The Hollow Stars

A Call of Cthulhu Scenario

TODO (TODO)

~1,700 words

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Last modified: February 1st, 12,022 HE

How do you go about convincing someone to give table-top role-playing games a go, when their only knowledge of them is Dungeons & Dragons is geeky? Easy: dupe them by running a game in a setting that they trust! That’s right, it’s the old pie in the windowsill trick; they haven’t seen that one since ’nam.

The Situation

It was in the waning days of 2021 (recently voted worst year of the year by Chronologist Quarterly) that I found myself without any New Year’s Eve plans beyond having a couple friends over. Though any memory of the finer details of the conversation were lost the morning after, I had recently been talking to one of those friends about tabletop role-playing games (TTRPGs), and how they are excellent. Unconvinced, she swore that she would never be seen dead playing some Dungeons & Dragons nerd foolishness.1 However, the other friend due to come up is a seasoned veteran of such nerd foolishness, and the alternative would be having to talk to one another all night, so I accepted the unintended challenge.

Priming the Mark

Firstly, it swiftly became clear that my doubting Thomas didn’t really have any idea of what playing a TTRPG actually entailed. Rather than try to describe to her the thrills of the Theatre of the Mind, or the variety of dice available for one’s rolling pleasure, I instead showed her the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons and Advanced Advanced Dungeons & Dragons episodes of Community, which was a show she already knew.2

Her skepticism wavering slightly with exposure to the reality of play, she nonetheless remained unmoved by all talk of kobolds and wizardry. Clearly, a different setting would be required.

The Trojan Horse

Like many women her age, my friend loves Gilmore Girls, Amy Sherman-Palladino’s early-oughts TV series about how access to wealth corrupts otherwise well-meaning people, and why we we should cheer for the revolution that would see them all put against the wall and shot. The series, for the uninitiated, follows a single mother—Lorelei—who reconnects with her estranged (and extravagantly wealthy) parents so that they will agree to pay for her daughter—Rory—to attend a prestigious private school.

Over the show’s seven seasons (and recent four-episode Netflix revival) we follow the mother’s attempts to find love that isn’t her baby daddy, the daughter’s journey from private school to Ivy League college to directionless meandering (leaving a trail of implausibly-smitten romantic victims in her wake) and the parents’ quest to ruin everything they touch because their obscene wealth and the considerations that come with it make that unavoidable. Paris is the best character, Mitchum is the hero of the story, all of my opinions here expressed are correct. The less said about seasons 6 and 7, the better:

Knowing that the way to a girl’s heart is through her media consumption, I therefore announced that I could run a TTRPG set within the world of Gilmore Girls, with nary dungeon nor dragon in sight. I had watched a grand total of two or three episodes of the show at this point, so I didn’t exactly know how I would do this, but I figured I’d leave the implementation details to later. Hesitantly, my friend agreed to give me the benefit of the doubt and commit to the game.

This was the end of November, giving me only a month to binge-watch 153 45-minute episodes—114 hours and 45 minutes of content. Though I gave it my best effort, playing the show at 1.5× speed in the background of my flat day-in and day-out, I only made it up to S05E08 by NYE. However, this was more than enough to give me a solid grasp of the show’s setting and characters.

The System

Alongside getting to grips with the setting, I also had to choose the game system to play. My prior gaming experience comprised a handful of Dungeons & Dragons, Pathfinder and Dark Heresy games, none of which seemed particularly appropriate for this setting. Whilst it might be funny to picture the Gilmores hacking their way through a dank cave in pursuit of treasure, the joke would invariably wear thin and it would not properly exploit the distinct characteristics of the show.

The answer came, as all the finest answers do, from a podcasting binge. As I listened to the hosts of Chapo Trap House playing Call of Cthulhu, I knew it was a perfect fit: investigation- rather than combat-focussed, somewhat similar in setting (especially in the Modern variant) with sanity mechanics that would provide the same thrill of seeing the show’s characters in the incongruous position of losing their minds whilst also being more in tune with the subtext of latent insanity present throughout the show.

One purchase of a Starter Pack later, and it was time to get writing.

