Monday, 28 October 2019

Hobo Horror

Riding the Northbound: A Hobo Odyssey is a scenario written and published for use with Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition by Golden Goblin Press. Released as a stretch goal for the Kickstarter campaign for the scenario, Cold Warning: A chilling 7th Edition scenario, it builds on the author’s article, ‘Raggedy Clothes and Worn Out Shoes: A Look at the American Hobo’ from Island of Ignorance – The Third Cthulhu Companion, to present a wintry slice of Hobo life played out across the North East of the USA, as seven Hobos, Tramps, and Bums make their way across two states in search of a more than welcome hearty celebration. It presents a short guide to Hobos and the Hobo culture of Desperate Decade of the nineteen thirties, a septet of pregenerated characters, and the scenario, ‘Riding the Northbound’, for which the pregenerated characters are designed.

Riding the Northbound: A Hobo Odyssey opens with ‘Raggedy Clothes and Worn Out Shoes: A Look at the American Hobo’, an examination of  the place of the hobo and his life and how he can be played as a Mythos investigator, here reprinted from Island of Ignorance – The Third Cthulhu Companion. It looks at Hobo life, mundane threats faced by Hoboes—they were often hated by communities and the authorities, the unionisation of Hobos through Tourist Union #63, Hobo camps, the Hobo etiquette and code of right, and gives examples of Hobo slang and signs. It goes into the details of finding a job as a Hobo and making sufficient ‘Days of Need’—the daily material required to get by in good health. Whether looking for a job, performing, begging, or scavenging, it is all hard work and in terms of the mechanics, it feels a little like it, since a player will be rolling for this day by day.

In terms of investigators, it provides three Occupations as well as a set of tables for generating Hobo names like Stinky Judge Phil or Professor ‘Barb’ Bourbon. The Hobo rides the rails, actively looking for and wanting work; the Tramp depends on his ability to sing, tell a story, or play an instrument as much as his luck to get by; and the Bum relies upon his luck as much as pleasure in the bottle to get by. On the down side,  ‘Raggedy Clothes and Worn Out Shoes: A Look at the American Hobo’ is a reprint, but this was one of the best articles in Island of Ignorance – The Third Cthulhu Companion—and as good as it was there, it is just as good here. This is an excellent article and if you wanted to play a Hobo—of either stripe—this is the perfect resource, whatever the roleplaying game (and it need not be one of Lovecraftian investigative horror either).

The seven pregenerated characters include three Hobos, two Tramps, and two Bums. They include a mix of male and female characters, each of which comes with a thumbnail portrait and a detailed background. Notable additions to some of these characters is the Dreaming skill, suggesting that the scenario that follows might involve the Dreamlands. Even if that is not the case, what it suggests that despite their circumstances, some of the Hobos have not stopped daring to dream—quite literally… If there are issues with Riding the Northbound: A Hobo Odyssey it is with these pregenerated characters. Not that they are bad, but rather that they are not provided in the book as ready to play investigator sheets and that should none of the pregenerated characters with the Dreaming skill be selected, they may be at a disadvantage when it comes to playing the scenario that follows.

Almost two thirds of Riding the Northbound: A Hobo Odyssey consists of the eponymous scenario. It begins in a jungle—a Hobo camp—just outside of Boston. The player characters have arrived looking warmth and company with the onset of winter, but find it all but empty. They quickly learn that a fellow Tramp, Bottlecap Bob has struck it lucky, having fallen in love with, and married a rich widow, and to celebrate his good fortune, has invited everyone he ever rode the rails with to come join him at his new home in Harmony Corners to celebrate. For the player characters this is too good an opportunity to pass up, but Harmony Corners is north of Albany in New York state, which means crossing Massachusetts and then heading north just as the weather is turning bad…

So begins a risky journey of riding the rails, jumping trains, and walking in winter across New England. This includes gathering supplies for the journey, dodging the authorities to get aboard a train, skirting a village with a reputation for hating Hobos, making friends, finding work, and quite a bit more. There are several challenges and scenes given to cover the journey and although somewhat episodic, they nicely bring the Hobo experience to life for the players, showing not just the difficulties they faced, but also the kindnesses they were shown. Although these scenes are mundane and involve just a little in the way of investigation, they are rife with chances to roleplay and game.

Eventually the Hobos will reach Harmony Corners and there find a homecoming of sorts, a warm welcome that comes with plenty of hot food, fine drink, a bath and a shave, and best of all, a warm bed for more than just the night. Of course, it looks to be too good to be true—and it is. Just the player characters are warm, dry, and have full bellies, the home of Bottlecap Bob, his beautiful Japanese wife and her two daughters, is beset by groans, screams, and worse… At this point, the horror of the Mythos erupts in the mansion into a bodily mess, one that the Hobos may not be equipped to deal with. No matter how well prepared the player characters are, the climax to the scenario is likely to be fairly physical—and if they manage to come out of that alive, there is still scope for them to continue their quest elsewhere.

For as a scenario, this is what ‘Riding the Northbound: A Hobo Odyssey’ is, a quest, a great odyssey beset by travails and blessed with boons, only for the Hobos to find—much like Odysseus found his homecoming, it is not as welcoming as the Hobos might have liked. Yet unlike that 0dyssey, it is the homecoming that is mythological rather than mundane in ‘Riding the Northbound: A Hobo Odyssey’ and the journey that is mundane rather than the mythological. Further, it is the journey that is interesting, even fascinating, rather than the confrontation with the Mythos at the climax, which the Hobos have little notion of. In this, ‘Riding the Northbound: A Hobo Odyssey’  may well work as a suitable scenario with which to introduce the Hobos to the Mythos.

Physically, Riding the Northbound: A Hobo Odyssey is a slim volume, liberally illustrated with period photographs and some excellent artwork by Reuben Dodds. The maps are clear and the scenario is decently written, although it needs an edit in places.

Riding the Northbound: A Hobo Odyssey has its origins as a convention scenario and perhaps it would have been nice to have some notes towards that end. As written though, Riding the Northbound: A Hobo Odyssey is a fine exploration of the Great Depression’s underbelly and of character types often ignored in Lovecraftian investigative horror, and a scenario which proves that the journey is often more interesting than the destination. 

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