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Reviewish: Eyes for the Blind

Posted by Shimmin Beg , in review, Call of Cthulhu 12 February 2014 · 782 views

This is a spoileriffic review of Eyes for the Blind, by David Hallett and L.N. Isinwyll (Lynn Willis), from Dark Designs.

Eyes For The Blind: or, The Adventure of the Iron Knives, wherein the investigators confront villainy of the most monstrous kind, and find that good men and bad men alike can overreach themselves.

The scenario begins with “scenario considerations”, including tips on investigator design and playing 1890s. The same page features a timetable of events which should prove handy and gives a quick (if somewhat mysterious) impression of what’s to come. There’s a slightly confusing aside about Henley Regatta which could have been better explained; essentially the scenario suggests using the Regatta as a pretext for visiting Henley but is set a month too early for that in order to incorporate the summer solstice. You can play around with the chronology if you care about that.

There’s a reasonable summary that covers both the initial hook and the broad sweep of the plot. The author also highlights the interplay of Credit Rating and player actions, pointing out that over-using social influence may attract unwanted attention and undermine that same influence, especially when dubious matters are involved.

Essentially, Investigators witness a strange murder by a dead man. If they meddle in the affair, they will find an occult plot that threatens to raise a primal spirit and bring about a new age of barbarism. They will be menaced by undead minions and burglars, and potentially clash with two sorcerers.

Despite the wealth of detail given, working out the backstory took me considerable effort, because there’s no straightforward account – instead, information is scattered throughout the sections. Let me attempt a summary. Elias Cartwright took an interest in the occult that eventually led him into contact with a cabal of sorcerers. They learned that he owned a priceless Latin copy of the Necromonicon; he learned of their plan to summon an ancient spirit buried beneath Britain by the sage now called Merlin. Realising his mistake and anticipating his own murder, he sent his son instructions to warn an occultist friend; both were murdered by the cabal’s undead pawns. Investigators are expected to pry into the mystery, attract the cabal’s attention, and thus be forced to continue investigating in hopes of stopping the threat to themselves.

The scenario is written in an evocative style, but not one that lends itself to direct translation from text to game. The Keeper will need to read through the material carefully and build up a sense of what is going on that they can convey to the players. A good example of this is the opening of the scenario. It describes in detail how young Cartwright enters the platform, describes and names him, explains his presence at the station and his care in sitting apart from others; this leads on to a blind man arriving to sit opposite him, to Cartwright’s annoyance. All very interesting, but awkward for direct use. The Investigators have no particular reason to notice Cartwright and carefully observe his bearing, and they cannot know his identity or purpose until later on. As such, much of the material is either misplaced or not relevant, and the Keeper will need to be careful about what information they provide when. Indeed, if the Keeper allows the players to pay too much attention to Cartwright, they could reasonably foil the scenario hook simply by engaging him in conversation or sitting with him.

Several sections of the adventure could be made nicely sinister; vile rookeries in the London slums and the seemingly-innocuous inn with its occult secrets are both very promising, offering atmospheric horror. Other parts have a more gruesome tone. The premise (eyeless dead men committing murders) feels very strong to me, and although I wasn’t entirely sold on The Anubis Gates – the inspiration for this scenario – that wasn’t down to a lack of menace or atmosphere. I don’t really think there’s anything here that actively undermines that feel, and while it’s not the most disturbing thing ever (I wouldn’t have finished it if it were), in the right hands it could be as creepy as the average player is likely to want. Some elements could be included or omitted to fit the tone you want; the most obvious of these is the sorcerer using baby skin to keep himself together. This is fundamentally irrelevant to the scenario, despite two or three separate clues for it cropping up, so you can use it if that's the sort of horror you're looking for.

The chance to spy on one antagonist in his lair conversing magically with the other offers a nice way to pass on information that the Investigators may otherwise have missed, although it seems fairly hard to get that opportunity. Access to the tunnels requires burglary, and the upper echelons of British society are unlikely either to want to break into a funeral parlour, or to have the requisite skills. They might also be reasonably reluctant to press on into a notorious rookery where even the police won’t go. But Investigators are oddly prone to such lapses of judgement and propriety.

A scroll left by one of the dead men can summon a Yithian into the body of one of the Investigators (not that they know that). The idea of a Yithian deus ex machina is interesting, although potentially annoying unless carefully managed. Having it as a clearly-labelled last resort, and running it via a player, should help to reduce the chance of it ruining the scenario. Nevertheless, I’d want to handle this with caution.

There are some handy maps, which look informative and tie in well to the scenario notes.

Along with the usual SAN rewards at the end, there are some interesting suggestions for modifying Credit Rating to reflect how the scenario unfolded, which I appreciate.

