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

Saturday, 27 October 2018

Undeveloped Territory

Following a successful Kickstarter campaign, in 2017, Dark Cult Games published The Star on the Shore, an attempt to write a sandbox for Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition. The  resulting scenario was not without potential, but was ultimately undone by a lack of development and editing which got in the way of the Keeper actually running it. Now following a rebranding as New Comet Games, the publisher has returned with Devil’s Swamp – Encountering Ancient Terrors in the Hockomock, its second scenario for Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition.

Published following a successful Kickstarter campaign, Devil’s Swamp – Encountering Ancient Terrors in the Hockomock, is like The Star on the Shore before it, set in New England and so within the reach of Lovecraft Country. It centres on the Hockomock Swamp, Lake Nippenicket, and the bordering town of Bridgewater, all in south east Massachusetts in an area known as the Bridgewater Triangle. Thus Devil’s Swamp will encompass ghosts, strange lights, giant beasts, Bigfoot, ‘Puckwudgies’, and the legends of the Wompanoag tribe as well as elements of the Mythos. That is in addition to the dangers of the swamp itself—sinkholes, quicksand, snakes, leeches, mosquitoes, bears, lions, and more…

Devil’s Swamp – Encountering Ancient Terrors in the Hockomock consists of eight scenarios, which will present mystery after mystery that will again and again draw the investigators into Hockomock Swamp abutting the town of Bridegewater in south east Massachusetts. It opens with a set of encounters to be rolled for whenever the investigators are in the swamp and a description of various establishments in and around Bridgewater. Each of the thirteen locations detailed, from the Bridgewater Public Library and the Coroner’s Office to the Train Station and both of the town’s newspapers, is given a slightly odd box of text. It is difficult to determine whether these are sections of prose to be read out to the players or reminders for the Keeper’s benefit because their text wanders back and forth between information which would be obvious at first sight of the establishments and information which would only readily apparent should someone enter and interact with the owners or the staff. The description of the town is accompanied by a pair of maps, one for the players and their investigators, of the town, and similarly, there is also a similar pair of maps of Hockomock Swamp.

All but three of the eight scenarios in Devil’s Swamp are written by Ben Burns. The anthology opens with his first, ‘Lost’, in which a twelve-year old boy has gone missing in the swamp. Locating him will be hampered by some strange encounters in the swamp and recalcitrant parents, but help comes from a decidedly strange quarter. Accepting this help is really the only method to resolving the scenario, which involves an ophidian twist upon the changeling myth. It also sets up an NPC or two who could be of use to the investigators, though one of these will not reappear in the collection until much, much later. ‘Lost’ is a straightforward and linear affair which lacks a hook to get the investigators involved unless they happen to be in Bridgewater.

Similarly, Christopher Smith Adair’s ‘Deeper Than Skin’ has no hook unless the investigators happen to be in Bridgewater and good terms with the town’s lackadaisical police department, which would rather have them investigate the circumstances of a death than have its officers do it. The body is that of the town banker and clues point to his wife, recently sent to the Danvers State Hospital, and her circle of friends, and then to a local spa which they frequented. Although this ultimately involves fighting monsters, there is a lovely genteel feel to the scenario combined with some refreshing ideas.

More youngsters in peril are the subject in ‘Where the Spirits Dwell’ by Ben Burns, when the town is beset by a rash of suicides. This brings legends of the Wompanoag tribe to the fore and the investigators will probably need to enlist their help in stopping the menace. Again a straightforward enough scenario, it is followed by the more complex ‘Canned Articles’. Written by Brian Courtemanche, veteran players of Call of Cthulhu are likely to recognise the Mythos entity involved, the scenario being about another missing person, this time a professor of anthropology whose latest writings hint at mad discoveries… This is a reasonable scenario which feels a bit stodgy in places (its own encounter table feels redundant) and could have done with a better map. Unlike the other scenarios, this is likely to have long term consequences for the investigators.

A farm attacked by strange hounds again sends the investigators into the swamp in Ben Burns’ ‘Hockomock Hounds’. The clues from the farm leads back to strange goings on at the local college and of course, someone meddling with things best left alone. It is a reasonable scenario, though its ending has the potential to be confusing for the players and their investigators as well as annoying since one of them may be forced to make the ultimate sacrifice. ‘Terror in the Swamp’ is Ben Burns’ next scenario and despite feeling a bit like Stargate, is definitely the best in the anthology. Another beast is attacking farms on the edge of the swamp and whilst that it is where the threat emanates from, clues point to a case previously investigated by the Bridgewater Preservation Society. Pleasingly, there is little if any combat in the scenario and though short, presents the investigators with an interesting situation.

