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Sunday 5 June 2022

Dread and Danger in the Desperate Decade

No Security: Horror Scenarios in the Great Depression is an anthology of five horror scenarios notable for three things. First, they are written by Caleb Stokes, best known as the author of Lover in the Ice, a horrifyingly adult body horror scenario for mature audiences for Delta Green, but which was originally released as part of the No Security Kickstarter. Second, they are systems agnostic, meaning that the Game Master, or Keeper, can and will have to adapt them to the roleplaying game of their choice, typically a roleplaying game of Lovecraftian investigative horror, such as Call of Cthulhu or Trail of Cthulhu. As an aside, it would be possible to the quintet straight from the page, but that would take a well-prepared Game Master. Third, they are all set in the Desperate Decade of the nineteen thirties, a period of turmoil and uncertainty as the banks crashed, the soil turned to dust, and the Great Depression drove millions into poverty, which is relatively unexplored in terms of Lovecraftian investigative horror, at least in terms of the preceding Jazz Age of the nineteen twenties.

No Security: Horror Scenarios in the Great Depression is published by Hebanon Games following a successful Kickstarter campaign. All five scenarios are available as ‘Pay What You Want’, but have been collected into the No Security anthology. In addition, the anthology does address the social iniquities of the period and gives advice on how to handle them in play. Even though the author does give the suggestion that the disparities and attitudes be ignored in favour of ‘game fun’, his preferred option is to include them in play, but of course, handle them with sensitivity and care. In some scenarios, he also suggests that the Player Characters (or Investigators) be from a mixed background—for two reasons. First, it enables them to access all levels of society, both African American and White. Second, it enhances and contrasts the horror of society and its disparities in the Desperate Decade against the Cosmic Horror of the anthology’s monsters and madness. It should also be noted, that as a consequence of being systems agnostic, No Security does not use of the traditional Mythos monsters or entities. Which means that whatever Cosmic Horror threat that the Investigators find themselves facing in No Security, their players will have as little clue as they do.

The anthology opens with Wives of March. This is longest scenario in No Security and takes place in Barefoot Crossing, a sharecropping community on the rural outskirts of Savannah, Georgia, in the early part of the decade. Here the Unifying Word Revival Church preaches to the community and brings much needed relief to its parishioners, but the community is sent into uproar when the pastor, Dashell March, is murdered, and worse, an African American is the prime suspect, an African American who is also suspected of corrupting a young White girl! The set-up for the Investigators’ involvement really works best with their being hired by different parties, each with an interest in solving looking into the murder, though not necessarily solving it. Local lawyers want the pastor’s will investigated, a rival church wants to prevent any retaliative violence against its African American congregation, an heir wants his claim to the will confirmed, and lastly, the local sheriff’s office do want the crime investigated, again, primarily to prevent an outbreak of violence.

This all sets up and opens numerous paths of investigation—paths that might be closed or difficult if the Investigators are not from diverse backgrounds—and leads them into multiple levels of local society. What they discover, at least initially, is that the March family, and the Unifying Word Revival Church, are incredibly interested in helping them out beyond the mere murder investigation, as well as how helpful the March family is in the community and how pervasive their presence is. Yet oddities soon become apparent—the March family and their church seems impossibly wealthy; so many of the family appear alike (perhaps due to inbreeding?); and there is a preponderance of oddly deformed people in the community. As the scenario progresses, these oddly deformed people will begin to take an intense interest in the Investigators’ activities, to the point later on in the scenario where it becomes insanely intense!

At the heart of ‘Wives of March’, which has a The Midwich Cuckoos feel, is conspiracy between a husband and wife, one which is currently confined to the immediate area, but which has tendrils which can be traced around the world and back into prehistory… The truth of the matter is that they are effectively immortal, bound to each other, but loving and loathing each other after millennia of being together. They have died again and again, but been reborn each time remembering both how they died and what they learned in their previous lives. They cannot have children together, for any offspring would be an inhuman Un-thing, due to bargains they struck with not-Gods in their original lives, and so have children with others, but these children also remember their immortal parents’ history and have their knowledge, and so are born as insane as they are. Thus the Marchs cannot effectively die and cannot truly be together lest they unleash monsters into the world. They and their family are a brilliantly intense, psychotically focussed foe—especially if the players prefer their Investigators to take a more direct or combative approach, they are really going to scare the Investigators—as well as being actually a sympathetic foe. They are monsters true, but theirs is a burden which has made them so even as they stopped worse entering the world.

