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

Saturday 20 July 2019

Mother's Embrace

Published by Just Crunch Games, Mother’s Love is an anthology of three scenarios for The Cthulhu Hack. As its title suggests, the three involve investigations at the root of which stands Shub-Niggurath, ‘The Black Goat of the Woods with a Thousand Young’, ready to ensnare the unwary in her fecund embrace, wrap her woody branches around them, and perhaps, grant them rebirth. All are modern, but one is set in 1950s Canada, whilst the other two take place in the Mediterranean in the relative here and now. All three are essentially one-shots and whilst they do require preparation upon the part of the Keeper just as any other scenario, the rules for investigator generation in The Cthulhu Hack make it easy for the players to create their investigators and get playing. All three are also fairly light on mechanics, making their plots and set-ups easy to adapt to the roleplaying game of Lovecraftian investigative horror of the Keeper’s choice.

The trilogy opens with ‘Deep Roots’ which sees the player characters investigate a double murder and apparent abduction of a child in 1950s Canada. Written by Chloé Germaine Buckley and Jonathan Buckley, it casts the investigators as members of law enforcement or Child and Family Services, the first because of the murdered couple, the second because the abducted child had recently been adopted by the murdered couple. The child was adopted from The Rainy River Home for Foundlings and Orphans, located in an isolated town in northwestern Ontario, and the investigators will quickly learn that another child adopted from the orphanage—which has recently been shut down—was also involved in a violent incident. So the question is, are the cases involved? Further, just what might have been going on at the ramshackle and rarely inspected home for children?

Answers of course lie at the orphanage, although there is much information to be found in the nearby town of Lake of the Woods by talking to the inhabitants or checking local records. The orphanage, naturally—or is that unnaturally?—stands on the edge of a dense forest that the locals, including members of the nearby First Nation reserve, avoid. There is definitely a sense of the gothic to both forest and orphanage, of the forest as a force beyond nature, and of protecting its own. What it is protecting should be fairly obvious, but why is left up to the Keeper to choose one of three options given. Once chosen, the Keeper only need use the elements for the selected option given in the rest of the scenario. This gives the Keeper some flexibility in how she runs the scenario and some of the options could actually work together as well as stand on their own.

If there is an element in ‘Deep Roots’ which could have been better handled, it is the link from the murder (and the other violent incident) to the orphanage. It feels slightly too tenuous for the investigators to want to go there based on the information they have at that point. Some players, having learned of the link, may simply decide to follow it up anyway, but others may need more of a reason and the Keeper should probably be prepared for that just in case. Overall, ‘Deep Roots’ does a solid job of presenting Shub-Niggurath as a maternally protective presence and there is a nicely creepy atmosphere to the scenario, one that plays upon our fear of children as malicious beings and our fear of the woods.

The second scenario takes place at a specific time and location—Malta and 2016, the four hundredth anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. In Keris McDonald’s ‘Ġgantija’, a local expat thespian has decided to stage a special performance of The Tempest held in the Neolithic Temples at Xaghra. Unfortunately, the rehearsals take a turn for the worse when one of their number is found dead and after going to the police, the player characters, or actors, find themselves chased by something beyond their imagination, from island to island. The set-up for this scenario is absolutely fabulous, any roleplayer should relish the opportunity to play a cast of plummy-voiced, luvvies and the like, overdoing the acting before confronted by murder, a weird cult, and a curse. Designed ideally for four or so players, it is a pity that Ġgantija did not come with a list of actor archetypes for the players to create and really ham it up with before it becomes bloody and undulating.

From this somewhat BBC Sunday night drama-style beginnings ‘Ġgantija’ quickly turns up the weirdness before adding in a dash or two of conspiratorial elements. These manage to feel both unexpected and unsurprising at the same time, being a radical plot twist on the only island it could take place on. Overall, this is a fun adventure, one that portrays Shub-Niggurath as a primordial, vengeful mother figure.

The third and final scenario in Mother’s Love is ‘Gifts of the Flesh’ by Kathryn Jenkins. This casts the investigators as members of Protectors of Mistreated Animals (PMA) setting out to break into an abattoir on a tiny Greek island, which is the source of a highly successful ‘luxury’ organic boar meat business. As animal rights activists they want to confirm their suspicions that ‘Kronos Meats’ are using chemical enhancements to produce such good quality meat. The investigators will need to sail to the tiny island where the company is based, make their way past its one town, and from there break into the abattoir. 

Unfortunately, ‘Gifts of the Flesh’ is linear in structure and more obviously so, and whilst there are clues to found, it never really feels as if the investigators can do very much, except push on. For the players to want to have their investigators to push towards the climax of the scenario, a strong sense of motivation will be needed. More than any of the three, ‘Gifts of the Flesh’ would probably have benefited from pre-generated investigators. There is a thick, oppressive atmosphere to the scenario, which transforms Greek myth into the Mythos and casts Shub-Niggurath as a transformative figure—there being a lot of change in the scenario—capable of giving rebirth. There is also a lot of background to the scenario and anyone with a keen interest in Greek myth may make the connection between myth and Mythos fairly quickly. Again, there are notes on how to obfuscate the links.

Physically, the three scenarios and Mother’s Love as a whole is well presented. The hardback has a decent full colour cover and the internal artwork is decent too. The three scenarios are generally written with a reasonable amount of advice for the Keeper to help in their staging. Some of the maps could have been more sharply produced though.

Mother’s Love is a solid collection of scenarios, each easy to run, each easily adapted to the mechanics of the Keeper’s choice, and each entry exploring a different aspect of Shub-Niggurath. None of the three is unplayable, but ‘Ġgantija’ is the standout, presenting opportunity aplenty for some great roleplaying, almost like actors being offered juicy roles. 

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