You crack open Masks of Nyarlathotep for the first time. The crisp binding crackles as you breathe in that new book smell and admire the bright red ribbon page marker knowing it won’t be long before your cat chews the end into a frayed tangle. You eagerly flip through the pages. As you pause to admire the beautiful artwork, you note a heading entitled “Sidetrack Scenario”. You think to yourself, “I wonder what that is, probably just an add-on. But we will be so busy with the main story, I won’t have time to prep anything extra.”
But wait! I urge you to pause and rethink skipping the sidetrack scenarios and listen to my case. First, I will walk you through the top reasons why you should absolutely play and experience all six sidetrack scenarios. If, despite my best efforts, you decide you still can’t fit them all in, I will weigh in with my personal ranking of these scenarios on the scale of fun to help you select the best ones for you and your group to play.
Here are my top 6 reasons why you should consider playing every sidetrack scenario in this epic campaign:
6. TAKE A BREAK: Masks is an incredibly long campaign. It took me and my players two and a half years of consistent play to complete it, and I’ve read stories of groups that take even longer than this! When working with a campaign this expansive, you may experience peaks and valleys in the storyline—meaning times when your players are hot on the trail and times when they feel a little lost, and the pace of the game slows. The sidetrack scenarios serve as a reprieve from the rigor of the primary adventure. It was an opportunity to put aside their growing pile of clues and leads while experiencing something new with their investigators and tackling a smaller-scale dilemma. I found that stepping away for a little bit using these short adventures re-energized my group and renewed their excitement to return to the campaign trail. Overall, the variety kept my players fresh and engaged throughout the long haul.
5. BE SILLY: Once players caught on that these were segments of the game unrelated to the main storyline, it allowed their investigators to be a bit more relaxed. While most of my games are generally more lighthearted, MoN features many tense moments, so we tended to play more on the serious side. Some of our most ridiculous campaign moments are from the sidetracks. With less intense stakes, everyone felt more freedom to let loose a little, resulting in some pretty hilarious hijinks.
4. SETTING IMMERSION: One aspect that is truly amazing about MoN is the amount of depth provided for each different location. I enjoyed researching and diving into every country my players visited. I took notes and gathered my historical knowledge as best I could to ensure every locale felt unique. The sidetracks provided an opportunity to further explore what each location had to offer, allowing players a chance to really immerse themselves in the setting. This included getting to know the locals, learning about the history of the location, and giving Keepers the chance to explore different sides of the country, or sometimes a whole new country…but more on that later.
3. LONG-TERM CONSEQUENCES: Despite their lower campaign stakes, these scenarios often resulted in long-term consequences for those that they helped or hurt. For example, in Australia, players are faced with the dilemma of what to do with a murderous man, who also happens to have two young sons. Not only are they presented with a moral dilemma, but whatever option they choose has lasting repercussions for the characters in the story. In addition, I found the sidetrack scenarios had a funny way of inspiring me to expand the campaign further and continue the stories we experienced, which meant these consequences would sometimes follow my players. In England, one of my players was bitten by the serpent person, which for fun, I adjusted so that he would slowly transform into a serpent person himself. This put him on track to find a cure, which required travel to several different locations. Allowing your creativity to shine and expand on these scenarios will increase enjoyment for everyone playing. It’s always a great time seeing the look on your players’ faces when they realize something they did waaayyy back in England is the cause of what’s happening to them now.
2. DROP CLUES: If you sense your players are truly lost and not putting together the pieces of the main campaign, you can always drop in clues or hints during these sidetrack scenarios to help your players along. Did they miss an essential clue? Maybe the person in the sidetrack scenario got hold of it. Not sure where to investigate in town? Surely someone will be a gossip. Use these scenarios as a chance to shift players back on track if needed.
1. FUN TIMES: Finally, and most importantly, the sidetracks are an insane amount of fun. They are well-written, interesting, and a great time to play. When I look back on the MoN campaign with my players, some of my funniest and best memories are from these scenarios. So don’t miss your chance to experience something awesome.
