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

Sunday 4 June 2023

Initiation Island

It seemed like the opportunity of a lifetime. The chance to attend the annual summer camp of Miskatonic Shoreside Conservatory, a prestigious performing arts institute located on an island just off Providence, Rhode Island. Graduates of the summer camp are guaranteed admittance to Miskatonic Shoreside Conservatory and graduates of the institute are all but guaranteed of a glittering career including recognition and status. You are gifted. A dancer. A saxophonist. A painter. A singer. A violinist. Yet something is not quite right—about you. About the Miskatonic Shoreside Conservatory. You hide a secret. Miskatonic Shoreside Conservatory has its secrets. This is the set-up for a mini-campaign published by Symphony Entertainment using Cthulhu Dark, the minimalist roleplaying game of Lovecraftian investigative horror in which the horror is so bleak that the Investigators can at best hope to survive rather than overcome. Thus, attendees of the Miskatonic Shoreside Conservatory summer camp do not so much need to overcome their experiences at the institute, as rather find a way to survive, and perhaps even a way to abide…

Miskatonic Shoreside Conservatory is a one-shot scenario in which the players take the roles of teenagers, musical prodigies attending the Miskatonic Shoreside Conservatory for the first time at its annual summer camp. It is designed for five players. It can be played with fewer players, but works best with five. As the inspired Investigators enter the various arts programmes at the conservatory, they will quickly come to notice that not all is what it seems on the island. It is clear that the institute and its backers are wealthy, the conservatory being almost a luxurious retreat as much as it is a school. Yet there is a strangeness to it, as if it is not quite of this world, the other students in attendance are often unsettled, or driven to act in desperately weird ways, such as attempting sculpt a statue on the campus to get it right, but do so hands on with hot food on the plate like modelling clay or such as slamming themselves from wall to wall at their inability to perform to the level of skill they want. There is also the feeling that the Investigators are being groomed for something, tested not just on their musical ability, but on their past experiences and how they affect their musical ability. Ultimately, whatever it is, they will be given a choice…

Miskatonic Shoreside Conservatory is supported with detailed descriptions of the five Investigators, as well as the Miskatonic Shoreside Conservatory, its facilities and staff, and then a broad timeline of the thirty days that the Investigators will spend on the island. There is only the one map, and no floorplans, but most of the NPCs have photographs, and the handouts are decent. (In fact, the handouts would actually work if they were physically made as props.)

The scenario is also supported throughout with ‘Director Insight’, which includes advice for the Director—as the Keeper is known in Cthulhu Dark—and playtest and staging notes. It also makes use of Cthulhu Dark’s ‘Dark Symbols’, which indicates if a scene involves a clue, something harmful, dialogue, something to sport, or a combination of two or more of them. They are useful as they highlight the key points of any one scene and they can also be used to suggest to the Keeper that certain skills need to be rolled in those scenes if she is running the scenario under another rules system. However, they are not always best placed to be spotted with any ease.

The scenario does ‘suffer’ from a certain disconnect. More so than any other scenario of Lovecraftian investigative horror. Players of the genre quickly learn to recognise the elements of the genre in play and have to pull back from that knowledge lest it informs their roleplaying and their Investigators. In the case of Miskatonic Shoreside Conservatory, this is challenging because the scenario resonates with the Mythos. It is everywhere and unavoidable, despite the Investigators knowing nothing, so roleplaying across that disconnect is all more challenging and all the more demanding for the players. Miskatonic Shoreside Conservatory does play around a little with that divide, but not too much, and certainly not enough to alleviate the degree of challenge that the scenario demands.

Miskatonic Shoreside Conservatory is potentially a very difficult scenario because it does call upon the players to confront their Investigators committing dark acts and committing themselves to dark, antithetically inhuman forces. There is an interesting way of alleviating this within the scenario, at least initially, almost like a comfort blanket—although this one goes ‘woof!’ and wags his tail—but ultimately, the players and their Investigators will be called upon to make a choice. One minor irritant that breaks the atmosphere of the piece is naming an NPC, if only a minor one, ‘Vincent Price’.

It is possible with Miskatonic Shoreside Conservatory to draw parallels with two other roleplaying campaigns connected to Chaoisum, Inc., one Call of Cthulhu related, the other not. These are The Eldritch New England Holiday Collection from Golden Goblin Press, which is, of course, Call of Cthulhu related, and Six Seasons in Sartar, which is not. All three are about initiation and heritage, all are about playing children, teenagers. The Eldritch New England Holiday Collection, not into the Mythos, but about the Mythos. Six Seasons in Sartar is an initiation into both the core cults of Glorantha and Glorantha as a setting—both in as characters and as players. Miskatonic Shoreside Conservatory is also about initiation and the Mythos, but both into and about the Mythos, but unlike the other two where the players and characters accept their situation and their heritage, Miskatonic Shoreside Conservatory is whether not they accept their initiation and heritage. All of which plays out on an island retreat which is one part music school, one part The Village from The Prisoner, as if viewed through the fisheye lens of the Mythos.

Scenarios for Lovecraftian investigative horror which call for the players to take the roles of cultists are far and few between. This is primarily because such roleplaying games are about investigating and stopping the consequences of the cultists’ actions, preventing the end of the world, and saving humanity. They are about humanity, not inhumanity. This is not to say that such scenarios are not interesting to roleplay, and where they do occur, it is always as fully fledged cultists, having committed to the cause. Not so, here. Miskatonic Shoreside Conservatory offers something genuinely unique in offering the player the opportunity to become a cultist and everything their Investigator wants, but never once lets up on the horror and weirdness of that choice and so commit to becoming beyond human, whilst ultimately making the moral option the most painful one. Miskatonic Shoreside Conservatory is an unnervingly, relentlessly horrifying scenario which deserves to reach a wider audience and be the single answer to the question, “Are there any scenarios in which you play cultists?”

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