‘Wives of March’ has a strong set investigative threads, each built around the four different ways of involving the Investigators and each taking the Investigators into different strands of Georgia society. The scenario also goes into some detail about how the antagonists live and operate, explaining how they became the inhuman monsters that they are, how to portray them, and more, ultimately depicting them as victims of themselves. They are very much monsters we can sympathise with to a degree—but monsters, nonetheless. However, ‘Wives of March’ is not going to be an easy scenario to run. First, the investigative strands could have been better organised, and it does not help that it fails to explain what happened to initiate the events of the scenario until four-fifths of the way into it. Which is frustrating for the Game Master. Second, the antagonists are an almost impossible threat to deal with—even they do not know how to deal with themselves and their predicament. So how are the Investigators expected to solve it? 

Ultimately, ‘Wives of March’ requires a fair degree of effort upon the past the Game Master to prepare and run effectively. It has the potential to be an incredibly intense affair, but also a frustrating one primarily because there is no real solution to the larger problem at the core of the scenario. It also has the scope to be expanded if the Game Master wants to take the March conspiracy beyond the confines of ‘Wives of March’.

Bryson Springs’ is the second scenario in the anthology and shifts from the Deep South to the border of California, the destination for many escaping the Dust Bowl, and actually takes place on a stop on that route, the declining town of Byron Falls. Here, ‘Okies’—farmers and others fleeing the Dustbowl in the Midwest—have established a Hoover-town around a WPA built washhouse, as they try and find work and a way to survive. Here a Chinese ex-railway worker has been found bloodily battered to death just as the Investigators arrive, perhaps as State Police or the FBI sent to investigate the murder, bank robbers being transported to Leavensworth, relatives of the ‘Okies’ in town, Socialist labour organiser trying to rally the transient population, journalists with an interest in the Hooverville or the murder, and so on. The Game Master will probably want to develop more of the ‘Okies’ than the scenario does, and prepare carefully. Again, the scenario is not presented for ease of use—for example, the initial murder scene is described at the end of the scenario rather than at the start—and portraying that information to the players and their Investigators will be challenging. This is a much shorter scenario and more confined investigation which will probably reveal some nasty secrets other than what is necessarily going on. Like ‘Wives of March’, the ‘monster’ in the scenario also is also similar implacably unstoppable, which will likely frustrate the players. Ultimately, the solution to the problem in ‘Bryson Springs’ feels opaque, but not as much as in ‘Wives of March’, and is likely to be slightly easier for the players and their Investigators to work out. ‘Bryson Springs’ does make good use of its setting and it has some horrifyingly deadly moments. 

The third scenario, ‘Revelations, is set in the Illinois town of Toil in 1938. The town has managed to weather the effects of the Depression and the Dust Bowl due to the local farms being able to grow soybeans, but times are still hard. They get harder still as a rash of strange events—axe heads floating in the river, a teacher in school spewing water as she teaches multiplication, sacramental bread in the town’s church turning to flesh, and much, much more. The rash becomes an onslaught as the vents turn stranger and weirder, never letting up. Responding to the incidents are members of the Toil City Police Department, who the players will roleplay, directed by the voice of the elderly, but kindly police despatcher. The scenario is inspired by the Bible—as the title might suggest, unleashing a barrage of apocalyptically biblical events each given a horribly entertaining and clever modern interpretation. This potentially leads to two problems. First, is the Biblical theme, which some may find offensive or inappropriate and second is that the players may not necessarily be aware or as knowledgeable of Biblical scripture as others, and so miss some elements in the scenario. These are not the only issues. The Game Master is handed a lot of events to throw at her players and their Investigators, so unless the Investigators decide to split up and look into different reports, it is unlikely that they will get to encounter them all. It is also unlikely that they will survive them all, for whilst they are not all necessarily deadly, the near constant onslaught does stretch and strain at the Investigators’ Sanity. The players may also not necessarily be aware of the scenario’s Biblical inspirations, so may so miss much of its religious overtones. Lastly, identifying the solution is not an easy task either, and the scenario needs staging advice as to when the Game Master should being dropping clues to that solution, or at least clues that lead to it. Ultimately, Revelations takes its cosmic horror in an unexpectedly weird direction and then ramps up the weirdness and the cosmic horror again and again. For the Game Master and players who understand and appreciate its inspiration—and who do not take offence—this is likely to be a fascinating and unnerving playing experience, just wondering what is going to happen next, and how it happens next. 

