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Reviewish: Rigid Air

Posted by Shimmin Beg , in review, Call of Cthulhu, Keeping, scenario 04 March 2013 · 516 views

This is a spoileriffic review of Rigid Air by Marion and Phil Anderson, from Fearful Passages.

This is a fairly straightforward, punchy adventure that I found pretty impressive. It seems quite flexible in playstyle, and I can imagine playing it both as a nerve-wracking horror game and a pulpy monster-hunt. It also strikes me as suitable for various sizes of group - you could actually run it for a solo Investigator at a pinch, but also for a whole mob of them. Finally, I think you could easily adjust the lethality, gore and general difficulty of the adventure to suit whoever's playing; you could actually give it a happy ending if so desired with just a few tweaks (disappearances rather than decapitations, mostly) and run it for kids.

The Beginning

The scenario begins with a nice introduction to airship travel in the 1920s, and some specifics of the ship we may be using. There are handy diagrams and so on.

Our hook is the tried and tested “executor to the old friend’s will” with a side-order of suspicious death. The deceased was part of an Arctic expedition that reported abject failure some years ago. In fact, it was a success: the mission was actually a cover for a Mythos expedition by the leaders, with the men sworn to secrecy under the guise of “government work”. They returned with an unsuspected passenger, a Mythos entity that has now grown to maturity, and is hunting down the members of the expedition to absorb their minds or transform them into puppets.

If the scenario goes as expected, Investigators will leap at the chance to take the speedy new airship route to the town where their friend died. Though they don’t know it yet, this is the Mythos-ridden ship itself, using the cover of commercial service to lurk in the area while it tracked down its latest victim. It will be gone before they can return, its trial route mysteriously cancelled. A good time, perhaps, to drop in a soft portent or two of the ship’s true nature. With luck, Investigators will be squicked out later on when they find out just who - and what - they've been travelling with.

I found the idea of the infested ship very appealing; to me it fits in with things like Tyranid or Zerg infestation, so while the scenario doesn’t actually have the ship itself affected, the ethereal creature inside it spreading immaterial tendrils to the crew is a very striking image. I might be tempted to grant it some control over the ship as well as the crew, turning it into more of a symbiote machine-creature once the Investigators learn to see it.

The Middle and the End

The middle of the scenario is pretty sparse; there’s not much between the discovery that something’s up, and the early stages of the climax. The Investigators have to do some simple research to work out the airship connection, and then track down the last survivor of the crew, who can give them some background and a crucial artefact. This last is a potential weakness in the scenario – if the Investigators go straight to the airship, without meeting Whittle and obtaining the tinted goggles, they could end up fighting against the crew-puppets and an invisible monster, without ever working out what's happening or what they're up against. That's not especially likely, though, and the simplicity of this section is quite nice.

This section blends slowly into the climax of the adventure, where Investigators will probably confront and destroy the airship one way or another. This can go quite a few different ways, and the smoothness or abruptness of the shift into the climax will vary accordingly. Investigators could well spend quite some time on observation, try (and fail) to make friendly contact with the crew, research their recent activities (which the Keeper would have to improvise), sneak onboard, meet the only crewman who retains some self-control and learn more about the situation, and spend quite a while playing hide-and-seek before any confrontation occurs. In fact, it’s perfectly possible for them to learn the score and disappear before the alarm is raised, and then veer off into all kinds of complex planning. On the other hand, a confrontational group could realise something unnatural's up, cause a fuss and start a lethal battle on the spot.

You could be in for a tense game of cat-and-mouse through the hull of an airship in flight, or an impromptu siege around an airfield. You may or may not end up trying to escape from a flaming wreck as it plunges to its doom, or battling the grisly meat-puppets of former crewmen, bullet-ridden but still lurching after you through the will of the revolting dho-spawn. Investigators may face a straightforward battle, or see their own comrades turned against them by the dho-spawn’s tendrils. If they're inventive enough, full-blown aerial combat isn't out of the question.

