The Highway of Blood: A Call of Cthulhu Scenario for the 1970s is a one-shot scenario for Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition, published on the Miskatonic Repository. It stands out as being different for four reasons. First, it is set during the nineteen seventies. Second, it is inspired by the low-budget horror, splatter, and exploitation films of the period, shown in a ‘grindhouse’ or ‘action house’ cinema, such as Duel, I Spit on Your Grave, Last House on the Left, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Hills Have Eyes, and the more recent Death Proof. Third, in doing so, the scenario involves a number of elements which the players may find disturbing. In fact, more disturbing than is the norm for a Call of Cthulhu scenario. These include drug use, sadistic violence, implied rape (against NPCs), torture, cannibalism, body horror, and violence against children. Consequently, the scenario comes with a warning and advice on how to handle such topics, including making clear to the players the nature of the content of the scenario and discussing any boundaries they may have—essentially a ‘Session Zero’, if necessary fading to black and drawing a veil in what might otherwise be a personally harrowing scene, and ultimately respecting a player’s limits. Even if that means ending the current session. So to be clear, The Highway of Blood is not a scenario for the timid or the easily offended, its content is of a grittily adult nature and so requires mature players, but it goes out of its way to be upfront about this and gives advice on how to handle it.
The Highway of Blood takes place in 1975, along The Devil’s Backbone, a scenic drive along a limestone ridge in the Texas Hill Country. It is purportedly one of the most haunted spots in the Lone Star State. The Player Characters, who might be friends on a week-long road trip through West Texas, or FBI agents from the Dallas office who are investigating a series of disappearances in the area, begin play on the road, getting low on fuel and in one of the worst heat waves the region has ever seen, also in need of a cold drink. When they see a sign up ahead promising ‘Gas & Food’, the Player Characters make the necessary right turn onto the unpaved road and find themselves in the crumbling, mouldering former uranium-mining town of Abattoir, West Texas (population of 850, but probably much less…). Unfortunately, getting into Abattoir, West Texas, is the easy part. Getting out is going to be challenging, not to say nigh on impossible, and is likely to be tortuous. In some cases, literally…
The fourth reason why The Highway of Blood is different, is the format. It is not a traditional Call of Cthulhu scenario in that it is a strong plot driven by an investigation, with layers of the mystery being peeled back layer by layer as the Investigators make their enquiries. Instead, it is written as a sandbox-style scenario in which the Player Characters are free to go anywhere they like, though they are likely to be harried and hindered by the evil inhabitants of Abattoir and its environs everywhere they go. To that end, The Highway of Blood describes the town and surrounding locations in some depth, including the inhabitants and the items which might be found there—sometimes on lengthy random tables. The locations include the gas station, the diner, the church, and the few surviving shops in the town itself. Then beyond the confines of the town, the roads which crisscross the area, the camp and mine shafts for the long since shutdown uranium mine, a horridly bloody compound, and below the mine, a series of strange caves and tunnels. All described in some detail and all sites which the Investigators can visit as part of their sojourn in and around Abattoir.
The plot—as much as there is a plot in The Highway of Blood—is primarily driven by two urges. One is the urge by the debased and often inbred townsfolk to harass and harry, even play, with the Player Characters, and keep them in Abattoir, whilst the other is Player Characters’ urge to escape Abattoir. The highlight of this—if there is one—is the set piece car chase over the roads surrounding the town. This is ‘The Hunt’, and it is very obviously inspired by the car chases seen in the Grindhouse genre. Beyond this hunt, the motivations and plans of the scenario’s antagonists are discussed in some detail, as are possible outcomes or endgames…
The Highway of Blood is supported by a number of appendices. The first provides an overview of ‘The Hunt’, including optional car rules to supplement the chase rules in Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition; and rules for non-lethal attacks (since the antagonists do not want to actually kill the Player Characters) and driving stunts. The second provides environment rules for the desert and various hazards; the third the full statistics and write-ups for the various NPCs; the third the monsters; and the fifth, descriptions of new spells and items, plus new rules for radioactive dust and water. The sixth gives the scenario’s various handouts, including numerous maps and floor plans, plus portraits for all of the NPCs and details of the vehicles the Player Characters and their enemies drive during the scenario. The seventh appendix provides two sets of pre-generated Player Characters. One is a quartet of twenty-somethings on a week-long road trip, whilst the other is a pair of FBI agents looking into a rash of disappearances in the area. The eighth and last appendix provides a thumbnail guide to playing in the seventies—news and pop culture in 1975, slang, and recommended films. All useful for anyone who was not born then or was too young to remember the period, or was alive back and then, and has forgotten what it was like.
