PbtA recommendations for Hellboy/BPRD + Cthulhu

To anyone that might be able to give a little bit of advice…

I am in the midst of reading Masks of Nyarlathotep, which I know is a very trad campaign, but I’ve never played it before and my players and I are keen to have that kind of experience, just with the narrative lightness of PbtA.

I like characters with weird powers and abilities in a Cthulhu setting and had a great time running some BPRD characters through Beyond the Mountains of Madness in the past, so I guess a campaign like Masks of Nyarlathotep could end up being pretty pulpy, but Mignola still has that darkness and grit which I think matches pretty well.

I guess the obvious choice is Rae Nadjadi’s Apocalypse Keys (or at least, the Beta 1.0), but if it’s a longer campaign, I wonder if something like Monster of the Week or even Masks A New Generation (I mean, it shares the same name) would be more apropos?

I think the game would end up being pretty trad, but as a sort of sandbox globe trotting campaign or mini-campaign, it might work in PbtA?

Please let me know if you might have any suggestions.

Thank you!

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It’s hard for me to imagine using any game besides Apocalypse Keys. The mechanic where rolling an 11 or 12 gives you a dark, chaotic result fits in well with Cthulhu stories, where you can “know too much.” I would give that a try.

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Apocalypse Keys is a great fit thematically, but I think adapting it to the trad mystery play of Masks of Nyarlathotep would be very hard. Mystery solving in AK is emergent, where non-specific clues are discovered which the players then piece together to create a possible solution, then dice are rolled to see whether they are right. Mysteries don’t have a predetermined answer, they are created emergently by players. Masks of Nyarlathotep, on the other hand, is built on a sequence of mysteries that have fixed answers and resolutions, and those answers build on each other. So you’d either need to figure out a way to rework the mysteries of MoN such that they are more open, and less interconnected in terms of solutions, while still planting the seeds so that the players are moving through the module. I think it would be very difficult.

As a general rule, PbtA struggles with mystery solving. “Play to find out” is a tough to principle to be true to when progress requires you to solve mysteries, and so there aren’t very many PbtA games based around solving mysteries. Apocalypse Keys, based on Brindlewood Bay, solves this problem by removing the puzzle, mechanically you will eventually solve the mystery because you decide on the solution. Monster of the Week, though its monster hunts are called “mysteries,” kind of gives you a bait and switch. The “investigate a mystery” move gives you clues, but it’s structured such that if you don’t have enough to get you everything you need, eventually, you’ll know where to go. Its monster hunting structure is a bad fit for the kind of sandbox mystery solving that MoN requires. (You bring up Masks, but that’s a TERRIBLE fit for MoN. It’s a game all about teenaged superheros trying to figure out who they are in the world. It has no investigation mechanics and is just about something completely different than MoN). I love, love, love PbtA but I don’t think there’s a published PbtA game that will do this well, and I’d really struggle to hack even the closest for this. The thing is, as sandboxy as MoN is (and it is VERY sandboxy), it’s still a series of mysteries some of which need to be solved to progress, and if NONE of the others are solved it will feel bad for the players. PbtA is a tough fit for this kind of play.

So what would I use? If you’re comfortable with OSR systems, I think Emmy Allen’s Esoteric Enterprises could do this OK. There’s a Spook class that creates monsters and super powered PCs that would work for BPRD and just build from there. You could also use Dark Streets and Darker Secrets (and I think that would be my choice). Character concepts are pretty free form. You have archetypes that give different sorts of powers to the PCs, but they are all very customizable and could be used to create BPRD type characters. Neither has any real mystery mechanics, but it won’t stand in the way, and so long as you’re free with information with the players, they should be able to put the clues together and solve the mysteries. It will be a bit of a meatgrinder, but you can juggle that. If you’re comfortable with going REALLY rules light, I bet Agents of the ODD would do BPRD like gangbusters. I think this is probably what I would do? Now I’m kind of thinking of trying Dark Streets and Darker Secrets.

The more natural fit is Gumshoe, probably Trail of Cthulhu or Fear Itself it you want to lean harder into horror and away from mystery, and you could do that, having them flavor their PCs as BPRD style monsters. I don’t think the BPRD elements would feel as weighty as in the OSR choices since they have no mechanical support, but mystery stuff will work better, less risk of getting stuck.

