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

Saturday, 6 February 2010

Red Hook Take III

The scenario as a sequel in Call of Cthulhu to one of H.P. Lovecraft’s stories is nothing new. Many of the early adventures for the game were not surprisingly heavily inspired by Lovecraft’s writings and whole campaigns have been set around or after his stories, such as H.P. Lovecraft’s Dunwich and Beyond the Mountains of Madness – a sequel to At the Mountains of Madness. The latest entry into this small angle of the game is The Cold Case of Robert Suydam. Published by Super Genius Games, its full title should be After Lovecraft: The Horror at Red Hook – The Cold Case of Robert Suydam. This is first in a planned series from the publisher, each scenario to be released as a sequel to one of Lovecraft’s short stories and to include a copy of the appropriate short story itself within the pages of the book, both as inspiration for the Keeper and as a possible clue for the investigators.

The choice of “The Horror at Red Hook” is an odd one though. To begin with, it is not one of Lovecraft’s best, being an urban set tale of horror that unveils the author’s xenophobia whilst never involving the Mythos as we know it. Even Lovecraft was dissatisfied with the story, describing it as being “rather long and rambling, and I don't think it is very good” (H. P. Lovecraft, Selected Letters Vol. 2, p. 20; cited in Joshi and Schultz, p. 114.), while others have been less kind. Further, The Cold Case of Robert Suydam is not the first sequel to “The Horror at Red Hook” as both Chaosium, Inc. and Pelgrane Press have published sequel scenarios to it. “A Restoration of Evil” for Call of Cthulhu appeared bundled with the game’s Keeper’s Screen back in 2000, while “Return to Red Hook” appeared in the recent Arkham Detective Tales for Trail of Cthulhu.

“The Horror at Red Hook” relates the decline of a Brooklyn neighbourhood as it falls under the sway of a vile fertility cult. The cult’s growing power came from the knowledge of one Robert Suydam, a reclusive local medievalist whom the cult enticed into its clutches with promises of youthful vigour. The cult’s activities, in particular, a rash of child abductions did not go unnoticed resulting in an investigation into the cult and the eventual raid upon the cult’s underground basement lair by the authorities. Leading both the investigation and the raid was one Detective Thomas Malone, whose experiences in the basement forced him into retirement far from the towering buildings of New York. It is Detective Malone who relates much of the events of “The Horror at Red Hook.”

The Cold Case of Robert Suydam takes place some ten years after the events of “The Horror at Red Hook,” with the investigators hired by Marlene van Brunt via Detective Malone. As Robert Suydam’s only heir, she wants the investigators to trace the re-appearance of a book that was part of her uncle’s library and is about to go to auction. Not only that, Mrs van Brunt also wants them to see if the same source has other items that once belonged to her uncle and that she rightly believes to be hers. Tracing the source of the book, a copy of The Golden Bough, takes the investigators from the auction house to a pawnbrokers to a colourful vagrant living on Brooklyn’s docks. So far, so straightforward, but from here on in, things take a turn for the odd – in several ways...

Odd in that tracing the vagrant’s activities the investigators are lead back into the Red Hook district where they discover a band of depraved cannibal cultists, which in keeping with Lovecraft’s own attitudes are vile foreigners. Odd in that the investigators will soon realise that they are being monitored – by children. These children are cunning, if not clever, and the Keeper should have some fun in portraying the frustrating tricks that they will play against the investigators. Eventually though, if the scenario is to progress, the investigators will have to capture one of these urchins and interrogate him. If not a morally questionable manoeuvre, then interrogating a child is at least tasteless one and really, the author should have given another option for the investigators as well as suggesting the Sanity loss for such an action.

From the child, the investigators will learn that they take their instructions from a wonderfully smart and pretty girl, an orphan called Ellen. In confronting this angelic creature, they will also learn that not only are the children under her thrall, but so are a growing handful of adults, all of whom will do anything to protect their beloved charge. Acting against this “Orphan anti-Annie” will prove to be a great challenge to the investigators and essentially the wisest course of action is to watch and observe rather than act rashly. In doing so they will discover what Ellen is up to in the cellars and caverns below Red Hook... Stopping her is another matter entirely.

