Sunday, November 20, 2011

Adventure: Pulp Tentacles Part V (C)

The Long Reach of Evil, Abominations of the Amazon by Mike Ferguson, an Age of Cthulhu Adventure from Goodman Games.

So, here's the last of the trilogy that makes up Goodman Games Long Reach of Evil project, and it proved to be the shootiest Cthulhu adventure I have ever run.

The good news with this one is that it bends one of the Goodman Games precepts. Yes, you are invited to a distant land. Yes, the person that invites you is dead/missing (but you have a chance of effecting a rescue). But the big difference is that the Cthuloid threat is not summoning an Elder Thing into the world as the big resolution. (Oh, yeah, grab that spoiler flag, will you?)

The individual that invites you to Peru is Professor Edwards, whom for my team I introduced at the funeral of Sam Avery way back in the Tibet adventure. Naturally, he's not there when you get there - he's gone on to the dig site where he is anticipating discovering the Treasure of Llanganatis. Of course, he and his team are overdue on their return (cue ominous music).

So you start in Iquitos, on non-Pacific side of the Andes, in the part of Peru that is Amazonian in nature. Our native Peruvian in the group (oh, you don't have one?) says that Iquitos has a reputation for alcohol and loose morals, but you won't get any of that from the adventure - it is just a launching point - you are supposed to get on the boat and go downriver after the missing expedition.

And the story of what the expedition was doing is a bit light as well. You have to take a boat to the expedition site, but the expedition is overdue, so why is the boat you are taking back in Iquitos when it should be at the site? Further, how does our guide, Ramon, know where we are going? If he was with the expedition, he would have fallen prey to the Cthulhlian minions. If not, then how does he know where he is going (the map, with a lot of arrows saying "Here's the treasure!" is sort of large-scale, as it shows all of Peru (sort of like finding your street address on a map of your state)). These are the sort of logic problems the GM needs to navigate around - I ended up describing a temporary camp on the river, and a destroyed base camp on the verge of the ruins itself.

And the thing of it is, it is not as if there is not room for this level of detail in the adventure. In these adventures, we go into a lot of history that the players may never see in play, yet skimp on the little stuff that helps build the reality of the world. Plus, inevitably, there is at least a half page of white space at the end of each adventure, indicating that the word count did not wrap up cleanly.

For once, there is no real problem with the maps and the handouts. They are relatively limited (a letter and a rough map on the handouts, a surface and underground map beneath), and are cleanly presented. For the surface map of the ruins, I would put in a place for where the players enter, but it is pretty intuitive it is from the west.

The biggest problem is the read-aloud text. This would be called "boxed text" in the old D&D modules, but is not boxed, but is rather in italics, and is supposed to be read or paraphrased to the players. Here's an example paragraph: 
You've been walking along the jungle path for hours. The path is narrow, twisting, and dark - often, you see nothing but leaves and tree branches just inches in front of your face. You know that without a guide, it would be easy to become lost in the jungle wilderness. As dangerous as the waters of the Amazon River proved to be, you feel as though you may have been safer there. At least on the river, you could see where danger was coming from.
Now here's the thing - I (the GM) am telling you how you (the player) feel in this. Big sin. I can evoke mood or a response in my text, but I should never take over your PC to tell them what they feel, or make them draw conclusions. Players, being what they were, will react immediately in the opposite direction (and mine, coming from so much of the gaming industry, greeted the with hoots of laughter). Here's a better version: 
You've been walking along the jungle path for hours. The path is narrow, twisting, and dark - often, you see nothing but leaves and tree branches just inches in front of your face. Without a guide, it would be easy to become lost in the jungle wilderness.
Also, the read-aloud text would tell you things your PC could not see at that moment. - If you read the text when you're close enough to see the human sacrifice, you should see the well in front of the sacrificial altar, but not the bones at the bottom of that well.

Also, also, if you're going to evoke the spirit of a foreign land and language, a pronunciation guide always helps, particularly if you're going to expect the Keeper to read the text without the Spanish-speaking Peruvian player breaking into the giggles.

There is also the, shall we say, ammunition-heavy nature of the game. There was no problem in this game that was not solved most easily and directly by a direct and intensive application of firepower. As soon as the PCs grokked the idea that their attackers were "not-quite-human" there was an explosion of gunfire at every opportunity.

And it serves to underscore that the combat system for CoC (and for Basic Roleplaying) is wonderful old school kludge. And I think this is why Call is so successful as an RPG while others using the same system seem to struggle -in Cthulhu, if you have to pull your weapon, something has already gone horribly, horribly wrong. Maximum rifle damage is equal to average PC hit points, and when you add bits like multiple attacks, increased chances to hit for point blank, and the dreaded autofire of a Thompson Submachine Gun, and you have a potential massacre limited only by the PCs own moral values and the amount of available bullets.

Mine you, a mobster with a Tommy Gun versions a saurian abomination did result in a dead abomination and a completely empty Tommy Gun. And our mobster, stripped of his projectile protection, started to get the shakes.

Our particular game was truncated by our archeologist, playing the consoles in the first room, through random pressing of buttons rolled randomly into the self-destruct button. That put a very short timer on any exploration of the underground, as they had to clear out as quickly as possible (they had also brought the sweaty dynamite down from the top of the pyramid and stored it by the main entrance, for additional explosive fun).

All in all, it was a averfage adventure. No one really discovered anything about what was going on, other than there were serpent men in those there pyramids. The rebel serpent man who could have "explained everything" was not found in the pell-mell search to find the missing professor and escape. As a Cthulhu adventure, it lacked the creepiness (that it tried to force in the text) but as an adventure tale, in the Indiana Jones school of archeology, it was OK.

Overall, the total Long Reach of Evil project was good, not great. The cold opening of Sumatra has stayed with the players, and that is their favorite adventure of the three. I felt the Tibet adventure was good, though Tatters of the King walked those lands more effectively. And Abomination was very much a D&D-style adventure that revealed some of the challenges in CoC/BRP combat.

More later,