The exact capabilities of the creature – such as whether it has its own senses or is reliant on its puppets – are left to the Keeper’s imagination. That being said, it is an extremely lethal entity if used to the full, and could fairly easily enslave an entire party – which might be a pretty interesting scenario, to be honest, especially if some loopholes were left to allow for a possibility of escape.

Nitpicking

Whittle is fairly crucial to succeeding at the scenario (glasses, explanation) but the scenario specifies both a Persuade AND a Psychoanalysis roll are required to put him at ease - the latter extremely unlikely for most parties. Apart from the several rolls required for this particular bottleneck, the scenario does quite well at providing information and managing rolls.

The distortions in the sky are a little bit of a red herring, since the dho-spawn travels about by airship. Presumably it roams around at night with its puppets traipsing obediently 250m below, and nobody's noticed this? It actually seems as though the airship is more for the convenience of its puppets than anything.

What's the deal with the Goggles of True Seeing? Who made them, and why? Surely Moore would have noticed the theft of such an important item, and realised one of the puppets had retained enough independence to conspire against the dho-spawn? Can you get more? Do they work on anything else except dho-spawn? There's also the complication that only one investigator can use them, and immediately becomes a target, while the rest can't even defend themselves from the invisible dho-spawn's attacks.

Given Moore's position as an agent, what is the relationship between him and the dho-spawn? Can you seize control of Moore and threaten or exploit him somehow, or is he just a lackey? Would it be possible to bring him on side (if only for self-preservation and the long game), or is he just a monomaniacal cultist who'll die rather than betray the creature?

What did actually happen to Douglas? It would be nice to have some official closure on this to offer players, especially those who might return to the matter at the end of the scenario. I'm assuming, from a few hints scattered throughout the scenario, that he was lured to a high place by psychic influences for enslaving, but either fell or threw himself to his death instead, and the head injuries were caused by the tendril trying to attach. Ambiguity for players can be fun, but it's good as a Keeper to feel you're on top of things yourself.

The scenario suggests three ways to chase off the dho-spawn: killing the crew, destroying the ship or endangering the spawn itself. In practice the third is nigh-on impossible. While I'm fine with that, it would be nice to see some further information on the effects of spells on the creature, other than just good old Ghazi powder. Veteran Investigators might have a number of abilities or items that could create new options for this confrontation: magic daggers or a Spectral Razor could plausibly sever tenrils and free (or at least render harmless) their puppets, Baneful Dust should harm the creature and cause it immense pain (perhaps provoking withdrawal), and so on.

To some extent I think it's a shame that the airship element isn't more prominent. It's possible that Investigators won't take the airship at the start of the adventure, and quite likely that they'll destroy it on the ground rather than end up on board as they try to defeat the dho-spawn. That would be a waste of a nice, cinematic, claustrophobic and rather unsettling environment. If I do run it, I'll probably aim to think of a way for them to get the final puzzle-pieces while on board, rather than beforehand.

General Thoughts

On the whole, the nitpicks are fairly small and leave things open to Keeper creativity, rather than being plot holes. The scenario envisions a particular path through the plot, but doesn't insist on it; there's nothing to prevent you taking down the airship with stolen ack-ack guns, or leaving Whittle to die. I would have liked to see a little bit more background in places; for example, Investigators might reasonably try to research whatever occult meddling Moore was up to in the Arctic, or hope to find out something about the unidentified creature before tackling it. These would need to be fleshed out by a Keeper.

As with Furious Driving, I think it's a slight shame that the scenario isn't really about travelling on airships, and particularly that it can't easily be segued into naturally just by dint of the Investigators taking an airship somewhere. There just isn't really a hook to draw them in that way, and I can't easily see a way to construct one. As it is, this is a scenario to be dug into by Investigators, rather than something that can simply happen to them until they're well and truly mired.

However, I think it's a strong, striking scenario that doesn't overcomplicate its central premise. It's succinct, clear and pretty well laid-out as well, and the accompanying handouts and inserts are solid. That's going on my Keeping pile.