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

Wednesday 6 May 2015

Sweet Charnel Decay

The primary focus of Pelgrane Press’ clue orientated RPG of Lovecraftian investigative horror, Trail of Cthulhu is the desperate decade—the 1930s. Yet it is no stranger to other time periods, in particular, the Great War. Author Adam Gauntlett has penned a number of scenarios set within the four years of the global conflict that took place between 1914 and 1918 that have taken the investigators soaring into the skies in Flying Coffins, diving into the depths in Sisters of Sorrow, and slipping behind the trenches in Not So Quiet, each time to face a strange new sanity searing threat to humanity that is taking advantage of the carnage and chaos of the Great War.

With Dulce et Decorum Est: Great War Trail of Cthulhu, Gauntlett revisits the conflict to further explore the advantage taken by certain entities of the Mythos and in the process present rules for handling the conflict in the air, at sea, and on land in this new mechanical age of war; set out a campaign framework and give scenarios old and new. In previous visits to the Great War by Lovecraftian investigative horror—in particular by No Man’s Land for Call of Cthulhu—the Mythos entities associated with such mass conflict have been the feasters upon the dead, that is, ghouls. Here the author takes this to the next logical step and places the Great Old One, Mordiggian, as the Great War’s darkest celebrant and patron. The Charnel God was not the instigator of the Great War, but it is pleased to participate and further encourage the loss of life on a massive scale—one more sign that the End Times near?

Thus according to Dulce et Decorum Est, the greater the devastation and the greater the scale of death, the more likely that Mordiggian will manifest. This might be as simple as the ghost-like Angel of Mons, but it might a personal manifestation. Either way, the aim of both is to drive men to greater acts of death and destruction. Whilst Mordiggian shares an interest in mankind with Nyarlathotep, unlike that of the Crawling Chaos, he is not malicious and manipulative, but malign and monomaniacal, concerned only with death. Often worshipped by those with an interest in necromancy, Mordiggian rarely dispenses boons, but nevertheless, given the patriotic fervour with which the war is supported at home by both sides, it is no surprise that the Charnel God is worshipped by cultists on both sides. Thus cultists are given for both sides in Dulce et Decorum Est. One, Agathe von Plon, previously appeared as the villain in Flying Coffins, whilst the others, the Balfour sisters, are distant relations to the author of the infamous tome, Cultes des Ghouls and together lead The Order of the White Feather, which actively supports the war and decries any signs of cowardice.

Dulce et Decorum Est offers four campaign settings and three scenarios. The four campaigns start with ‘The Home Front’, amidst the burgeoning feminism and sexuality of women doing men’s job as the popularity of the war grows and grows, before moving closer and closer to the Western Front. This is exacerbated in the second campaign setting, ‘Paris: The city of Tears’, and combined with the whirlwind chaos of soldiery passing through, nightly bombing, and keeping the troops entertained. The third, ‘15th New York Volunteer Infantry Regiment: A Season in Hell’, sees the Charnel God take advantage of, and drive on, the pride of an African-American infantry regiment, whilst the fourth, ‘Sinai and Palestine: Shadows in the Desert’, mixes espionage and guerilla warfare of Lawrence of Arabia with the Mythos.

‘Vaterland’, the first of the three scenarios is a prequel of sorts to Flying Coffins. It is set in 1914 aboard the Vaterland, a German passenger liner that has been chained up in New York harbour to prevent it being used ship supplies in support of the German war effort. The investigators are ‘yellow journalists’ sent to attend a concert being held aboard the Vaterland in support of Germany, one that is being attended by William Randolph Hearst! Is the concert a cover for a German spy ring? If so, could Hearst be German spy! This is why the investigators’ editor sends them aboard the Vaterland, but the truth of the matter is that the investigators are unlikely to uncover exactly what is going before everything goes awry. As the lights go out in the bowels of the passenger liner, the investigators find themselves trapped in the visions of the horrors to come and must find their way out of those as much as the ship itself. A relatively short, straightforward and confined affair, ‘Vaterland’ is a primarily interesting because of its setting, one that plays against our anti-German notions of the period. The inclusion of Hearst as an NPC adds an interesting wrinkle and a certain impetus to the scenario.

The second scenario is ‘Dead Horse Corner’ and fits more readily into our narrative of the Great War. The investigators are soldiers, members of the Royal Engineers, sent up the line to a forward observation post to re-establish contact with the unit assigned there and repair a broken telephone line. Under intermittent shell fire and sniper fire, the investigators find themselves isolated and at first haunted, then hunted by something in the valley. Again a relatively short scenario, it nicely builds on a strong sense of isolation and of the three scenarios in the book, is probably best suited to add to an ongoing campaign set during the Great War.

‘Sisters of Sorrow’ is the third and final scenario in Dulce et Decorum Est. It is also the only reprint and thus has already been reviewed here. Set aboard a German mine-laying submarine,  ‘Sisters of Sorrow’ is all about the infectiousness of paranoia and desperation in confined spaces. After all, nowhere could be more confined than an Unterseeboot in the middle of a Royal Navy blockade in the North Sea when the danger comes from below.

As well as a timeline of the war, the supplement presents a number of new rules. This includes the Military Talk and Battlefield Lore Abilities—the former for interacting with members of the military and its bureaucracy, the latter for knowing about and the way around a battlefield. For the most part the new rules consist of subsets for handling the different physical environments that the war is fought in, that is, on land, in the air, and at sea. The rules for both aerial and naval combat are not new rules, having been drawn from ‘Sisters of Sorrow’ for the naval rules and from Flying Coffins for the aerial rules, but their inclusion here is fitting. The new rules for ground combat cover the digging of trenches and laying of fortifications, trench warfare—including gas warfare, and the first incidences of armoured warfare—including both tanks and armoured cars. Whilst all these rules are appropriate, what is missing is a guide to creating investigators for any of these theatres of conflict, since many of the participants will be new to the military life and had jobs before enlisting.

Physically, Dulce et Decorum Est is solidly presented.The art is excellent, though the writing feels a little rushed in places. If the supplement is lacking, it is in the lack of overarching advice for the Keeper on running a campaign set during the Great War, but as a whole though, Dulce et Decorum Est gives the tools for the Keeper to run scenarios set during the war, plus numerous good ideas and three solid, though all too short scenarios. 

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