Reviewish: The Menace from Sumatra
This is a spoileriffic review of The Menace from Sumata, by Kevin W Jacklin and L.N. Isinwyll (Lynn Willis), from Dark Designs.
The scenario is described as suitable for beginners, but also deadly. It contains a substantial Keeper Information section of background, though only a portion of this is likely to reach Investigators. It was thorough and seemed solid; I felt like there was enough to get a grip on events and to improvise consistently where necessary.
Amongst the background, there’s also a warning about handling the mystery:
Finally, Vibur and the blue fungus are mysteries beyond human capacity. They are conditions, not solvable problems; make every effort to insure that the players understand that by the end of the adventure, and their options will appear much clearer.
This seems like decent advice, though some players may find it unsatisfying that something as apparently mundane as a fungus is an insoluble problem – that’s not a question of realism (medicine was pretty dire at the time) but a narrative one.
In summary, an expedition to Sumatra has gone badly wrong. One explorer became mixed up in a cult associated with the rat-god Vibur and a strange fungus. His colleagues, the Windebanks, learned the truth and fled to London, but the traitor Garner has now appeared. He captured Alfred Windebank and infected him with the fungus to make him talk, but failed. Seeking her husband, Susan Windebank stumbled into a thieves’ den, was set upon and left with amnesia. Alfred escaped and, unable to find and warn his wife, staggers to a police station where he dies at the Investigators’ feet. Granger is still on the search for both of them, and a threat to any witnesses.
The adventure begins with Investigators caught up in disturbances at a political rally and brought in to the police, most likely to give statements. As they’re waiting to be questioned, a battered man in dark glasses stumbles in, make a cryptic remark and dies, revealing oozing blue hollows in place of eyes, and some kind of powdery blue substance on his breath. The following night, one Investigator has a strange and terrifying dream, featuring a strange rat-like god who they sense is somewhere nearby. Soon, further cases begin to crop up and the Investigators are left trying to puzzle out who the victim was, what happened to him, and how it can all be stopped.
Essentially, the Investigators should soon realise that the victim is Windebank and begin tracking him down. This way, they will learn of the missing Susan Windebank and perhaps of the sinister Granger. They can beard him in his den, but will learn little. As more bodies pile up, Granger vanishes and the trail grows cold. A corpse found near Granger’s new lair should lead them back to him, allowing them to confront the doctor and his cult.
The rally isn’t described, but can be handwaved by agreement, or the Keeper can improvise something. I don’t see it as a major problem, but there’s some chance of things going awry here if players decide to react to events and do things that would avoid them being taken to the police station. I’d tend to narrate it as past occurrence, rather than play through it.
There’s a minor issue right at the start, because Investigators are warned sternly not to touch the body. While I appreciate this is Call of Cthulhu – what if they don’t? Obeying the commands of the police while actually inside a police station standing over a mysterious corpse is a perfectly reasonable response. From a gaming point, it’s also not necessarily clear that this is the main hook for the adventure; it could be a bit of preliminary evidence, or the police might invite them to help the investigation. Regardless, if they obey, it may be tricky to draw them into the case; it’s then up to the group to actively poke their noses into it.
Investigators who have done as instructed are now on the street, with little apparent chance to learn what is going on. Never fear; the possibilities are many.
This basically sums it up: there are various opportunities for getting that information, but not many hooks for the Keeper if they didn’t realise the corpse was their primary hook.
Several ways to get information are suggested, which is useful, including the papers as a last resort, so a Keeper with law-abiding Investigators to corral may have to present them with salacious stories and prod them to get involved. Possible infection with the fungus is also a good spur to action, though has its own logical drawbacks – Investigators might prefer a trip to hospital to delving into the mystery, and as the doctors are already concerned about a lethal tropical disease appearing in London, any sign that the investigators have contracted it should see them slammed into an isolation ward. These aren’t insoluble obstacles, but seemed worth giving a heads-up.
Similarly, progress through the scenario seems to rely on one of two approaches: shameless larceny, or the entitled self-righteousness of a scion of the British Empire. Looting the body and breaking into the Windebanks’ room will yield results; so will forcing themselves into the police investigation and demanding to be told everything. There doesn’t particularly seem to be a middle path that more reasonable Investigators might take. The scenario as written seems to assume a larcenous approach, but also offers stiff penalties for anyone caught in the act. As such, the choice of Investigators may be important; they probably want to lean towards either crime or social influence. Antiquarians and stage magicians will have a hard time.
