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

Sunday, 4 January 2015

The Pen is mightier...

With all of the recent interest in Lovecraftian investigative roleplaying in World War Two, particularly in Cubicle Seven Entertainment’s World War Cthulhu – The Darkest Hour and Modiphius Press’ Achtung! Cthulhu, it is sometimes forgotten that there was a conflict before the global war, one that has often been seen as the ‘dress rehearsal’ for World War Two. This is the Spanish Civil War, fought between the Republicans in support of the democratically elected Spanish Republic and the Nationalists, a fascist rebel group led by General Francisco Franco, between 1936 and 1939. It became the focal point of the radical politics of the Desperate Decade as the fascist nations of Germany and Italy actively supported the Nationalists and the Soviet Union supported the Republicans. It was thus the first clash of two totalitarian ideologies and the active support from both was in addition to the thousands of volunteers who would travel to Spain to fight for each side.

In fact, to date there has been only the one scenario set during the Spanish Civil War for any game of Lovecraftian investigative horror—‘No Pasaran!’ from the Miskatonic University Library Association monograph Shadows of War: Four Scenarios Set In and Around the Second World War published by Chaosium, Inc. for Call of Cthulhu. This is now joined by Soldiers of Pen and Ink, a scenario for Pelgrane Press’ RPG of clue orientated Lovecraftian investigative horror, Trail of Cthulhu. Penned by Adam Gauntlett, the author of Flying Coffins, RMS Titanic: The Millionaire’s Special, and Sisters of Sorrow, this is a one-shot affair that finds the investigators in Madrid, the Spanish capital, tasked with having to shoot a pro-Republican documentary when one of their team goes missing. Has Ramon been arrested by the Soviet representatives for his Trotskyite leanings or been assassinated by Fascist sympathisers?

As the scenario opens, the documentary team finds itself caught up in the opening manoeuvres of the Siege of Madrid with the city threatened by the advancing forces of the Fascists, rumours spreading widely before them about the blood thirsty nature of Franco’s men. Yet even as the Republican government and its Soviet advisors urge its soldiery and volunteers to the barricades, the Republican cause is undermined by differences in ideology and the fear of betrayal by Fifth Columnists, such that belief in the wrong ideology—Communism, Marxism, Trotskyism, or just simple Republicanism, may be enough to get you arrested or even shot! As much the the Republican cause is threatened by this factional rivalry, there is also something else that it fears that lies at the heart of the scenario—defeatism! This being a Trail of Cthulhu scenario, this manifests in an extremely pervasive fashion...

The hunt for Ramon will take the investigators back and forth across Madrid, interacting with famous persons such as Ernest Hemingway, amongst others, discovering signs of a pervading ennui and more, which threatens both the investigators and the city. Countering this ennui lies at the heart of Soldiers of Pen and Ink, which gives numerous opportunities for the investigators to be creative and to do the job that they were hired to do. This pushes the investigators to participate in a greater cause than that of one mere ideology or another, the chance to save Madrid and thus Spain, not from the Fascists, but from despair itself.

Although this is a scenario of Lovecraftian investigative horror, the atmosphere and tone Soldiers of Pen and Ink is perhaps more creepy than horrifying in its manifestation. Its horror comes more from what the two sides in the war are doing to each rather than from the Mythos, the threat of which is covert and insidious than explicit and sincere.

To support the scenario, Soldiers of Pen and Ink includes a good ten pages worth of background. This details the city of Madrid and Spain itself, focusing in particular on recent events; the arms and armour used by both sides; the equipment needed by the documentary team; and several new archetypes—Extremist, Volunteer, Spy, and Black Marketeer—should the players want to create their own investigators for Soldiers of Pen and Ink. Also included is a new Academic Ability, ‘Politics’, which may prove useful in the politically fractious atmosphere of the Siege of Madrid. Now while this is more than useful, it highlights one of the problems with Soldiers of Pen and Ink—our lack of familiarity with the period. This means that the players and their investigators need to assimilate quite a lot of information before they can begin playing Soldiers of Pen and Ink as it is unlikely that they will be aware of Spain and her political situation during this period, what they are doing in Spain, and of course, who Ramon is. This information would really work as a set of handouts so that the players can be ready to play without the need for the Keeper to present them with the need to resort to excessive exposition.

The second issue with Soldiers of Pen and Ink is that physically, it is slightly disappointing and not quite up to Pelgrane Press’ usual standards. The book needs an edit in places and the artwork lacks subtlety. It is also a pity that none of the pre-generated investigators come with their own portraits. That is by the by, for the third, and perhaps the biggest issue is the lack of a map to aid the Keeper. Certainly a map of Madrid would make Soldiers of Pen and Ink much easier to run.

Soldiers of Pen and Ink is primarily a one-shot. The motivations and politics of the period are not necessarily going to be as strong in ordinary investigators such that they would want to become involved in as fractious a conflict as the Spanish Civil War. This is not to say that it could not be run as part of an ongoing campaign, as rather that it would certainly make for a radical shift in tone and feel. One option of course would be to run it as a precursor to the war that is to come, although that does stray away from the time frame for Trail of Cthulhu. On the other hand, it would be very difficult to adapt the scenario to another location or period, the setting and its period being very of their time. Nevertheless, Soldiers of Pen and Ink is an engaging scenario, one that presents an interesting and clever interpretation of a Mythos entity, one that feels surprisingly modern, but it turns out is not, and one that is to an extent reminiscent of Nigel Kneale’s Quatermass and the Pit, all set against an undoubtedly Orwellian backdrop.