|by Andrew Leman and Jamie Anderson
played in July of 1991 at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, the Bell family horse farm, and various locations throughout Illinois
The Investigators travel through time on the trail of an evil sorceress, in a quest for a Biblical artifact of tremendous power.
This game won five trophies: Best Adventure, Best Plot, Best Keeper(s), Best Scenario, and Best SFX.
The Scenario award went to the Middle Ages section of the game.
The SFX award was for the first time-portal jump, in which the players leapt off a roof into a smoke-filled vortex without knowing what (if anything) they would be landing on.
This game was a time-travel adventure involving several distinctly different periods. The production and logistical challenges of live-action role-playing so many different locations and periods was why the game was called "The Epic." It also featured some high intensity full-immersion role-playing over a holiday weekend. One play session lasted about 36 consecutive hours: the players went to sleep and woke up in character.
This game was one of the rare ones in which the various Investigator characters entered the story from very different places: they only came together as a unit after the first few scenarios had unfolded. One of the Investigators was the victim of Yithian possession: when play resumed after his first scenario, he was shocked to discover it was five years later and he had no memory of what had taken place in the meantime. The other Investigator characters meanwhile had experiences with the Yithian-possessed version of his character, played temporarily by one of the Keepers.
Thanks to the Champaign-Urbana members of the Society for Creative Anachronism, who graciously lent us armor for the medieval section of the game, and to Chuck Young and members of Goedendag Battle Sports, who played the members of the court of King Lothaire.
Thanks to the biology and geology departments at the University of Illinois, who allowed us to use a number of authentic spaces in the very vintage Natural History building as the Locksley Hall locations, including two fantastic period offices for the players to use as their own. We put their names on the doors, got them their own keys and everything. They were right by the museum, so there were display cases of Indian artifacts, dinosaur bones, and lots of dead animals right down the hall to provide the proper atmosphere. We actually set up mailboxes for them in the teacher's lounge on the first floor, they had their own classroom, and everything. It was a lot of fun.
The Keepers went to great lengths to supply physical detail and role-playing opportunities in the opening scenarios of the game, particularly for Investigator Philip Grimm, played by Joe Foust. Lots of props, characters, and locations. We wanted him to have a rich experience of his character's life, so that when it was taken away from him by a Yithian he would really feel the loss. Although it was a lot of work, it was quite effective. Possibly one of the richest gaming situations we've ever come up with.
Grimm was supposed to fall asleep at the end of one of his first scenarios, and wake up in a completely different time and place. The Keepers wished they could arrange this somehow so that the surprise of waking in a new location was complete and genuine. They toyed with the concept of actually moving the player while he was asleep or unconscious, and actually waking him in a different location. It was quickly realized that would be impossible without inducing unconsciousness in excessive and irresponsible ways. In the end, they simulated the effect by blindfolding the player and driving him to the new location at the start of the second scenario, physically carrying him to and from the car to enhance his perception of being in a strange, new place. Joe Foust added to the effect with his excellent role-playing of the situation.
The Keepers were required to find a new location for one of the major scenarios of the game at the last minute, when a roommate suddenly became spitefully uncooperative. The original location was an apartment with a fireplace, beneath which was a deep pit for ashes. A copy of the Necronomicon was to be hidden in this pit, meant to be found much later in the story. When the location was changed, a new hiding place had to be found. We discovered later that, by coincidence, it turned out that the place used as the new location had a fireplace with a similar pit. There was also a cat in the house which, for reasons we never could figure out, kept staring suspiciously into the fireplace. The Investigators, being extremely paranoid, decided that the cat was trying to tell them something, and searched the pit below the fireplace. It was luck of the Keeper that the Necronomicon was not in fact hidden there, or it would have been found far too soon and the plot would have been derailed. (Had the book actually been hidden there, the cat would have deserved a Black Tentacle Award for his performance.)