Creating the Scenario

In my time-honoured fashion, I then left things until the last minute. With New Year’s Eve now only a few days away, I had to craft a name and storyline for our campaign. The former was easy; the show is set in the town of Stars Hollow, which lent itself well to the Cthulhu Mythos-esque The Hollow Stars. The latter would require a bit more work.

First up was the character creation. Working my way through the standard Call of Cthulhu character creation, I tried to allocate the values according to what I had seen in the show. Rory ended up with maxed-out intellectual characteristics and skills along with a range of languages, whilst Lorelei went hard on size and social ability.3 The Rory player, upon seeing my descriptions of her character on the second page, accused me of doing her dirty; I think this says more about her than it does me.

Next up, the environment. It was at this point that I realised that the show actually does a fairly poor job of establishing the precise geography of Stars Hollow.4 Luckily, given the nature of the show’s fanbase, there was a selection of twee maps to choose from on Pinterest; I went for this one:5

Map of Stars Hollow with character markers on
Map Source: [Mapsy Studio](https://www.mapsystudio.com/)

I now had to come up with a plot. A last-minute stroke of genius (and a sister who happened to have one spare) led me to the idea of an NYE-appropriate ticking clock scenario, and during my viewing of the show I had decided that Taylor (the authoritarian-minded town selectman) would be a natural fit for the role of villain. To take advantage of the ensemble nature of the show, I tried to ensure that I included scenes with as many characters as possible (even if it would stretch my funny-voiced impression-making abilities to their max.). The end result, written as a rough script, is available here.

Finally, any good TTRPG requires props! Along with the clock, I put together a to-do list to guide the players through the initial stage of the game and a requisite spooky Lovecraftian tome (complete with flip-up magic word reveal).

In-game to-do list

The Game is Afoot

Table with gameplay implements

In the vinegar strokes of a year well worth forgotting, we three—we happy few—gathered around the table and the curtains finally rose in the Theatre of the Mind. Two of us had gone as far as to dress up for the occasion: my friend as Lorelei from the second episode of the show, and me as Luke Danes:

With an endless loop of la la music in the background (which slowly gave way to spooky music as the game progressed) and alcohol in our bloodstreams, we embarked. Things went pretty much to plan for the majority, although by the time we hit 21:00 in-game we were all far too drunk to profitably continue and so postponed the end of the game until the next day.

Before the sun had set on the freshly-minted 2022, we were again back around the table (now sans costumes) to wrap up. Here things began to veer off-piste, as my various clever ideas for how the players could solve the puzzle of how to remember the words of the ritual they needed were obviated by them just nicking the book from the library the night before, and me having forgotten to require a slight of hand check to do so. The Rory player also nearly stopped reading the tome half-way through after the second of the rituals described proved a red herring; always make sure your flavour text is completely distinct from your important bits!

Finally, the players managed to banish the resurrected spirit of Hitler and thwart Taylor’s dastardly plans. However, whereas I had expected them to take Taylor to an emergency town meeting in the pursuit of justice, the players instead chose to use the same ritual to sacrifice Taylor and bring back Kirk. Everyone lost some sanity for that, as they wiped the Taylor giblets form their eyes; this did not help Lorelei, who had only recently come out of a period of temporary insanity with a permanent phobia of water.

The state of the map at the end of the game

Conclusion

The game went down a treat, and my friend was successfully tricked into having fun engaging in nerd foolishness. I can’t say I expect her to become a regular role-player, but I certainly think I shall have an easier time convincing her to play in future. In addition, I learnt a lot about both creating and running games, neither of which I had any experience with beforehand. And I now know that you can make a game setting out of literally anything.

Footnotes


  1. Not necessarily an exact quote. ↩︎

  2. This also led to a lengthy discussion about blackface, which is a story for another day. ↩︎

  3. There were originally supposed to be three players, with the third playing Emily Gilmore (Lorelei’s mother and Rory’s grandmother), but COVID scuppered that plan at the eleventh hour. ↩︎

  4. It reminded me of this line from the Simpsons Movie↩︎

  5. I think I’ve got the source right. Pinterest is unusably hostile to non-users so I struggled to trace the source. ↩︎