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Reviewish: Along the Indus

Posted by Shimmin Beg , in Call of Cthulhu, review 22 May 2013 · 667 views

Review Spoilers
In this scenario, the Investigators are summoned by an army commandant in a remote part of India, seeking their help with some local problems. The letter is cryptic and uninformative, but displays a sense of urgency – as it should when asking a group of complete strangers to travel for a full day to a remote part of India. On arrival, they find that a mysterious jet-black figure has been spooking the local population by causing all manner of accidents, and are asked to track it down and see what’s up. When they eventually do, it kindly mind-swaps them into various animals for a while, before disappearing forever, leaving the mystery unresolved.

It’s a bit of a strange one, and I’m not sure how much I’ve got to say about it. Briefly, I’d say it’s an interesting premise and setting that’s compromised by a lack of player agency or any real resolution, leaving it more like a story than a scenario. I’m afraid this review is going to look rather harsh.

General thoughts

The setup’s slightly awkward in that it requires them to be in, or passing, India, but that sort of thing isn’t uncommon. It’s best suited to a British party of prestigious background, who are far more likely to attract the major’s attention and respect. Other parties may be harder to convincingly incorporate. As with many other scenarios, it also assumes that they’re well-known as successful investigators of occult events, to the point that the army commandant is recommended to contact them. It actually includes the line: "If it is indeed a demon, gentlemen, who better than yourselves would be able to deal with it?" which seems a bit premature barring an actual history of demon-banishing. As I mentioned in my review of Armored Angels, this kind of thing can be tricky to deal with, because it establishes a setting where the occult is given a certain amount of credulity by people in authority, who nevertheless rely on amateur assistance.

I felt like the scenario gives a decent fly-by impression of a trip through India, though a Keeper will probably want to do some independent research to handle things like towns, as most of the details naturally cover travel. The NPCs are decent and have a bit of personality to them, though there’s not a huge amount of interaction to have with them. A lot of the scenario is likely to come down to the Keeper’s ability to interestingly describe and narrate surroundings and events, or improvise mini-challenges, because when you get right down to it there’s not all that much in this scenario. That’s fine if you enjoy imagining and describing things, and if the players enjoy it, but others are liable to get restless unless they’re given something to do. At times this task may be a tough job for even the most loquacious Keeper. An entire day is allocated for hunting the Black Man through the wilds, with a single paragraph of information provided; the scenario points out that this can be played or summarized, and the latter may be necessary. There’s no information to help with the train ride or the elephant-back journey to Peerut.

I also liked some of the ideas in the scenario: a mysterious entity that shifts people’s consciousness into other bodies has a fair amount of potential, without being intrinsically evil or monstrous. It allows for some very weird experiences, without forcing life-or-death struggles. The Black Man has an established place in the local lore, without falling into common tropes like “lurking horror in sinister location”. I’ve got to say, I also liked that while the locals are disturbed by his presence and suffer from his influence, they accept it pragmatically, so it’s not them who go shouting for help, but the British governors who find the economic disruption inconvenient; it helps avoid the Great White Saviour issue.

The scenario scatters its information around to some extent. The section detailing the players’ arrival seems disjointed because it skips from "the major satisfies their curiosity concerning his mysterious request" to an evasive discussion of sightings, missing out the bit where it explains what he actually says or wants. This information is mentioned very briefly at the start of the scenario, while the major’s actual statement is a handout on the following page. By the time you actually run it you’ll have worked it out, but poor organisation really doesn’t make a great first impression.

All the Livelong Day

To my eye, Along the Indus is pretty much a railroad. In fact, it felt more like a playable weird tale than a scenario – and it’s peppered with fragments of philosophy and prose which only the Keeper will see, which makes the whole thing a bit peculiar anyway. It has very clear stages of introduction, travel, research and encounter, which might suit some groups, but leaves very little for players to actually do. In fact, I can list their options here:
*They can decide to accept the summons, or reject the scenario entirely.
*They can buy their guide a first-class ticket to ride with them on the train (though I don’t know whether the train company would allow that, to be honest? Racist era and all that), which will change any roleplaying of the journey
*They can try to Fast Talk the NPC Bixby into revealing his bizarre dream, which makes no difference either way
*They can question several NPCs, who have one piece of information to reveal each. Only one of these casts any light on events, hinting obliquely at the Black Man’s body-swapping powers. At least one "clue" is actively misleading, as it mentions fighting and banishing the Black Man, not an option available to the players.
*There's a possibility that they have to escape from a mad elephant
In terms of meaningful decision-making, there simply isn’t any. There’s very little player influence at all on events. Their path through the story is predetermined; they can’t do anything to get answers about the Black Man, or do anything useful when they encounter him. How much they learn, and how the final encounter plays out, is up to the Keeper, not the players. Their one real opportunity to make a difference is if the Keeper opts for the more chaotic version of the scenario, in which case Investigators may find themselves trying to survive an elephant possessed by one of their own minds suffering temporary insanity.

