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Sunday, 10 June 2018

Fear of the Forest

Out of the Woods is an anthology of scenarios for use with Trail of Cthulhu, the clue-orientated roleplaying of Lovecraftian investigative horror published by Pelgrane Press. It presents a quintet of mysteries with a common theme—from Wisconsin to Utah, Vermont to Brittany, that theme is a fear of the forest and what lies beneath its dark, tangled canopy, lurking, watching, ready to strike fear, to abduct, and to hunt the unwary… All five take place in the default time period for Trail of Cthulhu, the Desperate Decade of the 1930s, and all five serve to take the investigators beyond the edge of civilisation and into ancient wildernesses…

The anthology opens with ‘Midnight Sub Rosa’ by Ruth Tillman. This takes the investigators to backwoods Alabama and the small town of Rosa, to solve the mystery of a missing occult tome. The diary of Ezekiel de la Poer, a notorious necromancer hanged in 1736, has been stolen from the home of a retired professor of American Folklore. Both diary and its owner were to be the subject of a symposium to be held by the professor and various academics on what is the bicentennial of de la Poer’s death. The question is, who stole it, what was in the diary, and what effect might it have on the thief? The scenario gets off to a bit of a woolly start with its being rather unclear as to how the investigators are to be involved and what is going on. What is going on is that in the default set-up, the investigators work for the Armitage Inquiry, one of the campaign frameworks presented in Trail of Cthulhu, tracking down and dealing with occult and Mythos tomes which pose a threat to humanity.

What this means is that the Mythos is placed upfront in this scenario and the investigators, if not actually aware of it, should almost be aware of it. As the investigators arrive, the town of Rosa is beset by strange events which sets up the second strand of the investigation. The first is more or less a locked room mystery in which the investigators determine who stole the book, where it is now, and what its contents are, whilst the second deals with its effects in the wild and on the local populace. Inspired by the H.P. Lovecraft stories, ‘Rats in the Walls’ and ‘Statement of Randolph Carter’, this is a decent enough scenario in which the woods really only play a minor part. The real issues with the scenario are twofold. It could have been better organised, especially at the start where it is unclear quite what is going on, especially as where the investigators are concerned. Then for a scenario originally intended to be used as a convention scenario, it really is too long in its current form and the provided pre-generated investigators really need some background.

This is very much less of an issue in Adam Gauntlett’s ‘The Silence Mill’. The investigators receive a letter from a comrade thought to have died in the Great War seeking their help, but not before they have had to come to the aid of the postman trying to deliver it! The son of their long lost friend has not only been accused of murder, he has been accused of being a werewolf, and the investigators are asked to come to what is all but feudal Brittany in France to help him. When the investigators get there, events serve to leave them with little in the way of help, but as the scenario unfolds, the local legends of werewolves, the templars, and the Holy Grail all point towards the ancient and dense forest of Paimport where no-one but the local marquis and his men will walk. His hold over the locals means that the investigators will have to overcome both their reticence and the difficulties of the French legal system for non-Francophiles—the default set-up and the pre-generated investigators suggest that they are English—if they are to save the accused and thwart the plans of the cult which makes the forest its own.

Where ‘The Silence Mill’ really shines is in the combined layers of legends which the author overlays the Mythos to give it the cultural depth that few scenarios achieve. Mostly obviously King Arthur and the Holy Grail, under which he works the Mythos. His choice of Mythos would suggest the West Country of the United Kingdom as a suitable location, but by shifting the location to Northwest France, the author can not only layer in both werewolf and templar myths, but also localise them in the Brocéliande. This gives ‘The Silence Mill’ a rich cultural depth which few scenarios for Lovecraftian investigative horror attain. With its hook being derived from events during the Great War, there is also room here for the Keeper to run a prequel to the events of ‘The Silence Mill’, perhaps using a scenario from the anthology, Dulce et Decorum Est: Great War Trail of Cthulhu.

Although ‘Midnight Sub Rosa’ explores racism and segregation to an extent, it is intrinsic and central to the third scenario, ‘Dreaming of a Better Tomorrow for 30 Dollars a Month’. Written by Chris Spivey, the author of the highly regarded Harlem Unbound: A Sourcebook for the Call of Cthulhu and Gumshoe Roleplaying Games, its investigators are African Americans very much taken out of their comfort zone. In the desperate years of the Great Depression, they have managed to enrol in the Civilian Conservation Corps, a paramilitary public work relief programme established as part of the New Deal. Although theirs is one of the few integrated teams in Civilian Conservation Corps, the investigators have to contend with near constant racism of varying vehemence as well as the strict daily regime of life in the corps. Both will greatly hamper their researches and investigative efforts when they are recruited by the local Chief of the Safety Division to look into a number of strange deaths and disappearances amongst the African American corps members in the area. This is reflected in the mechanics which make spends and so on more expensive for African American investigators rather than reducing the number of Ability points they have available to spend and so reducing their capability.