I’ve convinced you now, right? Next, I’ll go through my ranking of these sidetrack scenarios, which will include spoilers! A number of factors went into my ranking, but the most important was how much fun we had playing them. Read your way to the bottom to find out which scenario was my favorite!
6. THE BLACK CAT (Egypt): Poor Janwillem Van Heuvelen is down on his luck, fired from the Clive Expedition and wandering the streets of Cairo. When he’s given an opportunity to get back in the good graces of the expedition (except, not really), he pounces at the chance. This results in him stealing the Black Rites of Luveh-Keraphf from a temple of Bast—which, I mean, don’t we all know it’s a bad idea to steal from a temple? But don’t worry, no humans were there to witness his theft. Unfortunately for him, Bast’s feline friends were and now follow Van Heuvelen all over town. And that’s where the players come in, as they witness things escalate if the scroll is not returned.
The best part of this scenario was the fun imagery of cats pursuing Van Heuvelen in packs and getting the chance to plague the players with the same fate once they’ve gotten involved. It’s pretty likely that this scenario will be resolved without bloodshed. And while Neris is an interesting and cool character, the conflict of Van Heuvelen wanting to translate the scroll and Neris demanding the scroll be returned didn’t seem like a difficult choice to make. What would you do with panther claws at your throat?
5. THE DEMON CABINET OF MISTER LUNG (China): Continuing with the cat theme, only this time in demon form, The Demon Cabinet of Mister Lung features revenge, feng shui, a room of mirrors, and, of course, kitty claws. Fortunately for Mister Lung, he is an astrologer, so he is fully aware a demon will show up sometime during the next day. Unfortunately for the investigators, he isn’t sure what form the demon will take, so any new customers are a potential threat. This scenario is likely to involve fighting of some sort, whether with Mister Lung or Wu, the transformed cat-demon.
I loved having fun with the investigators, telling their fortunes, reading auras, and eventually finding a way to trick them into the demon cabinet. There are a few ways this can play out, but it’s ultimately just a quick detour from the main story in China. And who knows, your players might leave with some extra ideas of how to protect themselves from the madness of the Mythos! (Publisher’s Note: events in “The Black Cat” potentially provide the investigators with a means of handling this devilish Siamese.)
4. BUCKLEY’S GHOST (Australia): Buckley’s Ghost is the shortest of the sidetrack scenarios. Grab your crayons for this one because I had a blast communicating clues to my players via Slattery’s 10-year-old son! Slattery and Buckley used to work as an Outback mining duo until distrust began to boil between the two, and Buckley left the team. But grudges aren’t forgotten so easily. Buckley came back years later after Slattery had a family. Chaos ensued, and Slattery ended up accidentally killing his own wife, and subsequently murdering the wounded Buckley in anguished rage. Now Buckley is stuck as a ghost, seeking revenge on Slattery.
Your investigators face a moral dilemma: do they bring Slattery to justice – either by death or legally? What happens to his sons? Or do they leave it be and let Buckley’s ghost stay in flux? This scenario was an interesting time to have my players explore their investigators’ moral compass. Let’s just say my players had to rely on some old contacts to find a new good home for the two boys.
3. THE GAME LODGE (Kenya): New powers can be difficult to control. This scenario explores one of the disasters Penhew and Huston of the Carlyle Expedition left in their wake after Nyarlathotep bestowed magical gifts upon them in Egypt. The blowhard owner of a hunting lodge, Colonel Henry Endicott, confessed his grief over the loss of his wife and child to Penhew and Huston during a bout of serious drinking. To their credit, the bumbling, intoxicated villains simply wanted to reunite Endicott with his family; however, Raise Dead is not an easy spell to pull off, and no good deed goes unpunished. The two fledgling mages succeeded in creating revenants instead. Now the land is cursed, with revenants roaming every night. Endicott is abandoned and left to deal with not only the loss of his family, but also a failing business (those pesky revenants are chasing everyone away, and, well… murdering a few), all while enduring a tarnished reputation.
