Friday, June 03, 2011

Adventure: Pulp Tentacles IV

Horrors from Yuggoth by Adrian M. Pommier, an Age of Cthulhu Adventure from Goodman Games.

I’ve mentioned my Call of Cthulhu group before, though I only review stuff in this space that I’ve personally GMed. Our group has multiple GMs, and we all have different areas that we concentrate on. One handles Arkham in the 20’s, another does Trail of Cthulhu, we have the occasional Delta Greenish playtest, and somebody sends out for Tekumel. Anyway, I’ve been rolling through the Goodman Games’ Age of Cthulhu series, with a group of pulp-based heroes, and the previous reviews are here, here, and here. As noted in the reviews, they have a similar pacing, an assuming overarching arc, and are suitable for a standard group of "investigators".

But now we shift dramatically with Horrors from Yuggoth. Gone is the spider-silk thin metaplot involving two creepy kids. Gone also is the familiar pacing for the first three (You go to a distant land at the request of someone who is either dead before you get there or has the life expectancy of a ripe banana, you uncover a conspiracy involving dark gods and you get on the scene at the very last moment to spoil the ceremony bringing some nasty in from an eldritch dimension). Gone also is a more pulp-driven feel, replaced with a historical event that takes a left turn into the mythos (and we have Mild Spoilers from here on in).

And it was such a difference in tone and approach that I couldn’t bring the regular PCs along – there was no way to justify the semi-retired mobster, the art historian, and the authoress with her adventurer boyfriend, in an adventure that spilled them out on the polar ice like so many abandoned pets. Nope, it didn't fit at all.

OK, here’s the short form. In 1928 the Airship Italia went down on a polar floe (true). A massive multi-national rescue effort was stage (true). Roald Admunson lost his life trying to mount a rescue effort (true). The survivors on the ice floe were five Italian airmen who survived in a red tent and were eventually rescued (true, and as noted in the movie “The Red Tent”).

Now we take a Cthulhian twist – the Italia was in the region investigating Lovecraftian activity, and was brought down by a elderitch threat. The massive multi-national effort is in many ways a cover for a race between rival nations to find what is buried beneath the ice. The PC’s rescue team, pulled together by the American Foreign Office (with overtones of the early CIA) is one of those groups, though they are not aware of this at the outset. 

Given the size of our gaming group (6 players), there was the challenge of justifying risking 8 people (including two NPCs) for five, but that was glossed over. This felt very much like a tournament module, where the action should have been covered in about 4 hours. I decided to run it in one sitting, and it went six hours, as there was no real good place to stop and let people into/out of the adventure. 

This marathon run resulted in some silliness around hour 5, where the heroes were confronted with an intestine-like set of hallways and a particular sphincter-like door. Intended to be spooky and unsettling, it instead turned into snickering and guffaws, which was not the feel anyone was looking for (but sometimes you just can't help it). Similarly, as we were running long, the ending felt a little more hectic than it otherwise might be. On reflection, I would have broken it into two sessions and hand-waved off the sudden appearance and disappearance of PCs.

Troublesome also were some of the text to be read was not for the faint of heart and the heavy of tongue ("One the bubble-pods has a peristaltic muscle sealing it mostly shut", or "Longyearbyen, the largest city in the Svalbard archipelago, has taken on the atmosphere of a macabre carnival ..."). And verging back into the silliness, the presence of the walrus men (shown on the cover), were more amusing than terrifying, calling out Lewis Carrol and John Lennon jokes.
All in all, this felt like a tournament module re-purposed for publication as opposed to part of a larger series. It functions within a limited set-up and resolves itself in such a way that it is unlikely that the characters therein will ever see play again. There is enough "sudden death" elements to sideline a character permanently, and only limited ways to bring up backup characters to continue the adventure. It feels like it SHOULD be played in a single sitting, though it has too much stuff for just a short session (and indeed, the group never found a couple plot points on the ice itself).

The title itself underscores one of the problems of CoC modules. The original apparently bore the title Rescue at Svalbard (mentioned at the very end), which was accurate, does not tip the hand of the DM, and is as exciting as mud. Horrors from Yuggoth is cooler, but gives away the ultimate bad guy to anyone who knows the mythos. And putting a walrus-man on the cover does nothing to make them horrifying later on. So this feels like a fight between play experience and marketing, and marketing won.
In the end,this is one of the weaker entries, treading some new ground but ultimately failing to follow through on the promise of the earlier modules. This may be a mid-course correction for the line or an attempt to spread out the potential of the series, but it was just OK.

More later,