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Sunday, 21 July 2019

Shadows in Darker Trails

Shadows Over Stillwater: Against the Mythos in the Down Darker Trails Setting is an anthology of scenarios and more for Down Darker Trails: Terrors of the Mythos in the Old West, the post-American Civil War, Old West supplement for Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition and Pulp Cthulhu: Two-fisted Action and Adventure Against the Mythos. The collection includes a complete mini-campaign, a separate scenario, a campaign setting, and a scenario seed which has the potential to stir the heart of any veteran, probably jaded Keeper. Together they make up support for a campaign run in the south west of the United States of America, perhaps leading on from the description of the town of San Rafael and the two scenarios given in Down Darker Trails: Terrors of the Mythos in the Old West. The fact that both Down Darker Trails: Terrors of the Mythos in the Old West and Shadows Over Stillwater: Against the Mythos in the Down Darker Trails Setting share Kevin Ross as one of their authors serves to enforce the continuity between the two.

Shadows Over Stillwater opens with the three-part campaign, ‘The Shadow Over Stillwater’, which consists of ‘Lazarus in Spades’, ‘Trouble on Knife Cut Mesa’, and ‘Shattered Earth, Poisoned Sky’. ‘Lazarus in Spades’ opens with the player characters being deputised and sent to the town of Stillwater, New Mexico, where Hank Hanratty has been sighted. Hanratty is wanted for shooting a marshal in the player characters’ hometown and they have been tasked with bringing him back to face justice. On the surface, this is a straightforward undertaking, but all is not well within the town—a missing girl, strange figures on the edge of town, earth tremors, the townsfolk all a dither, fireworks, and more—which will hamper the deputies’ search for the wanted man. As to what is causing the strangeness, the townsfolk are ready to blame the local Chiricahua Apache or the local Chinese laundry owner, but there are those who also distrust strangers, that is, the recently arrived deputies.

As much as this exposes the prejudices prevalent at the time, neither are responsible for the strange goings on in and around Stillwater. What is, is revealed in the second part of the campaign, ‘Trouble on Knife Cut Mesa’. There is no distinct cut-off point between ‘Lazarus in Spades’ and ‘Trouble on Knife Cut Mesa’, the actions of the deputies determining when the second part begins. By this point, ‘Lazarus in Spades’ has done a good job of describing the town of Stillwater, its inhabitants, and how they react as the events of the campaign begin to escalate. Ideally, the events so far should have intrigued the deputies enough for them to stick around and continue investigating the strangeness beyond the confines of the town. Out on the mesa they may find an ally if they really work at it, but more likely the investigators will discover the caves of the minions to the campaign’s antagonists, and then beyond that, the actual lair of the antagonists.

Built into the caves beneath the mesa, there is an almost dungeon-like feel to the lair, with finding and exploring this underground complex likely to be the climax of the scenario. It is entirely possible for the investigators to explore the caves unnoticed by the antagonists, but it is more likely that they will be discovered and as the antagonists defend themselves against intruding investigators, that the climax becomes a series of running gun battles. As well as encountering the antagonists, there is a lot to examine in the caves, hopefully giving some hint as to their plans for Stillwater and its surrounds.

Unlike between ‘Lazarus in Spades’ and ‘Trouble on Knife Cut Mesa’, there is a distinct cut-off point between ‘Trouble on Knife Cut Mesa’ and the third part of the campaign, ‘Shattered Earth, Poisoned Sky’. This is because it switches location to a second town nearby, Santa Rosita. Like Stillwater, it has been beset by earth tremors and the walking dead, so the probability is that more of the creatures encountered below Knife Cut Mesa are responsible—and who has recent experience in dealing with them? Getting to Santa Rosita is not an issue, but getting into the town is, as its inhabitants have responded by imposing a quarantine. This nicely sets up a locked room situation rife with roleplaying under stringent conditions that some roleplayers may balk at, but if the investigators can prove that they are definitely not untrustworthy, they should be able to get into the nearby mountains and discover another lair, only this time, bigger, deeper, and of course, in a volcano…

Although ‘Shattered Earth, Poisoned Sky’ brings ‘The Shadow Over Stillwater’ campaign to a climax, it is actually the campaign’s second climax. The encounter under the mesa in ‘Trouble on Knife Cut Mesa’ is the climax to ‘Lazarus in Spades’ and so initially, would seem to be the finale to the campaign. View these first two parts as a dress rehearsal for the antagonists’ big plan and the third part as that big plan being put into action, and the campaign structure makes sense. Consequently, ‘Shattered Earth, Poisoned Sky’ is bigger, with a stronger threat, and more dire consequences should the investigators fail, and if played using Pulp Cthulhu mechanics, has just a hint of James Bond to it (well, it is set in a volcano…)

Still set in New Mexico, ‘Beneath the Burning Sun’ brings violence to the mining town of Shade. Again set in and around another nicely detailed town, the scenario’s bad atmosphere is shattered by a brutal bank robbery, a set piece whose aftermath will find the investigators as part of a posse racing into the mountains to capture the surviving perpetrators. The scenario ends in a bloody confrontation and an unexpected encounter beside a mountain top lake. ‘Beneath the Burning Sun’ is a horse opera, a nasty tale under the blistering sun, but not one that is necessarily easy to use. Suggestions are given as to how to link back to ‘The Shadow Over Stillwater’ or use it as a standalone affair, but options given are underwhelming. Nevertheless, this is at least a bruising scenario if played using Pulp Cthulhu, brutal if not.

