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Thursday, 12 February 2015

Probity & Purges

With Call of Cthulhu Seventh Edition not quite with us, its publisher, Chaosium, Inc. has instead been tempting us with number of scenarios that are compatible with the forthcoming rules update. Part of the publisher’s ‘one night of horror’ series, they include the toothlessly lacklustre Canis Mysterium: A Scenario With Bite and the much, much better Dead Light: Surviving One Night Outside Of Arkham, which is now joined by Cold Harvest: Roleplaying during the Great Purges of Stalin’s Russia. Written by Chad J. Boswer, the designer of Cthulhu Invictus, Cold Harvest lets the players be members of the Narodnyy Komissariat Vnutrennikh Del or the People's Commissariat for Internal Affairs. In other words, the NKVD!

In Cold Harvest the loyal officers of the NKVD are sent to a remote collectivised farming commune or sovkhoz, where there have been reports of anti-Soviet activity and a fall in the production of its main crop, flax. The investigators are surprised to find that many members of Krasivyi Okatbyr, the sovkhoz, all seem to be suffering from a strange lassitude that prevents them from working as hard as loyal Soviet citizens should. Others are violent, while some seem to be suffering from malignant deformities. Worse, by the time the investigators arrive there has been a murder. All this in a sovkhoz that was the previous year a model of Soviet activity and production. What has gone wrong?

Although the NKVD investigators come armed, Cold Harvest is not really a combat-oriented scenario. Its primary focus is upon investigation, even interrogation, but either way, still detective work—even if that detective work is backed by threats of deportation or death. Now whilst oddities abound throughout the scenario, the Mythos threat is underplayed and so is more effective for it. Mostly we see the effects of the Mythos and the advice for the Keeper all but states that he should keep the Mythos threat offstage. In the hands of a good Keeper this allows the oddness and the disturbed humanity of the sovkhoz to unnerve the players and their investigators. Though options are given to increase the Mythos activity, they threaten to push the scenario away from its weird atmosphere and its Purist sensibility. Anyway the challenge in Cold Harvest lies not in facing and defeating the cause of the weirdness, but in making the choices that decide the fate of the members of the sovkhoz—death or deportation.

One suggested option for playing Cold Harvest is one-on-one, that is, one Keeper and one player/investigator, which would work with the scenario’s toned down, Purist leanings. It does not work though with the historical details given in the scenario about how the NKVD operated. Essentially they were so feared and hated, that agents did not work alone.

Support for Cold Harvest includes plenty of historical detail, a set of eight pre-generated investigators, and a conversion guide so that the scenario can be run using Call of Cthulhu Sixth Edition or earlier incarnations of the game. One pleasing touch is the appendix acknowledging the existence of other scenarios for Call of Cthulhu set in Stalinist Russia. Not only does it list Bret Kramer’s Machine Tractor Station Kharkov-37 and Troy C. Wilhelmson’s The Terror, both Miskatonic University Library Association monographs published by Chaosium, Inc., it also lists Mike Ferguson’s Age of Cthulhu III: Shadows of Leningrad and E.S. Erkes’ ‘Secrets of the Kremlin’ from the TOME title, Glozel Est Authentique!. Further, it discusses how these four scenarios can be run as an intermittent campaign set during the Desperate Decade of the 1930s. This is a useful inclusion, though only for those of us who own a copy of Glozel Est Authentique! as it has long been out of print.

If there is an issue with Cold Harvest it is that it does not provide enough support for the players. The scenario does include a section on roleplaying investigators who are members of the NKVD. It is a useful section, even helpful, but the question has to be asked, why was it not included as a handout rather than being stuck in the middle of the book? After all, roleplaying a member of the NKVD is a markedly different challenge to that of playing a Private Eye or a dilettante. Further, this support is not carried on to the suggested campaign in that there are no guidelines for creating investigators who are members of the NKVD, surely something that would help the players identify with investigators who are alien twice over, that is Russian and members of the NKVD.

A minor niggle would be the keeping of the skill ‘Credit Rating’ rather than something more appropriate to the period and setting. It feels like an anachronism when like ‘Party Standing’ could have been substituted instead, especially when the scenario goes to the length of describing how the Credit Rating skill works in the Soviet Union.

Another niggle may be the similarities between it and Machine Tractor Station Kharkov-37. Yes, both take place on collective farms where there has been a drop in productivity, but there the similarity ends. The investigation process is different, the Mythos threat is different, and Cold Harvest possesses a moral aspect that Machine Tractor Station Kharkov-37 does not. In many ways, this makes Cold Harvest the more interesting of the two scenarios. After all, do the investigators have the ‘strength’ of character to participate in the Purges?

What is interesting in Cold Harvest is not necessarily its Mythos menace, but rather that it involves multiple menaces. Obviously the Mythos is one menace—and in terms of Call of Cthulhu, self-evident—but there are two other menaces present in the scenario. The first is distant, but is one that the investigators must answer to—their superiors in the NKVD. They will decide the investigators’ final fate should they survive the scenario, this decision looming over all of the investigators’ actions in Cold Harvest, should they fail in their assignment. The third menace in Cold Harvest is actually the player characters, the investigators. They are a danger to the residents of the Sovkhoz for they hold their fates in their hands as they have the power of life and death over them. They are also a danger to themselves, always looking to forward or bolster their standing with both the Party and their superiors. After all what better way to cement your loyalty than denounce the disloyal actions of another officer? Not since the days of the Judge Dredd RPG have the players so much power, whether it is to have someone sent to a labour camp for correction or simply executed for being ‘anti-Soviet’. This already instils paranoia and fear in anyone not associated with the NKVD, so why not the agency’s members?

Ultimately, there is no easy outcome to Cold Harvest. Though a Mythos threat hovers in the background throughout, the true monsters in Cold Harvest: Roleplaying during the Great Purges of Stalin’s Russia may be the player characters themselves. This is a pleasingly atmospheric affair which asks the question, ‘Can monsters make moral choices in an immoral system?’