Sunday, January 20, 2013

Adventure: Pulp Tentacles VII

The Timeless Sands of India by Jon Hook, an Age of Cthulhu Adventure from Goodman Games.

I've been doing this for a while now - reviewing Call of Cthulhu adventures that I have GMed. Play always reveals things that a mere read-through does not, and while that means I may not be timely in these reviews, I feel they are a little more grounded. 

Case in point: the latest in the series from Goodman Games for its "pulp Cthulhu" adventure. I felt upon reading that they got a lot more right than wrong in presenting an adventure. The players were not as enchanted, and that makes things interesting.

And as a general note, Spoilers within, so be prepared.

Here's the outline in brief: The investigators are troubled by horrific dreams, which send them to Calcutta. There they discover that they have all be mentally hijacked at some time in their lives by an creature from the far-flung future who is seeking to avoid an Armageddon. Now there is a group of Adversaries who are seeking to foil that plan to stave off doomsday, and the investigators have been summoned for a final battle to defeat these Adversaries.

The presentation is pretty darn good, in that it takes into account that adventurers might be coming from other locations than Arkham and tries to cover a wide variety of likely but what-if scenarios. The maps for once actually match up with the text, and while there are a few places where the map key numbers are off (assigned to the wrong chapter), they work well. The text is clear, though the players did mock the number of things mentioned in the read-aloud text that were either stated to be nondescript or indescribable, but then were described. and then there's the idea that a female character in the 1920s would be referred to as "Ms." But these are generally nits. It is a good package.

And yet the players were frustrated a bit. Part of it was the linearity of the adventure (earlier entries in this series would give an initial setup, then let the players explore a number of venues before going off to fight the big bad). Another challenge was that these particular investigators have a history of going through the rest of the adventures of the series, and similarities with other adventures do crop up. Dreams are a continual trope in this series, such that they hold little peril by this point. They have previously suffered from a "lost time" episode in Indonesia, where they also encountered dimensional shamblers mentioned here. (Which are portrayed in both situations as character-ending encounters but in reality are little match for a mobster with a tommy gun). 

The group is also armed with iPads, which means that fact-checking is part of the process and this adventure and most of the rest of the line stand up to that level of counter-checking. One clue involved a blue elephant which got them into the Hindu deity Genesha (who is usually portrayed as red but has an incarnation which is presented as blue). Minor digressions included whether they would have to change trains from Calcutta to Johdpur to account for India's differing rail gauges (unresolved), and whether Bombay gin existed in the 1920s (yes, but the gimlet I used it for was two years after the stated year of the adventure - my bad). 

But the big thing that I think bothered them was the fact that the ultimately adventure was more pulp than Cthulhu. The feeling of dread and menace was missing, despite the rules reducing in-game effectiveness for the lack of sleep (a rule that was itself of limited effectiveness as many of the rolls demanded in the game were luck, idea, and ability checks). This is a rollicking solid adventure, but Mr. Lovecraft has stepped out for a smoke and his substitute is Robert E. Howard. In fact, the final great battle had more than a whiff of Zulu Dawn to it, but that may because we had some stalwart brits fighting off the hordes (and this would be the greatest challenge for a GM - 18 sand-dwellers, including 3 sorcerers, 40 Cultists, and a Grand Wizard - the adventure gives you some general suggestions on how to handle it, then pats you on the back and says "Above all else, have fun with the battle.")

But the creature that you are eventually helping is one of Lovecraft's more accomodating monsters - rational, and reasonable. The story it originally appears in is noted for its sense of wonder and dread as opposed to its threat and action, and underscores a Lovecraftian theme of man's insignificance within an uncaring universe. The idea of victory on the behalf of a squamous elder creation is a bit out of sorts for the rest of the series. In the after-battle report, the players thought it might have worked better if the benefactor had to fess up at the end that humanity was still doomed, but at least the creature's library was safe!

One last thing, which is interesting for this as part of a continuing campaign. The investigators received over the course of the adventure a small slew of new skills, which are of debatable use within the adventure (they are taught how to manage their nightmares, but the nightmares are soon banished in any event), and gain the ability to use alien artifacts (which may never appear again, and if they do appear, will be in adventures assuming the players don't have those abilities). It is a mixed bag, both under-utilized and over powers in one swell foop.

The end verdict for me is that this is a good one, but with the note that it is more Indiana Jones than Albert Wilmarth, but with a couple more tweaks could have a strong feeling of dread and foreboding that is at the heart of a CoC campaign.

More later,