TPK could dramatically facilitate this. If your playgroup had set aside another campaign to take up MoN and they left their beloved old PCs idle, you could consider offering them as the replacement team of Investigators after a TPK. While this might take some finagling and a little retconning to make it fit, your players could be open to the idea instead of generating new characters. You could even set this up in advance by identifying your campaign’s danger spot well in advance and positioning the backup team there ahead of time.
Should your players stubbornly crash headlong towards their demise you might want to select (or randomly determine) a single PC with an interesting reason for escape or survival. You can even arrange this after the session with the prospective candidate. This character can then serve as the continuity node and recruiting agent for the next party. Under no circumstance should a TPK result from Keeper frustration or bloodlust. Unless gracefully crafted and executed with ample service to the story a TPK may upset your otherwise wonderful campaign. On the other hand, your players may love it, and revel in the carnage, but it’s best to know this well beforehand.
Ultimately, your group’s expectations should be well-aligned. If you and your players want to play a gruesome and gritty meatgrinder, go for it. No mercy. However, if you have a table that gets attached to their PCs and enjoys continuity, you can soften things up for them, allow redos, or employ NPC meat shields. Having a clear discussion early on during Session Zero will allow your group to settle on their preferred difficulty level and will help to avoid disappointments and discouragement.
How did your group approach the potential MoN meatgrinder? If you had a TPK, how did your Investigators pick up the pieces?