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

Sunday, 31 October 2010

Halloween Horror I.III

Would you? Could you? Play a Nazi?

Back in April I first looked at the boundaries when it comes to roleplaying and gender, specifically that of the atypical male gamer playing not just a woman, but a schoolgirl at a boarding school in Hellcats and Hockeysticks: A Role-Playing Game of chaos, anarchy, and unladylike behaviour, the Corone Design RPG now available from Cubicle Seven Entertainment. Back in that review I mentioned that one other boundary that few if any player would cross be that of being asked to play a Nazi. Which is no surprise given the Nazis should top just about any list of figures you can hate and get away with hating. Except now there is actually a scenario in which you are asked to play a Nazi, and not the nice kind who joined because it was expected, but the kind that embraced all of the prejudices and dogma that went with Nazism. The scenario is Curse of the Yellow Sign – Act 1: Digging for a Dead God, written by John Wick, best known for Play Dirty, his advice book on how to be a “fair” GM, and writing the first edition of Legends of the Five Rings. If that is not enough to peak your interest, it is written for Call of Cthulhu and is Wick’s first Call of Cthulhu adventure.

Digging for a Dead God is a self-published one-shot, written as part of the Curse of the Yellow Sign trilogy, and designed to be played in an evening or so with six players and a Keeper. Available as a twenty-four page PDF, this is far from anything like a traditional scenario. The fact that the player characters take the roles of Nazi officers is itself anything other than traditional, but more radically, this is a scenario almost completely lacking in events. Wick suggests that it has just the three. The Nazis discover a door. The Nazis unlock the door. The Nazis suffer the consequences. In between these events what happens to the characters is entirely up to the players, and I use the term characters rather than investigators as the player characters are far from the traditional investigator of a decade before. Other than these three events, Digging for a Dead God is an entirely player driven scenario, one that only works with the pre-generated characters. After all, what could be worse than playing a Nazi than having to create one first?

The set up is simple. In the summer of 1939, the Nazis have secreted a clandestine team into British sub-Saharan Africa and begun a mining operation for diamonds. It is lead by a captain and four lieutenants in the Schutzstaffel or SS, plus a sergeant in the Wehrmacht and twelve soldiers, and lastly two mean Alsatian dogs. Together they have commandeered the inhabitants of a small village below a nearby mountain and set them to work in the diamond mine. So far the mission has met with relatively little success and many soldiers are ill with disease while many villagers are ill through overwork. A few days into the operation, the natives report that they have uncovered something strange...

With no NPCs and no events to talk of in Digging for a Dead God, there is relatively little to this scenario. There is a region to explore, a small sandbox for the characters to investigate and react against as they make strange discoveries. It is primarily up to the Keeper to make the most of both the strangeness of these discoveries and the reactions of the characters to them. This need, along with the interlocking backgrounds and dark agendas of the characters, makes the role of both the players and the Keeper more pro-active than would be the case in a normal Call of Cthulhu scenario. Indeed, the Keeper even has his own role within the scenario, a prodding, pushing figure whispering ills into the ears of the characters.

Given the confined size of the play area – the camp and the caves under the mountain – the bulk of the PDF is devoted to advice from the author. Wick in turn discusses his approach to Call of Cthulhu, that of pitching it as a horror movie rather than a dark fantasy (the comparison being between Alien and Aliens); staging advice such as visions, suggestions that it be played by torchlight, how to address each character, and so on; and events that occurred when he ran the scenario himself. It is this advice more than the scenario itself which imparts the horrific alien feel to Digging for a Dead God, and that alien feel is not born of another, an Outer or Elder God, but of the self. That mankind, when driven from his humanity – which is essentially what Call of Cthulhu’s Sanity mechanic is doing in this game – will become that horrifically alien being himself. Certainly, the seeds are already there in Digging for a Dead God, the player characters are hardened Nazis after all.

Where the scenario is at its weakest though, is in its slight lack of historical verisimilitude and in its character design. I have gone on record complaining about the lack of historical accuracy in some Call of Cthulhu scenarios, and deservedly so. The issue here is not as much of a problem as with some scenarios from certain publishers, primarily because the confined setting, itself already alien to the players, let alone the characters, but getting small details such as the equipment available historically accurate helps the feel of a scenario. Further, a Keeper should be able to track such details down and quickly assign the characters the right gear. The second issue, that of character design, is more of a problem. In particular, one character is said to be blackmailing another and know everyone else’s secrets, but there is nothing about this in the character’s description. The Keeper really needs to examine each of the provided characters and not only prepare, but re-write both a background and a character sheet anew in order to make the most of the foibles and agendas of the pre-generated investigators.

Even given the issues with the poor character design, Digging for a Dead God is not a scenario suited to the skills of the inexperienced Keeper. It demands more of an active participation upon the part of the Keeper than most scenarios just as it calls for more player interaction and thus roleplaying upon the part of the players than most scenarios. So equally, this is a scenario better suited to experienced players who can cope with its demands, and more mature players who can deal with its mature set up and themes. My advice though, is to warn the players of these demands and of its mature themes and set up before play starts. This is not a scenario to run or play lightly. Given its demands and despite the work that Keeper needs to do to get its character set up right, Curse of the Yellow Sign – Act 1: Digging for a Dead God has everything necessary to run a maliciously memorable single night of horror. The truth of it being that if played to the hilt, then the player characters deserve it.

What then of the question asked at the top of the review? Would I? Could I? Play a Nazi? Under most circumstances, the answer would be a definite, “No.” In this instance – and as a one-off scenario, then certainly.