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Saturday, 17 September 2016

Dark Detritus

Things We leave Behind is the first release from Stygian Fox Publishing. It is an anthology of six scenarios for Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition, all firmly set in the modern day and the USA. It brings together the author of the superb modern day mini-campaign, Lost in the Lights; the editor of Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition; the author of The Legacy of Arrius Lurco, the campaign that is the best support for Cthulhu Invictus to date; and diverse hands. Published following a successful Kickstarter campaign, the collection draws upon sources such as Pagan Publishing’s Delta Green, the works of the Coen Brothers in both Fargo and Blood Simple, and the television series, True Detective, to present six very modern and very dreadful situations in North America. Note that all six scenarios do deal with adult themes and should be best played by mature gamers.

The anthology opens with Jeffrey Moeller’s ‘Ladybug, Ladybug, Fly Away Home’ which begins with the abduction of Regina Balfour, a five year old girl in suburban Cleveland, Ohio. As shocking as this incident is, it stands out for three reasons. The first is that after grabbing Regina and then passing her to a co-conspirator, the abductor commits suicide. The second is that the abductor turns out to be a retired Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agent. The third is that Regina’s parents run the extreme Christian fundamentalist Church of the Passover Angel. The question is not just what drove a man to abduct a child, but what drove a retired federal agent to abduct a child and then kill himself? It is a powerful setup, one designed for player characters who are themselves in law enforcement or associated with it, although a suggested alternative is for them to be a television news crew looking for one hell of a scoop. In fact, this also means that ‘Ladybug, Ladybug, Fly Away Home’ is a good addition to any Delta Green campaign.

Mixing paranoia, religious mania, and its subversion, ‘Ladybug, Ladybug, Fly Away Home’ is a strong investigative scenario, not necessarily subtle in the muscularity of its tone, but its Mythos elements are for the most part obfuscated and merely hinted at. Its subtleties are also kept quite well hidden and players who embrace that muscularity and charge headlong into its story may find themselves in a for a very nasty surprise. Nevertheless, this is an impressive opening scenario for both Things We Leave Behind and Stygian Fox Publishing.

If ‘Ladybug, Ladybug, Fly Away Home’ delivers an opening jab to the torso, then ‘Forget Me Not’ more than delivers an uppercut to the chin. Written by Brian M. Sammons (and surprisingly not another author in the collection given the Mythos foe at the scenario's heart), this opens en medias res—or rather post media res—with the investigators waking up, sitting in a van after having crashed on a quiet road somewhere in middle America. With them they have filming equipment and various forms of identity. Except for those they have no exact memory of where they are, how they got there, what they have been filming, and who they are. This sets up a dual investigation, first into the mystery of their backgrounds and what they have been doing, and then into the mystery of what got them involved in the first place.

It takes a little effort to set up upon the part of the Keeper and it does need the players to buy into that setup in order to work effectively. The effect though is worth it as this is a finely wrought set up with a payoff that packs an emotional punch. Scenarios involving amnesia have been done before for Call of Cthulhu, most notably with Pagan Publishing's ‘In Media Res’ from The Unspeakable Oath #10 and The Resurrected Vol. 3: Out of the Vault. That scenario is regarded as being something of a classic, but ‘Forget Me Not’ is a well written, well judged addition to the sub-genre.  that really delivers on its setup.

Simon Brake’s ‘Roots’ also takes place in mid-west and also involves a missing girl, this time the eldest and adopted daughter of a friend of the investigators, Mary. It appears that the daughter, Karen, has has contact contact from her mother and gone to visit her in a nearby, isolated town. Alternatively, the player characters might be private investigators hired to get her back, but this is quite a small scale story to get the federal authorities involved. Karen’s destination is also small scale, a town of white picket fences and an unsettling orderliness amidst woods that hide much…

‘Roots’ has echoes of the film, The Wicker Man, but harks back more to the type of grim and bloody faerie tale that you do not tell your children at bedtime, so A Company of Wolves also. Unfortunately after examining ‘Ladybug, Ladybug, Fly Away Home’ and ‘Forget Me Not’, the truth is that ‘Roots’ feels a little underwhelming. This is because there is neither the muscularity or urgency of the previous two scenarios in ‘Roots’. In other words, it is not as direct as those two scenarios. Instead, it is much more of a situation to be explored and investigated, and although there is a threat—such as it is—involved, it is not antagonistic threat. It has no desire to spread its strangeness beyond the confines of the surrounding woods, nor does it wish any ill will towards the investigators. Only in their meddling will they come to any harm… Also, ‘Roots’ is not quite as Lovecraftian as the other scenarios in the collection, feeling earthier and more faerie gothic. This though, does not make it a bad scenario or anything less of a horror scenario, but rather it is different.

