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

Sunday, 6 February 2011

The Box of Delights

To date Graham Walmesley has written three scenarios for Pelgrane Press’ Trail of Cthulhu. Beginning with The Dying of St. Margaret’s and continuing with The Watchers in the Sky and The Dance in the Blood, each has been an exercise in the Purist style of Lovecraftian horror, using the GUMSHOE mechanics of Trail of Cthulhu to push and pull the investigators into the situation of each scenario before intentionally driving them mad. In terms of narrative though, there is nothing to connect these scenarios in the traditional sense to be found in the classic and linear Call of Cthulhu campaigns of Lovecraftian investigative horror. Then again, there is as yet no such campaign for Trail of Cthulhu, primarily because writing such a beast is a more demanding and lengthier project. That said, this will change with the release of Walmesley’s own forthcoming Cthulhu Apocalypse, and also Eternal Lies, the campaign written by Jeff Tidball and Will Hindmarch of gameplaywright, for which there is already a musical suite composed by James Semple.

Digression aside, there is a point about making the comparison, for Graham Walmesley’s Purist scenarios do actually form a campaign. They might not have an obvious connection beyond the fact that they are in turn one shot affairs with dark and dark inevitably nihilistic endings, but they do form a campaign. Even though they are designed to be played through in any order using different characters for each scenario, they nevertheless form a campaign. This being a Purist campaign, it not surprisingly, an unconventional campaign, for what actually makes it campaign is the fourth and last scenario in Walmesley’s Purist series, The Rending Box. What The Rending Box does is provide an explanation that caps the series while still providing another bleak story. What sets it apart from the previous three though is that it actually comes with a climatic ending. Well, a potential climatic ending right before the Mythos delivers its quietly uncaring riposte…

The Rending Box opens with the investigators receiving a postcard from a long-time acquaintance. Doctor Jakob Tulving, an academic with an interest in English folklore asks them to collect and deliver an antique box to him to the hotel he is staying at in the English Lake District. The box becomes an object of curiosity for investigators, its strangeness soon a source of questions that mere research cannot or does not want to answer. Perhaps the good doctor has them? Yet when they arrive at his hotel, it is cold and dark, almost deserted. What has Tulving got them involved in?

Thematically, as the capping scenario to the Purist Quartet, The Rending Box is all about revelations and the truth. Obviously, this being a scenario about Lovecraftian investigative horror, such revelations and truths can only have a negative impact upon the sanities of the characters, and this certainly proves to be the case as Walmesley takes the “Drive Yourself Crazy” mechanic he employed in the previous scenarios and pushes it as far it will go. In The Rending Box, the aim is not for the investigators to drive themselves crazy, but to drive themselves insane. As more and more of the truth around them is revealed, the investigators gain more knowledge about the Mythos and the spiral downwards into insanity grows faster and faster, but unlike in most Trail of Cthulhu or even Call of Cthulhu scenarios, the characters, even insane, remain functional for a time able to act in spite, or perhaps because of their madness. One more push, or revelation rather, is enough to break an investigator of his ability to carry on…

In addition to providing an explanation for the scenarios that have gone before, The Rending Box also provides another link to each one. It is possible through research to discover clues that refer back to events in those scenarios, the author suggesting that the clues be altered to account for what the investigators played by the players did in each one.

Physically, there is a conceit to The Rending Box that will be lost once it is properly published. Made only available at Dragon Meet 2010 as a limited edition of twenty copies, The Rending Box itself comes in a small three-inch square box, black with coloured markings. Inside can be found two six-sided dice that match the colour of the markings, along with four booklets and two sheaves of paper. The first of the sheaves contains the handouts, the second a set of five pre-generated investigators. Simply done in black and red with red highlights, each of the booklets the sheaves has a rough feel to it. This is due to the fact that each copy of the boxed The Rending Box has been hand assembled. The result is that The Rending Box feels and is, quite rough around the edges, though there is a certain charm in that. The format of the four small booklets also means that not everything is quite where you want it to be, especially on an initial read through which has you looking for things that appear a few tiny pages later. The rough feel to The Rending Box is also due to the fact that this is a playest scenario, so there is the possibility that there may be changes to made it prior to publication. Certainly I think that at least one of the provided pre-generated investigators needs a hook into the scenario. Perhaps these small things will be fixed by the time that the scenario comes to be published, though in the meantime, the author is planning to release another set of twenty boxes – the collector in me hopes that they will be marked slightly differently to the edition that I already have.

In comparison with its predecessors, it is not as strong or as atmospheric an adventure, and it is certainly not as bleak or as grey as the first and best in the series, The Dying of St. Margaret’s. The horror of The Rending Box is also placed much more on show than in the previous scenarios, but that is due to its revelatory nature as much as any other factor. Nevertheless, there is the potential for some nice little moments in The Rending Box, most of them to do with the box itself. Despite its roughness, The Rending Box brings Walmsley’s Purist Quartet to a fittingly downbeat close.