This being Vermont, the obvious Mythos threat here would be the Mi-Go, but this is not so in ‘Dreaming of a Better Tomorrow for 30 Dollars a Month’. In fact, the singular threat in the scenario is probably the least interesting element of it, whereas the backdrop and the social constraints are not only more interesting, they are also more of an interesting challenge to understand, explore, and roleplay.

If the need to sacrifice dignity and swallow your pride is explored in ‘Dreaming of a Better Tomorrow for 30 Dollars a Month’, Lauren Roy’s ‘The Coldest Walk’ explores the sacrifices that need to be made to mollify the Mythos. Deep in the woods of Wisconsin, near where bodies have been found crushed and frozen—even at the height of summer, the inhabitants of the town of Four Pines have come to an agreement. When the sky flashes in the bright colours of the aurora, one of their number must make a terrible choice lest they all succumb to the cold. Whether brought to Four Pines as journalists in search of story, private investigators looking for a missing person, alienists wanting to to research psychological trauma, or simply out of  curiosity, what they will be presented with is a situation without any obvious antagonist. Getting the townsfolk to reveal the truth and the need for their activities, will take some good roleplaying, as will navigating their way to anything approaching a successful conclusion. The scenario presents multiple courses of action and thus multiple possible outcomes and overall, is probably the easiest of the five given in the anthology to adapt to other periods.

Out of the Woods comes to an end with ‘The Trembling Giant’ by Aaron Vanek. Like ‘Dreaming of a Better Tomorrow for 30 Dollars a Month’ before it, this casts the investigators as members of a minority, not African Americans, but Native Americans. And as with ‘Dreaming of a Better Tomorrow for 30 Dollars a Month’, the investigators also benefit from the New Deal. Instead of enrolling as members of the Civilian Conservation Corps, as a result of the Wheeler-Howard Indian Reorganisation Act of 1934, they receive some land as a form of reparation. In particular, they are members of the Water Clover People of the Paiute Indian Tribe living in Utah who are given a piece of  state land near a hunting and fishing site. Again, as with ‘Dreaming of a Better Tomorrow for 30 Dollars a Month’, the investigators must deal with the prejudices and small-mindedness of White majority, many of whom may be unhappy at land being handed over to the ‘Indians’, as they attend the ceremony of the signing of the land to them, possibly research the land itself—it is some distance away from their current land, so they know little about it, and eventually visit the parcel of property and its strange woodland… As the tribe’s shaman suffers terrible nightmares and warning totems shatter, the investigators will quickly come to wonder what exactly is the nature of the land they have been given and what help they can rely upon if they are to face it...

‘The Trembling Giant’  presents the woods not as home to some threat, but the threat itself, a global and more long term interpretation of one of the Mythos’ signature and most fecund of entities. This is balanced by the presence of the effects of that fecundity on the land neighbouring the tribe’s new territory, which serves to give the horror a more human and tentacular face. As with ‘The Silence Mill’ and ‘Dreaming of a Better Tomorrow for 30 Dollars a Month’, this feels well researched and like  ‘Dreaming of a Better Tomorrow for 30 Dollars a Month’ provides a different and difficult approach to investigating the Mythos.

Physically, Out of the Woods is well presented and in general well written, although it does feel a little rushed in places. Where required, the cartography is nice and clear, and the illustrations decent throughout. Each scenario includes a breakdown of its scenes and a diagram of how they should flow. Each scenario is also accompanied by various handouts and a set of pre-generated investigators. 

The very worst thing that could be said about this anthology is that many of the scenarios are of their time and place and thus are difficult to adapt to other to times and settings. That said, they are in many cases, one-shot scenarios, rather than something that could be added to existing campaigns. Certainly, ‘Dreaming of a Better Tomorrow for 30 Dollars a Month’ and ‘The Trembling Giant’ are the most difficult to adapt to other times and places, primarily because they include social horror as well as Lovecraftian investigative horror. The very least worst thing which could be said about anthology, is that its theme—nyctohylophobia—is inconsequential to the first scenario, ‘Midnight Sub Rosa’. Certainly, that theme plays a much stronger role in the following four scenarios and they are all the better for it. Of the five in the anthology, ‘The Silence Mill’ stands out because of its adaptation and layering of myth which give it a richness to its background, and ‘Dreaming of a Better Tomorrow for 30 Dollars a Month’ because it explores the social horror of the time as much as it does Cosmic horror. Nevertheless, there is not one bad scenario in the collection. Out of the Woods successfully invokes our nyctohylophobia, our fear of the forest, with a quintet of excellent scenarios.