The Time Portal, through which the Investigators jumped numerous times, was an extremely simple prop that gave spectacular results. Its first appearance was the most dramatic. It opened up in thin air about twelve feet above the ground: the night was dark, and fog and lightning boiled up from inside. Investigator Callahan saw Mariel Thorne jump off a roof and disappear into the maelstrom and immediately gave chase, diving in after her. Phil Grimm was at that moment outside the house, and saw his friend dive in after Mariel from a slight distance. Barely missing a beat, he ran in through the house, grabbed his hat (tipping it politely in farewell to the ladies still inside) and some papers and jumped into the still-open portal, with no idea what would happen to him. As he disppeared into the opening, it looked exactly like something out of a movie: his body silhouetted against the fog when the lightning flashed, freezing him in mid-air as he dropped into oblivion. The portal itself was an extremely simple device: essentially just a giant black fabric tube with a lightweight plastic pipe collapsible framework at the opening. The special effects were created with a few CO2 fire extinguishers and an electronic camera flash unit. Shiny silver fabric lining part of the inside of the tube was designed to enhance the flashes. The investigators landed on two huge pole vaulting mats, stacked one on top of the other, which had been borrowed from the U of I track coach. The whole thing was operated by about ten kokens dressed entirely in black, and the players reported later that in their excitement they really didn't see any of them. As far as they were concerned, it really was just a big hole in space with lightning and fog. They couldn't see the bottom, and all of them jumped through without hesitation, never stopping to wonder what, if anything, they would be landing on. That's a level of role-playing, commitment, and excitement that can only happen in a live-action game.
The Keepers wanted the game action to be as continuous as possible once the Investigators jumped through the Time Portal. Unfortunately, the location for the following scenario was an hour and a half south. To make the wait comfortable and keep real-world distractions to a minimum, the Keepers rented a Chrysler-Plymouth passenger van, dubbed "The Keepermobile." Immediately after making their Time Portal jump, each Investigator was blindfolded and escorted by a koken to the Keepermobile. They were kept blindfolded until the van was on the road to the next location. Despite everyone's excitement, the van was so comfortable and the hour so late that everyone snoozed in the van on the trip to the next location: even the Keeper who was driving. One of the Investigators actually took the wheel for a spell. As the van approached the destination, the Keeper resumed the wheel and the Investigators all put their blindfolds back on. At the site, they waited blindfolded in the van until last-minute preparations were complete.
The Keepers decided that jumping through a Time Portal should have some physical consequences. Two of the Investigators were rendered temporarily blind by their first jump. This was simulated by simply blindfolding the Investigators at the start of the scenario, and removing the blindfolds later during play. The Keepers also stripped the Investigators of many of their personal props, such as guns, knives, (toy guns and knives of course) and documents, and even some items of clothing. They made the mistake of also taking away Philip Grimm's cigarettes: an Investigator with a nicotine fit is very cranky. To stress the idea to the Investigators that going through the portal was risky, it was decided that one of the NPCs who jumped through would end up dead on the other side. Poor Margaret Thurman, played by Jennifer Bock, had to lie in damp grass for quite some time until her body was found. When the French bandits took the Investigators prisoner, they carried Margaret's body for a while, but eventually dumped it in some weeds because it was too heavy. The thankless Cthulhu Lives task of corpse duty....
In medieval France, the Investigators discovered that everyone spoke medieval French. The inability to communicate was a big part of the middle of the game. Paul Nyhus, who played the French friar who took the Investigators under his wing, and Arya Akmal, one of the French Bandits, are fluent in French, and were able to sell the whole French thing very well. One of the investigators knew just enough French to recognize the language they were hearing. Unfortunately, almost none of the other NPCs could speak French, so most of the talking in the bandit camp was actually gibberish spoken with Monty Python French accents. One of the keepers, playing Basle, and the NPC playing Jacques, the leader of the bandits, spoke stilted Russian in undertones just well enough to fool the investigators. It got quite surreal at times. (Later, in the Miskato Indian camp, the language was gibberish with some vague Tonto accent. When they finally met the shaman, the Investigators were truly thrilled to finally speak to someone who could understand English. It was a moment of genuine emotion that could never be achieved in a conventional role-playing game. And best of all, that was a moment the Keepers had planned and hoped for. We love it when a plan comes together.)
The medieval weaponry was all rigged to be safe to play with. Swords were made of plastic pipe covered with foam rubber. Arrows were tipped with foam rubber pads. Knives and quarterstaffs were all plastic or padded rattan. When Basle and Mariel begin their magical duel, kokens used fireworks to simulate effects: sparklers, smoke bombs, and the like.
Although the Investigator characters jumped through the Time Portal and escaped the medieval battlefield of King Lothaire before the fighting was over, the players themselves were able to witness the end of the melee. No one remained standing on the battlefield. The King's banners, tents, and silks lay strewn about the ground amidst the dead warriors and bandits. King Lothaire was trying to struggle to his feet. Basle, lying near the King and with his last dying effort, seized Lothair's crown and bonked him on the head with it. King Lothaire went down, and Jacque jumped up and ran off shouting some French victory slogan into the woods. It was truly a beautiful and hysterically funny moment, because the king (as played by Chuck Young) took his death very comically. The battle was not quite the spectacle the Keepers had hoped for, mostly because the king's team was horribly undermanned. But it was a lot of fun. There was no shortage of cool things happening, but of course the Investigators actually saw very little of it. A game of Cthulhu Lives sometimes feels like living through a movie, but one important difference is that in a movie the audience always has a view of everything the director wants it to see. In a game, great moments and even important story points can sometimes get lost in the confusion. On the battlefield, for example, Mary and Rachel never actually saw Mariel since they hung back by the river. In fact, they only saw the portal gaping open when Callahan pointed it out, so they ran for it. They might have been stranded forever in the middle ages!