‘Hell in Texas’ by Scott Dorward takes us to the Lone Star State and another manifestation of evangelical Christianity—the ‘hell house’. These are attractions run by a church in and around Halloween to warn parishioners of the sin to be found in society with gruesome exhibits and vignettes. Typically they warn of the dangers of sex, abortion, homosexuality, drug and alcohol use, and of course, the seven deadly sins. All ending with the choice to be made between Heaven and Hell. The scenario takes place in the fictional town of Leland, Texas, where the Father Weaver of the Leland Free Evangelical Church has set up a hell house for the forthcoming halloween. Unfortunately, a troubled young volunteer committed suicide while decorating an exhibit. This makes the opening of the Leland hell house a much juicier story. The investigators can become involved at the request of the late volunteer’s father, they might be even a new crew covering the story, or they might be be members of the congregation.

Of course, this being a horror scenario, the hell or ‘haunted’ house of the story is actually haunted; and this being a Call of Cthulhu scenario, it is not haunted by just any old ghost. This is a ghost that will take advantage of the economic and social desperation that pervades the town of Leland and drive the weak and the susceptible to radical acts. Preventing these are perhaps the best that any group of investigators can hope to gain in ‘Hell in Texas’ as all hell breaks out in hell house and in the town. This is not an investigation that leads to a direct confrontation with the Mythos threat present in the town, but rather a confrontation with its manipulation in the hell house in operation. There a sense of the Grand Guignol in the author’s enjoyably macabre description of the hell house in operation—and he comments that it could have been much, much worse had he drawn directly from real world hell houses—which brings to the scenario to its probable gruesome finale. The scenario has echoes of the  classic scenario, The Haunting, but definitely goes in its own direction.

Jeffrey Moeller’s second scenario in Things We Leave Behind is both clever and silly—or has the very great potential to be so. ‘The Night Season’ is set in the rarely visited—at least in terms of Call of Cthulhu—city of Anchorage, Alaska, where the investigators might be asked to re-examine the suicide of a teenage boy some years earlier, perhaps by his parents or after coming across the case. Robert Horn was found locked in his bedroom with a strange, apologetic suicide note after having stabbed himself in the stomach. The question is, what drove an athletic teenager to kill himself?

Experienced players—and perhaps experienced investigators too—of Call of Cthulhu will quickly realise that the Dreamlands are involved, but not exactly how. As the characters investigate, strange things start happening first around them and then to them. What is particularly odd is how these strange things happen out of thin air and then disappear again. What is even odder is that they are all related to a cult Science Fiction television series. As the scenario progresses, the length and frequency of these events grow and grow until they come to dominate it. Now the Keeper can have a lot of fun with these and even more fun if everyone knows the television series being referenced. The scenario includes one to essentially avoid copyright issues, but the author hints heavily at how several well known series can be used and notably, as Things We Leave Behind was being released in PDF, it was the fiftieth anniversary of a certain famous Science Fiction franchise… (One fun option would actually to run the later scenes in the scenario using the RPG based on that property.) What this means is that ‘The Night Season’ possesses a potential for silliness found in few scenarios for Call of Cthulhu. This may well divide the potential audience for the scenario, which in actuality presents an interesting and original situation and dilemma

Rounding out the anthology is ‘Intimate Encounters’, a bonus scenario by the prolific Oscar Rios. The investigators—perhaps journalists, private investigators, or occult investigators—are tracking a serial killer known as the ‘Lipo Killer’ because he leaves his victims drained of their body fat. This very has the feel of a traditional investigation and is reminiscent of an episode of the television series Kolchak: The Night Stalker or The X-Files. This is perhaps the most straightforward scenario in the collection, but is none the worse for that.

Physically, Things We Leave Behind is nicely presented. The layout is clean and simple, but still with a slightly rough character. The cartography is as good as you would expect from the publisher and the artwork is for the most part excellent, being just slightly off kilter. Although it needs a slight edit here and there, for a first book, Things We Leave Behind is professionally presented. Further, a nice touch is that the names of everyone involved—artists, editors, cartographers, et al—is list on the book’s front cover.

There is not a bad scenario in Things We Leave Behind, but ‘Ladybug, Ladybug, Fly Away Home’ and ‘Forget Me Not’ both stand out as fantastic scenarios, whilst ‘The Night Season’ is both fantastic and fantastically absurd. This is a good anthology and a good anthology of scenarios for the modern day, quite possibly the best anthology since the publication of Chaosium, Inc.’s The Stars Are Right. Perhaps the highest praise that can be paid to Things We Leave Behind is that is not hard to imagine Miskatonic River Press publishing this collection, but what is definitely true is that Things We Leave Behind is the first great release for use with Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition.