Sunday, December 20, 2009

Adventure: Pulp Tentacles II

Madness in London Town by Rick Maffei, an Age of Cthulhu Adventure from Goodman Games.

Since I am in a Cthulian mood, I should review the second offering (Vol. II, it says in the upper left hand corner) in Goodman Games' Age of Cthulhu series. The series is supposed to embrace the pulpier end of the Lovecraftian spectrum, and a lot of what I said about its predecessor, Death in Luxor applies here, both for good and ill.

As far as the good is concerned, I could repeat much of the previous write-up. The writing is solid, and the pacing good, though given a team of regular adventurers that did not sabotage themselves, can at the end be running about a day ahead of schedule, so that the imperative of driving them forward with a harsh deadline was not as dire as it might be.

My group were the surviving members of the previous adventure - a best-selling authoress and her adventuring hero sidekick whose adventures she is chronicling, an archeology student, a Chicago mobster who plays the cello, and a photographer (replacing the Egyptian cabbie who was dragged to his death and eternal torment by an elder god in the previous version). The typical CoC "odd lot" of adventurers, and as opposed to waiting 2 years to gather them together again (and coming up with another reason for doing so), I placed this adventure three months after Death, with the group hanging out together in civilized Paris to recover from the Egyptian adventure.

And that's the first challenge with the new adventure - there is not much of a link between Vol. II and Vol. I. Apparently it is assumed there would be a TPK at the end of Death, or that interim adventures would wean out some previous adventurers, since there is not a word about how to make the two adventures fit together. There are a slew of new Pregenned PCs in the back (so you don't have to have Vol I to play Vol II), but the in-story linkage that is supposed to bring Death and Madness together is incidental and dead-ends quickly without letting the PCs get any further with it.

In addition, the sequel has the problem that its plot is much the same as its forerunner - the adventurers are invited to a distant local by an old friend, who might as well be signing his own death warrant by inviting investigators over to "just come hang out". And the ending also consists of an eldritch beast slouching its way into our dimension. But between the two points, Madness gives a number of nice set pieces in Jolly Old England - Dinner parties! Wax Museums! Tea Shops! Standing Stones! Sort of like watching old black and white reruns of The Avengers. Each occupies its own chapter, making it easy to jostle when the players go off the rails of the adventure (and yes, they will). The best of the chapters is at the start, where there is a reception at the British Museum and, in a nice move, the adventure provided a page worth of what the various attendees/suspects looked like. I photocopied the page, cut up the pictures, and put them in a hat, letting the PCs schmooze at random.

The adventure also suffers from the Curse of Cthulhu in regards to the maps. There are doors that are mentioned in text that appear in different location on the maps, houses without windows, and doors on the maps that are not mentioned in the text that exist on the map (The flow of the Wax Museum chapter was short-circuited when the players ducked back down the alleyway that was on the map but nowhere in the description). The full-page "map" of London is a disaster of lick-and-stick, and resembled more of a color-your-own stained glass window than the City in the Smoke.

But the greatest challenge to the DM is getting so much factual material wrong. You don't get off a passenger ship at the docks in London. You don't check out books from the British Library (that's why they had their great reading room). Contrary to the Internet, there are no tigers in Kenya. These are no pedantic quibbles - our group includes a couple top-flight game editors, amateur historians, and a Tolkien scholar, and several members with access to Wikipedia at their fingertips. There is a cool historical nature to playing CoC, and such laughable errors do nothing to help establish the bona fides of the world.

More of a challenge, even to a GM without such an intelligent group, is that the book does little to address how a group of (assumed) Americans would deal with British laws and law enforcement. Scotland Yard is out in force early on, but afterwards they vanish, even though the PCs leave a trail of dead bodies, burning buildings, car crashes and a full-fledged massacre in their wake. Yes, this is high adventure pulp, which makes it all the more important that we have an idea of what the local constabulary will do when the PCs arrive in their small town, bringing wounded from a car wreck that involves obvious bullet-holes. I made that section up out of whole cloth, forcing them to spend some of their precious time that had previously earned being interviewed as "People of Interest" in the case.

And the lack of research hurts, I'm afraid, in that the final encounter deals with a famous British Monument, which was undergoing its own challenges in the late 20s, when the land it occupied was handed over to the National Trust and renovations occurred which may have altered the original appearance. This would be a nice piece to work in, which we did in our game, as well as the fact that maps of the era show a small cafe less than a mile away that made a suitable launching point for the final encounter.

In general, despite all of the above going against it, Madness in London is an OK adventure. A good GM can tailor it to their players and their own needs, but it will require a little more work. Death in Luxor was the better of the two projects, but I remain interested in seeing where the entire adventure arc ends up (If is does end up - there are no other adventures currently on the Goodman site, and when my turn to GM comes around again, I may go forward with Cthulhu Britannica.

More later,