With ‘Stonegarden, Arizona’, Shadows Over Stillwater switches states to describe a company mining town beset by anger and resentment—and more violence. It is another nicely detailed location, with plenty of interesting NPCs, a plague of rats, and a nearby mesa sometimes lit up at night by strange lights. Accompanied by a handful of adventure seeds, this is a campaign locale for the Keeper to develop and build scenarios around. 

Lastly, ‘The Devil’s Round-Up’ presents a set-up and an adventure seed still within the New Mexico Territory, but at a location whose very name should stir the jaded heart of every veteran Keeper—Castronegro. The town is the location for the scenario, ‘The Secret of Castronegro’. This classic scenario first appeared in the Cthulhu Companion, published in 1983, and subsequently appeared in Call of Cthulhu, Third Edition and Cthulhu Classics, and concerned missing academics, stolen cattle, and undying Mythos sorcerers. The adventure seed turns the clock back four decades for a tale of more missing travellers, American Indians, and cattle, but with added masked vigilantes in the night. Sadly, the town itself is not fully detailed and the prospective Keeper is advised to check out ‘The Secret of Castronegro’ for more information. It would have been fantastic to see the town given the full Down Darker Trails treatment, but at least ‘The Secret of Castronegro’ and the Cthulhu Companion is at least available to download.

The tone of Shadows Over Stillwater is not straight Call of Cthulhu, definitely not what might be termed Purist, but definitely leaning toward the Pulp. This is even before the Keeper decides whether or not to factor in the use of Pulp Cthulhu: Two-fisted Action and Adventure Against the Mythos, which there is a strong possibility of her deciding to do so, since many of the major NPCs in the scenarios possess Luck points and the Talents to spend that Luck on. Further, the use of Luck and Talents from Pulp Cthulhu will both put the investigators on an equal—and more likely greater—footing and enable them to cope with the brutal nature of the four scenarios, especially when it comes to combat. A great many of the NPCs in ‘The Shadow Over Stillwater’ campaign and the ‘Beneath the Burning Sun’ scenario are predisposed towards brutal, bloody violence, and given the prevalence of firearms in the period and setting, gun combat is common and nasty.

Naturally, scenarios and campaigns set in the Old West warrant the need of the Firearms skill, but ‘The Shadow Over Stillwater’ campaign warrants the knowledge of other types of skills not normally expected of scenarios set in the Old West. This stems from the nature of the horror in the campaign, more obviously Science Fiction in nature than the supernatural stylings of many other Call of Cthulhu campaigns, for the antagonists are scientists rather than sorcerers and the investigators will encounter all manner of devices throughout the campaign. The investigators will thus require technological and scientific skills that their players may not necessarily think of when creating them, at least not in the Old West setting. To that end, perhaps a set of pre-generated Old West investigators might have been a useful inclusion (or at least given as a download).

Lastly, there is the issue of similarities between Shadows Over Stillwater: Against the Mythos in the Down Darker Trails Setting and The Two-Headed Serpent: An Epic Action-Packed and Globe-Spanning Campaign for Pulp Cthulhu. These come from the fact that the ‘The Shadow Over Stillwater’ campaign and The Two-Headed Serpent campaign share the same antagonist with settings and aims that are not dissimilar. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with this and there is no question that the authors have copied each other, but rather that after nearly forty years of Call of Cthulhu, it is not as easy to come up with fresh or unique ideas, especially if drawing from the same sources. Yet were a Keeper to run either Shadows Over Stillwater or The Two-Headed Serpent, and then run the other, then the similarities might be all too readily apparent and detract from the enjoyment of the players in playing that other.

Physically, Shadows Over Stillwater is up to the high standards set by previous supplements for Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition. Some of the artwork is perhaps a little murky, mostly depictions of book’s many NPCs done in scratchy sepia tones, but much of it is fully painted in glorious colour and to be blunt, wasted on just the Keeper—the players deserve to see these illustrations as much as she does. At the appropriate time in each of the scenarios, of course. The cartography is also good and overall, this is a pleasing hardback.

If Shadows Over Stillwater has a single weakness, it is the underwhelming nature of the hooks for some of the scenarios—not ‘The Shadow Over Stillwater’ campaign itself, but individual parts and the separate scenario definitely. A good Keeper and willing players should be able to cope with this issue though. This aside, the supplement provides the Keeper with something to run and something to develop, all arguably better suited to the action and tone of Pulp Cthulhu: Two-fisted Action and Adventure Against the Mythos, for it may be too brutal and bloody for a non-Pulp campaign. Shadows Over Stillwater: Against the Mythos in the Down Darker Trails Setting serves up a campaign, a scenario, a setting, and a seed strong on Old West standards before injecting them with weird horror, bloody violence, and sun-blanched Sanity losses.

1 comment:

  1. I was (and still am) really looking forward to this book, but as I'm actually running Two-Headed Serpent right now, I'm disappointed to hear that same creatures are the main villains in this, too. I'll still likely pick it up, but I'm not in as much of a hurry now.