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Saturday, 7 March 2020

All Aboard for Autophagia

In Call of Cthulhu, sea voyages are never the restful trips that a sea cruise would suggest. Ever since ‘The Mauretania’ from Asylum & Other Tales, passenger liners have been hotbeds of Mythos activity, whether a passenger is inadvertently transporting an artefact of great importance and cultists want it back, the passengers are being prepared as a sacrifice to the Elder God of a madman’s choice, or the ship comes across some strange island or ship which just should be there. Simply put, in Call of Cthulhu, sea travel is never safe. Especially not sea cruises. But what if the investigators had to get aboard a vessel which had already suffered such a disaster? What if it was already in port and under quarantine and they just had to get aboard? This is the situation at the start of Autophagia: Fear & Infection in from the High Seas.

Published by Stygian Fox, Autophagia is essentially a mash-up between The Poseidon Adventure and The Thing From Another World. It is set in the roleplaying game’s classic era of the Jazz Age and does deal with mature themes—often in interesting historical context—which will require players to take an equally mature attitude when playing through the scenario. Its story and events are all confined to the middle of the New York harbour. Here the Essexia, sister ship to the Mauretania and Lusitania, has been placed under quarantine and ordered to anchor offshore, following reports of an outbreak aboard ship of a disease which has already caused the deaths of several passengers. It is designed to be run as a single session of claustrophobic horror aboard an oddly deserted vessel. The first problem for the investigators is getting aboard, but the scenario more or less handwaves this. Similarly, it all but handwaves anything that the investigators do before anyone aboard—crew or passengers—spots them, reports their presence, and they find themselves being interviewed by the ship’s captain in his cabin. The question is why bother spending so much time discussing either, even in such a cursory manner before dismissing both, if the point of the set-up is to get the investigators to the actual start of the scenario in the captain’s cabin? 

Alternatively, why not include some hooks and thus sufficient reasons for the investigators to want to commit an act which would break international law—that is, break a quarantine almost on the high seas? Then, why not follow it up with some challenges for getting aboard ship and once aboard, for getting around unnoticed—for a time—trying to achieve something related to their reason for being aboard? Not necessarily for the investigators to fail, but rather to add drama and tension to what is a dramatic and tense situation. In fact, what is actually a clever and interesting, even novel set-up, but one that is completely, utterly, disappointingly ignored by the scenario.

Once aboard though, the captain—who is more than a little reminiscent of the captain of the Golgafrinchan Ark Fleet Ship B from The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, though he has a cat rather than a rubber duck—will more or less gives his permission for the investigators to help the ship’s doctor, who has been overwhelmed by outbreak of the strange disease and subsequent events. What they discover is a ship almost in lockdown, the ‘almost’ being determined, naturally, by social class, and then by whether or not the passenger is suffering from the strange illness which has beset the ship. Thus the ill of First and Second Class, along with everyone of Third Class have been confined to Third Class cabins. This gives the Essexia a strange, even unnerving deserted feel when normally its halls and desks would throng and bustle with passengers. 

The unaffected of First and Second have greater freedom of movement, including spending time and eating in the dining hall. This presents the opportunity to investigate and interact with a number of the passengers and so learn more of what has been happening aboard. It also gives the Keeper a few nicely done and each very different NPCs to portray and roleplay. Of course, as the investigators proceed apace with their enquiries, there is a countdown ticking away in the background, the likelihood of even more passengers coming down with the strange sickness aboard the Essexia, which exhibits as a strange desire to gnaw and pick at your own flesh. And of course, the possibility that the investigators might come down with it themselves...

Autophagia is decently presented, a slim full colour book illustrated with a mix of period photographs and the occasional piece of artwork. Period deck plans are also included, alongside floor plans of various cabin classes. A menu adds an element of verisimilitude, since the investigators are likely to be spending time in the First Class Dining Hall. Unfortunately, the editing feels rushed and underwhelming.

Autophagia is not a scenario for the inexperienced Keeper, for whilst there are only three acts, once the investigators have been let loose by the ship’s captain, it is fairly freeform in nature. As a one-night mystery, the Keeper may need to rush things towards the scenario’s climax, but run over more sessions than just the one and she will have to improvise a little more. Despite the disappointing failure to initially capitalise on the novelty and challenging nature of its set-up, Autophagia: Fear & Infection in from the High Seas is a decent scenario, delivering a vile dose of masticating horror.

2 comments:

  1. Perfect! I've been looking for a review of this scenario recently. Great to hear that investigators can come from outside the ship, but I guess I need to work myself on a reason for them wanting to get in.

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  2. The maps given are pulled right off google, not sure if these are copyright free for use. Stygian Fox is getting sloppy, rushing out what they owe to its consumers and backers.

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