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

Sunday 31 October 2010

Halloween Horror I.II

Originally it was meant to be a Purist trilogy, but with the release of Graham Walmsley’s third scenario for Pelgrane Press’ Trail of Cthulhu, we learn that it will be a quartet. The release of The Dance in the Blood follows on from The Dying of St. Margaret’s and The Watchers in the Sky and will itself be followed by The Rending Box. Although this is a series of scenarios, they are not connected in the traditional sense of the average series of scenarios of Lovecraftian investigative horror. They are not designed to be played in order or to be played using the same characters, but to be played separately and using different characters. This is another one shot affair then, but thematically part of a strong series of scenarios each with a dark inevitably nihilistic ending. The forces of the Mythos faced by the investigators in this series are utterly uncaring and alien.

Set in 1935, The Dance in the Blood opens with the characters visiting the Lake District town of Keswick in the north of England. The five pre-generated investigators have their own reasons for being there, from visiting an antiques fair to being stranded there after being thrown off a train! There are guidelines given for the players creating their own characters and for their getting to opening scene at the Blackstone Hotel, the town’s best place to stay. None of the investigators know each other and none of them have met each other before. Yet a singular coincidence first presents a mystery and then questions for all of them as it appears that they all might have something in common.

Investigating this mystery draws the characters deeper into the Lake District and a nearby small village. Manesty is a grim and unwelcoming place, one that hides secrets for all of the investigators. Perhaps its most hideous secret is that once each century it is razed to the ground. This being a scenario for Trail of Cthulhu, it is no surprise that this time is near once again.

As with the previous entries in this series, The Dance in the Blood provides solid support for the GM. The GUMSHOE System is a clue orientated game, and to that end 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. Similarly, there is advice on how each NPC should be portrayed, both in terms of manner and voice.

Introduced in The Watchers in the Sky, “Drive yourself Crazy” is an alternative rule that suggests the players take control of when their investigators suffer Stability loss rather than the GM. It suggests that the players be encouraged to call for Stability Checks instead of having them imposed upon by the GM and is used again in The Dance in the Blood. There is even a “reward” that encourages the players to participate in the process, the aim being twofold. First, that the process be turned into a race between the players to see which of their investigators go mad first. Second, to have the GM and players alike explore the unwritten point of the Purist game – to drive the investigators mad.

One of the features of the previous two Purist adventures is that they each focused on particular aspects of the Trail of Cthulhu mechanics. In The Dying of St. Margaret’s it was the investigators' Drives that pushed and pulled unto their fate, whereas in The Watchers in the Sky, it was their Sources of Stability and their undermining that the scenario explored. The mechanic in question for The Dance in the Blood is, like that of The Dying of St. Margaret’s, the investigators' Drives, or rather their Drive. The Dance in the Blood explores what happens if the investigators have the same, hidden Drive. Where it is obvious that the Drive mechanic is being explored in The Dying of St. Margaret’s, it is far less so than in The Dance in the Blood. It is never explicitly explained in The Dance in the Blood, although it is present at least in the author's intent, having been subsumed into the narrative.

Another issue that the advice for the GM is heavy handed. There are Drives and skills that the author strongly advises that players do not take for their investigators. This is not all that much of problem and numerous scenarios have suggestions as what works best as far as the player characters are concerned, and it is less of problem if the pre-generated investigators are used. More of an issue is the advice that the GM tell his players, “...not to go there” or “...not do that.” This is to keep the investigators, if not on track, then at least from straying too far, but for some players it might be an issue.

The Dance in the Blood is available as a twenty-nine page, 2.25 Mb PDF. In terms of presentation, it is up to the standards of other Trail of Cthulhu titles. It needs an edit here and there, but such errors are minor. It is lightly illustrated with Jérôme Huguenin’s art, which is excellent as always.

Having played an earlier version of The Dance in the Blood, the GM advice is not as heavy handed as it would first appear. The feel of the scenario is one of creeping realisation of the truth about our investigators, of an inevitable fate that awaits all of the investigators, one that will come to pass at the end of the scenario. Attempting to push at the boundaries written into The Dance in the Blood deflates the mood and ultimately achieves very little.

There is a bleakness to the ending of The Dance in the Blood that echoes that of The Dying of St. Margaret’s, though it is not as grey. It is an inhuman, alien ending that despite some choices at the scenario's climax will eventually be one that the investigators should come to embrace. After all, they are being driven insane by the turn of events, which is exactly as it should be in a Purist adventure such as The Dance in the Blood.

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