Red Tower, the penultimate scenario in No Security takes place in Chicago in 1931, in and around its infamous Meatpacking District in the wake of Al Capone’s arrest. It is not a gangster scenario, although the Mob is involved tangentially. Like the earlier ‘Wives of March’, the scenario has multiple means of entry—a reporter from a Socialist newspaper looking for a missing colleague, Bureau of Investigation agents looking for associates of Capone, agents of the newly formed FDA wanting to check on the local slaughterhouse operations, mobsters looking to take down rival operations that have stepped up following’s Capone’s arrest, and more. Consequently, only a few of these Investigator concepts will work together, so the Game Master will have her work cut out as she switches back and forth between players as their Investigators follow different or similar paths of enquiry. This does mean that sat round the table the players are likely to learn more than their Investigators until either they follow the same lines of enquiry or they meet up and share knowledge. That is likely to come about as they penetrate a slaughterhouse which does not seem to be quite there, but which appears to purchase a lot of cattle for slaughter, but without producing any meat… If they meet earlier in the scenario they are likely to be odds with each other rather than co-operative. One advantage of the Investigators working separately, at least initially, is that they are more likely to find the solution to the situation inside the slaughterhouse which is not there (whether they are prepared to share is another matter), but descriptions of the final encounters which would involve that solution are underwritten and not as well described as they could have been. Getting to that point and dealing with the threats surrounding the slaughterhouse is the more interesting and the more horrifying—and longer—part of the scenario though.

The last scenario in the anthology is The Fall Without End, in which the Player Characters team up in pairs to climb Mount McKinley—more recently renamed Denali—as a great story that the American government can use as a distraction from the ongoing effects of the Depression. There is advice for both players and Game Master on the types of character to create and on the skills required to climb mountains, which both will need to understand as obviously very technical in nature. Beyond a few encounters around the base of the mountain, ‘The Fall Without End’ is a linear affair, that is, straight up the mountain, via two routes. There is a plan of the chosen routes up Mount McKinley, but no illustration of the mountain, which is disappointing. In comparison to the other four scenarios in this anthology, there very little investigation involved and the scenario is primarily action-orientated. It is also much shorter, but no less deadly. This both due to the monsters and secrets to be discovered and the environment to overcome and survive as the Player Characters climb the mountain. This combination, together with the competition to be the first to reach the top of Mount McKinley, is reminiscent of Chaosium, Inc.’s Beyond the Mountains of Madness, but as a short one-shot rather than a full campaign. One advantage of this scenario is that it could be run using the rules of a non-Lovecraftian investigative horror roleplaying game so as not to forewarn them of the horrors to come up the mountain…

Physically, No Security: Horror Scenarios in the Great Depression is a black and white book, so one advantage of the PDF is that artwork is clearer and in colour. The book does need an edit in places and many of the scenarios could have been better organised.

The primary problem with No Security: Horror Scenarios in the Great Depression is that it is a set of systemless scenarios with a great deal of detail which means that it is going take a great deal of effort upon the part of the Game Master to adapt any one of the five to the roleplaying game of her choice. The primary advantage with No Security: Horror Scenarios in the Great Depression is that it is a set of systemless scenarios with a great deal of detail which means that the Game Master can freely adapt to any one of the five to the roleplaying game of her choice, and adjust them as necessary. Overall, No Security: Horror Scenarios in the Great Depression is a solidly scary set of one-shots which takes excellent advantage of their period setting and brings Cosmic Horror to the Great Depression without involving Lovecraft, which will take effort upon the part of the Game Master to prepare and run.

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