Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Adventure: Pulp Tentacles VI

A Dream of Japan, by Brendan J. LaSalle, an Age of Cthulhu Adventure from Goodman Games.

Let me cut to the chase here. This was an interesting and surprisingly deep Age of Cthulhu adventure that is totally and completely sabotaged by its presentation.

Now, problems in production and graphic design are not uncommon. TSR had products where the maps went out with FPO still on them (FPO= For Position Only, meaning that what was there was just placed to make sure it fits, and may not be the final version). And we had a legendary FR sourcebook where one of the plates (yes, we used glass plates in those days) was mounted backwards, messing up the deserts of Amn (and then we KEPT it that way for numerous reprints, promising always to "fix it when it went back to press"). But A Dream of Japan seems to be purposefully and completely fubared.

Let me tell you about the story itself. It is a globe-girdling adventure that deals with suicide and leads to Aokigahara forest in Japan. Aokigahara, known as the "sea of trees" is a large forest at the foot of Mt. Fuji. It also is a popular suicide location, almost matching (according to wiki) that of the Golden Gate Bridge in the US. It is known for its lack of wildlife, meteorite deposits, dense tree canopy, mythically reputed to be a place of demons and ghosts and historically as a place where those who could not feed themselves were left to die. Real place, and perfect for a Cthulhoid adventure (some spoilers as we move forward).

The adventure itself states in New England (adapted to London for my regular crew - Novelist, Adventurer, Archeologist, Reporter, and Mobster with a Thompson in his cello case). You are hired by a upper-class friend whose niece has disappeared. You quickly put together that she is considering suicide and has booked passage for Japan, intent to off herself in the Sea of Trees. Telegrams and foreign embassies not existing in Japan (Yes, that's sarcasm), it is up to the players to get there and stop her. Most of the group, being used to going places to find out that the person that invited them had met a grisly and Mythos-related death, are not holding out much hope, but go anyway.

The adventure plays strongly into the xenophobia of interbellum Japan, of the rising tide of nationalism and the fear of Western influence. At first this irritated me - I've sent this crew all over the planet, and NOW they're running into people who might not like them? But the Goodman Games series has been (intentionally or not) good at providing platforms for analyzing modern problems - Colonialism and revolution in Indonesia, Communism in Leningrad, and cultural imperialism in Egypt. Ascribing xenophobia and racial hatred to Japan of this era is fair, but worse fear of the unknown pervades Lovecraft's wine-dark hills of New England. The end result, throughout this adventure, is that just about all the major NPCs, regardless of heritage, can be fairly unpleasant.

The adventure also has the challenge in that there are things that are going on that are never revealed to the players. The nationalistic Black Ocean Society is interested in their movements, but this doesn't see much of a resolution. There are many red herrings, false leads, and padding to keep the players from getting to their goals too easily. And there is a secret reason for their journey to Japan, one which they are never told, but can slowly uncover in additional play that goes beyond the adventure itself (which is strange because most of the Age of Cthulhu adventures are effectively convention one-shots, down to including PCs in the game to play).

This oddity of extended play, along with dealing with suicide as a theme, sets this adventure apart from the others in the series. However, all of this is balled up by the production values, which renders the adventure useless without outside help. I've attested to the "Curse of Cthulhu" that is its maps before, and these vary between the useless (a dark smear with a scale and a label for "The Cave of Wind") through the confusing (the potential suicide's apparement doesn't match up with the text) to the perfectly serviceable. No, the handouts were the mess in this case.

The art in the game by Bradley K McDevitt is very good for evoking mood, but should never have been used as handouts. The descriptions of locations in the text do not match up with what the artist has presented and either one or the other needed to be changed. The description of a library talks about a couch, hanging ferns, a conference table, a coffee service, an antique globe, a bust, and a bay window. None of these things are in the illustration. Similarly, when showing the forest itself, I had to ask the players to ignore the skulls shown in the lower corner.Then there are the in-jokes - a copy of DCC in the library, the note "Brendan Rocks" sidewise to look like Japanese writing, which are amusing as interior illustrations but risable in play.

But such things make the game merely difficult, but not unplayable. But to include these, the publisher jettisoned REAL handout material, including a potential suicide note that is then referred back to in the text. Goodman games was called on this one, and have made that information available on-line. They offer this as a bonus - "Here are some extra handouts to use in your game, as hinted at in the adventure" but this is disingenuous. These are things are directly referenced, not hinted at, and supposed to be used. They screwed up.

So A Dream of Japan is an odd duck indeed, which seems to have a lot more potential than was delivered. For dealing with a real life location and the sensitive matter of suicide, it deserves high marks. But these good intentions are completely undercut by its production values and decisions, creating a product that requires a little more GM effort to pull it off.

More later,