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Reviewish: Sleigh Ride, part 1

Posted by Shimmin Beg , in review, Call of Cthulhu 18 June 2013 · 632 views

This is the first half of a spoileriffic review of Sleigh Ride, by Steve Kluskens & Liam Routt, from Fearful Passages.

This is the longest scenario in the books (hovering on the border of mini-campaign), and as such different portions of it have different traits. Sleighing is prominent in the scenario, though it’s a method of transport rather than the main event.

I found it interesting, with an unusual setting in the USSR, showcasing the difficulties of getting around and dealing with authorities in a totalitarian country. Some stages may seem slow, and I’d have liked a freer hand for the Investigators. It offers decent examples of mundane problems that could be good inspiration. It also has some aspects I found weak or underdeveloped.

The Beginning

The scenario gets off to a solid start, with a hook that’s easy to bite, an invitation to hunt down yeti in Siberia with one Professor Chance. They can do some research beforehand, but as it’s a crackpot theory (one that happens to be accurate) there’s little to find – nor will they find anything to hint at the deeper mystery. The main dangers of the expedition, natural and human hazards, are also impossible to predict.

The scenario skips lightly over the early stages. A couple of NPCs are introduced who turn out to be important: an undercover spy who’s tailing the party, and a station-master. I have some reservations about this, which I’ll address later.

Once they start sleighing, mundane difficulties pile up, from weather to accidents. The Investigators contract influenza, and require treatment from a wise woman, who also gives them an amulet that's vital to the plot. While there's plenty of incident, there’s not a whole lot for Investigators to do until a bandit ambush. They have some chance to spot it, plus the Chekhov’s gun of a bandit-hunting patrol beforehand. This offers the opportunity for a tense confrontation, an exciting battle or a dramatic capture and rescue (or escape). The bandits are noted as ruthless killers, which may cause complication: players may be keener to fight to the last rather than surrender if they expect to be killed (and this is, after all, Call of Cthulhu). Once the ambush is dealt with, the expedition arrives at a Yakut village where they expect to find a yeti, because the locals make offerings of food to large hairy winter-spirits.

As with some other scenarios in this collection, it’s quite some time before Investigators have anything to do, and much of it makes little difference. Given it’s a journey to a specific location, it’s hard to see what else you could offer the players; I suppose the journey could be mostly narrated, though this would largely remove ‘sleigh riding’ from the scenario.

I wasn’t that happy about the influenza business, which comes out of nowhere; it’s essential because it’s the Investigators’ link to the wise woman, which is how they get hold of the amulet, which is crucial to surviving the scenario. Essentially you have a somewhat random-feeling event to cope with a plot bottleneck (a plottleneck, if you will), which to my mind suggests the scenario deserves restructuring.

However, if players are interested in the minutiae of a journey and a Keeper’s happy to come up with them, this could be a fun and interesting mundane set of challenges for the party to deal with. It also provides a change from finding motivations for people to move to the next step of an investigation, since it’s a natural (and literal) progression from A to B. Decent for roleplaying, a bit short on both investigation and adventure.

The middle

Relations are damaged when the spy Borisovich poisons the village dogs, but the party are allowed to observe the ritual. That night, the Investigators sneak back to the sacred tree to see a yeti collecting the sacrifices. Chance is killed, and the Investigators must fend off yeti, but have the chance to capture one. On their return to the village, they’ll be attacked if the Yakut realise they’ve harmed a yeti. Whenever they leave the village, the party are arrested by Borisovich.

This is the most problematic section, because it relies on slightly implausible NPC behaviour and ignores what seem like the most likely Investigator responses. Unfortunately, this is one of those cases where you can’t really handwave it because different outcomes would completely change the scenario.

Poisoning an entire village’s dogs successfully without being spotted is quite a feat, and I’m not sure what it’s supposed to accomplish. It’s a small village, and I'd say skulking around to spy on the party is more or less doomed, dogs or not. After the poisoning, the scenario calls for Persuade rolls to keep the party from being driven out as bad luck. This would end the scenario on the spot, and there’s no support for handling it (though I suppose in theory the party could try spying on the villagers from a distance to find the tree) so it’s all a bit bizarre.

The party can track Borisovich back to his camp, but there’s no discussion of what might ensure. He's been passing himself off as a salesman, but is tailing them and just poisoned a load of dogs: I can’t imagine many players thinking “well, found the culprit, now let’s go quietly back”. Some kind of confrontation is likely, and there’s no indication of what he might do or say, which is a huge omission in my view. Moreover, a confrontation is going to seriously affect the scenario. Investigators might come off worse and end up arrested, or otherwise unable to proceed with their expedition. On the other hand, they might end up killing Borisovich if violence erupts (which both solves and causes problems).

What I can’t see is the plan going ahead as intended; if you suspect he’s a government agent, then trying to illicitly capture a mythical creature to smuggle out of the country under his very nose is just asking for trouble (more than you’re already got, I mean). If Borisovich is killed, he can’t capture the party, though some other agent sent in the wake of his reports could always take over. Another question is what the Yakut do if the poisoner’s identity is revealed. Would they reluctantly accept the poisoning or form an angry mob? What does Borisovich do if the villagers turn up demanding answers? Are the investigators forced to explain their real purpose in coming here? Any of these would completely change the path of the scenario.

