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

Saturday, 10 July 2010

Look Up! Look up!

As much as I enjoy Call of Cthulhu, there are several aspects to it that are better addressed by its more modern licensed counterpart, Trail of Cthulhu. Published by Pelgrane Press and designed by Ken Hite using the GUMSHOE System first seen in Robin D. Laws’ Esoterrorists, what Trail of Cthulhu handles better is the discovery of clues (if an investigator has the appropriate skill, he gets the clue, if he wants more information, he can spend points on it), investigator motivations with Drives (which explain why the ordinary person would look into something as terrible and as alien as the Mythos), and in some ways, the feel of the game. Call of Cthulhu veers towards a Pulp style of play, with investigators often being able to recover the Sanity that they lost from encountering a Mythos entity and when they did encounter said entity, it was the application of gunfire that defeated it. While Trail of Cthulhu can do the Pulp style, its natural inclination is towards Purist style in which each Mythos entity is less quantifiable, that there is no way in which an investigator can regain Sanity lost to a Mythos encounter, and in which any resort to the use of firearms is futile. Of course, the Purist style does lend itself to the one-shot scenario rather than the continued campaign, but that is not necessarily a bad thing.

Of the Purist style scenarios released to date, the best has been The Dying of St. Margaret’s by Graham Walmsley. An investigation into the events at a grey and soulless all girls’ school on a remote Scottish island, the scenario proved to be a wonderfully bleak affair that made effective use of the investigators’ Drives to push and pull them in, and their Credit Rating scores to provide different avenues of investigation. Walmsley has now followed up The Dying of St. Margaret’s with The Watchers in the Sky, an affair that will draw disparate men and women to the North of England and into the clutches of a cult dedicated to a strange biology. As with The Dying of St. Margaret’s, this is another two-session or so one-shot complete with pre-generated investigators. It includes guidelines for creating suitable investigators if a player wants one of his own design. To be honest though, the characters are suitable for the scenario and creating a new investigator just delays the start of the game. Lastly and unlike The Dying of St. Margaret’s, this scenario does not contain any rules for running it in the Pulp style, but to be equally as honest, their presence would be superfluous.

Whether the players are using the five pre-generated investigators or not, The Watchers in the Sky begins with three hooks that bring them together at Brichester University. In South London, they find that an inmate at an asylum is paranoid that the birds he feeds are watching him while at a nearby scientific laboratory, others find their experiments are disrupted by strange misshapen birds that watch constantly. Lastly, at Brichester University the dissection of an unknown bird reveals a strange biology. What exactly is the secret behind these birds, each one constructed from human, animal and alien body parts?

It requires a little effort upon the part of the GM to bring the five investigators together, and to get them to the Lake District village of Rydal, replete with initially recalcitrant villagers and secrets to share... This required effort is the first of two issues of concern with The Watchers in the Sky. It is that in places, the scenario is heavy handed in getting its players and their investigators need to be. The other issue is that not everything in the scenario is explained, that what exactly is going on in The Watchers in the Sky actually remains as mystery. Neither of these issues it should be made clear have a crippling effect upon the scenario, though a less experienced group of players might find both experiences frustrating. The inclusion of the mystery is intentional, the author both wanting to keep the Mythos unknowable and to leave the players to wonder at the mystery, if not fill in the blanks themselves...

The author has some fun with the game’s Stability rules, introducing an alternative rule called “Drive yourself Crazy” that suggests the players take control of when their investigators suffer Stability loss rather than the GM, their being encouraged to call for Stability Checks rather than the GM hand them out. Throughout the pages of The Watchers in the Sky, the points at which Stability can be lost are clearly marked. Further, the author suggests in effect that the process be turned into a race between the players to see which of their investigators go mad first. The aim here is to have the GM and players alike explore the unwritten point of the Purist game – to drive the investigators mad.

As with The Dying of St. Margaret’s, the author also makes use of Directed Scenes to flesh out NPCs, the primary purpose these being to strengthen the links that each investigator has with his or her Sources of Stability. He also suggests that the other players be allowed, even be encouraged to have them to take the roles of friendly NPCs in these scenes. This push to get everyone involved – whether their investigators are involved in a scene or not, together with the fact that each of the scenario’s major NPCs is succinctly sketched out, complete with suggestions as to how he or should be portrayed, is indicative of Walmsley’s acting and improvisation background.

The GUMSHOE System means that finding clues in Trail of Cthulhu is very easy, yet it is made even easier in The Watchers in the Sky. For each clue there are at least two suggestions given as what skills can be applied and an explanation as how they are applied along with a result. These explanations almost work as mini-scenes in themselves, fitting alongside the other scenes in the scenario.

Available as a thirty-six page, greyscale 12.98 Mb PDF, in terms of presentation The Watchers in the Sky is up to the standards of other Trail of Cthulhu titles. It needs an edit here and there, but such errors are minor. Similarly, while not all of Jérôme Huguenin’s art quite matches the description in the text, each and every single illustration is an excellent, sometimes sombre and foreboding piece of art.

Despite some reservations about how heavy handed and lacking in explanation the less experienced will find this scenario, there is a lot to like in The Watchers in the Sky. As with the author’s earlier The Dying of St. Margaret’s, it focuses upon another aspect of the investigator rules in Trail of Cthulhu. In The Dying of St. Margaret’s, that focus was upon an investigator’s Drive, what made him look into the Mythos, but in The Watchers in the Sky it is his Sources of Stability, what keeps him grounded in our perceived reality. That said, this focus is more understated, the players being expected to become aware of certain coincidences and parallels as the events of The Watchers in the Sky unfold. The mood is also different, this scenario being more odd, more mysterious, more weird than The Dying of St. Margaret’s, which was bleak and grey in comparison.

Lastly it should pointed that since this is a one-shot scenario, and thus comes with its own set of epilogues, the format is not unlike that of a short story, except that it is roleplayed through rather than read. Another fine example of the Purist style, what The Watchers in the Sky offers then is a chance for the players to encounter the mysterious and the unknowable whilst playing out their own weird tale.