I found this scenario the most challenging of them all to resolve. Your players will have to decide how long they’re willing to commit to helping solve the revenant issue; otherwise, they may decide the best course of action is to persuade the good Colonel to abandon his livelihood. To make matters more interesting, while attempting to solve Endicott’s dilemma he potentially becomes a major liability thanks to his Indefinite Insanity and absurd pomposity. Obviously, the only permanent solution is to use magic. So gear up for some major Sanity loss, folks!
2. THE DERBYSHIRE HORROR (England): The longest sidetrack scenario offers what appears to be a classic werewolf story but instead inserts a Lovecraftian ghoul. The curse of the Vane family only affects the females in the family line, and after many years of respite, the curse has finally resurfaced with young Eloise Vane. This sidetrack gives the investigators an opportunity to travel to the English countryside, offering a break from the London backdrop and proximity to Henson Manufacturing. This scenario offers some solid and fun NPCs to play, starting with the arrogant local policeman, Constable Hubert Tumwell, who has clearly already solved the problem himself, so why are the investigators even wasting their time here?
It was a joy getting to entangle my players in the Vane family dynamics, the countryside of Lesser Edale, and, the epic Plum Castle. This scenario presented another difficult choice: kill Eloise or let her live. Or, if you’re my players, have such an awesome plan for a spell to dispel the curse that I just had to let them pull it off. (Publisher’s Note: This one also works well as a prelude scenario with Jackson!)
1. THE CHELSEA SERPENT (England): Of all the sidetrack scenarios, this is the easiest to tweak the location for—all you need is a house, some drugs, an insane painter, and a serpent person. So there’s no excuse not to fit it into your game! Miles Shipley, an artist, meets a stranger in a pub that promises to show the painter incredible scenes never before captured on canvas. Unbeknownst to Miles, this “stranger” was a high sorcerer of the serpent people, and while yes, Ssathasaa shows Miles some pretty epic scenery, it, of course, comes at a price. Ssathasaa takes up residence with Miles, so they have a safe place to feed and hatch plans. While Miles is occupied with his painting and a Plutonian Drug addiction, Ssathasaa is busy feeding on the locals, starting with Miles’ mother, Bertha. Upon arriving at the Shipley House, the players encounter Ssathasaa in the form of Bertha (which is an incredible amount of fun to play) and an out-of-it artist with Sanity-blasting paintings in his attic studio.
I found this scenario had the most opportunity for expansion. Remember when I said sidetrack scenarios allow for exploration and immersion into a setting? Well, this scenario has an opportunity to take it to an extreme. Although the “Painting in the Closet” section, where players may get pulled into a prehistoric landscape, is marked for Pulp Cthulhu, I found that this worked very well with Classic Cthulhu and could lead to a session (or more) in itself! The Plutonian Drug was an interesting rabbit hole as well, the ingredients are in the basement—is anyone up for a side hustle? On top of all that, if there is one serpent person here, who knows where else they may creep?
So there you have it, my top reasons why you should consider putting in the extra time and effort to plan and play the sidetrack scenarios in Masks of Nyarlathotep. And hopefully, my ranking helps inspire and inform you on how to best fit them into your campaign.
Best of luck preparing and playing Masks of Nyarlathotep, and I hope you have a blast exploring the sidetrack scenarios. If you’d like more of my top tips on running the campaign, check out my YouTube playlist on Masks here.
-Leslie “XPLovecat” Horn
For more from XPLovecat check out her appearance on the Miskatonic University Podcast. She has even more tabletop gaming content beyond MoN on her YouTube channel. If you’re a writer in need of developmental and line editing services for fiction and tabletop games, visit her website, www.xplovecat.com, to learn more.