Return to The Bracknell Horror

I like to think of myself as someone who loves and writes scenarios that are inherently sandboxy. My ideal horror investigation scenarios—Goblin Archive’s The Mall and Zzarchov Kowalski’s Price of Evil—have a few hooks, a usefully detailed map, a well-thought-out escalation clock, and interesting, tersely described NPCs… but not much else. In adventure design, those are my ideals. Sometimes, at a one-shot are con, you need to make your frames slightly harder, but often when doing that, the goal is to preserve as much player agency and GM creativity as possible, especially when the scenario isn’t only for demo or public play.

Over the past weekend, I had a writing breakthrough with “The Bracknell Horror,” an adventure for the next Roseville Beach Book. This post isn’t grand RPG theory; it’s just a quick note that my two favorite parts of scenario design (setting and escalation clock) were ultimately what fixed the problem. It’s odd that I’ve run this little adventure many times since I started working on Roseville Beach in 2019—it’s fun and gives me room to bring in a lot of the PC’s connections—but it was only last weekend that I was really happy with it how it all came together.

“The Bracknell Horror” has been my go-to con game or demo for Moonlight on Roseville Beach. Inspired by both a messy blend of the Migo and the Dreamlands with the actual Belvedere Guest House on Fire Island, I’ve been running it since 2019. Roseville Beach’s Bracknell Lodge is a good place for a kidnapping mystery: the guest house is too expensive and exclusive for our PC sleuths to have been in before, even though it’s local to the town where they do their monster-hunting. It also gives them the potential to deal with wealthy, WASPy, and mostly unsympathetic queer characters who are still being harmed by cishet magician Simon Mather and his cronies who’ve decided Roseville Beach is the perfect place to find some warm bodies for some nightmarish Dreamlands entities to possess.

Ultimately, I didn’t put it into either the quickstart or the main book because we were out of space and because while it was always a sandbox when I got to the Bracknell, I was always too intimidated to create an escalating clock and always needed a scene structure and over-the-top clues to get them there.

In my original version, the PCs wake up Saturday morning to discover that during the night, people have gone missing. In some cases, they had missed connections with those folks and may have been looking for them before. I’d always excused that issue, rationalizing that missing a meet-up with friends in an era before cell phones often meant not reconnecting until everyone got back home the next day. But Roseville Beach isn’t just a small town, it’s a fairly tiny one, and the locals know each other well, so I was never happy with actively preventing the PCs from getting involved until the clock was farther advanced, but my brain was hyper-focused on that structure until I started preparing to run it for A Weekend with Good Friends hosted on Discord by The Good Friends of Jackson Elias. Finally, it occurred to me that the adventure really needed to begin the night the disappearances start instead of just including a few flashbacks the PCs remember the next day. In doing that, I had a chance to target not just the PC’s connections and allies but also the PCs themselves, giving them a chance to interfere with Mather’s plans as they were getting started or follow Macgregor and his cronies as they moved through the town finding people to target rather than waking up the next morning and converging on the Bracknell.

I’d been afraid that getting the PCs involved too soon might mean it moved from creepy horror scenario to a big fight in the middle of town, but it took PCs time to confirm what was happening and that the people who were running late or took longer than usual to use the bathroom, find a pay phone, or cash a check at the grocery were actually, really missing that the kidnappers always had a head start (a crow shifter spotted one of Mather’s henchlings walking toward the Bracknell with one of the victims, but couldn’t do much to interfere until he rendezvoused with everyone else). Once that happened, a PC who’d been invited back to the Bracknell by a stranger she was dancing with had a new motivation to accept the invitation. We still had a chance to explore all the less-known ways to get into the lodge—the gardener’s entrance, sneaking in via the unused boathouse, climbing over the front gate (this time with the cover of night)—so I got to reference Dai’s incredible map (that will also appear in the full version of Dim All the Lights).

This time, I’d also simplified Mather’s plans so that they were way easier to plot out on a clock, and PCs interfering with them weren’t filling pages of notes when they learned about them. Moving everything to the nighttime also meant that PCs’ plans to get into the Lodge by subterfuge, stealth, and seduction felt more logical and logically likely to succeed.


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