Scattered tips cover on specific approaches Investigators might take, possibly drawn from playtesting experience: donning a disguise to report that the victim robbed them, burgling rooms and so on. I also appreciate the scenario including consequences if the group purloins a letter from the victim’s body – this seems a nice case of decisions having an effect on later parts of the game. It also allows for various situations in which they might return it, with varying consequences.
I could definitely have done with a simple timeline that clearly indicates events. As things stand, plot events are jumbled in with the location descriptions, which means it’s a little difficult to put things together coherently. For example, the morning after the death, Investigators are summon to a hearing where vital information is provided, but in the book there’s a two page gap full of locations and important happenings between these two events. Three dream sequences are scattered at random throughout the text, with one such “interlude” helpfully placed at the very end.
Speaking of which, I wasn’t particularly keen on the dream sections. There’s nothing particularly wrong with them, but equally they don’t seem to fit naturally into the investigation, and dreams as motivation are a bit of a cliché (admittedly, perhaps not when this was written). It’s not a dream-themed scenario in any sense, so I don’t think they add anything. I would be inclined to leave them out, or to only offer dreams to infected Investigators.
One event featured is the kidnapping and drugged interrogation of an Investigator. There’s minimal description given, so the Keeper would have to improvise this. As a player, I would probably dislike something like this, for two reasons. One, it undermines player agency pretty directly, unless they are given opportunities to spot the coming attack and avoid or thwart it. Two, it gives the rest of the party nothing to do while this Keeper-centred scene plays out. Some groups will really appreciate it for adding tension and atmosphere to a game, others will be less keen.
Nitpicks and unanswered questions
Bizarrely, almost nothing is said about Vibur. Having a Great Old One (or similar) in a room in London seems like a significant point, especially as it’s suggested that the police may be involved in the raid on that building. Word is going to get out, to the authorities at least, so what are the consequences? The endings offered for the scenario are either that everyone dies (in which case, what happens next?) or that the cult are shipped off back to Sumatra. I’m not sure how that’s supposed to work. How did Vibur get here, and given it can’t be communicated with and refuses to move, how would you get it to go back? If you kill off the whole cult, what will Vibur do? How do you persuade the authorities to approve sending them to Sumatra, or deal with the consequences of them finding out?
Why does Granger risk a trip to two corpses under police guard? What is he doing? There’s no sign that he takes either samples or notes – his bag contains contaminated medical tools, but no samples are listed. This is rather odd, considering his excuse is collection of laboratory samples.
Why does Granger rob the hotel safe? What does he get out of it? All of the Windebanks’ papers are in their room.
The scenario specifically assumes that Investigators have interviewed, and given their names and addresses to, a particular cabman; it says as much. This is by no means a given – he doesn’t have any very useful information and there’s no reason to think he would have – but it’s not clear how the investigation will progress otherwise. Different options are offered depending whether the Investigators are cooperating with the police or working alone, which is nice, but not sufficient. Learning the location of the antagonist seems to rely entirely on this cabman connection, one way or another. Some of the options involve the murder victim’s wife, but finding her in the first place also depends on being in the right district, which depends on the cabman connection. I’m surprised that a scenario that’s relatively free with alternative routes has missed such a bottleneck, but it certainly seems that way to me.
While I do enjoy the detail given to certain aspects of the scenario (like finding Susan Windebanks), I can’t help feeling that some of this generous word-count could have been better used elsewhere, rather than in three extensive alternative accounts of how she might be found.
I quite like the premise of this scenario, fungus being creepy stuff. It could be quite effective, but I feel like this would need some significant revising for me to be able to use it. Much of that is simply reorganising the material to make it easier to follow threads and track events. More substantially, there is a very serious need for alternative ways to find either Susan Windebanks or Granger, rather than leaving it all to the tenuous cabman connection.
I’d also like a less nebulous ending, with more time spent on discussing ways the climax could play out, and especially attention given to Vibur. My inclination would actually be to nix Vibur entirely, since he plays no particular part in the scenario and there’s no information on how to actually use him. One other important omission is an early inquisition of Granger if they suspect him; he’s only scheduled to flee if discovered meddling with corpses, so if they develop suspicions through other angles it’s not unreasonable that he’d still be ensconced in his rooms. How would he react to actual accusations?
I also felt that for an event-based scenario, it places a little too much of the burden on the players to guess where and when they’re supposed to be investigating. The tools available to the Keeper are fairly limited, but it’s a fairly complex scenario and some steering for the players might be useful.
On the whole, though, this is quite a promising scenario and one I’d be tempted to run if some of those niggles can be sorted out.