Sunday, June 15, 2014

Adventure: Pulp Tentacles VIII - A (P)Review

Starfall Over the Plateau of Leng by Jon Hook, an Age of Cthulhu Adventure from Goodman Games.

This is an interesting situation. Those readers who have hung on through this blog through thin and thinner know that I will review adventures, but primarily adventures that I have run, which for the past few years has been the Age of Cthulhu adventures from Goodman Games. But because I want to run them first before reviewing them, such reviews usually trail the release of the product by months.

Not so in this case. After swatting Goodman Games about the head and shoulders, one of the authors finally got in contact with me and asked if my group would playtest the next upcoming adventure. We did so, and delivered a healthy chunk of advice, comments, and nit-picking, I was more recently asked if I wanted to do a review of the mostly-finished product, since they are currently doing a kickstarter to get the thing printed. As a result of all this, this review has a different tone than others that have appeared in this space. Previously I have been comfortable of issuing a spoiler warning and then going off on my merry way, since so much time has passed that most of those who initially purchased the adventure would have time to play it. Here I must be more circumspect, in that I don't want to give too much away. I am going to try to keep the facts revealed to those on the Kickstarter page itself.

Here is the short version - It was a very good adventure in the initial draft, and it is even better now. The changes made involved some tucking in of historical nits, answering a few open questions, and sharpening up some NPC motivations. It gives the players an excellent doorway into the Dreamlands, Lovecraft's semi-medieval dimension world that lays alongside our own reality.

The adventure opens with an assignment - the investigators are charged by a historical society, IHAS (no cheeseburger jokes - we told them all already) to track down an artist who has gone suspiciously silent. IHAS stands for International Historical and Archaeological Society, and serves as a starting point for investigators from diverse backgrounds to operate under a common origin. Such societies are a bit perilous in games, in that if they are too knowledgeable about the mythos, the players tend to treat them as a crutch, going to them whenever they need info. If they are too much in the dark, they tend to be useless. This one strikes the balance between monster and whirlpool and provides a solid launching point for the adventure.

For my ongoing group, I had already brought them together as a group, so this was less a worry. The group currently consists of the The Writer, Her Heroic Subject, the Secret Agent/Photographer, the Archaeology Student, the Wealthy Dilettante and the Mobster. They are based out of London as opposed to Arkham, so I managed a little shifting about that seemed to work out well. IHAS operates out of a London Club within my universe, and I have previously used club society as a way to introduce other NPCs for adventures.

Back to the plot. IHAS was dealing with an artist, but the artist had a major mental crackup, and was sent away for a cure in Eureka Springs, Arkansas. Now no word is coming out the sleep clinic she was bundled off to, and would the characters be so kind as to give a look-in? For my group, this had the added benefit that the Mobster was on the run from Chicago organization, so going back to the states involved some sleight-of-hand and laying low. For the adventure, it gives you a great deal of information on the path between Arkham and Eureka Springs, including rules for thumbing a lift.

Eureka Springs has its horrors, but the investigators' path ultimately leads to the Dreamlands and its fabled Plateau of Leng (its in the title - I give nothing away here). The challenge for any Dreamlands adventure is getting the player there in the first place, and Starfall gives it to you in spades. In the course of play I sent one character there physically, one by use of a new skill, one who drank the dream brew, and the remainder with a mystic ceremony. Oh, and one I spiked his chicory when nothing else worked. The adventure leads, by twists and turns, to the Pharos of Leng, a mighty lighthouse that is bringing down upon it the destruction of both Dreamlands and reality.

So how does it all come together? It is less the blazing pulp of the previous previous Indian adventure, and is a good intro to Dreamlands without getting too deep into the separate world (ownership of any of the various editions of the Chaosium Dreamlands book is helpful but not required). The adventure itself is neatly self-contained and does not commit your adventurers to a long-term campaign in the Dreamlands (unless, of course, they want it).

For my own group's adventures, I would mention the Mobster playing hide-and-seek with other members of the Chicago Outfit, the point the group was almost defeated by a staircase, the fact they could actually use the Tibetian they had learned in a previous adventure, experiments with the Dreaming Skill, the Writer in mourning over the death of her Heroic Subject and the Heroic Subject dressed in a kilt made of Zoog pelts. But to say more would involve spoilers.

One thing that I am inordinately pleased about is the maps and illos. Bradley K. McDevitt does his usual wonders with the black and white art style, and Tom Martin gets the nod for the maps. But this adventure gets kudos for avoiding the traditional "Curse of Cthulhu" - maps which are unclear, or contrary to the text they are supposed to co-ordinate with. Nicely done on that.

As mentioned above, Goodman Games is doing a Kickstarter, and at the time of this writing it has a week to run. It has already made its nut, and is now reaching for stretch goals - at the moment, the reward is a mini-adventure for Eureka Springs, which would a cool thing to have if your group is the type that needs to cool its heels while translating something from Polish, or something similar. Its worth checking out and supporting, because this is an excellent entry into Lovecraft's Dreamlands.

More later,