Although offering an obvious chance for the Investigators to take out their main antagonist, the scenario applies Plot Armour to ensure things follow the intended course. Some aspects of this are fairly reasonable, such as the foolishness of launching an attack inside a thieves' rookery; the magical teleporting is a bit less acceptable to me. In general I feel that unless someone is actually anticipating an attack, even a sorcerous human should be vulnerable to an unexpected bullet in the head.

The sorcerer behind it all has a bit more excuse for being invulnerable, but I still feel this is slightly poor practice. I'm okay with his ability to hypnotise visitors into walking away happily, but having a caravan that can't be scratched feels off to me. Again, minor measures are minor measures, but if the Investigators go to the trouble of planting a bomb on an evil caravan, I feel like something should actually happen. I'd rather the problem was that they can't manage to plant the bomb (emphasising power and resources that oppose their plans), not that it was ineffective (which can feel more GM fiat and undermine immersion). The objection to this seems to be not that it would compromise the menace of the scenario (which I can get behind) but that it would stop the train before it reached the intended terminus. Some of this plot armour may also be intended to allow continuity into Lord of the Dance, which can be a follow-on or a standalone scenario.

This line of thought becomes explicit with a set of recommendations for ensuring the climax happens as planned. Sensible suggestions for preventing it (such as long-range rifle fire to disrupt the ritual) are permitted in terms that make them obviously useless; holding the hilltop itself is deemed fatal. If the Investigators have been clever and lucky enough to turn up in time to forestall events, they are to be led back off the track by red herrings or arrested on circumstantial evidence, despite the scenario insisting they be influential enough that no policeman would likely risk it.

Partly due to this invulnerability, the scenario also doesn’t really offer scope for any ending other than a TPK or a deus ex machina. Finishing the scenario requires the death of the chief sorcerer, and given his invulnerability, the only route provided is a Keeper fiat. The intended ending has the Investigators either witnessing or prompting the arrival of the Dulcarnon’s female aspect to wreak vengeance on the sorcerers, though I note with concern that there’s no way for them to predict this or deliberately achieve it, so it’s really just something the Keeper throws in there. The scenario also suggests that a concerned assault with weapons and powerful magic during the ritual might be successful, but this would have to be a Keeper call as nothing is provided on the topic. As most Investigators don’t have access to any kind of combat magic, it’s not really a huge concession.

On another note, the scenario seems to rely overmuch on assuming that upper-class Investigators will start breaking into places on very slight evidence, despite their unsuitability to the task and the obvious dangers to their reputation. All social and investigative approaches are mandated to produce dead ends, and there’s really nothing that seems to hit that important middle ground of confirming Investigators are onto something serious enough to justify desperate measures. This may seem like a minor point, but I feel like it undermines something the scenario was trying to establish.

There is a secondary plot/clue thread, involving disappearing babies, which doesn't quite work for me. I don't mean the babies, but the way it feels awkwardly grafted-on. There are two handouts for this, suggesting it's important but they can't get any actual clues from following it up, so it doesn't provide an alternative route: the scenario specifically states "any leads should be dead ends". The truth of the matter is unlikely to surface, since neither the sorcerer nor his doctor are likely to talk to them. While having sinister content that doesn't go anywhere isn't always a problem, I feel the way it's presented may lead to frustration and distraction as players assume this is something they can usefully pursue.

The scenario is clearly designed to force Investigators into action, thereby avoiding the problem of motivation - they're threatened by mysterious forces and have to react. I approve of the idea in the abstract, but in practice I think they may be hampered by being the wrong sort of characters to handle this kind of threat, and by having only a handful of choices that mostly involve turning to violence and burglary on very little evidence. To be honest, I'd expect a rich Victorian apparently menaced by gangs to recruit police or private protection, not take matters into their own hands.

The initial hook raises an immediate question: why does nobody move to allow the blind man to sit conveniently by the door? This seems the most obvious course of action for any polite and respectable character. What happens if the Investigators do this? Can the man talk, and if so, what will he say? If not, how will he respond to being directed to sit elsewhere, especially as an Investigator standing aside would naturally block his route to Cartwright and make sitting there extremely odd.

Since Elias Cartwright knew that blind men were dangerous, and was getting his son to deliver a message to that effect to a friend, surely he would warn his beloved son about them too?

Somewhat to my surprise, there is no SAN loss for realising that the blind man was dead before he got on the train. I think this is part of the change in approaches to SAN between editions. I felt like the scenario’s SAN loss was erratic at times, with none for being sprayed with blood during an unexpected murder on a dark train or seeing the body, and as much as 1d6 for finding a rotting body – the same as for witnessing the giant incarnation of an ancient spirit.

