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

Friday, 31 October 2014

By evening's Dead Light

After the underdeveloped and uninteresting Canis Mysterium: A Scenario with Bite, the good news is that the second entry in the ‘one night of horror’ series of scenarios from Chaosium, Inc. combines Call of Cthulhu with survival horror to deliver both an ominous sense of the unknown and shocks and scares aplenty. Dead Light: Surviving One Night Outside Of Arkham can be run as a one-shot and is playable in an evening or single session, or it can be easily slotted into an ongoing campaign as a short side-track adventure. Further, and notably, it is written for use with the forthcoming Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition, so can be used as a taster for the new mechanics, but like all Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition titles, Dead Light is relatively easy to convert back to previous versions of Call of Cthulhu. It can also be used as an introduction to Call of Cthulhu and to horror roleplaying in general, as the threat faced in Dead Light is something other than the traditional creatures and entities of the Cthulhu Mythos. Does this mean that Dead Light is not a Call of Cthulhu scenario? Of course not, for the tone, sense of desperation, and the fact that the ‘investigators’ can be still be driven mad all firmly place it within Lovecraftian investigative horror.

Written to be played by between three and six player characters—who may or may not yet be investigators—Deadlight opens with them on the road out of Arkham, heading for the town Ipswich. The weather has drawn in and the car has been forced to slow in the face of the heavy storm. Coming to the rescue of a dishevelled and bewildered girl on the road the travellers take refuge at the roadside Orchard Run Gas and Diner. Here they find succour and shelter as well as another mystery in addition to where the girl came from. What caused a local farmer to swerve his truck so leaving the road all but blocked and left him incoherent with shock? What follows should be a nasty night and in nasty weather, the threat revealing itself as it comes hunting for those trapped in the cafe by the storm, ratcheting up the tension between the investigators and the NPCs as their lives are threatened.

Where a traditional horror scenario might have achieved this with vampires, zombies, or serial killers, Dead Light does it with something unknowable and unworldly, even ineffable. The threat almost has a Science Fiction feel to it and that is perfectly in keeping with the nature of Cosmic horror. Even its origins are horribly rational and thoroughly in keeping with the wider miscegenation found in Lovecraft Country.

Whilst Dead Light is essentially a survival horror scenario, mechanically it is quite survivable. There are relatively few dice rolls to be made throughout the scenario and it is not particularly heavy in terms of investigation or the need to make investigative rolls. What this means is that the investigators still have their supply of Luck to spend when it really matters—encountering the threat in the woods! This does not mean that Dead Light is no less deadly or lethal, indeed the threat the investigators face is not just implacable, it is all but unstoppable by conventional means. Thus investigator who attempts to use brute force to stop it is going to end up sorely disappointed and quite possibly dead. What this means is that the investigators will need to look for the means to stop the threat—and doing so will reveal the origins of the threat and perhaps the human folly that led to its release.

The issue with survival horror and with a threat as deadly as that in Dead Light is that it is too easy to kill the investigators. Whilst the thing is hunting them and everyone at the cafe, the Keeper needs to pace the scenario and not have it hunt down and kill everyone. This does not mean that he should be lenient should a player have his investigator act foolishly, but with plenty of NPCs around to show how the monster works, the Keeper should sacrifice them and so hint at the thing’s lethality and give time for the investigators to uncover what is really going on. The danger here is that in the hands of an inexperienced Keeper, Dead Light has the potential to result in the death of everyone at the Orchard Run Gas and Diner—including the investigators. A more experienced Keeper will know to play and draw the events of the scenario and the deaths of everyone present out over the course of the evening.

Although ostensibly set in the early 1920s and in Lovecraft Country, Dead Light is not location or time specific. It would work in any period from the 1900s onwards. Likewise, it can easily be relocated to almost any country. All it needs is a stretch of road that runs through heavy woods alongside which stands a petrol station and a roadside cafe. The NPCs may well need some adjusting here or there so that they are not American, but such adjustments are minor and they are well drawn enough to fit any other desired location.

Included with Dead Light is a four page guide to using it with earlier versions of Call of Cthulhu. That said, even the possession of the rules for Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition is unnecessary to run Dead Light as it could be run using the Quick-Start Rules available from Chaosium. Further, Dead Light could easily be run before or after the investigators’ strange experiences in the classic scenario, ‘The Haunting’.

Unfortunately, what Dead Light lacks is a set of pre-generated investigators. Their inclusion would have provided a ready reason for the player characters to be on the road to Ipswich and with the inclusion of integrated backgrounds, it could have added an extra degree of tension and interplay between the travellers that would come into play as events of the scenario play out. Possible ideas might be a family visiting relatives, college students returning home, mobsters on a job, and so on. This would bind the investigators together and make use of the guidelines on organisations to be found in the Investigator Handbook for Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition. It would alleviate the need to come up with reasons why newly-created random characters—an antiquarian, a dilettante, a doctor, and a private detective—know each other and are on the road together. Of course, this is not an issue for experienced role-players or when using previously played characters.

Physically, Dead Light is well presented. An edit is needed here and there, but the scenario is well written, the NPCs decently done, and the threat clearly explained. The maps are also good and much of the artwork can also serve as good hand-outs. If there is an issue with Dead Light physically, it is that the cover does not fit its threat as it is supposed to. It feels all too solid, too defined, whereas the descriptions given of the threat feel otherwise…

Although not quite suitable for an inexperienced Keeper, Dead Light is more than suitable for new players, whilst experienced players will enjoy an evening’s play up against something other than a traditional threat, whether drawn from traditional horror or that of the Cthulhu Mythos. Containing (almost) everything necessary to play an evening of survival horror tinged with Cosmic Horror, Dead Light: Surviving One Night Outside Of Arkham is a solid scenario and the best title released by Chaosium in years.

A case of the 'Curse of  Chaosium' crack’d…?