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

Monday, 27 December 2010

Lonesome Fears

How the lone Call of Cthulhu player doth suffer? In the past the fantasy fan has been well served with solo adventures aplenty, from Tunnels & Trolls to the phenomenon that was the Fighting Fantasy series. The horror fan was and always has been less well served, though the Call of Cthulhu devotee has had four titles that he could play on his own. These included two from Chaosium, Alone Against the Wendigo and Alone Against the Dark; one from Pagan Publishing, Alone on Halloween; and lastly, Triad Entertainment’s Grimrock Isle. The combined solo adventures and a small campaign, of the solo adventures, is the only one still in print. With all but one of those books unavailable, there is another option. One that involves a single player and a single Keeper rather than the single player, and one that is free.

Monophobia: A Fear of Solitude, made available for download by Unbound Publishing as a 1.3 Mb sixty-page black and white PDF. Describing itself as “An opuscule of adventures for lone investigators in the world of Chaosium’s Call of Cthulhu,” an “opuscule” being a small or minor work, Monophobia presents a trio of adventures that a Keeper can run for a single player. All three are one shots, best suited to experienced players and should provide a good session’s worth of play. An impressively detailed pre-generated investigator is provided for each scenario. The three all take place during the twenties or thirties, but with a little effort the Keeper could set them else when.

The anthology begins by discussing the nature and issues inherent in the format. That while pitting the lone protagonist against the alien forces of the Mythos perfectly emulates stories by Lovecraft himself, such as The Case of Charles Dexter Ward and The Shadow Over Innsmouth, it places a lot of responsibility upon the shoulders of the player. No longer does he have his colleagues to rely on for his safety and to discuss the threat that they face with. The Keeper has also more to do, no longer can he sit back and listen as the players and their investigators interact, and so he will have to the adventure moving. Potentially, an adventure is more deadly, there being just the one victim, the player character, to suffer the physical and mental depredations that come with facing the Mythos. The authors suggest that some of these issues can be addressed mechanically, with Idea Rolls, with the careful choice of Sanity losses, and by making the “monsters” more circumspect in their actions. On the upside, the single investigator gets to feel the full dangers of the Mythos, and above all, the single player and Keeper set up enables the exploration of situations impossible with more participants. At the very least, one of the scenarios in this collection does that very well.

The first of the trilogy is “Vengeance From Beyond,” which explores a situation familiar to Call of Cthulhu – revenge form beyond the grave. It has an antiquarian investigator hired by a collector to locate a Mythos tome that was stolen from him. Finding both culprit and tome is relatively easy, but it also results in the death of the culprit. When the collector is driven to suicide it seems that the investigator will not be far behind him as visions threaten his sanity. Discovering the cause is again easy, but stopping it involves lots of detective work during which time the Keeper can have lots of fun haunting the investigator. This is perhaps the most traditional of the scenarios in the book and for that the least impressive.

“Of Grave Concern” is the second scenario its highlight. It is also the longest. It opens in media res with the investigator waking up in a corpse, in a coffin, in a mausoleum. Rather than being stuck as a walking corpse for the whole scenario, salvation comes with the investigator awakes once again in his own body, but the question, who was responsible for the transfer between bodies and what has he been up to while in control of the investigator’s body? This scenario sees the investigator bounce back and forth between the bodies, having only limited opportunities for investigation while in each. The scenario calls for an experienced investigator with some knowledge of the Mythos, but it also requires an experienced Keeper to handle both the pacing of scenario and the flow of clues and information to the investigator. This is a pleasingly clever scenario, one that really would only work with a single investigator and makes not just the best of this set up, but the most innovative.

The last scenario takes the investigator – the given one provided being an explorer – to a spot visited in classic Mythos fiction, but rarely in Call of Cthulhu. “Robinson Gruesome” opens with the investigator being stranded on an island near infamous Ponape. Alone, his initial concern will be for his survival, for food, water, and shelter, but soon learns that the island has regular visitors, ones that come to placate an ancient creature only they are aware of. With few resources and none of the benefits of civilisation to rely upon, this is the most combative scenario in the book, as it climaxes in a fight to the death. The antagonist has the advantage in terms of magic, but hopefully the investigator can rely upon his ingenuity.

Not since “Paperchase,” the single player and Keeper scenario that appeared in The Cthulhu Companion, has this set up been as well supported. These are not only interesting scenarios, but professionally written ones too, with one of them being quite exceptional. Although the collection needs one very last edit, by any standards you care to set, Monophobia: A Fear of Solitude is about as ready for publication as you could get. All a publisher has to do is prepare it for its layout style and it is ready to go. Indeed, if it wanted to, a publisher could use what Unbound Publishing has done with the layout, although it is simple. The question is then, why has this collection not seen publication? Compare this to the Call of Cthulhu titles published in the last decade and the question is even more puzzling.

The truth is that Monophobia: A Fear of Solitude has a limited audience as it is a niche product. Yet for that target niche, the Keeper and the single player, the collection is all but perfect – it would be perfect if the collection could be played through using just the one investigator and if it had made as full use of its set up in all three scenarios as it does in “Of Grave Concern.” This is the highlight of the trilogy, one that could grace the pages of any Call of Cthulhu anthology and still stand out. That Monophobia: A Fear of Solitude is free is not its selling point, but its bonus. That Monophobia: A Fear of Solitude is a good collection is the point.