The 1840 Miskato scenario was like one of the special effects in a movie that takes ten months to prepare and is on screen for three seconds. It was over very quickly, in comparison to the medieval scenario, and yet the Keepers' team built three full-size tipis and a central fire pit for it and had more than half a dozen horses standing by. The Keepers and NPCs had spent the weekend and much of the week before the game camping out in the village to give it as much of a "lived in" feeling as possible. The climactic chase of Mariel across the valley and into the Time Portal was originally supposed to be on horseback, and Jenn Anderson and Greg Bell, our horse wrangler and the guy who played the mounted Miskato brave, had rehearsed it earlier in the day. But the horses we had, which hadn't been ridden in a long time and weren't very well trained, proved to be completely intractable, throwing Greg twice and Jenn once, and we decided that it would be much safer all around to forego the plan, and the chase was on foot. It was a big disappointment, but it all worked out fine in the end. Investigator Callahan almost prevented Mariel's escape, tackling her as she reached the Portal. She used a magic code word provided by the Keepers to force him to release her. Still, he slowed her down almost enough for the other investigators to catch up. Fortunately for the keepers, Jenn had been in training for months before the game and was expecting a very physical role. One of the keepers, playing a Miskato brave who was supposed to be chasing Mariel, tried to get in the way of the rest of the crowd giving chase and ended up being pushed and dragged right through the portal. That unexpected detail forced the keepers to improvise an extra bit at the start of the next scenario.
Bear in mind that this game was played in 1991, so the 1995 scenario was set in what was then the future. We pictured a bleak world in which Dan Quayle was president of a weakened United States in the grip of another economic depression. The Investigators all came from the world of 1930: we wanted them to think that nothing much had improved since then.
The industrial site where Mariel's henchmen take the Investigators in 1995 was an asphalt processing factory on the oustkirts of Urbana, Illinois. The Keepers got permission to use the grounds, and informed the local police that they would be at the site late at night on the evening of play, to help avoid any potential panic calls or interruption of the game. A police cruiser came by tho check things out while the NPCs were waiting for the arrival of the Investigators, and everything went smoothly.
When the time came for the Investigators to drive away in the NPCs' car, Nick Offerman role-played brilliantly. Although of course he knew how to drive, he was playing a character from 1930 who didn't know how to operate a modern Subaru. Since he figured his character wouldn't know how to put the car into reverse, he got out and pushed it into position.
In the 1995 scenario, the Investigators learn that their nemesis Mariel Thorne is the daughter of CalTech physicist Kip Thorne. Kip Thorne is a real person: a prominent physicist who really has done seminal work on black holes and the theory of time travel. Although the real Kip Thorne does have a daughter, to the best of our knowledge she is not a murderous supervillain who dreams of cosmic destruction. At last report she was an actress in New York City. Paul Nyhus, who played several NPC parts in the game, is himself a physicist and he later obtained Kip Thorne's autograph for the Keepers as a memento.
Mariel's lab scenario was played in a house used as offices by members of the U of I physics department. We set up an attic room with bogus science equipment and Mariel's things. Several kokens hid in the dark corners of the room, and when the Yithian and the Investigators attacked Mariel, the kokens rushed out to work special effects "magic" with various types of fireworks. The "force field" which prevented Callahan from reaching Mariel was just a couple of kokens who physically held him back. They actually pinned him to a support beam while another koken doused him with cold watera little revenge Jenn had prearranged for Callahan's tackling her the scenario before.
Investigator Patrick O'Connell was a gangster, and was supposed to have some skills as a criminal. Although the character was adept at picking locks, Tom Carr, the player, had no such abilities. This is one of those rare occasions in Cthulhu Lives where the Investigator possesses a skill that the Player does not have. To compensate, the Keepers gave Tom a key to the building they were trying to "break in" to. O'Connell used this key as his "lock picking kit," and easily gained entry. The building was the apartment building in which one of the Keepers lived, and a basement room had been rigged with an actual brick wall that the Investigators could really break through to find the Necronomicon.
