Every Week It's Wibbley-Wobbley Timey-Wimey Pookie-Reviewery...

Sunday, 8 November 2009

"When shall we three meet again, In thunder, lightning, or in rain?"

Placing scenarios or campaigns for Call of Cthulhu in the modern era has always been difficult task because of the issues of motive, exposure, and communication that arise. Motive because the investigators need a reason to probe the strangeness that only hints at the alien nature of the Mythos; exposure because in a modern world full of technology, the Mythos surely cannot remain hidden from our watchful eye; and communication, because in an age of instant contact, can word of the Mythos really be kept a secret? Delta Green, the best of the approaches to contemporary Call of Cthulhu addresses all three of these issues, essentially by placing the Mythos behind layers of conspiracy and a more contemporary mythology. The other option is to take the game in another direction, which is exactly what Kevin Ross does with Our Ladies of Sorrow, the second release from Miskatonic River Press, though not without a certain degree of the aforementioned layering.

Our Ladies of Sorrow is a horror campaign for Call of Cthulhu set in modern day America that does not involve the Mythos at all. Two decades in the making, it presents a trio of connected and well researched ghost stories that draw heavily from both folklore and modern horror cinema. The protagonists are not something unnameable, rugose, baleful, or abominable, but rather are more sinister, more creepy, and in their own way, far more knowable – to the point that one might even sympathise with their motives. They are three sisters – Mater Tenebrarum, the Mother of Darkness; Mater Suspiriorum, the Mother of Sighs; and Mater Lachrymarum, the Mother of Tears – who have always been with mankind and together embody femininity’s darker side.

The campaign is divided into four books: “Tenebrarum: House of Shadows,” “Suspiriorum: Desert of Sighs,” and “Lachrymarum: River of Tears,” followed by “Epilogue: The Final Cut.” The minimum time span for the campaign is within course of a year, “Tenebrarum: House of Shadows” being set in the early part of the year, “Suspiriorum: Desert of Sighs” in high summer, and “Lachrymarum: River of Tears” during winter. In each book the investigators will discover the effects and reach of one the three Mothers, each of whom has her own agenda. Mater Tenebrarum haunts the dreams of the despairing, the insane, and the suicidal; Mater Suspiriorum is concerned with those who have lost their way, calling them home; while Mater Lachrymarum focuses on those who have lost something, being particularly concerned with the loss of children.

Once the investigators come to their attention, the Sisters will act against them, initially through the women that they possess, but later more openly as the investigators learn more about the triple avatars. They will also act against them in dreams, for example through Night Hag attacks, the dream of an old crone sneaking into the bedroom and climbing onto the sleeper’s chest to crush the breath out of him. These and other dreams are also used as a means to deliver clues to the investigators, some of which may not be relevant in the current scenario, but in a subsequent one. The effect of these dreams is to scratch away at the investigators’ Sanity in small pecks and scrapes, rather than having it bludgeoned away by unfathomable exposure to the Mythos.

Easily set in any mid-sized town or city with a college or university, “Tenebrarum: House of Shadows” opens Our Ladies of Sorrows with a painless introduction scene – painless for the Keeper, that is. As the investigators take a break in a diner they are horrified to see an old man chased into the road to his death by a crone. Worse, no-one other than the investigators saw the old woman, but she sees them, and if they follow her, she disappears into a nearby apartment building. The same building it turns out where the victim lived, although none of the tenants know of an old woman living there. Getting permission to investigate what could be a haunted building is difficult, but once gained the player characters will discover that a lot of strange, little things going on, which will begin to effect them too not long after... Essentially, “Tenebrarum: House of Shadows” is a classic haunted house, but with a more diverse range of tenants that comes with an apartment block. If the scenario has a possible weakness, it is in the way that its climax begins, which does come out of leftfield. Nevertheless, this does effectively set the campaign up and set a pattern for what is to come.

“Suspiriorum: Desert of Sighs” takes the investigators to Arizona and the Desert of Sighs where a group of hiking college student have gone missing. Called into help, the investigators arrive to learn that one of the lost party has walked out of the desert, though delirious and badly wounded, but what of the others? They have been missing for days and only have limited supplies, but nevertheless, their parents want to know what has happened to them and will pay the investigators to conduct a search. The Desert of Sighs has a bad reputation, as numerous people have gone missing within its confines over the years, while others have reported strange events occurring to them, such as getting lost in mazes, technology malfunctioning, and voices on the wind. In order to determine what has happened to the lost hikers, the investigators will quite literally have themselves to get lost and so discover a strange city that lies at the edge of the world, and perhaps some minor elements of the Mythos. Some players might find giving into the demands that the scenario makes, almost asking as it does, for them to give up a degree of control over their characters, but it is worth it as “Suspiriorum: Desert of Sighs” is a more mature, more challenging scenario than “Tenebrarum: House of Shadows” with a strong emotional element that will make demands upon each investigator.

The last scenario “Lachrymarum: River of Tears” begins with a surprise for the investigators – they are asked for by name by La Llorona, the Mexican Weeping Woman. There have been numerous sightings of her in Baleford, Illinois, a town currently threatened by rising flood waters, and a rash of disappearances and deaths amongst its Hispanic community, many of whom blame the disappearances on La Llorona. Not that the town sheriff is bothered, given his attitude towards the Hispanic community. Nor does he want amateurs doing his job, but the Hispanic community might be more accepting of help from the investigators. This rift is not the only source of tension in Baleford, which is threatened by the constant rain and the encroaching waters, which have already exposed human remains. The investigators will find themselves caught between this tension and the flood, both of which will come to a head when the levee breaks and another child goes missing. When the characters join the search for him, they will eventually be confronted by La Llorona herself in a fitting climax to the campaign that sees the investigators face an antagonist whose ability to make use of the rising waters makes her very dangerous.