The scenario also assumes the villagers don't notice the strangers departing en masse at night to the sacred tree, carrying weapons, having expressed great interest in the sacred yeti. Just how dim are they supposed to be? I also wonder how they'd respond if the party brings back Chance’s body, with the news he was slain by their protector spirits, which seems pretty religiously significant to me. And unless they hide things really well, I’d think the villagers might spot the disturbance around the sacred tree and find any bodies there are. On the other hand, if they find out the party’s been hunting yeti, they apparently “fight to the last child”, which… no. Only yer’actual brainwashed cultists or the utterly desperate do that.

There’s also some unanswered questions about the yeti. As written, one of them turns up with a sledge, and while Chance is aiming at it, another sneaks up from the opposite direction and kills him. My question here is, why? They know they have nothing to fear from the villagers, so there’s no need for caution. If they’ve spotted the investigators and become suspicious, why does one of them cheerfully wander in as bait? If not, why does the other turn up from the opposite direction if they’re coming from the same lair? Since their only contact with humans is the Yakut, who aren’t allowed firearms, how do they know that someone aiming a gun at them is a threat?

Oh, and there’s an incredibly weak bit where Borisovich mistakes any captured yeti for a polar bear. A Russian does that? Even though the creature is unmistakably an eight-foot ape? Come on, give me something a bit more credible, like personal ambition to claim credit for the find.

The climax

Captured by Borisovich, the party are taken back towards civilisation. However, they’re overtaken and captured (double-captured?) by a mob of yeti, who kill the spies but take the rest prisoner. In the yeti caves, the investigators find the Yakut villagers have also been captured, and are brought for sacrifice to a chthonian. After some horrible deaths, their amulet activates, disrupting the ritual and letting them flee.

This is the only bit of actual Mythos in the scenario (though players won’t necessarily realise it’s Mythos at all) and forms a nice monstrous core to the plot. Sinister rituals are always fun. It does have a couple of weaknesses, though.

One question is why the yeti follow them at all: it’s likely that investigators don’t capture one at all, especially with Chance dead, and they may not even hurt any. This makes chasing the party many miles down a public route a strange response, given the risk of injury and of drawing attention. I’m puzzled why Borisovich is killed in the attack, since the yeti are explicitly seeking prisoners and he doesn’t fight back because he thinks it’s a dream. It doesn’t seem to add much; easier just to have him killed in the ritual if you want to avoid NPC witnesses escaping (other than the Yakut, of course).

There’s also the unfortunate fact that surviving the ceremony is entirely down to the party getting the talisman, keeping the talisman and working out that it’s relevant here. I’m quite wary of scenarios with such limited solutions.

I do like the event itself, but it feels quite loosely hung onto the rest of the scenario and I can’t immediately see any way to tighten up that connection. I would like to make this a more natural element.

The aftermath

Escape is a bit complicated and the layout doesn’t help much. A random robbery breaks up the flow, and there’s a bit of boxed text that comes a page too early. This section really ought to begin by laying out broadly what their options are, then proceed to the details of each option in separate blocks. Instead, it chops and changes as you read. Another map showing routes and options here would have kept things clear, particularly when new locations are being introduced. Also, while it’s realistic, I’m not convinced their escape from Russia narratively needs to be this drawn-out, since the climax is over and it may begin to drag.

The scenario assumes that Investigators will contact a station-master they encountered along the way, who turns out to have smuggling contacts who can get them to Japan. This is their only real chance to leave Russia, and relies entirely on the Keeper laying substantial groundwork at their initial meeting. If players had little interest in the character at the time, this is going to be a stretch. Having reviewed the character, I’m concerned that this is actually quite likely: he has nothing substantial to offer them, and is not an obviously intriguing character. Moreover, he’s described as reluctant to discuss his past; Investigators must Persuade him to do so (though I can’t see why they’d bother), and Persuade him again to reveal vague counter-revolutionary connections. There’s no dialogue or specific information to help flesh out the character, and none of the information particularly implies that he’d be able to smuggle them out of the country. I think this is a significant weakness and one that would need addressing.

A section on using the railway to return is confusing for me, and I imagine even more so for players. It introduces unexplained supernatural events into the mix, as well as spies who seem to know the Investigators are wrong’uns whether or not there’s any reason to think so.

An encounter with Siberian ghosts is intriguing and potentially very dramatic, but I felt it was misplaced in this scenario. It has no connection with the weirdness of the cthonian cult, and felt like an isolated random encounter. More importantly, there’s no way in the scenario as written for players to find out what’s happening, just that they seem to see some ghosts in a snowstorm. I feel like this would be more powerful and interesting in a scenario where it could be tied in firmly and understood a bit better.

It’s assumed that Investigators can’t readily leave by official channels due to Borisovich’s reports. Pretty convincing, but it made me wonder how Chance expected to leave, not only after heading off into the wilds for some bizarre activities, but actually transporting a captured yeti with him. Given his vaunted Russian experience and local contacts, he ought to be well aware they’d be followed and their activities reported, so what did he intend to do? And why did he not explain his plan to the Investigators? If one of the players wonders about it, what is the Keeper to say? This might seem like a minor point, but Chance’s plan is the entire point of the expedition, and it really needs to make sense.

Another mild concern is that the Keeper knows what’s going on, but it may not occur to players that the authorities will be suspicious or that Borisovich has made any reports. However, a Keeper should be able to suggest that information fairly easily, if they remember.

Review continues in next post due to length restrictions.