We don't roll dice in Cthulhu Lives, but if we ever did, the long search for the ingredients to the Miskato time drug would have been a good time to do so. One successful Spot Hidden roll could have saved Investigators and Keepers alike five hours of amusing but agonizing frustration. The lengthy search highlighted the difference in the game-playing styles of the two Keepers. Andrew tends to favor storytelling, and is willing to force experiences and outcomes in order to keep the plot moving in the desired direction. After three or four hours he was ready to just show the players where the damn jar of corn liquor was. But Jamie tends to favor the organic role-playing experience, and will disregard the story in favor of some interesting spontaneous development. He was also enjoying seeing the Investigators suffer, especially considering that the item they were looking for was resting in plain sight on a shelf in the room. But mostly he wanted the investigators to feel they had truly earned the last item on their own, instead of making it seem like the keepers had to "cheat" for them. After all, you can't go letting your investigators get too pampered. Callahan and Rachel looked right at it at least twice each without ever seeing it. Even when the search reached surreal proportions, Jamie was committed to letting it play out to its natural conclusion. Andrew was on the verge of either unconsciousness or exploding in disbelief at the investigatorsit was hard to make a decision at that point. The elusive jar was sitting on a shelf just below eye level, right next to a ticking clock. At one point Grimm got up from his work on the Necronomicon and went over to the clock and wrapped a towel around it, muttering that the ticking was driving him batty. He set it back down right next to the jar that his colleagues were desperately searching for without even realizing it. It was like something out of a very black comedy movie, and it was agony (and bliss) for the Keepers and the NPCs as well.
The pawn shop and the occult store were totally improvised scenarios. They were things that the investigators decided they wanted to do, and the Keepers and the great NPCs quickly made up some impromptu locations and characters to accommodate them. Both turned out to be very fun scenarios, both played simultaneously at opposite ends of town. The most amazing moment of the pawn shop scenario was when Liz Walden, who played Mary Patterson, shot and killed a helpless shop employee. In real life, Liz is a gentle pacifist-vegetarian-liberal. You can't imagine a less likely person to turn into a bloodthirsty Rambette. It was hilarious to see the fire in her eyes when she got that semiautomatic weapon in her hand. She had a ball. It was a kind of character development that would be very hard to achieve in a less intense style of role-playing.
The incredibly elaborate time-travel ritual performed by the Investigators at the end of the game was designed by Jamie Anderson and Richard Ragsdale, and is probably the most complicated ritual ever designed for a Cthulhu Lives game.
The location for the final confrontation scenario was a disused industrial park outside of Urbana. It really was riddled with pockets of quicksand-like mud, into which Investigators and NPCs occasionally fell. There were plenty of kokens on hand, some of whom operated fireworks to simulate Mariel's magic powers. Some had cans of fuel to stoke the bonfire at appropriate moments. And some restrained the Investigators, acting as Mariel's "force fields." The players were encouraged to express their will freely since the laws of physics, the keepers had decided, would not apply in any normal fashion in the final scenario. When Liz Walden stated that she intended to fly, one of the keepers let her climb onto his back so she could "fly" around and attack Mariel. Regrettably, Liz decided, or the keeper inferred from her steering, that she wanted to fly out and attack Mariel from the water. It's very hard to simulate flying while slogging through quicksand up to your hips with an investigator on one's back. Take that as a word of hard-earned wisdom.
It was a last-minute decision to rig a "stunt double" Rod of Aaron, which could be instantly transformed into a snake and then destroyed. The Investigators had seen the real Rod of Aaron prop several times during the game, and the double needed to look very similar or they would have guessed something was up. The real prop was made of wood, with a decorative tip made of hand-blown blue glass. The double was designed by Chris Prescher and Andrew Leman. It was made of segments of PVC tubing hinged with muslin, all surrounded by foam pipe insulation. A six-foot steel rod was inserted to keep it rigid until the proper moment, and when the steel was withdrawn, the Rod doubled in length and became totally flexible. It worked very well, and in the dark it looked a lot like the original Rod of Aaron until the snake transformation.
In live-action role-playing, you never know for sure how things are going to end up. The Keepers didn't plan to kill off Patrick O'Connell, it just worked out that way. They also didn't anticipate that Grimm would try to resurrect him using a spell from the Necronomicon. But it seemed only fair to let it work: the Investigators had been through a great deal, and Grimm had paid the price for his occult knowledge. Besides, the Keepers had grown fond of Patrick, and were sad when he got killed.
The players clamored for a sequel when this game was over, because they felt the story was unresolved. Jamie and Andrew have plans for the continuation of the game, but it will have to wait until they win the lottery, because what they have planned would cost millions of dollars to produce. Of course, donations would be accepted....