Our Ladies of Sorrow does not quite end there – though the ending of “Lachrymarum: River of Tears” has one hell of a sting in the tail – as the campaign has an epilogue. The fourth book, “Epilogue: The Final Cut” takes some months later and draws the investigators into the eerie fate of someone who was a resident at the apartment block in the first scenario. Proof perhaps that the three Ladies of Sorrow have a long reach and long memories.

Each of the three main scenarios follows the same structure: the hook, an explanation of what is going on, a description of the scenario’s setting, a set of possible events, and then the dénouement followed by the aftermath. Each one of a scenario’s “possible events” is detailed and easy to implement, being the building blocks with which a Keeper can construct a story and create a growing sense of horror and suspense. This design structure makes each scenario relatively easy to run, and even the neophyte Keeper should have relatively little difficulty running Our Ladies of Sorrows.

What is interesting about the campaign is that each of the three main books is very filmic in its own way. Not cinematic, for in roleplaying parlance that is a whole other tone all its own, best exemplified by Atlas Games’ FENG SHUI Action Movie Roleplaying, with an emphasis on high action, speed, gun fights, and martial arts. The three parts of Our Ladies of Sorrows are filmic in that they draw heavily from modern horror cinema not just for their tone, but for many of those little possible events with which the Keeper can construct each scenario. The first book, “Tenebrarum: House of Shadows” draws from the “Haunted House” movie, while the second, “Suspiriorum: Desert of Sighs” reads as a nod towards a road movie, though one that veers off into a very bad sixties drug trip. The last, “Lachrymarum: River of Tears,” draws more from the J-Horror or Japanese Horror tradition, especially in the imagery of La Llorona, but all three scenarios possess a strong senses of both psychological horror and isolation. The latter especially so in the second two books, where the environment keeps the investigators in place and works to cut them off from the outside world.

Our Ladies of Sorrows can be played as is, from end to end, although it really works as an addition to an ongoing contemporary Call of Cthulhu campaign, its scenarios threaded between others. The campaign’s strong maternal themes also benefit by being added to an ongoing campaign, especially one in which the investigators have developed backgrounds and connections, especially with children. Either with their own, or with those of friends. As befitting and to be expected of any contemporary Call of Cthulhu campaign, Our Ladies of Sorrows discusses the possibility of it being run as part of a Delta Green campaign. Suggestions are made how to do this for a standard Delta Green cell, but these do seem a little forced, whereas the other suggestion that the campaign be run using a Phenomen-X team feels infinitely more fitting given that Phenomen-X are more likely to investigate something that looks like a ghost story.

On the downside, Our Ladies of Sorrows is not quite as well presented a book as it could have been. The artwork does not quite match the mood of the campaign, and the layout is a little untidy in places. Worse are the handouts, which though functional, are bland. Which is a pity, because good handouts will do much to add flavour to a campaign and help draw the players into its mood and atmosphere. Overall though, the layout of the book is clean and tidy and easy to read.

A more minor issue is the fact that this is a difficult campaign to set outside of the USA, more obviously because its second scenario takes place in a desert, but also because much of its elements are grounded in American culture. With some effort upon the part of the Keeper, it could be set elsewhere, say for example, Australia or South Africa. To be honest though, such an effort would hardly be worth the outcome as so many aspects of the author’s research would go to waste.

Some Keepers and some players might quibble at the lack of any Mythos threat presented in Our Ladies of Sorrow. This is an issue that the author addresses directly in the book’s appendices, the first of which discuss numerous triple spirit- or goddess-like sisters, including the Fates, the Furies, the Gorgons, the Norns, and so on. In his afterword, Ross not only discusses the history of the project that would become – including a proto-version in his convention scenario, “The Dare,” from Triad Entertainment’s Dwellers in Shadow anthology (which should have a Keeper or two scurrying either to their shelves or e-bay) – Our Ladies of Sorrows, but suggests that the campaign’s triptych of feminine aspects are all avatars of Hecate, the Greco-Roman Goddess of Witchcraft, Magic, Crossroads, Wilderness, and Childbirth, who with Artemis and Selene is also part of a trio of lunar deities. Taking that one step further, Ross suggests that Hecate could be yet one more of Nyarlathotep’s million faces, but only if the investigators dig deep enough. This act of layering is exactly what a modern set Call of Cthulhu game demands if a Keeper wants it to possess verisimilitude, though in the case of Our Ladies of Sorrow, it is only an option, although a very low key option. Other appendices include an excellent bibliography and one of the inspirations for the campaign, Thomas De Quincey’s Levanna and Our Ladies of Sorrow.

Overall, Our Ladies of Sorrows is a very complete package, the Keeper needing nothing more than the core rulebook, though more books will be needed if the campaign is to be run as part of a Delta Green game. As a campaign, it will probably be best enjoyed more by experienced Call of Cthulhu players, precisely because there is no Mythos present and the shocks will be something fresh for them.

At its heart, Our Ladies of Sorrows is a ghost story, or series of ghost stories. Not something that Call of Cthulhu has done effectively before, but here the research and the development time have proved to be worth the effort. This campaign has the potential to be as scary as any of the game’s best Mythos-themed classics, and while right now, it is inarguably one of the best contemporary horror campaigns available, in years to come it might well be rated alongside many of Call of Cthulhu’s classic campaigns. The reputation of Our Ladies of Sorrows is going to grow and grow…