So what then is The Highway of Blood actually about? It can be best described as the desert version of H.P. Lovecraft’s ‘The Shadow Over Innsmouth’. The town of Abattoir is dominated by a cult dedicated to an ancient god whose members seek victims for conception, consumption, and consecration. This is no Escape from Innsmouth though, the emphasis being on the ‘no escape’, again in keeping with the Grindhouse genre. There is a touch of Mad Max in the scenario’s set piece car chase and of Deliverance in the encounters between the Player Characters and the NPCs. Instead of hillbillies of Deliverance or the bachtrachian inbreds of Innsmouth, what The Highway of Blood has is ‘Dustbillies’. There are potential allies to be found in Abattoir, but to a man—and there are no active female NPCs in the scenario—all have either been cowed by the cult or actively choose to ignore it. This adds to the challenge of what is already a challenging scenario.
Physically, The Highway of Blood is decently appointed. It is presented in full colour with a mixture of period colour photographs and photographs, as well as black and white photographs from the nineteen thirties onwards. The floorplans are clean and easy to read, as are the maps in general. Some thought has been given to highlighting the key points in the scenario and in particular, key trigger warnings for the horrific situations in the scenario. Throughout, there is staging advice and directions for the Keeper, most notably appropriate music to play at certain points, as well as the voiceover from a state radio disc jockey. In addition to it needing an edit in places, if there is an issue with The Highway of Blood, it is that the Keeper could have been given a bigger, better map of the region and it be placed more upfront for her reference.
As a scenario, The Highway of Blood is difficult to quantify. This is because as a sandbox scenario, a form more readily seen in the Old School Renaissance rather than in Call of Cthulhu, it very much being very player driven with relatively little in the way of the plot or NPC to pull them along. In fact, the plot more pushes the Player Characters along as the inhabitants of Abattoir harass and harry them in and around, but not of, the town. In addition, the format means that unlike a traditional Call of Cthulhu scenario, there is not the readymade trail of breadcrumbs or clues for the Player Characters to follow, so that because The Highway of Blood is a sandbox, the Player Characters can more easily avoid any and all clues, run into a major threat and get captured and/or butchered in the first hour or so, or simply wander around never finding anything, just desperate to escape… So a play through of The Highway of Blood could last an hour or hours over multiple sessions. And even if the Player Characters do manage to escape, they may not necessarily succeed or find a solution which deals with the threat they face in Abattoir. That said, the players and their characters have to be both lucky and resourceful if they are to fully deal with this threat, the likelihood being that they will ultimately fail, get captured, and the scenario fades to black as the Player Characters scream in terror. Such an ending though, would be in keeping with the Grindhouse genre that The Highway of Blood is inspired by.
Ultimately, the nature of The Highway of Blood is what will make a gaming group decide whether to play it or not. The triggering issues it contains means that it is definitely one to avoid for some players, but those issues are part of the genre and the authors should be praised for addressing how to handle them as well as they do. The scenario is also less useful for a campaign, though there is advice to that end, being better suited to one-shot play. For a gaming group looking to play a grim, gritty, and gruesome Grindhouse scenario, The Highway of Blood: A Call of Cthulhu Scenario for the 1970s is the perfect choice.