The encounter with the Black Man comes after a long and useless search, since as written the Investigators simply can’t catch up to him no matter what they try, which might be entertaining or frustrating. It’s only when they return across the river that he’ll turn up. His presence is foreshadowed by a shiny object in the water, as mentioned in one of the earlier anecdotes; it disappears once he arrives, never clearly seen or explained. They can’t talk to him, interact with him or do anything to affect the outcome of the encounter, since they’re instantly transferred into other bodies. This is arguably the highlight of the scenario, but could perhaps have done with rather more detail given how far it departs from typical gaming events. Their bodies, in turn, are taken over by the animals, though what happens to them is mentioned only in passing as “flopping, wobbling” – I’m puzzled why the humans apparently gain complete confidence in their new bodies, while the animals are basically unable to use theirs? There’s also a rather bewildering section about an elephant, which forms the only violence the characters are likely to encounter...

The Mad Elephant

Basically, one of the Investigators takes over the body of an elephant. The scenario states:


" If a Sanity roll fails, then the investigator is locked into the animal or insect body, at least until Ritsar’s prayers take effect, and perhaps forever if the investigator goes insane while in this other form. If the investigator-Padam [i.e. the one in the elephant’s body] goes insane, unloose the berserk bull elephant to attack the helpless, flopping human forms. Investigator consciousness should come back into each body quickly, to allow them to Dodge and otherwise defend against the horrible charge, and the defenders all should perceive that they are being attacked by something that used to be one of them. Such understanding may carry a nominal Sanity cost."


The problem here is that there’s no mechanism at all for anyone to actually go insane during the scenario. There’s a single (optional) Sanity roll, which traps them in the wrong bodies on a failure – it’s not clear how this is supposed to differ from a success, especially since they snap back anyway if the elephant starts rampaging. It doesn’t inflict any Sanity loss, so insanity isn’t possible; even if there was Sanity loss, there’s Know rolls and all that. What the author means by "goes insane" is unspecified, but seems to differ from the stated Sanity roll to be trapped in an animal body, which is the only source of possible insanity (barring nominal Sanity loss after the elephant attacks). I’m just completely baffled. I don’t have a problem with leaving things open, but this seems more like the author simply couldn’t explain clearly what they had in mind. The editing of this section could really have used some tightening up.

Other nitpicks

The ending is certainly weird, but also inconclusive. There’s no in-scenario way to find out anything useful about the Black Man, what he is, why he was there or why he went away. The shiny object in the river is unexplained. Both of these are deliberate decisions: the scenario describes itself as "mostly concerned with exoticism and perception" and suggests that it doesn’t matter. This is a nice idea, but may leave the story feeling unsatisfying, especially given how little else there is to do to gain satisfaction. An unresolved mystery that’s been dealt with (or survived) through the Investigators’ actions is an interesting lingering mystery, but in this case the mystery is the entirety of the story.

If Bixby, the wounded English soldier who encountered the Black Man, doesn’t talk about his dream, he’ll go mad while the Investigators are away. What happens if he does discuss it isn’t explained. His dream doesn’t fit in with anything else, really; at best it’s a way to tie things into Nyarlathotep if your players know about the Bloody Tongue. It’s an isolated weird curse in a story that’s otherwise just about tromping about on elephant-back. There’s nothing the Investigators can do about it, nor does it help practically or explain anything. There’s no apparent reason why talking about it would prevent him from going mad, either. It also seems somewhat liable to mislead the players by giving some apparent clues that don’t lead anywhere.

Overall views

I think the ending of the scenario gives a reasonable impression of what you’re working with here, in the following piece of Keeper text (not, you’ll note, player text):

"But ghosts walk for their own purposes. Old Patil, who has grown up with all the legends as near their originals as possible, believes that the Black Man is unknowable. The players know that the British peacefully departed India after the Second World War, when the echoes of empire mocked their sympathetic perceptions of the idea of civilization, just as the investigators perceptions of consciousness may have been challenged by their riverbank experiences. The investigators may come to understandings as enlightening as those thrust upon the last foreign rulers of the sub-continent. Those investigators who now succeed in a final Sanity roll may add 1D6+1 Sanity points to indicate the peace gained within their souls, no matter how else the adventure concludes. And the Black Man is not seen near Peerut until memories of this incident are very dim."


This would probably make a good short story for Weird Tales. It’s full of literary flourishes that only the Keeper will see, and very much lacking in the hard information, branches or mechanics needed for a game. I can’t see myself running it without very heavy modification. Like the addition of some game.

As a minor note, the British did peacefully depart India after the Second World War, after years of oppression and sometimes violent confrontation, having partitioned the country on religious lines into Pakistan and modern India – which lead to millions of refugees fleeing either country, and around a million deaths from violence or starvation. So, not the most peaceful departure possible, and not exactly a result of growing enlightenment.




Another good detailed review. You've articulated all the reasons I never fancied running this scenario. As you suggest 'Armoured Angels' is much more like it, but doesn't plausibly get the investigators there.

Best, malcojones
Glad you enjoyed it. I'm worried about coming across as very critical in these reviews, because it's quite easy to pick out hypothetical issues through reading, when in play people are often very accomodating. And I do do a lot of nickpicking! But I think lack of player input is a much less forgiving problem so it does need flagging up.

It strikes me that 'Armoured Angels' might be much more convincingly run by scrapping the intro entirely, and having the party as either local influential contacts or members of the army contingent. That would turn it into a quick, punchy game: you could flesh out previous events more with them meeting the archaeologist if you wanted something bigger. And then you have a handy group of Mythos-experienced soldiers to use in a campaign! The Green Triangle Club, anyone?