Despite the opening pages of The Cold Case of Robert Suydam explaining everything in almost laborious detail, the set up for the scenario is essentially left up to the Keeper to determine. It suggests that the investigators speak to Detective Malone after having read his manuscript, that is, The Horror at Red Hook; or alternatively, that the Keeper create an occult researcher who interviewed Malone and acts as a patrons of sorts for the investigators, directing them towards possible occult occurrences ripe for examination. It possible that this researcher be H.P. Lovecraft himself! Either way, the scenario assumes that the players will have read “The Horror at Red Hook” prior to, or shortly after, beginning play. While leaving the scenario’s beginning up to the Keeper to decide means that he is free to fit The Cold Case of Robert Suydam into his campaign however he wants, it also means that he has to make an extra effort in creating elements that could just have been provided by the author. Plus it leaves the scenario’s beginning as given as being weak and underwritten.

As with other Call of Cthulhu titles published by Super Genius Games, The Cold Case of Robert Suydam comes with its own set of pre-generated investigators. The four given consist of an English occultist/remittance man and his ex-boxer bodyguard; and a confidence trickster and his ex-boxer bodyguard. Each of the characters possesses the Cthulhu Mythos skill, unnecessarily so not only because these are starting characters and no starting character should ever have the skill, but also because no reason is given for these characters to possess such knowledge. All right so one investigator is a student of the occult, but this does not make him a student of the Mythos. Further it is absurd that such a character should have a Cthulhu Mythos skill of 15%, especially given that his Sanity is higher than its starting base. On the whole the members of investigative quartet manage to be excessively pulpy in nature and utterly dull to a caricature one and all. Which is no mean feat!

Physically, The Cold Case of Robert Suydam comes as a digest sized book with a reasonable layout and art that fails to impress. What lets the scenario down is its lack of maps. It has become a consistent problem with titles from Super Genius Games and by not including any maps, the publisher commits a fundamental error. The task of any piece of RPG writing is not just to impart the imagination of the author to the GM or Keeper, but also to help said GM or Keeper impart this imagination again to his players. The lack of maps gets in the way of this task and fundamentally makes the scenario just that little more difficult to run. It is not as if the book lacks space for the inclusion of these much-needed maps. After all, they could easily replace the art with the dual effect that (a), no one at large would have been any the wiser and (b), the scenario would have been made all the better and all the easier to run.

Oddly, the back cover blurb claims that The Cold Case of Robert Suydam “...[I]s the latest in the innovative line officially licensed Call of Cthulhu scenarios and supplements from Super Genius Games.” If The Cold Case of Robert Suydam is innovative at all, it is that it includes a copy of the text it is based upon within its pages. Yet if you consider that the text of At the Mountains of Madness was included in The Antarktos Cycle, a companion volume to be used as a Mythos tome when playing Beyond the Mountains of Madness, then the publisher’s claim that it is innovative is either nothing more than hyperbole or wilful ignorance of the game’s history. I like to think that it is more a case of the former than the latter.

The greatest weaknesses of The Cold Case of Robert Suydam are twofold. The first is that it is a very linear scenario, offering little in the way of flexibility in terms of player action. The second is worse, and that is unevenness in tone. The problem is that in parts the scenario is very pulpy in tone, in particular any scene involving the cannibal cultists and the lacklustre pre-generated investigators. Now, the source for the scenario, The Horror at Red Hook, is pulpy enough in style, but the scenario just over does this style and in doing so, is at odds with the tone elsewhere, in the investigations with regard to the enthralled children of Red Hook. Such scenes have the potential to be very creepy and while there is advice to that end, the scenario would be a more effective piece if the tone set by such advice had been applied throughout.

As the first entry in the “After Lovecraft” series, The Cold Case of Robert Suydam is an underwhelming affair. While the dreadful pre-generated investigators can be overlooked, the scenario’s  underwritten beginning, uneven tone, linear nature, and cartographic inadequacies do what deserves to be a creepy affair a great disservice, and so cannot be ignored. Though there is nothing to stop a Keeper from running this scenario as is, the likelihood being that he will get one or two sessions out of the scenario, After Lovecraft: The Horror at Red Hook – The Cold Case of Robert Suydam is not a scenario that I would recommend for that purpose. It is better suited to adjustment and crafting into something more suited to a Keeper’s own campaign.