Anyway, if you do decide to use a PbtA systern, I’d love to hear how it goes. I think it will be an uphill battle, but maybe you’ll figure some stuff out and it will go great.

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Yeah, that’s a good point-- Cthulhu Dark and Projekt Dark Prometheus has something similar where you can see too far into the mysteries behind the universe. I used the latter for a more vanilla CoC run of Beyond the Mountains of Madness and it worked reasonably well.

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For a BPRD feel, I would definitely recommend Apocalypse Keys.
For a more typical - mortal investigators - Call of Cthulhu experience I would think about using something like Sage LaTorra’s Catch the Devil

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Of course you are so right, @Jesseabe, and I think that’s my main concern with improv and more narrative “play to find out” games and the more trad genre.

One of the gauntlet podcast episodes this year touched on how novel it was to play a trad mystery (I think it was Yellow King or Dreamhounds of Paris), in that because the mystery was already laid out beforehand, they could shortcut certain things just through serendipity. They might stumble on the serial killer in an early scene, just by luck, which wouldn’t necessarily happen in a play to find out scenario.

I think if I did use some PbtA permutation, it would be just to give us the bits we need and leave the rest, which I suppose we could do with any system, to be fair.

As for Masks a New Generation, the super hero genre is kind of tangential to Hellboy as a setting (I mean, it’s not quite four-colour, but it’s related, kinda?), and when you think about the titular character, they tried maybe unsuccessfully to put a kind of “teen angst” angle on things, and I think that extends to the others as well. They’re all freaks and outcasts, like the outsider kids not being let into the cool kids clique, but that may be stretching things. But yeah, it’s probably not a great fit, as Investigation and cosmic horror settings go.

I’m not that familiar with OSR in general, so thank you for all of these suggestions! I’ll check them out. I’ve tried Gumshoe in the past (including Fear Itself 2E) but it fell kind of flat with the groups I’ve tried it with, as a system, so I’m looking for something that piques all our interests. It does feel like a natural fit, though.

I’ll definitely keep you posted, if we do go the PbtA route, or something similarly more narrative.

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To be clear, I don’t want to discourage you in this. If you figure it out it could be awesome! Just a reminder that this is a nut people have been trying to crack for a long time, with varying degrees of success.

One thing you could do for Apocalypse Keys is look at Trophy Gold’s Hunt token mechanics and the instructions for adapting OSR dungeons to the game, and replace Unlocking Doom’s Door with something like that. You’d completely abstract clues and then when you have a certain number, you can spend them to get answers. The thing about Trophy Gold is that in order to accomplish this, it removes most elements of sandbox play, locking players into “sets” with specific goals until they spend tokens to get the answers they want. The giant sandbox element is one of the coolest things about MoN, so I’d be reluctant to do that. You could probably do it without sets, maybe, but at a certainly level earning abstract tokens that never link back into fiction in order to get answers might feel TOO abstract. Without sets, if you earn enough tokens in Peru you could waltz into Australia and spend them all to solve those mysteries right away! Anyway, my point is that there are certainly things you can do, and they may have tradeoffs. Good luck figuring it out!

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Thanks, Donogh-- I hadn’t heard of this one.

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Oh, don’t worry, I’m not yet discouraged. I know it’s kind of a daunting endeavour. And I really appreciate all the suggestions, thank you!

It probably won’t be a one size fits all kind of thing for whatever I find… in any case, I’ll take a look at those OSR games, but I know at least one other member of the group still favours some flavour of PbtA. And whatever we end up using, I’m sure we can use as much or as little of it as seems appropriate and still have a pretty good time. At least, I hope so!

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Not PbtA … so it may be beyond your limits … but if you’re looking for narrative/pulpy Cthulhu, then Projekt Dark Prometheus might hit the spot: https://gallusgames.itch.io/projekt-dark-prometheus. It’s certainly allowed me to run some Achtung Cthulhu for The Gauntlet.

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Thanks, Alun—I am already a fan! I actually bought Projekt Dark Prometheus and used it for a play through of Beyond the Mountains of Madness and it worked brilliantly.

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That’s great to know - thanks for the support.

@JonSolo I’m surprised no one has mentioned City of Mist It’s designed around solving mysteries, using iceberg diagrams. As such, it has several mechanics that could work well for CoC. Since it deals with the supernatural (called mythos) and the mundane (called logos), you may not have to tweak the rules that much.