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

Saturday 19 September 2020

Magic, Murder, & Mystery

Dead Light and other Dark Turns: Two Unsettling Encounters on the Road is not a wholly new book for Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition. This is because it combines one of the first scenarios published for the then new version of the venerable Lovecraftian investigative horror with a wholly new scenario and several scenario seeds. The ‘old’ scenario is ‘Dead Light’, published in 2014 as Dead Light: Surviving One Night Outside Of Arkham, which in this new anthology published by Chaosium, Inc. has been joined by the new scenario, ‘Saturnine Chalice’. What connects the two—or at least what they have in common—is that they take place whilst the investigators on the road, and either because of the weather or because they get lost, the investigators will be confronted with mystery, magic, and mortality. Both scenarios are set in the 1920s, are quite nasty, both are self-contained, and both are nominally set in Lovecraft Country. What this means is that either can be slotted into an ongoing campaign whilst the investigators are travelling between locations or run as oneshots, and be moved to any remote location—all with relative ease. With a little effort, they could also be shifted to time periods other than the Jazz Age of the 1920s. Other than that, each scenario is very different in terms of structure, tone, and story, and so will provide very different roleplaying experiences.

‘Dead Light’ opens with the investigators on the road out of Arkham, heading for the town Ipswich. The weather has drawn and as the road is lashed by a fierce storm, the investigators are forced to slow—which proves to be fortunate when a disheveled and bewildered girl runs into the road. Thankfully, the investigators can take refuge with other travellers at the roadside Orchard Run Gas and Diner. Here they can also learn who the girl is and where she came from, but that begs the question of what forced her to flee into the night when the weather is as bad as this? Another question is what caused a local farmer to swerve his truck so leaving the road all but blocked and left him incoherent with shock? Is it because he is just drunk or are his claims of a bright light that caused him to swerve on the road true?

Further checking on the girl reveals more of the mystery and something of the threat that the investigators will face in and about the Orchard Run Gas and Diner. The threat almost has a Science Fiction feel to it and that is perfectly in keeping with the nature of Cosmic horror. Although its origins are never quite revealed, the purpose to which it has been put can be discerned, and it is horribly rational and thoroughly in keeping with the wider miscegenation found in Lovecraft Country.

‘Dead Light’ is both a tale of jealousy and greed, and a survival horror scenario. As a survival horror scenario, it is light both in terms of the traditional Mythos and detailed investigation. As a tale of jealousy and greed, there are plenty of opportunities for roleplaying though as the consequences of both come to roost in and around the Orchard Run Gas and Diner. The likelihood is that the scenario is much physical in nature as the investigators and the NPCs are stalked in the woods surrounding the roadside stop. Yet as physical as the scenario is likely to become, any investigator attempting to confront the threat with brute force is likely to end up sorely disappointed and quite possibly dead. What this means is that the investigators will need to look for the means to stop the threat—and doing so will reveal the origins of the threat and perhaps the human folly that led to its release.

The issue with survival horror and with a threat as deadly as that in Dead Light is that it is too easy to kill the investigators. Whilst the thing is hunting them and everyone at the café, the Keeper needs to pace the scenario and not have it hunt down and kill everyone. This does not mean that she should be lenient should a player have his investigator act foolishly, but with plenty of NPCs around to show how the monster works, the Keeper should sacrifice them and so hint at the thing’s lethality and give time for the investigators to uncover what is really going on. The danger here is that in the hands of an inexperienced Keeper, ‘Dead Light’ has the potential to result in the death of everyone at the Orchard Run Gas and Diner—including the investigators. A more experienced Keeper will know to play and draw the events of the scenario and the deaths of everyone present out over the course of the evening. Pleasingly, ‘Dead Light’ gives the Keeper the means and advice to that end. Essentially, the second or revised edition of the original scenario, minor tweaks and edits having been made here and there, ‘Dead Light’ is a still as good a scenario as it was in 2014.

‘Saturnine Chalice’ is a radically different scenario in comparison to ‘Dead Light’. It is very much smoke and mirrors, a drawing room mystery bordering on farce, all contained within a puzzle box. The scenario opens again with the investigators on the road and then, whether they have got lost or their vehicle has run out of petrol, needing to go for help. They find themselves at the home of Augustus Weyland and his daughter, Veronica, their hosts welcoming, offering to help them with their plight, and even inviting them to dinner. Surprisingly, both father and daughter are willing to not only entertain the existence of the occult, but openly discuss it, which seems all the stranger given that the investigators have not come looking for it—at least not at the Weyland house. As they interact with the hosts and servants, things get odder and there seems to be gaps in what each knows, culminating in what is a truly bizarre dinner—a scene which the Keeper should really relish portraying.

This and other clues should indicate that there is something strange going on in the house, which should ideally drive the investigators to search the house further—and if they refrain, then other events certainly will. What the investigators find is a clue-rich environment pointing to the events which lead up to the current situation, what is going on when the investigators enter the house, and how they can escape their predicament. Two methods are suggested in ‘Saturnine Chalice’ for handling these clues. One is to rely for the investigators’ skills and abilities, but the other is for the players themselves to take the clues and work out themselves aspects of the puzzle their investigators find themselves in. Certainly, the latter option adds a degree of physicality not normally present in Call of Cthulhu investigations. However, this may complicate play for some players and potentially increase the playing length of the scenario’s single session. Here the Keeper needs to take into account her players’ playing preferences—or at least be aware of their being expressed if ‘Saturnine Chalice’ is run for relatively inexperienced or new players.

In comparison to ‘Dead Light’, ‘Saturnine Chalice’ is far more of cerebral affair, though there are still moments of action. Both possess a fair degree of back story as well as potential hooks which could be developed by the Keeper—especially if either is run as part of a Lovecraft Country campaign. Even if the links are not developed, both are easy to slot into a campaign, or simply run as oneshots.

Rounding out Dead Light and other Dark Turns: Two Unsettling Encounters on the Road is a half dozen scenario seeds. In keeping with the theme of the book, these all start on the road. They take the investigators to a roadside cabin camp where the fellow guests are up to something in the nearby woods, past a strange, giant animal attraction which could be something more, to a suitcase left in the middle of the road, and then on past the same signpost—again, to be diverted into a deadly game of cat and mouse in a scrapyard, and at last, to a chance to be charitable and pick up a pair of innocent looking hitchhikers. In some cases, the scenario sees include one or more explanations as to what is going on, and a couple do include some interesting historical background. That said, some of them are perhaps a bit mundane. All though require some effort upon the part of the Keeper to develop into a full scenario.

Physically, Dead Light and other Dark Turns: Two Unsettling Encounters on the Road is nicely presented. It is well written, cleanly laid out, and the artwork, cartography, and handouts are all decent. The only thing which could be held against the book is that it is in black and white in comparison to the publisher’s other for Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition, but to be fair, this does not detract from the production values and this is still a good looking book.

Even with just the two scenarios, Dead Light and other Dark Turns: Two Unsettling Encounters on the Road is a nicely versatile anthology. Both scenario are very different in terms of their structure, tone, and play style, but both are easy to use. Whether the Keeper is looking to taunt her investigators with a night’s survival horror or a puzzle to unlock, Dead Light and other Dark Turns: Two Unsettling Encounters on the Road delivers both for Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition
along with a few extras.

1 comment:

  1. I've run deadliest and had to pace well to ensure a climatic ending. Very enjoyable.... I will look to pick this up.