Following the discovery of an odd knife, the scenario states: “Wielding such a weapon for very long would be unusually tiring, but this is a throwing knife, suited to an idiosyncratic knife-throwing style. The keeper should neither confirm nor deny such investigator suppositions; no way exists to know if such a guess is correct.” What "suppositions"? Do they mean the idea that this is a throwing knife? Nonsense - this can easily be determined (or at least confirmed as extremely likely) from the weapon's description by anyone with an interest in weaponry. I know that much myself purely from reading fantasy novels. If not, what do they mean?

There are probably a lot of people on the train, so it's odd that the Investigators would be targeted to be followed by criminals and undead unless they've stuck their oar in in a really serious way. And how does the villain Smythe know what happened on the train in the first place, including any meddling by the Investigators? I could argue that he gets information via police contacts, but there’s no particular reason why he should be making speculative enquiries about whether anyone on the train took an interest in that entirely uninteresting thing, a brutal murder by a dead eyeless man. Does he propose to stalk, burgle and possibly kill everyone who expresses an interest in one of his murders? By that logic, things will get exponential very quickly and he’ll start running out of minions – not to mention that by sheer weight of numbers, one of those minions is inevitably going to get caught and start singing.

The stalking of the Investigators is a throwaway section that I felt could do with fleshing out. Investigators who are wealthy or otherwise protected are unlikely to be very vulnerable even to professional burglars. Large houses are rarely left unguarded and have people on hand day and night. There should be some provision for their staff, dogs and locks to defeat or even catch the burglars. Investigators being followed should have a chance to spot their pursuers (otherwise, what's the point of including this?). They are especially likely to spot blind men, given their recent experiences. What do the non-zombies have to say if caught? This would naturally lead back to Smythe.

It’s also not really clear why Oldacre was murdered (just as a friend of Cartwright?) or why Cartwright didn’t warn him by candle, which would have been both fast and reliable compared to composing a letter before his death for his unreliable son to send once he recovered from the shock and if he wasn’t too weirded out by it. More attention here would offer the Keeper more leeway to vary the course of the investigation. I suspect the explanation is that Oldacre only exists so there is a letter for the Investigators to find, since he is of no further relevance.

What happens if the Investigators point out the two missing bodies at the mortuary? It doesn't matter how plausible Rowse is if the Investigators have something hard to accuse him of; he’s not in the plot as such and shouldn’t be a fanatic about this. So what will he say? Again, this should point them towards plot.

The description of the Green Man cellar describes how the pentacle protects the Green Man from interference unless a sacrifice is first offered. It seems to me very natural for players to try and obliterate the pentacle itself. The candles are interactable in the adventure, so removing them would be an obvious step; it's not clear whether the pentacle itself can be erased, since it's just chalk and is noted as having been re-chalked many times. What happens if they do? Is there any way for them to destroy the Green Man without awakening it (it's nigh-impossible if it wakes)? If the pentacle repels objects of any strength, how high does that extend - does it block movement on the next floor up, and if not, can they tunnel down to attack it, or tunnel under the pentacle, and what happens if they do?

Overall Conclusion
This is a promising scenario, but I feel it has some serious structural issues that would make it problematic to run for me. While it offers scope for Investigators to meander about, it is fundamentally opposed to letting them handle things their own way, and through its determination to ensure the planned climax occurs, it misses opportunities for alternative routes. Without more information, it seems hard for a Keeper to fill in those gaps with fresh clues and options, even if they decide to waive the plot immunity of key NPCs.

If I did try running it, I'd scrap the baby plot entirely or else add in a whole chain of clues that allowed the players to trace it to the circus. They could perhaps then use social influence to bring the police down on the circus and disrupt their activities: the sorcerer would presumably escape due to his hypnotic powers, but it would put a big dent in their plans. I'd also look at making attacking the caravan difficult rather than ineffectual, and consider ways for non-larcenous Investigators to find their way into some of the several locations that lie behind multiple locked doors. Finally, I would try to expand on the role of Oldacre, both to explain his death and as a potential source of leads.

On the whole, I don’t think I’m likely to try this one. All that adaptation seems like a lot of work. For a group less concerned about the kind of things that bother me, it could well be a fun and atmospheric game. I suppose the main thing I'd suggest would be that you might actually be better off ignoring the premise and taking Investigators with appropriate attitudes and skills, rather than the cream of society.

Very nice summary of a scenario that boggled me when I was reading it, too. As a whole, Dark Designs was rather disappointing. And, I really have a problem with any scenario that forces the players down a tight, pre-determined pathway. My players never do what is expected, and tend to get frustrated when they are unable to exercise their creativity to resolve the situation.