The penultimate scenario is Jonathan Bagelman’s ‘The Recluse’. A local newspaper posts a reward for a missing journalist who went to interview a reclusive scientist who resides in the swamp. There is little investigation involved in the scenario and again, it comes down to a monster fight in what feels like a cross between Frankenstein and Grapes of Wrath. The anthology closes with Ben Burns’ ‘A Cry for Help’. Another missing person, this time a Professor at MIT with links to Nikola Tesla, again leads the investigators into the swamp. Unfortunately, the scenario has choke point, narratively and literally, which may impede the investigators’ progress and so bring both scenario and the anthology to an unsatisfying conclusion. Once past this, the scenario again ends in a fight and is probably not as interesting as it could have been.

In coming to the final scenario, ‘A Cry for Help’, there is actually a callback to the very first scenario in the anthology, ‘Lost’. It is not developed though, but it is almost as if the eight scenarios in Devil’s Swamp could be run as a campaign. Unfortunately, whilst the suggestion that Devil’s Swamp can be run as a campaign is certainly a possibility, it is all but completely ignored by the authors. There is no advice to that end and whilst there are sort of hooks which can pull the investigators into exploring the strange incidents in and around Hockomock Swamp again and again, they are barely touched upon in the anthology. For example, the investigators could be students or staff at Haynes College, members of the Bridgewater Preservation Society which investigates the strangeness which seems to seep from the swamp, or they could just be residents of the town concerned at the lack of action by the local police. Any one of these would work, but it is very much left up to the Keeper to develop these because the authors have not. Further, the inclusion and discussion of any one of these would have countered the weakness of the introductions to the scenarios in this collection, which do not work if the investigators are not local to the town.

Were Devil’s Swamp to be run as a campaign, it would be as a loose collection of scenarios and encounters rather than an investigation into one singular overarching threat or antagonist—essentially monster or mystery of the week rather than going up against a ‘big bad’. Arguably, Hockomock Swamp is the ‘big bad’ here, one that of course, cannot be defeated, but that is more ‘man against nature’ than ‘man against the Cosmic Horror’. 

What is so disappointing about this is the fact that Kickstarter explicitly states that the investigators are members of the Bridgwater Preservation Society, looking into the mysteries and situations which local law enforcement refuses to and which seems to emanate from the Hockomock. The question is, why was this not included in the final book?

Physically, Devil’s Swamp – Encountering Ancient Terrors in the Hockomock is a handsome hardback. The layout is clean and tidy, though somewhat cramped in place. The artwork is a mix of the good and the merely okay, but a lot of it gets used again and again, so distracts from its impact. The maps of Hockomock Swamp and the town of Bridgewater are decent enough, but a regional map would have been useful too, especially since the investigators are likely to want to go further afield. Plus several lines of enquiry in the scenarios do take the investigators away from the Hockomock Swamp and the town of Bridgewater.

Unfortunately, the writing is all too often undone by the editing, leading to two problems. One is a lot of repeated text—for example, the information about various locations such as Carson’s Outfitters and the Public Library in Bridgewater, and Danvers State Hospital elsewhere—when the Keeper could refer to the descriptions given in the write-up of the town at the start of the book. The other is a case of the Keeper sometimes having to make the connection between clues and plot in the scenarios herself and facts being revealed to the Keeper at the last minute rather than at the start of the scenario. This is in addition to details being included in one scenario and not in another.

The previous scenario from the publisher, The Star on the Shore, was let down by combination of too much of a focus on making the book look good and a lack of development and editing. With its second Call of Cthulhu scenario, there are hints that New Comet Games has tried to address those issues, but unfortunately it has not been successful in that aim. In failing to achieve that aim, it has not really succeeded in creating a campaign built around a location—in this case Hockomock Swamp—either. Whilst the scenarios themselves are reasonable enough, they are not supported by either the underwritten description of the town or a campaign framework. In the hands of an experienced Keeper, there is no reason why this anthology would not work, but it would take some effort upon her part to build a campaign around them. Ultimately, Devil’s Swamp – Encountering Ancient Terrors in the Hockomock is better than The Star on the Shore, but it still needs more editing and more development time. It is a sincere wish that the third supplement for Call of Cthulhu from New Comet Games gets both.