The Long Run: On Getting MoN “Wrong”

“I’m going to finish this, even if it means I’m playing by myself.” -Keeper Dave (esteemed co-host of the MU Podcast)

Disclaimer: This is not really an admonishment or castigation of others. In truth, it’s more of a conversation with myself. While the principal subject matter is MoN, this discussion applies to any long-form TTRPG campaign, creative project, or sustained effort. 

Conventional internet wisdom cautions prospective Keepers to steer clear of MoN if they cannot guarantee dedicated time, committed players, and willingness to read the campaign at least once before launching the adventure. Being a fool, I openly refute these limiting precepts. I’ve previously suggested an alternative to the prescribed cover-to-cover study, so I will focus on the obsession with successful completion. Be warned, I plan on digging into my position about embracing failed launches, incomplete executions, and player attrition. In short, this is about devilish expectations and fear of failure. 

For context, I recently passed the three-year mark of my own MoN campaign. We all took a two-year-long sabbatical on the (very, very) long train to the Far East. Then returned with a single continuing player, and started in a completely different chapter with all new investigators. Oh, and now we’re playing Pulp. Since resuming five months back, we’ve logged just four sessions and no one is openly committing to completing the campaign. I haven’t even brought that up. Why? For one, I’ve done this before, but, more importantly, because I’m simply enjoying the slow ride from session to session…

When I started this latest MoN campaign, the pandemic was raging, I had recently moved cross-country, had no social contacts, and took a blind stab at reconnecting with some old high school buddies at the virtual gaming table. A hefty, deeply invested MoN campaign with dear friends was exactly what I needed during some very grim times. It burned off a roiling head of mental steam and spawned the Prospero House project in the process. As kids went back to school and sports, new businesses opened, and nightlife resumed in earnest, our campaign tapered and I stumbled into a new creative project that demanded a great deal of writing and playing time. I found myself with an orphaned MoN campaign…I had become the one they warned you about. There was a palpable sense of loss and failure, especially after such an auspicious start. As I went on with other gaming and creative pursuits, I interrogated these feelings and motives about my latest campaign attempt. 

Although others suggest Keepers should first probe into whether or not they have time and players before diving into that MoN slipcase, I propose an alternative first-order question: who are you running MoN for? 

Is it for a tirelessly dedicated group of gaming soldiers that will show up every single week demanding a game? If so, the onus is on you to arrive prepared to fulfill everyone’s MoN dream. As we all know thanks to memes and our personal experiences, this would be a truly exceptional, possibly surreal experience. 

Are you running it because a collection of interested parties have collaborated to share the experience of MoN and have elected you as the party responsible for presenting the campaign? In this case, everyone presumably has an equal stake in the experience. You want them to have a great time, and they want you to have a great time. Maybe everyone chipped in equally and bought the slipcase, funded the eBay purchase of a MoN Companion, and ordered the HPLHS Prop Set. 

More plausibly, this is a personal dream. You were drawn to this campaign…for good reason. Maybe you asked Reddit what the best long-form Call of Cthulhu experience was. Maybe a vendor talked you into buying it. Maybe it’s sat on your shelf for years. Maybe you purchased it and immediately started organizing a group. No matter what, you WANT to run this. It’s something that is gnawing at you. You want to know what it’s like to take the good friends of Jackson Elias across the globe to save humanity. You desire to share this adventure with invested players and create a story. In doing this, your hard work will be rewarded with entertainment and a sense of accomplishment. A massive and legendary campaign under your belt. An achievement! Right?

Well, only if you finish, so some say. This notion that you can only claim this sense of satisfaction with full completion is false. Terribly, unequivocally false. I tell you this as I must tell myself this. Too often, especially in the world of gaming, we castigate ourselves for unfinished projects. We incorrectly identify them as signals of failure. Lack of effort. Poor planning. Along the way, we terrorize ourselves about our missteps, bad calls, and off-days. How does this happen?

First, we spend too much time in the lonely work of preparation. We build fantastic expectations and develop elaborate expansions to the already expansive plot. Guilty. The length of the campaign and its time commitment forestalls the inevitable launch. We look for the optimal timing, players, exhaustive knowledge, and table resources. People tell us we must do this! All this front-loading along with the incumbent gravitas of “greatest campaign written” generates a great deal of stress and performance anxiety from the outset. Our emotional investment in success builds. 

And it continues to build as play takes off and continues. If we are to do this grand-daddy of all campaigns justice, we must execute perfectly! Especially since other people have managed to do it—ten times over, even! It becomes a badge of honor, we feel we must earn. A mountain we must climb. But our team of players may not be able to go along with us. They may bail at the worst possible moments for all manner of reasons. Our own lives may intercede, rudely. Conditions may not be favorable to summit this great gaming summit. 

Though we’re talking about MoN and not Beyond the Mountains of Madness, I’m going to lean into the alpine metaphor. Successful, seasoned climbers who reach the highest peaks must accept many setbacks and delays before achieving their goals. They must wait out storms. Retreat from an ascent. Abandon fully invested expeditions. Return the following seasoning or stand by for years awaiting better conditions. Most importantly, each incremental effort and obstacle gives them just a little more knowledge and experience to enrich their next successful endeavor.

Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay ready for the expedition’s second attempt of Everest. A first ascent built on a series of incomplete runs.

If you desire to complete MoN, you must be open to the prospect of defeat and failure. You must accept challenges as a feature of the experience. You should absolutely count ANY attempt as a success and embrace a growth mindset towards your role as a Keeper. Finally, I implore you to consider alternatives to the “traditional” run-through relying on a core group of players and years of consistent play. 

Sometimes you do what it takes to get over the finish line…

In the subsequent post, I descend from my insufferable soapbox and toss off some concise suggestions that may help approach these matters.