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Friday 19 August 2016

High Seas Horror

Originally made available in print on Saturday, June 18th, 2016 for Free RPG Day 2016—though in lamentably limited quantities—the good news is that The Derelict: A Tale of Terror for Call of Cthulhu from Chaosium, Inc. is now available in print to everyone. Or rather, it is available to order as ‘Print on Demand’ via Lulu.com and at a very reasonable price too, even taking the cost of postage into consideration. So having got both the grumble and the good news out of the way, what is The Derelict? Well, it turns out to be scenario for Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition penned by Sandy Petersen, the RPG’s original designer, together with Make Mason, one of the co-designers of the new edition. And indeed, The Derelict carries the strapline, “By the Godfather of Call of Cthulhu”. Set in the modern day, it is a one-shot scenario that takes place on the high seas that can be played in a single session or two. Designed to be played by between three and six players, it comes with six pre-generated investigators that can either be used or the players can create their own. This can be done using either the Call of Cthulhu 7th Edition Quick-Start Rules—free to download hereor the the Call of Cthulhu Investigator Handbook. Likewise the Keeper can run The Derelict just using the rules provided in the Call of Cthulhu 7th Edition Quick-Start Rules or he can use the full rules from the Call of Cthulhu Rulebook. The advice for the Keeper includes suggestions for what type of characters should be created for use with the scenario.

As The Derelict opens, the investigators are passengers aboard the Delilah, a luxury yacht sailing across the North Atlantic bound for Liverpool in the United Kingdom. There the owner—one of the investigators—is due to sell his boat, but both he and his guests are taking one last opportunity to avail themselves of a pleasure cruise. Even if it is in the mid-Atlantic… Which is where the investigators spot a ‘reefer’ or ‘refrigerated cargo ship’, stranded on an iceberg. According to the Geneva Convention on the High Seas, the crew of the Delilah—and that includes the investigators as one of them is likely the owner—is responsible for rendering the crew of the beached vessel assistance. If that is not motivation enough—and it is a moral and legal obligation, then there is the possibility that under the Law of Finds, the ‘refrigerated cargo ship’ and its cargo might be salvage. If the investigators can get the ship off the iceberg and take it under tow back to a port, then they stand to make themselves rich indeed. (An alternative set-up suggests that the player characters are a salvage team coming to investigate the stranded vessel, but this is not the default set-up in The Derelict.)

The cargo ship turns out to be the Groenland Tropisch, a Norwegian vessel headed for Greenland. Aboard the cargo ship the investigators will find the crew missing, the vessel seemingly abandoned. Which means that under the Law of Finds, both vessel and cargo belong to the investigators as salvage. All they have to do is re-float the ship and take it under tow. There is of course the matter of the missing crew, missing lifeboats, the doors ripped open, the vandalised controls, and the bloodstains in the ice of the cold, cold ship. What did happen to the crew of the Groenland Tropisch and are the investigators in danger themselves?

What you have in The Derelict is an ‘it’s locked in here with us’ situation. Isolated and very far from rescue finds themselves prey to an unnatural alien creature out of legend. It feels reminiscent of John Carpenter’s The Thing from another World, but that is as much due to the isolated location and the low temperatures and the Norwegian thing as much as anything else. Of course if the players want think that… Nevertheless, the monster in The Derelict is nothing like that of any film, being instead drawn from Norse myth. This may be an issue for the purists, who may have preferred to seen something from the Lovecraftian Mythos appear here rather than a creature from another source. If that is the case, then they can replace the thing faced here with something of their choice, but to be fair, it is highly unlikely that they will have come across something like it in their gaming lives and so facing it will present them with a fresh rather than a familiar challenge. Just as it will for anyone else coming to play The Derelict. Plus, the scenario is a one-shot and it is meant to last a single session that, so the issue is moot anyway… (Plus it shows that Call of Cthulhu can work with other monsters, though a suggestion or two is given if a Mythos explanation is demanded.)

Since the scenario is an ‘it’s locked in here with us’ situation, the creature is difficult to stop. Not unstoppable, but difficult. The means to deal with it are provided in the scenario and discussed for the Keeper’s benefit, but this will require the full exploration of the Groenland Tropisch and a little investigation. The limited extent of the latter may again be disappointing for Call of Cthulhu, but again, The Derelict is a one-shot scenario designed to be played in a single session. This and the setting for the scenario limits possible investigative options anyway. Plus as a one-shot, The Derelict needs to get to the action and the horror with some expediency.

Physically, The Derelict is well presented. The layout is clean and tidy, the few illustrations are good, and the deck plans of both vessels excellent. If there is anything odd about the scenarios, it is the backgrounds of the six pre-generated investigators. Too many of them seem to have odd military or espionage connections and most of them come armed with an array of handguns. Working the scenario into a campaign would be a challenge, but it would be easy enough to adapt The Derelict to the Jazz Age of the 1920s or the Gaslight Era of the 1890s if the Keeper wanted to run it in either of those periods.

The Derelict is a suitable to run for either experienced or inexperienced players of Call of Cthulhu. The Keeper though, should ideally have some experience under his belt as essentially once the investigators are aboard the cargo ship, since he will be reacting to their actions as the thing hunts them down… Overall, The Derelict: A Tale of Terror for Call of Cthulhu is a solid one-shot, good for one night’s icebound horror on the high seas.

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